“A Lungful of Air”

Placed Fourth in Pithead Chapel‘s 2016 Larry Brown Short Story Award; published in Vol. 6, Issue 1: the contest issue (January 2017).

A Lungful of Air

Waves crash softly away from the square floating dock on Crater Lake, the one by the beach that’s held in place by a heavy chain connected to the slick wooden bottom and rooted deep in the muck twenty feet below. Alex sits closer to the shore, his palms flat on the rocking planks, as I sit with my knees up, elbows perched on them. I glance behind me at powerboats humming across the water, the big brick houses across the lake from the state-owned stretch of sand where we gathered, then turn my head to the beach, the girls sunning in their new bikinis, the guys cluttered by the grill, Shana’s two kids in the water and her watching them from the crescent of the shore.

Shana blocks the sun from her eyes with one hand as I remember leaning on my kitchen counter, finishing a Milky Way, when she promised over the phone that there would be enough people here that I wouldn’t even have to look at Alex, that she’d be sure to keep an eye on him to make sure he wasn’t bothering me. I hear laughter as the youngest kid, kicking the water from a green inflatable crocodile, drifts to shore by the boat ramp and Shana pushes the float back out into the water. I wish it was shaped like something more docile—a duck or something.

“It’s weird, huh, Mark?” Alex turns to me, his tricep flexing like it would when he used to bend over me in the bed of his dad’s Chevy.

“What is?” I look at the tall pines that border the sand and then hold close to the uneven line of red-clay shore that curves out from the beach to make this tiny cove. I recognize the pattern the trunks make after coming here for years—in high school, Shana and I used to drink here when the moon was full because we could bring our boyfriends and there was plenty of space to sneak off, be alone with them. She brought whoever she happened to be dating—a dropout or stoner art student or a man too old to go to our school. I was always with Alex.

“That we’re all here together again.” He swings his hands around when he talks, like an orchestra conductor—we used to make fun of him for it, but he would just flick us off as one of his hands swooshed by. “It’s been, what, three years?”

“Four.” I lower my hand to the wood beneath me and peel a large splinter from the dock. Fucking dangerous. “Since we were all together.”

“Damn, it’s been that long?” He turns his body toward mine now, spreading his legs so that his dripping feet sit on either side of me. “Doesn’t seem like it.”

I look up at him, the even-toned olive skin over his swimmer’s muscles, the dark blond hair that falls over his eyes, the bright red swimsuit. “No, it doesn’t.” I toss the splinter into the water where it floats like the inflatable crocodile by the shore: my mind, like I knew it would when I saw the float, even when Shana first told me that we were coming to the lake, starts grasping for every image of a crocodile I’ve ever seen and places them all in the water beneath me. Sometimes it’s not crocodiles, but it’s always something. For years—beginning after Shana and I watched Jaws when we were eight—it was sharks, even in fresh water—

“So what’ve you been up to?” He looks straight into my eyes and leans back on his arms.

“Nothing.” He doesn’t need to hear that I’m still not over him after three fucking years and haven’t left this podunk town, that I work too much at the deli and drink whenever I’m not working. “You?”

“Well,” he says, turning to the line of trees to his right, “Darryl and I had a one-bedroom up in Richmond, but then he left a few months ago. I kept the apartment.” Beyond him, the sparrows flit from branch to branch. “Got a job as a bank teller downtown.” Alex flicks his head back in my direction, moving the hair from his eyes. “You want to swim?”

I look down at my baggy t-shirt and loose jeans. “Nope.”

He blinks and pouts his lips. “Why not? You like swimming.”

“I used to like swimming.” The crocodiles beneath me swing past my mind’s eye, stirring up sediment as they circle the thick chain beneath the water. “Besides, I didn’t bring a suit. That’s why I wanted to row out.”

Alex glances behind me at the paint-flaked rowboat I rowed to the dock. He swam behind the boat, despite the fact that I had already told him to leave me alone. I give Shana a death-glare, but I know she’s too far away to catch it.

He stands, his calves and forearms suddenly solid and taut as he stretches. “Well, I’m going to swim.” He does a perfect swan dive into the water by the boat, making the dock sway.

I lean my head back and shut my eyes, the warmth from the sun creeping along my face and neck. I can see the hungry crocs below, waiting in the shade while he dives before zooming up from the silt to catch his leg, his arm, his mouth opening to scream, bubbles floating to the top as the water turns red like in the movies.

Alex surfaces and blows water from his lips before taking a deep breath and dipping back under. I pull my t-shirt up to let the sun touch me, the soft cotton lightly brushing my face, and try to ignore the skin that folds over the waist of my jeans—the weight that’s crept back ever since he left and I started volunteering for more shifts—lay the t-shirt on the dock behind me and lie back.

I don’t know why he’s so stupid. I barely swam the last time we were here, after graduation—we swam all the way out, but I only thought about getting on this dock and lying in the sun together. We stole touches and stopped to kiss under the water until we reached the dock—it was new then, the boards freshly lacquered, the metal not yet rusted. I jumped in with a snorkel mask to try and follow the chain down to the bottom, and when I looked around in the murky brown, I could almost see rows of triangular white teeth charging out of the depths faster than I could hope to swim. I knew they weren’t there, and I do now, but I still told Alex I was tired and made him stay close as we swam back. It’s always what I can’t see that scares me, the places where I know shit lurks but I can’t sense it. It’s why I shut the bedroom door when I’m alone in the apartment at night—you never know what’s creeping up behind you when—

“Come on, get in the water, Mark,” Alex calls as I sit up, water splashing onto my feet, speckling my jeans.

“No,” I say to his head bobbing a few feet out in the blue-brown water. “I’m not wearing trunks.”

“So what? You have boxers. Come on, it’s fun.” He splashes more water onto the dock.

I roll my eyes and lie back down as my stomach churns. Why is he being like this? He was the one who made me leave, told me he had grown past me, why—

“Come on, babe.” Alex’s voice is low and a little raspy, the same tone it would always fall to when he whispered to me. I turn my head to see his hands wrapped around the gray metal poles of the foot ladder, his eyes trained on me.

Did he just call me babe?

I cough lightly to clear my throat and sit up, folding my forearms over my lap. “You’re not allowed to call me that, Alex.” I look down at the near-white wood of the bleached dock, the twisting dark lines that show the color of the wood at its core. The dock rocks as Alex climbs the ladder and I exhale hard, the muscles in my hands flexing tight.

“Why not, Mark? I used to call you babe all the time.” He stands over me, smiling down, his abs flexed in the sun, drops of water shining on his skin, then kneels, softly placing his hip, then his elbow on the wood beside me as my shoulders and neck tense. His wet fingers graze my bicep and the muscle jumps, the skin tight with goosebumps. “Remember?”

The water and the crocodiles, the dock and the shore wash away as I look at the bright sky and the slowly moving clouds and think about that word, babe, that single word. When he would squeeze my hand at home football games in the back of the bleachers and wink as he said it, the times when his jock friends would sneer as I waited for him at the pool and he would say it into my hair when they were out of sight, the hand-written notes on Christmas presents and my birthday, breathing it in my ear because I told him to be quiet while my parents slept in the next room or while we had his dad’s truck for the weekend, when he actually told me, “Babe, we had a good run, but I think Darryl won this one.”

I sit up and push his hand away. “Shut the fuck up, Alex.”

“What?” His stomach flexes as he speaks and I fold my arms over my belly.

“Shut. Up.” I turn and grab my t-shirt, pull it over my head and stand, taking a step toward the boat as he scrambles.

“What are you doing?” He steps between me and the boat, the layer of fine hair on his chest catching and reflecting the sun’s light. Beneath us, a crocodile’s black eye gleams.

“I’m leaving. I don’t want to be trapped out on this dock with you.” I stare at him, trying my best to keep a “don’t you even” face on as a shiver runs through my knees.

He reaches out for my shoulder. “It’s just been awhile since I’ve seen you—”

I step back, over the shallow puddles he left on the planks, the dock and boat mashing together, our movement driving them into each other, forcing waves out toward the shore. “I know it has, Alex. And hopefully it’s going to be even longer next time.” I turn back to the beach and step to the edge of the seesawing dock, my toes clutching the worn rubber bumper that goes along the rim. The crocodiles drift closer in my mind, lingering where my shadow cuts through the sunlit water—Need to get that fucking rowboat—and my heartbeat doubles, my neck goes slick with sweat. The muscles of my legs feel like they’re going to explode as the sound of a speedboat swings nearer behind me.

“Mark. Come on. I just want to be close to you.”

The dark green ridges of the crocs flash in the water before me, their jaws opening as they twist and swim around the chain, as they wait in the shade of the dock, ready to flick their tails and split the surface with jagged scales.

“Like I used to be.”

When I feel his fingertips on my back, I suck in a breath—filling my lungs despite the pressure in my chest—and leap away, kicking wildly at the claws and teeth waiting to slash and swallow me whole: my skin goes cold as the shore disappears from sight and Alex’s voice fades behind me into the din of rushing water.

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