It’s Always Too Late to Save Him

“Drowning Boy,” a short story by Adam Peterson

It’s Always Too Late to Save Him

Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.

Drowning Boy

This year we’ll save that drowning boy in the backyard pool. His arms are growing tired and his voice is hoarse from crying and chlorine. We’ve always meant to do it, but it’s easier to ignore him and forget that we once loved swimming. But this year we’ll save the drowning boy even if he’s not much of a boy anymore. We’ll do it despite believing a man should be able to save himself.

Together, the boys hopped the night fence. They dove through the pool’s shimmer headfirst, but by morning an even brighter sky dulled the water. Eyes might have shamed their shrunken chests and freckled arms so they ran dripping back over the fence. All but one. We woke to the same blue sky and the song of sparrows and the screams of a drowning boy in our backyard pool. Through the curtains we saw him beating his arms to keep his head above water, but we had to get Rachel ready for school. Next year, we said. Next year we’ll save that drowning boy. At night, we pretended the splashes were fun splashes not drowning splashes. For years we heard them and said, Maybe it’s teenagers in love.

Maybe it’s the sparrows playing.

Maybe it’s something slightly less terrible than a drowning boy.

In the summer, we barbecued while the drowning boy sputtered and blew desperate fountains with his lips. Neighbors would come and compliment our blooming azaleas and the white noise machine filling the yard with the sound of a boy whispering Mother. When their children would ask if they could swim, we would tell them we’d already winterized the pool. But that drowning boy is using it, they’d say before their parents could shush them.

When Rachel graduated from high school, we threw her a party in the backyard. The drowning boy’s friends came back. They hid their eyes from his waving arms and made sure their mouths were full of cake so they didn’t have to answer when they heard their names. They’d just graduated from high school, too. So had the drowning boy. When we weren’t looking one of them threw the drowning boy’s diploma and mortarboard into the pool. In the yearbook, he was voted ‘Most Likely to Never Leave Town.’

After Rachel’s wedding and the grandchildren and the divorce, there was really no reason not to help that drowning boy. But we’d gotten so used to blaming every noise, every terrible thing, on something unreachable that it became impossible to believe we could save even ourselves.

Then one night we hear him and come running. I dive into the pool while you call his parents. His parents died so you call Rachel and tell her you met a single man her age. I pull the drowning boy from the pool while my pocket change sinks to the bottom. I say, Oh god, Oh god, are you okay?

About the Author

Adam Peterson’s fiction can be found in The Kenyon Review, Epoch, and elsewhere.

“Drowning Boy” is published here by permission of the author, Adam Peterson. Copyright © Adam Peterson 2018. All rights reserved.

More Like This

Our Family History, Packed in Mom’s Garage

"You'll Be Honest, You'll Be Brave" by Kelli Jo Ford, recommended by Erika T. Wurth

Jul 1 - Kelli Jo Ford

“The Little Engine That Could” Is a Capitalist Nightmare

As a stay-at-home dad I read this children's classic over and over, but I also felt shut out from its definition of success

Jun 18 - Brian Goedde

Jenny Zhang Explains Why We Want to Be Baby

Her new poetry collection interrogates what it means to be born into a world you didn't ask for

May 14 - Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada
Thank You!