The floating dock glared sunlight. Tommy lay on it with outflung arms, dripping a dark and sloppy T. The world was orange veined with red under his eyelids. A ways off, kids splashed and yelled and a mother chided someone lazily, but it wasn’t Tommy’s mother. He was alone. He had swum away when his brother Ryan had jeered “Mama’s boy!” right in his face.
The water shushed. It smelled scummy and rich. The dock tilted gently, first to the left, then to the right.
What kept the dock from floating away? It sat on the pond like a dog inside an electric fence. But it didn’t have an anchor. Tommy knew so, because a bunch of Ryan’s friends had dared him and each other to swim under it. He hadn’t taken the dare: if you tried to pop out on the other side too soon, you could hit your head on the bottom of the dock and get knocked unconscious and drown. (That was another time Ryan had called him a “mama’s boy.”) But no one who had taken the dare had found a rope. The dock was floating free. Maybe while Tommy’s eyes were closed it had floated over the dam and away. . .
Tommy opened his eyes. He was still in the middle of the pond. Far off on the main dock, a creaky platform that stood on stilts half-in and half-out of the water, some big girls were stamping their feet and waving at one another to jump, jump. Two of them had on bikinis. One of the bikinis was red with polka dots and one was lime green. The lifeguard stared at them stupidly with sun-blinded eyes. He was even bigger than they were: a high school boy. Tommy admired the yellow plastic whistle that dangled from his neck on a thick string.
A little beach lay beside the main dock. (Mommy was there, somewhere.) Dad said the sand had been “imported.” All the swimmers’ tramping feet had mixed it with the wet brown dirt and turned it gritty and gray.
One teeny girl with puffy orange arm floaters was squatting on the sand at the edge of the water and wailing. Tommy didn’t want to look. Instead he looked at the pond where it rippled against the dock. It was brown and green and dull and reflected barely anything: the trees by the shore dropped shadows not trees across the water.
Maybe down near the bottom, where Tommy couldn’t see, schools of trout and bass and perch were tangling together. Maybe there were small freshwater sharks that ate the trout and bass and perch that no one ever saw. Maybe people would only discover the small freshwater sharks after the largest and bravest shark made up his mind to eat a tasty-looking kid. Maybe.
A water strider, blurring into sight, paused by the dock. Its thready legs made an X, and its feet made tiny white dimples on the surface of the water. Tommy’s face pulled together in disgust. Once he had seen a pack of them surround the dead body of a June bug floating on the water and suck at its insides with their sharp mouths until its shiny armor crumpled like an empty soda can. He had thrown a stick, and they had scattered.
Besides, how could they skate around like that and never sink? Dad had explained it to Tommy once, but the explanation had words like tension and vortices that only made Tommy more suspicious.
Would it try to climb aboard the dock? Tommy could stop it. Maybe he should grab one of its needle legs and throw it across the water. Maybe he should make a tidal wave with his hand to swamp and drown it.
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A splash! An arm glittering with drops flung itself onto the deck. Its muscles twitched, a soaked black cap of hair was levered into sight, and then Ryan was clambering onto the dock, which rocked complainingly under him. The pond smell that was always faintly everywhere clung strong and ripe to his body. He was grinning.
“Is it time to go home?” Tommy asked.
The other side of the dock — the water strider’s side — dropped. Another set of arms, another hair-plastered head. Ryan’s friend Carl was mounting the dock.
Carl had brown hair and brown eyes and a round fatty face that could belong to anyone. He was pretty big for a fifth grader, Tommy guessed, but that was the only interesting thing about him you could see. Ryan had told Tommy that Carl should have been in the sixth grade, but he’d been held back at his last school for “disciplinary problems,” which meant stomping on a kid’s thumb until it broke. Dad had told Ryan that lying was a sin and to go to his room. Tommy had said nothing.
“What —” said Tommy.
Carl grabbed Tommy’s wrist. Tommy saw his own whitish indoors skin bulge out even whiter around Carl’s freckly red-knuckled fist. It hurt the way things always hurt before a bruise shows up. Ryan was still grinning, wide and stiff, like Tommy’s plastic T-Rex with the tiny arms.
Carl grabbed the other wrist and pinned both wrists behind Tommy’s head and knelt on them. Tommy realized that he should have run away, or started struggling earlier.
He wriggled and twisted to and fro. Knives were stabbing madly up his arms. His heels slid on the planks. A pain below joined the pain above: a splinter sliding into his big toe. The deck rocked under him, like it had taken his side — but it wasn’t enough on his side to buck Carl and Ryan. They were too heavy. Above Tommy the sky was a clear-cut blue against the birds and branches and it was very, very far away.
Ryan was working his wet swim trunks down over his butt. Fabric slapped his knees. He tugged his penis free of the waistband and aimed.
Hot pee clattered against Tommy’s belly. It rat-a-tatted like faucet water in the kitchen sink or like shower water against the shower floor. It would have felt nice, if it had been water.
Tommy struggled in a rage. His skin under Carl’s knees twisted. Carl was too big, two years older, or maybe three if Ryan had been telling the truth. Tommy’s guts heaved and shriveled. Without noticing when, he had started barking in a weird hoarse voice: “Stop! Stop!”
All of a sudden the weight on his arms vanished. Ryan was pulling up his swim trunks. He and Carl were laughing.
Tommy roared and tackled Ryan into the pond at a run. The water struck them and washed over them, swallowing all the shrieks and calls of the beach, all the noise except the rushing of water around them. Plunging downward, Tommy grappled with Ryan’s shoulder and found his head. Grabbing the head two-handed, he shoved. Ryan went down, he went up. He rocketed to the surface, spitting and shaking water from his eyes. Anger was burned brightly in his head. He felt cleaner.
He held Ryan under as long as he could — pushing the head down with his hands and kicking back at Ryan’s thrashing legs. Still it was just a couple seconds before Ryan exploded sputtering to the surface.
“You could’ve drowned me!” Ryan shouted. He was wearing a red, bulge-eyed face. That was the face he wore whenever Tommy broke a rule he thought was actually serious.
Currents sliced through Tommy’s toes as he trod water. It tickled. He concentrated on the feeling because he couldn’t answer Ryan back. Pee had never killed anyone, but he didn’t think he’d been wrong.
Losing patience, Ryan walloped onto his stomach and stroked hard for shore and Mommy. Angry froth kicked up behind him. Tommy followed, breast-stroking, wondering what she’d say and how she’d punish him. I won’t say sorry, he told himself. His stomach cramped with nausea.
Mommy was lying on the gritty gray beach. A towel wrinkled under her. It was printed with huge, bubbly flowers in orange and pink and purple. Packing it in the wicker beach basket that morning, she had whispered, laughing, in Tommy’s ear: “It’s aspirational.” He hadn’t understood, but he’d laughed with her anyway.
Big sunglasses with red plastic rims covered up her eyes. Her hands rested flat on her belly and her jaw had gone soft. Is she asleep? Tommy saw Ryan think it too. He stumbled and paused in his barefoot, high-kneed march over the uneven wet sand. Then he shouted: “Mom!”
She sat up slowly. “Hey, sweeties,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“He tried to drown me!”
“He peed on me,” Tommy muttered in rebellion.
“What?” Mommy said. She grasped delicately one frame of her sunglasses with four fingers, pinkie sticking up like it was teatime. Then the sunglasses were crowning her head. She did things like that sometimes — fast enough to be magic.
Her bare eyes stared at him, narrow as pencil lead. “He peed on me,” Tommy repeated in alarm.
“He held me under, I could have drowned,” Ryan insisted.
Mommy turned to Ryan. “Good.”
“Good,” Evie said.
She had been half-asleep when they approached her. The dark-lensed world made a night of sorts, a night with which she’d fooled the shame that daytime naps dug up in her. In her daydream — or true dream, she wasn’t sure — the coming baby, about whom they’d told no one, not even the boys, had appeared as a gray-eyed woman with no name. Evie had wanted to call her Temperance. Arthur had said that Temperance was a horrible, old-fashioned name to stick their daughter with. “We should call her Aimee,” he said. (In the dream, Evie could hear the trendy spelling. She had scoffed.) “Mom!” the woman had demanded suddenly; Evie had woken and remembered the child was three weeks in the womb, unborn and unknown.
Now the boys were staring at her with saucer eyes and wet open mouths. That was her familiar mouth, mirrored, multiplied: dark pink and too wide for the faces in which it was set, the lower lip pushed into a congenital pout. The pointed chin was Arthur’s, the cleft in it hers. (Could she say that it was hers? In fact she didn’t know if a lifetime with this body — neonatal jaundice, teeth shed and grown, skin over the ribs stippled with shiny dots from chickenpox and errant fingernails, two fillings in the back molars, ears pierced and hung with ornaments, muscles torn and strengthened from her years of soccer, the chunk of thumb absent where the box cutter had slipped, the wrist that had fractured when she was shoved onto the asphalt of that parking lot, hymen broken on her wedding night like a contract of blood brotherhood, belly twice stretched and twice deflated – if a lifetime made it hers, or if ownership reverted to the mother who had provided it, to her mother’s father, to her mother’s father’s father, back and back forever and all one’s parts possessed by God knows whom. Well. She would say hers.) They had her muddy irises. She stared back at them, tried to stare in. But they were opaque. They reflected her “Good.”
Then beneath skin and puppy fat, facial muscles pulled and set into legible patterns. Ryan’s brow lowered, his lips pursed, and his nose retreated wrinkling up his face. “But what if he’d pushed me under the deck or knocked my head really hard? You said we could drown from that.”
Meanwhile Tommy had tucked his chin to his chest, in shame, yes, but perhaps also in atavistic instinct to protect his throat. He strapped his arms round himself in a furious hug. From the way he refused to look at her, Evie knew he still believed he would be punished and was rebelling against punishment. “Carl stood on my arms and you peed on me.”
Why did they have to repeat themselves? The situation was lurid and awful enough as it was. Ryan had decided to humiliate his baby brother, to degrade him physically, basely — scatologically, though Evie’s horror could not reside in that, surely, not in the mere primitive idea of contamination. Not so very long ago Evie had changed Ryan’s loaded diapers while whistling. Not so long ago she had shown Ryan (positioning his arms just so) how to support the baby’s comically outsized head. Ryan had sung tuneless renditions of the Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi theme song to lullaby the baby after dinner. He had, for a few months, stopped begging for a Golden Retriever puppy just like the one Matt Peterson got for his birthday, Mooooom…And, now, this. Yet Evie was not surprised.
She could imagine it perfectly. All those days when her mother had left Evie with her giantess cousin Sophie while she and Aunt Helen went to “events,” for instance: the pinches, the slaps, the terrifying chokings, the way Sophie used to pin Evie and drop loogies on her face and chest that she scrubbed hysterically in the bathroom afterwards so that Mama wouldn’t see them and be disgusted. How would it have been for Tommy? The looming shape so close above you that it blotted out distance. Pain and fear crowding you into your body. Your back scraping wetly against wood, splinters pricking you like thorns, like gravel. Someone choosing to make you dirty. Your ignorance as to why. The cowardly suspicion that you have somehow deserved it. Squirming, pushing desperately against the hands that hold you down and feeling no give at all, you might as well do nothing, weak as — well, as a child.
This had been only child’s play. Evie had overreacted. Hardly the first time, right? She was such a fearful mother. (Perhaps that was the true fear of motherhood: not that your child would be snatched up by a monster, but that your child would grow up to be one.) Every day kids played games that appeared quite freakish but, if considered closely, lay well within the bounds of childhood viciousness. Right?
“What you did was wrong,” she told Ryan while rising to her feet, “and disgusting.” The word was so heady she had to repeat it. “Right now you disgust me.”
Ryan flinched back. Evie was a bad mother. A bad, bad mother — God.
Tommy’s guilt was transmuting slowly to joyous wonder on his round little face. He knew now, she could see, that he would not be punished.
And was it wrong that — without loving Ryan any less, loving both her boys equally, loving them both with a mother’s inexhaustible non-zero-sum love — that Tommy was her favorite — not in spite but because of his weakness and backwardness, because of the small swaying belly that protruded just a little over the thick elastic waistband of his green swimming trunks, because he made it so honestly and unabashedly clear that she was his favorite?
Evie’s mind reared back from the question. (Disgusted.) “We’re going home,” she said.
But the boys still stood there slack-mouthed. So she grabbed them, each by one arm, and began to pull them toward the packed-dirt parking lot. She was holding them too tight: their flesh ridged between her fingers like Play-Doh.
Maybe she wanted to rough up Ryan, to prove something, like I’m still bigger, you jeering little gangster. But she couldn’t differentiate her grip. Right and left tightened alike; Tommy whimpered too. (She was ashamed and vicious in her shame.) Her Hawaiian print towel she left on the beach. In the end, it was dumb, and she had no hands left to carry it.
From his bed Ryan could hear Mom and Dad talking in the kitchen. The family house was small, wooden, and historical — French settlers had built it in the 1700’s, Ryan had done a report on it last year — so winds and voices were always seeping into Ryan’s bedroom through cracks in the floor. Mom was speaking in quick bursts that made all her words blur together. When she ran out of breath, Dad would start up. His light voice ticked steadily as a metronome.
(Ryan had taken piano lessons when he was littler. Mom had wanted an artsy, talented kid, he guessed. He had never been any good at it. When his teacher, Mrs. Dombrovskaya, a large and graceful Russian woman with fat hands leaping quick as squirrels over the keys, had told him to play “with passion,” he banged out obnoxious noise. When she told him to play “softly, softly,” he touched the keys so wimpily that they stalled halfway down and no sound came out at all. Frustrated, he banged them: the obnoxious noise returned. “To find right pressure,” Mrs. Dombrovskaya used to say, “is puzzle for brain.” Well, Ryan never figured out the puzzle. The only thing that kept him from going crazy during those Monday lessons, trapped in that little living room — with the walls all covered in black-and-white photographs, and the lumpy carpet that smelled like stale church incense — was the solid tick, tick, tick, tick of the small metronome that sat on top of the piano. Mrs. Dombrovskaya made him listen to it whenever his tempo wandered off; sometimes he played too fast, fingers stumbling over a bright black sharp and tripping each other up, just to hear the noise.)
Mom and Dad weren’t fighting. Ryan could tell, even though he couldn’t make out individual words. When they fought, Mom usually cried, and Dad’s voice dialed its beats per minute way down. They were talking about him, probably: about what he’d done. Ryan kicked off the sheets sticking to his legs — summer was too hot for sheets anyway — and got out of bed as quietly as he could. (One time, he had tried to figure out which floorboards in his room creaked, so he could sneak around better at night. It turned out all of them creaked.)
When Ryan on tiptoe reached the dark top of the stairwell, Tommy was already sitting there in a lump of shadow, his feet braced on the top step. He jumped when Ryan sat down next to him, but didn’t say anything. Technically they were still in a fight: Ryan hadn’t said sorry for real yet. (Dad had made Ryan say it, which didn’t count.) But Tommy couldn’t snitch on him for payback when they were breaking the exact same rule at the exact same time, so Ryan didn’t worry about getting caught. He just listened.
“I can’t believe it,” Mom’s voice was saying breathlessly. “What if I ruin them? What if I’ve already —” She gasped like a hooked fish.
Tommy was staring at the yellow shadow of light at the foot of the stairs, where an open door connected the living room to the kitchen. The whites of his eyes glistened in the dark. His breath sounded raspy and wet, as if he had been crying.
“No,” Dad said, “that won’t happen.” Ryan could imagine just how he looked when he said it: elbows braced on the table, face calm as lake water, eyes holding Mom’s to convince her. Sometimes Tommy called Dad “The Robot” under his breath; Ryan thought it was a dumb insult, but he could see how Tommy had come up with it.
“How do you know?” Mom said.
Tommy whispered: “Are they going to get a divorce?”
“No,” Ryan whispered back.
“Where did Carl go?”
“Where did Carl go?” Tommy repeated. “After you swam back to the beach.”
“I don’t know,” Ryan said. He had completely forgotten about Carl, Carl with his big, anonymous circle of a face. Carl had appeared behind him just when Mom had forbidden him, for the third time, to dive off the main dock. “It’s too dangerous,” she had said. “No way, fat chance.” Ryan had been grumbling with impatience. Why was she so scared of everything? Other kids did it all the time! The noontime heat had pressed hard on his shoulders and it had taken all his effort to stand up straight. He had wanted an adventure, a test of his bravery — and then Carl had startled him by saying: “Your brother is hogging the dock. Wanna do something about it?” Ryan had remembered how much he hated Tommy sometimes, how chubby and scared Tommy was, how he was always agreeing with Mom even though it meant he’d stay a loser forever…Afterwards, Carl had disappeared in just the same way he had appeared.
“They’re talking about us,” Tommy said. “We’re the ‘them.’ She doesn’t want to ruin us.”
“What does that mean?” Briefly, on the car ride home, she had stared at Ryan in the rearview mirror like she was afraid of him — like he had transformed into a gigantic, nasty millipede wriggling all its legs all over the back seat. Maybe he had been ruined somehow. He felt like that sometimes, when he couldn’t tell that something was wrong till after he’d done it. But why was it her fault?
Ryan felt more than saw Tommy shrug: a shoulder, shifting up and down, rubbed his. Then the shoulder was bumping against Ryan’s as Tommy started to shake, hard. He was murmuring something too soft to hear.
“Hey, what’s up?” Ryan whispered. Tommy didn’t answer, so Ryan hugged him round the shoulders and scooted closer to hear.
“I’m sorry,” Tommy was saying. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Why were they like this?
“Hey,” Ryan said, “no. No. It wasn’t your fault. It’s my fault, okay? It was a really dumb prank. C’mon, it’s not your fault, stop crying.”
Tommy just kept shaking and shaking. Even after Mom and Dad stopped talking, and the yellow shadow at the foot of the stairs vanished, and Ryan’s butt went tingly, then numb, he didn’t stop. Ryan didn’t know what to do. For a long, long time he sat, but in the end he left Tommy there and went to bed.