By K.R. Byggdin
You only agree to go on the grad camping trip because the boy asks you to. “Come on, it won’t be any fun without you,” he says, even though you’d rather clean out every mouldering grain bin on your uncle’s farm than spend a weekend sitting on stumps and swatting at mosquitos with all of your drunken small-town classmates. Still, the look in his eye as he pleads with you is enough to make you cave. After all, your hangout days are numbered. In the fall you’re off to UVic; he’ll be lugging furnaces down the sprawling guts of McMansions in Sage Creek and Stonewall for his dad’s company.
You’re excited for the drive up to Hecla—two hours and eighteen minutes of alone time. Unfortunately, the boy lets a couple of girls tag along without telling you. “Carpooling’s good for global warming,” he says with a sheepish shrug when he pulls into the driveway and sees your face. You jam your FM transmitter into his car adapter and blast Mother Mother’s Touch Up and O My Heart on your MP3 player to keep conversation at a minimum.
The first thing everyone does upon reaching the island is head to Einarrson’s General Store for a booze run. Old Man Einarrson has a beard as long and white as your Opa Wiens, but he holds none of your Menno relatives’ views on youthful indiscretions and excess. The storekeeper snaps his suspenders and belly laughs when you try to hand him your driver’s licence. You suppose your choice of drinks—a four pack of orange Bacardi Breezers and some premixed Kahlua Mudslides—already identify you as eighteen.
The first noise complaint comes before you’ve even unpacked your tent. A conservation officer roars up to the group camping site in a massive SUV, pulling a toothpick out from between his teeth to punctuate his words. “You kids. Better keep. It down. This is a. Family campground. Three strikes and. You’re. Out.” You and the boy snicker at this overly macho display of authority. The officer’s no more than twenty-five. The fuzzy caterpillar clinging to his quivering lip hardly qualifies as a mustache.
It’s immediately apparent you’ve overprepared. No one else has a kerosene stove or a full set of enamelware dishes or an extra tarp in case of rain. Most of the guys are planning to pop their tailgates and sleep in their trucks. The captain of the volleyball team whittles snapped poplar branches into wiener sticks for the massive bonfire at the centre of camp.
Still, there is the comforting scent of the boy—Axe and sweat and John Player Standard—filling the tent as the two of you roll out your sleeping bags. Sensing your unease, he reminds you “this weekend’s going to be money” and he’s “stoked you came” before hooking you with his hairy arm and pulling you in for an affectionate noogie.
The girls from the car swing by your tent, inviting the boy down to the beach. You tell him to go on without you, but he grabs you by the wrist and you let yourself get pulled along. It’s not so bad tossing around a volleyball and floating in Lake Winnipeg with a cool drink in hand. Someone suggests a chicken fight, and you and the boy dutifully sink to your knees so the two girls can wriggle up onto your shoulders and wrestle until one of them makes a shrieking splash. Several times the boy’s body makes contact with yours. You press forward into his bony frame, laughing and choking on lake water, savouring all your future bruises.
As the day wears on, the spring coiled inside you begins to go slack. Everyone’s in a good mood, joking and goofing off. The old cliques don’t seem to hold so much sway out in the woods. It’s not often in your young lives you’ve been able to escape the watchful eyes of church elders and nosy neighbours en masse.
Someone rolls down the windows on their parents’ Pontiac Montana and blares “Airplanes.” You all stumble to your feet and sing along to the chorus with Hayley Williams like you’re in the splintering stands of your hometown arena and they’re playing the national anthem. The conservation officer arrives just as the song ends, and you jeer along with your classmates as he shouts “Strike! Two!” and squeals off. “This is the first day of the rest of our lives!” the volleyball captain shouts back, and everyone roars and takes another shot.
As the evening wears on, even the bonfire can’t keep the chill out of the air. You’re glad to be wearing the boy’s favourite hoodie. He left it at your place the last time he spent a night. Your mother set up an air mattress on the floor of your room, but like always the two of you waited for the hallway light to go out before he crawled in beside you. You stayed up until the sky yawned pink, talking Halo hacks, obscure LotR trivia, whether the Lost finale was genius or trash. Anything and everything. No one in the world understands you like he does. No one gets him like you.
Two Breezers, a Mudslide, and half a menthol into the night, you turn to the girl on your left and let slip a nerdy factoid you’ve been dying to share. “Did you know they named this island after a volcano in Iceland? That’s where the people who settled this place are from. Hecla means cloak. It’s a reference to the clouds that often drape around the mountain’s shoulders, obscuring the view. Isn’t that, like, so poetic?”
She squints in your direction for a moment, as if trying to decide whether you are truly there. “God you’re gay,” she finally pronounces before turning back to her friends. The bonfire is suddenly too hot on your face.
It’s been a while since you’ve seen the boy. You get up and do a loop around the site but he’s nowhere to be found. The ground is littered with empties. Someone lurches back from the firepit, splashing your shoes with vomit as they heave onto the trampled grass. They grimace and rinse their mouth out with another swig of Mike’s Hard.
“Has anyone seen Kendall?” a girl from the beach and the boy’s backseat is asking. Her question is taken up by the crowd like a chant. “Ken-dall! Ken-dall! Ken-dall!” The sweet liquor and haze of weed in the air switches your stomach to spin cycle, but you realize you’re probably the least drunk person here. “I can help look for her,” you say, and retrieve a small flashlight from your tent.
Eventually you find Kendall and the boy as well. Or rather, you find their clothes, crumpled like beer cans in a messy trail leading to the water’s edge. They’re passed out in each other’s arms, the lake lapping gently at their toes. The moon is full, tracing the edges of the boy’s perfect form with a gleaming finger.
Kendall’s friend rushes forward with her sand-coated shirt, anxious to cover the girl’s nakedness. You do not look in their direction but reach down and shake the boy’s shoulder until his eyelids flutter open. “Heyyy,” he croaks. You quickly sit him up so he doesn’t choke on his own sick when his face flushes green. He’s shivering and all his clothes are damp, so you take off the hoodie and wrap him in it, the heat of your body dissipating from the fabric like a sigh.
An angry star screams over the treeline behind you and explodes into crimson light. It’s not hard to guess where the fireworks are coming from. The air is thick with sulfur and shouting when the two of you reach the camp site. The conservation officer is back, and this time he’s brought friends. Two of them tackle the volleyball captain, who stops throwing punches and starts hollering about how his uncle’s a lawyer and “a big fucking deal” at his firm.
The boy gives a pitiful groan and leans into you. “Can you drive?” he asks. You finger the licence in your pocket and nod. You’ve never been more sober in your life. You ease the boy into the passenger seat of his Corolla and pack everything up on your own. Kendall has disappeared again with her friend and this time you don’t go looking for them. You nestle the sleeping bags beside each other in the trunk, letting go of any fantasies you had about what might happen this weekend. Pulling out of the park onto the highway, you flick on your high beams and watch the ditches for deer. You don’t speak to each other the whole drive back. Or the rest of the summer.
Ten years later, when someone reaches out on Facebook about a high school reunion, you delete the message and block them, swallowing down the Bacardi-brand bile that rises in your throat.
K.R. Byggdin grew up on the Prairies and lives in Kjipuktuk (Halifax) where they recently completed studies in English and Creative Writing at Dalhousie University. Their writing has appeared in anthologies and journals across Canada, the UK, and New Zealand and their debut novel Wonder World is now available from Enfield & Wizenty.