The Character is the intense and ground-breaking novel that details 10-year-old Anna’s journey through abuse, and the saving grace she finds in her friendship with the mysterious story-teller Ash.
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There is something really, really important about me that you should know right away. The thing is, it’s kind of a secret. I have lots of them. I always have. I probably always will. Sometimes, it’s even a secret from me. If I don’t think about it too much, sometimes I don’t even remember this one secret myself. But today, there was this cop that came to my school. She was talking to us about how important it is to stay in school. Like we have a choice or something. Anyway, the first thing she did was make everybody introduce themselves. She said she wanted us to tell her something about ourselves that she wouldn’t know just by looking at us. That’s what reminded me of this one secret. I didn’t tell her the secret, though, cause I didn’t want to. It makes me sound like a real loser. But I’ll tell it to you. Here it is: I only have one memory of my dad that is good. Just one. I have memories of stuff he’s bought me, and of things he did for me, but something bad usually always comes with something good. At least, it does for my dad and me. Except one time. It happened just a few days before he went away.
It was a really nice day. Daddy said it would be a shame if we didn’t get out and enjoy the weather. He said that we should go swimming at the lake. My mom worked the night before, though. She was tired and so she didn’t want to come. I didn’t really want to go if Mama wasn’t coming. I always get a little nervous and a little bit scared if it’s just me and Daddy. But I’m only ten. I couldn’t say no. And, besides, I really love to swim.
I put my feet on the back of the front seat while Daddy was driving. It was comfortable. I thought he’d tell me to take my feet down, but he didn’t. He also let me choose what CD we listened to. I started getting happier about coming swimming as we were driving. I could tell that Daddy was in a good mood. When we got to the lake, though, and I saw that there weren’t a lot of people there, I got nervous again. I was going to have to get in the pool with just my bathing suit on. That’s kind of like being naked. And I really, really don’t like to be naked. Being naked reminds me of another secret.
Daddy was real happy, though. He laid out our towel not too far from the water. He told me that he was going swimming and I could, too, if I wanted, or I could just sit and watch. He said I’d have to be really silly not to get in the water. I still couldn’t get past the idea of taking off my shirt and shorts. I don’t understand why you have to be in a bathing suit to get in the water: why can’t you wear even just a t-shirt?
I sat down on the towel and watched the few people swimming. Daddy was diving under the water and then swimming a little bit away from the shore. There were two girls, a little bit younger than me, playing. They kept splashing each other and laughing. Their mom sat on a towel watching them, and I thought it was weird how she let them get in the water by themselves when they were younger than me. I’m ten and I know how to swim, and still my mom only lets me do that when she’s in a really, really good mood. Daddy held up one arm and waved me in.
“Come on, Anna, don’t be such a baby! The water feels great! You’re missing all the fun!”
The water did look fun.
I love the water.
I just didn’t want to be naked.
But no one was watching. I kept telling myself that I would have the bathing suit on, that I wasn’t really naked. I was really hot, too. The sun was right over my head, and I just knew that I was getting burned. The water would cool me off. There were other people here. That meant that I was probably safe. Daddy probably wouldn’t do anything as long as there were other people around. He never did anything when Mama was home.
I looked to see if anyone was looking at me. I looked to see if Daddy was looking at me, but he was underwater again. I looked one more time to make sure that no one else was looking at me. Then I took my t-shirt off and undid my shorts. I managed to get out of them without having to stand up. Then I just took a deep, deep breath, pushed myself to my hands and stood. Then I took off.
I don’t like to wait around. It is worse for me to “ease my way in” as Mama does. It’s better if I just get it over with. I’m like that with a lot of other things, too. Anyway, so I didn’t just stick my foot or toe in: I ran as far out into the water as I could, and then I went under. All at once. The water rushed over my face and then soaked my hair, making it all heavy and dark. The water was cool but it felt good.
All of a sudden, something splashed me in the back. I turned around and Daddy was grinning. He had splashed me! I didn’t know what to do but he was smiling, and I remembered seeing the other girls splash each other. So I splashed him back. He started laughing.
“Bet you can’t get me now!” he called and took off swimming.
I splashed as hard as I could. The water went everywhere. Then Daddy dove underwater. It wasn’t real clear, and I lost sight of him. The next thing I knew, something had me by the ankles. I only had a second to figure that out before I was jerked under the water. Luckily, I grabbed my nose and closed my eyes a second before the water rushed up my face. When I came back up, Daddy was still laughing. “Got you. Now, it’s your turn to try and dunk me.”
I wasn’t sure about this. This could so easily turn out really bad for me. But he was laughing. He didn’t seem serious, like he did when something bad was going to happen. And if I told him that I didn’t want to play, he’d get mad. So I started swimming after him. I knew I wouldn’t be able to chase him, but swimming was fun. I liked the way my arms pushed the water out of my way every time they hit the water in a stroke. Swimming hard and pushing my legs real hard made me feel like I was doing something. It made me feel kind of like I was free.
Me and Daddy splashed each other for a long time.
Then he said, “Do you want me to throw you from my shoulders? It’s real fun.”
Daddy is hard to say no to.
Besides, I didn’t really like saying it, but I was having fun. The reason I didn’t like saying it was cause I don’t really like saying that any time with Daddy was fun. It makes me feel…well, just…bad. Like I’m a bad person or something. But I was having fun. I could feel my heart beating real fast, and a couple of times I even laughed out loud—when I got to splash him or he let me push him under the water. One time, when he popped back up, he tipped his head way back to the sky and squirted out a beam of water in the air. He said he was a whale. That was funny, so I laughed. My grandma once said that no one could meet my dad and not like him. When he’s being nice, that’s about right.
He bent down and helped me get on his shoulders. He had to hold my ankles, but he just held my ankles and then he told me to stand up. On top of his shoulders! I was real nervous about that, cause I thought I might fall or something and get hurt. But it was kind of exciting, too. And cool. So he took my hands and I did it: I stood up on his shoulders. Then he told me to jump off, over his head, when he counted to three.
I hit the water hard, but it didn’t hurt. When I came up, I was smiling. He was too.
“Like that?” he asked.
“Again,” I said.
***** ***** *****
When we got out of the water, Daddy said he had a surprise for me. He told me to wait on the towel. He went back to the car and he came back with Mama’s picnic basket. It was wicker and it was real big. I loved Mama’s picnic basket. Daddy said he thought we might get hungry, so he’d packed us a lunch.
I was glad: I was really hungry. And he packed my favorite sandwich: peanut butter and honey. He also packed my favorite kind of chips: Doritos. He even packed me an apple and a Coke, too. We didn’t have ice, but that was okay. It was still cold from when it’d been in the fridge at home. Daddy and me sat on the towel and ate our lunch. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but that was okay. I started to take a bite out of my peanut butter and honey sandwich when I saw this little girl and her dad trying to find a spot to put down their towels. They were just getting to the lake. They were holding hands. Usually, whenever I saw kids with their dads, I got sad. But I wasn’t sad then. In fact, I felt almost just like that little girl.
It was a good day. I was so glad that I went swimming with him. I’m even more glad about it now, though. If I had stayed home instead, I wouldn’t have one single good memory of Daddy.