St. Catherine University, North Carolina, USA
A cold fog dances over the black water, tickling at the branches and teasing the shore. In between the pitch-wash of the summer clouds, the moon glances down, its gaze carving through the mist, casting uneven shadows on the open river. Moths and water-flies follow its lead, braving the rapids just to bask in a momentary glare. Then the next cloud passes, the stream hazes over again, and the insects fall silent, waiting for the next glow to return to lead their next dance.
Four canoes lay beached in a small cove, just out of reach of the dark eddy. In the shade of the gnarled forest, their hard-plastic hulls look like cockroaches, fit with a mess of abandoned paddles as uneven legs. Each shell is neatly stamped with a simple tent logo, chipped and peeling, with the words “property of Camp Vermillion” underneath it. That same stamp adorns a handful of tents up the shore, gathered around the embers of an evening campfire.
A girl unzips one of the tent flaps and pokes her head out. With one hand, she eases the zipper open another six inches, and with the other she pulls herself out onto the tarp. The camp has an earthy smell to it, laced with a bitter edge – the musk of a burnt prairie mixed with the more mild air of an algae bloom. She blinks it off and hauls her duffel bag out. Then, with as much care as she took on her way out, she closes the flap, leaving the soft snores of her tent-mates behind.
The trail down towards the water is a scramble. Pebbles bounce and scratch over exposed roots as the girl slips down to the shore. She leans on a canoe long enough to ease her windbreaker over her pajama shirt. The water bubbles a greeting. She dips down and splashes her face, rinsing the last of the sleep from her eyes.
She never meant to be there. At that camp. On that canoe trip. Sleeping out in the dirt – out with a troupe of boys. She had fully intended to spend the summer at her friend’s place, playing Mario Kart and dodging her parents. Instead she ended up staring out at passing fields on her way to a washed up camp, where her mother became lifeguard certified and her father “had a religious experience”. At least she still didn’t have to see either of them after they left her at the dinghy remains of the base camp.
“Maybe this trip will help you clear your head,” they said. “It’ll help you come to your senses.”
The girl grips the edge of the canoe on the end of the stack. It scrapes down across the rocks and towards the shore, sending a cloud of dust and bugs scattering towards the water. The thud echoes across the river, and she grits her teeth. None of the tents stir, so she pushes the boat closer towards the tide.
Neither the canoeing nor the camp were all that bad. Sure, the days were long, but there’s something peaceful about the pull of the current and the slow crawl of the forest. The problem was just the boys. They were rough, and they were loud. More than anything, they knew just what to say to hurt a person, even if they didn’t know exactly who was going to take it personally.
The water catches the bow of the canoe, lifting it and offering to pull it out the rest of the way. The girl hooks it with her leg and throws her bag in.
“Where are you going?”
The girl whips around, stumbles back over the gunwale, before steadying out. There’s a boy behind her (Liam, at least that’s what she thinks his name is). He blinks a couple of times as he shuffles closer to her. A flashlight glares down at her from one hand, obscuring the expression on his face.
“Turn that off!” She says. The canoe bumps back against her leg. She reaches to steady it, but the river pulls back, urging its bow towards the main current. Liam lunges after it, splashing into the shallows. Murk laps at his ankles, then at his knees. He catches hold of the rim, and yanks it back towards the girl.
“[DEADNAME], what the fuck were you thinking?” Liam’s fully awake now.
“Come on, keep it down,” the girl holds a finger to her lips.
Maybe stealing a canoe in the middle of the night wasn’t the best plan. Actually getting it into the water was a question from the start, but it wasn’t so bad when compared to the thought of trying to steer a whole boat alone. Then again, it meant no more camp and no more boys.
Liam hefts the pack out of the bow and back onto the rocks. He wrings out the legs of his sweatpants, intermittently grunting and shooting daggers at the girl. (He’s such a fucking counselor’s pet.)
“What’s your deal? Just go back to your tent.” She says.
“What’s my deal? [DEADNAME], You’re the one trying to steal a fucking boat!” Liam eases himself to the ground as he tries to wrestle his drenched socks off. There’s one wet slap and then another.
“Why are you even up?” The girl stoops down next to him just long enough to grab her bag. He grabs her wrist.
“That’s really not an answer.”
Liam sighs deeper than he had before, “I couldn’t sleep. My sleeping bag has a hole in the foot and I got cold.” He looks out towards the river. Lightning bugs glow on the water, highlighting the subtle swirl of the eddy.
“What, it’s true! That’s it [DEADNAME]. At least I’m not out here to steal a goddamn boat,” he flicks a pebble into the shallows. The silhouettes of minnows flit off for darker waters.
“You need to stop calling me that.”
“Oh.” He blinks, “what did you want me to call you?”
The name was what had thrown off her parents the most. When she came out to them, she asked their input – what would they have named her had she been born a girl? Her mother left the room and her father yelled. “You’re denying reality,” he tried, “how can you throw away what we gave you?”
“Marissa. Mara? I don’t know. Just not that,” Liam watches the girl stand back up and toss her pack back into the boat. She reaches over him for a paddle and a life jacket. With one more glare, she vaults over the gunwale and into the seat at the stern.
“For fucks sake,” Liam pitches after her, half leaping, half tripping into the back of the boat. The canoe rocks, and they both hold their breath as they glide out of the eddy and into the current.
The moon glows brighter from outside of the canopy, as it slices the midnight mist to ribbons. Out here the air is clear, free of the smell of charcoal and ash.
“Seriously?” The girl lifts her paddle clear of the water, letting the tide steer the boat downstream, “just let me go.”
“It’s a little late for that!”
She scoffs, spitting into the water, “nobody would have noticed if you hadn’t come with.”
In all fairness, Liam was the loudest of the campers. He was a leader, a wannabe counselor, and most apparently of all, a complete suck up – the cheeriest singer of the thirtieth line of “ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall” and that kid that always advocated to put the rain fly up, even on the driest of nights.
“Yeah, I think they’d notice a missing canoe in the morning.”
“So you’re acknowledging that they wouldn’t miss me?”
Liam rolls his eyes more enthusiastically than he spouts shitty lyrics, “that isn’t what I said!”
The landscape blurs past as the canoe begins to pick up speed.
“I get why you want to run away, I really do,” the boy says. He grits his teeth against the cold of the fog as they round a bend.
“But you actually want to be here.”
“I didn’t always. Last year I was in a girls cabin, which… ummm, wasn’t really…it for me,” He says, gesturing to his outfit – a bright Star Wars t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. The girl rolls her eyes.
He runs a hand along the surface of the water. The moon ripples off the wake, sending a glittering mist up and through the breeze, “I didn’t let my parents win. Instead of trying to let the camp ‘fix me,’ I treated it as a moment to prove them wrong. To be myself and still make friends anyway, even though I didn’t completely fit in.”
The girl shakes her head, “I can’t go back to my parents.”
“I didn’t say that you should, but how far did you think you’d get in a stolen canoe?”
“Without any food?”
A log floats past the canoe, its surface covered in moss. It bobs beneath the surface and sounds against the hull, a weighty thunk, followed by a long, sharp scrape. The girl’s eyes go wide as it passes.
“You-,” she pauses, “-ugh, fine. But no promises that I won’t steal food and try again tomorrow night.”
She dips the paddle into the water and scoops backwards, swinging the boat sideways. It’s an upstream battle back towards the camp. They push in sync, carving back into the cove.
“And for the record, I think that Marissa is a beautiful name.”
The girl’s cheeks flush, “thanks,” she climbs into the shallows, dragging the bow of the canoe back onto the rocks. “That, umm, that means a lot.”
Liam loops her bag onto his back, depositing the paddles back onto the shore. They flip the canoe and line its faded stamp up with the others.
“Could you, uhh, keep this whole thing on the down low?”
“Keep what on the down low?” Liam’s lips light up with a mischievous grin. The girl punches him on the arm.
“Thank you, and g’night Liam.”
They walk the trail together, back up the scramble and towards their own, separate tents. The moon blinks through the leaves, and then disappears back behind a cloud, shrouding the river and the forest alike in that cold, dark fog.