by Francine Witte

Every morning that June, we would watch Ralphie dip into the lake behind our summer house. Ralphie came from nuclear country and told us the lake was radioactive.

Radio water, he called it. He never told us much about where he came from so we didn’t know if it was a bomb or what. He would just point to the hairless patch above his right ear. He did say that whatever had happened left him mostly immune to further radiation, and that’s why he could swim, untouched, in the lake. My little brother told us he didn’t believe Ralphie. Said he saw him through the window one day with a razor and shaving cream.

                                                                        *

Father had told us that this would be our final summer at the lake. He said he would be leaving us for good to live with the other family he made when my mother wasn’t watching him every goddam minute, which was how my mother would later describe it. My parents didn’t speak to each other anymore. She wouldn’t even look in his direction. Not when he burned hamburgers on the grill or when he zoomed his car away each night after supper.

                                                                        *

One morning, late in July, we were watching Ralphie like always. How he would dip his toe in, then up to his waist, finally knifing himself through the water to the other side where the rowboats knocked and swayed. Ralphie explained that the rowboats were also immune and that’s why the water hadn’t eaten them.

                                                                        *

One other morning, my father showed us photos of his other family. All of us looking, except, of course, for my mother. Same number of kids in his other family. Two boys. Two girls. They were younger than us. Newer. They were swimming in a lake. They were eating perfect hamburgers.

                                                                        *

Later, we went outside to see Ralphie coming out of the radio water and wrapping himself in a Spiderman towel.  He looked at us watching him and held up his right hand. Two fingers only. “Guess I’m not completely immune,” he called over. Beads of radio water on his face and my little brother telling us that Ralphie was folding his other fingers back. Ralphie palmed the water off his face and walked over to my brother. “Listen, pipsqueak,” he said, his chest glistening in the sunlight, glowing almost uranium, “I’d throw you in, but that water would fizz you up alive.”

                                                                        *

The next time my father showed us his new family, my little brother wandered outside, slapped the screen door closed behind him and walked over to the water’s edge. He just stood there looking at the spot where the boats sway.

                                                                        *

I walked outside one night after supper. My father was sitting by the hammock that was always filled with mosquitoes from the rain. By this time, every other night, my father had driven off to his other family. But not that night. That night, he was sitting very still. Hands in his lap and looking down at the ground. We all went to bed and it wasn’t till later when something woke me. I looked at the window to see my father loading up the car with all of his suitcases, along with a bundle of some kind, the exact shape of my little brother.

                                                                        *

Ralphie told everyone the next day that my little brother must have wandered into the radio water and just fizzed away. “Like my fingers,” he said holding up his hand, “like my hair.” I thought back to my little brother doubting everything Ralphie said. I thought back to last night watching my brother disappearing into my father’s other family.

                                                                        *

Now that my mother didn’t have my father to ignore, she became chatty and younger somehow. We never talked about my little brother anymore. Ralphie’s story seemed to be enough for her. It’s like my brother fizzing away in the radio water was an easier thing to believe.

                                                                        *

End of August and my mother told us we would be coming back next summer. She had fallen in love with the nearby hiking trails and woke us up at 6 am each morning for a run. She ignored the men who came to examine the lake, who told her the water was safe to swim in. Ignored Ralphie even when his hair grew in and she could see his fingers plain as day. Ignored the photo my father sent with my little brother seated on his knee, and smiling as if for the first time in his life. My mother waved it away and said that’s a boy who looks like your brother. That doesn’t make him your brother. When she said it, she looked off across the lake at the boats still swaying and knocking. The boats that maybe even only looked like boats.

Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, Café Crazy and The Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) Her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind has just been published by Ad Hoc Fiction, and her full-length collection of flash fiction, Dressed All Wrong for This was recently published by Blue Light Press. She lives in New York City.