Cooling (Continued)

by Elizabeth Genco

The basement of Anna’s house was cold, dark, and nearly empty. I’d only been down here once before, a day that I helped her with one of her potions, a tincture or something, and she’d sent me down to fetch herbs from her sizable stash. To get my bearings, I shined my flashlight towards the spot where the stash had been.The jars were still all there, in their wooden cabinet,stacked carefully with the paper labels facing outward, exactly as I had remembered.

I let the stack of books that I’d held in my hands fall to the ground as I tried to hold back a sneeze. The old, mildewed books, which I’d plucked carefully from her shelves as she slept, were the best of Anna’s formidable rare collection of grimoires and alchemy texts. Some of them had taken her years to find.Some had cost hundreds of dollars. She would always do "the mailman happy dance" when he arrived with the latest. Now they were going to burn, right underneath her, and she wouldn’t know until they were nothing but a pile of ash.

I set the flashlight up in the center of the room and set about building a bed out of shredded newspaper. After dousing it all with kerosene, I stacked the books up in a cone, an optimal burning configuration I’d arrived at after a little trial and error. Symbols, elaborate drawings and snatches of what looked like Latin peeked out from the pagesas I worked. Images of a heartbroken Anna snuck in, and I chased them away. I found crumbled bricks from the corners of the basement and arranged them in a circle formation around the books to keep the fire from spreading to where I couldn’t control it.

For one panicked second I groped through my pockets in the dark, dead sure that I’d forgotten the matches. But the box was there, next to my left hip. The matches rattled comfortably as I pulled it out, like old friends all trying to speak at once. Why, then, did my hands tremble? Why did I have to strike the box three times before the match finally caught?

I felt his body behind me then, pressing into me, and his hand, cool and wet, wrapped around mine. He nuzzled his face into my left shoulder. Relief and rage flooded my stomach, both vying for dominance. Before I knew what was happening, he had taken the match. This time, it stayed lit.

He turned me around to look at him. The glow from the match reflected off his face and for the briefest of seconds I saw his slight smile, a gleam reflected in his green eye, before he closed his fingers around the flame. The light died with a sizzle, and then I could only feel him, pulling me closer, his hands slipping beneath my shirt, his cool breath in my face,his lips finding mine. Gently, he pulled me down to the dirt floor.

The smell of the kerosene and the sulfur of the match gave way to the smell of his hair and his skin, the smell of salt water. Cradling my waist with one hand, he caressed my hair with the other, grabbing huge handfuls as he kissed me. Once again, he reached into me somehow, looking for something. Only this time, he found it, somewhere deep down,coiled up in the coals at the bottom of my stomach. He drew it out where I could identify it, a feeling, a piece of me that had gotten lost, like a favorite toy in a box on a shelf that was too high to reach. Would I even recognize it as I saw it? It didn’t matter. It felt good all the same. And it felt like he wanted to find it, too, as if he knew the value of what I had lost, even if I didn’t.

As he kissed me, I thought I heard someone talking to me, sort of like whispering in my ear. It was a woman’s voice. Was it my mother? For a second I thought I heard her again, soft and warm in her old nightgown, coming in to check on me after the lights were out. The boy made no moves to speak. Maybe I had imagined it. I pressed myself further into him, letting the old fear and hurt and anger drain away,into him, into his body. He didn’t even flinch. He only held me tighter.

I forgot about Anna’s books, soggy on top of a bed of kerosene. I forgot about the box of matches, until we rolled over them and I felt them snap beneath our weight. In the dark, my eyes snapped open. I didn’t need the matches. I needed him. I needed him to stay, to take my pain from me. I clutched him tighter, drinking him in, straining to hear that voice again, the voice from before.I heard him moan softly, running his palms against my sides.

And then, my hands gave way, and for an instant, I felt nothing: no warmth, no comforting resistance of his young body. Then the water hit, a wave out of nowhere, slapping me in the face then spreading all over, leaving me drenched and cold and tangled in a pair of wet jeans.

"You. Asshole." I whispered through gritted teeth, throwing the jeans aside. I jerked up suddenly, one of the bricks from Anna’s intended bonfire poking me in the butt. The flashlight was knocked over and very far away. I groped for the light on my hands and knees.

"Damn you," I hissed. I knew he was there, somewhere within earshot. I knew that he could hear me. "You take my fire, three times. You take my fire and then you think you can just leave me here? No way. No way."

I shined the flashlight at my wrist, checking my watch. Leaving Anna’s books as they were, I crawled to the stairs. I would have to act fast, but there was still time. I would make time.

"No way," I said, and I shut the cellar door.

* * * * *

Anna’s hovel wasn’t exactly adjacent to what the tourists would call beachfront property, but it was close enough, if your idea of a beach resembled a landing strip and you didn’t mind pawing through overgrown weeds or the occasional bout of poison ivy for your trouble. The beach was never really my thing, so we’d only gone a couple of times,for a midnight swim and some of Anna’s braying at the moon. Of course, we’d always light a big bonfire. It was always quiet, and almost always empty. The last time I’d been here was the night before juvie, the night I said goodbye to Anna.

The rocks were another thing stacked against this particular stretch of waterfront. They jutted out defiantly and staked claim like speculators, leaving only the dark brown dregs of sand for sunbathing. The sun peeked over the granite tops and I walked towards it, clutching Anna’s faded composition book in one hand and the boy’s balled up jeans in the other.

Finding the ritual in Anna’s notebooks when the lights were on would have made for an honest day’s work, and she would have told you as much. Finding it in her darkened room while she slept with no knowledge of when she’d called her elemental was nothing short of a miracle. She would have told you that, too. Thing is, I can make a miracle when I really set my mind to it. The fire helps.

The ritual itself was absurdly simple. To subjugate an elemental, one must first undergo “the four trials of antique initiation,” which seemed to consist of nothing but putting yourself in harm’s way of the element in question. "He who would control the sylphs must walk fearlessly on the edge of a precipice, he who would win the service of the salamanders must take his stand in a burning building,"Anna had written in her careful handwriting,obviously copying from a book. To show ’em who’s boss, I guess. I wondered if I would have to face off with all four elementals to get the desired results. One test worked well enough for Anna. To attract her water elemental, she had come here.

I tiptoed through the rock formations, looking for the exact place marked by Anna on the map she’d drawn in her book. It was further down than she had ever taken me before; I never would have found it on my own. When I arrived, I felt her presence. The crevice was the size of a tiny room, maybe ten by ten, with the tall slats of rock acting as walls, sealing all activity from sight.Unless you were a sailboat passing by, perhaps. None of them ever came around.

The ocean trickled through my sneakers, nibbling at my heels. I looked down, unaware that I’d been walking in an inch or two of water. I knew that the tide was coming in. Hell, that was the whole idea. But I guess I didn’t expect it this fast. There was nothing to do but get started.

I turned to look out at the ocean. It loomed on the horizon like a small country, moving forward with the resolve and certainty of marching soldiers. Stepping into Anna’s cave, I flipped through her book again, skimming past all the junk about raising energy and making weird gestures into the air.

When it got right down to it, all I really had to do was wait for the tide to come in. When the water got here, I would speak to it. I’d tell it how things were going to be. I would address it as its master.

I kicked off my sneakers, tucked my skirt under me, and sat down in the wet sand. I gave Anna’s notebook to the water with a gentle push, but the incoming tide pushed it back. Hugging the boy’s jeans to my chest, I faced the sea.

I thought of Anna. I heard the choked, stunned cry she would make at the sight of her empty bookshelf. I saw her running downstairs to a stack of her beloved books covered in kerosene. The sea’s creep brought the weight of what I’d done with it. Anna was a good friend, the only real friend I had.The sharp words in the kitchen were the closest we’d ever come to an argument.

The physical exertion of carrying books, coupled with the pathetic tryst in the cellar and the search for the notebook was starting to catch up with me. It dawned on me that I’d been awake all night. When my head drooped and my eyes started to close, I didn’t fight them. My lids closed on the sight of the water waving at me and the feel of it creeping around my knees.

I saw my mother then, her face a memory on a dusty piece of canvas, rolled up and hidden in a drawer. It had been a day at the beach for all three of us. Her voice rolled on top of the tiny waves as she led me by the hand to the edge of the water. "Mommy will teach you to swim. Ok, Glory? That way you’ll never be afraid of the water." I remembered her face pressed against the sun,alive and laughing. My father lifted his head from his book and waved at us from under his beach umbrella. I felt my mother’s arms around me, holding me safely as I took the first strokes with my hands. "”Good girl!" she said.

The waves got higher and higher, looming over us like a monster. I screamed as they hit, then felt my mother lose her grip. Flailing desperately to stay afloat, I gasped and hacked, my nose and mouth filling up with water. My mother’s head sunk beneath the frothing surface.

My hands found the sand beneath me and I pushed myself up, still half caught in the horrid dream. The boy’s jeans had floated away. The water was above my waist now, and its advance showed no signs of stopping. Good. It was time.

"Hey!" I cried, digging my feet into the sand. "Hey you! Over here, asshole! Over here!"

The water crept on, picking up speed. The rage in my stomach picked up steam. I scanned the horizon, looking for his blond head, but it was nowhere to be found. The water climbed up to my chest.

"YOU! I know you’re out there. LISTEN to me." I tried not to sound as desperate as I felt. I needed to sound strong.

"LISTEN. I’m here now. And I am not afraid of you."

I paused to give the water a chance to respond. "I am NOT afraid of YOU."

I meant what I said. I meant it. I was not afraid. I yelled, again and again. I yelled, until the water threatened to fill my mouth if I opened it once more. My toes sank into the sand as I tried to stand on them.

Over the horizon, I saw a patch of blond hair. It hovered on the water’s surface like a piece of driftwood, so far out to sea. I saw my own hair all around me, floating and swirling in the water. Then I saw nothing.

* * * * *

When I woke, my head swam with that sort of disorientation that comes when your body drags itself from sleep only because it really needs something. In my case, it was a sweater. The morning breeze danced along the length of my body,leaving a track of raised hairs on my bare skin. I fought like hell to keep my chattering teeth still.

As the shudders shook off what remained of sleep, two important realizations sunk in. One, my clothes were drenched and sticking to me. Two, someone or something had left me on Anna’s front porch.

I struggled to stitch the events together. Anna and I had had an argument. I had almost started another fire. The boy’s lips were generous and responsive, but he had bailed on me with a splash. There was something about a notebook. And I had walked into a cave to wait for the sea to come for me.

I had called the boy, and he had come. I’d sunk like a stone when the water got too high. The boy’s strong arms had wrapped around me as I’d lost consciousness. He must have pulled me to shore, then carried me here.

Then he went all water again, returning to his true form. I was pretty sure of that last part.

And here I was. I was shuddering and cold, but I was okay. I’d given myself over to the water, and I was okay. I’d stood my ground, only to discover that I’d had no ground to stand on. This was okay, too.

I was cold, but thanks to that boy who was water, I was alive.

I dragged myself to the door and raised my fist. Before I could strike, Anna opened it.

"I was just thinking about you," she said, with a tiny smile.