Sunshine was standing in the lake when she discovered the stones, one behind each bare nipple. They’d felt tender in the cold water so she’d stood and cupped her palms against each and found them—two strange, tucked-away treasures.
Her mama hated the word nipple and instead said buttons when she had to call them anything at all. She also hated the words fart and anus and, for some reason, toenail clippings. If Sunshine’s own nipples worked like real buttons, she could unfasten each one and pluck out the stones for safekeeping.
She pushed her goggles back from her eyes and looked again: The nipples themselves were bigger, she saw—two pink, puffy mounds. Beneath them she could push the stones back and forth, just like with her kneecaps, only her kneecaps were there all along and these stones were what JL would call une surprise. JL only spoke French to annoy their mama, who insisted that the Turners never mistake themselves for Cajuns. Mama said Cajuns both drank and talked too much to be trustworthy—and whoever knew the difference between the truth and another tall tale? Mama only said these things because of Sunshine’s daddy, who was half-Cajun. He told true tales and tall tales, and Sunshine had to admit it was hard to tell the difference. He told her, for instance, that a crocodile lived in the lake—though everyone knew there were only gators. But her daddy shook when he talked of it, his eyes buggy.
It was massive, he’d said, its hide black as time itself, with jaws that could swallow a whole house. “Could swallow you, Sunny, before you even saw that crocodile for yourself. You’d live out your days in a crocodile belly.”
* * *
The morning was swollen with humidity. On their walk to the lake, steam had curled off the grass that grew along the ditches. Sunshine had been excited that JL came along, but once they arrived she’d only flopped back on her towel and declared she was going to get so tan that the pale skin underneath her freckles caught up to the color of the freckles themselves. Now, as Sunshine stood in the water, she squinted toward her sister and saw something else she hadn’t noticed before: Rising up from beneath JL’s olive green bikini top were two breasts.
Little green hills on a flat, pale landscape.
If their mama weren’t there, Sunshine could confess to JL about the stones. JL would tell her what she knew from the library books she read in secret, like the name for the stones, and if they should be squeezed out of Sunshine’s belly button or if they were the start of something else—of breasts, maybe, or something worse, something monstrous.
* * *
The lake was not actually a lake but a wide and deep brackish bayou. The far shore was crowded with tupelo and cypress; once, out in her daddy’s bateau, Sunshine had seen a gator leap from under the duckweed to snatch a mama duck sitting on her eggs in the hollow of a rotting tupelo. Sunshine had screamed, but her daddy had only sipped his flask and grinned lazily, like he wasn’t at all impressed.
On the swimming side, Sunshine had only ever seen one gator—a three-footer moving sluggishly toward warmer water. Cold springs bubbled up from deep in the earth on this side and turned the water an abrupt, clear jade. Still, someone had long ago tied up a yellow safety rope to emphasize the boundary anyone could plainly see. “Never, ever let me catch you swimming under that yellow rope,” Mama warned them every summer.
Sunshine obeyed, but she liked to put on her goggles and swim as close to the rope as she dared. She liked to peer toward the opaque, pea green water on the other side and imagine what might be hiding just out of sight.
* * *
Sunshine looked up from where she was still touching her chest. Mama stood waist-deep, her face pinched up like she’d stepped on something sharp. “It’s time you start wearing a top when you swim, you hear?”
“Yes ma’am,” Sunshine said, then sank down until the water was up past her shoulders.
Mama sighed. “Honey, it’s okay to be naked with just us girls. But around other folks—around your daddy—you stay modest.” She loped back toward shore, her wet red hair glistening.
Sunshine’s throat felt knotted and tight, and her cheeks burned. She wanted to follow Mama back to the towels and bury her face against her freckled shoulder. Whenever she cried, Mama knew to touch her back just right, or dig in her purse for a Werther’s Original, sticky with age.
But to leave the water would be to walk, stones exposed.
She turned her back to the shore and pulled her goggles down over her eyes. Her daddy had given her the goggles for her birthday last summer. They had a red rubber strap and their lenses were made from the good kind of plastic that didn’t fog up. Over the far tree line, the clouds were piled like teetering boulders. The yellow rope wasn’t too far ahead. Slowly, she swam closer.
“Sunshine—” Mama called, but Sunshine pretended not to hear. She took a long breath and ducked under.
Along the sandy floor, minnows scattered like arrows, then disappeared in the soupy green water just ahead. She swam closer and then closer. At the surface of the water above, the yellow rope and blue sky wavered like light.
Then just ahead, she saw something—a shadow. She started. Her feet kicked up little swirls of sand. But there it remained, past the divide. It wasn’t a gator; it was too large. It was massive. She heard her mother call her name again from far away, but she kicked her legs and glided forward.
Just to see.
Ashleigh Bell Pedersen’s fiction has been featured in New Stories from the South, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Design Observer, The Silent History, A Strange Object, and the New York Public Library’s Library Simplified app. Her story “Small and Heavy World” was a finalist for both Best American Short Stories and a Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, where she was the recipient of a full scholarship and teaching fellowship as well as the Turow-Kinder Award. Her writing is represented by Jon Curzon at Artellus Ltd. She currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes, acts in theater and film, and regularly but unsuccessfully attempts to teach her dog, Ernie, proper leash manners.