Stephanie S. Tolan



Charley is halfway across the dam, sweat dripping down her back under her T-shirt, when her father drives past her on his way back to work. She doesn’t look at him. As slowly as he is driving, the car still kicks up gray-white dust from the gravel road. She walks through the dust, as straight and tall as she can make herself, jamming her walking stick into the stones as she goes, trying not to limp. She is walking. It is what he wants, and she is doing it. But if he’s so interested in the best thing for her, why can’t he let her decide what that is?

“I won’t have you sitting in that chair all summer!” he yelled when she refused to come sit with him and eat the lunch Sarita had to scramble to fix when he showed up suddenly, unexpectedly, in the middle of the workday.

“Summer hasn’t even started yet,” she yelled back.

“It’s the last day of school – for kids who are in school,” he said.

You’d think it was her fault that she isn’t in school, finishing the sixth grade with everybody else!

“You only have ten weeks to build up your strength and be ready when school starts again. You are to get outside today. It’s time, Charlene! Your physical therapist says you’re healing well and a little exercise is all you need to get back to normal. You will start by walking. Today. Is that clear?” He was using his I-am-the-boss voice that keeps a factory full of workers in line.

She lowered the footrest of the recliner chair, picked up her walking stick from the floor, and got to her feet as gracefully as she could. Without a word she went down the hall to her room and put on her sneakers. Then, pounding the stick on the floor as she went, she walked straight through the living room and the dining room, out the sliding glass door, and down the ramp he had had built over the stairs her second week in the hospital.

Her father was at the breakfast table in the lake room when she left, waving his fork in the air as he talked into his cell phone. He might have taken time to come home for lunch, but he hadn’t really left his work, Charley thinks as his car moves up the hill on the other side of the dam and disappears around the curve. It’s what her father does – work. Normal for him means his eighty-hour work week.

By the time the dust from his car settles, Charley has reached the end of the dam, where there is a bench under a willow tree by the water. She could sit there in the shade awhile, looking at Eagle Lake, its ripples glittering in the sun. She could rest her leg and then go home again. But she keeps walking, up the slope of the road.

She can walk all right. She is done with the wheelchair. Done with crutches. The “miracle” of the rod the doctors stuck into the bone in her right leg from her hip to her knee means she has never had to wear a cast. By now all there is to show for what happened to her is the scar down her leg where they put the rod in. And the walking stick she made so she wouldn’t have to use the stupid old-lady-looking cane Tony, her physical terrorist, tried to give her after the crutches.

Her father wants her back to normal. Normal. What is that? Is that what her life was the first week in March? Before her friend Amy’s brother Travis gave them a ride home from school that rainy Monday afternoon? Before he got to showing off and playing NASCAR driver? Before what the papers called a “one-car accident” that was really one car and one tree? She can’t remember the accident that put her in the hospital and ended the school year for her. She can’t even remember the first few days after it. The doctors say, because of the concussion, she probably never will.

If there is one thing she’s learned for sure in her twelve years of life, it is that you can’t go back to the way things used to be. No matter how much you want to. You can’t go back. Somehow or other, you have to keep going forward. It’s just that she hasn’t figured out yet how to do that.

Whether she spends the whole summer in the recliner chair or out here walking the hot, dusty road around Eagle Lake, it can’t be like the last two summers. This summer can’t be Charley and Amy at Amy’s house swimming in Amy’s pool, playing tennis, going to movies, hanging out at the mall, spending whole days at a time at Carrowinds amusement park with Amy’s family. Because this summer Travis is working to pay his father back for the car he wrecked. And Amy…Amy…

Charley stabs her walking stick into the gravel, and a little puff of dust rises into the air.   

She has reached the split where the gravel road that is Eagle Lake Drive goes straight ahead, past the caretaker’s house and out to the paved county road, and also right, through the woods toward the south side of the lake. She turns right and keeps walking. Where the road splits again – right to the four houses closest to the dam and left to the rest of the houses on the south side of the lake – she goes left. Trees nearly meet over her head – thick woods on one side, woods with houses on the other.

She goes on stabbing her walking stick into the gravel, goes on making the little puffs of dust. Amy, her best friend since second grade, is going off to spend the whole summer at Lake George in upstate New York with Becky Sue Lindner. Charley still can’t quite believe it. If it was Amy who’d been smashed up in a car accident, if it was Charley whose brother caused that accident, and if Amy was supposed to be getting out and starting to do stuff to get her strength back, Charley would be right there doing stuff with her. That’s what best friends are for.

“Evelyn Lindner was a tennis champion, you know,” Amy’s mother explained when she called a couple weeks ago to break the news. As if it was her mother, instead of Amy, who had made the decision. “She coaches Becky Sue, and she’s offered to coach Amy, too. It’s a chance in a lifetime.” Amy’s mother didn’t say that Charley wouldn’t be up to playing tennis with Amy this summer. She didn’t have to.

Amy called, then, to say it was all her mother’s idea, and she didn’t want to go. But Charley knows better. She’s seen Amy get what she wants plenty of times before. As soon as Amy said good-bye, Charley hung up, opened her laptop, and deleted every single e-mail Amy had ever sent her. And she quit responding to Amy’s instant messages. Whenever Amy called after that, Charley told Sarita she didn’t want to talk.

She won’t have to think about calls or e-mails or instant messages from Amy much longer now. The Lindners don’t let their kids have computers at Lake George. Today, June 10, is the last day of school, and tomorrow Amy and Becky Sue’s family will leave first thing in the morning. They won’t be back until the weekend before school starts again.

A hawk screams overhead. Charley stops in the middle of the road and looks up, catching sight of it for only a few seconds before it circles out of sight behind the trees. What does a hawk have to scream about? she thinks. It’s up there, riding the air, high and easy, not even moving its wings.

She wipes the sweat from her eyes with her free hand and curses. Her other hand is practically paralyzed from holding onto her walking stick so hard. She understands now why canes are made the way they are – so you can put your weight on the handle. All those hours she spent whittling the bark off her stick and smoothing it, carving her initials into it, and she’d be better off with the cane Tony wanted to give her.

Now that she has stopped, Charley is suddenly aware of how much her bad leg hurts. Even her so-called good leg aches from the walking. Her jaw hurts, too. She must have been clenching her teeth against the pain, she thinks. What she wants, right this minute, is to be back home, back in the recliner chair with something cold to drink. Right now!

The trouble is she has walked so far that she is almost directly across the lake from her house. Getting home means either turning around and going back the way she came, or walking the woods trail around the shallow end of the lake where there are no houses. The woods trail is shorter. But she doesn’t walk the woods trail. Not ever. The woods trail is part of the reason she hates living at Eagle Lake. It’s part of the way things used to be, when things really were normal, before the accident and before…

Charley stops herself. The woods trail is part of what she will never have back again. Besides, it’s tough going, winding steeply up and down, skirting the ridge above the water. Her leg hurts way too much to go that way, even if she wanted to.

She stands in the sticky North Carolina June afternoon, wishing she could fly like that hawk. She will have to turn back and go the long way. At least there’s the bench by the dam where she can rest. She will not do this walk again anytime soon, that she knows for sure.

She pulls her soggy T-shirt away from her skin, wipes the sweat off her face again, and turns to start back. That is when she sees the dog.

It is sitting tall and rock still on a smooth patch of bare red dirt at the base of a big sweet gum tree in the woods, barely visible between the scrubby bushes and the tangle of honeysuckle vine that edge the road. It is red-gold, almost the color of the ground it is sitting on, its head high, its dark ears pricked sharply in her direction. The dog’s eyes, dark in a narrow, golden face, are looking directly at her. She feels a kind of tremor, as if an electric shock has passed from the dog to her and back again.

She knows all the Eagle Lake dogs. This isn’t one of them. For that matter, it doesn’t really look like a dog. Not like someone’s pet. There’s a wildness about it, like a wolf. Or a coyote. It is beautiful. It has a coyote’s pointed ears, a black muzzle and those electrifying eyes. For just a moment there is nothing in all the world except Charley and the dog.

She remembers, then, a dog she saw in the winter, February maybe, scrounging around the Dumpster up past Eagle Lake’s stone gates, near the power lines. That dog was about the same size as this one, a dirty reddish color. That dog wasn’t beautiful. It had looked wild, though – wild and wary – its shoulders hunched, its ears back, its tail down as it scuttled off into the woods.

Surely this can’t be that dog. It couldn’t have lived on its own in the woods all these months. She blinks. The dog has vanished. The patch of bare ground where it was sitting is empty now. She can’t remember looking away, but she must have. Because the dog is gone. Like a ghost. Just gone.

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Last modified: March 05, 2007