The sun was blasting down on that stretch of beach at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. People ran to the waters edge as fast as they could to soak their burning toes after crossing the hot sand. It had been an unusually dry summer in the Twin Cities and all the beaches were packed. Lifeguards were blowing their whistles repeatedly at kids swimming out too far and playing chicken. Mothers were stuck between protecting their babies from the sun or overheating them with covers. This was a stark contrast to the month before when Elena and Alan had gone up to Grand Marais near the border between Minnesota and Canada. Though different, being at this beach, Alan couldn't help but be reminded of that dreary weekend.
At the end of a large parking lot had been a mess of shrubs and trees, and one wooden sign that read "Artist's Point." Alan could feel an excited tension on Elena as they walked past that sign on the gravel path. This place was her secret; she knew all the hidden paths, all the mysterious nooks, and all the interesting places where trees tore apart great boulders in the constant battle of paper versus rock. Although she seemed eager Elena also looked gaunt. It had been another rough year trying to work through depression and anxiety. She was pale as a ghost, especially slumped in baggy black clothes, and Alan knew she was too thin. As they reached the end of the path that opened into a rocky cove though, Elena stood taller and smiled for the first time that year.
This place was new to Alan, and he looked around in awe. Artist's Point was like a dragon, something that only existed in stories or in far-away lands. Full of smooth and pointy sandstone cliffs shaped by the waves of Lake Superior with branches jutting out from cracks, and moss draped like curtains over damp crevices. To him it seemed like an omen, something that looked sturdy, but upon closer inspection seemed to be falling apart.
Alan came prepared for this place, and carried his old green backpack with him, the one from kindergarten with his initials sewed into it by his late great-grandmother. He'd been made fun of for it before, but now the initials were useful. It didn't carry school supplies anymore, but instead it had snacks, a first aid kit, plenty of water and sunscreen for his easily burned skin. He wore an old plaid button-down t-shirt, and a pair of baggy jeans with holes in the knees and torn up hems. On his feet was a pair of thrift store high-tops that were bright red underneath the dust. His mop of curly hair was tamed only by a St. Louis Blues baseball cap his father had lent him.
They reached a small rocky wall and climbed to the top. Up there Alan could see forever, the dark lake water stretched out for miles, he could hear seagulls raucously cat-calling their lovers and feel the mist on his face. It was the closest thing to the ocean he had ever seen. The barrenness of the smooth rocks and lake without even a boat cried out pitifully to Alan, like a siren drawing him in to drown in aching emptiness. This place was Elena; it had her written all over it from the heavy clouds in the sky to the waves washing painfully across the craggy shore. The pines behind them shrouding as many mysteries as Elena did from him.
"Rain?" Alan asked.
"Hmm?" She responded, distracted by her thoughts.
"I need to tell you something, can you look at me?" His voice was quiet.
"Okay?" She said stopping and turning to look at him. Her nose was scrunched.
"Look Rain, I like you, a lot, and I have for a long time. I can't keep it a secret anymore."
"What!?" Elena looked panicked, like a rabbit in front of a predator. "No, Alan you can't do this to me, I…You know I'm in love with somebody else, you're supposed to be like my brother!"
"Rain, Rain, no its okay. I know that and I don't mean for you to change for me. I just felt I needed to tell you." He said holding his hands open in surrender. Elena turned away.
"I can't do this right now, I'm going to go paint some stupid trees or something." She took a few steps "You're still my best friend Alan, I just can't deal with this right now." The last words she whispered and Alan barely caught them on the wind and watched as she disappeared into the thick piney growth like she often did in her mind.
Alan was pulled out of his memories by the sound of a child crying as it tripped and fell in the sand a few feet away
"Ugh, will someone come and comfort that brat, no one wants to hear it screaming." Grace commented.
Elena and Alan's friend Grace had dragged them out into the sun because she was tired of sitting indoors all summer. She wore a blue and white striped bikini under short-shorts, big sunglasses, and had her long black hair pinned up in a messy bun. Out of the three she was the only one who was tan. Elena, or Rain as her friends called her had managed to find a bathing suit with shorts that went down to her knees and a sports bra-like top. Over this she wore a flowing skirt and a tank top. Her pale skin showed how little sun she got. Alan had worn swim trunks and a t-shirt, he didn't mind the sun, but he didn't tan he freckled.
As Alan spread out their beach towels, Elena stared at the water and ran her fingers over the side of her thigh. Even through the fabric she could feel the stinging of the healing cuts. Grace snapped her out of her spacing by waving in her face
"Rain," she said, "let's go swimming already!" She took off her shorts and sunglasses. Elena took her skirt and tank top off and watched as Grace rolled her eyes at the swimsuit. "What is with you Rain? Why would you cover up like that, do you cut or something?" She snipped. Elena scrunched her nose and squinted.
"What are you talking about, I just prefer to be more modest." Elena said laughing to brush off the idea.
"But you're so tiny!" Grace said gesturing wildly. "If I had what you have I sure as hell wouldn't cover it up."
"Well I'm not you Grace!" Elena's voice was raised. "Besides, I thought you wanted to swim." Grace just shook her head, and Elena stalked off to the water. As she left Grace looked to Alan for backup.
"She does cut doesn't she." It wasn't a question, but a statement.
"Look Grace, stop bothering Rain." Alan said, "If she wanted to talk about it she would."
"Don't you like her or something though?" Grace asked, "I thought maybe you'd care more, or at least know something."
"Of course I like her, you've known that for years!." Alan snapped.
"Does she know?" Grace asked.
"She does now." Alan huffed.
"Oh? Since when?"
"Grand Marais." Alan sighed.
"Well then haven't you seen her… with less than that?" Grace asked pointing to Elena sitting with their back to them in the shallow water.
"No? Really cause I would've thought…"
"No, Grace," Alan cut her off "Now stop, and leave her alone, even if she does cut herself…" He winced, trailing off. "What she needs is support not interrogation, so just stop." Grace crossed her arms over her chest and snorted.
"Fine but don't blame me if things get worse."
"Grace, let's just have fun today okay?" Alan asked, and Grace shook her head but followed him as they went to join Elena at the water. After swimming for a while, Alan and Elena had both cheered up, but Grace complained that she was getting pruney and wanted to lie in the sun. She told the two they didn't have to go with her and could stay, but they decided to take a walk into the tree-shaded places near the beach.
They walked in silence for a while until Elena spoke.
"Alan, I guess now's a good time to tell you I've started seeing a councilor." She said.
"Really?" He asked, "Since when?"
"You remember that day I got lost during school, after we got back from Grand Marais?" She said. "The guy who gave me directions told the school and they set me up with someone."
"Oh." Alan paused, not sure how to respond. "Well that's good, I mean I'm glad you're getting help with your anxiety, but it's kind of a big secret to keep you know? Elena was quiet for a moment but when she spoke she was almost yelling.
"You're one to talk Alan! About keeping secrets, really!?" She yelled. She wouldn't look at him and kept walking even though he'd stopped.
"Rain, I'm sorry I didn't mean… I just worry about you, you know? I don't want to push you away." Elena stopped.
"You big idiot." She said, her voice cracking. "Look sometimes even when two people are really important to each other they need some time apart okay?"
"Rain, what do you mean?" He asked, he could feel the panic rising in his chest.
"I mean I've been thinking maybe we should stop hanging out for awhile… I don't know for how long, or if we will ever hang out again." She said, shaking, she still wouldn't look at Alan. "All we do is fight when we hang out, I don't want that, I want to be happy."
"But, Rain!" Alan said, he could feel the franticness in his voice
"No Alan, please, do this for me?" She said and turned around. Tears were streaming down her face, but she kept her head down as she ran back towards the beach, crashing through the trees.
"Anything for you Rain." Alan said, his own voice only a whisper, like the leaves rustling in the wind.