Charlie got on his knees, leaning out the car window. He was looking for landmarks. They were close to the cabin. He knew that. But until he saw the “No Trespassing” sign and then caught a glimpse of the island, he couldn’t be sure.
“Charlie, sit down, dear. That’s not safe.”
“Mom,” he whined, but he sat.
“You going to swim to the island this year, Chuck?”
His brother, Walt, swam to the island and back every year. Charlie usually canoed alongside him, but he’d never tried the swim himself.
“I might.” Charlie picked at a loose thread on his cutoffs. He wanted to swim with Walt, but if he tried and didn’t make it he thought that would be worse than not trying at all.
“Sure he will,” Charlie’s dad chimed in.
“Cliff, don’t badger the boy.”
Charlie knew his mom was trying to help, but her protection made it worse.
“I’m not badgering anyone, Sheila.” His dad slowed the car and turned the left blinker on. “Walt made the swim when he was, what, 12?”
“I don’t remember,” Walt said, but Charlie knew he was lying. “I’ll get the gate, Dad.”
“I’ll help,” Charlie said.
The boys jumped from the car and together they swung the metal gate wide. After the car and trailer passed through, they pushed it shut and followed the car down the drive.
“You don’t have to do the swim, you know,” Walt said.
Charlie felt a tangle of fear and uncertainty tighten in his gut as he thought of the island, pictured the expanse of opaque water that stretched between it and the cabin.
“I know.” Charlie shoved his hands in his pockets. “But I might.”
Walt looked at him sideways. “Race you!” Walt took off down the curve of dirt and gravel that led to the cabin, Charlie right behind him. At the last moment Walt stumbled and Charlie slapped his hand on the forest-green siding. Charlie knew Walt had probably let him win; he usually did, but he relished the victory all the same.
That night, after they unpacked and settled in, they sat around the campfire full of marshmallows and heavy with the fatigue particular to being outside all day. Charlie found himself nodding off but didn’t want to leave the warm circle of light and family. He lay down on the bench with his head on a wadded-up sweatshirt. As he watched the fire he dozed, moving in and out of consciousness in a delicious sort of way. After a while he became aware of the snippets of whispered conversation between Walt and his dad.
“Don’t go,” his father was saying. “I mean it. The things I saw in Germany – the things they’d done to those people.”
Charlie was fully awake now. His Dad never talked about the war, never wanted to see the old war movies Charlie sometimes watched on Saturday afternoons. And when Charlie would ask what it was like, his dad only ever said “I hope you never know.”
“I don’t want to go, Dad, but what am I supposed to do?” Gone was the confidence in Walt’s voice, the cheer. He sounded desperate, unsure.
“You could go to school, get a deferment.” Charlie’s mom’s voice broke on the word deferment like it was this precious thing she could hardly bear to speak of.
“Mom, don’t.” Charlie watched his brother put a comforting arm around their mother, which made her shoulders shake and her face shiny with tears in the firelight. Walt saw then that Charlie was awake. “We can talk about this later.” Walt squeezed their mom and kissed her wet cheek. “Besides, it’s our first night in the cabin, which means we have a tradition to uphold, right brother?”
Charlie grinned at him.
Their mom stood. “Oh no!” but she was smiling a little now. “Haven’t you outgrown that yet? What will the neighbors think?”
Charlie and Walt both jumped up, running from the fire pit to the dock. Once there, they shed their clothes, the waxing crescent moon barely illuminating their pale skin. Walt threw himself off the end of the dock, Charlie followed. They both whooped and laughed at the wild pleasure of the bracing water on their naked bodies and the darkness all around as they bobbed and floated in a world of their own making.
“Don’t worry about any of that stuff Mom and Dad were saying, OK, Chuck?” Walt said from the stern of the canoe the next day.
Charlie paddled a few more strokes, his eyes on the entrance to the creek that fed into the lake at its western end. “What will you do, though?” he asked Walt after a minute.
Walt didn’t answer right away. “I got my letter, I guess I’ll go.”
Charlie thought about this as the canoe sliced through the gentle chop of the lake. “Joe Nelson’s brother, Chip? He didn’t come back.” Walt was silent, the only sound their paddles and the lap of the waves against the canoe. “Joe and his mom went to one of those protests at the courthouse after Chip died. He’s pretty mad about it.”
Walt steered them into the creek. The high, grassy banks narrowed and rose up, hiding the lake and the fields from view. “I would be, too.”
“There’s got to be a reason, though, right?” Charlie asked.
A group of ducks startled by the canoe took off flapping and quacking
“Charlie, if I figure it out, I promise I’ll let you know.”
That night after dinner, Walt and their dad smoked on the porch while Charlie helped his mom with the dishes. He heard them talking through the open window.
“I’ve been thinking about it, son, where to go.”
“Dad, listen –.”
“No son of mine is going to throw himself away. Brutal. Senseless –”
“I might not even see combat.”
“Go to Canada. Stay with your sister until this madness is over.”
“Lots of guys make it through –”
“She’ll take you in.”
“If I go I can’t come back.”
Charlie heard the crackle of his dad lighting another cigarette, the heavy exhale and acrid smell of that first drag. “Canada,” he said.
Charlie waited for Walt to argue.
“Promise me, son.”
If Walt made that promise, Charlie didn’t hear it.
Charlie couldn’t sleep that night. If Walt went to Canada, he’d be alive, but gone. He guessed that would be better than what happened to Chip. But what could Charlie say to someone like Joe whose brother had gone and didn’t come back? He could hear Walt tossing and sighing in the top bunk.
“Walt?” Charlie whispered.
“How long do you think it would take me to swim to the island?”
“There and back?” Walt asked.
“I don’t know. An hour maybe?”
“OK, I’ll do it. Tomorrow. Just in case.”
Walt was quiet a long time, and Charlie wondered if he’d gone to sleep.
“Yeah. OK. Just in case.”
Charlie felt exhausted by his decision. He closed his eyes and sleep came like a door closing.
The next day it rained, and the day after that. Several times Charlie walked into a room and knew he’d interrupted a discussion he wasn’t meant to hear, his parents and Walt acting as if that wasn’t the case.
In between these aborted conversations, Charlie and Walt did puzzles, read comic books, played way too many games of hangman and Yahtzee. When they got bored with more conventional distractions, they pretended the floor was hot lava and moved around the cabin jumping from couch to end table to bookshelf until Walt broke a picture frame and their mom ordered them to stop. By the third day of rain they thought they’d come out of their skins, but after breakfast the sun broke through, sending a rainbow arcing over the lake and the island.
“Finally!” Walt pushed through the screen door and ran, whooping, through the woods. Charlie followed, his pants and sneakers soaked by the saturated grass and underbrush of the forest floor.
Walt led him across the road and onto a deer trail that wound up the steep hill to the north of the lake. By the time they reached the top they were soaked and sweating and the sky held more blue than gray.
Walt threw himself down on a patch of grass in the sun; Charlie perched on a log beside him.
“I thought that rain would never stop.” Walt sat up and took off his T-shirt, wiping his face with it.
“I bet it rains a lot,” Charlie said. “In the jungle.”
“A fair amount.”
“In school we read about how in WWI the soldiers’ feet went rotten because of the rain in the trenches. I wonder if that happens over there?”
“I mean what do you do if your foot gets rotten?”
“Can we talk about something else?” Walt asked.
“Do they drain it or something? Can you walk?”
“On second thought,” Walt said. “Let’s just sit and enjoy the view.”
Charlie shifted on the log, then looked out over the water, the island, the cedar and tamarack-covered hills on the darker, roadless south side of the lake. From up here the water seemed calm and blue, but Charlie knew up close it would still be a little murky, stirred up from the storm. He stared hard at the island, tracing the path between their dock, which was barely visible from this height, to the near side of the island and back. He wasn’t sad the rain had delayed the swim.
They heard the ringing of the triangle their mom used to call them in for meals.
“Race you!” Walt took off down the path, still shirtless. Charlie ran after him, stumbling and flailing down the hill. As they came out of the woods, Charlie lagged behind by a couple yards. But this time Walt didn’t pretend to stumble; he didn’t slow his pace. Charlie almost caught him anyway, but Walt’s hand slapped the cabin wall just a moment ahead of Charlie’s.
“You almost beat me fair and square.” Walt panted from the effort. “You’re not a kid anymore.”
Charlie felt his chest open, expand.
Walt punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Let’s eat. I’m starved.”
That night at dinner, Charlie noticed his mom’s eyes were red and moist, and a little muscle bulged and flexed in his dad’s jaw as he chewed. They discussed what they would do with the two days they had left: some fishing and a picnic, maybe an early morning canoe to watch the moose feeding in the creek.
“Should we do it tomorrow?” Walt asked.
Charlie knew he meant the island. He took a bite of mac and cheese, swallowed, then nodded. “Tomorrow.”
The room shone bright with sunlight when Charlie woke the next day. He shuffled into the kitchen, poured himself some cornflakes, and chewed sleepily. He could see his mom sitting on the porch, so he carried his bowl out to join her. She’d been crying again.
“Where’s Dad and Walt?”
His mom held a tissue to her nose for a moment before answering. “Your dad went for a drive. I –” she took a deep breath. “Your brother’s gone.”
Without speaking, Charlie stood and walked to the dock. Lifting his eyes, he saw the path of glittering sunlight and dark green water leading from where he stood to the island. He moved to the edge, took a deep breath, and dove in.
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