When we arrived at the lake, Dad left the station wagon running while he went inside to check in. We always had station wagons. This one was an Oldsmobile, white with false wood paneling along its sides. The maroon cloth seats were worn and mushy, and with the windows rolled up the back seat became an oven. I held my volleyball—still in its box—on my lap. When Dad came back, we parked, and with our bags slung over our shoulders we marched down the path to our cottage. All of the cottages were similar, all had white siding—decks, trims and roofs all painted forest green. Each stood quietly in the shade of tall maples, the ground carpeted in ivy and moss. Ours was The Tea Cup. The neighboring cottage across the path was The Saucer.
First thing I did was run down to the dock. A few aluminum rowboats were tied to pylons. From here I reacquainted myself with the lake. The last remnant of a glacier, Crystal Lake sat low between two long, green mountains. Acre-long scrape marks scarred the faces from ancient ice slides. Large rocks and boulders lined the far shore. One boulder near our end—15-feet tall and shaped like a brick—was a popular spot from which to jump into the lake. On its face, someone had spray-painted a large pair of black, Bullwinkle-style antlers; between the antlers, large black letters spelled out the words: MOOSE ROCK.
After lunch, I walked to the beach at our end of the lake. Behind the sand stood a wall of reeds, and behind that was a small pond where one could find turtles, strange bugs, newts, and bullfrogs with deep, thrumming voices. Several times I heard a croak, and when I took a step, a dark lump darted into the water—a soft clap against the surface. As I emerged from the reeds, frogless and with mud caked around the soles of my sneakers, I saw a boy on the beach in front of me. Thin with dark hair, he looked to be about my age. He wore white shorts and brown sandals and a blue, seersucker button-down shirt. The sky had greyed in the afternoon and set his figure into relief against the surrounding white air. He walked along the water’s edge, dragging a stick in the sand, sometimes stopping to draw a shape or two. After one drawing he stopped, turned to face the water, and threw the stick sidearm out into the lake. I stepped forward and he swung his shoulders around. He said, “Hey.”
He looked me over. “What were you doing back there?”
“Looking for frogs.”
“There was a turtle back there.” His eyes lit up. “Not today. Last year. But it was swimming. I couldn’t get it.”
“Oh. Were there any frogs?”
“A few, but they’re all in the water.”
He squinted behind his silver, wire-rimmed glasses and nodded. “What’s your name, kid?”
He nodded again.
I hadn’t liked being called kid, or being nodded at. Condescension from older boys like my brother Jack was hard enough to take, albeit an unfortunate inevitability. From a boy my own age it was infuriating. However, this was the first friend I stood to make in Vermont, and I had only known him a moment. Maybe, for him, it wasn’t a way of talking down to me. Maybe that was just how he was. Maybe he nodded at everyone. Maybe he called everyone kid.
His name was Alex and he was from town in upstate New York that I had never heard of. His family had moved there from Boston when his father had been promoted. Alex adjusted his glasses when he spoke about this, as though the promotion were something he had inherited. This was his first visit to Crystal Lake and Vermont, and I assumed the role of his personal guide. I took him back behind the reeds and showed him the pond. I pointed to the mountains and explained how the glacier had cut its way down between them. The local lore was that an underground aquifer fed into Crystal Lake all the way from Lake Willoughby and if somebody drowned in Willoughby they would eventually surface in Crystal. Alex sneered at the legend. We walked to the end of the dock. While I lectured about angling he pawed the wood with the toe of his shoe. I explained how if you cast near the rocks on the far shore you would catch buckets of rock bass and maybe even a sunny or two—which were fun to fight because of how their scales shone blue and gold when they turned under the water. But if you rowed a short way back from the rocks, you were in a prime location to hook into some really big smallmouth bass. I told him how lake trout inhabited the deep water in the center of the lake, but I had never seen one. Then I called his attention to Moose Rock and told him that maybe he could come with us to jump off it, if he wanted. I folded my arms, full of myself. I had given him the grand tour—the history, the mythos, the fish, the fun. Surely I was no longer someone to be referred to as kid. He stared straight across the lake at Moose Rock and shook his head. “I don’t like heights.” He glanced over at me, expressionless, and then looked back out over the water. “But I think I’ll catch a lake trout this week.”
We walked along the shore and I tried to think of anything else that would interest him. There were the fireworks in Barton and the nude beach at the secluded end of Lake Willoughby, but his family was leaving before the Fourth of July and he didn’t care to see the nudists. I asked if he wanted to play after dinner. We agreed to meet on the beach in front of the pond and after that we walked in silence, side-by-side with our hands in our pockets. At one point I gave him a light shot to his arm. “Hey,” he said with a smile, and rubbed the spot where I’d got him. I grinned, and when he stopped rubbing I gave him a second shot, this time a little closer to his elbow. “Stop,” he squawked, and hopped back with a laugh. “I mean it.” I didn’t listen. I hit him again. He turned and swatted at me but missed. I hit him on his back and he winced, and this time he gave me one to the arm. It was just like with Jack, only better because I was finally winning. I kept at his arms his back. He kept saying Hey. I kept laughing. One time I felt my knuckle connect with his backbone.
When I stopped, he swung his arms slowly in circles, the way one does when warming up for exercise. We were near his cottage now and he rubbed his arm, grimaced, and sighed. He said he’d see me later and walked up the green wooden stairs to his cottage.
After dinner, I waited until the sunlight fermented to a deep red and the mosquitoes came. Then I walked back to our cottage where Dad was sitting in a folding chair on the deck, wearing cut-off denim shorts and a t-shirt with the words GO CLIMB A GLACIER printed in blue lettering on a field of white. On the railing beside him he had a can of bug spray and a Genesee pale ale. I held my new volleyball; I had carried it to the beach for Alex and me. Dad He took a sip of ale and then sprayed the aerosol around us. With his bottom lip, he sucked a bit from his mustache. “What’s the matter, Scungilli?” Dad always called me names like that. Sometimes I was Bud or Sport. Or Peanut Brittle. Or Irving Berlin. Or Little Chrissie Casserole. Today I was Scungilli.
“Nothing.” I looked at the ball and then back at my father. “I was supposed to play with my friend.”
“Oh.” He crossed his right leg over his left. “What happened?”
“He didn’t show up.”
“What time were you supposed to play?”
He sprayed a short burst over my head and the mist drizzled down onto my shoulders. “Well, that could mean anything. Maybe you guys just got mixed up.”
“And you don’t know, maybe his family had plans that he didn’t know about. Wait until tomorrow and you’ll figure out what happened. I’m sure it was nothing.”
I sat down Indian-style on the deck beside his chair. “Yeah.” I bounced the ball, caught it, and turned my head toward my father. “You wanna go fishing?”
“It’s too late now, Bud. It’s just about dark. We’ll go first thing in the morning.” He took a sip and sighed. “And then tomorrow afternoon, when it’s good and hot, maybe we’ll go back out and jump off Moose Rock.”
The next morning was bright blue and burning, the mountains feathered in lush green pines, spotted with occasional maples and birches. Our rowboat was a speck in the greatness of the lake, sliding quietly toward the rocky north bank. Jack sat on the bow, which lifted gently each time Dad dragged the oars through the water. There wasn’t any wind, and in the stillness, in each of the droplets that fell from the bottom edges of the oars each time Dad pulled them out of the blackness, in the swirls created by the oars as they propelled us toward the far shore, the sun as it baked our skin with comforting indifference, the mink as it bounded across the rocks, I knew I was in a place of impermanence, of transience. I wanted to call it home. I ached for it, but it could never be home. It was that fleeting glimpse of what we can only call Heaven, of the dragon’s tail disappearing around a corner. Once you’re sure you’ve seen it, you can also be sure you never really saw anything at all. I worried that if Dad rowed too hard he might sweep it all away, but he didn’t; he rowed just right. He pulled up the oars and the droplets trickled down in unison. He set the oars across the benches and we drifted, our boat gliding effortlessly on the shining surface. Jack sat there like a figurehead, chest forward and daring, and we listened, all three of us. A kingfisher called, Dad nodded, and we grabbed our rods and reels.
After we got back, I went to see Alex. His mother answered the door. She was tall with a long, lean face like his and short, curly brown hair. She stood behind the screen door and looked down at me. Her mouth settled into a flat line across her face. I asked her if Alex could come out to play.
“No, I’m sorry. He won’t be coming out today.”
“Oh. Is he in trouble?”
She set her hands on her hips, with her thumbs pointed forward and her fingers resting just above her backside. “No, he’s not in any trouble. We just don’t think he should be around you.”
I was mute. She chewed one side of her bottom lip for a moment. Then she got fed up. “We don’t want him around people who beat on him.”
“I didn’t beat on him.”
She called for Alex. A moment later he came forth from the darkness and stood at her side. He wore a yellow t-shirt and he wasn’t wearing his glasses. He looked sad. “Go home,” he said. “I don’t want to play with you.” His mother laid her hand on his shoulder and made a face that said I told you so.
I looked at her imploringly. “But I didn’t do anything. We were playing.”
She pushed the screen door open and stepped out leading Alex by the wrist. She positioned him between us and then turned him around and lifted the back of his shirt. Bruises the size of nickels littered his back like burn marks. There weren’t any blue or green or purple or brown, just black, as though someone had held firecrackers against his skin. She touched one lightly with the tip of her middle finger and he winced. “So,” she said. “You didn’t do this?” I didn’t know what to say. Alex’s eyes were shut tight, and he was trembling. She lowered his shirt and pulled him to her, hugged him with one hand held to the back of his head. “Just go, and leave him alone. And if you come back, or bother my son again, I’m going straight to your parents.” She led Alex back inside. The screen door rattled shut, and then the wooden door slammed behind it.
I retreated to the dock near our cottage. At the end, I leaned forward, and studied my reflection in the water beneath me. I wasn’t a boy, I thought. Alex was a boy, a good boy—thoughtful, polite, refined, and civil. I wasn’t. I was less. I was a monster.
We rowed to Moose Rock that afternoon—all four of us: my father at the oar, Jack on the bow, Mom beside me in the rear. The weather was perfect, searing hot and dry. I leaned over the side of the boat and dragged my fingers through the water. I felt no discernible difference in temperature. Dad grinned through his beard. “How is it?”
“Warm,” I said. “Really warm.” I wondered if just the water near the surface was warm, that if I reached down a bit farther it would turn biting cold. I wondered if I was just numb. I hadn’t told them about what happened with Alex. I was afraid of what they would think, that they would be disappointed in me. Disappointment was a response as permanent and eternal as the action that prompted it. I could never undo what I had done, and I was already disappointed in myself. I didn’t need company.
When we reached the north bank, Jack climbed out onto a large flat rock and guided the boat as Dad wedged it between two boulders. He handed the anchor to Jack, who then hopped from rock to rock until he reached the trees and wrapped the anchor line around a thin pine. He asked if he should tie a knot. Jack was always tying knots. He was a Boy Scout, Order of the Arrow, soon to be working on his Eagle project. The ability to secure a thing so effectively was for him a power over the forces of nature, a declaration of his freedom to ensnare and enslave another. At the dinner table, he used strings of spaghetti to explain hitches and bowlines, the differences between square knots and granny knots. He made fun of me for wearing sneakers with Velcro straps instead of laces. He tied my lures for me without my asking. He checked the anchor line before dropping it in the water so we wouldn’t lose it. He checked the dock lines each time after we got in, so the boat wouldn’t float away overnight.
“We don’t need a stinkin’ knot,” Dad rasped. “Just wrap it around a bunch of times and let’s go.”
Jack climbed Moose Rock without assistance. Dad went next. Then he knelt down and called for me. I set one foot onto the ledge of a wide crack and started to climb and Dad pointed out places for me to grab and step. Near the top my footing slipped, and Dad caught me by the wrist before I fell. At the top, he squeezed the back of my neck affectionately and called down to Mom. She held up our Polaroid camera. “Okay,” he said and turned to Jack and me. “Your mother’s gonna stay down there and take pictures.”
Jack stood at the edge of the rock. A slender brown silhouette against the blue sky, he looked down into the water. He then bent his knees and jumped out into the air over the lake. His arms went up. His body slipped down and then there was the splash, and Dad whistled.
I peered over the edge. The water looked so much farther away than the top of the rock had appeared from the water. Jack’s head bobbed as a shock wave of foam spread outward around him. Like an otter, he swam back to the rock where Mom stood. I looked back, and Dad fluttered his eyebrows at me. “Well, you ready to do this?” I inched forward and curled my toes over the edge. The water was tinted green at the surface, but then darkened rapidly. Just below the water line Moose Rock extended out slightly, maybe a foot, maybe two. Dad reminded me that I had to jump out far enough to clear it and suggested I take a running start. I thought back to track and field days in school. We had pits for the broad jumps. I wasn’t good at either, but what struck me at that moment was the notion of the foot foul. You had to push off of the board at the beginning of the pit without letting even your toes extend past its edge. I often committed these fouls. Sometimes, nearly half of my foot would land in infraction. And this was on a flat surface while wearing sneakers. Moose Rock was a rolling floor of stone littered with debris and moss and spiders, and I was barefoot. I first imagined myself tripping before the edge, falling, cracking my skull and then tumbling into the lake. And then worse, I imagined stepping too far before jumping, committing a foot foul, falling awkwardly and snapping my leg as I dropped alongside the rock face, finally crashing into the rock on the way down, breaking my neck. I told Dad I would just stand at the edge and then just jump really far.
Dad nodded. “It’s your funeral.”
Mom called to me, waved, and held up the camera. I bent my knees, elbows back, settled my weight into the balls of my feet. A breeze blew gently, and then it ceased. I counted: one, two, and then I pushed. I threw my arms and hips forward. I was out there and I knew I’d gone far enough. I sucked in as much air as I could, and the surrounding air rushed upward around me. It took forever. Then I pierced the water feet first. I kept my eyes open, looking up: bubbles and light, a green corona, a halo being eaten by darkness. I wondered how far I’d descend, if I’d ever stop, if I’d have enough air to make it back up to the surface. Coldness enveloped my legs as my body plunged deeper, and it became dark. My toes and feet went numb, and I started to kick and pull myself upward toward the surface. Air streamed from my mouth and my chest deflated. I didn’t seem to be moving fast enough. I kicked and paddled faster, and my chest emptied as I strained. The thought passed through my mind that I might not make it, that I should give up, go limp, that I should let the lake swallow me. I thought it might be for the best. And then a sound—but not a sound, a swelling, like air, like a fighter jet, arose in my ears and I pushed, I paddled, I kicked. The water lightened, and the halo broke back into the darkness and the water grew warm and green and I felt like I was shooting toward the surface and then there was a white flash.
I opened my mouth and sucked in a lungful of hot summer air. Sounds: birds, wind. I shook the water from my head and opened my eyes: blue, green, sun, sky. Heaven. I was back in Heaven.
Mom held up the camera with one hand. With her other hand, she gave me a thumb’s up. I climbed up beside her and she draped a towel around me. Dad and Jack stood at the edge, looking down at us. Dad called down, asked if I wanted to come back up and go again, and I said no. Mom removed the photograph from the camera. She shook it and fanned herself, and asked if I wanted to invite my friend the next time we came out, maybe tomorrow. He was afraid of heights, I said, and she said that was too bad. She showed me the photograph. The image was setting, hazy and still pale in its infancy, but she could already tell it was one for the album: a tan body in a field of blue, arms outstretched, eyes clenched shut, yellow-and-black shorts, striped like a bee, the face of the rock like a bluff behind me.
Chris Cascio‘s writing and visual art have appeared in The Southampton Review, Sand: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, The Northern Virginia Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at Monroe College and also works as a freelance editor and portrait artist. He currently lives in Larchmont, NY. You can find him on Twitter: @ChrisJCascio.