The beach was darkening, the pile of driftwood my brothers and I had painstakingly collected ready to be set alight. Kids ran and shouted across the sand while balls and Frisbees flew through the air. Behind us, on the long sloping lawn that led from the beach house to the sand, I could hear the laughter and clinking glasses of our parents and the other adults. It was Saturday night, and our turn to host the weekly barbeque.
Apart from the babies, I was the youngest on our side of the bay that summer, and therefore largely invisible. I threaded my way through the group of boys playing Frisbee, heading for the water. I could see my oldest brother, Danny, swimming out towards the end of the jetty. Above him, silhouetted against the setting sun, Marty and Shaun stood, waiting for him to get near enough that they could frighten him by diving in on either side of him. They’d been trying to catch him out all summer, with no success.
I danced along the shoreline, dragging my toes to make cryptic squiggles in the sand. At the end of the cove, I made out two figures up against the rocks. As I drew nearer, I recognized my brother, Luke, and his girlfriend, Louise. Making a face I turned back, towards the dock and the activity. Luke’s pre-occupation with Louise was spoiling my summer. We’d always been a team, despite the eight years between our ages. But this summer, he’d been gone, always with Louise, even when he was physically with us.
Danny stepped out of the water just in front of me, shaking water off his hair in a spray of jewel-like droplets, catching the last of the late summer twilight.
“What about lighting that fire now?” he said, his deep voice booming out over the accumulated noise. He caught sight of me and draped a well-muscled arm across my shoulders, soaking my thin t-shirt. “Wanna help me, Squirt?”
“Sure!” I replied, scampering up the beach after him like an over-eager puppy.
Faces became alien in the flickering firelight; weird shadows cast across familiar features. I sat in the sand watching as Luke and Louise joined the group, sitting far too close to each other, his hand under the short hem of her skirt. I glanced away and saw Danny watching them too, his jaw clenched so tightly I could see muscles jumping under the skin like small fish.
“Food’s up!” someone yelled from the lawn. There was a stampede of feet as twelve teenagers, and me, sprinted towards the picnic table on the lawn. Elbows dug into me as I tried to help myself to charred meat and salad.
“Here!” Luke shoved a plate full of food into my hands. “You’ll get trampled if you stay here.” Gratefully I took it, ducking out of the melee and finding myself a quiet spot on the lawn to eat.
I wandered back to the table to deposit my plate and ran into my mother who was refilling her glass.
“Aren’t you freezing?” she asked, words a little mushy from three or four glasses of chardonnay. “Go put some more clothes on.”
“I’m okay,” I mumbled, but ended up heading to the house anyway, the sound of adult laughter following me all the way.
I couldn’t find my sweater in the room I shared with Marty and Shaun. Remembering I’d left it in Luke and Danny’s room the day before, I ran across the gravel driveway, stones sticking to the soles of my feet. The stairway that led to the room over the garage was dark, but I knew it well enough that I didn’t switch on the light. At the top of the stairs I paused. A weird dancing light came through the part-open doorway.
I tiptoed a little closer, heart pounding in my chest. A moaning sound came from inside the room, then a low cry. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, certain a ghost or other spectre would sail through the doorway at any second. When none came, I stepped closer, pushing the door a little so that I could see a slice of the room, illuminated by candles on the windowsill. Gooseflesh crawled across my arms as the moaning came again.
Moving slightly, I saw Danny. His back was to me, bare as he writhed in bed, beads of sweat standing out on his shoulders, trickling between his shoulder blades. He moved in a strange rhythm, panting for breath as it grew faster, more urgent. I pushed the door open further and saw the dark curls hanging off the side of the bed, Louise’s back arching as she moved towards Danny, mouth open as if to devour him.
I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing, but knew it was wrong. Louise was Luke’s girlfriend, not Danny’s. Louise cried out, fingers claw-like as they clutched at Danny’s massive shoulders. He moved again, pushing against her, and I saw his face contort into something that looked like a grimace of pain as he collapsed on top of her. As I fled down the stairs, my sweater forgotten, I heard their heavy breathing following me.
Luke said nothing when I found him wandering the tide-line and told him what I’d seen. His jaw tightened, just as Danny’s had earlier. He walked a few steps further then ran, his long legs covering more ground than mine ever could as he sprinted towards the house. His fists were clenched, jaw still clamped down as if on a wad of tobacco.
Louise kept her distance for the rest of the summer, ignoring both Danny and Luke, even after their bruises had faded and their fury had hardened into resentment.
Kate Larkindale is a currently Wellington-based writer, cinema manager, film reviewer and mother to two boys. She is constantly amazed that she has time to write, but doesn’t sleep much.
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