We were vampires at that riverbend, desperate to suck the blood from eternity. We drank and smoked, always headlight, never drunk, always one joint and six bottles. The sun before us never set. The willows behind us never swayed. Only the river moved. It roared around us, a world-serpent protecting our beach, our private eternity. I thought we’d bask in endless summer, forever seventeen.
I only really remember the end. I remember Maggie plucking that joint from behind her ear. The sun blazing her short-threshed hair. They would shear us like sheep in the group homes. Retribution for acting “unmannerly.” God, Maggie. My deeper stomach growled, imagining her bristles whrrshing my palm. The slow ease as the joint rolled between her fingertips.
“How long have we been here?” She said. My memories of that beach are an echo of an echo, scenes layered one atop the next like muslin.
Porky scooped white sand, watched it sift through his fingers. “Does it matter? …It matter? …Matter?”
Needles marched up my back. The running was my idea. The being, though. The being I never figured.
After the cataclysm, the light and heat that cracked our eggshell sky, we orphans swarmed to “Group Homes,” old libraries and bombed-out schoolhouses, cots stacked to infinity. The nights stretched for days. The wailing cries. The air choking with piss festering in corners. We couldn’t stay. Wouldn’t. Porky, head soft as his middle, took little convincing. Maggie overheard us, though, and wouldn’t be dissuaded. Without parents, she said, soon to be without childhood, anything beat conscription. Frozen dead running through fallout or fodder to an unwinnable war, we had nothing to lose. We gambled house money. The world was ending anyway. We may as well end with it.
The Truant Patrols, practically children themselves, lit on us almost instantly. Our careful plans unraveled to frayed improvisations. Hand in hand we ran through the forest, toward the crater where that first bomb fell. Snow and ash smothered us. Poison scorched our lungs. Sweat froze to our skin. But then, at the brink of all darkness…we remembered. I don’t know how else to explain. We remembered. Oh yes, the sun! And the feeling of a full belly. We remembered warmth and comfort. Like I said, I don’t quite remember how we found the riverbend. Only that, when we needed it, it found us.
Six beers sat in the sand. A joint appeared between Maggie’s fingers. Porky found the tangle of strawberry vines and no matter how fast we plucked them, there were always thousands more. We didn’t ask why until it was too late.
Maggie turned her gaze upstream. “What good is endless summer if we’re alone?”
I flung my empty beer to the water. The river, our insatiable serpent, snatched it. Another bottle sprouted in its place. Its iridescent stem broke sand, a glass rope twisting up. It glinted toward the sun, quivering for a heartbeat before flowering into another beer.
“What good is endless summer if it ends?” These questions churned the earth of us, pushing forward what I tried to hold in stasis. Grime and guilt coated my insides. Coarse twine bit my waist, tied to these questions, always tugging.
“Maggie, if you’re such hot shit,” Porky pulled yet another beer from the sand and decapitated it with a violent twist, “then swim back.”
Maggie flicked the joint to the water. Gossamer threads precipitated from the sky, droplets of dewfall stretching and weaving behind Maggie’s ear, forming another half-smoke. Without regard to the umpteenth prestige of this magic, she put it to her lips, took an easy drag, and passed to me. I shivered to taste the salt of her mouth. Smoke curled up the back of my throat. I pulled a sigh, let the smoke smother, for a moment at least, the uneasiness which stood uneroded against eternity.
“Can we really stay forever?” Maggie said.
We’d had that conversation before. That exact conversation. Given enough time, words can only arrange themselves so many ways.
“Why would you want to leave?” Porky answered.
“Says the tubby virgin.”
“Fuck off, Maggie.” Porky’s shoulders lost their slouch. “The only dick you ever saw was your own.”
“At least I have a—”
“Guys!” I stepped between them, palms stretched, the stitch on a seam ready to pop. I remember the dizziness of it. My thrumming heart. At last, I thought, something new.
“No, Gabe.” Maggie shouldered past, kicked sand to the tree line hemming our little riverbend, stomping the blood from our strawberries. “Porky’s right.”
“For the last fucking time!” Porky’s knuckles grazed my shoulder in wild swing toward Maggie’s back. “My name is Pablo! We’re not fucking children anymore, that shit isn’t funny.”
“We are, though,” Maggie shot back. “Kids.”
Stasis shifted. I felt the breaking, a lump high in my throat like looking at glass shards glittering over a wood floor. I reached, grasped Maggie’s wrist. Frost sliced my skin. Ahead, willows bowed to snow and ash. Behind, summer warmed by back. I straddled eternities, one foot damp and warm, the other permafrost.
“Let go.” Snow fluttered over Maggie’s hair, her face. Against her rose cheek, the flakes looked almost white again. She tugged my hand. “Or face it together.”
Her pulse raced rapids under my fingertips, skin throwing off tendrils of dusky heat. I breathed her, woozy from the smell, head swimming like that very first pull of beer. Like the relief of finally escaping the Group Home.
“Guys! Something coming!” Porky pulled me back toward stasis, voice whistling excitement. His hand in mine and mine in Maggie’s, we formed a chain binding worlds. I hesitated.
Given eternity, Maggie only needed the one moment. She twisted her wrist from mine. “It’s okay.”
“A boat.” Porky said.
Porky tugged and I relented. Black snow swallowed Maggie. Her faint smile, the one crooked tooth, a glimmer of hazel, always trouble in her eyes…then blackness.
“Gabe!” Porky pulled me to sand. We crouched, hearts beating in step. The sun warmed trouble from my brow. Buzzed on beer, we imagined ourselves Hemingway’s banditos, couched in a mountain cave, preparing counterstrike to the generalissimo’s thunder.
The willows upriver swayed.
“A breeze…?” I said.
The leaves deformed to a point. A prow breached darkness like a finger pushing through plastic. The air soured, thick with the viscera and blood of the Group Home hospital wing. Orphans born to orphans. The swarming monsters forced to gnaw on afterbirth or starve. A mess of rust and rotted wood emerged, bobbing unsteady on the current.
“A boat,” I whispered. And then, so quiet, even Porky didn’t hear, hope dared escape my mouth: “Can we go back?”
“I never understood why you hang out with Maggie.”
“She’s my friend,” I said, “like you’re my friend.”
We held our breaths until we ached, until our chests were again full and another breath would pop us like balloons. We strained through silence. The boat examined each eddy and swirl, unhurried even in the swift current. After ages, eons, its metal nose sliced the shore. It stopped, stern quivering, ready to answer the water’s call.
“Smell that?” Porky snuffed up over our ridgelet. “Mom’s meatloaf.”
“You think everything smells like meatloaf.”
But the idea had already germinated. A vine of thought bound Porky’s ankles, pulled him over sand.
“Jesus, Porky,” I said, “it could be Truant Patrol! You’ll get us conscripted!”
Porky’s eyes bulged. He caressed the boat’s lip. And then I smelled it too, but warm and sugary: cookies. Cirrus memories drifted past: Mother’s gingham apron, the lingering warmth of the oven on a winter morning, raw dough heavy and sweet on my tongue. Before the snow, before the world turned under our feet.
Porky jolted back.
I jolted too. “What?”
Porky’s face stretched grotesque with a joy I could not share. In the cross hatch of my eyelashes I saw black flakes falling from the sun. I saw our Group Home, all concrete and right angles, singing its ode to Brutalism. A feeling gnawed my insides, something terrible and grownup I had yet to name.
“Meatloaf,” he said.
“Porky.” A lump ached my throat. “They’re gone. The bomb killed them all.”
Porky stretched over the lip, tumbled into the boat. It slid free from sand.
“Porky!” I shot from our blind.
Sunlight slicked his plastic smile. His eyes devoured the upriver darkness. He tipped starboard, almost capsized, paddled against the current. “Gabe! We can go back.”
“Porky. We have all the time in the world here.”
I inched closer. Silt squished my toes. If I only could have grabbed Porky’s wrist… But he shoved. The bowl of sky tipped and spilled over me and I fell. Sand scraped my cheek, my elbows. Ironcold water filled my mouth. I stretched my neck to see Porky swept downriver. He slapped against the water’s pull, sapphires splashing from our serpent
Too late, much too late, he found the current would not be fought. “Gabe!” He thrashed, desperate and powerless. “Gabe!” Then he was gone. Not an echo or a ripple. One moment a scream and then stillness. The serpent roared into darkness, swift and unceasing.
I drank and smoked. I skipped stones which sank. Beer after beer after beer but the buzz was a photocopy of a picture I could not recall posing for. Cold crept in, displaced the light and heat. I searched the sky for hours, days, straining for some sign to bring them back. The path back to any of it. The blue curtain dissolved and black snow fell from the sun. I killed time that would not die.
“Wait, where’s Pork—er, Pablo?”
I turned. A shape emerged from the willows’ shadow, her face a puzzle of lines.
“Pablo said something about a boat?”
Memory came into focus.
“Maggie!” I threw my arms around her neck. She was real, solid, warm.
“Whoa, Gabe,” she stepped away, smiling. “Pablo said there’s a boat?”
“Pablo?” I couldn’t grasp it. It was steam. “Boat?”
“Everyone’s over here shouting about a boat.” Maggie cupped hands to her mouth. “Ollie ollie oxen free, Pablo! Sorry I called you a ‘tubby virgin!’”
Maggie surveyed the water, hands to hips. Her smile faded, lip sliding down over that one crooked tooth. “Where’s Porky.”
I could only look downriver.
“I stepped into the snow, but…I followed you back. Just a second.”
I shook my head. “Forever.”
“What is this place?” Maggie said.
I’d spent eternity trying to bury the thought. Drinking and smoking. Deflecting questions. But the river would hold our secrets no longer. “I think this is where lost things go.”
“I don’t want to be lost anymore.”
I plucked a beer from the silt. Even before I brought it to my lips, parching and bitter, I knew it was the last. The cold inside pushed out in a primal cry. No sun, no time could tamp it down. Eyes wet with tears, with unfairness, I launched the bottle to the damn river.
It hit not with a splash, but a clank.
Maggie squinted downstream. “Is that the boat?” She dared the river, water soaking her rolled pantcuffs. “Porky!”
I ran to her. Icy water shocked my body. I shivered, not from the cold, but from what the cold meant: where this water came from, where it must go. We yelled our friend’s return.
A length of knotty green board chopped the current. The willows parted. A boat resisted impossibility.
We stopped yelling.
Anguish in the shape of a man stood atop the rot. Kudzu rags clung to muscle. His skin was a threshed cornfield, uneven, brown, dying. Strings of hair fell over his forehead. He trained oil-black eyes on us as he approached, grunting against the current, each pull a cry.
“Where’s Porky.” Damn Maggie, her head always harder than her heart.
“Porky.” The name came as a nauseous burp from the creature’s mouth.
His boat attacked the current, tail flicking, two inches sideways for every inch forward. Yet he persisted. With one last stretch, crying, his boat sliced shore. The three of us stood, hardly an arm’s length separate. Scars cross-hatched his chest. Black flakes fell from his skin. Bits of white showed through his chest, bone. Yet. The roundness of his face sparked memory.
“Do you think this is a game?” Spit flung from the scars of his lips, foamed his chin. The boat rocked with his every shiver. “Cops and robbers—bang! bang! you’re dead—but we all go home at the dinner bell?”
“What else do we have?” I stepped forward. “The starving and snow? Guns and patrols? Here we have warmth. Stomachs that never growl. All the time in the world.”
The boatsman, swift as the water which bore him, curled his fingers around my neck. “Fool.”
Nails tore skin. Fire flooded my windpipe, rushed down my spine. My thrashing only stoked the pain hotter. I remember falling. I remember a faceful of sand. I remember the boat drifting, drifting, from the shore. I remember my blood eddying into the current, and the boat meandering toward darkness.
Only a child assumes a static world. Seventeen forever, I was no child. I saw sunlight trapped in glass, a comet diving from the heavens. It was Maggie. She brought the bottle down over the creature’s head. Foam exploded over our struggle, thick with sour yeast. The fires in me snuffed. I rolled onto my back, saw the creature pawing glass and beer and blood from his skull.
Maggie threw the broken bottle aside and wove her arms through mine. Together we stood. Another beer did not blossom from the sand. The joint fell from behind her ear and disappeared. She willed me toward the trees. Behind us, the creature crawled on all fours toward the departing boat.
“But…” My throat burned. I couldn’t form the words.
“There’s always choices. He made his. Now we make ours.”
Maggie tugged. I looked to Porky, then to her. The one crooked tooth. Trouble’s spark always glimmering her eyes. The dark and snow was uncertain but mine. I would hesitate no longer.
“The boat!” A cry echoed behind us. “Maggie! Gabe! Don’t leave me! We can still…” A body splashed water then silence. Only our footfalls and breaths.
We passed from sand to dirt. Wet and cold numbed our feet. We outran the river. We outran the creature. We outran time. Fat snowflakes pattered our arms and eyelashes. Harsh, brilliant life burned our lungs. When we could run no more, we walked, hand in hand, clothes jealous for the warmth of our backs, faces set to the cold ahead.
Keith Good lives in Ohio. A writer, library professional and father, he spends most of his time pretending to know more than he actually does. His work recently featured in “The SNES Omnibus, Vol.2” and “The Best of Penny Dread Tales”.