It was the summer Billy Bleacher claimed to have swallowed a toad. At the lake, I dove off the dock and dared myself to touch bottom, but never did. The corn came early and grew high. And I was eight watching flies angrily bump their thick bodies against my window screen. Filled with hope because it was summer, but also a strange kind of dread I could only locate scuttling across my skin like a shiver.
Aunt Carol was staying at our house, seemingly ushered in by the heat. She was as much a part of the summer as the lake, the corn, or the infamous toad. She laughed like our wind-chimes or the silver bracelets clinking up and down the length of her long, brown arms. Sometimes though, when she was laughing at something even when I could see she was too sad to be laughing, her laugh was a baseball through the garage window. I was the only one hearing the difference.
My mother dabbed at the moist shimmer on her upper lip and said, “good grief” at the heat. My father sweat through his undershirts when he mowed the lawn and said, “Jesum Crow,” at our fan which sputtered to a stop. They always sat at opposite ends of the couch, like bedposts. I stuck my face in the open freezer door, and breathed in the mist it breathed out. Only Aunt Carol seemed unaffected by the heat. She moved through the house like grace, her skirts breezing at her thin ankles. Sometimes she would tie her hair up in a colored scarf. Other days she would weave it in a lazy braid. And most days, I would find her at least once gazing out a window or standing in a doorway, her lips moving without a sound.
Aunt Carol planted a vegetable garden in the backyard. She woke early and watered the seedlings. I watched her from my bedroom window, moving barefoot down the rows. In her garden, her lips moving, but making no sound, I got the sense she was talking to the peas and zucchini, urging them to push toward the sun. But I can’t be sure.
“Hazel, you’re going to be our resident pea sheller,” Aunt Carol said.
I smiled. I had a job. For weeks, my mind had been tangled in thoughts of Billy Bleacher. I didn’t understand how anybody could swallow a toad without gagging. Justin and Casey, two other boys from school, swore they saw it, but they were the only ones. Still, it was enough proof to make Billy Bleacher a toad-swallowing hero. I started shelling peas almost every evening and was happy for a new distraction.
“Maybe she can take over as resident lawn mower,” said my dad, making a joke that wasn’t funny. My mom rolled her eyes and put an ice-cube at the nape of her neck as she walked out of the kitchen. Aunt Carol just winked at me. I wondered if she could read my thoughts and see the image I kept conjuring of Billy Bleacher tossing a slimy, brown toad up into his mouth and gulping it down.
Billy Bleacher was mean and the fact that he might have done something extraordinary by swallowing a toad made my teeth ache. Before school let out for the summer, he gave me nineteen daisies bunched together by a rubber band. And a week before that, when Mrs. Larsen was reading us a story while we sat cross-legged at her feet, Billy Bleacher nudged his sneaker up to mine so that the soles lined up perfectly. I was sure I could feel a tingle of warmth through the rubber. Looking straight ahead, he kept his foot against mine until Mrs. Larsen closed the book, the bell rang, and we went home for the day. On the bus, I pretended that I could still feel the warmth through the sole of my shoe.
I was so sure that Billy Bleacher felt worms in his belly for me like I did for him, that the day school let out for the summer, I told him I loved him when we were drawing with sticks in the sand at recess. He said, “I don’t love you, Hazel.” He walked away, leaving his drawing of a turtle unfinished in the sand. I sat back on my heels, unable to cry, but feeling shame all through me.
When I told my mother she said, “Just forget it, dear. Everything will be alright. Boys can by silly, Hazy Daisy.” I thought maybe I didn’t tell it right. Had I forgotten to mention the turtle in the sand? His foot had matched perfectly against my foot.
My Aunt Carol took me to the lake nearly every day that summer. On our walks, sometimes she spoke or whistled, and sometimes she was quiet the whole way. I wanted to tell her about Billy Bleacher, but didn’t, and instead trotted beside her, watching her long arms swing and listening to her bracelets. Lots of times her hands and forearms were still green from picking tomatoes off the vine, and when I held her hand, I would rub my fingertips over the crusted, green-brown residue. Aunt Carol called it “tomato tar” and waited for a swim at the lake to remove it. I remembered how Philip used to kiss the palms of her hands and sniff at the spiciness the tomatoes left. He didn’t come to visit with Carol that summer.
Philip was a painter, but not a house-painter like my dad. Philip painted big canvases, dizzy with color. He smelled like turpentine and clove aftershave and when we got together at Thanksgiving, he was the one Aunt Carol brought. I’d hear my mother whisper about “settling down,” but Aunt Carol would laugh, turn, and scoop up the creamed spinach and skate off to the dining room singing, “Let it be.”
“Save me the wishbone, Kitty!” Philip would yell at my mom, whose name is not Kitty.
My dad would lean into Aunt Carol and say, “He certainly has an ‘artist’s flare,’ sis.” And Aunt Carol would say, “Hush, George.” That was back when my parents sat on the same corner of the couch.
The summer before Billy Bleacher was rumored to have swallowed a toad, Aunt Carol and Philip visited for a whole week. Philip taught me how to do a jackknife from the dock and how to whistle with grass. I showed him where the orioles made their nest and how to do a somersault. After, he made one crooked attempt that landed him in a bed of my mom’s peonies, Aunt Carol did four in a row then sprang to her feet and did a cartwheel. Philip grabbed her around both knees and pulled her to the ground. Then he kissed her. Right in front of me, right in my mom’s peonies. The Summer of the Toad, Philip didn’t come with Aunt Carol and she didn’t mention him, so neither did I. But I sometimes thought of the two of them kissing each other with open eyes, big soft bunches of pink peonies about their heads.
I was thinking of Philip one afternoon when Aunt Carol was extra quiet on our walk to the lake. She had been in her garden all morning and her fingertips were green and rough with tomato tar. I didn’t know what to say, so I gave her hand a squeeze as we walked from the pines toward the lake. We set up our blanket in the sun and then Aunt Carol finally said, “Let’s take a dip.”
While she was soaking her hands in the lake-water and I was pretending to be a dolphin, I heard Billy Bleacher yell from the pine bluffs overlooking the lake and I choked on a mouthful of water. I knew his voice anywhere. Aunt Carol didn’t seem to notice and trickled water over her shoulders. She looked up when he crashed out of the woods waving a stick, trailed by Justin and Casey, all three calling, “Halloo, halloo,” as they sprinted down the bluff and plunged into the water making great white waves around their outstretched forms. I told Aunt Carol I was cold and walked out of the water. She gave me some time by myself before walking up the little beach and squatting next to me where I was crouched, drawing with a stick in the sand.
“What’s that, Hazy?” She pointed with a pruney finger at my drawing.
“A turtle,” I said, hoping Aunt Carol didn’t notice my lip quiver. I bit it to keep it still.
We were quiet for a little while and I scratched a second turtle in the sand.
“Do you want a sandwich?” Aunt Carol said and I nodded. She walked over to our blanket to have lunch, but before I went, I erased both turtles with my bare feet. I stood looking down at my footprints in the sand before Aunt Carol called to me.
That evening Aunt Carol told me I could help her prepare the beets. She had steamed them, and preparing them meant plunging them into ice water and rubbing the beets until the coarse skin slipped away and the beets were smooth and slick in your hands. The beets from Aunt Carol’s garden were large and muscled. They felt like thick hearts in your palm.
“This looks like fake blood,” I said, showing Aunt Carol my reddened hands.
“It looks like real blood, too.”
I watched her face in profile, everything softened in the growing dusk. I listened to the crickets and peepers in the yard. I couldn’t explain my nervousness as I watched her hands work at the skins of the beets, the whole sink starting to look like it was filled with blood.
After I’d been sent to bed I slept lightly, but I woke up in the middle of the night and lay in the blue-dark. My room was hot and the fan wasn’t helping. I heard a mosquito’s whine, and underneath it, my dad’s snore, which meant he went to bed on the couch. I was thinking about Billy Bleacher, imagining the bravery it took to swallow a toad. I pictured the ones I caught out in our field at dusk. Their skin was always colder than my skin, and I imagined what that must have felt like on Billy Bleacher’s tongue. Or the way they hopped and lurched in my cupped hands. How did he not hiccup it back out? I had to do something impressive, something he would notice. Everything in me wanted so badly for his love that I started crying in the dark heat of my room. I heard a soft shuffle and then the tinkle of Aunt Carol’s bracelets. Sometimes she went for secret walks alone at night. I sensed her put a hand up on my door as if to still me. I fell asleep with her outside my room.
Aunt Carol was in her garden, bending over carrots and throwing weeds into a growing pile. Her hair was the same rich darkness as the soil.
“Listen, you fuckers,” I heard her say to the weeds. I scrambled from the window ledge with that forbidden word tucked away so that I could always know more than adults thought I knew. But it was the kind of secret I wanted to keep from my parents, not Aunt Carol, so later that night when she was brushing the tangles the lake had matted in my hair, I told her what I’d heard her say.
“Mm, that’s a good one to know,” Aunt Carol said, and in that second I felt as beautiful and grown up as she and I loved her with everything. She continued to brush through the snags in my hair and then kissed the crown of my head.
I was thinking about Billy, but I asked her about Philip. “Remember when Philip taught me how to do a jackknife? I wish I could remember how.”
“Now, there is a good use for that word. Philip is a fucker,” Aunt Carol said and pulled a little too hard on my hair.
I pictured Philip as a weed and Aunt Carol as angry as she had been out in the garden when she’d yanked dandelions and crab grass. This wasn’t the memory I had of them, so I stayed quiet. Last summer, Philip had made me my first Brown Cow. He poured the Coke on the ice cream in the fancy way, raising and lowering the can but keeping a steady stream of soda. Aunt Carol watched the vanilla ice-cream bubble and fizz in that way that adults will show excitement for things that are meant for kids, but isn’t false, just more than adults do for other adults. Then Philip said, “You can have one too, if you’re good.” Aunt Carol nodded her head, with her eyes wide, the way adults do when they’re just playing at being a kid again. And then she stood up and gave Philip a big raspberry on the side of his neck and he squinched his eyes up. Until then, I’d thought I was the luckiest one in the room, sipping my Brown Cow.
I thought about how the fizz had felt against my lip and how bright Aunt Carol’s eyes had been. I tried to catch her eyes in the mirror, but she was focused on my hair. I waited, and when our eyes did meet, it was her lip that quivered.
By August, the long grasses in our meadow were brown with heat and the cicadas were as loud as they had ever been. My mother started wearing only a bathing suit top and ate popsicles but not dinner. When the lawnmower sputtered to a stop, my father kicked it once and then shrugged and got a popsicle himself. Neither of them sat on the couch anymore. My mom said it was too hot for TV, which seemed impossible, but I didn’t ask. I spent nights lying awake in the heat dreaming up different ways to impress Billy Bleacher, imagining myself doing a jackknife that could split the water without a splash. And Aunt Carol continued to flow from the garden to the house to the lake like liquid, but more and more, I would catch her whispering to herself or staring off at something no one else was seeing.
She was having a day filled with silence and pauses when I found her sitting on the porch, moving her feet on the fourth step so that it squeaked and groaned. I finally had a plan to win over Billy Bleacher and I begged her to come to the lake with me. She looked out across the deadened meadow and shook her head no. When I pleaded some more, she said she just didn’t have a walk in her.
I went by myself and felt my heart clanging against my ribs the whole way down the dirt road. I kept my head down and watched my feet in the dirt and the dusty footprints I made. When I got to the pine bluffs, I inhaled their crisp scent and tried to feel braver than I was. I could see three figures on the dock in silhouette, the sun glinting off the water behind them, and knew they were Billy Bleacher, Justin, and Casey. I stayed on the overlook watching them do tricks and fancy dives.
And before I knew what I was doing, I felt myself take off and race toward the water. At the shore, I managed four long strides before toppling into the lake with a splash. I swam out to the dock and when I reached it I was breathless. I pulled myself up on the silvery planks of wood and waited for someone to notice me.
The wait turned quickly to agony, so I blurted, “I can touch bottom, you know.”
Casey was the first to say, “Prove it,” but I was watching Billy Bleacher and waiting for him to look at me with admiration. He spit off the dock, and laughed when a fish mistook the white glob for food and snapped at the surface of the water. Only after examining the fish a while longer did Billy Bleacher finally say, “Yeah, Hazel, prove it.”
I dove in.
I was swimming deep, had gulped at August air, filling my lungs, my belly, air all the way to my toes, air in two puffed pockets in my cheeks, reserves of air to last until I reached the bottom where I’d never been, air enough to bring me up again – I was swimming past where the sunlight went, or so I thought, because the lake-green turned to dark and in that spot, like a secret tunnel opening, the water was cold, cold, and I swam into it until I dug my hand into the black muck at the bottom, grabbing at slime as proof I’d gone all the way; I needed proof because Casey was older and knew how to do flips from the dock, because Justin gave Indian Sunburns that stung forever, and because I loved Billy Bleacher so the things he said could turn all my bones to glass, and so I clutched long-dead and slicked black leaves as I propelled myself up, pumping my legs, feeling sure I’d surface triumphantly, until the moment I was sure I’d die, when I saw the pale sun rippling through so much water, and felt the searing in my lungs, the hot, purple pulse of my own blood hammering in the hollows behind my ears, and as I clawed at the water, I thought there is no way – and so it was a startling miracle when I gasped again at the air that had been miles above me – but when Casey, crouching like a frog on the sun-bleached dock, appeared surprised to see me, Justin looked down at me with the sun behind his shoulder, and Billy Bleacher folded his arms across his chest and asked if I’d made it, I looked at my hands and found all the proof had slipped away, tried to steady the air in and out of my lungs, and shook my head no.
I cried the whole way home. I pictured the wet footprints he had left on the dock before diving in and swimming away and I wanted to howl. I found a stick and was beating at meadow grasses when I saw Aunt Carol. I realized she hadn’t moved from the porch where I’d left her. I threw the stick aside, wiped my tears, and rubbed the snot from my nose on my t-shirt because I didn’t want her to know I’d been crying. Resting her chin on her knees, her long arms were draped around her legs, her shoulders sloped like a boulder.
“Hazel, we better get inside. A storm is coming,” she said as I neared the porch. I looked at the sky and was surprised to see how dark it had become. On my walk home, I hadn’t noticed when the sun had been blotted out and the thick grey clouds that had moved in. The trees flipped their leaves and blew silver-green in the growing wind. “It’s going to be a big one,” she said but didn’t make a move to go indoors.
I sat next to Aunt Carol on the steps and when the rain came in fast white sheets, it hit our feet first. I wiggled my wet toes against hers because I wanted her to smile.
“Tell me something, Hazy. Anything.”
I looked out across the meadow through the rain to see how it had blurred the line of trees. My brain opened the door up to a dozen empty rooms as I tried to think of something to say. Finally, “Billy Bleacher said he swallowed a toad.” I gulped and then added, “And I told him I loved him and he said, ‘I don’t love you, Hazel,’” I said it like a whisper and then I was crying and my tears felt hotter than they were supposed to. “And then I touched the bottom of the lake, but he’ll never know it because I lost the muck.” Aunt Carol wrapped me up in her long arms and I could feel her chest moving against me and I knew she was crying too.
“His foot matched my foot,” I snuffled.
Aunt Carol wiped at my tears first, and then wiped them from the corners of her eyes and off of her cheeks too. “Sometimes it’s a real dog eat dog world,” she said.
I heard doggy-dog world, nodded, and said, “That sounds nice.” I buried my head in the space between her shoulder and neck and tried to think of millions of dogs sniffing, and rooting, and running, and galumphing in a big yellow field. I felt a little better, but I don’t think Aunt Carol did.
We sat with the edges of our feet touching and continued to watch the sky darken, our skin growing cold with rainwater.
“I don’t think he did swallow a toad, Aunt Carol. Because you’d throw up if you did. Right?”
“He’s a liar, then.” I was quiet for a moment. “Did your feet match Philip’s feet?”
I looked up to see my Aunt, biting at the tip of her thumb, concentrating very hard on the in and out of her own breathing and suddenly everything felt altered. I closed my eyes and my mind followed the road back to the woods and through the pines to the lake. There, I was diving down to the most secret part, past bronze-scaled fish and slick, undulating grasses and things I couldn’t see or know. All the way to the unlit depths until there was nothing but blackness around and throughout me. Then with my legs moving like a powerful fin, I’d course back up from the dark bottom to where the water was warm and green, and I’d surface again in a glaring world that I wasn’t prepared for, in a life I didn’t recognize.
MOLLY McGILLICUDDY currently lives in Sterling, MA. She teaches college writing and yoga. You can find more of her writing in Prick of the Spindle, Black Heart Magazine, Bird's Thumb, The Ear Hustler, Limestone Literary Magazine, among other publications. She does not have a website, because she still has a flip-phone.