Before I had a little brother to love and share any little old thing with, I had my cousin Remy. Although he was a year older than me, Remy was about half my size. Even after he grew into his body, I still stood tall and broad over him. He was compact like a fist: all muscle, tendons and callouses. Every movement he made was short, to the point, full of energy. Everyone said he was the hardest worker they had ever seen, and I would agree, with the exception of my dad. Rome could have been built in a day if those two ever had a mind to do it.
As time accelerated, and our hairlines began to recede and thin, Remy maintained an agelessness. Maybe it was his active nature, his continued interest in boats, fishing, camping and off-roading. Where I was looking forward to being an old man: cardigans, naps and hours in book dens, Remy was still chasing the dreams we dreamt as kids. He chased them with the same gusto in which he used to yell, "Train!" whenever he heard one, then run as fast as he could to meet its oncoming whistle with a wave or a rock.
Every summer we traded off spending time at each other's homes.
At my house we might go fishing on the Green River, hang around the freeway overpass and railroad tracks until cops harassed us, go to the arcade up the street to play video games (if we had money) or free games of pool if the tables were empty (because I knew the manager), or introduce Remy to my favorite comic book store, while Remy introduced me to the art of stealing comic books.
While at Remy's house I could count on the smell of cat pee and shed fur because my aunt was breeding pedigree Himalayans for money. Everything else was unpredictable. It was a grab bag. It was the Wild West.
That's not to say there wasn't rules. There were. But, due to some health issues and my aunt's history of teenage rebellion, she either was unable to enforce those rules or couldn't help but smirk at the hypocrisy of it all. So the enforcing often fell on Remy's stepdad, yet due to his long working hours as a public bus driver, the real enforcer then became Remy, himself. With little supervision, we pretty much did what we wanted. But that came with a catch: my cousin, Darla.
Darla had the face of a wild angel, but the mentality of a very small child in a pre-teen body. When she wanted your attention she would happily launch into a litany of Hi's until you acknowledged her, and, on the flipside, she would hurriedly rattle off Buh-bye's when she wanted to move on. Other than verbal cues for diaper changes conducted by my aunt, that was the bulk of her vocabulary.
So, although Remy and I did a great deal of what we wanted, the responsibility of minding Darla also followed. Whenever we returned home, usually the first thing out of my aunt's mouth was Darla had run off and that Remy needed to find her.
I wondered what Darla saw when she looked at the world through those untamed, bright eyes. Wondered what it was that called out to her, that made her run. Wondered if my aunt's teenage rebelliousness was nearing its time-released date as her body neared womanhood.
For whatever reason, Darla ran and we chased. This happened so often Remy and I made a game of it. We would hop on BMX bikes and wail in obnoxious British accents, as if leading a hunting party, "Darla! Come here! Here! Here! Here!" with an extra growl on the word Here, likely because John Houseman's old Smith Barney commercials still aired, They make money the old-fashioned way...They earn it.
Sometimes the street lights blinked on before we found her, but eventually we always found her: sheepish grin, eyes laughing, nose running.
Sometimes the police picked her up before we did, and that was a problem. Although the officers were willing to work with my aunt (often on a first name basis due to repeated crossings with Darla) —whether because her charm had won them over or they just did not want to fill out paperwork—police intervention always bore the potential for questions and involvement from state social workers, and we could not have that. In the wake, Remy and I would stick close to home and redouble our efforts. But eventually kids want to be kids. They want to go get lost in the world, themselves; not play herdsmen, even if we had a sense of humor about it.
That summer was the first time I was to stay at their new house in Montlake Terrace. I did not know what to expect. Montlake Terrace sounded like a new apartment complex, spangled with plastic Day-Glo flags and banners snapping in the breeze, advertising low, low rates. It sounded like a housing association with a pretentious old man with an authoritative moustache, mean eyes and a captain's cap. I envisioned emerald lawns, clipped like putting greens, white picket fences, exquisite gardens.
When I was dropped off with my plastic shopping bags of clothes and things like a refugee, it was just houses, cars, trees. Nothing out of the ordinary. It was Smalltown Suburbia, Anywhere, USA.
Even though Remy's family's new home was nice enough, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. The last house they had rented in Bellevue was big, with an upstairs and a downstairs, right down the street from Lake Sammamish, with a creek and forest bordering the backside of their property. Remy and I would spend hours blending in with the tall trees, our heartbeats muffled by moss, our kingdom secretly growing at the backdoors of the real world, running alongside the creek like wild beasts, searching for trout and gold nuggets, before disappearing down a dirt hole, as if we were moles, into Remy's underground fort. He had dug down into the rocky soil, carpeted it, then laid plywood over the hole, covering the plywood with dirt, rocks and native plant species to make it look as natural as possible. While it rained outside or if we were hiding from Darla or Remy's little brothers, Hank and Ike, we could burrow into the fort, warm, plotting our next move, the darkness around us, a still-hearted ninja, protecting our keys to the kingdom.
Now it was gone. Our shadows, our kingdom, gone. I thought, if Remy and I were to ever return and found that punk kids had hijacked it, we would have to kill them. That was the way of the woods. Except now, here, in Montlake Terrace, we were without woods, we were exposed, we were easy prey. Now we would have to search for new places for where we belonged.
Whisked away from the doorstep to the back of the house, to Remy's room, I unpacked some bags, eyeing the melted, demonic face of Eddie staring out from an Iron Maiden poster on the wall, while Remy rattled off a list of all the things we could do in the days ahead. He told me there was a lake, that he had a little boat, that we could go fishing, and that was all I needed to hear. The rest of the list was a blur, because in my mind's eye a vivid gulf of blue water had opened, filled with possibilities, a coho fillet of light rising over a tree-lined horizon, mayflies hatching, trout nosing out of the depths and feeding, leaving ghostly rings on the surface, before returning to a placid mirror, where sky meets lake on a bridge of wind and discusses the possibilities of moving in together.
In the days ahead, the lake stayed out of reach. Since moving in, Remy had begun delivering the Everett Herald. Each morning we got up when it was still dark, newspapers rolled and rubber-banded, delivering them on foot or by bike throughout the neighborhoods. Spare moments in the afternoon were spent going door to door, trying to sell more Herald subscriptions. Where I was leery about knocking on a stranger's door, Remy charged up the walkway, knocked, launched into his spiel and to my surprise often gained another customer. Remy was transformed. He was a Herald man, through and through.
These were all new developments. Remy was never short of energy, and now he was finding a place to put it, besides our wild rambles. With this being our last summer before Jr. High School, he was already seamlessly entering the workforce, halfway to manhood, while I was still cutting my lawn for a two dollar allowance.
Even though only slight, I could feel the separation between us. Two opposing shores, close enough to be seen, close enough to be heard, but still slowly drifting apart, whether we wanted to or not.
Maybe that is how our cousin, Vincent, ended up in this story. I don't know. Memory has a funny way of dropping those details.
Perhaps Vin had stopped by, and while visiting, Remy felt the slight separation, as well. He sensed my thoughts drifting back home, wondering how my new, baby brother was doing, and decided to invite Vin to stay the night with us also.
Knowing Remy's good nature, I doubt there was any hidden message. His attitude was always, "The more, the merrier."
I had no problem with Vin. We had all spent nights together at my grandparents' in the past. My grandma claimed that after a week of us constantly switching allegiances, ganging up on one another, making whoever was currently the odd man out cry, she said we could never spend the night together, again. She said, either one at a time, maybe two, but never all three of us. Never again. And considering how much she liked company, especially grandsons to spoil with food, we really must have been terrors.
If I had a problem, the only one I had was that Vin was a mystery. He was a couple years younger than us, quiet, shy, always with a mischievous smirk, which sometimes proved to contain actual mischievousness.
That night, having Vin there felt like an intrusion to me. Since Remy now lived closer to Vin, it was becoming clear they had grown closer in my absence.
Rather than cry, I read Tomb of Dracula comics, played Super Mario Brothers on Remy's black and white TV, and we laughed and talked about girls, Chinese throwing stars, BMX bikes and who knows what else, while Elton John's Greatest Hits spun continuously on the turntable.
When I commented, "This is the best album ever made. How come everyone else has good songs mixed in with bad songs on their record? Even the Beatles have dumb songs like Dr. Robert. Every single Elton John song is good."
Rather than explain, Remy and Vin started laughing at me, since it was obvious that I did not understand the concept of a Greatest Hits album.
Maybe my grandma was right.
I was the odd man out.
The next morning, while stars still lingered, I told Remy I was going to stay in bed while he and Vin delivered papers. Even though I loved reading about my literary hero, Henry Huggins, and his paper route, an actual paper route was monotonous. Since it was so early in the morning, you had to be extra quiet because working people were still sleeping. Like ghosts, we slipped in and out of the morning shadows, stuffing plastic tubes or plopping papers on welcome mats.
Let those jokers have all the fun, I thought, sarcastically, finally able to stretch out in a bed, alone.
It was the first time I had been alone in days. I did not know how Remy always seemed to want others around. At home, I liked to be alone, reading, dreaming, watching TV. If I wanted company, I played with my sisters or walked over to my best friend's house the next street over. Otherwise, my alone time was sacred, especially since my body began to change.
I remember noticing the first spidery hairs sprouting below in the bathroom mirror after a bath and being shocked. I wondered if something was wrong with me, but never dared ask my parents, same as I could never ask a teacher a question in class. I would sooner spin my tires in worry and despair and get marked down for an incomplete assignment than admit I did not know what was going on. It was a hard way to live, to know so little and wonder about so much, but I figured if I just remained quiet, sooner or later, I would find a way to make sense of it all.
Without discussing anything sexual with my parents, I ended up discovering things in cruder ways: like a neighborhood girl showing me her dad's hardcore porno magazines in a broken down pickup, outside her apartment.
She asked me if I liked what I saw. My body drowning in heat, my mind, intoxicated and confused, I nodded. When she asked if she could see it, even though I had never done nor thought about anything sexual before, I somehow knew what she meant by it. I unzipped and showed her. Her touch afterward marked me for life, like a vampire.
At first I could go days without touching myself, but as my secret changes increased, I had to do it almost every night.
Stretching my leg muscles under the covers, letting my toes and feet hang over the edge, looking up at the window, next to the bed, watching the morning slowly brighten, I suddenly realized this would be my only opportunity to touch myself in the days ahead. I secretly worried I was becoming an addict and that somebody would find out, but I could not argue with how my body made me feel. While listening for Remy and Vin's return, I hurried, blanket shivering, feeling myself reach the jolt and familiar slide into the anaesthetic depths, before amnesia washed over my actions and I floated in blackness.
I was not sure how long I had drifted off, but by the time I woke up, Remy and Vin were loading the boat on the roof of his stepdad's station wagon. Quickly, I got dressed and tied my shoes, because I knew Remy's stepdad had a long day ahead of him, driving bus all over Seattle. That, and I had grown used to my dad's stormy impatience. When he wanted to go, he wanted to go NOW. So I ran out of the house as if it were about to explode, expecting a brushfire of anger to flare up at me outside the door, only to discover that Remy's stepdad, Leon, was one laidback dude.
As we pulled away, fully loaded, Leon sipped hot coffee from a glass mug, expertly driving with one hand, quiet, confident. When he took a right and started downhill, driving over the I-5 overpass, Leon casually looked at the tail lights already steadily red on the freeway leading into Seattle. This sight would have made my dad meltdown instantly, as if the world had just ended, but this guy shrugged it off. He followed the curve downward until we reached the lake.
After Remy, Vin and I unloaded the boat, I looked at Leon—swarthy good looks, cool moustache, soul patch, shoulder-length hair, like Frank Zappa—and said, "Watch out for those knife-wielding crazies on the bus." Leon just sort of smirked, like, Been there, done that. No sweat, man. And off he went. I half expected him to stop at the bus stop midway up the hill out of habit, before getting on the onramp, merging into traffic, returning to the fun of being an adult.
The last stitches of night holding, a rowboat of moon still gliding overhead, Remy, Vin and I stood on the shores of Lake Ballinger, viewing its dark, placid surface in silence. It was a small lake, with a little fishing pier, boat launch and playground, bordered by cyclone-fencing, separating the public from the golf course that ran along its shore. At this early morning hour it was a ghost town. We were the only people there, so every sound was amplified. We spoke in hushed tones, even giggling quietly, as if we might awaken something ancient inside the lake.
That morning we were unable to see the lakeside houses on the opposing shore: the further we looked, the thicker and more milky the fog.
"It looks like Jason's going to jump out of the water and kill us," Remy whispered, quietly laughing.
Vin and I started giggling.
This was Remy's lake, this was Remy's boat, so Vin and I waited on him for what to do next. He was the captain of this voyage. He knew these waters.
To the north, there were cattails and lily pads. When it was sunny, Remy would throw anchor in the little bay, strip down to his swimming trunks and snorkel in the muddy water. Even though he said he crossed paths with big bass and perch down there, what he was looking for were golf balls from all the golfers that had duck-hooked their balls off the tee nearby straight into the lake. When he surfaced, he came up with a wet, plastic grocery bag full of new golf balls, all brands, all colors. He would clean them up, put them in empty cardboard egg containers and either sell them back to golfers on the shore or to the course's Pro Shop.
Newspaper route, newspaper subscription commissions and now a golf ball scheme: for a twelve-year-old Remy was making bank. It was hard not to be impressed and a little jealous.
As we readied the boat at the edge of the launch, half in, half out of the water, rope tied to the cyclone fence in case it started to drift, Remy's boat was another one of these new status symbols. It was his first purchase with his route money, and although I call it a boat, it was nothing like the boat you may imagine.
It was actually a small, blue, plywood hydroplane hull. I do not know who he bought it from, but the word hydroplane conjured magical visions of engines roaring and roostertails flying out on Lake Washington in the mind of many a Pacific Northwest boy. It had to have been the selling point: Imagine when you put a motor on this baby. You're going to fly across the water!
Instead, before we launched that morning, I dug out an empty orange juice container from a garbage can so we could bail out leaking water. Instead of flying across the water like the famous hydroplane racer, Chip Hanauer, we shoved off shore with only one plastic oar and not even a life jacket between us. Never having had three passengers at once, suddenly the wingtips dipped forward, almost sending us completely underwater. Frantically shifting toward the back, we laughed like idiots, lucky not to overturn the whole thing.
Yet, somehow, one paddle stroke at a time, we made slow progress. We were heading south. Remy said there was an island. To his knowledge it was uninhabited.
I didn't say anything to Remy, because of Vin, but my heart and mind heard uninhabited and flushed with the possibility of finding a new place in the world. A place to hide, to rule over. A place all our own, again.
The further we ventured into that seemingly impenetrable fog, the milky curtain gave way and revealed another fifty feet ahead. It was eerie. Like something out of an old horror picture. White all around us, without a compass, wild thoughts came to mind. Like, were we still going south? What if the island disappeared? What if we were passing through some mysterious fog that transported us back in time?
As my mind wandered and worried over the impossible, Vin was completely untroubled. He opened a bag of Cheetos Cheese Puffs and started munching, while I bailed dirty lake water seeping up from the bottom and Remy did his best with only the one oar.
"Damn, Rem. Where's the island?" I asked.
"I don't know. It's gotta be close... Hey, Vin! Keep an eye out!"
"I am!" he mumbled, mouthful of Cheetos.
I muttered Dumbass under my breath.
"I heard that, you know."
"Then stop being a dumbass," Remy jumped in.
"Shut up, you dumbass."
"You two are the dumbasses!"
"Dude, throw him overboard."
"Hey, shut up. None of that. I don't want to row his dead body back."
The thought of Vin drowning made us laugh, even Vin.
All the while, the morning was brightening, and although the fog was still holding, the brightening made the fog appear less like milk and more like fine lace. A few ghostly ducks were now visible, slowly skimming across the water. A wall of evergreens stood tall to the south. A creek estuary doglegged and ran inland to the southeast.
When Remy saw the creek at the same time as me, he hissed an exasperated, "Shit."
"What?" asked Vin.
Remy looked back over his right shoulder, so my eyes followed. There, like an unruly clump of dark-green whiskers on a smooth face, was the island. It was not too far off, but we did manage to somehow row past it without knowing.
As Remy tried to turn the boat, I continued to take in the island. I had imagined it would look like King Kong's Skull Island. Small, intimidating, cartoonishly dramatic, with a rock mountain shaped like a skull. But, instead, the island was flat, still as a mummy under gauzy fog. It consisted of bare saplings, dead trees, some standing, others fallen, bracketed by a tall evergreen on the northern tip of the island and one to the south. I was already thinking about how we could run a zip line between the two for supplies and communications, after we had built tree stands within their green branches, like crow's nests on a ship. From up there, we could see all who dared approach. We could stock up on rocks on the mainland, boat them in, and pelt whoever tried to invade our shores. We could rule over the lake, like pirates. The law of the woods applied to open waters, as well: the penalty for invading our kingdom was death. Fair is fair.
As my mind raced ahead, power-drunk on the potential for what the island could be, the shores of the actual were approaching. There were many fallen trees submerged, reaching out like spiked defenses, threatening to puncture the hull and sink us. Not to mention saplings and foliage so crowded it was pointless to land there without a machete to hack our way in.
We kept skirting the island until a flat, dirt entry opened on the shore, near the base of the southern tip's evergreen. Although perfect for landing our boat and exploring the island, I knew it was a bad sign. It was too perfect. Someone had groomed this to be a boat landing. Maybe teenagers that got drunk and humped their brains out at night. Maybe a reclusive vagrant, who had stolen a rowboat from one of the lakeside houses. Maybe it was only a few other kids like us—ones we could kick the asses of and take over their island as our own.
I jumped from the bow onto shore and tied the boat to the evergreen. Vin followed (still eating from the bag of Cheetos), then Remy.
Although we never discussed danger, our natural instinct was to explore slowly. Same as when we were small and all three of us explored my grandparents' basement. We spent way too much time marveling at each new artifact as if we were discovering an ancient civilization. As we nosed around the island, we would find, say, a discarded sleeping bag that was much too moldy to have been used recently. It would lead us to dreaming about sleeping under the stars. Remy already planned on calling in, heading back to his house, getting camping supplies, food and stuff, already mentally setting up where we would camp even though we had barely explored the island, where our campfire would be. In the span of a few minutes we had all but given up our lives of living in houses and decided we were living on this island until the end of our days.
But as we moved further inland, navigating the snaggletoothed trails with thick brambles grabbing our ankles, the more something felt off. You could feel it inside, like when Jaws' music would slowly build up before its dorsal fin knifed across the water surface, a moveable tombstone accompanying its moveable feast. It felt like being locked in a dark room for hours, alone, and suddenly you discover a thousand set of eyes had been watching you as the lights go up.
Instinctively, Remy and I stopped to listen. We both looked at each other, our faces asking, "What's wrong here?" Other than Vin's orange-smeared mouth crunching, everything seemed fine. I shrugged. So did Remy.
Vin moved further up trail, the wispy mist swallowing him, and Remy moved eastward into the brush. I stuck to the lake edge, no longer interested in finding out what this island held. Last thing I needed was to stir up ghosts that wanted to be left alone.
I looked at the pristine fairway across the smoky water, lonely, disappointed that we were still landless. I wondered how many open spaces even remained in populated areas such as ours. Everywhere someone wanted to claim a piece of wild solitude, wanted to hide out for a bit, to replenish what the world had stolen from them, and yet so few were able to actually touch it, experience it, even just for a short while. It made me long to go back to Remy's old house right then. Back to our underground fort, with hunger in our eyes and murder in our hearts, to reclaim what we were unfairly forced to abandon. Decades later I still feel this. I know where the house is, I know the creek still runs through the forest, but logic stops me from jumping someone's fence to find out. But there will always be a part of me that believes it's there, untouched, the ghosts of our childhood still roaming, untamed, eternal.
My revery was broken by Vin's giggling. Before I could yell at Vin to shut up, I heard Remy shout, "WHAT?!" from the same direction. I assumed his eastern trail had joined Vin's. Then came the sounds of heavy footsteps, branches snapping, denim tearing, heavy breathing, before I saw Remy leading the way followed by Vin still giggling. Remy saw me and said "Run!" But before I ran, I caught a glimpse of what we were running from: Rats. Everywhere. In the brambles, in the thickets, on the trail. Something straight out of the Pied Piper.
As I ran, Vin threw a handful of Cheetos over his shoulder, as if this would sate them all. Without saying anything I already knew he was the cause of this. I felt like throwing a wild punch to the back his head, dropping him in the middle of the trail, then seeing if his giggling continued as rats gnawed on him. But, instead, we hauled ass until we reached the boat. Remy and Vin jumped on board, I untied the rope to the evergreen trunk and jumped on, too. I was pulling the rope into the boat, hand over hand, dragging it across the island dirt, as Remy pushed us off the muddy lake bottom with the plastic oar, propelling us backwards into open water, just as the rats arrived. I don't know if it was the motion of the last of the rope being pulled through the water into the boat or if the rats saw Vin's bag of Cheetos or if they routinely swam to the south shore to get food on the mainland—any which way, a small troop of rats jumped in the water, whiskered snouts held high, swimming right at us.
We shouted, "Shit!", not believing what we were seeing. Vin threw the bag of Cheetos overboard, and he and I stuck our hands in the cold lake, hand-paddling along with Remy's single oar stroke until we were far away.
We stopped paddling, rocking in the middle of the lake. The sun showing signs of bursting through the overcast like a burning fist, the mist slowly disappearing.
We looked at each other, when I said, "So let's go get that camping gear, huh?"
Our laughter erupted over the lake, united for that moment, no odd man out, before the continental drift of life pulled us apart.
A year later, I no longer hung out with my cousin Remy. He dropped out of Jr. High, worked for a bicycle shop, got into drugs, and was a dealer for a short while. He had his own place, a stereo, TV and souped-up car, while I was hiding in libraries, reading books, wishing for time to speed up so I could leave school. Remy faced a death threat from a rival dealer, and left nearly all his possessions behind to relocate and start a new life, while I was forging my mother's signature on absentee slips, always reaching the allowable amount of absences long before semester was up, passing with C's and D's, even though I often did A-level work when I was there.
Years later, Remy showed up at my parents' house, fresh out of jail, staying with my family for months. We had flashes of our old chemistry when we sat under amber skies in lawn chairs, laughing about old adventures. As the skies darkened, so did our conversations. I learned that Darla was a ward of the state, living in a home. Remy claimed she still looked the same, still radiated that sweetness that made it hard to dislike her, even when she frustrated you. I admitted I had no clue what to do with my life, that all I wanted to do was read and write, even though I knew there was no real future in it, and Remy admitted how he wished he had stayed with one of the teenage girls that fathered some of his illegitimate children so that he could see his kids.
There was a time when I used to take pride in my sobriety, that I somehow felt superior to family members that had fallen to drink or drugs, that I had risen above my surroundings, nurtured my brain with thousands of books, and become some unidentifiable mutant without a college degree, but in some small circles was someone whose name carried some weight.
I still feel like that twenty-one-year-old that night that admitted to Remy that I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. For all of Remy's faults, he lived. He has the scars and the calloused hands to prove it.
When life knocked on his door, he answered.
When life knocked on mine, I stepped into a novel and never came back.
RON GIBSON, JR. has previously appeared in Rabble Lit, (b)oink, Stockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, Unbroken Journal, Crack the Spine, Gone Lawn, etc...forthcoming at Easy Street Magazine, Mannequin Haus, and Real Story. He can be found on Twitter @sirabsurd.