© 2017  by Nancy Stone

Jacksonville, Florida

Represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency 

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oxoboxo

This story originally appeared on the One Teen Story blog.

“Here. You need this.” Miranda Jones hands me her comb, the pink long-handled one she keeps in the back pocket of her jeans. She motions with her head, a signal that means Follow Me.  

 In the bathroom next to algebra class, I comb the knots and curls out of my hair while she watches. Supervises. When I’m done, she gives me a purple elastic hairband, glittery.  “You look more normal with your hair up.” She told me this last week, too, but I forgot.  I don’t like mirrors. If you stare into them long enough, you can feel yourself invited in.  You can think of lifting out of your own head and diving through the glass like it’s water.

Miranda Jones gives my new ponytail a short hard looking over. “Better.”

I nod and I smile, but can’t think of anything to say. I sometimes can be quiet that way, like a cat when you’re trying to chat with it.  

Later, at lunch, Miranda Jones doesn’t bother to nod or smile at me from across the cafeteria. This is how it’s been since we started high school last month. In middle school, she let me sit at the end of her table. In elementary school, she let me sit next to her. In kindergarten, she told me she loved me. Best friends forever. Friends forever. Friends.

I walk home from school because everyone else takes the bus. I take the long way, around Oxoboxo Lake. No one goes to the lake after Labor Day, so it’s always how I like it—just me, alone, me.  I say the letters F-R-I-E-N-D as I walk, a six-count matched to my footsteps, one letter per step. Eleven times, for a total of sixty-six steps, until the lake distracts me with its black-green body, the little kissing sounds the water makes when fish float up and put their fishy lips to it. Once I start thinking about the lake, it’s all O-X-O-B-O-X-O, all the time. Seven letters, perfect, beautiful to multiply and factor, again and again, to the rhythm of my steps.

O-X-O-B-O-X-O, O-X-O-B-O-X-O.

 

It would take six thousand eight hundred and seventeen steps to circle the lake. It’s a big infinite loop, exactly the same shape forward or back—a palindrome, just like the word OXOBOXO.  Palindrome, from the Greek for running back again. I think every palindrome is perfect. Put OXOBOXO to the mirror and it’s still OXOBOXO, with its luscious o’s and squat sharp x’s. Put my name in the mirror and it’s LRAEP. Ugly, awkward and impossible to say. LRAEP is not a good walking word.

O-X-O-B-O-X-O, O-X-O-B-O-X-O.

I’m on the second X of O-X-O-B-O-X-O for the fifty-third time when I spot something silver in the woods. Silver’s only normal at Christmas, and, even then, never in the woods. I almost lose count of my steps when I stop to get a closer look, but I manage to press pause in my brain and store the number.

When I move off the path, I can see the silver a little better. It’s on the south side of the lake, almost twelve hundred steps away, and up a little swell of a hill, deep in the trees. How many steps it takes to climb the hill I have no idea. That part of the woods is not my part, or anybody’s part. No one goes in those woods.

What could be silver out there? What is usually silver? Tinsel, bells, bracelets.

I start walking again. Curious. Fast.

O-X-O-B-O-X-O, O-X-O-B-O-X-O.

The silver starts to shine into a shape, dome-like. A tent. Deep in the trees, where there’s no real clearing, no true paths, and lots that’s poison—ivy, oak, berries, thorns, ticks. No one I know goes in those woods, ever.

I do, though. Today I go into the woods. Because the sight of the tent is like the smell of baking bread—it makes me hungry for it. Also because I like the idea of a new walk, a challenging fresh count, in multiples of six this time.

P-O-I-S-O-N, P-O-I-S-O-N.

The truth is I sort of just have to go see the tent, just like I sort have to put a number on almost everything I do. About a year ago, Miranda Jones caught me counting letters out loud. After that, she started saying I’m all screwed up. No, she started saying I’m more screwed up than ever. This year, she uses a different word for “screwed”, a four-letter word and not a palindrome at all. She says it all the time and everywhere, like most people say hi or o.k.

Up the little swell of a hill, over the undergrowth, under the overgrowth. It’s only 3:30 in the afternoon, but in the woods it’s already starting to get dark. The trees haven’t dropped their leaves yet. They make a great big amber cloud against the sun.  It’s hard to spot every single bony branch that blocks my way. A few slap and scratch my cheeks.

P-O-I-S-O-N, P-O-I-S-O-N.

Just ahead, the silver tent sits wedged between the trunks of two trees. A girl sits cross-legged in front it, watching me. She’s got a fat lit candle in her hand, and holds it at an angle, dripping its yellow wax into a coffee mug. She looks older than I am, about college age, adult, or almost. Thick brown arms, bear-paw hands, wide sweat-socked feet. Round thighs that bulge through the rips in her jeans. She’s not small in any way, but something unseen about her seems tiny and sweet, like it belongs in a doll house.  

She straightens the candle, and pushes it down into its own nest of wax. It stands tall and steady in the mug, puffing out little sighs of light. She gives me a half smile. Not cautious. Polite, maybe.  Eyes both black, like the fat dots under question marks and exclamation points. One eyebrow up.

 

“Greetings,” she says.

 I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “Greetings” as a greeting before.  Her hair climbs in so many— how many?— braided rows down her scalp, the little beads that hold them there snug-tight and so precise—red-blue-white, red-blue-white. Finally, I say something like hi and hey and how’s it going all combined, mostly because I’ve already started counting her braids, which is distracting when you’re trying to talk. Also, when I do talk, I’m either too laconic—from the Greek, meaning terse, concise—or too wordy. Miranda Jones says I’m just plain inappropriate when I open my mouth. She tells me things like, “Sometimes, it’s better if you don’t say anything at all,” or “Next time, just ask me what to say.”  

The girl with ten braids leans back, and tugs on the flap of the tent. “Jake, Jake,” she calls. Two feet in cow leather boots, the cowboy kind, slide out from under the flap. Then the rest of Jake comes, long, mostly legs. He looks like he’s got wire inside, that kind that moves marionettes. Friendly lips. Box-square head.

 “Who’s this?” he says to the girl.


 “I don’t know.” She turns to me. “Who are you?”

I can’t quite answer. My mind’s chock-full of questions I can’t ask: Why are you here? Where are you from? Are you in love with each other?

“You don’t know?” the girl says to me. “She doesn’t know,” she says to Jake.  

“Sure she does,” says Jake. “She knows.”

The gentle way they swap words makes me think of cotton candy on my tongue, burnt marshmallows, sleep when I’m very, very tired. Something softens in the back of my throat, and nestles there like a baby squirrel, tender and blind.

“Pearl,” I say. “I’m Pearl.”

“See,” says Jake. “I told you she knew.”

“I never said she didn’t,” the girl says.  And this, directed at me, “Did I?”

I shake my head. No.

“This is Jake,” the girl says. “And I’m Eve.”

“Eve’s a palindrome, just like the lake,” Jake says. “Exactly the same backward or forward. You know what I mean?”

Oh. Oh, yes. I know what he means. Palindrome, from the Greek, meaning running back again. The sweet sensation in my throat grows so big I feel like I’ve got a mouthful of honey.

 

I say, “O-X-O-B-O-X-O. E-V-E.”

“Coincidence?” Eve says.

“Fate,” Jake answers. He slides next to her and puts his open palm on her knee.  He drums his fingers against her jeans, and looks me over. He studies my glasses. “You must be blind as a bat without those things.”

 “Jake!” Eve smacks his back, hard enough so I can hear it.

Contact lenses feel like gravel in my eyes. Miranda Jones says I should suck it up and wear them anyway. That maybe if I could see straight I’d stop all my crazy obsessive behavior. I’ve never told her that I actually see better with my glasses. Or that I like their red owl-round frames, the way they make my nose feel safe.  

“It’s O.K.,” I say. “He’s totally right.”

I don’t bother to explain that without my glasses I can see with precision at exactly one and three-eighths of an inch from my pupils, but that this kind of vision is pretty much useless except for examining your own fingerprints.

“See,” he says. “I was right.” He stands up and brushes something invisible off the front of his pants. “Besides, I like them. Your glasses. Glasses are cool.”

“I think they make you look smart,” Eve says. She stands up and brushes something invisible off the front of her pants, too. “Are you smart?”

I’m pretty sure there’s no good answer to this question, so I don’t say anything.

“She’s smart,” Jake says. “I can tell.”

Eve makes a sudden happy face. I almost can see a thought bubble open up over her head. “Oh,” she says. “I’ll bet she knows!” She jumps up, surprisingly high. She claps. “Ask her!”

Jake looks confused. She elbows him. “About the house, Jake. The house.”

I know right away what she’s talking about—the house on the bottom of the Oxoboxo. The house that’s been there for one hundred and fifty-three years. A perfect house, with two turrets, and a huge front porch, a lot of fancy pink fish-scale shingles all down its sides. A house worth moving all the way across town so it could overlook the lake. In the dead of winter, over the frozen Oxoboxo—that was the plan. The problem was the oxen—one of them dropped dead after pulling the house about a third of the way. Getting another ox to the lake would take all day, so the house was left on the ice overnight. In the morning, a weird impossible warmth came up with the February sun. The ice cracked, just a little. Just enough. Imagine. Go now. Fish your furniture from the second story—the first’s already under water. Watch your house float half in, half out for almost a year before it disappears. 

“I knew you’d know all about it,” Eve says.

Jake suddenly looks brighter and alert, like a dog that’s spotted a rabbit in the woods. “Do you know where it sank?”

I do—on the lake’s east end, about five thousand two hundred feet from shore, almost four hundred feet from the little island where the mallards make their nests in the spring.

Jake ducks back into the tent, rustles around, and comes back out holding a map. I’m still lurking by the birch trees, fifty feet or so from the tent, but he’s by my side in about a split second. His left shoulder bumps my right. He jabs at the center of the map. “Can you show me?”  

                    

There’s the Oxoboxo and the surrounding woods, all marked by those precise little symbols for depth and elevation, longitude and distance. I study the map for a few seconds. I point. He points at the same spot. “Have you seen it?”

I shake my head. “Only a few people ever have. Divers with air tanks. It’s deep, really deep.”

“What about the ghost?” Eve says. She’s coming around the back of the tent, dragging a red kayak behind her.

I know what she’s talking about this time, too. Some people say the house under the lake is haunted. They say they hear a piano playing, the piano that sank with the house. Others say they see a child’s head floating over the water, maybe someone who drowned in the lake a long time ago.  A girl or a boy, no one knows. Sometimes it opens a toothless mouth, all gray lips and purple gums, and tries to sing. Out comes the sound of a piano, tinkling away.

I want to believe it and I don’t believe it. I’ve pictured the house thousands of time, imagined myself trapped in its flooded parlor, the piano playing itself, my face turning blue. The idea of it shakes my brain.

 But no. “No,” I say, to answer Eve. “I haven’t seen it. Not really.”

Jake folds the map in half. His happy dog look starts to fade.

“But I heard it,” I add. “That one time.”   

Jake’s eyes turn back on. Eve drops the kayak down in front of the tent, and laughs.

 

“I knew it!” she says.  

Sometimes a lie and the truth seem like twins. Miranda Jones told me yesterday she never needs to cheat because she uses her resources wisely. I just nodded, and finished the last of her algebra so she could turn it in on time.

* * * 

The water in the Oxoboxo is icy cold, and slimy black with algae and microscopic scum. At least, that’s how it looks to me. I’ve never touched it myself. I can’t swim.

“I’ve heard the furniture is all still exactly where they left it,” Jake says. “And that the piano’s perfectly preserved.” He’s carrying the front of the kayak on his shoulder while Eve and I guide the back end through the woods.

“Eerie,” Eve says.

 

The two of them want to paddle out to the little island. They want to see the ghost—it’s the whole reason they’ve come. They’re on a sort of ghost hunting road trip, hiking all over New England to different haunted locales. Eve’s kind of psychic. She grew up in a house with a poltergeist, but it moved out after she asked it to go away. Jake says he’s never seen a ghost, but who cares? He’d follow Eve anywhere.

 

It takes one thousand six hundred and nineteen steps to get to the shore. All the way there,

 

I count by fours. L-I-A-R, L-I-A-R.

"What did the music sound like, Pearl?"  

"Clear as a bell and far away and then—bang—clear as a bell again."

"What song did it play, Pearl?"

"Something classical, I think. You know, Beethoven or Mozart, something like that.

Something slow, and sad."

"Did it play the same song over and over? " 

"Maybe. I don’t really know. I swam away pretty fast."

"I’ve heard the music follows you. Did the music follow you?"

"Almost all the way back to shore. Even now, sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I can still hear it."

The whole time I talk about the music, Eve and Jake widen their eyes and smile. If lies make you happy, does that make them true?

By the time we drop the kayak on the rocky shore, the setting sun is throwing colors all over everything.  Pumpkin mist rises up off the lake.  Jake’s hair flares red. When he drags the kayak into the water, his whole face blazes. Eve wades in behind the kayak, her ripped jeans rolled up to her knees. Just the thought of that water against my legs puts a drum inside my chest and pounds it. I go stiff inside, and cold.

Eve and Jake walk out up to their waists, guiding the kayak beside them. Eve looks at me over her shoulder. “Oh, I wish you could come!” she says.

I wonder how I got lucky enough for that kayak to only have room for two.

They climb in. Splashing. Laughter. They settle into their seats. All I can see of them now is their torsos and heads. The beads in Eve’s braids flash and shine.

Jake throws his arms up in the air. “My paddle!”  

He’s left it on shore. It’s half under water. The lake laps up against it.

He motions at me. “Toss it out to me, will you?”

I can’t touch the water. Can’t.

“Hey! Toss it, will you?”

So. Pretend you don’t feel as if you might snap in two. Lift up the dry end of the paddle. Keep the toes of your sneakers a foot from the lake’s edge. Imagine staying very dry and very safe. Tell yourself the water’s not alive. It won’t invade, won’t pull you in. Do all of this, and close your eyes.

 

Now. Fling the paddle, end over end.

Water sprays up, boomerangs backward at me. Explodes on my eyelids. Soaks my scalp. Passes my lips and darkens my tongue.  And I don’t care. In fact, I almost like it, the way it shakes me loose, and makes my bones breathe in. 

I open my eyes. The paddle’s soaring, easy as a miracle.  It lands a few feet from the kayak without a noise, like a seabird. Jake and Eve only have to glide a few feet until they reach it, hoist it up, and start toward the little island.

Eve calls out, “Thanks, Pearl!”

 I wave. The kayak slips away, until its red body looks small as a tongue licking the surface of the lake.

I have to go home. My mom’s working third shift tonight, so I’m cooking burgers for my dad. All the way there, I picture forming the meat into perfectly infinite Os. My head’s still damp. I loosen my ponytail, and shake my hair loose. Tiny droplets of water rain down around me. What would they taste like if I caught them on my tongue? Not like snowflakes. Like nothing and everything—they’d taste like that.

 

The summer before third grade, Miranda Jones invited me every Friday to her family’s cottage on Ocean Beach. She’d hold my hand when we got to the water. Come on, she’d say, you can do it! Ankle deep, knee deep. Without my glasses—you’ll never learn to swim in those things, she’d tell me—the seaweed swirled in front of me like snakes, and the waves made one black wet avalanche. I’d pull my hand from hers. I’d walk in reverse. Knee deep, ankle deep. All stiff inside, all my soft parts gone to bone. While I watched, Miranda Jones would dive into the next wave and swim away. She’d never look back, like she’d always known where I was headed. 

 

Now she catches my eye from across the room. We’re in last period together, Mr. Herbert’s Social Studies class, and he’s giving us our homework for next week.  He spent the whole class talking about the first moon landing. The year was 1969, which without the one is palindromic, and with the one when added together totals twenty-seven. This is also exactly how many years it’s been since Neil Armstrong bounced around up there, but I didn’t raise my hand to point this out. I got distracted by imagining how many footsteps Neil Armstrong actually took, how my own footprint might look in moon dust, how cold and dark and lonely the moon must feel staring down at us, no eyes anywhere on its gray and perfect sphere. That sort of thing.

Our assignment is to write a five-page paper on one of the NASA moon missions. Simple.  Miranda raises her eyebrows at me, and makes her will-you-help-me face. I give her a blank look, like I don’t know what she means, and shrug my shoulders.

 

After we leave class, she says, “Could you do the usual?” Which means this—will you write most of my paper, so I can add a few words and put my name at the bottom?

“Did you know,” I say to her, “that NO is just ON spelled backward?”    

 Later, I walk home from school so I can count my way all the way around the Oxoboxo and up to the silver tent. Today I mark my steps with just two letters: N-O, N-O. I can see the silver tent still glinting through the trees. I imagine Eve and Jake nestled inside it, lazy, Eve’s beaded, braided head resting on Jake’s wire of an arm. I imagine how tired they must be, how they’ve spent the whole night out on the lake in their kayak, listening, watching. I imagine they never saw the ghost. But they did hear the music. I picture them dreaming of it still, how it rose up out of the water, clear as a bell, then drifted far away, then rose up again, tinkling. I imagine Eve sighing out, “Amazing. Wasn’t it amazing?”

I reach the shore below the woods. I catch a glimpse of orange far above, behind it a sliver of the tent’s silver dome. They’re probably not nestled inside. Since it’s a cold afternoon, they’ve started a campfire.  I picture them putting their hands over the flames to warm themselves.

The kayak is up ahead, just a few feet from where they launched it yesterday.  I think of shoving it into the lake, and climbing inside. By the time I’d paddle all the way out to the little island, the sun would be sinking, its perfect circle cut in two by the horizon. Overhead, a half-moon would be inching up, its hidden dark side joined to the light just like it should be, just like always, on and around forever. Backward. Forward. Backward. Snug in the red kayak, my fingers in the lake, hoping the ghost will open its mouth and sing.