Preface: I think this is the best thing I’ve written so far, it was for class last semester. It still needs work though. I’ve stolen a lot of stuff from my hometown, names and places, but I hope I’ve made it my own. Here goes,
We were in the back of Barbie’s truck. I was in my party dress, feeling the rough plastic on my legs. James was next to me, all suited up. He undid his bowtie, letting it hang from his collar. “Beach, right?” I asked, fingers attempting to grip the scratchy plasticky grain on the floor. He nodded back at me, too lazy to talk. “Circle, or Twin Coves?” I asked. Which was he same thing as asking Ian or Ned. He formed a circle with his fingers, and then leaned back, shutting his eyes. Circle Beach it was. Circle Beach meant Ian, and a bonfire, and all of those abandoned summerhouses.
The last two guys piled in the front of the truck, shutting the door hard enough so we could feel it. Barbie barely paused a moment before shuttling off. It was an early enough Homecoming this year that it was still warm outside, that we could actually go to the beach without wanting to constantly keel over from the cold. It was unseasonably warm for the middle of October as well. I had goosebumps though, most likely because the wind was whipping over the truck bed, and because every bump seemed to lift me just barely from the makeshift seat.
We had left early, only around an hour in, because dances were lame. Especially at our school, which budgeted only for sports programs and vanity-based accessories. Like an actual statue devoted to every past principal. Money went to that. We still wanted to make a thing of the night though, so we decided to hit one of the beaches off of Blakeman. Blakeman was off the main road in our town, it went directly straight, along a small river that merged into marshes on one side, and had about twenty or so small one lane roads, extended arms that reached to the beaches on the other side. I lived in a small house on the marsh side, but the neighborhood was the beach side. The beach side was where I grew up, where I met all my best friends, it was where the summer people lived.
James and I were both on the marsh side, we barely made it into the neighborhood, we were outsiders. But by now we’d insinuated ourselves enough to be regulars, to be more important than the rest of them. We were necessary. It helped that we were both year rounders. We lived in their houses when they were thousands of miles away. We knew where every spare key was hidden, every door that had lost it’s lock, every window that pushed in.
“Hold on!” Barbie shouted from the front, giggling. Her laugh was her trademark, sharp and harsh, a straight burst. Her own unmistakable cackle, popping through the wind, it was never lighthearted, but always devious, with an edge. We hit a bump, the one she warned about, and I felt myself lift momentarily from the truck bed, weightless. My stomach dropped as I banged to the bed, settling again. My bare legs scratched against the floor. James laughed and grabbed me, “Don’t fly away Olly.” He joked. I adjusted my party dress and leaned back, breathing again, and holding as much as I could to the floor. “We’re not too far.” He shut his eyes again, too lazy to look through the night.
It was dark, that deep blue night after the sunset. Not black yet. Circle Beach was better in the sunset than the dead of night, that blind blackness that would come soon. You needed to be able to see in front of you as you weaved underneath houses, through the massive concrete pillars and wooden stilts, holding the houses above the threat of water. In firelight all you could do was stumble around and hope your steps wouldn’t throw you into hidden stairs and boardwalks, or even the pillars that had lost their houses.
There was a house all the way at the end of the road made almost entirely of glass, shaped like a right triangle. You could see straight through it, the modern wooden stairs, the small library, the office, the kitchen. The bedroom had curtains. One year there was a hurricane, or tropical storm or something, and the walls shattered. It wasn’t trees falling on it, or branches or anything, but the force of the waves that did it. Each wall had to be replaced, and the water damage was supposed to have been insane. It marked the end of the beach. None of us knew the owner, none of us had ever seen him or her inside it.
I turned my neck, trying to gauge our location. We were going too fast for legible street signs though. Alexa was half-out of the front passenger window, dangling four stilettos from her fingers. Barbie must have been driving in bare feet. Alexa was buzzed and goofy already, her lower body, the parts of her in the truck were splayed over Greg and Tommy, who were pushed together in the middle seat. I much preferred the night air and the life threatening bumps of the back seat to sitting smashed together in the front through Alexa’s slurred attempts at flirtation. I started to feel the truck slowing. Barbie pulled to the side of the paved road, slapping the door twice.
James hopped over the side, and held his hands out for me. I pulled myself up, my legs felt a bit like jelly, but I took his hands, and managed to remain upright when I hit the ground. Barbie addressed us, “I’m gonna make it over the rocks, I thought you guys would rather walk.”
“You think you can make it without popping the tires?” James asked.
“This truck?” She replied, “This truck can do anything. He’s never let me down.”
Alexa slurred. “Didn’t you see the spare in the back? We’ll be fine.”
“Go on.” Barbie waved. We moved to the side, picking our way over the rocks on foot. Alexa waved her shoes at us from the window as Barbie started to maneuver through the bumps.
The beach curved ahead of us, dirt road dividing the marsh on one side-reeds, wild grasses, and docks in the wetlands-and the beach on the other-pointed rocks giving way to sand, then lapping waves brownish-blue in the sunlight, black at night. We started to catch wisps of music on the wind. The stereo burst out Ian’s noise.
It was one of those nights you could actually see the stars when you looked up. So many people were away for the year, back in the city for the winter, that the light pollution wasn’t a problem. The trees thinned out, then vanished, and there was nothing blocking our view. I saw the fire, sparks gleaming and floating away, smoke drifting and spinning. I saw the group, buried in the sand, by the beach, and attendant around Ian.
Alexa was at the water, Tommy supporting her at the waist. Henry and Kat were half-buried near the fire, fighting as always. Ian was holding court next to the stereo. Ian nodded a hello at me. He was finishing a story. You could even tell from far away, the look in his eyes, the movement of his arms. I could almost hear it from here. He was winding down, and Barbie was there, taking over the glow. She had backed the truck over the rocks, settling the group just near the fire. People were climbing all over the truck bed, perched on any ledge. I was surprised the tires hadn’t deflated in the wear, but Barbie worked on that truck tirelessly. She knew it’s limits.
Ian’s house was the only one of ours on the stretch of Circle Beach. It’s the one that technically allowed us to be there. It was a small beach house, but his father had converted it so they could live there year round, which they did now. Ian was kind of a jerk, but the type of jerk everyone wanted to be around. He used to be a summer secret. Those of us in the neighborhood, from Blakeman and it’s tributaries, got to know him through beach hopping and block parties. From miles wide games of capture the flag and kick the can, from secret boat trips, to our first beers. He was part of our summer selves, separate from childhood embarrassments, and the mundanity of school. He was the part of you that could be whoever you wanted, who didn’t care what anyone thought of him or you.
Last year his folks moved to town for good. Ian had gone to school with us for one year, and already he had followers. He was that magnetic type of person. He did back-flips in the hallway, and vaulted full stairwells. He bantered with the principal and teased our security guards, managing to constantly piss them off, but somehow keep them laughing. He lazily completed his work, seeming never to study, but somehow always pulling it off.
He was almost universally loved, admired, and simply watched. He was the kind of person who didn’t care if you skated afterschool, or were in marching band, student council, math club, or a metal band, slept in class, or never missed a day. He was up for anything. When he spoke to you, you felt like you were the most important person, like at last you had someone’s attention and they actually cared. He seemed to always be interested, nothing was obligation for him, he was just alive. And we looked up to him.
James pulled me out of my reverie, and away from the abandoned stairs I was about to walk right into. “Yo, are you okay? You have to be careful.” The stairs, bright white even, used to lead up to a small lifeguard tower before the beach was privatized. The tower was gone, it was as if it melted away, but the stairs were still there.
“Yeah, sorry.” I knew I had to pay attention, but it was late, and I was drifting. James plopped down, sinking into the sand, and pulling me down with him.
“Sand angels, Olly, come on!” He pumped his arms and legs, flat on the ground.
“Really?” I said, but followed suit anyway. Goofiness was just fine with me. The sand was cold, the kind of cold where you couldn’t tell if it was wet or not. We pushed our arms and legs in jumping jacks, making hills between our limbs. “Do you think we’re good yet?”
“Keep going. You’ll know.” He went harder, and I laughed, stopping, staring up at the stars. A wave of fatigue hit me, like suddenly I wanted to be home, wanted to be nowhere near this party or the beach. I suddenly knew I’d be better off at home, better off asleep. I wanted to curl up and hide, or run off all at the same time. “Olly? You good.” I curled up my fists, not ready to get up, not able to shake that uneasy feeling.
And then there he was, holding out his hands for us. James first. Ian pulled him up, and slapped him on the back, shaking the sand off his suit. They both held a hand out for me, and I was lifted from the ground. We looked back at our handiwork, mussed and lumpy circles.
“They never work as well as snow angels.” Ian said, smiling.
“But we’ll keep trying.” James smiled big in response.
“Anyone home tonight?” I asked, turning to stare at the darkened houses. They turned in response.
“It’s hard to tell. But no complaints so far. No sign of sirens either.”
“How long have you been here?” James asked, shaking the sand from his dusty blonde hair. I started pulling some out of mine. I pulled all the clips and bobby pins out, dropping them in the sand.
I didn’t hear what Ian said in response, as I stepped away, clearing a path so I could shake my head all the way out. I flipped my head and back and forth. It wasn’t pretty, but I was past caring. I pulled my hair into a bun, getting it back from my face, and stepped back into the circle. Ian seemed to be lecturing, as only some could, on the police in our town. They had an increased presence in our town since the scandal at the first football game, canvassing neighborhoods for no reason.
“I swear, I saw them parked outside my neighbors for like forty-five minutes the other day. I couldn’t tell if they were watching them or watching us!”
“Do you think we could swim away if we saw them coming? Get to the rocks in time? Or all the way to the old lighthouse?” I measured handfuls of sand, scooping them in my fingers, then dropping them, brushing the excess away against my dress.
“Olly.” He sounded like he was scolding me.
“What? That was a joke.” He stood and ambled back over to the fire, tugging his curly hair. “Hey.” I called. “Come back.” He turned and stared, as if deciding somehow. He walked back to us. I tugged at both of their arms, “Hey, hey guys, let’s swim to the lighthouse.” I wanted to do something crazy, I wanted to get away from the group, get away from the drifting smoke, the uneasy feeling, and the water looked inviting.
“Are you joking? We can’t swim. We can barely see out here.” James frowned. I tugged them over to the water, stepping in, walking until my knees were submerged. It was cold, my muscles were tensing up, but I wanted to go further. They stood at the shore, staring.
“Come on, guys.” I called, starting to shiver. They shrugged at each other, but made no move.
“You’re freezing already. Don’t even lie. This is not a good idea.” James called. “Get back here.”
“I’m not leaving.” I called. I didn’t want to go back to the shore. It was a game now. And suddenly it was important. I had to make them come out here and get me, or swim all the way out. The old lighthouse wasn’t that far. It wasn’t a working site anymore. I had only ever swum out there once before, in the summer, in the light. But I really wanted to now. I didn’t want to let go of the idea that we would just stay on the beach, we would just stand by the fire, as part of the crowd. I didn’t want to be like everyone else. I wanted to be different, moving, someone people would follow. I wasn’t turning back.
I started swimming, leaping into the water, fully submerged. I started getting into the stroke. My dress floated out, it was like I was wearing nothing. It was cold, but not as cold when I was all the way under. I flipped over, treading water, looking back. James was still standing at the shore. Ian was gone.
“Don’t just stand there.” I gurgled. I don’t know if it was loud enough for him to hear. I flipped back over, and settled into my stroke. I was a good swimmer. I swam in local competitive leagues from when I was 7 until last year. It took up too much of my time. I was constantly tired, I stopped being able to focus on anything but swimming; school, work, friends, everything else just fell away. So I stopped. Because I wasn’t myself anymore. I wasn’t a person, I was an object, I was a means to an end.
I kept going, pulling more than kicking. It felt good, my muscles were moving again. Everything was clicking into place, and it was comfortable. It was like stretching, it felt nice. I could ignore the cold; I could barely hear the music from the shore, or the crackling fire. I couldn’t hear James calling for me. I couldn’t hear Ian walking away. I couldn’t even hear Barbie’s laughter. It was just the lapping water, the bobbing waves, and stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. I could swim forever if I wanted to.
I couldn’t see my legs; I couldn’t see anything under the water, only my pale arms. I could only just see the added darkness of the small island. I could notice the poking darkness of the lighthouse.
The slight waves rose, pockets of foam pushed their way closer to me, and I heard the buzz and slight wheeze of the engine. It was a small boat, not fancy and gleaming white, but that dingy gray-brown metal with an attached engine. I submerged one last time, wiping my hair out of my face, and I waited for him.
“Do you know how stupid you are? To swim out here at night? By yourself! I can barely see you now!” Ian’s brown eyes shown, he held one hand on the engine, and one gripping the side.
“I know how to swim, Ian.” I said.
“Well, what the fuck Olly! You can’t do things like this!” I grabbed onto the side, holding on, but not pulling myself over the edge. He didn’t move to help me. “You know you can’t do things like this, okay? Okay, Olly? You have to say okay.” I nodded, but then realized he couldn’t tell, and gulped a yes, okay, fine. He hauled me over the side, the boat swaying. He threw his jacket over my shoulders, and tossed me a towel that was next to him. I sank down in the boat, as he turned it around.
“Go to the lighthouse. We have to go to the island!” I was mad, after all this way, he wouldn’t turn me around.
He wouldn’t even look at me as he said, “I have to get James first.”
James held me back as we got close to the island. I think he was afraid that I would jump out, want to swim to the shore again, and somehow get lost or drown in the few feet between our boat and the sand. I wanted to swim, if only to get back into the warmer water, so I couldn’t feel the stinging wind.
We beached ourselves against the sand, the boys pulling the boat up, then lifting me out. I pulled the towel along with me, Ian pulled his backpack. You could see the rest of them, across the beach, dancing around the fire, moving rhythmically, stumbling, sitting, and standing. And then the sirens came. We could see them flashing blue and red, everyone scrambling to run away. And we were safe across the beach. I started laughing.
“See, look. I saved you from an arrest.” I said.
“We wouldn’t have been arrested.” Ian grumbled.
We sat simultaneously in the sand. James rubbed his hand against my back, trying to warm me up. I leaned into him, as Ian unzipped the bag.
“What have you got in there?” I asked.
“You’ll see.” He said. They weren’t so mad at me, then. We sunk further into the sand, as Ian walked away.
“Come back!” I called.
“Hold on a minute.” Ian called back.
“Just wait,” James whispered in my ear. He tied his hanging bowtie around my wrist.
“Thanks, I guess. Are you going to want this back?”
“Just watch.” He said, and looked to Ian. Ian was fidgeting with his lighter, kneeling in the sand a ways in front of us. Suddenly he darted back, diving to sit with us again, watching. It was a firecracker, bursting into sparks on the shore, spinning into the water. He passed us each a sparkler; we set them alight together, and watched them burn down.