The lake smelled brackish, like it was trying to be something it was not.
Tessa sat on the edge of the dock and dipped her feet in. Forty feet away, her mother laughed with a man in short white swim trunks, the man who had offered to take them out on his houseboat for the weekend. Ron. His friend Nick--a water bum whose hair had been bleached piss-yellow by the sun--had gone for more beer. Tessa smirked as she imagined him paying fifteen bucks for two measly six packs. The Grab ‘N Go was the only convenience store within twenty miles and the owners knew they could get away with it.
She twirled the gold ring on her finger and watched it sparkle in the sun, a flat disc engraved with the Virgo symbol. She’d swiped it from Coleman’s when they stopped on the way to the lake, a small defiant act that felt like the first time she wore lipstick in front of her mom. Her mother had merely laughed as though Tessa was being cute, trying to look grownup. If she’d had a friend over--Ron, say--her reaction would have been very different.
“Thirsty?” said a voice behind her.
Nick was holding out a sweating can of Pepsi in her direction. She took it without responding and cracked it open, sipped slowly.
“There’s more in the cooler if you want one later,” Nick said, gesturing vaguely toward the boat.
Tessa remained silent and stared out into middle distance, watching the other boats drone lazily by. The water rippled and fluttered, lapping against the dock and pushing the smell of fish and algae upward. At 13, she didn’t have the emotional tools to hide her disdain for Nick, who smelled like cheap beer and lake water. He wore denim cutoffs and nothing else, flaunting his toned arms and the sunburn across his shoulders. Just a grown-up version of the boys at school who got high behind the bleachers and bragged about all the girls they’d been with.
If Nick felt her true feelings for him, he gave no indication, sitting beside her on the dock and dunking his feet in the water.
“We’re gonna go to a party later,” he said, and pointed to a massive glass house that sat nestled in the hills above the lake. “Some friends of ours own that place. They throw an end-of-summer bash every year. You’ll have fun.”
“Cool, another place where I can sit and talk to people I don’t know,” Tessa said flatly.
Nick laughed. “Come on, don’t be like that. We’ll have a good time.”
“You guys will have a good time. My mother will have a good time.”
He considered that for a moment. “Don’t you like to swim?”
She flashed him an impatient look. “In a lake filled with fish shit? No thanks.”
“There’s gotta be something you like to do.”
Tessa sighed. “Listen to music, I guess.”
“Okay, that’s good. Music changes things, you know? You can be in the worst mood in the world, but if the right song comes on the radio, you’ll forget all about it. Ever hear of The Doors?”
She shrugged, a gesture so full of insouciance that it irritated even her.
“You’re kidding. “Light My Fire?” “Riders On The Storm?” Shit, I’ve got so much to teach you.”
Tessa shuddered at the idea of Nick teaching her anything and glanced at him peripherally. “I guess I’ve heard them in the car. My mom’s always listening to that oldies crap.”
Nick looked pained. “Hang on, I think I’ve got a tape on the boat.”
She leaned back on her hands and faced the sun, closing her eyes. After a moment, the dock was filled with the sounds of a thunderstorm and a tinkling piano. It made her think of rain falling in sheets across the desert.
“This sound like oldies to you?” Nick asked as he took his place beside her again.
She shook her head. “I like it, actually.”
“Yeah!” Nick cried, pumping his fist in the air.
He looked so goofy that Tessa couldn’t hide a smile. When he turned to her and pushed his mirrored shades up to his hairline, she could see an openness in his face that was never present in her mother’s.
“Calm down,” she said, arching an eyebrow to maintain her cool. “It’s just one song.”
“Listen, it is my mission in life to bring The Doors to as many people as possible,” said Nick. “It may be one song but I’m taking this as a win.”
Tessa pulled her hair back into a high ponytail, smoothing out the bumps with the flat of her hand. She could feel Nick’s eyes on her and wondered if he knew how old she was. After a moment, she decided she didn’t care.
“I like your ring,” he said. “What’s that engraved on it?”
“The symbol for Virgo,” she said, splaying her hand upright so he could see.
“Virgo,” he said, rolling the word around in his mouth. “As in, virgin?”
It was the first time she’d been caught off guard and she was irritated when she felt warmth rise to her cheeks.
“Hey. You guys having fun?”
It was her mother, standing silently behind them on the warped boards of the dock in her favorite lime green two-piece. Elizabeth Harrow looked good for her age. Strangers often assumed they were sisters, which irritated Tessa to no end.
“Nick was just teaching me about The Doors,” Tessa said, smacking her glossed lips. She leaned back a touch further and sucked in her stomach to pull it concave, drawing her ribcage in sharp relief. Her mom was in good shape, but she was still twenty years older.
“That’s nice,” Elizabeth said. Her smile was a forced red slash, like the first seam cut open on a trout’s belly. “There’s a campsite on the other side of the lake with a grill, we’re doing burgers and dogs. Leaving in fifteen minutes.”
Tessa tilted her head to show she’d heard and lifted her leg out of the water, dripped tiny beaded jewels back onto the surface. After a moment, she stood in one lithe movement and walked toward the boat without looking to see if Nick was watching.
By the time they got to the campsite, clouds had muted the day a bit.
Several charcoal grills sat around the bank like squat black toads. Ron tied up the boat while Nick and Elizabeth hauled paper plates, condiments, coolers, and bags of buns to the closest picnic table. Tessa sat and watched.
When Nick took over grilling, Ron and her mother waded out knee-high into the water, laughing like idiots when someone on a Sea-Doo skidded by and flushed waves toward them. Tessa rolled her eyes and found she couldn’t remember being formally introduced to Ron. She’d come home from a friend’s house one day and found him in their living room, watching a movie with her mom. When the movie was over her mother took the video back to the store and left Tessa alone with him. She’d retreated to her bedroom upstairs, unwilling to make uncomfortable small talk, and figured she’d never see him again. But here he was.
Music floated over to her, a song she recognized from the movie The Lost Boys. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Nick, spatula in hand, standing next to a girl in a floral bikini. She was in high school or college and was lean and tanned, laughing and touching Nick’s arm. People are strange, Jim Morrison sang, when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly when you’re alone.
Tessa turned back around quickly and saw her mother watching her with a satisfied smile on her lips. She leaned into Ron and whispered something in his ear, and both of them laughed.
The gold ring was making her finger itch. She pulled it up and off, grimacing at the green circle of flesh it left behind. Not gold after all, but something less than. Suddenly she saw how cheap it was. How small.
Tessa stood and walked to the edge of the water and tossed the ring as far as she could, watching it sail end over end until it plopped in. After a moment, it disappeared in the murk.
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work has been published in Barren Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, The Hellebore, and more. She is the author of Tall Grass and The Darkened Mirror and is an Indie Horror Book Award nominee.