On the hottest day of the year, Emily Buckingham -- who, until two months before, had been known as Emily Walters -- took her bike out of the garage, filled two bottles of water, stuck them in the bottle cages, and dusted off her bike helmet. If she got caught, she would say she was just out for a ride, and she got lost.
Her mom might not believe that, but there'd be no proof. And proof, Emily knew from watching too many cop show reruns while Mommy was teaching summer school, was all that mattered. Mommy could guess all she wanted, but she'd never really know the truth.
Sophia, this week's baby-sitter, had the radio on really loud in the kitchen. Emily could hear it on the porch of the old house the university rented cheap to needy professors. Emily hated the house. It'd been built by some famous Frank guy who seemed to like sloping windows and lots of stone and sixties crap that Mommy said was expensive but ugly.
Emily thought the whole house was ugly, even the living room, which was supposed to be the centerpiece. The house was so ancient that it didn't have air-conditioning, and regular air didn't flow right, so the porch was the only comfortable place in this heat spell.
At lunch -- which Emily had to make because Sophia was too wrapped up in some phone conversation with a guy named Jimmy, who'd promised her he'd help with her green cards and her Visa and had somehow gone back on that promise -- the guy on the radio news announced it was ninety-nine degrees with 95 percent humidity, and it was only going to get hotter. He recommended everybody hunker down and stay cool and drink a lot of fluids, which made Emily remember the water bottles, because she would have forgotten otherwise.
After she finished her peanut butter sandwich, she told Sophia she was going outside, but she didn't say where. Sophia waved at her, probably thinking more about the Visa than about Emily. One thing about Emily, her mom always said, she was a good kid.
And this time, being a good kid was going to work in Emily's favor.
When she went out into the heat, she almost changed her mind. It felt hotter than ninety-nine degrees with 95 percent humidity. It always felt hotter in this crummy neighborhood so far away from the lake.
Here the houses were crammed together like kids on a bus, and the trees, even though they gave shade, made everything seem even more crowded. The streets were hilly, and Camp Randall Stadium was nearby, which Mommy said would be a really big pain in the fall.
Emily didn't want to be here in the fall. She didn't want to be here now, but she didn't have a lot of choice. Mommy let Daddy have the big house on Lake Mendota in the divorce, kinda like a consolation prize, Mommy said, although having a house didn't seem like a real consolation to Emily for losing the whole family.
Mommy changed her last name and said Emily had to do the same thing, which Emily hadn't liked but hadn't known how to argue. The lawyer lady, who had lots of big teeth and even bigger hair and wore too much perfume, had put a hand on Emily's shoulder and said, Trust me, honey, it's for the best.
But it wasn't for the best.
People didn't lose their daddies because "his personality has changed, sweetheart" and because some judge thought that was a big deal. It wasn't a big deal. Daddy was still Daddy, he just couldn't be home as much, and when he was home, he couldn't spend as much time with her and Mommy.
Then Daddy said that thing no one would say what it was and everything went bad and he got to keep all his family money, which somehow paid for the house, and Mommy got to keep her job and Emily got to keep her clothes and her books and her toys and nothing else, not even her daddy.
And no one asked her what she wanted, not then, and not now. They just figured she'd live with it, because they were.
They figured her wrong.
But then, they always figured her wrong. Emily might have been a good girl, but that was mostly because she was interested in good-girl things. She thought kids who broke the rules at school were stupid because school was interesting and a whole lot better than staying at home by yourself all summer, watching reruns on TV and Jerry Springer and this really bad soap opera in Spanish that her other baby-sitter, Inez, liked. Emily was learning Spanish from the show and from Inez, whose English wasn't too good, but that wasn't like sitting in class.
This fall, Emily'd have to go to a whole new school because they lived in this crummy neighborhood now, where there wasn't a lot of kids and where what kids who lived here were pretty stuck up. Emily had been alone all summer, and reading when she wasn't watching TV, and thinking a lot about Daddy being alone all summer.
So she came up with the plan.
She had to pick the right day because it would take a long time to ride from Camp Randall to Shorewood. She'd have to stay away from University Avenue because, when it merged with Campus Drive, it got lots of lanes and stoplights and people not caring who they hit when they went too fast around corners.
Emily figured Old Middleton Road was her best bet, and one afternoon, she got Inez to drive it for her so that she could see it. That worked kinda, although Inez kept telling Mommy that Emily was being weird, wanting to see her old house and everything, even though the house was on the opposite side of University from Old Middleton Road.
Inez wasn't dumb, which was why Emily had to pick a Sophia day to take the bike.
There weren't going to be a lot more Sophia days because Mommy didn't like the mess she left the house in, so on days without Inez, Emily might have to do something lame like day care on campus. The University of Wisconsin sponsored day care for kids all summer long, but the kids who were usually there were little kids, not ten-year-olds. Ten-year-olds were supposed to be at camp or summer school or on vacation, not trying to read while some baby screamed his lungs out.
Emily was going to ask Daddy if he could take her on non-Inez days, even if the judge didn't like it. Daddy could afford somebody to come in and watch both of them to make sure nothing bad happened, although Emily wasn't sure what bad stuff could happen around Daddy.
Of course, she hadn't seen him a lot since his personality changed, but in court, his lawyer said he'd be better if he took drugs. Mommy said the problem was there was no guarantee he'd take the drugs, but Emily thought there was no guarantee that he wouldn't either.
So when she called this morning and listened to the phone ring, her stomach twisting so much she wasn't sure her breakfast bar would stay down, and heard Daddy's familiar deep voice saying, "Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?" she just knew he was taking the drugs and he'd be fine, he'd be the Daddy who told her stories and rode her around on his shoulder and taught her how to ride this very bike.
It took all of Emily's patience to get through lunch, which would be the last time Sophia would notice where she was. Even so, Emily was real quiet when she took out the bike, and she was real responsible too, because even though it was hot, she strapped her helmet on first thing.
She coasted down the hill to the intersection, where she took a right. She knew if she kept going west, she'd hit Old Middleton, and from there it was pretty much a straight shot to Whitney Way. Somewhere near there -- she hadn't scoped this part out -- she'd have to cross at the lights and ride for a treacherous block or two on University.
Then she'd go into her old neighborhood and maybe ride around it a bit because she hadn't done that since last summer, which was a really long time ago. When she got to her old house, which Daddy had built just before she was born on his family's property near Lake Mendota, she'd go around to the back to the cabana, lock her bike inside, and put on her swimming suit.
It would be an easy visit, her and Daddy, not talking a lot (unless he wanted to), and just enjoying being together, because, after all, he had to miss her as much as she missed him.
Because that last day in the court, where she had to go talk to the judge all by herself, and the judge asked her weird questions about Daddy, none of which seemed to make any sense, and then asked her who she'd rather live with, Mommy or Daddy, and Emily said both. On that day, Daddy had put his arms around her and told her she was just great and everything would be fine, she would see, and he never meant any of that bad stuff anyway, that was just the illness talking.
And she couldn't ask what he meant about the bad stuff and being sick because Mommy's lawyer with the big teeth and the big hair whisked her away and made her sit outside with some guy in a uniform while they waited for the judge to ask some more questions to both Mommy and Daddy.
Good thing Emily had brought a book.
But then, she always brought a book. She even had one in the bike pack Mommy had given her for her birthday. A book and her swimming suit and a towel and a candy bar and an apple in case she got hungry and Daddy didn't have any kid food.
So Emily rode and followed the plan, even though it was really hot and her T-shirt stuck to her back, and icky sweat ran down her neck from her helmet. She drank most of the water by the time she got to Whitney Way and stared at all the cars zooming from one place to the next, making that whooshing sound as they went by.
And part of her, the good-girl part, understood why her Mommy and Daddy never wanted her to ride on this side of University Avenue, why when she lived in her old house she had to stay in the neighborhood and ride the windy streets that usually ended in a dead end.
She almost turned around, with all the cars and being by herself and no one knowing who she was, and what if one hit her? Who would tell Mommy? And then Emily decided she just had to be real careful. It was up to her to be vigilant, Mommy always said, because other people rarely were.
Emily didn't know how long she waited at the light on Whitney Way, so that she could merge with the traffic on University, but when she finally got enough guts to go, she rode really fast. Her bike wobbled under her legs, and she was afraid it would slip sideways like it did sometimes on gravel, but she was as careful as she could be, and vigilant too, even though some of the cars passed so close they almost touched her, and the wind from them going by made her bike wobble all the more.
She peddled just a little ways on University, but it was enough, with the guardrail on one side and the trees not giving any shade and the cars on the other, whooshing like they had no idea there was a kid nearby struggling to stay on a bike.
Then she saw a familiar street, all narrow near the little bridge, and she turned on it, even though that street wasn't part of the plan. She coasted down the incline toward the cross streets and looked at houses she hadn't seen for almost a year.
Real houses. They were mostly big, like houses were supposed to be, and people who lived there had real cars like SUVs. They had yards and flowers and trees all their own and the other houses weren't all crammed next to them so that you could hear the neighbors shouting at each other, even if it was in Indonesian.
Emily was kinda relieved that everything looked as familiar as it did. At one point on the ride when she was beginning to wonder if she had gone right past Old Middleton and hadn't even noticed, she also got scared thinking she might not recognize anything when she got to her old neighborhood.
But everything looked the same, right down to the cars, and it didn't take her long at all to find her old house.
It was still at the bottom of an incline, which Daddy used to complain about in the spring because the snow would melt and the water would run down the driveway, mix with the rain, and flood the garage. He used to say it was the only flaw in the design and Mommy would laugh because they couldn't move the garage anywhere better without losing their view of the lake.
Emily took the old bike path around the side of the garage where no one could see her. Everything had grown up weedy and tall, even the dandelions, whose fluff floated in the humid air.
Some things had changed -- Mommy would never have let the garden grow over like this, and she would have made Daddy or someone (even Emily, maybe) mow the lawn.
The house didn't look as good as she remembered either. The more she compared it to the Frank house, the bigger this house got, kind of like her mind made it grow. If she'd thought about it, really thought about it, she would have known it wasn't that big -- what rooms would fill all that extra space? -- but she hadn't thought about it.
All she'd thought about was the garden, with its roses and peony shrubs and bleeding hearts, and all those other plants whose names she didn't know but grew taller than she was, with big green leaves that reached for the sky. The garden was like a fence, even more so now that it was overgrown, but in her memory, in her imagination, the garden was what separated her house from all the neighbors'.
In reality, the yard was so big, no neighbor house was even nearby. Emily had to squint through the trees to see the nearest house, a big red thing that had a pitched roof and a covered porch.
Her daddy's house seemed smaller than that. The second story was narrower and the windows weren't as big, and the porch was smaller than the one in the back of the Frank house. In fact, her daddy's house didn't look a lot bigger than the Frank house, although it was prettier with its light blue paint and the big modern windows and its stained-glass front door.
Weeds covered the bike path, scratching her as she made her way around the house. Mosquitoes lived here too and didn't seem to know they weren't supposed to be out in this heat. She slapped more than one, had to flick a spider off her arm, and swallowed a mouthful of gnats, which were swarming in front of a big black tree.
The bike's wheels click-click-clicked, which sounded loud now that she wasn't riding it and listening to the whoosh of cars. She wondered if her daddy could hear her moving through the underbrush and if he worried that some bogeyman was coming to get him, even though it wasn't dark.
Her old daddy, the one with the personality she knew, he wouldn't have been afraid of the bogeyman, but she wasn't so sure about this new daddy, the one the judge said didn't have the right to see Emily anymore.
What could a daddy do that was so bad that his daughter had to be punished too?
When she reached the little dip in the path, the one that used to be a fork until the Dixsens sold the next-door house and the new people didn't have kids so no one found out about the path, she let the bike tip over really slow so that she wouldn't knock the chain off.
Then she bent down, opened the pack, and got out her suit, along with the towel and the book just in case Daddy wasn't there after all. She wrapped the suit and the book in the towel and tucked it under her arm. She walked the rest of the way, her breath catching in her throat.
The air was really still. There wasn't even a bird singing, although in her memory, birds always sang here. She stepped into the yard before she realized she'd lost the path; the tall grass confused her, made her think she was still in the no-man's-land by the garage.
The garage was almost lost in weeds, the door shut and locked, and one of the windows on the back side had a small round hole in it, the grass cracked in a circle all around it.
Emily's mouth was dry, and she wished she'd brought one of her bottles too, even though there wasn't much water left. She hadn't realized how thirsty she would be.
Her footsteps, knocking down the grass, were the only sound she heard. The air took on a familiar marshy scent, the smell that always made her think of the lake in the summer.
As she got closer to the patio, she saw that the cabana had been taken down -- all that was left was concrete where the floor used to be.
A shiver went through her even though she wasn't cold, and she glanced toward the lake to see if Daddy had at least put out the dock.
He had, and he was sitting on it, cross-legged, staring at the sailboats that looked pure white against the hazy sky. The lake itself was blue-gray, the air so full of water that the sunlight filtering through it almost looked like sun coming through fog.
Emily had never seen her daddy sit so still. It was almost like he was like those prayer guys she'd seen in Union South one day while she was waiting for her mommy.
Emily set her towel on the patio stones -- which were cracked and weeds had grown through them -- and no one had bothered to put out the big glass table with the umbrella and the cushiony green chairs with the white legs, even though it was the middle of the summer.
She glanced real quick at the patio doors, trying to see inside the house, but it was too dark. She couldn't even see if anyone was moving around inside, like maybe Daddy had gotten a new housekeeper or something.
Mommy said to the lawyer lady that toward the end it wasn't good to sneak up on Daddy, so Emily made as much noise as she could coming down the hard path. She swished the grass and coughed and cleared her throat.
When she got to the edge of the dock, she jumped on it, so it bounced just like it always had, and the water rippled around it, and her heart lifted. No matter how much changed, this -- this, at least, stayed the same.
Her daddy turned, real slow, like he was at the end of one of those ripples she caused. His hair was too long and it wasn't black anymore. It had lots of gray in it. And he had lines on his face that she'd never seen before. He was kinda thin and the polo shirt he wore, one of his favorites, seemed like it was made for someone else.
But he smiled when he realized it was her, and that was Daddy, that big goofy grin that covered most of the lower part of his face.
Emily grinned back and waved and said, "I missed you, Daddy," even though she'd promised herself, promised, promised, promised, she wouldn't say anything like that because she didn't want him to feel bad.
He got up and held out his arms and she ran to him, hitting him so hard that she felt his body rock as she wrapped her arms around him.
"Em," he said, and his voice sounded a little funny, like it used to when he had a cold or when he talked too much to his classes.
His hand ran along her short hair. She'd forgot Mommy had done that at the beginning of the summer, made Emily cut her hair so that she'd be cool and no one would have to worry about the tangles like they did in past years. Daddy hated short hair, he always said so, that his girls should look like girls.
"You're so tall." He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her back, just a little, so that he could see her face, and she was glad that he didn't say anything about her hair at all.
"Mommy didn't want me to come, but I had to see you, Daddy, so I rode all the way here, and I'm hot and I thought maybe on hot afternoons I could come and we could swim and pretend everything was okay."
Daddy's gray eyes seemed a little glassy, like Mommy's did when she had just woke up.
"Yes," he said, although Emily wasn't sure what he was agreeing with. "Yes, of course."
He crouched, touched the chopped part of her hair again, and smiled at her. Only this wasn't the goofy grin at all, and Emily's heart started to pound.
"Yes," he said again, "it makes sense that you would come now with the drought and the heat and the dying lake."
His hands slid down her arm. They were cold. His fingers dug into her skin.
"Daddy?" she asked, her heart pounding harder now. Was this what they meant about him being different? That he didn't make any sense and his smile had gone all funny and his fingers, which had never ever hurt her before, were going to leave bruises in her skin?
"We'll solve it together, Emmie A.," he said, using his old nickname for her. It sounded funny, like a stranger talking with Daddy's voice. "Come on."
He let go of her shoulders and held out his hand like he used to do when they crossed the street, back when she was a little girl.
She stared at him for a minute. He seemed so funny with those glassy eyes and that flat smile and the gray hair. But the lines on his face made him look even sadder, and she had missed him, and maybe, just maybe, she'd been listening to Mommy too much.
She took his hand.
He smiled at her, the soft Daddy smile that he used to use when she did something exactly right, and then they walked, together, to the end of the dock. The wood bobbed beneath their feet, and there were holes in the middle where there had once been boards. Nothing was like it used to be. Not the dock, not the yard, not Daddy.
Not even Emily.
She tried not to sigh. When they reached the edge of the dock, Daddy turned to her. "Are you ready to go in?"
She grinned. "I'll get my suit. I brought it."
"You won't need a suit," he said, and picked her up.
His eyes were wild now, and her heart was beating so hard it hurt. Emily struggled but Daddy didn't seem to notice.
Instead, he bent over and shoved her into the water. It was wet and hot on the thin upper layer, and then she hit a pocket of cold because he had shoved her so very deep.
There was water in her nose and she was coughing, the sound muffled by the water, and she tried not to get water in her lungs, but she was failing. Water was running down the back of her throat, and she was choking.
Daddy was holding her shoulders, pressing them down, playing too rough like he did last summer when he first scared Mommy, and he couldn't tell Emily was in trouble.
She thrashed and struggled and grabbed his wrists with her hands, trying to let him know that she couldn't breathe. Black spots danced in front of her eyes. Her chest burned, and she coughed again, this time sucking in a big mouthful of water.
She was dying, really dying, and Daddy wouldn't let her go.
Copyright © 2003 by White Mist Mountain, Inc.