Landon was trying to coax Vaughan off the cliff again.
“I’m not doing it.” Vaughan’s face was tinged green beneath his sunburn as he assessed the thirty-foot overhang we stood on, perched high above Georgian Bay. “Not a chance.”
“Don’t be a baby,” Landon said. He mock-punched Vaughan’s bony arm. “You chickened out last year. Ang really wants to see it, don’t ya, Angelica?” He grinned at me, jabbing at the tender skin between my ribs.
Irritation flared inside me. “If he doesn’t want to do it, don’t make him. You pull this every year. It’s getting old.”
Landon’s smile faded. “Someone’s on their period. Jesus.” He turned back to Vaughan. “Fine. Do what you want. You both suck.” He took off, catapulting himself off the ledge. Vaughan yelped, scampering down the cliff after him.
I shook my head at the spectacular level of stupidity I’d been tolerating the last two weeks, since the three of our families arrived at the campground. Something felt different this year. Most years I coveted these few precious weeks in July, the days stained black with campfire smoke, white sand crusting my scalp. Perhaps it was the misgivings that came with being fourteen, or maybe the boys were just being exceptionally irritating this year, but the trip seemed to be dripping by at an agonizing pace.
To occupy myself, I’d taken up a silent observation of the groups of older teens milling around the cliff. In particular, I found myself eyeing the group of older boys sitting at the very top of the escarpment, where the rock jut out before falling in as the ledge met the lake. Suicide Rock, Landon had nicknamed it. Too timid a jump over the swollen belly of the rock and you were kaput. That didn’t stop the boys from egging each other on. If anything, they seemed almost giddy, frenzied with adrenaline.
There was something mesmerizing in watching them. They were maybe seventeen, hardly distinguishable from one another, all flailing, noodly limbs and jagged camaraderie masked as insults. I found something thrilling in glimpsing the tufts of dark hair crawling out from beneath their arms, bodies of bone and sinew and uneven tan. “Don’t be a fucking pussy!” one boy crowed, shoving his friend forward. The boy let out a primal wail.
One of them, a boy with sun-streaked hair and a shiny scar etched across his shoulder, glanced my way, and whispered something in the ear of the boy beside him. My face reddened and I looked away, something jumping in the pit of my stomach. I’d decided I liked it, being noticed by older boys. By any boys, really. Landon and Vaughan sure didn’t notice me; I wouldn’t have wanted them to, anyway. They were different, any shiny novelty worn away by the years of familiarity. There wasn’t anything exciting about Landon’s train track teeth and soft stomach, Vaughan’s fraught, pale, freckled complexion. The other boys seemed a different breed, a lifetime older than my two best friends.
“Can’t I stay back this year?” I’d begged my mother. “I don’t want to spend my summer with Dad. Maggie said I could stay with her.”
“Nope, nice try, young lady,” my mother said. “Your father only gets to see you a few times a year, and I definitely don’t want you hanging around with eighteen-year-olds for the summer. Lord knows you’re already too mature for your age.”
Maggie was my cousin from Wilmer, a few towns over from mine. My mother wasn’t such a fan; she loved to criticize my Aunt Pat when she caught wind of Maggie’s new boyfriend or latest tattoo, or that she threw another party when my aunt and uncle were out of town. “My sister treats that girl like her best friend instead of her child. Who the hell lets their own daughter pierce their belly button at fifteen? No one should be looking at your belly button at fifteen. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
I, on the other hand, was fascinated. My cousin was an enigma to me, the key to womanhood lying somewhere within her box-blonde hair, her long, even fingernails painted a glossy teal, the way her voice adopted a giggly, flirtatious quality the moment a boy approached. My mother kept a big box of Maggie’s hand-me-downs hidden in her closet, ones I knew I’d never get my hands on so long as I was living at home. Most mornings when she left for work, I’d paw through the form-fitting dresses and tube tops, gawk at the shorts that hardly covered more than a few inches of flesh.
Before heading up to Georgian Bay that year, Maggie dug out a bathing suit of hers from the previous summer. It was a striking, vicious red, just a few squares of fabric that tied at the sides. “Here,” she said, tilting her head as she appraised me. “Try this on. It doesn’t fit me, and it’d look super cute on you.”
I glanced at my cousin’s muscular frame, at the skin pulled taut across her sternum. The fact we were related felt like a cruel joke from the universe. She was tall, tan, blonde; more Californian Pilates instructor than daughter of a dairy farmer in Central Ontario. I, on the other hand, felt half invisible next to her. I hardly scraped five-foot-one with an almost translucent pallor, highlighting angry stretch marks that had blossomed as the planes of my body began to soften.
I went into the bathroom and slid the suit on, the strings pressing deep into the flesh of my hips and backside like fingers pressed into clay. I’d never worn anything racier than a tankini, and I fought the urge to fold my arms across my chest as I stared at the grooves it created, at the shadowy roundness of my breasts.
When I emerged, Maggie hummed in approval. “Damn, you look hot.” I blushed, pushing my shoulders back.
“That suit looks like trash on me, but girl, you look smokin’ in it. Enhances all the right parts.” She squinted. “God, you’re so lucky you don’t have pancake tits like me. Waited years for them to grow, but here I am, still flat as an eight-year-old.” She sighed. “Oh well. Guess I’ll just live vicariously through you.”
I wore the suit the first day on the campground. I emerged from the trailer, fighting the gnawing urge to change back into the flowery one-piece I’d brought as extra. Dad’s eyebrows shot up when he saw me. I held my breath, waiting to be accosted by the usual does your mother know about this? Instead, he let out a short “Ah,” retreating back to his book. He hadn’t said a word about it since.
“Those your brothers down there?” I jumped at the voice behind me.
I whipped my head around and found myself staring up at the face of the boy with the scar. He stared at me in amusement, hands resting lazily against his flanks. My mouth filled with lead. “Oh. No, not really. Not technically, anyway.”
He laughed. “Okay.” Crouching down to eye level, he stuck out a hand. His skin seemed to radiate warmth. “Jeremy, by the way.”
I floundered a moment, shaking his hand. “Angelica.”
“Angelica, huh? Never met anyone called Angelica. You should come hang out, I was just about to head down to the beach.”
I swallowed, sweat pooling in the creases of my palms. “Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Just… give me one sec, okay?”
I dashed to the cliff’s edge, where Landon and Vaughan were circling idly at the bottom. “I’m going to hang out with Jeremy, okay?”
“Who’s Jeremy?” Landon hollered. Vaughan said something unintelligible, giggling like a schoolgirl.
I glanced up at Jeremy’s figure above me, just a silhouette in the low afternoon sun, then back down at the boys. “Never mind. I’ll see you guys later, okay? If my dad asks, just tell him I’m going to miss dinner.”
As Jeremy and I made our way down the rock face, I felt his eyes on me, his gaze probing.
“So…what’s the deal with those two, anyway? You their babysitter or something?”
I blinked, tempted to say yes. But I suddenly thought of Vaughan, his face creased with laughter, the gaping black hole where his tenacious right incisor used to be, the one he’d finally lost during last year’s trip. How I’d laughed with him as we hunted for the missing tooth. “No,” I admitted.
“Oh.” His expression shifted. “So that would make you…?”
The words felt sour, stuck to my tongue. “Fourteen.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Fourteen? Shit. I guessed at least seventeen.”
Another violent bout of blushing. “I get that a lot.”
Like a gymnast, he swung himself down to the sand, holding out a hand to help me clamber down. “Well, take it as a compliment, okay?”
The afternoon drifted slowly into dusk, the sky hazy, the sunset smudging the horizon with a deep, burning orange. We spent hours drifting around the water, attempting somersaults and crooked handstands. I relished the warmth of his hands against my legs as he adjusted my form, praying I hadn’t missed a spot shaving. I happily let him show me how to front crawl like I hadn’t taken years of swimming lessons. Some part of him seemed to take pleasure in my inexperience, and I was more than obliging to play ignorant if it meant he’d touch me again.
The air became cooler, and I escaped to the beach as the chill set in. I watched Jeremy from afar, some secret part of me aching to put my mouth on the grooves that dug deep into his arms, his chest, his stomach, trace each line and canyon until they were memorized. Instead, I just sat with my knees hugged against my chest, scratching absentmindedly at a mosquito bite.
He emerged a few moments later, flopping down beside me. “God, that was good.” His eyes fell closed. “So, fourteen, huh?” I noticed he liked that, making questions out of bland, salient statements. It was safe, I supposed, no risk of an uninvited answer.
“Almost fifteen.” I didn’t bother to mention the six months that remained.
“Man, when I was your age, I would’ve been so intimidated being around a girl like you.” He glanced at me, raising an eyebrow. “You’re pretty chill for someone so young.”
The word chill seemed to encompass a number of things, but whatever they were, I wanted to be all of them. “Thanks.”
His hand brushed my thigh, and my skin hummed to life. “Angelica.” His voice was low, questioning.
I turned my head and suddenly he was there, every part I’d lusted after. Before I could think, he was kissing me. I waited for the fireworks, for the desperate, hungry passion to seize me, but all I could feel was suffocated. He was everywhere, holding my senses hostage.
When I felt his thumb brush the string of my swimsuit bottoms, it was like being inundated with air after holding my breath. I shot away from him, my head spinning.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine, I just…I need to find my friends, I… ” I stood up, stumbling a little, and he held out his hand to steady me.
“Did I do something?”
“No. No, you didn’t do anything.” My body quivered like the aftermath of an electric shock. “I have to go.”
I didn’t wait, just ran towards the campsites, the air stoking the fire in my lungs. I ran and I didn’t stop, not until I could see it again, the billowing smoke, the outline of Landon and Vaughan with sticks in hand. I ran until I could see my shadow meet theirs.
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