ou know Audubon killed those birds before he painted them, right?”
That’s what my brother Jig would say to me whenever he saw me shudder as he came walking home with a string of dead bass over his shoulder. This was before we started fishing together. My hero was James Audubon, and I had every book about him and the birds he studied on a shelf in my room.
Kind of a weird hero. Jig was my other one. We’d get up early in the morning before school, and he’d head out to the Quabbin Reservoir through the woods behind our house. I’d take a different path lined with brambles that went off to the left, way off our property, with my binoculars around my neck, and make notes on the finches, cardinals, and woodpeckers I saw on my rambles.
That’s what our dad always called walking in the woods: “rambling.” He was a fisherman. That’s why Jig was named after a kind of lure.
I was thirteen and Jig was sixteen when our dad was lost fishing off of Gloucester, working for a buddy of his the summer he and mom separated.
We lived in Petersham, in the western part of the state, but our mother would take us to Gloucester once a year on the anniversary of my dad’s death. That’s where I first started fishing with Jig, when we wandered off and waded into the Annisquam River and he showed me how to cast your lure in the shallow spots by the rocks.
I hated when anything died, let alone my dad. I wasn’t really bothered by Audubon killing the birds, which he did so he could paint them, but that was the one exception. I was able to look at it like he did each species a favor with a single one of its members being this noble sacrifice that made all the other birds in that species easier to appreciate. Worth it, then.
Jig and I started diving in the reservoir. The old town of Quabbin was at the bottom. It had been flooded over so people could have drinking water. Jig would point at a bank building way down below us, or a lamp post, a school of sun fish going past.
Jig was a hockey star at the high school. People talked about him playing Division I, maybe even for a school like Minnesota or BU. His grades were always crap, and there was always some problem, a fight or whatever behind the school. Usually against some big kid he pummeled. That meant our dad had to go there often and meet with a lot of people and talk about Jig, because it just got to be too much for our mom. The rest of the time, Jig was riding his bike. He rode over everything, jumped up on everything, even went out on into the woods, hopping over logs and skidding on moss.
Whenever I asked him when we could go fishing again, he’d say soon, and that was always true, usually just a few hours later, no matter what he had going on. Until his senior year of school when a car hit him on his bike by the fountain in the center of town, and he went into a coma.
The doctors said he’d probably never come out of it, but there was some chance, and then there was basically no chance. My mother left him in it. Lying there in the hospital every day. Maybe it was because it was so close after my dad. We were that family everyone brings dinner over to. Until they don’t. Because nothing stops, even if your life, you figure, has. They go back to whatever. I would go back to the hospital, every day after school, and sit with Jig.
That will limit your social group. I had two friends, really. My best friend was Bart Thomas. Weird guy. We first starting hanging out in fifth grade because we both loved old monster movies. He was the sort of kid who should have gotten the bag beaten out of him a lot, but that didn’t happen. Mostly because when he wasn’t watching Frankenstein films from the 1940s so he could argue about cinematography with you, he was in his garage lifting weights, getting jacked. He was almost square-ish, like this muscled-up version of SpongeBob, and when we had to do a mini-essay once for class on the origins of our middle names, he didn’t even care that his was Lawrence.
“Look, kid”—that is what we always called each other—“you have to make up another name.”
“You are Bart Lawrence Thomas. Can you really not see where this is heading?”
“It’s probably heading to sexiness with the girls.”
“No. It is not heading to sexiness. Everyone is going start calling you BLT. Like the sandwich.”
“Cool. I like those. I’ll own that. And eat the hell out of it.”
Confident kid, despite being shaped like a room.
My other friend was Allison O’Kane. She was the one person who never stopped coming over after my dad died, and who came over every night after Jig had his accident. She’d do so after we finished dinner. My mother would be done for the day, just wracked. Allie would pretend to be hanging out, nothing more, but she’d end up doing most of the dishes, cleaning the table, getting me not to sit and stare into space.
We were both good at English, and the best English teacher at the high school everyone said was Ms. Peese, who taught tenth grade. I was going to be in her class, and was scared out of my mind. I even had nightmares about her where we were in a car and I couldn’t get out. Because people said Ms. Peese was Jig’s girlfriend. I didn’t know how that was possible. She was probably thirty at the time. And they said, too, that she was the one who hit him on his bike by the fountain and lifted him into her car and drove him to the hospital. The worst coincidence ever. Or divine justice, according to this one crazy woman from the church circle my mom used to be in.
Bart would maintain that all of this had to be untrue. “You couldn’t be in her class if it wasn’t.”
“They don’t do background checks.”
“They’d know something like that, kid, even if they didn’t make it public knowledge. Keep it in your file, maybe give you a bunch of books and put you in a room by yourself and say to learn them rather than traumatize you. Honestly, Aven, you’re being stupid.”
This was less than helpful. I wanted to get off to a good start that year, because at the end of September, on account of some asinine school tradition going back 200 years, the tenth-grade class went to a wilderness retreat for five days in New York called Ashokan. Some “return to Mother Earth” kind of deal. But it was a status-making trip, you might say, and I was tired of being alone, save for two friends. I’d feel alone around my mother. She probably did around me. I hated the feeling. It was rawness, pure rawness. She didn’t have to say anything. Everything was just raw in every room we’d be in.
I knew that was wrong. I couldn’t help it. But that’s why I didn’t tell anyone. I hoped it’d pass. I was uneasy in Ms. Peese’s class, but because Allie had her at a different time of the day, I was always the best student. She wouldn’t call on me after a while, I figured because I knew the answer and she wanted other kids to be more involved with the readings. She asked me to stay after class one day and I could feel my heart going for the rest of the afternoon like I was having a panic attack.
Turns out she wanted me to tutor a few kids with Macbeth. Shakespeare made sense to me. I’d remember lines verbatim, know what act and scene they had come from.
This put my visits to Jig back a couple hours. I read to him as he lay in bed. The machines were always going. There was no plug in the floor or the wall to pull. It wasn’t like how you hear people talk about that. One time I had a magazine and a Twix in a plastic bag from the pharmacy and I looked at the bag after I took out the magazine and the Twix, and I wondered if Jig, who had always on the move, would have wanted me to use it. Asked me if he could have it put over his head.
I felt even worse about thinking that. After Jig’s accident I had taken CPR classes. CPR wouldn’t have done anything for him or my dad. I wanted to do something, though. School, visiting Jig, CPR class, home to the rawness, then after Allie left I’d walk out to the reservoir and fish or swim. I still liked birds the best in theory. But at that point, for whatever reason, they made me want to throw up.
ne of the kids I tutored was Scott Campbell, who was the star pitcher and third basemen on the baseball team. Really bright, too. Already had an offer from Stanford, which was unheard of if you were a sophomore. I don’t even know if it was technically legal. He wanted to learn more. Didn’t need to, just wanted to. Some other teacher had mentioned him to Ms. Peese, she said I was her Shakespeare star or something like that, and the three of us would sit after school.
Bart was a little pissed because we didn’t hang out as much. He’d hang out with Allie. I wanted to be with Allie, but that rawness had gone down deep into me. So that I didn’t want to be with me, in a way, just like I didn’t want to sit with my mother. And because I felt more like myself with Allie back then, that made me uncomfortable. A hospital social worker told my mom that I was spending too much time there sitting with Jig, but she didn’t do anything.
I liked the Shakespeare stuff. Some of it was so dark. Scott knew a lot of the lines, too. There is this one part where a character has a fit, can’t talk, foam starts coming out of his mouth. Ms. Peese was reading something else at her desk—always glancing up over the cover to look at me, looking back down right when I caught her eyes—and Scott got all trembly, like you do when you’re nervous. You can have any girl you want, throw a baseball eighty-four miles per hour at sixteen, you’re smarter than just about anyone, and you’re practically shaking. I didn’t get it.
“You all right? Shakespeare getting to be too much for you?”
It’s funny now when I think that I sounded older than I was. Truth was, this kid was practically my idol at the time. I felt so beneath him. He was so capable. Which is not a boring word at all if you feel like you’re not capable of hardly anything.
“No, it’s just I had something like that once. In junior high before we moved here. Right on the field. They had to pry my mouth open, I was in the hospital. And they couldn’t find a cause. I remember not being able to breathe, and it didn’t even hurt. Then I woke up later in a hospital bed like I had been asleep.”
I told Bart about it at his house and he responded by saying that Allie had been asking about me. Bart was the type of guy who’d want something more for you if he thought you really needed it, even if he wanted it for himself. I could imagine some of the things he’d thought. At the least.
“You should ask her out,” I told him.
“Stop flexing. It’s not funny.”
“It’s kind of funny.”
“Okay, it’s kind of funny, kid. But you still should.”
“I’m not going to ask her out, you dick.” And he punched me in the shoulder. Pretty hard, but still smiling.
We all went to Ashokan, and Ms. Peese was one of the group chaperones. There were only two groups. It was a small school. One group—continuing with the back-to-nature theme—was dubbed the Pikes. The other—my group—was the Pickerels. It worked out that the more popular kids were in the pike group. Maybe it was a coincidence. A pike is more impressive, though. Fierce-looking, darting barracuda-type of a freshwater fish. Pickerels are smaller. Pike have a penchant for eating them. You’re kind of a badass if you’re a pike.
We stayed at these cabins in the woods that had baked mud stuck between the logs for their outside walls. There were group activities, like hikes and a tutorial on identifying berries, and trust exercises where you had to stand on this boulder that had a stair leaning against it and fall back into the arms of the group below. Hated it but did it. The rest of the time was your own, mostly.
I’d read. Sometimes Ms. Peese would be reading nearby. It was like she tried to read near me. I mentioned it to Bart, he said she was maybe concerned because I was such a “grim little zombie” being on my own a lot and what not. I thought about if she was trying to learn something about Jig by looking at me. Like maybe I had some message for her on some part of my face, or that my eyes would convey. She looked at me so hard like I sometimes used to look at Allie before everything became raw. It didn’t make me want to throw up. It made me curious. I hadn’t been curious in what felt like forever. And it made me excited in some ways. Scared in others.
I hardly slept. I lay there listening to guys like Bart snore. I thought of how Allie asked me every day if I wanted to do something with her.
“What’s up, Al?”
“You reading again?”
“So, what? Each time you read the same play it changes, so you never know what’s coming? You’ve read that one like six times now.”
“Nope. Always the same.”
You could tell she wanted to be sad. Show it on her face. Be natural that way. There is something the eyes do. A subtle darkening that passes as quickly as it came on in someone who is trying to help you.
I knew I was being a dick. And I felt guilty for not visiting Jig. Maybe more so because some of the things I had started thinking about what might happen with Ms. Peese. Not might happen. They probably wouldn’t. But what I sort of wanted to. Even though I still had the nightmares. Maybe because of them.
On the final morning there, I thought, screw this, I’m not sleeping, heading out. I shoved myself into my clothes, pulled on my hiking shoes, and walked outside into the pre-dawn air. Everything was silvery, like metal had been scraped off some giant old quarters, duller than new ones, coated the ground, the trees, the nearby pond, and Scott Campbell’s body that was twitching hard in the mud, which was also gray, next to the fishing pole by his side.
I got beside him immediately. His eyes were rolled back in his head, spittle coming out of his mouth, frothy but soupy, like the head of a latte not made right. There was a string of fish on the ground, too, with a piece of metal the size of a nubbed down pencil strung through their gills. I ripped it backwards through the fish, getting scales and blood on my hand, and got it between Scott’s teeth so he could breathe again. Then I did the CPR I had learned, and yelled for help.
Five minutes later I was in a car with him in the backseat, still not conscious, as Ms. Peese floored it to the hospital over dirt roads that made my head hit the ceiling. I wasn’t excited about anything anymore. I thought maybe I’d go through the windshield. I thought maybe there was a certain sense in that, if what people said about her and Jig was true.
was on my own for a while at the hospital. I was used to that. When we pulled up, it was all attendants, machines, a stretcher. Machines with wheels on them, and away Scott went, with Ms. Peese racing to keep up. She wasn’t a lot older than thirty.
I don’t know why, but I phoned my mother and told her I was sorry. She asked where I was, I told her what had happened, she asked if I was okay, I said more or less, then I said I was sorry again and hung up because I was going to start to cry and that would have made me more sorry still.
They told me where Scott’s room was at the nursing station. By then some other teachers had given some kids a ride over. Some of Scott’s best friends, naturally. Bart and Allie were also there. Someone must have figured I needed my two representatives.
Bart was sitting on the edge of a waiting-room chair. He stood up and walked over fast, arms outstretched, like he was about to hug me, and punched me softly in the shoulder instead.
“Well, isn’t someone the hero.”
Allie was behind him. Finger in her mouth. Her jaw taut.
“He’s okay, then?”
“Because of you,” Bart said.
I looked at Allie. She nodded.
“Ms. Peese wants to see you,” she said. “She’s in there now. I think Scott’s asleep. But she said you should go in when you got here.”
“Um . . . ”
“Just go in, Aven.”
The room was all half-light. A couple beams of dirty sunlight passed through the blinds, but that was it. Scott was asleep. He looked peaceful. Ms. Peese was sitting a few feet from the end of his bed, and there was an empty chair next to her.
“Sit down, Aven.”
I hesitated for a second. Then I did as she told me to.
She leaned in close, started to say how lucky it was I was there, how amazing I had been, how proud she was. That kind of thing. But most of the words trailed off, and she was looking at me in that way that I had used to look at Allie, or look down into the water when I’d swim with Jig and there was a town beneath, seeming to undulate with the currents.
She hugged me instead and kept holding me tighter. I was worried that my nose was wet on her neck. When she pulled back, I couldn’t help it. My head cocked. I didn’t know that was how it worked. That had never happened before. It was like automatic. And instead of one thing happening, another did. She pulled me tight again and whispered something in my ear. It was slurred, and I wasn’t sure what all of it was. But I knew some of it, and I knew, as I walked out of the room, that she probably had no more control over saying it than I had over cocking my head.
I must have looked pretty shaken, because when I walked over to the window back in the waiting room, Bart was sufficiently alarmed that he motioned—thinking I couldn’t see—for Allie to follow me.
“Aven? What’s wrong?” She tugged almost imperceptibly at my arm.
I could feel the sun through the glass on my cheeks.
“She said I was just like my dad.”
y mother was in the kitchen when I got home early that night. It seemed like, until that day, my mother was always in the kitchen after Jig had his accident. I told her I knew. She stared at me like she knew I knew. She asked me what I knew.
I didn’t tell her that I knew now why my parents had been separated. I told her I knew that it was time to let Jig go. That we hadn’t because of me, and that wasn’t right for anybody. Then I ran out of the house and down to the reservoir.
It was an Indian summer that year. Temperatures would be in the mid-eighties up until, like, seven, eight o’clock. It was dark, but the moon was very bright, the fireflies were doing their thing. I didn’t have my suit, but I took off my clothes and dove into the reservoir. I could sense the buildings of the town below me, but it was too dark to see them, and I liked not being able to see them, but having them there all the same.
I wasn’t surprised when Allie turned up. She would have gone to the house, like she always did, and guessed where I had gone.
“I’m coming in,” she announced.
“I don’t have my suit.”
“It’s dark. Besides, strapping lad like yourself.”
“Okay, easy, Ms. O’Kane.”
She had the good sense to grab a couple of towels when she left my house. We puttered around in the water for only a few minutes, making the most half-hearted attempts at splashing each other, which was more like moving small amounts of water, slowly, from one person to another. I was wrapped up tight in my towel before I put my clothes on, sitting on the bank with Allie.
I told her about Jig. I didn’t say anything more about Ms. Peese. What happened there belonged to that room, in a way, just like Jig didn’t belong to any room at all. And then I just laid down on my side, she pressed up against me, and I held her hand as it dropped down over my shoulder.
I could hear Bart’s footfalls even before I heard his voice calling out. He was making one of his patented loud entrances. “Ave-Dawg, just seeing how the big hero—”
We didn’t move. His voice disappeared faster than it had come on. He said either “oh” or “good.” I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter. I opened my eyes and looked toward the path he had disappeared back down.
He’d say we had done the right thing once it was over. We’d leave it at that. Leave it back in that room. “Gotta let the past pass, Aven.”
I’d tell him that was a really unfortunate pun, though Shakespeare would have dug it. He would call me a dick and punch me, medium hard, in the shoulder. “Kid.”