My stepbrother had most things I wanted in life.
Mike (that’s not his real name), strolled up that Saturday night with his new girl, Jessy. I swear I stopped breathin’ for a second or two. She was wearin’ the tightest dress you ever saw. Her swaying mermaid hair hypnotised me good. Mike waited for her to catch up. She weren’t in no hurry. I leant all casual against the door, gave her one of my looks. She did that coy thing girls do, when they look away then check to see you’re still watchin’ them. The truth is – the time it took Jessy to walk up to the house – she was already mine.
I should have left it at that. Easy to say now.
They say I don’t have much of a brain, but charm and appeal must have been on special the day I was born. That and watchin’ Ma’s old James Dean films, where he’s giving that vulnerable kinda look. Girls go for that, I learnt early on. Perfected it in Ma’s broken compact mirror as soon as I could quiff my own hair.
Ma was snoring, stretched out on the couch. Mike switched over to The Fresh Prince. I squeezed on the end of the two-seater, sandwichin’ Jessy between me and him. Close as hell we were. I could hear her soft breath and the warm spicy perfume made me dizzy with longin’.
‘Get lost why don’t ya?’ Mike’s nostrils flared and he crossed his arms high on his puffed-up chest.
The inked snake on my arm slithered across the back of the couch. I balled my other hand into a fist, leaned over Jessy and thumped Mike’s skull. Not hard, you know, just kinda playful so his glasses flipped into his lap. While he fumbled about, trying to get them back on, I smoothed my palm firmly along Jessy’s warm thigh. She held me there with her aquamarine eyes, blinkin’ slow and deliberate.
Mike switched off the TV and picked up his car keys. Ma stirred. I grabbed the beers from the fridge and dived in the back of his Chevrolet before he could think of leavin’ me behind. Sure enough he grunted as he caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. Jessy gave his arm a little squeeze.
When we landed at the beach, the party was already swingin’. A fire crackled on the damp sand and the smell of steak wafted towards us in a flag of smoke. A cheer rose up and a wave of Mike’s college buddies swept him out of sight.
I cracked open a beer and strolled down to the sea to watch the black tide lick the sand smoother than sheet metal. Jessy came up behind me and fingered my hair.
‘I thought you were…?’ I said, turnin’ to face her. I weren’t complainin’ or nothin’.
She shrugged. I offered her my can. She took a long slug then slowly ran her tongue over her lips. I must have been staring because her smile widened. I finished off the beer and chucked the can onto the shadowy sand.
‘Race you!’ She gave a little shriek and started strippin’ off her dress like a layer of skin. I fought my way out of my shorts and t-shirt and together we ran into the water, bouncin’ up and down, seein’ who was bravest. Once under, she wrapped her legs around me and I slipped myself in. She clung to my neck and gave measured little gasps in my ear. Her sequin skin shimmered in the moonlight. We held each other tight. None of that awkwardness like with other girls.
‘You’re the best,’ she whispered. I shut my eyes, re-ran the words in my head until they were carved there.
Mike’s outline emerged from the darkness. He waded in, fully clothed, shoutin’ his head off. He yanked Jessy back by her hair and shoved me in the chest with the heel of his hand. I lost my footin’ but managed to hang on to his jacket, pullin’ him under. His clothes ballooned like his face. He surfaced after me, coughin’ his guts up.
Jessy bobbed in and out of sight. I expected her to be half drowned by the time I reached her, but she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me.
‘You’re OK?’ I said, catchin’ my breath.
She grinned and dived underwater, a flash of silvery tail flicked out and swished after her. Then she was pullin’ me by the ankles, down, down, down, holdin’ me there in the airless underworld. I managed to kick free.
‘What the hell?’ I gasped, my lungs near burstin’.
She shrugged and gathered her hair over her shoulder. I glanced at the shore, scanned the beach for Mike. I couldn’t see him splashin’ around tryin’ to swim nor standin’ at the water’s edge.
I started swimmin’ back, my body heavy right up to my throat. As I drew nearer, I saw him slumped on the beach. My stomach clenched like a shark’s bite.
‘Shit, man!’ I ran to him, pawed at his bulk. As I rolled him over, his head flopped to one side. I nudged Jessy to give him the kiss of life. We pumped his chest, slapped his back, but it was no good. I buried my face in the crook of my arm.
We pulled our clothes back on. In the distance, the hum of the party had moved to a bar further along the beach where lanterns hung from trees and music thumped at the pace of a heartbeat.
Jessy fished Mike’s keys out of his trouser pocket. She tipped her head and placed the shiny bunch in my hand. I tried my hardest not to, but a grin leaked from my lips.
Mike’s real name was James. I’ve taken that too.
RUBY SPEECHEY is represented by Jo Bell of Bell Lomax Moreton Agency. Faber Academy and Sheffield Hallam university graduate (MA in Writing). Winner of Retreat West Short Story Competition 2014. Ruby’s fiction has been listed in many competitions and is published in various places. Rubyspeechley.com @rubyspeechley
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