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  • Short fiction: The Girl That Summer


Short fiction: The Girl That Summer

Exberliner and The Reader proudly present the final runner-up in our Berlin Short Fiction Award contest – Susan James' "The Girl That Summer". Read the winner in our July/Aug issue.

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Photo by John Hughes (CC BY 2.0)

If my childhood was a summer, then it was the summer of 1996.  I was 12 and Adam was older. And if memory is a river, then I remember the cold silver fish on the backs of our fingers. I remember rock beds in our pockets and how we made ships from shiny gum papers to sink in the stream.

We rode our bikes over tree roots and cement cracks using the soles of our shoes to slow our speed.  We pinched our brakes, closed our eyes, howling down dirt tracks. I was used to the city, to the perils of precincts and parks. My world ended where my mother’s voice couldn’t carry, but in the summer of 1996, I was free. With Adam, the space between one day and the next was not hours, but weeks. Entire afternoons held to the horizon and stayed there, fixed.

For two months in the summer of 1996, I lived with my aunt. Childless, that’s what my Grandmother said on the doorstep that first morning. My aunt wasn’t a coddler, and I liked that. There was something about the summer that pacified her fear of strangers and trouble. Curfews could always be negotiated or extended, and Adam held back the darkness as easily as others hold open a door. Years later when my mother found out, she threw a fit.

In the evenings, we’d sit in the long grass along the perimeter fence of the airport. Planes, with their wheels down flew right over us. I’d call out the registration numbers, and Adam would write them in his notebook. We made up stories about where they’d been, where they’d go next and who was on them.  If I fell asleep, and I often did, then I’d wake up with daisies chained to my hair and the ghost of his hand on my cheek. We’d wait until the planes stopped coming and when the light from our torches could no longer pick out his pencil scratch.

I didn’t know whether to come to the funeral. Adam’s mother is at the front with his uncle and one of his sisters. The rest of the benches in the crematorium are empty. The funeral director offers me a small paper booklet of Adam’s life, I decline it. The pile in the man’s hands small but still unwarranted. There’s a large window at the front of the crematorium, behind the coffin with fields and trees and in the distance, sheep. Adam would have liked it here. He was the one who found the field furthest from the runway; the one where the planes started as small dots and where we could make a game of spotting them. I can’t count how many nights we spent like that: slapping at tumbling flies, slapping each other, running deeper into the grass. We’d wait until the purple press of sunset would spread into dusk then darkness and then race back to my aunt’s porch.

He kissed me once. I didn’t like it. I told him, and he didn’t do it again. That night he made an arrow head from a branch, whittling it for hours on the cold belly of a sharp rock. He tied it to a crude strap, a cord really, and drew it around my neck. I remember the press of his hands on my shoulders and the whisper of his breath through my ponytail. I realised years later that it could have been a perfect anecdote to the question: who was your first love? Only it isn’t. It isn’t perfect at all, and I wonder what if I’d been wearing a cotton dress with primrose buttons rather than boy’s jeans.

The service is short. The air conditioning in the crematorium, relentless. The vicar knows who Adam is but delivers him without judgement. There’s no exit music, and I miss my cue to leave. His mother comes over, presses my hand and pulls me into an embrace. She holds me for too long.

“Anna, thank you for coming.”

I tell her that she’s welcome and how sorry I am for her loss. The Uncle walks out, and we pretend not to know that he’s leaving. The sister stares at her shoes.

“I remember when you were little. It seems like only yesterday that you and Adam were playing.”

I feel sick.

“I had to come.”

“Still, it’s very kind of you. I can’t even imagine why you’d even –”

“It’s fine, really.”

“Do you have children?”

“Girls, six and nine.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, walking away, “I’m sorry.”

The vicar collects his notes from the lectern. He looks up, smiles and gives a small wave.

“Funerals are more for the living than the dead,” he calls, “and I’m sure it means a lot to the family that you came.”

“I knew him when I was a young girl.”

“Ah, yes.”

I didn’t go back to my aunt’s the next summer, but I remember begging my mother so hard that she almost relented. We compromised with the promise of next year but by then Adam would be almost 20. I spent the summer of 1997 camping in France, and I never saw Adam again. Although, we exchanged letters until well into the autumn of 1996. I sent Christmas cards, postcards, confused love notes, song lyrics, and I know he got them because my aunt posted them through his door. After October, he never replied, not once. It wasn’t strange to either my aunt or my mother that Adam had been 17 that summer, but they used it afterwards to explain why he’d stopped writing. He was older; he’d have other friends now, friends his own age. Only he didn’t.

There were other friendships both as short and as intense as ours had been, and if I thought of him (and I suppose I must have), then it was rarely and only when the freckles bloomed on the backs of my hands or when my knees wore the paint of the pavement. Summer nights at home were shorter, darker. I’d swapped those endless evening skies for the ceilings of function rooms and sport’s halls. I played between the fences of friendly gardens or within shouting distance of our front door.

Nana was first, but I didn’t hear about her until much later. She was 10 years old, a visitor from another town last seen in high socks and a cotton dress with primrose buttons. Her mother wasn’t well, and Nana was staying with her Grandmother, but they didn’t get along. I think that’s how she met Adam: one evening when she was by herself. I don’t remember hearing about Nana from my aunt, from my mother or from anyone. I didn’t hear about her from Adam.

Dana’s was the name I heard about first. A girl, 13 years old, with straight copper hair braided down her back. She’d made friends with Adam, and he’d taken her out to the airport and into the long grasses like Nana and me. They’d lay together, too, watching the planes circling, flying onto the runway, taxiing to the small glass terminal. She helped Adam write the registration numbers in his notebook, and at night they’d follow the stream through the woods to home, and Dana’s mother was grateful because she worked, and Adam was cheaper than a babysitter. Dana didn’t leave with the warm weather, and when the nights were quicker to settle when it rained and snowed and it became too cold to stand for long at the airport, she stayed. It was the second summer he’d hesitated.

In the summer of 1998, he made Dana an arrow head whittling it from the wood one evening as they lay watching the last planes overhead. He put it on a cord, placed it around her neck and choked her. I wonder if she saw the planes above her as she lay dying in the long grass. Adam told Dana’s mother that Dana had run away.                                                              

The crematorium car park is empty, and I light a cigarette as the vicar locks the doors and leaves. I walk half-circles over the painted white lines of the empty spaces, and I think of Adam’s arms pulling me up and over the airport fence. I think of the slant of his handwriting across the margins of his notebook, and I remember the weight of his hands on my shoulders after he’d fixed the necklace around my throat.

I didn’t know Nana or Dana. Our connection was a boy, now a man, dead. I wonder what made us different or what it was that made me different to them. What was it about Anna Sawyer aged 12 in 1996? The girl sitting in the long grass with a cord around her neck. What did you do differently to stop this boy from pulling it tight, from choking you to death? I remember years later, my mother saying that it was just that I would have been missed. Selfishly, stupidly, I didn’t want it to be true.

The skies above me are bright and cloudless but for airplane trails stretched like ladders. It’s another summer night, and I rub my cigarette out against the curb just to light another. I’m not ready to go home, not yet.

If my childhood was a summer, then it was the summer of 1996.  I was 12, and Adam was 17. And for everything I’ve ever done in my life since, and for everything in my life yet to do, I’m scared that the greatest thing I can ever be is his hesitation.

I was the girl in the middle. I was the girl that summer. I am the girl who lived.

Susan James is a blogger from the UK. Despite having written stories for some time now, she’s only recently found the confidence to submit them.  When not writing, you’ll probably find her planning a foreign jaunt. Her wanderlust is insatiable.