We were like Betty and Veronica in those comics we read endlessly — practically identical, except for our hair. Andrea’s was dark and I was blond. Her skin tanned easily and I worried about sunburns, but we were the same height and our bodies were lean and undeveloped.
We met when we were assigned to the same canoe at summer camp. Andrea took the stern and I was in the bow. As we drifted on the placid lake, she said, “If we paddled hard, how far do you think we’d get? Before anyone caught us?”
It was the closest thing to love at first sight I’ve ever found. At summer camp, the days are long and friendships are quick and intense. After that canoe ride, Andrea and I sat beside each other at meals, played on the same sports teams, and slept in adjacent top bunks. And we were always the last to fall asleep. If I closed my eyes, Andrea would stretch out one of her legs and kick something over on my shelf: my flashlight, or the bottle of calamine lotion my mom had packed for me. Something to knock me awake.
“Jess,” she whispered. “Wake up.” Her voice was quiet but demanding, and it forced me to open my eyes, to focus in the dark, to stay in our private world of wakefulness.
During the day, we participated. That’s what we called it — participating — imitating our counselor, Lisa, and her sunny way of speaking. In the past I’d enjoyed participating, but that summer, I hated everything: swim lessons, nature walks, dodgeball, arts and crafts, tennis, basketball, canoeing. Most of all, I hated horseback riding, which involved getting saddle burn as your horse walked listlessly around a ring. The horses were so tired and used to their work that we could drop the reins and they would continue at the same pace, retracing the same circuit. Andrea said riding one of those horses was like having sex with a dead person. She’d never had sex with anyone, living or dead, but she had a gift for a memorable turn of phrase. She kicked uselessly at the horse’s sides, flicked the reins, yelled, “Vamos! Caballo!” She always got in trouble for that.
Other girls fawned over the horses — brushed their manes, fed them apples, kissed their noses — but I didn’t like to touch those big, sad animals. The camp rented them from a rancher who provided horses that were too old to be of any use to him. Some had sagging bellies from bearing foals, others were scarred with bug bites. Sometimes they would sweat so much that a white lather foamed along their necks. And they weren’t gentle like the horses in books. They kicked and bit each other furtively, the way children abuse each other when their parents aren’t watching.
What I mean is, Andrea and I were thirteen and beginning to outgrow this daylight world of lessons and games and sing-alongs. We were sick of having our days parsed into hour-long blocks, sick of being led from one activity to the next. We were hungry for feral time. That’s why we loved the dark.
We remained awake until long after the other girls had finished brushing their teeth, trying on each other’s clothes, and talking about which boys they liked. We stayed up even after Lisa had flicked off the light and left the cabin, on her way to plan the next day’s activities. Andrea and I stayed up until the sky was so black that each star was outlined against it, sharp and bright like scraps of metal. That’s how we knew it was time.
We changed from our pastel pajamas into jeans and hooded sweatshirts, and put on running shoes that we’d turned from white to black with a permanent marker — my mom would freak out when I got home. We dressed quietly so none of the other girls would hear us — those girls were our friends during the day, but we didn’t want them to know what we did at night. They might tell on us. Or worse, they might want to join us.
We opened the cabin door and ducked out, careful to keep close to the small wooden building. We couldn’t let ourselves be seen by any of the counselors who sat on benches outside with flashlights and first-aid kits and boxes of Kleenex, ready to deal with bleeding noses, stomachaches, homesickness. We slipped through the night as silently as fish through water, skidding between cabins until we were far from where the other kids slept. In the dark, we felt brave. We were no longer part of that camp world. Or rather, at night, the camp itself changed to accommodate us. It ceased to be an ordered, regimented place, where we ate at the same time every day, where we sang songs after lunch, where we played sports after singing. At night, the infrastructure for these activities — the dining hall, the soccer field, the lake — seemed mysterious.
Our favorite place to go was the horses’ field. We crawled along the barbed-wire fence of the camp’s perimeter, rolled down a steep hill past the boys’ cabins, and came to the corral: a locked tack shed and a ring of close-clipped grass used for riding lessons. The horses were kept here during the day, but each night, when the lessons and trail rides were done, they were let out — set free! we called it — into an open field, where they grazed and slept. There was nothing romantic about this field during the day: it buzzed with mosquitoes, and smelled of the overflowing septic tank. But at night, these things could be ignored. At night, the field was full of moon.
To get there, we passed the corral and went through a small patch of forest. We followed trails the horses had made through the trees, and, because we never brought flashlights, had to feel our way, our hands gripping rough branches, our feet moving slowly over dirt and rocks. I’ve never thought that I have good hearing, but on those nights, I heard everything: distant coyotes, insects circling my body, my own breath.
I was only scared once. Andrea and I moved through the densest part of the forest, along a path so narrow that branches scraped my face. No moonlight could reach us, and I couldn’t see anything. I followed the sounds of twigs cracking under Andrea’s shoes. I felt the thrill of my heart in my chest.
Then there was silence. I couldn’t hear Andrea’s breathing or her steps.
“Andrea?” I figured this was a joke. “Andy?” I whispered, using the nickname she hated.
There was no reply. I held my breath and tried to quiet my body, but my heart seemed lodged between my ears.
“Andrea!” I screamed, and that’s when she grabbed me from behind and put her hand over my mouth.
“You chickenshit.” She laughed. “Do you want us to get caught?”
I could feel her heart against my back. “You’re a bitch.”
“Shh.” She still had her arms around me. “Look.”
She turned my head toward the outlines of the horses, ghostly and elegant against the black sky. At night, it was easy to forget how ordinary they were. Or rather, at night, we could see the beauty of their flawed bodies. They stood together, some of them asleep, some eating, and we could see the breath from their wide nostrils. They looked like shadows, not entirely real.
We approached the horses quietly, with the single-mindedness of lovers. It was as though Andrea and I had created them, as though they were our secret, a gift we’d given each other. They had a quiet kind of bravery, a grace I’ve rarely seen since. The only thing that comes close is the dignity of some old women — the ones who remember being beautiful, the ones who know they still are.
Excerpted from THE DARK AND OTHER LOVE STORIES. Copyright © 2017 by Deborah Willis. Published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.