That summer, my eleventh, we paddled canoes on the lake during the hot days with the sun glaring down from the infinite blue. Grandma would yell from the porch, “Don’t forget the sun lotion” to us in general and to my brother, “Jimmy, you let Kelly play with you and the boys.”
Jimmy would groan and jerk his head toward the canoes. “Come on, then. We’re goin’ to Turtle Island. Don’t cry if you get bit.”
Jimmy rode with slender, blond Colin Burns. Jimmy said it was because they were the oldest and smartest. At fourteen, they were certainly the oldest.
He’d stick me in the canoe with raven-haired Chris Holloway, who inspired a million fantasies in my budding imagination. He was always some kind of outlaw in need of redemption by a good woman, the stuff of too many a romantic novels. Behind me sat Danny Tramore, a solid, if uninspiring presence. He was a nice boy who wore braces and hadn’t hit his full growth spurt, though like a puppy he had enormous hands and feet. If he grew into them, he’d be a giant.
I would ride between the two boys, my brown hair in a long braid down my back, sitting straight, pretending I was Sacagawea and feeling a bit like cargo.
Turtle Island wasn’t much of an island. It was more like a couple acres of swampy muck covered with trees and patchy grass and rock. I loved it there. The boys would run off in search the snappers that would float just below the surface of the brown water, mouths open, waiting patiently for prey. You could lose a finger easy, Grandpa would warn me and hold up his left hand where the index and third fingers had been sheered off at the first knuckle. The boys didn’t care. They’d dip branches in the water or sometimes skewer a worm with a stick and dangle it close enough for the turtles to snap.
I’d wander through the woods and listen to the rushing of the river, the chattering of the birds, the crackle of the twigs beneath my feet. Flies used to take a special delight in biting me, so I’d constantly swat the air like a crazy person. Still, I liked the green, the relief from the burning sun. I’d bring my sketchbook and sit on a tree root to draw and dream.
Our routine followed familiar paths for much of that lazy summer until a particularly hot, late August day when I wandered off to my tree root as usual. My birthday was in two days, and I pondered what I wanted most. I closed my eyes.
“That’s pretty good,” a lazy voice said, and I jerked around. Chris Holloway stood behind me staring down at my drawing. Of him.
I slammed my book shut. “It’s not polite to sneak up on people.”
He gave me a flat-eyed grin. “If you want to look at me, here I am.”
“I just think you make a good subject artistically.”
He sat next to me. “I think you’re full of it.”
I noticed up close his clothes looked as if they’d been worn by one or two people before he ever got them. His right front tooth was slightly crooked, and I wondered what he was doing at the lake at all.
“My old man works for Mr. Burns, so we live here year round,” he said as if I’d spoken out loud.
“It’s pretty here.”
“In the winter, the lake freezes. You can walk from one end to the other. Weird, huh? Not a whole lotta families around in the winter. It’s just gray.”
“Don’t you get bored?”
“Nah. I go play with all my cool video games on my 72-inch flat screen.” He screwed up his face. “Sure I get bored, dumbass.”
“I’m not a dumbass.”
He gave me a sly smile, and my heart gave a little jump. “Yeah, you kind of are.” He leaned over and kissed me, and not just a little dry kiss on the lips. The full on-tongue-in-mouth, red, hot kiss you see in movies. Worse, his hand slid down to my behind before he pulled away.
I heard voices calling, but I was shaking, unable to answer.
Chris Holloway stood and called, “I found her. We’ll meet you at the dock.” He looked down at me. “Don’t think you better tell your brother about this. He might get mad.” He picked up sketchbook and handed it to me. “I didn’t rape you. Now you got your first kiss.”
He gave me a hand up, and I followed him back to the dock where the others were waiting. I was sure Jimmy would notice something different about me, but he continued to laugh and joke with the others.
I climbed back into the canoe with Danny Tramore and Chris Holloway. The picture I had drawn had ripped and become smudged with mud. I closed the book. Sweat was running down my face, and I didn’t feel like much like Sacagawea now. But I sat up straight and looked out over the brown water.
We paddled down the river under the relentless sun, and when we got back I stood in the shower and wondered why I felt so odd. When I looked in the mirror, I saw the same girl, but something had changed. The girl had become more knowing or maybe I didn’t want to think of myself as a dumbass.
Had Chris Holloway stolen something from me, or had he taken something I wanted to give? For so many years I’ve pondered the question, but I’ve never found the answer. Maybe it lies with that eleven-year old girl who remains forever on Turtle Island.