It started as a game. She sat on the boulder at the base of the bridge where the stream feeds the lake at the north end of town. Mom and Dad had given her the news and rather than listen to their platitudes about how much she meant to them and how things wouldn’t really change, she ran out. She ran along the dirt path from the house to the road along Main Street past the school and out to the lake. By the time she reached the rock to take a rest, she was winded and had a nasty stitch in her side.
The wind picked up slightly and gave her a chill which would later develop into a cold, but at the time, she didn’t care. She cursed her parents for distracting her so much that she had run out without a thought to the changing weather and consequently without a coat. She nestled into on to the boulder that nature had carved into the shape of a bench, just wide enough for a pair to sit on and look over the water.
The lake had a small island at its middle where a family of a dozen ducks and the odd swan made their home. She watched them from her perch and glancing down at her feet observed that she had wandered out not only coatless but without socks.
When she had collected her breath, she hopped down from the boulder and began to look for skipping stones. All along the shore, there were ample rocks of all shapes and sizes, mostly smooth and good for throwing.
When Maggie was alive, they used to take turns throwing stones as far as they could, scoring extra points if they could hit a duck along the way. She thought of Maggie and flinched as she realised that yet again, something she loved was being taken away.
She gathered six rocks of the appropriate size and desired flatness and practised her technique. When they were small, Maggie was a gifted stone skipper, but no matter how hard she tried Jules could never manage more than a clumsy throw that plopped with a great splash into the lake rather than the graceful “tick, tick, tick” that Maggie’s stones produced as they glided along the surface before the water claimed them.
“Like this Jules, hold it like this.” She said. She took a smooth flat stone from the pile she had gathered and over and over again laid the stone in its proper place in her hand.
“Hold it against the cradle of your thumb and index finger. Curl your finger a little and throw with your wrist, not your arm. It’s all in the wrist, Jules.”
It wasn’t until Maggie was dead and gone that Jules learnt to throw properly.
As she went to the water’s edge for her first throw, she saw a solitary magpie and saluted him for luck. The first throw produced three ripples. Not the best throw admittedly, but she was still upset by the earlier events of the day. The next yielded five. She kept practising until she was on a roll and by the time she reached nine ripples, she was feeling better.
She was about to throw again when she heard a voice behind her say, “I’ll bet I can do ten.”
Startled at first, she turned and saw a boy standing behind her. He was a bit of a shabby sight. His blonde hair stuck out in all directions and although his clothes looked clean enough, there were great holes in the knees of his jeans, far too big to be placed there on purpose. How dare he interrupt her when she was practising at skipping stones and being angry? She felt like she had been caught in some private act, like the times she stole lipstick from her mother’s purse and rubbed some into her cheeks to give her pale face a bit of colour. There were times that she cried at TV commercials. Rather than admit to her sensitive side, she would pretend to sneeze and excuse herself from the living room to be alone and wipe away her embarrassed tears.
He repeated himself. “I bet I can do ten.”
At first she thought there was something wrong with him, the way his arms hung at his sides and how he stood there with his mouth half open while he waited for the reply, then she saw his eyes. There was something in his eyes that made her think twice. Aside from the fact that they were a shocking shade of blue, he had the longest eye lashes she had ever seen on a boy. Any girl in school would have been envious. There was also something fierce and intelligent in them and it was clear that he really believed he could throw a ten. Jules could tell by his expression that even if she told him to go away, he would go to the water’s edge and do it anyway.
“Sure.” She said. “What do you want to bet?”
He shrugged his shoulders and came towards her. As he approached, he fixed his eyes on the ground in front of Jules and picked up a smooth, round stone.
“Come on.” She said. “You said you wanted to bet, so let’s bet.”
Without answering, he drew his arm back and threw. The rock skipped across the lake surface perfectly and as she counted up, she realised that he hadn’t managed ten, but twelve. It was one best throws she had ever seen. She was irritated by the fact that it usually took a half hour of warming up before she could get a decent throw and he had managed a twelve on the first try. She smiled at the thought that he could not have much of a life to be that good. Skill required practise.
Irritated, she pressed him further. “I bet you can’t do that again.” She said, and went back to her position on the boulder.
This time, he replied. “Ok. If I get more than ten, you have to tell me a secret.”
This took her by surprise. She had expected a request for a cash bet or a trade of some sort. She struggled to think of what information she could use by way of currency, but only one thought came into her head. It had been there for the past hour and would not go away.
“I don’t even know you. I’m not going to tell you anything.”
“I’m Justin. There, now you know me.”
Good answer, she thought. Intrigued at this unexpected turn, she considered the possibility that this could be more interesting than betting quarters and reasoned that should the need arise, she could make something up.
“Ok, you’re on. What do I get if you don’t make it?”
He smiled at her. It was an unnerving smile. There were no teeth in them, only the tight lipped grin of someone who didn’t care what she asked for, he had no intention of missing.
“What do you want?” He asked.
“The same.” She said. “If you don’t hit ten, you have to tell me a secret.”
This time, he showed his teeth. “I don’t even know you. I’m not going to tell you anything.” He chuckled, delighted by his own cleverness.
“Jules.” She said. “It’s Julia, really, but everyone calls me Jules.”
“There, now we know each other.” Justin said.
She hopped down from the boulder and in a few short steps she was beside him, offering her hand. He shook it and having selected another stone, skipped a perfect ten. When the throw was over, he grew serious. He turned from the water, sat on the boulder and scooted along, indicating that she should join him.
When they were seated, he looked over at her. “You’re shivering.” Before she knew what he was doing, he had taken off his jacket of thin, pale blue denim and draped it over her shoulders. Had the wind been more forgiving, she would have instantly returned it, having found the gesture creepy. Instead, she decided to accept the kindness and thanked him.
“No problem. So, Jules, what’s you’re secret?” He said.
She tried to invent something, but the same thought kept coming back to the forefront of her mind.
“An hour ago, my parents told me they’re getting a divorce.” The moment she said it, she felt the blood rush to her face. There was something so final about saying it aloud.
He didn’t answer, merely nodded, so she kept going.
“They said it wasn’t anything I did. They just didn’t want to be together anymore. I came back from school, sat down to watch TV and wham! Mom came in with Dad behind her and they just came out with it. “Jules, how was your day, we’re having chicken for dinner, oh, by the way, we’re getting divorced.” As she spoke, Jules affected a cheerful voice, drenched in mocking and she realised that in her heart, she had wanted Justin to make a ten. She had wanted to share her anger with someone, anyone, and he had appeared from nowhere to oblige. There was something liberating in just blurting out the truth to a total stranger. She felt that it was as though she was telling her parents, “You see? I’m fine. I’m even telling total strangers about your little secret, see if I care.”
Justin looked at her. “So, did you believe them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you believe them when they said they just wanted to be apart?”
“I guess so. I mean, they must mean it if they’re getting divorced.”
Justin kept going. “What I mean is, did they say who’s leaving who or what happened?”
“No, I didn’t ask.”
He nodded again and said nothing.
“I guess I’d better go.” Jules said. “It’s getting cold.”
She moved to take the jacket off but Justin put his hand up to stop her. “Give it back tomorrow. If you come back, I’ll share a secret with you.”
She turned and headed for home and as she reached the lower end of Main Street, she realised that the idea of not seeing Justin the next day had never entered her head.
to be cont…