By Austin Shirey
Me and Dewey Stokes sat reading in the shade on the porch of Flem’s General Store drinking Coca-Cola and eating cheese and crackers. I was just about halfway through The Once and Future King when Vernon Parker rode up the street like the Devil was nipping at his heels.
“Anse!” he called, slick with sweat, knees pumping up and down like pistons. “Dewey!”
“Quit that hollering,” I said.
Vernon hopped off his bicycle at the corner of the store and let it crash in the dirt next to our bikes. “Y’all never guess what I seen!”
“Flem shoo us off, you keep howling like that,” Dewey said, closing his Swamp Thing comic and adjusting his glasses. His curly red hair looked like that bush that talked to Moses in the desert. “You know he only let us sit here long as we don’t cause no ruckus.”
“Awright, awright,” Vernon said at a more acceptable volume, huffing like a bellows as he thundered up the steps to the porch. He was fourteen, just like me and Dewey, but he was bigger than both of us, built like a hibernating bear. “Can I get a drink?”
“Here,” Dewey said.
Vernon downed the rest of Dewey’s Coke, slumping his butt on the porch in between the rocking chairs we were sitting in. He leaned his shaggy brown head back against the wood siding of the store until his nose pointed skyward, then he closed his eyes and focused on catching his breath.
“Well?” Dewey asked.
I sighed and closed my book. “What the hell you hollering for?”
Vernon’s eyes popped open. “I just said.”
“You ain’t said nothing.”
“Naw,” Dewey said. “You ain’t said nothing.”
“Oh.” Vernon’s hazel eyes brightened. “There a gator down in the river.”
“Ain’t no gator in the Yocona,” Dewey said. “You just seen a log or something.”
“Naw. Was a gator, swear to God. Big ol’ gator, too. Seen it from the bridge.”
Dewey glanced over at me, blue eyes pleading for help. I shrugged and took a swig of soda. Beads of condensation flowed down the glass and through my fingers to splotch the gray wood between my black Converse high-tops.
“Got a knife stuck ’tween its eyes, too,” Vernon said.
I arched an eyebrow, emptying my drink and chucking it into the trash can in the corner. Clank. “It what?”
“Gator got a knife in its face.”
Dewey watched me, waiting.
I shrugged again. “Got nothing better to do.”
It took us less than ten minutes to ride from Flem’s down to the bridge. The July sun blazed in a bright blue sky, drenching us in sweat as soon as we’d left the coolness of the porch.
The bridge, where Lafayette County’s main road crossed the Yocona River, was a neglected concrete line between a pair of hills covered in brown, sun-dead grass. The river itself was nothing but a winding scribble of muddy water.
We took a dirt path worn into the hill at the edge of the bridge and followed it down—right into someone pulling a johnboat out of the water.
I swerved right, nearly launching myself over my handlebars.
Dewey veered left, barely missing Vernon.
Vernon slammed on his brakes, his bike bucking like a stallion as he skidded around Dewey and came to a stop at water’s edge.
We sat coughing on the cloud of dirt our last-minute maneuvers had kicked up.
The hairs on the back of my neck danced.
It was crystalline—like cool, clear water. Almost sing-song.
“Gwendoline Falk,” Dewey whispered, like he was praying the name of Jesus.
She stood shimmering in glimmers of sunlight glinting off the river, dressed in a purple bikini top and muddied jean shorts. Golden hair dripped down freckled shoulders, framing a star-bright smile and gem-green eyes.
The day instantly felt hotter.
“Heya, boys,” Gwendoline said, dropping her aluminum johnboat in the dirt. She placed both hands on her hips. “Haven’t seen y’all since school let out.”
“Uh, h-hiya,” Dewey said, his voice catching in his throat. He pushed his glasses back up on the bridge of his nose…
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