We Were All Drowning//Book Club Fiction

Layne Jamesbook writing6 Comments

Lindsay recently suggested we publish the first chapter of our current novels on here which I thought was a fabulous idea. (So you know we’re still working away on new novels and not simply retired with our heels up after Remember Us.) I’m currently working on two. Here’s the beginning of We Were All Drowning. Let me know what you think in the comments section!

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

– William Shakespeare


Virginia, February 1995

… Before

“Before we decide anything, we need to figure out what we’re wearing for our photo shoot this year. My vision is pattern … and maybe neon colors. What do you think?” Anne looked between me and our best friend Ellie expectantly from where she lay sprawled over the burgundy sofa.

We both ignored her. “So we’ll wear khaki pants and sweaters for the photos this Saturday?” I nodded at Ellie.

“Yeah, classic and timeless.” Ellie coolly flipped a page of her magazine without looking at my sister.

Anne sat up. “Ellie Marie Dearheart, sometimes we don’t need your timeless and classic nonsense, we need pizzaz and glory!” She threw her arms wide, but we paid her no heed. “We are in the last golden years of our youth, and we need to capture our beauty while our average age is still 18. You’ll thank me later,” Anne persisted. We’d been doing these friendship photo shoots for years and if anyone’s youth had been documented, it was ours.

“Oh, nice.” I tapped the glossy surface resting on Ellie’s lap.

“Y’all!” Anne looked between us, but when we shook our heads, she laid back down and crossed her arms with a “Harumph.”

The discussion had long faded by the day of our shoot which dawned bright and clear, mild enough we could prance through our photos without coats. Out of habit, I tugged my long sleeves over my wrists as we posed for our first photo.

“Okay, work it y’all, work it,” Sybil said as she snapped frame after frame. Sybil, Ellie’s sister-in-law, had been our appointed photographer for these “friendship shoots” for years. She moved from left to right with precision as we worked our way through one roll of film, then a second. I reminded myself to be the furthest from the camera so I wouldn’t look so big in the frame when we got the photos back. I hadn’t eaten all day to help, and I forced myself to ignore the pangs in my stomach.

Through the years Ellie, Anne, and I had been lured repeatedly into the Walmart holiday photo special or photo booths at the mall, so we had many photos of the three of us together, posed and candid shots of us laughing, hugging, blinking—seconds of undiluted bliss frozen on tiny strips of plastic and gelatin emulsion for all time.

Of the thousands of pictures, capturing an infinitesimal segment of the life we’d created together, my favorite photo was of the three of us at Ellie’s 16th birthday party. We’d taken the bus across our hometown of Charlottesville to a hotel and had swum in the pool for hours, until our skin was wrinkled, our bodies exhausted. We’d dried off and put on our fanciest black dresses, Anne’s idea, and pranced down the street to Zocalo, an elegant Spanish restaurant where we ordered virgin margaritas. Anne asked the waitress to take a photo of us with her Polaroid camera, and the resulting image was dark, but somehow so full of light. Anne was on the right, her honey-blonde hair tied up with a ribbon, wild curls spilling in all directions. Her hand was on her chest and she bent forward, laughing or choking, maybe both. Ellie was in the middle, head tilted, eyes up, as if she was hearing something ridiculous. Her straight black hair swept like a half-opened fan across the side of her face, blurred with motion.  I sat on the other side, hardly a space between me and Ellie, and I was looking at Ellie as if I’d met my hero for the first time, which I basically had. I was half shadowed, hardly there, but slanted into Ellie as if I knew she was home.

I didn’t know why I cherished that photo more than all others, but thought perhaps it was because it seemed to so fully encapsulate our story—silly Anne, prim Ellie, hidden Catherine. I knew the photo should belong to Ellie by right of it being her birthday, but I’d snuck it into my purse that night, and there it had stayed, ready for me to take out and study any moment I pleased.

Because before there was anything, there was Catherine, Ellie, and Anne—a trio, a fortress, a weaving of all that was good and authentic in the world.

Before there were boys or bills, big decisions or real-world messes, there was a friendship so deep and so wide, its immensity stood at the very center of our existence.

I was 8, Anne and Ellie 9, when we all met at church, and by the time I was 12, we’d spent one thousand hours, or maybe it was one thousand days, being friends, becoming family, learning where you ended and we began.

Our mothers had taken us to buy our first bras together, and we’d watched with suspicion, then curiosity, as our flat chests had grown soft and round to fill the cotton cups. We’d been wearing matching hammer pants when Ellie’s mom dropped us off on my first day of middle school and matching headbands when she picked us up on the last day. I’d been vacationing with the Dearhearts in Florida when I got my first period, and awkwardly it had been Ellie’s dad who drove me to the drugstore in the middle of the night for the needed supplies.

Ellie remembered my favorite flavor of ice-cream (mint chocolate chip), my favorite color (blue), my favorite movie (Charade), because Ellie knew almost everything there was to know about me. Almost, but it was enough.

For as long as I could remember, we’d spent every birthday and holiday together. We spent Sundays and Wednesdays together at church, Fridays at Ellie’s, and every ordinary or extraordinary day we could fit in between too.

And so our friendship should be documented on film, again and again, a story which didn’t grow old.

“Let’s walk across the road, like the Beatles.” Anne had already moved toward the street, not looking back, expecting us to follow. We did follow, trailing and laughing, hardly comprehending the click of Sybil’s camera.

Anne and I were sisters, best friends by default. I would always have Anne, but there was strength in numbers and knowing Ellie, loving Ellie, grew from a place of loneliness, desperation, a need for safety. We were stronger together—always had been, always would be.

Ellie showed us what it meant to be known, to have a family.

Ellie’s life was perfection, Ellie herself, sublime.

Before I met Ellie, I had a difficult time making and keeping friends. But after I met Ellie, life was never again the same. I didn’t need any other friends—I had Ellie and Anne, Sybil and Ellie’s sister Beth. “My cup runneth over” Pastor Helen quoted from the pulpit and on that one point, I knew exactly what she meant. Together we were a tribe, a cord woven of love, laughter, time and truth.

But as much as we loved Sybil and Beth, we loved Ellie just a little bit more. Ellie seemed light years above us in both intellect and beauty, and sometimes I stepped back from whatever we were doing—trying on dresses, planning a party, reading a book out loud together, watching a movie—and wondered why Ellie chose to spend all her free time with us. I never quite understood why—only that Ellie did—and it made all the difference.

“Let’s jump and kick up our feet for a photo!” Anne leapt to demonstrate and Ellie looked at me in despair.

“No, Anne, just no.” Ellie threw her arm around my shoulder for a photo of the two of us instead.

Knowing Ellie was a gift, something incredible, rare and gorgeous. I turned this fact over and over again in awe.

I looked at my sister and Ellie as they posed beside me and actually felt my heart squeeze. I was grateful. I was happy. I didn’t realize then that such happiness couldn’t last, had a cost. I didn’t understand that there are causes and effects in the universe and that their undertow had a powerful pull. I was 17; I didn’t know.

So I smiled and danced, my hour in the sun. And after an hour, Sybil pronounced us done.

“You’ll have photos together again next week when we’re all bridesmaids in Beth’s wedding.” Sybil curtsied. Beth, Ellie’s only sister, was the middle Dearheart sibling. She was one year older than Ellie and Anne, two years older than me, and we’d spent months collectively planning her upcoming wedding.

“Yes.” Anne twirled, arms outspread. “I’m ready to have my photo taken.”

“Of course you are.” Ellie shook her head with a grin. “When you’re done preening, Catherine and I will be waiting for you in the car.” She linked her arm through mine and we fell in step along the path. The chime of Ellie’s snicker reached between us, and I found myself giggling too. The glee came in waves until my stomach ached.

That’s how time went with my Ellie. At the risk of sounding trite, I need you to understand: happiness was our mainstay.

“Guys, come on, wait for me.” Anne raced behind us, scooted between us, threw her arms over us both, shattering my thoughts. I heard the soft metallic sound of Sybil’s shutter opening and closing behind us as we walked.
Click and it was documented—a love so true and rare it hurt to think about.

6 Comments on “We Were All Drowning//Book Club Fiction”

  1. I’m already drawn into this tale of true friends and look forward to reading more of their relationships!

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