The balanced sun, surrounded by a host of clouds, shone upon Burnt Seed Lake. It was a calm afternoon. Most of the boats had already escaped the heat. The few that remained had either failed to register the humidity, or were still there to defy it. On one of the more weathered boats, an older man was throwing out a line with a young boy. He threw the line with the confidence that comes from an avid fisherman.
“Don’t rock the boat too much, Sammy. You don’t wanna scare the fish.”
He offered him a water bottle but the boy refused. Michael shrugged and finished the water.
“How much longer do we need to be out here?” Sammy whined. He fidgeted the tip of his pole into the water and dropped his shoulders. They dropped from humidity’s hot weight. Michael reeled in his line and checked to see if the worm was still on. He threw it back.
“Not much longer, kid. We can head in soon for lunch.”
“You always say this, Grandad. Can’t we just go back now?”
Michael shook his head and wiped his forehead with his drenched t-shirt. “If you wanna head back now,” he played with his line a little, “you could always swim…”
The two had been out in the boat for most of the morning. They would have gotten out sooner, but Michael had trouble pulling his grandson away from the television. Michael liked to spend at least three hours on the water. He liked how quiet it was out on the lake. Things got too loud in life; on the water, all you felt were the waves rocking you back and forth.
The boy threw his fishing pole down. “Can I have a drink of water?” He asked.
“There’s no water left.” Michael scratched his chin. “I just offered you some.”
Sammy scoffed and looked away.
He had been taking care of his grandson for the greater part of three weeks. Although Sammy only came up to stay at his place to give his mother a break, he welcomed the opportunity to grow closer to his grandson and to be a part of the boy’s life. His mother, Rebecca was constantly worried that Sammy did not have a strong male figure to look up to. Sammy’s father had died when he was an infant.
“I bet you’re real excited to see your mom next week,” Michael changed the subject. “I know how much she misses you.”
“Yeah I guess…”
“Aren’t you excited to see her?” Michael asked.
“I don’t see her much anyways… She works a lot.”
Michael furrowed his brow. “But you are excited to see her though? You realize how hard she works to keep things together.”
“You always say that, Grandad. I know how much she loves me and stuff—”
In Michael’s hands, the line jerked a little. He watched the bobber drop below the surface. Slowly, he pulled on the line. There was resistance. Michael yanked the rod up to try and hook the fish. “Think I got one Sammy.” He reeled the line in. “Quick, get the net for me.”
Sammy reached for the handle. Somehow, it had become tangled in his fishing line. After wrestling with it, he began to breathe heavily. He looked back at his grandad empty handed.
“Come on, hurry up. I don’t want to lose it.” Michael pulled the line closer.
The young eyes darted. “It’s stuck. I-I don’t know what to do!”
Michael swore under his breath. “Alright, alright, here, trade me.” Quickly, he gave the pole to his grandson and snatched the net. “Now just do what I taught you, remember? Just let the line go out a little and pull up as you reel it in. Simple as that. Keep pressure on the fish and tire him out.” Michael turned his attention away and smiled. Maybe this was the one that his grandson would catch. Then this whole day would be worth it.
The line yanked and twisted in the water in front of the boy. He held meekly onto the pole and hoped for the best. Sammy had never caught a fish; he never had hooked one, either.
“Aren’t you reeling it in?” Michael asked. Sammy nodded, but the resistance was gone.
He gulped and continued to reel it in. It was almost to the boat when Michael noticed the bobber.
He shimmed closer.
“Woah, woah easy Sammy, you don’t want it to—“ Before he could finish, the end of the line rose from the water and in front of the two was nothing but a silver hook.
The boat sped back toward the dock. Michael tried to focus on the motor. The boat had been giving him some trouble lately. There had been a couple of small leaks in the wood and the motor was getting old. Somedays, it would fail to even start up and they would end up having to row much to Sammy’s dismay.
Michael’s lake house was on the southernmost portion of the lake. It was the side with the most trees, so usually by mid-afternoon there was a fair amount of shade. The fish were usually found on the eastern side of the lake as it was the side that received the most sun. Although the lake house was not on the lake proper, it had a good look over its entirety from atop a small hill. Michael could just make out the house from where they were in the water.
At the front of the boat, Sammy hung his head. Each bump of the waves rocked it which gave it a lifeless, doll like manner. Michael took a deep breath. The loss of the fish must have really bothered him. Although he couldn’t see his face, he felt that Sammy was crying. He was always quick to tears if he felt frustrated. He had never seen Sammy so defeated.
He reached out to touch his shoulder.
Sammy lifted up his head and turned, a big grin was on his face. Michael saw that he was playing a game on the phone. Immediately, he cut the motor.
“What are you smiling about?” Michael’s voice was a shotgun.
The tone shocked Sammy. “Huh?”
“I said, what are you smiling about?” He reloaded. “You lost the fish. You think that’s a good thing?”
The boy furrowed his brow. “I’m just hungry.” He crossed his arms. The boat rocked awkward, against the shifting current. “I want to go back and play my game.”
“Aw Jesus.” Michael threw his hands up. “Really? Hungry? Come on kid, you need to man up.”
Sammy’s frame tightened, he put up a wall. “I’m trying, Grandad.”
“No, you’re not. You just sit inside all day and don’t wanna do anything! You’ve never hit a baseball, or rode a bike or even learned how to fucking swim!” He splashed the water in rage. Sammy stood up to meet the height of his grandad. Although unfamiliar with many things, he was already fluent in the art of confrontation. “I said I’m trying, Grandad!”
“How? How are you trying?” Michael shot back, “Come on! Out with it! I don’t see you trying, I only see you sitting inside and wasting your whole summer.”
Sammy took a step. “How? I don’t know what to do!?” The boat shuddered.
“Damnit! Something! Anything!”
Sammy took another step and stomped. His foot came down hard on his lifejacket and he slipped. He tried to keep his balance but only wobbled to the other end of the boat. Before Michael could reach out, Sammy slipped off the boat. It rocked from the displacement.
“Grandad! Grandad! Help!” Sammy called from outside the boat.
Michael stood over him and watched him try for a moment. “Come on Sammy!” He yelled. The boy looked like he was treading water. “Keep kicking!”
“I’m drowning!” Sammy yelled back.
Michael picked up Sammy’s life vest to hand to him. Suddenly, he froze as a realization washed over him. He turned back and a shudder climbed his spine.
There, five feet in front of him was his grandson, floating just above the lake.
“Grandad! Help!” He yelled again.
Michael stood dumbfounded and tried to understand what was happening before him. Sammy’s whole body was out of the boat and the only place where it naturally could be was in the water. But somehow, the boy was neatly, almost gently above the water.
Michael jumped upon an oar and held it for Sammy to grab onto. The boy wrapped his body around the oar and Michael pulled him along the top of the lake. It felt as if he was dragging it over a carpet. The water beneath him was tranquil and still. Michael then picked Sammy up and tossed him back in as easily as he was tossed out.
In the boat, Sammy thrashed around and kicked a fishing pole into the water. His eyes were closed and he was still screaming. “Sammy!” Michael yelled and grabbed his shoulders, “Sammy! You’re alright, you’re back in the boat. It’s okay. It’s okay, you’re safe.” The boy opened his eyes but was still shaking.
“Grandad, I-I almost drowned.” And he began to cry.
After sunset, Michael was outside by the porch. It was built in the house’s shadow, hidden from the lake. Once it had been completely white, but the paint chipped due to weathering. The only light came from a few tiki torches that didn’t help the mosquito problem.
He had just finished making dinner. Michael enjoyed cooking because, like fishing, it took his mind off things. He had spent the day in an uncomfortable stupor made worse by not having anyone to confide in about the phenomenon, or “what he thought he saw.” He told himself that there was no way the boy could have floated above the lake. Sammy was just swimming, treading water and it looked like he was floating. He was just a natural swimmer. That was enough to get him through cooking.
He decided, after his third beer, that the best thing to do would be to apologize to Sammy for yelling at him. That way, they could at least save these last few days of summer and end on a good note. He knew Sammy would accept his apology and he would let him play his game on the television downstairs. He hadn’t seen him all day though. When they returned to the dock, Sammy ran up to the house and shut himself in his room.
The screened-in porch had a small table that Michael had set up with hamburger buns and potato chips. They did not go to the farmer’s market that afternoon, it felt too far away. Luckily, there had been some frozen ground beef and hamburger buns in the freezer. He had left them out to defrost. They left little puddles on the sunken countertop and some got on the floor. Michael plated the patties and sat down.
Sammy appeared as an outline by the backdoor. Lit from the tiki torches, his face seemed cast by moonbeams, pale with eyes deep as lunar mares. The night air was still humid, but the wind had picked up which gave a rhythm to the blur of trees around them.
“Hey, bud.” Michael straightened up. Sammy ignored him. He found a place at the table and stared at the plate of hamburgers. “Help yourself.” Michael sat across and pushed the plate towards him. Sammy slowly took one and added lettuce and tomato.
“Mustard?” He muttered.
Michael shot up and ran inside. He returned with a simple bottle of yellow mustard and handed it to his grandson. Sammy nodded his head.
“Thank you.” He muttered again, this time into his burger. After applying a liberal
amount of mustard, Sammy took a big bite. Yellow paste oozed out, some dropped onto his plate. Michael smiled.
“Is it good? I burned them a little, just the way you like it.” Sammy sat slowly chewing. “I also got some of that chocolate ice cream in the freezer, I’m not going to eat it so you can just finish the tub.” Sammy answered with another bite. “There’s also cherries in the fridge, maybe I could make you a sundae.” The boy simply stared into nothingness. He looked through a spot on the table. Michael took a deep breath, “Look, Sammy—” he started, but a loud slap interrupted him. His
grandson had smacked a mosquito that landed on his wrist. “I’m sorry about today. I was a total asshole for saying those things. I don’t know what got into me, I just want you to learn how to swim so you can enjoy the summer. I want you to learn, but at your own pace. If you had drowned…” He put his head in his hands.
“I wasn’t going to drown.” Sammy said and took another bite of his burger, more mustard fell out.
“I know, I know. I was there, I wouldn’t have let you. Still, if things were different—”
“I wasn’t going to drown because I can float.”
Michael met his grandson’s gaze. He was patting mustard off his face. “Excuse me?”
Sammy’s mouthful went heavy down his throat. “I…I floated on the water today.” The big moon eyes searched anxiously for a place to shine.
“Sammy, that’s ridiculous, you know you didn’t float on the water.” Michael grabbed a burger and put it on his plate in an attempt to be final. “That’s crazy. Come on now, how can you think like that?”
The boy looked down. “I… I didn’t get wet, Grandad. I don’t get it.”
Michael looked away and jerked his chair, it made an uncomfortable noise on the decking. “You were wet. Your arms and pants were all wet from splashing.” As soon as he uttered it, he knew. It made no sense, after all day of agonizing over the details it didn’t make sense. His hair and skin were dry, the most his shirt suffered were just a few splashes. There was tense silence for a few moments as they both confronted the impossible.
“Look, kid. I don’t know exactly what happened today either but I don’t think you floated on the water, alright? Let’s just forget about it and finish eating.”
Sammy put his half-eaten burger down upon the puddle of yellow mustard. “I think I can float on the water, Grandad.”
Michael slammed his hand on the table. “I said, let’s forget about it.”
Sammy gave a start and looked down. The two of them were silent for the rest of the meal. When Michael finished, the boy excused himself and ran off to bed.
That entire night, Michael tossed and turned. His only relief lay in the soft murmur of the fan as it scanned the room. Michael was angry at himself for not being able to sleep. He rolled around, frustrated, trying to find the right spot. He took his anger out on the pillow, punching and fluffing it only to toss it aside for another. He told himself that he had no idea why he couldn’t sleep, but deep down he knew. When he found stillness, his mind flashed back to the afternoon.
Falling out of the boat,
Arriving at dinner,
He reached out to turn the lamp on. The room was lit through a fine film of dust in the air above him. It spread like thick smoke from a fire. He coughed and stood up to stretch. Every surface of Michael’s bedroom was covered in dust. It was a black dust mixed with dirt and whatever else it had absorbed. Cobwebs floated down from the corners of the ceiling, some hung from his nightstand. It wasn’t exactly squalor, the things in the room were nice: a king-sized bed, a mahogany nightstand and big television, but it felt like a mausoleum.
He faced the dark window which by the light of the room had become a mirror. There was a paleness in his face that he hadn’t noticed before, something beneath the gray hair and sunburn, a ghostly sort of hue. His eyes met his own in the mirror and he jumped back. In the window were Sammy’s eyes that he had made earlier, the eyes that Michael couldn’t get away from. He fell back onto the bed and shook it off. No way. There was no way he was going to let the kid get into his head again.
He knew that what he saw wasn’t real. It wasn’t. It was just his mind playing tricks on him.
In the hall, a door shut and Michael heard the sound of footsteps creak. Puzzled, he stood up and listened for a few moments. It was silent. He was about to question whether or not he was hearing things when he heard the front door open. Michael threw on a shirt and tiptoed as quick as he could down the stairs.
The deck creaked softly under his nervous weight. Michael scanned the yard and the road. When he couldn’t detect any signs of life, he sighed. He turned toward the door and shook his head at his foolishness, when suddenly his neighbor’s motion light flickered on from across the street.
There, cast in fluorescence, was the unmistakable outline of his grandson.
The boy looked back toward the house, Michael panicked and flattened himself against the door. His chest burst and he struggled for the air that had been kicked out of his lungs. Sammy turned to disappear down the road.
Every instinct in Michael wanted to call out to him. He wanted to do the right thing and get him back inside, back to safety. Those instincts were overpowered by his latent curiosity. He took a step forward and stopped. His heartbeat was in his throat now. He took another step. And then another and another until he found himself lightly running on tiptoes after Sammy. He passed his neighbor’s house and went around the floodlights to stay in the shadows.
The public beach at the end of the road was much different in the twilight. Although small, it felt endless in the darkness. Michael found the figure of the boy standing at the edge of the lake. He hid behind a bush and watched his grandson in a choked, agonized terror. He had to know. Did he really see his grandson float? What if he could float now? Should he try to stop him?
The lake was calm. No sound came from the water other than boats hitting the dock in the distance. Sammy was shaking all over. The yellow safety light made him look small against his looming shadow cast upon the water. The air became still and waited for him too. It felt as if nothing moved, nothing breathed until… Sammy took a step.
An electric spark shook Michael. The fear kept him hidden. Fear kept him frozen behind the bush, unable to see what happened. He listened. At first, he was confused, he could hear his ten-year-old grandson softly cursing to himself. He heard water splashing, like someone was wading around in it. Michael slowly stood up; he could see the shadow of his grandson flicker.
He was kicking the water onto his shadow.
As quickly and silently as he could, he ran back up to the house. He was so happy he almost laughed to himself. How could he get carried away like that? Of course he couldn’t float on the water! That was ridiculous. He bounded up the front steps to his home and felt a wave of exhaustion hit him. His lungs burned with fire and his knees ached. In his room, he turned out the light and waited for Sammy to creep back in. When he heard the front door open, sleep overcame him.
When dawn broke, Michael was in the kitchen. He ran his hands under the faucet and wet his face. His head hurt and his knees felt sore. The last time he ran like that escaped him. Still, despite the pain he felt somewhat relieved. Yesterday’s terror felt laughable, like the memory of some bad TV show. He chuckled to himself.
His kitchen was worn. The appliances were old and the counters were cut up from when he was too lazy to use a cutting board. It was the room that got the most sunlight and sometimes the sun was so bright it hid the damages. In the center of the room was a big window that overlooked the lake. Burnt Seed Lake was always present. Today, it seemed closer than usual. He didn’t want to go out on the lake today. He would wake Sammy up in a few hours and take the kid into town, maybe go shopping or return a library book. Whatever was necessary.
He went to the cupboard to get coffee. When he shut the door, Sammy was standing beside the refrigerator.
Startled, Michael nearly dropped the coffee. “Hey, bud,” he said with a playful voice. “How’d you sleep?” Sammy sat down at the table. He looked rested; his big moon eyes were eclipsed by sunlight.
“Grandad, can you teach me how to swim today?”
This time Michael did drop the coffee. Beans spilled over the unwashed floor and stuck to patches of grime. “Yeah… yeah of course I can.” He reached for a broom.
“How about after I clean this up and make you breakfast, we can head down and I can show you how to swim. It’s real easy, I feel like you’ll be—”
“Grandad,” Sammy interrupted him. “I didn’t float yesterday.”
Michael frowned but quickly laughed it off. “Of course… of course you didn’t.”
After they ate, the two walked to the shoreline. The sun was up over the trees now. The sky was bright, but there were many clouds. Some clouds in the distance had the dark look of rainfall. The air was becoming heavy with humidity. A few robins swam through the dense air above them.
Michael purposely avoided the beach. They went to the dock where his boat was tied. It was a small dock that went out five feet from the shore. Shielding his eyes, Michael could see a few boats floating through the glittering haze. He stepped out onto the dock. Sammy stayed behind on the shore. “Okay kiddo, the first thing about swimming is to get into the water.”
Sammy stared. “Just think of it as a big puddle.”
The boy approached the water. The lake was calm. It gently rose up to the embankment only to recede again to expose the brown earth beneath. The water was clear, you could see straight through to the sandy bottom. It swirled with every faint ripple. It seemed to be not a hard, exact bottom but a swirl of loose dirt. Sammy looked straight ahead out past the tree-line at the opposite side of the lake. He took a deep breath and stepped into the water.
There was no sound of splashing.
“Am I… am I in the water yet, Grandad?”
There making the slightest ripples upon the water were Sammy’s feet. He looked
down and jumped in surprise. The feet bounced on the surface and settled down again to float just above it.
“Grandad! Grandad! I told you!” He pounded his feet in a mad dance. “I told you I could float!” He ran around in a circle. “Look at me!” His laughter’s high pitch sent the birds scattering.
Michael looked in disbelief and horror at the transformation of Sammy. He stood up and ran around the dock. “Sammy, get over here!” He yelled. The boy approached and Michael put his hand underneath the boy’s foot to feel if he were actually floating. He yanked his hand away. “Sammy… how are you doing this? How is this happening?”
His voice was mad with joy, “I don’t know! But I bet I can run out into the middle of the lake!” He laughed and sprinted out past the dock. Michael watched him helpless as he sprang lightly across the water. Sammy kept running, it was like he was going to join the group of dark clouds that surrounded the sun. Every leap was in wild abandon, was in pure joy and in the recklessness of youth that Michael had never seen in Sammy before. He seemed like an angel.
The sun had fallen behind more clouds. Michael’s hand that he was using to shield from the light dropped to his side. Sammy stopped suddenly in the middle of the lake. Michael could see him look down and then start to run back, it looked like he was losing his balance. Something was wrong. Dark blue and gray swallowed the last of the sun’s light. The sky grew dark and Sammy fell into the water.
“Sammy!” Michael yelled. The small figure splashed in the water about an eighth of a mile off shore. “Help! Help!” Michael yelled. He turned and ran to his boat. He untied the rope as fast as he could. The figure heaved and tried to stay afloat; the sky was still dark. Michael kicked off from the dock and tried to start the motor. The motor rumbled and then nothing. He adjusted the choke and pulled the crank as hard and as absolute as he could. Through the gathered sweat on his face, he checked the primer bulb and pumped it with more fuel. On the lake, the splashes were less now. He was getting tired. He pulled the crank again and again. The motor made several small putters and then gave out. The smell of gasoline surrounded him. He had flooded the engine. He turned pale.
“Help!” He called out again. “My grandson is drowning!” A few neighbors, after hearing the first cry, looked on in alarm. Michael grabbed the oars and started to
row towards his drowning grandson.
His shoulders ached and his back was wet with sweat. He looked over his left side, the splashing had stopped.
“Sammy!” He called out. “Sammy! I’m coming!”
He paddled to where he thought Sammy had been. A few boats had surrounded him and wondered what the commotion was. “My grandson!” He cried, “He went under!” Michael jumped in. The water roared around him in a cool tempest. He looked down and swam a little to the left, the water stung his eyes and his chest began to burn. Suddenly all around him the lake was lit up, he could see nearly to the bottom. He swam up and breached. The sky was full of light, the clouds had passed. He looked to the other boats and they didn’t even see him. They were watching something else.
Michael followed their stares and found the body of his grandson floating just above the water.
After the ambulance left and Michael answered all the questions from the police, the neighbors watched him as he sat alone on the dock. No boat was out on the water out of respect. Even still, there wouldn’t have been anyone out there regardless because the sky was dark now and it had slowly started to rain. Michael stared out onto the lake as the raindrops made little ripples upon the water.
James Grimard is a writer currently living in Southern California. An English student at California State University Channel Islands, he is currently exploring careers based in the publishing and education field. He writes mainly short stories and poetry. His prompt page can be found on instagram at @grimm.gram