We’re all in the ditch. You and I and Timothy and the kid that lives across the street with the limp. I hate that kid. He won’t steal beer from his dads garage even though we all know there’s a refrigerator full of Coors Lite in there. Besides his Dad is a drunk, everyone around here knows that, and he probably wouldn’t notice if the whole damn refrigerator went missing, let alone a couple of cans. And the kid won’t smoke with us either. That makes me nervous. If we’re in this together then none of us have to worry about one of the others ratting us out to their parents, when cornered. I don’t even like to smoke, I just know that I should. I know better than that kid down the street, that’s for goddamn sure.
The ditch. I’ve spent hours in this thing over the last few days. A hot summer. The grass went from a nuclear yellow to a crisp brown, nothing much is happening in heat like this. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on something those other fucking kids from the other side are up to. Those kids. Whatever. Those kids don’t have the ditch.
Hours: I’m serious.
You’re not looking anywhere but straight ahead, not since we got here. Your nose buried in what’s left of the grass, dirt rubbing against your chin. You’re probably more excited about this than the rest of us, something was missing, somehow you didn’t have it all figured out, and now you do. Timothy keeps giggling like a damn girl. You’re deadly silent. Transfixed. And that kid down the street he has no business even being here. We all brought something from home, each of us has something to contribute to the afternoon, someone brought the blanket, I got a whole goddamn backpack full of shit from my mothers cupboards, and you brought us a couple of packs of cigarettes from somewhere. You never said. You’re better than I expected.
A summer like this lasts only a few days. Long days granted, but soon enough the cloud comes back over, or people head out of town, or someone’s brother gives them a ride to the beach. But these days of brow burning in the grass, and staying out until late are few and far and cherished. The heat these last weeks has been overwhelming. Like I said: there’s nothing else to do. So over this way they come: they walk through the field with bags swinging from their backs, towels slung over their shoulders, bare legs, bare feet; walking a snake of gossip and cotton shorts. I’ve seen these girls every day for as long as I can remember, they sit around lunch tables and on benches out the back, after school, and they date the guys that finished up already. Guys heading to the Navy or college maybe. But not many of those. I know a few of them, my older brother’s a good guy around town, they say hello, they ask me polite enough questions, but they’re not in my circles.
They look different here, away from the town and their usual tables. They’re alone, no guys hooting, no teacher to impress, no parent on their way to collect them. They’re relaxed and I swear to god some of them are acting like there’s no one else for miles around.
Most of them come ready for The Pond. The body of water that’s been around here since before I’m sure even our grandparents can remember. Some of them walk through the grass and the reeds already in their swimsuits. A t-shirt thrown over, sandals in hands. But there are two or three of them, they look older, I haven’t seen them all year. I think they left for a term or two of college and are now back in town; catching up with those that stayed on to work, or to save up more money, or their sisters that aren’t old enough yet to leave themselves. These girls come in jean shorts and tanks, never in shoes, never ready for the jump from the bank to the cool water below. Instead they strip at the waters edge. Clothes in neat piles- no towels around; nothing- they slip into bathing suits leisurely letting the sun soak into their skin for minutes at a time. I’ve seen at least one of them, forget the bathing suit altogether and jump in from the highest part of the bank- finger and thumb clasped over nose- diving feet first into the water. Toes drifting against the dirt at the bottom. A goddamn fish.
I was walking through, just a shortcut from Timothy’s, when I first saw them laying out-a starfish of burning skin, and bleaching hair- taking turns to choose a song on the stereo. Fussing around in bags for a bottle of water. Pulling back each other’s hair. I’d spent my childhood in the ditch, playing war games with the others, hiding out after we were supposed to be home; to eat and to get ready for bed. I could walk backwards from where I stood, transfixed and surprised at their presence; I could slip quietly into the valley of dirt and watch them unnoticed.
When I told Timothy about it, you had been in the garden too; dipping your toes in the pool that none of us ever thought enough about to actually use. He was only a year younger than you, you were my age but we’d never spent any time together. I was your brother’s friend. You heard me tell him, you watched him rush inside to get his stuff together. You came over to ask what we were doing. I took you with us, hesitantly. Nervous of your presence: wondering whether you were coming along only to out us to the other girls.
“I’ve spent my whole life wondering about these girls”
It’s the first thing any of us has said since getting to the ditch. We were here early: we watched them cross the entire length of the field. Only now I notice that I’ve been holding my breath. I think for this entire time. We’re in a line; you, Tim, the kid from down the street, and I. We’re side-by-side, I can feel your pulse, and your hand knocks me gently as you plough the earth with your fingertips.
“What time are you coming back tomorrow?”
It takes me a good two minutes to realize that you’re talking to me; that you’re asking me a question.
“I don’t know” I say, starring at the freckles behind your ear, “whenever you want to come down here, I’ll be ready. I get up early. I guess”