TRIP WAS LATE. AGAIN. I ran my fingers across the rough wood of the porch, counting seconds. Two hundred forty-seven, two hundred forty-eight. I’d been fidgety inside with my mom, but this was no better. The wind coming off the mountains made my nose drip and numbed my fingers. It was barely October, but that’s Vermont for you. I dug through my backpack checking for gloves. I’d need them up at the cave.
Trip swung around the corner finally, the wagon’s left headlight dimmer than the other, like it was winking. If anyone’s car could wink and get away with it, it’d be Trip’s.
He parked haphazardly, beeping before he noticed me on the step. I stood, catching the flutter of curtains next door. Mrs. McGinty watching me walk down the front path. Nosy old bat, Trip called her.
“You’re late,” I told him, sliding into the backseat.
“Sue me,” Trip answered. “I had a hot date.”
Sarah backhanded his arm lightly, then turned, smiling, her arm draped gracefully over the seat. “Hey, Ri.”
“Hey,” I said, trying to ignore the softness of her brown eyes, perfect lips. Hot date indeed.
We started up the trail toward the cave just past six, after picking up Tannis at her house a half mile from mine and Natalie at the ski shop. It was near dusk, but none of us needed much light to find our way. We’d been doing it all summer. Some of us for years before, too.
My dad first brought me when I was eleven, not to hang out with girls or go drinking like we were doing tonight. He and I were going hunting.
He’d stopped just outside the cave, his gun resting on his shoulder, breath coming hard after the steep climb. “My parents didn’t know about this place,” he’d said, peering into the dark opening. “Never woulda found me here, even if they’d come looking.” He’d turned, scanning the clearing, a half smile on his scruffy face. “But I know about it, Riley.” My dad had looked down at me sharply. “So don’t think you’ll be getting away with anything, Son.”
I’d met his eyes, not sure if he was teasing, not sure what I’d try to “get away with” in this place that stank like our basement: stale beer and ash. “Okay, Dad.”
He’d smiled and ruffled my hair, his hand still protection against the scary unknown. “C’mon. Let’s head to the platform and see if you can bag us some dinner.” He’d laughed loud, his heavy boots snapping branches as he’d started up the path to the hunting perch where he’d die two years later.
I thought of him a little bit every time I came here, wondered if he’d really have tracked me down if he’d still been alive. Or whether he’d have sat and had a beer with us.
“Move it, Riley!” Trip yelled down. He stood at the top of the trail, grinning back at me. “We’re thirsty, dude.”
Sarah stood beside him, her arm around his waist, dark hair blending into the dusk and woods behind.
“You could’ve carried this shit.” I hitched my bag with the six-packs inside.
“I procured. You haul.”
I flipped him the bird and continued walking—no faster—up the path. His laughter floated down, and I saw them turn away, Trip catching Sarah’s hand, lacing her fingers through his as they walked toward the clearing.
Tannis was already working on the fire when I got up there. I let my backpack slide to the dirt by the pit.
“Hey, loverboy,” she called. “How about a beer?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” I said, pulling one out of the bag.
Tannis snorted, poking at the logs with a stick that she tossed on top before walking over. She was easily an inch taller than me, and broad. I had to remind myself to stay put when she stopped solidly within my personal space, hands on her hips.
“Easy, motorhead.” I handed her the beer, grabbing another from the backpack for myself.
“Shove it, Riley,” she answered pleasantly, taking a long swig. Her blond hair fell heavily down her back, and I noticed a smudge of dirt under her chin.
I told her and she shrugged. “Adds character.” But she wiped it away, her fingernails still rimmed with oil or lube or whatever they used to tune the cars in her front yard. It drove her OCD neighbor nuts, which I think was half the reason she and her brothers did it there instead of in their barn or at the track.
I took a drink, then bent for a fistful of twigs and listened to the sizzle and crack of the green ones as they landed on the fire.
“You guys need help?” Nat came up from behind. She waved off the beer I offered.
“Sure,” Tannis said. “You and Riley want to collect some more wood?”
Natalie nodded, and I walked with her to the thickets on the opposite side of the clearing, both of us glancing toward Trip and Sarah, who were in soft conversation by the cave. Their foreheads touched and Trip’s arm was around her waist.
“Gag,” I said dryly.
“I think it’s really sweet,” Natalie said softly. “They’re so happy together.”
“I think you mean ‘sappy together,’” I said, something hot and sour in my throat.
“Oh, Riley.” She gave me a little shove. “Someday that’ll be you.”
I glanced past Natalie at Trip and Sarah, now walking hand in hand toward Tannis. If only she knew how much I wished that were true.
Twenty minutes later we had a pile of branches, seven empty beer cans, and the sky had turned purple through the tree line. The five of us sat on stones around our fire, me between Nat and Tannis, Sarah and Trip at the other end of the semicircle. I’d stacked the hollow cans in a pyramid by my feet, drifting in and out of the conversation—Trip complaining about the ski shop, Nat telling him not to, Sarah agreeing with one, then the other. Mostly I thought about how the air smelled crisp and smoky, like the bonfires my dad used to make at home after all the leaves fell. I remember him towering above the flames, even though in pictures I can see he wasn’t much taller than my mom. Memories are funny like that.
Being here felt like those bonfires—warm, comfortable, ritualistic. I’d never have guessed it back when Trip first suggested bringing the girls. “C’mon, man,” he’d said. “Think about it—drinks, dark, ladies . . .” He’d raised an eyebrow suggestively. “Anything could happen.”
I’d agreed, because that’s what you do when your best friend needs a wingman, but I’d known exactly what would happen with those ladies. Nothing. Not for me at least. I’d gone to school with Nat and Tannis since kindergarten. They weren’t into me, and the feeling was unequivocally mutual. But over the weeks of summer, I’d gotten to like coming here with them. Gotten to like them. I was sorry to see it end and wondered if any of them sensed it too—the bite of ice in the air, the hard-packed feel of the ground now. This would probably be our last night.