It had begun innocently enough. They’d gone into town to see ET, which had just opened at the Rialto. Lila was supposed to come, too, but when it was time for them to leave she was nowhere to be found.
“She probably went for a ride and lost track of the time,” speculated Vaughn, as he was digging his car keys from his pocket. He shook his head in bemusement, as if to say, Typical of my sister.
Abigail responded with a shrug, leaving the impression that she’d done a thorough search, when it had been cursory at best. Deep down, hadn’t she wantedto be alone with Vaughn? she thought, feeling a pang of guilt as they started down the driveway. This way, she could pretend it was a date. And, as it turned out, she didn’t have to work too hard at pretending. All evening, she was almost excruciatingly aware of his presence: his hand lightly cupping her elbow as he steered her through the crowd at the entrance; during the movie, his forearm resting on the armrest separating their seats, tickling the tiny hairs of herbare arm; his buttery fingers brushing against hers when he reached into the popcorn box just as she was doing so.
Nevertheless, she read nothing into it when, on their way home, Vaughn pulled onto the old quarry road instead of heading toward their house. It was early yet, and these days he seldom missed an opportunity to put his new set of wheels to the test. As they barreled down the dirt road, dust boiling up around them and the tape deck cranked up to full volume, blasting Van Halen, she let go of any trepidation she felt at the speed with which Vaughn drove and gave herself over to the sense of abandon that he never failed to generate in her. Vaughn, it seemed, had been born with the inverse of gravitational pull, and as he raced along, expertly guiding the pickup over bumps and potholes, the wind streaming in through the open windows making a tornado of his sun-streaked hair, she was infected by the thrill of it as well.
When they could go no farther, they got out and went the rest of the way on foot, picking their way over rocks and down a slope that after a dozen or so yards ended in a steep drop-off. Below, the waters of the quarry gleamed blackly, pricked with the reflections of stars.
Vaughn turned to her with a grin. “How about a swim?”
It was a warm night, the air soupy and sluggish as the water below was cool and inviting, but she hesitated even so. Where once they’d run around each other half naked, lately she’d become self-conscious with Vaughn. It had started the night of her school dance, when in the span of a few short hours he’d gone from being her surrogate brother to someone capable of breaking her heart. These days, whenever she was around him, she felt as if an invisible band were constricting her chest. It was difficult to speak without having to stop every few seconds to catch her breath.
But she didn’t want him to know her feelings toward him had changed, so she tossed back casually, “Why not?”
They stripped down to their underwear, as they had countless times before, only this time it was different. Abigail turned her back as she hurriedly peeled off her T-shirt and jeans, glad for the cover of darkness.
As always, he was the first to dive in. She quickly followed, the shock of the cold water against her sweaty skin causing her to cry out, a cry that ricocheted against the quarry walls and sent Vaughn splashing his way toward her, hooting in laughter as he attempted to dunk her. They wrestled briefly underwater, his limbs slippery against hers, his hand grazing her breast at one point, before they surfaced with breathless whoops. It was too cold to stay in for very long, and minutes later they were stroking their way toward the rocks, Vaughn scrambling onto a wide, flat boulder, then grabbing her by the wrist and hauling her up alongside him.
She stretched out on her stomach, soaking up the warmth of the boulder, which had retained some of the day’s heat. She was shivering, and her flesh felt shrink-wrapped from the goose bumps that covered every inch of her. “Ooof! I don’t remember the water being this cold!” she exclaimed.
“That’s because we never went skinny-dipping at night.”
Vaughn lay on his back, his fingers laced behind his head, gazing up at the starry sky. Extremes in temperature didn’t bother him as they did most people; he was like a wild animal that way, adapting to changes in climate with the ease of a creature naturally suited to the outdoors.
“I wouldn’t exactly call this skinny-dipping,” She brought her head up, propping her chin on her folded arms to peer at him. A three-quarter moon shone overhead, casting a glow that turned the boulder on which they lay the dirty white of a salt lick. She could see the braided muscles in his arms and chest, glistening with droplets of moisture. His briefs clung to him like a second skin, leaving little to the imagination. She quickly averted her gaze, but not quickly enough. The humid night air grew warmer, and she felt the tightness of her goose-pimply flesh ease.
He laughed. “You say that like there’s something wrong with it.”
“No. All I meant was, we’re not little kids anymore. I’m a little old to be parading around in my bra and panties.” She cringed inwardly as soon as the words were out. Oh, God. Why was she drawing attention to the fact? Why didn’t she just shut up about it?
“So I’ve noticed.”
He rolled onto his side so that he was facing her, lifting himself onto one elbow. The moonlight reflecting off the water made his face appear to shimmer. His eyes, normally a pale, almost unearthly shade of blue, were as dark as the surrounding shadows. She felt a sense of gathering momentum, though neither of them had moved so much as a muscle. Even the air was as still as a held breath.
When he leaned in to gently kiss her on the lips, it caught her by surprise nonetheless. She drew back with a sharp intake of breath. “Why’d you do that?” She’d fantasized about it often enough, but now that it was happening, she didn’t trust it: Suppose he was only fooling around, the way boys were known to do? (Not that she’d had much experience in that department, having been on a grand total of two dates before now.) Suppose it meant nothing more to him than scratching an itch? The thought was unbearable.
He didn’t help matters by answering, with a shrug, “I don’t know. I just felt like it, is all.”
“You’re still doing it,” she said hoarsely as he nuzzled her cheek, toying with a damp lock of her hair. Heat traveled through her like a fire through pitch pine. She could feel the feather movement of his lips all the way down in her crotch, where the wet fabric of her panties clung.
“Do you want me to stop?” he murmured, nibbling on her ear.
Abigail didn’t answer. What was there to say? I’ll die if you don’t stop, and I’ll die if you do. Death from the thousand cuts that would be inflicted by watching him with other girls, once he’d tired of her. Already she was in over her head, and for once she couldn’t rely on Vaughn to protect her. He was the reason she was drowning.