Justin Carmickle’s fiction has recently been twice nominated for the prestigious Ruth Hall’s Fiction Prize and appeared in the literary journal, Louisiana Literature. He is an MFA candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University.
No Fireworks on the Beach
Nicky pedaled his ten-speed for miles through town. Daily he forced himself through sit-ups and push-ups, teeth gritted and clothes drenched in sweat. His goal for each was one hundred, and he was close, closer every day. And so the summer he turned fourteen, the “Summer of Change,” as his mother had called it, Nicky shed his baby fat like a snake its skin. His stomach and chest became hard and flat with muscle. The mysterious crunchy hair grew into a full bush at his pits and crotch. Initially he had counted them, but now they were innumerable. When he saw his mother with the lifeguard, a tingle set up at the base of his neck, and when she kissed that lifeguard, no more than a few years older than Nicky, that tingle turned to a twisting tension that went down his spine and into each nerve and throughout his body, sending a volatile message he could not yet decode.
His mother did not know Nicky saw her kiss the boy. They sat at an iron table, sharing curly fries drenched in catsup, laughing and touching one another’s arms and legs. The place was a sun-swathed rectangle of concrete with tables and chairs all laid out before a concession stand, and they mostly had the place to themselves. The sand, the water, and volleyball players were all at their backs, and far enough away for a sense of privacy.
Breeze carried the smells of charcoal and grease. The heat index had risen to 110. Patoka Lake had mostly become a haven for weekenders with giant pontoons and jet skies. Music blasted from the pontoons and the occupants cackled in camaraderie. Actual fishermen had gone out of fashion: Nicky’s father said the lake was now for goofing off. The lake stretched a genteel blue-green in all directions, split down the middle by a two-lane highway bridge. Thick forestry outlined the lakeshore, and sometimes if they could get away during mushroom season, he and his mother scavenged the woods for the rubbery treasures. She sliced them down the middle, added breading, and deep fried them a salty golden-brown.
Nicky’s father, a lieutenant in the Marines and home on a month’s leave, had driven the family to Patoka Lake for fishing and camping. He and his father had sat on the far eastern lakeshore fishing with night crawlers. After three hours of standing exposed in the sun, Nicky became light headed and his skin an angry red. His father shook his head, barked at him to find his mother on the beach and get hydrated. He loved his mother more than his father and so when he stepped to the table, he pretended he had seen nothing.
His mother wore a red single piece suit, her blond hair was short beneath a straw hat. Her face was scrubbed and pretty as porcelain.
“You look like a limp dishtowel, Nicky. How do you feel?”
“Damned lousy. Dad sent me to cool off.”
“Poor kid.” She took off her hat and put it on the table.
“What the hell are you doing, standing there?” he said to the lifeguard. “People could be drowning and you’re just gawking at my mom.”
“Nicky, don’t be so rude.” His mother forced a strained laugh.
“Who cares? I don’t. I’m thirsty, though.” He lifted his mother’s bottled water to his lips and drank. He finished the bottle and burped, tossed it into the nearby trashcan. The lifeguard grinned at him and he glared back. The lifeguard had slight acne scarring; he looked as though he had played goalie for a dart team.
He sat with them and crossed his arms, smirked at the lifeguard. He wanted to say: “Who the fuck do you think you are? You think she’s gonna fuck you? You?” Instead he remained quiet and fidgeted with the tongue of his sneaker. But what if she did want to fuck the lifeguard? Had she already? To him his mother looked as pretty and wholesome as before, as she had his entire life. Maybe it was just a kiss, he reasoned. There was no reason to think it was anything more. Right? He felt sick to his stomach, hoped it was the heat.
“It’s pretty hot,” his mother said after a long pause.
“I’d kill for a beer,” the lifeguard said.
“Pitcher of strawberry margaritas.”
Nicky gazed past them to the beach and water. A group of suntanned girls, probably a couple years older, giggled and slapped a volleyball back and forth over a net. He studied their bodies: the curve of the hips, bouncing chests, the way they pushed their hair from their faces.
He shifted and felt the familiar hardness in his swim trunks. The same feeling that visited him when he talked to Amber Simmons. She was the same age and he liked her smile, the way her teeth were white and straight. During the summer she worked at her grandmother’s Ice House, shaving and flavoring ice. He liked to ride his bike into town, lean into the canary-yellow shack and tell her dirty jokes, tease her about sex and the things older kids did down at Hindostan Falls, parked in the woods. Before he had left for the camping trip, he and Amber rode their bikes to the Falls. It was a four-mile ride from their town, Loogootee. It was Saturday and she wore a white bikini top and jean shorts. She had stolen several bottled beers from her fridge, and they spread out on a rock near the water and began to drink. They kissed, Nicky’s first. Local folklore had it many had died in the whirlpools at Hindostan, and he felt his limbs tense when Amber got naked and made her way into the water. She extended her hand, asked him to skinny dip with her. Instead he remained on the rock, clutching his legs. Afterwards, as he had pedaled slowly behind Amber, he had wanted to cry.
That night in the tangle of black pines his father told him to pitch the two tents. His father went to the truck to fetch the rods for fishing, the night crawlers and other tackle. His mother had driven her car into the nearest town, to get more ice and bug repellant. Nicky was helpless with the poles and canvas, the hammer and stakes. He attempted to construct something that vaguely resembled a tent—then it all collapsed like a sick man to his knees. He kicked the poles and canvas, sat on a log and waited for his father to return.
His father walked over, cleared his throat.
“If it weren’t for me, we’d sleep outside and get eaten up by mosquitoes. Nicky, I’ll do it this time, okay? That way, next time you’ll be prepared.”
He began to show Nicky how to prepare the tents. He smelled his father’s Stetson cologne and remembered as a boy wondering when he would return from a tour. The cologne often drew him to his father’s study, where on the wall hung gold and silver medals for acts he was too young to comprehend, and later had little interest in; on the desk was a framed photograph of his father grinning and shaking hands with the first George Bush. Sometimes he would rub the cologne on his neck and sit in his father’s chair, pretend to be sitting in the man’s lap. When he was older, a teenager, he would watch baseball on television or play it himself, holding second base for his team, The Navajos. His father had played and had taught him the rules, the love. When he was home on leave he would show up at Nicky’s games, a small cooler of ice and beer at his feet, and he would grip and shake the chain link fence, cheering Nicky’s name. At home his father would get his mother to put on lipstick and drink a couple beers, turn up the Pinewood stereo and open the sliding glass doors to the back patio; outside his father would drink and flip steaks. He liked to sing along with whatever rock song blasted from the stereo. Once the steaks were eaten, he and his father would move onto the grass. He would squeeze his hand into the leather glove and part his legs, bend his knees; his father would ask if he was ready, remind Nicky he would throw towards his face. They had thrown fly balls and grounders and straight ones to their chests, his father saying “nice catch” or “strong fly ball,” and Nicky had grinned and thrown harder.
Once the tents were erected, his father said they would build a fire. They carried the ax to the woods to take firewood from a stump. His father handed the ax to Nicky, and he lifted it over his shoulder, swung at the stump slow and mechanical like a baker sawing his bread. His father began a fire. Over the fire he fitted a wire grill, upon which he placed a skillet; his father told him to empty the beans and sausage links into the skillet, to move them about until the meat browned and the beans bubbled. His father vanished into the woods to take a leak, warning him not to char their supper. Nicky watched the food, listened to the animals move about in the forestry. He wondered if there were bears.
“Dad, are there bears in these woods?” Nicky asked when his father returned.
“Of course,” his father said. He examined the food, nodded. “Mostly brown bears, I’d say. Though I’m no expert.”
“Maybe we could get one with your .22.”
“Hardly,” his father laughed. He sat on a log across from Nicky. “That’d only knick it. Give it a limp. No, we’d need something else. When you kill an animal like that, it’s a lot of work. You’ve got to skin the thing, cut up the meat and put it on ice before the flies get at it.”
Nicky nodded and picked up a twig, snapped it in half. He studied his pale arms, and they reminded him of the twig. His father’s arms were powerful, were used to carrying his equipment across the dry desert. When he was younger he would plead until his father made a fist, rotated his wrist to parade the concrete ball of his bicep. What could those arms do to the lifeguard?
His father cleared his throat, told Nicky to remove the skillet from the fire. The sun was falling behind the trees and the campsite was dressed in shadow. Nicky pulled the skillet from the fire, placed it on the log next to him; it wobbled then slid from the rounded log, the meat and beans falling in a sickly mess in the dirt.
“Jesus, Nicky,” his father said. He rose and kicked the wire grill from the fire, sending it flying past Nicky. “Now what should we eat?”
“Maybe,” Nicky eyed his hands, which he clasped between his knees. “Maybe we could drive into town and meet Mom for dinner?”
“No. No, that’s a waste of time,” his father sighed. “We have some bread and lunchmeat in the truck. I’ll go get it.”
He nodded and rose from the log. “I have to pee.”
Nicky walked to the lip of the woods and unzipped, began to piss. It must be seven o’clock, he thought. Had she lied about going into town and was really skinny dipping with the lifeguard? He wondered what his father would do if he mentioned the kiss. Would the lifeguard, who was younger than his father, bust his head? No, Nicky thought as he pissed an “X” on a fat tree, his father would not give the boy the opportunity. Once, his father had drank with his Uncle Keith, his mother’s younger brother. They sat out on the back porch and drank and smoked, said it was good beer. Nicky had fallen asleep on his mother’s lap, but awoke when she jumped from the porch swing, screaming at his father: he had been delivering blow after blow to the uncle’s face. No, his father would know what to do. He heard someone approach, careened his neck to see his mother enter the campsite.
“Oh, you’re back,” Nicky said. He quickly zipped, hoped she had not seen it.
“Where’s your dad?”
“Getting food from the truck. I spilled our dinner.”
“Well,” she eyed him, her face soft and knowing. “That happens, you know.”
“Honey,” his father said as he approached. “Where’s the ice?”
“What?” His mother stared at the can of bug repellant in her hand. She laughed. “Shoot, forgot all about it, I guess.”
“You drove all the way into two for two things, and you forgot one of them?”
“Apparently.” She handed Nicky the bug repellant. “Here, put this on.”
Nicky turned the can over in his hand. It was half empty. He stared at his mother and knew she had not applied it in the car. No, it had come from someone, from the lifeguard he assumed. He stared and she averted her eyes, and then he knew for certain: she had not gone to town at all. Probably they had met at his apartment, had rushed to get it over with so she could get back.
“Hurry up, Nicky,” his father said. “And hand it over. The lunchmeat and bread are by the fire.”
Nicky knew his father would feel the can and know it was not new. He bit his lip and stared from the can to his mother, whose face was wiped clean of all emotion.
“Okay, I have some bites down there,” he said and motioned toward his privates and inner thighs. “So I’m going to go over there.” He would say he had used too much, had not realized what was enough. Yes, he thought, that would work. His father would not think anything about it except that Nicky was wasteful.
Later that night Nicky curled up on the hard floor of his tent and strained to hear his parents’ conversation. The canvas muffled their voices, particularly his mother’s. When he finally was able to make out words and complete sentences, he wished he had planted the tent further away. He wished he was deep in the woods where it would be dark and eerie and unfamiliar like being in the deepest recesses of a cave, swallowed up by a giant mouth.
“Shh, not now,” his mother said quietly, her voice drowsy.
“Damn it, he’s asleep. Come on.”
“He’s right next to us, it’s disgusting. I won’t.”
“Goddamn, I’ve got less than a month. I wanna get all I can. Just be thankful I’m not getting it elsewhere because trust me, it’s always there.”
“Don’t be crass. You can wait.”
“Maybe you’re getting it somewhere—”
His father grunted but said nothing more.
“I mean it. Goodnight.”
And Nicky could not sleep. The crackling of the fire and movement in the woods grabbed him and seemed to shake sleepiness from his bones. He was wide awake. Out there it was dark and he did not know his way around; there was no flashlight, not that he would have gone if there was one. He squinted his eyes closed and focused on the crickets singing: they seemed to be everywhere. A plague of crickets. He imagined hundreds, thousands of them creeping up on the campsite, voices silent, limbs rising and falling ever so gently and not even disrupting a single blade of grass. That was what it would be like when his father sneaked up on an enemy, he figured. Though, he had never heard of any enemies or battles; just those medals, the ones his father had explained but Nicky had forgotten. Once he had asked his mother if his father was some sort of hero and she had laughed, had said he watched too much television. Maybe the lifeguard told her about all the people he had pulled choking and spitting from the water, how he gave them mouth to mouth and pressed their chests, pumping and saying “breath, damn it, breath.” He supposed she might be impressed by that simple act of heroism. And soon he was asleep.
The next morning Nicky went swimming with his mother. The water was clear, warm, wrapping his body like a blanket. They were both experienced swimmers and swam out deep. About quarter a mile out was a dock. They swam toward it, Nicky trailing behind with smaller strokes; he liked to dip his mouth in the green water, take in a swallow, then spit it back out. He placed his palms on the wet wood and swung himself onto the dock, shaking his head like a wet dog. He and his mother lay side by side, flat on their backs. The sun was loud and it began to dry them out.
“I’ve loved swimming since I was a little girl,” his mother said. “In high school I swam for the swim team.”
“You never told me that.”
“Really? I was very good. A determined swimmer, the coach said.”
“Why didn’t you keep swimming?”
“Well, you know, there was the car wreck and my leg—” She reached down, rubbed her right leg, which wore a small scar. “After my leg healed I met your dad and we started moving around. Swimming and all that just didn’t fit, I guess.”
“It’s all right.” She sat up and scooted to the edge of the dock, dangled her legs in the water.
“When’s Dad want me to meet him?”
“About an hour.”
“Hell, I don’t want to go.”
“He wants to spend time with you.”
“Couple hours, not too long.”
“Fishing isn’t for me.”
“You haven’t given it a chance.”
“So. I know, okay?”
“You think you know, Nicky.”
“Hey, watch it.”
“You know, I cuss all the time.” He leaned onto his side, stared at her back. “And I’ve tried beer, too.”
“I wish you wouldn’t tell me these things. You’re my boy.”
“How many ‘boys’ you know who’ve kissed a girl?”
“Cut it out.”
Nicky sat up and wrapped his arms around his legs. He pinched leg hair between his thumb and pointer and rolled, twisting the hair into a knot. After another moment he found his voice and said, “You kissed the lifeguard.”
“What?” She straightened her back and stopped kicking her feet in the water. No—”
“Don’t lie. I saw with my own eyes.”
“I won’t lie, then.”
Nicky scooted next to her, placed his hand on her shoulder. “Do you still love him?”
“Your father? Sure.” She stared down at her hands, flicked water with her feet. “I mean, yes. Of course.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not gonna say anything.” He reached down and traced his finger along the scar near her right knee. “Looks like Texas.”
“You shouldn’t kiss the lifeguard anymore. You’re too pretty for him.” He hopped to his feet, stared out at the water. He squinted, thought he could make out the edge of the lake. “Now I’m gonna do a dive. So, watch, okay?”
He placed his feet together, pumped up and down on his toes. He teepeed his arms and cut the surface. Beneath the water he opened his eyes, could make out a few fish through the green, some floating moss. Out in the air, he gasped for breath, heard his mother clapping.
The actual fishing went better than Nicky expected. They stood on a steep embankment, clutching eight foot spinning rods in their dominant hands. When they began, his father noticed how he was holding the rod and groaned.
“Look, you’re holding it wrong. Didn’t I already go over this?”
“I don’t remember.” Nicky shrugged.
“Damn it, I didn’t even wanna fish.”
“Watch yourself, boy.”
“Your second and third fingers, yeah, on your right hand, straddle the spot on the reel where it connects to the reel seat.” He pointed this out to Nicky. “See, all the weight of the reel dangles under the rod. That way, if you fish for awhile, it’s more comfortable.”
Sweat ran down Nicky’s face and his skin was red, tight as a ripe tomato. He sat his rod on the embankment and removed his sticky T-shirt. The sun hovered above them, refusing to move itself elsewhere.
“Best keep your shirt on, you’ll burn your shoulders and back.”
“Too hot. I’m sweating like a pig.”
His father placed his rod on the ground and went to his red and white cooler. He cracked a beer and took a long gulp.
“Want a beer?”
“Just one.” He walked over and handed Nicky a can.
“Shame you quit the team.”
“Mom told you?”
“Of course she did. I thought you liked baseball, liked the coach and the other boys.”
“I did. Do. It just wasn’t fun anymore.”
“I tell all the guys in my battalion my son is the best goddamned second baseman in the whole state. And that he’s got hellava strong arm. And they know it’s the honest truth.”
“You haven’t been to a game all season, though.”
“Don’t you think I’d rather be watching you play than off in that desert?”
Nicky scratched a shoulder and considered this, then said, “Maybe I’ll take up swimming.”
“I just don’t see the point in that sport: you’re just wasting energy.”
“It’s a sport, though. No better or worse than baseball.”
“That’s different. You’re part of a team. It builds character. Plus, it’s the American sport. Not like swimming. That’s just a bunch of fags wearing practically nothing. Disgusting.”
“I like swimming, though.”
“Sometimes I wonder about you.”
“Nicky, one day you’ll understand these things.”
Nicky was silent for a moment. “Are you glad you married Mom? And not someone else? Do you still love her, I guess is what I mean.”
“Of course. What type of question is that?”
“Did your mother say something to you?” He sucked in a deep breath. “Answer me.”
“What the hell, then?”
They were silent for several moments. Nicky could feel the sun on his shoulders and back; he knew he was burning but was too hot to care. He took long swigs from the beer, remembering how it tasted like skunk. But he found the taste enjoyable in the heat.
“Too bad we don’t have a radio,” Nicky said.
“Scare the fish.”
“How can they hear under water?”
“I’m a Marine, not an oceanographer.”
Fish were smarter than he had ever imagined. Nicky reeled in, saw the bait had vanished from the hook. He reached into the Styrofoam container and withdrew another worm. He spiked the twisting night crawler on the hook, first the brain, then each tip. He thought it resembled a bow. Limp line over his shoulder, he jerked it forward, feathered the line with his forefinger as it uncoiled from the spool. The lure plopped in the water next to his father’s line. The water wrinkled, then smoothed itself like a bed sheet. He glanced at his father, who nodded with approval.
“Probably a myth. Like the whirlpools at Hindostan Falls.”
“Whirlpools. I’ve heard that one a million times.” He laughed. “When I was young, me and the boys used to pick up a twelve pack, a tenderloin at Dairy Master—it mighta been called something else then—and sit out there having a blast. Sometimes we’d take some girls.” He glanced at Nicky, grinned. “Got a girlfriend yet?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s that mean?” His father finished his beer, tossed it into some shrubs. He returned to the cooler. “Finish your beer yet?”
Nicky swallowed the last of it, crunched it between his hands, and tossed it in the same direction his father had. “Yep.”
“Here.” His father handed him another, opening one for himself. “Don’t tell your mother. It’s hot as hell out, so it’ll do you good.”
“Amber Simmons, she’s in my grade.”
“Whoa.” His father elbowed him.
“We were at Hindostan. She, she went into the water. I kept thinking about those whirlpools, so I didn’t go in.”
“Can’t be such a pussy, Nicky.” He checked his watch, took a long swig from his beer. “You spend too much time with your mother.” He shook his head sadly and took another drink. “I wish I were home more.”
There was a second cooler, which they filled with trout: an assortment of six inchers and foot longs in shades of pea-green and raw-pink, some spotted and some clean. Nicky had not caught one the day before, and when one tugged his line, it did so with a strength and pull he had not expected. He yanked against the wild line. His father instructed him to pull and turn the reel slowly, not to rush it. He said the fish would tire itself, then Nicky’s job would be easier. Nicky bit his lip and did as his father instructed; sweat trickled down his forehead into his eyes, his mouth. He tasted salt. Finally, the fish, salmon-green spotted, crashed through the surface of the water and danced drunkenly at the end of the line.
Though his father mostly filled the cooler with his own catch, Nicky contributed what he felt was a respectable number. At the campsite they crouched near a cutting board. Nicky pinned the trembling trout—a Rainbow Trout, his father said—to the cutting board and clenched a hammer in the other hand. He raised it above the fish’s head but could not deliver the blow. He sat back and watched his father strike the fish. Then another. And another.
“See, it’s not that bad. Here, give it another shot.”
He stared at the dead fish and rose to his feet. He wanted to be away from the campsite and the fish, wanted to be swimming with his mother. But she would be with the lifeguard, he thought. Feeling unsteady, Nicky doubled over and touched his knees; he vomited.
“Jesus.” His father cleared his throat. “Where are your balls, boy?”
Nicky had not wanted to go fishing, had not wanted to go on the trip. Amber was back at home, his friends were there; back at the beach was his mother with the lifeguard; here was just his father. And dead fish.
“Get over here. Fillet the dead ones.”
“No, I don’t want to. Can’t you do it?”
“Could, but you’re going to do it. Don’t argue with me.”
“Stop being a baby. Remember how to do it?”
“Fuck you.” He stepped back, glanced around for someplace to go. The tent, dead fire, and trees. Nothing but fucking trees, Nicky thought.
“What? Fuck me?” His father stepped forward, struck Nicky’s ear, putting his ass on the dirt. “I am your father and I love you. You cannot say those things to me, Nicky.”
“She doesn’t love you. She kissed the lifeguard on the beach.” He rose to his feet, touched his ear. “Who knows what she does when you’re on leave.”
“Why would you lie—”
“I’m not. I’m not.” He began walking backwards, smirking. “Just ask Mom. Okay?”
He can’t be pleased, Nicky thought as they trudged through the woods. So why the hell should he try? He stepped over fallen trees, felt his joints burn. He was still shirtless. The skin of his torso stung, like someone hammering nails into his flesh. His father’s jaw was taut as leather stretched over bone. His father fisted his hands and to Nicky they looked as hard as baseballs, and he knew they could move just as fast. In his right hand he clutched the fillet knife. Neither mentioned its presence. Again and again he repeated, “I’m going to gut him. I swear I am.”
Nicky remained silent. He wondered if the weak lifeguard would put up a fight or whimper like a wounded animal.
The sun was still high, and he guessed it to be about five o’clock. They stepped from the woods, out of its shade into the warmth of the sun. They had slowed their pace, his father’s eyes darted around at everything as though he were rabid. Nicky reached a hand up and rubbed sweat from his forehead, wiped his hand on his trunks. Ahead was the concession stand, the tables and chairs; to the left was the beach and lake, to the right a parking lot littered with a dozen or so cars. A fat woman in a black one-piece smoked and watched her two children wade into the water; a young black couple ran from the crashing surf and threw themselves on a cartoon themed beach towel. He heard a megaphone: NO FIREWORKS ON THE BEACH; saw two boys his age shooting bottle rockets into the water. At the lifeguard stand, with her foot on the bottom step, was his mother. She was wearing the straw hat and sunglasses, had a white T-shirt over her red bathing suit.
His father had stopped mid-stride, his panting filling the space between them. He was staring at Nicky’s mother, at the lifeguard, clutching the fillet knife. He stared and stared but did not move. Nicky could see his chest rising and falling with his thick breathing. He looked like a thick-shouldered bull about to pounce. Only instead he dropped the knife and stumbled away. Nicky made his way to his father, who was staring at the lake through his tears, his hand pressed to his mouth. Gray was at his father’s temples, gray Nicky had never noticed before. He inched closer and could smell the combination of his father’s Stetson and fish, which was oddly pleasant to Nicky. He touched his father’s arm, said: “Dad?”
“Look at that sky, that water. It’s so goddamn calm.”
“I thought I would kill him, Nicky. I was sure I would.”
“Couldn’t do it.”
Nicky reached down and picked up the fillet knife. Over and over he turned it in his hands, the fishy smell rubbing into his skin. It felt heavy and powerful. He gripped the handle in his fist, stared out at the water and the sun, stared at the glints of the sun in the water. He turned and walked towards them. The lifeguard was holding the megaphone and smoking, and sitting so high up, he looked bigger, stronger. He looked down at Nicky’s mother, responded to something she said, flicked ash into the sand. His mother removed her sunglasses and watched him approach, her face strained and old.
“Nicky, I thought you were fishing.”
“Was, then we went back to clean them.”
“I didn’t want to, so I left.” He glanced from her to the lifeguard, who continued smoking. “Did you sleep with him, Mom?”
“Watch it, dude,” the lifeguard said.
“Nicky, I can’t believe you said that. Your mouth—”
“Sorry, but you did kiss him. And here you are with him again.” He stared out at the water, at the black couple; the man pulled Cokes from a cooler, handed one to the woman. “You said you wouldn’t kiss him again.”
“And I haven’t. I haven’t.” She returned her sunglasses. “You told your father, didn’t you?” She stared beyond Nicky at his father, gnawed at her bottom lip.
“Yes.” He watched two girls at the concession stand: they had big breasts and narrow hips, their skin tanned. Before, yesterday, he would have wanted to go talk to them, flirt; flick the strap of their bikinis. Now an emptiness filled him and he felt nothing towards them.
“Shit,” the lifeguard said. He jumped down from his chair.
“Mom, I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.” She asked the lifeguard for one of his cigarettes. He lit it and handed it to her; she took a long drag, blew smoke, then coughed. She tried again, coughed less. “I should go talk to him.”
“Fuck him,” the lifeguard said. “You said he’s a prick, anyway.”
Nicky rotated the handle of the blade in his hand. It was smooth and light. He knew he would have to move quickly, no hesitation. Standing there, with his shoulders wide, he felt older, manly; his breathing was even, his hands clenched and ready. His arms were wiry but strong from pitching and catching.
“Nicky, what are you doing with that knife?” His mother had just noticed the knife and looked frightened.
“Hey, kid,” the lifeguard said, his eyes widening.
Nicky lifted the fillet knife and brought it down. His heart was beating regularly. His gaze was focused. But the blade did not meet skin, instead he felt his mother grasping his wrist, wrenching the blade from his hand. It fell to the sand with a half-hearted thud.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” his mother hissed. “A knife. Really, Nicky?”
Nicky fisted his right hand, pulled his arm back and busted the lifeguard in the side of his nose. The lifeguard moaned and mumbled, “oh my God.” He doubled over and spat. Then, clutching his bloody nose and cursing, he staggered away.
Nicky was shocked at how easy it was, like bruising the skin of a peach. He imagined telling the story to Amber Simmons and boys at school, how he had nearly gutted a man for messing around with his mother. How he broke his nose. He saw the look on their faces, especially Amber’s; she would think: he’s not a boy at all, not a coward. He imagined taking Amber to the Falls and removing her clothing and his clothing and placing them in a pile on the rocks, taking her hand and saying, “Let’s go,” and leading her into the warm water, how if there was a whirlpool, if the legend was fact, they would be sucked into the dark water. No one would be around, and their cries, if they ever broke the surface, would be lost to the waterfall, rocks, and surrounding trees.