Thursday, June 10, 2021

That Night by Elaine Barnard


                I brought the extra chairs in from the garden and set them at the kitchen table. They’re metal chairs, rusty from the moisture seeping in from the lake. We’ve always lived near the lake. It seemed a necessity. Even in winter when we were marooned by the fire, we could feel the water, its cold numbing our bones.  I hated that lake, wished we’d move away into the desert, Palm Springs, or Borrego or somewhere in the Mojave. I longed for arid zones, eternal sunshine scorching the cold from my body. But my parents wouldn’t hear of it. They loved the lake, loved the fishing, the trout grilled in the garden every summer, frozen in the deep freeze for winter. Trout and blue gill and bass. We were lucky they said. They even said it when they asked me to drag in those two chairs. It was their birthday, the twins, Jake and John. Only they couldn’t be here to celebrate because…. I couldn’t think about it, didn’t want to remember as I had every year since it happened. That happening withered my peace, my ability to concentrate on anything but that memory.

“Thadeus, come on, get those chairs in. The candles are burning down. You won’t be able to make the wish.” I’d made that wish every year since it happened. I couldn’t stop making it. Their birthdays were what my mother lived for. My father, stoic and sad, said the prayers before I blew the candles out on the big carrot cake Mother had baked that afternoon. Carrot was their favorite, so she always baked it decorating the top with vanilla cream frosting. Before it happened, I used to lick the bowl. I couldn’t do that anymore. I tried once and it made me vomit right on the cake. Dad cleaned it up. Mom started to tremble and threw the cake in the garbage. I went to my room and cried. Dad followed me in and shut the door. His hand on my shoulder made me cry even more. “It’s okay, Son. We understand. We know how much you miss them. We do too.”

Dad’s beard had a smoky smell from the cigarettes he inhaled every day. Never the same brand, whatever was on discount. Its softness soothed me. I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t. All that suffering, I was the cause. I could have stopped them. I could have kept them from going. I was the big brother after all.

“Ralph,” Mother called, “let Thad sleep. Sleep heals everything. I’ve poured us some coffee.” Dad turned out the light which hovered in the corner designing shadows on the wall. The moon cut figures on the glass. Through the window the lake whispered, “You let it happen. You did, didn’t you? Didn’t you…”

It had rained that evening long ago and there was promise of more to come. We clambered over the rocks leading to the shoreline. The twins were singing, goofing off as usual, giving each other shoves over the rocks to tip their balance, seeing who would fall first, slide down the rocks, slick with rain, to the docks. The air had that suffocating humidity, like a blanket left in the rain to dry. I moved through it slowly. Jake and John had no problem. Their energy was that of kids competing with each other for dominance. I hoped the moon would peek from the clouds again. We could use some illumination. My flashlight died halfway down the slope. It needed a new battery. I should have thought of that. But I hadn’t.

The twins were dressed in summer shorts and T-shirts, skull and crossbones emblazoned on their backs. They loved anything ghoulish, particularly Jake, the older of the two by several seconds. Earlier, while it was still light, we’d eaten supper in the garden. It was a special birthday supper for the boys. Dad grilled hamburgers and hot dogs with plenty of mustard and relish for the soft sweet Hawaiian buns, the twins favorite. I would rather have had roasted Indian corn slathered with butter and salt, but it wasn’t my birthday. And besides, the twins always came first. They’d come first ever since they were born.

The pines shivered in the breeze as we slogged through the mud to our dock. It was an old wooden dock, built in the thirties before our parents, Dora and Ralph were married. The cabin and dock were inherited from Ralph’s parents, my grandparents, long gone. Walking on the dock was risky. The wood splintered and creaked under our weight. The twins wanted to jump in for a birthday swim, but I forbade it. “Are you kids crazy? That water’s frigid. You’ll get hypothermia.”

“What’s that?” they giggled collapsing on the dock, dangling their skinny toes in the water.

“You don’t want to find out.”

“You’re such a wimp, Thad. Wimp-wimp-wimp,” they yelled.

They knew that would get to me. It always did, made me tight inside, ready to spring. I tried to control myself, not to shout or say something stupid. So, I just stood there and waited for my temper to calm wishing they’d never been born. Then I wouldn’t have to play the heavy. I’d be free to do as I pleased, maybe date one of the pretty girls in my geometry class. Help them with their homework. Get a kiss in return. But here I was, stuck every day with the twins. Mother said their energy was too much for her. It’d taken all her strength to deliver them. She didn’t think she’d ever catch up. And Dad was at work every day repairing cars on the hill. So, it was left to me to pick them up after school and keep them out of trouble.

They were standing in our kayak now, rocking it back and forth. Fortunately, it was beached on the shore or they would have capsized.

“Can we take it out, Thad? Please. We won’t take it far, just around the edge of the lake.”

As usual I didn’t respond immediately. I needed time to think.

“C’mon, Thad, we just turned twelve. We’re big now. You taught us to kayak, remember?”

It was true, I had taught them. Now I wish I hadn’t. They were good kayakers for kids, maybe Olympic material someday. But not today, definitely not today.

“No, you can’t take it out. Feel that wind. It’ll blow you over before you’ve left the dock.”

The wind had increased. Pellets of rain struck us as we stood there arguing.

“It’s just a little shower, Thad. Off and on. The moon’ll be out before you know it.”

What they pleaded made some sense. Our storms usually passed quickly. Sometimes they never developed at all. Heavy clouds, sprinkles of rain, then it cleared. I searched the sky for a sign. There was none.

“C’mon Thad, come on, birthday present. You promised a special one. This is it.”

It was true. I had promised them a special present. It was back at the cabin, a telescope so they could search the night sky, see the stars. It was so clear here at the lake. Who knows what we would find? And that was really it. I had to admit I’d wanted the telescope for myself and getting it for the twins was a way of achieving that.

“Your present’s back at the cabin. Why don’t we head home before we really get soaked?”

But they were determined now. Jake pushed John off and jumped in himself.

The wind had suddenly died, maybe the lull before the storm.  “Okay, you guys. But remember just around the perimeter and be home in an hour before Mother has a fit.”

Jake waved. John gave a salute and they glided off hardly rippling the water. It was beautiful to watch them, their slim bodies so graceful, so in tune with each other. They made the sport look effortless. I needn’t worry. They’d keep their word. Or would they?

As I started up the ramp, the sky opened up, like someone dumped a pail of water on my head. I ran back down the dock and started to yell, “Jake-John turn back, guys. Turn back.” But I should have saved my energy. I glimpsed them in the distance heading out to the middle of the lake, just as I feared they would.

I trudged up the rocks, slipping and cutting my hands as I tried to steady myself. What would I tell Mother and Dad? That I’d let them kayak in a storm? I’d catch hell for sure. So, I made up the half-truth that would get me a frown from Dad and a worried nod from my mother.

The cabin glowed in the darkness. Dense clouds sat above the roof threatening it, like the harbinger of doom in some old myths. I was drenched from the downpour, shivering in my light summer jacket. My fingers still bled even though I’d tried to suck them dry. I knew Mother would be alarmed if she saw blood, so I stuck my fingers in my pockets as I opened the door softly, hesitantly, afraid to enter, to tell them… what?

They were still seated at the old oak supper table. The checked cloth had the remains of cake crumbs. They were drinking coffee, light with cream. They smiled when they saw me.

“We were just beginning to worry.” Mother brushed some crumbs into a little pile on the cloth.

“The boys following you up?” Dad took a gulp of his coffee.

“They took the kayak for a paddle.” I unbuttoned my jacket and hung it on the hook beside the door.

“What?” Dad put down his cup.

“Just-just around the perimeter.” I felt a lump in my throat. 

“But it’s raining.” Mom collapsed the pile of crumbs she’d just collected.

“It’d stopped when they started out.” My stomach knotted.

“Then they should be here soon.” Dad stroked his beard to calm himself the way he always did when he was upset.

“Sure,” I said, “any minute now. They’re good paddlers, know what they’re doing.”

Mom got me a towel. “Here, Thad, dry your head before you catch cold.”

I took the towel. It felt warm and dry, so dry… I hid my hands in it hoping the crusted blood wouldn’t stain.

“Have some coffee, Thad. It’ll warm your innards.”

Dad poured me a big cup adding cream and sugar the way I liked it even though Mother always warned me about too much sugar. Slowly I sipped the cup. Its warmth soothed me as we waited. The cuckoo clock ticked the minutes away and then the hours. We said nothing. We didn’t need to vocalize. Our thoughts shouted.

Finally, Dad muttered, “I’m going down to the dock. You stay here, Thad, with your mother. I’ll call the Harbor Patrol from down there. They’re all volunteers but someone should still be up.

                “Call us as soon as you find anything, Ralph. Good or bad we need to know it.”

                Dad put on his slicker and left. Mother and I didn’t look at each other. We couldn’t. We froze in our chairs waiting for the phone to ring, to tell us some good news. It had to be good news. It couldn’t be otherwise.

                Wind howled cracking branches on the roof, making the windows shake. It seemed as if the entire world was falling apart. Mother’s face gradually drained of color as midnight approached. Her thin body stooped inside the chenille robe she always wore in late evening to stay warm. It was old fashioned. No one wore chenille anymore. But mother liked to wear old things, much of her wardrobe inherited from her mother. There were two deep creases on either side of her small mouth that I’d never noticed before. They seem to have appeared in these last hours. Her gray eyes looked weary behind her smudged glasses which she took on and off as if she’d thought about reading but changed her mind. She couldn’t concentrate on anything but these frozen moments.

                Finally, the door nudged open. Dad stood there in the porch light. Just stood there and looked at us as if afraid to tell us, as if he couldn’t speak because the words strangled in his throat.

“Ralph.” Mother stood and clung to the back of my chair to steady herself. “Tell us.”

Dad shut the door behind him as if shutting out the memory of what he’d just seen or hadn’t seen but imagined seeing. “We-we found the kayak,” he murmured, his face a mask hiding his despair.  But-but the boys weren’t in it. We’ll search for them as soon as it’s light. We can’t do anything more right now. He collapsed in his chair, his head resting on the table.

“I’ll make some fresh coffee.”  Mother turned toward the percolator her hands shaking.

                I grabbed my slicker. “I’m going out there, Dad. I’ll find them no matter how long it takes.”

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