It takes me a minute to realize that my mother is talking, and I reluctantly look up from my book. “What?”
“You need to get ready, we’re leaving for the ‘Preserve Chapman Island’ meeting in ten minutes.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
The meeting has nothing to do with me—it’s just an excuse for my parents and their friends to drink martinis and talk about getting rid of the cannery on the island.
When she doesn’t say anything, I add in the bitchiest, most sarcastic voice I can muster, “I thought I was grounded?”
Silently she scowls at me with her hands on her hips. “You’re coming with us. That’s final.”
As I expect, the “meeting” is a bunch of old people drinking and laughing too loud. As soon as we walk in, my parents are pulled into a conversation and I take a drink off a tray—a gin and tonic or a vodka tonic, I’m not sure—and walk out to the sunroom. I ignore the women talking at the end of the room, and sip my drink and stare out at the sailing-school boats in the bay. Watching the little boats pulling on their moorings, I thank God that sailing lessons are long behind me. All the other kids seemed to love it, but for me it was torture. Even when the water was calm, it was a blue so dark it was nearly black. I spent every minute on the boat worrying about what was hidden under the surface—mackerel being chased by stripers, lobsters crawling over the rocks or something else I didn’t want to let myself imagine. I tried to convince myself that whatever was sliding through the water wouldn’t hurt me, but every time my sailboat capsized, I’d scramble as fast as I could to right it and climb back in. I couldn’t bear to be in the water, my legs dangling down into the black, thinking of everything that might be lurking below.
I startle when someone next to me says, “Care for a canapé, Miss?”
“Uh, no thanks,” I say distractedly, glancing at the server then back out at the water.
“What the hell, Frankie?” the girl says.
I turn to look at her. She’s wearing black pants and a white shirt, but she’s young and her long hair is pulled back in a ponytail.
She stares at me with disbelief. “It’s me—Shannon—we hung out at Tina’s last week? And like a million other times too?”
“Right! Of course I know you, Shannon.” I force a laugh.
“For a minute I thought you didn’t recognize me!” She says, laughing, “Thank God! I didn’t want to think you’re like everybody else here!”
“Oh, please!” I say, rolling my eyes. “Don’t confuse me with my parents!”
“Will you be at Pete’s tonight? Everyone’s going and the twins got a keg.”
“I’m not sure if I can. I’m still grounded.”
Mrs. Carson sees me through the doorway and comes out to the porch. “Oh, Francine! It’s so nice to see you! Charlotte will be sorry she missed you; she’s not back from London yet.”
I can feel Shannon watching me as I nod slightly.
Turning to Shannon, she says, “Why don’t you refresh your tray, and please tell someone in the kitchen there’s a spill on the rug in the study that will have to get cleaned up quickly or it’s going to set.”
To me, she says, “As soon as Charlotte’s back we’ll have to get out on the tennis courts.”
As Shannon walks away I blurt out, “See you tonight.”
Mrs. Carson seems startled, but Shannon doesn’t acknowledge what I said.
“Nice party,” I say to Mrs. Carson, “I’m going to go outside for a bit,” and go out the screen door to the lawn. I wander around and then sit on the tree swing. Lazily I push myself and think yet again how annoying it is to be grounded, especially since there are only a few weeks left of summer. The funny thing about getting caught Saturday is that TJ had promised the night would be epic, but it was actually one of the most boring nights all summer. When he picked me up, I was just happy to be done with the SAT tutor my mother had somehow found to come out to the cottage. The tutoring—and my father and brother’s constant arguing—were driving me crazy. In most ways it wasn’t different from any other summer, but somehow everything was grating on my nerves.
TJ picked me up in his faded red pickup, and as we drove I was content to feel the breeze and watch the sky smeared with orange and pink. We stopped at the empty parking lot at Crescent Beach and smoked some pot while we watched the sunset. As usual, the pot put TJ in a philosophical mood.
“There are two kinds of people in the world, Frankie,” he’d said, counting on his fingers. “One, the kind who are petrified of doing anything because they might screw up their one precious life. And, two, the kind that have to find a reason every day not to end it all.” He looked over and took my hand. “Am I right?”
I smiled. “You might be.”
We hung out for a while longer, and as he pulled out of the parking lot, TJ asked, “You ready to get this evening started?”
“Sure,” I said, adding, “Hell, yah!” Trying to sound more excited.
Leaning back against the headrest, I felt sleepy from the pot and thought about what TJ had said. He said things like that a lot—usually when he was trying to convince me to do something like get high, jump off the dock railing, or have sex with him. And maybe there was something to his philosophy, but I know there are way more than two kinds of people in the world. There are the ones like the kids at home who are going to succeed and live impressive lives, despite all the ways they’re bound to fuck up. There are the clueless, oblivious ones like my dad, who doesn’t seem to register anyone except himself. And there are the “everything is wonderful as long as the neighbors think it is” people like my mother, who is entirely focused on creating the appearance of perfection. Then there’s my brother who’s threatening to be some kind of a rebel, but who I’m sure will end up exactly where he’s expected to be. But if TJ wants to see the world as black and white, who am I to disagree?
“Let’s get this party started!” He accelerated briefly before stopping at a traffic light.
When the light changed, TJ hesitated for a moment before turning right like the car in front of us. We drove for a few blocks back toward the bridge to the island, and I wondered where we were going. Maybe to get some food at the Clam Hut? But then he turned left, and took an immediate right heading away from town, just like the blue Camry in front of us. I glanced at him but he seemed to be concentrating.
We drove for a bit and I had no idea where we were. The road became narrower, winding through dense woods. Finally, it straightened out and we passed a farm with huge fields stretching out on either side, the empty fields lined with fence posts and sagging strings of barbed wire.
“Where are we?” I asked. I honestly didn’t know what town we were in, and there was no one else around except the car in front of us.
I looked at TJ and he shrugged.
The Camry was still in front of us, and it accelerated and then suddenly turned left into a neighborhood without signaling, and TJ turned in after it.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He looked at me and said with a laugh, “Check this guy out! He is totally freaking…”
Just as he said that, the Toyota took a quick left and then a quick right. I had to grab onto the armrest as the truck swerved and the car in front of us sped back out of the neighborhood, TJ keeping up with him.
“What are you doing?” I asked, realizing I’d been holding my breath.
“Oh my God!” he said, laughing again. “This guy is losing his shit!”
The Camry blew through a stop sign and raced down another quiet side street as we followed close behind, and I wanted to tell TJ to slow down. Then suddenly, with tires squealing, the guy in front of us turned into a driveway. I wondered if it was even his house.
TJ slowed his truck as we passed and I could see the driver—an old guy with short gray hair and a beard—staring at us in the rearview mirror, his eyes bugging out. As we watched, the car door started to open. TJ stepped on it and we sped down the street and turned back out on the main road.
TJ slapped the wheel like he’d just seen the funniest thing in the world. Finally, he turned and looked at me. “What?”
I could feel my heart pounding. “What was the point of that exactly?”
“Don’t you ever feel like you need to do something…unexpected? I don’t know Frankie, if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you.”
We drove in silence for a few minutes, and I considered asking him if he’d take me home. I didn’t feel like going out anymore, and having an early night sounded much more appealing than hanging out at a random party.
“I’m not like you,” TJ said, seemingly out of nowhere. “I don’t come from a rich family with lots of houses.”
“We only have two houses,” I interrupted. “Well, three, I guess, if you count the ski cabin but…” I let my voice fade away, hearing how stupid I sounded.
TJ didn’t even look over at me, seeming lost in thought. “Whatever—one house, three houses—it’s not just that and you know it.” He scowled at the road.
“And it’s not just the money, although that’s part of it. It’s more that you’re not from here. Your life is already bigger than this place. My life has always been—and will probably always be—here. But the island is just a place you come sometimes, a stopping point on the way to your real life.”
We rode in silence. I wanted to contradict him, but I couldn’t think of what to say without sounding condescending. And the truth is, I got what he was saying.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m looking through binoculars, you know?” he said. “Like all I can see is one tiny area in front of me…when I know there’s so much more out there. There has to be,” he added softly.
We stopped at Dairy Queen for hot fudge sundaes, and someone told us that the party on the beach had already been broken up. So we drove out to the marsh and drank the six pack he’d brought, until I was tired of pushing his hands away from the zipper on my jeans and said I had to get home.
I don’t even know what time it was when I got home. I just have a vague memory of staring up at the stars as TJ drove me home, but that could have been a memory from another cloudless night when we were driving around. All I know is that there’s a different sky in Maine— where millions and billions of stars crowd the black night sky, a sky that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
TJ shut the headlights off before turning into the driveway, and he stopped far from the house. I wasn’t even drunk, and I’ve snuck in so many times I know how to keep the kitchen door from squeaking, but that didn’t matter since my parents were sitting in the living room. One thing I do remember, is saying “Oh, fuck” when I saw them.
Of course they acted outraged and grounded me for a week. Listening to their lecture about my lack of responsibility, I felt like it was a scene scripted to make them feel like good parents. It was such an overreaction—and especially stupid given how lame the night was—but for some reason I didn’t feel like arguing.
The first night of my sentence, Jay and I were both home and we played Yahtzee on the screened porch like we did when we were kids. Our parents were out and we sipped cans of beer and watched the sunset. As the darkness took over we didn’t bother to turn on the porch lights, our game forgotten.
Out of nowhere Jay asked, “So why are you hanging out with TJ? He seems like such a loser.”
Pissed off, I sat up. “No he’s not. He’s…”
I tried to think of a response while at the same time trying to figure out what I really thought of him. “Maybe he doesn’t belong to the yacht club, but he’s better than most of the douches that come here for the summer.”
Jay seemed to think about that for a minute. “Fine, but I’ve seen him doing wheelies on his motorcycle, and I heard he can get kind of out of control.”
“Jesus, Jay,” I said with a laugh. “It’s called being a kid—doing backflips off the pier isn’t exactly a criminal offense.”
“I know…I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
It actually made me kind of happy to hear him say that. “I know. TJ blows a lot of smoke too. He jokes about not living past twenty-five, and going out in a blaze of glory. But he’s not serious about any of that. He’s actually pretty smart and will probably end up going to college.”
After a minute, I added, “Don’t tell Mom, but I’m actually starting to wrap my head around senior year and college, too.” We ended up talking about my top college choices and whether I should apply early like he did, or keep my options open.
I’m thinking about that conversation when my parents finally leave the party. I’ve been sitting on the swing for more than an hour when they come out. They seem slightly surprised to see me, as if they forgot they dragged me there. I don’t speak on the ride home, and they’re so busy talking loudly—or arguing (sometimes it’s hard to tell). I try to pretend I’m not there. They’ve both definitely had a few, so at least I know I won’t have a hard time sneaking out later.
I call TJ from the kitchen phone as soon as we get home, and make a sandwich and eat it in my room. At ten o’clock, I put a sweatshirt, a flashlight, and two joints I’ve been saving in an old backpack. If I have to, I can climb out the window and climb out over the porch roof, but from the hallway I can hear my parents’ voices coming from the porch. From the volume of their voices and laughter, I know that I can go down the back staircase and out the side door. I make sure to shut off my light and put my pillow under the quilt in case they check in on me. I don’t think they ever do, but better safe than sorry.
At the bottom of the stairs I almost bump into Jay leaving the kitchen with a bowl of ice cream.
“Oh my God! You gave me a heart attack!” I whisper as loudly as I dare. I put my hand to my chest and can feel my heart beating wildly.
“I gave you a heart attack? What are you doing?”
“Right. For God’s sake, Frankie, you’re grounded!” he interrupts.
“Fuck you, Jay.”
“Nice,” he responds.
“No, seriously, you’re not in charge of me.”
“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not being stupid…”
“Stupid? Wanting to go to a party and hang out with people that are real, and aren’t just the same country club assholes?” My voice grows louder but I don’t care.
“No, I get it,” Jay says, his face serious. “I really do.”
He reaches out and touches my arm. “I just worry about you—especially with TJ.”
I consider telling him to fuck off again, but looking at his face I say, “I know, Jay. But you don’t have to worry about me. It’s summer and I just want to have a little fun, I’ll be fine.”
I turn to go but he holds onto my arm. “OK, promise me? And don’t be too late.”
“Okay, Jean,” I say smiling. We both hate it when we call each other by our mother’s name.
“Promise?” he asks again, gently squeezing my arm.
The moon is nearly full and I don’t even have to turn on the flashlight as I walk down the driveway to the end of the road. Waiting for TJ, I slap at the mosquitos that buzz incessantly around my head, and I wonder if I should have said I’d go out. But as soon as I see his headlights, I’m glad I did. There are only a few more weeks until I have to go back home and deal with the real world. I need to seize every chance I have to enjoy what’s probably going to be my last full summer on the island.
The party ends up being way more fun than I expected. Jason has a big house, and his parents’ bar is well-stocked. We do shots and then someone cranks the music and everyone starts dancing. I’m having a good time, but after we’ve been dancing for a while I look over at TJ and catch his eye. He winks and I wink back, then he walks over and takes my hand.
“Ready to go to Deer Point? It’ll be romantic.” He raises his eyebrows trying to make me laugh.
I smile and rest my head on his shoulder. “Another time. I’m ready to go home.”
He kisses my head and we walk to the car.
It’s only a couple miles back to the cottage across the bridge to the island. I sit close to TJ as he drives. He has one hand resting on my leg and I put my head on his shoulder. It’s hard to keep my eyes open, I suddenly feel as if I could sleep forever.
“Tonight was fun, thank you,” I say.
“Frankie, you don’t have to thank me. Being with you is the best part of my summer…the best part of everything, really.”
I’m thinking about what he said as we approach the bridge. Even though it’s not even four o’clock in the morning, the sky is changing. Not quite gray, but there’s a hint that the sun is about to rise.
I take TJ’s hand and he looks at me. As he turns his gaze back to the road, he says, “Oh, shit.”
As I look up, the blurry shape of a deer is rushing toward the side of the truck. TJ jerks his arm and I fall to the side as the pickup swerves. My head twists sharply as we slam against the bridge railing, and I feel a rush of air as the door flies open. As I wait for everything to stop, I realize that I am falling. And there must be sound, but I don’t hear a thing as I feel the truck slam against the water and the rush of cold surround me as everything goes dark.
About the Author, Kim Venkataraman: My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Carbon Culture Review, Desert Voices, East Jasmine Review, Forge, Halfway Down the Stairs, The MacGuffin, The Licking River Review, Midway Journal, Nassau Review, Penmen Review, Redivider, Riverwind, Spout Magazine, Talking River, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Willow Review. I live outside of Boston, and spend time during the summer in Maine where I grew up.