“I’M TAKING a swim.”
Hoping I sounded nonchalant as I stood on the sandbar at the edge of the river, I stepped out of my shoes and pulled off my T-shirt, pleased to see that I was browning nicely. The tan helped to hide my skinniness. I dropped my walking shorts, hooked my thumbs into my underwear, and eased them down very casually.
Naked as the day I came forth from the womb, I turned to look at Rory Wilder.
“You coming?” I asked.
“Aren’t you afraid someone is going to see you?” he asked with a frown.
“Not really. Freddy and I used to come here all the time and go skinny-dipping. No one ever saw us.”
“Freddy?” he said with skepticism. “The one who moved to Atlanta with his family? The one who blew up frogs with firecrackers? That Freddy?”
“Well, if Freddy thinks it’s okay,” Rory said sarcastically.
I offered a casual, almost dismissive grin, feigning an indifference I did not feel as I turned and waded into the chilly water of an early September morning in rural Mississippi. I resisted the urge to glance over my shoulder. Rory would either follow or he wouldn’t, and I’d either have the chance to finally see Rory Wilder in all his naked wonderfulness—or I wouldn’t. I’d seen him in the showers at school of course, but I wanted a little bit more than a quick glance. I wanted the whole enchilada. I wanted to take my time enjoying it, which either meant I was “naturally curious” or a little pervert, or perhaps a bit of both.
We’d just spent our second night in my small two-man pup tent on a Labor Day weekend fling before winter began to settle in and school got underway in earnest. We’d done lots of fishing, building fires to cook bass and crappie. We’d watched the stars come out, listened to forest noises, scared ourselves with talk of wild boars and bears and wandering mad men a la Deliverance. We’d argued over the merits of new country, which I couldn’t stand but Rory loved. He’d yet to meet a Luke Bryan song he didn’t immediately claim was the best thing since the invention of the iPhone.
At night we’d crawled into the tent and slept side by side.
In the dark, I listened to him breathe, listened as he shifted his weight around to get comfortable. I wanted to reach out and touch him. Heck, a lot more than that. I wanted to get naked and crawl into his sleeping bag and press my body against his. I wanted to make love to him. But I had never made love to a guy, didn’t know how. Had seen pictures of course; there was plenty of porn on the Internet. But I had never actually made out with a guy. Since Rory and I were only fifteen and juniors at Port Moss High School, it wasn’t like opportunities for sexual adventures threw themselves at us.
Rory and I had been best friends since the first day of eighth grade. We hung out at the mall, played games at the arcade, saw movies together, even had a few sleepovers that we never told anyone about for fear people would make fun of us. We didn’t call them sleepovers. They just happened. We got too involved in an Xbox game or something at my house, and then it would be two in the morning, and we’d camp out on the floor of my bedroom.
All very innocent.
Now it was Sunday, our last day.
I stood waist deep in the cool water and turned to look back at Rory.
Rory had shyly removed his shirt, revealing his pale chest with its strong, well-defined muscles.
“Come on, you big fat chicken,” I called.
“Aren’t there snakes in the water or something?”
“It’s too cold for them,” I said, which was probably a lie.
“I better not get bit, Billy Bob.”
“Nothing’s going to bother you, Ro Ro.”
Rory removed his shorts and underwear in one go, glancing at me somewhat sheepishly as his nakedness was revealed. Rory had a lanky swimmer’s body, his arms and legs thick with muscle. Blond hair hung in his eyes. His body was pale. His chest sloped down to a flat belly. His patch of blond pubic hair was hard to see, but that was not the case with the flesh that hung beneath it, which was, I thought, the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my entire life.
I trembled as I turned away and swam out into the deeper water. It was almost too cold for swimming—it was September, after all—but I didn’t care.
I had been “casually naked” around Rory many times. I pretended I wasn’t shy, went shirtless when we skateboarded or spent afternoons sitting in front of the television. When he spent the night at my house, I stripped down to my underwear and sat on the bed like it was the most natural thing in the world, like I didn’t mean a thing by it, as if I always slept in my underwear, like it was just some guy thing. I’d tell him I needed to take a shower, and I’d pull my underwear off then wander around nude, pretending to look for a towel. I’d come back from the shower and sit on the bed, the towel half on, half off, sometimes falling away—casually—to reveal my nakedness. As if all teenage guys acted that way. As if we were just buds.
Rory was far more modest; his mom was a heavy-duty Baptist. So was he, for that matter. He never said a word about my exhibitionist tendencies. He seemed to accept them as the normal course of affairs, although he was always afraid my parents would walk in on us, as though we had something to hide. My parents saw me in my underwear all the time—we weren’t the world’s shyest people, by any means—so I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. Rory had never invited me to stay overnight at his house because of his mother.
During the two years I had known him, we had never talked about sexuality. I had never been able to broach the subject. I wanted to, but the time never seemed right.
For his part, Rory had a girlfriend, Anna. They went to school dances together. He included her sometimes on our movie nights. At school Anna was always there, and we were a threesome of sorts. She hung out with us; that’s what she called it.
Yet when Anna wasn’t around, Rory didn’t mention her, didn’t seem to think of her much at all. He wasn’t obsessed with her the way guys are. He didn’t talk about her the way other guys talked about their girlfriends. He made no mention of her breasts, of scoring, of getting into her pants, of getting a blow job from her, popping her cherry, all the crude stuff guys said to other guys. I attributed this to his Christian upbringing, his sense of modesty.
Or was there another explanation? Was he, like me, hiding a secret?
He dove into the water and swam after me. I treaded water, waited for him to catch up, my erection thankfully easing.
“God, it’s cold!” he muttered, surfacing a few feet from me. “You must be crazy!”
“I love it! Puts hair on your balls.”
“My balls are going to freeze and fall off.”
“You’re such a wuss.”
I lunged for him, dunked him, swam away when he came after me.
I felt his hands on my waist, grabbing me from behind. I continued to swim, but halfheartedly, because I didn’t want to get away. He hugged me to his strong chest, putting his arms around my belly and pulling me down beneath the water. I allowed myself to be pulled under. I was smaller and thinner than he was, so it wasn’t hard for him to dominate.
He swam away, laughing.
I went after him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and threw my body on top to force him under the water. My business was suddenly hard again, and it rubbed against his bare back. I hoped he didn’t notice. I didn’t want to scare him.
He turned in the water, reached out to grab me. He pulled me into a bear hug, our chests pressed together. We sank underwater. I opened my eyes to look at him, to laugh at him. He held me tightly, grinning, twisting his body to keep me from surfacing.
He let go suddenly, swimming for the surface, out of air, and I watched his gloriously nude body drift above me before I followed. I surfaced next to him, took a huge gulp of air. I saw him push long hair away from his face. He opened his mouth, showing his beautiful white teeth and full reddish lips.
“Wanna swim to the other side?” I asked, glancing at the far bank about two hundred yards away.
“It’s too far,” he said.
“You’re just a chicken,” I said, taunting him.
“That’s better than being a damned fool, Billy Bob,” he replied easily.
“I’ll do anything once, Ro Ro,” I admitted.
“I know,” he said with a smile, as if that were something he liked about me. “This water is cold as crap.” He headed to the shore.
Reluctantly, I followed.
He swam in front of me, and I saw his pale butt cheeks surface as the morning sun fell upon them.
I got hard again, slowed my pace to give my body time to de-lust itself.
Rory neared the bank and found his feet, wading through the water the rest of the distance, his skin pimpled with gooseflesh because it was cold. In waist-deep water, he turned to check on my progress.
Now that I’d gotten what I wanted—to see Rory Wilder naked—I felt stupid, didn’t know what to do next. I couldn’t go ashore because I had an erection that wouldn’t quit. I tried not to gape at him, but I couldn’t help myself. I had quite literally never seen anyone so beautiful, so jaw-droppingly handsome. I was so in love with him, so horny for him, so crazy about him, but I didn’t think he had the slightest clue. I felt like Anna with her crazed crush on Justin Bieber.
I was in love with Rory Wilder. Crazy in love. A Romeo and Juliet kind of love. I had been for two years but couldn’t bring myself to tell him, to risk our friendship, to risk the rejection and potential humiliation. But I needed to do something. Our junior year stretched out ahead of me like a long, endless night of darkness and pain and loneliness, and I needed to make a move. I needed to know how he felt, one way or the other. It was time to shit or get off the pot, as my dad said.
He walked to the shore. River water dripped off his pale body. When he reached the grass, he turned to look at me, and I marveled at the sight of him, standing there, framed by the green of pine trees behind him, naked, beautiful, strong, altogether glorious.
I waded slowly, and when I reached the shallow water, I kept going, despite my erection.
I saw his eyes flick down to it, then back up to mine.
“Swimming makes me horny,” I said in what I hoped sounded like a casual, uncaring tone of voice, as if all guys got erections when they hung around together. I was very aware of it swinging about as I walked.
He turned away, bent down to retrieve his underwear and shorts.
“Let’s dry off in the sun,” I suggested, not wanting the moment to end.
“Someone’s going to see us.”
His face was flushed, and he was trembling from the cold. He stepped into his underwear and hiked them up, but not before I noticed the secret he was trying to hide: he had an erection too.
Feeling suddenly bold, I put my hand on his arm as I stood in front of him.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m not a frikkin’ pervert,” he said, refusing to look at me.
“Oh,” I said.
Then I said no more, suddenly embarrassed.
I turned away.
Way to go, idiot!
My erection died the death.
“Is that why you brought me out here?” he demanded. “So you could rape me?”
I glanced over my shoulder at him and frowned.
“I thought I was your friend,” he added angrily.
“You are my friend,” I said, mystified.
“But if I don’t suck your dick, you won’t have any use for me anymore? Is that it? I gotta suck your dick to make you happy?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Isn’t that how you faggots are?”
“What the hell, Rory?”
He glanced away from me, a grimace on his face, yet his eyes slowly wandered back to me. I could tell he was looking at me, at my body, at my nudity. I could just tell. His lips were saying one thing, his eyes quite another.
“Why did you bring me here?” he asked.
“I wanted us to… be together.”
“Together… like a couple of fags?”
“I wish you’d stop using that word.”
“That’s what you are, isn’t it?” he asked aggressively as he advanced on me. He pushed roughly on my chest, knocked me down. I fell backward, looked up at him in surprise. He was bigger than I was, stronger, much more physical.
“I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Keep your hands off me!” he exclaimed.
He turned away, his face red with anger.
I scrambled to put my clothes on, feeling bewildered and rather frightened.
Rory sat down on the riverbank, put his face in his hands. I could tell by the hitch in his shoulders that he was crying. Slowly I went over to him. For a long time I stood there. Then I crouched down, put my hand on his knee.
“Don’t touch me!” he exclaimed, swatting my hand away.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I can’t stand it when people touch me! What’s it to you?”
“You’re my friend.”
“Why are you crying?”
“It’s none of your goddamn business. Just go away, you fucking fag boy.”
“I know you don’t mean that,” I said.
He refused to look at me.
He was scared. He was so scared he was shaking.
I sat next to him, put my arm gently over his shoulder. At first he flinched away from me, but then he relaxed.
“What’s going on?” I asked quietly.
I had never seen Rory Wilder act like this. He could be moody sometimes, certainly, but not like this.
“You must think I’m crazy,” he said softly through his tears.
“I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“Why did you trick me?” he asked, turning his face to look at me.
“I thought you wanted to go swimming. I didn’t know you wanted to have sex.”
“I don’t want to have sex,” I said.
“I saw you. I saw your….”
“I wanted to tell you… I wanted to find a way… I wanted… it was stupid. Okay. I know that. I’m sorry. I was trying to… trying to tell you….”
“Tell me what?”
I withdrew my arm, unsure of how he would react.
“I’m gay, Rory. Don’t you know that?”
“Of course I know that!”
“We never talk about it.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to rape me!”
“No one’s going to rape you! What the hell’s wrong with you? Why do you keep saying that?”
“I thought we were friends,” he said in a wounded voice. “Real friends.”
“Is that how you treat your friends?”
I shook my head in frustration. I had no clue what he was so mad about.
“I thought you liked me,” he said. “Me. I thought you wanted to be friends with me. Not just have sex with me.”
“I do want to be friends with you,” I said, confused.
“You’re just like Max.”
“Your mom’s old boyfriend? The one who stole her car and left?”
“You think I’m just like him?” I asked, surprised. From what little I could get Rory to tell me about him, Max was an abusive drunk, and it was a good thing he had left.
“He used to come into my room at night,” Rory said quietly.
“What do you think? He said he wanted to be my friend. I’d wake up at night and find him pulling my pants down. That’s what kind of friend he wanted to be. And you’re just like him.”
“That’s a bunch of bullcrap,” I said, offended. “I’m your real friend, Ro. I’d never do anything to hurt you. And I’d never make you do anything you didn’t want to do. Besides, you’re bigger than I am. It’s not like I could force you to do anything you didn’t want to do.”
“I’d knock your fucking teeth in,” he said.
“I know you would, and you should. But what has that got to do with anything?”
“Pull some shit on me and you’ll see,” he said.
“I don’t get it,” I confessed, starting to get angry. “I like you. A lot. Maybe too much. If you’re not gay and you don’t like me that way, fine, we won’t ever talk about it again. I just wanted to know how you felt about me. Is that so wrong?”
“You just wanted me to suck you off,” he said dismissively.
“No, I didn’t,” I said. “Okay. Maybe I did. But only if you wanted to. And only because I really like you. I really, really like you. You know the way Anna goes on about Justin Bieber? How crazy she is about him? That’s how I feel about you. And I’m sorry. I’m in love with you, and I’m sorry if that makes you mad, but it’s the truth, and I can’t keep my mouth shut anymore, and I don’t want to hurt you or rape you or anything else. I just wanted you to know that I love you.”
“You… love me?”
“Yes,” I said. “I do. I have since the first day I met you back in the eighth grade.”
“Why?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
“Because you’re handsome,” I said. “You’re smart. You’re kind. You’re a nice guy. You make me happy.”
“But I’m not handsome,” he said. “I’m not any of those things.”
“You are too.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“I’m a stupid idiot. Max always told me that, and he was right. No wonder my mom can’t stand to have me around.”
“You’re not a stupid idiot.”
“It doesn’t matter, because there’s no way two fags can love each other,” he offered. “They’re like a couple of dogs in heat, that’s all.”
“That’s charming,” I said.
“According to whom?”
“Don’t start in with wisdom from Brother John. I can’t stand that bastard.”
“He’s my Sunday school teacher.”
“He’s full of shit.”
We were silent for a long minute.
“I’m sorry if I upset you,” I said. “I was stupid to do that. I should have just told you, but I wanted to see you… well, I wanted to see you naked. I couldn’t help it.”
“Why would you want to see me naked?”
“Because you’re beautiful.”
“Oh, please,” he said dismissively.
“The heart wants what it wants,” I said.
“You’re beautiful,” he said stiffly, as if the words were hard for him to say. “Not me. All the girls think you’re—”
“I don’t care what the girls think. What do you think?”
He looked at me for long moments. He seemed lost, afraid, uncertain.
“Why would someone like you want to be with someone like me?” he asked very quietly.
“Have you looked in the mirror lately, Row Row Row Your Boat? Hasn’t anyone ever told you what a good-looking guy you are? And not only that, but you’re a good guy. A good friend. A nice young man, like my mom would say. She likes you a lot, you know.”
“She’s just being nice.”
“No, she’s just being honest. She wouldn’t tell me she liked you if she didn’t. Don’t you know how to take a compliment?”
“But why would you want to be with someone like me?” he asked again.
“Why did Romeo fall in love with Juliet? Who the hell knows, Ro? It is what it is. So what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
I put my hand on his knee. He didn’t flinch away from me. In fact he put his hand on top of mine.
“You must think I’m really stupid,” he said. “I saw your… thing… and I just got scared. All I could think of was Max and the way he used to come into my room.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about that?”
“It’s embarrassing,” he said.
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yes, I did.”
“What do you mean?”
“He always told me if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d leave my mom—and she loved him. She loved him a lot. So I did what he wanted. He wasn’t forcing me. And anyway, we would have lost the house if it wasn’t for him.”
“He blackmailed you?”
“I was just trying to help my mom.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“How old were you when he started doing this?”
“It started when I was eight.”
“You were eight years old?” I asked in disbelief.
“And you did it because you were trying to help your mom? And you don’t see how fucked up that is?”
“What else was I supposed to do?” he asked.
“Look,” I said, holding his hand tightly, “I’m not Max. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do with me. I would never hurt you like that. Do you believe me?”
“Sometimes I get a hard-on when I look at you,” I added. “Is that all right? If it’s not, I’ll try not to. Can’t promise you anything. Seems like I get a frikkin’ hard-on every time I turn around. I could look at a tomato plant and get hard as a rock.”
I could see him try to smile. Try, but not succeed. A terrible sort of heaviness had fallen over him, a darkness full of painful secrets. All I’d wanted to do was make out, or cop a feel, or at least look at his penis for a while and try to memorize it, but….
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
“Every time you try to be my friend, I fuck it up.”
“That’s not true,” I said. Well, actually, it was true, but we always figured things out and moved on. Rory was nothing if not complicated, which was one of the things I liked about him. And hated too, I guess.
“There’s just so much about me you don’t know,” he said.
“Then tell me about it,” I said.
“I don’t know.”
He stood, went to the edge of the river, and scouted about for smooth, flat rocks, which he began to skim across the surface of the river.
He was clamming up now.
Well, I thought, at least I had a chance to see his beautiful body.
It was a start.
“BILLY! RORY exclaimed suddenly.
I sat, alarmed by the tone of his voice.
It was now about noon, and we had been hanging out, watching the water go by, talking, laughing, enjoying our Sunday, dreading the trek back into town and the return to normal life. I had lain back, feeling happy and strangely peaceful, thinking about the future, about Rory, about being his boyfriend, about going all the way. There was no doubt in my mind we were going to go all the way. But when? That was the problem. We’d taken a step in the right direction, or at least had gotten it out in the open. If it could be said there was something in life that I actually wanted, some goal, some purpose, it was to go all the way. But it had to be with someone special. I was sentimental like that. It had to be with someone I could love. Someone like Rory.
Rory stood and looked downriver.
I saw a boat drifting with the current, coming around the bend, heading our way.
“Someone’s coming,” I said.
The boat was about a hundred yards away, and there was someone in it, but the boat was too far away to see who it was. The boat was drifting. The person in the boat appeared to be slumped over.
Something didn’t look right.
“Looks like he had a heart attack or something,” Rory said, shading his eyes to get a better look. “We should try to help him.”
“I’ll go,” I said, immediately pulling off my T-shirt.
“I can do it,” he said.
“I’m a better swimmer than you are,” I pointed out.
“And I’m a lot stronger than you are,” he replied, removing his shoes.
“Just stay here,” I said, wading into the water. “It might be dangerous. He might have a gun or something. Besides, I’m on the swim team, not you. You’re not a very good swimmer.”
“I’m going with you,” he said decisively, wading in after me. “We’re in it to win it, Billy Bob,” he said, quoting one of our favorite slogans.
“Don’t call me Billy Bob, Row Row Row Your Boat,” I said.
I dove into the water.
If the man in the boat had a gun, he did not appear to be in any condition to use it. He did not appear to be in any condition to do much of anything at all. There was someone else in the boat too, I saw as it neared.
“It’s a girl,” Rory called as we swam closer. “Can you see her?”
“A little bit,” I said.
All I saw was a shock of long dark hair. The girl was slumped to the side.
The boat had a spotlight fixed to the side, the sort used by night fishermen to lure shy catfish.
I got to the boat first and reached up to grab the top edge. It was a rowboat, very small, and I was careful not to pull down lest I capsize it.
Flies buzzed around the boat, and there was a faint smell, like that of a dead animal, wafting from it.
An older man sat on the rear seat, slumped forward, bent at the waist, his face down so I couldn’t see it. He was obviously dead. So was the girl sitting in the front, a fishing pole still clutched in her hands. She had slumped over sideways in the seat, her long brown hair thrown to the side. Her eyes and mouth were open.
Flies had found both.
“They’re dead,” I called to Rory, who came alongside me and grabbed for the boat.
He rocked it dangerously, and the man’s body shifted. It continued to lean forward, as if carried by the momentum of the sudden rocking, then fell forward to the floor of the boat where it landed with a silent thud. Then there was a hiss as gas suddenly escaped his body.
“Oh, Jesus,” Rory exclaimed. He let go of the boat and paddled away.
“I’ll bring the boat in,” I said.
I grasped the side of the boat and began to kick with my feet, aiming it toward the riverbank. It wasn’t difficult, but the boat was bulky and cumbersome. The smell wafting off the boat assaulted me like a physical thing, and the sound of buzzing flies was loud. Too loud, it seemed. It only took a couple of minutes to get close enough to the shore so that I could touch the riverbed and start walking.
Rory hurried to the shore, then stood there watching me, frowning deeply.
I pulled the boat into the shallow water until it ran aground. I pulled it farther, putting my back into it so that it didn’t float off, before backing away from the smell so I could take a better look.
The sight of the man and the girl was sad, in a way. There was no indication that any violence had been done. They seemed to have simply slumped where they sat and… died. The girl had fallen to the right, her hair splayed out. The man had slumped forward and had now fallen on his face.
A plastic cupful of what had undoubtedly been night crawlers offered another stink of death smell. The dirt had dried; the worms had died in the hot sun. Hanging from the side of the boat was a stringer with two catfish attached to it. They were still alive and flopped about unhappily, if not a little listlessly.
“What the fuck?” Rory asked quietly.
It was not his habit to curse. He only did so when he was upset or scared. He was both then.
So was I.
“I don’t know,” I said, glancing at him.
He was paler, his lips redder but his face ashen.
“They died,” I said rather unnecessarily.
“I can see that,” he snapped. “But why?”
I shook my head.
“We have to tell someone, get help,” he said.
I edged closer to the boat, grasped it, pulled it farther up onto the shore. In doing so, I upset the bodies further. The man rolled to his side, and the girl’s head swung to the left.
Flies flew about angrily, greedily.
“Jesus!” Rory exclaimed, backing away, his face drawn.
“I need to tie the boat up,” I said. “We could use the rope off the tent.”
Rory quickly pulled up the tent pegs and freed the rope. He tossed it to me, kept his distance.
I tied off the boat to a tree trunk as he fished out his cell phone, turned it on and tried to call his mom.
“She doesn’t answer,” he said worriedly.
“Try 911,” I suggested.
He punched in the number, put the phone expectantly to his ear. After half a minute he began to shake his head. “They’re not answering either,” he said, the tone of his voice incredulous.
I put on my shirt, laced up my hiking boots.
“Why don’t they answer?” he asked after a long minute had gone by.
“Let’s pack our stuff and go. We’ll stop by the police department. It’s right on our way when we get into town.”
“But why don’t they answer?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The police will deal with it. Anyway, they’re both dead, so it’s not like it’s an emergency.”
“I know that girl,” he said in a strange whisper.
“I think she goes to Calvary Baptist in Tupelo. She’s in the youth group. Sometimes I go over there on Wednesday nights.”
“Oh,” I said.
He seemed reluctant to leave, to take his eyes away from the bodies.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get help.”
He licked his lips nervously.
“All right,” he said at last, looking at his phone. “But this is weird.”
“I don’t have any new Facebook updates.”
“It’s hard to get a signal out here.”
“We had no problem yesterday.”
“Well, come on. Let’s get the police.”