"Hey, did you bring your Swiss Army knife?" I ask Justin, while we're unpacking our shit in the cabin. "Because I was thinking we might need a Phillips screwdriver and a wood rasp when we go canoeing."
"Fuck you," he says, which I know means of course the knife is in his bag. I'm always making fun of the stupid thing, one of those Swiss Army knives that's like three inches thick and has about seventy-three different tools inside. Like we're really roughing it up here and you never know when you're going to need a little bitty pair of pliers or a magnifying glass. Neither of us were ever Boy Scouts, we wouldn't even know what plants would kill us if we were lost in the woods. We'd last about an hour. But you give the kid a Swiss Army knife and he thinks he's some kind of real outdoorsman.
Justin's family owns this huge chunk of land that used to be a scout camp like forty or fifty years ago. They fixed up the big main lodge like a regular house with a TV and a stereo and a pimped out kitchen and everything. They bulldozed most of the little cabins because they were pretty much falling apart, but they kept a few and did the necessary repairs, and Justin and I sleep out in one of those while we're up here and his asshole brother Kurt sleeps in another one and their dad stays in the lodge. We still have campfires and shit and cook out on a camp stove every now and then just for the whole camping experience or whatever, but most of the time being at camp is more like being at a hotel. Justin's dad loves to cook. There are like mountains of scrambled eggs and pancakes or waffles or French toast made from scratch every morning by the time we even stumble into the lodge half asleep.
We tell our moms and my sisters that we really live off the land up there, like we go out and kill our own food.
After we get our stuff out of the car and into the cabin, we go out by the fire pit, where Kurt's getting ready to split wood. He's got his shirt off and he's already sunburned even though summer doesn't even technically start for like two more days. Kurt with an ax is a scary fucking thing. Justin and I stand behind him going "swing, batterbatterbatterbatter," because we want him to mess up and hit the edge of the wood and send it spiraling off the stump. But he ignores us and holds the ax in one hand; his arm swings back and arcs forward and the wood splits clean in half so fast it looks like the log saw the ax coming and just divided.
"That could be your heads," Kurt says, and we stand there quiet after that, both thinking of the ax coming down dead center in our skulls.
I wouldn't go anywhere near Kurt if I really believed he'd smash my head in, but he's the kind of guy you believe could turn into an ax murderer, under the right circumstances. Whatever the hell the right circumstances for that might be.
I started coming up here with the Parkers the year my twin sisters turned one and I was almost six, which I guess makes eight years now. My other sister was born a year after that. My sisters are getting a lot less obnoxious the older they get, but I still look forward to "guys' week" like crazy, even if I do wish Mr. Parker would quit calling it something so lame. I like being somewhere without Barbies and ponies and pink frilly shit everywhere I look for one week out of the year, but the best part is probably that there's nothing like a week with Kurt to make me appreciate not having a brother of my own. My sisters always seem great for like a month after I get home.
I'm sure every older brother on the planet can be a real dick sometimes, but Kurt is seriously crazy. Crazy like, no one can seem to find the right kind of pills to make him any less crazy. And when he flips out and smashes shit up or beats the hell out of Justin, Justin gets yelled at for setting him off, which to me seems about the same as blaming some kid who got his leg blown off playing in an old, unmarked minefield. Justin always says he wishes they'd just lock him up already, and I know he means it.
Most of the time, Justin just goes right on being a little pain in Kurt's ass and trying to push his buttons anyway. But sometimes I can tell he's really genuinely afraid, like he'd feel a hell of a lot safer without his brother around.
I've known Justin pretty much forever, and he's a tough kid. But lately he's been starting to freak my shit out, to tell you the truth. Sometimes I think I can see Kurt in him. All last season, he got carded in almost every soccer game, and Coach kept threatening to bench him for good if he couldn't calm the hell down. And then last month he got suspended from school for three days because he beat the shit out of some kid in the locker room. We didn't have phys ed the same hour so I wasn't there, but what I heard was that it wasn't like a normal fight. What I heard was that Justin just went psycho, like he would have killed the kid with his bare hands if he could have. No one even knows what made him go off. He won't even tell me.
Mostly, though, what freaks me out is that he just looks like there's something in him that's about to just crack, like he's about to just split wide open. He makes me think about volcanoes, the way they can just sit there looking perfectly harmless for like a thousand years before all the shit comes spewing out and there's no time left to run.
That first night, Mr. Parker and Kurt both go to bed pretty early, and just Justin and me are still sitting out by the fire pit. He keeps poking at what's left of the fire with a stick even though it's almost burned out and the night is warm enough without a fire, anyway. Justin seems like he wants to sit out here all night, but if he doesn't at least start talking about something soon, he can sit out here by himself. He knocks a hunk of charred wood loose with the stick, flattens the ashes until they aren't shaped like anything anymore.
"Do you want to come back to the cabin?" I ask him. "Or should I leave you out here alone with the ghosts and monsters?" That gets him to at least snicker a little bit. Every year, Kurt tries to tell us these bullshit scary stories up at the camp. I don't even think he expects us to believe them anymore, at this point he tells his stories out of habit. Some of what he's told us is actually true. The camp really did close down back in the 1960s after scouts disappeared from the place two years in a row. We believed that when we were like six, and then a couple years later we were old enough to think Kurt was full of it. But when Justin finally asked his dad, we found out for sure that the part about the kids vanishing was the truth. We've looked up old newspaper articles and everything, about how they searched for weeks with scent hounds and these kids' parents stayed at the camp all that time, waiting for them to just come wandering back. I guess when the first kids went missing, the people in charge of the scouts were like, whatever. Could happen anywhere. But when the same thing happened again the next year, they shut the place down and the whole camp sat vacant for a few years before Justin's grandpa bought it. Two boys disappeared the first year, and then two the next, and no trace of any of the four of them were ever found.
Sometimes Kurt tries to tell us ghost stories about the boys and sometimes he tries to tell us about the monster that ate them and how this beast is going to come back for fresh blood, but neither me or Justin have ever heard anything up here at night except for owls and rats and Kurt making stupid noises outside the windows.
Our guess is as good as anyone's, but we figure the same thing everyone else figures, that some whackjob took those kids, probably kids that snuck off to the woods to get stoned or something, and after the camp closed he probably moved on to somewhere else, and he's probably long dead by now. Kurt always goes "how would some whackjob take two kids at once?" and we always go "okay then, maybe it was two whackjobs." I mean, what the hell makes more sense? A pair of psychopaths, or a bona-fide monster? I'll tell you which one I think is less of a leap of faith.
"I can take my chances with the ghosts and monsters," Justin says after a few minutes. He's still looking into the ashes.
"I forgot," I say, "you've got that anti-ghost raygun on your Swiss Army knife . . ." I wait, but he doesn't smack me in the head or even tell me to fuck off, just sits there poking around with his stupid stick.
"Go on back if you want," he says. "I'm just going to sit out here for a while."
"Okay," I say, but I don't go. We're still sitting out there when the fire is all the way out, and even for a while longer after that, until none of the wood is even glowing anymore.
The third day we're up there is boiling hot, like 90 degrees and humid as hell. So we go down to the lake, which is really more of an overgrown pond, but a lake sounds like a more impressive thing to have all to ourselves. Part of the lake has a little beach with sand and everything, but mostly there's grass right up to the edge of the water. There's even a tree close enough by to tie a rope to, so we can swing out over the lake and let go and drop in. Justin and I launch ourselves off more or less from the ground, but Kurt climbs up into the tree, stands way the hell out on the branch with the rope and flies off. Watching him, we always hope one of these days he won't let go of the rope, will swing back and smack into the tree instead.
We run to the end of the little dock and cannonball off, and then Kurt comes crashing in almost on top of us. He makes me nervous in the water. When he dunks us, he always holds us under just a few seconds too long.
"Hey fucktard," Kurt says to Justin, "you forgot to take your shirt off."
"You forgot to finish evolving," Justin says back, and I try not to laugh, hoping to stay out of the crossfire. Justin climbs up onto the dock and stands there dripping.
"Moron," Kurt says. "What, are you getting a gut?"
"I don't want to look like a fucking flamingo like you," Justin says, and he jumps back in. They leave each other alone for a bit and we're just swimming, treading water. Kurt is climbing the tree and jumping out of it over and over again, and we're just trying to stay out of his way. Justin can't leave well enough alone, though. Eventually he gets back up on shore, and then Kurt's on top of him right away, smacking the front of his soaked t-shirt.
"Are you getting a little belly?" Kurt asks, slapping his stomach. He hits Justin's chest like bongo drums. "Are you getting tits?" Which is just too ridiculous to even be an insult, Justin is lanky as hell. I feel like I should do something, but there's really no point in putting my ass on the line. "I bet your back's all covered in zits," Kurt says. And Justin goes: "Not as many as your face." And I brace myself for the thud as Kurt tackles Justin and they hit the ground. Kurt's trying to wrestle Justin's shirt off, but Justin gets on his feet somehow, and they stand there face to face for a minute like these dumb animals ready to pounce on each other. I stick my head underwater. I can hear yelling when I'm down there, but the words are all murky and mumbled and far away. I turn and swim down further and their voices fade more and more the deeper I go, but then my lungs are burning and I have to turn back around. I break the surface just in time to see Justin haul off and punch Kurt right in the stomach.
Defending yourself against Kurt is one thing, but throwing the first punch is like an honest to god death wish. And I'm scrambling all frantically up out of the water and Kurt's got that maniac look in his eyes, and before I can even get close to the two of them, he's landed a punch that spun Justin's head around, that picked him right up off the ground. And I'm trying to figure out what the hell to do, how I can possibly stop anything without getting my own ass kicked or without running off to Mr. Parker like some kind of little pussy, when all of a sudden Mr. Parker comes jogging up without me having to do anything at all.
"Kurt," he shouts, just once, sharp, the way someone calls off a dog. And Kurt stops just short of kicking Justin where he lies on the ground. "You two knock it off," Mr. Parker says, and he's got this look on his face that he has a lot these days, like he's wondering how the hell a totally normal guy like him managed to spawn these lunatics. "Kurt, why don't you just get out of here for a while?" he says. "Cool down. Take the truck and go pick up some groceries." Kurt spits on the ground next to Justin's head, turns and walks away, muttering under his breath. Justin's still just lying there, looking up, blinking, like he still hasn't quite figured out how he ended up horizontal. "You okay?" His dad asks.
"I'm fine," he says.
"You've got to know when to back off, champ," his dad says. That's all he says, and he turns around and walks off toward the lodge.
I go over to Justin and hold out my hand. He grabs it and I pull him up.
"Champ," he says. He laughs.
"Your face is going to be about seven colors tomorrow," I tell him. "That's going to be one hell of a black eye."
"Not the first," he says. "Won't be the last." The whole left side of his face is puffing up and there's dirt and sand all stuck to his soaked shirt. He looks like something that just crawled out from the bottom of a swamp.
We go back to the lodge and spend the afternoon lying around on the couches watching TV while Justin holds a bag of frozen peas on his face. To tell you the truth, I hate swimming anyway. I always just feel like I'm trying not to drown.
Later on in the evening we're back in our cabin, avoiding Kurt even though dinner was fine and more or less peaceful. Justin keeps poking around at his face and wincing.
"At least your stupid eye isn't swollen shut," I tell him.
"Peas are good for something," he says.
"What the hell were you thinking punching him? He's like three times your size and five times as crazy."
"What, are you my dad?" he asks.
"No, I'm not your dad. But there's a difference between not tiptoeing around someone all the time, and punching them in the fucking stomach. Jesus Christ."
"He just pisses me off sometimes," he says, which is obvious, who wouldn't get pissed off at Kurt sometimes, most of the time? But still. Justin's lucky a black eye is all he's got.
"Well maybe sometimes you've got to, I don't know, go kick a tree or something." I sit down on my bunk, the one on the bottom. "Someone's going to kill you eventually if you go around throwing punches every time you get pissed off."
"Whatever," he says. "I can handle it." He stands there looking down at me. "Want to know why I couldn't take my shirt off in the lake?" And I sort of shrug, because the truth is I don't really know if I give a shit or not. I can tell just by how he asked that this is one of his big mysteries, which probably means it's something lame. But he doesn't actually care if I want to know or not, because he's already pulling his T-shirt off over his head, tossing it on to my bunk next to me.
The word "LOSER" is carved in, like, two-inch tall letters across his chest, along his collarbone.
"Who the hell did that to you?" I say, jumping up, like now I'm the one ready to fight.
"I did," he says, and he's got this sort of disappointed look on his face, like I'm supposed to be all impressed. But I don't think he's cool, or deep, or any other thing he wants me to think. I'm just standing there thinking, you're going to carve something into your chest and you can't even think of anything better than loser?
"Oh," I say, "did you use the douchebag-carving blade on your knife for that?"
"Yeah," he says, "that's the sharpest one."
"You're an asshole," I say.
And he goes, "that's the point, Einstein."
And I'm pissed off that I can't even insult him because he just fucking agrees with me. "I hope it scars," I tell him. "I hope you're stuck with 'loser' on your stupid chest for the rest of your life."
"Yeah," he says. "However long that is." He snatches his shirt back up and pulls it on, and even the way he does that is all jerky and frustrated.
"Can't you just stop being such a drama queen?" I say, like I'm personally offended, which I guess I kind of am. "This shit isn't cool," I say. "It doesn't make you cool."
"I'm not trying to be cool," he says. "You know, I'd rather not feel fucked in the head, if I had a choice."
We just stand there then, looking each other straight in the eye, and I'm trying to decide whether or not I believe him. I never know anymore how serious I'm supposed to take him, how much is for show. I'd rather think this is all some kind of act, this look-how-messed-up-I-am, pay-attention-to-me bullshit. But that kid he beat the hell out of probably didn't think he was acting. Those dumbass letters carved into his chest must have bled like the real thing.
"Forget it," he says. "I should have known you wouldn't understand."
When he walks out of the cabin, the door slams behind him so hard it bounces back open, bangs against the frame twice before staying still.
I wait around probably longer than I should before I go after him, and even when I do go I still don't really want to, but I feel like I don't exactly have much of a choice. It's not like I've got all these other friends around I can hang out with instead of him, or like there's someone else I can crash with out here in the middle of fucking nowhere. To be honest, I'm actually starting to worry when I can't find him right away, but the last place I think to look is out on the edge of the lake, and that's where he is. He's sitting there on the dock hugging his legs to his chest, with his chin on his knees.
Last summer, a dog got hit by a car on the road out behind my house. He was okay, the dog. He belonged to a neighbor, we found out, and he had a broken leg that healed up fine in a couple months. But when the car hit him, I heard him yelping and ran back to try to help. And when I reached down for him, that dog snapped at me so fast I thought he was going to take my hand off. You could tell he was a nice dog, though, I mean the look in his eyes wasn't that evil, mean-dog look. I could see he was just hurt, and scared, and kind of pissed off all at the same time, the confusing sort of pissed off where you'll lunge at anyone just because they're there. That dog is what I think about when Justin looks up at me standing there, with that same hurt animal look on his face.
"Hey," I say. He looks away from me, wiping his eyes on his arm. I just stand there for a minute and then his back starts to shake and he buries his face in his knees, crying like a girl. I don't know what I'm supposed to do, what he wants from me, what he needs. "What the hell is the matter with you?" I ask.
He mumbles something I can't understand into his knees, and I say "what?" and he looks up at me and goes "I said, I don't know what the hell is the matter with me." And then he puts his head back down, but he isn't crying so hard anymore. I sit down next to him, because I don't know what else to do with myself but stay there and wait. The sun is going down by then and the water is all orange, like something on fire. Like lava. I picture it slowly oozing up onto the shore, bubbling up over us, leaving behind ashes in the shape of me and Justin just sitting there next to each other, stuck, until the wind blows and we scatter just like that, like we were nothing.
"The lake looks pretty sweet," I say finally, and he looks up but doesn't say anything.
"I don't know what's the matter with me," he says again after a few minutes, only he doesn't sound pissed off anymore, just scared and kind of sad. I should say something, anything, tell him that everything will be okay, that he should talk to someone who can maybe do something, his parents or a shrink. I should ask him what he needs me to do. I should tell him that I'll do whatever the hell it is, anything, absolutely anything. But I don't say those things, I don't say anything at all. I just squeeze his shoulder like I've seen men do, and pretend I really think that's enough.
The sky is close to black when we walk back to the camp, and Mr. Parker is getting the fire going. I don't feel like doing anything but going to bed, but I sit out there with the three of them, not really listening while they talk. What I'm doing mostly is looking up at the stars, and thinking how clear they are up here. I'm thinking how the stars are supposed to be good for so many things if you know how to read them, how sailors used to chart courses by them. But to me they're just like Braille, random dots I could stare at forever without any kind of meaning coming clear.
After Mr. Parker heads back to the lodge, Kurt is real quiet, sort of eerie quiet, just putting out the fire without comment. And then just as we're about to walk off to our cabin, he grabs Justin's arm and goes "hey, you guys hold up a sec." And he sounds real serious, so we wait.
"Listen," Kurt says. "I know I always tell you guys stories up here, okay? But listen to this. When I was in town earlier today, I heard these old guys talking. And fucking animals are disappearing around here again."
"Again?" Justin says, his one eyebrow raised, all skeptical like he should be.
"Like they did back before those kids disappeared," Kurt hisses, which I'm sure was part of his story one year or another, but I don't remember that part. "It's happening again. A fucking horse disappeared the other day."
"Horses can run away," I say.
"They found blood," Kurt says. "Just blood."
"Sure," Justin goes. "Whatever."
"Aren't we getting a little old for this?" I say.
Kurt, fucking Kurt, he actually looks like we hurt his feelings. "Look," he goes, "I'm just trying to look out for you guys. I'm just trying to be nice for once. I mean, you're right, you're not little kids anymore. We're more like buddies now, right?"
Justin laughs, this real sarcastic cackling sound. "Right," he goes. "We're buddies. Pals. Fuck you, Kurt."
Kurt's got this almost panic stricken look on his face by now. "Okay," he goes, "I'm sorry I was such a spaz earlier, I'm sorry about your stupid face, but I'm serious. I know I sound like the asshole who cried wolf, right? So fine, ignore me if you want. I'm just saying, I think something is out there. And I'd sleep in the main house if I were you tonight."
"Sure," I say. "We'll get right on that."
"We'll keep our nightlights on," Justin says.
"Screw you guys," Kurt says, as we walk away. "Don't say I didn't fucking warn you."
Getting ready for bed, I think I feel just about as exhausted as I ever have in my life. I've got that drained out feeling that comes after a day outside in the water, in the sun, and I guess maybe Justin is wearing me out, too.
"Let me see your stupid chest again," I say. He's got every reason to think I'm just looking to give him shit, but he pulls his shirt off over his head anyway. By the light of the dim little camp lantern, the letters look black. I reach out and trace my fingertip over the L. The skin there is still puffy.
"How long ago did you do that?" I ask him.
"Couple weeks or so," he says.
"Didn't it hurt?" I ask, pressing my finger a little harder into the L.
"Well yeah," he shrugs. "It hurt like a bitch. That was the point." He goes to scratch the back of his neck, and when his left arm is raised up like that, I can see what I didn't see before, all the slashes high up on the inside of his bicep, dozens of lines all close together, some of them fresh and some of them old, so old they've already faded to faint pink. He sees me looking and rushes to pull his shirt back on. And we're still looking each other in the eye, and what I really want to say is stop, Justin, for fuck's sake just stop. Please. But all I do is turn out the light.
"Can you believe that asshole back there?" Justin asks, when we're lying there in our bunks. "I'm just trying to do something nice," he says, in a whiny voice. "What a prick."
"Kurt's a prick," I say. "What else is new?"
"He was sure laying it on thick," Justin says. "How long do you think it'll be before he shows up here trying to freak us out?"
"I give him a half hour, tops," I say.
"Horse blood," Justin says. "What an ass."
We're both quiet then, and I'm doing that thing where I'm still wide awake but I'm afraid he's asleep so I don't want to talk, and he's probably up there doing the same thing. I'm thinking about reaching my foot up and poking the bottom of his mattress to see if he just lies there or jumps up and tells me to knock it off, but I don't really feel like it. There's not really anything in particular I can think to say to him right now anyway.
"My parents are getting divorced," he says, in the dark, out of nowhere. I just lie there for a minute not knowing what to say.
"That sucks," I say eventually.
And then he goes "My dad's been fucking Ms. Franklin." Like this is just some kind of side note, that his dad has been doing our English teacher.
"Bullshit," I say. Ms. Franklin is young, way younger than our parents, and she's pretty enough, I guess, but mousey and quiet and afraid of all of us. She's not, like, the kind of woman you think goes around sleeping with older, married men.
"Swear to God," he says, and I know he doesn't even believe in God but I let it go.
"How do you know?" I ask him.
He swings around, hangs forward, looking at me from the top bunk. And he goes: "I'm the one who busted them. In bed."
And I go: "No way. You're so full of shit. When?"
"Like three months ago. But my mom just got suspicious and I finally broke down and told her like a couple weeks ago. I feel like a rat, but he's the one who fucked up. He wants to keep dating her, I guess. I guess he's been banging her for a while, way before I found out."
And I say: "And you never told me?" I can't believe we sat there through three months of English class without him telling me he's seen our teacher naked, with his own dad. He just shrugs, as much as he can shrug while he's hanging upside down.
"I didn't tell anyone."
"That's fucked up," I say, and I'm not really sure if I mean him not telling me, or the whole situation. And I know this isn't all of what's been wrong with Justin these past months, but it sure as hell can't have helped matters any.
He's still hanging there upside down, his face starting to turn blotchy. I feel like he's waiting for something from me. Like he's always waiting for something.
"Who are you going to live with?" I ask. I'm thinking about how, if, this is going to change things for me.
"Whoever Kurt doesn't live with," he says.
That's right when the scraping starts on the outside of the cabin.
"Speak of the devil," I say.
"Kurt, knock it off," Justin yells. We're quiet for a minute or two, and the noises don't stop. There's a clawing sound, and I swear there's some kind of slobbering, snarling noise going on, too. He swings around again, hops down out of the bunk.
"Fuck off, Kurt," he says, louder. "We know it's you." And I know I'm being totally stupid, but I'm starting to think what if it's not Kurt? And apparently Justin's starting to think the same thing, because he goes over to his backpack and rummages around inside and pulls out his stupid Swiss Army knife.
"You gonna jab the corkscrew in his eyes?" I ask. "Go after him with the plastic toothpick?"
"Bite me," he says. "Listen to that." He hears what I hear: the wet, rumbling un-human noise under the scratching and the banging. He folds the long blade out. He barks directions at me, like I've been waiting for him to do. "Scoot your ass over," he says, and I do. He gets into the bottom bunk next to me, pulls the blanket up to our chins. "Just hold still," he says. "Hold totally still." He lies on his side, facing the door, his hand clenching the red knife handle on the pillow. I can't tell if the quivering I feel is him shaking, or me, or both of us. I'm so close behind him I can see my breath rustling the hair on the back of his head. The bed is like being in an oven: the blanket is too heavy, the night is too warm, our bodies are too close. But I'm not going to move.
When I see his hand relax on the knife, I know he's asleep. I reach my arm around him. I put my hand on the knife, too. One of us has to be ready.
Justin could sleep through a goddamn earthquake.
Me, I'll lie here awake all night, holding still. I'll lie here in a pool of my own sweat, with my arms going all tingly and numb. I'll still be lying here awake when the wood starts to splinter and the walls implode and everything, everything gets torn right the fuck open.