Jimmy had been rowing for forty-five minutes and we were still no closer to shore. The oars were begrimed with blood and candy, and his eyeglasses had long since skated down his nose on a track of sweat. They were barely hanging on. Jimmy was barely hanging on. Look in those eyes and you saw the bottom of the pond—that’s how far off he was.
“Jim, enough,” his brother Shane said from the stern. Shane was fat like me but blond. Jimmy: lank and tall. The sky was dimming but you could still see the bruises on Jimmy’s neck; two hands’ work, the fingers thick and splayed so that it looked like he was sporting bad crow tattoos.
“Ok, stop,” I said from the bow, facing Jimmy. None of us had life vests. The pond was only one hundred meters wide but rumor was, you couldn’t touch bottom in the middle. That’s where we were, a steady chinook freezing us in place, below us nothing but the dark of Jimmy’s eyes.
The oarlocks caught the blades as Jimmy flung them away. As we shuffled and I took up those sticky clubs of wood, the wind buffeted the boat another twenty feet.
The sky dimmer now but rimmed with the gold of August. The water as murky as the future was distant. They said otters lived there, but we’d only ever encountered muskrats and irascible swans. An ice factory once operated on the far shore, but that was fact.
I pulled, but we continued to drift. Jimmy had done a good job. He was always surprising us like that. The previous week had been our swim competition; me, Shane, Jimmy, and a girl named Shawna against three other squads. The cackles of our opposition were sick and gull-like but understood. Jimmy with his cerebral palsy—how fast could he be? Answer: not a skilled aquarian, but a relentless one.
Shane had led our relay with a slap-heavy backstroke, and I sputtered my way through the breaststroke. Shawna, our one true swimmer, halved the gap with her dolphinian butterfly. But it was Jimmy who caught and passed the leader. Vexed Jimmy. Toddler Jimmy, who was whisked away by a helicopter as a medic reinflated the boy’s lungs through a tube punched into his chest. Jimmy who stayed back two years. Jimmy, in love with every girl in the neighborhood. He swam as if tomorrow lay just beyond the jetty. If our swim instructor hadn’t stopped him, Jimmy would’ve swum until the moon rose—then passed it, too.
“This sucks,” Shane said.
“We’ll have to ditch the boat, then get it later,” I said.
“No.” Shane gestured at Jimmy’s bruises. “Imagine if we came home without Dad’s dingy.”
I stopped rowing.
Story they’d told was that Senior had taken offense with Jimmy’s nose-blowing technique. “Like a goose with an arrow up its ass,” the boys had quoted. They also said Jimmy’s feet had come off the ground during the throttling. Their mother stopped it just in time—like the swim instructor, wrapping her arms around her husband to keep him from going over the brink.
“We’ll drag it,” Shane said as the boat rammed into the reeds, cattail plumes showering us and redwing blackbirds taking to the sky with a series of enraged trills.
Shane and I took off our shoes and climbed out, the pondbottom silt roiling up into pale clouds. Because the shoreline was clotted with brambles and beach plums, we’d have to wade along its rim, me nudging and Shane dragging the boat. Jimmy remained perched at the stern, flicking candy into the water—for the turtles maybe. That was another untruth: kids said snappers lived there, but all we ever saw were painted little dinkers sunning on a log.
And Crystal Lake—how’s that for the name of a pond? The entire body of water was misrepresented to my generation.
What I hadn’t told the boys was that I’d woken up to find my father sitting at the kitchen table with a sack of clothes while my mother sat staring into a cup of tea long since gone cold. My father had rented a cottage, they’d said, and I could visit on weekends.
The boat-dragging and nudging was tedious drudgery. Shane and I worked up a sweat, our feet occasionally jamming into unseen sticks and quahog shells. Twenty minutes later, we were within swearing distance of the houses nestled in the armpit of the pond’s curve, a place as mysterious to us as our parents’ thoughts. Among them were the fabled remnants of Mrs. Jane’s Summer Camp. By then in her eighties, she hadn’t hosted a camp since our fathers were the ones rowing lifevestless into a gale, and the rotting dock now lay ribs-up in our path.
That’s where the ice factory rises up too. Unwilling to gash our feet on the ancient machinery glimmering beneath the surface, we clambered aboard, rowed with Jimmy-inspired madness around the hazards, then hopped back into the muck.
The wind lessened; the trees swayed enthusiastically. Our landing spot came into view. Shane and I put in one last effort, two chubby kids with big dreams conveying an army-green rowboat carrying a skinny, black haired kid who wanted nothing but to exist without fear of fatherly reprisal. I was miffed but alive, ready to go home. But just then something leapt off the bank and hit the water with a slippery elegance.
“Otter!” Shane bellowed.
“Was it?” I shielded my brow against the setting sun, scanning the surface. “It was, wasn’t it.”
“Had to be,” Shane said, sweat or tears in the corners of his eyes.
But Jimmy said: “Nope. Just a muskrat. Skinny tail, fat body.”
Shane slapped the surface. I cursed.
The boat skipped up the landing. We collapsed in the sand, breathless, while Jimmy sat staring up the hill toward the mouths of our driveways.
Christopher X. Ryan lives in Helsinki, Finland, where he works as a writer, editor, and ghostwriter. Born on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, he has an MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School in Boulder, Colorado. His work has been published in a wide variety of journals and magazines such as PANK, COPPER NICKEL, and CHALEUR. His story DAY SHAPES earned second place in the 2019 Baltimore Review winter contest. He is represented by the Trentin Agency for his novel BOGORE. Chris can be found at TheWordPunk.com.