Night Swim

This is one of the Manitoulin stories that I am writing, but it is different in at least two ways from those I have written so far.   Firstly, it is not a story that I planned to write for the collection, coming to me all of a sudden when I was trying to write something else.  Secondly, because its subject is very different from the others, it required a different style from me, so it uses proper names, and it includes much more dialogue, and its prose style is much more direct.  For both these reasons, it may seem a little out of place with the others, but I like it, so it stays.   As usual, I have added it to the Island Stories file on the Longer Works page for anyone who would like to read all the stories together.

Night Swim

“Hey, kid, hop in the back.  Let Jenn have shotgun.”

I nodded, tried to look nonchalant as I opened the door.  The window slung the late evening sun across the cab of the truck as I dropped to the gravel.  I caught just a look at Jenn, trying not to stare as she came up the driveway.  I saw only long hair and a cotton sundress, both hanging loosely, then I swung into the bed of the truck.  I sat on the spare tire behind the driver, my back against the rear windshield.  From the corner of my eye I saw Denis lean over and pull Jenn to him with his near arm, kiss her hard on the mouth.  His far hand slid up under her dress between her thighs.  I turned away, looked out into the almost dark, at the trees growing closely by the road, the pale length of Jenn’s gravel driveway, the glow of her porchlight.

The truck shifted into drive with a heavy lurch, and I steadied myself against the side.  The paint was light green, like olives, dented and rusted and scratched.  I glanced back through the rear window.  Denis was driving with one hand.  The other had pulled Jenn’s dress up on her thighs, her legs showing whitely in the darkness.  I looked away.  Trees were passing on either side, far too fast, running away from me until they merged around corners or over hills.  The sun was now all but gone, and the trees were only shadow shapes, a great branching mass, split by the stretching, gravel road.  The evening was warm and clinging, the speed of the truck the only breeze, drying the sweat on my face.

Gravel ground loudly beneath the tires, rolling and skidding, as the truck braked beside a driveway.  Faces emerged beyond the truck.

“Shit, Denis, could you stop any louder?” someone whispered.  “My parents think were sleeping out at the barn.”

“Aren’t you a bit old for sneaking around on your parents, Adam?  You’re in college, man.”

“Shut up, Denis.  You’re scared of my mom too.”  Everyone laughed.

A set of lanky limbs climbed over the side of the truck and settled against the cab beside me.  Another set followed it, sat on the wheel well, then helped a smaller, slimmer figure into the truck.  The smaller shape had long hair, like a swaying shadow.

Adam rapped on the window, waited, rapped again.  The window opened.  “Let’s go,” he whispered.

“What’s your hurry?”

“Nothing.  We just don’t feel like waiting around while you two grope each other.”

The truck staggered into motion, and for a minute there was only the sound of wheels on gravel.

“Whose the new guy?”  Adam asked.  He looked at me, met my eyes.

“My nephew.”

“You have a nephew? How old is he?”

“I don’t know.  Hey, kid.  How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Shit!  Denis, you brought along a twelve year old?  What are you thinking?”

“Easy.  He’s big for his age.  He’ll be fine.  And it’s not like a had a choice.  My sister dumped him on me for the weekend.”

Adam looked at me again.  “I guess.”  He paused.  “Hell!  The MacInnis girls are coming.  He might even get laid.”

Denis laughed.  The truck swerved left, skated on the gravel, then caught purchase again.

“Do you guys have any booze up there?  All ours is at Mike’s.”

“Sure.”

I was looking out the back of the truck again, away from Adam and from the couple cuddling on the wheel well.  A paper bag crackled, then there was the sound of a bottle being opened.  Adam drank, then offered me the bottle.  It shone golden in the dim light.

“Drink up, kid.  You get to be a big boy tonight.”

I tried to look practiced as I took the bottle.  It was cool in my hands, whiskey by the smell.  I turned away and took as long a pull as I could manage, making sure I didn’t choke.  I wiped my lips with the back of my hand, still not looking at Adam, leaned forward onto my toes, offered the bottle to the couple.  Adam chuckled as I sat back.  I turned to look out at the trees, still passing far too fast, ragged shadows in the darkness.

The trucked stopped again.  An old farmhouse stood beside the dark shapes of two barns.  It was white and wood-sided, ghostly in the night.  Six or eight shadows were sitting on the rail fence, like misshapen crows.  They jumped into the grass at our approach, shouting and laughing, their bodies merging and parting as they scrambled up to the road, over the side of the truck, into the bed.

It was crowded now.  A girl sat on the near wheel well, almost against my feet, her back to me, closing me off from the group.  Somebody stumbled over the tents and sleeping bags and cases of beer that had been set in the middle of the truck, half-fell against the cab between Adam and me, and something cold and metallic brushed my cheek.  I flinched back, saw that it was a rifle barrel.  Its owner was laughing and cursing.  There was alcohol hanging heavy on his breath.

“Denis!” he yelled through the rear-window.  “Stop on the hill by the Burrows’ place!”

“Jason, stop yelling in my ear, you idiot.”

“I said,” Jason’s repeated, his voice now a hoarse stage whisper, “stop on the hill by the Burrows’ place!”  He started giggling.

“Why?”

“Just do it.  I’m gonna put on a show.”

“Whatever.  Just don’t take too long.”

The truck jumped forward again, then shook as Denis tried to get it into gear.  Jason almost fell again, still laughing to himself.

The others in the truck were talking loudly about things that were only meaningful to themselves: a local girl’s supposed pregnancy, the chances of an older brother making the NHL, a litany of drunken exploits.  The bottle was passed from hand to hand, but it was mostly the guys who were drinking.  It was never passed to me again.  I never asked for it.

Jason’s rifle was standing on its butt end, cradled in his arm.  It pressed against my shoulder whenever he leaned forward to see around the girl in front of me or to take the bottle from her.  I kept my face away from him, peering over the edge of the truck to where the streaks of gravel whiteness blurred past.  I looked up now and again to the shape of the girl on the wheel well, only just female in the dark.  She had light hair, I thought, but it could have been dark.  There was not enough light even to tell that much.  Her voice was deep for a girl, like a smoker’s.

The truck slowed, less suddenly than before, as if Denis was uncertain where to stop.   Jason leapt to his feet and looked out over the cab.  “A bit further,” he called.  The truck edged forward.  “Good, good.”  He hefted the rifle, loaded it on top of the cab, looked down the sight.

“What are you doing up there?” Denis asked.

Jason whooped loudly, like a Hollywood Indian.  “Everybody up.  Have a look.”

I was close by, just at his left elbow.  The headlights of the truck were shining down a slight hill.  There was a tee intersection at the bottom with a stop sign reflecting the glare back redly.  The sound of the first shot startled me.  I flinched back, almost falling from the truck, and someone laughed behind me.  Jason didn’t seem to notice.  He sighted and fired again.  This time there was a pinging sound from the bottom of the hill, and the sign rocked slightly in the harsh light.

“Whoo!” Jason shouted, looking back to his audience, his eyes shining in his pale face.  “One for two, baby!”

“How long is this gonna take?” someone asked.

“I got ten shots, and I’m gonna use them.”  He fired rapidly now, hardly moving between shots.  The sign vibrated almost continually to the sound of pinging bullets.  Jason counted as he shot: ping, “Two for three,” ping, “Three for four,” ping, “Four for five.”  He counted his ten, never missed again.  “Nine for ten!” he crowed, holding his gun aloft like a terrorist on television.

“And them stop signs is quick,” someone drawled.  Everyone laughed.

“Shut up!” Jason called back.  “You couldn”t do better.”

“I don’t go shootin’ signs much,” the voice replied.  “They makes tough eatin’.”  There was laughter again.

“Hey! Can I go now?” Denis demanded.

“Sure, man, sure.”  Jason patted the top of the cab.

The truck ground into gear again before most people could find their seats.  I sat where I was standing, but there were screams and then more laughter as one of the girls half-fell from the truck and had to be helped back in.

The road after the tee became a track, two gravel ruts with weeds growing up between them and on both sides.  The trees were close enough that they reached out over us, sometimes meeting in a canopy, shutting out even the little moonlight that managed to pierce the clouds.  The headlights reflected from the trees strangely, lighting the way up like a tunnel, a cone of light through a long cylinder of darkness.  The branches seemed like arms threatening to tear us away.

The truck was quieter now.  Jason had drunk himself almost to sleep, and the couples were more interested in each other than in conversation.  The girl at the wheel well leaned on the edge of the truck and looked back.  “Jason, are you drunk already?”

“Shut up,” he mumbled.  He didn’t bother to open his eyes.

The girl met my eyes by mistake.  I didn’t look away, so she did.  The reflections along the tunnel of trees showed her hair was blond, like I thought.  It was long too, but her face was broad, manly, with a strong jaw and a heavy brow.  She turned back to me after a moment, embarrassed by the silence.  “I’m Liz,” she said, “Liz Macinnis.”

“Hi,” I said.

There was another embarrassed moment.  “Who are you?”

“Denis’ nephew.”

“Oh.”  She squinted.  “Do you have a name?”

I shrugged.  “Yep.”

She looked offended.  “Fine,” she said, and turned her back to me again.

The blurring of the trees and the gravel slowed, then everything tilted steeply as we began to climb the first of the dunes.  The tunnel of trees was replaced by dark mounds of sand and by the darker hollows between them.  Plants grew along the tops of the dunes like bristles on the backs of sleeping animals, silhouetted by the lights of the truck.  There were already a few campfires, the glow lighting up the dunes right to their crests, like little suns behind sand horizons.  There were other trucks parked here and there, wherever there was a convenient spot.  Tents were pitched beside them, dark domes, like sand dunes in miniature.

People began climbing out of the truck almost before it stopped.  Only Adam stayed, sleeping soundly now.  I waited too, until everything had been unloaded, and I could hear the sounds of bottles being opened and tents being raised, clumsily, in the darkness.  The clouds were starting to thin now.  The moon emerged from behind them now and again.  I slumped down against the cab and set my feet on the wheel well, looked up into the night to watch the moon’s coming and going.

“Hey!” I heard Denis call.  He was leaning over the side of the truck.  “I threw your sleeping bag in the tent.  Adam’s sleeping in his brother’s tent, so it’s just you and me.”  His teeth flashed white.  “And Jenn.”

“Did you put my duffle bag in there too?”

“What duffle bag?”

“The blue one?  With my clothes and swim suit and everything?”

“Oh shit, man!  I thought that was your gym bag.  I left it in the garage when I cleaned out the truck today.”

I sat up.  “You what?”

“Sorry, kid.  I didn’t know.”

“So what am I gonna sleep in?”

He shrugged.  “Just sleep in what you’re wearing.  It’s only one night.”

“And what about swimming?”

“Nobody’s going swimming, kid.   They’re just gonna hang out, and drink a bit, and talk shit.”  He tipped a half-full beer bottle to his lips and finished it with one long pull.

“So what am I supposed to do?”

He tossed the bottle into the darkness.  “Just relax.  Find a girl to talk to.  Go get yourself a beer.  Just don’t tell your mother I let you.  And don’t go puking all over yourself.  I still have to drive you home in the morning.”

He turned away.  Someone turned on a radio.  The music was cut loudly with static.  I laid back again, tried to glimpse the moon, but it was a long time coming.  I gave it up and swung myself over the side of the truck.

I walked away from the campfires, down along the beach.  The moon came out again, longer now.  It struck the peaks of the waves, flickering, like the firelight on the peaks of the dunes.  I was between them, the fire and the moon. 

I took off my sandals and carried them.  My feet made long, dragging prints in the cool sand, a broken line between the waves and the dunes, away from the radio and the laughter and the firelight.  The dry sand at the surface shifted under my feet, exposed the damp sand beneath, smelling of wetness.

The sand at last gave way to alvar, and I stopped at the edge of the rock, not wanting to risk my feet on the stones in the dark.  The beach curved past me, and the headland made a silhouette, blurred against the night.  I looked for the exact place where the trees gave way to sky, but it eluded me.  The breeze off the water was gentle and cool.  The waves only licked at the shore.

I turned back, retracing my path, felt its marks with my feet.  The light of the nearest campfire was visible over the dunes.  I looked steadily at it, tried to keep the path by my feet alone.  I would have missed the three figures sitting against the last of the dunes, but I heard one of them say, half-whispered, “Hey, look.  That’s the kid.  Denis’ nephew.”  I recognized Liz’ voice, deep and masculine.  “The no-name kid?” one of the others asked, whispering too, then louder, “Hey kid!  They don’t have names where you come from?”  They three of them laughed.

I didn’t look in their direction, just walked past them toward the campfire.  There were four tents around it, one of them ours.  Denis and Jenn were half-sitting in front of it, not far from the fire.  They had a sleeping bag pulled up over them.  Denis was kissing Jenn’s neck, and they were laughing about something.

“Hey,” I said, and Denis looked up.

“Are you having fun yet, kid?” He tried to sound teasing, but he looked annoyed. He leaned back on one arm, disentangling himself from Jenn’s body.  The sleeping bag fell open a little, and I saw she had only her underwear on now.

“I want to go swimming.”

“I told you, nobody’s going swimming!” he said.  His voice was exasperated, no longer teasing.

“Yeah, well, then I’ll go by myself.  Do you have some shorts I can borrow?”

“Listen, kid.”  He was trying to keep his temper in front of his friends, but his rising volume gave away his frustration.   “The water will be freezing, okay?  And you shouldn’t swim by yourself anyway.  Your mother will kill me if you drown.”

“I’m not going to drown,” I said, my voice raised a little too.  “So do you have shorts I can borrow or not?” The others around the campfire were quiet.

Denis’ sat up in the sleeping bag, his eyes angry.  “Don’t give me any shit, kid!  I said you’re not swimming, so you’re not swimming!  Got it?”

Everyone’s eyes were on me now, like they expected me to do something, throw a punch maybe, or start crying.  Denis looked past me, noticed his friends watching.  His expression became uncomfortable.

“I am going swimming,” I said, and I started taking off my clothes.  I didn’t turn around to see if people were watching, and I didn’t look at Denis either, just at Jenn, like she was the only one there.  I made myself do it slowly, so I wouldn’t seem embarrassed.  I folded everything carefully and piled it on my sandals. “Well,” Jenn said softly, as if to no one in particular, “he’s not shy, is he?”  There was whispering behind me, but no one else said anything out loud.  Then, as causally as I could, like I did it all the time, I walked naked between the dunes, toward the water.

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