"It's no use," said Charlotte, brushing a strand of her shoulder length black hair out of her blue eyes. "As soon as I stop pumping it starts to get soft."
"Something is definitely wrong," said James. "Sorry."
"It's not your fault. These things just happen."
"Yeah, but I was looking forward to having fun with it."
They watched as the last of the rigidity faded into flaccidity. "Its dead, Jim," intoned Charlotte in a really, really bad Doctor McCoy imitation.
James ran his eye critically down its length, then pointed. Charlotte examined the indicated spot and said in the same bad imitation, "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a plastic surgeon!"
Jim bent to look more closely. "If we had some duct tape, I could probably fix it."
"And if we had some ham we could have ham sandwiches if we had some bread" replied Charlotte, quoting one of her grandmother's sayings.
James shoved the now flattened air mattress aside and stood up, brushing sand off the back of his thighs and his swimsuit. "At least we have one. We'll just share." He reached his hand down to Charlotte, and helped her up. He brushed the sand off the back of her legs and seat, too, causing giggles.
"I'd better leave this in the bag," she said, as she undid the clasp on the chain around her neck. Hanging from the chain was James' class ring, with their school emblem on one side of the deep blue stone, and "75" on the other. She dropped it into the beach bag with its collection of beach necessities. Then she adjusted both pieces of her swimsuit and smiled up at James. "Ready?"
James picked up the remaining bright red air mattress, which was holding its air admirably. "Can we just leave this stuff here?" making a sweeping gesture to take in the little park.
Charlotte looked around. It really wasn't a park so much as a lake front lot, surrounded by a chain-link fence, with only members of the development Charlotte lived in having keys to the gate. At the moment the only other occupants were a couple of mothers with their toddlers, and someone's grandmother reading a Harold Robins book. "Yeah, it'll be fine. No one will bother it."
They walked hand in hand into the water. Even though it was the middle of June the water was still pretty cold, and they rose higher on their toes the deeper they waded; maintaining forward progress but delaying the inevitable. They stopped with the water just below the bottoms of their suits.
Charlotte said, "The sand runs out in another couple feet, and the mud is gross. We should swim out from here." She didn't look overly enthusiastic about taking the plunge.
James launched the mattress, and watched as the wind took it briskly away. "Now we have to jump in." He took a deep breath, then executed a beautiful surface dive, his toes actually clearing the water before disappearing into the hole carved by his outstretched hands and long, slim body. His arms flashed as he swam below the surface, with the sure ability that one would expect from someone who had lettered twice in swimming.
Charlotte felt a number of emotions stirring as she watched him, all of them pleasant. They increased her resolve to act on the decision she had made the night before. When James surfaced on the far side of the air mattress and waved to her, she did her own somewhat less graceful shallow dive, and swam out with a strong crawl stroke. She reached the mattress in moments, then they both held onto it as they kicked towards the middle of the lake.
The water was cold enough to numb the skin. Breathing air from right above the surface brought a refreshing coolness to the throat and lungs. The water piling up in their clumsy bow-wake flashed and sparkled in the bright sun. Below the surface the water was a translucent green, getting darker quickly with depth. About one hundred yards from the shore they stopped.
"Damn! That's cold!" sputtered James as his body swung to vertical.
Charlotte tucked her feet up, and slid into a back-float, with her elbows on the mattress. "There's a warm layer on the top, unless the boats stir it up too much. Try to keep as close to the surface as possible."
James tried to imitate Charlotte, but his added weight made the mattress flip. Much splashing and laughing and a cheerful shriek ensued. At one point James blew a stream of bubbles through lips pressed against her belly button. At another, she almost managed to pull his swimsuit down. By the time the play ended James on his back with his head and shoulders across the mattress, and Charlotte lay on top of him. They stared smilingly into each other's eyes, breathing hard from exertion. Then they kissed.
They had gotten rather good at kissing over the last several months, and the cold sweetness of the lake water added to the experience. James had to hold still to keep from losing the mattress, so Charlotte had the unaccustomed pleasure of having all the initiative. She used it to run her hands and lips freely over his face and the upper half of his body. For his part, James found the sensation of not being in control exciting in a way that would lead to many hours of introspection and some interesting experiments sometime in the future.
Charlotte's hand strayed lower down his body, then stopped. She looked up at his face.
"The water is really, really cold," he said, providing an explanation that could not be refuted.
Charlotte slipped off him to tread water. "I know it is. Look." She started sinking, as she had stopped treading. Instead she was pulling her arms out from under the shoulder straps, and shoving her top down to her waist. When she was done she kicked for the surface, and exploded into the sunlight in a shower of sparkling drops. She swam back to James, pulling herself up onto his reclined body. She kissed him again.
James lost his concentration, followed by his grip on the mattress. It squirted out from under him, dumping them both back into the water. The play this time centered more on one of them keeping their head above water, and the other submerged; kissing and caressing as the mood struck them.
Eventually they swam back to the mattress, this time winding up with James cross-wise under the mattress, Charlotte cross-wise on top, arm around each other, legs entwined. They rested, and as they did each of them considered the other, and the love they shared. And James and Charlotte each decided that, though the setting was unusual, now was the perfect time to tell the other what he or she had decided the night before.
The both started to say something at the same time, then stopped to laugh and kiss about it. Charlotte said, "You go first."
James hesitated, then started is a somewhat strained voice, "Char, you know I love you. I've loved you for a long time now. I've never pressured you to do anything you were uncomfortable with..." Here he was interrupted by a snort. "Well, anything you didn't become comfortable with quickly. But I love you, and next week I am reporting to West Point, and I won't be back until Christmas, and..." Here he was interrupted by a small wave, forcing him to close his mouth. Before he could continue, Charlotte was kissing him.
When she pulled back she said, "The answer is "yes". I thought it over, too, and I love you, and there is no reason to wait any longer. Yes, I will sleep with you."
"What?" James looked surprised.
"What do you mean, "What?"?" So did Charlotte.
"I wasn't asking you to sleep with me."
"Then what were you asking?"
"I was asking you to marry me!"
At this point the fragile Craft of Love came undone, with both parties losing the mattress and sinking. They came up sputtering and gasping, and trying to talk at once.
Finally James gained the air mattress and the initiative. "Not that I don't want to sleep with you. I do. A lot. And wanting to get married doesn't change that."
Charlotte got one arm around James and the other on the mattress. She kissed him again. "I love you," she said, as they flipped the mattress and started to sink again. Finally she got on the mattress, and looked to the end where James hung on, treading water with just his feet. "I thought cadets couldn't marry."
"They can't. But they can be engaged. It will have to be a long engagement, four years, but if I were going to the University with you we still probably wouldn't get married until we graduated. I love you, Char, and I want to be with you. I want you to marry me."
Charlotte was about to answer when a loud yell reached them across the open water.
"Chaaarrlotte Wiillson!" came a voice that was familiar, despite the distance.
"Oh CRAP! My Mother!" cried Charlotte, as she rolled off the mattress. James could see her underwater, struggling to get her top back where it belonged.
When she surfaced he said, "I guess we'd better head in." He lined up the mattress and started kicking. Charlotte grabbed the other side and helped.
"I wonder what she wants?" she asked, as much to herself as to James.
"Maybe someone was watching us and called her."
"She'd have told them to mind their own business. Mom and Dad like you. A lot. They are going to be so happy!"
But as they neared shore they could see that Charlotte's Mom was not happy. She looked like she had been crying. Charlotte splashed ashore and went to her as James followed with mattress.
"She's at Spokane Valley General," Mrs. Wilson was telling Charlotte when James came up. "They don't know what is wrong, but she is in very bad shape. The Doctor doesn't think she will last the night. I've made reservations on the 6:10 flight. Your Father will fly over tomorrow morning."
Charlotte turned to James. "It's Grandma," she said, her voice almost breaking. James knew that Charlotte adored her grandmother. "I have to go." She looked from James to her Mother and back, unable to decide what to do. "I'll... I'll call and let you know what is happening. I'll come back as soon as I can." She wasn't happy with that, but she couldn't think of anything else to do. She couldn't think of anything but, "Grandma!"
Charlotte left the park in her mother's car, and James walked the mile back to his house.
Charlotte called, but she didn't come back. She couldn't leave what turned out to be her grandmother's death bed.
The next week, James flew to New York, and became part of the Military Academy's Class of 1979.
That September Charlotte began as a freshman at the University.
By the time James came home on leave at Christmas, Charlotte was engaged.
James stared at his computer screen. He had been staring for a long time. Two months ago he had joined Classmates.com, to see if there was going to be a thirtieth reunion for his high school class. He had been out of the country for the tenth and twentieth reunions. There was, and he intended to go. He had traded email with several old classmates, and watched as more joined, just as he had.
He had come home this evening, and checked his email. There, waiting for him, was a message from the Classmates message center: he had a message. Sender: Charlotte Wilson.
Eventually his muscles complained about being in the same position for so long, and he found his way back from the thoughts he had been lost in. Slowly, he moved the curser towards the message to open it.
THE END (or possibly not)