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“I didn’t think you were coming.” Megan narrowed her eyes at Caleb as he approached her. She was sitting on the steps of her Papaw’s front porch. “I thought you were standing me up for the second time in a row.”
Caleb could feel the blush rising in his cheeks. “I’m sorry about last time. Robbie had something bad.”
Megan grinned and hopped up. “I’m just teasing. Is he better? Where is he?”
Caleb was relieved her irritation was feigned, and he felt a little more confident as he said, “He’s meeting us at the tracks.”
“What are we waiting for then?” Megan grabbed Caleb’s elbow and pulled him toward the road.
Caleb’s skin tingled under her fingertips, and he fought another blush. He was disappointed when she let her hand drop from his arm. “It’s awful hot today.”
Megan grinned. “Your accent is so cute.”
Caleb’s face burned, as he said, “What accent?”
“Your country accent.” Megan glanced over at him, and giggled. “Why are you blushing?”
Caleb wanted to turn around and run away. He could feel the tips of his ears burning scarlet. “I don’t have an accent,” he protested.
“Yes, you do.” Megan smiled at him. “I like it.”
Caleb didn’t know what to say, so he walked beside her in silence, concentrating on getting himself under control. He hated the way he blushed around girls. Especially Megan. She seemed so sophisticated compared to him. So sure of herself.
As the pair reached the end of Montgomery Street, they could see Robbie pedaling his bike toward them. “Hey!” Robbie called to them.
“Hey, man.” Caleb waved at his friend as he skidded to a stop in front of them. “This is Megan.”
“Hi.” Megan smiled at Robbie.
Caleb felt a surge of jealousy quicken his pulse.
“Hi.” Robbie grinned. “Nice to meet you. Caleb has told me all about you.”
Megan giggled. “He has? What’d he say?”
Robbie cut his eyes toward Caleb, and then shrugged. “It’s hot. Let’s go swimming.”
Caleb was grateful his friend hadn’t ratted him out. His exact words had been, “She’s the hottest girl I’ve ever seen in Little River.”
The three teenagers walked to the edge of Montgomery, and stepped into the woods. Robbie dropped his bike behind some bushes. There was a well-worn path between two oak trees, and they followed it down a hill. Megan stumbled on some loose pebbles, and Caleb offered her his hand. She took it, and he held it tightly as they half-way skidded to the bottom.
At the bottom of the hill, the dense forest opened up where the railroad tracks ran parallel to the river. They walked on the tracks, balancing on the rails.
“How far is it?” Megan asked.
“’Bout a mile,” Caleb answered.
“Are you liking living with your Papaw?” Robbie asked.
Megan shrugged. “It’s okay. I’d rather be at home with my friends.”
“Kinda sucks having to spend your summer out here, huh?” Robbie glanced over at her as they walked.
“Yeah.” Megan sighed. “All my friends are doing all this great stuff without me.”
Caleb didn’t want to let Robbie do all the talking, so he said, “I’m glad we got to meet you, though.”
Megan tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder, and smiled at him, “Me, too. It’s the only interesting thing that’s happened since I got here.”
When they reached a bend in the tracks, Caleb said, “It’s down here.”
Megan looked in the direction Caleb was pointing. “What?”
“The swimming hole.”
Again, the three of them skidded down an embankment. At the bottom, the trees thinned out on a small peninsula. One lone tree stood near the tip of the land, with a rope dangling from a thick limb that stretched over the slow moving river.
“Cool!” Megan looked delighted. “It looks like a movie set.”
Caleb gazed at the familiar surroundings and imagined seeing them through Megan’s eyes. He had been coming to the swimming hole his entire life. He couldn’t even remember the first time he saw it. His dad had taught him to swim here. His brothers had nearly drowned him here…on multiple occasions.
Caleb and Robbie pulled their shirts over their heads and removed their socks and shoes. Clad only in swim trunks, Caleb was very aware of his thin torso. His brothers were all slim, but Caleb was the only one who hadn’t filled out. Robbie had yet to shed his baby fat, so Caleb hoped he at least looked good to Megan in comparison to the present company.
As Robbie waded into the water and swam out to grab the end of the rope and pull it to shore, Caleb tried to watch Megan undress without being too obvious. She pulled her purple tank top off to reveal a different bikini top than the one he had seen on the day he met her. This one was lavender and navy blue diagonal stripes. Caleb had to stop watching when she slid her jean shorts over her hips or risk embarrassing himself in front of her. Instead, he watched Robbie climb up into the tree. Years ago, someone had nailed small pieces of board into the tree, creating steps to a thick limb that grew horizontally, making a platform to stand on.
“Is that safe?” Megan had one hand on her hip, and arched her right eyebrow in a very alluring way.
“Sure.” Caleb nodded. “We do it all the time.”
“Geronimo!” Robbie yelled as he jumped from the tree and swung out in a long ark, dropping into the green water with a splash.
“It does look fun!” Megan grinned.
“It is.” Caleb grinned back. “Want to go next?”
Two hours later, the three friends lay on their backs on a patch of grass on the river bank, letting the hot sun dry their swimsuits. “This has been a lot of fun,” Megan said.
“As fun as Nashville?” Robbie asked.
“Sure,” she replied. “Nashville’s exciting when you go downtown to see a show or something, but most of the time it’s just like anywhere else.”
Robbie stood up and said, “I’m going to take a walk.”
As he retreated into the woods, Megan arched an eyebrow in an unspoken question. Caleb grinned, and said, “He has to pee.”
“Ah.” Megan rested her head on her crossed arms, and watched Caleb.
“What?” Caleb asked.
“Why are you staring at me.”
“You’re cute.” Megan enjoyed teasing him.
“Thanks,” Caleb paused and then said, “so are you.”
Megan giggled. “Thanks.”
“I’m glad you came with us today.” Caleb rolled to his side, and propped his head on his hand. “I hope you had fun.”
“I did.” Megan smiled. “It took my mind off things.”
“Things with your parents?”
Megan nodded. “And other things.”
“I miss my friends.”
“Yeah. That sucks.”
“I miss my mom a lot,” Megan confided. “I don’t understand how she can just send me off and not see me all summer. I’m an only child, you know. You think she’d miss me.”
“I’m sorry.” Caleb thought about taking her hand in his, but didn’t have the courage. “I miss my mom, too.”
“Why is she in the hospital?” Megan asked.
“She’s not anymore.” Caleb took a deep breath. He had been dreading this conversation. “She’s staying with my grandparents for a while. In Bristol.”
“She’s having a hard time.” Caleb rolled to his back, and rested his forearm over his eyes, blocking out the sun…and Megan’s gaze. “She’s been having a hard time since my dad died, really. And that’s been years ago. She just didn’t get over it. My uncle says she’s fragile.”
“The uncle you live with?”
“Yeah. My Uncle Titus. He’s always kind of taken care of us. He’s my mom’s little brother.”
“Is your mom going to get better?” Megan’s voice was soft.
Caleb shrugged. “I don’t think so. I think it’s just how she is.”
Caleb was surprised when he felt Megan grab his hand. He glanced over at her and smiled.
The moment was interrupted when Robbie came tromping out of the woods, calling to them, “Look what I found!”
Caleb looked up to see his friend carrying a two foot black snake by the neck, its slender body wrapped around his arm.
Megan squealed, and let go of Caleb’s hand. “Don’t bring that thing near me!”
Caleb stood to examine the snake, and Megan quickly moved behind him, placing her hands on his waist. “Don’t let him bring it over here! I hate snakes!”
Caleb grinned over his shoulder at her, and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
©2015 Rachel Holbrook
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, and various other literary journals. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.