Later, they all shared a campfire. The boys did not settle down quickly. While Tess helped them roast marshmallows, they shouted and pointed at bats flitting overhead. Mr. Harrison lit a kerosene lantern and then Tina washed the boys’ sticky hands and faces with a washcloth and river water she’d heated in a kettle. Ant lions, crane flies, and mothlike caddis flocked to the lantern chimney. Jacob climbed up on the picnic table and had begun to reach for them, when Tina scooped him up and herded him and his brother, protesting, off to bed. After the boys had grown quiet in the tent, the adults settled into drinking beer and wine and discussed recent news. Alex launched into a complaint about school funding. Voters were supporting school levies in only the most affluent districts. The lack of a state sales tax almost guaranteed generally substandard education. Tess got up and started to pace, rubbed her arms, then excused herself to get her denim jacket. Steve already had his windbreaker, which he’d put on after changing into dry clothes.
When she returned, she informed Tina she’d made sure the boys were sleeping; then she drifted into the dark, behind Steve’s camp chair. He tensed, wanting to follow. “When you get away from the fire,” Tess said loudly, commanding the group’s attention, “you can really see the stars. They’re amazing here.” The adults looked up blandly and made appreciative murmurs. Tess moved off farther. A moment later, they returned to issues of work and politics. Deciding he’d pretended interest long enough, Steve got up from his camp chair and went after her.
The stars were indeed thick and stunning: a silent, frozen explosion.
“Know any constellations?” she asked.
“Some,” he said. In third grade, he’d made a regular study of them until he felt he knew all the interesting ones. He still remembered them. It took a minute to get his bearings, and then the patterns resolved from the obfuscating scatter: the Dipper; the “M” of Cassiopeia; her husband Cepheus, like a fat rocketship; a long crude number five scrawled backwards that was Draco, the dragon. “See the Big Dipper? That’s part of Ursa Major, the big bear.”
“Well, follow the edge of the scoop up in a straight line and there’s Polaris, the north star.”
“Okay, yeah. Polaris is at exactly forty-five degrees here,” she said, “ninety at the North Pole, straight overhead; and zero at the equator, on the horizon. You can measure all the north latitudes from it.”
“Cool,” he said. “I think I remember reading that. How do you figure longitude? I never got that part.”
“It’s trickier,” she agreed. “The starting point is in Greenwich, England, and you divide the earth up into twenty-four slices, like orange pieces, each an hour long. Then you need a super-accurate clock. You know how noon is the sun’s highest position in the sky? Say you set your clock at noon in Greenwich when the sun’s straight up — well, it’s straight up and to the south; it only gets straight up below the Tropic of Cancer. Anyway, you set your clock at noon, and then you fly over to China. The next day when the sun’s at the noon point, you take out the clock you set in Greenwich, and you see that your clock says six. You know you’re a quarter of the way around the earth.”
Steve said, “Because six is one quarter of twenty-four hours, right?”
“Yeah, if you were halfway around the earth, then your clock would be twelve hours off at noon, and if you were all the way around, it would be twenty-four hours off, so it wouldn’t be off at all.”
“But I thought longitude was in degrees.”
“You can figure out the degrees from that, right? Since there’s three hundred sixty degrees in a circle, a quarter of it would be ninety, so if you’re six hours off, that would be ninety degrees longitude. The Greenwich line is the Prime Meridian, and ‘meridian’ means midday, so that’s where the noon part comes in.”
Steve could scarcely follow her quick, meticulous thought process. His admiration carried a déjà vu. He laughed.
“I was thinking of you that first day in class doing trig on the board. You have a powerful brain. That was half the reason I wanted to get to know you.”
“Huh.” She affected disinterest while they looked at the stars, but her shoulders were set tight. At length she said, “What were the other reasons?”
“You’re cool and different, not afraid to be yourself. And—”
“Nothing,” he said. He’d called her pretty once. She was yet to reciprocate with any compliment for him. He’d put himself too far out there already.
She let it go. After he’d pointed out a few more constellations, an interval of silence followed, and she said in a dry tone, “Tell me more of your homeworld, Usul,” paraphrasing the line from Dune. That shocked him. A chill went up his spine, and the earth seemed to tilt. That’s what the mysterious, Bedouin-type heroine Chani had said to the book’s hero, her lover. And Tess knew he’d get it where most people wouldn’t. Then she said, “Tell me about your adventure again. Where do these demigod-things come from?”
That brought him down a bit, but not by much: she was still Chani, wanting to meet him where he lived. “Oh, yeah, it’s kind of science fictional,” he said.
“Most times, they only stay in the part of the universe around Brasdain, because the rest of outer space is too hard for them to move through; its fabric is too stormy for them in a way that science wouldn’t even be able to detect yet.”
“Like the ether.”
“Yeah, right,” he said, though he had only a vague idea that “ether” was some kind of spacestuff. “But every few million years the weather clears up enough so they can go out and collect animals from other planets. They rescued primitive sea creatures, and dinosaurs, and prehumans from earth so they didn’t go extinct, and all those things went on and evolved on Brasdain. That’s how there’s the different monsters. And I told you already that the Powers choose a form and then get stuck with it.”
“How’d you come up with all this?”
“I dunno. How do you remember how to measure a tree with trigonometry or figure out longitude?”
“My brain is just that way, I guess, and I work at it.”
Tess glanced back toward the campfire where the adults seemed still engrossed in their talk. “Come on.” She nodded off into the darkness and then whispered, low and husky, “Let’s go down by the river.”
He followed her with his throat tight and dry, heart pounding, palms breaking sweat. She moved furtively, climbed over the bank and crouched down along the water until she found a place where the grassy bank was high enough they couldn’t see camp, and at an angle good for sitting. A quarter moon swam in the river with the brighter stars, tree frogs chorused here and there amid the reeds, and bats wheeled overhead. Tess got herself comfortable. Steve sat beside her, not waiting for an invitation.
She began to unbutton her jacket. Down here it was, if anything, colder than on the top of the bank, and she couldn’t be too hot. His heart began to climb his throat. But then he saw her fishing around for something. She drew out a bottle on the right from an inside pocket and then another on the left. She handed one over.
It was beer.
Using the loose end of her jacket to protect her hand, she twisted the cap off; then she took a drink. When she cut her eyes over and saw him still staring at his own bottle, she grabbed it from him exasperated, opened it, and handed it back. “Cheers,” she said and raised her drink. He clinked it, and winced at how the sound carried. She sniggered, took a pull, and choked a bit on the foam. She wiped her chin, laughing quietly.
Not wanting to seem timid, he went ahead and took a swig. The beer was salty, sweet, and only slightly bitter, a little syrupy, he thought. Occasionally, his dad would pour him a small glass to share at Thanksgiving or a special event, but he’d never had an entire bottle.
“Good, huh?” she said. “They had over half a case left in their tent.”
“Won’t they miss it?”
She shrugged. “I doubt it, but so what? Live a little.”
She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them and bobbed her head like she was listening to music, counting off the few seconds between each awkward pull on the bottle. They both watched the river. Soon she laid the bottle aside, empty.
“You gonna finish that, or what?”
Conscious of taking an irrevocable step, he gulped down the beer. Meanwhile, she divided her attention between him and the river, an amused look on her face. By the time he finished, his belly was uncomfortably full. He restrained a burp so that it went painfully up his nose. Seconds later, a faint warmth began to spread through his gut, and his head went light.
Tess scooted over and put an arm around his far shoulder and tugged him in close, not so much intimate as comradely, and leaned her head against him. Steve leaned his head over so it touched hers. He held the moment. If the Soviets dropped nukes right now, he’d die happy. He tried to dispel the morbid thought and watched the faint celestial light play on the current — nothing like the Nightwater, but pretty fantastic. Tess’s hair was soft against his cheek. He nuzzled the spot below her ear, felt a soft down there, warm smooth skin. She patted his back and drew upright. “Okay, let’s not get carried away, sorry.”
“Do you even like me?” Steve said in frustration.
“Steve, yeah, I like you, what do you mean? I just want to be your friend. What do you think is going to happen here? Did you think we were going to have sex or something?”
“Geez, no.” She tilted her head skeptically. “Crap, Tess. Give me a break.”
“Honestly, Steve, I like you. But you don’t seem to get that I’m not all right. That thing with the guy at school — I just need a friend, okay?”
“I’m not Troy Wagner.”
“Yeah,” she said. It sounded rueful.
“That’s it, isn’t it? I’m not a big jock.”
“Steve, that’s not it. I like you; you’re creative and nice and interesting. You make me feel good, and you’re more of a boyfriend than I’ve ever had.”
He felt an angry buzz of alcohol at his temples. “Prove it,” he said.
“Prove it?” She turned toward him, head down, her hair forward, face shadowed. He felt nervous.
She pushed him against the bank, swung around and straddled him, brought her face close and breathed heavily on him, and then plunged her mouth over his, kissing him furiously, sucking at his lips. She thrust her tongue into his mouth. It was cool from the beer, and slimy. Her lips worked aggressively, mouth hard, dispassionate. This wasn’t right. But then, he felt her relax, become tender, just for a moment. An incredible rush of longing spread from his chest. He reached out. She jerked away and stood up. “There! Now you have something to tell Rei about.” She picked up her beer bottle and stuck it into her jacket, and then retrieved his bottle and stowed it too.
“Tess, I’m sorry, really,” he said.
She paced back and forth. Pushed her hair back, revealing her distressed face, pale in the moonlight. “God,” she moaned. “I’m such a loser.”
This comment was not good for Steve’s self-esteem. He couldn’t make sense of his dejection, just experienced it as dull pain. Maybe it was the beer.
“You’re sorry?” Tess said. “What the hell, Steve? What have you got to be sorry about?”
“I don’t know.”
She made a frustrated yell and shook her head until her hair was in disarray. She stared at him, panting. “Are you just going to sit there? Geez.”
He had an idea that she wanted him to do something cool and decisive. Call her a psycho and stalk off, go over and force another kiss from her, slap her. One of these things, maybe, but none of them was him. He wanted her to calm down. He had a passing image of a more mature, self-possessed boy, soothing her, drawing her close, letting her temper break against him. Instead, all he could do was gape in agitation.
She pulled her hair back with one hand. Just then, over the bank, a man’s voice said, “Tess?”
It was Mr. Harrison.
She gritted her teeth and heaved a sigh. “Come on,” she said. Steve climbed after her, heart pounding.
Mr. Harrison was standing just a few yards above. “What’s going on?” he said. Steve took Tess’s side.
“Nothing, Alex. It’s cool,” she said.
“Did you take any beer out of the tent?” When she didn’t answer right away, he said, “Damn it, Tess. Give it here.” She reached into her jacket and pulled out an empty and handed it over. “And the other one.” She handed that over too. “You each had one?” He addressed Steve.
“Yeah, Mr. Harrison,” he said. “I’m sorry.” His head still swam, but the courage had drained away. He felt like a little kid.
“It’s just beer, Alex,” Tess said. “And you guys have been drinking all evening.”
“Tess, you’re a smart kid, but you’re still a minor. Letting you do this would be irresponsible.” He looked to the sky as if for inspiration. “Have I been expecting too much of you? Honestly? This isn’t a rhetorical question.”
“I don’t know, Alex. Have you?” she said.
“Right,” he said, mostly to himself. “You’re right; it’s wrong of me to ask. I’m the adult. All right, listen, Tess, I’m not going to just blow this off. You’ve got too much working both for and against you.”
Just then Steve’s dad appeared out of the trees. Steve felt hot embarrassment suffuse his cheeks. “Chuck,” his dad said, “did you steal the Harrisons’ beer?”
Mr. Harrison answered for him. “Tess took the beer, Dean, but it looks like they shared it.”
“If you drank it, you stole it.” His dad never talked to him this way; he knew that he was truly angry. “What do you have to say?”
“He already apologized, Dean,” Mr. Harrison said.
“Come here.” Steve’s dad marched up, hooked his windbreaker, and dragged him close. Steve thought that he was going to shake him, or steer him back to camp. Instead he lowered his face and began sniffing at his neck, which gave Steve another thrill of mortification. When he finally backed away, he said, “At least you haven’t been smoking anything,” and glared at Tess.
A flare of anger displaced Steve’s shame. “I shared the beer,” he said. “It was my decision, Dad. Like she said, you’ve been drinking. It seemed fun.”
“And was it? Fun?” His dad’s voice was perilous. Steve shrugged. His dad continued: “I’m thinking this trip was a bad idea. Maybe we should cut it short. You don’t seem able to handle yourself.”
“Why?” Tess said.
Steve’s dad said, “I’m not talking to you.”
“Dean, let’s be reasonable,” said Mr. Harrison. “Can I make a suggestion?”
His dad sighed. “Sure, Alex.” Steve was surprised at how quickly he backed down.
“How about tomorrow we have the kids spend the day apart. You go fishing with Steve; I’ll have some time with Tess and the boys, give our wives a break, and tomorrow evening we’ll see how we feel. This shouldn’t ruin our trip, and the kids have a point. They followed our example. So now that we’ve all broken the ice” — he made a regretful chortle — “we can all cool it on the alcohol. And as for theft….” He watched Tess: “Leaving aside that I don’t approve of her drinking, my daughter has a right to take and share our food and beverages. What’s ours is hers.”
Tess lowered her head, and wiped the back of her hand under her nose. A second later, she leapt forward and put her arms around Mr. Harrison. He gave her a one-armed squeeze and patted her head. He then lowered his voice and spoke tenderly. “No more booze, okay. I’m afraid, Tess. With your family history, we’ve gotta watch it.” He spoke to Steve’s dad again: “You’ve got a good boy, Dean. Let’s put this behind us for now and call it a night.”
* * *
Steve’s dad rousted him early while his mom still slept. The morning was bitter cold as Steve emerged from the tent, and the sun had just lowered on the westward mesa tops, which now glowed like the battlements of some primitive empire. The night before, his dad had gone to bed without further comment, still in a barely checked temper, but he seemed to wake up in a softer mood and whispered happily about fishing as he took out his waders and other gear from the Jeep. “Alex said there’s been a mayfly hatch when the sun hits the water. He had good luck yesterday.” After gathering his gear on the table, his dad got out some cold cereal with milk from the cooler, and once they’d breakfasted and brushed their teeth, they headed down the bank.
They started at camp and got half a mile downstream by noon. Steve landed a dozen medium-sized trout, working spoons and spinners from shore. His dad, plying the center of the river in waders, fished dry flies and seemed to have a trout on every minute.
The whole time, Steve thought of Tess, his brain in high turmoil. He had never kissed a girl — much less been kissed — like that before. How much had she meant it? He felt exhilarated, confused, hurt, angry, and sad. He felt like his heart would break. He felt initiated into a select league of tragic heroes who win and then lose beautiful girls — almost a man. He was pretty sure he was in love.
In the mid-morning just as Steve released his third fish, his dad waded to a nearby gravel bar, hooked his fly into the butt of his rod, and said, “You know, I don’t approve of last night, but I’m sorry I overreacted. It’s no excuse, but I drank more than I should. And I was mad at myself for letting my guard down when Alex had stayed on top of things. Of course, he’s got experience dealing with a wayward teenager, and I don’t, thank God. I’m grateful for that.”
“Don’t worry,” Steve said. “It won’t happen again. I promise.” More than feeling contrite, he worried about being separated from Tess.
His dad lowered his head and shook it. “Just tell me,” he said, fixing him with a steady stare. “Is she into drugs?”
“No,” Steve said, and his dad seemed to read the surprise he felt.
“I hope not, for her family’s sake. Alex is sharp, but he’s pretty liberal. I’d be worried about those little boys of mine if I were him. He’s so enamored of helping a bright, troubled kid to make something of herself, I don’t think he’s thought out what could happen.
“You’re not going to like this, but I’ll give it to you straight. Her being a pretty girl makes it all the worse. The bad boys will be sniffing around, and unless she has a lot more self-esteem than she’s shown so far, she’s going to get into trouble. Alex thinks you’re a good influence and hopes you’ll be friends, but honestly, I don’t give two shits. Maybe I’m an asshole for being so cynical. Time will tell. I will say one thing. If she does make it to adulthood in passable shape, she can thank God for Alex Harrison.”
* * *
After a quick lunch back at camp, they took to the river again, but clouds had begun to gather, and by midafternoon, it started to drizzle. When they returned, they found Steve’s mom and Mrs. Harrison trying to keep the boys occupied with coloring books. They’d stretched a big blue plastic tarp between trees over both the table and a wide strip of ground so that there was a room-sized dry area.
Tina Harrison retrieved a dropped crayon. When she saw Steve’s dad, she said, “Alex went for a walk with Tess.”
“I’m sorry about taking your beer, Mrs. Harrison,” Steve said.
“Well, I’m not missing it yet, but I might be soon,” she replied absently as she chased another crayon off the table. Adam glanced at her for a second and then went back to his work. She rose with the second crayon held high in triumph and smiled. “Don’t worry about it,” she said.
The drizzle became a strong patter, and a minute later, Tess came running down the road, her jean jacket hiked over her lank hair. Mr. Harrison strolled along behind, hands in his pockets, wincing against the rain.
When she got undercover, she gave the jacket a shake, and shrugged it down. She smiled at Steve a little sheepishly, and turned back to watch Mr. Harrison until he entered camp. Steve’s dad pointedly ignored her. “The beer was all my idea,” Tess blurted, drawing everyone’s attention. “I put Steve on the spot. He didn’t know about it till we were on our walk, and he couldn’t turn it down without looking like a dork, and that was unfair.”
“I appreciate that,” Steve’s dad said, guardedly.
“I really respect Alex and Tina, and Steve, too, but I didn’t show it last night. So, I’m sorry.”
She then fixed Steve with an imploring look, offering apology for a lot more than the beer, he thought. Steve smiled and rolled his eyes. It was the kind of treatment he’d expect from her if the tables were turned. She made a rueful half-smirk to emphasize her sincerity. That was all they needed to communicate.
Alex came up and patted her shoulder, and looked at Steve. “The weather is truly crappy. So what about that game of yours?”
Steve looked back at his dad, who nodded and shooed him off with single backhand wave. Tess pivoted soldierlike on her heel and marched ahead.
Soon after, settled on opposite ends of Tess’s sleeping bag, Steve’s backpack open to one side and the books, notes, and dice arrayed between them, Steve said, “Remember how you wanted to act wicked?”
“Well, this will be your chance. You’re going undercover as one of Cax’s lieutenants, and the bad guys will expect you to be mean.”
“What about getting taken over by the Bugclaw and all that?”
“You’re on a mission to rescue a kid. You can act wicked without really meaning it. What you’ve got to decide, what Megaera’s got to decide, I mean, is whether you’re a bad character doing something good, or a good character playing at being bad.”
“Hmm.” Tess chuckled. “Story of my life.”