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HE PICKED his way down the path through the woods to the beach. Occasionally twigs would get caught in his sandals, and he’d have to stop and brush off his feet, and a branch that had looked sturdy enough suddenly gave way beneath him. The trail was used often; he wondered who besides himself knew about it. It was a shortcut that bypassed the main road, out of the way, out of sight of early morning traffic. He came out into the clearing and the lake was before him. The sky was beginning to take on the colours of the dawn, a bright yellow patch on the horizon that spread out to orange, pink and bright blue before blending into the still dark sky, and there was a deep red reflection on the surface of the water. There was a dock about four feet wide of well-weathered boards that extended about fifty feet into the water, where it was deep enough to dive safely, and farther out was a raft, about a dozen feet square. The boy walked out to the end of the dock as if walking towards the sunrise and paused, breathing in the chilly morning air, his eyes closed.

He and three of his friends, all 14 or 15, had decided to go skinny-dipping together there a couple of days before, at night when they were reasonably assured of not being interrupted. But that was part of the thrill, of course: the shamelessness of their nascent manhood combined with the risk of being caught. Not that anyone would really care, but there was always the possibility of some little old lady calling up the police and the mad scramble that would follow to hide their nakedness, pull their clothes on over their wet bodies, and of course the denials and fumbling apologies to frowning parents. But the thrill of being utterly exposed out there in the open, under the sky, at once both brave and vulnerable, was overwhelming, and they swam and played in the water, caught between the silliness of childhood and the seriousness of real men.

This morning, the boy tried to summon that same excitement again as he opened his eyes and examined the sunrise. Then he pulled off his shirt and dropped it on the deck at his feet, kicked off his sandals and pulled off his jeans and his shorts. He did not dive in at once, though; he wanted to feel the cool air against his bare skin, to feel that weird mixture of panic and joy and pride, even pride, and even a secret hope that someone would see him, standing proudly in his unblemished youth to face the rising sun. He tried to imagine how he looked; slim and muscular, of average height, with shaggy brown hair and sharp features. He wasn’t vain, but he was quietly proud of his appearance. He stood still, eyes closed, his breaths slow and deep, his palms facing forward like some sun-worshiper of pre-history. Then he stepped forward, his toes hooked over the edge of the dock, bent over with his arms swept back, and dove into the silent lake.

The water wasn’t cold. Its warmth surprised him, but the impact was enough to jar him from his romantic fantasy. He surfaced, smiling to himself, shook his hair out of his eyes and struck out with a strong crawl stroke for the raft. He loved the slippery, smooth feel of the water against his body, and the erotic freedom from swimming trunks. He reached the raft quickly — he was a good swimmer — and pulled himself up onto it without having to resort to the ladder alongside. He stayed on his haunches, gazing at the sunrise and listening to the birdsongs. There was no other sound, no splashing children, no cars on the road. He stood up, as if in greeting to the rising sun, determined to swim a few more laps back to the dock before he dressed and returned home. If anyone was watching him, let them see him.

He turned, and was halfway into his racer’s pose when he saw that he wasn’t alone, after all. Someone was standing on the dock, watching him. There was a moment of panic. He dove into the water, and did a sort of lifesaver’s breast stroke so as to keep his head up.

It was a girl, very slim, short, about his own age. She had on a baggy tee-shirt which hid her figure, jeans, and sandals, and her brown hair was tied in back. In the half-light, he couldn’t see her features clearly, but she seemed to be standing calmly, as if scrutinizing him. A few yards from her, he stopped swimming and tested the bottom, to see if he could put his feet town. He couldn’t. He treaded water.

When he couldn’t stand the silence anymore, he spoke: “Hello.”

“Hi.” There was a pause.

“I didn’t hear you coming.”

“Oh? Did I surprise you?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess. Sort of.”
“I didn’t mean to.”

“Oh, well, that’s OK. It’s just that . . .”

“What’s the matter?”

“I can’t get out of the water.”

“How come?”

“My clothes.”

“What about your clothes?”

She was smirking.

He paused. Did she want to play games with him? The pause lengthened. The boy began to worry that he wouldn’t be able to tread water much longer. Then, without saying anything, she peeled off her shirt without any sign of shame or embarrassment and dropped it on top of his own clothes. She had no bra; she pushed the sandals from her feet, unfastened her jeans and stripped them and her panties off with no more ceremony than as if she were undressing for the shower. She made no effort to cover herself, but just looked down at him.

“There,” she said. “We’re even.”

This was not at all what he had expected, and he waited for her to do something. When he finally absorbed the fact that she wasn’t going away, that he would — one way or another — have to deal with their nakedness, he swam over to the dock and pulled himself up on his elbows. She sat down on the dock next to him. He could see now that she was pretty, if not exactly beautiful. The bones of her face were sharp, and her nose turned up; her mouth wide and her eyes rather far apart. Her shoulders seemed thin but not frail, and her build suggested athleticism more than skinniness.

“Are you coming in?” he asked her.

“How’s the water?” He could see that she was smiling at him.

“It’s warm. Really.”

She lowered her legs in, then turned and eased herself into the water, gasping only slightly as it reached her thighs, then lowered herself in up to her shoulders. “Wow. It feels nice.”

“Told you. Want to swim to the raft?”

The girl swam well; he didn’t want to try to impress her, nor she him, it seemed, and they took their time going out to the raft. The sun had risen more, and the two could see the trees on the shore more clearly, the larger houses and the cottages with their own docks and boats on the other side of the lake. And they could see each other more distinctly. When they reached the float they rested, holding on to the deck, knowing that the air would be colder than the water.

“I don’t know who you are,” she asked him when her breathing had steadied. “What’s your name?”


“I’m Leah. Do you live here?”

“I’m just here for the summer. I’m staying with my father. He has a house here.”

“Which one?”

“It’s up the road. The grey one with the barn.”

“I’m here with my mom. We’re renting a cottage. We’ll be here a month, I think.” There was another pause before she asked, “Do you come here a lot?”

“Every summer.”

“No, I mean to the lake.”

“Yeah, well, it’s the main place to swim here. The only place.”

She hesitated, then looked him in the eye. “That’s not what I meant. Do you come here, to swim? Alone, like this?”

“Sometimes,” he lied.

There was silence between them. He tried to avoid looking at her directly. Though she was very thin and hadn’t much of a figure, it was impossible for him not to feel aroused, at least a little, and he didn’t want to get all excited and then look foolish if she were to see it. Maybe she wouldn’t notice.

“You don’t have to be ashamed or anything,” she said, as if she were reading his thoughts. “I’ve seen naked guys before.”

“I’m not ashamed!” He wasn’t ashamed, just embarrassed as hell. Had she seen him completely nude? How long had she been there, staring at him before he realized that she was watching? “Why should I be ashamed?”

“No reason,” she said, and he was sure that her smile was really a smirk. “No reason at all. Believe me.” With that, she hoisted herself up onto the raft. “Come on, sit here. We’ll watch the sunrise. Ever done that?”

Something about her tone made him relax. There wasn’t any risk; there was no awkwardness or coyness about the invitation. Here was a moment that perhaps she felt was special, the rising of the sun, and wanted to share it. Wasn’t this an extension of what he had felt earlier, unencumbered, facing the new day? That had been pretentious, maybe. Definitely. This was not; this was simple and uncomplicated and sincere. He lifted himself out of the water, making no attempt to hide himself, and sat down beside her. They sat together, side by side, unashamed.

There were sounds of the awakening morning, though it was not six o’clock. Joel felt chilled; the sun hadn’t risen enough to warm the air, and he shivered and folded his arms across his chest. To his surprise, Leah pressed against him. He looked over at her; her skin was all goosebumps.

“Are you cold?” he asked.


“Wanna go back in?”

“No. Not yet.” She leaned her weight against him. “Put your arm around me.”

He hesitated.

“Go ahead. You can touch me. I want you to.”

He put his arm across her shoulder and pulled her close. Suddenly, she took his other arm and brought his hand to her breast held it there, close, and leaned her head against his chest. He didn’t attempt to caress her, but just held her, his hand cupping her as she pressed him to her. He could feel the goosebumps on her skin, but as they stayed together for what seemed a long time, neither moving, they warmed, and he became accustomed to the pressure of skin against skin, intimate but not exactly erotic, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The birds greeted the morning and then other, human, sounds, began to make themselves heard. Leah straightened, and Joel withdrew his hand from her breast.

“We’d better go back,” he said. “Someone will see us.”

“Yeah, we’d better.” They eased themselves apart and quietly slipped back into the water. It seemed colder now that they had warmed up slightly, and they swam quickly back to the dock. They pulled themselves out, and without looking at each other dressed as quickly as their wet bodies would allow. Then it was time to leave.

“Which way are you going?” Joel asked.

“The way I came. Through the parking lot to the road.”

“Come this way. There’s a shortcut,” and he led the way to the path.

She followed him; when they were at the road, she said “Wait,” and he turned to her. “Are you coming back?”

“I don’t know.” He didn’t know. The skinny-dipping with the guys had been one thing, a kind of male bonding thing, as grownups would call it, and it was wild and fun, horsing around with the guys, and he’d do it again. That kind of thing was — well, like what went on in the locker room. Snapping towels. Silently comparing the sizes of their endowments. Imagining girls. But it wasn’t serious. And going out by himself at dawn had been different. Besides the adventure of doing something vaguely forbidden and the risk of being caught, there had been a thrill that was partly erotic, stirrings that were not unknown but that felt somehow new. There was also the tremendous sense of freedom he had felt just by taking off his clothes, and the indescribable rush of diving naked into the clear, clean waters of the lake, liberated from all man-made trace of civilization, watching the rising of the sun. He wondered if he’d looked foolish to the girl, Leah, flexing his juvenile masculinity before an audience of imaginary gods. Was that it?


He remembered how her skin felt against his. She had wanted his touch, had actually demanded it, and he had wanted hers, though naturally he couldn’t say so, and it wasn’t sex exactly, either. She stood before him, her weight on one leg and her hand on the hip, head cocked to one side, everything off-centred, looking up at him, her eyes expecting his answer. “I don’t know.” he said. “Maybe.”

“OK. Well, I’ll see you around,” she was saying to him.

“I guess so, sure,” he said, but her back was already to him, and she was heading down the road.


Image of Alan Rice

Alan Rice teaches literature and composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School in rural Connecticut. He holds degrees in English and dramatic arts from Earlham College and the University of Connecticut, and has spent much of his career directing plays and teaching acting and stagecraft. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Change Seven, Night Picnic JournalBooks and Pieces, and elsewhereHe is presently working on a collection of short stories and a novel. 

  1. Just excellent. Beautiful sensitive writing, perfect pace.

  2. Sensitive story, with the setting as much a character as the people.

  3. This is a beautiful story, simple, direct, gently moving.

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