When we first got out, me and Jim, the night still had some heat in it. The air smelled like burning pine and spilt sherry and melted marshmallow. We could hear the crackling of the campfire, the enthusiastic sparks. They shot up every now and then just to keep all the boozy adults from getting too comfortable, lounging about in their chairs.
No one heard the sound of the tent as I unzipped it. No one heard Jim’s tent being unzipped either. We were twelve years old then, me and Jim, and old enough to believe we knew a thing or two about what it meant to be grown-up. But we were still young enough that it excited us, the thrill of sneaking out. We thought it a right adventure, to draw our imaginary guns and take long exaggerated steps around the faint rim of light from the campfire. Me and Jim, we nearly busted a gut just trying to hold back our giggles.
“Ssh, Jim, you’ll ruin it,” I hissed at him.
“You’ll ruin it,” he giggled back, making a face I darn near thought he was the cutest thing I ever saw.
Me and Jim Morency made a great team. It sure felt good to be sneaking out with him. Even sounds like we should be joined together – Jim and Lou. Lou and Jim. I liked being round Jim, back then. I liked doodling our names on my notebooks and sometimes substituting my last name for his.
Jim and me, our families were real close. They’d been camping together for years and years. I never took much notice of Jimmy at school though, and he never took much notice of me. I liked him well enough I spose. Well, until that summer at least.
I first noticed when Holden O’Grady was teasing me, back a few summers ago. Holden was being a right ass, flicking wet dishcloths at me and trying to push me into the sloppy puddle under where all the hoses joined up to the tap. I wasn’t having none of that, see, cause I’d just washed my feet from being down on the sand and used Ma’s best soap that smelled like gardenia, and to tell you the truth, my toes were feeling all nice and clean and I didn’t want stupid Holden messing with them.
He did though; he made to dump me right in that mucky puddle and when I kicked and screamed and hollered something shocking, he put me down and started flicking that dirty old raggy dishcloth at me, at my brand spankin’ new clean legs. And I was laughing, see, and generally enjoying myself even though I was screaming all shrill, because it was good daggy fun and Holden was nice enough, in his annoying kinda way.
Eventually Ma chased Holden away cause she said ain’t no way she’s seeing her best gardenia soap go to waste, and I was feeling nice and happy and still clean and I went and sat down next to Jim. He was real quiet and holding his neck in some sorta’ odd way that I knew something wasn’t right.
“Jim?” I said. “Jimmy?”
“I don’t think Holden should be like that with you,” he said.
“He’s only messin’,” I said back.
“I don’t like it,” Jim said, and then he looked at me and my stomach felt all funny and a bit happy at the same time, cause he didn’t look angry on my behalf, only like he kinda’ wished it was him trying to get my feet all mucky, and not Holden.
So if you ask me, I think that’s when things got all different between me and Jim. More grown-up. And we kept on as normal at school; it was our last year of primary, but sometimes he’d shuffle his chair a bit closer if we were sitting near each other in class. Or he’d start shooting hoops all fancy when I walked past on the netball courts, or he’d come over when his Ma did, and we’d sit in the backyard and he’d tell me that he was scared about next year, it being high school and all, but to not tell anyone else. And I didn’t, cause I liked that only I knew.
And so when me and Jim Morency got to crawling out the tent like two night-time robbers, we both knew there was something more to it than just being naughty and sneaking out and disobeying our parents. And that’s why I felt a little giddy, a little flushed, like I needed to drink a whole bottle of lemonade, and why I noticed how white Jim’s shirt was in the night-time, and how the patch of skin just before his hem met his pants was all smooth and worn the colour of burnt caramel.
He reached back for my hand as soon as we were away from the circle of firelight.
“You might get lost,” he grinned. “There’s night-time predators around here.”
“Like escapees from prison?” I wanted to know.
“No,” he said, “like exotic, girl-eating mythical beasts.”
And I was glad he said that, because it was so kiddy, and it made me feel less like a grown-up trying to figure out the best way to go about grown-up things.
Anyway, we linked hands and Jim’s hand was a little sweaty, or maybe it was mine, and we both knew but we didn’t say anything. It just wasn’t the right thing to say.
We went past the washing lines and they were full to the brim with beach towels drying out after everyone’s evening swim. Evening was the best time to swim, cause the water got all calm and warm and a lovely shade of bronze-amber, and it was like swimming in a mill pond but nowhere near as gross.
Someone had strung up some fairy lights too, real slapdash, and they were all reflecting against the towels and everything was kinda cast in this real pearly, moth-wing whiteness. Jim stopped before it and dropped my hand.
“Lou,” he said.
And I looked at him cause I kinda’ knew what he meant and then he grinned at me and I grinned back, and his whole face was flooded with that same sheeny whiteness, except all his cheekbones and bones were real sharp with all the shadows. He almost looked like some elfin prince, or that could just be me getting carried away.
Jim reached out and swatted me on the arm.
“You’re it,” he said, and then he dashed off among the washing lines, ducking past the towels so that the ends of them kinda floated after him as he disappeared through the gaps.
“Hey!” I said after him and, laughing, started to chase after his lopsided shadow. We were both dashing the towels away with our arms and giggling and almost getting knocked out by the fairy lights, and our feet got faster and faster as the washing lines sloped downhill. I almost ran into Jim at the bottom but I stopped in time and the dirt my feet puffed up smelled all rich and clean, like it had come from very deep down.
We were both breathing pretty heavy, and we stood there with our hands on our knees and grinned at each other like a pair of idiots.
“That was fun,” Jim said.
“Mmm-hmm,” I said and then he stood up straight and stared down at me. I saw that he were taller now, when I’d always been taller than him.
“Tired?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said.
“Good,” he said, “Race you.”
And he took off in the direction of the lake. I ran after and I coulda beat him if I really wanted because I was the fastest runner in Year Six. But I kinda just followed after, watching the shape of him, all arms and legs and slenderness.
We went through the little thicket of brambles and pine and salt-beaten tussock grass and because the moon was really full tonight, all the gaps between the trunks had a swathe of the star’s breath draped all over. We could see the whispers of spider webs and listened to the startled scurrying of all the nocturnals scampering away from our steps.
Jim slowed down as we were coming up through the middle, right near the old bones of a fallen tree.
“Need a rest?” Grinning, he pointed at the stump.
“No,” I said, “Bet you do.”
“Scared?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “Bet you are.”
We took a few more steps through the scrub, pushing aside the overgrown spinifex, feeling the sharp ends jab into the backs of our bare arms and then crumple against our skin. It was real quiet down that path, unnatural almost, like all sound was being funnelled just over the tops of our heads. And then Jim stepped real loud on a twig and some weird night-bird started up from a branch and I jumped and near wet myself. Ahead of me Jim sniggered and turned around and pretended he were a ghost or something lame like that, except when he did it I wanted to giggle and giggle like it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.
“Scared?” he repeated with that annoying little grin that only ever seemed to lift the one side of his mouth.
I poked my tongue out at him.
“Want to hold my hand?” he kept teasing, and he held it out. I saw it all hovering there on the path and I wanted to hold it more than anything, and I think he wanted me to take it too, but I just wrinkled my nose.
“Don’t want your germs,” I said.
And for a moment Jim paused but his half-grin stayed and when he turned and began to walk away, ducking under branches and following the curves of the footpath, I near couldn’t take my eyes off him.
I thought, That’s my Jimmy. He’s pretty magnificent tonight.
Well we came out onto a decline and all the trees began to thin out as they sloped down nearer the sea. Me and Jim, we tore in and out of those trees, and they were all silhouetted like sentries in the night, and the moon spangle danced away all glimmery in the gaps. It were pretty steep so we couldn’t stop running, so we just kept on until we came out of the trees and into the patch of scrubby grass just before the windbreak that blocked off the beach.
Now in the daylight it never looked nothing special, but in the night-time the very tips of all the grass was glistening with the moonshine, like each one was crying and just waiting for our feet to tramp away all their tears. Jim stopped and I ran into the back of him and I caught the scent of his hair, still salty from his afternoon swim.
“Look out,” he said and reached out an arm to steady me, with that same little grin that kept me feeling all peculiar, like my stomach didn’t know which was the right way up. And then, with his hand still on my sleeve, he motioned with his head at the moon that was hanging real low and bright in the sky, just to the left of us.
Putting on a real fine show tonight, it was, just hovering low over the sandstone cliffs, like Jim coulda reached out a hand and scooped out its insides. And it was real bright, like yellow-pearl if there’s such a colour, and it was so huge, and when Jim paused to look at it he was all sharp shadows and only the edges of his silhouette, just like the trees.
He looked back at me and then he looked down at my arm, where his hand was still resting, and then he grinned and did some kind of funny action where he ripped out an imaginary slingshot and aimed for the moon. And I don’t know, he kinda looked like Peter Pan or something, like nothing could get him. I gave him a little shove forward cause I kinda felt real overwhelmed and then we were running, near to the edge of the cliff, with the moon shining on full in our face.
We raced for the stone steps hewn into the cliff cause that’s how we were gonna get down to the beach. Jim stepped aside then and stretched one arm out and did a silly little bow.
“Ladies first,” he said.
“Go on then,” I said, being smart.
He just laughed and looked down.
“If I go first, I can’t stop you if you fall,” he said, scuffling the gritty sand-dirt with his toe.
“Yeah but you can break my fall,” I said, and then felt all shy and took to ducking my head too.
“I’d rather prevent it,” said Jim.
“Fine then,” I said, and made to brush past him to go first, but he grabbed my arm as I passed as if to help me along anyway.
“Watch your step,” he said and let go of my arm and I kept walking down the steps even though I wanted to stay up there with him but I kept walking and I was glad I went first anyway cause my face was all beet-red.
Down on the beach all the teenagers were having one of their parties, with bonfires and music that always sounded like it was coming from far away. It smelled all fresh and briney but also like sunscreen when you wear it all day and like burning pine and melted plastic. And it was all smoky and there were little sparks from the fires flicking through the smoke like they were just making a pit-stop on their way to becoming stars.
Me and Jim made a great show of ourselves, pretending to army crawl and sneak around behind tipped over deckchairs. It was late and we weren’t supposed to be out but none of them would have cared anyway cause they were all much too involved in themselves. So we carried on, making silly signals to each other across the sand and trying not to giggle. Eventually we came to the last fire and there was only one couple and they were all wrapped up in each other, like with their arms all around each other and kissing and stuff. When me and Jimbo walked past them I felt a little embarrassed and we kinda glanced sideways at each other and pretended to be grossed out but secretly I was thinking how that would be if it were Jim and me.
Jim dashed over to the fire where there were some marshmallows cooking on sticks that the couple had forgotten and he stole the marshmallows and for a moment the fire made him this great centre of rosy light and silvery hair. Then we were running again, with the marshmallow sticks in our hands, and laughing laughing laughing because tonight everything just seemed like such tremendous fun.
We had all the marshmallows eaten up by the time we came to the lake and we stuck the sticks in the dirt by the tree where the tyre swing was hitched up. Jim kicked up some water and got me all wet on my shirt.
“Not on my clothes!” I screamed. “Jim!”
“Sorry Lou-Lou,” he said, but he was not sorry at all, and then the lake settled again and we both watched it cause it had one of those silver moon-ladders down the middle and looked like a fairy had used it to climb up.
Then we just stood and I could see Jim’s chest rising and falling with the effort of chasing me, his moppy hair all blown back and then fallen again round his face. His cheeks were all pinched pink and he looked just so happy. He looked like summer and I thought to myself that I could never be as happy again as I was at this moment, looking at Jim Morency.
“Thanks Jimmy, I’ve had fun tonight,” I said, real quiet.
“It comes with the package,” he said with a toss of his shoulders, real joking arrogant in that way he had.
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever you reckon,” I said.
“You or me first?” he asked, real sudden, and I paused, confused as to what I thought he meant and what I wanted him to mean.
“You want to use the swing first or can I?”
“Oh,” I said and giggled, nudging the dirt with my toes. “You go first and tell me how cold it is.”
“I might lie,” Jim said.
And I kind of didn’t really know what to say then, like I wanted to have some snappy little comeback like they did on TV, but nothing came to mind. So I just looked at him, pushing my toe round in the dirt.
“Alright,” Jim said, “I’ll go first.”
And he unhitched the rope swing from the big old pine tree, where it had been for years and years, ever since Jim and I were real little. I watched him jump up on it and settle himself all comfortable. Then he looked down at me like a king all haughty up on his throne.
“Don’t be jealous that I can swing further than you,” he said.
I opened my mouth to protest but he pushed off then, swinging out, and his body kinda got lost to the night sky as he swung up, the darkness and the tree shadows swallowing him. But then he rocketed out over the lake and his whole body reflected the silvery ripples of the water below before he went crashing into the lake and a million tiny teardrops of water shot up after him.
I followed, and of course I couldn’t swing and land further than Jim, but I got near to him at least and when I swung up over the lake in my own arc I could see him down below, waiting for me. The top of his head was drunk with the moon and then I landed in the water myself and my whole world was the gentle whirr of water weaving around my ear and my arms and legs fanning out either side like they weren’t my own.
When I came out of the water I caught sight of Jim, the flash of his teeth in the dark night and the rivulets of water streaming from his neck and still I couldn’t take my eyes away from the shadows on his face as the trees moved in soft billows behind him.
He splashed me and I splashed him back and then we were just splashing and squealing and feeling both five years old and almost thirteen all at once. We took turns on the swing and when it were my turn I pumped my legs real hard so I went out in long lazy sweeps, my body all loped through the tyre and the lake like the eye of a brimstone below me. I leant back so far I could feel the ends of my hair dragging through the water and there was the stars and there was Jim and just for that moment it was kinda like there only ever needed to be me and Jim and the lake and the trees and the moon softly breathing over everything. My heart got fair swelled up all big, so that when I swung back and forth it pushed up against my chest, just busting to get on out.
I looked down at Jim and he had this cheeky smile but it was kinda sad too, like he knew that whatever happened next was gonna change something, not just between us but for him in the bigger picture.
He grabbed my foot and I dropped into the lake and we both just floated there, watching, and then Jim Morency kissed me, my first real true kiss, and truth be told it was a little awkward. He aimed for my cheek but then decided at the last moment to go for my lips, but he ended up misjudging both and got the side of my mouth, so I couldn’t really kiss back. I could smell marshmallow and his shoulders were trembling right next to mine and when he pulled away he looked embarrassed and relieved but then he did such an infectious grin that it didn’t matter and it felt like it was all damn near perfect.
We stayed at the lake for as long as we dared, and we didn’t kiss again and I was kinda afraid of looking at him straight after that. We had to run home cause our clothes were wet and though it was summer it ain’t a good idea to be running round all wet when it’s dark. Near to the tents Jim slowed down and held my hand for a bit and just sorta grinned a lot and by the time I ducked back into my tent I had the best feeling, like I just couldn’t wait for the new day to begin.
We both packed up and went home the next day, but I was just hanging out for school to start up again so I could see Jim.
I don’t know why he ignored me on the first day of high school, and why he kept ignoring me all the days after, or why, in the Get to Know You part of our Year Seven English class, he said that he spent the summer on a lame camping trip with his family and he couldn’t remember anything remarkable about it at all.
I don’t know why towards the end of Year Seven he and some of his new friends put old fish heads in my locker and why they yelled horrible things at me in the playground after I told Miss Henry who it was most likely to be that done it.
He was real mean, that Jim, cause the one time I managed to catch his eye I saw the lake and the beach and us running and giggling and being stupid and I knew that Jim Morency was a faker, and he hadn’t forgotten, not even near. But then I blinked and his gaze shifted and Jim Morency, well he passed right by me like I wasn’t even there.
Samantha-Ellen grew up on the Tasmanian coast and is forever grateful for those many long summers spent by the beach. Now living in Melbourne, she is completing her Diploma in Book Publishing and Editing and works in very much the same areas. She finds the world of books fascinating and has the greatest love for YA and children’s literature.
In the past few years she has won national awards and competitions for her short stories and poetry, with some minor publications. She is also steadily building a pile of YA and children’s manuscripts, and never tires of writing about these fascinating stages of life.
Some of her favourite things are theatre, mermaids and cabbage patch kids. Her blog, dedicated to YA and children’s books, is Book Grotto.
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