Anthony stood on the shore and stared.
With the sun directly overhead, the lake’s water looked as dense as oil. Every so often, the passage of a carp or a pike broke its velvety surface. The boy sniffed. The air was heavy with the smell of mud, of leaden, baked earth. July had scattered freckles across his already broad back. He was just wearing soccer shorts and a pair of fake Ray-Bans. It was hot as hell, but that didn’t explain everything.
Anthony had just turned fourteen. For a snack, he could devour an entire baguette with Vache qui Rit cheese. At night, wearing headphones, he sometimes wrote songs. His parents were jerks. When school started, he would be in ninth grade.
Lying next to him, his cousin was taking it easy. He was half asleep, stretched out on the nice towel they’d bought at the Calvi market the year they went to summer camp. Even lying down, he looked tall. Everyone thought he was at least twenty-two or-three. He used that assumption to get into places he shouldn’t. Bars, nightclubs, girls.
Anthony took a cigarette from the pack he’d slipped into his shorts and asked his cousin if he didn’t agree that they were bored out of their skulls.
His cousin didn’t stir. You could make out the exact outline of the muscles under his skin. From time to time a fly landed near the fold of his armpit. Then he would twitch, like a horse bothered by a horsefly. Anthony would’ve liked to be like that, slim, with well-defined abs. But he wasn’t the type. Despite doing push-ups and sit-ups in his bedroom every night, he remained square and massive, like a slab of beef. At school, one of the monitors once gave him some shit about a burst soccer ball. Anthony told him to meet him after class. The guy never showed up. Also, his cousin’s Ray-Bans were real.
Anthony lit his cigarette and sighed. The cousin knew perfectly well what he wanted. For days now, Anthony had been pestering him to go over to the “bare-ass” beach. They’d dubbed it that in an excess of optimism because you might see girls topless there, at the very least. Whatever the case, Anthony was completely obsessed.
“C’mon, let’s go there.” “Nah,” muttered his cousin. “C’mon. Please.”
“Not now. Just go for a swim.” “Yeah, sure . . .”
Anthony looked out at the water with his crooked eye. His right eyelid drooped lazily, and it threw his face off, making him look perpetually grumpy. One of those things that was out of whack. Like the heat enveloping him, like his taut, off-kilter body, his size ten feet, and the pimples sprouting all over on his face. Go for a swim, the cousin had said. What a laugh. Anthony spit between his teeth.
A year earlier, the Colin boy had drowned on July 14—Bastille Day, easy to remember. That night a crowd of people from the surrounding area had gathered on the lakeshore and in the woods to watch the fireworks. People lit campfires and barbecues. As usual, a fight broke out shortly after midnight. Guys on leave from the barracks went after the Arabs from the projects, and the Hennicourt inbreds waded in. Then the regular campers got involved, most of them young, but a few fathers, too, Belgians with big bellies and sunburns. Dawn revealed greasy paper, bloody sticks, broken bottles, even one of the sailing club’s Optimists stuck in a tree; not something you saw every day. The Colin boy, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found.
He’d definitely spent the evening at the lakeshore, though. That was known because he came with his pals, who all testified later. Ordinary kids with names like Arnaud, Alexandre, and Sébastien, who’d just passed their baccalauréat exam and didn’t even have driver’s licenses. They’d come to watch the usual fights without intending to get personally involved, except at one point they got caught up in the melee. After that, everything was kind of vague. Several witnesses said they’d seen a boy who’d seemed hurt. People mentioned a T-shirt covered with blood, and also a cut on his throat, like a mouth open over dark, liquid depths. In the confusion, nobody stepped forward to help him. Come morning, the Colin boy’s bed was empty.
The préfet ordered a search of the neighboring woods over the following days, while divers dragged the lake. For hours, onlookers watched as the firefighters’ orange Zodiac came and went. The divers tumbled backward out of it with a distant splash, and then you had to wait, in dead silence.
They said that the boy’s mother was in the hospital, on sedatives. Others that she’d hung herself. Or that she’d been seen wandering the streets in her nightgown. The boy’s father was a town cop, and he was also a hunter. Everyone naturally figured the Arabs had done the deed, so people kind of hoped for a settling of scores. He was the stocky guy who stayed aboard the firefighters’ boat, bareheaded in the blazing sun. People watched him from shore, watched his immobility, his unbearable calm, and his slowly ripening scalp. They found his patience disgusting, somehow. They would’ve liked him to do something, move at least, put on a cap.
What really upset people was the picture published in the newspaper later. In the photo, the Colin boy had a nice face, graceless and pale; a good face for a victim, actually. His hair was curly on the sides, his eyes were brown, and he was wearing a red T-shirt. The article said he had passed his baccalauréat exam with top honors. If you knew his family, that was quite an accomplishment. Just goes to show, said Anthony’s father.
In the end, the body was never found, and the Colin father went back to work without making a fuss. His wife hadn’t hung herself or anything. She just took pills.
Anyway, Anthony had no desire to go swimming. His cigarette hit the water’s surface with a little hiss. He looked up at the sky, then frowned, dazzled. For a fraction of a second, his eyelids were in balance. The sun was high; it must have been three o’clock. The cigarette left an unpleasant taste on his tongue. Time was dragging by, but at the same time the start of classes was approaching at top speed.
“Oh, fuck it,” said the cousin, standing up. “You’re such a drag.” “We’re bored, like big-time. Nothing to do, every day.”
“All right, then.”
His cousin draped his towel around his shoulders and climbed onto his mountain bike, ready to take off.
“C’mon, move your butt. We’re going over there.” “Where?”
“Move it, I said.”
Anthony jammed his towel into his old Chevignon backpack, retrieved his watch from a sneaker, and quickly got dressed. He’d barely gotten his BMX upright before his cousin disappeared down the road around the lake.
“Wait for me, for chrissakes!”
Ever since they were kids, Anthony had followed his cousin everywhere. Their mothers had been close as well, when they were younger. The Mougel girls, people called them. They’d been picking up the cutest boys at the canton’s dances for a long time before they eventually settled down with Mister Right. Helène, Anthony’s mother, chose one of the Casati sons. Irène did even worse. The Mougel girls, their men, cousins, and in-laws were all part of the same world, anyway. To see it in action, you could just check out the weddings, the funerals, and the Christmas festivities. The men said little and died young. The women dyed their hair and looked at life with gradually fading optimism. When they got old, they retained the memory of their men, beaten down on the job, at bars or sick with silicosis, and their sons dead in car crashes, not counting the ones who packed up and left. As it happens, the cousin’s mother, Irène, belonged to that category of abandoned wives, so he grew up fast. At sixteen, he knew how to mow the lawn, drive without a license, and cook. He was even allowed to smoke in his bedroom. He was bold and self-confident. Anthony would have followed him into hell. He, on the other hand, felt increasingly alienated from his family’s ways. He found them awfully small in their stature, their jobs, their hopes, even their misfortunes, which were common and predictable. Among those people you got fired, divorced, cuckolded, or cancer. In other words, you were normal, and everything beyond that was seen as relatively unacceptable. Families grew that way, on great slabs of anger over depths of accumulated pain that, lubricated by pastis, could suddenly erupt in the middle of a party. More and more, Anthony thought himself above all that. He dreamed of getting the fuck out.
When they reached the old railroad line, the cousin ditched his bike in the bushes. Crouching down on the tracks, he studied the Léo-Lagrange recreation center, which lay below the railway embankment. The boathouse was wide open, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Anthony left his BMX and joined him.
“No one’s around,” said his cousin. “We’re gonna grab a canoe and go.” “You sure?”
“Well, we sure aren’t gonna swim there.”
His cousin sprinted down the bank, pushing through the brambles and weeds. Anthony followed. He was scared; it felt great.
Once in the boathouse it took them a few moments to get used to the darkness. There were dinghies, a 420, and some canoes hanging from a metal rack. Life jackets on hangers gave off a strong moldy smell. The wide-open doors were like a movie screen cut in the damp shadows, showing the beach and the sparkling lake in the flat land beyond.
“C’mon, we’ll take this one.”
Moving in tandem, they unhooked the canoe the cousin had chosen and grabbed some paddles. They paused a moment before leaving the coolness of the boathouse. It felt good. A windsurfer cut a clear wake on the lake’s surface in the distance. No one was coming. Anthony could feel the heady dizziness that comes before doing something stupid. It was like when he shoplifted at the Prisu or pulled risky stunts on a motorbike.
“Okay. Let’s go,” said his cousin.
With the canoe on their shoulders and paddles in hand, they took off running.
The Léo-Lagrange center mostly hosted well-behaved kids whose parents parked them there while waiting for school to start. That way, instead of getting into trouble in town, the kids could go horseback riding and ride pedal boats. There was a party at the end, and everyone would hide away to kiss and drink on the sly. The cooler boys were sometimes even able to score with a counselor. But the group always included a few weirdos, tough kids from the countryside who’d been raised on horse-whippings. If those guys got hold of you, things could get ugly. Anthony tried not to think about that too much. The canoe was heavy. He had to make it as far as the shore, thirty yards away, tops. The boat’s gunwale was cutting into his shoulder. He gritted his teeth. But just then his cousin tripped on a root, and the canoe nose-dived. Stumbling behind him, Anthony felt his hand snag on something sharp, a splinter or something sticking out inside. He knelt down and looked at his open palm. It was bleeding. His cousin was already back on his feet.
“C’mon, we don’t have time.” “Just a second. I hurt myself.”
He put the wound to his lips. The taste of blood filled his mouth. “Hurry!”
Voices were approaching. The boys jogged on, awkwardly lugging the boat, watching their feet. Carried by their momentum, they went into the water up to their waists. Anthony thought of his cigarettes and the Walkman in his backpack.
“Get in!” said his cousin, pushing the canoe away from shore.
“Hey there!” yelled someone behind them.
The voice was sharp and male. Other shouts followed, getting closer. “Hey, you! Come back here!”
Anthony hauled himself into the canoe as best he could. His cousin gave one last shove and climbed aboard in turn. On the lakeshore behind them, two counselors and a kid in a bathing suit were yelling.
“Paddle! We’re on our way now. Let’s go!”
After some hesitation, the boys found their rhythm, with Anthony paddling on the port side, and the cousin to starboard. A crowd of yelling, excited kids gathered on the beach. Counselors ran into the boathouse and came out carrying three canoes.
Fortunately, the cousins’ boat was cutting across the lake’s surface with reassuring smoothness. They could feel the water’s resistance in their shoulders and a heady sensation of speed under their feet. Anthony noticed a streak of blood snaking down his forearm. He put his paddle down for a moment.
“You okay?” asked his cousin. “It’s nothing.”
“You sure?” “Yeah.”
Red drops falling between Anthony’s feet made an outline of a Mickey Mouse head. A thin, open cut ran across his palm. He brought it to his mouth.
“Paddle!” shouted his cousin.
The boats pursuing them carried two or three people apiece, including grown-ups. They weren’t that far behind, and Anthony began paddling harder than ever. The sun beat down on the dark lake waters, making like a million white flashes. He could feel sweat running down his forehead and along his ribs. On his back, his tank top stuck to him like a second skin. He was worried. Maybe they had called the cops.
“What are we going to do?” “They won’t follow us.” “You sure?”
“Paddle, for chrissakes!” After a while the cousin changed direction, now hugging the shore. He hoped to quickly reach Le Pointu, the thin spit of land that divided the lake in two. Once they rounded that point, they would be out of sight for a few minutes.
“Look,” he said.
On the neighboring beaches, bathers had stood up to see better and were whistling or shouting encouragement. Anthony and his cousin were in the habit of always going to the same place, a fairly accessible beach called the Déchetterie—the dump. It was said to be near a sewer outlet, which was why there were so few people there, even in midseason. The lake had other beaches. The Léo-Lagrange one was behind them. The campground beach was over there. Farther on was the American beach, where the inbreds hung out. On the far side of the Pointu spit, the sailing club had the prettiest beach of all, with pine trees, almost golden sand, cabanas, and a bar, like at the seaside.
“We’re getting there,” said his cousin.