by Gary Fincke
EARLY IN THE first summer of the Salk vaccine, the boy lives with his aunt in New Jersey for a week. It will be summer camp, but free and without the strangers, his mother explains, pointing out the nearby forest and lake, pressing him toward a cousin his age he’s met twice before.
His cousin loves chess. “I’ll teach you,” he says. He squeals and laughs when he tells the boy to tip his king after every game. When they walk in the forest, they follow a path. Whether they enter the woods or not, his aunt, each night, examines them for ticks. After his cousin tells his mother the boy left the path, finding his own way to a creek and an abandoned cabin, they never walk there again. For the week, they share not one embedded tick.
Though neither of them can swim, they go to the lake daily. The water turns their bodies brown. “Like rust,” his aunt says. “It washes off.” Both of them keep their heads above water. Their lips sealed.
On the last late afternoon, firemen arrive at the lake. With a bullhorn and uniforms, they order everyone out of the water. His aunt says, “They’re going to drag the lake,” and he watches two of them sling and lower a grappling hook while a man who looks older than his grandfather nudges the boat into tight loops with his oars.
A monthly exercise, only practice, his aunt says, but even with the sun still shining, he and his cousin shiver, dry inside their towels, but a chill clinging to their groins. At last, the firemen bring up a body, its arms and legs limp, lake water pouring, then dripping as they reach to embrace it, securing the dead to applause from the shore.
What ends that week is a bus ride from New Jersey to Pittsburgh, his aunt placing him in the front window seat, closing her goodbye with “Stay put and be quiet.” A sailor, moments later, settles next to him with a quintet of comic books, all of them featuring miracles and war. The boy wishes he could tell him the story about swimming above the make-believe dead.
One by one, as he finishes them, the sailor hands those battles for countries and planets to the boy. Someone dies violently in every story. When the boy finishes each story, he pages backward to examine the bodies.
At Howard Johnson’s, near Harrisburg, the sailor buys the boy potato chips and a Mound’s Bar, escorts him to the men’s room where nothing happens, that episode so ordinary, the boy doesn’t mention it in Pittsburgh.
His mother says how proud she is, how he looks bigger after a week away, healthier, too. They wait for his suitcase to be extracted from beneath the bus. He opens it to prove he’s lost nothing she has trusted him with.
Tomorrow is his next shot in the Salk sequence, sixteen days until his birthday. Double digits, his mother says, as if it is a difficult milestone, something achieved, with practice, like a column of report card As, something like surviving serious wounds.
Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). His story “The Corridors of Longing” appears in Best Small Fictions 2020. He is co-editor of the anthology series Best Microfiction.