"What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness. " Leo Tolstoy.
And to think, in those days I still believed in everything good and light-hearted. That was when I spent most of my summer listening to the sound of my mother clacking away at her knitting while I sat on the front steps with a glass of sweating iced tea, watching Katie Cavanaugh jump rope in her backyard. Even though I was just a kid, I knew Katie was something real special. She had glowy, dewy skin and thick brown hair was bounced around in the light like it was magic. She always seemed to have a new rhyme to skip with, a new rope trick.
"Three, six, nine
The goose drank wine
The monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line
The line broke, the monkey got choked
and they all went to heaven in a little row boat..."
The day it happened was the day I invited Katie Cavanaugh over for popsicles. I remember because that was why I was so short with Eli, any other day I was pretty good with him. I listened to his hocus pocus, but this day was different. Katie was as perfect up close as she was from the view of my yard. She had freckles across the bridge of her nose that crinkled up when she laughed at my jokes. I had let her choose which flavor she had wanted, she picked grape. I got myself a cherry. Katie was sitting with me on the front porch swing, close enough that our legs were touching.
That's when Eli came out from the front door. Little Eli was six years old, seven years younger than me. He had begun losing teeth and they were falling like shoe-flys, he was always whistling from them, making little chirpy sounds from the gaps. He had bare feet and was wearing dirty blue jeans that looked more brown than blue, they had so much muck on them.
"Don't mess with that well," he says, like he's so wise. Eli had been meaning to ask our parents about the old well we had found in the backyard. "Mama says there's ghost water in there."
"Ghost water? What are you talking about, Eli?"
"At night mama says that ghosts pass over the well thinking it's solid ground, and get sucked into the water by mistake. She said if you drink the water, they'll swallow you up from the inside."
I rolled my eyes, in that way every kid seems to have perfected by thirteen. That look that says they know just about everything. Like I said, I was usually good with Eli, but today I wanted to impress a pretty girl, and I wasn't going to listen even if Jesus Christ himself came and told me so. "Mama just says that because she don't want you playin' around it and then fallin' right in, and you believed it like a sucker."
"No, it is real, Johnny. Don't go near it!"
This was my breaking point. I had to go and look at the well, or Katie would think I was a 'fraidy cat. With the dramatic florish of a TV actor, I tossed my popsicle stick over my shoulder and stood up. Katie grinned and did the same, following me into the backyard. Little Eli was pitching a fit and yelling the whole time. It was late in the evening, and the setting sun was warm on my back. It seemed to be urging me on, telling me that this was the thing that would show Katie that I was way better than Roger Nilson, who half the girls in town pined over.
"I don't see any ghosts."
The well was almost entirely flat, and from a certain angle couldn't be seen at all. The grass around it was overgrown and obscured the ragged rocks that made the circle around it. I found the pail rope stuck into the crack of one.
"Get away from it, Johnny!" Eli cried, tugging at my shirt. I grinned and shook my head. Behind me, Katie was smiling and finishing the other half of her popsicle. It left a charming purple stain on her lips.
The rope was rotted and worn, but it pulled up the pail just fine. The pail was in better shape, only a few dents. I could hear water sploshing around as I lifted it up to take a look. The water inside was bright as diamonds and sparkled just the same. It looked so good and cold, my mouth just about filled with spit at the sight of it.
"Well, look at that. This looks good enough to drink."
I lifted my lips to the side and took a long gulp of it. It tasted sweet, like the most refreshing glass of sugar water I'd ever had. Even more refresing than a glass of my mama's iced tea, sweating in my hand like I remembered. I drank mouthful after mouthful until I could feel my stomach grow heavy and full. Even then, I couldn't stop. I drank that water down until the pail was empty.
"Johnny..." Eli muttered, his eyes were bright and wet. He was quietly crying, and raised a dumb hand to wipe away the dampness. I imitated the gesture, wiping away the water left around my mouth.
Katie looked up at me curiously, then smiled. "No ghosts?"
"No ghosts. Told ya, Eli."
Eli didn't brighten. His eyes furrowed, looking at my expression intently. He shook his head then, and turned and ran back to the house. Me and Katie watched for a moment, before looking at eachother and smiling again. Kids, our shared smile said.
In that moment, I remember feeling very close to Katie. Closer than I felt to anybody in a long while. I'd remember the way she looked at me - as if I were so brave - and the way her hand brushed my shoulder comfortably. I had wanted to kiss her, to brush my hands through the shine of her hair, but we were interrupted. Her mother had called her name, her dinner was ready.
"I gotta go, I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Sure." I nodded and waved as she ran back to her house, her long tan legs only visible for a few moments before she was gone completely. Alone now, and high off of a teen girl's charm, I walked back to my porch. The sun was low now, but I was starting to feel hot. And I started to feel a dryness that went deep into my mouth, following the length of my tongue to the center of my stomach. Drier than sand that lay in the desert sun for a thousand years, it felt like.
I wasn't too worried though, I was just thinking about Katie. How she had looked over her shoulder at me before she'd walked into her house. The tightness in my throat was still there, and I coughed and cleared my throat, hoping something would produce that explained the feeling, but nothing did.
The coughing wasn't voluntary now, I couldn't stop. I could hear the familiar sound of crickets but I could hardly see, my eyes had filled with tears. I kept coughing until the veins in my neck were thick and rope-like. Without seeing, I knew my face was purple and bloated from it. I couldn't breath. I was going to choke and die.
I remembered Eli. They'll swallow you up from the inside.