Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Kingfisher

Elizabeth Howard


Caryn Newton watched as Meredith jumped from the high board, turned a flip, and sliced the water like a kingfisher. Caryn had been watching Meredith Eastwood all year. Meredith was the fastest girl on the swim team, the best diver at the pool. She had it all—talent, curly red hair, long shapely legs, a terrific body.

Sterling Townes, quarterback on the Ivydell High School football team, was also watching Meredith. His shift as lifeguard was soon over, and he and Meredith left together. Caryn sighed. Sterling was so handsome, but he didn’t even know she existed.

She could swim almost as fast as Meredith, but she would not, could not, dive from the high board. Not for anything. As for looks, it was best not to think about that. She couldn’t make herself any taller, and her complexion was hopeless. “It’s just a phase,” her dad said. “It’ll clear up soon.” Dads are so dense.

“Hey, Newton!” Brock Withers was on the swim team, too, but he was a nerd. He had won the science award last year, and he was baby-sitter for his neighbor’s kids.

“My name’s Caryn.” She bit the words, emphasizing the consonants.

“I know. Caryn with a ‘C.’ But Newton’s my hero, and you’re the only live Newton I know.”

“Save it for chemistry class,” Caryn said.

Brock grinned. “Sorry I bugged you. You going to the dance?”

It was Alexa Landers’ sixteenth birthday, and her parents had planned a dance at the country club. Alexa had invited everybody she knew, including the whole swim team.

Caryn shook her head. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought much about it.” That was a lie. She had thought about it. She’d thought about going with somebody handsome and exciting.

“Want to go with me?” Brock asked.

She didn’t want to go with Brock—he bored her, talking about weird science stuff—but he was the only chance she had. “Sure,” she said.

“I’ll call you tonight.”

*

Caryn lay on the bed, depressed. Since Brock didn’t have his license yet, his mom was going to drive them in her ancient blue Ford. “That’s the best she can do,” Caryn’s mom said. “Her job doesn’t pay well, and she has no help from her ex. Had you rather I drive you in my van? Or Dad in his pickup truck?” How did she wind up with such parents? Totally out of it.

Meredith was going to the dance in Sterling’s red Corvette. “I’ve got a new white dress,” Meredith said. “You ought to see it. Short, skinny, and strapless.”

How could anyone be as lucky as Meredith? A date with Sterling, a ride in a red Corvette, a new dress. While Caryn had to wear the dress she’d worn to the Valentine dance—a pink-and-white little girl’s dress. It was totally unfair.

She took the dress out of the closet and looked at it. Gathered sleeves, gathered skirt. It was hopeless. “Mom,” she yelled, “I’ll look like a baby in this old dress.”

“Maybe we can fix it up a little,” her mom said. “I’ll talk to Hallie. She’s good at that sort of thing.”

Hallie Priestley was Jelena’s mother. Jelena’s clothes always looked great, but Caryn doubted if even Mrs. Priestley could fix her dress.

*

Friday morning. The day of the big dance! Caryn was excited, even if she did have to wear her old dress and go with Brock Withers. This dance was special. She had gone to nursery school with Jelena and Alexa. Jelena had been sixteen for a few weeks, Alexa was sixteen today, and in a few months, Caryn would be sixteen.

Caryn rode to school with Jelena, as she had done since Jelena got her license. Jelena was her usual nutty self, trying to be funny. “You heard Alexa’s parents canceled the dance? Because she made a C in history.”

“Yeah, right,” Caryn said. “And your cat had a kitten with three heads.” Alexa was a brat, but she was also one of the best students at Ivydell. She always made A’s.

“Just kidding,” Jelena said, laughing.

Caryn didn’t laugh. She was tired of Jelena’s jokes. She was also tired of getting to school at the last minute. The parking lot was packed.

Jelena circled around, looking. She saw a place, at last, but before she could get to it, Sterling swerved around her old Chrysler and parked in it. He and Meredith were laughing as they got out and walked toward the building.

By the time Jelena found another parking place, everybody else had gone to class. Caryn had to run to French class, at the far end of the building. Mrs. Beadle frowned at her when she rushed into her seat just as the bell rang.

She felt the day would never end. She had a quiz over a story she had only scanned while she was thinking about her dress, and she hadn’t spent enough time on her algebra problems. She’d made stupid mistakes, forgetting to watch for negative signs and things like that.

She saw Sterling and Meredith everywhere she turned, a constant reminder that Meredith Eastwood had a date with Sterling Townes, while Caryn Newton had to settle for Brock Withers. Sterling and Meredith had started the day with laughter, but at lunch Caryn saw them standing by the lockers. Sterling’s face had changed—not laughing, but menacing, like the face of the character in the story she’d failed to read. Later, she saw Meredith alone, eyes red and swollen.

Meredith in tears? Caryn had never thought of Meredith as a human being, a real live girl with problems. She’d always pictured her as perfect, something like one of those porcelain dolls Hallie Priestley collected.

Caryn was glad to get home. She went to get her dress, but it was not in the closet. Worse than having to wear a little girl’s dress was having no dress at all. She called her mother at work. “What did you do with my dress?” she asked.

“Hallie’s still working on it,” her mom said. “She’s taking the sleeves out. I think you’ll like it better.”

Caryn did her chores and polished her shoes. As soon as her mother got home, she put on the dress. Yes, it definitely looked better.

She was fixing her hair when her mother called her to the telephone. “It’s Jelena,” she said.

“You’ll never believe it,” Jelena whispered, her voice so low Caryn could scarcely hear her. “Meredith shot herself.”

Gooseflesh rose on Caryn’s arms. This had to be another one of Jelena’s stupid jokes. “Yeah, right,” she said.

“I’m not kidding,” Jelena said. “Meredith’s dead.”

Caryn sank into a chair. A cold stone settled in her stomach. There must be some mistake. Not Meredith. This was the day of the dance, and she had a date with Sterling Townes.

“Caryn?” Jelena said. “Are you okay?”

Caryn felt as she had the time an older girl pushed her off the high board. She was suffocating, and she couldn’t find the surface.

“Caryn?” Jelena said.

Caryn breathed out. “Are you sure?” she asked, her voice husky.

“Mrs. Frye called Mom. She heard Mrs. Eastwood screaming and went over. Mrs. Eastwood had just found Meredith.”

Tears ran down Caryn’s face. Not Meredith. So beautiful and talented. Always happy and laughing. No, not always. She had not been laughing this afternoon.

*

People telephoned back and forth about Meredith and the dance. Should they cancel it? But Alexa’s parents had already made arrangements—country club, band, decorations, refreshments. It was too late to cancel. And nobody could change the fact that it was Alexa’s birthday, that she had looked forward to this party for months.

Caryn didn’t want to go to the dance, not with Meredith dead, but she didn’t want Alexa for an enemy. She knew how hateful Alexa could be, what cutting remarks she would make. She’d said awful things to Jelena after Jelena missed her Christmas party. It had not mattered to Alexa that Jelena’s father had invited Jelena to dinner. His mother was in town and wanted to see her granddaughter.

Brock came to the door with a corsage of pink roses. Mrs. Newton helped Caryn pin it on, and she and Brock were off. But the excitement had gone out of the occasion. They rode in the back seat of Mrs. Withers’ car, barely talking at all.

When they got to the club, everybody was standing around, talking about Meredith. “Find your partner,” Mr. Landers said. “Everybody dance now.” And Mrs. Landers kept trying to shoo them onto the dance floor.

Brock tried to get Caryn to dance, but her legs were tired. She didn’t think she could walk across the floor, much less dance. The music seemed too loud, the lights too bright.

Jelena came by. “Guess what everybody’s saying? Meredith was pregnant. When she told Sterling, he said not to bother him about it. Said he’d decided to go to a concert with some of his friends from Rawlings instead of the dance.”

The room was spinning, the red and white streamers whirling around, the kids a blur of colors.

Brock took Caryn’s arm. “Are you all right?”

She was going to be sick if she didn’t get out of there. Jelena and her selfish party. They should have waited, given people a chance to mourn. “Let’s go home,” she said.

“I’ll call Mom,” Brock said. “We can wait outside. Where it’s cooler.”

Caryn was glad to get out into the fresh air. Brock led her to chairs, and they sat down to wait for Mrs. Withers. “You believe what they’re saying?” Caryn asked.

Brock shook his head. “I don’t know. She was crazy about Sterling. Some of us tried to tell her she’d get hurt, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“They were arguing at school. I thought she’d been crying.”

“It all fits. Meredith couldn’t have faced the gossip, the trouble, her parents.”

“But she was so strong, so beautiful. She had everything.”

“That’s only the Meredith you saw. The real Meredith was not like that. I’ve known her all my life. She was shy and scared. She just learned how to cover it up.”

*

Caryn hated swim practice after that, but Mom and Dad made her go, said the team was depending on her. She swam her laps as fast as she could and left.

But one day as she headed to the shower, Sterling stood in her way. He squeezed her arm. “Little Caryn’s getting muscles.”

“Newton!” It was Brock. Thank heaven!

She whirled away from Sterling. There was the high board at the end of the pool, empty, waiting for Meredith.

Sterling looked at Brock, but snorted and went out to take his station as lifeguard.

“I don’t have to baby-sit today,” Brock said. “Stay and swim awhile.”

Caryn looked at the high board. “Were you scared the first time you jumped?”

“Everybody’s scared the first time.”

“I’ll bet Meredith wasn’t.”

“Yeah, she was. She wouldn’t jump till Sterling called her a scaredy-cat. She pinched her lips together, ran up the steps, shut her eyes, and jumped. She stayed under so long I thought she had drowned. I was ready to dive in after her when she came up gasping. Everybody cheered, and she went back and did it again. She kept at it until she was the best diver in the bunch.”

Caryn took a deep breath. She’d do it for Meredith. She walked the length of the pool, her knees knocking, climbed the ladder, and stepped to the end of the board. Her head was swimming, and the pool seemed far too small.

She closed her eyes, clenched her teeth, and jumped. She didn’t slice the water like a kingfisher, and the splash burned her stomach. She went down, down, down. She was suffocating, floundering, and fighting, but her body knew what to do. She bobbed to the surface, gasping, and started back to the high board to do it again.

***

Elizabeth Howard has an MA in English from Vanderbilt University. She writes both poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in Xavier Review, Cold Mountain Review, Comstock Review, Wind, Poem, Appalachian Heritage, The Licking River Review, The Distillery, and other journals. She has two books of poetry—Anemones (1998) and Gleaners (2005).

© Elizabeth Howard

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012