To the Island, Once More
A short story by Mark Jacquemain about the inevitable end of summer
AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
The first morning that E.B. White returns, once more, to the lake, a dragonfly lands on his fishing rod. In his essay on visiting the camp in Maine where he vacationed as a child, White writes that, “It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me beyond any doubt that everything would be as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years.” In one moment, he is his father picking up the bait box. In the next, he is himself as a child, casting into the calm water. Experience and memory slide into one another and intermingle to create something even more powerful than nostalgia. It is time travel.
Mark Jacquemain, the author of this week’s story, “Island,” has built another kind of time machine. A young boy named Joe spends the summers with his mother at their family cabin in Canada. Their tiny island is both a perch from which to view the world and a world unto itself, with secret lairs and entire ecosystems of society and nature. Though a radio broadcast of Princess Diana’s wedding places us in the early 80s, the story could be yesterday or tomorrow, for Joe, who remembers every scent and every texture, and for the reader who is likewise transported.
But where White is concerned with the ways in which the innocence of a place might be violated, Jacquemain looks instead at the innocence of a person. What does Joe understand by observing his mother’s flirtation with Stuart, the man who has bought the next island over? What is gained by romantic knowledge, and what is lost?
Jacquemain’s language is poignant and economical to the point of being heartbreaking. When Joe describes his mother’s “lazy breaststroke,” or how she chats about lemonade but not his father, or the graceful way she laughs while leaning away, we feel his love and admiration for her, but also his frustration. Though they are not given a word of direct address, what we imagine to be the callouses and the tender spots of Joe the adult inform how we read Joe the child. We can imagine him remembering this place, and these summers, with an exhilarating and immediate sting, as if, as for White, there had been no years.
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
To the Island, Once More
by Mark Jacquemain
For a long time they barely saw the man who bought the island next door. He visited haphazardly, one or two weekends a month, and did repairs on the sagging sun porch on the far side of his cottage. The echo of hammering across the water was the only sign he was there. In August, he turned his attention to the dock and Joe and his mother could watch him work from the window above the kitchen sink. He wore just a pair of torn jeans — walked right into the lake in them — and his wide pale back reddened beneath the sun. Joe’s mother stood at the window long after she’d stacked the dishes. She mixed a can of pink lemonade, set the pitcher and two glasses on a tray, and — instead of bringing a glass to Joe — said, “I’m going to say hi.” Joe watched her row over in the tin boat; when he looked up from picking dried worm off the fish hook he’d found, his mother and the man were drinking lemonade together on the rock.
Later in the month, the man returned, in a new yellow cruiser. He waded across the shallow marshy channel that separated the islands and presented to Joe and his mother a bowl of just-picked blueberries. Up close, he smelled like Mr. Garfield, the vice-principal at Joe’s school, who smoked when on yard duty. He lowered the bowl to Joe and winked, said, “Poison,” and Joe, knowing better, mashed a handful into his mouth. Joe’s mother invited the man to dinner that evening and for the next several hours she was coiled in anticipation as if he were some big-shot celebrity. She dust-busted the couch, chopped a salad, shook a bag of cheezies into a bowl. She had a violent go at Joe’s hair, a towel-dried tangle this deep into the summer, and got him to restock the outhouse with toilet-paper rolls. He dumped them in a messy pile he knew would aggravate her. One of the rolls separated from its brothers and rolled into the hole, dropping onto the glistening mound of sludge. He peeked, staggered back coughing.
His mother had combed out her own hair and put on her bright orange sundress, but when the man arrived she was nearly as sombre as the time she made dinner for Henry, the Cree man who ran the taxi-boat service. She apologized about not having wine and seemed not to hear his offer to show her his new boat. Joe receded into that comfy zone where he ranked superpowers. (Tornado. Ice fingers. Jedi.) Until, to get them through the dinner silence, his mother shared the humiliating tale of the lemonade stand Joe had set up on the dock when he was little — “It was very sweet; my mom and I were his only customers” — as if lemonade was the only common subject between them.
The man — Stuart he’d said his name was — waded back to his place and returned with beer and a pack of du Maurier cigarettes and she cheered up enough to let him know she thought it a disgrace that he flew the emblem of the Buffalo Sabres from his flagpole, and not the maple leaf. “It’s so ugly,” she said, and he smirked and explained that he was the team’s equipment manager. “Have to stay loyal. They pay the bills.”
Joe didn’t like the way Stuart looked at his mother, but this new information raised the man somewhat in Joe’s eyes. He asked if Stuart got to travel with the club, if he’d been to Montreal. Stuart said sure.
“Uh-huh. I was at Madison Square Garden one time when the circus was in town. That place is immense.” He said he wandered through with some of the guys and got lost. “We might have had a few ‘pops,’” he winked. “I end up in this big dark warehouse-sort-of-room and I hear this breathing like there’s a monster in there with me. Turns out it’s one of the elephants from the show! Scared the living piss outta me.”
Joe laughed. And, though he could see his mother thought the story embellishment or showing off, she laughed, too, tolerantly. Stuart said, “Shit, Ellen, you have a nice smile.”
She looked not embarrassed but disappointed by his forwardness, and Stuart suddenly seemed much younger than her. He made a fumbling attempt to push past this — apologized for swearing in front of Joe. “What about your flag? RCAF? Your father fly in the war?”
“Yeah? Mine was army — Italy. Did yours make it?”
She nodded. “But he came home with TB and never got better. He died up here, actually. My grandfather, too. Heart attack. Grandpa built this place in 1914 — that’s how long we’ve been here. They found him in his fishing boat in Lost Bay.”
“No shit. Lost Bay. You can’t make that up, can you?”
He apologized again for swearing but she didn’t notice. She’d had enough to drink — Joe could see this too — that she wanted to tell more. “I also had an uncle go through the ice near Minnicog. My mother loves to say that the men are cursed in this family, at least up here. I tell Joe, if he’s not very careful all the time, we’ll have to sell. He doesn’t like me saying that.”
It was true, but Joe was used to it. He was used to her talking of the men in the family and making no mention of his father.
“But so far he’s been invincible,” she said.
It was humid, the bay dead still. She suggested they swim and in the water she seemed a dozen years younger herself. Joe and Stuart dove for beer bottles while she floated nearby with that lazy breaststroke of hers. They watched Joe cannonball off the little rock face known as the Mountain — a name his mother and grandmother had used and he’d adopted. They awarded him scores out of ten like Olympic divers. Then they forgot about him and he imagined he was leaping from the cockpit of a burning-up snowspeeder.
When he woke the next morning, his mother wasn’t in the cottage or anywhere on the island. She rowed the tin boat back before noon and made pancakes.
Joe didn’t think of the man again until the following summer. A week into their first stay his boat appeared on the horizon, though Joe heard it before he saw it. He charged down the trail — pausing to crush in his palms the crowns of half a dozen goldenrod, smearing the pollen on a lawn chair — and clambered up the Mountain to look. The bay’s long fingers reached between the islands. There was no sign of a boat. Then, a speck of fluff. A toy with little figures on it. It veered between the shoals, and abruptly slowed, its bow rearing up like a bathing moose. A thin woman in the back lost her balance and wildly threw a rope toward the dock, which splashed in the lake and began to sink.
Joe watched them disembark. Stuart, in a plaid shirt, half-buttoned, flung two suitcases on the dock and helped the woman with the wobbly first step. Her hair was choppily cropped, like David Bowie’s. There was someone else with them — a girl, spindly inside the baggie Disneyland t-shirt she wore like a dress. She refused Stuart’s offered hand and climbed out of the boat herself.
They vanished inside the cottage and Joe sat, scraped the lichen off the rock with a stick. Flakey lime-green. Tough ochre stuff he couldn’t budge. After a while, the woman and the girl came out and wandered a little. The woman went back inside; the girl descended the humpback toward his island. He wandered that way, in roundabout fashion, behind the outhouse and over Egg Rock. She paused when she saw him and then continued to the water’s edge. Her utter lack of expression, her shielding blonde bob and military erectness, evoked the hard angry plastic of his G.I. Joes. “How do you get across?” she called to him. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah, it’s not that deep.”
She seemed uncertain so he took a few steps into the water toward her. Horsetails sagged. Bullfrogs burped at each other like old men. She raised her eyebrows as if annoyed, and tiptoed in. “Ugh, it’s slimy.” She stumbled and lifted her t-shirt, revealing purple bikini bottoms.
She made it to the bridge. The derelict wooden half-bridge built out from his island ten feet into the shallow marsh before ending abruptly, at the halfway point, overtop a carpet of lily pads. A pail stood at the close end and a net hung from a pole wedged in the planking. She climbed ashore — legs silvered and dripping — and peered in the pail. “There’s baby fish in here.”
“I catch them,” he indicated the net, “with that.”
She stepped carefully onto the bridge. “Why’s it only go halfway?”
He shrugged. “The ice took it out a couple years ago. We used to know the people over there real well, but there’s been a bunch of owners since then.”
He squatted where he was on the rock. She sat, feet reflected in the glassy water, and took hold of the planks beneath her, shook the bridge so it wobbled.
“Don’t do that, you’ll scare them off.” He walked out next to her so the bridge slouched to one side and pointed out the flashing swarm that hovered over the net. “Watch out,” he said, and tenderly gripped the pole, yanked the net up.
Dozens of minnows, shards of sunlight, flip-flapping frantically.
“See?” He carried the net to a flattish shelf of rock and set it down. He gathered dripping handfuls of the tiny fish and dropped them in the pail.
“Do you keep them?”
“Keep them? No, I use them as bait.”
A few of the minnows had wriggled free of the net. He brushed them toward the pond with his fingers. One, powdered with dirt, barely moving, he smushed into the rock with the knuckle of his thumb. She looked on with a displeased face.
“It’s hard to get them all,” he said.
Later that afternoon, Joe and his mother rowed over in the tin boat to say a proper hello. His mother had been abuzz since their arrival, curious about Stuart’s guests. She wondered if the woman was “a new one or an old one,” adding that it was nice that he had someone. “I think he gets lonely.” She took Joe’s hand on the path. “At least it looks like you’ll have someone to play with. Other than your mother.”
Halfway over they realized the yellow boat wasn’t there; a breeze was up and they mustn’t have heard it chug off. But they beached near the dock and climbed the humpback to the cottage. It was the first time Joe had been here in two summers, since Stuart bought the place, but it was familiar. The big deformed pine and scatter of juniper and blackened rock where bonfires were lit. The cluster of boulders like sentries along the path to the outhouse.
The cottage itself was dim and musty and not at all what he remembered. He loitered by the screen door while his mother and the thin woman talked. On hearing that Stuart had gone back to the marina to get firewood, Joe’s mother relaxed and made herself at home, helped open windows and sort the dishes. Joe snuck glances at the girl, who slouched in one of the kitchen chairs eying the floor with what seemed a grossed-out face.
“We have plenty of wood out back. He just likes to drive that stupid boat,” the woman said. Her name was Marlene. She was pretty up close, if not dramatically so, her hair less raggedy. (Maybe the boat trip had done that.) “If he’s not driving it, he’s polishing it. He washed it once in the driveway, already, and he was at it again today at the marina.”
“Sure,” Joe’s mother said, “men and their toys. But you must enjoy it.”
“Jesus, did you see when we got here? You notice my sea legs? I almost fell in the lake.”
Joe’s mother chuckled but leaned away. The grace of it made the other woman seem almost clownish.
“Well, we just came to say hi and invite you over for a drink.”
“Sure, whenever.” She turned to the girl and, in that matter-of-fact way she had with kids, said, “And if you like, Laura, you could row back with us and Joe could show you around.”
The girl popped up in her chair. “We’ll just walk over.”
“Hey,” Marlene said.
“What? I know the way.”
She rose, tossed a glance at her mother, banged outside. Joe and his mother exchanged a look of their own; she nodded to indicate that he should go. He joined the girl on the stoop, but she was off at once and he followed her down the path to the marsh, wildflowers swaying at the passage of her stick legs. At the water she hesitated again and he led the way across. He marched her past his cottage and up the Mountain and down the slope to the island’s eastern peninsula — a tiny horn of rock, separated now that the water was high by an ankle-deep canal — and waded out to it. Two haggard gulls flew off but a third, just a humped tuft of feathers, did not. He approached and nudged it with one of his toes. It was dead. He retrieved a wand of driftwood and used it to flip the carcass over, this way and that. It was stiff like shirts left to dry on the line, a dull black eye and yellow grin.
“Gross,” she said.
He hoisted the bird up and returned to the island proper, closing its perimeter — the territory of which he was king — and arriving at last at the nook beneath the Mountain’s overhang, and his driftwood lean-to. He knelt, threw the gull in ahead of him, beckoned her to follow. “Come on,” he said. There was really only room for one and she had to squeeze. “Careful,” he said, and made a little gesture to indicate his collection, neatly arranged in crannies: fish skulls, shells and knobs of bone, a broken lure still clinging to a bit of line, an intact crayfish, cattails puffed out to seed like marshmallow on a stick.
“What’s all this for?” she said. The question oozed disdain, but she stared at him, awaiting an answer.
He noticed in that softer light that she was pretty too. And this irritated him.
“Nothing,” he said, and, inspired, thrust the gull at her, squawking. She stared at him, thoughtfully, and crawled out.
Stuart returned and he and Marlene waded over in their bathing suits. He brought beer again; they all swam. (Joe noted the wisp of dark hair emanating from the edges of Marlene’s suit, and kept his eyes averted.) Then, while the adults drank and talked, Joe and Laura lay on their sides on the warm porch and played cards — or, rather, she submitted to the hands of Old Maid he relentlessly dealt on the damp towel between them. She was either woeful at the game or indifferent and ended up with the bitch every time.
Now and then Stuart came out to smoke. “Jesus, you’ve gotten bigger, haven’t you?” he said to Joe, the sort of adult small talk that could be humored only when no other kids were around. Joe merely nodded. Stuart went back inside and Laura mocked him, his unsteady gait and the perplexed look on his face as he paced with his cigarette when down at the shore. He was drunk, and as evening came on, a seamless grey smothering the sky, he grew drunker. They stayed for hamburgers and he took charge of the grill, managed not to burn anything. But he was surly during dinner, muttering under his breath. Ignoring this, the women talked like old friends.
“Stu thinks I should do my beautician training.”
“I just said that cause you like that stuff, Marlene,” the man sighed.
“What about you?” Marlene said, and Joe’s mother said she was between jobs, too. She told them about leaving the college where she’d taught history. “I was distracted by the divorce. I may go back or I may just use this break to finally start my PhD. If I do, though I’ll probably have to sell this place. I can’t afford it — Joe’s father gives me almost nothing. Sometimes I want to anyway. All the upkeep, you know. With the wind out here you need a new coat of paint every couple years, new shingles.”
“Well, Stu can help you with that stuff, can’t you, baby?”
“Sure,” Stuart said. He backed out his chair, stood, produced a cigarette. “Sure, you just go ahead and offer my services. Like we don’t have a shitload to do next door.”
He clattered out to the porch to smoke.
“Don’t worry about him,” Marlene said, “he’s wasted.”
The women cleared the table and Joe and Laura took their pudding cups to the couch, Laura luxuriating over the last bits she could get with her fingers. They heard Joe’s mother ask how long Marlene and Stuart had been together and Marlene reply, “Couple years. On and off.”
“Oh. I didn’t see you out here last summer.”
“No, last summer was bad.”
Laura met Joe’s gaze and stared back hard as if to say, Don’t you pity me.
From outside drifted the stink of cigarettes, the sound of waves licking the rock. She took a framed photograph from the end table, lay back on the arm of the couch, and held it to the light. “Who’s this?”
“My grandma,” he said. His grandmother as a child, in white shoes and a checkered dress holding aloft a pike nearly as long as she was. He meant to say more, recount the night his grandmother cudgeled a rattler with a rock on her way to the outhouse. But he was staring at the fine hairs on the line of her jaw.
He saw her again when the three of them returned in July for a longer stay. He schooled her on which berries were edible, which not. He took her snorkeling off Whale Island where a sailboat lay on the lake floor, pocked with mussels. They dragged an old sheet of plywood from under the cottage and erected a precarious addition to his lean-to.
When it rained they lay on the rug and listened to baseball on the radio. His mother was a fan and looked up from her Marx reader (always open in the same place) before pitches.
One hot afternoon, Stuart let Joe and Laura lie around on his boat, jump from the back platform. “Who needs a beer?” he’d joke. Or, “I’m not seeing any swabbing. Didn’t one of you promise to swab?” Laura, golden hair stuck to her shoulders, ankles hanging off the side, giggled unreservedly. Joe had to fake a laugh. He noticed for the first time how handsome Stuart was, in a wolfish way. Unshaven, shirtless, black hair slick with sweat. Though Joe hardly glanced in his direction.
Stuart returned to town and the women drank wine together and complained about him, about men in general. But he surprised them the next morning with cans of red paint and announced that he intended to put a couple coats on Joe’s cottage. He was in buoyant spirits. “Early Christmas present,” he said, winking at Joe’s mother. “We all pitch in, we could have her done in a day or two.”
Marlene didn’t help, but Joe and Laura did a little with the rollers. They made a race of it and messily stained the rock, as if with blood. He kept at it even after she left for lunch. He’d almost completed the west wall — he’d had to attach the roller to a broom handle to get the high corners — when he decided to demand lunch of his own. His mother was up on a ladder out front, grinning, and Stuart stood beneath her, a hand on her bare calf. He saw Joe and removed his hand — it left a red print. “Got you,” Stuart said, but sort of as an afterthought. Then he said it again to Joe, with a shrug, “Got her.”
Joe’s mother’s face had gone severe. Stuart sighed, brushed off his jeans, and sat on the steps. He glanced at Joe and a thought seemed to bubble up. “Hey, what do you say we take the boat out tomorrow, real early? Drop in a couple lines?”
Joe looked to his mother. She descended the ladder, saying, “We’re going in to eat, Stu.”
“So,” he said to Joe once she’d gone, “tomorrow.”
The next morning, they puttered over to Lost Bay, just the two of them. Stuart said just enough to create the mystique of great fishing prowess — said he did the bass derby and had won prizes. His tackle box unfolded in a series of miniature terraced shelves, each with four compartments, and each of these containing a marvelous lure. But they got few nibbles and within the hour he grew sleepy and gave up casting. “I’ll man the net,” he said, and lay back, cupped a beer in his lap, contented himself beguiling Joe with dirty limericks. One whose opening couplet featured a lass from Regina.
“But you’re not ready for any of that yet. You don’t have a girlfriend, right?”
“But you like girls, don’t you. You like looking at them.” Joe felt a flush explode across his face. Stuart let out a cackle that echoed down the bay.
The see-saw call of an ovenbird in the bush paused, resumed.
“Don’t worry, they like looking at us too. Won’t admit it but they do — that’s how you know a chick’s into you.” He craned forward so the boat tipped and the beer in the neck of his bottle sloshed into the lake. “There’s other signs and whatnot you can pick up with a little practice, but this one’s sure-fire. You got to do like this,” he turned from Joe and turned back quickly, “and then you’ll catch them.”
As advice, it wasn’t much. But Joe was emboldened by it. That afternoon he dragged his inflatable rubber raft out from under the porch — it was fuzzed with a membrane of dust and old cobwebs — and washed it off, blew it up, took Laura out in it. A breeze was up, scarring the bay with white, and they rolled low in the water. The raft was too small for them and her legs got entangled in his. He was fervently disturbed by this. And by the spray of freckles on her nose, the way her hair curled about her brown neck. The purple triangle of cloth below her life jacket. She gazed solemnly over the water, so he could look.
He beached them on the south shore of a tiny island out in the bay and silently guided her over the sparkly black rock, hot underfoot, marred by globs of gull shit. His cottage wasn’t far off — just there, perched on his island’s ridge like a houseboat on a whale — but the lake was between them and the landscape here so foreign that he felt isolated and free. They sat together in a sparse stand of blueberries and he popped berry after berry in his mouth — then put his hand to his throat and tilted sideways. “Poison,” he gurgled, lying prone while she shook and kicked him, giggling as she had on Stuart’s boat.
When he opened his eyes she sat cross-legged across from him and was gazing at him serenely. “What?” he said.
He remembered what Stuart had told him and looked away, looked back quickly. She was still staring. But now her expression had changed to one of bemusement. “You have seaweed on your face,” she said. She screamed with laughter. She leapt to her feet and he ran after her.
Stuart dropped Laura and her mother at the marina the following morning, the yellow cruiser bearing the three of them off, without goodbyes. Later that same week, Joe and his mother took a taxi boat to town and got groceries and wine, a new bathing suit for her, Band-Aids for his scuffed ankles. They were late getting back and Henry, who ran the taxi boat, scolded them for cutting it so close. The boathouses dark out in the channel, the pines like hanged men pointing them home.
They had a feast of hot dogs, potato chips, and ginger ale — two cans each.
In the ensuing days, he rowed his raft out into the bay, pretending himself castaway, all alone, days at sea. But as the week wore on, he spent more time floating near the dock, dropping a mask over the raft’s bow and peering down at the lake bottom, glancing every now and then for the sign of a boat. He caught his mother doing it too, just standing at the window.
One morning, beneath a drizzly sky, they listened to the royal wedding on the radio, his mother frowning as Lady Di said her vows. “She’s too young,” she muttered, and peered at him quizzically. He thought about this — the look she gave him — as he struggled to sleep that night under the rain’s erratic patter. Then forgot it. Then a sound at the window: a soft tapping. He got up on his knees and shifted the curtains and Laura was there. Her face pebbled by raindrop shadows. She spoke but her voice was lost. He tried to open the window but couldn’t. Her hair was a dark cap, her lashes stuck together. She made an oval with her lips and pressed against the glass, pushed through, and her lips met his and their tongues touched. He woke to voices. Murmuring from the other room, the shifting of bodies. His mother said distinctly, “When do you have to get them?”
“Friday. They’ve gone to see Marlene’s parents in Windsor.”
The gusting rain blotted them out. Then his voice: “Not sure why you can’t admit it.”
“Admit what, Stu?”
“That you had fun.”
A taut silence fell between the gusts. His mother sighed, a noise of censure. She said, “You should go,” and Stuart muttered something, and the screen door clattered.
Stuart picked up Laura and her mother two days later. Laura had a new fishing rod and all week she and Joe caught sunfish off the bridge. They made a game of dropping toilet paper rolls into the outhouse (“stink shed,” she called it) until one wedged atop the shit-pile like an Oreo cookie in a scoop of ice cream. They hunkered down in the lean-to and did pencil sketches of his collection. Hers, accomplished, almost lifelike. His, alien beasts made of crayfish pincers and trout jaws.
One evening, they were listening to Monday Mysteries on the radio when Laura mentioned that Stuart and Marlene were fighting. The dented Chinese checkers board was between them on the couch and they played and whispered during lulls in the program. “She’s been crying a lot.” Then the radio began to muffle with static. They noticed the wind, the anxious lake. A bank of clouds had rolled in and the sky was a curdling green. Laura thought she should get home but Joe’s mother said she should wait it out. “We’re safe in here,” she said, and told the story of the three men crossing from Penetang in a storm. They ran up on a shoal, got stuck, and tried to pass the night, waves shattering against the side of the boat. “In the end they freed themselves and made it here. We’d all gone to bed. Joe, my mother, and I. Then we heard this knocking and I thought, ‘What on earth is that?’ I went to see and there were these three guys shivering on the porch.”
She laughed. She raised her head and listened. “Did you hear that?”
The windows moaned and hissed. Wails ran through the rafters. Then, to their great alarm, there was a knock at the door.
It was Stuart. He staggered inside, drenched. “I came to get her,” he announced, without looking at anyone in particular. “I’ve been sent. So,” he nodded at Laura, “let’s go.”
“God, that’s funny,” Joe’s mother said. “What is?”
“Well, we were just talking about how we never get knocks at the door and then here you come knocking.”
He glared at her. “Ha, ha.”
He was drunk. Joe’s mother made a comment under her breath and he stiffened. “What did you say?”
She sucked in a breath, about to answer. But something caught her attention. She cocked an ear and they all listened together. Beneath the percussion of rain came a distinct skittering across the roof. “There is it again,” she said.
“What?” he said, but she silenced him. She took a step toward the window, and gasped. There was a sharp thunderous whoomp and the radio and several books burst off the shelf. She fell two steps backward and she and Stuart swore together. Laura jumped, tipping the Chinese checkers board, scattering marbles everywhere.
“It’s okay, it’s fine,” Joe’s mother assured them. She stepped outside to investigate, letting the storm in as she went. Gusts riffled the pages of the dislodged books, rainwater puddled on the floor. Stuart cursed again and followed her out. Joe and Laura approached the window. She pointed, and Joe saw the big plywood sheet from the lean-to drenched on the porch. The wind had picked it up and flung it against the cottage.
Joe’s mother seemed not to have noticed it. She was shouting at Stuart, voice lost in the storm, hair ripped in all directions. Beyond them, as Joe and Laura watched, the rest of the lean-to was blown piece by piece from its perch: like a special effect in a B-movie, shadows hurtling in slow-motion out of the dark. Exposed, the dead gull fluttered on the rock. “Look,” said Laura, as it was snagged by a gust and sent skittering, a ball of feathers, toward the lake. They returned to the couch, but now she sat so close against him he could smell the sun on her skin.
The rain lasted two days. It fell like machine-gun fire across the bay. He played hands of Spite and Malice with his mother, disinterested. He lay in bed and carved his name in the wall with one of his father’s knives. His mother came in and spoke to him in a voice harsh with love and seriousness. “I don’t want you going over there for a little while. Not that you’d want to, in this.” She glanced out the window. “Promise me, okay?”
He nodded. She smoothed his hair against his head, and he let her. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s time for a change. A big change.”
He sat up on the pillow. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what it means. Maybe nothing. Maybe we just need a good night’s sleep and things will look different tomorrow.”
But the next day things looked the same. And when Laura came to the door he found himself saying stuff he didn’t want to say. She asked if he wanted to come out, eyes wide, as if suspicious of what his answer would be. “I can’t,” he said.
“I just can’t. It’s raining too hard.”
“Not really. Not hardly at all.”
“Well, I just don’t want to. Okay?”
With a sick gut he watched through the window as she dragged home in the drizzle. All afternoon, he imagined her over there, standing back from the window, nervous of it waking again into a storm.
The next morning he woke to a breathy crash of waves, sunlight on the quilt. He got himself a bowl of cereal and ate it on the porch. The sky was clear, the wind was up and rattled his pajama bottoms. Power lines twanged and gulls flew backward. He returned inside to change into his swim trunks and when he came out again he saw her descending the humpback, her loping steps. She reached the marsh and paused on the other side. He met her there.
“Hey,” he said, but she just nodded. The wind danced a loose strand of hair across her lips. He thought he should say something more but before he could get his voice she sighed.
“We’re leaving. God, I don’t even understand what’s happening. It’s like they hate each other. He’s making us take the taxi boat. I don’t know if we’ll be coming back.”
He squatted and picked at the lichen. He wanted to assure her that she was, that it was all going to be okay, and looked up with the words on his tongue. But she was staring at him with such ferocity that his breathing paused. For a moment all they did was look.
Then her mother came out on the porch and called for her. “I should go,” she said.
The boat arrived soon after. He stood at the kitchen window and saw Henry receive their suitcases and help them down from the dock. His mother came to his side. “What’s going on?” They watched together as Henry butted his cigarette on the dash and chugged off backward. Laura looked toward the window, turned away.
He wasn’t sure who to hate. His mother was the only one there. “Joe,” she said, but he pushed past her, banged outside. He dragged his raft from under the porch, carried it to the lake, shoved off into the frothy green surf. He dropped his head and leaned into the rowing, the oars striking little popcorn sprays of water. He was way out, bouncing into the troughs between the waves, when he heard the shouting. His mother, down at the shore, a miniature, wind-tousled version of her. The lake struck fierce and foamy before her. She waved, cried out again, her voice a distant animal peal. He dropped his head. His shipmates had all drowned; only he’d survived. A month of drifting. When he looked up, she was still there, shouting, but now there was no sound. Only then did he row back to her.