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Canoeing in the ocean sounded like a fine idea. Aaron had grown up around canoes, and knew his capabilities. He even packed a book to read later and wore regular shoes and jeans and a sweatshirt—he knew he could keep dry. Ian, on the other hand, didn’t bring anything that couldn’t get wet, and wore swim trunks. He probably didn’t know which end was the bow but that didn’t matter; he had traveled all over Central America and Europe out of a backpack. Plus, Aaron didn’t care if Ian paddled or not. He just wanted to do something world-travelerly with a world traveler.
They paddled out of Pleasant harbor around mid day—autumn raking fog off the water—and Aaron tried to imagine himself looking out the window of a seven forty seven, straight down past the canoe to the ocean floor. Little Nash Island was a mile out, and the tiny waves were almost too much for the sixteen foot lake canoe. The bow rose higher out of the water than Aaron had ever seen, and cut deep into the next wave. He knew he should have been sea sick, or at least nauseous. But he felt sure enough to captain the mini-craft into a hurricane.
Two metal buoys marking the end of the bay—the red one flat topped and the green pointy—stood eight feet out of the water, their fog whistles blowing. Aaron brought the canoe right up next to the red one, and told Ian to grab on. Then he said to hold the boat steady, and he climbed on. He stood on the base and hung on easy enough, the buoy following clever unseen waves beneath the surface.
He pulled himself up to where he could lean over the top and see hundreds of smashed crab shells. Ian let the canoe spin away from the buoy enough so Aaron would have missed it stepping back down. Ian said he was holding tight, so Aaron trusted him and levered himself up with his shin and aside from the shells, the top was spotted thick with bird shit and a film of crab oil. Normally he would resist even stepping in anything fecal, knowing that later he would bring it into his house, and let it be near the food, but on top of the buoy he went right into it, sliding his hands and feet to the edges where they stopped against the rim, and he squatted down ready to stand.
Aaron wondered what rig they used to haul this thing out of the water every winter looked like—probably a wide barge with a crane that swung over the side.
Ian took his camera out of the zip-lock bag. He said, “You gonna stand?”
Aaron said. “Just let me get my balance.” he said. He wanted to stand like some kind of gladiator atop his dead enemy, ready for the next fight. He lifted his hands, still crouching, and considered. He thought hard. He concentrated, but lost his balance anyway and felt an unsure hand turn his stomach over. Ian brought the canoe back around to where Aaron could lower himself in.
As Aaron paddled his bottom hand kept sliding up the shaft and his top hand wanted to slide off handle every which way. The ocean water did nothing to remove the oil, and neither did wiping his hands on his jeans.
They pulled the canoe up the shore popping rockweed under their feet and brown kelp appeared to have been storming the island until Aaron and Ian showed up. “Tie your end to that pointy rock,” Aaron said. The tide was out, and he figured they had at least three hours before it reached the canoe. At any rate, he didn’t plan to stay longer then to check out the abandoned lighthouse.
An old plywood sign with illustrations and labels of at ten bird species, explained about the Island Sanctuary Project but all he could see were hundreds, maybe thousands of gulls nesting in the beaten down grass, quietly discussing the newcomers. The place smelled like ammonia over sheep shit. From the canoe, Aaron had seen a fold of sheep, and knew they would carefully avoid Ian and himself. The birds scattered into the air and cackled their warnings as Aaron and Ian walked toward the lighthouse. Aaron took out his foot bag and threw it high into the air, tempting the gulls. They swooped for it, but missed and came around again as if they were targeting him.
Ian said, “Cool trick Aaron.” He worked his camera and took a picture of the swarming gulls.
“Thanks,” Aaron said. He threw a stone as far as he could, hoping a gull would catch it in the beak. But there were no takers. He said, “This would be a great place for a sling shot.”
They sat on the lighthouse steps and started on the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Aaron said, “You know I was only kidding about the slingshot, right?”
Ian said, “Whatever, man.”
“No, really,” Aaron said. “I think birds are great.”
Ian gave full attention to his hair, picking at it until Aaron finished eating. Then he rose, saying he was going to find a quiet spot to rest and Aaron wanted to say something about leaving soon, but that didn’t seem very travelerly. So he stayed on the lighthouse steps reading “Plato’s Seventh Letter”, which he’d been pulling at for months. Soon he bedded down and took a nap.
He woke up ready to leave, so he scoured the island for Ian, the sheep keeping out of sight the way squirrels stay on the backs of trees when he carried a bb gun. When he found Ian, sleeping with his arm bent over his face, he woke him with a chuck of the foot bag.
When they reached the middle of the island, Ian pointed out into the bay and said, “Is that the canoe?” It was drifting a hundred feet out, turning in the breeze—ripples spreading across the placid mirror like gunfire.
Aaron ran down the path to the stony beach and screamed, “Shit!” and, “Dammit!” and, “That fucker!” and then he settled into a steady whispering stream of, “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” He stripped for the swim as he ran, scattering clothes behind him, hopping and tripping as he pulled his pants off. He slowed to a slow dancing walk to cover the distance of the beach; his feet turning and sliding off head sized stones and at the water’s edge his left big toenail bent back, scraping wet green slime. He stopped and turned to Ian, right behind him.
Ian said, “I can do it.”
“It’s not worth it!” said Aaron.
Ian didn’t hear him correctly and said, “What’s worth it?”
Aaron looked for a good place to climb into the water and went back to saying, “Shit, shit, shit.”
Ian said, “What did you say?”
Aaron judged the canoe at two hundred feet as he made his way into the forty three-degree water. When he was knee deep, he lost some of the feeling in his feet, and stubbed his toe hard; falling to a crawl and then swimming, his arms slapping into the water in front of him, scooping water beneath him with curved fingers. He tried to keep them spread a little to catch more water in the turbulence between.
Ian paced in the loose rocks for a while, nervous at how fast the canoe was drifting. He climbed a small cliff nearby where he could look out over the entire harbor, for miles and miles. He couldn’t even see the dock where they’d started from, and the two buoys were like old T.V. pixels stuck in their primary colors. Aaron looked like nothing more than a dark dot splashing around, struggling hard and not moving much for about a quarter hour.
The canoe made it to the open water beyond the island’s shelter, where the real wind reached it, and it drifted faster. Aaron looked up and saw how far the canoe was and he stopped and fanned his arms through the water, turning them to push more water down. It looked like he was halfway across the bay already, but he knew better. It felt like he just ran five miles. His fingers were numb and his chest felt as if it’d just been electrocuted, and his feet were long numb by now. The only other time he’d been this cold was falling through the ice to save his dog and he thought he should save his strength for the return swim, and then he realized he could not take deep breaths. A stiffness spread just behind the numbness growing in his hands and legs and arms. Starting back he used his legs less and less until they angled down, limp and pale blue. He put his head down to straighten his back and lift his legs a little, but it didn’t seem to make any difference in speed. It just made his face and head colder.
He collected Aaron’s clothes and tried to think what to tell his family, or if he should go back to the family at all. He could disappear on his bicycle and they’d never even know where to look. He’d flag down a lobster boat, collect the canoe, and bring it back to the house and leave Aaron’s clothes in it and write a note about what happened, and say he was very sorry there was nothing he could have done and that he was too ashamed to see the family ever again and he’d ask them to please not track him down.
Ian watched him through the zoom lens on the camera. The white splashes he made with his arms grew smaller and smaller until he could not see them any more.
The sun was setting now on the ocean behind Aaron, injecting the sky with orange and purple and red through an endless spread of thin clouds, splitting away from each other slow as granite formations, with stray chips stuck just below, pail as dead flesh—pail as Aaron’s face looking into the water now as an angel in the firmament—not really that far from shore. Ian held this frame with his camera until the colors faded but could not take the picture. His finger stayed on the button, though, touching across the smooth dimpled plastic until the evening air sucked the feeling out of his fingers. He stood there shivering a long time holding the breeze off his exposed legs.
He went to the abandoned lighthouse and used a rock to break apart the half rotted door where the lock was bolted on, leaving lead paint flecks white on one side and gray on the other, mixed in with punky wood bits. He carried Aaron’s belongings up the steps, through the overhead door, which he had to bust open with the same rock, and laid them down in the small room with windows all around and in the center a huge folded and corrugated magnifying lens wrapped around an electric light bulb. He wanted to preserve Aaron’s stuff, but as the night grew colder he did pull on the jeans and the shoes and the sweatshirt.
He watched the stars cross the window panes and tried to relax but couldn’t stop thinking what he should write in the note to Aaron’s family since this would probably not look good for him. He remembered tying the bowline to the pointy rock and held it there in his mind, feeling the silky woven nylon, pulling the knot tight. The tide must have lifted the canoe and pulled it loose because he had definitely tied it. He was sure of that. He wanted to include that in his note and regretted not having anything to write with.