“Katie Marie Doran, you're filthy!” Katie’s mother exclaimed from the behind the counter, which she stood polishing inside the Doran family’s cafe. “What on earth have you been doing?”
Katie paused in the doorway of the deserted café and stared at her reflection in the mirror behind the counter. The café was so close to the family’s house that Katie had been able to walk there in only a few minutes. Yet her short journey through the sweltering heat of the southern summer noonday had taken its toll on her. A sandy brown tint from the dust of the dry land coated her fair flesh, making her bright aquamarine eyes look as out of place as swimming pools in a desert. The dirt was pasted to her skin by her own drenching sweat, as were her shorts, T-shirt, and the bangs of her caramel-colored hair. Even her ponytail seemed to droop sadly from the humidity.
“Chill, Mom,” Katie said, realizing herself how funny the expression sounded in this heat. She climbed onto a stool at the bar. “I just walked up here, that's all.”
“Well, you look like you've been wallowing in the mud with the pigs,” Mrs. Doran laughed. Then she added seriously, “Why don't you go home and take a shower?”
“No way! It's too hot right now!” Katie’s face brightened. “Can I go swimming?”
Her mother raised an eyebrow. “No one ‘round here has a swimming pool. Where you plan on going?”
“Swan Lake?” Katie asked hopefully.
“Forget it, Katie. You know your daddy and I don’t want you swimming in Swan Lake.”
“Why not?” Katie groaned. “It's so hot! And I'm bored to death! C’mon, just this once?”
“It's dangerous for a little girl to go swimming all by herself. Besides, that old lake's so murky looking. You don't know what could be in it.”
“I’m not a ‘little girl’ anymore, and I know how to take care of myself. I'll be real careful. Please!”
“I said ‘no,’ Katie, and that's final!” Mrs. Doran bent down and began removing napkins and glasses from behind the counter. “Now, find something to do. It's almost lunchtime, and customers will start piling in any second. Why don't you go outside and play?”
Katie rolled her eyes. “I’m thirteen years old, Mother. I don’t play. I hang out.”
Her mother flicked her wrist in an exaggerated fashion and said, “Oh well, excuse me, Miss Priss. Then go outside and hang out.”
Katie peeped through the blinds covering the cafe’s wide windows at the noonday sun, streaming brightly down on the dusty road. She dreaded going back outside. “But it’s like a desert out there, and there's nobody to hang out with!”
When Katie said “nobody,” she really wasn’t kidding. Her hometown of Littleville was as small as its name, so small that Katie was the only kid who lived there. The closest school was in Briarwood, a town thirty miles away. So whenever school was out, she didn’t see much of her friends. Summers stunk out loud, not only because they were unbearably hot, but also because they were dull and lonely.
Katie continued, “I’d rather die than go back out in that oven if I can’t go for a swim to cool off. Can’t I just stay in here and help you and Daddy?”
“No, thank you, dear. It'll be slow after lunch, as usual. Now here, Katie.” Mrs. Doran handed Katie a brown paper and a thermos. “I made a lunch for you. There’s fresh lemonade in the thermos. Why don't you go outside and have yourself a little picnic under one of the shade trees? When you’re finished, maybe you can read a book or something. Run along.”
Reluctantly, Katie slid off the stool. Grabbing her lunch, she walked out the door and paused for a moment on the café’s porch. She’d already read every book and magazine that they had at home. Twice. Maybe she could bike to the library in Briarwood. One look at the thermometer outside the café door changed her mind: It read 104 degrees. She'd probably die of a heat stroke before she even got out of town.
Katie stepped off the porch, squinting in the bright sunlight. She strolled across the dirt road and headed for Swan Lake. Okay, okay, so her parents had forbidden her to swim in Swan Lake. But they had never said anything about sitting next to it. Besides, Swan Lake was at the edge of the forest, meaning it was surrounded by the biggest shade trees in town. Why couldn’t she just go sit on the bank and relax? Maybe even take her shoes off and dangle her feet in the water? Nothing wrong with that at all, she told herself, just as long as I don’t go swimming, right?
* * *
Cool, liquid ripples lapped against Katie’s body and soaked her skin as she glided with smooth, even strokes across the dark waters of Swan Lake. She wore a black swimsuit, which didn’t make much sense because she had never owned a black swimsuit in all the thirteen years of her life.
Katie swam faster and more naturally than she’d ever swam before, like she was flying. Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through her leg—she couldn’t move it! Panicked, she thrashed about and screamed as she began to sink. The water covered her head and flooded her lungs. It wasn’t her time to go! She knew it wasn’t! Yet, she was going to die…
“NO!” Katie shot upright. She found herself beneath a tree alongside Swan Lake. She had on the same shorts and tee-shirt she’d put on that morning, and her flip-flops and empty lunch bag sat next to her. The fiery setting sun had all but disappeared behind the clouds, telling her she’d fallen asleep hours ago, just after eating lunch. Though it was much cooler now than it was earlier, Katie was covered with more sweat than she had been all day. Whoa, she thought to herself, what a nightmare!
Shakily, Katie walked over to the bank and looked down at the dark water. The wind had died away, and the surface of the lifeless lake was eerily still. As Katie gazed out over the quiet water, she laughed. She had always wondered why they called it “Swan Lake.” After all, there were no swans around the lake that she knew of. In fact, she had never even seen a duck, or any birds of any kind there. Some adult had once told her that “Swan Lake” was the title of a classical instrumental score; maybe a fan of that piece had named the lake after it.
Katie decided she would rinse her hands and face, then put on her shoes and go home. Bending down on her knees, Katie cupped her hands and reached into the lake. She splashed water on her nose, eyes, and cheeks. How good it felt! Sighing contentedly, she dipped her cupped hands into the water again.
A ripple suddenly broke the water’s stillness, and a loud splash echoed across the lake. A hand shot to the surface, grabbed Katie’s wrist, and jerked her toward the water. She screamed and jerked backward. Still screaming, she dug her heels into the ground as she tried to pull away.
There was another splash, much bigger and louder than the first. From underneath the water, the hand’s owner burst forth.
Shocked, Katie stopped screaming and struggling. She gaped at her captor. He was just a boy! He appeared to be about her age. He had golden hair with wet bangs that were plastered to his forehead in a crooked part, revealing a set of emerald green eyes that rested on her intently. His body, bronzed from the summer sun, was completely bare, except for a pair of black swim trunks that clung to his wet skin.
“Sorry,” he apologized. “I was just trying to get your attention, and I sure didn’t mean to scare the crap out of you!”
Katie regained her composure and jerked her hand away. Her sea-tinted eyes flared. “Well, you did, and I didn’t like it!” she shot back. “Couldn’t you have just said ‘hi’ or waved or something?”
“Sorry,” he apologized again. “I was afraid you wouldn’t see me.”
“I’m not blind, you know. Why wouldn’t I see you?”
“You’d be surprised how many people do not.”
“Well, you got in the water without me noticing, that’s for sure. I must have been sound asleep not to have heard you.” When he only smiled in response, she asked, “Why didn’t you say anything to me then?”
“Uh….” The smile vanished, and for a second, he seemed taken aback by the question. “Oh...um...you looked like you were sleeping so good, I didn’t want to bother you, that’s all. What’s your name?”
He folded his arms on the edge of the bank and rested his chin on them. Tilting his head slightly, he gave her a sidelong glance and grinned, “Got a last name, Katie?”
“Doran? Hhhmmm. Let’s see, Doran, Doran, Doran…” He creased his brow and tapped his finger against his chin in thought. “Well, I thought I knew just about everybody in Littleville. But I didn’t know any Dorans lived around here.”
“Forget about Dorans!” Katie stared at him with wide eyes. “I didn’t know any kids lived around here! I thought I was the only one!”
He smiled again and extended his hand. She took it, and he shook it vigorously. “Brandon Swan. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Katie Doran.”
He talked so much like an adult that Katie had to suppress a giggle. She couldn’t, however, resist a playful echo of his words. “And it’s a pleasure to meet you, Brandon Swan. Wait a minute! Swan!” Katie cried out the last name in realization. “Is this lake named after somebody in your family?”
“Yeah,” Brandon smiled.
“Awesome!” Katie sat on the edge of the bank and scooted closer to the water’s edge. “Who and why?”
“My parents lived in Littleville for awhile,” Brandon shrugged. “I guess you could say that they were kind of prominent people in town.”
“Really? What did they do?”
“They were farmers.”
“Prominent farmers? I didn’t know farmers could be prominent.” Katie frowned in wonder. But before she could think about that anymore, another question popped into her mind. “You said lived. Don’t y’all live here now?”
“Nope. They, I mean we, left years ago. We lived here awhile, though.”
“Oh, I guess I’m still the only kid around in Littleville, then,” she concluded, disappointed.
“Well, if you’re swimming in this lake, you must still be nearby. Where do you live now?”
“Not far.” He shifted his eyes, and then asked quickly, “Come swimming with me.”
“I can’t,” Katie sighed. “My parents won’t let me.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “They’ve just always said I can’t, but they’ve never really told me why. I guess they’re afraid I’ll get bitten by a snake or drown or something.”
“That’s crazy,” Brandon scoffed. “There are no snakes in here, and believe me, I know because I swim here all the time. And I can understand them worrying that you might drown. But that’s more of a risk if you’re swimming alone, and you won’t be swimming alone today. I’ll be here with you, and I’m a championship swimmer,” he boasted. “So you’ll be safe with me.”
“Championship swimmer! Says who?” Katie grinned.
“Says my swim team coach who gave me a trophy that says ‘championship swimmer,’ that’s who!”
“Bull! There’s no swim team around here!”
Brandon rolled his eyes playfully. “Miss Doran, are you going to spend the rest of the evening asking for references, or are you going to come swimming with me?”
She laughed at his natural formalness, which she found even funnier than his jokes. He spoke so correctly and acted so mature. He seemed years beyond the boys at school, who slipped dead bugs into her book bag and lunch box, pulled her hair, and popped her bra. In a weird way, Katie thought that was kind of cool. It made her want to hang out with Brandon more, be his friend. If only her parents didn’t have that stupid rule about not swimming in Swan Lake!
“I told you, my parents won’t let me. If I come home wet, they’ll know I’ve gone swimming in this lake and ground me until I’m eighteen!”
“So, just tell them you fell in.”
“That would be a lie.”
A mischievous grin spread across Brandon’s face. “Oh, yeah?” He grabbed Katie’s arm again and pulled her forward, into the lake beside him. She sank underwater briefly, then resurfaced. She squealed and hit him playfully.
“Now it’s the truth,” Brandon said.
“Is not. I didn’t fall in…I was pulled in!”
“Picky, picky, picky.” He rolled his eyes, splashed her, and swam towards the center of the lake. She swam after him and splashed him back. They were soon engaged in an all-out water war.
After Katie swallowed what felt like gallons of water and realized that her endurance was no match for Brandon’s, she cried, “Truce!” and then added, “I gotta catch my breath.”
She paddled back toward the bank. When she felt her feet touch the bottom, she stopped and stood there, gasping.
Brandon, still in the center of the lake, called, “You okay?”
Katie nodded. “Yeah. I just need to rest a sec, that’s all.”
Smiling, Brandon swam toward her. He crossed the surface of the water with rapid ease. Though their water fight had been so vigorous that it left Katie exhausted, Brandon wasn’t even out of breath. In fact, the game seemed to have had no physical effect on him at all.
He came to a stop alongside her and playfully tugged her ponytail. “Tell me about yourself, Katie Doran.”
Katie shrugged. “Nothing to tell, really. I’m just your average, run-of-the-mill, small town girl.”
Brandon propped his elbow on the bank and rested his chin in one cupped hand while he continued to play with her hair with the other, his eyes half-closed. His lips spread in a strange smile, like he knew something that she didn’t. “Oh, no you’re not. You’re different, Katie. Different and special.”
That sounded weird. Katie shivered. “What do you mean, Brandon? You don’t even know me. How can you say something like that?”
“Well, for one thing,” Brandon explained, “you’re more observant than most people.”
“Yeah. After all,” he said, pointing to himself, “you saw me.”
“You’re not invisible, you know. And besides, how could I not? You grabbed me and scared the living daylights out of me!” Katie exclaimed. “What’s so special about that?”
He stared at her, his expression completely serious. “No matter what, people only see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear.”
Katie shivered again and frowned. “What are you talking about, Brandon? You sound like a . . . like a . . . grownup!”
“Sometimes, things happen to kids, kids like me,” he said softly, “that make them grow up before their time.”
“Huh?” Okay, now Katie was even more freaked out. “What do you mean? Did something bad happen to you?”
Brandon’s serious expression immediately vanished, and his playful smile returned. “Nah! I’m just messing with your head. Let’s play Marco Polo!”
Before Katie had a chance to respond, Brandon turned his back to her. “I’m closing my eyes and counting to ten. You’d better get going while you still can.”
Marco Polo? That game was pretty darn pointless with only two people! Oh, well, if he wanted to play, she guessed it wouldn’t hurt. She swam a few strokes until she had put some distance between them.
He turned around, his eyes shut, and called, “Marco!”
“Polo!” Katie called back.
The game was even more pointless than she had expected. Just like during their water fight, Brandon’s strong swimming skills made him a much more formidable opponent. Even with his eyes closed, his poise and speed, along with his noticeably acute sense of hearing, gave him the upper hand. He caught her in less than two minutes. The rest of the time, she was “it,” because every time she got close to Brandon, he escaped with ease. And throughout the entire game, Brandon never even became winded. It wasn’t long before they were both bored.
“You’re tired,” said Brandon. “Want me to give you a piggyback ride?”
“Won’t I be too heavy?”
“Nah! Like I keep telling you, I’m a strong swimmer!”
“Yeah, I can see that,” she laughed.
He crouched down, and she climbed onto his back. Even with her added weight, he swam around the lake with the same breathless ease he’d displayed before. Didn’t he ever run out of energy?
“Well, I’m impressed, Brandon,” Katie had to admit as they glided through the water. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that whole swim team story you told me is true .”
“It is,” Brandon insisted. “I was named champion of my junior high swim team in seventh grade.”
“Cool. What school?”
“Briarwood,” Brandon answered. “There’s no other high school around for miles.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Something wasn’t right. Briarwood didn’t have a swim team.