by Sarah Walker
Jake pulled up in a red Toyota truck. It looked brand new. He rolled down the window and grinned. His teeth looked like they had been bleached, and his dark hair was a little longer at the top, short on the sides.
I walked to the passenger door, climbed inside. He set his hand on my shoulder and squeezed, his smile still huge, but I laughed and shrugged so his hand fell away. I adjusted the seat, sitting as far back as Jake and rolled down the window. The only way to keep things normal was to pretend like nothing had changed, and he caught on, ripping down the dirt road so fast we didn’t have time to think about anything but the speed.
We used to smoke pot after working at Toman’s Construction on the overgrown hiking trails at the Lackawanna State Park. Now, we were going camping there, and Jake hadn’t mentioned marijuana once on the car ride, how he didn’t just want to smoke, but needed to. So I asked him as we parked the truck, unloaded our camping gear and cooler full of beer.
“You still smoke?”
I shook my head. He looked away, pretending to study the pine trees that towered around the parking lot. “I got a job with Cabot. Did I tell you that?”
“No,” I said.
He shrugged. “They do drug tests every few months.”
“The money good?”
I thought of Toman’s Construction. We got paid just over minimum wage. Jake was twenty-four then, already married. Cindy’s income allowed them to buy a shitty house that always needed work. At least they weren’t renting an apartment like I had, scrounging up the money every month and wondering why I went through the trouble when it was only myself I was trying to please.
Jake ignored my question and put his arm around me. I almost dropped the tent bag from the sudden weight.
“You look skinny,” he said. “I thought they worked out a lot there. Guys come out looking big and scary.”
“Not me I guess.”
He laughed, his arm falling from my shoulder. “I’m just kidding, Tommy. You look the same. You look great.”
We both knew it wasn’t true. My hair was gone, a buzz cut that made me look like a twelve-year-old. I had lost almost twenty pounds. There was no natural muscle, no padding on my bones anymore. We stayed quiet as we walked through the manmade trails and passed a family with one of those portable trailers that made you wonder what was the point of camping. A little boy stood outside hitting the mobile home with a stick. The sound of the wood hitting those plastic panels made me want to ask Jake for a ride home. I couldn’t be here in the woods, my first week in an old life. The pines shaded us from the sun when I had wanted to feel it beating on my face, burning, rolling down my back. I wanted to be alone, sitting on my mother’s porch until I figured out where to go next.
But then I heard the high-pitched, wonderful giggles. I lifted my head and saw them off to the left, tucked away in one of the smaller campsites. They were the most beautiful girls I had ever seen and they couldn’t hide even if they tried. One of them held a flimsy tent pole in the air and watched it wobble above her head. Her hips swayed back and forth. The other two girls saw us. They were both blondes, maybe twins, and held a deflated green tent in their arms.
Jake nudged me. “You have to set the tent on the ground, ladies.”
The brunette with the wavy hair and thick hips leaned the pole against a tree and seemed to be looking right at me. “A little help?”
The temptation felt like oil. It soaked my body, leaving it slick and desperate. I started walking. My steps turned faster. My feet zigzagged, tangling, until I reached their site and tripped over a camping chair. I caught myself before my nose smashed into the ground. My wrists throbbed. The tent bag was still around my arm, and I could feel the stakes and poles pressing against my side.
As my face hovered above the dirt, the tiny pine needles and pebbles, I realized the sad truth of it all. The earth wasn’t mine anymore. I didn’t know how to move, how to belong here.
I managed to stand, and Jake stood beside me, already laughing. So were the girls. The brunette had her hand over her mouth, muffling the sound. She stepped closer and I unraveled more. I bounced on my toes and pictured running my hands along her curvy edges.
“Are you all right?”
“Tommy really wants to help set up the tent. He’s a professional,” Jake said.
She laughed again and held out her hand. “I’m Stephanie.”
Our palms met, both sweaty. “Tommy.”
“I know,” Stephanie said as she wiped her hand down her jean shorts. “I think you can manage the tent.”
I mostly stayed quiet as we set up the tent, still shaky from my fall, not answering when the other two girls introduced themselves as Erin and Hannah. It felt good with Jake beside me while we worked on the same project, though. I twisted the stakes into the ground, and he used a rock as a hammer, securing what I had started. My shirt was damp when we finished. His fancy hair was flatter on the top than before. The odor locked under our clothing seeped out. A musty smell I hoped the girls thought only came from Jake. Later, Stephanie invited us back to their campsite and when we returned, the sun had sunk. The sky was the darkest, most wonderful blue I had ever seen. The fire they had going was big with flames jumping and twisting and shooting out little orange flecks. Everything looked perfect. And I felt better. Jake had given me a pep talk back at our campsite. He told me my fall was cute. It would probably work to my advantage.
“Which one of you was a Boy Scout?” I said now, opening my first beer and looking at Erin.
She stood in front of the fire with a Bud Light in her hand. Her hair was piled on top of her head, golden strands falling around her face. She and Hannah no longer seemed like twins. Her eyes were blue, her nose small and pointed. Hannah had the same dark eyes as Jake and round cheeks as if she hadn’t lost all of her baby fat.
Erin brushed the strands of hair away from her face and glared at me. “Why Boy Scouts? Women aren’t capable of building fires?”
“Aw,” Jake said. “Tommy’s just impressed.”
I chose a chair by Hannah and ignored Erin. “What should we play? Truth or Dare?”
The girls stared at me.
“Aren’t you a little old for that game?” Erin said. “What are you guys, like thirty?”
“Not yet,” Jake said and set his hand on my shoulder as he walked past me. “But I don’t think people play that anymore. Sorry, Tommy.”
He sat beside Erin and cracked his beer open.
I shrugged. I wondered how old the girls were and remembered them standing in the sunlight before. Their tank tops were tight. Their breasts the perfect shape from where we stood on the path. I had tried not to stare when we got closer, after I had tripped. Now they wore big sweatshirts and tight blue jeans. They seemed off limits, but looked eager as they drank their beer, like it would vanish if they didn’t gulp it down.
“Fine,” Erin said. “I dare Tommy to twerk in front of the fire.”
Jake spit up his beer. It dripped down his chin until he wiped it away with his thumb.
“Nice try,” Erin said.
My face went hot, and I studied the silver mountains printed on my can, waiting for them to stop watching me.
“Look at him,” Hannah said. “He has no idea!”
When I lifted my head, Stephanie looked at me from across the fire, a little curious, a little unsure. “You really don’t know?”
I shook my head, watching Jake who was shaking his too, staring at the ground and twisting his feet into the dirt.
“Only because I’m drunk,” Stephanie said and strutted across to where I sat. I leaned back in my chair and held my beer to my chest. Stephanie turned around, her ass right in my face, pausing there before she bent her knees and rested her hands on her thick thighs. Slowly, gracefully, she started shaking just her butt cheeks. Her rhythm grew quicker and her ass jiggled so fast I didn’t know where to look. Up and down. Right and left. It circled and vibrated and bounced. There were so many movements all at the same time and the word made such perfect sense. Twerking. Twerking. I wondered if I was supposed to reach out, touch it, grab one of the lumps and try to stop it or maybe just settle my palm there and feel it pulse.
Hannah and Erin were laughing so hard their cans of beer tipped. Jake was staring, silent, probably as much in awe as I was. Stephanie eventually stopped before her ass fell off her body. She spun around, grinning, but I couldn’t give her the same in return. Nothing on my body worked. She lowered her face to mine. Her warm beer breath covered my nose.
“That is twerking,” she whispered.
Stephanie peeled off her sweatshirt. She wore the same white top as before, and the skin from her neck to her chest glistened, a dampness that made her seem immortal. Part of me wanted to thank her, to ask, possibly, for a little bit more. For her to bend down again and let me draw swirls on her chest with her sweat.
“I just have to ask,” Erin said. “Do you live under a rock?”
I watched Stephanie walk back to her chair, something in my chest that was loose when she shook her ass in my face, was now tight and uncomfortable.
“Hello,” Hannah said, tipping her chair to the side and waving her hand in my face. “Are you Amish or something?”
“Tommy is just a little behind the times,” Jake said. “Doesn’t go on the internet a lot.”
I looked at Jake; his eyebrows were raised.
“I just got out of prison,” I said.
“What?” Erin and Hannah said at the same time.
“I said I just got out of prison.”
Stephanie swallowed, set her beer on the ground. “For what?”
Jake hung his head and said my name in the sort of voice used on a two-year-old.
“A bunch of different stuff.”
“Yeah, like what?” Erin said.
“Little things kept adding up until I stole a car.” I nodded toward Jake. “We planned to take his grandmother’s car out west and start over. But it fell through. She called the cops and Jake and I were at the Shell off 81. I was waiting in the car, Jake was inside. Cops came and there I was, sitting pretty.”
Hannah let out a breath. “At least you didn’t kill anyone.”
Stephanie picked up her beer again. She started twisting the tab until it popped off.
“That’s so shitty,” she said.
I thought about how we were different men then. We worked like dogs at Toman’s and knew it was the best we would probably ever get. There were little things that kept us excited and hopeful. When Jake married Cindy before their relationship turned to shit. When I started practicing guitar again, writing my own songs, and had a band for about a week. But those bits of happiness always wore off. Everything did. Except for our friendship.
Going west was the best plan we ever had, but I didn’t have a car, and Jake had to sell his if we wanted enough money to make it there. In his grandmother’s car for those first ten minutes, one in the morning, the rest of the world seeming dead, right before we stopped for gas, I had felt a little sorry for Mrs. Butler, old, alone, and car-less, but I dreamed of the cool, dry air I would be breathing. I dreamed of Colorado water too, running down the big mountains. I wondered if the tap water would taste different than Pennsylvania’s. Maybe fresher.
“I have to say,” Erin said now, “this makes so much sense.”
“Erin!” Stephanie shouted. “That’s not nice!”
“Sorry,” Erin said, rolling her eyes. “But I have one more question. Do you know who’s running for President?”
I glanced at Jake. “Dude,” he said. “Have you seriously not turned on the TV?”
“Let’s just keep playing Truth or Dare,” Stephanie said.
Hannah pointed at me while looking at Stephanie. “I dare you to kiss the convict.”
I tried to settle my legs that instantly began to bounce, tried to tighten the muscles that had been stabbed awake.
The last woman I had kissed was Kara Robinson. We were at Cleary’s on a Saturday and she’d heard I had started a band so she followed me around all night, asking me to sing her a song. I never did, but I didn’t want her to stop begging. I cocked my head to the side, telling her maybe, if she got lucky. We stood at the end of the bar during last call. The lights turned brighter and Kara grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me in. She tasted like popcorn and cigarettes and just about ate off my lips.
I imagined kissing Stephanie now and it happening differently. Our lips would go together, not moving, but just staying like that until I had gotten enough.
Stephanie smirked but shook her head. “I don’t kiss people I barely know.”
“I dare you to go skinny dipping in the lake, then,” Hannah said.
Stephanie smiled. A compromise. “Fine.”
We stood and headed toward the lake that sat behind the campsites. I thought of her pale body falling like a smooth stone into the lake, the kind Jake and I used to find and skip. Running over the water, the stones were miracles until they fell through the surface.
There was a wide wooden dock that ran over the water. It had a ladder on the end and Stephanie went right to the edge, held onto the ladder’s metal sides and dipped her foot in.
“It’s cold,” she said.
“Too bad. Get in there,” Hannah said and pulled out a beer from her sweatshirt pocket.
Jake stood to my left. I could feel him looking at the side of my face. I didn’t want to look away from Stephanie, but I turned my head toward him. His lips were locked together, his eyes small, squinty.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not looking away.
Behind him, the moonlight highlighted the lake. The water was just thin layers of silk, the clumps of lily pads at the edge like hidden jewels. I knew it then, that we wouldn’t see the girls again. We had such different lives, coming together for those hours only because they needed our help. I didn’t know what would happen to me after tonight, how the world would treat me, if I would belong in Jake’s, or he in mine.
“I know,” I told him.
Stephanie pushed her underwear down now, standing at the edge of the dock, and bounced a little, her backside lifting and falling. When she reached behind her back and undid her bra, the lace falling on the dock, I wondered if she was cold, if goosebumps had covered her skin. Finally, she bent her knees. Her calf muscles flexed and she jumped in.
Hannah and Erin shrieked as water hit their legs. They jumped back, but I moved to the edge, watched her long brown hair follow her head underwater. The ripples of water calmed. Her head didn’t surface right away, and in those twenty seconds, that droplet of fear shook me.
I jumped into the water with my New Balance sneakers, my old Levi jeans that were too big, a Hanes t-shirt I had found shoved under my bed that morning. I was convinced she couldn’t hold her breath that long or maybe she’d hit her head on a rock. Suddenly, that night wouldn’t be the only night we would ever share. Stephanie would be eternally grateful after I saved her. I would have a purpose. One so big, I would always be wanted.
When my head surfaced, so did Stephanie. I wrapped my arms around her. Her slippery skin soft, magical.
“What!” she yelled, laughter pouring from her throat between breaths of air.
I loosened my hold, but she put her arms around me too. “You weren’t coming up. I was scared.”
I moved us to shore with her thighs wrapped around my waist. Her chin rested on my shoulder, her breath a quiet lullaby in my ear. When I carried her out of the lake, I felt the warmth of her naked body through my clothes more than I had in the water, and I couldn’t help smiling in the dark as her curves fit so perfectly in my arms.
The best part wasn’t being that close to a real woman. The best part: Stephanie never let on that she didn’t need me then and never really would.
Sarah Walker is a writer living in Boston, Massachusetts, originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania. She studied writing and film at Bridgewater State University. Her work has appeared in The Bridge, Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chia, and others. She is currently a Dennis Lehane Fiction Fellow at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College.