You look at me when I shout, “Jump” at you. Your eyes change colour. You turn around, away from us, and look at the water which is deep and green and wet with sun.
It’s not just my voice. Everyone is shouting it at you, the girl who’s scared of water. But you only turn around when Ralph punches me in the elbow and the word stains my tongue too. You turn. I can see your thumb scratching yellow nail varnish off your little finger, in a curled fist. You don’t look at me again, at any of us, before you jump in.
“Is this love then?” you say, as you hold my hand.
“Could be. How do we tell?”
“I think we’re just supposed to know.” You scratch your knee with your finger and take my hand with you.
“Maybe we should run away.”
“Somewhere we won’t know anyone. Scotland. Antarctica.”
“I don’t like the cold.” You frown and the shape of your face changes. This is the first thing I noticed about you when we arrived here. As we were setting up our tent and mum was shouting at dad and dad was shouting at mum, I watched you walk to the taps and back. The weight of the water changed your face so completely I almost didn’t recognise you, which made me want to know you so well that I would always recognise you.
“Okay then. The desert.”
You laugh and move your hands up my skin. “You’d burn. You’d look like a pig.” You kiss me, then bite my lip. “Anyway, how would we get there?”
“We could just jump in at the jetty and keep swimming.”
You shake your head. “I can’t.”
“Sure you can. We could swim until we found an island of our own.” I roll onto my front and grin at you.
You shake your head again. “I can’t swim. The water it -” You let go of my hands and put your palms over my eyes. “What can you see?”
“That’s what I see when I look into the lake. I have this feeling that if I swam in there, I would never come out. Not that I’d die. I’m not scared of drowning. Just that I’d stop being anything.” You take your hands away from my eyes. “Get it?”
Our families all have their tents lined up next to each other. Ralph’s is the biggest, this alien-like green thing with extra compartments inside. Dad says our tent is vintage. It’s square and it’s only got a piece of canvas he’s sewed along the middle that you can drop to split it in two. Between ours and Ralph’s there’s Elba’s (pink and yellow like a battenburg), Kurt’s (black and blue like a bruise) and Sonia’s (red and green like Christmas).
On the first evening, you walk past and I smile and you smile back.
“What you smiling at?” says Ralph to you. “Don’t you have any friends of your own?” You look away. He puts a marshmallow in his mouth and the sugar sticks to his lips.
I copy him. The sugar is hot on my tongue. I feel my face go pink with the heat.
Later that night I can’t sleep. I rustle out of my sleeping bag, unzip the tent and sit at the plastic table. You aren’t wearing shoes so I don’t hear you come up behind me. “The beach is perfect this time of night. You want to see?” I nod, and we follow your torch’s orb down to the edge of the lake. The moon is dead straight across like it’s cutting the bowl of water in two.
“I can’t imagine water that black is clear,” you say.
“Who are you here with?” I ask.
“My dad. He likes camping. My mum doesn’t. It’s one of the reasons they stopped speaking.” You draw a circle in the sand.
“Are they divorced?” I ask. I place my fist inside the circle.
“No.” You shake your head. “They just don’t talk to each other.”
“One of them must have done something pretty bad,” I say, thinking about my own parents.
You shrug. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
The question shocks me. I pick up a pebble and roll it around my palm, then throw it out to sea. We watch it sink. “I threw stones at someone,” I say. You look at me but I can’t tell what you are thinking. “I didn’t want to do it. Ralph can be very persuasive. He doesn’t like to hurt people alone.”
You nod. “I slit my wrists at a summer camp. My roommate found me, which I hadn’t even thought about. She was 11. So was I.”
In the moonlight you look older, more grown up. The bones in your face come forwards. “Why did you ask me that?” I say.
“I think you can learn a lot about a person from asking a question like that. I know a lot more about you. Do you know me yet?”
I kiss you. It’s not something I’ve done before, and I don’t realise I’m doing it until my lips are stuck to yours. You taste of sand and mint toothpaste. You laugh. “I actually wasn’t expecting that,” you say, and then you kiss me.
The first time I see them making fun of you, I hide. You’re in a pink swimming costume and shorts and you’re lying on your front drawing pictures into the sand. The ball hits you in the thigh, not hard. You roll lazily around and throw it back from land – where you are – to water – where they are, but the wind pulls it away from them.
“Again,” says Sonia, holding up her arms. “Throw it again.” You shake your head. The ball’s on the edge of the water now, brought back in by a wave.
Kurt’s closest. He swims towards you, drops to his knees, picks up the ball and turns. Then at the last moment he swoops back around, his arms like a basin, throwing water towards you. You don’t mean to, but you scream. They are quiet for a second, because screams, real belly-fear screams, are strange things to hear in the sun.
And then they begin to laugh. All four of them, teeth flashing in the light.
I watch you shrug to no one in particular, then curl back into the sand.
Later on, with your hair over my legs, I let you tell me about it and I never mention that I saw it too. You tell it differently to what I saw. When you tell it, you don’t scream. When you tell it they all looked mad with heat.
“Loads of people can’t swim,” I say, as I plait three strands of your hair together. “I bet there’s lots of really important people who can’t swim.”
“Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, Oprah.” You count them out on your fingers. “Anyway, everyone’s scared of something.”
“Not me.” I hold my arms out wide. “Not anything.”
“Heights? Fire? Spiders?” I shake my head. “Death? Climate change? Parents?” I stroke your ear. “Ralph.” You say it quietly and we both stay very still.
Eventually I say, “I’m not scared of Ralph.”
You hold my hand. You say, “You are. You’re scared to tell him about me. You’re scared to tell him that you’re – gay.” It’s the first time that word has hung between us.
“No I’m not,” I say, suddenly aware that I never want to lose you, that I never want this summer to end, this summer where we are close. “Can we talk about something else?”
“Okay,” you say. “Okay.”
The time they nearly catch us is one of the scariest days of my life. My heart beats double speed for days afterwards. You are naked and I’m just in bikini bottoms. Light is pouring through the gaps in the trees above us and our bodies are covered in shapes. You are circling your finger around my nipple and telling me about what you want to do when school is done. We’re both only 15 but we both agree we can’t stop thinking about it. We are ready to be filled up by the world like vats.
You hear them first. “Can you hear something?”
“No,” I say, because I am thinking about your finger and the circles it is making.
“Stop worrying. No one’s here but us,” I say, which is when I hear them too. I scramble up. “Hide, hide, hide,” I say. I dive into a bush but you are still struggling to push your legs into your swimming costume when they come round the corner. Ralph is group leader.
“I told you she was weird,” he says, to the rest of them as they all watch you put the swimming costume over your shoulders. “Didn’t I tell you? First she’s scared of water, now she’s getting naked in the woods.”
You don’t say anything. I stay more still than I have ever been, my arms across my bare chest, my face in the ground. I don’t look at you. I don’t watch.
You run. You’re faster than all of them. I know you are because you raced me along the beach one night and won by miles and on a good day I’m as fast as Ralph. I stay curled into myself in the bush for a long time after they have gone. I listen to them chase after you. I hear them lose you. I hear them pass not too far away in the direction of the jetty. I hear the wind pick up and die down. Then I brush the leaves off my legs and walk back to the tent.
Elba is the one who tells me you are crying. I’m sitting at the plastic table between our tents, picking at the corners until I bleed.
“Thought you guys were all at the jetty,” I say, when she comes and sits down beside me.
“We were, but then that weird girl ran by crying and the others wanted to find her. You know how Ralph likes to take the piss out of crying girls.” I nod. “But I didn’t feel like it today.”
I nod again. I know Elba is talking about you.
It takes me hours to find you, but you don’t look surprised when I do. You have been crying and your face is the colour of bruises. I sit down next to you but you don’t let me hold your hand. We sit like that and the sky changes and I watch your face change with it.
“I love you,” I say.
“You left me,” you say. We sit, quiet again.
I put my hand on your knee and you let me. “Sorry,” I say like I don’t mean it, even though I mean it more than I have ever meant anything.
Eventually you turn to me. You put both hands on my face like you are holding it up. Our foreheads are very close together and you look unlike I have ever seen you look. “Just promise me, promise me you’ll never do anything like that to me again.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” I say, and I kiss you everywhere I can see.
After the splash we all go very quiet like there isn’t anyone here at all. For a while all anyone can hear is the sound of you thrashing like that, before you sink.
We do try to save you, I swear that to you. Ralph and Sonia and Elba and Kurt and I, we all jump in. We swim down and down into the lake that has no bottom. Kurt is sick, his lungs heaving with seawater. Elba gets out next, sits on the jetty. She wraps a towel around herself and shivers in the heat. I think Sonia is next, although I don’t see her get out. But I know that for a moment it’s just Ralph and me. For a moment he looks into my eyes which are red. Then he puts his arm around my waist and drags me to the jetty as I bite his wrist in two.
Amelia is a queer writer and creative, whose work is particularly concerned with queer experience, love and endings. She was a member of the 2018-19 Roundhouse Poetry Collective with whom she has performed her poetry at Hay Festival, Last Word Festival, Brainchild Festival and UniSlam. She is currently writing her first novel which was shortlisted for Penguin’s WriteNow mentorship programme, and longlisted for Mslexia’s Novel Award. Her short story ‘Heat’ was published in the anthology ‘Transforming Being’.
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