How many more times can they do this?” laughed Bethie, turning up the bottle of beer in her fingertips while she watched Mac and Judah slurp down gulps of beer from the cavities of ice cube trays. She clapped as they raced to be the first to empty the remaining trays, not truly rooting for one more than the other. This was their third canoe race, their standard drinking game of choice, and they were tied.
Jay’s eyes were sparkling from the alcohol and the outdoor twinkle lights. It was so good to see him out enjoying himself. He had fallen into a funk when they all went home over the holidays. Once they returned, Bethie often found him secluded in his room, all the lights off, staring at some mind numbing television program. Judah said maybe it was the change of seasons and Bethie thought perhaps he was right. This week brought with it the first hints of spring, which meant being outdoors, hiking, kayaking and eventually surfing again.
His laughter was contagious as he watched the two boys battle it out, each with their hands tucked behind their backs and plastic straws clutched between their teeth. Liam came up and stood beside him. “You wanna give it a go?” he offered.
Jay turned and looked him up and down. “Against you?”
Liam shrugged, “I’d say Bethie, but she’s a ringer.”
“Damn straight.” Bethie flexed her arms.
Cheers went up as Judah cleared the last drop out of his tray and flung his arms upward in triumph. “Suck it, Mac. Still the champion.”
Mac gasped as he took his last swallow and then spat out his straw. “No way, man. My trays have larger cube cavities.”
Judah put him in a headlock and rubbed his knuckles hard on top of Mac’s head, mussing up his long hair. “Your head has a larger cavity,” he joked.
Mac wrestled his way out of Judah’s hold and Liam and Jay set up the next race. They all gathered round the sticky, beer soaked, folding camp table. Bethie stood at an end, while Liam and Jay faced off, both with straws at the ready. It would be another race Bethie could not bet on. She raised her hand and started to count backwards from three. The two boys leaned over the table with their hands behind their back. Bethie threw her hand down and yelled, “go.”
Both boys slurped and gulped, trying not to laugh as they went. Judah and Mac were deep in conversation, no longer paying attention to the competition going on beside them. Bethie hooted and hollered for Jay and then for Liam. Liam sucked the last cavity dry and stood up. “I win.”
Jay stood up and looked directly at him. His straw still held between his lips. He watched stone still when Liam did a victory dance. Liam turned to face him, his fingers pointed directly a Jay’s nose with a self-satisfied grin. A spray of beer exploded from the tip of Jay’s straw and doused Liam’s neck and chest. He stood their mouth agape, stunned. Mac and Judah’s laughter cut the shocked silence.
“Oh, no you didn’t, Jay,” laughed Mac, slapping his hand to his thigh in delight.
Judah was laughing so hard he had tears streaming down his face. Bethie tensed and watched her brother’s face go from shock to red. He sauntered towards Jay and Bethie saw the straw drop to the ground from Jay’s lips, his face suddenly sullen and pale. She broke out of her frozen state of shock and took two steps to insert herself between the two, but it was too late. Liam wrapped his arms around Jay and wiggled his beer soaked chest, pressing it into Jay’s dry shirt. “Sharing is caring.” He laughed as he bear-hugged his opponent. Everyone relaxed and laughed.
When the amusement subsided, Mac and Bethie fell down onto some tattered lawn chairs, breathless. “Better watch it Evans, or you’re gonna lose your boyfriend to your brother.”
Bethie swatted at his chest. “Stop. He’s not my boyfriend.”
“What? Come on, you two are inseparable. I’ve seen you do the walk of shame out of his room on many mornings. You can’t tell me you two aren’t doing the two-man tango between the sheets in there.”
Bethie could feel the heat on her cheeks. “We’re not, Mac. It’s not like that.”
“So what is it like? Does he need a few pointers?” Mac reached out and tried to tickle her, poking at her sides. Bethie screeched and shimmied away from his fingertips. “Seriously, Evans, what’s going on with you two?”
Bethie gave a heavy sigh. “I wish I knew, Mac.” She looked on while her brother, Judah and Jay simulated paddling the kayaks that were set up on the grass. “I really like him and I think he likes me too. I mean we’re together all the time, but then there are times when he is so distant. I think the world could explode and no one would be able to tell him that it happened. I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m not pretty enough.”
“Bethie.” Mac took her hands in his. “Bethie, don’t say that. You are gorgeous. Guys ask me about you, like all the time.”
Bethie’s eyes went wide and then narrowed, the moment of believing Mac vanished in a split second. It would be just like him to take this opportunity to pull out a sarcastic comment. She rolled her eyes. “Right.”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Are you keeping a list of names?” She held out her hand waiting for him to place this list in her hand, as if he had it stashed in his pocket, waiting for just this moment to gift it to her. Her dark eyes locked to his, challenging him with her own stubborn streak. She sighed, “That’s what I thought.”
Mac scoffed and stood up. “Why must you always be like that? Believe what you want, Bethie.” He huffed again and then walked off to join the other three boys.
She couldn’t stay away from them long, watching them laugh and talk circles around one another. She shook off her stubborn frustration and smiled despite herself. Bethie made her way over to the group. Mac stopped to give her a thoughtful gaze. She smiled, and all was forgiven between them. “What are you lunatics plotting out now?” she interrupted.
Jay jumped up out of the cockpit of the kayak with more enthusiasm than Bethie had seen in a quite some time. More than he had for the drinking game just a half an hour before. “We’re planning an outing,” he declared.
“Oh, really?” Bethie could not stop herself from smiling and she looked from Jay to the other three. Three conspiratorial smirks reflecting back at her. “What exactly are they promising you to play in their competitive reindeer games, Jay?”
Jay looked back to them and six pairs of eyes suddenly looked up towards the stars. He glanced back at Bethie. “I’m not certain what games you are referring to, but they said a week out on the water with camping and beach and, well a lot of fun away from it all.” He was breathless as he bounced on his feet like a child waiting to open his birthday gifts. “Please, can we go? Please, Bethie say yes and come with us.” His hands encircled hers and those magical, mysterious green pools locked on her eyes, as he pouted out the fullness of his bottom lip. She didn’t have a chance to say no. “It’s a go, fellas,” he yelled, sweeping her up in a giant appreciative hug. She watched as he bounded back to them like an excited puppy. How could she say no, when he was so happy?
“Judah?” she called and waited for him to extract himself from the small group and join her.
He walked over, threading his fingers through his mussed up locks. “Yeah?”
“Did you talk him into this?”
Judah shook his head and put up his hands in defense. “I swear all I did was start to give him some pointers. It was Liam.”
Bethie narrowed her eyes and looked over Judah’s shoulder at her brother. “Liam?”
“I swear it.” Judah took her by her shoulders, his fingers massaged into her skin, and he bent his knees to get down to her eye level. “It will be good for him. Say you’ll go too.”
Bethie pursed her lips. Judah gazed at her dark eyes, reading them and then placed a quick peck to her mouth. He turned and faced the group. “She’s in.”
Bethie grabbed his arm and spun him back towards her. “You have to teach him everything so he will be safe. Promise me, Jude.”
Judah rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “I didn’t let you die your first time, did I?”
She tilted her head to the side and opened her mouth to protest.
“I promise, Beth.”
Judah was good to his word. For the next few months, between classes, weekends and finals, he and Jay were inseparable. If they weren’t together at the Surf and Sun, with Mac, they were on the water. Jay was so into this new adventure that when Judah wasn’t available, Bethie could find him with Liam. She was happy that her brother and Jay were finally bonding. Her brother had taken a long while to warm up to their squad’s newest addition, but these days he was more readily available to hang or lend a hand when it came to being around Jay.
After her final test, in her last class of the Freshman spring semester, Bethie went back to her dorm room to pack up her belongings. She labeled items to go into storage for the return in the autumn and those that would be packed up and brought back home for the summer. The trip would take place as soon as everyone arrived in New York. Liam, Bethie and Judah would head home first. Mac would finish up at the Surf and Sun, and he and Jay would follow after the weekend. Bethie passed Mac in the hallway, she was carrying her third trip of bags and boxes down to the vehicle she shared with her brother.
“Hey, Evans. Here let a real man help you with that.” He reached for a box. Bethie stopped and looked around as he continued down the hall. “What are you waiting for?” he called back over his shoulder.
“A real man.” Bethie pretend to block bright lights, holding her hand at her brow, turning her head from side to side to look up and down the hallway.
“Nice. I offer to help and you kick me in the balls. Sweet.” Mac set the box at the threshold of the stairway.
Bethie gave him a playful pout. “I’m sorry. Just kidding. Thank you, Mac.” She sailed by him with her arms full. “Did you help Liam too?”
“Nah, no need too, yet.”
Bethie stopped midway down the stairs. “What? What are you talking about? We are leaving in the morning. He can’t wait ’til the last minute. Why does he always have to throw a damned monkey wrench into things?”
Mac picked up the deposited box and skipped down past her. “Liam’s riding with me.”
Bethie raced down after Mac, trying to best him and shoved her belongings in the back of the opened hatch. She was breathless. “Why?” she squeaked out, and bent forward her hands on her hips as she drew in a breath.
“Because he likes me better?” shrugged Mac. “How the hell do I know? He asked me two days ago if I was cool with it, and I figured with the extra gear Judah is taking home, you could use the room. I’ll take mine and Jay’s gear and Liam’s stuff, and you and Judah can take yours, his and the new boats.”
“New boats?” It confused Bethie.
Mac simply nodded and thought nothing more of her surprise at the new arrangements. She returned to her room to finish packing and Mac went off to work his shift. Jay was sitting on her stripped bed, fingering the frayed tag of the bare mattress when she arrived. Bethie yelped and clutched her chest. “Gees, Jay. You nearly gave me a heart attack.” When her heart settled, she looked at him. His face was long and his eyes usual dancing green eyes were dark. Her need to finish packing dissolved in an instant. “Jay, what is it?”
He moved over to allow her room to come sit beside him. His hands, callused from rowing, slipped into her fingers. “What happens to us once the trip is over?”
Bethie squeezed his hands in hers. “What do you mean?” It confused her. Had she underestimated their relationship this whole year? “Nothing has, or will change.” She paused. “Unless you want it to,” her words came out in whispered comfort and hope.
Jay pulled her into his arms. He laid his cheek on her shoulder. “Meeting you, and everyone has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. I’m frightened it will all disappear. That it will all go away, as if it never was.”
Bethie pulled away to look at him. “Jay, nothing is going away. We will all be right back here in August, surfing, working, doing our usual beer and burrito nights on Thursdays. Nothing is going to change.” She leaned back in and held him close to her. Jay held her tight. Bethie drew back and cupped both sides of his face in her hands, searching the depth of his eyes. Without giving her spontaneous decision a second to dissipate, she kissed him, full on the mouth.
Jay’s body tensed, his fingers wrapped around her wrists and he pulled her hands away before he angled his body away from her, there on her empty dorm bed. “Why did you do that?” His green eye swam with confusion.
“I...I...” she stumbled over her thoughts. “I just wanted to prove it to you, that nothing was going to change between us, Jay.”
Jay got up slowly from the bed. He inched toward the door. He looked like a trapped animal. Bethie’s heart dropped to her feet. She went too far, too fast. “Bethie, I have to go,” he breathed out in a sigh, and disappeared down the hallway.
In the morning, Judah checked the cam straps that ran over the two new kayaks and under the rack on the roof. Mac, Liam and Jay stood at the back of the SUV, prepared to say goodbye for the next few days. Judah took each of their hands one by one and brought them in for a strong man hug and slap on the back. “Don’t be late, lads. The Rift waits for no man.”
Bethie cleared her throat. “So now I’m just your shuttle bunny?”
Mac, Liam, and Judah all went in, together, and embraced her. Jay stood outside their circle. “You know you’re one of the guys, Bethie.” Mac chucked his curled fingers under her chin.
“Great,” she sulked. Her dark eyes found Jay’s. “Aren’t you going to say to goodbye to me, Jay?”
He moved forward and took her hand in his. His fingers squeezed, and he leaned close to her ear. “Nothing’s changed,” he whispered and then pecked her cheek before he pulled away. “We will see you soon. Be safe.”