It’s right around midnight when the booze runs out. There’s always that scary window at a party when folks are drunk enough to pick fights but not drunk enough to do everyone else a favor and just pass out. I’ve sat through enough wedding receptions to know they turn into a wake the minute something runs out: wine, food, sober guys to dance with, toilet paper in the women’s bathroom. Maybe that’s why the bride and groom always leave early. One minute there’s this sea of hopeful faces dancing to Justin Timberlake, and the next minute the place seems darker and the people left are yawning and seem a lot less interesting. Suddenly there are empty tables piled with dirty dishes and the DJ is playing Every Rose Has Its Thorn.
With the cops still parked down the road, Judd’s made it clear that no one drives anywhere tonight; we’re a good twenty miles from town, and besides, even the gas stations are closed by now. For once I agree with him. I overhear one guy say he’s going to swim over to Canada for some wine—and he’s serious. He’s in the water all the way up to his chin before Johnny Thunder jumps in and drags him back to shore. I’ve only had a few sips of wine tonight and my head feels clear—which may or may not be the best way to tell Sam what I want to tell him. I’m sitting on a log bench by the bonfire, looking up at the night sky. I feel a hand on my shoulder and I think it’s Sam, but when I turn around I’m face to face with Roxy.
Her breath hits my face like a sour fog. White lightning, all right.
“Where’s Sam?” she says, leaning on me for balance. The words come out slurred like an old, warped cassette tape. “Where’s my son?”
“I think he might by down by the lighthouse.” I pat the bench next to me. “Why don’t you sit with me for a while?”
“I need to talk to Sam,” she says, pushing herself away. She takes a few ragged steps but stops, arms flailing to keep her balance. For a second it looks like she’s going to drift right into the fire, so I jump up and grab the back of her shirt. At the last moment she changes direction, sailing out across the trampled grass towards the water. Then she stops again and peers up at the clear night sky. “This is bullshit, you hear me?” It takes me a moment to realize she’s yelling at the stars. “Total bullshit.”
Sam appears out of the dark and puts his hands around her shoulders to steady her. The two of them stand there for a minute, not moving, two dance partners tired of going over the same old steps. Judd and Johnny Thunder show up a few minutes later, along with a couple of the other new Dudes-in-Waiting in tow.
Roxy pounds her fist on Sam’s chest a couple times. “You’re avoiding me,” she says. She’s crying now. “I’m your mother, and you’re avoiding me.”
“What do you want?” Sam says, looking at the ground. “What do you want from me?”
She waits until he lifts his head so they’re looking into each other’s eyes. This is Sam—she could ask for anything right now, make any demand of her only son. But after a while she just looks away, spits into the dirt. “I want wine,” she says. “I want you to give me some more wine.”
“Roxy, you’re drunk,” I say, coming close enough to touch her back softly. “Maybe you’ve had enough.”
“Oh, I’m drunk all right, little girl,” she says, shrugging off my hand and slipping away from Sam, like she was stepping out of a dress. “But I’ll never have enough.”
“We’re all out of wine anyway,” Johnny Thunder says, trying to be helpful. He holds up an empty milk jug in his hand and turns it upside down, shaking it. “Like, seriously.”
Judd comes up behind Sam and whispers into his ear; I can’t catch it all but the last thing he says is, “Maybe it’s time.”
Sam sighs. “Johnny,” he says with a raspy voice, sounding like he’s out of breath. “Go over and dip your jug in the water.” Johnny Thunder hears him but the big man stands there, bewildered. Sam points to the lake. “Just go ahead and do it.”
Judd looks around; there’s only the six of us standing here. “Go ahead,” he says.
Johnny does what he’s told. He walks over the edge of the lake and bends down to dunk his jug into the water until it’s mostly full.
Sam hasn’t moved. “Take a sip,” he says behind his back. “Trust me.”
Johnny smells it first, then holds the jug up and takes a swig. “It’s good,” he says, taking another drink. “It’s damn good.”
“Make sure everyone gets some,” he says, turning and walking away. “Especially my mother.” He disappears into the darkness, and I follow him.
“Sam,” I say, struggling to keep up with his long strides. “Some of those guys aren’t going to understand. They don’t know what they just saw.”
“They saw me lose my temper,” he says, letting me catch up. “I do it a lot.”
We walk for about a half-mile along the water until Sam finally loses steam and slows down a little. We’re into the woods now, and behind us we can barely hear the party in the distance. Sam finds a big rock and we sit down. He takes off his sandals and dangles his toes in the water. My legs are too short but I dangle anyway. We watch the little waves slap at the rough rocks along the shore. There’s a ship passing by out there, and its lights move in the darkness like ghosts.
I hear Judd’s voice in the darkness, getting closer. He’s calling out for Sam.
“For the record, I don’t trust that guy,” I say.
“Judd’s all right once you get to know him,” Sam says. “He’s really good with logistics, numbers, stuff like that. You know how bad I am at being organized.”
I figure I’ve got two more minutes before Judd finds us and sucks Sam back to the party. So I do what I’ve wanted to do all day: I reach over and hold him, really hold him, leaning my head against his shoulder. His short beard feels like Brillo on my face, but I don’t care. We sit there together, and I pretend we’re a boy and a girl again.
“Come on,” he says, kicking off his shoes and slipping off his shirt. Then he launches himself off the rock and plunges into the shallow water. He’s standing in the chest-high water, hands out.
“But I’ll ruin my dress,” I say, and we both laugh.
He steadies himself on the rocks and reaches for my hand. “Trust me.”
I slip off my shoes and slide down the rock to touch my big toe in the water. “God, it’s cold,” I say, turning it in a circle. “It’s fucking fucking fucking cold.”
He comes back to me, taking my arm and pulling me in; suddenly I’m up to my chin. I lose my balance on the rocky bottom and when I go under, I forget to close my mouth. In an instant my throat is full of water. I panic, and when I break the surface I’m thrashing my arms. But the water tastes sweet. We whip our wet clothes towards shore and then swim out a little deeper. We take turns splashing each other. It’s weird, but now my skin doesn’t feel all that cold. Honestly, I feel warm. Sam goes out even farther and raises his hand, beckoning for me to follow. I swim out to him and grab onto his shoulders when I get there. He holds my waist as we both tread water, and for that moment it feels like we’re back in high school, night-swimming out at Rodriguez Lake.
I can hear Judd’s voice getting louder.
Sam sighs and squeezes my hand. “I’ll be back,” he says, turning to shore.
“You’re not coming back,” I say. “You’re going to be surrounded by dudes all night.”
“We’ll be alone again,” he says. “Soon.” But the somber droop in his voice reminds us that we won’t, at least not in this life. When Sam climbs out of the water, there’s this glint of moonlight on his wet skin that shows all the muscles in his back. I watch him fumble around in the tall grass, looking for his clothes; I remember that watching Sam put his clothes on has always been just as sexy as watching him take them off. When he slips his T-shirt over his head, he turns to wave at me. I wave back but when I do he’s already disappearing down the path, back towards the lighthouse.
I paddle closer to shore until my feet find the uneven rocks of the bottom. When the water is down to my waist again I start to shiver; somehow the air feels colder than the water now, and I quickly fall back into the lake and tread water some more. I can see the smoldering light of the bonfire in the distance but I can’t hear the voices around it anymore; the jamboree must finally be dying down. Some of the truck dogs are barking out a lonely chorus, restless from being chained up so late. I know I should get out soon and make sure Roxy doesn’t drink herself to death, or make sure Laz hasn’t joined a gang of biker-assassins—but right now this water feels so good, I don’t want to.
Besides, I think I’ve forgotten where I threw my clothes.
In the darkness, I lie back flat and let my body float. I know they call this Lake Superior, but it sure feels like the ocean. When I spread out my arms and legs and draw deep breath, my belly button pokes above the water like a desert island. I take another deep gulp of air and let the current take my body. I know I should be more frightened, being out here alone, but for now I don’t mind the solitude. With the waves gently lapping at my ears, the only sound I hear is this strange monotone that hums like bumblebees.
All hail the Queen Bee of Want, floating alone again.
When I wake up tomorrow, I know things will be the same: I’ll still be sleeping in a car five hundred miles from home. I’ll still want the same exact things I want today. I’ll still stew over not being able to write my own story the way I want it. It’s a little scary, this sudden feeling of weightlessness, but it makes me remember something Roxy told me years ago, the Roxy I want to remember, when I was a girl: sometimes you’ve got to let life make the choices. Sometimes you’ve got to let the story write you.
I let myself sail further away from shore. I feel something nip at my heel but right now I’m too comfortable to move, and for the moment I forget about the million or so critters that must be swimming and crawling around me in the blackness. When the water starts to feel a little colder on my skin, I know I’m drifting out even deeper. For the moment, I forget my feet can’t touch the bottom.
Tommy Zurhellen was born in New York City. Apostle Islands is the sequel to Nazareth, North Dakota, his debut novel.