I met Anna in the opening days of the summer I turned sixteen. She’d come with her mother and stepfather to stay in a cabin on the small lake near the town where I lived. I saw her from across the street, standing lost, in a pool of sun, scowling at the “closed” sign on the corner store. Like the first pages of a beloved book, she grabbed my attention.

First loves, notorious for blooming fast and hard, proved no different for Anna and I. Freedom reigned during the long days. The slow darkening nights became our playground. We measured time by the gradual browning of her smooth skin.

I was young, uncouth, and dangerously bored, Anna the brightest point, the north star of my floundering existence. Two years older than I, it seemed too good to be true when Anna noticed me. She, a reminder there was more to life than a single, dirty main street, a handful of punk kids, and my father’s firm hand. She opened my eyes.

Anna assured me I was beautiful as often as I told her the same and my luck astounded me. She stroked pale fingers over shorn black hair and played them across stubble still foreign to my cheeks. I wanted to argue. How could she think so? My limbs were too long, too skinny. My nose crooked from an accident in childhood.

When in Anna’s presence, I balanced on the knife edge of shrinking with nervousness and bursting with joy. The strawberry lip gloss, clean sweat and coconut scent of her made my head spinning worse than pilfered sips of my father’s vodka.

By our second week together, Anna and I discovered our “spot”, and we snuck away from our prospective families at every opportunity to meet in the embrace of the tiny, sand-lined cove.

Let’s swim.” She called from across the beach. I jogged to her, heart in my throat, and Anna tossed herself into my arms with a rush of kisses powered by mischief.

Waves beat a steady rhythm against the water stained sand. Anna released my hand and pulled her tank top from her body with deliberation, watching the slow revealing register in my eyes.

When the fabric freed her face, the bright silk of her hair cascaded around her bare shoulders, I swallowed, my pulse kicking like a shotgun against my ribs.

Alright.” I removed my shirt. Stood before her pale, and resisting the urge to cross my arms over my unformed chest.

Your shorts too, silly.” She hooked a finger in the waist of my trunks and pulled. Skin and muscle executed an equine ripple under her touch. A blush burned across my cheeks.

I want to see all of you.” Anna’s lips stretched into the impish grin of the unabashed. She reached behind her and caught the ties of her swimsuit top, holding it like a promise.

Can...can we go in the water first?” The heat of my blood threatened to combust my veins. Implode my entire being.

Anna reserved no patience for bashfulness. Wordless, she allowed her arm to fall. The neon yellow strings pulled taught before releasing.

There, now you saw mine, you have to show me yours.” She let out a peal of laughter, her smile compressing the sprinkle of freckles across her nose.

Nick.” She turned my common name to music with her breath. “Don’t be shy, not with me. Never with me.

You don’t understand.” I shifted on the balls of my feet.

She took a step closer. “How are we supposed to make love if you won’t let me see you?

Make love?” The words ground out of me, hopeful as a prayer.

You do want to? Don’t you, Nick?

My body’s answer did not go unnoticed by Anna. She held out a hand, I unclenched my fingers and threaded them through hers. Allowed her to pull me closer until the warmth of her breasts pressed against my skin.

The water met us with cold welcome. We sank below the surface, drowning in each other and the naivety of our love. Roaming touches grazed places unexplored until now. Our feet sought purchase in the shifting silt beneath the waves. Flesh slipped and slid as we struggled for balance. The contact proved too much. I lost control, spilling myself with a gasp and a jerk.

Anna feigned ignorance. Kissing away the flare of my shame she held me and guided my fingers downwards, showing me the tricks of her pleasure while sweat beaded and mixed with lake water.

The press of her body remained on my flesh stark as a hand-print on winter glass, as she swam away. I wanted to begin anew, pull her close and show her I paid attention to her lessons. Instead, we stumbled to shore and lay entwined, content and languid in the tickling grass.

That cloud looks like an ogre.” Anna pointed. Her wet hair coiled in ropes across my chest. Absently I toyed with a strand, half asleep.

Like Shrek?” I murmured. She didn’t answer; something had captured her attention.

Nick. Look.” She reached a hand to cup my chin, turning my head in the direction her gaze strayed. Inches past her nose a snail hung from a blade of grass, plump as a dewdrop. Anna extended a finger to trace the cluster of mottled spirals. “How cute.” She snuggled deeper into me, and together we studied the intrepid creature as it went along, its trail glittering in the summer sun.

Can you imagine leaving a mark everywhere you travelled? A path to lead others to you?

You leave a mark, Anna.” I imagined the one remaining upon my heart when she left for her city home in two short weeks. Would it shine like the snails? Or, like gnarled scar tissue, would it be pink and raw?

I hope mine leads you to me, Nick.” She tipped her gaze back to me, her voice thick.

It will. I’ll follow it until I find you.” It was against the rules to acknowledge the departure that loomed. “Best of all, Anna... your trail isn’t made of slime.

She giggled and pressed her lips to mine.

Will you come back next summer?The echo of my heart flooded my ears as I waited for her answer.

I hope so. I want to, but it depends...” Anna’s voice faded like the ribbon of the jet stream above.

Depends on what?

Roland.” The name left her with the violence of a curse. “My stepfather. I hate him, Nick.” She shivered against me.

I sat up, protectiveness locking the muscles against my bones. “Does Roland hurt you?

She glanced at me through the screen of her lashes. “He scares me.

Anna,” My voice turned masculine with the urge to protect her. “What did he do?

Only small things. Once I was late coming home from school, and he screamed at me. Grabbed my wrist and left a bruise there, like a bracelet.” She held up a slim wrist, and the sun-bleached hair on her arm danced in the breeze. “I showed my mother, but she didn’t believe me. She said I done it myself and tried to blame Roland.

What else?” I prompted, seeking fodder for the new intensity flaming between my ribs.

He tries to kiss me. When he’s drunk.

The jerk of my body startled a bumble bee from its dinner. Anna’s eyes met mine, and I drowned as they filled with tears. I held her to my chest as she soaked my skin with her fear and sorrow.

##

Nikola Ivanov pushed away from his metal desk, wincing at the shriek emitted by the scrap of the chair’s feet across the gritty floor. The noise sent goosebumps crawling across the surface of his skin.

His hands ached, and the memories that bubbled and throbbed became insistent as the blisters on his fingers. He yawned and rubbed his sticky, dry eyes, struggling to break the spell of remembering,

He was not prepared to face the paragraphs of Anna’s death. Her name ran free on the pages of his work, despite the assurances he gave his editor. It didn’t matter; no one would lay hands on this piece. Nikola couldn’t leave her nameless, unarmed and alone to fade among the faceless. He never told Anna his full name, giving her only ‘Nick’ as he preferred in the arrogance of youth.

Nikola gazed out through the tiny, brick of a window and watched the snowflakes pirouette through the night. An ache, familiar as his limbs, clenched in his chest. Sleep wanted to claim him. He wanted to allow it, but Anna waited from him there. Waited to taunt him with her supple body and chiming laugh. Waited with blood and screams and endless torment. Nikola prayed the writing would help set her memory down and free it. The dreams never faded.

He stood and went to his cot, dropping onto it fully clothed. Closing his eyes, he let the sigh and creak of old timber and brick lull him. Anna met him as he knew she would. At least it would start sweet. It always did. Nikola shivered and pulled the thin blankets around him.

Damn it he was cold.

##

My legs are so tired I feel like Bambi stepping onto the ice.” Anna giggled, clinging to my arm as I lead her up the path. Before us the squat shape of their rented cabin glowed, casting orange on the thick weave of branches beyond the sills.

I smiled and tightened my fingers through hers, reliving the afternoon. We walked for a few moments in silence before the crash of breaking glass shattered the peace of the night.

Beside me, Anna tensed. I caught the flash of white as she looked at me, her eyes wide. She broke into a run, her sweat-slick hand pulling from mine, rubber legs ignored as she raced up the hill.

The door sat ajar when I arrived seconds behind her.

I didn’t mean to.” The man’s deep voice frayed at the edges from drink. “It was an accident.

A bull of a man, he stood in the middle of the room, facing Anna, who was nothing more than a silhouette. The light from inside fled past her through the door, blinding me. I laid a hand on her shoulder, snapping her from the shocked trance. She screamed. Loud and long. The sound choked the breath in my lungs, chilling my soul from the inside out.

Mama!

Anna launched herself into the cabin, not at the prostrate body of her mother but toward the bulk of her step father’s hunched, swaying form. “What have you done!” A creature of grief she clawed at his face, fingers seeking to gauge his deep-set eyes. For a moment I stood frozen, too stupefied to act. Adrenaline flooded my veins and powered me forwards after, Anna.

Though half his weight I staggered Anna’s step-father with the force of my attack. I drove a shoulder into his solar plexus. Felt the damp, hot rush of his breath across the back of my neck as it exited his body. Through the sweat that ran in a deluge down my brow, I saw Anna crawl across the swaying, worn floorboards to her mother. Scooping the older woman’s limp form into her arms, Anna began to sob. Nonsensical fragments of her broken heart, verbalised. I looked away too long. I didn’t see the blunt object he drove into my skull. The world washed away in the darkness.

##

Sleep was a fickle and unkind companion. An hour after he, at last, allowed his eyes to drift closed, Nikola reared up from his narrow bed trembling and drenched. The line between reality and dreamscape so warped by his sleep-starved mind, a long moment passed before he could recall where he lay. When at last his thoughts cohered into functional strands he went back to the desk and picked up his pen.

##

Red and blue pulsed an ominous tattoo of illumination against the night and their strobbing echoed in the confines of my battered skull until I leaned forward and retched stomach acid onto the trampled grasses. The cold steel of the handcuffs bit the tender skin of my wrists. I clung to the slippery naivety of childhood with the tenacity of a pit bull. Refused to admit the truth that lay before my eyes. Maybe the blood did not belong to her.

I saw it every time I blinked. The black bag on the stretcher. The blond hair caught in the zipper. My mind hoarded the images in snapshots. The clinking bracelets pulled tight at my arms, and I was on my feet. They held my head and tucked me into the police car.

They found traces of my semen. Enough to keep me for a time, though there was no explaining the lump on my skull. Witnesses who’d seen the young couple, madly in love, attested to our acquaintances but could provide nothing more. All facts pointed to a crime of passion. But even the small town cops, unused to such gruesome scenes, turned up enough evidence to see the killer had not been the skinny kid they arrested that night.

The idea of incarceration never concerned me. My life yawned before me, a blank slate — a pit of loneliness. Not until the seed of revenge furrowed deep and bloomed in my chest did existence take on meaning once more.

He scares me, Nick.

##

They ended the hunt so long ago. They had all forgotten except Nikola. Within a month he knew Roland’s full name. Then he found a face to match. He had no memory of the man other than shadowed, fleeting impressions.

Five years of waiting led him here — five long years of nightmares and patience. Nikola would write the end to Anna’s story, and the blood of her killer would be his ink. Nikola played the scenario through his mind as he had every day since the first. The knife sat sharp and ready. People assume it to be an easy thing, but Nikola practised. Skin and arteries, corded muscle; they were tough. Stubborn against the blade. Killing required proper force.

Two days later Nikola woke with a prickling in his intestines and itching on his palms. All he could remember from beginning to now was written, and nothing remained but to end it. A faint sheen of sweat greased his brow despite the chill as he took the knife case to his dented Toyota.

Roland Brown drank whiskey Friday nights at the Broken Antler. In all the months, Nikola followed him that fact never shifted. Brown carried himself like a bull, head forward on sloped shoulders. A paunch hung low and prominent over the scant resistance of his belt. He was drunk and the shadow he cast down the sidewalk when he exited the bar’s double doors swayed along with his steps like a lousy dance partner.

Nikola was calm. Life brought him through the blank years and deposited him on the doorstep of this moment. He was strong. He was focused. He rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the satisfaction of settling vertebrae.

Brown moved away in the lolling sideways gate of the inebriated, whistling to himself. Slipping on his gloves, Nikola pulled a steadying breath. Never taking his eyes from Brown through the mist created by his exhale. The car door squawked at the disturbance and reverberated through the night, but his prey took no note.

Nikola lifted the knife from its case and, leaving the car door open, glided down the sidewalk.

##

You’re a good kisser, Nick.” Anna’s voice sweet in the dusk. “Have you practised tonnes with other girls?

I flushed. No boy or man wants to admit to his first love he was a social pariah. “Not much,” I mumbled, entranced by the soft blond hair on her arms dancing in the summer breeze.

I could kiss you forever. Never forget me, alright?

Never.” I held a pinky finger skyward, and she hooked her own slender, red-nailed one through its crook.

##

The hairs on Nikola’s arms rose. Brown smelt of stale sweat and booze. Cheap perfume and false hope. The knife blade grabbed the moonlight and flung it far in a single beacon of warning. It disappeared into Brown’s back, just above his kidney’s. There would be no clean death for Roland Brown.

The noise was garbled — the bubbling, wet grunt of a pig on a butcher’s block. Nikola pulled the blade free and slammed a hand over Brown’s gaping mouth. The pillowy lips pushed moist and hot against his palm. The impact of knees against sidewalk jarred through them both.

Nikola pressed the knife’s tip against the man’s thundering jugular with his other hand. “Remember me?

The bite of urine perfumed the air. Brown shook his head. A string of drool crept out from under Nikola’s palm to hang in a long, shiny chain.

Well, I remember you. I remember you standing over the body of the woman you killed. I remember the sound of her daughter’s heart when it broke. I remember you trying to kill me.” Brown went still in Nikola’s arms.

You left a loose end.” Nikola laughed, a grating rumble from deep in his chest. “This loose end is here to fucking hang you.

Brown started to struggle. The greasy strands of his thinning hair rubbed and caught against the stubble on Nikola’s cheeks. The big man’s trembling made its way through the hilt of the knife into Nikola’s palm. Travelled up his arm and festered in the joint of his shoulder — the night stank of acrid fear and the metallic tang of blood.

Time slowed to a blissful crawl. Nikola counted the plunking drops of Brown’s life draining onto the cracked cement. At one hundred it was time to finish. Draw the chapter to a close. He wrapped a hand around Browns sweat slicked brow and forced his head back. Exposed a wobbly, unshaven neck. The steel bit through the pillow of flesh. Nikole stared deep into Brown’s eyes. Watched the panic, followed by acceptance as the blade travelled through muscle and tendon before coming up short against the spinal column. Brown never uttered a sound.

Nikola stepped away, allowing the body to fall, entranced by the languid river inching its way to the pavement’s snacking cracks. Tiny crimson streams, flowing like arteries until the chill slowed them, and at last, froze them solid.

The air held a tang: a fecund mix of earth and death and life and rot. Rain waited for release — electricity boiled in the belly of the grey-blue clouds above. Sweat pooled in the small of Nikola’s back, clammy as an unwelcome hand on his skin. The last shovel weighted the most. In a mockery of the impending rain, the dirt escaped sprinkling against bits of exposed wood.

I brought him to you, Anna.” Unheeded tears wandered down Nikola’s dirt coated cheeks. He lowered the black bag, letting it drop the last few feet to the surface of the coffin. “Here’s your gift. It’s all over now.

Throat closing, he stared at the wooden box. The deceptively small container held the vivacity, the beauty that had been Anna. A final shudder worked its way from the tips of his toes, up his spine, and came to a prickling rest in the wild strands of his hair. Nikola mopped his face with the frayed sleeve of his coat. Picked up the shovel. Time passed faster, filling in the hole. Maybe it was the volume taken up by Brown’s corpse. Perhaps the possibility of discovery, looming like a raven on his shoulder, sped his movements.

After smoothing the mound Nikola dropped to his knees and spread the papers of Anna’s life across her grave. They were for her, but also for those who found them and so they were laminated and bound. Others should know what the world lost. What ugliness they harboured with their failure to act.

Purposeful strides carried him from the grave and down the trail to the road. If anyone asked him, Nikola would have told them he had no idea now, what his life held in store. He was empty. He was newborn. There was no one to ask him, and so, Nikola walked.

Dawn’s inquisitive rays broke through the storm fresh sky and stroked his cheeks. Examined the tears path’s left there, as Nikola turned his face up to greet it. The thoughts and memories, the burden of the years spent in revenge lifted. They left him, at least for the moment, to the peace of the birds’ joy, and the crunch of his worn boots on the gravel.

Another two hours passed before the truck rumbled to a stop behind him. “Need a ride?” The farmer in the cab was nearly as dirty as himself, “you look like you’ve been in the fields for a week.

Nikola swallowed back a bubble of obscene laughter. “Yeah. I guess I could use a lift.” He held his arms to the side, looking down at his clothing for the first time, “I just finished up on the graveyard shift.

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