“Up ahead is the rope swing, Jay. We’ll pull off and have a stretch, grab a bite and take a breather,” instructed Judah from his kayak, floating lazily down the water behind Jay. He’d stretched out, his long legs tanning out on the top of the deck.
The group docked on the shore, everyone lengthening their stiff limbs. Jay was the first to strip off his shirt and shoes. He waded back into the cool water and splashed around. Mac joined him. Bethie stretched out on the ground in the shade and closed her eyes until she felt Judah sidle up beside her. “Everything okay? You’re quiet this trip.”
Bethie rolled to her side and propped herself up on an elbow, while she pulled at blades of grass and weeds. “Things are okay, I guess.”
Judah lowered his body, so they were eye level with one another. “What does that mean ‘I guess?’ Bad final grades? Your GPA tank?”
“No.” She shook her head and sat up, looking out at Mac and Jay. A loud holler caught her attention, and she saw Liam sail through the air on the end of the rope swing. The tree branch creaked and groaned at the pivotal point of limb and knot. He let go at the highest amplitude of the swing from the rope. The two boys in the water watched, stunned. For a second, Liam seemed suspended in place. His arms and legs flailed and with a mighty splash he entered the water, dousing both Mac and Jay. The boys yelled, turning to avoid blasts of water to their faces. In a flash, Jay disappeared under the surface and Liam emerged, having grabbed Jay’s ankle, form beneath, to pull him under. Mac swam back to the shore to give the rope swing his best effort.
Judah hugged Bethie and then jumped to his feet, not wanting to be outdone by anyone. He bounded to the rope as Mac’s body curled inward and he cannon balled into the river. Bethie watched Judah shed his shoes and shirt. The rope twisted in his hand as he scaled the trunk of the tree to gain more height for his swing. Bethie wondered how many more times they could do this before the aged rope fibers snapped and sent someone to the hospital. It would be a long trip to the first take out, nursing someone’s broken body.
“Beth, come on. Your turn, show us what you got,” called Judah from the middle of the river. She waved him off and flopped back down onto the cool ground. “Beth, Beth, Beth,” he chanted and the other three joined in.
She stood up and brushed off her backside, before tossing her shoes and shirt into her kayak, leaving her in running shorts and a bikini top. The boys whooped and cheered. Bethie stepped into the cockpit of her kayak, launched and called back, “Last one to the take out buys the pizza.” She was a good distance ahead by the time Judah reached her.
Five multi-colored kayaks rested on the rocky beach of the River’s Edge campsite. Judah hummed a familiar tune while they all worked as a team pitching their tents and laying sleeping bags out to dry away the dampness of their water trek. Mac ran down the trail in search of wood for the evening’s fire. Liam and Jay were organizing gear and preparing for the supplies they’d pick up and pack for the rest of the trip.
Mac returned with his arms laden with wood. “Hey, kids down the way said there’s a band at the bar tonight. Everyone in?”
Jay was the first to agree and Liam after him. Judah nodded, not really caring either way. “What about you, Bethie?” asked Mac.
She looked to Jay, waiting to see if he’d give her that winning smile and beg her to go along, but it was Judah who spoke first. “Come with, I need a dance partner.” He winked at her and her reserved exterior broke. Bethie smiled and agreed.
“Great,” announced Mac. “Pizza is on me.”
That night they dined on gooey slices of bar pizza and drinks. The local place on the river was buzzing with people traveling the waterways, locals and all those in between. A woman, in her thirties, with long, bleach streaked hair, made her way up to the stage. She took up the microphone and shocked the young kayakers by belting out the first notes of a Tom Petty song. Her voice was gravelly, yet pitch perfect and soon people were up and off their bar stool moving to the dance floor in front of the stage.
From an unknown source, Mac scored two pitchers of beer and several plastic cups. He poured a round and everyone lifted their cups. “The Rift.”
“Always a challenge,” added Judah.
“Never a man left behind,” interjected Liam.
“Boo-yah,” they all cheered. Bethie paused, and looked at Jay. He smiled and together they giggled. Suddenly it felt like Bethie could breathe again. Jay downed the contents of his cup and refilled it twice more. He moved in to hug Bethie and kissed the side of her cheek, before he jumped from his seat and danced out to the center of the dance floor.
Judah took the empty seat beside her. “You look better.”
Bethie nodded and sipped her beer. “Yeah, I am.”
“You know, if you ever need to talk...” Judah laid his hand on her upper back, slowly rubbing in small, soothing circles. “I’m always here for you, Beth.”
She nodded and watched as her brother moved out onto the dance floor. Mac joined in and soon the three boys were dancing with whoever was in close proximity, be it a stranger or themselves. Their laughter lifted over the crowd and rained down on Bethie, reminding her of all the good days they’d shared through their first college year. She hoped their Sophomore year would bring more of the same.
Judah took her hand in his. “Let’s join them.” He assisted her up off her bar stool and led her through the crowd until they were standing amid all the other dancers. Bethie laughed and swiveled her hips in time with the last few beats of the song and then the music changed. Her vibrant body posture dropped when the music went from funky fun to slow and sultry. Before her sneakered feet could move back to their table, Judah wrapped her in his arms and held her at her waist. “Don’t leave. Dance with me.”
Bethie cocked her head to the side and gave him a smirk. “Seriously?”
“Dead serious.” Judah’s facial features were soft and inviting. He held an expression Bethie wasn’t used to. She could feel the heat on her cheeks and it pulsed down her neck and spread over her collarbones. Judah pulled her in close. “See, this is nice too, right?”
She laid her head to his chest, and he drew their hands upward, together, close. Beth could feel his warm breath on the back of her hand. Surely Mac, Liam and Jay were getting a big kick out of this scene and she turned her head to find them, ready to chastise their goofy, teasing antics. Mac was dancing with the bartender, probably who he finagled the pitchers from. Liam and Jay were nowhere to be seen. It was better that they weren’t. Bethie relaxed. It felt like she had been frozen in place now for days, since leaving... no, since she kissed Jay.
“Hey, I scored us another pitcher,” Mac called in triumph. “Come meet Meghan.” His head tipped towards the bartender, a girl with a low-cut bar T-shirt, cut-off shorts and long hair. Judah and Beth joined them at the table and proceeded to help empty the container of beer. Mac draped his arm around Meghan’s shoulders. “Isn’t she a peach?”
“Thanks.” Bethie raised her cup to the girl. She couldn’t have been much older than they were. Hopefully she wouldn’t lose her job over this.
The band played on for another two hours while Meghan kept the trio in sufficient amounts of alcohol. Mac, always the player, kept her happy with his attention between her serving other legal customers. When the raspy voice of the lead singer echoed out her thanks and bid everyone a safe and good night. Mac laid a long, passionate, full mouthed kiss on Meghan and walked out the door with Judah and a wobbly Bethie.
The boys linked their arms through Beth’s keeping her upright while they traversed the dirt trail back to the river and their campsite. Through the brush and trees, you could see the flickering light of multiple camp fires burning. Music, laughter and loud conversations mingled in the surrounding air, all from other people camping on the river banks. “I love you guys. Really. Like you’re all my favorites,” slurred out Bethie before she stumbled and then laughed.
“Love you too, but let’s not break bones tonight, ’kay?” cautioned Judah.
“When did you become such a lightweight, Evans?” teased Mac.
“Like hell I am. I could drink–oh look, that’s a nice campsite. Why don’t we have that one?” Bethie asked.
Both Judah and Mac laughed and led her to their site, the exact one she had indicated. “You calling it, Mac?” asked Judah, while sitting Bethie by the fire and handing her a bottle of water and some aspirin.
“Nah, think I’m gonna head back up to the bar,” he said with a wink of his eye and a sly smile.
“Be back to push off early and be safe, man.” Judah watched Mac stumble back the way they came. He turned to Beth. “Can you manage to get yourself to the tent?”
Bethie waved him off and fluttered her lips in a huff of breath. “No problem. I got this. Just gonna finish this water and then hit the sack.”
“Okay.” Judah watched her sway back and forth on a cut log by the fire. He turned and unzipped his tent, crawling through the arched entry and zipping the flap closed. Bethie hummed the slow song stuck in her memory, recalling how comfortable it felt to be in Judah’s arms dancing. Maybe she was over Jay, maybe Jay and she were never meant to be more than good friends. She should have never kissed him that night. Suddenly she needed to find him and apologize.
With her sneakers propped against the log, drying by the fire, Bethie tiptoed through the damp grass to Jay’s tent. “Jay,” she hissed more than whispered and squatted down to unzip his tent. “Jay, I need to tell you something.”
There was a rustling of nylon and heavy breathing inside the small domed tent. Bethie pushed her shoulder through first and then ducked her head in. Jay’s head came out from under the fabric of a red and blue sleeping bag.
“Jay, I– ”
“Bethie.” Liam’s bare torso showed in the moon’s light that streamed through the screen of the tent window.
Bethie’s jaw dropped. Her lungs ceased to work. Her alcohol soaked mind refused to calculate the scene, and she slowly backed out of the tent, zipping the nylon door closed, before her feet walked in a zig-zagged line to her tent.