Rope Burn

Kathryn McMahon

If Tara hadn’t crossed the rope bridge that bounced over the dry creek, she wouldn’t have agreed to go whitewater rafting with David and her camp counselor and the camp counselor’s girlfriend with the long, red highlights. Tara wouldn’t have laughed after the water roared in her face and the cold clapped away her breath. Her ears wouldn’t have rung with stillness as the river broadened and slowed to silence save for the rhythm of their oars and the girlfriend’s giggle and the counselor droning into the late afternoon. Tara wouldn’t have had a grin to hide when David rolled his eyes and her heart wouldn’t have secretly grown wings when the counselor and his girlfriend banked the raft and disappeared into the trees like rabbits on a mission. She wouldn’t have minded then if David had brushed his sunburned knee against hers. As she unbuckled her life jacket with hands that still stung of rope burn, she was thinking of doing the same to him, strategizing how best to maneuver her hips closer oh, so subtly, then brush her knee against his, maybe joke about what the counselor was up to, maybe see if she could make David smirk? Or simply slip her hand into his. She reached for the oar to toss on the beach, but then his hand slid up her ribs under her cold, soggy t-shirt. She froze. The look in his eyes made her stomach squeeze, not flutter. Tara was alone. While her hands were raw, her arms ached with the joy of use. David didn’t let go, but she could. The oar dropped into the raft. One raw fist tunneled through the sticky August sundown and cracked David’s nose. It was a hollow sound, not unlike the thud of the oar hitting a rock or her feet landing on the final wooden step of the rope bridge. Blood ran out of his nose. His body was blushing from the inside out, each drop ashamed to be seen with him. Her heart rattled, like at the end of the rope. David climbed out of the boat and washed off his face. He kicked the pebbly shore. Still, the blood kept flowing. Her hands hurt all over, and her heart hurt, too, but it kept pounding. She could leave them all here, leave the raft or take it downstream. She didn’t need anything but that delicious, do-anything ache in her arms and her wild, rope-bitten palms and a fist bright-knuckled with satisfaction.

Kathryn McMahon is a literary and speculative fiction writer currently between countries. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in (b)OINK, Jellyfish Review, Psychopomp, The Citron Review, Crack the Spine, and Necessary Fiction, among others. More of her writing can be found here. She tweets as @katoscope.