Tom lives Morro Bay, California, with his partner Susan, and the ghost of Ginger his dog, his first great audience. His lifelong dream of writing came to fruition in his seventh decade. Tom’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in If and When, Solo Novo, Askew, Gravel, Front Porch Review, First Literary Review East, and Drabble. Tom’s chapbook, Tornado Man, was published in 2019. Some of his favorite writers are, Ellen Bass, Natasha Trethaway, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ada Limon, Glenna Luschei, Tomas Morin, Ted Kooser, Jim Harrison, Billy Collins and WS Merwin. The Cambria Writer’s Workshop nourishes Tom and his writing.
Our summer vacation skirmish in the shallows of Lake Ontario escalated when my well-aimed wet sand-ball whacked my big brother squarely on the head and showered him with sand. It was a satisfying salvo but then I remembered the terror that could follow foolhardiness, like when I knocked down that paper wasp nest in our barn.
He yelled, “I’m gonna kick your ass!” I knew when he caught me, he’d hold me underwater until my lungs screamed, his favorite torture, inaudible to adults. Fast feet were the only escape from wasps or my enraged brother.
I launched my skinny eight-year-old frame across the beach toward our family vacation cabin on the Niagara River. I hoped for parental protection, even though our family tradition for conflict resolution meant letting us siblings work things out. I dropped my new sand pail in front of a big Buick Roadmaster that almost hit me when I tore across the hot blacktop road in bare feet. Behind me I heard car tires crushing my beloved pail like a beer can.
Stunned by the sand ball, it took some time for my brother to get the sand out of his face and hair. When I looked back, he was coming on, though not yet up to full speed.
Across the highway, pine trees harbored several rustic vacation cabins, including ours, along the Niagara River. Matted pine needles were easier on my feet than the blacktop if I dodged the pinecones. Up ahead, I spotted my teenage sister sunning herself on the deck reading fan magazines. Radio music blared from the cabin. I guessed she wouldn’t be a reliable ally without a bribe.
No car. Mom and Dad must be gone. More panic. “Rae Nancy, Johnny is trying to kill me.” She just rolled to her stomach on her Elvis towel and adjusted her swimsuit top. I slowed to consider locking myself in the cabin. But if I interrupted the sound of her beloved Hank Williams from the radio inside, she and my brother would both be out to get me.
He’d gathered speed like a runaway train and was closing fast with revenge burning in his eyes.
I gave up on my sister, turned, and sprinted towards the river only to be trapped with nowhere to run. I saw our boat tied to the dock. I thought an angel had intervened. My Dad sometimes put an outboard motor on the skiff and took us across to the Canadian side for picnics and nickel rides on the old merry-go-round. The river was glassy flat here and hadn’t begun its pell-mell rush downstream over the rocks. I ran out the wooden dock, jumped in, let go the painter, and shoved off just as my brother’s feet hit the wood dock. By the time he got to the end, I was safe away in the boat, or so I thought.
I should have known that my brother not diving in after me was a sign. He was a powerful swimmer and could have caught me and pulled me to the shore and pummeled me without witnesses. I saw him turn and run back to the cabin where my parents were just pulling up in our Dodge sedan. He and Dad were talking and pointing towards me floating further downriver. For sure, he wasn’t pleading my case unless he knew something I didn’t. Turns out, he did. My sister stood up draped in her towel. She wouldn’t have stirred from her tanning without the promise of excitement or an Almond Joy bar. Dad ran towards the neighbor’s dock.
In our family, we all knew how to handle a boat and could swim well. I looked for the oars in the skiff, then remembered, that we kept the oars and the motor stored under the cabin porch. The only implement in the boat was an old kitchen pot we used to bail. I leaned over the stern and tried to pull the boat toward the shore. I made no progress. The river rushed over some rocks and got choppy with cross currents. For a while I thought I might be swept against the bank and got ready to jump ashore. But just then, the boat would get shunted away from land by the rushing current.
It had never occurred to me why we didn’t go down stream on our family outings. I looked back, but the comforting view of our cabin had long since vanished. I wondered what my brother had told my parents. I could see people on the shore looking at me and pointing downstream waving their arms. I wanted someone to jump in, grab the boat and pull me out.
Spinning in circles in a smooth area for a minute, I sat down, and heard something like the rumble of thunder and looked in that direction to see a wall of mist rising. I remembered visiting Niagara Falls the day before and seeing the long wall of water plunging into the rocky pools below. More water than any falls in the world. It scared me to look, even from behind the railing. At the museum, films of those padded barrels used by daredevils looked strong, but the tourist films always said, “died while attempting.” The roar must be those falls. A warm trickle ran down my leg. I began frantic, but futile, paddling towards the grassy park where the crowd of onlookers kept getting bigger.
All of a sudden, the crowd at the riverside seemed to be cheering for me. I screamed for help, but figured they knew enough to stay on dry land. They were so close I could see faces of people from our group of cabins, running along the bank to follow me. The skiff spun and banged against the rocks, throwing me from one gunnel to the other. I heard the crowd yell again. I looked up, but it wasn’t me they were watching. For a second, I looked away from the comforting crowd. Struggling to stay in the boat, I looked back upstream and saw what they were excited about.
Our neighbor’s sleek Chris Craft motorboat, with my Dad at the helm dodging rocks, sped towards me. He threaded through the rapids. He tried to come alongside, but the skiff shot off in the current almost flinging me overboard. My Dad spun around and came in from down river, and let the boats slam together side by side. They were close enough for an instant for me to grab my brother’s hand and dive into the motorboat.
My brother didn’t bother to catch my crashing body, but I didn’t care. I crumpled onto the deck, then crawled up to poke my head over the gunnel, and heard the riverbank crowd cheer as my Dad swung the motorboat in an arc upriver, gunned the motor, and sped along the shore in smooth water. I looked downriver to see the skiff crash through rapids and get impaled upside down against a huge rock until it slid off and drifted downstream to doom.
Back at our dock, my brother busted out with happiness, and I collected hugs. He was the hero who reported the emergency, and helped Dad rescue me. He wouldn’t be blamed for chasing me. But, I wouldn’t escape discipline, or payback.