The year we turned thirteen

Cara tucked her hair behind her ear and disappeared behind a wall of pillows. The boy leaned back, his face crumpled and flushed and disgusting. The other boys laughed. “Any good?” they said. “Yeah,” he replied. I pressed my legs tightly against my chest.

There was no space anywhere else – I remember that – and only one bed left for the two of us. I frowned when my dad signed us up for the trip, but we never complained about the bed or the cabin full of boys. We didn't mind sharing when Cara's mum worked nights at the hospital, burying our secrets in the muffled dark of my room, so when someone in charge opened the door to our cabin we simply followed and put our backpacks down beside the bed. Then Cara climbed to the bunk above and the six boys laughed and jeered as her head bobbed up and down, up and down, to the rhythm of the breaths of the seventh boy. 

I must have left after that. The sky was grey and cold and whipped salt from the sea in my face. I jumped from cliff to cliff with my back against the walkways and the kids crouching on their edges, fishing for crabs. Tomorrow we were going diving on the other side of the island. I sat down and watched the sea and the heather above the sea and its spike-like stems sprouting from the rock. I saw a hooded jacket behind the shower house, arms hanging lifelessly from the edge of a cliff.

Cara and I slipped into our wetsuits and fastened our goggles. She had grabbed the best pairs of flippers from the top of the pile while the instructor was still talking. “We look like sea monsters,” I said. She laughed and made a gurgling noise in her air pipe.

The water trickled up my legs and chest and stayed there, trapped between my body and the suit, like a second skin against the cold. We could dive for hours, I thought, carried by the dark-green current. Cara motioned me to follow her further from the shore. We crept deeper and touched the big cliff that circled the cove, a barrier against the high-climbing sea, while our ears screamed and ached from the pressure.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on the cliffs. In an unguarded moment, I ran into two of the boys from our cabin. The taller one searched the ground with his eyes, said: "Have you seen a black jacket?"

I showed them the pit behind the showers. Nobody had touched the jacket and it was wet and stained with grime, but he looked relieved and genuinely thankful, and asked for my name. While I walked back towards the cliffs, the smaller boy whispered something I couldn't hear.

The sun had left a small bruise on the horizon. It was our last day and the adults were lighting bonfires by the jetty. Smoke rolled out on the rocks, scattered and cleared above the sea. One cabin had been decorated with tinsel and turned into a room for games and dancing. I hurried to the showers with my towel and a clean t-shirt, locked the door and quickly undressed.

The laughs must have come from outside, but they seemed much closer, like they lived in the walls or under my skin. "I'm telling you, I wouldn’t have found my jacket if it wasn't for her,” one of them said, followed by silence. "She's pretty ugly though,” another replied. “Flat-chested."

I stayed long after the voices had died. The shower made a hissing noise as I soaped my arms and rinsed my hair. I closed my eyes and imagined swimming through threads of light with the shrouded depths hanging far beneath my feet. Then I climbed back over the cliffs without meeting anyone.

A ferry took us home the following day. Cara and I had finished our soda and looked out the salt stained window behind the boys, whose stories drowned each other’s in distant waves upon our minds. I wasn’t listening until their voices suddenly dropped, like we had entered a tunnel. Three girls who we didn’t know, who probably lived on one of the islands, had gotten up from the back row. Looking down the aisle, I saw them trying to climb past us and our luggage to get to the exit. They were teenagers, a year or two older than us, and the first girl’s hair fell perfectly straight down her back. She looked at the floor. The boys whispered and stared and one of them grabbed her hand.

Cara and I watched as she shook him off, walked out the door and across the landing with her friends.

This piece was originally published in issue 27 of Oh Comely.