My mother always worked, so in summers she’d drop us at the head of the river, where we’d put our tubes in the water and float back into town, free to spend our days however we pleased. Sometimes we got out of the water, hauled our tubes up the bank, and bought orange sodas at the drink stand in the park. Other times we stopped on the island at the bend in the river and pretended we were marooned, left to fend for ourselves, tossing wild blackberries into our mouths, hunting for agate, and lobbing rocks at the turtle shells poking out of the water.
I was eleven and my brother was thirteen. That summer, he had befriended Ellie, a girl with a cleft lip that her parents couldn’t afford to fix—or that was the story. She and my brother both liked the same fantasy novels, and one morning in August I overheard them talking in the front yard, my brother telling Ellie he was writing his own fantasy story. I didn’t know he wanted to be a writer, and hearing him share this with a girl hit me like a rock that went down my throat and settled somewhere in my stomach.
That afternoon, my brother left me on the island in the river and paddled back to the shore to meet Ellie. I stayed behind, eating blackberries and throwing pebbles at turtles. Across the river was a cliff, where a group of teenagers stood, their voices floating across the water. Every few minutes, one went running off the cliff, slapping the water below, drawing cheers and giggles from the others. They didn’t notice me at first, but after a few dives, one of them, a buff guy with big stomach muscles, pointed me out to the others.
“What are you doing out there, kid?” he said.
I said I was waiting for my brother and they conferred for a moment before another one, a girl, called out, “Come over!”
I left my tube on the island and swam across to the other side, where the buff guy held out his arm and pulled me up onto the bank. Together, we climbed up the bluff to the cliff. The teenagers were all drinking beer from cans, and the buff guy offered me one from a cooler in a truck parked nearby. I took it and popped the top. I had heard that you had to drink it fast or it tasted bad, so I took a big gulp and snorted some through my nose. The teenagers laughed.
“You okay?” said the girl.
“Yeah,” I said. “Wrong pipe.”
The teenagers didn’t do much besides talk. In between dives, they talked about the heat, their parents, other teenagers who weren’t there. I didn’t say much, just drank the beer, each sip tasting more awful until there was just a mouthful of warm foam at the bottom of the can.
“You need a refill?” said the buff guy.
I didn’t want to drink anymore, but before I could decline one of them said, “Hey kid, you gotta jump!”
The buff guy gave me an encouraging look. His fishing me out of the water earlier had created a kind of bond between us, and when he put his hand on my shoulder, I knew I had to jump.
The water hit me hard and cold. A few of the teenagers hooted when they saw me come up for air, but they turned away after a moment and I had to swim hard against the current to get back to the bank. The buff guy wasn’t waiting for me this time, and I slipped on a rock getting out of the water. When I reached the top of the cliff, the teenagers had already forgotten my jump. They were out of beer, and talked of going back to town for more. They piled into the bed of the truck, now full of empty beer cans, while I stood back on the cliff, waiting to swim back to my island.
As the truck engine started, the girl who had called to me earlier said, “You coming, kid?”
I don’t know what I was to those teenagers—a little brother, a joke, or a mascot maybe. Perhaps they were just riding the current that seemed to course through the day, same as I was, and this seemed like the clearest next step, an escalation of our encounter by the river. There was never really a question of whether I would get in or not. By the time they asked me, I had already seen myself in that truck, a younger kid riding along with the wild older crowd.
The truck started moving before I could sit down, and I had to hold on to stay in the bed among all the rattling cans. Nobody noticed, though. They were all too busy cheering for the driver to gun it back to town.
As we drove down the road along the river, the buff guy started crushing the empty beer cans. There was a sign that said three miles to town and he stood up, holding on to the side of the truck, and took aim. He hit his mark with ease.
“Two points!” somebody called over the wind. The truck was going fast, and soon we were flying past an old car, rusted and left by the road. Somebody nailed that one too.
“Three points!” called the girl.
Then the girl chucked one at another sign and missed badly, causing everyone to laugh, and that was when I saw, down the road, two shapes holding hands—one of my brother, the other of Ellie. From a distance, gaining on them in the truck, I saw what misfits they were. She with her cleft lip, he with a fantasy novel by his side, and between their hips, the shimmering heat coming off the road.
“Ten points!” called the buff guy.
The can was out of my fingers before anyone else had a chance to try. As it caught the airstream, I ducked down, my palm already holding its memory, a cinching pain in the red lines where I had gripped its sharp edges too tightly. I didn’t watch then, but now I can see the metal projectile out there, whistling toward them, and my eleven-year-old self, hiding in the truck, looking at the little indentations on his hand, wishing he could take it back.
CAMERON SHENASSA is a writer from Chicago. His stories and essays have appeared in Electric Literature, The Pinch, Hobart, and others. He has an MFA from Oregon State University and is a dual citizen of the US and Luxembourg.