– Fierce Fiction by Michael Ducak –
On a long inland lake shaped like a kidney bean, banked by low cliffs and surrounded by miles of boreal forest, brooded over by a solid grey sky, a lone canoe zigs and zags about the central waters, describing a broken circle. From a distance the water appears merely rippled, but a closer view reveals waves almost a foot high, reveals also the occupants of the canoe to be two young men, brothers five years apart.
A gusting headwind batters the canoe, and the brothers fight this invisible force desperately, paddling out of sync. Their canoe pivots, now parallel with the waves, rocking side to side as though on a swivel. Nick, in the bow, shouts instruction over his shoulder but Lucas only swears in response. The boat wobbles at the edge of its tipping point. The unseen depths beneath the oil-dark surface separated from Nick by this uncooperative scrap of dented aluminum. At least he’d thought to tie their packs to the yoke. Just in case.
Nick hears Lucas unleash one final torrent of profanity before the next wave catches them off-balance and the canoe capsizes, sending him headfirst into water-gulping, sinus-burning, upside-down blindness. When Nick surfaces he sees the canoe ahead of him, its patched bottom showing amid the waves like the bleached carcass of some sea creature. Nearby, a life preserver suspended corpse-like in the water, which Lucas had been using as a seat cushion.
Nick is already starting to think of what he’ll tell their poor mother, who had only just reclaimed her youngest from the brink some months ago—but then Lucas comes up in a panic, grabbing at the lifejacket. Seeing Nick, he spits water and swears, his ragged voice muffled by the wind.
An orange shape bobbing to Nick’s left: the canoe’s emergency kit. He struggles toward it with his feeble stroke, the hiking boots not helping, and the little canister drifts further and further away. Shit. Fuck. It vanishes in the turbulent lake. He turns back to the canoe, bracing for the battle of trying to right it, but the canoe is gone. It was right there. Maybe he’s mistaken. He twists around, scanning the water in every direction. But the canoe is gone.
All their food. Their tent, maps, phones.
Nick dog-paddles over to where Lucas is struggling into his life jacket. “You all right?”
“I’m perfect,” his brother returns in a harsh voice. “You?”
Nick surveys their surroundings, looking for some escape. “We’ll keep heading north,” he shouts, “make for the portage.”
Lucas peers to the far end of the lake. “You think we can make that?”
“Why not? What else have we got to do?”
This remark earns a crooked smile from the younger sibling. “After you.”
It seems like hours they’re floundering in the lake, making a slow crawl around the cliffs. They are both lousy swimmers, quick to tire. The sky is low and threatening, the headwind pushing them back. Around the eastern cliffs Nick sees a stretch of sand on a somewhat sheltered cove. The brothers veer off.
At last they pull themselves onto the sand, shivering and breathless, facedown on a narrow beach. Nick feels something small and cold strike his cheek. Then another. Two breaths later the sky opens up to relieve itself upon them, the dampening sand pockmarked by raindrops. Nick looks at his brother, sees his body convulsed by spasms. He’s laughing, for God’s sake. Only Lucas can find humour in such a catastrophe. His whole body shakes as he laughs in his quiet, wheezy manner, choking on his spit. Nick raises himself from the sand.
“Come on, get up.”
“Amazing!” Lucas wheezes, hacking water from his chest. “Holy shit, seriously. Way too much fun.”
“We ought to do this again some time.”
“C’mon, we’re getting rained on.”
“Yeah, might catch our death.” Still shaking, he takes Nick’s hand and they stagger into the woods. In the forest it is gloomy, dripping, uniformly brown and green. They huddle beneath a massive pine.
“Hold still.” He slaps a bug on Nick’s shoulder. “Fun trip.”
“Thanks again for the invite.”
“Remember who picked this spot,” Nick says savagely. “You wanted seclusion, eh? A real wilderness experience, you said. Well, here you go.”
Lucas is silent for a moment. “It wasn’t my fault we flipped.”
“No, but who’s going to find us out here? We haven’t seen another canoe in what, two days? And speaking of canoes, where did you find that piece of crap again? I thought canoes aren’t supposed to sink.”
“It was Schwartzy’s uncle’s.”
“Schwartzy’s uncle’s. That explains a lot.” It’s useless, this blame game. But finding fault during times of stress is a trait Nick inherited from his father; he’s been doing it for years and it’s hard to stop now.
“Portaging was your idea,” Lucas says sullenly.
“Mom’s idea, actually.” Lucas raises an eyebrow and Nick falters, realizing his mistake. “I guess…she figured it would be good for us to reconnect, you know, after you got back.”
A crooked smile. “And here we are, reconnecting.”
“Anyway, it was you who said those were baby waves, and we should go for it.”
“Those were baby waves. We just suck at canoeing.”
The brothers listen to the rain filtering through the canopy. Nick breathes, calms his mind. Find some positive spin. “Still better than rehab, though?” he ventures.
Lucas doesn’t respond, sitting on his haunches, his intense gaze directed inward. After a while he stands, stretches, emits an obnoxiously loud yawn. “Sounds like the rain’s slowing down.” From his cargo shorts he removes an orange case, snaps it open and produces a cigarette. “Still dry,” he announces.
Nick laughs. “How’re you going to light it?”
Lucas is already flicking a match against a striker inside the lid. “Aren’t you glad?” Puffing the smoke alight.
Lucas blows the cloud toward Nick. “That you got me started smoking.”
The brothers perch like a pair of bedraggled shore birds upon a softened log they had dragged from the woods. The beach is calm, the water perfectly still, and Nick feels claustrophobic in the quiet of dusk. “What we need,” he declares, “is a fire.”
“Good luck,” Lucas says, yawning. “Everything’s soaked.”
“What, you’re not going to help me?”
“To tell the truth, I feel like a bag of shit.” Nick has to agree that his brother doesn’t look good. His face seems pale, his eyes sunken. Maybe a fire will help restore him.
It takes five trips, digging through soggy deadwood, before Nick has amassed a smouldering pile of twigs. He blows until he’s lightheaded, coaxing flames from the sodden material. Stepping back, he looks upon his success with immense satisfaction, his spirits buoyed by the sight of the flames. He’s finds himself talkative, almost giddy, breaking into half-remembered camp songs and recounting stories from their youth, trying as it were to force some cheer into the situation. A short while later it strikes him that Lucas, sitting in the shadows at the edge of the light, hasn’t spoken in several minutes. His head between his knees.
“You okay, bro?”
“Yeah,” says Lucas in a tight voice. Teeth chattering. “Fan-fucking-tastic.”
A troubling thought. “Was there something…did you bring anything you might need…”
“You mean drug-wise?” Lucas’s voice is a mixture of humour and scorn. “Some methadone, like?”
“Listen, I didn’t mean—”
“Guess you’ll never know now, since all our stuff’s in the lake.”
“I just wanted to know if there’s anything—”
“There’s nothing you can do,” Lucas says with sudden weariness. “Please, just leave me alone.”
Nick falls silent, staring into the fire. His high spirits have evaporated, carried into the night like smoke. It seems ridiculous now, this notion of trying to save Lucas. Yet this was exactly his intention on this trip, and nothing less than their mother expects. But four months in rehab had built a wall around Lucas. For all his higher education, Nick realizes he is out of his depth. All those books, websites, online lectures. Countless hours of research into addiction, enough to certify him a scholar, only to find himself capsized, floundering in the turbulent waters of his brother’s illness.
Nick’s empty stomach wakes him at dawn. The fire down to embers. He’s amazed he had slept at all, with his body covered in dew and wet sand. Lucas curled like a starved dog beside the firepit, his life jacket serving as a pitiful substitute for a mattress. At least the air is already growing warm. No hypothermia today. Nick’s clothes, dried over branches by the fire last night, are soggy again. He strips, hangs the articles once more, gathers wood, builds up the fire until the smoke rises in a dark column. The sun is dissipating the morning mist when Lucas finally rolls over with a groan, shocking Nick with the pallor of his face. Nick sits beside him, lights a smoke, unsure of what else to do. Time passes. The sun blazes down and the day grows hot and muggy.
“Tell you what,” Nick says. “If we don’t see any canoeists today, I’ll swim back to the portage. There were campsites on that other lake.”
“You’re not swimming across,” Lucas says. “What am I gonna do here by myself?”
“Fine,” Nick says, relieved. Running the numbers in his head, trying to figure out how long before a search-and-rescue plane will be out looking for them. He notices Lucas watching his face, smiling faintly.
“We’re fucked, eh?”
“Somewhat,” Nick admits. “But we should see someone eventually. Just might take a day or two.”
The afternoon wears on. Tiny ripples on the lake reflect a million miniature suns. Hunger, boredom, a feeling of confinement in the unbroken calm. A gray jay appears on a nearby branch, black eyes shining with curiosity. Nick gropes around for a projectile, palms a flat stone. A shot at redemption. But as soon as he thinks it, the task becomes impossible. Raising his arm against this creature to atone for his mistakes. There’s no way he can do it. He drops the stone, gets up to wander along the shore in search of sustenance. When he looks back, the jay is watching him.
It is getting on evening when he returns. No canoes sighted, and nothing to eat but a pocketful of acorns. His stomach twists painfully, its plaintive squeals probably audible across the lake. At their makeshift campsite Lucas is on his back, eyes closed, hands folded across his stomach. Nick approaches and sits cross-legged beside him, watching for the rise and fall of his chest. He studies his brother’s features, waiting. For what, he can’t say. A deathbed confession? Cut that out. But God knows there are grievances. That summer their house was broken into. Nick’s Xbox, Mom’s jewellery, Dad’s expensive watch. And all the CDs and clothes and spare cash which disappeared from his room over the years. Nick always suspected, but never had the guts to accuse. Avoiding confrontation has long been one of his specialties.
Rising again, he walks to the water’s edge. The lake calm now. Perfect day for paddling. He sighs deeply, imagining what might have been. Then his face contorts, his eyes brim with tears, and all within a moment he is praying earnestly to God, though the lines of communication between Nick and his Creator have long been silent. In a sense, it works: once he has cried himself out and spent his appeals to the Almighty he’s calm again, his thoughts now aligned into their predictable patterns. He wipes his nose on the sleeve of his shirt and goes back to light the fire and see about roasting some acorns.
Nick finds a flat slab of shale, a fist-sized stone to serve as a pestle. After a few whacks the acorns look rather like crushed walnuts. He’s arranging some rocks around their fire when Lucas’s voice surprises him. Looking over his shoulder, he sees Lucas is still on his back, staring up into the sky.
Lucas clears his throat. “I said, it was just once. One night.”
“Me and Ashley.”
A sudden tightness in Nick’s chest. He turns back to smashing the acorns, more aggressively now. “What are you talking about?”
“We had a little fling.” Lucas’s voice is flat, carefully expunged of inflection. “Just one night. She was drunk. I was…fucked up. It just sort of happened. I never planned it or anything.”
Nick is silent for a while. He can’t bring himself to look at his brother. The acorns he has smeared into a paste. The nail of his thumb ringed with blood from having smashed it between the stones. Probably it will end up falling off. He squeezes the nail bed until pain swells behind his eyeballs.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“How long ago was this?”
“Long time ago. Five years, at least. Listen man, it wasn’t like…I mean, we didn’t even really—”
“When I heard you were getting out, I thought you might stay with us for a bit, until you got back on your feet.” Nick can hear his own voice trembling. “She was so adamantly, almost hysterically opposed that it made me wonder. She doesn’t know you, she can’t trust you, etcetera. ‘Lucas is all right,’ I told her, ‘give him a chance’. Having no idea, of course, you already had your chance.”
“I didn’t know you guys would end up getting married.”
“But you knew we were dating, right?” His voice rising with anger.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I’m sorry, man. This isn’t easy for me either.”
“Then I have to wonder why you brought it up in the first place.”
“I only brought it up because I wanted to say…I want to apologize.”
“Fine, I forgive you for fucking Ashley.”
“I told you, we didn’t even—”
“Forget it!” Nick explodes to his feet, stalks away from the fire and then spins on Lucas again. “I get what you’re doing here. Part of your recovery, right?” Lucas is silent. “But what am I supposed to do with this information now, out here, without a goddamn thing to eat and a sick brother to take care of?” A vein pulses in his forehead. The anger is a blessing. It’s something he can grapple with. Unlike this abject hopelessness. He roars into the stillness, unbridled, a sound torn from him as if by an external force, and swings his fist at the nearest tree. An elm with deeply striated bark. Pulling back just enough to stop his fingers from snapping. The pain barely registers at first. Then his knuckles begin to throb. Silence closes over him again. Sweat evaporates on his skin. He looks at his knuckles; purple divots fill with bright drops of blood.
Lucas is sitting up, watching intently. “Feel better?”
“Next time might as well do that to my face. I know I deserve it.”
“Please, fuck off with the self-pity.”
The sun is well past its zenith; the landscape has acquired the golden quality of early evening. Trees and ferns are beginning to look two-dimensional, like the setting of a cheap stage production. The angle of the light. Nick’s hand is killing him. Staring out across the water, willing a canoe to appear in his periphery.
A memory returns unbidden. Nick in twelfth grade; Lucas in junior high. Cool fall afternoon, the same oblique quality of light. Nick going home late, passing by the reservoir where he sometimes smokes up with his pals during their spare period. He notices a scuffle at the top of the hill, some young hoodlums, lots of shouting and swearing. Then he sees Lucas at the centre of it. Bloody-faced, swinging wildly. Outnumbered. Three punks attacking, two more hanging back, watching. Nick freezes; his guts go cold. He’s not a fighter. Has never punched or been punched. His brain scrambling for excuses. Lucas is too mouthy. Too hot-headed. Needs to learn when to back down. Trouble always seems to find him.
He ended up in the hospital. Fractured rib, concussion. He acted like it was no big deal. Just a fight with some assholes. It happens. Was that the beginning? Perhaps. Nick, feeling guilty, got his little brother stoned for the first time later that night. Four small bits of hash cooked on the end of a cigarette. Lucas had laughed, gone green, thrown up. Don’t worry, Nick, the responsible one, assured him. The next time will be better. The next time, and the next, and the next.
Nick hears a chuffing sound behind him, turns to discover Lucas crying. Blubbering like a child. Nick looks away. This, too, is a part of recovery. Nick wants to comfort him, to offer some reassurance. But he looks across the lake, pretends not to notice, once again leaving Lucas to fight the battle he has chosen. The water glistens like quicksilver. There are no canoes in sight.
Nick returns to the circle of light. The fire burns low. Long shadows stretch across the beach. Hunger, such hunger! He has never felt anything like this gnawing, spasmodic, echoing emptiness. Nearby, Lucas sniffles quietly. Nick sits beside him and, overcoming his awkwardness, puts a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, bro. I’ll get us out of here.”
“I’m not worried. I’m starving.”
“We’ll build up the fire tonight, heat lots of rocks for sleeping. Then tomorrow we’ll smoke the living shit out of it. Wet leaves, pine boughs, whatever we can find. They’ll see us from miles away.”
“What if they don’t?”
“They will. We’re not the only ones out here.”
“We should have built some sort of a shelter. We’re screwed if it rains again.”
The temperature dips as twilight closes around them. The moon won’t be up for several hours. Already the Summer Triangle shows bright overhead. Strange how Nick can see a thousand light-years into space, yet his own brother remains obscured to his closest scrutiny. In all the ways that matters he feels utterly blind.
The fire stoked, his prickly bed of pine boughs refreshed, Nick at last lays himself out on the beach. Hungry, miserable, but alive. Content for the moment to appreciate the warmth of the fire, the movement of fresh oxygen through his lungs. The brothers lie in silence as evening deepens to night.
“I’m sorry, Nick.”
He is nearly asleep when these words stir him awake. “For what?”
“Forget it. Just promise me one thing. Once we get back.”
“Promise you’ll try.”
“I know. I’m proud of you, bro. Get some sleep.”
Hours later, Nick watches the moon rising. Its pallid glow offers no comfort. In the near distance, a wolf commences to howl. From the opposite direction another takes up the call, and then another. Their long, broken cries rebuking him. He wants to wake Lucas, but it is as in a dream where he can neither move nor speak. He is not afraid of the wolves as much as this sense of being forsaken here. Shutting his eyes again, he weeps bitterly, prays earnestly, and waits for morning.
About the Author – Michael Ducak
Michael Ducak works in commercial distribution while writing short stories in his free time. His work has appeared in From the Depths, Cargo, and Sulphur literary journals. He lives with his wife and pets in Guelph, Ontario.
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