Laura's still leaning against her Neon, trying to get a signal to call her imaginary boyfriend, but Ketch says we should follow him anyway, so we do. He and Kalindy lead the pack, brandishing sticks like machetes. The rest of us take turns holding the branches back so Evil can carry the cooler through.
"I told you guys to wear boots," says Kalindy, looking over her shoulder at Justin, whose constant stops to fix his sandals are slowing us down.
"So we didn't wear boots, so sue us, it's July."
Justin sounds pissed. He hates Kalindy. Specifically, he thinks she's an officious bitch. He said so last night, when we were drinking on the roof and using up the last of Ketch's Roman candles, waiting for the sun to fall.
"Someone ought to wait for Laura," mutters Fran.
"She'll catch up," snaps Ketch. He's a dick to women he can't fall in love with, and Laura proved to be one of those fairly early in the summer. They were thick as molasses in June, but nowadays he's all about Kalindy--she of the sensible hiking shoes and half-assed attempt at redheaded dreads. They met at one of Ketch’s Buddhist retreats. I don't know her well, but she drives a pickup truck and fucks him and always has weed. We all wonder why Laura bothers coming around anymore.
"Does she even know where we're going?"
"All deer paths lead to water," says Kalindy. "She'll find us fine."
"'Today on Wild America--" says Fran, trotting up from behind to tickle my ribs. He's been into tickling me all week, ever since I agreed to move out of Ketch’s living room and move in with him. We've been sleeping together for months, I don't know.
Ketch spits in the dirt. "Shut up, Frannie."
I shove Frannie into the brush. I like shoving him. He's not like the other men I’ve had. They always fought back.
"Knock it off, I'll get poison!"
"That's nothing," I tell him, laughing. "I've already given you the clap."
Justin motions me forward, handing over his joint. I like how he grows his beard out in the summer, the weird way the caramel-colored puff of hair frames his gap-toothed smile. We all agree that it's terribly impressive. His girlfriend, Marjorie, has been saying so for weeks--getting strung out on Robitussin and babbling about how much she loves her summer Justin, right down to the curly hair on his blonde chicken legs. She didn't come today because she hates the reservoir. Something about the dragonflies and the way they attack.
"Ketch, Naomi has the clap," says Frannie, three minutes too late.
"Your girl, not mine." grunts Ketch.
"T.M.I., Frannie, just fucking T.M.I," says Justin, pinching the joint out of my mouth and putting it in Evil Ben's. The sun laces through the leaves just so, hitting the smoke, and I just know--today will be fucking perfect. We have two cases worth of cold Natty Boh, enough weed to floor a thoroughbred, the whole reservoir for the taking. And no cops, if Kalindy's right about the spot she's been mentioning since mid-morning, when we were all lolling about on Ketch's floor eating Laura's famous tofu scramble.
"Not too much farther, guys," she says.
"How come there aren't any bushes growing around here?" asks Justin.
"Because they're busy invading Iraq," says Frannie, elbowing me. I bare my teeth.
"Actually, the tree canopy prevents light from reaching the ground, so nothing too substantial can grow underneath," says Kalindy.
"Thank you, Marty Stouffer!"
"Shut up, Frannie." grunts Evil, stumbling forward under the weight of the beer. The path is trickier here, morphing from slippery red clay into sharp stones, then gray loam and pebbles as we follow Kalindy down into a muddy cove.
"This is it," she says, hooking her arm over a low-hanging branch to devour the fruits of her labor--our nods of approval, Ketch's red-eyed, infatuated gaze. Satisfied, we all tear off our shoes, tossing our t-shirts into trees to stand, stripped to swimsuits, on this awkward little beach. There's a pretty big slab of rock jutting into the water. Ketch bounds out onto it like a half-naked George Washington, his bare feet slapping the surface, his hairy stomach pale in the midday sun.
"God, it's fucking perfect out here," he gasps, triumphantly stepping off into the water, startling all the minnows. They dart toward our toes like little living apostrophes as we wade in. A dragonfly wheels past my head and Justin passes me another joint--or the same joint again. The spliff's smaller now, but I get a bigger hit, clenching the end between my teeth, careful not to bite clean through. My teeth are pretty sharp. Frannie says it's because I grind them in my sleep. He keeps saying I ought to get a mouthguard, the hard yellow plastic kind they made me wear for high school soccer. His mom's an orthodonist and I hate her.
"Careful," murmurs Justin, gingerly pinching the roach out of my fingers and handing it to Frannie, who eagerly sucks at the dying flame. When we first started hanging out, I remember watching carefully whenever Frannie smoked, taking notes so I wouldn’t fuck up in front of the others. But now I know he fucks it up all the time.
I sit down in the water and fold my arms, waiting. The reservoir seems almost too warm, like bathwater, and whenever I get the joint, it tastes the way tomato plants smell. I crane my neck and watch Justin take a hit, squinting at the cherry like he's solving algebra between his eyebrows. Evil Ben hands me a sweating can of Boh, and I marvel at how unevenly it floats after I gulp some off the top. I am completely confused.
"This is amazing," I tell Kalindy. She nods over her shoulder at me, the water already up over her knees. She changed into hot pink aquashoes while we were smoking. They glow in the mud. On the ride down, Kalindy said something about swimming clear to the other end if there weren't any rangers around. This part of the reservoir‘s deserted. It looks like a boat hasn't been through here in ages.
"Come on, Ketch," says Kalindy, turning shoulder-first in obvious imitation of the girls in the Victoria's Secret catalogue. It makes me hate her all over again--the transparency, the desperation in her loosely bundled bikini strings.
"Screw that," says Ketch, snapping open a can of beer. "I'm staying here."
"Screw you," She’s talking to Ketch but glaring at the rest of us. Frannie flops belly-down in the shallows, his back white and dead-looking underwater, his hammy fingers wrinkling around his beer. Frannie's eyes get this pathetic puppyish glaze whenever he's waiting to get stoned, like he hasn't seen the stuff in ages, like he isn't already desperately high.
"Well, I'm swimming to the other side," Kalindy finally announces, letting her feet slip out from under her. She looks funny treading water, even though she's only about ten feet away from me. About a half-mile of murk stretches on beyond that, smooth as glass, and then, then the other side, the treeline glowing terrible green.
Justin says he’ll go, so I do, too. The bottom gets muddier as we wade out, swirling a brown cloud of dirt and algae between my pale bare legs. Justin turns toward shore one last time, his teeth wide and white. Fran's scooted up beside Evil on the shore, probably to keep his cigarette lighter dry as they pass a joint back and forth. Ketch is floating in the shallows.
“Aw, fuck them,” mutters Justin.
I haven't been swimming in forever, and my knees remind me as I dog-paddle away from shore. I can do the forward crawl and all that--my mom took my brother and me for lessons at the high school--but I've just never seen the point. Dog-paddling seems so much more natural. It's the conclusion that cavemen probably came to of their own accord, before people knew about things like inertia and resistance. Kalindy slices through the water like a diagram in a Girl Scout textbook, her head tilting up every stroke or so to gulp a breath, barely opening her eyes. The bottom's dropped out from under us, dissolving into a mysterious, opaque soup that could hide snapping turtles, water snakes, anything. I roll my eyes at Justin. He sticks his tongue out.
"It's nice out here," he says, his beard waving in my wake like some strange blonde breed of seaweed.
"Yeah, it really is."
I tread water for a second, letting him catch up. I like the way the trees are reflected in the water, upside-down copies of themselves. Justin flails his arms. Speeding up forces water into his mouth. He pushes it out over his bottom lip with his teeth, still grinning as he swims up beside me.
"I'm going to try and find one of those tributaries," he says.
Justin looks confused for a second, almost swallowing water.
"Oh, you were in the other car. Well, Ketch was talking about the last time they came here,” Justin explains, paddling faster. “He and Kalindy found one of the creeks where the water flows into the reservoir. They caught crayfish and shit."
We're about three quarters of the way over. Long green water plants snake up from the bottom, tickling our legs. Kalindy's already made it across. She stands on the far shore, Amazonian, wringing water from her long red hair.
A brown mop of seaweed flicks past my ankle.
Kalindy's waving at someone, but it’s not us. We roll onto our backs, shading our eyes with our hands, and see Ketch wading into the water, his precious beer held high overhead. I’m glad. Kalindy's snubbed him all afternoon for less.
"Well, I think it's over this way," says Justin, finning sideways along the shoreline, ignoring Ketch, waiting for me. "You coming?"
We swim in silence for a time, following the curve of the shore. Justin’s eyes mash into crinkly blue slits, his hands stretched out, zombie-like, as though he can divine directions from the subtle turn of the current, or the way the water ruffles his curly blonde arm hair. Maybe that's what it's for, I find myself thinking, as I pull myself past his kicking thighs. Maybe body hair is some vestigial leftover from the days when humankind hadn't yet abandoned the ocean, and needed to glean their position from the way the waves waved their follicles.
I'm glad I didn’t say any of that out loud, even though Justin’s probably just as stoned as I am. There's something about him that makes me scared to sound stupid.
"There," he says, suddenly pointing toward the shore. There's a small stretch ahead where the treeline seems to be folding in on itself. As we paddle closer, I see rocks jutting up out of the water, and water gushing out over the rocks. We pick a path through the sharp parts, our skin waterlogged and shivering. I almost slip, but Justin reaches back to catch me, his knuckles strong and knobby in mine.
"Now what?" I ask.
"I was thinking we’d just follow this until we got bored.”
Justin lets go of my hand too soon, but it's just as well. I have to watch his feet carefully to find the best places to step, the rocks that won't wobble, dry ones, algae-free. I used to be good at this, summers ago. Left to our own devices, my brother and I would sneak away from our grandparents' summer trailer and embark on journeys upstream, gingerly stepping rock to slippery rock. Creekhopping, we called it. The goal was to make it the whole way to the waterfall by dinnertime without falling down. I fell often, soaking my shorts, but we always kept going. It sounds romantic now, a game about traveling to a waterfall. It sounded romantic then, too, and uninitiated cousins were always disappointed to find out that my brother’s “Paradise Cove” wasn't much more than a heap of rocks arranged to let scummy runoff dribble out of the campground's man-made lake.
But I knew better. During droughts, you could walk across the cracked cement slabs and watch minnows dart over the archeological wonder of our father's initials, carved in an unsteady teenage hand. We'd stay there wading, pretending to fish until our mom came looking, our abandoned flip-flops dangling from her fingers, ready for the long walk back to Nana and Papaw’s trailer. There was always something epic about those walks. The brave explorers left camp via water, barefoot, imperiled, and returned unharmed, safe on dry land, their triumph celebrated with forgiving hugs, flaming marshmallows, and fat chunks of summer sausage.
"Did I tell you about the trash can in our basement?" asks Justin.
Justin laughs as though it’s something he started talking about a while ago and I've forgotten the first half of the conversation.
“I keep finding these weird porno magazines in the trash in our laundry room,” he explains, picking his way over the rocks, his arms jutted out like a gymnast's. “Stuff like “Debbie Dominatrix,” “Cindy Slutrag.” They look like they’re from the 70s. It‘s bizarre.”
“Whoa,” is all I can muster.
“Yeah, right?” Justin laughs, pressing on. "Every time I go down there, it's a different issue. The only thing I can think is, someone's trying to hide them, so they smuggle them down with the wash before their wife or whatever gets home."
"That’s fucked up," I tell him.
"Every time I bump into a guy down there, I wonder if he’s the one."
"Or a girl.”
We laugh, but not too hard. It takes supernatural concentration to creep over the collapsing remains of an old makeshift dam, someone else's summer afternoon. My brother used to devote hours to these constructions, prying giant stone slabs out of the creekbed, then strategically piling them to block the current. Handfuls of pebbles filled the chinks, a technique, my brother said, invented by the Indians. I wasn’t into engineering. I'd squat in the shallows netting minnows, waiting for him to finish so we'd have enough depth to swim, or pretend we could, our swimsuited bellies scraping the muddy brown bottom.
This dam is broken. A jagged hole juts down the middle, sucking the water through. It’s not enough to ruin the intended effect--the water’s still up to my knees--but the structure looks like it could go at any minute. Cold silver schools of trout dart between my legs, disappearing downstream.
“Busted,” mutters Justin, surveying the damage with a critical eye. He likes building things. Ever since he moved in with Ketch, the apartment's been full of homemade drug paraphernalia and hastily assembled sculptures fashioned out of wood and paint and tape. Now he kneels mid-stream, stretching his pale arms underwater to dredge up huge, hulking rocks. They clack like teeth as he fits them together, one under the other, pinching the current shut.
"I'm sorry," he grunts, hefting a stone out of its watery grave. "I just can't stand leaving it that way, you know?"
I nod, settling on a nearby rock and letting my feet dangle in the water. The baby trout are gone, probably terrified by my incandescent whiteness, or Justin’s struggle with his dam. It’s all his now; such is the law of these things. Each repairman silently signs a deed to the structure's entire well-being. I love him for knowing these things, and for instinctively knowing that I know them.
I like the way Justin says my name. The excess vowels halt luxuriously on his tongue. It's like he's eating chocolate and talking all at once.
"You wanna help?"
Once I’m beside him, we have a system. Justin hands me rocks, and I stack them atop the others. There's a solemnity to his movements that I like very much. If I stopped to fix this dam, Frannie, already halfway upriver, would only pause and turn to ask what was wrong. He'd spend endless futile minutes grabbing at my wet thighs, trying to massage them, persisting no matter how sincerely I explained that I wasn’t interested, that I just wanted to fix this dam, just for the hell of it all.
"I used to do this all the time when I was little," says Justin, glancing over at me, his beard fluffy from our swim across the reservoir. "Make dams and things."
"Me too," I say, only half-lying, and just like that, Justin kisses me, hard and insistent and soft and reluctant all at once.
"Sorry, sorry," he mutters, hastily piling more rocks atop mine, almost pinching my fingers. I shake my head, dizzy, trying to deny his apology, and end up wrapping my hands around his waist, just him and me and the rushing water.
I won't pretend that I don't picture Marjorie, because I do. I am with her, sitting cross-legged at our last picnic, clutching rum-soaked watermelon and completely ignoring Justin’s impromptu treatise on Whitman. I am with her in Atlantic City, flopped half-naked on the edge of our beach blanket, her eyes bland as melba toast while Ravi Shankar hisses magically out of Justin’s sandy boombox. I see her and scoff at these injustices with my tongue and lips and teeth. They aren’t married. He's fair game. He is his own man, free to make these decisions. I tell myself this again and again as his hands wander toward my thighs.
"We should go back," I gasp. "I should see if Laura met up with the others."
I feel a certain loyalty to Laura, camaraderie borne of getting stoned and gossiping about the boys who make sure we have weed. I can't tell you how many times we've ended up on Ketch's roof together, talking shit about anyone with a penis.
"I should check if she's okay," I say.
"I'm sure she's fine," breathes Justin, and the worst part is, I know he's right. She's back at the beach hitting on Frannie, and I don't even care. They'd be good together, Laura and Frannie. I picture them killing a cheap bottle of Zinfandel and giggling together, curled up like puppies on his living room rug. But before I can reach for him, Justin ducks away. He’s stacking rocks again, head down, hands wet.
"Let's just finish this and head back," he says.
Justin doesn't stop to hand me rocks now. He works faster alone. He works as though fixing this old dam will erase what just happened. But there aren’t any do-overs in kissing. Once accomplished, they're irreversible, permanent as a gnat in amber.
I am trying to think of the best way to tell him this when a brown thing flashes between us, too big to be a fish. It flicks a flat slab of a tail, sinking underwater, level with our feet, then darts forward, against the current. We squint after it, dropping our rocks.
"What the hell was that?"
"Was it an otter or something?"
"It moved pretty fast."
"Maybe otters do?"
"It's--shit--is it coming back?"
The creature barely loses a stroke on its U-turn back, its body undulating wildly, almost indistinguishable from the dark brown rocks. I hear Justin start to ask where it went, what it wants--but before he can finish he's screaming, his body collapsing sideways into the dam, scattering water and rocks. I spot the dark thing clamped onto his left ankle, jaws boring into his skin. I do not want this, so I dive. I dive and fumble at the creekbed until I have my hands wrapped tight around the thing’s fat brown fleshy body, and wrench it off of his leg.
Shocked, it releases its strangletooth hold, coming away like a giant furry tick. It gapes as I lift it, writhing, up out of the water. It must be thinking revenge. But my speed is insane, my strength immense, adrenal, and faster than thought it's over and done--the beast flung bodily onto the far bank, and I triumphant in the deep, both hands flattened across Justin’s heaving shoulders.
"Fucker bit me--"
"Shhh," I whisper, smoothing his hair as I keep my eyes glued to the lump of fur and bone lying prone upon the bank. It looks like a beaver. I brace myself for a horror resurrection, but the beaver lies blank, hind legs splayed crooked on the rocks.
Justin has both hands wrapped around his foot, and there's a red cloud above it, widening as the current draws his blood downstream.
“Is it bleeding bad?” he asks, his skin pale as powder, his veins bulging blue. I shake my head, then vomit up a skein of granola and soymilk and beer.
"Yeah, right," he groans, watching my puke wash away. "That means it is."
"I'm going to get Ketch. Just--just don't look at it, okay?"
Of course I don't follow my advice. I stare at the blood long enough to get dizzy, and when I hit shore I pin my eyes to the beaver. Its mouth gapes like a nutcracker, oozing froth. I can’t pass out. I won’t pass out. I make this my mantra as I stumble down the rocky shore, slicing open the soles of my feet. I stop every few steps to vomit. I cup my hands and shout for Ketch. But it's Kalindy who comes racing around the bend, her orange hair a wild flare in the sun.
Justin’s been going out more since the reservoir.
Most nights find him poking around inside one of the five tar-green Dumpsters that surround our apartment complex, his shoulders bent double under some damp box of books. Or furniture; he loves to haul chairs home to Ketch’s place, particularly the rickety old kind that collapse whenever anyone tries to sit down.
He brings back so much, it's getting hard to find a spot in the living room. We’ve started piling into Ketch's room, where we smoke and watch him instant message teenage Christians. He's finally gotten a working air conditioner in here now. When the light’s right, I shut my eyes and pretend I’m in Florida.
Ketch sits hunched in his black leather desk chair, his skin pale gray in the computer glow. He’s telling someone called JesusFreek808 that Mary Magdalene gave Christ killer blow jobs.
“Get her sympathy,” says Frannie, bending over a bucket bong. “Tell her you were almost aborted.” As he inhales, his belly droops out of his ratty old t-shirt. Smiling silk-screened basketballs bounce across his pudgy chest. "Have a ball at Brad's bar mitzvah” it reads. I remember his pale, hairless body under mine, just weeks ago, and feel disgusting.
“Hey, when’s MacGyver coming home?”
Kalindy groans because it’s the third time Frannie’s asked this, and no one laughed then, either. It’s been his insult of choice ever since Justin made the bucket bong out of a sawn-off soda bottle and a tiny wooden funnel he whittled out of a chair leg. This happened around the same time that I decided to stay at Ketch’s instead of moving in with Frannie. I was hoping that he’d be too mad at me to come around anymore. But he’s always here, stoop-shouldered in Ketch’s black beanbag chair, hogging bongs, hating me.
“Tell her she’s going to hell,” cackles Frannie, straining forward to get a better look at Ketch’s computer monitor. “Tell her her youth group sacrifices cats to Satan.”
No one really notices when I leave. The refrigerator’s crammed with Red Stripes, leftover from Marjorie’s going-away party last night. She left to Teach for America at four o’clock this morning. Her scraping suitcases woke me just in time to hear her say goodbye to Justin in the hall. There was the wet click of kissing, but she left anyway, tossing her head like a racehorse.
I grab two beers and sneak carefully through the hulking piles of junk toward my mattress, pushed up under the living room windows, surrounded by anemic wormwood plants and homeless chair cushions. To get there, I have to creep through bicycles, gaudy naugahyde, and ancient stereo speakers, all silent hulks in the dark.
There's an orange haze rising off the shopping center down the hill. It dyes the sky a sickly Tang color, making it impossible to tell the time, or see stars--but simple to find the Valu-Food when we crave pizza at three a.m. It’s like Ketch says, convenience makes everything look ugly. I followed a similar line of reasoning when I told Frannie that I was never, could never be his. I explained that if I moved in with him, the very things he found attractive about me would be compromised. I sounded rational and worth believing, like a woman listing side effects in a pharmaceutical commercial.
"You're fucking Justin, aren't you?" was all he said.
I didn't answer Frannie then, though I could have told him no.
Justin’s been humming to himself a lot lately. Sometimes you can hear him walking up the path, dragging a lawnchair or street sign home. No special tune, just a soft murmur like his mind's working on something vast. It sounds like the time they had Tibetan monks over at the college. Om. I guess that’s where he got it, but when I asked him, he just sort of smiled. That was a week ago. Marjorie was visiting her parents upstate and we were sitting in his room, drinking cheap wine out of Solo cups. He let me uncoil all the bandages on his ankle to reveal ten black stitches spidering out of his hairy leg. It’s amazing, really, how quickly skin seals up. His wound looked like a cut made in red clay, just before the artist smears it back together.
When I look up, he’s home.
“Hey,” says Justin, smiling, his beard a magnificent red nest around his bright white teeth. He’s gnawing the paint off a No. 2 pencil.
“Hey.” I sit up and show him the beer. “Got anything tonight?”
"No," he says, slipping past the yellow sofa to collapse beside me, his brown t-shirt smelling of damp earth. I hand him a beer, but he isn’t finished with his pencil yet. For a while it was tongue depressors. He found a squashed cardboard box of them behind a dentist’s office, and for a few weeks it was rare to see him without one. He’s since moved on to pencils. I don’t know how many a day. This one’s been cut to Putt-Putt size, its glossy yellow finish pockmarked with deep dents.
Justin sets his teeth against the beer cap, removing it with a sharp snap.
"There's a whole computer desk behind the Valu-Food," he announces. "I almost had it."
“It was stuck on something.”
"You should have come and gotten me," I tell him. “I used to help my dad move furniture all the time.”
Justin nods and gulps at his beer, his Adam's apple bobbing in his throat.
"Yeah, next time, maybe." he says, getting up.
This is the part where Justin usually leaves, pushing a path through the heap of junk outside his bedroom. But tonight, he stops beside the ever-growing pile, nodding thoughtfully at the upside-down loveseat that blocks his bedroom door, buttressed with a mound of dirty laundry that dwindles into pencil stubs and paper scraps.
"I need something big to block it off,” he whispers. “An ottoman or an armchair or something. That computer desk. That would have been good."
As he speaks, Justin taps his bare right foot on the floorboards, a strange staccato movement, like a caged animal. I wrap myself around him and stroke the hair on his arms, hoping to calm him down.
“But you can barely reach your room the way it is now.”
I am trying to be sensible. I am trying to be levelheaded, and ignore the damp, green way the air changes whenever he’s in the room. It’s a heavy smell, intoxicating, like lake water and summer mudfights. I want to sock him good for it. I want to dive into a thousand Dumpsters and bring him the fluffiest armchair in the world.
“Let’s go outside, go for a walk,” he says.
“I don’t know. Come on, it’s raining.”
He grabs my arm and darts for the door, yanking me into the apartment lobby’s milky fluorescent light, down the stairs past the mailboxes until we’re whirling together on the wet sidewalk, laughing and setting off the automatic floodlights.
I follow Justin down the thin path that we’ve helped the rabbits wear into the grass, mud gushing through my flip-flops. He surprises me by turning around, away from the town, the Valu-Food, and everywhere else we ever go. The rain’s soaked through my wifebeater, showing too much of my bra. He pushes back my dripping bangs.
“You’re beautiful, Naomi,” he hisses, breathing hard. “Seriously. And don’t change. Don’t...just don’t.”
“What are y--”
Justin kisses my forehead lightly, his tongue like an Ash Wednesday thumb. We’ve reached the back end of the property, where an overgrown chain link fence divides the apartments from the other suburbs. Justin peels the branches back in a matted clump, revealing a jagged slash in the fence where the wire’s been hacked away.
I touch the twisted ends of the branches as I stumble through the hole. They look chewed up, like Justin’s pencils, and for a second I wonder. The red and white lights of cars coming off the beltway flash between the trees as we walk. It still smells suburban, fresh-cut grass and wet concrete. I keep thinking we’ll burst out through the briars and land on someone’s lawn. I keep expecting Justin to dramatically reveal a neighbor’s trampoline or pool, the usual illicit summer luxuries. But he keeps walking, motioning that I should follow. It gets harder to see the headlights. Soon I can’t see them at all.
“There--” Justin barks, veering through a break in the trees. “There.”
The ground drops off suddenly. I end up struggling down a muddy bank, grabbing fistfuls of weeds to steady myself. When I get my footing, Justin’s standing atop a log, jabbing a finger at the dark creek rushing past us. There’s a heap of white rocks on the far bank that someone, probably developers, covered with chicken wire to form a retaining wall. The rainwater crashes angrily against the rocks before careening toward a cement tunnel and away.
“This is it,” Justin announces, his voice echoing off the rocks. “I’ve followed it down. It goes straight there.”
Justin jabs his left heel into the gully’s bank, frustrated. His leg sounds strangely hollow on the rocks, like bone. And he doesn’t talk so much as hiss, “Prettyboy,” cringing when I don’t instantly comprehend.
“The reservoir, Naomi, the reservoir, it goes right there.”
“But the reservoir’s five or six exits north. That’s miles and miles.”
“It goes there. I’ve followed it.”
I nod a lot so he’ll stop glaring at me.
“Oh, right, right.”
The water’s cold. I wrap my palms around my knees, watching tiny whirlpools form around my white ankles. Justin’s are so tan, they blend into the rocks on the bottom, like flounder. I lick the rain off my mouth.
“It’s nice,” I tell him. “I never knew this was here.”
Instead of answering me, Justin starts marching upstream, his legs cutting the current. The rain batters my eyes. I wish he’d slow down.
“This isn’t even it yet,” he shouts over his shoulder, and I try to ask what “it” is, but he’s beyond hearing. He’s a dark hunch lurching up ahead, a hulking black blob that only stops to make sure I can still follow.
“See?” he gasps, waving his arms at something in the water up ahead, a twisted mass of unnaturally white branches. It takes me a second to recognize the wicker deck set that disappeared from Ketch’s apartment a few weeks back. The chairs’ legs and arms strain to reach a waterlogged sofa, the holes in its upholstery plugged with wads of bath towels and dead leaves. What looks like a heap of books and pillows hangs uselessly off the end, unable to block the current.
“See, right there,” whispers Justin, sweeping his hand over the moldering chairs. “I need something big to block it off.”
“Shh,” he hisses, his eyes black as marbles, his callused fingertips grinding tiny circles into my waist. And my throat pounds, because weird as this is, I keep thinking, can’t help thinking: we could happen here. Right here in this culvert, next to Justin’s junkheap dam.
“Do you like it?” he whispers, his mouth close, fresh sawdust smell. “I worked for weeks,” he says. “It takes weeks to get the right things, get them and get them here,” Our lips brush slightly, skin to chapped skin. “And then there’s all the fitting together. That takes so long, the fitting together. But now you’re here.”
Justin draws his arms around me, his t-shirt clinging to his body like an extra skin. I feel my ribs shifting beneath his fingers as he pushes his tongue against mine. His mouth tastes like a toothpick, and his dry teeth are sharp. I feel like I’m licking splinters off a 2 by 4.
“What?” he asks. “What’s wrong?”
I picture the pile of tongue depressors he left beside my bed, nibbled to bits. I look down and remember that reservoir afternoon, how the blood from his ankle ribboned through the water in stringy red threads. The gap between Justin’s front teeth, once so sexy, scares me somehow. I think I must be crazy. He had a rabies shot. I was with them when they did it to him, I watched him grit his teeth when the needle slid in. And anyway, rabies doesn’t make you do this.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“You don’t like it,” he mutters, his cheeks collapsing. “It’s not enough.”
I put my hands on his arms and rub the bones there through his wet shirt, feel the radius and ulna rotating beneath his skin.
“No, look, it’s great, just great,” I tell him. “We probably ought to head back, though.”
“Back?” He shudders under my fingers. “But you can’t, Naomi. I made a house upstream for you and for me. I stole a mattress and a case of sardines.”
He kisses my shoulders, pointing over my head at a ghostly white square on the far bank, wedged under a wall of branches. I picture the two of us tangled together on that mattress, wild but cozy, like kids at camp. Then I imagine him pushing it upstream, waterlogged and animal, the rope handles clutched in his teeth. I push him away.
“I want to go back,” I say.
Justin struggles forward, his hollow chest heaving, his eyes dark and glassy.
“Naomi, I want to mate with you.”
He hums unintelligbly as he wrestles my hands down to my thighs, burying his mouth in the crook of my neck. I taste salt and realize I’m crying.
“Let go!” I hear myself screaming, “What the fuck is wrong with you? I mean it, let go!”
His gap teeth are a fork pressing into my skin. I knee him in the balls. By the time his body falls--a splash and crack of rocks--I’m already in the woods, running faster than I have since high school. My smoke-scarred lungs rattle in my throat. Branches whip my face. I slip, fall, and lurch forward--once, twice. My knee bleeds. Spit tastes metallic. I keep hoping that I’ll round a corner and see Ketch come running, or Kalindy, but there’s no one, and no one, then a sudden cement bank and the bright whoosh of speeding cars above my head, some peeling off down the hill that leads into town, some drunkenly arcing into our apartment complex, their tires squealing on the wet leaves.
Mud splashes onto my knees as I cut through the three courtyards that separate the road from Ketch’s apartment. I’m surprised to find all the lights off--but tonight I’m glad. I ditch my mud-caked flip-flops beside the front door and creep toward the bathroom on tiptoe, picking a path through wobbly laundry towers and weakening walls of comic books. The bathtub stands full and forgotten, a receipt for wine--probably Kalindy’s--floating atop the cloudy water like a limp yellow leaf.
I click the lock shut and examine the terrible beast in the mirror, my hair a wild knot of leaves, my arms cross-stitched with briar scars, my neck laced in blood where Justin kissed me. My wet shorts peel off like snakeskin, a crumpled heap on the linoleum floor. I climb into the tub, browning the bathwater with my mud. I tuck the edge of my damp wifebeater up against my breasts. Tiny pink eddies swirl where the briars stuck me, and the blood, slow to dissolve, forms trailing red strands in the water.
I know Justin’s still out there, still piling towels and lawnchairs against the storm, still grinding his teeth and thinking of me. He’s out there hefting Guildcraft sofas and propping up rocks with Christmas tree stands. I run my wet fingertips over the place on my neck where his gap teeth broke the skin, and test the lines rising there, warm and red. I imagine him curled up on wet cotton batting, alone under the trees. I scoop up Kalindy’s wine receipt with my wrinkling fingers and tamp it flat between my teeth, the crushed ink and pulp of her transaction strangely sweet on my tongue, sweet and golden, like cheap moscato.