A longtime resident of upstate New York, J.E. Nissley recently relocated to Long Island to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook Southampton, where she also works as an editorial assistant at TSR: The Southampton Review and instructor of undergraduate contemporary literature. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals, and she currently balances working on her novel with the exploration of a new love, poetry, which she writes at her own peril.
The flask glints like a knife in Shawn’s hand. I grab it and take a quick swallow. The whiskey burns through me, but I don’t mind—this whole summer already has.
“C’mon, Clay. You queer.”
I was stupid to think he’d understand, is all.
At least it’s a decent night. Nice breeze, mad stars, the Chevy’s hood still warm beneath us.
“When are you leaving again?” Shawn asks when I hand him his flask.
“Same as I’ve been telling you. Tomorrow. 7:00 a.m.”
He looks out across the water.
Then, “It’s just, we haven’t hung out practically at all.”
Which is exactly why I don’t wanna hang out tonight, especially not at this stinking crater they call a lake. Poets write all this stuff about it, that it’s—what’s the phrase—a cauldron of moonshine, but that’s a crock of shit if I ever heard one. Truth is, the lake’s got bloodsuckers. Big ones. The bottom’s all mucky, there’s clouds of damn mosquitos, and it gets so hot that by June the whole thing goes bad, totally curdles, so it smells worse than Shawn that time he wolfed a week’s worth of my mom’s chili.
But he insisted we meet here, so I caved. It’s not like there’s anywhere else to go.
“I’ve been busy,” I say. “Packing and everything.”
He won’t meet my eye, just keeps staring out at the lake. This far up, it really does resemble a crater, smooth and black but kinda shimmery at the same time, on account of the moonlight. I try to watch the shimmering but my chest’s feeling kinda tight, so I look at the woods that surround the lake instead. They’re dark, too. Sometimes if you listen real hard you can hear coyotes sniggering, people getting busy, but I don’t hear any of that now.
Shawn’s working around to something. I know ’cause his lip’s curling, and now he’s fingering his black hair off his forehead, and this is also how I know I’m doomed.
“You hung out with that queer Kyle,” he says.
I should mention Shawn’s got this thing about queers. Everybody does, but it’s different with him. Personal. No kidding, queers get Shawn’s balls in such a bunch that he claims he’d run one out of town soon as he found out about him. Too bad Shawn’s not that tough. The only thing he’s good at besides slugging whiskey is tattling his damn head off.
“Can we talk about something else?” I say. “How about that job with the county—you get that yet?”
“Well, that’s great.”
We both know this is fucking terrible.
“Road crew,” he goes on.
Roads are the only thing the county’s got, besides the lake.
“You know,” I try—“down in Stony Brook, there’s stoplights everywhere. When me and my mom went for accepted students’ day, it was like, stoplight, stoplight, stoplight. Takes ten years to go a mile.”
Shawn’s not listening. Some commotion across the lake’s got his attention. That’s the other beach, where the bottom gets raked daily and doesn’t smell like farts.
“I know that song.” His head’s sideways. “Starship. Swear to God it’s Starship.”
“Uh-huh.” All I hear are mosquitos whining, but there’s always music on the other side. Parties we say we’ll crash but never do. “Listen, what I was telling you about Stony Brook —”
Shawn slides off the hood.
“—the thing is, you’re taking this kinda personal, and—”
His belt hits the dirt with a jingle.
“No way, man.”
He grins and his eyes glint, yellow as a coyote’s. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a lil’ water.”
But sitting on the hood of the truck, that’s enough. I can see the lake perfectly fine from here, so close and smooth and black and suddenly not stinking like usual, but smelling musty, closed up. Everybody here, they’re so closed up.
“Long as we don’t go too deep,” I mutter, but Shawn’s already galloping down the bank, buck-naked. I ditch my clothes and follow with less enthusiasm. There’s this path you gotta go down to get to the water, a dribble of soft brown sand that turns to mud soon as you hit the beach. You can really smell the weeds down here. Damp, oozy, like the gunk between our toes. The moon hangs overhead all half-assed, reflected blearily in the water. We watch it together for a sec, gnats bouncing off our junk. There’s fireflies—no, a bonfire on the other side.
Shawn dips a toe in the water.
“The others are gonna be here soon,” I remind him.
“So maybe we should wai—”
He runs in whooping, so I got no choice but to run after him. The water’s freezing. I concentrate on my breaststroke, my chattering teeth gritted hard.
A pale ass bobs in front of me.
“Hey!” I shout. “That’s far enough!”
Can’t he see we’re almost at the middle? I take a deep breath, let it out slow. We’re not swimming long. Only till our friends get here—Matty and Kyle and whoever else got invited. Then I can go home. Finish packing. Try to slee—
Something’s got my arm. Shawn. Jesus, he swam up outta nowhere. I struggle like hell, but since the water’s so cold and everything I’m pretty much powerless as he drags me farther, farther, into the gleaming center of the lake. Then we go belly up, gasping.
“Dickweed.” I’m too winded to be that pissed at him.
“Dude. Queers kiss other guys.”
He giggles. “Bet they call each other honey and shit, too. Like a real couple. I tell ya, I ever found a queer living here I’d—”
“Run him outta town, yeah yeah. You mean gab him out. Even a stinking queer wouldn’t be scared of you.”
That sure shuts him up.
We float around some more. Shawn blurs with the water. His hair’s so dark, especially when it’s wet. I pick my head up a little, trying to see shore, but there’s nothing. Blackness on every side.
“You don’t have to leave.”
There he is. Drifting to my left.
“Yeah,” I say.
“But think of all the crap you can do here that you can’t on Long Island.”
“What, spread asphalt? Hold that stupid SLOW sign so nobody gets run over? Look, this is a mad good opportunity for me. I even got a scholarship ’cause they liked what I wrote in my personal statement, and that was just a bunch of BS about trying my best and getting an early start to the day. You could’ve…” I’m about to say he could’ve done the same, but he’s drifting away again, and besides, it’s not true.
“You didn’t answer my question.” His voice comes from far off, trickling with the water into my ears. “What are you gonna do?”
“I-I dunno,” I shiver, “but that doesn’t matter. Jesus Christ, man. Why can’t you be happy for me?”
For a while there’s no sound. Slithering water. A lonely owl’s call.
“We’re brothers,” Shawn says.
Before I can answer, his hand closes around my throat.
Water gushes into my mouth. I thrash, claw, but he’s too strong, he’s got the upper hand so tight around my windpipe I can’t—
Just try to—
(shoved under again, spluttering gagging on filthy water churning with stars)
Coughing stop Shawn stop for the love of his pale face like the moon above me before everything goes black again and I clamp my mouth tight but the muck’s already pushing in, I can’t, I won’t—
There’s a yelp. My fist connecting with something soft.
Splashing away, gasping, “The fuck. What the fuck…” till I glance back and see Shawn treading water, clutching his mouth.
We swim to where we can touch. I reach for him but he throws an arm out, tells me to screw off.
He lets me look on the second try. I tilt his face this way and that, but aside from the moonlight there’s not much to see by. Our noses are inches away. Sleepover close. Like when we were eight. Or ten. I don’t exactly recall.
Blood seeps down his chin, warm and sticky.
“And you wonder why we haven’t hung out,” I say.
He rips free and doggie paddles for the shallows. I’m not gonna follow him, but then my belly brushes the soft bottom and we hunker side-by-side, knees strapped to our chests. The breeze saws at us. I tuck my chin, mumbling, “I told you I didn’t wanna go too deep. I told you, and you made me.”
Shawn shifts and the water ripples, shivering like us. “I thought I could change your mind. I thought if I could get you to the bottom of the lake…”
“But it’s so cold down there. It’s so goddamn dark.”
We sit quiet for a long time. Clots of foam wiggle up by the bank. Mermaid piss, we call them. There’s another one for the poets.
I’m remembering about the bloodsuckers when Shawn says, “You were screaming pretty loud back there.”
“Horse-shit. I couldn’t scream. There was muck in my mouth.”
“Was too!” I holler. “This whole place is muck!”
I thought my hollering would startle Shawn, make him flinch a little, but he only laughs. “Muck,” he echoes, his chest jumping. “Muck.” He reaches under the water, drags up a huge wad of the stuff and smears it on me, the mud and twigs and rotten leaves.
“We’re muck,” he says.
I stare at him. The pieces I can make out.
“You wanna go to college,” he goes on, “then fine. Be my goddamn guest. But no degree’s gonna change what you are. Nobody sees us. Don’t you get that? Nobody sees us.”
“Everybody sees you.”
He shakes his head.
Mud drips down my chest. I hunker low, rinsing it off. “The way you go running your mouth, drawing attention to yourself. Get a goddamn grip.”
“I give you a week,” he says, lip curling. “One week before you come running back.”
“I’m not quitting school! No way in hell.”
That’d mean it’s all a mistake. An accident that I can remember dates, and poems, and the names of like every country on the map.
Shawn drags up another fistful of muck and squeezes it, letting the mud seep through his fist.
It’s not a mistake. It can’t be.
“You got any idea how sweet county gigs are, anyway?” he says. “Vacations, holidays off, a cushy retirement to boot.”
Holidays off. That’s true. Not just the big holidays, but all those little bullshitty ones everybody always forgets about. Then there’s personal leave, sick leave, all your leaves paid for.
Health insurance, too.
Dental. Can’t forget dental.
I spit, pawing water from my face.
“The others are gonna be here any second. I need a hand with the cooler.”
He stands and sloshes for the bank, but I stay put, huddled in the cold black water.
This is how it’s gonna be, every time. When I’m home for Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and spring break after that.
I lunge for Shawn’s wrist and he whips around, eyes wide and wild in the dark. He doesn’t pull away like I figured he would, but watches me close, the blood dripping off his chin blacker than the water.
A distant roar. Tires gnashing gravel.
“The others,” he says, and giggles. Sorta.
So I yank him toward me so our noses are as close as they were before, grab his slippery face in both hands and plant a big fat one on his stupid rotten tattling mouth. It’s a real kiss, all right. Our lips get crushed, our teeth grind together, and I taste whiskey and muck with a seam of blood. He staggers backward, but I’m too strong for him. I’ve always been too strong.
“I’m never coming back,” I whisper, his jaw squirming in my hands like the bloodsuckers at the bottom of the lake. “You got that, honey?”
I leave him standing there, in the water.
My clothes are piled by the Chevy. I toss them on, not bothering to dry off, spitting into the weeds as headlights jackrabbit over me. The others are here. They leap from their trucks, hooting and staggering, oblivious to Shawn wading toward them, the disgust boiling in his freaky yellow eyes. They only see me. The reason they’re here.
“Where you goin’?”
“Clay? I thought we were celebrating!”
Yeah—celebrating the last time I’ll ever slam my car into reverse here at the lake. Come morning, tales of my degradation will have spread through the whole town.
Except when I glance in the rearview mirror, it’s the strangest thing. Shawn’s standing in the middle of all our friends, only, his mouth’s not framing the words.
*“Lake Water” appeared previously, in Issue 2 of The Mulberry Fork Review (Sept 2014)