The Coldest Summer

by Chelsea McLin

Zola had brown skin. It was really brown, browner than mine. Her eyes were dark, darker than mine. And her face was beautiful, more beautiful than mine. She never said that she was prettier than me, but I just knew it. All the boys stared at her, and they never paid much attention to me when she was around. She never really noticed them, but I did.

I met Zola when she and her dad moved down the street this past spring. It was just the two of them all alone in their big house. She didn’t really like to talk about her mom though. When I brought her up, she’d get really sad so I stopped mentioning her. I stopped mentioning mothers all together just to be safe.

Her dad was one of those big business guys. He was hired to be the east regional manager of some retail store so he was never really around, but he was always overbearing on Zola. He told Zola what to wear, and how to speak, and who she could speak to. I never understood how someone could be so controlling and so invisible at the same time.

Since Zola’s dad was gone most days, I spent a lot of time at her house keeping her company. We would swim in her pool, watch movies, and she even let me braid her hair. Her hair felt like my old knitted sweater, but it was so long and full, like ringlets of cotton cascading through my fingers.

We were hanging out in her bedroom one summer night. Some reality show was playing in the background, and Zola was sitting on the floor glancing through a magazine. I sat behind her in this big blue bean bag, with her hair woven between my fingers.

“I wish I had hair like yours,” I tied the end of her braid with an elastic and clipped in a ribbon to finish.

“No,” Zola snapped around, “Don’t say things like that. You’re perfect just the way you are.” Mom always told me that I was beautiful, but I actually believed it when Zola said it.

The leaves had fallen and snow blanketed itself across the earth. Zola and I rushed inside her house. We jumped around quickly to defrost ourselves after our walk from school. It was a quick walk, but our clothes were dampened by the snow. I stripped myself of my book bag and heavy coat. I laid my things on the coat rack by the front door and headed to the living room. Zola ran off for a moment and returned with a big wool blanket. We snuggled underneath it on the couch, and she rested her head in my lap.

We gazed out of the window at the backyard and watched the snow fall over all the furniture. Her pool was drained for the winter and had collected a nice layer of ice inside. The windows were slightly frosted, and the sky was a crisp blue white. I was so warm sitting beside her. I could sit next to Zola for hours and never say a word. Mom would always say that’s a special kind of friendship when you can sit in silence with a person and not ever speak.

Zola shifted upward onto the couch and settled into a nice seated position. She grinned at me and stared at me with big eyes. I smiled in return.

“Do you want to go to formal together?” She asked.

“That’s so random,” I tried to laugh it off. “I thought Manny asked you.”

“Yeah. He did. But I don’t wanna go with him. I don’t like him.”

“Well, there are other boys. Some other boy will go with you.”

Zola said nothing else and laid back down. This time her head rested on my chest and her arm wrapped around me. My heart quickened, and I knew she could feel it because her thumb stroked my side in syncopated rhythm. The warmth of her breath traveled up my body to my neck, and I could feel her on my face. I could feel her on my lips, my hips. We were in July. It was snowing, but we were in July.

I fell asleep in Zola’s arms. I had slipped off into another dream. Intricately sewn snowflakes danced around an orange sky, and I was floating in the midst of it all. But yelling disturbed me. It pulled me away from the dream, and I abruptly opened my eyes. Zola’s dad had come home, and he was furious. He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me away from Zola, yelling at me to get out. I disobeyed and stayed for the sake of Zola, but my presence was useless. He ripped of his belt and hit Zola on her back. He whipped her like some stray animal. I couldn’t protect her. I could hardly protect myself. I just stood off to the side defenseless hearing her screams and his voice shout over and over. His voice still rings in my ears, and her cries still haunt my sleep.

“What did I tell you about this!? Huh!?” The veins bulged on his forehead with every strike. My mom and dad spanked me once when I was little because I was acting up in school, but they loved me, and I had done wrong. Zola didn’t do anything, and he beat her like he hated her.

When Zola’s dad finished, he shoved my belongings into my chest, and pushed me to the door. His face was drenched in sweat and exhaustion. I tried to get a good look at Zola over his shoulder, but he pushed me too fast, and I only caught a glimpse of her hair. I walked home confused with an unwelcoming feeling resting on my shoulders. The snow wasn’t as pretty anymore. It had blackened from dirty cars, and the sky turned grey. I was cold.

That was the last time I saw Zola. She didn’t show up to school the next day or the day after that. Weeks had gone by, and there was still no Zola. I just wanted to see her, to know if she was okay. I walked to her house to peek through a window. Maybe I could catch her when her Dad wasn’t around. I stopped by her house on my way after school, but a “For Sale” sign in the middle of the front yard stopped me.

Mom and Dad said that Zola would be fine. They said that God would look out for her. It offered me no comfort. I kept telling them that I just didn’t understand. We hadn’t done anything wrong. I asked my dad if he could ever hit me the way Zola’s dad did. Hit me! Look me in the eyes and hurt me. His own child!

He shook his head and kissed me on my forehead.

Mom wrapped me in her arms, and I sobbed. She said that sometimes people’s hearts were full of so much hate, that it blinded them. They were so blind with bigotry that they would mistake their own child for evil. I told her that I still didn’t understand. She hushed me and continued to rock me. She said that she didn’t really understand herself, but to take solace in the love that she and Dad have for me. And pray that Zola finds that kind of love too one day.

Photo: iStockPhoto

Chelsea McLin is currently a student majoring in English with a minor in Ethnic Studies. She hopes to attend graduate school to work toward a MFA in screenwriting to bring stories like this to the big screen.