Chapter 1 1.
The boy on the back of the boat, laughing.
The sky, pewter-stamped and threatening rain.
Michael Starling, age thirty-three, warm on his father’s boat, watches the other boat, the boy, the bay—the water that will never be his because Michael’s parents are selling the house.
Yesterday, they arrived—Michael and Diane, Jake and Thad—and were given the news: Richard and Lisa Starling will not be retiring to the lake. In a week, the Starling family summer home will be sold so that Michael and Thad’s parents may retire, instead, to a pocket of Florida shore that screams margaritas and sand and all things distinctly un-Starling.
This decision, it’s not like Michael’s parents. They are not Florida people. They are ex-hippies, academics. They are lovers of cold mountain lakes and clear, cool streams, of trees that change color in the fall. Their summers are North Carolina summers, starry skies and the converted double-wide the family affectionately calls its cabin in the woods.
What has become of Michael’s parents? Who are these brave fools who splash before him, bobbing in swimsuits and inner tubes in the calm waters of a Lake Christopher summer day?
Onshore, a heron picks through reeds for fish. Above, clouds cover and uncover the sun.
A morning on the lake—sandwiches, swimming—this was the Starlings’ plan before the rogue vessel arrived, unzipping the water behind it, never mind swimmers or the bay’s enforced no-wake speed. The boat dropped anchor too close, and the man at the wheel uncovered his head and waved with a hat—a captain’s hat!—from the deck. He whooped, spat a wad of tobacco overboard, then turned up his music very, very loud.
This is not good lake etiquette. This is not done.
Lake Christopher is not a party lake, and this is not a noisy bay. Longtime residents work hard to keep it that way, having survived decades of development and two challenges—one public, one corporate—of eminent domain.
The interloper boat blasts Jimmy Buffett, The Party Barge stenciled pink along its side. Its pontoons gleam gray under a gray sky.
Michael’s father doesn’t seem to mind. “Join us!” he calls to the man with the captain’s hat. Then everyone from The Party Barge is in the water, all but the boy (swimmer’s ear, his mother says, a shame) and his older sister, left aboard to watch the boy. Soon, though, the sister is under the canopy on her back on the deck of the boat, eyes closed, earbuds in.
Michael watches the boy and wants a drink.
The boy is four, maybe five. Where the boy’s biceps should be are pumpkin-colored water wings. He moves to the outboard motor, then straddles the cover, a jockey in silver swim trunks. His horse is tattooed Evinrude, his racetrack the sun-dappled water in his wake. “Giddy-up!” he screams.
Some might find this cute. Michael doesn’t.
The inflatables bulge like blood pressure cuffs around the boy’s arms. One hand releases an invisible rein, and the boy mines a bag of Cheetos in his lap. He turns his head to observe his sister in the boat, his parents swimming fifty yards away. Michael follows the boy’s line of sight. When he looks back, he finds a finger. It is a middle finger, the signature neon of Cheetos, and it is raised in Michael’s direction.
Michael shuts his eyes. Why is he watching over this kid? He doesn’t even like kids. He opens his eyes. The boy sticks out his tongue.
Hey, Michael wants to call to the negligent parents, your shitty kid’s giving me the finger, and your other shitty kid’s asleep.
Michael should be swimming, but his head has bats in it. Sobriety is wings in the skull. It’s echolocation behind the eyes. He needs vodka, stat, but this morning he woke to an empty orange juice jug and no way to sneak liquor undetected onto the boat. His family will put up with a lot, but not vodka before noon.
The boy raises the chip bag to his mouth, and his chin and chest are dusted orange. Then he drops the bag into the lake. He stares at Michael, daring him to speak.
It’s a new sensation, being bullied by a child, and Michael can’t say he cares for it.
He cradles his head. He misses his liquor cabinet. He doesn’t miss his house. He’d rather be here than back in Texas. He’s spent every summer on this lake since he was two, and if there’s a place he feels at peace, it’s here.
The boy draws himself to his knees and peers over the motor cover’s edge.
The boy’s family, they aren’t from here. Michael had them pegged for out-of-towners. But out-of-towners pilot marina-rentals, and this is no marina-rental. This pontoon is an Avalon Ambassador, 90K on a good day, a watercraft that makes the Starlings’ six-seat fishing boat the seafaring equivalent of Tom Hanks’s Cast Away raft. (Michael’s father christened theirs The Sea Cow, hand-painting the name on the gunwale in blue house paint that, thirty years later, has faded to a wavery a Cow.) No, these people—the mother with her Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, the father with his faux naval captain’s cap—they aren’t locals or vacationers. They’re newly minted lake house owners breaking in the captain’s midlife-crisis present to himself. Even as the Ambassador entered the bay, the mother was probably cutting price tags from the stack of towels at her side.
These are loud people who loudly flash their wealth around. To Michael, these people are everything that is wrong with America in 2018.
Speakers thump. Guitars strum. And for the love of all that is holy, would someone get Jimmy Buffett a goddamn cheeseburger already?
At the shoreline, the heron lunges and comes up with mud.
On the other boat, the girl who’s supposed to be watching her brother is definitely asleep. She’s young, late teens, bikinied, body toned and honey-tan. She’s roughly the age and shape Diane was when she and Michael met here, in this bay, fifteen summers ago.
The boy leaves his knees. He’s squatting on the motor now. His sister shifts in sleep, and it occurs to Michael that these siblings are far enough apart in age that the boy might be a mistake. Perhaps the accident waiting to happen has been an accident all his life.
The first one you smother. The others, he’s heard, raise themselves.
Michael doesn’t want a first one, never did. That was their agreement. That was always the agreement.
Diane floats on a raft in blue water, belly-up. She won’t show for a few weeks, though sometimes Michael swears he sees the hint of something, a contour, a fattening. His wife isn’t fat, but she’s no longer the girl on the boat. He wishes she was, and, wishing, knows this makes him hashtag something or other. He doesn’t want to be whatever wanting a fit, young wife makes him. But wanting not to be won’t ease the want. He misses youth, his and his wife’s.
Does this make him sexist? His mother would say yes. His father would say no. Thad, his brother, wouldn’t care, and Jake wouldn’t know what Michael was talking about. Jake, Thad’s rich, attractive, slender boyfriend, is young. He’s naive. He lives in New York and makes paintings for other rich, attractive, slender people who live in New York. As far as Michael can tell, Jake’s interest in other people extends only as far as the dollar signs attached to his canvases.
In the water, Jake and Thad toss a football. Michael’s father and the captain laugh, water noodles rising from their crotches, red, obscene. The mothers tread water, talking, Diane between them on her raft.
The girl on the pontoon boat sits up. She says something to her brother that Michael can’t make out over the Jimmy Buffett din. She pokes at her phone a minute, then lowers the phone, lies down, and shuts her eyes.
From her raft, Diane won’t look at Michael.
For fifteen years, they were so happy. Happy enough. Content, at least, before Diane upended everything. People change, she said. Michael’s not so sure. Did Diane change, or did she trick him? Is this what she wanted all along?
Michael moves to his father’s chair at the helm and flips on the fish finder. The depth here measures sixty feet. At the fifty-foot mark, something big drifts gray across the screen, a catfish, maybe, or a tree branch settling into underwater rot.
His mother adjusts her broad-brimmed sun hat—the cancer hat, she calls it, an attempt at levity that, every time, makes Michael cringe. Probably, she’s telling the other mother about the skin cancer she beat. Again, Michael thinks, Florida? Seriously?
The bats cavort. Soon his hands will shake. He really, really, really needs a drink.
The boy perched on the motor flips him off again. The sister’s earbuds have popped out, and her mouth is slack with sleep.
The heron in the reeds gives up and lifts off, fishless. The boy watches, and Michael follows the boy’s eyes following the bird.
The boy smiles. He stands. Then he’s overboard.
His body tugs him under, and the water wings rocket from his arms like champagne corks. A hand breaks the surface, slaps, but the floats slither, amphibious, from his grasp. The hand does not break the surface a second time.
And only Michael’s seen—seen the boy stand, then fall, the seat of his swim trunks hitting the shell of the outboard motor, hard; seen him slip over the side; seen, in the eyes of the child, water below and sun above, a transmission, one word telegraphed from boy to man, and that word was: Please.
Michael rises, kicks off his shoes and sheds his shirt. He calls to the others, a cry he can’t be sure is heard over the music blasting from the boat. He dives. He swims. He turns his face to take a breath and calls for help again, but he cannot stop. He cannot break his stride.
No splashing ahead, no hands.
Three more strokes, and Michael’s close enough. He takes a breath and dives. He’s seeking silver swim trunks, teeth, anything that might catch light in the belly of a lake. But ten feet down the light is scarce, the water turned to murk.
He pinches his nose, pushes air from his ears to equalize the pressure.
Fifteen feet. Twenty. Blind, but grasping. Water in fistfuls, but no boy.
He tunnels, pulls. How deep is he? How fast does a body sink?
The light is gone, and the water grows colder the deeper he goes. Whatever happens, he must not lose track of up and down.
In high school, he could hold his breath for a minute at a time, but high school was a long time ago. His ears throb. His lungs are lit coals. Wait too long, and he’ll take a breath reflexively. He can’t be underwater when that happens.
He has to surface. Surface or drown. Except. Except.
A whisper. The dance of something just out of reach. Swim trunks, fluttering. The pink of fingernails. Either the boy’s below or Michael’s dead and dreaming this.
Then he has the hand.
He can’t see it, can’t make out the boy’s hand in his own, but he has it. The hand is there, and it is good. It’s a hand he can swim with. He’ll rise and hold the hand and not let go.
Later, in the hospital, Michael will wonder. Say he’d had a drink that morning, just to calm him down. Say the shock of his parents’ revelation, the house for sale, hadn’t led him to drink so much the night before. He might have held on tighter, risen true.
But that isn’t what happens.
What happens is that Michael kicks the boy.
He doesn’t mean to, but a body underwater isn’t weightless, and swimming with one arm is hard to do. The boy’s body drags. It is kicked. And just like that, the hand is gone.
He exhales, but there’s no air left to leave his lungs.
He’s swimming the wrong way. The boy is below. Why, then, does Michael rise? He cannot rise without the child. He must turn back, but his body will not let him. Something in him has taken over, and the something in him wants to live.
He kicks, he claws, but there’s no light. Impossible to gauge direction without the compass of the sun.
Then, a vague illumination. An object passing overhead.
He’s heard stories. Catfish the size of zeppelins. Sturgeon armored like gators, ten feet long. Unless the thing he sees is his soul rising, leaving him behind.
He is alive. He lives, and he is swimming. The fish or soul, it grows, and he swims toward it.
He’s lost all sense of distance, space, and time. All dimensions are water. Fireworks go off behind his eyes, and a siren screams for him to breathe.
Breathe, then, he thinks. Join the boy. Be done with this.
Except that Michael’s life is not his own. He is a father. His life is marked by that which is in bloom. This truth hits him with a force so great he hardly notices his head striking the bottom of the boat.
All is water. Then light. Then air.
He coughs, gasps, and throws up. He breathes.
Above him, the girl is screaming. Her brother is at the bottom of the lake. Surely, by now, he rests. Surely, he’s stopped fighting, stopped water-calling, now, his sister’s name.
Michael tastes salt. The salt is blood and the blood is his.
He cannot dive. He dives again, he’ll die.
He is a father.
His life is not his own.
Beyond the boat, others fling themselves from rafts and swim to him. And in the distance, wings, severed from their body, spin, orange and current-caught. They orbit each other, knowing. They tumble, ocular with water’s awful wink.