Anita Mechler: The Ladder, Part 2

[This is a continuation of a story previously published here]

Justine saw Frederika’s face emerge from the woods surrounding the abandoned swimming pool. She looked innocent with inset eyes but with an uncannily intense stare. With a relieved smile, she sighed when she saw Justine. She grimaced as she crunched her way to the base of the pool, covering her eyes to the descending sun. Other people were concerned for her safety, after all, Justine thought. Or perhaps, they were just curious where she went.

Frederika spoke first, “Whaddaya doing up there?”

Justine shrugged and looked over Frederika’s shoulder to see if anyone else was coming.

“I thought I heard more voices,” Justine said.

“Yeah, I left Franklin behind. He was yapping on, getting on my nerves. We’re thinking about lighting a fire in the fire pit, if you’re interested. He’s supposed to be looking for kindling.”

Justine nodded and looked down at the state of her nails and began to chew the skin on her right hand around her middle finger. They started to hear more rustling and turned to see Franklin red-cheeked and breathing heavily.

“We’re thinking about starting a fire in the firepit!” He said with a triumphant face, not unlike a child on an important mission with a bundle of kindling under each arm, pressing against his dirty red sweatshirt.

“It gets chilly here at night!” he said finally after the women didn’t react.

He didn’t see Frederika roll her eyes, under her straight black bob, and smile at Justine who nodded her head reluctantly, looked up toward the tree tops, and rubbed her arms. She slowly lifted each leg from the ledge of the abandoned swimming pool, giving one last longing look at the stagnant water in the corner, and began again to approach the ladder.

“What is she doing?” said Frankin under his breath.

“Shhhh,” said Frederika beside him.

Justine appeared from the lower corner of the pool and smiled wanly at the couple.

“Steve will be happy to see you back with the group,” a Franklin said after some silence, walking back toward their campsite. Frederika nudged him in the side. Justine said nothing.

They started to hear the murmuring of the rest of the group and many conversations happening at once. “Hey!” someone yelled from the group as everyone turned to look, but continued with their conversations. Steve waved at Justine from the camping chairs around the fire, clutching a light beer in a koozie. She gave him a half-smile and settled in on the splintering park bench on the opposite side. Not only did she not know most of the people in the group, but they were comprised mostly of couples in their 30s; some who had “stolen away” for the weekend from their kids.

There was an expectation there that she resented, of the fact that her and Steve were the only single people. They seemed to see singleness as a forgotten time in their past lives and treated current single people like aliens they were baffled and amused by.

Franklin busied himself with stacking the kindling and gathering his supplies, all the while rubbing his hands together and blowing on them even though it hadn’t yet started to get cold. Frederika stood nearby and watched him from her periphery as she chatted with Cassandra, one of the married mothers of the group. Justine watched him fumble and stack the wood incorrectly and not in a pyramid formation like her mountain man dad had taught her, but she didn’t get up to correct him. She only stood to grab a grey fleece hoodie from her tent and settle back down onto the park bench.

Once the fire got started, she waited until they were all thoroughly busy with their different activities: making s’mores like they were children, chugging beer like they were in college, and complaining about their lives in the present time. She knew that what she wanted to do was dangerous and even her father would not advise that she strike out alone in the dark into unknown territory. She had to get away from the crush of the others’ personalities, opinions, and expectations. They all looked at her with a differing curiosity, some more cursory than others; the women stared the longest. She could see their needs and wants and desires flickering to the surface and it made her feel suffocated and physically ill.

She decided to explore the area just east of the abandoned pool and found another clearing within a five minute walk.  One thing she always missed about the wilderness at night is the amount of stars she could see and identify. Her father had taught her some of the bigger constellations and they would practice them together: “Seven Sisters, Orion, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Scorpio, Cassiopeia.”

She laid down on the wet grass and looked up at them until the chill reached through her clothes. She admired space from afar, but the vast wide openness of it scared her out of her wits. She decided to walk away from the campsite further and past the clearing back into trees and a rocky terrain. As she reached further into the trees she heard the very faint but unmistakable sounds of water, like the drippings of a spring.

She quickened her steps in the direction of the sound and felt a wild urge in her heart pulse through to her cold extremities. She reached the end of a precipice and saw the darkest, deepest blue swimming hole she had ever seen, lit partially by the moon. She knew that it would be foolish to jump in while alone and in the coldness of the night. She vowed that she would come back, without telling the whole group, and spend the next days there. She felt hunger rolling in her belly and thirst making her throat dry. She finally needed the warmth and safety of the campsite and her companions. She turned around and started the long walk back.

To be continued…

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