Audra, Jess and I lounged listlessly on the porch swings in front of the Hubers’ apartment building. It was a typical dry season day, hot and humid. The sun beat down with excruciating force and refused to loosen its unbearable grip even for an instant. Lazily we kicked and skidding our calloused toes against the rough cement patio as we rocked.
We’d strategically selected the swings—not out loud; there’d been no official discussion—but we didn’t need one. The swings hung directly in front of the Williams brothers’ apartment door. To be fair, there was a Williams sister, and two Williams parents as well, but they were far less interesting to us than the four boys, all devastatingly handsome and charming. Sadly, the whole family was away for the weekend, so our unofficial plans were officially dashed and they showed no possibility of improving. The realization gnawed at our moods while the stifling heat and horrible humidity chiseled away our energy and ambitions. We swayed lethargically back and forth. Back and forth.
“Wanna play tag?” I asked, more out of habit than genuine enthusiasm.
Ehs, shrugs, I don’t knows, we don’t have enough people for a good game and other vague excuses were the half-hearted replies. We were bored and wasting a perfectly good Saturday afternoon. We were usually experts at making games and finding things fill the hours, but today nothing was appealing.
“How about climbing the goiba tree?” Audra suggested after a long silence.
Jess had already been there. She gnawed on a very small, very unripe goiba, scraping the emerald green skin with her teeth and spitting out the peel, trying to reach the off-white center. A mature fruit would have had a soft chartreuse skin and delicate salmon-colored insides. “There’s nothing ripe,” she declared as she hurled the hard orb over the “basketball court”—a smooth cement slab with a single basketball hoop at one end—and watched the fruit bounce in the dirt and roll under the goiba tree. She brushed her fingers together, then wiped her hand across her oversized shorts, already stained with dirt and grime. “We got ‘em all yesterday. What about a water fight?”
“We can’t; we’re in a shortage, remember?”
“‘Y’all’s makin’ the well run dry!’”
We laughed at the memory of our recent reprimand.
Yeah, we’ve got to save all the water that we can.”
A game of HORSE?”
“The basketballs are both up in Joe and Isaiah’s apartment and they’re at the conference, too. Besides, it’s so hot. Really hot. I bet it’s 120 degrees in the sun. Yesterday, Dad put our thermometer out on the pavement at noon and the thermometer didn’t go high enough to measure the temperature,” Audra informed us.
“I heard you can fry an egg on the sidewalk when it gets that hot!” Jess interjected excitedly.
“Nah, Scott tried it, I guess, but it didn’t work. It’s just something people say, but it isn’t true,” I said.
“Oh. Well, speaking of eggs, how about making cookies?”
“Nope. Can’t. Out of eggs. And flour and sugar, too. And Dad has the car at the shop, so Mom can’t make a grocery run until later on. I already asked.”
“And we can’t do anything at my house,” Audra added. “Mom’s working on a project today and needs to get it done. She specifically said she didn’t want to be bothered.”
Another long pause followed.
“Oh, what about the boat shop? Do you think we could go down to the river?”
“The boat shop? That’s a good idea!”
“Let’s go down to the boat shop.”
Dad was the boat shop manager. It was the reason we’d come to Brazil in the first place. There they built and repaired metal boats to carry medical supplies and church planters out to river villages, unreachable by land. The shop stood on the bank of the Tapajos River, the largest tributary to the Amazon, and it was only a few blocks away from our house. If you stood in the area outside of our front gate and looked west, down the sloping road, paved, but riddled with potholes, the water was clearly visible, stretching deep into the horizon, vast like the ocean. The river seemed like a good idea, a fine alternative to our day’s dreary blahs. We could collect some clay and play around in the water and mud. There were always all sorts of strange treasures, odd objects, and interesting places to explore when the waters went down.
Jess and I ran home for permission and Audra headed to her house as well. On our end, approval was awarded, Kyle joined us, and we barreled triumphantly out of our yard, slamming the metal gate behind us as we tore up the sidewalk to Audra’s abode. Buster was closed in the back, so we tugged at their latch and let ourselves through the tall black iron gate onto the front porch/car port.
Audra’s distraught voice greeted us from a far. “But Moooooom! It isn’t fair!” Pause. A low voice, indiscernible, answered. “Oh, fine!” she huffed. A door closed a little more enthusiastically than it should have. This time, the softer voice was clearly audible, “Audra Christine!”
“I’m sorry, Mom, It was an accident, okay?”
We paused for a moment, letting the voices fade away, before clapping.
Aunt Joan opened the door. She wasn’t actually our aunt. In Brazil, children addressed close family friends as tia and tio, “aunt” and “uncle,” even when there was no blood relation.
“Is Audra home?” we asked sheepishly, already knowing the answer.
“She’ll be out in a minute. She’s straightening up her bedroom,” Aunt Joan replied.
“I’m almost done!” Audra shouted from the back of the house. She soon emerged. “Hurry up, Drea,” she ordered as she left her room and walked down the hall to meet us. She stepped out onto the porch.
“Mom said it’s okay; she just wants us to check in with Dad before we go down to the river,” Jess answered the question in Audra’s eyes.
“What about you?” I whispered. “What did your mom say?”
Audra’s blue eyes sparked in annoyance and she rubbed absentmindedly at the splotch of pure white skin stretching across her tan jawline. “I can go,” she said, with considerably less enthusiasm than the news should have warranted.
“Then what’s wrong?”
“Mom says I have to take the little shadow along.” She raised her eyebrow and gestured with her head towards the open front door. Her youngest sister was tugging at the door knob, struggling to get it to close behind her. “It’s either take her, or I have to stay here and babysit,” she whispered dramatically. “Mom’s working on a project for a class at Liberdade and she needs some space to get it all done this afternoon. She was about to send Drea outside to play with us.” She sighed apologetically.
Audra wasn’t thrilled. She liked her little sister, but babysitting wasn’t exactly the way she wanted the afternoon to go.
“It’ll be fine. Kyle’s coming with us, too,” I added, hoping to improve her spirits. “No problem.”
“Yeah, but he’s a lot older.”
“And you aren’t responsible for watching him?” Jess teased.
Audra groaned, but cracked a grin and didn’t deny it.
“I forgot something, Audra! Don’t leave without me. I’ll be right back!” Drea disappeared into the house again.
We stood on the porch and waited, silently tapping our toes against the cool tile. We ran around shoeless, all day, every day. Our feet were tough and calloused, dyed dark with a combination of harsh rays of sun and rich Amazonian soil. I didn’t even own a proper pair of shoes, the kind that fit snuggly around my toes and tied with laces. Most days of the year, bare earth, tree trunks, and smooth ceramic tiles were the only things my feet ever encountered. It wasn’t any different for the other PAZ kids. Shoes were rare, but we did all own flip-flops, the cheap plastic ones with thin rubber soles and an uncomfortable plastic toe strap. In college we called this footwear “shower shoes,” a cheap way to avoid grime in the stalls of our communal dorm bathroom, but in Brazil we wore them to church, trips to the grocery store, and any time we had to go outside after we’d already bathed for the night. Andrea, seeing this as an official outing of sorts, pushed open the front screen door and stepped onto the porch again, this time wearing her flip-flops.
“Drea, why don’t you just leave the flip-flops at home?” Audra asked.
“I wanna wear them!” she insisted.
“Take them off!”
“Maybe it’s better that she take them,” Kyle suggested, trying to make peace. “The asphalt’s really hot right now, especially if we’re not gonna run it.”
“But it’ll slow her down…” Audra moaned in response, but she saw some sense in Kyle’s argument and acquiesced. “Fine, wear them if you want, but you’ve gotta be able to keep up!”
“I will!” Drea insisted.
“They’re new,” Audra explained apologetically, gesturing towards the offending flip-flops. “I’m sure that’s why she wants to wear them.”
We soon set out, walking down to the river at a slightly slower stride than originally intended, but without any major issues. We checked in with Dad in his office before bee-lining for the bank. The river, still large by normal river standards, was only a trickle of its otherwise immense self. We walked and picked our way along the sandy, clayey shore. The moist sand was passable. The clayey stretches in some areas had baked hard in the hot sunlight and were sturdy as rocks, but other places held patches of deep clay muck, dark gray, with a thick pudding consistency. Those soft patches had a suction-like quality to them. As we stepped in and out, the clayey muck sucked and slurped at our bare feet, ankles, and knee caps. Audra went ahead of her little sister, maneuvering the terrain and lifting Drea over sensitive or questionable spots.
But we soon came to an impasse, at least as far as the carrying trick went. We had to wade across a stretch of river with bank underneath and the ground wasn’t steady enough for carrying. Jess set out first, lightly skipping over the spot and making it to the other side. I followed nervously after, but also had no issues. The path was reasonably sound and solid, solid sand instead of soupy clay. “I’m gonna send Drea over next,” Audra planned. “I’ll help her from this side—”
“And we’ll help her from this one!” Jess chimed in. “Come on, Drea, you’ll be fine.”
“Wait!” Audra cried as her little sister stepped into the river. “You need to take off those flip-flops. I’ll hold them for you, but you might lose one in the water.”
“No,” Drea firmly shook her little head, firmly lifted her tiny chin, and stubbornly held her ground. “I don’t wanna walk through THAT without my shoes.”
Audra was clearly annoyed.
“Take ‘em off, Drea!”
They were at a standoff, and Audra eventually lost ground with a verbal misstep.
“If you don’t take them off, we’ll have to turn around right now and go home. You don’t want to go home yet, do you?”
Well, it turns out, Drea had no issues whatsoever with calling an end to our little river expedition, but Audra had other plans for the afternoon, so she conceded defeat.
“I think she’ll be alright,” I reassured. “It really is pretty solid walking here.”
Flip-flops underfoot, Drea stepped into the water, then took another step, and another—VOOOOP!—her right foot hit a hidden patch of soft clay and sank into the quicksand-like goop. She gasped, staggered forward, and drenched her shorts up to her waist as we all lunged in to stabilize her. She was fine. With our help, she pulled her foot out of the hidden booby trap in the river bottom. Apart from a thick gray sock of clay, it was completely bare. The flip-flop had found a new home in the belly of the Tapajos riverbed.
“Auuuudra, I’m all wet and muddy!” she wailed anxiously as Audra lifted her sister and carried the sopping sludgy mess back to the water’s edge.
“You just have clay on your leg, Dre. It’ll wash right off.”
With the mud washed away and the flash of fear subsiding, Drea came to her senses. She was the first to notice the missing footwear. “My flip-flop! I lost my NEW flip-flop! I promised Mom I’d be careful with them, and I already lost one!”
“I TOLD you to take them off! Ugh! Don’t worry, Drea, Mom won’t be mad at you. It’ll be my fault. I was in charge of taking care of you and your flip-flops, too.”
“Do you think we can find it?” I asked excitedly, always enjoying a good challenge.
“It’s worth a shot,” Jess shrugged. “Where exactly did she step?”
“Right there, I think. Is there a sinkhole in that area?”
“Hmmm. No. That’s pretty solid. Except…ah-ha! Found something!” Jess exclaimed.
“Nope. Sorry. Just a piece of plastic. Ick.” She tossed the offending garbage towards the shore. “Oh! This must be the mud hole.”
“My shorts are ALL WET!” Drea cried from the bank.
“They’ll dry before we get home!” Audra yelled to her sister. “Besides, we’re all gonna be soaking wet before too long, trying to find this stupid shoe,” Audra predicted pessimistically under her breath.
She was right. We stomped around in the little stream of river water, feeling with our feet, and occasionally pushing up our shirt sleeves as far as they would go, and reaching down into the water, now impossibly murky and absolutely opaque. So intent were we at the task at hand, that no one immediately noticed a water-traveling vessel attempting an escape.
Jess happened to look up, and shouted, “Oh, look! There is is!”
Unbeknownst to us, our efforts had dislodged the missing footwear from its miry hiding place. It popped up a ways downstream and, even as we watched, it floated down the dredged-out channel and moved towards the river proper.
Target in sight, we raced along the river bank, chased it down, and using a piece of driftwood, managed to snag one of the plastic toe straps and fish the flip-flop from the water. The toe strap had pulled apart, probably when Drea first stepped in the mud, but we squeezed the broken end of the strap back through the sole. It was as good as new.
After the flip-flop fiasco, we decided to head homeward. The sun was starting to dip towards the western horizon over the river. We’d had a rather enjoyable time, and managed to successfully complete an impromptu shoe rescue, so Jess, Kyle and I were in high spirits. Audra, on the other hand, was still less than thrilled. “
Drea, put on your flip-flops,” she instructed. “It’s time to go home.”
Embarrassed by the fuss she’d caused, Drea refused to wear them. She’d learned HER lesson. She stubbornly refused.
“Put ‘em on!”
“Fine!” Audra huffed. She open a plastic grocery bag she’d brought along with plans of gathering molding clay, pretty stones and other river treasures and threw the flip-flops into the bag. She twirled the handle around a few times, then tossed the tiny bundle over her shoulder and we began our walk home.
When we reached the paved road that we lived on, Audra opened the bag.
“You’re gonna want these now, Drea, the asphalt is still gonna be…” Her voice trailed away. We stopped and turned around. “This bag has a hole in it!”
Jess, Kyle and I crowded around; Drea did not. She inched slowly away from the group.
“Did anything fall out?”
“Let me see. Here’s one flip-flop…” Audra mumbled. “Where’s the other one? It’s not here! Drea! Where is she? Dreaaaaa!”
But Drea had heard enough. She was already halfway home, running up the road as rapidly as her little legs allowed. We watched her open the gate and safely enter their yard.
Audra moaned. “Anyone up for another shoe hunt?”
© Angela M. Adams
About Short Story Saturday: Last year, Short Story Saturday jumped around all over the place. It included current writing and very old. There was fiction, nonfiction, and something in between. One week I wrote about garbage disposal in Japan; then came a story about my husband and I shooing a bunny out of our garden; and there was a fictional piece about dying young mixed in there, too. No rhyme, no reason. 2015 will likely be more of the same. I’d like to focus on childhood, especially my years growing up in South America, but I’m not sure I’m ready to promise that. We shall see…
All posts on this site were written by Angela M. Adams (unless otherwise noted) and they may not be copied elsewhere without her permission. Thank you!