On the Au Sable by Andrew Miller

Several weeks before he started the 11th grade, Dylan’s mother said a college friend from Kentucky was coming to visit. She would bring her daughter Hailey, who was just his age. His mother wanted him to figure out something the two of them could do together. When he couldn’t think of anything, his mother said that since Hailey had never been to Michigan, he should take her kayaking down the Au Sable River. Dylan didn’t much like that idea. He had already planned a river trip with his buddies. They had stashed a case of beer in a nearby creek and were all looking forward to an end-of-summer kickback. Nobody would want a girl to come along.

Hailey was short and skinny, had shoulder-length auburn hair pulled straight back, fastened with a pink rubber band. She had a small backpack slung over one shoulder, wore a pair of tight blue jean cutoffs, and a gray adventure hat with neck flap. Dylan asked if she had ever been in a kayak, and she said no. He told her it wasn’t that hard; the main thing was to not flip over. In narrow chutes she must take swift water straight on, paddle fast and never get crosswise to the current. 

Hailey didn’t care that Dylan wanted the red kayak because she preferred the lime green one. He held the kayak steady while she climbed in. He showed her how to hold the paddle, explained she shouldn’t jam into the sand or let it bang against the side. Hailey dipped one end in the river, watched the water slide down the smooth wood and trickle into the kayak. 

Dylan strode around to the stern, shoved the kayak, sent it out into the current. There, he thought, let’s see how you do on this river. She grabbed the paddle, dug deep and pulled hard, sent the kayak toward the opposite bank. Dylan stood onshore and watched her zig and zag in a downstream direction. 

He caught up with her before the first bend. “Doing okay?” he asked.

 “Fine,” she said.

Dylan let her go on ahead. A couple of times she nosed into a log and once got stuck on a sand bar. He moved in to help, but she motioned him away. The only sounds were those of their kayaks whispering through water, the chatter of blue jays, the far-off knock-knock-knock of a piliated woodpecker. They slipped past beds of water willow, through tunnels of red and yellow river birch, sugar maple, and willow leaves. They brushed spiderwebs from their hair, ducked under branches, scooted around stumps and exposed gravel bars. A kingfisher flitted alongside them, bobbing and weaving from tree to tree. Once they slipped up on a great blue heron, strutting and poking its bill into shallow water. She stopped paddling, put one finger to her lips. Every time they neared a log lined with turtles, Hailey slid close to the opposite bank and stop paddling. 

Hailey pointed to a gradual upward slope dotted with brambles and sumacs. She paddled toward the bank. They beached their kayaks. She motioned toward a patch of blackberries. Dylan followed her to the thicket, stood with thumbs hooked in his belt while she picked. Her hands wove around the canes, searched out the darkest berries, popped one after another in her mouth. Country girl, he thought. She nudged him with her elbow. “Come on,” she said. The poke was a little harder than expected and he stepped back. He shrugged, grabbed a cane, then grunted, not expecting to get stuck by thorns. He let it go, pressed a thumb against the punctures. 

“Bring any band-aids? She laughed. 

They picked a while, then walked back to the river. Hailey kicked off her shoes, sat on the bank and stuck both feet into the water. Her toenails were shiny black. Dylan pulled off his shoes and sat beside her. She reached into her backpack, pulled out a notebook, and began to write. Dylan tossed a stick into the river. He rolled over on his stomach, dug his elbows into the sand.

 “How do our moms know each other?”

She stopped writing. “They were lovers back in college.”

Dylan watched the stick spin around and around, then stop in a pack of leaves. His mom and some other woman? 

Hailey pulled a Swiss Army knife out of her backpack, opened a tiny blade. “Just kidding. There’s a college reunion next year. Must have decided to meet up early.” She rotated the pencil in her left hand and cleaved off tiny yellow chips. 

Dylan nodded, glanced at the cuts on his fingers. “You did good with the kayak.”

Hailey reached out and touched his chin. Her fingers were cool, made his scalp and neck prickle. Her eyes were dark brown.

 “Juice,” she said. “Do I have any on me?”

He brushed her cheek with one finger where there was no juice. “Yeah,” he said, “but I got it.” Her skin was soft. 

She picked up the pencil. 

What are you writing?”

She closed the notebook. “What’s your mom planned for this afternoon?”

 “Drive around—see the sights.” He tossed another stick in the water. 

She slipped the notebook and knife into her backpack. A brown creeper spiraled up a beech tree, poked for insects. 

 “Spend the afternoon in your mom’s car?”

Dylan sat up. He was hungry, figured she must be also. They’d be at the takeout point by noon. They could walk up to the grocery, buy sandwiches and sodas, a bag of chips. He remembered stowing his wallet in a plastic bag but wasn’t sure how much money he had. They could blow off sight-seeing with the moms. There were other take-out points farther downriver. Dylan picked up a fistful of sand, squeezed it tight, let it trickle through his fingers Maybe tomorrow they could climb Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes. That would give her something to write about. They probably didn’t have dunes in Kentucky. 

Andrew Miller retired in 2013 from a career that included research in aquatic systems and university teaching. Recent fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Front Porch ReviewBlue Lake ReviewThe Meadow, The River, Arkansas Review, Northern New England Review, Exit 7, Fatherly, Northern Woodlands, Down East, and TheSunlight Press. His website is http://www.andrewcmiller.com