In Roman mythology, Janus (or Ianus) was the god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings and endings.
Sunset, 9:15 pm
The soft yellow sun touched the black horizon. A solitary bluff of poplars broke the wavering line marking land and sky. Seaborg's Trees marked the traditional party spot. Michael took a sip of coffee and checked reflexively for the telltale twinkle of a bonfire. His classmates had likely moved down to the lake some five kilometres farther west. Michael ran his fingers through damp bangs and took another contented sip. He studied the flaming sky. The thin curtain of western cloud reflecting the mellow light complemented the deep violet-blue of approaching night. Altostratus, the term popped into Michael's head, no rain there to spoil his solitary evening. There would be a full moon later.
Michael stepped lightly off the deck and onto the freshly watered grass. It was cool against his bare feet. The dry evening breeze tickled the hair on his legs and sucked the last of the moisture from his skin. The camp lantern was lit and after a final sip of coffee Michael turned to the task of building a fire in the pit. A soft smile played across his lips as he went about the familiar routine. First, a mound of shredded paper, then twigs from deadfall making a perfect tepee to catch the first flames; one match placed in the heart of a well-built fire could start an unstoppable inferno. He made a few minor adjustments to his creation and retreated to the small wood pile to select more kindling and wood. In the growing darkness, Michael laid a crib around the central cone. When he judged it ready, he paused to admire his creation and take a long pull from the quickly cooling coffee.
Michael left the coffee mug in the kitchen while he scouted out his book. Mingled voices from the family room competed with the muted sound of his father's baseball game. The book was where he had left it in the living room, Scarrow's Centurion, freshly delivered by Amazon; something of a reward to himself for finishing his first week of manual labour. He brought it back to the kitchen and listened to the voices as he refreshed his coffee. Ashley had breezed back from St. George for some week end party. His sister's cheerful voice contrasted with Acton's polite responses delivered in his West Indian accent. Michael recognized the measured tones of his mother and father's counterpoint. His experienced ear picked up the polite caution in his parent's voices. They thought themselves accepting, but Acton was something to be adjusted to, an unexpected diversion from their eldest child's usually tranquil progress through life. Nothing would be said about the young man of course.
Michael wondered briefly what Ashley had said to disrupt the Wa of the Novak household. He suppressed a whisper of dissatisfaction before it could find voice. The Novak's had used the same cautious tone with Michael when he suggested tentatively that he would prefer to take an Arts degree at the University of Assiniboia in the fall. Literature was his passion. He had been overwhelmed quickly by practicalities. What could he do with an Arts degree, they asked reasonably. The four-year education degree at the University of St. George would leave him with a marketable skill. There was the family condo in St. George and of course Medicine Hat with its larger campus would be overwhelming to him. They thought the matter closed. Michael picked at a small blister on his palm. When he heard his name mentioned he retreated to the back yard.
Three matches; one would be optimistic but that was what you wanted. Michael drew the first wooden match from a pocket and ran his thumb over its tip. He examined its spent end by the light the camp lantern and frowned. The second match was good so he squatted down. Michael tested the air waiting for a moment when the slight breeze might die away. With a practiced motion, he struck the match against a block and touched off the waiting timber. Paper curled instantly and the small flame expanded up the side of the cone licking at the bark on the small twigs. The flames illuminated Michael's face briefly but as he watched the small conflagration subsided unexpectedly. It had travelled the surface of his structure and failed to burrow in. It happens from time to time with the best prepared fires. Michael stood and reached for his third match.
"Mikey!" Michael paused when he heard Ashley sing out his name. She had stopped on the deck. When he turned to smile at her she bounced down onto the lawn and ran over. "What are you doing Mikey?" He gestured at the kindling with a smile and turned back to light the third match. Ashley hugged him from behind. Michael endured her squeeze. "Oh my look at all these new muscles popping out!" She ran her palms across his flat stomach and patted his shoulders.
"Hardly Ash," He knew he was the same slender person he had always been. Ashley was fashionably slender too. They were much alike. They shared the same broad mouth, straight nose and narrow face. Ashley's eyes were browner but she would have shared the same auburn hair if she had not been changing hers since she was fifteen. Michael thought his sister was beautiful.
Ashley noticed the book on the lone chair by the fire. "Oh my God Michael, you cannot be serious!" She gave him a playful punch. "Why aren't you out?"
"It's been a long week, I'm tired."
"As if," but it was very much her brother to go his quiet way. He had almost skipped his graduation party two weeks before. "Come with Acton and me."
"I don't know about that," Michael protested. He was ready to argue the point when Ashley stopped him with a cool hand to his chest.
She opened her mouth, then paused squinting at his bare chest. "Wait a minute; is this manliness I feel on my baby brother's chest?" She picked at the shallow valley bisecting his chest, "Nope, just my imagination." They matched smiles. "Come with us Michael, it will be cool. You are in university now; you have to meet new people. We'll have a riot together."
Ashley would have a riot, she always did. Michael was sure he would be what he always was, a quiet bystander watching the fun. "Not so sure of that Ash," he murmured.
"I need a DD," Ashley added.
"That I can believe," Michael replied with a grin, "You have Acton."
"You don't have to be designated driver," though she knew he would be. Michael rarely drank. It was the reason he seemed to avoid the bush parties, "but come. You should meet some new people."
"These are your friends Ashley."
"They like you Michael, besides; there will be all sorts of people there. You remember Mark Reisner?" Michael shook his head. "Maybe not, he was two years older than me. He just graduated from the University of Saskatchewan. They have a place out by the lake. Just come Michael, this isn't some bush party with puking kids. You need to get to know people like this before September. What do you say?" Michael looked helplessly at his carefully prepared fire pit and then gave in.
Nine thirty and it was still light enough to see a small herd of antelope in the field as they jolted along the grid. Michael bounced off the seat as Ashley lifted through another intersection. He wished he was driving. His cell phone vibrated so he dug it out. "Mike do you have the Dodge?" It was his dad.
"Are you driving?"
"No Ashley's driving," Michael waited out the long pause. They had to take the truck. Ashley would have torn the bottom off Acton's Mazda two kilometres out of Vimy. The Reisner farm was half a kilometre short of the lake at the end of old highway nine; seven sections out of town. The antelope were long gone when Michael's father spoke again.
"You will be driving on the way back." It was not a question. The sun might rise and fall on Ashley, but Michael was the steady one. He agreed and snapped the phone shut. Ashley swung the truck over toward the side of the road and they all felt the back end slip on the loose stone.
"Eh eh," Acton remarked absently from where he sat beside Ashley. He had a hand braced against the dashboard. Michael grinned at the man and stretched his leg across the cramped back bench. His sister was not trying to kill them. The world just needed to ramp up to her speed for its own safety. Acton turned around. His eyes seemed to appraise Michael's lanky frame from his Reef sandals up to his thick Bay Store hoddie. "Mookie, its good you're going to lime with us tonight. We're all going to have a fine time." Michael's smile faded slightly. He nodded his head to acknowledge the remark. The Trinidadian left Michael lost for words sometimes. He was not comfortable with the man yet. Not for his parent's reasons though, Acton Heighes had poise and the body to match it. With little effort he commanded attention. The family had met Acton at Michael's graduation. Michael had been off with Kara and the other Vimy grads primping themselves when Ashley swept into the gym with Acton's arm possessively on her hip. Michael imagined that had derailed more than a few small town conversations. It was Michael's grad, but Ashley and Acton effortlessly danced their way into the centre just as Ashley always had.
"Acton's moving into the condo Mikey," she glanced in the mirror as it to catch Michael's eye.
Acton was still looking at him so Michael raised an eyebrow, and with a shrug said, "That's cool." It was not really. Acton's smile was warm but when he turned back to Ashley. Michael felt he had been dismissed in some way. Like they had just measured cocks and Michael, four years younger, came up short. He wondered if this was Acton's way or if the man wrapped himself in confidence to insulation himself against the herd of pasty faced Western Canadians crowding in on him. Michael studied Acton's aristocratic face as the man smiled softly at his sister. It was an unguarded moment. Chip away at the newness of it all and Michael thought he might like the man.
"You'll know a few people I think Mikey. John's back on the farm for the summer, you know John?"
"Yeah I remember John." Michael looked out the back of the cab. The dry prairie dust boiled up behind the Dodge in a grey cloud obscuring the grid road before the night snatched it away. The full moon lay close to the horizon, its presence not yet felt across the broad prairie landscape. Michael was glad Ashley had talked him into coming. Since the let down of grad night he had felt a pressure building inside him. John was a year older than him and he was as familiar as Michael's own smile. Michael was tired of all that. Besides, he felt cut loose, he was a tumbleweed lightly snagged to the ground waiting for a strong wind to blow him somewhere new. He needed to shake the familiar dust of Vimy off his sandals and get on with it; get on with whatever comes next.
The Dodge's tires rumbled over the gravel suddenly as Ashley hit the brakes. Michael instinctively gripped the back of the bench as his momentum threatened to drag him off the seat. "Eh, eh," Acton offered and Michael laughed. He liked Acton just a little more seeing how well he took his sister. Ashley cut the corner and accelerated on toward the farm yard glowing a few hundred metres up the road. Michael shifted on the bench and hung onto the front seat. Ashley flashed him a smile. He eyed the approaching farm and all the newness it might offer.
There was a respectable crowd. The vehicles, mostly cars, were parked randomly. Ashley tolled off the names as she recognized vehicles. They were strangers to Michael and he stirred with interest. Ashley had brought him, not so very far from home, into unfamiliar territory. Vimy bush parties spanned the years. Michael had attended his first party in grade nine as a freshie, but it was not unusual to see seventh graders mingling with graduates. Alcohol and isolation seemed to be the great leveller in rural Assiniboia. Michael trailed behind Ashley. He measured the unfamiliar faces and caught fragments of conversation. Ashley distracted him from time to time with introductions but mostly he was content to remain her shadow while he accustomed himself to this older crowd.
"Pardon?" Michael stared blankly at a man grinning at him.
"You have to be Ashley's kid brother." Michael confessed that he was. "Yeah the face, I can tell. I'm Mark. You need a drink buddy, follow me." His host snagged a loose fold of Michael's hoody and pulled him away from the group Ashley was with and toward a table where a lone girl was busy cutting fruit. The rhythmic churning of a paint mixer caught Michael's notice. "Almost ready dude; should've had two of them. You know Lauren don't you?" and Michael did. Lauren Mercer graduated a year ahead of Michael and they had taken a creative writing class together. She smiled brightly at him.
"Hey Little Keith," She held his gaze a moment, "Good to see a familiar face here."
"Sure," he agreed. Lauren cut at the fruit distractedly between watching Michael. She stirred his interest. He liked the simple cut of her long brunette hair. It was parted down the middle and framed a soft face. She was wearing a simple black top that emphasized her breasts and a pair of fitted blue shorts. "You're at St. George aren't you?" Michael cast about for some connection between them. She nodded, so he added "I'm there too. I mean next year, in the fall, Education," he trailed off.
"Awesome, I'm taking Commerce. So do you guys have a major or something?" Lauren popped a cherry into her mouth. She offered Michael a chunk of pineapple. Michael moved to take it from her but she pulled her hand back, "It's messy. Just take it." She held it out toward his mouth. A shiver travelled down his spine that curled back up into his groin when her fingers touched his lips. They smiled shyly at each other.
"Yeah sure I guess I'm in the high school program, science major and math minor."
"Seriously? I remember Delgado reading us one of your poems. She raved over it. I figured you would be planning to be all artsy or something. You know, grow your hair long; be the Beat poet."
"Well they say the jobs are there for science teachers. I have to be practical." Lauren agreed with Michael quickly. The mixer shuddered to a halt at Michael's feet and Mark bounced back into his life.
"Done, grab a glass buddy and let's fill it up." Michael took a plastic beer glass from the stack. He noticed an open cooler of ice and beer cans and scooped a glass full. Mark was cradling a four litre sealer jar swaddled in a towel when he turned back. When Mark had the lid off the jar, he took Michael's glass. "Pish dude," The young man dropped half the ice onto the grass and slopped the glass full of a swirling mass of broken fruit and vodka. Michael took it gingerly and tried a sip while Mark refilled Lauren's glass. With a shout toward Ashley and Acton, Mark abandoned them to their conversation.
The fruity concoction was heady stuff. Michael listened as Lauren carried the conversation back to shared acquaintances in Vimy. They exchanged gossip as they stood by the table. Michael moved a little closer, picked a cherry out of his drink and then offered it to her. They shared a laugh when she nipped his finger.
Their privacy was ruined soon after when the table was swamped by people freshening their drinks. An elbow jostled Michel and the drink splashed his hand. He set it down and moved back. Lauren smiled at him over the broad shoulder of some university athlete and Michael realized he was flushed. He pulled the hoody off and cast about for some place to leave it. He settled on a gnarled branch close to the fire pit. Beyond the tree was a small group playing Bache Ball to the dim light of a circle of flickering citronella torches. He stepped toward them drawn by their laughter.
Three of them stood arguing lightly over the placement of the closest balls. The word ball seemed to set them off and the trio tried to work it into the conversation in different ways. A fourth player stood behind hefting a yellow ball as if it was a shot put. It hardly mattered to the men whose ball lay closest to the white pallino. One of them noticed Michael and waved him over, "Hey man, these dicks wads are never going to agree, you decide."
"Don't get me in the middle of this," Michael smiled at the four faces turned his way. It reminded him of the fun he had with his friends curling in school during the winter. The young man laughed at him and told him there was no pressure so he came over to look at the spread. The red ball was clearly closer to the pallino. He toed it tentatively, "Red guys."
"No!" The young man wailed and clutched at his t-shirt. The other two laughed it off. His attacker quickly let go and made a show of straightening Michael's shirt. "Okay, not a big deal. I'm Nevin," he waved his hand lazily in the other men's direction as he continued; "Scott," and then he paused in consternation. He turned to the other two players, "Sorry I forgot already."
"Nevin, Scott, Sanil and Gavin," Michael repeated the names back to them, "hey, I'm Michael." The men collected their balls and one of them tossed the small pallino over towards the house. Michael stood among them as they continued to play. He checked his phone and noticed it was half past ten. A light skiff of cloud obscured the full moon still so the four men had to pace across the expanse of lawn to find their target. It did not seem to matter much. The play absorbed their energy. The young men exchanged information and argued cars, music and summer jobs. Working construction was Michael's first job and he took quiet satisfaction that it travelled well with the other jobs these older men disparaged. Only one of them seemed satisfied with his job. Michael let them talk, absorbing their greater experience and confident opinions like a sponge. After a time two abandoned the game for a group of women heading into the house.
Nevin turned on Michael, "Want to play buddy?"
"Sure," Michael nodded.
"Cool, Scott let me be yellow." Nevin gestured for the other young man's balls.
"No I'm good here," the tall man named Scott replied reasonably. Michael picked up the pallino and the red pair as he listened.
"Be the green, green's a nice colour."
"You be the green, I want to be the yellow. I can see the yellow."
"I can't see the fucking green. I can't see the white ball either," Nevin's whine was playful.
"Then let's go inside," Scott countered with a laugh.
"It's no big deal guys, we don't have to play," Michael interjected shyly. He kicked at the blue Bache balls at his feet nudging one closer to the other. He juggled the red pair against his side with one hand and held the pallino up. Scott stared at him in fascination. "Look, we could toss the white ball towards the back steps." All three turned toward the pool of light illuminating the lawn.
"Good thinking Mitch," Nevin exclaimed brightly. He was on his second beer since Michael had joined the group.
"It's Michael," Scott and Michael responded simultaneously.
Michael swivelled toward Scott and flashed a broad smile. Scott returned a slightly abstracted look that melted into a soft smile when his eyes met Michael's. He was standing with his pair of Bache balls pressed firmly into his thighs. This emphasized his broad shoulders, developed biceps and strong hands. Michael recognized the easy build of a high school athlete, narrow hips and long legs. He judged Scott too lightly built for college sports. He looked the sort to spend an evening playing football with friends. He had about six centimetres on Michael. Scott grinned at the sudden scrutiny; Michael was flustered.
Michael tossed the pallino into the pool of light cast by the back door light. He followed with his first ball. Scott was an engineering student, Michael wasn't sure where. Scott was working for some oil company in Alberta and the Territories. He was the one who liked what he was doing. Michael's first ball touched the pallino softly. "Very nice Mitch," Michael shook his head and laughed at Scott's friend.
It was colder when Michael came back outside seventy minutes later. He wondered over to the tree where he left his hoody and pulled it over his head. He glanced around and found Scott near the back door wreathed in the smoke from a barbeque. Michael had lost track of Scott. After tossing balls around the yard the three young men followed the crowd down to the basement. Michael played the little brother and fell into the rambling conversation surrounding Ashley and Acton. He nursed a Sprite with a few chunks of fruit he had fished from the dregs in the over-sized jar of vodka-fruit punch. He was caught up in the vibrant conversation and alcoholic humour until Lauren snagged him. She drew him into a corner where a few Arthur Curry School alumni sat catching up. Vimy gossip and retread stories of parties past wearied Michael but he tolerated it for Lauren's sake. He was conscious of her closeness and captivated by her smile. Around the room, he caught glimpses of affectionate hugs and kisses. Michael sat calculating the odds Lauren would give him a kiss before he had to leave. By the time they were talked out, the party crowd had thinned considerably. The stuffiness of the basement family room drove Michael and the others out into the fresh night air.
He was pleased Scott had not left. The tall engineering student's friend Nevin, Michael suddenly remembered his name, was poking at the barbeque grill. Lauren was hovering over their host Mark trying to supervise construction of a bonfire so Michael drifted over to the two young men. Scott seemed to sober when he noticed Michael. "I'm glad to see you didn't take off," he tried to encompass both men in his greeting but it seemed natural to end looking into Scott's blue eyes.
Scott's friend punched Michael in the shoulder playfully, "Christ it's still early buddy."
"Nevin is Mark's cousin. We are staying for the weekend," Scott added quietly. Michael remembered to stop looking at Scott's eyes. He switched to the grill where Scott's friend was herding a pair of alarmingly charred burgers and one desiccated Smokey around the grill. "Are you hungry?"
"Not for those, but yes I could eat something," Michael decided with a laugh.
"Tons of fresh ones here, what will it be?" Scott's friend started scooping up burnt patties and flicking them off into the night. He scraped the grill industriously.
"Just a burger I guess," Michael watched as the heavy set man slapped two burgers on the fire.
"You want anything Scott?"
"Maybe a Smokie," Scott's friend dropped a fresh sausage link on the grill.
"Let me see that for a moment. Do you have a knife?" Michael quizzed the two young men. While Scott's friend cast around the barbeque looking, Scott slipped a clasp knife out of his pocket and handed it to Michael. Michael's buttocks brushed against the front of Scott's pants as he edged the two young men away from the grill. The pair watched as Michael quickly began slashing the skin along the side of the Smokie link.
"Ouch that's gotta hurt. What are you doing buddy?"
Michael paused to move the two burgers away from an eruption of flame before replying. "If they are cut, they don't burst when they get hot." It was an elementary cooking trick like not reducing a patty of ground beef to charcoal.
"Hey, the juice has to come out of the dog somehow."
Michael ignored the observation. "Besides, it's easier to eat."
"So you prefer yours cut?"
Michael finally relented and grinned at the young man, "Sure if it's easier to swallow."
"Scott, he swallows," Scott's friend followed this up by giving Michael a friendly shove that knocked the lighter Michael into Scott. Scott steadied him with a hand on the shoulder. "Where's my drink? Scott, buddy, dude I'm out; back in a sec."
Scott dropped his hand and moved next to Michael. "Do you want anything to drink?"
"Sure, can you get me a soda? Sprite or something," Michael looked up at Scott before rolling the Smokie link and flipping the burgers.
"You don't drink?"
"Oh sure," but Michael found it boring, "I'm DD," he added feeling pressured to give a reason. Ashley was over with the group by the bonfire swilling Yuka Flats. Acton had been drinking heavily too, but Michael saw no evidence it was having any impact on the man.
"That's cool Mike," Scott followed his friend over to the drinks table and Michael played with the meat. Loud whoops of excitement followed a sudden explosion of brilliant light over at the fire pit. The assembled young people danced back as gasoline flames licked at the low branches of a gnarled Maple two and a half metres above the pit. Michael could see Acton with his arm draped over Ashley through the shifting flames. The chemical fire faded quickly and someone giggled a warning that the bonfire was going out. A few people tossed their drinks onto the logs, small flashes of blue light erupted. There was a suggestion to add more gasoline but Mark forestalled the plan by dragging a propane tank toward the fire.
"Now that is the way to start a fire," Scott's friend laughed beside Michael. They watched as their host ignited a Tiger Torch and stuck the fierce heat into the center of the haphazard pile of logs. Before long the intensity of the blue torch ignited the fuel. "Want some cheese buddy?" While Nevin dropped cheese on the two patties Michael searched the debris on ground for buns. He glanced toward the drink table and saw that Scott was heading back. He had the burgers off before Scott reached the back door. The three juggled full drinks and snacks back and forth for a moment and then abandoned the barbeque for the group around fire.
"That looks good," Lauren's face glowed as the light from the bright flames played across her face. Her eyes glittered.
"Do you want it?" Michael was distracted as a feminine hand holding a beer bottle reached up to brush some brunette strands away from soft eyes.
"I'll just take a bite thanks." She took the burger from Michael and he watched as her lips wrapped around one side and pulled a bit free. She held it out to him and then he was rewarded with a smile when he encouraged her to keep it. His heart quickened when she offered one last coy look and turned slowly away. Michael memorized the curve of her hourglass shape as she stood talking to a group of girls.
"She wants your hot meat." Michael turned back and looked past Scott to his friend with a grin. He shrugged, not wishing to put the idea of Lauren and him into words. He covered his embarrassment at the transparency of his feelings with a sip from the drink Scott had brought him.
"You want to share some of my Smokie Mike?" Scott asked in a low voice.
"Sure," Michael said. Scott rested the hand holding his own cup lightly on Michael's shoulder as if to steady the younger man and then brought the bun up to Michael's mouth. He watched as Michael bit a section away.
"That's it Mike, open wide, you take Scottie's cut wiener; juicy and hot. Oh God," Scott's friend moaned grotesquely, "It feels so good," he crooned.
"Shut up Nevin," Scott retorted mildly, "Just because this'd be the closest you'll get to sex."
Michael chewed the spicy meat slowly. People were gathering lawn chairs and a bench closer to the fire. There was the odd exclamation as a log exploded, otherwise the group of fifteen young adults settled into the primal pleasure of an open fire. Michael cleared his mouth with a sip and looked through the branches of the old Maple. The fire's glow blinded him momentarily, and then his vision cleared and he could see the bright stars above. Toward the south the full moon dimmed the constellations. A light prairie breeze lifted the slightest hint of moisture off the nearby lake and rustled the leaves. The voices around the fire seemed almost muted to his ears. Scott's friend stepped closer to the fire to pass a comment to Mark. The party rustled in its own way around him but Michael did not move. Scott's hand was still a comfortable weight on his shoulder.
Scott nudged his shoulder slightly to get his attention. When Michael looked, he was offering another bite of his Smokie. Michael accepted the offer with a tilt of his head. As the bun was gently presented, Michael felt the back of Scott's fingers move lightly over his cheek. The fingers lingered after he had bit down and then Scott pulled away. Michael smiled his thanks. Scott was staring at the dancing flames, his eyes seeking something in the coals. Michael stepped closer to the fire and tried to follow him into the blistering labyrinth of charred wood and orange embers. When he did, he felt Scott step closer.
Michael was aware now that the young man by his side was experiencing something of the same tremendous draw he was feeling. It was the warmth of friendship combined with an intense curiosity about all things Scott. It seemed natural to Michael to like the guy. Scott combined an easy humour with restraint and sensitivity. It was hard to imagine the confident university student taking a misstep or being at a loss for words. It was as if he managed his life as easily as he managed his long limbs and muscles. Scott seemed to welcome the magnetic pull between them. Michael was not sure why he would.
The eighteen-year old turned his attention to Ashley across the fire. Her hair shone in the firelight as she turned to one friend or another. Michael thought her easily the most interesting girl at the party, if not the prettiest. Acton sat complacently by her side, not the first handsome man his sister had attracted; they had all been good looking, but certainly the first to match her incandescent personality with his own fire. When Michael was small, he worshipped Ashley. As Michael watched, she paused in her conversation long enough to meet Acton's lips. She caught his face across the fire and shouted, "Mikey," gathering him into her joy as she always had as long as he could remember. His broad smile mirrored back her delight and their brown eyes twinkled. People directed friendly looks his way. You must be Ashley's little brother ; the comment always came quickly and he never seemed to mind.
Michael joined the conversation around the fire. The chairs were taken so he requisitioned a heavy log and propped it near the fire where, like a number of others, he could play with it. Gradually the conversation coalesced into one. They were fifteen people brought together from across two provinces by degrees of separation. Curiosity fuelled the conversation and their similarities and differences was grist for the mill. Tired jokes and reminiscences floated with a new audience. Michael was shy that he had spent his eighteen years in stuffy Vimy, the young men and women had opened a door. He asked questions and people welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate their greater experience.
Lauren waited until Michael went to the drink table to grab a soda. She slipped an arm around his waist, and he hugged her. "Hi," he greeted. Her body felt good against his. She did not pull away so he let his hand drift down to the swell of her hip.
She pressed closer with her hands on his chest. "Let's go down to the beach." She made it sound like a great adventure.
"What, now?" It would be a long walk and even with the moonlight it would be awkward in this unfamiliar location. Michael wavered between a chance to be alone with Lauren and stumbling through the bush blindly seeking the path down to the lake shore.
"The party is at Elk Cove tonight. Kelly and Shareen have been texting me to come join them." Michael felt more ambivalence. Lauren shifted slightly against him and he was conscious of a pressure on his groin. "We'll just go down for a few beers, say hi to everyone and come back. It's early."
"Okay," Lauren reached up and kissed his cheek, "I'll just tell my sister," he added. Michael worked his way over to Ashley. After he told her, he noticed Scott slouched in a lawn chair listening to Mark describe tubing with Nevin when they were twelve. Michael squatted down beside Scott. "I'm running Lauren down to the lake. I just wanted to say goodbye in case you were gone when I got back. It was really great meeting you."
"Remember, we're staying here tonight."
"Oh right, cool, I'll see you when I get back then." Michael felt a flush of relief. He had forgotten what Scott's friend had said by the barbeque. They smiled at each other wordlessly. "Behave," Michael frowned sternly.
Scott laughed and looked over to where Lauren waited. He surprised Michael when he reached over and ran a hand through his hair, "Have a good time Mike." Scott smiled softly at him.
On impulse, Michael grabbed Scott's forearm, "Come with us."
Scott glanced back at Lauren "You just go Mike. She's waiting for you not me."
"Maybe, but she wants to go to a high school party."
"Cool, be with your friends."
"No seriously, it will be lame, if you come along I won't get stuck there," Michael forced the issue by calling over to Lauren, "Scott's coming with us." She was intent on her phone and simply nodded.
Scott and Lauren walked ahead of Michael. The breeze was stronger on the beach and the flames of the bonfire licked at the shifting group of teenagers. He could hear the excited shouts of the younger boys and girls. Figures moved down by the water. Michael wondered if Kara was with the others. He had not talked to her since the clean-up after grad. He had pulled her aside thinking her announcement was some drunken mistake. It was not. He was off to university in St. George and she was staying home with her junior and senior years ahead. It was over, she said. After sulking for three days it occurred to Michael that that he was fine with that.
There was a sudden whoop down by the water and two figures started racing across the sand toward Michael, "Novak, Novak." He kept walking toward the fire. They hit him hard, his feet flew out from under him and all three young men collapsed back into the soft sand. A cold wet body reeking of beer pressed down on him, "Good to see you man." Michael laughed and waited patiently for his friends to get off. "You bastard, you never come anymore. Ah, Lauren Mercier, I get the picture. Now I see why you wanted to come." Suddenly Michael was being humped violently.
"Get the fuck off you guys," Michael pushed his friend away with a laugh, "you're getting me wet." Michael accepted a helping hand and the three young men greeted each other properly. Scott was standing nearby so Michael drew his friends closer. "Gord, Allan, this is Scott."
"Another college boy?" Allan asked.
"Scott Rutherford," Scott added and Michael realized he had not known Scott's last name, "Yes, I'm at the U of A in Medicine Hat." Gord asked if Scott had graduated. "God no, I have at least two more years of engineering," and that elicited a groan from both Vimy teens so recently liberated from cramped school desks. Scott laughed, "It's not that bad. It's a blast most of the time."
"You and Novak, I'd rather ranch with the Rents," Gord interjected. Scott glanced at Michael before turning back to his friends.
"My parents ranch down near East End." That began a conversation Michael could only listen to. He had a brief vision of Scott as the Marlborough Man riding the slopes of Cypress Hills, only Scott did not appear smoke and Michael imagined him in the worn Medicine Hat Tigers ball cap he was wearing. Scott went on to say he was not interested in ranching and his reasons revealed he knew the business. Besides, Scott had older brothers. Gord and Allan warmed to Scott quickly. Michael learned more about Scott in that brief exchange than he had learned all evening. He realized he was tongue-tied around Scott. Scott met his eyes and the friendly smile Scott offered Michael's friends melted away into a thoughtful stare before he seemed to recollect himself and replied to Gord's latest question.
"Michael dude," Michael turned toward a drunken fourteen-year old boy with a girl flowing out of her tight hipsters and halter top. Michael knew the girl. She was fifteen going on tramp-ho. The boy came to a shaky halt half a metre away with a partial erection. "Long time no ... I'm really drunk," the boy concluded solemnly, "Really drunk," he added for emphasis. A year ago the tousle-headed Riley might have slipped over from next door to share a fire with Michael till his mother finally dragged him home. Riley fell into Michael's arms for a limp hug and then staggered back a step. His companion tugged on his arm. Riley gave her a smile and turned back to Michael, "Later, call me dude." Riley raised a hand to his ear mimicking a phone with two fingers, pointed once at Michael, and then stumbled away with the girl. The girl guided him toward the fire, her corseted hips tight against Riley's skinny butt.
Lauren brought Michael a beer. "Thanks for bringing me down." He took the beer realizing he needed a drink. Kara was somewhere over in the darkness. It came to Michael he was not quite free of their relationship yet. Appearing at the beach with Scott and Lauren verified that he was not alone. His friends readily accepted Scott but Lauren had a double edge. He could flout her as a demonstration that he had moved on yet she represented exactly what Kara likely expected from him now that he was going away. Michael tried to push his ex-girlfriend back through the doorway into his past. "It is so beautiful down here," Lauren sighed turning to the lake. Her comment brought Michael out of his reverie. "I feel so connected here, you know?" She held out her hand invitingly. He took it and allowed her to lead him down to the water's edge. "This is what I like, seeing the old gang, sharing news."
"Yes it's cool," Michael nodded. He took a long pull at the beer. The handy reply, cool, it masked his real feelings. He had lived with these people and their relationships every day of his life and he needed to disconnect. If he kissed Lauren this moment Kara would notice and so might Lauren's nineteen-year-old ex boyfriend back by the fire. It was all a little incestuous for Michael. The only one not entangled here on the beach was Scott. Lauren lifted her lips and kissed him without warning and all reservations were driven from his mind.