I narrowed my eyes as I watched the ripples in the lake.
"Right," I said aloud. I pulled my arm back and then flung it out, releasing a small stone from my fingers. I counted the skips it made as it bounced across the water.
"That was seven this time!" I cried, hopping in place with excitement.
"How'd you do that?"
I turned in the direction of the voice and saw a girl standing on the dirt path nearby. She wore a plain blue dress with a white apron. Atop her head was a white kerchief. Her brown hair was long, with a fringe trimmed just above the eyes that matched it. Her expression was almost dull — had she not asked just now, I would've thought she was bored by my sight.
"S-stone skimming?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied, as calmly as before.
I stood as tall as I could and smiled. "Come over here and I'll show you!"
The girl came closer, holding her hands together. She was just a bit shorter than I. I felt a strange sense of pride swelling up inside of me.
"Pick up a stone," I said, pointing downwards.
The girl stared at the ground for a moment. Gingerly, she stooped down and picked one up, then looked at me expectantly.
"N-not like that," I said. "It has to be smoother."
The girl bent down once again, and traded her stone out for another closer to what I had in mind.
"That will do," I said. "Now, hold it like so." I held out my hand so she could copy it. "And put your arm back like this... and...!" I flung my arm out and watched as the stone bounced five times, each making little ripples in the water. I grinned and looked at the girl. "Go on," I said.
She put her arm behind her, and threw it back out with a little grunt. The stone arced through the air and splashed, sinking instantly.
"Oh," she mumbled.
"Not as easy as it looks, is it?" I said, looking for another stone. "It takes some practise to do it right, you can't be as good as a master like myself right off, now." I found another stone and held it out for her. She was looking down at her feet, and didn't seem to notice me.
"O-oh, no, it's— It's okay," I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. "Y-you just need some more practise! It's— It's not your fault!"
She looked up at me.
"D-do you want to try again?" I asked. She didn't seem to hear me. She reached out and took my hair in her hand, looking very seriously at it.
"A-ah," I said nervously, "Did— Do you want to try once more?"
The girl froze and looked at me as her eyes lit up with realisation. She let go of my hair and backed away, looking embarrassed. She glanced at the other rock in my hand and took it, reforming the position she held before, and looked at me again.
"Yes, like that," I said. "Now put your arm back— Stop! Yes, now when you throw it, flick your wrist out like this!" I demonstrated.
The girl watched my movements very carefully. She looked at my eyes again, waiting for approval. I nodded, and she threw the stone towards the water once again. This time, it skipped twice before sinking.
"Brilliant!" I shouted. "See, you've got the hang of it!" The girl began to wring her hands together and avoided my eyes.
"Do you want to try again?" I asked, holding another rock out to her. She took it from me and inspected it carefully before placing it in her apron pocket.
"Where did you come from?" she asked.
"W-what do you mean?" I asked.
"You're not from here, are you?" she said. "I've never seen you here before. And you don't talk like we do."
"Hmm... You're right," I said. "I'm from Darlington."
"You don't talk like they do either," she replied.
"What of it?" I asked impatiently.
The girl flinched, and hesitated before speaking. "I've never met someone from the city before," she said. "Why are you here?"
"I'm visiting family," I said as I began to search for more stones.
"I see," she said. She was silent for a moment. "How did you learn to skim stones?" she asked.
"My father taught me," I replied.
"He did?" she asked.
"Uh-huh," I said as I inspected a rock. "He used to play all the time as a child."
"My father said he thought it was a silly game," she said.
"He's the silly one," I replied. "I think everyone should learn to skim stones."
She was silent again. I continued collecting stones to use. I had found nearly ten of them so far.
"You're pretty," the girl said. "How old are you?"
I smiled in spite of myself. Pretty? I forced my smile away and looked up. "Won't you ask my name first?" I said.
"Oh... What's your name?" she asked.
"I'm Mary," I said. "I'm nearly sixteen. Now go on, your turn."
The girl's eyes widened. She stared for a moment before shaking her head as she remembered herself. "N—ah, my name is Nadia," she said finally. "I-I turned eleven years old last week." She put her hands together again and wrung them.
"Good to meet you, Nadia," I said.
"Father says I am to start secondary school after the summer," she continued.
"Yeah?" I said.
"What is it like?" Nadia asked.
I paused. "Not very different from primary school, I suppose. It's not as fun, though."
"Can you make friends there?" she asked.
I looked up. "Of course," I said.
"You have some, then?" she said.
"Y-ye-es," I replied. "... I guess you could say that."
"Do you suppose I will?" Nadia asked.
"You've already made one, and you haven't even started yet," I said.
Her eyes widened again, but she said nothing.
I stood. "Me?"
"We're... Friends now?" she murmured.
"If you want to be," I said, laughing.
Nadia was silent for a moment before speaking. "Thank you for being my teacher, Mary," she said. She looked down. "If I see you here again... Will you teach me some more?"
"Certainly!" I said.
Nadia put the rock back into her apron pocket, looking somewhat alarmed. "I-I should go!" she said. "Father will be wondering where I am." She took off running.
What a queer girl, I thought to myself. I picked up one of the stones I'd found, formed the proper hand position, and drew my arm back.
❀ ❀ ❀
Later that week, I went to the market with Alice and Elli for lunch. After our meal, we began to meander through the streets as we thought about what to do next.
"It's so hot!" I exclaimed, collapsing on one of benches paired in the middle of the pavement. I thought my sundress would've been light enough to keep me cool. That's why it's named that way, right?
Alice looked concerned. "Are you alright?" she asked. "You should've worn a hat like I told you to. I'll let you use my parasol if you like."
I pushed her aside. "I'm fine," I said. "Just give me a second."
As I lay, I saw a short girl with a kerchief on her head walking past us. Quickly, I sat up.
"Nadia!" I shouted.
The girl turned round in surprise. She was holding a paper bag full of groceries. I recognized her face and waved, with a wide grin.
"Come here!" I called.
Nadia glanced at my friends and hesitated, but complied, walking slowly to meet us.
"Nadia!" I said again. "How are you?"
She glanced at Alice and Elli again, then back at me. "I-I'm well," she said. Her eyes held the same blank expression they had the other day.
"Have a seat," I said, patting the bench. Nadia did as she was told.
"This is my friend Nadia," I said. "Nadia, these are my friends, Alice and Elli."
"Afternoon," said Elli.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," said Alice. "What are you out for?"
Nadia looked down at her bag. "I'm buying things for dinner," she said.
"Do you cook?" asked Alice.
"Yes," said Nadia.
"I cooked a lot when I was your age," said Alice. "I'm sure you're much better than I was."
"How old are you now?" asked Nadia, looking her over.
"O-oh, I'm seventeen," said Alice.
Nadia's eyes widened. She looked at me, then back at Alice.
"So you are in secondary school?" asked Nadia.
"I'm through with that, I'm preparing for university right now," answered Alice.
Nadia looked surprised. "What was secondary school like?" she asked.
Elli put her hands up and wiggled her fingers around. "It's a dark, scary place where the ghosts of—"
"Elli!" Alice scolded her, noting the growing fear in Nadia's eyes.
The little girl gripped her bag tighter and looked down.
"I-I'm just kidding," said Elli, looking to Alice for approval.
Nadia looked up at Elli and stared for a moment.
"I've seen you before," Nadia said. "We live in the same neighbourhood."
"We met at the lake near your house," I told Elli. "I taught her to skim stones."
"She hadn't learned already?" asked Elli.
"No," I said. "I thought the same thing."
"I didn't learn until I was fourteen," said Alice.
"You were a boring child," said Elli, smirking. "I was going to make you learn eventually."
I puffed my chest out and held my head up high. "I thought Nadia could use the wisdom and experience of someone her elder, so I decided to be generous and taught her an important life skill."
"Wisdom?" Elli asked, smiling at me. "From you?"
"We're nearly five years apart," I said. "I have plenty more I could teach her!"
"You don't look it," said Elli.
"I-I do too!" I said. "And she learned quite well!"
Elli laughed. "I bet she beat your record already," she said.
"I'm not that bad!" I said, gripping the underside of the bench.
"Yeah?" asked Elli. "What's your best?"
"Seven," I answered proudly.
"Hmmm..." murmured Elli, her smile growing wider.
"What does that mean?!" I asked.
I felt something poke my chest, and looked down to see Nadia prodding me with her finger. Alarmed, I stood quickly and backed away, crossing my arms.
"D-d-don't touch me like that!" I said, scowling. "Did your mother never teach you any manners?"
Nadia snapped out of her transfixed state. She looked at me blankly, without saying a word.
"Well, tell her she ought to!" I continued.
"When will I grow up?" Nadia asked, as though she hadn't heard a word I'd said.
"What?" I asked.
"Like you," she said. "Will I grow up when I go to secondary school?"
Like me? Really?
I didn't know what to say. Elli broke the silence.
"Well, when you—" she began brightly. Alice clamped her hand over her friend's mouth.
I walked closer to the bench, but stood near Elli. "W-why don't you ask your mother?" I said.
"She's not here anymore," Nadia said calmly.
What?! I tried to hide my shock. "Y-your father, then?"
She looked down. "He's very busy. He doesn't like it when I bother him." A panicked expression came across her face and she stood quickly, holding her bag tightly. "I have to go! He'll be cross with me if I'm late again—"
"Nadia!" I took hold of her arm. She looked at me and winced. I stared at her in silence for a moment.
"Do you... Remember how I taught you to skim stones?" I asked.
"And you weren't very good yet," I continued.
She nodded again.
"You'll get better in time." I glanced at Elli, then back at Nadia. "You'll grow, too. In time."
Nadia looked at me intently, and nodded once more.
"Did I... Make you angry?" she asked.
I frowned. "Y-yes," I said. "It's not polite to do things like that."
Nadia looked down for a moment. "I'm... sorry." She forced the words out, as though they were unnatural to her. "I'm not— I don't..." She looked as though she was about to burst into tears.
My face reddened. "You didn't mean any harm," I said. "Right?"
"Just don't do it again!" I said.
"... Will you... Will you still teach me?" asked Nadia, after a moment of thought.
"Of course!" I replied.
A small smile crept on the girl's face, forming a dimple at her cheek. "Thank you," she said. "I hope we meet again." With that, she left.
I heard a gasp from behind me, and turned round to see Elli breathing heavily.
"I wasn't... going to say... anything bad," she said between breaths.
"I didn't trust you," said Alice, smiling.
Elli paid her no mind, and took off running after Nadia. "I'll be back in a tick," she shouted.
Alice came up to me and hugged me, then stood back and put her hands on my shoulders.
"Are you alright?" she asked, looking me in the eyes.
"I'm fine," I said, squirming out of her grasp.
"That was mature of you," she said.
"Huh?" I asked.
"You were very kind to her," Alice replied.
"Yeah, well..." I said. "I felt that perhaps she needed it."
I looked down the road to see Elli walking back.
"What was that about?" asked Alice.
Elli smiled. "I'll tell you later."
❀ ❀ ❀
I sat at the little table in Alice's study, drawing. Nearby, Alice was reading at her desk. The muffled rain was the only noise, save for my pencils and Alice's occasional page-turning.
"You know, you've got an important role now, don't you?" said Alice.
"Hmm?" I questioned.
"Nadia looks up to you," she said, turning round to look at me. "It's important that you mind yourself when you're around her. You should present yourself as a good model for her."
"I-I always do!" I said. "I... try, anyway..."
Alice smiled. "Even so, don't become overwhelmed. It's easy to feel pressured when someone looks up to you." Her smile left her face. "Mary..." she began.
I looked inquisitively at her.
"Look after her, for me, please. I'm concerned for her. If she ever... sounds like she's in trouble... Please tell me."
"I-I will," I said.
"Thank you," she replied. She turned back to her book. "I apologise for bothering you, please continue."
"It's fine," I said. I returned to my work. I was drawing a pink flower whose petals grew lighter as they extended outwards. It was tough for me to colour it naturally. I looked out the window, where rain was pouring down. It was difficult for me to keep my mood up on rainy days... But I supposed if we didn't have them, we wouldn't have any beautiful flowers. I wondered what Nadia was doing. I hoped she was alright.
❀ ❀ ❀
Nadia knocked softly on the door of a small cottage. No response. She held her bag tightly to her in an attempt to keep the food from becoming wet by the rain. With one arm around her bag of groceries, she checked underneath a potted plant and found the spare key, which she used to open the door. She stepped inside the dim old house, and proceeded to put the groceries away. She took off her kerchief and folded it up, placing it in her apron pocket, where she felt the rock that Mary had given her the other day. A nervous flutter passed through her.
Quietly, she walked through the hallway until she reached the door on the far side. She knocked on it.
"What is it?" came a gruff voice.
Nadia stared at her feet. "Father, I'm home," she said.
"Come in," the man replied. Nadia turned the knob carefully, and stepped inside. Her father was hunched over his desk, which was littered with papers, writing. He was a thin, balding man, with large eyebrows.
"You're late," he said, adjusting his glasses.
"I know," she replied. "I'm sorr—"
"'Sorry' isn't going to keep you safe," he said. "If you're gone for too long, I start to worry about what might have happened or who you might have run into. You're giving this old man too many troubles."
Nadia looked up. "Father, I want to ask you something."
"Perhaps later, Nadia, I—"
"Father," she repeated, more firmly. He paused.
"Go ahead," he said.
The girl began to wring her hands together. "Do you suppose... you could take me stone-skimming tomorrow?"
The man looked confused.
"Please?" asked Nadia.
"W-Well..." he said, sitting up straighter. "If you insist."
Nadia put her hand in her pocket and felt the rock. "And..."
The man raised his eyebrows.
"... Could you tell me more about Mother?" Nadia asked.
The man put his hand to his chin.
"... I suppose so," he replied. "Perhaps... Perhaps I've waited too long."
~ FIN ~