Call of the Tide
“Hey, wait for me!” Ray yelled, fishing around in his sandal and flicking a sharp bit of grit from under his heel. He refastened his straps and jogged a few steps to catch up with Fraser. “You know, when I told Frannie how we won this trip, she thought I was yanking her chain.”
“Which of course you’d never do.” Fraser pulled his rucksack higher and side-stepped a dry stream bed that cut across the dirt trail. “Did you explain to her that RCMP salaries don’t generally stretch to Mediterranean vacations, and that it was sheer luck my numbers cropped up in the charity draw?”
“Nah, I just backtracked, said you’d won first prize in a beauty pageant.”
Fraser was silent a moment, the only sound the scuffing of his sandals in the dust.
“That worked?” he asked at last.
“On Frannie? Yup.”
“Dear Lord. Perhaps next time we ought to donate the prize to her and the twins. I imagine she could do with a break.”
Ray snorted. “Yeah, right. Next beauty pageant I win, it’s all hers.”
Fraser glanced at him over his shoulder with a crooked-toothed smile of genuine amusement, and then halted suddenly, making Ray stumble into him. Steadying Ray with both hands, he leaned in to kiss him: an insistent, hungry kiss that deepened further as Ray responded, his sweat-damp shirt twisted in Fraser’s fists, their bag of swimming gear tumbling disregarded to the ground. When at last they had to break off to breathe, Fraser pulled away, looking up the trail toward the hilltop they’d been heading for, but his hand lingered on Ray’s cheek.
“Idiot,” he said fondly. He kissed him again, but more softly this time, his thumb stroking Ray’s cheekbone, his calluses prickling Ray’s sunburn. Then he re-shouldered his backpack and set off again on the coastal path.
Ray followed, shaking his head and grinning. He was no beauty – hell, he’d never been beautiful, and now that he was pushing forty, after half a lifetime of chain smoking and hitting the bottle, he was never going to be – but it gave him a weird, deep glow of happiness to know that Fraser thought he was.
By seven a.m. the day’s heat was already beginning to bite, and Fraser was the one feeling it. Sprawled out in the shade of a lone pine tree, he’d started to sound almost… Well, the only possible word was petulant.
“I can’t believe you brought me somewhere so hot I have to wear shorts,” he said, narrowing his eyes against the flickering sunlight.
“Hey, nobody said they had to be plaid!” Ray reached out a lazy arm and tugged at Fraser’s hem. “You picked those all by yourself.”
Okay, so the stores up in the Northwest Areas hadn’t exactly been stacked high with summer gear. There’d only been two pairs of shorts in Chuck’s General Store, and Ray’d grabbed the khaki ones and claimed them as US territory before Fraser had even had time to blink. But while no one could make plaid shorts sexy, Fraser was giving it a damn fine try, his sunburned face lightly sheened with sweat, his damp hair falling into his eyes as he lay loose-limbed on the carpet of pine needles.
They’d stopped for a break on a headland near the north shore, only half a mile or so from the first bay on Fraser’s list. Left to himself, of course, Ray would have done what every normal, sane person did: he would have stuck to the south side of the island, the inhabited side, where they were staying. Sun, sand, barbecues, ice cream, chicks in bikinis, men in Speedos: all a guy could want.
Fraser, though, Fraser had always been a Plan B kind of guy. By five a.m., not even the ass-crack of dawn, he’d been out on the balcony, whistling along to the birdsong and checking his tourist map. (“It isn’t a very good one, I’m afraid,” he’d said apologetically, as if he’d drawn it himself. “It doesn’t even have contour lines.”) By five-twenty he’d made a picnic, packed a bag, and hauled Ray blinking and cursing into the twilit lane that meandered up from their villa into the island’s hilly interior.
And, weirdness of weirdnesses, it turned out he was right. Five, six a.m. – if you were crazy enough to walk right across the island, that was the time for it. Once Ray was done bitching about shift workers and their messed-up body clocks, the hike started to be…not fun exactly, but kind of cool all the same. The red dirt track led them upwards for miles, through groves of gnarled olive trees, past whitewashed chapels and ancient farmhouses where goats and chickens dozed and scratched in the dust. No cars, not a tourist to be seen, just an occasional islander biking to work, nodding at Ray and Fraser as they passed, and one time a long, vividly patterned snake, basking in the early morning sunshine of the empty road. After a couple of miles, the olive groves had become overgrown and abandoned, the farmsteads crumbling, and they’d seen no one else, their own footprints the only ones on the dawn-dewed track, until at last the freshening breeze had brought the scent of salt and they’d halted to rest on a headland overlooking the north shore.
Ray took a deep breath and levered himself up from his spot on the pine needles. Only another half mile and they’d reach the bay. He could see the beach already: long and curved and white-gold and empty, completely empty all the way to the horizon, and its water would be cool cool cool. He got to his feet, dizzy for a moment in the gathering heat of the day.
“C’mon, buddy,” he said, reaching out a hand. “Time to move. We got a beach to hit.”
Down at the water’s edge, Ray retrieved his towel from the rucksack and shook it, looking for his trunks, but nothing fell out of its folds. There was nothing left in the bag, either, except sandwiches and water bottles and sunscreen. He looked across at Fraser, who’d shucked off his top and was tugging down his shorts without a hint of shame.
“Uh, Frase? I don’t think this is a nude beach.”
Ray hesitated and then gestured round at the empty cove. “It’d have, like, warning signs or whatever, right? Ain’t no signs saying it’s nude.”
“True, but there aren’t any to say it isn’t. I can make it official, if that would set your mind at rest?” Fraser ran a hand through his hair and straightened his shoulders, looking as formal and proper as anyone could look in nothing but a pair of sandals. He cleared his throat. “As the first arrival to this place and in the presence of representatives of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Nations, I do hereby solemnly propose that this beach be, today, a clothing-free zone. All those opposed will please say nay. Very well, the motion passes, and may God save the Queen.”
Ray squinted at him. “That’s official?”
“There’s no law against it, as such. And yes, I did check.”
Huh. Figured that Fraser would strip off the moment the rules let him. Ray had always suspected his buttoned-upness was just for show.
“The first ones here really just get to pick?” he said, pulling off his T-shirt and fumbling with the waistband of his shorts.
“Well, there’s no one here to object. Apart from the Canadian girls’ softball team over there on the dunes, obviously.”
Ray yanked his shorts up again so fast he twisted his thumb. No girls, no girls, of course there weren’t any stupid girls. Goddammit, one of these days he was going to stop falling for Fraser’s bullshit. One of these days.
“Don’t worry, Ray,” Fraser said, patting him on the shoulder and reaching out to tweak his Ray-Bans. “Keep your sunglasses on and you won’t be entirely naked anyway.”
Ray stretched out on his beach towel, humming happily as Fraser smoothed sunscreen over his shoulders. He burrowed his face into his arm and then grimaced as the scattering of sand tickled his nose.
“Ugh, I hate sand,” he said. “I mean, no, I love sand, but the tiny frickin’ grains get everywhere.”
“Actually, Ray, as soil particles go, sand grains aren’t tiny at all. According to the US Department of Agriculture classification, a particle is considered sand only if its diameter exceeds fifty micrometers, which is greater than that of silt and more than twenty-five times that of clay, making sand the loosest soil type and the least efficient at retaining moisture, as you can see from the speed of drainage of the littoral zone.” Fraser waved an explanatory hand toward the water’s edge. “To maximize fertility, of course, you’d need a loamy soil, comprised of sand, silt, and clay in approximately equal proportions.”
“To maximize fertility, huh?”
“And avoid wasting your seed, yes.”
Ray snickered into his towel. Fraser had the best poker face in the business, and if Ray hadn’t spent several months sharing a pup tent with him out on the ice – sharing a sleeping bag with him, pressed right up close against him, so close he could feel the bubble of laughter deep in Fraser’s chest as Fraser lectured him on arctic ecology and told him weird twisted Inuit tales – Ray might never have known that Fraser spent most of his life a sand-grain’s width away from breaking out into giggles. God bless the tundra and its risk of hypothermia.
He lay a while longer on the towel’s sun-warmed cotton, luxuriating in the sensation of Fraser’s fingertips rubbing circles on his back, and half-listening to the flow of words.
“…not that you actually have to measure the particles, of course,” Fraser was saying. “You just have to add a small amount of moisture, and then you can tell from the texture, the smoothness, the way it slides across your fingers…”
“I think I’m, uh, done. I mean, I think you probably covered all the skin there like fifty times by now, so…”
“Ah. Right you are.”
“And there’s other parts you haven’t even touched yet, so…”
Fraser laughed aloud at that. “Well, you know, Ray,” he said, “all you ever had to do was turn over.”
The water was kind of sun-warmed at the surface but cooler in the depths, perfect on Ray’s overheated skin. He paddled up and down the shore a few times, keeping close to where they’d left the rucksack and kicking his feet down every few yards to make sure he was still in his depth. Not that he wasn’t a great swimmer, but yeah, he wasn’t a great swimmer. And who knew what might be lurking out there in the uncharted foreign seas? Just turtles, maybe, but he wasn’t going to risk it.
Fraser meanwhile had swum right across to the far side of the crescent bay, turned round, and headed back. Then he’d done the same again, a little further in. Then again: zigzag, zigzag, none of it random. Ray lay floating in the shallows, watching him with narrowed eyes.
“Y’know, Frase,” he called at last, getting a mouthful of seawater from an errant wave and spitting it out midsentence, “most people on a beach vacation, they just sorta splash around. We ain’t on any kind of fitness program here.”
Fraser paused, treading water. “True, but I’m used to the lanes of a municipal pool, so my natural tendency is to swim in straight lines.”
“Bullshit! You taught me in Runamukluk Community Pool, too, and you don’t see me covering a goddamn grid pattern. So whatcha looking for? Baby starfish need saving or something?”
Fraser was silent a moment. Then he lifted his arm, revealing a small, dripping bundle of assorted trash. “There isn’t much of it here,” he said sheepishly, “but sooner or later it would be washed ashore, and seabirds might become entangled in it, and it would certainly be unsightly, and…”
Ray paddled over and took the bundle from him, shoving him gently back toward the open water. “S’okay, Frase,” he said. “I shoulda known. I’m gonna go bag this up, dump it by our stuff. Gonna lie and sunbathe a while and wait till you’re done, okay?”
“Thank you, Ray. I appreciate that.”
“You need me to warm you up after, I’ll be right over there.”
“…because the water’s warm but it ain’t that warm.”
“Understood, Ray. I’ll be sure to lose the requisite amount of body heat.” Fraser gave him a smart salute (A-1 regulation quality, just as long as you didn’t count the whole naked-as-a-jaybird thing) and went back to his grid pattern.
Ray grinned to himself as he headed back up the beach, trailing handfuls of plastic trash. Vacations with Fraser: weird here and there, yeah, but greatness all the same.
“Nice sandcastle there, buddy.”
Fraser sat back from the fortifications he’d been constructing and wiped an eyebrow, leaving a streak of damp sand across his forehead. “Thank you, Ray. As you can see, it’s an approximate scale model of Fort Dearborn as it would have been during the War of 1812.” He glanced up, his poker face still in place. “The one you lost.”
Ray regarded the fort. It looked kind of messy, if he was honest, its walls already crumbling in the sun. He scraped his fingertips across the outer defenses, flicking a casual handful of sand onto the central structure.
“Yeah?” he said. “Want a rematch? ’Cause I think—”
The rest of his sentence was lost in a huff of surprise as Fraser plowed into him, catching him in the midriff, kicking his feet from under him, and landing in a tangle of flailing limbs. Ray fought and squirmed and fought and – yeah, okay, there might have been biting, it might not have been one hundred percent Queensberry Rules the whole time, but hey, he came out on top, and that’s what counted. He sat astride Fraser, knees holding him in place, and flung an arm up in triumph, till he realized where they were lying.
“Uh, Frase,” he panted, “I think we squashed your fort.”
Fraser grinned up at him from the wreck of the sandcastle. “Technically Fort Dearborn was yours, Ray. Perhaps we could call it a draw.”
“Yeah, right, no. I win.” Ray leaned down and kissed him hard, just to show he meant it, and because he’d got him right there, flushed and naked, and because Ray was nothing if not – what was that thing Fraser had said, the last time he’d let Ray win? Magnanimous in victory. Yeah. Ray was magnanimous all right. Magnanimous in all the right places.
“Hey,” he said, murmuring it into Fraser’s ear, so that Fraser’s eyes slid shut and his arms came up instinctively to pull Ray closer. “Wanna make peace?”
Ray lay scratching idly at the inside of his thigh. Some things were worth it, sure, but the sand really did get frickin’ everywhere. He rolled away and sat up to let Fraser scramble to his feet.
“So, we gonna hit the next place on your list?” he said.
Fraser glanced at where his watch would have been if he’d been wearing one (or wearing anything at all). “Well, actually, Ray, perhaps we should think about heading back. It must be getting toward late morning, and there’s no shade here. We have a long walk home, and it would be foolish to hike in the heat of the afternoon. In fact, I believe the traditional solution to such unwarranted temperatures is to take a siesta and then head out again in the evening.”
Ray toed at the sand, pushing it into little heaps and troughs as he considered this. Siestas meant lying around and failing to sleep, and he wasn’t really a lying-around kind of guy, never had been. Up and at ’em, that was him. On the other hand, he could already hear the distant howl of dirt bikes as people made their way toward the north shore. Soon the bay would be crawling with other tourists, and he and Fraser would have to get dressed, plaid shorts and all, and it wouldn’t be their own private paradise anymore.
Plus, a shower and a couple of hours in a dim, cool room didn’t sound so bad. A dim, cool room, with a sleepy, pliant Fraser sprawled naked across the sheets, and maybe a puddle of ice cream melting on his belly, because hey, if Ray was gonna build sandcastles in the sky, he was damn well gonna add ice cream.
Yeah, that didn’t sound so bad. That sounded like something he could go for. Something he could very much go for. Something he’d hike back across the island for, right now.
“Yeah, okay,” he said slowly, getting to his feet, “I could do that. But you gotta buy me an ice cream along the way. Deal?”
Fraser smiled at him as if he’d been following every beat of Ray’s thought process, which, being Fraser, he probably had.
“Yes,” he said, pulling him close and kissing him, a kiss that tasted of salt and sunscreen and promises. “Yes, Ray, I do believe that’s an entirely reasonable deal.”