G. L. Eikenberry
"So deep, so wide -- will you take me on your back for a ride?
If I should fall, would you swallow me deep inside?"
--Peter Gabriel, "Washing of the Water"
The sky was rambunctious like October, part sunny, part cloudy -- big, boiling, cotton clouds smeared with fierce, dark splotches of gray. The wind whipped them toward the horizon, smack into the sun, against their will. But it was May, the long weekend, the trial run for the summer break. It was a day for baseball, soccer, biking, running with Zak. Danny was bored with being in the car. They were supposed to be there around five. That was still half an hour away.
"Mom, what's that going on over there?"
"It's a funeral, Danny."
"Like when people are dead."
"Not like when people are dead, Dan. Those people are dead."
"Can we stop? I want to look."
"Dan, it's no one we know--"
"I don't see any harm in just stopping, Lee."
"I thought funerals were supposed to be in a church."
"Not always, Danny. This is a special funeral."
"Can we get out of the car?"
"Just relax, Lee, it's not going to hurt anything if he just looks."
"Jesus Christ, Rita! The whole world is not his personal learning lab. This is other people's private grief." Danny hardly even heard their bickering anymore.
"What makes it special?"
"Do you remember hearing about the six boys that drowned on that canoe trip?"
"The river that runs behind our house..."
Lee made a move to stop his son, but his wife took his arm. "Let him go. He's almost 13 now," she whispered. "He knows how to behave himself at a solemn occasion. He has to come to grips with death sooner or later."
"I wish I knew where the hell you got some of your crazy ideas."
Danny moved slowly, like someone in a trance, toward the gathering on the river bank at the back of the small cemetery. The man in the front was wearing a Boy Scout uniform. He had his back to the river. He was talking -- probably about the dead boys. Danny didn't really hear what he was saying. He hardly even saw the people sitting in the cold metal folding chairs. He heard the spring river, fast and boisterous like a bus full of kids on an outing. He felt weird. It was like those clouds were rolling and writhing inside his head.
He could tell it was making his face look funny. He knew he was going to cry. He didn't even care if everyone there saw him cry as he walked around behind the man and touched each empty box.
The man stopped talking. They all watched, but no one seemed to mind.
Someone even took a picture. His mother walked down to him. She took him by the shoulders and steered him back to the car.
"It's okay, Danny, you don't have to say anything."
"Those boxes were empty."
"They're called caskets, and, no, Danny, they found the bodies. Remember, you watched it with me last week when it was on the TV news. You had all kinds of questions."
"Yeah, like how come the river's getting mad..."
Danny and Zak, Zak and Danny. As different as up and down, but brothers.
Well, not really, but they should be. They talked about it sometimes. Danny was adopted and Zak's twin brother was supposed to have died when he was six days old. But what if he didn't really -- what if the hospital made a mistake? Not that there was any resemblance, physical or otherwise. Danny was dark and willowy. His actions always seemed so deliberate for a twelve-year-old. So pensive. He liked to take things apart in his mind. He was always trying to figure out the why and how of things, even if he sometimes missed what was going on around him. Zak was the same age, even though many people seeing them for the first time assumed that Danny was the older "brother." Zak was actually bigger. In fact, he was on the chubby side. Husky was how their mothers described him. His energy was more effusive, but not nearly so intense as Danny's.
When they idled by the pond, trying to decide what to do, Zak skipped stones. Danny peeled the bark off twigs with his fingernail and studied the velvety jacket between the bark and the wood.
"We could play pirates with the rowboat." Zak considered himself the world's best pirate captain.
"Naw, we're getting too old for that stuff. Let's go fishing. We can still use the boat."
"Fishing stinks. There's nothing in this pond but the same stupid bunch of catfish. I've caught every single fish in here at least 20 times."
"So maybe your dad'll let us drag the boat down to the river? There are real enough fish down there."
Different poles on a magnet -- north and south. They never would have been friends if they went to the same school. They never would have met except that their parents had been friends since before they were born. It was half boredom and half magic that threw them together when their folks visited and gabbed and gabbed. It was the chemistry of opposites that cemented the friendship. Even if the hospital didn't make a mistake, they were blood brothers at the very least. They had seen to that with Zak's first real pocketknife the previous summer.
"Hey, Danny, watch what you're doing! You'll dump us over."
"So what? We're stuffed into these rancid old life jackets."
"Rotten. Stinky. Yeah, rancid! What would happen if you fell out of the boat without one of these things?"
"These rancid things? You mean like walk the plank?"
"Arg, Captain Klutz!" They both laughed.
"I guess you'd drown."
"You think so, Zak?"
"The channel's pretty deep here -- a hundred feet. A mile even."
"Aw Jeez, Zak, how long do you think your fishing line is? Thirty feet? Fifty feet, tops. And you didn't even have all your line out when you snagged the bottom a minute ago. If that channel's a mile deep then I must be Spider-Man's long-lost nephew."
"Who cares? Anyway, the current's too fast. You'd never even make it to shore. Especially you, the way you swim like an umbrella."
"Yeah, well what do you swim like, a rubber duckie?" It wasn't an insult, it was a signal for both of them to dissolve into the kind of giggling reserved for boys too old to be kids but too young to be teenagers.
"You're not gonna do it, are you, Dan?"
"Jump out of the boat."
"Who said anything about jumping? Why, do you want to try it?"
"Hey, knock it off -- don't screw around."
"Okay, okay, rubber duckie, keep your shirt on. Hey, you know what would be perfect?"
"Yeah. Lisa Martindale skinny-dipping."
"Don't be gross. This same river runs right by my house, right? You could visit by boat during the summer and then we could go off camping someplace."
"Oh, sure. That's 50 miles by car. Not even I could row this old tub trough that far."
"Know anybody with a canoe?"
"Mark Haberman. Why?"
"So, hey, who's this Lisa Martindale?"
"Just some girl. Forget it."
"Forget the canoe or the girl?"
"Our parents would never allow it. Anyway, cabbage brain, your place is upstream from the falls."
"Some portage, huh?"
"Hey! What are you doing now?"
"It's too hot for these rancid things."
"Yeah -- rancid." They both dissolved into giggling again.
Zak had trouble catching his breath -- "Hey, but really man, this is serious. Nobody's allowed in this boat without a life preserver, not even my Dad. Come on -- I don't want him to get pissed off."
"So don't tell him."
"As if he can't see us from the deck."
"So throw me out."
"Sure, what do you care if I get banned from using the boat for a whole month. I mean, Jeez, I thought you wanted to fish." Zak was annoyed. He didn't want to catch hell over something stupid like Danny refusing to wear a life preserver. Danny didn't usually act this weird.
"Hey, man, I was kidding, okay? Don't rock the boat!"
"I didn't. Now put that thing back on, will you!"
"Yes you did. Don't screw around!"
"Must've been the wind."
"What wind, asshole?"
"Put your life preserver back on, Danny." His voice was more than a little insistent -- almost strident.
"Wind my ass! There's not even a little breeze."
"So it was a wave. Now put that damned thing on or I will rock the damned boat!"
"Okay, okay, already. Don't get your diaper hyper. Wave, my ass--"
Whatever it was, it surged up over the edge of the boat.
It rolls him over the side. Pure energy. A wave with no water in it.
He doesn't swim.
The River takes him down, down deeper than he ever knew the river ran, spinning him, heaving, shoving his pliant, wonder-struck form upstream against the current.
He soars, hurls, cascades past rocks, weeds he never imagined. Garbage, sunken boats, cars, green, gray water, brown water. Fifty different shades of green and maybe even more of gray and brown gold water -- even small strips of cold, blue, almost black water. Twisted, woven, tangled together, slimy, oily, sudsy, putrid -- rancid -- flecked with scraps of plants, fish debris, flotsam and jetsam of every possible variety.
He sees the first of them!
Then another and another until he sees all six.
Some in just plain clothes, some in scout uniforms. He tries to reach them. He tries to speak, but they go by too fast.
They don't seem scared or worried. They definitely don't seem dead.
He slowsZak screamed. He heaved against the oars with every remaining ounce of energy to reach the still form now drifting just below the surface.
into a wide
He sees her -- a girl. Naked.
He tries not to look, but he can't help it.
She swims easily, gracefully, fish-like
swooping, undulating through the eel grass
straight toward him
with a single easy, but powerful
sweep of her legs from the hip.
He tenses, tries to back away.
The River hurls him
to the surface.
He reached out an oar --"Come on, Danny, damn you -- grab the oar! Stop fooling around. It isn't funny any more! Why did you have to take off the damned life jacket? Danny--"
He used an oar to guide the body alongside the boat. "Oh, please, God, don't let it be a corpse!" He struggled to get it -- him -- back on board.
"All you had to do was put on the stupid--" Zak was crying. Crying and fighting, irrationally, to get his inert friend into the life preserver. Only once the life vest was on Danny and securely fastened did he dredge up strength he never knew he had to row back to shore faster than he had ever rowed before.
"Dad! Mom! Dad! Oh, God -- Danny -- Help! Help!"
He tried to ignore his lungs, to stop breathing -- not to hold his breath, but to turn off the reflex. He tried to turn off all his senses -- the lights burning at the backs of his eyelids, the mediciney, laundry-starch smell, the scratchy sheets, the warm, dry, prickly air. He would drift away from all the confusion. Nothing fit together right any more.
He twitched. Every muscle tensed, convulsed.
A distant touch on his hand.
He eyes flew open like window shades. Air smashed into his lungs, too fast for him to do anything about it. The world asserted itself with an overwhelming violence -- tore him away from any promise of serenity.
The abruptness of it all made it hard to focus. A woman. He knew her. Recognition came slowly. His mother. She looked tired. She was wearing her pink dress. It was a dress he once said he liked. He didn't particularly like it. It was just something a kid says to his mother.
"Danny, oh Danny..." She was crying. Big, round tears crawling down her face.
Why should she be sad? He was the one that couldn't go back. Why should she be sad?
"Oh, Danny, are you all right? Oh, Danny--" She was squeezing him too hard. Her perfume choked him. "I'll be here -- I have to -- the nurse -- I'll be right back. I have to tell them you're awake. I have to call your father."
He lost track. He drifted off, but he couldn't reach the river. Every so often his eyes would focus and he would see lots of people. Bright lights. Noise. Everything too bright, too sharp, too loud.
His father. He was squeezing Danny's hand. He was talking.
"We know you're a trooper, Tiger. You're going to make it. You're halfway there already. The doctors say all your parts are working again. You just have to get things working together and crack out of this shell. We'll get you home soon, Killer, then everything'll be fine. We'll get you home. Just as soon as these dimwit doctors will let you go."
His mother again. She had given up on the pink dress. She was crying, pleading, but he couldn't follow. She was too far. He couldn't get back. He was adrift. Buffeted, tossed between two shorelines, but never reaching either.
There was no river.
There was no home.
They were walking. "So the doctors thought if we got you home for the weekend, maybe it would help with whatever it is that you still need help with." His Dad didn't give up easily, but he was getting frustrated. Confused.
"So what the hell is going on, Sport? We know there's nothing physically wrong with you anymore. They've done x-rays and brain scans and every other thing. So when are you going to crack that shell or drop down off that cloud or whatever it is? Maybe you're mad or upset. It's okay, Dan -- tell us off if you want to. You've got to at least say something to your mother or me?"
Danny could hear. He really could hear what his father was saying. He even understood -- at least sort of. But the pull of the river was so strong. So close. The currents, the gentle urging of the forces that moved its muted world...
"Damn it, kid -- we can't just send you back to that hospital. The longer they keep you in there, the farther you get from us. We can't keep going there, night after night, watching our son turn into a basket case. Damn it, Danny, I know you're in there!"
He had him firmly by the shoulders, shaking him. Danny didn't notice. "Just say something. Tell me to go to hell if that's what's on you mind, but say something, damn it -- anything!"
He feels the pull.
The chair, the porch, the steps drift away behind him.
The water is cold, dark.On his back in the cattails, every image, sound, smell clearly, crisply differentiated.
He has dreamed about her.
His eyes follow her.
She swims to him, closer now,
graceful, sure of herself, gently curving,
flowing, she circles him,
brushes against him, touches him firmly.
She takes his hand, leads him downward
with gentle, rhythmic, rippling kicks
weaving an intricate path
to a cleaner, less cluttered river.
The colors, tastes and smells more alive, vibrant.
But he can't --
The pressure against his frail body is too great.
Spiraling wildly upwards
through slime, weeds, garbage --
He's just a kid! What is he supposed to do?
It's not his fault!
He didn't do any of this!
His head throbs.
Air explodes into his lungs.
He stands. He staggers toward the shore -- the voice -- his father's voice.
His father bounding down the path to the shore, pulsing terror.
His mother running behind.
"Dad, Mom -- I'm sorry, really...."
"It's all right, Danny, Oh, God, it's all right--" They're hugging. All of them. And crying. His mom is fussing about him, wet and messy, but it's okay.
Then his father is picking him up and carrying him the way he must have done when he was real little. Walking back up the path toward the house.
His father doesn't even yell at him.
He walks along the shore. He's there, but he's not really there. He picks up trash or makes notes about the location of anything too big for him to handle. He searches out renegade pipes and stops them up with anything he can find before making notes so he can call and report them later. He sits on the dock down behind the house and stares and talks quietly, plaintively.
"The kid is weird, Rita."
"Lee, he almost drowned. Who can know what he really went through? And the coma--"
"Oh, Christ, don't start bawling on me again. I didn't mean anything by it. I should have just kept my mouth shut. Look, I'm sure he'll snap out of it eventually. And, hey, we're doing everything just like the doctors said. It's going to take time..."
"So, uh, Dan, how's it going? I mean, how was last night?"
"Okay, I guess. I think I'm starting to make progress."
"Progress, eh? Well, you scared the shit out of my cousin Jennifer with all that weird stuff you were saying last night. She called me this morning and told me not to introduce her to any more supposedly neat guys."
"Oh, give me a break! You're the one that tried to tell me she looked like girl in my `dream.' Well, she's not even close. For one thing, Jennifer's a blonde, and for another, she says she hates swimming."
"Well ex-cuuuusse me! Jeez, try to help a guy out -- I mean, what did you expect? She's my cousin. And anyway, Dweebo, try to take a river or a mermaid or whatever to a dance and see how far you get."
"Go to hell!"
"Hey, I would, but you've already got all the best seats reserved."
Zak was turning into a real jerk.
His mother still gets scared every time he goes down to the river, but she doesn't try to stop him. She knows she can't. She knows she mustn't. His father, who always thinks he has to figure everything out, doesn't understand, but at least he doesn't interfere either.
And the river. The river goes on. They're making progress.
Dan and the River.
The River and Dan.
G. L. Eikenberry (email@example.com) is a frequent InterText contributor who works as a freelance information systems and communications consultant in Canada. He's been writing fiction for more than twenty years. His work has been published in a wide (often obscure and mostly Canadian) variety of hard-copy publications as well as in electronic media.
InterText stories written by G. L. Eikenberry: "Eddie's Blues" (v3n5), "Reality Error" (v4n2), "The Loneliness of the Late-Night Donut Shop" (v4n4), "River" (v5n1), "Oak, Ax and Raven" (v6n2), "Schrödinger's Keys" (v7n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 G. L. Eikenberry.