I knew that he drank most of the whiskey from the bottle on the picnic table but I still didn't know why he couldn't follow simple directions.
Ow! Let go. You're hurting me.
Stay with me, Bridgie. The last thing I want is for you to get lost in the woods tonight.
Lochlan has my hand clenched so tightly in his my fingers are crushed and I'm tripping as I try to run with him. We are making our way through the woods toward the lake as the sun goes down. Not the public swimming beach but the rope swing the boys put up with their fathers years before.
We're going skinny dipping only I don't do that because I don't feel like I'm one of them. Bailey will. Her eyes are bright gold, full of beer. She scowled when she saw that Lochlan was bringing me with them. She's safer at home. It's past her bedtime anyway. I'm not looking after her.
We will, Lochlan says. Caleb nods.
Bailey looks fierce. Don't give her any alcohol. I don't want to get in shit.
I don't want any!
You're not having any anyway, Bridge, you're too young. Here, I brought pop for you.
Caleb twists the cap off as I watch. He is nineteen and this is his first year home for the summer from university. I take a drink. It's really sweet. I don't drink pop late at night. I don't even know late at night, we've never been properly introduced. I'm usually in bed by nine o'clock. But when it's summer and everyone stays out late my parents are satisfied that the older kids will keep me safe and entertain me besides and then they are free to sit on the dock and talk into the early morning hours with their cottage friends. It's a win-win situation.
Caleb doesn't seem drunk but he drinks a huge gulp from the whiskey bottle and then he's the first one out of his clothes, leaping ahead to grab the swing and launch himself out over the deepest part of the lake. With a holler he lets go and disappears under the surface. Everyone laughs and Cole goes next. I stare at his nakedness. They have no modesty whatsoever. Bailey is next. Her long hair covers her chest and she leaves her bikini bottoms on. She laughs and squeals as she flies out over the water and then screams when Caleb leaps up from below to catch her. I smile. I picture them as a couple someday. Maybe next year when she gives up the mall for more serious pursuits, because Caleb is so serious. He wants to be a lawyer. I can see that. He's very good at talking, reasoning. Adults trust him.
Lochlan has not gone on the rope yet. At sixteen he is well-respected but a loner on the fringe of the group even though he pretends he's right in the thick of it all. He's sitting beside me drawing pictures with a sharpie and a composition book. He turns to me and draws a ring on my finger and writes Love is the most important thing down the length of my arm. He tells me never to forget that. I write I won't on his knee. It wears off before we go home because it gets wet. My words don't because I don't go in. In the morning my mom asks what it means and Bailey tells her that Lochlan doodles on everyone.
I don't show my mother what Caleb wrote on my back. I saw it in the mirror this morning because he wouldn't tell me what he wrote in his modern cursive script from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. He tells me he's going to get a big tattoo on his back in a few years. I ask him what he's getting but he doesn't know yet.
Your shadowI find Lochlan flat on his back on the floor in the library. Oh, he is so loaded I can't get him up. He wants to get up but he can't. I don't want to tell anyone else to enlist some help because they will just judge him. He needs to forget things so he uses a liquid lobotomy and then he will forever be sixteen and I will be ten and nothing will have ever gone wrong and the worst thing we will ever have to deal with is homework and eating our vegetables and rainy days in which we can't go to the lake or beach at all. He stops singing when he realizes that I'm there.
I will show you something different
I will only stop you drifting so far
We need to go back in time, Bridgie.
Too late, Lochlan.
Tears slide out his eyes and into his hair. He does not get up. There's music on the stereo, I can't hear what it is. I just know I want to get him up off the floor and upstairs so he can sleep it off but I don't want the kids to see him and I can't do this by myself.
You need to get up, Lochlan.
Bridget, just go out and lock the door. Come back tomorrow please.
Come to bed, Lochlan. Come on.
I can't feel my teeth, sweetheart. I'm sorry.
You're an adult. You didn't fall into a vat of whiskey, Lochlan. How can you be sorry for something you did on purpose?
You don't think sometimes things turn out not to be the right decision?
I don't know.
I'll rephrase it then. Bridget, you've chosen wrong. Now what?
He doesn't wait for me to reply. He is singing again. His accent is all over the place and I want to laugh only this sucks.
You looked beautiful this morning.
No, I mean it. It's hard to believe you have grown up in front of all of us.
What was I supposed to do, stay little forever?
Maybe. Then I wouldn't have taken you to that godforsaken place.
I look away. I really don't want to do this now. I sit down beside him on the floor.
Then you wouldn't have this stupid tattoo. He lifts up my shirt in the back and runs his hand across my shoulder blades, where it says Innocent in Caleb's neat cursive script, in Gaelic. Neamhchiontach. To match his tattoo that says Devil in Gaelic. Diabhal.
I like my tattoo. It keeps him forever accountable.
It makes me feel guilty.
I forgave you.
But you didn't forget, peanut. He tilts forward and puts his head down in my lap. He closes his eyes and I automatically start to comb through his curls with my fingers. He goes to sleep. He's the only one who doesn't look like a little boy when he's sleeping. He looks like a man. A man conflicted and torn, a man who carries such a heavy load all the while refusing to claim it as his own.
How am I supposed to forget? And why can't you follow simple directions?
He doesn't hear me. He's in his whiskey dreams where I am a child. Little more than someone to bounce his fears off. Little more than a mirror, his little shadow. A little hesitant. A little suggestible.
The library door opens around seven. I see the light spill into the hallway and I get up and go to see how he is. Lochlan walks out into the hall and sees me and then turns and heads upstairs. I am behind him the whole way but he doesn't stop. Finally outside the bedroom door I ask him how he's doing and he stops for a beat but then he goes into my room and closes the door on me. In my face, if we are being particular.
I turn and slide down the door to sit against it. I can wait for him. Eighty-five minutes pass and Ben comes to the top of the steps and just looks at me. I ask him what he wants and he says he's been looking for me. I snap that I've been here for a while, that Lochlan went inside and never came back out. Ben says that he probably went to sleep. That he weighs a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet and probably can't handle a forty all that well. Why don't I come down and let Lochlan sleep through the rest of the evening?
I shake my head. I'm fine right here, I tell him.
What's more important, Bridget?
Love. Love is the most important thing, Ben.
Who told you that, Bridget? I wouldn't say it's true all the time. I watch his face. He is choosing his words so carefully. Each one is made of land mines disguised as letters. Each one ticks like a time bomb. Each one is locked and loaded.
Maybe you're right.
He stops thinking and reacts instead, changing expressions and I know I went too far.
Are you choosing sides today?
Trying not to.
You might want to think about that, Bridget. Because from here it looks like my team is down a player.
We're all on the same team, Ben.
You know something, Bridget? You and Loch may live in some kind of fucked-up Neverland fantasy but some of us are right here in reality and I've got news for you. We've never been on the same team. Ever. I gave you as much latitude as I could and it's making me crazy.
The door opens suddenly. Lochlan doesn't come out or say anything but the door is just...open. An invitation. An escape.
I did not have to think twice. I grabbed Ben's hand and pulled him in with me. He didn't fight me. We made a Lochlan sandwich (Ben and I were the bread, Loch was the meat) and stayed with him until he started making sense again. We took turns watching over him, took turns sleeping and took turns talking him out of his drunken opinions and stalwart proclamations. It took a while.
When the tides had turned we were forced to do the same for Ben, unencumbered by alcohol but positively hobbled with doubt, fear and massive waves of regret. I'm not picking sides, I prioritize based on need. Once reminded of that Ben was more comfortable and far less resigned. His generosity hits me like a brick wall only to mix with Lochlan's possessiveness. The heartbreaking honesty and depth of our words leaves me exhausted and suddenly doubtful of everything and nothing, least of all this very unconventional love affair that finds me squarely in the center.
Because this time I got the middle. It's very hard to be the meat. And yet, here I am.
Neamhchiontach go cinnte. And please pass the whiskey.