Max was not a fan of swimming in the last part of the summer, but it was the thing to do. The spot where the high bank was interrupted by a gap and a steep slope, at the edge of a broad floodplain that had been farmed once, for its rich regular deposits of stirred-up soil from upstream, but this stretch had been abandoned thanks to protective zoning decades earlier, and the last sign of its last resident, an old yellow schoolbus from midway through the last century, had sunk into the soil down to its chassis, collapsed partly into itself like a rusty eggshell, and been buried under moss and a cap of brush growing in fifty years of settling dust.
Max and Alice cut a wide path around the bus, which had an ominous air about it and presence in local legend among the kids of Orleans Crossroads and nearby Great Cacapon on top of its actual infestation of bald-faced hornets building a massive paper globe in the frame where the windshield had been. They rolled their bikes to the edge of the cut, leaned them neatly against a tree, and carefully made their way down the slippery muddy cut to the river’s edge.
“I can’t believe the storm washed away my steps,” Max complained, pointing out how the slabs of stone he’d carefully placed two summers prior were all in a heap at the bottom of the slope.
“You can’t beat water,” Alice said, with a shrug.
The last heavy rains had brought the river all the way up to the top of the cut, and the tree branches below that level were full of leaves and upstream trash. Somewhere farther down the river, just past the large rock that looked inviting as a place to lounge until you noticed that it was covered with wolf spiders, a whole crushed camping trailer had been hanging out of a clump of trees since before her mother was born, an empty shell of crumpled corrugated aluminum that had lost its chassis and interior almost as if it had shed that skin like a cicada setting out for the skies. It still showed traces of white and turquoise paint, and used to have a pair of small decorative metal wings until Alice’s brother had wrenched them off as a trophy and propped them up on the hearth at home.
“River’s so low now,” Max said, having left his shoes on the bank and started walking delicately across the dry shallows, where ten thousand hot, sharp stones stabbed as his feet. Alice kept her sandals on, intending to tie them to her swimsuit once in the water. They reached the water and waded out. It was that time in the summer when the river slowed down for a bit and rivergrass grew so dense and thick that it was like being in a hairbrush. “Ugh, gross.”
“You big baby.”
“You’re the baby!” yelled Max, and splashed Alice with a fantail of cool water as she was fastening her sandals to the bottom of her suit.
“Oh, you’re dead!” she said, and dove into the cool tangle of rivergrass and slow water, emerging just upstream of Max with a slashing motion of slim arms and cupped hands. Both laughed, and swam for the deep channel.
© 2019 Joe Belknap Wall