Sea Legs by Stacy Brewster
The first night docked at the lake, my new cousin Julie and I drag our thin vinyl mattresses up to the roof. Our families have been renting houseboats on Lake Mead since I was a boy, but I've never gotten used to the heat here and I can't spend more than a few minutes in any of the muggy cabins. So after dinner, the two of us roll up our beach towels for pillows, lie back, and look up at the sky so bulging with stars that if we arch our backs and look back behind us, everything plays in reverse. The stars become the shimmering water, the carved black mesas an ominous, moonless night. And if I stay still long enough, somewhere in my toes I can feel the earth tilt and bulge on its axis. It feels like falling and I know if I stay this way too long, my nose will bleed. I risk passing out, or falling over, but I'm learning to ride this edge.
I feel guilty my little brother Charlie can't be up here with us, but mom won't let him. She's told me about every way Charlie can roll off and die up here, and doesn't believe me when I tell her it's safe. Then again, Charlie, at the age where every moment of silence must be filled with one of his stories, can be a pain.
I watch Julie, one of my new cousins by marriage. She is seventeen, a year older than me, and she already seems so much sturdier, less shy with me than when we first met last Christmas, the two of us buried in sweaters and glasses. Now, without making a sound, she squats at the edge of the houseboat roof, blowing cigarette smoke up at the stars. I watch with envy at the way she plays with the plastic wine cup, letting it swing in the grip between her thumb and forefinger, like she has done this so many times before, so naturally, smoking and drinking to think. I wonder how much longer it will be before I'll mimic these same movements, pretending I'm adult.
Julie has surpassed me in height and muscle tone since I last saw her. I still look like a kid in transition. I'm still growing and every bone, even the ones in my cheeks, are stretching to find their targets. Julie had a fight with her mother that neither of them have acknowledged, but it's clear the reason why. Julie has cut her hair pixie short and bleached it blonde. Her nails are all rainbow colors. She wears three silver necklaces with blank dogtags. And all the energy of a war brims within her when she keeps her mouth shut. The alcohol seems to have no effect. She doesn't waver the way I do after the first few sips. When she throws her legs over the railing to sit, I'm surprised to find that she looks like she could be any chiseled, confident boy on my swim team. She has no breasts to speak of and from behind, the moon casts just the right shadows in her lats and triceps. She is even wearing my clothes—board shorts and a tank top emblazoned with the name of my high school—borrowed because she said she packed the wrong ones. Her face turned away from me, I can imagine that she is Owen, from swim team, his spiked blond hair just two breaths away and no one around for miles.
"Did you hear that?" Julie whispers, breaking the spell. I gather my towel in my lap and sit next to her. Her voice is like a tickle in the air when she says it again: "Listen." But it is only the same soundtrack we've been listening to all night. The laughter of crickets. The swish of lake waves moving pebbles at the shore. Dad, below, with his grizzly snores.
"It's up there," she whispers, pointing to the canyon. Just hours ago, in the thick brightness of day, we could see the mesas clearly from the cove---a narrow beach ending at a row of thick sagebrush, a single footpath hacked up the center, and switchback trails up the sides of the canyon, which now hang around us like blackout curtains.
Finally, I hear it: the braying of a donkey. Violent exhalations that echo in the canyon, and on the water that surrounds us, as alive in my ears as if the animal were just below decks.
Julie pours the last of the wine in my cup. "Do you think it's happy or sad?"
"I think it has insomnia. Like it's having bad dreams," I say.
"Perhaps it's in love," Julie says.
"Or hurt," I say, and I think of the ways that I have explored these mesas before, the times I've gone up there with Charlie, just the two of us. I'm reminded of all the stories he's made up. The monsters that hide up there. The shape-shifters that turn into crows once you've spotted them. And all the types of guns and force field generators we must carry with us to protect us from them.
Julie and I listen to the donkey's one-sided conversation for a long time before it stops. We yawn in tandem, as though these animal sounds have carried a magic spell on the wind. Julie turns in and folds herself into her sleeping bag. I stay up only long enough to cover our tracks, cramming our plastic cups below other trash and hiding the cork. The bottle I hurl into the lake. I throw it pretty far, its splash muted and quaint, but I find myself afraid it won't sink right away, that it will bob its way back to us and knock at the boat until everyone's awake. So I lie like this, for what seems like forever, thinking about the donkey, about my brother, about Julie and her strong legs, her perfect hairless neck, about Owen's lips parting for mine, and I wait for the wine bottle. I listen for all the sounds that refuse to come.
In the morning, Charlie nudges me awake with his foot. He is standing between my makeshift bed and Julie's and I think at once how naked I am.
"Go away," I say, hardly seeing him and grabbing for my glasses.
I took off everything in the heat without realizing it, my shirt and trunks kicked to the bottom of my dad's old army sleeping bag, so wide and deep I can't find them with my foot. Thankfully the thing is still zipped shut. I can feel the awkward poke of my morning wood and think how I must clump the bag around me when I sit up.
"Did you guys do it?" Charlie whispers with a devilish grin. I can't help but laugh. Charlie has fallen in with a platoon of assholes at his new school, and these are the kinds of things they have taught each other to say.
"You don't even know what that is."
"Yes I do!"
"She's our cousin, dipshit."
"She's only our cousin by marriage," Charlie says, but when I look over at Julie, I can see what has tickled Charlie's senses—her naked back and arms stretched out from the tunnel of her sleeping bag, the shadows at the corner of her breasts visible from the way they're pushed underneath her.
"Well quit staring at her, you little perv. Mom doesn't want you up here anyway. Says you might accidentally, I don't know, trip and fall into the water." As I say this, I reach for his legs, but he backs up several steps toward the far end of the boat. For a second he seems to lose his balance and I think he's going to fall, that all the bad things in the world my mom has predicted will suddenly come true. But no. He is not off-balance. Not at all. He is poised and focused as a cowboy. He is reaching behind his back for the super-soaker tucked in his bright purple trunks and aiming it right toward us.
"Julie!" I yell, but it's too late. He soaks both of us with everything he's got. Streams and streams of lake water hit the sleeping bag I've pulled over my face, and I'm able to look over and see Julie trying to do the same, screaming my name and his and simultaneously trying to cover her chest with one arm. And when I think he's out of ammo, I peek out and get one more blast in the face. I try to stand with the bag around me, but I'm too late. He runs and jumps far, wide, with one beautiful arc and Olympic splash, swallowed by the lake. I am stunned. I can't even picture myself making such a blind leap.
I watch Charlie surface, already miles into his escape, but I don't stay frozen for long. I squeeze back into my shorts and my shirt and try to hardly take notice of Julie, holding the top of her wet sleeping bag over her bare chest as she feels around with her hand for her bra. Her eyes are bloodshot and her face scrunched against the heat. We look at each other like warriors before a battle, our eyes slits, and she runs one rough hand to brush the water from her head, back to front, so I can feel the spray on my face. We score each other with these looks for a beat and then she brays like the donkey, an imitation so pitch perfect, so loud, that it echoes in the cove and we both laugh.
In the seconds before I jump, I have no idea where our parents are and I don't care. If I were to stop and scan the depths of the lake, over the blinding shimmers of water that gleam like a thousand tiny mirrors, I would no doubt see them. Our mothers slowly spinning in their inner tubes, slurping daiquiris from thick straws. Our fathers further off, making wake in the speedboat to scout tonight's new anchor spot, another cove of catfish, far enough away that they can smoke in peace. They'll be sipping bourbon from a flask, arguing about football and the Lakers' chances.
I hold my breath as I jump, the lake warm and sucking me in with the force of my plunge. I push up from the soft sandy depths and slip quietly into Charlie's wake. I'm not interested in catching up as much as stalking him, the way I do sometimes in our pool back home. Like I'm the shark. He always pretends he hates it, screaming at me to stop. Paul! I'll tell! You can't pick on me! I'm little! But he loves it. I spike my hair into a fin and submerge half my head, commando style. Sometimes I do the Jaws music but he doesn't really know what it is.
I swim like this behind him as he makes a long arc around to the far side of the houseboat. I hope that Julie is there, waiting to surprise him. I've envisioned us cornering him in the shallows, too close for him to squirm free. I hope we both have this plan, although we haven't spoken a word to each other. But she isn't there and I don't see Charlie, either. Not until he comes up for air. Not until he makes it to the ladder and makes his way up easily, fist over fist. I'm treading water, waiting, wondering if he sees me all the way out here. I can see the look of victory in his eyes, his thin ribby chest heaving to catch his breath, the lake dripping from his dark curly hair. When he sees me, I can see the way his eyes count the strokes it will take me to get there, to get to him. I expect him to scream the way he does when I get close to him in our pool back home, and then jump in, so we can switch, so he will turn the tables and start chasing me. But he doesn't. He straightens up on his tiptoes. He jumps in place, as though to loosen his whole body, like he's ready to run again or slice open a monster. When he grips the ladder, I think he will swing himself into the lake, but he holds on tight and leans out. He yells, "You better tell her you do it with guys before you try and stick it in her. You better tell her you do it with guys, you stupid faggot!"
I feel as though I'm shrinking, as though I am so small that no one, not even Charlie, can possibly see the blood draining from my face. My palms shake as I circle eights in the water. Somewhere, like the volume knob slowly being cranked, I can hear a speedboat approaching. I can hear our moms kicking their way back to shore. I can hear the brittle shrill of their laughter. I think I am so small that I will not be seen, that I will get run over by the boat or tossed and drowned by my mother's legs, scissor kicking, scissor kicking, scissor kicking.
I swim to the ladder. Julie is there and helps me up. "They're coming back," is all she says.
"Where is he?"
Inside the cabins are empty. The bathroom is empty. There are other places to check, but somehow I know. Somehow I can feel that he is not there. We search the roof and loop the decks again in search of him, but I'm too dizzy for this and feel as if I might fall in the water. With the sun bearing down as it is, I'm sure I'll boil, too, before I drown slowly in the shallows. Then I catch something in my periphery and I see him. A whiff, then a cloud, Charlie's circle of dust as he makes his way up the canyon. I don't know why this relaxes me, but it does, as though this is a strategy I can work with, manipulate. As if maybe I can get to him and talk to him before everyone else does, before our parents do. Before they can pet him and run their worrying hands through his hair and ask him what's wrong and he spills it all out.
When I climb down off the boat to go after him, dad is there in the shallows. He is much larger than I am. Already tan from a season of softball, he is dark and hairy and leans over me like the ancient oak in our backyard at home. He smells of baby oil and the awful cigarillos he smokes with Uncle Jerry---Swisher Sweets.
"Where's Charlie going?" he says, his stiff arm across my chest. He pins my shoulders hard when he's angry and he is so close and heavy upon me I can smell his breath, the tang of his skin, the coconut, the ashy burn on his tongue.
"I don't know where he's going!"
"Well hurry up and get him," he says, knocking hard on my forehead. "We're firing up the skis and I need you to do flags."
"What about mom?"
"No, you, dipskull. Your mom's driving the houseboat. What's gotten into you? Go get your stinkin' brother," he says and it comes out in sing-song. Go GET your STEEENKin' BROther, like he is a cartoon Mexican, like he is the bandito in his favorite movie, cornering Bogart for his gold.
"Alright," is all I can say to him these days.
Julie helps me find my sneakers and we make our way up the canyon. There is no way up or down but this one, so I know we will catch him.
"Are you okay?" Julie asks as we begin the climb.
"I'm going to kill him."
"He's just a stupid kid. I heard what he said. He doesn't even know what any of that means."
I walk in silence for a long time, scanning the dust for Charlie's tracks, seeing if I have the words to say what I want to Julie, searching the burnt umber slopes of canyon scree, as though a word might appear there written in gravel, as though a sentence will jut out from the folds of the switchback like some timid gecko darting across the plain. But I hope I don't have to. I hope that I'll see Charlie's face, hidden in the bushes, with his stupid grin and floppy wet hair, excited that I've caught him, and that everything else will slip away.
I thought I'd been careful. I always locked my door, left the stereo loud, wadded Kleenex in the keyhole whenever Owen came over. Of course Charlie's room and my room share a bathroom. And I can almost see it now, coming to focus as I walk this hot trail. I see Charlie squatting down to his knobby knees by the shower, far enough from the door to my room that I won't see him. He's pressing his cheek against the tile, squishing his face as far as it will go, until he can see something. But it must take a while to fill in the blanks, to figure out why we are standing so close, why Owen and I remain glued to the same spot for so long.
"Where is he?" Julie asks.
"Hiding somewhere up there."
"You think he made it to the top?"
"He must have. Where else could he be?"
"I'm tired," Julie says, stabbing the ground with a stick as she hikes ahead of me. "This heat sucks the life out of me." She's doing that thing again. She is boy stomping. She is tricking my brain. I want to rush ahead and goose him with my finger until he---until Julie turns and stops.
"You know I'm a dyke, right? That my mom's fucking pissed that I cut off my hair because she knows I like girls."
She stares at me, waiting for me to answer in kind.
"Why do I feel like I'm the little kid and Charlie is the adult getting away with everything."
"Did you hear what I said?"
"So what," I say. "So you're a libation. I don't care."
"That's what I said. A lobster."
"Paul. Listen. It's all fun and new and exciting. It's one big inside joke and all secret and shit—“
"Until it's not," I say.
"Until it's not," she repeats and we're both looking out at the boats, our ant-sized parents scuttering around to clean up and unmoor the boats from the shore.
"Liberty," I whisper, leaning into Julie's ear until she laughs. "Laboratory, laaaaaabia."
"Liberace!" she howls and bends her wrist and flutters her eyelashes at me, then straightens up and looks at me sharply, nodding her head as if she knows all, sees all. She waits. She watches the blood drain from my face again, as though it is now doing this in cycles. "See?" she says, "You gotta work on that look."
Julie puts her hand at the center of my back, and she holds it there for a long time as we look out at the lake, the glare from its surface faded now in the morning haze so it looks rich and dark and deep. She rubs my back in little circles, the way my mom used to do. The way she still does with Charlie. I start to feel that shrinking sensation again, down into the silver curve of rocks where the lizards hide. If Charlie is here, if he comes toward us right now and he's running full speed, he will certainly crush me. Crush us both.
Then, without warning, the donkey brays again, a sound that feels within reach so close to the top of the mesa. I think I'm hearing things, but I look at Julie and she's heard it, too, and just as the sound had cast a spell and put us to sleep last night, hearing it again has broken it. Instinctively Julie runs toward the sound and I run, too, following her the rest of the way up the ridge. The last part is a steep cascade of rocks. We grab onto bushes, their roots bolted to the cliff, and for every few yards of scramble we slip and backtrack a little. But we don't stop. I can't imagine Charlie has made it this way. He is a tightly wound spring of a boy, but something about this stretch seems beyond him. Like it won't work for him. And now I'm worried. I stop and look back behind me, wondering if he really has hidden from us, if we've walked right past and missed him. Up ahead of me, Julie continues to the top, fisting boulders to make it the last few feet. I want to stop. I want to make my way back down, find Charlie, but Julie screams my name from above. She keeps screaming until I make it all the way up and I see it, too.
My mind plays tricks on me. I see the dark man standing there, his leathery skin, his pot belly oozing over his jeans. I see him leaning into a boulder as though he is just catching his breath before continuing to move it, the boulder that surely won't budge because it is impossibly large. There is a taste like pennies in the back of my throat, as if something has been rotting up here for days, maybe weeks. In the split second it takes me to take it all in, I think it is him, this stranger, or his breath. He is a shape-shifter, one of Charlie's made-up monsters, turned from carrion bird back to human form. He will look at us and will not need to attack, not at first, because his gaze is hypnotic and we will not be able to resist. This is his castle after all, his last outpost, and we are the invaders. Julie and I remain frozen, staring at the man, willing him to move, but I can't help but think of Charlie. Wherever he is, I want him safe, I hope that he has not made it up here. That he is nowhere near—.
"Charlie?" I say to no one in particular, and the man straightens up. He stretches his arms to the sky. I grow afraid, not being able to see what's on the other side of the boulder. What the shape-shifter must be keeping there. I want him to turn back to a bird, to fly away, so I can check, so I can make sure that Charlie is okay.
Julie pokes me in the ribs and points halfway down the canyon.
Like something out of a Warner Bros. cartoon, I see the line of Charlie's purple trunks streaking down the hill, my roadrunner brother meep meeping his way to the boats.
It is all I need, to see that he is safe. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the slow-witted man shifting his gaze at last to the two of us, but we don't stay long enough to ask any questions. We don't stay long enough to get hypnotized. We race, instinctively but clumsily, sliding our butts down the ridge, braving the hot rocks that sting our hands, the bramble that tears up our legs. On the trail again, Julie sprints so much faster and I feel old in her wake, my knees spiked with pain, my vision blurred in dust and haze.
At the last switchback, nearing the home stretch, Julie stops suddenly and I collide with her. We nearly fall over the edge of this last low cliff together, a collision that would have tumbled us into a pit of mud and brush. Only her strength and her sturdy legs keep us upright.
She breathes so hard she cannot speak. She has been unable to speak since we reached the top of the canyon and she points again to the mesa's jutting chin, across the canyon from us. A large boulder juts from the furthest point—a promontory, I think, like the bartizan of an ancient castle watching over the lake. Standing there is the tanned stranger. A few long threads of white, almost translucent hair stand upright in the breeze. My stomach lurches in my chest. Then, like one final spell in the air, the stranger tilts his dark eyes to the sky, opens his mouth, and fills the whole canyon, maybe the whole lake, with the sound of his donkey brays.
I leave Julie and sprint the rest of the way, ignoring dad and Uncle Jerry at the shore with the speedboat, ignoring Julie's mother sweeping the fire pit for any remnants of us. I wade in the shallows and climb into the houseboat, which is already alive, its engine warming up. The houseboat is unmoored and churning up its anchor chains. And here is mom coming toward me, down the hall, with so much energy that I expect her to strike or slap me. Instead she knocks hard on Charlie's door. "Open up. Paul's here and he wants to apologize!"
Mom tries the knob again, but the door doesn't budge. Instinctively, I get on my knees and press my cheek to the floor, scanning the small room with one eye. I see Charlie's filthy feet pointed toward me and feel instantly relieved.
"Hey bud, you okay? Don't be scared. How about tonight you sleep on the roof with us? Mom says it's all right. I'll make sure you don't fall off, okay? We need you up there, little man. You know all the constellations."
Mom nudges me with her foot to get my attention, then starts to kick harder, whispering so Charlie won't hear. "What the hell is going on with you? He was hysterical. He couldn't even tell me what happened to you." She tries to lift me off the floor so she can look, but I find I'm much stronger than her now, a magnet that can't be pulled up from its charge.
"Charlie, it's like this," I say, lips as close to the door as I can make them. "After it's dark, we take turns leaning our heads back over the railing. You watch the stars like that, upside down until you start to feel funny, because everything is spinning so hard it makes you dizzy."
Mom straightens up and lets go of me. The moment is frozen and it feels as though it will be frozen forever. The ghost of the stranger and his donkey sounds are never far away. I know somehow it will always be this day, on this houseboat, this sliver of dull light from my brother's cabin. It will be this moment, my bending down in this hallway, feeling alive and clear, as though we are both awakening from years of sleep. This is the adventure we've been waiting for and I will wait for the light to find its shadows—first his knees, Charlie's two knobby red knees poking through his purple trunks to find purchase on the floor, then his cheek, all dust and tears, pressed to the tile like mine, his one bloodshot eye, all-knowing, all-seeing, blinking back at me.