Mac hoisted himself up the dangling length of rope while Bethie floated on the river in her kayak, back paddling as needed to keep her view of what was unfolding. “Mac, that’s high enough,” she warned.
Mac had reached the limb where the rope was tied. He used his upper body strength to curl his legs up and hook them over the limb. Working his way around to the top side, he shimmied out to the furthest tip of the branch. It bowed under his weight and the aged wood creaked and cracked. Bethie held her breath. Liam was paddling towards shore. Judah was already out of his boat. He shielded his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun while he craned his neck and looked up the height of the tree. “What the hell are you doing? Do you want to kill yourself? Jesus, Joseph and Mary, Mac get down.”
Mac looked down at Judah. He smiled a twisted smile of insanity, before he saluted them all, leaned forward and somersaulted off the branch. Bethie screamed. Liam froze mid stroke and Judah took off, diving into the river. It seemed like an eternity before two heads emerged, breaking the surface of the river with coughs and a sputtering of water from their lungs.
Judah dragged Mac’s body up alongside his beached boat. Mac rolled to his side and coughed, choking and gasping for a lungful of air. Judah laid on his back and slammed his fist into the ground several times, leaving a small indentation with the force of his strikes. “What the fuck, Mac? Are you fucking high or just that stupid? We could have been bringing you back in a fucking body bag.”
Mac coughed and laughed, coughed more and then rolled to his back, clutched his stomach, and continued to laugh like a fool. Bethie was making her way to the shore. Liam wedged his boat between a fallen log and the banks of the river. Everyone looked on, stunned, as Mac continued to laugh. “Not what you expected, huh, Jay? Have to admit, it was pretty epic.”
Judah was up in a flash and straddling Mac’s prone body. Beth saw his fist cock back and Mac’s face snapped to the side. A second scream left her lips, but it was Liam who protested. “Judah, stop.”
Judah had Mac by the scruff of his wet T-shirt, shaking him. “Why do you always ruin everything? You, stupid asshole. Why can’t you grow the fuck up and be a man? I’m done with you, done,” he yelled and shoved off Mac’s body, leaving him there still giggling. “I’m done. When we get to River’s Edge, I’m out. You all do this on your own.”
Liam was out of his boat pacing. His hands on his hips, his eyes wild with rage and un-uttered words. Bethie stayed silent, stuck between so many emotions they paralyzed her. The old, empty rope swung in the breeze.
They paddled the next few miles in silence, each kayaker absorbed in their own personal thoughts. Bethie was preparing herself to beg Judah to stay. She hoped once they set up camp he’d get that old familiar feeling of friendship and unity, but the doubt she was feeling was taking over that hope with each mile that passed. She knew she couldn’t wait and paddled harder to catch up to Judah. “Hey.”
He shook his head. “No, Beth, you can’t change my mind on this. I’m not responsible for this, any of it.”
“I wasn’t going to say that. Did you call Leslie yet?”
“No. There’s no signal yet. I’ll call her from camp.”
Bethie nodded. “She’ll be happy to know you are coming back early.”
Judah gave her a credulous glare. Bethie looked straight ahead, following the line of the river. “You know you’re going to miss the twisted rapids, the sugar sandbar and the sunset?
“Yeah, I know you’re done and I don’t blame you. He’s an idiot.”
Judah scoffed. “No longer defending him?”
Bethie waited a few minutes before she spoke again. “What happened between Mac and me-”
“No. I don’t want to talk about it.” Judah pulled ahead. Bethie would not be deterred, and she pushed with him, her biceps beginning to burn. They were both far enough ahead that they would have several minutes to talk, before anyone came up on them, if he’d only let up and listen.
“Jude? Please hear me. If you’re leaving anyway, what will it matter? You can be done with everything, all of us, once and for all. I won’t text, I won’t email and I certainly won’t call if that’s what you want.”
He slowed and looked at her.
“But you have to hear me first.”
The slap of his paddle silenced, and Judah steered his nose instead of continuing his speed. Bethie took her window of time. Her chest filled with an intake of air and she blew it out over her lips. “Things have been hard on all of us.”
“That’s no excuse,” he snapped.
“Judah, I’m not saying it as an excuse. I know it’s not, but it wasn’t all you thought it was.”
Judah scowled and remained tight-lipped.
“We were on this emotional roller coaster, even before, for months before, it seemed. You were so absorbed in the business-”
“Are you blaming me?”
Bethie shook her head. “No, Judah, you know I’m not. You and Mac were both absorbed in getting the shop and the tours up and running. We were all so proud of you both. I mean, the two of you working like dogs to get that partnership running, knowing it was both your dreams since college and then to have... and to be sidetracked. It was like we were all hit by a tidal wave. Some of us surfaced and others drown.”
“You think I sank?”
She shook her head again. “No, you are the strongest person I know, Judah. You had such strength to lift out of that disaster and pull yourself onto shore while I couldn’t follow. I needed a life preserve, Judah. I was flailing around and hell, Liam was sunk to the ocean floor.” Bethie stopped to stifle a sob and gain her composure. “We couldn’t keep up while you kept swimming.”
Judah couldn’t look at her. He heard her sharp intakes of breath, a sound he knew well, a sound that would have him folding her up in his arms a year before.
“That day, I needed you. I needed strength for Liam, for Jay, and Mac was there.”
“So you took an open opportunity. He knew he could take advantage. Always looking for the easy prey, the easy target.”
“Judah, it wasn’t like that.”
“Really? What was it like Beth? Hmm? When he put his arms around you, when he kissed you, what was that like? He was giving you strength through mouth to mouth? He was holding you, alone in a back room on a cozy couch, ready to just pump you full of his strength? Is that what it was like?”
Bethie’s mouth dropped open, she sucked in a shuddering breath. There went her words, gone with the boil of her blood. She shoved her paddle into the river and pushed away.
“That’s what I thought.” Judah didn’t pursue her, but he kept an equal distance between her and the others.
They hit the rocky shore of the campsite, silent. The sun was beginning its descent while they pitched tents and gathered firewood. “Think there’s a band tonight?” Liam asked his sister, breaking the long silence.
She shrugged and gave a small unintelligible mumble.
“Wanna take a walk and find out?”
“What about Jay?”
Liam smirked, his eyes clouding like the setting sun. “He’s in the tent. I think it’s okay.”
Bethie wrapped her arms around her brother and together they started the hike up to the familiar bar.
“Well, hey there strangers. You got the whole crew with you?” Megan searched the open door looking for the others to follow behind the brother and sister duo. Her short hair was teased into spiky peaks and she wore black jeans and a tank top that boasted the bar’s name over her chest.
“They might be up later.” Liam laid some cash on the dented and scratched surface of the bar. “Couple of pitchers?”
Megan smiled. “Sure thing.”
The bar held a few locals, and the stage was dark. Music from an old audio system played at a subdued volume in the background and only brought both Bethie’s and Liam’s moods down further. Megan set two pitchers of draft beer and a stack of cups on their table, pouring the first round for them. Liam gave her a nod of thanks and a few bucks as a tip. Bethie raised her cup to make a toast. She held it there long enough to realize she had nothing to say and tipped the cup back, downing half its contents in one swallow. Liam swirled his beer in his cup, watching the bubbles pop in the foam.
“Jay should be here.”