Jay Didn’t Drown

If you’ve checked the news lately, you’ll know that the Boy Scouts are screwed. It’s hard to recruit new members when “sex abuse” is the first result when you look us up. Maybe that’s for the best, to let the damn thing die, considering how many people have been hurt. If I’d quit sooner, then Jay would’ve quit too, and we never would have gone on that damned Maine trip. But I didn’t. I clung on, even as Troop 17 steadily bled out its scouts, until finally Jay and I were the only ones left.

It was the Summer before our Senior year. Our last chance to do something big before college. With the last of the troop’s funds, we set out North, canoes secured to the top of our scoutmaster’s pickup.  

“Hey, Barry?” Jay twists in the front seat to peer back at me, a mischievous grin worn under his Bruins cap. “We must be pretty special, huh? I mean, how many troops do you think can fit in a single car?” 

“Less special than you’d think,” I say. “How many troops are left, period?” I sigh and set my head against the window, feeling the tremors in the road as the car totters along. 

“Hey, now, don’t get all melancholic on me,” Jay says. “You’re pissing all over the mood.”

“Language,” Mr.  Moore scolds.

“Really, Dad?” Jay asks, turning to his father. “I’m going to be an adult in two months and I can’t say piss in front of you?” 

“Your dad doesn’t mind one bit,” the man says, turning to his son, “but your scoutmaster? That’s a different story entirely.” He takes one hand off of the wheel to slip under his son’s cap, ruffling Jay’s short, brown hair. The boy groans. Jay is lean, with long legs and thin shoulders. I smile, turn back to the window, and stare; a glistening river runs parallel to the rocky street, hidden behind a shroud of dense forest. It seems as if the trunks are inching closer and closer as we drive further from home, and, somewhere not so far ahead, the trees will stand in single file as one, impenetrable wall.

It’s evening when the car finally slows to a halt. The dirt lot is empty.  The three of us hop out of the car, and start to unpack the gear in the back. We make quick work of the tent, staking its corners into the Earth in a grassy clearing by the river.  When camp is finally set, sweat shines on each of our foreheads in the molten glow of the sun. With the scoutmaster’s go ahead, Jay and I slip out of our clothes and wade into the shimmering water. In spite of the thick, Summer heat, the river is cool, and the hairs on my arms stand erect as an aquatic wind brushes past my legs. 

Jay and I stare on as the river stretches infinitely towards the horizon. “First thing tomorrow,” he murmurs, mesmerized by the pastel pinks and reds of the watercolor sky. “You and me. Out there. Alone.” 

When I think of Jay, I remember him as he was then; half-submerged, naked except for his underwear, grinning at me.

Jay and I sit nestled together, drying by the flickering embers of the fire. We listen as Jay’s father tells stories of his previous trips — the starving wanderer who had begged to take refuge in his camp one night. When Mr. Moore had finally obliged and invited the man inside, the stranger simply shook his head and walked away,  disappearing into the forest. “I shouldn’t have offered. But he seemed so… scared.”  — And then there was the story of the procession of empty canoes that, one by one, had floated down the river. “There must have been four of them, one after the other.” When Jay and I are finally dry, the river is black as ink, as deep as the midnight sky. I give it one final look before retiring for the night. First thing tomorrow.

Its gentle humming lulls me into a blissful sleep.

I awake to a fine mist draped over the camp. The gleam of the sun barely pierces through the gray on the horizon.  Jay rumbles excitedly as he stuffs his father’s pancakes down his throat, and before I can finish he’s taken my hand, and we set off to the car, taking down the canoe and heaving its deep green hull to the shore. 

“Shouldn’t you two wait for the haze to clear?” Jay’s father asks, scraping the last of his plate’s syrup into his mouth.

Dad,” Jay groans. “Mr. Scoutmaster. We’re not amateurs. It’s just a little mist.”

His father shrugs. “Fine. Just be smart. You know where the flare gun is?”

“In the tin box beneath the first seat. Along with the bandage, gauze, compass…”

“Alright, alright,” Mr. Moore says, grinning. “Go on, then. Have fun on your date.” And so Jay and I shove the canoe out onto the river and climb aboard. Our oars glide through the smoky water, mirror to the sky. We propel ourselves away from the shore, until it seems that we are totally alone, stranded in the clouds. The river is still, and the canoe settles as our hands let go of the oars.

“Barry,” Jay says, his whisper echoing in the quiet. We sit with our knees pressed together, facing each other in the cramped boat. Then, suddenly, his hands wrap around the back of my head, and his lips are on mine, and we laugh, laugh, laugh. I fall back, and his chest lands on mine. We lay there, kissing, grinning. Say what you will about the Boy Scouts; it has certainly been an enlightening experience for me.

“Is this the last time we’ll get to do this?” I ask. Jay frowns.

“We’re staying here for two weeks. Of course it’s not the last time. That is, unless you decide to run off like the lunatic from dad’s story.”

I peck him on the cheek. “No, idiot. I mean, after this trip. When we’re off to college. Are we going to… I don’t know, what are we going to do if we end up going to different colleges? If we’re hours and hours apart?” I sigh. “Are we out of time?”

“This isn’t a very romantic conversation,” Jay says, shaking his head. “It’s like I said. You just love pissing on the mood.” 

“It’s my second favorite thing,” I say, and Jay’s lips find mine once more. But a blinding light suddenly glares in my eye, and I motion for him to move away. 

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“I think the fog’s clearing,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “Time to start rowing if we want some privacy.”

“Really?” Jay asks.  “Still looks pretty thick to me.” I sit up. He’s right. The fog is even denser than before. I stretch my arm over the water; my hand is swallowed from sight as it plunges into the smoke. I pull back, and my fingers are damp from the moist air.

“Jesus,” I say, drying my hand against my thigh. I scan the horizon for the glint of the sun, circling all around me. Nothing but smog. Nothing until I look straight upwards. The sun shines brilliantly overhead, a beacon of gold in the foggy sky. “So bright,” I say, shielding my eyes. “Take a look at this, Jay.” He’s kneeling over the edge of the boat, swiping again and again at the smoke. His arm blinks in and out of sight. “Jay.”

“What?”

“Look up.” And he does. The light seems to sneak past the brim of his Bruins cap and smother the whole of his face. Something about Jay, his face, staring straight up into the sky, clicks. And I realize that something is terribly, violently wrong.

“Why is it there?” I ask.

“In the sky?” Jay teases.

“No, Jay, listen to me. We set off at, what, 8 am? It shouldn’t be that high for hours.”

“Time flies when-”

“Jay,” I say, grimacing. “Either four hours have passed, or more, or that isn’t the sun.” My words are swallowed by the wall of smoke surrounding the canoe. A puzzled frown worms its way onto Jay’s face.

“What else could it be?” Jay asks, bemused. We look to the sky, burning our retinas as the light beams down at us. “Is it…  getting bigger?”

I raise my hand to hold my thumb over the golden light, snuffing it out. One, two, three, four, five seconds pass, and then it eclipses my thumb. My hand drops to my lap, awestruck. “Why the hell would it be getting bigger?”

Jay’s hand rockets towards mine, snapping shut around my fingers like a mousetrap. “It’s not getting bigger,” he stammers. “It’s getting closer.”

The molten blur fades as the sun descends from the sky; what had appeared as beams of light slowly take shape as spindly threads of translucent flesh, spiraling down like the legs of a spider. The legs, pointed at the ends like needles, extend from a great, glowing bulb, expanding in the sky as it edges towards the canoe. 

I loose my hand from Jay’s. “Row!” I scream. Our oars scythe through the murky water, speeding forward, pressing through the heavy, damp mist. We row and row and row, far past where the shore should be. But there is only water, there is only fog. And the creature descends all the same, positioned perfectly over the canoe no matter how fast we cut through the water. It takes up a third of the sky now, blessing the fog with its pleasant light and warmth. 

Defeated, I drop the oar. “Oh, fuck,” I say, hiding my face in my hands, hiding from that damned light, “fuck, fuck, fuck.” Jay reaches out for me, shaking my shoulder urgently.

“Barry! Barry!” I can only sob louder. And so Jay pulls me into his chest, and holds me there. “We’re Scouts, aren’t we?” he whispers. “We can figure this out.” I take a few, sharp breaths through my nose. And then I push the boy away, somehow managing a smile through my burning cheeks, through the oppressive glow of the creature, so close now. Its legs spin like ribbon in the air, twisting and turning with graceful flourish as it approaches. 

Boy Scouts,” I murmur, ducking beneath Jay’s seat. My trembling fingers find the latch to the tin box, and I swing the thing open. Gauze, sprays, ointments… Jay kneels down next to me and reaches for the compass. 

“The needle’s just spinning wildly,” he says, grunting. More rummaging. Then, something dull and orange.

“Here!” I say, taking the flare gun in my hands. I look once more to a sky, now almost wholly filled by the creature. Its skin ripples like the river at dusk. The legs, there must be ten of them, more, are mere feet from the canoe. I take aim at the golden heart of the creature, and pull the trigger. 

It clicks. The flare sputters out of the revolver, barely flickering, and it moves so slowly through the air, as if the air itself was thick as water. What? 

Shit,” Jay says. I look at him, the brown tufts hanging out from under his cap, his Bruins cap. And then I see it, the B, it’s facing the wrong direction. I snatch up the compass — here too, all of the letters are mirrored. As if the whole world were the reflection in a mirror.

I grab Jay’s hand, and, just as the golden legs stab through the air, I roll off of the canoe and crash into the river. 

I break out onto the surface, panting. The canoe is overturned in front of me. The fog is starting to clear, and the morning sun hangs towards the East. As I clamor onto the underside of the boat, Jay pops out of the water.  I sigh, relieved.

“Jay, I really thought we were-”  

“-Barry,” he groans. “Barry. My leg.” I look down into the water. One of the golden needles is pierced straight through his calf; the ray of light turns around speeds towards the faux sun. And it starts to tug. To pull Jay out of my grasp, to take him away from me. I anchor my stomach around the edge of the canoe and pull, screaming, watching as, one by one, the needles pierce Jay’s lower half. He screams, writhes, refuses to let go until finally he goes limp, and the creature wrenches him from my grasp, dragging him under. I dive down into the water, thrashing towards him. But he’s not there. The river is cold and black and empty. I return to the surface, and can only watch through the water’s reflection as Jay is lifted towards the creature’s bulb and, finally, absorbed into its glimmering skin.  

Out of time. I tread water, out of time.

When my legs start to ache, and I can float for no longer, I flip the canoe over and climb in, wondering if, had I not escaped the creature’s grasp, the boat would have floated down the river, unmanned.

Jay didn’t drown. But no one listened. At least, no one listened until  the dried corpse finally appeared downriver, melted beyond recognition. Only then did Mr. Moore take me into his arms, the two of us sobbing, shaking. Only then did he believe me. 

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