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by IN Short

     I wasn’t sure what to expect when that door opened. Perhaps I was afraid that she would be different. I don’t know how that ridiculous idea seized hold of me.

     Abby threw the door wide, wine glass in hand, moving so fast I could barely keep track of her as she danced around us, taking our bags and setting them aside.

     “Nadia! I’m so glad you made it!” She cried out to us, pulling me into a bear hug that I accepted somewhat reluctantly.

     Her exuberance was just as I remembered, with maybe a hint of uncertainty in the way she looked sidelong at me as I introduced her to Ethan. It had been a long time, and neither of us wanted to admit it.

     “This is my boyfriend, Mark,” she said, pulling a tall and slender man from the shadows. He shook my hand politely, but his face was unreadable.

     “It’s nice to meet you, Nadia,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

     I wished I could say the same. Instead, I just put on what I hoped was a friendly smile and returned his handshake with slightly more vigor.

     “It’s great to meet you, too,” I said.

     Ethan shook his hand and snaked his other arm around my waist. I felt like a cat whose hair was on end. It seemed my discomfort was visible, or perhaps just Ethan could read me well enough.

     Abby led us out to the back. Her parents’ lake house was situated just a few steps from the shore, isolated in the country dark. Walls of trees rose up around us, shielding us from the rest of the world.

     We all pitched in to make dinner in the creaky old kitchen and ate outside in the screened porch. Singing crickets and small talk entertained us as we sipped wine and let the warm, heavy summer evening descend. Ethan held my hand in his, his fingers curving snugly around mine.

     The talk inevitably turned to how we knew each other. Ethan and Mark had each heard stories, and Abby and I related tales of our past with caution, neither of us sure how a story would fall after two years without speaking. We told the good ones – the neutral ones. That time we defied curfew and took our dates to the locked up county fairgrounds after prom. That time she snuck me out of my house when I was grounded. The time we woke her whole family with our howling laughter when we got the giggles during an adolescent sleepover.

     I still don’t remember what was so funny. But I do remember how hard I laughed.

     When she told the story about our first college party, she omitted the part where she left with a frat boy, only calling me in the morning to tell me she’d gone. When I told the story about egging her ex-boyfriend’s car in high school, I left out the part where we had stopped talking for months because he had wanted her all to himself, and she had agreed.

     But none of that was spoken as we ate dinner on the veranda. I caught Ethan’s meaningful looks every time the stories he’d heard were cut short. I squeezed his hand under the table. He knew what this meant to me, so he kept quiet.

     After dessert, Mark and Ethan started talking about cars. Eager to leave the table, they rushed off for a joy ride, leaving me and Abby nursing our wine glasses and the awkward silence that had settled in on us.

     “So Ethan’s cute,” she said after a moment.

     “He’s good to me,” I replied. “Mark seems nice.”

     Abby giggled. Somehow she hadn’t changed a bit in the more than ten years I had known her. Sometimes, that was refreshing.

     “Yeah, I like him,” she said, taking another sip of her wine, her face flushed and beaming.

     I looked out over the water, hearing the hum of the motor drop to silence as Mark’s car pulled away from the house. The crickets were still singing in the dark of the forest, and the water was still.

     “This is a nice place,” I said.

     I liked silence, but there was something about sitting here with Abby that made the quiet too revealing. Everything unspoken was coming out into the empty space between us.

     “Yeah, my mom’s family used to meet out here every summer,” she said. “My cousins and I used to go skinny dipping. Every vacation. It was a tradition.”

     I chuckled, setting my wine glass on the table and easing back against my chair.

     “I’ve never been skinny dipping,” I confessed.

     Suddenly, she was sitting up straight, her eyebrows raised and her lips in a little rounded oh of surprise.

     “Seriously?” she said. I could see her swaying a little against the sudden motion. “That is unacceptable.”

     She grabbed my hand and pulled me up and out the door. The grass was damp against my feet, the blades poking around the leather straps of my sandals as she tugged me down to the banks of the lake.

     “We are going to remedy that right now,” she said, kicking off her sandals.

     I hesitated.

     “I don’t know, I mean … How long are Mark and Ethan going to be gone?”

     “Oh come on,” she said. “They’ve seen us naked.”

     “Well, sort of…” I began, but there was no arguing with Abby. When she set her mind on something, it happened.

     It was nearly pitch black there on the dock. The sparse collection of summer homes on the lake were buried in inky blue – no lights warming the windows. It was truly empty out here that night.

     “Come on!” she urged me. “You haven’t truly lived if you haven’t done this. Where else can you just strip naked and jump into the water?”

     “I don’t know … your bathtub?”

     But I felt myself softening slightly against her enthusiasm. This was what it was like to be friends with Abby, I remembered. It was exhilarating and frightening and unpredictable, and sometimes just a little too real. I laughed anyway and kicked off my shoes.

     We leapt shrieking into the cold water moments later, leaving puddles of clothing on the dock.

     “So?” she asked. I couldn’t make out her features in the dark – the moonlight off the water cast little more than an ethereal whisper of white on our skin. I could hear the grin in her voice, though, and couldn’t help smiling myself.

     “I feel like a rebel,” I said, giggling.

     This was how it had always been. A bad influence, my mother called her. But I always felt more alive with Abby.

     We swam for a while, lost in the freedom of the cool water against our skin.

     “I’m really glad you could make it for the weekend,” she said suddenly.

     “Me too,” I replied.

     “We have a lot to catch up on,” she said.

     “Yeah,” I said. “And we will.”

     “It’s been weird without you.”

     “Yeah,” I said. The void her absence had left in my life had been strange for me too. Things had been quieter, more peaceful, more simple.

     It had been boring.

     A splash of cold lake water on my face pulled me spluttering out of my thoughts. Abby cackled a few feet to my left and splashed me again.

     “You are such a child,” I said, but I was laughing too as I splashed her back.

     She shrieked, heaving a spray of water at me with her hands and swimming away, her kicking feet sending yet another wave at my face.

     “I am invincible!” she shouted, a safe distance away.

     “You’re drunk,” I replied through my giggles.

     In truth, I also felt a bit warmer than I should have been in the chilly night air. But that may just have been the glow radiating off Abby.

     She looked so different now, her hair pulled tightly away from her face. Pale, pinched, fragile.

     I held her hand, the beeping of the machines running together into one terrible, mechanical whine. I was looking for a glimpse of her under the mask of her face. None of this was hers, not even the slow and measured rise and fall of her chest. She was pieced together, held here by doctors – miracle workers.

     “Abby,” I whispered. I still felt, absurdly, that if I spoke aloud she would shatter, so my words came out as quietly as a sigh: “Hang in there, Abby.”

     The beeping felt more frantic, and I felt my own pulse race. I felt like I might be sick.

     “Be invincible, Abby,” I pleaded, selfishly. “Please. Be invincible again, for me.”


Casey Berger is an aspiring writer and scientist who also dabbles in photography, fitness, travel, and music. An eternal student who believes life is too short to limit yourself to one interest, she is always looking for the next intriguing idea. Casey is a staff writer for The Inclusive.


Image courtesy of Greg Walters

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IN Short is The Inclusive's annual short fiction week, featuring work from staff writers and contributors. Check the author page to see more contributions for IN Short.