|by Robin Alexander
"I see her! Her hoodie’s caught on something."
Fear’s grip was nearly as cold as the snow and ice Deb lay upon. Her hands, though gloved, felt numb as she held on to Miranda’s ankles. The muscles in her stomach and back quivered as she lifted her head to watch the horrifying spectacle unfold. This was all her idea, all her fault.
Last year’s resolution was to lose fifty pounds, and she had. While she ran endless miles on a treadmill and stuffed her fingers down her throat after each meal she shouldn’t have eaten, she envisioned herself in a form-fitting ski suit. Something that would show off the hard-earned body but wouldn’t reveal the stretch marks. But in sunny Florida, no one wore ski suits, so the idea for a winter vacation was born. West Virginia was chosen over Colorado since none of her friends knew how to ski, and no one wanted to humiliate herself in front of thousands as she learned.
Deb supposed that maybe Miranda could share in the blame, too. After all, it was her idea for them to hike into the woods near the cabin. And it was Lonna who wanted to veer off the trail and follow the tracks made by an animal they hoped to glimpse or maybe photograph.
As Deb, the last piece in the four-woman daisy chain, pondered each decision that brought them all to this point, she watched as Lonna struggled to pull Sloan from the breach in the ice. Marty had gone for help, and it seemed like hours had passed since her departure. Deb shivered violently as she wondered how long Sloan had been under the frigid water.
"Let me go," Miranda said as she pulled her boot free of Deb’s weak grasp.
"What’re you doing?" Deb’s teeth chattered so hard she could hardly form the question and bit her tongue in doing so.
Miranda glanced over her shoulder, as she crawled gingerly over the ice. "I’m going to help Lonna. She can’t pull Sloan out on her own."
"Are you crazy? We could all go in, and who is going to save us then?" Deb cried as Miranda crawled farther away. Miranda didn’t answer, Deb belly-crawled to Angel, the next woman in line, and grabbed her ankles.
The ice groaned and creaked as Miranda and Lonna worked frantically to free their friend. Deb watched as Sloan’s dark head came into view and gasped when she looked upon the face—blue, unfamiliar in its pallor, almost inhuman. Lifeless eyes stared past her, and Deb heard the helpless cries of her friends around her. It was her fault, all her fault.
"They’re coming! Help is coming!" Marty screamed as she ran as fast as she could through the snow. Tears of relief streamed down Deb’s face as a stranger trailed behind her carrying an orange case. Sirens wailed in the distance, but as she gazed back at Sloan’s face, she thought it might be all in vain.
"She’s gay. I’d bet my next paycheck on it," Miranda said as we watched the newest trainer at Panacea Workout Center saunter across the room. "She struts like a dyke. Straight women don’t carry themselves like that. The nickname cinches it, that’s a dyke name."
"Actually, Jade sounds more like a stripper." I’d overheard someone saying she got the nickname because of her eye color, but they looked more emerald to me. "She’d make a lot more money dancing on a pole than trying to whip all of us into shape."
"I bet she’s arrogant," Miranda continued, ignoring my comment. "Everyone in here is watching her. She has to know it."
Miranda was right. Along with us, everyone in the room was openly appraising her or sneaking peeks when she thought no one was looking.
"She’s taller than half of the men in here. Miranda wiped her face with her towel, her gaze fixed. "She probably thinks she’s perfection personified."
"She is." I smiled when Miranda looked my way with a scowl. "Perfect teeth, I saw them once when she half smiled. She doesn’t do it often. Flawless skin, no cellulite, beautiful glossy long, dark hair—perfection."
Miranda turned her attention back to the new trainer as Jade demonstrated proper lunge form. "Look at those muscles. She must work her body nonstop. We’ve been coming here for almost a year, and neither of us looks like that."
"Speak for yourself." I flexed the muscles in my arms. "I’ve developed some decent guns."
"You have squirt guns in comparison to her, bragapotomus."
"I think you’re jealous." I dodged a slap and laughed.
"Of course, I am. I’m married, no lusting allowed, so the only thing I can do is bitch." Miranda shook her head. "You should’ve seen Marty the other night when we were here. She was staring so hard her feet got tangled on the treadmill. She bounced off the mirror before she even knew what was happening to her."
"Marty came with you? That’s a first."
Miranda nodded. "She wanted to have a look at the new girl in town. Some of the people she works with have been talking about her."
"I bet she’s lusting with the rest of us," I said with a grin.
"She better not be. If I can’t, she can’t, either."
I draped my towel around my neck. "Nothing wrong with a couple having a crush on someone as long as they’re honest about it and don’t take it any further than looking."
"Sloan Hawkins, sometimes you sound like a man." Miranda tossed her towel at me. "Let’s get out of here. I promised Marty pizza for dinner. I need to get home so I can negate all the hard work I’ve done tonight."
"You go ahead." I stood and stretched. "I want to run another mile tonight. I had pizza for lunch."
Miranda shook her head and tsked. "Oh, little player, you’re so out of your league with that one. Better leave it alone." She took one last look at Jade and turned to me. "You can tell me all about how she rebuffed you over breakfast in the morning."
I had no intention of making a play for Jade or anyone, but I wasn’t going to admit that to Miranda. Nor was I willing to admit that I’d not had a date in over a month. Even a hint of change in my habits had Miranda and our friends crawling all over me. I was thankful they did care after all, but since the accident, I was tired of hearing, "Are you feeling okay?" or "Don’t you need to talk about it?" Truth was, I didn’t feel okay, and I certainly didn’t want to talk about it.
I was tired of being under a microscope. From the minute I woke up in the hospital, everyone wanted to know what it was like to be dead. I had no clue. I never saw the tunnel of light or heard the voices of loved ones beyond the grave calling my name. The only recollection I had was waking up surrounded by my bug-eyed friends and feeling like I had been in a very deep sleep. And even though I didn’t have one of those experiences, I was left with the feeling—knowing that this life was just a precursor to another very real existence.
"I’m gonna pass out or puke," I heard a woman say over the whir of the treadmill. The mirror I was facing gave me a full view of the gym. I could see a woman in a lunge position. She looked up at Jade red-faced and said, "I appear to be stuck." Jade gave her a hand, and she slowly stood upright. "I think I blew out an ass cheek," she whispered loudly. I chewed the inside of my cheek, staving off a laugh as I watched the owner of the blown ass cheek limp toward the locker room.
I looked back at my own figure in the mirror and was sad to note that I wasn’t the woman I was in my twenties and early thirties. Years of late nights filled with meals and drinks were catching up, but that had come to a screeching halt. I started to jog for two reasons—the first being that I wanted to get rid of the soft fold of skin that hung just over the waistband of my pants. The second, and probably most important, I wasn’t in a hurry to return to an empty house and try to figure out something to do until I went to bed.
"You know, if you vary your workout, you might see more results," someone said a while later. I noticed that Perfection Personified was standing next to the treadmill as I did my cool-down walk. "I’ve seen you here at least three nights a week, and you always do the same workout."
"I’m a creature of habit, I guess." I switched off the machine and hopped off.
"I’m Corrine Verner, but everyone just calls me Jade." She thrust out her hand, and I stared at it awkwardly.
"I’m a…germaphobe, please don’t take it personally."
She gave me one of those half grins that I’d seen her giving everyone else in the gym and a nod. "I understand."
"I used to jog around the neighborhood where I live or on the beach. But my best friend was given a membership by her partner when she started to gain weight around her midsection. She’s the redhead. You might’ve seen her."
"I’ve been tagging along, and I guess I haven’t really been truly invested in my workouts." I shrugged as Jade looked at me as though she doubted I did more than sit on the couch.
She folded her arms. "Since you’re paying a monthly fee, don’t you think you should get what you’re paying for?"
Her stance and the way she spoke put me on the defensive. I felt like she was saying, "Get with the program or get out."
I crossed my arms, too. "Are you about to put a sales pitch on me? Maybe offer your services as a trainer?"
"Not at all. I was going to offer to write up an exercise plan for you depending on what your goals are." She shrugged. "That’s all I can offer. My client list is booked."
I was sure it was loaded with people who wanted to look like her or be with her. "How much is that going to cost me?"
Jade’s green eyes narrowed. "Nothing, it comes with the membership. No one explained that to you when you joined?"
I wanted to ask if anyone ever explained that she was supposed to be nice to the customer. Attitude was coming off of her in waves, and I felt myself wanting to match it. "They probably did, but like I said, I haven’t been invested in the workout. I’m just a tagalong to keep Miranda company."
She cocked her head to the side, uncrossed her arms, and put her hands behind her back. "Well, I hope you’ll consider my offer and tell your friend Miranda I’ll be happy to write a plan for her, too."
"I’ll consider it." I tossed my towel over my shoulder. "Nice to meet you." I turned and walked away.
"I’m here till nine each weeknight," Jade called after me.
"I know," I said over my shoulder and kept walking.
The next morning, I opened my shop, which consisted of filling the cash drawer of the register and propping a chair in front of the door. March in Florida could be a mixed bag. We’d go a week or two with spring-like temps, trees and shrubs would bud, then there’d be a frost. On this day, spring was in the air, and I let it fill my shop with its warmth and pollen.
Snowbirds kept me afloat during the off-season as they enjoyed the cold months in their beach houses. The summer brought with it a whole new clientele—those who rented the beach houses the snowbirds had vacated. This and Thatwas exactly that. My store was a cornucopia of beach décor, not the kitschy stuff sold in shell shops like ashtrays covered in seashells or T-shirts. There was really no call for that in Panacea, though the convenience stores sold a modest amount. I sold prints and wicker furniture, crab traps that had seen their last day in the sea, things you could look at and be reminded of a world that survived off the Gulf waters.
Crawfordville, Medart, Panacea, and Ochlockonee Bay were small towns meshed together on Highway 98, and if you weren’t familiar with the area, you wouldn’t know that you’d passed into one from the other. For me, it was the best of both worlds—small-town country living with a beach hidden well behind the oaks and pines. And if I wanted something more, I could drive the thirty minutes into Tallahassee.
"You’re letting a lot of dust and pollen into your shop."
I looked up from the counter where I was weaving one of the prettier shells that I’d found on the beach into a necklace and smiled at Miranda as she walked in. "No lives to save this morning?"
"Actually, I’m fresh off an abdominal pain call, my first of the morning." Miranda grimaced. "She threw up on my shoes. It’s not ten o’clock, and I’m already in my spare uniform."
I wrinkled my nose and kept my distance.
"I showered, too, you weenie."
I looked around for her. "Where’s your partner?"
Miranda grinned. "He’s sleeping off a hangover in the unit. Got into a fight with his girlfriend again and drowned his anger in a bottle of vodka. Needless to say, our patient’s stomach issues took a toll on him. In all my years as a paramedic, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that shade of green on a human." She leaned on the counter and toyed with one of the necklaces I’d already finished. "So how’d it go with Jade last night?"
I kept my focus on my project. "She offered to write up a workout plan for us. According to her, we’re not going to see results if we keep doing the same thing every time we go to the gym."
"So you made a move."
"Yep, and she’s as arrogant as you assumed." I looked up at Miranda and grinned. "You won’t be able to live vicariously through me with that one."
"Shit. Marty is going to be so disappointed. I told her you were working your magic. You’re slipping, little player. There was a time your charm was irresistible. But that one, well, she’s a tough ticket even for you."
I laughed. "Yes, the kid was shot down, but she lives to ride another day."
"You’re a complete womanizer. Don’t you ever get tired of that?"
I shook my head and continued weaving. "If I settled down, I wouldn’t be able to entertain you with my exploits."
Miranda tugged on the loose end of the necklace I was working on. "I’m serious. Don’t you ever think about having someone to share your life, your secrets with?"
I sighed and sat back on my stool behind the counter. "This is one of those conversations, isn’t it?" Everyone in our group of friends was a part of a couple. I was the exception. "Sometimes I wonder if y’all want me to settle down and be happy or if I pose a threat to your coupledom. You all see me going out and worry that maybe you or your partners might be tempted to want to enjoy the lifestyle I do."
"That was bitchy."
"You’re right, I apologize."
"You’re thirty-eight, it’s a reasonable question." Miranda didn’t look at me. Instead she scratched at a piece of clear tape stuck to the glass top of the counter with her thumbnail. "Why are you afraid to commit? What is it?"
"I have no idea," I answered truthfully. "I don’t dwell on it."
"Self-preservation. It keeps us from doing or thinking about a lot of things, doesn’t it?"
I tilted my head as I regarded Miranda. "You sound like a shrink."
She tapped the counter with her thumb and pushed back, looking at me. "Because I’ve been seeing a therapist. I started after we got back from vacation. After you…" She looked away with discomfort showing plainly on her face.
The revelation stunned me. "Why?"
Miranda folded her arms and stared at something on the wall. "I froze up out there. I…couldn’t do CPR on you…I forgot how." She took a deep shuddering breath. "When we got you out of the water and I saw your face, my mind went blank."
I felt detached like Miranda was talking about one of her patients. My only recollection was waking up in the hospital. "Well, you were in shock. That makes sense, right?"
Tears filled Miranda’s eyes as she finally looked at me. "You’re my best friend, a sister, really, and I couldn’t save you. Some stranger fresh out of Advanced First-Aid had to start what I couldn’t. All the years of training and experience trickled out of my ears, and I was useless."
"And you won’t talk about any of it," Miranda said angrily as she wiped her eyes on her sleeve. "We talk about everything. I’ve lost that connection with you."
"I don’t remember anything. I don’t—"
"But surely, it changed you, impacted you in some way." Miranda clenched her fists and stopped short of pounding them on the counter. "You were dead, no pulse. A person doesn’t come back from something like that without being affected in some way."
All the air in my lungs felt like it evaporated. I couldn’t speak. For the first time since we’d returned from West Virginia, I couldn’t ignore the pain on Miranda’s face. I couldn’t form the lie that I’d told countless times since the accident. I sat mute while Miranda stared at me, waiting.
"Good morning," a woman said as she poked her head in the door. "Everything okay in here?"
"Ah, yes." I smiled weakly. "The driver of the ambulance out front is a friend of mine and just visiting." I pointed at Miranda, who did her best to smile. "Come on in and look around. If you have any questions, just let me know." I looked back at Miranda when the customer disappeared among the rows of shelves. "We’ll talk about this later, I promise."
Miranda made another attempt at a smile. "I’ll come by tomorrow after my shift. I’ll bring breakfast."
I couldn’t sleep that night. When I closed my eyes, I could see the misery on Miranda’s face, and the guilt that followed consumed me. I knew she was struggling. I sensed it whenever we were together. She’d tried many times to talk about that day, but I’d always changed the subject, never considering that she needed to purge her soul.
We weren’t the affectionate type of friends who hugged often or draped an arm around a shoulder unless one of us was really hurting. Marty told me that before I had awakened in the hospital that Miranda had nearly crawled up in the bed and held me as she cried her eyes out. The only affection I’d seen from her since was a fist bump after I came to and got my wits back. For that, I was grateful.
Had the contact been any longer than that fleeting touch of fists, I would’ve seen and felt what she had witnessed that day. I’d caught glimpses from the others when they hugged me or touched me. Through their eyes, for the briefest moments, I saw my lifeless body lying on the ice staring back at me.