The day had wrapped us up in the blanket of its heat and refused to let us out, so much did it love us. Or maybe it was just lonely. I had spent a lot of time that summer thinking about ways to anthropomorphize the days, mostly because they were never ending and inescapable, and still couldn’t come to a conclusion about whether they were full of people or void of them and so were eternally searching for company. When I asked Riley about it, she said that maybe the days didn’t know what they wanted.
I liked that about her. That she never shot me down. Other kids would have said I was stupid thinking like I did, but not Riley. Not that August.
“Maybe summer knows it’s dying,” Riley’s long brown hair spilled across the damp plastic of the lake dock, “and it’s scared.”
“Hmm.” I didn’t have much to say to that. I was better at thinking grand thoughts than I was at putting them into words. Riley could talk for hours and hours, and I think she liked me because I was the only boy on the face of the planet who could just sit still and listen and nod my head instead of interrupting.
After our newborn conversation petered out, we both went back to staring at the sky. The gentle waves of the lake rocked the floating dock as if lulling us to sleep. Though the lake on which we both lived was surrounded by other houses and the day was clear and bright and hot, we were the only kids out. And even though we were both in our swimsuits, Riley in a two-piece that showed off the caramel stripe of her belly, we were dry. The sun had claimed all the water from our skin soon after we crawled out of the lake.
I had spent a lot of that afternoon contemplating that caramel stripe.
Part of me marveled at how Riley—who was normally as white as could be—could have gotten so tan while I hadn’t, even though we went everywhere together practically every day.
Part of me wondered where her single-piece, blue-and-pink striped suit from last summer had gone. I liked that suit a lot. It matched my blue trunks, which were still the same. Still another part wondered how Riley didn’t feel exposed in her two-piece swimsuit, which was ridiculous because my entire chest and more than half of my scrawny legs were bare, but it was different for girls, wasn’t it?
Another part of me wondered why I wasn’t wondering other things about her stripe instead of all this garbage.
Riley rolled over onto her belly, shifting around so I could tell she was looking at me. “Only a little bit until your birthday, Will.”
“Thirteen. You’re gonna be a teenager, like me. We’re practically adults.”
“I bet nobody’s gonna treat us like adults, though. They’re still just gonna call us dumb middle schoolers next month.”
“Yeah.” When I finally looked at her, Riley had gotten up and was standing on the edge of the dock, back to the water, toes curled around the plastic. I knew what she was about to do. “Don’t backflip. You always hurt yourself.”
Her eyes sparkled. An eyebrow climbed high on her forehead. “Summer’s dying,” she said, and jumped.
• • •
I tramped through the woods surrounding our small subdivision, having long since abandoned the walking path that the elderly neighbors used when they felt like emerging from their year-long hibernations. I clutched a cheap plastic walkie-talkie in one hand and a net in the other.
“General R. to Lieutenant W,” my walkie-talkie crackled in a fuzzy imitation of Riley’s voice. “Come in, I repeat, come in. Over.”
“Why am I the Lieutenant and you get to be the General?”
I sighed. “Lieutenant W. to General R. Why do I have to be Lieutenant? Over.”
“Because,” Riley said, but this time for real: she stepped out from behind a tree, hands cupped, hair falling in curtains over her face. “I’m older than you. Now shut up and come and look at this.”
I sighed again for an effect that was lost on her, and of course dutifully obeyed. Our foreheads knocked together when we leaned in over her hands. My heart hammered.
Slowly, slowly, Riley slid her fingers apart to reveal a glittering blue dragonfly, calmly perched on the creases of her palm. “Infraorder Aeshnidae.” Riley’s voice was hushed with wonder. “And I didn’t even accidentally break her wings catching her.”
I swallowed and managed to nod. We had gone dragonfly hunting a thousand times, had stood like this a thousand times last summer, but this seemed so different. It felt different. It felt like everything my other friends had been talking about, everything about girls that we used to call gross.
Except it also wasn’t. Their words weren’t the thoughts in my head and my thoughts were not like theirs. Did everyone have to think so hard about this, why was my brain like this—
“Will.” Riley looked at me. The dragonfly in her hands flexed its wings and flew away. I wanted to follow it. I wanted to be anywhere but right here. “Are you okay?”
“I thought we talked about expanding your vocabulary.”
She was still standing so close to me. I knew what she wanted and I couldn’t understand why.
Slowly, without speaking, Riley leaned in and touched her lips to mine. I didn’t move. Her eyes were closed but mine weren’t and I had a perfect view of every single hair in her eyebrows and the stray ones between them and the pores on her forehead. I wondered where the dragonfly went, if the others would hate it for letting itself be captured.
Riley drew back. Her eyes flitted across my face. I tried to swallow again but couldn’t. Something churning and miserable and hot was boiling under my sternum—sternum, a word we had learned last year in biology—and for some unholy reason I felt tears pricking at the corners of my eyes.
I turned and ran. The dragonfly net was no longer in my hands but there was no way I was going back to get it. All I could do was run and I was crying and I was crying and I was crying and I couldn’t stand myself.
• • •
My legs burned from the strain of pushing the bike pedals in infinite loops but I ignored them. That day was colder than most had been and I probably should have brought a jacket but I ignored that too, and instead focused on trying not to cry again. It had been a week since the woods incident and I still hadn’t seen Riley again, mostly because I hated her, but I couldn’t comprehend why, and the looping of it, the endless turning around like my bike pedals, spinning in confusion, was driving me crazy. Riley was speaking a language I didn’t know the words to.
The wind tugged at my hair. Why would she do that? It pushed gently at my sides as if willing me off my bike and into the scrubby grass beside the road. Why would she ruin it?
And she had ruined it. Never in my life had I gone a week without talking to Riley. Everything was weird now. I didn’t know what would happen if I saw her again. She expected something out of me that I wasn’t capable of giving.
Plenty of other boys in my class had talked about kissing girls this year. They had laughed about it after they had finished blushing about it.
Why can’t you just kiss her?
I hate her. I hate her.
I felt like a wild animal backed into a corner. I felt that churning anger under my sternum and thought for a second I might like to punch myself in the chest just to see if that would quiet it down. I biked harder.
The front wheel of the bike plunged into a pothole in the concrete, but the back wheel wasn’t paying attention and wanted to keep moving, so it did—up and over with me along for the ride.
I landed in the gravel shoulder of the road with an oomph.
My hands had reflexively stuck out so I managed not to hit my head, but it cost me: the gravel dug painfully into my palms and legs.
The tears came but I bit them back. I wouldn’t cry. I was almost thirteen and I would not cry.
I yelled the worst swear word I knew and didn’t feel any better.
• • •
A lot of people came to my birthday party. In school I think I was generally liked, or I hoped so, and besides our neighborhood was small and there was free cake and we lived on the lake so people showed up, towels in hand, obligatory presents prepared. When they asked about the Band-Aids on my palms, I told them I had burned myself making macaroni and cheese.
“Happy birthday,” one boy said to me. He was new. Had moved here at the end of April and had only been in class for a few weeks before school let out.
I think his name was Marco. His smile was nice, and when he said “happy birthday,” it seemed like he actually wanted to come up to me and say it, like it was a present all on its own. My cheeks went hot. “Thanks.”
“Yeah. But most people call me Will.”
“You did the presentation about dragonflies.”
“Um, yeah, I did, actually,” I said, surprised he had remembered. There was something about his face that drew me in closer. It was nice, like his smile.
“Aeshnidae,” Marco said, and I was reminded that I was the one who had taught Riley the Latin.
“Right. But that’s just their family name. My favorite species is Rhionaeschna multicolor, or the Blue-eyed Darner. They’re super rare in Wisconsin. I just think their blue is really—” I stopped, mortified, suddenly realizing how nerdy I sounded. “Um, sorry. I just, um ... I think dragonflies are cool,” I finished lamely.
Marco smiled again. “Me too. Blue’s my favorite color.”
• • •
Everyone at my birthday party eventually went swimming because it was the only thing to do, and for the first time I felt weird about taking my shirt off in front of all these other people.
I walked behind Marco on our way down to the lake.
He turned around to say something to me and caught me looking, which I hadn’t even known I was.
• • •
Later that evening, peoples’ moms started to show up and pick them off one by one until it was just me and Marco left, me resting on the edge of the dock with my shins in the water because I was skinny and tired, Marco because he was humoring me. I asked Marco where he’d moved from, and he said Arizona, and I asked why and he said his mom got a new job here, and I asked if he missed his friends and he said yes, a little, and after that we were quiet. It was cooling off as it got dark—the days were no longer so hot—and fireflies were beginning to appear, blinking away. I wondered, if I learned Morse code, would I be able to understand them? Probably not. Those were kid thoughts. I was thirteen now. Kid thoughts were behind me.
“You know, you’re the only who hasn’t asked me,” Marco said.
He squirmed. It was the first time I had seen him look uncomfortable all evening. “You know ... if I had a girlfriend back home.”
“Oh.” I was suddenly very aware of every sensation vying for attention: my legs immersed in the water, the slippery green lake moss growing on the side of the dock and touching my calves, the drying water on my chest, Marco’s elbow near mine.
“I didn’t, if you wanted to know.”
“I don’t know why everyone always asks about that. It’s none of their business.” Marco’s jaw clenched and unclenched, as if he were working something in his mouth. And then, as if a storm had blown itself away, his whole face changed. He sighed. Smiled. Looked at me, and again I was painfully aware of being shirtless, but then Marco said, “open my present after I leave, okay?”
“I hate watching people open presents.”
“Ok. I’ll wait.”
That nice smile again, the one that sparked a different feeling underneath my sternum. Marco stuck out his hand and asked, “friends?
I shook it, marveling at the goosebumps on my arm.
• • •
On the last day of summer, I was lying out on a chair in our backyard, half sleeping and half thinking about the day before. Though my eyelids were closed, they were lit up red from the sunlight.
A shadow fell over me. I cracked open an eye, and there stood Riley, towering over me, holding a box of frozen popsicles.
“I brought popsicles,” she said redundantly, and thrust the box towards me. “A peace offering.”
I made no move for the popsicles.
Riley sighed. “Look, they cost me three dollars and they’re gonna melt if you don’t eat them. But fine. Do you want to go swimming?”
“Can’t. Hands hurt too much.”
“Look, Will, I’m sorry. I messed up. I don’t know why I did that, but ... but I brought popsicles.”
She was at least making an effort. I opened my other eye, and gingerly snuck out a hand to grab a purple one. Riley seemed to relax a little, because she set the box down and edged her butt onto my chair. I made room for her because we were both tiny and could fit on the same sunchair, which I would have found embarrassing, had anyone been around to see it.
“Look, Will, I don’t like you.”
“You know what I mean. I don’t like like you, if that’s what you’re afraid of. And you obviously don’t like me.”
“Then why did you kiss me?”
“I don’t ... I don’t know.” Riley folded her hands on her stomach. Her elbow dug into my side, but I was used to it. “I guess I thought I had to?”
“What do you mean?” I asked the question even though I thought I understood. It was the most I had understood Riley in two weeks.
“I mean ... the way everyone talks about boys ... and how we always hang out together ... it just seemed like—”
“Like we had to.”
“Now who’s the one who needs to expand her vocabulary?”
“Don’t be mean.” She flicked my arm. “I’m just glad you understand. I thought I was going crazy.”
“Everyone’s going crazy. We’re all teenagers now.”
“Summer’s dying,” Riley agreed.
“Look, Riley ... I’m sorry too.”
“For avoiding you. For not kissing you back. Any other guy in our class would have loved to be kissing any girl, anywhere, no matter who the girl was. But I wasn’t.”
“The guys in our class are dumb.”
“Not all of them.” I could feel her sidelong stare burrowing into my forehead and couldn’t help but grin. “Marco. He seems cool.”
“You.” There was a smile in Riley’s voice, but before I could ask her about it, she had gotten up and was stretching her long arms above her head, making her t-shirt pull up to reveal that caramel stripe. This time it slid right by me without stopping to say hello. “See you at school tomorrow,” Riley called over her shoulder as she walked away in the direction of her house. “And eat the rest of the popsicles or they’ll melt.”
• • •
For my birthday, Marco had gotten me a small, thick pocket guide to insects. I thumbed through the pages of dragonflies until I got to the one I was looking for.
I wrote a small note next to Rhionaeschna multicolor, halfway down the page: blue is his favorite color.
Summer, I finally decided, had neither been lonely or in love. It was just in the process of metamorphosis.