You met the girl on the island. She hunted snakes. Big, brown ones, with black stripes. Two younger boys, your family friends, taught her how. She screamed the first time they showed her, little siblings gathered round. This was on the slabs of rock beside the enormous old building, a bizarre, out-of-place white stone boathouse some inventor from Iceland had built. Actually, she didn’t scream, she wouldn’t do that.
First time you saw her was on those very rocks. You smiled at each other, but then she headed off for a hike with her family. She said she’d be back, and from then on, you watched and waited.
Two days later, your paths crossed. It was early evening, when everyone left their campsites and went to the big field to play kickball and throw frisbees. You said hi; she said hi too. Then you searched beside the lake together. You would have guessed she was your age, but when you asked, she said she was 13, a whole year younger.
Your families returned to their campsites at dusk, allowing you and the other kids to stay longer, but when it was dark, truly dark, you headed home down different trails. Your friend Oak told her and her sisters to come to the rocks in the morning, when the snakes returned to sun.
In the morning, she appeared again: tan, tall, smiling, accompanied by two little sisters and a tiny brother with long, curly blonde hair, like yours at his age. You’d caught three snakes by 9 o’clock, half an hour later. They made you nervous, but she taught herself to hold them, carrying them gently, one hand on the neck, to show her mother and older sister, proud, brave, bragging. They smelled like outhouses or elevators to underground trains, but you weren’t going to say anything about the odor when it was getting all over her hands and clothing.
Her sister suggested going to the beach, so you headed back to your campsites to change before the sun was even overhead. At first, you could hardly look at her in the mustard yellow two-piece with that deep brown skin and those long arms and legs. The Lake Michigan water was cold, so you shared snacks: pistachios, carrot sticks, dried mango, off-brand taquitos. Someone came up with another activity – maybe visiting the haunted cemetery – so you were off again, running around in a pack on narrow dirt trails, like children in a book or long ago.
Her mother cooked lunch at their campsite – grilled cheese and quesadillas on their Coleman – and you played cards at the picnic table under huge trees. You wish now that you’d noticed what kind. Their site sat right beside the water and a pebbly beach. Oak ate everything they offered, but you politely declined it all. You knew they were leaving next day and didn’t need much food, but your parents taught you better.
Then you visited the grand, mysterious boathouse where you played more cards and she performed a haunting song she’d composed on the old piano. More snake hunting, swimming, and cards at your campsite. The day was long, but it slipped by so fast. It had seemed impossibly long, unbelievable at first, that you would have an entire day together – one more full day and night – before her family left, but the longer it lasted, the shorter it felt. She said she wished they were staying longer, two more days like you, but they didn’t have reservations and hadn’t brought enough food.
You left her and returned to your family’s tent for dinner, and when you returned an hour later, she didn’t notice. She was buried in a book, reading beside the fire her older sister was building, and you had to come right up next to her. “Want to play wiffle ball?” She was up in a moment, dropping the book on her camp chair, pulling on a sweatshirt.
You fooled around during the game, but not like that, just goofing off, annoying the adults – all your parents’ friends, people who had invited you on their annual camping trip – both of you trash at hitting and fielding. She batted left-handed, and you began to realize how much you didn’t know about her. Then you asked if she wanted to ditch the game, and you walked off the field, making them angrier. Two or three of the other families’ daughters trailed you, annoyed that you were always with her, trying to figure out what exactly was going on. You walked around the mowed field and along the shore in the dusk. The light there was different, lower, more mellow, almost pastel, or maybe it just seemed like that because you were outside all day and you could stand on a huge grassy expanse and look out over the bay and the distant ridges of land.
Your mother let you go back to her campsite after dark, so you took a headlamp. Her sisters yelled at each other and ate all the chocolate they had left because they’d be leaving the next day. Her little brother with long curly blonde hair fell asleep, head on their mother’s lap on a blanket beside the fire. They asked about your life, where you’d traveled, what your older sister was like, and told stories about the places they’d been.
In the morning, you met again for the last time, on a bench near the boathouse, just after dawn, both slipping out of your tents, careful with the zippers. You brought a blanket.
You lay now on your bed, staring at your phone’s screen. After coming home, you spoke on Facetime. Then you saw her embarrassing social media account which she explained was all a joke, a character she made up. But you realized the island was just a dream, a pretend world, so you blocked her. How could you have been so in love you cried as the ferry carried her away, watching from your seat on the boathouse balcony?
Erica Jenks Henry’s work has appeared in Arkansas Review, SVJ Online, Lumiere Review, Oyster River Pages, Pithead Chapel, Literary Hub, Zone 3, Maudlin House, New World Writing, and Thimble and is forthcoming in The Caribbean Writer. She currently lives and works in the field of public health in Chicago.
Art: Joseph Plateau Public Domain ALT A circular disc covered in snakes. When spun, like a zoetrope, the snakes appear to crawl over the disk
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