Aesop Lake by Sarah Ward was published July 24th, 2018. © Green Writers Press – reprinted here with author’s permission.
Excerpts from Aesop Lake
Leda Keogh – The Bully
“Do you think the water will be cold?” I ask.
“Should be cold enough.” He reaches over and pinches my left nipple. My cheeks burn but I don’t move away, just hold my arms in tighter to my sides as he starts laughing. I push the uncomfortable feeling away and let his smile make me feel better.
The gravel under the tires crackles as we pull into the parking lot of the reservoir. Voices are coming from the dark water, and the occasional splash echoes through the trees. Someone is probably jumping off the dam into the thirty-foot black water. I wonder again how cold it is. Probably better to just jump and get it over with, otherwise I might chicken out. The thought of being naked in the icy water makes me blush again, and then I see the other car. Damn.
“Come on, David. Let’s get out of here,” I urge. “I don’t want to take my clothes off in front of people and I didn’t bring a suit.”
“Let’s just see who it is,” he insists, parking the 4×4. David doesn’t acknowledge the silver Beetle parked under the trees, but I know it’s Ricky and Jonathan. I don’t really care that they’re gay, and for the most part it doesn’t really affect me. Ricky and I do labs together. He’s smart, pretty funny, gentle, and very, very gay. When a beautiful doe-eyed boy looks dreamily at his best friend, you can tell they’re not just friends.
“I don’t want to skinny dip with other people around, David, and I don’t have a suit. Let’s just go.” I’m begging now, but he is already out the door, closing it quietly. I climb out and sidle up, grabbing his hand, which he squeezes.
The moonlight strikes the water, lighting up the silhouette of two boys with their arms wrapped tightly around each other. They’re making out near one of the big boulders lining the shore. Ricky’s smaller physique against Jonathan’s makes him look almost feminine, but the squareness of their shoulders, the flat chests and narrow waists, gives them away.
“Let’s go, David,” I whisper. I can see his chest heaving. His anger is a python, squeezing the warmth from the air.
“What the fuck!” he snaps, shifting back and forth on his feet. “Those fucking faggots are messing up our spot! What the fuck are they doing?”
I pull David by the arm back towards the pickup.
“Come on, David, let’s go. I don’t really care if we can’t swim tonight. We can come back another time.”
He lets me drag him away, back down the path and to the truck. I’m relieved. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. Before I know what’s happening, I hear him talking to MJ.
“You gotta get over to the dam, dude. We got ourselves a couple of pansies doing the nasty. . . . Yeah, no shit. Are you coming or what?”
I raise my hand to cover my shocked mouth.
He looks up at me. “What?”
“Why are you doing this?” An urge to scream out to Ricky and Jonathan rises. I know MJ only lives a mile and a half down the road. He’ll be here any minute.
“Why am I doing what? Is one of them your gay BFF?” He raises his voice high and flicks out a pinky.
I stare at David for a long moment, and he stares back, daring me to challenge him. My heart pounds in my chest, and I drop my gaze. David steps closer and places his large hand on the back of my thigh, pulling me close.
“This,” he says, pulling my body up against him, “this is what is meant to happen between a man and a woman.” He leans in, pressing me between his hips and the cold metal of his truck. I don’t move or breathe. I can’t.
I hear tires on gravel and MJ pulls up in his mother’s Suburban. He jumps out. David turns away from me as if nothing is happening. I take a step away from the truck bed, trying to act as if everything is fine. My stomach does a flip as I see what MJ is holding.
“What are you doing?” I ask. MJ looks down at his shotgun.
“This? It’s just for show.” And David starts snickering, his dark hair cutting across his beautiful eyes. David catches my expression, and suddenly he knows exactly what I’m going to do. He grabs me by the arm and digs in his fingers.
“Don’t spoil all our fun,” he whispers. “We aren’t going to hurt them, Leda. No one is going to get hurt. I promise. Get in the truck and wait for us,” he commands. “Can I trust you?” he asks. “Because if I can’t, I’m sure the cops would love to hear about your mom.”
My gut tightens into my chest. I nod, exhaling. He slowly relaxes his grip.
“Just stay here. We won’t take long, just a little scare.” His voice is steady. He and MJ move down to the water.
I back away towards the door of the truck and feel for the cool, worn handle. I clamber up to the passenger’s seat and squint into the darkness.
A shot rings out and someone’s scream breaks through the dense air of the cab. There is splashing, shouting. Then another shot and more screams. My heart is pounding. I pull my phone from my jeans. Tears slide out of the corners of my eyes. I wipe them quickly away and slide to the floor of the truck.
Jonathan Tanner-Eales – The Lamb
I hear a blast and something ricochets off the rock next to Ricky’s back. I’m so confused. I hear hollering in the distance, and then screaming in my ear. I look down. It’s coming from Ricky. Someone is yelling, something about queers, but I can’t understand it. I can’t make out any faces, just the shape of two people.
I grab Ricky’s hand and pull him out into the water, his legs moving like the tin man.
“Are you okay?” I ask. Ricky’s face is terror-stricken. His eyes are bulging and he stares straight ahead.
“Come on. We have to swim away, now.” I try to pull Ricky into the deeper water. His arms and legs will not move. The white witch has turned him to stone. He just stands there, knee-deep.
“I’m going to teach two queens a lesson,” a voice declares, moving closer.
“Jesus, Ricky, we have to get out of here. Someone is coming. We have to swim away,” I plead, but nothing snaps Ricky out of it. Hot tears run down my cheeks. Desperation clutches my heart. I have seen enough movies to know this is not going to end well.
“Leave us alone!” I shout toward the voices. I reach out and slap Ricky across the face. Maybe it will shake him into action. Another shot, and I feel sharp pain in my thigh and butt, like bee stings. My hands instinctively move over my crotch. My thigh is numb. Ricky begins to shake uncontrollably. He is the lamb waiting for the wolf. Someone stands at the edge of the reservoir and I can see the barrel of a gun pointed in our direction. Another guy moves quickly into the water towards us and reaches out. He grabs Ricky’s arm from his statue of a body.
“No!” I yell, and grab at any part of Ricky I can, trying to keep him away and safe. But I can’t hang on to his wet body, and I can’t let myself be pulled up the embankment with him. He’s being pulled out of my reach. My empty hands swipe the air where Ricky’s body should be.
I turn towards the water. I gulp air and dive deep and far. My mind is racing for an idea of what to do. I can’t fight them. Ricky isn’t here. He has disappeared. I push myself through the water as far from the shore as I can until my lungs feel as if they will explode. My head breaks the surface and I gasp for air.
“So, you’re a faggot and a pussy,” the voice hollers. Another round of pellets sprays the water to my left.
Ricky’s pale body levitates out of the water and lands on the edge of the bank like a mannequin. The shadows move closer. They kick him. He hardly reacts. It looks like they’re pulverizing a log. He doesn’t cry out, or twist away. Their boots thump against him and they laugh.
“Come on out and help your boyfriend, faggot!” a voice yells. “We already fucked him up, there’s not much left for you.” They break into laughter. I keep my legs moving, try to slow my breathing, and swallow the sobs. A light comes on in the distance and I wonder if someone has reported a disturbance.
“Come on, let’s go,” I hear one of them suggest. “If he doesn’t get the message we’ll find him alone.”
“Yeah, okay.” The other is bent over and grabs something off the shoreline. Then his arm flings back and I hear a splash to my left. God, I hope that’s not my phone.
“Did you hear that, fucker? We’ll get you next time!” the first voice yells.
I stay in the water, feeling the milfoil against my legs. Doors slam. There’s more yelling, and then the rip of tires against the gravel. I move through the cold water to the edge of the bank. My body is covered in goosebumps and my legs ache. My mind feels numb, but all my anger is hot in my gut. I know I need to get out of the water, so I find my footing and heave my body onto the grassy slope.
Ricky looks like clay, muted and misshapen. I can’t see any movement, and for a split second I believe the worst. Tears sting my eyes and snot drips from my nose. I reach out to touch his skin. I can feel his chest moving. “Thank god,” I whisper.
“Hey, Ricky. It’s me, Jonathan. Can you hear me? They’re gone.” I want to reassure him. My voice breaks and tears stream down my face. I’m afraid to touch him. I want him to know it’s going to be okay, so I wrap my arms around his shoulders and lean my head against his chest.
“I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.” My head lifts and drops in time to Ricky’s breathing. He needed me and I didn’t help. I should have tried. I should have forced him into the water with me. Maybe I could have knocked that guy off balance. I feel like I’m going to retch.
Leda Keogh – Pack Animals
Mom settles back into her seat, clutches her bag close to her chest, and gives me an anxious look. I just shake my head.
“What is David’s relationship with Ricky Norton?” asks Officer Templeton, redirecting the conversation back to me.
I think about this, remembering our fight. Did you study fairy dust today in chemistry, Leda? I see a fairy escaped the lab. This freakin’ school is full of fairies. A few people around us laughed, and I could see Ricky’s shoulders droop and his head tip forward. Where’s your boyfriend, guy? Did you forget your fairy queen? Red splotches formed on the back of Ricky’s neck. With my arm still looped in David’s I dragged my feet, giving him a few paces to escape. Then David took a big step forward and pulled Ricky’s book down from his arms, sending the notes we had just spent an hour working on flying through the hallway.
Leave him alone, David!
Go fuck yourself, Leda.
It took two days of text flirting to get him to forgive me. Then I got the idea to go swimming after he got off from work at his father’s garage. Even though it was a school night, I just wanted us to make up before the weekend.
I hear myself answer. “David doesn’t really have a relationship with Ricky. I don’t even know if he knows who Ricky is.”
“In a small school of only three hundred students, and seventy-five seniors, David doesn’t know him? Doesn’t know the boy who is your lab partner?”
I’m surprised she knows Ricky is my lab partner.
“I’m not saying he doesn’t know who Ricky is, but they hang out in different crowds, you know? Just because we all go to the same school doesn’t mean we’re all best friends.”
“Okay. I’ll ask in a different way. What kind of interactions have you noticed between David and Ricky in school?”
I don’t want to do this anymore. “I haven’t noticed any interactions. I don’t think they really talk to each other.” The officer is writing lots of notes and keeps flipping pages. I want to tell her to get an iPad or something. I look over to my mom, who is biting her lip. It looks like it’s about to start bleeding.
“What about between MJ and Ricky?”
“MJ?” I ask, and suck in my breath. “Why would I know anything about MJ?”
“Isn’t MJ David’s best friend?” Officer Templeton asks.
“Yeah. I mean, they’re good friends. David has other friends too,” I say, hoping this will steer them towards other possible suspects.
“Do you spend time with David and MJ together?”
“I guess. Sometimes.”
“Well, have you ever noticed any interactions between MJ and Ricky?”
“No.” Another nail in my coffin of lies. Officer Templeton looks at me for a long, silent minute. “Are we done yet? I really need to get back to class.”
She looks over her notes, and then pulls a business card out of her front left pocket. She hands the card to me and then stands to go. She shakes my mother’s hand. “Thank you for your time, Mrs. Keogh, feel free to call me if your daughter has any further information to share.”
Jonathan Tanner-Eales – A Bad Excuse
“I think about it all the time too,” I offer. I’m feeling brave after arguing with Anita.
“What do you think about?” she asks.
“That day, what happened, what I could have done differently . . .” I trail off.
Words pour from her mouth. “Do you ever think about before that day? What lead up to that day? Did you ever wonder if it was safe to be off by yourselves? When you knew Ricky was being bullied by those assholes at school?”
I’m stunned at the accusation in her voice. She thinks it’s my fault. There’s a crack of anger she’s barely holding in. Did Anita tell her about our argument?
“No. I mean, I knew, but I didn’t think…”
“That’s right,” she retorts. “You didn’t think about anything but your own libidos.” Her voice is rising and a red flush is moving up her neck. “You . . . for months, Ricky has shown up at home with bruises from being punched in the arm. Or tripped in the hallway. His notebook covers have crude drawings on them. Horrible drawings! And slurs written by idiots who think they’re funny.”
She raises her right arm in front of her and yanks her sleeve down towards her elbow. “I wondered why he was using up so many notebooks. Until I found them under his bed. I told his father months ago that we should talk with the principal about the way he was being treated, but he said Ricky needed to learn to fight his own battles. But you!” Her tone rises higher. “You knew what was happening! Why didn’t you help him? Why did you take him off to a secluded place where he could be attacked?”
She grabs her mouth to stop herself from yelling more, and the tears stream from the slits of her closed eyes. I stare at her anguished face, feeling remorse for all of it, and remember the many times I saw the bruises on Ricky’s arms, the cut on his lip after being pushed up the stairs by a group of football players who treated him worse than pigskin. Ricky didn’t fight back because he didn’t stand a chance against them. And he was afraid.
Sarah Ward writes young adult fiction, poetry and journal articles in the field of child welfare. Over a twenty-five-year career as a social worker, Sarah has worked with young adults and families with harrowing backgrounds. She won the 2007 Editor’s Choice Award for the New England Anthology of Poetry for her poem, “Warmer Waters”; and she has been a member of the League of Vermont Writers since 2008. In her limited spare time, Sarah enjoys a good book, a little yoga, and a cup of tea at her home in Williston, Vermont.
Image: Flickr / Mark Leary