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WHEN HE came back to the beach with wood for the fire Bryce grabbed him from behind. The firewood scattered, bouncing off his knees and shins.
"Okay, Bryce," he said. "Cut it out." He tried to sound unafraid, even a little bored.
Bryce pulled his elbows back until they were almost touching. The boy tried to look up at the other kids. They turned their faces away, squinting out over the lake or frowning up into the trees above the beach.
"Hey," Bryce said. "Do I have to do everything?"
For a moment no one moved, and then Murphy shrugged and knelt down heavily in front of the boy. He was frowning, as if he had to do something disagreeable.
"Don't," said the boy.
Murphy pulled down his shorts. The boy's knees folded, and as he fell Bryce tugged his sweat shirt over his head. It was a new shirt. It had the camp emblem of the Tall Pine on the front. Someone sat on his knees so they could pull off his shoes and socks. Then they let him go. He scuttled sideways on his hands and knees into a thicket of reeds and fell on his side. He could hardly breathe.
"Come on, Howie," Murphy said. "You're a goat. Don't you get it?"
The boy curled up tightly, squeezing his eyes shut, waiting for the world to explode.
"I don't think he gets it," Murphy said.
The boy didn't move. He heard the canoes being shoved back into the water. There was a clatter of paddles and a loud splash. Someone laughed.
"Do you think he's okay?" Murphy whispered. No one answered.
When he was sure they were gone, the boy sat up. He was stiff, and his arms ached. His glasses had been knocked askew. He took them off, straightened one of the bows, and put them on again. His hands were shaking.
It was beginning to get dark. He couldn't see the canoes. Across the lake someone had turned on the lights at the camp boathouse. He could see the masts of the class boats swaying above the dock. They looked very far away.
"Damn," he said softly.
He didn't know what he was supposed to do now. Nobody had said. He didn't understand why they had taken his clothes and left him alone on the island. He thought that someone else would probably know what to do, but he didn't. It was because he was so out of it.
The mosquitoes were starting to bite. He had some repellent on his face and legs, but not all over. If he had known what they were planning, he would have hidden a bottle somewhere when he went to find firewood.
Slowly he got to his feet, brushing off the sand and pine needles clinging to his skin. He had never been naked outside before, and the feeling of being completely exposed was worse standing up. He wanted to crouch down again in the reeds, but he forced himself to move. There had to be something he could do.
It was a relief to find a path which led up toward the center of the island. In the shelter of the trees he felt less vulnerable. He wished it was pitch dark. He had never been afraid of the dark.
At the top of the island was an old tent platform. It had a canvas roof and sides of wood and screening. He stood at the edge of the clearing and looked at the tent platform and listened, but he couldn't hear anything except leaves rubbing against one another and the little slapping noises the waves made on the shore below. He crossed the clearing quickly and fumbled with the latch of the screen door. He was suddenly anxious to have the four walls around him.
He wasn't ready when someone inside said, "Go away."
His legs bounced him across the clearing before he could stop them, but there was nowhere to go. There was absolutely nowhere to go. He took a deep breath and walked quietly back to the door. He sat down on the steps, keeping his front hidden. He could hear someone crying inside. It sounded like a girl. She was gulping and crying at the same time.
"Hey," he said.
"I said go away."
"Hey, I can't. They took my clothes."
He waited, but there was no response.
"The mosquitoes are killing me. They really are."
Again there was no answer, but he heard a brief scuffling inside, and then the catch being released. As he pushed open the door, something black and shapeless scuttled into a corner. He didn't know what to do. He was glad it was dark inside.
"Did they leave anything?" he asked finally.
"There're some sandwiches and stuff on the table."
"I mean some blankets or clothes. I'm freezing."
"There's just one blanket."
And she had that, he thought. He felt his way to the table in the center of the room and ran his hand lightly over the surface. There was a package done up in plastic wrap, a box of matches, and something that felt like a candle lantern.
He left the table and groped his way toward a corner as far from the girl as possible. He found a cot therewith a bare, damp mattress and a heavy pillow smelling of mildew. He sat down on the cot, holding the pillow on his lap.
"What are we going to do?" he asked.
"Nothing. Sit here."
"They'll probably come back in the morning."
"I know it."
He wondered what that would be like. Would they sneak up and try to peek through the screens, or would they be yelling and dancing around? He didn't know what went on in their heads. Sometimes he thought he knew, but then it turned out that he didn't.
"Hey. There's a candle lantern. I'm going to light it."
"I'm freezing, I tell you."
Holding the pillow to his front, he felt his way back to the table. By leaning against it he could keep the pillow in place while he lit the candle in the lantern.
She was huddled on the floor, completely wrapped up in a ratty old army blanket. Her face was turned away, so he couldn't see it. Her hair was stringy and damp-looking. He wondered if she was naked under the blanket. Probably she was. That would be the joke, wouldn't it? Bryce must think they would jump all over each other if they didn't have any clothes on.
He held his hands over the lantern. They burned but didn't seem to get warm. On the table beside the sandwiches was a deck of playing cards. They were the dirty ones that Arnold Metcalf showed around to his friends. The boy had never seen them up close. He hadn'twanted anyone to know he was interested. Now he didn't want to look at them. The top card had a picture of a man and a woman crumpled together. It had nothing to do with him. It was about as interesting as a picture of a dentist drilling a tooth.
Bryce must be crazy. Arnold Metcalf and Murphy--they were all crazy. Trying to guess what went on in their crazy heads was wearing him out. He retreated to the bed and sat down again, still holding the pillow over his front.
"We're the goats, I guess," he said, hoping she could explain what was happening to them.
She still wouldn't look at him, but he could see who it was now. He couldn't remember her name. She was one of the real dogs. Bryce had classified all the girls into queens, princesses, dogs, and real dogs. Bryce should never have called her a real dog. He should never have called anyone a dog, because it made you think he looked like a dog himself. A big pink bulldog. Still, she shouldn't wear big designer glasses if her eyes were so bad. If you had thick glasses, they became thicker and thicker the bigger they were. His ophthalmologist had told him that.
He was beginning to feel hungry. He wondered if it would be safe to eat the sandwiches, but he decided not to. They might have put dope or something like that in them.
"I thought this was supposed to be a cookout," he said, trying to laugh. "We brought hot dogs and stuff." He remembered telling the others that they didn't have enough hot dogs. He had even argued about it, as if he was the only one who could count. Bryce had agreed and said that they were lucky he was such a brain. What a fool he had been.
"What did they tell you?" he asked.
She reached out a skinny brown arm and picked at a piece of rotten screen over her head.
"They told me Julie Christiansen was going to be the goat. We were all supposed to come out and go skinny-dipping, and then we were going to lose her."
He didn't know what to say. She was an even bigger jerk than he was, thinking that Julie Christiansen could ever be a goat. He wondered why she would tell a story that made her look so dumb.
"I thought they liked me," she said, and started to cry again.
"Hey," he said.
He shut up. He was beginning to feel really cold. His jaw shuddered, and he felt goose bumps break out on his arms. He studied the top of her head in the dim light from the lantern, trying to guess what kind of person she was.
"I'm really cold," he said. "Do you want to split the blanket? Maybe we could find something to cut it with."
She looked at him for the first time. Her glasses made her eyes look little and close together. He could tell she hated him, so he looked away.
There was a fireplace at one end of the tent platform. There wasn't any wood, but he could gather some sticks and pinecones outside. He could build a fire. He could use Arnold's dirty playing cards to start it, but he didn't know how he'd hold on to the pillow at the same time.
"How are you going to act tomorrow?" he asked after a while.
She shrugged, pulling down a big piece of the screen. He wished she wouldn't do that. There were enough mosquitoes inside, anyway.
"I mean, do you think we should act like we thought it was a joke, or what?"
She started crying again. It was awful to have to sit there and watch her cry.
"What ..." he said carefully, trying to think of something that would quiet her down. "What if we weren't here when they came back?"
"What do you mean? Where'd we go?"
"What if we swam over to the shore? We could sneak back to camp and get some clothes, and then just act like nothing had happened."
"That's nuts. It's miles to shore."
"No, it isn't. I bet I could swim that far." He was beginning to feel enthusiastic about his plan, although he didn't believe himself that they could do it. It was good to think about, though. He could see those jerks when he walked into breakfast, acting as if nothing hadhappened at all. They would want to know how he'd gotten back, but they wouldn't be able to ask, and he would just say something witty about the eggs. He'd say, "Hey! This is the same egg I got yesterday." Something like that.
"It's a dumb idea, and anyway, I can't swim very well."
"Come on. There's a big log down on the shore. I saw it when I was getting wood for the cookout. We could shove it in and paddle over."
"No, I said. I don't want to talk about it anymore." Her nose was running, and there wasn't anything for her to wipe it with but her fingers.
"Well," he said, "I'm going to build a fire. Do you want to help?"
She pulled the blanket back up over her head. He could freeze to death and she wouldn't care. He sidled over to the door, keeping the pillow over his front in case she tried to look.
Outside, it was very dark now. He could hear the mosquitoes drifting around his head. Their feathery wings brushed against his bare skin. He dropped his pillow on the steps and tried to work fast, dodging the insects and feeling for pinecones with his toes. He couldn't hold very many at a time. He'd have to make about a million trips unless he found something bigger.
When he heard the noise he dropped everything he had picked up and listened. He didn't hear it again, but he knew what it was. The sound of a paddle knocking against the gunwale of a canoe. He took a couple ofsteps toward the tent platform, and then turned and hustled back down the path until he could see over the lake toward the camp.
The moon was just showing, getting ready to set, but there was enough light to turn the lake silver. He could make out one, no two, dark shapes coming toward the island. They were still some distance away.
She looked up, startled, when he pushed open the door. He realized that he'd forgotten to find his pillow, and so he covered himself with both hands.
"Listen. They're coming back."
"They're coming back. Some of them, anyway."
"Oh, God, Oh, God ..." She pulled the blanket over her head and started crying again.
"Stop it, will you? They'll hear!"
"I don't care," she said in a muffled voice, but she quieted down.
"Come on, then. We've got to get out of here."
"What do you mean?"
"What do you mean, what do I mean? Do you want to be here when they come?"
She thought about it. "They wouldn't hurt us or anything, would they? They'll probably just sneak up or something."
He couldn't believe that she was so feeble.
"What's the matter with you? Do you want them spying on us?"
She shook her head, her rubbery face going all out of shape again.
"Well, then, listen. We'll go down to the shore, and when they come sneaking up, we'll grab their canoes. We'll leave them here. They'll be the goats, don't you get it?"
It seemed to sink in finally.
"What'll we do?" she asked, trying to get up without letting the blanket open.
"Just come on and be quiet."
"Shall we put out the candle?"
"No," he said after a moment's thought. "They'll come up slow if they see the light. It'll give us more time."
Once outside, he forgot about keeping himself covered up. It was dark and not important anymore. It was the others he cared about. They weren't going to see him if he could help it. He grabbed a corner of her blanket and led the way down the path. She held on as if he was trying to take it away from her.
Near the shore they pushed through some brush until they found a place to hide in a clump of black alder at the water's edge. They were a safe distance from the little beach. He decided it would be easier to wade over to the canoes than try to push their way back through the bushes, so he pulled her down close to the water.
The canoes were near the shore now. He could see that there were only four people. He didn't like that. It seemed more menacing, as if something was planned which had to be kept secret, even from the others who had left him on the island. He began to feel weak inside.
The girl was snuffling beside him.
"Be quiet," he whispered.
"It's the mosquitoes. They're in my mouth, everything."
"I said be quiet." He fumbled in the blanket until he found her hand and squeezed it hard. He wanted to believe he could hurt someone if he had to.
The people in the canoes beached them without a sound. It was too dark to see who they were, but they were big. They huddled together for a moment, whispering, and then two of them broke away and disappeared up the path.
The others stayed by the canoes. One of them lit a cigarette, and the other picked something up from the beach and flicked it out over the water. The boy heard a soft plunk! plunk! plunk! The person was skipping stones.
The boy waited, but he didn't know what he was waiting for anymore. His beautiful plan was coming apart like wet paper. He and the girl could never get the canoes away from the guards on the beach.
His brain seemed to have stopped working. He didn't know what he was going to do. He had never been so cold in his life. He wondered what was going to happen to them.
"There're some people still there," the girl whispered. "What do we do now?" She didn't sound sarcastic. She wanted to know. The cold seemed to solidify into a hard little lump somewhere deep inside him.
"Come on," he whispered, putting his lips close toher ear. "We've got to get away. We're going down into the water."
"But I can't swim, I told you."
"You won't have to. There's that log I told you about. I'll push you."
The water felt warm, warmer than the air. It made him feel better. He moved quietly, not making any splashes. When he was a few feet out, crouching so that only his head showed, he looked back to see if she was coming.
She came down into the water still wrapped in her blanket, and then let it drift away.
It didn't take long for them to work their way along the shore until the canoes were out of sight. The girl was clutching at him, afraid of the water. He could feel it in her stiff fingers digging into his shoulder.
They found the log just as the moon was setting. There was nothing but starlight now to show the shape of the distant shore. It looked black and lumpy, like a pile of coal.
He dragged the log into the water, trying to be as quiet as he could. It floated awfully low. He wondered if it could actually support them. Overhead, the beam of a flashlight flickered amid the treetops and was gone.
"Come on, now. Don't try to ride it. Just hold on."
He transferred her grasping hands to the wood. She was making too much noise, gasping and trying to hold her head high out of the water.
"Relax," he said. "Just try to kind of float along. Just keep your mouth out of the water."
"I'm afraid. Maybe you'd better go without me."
"No," he said. He didn't try to explain. He knew he was afraid to leave her alone, but even more important, it wouldn't be good enough. He wanted them both to disappear. To disappear completely.
Very quietly, hardly daring to breathe, he walked the log out into the water until the muddy bottom dropped away and there was nothing there at all.
Margo Cutter, senior counselor, came down to the beach still carrying the bag of clothes. Max didn't shine his flashlight in her face, of course, but he could tell by her voice that it must be grim.
"They're not there," she said.
Max flipped his cigarette into the water. "Well, they must be somewhere around. They wouldn't try to swim for it, would they?"
"I don't think so. Laura can't swim. She's afraid of the water. What about Howie?"
Max shrugged. "I don't know. He can swim all right, but it's a mile and a half, and he's kind of wimpy."
He knew at once that he shouldn't have said that, because it annoyed Margo and set her off again. "I just don't understand how anybody could have thought that this would be even remotely funny."
"Yeah," Max said, trying to sound conciliatory. "We'd better see if we can find them. We should have brought some dope for the mosquitoes. They're pretty bad."
"I mean it. I don't know what I'm going to say to her. She told me she wanted to go home, and I told her thatthis was such a wonderful place and that she'd make such wonderful friends. Some friends. I tell you, Max, I'm ready to quit over this. I never want to see some of those smug little brats again."
"Come on, Margo. It's not that serious. I know it was a dumb stunt, but they didn't mean anything--you know--harmful."
Margo shone her flashlight right in his face. "No? Well, what the hell did they mean? You tell me, Max. I really want to know. What the hell did they mean?"
THE GOATS. Copyright © 1987 by Brock Cole. All rights reserved. For information, address Square Fish, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.