Published in The Spokesman-Review, Summer Stories
When she was 8 years old, Autumn, who’d only ever been called Timmie, told her mother that she had pretty much given up on ever having a heteronormative relationship, though not exactly in those words.
“Mama,” she said. “You know how there are girls that wear dresses and play with dolls, who mess with their hair? Girls that boys like?”
Without looking up from her computer, her mother hummed the sound that meant Timmie should continue.
“I am not one of those girls.” Timmie explained that she didn’t care about boys; she didn’t want to mess with her hair. She liked getting dirty. She loved the things that are under things: bugs with outrageous numbers of legs that dwell beneath logs; tiny flowers that bloom in the canopy of bigger flowers; the stripy, shapely rocks found lurking under muddy pond scum. She could identify many varieties of scat and didn’t mind coming on dead animals, even those in advanced states of decomposition.
“Mama,” Timmie said, defiant, though with a touch of sadness, “I am not the kind of girl boys like. I am a girl who floats rivers.”
Indeed, Timmie had been floating rivers since she was 3. Each summer her parents took her on long trips with a flotilla of friends and an assortment of children and dogs. No one had offspring Timmie’s age, so at first she tagged behind semi-tolerant older kids. Then, as she grew, she looked after the littles. She rotated among various rafts; everyone was happy to have her along. She had her own tent, which she shared with Spot, a chocolate Lab with not one hair of any other color. Timmie, gifted early with an understanding of irony, had named the puppy years ago.
When Timmie was 14, one of the families decided to bring their nephew on the annual river trip. His mother had left the West long ago to settle in Brooklyn, and thought shipping the lad off to a place where you could backcountry ski in May, where summer wildfires threatened the existence of small towns, where your devices often couldn’t connect, would teach him something. The teen had agreed only after his latte allowance was threatened. He complained he hardly knew his Washington relatives.
His name was Louis. Never Lou, he warned.
Timmie glanced at Lou – Louis – as she lugged a dry-bag into the truck. The boy was about her age and was, well, different. She found herself peeking at him often. Pulled low over his product-spiky hair he wore a tidy black fedora. His button-down bowling shirt had Stan sewn onto the breast pocket and his skinny jeans, precisely rolled, revealed pale ankles above vintage loafers. Flies sought him out, no doubt attracted to his Axe body wash, which suffused the air around him. Timmie’s dad assessed the boy and said, “Might want to get yourself some river-appropriate togs, friend.” Louis said nothing. His uncle, listening, shrugged like a man who had long since given up.
Timmie’s feet had pale stripes from river sandals; she’d already logged time on the water this season. She preferred to go barefoot, even on the driveway’s hot asphalt. As she walked back and forth from house to truck, carrying a huge cooler, bags of food, a tent, Louis watched from behind thick black frames (the lenses were clear glass), his arms clamped against his narrow chest. He surveyed Timmie’s mismatched clothes, her tangled hair, her dusky skin – dirty or tan or both – and was glad he’d brought a Kindle loaded with books. That girl didn’t look like a reader. She didn’t look like much, he thought.
When they got to the river Timmie did all the things she knew how to do and soon her family’s raft was in the water. She and Spot perched at the front of the boat. Timmie knew about cubic feet of flow, about riffles, pools, eddies and holes, about strainers, sweepers, sawyers and planters. She could glance at shore and point out a white tail or mulie, an elk or a moose, having seen no more than antlers or tail. When a dark shape appeared against the sun, she’d announce osprey, red-tail, or golden eagle in the flat voice of a student answering roll call.
Around camp, from only slightly disturbed ground Timmie could make out tracks from a raccoon, wolf, cat or bear. Louis noticed how she skipped instead of walking. He took in the soft planes of her face as she cooed to a butterfly that had alit on her shoulder. She used her Leatherman multi-tool to tighten screws and to sharpen sticks for marshmallows. He heard her explain to the littles that mullein leaves make good toilet paper. Her body was taut and purposeful, without excess. Her syntax was likewise lean.
On the first day Louis slipped and his hat and fake glasses were taken by the river. The shirt he’d had to borrow from his aunt released acrid body odor when wet. The one time Louis tried to row they’d nearly capsized. His leather shoes stayed stowed so he went barefoot most of the time, ouching his way through camp at night. As soon as they set up the tents and gathered wood he parked under a tree to read. He spoke to no one. Every so often he’d glance at Timmie out of the corner of his eye. For some reason, he was always aware of her presence.
The third night on the river, while the grownups sat around the fire, drinking and talking about other rivers, other float trips, Timmie announced that she was going for a walk. Spot trotted ahead, and they set off on a game trail. Louis’ uncle said, “Hey, man, why don’t you go with her? Maybe you’ll learn something.” Louis hesitated, then grabbed a flashlight and followed. Timmie moved quickly, vaulting over logs, scrambling barefoot over rocks, her headlamp bobbing and occasionally catching Spot’s Halloween-glow eyes. The moon, nearly full, cast light through the trees in a way that seemed fake. Louis struggled to keep up. He found himself compelled by the muscles in Timmie’s legs, the elegant swing of her arms. Her long hair caught moonbeams and glimmered.
After they’d been walking a while, he heard a yelp, and then a crash, and then “Ha!” The beam of Timmie’s headlamp shone skyward. Gingerly, he made his way to where he thought she’d landed and whispered, “You OK?”
The answer came in a deep laugh. His flashlight found Timmie on her back, with one long, skinny leg raised high, held in a noose from a tree branch, as if in some insane yoga pose.
“Snare trap,” she said.
Huh? Louis thought.
From her nearly upside position Timmie said, “Glad it didn’t get Spot. Probably for wolves. Illegal.”
Then it hit him: He could be the hero! Maybe she’s hurt! he found himself almost hoping. He would carry her back to camp, triumphant. And she would be grateful. Louis was used to being sought out by girls, most of whom found him hip, hot, woke. Most wanted to impress him, wanted his approval, which he tended to withhold strategically. Timmie had thus far seemed unaware of his awesomeness.
He squinted up at the wire, attached to a high branch, and tried to figure out how to release it. Then he looked at Timmie, who, in a quick, balletic move, reached above where her foot was caught, folded herself up, and snipped the thick wire with her Leatherman. Her ankle had a bracelet of blood, which smudged when she brushed it with her arm.
Before Louis knew it, Timmie had freed herself and lay on her back, giggling. Spot stood at her head, licking her and wagging with his whole body. Timmie’s face, lit by the moon and glistening with dog slobber was, Louis thought, luminous.
He extended a hand to help her up. Without taking it, she vaulted to her feet and said, “I’m good.”
Louis thought, You are.
And then the girl and her dog gamboled through the dark woods, back toward the river, away from the boy. If they disappeared, he knew he would be lost.