The Island Of Lote

Episode 24: Birthdays Are Good For Swimming

By Emily Kinney

WHEN IT OCCURRED to Milo that she did not know, she took it calmly and uncaringly. Then when she began to like Simon, she started to get a little bit anxious. She ordered herself to find out, but only got around to it when it occurred to her that it might have already gone by without her knowing it. Therefore, prompted by fear, one day, while it was on her mind, she hurriedly sought out Ajsha and asked her.

"When's Simon's birthday?"

"The twenty-eighth," Ajsha replied without hesitation, not even glancing up from her homework.

"The twenty-eighth of what?" Milo pressed.

"January."

"The twenty-eighth of January," Milo repeated quietly, her brain whizzing. "Wait! That's three days from now."

This remark was what made Ajsha finally lay down her paintbrush and frown in thought.

"Why, yes!" she confirmed after a moment. She saw Milo's distraught expression and added reassuringly, "Don't worry; Father's friends are going to be giving him a party. They do every year. He'll be turning seventeen. Oh. He's growing up so fast!" she added fondly, returning to her half-finished coral reef picture.

"I'm sure," Milo said, trying not to dwell on it too much. Seventeen was an almost inconceivable number for her, but she just kept telling herself that Simon would still be Simon, which kept panic at bay. "But, what should I get for him?" she asked. "It's got to be something really nice."

"How about a kiss?" Ajsha suggested, dipping the tip of her brush into a vivid orange paint.

Milo chuckled forcibly. "In your dreams, sweetheart!"

"Don't you mean his?"

"And his. But, other than that, which is not going to happen, what can I get him?"

"I'm sure you'll find something," Ajsha said distractedly, dotting her paper with little gray specks, which she later said was krill, though Milo thought the mere fact that they were visible made them way to big.

And Milo, despite having every intention of getting Simon a nice gift, once again faced the same problem she had at Christmas: She was virtually penniless. This eradicated the shops in town as options, and she couldn't ask anyone for a loan because she couldn't pay it back. Dejected and running out of time, she, out of frantic desperation, started snooping around the different warehouses, searching for any interesting, unwanted objects that might make good birthday presents. In the end, the only thing she found was a leather string, eighteen inches long. She figured that it wasn't much of a gift, but it was all she had and his birthday was tomorrow. Just as planned, his friends were going to throw him a party and it was being held at the Swallows' hut.

That morning, after scrupulously cleaning the house, so that when the boys came in to destroy it they would first notice how neat it was, Milo ventured into the forest to hastily collect some ripe fruit, but couldn't find any. She didn't mind and was eagerly making her way back, when she heard a cough behind her. Pausing, she was about to turn around to see who it was, when something large broke the air and hit her head.

She blacked out at once and never saw the cougher or the hitter. Awaking some time later, her skull throbbing painfully, she tried to move but discovered that her hands and feet were bound together. She tried to cry out and learned she was gagged. It didn't help that she was surrounded by pure darkness and therefore had no clue where she was. Taking a strong whiff, she recognized the pungent smell of an overloaded, under cared for cellar. She also recognized the temperature to be that of a cellar, and the powdery substance by her cheek had to be dirt. She tried to shout for help, but the gag was wedged in too deeply. She tried to wiggle free, but could not, the ropes on her wrists and ankles obviously tied by an expert. For a moment she lay still and tried to focus her furious mind. Whoever had done this was going to be in big trouble if she ever got out.

"I will," she thought determinedly to herself. "I don't know when, but I will. There's no need to worry."

As she began to calm down, her thoughts strayed to Simon and his party. She reckoned he would worry if she didn't show up or, even worse, think that she had stopped liking him and purposefully wasn't attending. With renewed desperation, she returned to squirming and rocking, frantically trying to free herself. She had no luck, and when she had sufficiently worn herself out, she sagged on the dirt, awaiting help.

The hours dragged by. No one came. Milo got deathly bored and attempted screaming several times, which only produced a stifled buzz so quiet that she could barely hear it. As more time slowly crept away, Milo managed to fall asleep. When she woke up, who knows how many hours later, she was still in darkness. Either no one was looking for her, or it hadn't crossed their minds to check any cellars. Whoever had put her there apparently thought she would be fine being tied up all day long, with no food or water. Why bother taking care of your hostage?

Raging mad, Milo once again tried to break free, but to no avail.

However, her boiling anger wouldn't allow her to give up, and with a twist of her wrists, her fingers touched what felt like a knot. Gasping, she dug her nails into the lump of rope to untie it. It took her a couple of frustrating minutes, for the knot was very tight, but at last it came undone.

She unraveled the rest with haste and ripped off her gag. Rubbing her wrists and ankles, working the feeling back into them, she let out a mirthless, triumphant laugh. It took a while before she could stand up, being cramped so long. When she could, she groped blindly in the darkness, stumbling over a few things on the way, and finally tripped onto some steps. Climbing them, her head, which was still plenty tender, collided with a door. Making disgruntled moaning sounds, she felt along for the handles and flung it open.

The stars were just becoming visible, night just beginning to hug the sky. A full moon was shining palely on the horizon. Milo inhaled the fresh evening air, a welcome after laying next to what had to be a barrel of long forgotten pickled carrots all day, and at once set off for her house. She had to retrace her steps more than twice before she found it, since she had emerged from the cellar in an area of the jungle she had never been to before. When the hut came into sight, she could have fainted with relief. The lamps were on, giving off a glow and splashing puddles of light on the ground, and Simon was chatting with a few friends outside the door. Milo had never felt happier to see him.

Weak with hunger, thirst, and overexertion, she began to stagger towards him. It took about three seconds for him to notice her.

"Milo!" he called out and rushed to her side. He helped her totter another yard before she had to stop.

"Yo," was all that Milo could utter.

"Where you been?" he cried, bewildered by her ragged appearance. "You all right?"

"Yeah, yeah," she muttered, stretching her back. "But tomorrow, someone is going to die."

"I was worried!" Simon said, hugging her shoulders and then swiftly letting go when she nearly fell over. "When you didn't come . . . to celebrate. I wanted go search, but they made me go on."

"With the party?" Milo guessed.

"Yes," Simon murmured sadly. "Why didn't you come? Where were you?"

"Lay off, huh?" she snapped quietly. "I was tied up in a cellar all day."

"What?" Simon inquired, stunned instantly. "How you get there?"

"Don't know," she answered. "I was just walking along, not bothering anyone, and someone knocked me out. When I woke up, I was sitting in pitch black, gagged and tied. My head still hurts."

"Oh," Simon said, suddenly looking disgusted. "When Tambry arrive with her friends, she was carrying a club. 'For keeping boars away,' my -"

"Who's Tambry?" Milo interrupted.

"Tambry Ethlins?" Simon said with a low snarl. "Girl who would do this."

"Ah," Milo said, as he shouted something to his friends and they left shouting back what was undoubtedly birthday wishes. She felt like changing the subject. "Well . . . um . . . where's Ajsha?"

Simon turned back to her and looked up at the sky. "Sleep," he muttered. "She tired. Long day. You're filthy," he added, looking her over.

"'Course I am," Milo said crossly, brushing herself off. "Been rolling around in dirt." She bit her lip. "Sorry I couldn't come to your party."

Simon shrugged. "It is all right. I understand."

"You better!" Milo thought viciously, her cranium aching, though she did truly feel sorry.

"I mean, I'm really, really sorry," she murmured sincerely, forcing herself not to break eye contact. "It is your birthday after all." She paused. "So . . . how does it feel to be seventeen?"

"Like sixteen," he said, not cracking a smile.

Milo chuckled. "I know what you mean."

He sighed. "I wish I could spent my birthday with you," he said softly. "I was looking forward to it."

This made Milo go from feeling bad to terrible. Yes, she had been detained against her will, but she still wanted to make it up to him. Rashly, she decided on an idea.

"Well," she began hesitantly. "Technically, your birthday isn't over yet. Why don't we go do something? Just you and me," she said, pointing from him to herself. "Anything you want."

"Anything?" he repeated, his attention captured.

"That's right. Anything."

He grew excited and contemplated for a moment. "Let's go swimming," he finally said.

Milo almost blacked out again. She thought fast. "You mean . . . you go swimming, and I accompany you?"

Muddled, Simon paused to sort this question out. "Yes," he decided. "Just that."

Milo shrugged helplessly. "Very well," she said, rather shrilly.

"Let's . . . go get ready."

They went inside the house, Milo chewing her lip in worry. The interior of the hut bore the unmistakable markings of a party thrown by teenage boys, and when Milo, in an effort to ignore this for the time being, averted her gaze, she saw a slice of pastry sitting on the kitchen table.

"What's that?" Milo asked, changing course.

"Honey cake," Simon answered, following her. "Birthday present. Very sweet. Try it. Taste it."

Not needing a second invitation, her stomach completely empty, Milo broke off a piece to put in her mouth. An unbelievably sweet flavor spread across her tongue. Most cakes sold today in society are much sweeter than that cake. But after eating nothing but meat and fruit and using sugar as sparingly as possible for so long, it was extremely sweet to Milo. She almost started laughing.

"Oh," she said, her thoughts immediately turning to Boston cream pie and profiteroles. "It's good. Ah, very good. Oh, wait! I just remembered, I have a present for you."

"Really?" he said, reaching over to brush a crumb off of her chin with his thumb.

"Mm-hmm," she muttered briefly distracted by his touch. "Well, a poor excuse for one, but one nonetheless. I'll be right back."

Leaving him with the cake, she headed down the hall to their bedroom, inhaling deeply. Once there, she closed the door to change. Though she had no intention of swimming, she thought it best to still put a bathing suit on under her clothes. She withdrew the leather string from her top drawer and went back. Shamefully, she approached Simon and coiled the string in his hand. He pulled it straight and looked it over.

"Thank you," he said unsurely. "What is it?"

Milo opened her mouth slightly and scratched behind an ear. "Well," she said. "Anything you want. You can tie it around your neck and find a charm to put on it." She brightened at this idea. "The necklace from me, the charm from you."

Simon smiled and tied the string loosely around his throat.

"Thank you," he said again, more warmly, poised to hug her, but didn't. "I'll be right back."

After about five minutes, during which Milo made the rest of the cake disappear, he returned, dressed in swimming shorts, a towel over his shoulder. He led Milo outside and towards the beach. But, instead of heading to the water, he walked along the sand, following the curve of the island. They walked until they arrived at a quiet, sandy cove. The land sloped gently into the water, which was calm and motionless, unlike at the beach where waves continuously pounded the shore. This made the surface of the ocean glasslike, and the black sky, stars, and round moon were reflected with eerie perfection. But what amazed Milo the most was a thirty-foot high, fifty-foot long rectangular boulder sticking from the shore into the water, like a gigantic dock. That was farther up the cove and had several ladders trailing up to the top. Milo peered up at it in the moonlight, then out at the water and shuddered. Simon tapped her arm.

"We swim here," he told her.

Her eyebrows arched and she swallowed hard. "You mean, you will swim and I will be with you?"

Simon contemplated this and said, "Yes. Come on."

He took off his shirt, and waded out into the water. Milo watched helplessly as he dove under and came back up, shattering the night sky's twin. Her spine was prickling painfully and her chest was getting tight. She didn't dare go nearer, not even just to spectate. After splashing about for several minutes, Simon noticed that Milo was still standing rigidly on the shore.

"Come on," he called out, his voice ringing in the air. "The water wonderful. Wonderful water!"

He went under and resurfaced, flaying his wet hair from side to side. He was laughing, but stopped when he saw that Milo hadn't moved.

"Hey," he shouted, beckoning to her with an arm. "Come on!"

Milo stared at him, the whites of her eyes gleaming. She shook her head. Simon frowned.

"What wrong?" he said, doing a backflip. "Come swim."

"N-no," Milo said, feeling like throwing up.

"What?" Simon said, bobbing up and down, his torso making ripples in the water. "No? Why? Come in. Water lovely."

"No," was Milo's single syllable response.

"Why?" he asked imploringly, no longer moving. "Please?"

"No."

After a long, silent moment, Simon swam up to the shore, not taking his eyes off Milo, who remained stiff and upright on the sand. He sat in the shallows and held out his hand. Milo vigorously shook her head.

"Please?" he entreated.

"No."

"Why? Tell me."

"I don't want to," she replied in a short, clipped tone. "You can, but I don't want to."

"Why not?"

"Never mind. You can. Go ahead. Go."

He stared at her, water dripping down his face, the leather string a dark line on his throat.

"I swim every day," he said. "I love it. Love to swim, but tonight I want swim with you. We never go swimming. Don't you like swim?"

Milo wanted to lie. Oh, how she wanted to lie! But she decided it would better if she didn't.

"I used to," she answered truthfully, sounding as if there was an obstruction in her trachea.

"You don't now?" asked Simon upon working this out.

"That's right."

"Oh, come on! Please? For me? Just for tonight?"

Milo shook her head. Being totally immersed in something she was terrified of was not her ideal way of spending any night. Simon stood up, sloshed out of the water, and walked over to her. He took her hand and insistently tried to pull her towards the water. She stood stiff as a board and didn't budge. After several gentle attempts, he gave a mighty tug, sending her flying forward.

"NO!" Milo screamed at the top of her lungs, flailing wildly. "NO! No! No! Simon! Let me go!"

They were now near the water, and Milo was close to tears. She screamed as she watched the water ebb serenely at her feet, and wrenched out of Simon's grasp. Scrambling madly up the slope, she ran to the trees and buried her face in her hands. Simon stood stunned for a minute, before walking over.

"You're scared," he said softly.

Milo looked up, her face flooded with fear. "Yeah," she said, her tone scalding. "That's it, okay? I'm afraid of the water. I am ridiculously, one hundred percent terrified of it."

"Since when?" he asked.

"Since you almost drowned me," she said bitterly, not meeting his gaze. She ripped a leaf off a nearby bush. "Ever since then, I can't stand it."

Guilt contorted Simon's features and filled his heart. He hated being reminded that he had almost killed his wife, and this made it even worse. He exhaled quietly, pondering how to fix it.

"Come on," he said, pulling her hand again.

"Did you not just hear me?!" Milo shrieked, dropping the leaf and rearing back. "I'm too scared to swim."

"I know," he whispered, not letting go, "but I going to help you."

"Help me?" Milo repeated incredulously, pausing in her attempt to yank her hand free.

"Yep. I help you like swimming again." He hesitated. "I feel awful for what I did. I never - I sorry. Very sorry. Don't worry. Trust me." Milo peered at him longingly.

"I wish I could," she murmured out loud.

"You can," Simon murmured back, entwining his fingers with hers.

A month ago, Milo would have scoffed at this, but things were different now. Now, she actually wanted to believe him and she had just discovered how perfectly her scrawny hand fit into his. Barely aware of what she was doing, she nodded. Simon nodded back. Still, trusting and being brave are two different things. She was still having issues with the second one.

Simon did finally get her to the water, though he had to drag her most of the way. She kicked her pants off, but left her shirt on over her suit, only because she was very modest. He got her to the water's edge, her breathing hitching, and quickly wound his other arm around her waist. Slowly, very slowly, toes first, then ankles, they stepped into the calm water. Milo began to whimper noisily and was more than ready to run, but had faith in whatever this plan was of Simon's. However, when they were in up to their waists, Milo had enough.

"All right!" she yelled with false cheer. "That's good. Let's go back."

"No," Simon said gently, stroking her waist with his thumb. "Don't worry. Here, feel the water. It's nice, huh?"

Milo had to admit that the water, still rather warm from the sun, was sort of nice, but still petrifying. It didn't help that she couldn't see her feet or if anything was in close proximity to her feet. Or, if her feet were heading towards an underwater ledge that had nothing but open, endless, bottomless ocean on the other side . . .

Milo let out an involuntary gasp.

"Shhh," whispered Simon.

He slowly dipped their interlocked hands in the water, swirling them around. Milo began to shiver, though she wasn't cold. Simon shushed her again. Between the shushing and the swirling, her tremors began to subside. Maybe she didn't have a phobia after all. Maybe, it was just a scare and she merely had to get used to the water again. Of course, it helped that Simon's arms were encircling her. Oddly, inconceivably, they made her feel safe. Soon she felt confident enough to let her feet break contact with the muddy bottom, and together they swam a little ways.

"Go under," Simon said once they were up to their chests.

"Forget it, brother," Milo snapped.

"Please?" Simon implored softly, right by her ear. She gulped and suddenly felt herself bending her knees.

With excruciating slowness, they lowered themselves inch by inch until the water tickled their necks. Milo squeezed his hand so hard the whole time that she was half concerned she was hurting him. But the other half didn't really care.

"There," Simon said, the water lapping at their chins. But Milo couldn't stand it any longer. She shot back up.

"Simon, I can't," she yipped distressfully, the fear starting to overwhelm her once more.

"Shhh," he said comfortingly, grasping her hand. "It's okay. I here. I not leaving. Sorry, you'll go under when ready. Come on. Let try strokes."

Her heart thumping like a bass guitar, Milo reluctantly lowered herself again. She tried to lift her arm, but failed. Simon helped her out, lifting it high above her head, and then her other one. Whenever she wanted to run, he would hold her until she felt better. The whole time, they continuously moved farther out in the water. Finally, Milo was motivated enough to go under. Unexpectedly, it made her feel spectacular and she came up laughing.

"Good!" Simon told her, clapping. "Can you swim under?"

"A little," Milo said, wiping her eyes. "But I don't want to right now."

"Of course," he said patiently, nodding. "No rushing. Come on, let go out deeper."

Milo blinked, disconcerted, but agreed, and out they headed. However, the second she took a step and couldn't find the bottom, she screamed. She found herself clinging to Simon for dear life. That was when Simon thought it best to move back. But even when she could walk on the soft, sandy ocean floor again, Milo still clung to Simon. He didn't mind one bit, though. Without her fully realizing it, Milo was putting more trust in Simon than she had ever put in any other human being. Whenever she felt that she was about to lose it, Simon made eye contact with her and assured her that she was fine, that he wouldn't let anything happen to her.

"Really?" Milo asked after the third time.

"Yes," he said. "Always."

"Thank you," she murmured after minute.

As the moon climbed higher, Milo at last decided to swim under the water. This was their primary focus, for it was going underwater that scared Milo the most. She was afraid she might not come back up, since, well . . . it had happened before. Hand in hand, they slipped beneath the surface and started to swim. Several times Milo shot right back up because she was frightened, but Simon was an exceptionally patient boy, always soothing, and waited until she was ready to go back under. They finally managed to swim a few feet before resurfacing.

"This is more terrifying than my wedding!" Milo said as she gasped for air and paddled back to a spot where she could stand. Simon laughed as he swam in circles around her.

"How scary was wedding?" he inquired indulgently.

Milo shrugged, holding her arms close to her, watching him. "I don't know. When I was walking down the aisle, I started to cry."

Simon halted. "You did?" he said in disbelief.

Milo nodded. "Didn't Ajsha tell you?"

"No," Simon said earnestly. "I so sorry. I did not know."

"It's cool." Milo forced herself to smile. "The veil was thick. Besides, I bit you."

He laughed again and went back to swimming, taking dives and graceful plunges.

"Wow," Milo commented. "You're a regular fish, ain't ya? Are you always like this in the water?"

"Yep," he said. "I love to swim. Much swimming when fishing, that's why I have job."

"Not to mention the whole industry is practically yours," Milo put in.

Simon didn't answer. Instead, he dove down and lay on the sandy floor. Milo wondered if he was trying to figure out how she knew that. After about two and a half minutes, he came up for air.

"Whoa," Milo mumbled. She saw a bump on the back of his head. "Uh, Simon," she said, "you've got something in your hair."

"Hmm?" he said, feeling his head. "Oh, it is a sea star. Probably got washed in with tide. Better put it back."

He tried to remove it, but the sea star's five arms held fast, its suction cups fastening to his hair the way it would cling to a rock. Simon and Milo moved to the shallows, where they could sit.

"It won't come off," Simon remarked.

"Want me to try?" Milo asked.

"Please," he replied.

Being careful not to get any of his hair, Milo got a grip on the sea star and gently pulled. When it wouldn't dislodge, she gave a mighty yank.

"Ow!"

"Sorry," Milo said. "But it's all tangled. It has to come out. You don't want me to crop your hair, do you?"

"No!"

"Good, now stay still and bear with me."

Simon set his teeth and ground them as Milo pried off the sea star.

"There," she said cheerfully, throwing it out to sea. Simon ran his fingers through his tresses. "Good," he said.

"Come, let go back."

Releasing a weary sigh, Milo looked out at the ocean. The waves were framed by the silhouettes of palm trees, and the surface was dappled with stars. It all looked like a screensaver, except that she had the option of walking right into it. Milo was momentarily enchanted.

"All right," she agreed. "As long as you're with me."

Grinning, he helped her up. "Why didn't you ever tell me you afraid of water?"

"I didn't want to," Milo replied simply. "I haven't even told Ajsha or Squelch. There're lots of things about me that you don't know."

"I know," he admitted, trailing his fingers through the water. "But I know some things."

"Like what?" she challenged, keeping her elbows high.

"Well, I know you love your cat, and love to cook, and your hop music."

"You mean hip-hop?"

"Yes! That stuff. And that you a hard worker and stand up for what you believe in."

"Is that all?" Milo queried.

"You won't tell me anything else," he accused, splashing her. "Ajsha say that you told her about your life, but she won't tell me any more. All she say is that you had it hard."

The temperature in Milo's body seemed to plummet, and she turned away, shrugging. Worried, Simon glided over to her.

"Hey," he said soothingly, touching her back. "It's okay. You here with me now."

Milo faced him. "It isn't that," she whispered. "It's just -"

That very second, a boisterous noise came from up the beach. A large group of teens emerged from the trail, and headed towards the enormous rock. They all were laughing and joking and dressed for swimming, several hand-holding couples scattered among them. Some noticed Simon and Milo immobile in the water, and started shouting for Simon to come join them.

"Pra!" Simon yelled back at them.

Caleb Scumm stood at the water's edge, yelling and laughing hysterically. Simon fumed.

"Greck mip, Caleb!" he snarled at him.

"What'd you say to him?" Milo asked, noticing that all the girls were in highly revealing two pieces, and instantly felt self-conscious in her sodden, flapping shirt.

"To shut up," Simon answered, glowering.

"Do they want you to go with them?" she whispered.

"Yes. They going diving."

"Diving!" gasped Milo, the notion horrifying. She looked to the boulder and saw the teens shimmying up the rope ladders. At the top, they either jumped or dove off. Milo shuddered, and Simon put his arm around her. In all honesty, Milo wasn't too keen on having an audience while she relearned how to swim. The teens kept calling to Simon and teasing him. Milo heard her name thrown out a couple of times. He watched them with a look of longing, and Milo knew she was holding him back.

"You can go if you want," she muttered.

"What?" he said leaning down to see her face.

"I said, you can go with them if you want to," she repeated.

His gaze glazed over. "No. I don't want to."

"Yes, you do," she said softly. "It's okay. I don't mind. I'll just go home."

That nearly broke his heart. "No," he said firmly. "Tonight we are going to be together. I not going to leave you. I no jerk."

"Of course you're not," she said reassuringly, "but you can go. I know you want to."

"Not tonight. Tonight it only you and me. You promise me." Milo stood silent, then nodded. Simon smiled and led her to deeper water, where the black liquid clearly mimicked the night sky.

Once again, the second she couldn't feel solid ground, Milo screamed. She fell over, splashing and flailing, salty water getting in her mouth as she screamed. When she finally found her footing and ceased shrieking, she heard the sound of laughter. Panting, she looked at the top of the rock and saw that all of the teenagers were doubled over in hilarity and pointing at her. Some were even mocking her. They were shouting to Simon, undoubtedly sharing their opinions about Milo.

Tears welled up her eyes, as she hugged herself and glared at them. Simon, yelling angrily in Galo, swam up to her and protectively wrapped his arms around her. The jeering didn't stop, and Milo felt herself being towed to a large, nearby rock that was sticking up out of the water. Once they were standing behind it in shoulder height water, hidden from view, Milo found herself crying on Simon's shoulder, him rubbing her back. Once she became fully aware of this, she hurriedly collected herself.

"Now, they are jerks," she sniffed, attempting to remove herself from Simon's arms. But he refused to let her go.

"Forget them," he told her gently.

"Yes, yes, I will," she assured him, still trying to break free. But her meager strength proved no match for his work-strong arms, and he quietly observed her struggle.

"Milo," he said seriously. "You afraid of me?"

"No," she answered, still pushing. "Why?"

"You keep pull away from me. Like now. You no let me hold you. Tell me why."

Not able to avoid such a direct question, she ceased writhing and thought about how best to answer.

"Weeeelllll," she began. "When I'm around you, I feel shy."

"That it?" he probed, somewhat doubtfully.

"No," she hissed suddenly, becoming feisty. "I am also uncomfortable with it because I haven't been held by anyone since I turned three. Not used to it, see?"

"Oh," Simon exclaimed, appalled. "So, that is it?"

"Yes!" she gasped, spitting water out of her mouth. "And do I need a reason to not want to be held?"

"No," he said firmly. "But I want a reason for me not to hold you. I am your husband."

"Oh!" Milo scoffed sarcastically. "So, therefore you have holding rights? You have a holding warrant? A concealed hugs permit?"

Simon glared down at her, but then sighed and let her go. As he turned away he whispered, "All I want to do is comfort you."

Immediately, Milo felt like she had been stabbed with a knife, and yet she stubbornly believed that she was in the right.

"Hey. I'm sorry," she said. "I truly . . . really am. But you do really need to slow down. Stop moving so fast."

He whirled to face her, spraying drops of water.

"We been married months and months!" he said bitterly. Milo shrank some. "And we barely make eye contact! I can't stand it any longer, Milo! Please stop shoving my affection away!"

Surprisingly, to her at least, that stung, too. Why? She did not know. Well, she had an idea. But something else was currently nagging her.

"Affection?" she repeated quietly.

"Yes," he heaved out. "Every time I try show you I love you, you spit at me."

"Hey!" Milo shot back. "I only did that once! Wait . . . okay, twice."

Simon stared at her, motionless, then began to chuckle. "I know," he sighed. "I guess you right. I must admit, you nicer to me now. What change? One day you loathe me, another you smile at me."

Shrugging, Milo hung her head so he wouldn't see that she was smiling now. "I don't know," she mumbled, digging a foot into the watery, velvety sand. "I just started liking you suddenly. You're so cute and such a nice guy. Then you sang 'Hush' and, well, I'm only human. Please forgive me if I'm still a little skittish."

"It all right," he assured her. "I sorry for being mad."

"I'm cool," she said.

"Yes, you are."

They were quiet for a moment. Milo scratched at her hand, not sure what to say next. She could hear the teens' hyper chatter and the loud splashes made when they dove in. Her skin began to get clammy.

"Um," she said. "Do you wanna go home? I'm kinda cold and it's getting late and . . ."

A shriek of female laughter behind them supplied her last reason. He nodded. "I feeling cold, too. Let's go."

Half swimming, half striding they made it to the shore, where they gathered their things and started to follow the tree line back, the teenagers shouting at them as they left. They walked along in the moonlight, wringing their hair out, until they reached the house. While Milo changed in to dry, cozy pajamas, Simon checked on Ajsha. Once they were both changed and dry, they climbed under the covers.

"Tired?" Simon asked, positioning a pillow behind her back.

"A little," Milo said, not really noticing what he was doing because she was straightening the blanket. "I took a nap in the cellar when I was tied up."

"I'll talk to Tambry about that," he said, an edge to his voice.

"You do that," she said, lying back onto the awaiting pillow. She frowned, then shook her head and asked, "Why do you think Tambry did it? I mean, I've never met her before, so I haven't had an opportunity to insult her personally. Yet."

"Don't," Simon warned. "Tambry taller than me. She a good friend, but she sort of . . . mean. And, she always think she's right. She might have thought you would make a scene at the party. She kept asking me if I was enjoying myself . . ."

"Huh," Milo said, mulling this over. "Well, I guess word hasn't completely gotten around that -"

"That what?" Simon asked slyly, leaning towards her.

"That . . . I'm . . . more polite at parties."

Scoffing, Simon lightly hit her with a pillow. Milo laughed.

"So violent," she chided. "Hey, don't tell Ajsha that I'm afraid of the water. I don't want to give her another reason to analyze me. That girl is so much smarter than I am, but I'd like to have some respect in her eyes."

"You do," Simon told her compassionately, settling in. "She loves you, you know? She talks about you like proud parent."

"That's what I mean," Milo moaned. "It's like she's the parent and I'm the child. I can't even kiss her good night, but she does it to me."

Simon chuckled.

"It's not funny!" Milo insisted, hurt. "I don't know how to be a mother. Maybe because I didn't have a good model."

"No?"

"He - ck, no."

"Well, maybe you should try do the opposite of her."

Milo laughed. "Simon! I'm not that loving!"

"You sure?" he said, muddled.

"Well," she faltered. "I don't know. We'll see. Oh! Chaos!" The adolescent cat had jumped onto the bed and was snuggling down in between the two humans. They stroked her fur, and were rewarded with a purr that could put a motorboat to shame. Milo noticed the leather string around Simon's neck and sighed wistfully.

"I wish I could have given you something nicer," she told him.

"I love what you gave me," he said. "And, you gave me a wonderful evening."

"Yeah, but is there anything else you want?" she asked recklessly. "Anything?"

Simon considered this for a moment, scratching Chaos beneath her chin, much to her delight, and suddenly looked bashfully at Milo.

"Can I kiss you?" he asked hopefully.

Rolling her eyes in exasperation, Milo dropped her face into her hands. "No!"

"Please!" Simon begged, all inhibitions vaporizing. "It what I most wanted to do for a long time. Our wedding kiss wasn't so great, and I really want another one. Please, Milo! You don't have to kiss back, just let me kiss you. Please, Milo! Please!"

He tried to peel her hands away from her face, her jerking away with muffled sounds of resistance. Finally, after several minutes of pleading, she lifted her head and stared at him, aloof.

"Fine," she relented crisply. "But just one kiss. Got that? One!"

Smiling savagely, Simon nodded with enthusiasm. Slowly, he placed one hand behind her head, and the other on her right shoulder. She didn't move. Encouraged, he slid the hand on her shoulder onto her back. He brought his face close to hers, and she briefly could smell his milky breath. For a moment, he looked into her eyes, unsettling her resolve slightly, and then kissed her lips. Milo had decided ahead of time not to kiss back, but discovered that she really wanted to. She forced herself to focus on not breathing too hard through her nose, instead of the feel of his lips, or how incredibly close his face was to hers, or how strands of his hair were tickling her cheek.

When he did pull away, Milo found that her heart was beating very hard and loud. Simon grinned dopily.

"Thank you so much," he said. "Can I do it again?"

Milo almost nodded, but caught herself and said steadfastly, "No. I said once and I meant once."

"Okay," he said, his grin not diminishing. "Thanks anyways."

"Good night, Simon!" she told him firmly, flopping onto her pillow.

"Good night," he said reluctantly. "Did you have fun? Swimming?"

"Yes," she mumbled, determinedly not rolling over to face him. "A little. I don't know if I could go without you, though."

"Oh," Simon murmured, settling into his own pillow. He whispered past a smile, "I see."

It was good that had Milo enjoyed herself. When swimming, that is. Swimming is quite fun and excellent exercise. Although, kissing is pretty fun too, and can indeed be a good cardio workout. It was a lovely that Milo was on her way to recovery, both in the water and otherwise. Besides, birthdays are such nice days for swimming. And other stuff . . .

By Emily Kinney

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