I'm sweating hard as I angrily pedal my bike up the hill. No matter how far I get from home, mom's screams stay with me.
Critical. Critical. Critical. She was shrieking the word. And his name.
I pedal faster.
In the distance, the whir of a lawnmower breaks the silence, and in a backyard somewhere, the squeal of children interrupts the late summer evening heat. I even pick up a bit of radio playing through someone's open window. I can't make out the words. I imagine it's about the war. Everything is.
After Mom's screams came Dad's booming, thunderous voice. Then their conversation, shrill, machine gun rounds of words and phrases.
I need to find silence.
I crest the hill just as the sun starts to leak out of the sky, ink spreading across the horizon, dripping like blood as the color leaches away.
Eventually, I make it to Grantley Park, the aging playground just off Elm, with the same metal jungle gyms and battered swingsets from when I was little.
I climb to the top of the curly slide and sit on the dimpled platform, legs crossed, forehead resting against the bars, which are cool even though the day topped out at ninety degrees. My breaths grow slow and deep.
"Maggie?" Charlie's voice slices through the air as he slowly climbs the jungle gym stairs.
"Hey." I try to sound normal. "Thanks for coming."
"Of course. What's up?" he asks. In the total darkness, his tentative smile gleams, reminding me of our much younger years of flashlight tag in the woods.
"There was a call," I manage. A shudder rolls through me.
"Is he . . ." Charlie's voice is barely audible.
"I don't know how bad it is. Something exploded near him, I guess. He's not." I swallow. "Dead. At least not yet."
I let out a breath, and Charlie does too.
"But it's critical. That's the word mom kept yelling. Critical." I close my eyes, remembering how she said it over and over like the word was a hammer hitting everything in the house.
"Damn," Charlie says. He chews on his thumbnail and stares out over the tree line that edges the park. "Will they fly him home?"
"If they can, I guess? I'm not sure. It depends . . ."
"But there's hope, right?"
I shrug. "Maybe?"
"Are you okay?"
"As okay as I can be, I guess. I mean. Shit. My brother." My voice cracks, and I clear my throat. "At least I got out of the house and away from my parents."
"Did you just walk out?" He cringes. Charlie knows my family well.
Charlie must notice the tremor in my voice because his eyes narrow. "Was it your dad again? Did he do something — "
"Nothing new. The stormy look, the attitude. I didn't trust myself not to blurt out something I shouldn't. Plus, Mom's screaming . . . God."
Charlie's jaw tightens. "You shouldn't let them treat you like that."
"I know," I say quietly. "But today wasn't the day to stand up to him."
What I don't say but wish I could: As bad as my dad is, he's not totally wrong. I'm not the best daughter. And definitely not the best sister.
My stomach knots again like it's eating itself. Or maybe that's just guilt.
"I have an idea," Charlie says, swinging his arms over the metal bars. He's all limbs, Charlie, long arms and legs, skinny too. Even his face is long and thin, this perfect oval, hair shaggy around his ears. He also has the cutest face in all of Jamestown High's senior class, So what if he's my best friend? Appreciating his cuteness isn't a crime. Okay, fine, there may or may not be a tiny part of me that's sensing a bit of a not-just-friends vibe from him lately and liking it.
I groan. "Not another of your crazy ideas."
"Just listen." He slides to sit beside me, his legs folded in front of him, knees up, the ways boys with long legs tend to bend themselves, like awkward grasshoppers. "Let's get out of here. I mean for the weekend. Come on, we've both been itching to go camping anyway. You could get away. It'll be fun."
I give him a look.
"Okay, not fun, obviously. Sorry. Jesus, that was insensitive."
A weekend in the woods would be the perfect escape.
"You don't have to do that," I say. "And anyway, I can't."
"Yes, I do. Think about it. We'll leave and send a message once we're out of town. They won't be able to stop you then."
"It would kill my mom if I left now. What's happened to my brother . . .is happening . . ."
"Yeah, but you're going through stuff, too. Anyway, just think about it."
I manage a small smile. "It does sound nice. But no. As a matter of fact, I better get home."
Charlie sighs. "At least let me drive you. Come on, throw your bike in my trunk."
"I can ride," I say.
He gives me his one-eyebrow-up look.
"You're too good to me," I say.
The smell of the Mexican food Mom had been making when the call came still hangs in the air. I hear my parents' voices in the family room, and I creep toward the stairs and the sanctuary of my room.
"Margaret?" Mom's voice, stronger than I expected, calls out. With a sigh, I turn toward it.
"Hey," I say from the doorway. "Sorry. Everything okay now?"
I cringe at my stupid question. Of course, everything isn't okay.
My dad gives me a dark look. The bit of hair left on his head is disheveled, standing in tufts that point in all directions. "Leaving your family in a time of need. That's rich, Margaret. Typical."
"Carl," Mom says quietly.
"No, it's true," Dad says. "Maggie never supported Brian. Why start now?"
I take a step back, steeling myself.
"Carl!" Mom says. "This isn't the time or-"
"Your brother's been half blown up, Maggie. He may not survive," Dad says. "He knows the meaning of sacrifice. But you're probably thinking, 'I told you so,' right?"
"What? No!" I take another step back.
"I'm sorry, honey," Mom says, starting to cry, "to drop the news on you like this. Please forgive Daddy. He's upset."
Tears stream down my cheeks. "Like I'm not? Holy shit – is Brian going to be okay?"
"Watch your language!" Dad roars, standing. I duck and flinch.
Mom rises quickly and stands between us, red-rimmed eyes darting. She puts a hand on Dad's shoulder and steers him back toward his recliner.
"He's in the hospital," she says in a soft voice. "We'll hopefully know more within a few days."
"Oh my God," I say again. "This is crazy."
"Not crazy!" Dad says. Mom's hand is still on his shoulder. "Sacrifice," he says. "Honor. He's got guts and pride in his country, but that's not good enough for you."
I ignore him, shoving my trembling hands in my back pockets. "Are you going there?" I ask Mom. "Where is he?"
"We'll see," Mom says. "He's critical right now," her voice catches. "We want to see him as soon as we can, but his location is not secure, and we're not allowed. If they stabilize him and move him, then of course. Right away."
"We should go now," Dad grumbles. Mom shoots a worried look over her shoulder.
Dad leans forward and looks at me. "Don't pretend to care now, Maggie. We know you don't accept Brian's service. And guess what? He knows it, too."
His words are like a slap. I stumble into the hall and dash upstairs to my room, ignoring Mom's pleas to stay.
How dare he? I am so sick of Dad's Mr. F-ing Patriot crap. He never got it. It's not that I don't support Brian. Of course, I do. I love my brother. That's why I want him here, and safe and part of our lives, our family. But Dad doesn't understand that. And Brian certainly didn't care about it either. He chose to go, and now look what happened. He could die! And Dad wants me to feel proud? I'm not proud. I am pissed off that Brian has made this choice, and I am mad as hell that Dad thinks he can treat me this way. Like it's my fault this happened.
A small voice nags at my brain, wondering if Dad's right. Does Brian think I don't support him? Does my brother know how much I care?
God, I feel like I'm suffocating.
I pick up my phone.
Let's go. I text Charlie. They'll be at church by 11. Pick me up then.
I wake at 10:30 but stay in bed until I feel the garage door rumble closed beneath my room. I wait another few minutes to be sure my parents are gone. Dressing quickly, I pull the bag I packed last night from under my bed and drop it in the hall, grabbing a few toiletries and my good sneakers. I'm on my way back downstairs when I pass Brian's closed door. I duck inside.
I slip into my brother's room. Mom changes the sheets and vacuums regularly, so it doesn't have that Brian smell that it had when he lived here. No sweaty sports clothes, no lake towels, and bathing suits. It smells like no one lives here now. At his dresser, I run my hands along the freshly polished wood – more of mom's handiwork, no doubt. There's very little on the smooth oak top – a few baseball trophies, a few Car and Driver magazines. My reflection looks back at me from Brian's mirror, pale skin, and tired eyes. Behind me, sunlight filters through the faded blue curtains, turning the whole room into something nostalgic, something that feels like a present-day memory. I don't want to think of Brian as a memory.
I run a hand along the made bed, thinking about how often I hear Mom crying in here when she thinks I'm sleeping.
I finger the graduation tassel and touch the family picture at the lake that's pinned to his bulletin board. I must have been 5, which would make Brian 10. I remember thinking he was so old at the time. I think that was the summer he taught me to swim.
Don't be scared, he said as he held my five-year-old self belly-down on the water's surface. I won't let anything happen to you. I'm right here. I'll be right here.
I stare at the picture for a few long moments. Brian was always so brave. Strong. I bet he was a good soldier.
"Maggie?" Charlie calls from downstairs
"Oh, hi," I call. "I didn't hear you come in. I'm coming. Hang on."
My feet whisper across Brian's worn-in green carpet as I silently slip from his room, closing the door behind me.
I leave a note on the kitchen counter and cringe as I imagine my parents reading it.
"Ready?" Charlie asks.
"Ready." I follow him out to the car and plop into the front seat like a sack of flour. I fold into myself, knees up, head down.
And we leave.
The sun glints through bouncing clouds in that weird kaleidoscope way that makes everything look like it's magic-kissed. The road rushes out underneath us, suddenly just this big wide ribbon, ebbing and flowing and turning with Charlie's car.
Fields of August wildflowers burst on either side of the dusty highway, the trees behind them stretching up into the sky, tall and proud like they're puffing their chests out. They go on and on.
Up ahead, a pickup truck sits in a small lot, silver trailer parked to the side. Hand-painted signs lean against it, standing at angles like they're tired and can barely stand. Hot dogs. Fresh corn. Fresh strawberries. Charlie slows down.
"Lunch?" He motions to the sign. I'm unsure how much food I can fit around the pit anchored in my stomach, but I nod in agreement. Even with the air being tinged with the magic of leaving home, the truth of my situation has burrowed into me like a disease.
Sun scorches across us like a white-hot blanket and burns my scalp through my hair while Charlie buys our lunch.
Leaning up against the car's rear, we stretch our calves and eat. The hot dogs are awful, my Converse are dusty, and my skin feels coated with grime.
"So, these are pretty gross," Charlie holds up his hot dog and laughs. "I'm mean, really horrible."
If ketchup can possibly be adorable, the smear on his chin is doing a good job. I wait, memorizing the way he squints down at me, his handful of freckles impossibly darkening before my eyes.
"No kidding." I toss the rest of mine in a nearby garbage can and open a bag of Cheetos. I hand him a napkin. "Ketchup," I say, gesturing to his chin.
"Do you remember that party," Charlie starts as he wipes his chin.
"Ha! Are you talking about your 10th birthday? When your dad had that new grill and scorched the hot dogs?"
Charlie laughs. "I was mortified. They were like sticks of charcoal in buns. At ten, it was pretty much the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to me."
I laugh. "And your mom was all 'extra ketchup, everyone!'"
"My mom did the grilling after that day until I learned and took over." Charlie laughs.
"But these may actually be worse." I nod to the hot dog truck. "You should tell your dad."
We're still laughing as we make our way back to the car. My phone buzzes on the console. Crap.
WHERE ARE YOU???? Mom writes.
I'm sorry. I had to get out of there. I won't be gone long.
After the weekend. I'm with Charlie.
COME HOME NOW!
Sorry Mom. Please let me know any updates on Brian.
I shake as I type.
IS THIS BECAUSE OF DAD? YOU KNOW HE CAN'T HELP THE WAY HE ACTS.
"Stop standing up for him!" I yell in the quiet car. Charlie looks over at me.
"Sorry, I say. My mom." I wave my phone.
Sorry, Mom. This is what I need to do. I am safe. I will be home in a few days. Please give me any updates. Love you. Goodbye.
I turn off my phone and throw it into my bag.
"Uh. Want to talk about it?"
"Nope." I say. I laugh sarcastically. "She'll probably kill me when I get home. But I'm sick of her standing up for my dad. I'm sick of them both."
Charlie turns the radio down. "Any update on Bri?"
I think about what my dad said last night. How Brian knows I don't support him.
"No," I answer. "And I feel like absolute shit. I wish I could see him. Tell him I love him . . ." My voice catches.
"Come on, Bri knows how you feel."
I shrug. "That's not what my Dad said."
"He said Brian thinks I don't support him. Maybe he's right."
"That's bullshit. Brian knows you love him. And he loves you. You guys have always been tight."
I bite back the lump in my throat.
"The night before he left," I whisper. "He came into my room. I blew him off, Charlie. God. What if that was the last conversation I'll ever have with him?"
"Maggie . . ."
"I'm serious. The night before he left. I was listening to music and painting my nails. I didn't even look up at him, Charlie! I was mad at him. I was. I didn't want him to leave us. I was mad that he was choosing to put himself in danger. And yeah, I don't believe in war or violence, and yeah, that makes me a pariah in my family. Some bleeding-heart idiot, as my dad so often says. But damn it, why did he have to go? And why didn't I take that time to actually talk to him?"
"Maggie, come on."
"Come on what?"
"This is how it's gonna be? When I'm leaving?"
Like Brian leaving was my fault. I sighed again, tears stinging my eyes. I focused only on my fingernails as I painted them pale purple.
"Just go," I said. "You're totally boring me."
I waited until I heard his big feet clomping down the stairs, and then I reached over to turn the music up again. Annoying tears streamed down my face. I wanted to be angry, not sad. I wanted to fight, not cry. I wanted him to stay. Guitar riffs bounced around my room and echoed in the empty hole in my chest.
"My God, Charlie. What if I never talk to him again?"
Charlie stops at a stop sign and puts the car in park. We're in the middle of nowhere, not a single other car around. I stare stubbornly out my window.
"I'm an awful person," I whisper.
"Hey," he says, turning toward me. He takes my hands in his and tugs them until I look at him. "I would feel the same way. Scared is normal. But don't blame yourself. Brian loves you, and of course, he knows how you feel. He's a smart guy. Don't listen to the crap your dad says to try to hurt you. It's not true."
Charlie gives me an awkward hug over the console.
"That last morning," I say into his shoulder, so ashamed I'm glad my face is hidden. "When he was leaving, I didn't even eat breakfast with them. Mom made this huge meal, and I stayed in the shower so long on purpose to avoid them. I refused to drive with them to drop him off. Look at the chances I wasted! I could have had breakfast with my brother. Could have driven with them to see him off." I pull away from Charlie and flop against my seat. My tears are fast and furious now.
"Maggie." Charlie reaches over and brushes his fingers on my arm. "Come on, don't beat yourself up like this."
Instead of sitting at the table with them, I grabbed a bagel and headed out to the porch.
I ate it in big bites, so fast I got hiccups which I swallowed with the tears I couldn't let fall. Slipping my sunglasses over my eyes, I stared across the street, watching birds sitting on telephone wires. Wishing I could fly away.
Before I knew it, everyone was outside. Mom. Dad. Brian.
Everything was in slow motion. Dad walking to the car, Mom slowly trudging down the stairs like a garden slug.
"I love you," Brian said into my hair. I didn't know when we had started hugging. The sun shone across everything like a net, like it held us all together. A freeze-framed scene, a tableau. I held him tight like my life depended on it.
"Please don't go." My words were strangled, and Brian pulled back, giving me a sad smile and peck on the cheek.
And then it all sped up, so fast those moments, like even the sun and clouds raced across the sky. Brian was gone, and my arms were an empty shell. He was in the backseat, they were in reverse, and then I was watching the Honda speed down the street before I sank down to the front step.
Why didn't I tell him I loved him back? Why were my last words, 'Don't go?' God, I'm such an idiot!"
Charlie's eyes soften. "Maggie, you have to stop doing this to yourself."
"Do you really think he knows?" I say quietly. I stare into Charlie's eyes, looking for the answers I want. Need.
"I know he knows," Charlie says.
We make it to camp a little while later, at a town outside of Eastborough. We're not that far from home, but it feels like another universe under the towering oaks and evergreens. Our campsite is small, but the tent is roomy enough for the two of us, all our stuff, and even has room to spare. After we set up, Charlie explores the woods, gathering sticks and branches and piling them next to the tent. I hike a short way to a lake and sit watching the water while I think about my brother. The idea of Brian being mad at me or thinking I don't support him tugs at my heart and brain repeatedly, the cycle of thoughts leaving me breathless. I don't know how long I stay there, but when dusk starts to turn the lake's surface the color of wet denim, I head back to camp.
Charlie makes a fire and fans it with a piece of cardboard to get it going. I turn my phone back on, hoping for a positive update on Brian. I have a bunch of texts from mom about when I'm coming home. I scroll through them. But there's no update on Brian.
Charlie opens a beer. "Sure you don't want one?"
"Nah, I'm good. Where did you even get that?" I push my sleeves to my shoulders. It's like dessert noon heat by these flames.
"My sister," he says. "Bought me a case. Not that we'll drink it all, but hey, as long as the wildlife doesn't know we're underage, we won't get in any trouble."
I laugh, but it's hollow.
"You alright?" Charlie taps the toe of his shoe against mine.
I shrug. "Is it worth it?"
"What, the beer?"
I force a laugh. "No. I mean Brian. This sacrifice they always talk about. I don't get it. What if he's not okay? Is it worth it?"
"For some people, it is," Charlie says after a pause. "We all have different things that make us tick, you know? But I think maybe, right now, don't think about the big sacrifice. Let's think about how awesome Bri is. How brave. And how he's going to be okay."
"Yeah, but –"
Charlie puts a finger against my lips, and I nod. I can pretend. I can hope.
He lets his fingers trail across my cheek and into my hair. He holds eye contact until his hand falls back to his lap. His touch is nice. Really nice. I want to take his hand, but I don't.
I zone out to the flames dancing, my thoughts jumbled. Beside me, Charlie pokes the fire.
"Think positive," he says.
"What if, though?" The thoughts that have been plaguing me since yesterday rise up like monsters again. "What if he's not okay? What if things I've said or done added to whatever he's going through?"
"Mags — "
"Dad always says I fight for the wrong things."
"Oh please, what does your dad know?"
I bite my lip. "Okay, fine. But what if all this time I could've been a better sister?"
"Who says you needed to be better? What could you have done differently anyway?"
"I don't know. The whole world feels like it's falling to shit. What even matters? If my brother . . ." I take a deep, shaky breath. Charlie wraps his hand around mine and squeezes.
"Hey," he says quietly.
I shake my head and look at my hand in his, feeling comfort pulse from him like it's a physical thing he's giving me.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I sound crazy. I feel crazy. Sometimes everything feels so big, so massive, that I can't take it, can't hold it all. Then other times, it all just feels so pointless. Insubstantial and thin, like tissue paper."
"Tissue paper?" Charlie smiles.
"Yeah," I say. "I know, I'm barely making sense."
"Or," he says, nudging me. "What if it's just really toilet paper? Just mopping up everyone's shit?"
I laugh. "Oh my God, Charlie."
"Ah," he says, squeezing my hand again. "A smile. A real one."
"Thank you," I say. "For knowing what I needed and bringing me here. And for listening to my crazy talk. And for somehow making me feel a little better."
"Not crazy," he says.
Warmth spreads through me as Charlie laces his fingers through mine. For just a single moment, with the dark trees standing guard along our camp, and the fire throwing shadows on the ground, I feel like maybe he's right. Maybe things will be okay.
Later, he lies on top of his sleeping bag. I watch his shadow profile. Eyelash blink. Lips part. Intake of breath.
"Thank you, Charlie. Again."
"Of course," he says, eyes closing.
He's so close, but I don't back away, even with barely any space between us. I don't squirm or feel like the space is closing in. I just go with it.
Lately, even with the way Charlie seems to touch me more than he used to, a hand on my back or arm when we're hanging out, the way his eyes hold mine a beat longer than they used to, I've still wondered if it's all been wishful thinking on my part, but today, tonight, it feels like maybe I was right. Like maybe there's something different between us.
After a minute of debate, I rest my forehead, just barely, against his shoulder. He turns toward me slightly. He slips an arm around me, and I curl against his side. Neither of us says a word. Our breaths mingle, doing this slow dance thing. They're canyon-like, those breaths, deep, deep bowls. I am lulled by them, curling up on their floor. Eventually, they overflow with sleep.
I dream about where Brian is sleeping that night.
In the morning, the tent is hot and sweaty, and I'm alone. I twist, peeling my legs away from the nylon fabric of the unzipped sleeping bag we shared as a blanket last night. I stretch and crack my neck while summer sounds creep through the tent's fabric, along with Charlie's whistling. I smile, stepping into a patch of hot sun, shielding my eyes. Charlie squats next to the fire, balancing a metal coffee pot over the flames. Behind him, the oaks reach for the clouds, and the sun trickles down to the forest floor.
"Morning," he says, sounding the same way he always does, no sign of weirdness in the light of day despite the steadily growing vibes between us in the last twenty-four hours.
I balance on the log beside the fire and rub the sleep from my eyes. A map lies open on the ground, a pen resting on top to keep it from blowing away.
"What's this?" I yawn, stretching the map across my lap, trying to find where we are. I look from the map to the trees beyond our campsite, but I can't make the connection. All around us, lush green woods stretch and sit and hunker down, just like they've been doing for ages. Charlie scoots back onto the log, the coffee pot between our feet. From behind us, he pulls two tin mugs from our supplies which he fills with the steaming liquid comfort and adds lots of sugar. Once we have our mugs in hand, he leans across me.
"We're here," he says, pointing to a pine green blob on the map. "I'd love to hike up this way today," his finger trails against the page, which still lies across my thighs. There's barely anything between us, and I squirm beneath his touch, the flush I felt in the tent last night creeping through me again. "There's something I want to show you."
"Any news from home?" He squints up at me.
"Nope. Nothing on Bri. Just a few angry voicemails from Dad. And my phone's almost dead."
"Do you want to head home today?" he asks, sipping his coffee. "Or hike and camp another day?"
"Another day. At least. But can it be later? Can we relax here for a while?"
Charlie grins and gulps down the rest of his coffee. "Of course."
I spend most of the morning reading on a blanket while Charlie explores the woods around our camp. We eat a late lunch of fruit and beef jerky before we decide to pack up our supplies. Once Charlie has everything strapped to his back, with me carrying just my small pack of clothes and our canteens, we decide to head out.
I watch Charlie's feet, trying to drop mine exactly where his land. The ground is uneven and rocky, but we move swiftly and carefully. And it's liberating, being away from and up above the world. I think about nothing but my next step. We hike for hours, stopping now and then for water or snacks.
Near the top of the ridge, Charlie stops ahead of me, one hand wrapped around a skinny tree trunk. He takes a long drink of water and smiles down at me. "You coming?"
Up ahead is what is possibly the perfect canvas of endless blue sky, darkening almost imperceptibly by the moment as sunset nears. I struggle on the final climb, going tree trunk to tree trunk. When I reach the top, I take a deep breath, steadying my lungs as much as my feet. The height is dizzying, so I keep hold of a thin trunk and concentrate on my feet on the dusty, steady, ground. I feel like a hot air balloon that could fly away if it wasn't anchored down.
"I know, right?" Charlie says, squatting by his bag to rummage for supplies. "Catch your breath before we move on. I better pull out the flashlights. Not sure we'll make it to our final spot before nightfall." He squints up at the sky.
"Another minute," I say, watching the sun dip closer to the horizon, the clouds lit orange and purple.
I feel like I've stepped into a painting. From up here, on the very edge of the mountain, the sunset is incredible, the colors bursting and dripping and right at our fingertips. It doesn't feel like we're spectators.
"It feels like we're in it," I whisper. "Like we are the sunset."
Charlie circles his arm around me and pulls me against him. We stand like that, me leaning back against him, his chin in my hair, as we silently watch the sun dip below the horizon. For the moment, I'm content. We don't move for a little while after that until the sky has gone the color of deep ocean and stars like diamonds pop out in the distance.
We travel a different path down the mountain as darkness fills the space. Overhead the forest thickens. Charlie points out a natural footbridge, and we use it to cross the creek into a much thicker, denser part of the woods before the ground begins to slope up again.
"Come on." He shines his light toward me. "It's almost too dark to see. Let's hurry."
I follow quietly, listening to insects and an owl in the distance. Sweat drips at my temples and stings my eyes.
I'm hit with the sound of rushing water in the distance. A cool breeze brushes my hair back. The ground has evened out now, and we stop on a flat clearing.
"What's that noise?" I ask.
Charlie grins. "Come on." He takes my hand and steps between two massive trees that tower above us like sentries. The cool air hurries at me now, and the rushing noise amplifies. I gasp.
"Oh wow." I step forward toward a beautiful small lake, fed by a waterfall that's at least two stories high. Trees ring the space, and wild grasses edge the water along the farthest side. I spin in a circle. "What is this place?"
Charlie steps back, smile widening. "My mom used to take me hiking here. Always said this was one of her favorite places on earth."
"It's incredible." I lean down to feel the water. Cool and refreshing.
Charlie bends, scooping up a handful of stones. One at a time, he examines them, running his fingers over their smoothness before either tossing them to the ground or skipping them across the water.
"Yeah," he says. "It's so peaceful. Mom always said it was like nothing matters here."
Nothing matters. He's right. Yet everything does.
He lets his pack fall off his back and rummages through the pockets of the bag. He hands me a pack of cashews and a granola bar.
"Thanks," I say.
He starts to unroll the tent.
"We're setting up here?"
"Okay." I watch the waterfall while I finish the granola bar. When I'm done, I help Charlie set up. We move quickly, and in no time, the tent is up and staked. He tosses our bags inside and hands me a lantern, which throws a small arc of light over the ground. I think about Brian and wonder if he was in places like this while he was deployed. In the middle of nowhere with only a small amount of light and a heavy heart.
"Dinnertime?" Charlie starts to stack wood for a fire, and before long, it's raging, and he's roasting hot dogs.
We chew in silence while the sound of the waterfall booms around us. A clearing in the trees above reveals a beautiful, star-studded summer sky and a full moon that lights the water and clearing with its pale bright glow. I lie back on the ground and exhale.
"I guess I just feel cheated." I stare at the closest, largest star, feeling Charlie's eyes on me.
"We were close, you know?" I say. "All that time, he was planning on enlisting. And he didn't even tell me. He just dropped it on me when he told them." I didn't know I had those words in me, but it feels good to let them free. They rush out and beat their wings, flying into the night. "What about me? Sure, they're proud, and he's brave, and the whole world celebrates this crap. But what about me?"
I throw my arms across my face and breath in the scent of pine and oak and sweat. And I shouldn't say the rest, shouldn't feel it, even, but I can't stop the momentum of my words. "What about those of us who don't believe in what boys like him are doing? Who doesn't believe in any of it? Those of us who are scared to death of what the world is turning into?"
Charlie kicks at the dirt by his feet. "I know," he says quietly. "Not exactly how you feel with Brian, obviously, but I don't like what's going on either. Not everyone feels like your parents do."
"Does that make us bad people?"
Charlie shakes his head, his eyes fixed on the flames. "I don't think so."
"I just want my brother to come home," I whisper.
"I know. I want that too."
"I want him to be here for me, and I want a chance to be there for him!" Tears leak down my cheeks. I wipe a furious hand across them. I stand suddenly, pacing. My mind races. Even out here in this oasis of nature, I'm starting to feel claustrophobic and out of control again. I force a deep breath. And then another.
"I can't think about this anymore."
"Uh. Okay then," Charlie says. "What do you want to do? I have a deck of cards in my bag."
"I suck at cards," I say, staring at the water. "How about a swim?"
Charlie blinks, and a small smile lights on his face. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Not entirely," I say. "But I don't want to talk about it anymore."
"Okay then. Swimming it is."
I slip on my suit and into the water. The waterfall makes rings across the small lake, and the fire crackles just beyond the edge of the water. I wait for Charlie to change while thoughts of Brian leap through my mind.
I swim across the pond, freestyle strokes that cut into the moonlit water.
When I was little, Brian had been in charge of watching me on a Saturday afternoon. We'd met up with his friends at Devil's Hole – a place all the kids went swimming and cliff diving. I'd been scared out of my mind, but of course, I'd follow Brian anywhere.
Brian and his friends were jumping and swimming and screaming like the idiot boys they were. But even as I was doodling in my notebook, I watched them out of the corner of my eye. They were teenagers, most of them thirteen and fourteen years old. Skinny string bean legs, their tee shirts laid out on the high rocks. Some of them smoked, all of them spat and scratched and laughed too loud.
"You gonna do homework all day or take a jump?" Chris Feldman said. I can still see his pimply ragged face, endlessly teasing me. The other boys crowded around, grinning. I wanted to impress them. I wanted them to think I was as cool as my brother.
"It's not homework," I said, closing my notebook and standing. Brian swam, probably twenty feet down from where I stood, oblivious to his friends goading me on the cliff-top. Shaking, I started to unlace my shoes. I had no bathing suit, but I'd swim in my clothes. It was so hot that day. I'd dry quickly. I walked to the edge of the cliff, with barely enough nerve to peer over the side. Sure enough, Brian was floating, lazy river-style, eyes closed to the sun. He looked like an ant from up here. There was no way I could make that jump.
"I'll go in," I said. "But I'm not jumping." I crossed my arms while my eyes traveled the rocky path that would bring me down to the riverbank. I considered the jagged rocks and my shoes that lay back by my notebook. The boys laughed.
"Aw, come on, Melbrook. Your brother ain't afraid of nothin', but you are? Just jump." That damn Feldman again, voice boomeranging off the rocks.
"Leave her alone, Chris. Why don't you jump? You haven't jumped once today, yet you're trying to get a little girl to do it?"
Little girl? Not me. I took another step toward the edge.
"Oooh, there she goes!" Chris's voice rose as he took a step toward me, pushing my shoulder, light as a slight breeze. Laughing. He was teasing, but it boiled my blood. I shoved back against him, and he stumbled back, grinning.
"Ah, tough girl!" He pushed again, taking a few steps forward. A few too many, it turned out. I was already dangerously close to the edge, looking down into the empty water. One second I was wondering where Brian went, and the next, I was tipping through the air, like tea being poured from a kettle. It went from slow motion to fast forward in a blink. My scream was everywhere, on the rocks, in the air and water. I grabbed onto the cliff's edge to keep from falling all the way down, my body flapping like a fish on a hook, banging into the sharp rocks. Searing with instant pain, my back was wet. I was nowhere near the water. It was blood.
The boys leaned over the cliff from above, trying to reach me, but it was no use. I was too far.
I held on tight, looking down below. Logically, I knew the smart thing to do was let go and fall into the water. But Brian wasn't down there, and damn it, that water was really far down.
"Well Jesus H. You bastards, help her up!" Brian's voice rose above the others, up on the cliff-top now. I imagined he was like a bowling ball knocking over pins as they each fell away and my brother came forward. He was no taller than them, but his arms seemed to reach farther than their futile attempts, and he was stronger by a lot. He pulled me up with what seemed no effort.
Brian knelt on the ground, breathing heavy. I curled with my head on his lap, crying, my back howling in pain from where I'd scraped against the rocks. I cried more from fear than pain, but quiet as I tried to be, mine were the only noises on that cliff. Those boys were silent.
"What the hell was she doing up there? She didn't come to jump. Who told her to?"
"Who was it?" Brian roared. "She's a kid, dipshits. Come on, Maggie. We're leaving."
"Bri, we were kidding around," Chris reached out for Brian's arm.
"Screw you." Brian turned his back.
We left them up there in the swollen silence, just my brother and I limping down the path.
"You okay?" Brian asked once we were out of earshot.
"Fine," I said, peeling my soaked shirt off my bloody back. "Just freaked out."
Brian smiled at me, gently taking my small hand in his like a cradled butterfly. "I'll always keep you safe."
"You sure you don't want one?" Charlie dangles an empty beer can from his fingertips as he stands at the edge of the water.
"You know what. Why not?"
Charlie pulls two cans from the tent and places them at the water's edge. He takes a leap over my head, yelling, "Cannonball!"
I manage to laugh when he emerges from the water.
"Love that smile," Charlie says, his gaze lingering on mine. Heat creeps across my face.
"I can't help it when you're such a dork," I say, swimming to the edge of the water for my beer. I take a few gulps, probably more than I should. But it helps quiet the thoughts of Brian.
After a few minutes, the can's empty, and warm fog spreads throughout me, tingling in my hands and head.
"How about a race?" I say. "Across the pond and back?"
"No way. You're too good a swimmer. I can't compete with you."
"Chicken," I say. I swim a few laps back and forth. I'm out of breath when I get back to Charlie. I see he's gotten us new beers.
"Cheers," I say, looking up at the sky. The stars waver in and out of focus.
Charlie turns to me with a hazy smile.
"Come on, race me," I say, taking a drink of the new beer. "Let's go check out the waterfall."
He lets out a big sigh and rolls his eyes like he's humoring me. "Fine," he says. "But I don't want to race."
"Okay, that fi — "
"Go!" He kicks hard, swimming underwater fast as an eel.
"You cheater!" I shout, following him.
I catch up to him right in front of the waterfall. I shove him, and he shoves back, laughing. The spray from the waterfall fills the air and splashes my eyes. Charlie grabs my arms and pulls me into the falls. It's like huge buckets being dumped on us. But a second later, we're behind it.
It's quieter here and hidden. The moonlight doesn't reach us, and it's almost pitch black. I catch my breath and shove his bare chest again. "You cheater!"
I hear his lips part in a smile, and he's breathing hard. I smile, too.
"You lost, fair and square," he teases.
"Oh please," I say, but with less conviction than before because Charlie is moving closer.
I move, barely an inch, and my legs bump his beneath the water.
"Sorry," I manage.
"It's okay." His voice is inches from me, now.
"Yeah." Fewer inches, now.
I nod even if he can't see me.
"Yeah," he says again. Closer still.
"Yeah," I answer.
"Yeah-" His lips find mine. I nod against them. He kisses me, gentle at first, neat and polite, kind of unsure.
I smile against his mouth, realizing I've wanted this even more than I'd admitted to myself. He plants tentative kiss after tentative kiss on my lips, but the moment I lean into him, it takes flight, and then it's sort of wet and messy and perfect, with summer on our skin and nighttime in our hair, and the rush of water behind us.
When we stop, we're both breathing heavy. I place my fingers on my lips.
In the dark, he leans into me again. "You okay?"
"Yeah, you?" I nudge his nose with mine.
His hands find mine beneath the water, and his thumb makes circles on my wrist. I lace my fingers in his and squeeze.
God. His touch is like the realest thing ever right now.
"Very okay," he says, kissing me again.
Eventually, we dry off by the fire, Charlie's legs on either side of me while I lean against him, my back to his chest. We watch the flickering flames. I nestle into him and think about Brian and all the others fighting in all the wars.
"I have to go home tomorrow," I say quietly.
"Okay," Charlie says, the vibration of his voice against my back. He strokes my hair.
I turn to look at him and see worry is in his eyes.
"Not because of you," I say quickly. "Or this. This is kinda great." My cheeks flame. "But I have to face my family. And I have to face whatever Brian needs. Whether that's. . ."
Charlie puts a finger on my lips and dips his head, give me a feather-light kiss. I close my eyes and rest my forehead against his.
"It's going to be okay," he says.
It may not be okay. Brian may not be okay. Our country, these wars. None of it may be okay. But I know what Charlie means. Because in the end, okay is all we have.
I nod against him, swallowing the sorrows of my family and the sorrows of the world. But tomorrow, I will face my father and my mother. Charlie is right, I have every right to feel how I feel. I can be there for my brother without compromising my beliefs. If I can face my feelings for Charlie and risk my friendship for something more, I can certainly risk what facing my family means, too.
I nestle deeper into him, and his arms tighten around me. We stay like this until the dawn of the new day.