“On Mating Rituals” by Nathan Mann

Mark promised he would get a girl and Jed said there was a way to guarantee it. The Eagle Scout Medal. All Mark had to do was hand it over as collateral. Kiss something, anything, and he would get it back. But it was his medal – or his brother’s really – and the thought of parting with it gave him the feeling he’d float free of the campground and dissolve with the clouds.

They wrestled to settle it, though Mark had no say in the decision. Jed tackled him off the picnic bench and they rolled over the exposed tree roots and past the fire pit, kneeing and elbowing freely, and Jed came up the winner, panting, but clutching the Eagle Scout Medal. Mark would get it back when he finally manned up. 

“It’s for your own good.”

Mark’s brother was somewhere in the Middle East now and the medal had been a parting gift, a bit of alchemy that gave Mark strength in his brother’s absence. The theft hurt and his body hurt too, so he stayed in the dirt until all sentiment had passed and he was as emotionally hard as the ground against his spine. 

Jed’s parents returned from the camp store with bags of ice for the cooler and some firewood and Jed’s mom suggested the boys try sleeping in a tent. The pop-up was crowded right now. Take a shot at it, she said, and joked they wouldn’t survive the night. 

“Wanna make a bet?” Jed asked. 

The boys put up the tent on their own, picking the corner of the site so they wouldn’t trip over the fire pit or the woodpile if they woke in the night with full bladders and had to stumble off to the porta potty. Jed’s parents wished them goodnight and his mom said she had twenty dollars to give them if they never knocked on the camper door. It was an easy deal and they shook her hand. They were old enough. They could take care of themselves.

The tent was small and they talked until the space filled with their stolen beer cans and stale breath and then they wore themselves out cranking the radio to life again and again. Mark became aware of how close he was to Jed, of how his brother’s medal bulged in his friend’s pocket, the outline of the eagle’s beak clear underneath the fabric. His brother had earned it building a baby drop box for the fire department. The town experienced an uptick in abandoned newborns and his brother cobbled together a homemade incubator to save lives. The fire department installed it. The paper did a piece on it. His brother graduated from scouts. His brother went away. Mark wasn’t sure he was deserving of the medal, but he knew Jed definitely wasn’t. He could fight for it, make a grab for it, or he could follow Jed’s rules. 

 “I’m bored,” said Jed.

Mark agreed and they dragged their sleeping bags outside to look up at the stars. The Milky Way, gold and white, bloomed against a deep blue night. It made Jed’s bladder feel full, like he’d just listened to a recording of a river, and he needed to take a piss. They laughed as he clanked through the darkness, sending the griddle and dishes into the dirt. Quick glances at the rocking camper told them the blunderings were unnoticed and their bet was still safe. The dying fire outlined Jed briefly in dull orange and then he disappeared.

Mark lay in the grass alone and watched the universe. Satellites zipped. A plane blinked diagonally over the moon. Stars winked blue-white and red. At one point, he had known some of the constellations. His brother took him once to a hill outside town and they’d used a laminated map to analyze the twinkling sky.

Could his brother see the same stars now? If they stargazed in unison, would the distance between them shorten? Mark tried to remember names and worked his way up from the tree-rimmed horizon – Cassiopeia, Ursa Minor, Draco, Ursa Major, Hercules – until the sky hocked up a meteorite. 

Fire and molten rock streamed down and the heat pushed his chest in and he gasped, but all air was gone and the meteorite plunked itself down, showering him in earth. Mark combed through the grass, sifted the dirt, but the campsite had swallowed the meteorite as surely as the sky had spit it free.

“How drunk are you?” Jed asked when he returned. 

“Enough. Not enough. I don’t know.” He told Jed what had happened.

“Sounds like a nightmare.”

They lay some more in the grass but Mark kept reliving the heat and he trembled with every shooting star that blazed across the expanse. Jed assured him it was a dream. It was late and the stillness of the night had pulled him into sleep. The stars had no vendetta, no desire to end the life of one kid. It wasn’t his fate to die beneath the bulk of a space rock. 

Jed filled a bucket with water and doused the campfire. Steam, smoke, and ash plumed into the air, blocking the starlight and only then in utter darkness did Mark fall asleep. In the morning, Jed’s dad nudged them and they got their twenty bucks. 

* * *

They ate sausages and greasy eggs and burnt grilled cheese and pasta salad and ice cream sandwiches and burgers and in between feedings the boys played cards and bocce ball. They walked the campground and waded out into the lake past the reeds and swimming spiders. They tossed horseshoes. They applied sunscreen again and again. Mark couldn’t say when they did things or how long they did things for and he enjoyed his timeless existence. It was easy to meander. 

Evening eventually came, weighing down Mark, buoying Jed. It was no surprise when Jed’s mom suggested they take a long walk to the camp store or the pool hall or anywhere that wasn’t the campsite. She mixed some Coke into her rum and sipped at the plastic cup. She offered up a taste.

“Enjoy the campground,” she said. “Enjoy the night.” 

Jed’s dad stoked the fire and made a low clucking noise. He liked to tease them about girls. Called them chickenheads. Jed sipped his mom’s drink and squinted and motioned Mark into the tent. They doused themselves in spray deodorant, squeezing out clouds and diving through them. 

“You get better coverage this way,” Jed said and mimed taking a shower in the drizzling musk. “Just don’t put on bug spray. It’ll ruin it.”

They crawled free from the canvas cocoon and roasted some to-go hotdogs. The fire was high and spilled smoke into the surrounding campsites. Jed’s dad inhaled a beer, threw the can on the coals, and pushed it in with the toe of his boot.

“Don’t come back for a while, you hear? Got a lotta ground to cover. Go stalk them trails. You got some huntin’ to do. I still got some deer piss in the truck if you want it.” He laughed and fanned smoke from his face.

“Isn’t that for bucks?” Mark asked.

 “Hey now. Bucks. Does. I don’t judge. Whatever gets your rocks off.” 

He laughed some more and Mark and Jed parted the smoke. They passed through waves of moths and mosquitoes and swatted their way toward the pool hall. On a dark gravel path near the tennis court, they finished the hotdogs and popped some gum. Jed turned and asked, “You know why he calls them chickenheads, right? Think of all the bobbing a chicken head does. Think about it.” 

The pool hall gleamed ahead, sending yellow ribbons through a sieve of branches.

“Yeah, you know,” he said. “You know.”

Jed knew what to do when they saw the girls on the pool hall porch rocking in the suspended swing and sharing a bag of popcorn. It was fortunate they were there, but Jed had prepared for it and Mark wondered if his friend had wished on last night’s falling meteorite. Did it count if it wasn’t a shooting star? The girls looked them over, quick, and the boys looked back, played it cool, and went inside. But Jed couldn’t rack the balls properly, didn’t even touch a pool stick, and he talked fast and quiet and explained how they would get them. This was the night.

Mark listened and pushed his stomach against the pool table to knead away the uncertainty. If he pushed hard enough he wouldn’t care.

“You humping the table?”

There were fairy tales that explained love and attraction. There were apples and frogs. Curses and talking birds. There was an order to things before kissing and he had never kissed anyone, didn’t even dare look at girls when he passed them on shopping trips with his parents, knew only about sex from fast-forwarded movie scenes and the ten-minute uncomfortable talk. The closest he’d been to a girl was his brother’s old girlfriend and the last time he saw her was when his brother left for basic. They said good-bye to him in an airport terminal that smelled like deli meats and she kissed his brother then. In front of their parents. Mark had looked away because everything he knew said that love was private. His mother had clapped and then cried. 

“You ladies wanna join us?” Jed asked. 

That was all it took. Then Jed disappeared with one of them and Mark was left with a challenge. 

“Do you know how to play?” Mark asked the remaining girl.

“Of course,” she said.

The girl curled her fingers over the edge of the pool table and scratched at the green felt in a way he supposed was arousing. She traced small circles, as if beckoning: here, feel your skin beneath these fingers. A pulse rocked through Mark’s arm and he clenched the pool stick tighter until it thrummed along like a dowsing rod for his heart. Thwap went the moths on the windows. They threw themselves against the screens and clawed for the lights inside. Thwap. The lamps, tinged by time and cigarettes, hung from the vaulted ceiling by thin wires. Beneath them, the tables floated on heavy shadows. Thwap went the moths. In the dark of the campground, the pool hall oozed light, golden and creamy, and called into the night for the bugs.

Mark lined up. He took the shot and got nothing in on the break.  

The girl pushed back from the table, her loose knit skirt swishing along. Her stomach flashed beneath a cropped Ramones sweatshirt.

“Sometimes I get cold at night,” she told him and threw herself into a shiver and said again it was cold. He looked to her legs, stretching long and naked from beneath the skirt, and they were smooth. She had no goose pimples. But did you need hair for that? 

The porch’s thermometer said it was cold, and every few shots Mark looked up from the table and out through the window screen and through the swarming moths – thwap, thwap – and watched the mercury drain away. 

Your chances are draining away, Jed would say.

The girl missed her shot, too, and smiled at Mark and said, “Shit, whad’ya know, we’ll be here all night.” She swore without hesitation. If Jed were there he’d try to one-up her cussing, but he was out in the campground. There was a moment where Mark imagined what was happening with his friend. There were shapes and colors in his mind and then he cleared the image. It was distracting and embarrassing and it made him feel like a traitor. He was living Jed’s life instead of his own.

“We’ll warm up,” Mark said.

Which was what she was planning on. He held his tongue to his teeth, freezing his words in his mouth as she scanned the table. She missed. He swallowed. There was a simple way to get his brother’s medal back. But if he submitted and kissed the girl was the decision his own?

The girl smelled of campfires and apples and she squeezed between Mark and the table to find her shot. She lined up and her thumbs poked out of the ratty holes in her sweatshirt’s cuffs. Loose threads trickled down her knuckles.

She took the shot and got a solid. Another shot. Clink. Nothing. It was his turn and he went around the other side and leaned low to breathe and evaluate the stripes and there she was scratching at the table. Her skin was shiny, her fingers long, and her blood red nails were peeling at the edges. As she played with the felt the paint flaked off and he wondered if caressing the pool table was purposeful. Was she cleaning herself off?

Get clean to get dirty, Jed would say. His voice was there with Mark because they’d been friends since kindergarten. They’d grown up together. It was natural for them to like the same things and do the same things and sometimes think the same way and maybe that’s why Mark missed his brother, who was never so crass, who never invaded his mind.

Mark checked over the table and knew he’d have to play behind his back. There was no way else to reach the cue ball. No bridge on the wall rack, nada, it was a campground and everything was missing or broken. The moths were coming hard at the window screen. They slammed themselves into the porch lights. Fwap. Zap. Some died. More came. Mark leaned backwards and out over the table and snaked the cue under his back and drilled the eleven ball into its pocket. 

“Fuckin’ a,” said the girl and he wanted to grab her hand and lead her out into the moths. They’d flurry, and with their dusty wings they’d usher Mark and the girl around back to the trees behind the pool hall. In the red glow of the restroom sign, the two of them would get sticky with sap as they climbed the trees. Alone, away from Jed, he’d tell her how a campground could be a fairytale if she let it. Their lips would meet as the moon split the grey clouds. They would sit on a firm evergreen branch and name the stars. 

Jed and the other girl came back into the pool hall and perched themselves on a windowsill to watch. His girl smacked her gum ka-pa, ka-pa.

“Hey now,” said Jed, leaning into a kiss that hustled her into a silence that lasted until Mark sunk the last stripe. 

The girl at the pool table extracted her nails from the felt and walked over and leaned into Mark. Her arms laced around his waist and brought him in for a hug. The smell of apples grew stronger. 

Mark kissed her and his eyelids slid closed and he gave himself up, gave up thinking, because he wanted the kiss, and he caught just the edge of her mouth with a sloppy brush. 

“That’s not how I would do it,” said Jed.

The girl looked at Mark, their eyes level. He wasn’t tall, not yet, but his brother was tall and so he hoped he would grow. She tugged his hands into hers and in she went and their lips met full and her teeth lightly scraped and pulled. Her fingers dug into his palms and her painted nails peeled against his skin. 

* * *

In the morning Mark sat by the embers of the fire and tapped his feet. He waited. The medal was his and he clinked it against the camping chair. It bent slightly with every tap, but he didn’t care. Soon the night would come and the lights would click on in the pool hall. They’d lure him in, and with a zap, he’d dissolve in gold. 

Nathan Mann’s writing is inspired by the magic and strangeness of small town life in New England. He is an English teacher in New Hampshire and a student in the University of New Orleans’ low-residency MFA program. His work has been published in Outlook Springs.