Black River

Andrea Danowski

Two hundred eighty-three miles away the melting snowpack trickled into streams. The streams traveled and grew weighty, feeding the river. The calendar in the ranger’s station hadn’t been flipped to July yet, but already the river running too high and too cold and too fast had swept away a boy from Jenningstown and a man from the next county over who had been fishing nearby when he dove in to try to save the boy. The bodies hadn’t yet been found.

Grace pulled on the two halves of her ponytail, tightening it. Her hair was hot from the sun, but when she brushed some dirt off her leg, she felt goosebumps. The summer air up near the campsite felt stifling even in the shade. But here next to the river, the last breaths of winter flew up and crashed down against Grace’s skin, disguised as a breeze. She imagined the air above the river moving just as fast as the water below it, twisting in invisible whorls and vortexes. She knew it was the movement of the cold water against the hot air that created the changes in pressure, created the turbulence. She thought if the air above the river had color, it would share the same palette of the sunset from last night, the candy pinks and spiced oranges.

The drive to camp yesterday had been long and hot. Grace didn’t mind sharing the backseat of her parents’ car with her brother on the yearly trip, but their legs were longer this year and he was less accommodating to her compulsion to attach herself to him in some way during the six-hour haul. He wouldn’t let her hold his hand while it rested on the upholstered hump between them anymore, and he bounced his shoulder against her head if she attempted to lean in for a nap. She leaned against the window instead, the sun burning her eyes through their lids, and the tremors of the highway traveling up through the tires, up through the metal of the car, vibrating the window against her face.

They had already set up their camp by the time the Hamiltons got there. Like every year. And like every year, Grace’s dad and Mr. Hamilton hugged like it had been forever, called each other Genius and Skipper, respectively. The mothers hugged politely as wives of college friends should, the boys ran off somewhere. Olivia mostly ignored Grace this year, but agreed to let her help set up her tent. They had their own tents this year, much to Genius’ disapproval. He didn’t want to have to buy a new tent for Grace, but had relented after a telephone call from Skipper a few weeks ago.

Grace would be starting high school after the summer. Olivia, two years older, seemed different this year. Maybe it was the ties of her bikini peeking out of her shirt by her neck, touching the end of her ponytail. Maybe it was the ponytail, not her usual mess of hair fumbling everywhere. Grace remembered the bottle of glittery purple nail polish she brought with her, bought and packed because she thought Olivia might like to do manicures with her some boring afternoon. But Olivia had already painted her finger- and toenails a soft pearly pink. Grace suggested that Olivia set up her tent close to her own. Olivia didn’t object, but zipped herself inside her tent early, claiming travel exhaustion.

The boys left camp in the morning before Grace had a chance to tag along, leaving her with Olivia. The girls lounged next to the river all day, laying side-by-side on a plaid blanket in their bathing suits and shorts, legs not hot but beginning to tan. It was hard not to notice there was less bank this year, the river overrunning itself, bending the saplings.

Sometimes they would both be on their stomachs, sometimes on their backs. Olivia thumbed through the magazines stolen from her mother, the latest Cosmo and People and O, delivered just as they were packing. Grace held a copy of Flowers in the Attic between her eyes and the sun. It was Olivia’s book, handed to Grace after breakfast, the spine pinstriped and the pages with the sexy parts already dog-eared. Grace looked forward to the dark privacy of her tent later: by electric lantern light she would instead read the books she had brought with her — The Catcher in the Rye and The Tempest.

Sometimes Grace sat up and flipped over the other way so she could run her hand through antennae of tall grass, taking a break from the book. Sometimes she felt things she couldn’t explain. She wanted to tickle the skin of Olivia’s feet when she pulled out a particularly long blade. She wanted to draw a line with it up the back of Olivia’s leg and poke it under the cuff of her shorts. She wanted to scratch the skin of Olivia’s back, pulling her unpainted fingernails over the freckles that were silently forming in the deeper layers of her skin, the dark flecks of pigment eating up the sun. But instead she drew circles and lines in the dirt, bit at the inside of her mouth.

Grace leaned her head against her shoulder, her etched circles turning into spirals. She realized she was chewing on her cheek harder than usual. Her tongue felt the ridges her teeth left in the tissue of her mouth, then flitted out to her lips, tasting her own skin. “Do you ever wonder what it feels like to touch your tongue to another tongue?” Grace asked, sitting up.

Olivia continued reading “10 Steamy Positions to Make Your Guy Beg for More” in one of the magazines, then pulled a finger out of her mouth and placed it on The Reverse Cowgirl before turning to Grace. “What a little freak. Haven’t you kissed a boy yet?”

A fly buzzed around the two of them and landed on the back of Olivia’s knee. Grace noticed the way it rubbed its hands together like it was scheming. She imagined the places the fly had been before landing on her friend’s leg: a puddle, a garbage can, the roof of the latrine, a leaf, a bird, her parents’ car, a pile of Bandit’s shit, the garbage again, and then Olivia.

“Bugs are so fascinating.”

“What?” Olivia made a face and turned back to her magazine. “You’ve probably never kissed a boy because you talk about bugs all the time. That’s just weird.”

“You’re weird.”

Olivia swung her leg at Grace. Grace caught the kick and traced the faint paths of Olivia’s veins on the back of her calf with her finger. Olivia pulled her leg away and sat up, punched Grace in the arm. She kneeled then and grabbed Grace’s face with both hands, her ponytail swinging. Annoyed, she placed her lips on Grace’s. She left them there until Grace relaxed just a bit, then used them to tug at her bottom lip. Grace opened her mouth, allowing Olivia’s tongue to enter. She tasted it for just a second before pulling away. It felt like a warm alien, tasted like applesauce.

Olivia lay back down in front of her magazine and readjusted her breasts in her bikini against the ground. “If you ever tell anyone that happened, I’ll kill you. I will fucking throw you in the river.”

Rolling her tongue around in her mouth, Grace tried to recreate the feeling. But it wasn’t the same at all. She touched her fingers to her lips and wondered what it would feel like to have Olivia’s hands wrapped around her neck. Would her pearly pink nail polish chip, lodge itself in her skin? She wondered how cold the water in the river really was. She wondered if she would drown in it right away. Would her body float? Would the eagle fledglings tear chunks off as it traveled, or would the seagulls peck at it after it rode the swift current the whole way to the ocean?

Grace stood up and walked to the edge of the water. Chilled droplets splashed her legs while she found a flat rock to sit on. She sat and plunged her feet into the water, screamed from the shock of the cold. It felt colder than anything she had felt before, colder than snow. Colder than an ice cube dropped down the back of her shirt. She wondered if the water would be cold enough to preserve her body from decomposing.

She caught her breath and without turning her head away from the river said, “Hey Liv, did you know there are these worms that live in icebergs? They just melt when you take them out of the ice.” She wondered if Olivia’s silence meant she was rolling her eyes. Or maybe she just couldn’t hear her over the rough rush of the river. She pulled a long wet piece of grass from the ground beside her and traced the outline of her lips with it before tossing it into the water, wondered when the boys would get back.

A 200-word version of “Black River” previously appeared in Monkeybicycle.

ANDREA DANOWSKI’s work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, and Nontrue, among others. She lives in Southern California.

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