Bethie stretched out in her sleeping bag, feeling the heat of the morning sun sinking though the peak of the single man pup tent. Her head was swimming, and she desperately needed a handful of aspirin and a bottle of water before she rolled out to start the remaining trek down river. She listened for any signs of movement from the others. How long had they been out at the bar last night? Long enough for her and Liam to drink a full pitcher and start the second before Mac showed up.
He breezed in as if nothing happened only hours earlier. He looked fresh as a daisy and ready to imbibe in beer and Meghan. She yelped when he scooped her up into his arms and swung her around with minimal effort. “Hi gorgeous, how’s my favorite bartender?”
Meghan slapped at his arms and squealed until he set her back on her feet and let her go with a kiss to her cheek. Bethie shook her head and wished Judah could be there to witness that Mac was Mac, and there wasn’t anything going on between them. Mac never changed and certainly wasn’t in the “ready to settle down” mode of his life yet. Of course, that wouldn’t happen now. Judah was leaving in the morning. There was no changing his mind. He’d probably called Leslie already, and she’d be waiting at the apartment with freaking bells on. Bethie’s blood rolled to a low boil. She tipped her cup up and Mac joined them.
“Hey hey, is this where all the cool kids hang out?” He took a fresh cup and poured himself a drink.
“Judah follow you up?” Liam slurred.
“Nope. You didn’t hear me say ‘cool kids’?” he joked.
Bethie rolled her eyes. It was just like Mac to dismiss the whole scene and turn the tables to make it look like someone else was the issue. She perched her chin on her fist, her elbow on the table and narrowed her blurry, beer soaked eyes at him. “Ya know, you’re really good at that?”
Mac looked at her as he took a long drink, playing catch up with the sibling team. “Good at what, being awesome?”
“Being able to make any circumstance work for you. Like a freaking puzzle piece. You’re the puzzle man... master... wizard,” she rambled. “That’s it. You take the issue, no matter what it is, and shape it to fit. You’ve always done that. Liam hasn’t he always done that?”
Liam had his head down on the table, staring out the front windows at the line of the dark river. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, sis.”
Mac laughed. “I’m not drunk enough to decipher Bethie speak, yet.” He lifted his glass and emptied it in one swallow before pouring another. “Listen, I picked up all the supplies and packed and loaded the boats already so in the morning we can drop the tents and shove off early. Since Judah is headed out, that added a little more to everyone’s dry well, but I managed. We’ll be fine.”
Liam looked up. “What about Jay?”
Mac patted Liam’s shoulder. “All taken care of, buddy. Jay will make it just fine.”
“I gotta get back.” Liam wobbled and started out the door.
Bethie wrapped her arms around Mac, her alcohol sopped brain replaying the earlier rope swing antic but with very different results. She cringed. “Don’t do anything stupid like that again. Sometimes I think you have straw up there.” She tapped the side of his head with her index finger. “Like the scarecrow in Oz. I better make sure he gets back okay.” She pointed her thumb back towards the direction Liam took.
Mac held her a few moments longer than intended. His voice cracked. “I think I’ll miss you most of all,” he quoted, and she laughed.
“If you only had a brain.” Bethie winked and walked out to catch up to her brother. Mac watched her, his smile gone. He downed his beer and poured a third.
That’s how Bethie left him, hours ago, she wondered if he made it back to camp or stayed with Meghan. The humid air inside the tent was stifling and choked her. Her stomach lurched, and she rolled out of her sleeping bag. The tepid moist air inside the tent swirled with the fresh damp morning breeze when she unzipped her tent a crawled out onto the wet ground. The sun was hot, but hadn’t burned off all the dew yet, so she knew it was still early. Judah’s tent was still up and she could hear the familiar, steady rhythm of his breathing. A wave of relief washed over her. He hadn’t left yet. Mac’s tent flap was half open and she could she his foot sticking out, so he had come back, at some point. When she looked to the opposite side, her heart froze mid beat. Liam’s tent was gone. Maybe he’d packed up and headed back to the bar for breakfast, but when she gazed over the shoreline, his boat was gone too.
Bethie turned a slow circle, hoping in the night Liam moved gear, tent and boat and took Jay with him. She sucked in a sharp intake of breath. “Jay,” she gasped. “Judah, wake up. Judah.” Her bare feet left dark prints in the wet grass as she ran to the other tents.
Mac groaned from inside his tent and emerged, hair disheveled and two days of beard growth on his chin. “Gees Evan’s, you’re louder than a freaking earthquake.”
“They’re gone,” she yelled, standing outside Judah’s tent with her arms outstretched. “Liam and Jay are gone.”
Mac was out of his tent in a flash, and Judah wasn’t too far behind. They ran to the edge of the river, shielding their eyes to adjust to the sunlight, both hoping to catch a glimpse of the back end of Liam’s kayak. “No one heard him?” ask Judah.
Bethie shook her head. Mac was already taking the poles out of his tent. He shoved the nylon material, hap hazardously, into its sack and stuffed it into the bow of the boat. Without another word, his hair a matted mess and his sneakers still lying on the beach, Mac pushed off and paddled hard down river.
Judah paced back and forth on the shoreline, while Bethie dismantled her tent and packed her belongings, taking Mac’s shoes with her. She stopped and stared at him. “You’re kidding me, right? You’re honestly going to waste time to stand there and debate this, Judah?” She climbed into the cockpit of her kayak, sank her paddle into the shore, and shoved her nose into the river. Her body paused for a split second and then she gave a heavy sigh and took off downriver.
Judah watched her disappear around a bend, his boat still dry and his tent still standing. He shook his head and threaded his fingers through his short hair. While pulling the tent poles loose from their housings, he dialed Leslie.
“Hello?” Her voice was raspy with sleep.
“Hi, it’s Judah.”
There was a shuffling noise on her end. “What’s wrong?” Leslie was wide awake.
“Shh, nothing. I mean, no one is injured.”
There was an audible gasp over the line. Judah sighed and tried once more. “It’s not an emergency, no accidents. There’s been a change in plans.”
This time Leslie gave a heavy sigh. “This shouldn’t surprise me. It’s typical Beth drama, again.”
“No Judah, it’s getting old.”
“Leslie, listen to me.”
“Just go to her, Judah, go.”
He stood there staring at his screen. Leslie had hung up.
It took him less than five minutes to be packed and out on the water. His muscles burned and complained at the relentless urgency of his paddle strokes. His sunglasses were buried in his dry bag and the sun’s glare was sending a pain like a drill through his eye sockets to the middle of his skull, or maybe it was all the stress. Either way, he needed a bottle of water and an energy bar. He had neither. His kayak was devoid of any supplies. He wondered how far ahead any of them were. Did Mac catch up to Liam? It would depend on what time Liam left and if he took any breaks.
His chest heaved with a heavy sigh. He knew from the day they planned this trip; it would not be easy. In fact, every time they discussed it, it guaranteed him to have a spat with Leslie, until the day he offered her the option to come along. He also knew none of them, Mac, Liam, and most of all Beth, would agree to her being there, and why should they? It wouldn’t be the same. She wasn’t a part of this.
The echo of his paddle hitting the water died down when he paused to listen for any noise indicating someone might be up ahead. His mouth was parched. He would have to pull off and dig through his boat to find any left over water bottles and try to get hydrated. In a way, he was thankful they packed no supplies under his hatch covers. It would be a quick stop, a speedy search and then right back on the water. “What are we coming to?” He asked, turning his eyes up towards the clear blue sky. “A sign of some understanding would be awesome right now.”
The boat held nothing but his personal belongings, dry bag, tent, PDF and OtterBox. Not a single bottle of water was rolling around inside the wells or cockpit. Judah’s head fell back, and he exhaled a breath of pure frustration. He could chance drinking the river water, but with all the farmland and runoff... he shook his head he wasn’t that desperate and the thought of having to stop for stomach issues every five minutes wasn’t his idea of fun.
The sound of friction against branches met his ears, the dull scritch-scratch burrowed into his throbbing head until he couldn’t stand it and began to search for the offensive noise and destroy it with his anger and annoyance. Bobbing, caught on a limb, half submerged beneath the water’s surface was a familiar cooler bag. Judah splashed down into the shallow water and wrestled the nylon, insulated bag from the sticks. It was the one Mac lost the day before. Judah whispered. “Thanks, buddy” and unzipped the top taking out a can of river temperature beer. It was a breakfast he was familiar with years ago as a college student. He lifted the can and gave a silent toast to days of long ago. The can opened and emptied into his mouth and he grimaced and gagged. “Not quite the same,” he coughed.
The alcohol did nothing for his headache, as he paddled onward. It soothed his dry throat and tongue, not to mention, squelched his roller coaster of emotions. He was still mulling thorough everything, but each issue didn’t bring forth the venom, regret or sorrow he was swimming in earlier that morning. He was on a mission. With each mile that passed, he knew he was drawing closer to the twister rapids. If someone heard his plea for hydration, surely they would hear it again.
“Make them pull off,” he chanted. He knew that all the supplies were now in the boats ahead, and even though the added weight was equally divided, he knew it would be significant enough to change their outcome on the rapids, especially if each one was on their own. “Make them pull off. Dammit, Jay, why?”