Among Friends

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The Summer Cabin

THE SUMMER CABIN

A blue station wagon rolled slowly up a dirt road through the woods several miles northeast from St. Albans, near the Canadian border. It was a long, low-slung vehicle with ample chrome in the grill, bumpers, and trim. Aerodynamic fins sprouted up from the front and rear fenders and the tires were white-walled.

The station wagon was wide enough that the six young people inside were sitting three across in the first and second row seats. The storage area at the rear was packed with their luggage.

At the wheel was an eighteen year old boy named Tom, a tall and athletic red-head. Next to him was his blond, willowy girlfriend Ashley and over to the far side of the bench-style seat was a second blond girl named Sharon. Ashley’s hair was straight and Sharon’s was wavy; Sharon was also more voluptuous than the other girl in front.

Directly behind Sharon was the petite brunette Birdie, so-called by her friends. The nickname came from the prominent nose between a pair of dark blue eyes. Next to Birdie was her boyfriend Toby. He was short and wiry with chestnut hair and thick glasses. Sitting to his left was Rick, a tall boy with curly blond hair; he was dating Sharon.

Birdie was the youngest as well as the smallest among them: she was seventeen years old while the others were all at least a few months past their eighteenth birthday. This was probably going to be the last in a series of triple dates that had started over the past semester at River Run Academy, a private boarding high school in Winooski. The sextet was on a post-graduate summer vacation, approaching a cabin owned by Tom’s family.

On the dashboard radio, Connie Francis was singing “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” when Tom parked the station wagon under a pine tree near the cabin. The doors swung open almost simultaneously and the teenagers emerged from them, chattering loudly in the warm and humid air. They were all wearing shorts, the boys in polo shirts, the girls in sleeveless blouses.

The boys emptied the luggage out from the station wagon’s rear gate while the girls ran ahead to the cabin door, Ashley having been given the key. The cabin was large, with three bedrooms containing two beds apiece; a kitchen with a propane stove and a thirty year old monitor top refrigerator; a living room with a sofa, a loveseat, and two armchairs in front of a fireplace; and a long, wooden dining table between the kitchen and living room.

The girls squealed with excitement, exploring the accommodations as the boys clumsily dropped the suitcases just inside the door by the kitchen sink. Birdie and Sharon claimed the largest bedroom for themselves; Toby and Rick would share one of the others; the only couple to have the same room would be Ashley and Tom.

Birdie, Toby, Sharon, Ashley, and Rick had all told their respective parents that this cabin trip would be chaperoned by Tom’s mother and father. All of them had lied. It wasn’t so hard to get away with that; with their kids in boarding school, none of the parental pairs knew one another socially. As for Tom’s parents, they were not exactly overprotective and their son had been accustomed to having his way long before enrolling at River Run Academy.

A second trip back to the station wagon by Toby and Rick brought in two cartons of groceries and a case of beer. Meanwhile the suitcases were taken to the respective bedrooms and the unpacking went on for about ten minutes. Then the three couples gathered in the living room to listen to the radio on the mantelpiece and sip beer.

Tom and Ashley occupied the sofa while Rick and Sharon took their place on the love seat. Birdie sat in Toby’s lap after he dropped into an armchair. Necking got underway before long and lasted another thirty minutes or so before Ashley spoke up and cajoled her friends into posing for photographs against the wall opposite the fireplace. She went to get her camera and the other couples reluctantly disengaged from their embraces.

Ashley snapped all twelve exposures on the roll of film in her camera, capturing individual images of Birdie, Toby, Rick, Sharon, and Tom; then Tom took a picture of Ashley. The remaining shots were taken of various “candid” poses in and outside the cabin that were actually staged at Ashley’s insistence.

As Ashley wound the film up for later print development, the noise from a honking car horn came in through the open kitchen window.

“Who’s that?” Rick asked.

“My cousin Graham,” Tom replied. “My folks made me promise to invite him.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Toby asked.

“I didn’t think he’d show,” Tom explained with a shrug.

The now-seven of them had a campground dinner of hotdogs cooked over a fire pit on sticks. There was also a bowl of potato chips to be passed around plus the rest of the beer to drink. With the sun up for another couple of hours after that, they moved from the fire pit to a volleyball net for a game.

Tom, Graham, and Ashley formed one team while Toby, Birdie, Rick and Sharon opposed them. It was three-on-three in a sense because Birdie was sitting on her boyfriend’s shoulders; Toby explained that they were playing as unit because everyone else was so much taller.

Graham was Tom’s cousin but they didn’t have a close family resemblance. While Graham was tall, Tom was four inches taller and outweighed Graham by more than twenty pounds. Graham hadn’t attended River Run Academy and was a twenty year old college boy on summer break from Middlebury. While he had met Tom’s friends, they didn’t know Graham well and none of them felt any warmth for the cousin.

Graham’s reputation got worse after Tom’s team took a 4-1 lead in the game. He spiked the ball over the net and hit Birdie in the face, knocking her back from Toby’s shoulders. The girl landed on the grassy ground and was quickly surrounded by her teammates. Tom cussed Graham out before following Ashley to the other side of the net where Toby was picking Birdie up in his arms.

Birdie was crying and Sharon joined Toby as he carried the traumatized girl back to the cabin. Tom went around the net to Graham and shoved him into a backwards stagger while Rick and Ashley scowled at the offender.

“You go in and apologize to Birdie,” Tom demanded.

“Give them a few minutes first,” Ashley said.

“I didn’t mean it,” Graham murmured, avoiding eye contact with anyone.

“You’re a clumsy meathead,” Tom told him. “If you busted her nose…”

“I don’t think that happened,” Rick said. “There would’ve been blood all over her face.”

“I… I have a bottle of Wild Turkey in my car,” Graham said, still looking away. “Maybe a sip of that might help her. Birdie.”

“We need more booze,” Rick said.

“Go get it,” Tom said. “You have your keys on you?”

“Yeah.”

“Then go around the cabin so Birdie doesn’t see you.”

As it happened Birdie refused the whiskey but accepted Graham’s apology without visible enthusiasm. The ball hadn’t disfigured her, merely causing her skin to sting for a while. The pain was alleviated by a cool, damp washcloth on her face. She cuddled with Toby on the loveseat for the rest of the evening while the other three boys drank up the bottle of whiskey as they played cards, poker for matchstick stakes. Sharon and Ashley sat on the sofa gossiping about other members of the graduating class who weren’t there.

After the card game, the party broke up. There was only one bathroom and it took a while for everyone to get a turn at the toilet and sink before bed. All but one, that is, with Graham passing out on the sofa before the bathroom was free to him. Tom took what was left of the whiskey bottle into his room. Ashley picked up a pair of tumblers to drink from.

Within an hour after the bedroom doors closed, one of them opened slowly, hinges squeaking, soft giggles coming from inside the room. Tip-toed steps across the planked floor followed, then another set of squeaking hinges opened. Indistinct whispers came out into the living room. The door closed slowly before a heavier tread came across the floor. One more hinge creak and a gently shutting door might have been heard by Graham from the sofa but he was sleeping far too heavily for that.

Then the second day of the cabin trip began after dawn several hours later.

“He can’t hold his liquor,” Tom was saying as he looked down at his cousin, still sleeping on the sofa while Sharon and Birdie were making biscuits in the kitchen.

Rick grinned and shook his head.

“Your gal can’t hold it, either,” he said. “Sharon couldn’t wake her up.”

“She tried?” Tom asked, frowning.

“Yeah, while you were in the can. She said Ashley just rolled over on the bed, wouldn’t answer.”

“Well, just let ’em both sleep it off. Try and drag them along on the hike and they’d just bitch about their headaches or whatever.”

Graham was still sleeping when it was time to leave for the morning hike. Tom led his friends out the back door but before they reached the start of the trail, a few yards past the volleyball net, he said he’d forgotten his Boy Scout compass.

“Hang on,” he said. “Be right back.”

The others stood around for nearly ten minutes until Tom came jogging back up from the cabin.

“You find it?” Rick asked.

Tom held the compass up and smiled.

“I told Ashley where we’re going,” he said.

“She’s awake?” Sharon asked.

“Yeah but she said she’s too sick to join us.”

“Maybe I should go back and see if I can take care of her,” Sharon suggested.

“No, no,” Tom said, gently pushing the girl towards the trail head. “I already asked her about that and she said she doesn’t want any of you to miss out. Let’s go!”

After nearly an hour, the group reached a clearing that Tom had promised as a resting place. There were more than enough fallen tree trunks for everyone to use for benches. The walk had been a slow, uphill trudge on a narrow trail through thick woods. Although shaded by the leafy canopy overhead, the humidity had taxed their energy and Toby picked Birdie up in his arms yet again for the last quarter mile before the clearing.

“You wouldn’t do this if I didn’t weigh 92 pounds,” Birdie had said as she rode in her boyfriend’s arms. “Maybe I should get fat and give you a real workout.”

Sharon whispered to Rick that she’d never seen Toby date anything but petite girls before Birdie transferred in for their senior year.

“Makes him feel like a real man,” Rick whispered back.

Tom and Rick started the canteens to be passed around and Sharon lit a cigarette.

“Thanks for inviting us out here,” Birdie said to Tom after sipping some water.

“You guys are my best friends from school so why not?”

“Beats saying goodbye at graduation exercises,” Rick said. “Say goodbye and maybe never see each other again.”

“You really think we might not see each other?” Sharon asked.

“I didn’t mean you and me,” Rick said. “We’re going to the same college. But who knows with the rest of us?”

“Hey, c’mon,” Tom said. “We can agree to meet again winter break someplace.”

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Toby said.

“Sure, let’s not,” Tom replied. “Toby only worries about the big things, like what those coloreds are going through down South.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Toby reacted. “Any white person with a conscience ought to care about Civil Rights. All those African countries getting independence and Negroes in Georgia can’t drink from the same water fountains we can.”

“Jeez, Africa?” Tom sneered. “You’re the one who reads newspapers, Toby. What about all that killing in the Congo? Rednecks down in Georgia or Alabama see that and they won’t let the coloreds vote. Those Africans ought to show they can rule themselves. Besides, you can’t expect those dumb whites in America to accept coloreds getting any power.”

“So how long are the Negroes supposed to wait?” Toby asked. “You know how long they’ve waited already?”

Birdie stood up and walked away from the rest of them. She stayed in the clearing but walked to the edge of the woods and came to a stop by a stump.

Toby came along behind her in a brisk pace short of a run. He put his hands on Birdie’s shoulders and turned her around to face him. She looked up into Toby’s face, tears rolling down her face.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I… I don’t like all that politics talk.”

“You don’t?”

“I feel like I can’t do anything about it.”

“We can always do stuff even before we’re old enough to vote.”

Birdie closed her eyes and Toby put his arms around her.

“No, that’s not really it,” she said. “Rick’s right. We’re all going to scatter after this trip. Maybe Rick and Sharon are gonna be freshmen together but you’re going to Cornell and I’ll be at UVM. You hear me? Just a state university. I’m not like the rest of you.”

“Oh, sweetheart…”

“It’s true. I was just fine going to public school in Burlington. I should’ve finished out there, really.”

“But you wouldn’t have met me.”

“But I’ll have to say goodbye to you.”

“Didn’t you have a good senior year at River Run?”

“Sure, I did. This was all my brother’s idea. Send his baby sister to boarding school, right? Maybe he wanted to turn me into something I’m not. Something I couldn’t ever be, you know? But, yeah, I had fun pretending. I let you guys give me a private school nickname.”

“You don’t like being called Birdie?”

“I like it. I really do. When Ashley started calling me that, I felt like I belonged at River Run. Maybe I didn’t have the money or class like the rest of you but I had something or you guys would’ve ignored me just like those scholarship kids.”

“I don’t care about class!” Toby exclaimed.

Birdie looked up at him and smiled.

“I know. But anyway, Birdie’s going away. I won’t use that name ever again. It’s just something that went with being at boarding school. It’s back to my real life in September with my real name.”

“What, you want me to call you Natalie from now on?”

“No. It’s not September yet.”

It was almost noon by the time the five hikers emerged from the woods, Birdie holding hands with Toby. The trail ended at the road that led to the cabin so they were returning to the front of the structure instead of the back.

“Hey, Graham’s car’s gone,” Rick observed.

“Maybe he went on a beer run,” Tom suggested.

“Made himself useful?” Toby asked.

“I want to check on Ashley,” Sharon said, marching swiftly ahead of the rest of the group.

She reached the front door just as Tom was passing the station wagon, the rest close behind him. Seconds after Sharon went inside, they heard a piercing scream.

Everyone broke into a run to the cabin door.

They rushed in through the kitchen and living room, heading towards the bedroom where Ashley had been sleeping. Tom and Rick stood in the doorway, blocking the view for Toby and Birdie. What the taller pair could see was Sharon standing there in shock, her wide eyes staring down at Ashley. The girl was lying partly on the floor, face up, her legs still on the bed. A brown leather belt was around her neck, pulled lethally tight through the belt buckle.

Tom dove down and looked into his girlfriend’s face, into her open yet unseeing eyes. He put his arms around her.

Rick went to hold his own girlfriend, allowing the smaller couple to see what had happened. Birdie emitted a short shriek and clutched Toby’s right arm.

“She’s dead!” Tom shouted. “She’s dead!”

“Oh, God,” Rick gasped.

“I was gonna marry her!” Tom wailed. “I had a ring picked out! I’ll kill him! Kill him!”

“Who, Graham?” Toby asked.

“Yes, Graham, you dumb-ass!” Tom yelled, glaring at him. “It’s his belt!”

“Tom, try to think,” Rick said. “Where’d you leave the keys to the station wagon?”

“What? Uh, that drawer under the kitchen counter. Top drawer.”

“Someone’s gotta get the cops,” Rick said.

“We’ll go,” Toby said. “Me and Birdie. We can call from that bait shop, I think.”

“You know the plate number for Graham’s car?” Rick asked.

“Shit, no,” Tom muttered, pulling Ashley’s body all the way up onto the bed. “Tell the cops it’s a black Plymouth Savoy. A black Savoy driven by a goddamn skinny maniac killer. Tell ’em shoot to kill!”

“Sure, sure,” Toby said with a nod; he turned away and pulled Birdie along with him.

Tom reached for the belt to take it off Ashley’s neck.

“Better not,” Rick told him softly. “You know: fingerprints.”

Tom nodded and stood up slowly.

“I picked out a ring,” he repeated. “Four karats.”

“Tom, I… I want to get Sharon out of this room, okay?”

“Oh, hell yes. Get her a drink.”

Rick pushed Sharon along towards the kitchen. He heard the station wagon’s engine start; the cabin door was still wide open.

Graham was in St. Albans at a drugstore, turning in the roll of film he’d found on the kitchen counter for developing. The store clerk gave him the option of picking up the photo prints in about a week or having them mailed to his home address.

“A week?” Graham asked.

“Yes. We don’t have a photo lab on the premises, sir. The roll of film is shipped out to the national lab in Philadelphia, gets developed there, and the prints are shipped out along with the negatives either back here or to wherever you tell us for an extra fee. Also, you pay in advance if you’re not collecting the order here.”

“What if there’s a problem with the prints?”

“You can mail them back for a refund.”

“Yeah, I’ll need them sent to my address. My friends and I are leaving before the pictures could make it back here.”

Graham filled out the return address label for his parents’ home in Vergennes where he was still receiving mail. Then he paid the developing fee with cash and watched the clerk seal the roll of film in an envelope.

A moment later, Graham got into his car and started driving back out of town. He hoped there would be some sexy poses of those girls when he got his hands on the prints. They’d all been wearing shorts, showing off their nice, shapely legs. All three of them! The brunette was flat-chested but those blonds sure filled out their blouses, especially Sharon. Graham figured he could always throw away pictures of the boys.

He turned onto the road leading back to the cabin. There were two bags of groceries and a case of beer in the trunk.

A State Police cruiser pulled Graham over within two miles of the cabin. He was taken into custody and transported back to the St. Albans barracks.

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