This is the first part of a fiction serial, in 1005 words.
We used to lay on the grass by the bank, the sun in our faces. Most of the time, the river flowed by fast. But on really hot days it seemed reluctant to move, like liquid chocolate, or molasses.
The dragonflies hovered over the water, and every so often, we heard the plopping sound as a fish took a bug off the surface.
Close to our favourite spot, it wasn’t deep enough for swimming. But a short walk along the bank led to a place where there was enough water for a shallow dive, and a welcome swim during the hottest summers. Whenever we got out of school, or during the holidays, you would be sure to find us there as long as the sun was out.
There were always at least three of us, sometimes four or five. At weekends, we would be joined by the girls, Melanie and Donna. They were the only two girls around who didn’t hang out with the older guys, the ones who were in the sports teams, or drove their own cars. In the company of other girls, they stood out as different. But with us they were accepted, and special.
Small town life back then could be oppressive, if you let it. It could also be very dull, if you didn’t make your own amusement. There were only so many times you could go to the cafe for a milk shake, or to the old cinema that showed the same film all week.
And we walked a lot, or rode our bikes. My parents were not about to run me around in the car, and the same went for my friends. We were not poor, not like some. But we certainly were not in the same group who drove out to the country club, or holidayed at the coast. We knew who we were, and where we stood, and didn’t ask for or expect much more.
Those summers seemed to last forever, and the long hot walks to and from the river became a ritual that I welcomed. Nobody bothered us, and in that spot, we felt secure. At home.
I didn’t really notice it much then, but we were getting older. We stopped talking about what car we would like to own, or which job we would do when we we left college, and started to talk about girls. Long discussions about what we liked about girls, and which girls we liked best. Their hair, their legs, their chests, even what they wore. It was all rather pointless of course, as we only knew two girls well enough to ever think about dating, and many of those we really liked wouldn’t have looked in our direction as they walked past.
But we carried on talking about them, never tiring of the same subject, every day.
When it was cold or wet, we walked further along the bank, then up the lane to Old Man Henderson’s barn. It wasn’t really a barn anymore, as the doors had fallen off, and the roof leaked in places. Nothing was stored in there since he had given up farming, and he never came by to check on the place. It gave us some shelter, and somewhere to meet up when it wasn’t hot enough to lounge around on the grass.
The retired farmer could often be seen fishing. He would stand in the water in his big waders, the fly-rod flicking back and forth as he concentrated. It was our tradition to wave to him as we passed. But he never acknowledged us, or waved back. Old Man Henderson was an unknown quantity. If you asked anyone around town about him, they would tell you a different story. He had come back from war a changed man. Or he had never gone to war. He had lost his wife and son in an accident. Or he had never been married.
One time, I asked my parents about him, hoping for the definitive answer. My mother shrugged, and glanced at Dad. He turned away from his newspaper, and looked serious. “Clay, you keep away from Henderson. He’s nothing but trouble”. He wouldn’t say any more than that, so naturally my curiosity was piqued even more.
What I still think of as ‘the last summer’ was hotter than ever. That Sunday is fixed in my memory, yet my memory of it is blurred. It feels like I am looking at it through water. The water in the river perhaps. It wobbles, skips by fast, and then slows down. I don’t search for that memory, believe me. But I will never be able to shake it.
There were five of us that morning, stretched out on the bank, chewing long stems of grass, and drinking cokes that Freddie had brought along in a six-pack. They had got warm too quickly, but we didn’t care. The girls arrived close to midday. They took off their dresses to reveal swimming costumes underneath. Placing towels on the ground, they sat on them, talking about going swimming later.
Eddy had been bitten all over by bugs, and was scratching his arms and legs. Duke was sullen, as he usually was around the girls. Awkward, unsure of himself. Donna was smiling at Tommy. We all knew she liked him, just as we all knew that Mel liked me. But we hadn’t quite got to the stage where we would give up on our friends to go off with a girl.
Though we were very close to it.
The afternoon got to that point where it was too hot. Eddy said he was going home, and Tommy suggested to Donna that it was time for a swim. She wouldn’t go unless Mel went with them, but I wasn’t in the mood to get wet. Duke and Freddie said they were going, and I watched them walk off along the bank, shielding my eyes from the sunlight.
That was the day everything changed. For all of us.