by Nick Young
From her earliest memories, Laura Bishop had been entranced by summer flowers. Every year, behind the small clapboard farmhouse where she lived with her mother and father, the hillside that sloped gently up to a stand of thick woods became a dazzling carpet -- coneflower and corn poppy, blue flax, Indian blanket, goldenrod and New England aster. These were the names taught to her by her mother.
"Now, your aunt Elizabeth, a very smart woman, indeed," her mother had said, "knows every one of those flowers by their Latin names. She learned them at the college in Carbondale. I just know them by what we call them here. Good enough for me. In that I am in agreement with your father. Why do we need a foreign name when we have a perfectly fine one in good, old American?"
But the little girl had not the slightest grasp of the fuss about what to call the flowers. She only knew that she reveled in their palette of yellows and scarlets, purples and blues splashed amidst the lush grasses as she ran with exultation to the shade of a broad willow at the crest of the hill. Sometimes her beloved collie Miss Doxie would run with her, bounding up the slope, barking excitedly and dashing in circles under the willow, waiting for Laura to catch up. And while she very much liked the companionship of her dog, what filled her young heart even more was going alone, especially on July afternoons when a hot wind rushed up from the south to stir the flowers to murmuring.
When she was thirteen, Laura was given a set of watercolor paints for her birthday -- a rectangular tin case with a hinged lid containing a dozen squares of paint, along with a small wooden-handled brush that fit inside and a spiral notebook of special art paper.
"Now you can paint your flowers and have them with you all the year 'round," her mother had said.
And so it was. Each day when the hillside was in bloom, Laura would venture forth, sometimes dutifully accompanied by Miss Doxie, at other times by herself, with her painting gear inside a coarse-woven burlap satchel that hung from a strap over her shoulder. On the hottest days, she favored the shade of the willow tree; when the weather was milder, she would find a spot in the middle of the glorious flowers themselves.
At first the paintings were crude as she struggled with the trickiness of using the brush and getting the mix of water and paint right; but as time passed, with diligent practice, she became more sure of herself and it showed in her work. And as her confidence grew, she began to venture farther from home, through the timber at the top of the slope and out into a meadow more remote. It, too, was resplendent with wildflowers, and it gladdened her spirit to make a place for herself amid the blooms and paint to her heart's content. She also made time for reverie, setting her brush aside and lying back, closing her eyes and imagining she was transported far away to exotic places on a magic floral carpet.
It was especially warm in the summer of 1960, the summer Laura Bishop turned fifteen. It was a time of struggle in her life. School had been difficult, particularly her geometry class. The concepts were hard to grasp and her resistance to learning them festered into resentment over having to take the course at all, when she only wanted to study literature and art.
But it was more than schoolwork. There were the swirling teenage social pressures to deal with in her small school. She was not one of the popular girls. She was too plain-looking, bookish in round tortoise shell glasses, her hair cut page-boy style. Out of insecurity, she smiled infrequently and spoke quietly. That did not attract the attention of boys. They were invariably drawn to the cuter, more outgoing girls.
And all the while there was what was gathering inside her, building like a May thunderstorm. She was in the midst of her transformation into womanhood. Her slender body bore the more outward signs; and within, new feelings were stirring, stealing upon her as the ivory moon hung outside the window of her room while she lay between the sheets of her bed, impulses that were both exciting and frightening. At first she did not know how to respond except to push them away. She felt too embarrassed to approach her mother -- what would she say? She had no close girlfriend she could confide in. But once, in the bathroom at church, she had overheard two older girls giggling and whispering. Though what they said shocked her at first, she did not forget. And before long, when she turned out the light beside her bed and night's shadows and a rising inner heat enveloped her, she began to discover herself in a new way.
Laura's one constant through the turmoil and frustration was her artwork. She had continued to paint and had taken a class in art appreciation. Before school let out, she signed up for a summer painting program organized by her art teacher, Mr. Bellinghausen. At the first meeting in mid-June, there were only six other students, three girls and two boys from her school, and a girl who was new to her and the others. She introduced herself as Colleen ("Everybody calls me Coll") Wilkins. She said she was seventeen, her parents were divorced and she had just moved from St. Louis with her mother. She was interested in all kinds of drawing and painting, she said, especially watercolor.
That immediately got Laura's attention, so after Mr. Bellinghausen dismissed the group with the assignment to return the following week with a drawing or painting of a natural setting, Laura overcame her shyness and introduced herself to the new girl.
Coll was taller than Laura by an inch or two, with the lithe body of a dancer. She had long blonde hair tied in a ponytail and very lively blue eyes that flashed as often as her easy smile.
"What do you like to paint?" Laura asked.
"Just about anything, really. I'm not much good at portrait-type stuff, but I like still life, nature scenes . . . "
"How about wildflowers?"
"Oh, yes," Coll answered with enthusiasm. "I used to go to a park in St. Louis that was close to our apartment. It was loaded with all kinds of flowers, and I'd draw and paint there. Too bad we don't have any where our house is now." Laura, whose normal reserve normally held her back with someone new, felt it slip away with this girl.
"Well, I live on a farm," she said, "and we've got all the flowers you could want -- acres, it seems. Do you think your mom would let you come out and paint them with me?" Coll brightened.
"I'm sure she wouldn't mind. She'll be happy I made a new friend."
Two days later, after an exchange of phone calls between the mothers, Coll drove out to the farm. Mrs. Bishop fixed a lunch of sandwiches and lemonade, talking cheerfully all the while. The girls were polite but restrained in front of the older woman. It wasn't until they took up their paints and headed out the back door that they began to relax, become more animated and talk more freely.
Coll was immediately struck by the wild beauty of the flower-covered slope.
"There are so many, and they're so beautiful," she marveled, as she walked side-by-side with Laura. Miss Doxie barked and scampered up ahead to the shade of the willow tree.
Thus began the bond between the two girls, which grew as they spent more time together, painting and trying to make sense of their adolescent lives. Despite growing up in such different places, they found quite a lot in common. Both were frustrated with school, disliking most of what they had to learn. They were convinced adults didn't understand them. Neither of them had much good to say about boys. Because of her shyness and complete lack of experience, they were largely baffling to Laura. Not so with Coll. She found boys coarse and repulsive.
"They're not like us. They only think with one thing," she said, with a slight shudder, "and it isn't this," she finished, pointing to her head.
As the summer spooled out, the girls were with each other more often than not, sometimes spending most of the day away from the farm with a picnic lunch Laura's mother packed for them. And they became more familiar with each other, relaxed and uninhibited. This was Coll's nature, and it helped Laura emerge from her shell.
When they were apart, Coll remained very much on Laura's mind, a companion as she wandered the meadows by day, and by her side late into the night. She was experiencing a kind of exhilaration, a freedom of spirit she had never known.
One day, after Coll had returned home, Laura found that she had left the bag with her painting supplies behind. Laura decided to take it to her room for safekeeping. When she lifted it onto the shelf in her closet, a piece of notebook paper slipped out onto the floor. Laura retrieved it and saw that there were lines of what looked like poetry written on it in blue ballpoint. She recognized Coll's handwriting.
"...my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn't far from me."
What Laura read sent a tremor through her. Were these Coll's words? Laura replaced the paper in her friend's bag and tucked it into the closet.
But she could not put the verse out of her mind. It deepened what she already felt, that being close to Coll was not like having a sister. It stirred Laura in a different way, a way that was quite unsororal.
The afternoon of August 18th was deep in the midst of the southern Illinois dog days. With school starting up in another week, Laura and Coll were intent on spending as much of their remaining free time together as they could, so they planned for a long excursion, eating an early lunch at the farm before setting off. On this trip, Miss Doxie was left behind at the house where she could doze on the shaded porch.
High overhead, the midday sun was fierce, so the girls, each wearing wide straw hats, made their way quickly up the slope to the relative coolness of the sprawling willow. There they sat close together fanning themselves, talking and giggling. After a time, Laura reached for her satchel of paints.
"Wait," said Coll, taking hold of the other girl's arm, "I've got an idea. Let's take our things and go to the other meadow."
"But, Coll, it's so hot," Laura protested.
"We won't stay long, just a while," Coll answered. "I love that it's so far from everything -- and everybody. It's ours, our secret, just the two of us." Laura could see an intensity in the other girl's face, and it triggered an unexpected thrill in her.
"Alright," she answered. "Just the two of us." They gathered their things and left the shade of the willow, walking a distance through a thick stand of old trees, mostly oak and cottonwoods, before cutting across a shallow gully, up a long incline and over to a secluded half-acre swath of meadow that bordered the bank of a tiny stream. Coll reached out and took Laura's hand and, giving it a gentle squeeze, led her down and through the flowers to a grassy patch near the lip of the rill.
"Right here," said Coll. "Let's paint right here."
"There's not much shade," Laura replied, glancing around. Sun dappled the ground as light sifted through the arching branches of a tall oak.
"Enough," Coll said. "Besides, the sun feels so good today." She was usually quick to complain when the weather was especially oppressive. But even though Laura found Coll's reaction to the heat odd, she would acquiesce. As the weeks had passed and the two of them had grown closer, Laura had come to be in thrall to the older girl. For her it seemed only natural. Her friend was opening her, drawing her out of herself, helping her see the world in new ways.
They unpacked their paints and water, brushes and paper. There was also a quart canning jar of lemonade Laura's mother had prepared. It was still fairly cold, so Laura unscrewed the lid and they passed the jar between them, laughing as they drank.
"I think it's time to paint," Laura said at last. So they took up their brushes, wet them and began mixing colors. Laura turned her attention to the trees and stream, while Coll returned, as she did on each of their outings, to the beauty of the flowers. The girls had painted quietly for a quarter-hour or so when Coll paused.
"You know what I want us to do?" She looked devilishly at her companion.
"I want us to get a real tan."
"What are you talking about?"
"Here, I'll show you," Coll said, never taking her eyes from Laura as she unbuttoned her white cotton blouse --
-- reached behind her back, unsnapped her bra and slid out of it.
"What are you doing?" Laura said, eyes wide, flustered at her friend's unexpected act and her nakedness.
"Now you," Coll commanded.
"I will not," Laura answered, her face flushing.
"You trust me, don't you?"
"Well, yes, but . . . "
"Well, then, come on," Coll continued. "Here, let me help." And before Laura could protest further, Coll reached out and began undoing the buttons on her friend's blouse. When she finished, she drew the blouse open.
"Now, you finish."
"But, Coll . . . " Laura tried to object, but her resolve was weakening as there arose within her a sensation she could not deny. Her eyes flashed around as if she was worried she was being watched.
"Go ahead," Coll said, "there's nobody else, just you and me."
"Well . . ." Laura began tentatively, using her right hand to undo the clasp of her brassiere and remove it.
"Now," said Coll, "lay down by me." With a self-conscious giggle, Laura joined her friend in putting aside their straw hats and lying side by side, squeezing their eyes tightly against the glare. After a long moment, Coll breathed a deep sigh. "Mmmm, it feels so good. Doesn't it feel wonderful?"
"Yes," Laura answered softly, titillated by Coll's proximity and the heat pulsing against her pale torso.
"I've got another idea," Coll said, rolling onto her side to face Laura. The younger girl raised a hand to shield her eyes and looked at her friend.
"What?" Coll searched Laura's face.
"I want you to just lay there with your eyes closed."
"Okay. Then what?"
"Nothing. Just lay there -- and promise not to open your eyes."
"And what are you going to do?" Coll, again with a hint of devilment in her smile, answered.
"That's a secret."
"Coll, come on."
"You trust me, right? You said you trusted me."
"Okay, then, lay back down and close your eyes." Laura complied, while Coll got to her feet and removed her blouse. "No peeking, promise?"
Laura heard Coll move away, but she kept to her word not to look. What was she up to? Laura lightly brushed a hand across her skin which, despite the heat, sent a deep shiver through her. The world was far away. The only sounds were the gentle murmuring of the brook and the rising and falling thrum of cicadas in the trees. Where could she have gone?
Presently, Laura heard the footsteps of her friend returning.
"Where have you been, girl?" Coll laughed.
"A surprise, remember? Now, no peeking, please." With that, Coll knelt next to Laura and, from the large bunch of wildflowers she clutched to her chest, began strewing the blossoms onto Laura's bare torso -- coneflower and corn poppy, blue flax, Indian blanket, goldenrod and New England aster. As the flowers began covering her, Laura picked up their scent and her breath caught.
"Coll . . ."
When she had dropped the last of the flowers, Coll bent close to Laura's ear and whispered.
"A thin flame runs under my skin." For Laura, that moment finally unlocked a door that, though not always conscious of it, she had been pressing against harder each time she was with Coll or when the image of the older girl stole upon her late at night. Without opening her eyes, Laura's arms encircled Coll and drew her close.
Overhead, the August sun shimmered down. The girls' legs entwined, knocking over the water jar, spilling the liquid across their paintings, causing the colors to bleed one into the other.
Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His story "Boomerang" appeared in the January issue of Backchannels Journal. In addition, his writing has appeared in Nonconformist Magazine, the San Antonio Review, Samjoko Magazine, Short Story Town, Danse Macabre Magazine, Pigeon Review, CafeLit Magazine, the Green Silk Journal, Typeslash Review, The Potato Soup Journal, 50-Word Stories, Sein und Werden, Of Rust and Glass, Little Death Lit, Flyover Magazine, Sandpiper, Fiery Scribe Review, The Chamber Magazine, The Best of CafeLit 11 and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.