Fiction: Lani in the River by Jordan Dilley

I don’t know who tipped the canoe over. At least that’s what I tell Mrs. Hewitt, our camp counselor. She’s one of those people who make us call her by her first name, thinks that will give her clout, force a bunch of twelve-year-olds well-versed in the doctrine of cliques to accept someone who wears Bermuda shorts and refers to us as “gals.” Dream on, Laura.

She didn’t buy it. As I picked bits of algae and twigs out of my wet hair, she gave me a look that plainly asked me to stop wasting her time. “You’re smarter than this, Madison,” her callused fingers said as they clutched a mug that said, “I’d rather be camping,” across the front. And I was. We all were. You didn’t get into science and math camp with less than a B average, and anyone who got less than an A- in either subject was suspect. But I maintained my stance. For all I knew we had entered a pocket on the river where the laws of physics didn’t exist and some god of misrule had thought it would be fun to see a bunch of pubescent girls flounder as the canoe tipped, reaching for tubs of lip gloss and KitKats as they tumbled out of our pockets.

“Whatever, just go,” Laura finally said, rubbing her temples.

I sauntered into the mess hall feeling smug as hell. I wasn’t a boy; holding up under interrogation didn’t earn me slaps on the back or fist pumps. Best I could hope for were a few suspicious glances from girls wearing spaghetti straps because they were at camp and could get away with it. But not at my table. Boss B crew, a name we gave ourselves ironically because a few of our mothers had entered that stage of life where they sold hairbands and candles on Etsy and called themselves Girl Bosses, chanted my name as I slid a tray of beef stroganoff onto the table.

“How’d it go?” They ask.

I shrug. “She didn’t believe me, but so what?”

Kelly, who’d had a bunch of magazine clippings of her favorite band in her pocket when the canoe tipped, says, “I would have told her.”

I ignore her and dig into the gray pile of noodles and maybe ground beef, maybe not, on my plate. My official line is I don’t rat on people, even when they deserve it, but I know that’s not it. And it wasn’t one of those lies you tell without thinking.

Across the dining hall, in front of the big widows, the culprit sits by herself, a book propped open next to her tray. No one is sitting next to her, no one ever does. She puts us on edge, a certain something no one can name. Maybe it’s her bushy unibrow, or that she doesn’t smile easily, or that she cuts straight to the point in everything she says, no banter, no social lubrication. When the camp teachers pair us off for activities, we say a little prayer, make bargains, cross our fingers and toes—one girl even has a turquoise rabbit’s foot she rubs—anything we think will keep us from a Lani tête-à-tête.

Later that night, over streaming bags of popcorn and games of Egyptian Ratscrew, I wonder what Lani is doing in her cabin. Do the other girls she bunks with include her in their games and gossip? What kind of snacks do they have and does Lani share them? Or is she huddled over a book, wishing everyone would finally go to bed and be quiet. Do the fumes of nail polish and talk of cute boys give her a headache? Does she read about insects, planets, and atoms? Or does she prefer mysteries, wizard fantasy, and talking animals?

One of the Boss Bs slaps the pile of cards in front of me and I jerk my head up, heart pounding. “Get your head in the game, Madison,” she says, the smell of stale popcorn wafting across the table.

I smile weakly and concede defeat. We spend the rest of the night ranking the boys in our English class by the best hair, finally giving the crown to Joey with the blue eyes when Mrs. Hewitt bangs on the door and tells us to go to bed.


Last week when we had a lesson about oil spills. One of the counselors, a high school biology teacher with rosacea, poured vegetable oil into a clear plastic bin dotted with feathers representing wildlife. She showed us how to use dish soap to lower the water surface tension. When she was done, she began counting us off into pairs, and I knew what would happen. It was the same feeling I got when I woke up on a winter morning and could tell by the overwhelming stillness that it had snowed during the night. Or when I got ice cream and knew the person scooping was going to give me a smaller scoop than the person before me. A disturbance in the force, electrons changing energy levels, some bad karma catching up with me, whatever you want to call it, I was stuck with Lani.

She dragged her chair over to my table as plastic tubs and bottles of oil and dish soap were passed around.

“Seems like an interesting project,” I said, embarrassed at how pithy I sounded.

Lani didn’t respond, and I’m not sure she even heard me. She scribbled away in her notebook, poetry or plans to take over the camp and hold us hostage, who knew? To her credit, when we received our supplies, she set her notebook aside and helped me fill our bucket at the tap outside.

“God this is heavy,” I huffed, the water sloshing over the edge as we carried it back to our table.

“Eight and one third pounds per gallon. Some people fill up milk jugs and use them as weights,” Lani said.

We heaved the tub onto our table. My fingers slipped, and some of the water splashed onto Lani. She shrugged and began pouring oil into the tub. I sprinkled the lava-lamp surface with red-dyed feathers from the craft store.

“Let’s save some birds,” I said, poking one of the feathers as it bobbed on the surface.

Lani snorted. “Marine life is way more important than birds to the eco-system. Algae blooms and global temperatures,” she explained. She pronounced every word carefully like a kindergarten teacher introducing spelling for the first time.

I stared at Lani. I’m not stupid, I wanted to say. Seventy percent of the world is covered by water, obviously marine life is important. And this experiment was mainly about what oil spills do to bodies of water, ergo the effects on marine life. But I couldn’t bring myself to believe there’s anything I could say that would penetrate her thick skull, make her eyes flicker with understanding, cause her to lean in and have a conversation like a normal person.

I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I didn’t notice rosacea teacher waving a hand in front of my face. She wanted to know how much of the oil I’d cleaned up. I mumbled something incoherent which Lani took as an excuse to show her pile of oil-soaked paper towels and cotton swabs. Rosacea teacher gave her a short nod of approval before moving on to the next group. Apparently, she couldn’t stand to be around Lani either.

Lani watched our teacher congratulate another group for cleaning up most of their oil. I thought she’d blame me for letting her do all the work, for preventing her from getting the praise she is often denied. But she didn’t.

I guess I was feeling grateful, normally not one to slack off during a project, so I walked with Lani to the mess hall for lunch. She didn’t object to my company, though she didn’t seem enthused by it either. We followed the tree-lined path, trailing behind the class. The sunlight coming through the trees was a welcome relief after an hour in the air-conditioned, fluorescent lit classroom, and I chaffed my arms. Lani found a long stick and whacked every tree trunk we passed. She tossed the stick aside when it broke on a knotted trunk half-covered in moss.

When we reached the mess hall, Lani grabbed a tray and made a beeline for the drinks. No, “Later,” no wave, no acknowledgement, as usual. If she hadn’t kept pace with me from the classroom, I’d believe she thought she was walking alone. I shook my head, grateful the morning was over, assuring myself the chances of getting paired with her again were low, a logical fallacy if I’d ever heard one. I joined the Boss Bs at our table and described my morning activity. They all moaned when I told them I had to work with Lani.

“And of course, she had to go on a tirade about how “‘marine life is so much more important,’” I said doing my best to imitate her flat voice.

“That girl is whack,” one of the Boss Bs confirmed.

I nodded even though having random knowledge wasn’t whack in my opinion. Bitchy when you had to share it all the time, but not whack.

“There’s something just off about her. Like she’s got a special filter in her brain for all human interaction, like you need a code to pass through.”

One of the Boss Bs swung her arms out like a robot. “I am Lani, you must enter the special access code!”

I laughed along with everyone, expecting when I glanced toward Lani’s customary table to see her staring at a book. When she wasn’t there, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Lani was standing a few paces from our table, watching us. She must have stopped when she heard her name. She wore the same neutral expression she always did, though her eyebrows contracted for a moment. I kept my head down, waiting for her to leave the mess hall, though none of the others seemed to notice or care that the subject of their ridicule had caught them in the act. I avoided Lani the rest of the week.

I even managed to assuage my guilt by curating a compilation of Lani’s best screw-ups and awkward moments during the week. Correcting two teachers, not laughing at the best Paris Hilton impression ever, asking who Paris Hilton is, throwing small rocks at a kitten that was found outside the restrooms. I repeated this to myself like a litany, soothing every prick of guilt. And it seemed to be helping, at least my stomach had stopped rolling when someone made a harsh, though admittedly true, observation about her.

I was looking forward to today, the day of our canoe trip, a day I’d assumed would only involve paddling down a quiet river. The Boss Bs and I piled into two four-seater canoes. I was in the canoe with an empty seat, and because the universe had it in for me, because I skipped augury in favor of trisecting angles and modeling molecules, Lani slumped into the seat behind mine. The two Boss Bs ahead of me groaned, but started paddling nonetheless, though maybe faster than they normally would have. A day I thought would be filled with jokes and gossip was instead passed in tense silence. Lani amused herself by trailing her paddle across the water and hitting overhanging branches, at least until part of one fell into the canoe along with a bird’s nest. I filed this tidbit away for the next time Lani wanted to lecture me on wildlife habitats.

Lunch was a brown bag affair. The other Boss Bs latched their canoe onto ours and we huddled together, trying to ignore Lani as she crunched her chips open-mouthed. The sun was unrelenting and sweat formed in my hairline. I blinked and my head drooped onto my chest a few times. I was so tired that at first, I attributed the rocking of the canoe to the river’s current. But when the canoe lurched toward the middle of the river and I heard Lani cackling in the back, I understood what was really happening.

Lani was grinning. Her lips arched upward, and the reflected light off the river danced in her eyes. Freckles I’d never noticed before appeared sprinkled across her cheekbones. I studied her face so intently, looking for a clue, some hint as to what was going on inside that impenetrable mind. It took the Boss Bs yelling en masse to draw my attention to the fact that Lani was gripping both sides of the canoe and rocking all of her barely one hundred pounds from side to side. We tried to stop her, but there was little room in the canoe, so we resorted to swinging the paddles at her arms instead. But her grip was strong, perhaps, maniacal at this point. With one last jerk, the canoe flipped.

The water was cold, much more than I expected given the heat of the day. As it oozed into my sneakers and wetted my hair, I kicked my legs and paddled my arms, turning in a circle. All the Boss Bs were holding onto the side of the upturned canoe, shooting Lani murderous looks, letting her know she was going to get it back at camp. But Lani wasn’t looking at them, or at me for that matter. She was floating on her back, eyes wide open. Drops of water clung to her face, glittering. She allowed the mellow current to ease her arms to her side before she pushed them out again. I was the only one who heard her sigh, who saw the muscles around her face relax.

Jordan lives and writes in Washington. She has an MA in literature from the University of Utah. Her work has appeared in The Woven Tale, Blue Lake Review, Cold Mountain Review, and 45th Parallel

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