The Boy in the Lake

Nichols Ford Malick

2011 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up

There was a boy in the lake. Men in boats were searching, dragging lines. A son and his father watched from the end of a dock in a bay connected by a rocky strait. The bay was shallow, good for swimming, with a marsh at the north end. The son had come here a few times with his friends and their parents, and when he’d asked his mother about returning, she had suggested he go with his father. “It would do you both some good,” she’d said. “I’ll say something to him when he comes to get you for the weekend.”

They had heard about the accident on the way to the lake before his father had switched off the radio: “Three college students capsized on Great Pond in the turbulent waves of yesterday’s sudden storm. One is missing and presumed drowned.” The missing student was foreign. The police were waiting to release his name until they could contact his parents in Burma. He hadn’t known how to swim. The two students who’d taken him on the lake had told him to hold on to the canoe, that they would swim to shore, find help, and come back to save him. But the water had been cold, and when the rescue boats arrived they found the canoe but not the boy or his body.

With crossed arms, looking over the smooth black water, seeing the boats in the distance under a gray sky, the son could not help but think of the Burmese boy, of what it had been like to be abandoned in a strange place without his family, his only chance of survival swimming away and him helpless to follow.

“Maybe,” the son said to his father, “we can do this another time?”

The father was silent. He pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it on the boards. “We’ll be OK,” he said, “they’re not looking over here. That Burmese boy won’t be in this bay.” The father stepped to the end of the dock where the water darkened. He bent his knees and performed a shallow dive. When he surfaced, he spat. “Jump in,” he called. “It’s warm.” When the son did not move, he added, “We’re on a high shelf, separate from the rest of the lake. The boy won’t drift this way.”

“Dad — ”

“It’s OK,” the father said, “come on.”

The son uncrossed his arms and stepped to the side of the dock. “Take off your shirt. We didn’t bring an extra.”

The son did as he was told. He crouched, then sat on the edge where he could see the lake bottom covered with dark, rotting pine needles and stray leaves. The pads of his feet skimmed the water. It was cold. When he heard his father clear his throat, the son planted his hands, lifted his body, and slipped in. The cold enveloped him. He treaded hard to avoid touching the lake floor. He could stand, he was tall enough, but he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to feel the dark leaves, and all the things that might be underneath.

The father waded toward him. “See, it’s not so bad.”

The son kept treading water. He wondered how long he would have to swim before his father would be satisfied and say their enjoyment was worth the trip.

The father stared at his son, then looked over his shoulder toward the boats. “Hey, have I told you how these lakes were formed? Glaciers, millions and millions of years ago, covered this whole area. At the end of the last ice age, as things were getting warmer, the ice started to recede. Big hunks broke off, massive hunks, and when they crashed to the ground the ice dented the earth and made deep holes — kettle holes, we call them — not very wide, but some over a hundred and fifty feet deep. That’s probably why they can’t find the boy. He’s dropped down into one of the dark wells.” The father coughed, then patted the son on his back twice. “Let’s swim. That’s what we came to do.”

He dove away from the son and swam along the pine-lined shore. Not wanting to be left alone, and seeing no other choice, the son closed his eyes, ducked his head under the water, and followed his father by the sounds of his kicks.

They passed small cottages, docks, and put-ins. The father’s pace was tiring, and the son had to stop every few minutes to catch his breath. The father did not wait, never looked back, and the son struggled to keep him in sight. Eventually the father disappeared around a small, wooded point. Disconnected, lungs burning, the son eased his pace. He was confident his father would realize he was missing a son. He would need to make an excuse, tell his father he had stopped to look at something: a rock on the lake bed. His father would forgive that.

With no need to hurry now, the son flipped on his back and kicked steadily, staying close to shore. The sky was matte gray, but he could sense the sun beyond the clouds in the patch of sky that did not look so dark. He passed a dock. Attached to a pier was a small blue placard with the name of the college. He righted himself. He looked inland, saw a cabin, a police car. At the put-in, where the water lapped at an eroding slope, a policeman stood, resting his hand on his nightstick. The policeman yawned. At his feet, among the needles, lay three orange life vests. A desolate feeling washed over the son.

Then, from some distance behind, he heard a man’s voice calling. He kicked around, the water resisting him. His father looked miniature, standing in front of the north-end marsh, half out of the water. He was waving his arms over his head in an X.

The son darted from the shore. He swam as hard as he could, but the water in the center of the bay was icy, and it pressed on his chest. Each breath was a gasp as he fought his way to his father, and it seemed a fear he did not understand was the only thing propelling him across the bay.

“They were looking in the wrong place,” the father said when the son reached him. “You need to stay here so I can get somebody. Don’t leave this spot. I don’t want him drifting.”

The son’s chest heaved. He let his legs drop so he could take in air, feet reaching for the lake bottom. He had barely comprehended his father’s words when something oozed between his toes. The bed was sloped and he could not keep stable. He stumbled forward toward the marsh.

Just below the surface, the Burmese boy drifted, his limbs suspended, one gray arm tangled in the reeds. The boy’s face was calm and his eyes were open.

The son turned to his father, but his father was gone, a hundred yards out, swimming away.

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