Longlisted for the 2020 Voyage YA Short Story Award
Content warning: sexual assault
force-ripe in British English
1. (of fruit) prematurely picked and ripened by squeezing or warm storage
2. precocious, esp. sexually
(The Collins Dictionary)
Earlier today you spent eleven minutes perched on a rock by Lake Mekhi watching a great blue heron fish. You methodically followed each step of the bird’s technique. The long strides. The sudden dives. Eventually, the grotesque tilt of the head to swallow its prey. You looked at the heron’s long, long neck after it coaxed the fish in. The throat was still moving, bobbing with frenetic activity, the desperate thrashing of a creature about to die. Your mind, helpful as always, recalled relevant sensations you had experienced: the closet, claustrophobia, darkness, getting caught in quicksand, endless heat, wet skin—the burn of hydrochloric acid in a school lab experiment gone awry. The music should have been there, eerie, a dissonant harmony, with violins and broken piano chords. You looked away, slowly wiping July’s sweat off your brow. The scent of the lake water clogged your nose. When you peeked out of the cover your hand provided, the bird was gone. In the water, your reflection looked back at you, big black eyes in a mess of freckles and curls. Ugly.
Uncomfortable, you swallowed. Made your way to the others, offering to help out with dinner, smiling politely when they asked you where you’d been. It wasn’t much—packs of dry food heated up over the fire, granola bars, an apple. Food scraped together by hungry, lonely teenagers for a summer’s worth of fun. But you were laughing, chatting away, all the while feeling the heat of his eyes on you. The smug smirk of his Adam’s apple bobbing. You ignored Adhira, her pleading look, her nibbled nails.
“Naya?” she’d say, looking around conspicuously, “Naya, we should talk. Please.” It was the third time she was asking, already, only now she’d pulled you aside to the treeline, away from the others. You stared, and stared, and stared. It took twelve seconds for her eyes to fill with water, and seven for you to feel something. “Naya,” she said, “I just… What are we doing here?” She dragged her hand through her hair repeatedly, looking around to make sure nobody was listening in. Adhira was tall and fine-boned, with a thin mane of jet-black hair that she chewed on while studying. “I hate it here, Naya,” she whispered, “I hate it. And I think you hate it too.” Adhira tilted her head to the right, until she looked lopsided, like a doll with a broken spine. It unnerved you when she did that. She spoke so quietly you could barely hear her, “Mekhi, he’s amazing, but—”
You stopped listening. Mekhi felt like a whole world to you; if you let her rummage through it, she would ruin the friendship. “Hey,” you said, “I’m sorry. I really am.” You squeezed her arm briefly, “But I think if you just…” You paused, uncertain. That look she had, like a wounded animal. Mekhi’s face flashed. “If you just tried a bit more, you’d really like it here. It can’t be worse than home, right?” You sounded fake, but you didn’t know how to fix it. Adhira closed her eyes. You were wondering, legs up, or legs down?
You struggle to get out of his tent, your fingers dashing through the obscurity to find the little zipper marking your way to freedom. You tumble out on your hands and knees, the wet grass yielding to your weight, squelching with every shudder. The smell of the bonfire, still crackling slightly after all those hours, makes its way to your nostrils. You breathe it in, a lifeline as you lift yourself up, look around. Walk towards the left, towards your tent. There is only silence, inside and outside. You look down. Feel your lips curl. Turn right, knees weak, and take a lurching step towards the water rustling just a few meters away. You want the lake to end this version of you.
A few days ago, you caught Mekhi styling his curls using a small pocket mirror, even though you had all sworn with a blood promise that you wouldn’t bring anything superficial. That all of you staying in the camp this summer wouldn’t be distracted, and dull, and gray like forty-somethings. You didn’t report him—nobody reported him. You stood there awkwardly until he noticed you, listening to the wind rustling through the blades of grass and feeling your toes sink into the wet soil. One last look and Mekhi snapped the pocket mirror shut. When his eyes came upon you, they widened a bit, then narrowed. He looked so angry suddenly. You felt bad for watching him, for being there, for not giving him his peace of mind. You realized, again, that Mekhi had a striking face, with full lips, slanted eyes, and a sharp, angular chin. His ears did stick out a bit, though. Hard to believe he was twenty years old.
You said: “Don’t worry, I won’t tell the others.” You smiled, too, in what you hoped was an honest-looking way, but it really just looked cheeky.
Mekhi’s nostrils flared, almost like he was deciding whether to believe you or not. Suddenly, his lips broke into a smile. He hooked a finger around one of your denim belt loops. “I’m going to need a guarantee on that promise,” he said.
You felt your hips lurch forward when he tugged. You caught a whiff of guitar notes and soft, dragged out voices. He smelled of cinnamon.
“I’m afraid that’s not… possible,” you said, biting your lip the way you’d practiced. He grinned. For the first time, you wondered what it was about him that nagged at you—the challenge, the barren land of not knowing. The urge to pry down his walls, to disrupt his self-containment, to be the one to make him smile. You wanted to shock him. You wanted to pretend that it mattered if he broke the rules.
“Well, fine,” you said, leaping into dangerous territory, “I listened to music one morning, by the oak tree.” Your hand flailed around in that general direction.
“Really?” he said, and your heart stopped. You started counting. Mekhi had the look of someone doing quick math.
You wanted to say something silly, like “Keep my secret, and I’ll keep yours.” You didn’t, though. Phones, and headphones especially, were banned, and you were on your third strike—your last chance to stay. You held your breath as he rubbed his neck: fifteen, sixteen, seventeen seconds.
“What kind of music?” he asked, finally, grinning.
You sagged a bit and struggled to think of the best answer possible. You wanted to say, “Everything. It makes me feel like I’m real.” But you thought that was boring, so you said, “Blues rock, of course,” to surprise him.
You ended up spending that whole day together. Mekhi blew dish soap bubbles and threw water at you when that wasn’t enough to make you react. He didn’t laugh at your jokes, but he made you laugh in a high-pitched, nervous way, and somehow that was enough.
When the sun was setting, he said, “You know, I feel like the world is always giving me shit. But you make me feel good.” He seemed so surprised, so delighted. Like a child who wasn’t expecting gifts for Christmas, suddenly receiving an orange. There was a flash of white. The fish was gone. And you, flushed and flustered, covered your mouth and grinned so hard you thought your cheeks would break.
The first summer you went to camp, years ago, the air was thick and humid and ugly, too warm to go hiking. It felt like smoking from an old cigarette. With every puff, you’d get sicker and sicker, but somehow, you’d keep on going because you’d already started. Your father was going through an almond butter phase again, and when he’d finish the jar, he’d lick and lick and lick at the spoon in silence, until you’d get up to leave the room. The whole month of May, he talked to you unprompted twice. One time, it was to say goodnight. Then, on your birthday, he said, “Thirteen, kiddo. That’s rough.” He shook his head, bemused, and clapped your back. “I know you’ll be fine,” he said. For dinner, he asked if you wanted to make almond butter cookies together.
Betrayal. Like somebody stomping on a Steinway piano.
That’s when you decided to go to Ash Forest for the first time. Thirteen years old, three years ago. Mekhi had founded the camp the summer before, and the kids you met in detention who had attended said it was amazing, and not like the therapy or juvie or Christian summer camps at all, mostly because Mekhi was the oldest one there at only sixteen.
You wouldn’t go without Adhira, though. You can still hear her laugh when you brought it up. “Really, Naya?” she said, “You want us to join a bunch of freak kids in the woods for the whole summer? Really?” Her tone was sharp like a saxophone. But Adhira always said that to all of your crazy plans, and even the not-so-crazy ones: rollerblading and playing poker at the Riptide bar, stealing a Ouija board, or lying to the child therapist. You told her you’d met the founder, some guy called Mekhi, and he’d personally invited you. You felt like you were telling your mom you’d been invited to prom. Adhira took one good look at you, nervous as hell. Then, she made herself wink. “Fine,” she said, grinning, “you deserve a crush.”
Mekhi was more like the quiet organizer, the person that made sure you all didn’t run out of provisions. The kind of person who makes you feel watched, even when their eyes aren’t on you. When he caught people taking more than their rations, he’d stare at them hard and they’d quietly let their excuses melt on their tongues. But that made sense: you were miles away from the nearest town, and a day’s hike away from the cars, too.
Most of the time, Mekhi was fun, full of jokes and witty comebacks. Some nights, he’d take the boys to the woods to talk about who they liked, and why, and what they’d all done before. Some would come back afterward, proud and greedy. Others seemed disgusted, almost embarrassed. They’d offer to do the dishes and wouldn’t look a girl in the eye for hours.
Two days ago, he touched you. He said it would be a secret, winking wildly. It was cliché and you knew it. You paid attention to the affection you thought you heard in his voice instead. Mekhi took your cheek in his hand and kept it there until you leaned into his warmth, your eyes fluttering. The callused fingers disappeared, satisfied. Then, they moved down. Stroked one, then the other, then lower. He was breathing quickly, his fingers shaking. You felt the whole orchestra, bent on allegro, and harps, lots of harps. You closed your eyes and kept them closed for the next four minutes. You did not want to see him waver. You did not want him to catch you seeing.
You didn’t think of Danielle, who was sent home earlier for plucking her eyebrows. You stayed away from the heron and its long, long white throat. You tried not to think of Tony, who got bruised ribs and a splintered toenail for making a move on Kara. You didn’t want to think of the way they’d kicked him. The way Mekhi had paced and watched from afar, alone near the oak tree. You’d trusted him, and you still did.
It felt good, what he was doing to you just then. But when you touched him, his shoulder, his neck, he pushed you away. Walked off without a word.
So what? There was room for improvement. Still, that was more than the other girls. You were more. The wilderness beauty tutorials, the books, the gossip, and the backstabbing—it had all paid off.
You would like to take your heart and poke it. You almost trip in the dark, so you curse and blink back tears, enraged that anger makes you cry, crying more. You want to throw plates at the trees and hear the porcelain shatter and play that sound on rewind just to cut through the silence. You want to grab a rifle and shoot at fireflies.
On the first day, just over a month ago, everybody was laughing. The older ones had organized car sharing systems to pick everybody up in the night. You knew that they also weren’t from a happy family, apart from one or two exceptions, and it tasted like home. It felt like all year you’d been sinking and now you could finally stop holding your breath, let the words spill out of you carelessly. Returning members shared new clothes, and scars, and stories with big smiles and quick, fearful looks at the parking lot. It was only dawn, now, and the air was thick and dewy, but all of you were eager to get going, to sink deep into the woods, to Lake Mekhi. The newbies were nervous, too. They didn’t think their parents might realize where they were like the others did, but they worried about the camp itself. They’d heard the rumors. They were ready to run.
You had to vote for the prohibitions first, then take an oath. That’s the way it always happened, every first day in June. Most of the rules were meant to preserve attention—that thing adults always demanded but never sought out for themselves. You thought it was beautiful, that all of you were stupid or spiteful or hopeful enough to think that attention, like affection, could be produced, improved upon. That it could be hoarded.
Mekhi was smiling a lot that morning. He’d hold his chin and try to look smart. “Just for you,” he said, winking when you poked fun at him for it. Later, when you were hiking to the plateau together, you spotted reindeers and lollipops in the clouds. That day, you could not have explained the difference between being with Mekhi and being yourself.
Camp was one week away when you got impatient. Because Adhira didn’t want to go this year. Again. At home, she had younger sisters to take care of, and prying her fingers off the family door took too much time. So, you told her she was greedy for guilt.
And she said, “Naya, you’ve never fucking learned to give a shit about anybody else.”
The horror, the audacity. She said it slowly, too. Like smashing a violin into a wall. But slowly.
You woke her up the next morning, punching her front door repeatedly. When she opened, you pounced. “Tell me why. Why would you say that?”
Adhira stared at you, resigned and unimpressed. She glanced at her watch once, twice. Then, she sighed and drew some hair to her mouth to chew for a few seconds. Her sisters wailed in the background. “Look, Naya,” she said, eventually, “I’m sorry. You just hurt my feelings.”
“Yeah, well,” you said, “it’s not because I was honest that you get to say things like that.”
Adhira’s head fell to the right, like clockwork. “Naya, seriously?”
Guitar solo, now. You took a breath: “What I said was true, and it wasn’t meant to hurt you. It really wasn’t.” You wiped your eyes. “Adhira, you knew that what you said isn’t true. That I do care. You knew that I would go home and watch my dad eat pickles all night thinking about it. And you said it anyways.”
Adhira smiled primly, her lips sealed with vinegar.
After a few seconds, you pushed past her and served yourself a bowl of cereal in her kitchen. You were acting like a kid again. You both knew it. She handed you a spoon, rolling her eyes. “I’ll go to your stupid camp with you, Naya. I’ll go again. Okay?” Her hug felt sad. And you, you smiled blues notes and lights dimmed low.
It was little Tony who scribbled every word with his green pen and his scruffy eyebrows scrunched down in concentration. The prohibition list read:
- Mirrors (no vanity)
- Phones & devices (Pay attention!)
- Alcohol & drugs (to pay more attention)
- Condoms (no touching) (or romantic stuff)
- Pens that aren’t green
- Anything with added sugar (save the planet!)
- Makeup, perfume
And this year, a new addition:
- No music (less noise)
Mekhi must have had a great reason for this, but you could not find it.
Bonfire nights were the hardest. Mekhi would relish the half-silence and let all of you sink into it: the slick ooze of crickets, cracking wood, and intermingled breathing. It drove you crazy. There was no beat, no melody, no pattern to the sounds at all. No soundtrack to quiet your mind. One night, two field mice came and darted around a few people’s feet in quick, erratic circles, for fourteen seconds of chaos. And when the laughs and shrieks had died down, you all turned to look at Mekhi, and then at each other, eyes bright and crinkled at the edges. You felt so present then, so grounded, like your feet grew roots into the soil to feed you. You knew that this was what he must have wanted for the camp all along. To be awake, alert, watchful: this was the reason you were all here.
It started when he zipped up the tent door, kissed your neck, and said: “Naya, I want you.” His voice wavered, just a little. Was this it? The crack, the doorknob, the sore you’d been looking for? You wanted to dig your fingers in, to have more of him. You wanted to tear at him with a crowbar.
“I want you too,” you said. Drums, lots of drums. An accelerating beat.
“No, you don’t understand, I want you.” Mekhi tapped your nose. “Like, now.” He was being cute, cuter than usual.
You smiled and said, “I know.”
You thought that was stupid. You opened your mouth to say something else, anything, to take it back, and suddenly: he kissed it. Under his fingers, you felt gorgeous. And it was happening, everything was finally happening, and you were glad. He spent six minutes kissing your mouth and thirteen minutes kissing other parts. He touched you too. A lot. You wanted to kiss all of him.
After a while, Mekhi draped his hand around your neck, and said: “I’ve been taking my time. You good?”
You wanted to tell him that he tasted like rum and cinnamon, and that rum was prohibited. You thought he sounded like the dentist right before he pulled out your wisdom teeth, so you grinned, but it was more like a grimace.
“Yeah,” you said. You breathed, hard, and he stroked your neck some more. “Yeah, I’m good. It’s just, I haven’t really…” You shook your head. Mekhi stared at you, pensive. The heron never blinked once.
“Really?” he asked, a small smile growing on his face. He pressed his thumb into the hollow between your collarbones, just a tiny bit, and you lost your breath. You wondered if this was normal.
Everything that made camping great now makes you clench your teeth. The cicadas, the lone birds, the agonizing cracks and snaps of dying firewood. The laughs of the people you thought you knew in the tents nearby. The oppressive, expansive space, and the silence-not-silence of the forest with its whispers and its echoes. You feel like the night sky—with its stars and its clouds—is stealing your breath and your eyelashes and your skin and your hands and maybe the roots growing from your feet, too.
Your lips are swollen, wet. He said it wouldn’t hurt. You gossiped too much this summer and told Adhira’s secrets. The others must have heard. Your fingers tighten around your sides and all the little bruises darken. You tell yourself you were quiet even when you know you couldn’t have been. Although you wanted to. Although you tried.
Why didn’t you try to move, to push, to leave, anything?
His face looked so different with the flashlight’s glow. Mekhi stroked your neck a little more, distracted. Then his fingers tightened. No air. You counted one, two, three, four seconds without air. Not on purpose, you thought. He wouldn’t.
“You get what I mean?” Mekhi asked, “You were always staring at me with that look like you would do anything. The Naya look.” He chuckled. You felt nervous, suddenly. “I thought you knew what it’d be like,” he said. The strange light accentuated the shadows in his face, made him look like a ghost.
“Yeah,” you said, “Well, no. I didn’t… I don’t. But thank you… For…” You gestured vaguely around the tent.
The water’s more troubled at night, it seems. Little waves slam against the rocky edges of the lake. You don’t know why you thanked him. You wish you hadn’t. You wish you weren’t already on your third strike either. A toad croaks nearby and you wish you hadn’t teased. Then maybe this wouldn’t have happened. You start giggling uncontrollably. Dish soap bubbles. You shake your head, curse as you make your way through the gravel with bare feet, avoiding the bigger rocks you spot across the darkness.
Ow, ouch, Ow. One, two, three.
You laugh until you feel crazy. You think of the heron earlier today. You think of his Adam’s apple bobbing in the firelight. In your mind, the box of condoms you brought, colorful, full. The three rows of neatly pressed latex pouches intact. The bottle of lube lost in a sea of tent-floor, unopened.
“Mekhi?” you asked. You were lying on your stomach while he straddled your legs. He’d said he wanted to give you a massage first, to help you relax, but he mostly just ran his hands over your butt, again and again, or pushed his fingers through your hair, tightening them around the back of your neck.
“Yeah?” he said. His voice was small and very soft.
Mekhi’s tent was always the biggest and the furthest away from the others, year after year. He was like a demi-god, here, after all. The great founder. But still, in the distance, you could hear the others messing around and whispering in the night.
“How come you started the camp?” you said. You tried raising yourself on your elbows to look back at him, but he pushed on your shoulders, hard, until you slumped back down, turning your head to the side. He dragged his fingers across your lips. You spoke, kissing them half-heartedly: “And, the rules and everything… Where did you get the idea?”
Mekhi sighed in the dark. He was getting impatient now. You tried to keep the heavy metal at bay, the thudding bass, the angry guitar riffs. “I always thought,” he said, “that there must be more out there, you know? Especially during the summer. Summers are useless. The heat, the radio, the pollution, the boredom…” He dug his hands between your thighs, trying to pry them open. “I wanted a place where I could forget who mother dear and my teachers think I am. You know what I mean?” He shrugged.
You realized that you could not imagine him as a student, a son, a teenager. It was like seeing a teacher at the grocery store.
Mekhi laughed bitterly, as though he were reading your mind. Then he pinched your thigh so hard you flinched. “And the rules, they’re just a precaution. People need structure, even if it’s a structure they try to undermine. Otherwise, they go crazy.”
He tapped your butt lightly, and you flinched again, nervous. You tried to turn your head further, to look at him, but he pressed his palm on your cheek, pushing your head into the air mattress. You thought of Tony. The way he shouted for them to stop kicking him, and how they didn’t until he stopped shouting. The way the heron’s throat moved, too.
“So, did… Do the rules even matter?” Your voice broke a little, near the end. There must be a reason, you thought, a great reason. Mekhi stiffened. Shrill cello in the background now. Your neck hurt from straining against his hand, but you didn’t want to tell him, in case he kept pushing down on your cheek anyways.
“Of course, they matter, Naya. But it doesn’t matter what they’re about, really.” He laughed again, and suddenly the weight was gone and he was on your side. “I made them about attention because nobody really knows what that is, so they just go along with it.” Mekhi smiled at you. “Isn’t that crazy?” he said, and he looked like a little boy again, his eyes full of wonder.
You nodded, feeling seasick. Isn’t that crazy. One sentence, two seconds, three beats. You flinched when he reached to touch you.
An owl hoots and the hair on the back of your neck rises. You try to imagine the way your body looks, toffee skin gleaming in the moonlight. You think of your curves, your hair, your lips, those things that must have driven him to you. Or was it your pliability, the way you giggled at everything he said? You feel textureless, transparent, stripped bare.
Your mouth opens to say something: “Worthless.”
You think that word is cliché, and you don’t care. The word rings and rings and rings through the night. A polyphonic crescendo of Worthless.
You used to wash your face in a small tin bowl. Then, you’d brush your teeth, staring wide-eyed at the sky, wondering why you ever stopped playing chess, or whether you should pick up boxing, and when you’d get the money to join an orchestra. Well, the cash to take music classes first, then get an instrument, then join an orchestra. It’d be chilly out, and you’d often jump back into the tent to put on an extra pair of wool socks, chewing on the toothbrush to keep it from falling out. You’d think about getting an award, and what that must feel like, and why boys insisted on drinking rum. You never thought of your mother squeezing roses to her chest by the thorns, screaming, “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” her numb hands dripping blood on the carpet. Sometimes, you’d even add extra toothpaste to do a second round. The air would be fresh and wet, the texture of cotton puffs, and you’d stand there, dream-clogged, until it was time to spit out the minty foam and curl up by Adhira’s side, telling her you loved her when you were sure she was asleep.
You don’t want to laugh; you can’t stop laughing. You wonder if toothbrushing will be the same. You find the rock you were perched on earlier, and you sit down by the shoreline, your legs dangling over the water. Tonight, it almost looks alive, so full of movement and darkness that you can’t find your face in the water. You have never been in such strange pain.
Lake Mekhi burns around your toes. He was the one who told you to join three years ago. Despite your braces, your chicken legs, your thirteen years. He knew your history. Ice around your calves. He said you were an exception because your nuclear unit was so bad. You liked the way he said nuclear—something out of a book, surely. Your feet hit the sandy bottom and you’re about to fall in. The water fills your torn vagina. You want to scream, to be nasty, to set something on fire. You don’t think anyone will believe you.
The lake hugs your waist, so cold it hurts. “Tony really screwed up,” Mekhi said that morning to the handful of boys he’d gathered by the oak tree. “I need you,” he added pointedly, “to man up and teach this guy a lesson.” You were squatting in the bush behind them, your hands slippery around your phone, your headphones, your music.
The algae curls around your ankles. Nobody else heard what Mekhi said that morning. You thought it was crazy, and stupid, and mean. You thought so many things, and you never trusted yourself to think them out loud.
The silence is killing you. You asked for this. Didn’t you? With your smiles, your cheeky lines, your questions? Your puppy-eyed stupidity. A flash of white and the fish was gone.
It happened so quickly. You think: Adhira has insomnia. He told you first times don’t hurt. She must have heard and not cared. You believed him. She must have heard and thought you deserved it. The waves slap against your breasts. You believed so much. In him, in the camp, in attention. In being who you wanted to be.
Everything is so quiet, like somebody went and machine-gunned the whole camp and left the bodies rotting. He took his time. He said he took his time.
You let go, the scorch erasing your breasts, your shoulders, his sperm. You think: A big fish is still just a fish. The water is so cold you feel like you’re burning alive. Mekhi, the great founder. Who would’ve thought?
You want to fold onto yourself, over and over and over again, until you are nothing.
You want to be over.
Your hair soaks, your head sinks, and you hold your breath for a long, long time.