Deep in a wet winter wood, over a carpet of dead leaves and discarded condoms, a line of youths progressed down the dusk-darkened hill towards Wreck Beach. Anyone watching from a distance would assume this motley crew of students were drunk-their laughter was fueled with the arrogance of oil-faced youth.
“Is this the way?” worried a boy in front of Will, struggling to keep step.
“Fuck off,” was Lucy’s immediate rejoinder, who had no time for indecision. The sun was setting soon. “It’s down. How hard can this be? The water is down.”
Some of the boys had stripped their tops by the time the beach was achieved, revelling in the sideways attention their bodies commanded. Revelling, too, in each other. Will kept his top on, citing the cold air to Jamal, a boy Will recognized from first term. “We’ll all be cold enough in a few,” shrugged Jamal.
Lucy approached the pair, pulling at her fur in a commanding way and working a King Size Mild from some inner recess of the high-collared coat. “Wild night, eh?” she said, taking up post next to Will.
Her face glowed blue against the waves and she said to Jamal (without looking), “Nice pecs, by the way. Don’t you think, Will?” Even his silence was confirmation.
The fire threw itself together out of driftwood and was ignited by a pair of Zippos, setting the student bodies in a fine, tawny tint. The boys, glancing wickedly at each other, began undoing belts and tugging roughly at sneakers. There was nothing to be done, so Will also undressed. A pact was a pact.
When all the boys stood shivering in their underwear (how shocking it was to see which boy wore what), the girls began collecting branches, calling to one another as they went: “Here! I found some brambles. Here!” And the boys lodged their hands in their armpits across goose-pimpled chests, looking out at the water and back, smirking with worried pride.
“For fuck’s sake!” called Jamal to the moving shadows that were the gathering girls. “Let’s get on with it!”
“Come on! Come on!” hollered Will, clapping. He then felt immediately ridiculous, having voiced some team captain sound that only the protecting dusk had made credible. Jamal shimmied up to Will, who was shocked to feel the heat of an arm against his own. The light, all but gone, made abstractions of anyone outside the fire’s wreath.
When the girls had returned, each baring a branch, eyes fierce with the joy of future crime, the boys crouched down a bit and faced the waves. Will felt himself become part of a group; a pressure valve turned and the strain of personality gave over to the rough thrill of a pack.
“Go!” cried Lucy, and the boys set off as a herd.
The first to hit the water, some skinny kid from India, gave a shout so fierce the rest nearly skidded to a stop. How cold was the water, really? This was January; the ocean was filled with pins. And into this mess, the impulse of the mob now drove them all. Will shut his eyes and jumped.
When he landed, it was on the body of Jamal, who had elected for a diving entry instead. Will landed on his back and, amid the mad chorus of screams and swears from the other boys, begged forgiveness for the accident. The waves came steady and short, slapping at Jamal’s mid-section when he managed to regain his footing. Jamal was smiling, but bent over, holding out his arms to catch his attacker.
And when he did catch Will (or, rather, when Will positioned himself between the night-blind arms) Jamal pulled him down against himself, their bodies becoming frigid and tight against each other. Will wrestled himself around, only to be shoved face-first down Jamal’s chest. Tripping, his head was submerged, and Jamal’s pelvis rose to meet him in the underworld. Will’s mouth filled with salt.
The other boys, having raced back to shore, now jeered at the pair from a sea-stained edge of the beach. “Come on, faggots!” they whinnied in a line, their heads back-lit by the fire. “Get on with it!”
So Will and Jamal let go and high-stepped back through the waves, back toward the pack. Thankfully, the night had by then grown deep enough to veil hard cocks.
Finally, the girls came, branch-bearing and tall with anticipation.
“Turn around,” shouted Lucy, their self-elected queen. “Unless you want it across your face.” And the boys turned. And the branches, over and over, stung like the deepest regret.