Say you find a rough-looking guy living inside the marshland park where you work, and you follow your co-worker’s lead when she says not to report it. Say your crush on her blinds you to the ramifications of not saying anything about the tidy campsite hidden at the far end of the rocks. Or the tall man who bolted into the woods when he saw your boat draw near.
The decision snags like a hangnail—there’s the right choice, and there’s all the others, Dad used to say. Today’s shift has just started and we’re in the boathouse loading the gear. The skiff rests on its sling at chest level, where Mason left it last night, even though we’re supposed to winch it higher.
“We need to talk about yesterday,” I say.
“We should’ve called it in.”
“Nah. Easier this way. Less hassle.”
“Besides, how would that look? Uh, Sawyer, look,” she says, her voice a falsetto, “we slept on it last night, and today we decided to come clean—”
“Is that supposed to be me?”
“Fuck, Isaac, we’re committed,” she says. “You get that, right?”
“Okay, okay. Don’t get pissed.”
She looks over the glittered rims of her sunglasses. “When you say pissed, it sounds like you’re trying it on.”
I look away, my ears burning. Mason has this way of getting between my layers.
“First time I’ve seen you wearing a dirty shirt, too,” she says. “You never miss laundry night.”
I resist the urge to smell my armpits and instead grab two life jackets, bailing kit, anchor. Last night I was worried about Sawyer—our supervisor—and forgot to start the washing machine. The city supplied summer staff with only three orange safety shirts, so I wash them twice a week. Mom works every night so the washer and dryer are all mine. Like the house, the TV, the echoes. I should never have told Mason about my routine. She throws the oars in so they’re angled across the seats then pulls out her phone, glances at the screen.
“Break time,” she says, producing a pack of cigarettes.
“It’s barely eight-thirty.”
“Nine o’clock somewhere.”
“Sawyer said we had to get the north side done by—”
She slides a half-burnt joint from the pack. “Fuck him and his clipboard,” she says.
“Chill out. Have a hit. We’re going back first thing—”
“—to see what we can find.”
She places the joint between her lips. Her lighter is a miniature blowtorch so her eyes, hard, glint blue against the bright jet of flame.
Say you’re homeschooled but when your dad gets caught in that hydraulic press, your mom can’t afford to stay home any more. There’s a move from a factory town to the city when you’re sixteen. Peers who can’t figure out what to say to you that isn’t an insult. A summer job you like where you use a spike on a pole to pick up walking path trash, a pressure washer to deal with the goose-shit. Where the lack of interaction is a comfort. Was.
“You wanted me to pilot the boat,” I say. “You should grab garbage.”
Mason’s stretched out along the bow bench with her head on one gunwale, legs over the other. She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, imagine heading back empty-handed.”
She’s nineteen. Walked away from calculus class a couple years ago and right into full-time city work. Working sanitation is a demotion, she says, but never elaborates. She likes rainbow hair dyes and hidden tattoos, and believes that a boss should never see an employee until the precise moment a shift begins. She snorts whenever she talks about the union. She told me to shut the fuck up on the first day we worked together—I don’t want to know you, she said—but by the end of the month we’d traded life stories. I covered for her the day she skipped a shift and became an accomplice. Here’s how I marked the milestone:
“So you owe me,” I said.
“Guess so. Let me know when you want time off.”
“Great. Would you like to go out—”
“No way, Home School,” she said.
And Don’t Ask Again, are the words I hear in my mind whenever I get distracted by her possibilities.
I throttle up the outboard and head across the marsh. Algae and lily pads crest and bob in our wake, then settle into a stillness so complete we might never have been there. Mason’s eyes are closed, although she has to know where I’m going. The knurl of exposed rock and the cluster of brush nestling against the far side get larger as we draw near. I ease off and we drift along the rocks. The trees are in full summer green.
“Get the grabber,” I say.
Mason stretches and fixes her eyes on the patch of wild sumac. “We’re not here for the garbage.”
The current is slow, the drift easy. It seems to take an eternity to reach the edge of the brush, where it thins enough to see between the bushes. The camp looks cleaner today, meagre pile of sundries lined up just so, the few items of clothing folded neatly. The guy has returned, reclining on a striped blanket, legs outstretched, hands behind. Skeletal. Clean-shaven. He watches us with faded grey eyes I can see from the water. The skiff’s final breath of momentum carries us into shore about a dozen feet from his shoes.
“You came back,” Mason says, folding her arms.
“I did indeed,” the man says. “So did you.”
“Wait,” I whisper to the back of her head. “Are you sure you—”
“Chill, Isaac. I got this.”
“You got this? What are you going to do?”
Mason asks how long he’s been here.
“A few weeks. It’s a good spot. Figured I’d take a chance on the two of you not telling anyone.” He smiles. Bright, strong teeth.
“What’s your name?” Mason asks. Her voice, slightly hoarse, is even and steady.
“Isaac,” I say.
“Yeah, I got that. Good Bible name. Righteous.”
“Why are you here?”
A harsh question, barked out. My voice. Mason turns and glares, but Jacob just chuckles and looks me in the eye. “I need the quiet.”
A slight hesitation before answering, as though he needed a moment to look right into me. Discover that hole, the one that’s the exact shape and size of the girl at the front of the boat.
“No, that’s not quite true,” he says. “I like the quiet, but I need the sounds, too. The trees, the water.”
“And traffic?” I ask, nodding at the highway that edges the far end of the marsh.
“White noise, probably,” Mason says.
“Exactly,” Jacob says.
“Not exactly peaceful,” I say.
“Peace and quiet aren’t the same thing,” Jacob says. “A dude can find one. The other—” As his voice trails off, he pulls out a sizeable bag of weed. A blue pack of rolling paper sits among the buds, bright, a window of sky through tall trees. “Smoke?”
“No, thanks,” Mason says.
“Really?” I ask her.
“How about you, Mr. Isaac?”
I shake my head.
“You’re a vet,” Mason says.
Jacob’s eyebrows arch and he looks at her as keenly as he looked at me. “Very good, young lady,” he says.
“Wait, I say. How—”
“She saw this,” he says.
He turns the back of his right hand towards me. A small parachute tattoo sits in the webbed flesh between thumb and index finger like a stain, blue-black and blurred around the edges.
Now Jacob laughs out loud, clapping his hands together. “Right on, Mr. Isaac! Solid!”
I tell him that I read a lot, speaking loudly, trying to drown out Mason calling me Home School again.
Say you wake up the next morning and know that everything she says is either half true or mostly lie. You’ve figured her out, or so you think. Work out a strategy that dissolves as soon as you see her. Again.
“You didn’t smoke with him,” I say. “That’s not like you—”
“So you know me now, do you?”
“No, I just— No.”
Eight a.m. The boathouse already stifling. Sawyer, pissed at how little garbage we brought back, is sending us out on the marsh for an unprecedented third day.
“You figure I should get high with some nasty stranger? Get AIDS or something? No fucking way.”
She goes quiet, saving me from having to call bullshit—even I can see there’s more to this than hygiene. We lower the skiff and Mason gets in the back, tilts the propeller into the murk and starts up. We don’t speak on our way across the marsh. A plastic grocery bag, heavy and stretched with cans and bottles, rests on the flat floor between her feet. An uncomfortable gift that she brought and insist we carry with us.
“Shit,” she says as we drift into shore. She sighs, cuts and raises the motor, steps into the shallows.
Jacob is sprawled out on his blanket. Eyes mostly closed, with just the whites visible between the slitted eyelids. Mouth wide open. The smell of vomit is sharp on the air. His shirt is up, exposing his thin belly. But the first thing you’d comment on is the spray of scars, dark keloid tissue, bursting towards his shoulders.
“He’s breathing,” I say.
“Passed out,” she says. “OD’d, maybe.”
“They throw bottles of pills at these guys. We should definitely call someone.”
I climb ashore, leaving the anchor in the mud, kneel next to him. The pant leg has ridden up to his knee, which is a ball of dull metal. His shin the grey weave of carbon fibre. But the angle of his foot is wrong, the leg too long. “Prosthetic,” I say.
“It’s all twisted. Has to hurt.”
“It does, yeah,” Mason says, her voice slower than before.
“It’s what my dad used to call his.”
We don’t speak for a few moments.
“Maybe we should straighten it,” I say.
“Don’t—the scars’ll stick.”
“Scars? On the stump?”
“There are probably others, too.”
“Gotta get the pull right. Mom had it down—me, I’d always fuck it up—” She takes a long, deep-drawn breath. “Jesus,” she finally says, her voice hitching. “Ah, Jesus.”
Say you wait too long to respond. You’re surprised by her naked grief. Disappointed, even. So you risk becoming an accomplice again. Your phones might stay in your pockets, hers because she’s too shattered, yours by choice. Would you hear yourself telling her that it’s too late to say anything, that you should get back in the boat to make sure you both have a job tomorrow? Grab the bag of weed, maybe, that has fallen from the guy’s pocket? Hold it out to her like it’s your gift to offer?
—Brent van Staalduinen is the author of the novel SAINTS, UNEXPECTED, the forthcoming novels BOY and NOTHING BUT LIFE, and his award-winning short fiction can be found in notable publications on both sides of the Atlantic. Find out more at www.brentvans.com.