Read Florida Online

Authors: Lauren Groff

Florida (5 page)

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Yuck, the older sister said, and threw the magazine, but the younger sister made the noises the mother made when she was in her bedroom with her boyfriends. Then she started crying. At first, she only shook her head when her sister asked her why. Finally she said, I miss the dog.

Nobody could miss that dog, the older sister thought.

How could Melanie leave him? the little sister said.

Then the older sister thought, Oh.

Let's go on a dog hunt, she said.

They took the steak knife, binoculars, an old whiskey
bottle with the last of their boiled water, and a giant panama hat they'd found in a closet, which the older sister wore because she burned to blisters all the time. They took the rest of the crackers and sprayed themselves with the last of Melanie's Skin So Soft bug spray.

The little sister was happy again. It was early afternoon. There was no wind, and the heat of the clearing cooled when they went into the forest. They sang the dog's name, walking. The older sister nervously scanned the branches for monkeys.

The pond held a great gray heron, unmoving, like a sculpture. There were cypress knees, like stalagmites, in the shallows.

On the far side of the pond, there was a small wooden rowboat turned upside down. It was a flaking blue. The older sister kicked it, wondering how to drag it through the forest toward the cove and the dock. Then she wondered how she would make sure, once they'd launched it, that they floated toward land and not into the deep-blue sea. Maybe it was best just to wait for the lady Melanie was supposed to send.

When she looked up, her little sister had vanished. Her heart dropped out of her body. She called her sister's name, then screamed it over and over.

She heard a laugh from below, and her sister slid out from under a lip of rock that made a shallow invisible cave. That was so mean, the older sister yelled, and the little sister shrugged and said, Sorry, though she wasn't.

There could've been snakes there, the older sister said.

But there weren't, the little one said.

They walked all the way across the island and found a yellow sand beach on the other side. Their dresses were soaked with sweat when they got back to the pond and filled the whiskey bottle up with green water.

Back in the fishing camp, the dog was waiting on the steps. The girls poured out unboiled water for him, and the dog lapped it up, watching them with his angry black-button eyes. Even though the little sister sang softly to him in her voice that their mother always said would knock the angels out of heaven, the dog wouldn't come near, and backed into the forest again.

—

The girls' clothes were so dirty that they put on Smokey Joe's last two clean T-shirts. They swept the path behind the girls like ball gowns when they ran, flashes of red and blue through the green-gold forest.

The little sister carried her bucket all the way back from the pond without complaining.

They caught three crabs under the dock with their hands and boiled them, and the flesh tasted like butter, and the water they boiled the crabs in they drank like soup, and afterward they felt full for a little while.

Then the rest of the food was gone. The bananas on the tree, Smokey Joe had said, were not ripe yet and
would make them sick if they tried to eat them. The older sister had heard of people eating bugs and there were plenty of cockroaches everywhere, but the thought of the crunch under her teeth made her feel ill.

They ate cherry ChapStick. They opened an unlabeled can they found in the back of the cabinet, mandarin oranges. They ate strange red berries from the bushes, though the mother had always said never to do that.

I'm hungry, the little sister said.

Once upon a time, the big sister said, there was a boy and a girl whose family had no food at all. You could see their ribs. The mother had a boyfriend who didn't like the kids. One day, the boyfriend told the mother that they had to get rid of the kids and that he was going to take them for a hike and leave them way out in the woods. The girl had heard the adults talking that night, and in the morning, she filled her pockets with cereal.

They weren't starving if they had cereal, the little sister said.

The girl filled her pockets with blue pebbles from the fish tank. And when the boyfriend led them out into the woods she dropped the pebbles one by one by the side of the path so that when he vanished they could find their way back. The boy and the girl followed the stones home, and the mother was so happy to see them. But the boyfriend grew angry. The next day, he took them out again, but he'd sewn up their pockets so they couldn't leave a
trail. He left them, and they wandered and wandered and found a cave to hide in for the night. The next morning they smelled woodsmoke and followed it to find a little cabin out in the woods, made of cookies and candy. So they ran over and started taking bites out of the house because they hadn't eaten in a long time. A lady came out. She was nice to them, and she kept giving them cake and mini pizzas.

And milk, the younger sister said. And apples.

There was a television. The lady didn't even make them sit down to eat their food; they just lay there and watched cartoons and ate all day long. The boy and the girl got really fat. And when they were superfat, the lady tied them up and tried to shove them into the oven like turkeys. But the girl was smart. She said, Oh, let me give you one last kiss! And the lady leaned her head forward, and the girl took a bite out of her throat. Because she'd become a champion eater at the lady's house, she ate the lady all the way down until there was nothing left, not even blood. And the boy and the girl stayed all winter eating the cookie house, and when spring came, they'd turned into adults. Then they went to find the boyfriend.

Why? the little sister said.

To eat him, the older sister said.

People eat people? the little sister said.

Sometimes you just have to, the big sister said.

No, the little sister said.

Fine. The lady was made of whipped cream, then, the
older sister said. They never found the boyfriend. But they would have eaten him if they had.

—

The older sister's head was gentle with clouds. The sand of the bay smelled like almonds to her. She was sitting alone by the charcoal grill, waiting for the water to boil. Her sister was inside, singing herself to sleep. She was happy, the older sister realized. Overhead was the thinning moon. Across the water came the squeak and rattle of some big birds with blood-red throats that were passing on their way to somewhere colder, somewhere larger, somewhere better than here.

—

There's a man, the little sister said from the screen door.

There's no man, the older sister said dreamily.

He's in a boat. On the dock, the little sister said, and now the big sister could hear the purr of the motor. She stood up so fast that her head lost blood and she fell and then got to her knees and stood again.

Go, she whispered, and dragged her sister through the door, down the steps, into the woods.

They crouched in the ferns, and the ferns covered them. They were naked, and the ground beneath their bare feet could have been full of snakes, lizards, spiders.

The man's boots pounded down the dock. He came into view. He was stocky, with jeans and a sweaty T-shirt,
a thick gold chain around his neck. The older sister knew—something whispered silently to her—that he was, in fact, a bad man.

Be quiet, the whisper said. Get away.

He went into the girls' cabin and there were crashing noises; he went into Melanie and Smokey Joe's cabin and again there were crashing noises. When he came out, he kicked over the grill, and the older girl put her hand over her sister's mouth to keep her from crying out. He turned around slowly, looking into the woods.

Come on out, he shouted. He had an accent. I know you're here.

He waited and said, We got your mama with us. Don't you want to see your mama? We'll make you a big old feast, and you can sit in her lap and eat it all up. Bet you're hungry.

The older sister struggled to keep the little one from standing. The man must have heard, because his head swiveled in their direction.

Run, the older girl said, and they ran through the woods, the palmettos lashing at their ankles and making them bleed. They found the path, they found the pond.

The older girl slid into the cave near the boat, then her little sister came in, and she held her tightly.

Soon they heard the man's footsteps crashing and his breath wheezing in and out, hard. Girls, he said, I saw you. I know you're around here.

His boots came into view, so close. He moved toward
the boat and kicked it once, twice, then the girls saw the rotten wood break apart, and a hundred frightened bugs ran out.

Fine, he said. Ain't going to chase you all day. Starve to death if you like.

The girls were silent, shaking, until they heard his footsteps fading. After too long, they heard the boat start up, then the motor thinned and he was gone. Still, they waited.

There was a rustling at their feet, and the little dog slunk out of the cave, where he must have been hiding all this time, inches away. The girls watched him gather the pink leash in his mouth and trot himself off.

—

Where's the lady? the little sister said. She's taking a long time.

What lady? the older sister said.

The one to save us, the little sister said. That Melanie's sending.

The older sister had forgotten there was supposed to be a lady. The girls were deep in their nest. They'd taken all the pillows and sheets in the camp, and piled them in the middle of the living room of their cabin, where a breeze passed over their sweaty bodies on its way from the screen door out the window. It was late in the morning, but the girls' bones didn't want to get up. Lie still, the bones said. Their hearts made music in their ears.

The older sister could almost see the lady now, coming down the dock. She'd wear a blue dress with a skirt so huge they could hide beneath it; she'd have their mother's yellow hair that was dark at the roots. She'd smile down at them. Girls, she'd whisper. Come home with me.

They hadn't eaten in three days. Somewhere not too far away, the white dog had howled all night until his howls sounded like wind. The older sister had dreamed of the courtyard of their Fort Lauderdale apartment, of the fountain's turquoise water and the red-dyed cedar mulch and the tree heavy with sweet oranges that almost peeled themselves in your fingers, the golden sun pouring down over everything, all of it shimmering but untouchable, as if behind glass.

—

Night came, day came, night came.

The dog had gone silent. The little sister's ribs were sharp beneath her skin. Her eyes were hot, the way their mother's were hot when she came home from work, wanting to dance, smoke, sing.

The older sister's body was made of air. She was a balloon, skidding over the ground. The light on the waves in the bay made her cry, but not with sadness. It was so beautiful, it wanted to speak to her; it was about to say something if she only watched hard enough.

The zip of a mosquito near her ear was a needling
beauty. She let the mosquito land on her skin, and slowly it pulsed and pumped and she felt her blood rising up into the small creature.

It was all so much. Through the years to come, she'd remember these days of calm. She'd hold these beautiful soft days in her as the years slowly moved from terrible to bearable to better, and she would feel herself growing, sharpening. She'd learn the language of men and use it against them: she'd become a lawyer. Her little sister, so lovely, so fragile, only ever wanted to be held. For a long time, the older sister was the one who did this for her. She was the shell. But then the little sister met a man who first gave her love, then withdrew it until she believed the things he believed. He made her give up her last name, which the older sister had fought their whole childhood to keep, though their third foster parents had wanted to adopt them, because it was the only thing they had of their mother. And then one day the older sister stood in the pews and watched her baby sister get married to this man. She wore a white dress with a skirt so giant she could barely walk, and bound herself to that man. The older sister watched and started to shake. She cried. An ugly wish spread in her like ink in water: that she and her sister had stayed on the island all those years ago; that they'd slowly vanished into their hunger until they turned into sunlight and dust.

Once upon a time, the older sister croaked, and the little sister whispered, No. Shush, please.

Once upon a time, the older sister said, there were two little girls made out of air. They were so beautiful that everyone who saw them wanted to scoop them up and put them into their pockets. One day, the god of wind saw them and loved them so much that he lifted them up and took them with him to the clouds to be his daughters. And they lived there forever with their father, and it was full of rainbows and people singing and good things to eat and soft beds made of feathers.

The end, the little sister said.

—

The younger sister dozed in the cabin. The older one let her body float above the path to the pond and back with water. There was no more charcoal, so they had to boil it over sticks she'd collected on the way back.

Twenty feet from the cabins, she heard the slightest of sounds. She peered into the palmettos and saw a glint of metal. She walked through the prickles and not one reached out to scratch her.

It was the dog. He had spun his leash so tightly around a scrub oak that his tongue was extended and his eyes bulged. He was no longer white fluff but knots of yellow and brown string.

The girl took the steak knife from her belt and knelt and sawed and sawed. She had to take breaks, because she kept getting dizzy. At last the leash broke and the dog
stood and stumbled off into the underbrush again. There he would live forever, the girl knew. He would stay in that forest, running and howling and eating birds and fish and lizards. That dog was too mean to ever die.

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