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Fire Flies

by BaalatErotas 09/07/17

I could not work out when -- or how -- they had come to curve quite like that.

All evidence of her surprise breakfast disappeared in a matter of minutes.

"Walk me home, will you?" The flowing layers of light material swished in delayed response as she turned to me. "You could do with a little leg stretch, old man."

We lived at the top of what was technically a cul-de-sac though it didn't look anything like the generic sets in popular series and sitcoms. No music skipped along, depicting characters' moods; no gleaming cars or fake-looking housewives...

No other people at all, in fact.

Our houses, half a kilometre apart, were significantly removed from our neighbours who were nestled way back from the elevated plateau we shared. The streets down that way were far busier and a little too brightly lit. We liked the fact that our corner of paradise was so quiet and often overlooked as most people didn't know there were two more properties past the sharp road curve up the slope from our neighbours.

That walk from my house to theirs and back was such a familiar part of our families' routines that I felt a thankful burst of appreciation for suddenly feeling like Olivia was truly home. We were talking and walking again. Together again.

*** *** ***

She snapped in her third week.

Her parents were driving her up the wall -- inundating her with information and contacts, pushing her to get back out there. Network; get another job; excel. Climb that ladder -- never look down, just climb and climb and climb.

She spent even more time at my house; and, eventually, pieces of her previous job entered our chats until I could put together a picture that showed how overwhelmed she'd been right from the beginning.

It was a miracle she'd lasted a year and a half.

"I shouldn't have ventured anywhere near accounting." She was sorting my books out -- apparently I'd shelved my entire library "wrong".

"You can't know that after one job."

"I know it after one job and one hundred future potentials my parents are shoving down my throat, Ian."

"Most people don't have a hundred options, Liv."

She stopped abruptly. "You think I'm being ungrateful? That I don't know how fortunate I am to have what I have? Acknowledging wrong choices is not the same as ingratitude."

The sun was setting and I was still wearing the suit I'd returned in an hour ago. Whisky in hand. The waning light reached out to her, seeking contact with her brown skin.

"I'm saying you need to live a little more before making sweeping judgements."

Her eyes were darkening. All I was thinking was that I liked that there were still things from the eighteen years of her I knew that lived on in the woman now in her twenties. Anger and sadness always made her eyes look darker.

"I know how hard my folks worked to earn what we have -- and I am thankful for that, for having options at all." She sat down on the top step of the small ladder she'd been standing on. "And you're right: I can't judge things I haven't experienced. I guess the more accurate statement is that I should never have let my parents lead me by the nose as much as I have. Chasing the chartered accountant dream was their idea, not mine."

The sky was red as I walked her home.

The ferociousness of the heat in the fourth week knocked all sense from me.

Winter was my preferred season. People stayed indoors and the summer brightness dimmed right down to something I could tolerate. Soft colours everywhere soothed me -- greys, cloudy blues, the dark browns of stark bark standing vigil around my house.

In winter I could breathe. In a measured and relaxed way that fueled peak performance.

In summer I panted.

I switched to taking my runs before dawn, so that I could cool down in the pool by the time the sun was rising. I did my work with the study blinds closed and planned meals around cold ingredients.

Olivia opened my kitchen door on the hottest afternoon of the month and my first thought at seeing her was that I wanted no one else sharing that sight. The thought that she had come up the road in nothing but a bikini and a sarong, bright bag hooked on her arm, a small cooler bag in the other hand, hair back in an enormous soft puff... well, that thought didn't sit well with me. Her feet were bare as she'd left her white flipflops by the door.

Her toenails were a vibrant pink; one of those shades that looked both cute and sexy. A foreign inner voice warned me to look away, to stop staring at her toenails and the bare parts of the rest of her.

Bare for just anyone to see.

I rolled my shoulders to make the strange protectiveness slide down my back and off me.

"Can I have a quick swim?" She pulled a red tub from the cooler bag. "I'll trade you some ice cream for one afternoon of peace."

"Your parents love you." I hoped she wouldn't misread the roughness in my tone.

"Too much sometimes, yes."

I was wondering if the last five years showed as harshly on me as they did shine beautifully through her newfound adulthood. Olivia -- now so suddenly a woman with unexpected insights and a disconcerting directness that matched my own.

Where had the years gone?

And when had this queen risen from a young girl's dreams?

"There's no such thing as too much parental love." I smiled to curb her mild irritation.

Zama and Linda, her parents, were aggressively energetic go-getters.

I'd met Zama in high school -- an angry Black boy who was raised by a single mom who could barely afford anything beyond covering the loan payments for their little two-bedroom home and his school fees. He'd spat out any words to do with how much they struggled. He'd snarled the rest. I was the only kid in school willing to fight with him long enough to become his friend.

He'd married Linda straight out of university and the two have never looked back since. Transformation, security and success had been non-negotiable for Zama.

The Hani family now lived in the biggest house in the area with a pantry the size of a mini-mart and eight people in their personal employ on the property. Eighty more in Zama's company.

"So, what drove you out today?" My fingers brushed Olivia's as I took the cold tub from her. "A new list of job ads?"

"Motivational speech."

"That's not too bad."

"This one came with mantras."

I chuckled as I stepped aside to let her in. I liked the new womanly sway to her walk.

She'd always been comfortable in her skin -- and that confidence was now enhanced by the maturity of being twenty-three and the survivor of her first big challenge. Women dance their evolution in the way they walk, make coffee, shop, garden, embrace another... everything they do.

Olivia's steps into my house were already showing sketches of her fierce femininity.

"Tell me the worst ones," I prompted.

She shook her head. "I'm here to forget them, not rehearse them."

"Come on, humour your ol' Uncle Ian." I managed to annoy myself with my lame attempt at a joke. So stupid to call myself that when she never ever had.

Her skin was a rich chocolate hue, a tone she acquired each summer with all the swimming she did. Her skin normally matched the creamy cappuccino tones of her mother's lighter skin throughout the year -- then deepened by mid-spring. She was a child of the sun, a flame herself -- and an dedicated devotee to passing hours outdoors worshipping nature.

And, oh, what a paradise her parents have created for her.

We lived at the tip of a very long, very quiet street. Quiet because Zama had purchased about twenty acres of land stretching along our plateaued paradise. He'd built his own haven on three acres, sold me and Helen three acres for a song -- and the rest was left untouched.

Trees, bushes and wild flowers grew freely along the gentle slopes; and our respective houses nestled in the green and gold of flora and sunlight. Serenely overlooking the city. The rest of the suburb's houses were a couple kilometres away, beyond the sharp road curve, where "civilisation" began. Too far back to share our view.

This was the secluded yet luxuriant world in which Liv grew up, dancing about barefoot and now visiting my home half-dressed.

She fetched a towel from the closet outside the downstairs guest bathroom then returned. Her expression was speculative though amusement was twinkling in her light brown eyes now.

"I am proud to be positive, inspired, empowered and pumped." Her full lips compressed, making her cheeks dimple.

I laughed a little louder than before.

She grinned and gave me another of her mantras. "YES and no less. YES and no stress. My YES is my bless."

After raiding the fridge, I led the way to the pool area out back. "My 'bless'...?"

"I think that one only works if it rhymes."

It was a blindingly beautiful blue-sky day.

I had joined her outside without thinking. It was only as I set the lemonade, beer and fruit platter on the poolside table then opened the large umbrella, that I wondered if she wanted no company at all. We all have keys, codes and access to each others' properties, have for over two decades now, often visiting unannounced and using what we need. She'd specifically come here to escape her parents and her stress. Did that mean she wouldn't want me around for the day either?

"You have always made the best lemonade." Her praise came after chugging a full glass.

"I had to make something of my life." I relaxed into a seat at her inviting demeanour and put my feet up. "Mastering lemonade seemed a respectable accomplishment."

"Now you're just fishing for compliments -- you know you rule in the kitchen," she scoffed. "In fact, if you had left instead of Helen, I'd stand a better chance of shaking off these damn fat rolls..."

By the time she got to the word 'damn' I picked up the change in her tone. Her ice clinked unsteadily as she set her glass down a little too fast. I was waiting for the familiar pain at her words, but it was fainter than expected, so I simply watched her.

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