I’ve had a short story called “Neve” posted in this week’s edition of Bewildering Stories, the long-running Guelph-based online magazine of eclectic literature.
When Devon turned eighteen he went to the bank and withdrew the entire trust fund that his grandmother had set aside for him, all thirteen thousand and change.
The clerk was a friend of his mom. “What will you do with all that money?” she asked. She had taken off her glasses to show that she was concerned.
“I’m buying an airplane,” he said.
Her eyes brightened, and she put her glasses back on. “I didn’t know you were a pilot.”
“So why are you buying an airplane?”
“I’m just gonna sit in it.”
“Maybe smoke some weed.”
He put the envelope of money in the back pocket of his jeans and used the disability buttons to open the doors on the way out of the bank.
His buddy Cranston, the one whose dad ran heavy equipment, gave Devon a ride up to the airport that afternoon. Mr. Ross was waiting for him at the back, where the old planes were kept, the ones too broken for service. “They’re all pretty much junk,” said Mr. Ross. “You don’t want one of these.”
“That’s the one there,” Devon said. He pointed to a little two-seater, white with a red stripe.
“It doesn’t even have an engine,” said Mr. Ross.
“I don’t need an engine,” said Devon.
“What the hell good is it then?”
“I’m just gonna sit around and smoke in it,” said Devon.
Mr. Ross looked at him oddly. “Right,” he said. “Well, I couldn’t charge you more than a grand for it.”
Devon took the envelope from his back pocket and gave Mr. Ross a crisp new thousand dollar bill.
Cranston took Devon by his house on the way home. Cranston’s mom asked Devon to stay for ham and scalloped potatoes.
“Can you put an airplane on a pole in my backyard?” Devon asked Cranston’s dad?
“What?” asked Cranston’s dad. His mouth was full of potatoes. “An airplane?”
“Yeah,” said Devon. “I bought an airplane, and I want you to put it on a pole in my backyard.”
“On a pole?”
Cranston’s dad swallowed his potatoes. “How high?”
“As high as you can get it. With one of those circle ladders that you climb through.”
Cranston’s Dad drank about half his beer in one go. “I guess I could probably manage that,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be cheap.”
“I don’t know. Put in the pole – pick up the plane – attach it somehow – install the ladder.” He shrugged. “Maybe ten grand.”
Devon gave him ten of the thousand dollar bills from his envelope.
“Hell,” said Cranston’s dad. “You’re flush.” He left the money on the table. “We’ll need a permit though. When they ask me what it’s for, what should I tell them?”
“I’m just gonna sit in it,” said Devon, “way up there, see the whole neighbourhood while I smoke my weed.”
Cranston’s dad shook his head. “That’s messed up kid.” He finished his beer. “I’ll just say its a weathervane.”
They installed the pole and the ladder a few weeks later. Devon’s mom was away visiting her sister in Arizona that Saturday.
“We’ll let the concrete cure for a couple weeks,” said Cranston’s dad, “then backfill and hoist up the airplane.”
“How high is it?” asked Devon.
“As high as the boom can reach,” said Cranston’s dad. “Almost eighty feet.”
“That’ll do just fine,” said Devon. “Just fine.”
Devon’s mother didn’t think so though when she came back from Tucson.
“Why can’t you be like other kids and just have parties when I’m gone?” she asked.
“Sorry,” he said.
“What’s it even for?”
“It’s for my airplane.”
“My airplane. I bought it for my birthday.”
“With what money?”
“With my trust fund.”
“But that was for your education!”
“No,” Devon said. “It was for my airplane.”
Devon’s mom went to her room and cried. Devon talked to her through the door. He told her not to cry, that the airplane would look great in the back yard.
“Why the hell do you need an airplane anyway!” she yelled.
“To sit in,” he said, “and smoke.”
She opened the door and looked at him with her hair hanging in her face. “You can sit and smoke on the couch,” she said. “It’s all you do anyway.”
“Sure,” he said, “but this will be higher. Much higher.”
She slammed the door again, but she didn’t try to stop Cranston’s dad when he came to install the airplane a few weeks later. She just went right on folding the laundry and reorganizing the basement and making lunch.
“Can I try it now?” Devon asked once the plane was bolted into place and the boom was lowered.
“Sure,” said the inspector. He signed the papers. “You just going to sit up there and look around?”
“Just gonna sit up there and smoke my weed,” Devon said.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” the inspector told him.
Devon climbed rung over rung, opened the door of the airplane, and sat in the cockpit. He took a green and speckled glass pipe from his pocket. Filled it. Lit it. Took a hit.
He could see the roofs of the houses below, his neighbours going about doing whatever it was they were doing. The wind swept beneath the wings, and the body of the airplane moved just enough for him to feel it.
He exhaled. “Yep,” he said, “that’ll do just fine.”
The fire had almost burned itself out, and the forest sounds were emerging where there had been song and talk through most of the night. Only Sully remained. He laid his head back in his deck chair and closed his eyes, the last beer of the night still half full in his hand.
Jill came almost half way down the hill behind him before she was betrayed by the forest litter. He turned to her, and she stopped, her arms folded across her chest against the night cool.
“Sorry,” she said. “I thought you’d all gone to bed.”
“I’m on my way,” he said, raising his beer, “in three sips and a swallow.” He took the first of those sips. “What are you doing out so late?”
She scrambled down the last steepness of the path and sat in the chair opposite him, pulling her legs up under the skirt of her dress for warmth. “I like it down here at night.”
There was a long quiet filled with nothing much but the night breeze in the canopy and the gurgle of small waves under the dock. Sully added a couple of logs to the fire. “You could come down earlier, you know. Have a beer. Talk to other human beings.”
She shrugged. “I’d rather not.”
“You used to hang out with us when we were kids. Me and Todd and Rowland, and what was their little sister’s name?”
“Yeah, Janice. We’d sneak sips from the adults’ drinks, then play tag in the bush or go night swimming.”
“I remember.” Jill half stood, pulling her chair closer to the fire, then sat again.
“Do you remember when Janice wanted to play spin the bottle in the boathouse? I was the only guy there who wasn’t her brother, so she had to kiss me every time.”
“And Todd and Rowland had to kiss me.”
“Yeah. But we kept playing anyway. A pretty long time.”
There was quiet again.
“Did I ever get to kiss you?” he asked. “I don’t remember.”
“No,” she said. “You didn’t.”
“Funny. We must have spun that thing like five times each.”
She shivered, looked out across the lake, almost still. “I’m going to bed,” she said, and she stood, began climbing the path to her cottage.
“Me too,” he replied, though too quietly for her to hear him.” He kicked the fire apart, unzipped his fly, began pissing on the coals.
I am pleased to announce the publication of Island Pieces, a collection of short fiction, poetry, and photography that recall the summers I spent on Manitoulin Island as a youth. Many of the pieces were posted as early drafts here on From Word to Word, so if you want a flavour of what the book is like, just check out the Stories category in the navigation bar.
The book is available at Lulu.com as a hardcover, a trade paperback, and a .pdf. The paperback will be available from major book sites like BarnesAndNoble and Amazon in six or eight weeks, but the Lulu prices will always be cheaper, and they get me a better cut as the author as well. Also, because of the way that I have arranged distribution, I need to charge a minimum of $2.00 for the ebook on Lulu and who knows how much on BarnesAndNoble or Amazon, so here is a link to a free version, and there is also a link on the Longer Works page. Those who are looking for a true ebook format will probably get what you want in a couple of weeks, so be patient.
The observant among you will notice that the book has been released through a publishing company called Vocamus Press, which is a co-operative publishing venture that I am starting with a few friends. We are by no means ready to launch the project formally yet, but we will be publishing a few titles under that name over the next few months (including a new edition of Lindy that has already been released), hoping to have a nice big launch and party in the fall, so stay tuned for details.
There is a turtle in the hoopnet, I can see right away, a snapper, almost always, lured by the fish through the narrowing hoops, one after the other, its claws now gripping the netting. We aren’t supposed to kill them, and prying them out of the net is impossible, so we will have to cut the net, take the turtle out, mend the hole before resetting the trap. My uncle would have been impatient, but he isn’t with us today, just my grandfather and I, pulling the nets for pike.
We lift the front end first, funneling any straggling fish through the hoops, deeper into the net, but I don’t see any fish yet, just the broad round hoops bound one to the other by a sheath of netting, like old-fashioned dresses sewn in a line, or like a sea-serpent with its ribs showing. The netting is covered with silt and algae, tangled with waterweeds, slippery and cumbersome and heavy with wet. The smell is of fish and shallow waters and mud and rot, but somehow wholesome, the sort of smell that promises growing things, not cultivated, but fecund and burgeoning and profligate. It settles over the boat, tangibly fertile, as if shoots might sprout from it in the warmth the of the sun, cover the boat with vegetation, make an island of it in the shallow bay.
The last hoop, square, larger than the others, lies just below the surface, the turtle clinging to the top of it, and below, in the mote-filled water, the fish hover, slim, quavering, mottled. Their broad tails are like fletching on loosed and darting arrows, and they are most beautiful now, in mid flight, before they are surfaced, to lie flapping and and breathless.
The nets lift from the water, suddenly lighter, and fall into the boat. I untie the closure, dump the fish onto the deck, no longer quavering, just slithering. There are only three, and the snapper has been at the smallest of them, almost severing its head and eating away most of its belly. The larger two, still struggling, are tossed into the totes.
I take my knife and cut the net around the snapper’s claws, pull the turtle, with the patch of net it has claimed, from the the hoop and toss it into the prow. It’s no good putting it back into the water here to catch again next time, so we’ll take it with us when we leave, drop it far from the nets somewhere. It’s a male, I think, because the tail is so wide, but it’s harder to tell with snappers. Their tails are longer than other turtles, tougher to gauge. He pulls himself along the deck, his claws rasping the metal, his shell knocking the sides of the boat.
My grandfather is looking at the hole I have made in the net, seeing if it can be repaired now or if it will need to come back with us. He has tipped his hat back on his head to see better, the rounded brim tilted skyward, the mesh back almost slipping off the baldness of his head. He pulls from his pocket a yellow plastic mending needle, the same colour as his slicker, threads it with twine, and makes the attempt, though the hole looks quite large. This might take him some time, and we are drifting toward the shore, in among the reeds, so I toss out the anchor, watching it descend out of sight into the shallow murk.
I sit myself on the tote, put my feet up on the spare nets, then remember my coffee set beside the helm, but I decide to leave it, pulling my cap down over my eyes against the water’s glare. I am well enough caffeinated by now, and warm too, though it was cold this morning when we untied from the jetty, early enough that the sun was only an orange dye tinging the black-blue of the water. It had been still this morning too, the water barely stirring the dock, twisting it gently with the irregular rhythm that only waves can keep, and the thermos had been hot in my hand, while the rest of me was morning-cold, waking-cold, waiting bodily for the sun to warm the world beyond the power of the thin cool breezes.
It is well warm now though, my hat ringed with sweat around the brim, and the corners of my mouth tasting salt, and it is bright, the sun striking obliquely on the faces of the low swells, on the aluminium of the boat, on the whiteness of the rocks. It is a brightness that comes from everywhere, that leaves no true shadow, only infinite numbers of tenuous, quivering shadows, like the spots on the sides of pike as they hover, refracted, just beneath the membrane of the water, like schools of minnows swarming the shallows with their shadow doubles, like whirligig beetles running the stillness of the water to riot.
The snapper is in the front of the boat, trying to climb the aluminium sides, but the metal is too slick, and its legs are too short to reach even the tie bar, never mind the gunwale, so its claws rasp futilely, merely polishing the metal to shine more brightly in the sun, to cast brighter gleams, to make more vibrating shadow. It never pauses in its labour though, scratching a steady counter rhythm to the irregular slapping of waves on the hull and to the gurgling wash of still other waves against the shore.
The shore is rocky here, long and rock strewn, flooded in spring but dry now. The trees, back a hundred yards or so from the water, are stunted and tortured, as though they now regret having put down roots here, clutching at the rock through the thin soil just to survive the winter storms and the spring floods and the summer droughts. Their lower branches are all dead. It is only their uppermost limbs that have any life in them, springing green and surprising from the desolation below them.
We stopped to eat here once, making a fire from the dead wood in among the dry, pebbling stones further up the beach, where the trees begin, gutting the unsaleable fish, the carp and the catfish and the suckers, then frying them quickly in butter, our only condiment. They taste good, the garbage fish, as long as they are eaten like this, immediately after they are killed, before they have time to grow fishy, even better if I can find wild leeks around, as I sometimes can.
We threw the guts in the lake, and the crayfish were soon clambering over it. I sat on a shelf of rock to watch the lake as the fish cooked, smelling the woodsmoke and the butter, and then I saw a northern water snake come out from under the rocks away to my left, nosing about for the fish guts too. Most snakes won’t eat carrion, but northern water snakes will, or they’ll eat dead fish anyway, and they’ll sometimes eat their food tail first too, which I’ve never seen another snake do. The bands on this one were still very red, though it was an adult length, red and deep brown, alternating, like a row of saddles for miniature riders. It reared its head a little and circled past the discarded fish, then slipped wholly into the water, making the water ripple convulsively as it gulped its meal, little splashes disturbing the pattern of the lapping waves.
The snapper’s churning claws return me to the boat. My grandfather is bent patiently over the net. He has cut a patch from a piece of spare netting kept for just this purpose, and he is sewing it in place, firmly, methodically, which is his way. There is never any fuss about him, never any hurry. Now and again he wipes the perspiration from his head with the sleeve of his plaid cotton shirt, but he never looks up, sewing steadily in big looping stitches, until he is tying the line off, testing it, holding it up for my inspection.
“Let’s get this set then,'” he says as he stands, and I am about to stand as well, when I hear the sound of the snapper’s claws suddenly stop.
Standing in the front of the boat, the turtle is stretching its neck toward the tie bar, stretching to a remarkable length, looking more like a snake slipping out of a crevice than a turtle at all. It closes its jaws around the bar and begins to pull itself upward, incrementally, by the strength of its neck alone, drawing its body after it, dangling by its jaws. Its feet hover above the deck like a prophet ascending into heaven, until its shell is almost level with is beak, high enough that it can reach the tie bar with its claws. Then, with remarkable ease, even grace, it pulls itself the last few inches over the rail and slaps into the water, disappears into the reeds and mud.
This is another of the Manitoulin stories. 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.
The diner is just across the border of the reserve, filled about equally with local residents and with the cottagers who lease property from the band. The laws against smoking in public places don’t apply here, and many of the cottagers come here just for that reason, so the dining room is filled with smoke.
There are three officers from the reserve police in the corner closest to the kitchen, farthest from my own table. They speak to the cook through the open doorway with the ease of regulars. They are tall and well-built, all of them, with closely cut dark hair and handsome faces, wearing very clean, very sharp uniforms, complete with bullet-proof vests and hand guns and brushed caps set carefully on the table beside their plates. They know they are the symbols of a new kind of reserve that takes care of its own business. Much of the reserve is lagging behind them, of course, but they are a symbol of what is possible, law and order and beautiful uniforms, all with a native face.
They are drinking coffee from white diner mugs, and one calls into the kitchen, “Hey, Susan, has that Barbeau kid come around since we picked him up?”
“Nope. Haven’t seen him,” a woman’s voice replies, disembodied, emerging throaty and sensual from the kitchen, a smoker’s voice. “You guys didn’t rough him up too badly did ya? He’s really not a bad kid.”
“He took cash from you at knife point, Susan. He’s a bad kid.”
“He just steals because his mother steals.”
“Maybe, but she steals for booze. He just does it for kicks. He’s gonna be a mean one when he gets older.”
“Maybe. Band should have done something earlier, placed him with an auntie.”
“That’s what they’d do now, for sure.” He sipped from his mug. “But times were different then.”
“Says the boy talking to his grandma.”
The three officers all laugh, bright and handsome.
The girl in the next booth looks up at them and then away again before they can meet her eyes. She is sipping from a mug of coffee also, staring across at an elderly woman in a pink, floral hat, humped over a pot of tea. The girl is thin, not like an anorexic or an athlete, but like someone whose body only ever bothered to grow upward, spent all its energy on height and had nothing left over for roundness, for breasts or hips. Her eyes look past the old woman without interest, past the pink hat with its white and blue flowers, past the hand-knitted pink shawl and the blue dress with its delicately scalloped collar. She looks at the same time fierce and bored.
“How’s your soda, lamby?” the old woman asks.
The girl’s eyes focus for an instant on the elderly face and then drift into the distance again. “It’s not soda Grandma. It’s coffee. And nobody calls it soda anymore. It’s called pop.” She fidgets, running her thumb along the inside of her necklace, rearranging the salt and pepper shakers, spinning her rings on her fingers. Her eyes drift across the restaurant toward my table, so I look down to my breakfast until her gaze passes over me, just another teen boy eating his breakfast.
The older woman seems either not to hear or not to care. She sips daintily from her teacup, the perfect caricature of a grandmother.
“Will you need me this afternoon Grandma?” the girl asks. Her mouth hardly ever moves, even when she speaks.
“What’s that?” The older woman tilts her head to the left and leans toward her granddaughter.
“I said, “Do you need me for anything this afternoon?”
“No, not today, lamby. I think I’ll have a bit of a nap after lunch. You go ahead and have the afternoon to yourself.”
The girl takes a cigarette from her purse and puts it between her lips but leaves it unlit. “Can I have the car?” she says. The cigarette twitches in time to her words.
“You know I never let anyone drive it without me,” her grandmother replies, “and you know I can’t abide smoking, so put that dirty thing away.”
“It’s not lit, grandma.” She takes the cigarette from her mouth and turns it between her fingers until it breaks. She tosses it into the ashtray. “Please, grandma. Daniel’s parents won’t let him use the car anymore. And he says he shouldn’t come into town for a while. Can’t I take it just this once?”
“I certainly will not send you off unattended with my car to see some, some Indian. Certainly not.”
“Native, Grandma. He’s native. It’s rude to say Indian.”
“I don’t care what you call him. You may not take my car.”
The girl stood up and grabbed her bag from the seat. “Fine,” she said, “I’m going for a smoke,” and she stalked to the door, her heels clicking hollowly on the linoleum floor.
“You’re allowed to smoke in here, you know,” said a man as she passed his table. She ignored him and pushed her way out through the door. He shrugged and leaned on the table, its edge pressing deeply into the heavy flesh of his bare forearms.
“Did you see that?” he demanded. The woman across from him never bothered to look up, kept her eyes on the paper, almost tenderly tapping the ash of her cigarette in the ashtray. Her silence didn’t deter him. He lit a cigarette of his own. “So rude,” he said, brushing his long hair out of his face, his eyes squinting in the smoke as he exhaled. “First we almost hit that one kid. Runs into the road right in front of us. Then gives me the finger when I slam on the breaks, like I didn’t just save his life.”
He leaned back in his chair, pulled his t-shirt down over his belly. “Then that skinny chick…” he stopped himself and looked at the old lady across the restaurant. “Then that skinny chick, ” he continued, his voice lower, “gives me a look like that. For trying to be nice.” He shook his head and idly moved his homefries around his plate. “Are you listening to me, Jessica?”
The woman made no sign that she had heard him. Her blond hair hung long on either side of her face. It swung slightly as her eyes followed the print in front of her.
“Hey!” the man said suddenly, and something in his voice seemed to register with Jessica enough for her to look up as well. “It’s that kid!” he hissed, half-whispering. “The kid we almost hit!”
Jessica turned in her chair, looked behind me to the back door, and I turned too. A teen boy, a bit older than me maybe, stood just inside the door, peering around the angle of the hallway into the restaurant. The couple by the door could see him, and so could I, but the wall hid him from everyone else. He seemed intent on the booth where the girl had been sitting, then noticed the three officers and pulled further back into the door jamb. His dark hair was long and pulled into a ponytail.
The front door opened, and we all turned to see the girl walk in, her jeans hanging low on her thin hips. She looked to her left, past the couple by the door, past my table, to the boy hiding in the back hall. Her eyes widened, and she smiled shyly, checked to see whether her grandmother was watching. “Um, grandma,” she called, “I’m just going to the bathroom, okay?”
Her grandmother looked over the top of her glasses. “Sure, lamby.”
The girl crossed the diner to the hallway and threw her arms around the boy’s neck, her shirt pulling up to show a bird tattoo in the small of her back. She tried to kiss his face, but he looked distracted, whispered something in her ear. She looked over her shoulder to where the three officers were leaning back in their chairs, coffees in hand. He tried to lead her outside, but she opened the door to the bathroom and pulled him inside. There was lettering on the back of his leather jacket. Grizzlies, it read, over a logo of a bear, and then underneath, Daniel Barbeau, Left Wing.
“I should’ve known,” said the man by the door. He scratched the stubble on his face. “Those two were meant for each other.” Jessica had already gone back to her paper.
I finished my food, but the waitress hadn’t been by in a long while. I thought about going to ask for my bill, but the reserve police got up first. “Bill please, Susan,” one called.
“Separate?” came the throaty voice.
“Naw, put it all together. And put my coffee tab on there too.”
“Thanks, Eric. I’ll get it next time,” one of the others said. “I’m just gonna use the can.” He left his hat on the table and strolled across the restaurant to the bathroom, tried the handle. There was no sound from inside. “Hey,” he asked, “is anyone in there?” There was still silence. He tried the door again. Susan?” he called, “I think someone locked the bathroom on you.”
“Could you open it for me?” she called back. “It’s just a toothpick lock.”
The officer knocked again. “I’m coming in, ” he said, “so speak up if you’re in there.” There was the sudden sound of glass smashing from inside the bathroom, like a window had been broken out, and then a scrambling noise. “What the hell?” he said. He didn’t bother finding a toothpick, just stepped back and broke the door in with a kick. It swung open on its hinges and banged against the inside of the wall. A girl’s voice started screaming, and I could see the skinny girl pressed into the far corner of the bathroom, her face in her hands. The officer leapt to stand on the rim of the toilet, peering out through the broken window on the opposite wall. “It’s no use running, Barbeau, ” he yelled. “You’ve got no where to go!”
He came back into the restaurant. One of the other officers threw him his cap, and all three dashed through the door.
“Be gentle with him!” Susan yelled after them, then quieter, so only we could hear, “He’s really not a bad kid.”
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.
“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.
“You have a nephew? How old is he?”
“I don’t know. Hey, kid. How old are you?”
“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.”
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.
“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?”
“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.