When he strikes, the surface opens up and lets him in. He drops down and down through the cold folds of water. Knees bent, his legs float forward, pale arms waving. Light from the full moon cuts through the blackness. Above, the outline of a figure leans over the boat, watching him sink. The oar still gripped in both hands.
He gasps, stomach and lungs filling with water. Twigs scrape across his spine, stringy plants slip through his fingers. He sinks deeper. The moon dims until it is just a thumbprint in a starless sky.
His mind goes blank. The water presses on him. He is shrinking and shrinking into the darkness, and any moment, he will disappear.
I could tell by her face. She knew what I’d done. The school counselor had said he wouldn’t tell Gloria, but one glance at my mother and I was sure she’d gotten a phone call. When I walked down Pinchkiss Circle she was standing in front of our house holding a hammer and a piece of wood. As I got closer, I could see she’d painted a single misspelled word right in the middle of it.
I wasn’t expecting that.
The whole meeting with the counselor had been no big deal. That was what I’d thought, anyway. He wanted to talk about the change in my “family structure,” which meant Telly walking out on me and my little sister last month. Gloria had tried to hide it, but once our neighbor Mrs. Spooner noticed Telly’s truck was gone all the time, everyone soon found out. “Rowan, I know school’s almost over,” the counselor had said, “but I want to end on a positive. You’ve been upset, that’s clear, but some people do really constructive things with their anger.”
I didn’t know what he meant. Was I supposed to build something? Tear something down?
Then he asked if I had “good buddies to lean on.”
I shook my head.
“Boys to pal around with?”
I shook my head again. The fact was, I didn’t have a single friend. Besides Darrell, an older kid who lived a few houses up from us on the circle. Sometimes he’d invite me over for a soda, or to see his motorcycle.
The counselor leaned forward, put his elbows on his desk. He was wearing a skinny purple tie. It matched the purple frame on his glasses. “What about the future? What do you dream about?”
“At night?” I asked. I didn’t mention how he’d just ended three of the last four sentences in prepositions. That would really bug Mrs. Spooner. She was also my language arts teacher.
“No, in general. What are your aspirations?”
I told him I wanted to fix my skin. Maybe that would help me find some “good buddies to lean on.” People were afraid I was contagious. Even the teachers never came too close. Well, besides Mrs. Spooner. The only person who actually liked my spots was Maisy. Ever since she was little she’d thought there was a map growing out through me. That I was the key to some treasure. Sometimes when Gloria said mean things, I’d find a tiny note on torn paper under my pillow. “You ar beeutifell.” Even though it was weird for Maisy to say that to her brother, I kept every one.
“What other things? What makes you happy, Rowan?”
I didn’t tell him my idea of getting on a train and going back to find Gran. Which was impossible now, because Gran was dead. Instead I told the counselor about my dream of hitting a home run. Having that bat in my hands, swinging it as hard as I could, and striking the fat round ball out of the park. The crowd always leapt up from the stands and screamed and roared.
“Do you imagine that a lot?” he said.
“Yeah. I do. All the time.”
“Maybe we should start a team in September. Get uniforms. I could coach.”
I stared down at my hands. There was a neat white island over the bottom part of my thumb.
“The school might fund it.”
“Still,” I said. He thought I was worried about money. “I don’t think it ’d work.”
I shrugged. I didn’t mention that in my dream I was the only one on the team. And I certainly didn’t mention that when I looked down at the bat it was often a blur of red. Bits of bone and broken teeth. Sometimes in my imagination the ball was just a ball, but most times it was a head. Sound of a melon smashing as the swinging bat tore it straight off. My stomach filling up with satisfaction.
Mrs. Spooner always told me I had a creative mind.
“Well,” the counselor said, “at least you’ve got a supportive mom. Even with your dad gone, she’s on your side. We’ve got to count our blessings, right?”
“Yeah.” I nodded and smiled. “I’m pretty lucky. You won’t tell her about what I took, right?”
“Stole, you mean.”
“Stole,” I whispered.
“I’ll have to think about it, Rowan. Leave it with me.”
I’d thought that meant he wouldn’t call. But as I got closer to home, Gloria was staring at me. One foot up on the steps leading to the front porch. Maisy was nowhere to be seen. She’d already walked home from school with her friend Shar. She could be out playing, or she could be hiding away. She was like that, vanishing at the first sign of trouble.
“Get over here,” Gloria said.
I dragged my feet.
“I’m at the end of my rope with you. Do you know that? The very end of it.” She spoke in a low growl. Gloria never yelled outside.
I looked down at my sneakers. They were covered in a fine film of dust from our driveway. “Sorry,” I said.
“Sorry? Sorry? That’s all you got to say? I’ve never been so ashamed. Grabbing chocolate bars out of some teacher’s purse? Like you don’t get enough to eat at home? And everyone nosing around in our business. That woman, that, that Mrs. Spooner, and now some school counselor calling me. Talking about Telly running off. Because nothing ever went wrong in their perfect lives.”
“I said I was sorry, Gloria.”
“Oh, buddy boy. You’re going to be sorry.”
I expected her to walk up our driveway and stop at the bottom of Pinchkiss Circle. I thought she’d make me stand beside the rain gutter so our neighbors could see the sign. But instead she went in the opposite direction. She strode across the fresh green grass and stepped into the woods.
As I followed behind her I noticed Maisy, tucked into the furthest corner of the deck that was built off the side of our house. Our dog, Chicken, was snoring beside her. She watched me with her blue eyes, her round face frowning. I knew what she was thinking. Don’t go. Don’t go in there. I waved, made a weak attempt at a cartwheel to make her smile. Then I ran to catch up with Gloria.
When I entered the woods, my heart sped up a bit. I called out, “Isn’t this the wrong way, Gloria?” As far back as I could remember, Maisy and I had called our parents by their first names. Gloria said it was modern, progressive. Our mother was always Gloria. And our dad was always Telly.
She ignored my question, just kept marching forward, her new blond hair bouncing, the sign jammed into her armpit. I had to rush to keep up. One of Gloria’s steps was two of mine. We went further and further into the woods.
“This is just dumb!” I yelled. “Someone’s supposed to see me, aren’t they?”
She snickered, said over her shoulder, “You know, lots of wolves live in here.” Her voice was cheerful.
I laughed. “I’m thirteen, Gloria. That dumb stuff doesn’t scare me anymore.”
She swept past branches and stomped over mossy logs. Gloria had thick legs. “Telly almost caught one once. Enormous ugly thing. Fur all stuck down. They like to hunt when it’s dark.”
“So?” I said.
“Green eyes show up first. Then you hear them sniffing and scratching.”
“Oh.” A squirt of sickness shot through my guts. Around me the shadows were long and narrow.
After a lot of walking, Gloria stopped. The trees had grown thicker and the ground was spongy under my feet. She turned in a slow circle, then lifted the sign. Dug a nail from her pocket and fixed it to a trunk. Three hard slams with the hammer. “Stand there,” she said.
“That’s what I said, didn’t I? Under your sign.”
I didn’t understand why we were in the woods. Weeks ago, Gloria told us about a girl she saw outside the front door of Stafford’s department store. Apparently, the kid had taken a baby soother because her brother was crying. As punishment, her mother taped construction paper to her T-shirt with a message that read, “Do not trust me. I rob stuff.” I thought Gloria was going to do the same thing. So the neighbors could gawk. “This doesn’t make sense. Nobody lives in here.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it’s just trees, Gloria. And squirrels.”
She looked me right in the eye. “Wait and see, mister,” she said. “No-body don’t mean no-thing. Try not to breathe when you hear one of them. They’ll smell you a mile away.”
Then she left me standing under the sign. She wound her way back through the trees, and I could hear her humming a tune. The notes of her music vanished just seconds before she did.
I stood there, waiting. My stomach groaned. It had to be dinnertime by now. Gloria was probably cooking noodles or heating up a can of soup. Any moment, she’d be back. She’d find me exactly where I was and realize I wasn’t bothered one bit. And who ’d win then? Wolves? What a joke.
But she never appeared. Water from the swampy ground seeped through my sneakers. My feet itched but I didn’t reach down to scratch. I kept leaning against the tree as the afternoon passed and the light changed. I had to pee, badly, but I knew any second she’d be there. Each time I heard a branch snap or leaves rustle I’d squint in her direction, but I didn’t see her. Gradually color seeped away. Shadows expanded and consumed the ground. I watched. Soon, she’d return. The woods turned grayer and grayer. Soon. Then, in a single long breath, all my eyes could see was black.
Realization made my skin turn cold. She wasn’t coming back for me. She’d left me for the night. Why would I ever have believed she’d stick me out in the road with that sign? She’d never purposely give the neighbors something to talk about. Not Gloria. She didn’t want me to feel embarrassed about grabbing a few chocolate bars. She wanted me to feel afraid.
And she’d succeeded. In the pitch black, I was too scared to twitch. To breathe. To think. I had no idea which way was east or west, or how I’d get home. I patted the gnarly bark of the trunk behind me. Reached up to feel my THEIF sign, just in case I’d accidentally gotten turned around. My heart clacked loudly, but my ears strained to identify every sound. Plants uncurling, insects crawling, small animals under the dead layer of leaves. Burrowing toward me. So much noise inside the silence.
The darkness grew darker.