A half-mile up the road from the riverside waiting park was an unpresuming parsonage owned by a church in town. In it lived a modestly gifted pastor, his wife, and their only daughter, Kara, who was barely sixteen. They had moved to Big Rapids ten months before, in time for the start of the school year.
Kara's mother had a twin sister, and each summer, in the various places they had lived through the years, her Aunt Maggie and her cousin Seth would come up from Kentucky to spend a couple days. In this way, the two cousins had grown up together in snapshots of time through the years, and their perceptions of each other were compressed in time the way scissor-cut school portraits can fit the fleeting years of childhood on the single page of a photo album. They once caculated the number of days they had spent together, and were sad to realize that they had actually shared less than two months of life. Yet if there was a person on earth that Kara considered a brother, it was Seth.
Seth was eighteen, a year older than most of the seniors in his class that coming fall. He was a strapping young man who played wide receiver on his high school football team, but was of such a build that his coach often used him as a tackle on defense, a fact that Kara proudly mentioned to her friends at school.
The second day of Seth’s visit was the very Saturday the Sinclair family was tubing on the river. After a morning of uneventful sight seeing with their mothers and a late lunch in town, Seth and Kara sat in the middle seats of a mini-van staring out their windows while the aunts were talking about garage sales until Seth hit Kara’s leg with the back of his hand.
“What do y’all do for fun ‘round here?” he whispered.
“If it weren’t the weekend, we could go tubing. That’s fun.”
“No, I mean for real fun
,” Seth scoffed, “—somethin’ those two won’t want to do.”
“Tubing is fun, but Dad doesn’t let me go on weekends.”
“I’ll tell you later.”
The gravel made a crunching sound as the tires turned into their driveway. A few minutes later, Seth and Kara had changed into their swimsuits and were laying out on the deck beside the small above-ground pool in the back yard. Kara spritzed water from a bottle onto her legs and arms.
“So why can’t you go tubing on weekends?” Seth asked again.
“Because a bunch of drunk jerks take the whole thing over,” she whispered.
“The whole river?”
“No just a place they call…well, it’s a swear word,” she said.
“What do they call it?” he begged.
“A-Hole Beach, but they don’t say ‘A’, they say the real word. Dad says it’s awful what goes on there. You should see the busses that go by at the end of the day. That’s why we eat supper out here on the back deck on weekends. I’ve seen kids puke out the windows of the bus as it goes by. It’s gross.”
Seth’s eyes widened. This was the very thing he meant when he asked about real fun
. Kara had no way of knowing how different their lives had become in recent years, because if there was one girl on the face of the earth that Seth thought of as a sister, it was Kara. And knowing how she was, how her parents were—how her father was
, being a preacher and all, Seth was hesitant to show her the side of him that began in high school, the side of him whose snapshots would not be put in their mother’s photo albums.
In spite of his newly professed compulsion for real fun, Seth made Kara feel safe and willing to observe adventure if not partake in it herself, and for that reason as her mother began making supper in the quiet of the afternoon, the cousins told their folks they were taking the truck into town to see some friends and not to worry; they’d be home way before suppertime.
With all the comfort of implicit, unbroken trust, the parents nodded while deep in their conversation, paying little attention to the fact that the two were still in bathing suits and not watching the truck as it backed down the driveway and turned left onto the dead-end gravel road. Town was to the right.
Kara and Seth did not need inner tubes. They just parked the truck in a shady niche beside the bus cul-de-sac, half-sprinted to the river, waded upstream toward the noise, and crossed the current at the river’s sandy bank to the crowded field whose name Kara would not say.
Even Seth had never seen anything quite like the spectacle of flesh that waited beyond the brow, but he could not hide a half smile as he looked at Kara.
“Madame, your father was right,” he said in a Groucho Marx voice, eye brows bouncing, imaginary cigar near his mouth, “This is precisely what preachers mean by ‘hell in a hand-basket.’”
“Let’s go,” Kara whispered loudly in his ear. “It’s past 4:30. Mom serves supper in an hour, and we need to at least drive to town to say we did.”
“That gives us plenty of time.” Seth smiled. “Come on. Just follow me.”
They meandered to the far side of the field. Seth joined in with the gyrations prompted by the various radios, trying his best to fit in and smile at girls that caught his eye. Kara looked down hoping not to see a single face she knew, which she did not. In fact, she was surprised how so many total strangers—most of whom where older than Seth—gathered in one place. The far side of the crowd had three radios set to the same country station. Seth nodded in approval.
“This is more like it,” he said, smiling Kara’s direction, who in spite of her uneasiness could not help but smile back. It was then she realized that he was not smiling at her but at an attractive girl approaching from behind her with a can of beer in each hand.
“Joining the party a little late, aren’t you?” She said, moving her hips in rhythm closer and closer to Seth’s swim suit.
“We’re actually just leaving,” said Kara.
“No, we’re not,” Seth protested, taking one of the beers.
The girl’s eyes remained on Seth’s with a pouty inviting smile as she held the other beer out toward Kara.
“No thanks,” said Kara, “I don’t drink, and like I said, we’re leaving. Look at your watch, Seth. It’s ten to five.”
Kara turned and began walking through the crowd toward the river. Seth took a deep breath, shrugged his shoulders, whispered loudly in the girl’s ear, “Maybe next time,” and followed after his cousin.
“Look, here, little ‘Goody-two-shoes’,” he said grabbing her by the arm, “What you did back there is rude. You don’t turn down a can of beer at a party.”
“I don’t drink, and this isn’t a party. It’s hell-in-a-hand-basket
like you said.”
“You don’t have to drink it. Just hold it so you don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Try to blend in.”
“Why should I want to blend in to this mess?” she demanded.
“Fine! Look stupid. See if I care?” he said, and he broke through the crowd ahead of her.
He said the words without thinking, but he had said them. They were the first mean words she had ever heard him say to her without joking. More than ever before she felt like she looked stupid, and the further he walked away the more stupid and insecure she felt. She glanced around a the countless faces and bleary eyes looking her way, then back toward Seth, but he had disappeared in the shifting sea of flesh. Weaving and stopping and starting through the indifferent bodies, she hurried after him. About thirty feet from where they had come up from the river, she caught him by the arm.
“There you are,” she said, voice shaking, “Don’t want to be seen with your stupid cousin, eh?”
Before he could answer, an older guy with more swagger than stagger and a winsome smile plopped a cooler at their feet.
“Let’s get this party started,” he said, opening the lid, and offering them each a beer.
“I’m good,” Seth said, showing him his half-empty can.
“No, thanks,” shouted Kara above the noise, “We were actually just leaving.”
“Leaving?” the guy said, snapping open the can and holding it toward her face. “You can’t leave now. Me and my friends just got here.” He gestured toward some others who were already blending into the crowd. “Just stay for one more beer”
Seth shot a harsh coach’s glance her way and tilted his head toward the can of beer. Kara reached up with an obedient nod and took it.
“Thanks. I’m Seth. This is my cousin, Kara, and you’re?...”
“Floyd,” he smiled, “but forget that. Just call me Var.” He pointed to the tattoo on his right shoulder, and popped open another can from the cooler. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
Var tilted his head back and poured the beer into his mouth. His Adam’s apple stroked the inside of his unshaven neck like a fishing bobber on a ten-pound line. Seth took a long gulp then looked at Kara expectantly.
For the first time in her life, Kara raised the can to her lips and took a sip of beer. Oh, she had been with friends who snuck in beer to a party before, but she always refused to drink it herself. Had she not been trying to impress her cousin, she would have avoided it then, but there was something about Var’s smile and the attention he was paying her that made her want to act much older than her age. The truth is: she hated the very smell
of beer and tried not to let it show as she swallowed that first sip, and when she tipped the can the second time, she let none of it in her mouth.
Var noticed that the smooth perfect skin of her throat did not swallow. He could see in her eyes that she had not been drinking. He could see that the can was out-of-place in her hand. This was a charade, and he enjoyed peeking through her masked innocence. The girls who had joined him on the river held no such suspense. He liked that Kara was not one of them. He liked that she seemed nervous and that she could not look him in the eye.
He watched her throat as she pretended to sip again. This time his eyes continued down to the nape of her neck and beyond, and he licked the corner of his mouth.
“I really think we should be going, Seth,” Kara said to her cousin who was now a few steps away, laughing with Var’s friends.
“You go wait in the truck,” Seth shouted back without looking her way, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Kara asked him again, but he didn’t answer. Her eyes watered a little, but she hid her disappointment with a smile, as she handed the beer back to Var and turned toward the river.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Var laughed.
“Go ahead and finish it,” Kara said.
“No. I mean your tube. Where’s your tube.”
“Oh, that. We walked here. My truck’s just across the river.”
She had said my truck
as if it were her own and not her fathers, still trying hard not to look stupid, not to look sixteen, not to look like the goody-two-shoes Seth had called her. Without looking back, she played this part as she sauntered into the current and came up dripping on the other side.
A minute or so later, Seth looked back to where his cousin had been standing. Both Kara and Var were gone.
It was five o'clock.
To be continued and concluded within a couple chapters. Caution: the remaining chapters may not be suitable for "general audiences."