I looked at the small stack of old books lying on the counter and called out to my wife, “Is this them?”
“Yes, a couple are so old and worn that I don’t think you could read them. I can’t see keeping any but, just in case…”
“Sure, I’ll take a look.”
I pulled the books over to the window so I could look at them in the sun. They were old, a couple missing covers, others with pages fading like a childhood memory and smiling, I put each aside. All of them, until I came to the last. The cover was torn, damaged a long time ago, but I held it in my hands and stared out the window.
I remembered being a boy and looking out another window and dropping my spoon into my cereal. Drops of milk soaked into my shorts and a wet flake landed on the back of my hand.
My mother cupped her hand over the phone. “Thomas? You okay, honey?”
“Uh, yeah, sorry.” Just as I brought my hand to my mouth to eat the flake off the back of it, I saw an arm wave from over the bushes at the far end of the yard. My friend Dustin waved, wearing a sheepish grin.
I glanced at my mother who had her back to me, hovering over the stovetop, talking on the phone with Mrs. Kearns. As quickly as I could I raised my bowl to my mouth and drank it, cereal and all.
Mom turned an ear, sighed, and said to me, “I can hear you slurping. Sounds like the dog just came in.”
“Sorry,” I said, wiping my mouth with my hand. “I, well, is it okay if I go out?”
“Isn’t it a bit early?”
She turned to face me and put a hand on her hip, the spatula jutting out from her side like a fly swatter ready to wallop. She lowered her head and pursed her lips. I sat still and waited. She sighed, “Fine, but don’t you get any more ideas on your manners from the animals out there.”
I smiled, put my bowl in the sink and darted outside to meet Dustin at the corner. He gave me a quick smile and walked towards an old dirt path. The path was well worn, one of a set carved into the sloping hillside, having been there longer than anyone knew. The brambles and thorns always tried to take it back each spring and we spent the summer running by, kicking and beating them away. The slopes were covered in a mix of maple and spruce trees, spotted with evergreen pines that faded into the background during the summer. Dustin, tanned with short dark hair, wore a pair of faded white shorts a little too big for him and a gray t-shirt and old high top sneakers, laces untied and no socks. It was summer and we’d just finished 7th grade.
“Yeah, I know I was early,” said Dustin.
“S’okay, it’s not like I had a lot to do,” I said.
“Heh, yeah,” he said. “I wanted to get out early.” I raised an eyebrow. He added. “I did have an idea.” He smiled and patted me on the shoulder, giving me a small push. I reached out to push him back but he slipped away and ran ahead. I chased after him, laughing and throwing small branches while Dustin’s high tops kept falling off until he finally picked them up and tucked them under his arm like a football.
Dustin’s yard was a small patchwork of crabgrass, sand and lawn. The charcoal gray house was small, with paint peeling around the windows and along the back porch. A couple of empty glass bottles lay strewn across the porch, a few more piled in the corner. One of the bottles was half full with a dark caramel colored liquid.
“You wait here,” Dustin said in a hush. “I just gotta grab my pack.” He placed the high tops on the ground and snuck onto the porch, pulling the screen door open with a soft creak that hung in the morning air. A half minute later he appeared with a rucksack on his shoulder and slipped through the door, catching it so it shut quietly.
“Come on,” he whispered. “Let’s go.”
“The river.” He took another path leading into a small clearing where there was a sleek red fiberglass canoe resting against a maple with two wooden oars inside.
“Hey, Thomas,” he said as he picked up one end. “Help me out, will ya?” I leaned over and picked it up with one hand. My foot turned on a rock and I stumbled, falling over, and we rolled away from the edge of the embankment. Dustin let out a quick cry and cursed as he pried himself out from under the canoe. His shirt had lifted up around his armpits. Purple smeared his skin all the way from his waist, right above his shorts to his chest where it was darker, with two deep red blotches, one just in front of his armpit and the other under his heart.
“Dang,” I whispered. I’d said something last year, when he caught a black eye and then maybe because I’d brought it up or maybe because he wanted to give it time to heal I hadn’t seen him for a week.
He caught me looking and forced a laugh. “You’re such a klutz. Come on, let’s get this in the water.”
“Where you’d get it from? The canoe I mean.”
“Grandparents,” he said. “When we visit, I head out on the lake as often as I can. Grampa got it as part of a trade and said he figured I’d get more use out of it. You’ve ridden a canoe before, right?”
“Yeah, a couple of times.”
We slipped the boat into the water. Dustin took the rear to steer and I went to the front. We flailed about as we learned to work the water together but it carried us along nonetheless.
The river had been small where we started, maybe ten feet across, but it was twice that by the time we found a rhythm. Every now and then Dustin winced as he dug the oar into the river and once or twice the boat rocked and he’d grunt, getting his oar caught at an awkward angle. I’d stop paddling to give him a quick rest, and look out over the trees or close my eyes and listen to the wind rustle the leaves. Clouds dotted blue skies with birds soaring overhead or perching by the river as we passed. The forest was old here, with tall pines, twisting maples, and strong red oaks on either side, providing a home to squirrels, birds, and other wildlife.
The sun crept higher and the river widened and then once more, emptying out into a small lake with a tiny island in the center. It was roughly oval and the far side had two roads intersecting at the far edge with a few cars passing by and a sidewalk with a jogger and an old couple walking hand in hand.
“Heh, I thought we might come out here,” said Dustin. He put his hand to his forehead to block out the sun and surveyed the perimeter.
“Is this why you wanted to get an early start?” I said.
“Yeah…” He smiled. “I was looking at the town maps in the library, you know the ones hanging up by the reading rooms?”
“Well, I saw those streams all feed into the river and come here. It goes on too. I’m not sure it ends. It just might head all the way out to the sea.”
“You spend enough time with that library. Folks might start talking…”
He waved me off. “They’re already taking ‘bout you and Stacey!”
“Shut up man. Oughta toss you right over the side.”
“No need. This water is calling me,” he said and he kicked off his shoes and fell backwards over the side, splashing into the water.
I pulled off my sneakers and we took turns, one falling off while the other reeled him back, laughing and yelling, almost tipping the canoe twice as I flopped and squirmed until Dustin yelled, “Enough already! I don’t want to get my pack soaked.”
We made our way to a small island in the center where we pulled the canoe out of the water and walked around. It wasn’t big, as long as a football field and half as wide, with small trees and a single striped maple marking the center. I walked to the maple and kicked over a few branches and strips of bark. Underneath, I found a thin paperback with a torn, spotted cover lying next to a couple of beer cans. I picked up the book, ‘A Separate Peace’, and thumbed through the first few pages.
“What do you have there?” Dustin said.
“A book. Want it?”
He looked past me to the road. “Nah, no thanks.”
“It’s not like you to turn down a book. Remember last summer? The bet you couldn’t read a hundred books?”
“Heh,” said Dustin. “Easiest ten bucks I ever made.”
“Come on, twenty of em’ were comic books.”
“If you call em’ ‘graphic novels’ they count just the same.”
I held up the book. “You sure?”
“Yeah, read it already. Let’s keep on going.”
“How far you think we’ve gone?”
“Dunno, but plenty of others made it this far,” he said. He nodded to the beer cans.
I stuffed the book in my back pocket just in case and looked out over the lake, the water went right up to the road and underneath via a set of small tunnels, each with a grate in front of them to keep out debris and a metal sheet that could be raised or lowered as needed.
“We can’t get through those tunnels,” I said. “Wanna head back?”
“We can go on and ‘course we’re not going through ‘em,” he said. He turned, flashing a devilish smile, heading back to the boat.
“Alright,” I said, following, and we pushed off, leaving the island behind us. We found the shore had a gentle slope near the intersection. Dustin jumped out and we pulled the canoe onto the sand. I waited for him to explain.
“We’ll keep it simple. You just pick up your end and we’ll bring it up to the street. We can flip it there and carry it over us.” said Dustin.
We tied down the oars, lifted the canoe, and with a little wobbling, brought it to the corner. A few joggers watched us. I had my shoes on but my feet were a little wet and with every step I heard a soft hissing of water spreading into the soles and then sucking back when as I lifted my foot.
Dustin stared across the street, toward a clearing. “Alright, we’re just going to walk it right over, okay?”
I stared back at him for a minute before picking my end of the canoe. We turned it upside down and lifted it above our shoulders.
“Just act natural,” he said.
I’d taken two steps when Dustin called out, “Car!” I turned and my hand slipped. The inside of the hull hit my head, echoing in the hollow darkness, and I let out a cry. I grabbed at the sides but couldn’t get a grip so I pushed up using my head and shuffled forward.
“You okay back there?”
“Uh, I guess,” I said. I walked forward, following the yellow lines at my feet.
“Where you going?” Dustin yelled. I could feel the boat pulling on me. The car blew its horn. “Thomas, quit fooling around!”
“Hey, I’m just walking here.”
“No, you’re walking there! Come this way with it.” As he said it he went to point and lost his grip, the front of the canoe dropped and raked against his side. He howled and caught it at his waist. “Shit! Piss! Mother…” He trailed off as he saw a little girl gaping through a car front window. Two more cars fell in behind the other. The woman in front blew her horn and threw up her hands.
I heaved my end up to my waist. Dustin strained while trying not to panic. “This way!” He yelled and we shuffled forward, holding the canoe as best we could. A man in the second car yelled, “What the hell you kids doing?”
We hustled over to the edge and the cars passed by, a few drivers yelled while others used their horns. Dustin looked over the boat, running his thin fingers along some scratches and let out a slow whistle.
“Damn,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m gonna get skinned for this.”
He turned away from me and stood facing the river. It churned past us, frothing at the edges. I wanted to ask him if he was ready to go back but I knew what that meant for him. “Well, we’re here. Might as well…”
He spun around and looked at me, wearing a quizzical smile, surprised maybe, but glad all the same.
“Hmpf,” he said as he shook his head and laughed. He looked back at the the river. “Yeah, let’s keep on going.” He smiled and we picked up the canoe and walked it down to the river, dropping it in with care. We checked for any leaks and climbed back in.
The river sped us away and wound its way onward. The trees changed from tall, twisting maples to more evergreen pines and we drifted past a road sign that read ‘town line’. I wasn’t sure how far we’d gone. The farthest I’d ever rode on my bike ended up being a ten minute drive with Mom. Cars passed from time to time, some with kids in the back, some looked down and pointed at us. A couple waved and I heard a little girl yell to her parents, sitting in front of her, that she’d just seen two boys lost on the river. The first time Dustin waved back but he ignored the rest, digging into the water with the oar instead and picking up the pace.
“Hey,” I said. “You going out for the baseball team next year?”
“Hadn’t really thought about it, but no, don’t think so.”
“You should. You’re better than any of us.”
“Eh, doesn’t matter. You still doing honors math?”
He smirked. “You’re good at that you know,” he said. “Your Dad still help you?”
“Not much,” I said.
“That’s alright. I bet you’ll end up using that.”
As the river bent the water slowed and we came to a grocery store on our left. I put down my paddle and rubbed my shoulder, which had started to ache, as Dustin leaned forward, resting his arms on the oar he laid across the boat. The banks were filled with reeds edged with a few small trees. The big pines and maples had been cut down long ago. It was warmer here, the air thick and moist in the summer sun. We passed behind the store and Dustin called out, “I could use some snacks. And a bathroom run.”
“Well, if you see a parking spot — ”
“Heh, yeah.” He picked up the oar and rowed, not quickly, just to keep ahead of the river as it looked like he hoped to find a place to land the canoe. He didn’t and we passed the store and the river bent back upon itself, like a snake, and under a set of train tracks on a twenty foot man-made slope. We eased around the bend, into a thick, damp, marsh under a small set of pines nestled against the slope. A tricycle lay just under the water on our left, turned upside with the wheels sticking out, beside a couple of bottles, and some trash resting along the edge. We pushed past, spying the sky through a hole in the trees and came to a concrete arch running under the train tracks. It was low enough that I ducked my head so my eyes were level with the canoe.
The arch led into a small pond with an old stone building on the right, sitting alongside a small lot filled with cars parked up against the train tracks. A school sat on our left with high glass windows sitting framed by red brick and granite running along the edges. The pond was cool blue, rippling in the breeze and we sat back, gazing out and smiling, as we drifted along and pointing things out to one another.
From behind we heard a little girl’s voice say, “Are they supposed to be there?”
The girl’s mother hesitated. “Uh, I’m not sure.”
I leaned forward, not wanting to look back, and whispered, “What do we do?”
Dustin smiled. “Buncha’ rich kids. Bet they just want us out of their pond.” He reached into the water with the oar and pulled. I did the same from the front and we sped up. A few more onlookers appeared at the edge; an old couple walking a path stopped and pointed and a boy, maybe seven or eight, rode his bike off the sidewalk while staring at us.
I said in a low voice, “We’re not supposed to be here.”
“Keep rowing,” said Dustin. He led us under a stone bridge where the pond narrowed into the river. A woman stopped, staring, as we passed under, with two children on either side of her, the older frowning and the other marveling, waving at us with a Cheshire Cat grin fixed on his face.
“Where do you think you’ll end up?”
I stuttered, “Me? When I’m older?”
“I dunno. I guess somewhere around here. You?”
“Somewhere else,” he said.
The current swept us along, past the bridge and we came into a clearing with a view of an elegant granite library. A patchwork of lily pads were scattered along a bulge on the left, lined by a wrought iron fence, as the river turned to the right. Dustin turned, smiling, while I craned ahead as my ears picked up a soft rushing sound.
“You hear that?”
“Hear what?” Dustin’s eyes twitched sideways and he cocked his head to listen, sitting up on his knees. The river opened as he went around the bend and we came to another bridge, red brick with concrete edging, running over a small man-made waterfall.
The waterfall was made of half a dozen concrete steps that formed a semicircular ring. It was about a four foot drop from one step to the next and a couple of feet wide, not too hard to walk if there wasn’t all that water.
“Dang…,” said Dustin. He motioned to me. “We’ll have to carry it down,” he said in a state of excited bewilderment.
“Down a waterfall?”
“Yeah, you got a better plan? We’ll just jump out as we get to the top. Once we get on that step we can just lift the canoe and take the steps one at a time.”
I looked past him, shaking my head. He turned, called out directions as he took his oar and guided us along the edge. I heard him mutter to himself, “The sides will be slowest.”
I held my oar as the tip of the canoe slipped closer. Dustin put his down and jumped out. The water was just above his waist. I placed my oar against the hull and leaned over the side. Dustin found his footing, and climbed onto the top step. He nodded and I jumped and my feet pressed down on the soft muck and long, tough plant sinews pulled at my toes. I let go of the canoe and threw myself forward, splashing ahead until I pulled myself up onto the concrete.
The water rushed by my shins, roaring and tumbling past me and falling into foaming whirlpools on the steps below. I heard Dustin yell, “You okay?” I nodded. He held the front and pointed at the step below, nodding for me to jump down. I hopped down and turned to reach out. A man in navy pants, a baby blue buttoned shirt with a badge was stepping down from the bridge, coming towards us. The officer yelled and I didn’t need to hear him to understand, “Get out of there!”
I pointed and Dustin turned. The officer waved his arm as he tried to find some footing on the embankment. Dustin let out a wild yelp, his left arm waving out to the side. He rushed ahead with the boat and I almost fell down, going to my knees. I lost my hold on the canoe and it dropped, landing with a dull thud that echoed under the bridge.
Dustin yelled, “Pick it up!”
I scrambled to my feet as we threw ourselves and the boat forward. The policeman yelled out from the edge of the steps and it occurred to me that he was close enough to hear now. He hollered for us to stop, to get out, and a few choice curses in between. He crashed down the steps as we landed the canoe in the river and jumped in headfirst as the water swept us away.
We lay there panting until Dustin pushed himself up onto his elbows and looked back while I lay there, watching his eyes, hoping. “I don’t see him,” he said. I collapsed on my back and started laughing.
“I can’t believe we just did that!”
“Tell me about it!” said Dustin. He smiled, his eyes wild, and we sat up and worked the river. After a few minutes we started recounting our escape; our faces, expressions, falling and the policeman splashing after us. We wondered how many people had watched.
“That’ll be something they talk about for years,” said Dustin.
We laughed and relaxed, smiling in our wet clothes. We drifted along until a little later Dustin started squirming in his seat.
“You okay?” I said.
“I still need to take a leak.”
“Oh…”. I looked around. Trees shot up to the right of us, a soccer field on the left but up ahead trees and tall grass lined both sides. “Up there.” I pointed. “You can go up there.”
“From the boat?”
“I mean, yeah, I’ll look the other way and you just do what you gotta do.”
He sighed. “I guess…”
We drifted under the shelter of the pines and picked up the oars. We sat and listened. Dustin squirmed until I told him, “Alright, go for it.”
I turned away and held the oar. From the corner of my eye I could make out Dustin’s reflection leaning over the edge. I stared at a small thicket of twigs and leaves toiling under a fallen tree. I heard him unzip, breathe, and a soft tinkling sound. I smiled, trying not to laugh, as I imagined him standing there, without the bruises, pissing into the river looking ‘round, trying to hurry himself. I had half a mind to rock the boat and before I knew it, I was.
“Hey! Quit it!” Dustin called over his shoulder. I smiled, trying not to laugh but I couldn’t. I tried to cough, anything but laugh. I laughed anyway and I stopped trying, doubling over and looking at my own toothy grin in the water.
Dustin laughed. “Shut up!” he called and then he zipped and sat down, giggling in spite of himself. He grabbed the oar, guffawed, and started rowing, heading further down the river together.
We went on and in a while the river opened up and widened into a larger lake with a jogging path on the left and a few cars on the road alongside it. A few small turnabouts were sailing, scattered across the water, all tacking into the wind at similar angles. Their sails caught the sun, reflecting red, white and yellow hues. Each had a passenger, some two, all wearing collared shirts and sun glasses. Dustin pointed to the sailboats and steered toward them. I flexed my hands, gripping the oar and digging into the water.
“Come on,” he said.
He stopped and said, “I know. Not much further.”
With each stroke we gained on the turnabouts and I felt the sun burning the back of my neck as my stomach growled. I closed my eyes and could picture my mother in the kitchen, smell the pancakes on the griddle with blueberries drizzled on top. We turned to follow the sailboats as we made our way to the far side of the lake where the river wound around a small wooded peninsula and under a bridge. Dustin amused himself with a blister starting to grow on his thumb, smiling to himself as I sat, struck with the damage to my soft hands and how childish they felt.
“Hey, let’s pull over. I gotta go and I don’t want to try from the boat,” I said.
We slid into a landing and I jumped out onto the bank.
“Thanks,” said Dustin.
I nodded and walked under a maple, behind the bushes along the shore. I heard Dustin step out of the boat, kicking up dirt along the slope and wading into the tall grass. I relaxed, took a deep breath, letting my aching shoulders slump, and relieved myself. The breeze whistled past my face as I closed my eyes.
I finished and heard familiar voices carrying on nearby. Dustin stood, skipping stones into the lake and as the voices came closer I stepped out from behind the bushes.
A women in a blue dress, carrying a child in her arms, stopped and looked at me. She tilted her head to the side and said, “Thomas?”
“Oh, hi Mrs. Kearns.” I gave her a thin smile as she glanced around.
“Where’s your mother?”
I looked back at her.
“What are you doing this far from home? Are you here alone?”
I looked back over my shoulder. Dustin peeked out through the bushes. He smiled and nodded. I said, “Yeah.”
“Oh, honey, I was just talking to your mother this morning.”
I shuffled my feet.
“Do you need you a ride?”
I looked back once more. Dustin walked to the canoe. I walked with Mrs. Kearns, trailing behind slightly, and said, “Thanks.”
Mrs. Kearns smiled back. “We’re just over here,” she said. She pointed to a light gray car with a baby seat in the back. I followed them and as they got inside. I put my hand over my eyes, to shield them from the glare across the lake. Dustin waved to me from the boat with the water shimmering behind him. I took my seat in the car, heading for home and watched through the window as Dustin turned and drifted away, down the river, wherever it would lead him.
I remember sitting in that car, and feeling the book in my pocket poking into me. I pulled it out. Torn and wet, I used my shirt to dry it a little and holding it, just as I am now.
I put the book down on the table, picked up the box that I’d filled with the others and called out to my wife, “All set. Just one I’m not ready to let go of…”
Jared Carlson: I’ve been a biochemist, an engineer, a hacker and now turning to writing, in Lesley University’s MFA program. I’m a new author, recently published in the Evening Street Review, along with an upcoming piece in Meridian. When I’m not writing I take turns analyzing, hacking, and being a father.