Winner: “The Drowning Man” by Tim Strom
Honorable Mention: “Black Like Swede” by Maria Macioce
THE DROWNING MAN
By Tim Strom
Winner, Short Story
Frank hid behind a large cedar tree, and watched the ice fisherman drown. Neither Frank nor the drowning man could say how long it took, because their senses of time were skewed and transfigured by events, but it seemed like a long time, long enough at least. Later on, Frank’s best guess was ten or fifteen minutes. He had no idea, of course, how long the drowning man might have been in the icy water before he came upon him.
Frank had been walking dully along through the woods on a slushy packed-down snowmobile trail that April afternoon, about a mile from home, when he heard something amazing—a man screaming down at Calvary Lake. It took a couple minutes for him to convince himself that he was really hearing what he thought he heard, and then to crunch uphill through the crusty shin-biting snow to get to the top of the steep bank, which was where he saw the fisherman struggling down below in the hole out on the ice in the middle of the lake.
The lake was small, maybe two hundred yards across. It was all located on the 160 acres owned by the youngest Peterson kid, there were no houses on it, and no one else was around. There was no snow on the ice, and it reflected back the gray sky like a huge unblinking eye, surrounded by the dark lashes of bare trees, with the hole serving as its iris and the drowning man as its pupil, learning a cold and final lesson.
The drowning man tried the same maneuver over and over again while Frank hid behind the cedar tree and watched him. He crooked his arms more or less like a hoop in front of him, and rested that hoop on the solid ice at the edge of the hole, much like someone catching their breath while relaxing with their arms crossed on the concrete rim of a swimming pool on a hot summer’s day. Then he tried to lift, kick, and pull himself out. But, each time, the hoop slid on the slippery water-covered ice, gravity pulled him back down, and the watery hole swallowed him up. Then he resurfaced, steadied himself with one or both hands on the edge, shook his head to be rid of the thorny shards of ice in his eyes and hair, gasped until he regained his breath, and started screaming again. He would shriek for thirty seconds or so, but his breath would slowly fail him, like a stage-struck trumpeter trying but failing to hold a high note. Then he bowed his head in resignation, crooked his arms and elbows into that familiar empty embrace on the flooded ice again, dangled there for a while getting his determination back up, tried to lift himself out, but slid right back down and under. It seemed to Frank that every time the fisherman did that, he stayed down a little longer, the way people do in dunking booths at carnivals when they get weary from climbing back up onto their humiliating perches.
Frank could not think of any way to help the man. Peterson’s kid did not have a house on his 160 acres, just the tumbledown, derelict, abandoned old farmstead. The nearest house was Frank’s own, but it was nearly a mile away through the woods. It had taken Frank almost an hour to toddle with his cane on the trail from his house to the lake, and it would surely take him just as long to get back. The man would be long gone by then. No snowmobiles would be coming on the trail, because it was just a few days before Easter and the trail was hard-packed, slushy, icy, and even washed out and muddy in spots. The closest road, from which the man presumably walked in, was a half-mile away on the other side of the lake. Frank had no cellphone, nor would he have known how to work one if he had it.
At eighty-three, Frank was long past his prime. It would be hard if not impossible for him to bull his way down through the deeper snow and tangled trees on the steep bank to reach the lake. Even if he could, he would not dare go out on the ice, for precisely the reason the ill-fated fisherman had so recently discovered. If he was foolhardy enough to go out on the ice to the hole, the drowning man, who was much bigger than Frank, would probably panic, pull him in, and they would both drown together. What would become of Loretta then? Well-meaning people would probably toss her into some godforsaken institution, where she and her broken mind would never understand why Frank never returned from his walk, crying and screaming for help while clapped up in restraints, begging for Frank to come and rescue her.
If he had an axe, he could cut a tree and fall it like a lifeline in the drowning man’s direction, but he had no axe and, because the struggling fisherman was nearly one hundred yards out, no downed tree would reach even halfway out to him. Dead trees lay scattered about everywhere, some crisscrossed over each other, but Frank was too old to take up burdens like that anymore and, in any event, the wood was probably rotten and unsound. The only other thing he could think of was to start screaming for help just like the drowning fisherman was doing, but the fisherman’s terrified yelps were much louder than any noise Frank could ever hope to make, so there was no sense in that.
The drowning man tried something new. He snatched off his gloves, and curled his hands into the shape of talons. He tried to dig his bare fingernails into the ice. He clawed, scratched, and scraped but his hands found no purchase. In his frenzy, he tore two fingernails off, one from each hand, but did not even notice it until he crooked his arms to try the useless lifting maneuver again, and saw two rivulets of blood streaming from his frozen hands into the water. It did not hurt. His hands were very pale, and barely worked anymore. He hung there, gasping through blue lips and chattering teeth, looking curiously at a fingernail that was pulled back but still attached to its base, reminding him of a car hood propped up over a steaming red engine. The other fingernail had torn off altogether, and floundered in the thin layer of water upon the ice, looking like a chip of soap, or a tiny submerged tombstone that no one had bothered engraving. Then the fisherman’s arms slipped, this time without him even trying to pull up on them. He went down again and, from Frank’s hidden perch, it looked like the fisherman had been sucked under by the mouth of a terrible fish rising up to slurp a hapless mayfly from the surface.
Frank kept watching. The man was down a long time. When he resurfaced, Frank expected him to start screeching again, but the drowning man was silent, dangling from the ice, resting with both arms out and his dripping hair bowed down like a black mop toward the water. It had been hard listening to the screams, so Frank was relieved that the drowning man had finally stopped shrieking. The drowning man was quiet because he was experiencing a hallucination, which calmed him briefly. He imagined that a boatman was coming steadily for him, plying the water in a wooden ship with tattooed sails.
Frank had lived a long time, and had watched many people die, including both of his parents, his only child, and far too many friends and relatives. He was well acquainted with death, and the feelings that inevitably come with watching people die, particularly the helplessness, uselessness, pointlessness, and powerlessness. But this was different. He was watching an otherwise-healthy person die, and he was doing it while hiding. It made him feel sneaky and underhanded, like some prowler, thief, or peeping Tom. It was cowardly, and he knew that cowardice was the greatest of all sins for any man, regardless of age and circumstances.
He had no reason to believe the drowning man wanted anyone watching him die. Frank’s experience with death was that it was the ultimate humiliation, stripping away all pride and dignity, which was why people were executed publicly in more barbaric times. Mobs did not just want to watch a death, they wanted to revel in the humiliation that was inflicted upon the dying. Frank wanted to die alone. He wanted no witnesses to his death, no one to hear his babbling hallucinations, smell his soiled garments, watch him shake, twitch, cry, and suffer, or offer platitudes and prayers. Before Loretta first started becoming deranged, she nagged him not to walk in the woods alone at his age, because she was afraid something bad would happen to him, and could not bear the thought of him dying all alone with no one at his side to comfort him. But that was exactly what Frank wanted. Maybe it was what the drowning man wanted too.
If he did come out from behind his hiding place and showed himself to the drowning man, what was he supposed to do? Totter to the edge of the bank, wave his cane to catch the drowning man’s eye, and ask him how it was going? Holler false encouragement, like some decrepit cheerleader urging on some wretched team? And, if he revealed himself, how would the drowning man react? Beg Frank to come down the bank, go out on the treacherous ice, grab his panicky hand, and pull Frank in with him? Plead for some false hope that would only prolong his agony? Blubber pathetically about his loving wife, his beautiful child, and how much they would miss him?
If he could not help or show himself, the only other option Frank could think of was to simply abandon the drowning man and walk away. But something told Frank he must see this thing through. After all, why did the fates that conspired against him and the drowning man see fit to choose Frank and place him there, if not to witness this? Something deep inside Frank told him that he must watch, that he had been chosen to bear witness. It had become his lot to be with this man as he died, as if they were clapped together with invisible chains, and he believed that, if he stopped watching and went away, the drowning man would be left so terribly alone and so totally abandoned that he would not merely die, but instead be irrevocably erased from all human experience, emotion, and memory.
So Frank hid and watched. The drowning man stretched his arms out to both sides on the ice, hanging limply in the hole. He was numb and weak. The water was up to his chin. He kept involuntarily gasping and groaning, his foggy breath escaping from him in ghostly little puffs that hovered and then disappeared above the water. His teeth had quit chattering, and he did not feel cold anymore. He had another hallucination. He imagined that he was no longer alone and that others—a multitude of thousands, like fruit on trees in autumn just before the harvest—were hanging down in the water with him.
His boots, which were full of water, pulled at his legs like heavy magnets, and made his hips ache. The boot laces had become entwined, and his feet were stuck together. In his last lucid thought, he wanted to duck down quickly to try to pull his boots off, but was afraid to try because he might somersault under the water, become weaker and even more disoriented, and never find the opening again. In his confusion, he thought that if he simultaneously kicked hard with both legs and sprung upward with both arms, he might propel himself heavenward, up and out of the hole like a large seal bursting out of arctic ice or a great seabird launching out of the water into a crystal blue sky. He tried it impulsively. He rose up a foot at most, then went straight down like a pillar of stone sinking into the depths.
Frank watched. He waited. He stayed hidden. The man never came up. Everything was quiet in the woods, except for an occasional snicker of wind. The sky was gray and still. The opening through the ice, as lonely and desolate as a bullet hole through an empty mirror, stared defiantly up at the gray sky. The water rocked with satisfaction in the hole, white chunks of ice nodded forgetfully and slowly congregated together, and eventually the sinister hole covered itself up. Everything was calm and still, as if nothing ever really happened.
It took Frank an hour to get back home and, by the time he did, he had almost convinced himself that it had only been a hallucination. The home care assistant, a surly but efficient twentysomething who hulkingly attended to Loretta while Frank was out, said Loretta had a good day and seemed reasonably lucid, peaceful, and cooperative. She said his ex-law partner Rudy, who had retired about a year after Frank did from their two-man office, had called and planned to visit around nine o’clock, after Frank had put Loretta to bed. Frank thanked the assistant, paid some of the bill for March, promised lamely to pay for the rest by early May, walked the enormous girl to the entryway, hung up his cane, and went back in.
Loretta was at the kitchen table, absent-mindedly but industriously shuffling through a huge pile of papers, bills, and letters which she had been going through off and on for several months. Most were from years ago. Frank was the one who handled the actual bills now, triaging payments out of their rapidly diminishing assets. Loretta’s glasses were on top of the TV, and Frank knew that she could not read without them. Sometimes, when Loretta myopically examined a document, Frank noticed that it was upside down or that she was studying the blank side of the piece of paper.
“How was your walk?” she asked. “Did anything interesting happen?”
“I think I watched a fisherman drown out at Calvary Lake.”
“That sounds interesting.”
“I couldn’t do anything to save him.”
“Of course you couldn’t. And what were you supposed to do? You look so tired. Are you worrying about that big case?”
“I don’t have big cases anymore, Loretta. I haven’t for a long time.”
“Is that what’s worrying you now? Should I be worried, too?”
“No. Nothing’s wrong. We’ll be fine. Do you want to watch the news?”
“I’ve got way too much paperwork,” she snorted pleasantly. “If there’s something interesting, just holler.”
Frank flipped on the television, leaned back in the well-worn easy chair, scrunched a pillow under his head, and tossed an afghan over himself. He noticed that his socks and the hems of his pants legs were dry. So there’s your proof, he thought. How could those be dry if he really had left the nearly bare trail to mush around in snow up over his boots? But, he realized, they could have dried out during the long walk home. It was weak proof at best.
The national news came on. For the first several minutes, the anchorman and a reporter explained how people were dying in droves in various ingenious and hideous ways all over the planet. The newsmen, like poor actors, put on their phoniest long faces, pretended to be sympathetic, and one even seemed to choke up and get sort of sniffly. Then the anchorman switched to stories about the weather, scandals, scams, food, and the antics of a cute little kitten in Illinois that could play what sounded like the first few bars of “All You Need is Love” on a colorful toy xylophone. Frank called Loretta over to watch the bit about the kitten, thinking she’d probably get a bang out of it, and was glad to see that she did. The anchorman shook his head and chuckled, then did his usual sign-off with a reassuring twinkle in his eye, as if to say everything was going to be just fine.
Frank put Loretta to bed at eight o’clock. He helped her hold the water glass when she took her medications. She slurped water, and Frank reminded her to remove her partial denture and put it in another glass he had carefully placed by her bedside. “Don’t confuse the two,” he joked. She laughed and laughed like she had never heard that one before, and slapped his thigh as if he was a rascally child. He tucked her in and turned on the radio.
“You’ll turn it off after I fall asleep?” she asked, as she did every night. He promised he would, as he did every night. Soon she was dozing. He sat on the edge of the bed watching her, listening to the radio. Then she murmured something in the language she had learned long ago from her parents and immigrant grandparents, back when she was a child on the farmstead where they now lived, and where she had spent her entire life.
“What did you say, Loretta?”
“You said something in Finnish.”
“Well, I don’t know. That’s kind of the point of me asking, you see. It kind of sounded like Allah many kin in a room.”
“Ala mene yksin avantoon?”
“Oh, I was dreaming.”
“What does it mean?”
“What does it mean?”
“Don’t go alone to the hole in the ice.”
Rudy arrived as promised at nine, and they played cribbage until ten. Rudy did not ask Frank if he wanted to play for money. He had stopped asking that soon after he learned about Loretta’s diagnosis. It was a close game and, when it was over, Frank looked down at the cribbage markers, those emblems of chance and happenstance, clumped together near the finish line in a cross-shaped pattern. “I got to tell you something before you go,” Frank told Rudy. “But here’s the thing—I’m not really sure if it happened.”
“What do you mean you’re not really sure if it happened? Jesus, Frank.”
“Just listen, okay? For once in your life? Okay?” He told Rudy everything that had happened out at Calvary Lake.
“Have you called the cops?”
“Like I said, I’m not sure it really happened. Look, keep this to yourself, but I’m getting to be what we used to call an ‘unreliable historian.’”
“Can you get in trouble if you don’t tell the cops?”
“I think I’d get in more trouble if I told the cops about something that never really happened, don’t you?”
“Could you get in trouble for not trying to rescue him?”
“There was no legal obligation to rescue him,” Frank explained. “Remember the rescue doctrine? There’s no legal obligation, no duty at all, to try to rescue somebody unless you put them in a position of peril, they’re on your property, or they’re in your charge. I didn’t put the poor guy in that position, it was the Peterson kid’s property, and I never knew the luckless bastard before, at least as far as I know. I wasn’t under any legal obligation to try to help him.”
“What about a moral obligation?”
“I’ve explained that already. What was I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know,” Rudy admitted. “But, Jesus, Frank—you just watched him?”
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that one, too, and here’s the point, as to the moral obligation. We both know that thousands of kids die every day because they don’t have food to eat or water to drink, even though we could easily provide it to them. We both know that thousands more die every day because of easily-treatable diseases that we could cure or eradicate by sending the right medicines. Thousands more die every day in wars, uprisings, ethnic cleansings, and god-knows-what-all other kinds of hell some miserable sons of bitches have dreamed up for them, which we could put an end to if we really wanted to. So you tell me, Rudy, what’s our moral obligation? I don’t know, but whatever it is, we do nothing, or damn near nothing. We watch. We hide and watch.”
Rudy bit his lip, thinking for a moment. “We can’t save the world, Frank.”
“Does that mean we should hide and watch?”
Rudy sighed. “I won’t judge you. I’m too old for that. Only God can judge you.”
“God? God wasn’t doing a thing, Rudy. God was watching from behind his own tree.”
“God was with the man, Frank.”
“No, Rudy, God was hiding, just like me. The only difference is I feel ashamed about it.”
“Don’t blaspheme. You don’t know God. It was part of His plan.”
“I don’t see any plan at all.”
“Maybe you’re not supposed to.”
“Then why did He drag me into it? Why was that so necessary? Why place me there? When I’m damn near useless? Why not put somebody who was young and strong there, or put me there forty years ago, when I could have done something? The why of all of this escapes me! I cannot walk on water! If I’m guilty, so is God.”
“Lay off God. And nobody said you’re guilty, Frank.”
“Well, I don’t hear anybody saying that I’m not guilty either. Okay, I’ll say it. I’m guilty. I’m guilty of becoming old, weak, afraid, useless, and trying to hoard the last few miserable scraps of life that have been left to me. I’m guilty for all the things I never did in life. I’m guilty for all the people I never helped or rescued. I’m guilty for hiding and I’m guilty for watching.”
“That only makes you as guilty as the next guy.”
“Right. Guilty as the next guy.”
After Rudy left, Frank sat at the table alone, staring at the cribbage board. Rudy was a good friend, Frank thought, but good friends can make lousy counselors when a lot is on the line. Frank noticed that Rudy had paused just before saying they could not save the world. There was something more Rudy wanted to say, but he was too kind to say it, and that was why he had changed the subject to talk about God.
Frank knew what Rudy was going to say. Rudy was going to say there was a real difference between saving a child who was dying of thirst on the other side of the planet, and saving a child who was dying of thirst right in front of you. For right or wrong, a person could without shame or condemnation refuse to help screaming multitudes of dying people on the other side of the planet, because they somehow stubbornly remained an abstraction. But there was nothing abstract about someone dying right in front of you. And so it was with the drowning man.
Maybe, Frank thought, the drowning man was only a figment of his imagination, a mere fiction. No one could save a hallucination or rescue a delusion, much less be expected to. But that thought did not calm his mind. If the drowning man was a hallucination, he was no more abstract to Frank than were the multitudes of people dying all around the world, and Frank had never done anything for them either. Rudy’s point was fair—one person cannot save the world, but that did not rule out saving some part of it. Rudy had tried comforting him by saying he was no guiltier than the rest. But that didn’t fly either, because no one could be heard to plead innocence on the ground that others were guilty. So, in that sense, it did not matter to him if the drowning man was real or an abstraction. He was guilty either way.
He decided he would not go around and around with it anymore. He was not enjoying the philosophical dance, and his mind was not as agile and graceful as it once had been. It was slipping and stumbling now, lurching about, twirling clumsily while onlookers snickered, and it seemed that delusions—if it had been a delusion—were the newest item on his dance card. He planned to hide his mental decline as long as he could, or at least until Loretta passed away, because droves of well-intentioned people would tear them apart if they found out. They would claim it was unsafe for him and Loretta to keep living together way out in the woods in their cozy farmhouse, somehow imagining that the things that made life worth living were supposed to be safe. That was the main reason he had not called the police about the drowning man. It would be one thing to give the police a good chuckle at a deluded old man’s fantasies, and he could live with that, but it would be another thing to lose Loretta on account of it.
His mind kept coming back to the drowning man. Forty years of practicing law had driven most of the mysticism out of him, like knocking a knothole out of a piece of wood, but there was a chip of it left, and it had been nagging at him. If he was inclined toward mysticism, Frank thought, then what he saw might not have been merely a hallucination—it might have been a vision. Loretta’s remark in the old tongue pointed toward that, and he was having trouble writing that off as a coincidence. Well, he thought, groaning as he put his hands on his knees getting up slowly from the table, let’s wait a few days and see if a body turns up or someone is reported missing. If a body was found, he could keep his mouth shut. If someone was reported missing, he would have a harder decision to make.
He walked around their little farmhouse, turning down thermostats and shutting out lights. Before Loretta got sick, they used to have Easter decorations up at this time of year, but there were none now. He should do that, he thought, because Loretta might get a real bang out of it. But then he realized he didn’t have a clue where Loretta had stored the decorations, she would only get confused and agitated if he asked, and he would never find them among all the other junk that was slowly finding its way down into moldy boxes in the basement.
He went into Loretta’s room, and turned off the radio. She stirred. He stood by the side of her bed with the overhead light shining above her, casting dark shadows on her waning face. She struggled a bit in the bed, and he picked up her small hand and held it. It was weak, bony, frail, and cold, with pulpy blue veins raised on the spotted back, like some sea creature that had washed up out of an ocean of time and dried out under a glaring sun. He patted her poor hand. Loretta snored with her mouth open, revealing the gap in her teeth from the partial that rested placidly at the bottom of the water glass. He remembered how soft, tanned, warm and tender her hands had once been. There would be no saving her. She snorted, tossed and turned, and loudly clacked her remaining teeth together several times.
The last thing he ever expected was for her to be the first to go. But there was nothing for it. All he could do was to see her out, as best he could, and then slip away too. That was something they had promised each other a long time ago. Neither of them would die alone, although they would both feel that way from time to time.
It suddenly dawned on him that, because of the distance across the frozen lake, he had never seen the fisherman’s face. He imagined it vividly now. It rose up before him with both eyes open, rolled back, white as snow, two ice-cold illuminati watching, taking in and reflecting back everything, but without letting on whether they saw any purpose, meaning, or value in the multitude of things that were constantly passing before them.
He let go of Loretta’s hand, and placed it gently on the soft threadbare blanket over her withered bosom. How tiny she had become, like something that was diminishing in the distance. She was his poor Grail now, at least what remained of her, and it was his lot to love what had been left for him. He felt himself struggle briefly against the tide of all things that conspired to pull them down and under, and then felt the familiar indolence of resignation come seeping back in. Enough, he thought. This is enough. I’ve had enough. He kissed her gratefully on the forehead, and whispered good night, in a voice that he hoped was loud enough for her to hear but quiet enough not to wake her. He reached up and snapped off the light.
BLACK LIKE SWEDE
By Maria Macioce
Honorable Mention, Short Story
My name is Stephanie.
Stephanie Lynn Marie Nelson for most of my life.
I’m the only child of Sigurd – as in Coach Big Sig, retired, beloved Trout Falls High gym teacher and current and winningest Trout Falls Walleyes football coach – and Mary Ellen – as in retired, everybody’s favorite English teacher and current president of the Trout Falls Fourth Lutheran Church Ladies’ Auxiliary.
Basically, we Nelsons are a very big deal in Trout Falls, Minnesota, population 1,119. If you didn’t pick up on it, my parents pretty much run this town.
And as for me?
1,118 of the residents of Trout Falls are white.
Stephanie Lynn Marie Nelson is black.
You weren’t expecting that, were you?
Neither was I.
I’m a fast runner, the fastest on my soccer team, but I always seem to be running late, and the first day of my freshman year was no exception.
My hair still tinged with flat iron smoke, I hurried down the hallway, simultaneously tugging on my flannel and yanking up my jeans. Mom followed me like an eager puppy.
“Remember you’re meeting Linda’s niece at the office this morning,” she said.
When I whirled around, she bounced off me and into the wall. “Huh?” I pulled up my jeans zipper.
Mom sighed and patted her blonde but graying perm. “Linda from church is doing foster care for her niece for a while. Her niece Trinity from Chicago? I told her you’d-”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m supposed to show her the school or whatever.”
Mom beamed. “And make her first days at Trout Falls High a really positive experience. I know you will.” She squeezed my arm as I tugged my huge feet into my scuffed-to-perfection Converses. “Remember the ladies and I will be at the church baking for this weekend’s youth group canoe trip, so your dad can take you home after football practice.”
“Mom, Dad always takes me home after practice.”
She leaned in with a frown and tugged up my v-neck.
“Mom!” I sort of slapped at her hands.
“Honey, I know you’re growing up, but-”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s not like I have any kind of chest to show off, anyway.” I plucked my lunch bag from her and swung open the door. “Bye.”
When I hit the porch, I turned around.
Mom’s lips were doing this sad, twisted up thing.
I jumped back through the door and squeezed her, and she squeezed me back harder, and that was okay, so I maybe stayed there, safely squished against her bluejays-eating-blueberries sweatshirt, for a little bit longer than is acceptable for a fourteen-year-old on her first day of high school.
When I finally pulled away, her watery blue eyes crinkled, and she said softly, “You’ll be great today.”
“I know.” I shrugged off her hands, kissed her cheek quick, and ran the ten blocks to school, my shoe soles slapping the pavement and my bag bouncing across my back.
“So, Stephanie, your dad’s saying we’ve got another state-bound team this year.” Principal Bergstrom picked up a football from his desk and shifted it between his huge, bear paw hands. “Says Lundquist reminds him of me when I was QB in ’89.”
I shrugged and picked at my shoelace as I waited to walk the new girl to her first class. When I looked up, Bergstrom had this hopeful look on his face, like he really, really still wanted to be a decent high school quarterback.
It was sort of sad, and so I nodded really big and lied. “Oh, yeah. We were watching some of the old ’89 season tapes as a family the other night, and Anders totally resembled you.”
Bergstrom smiled and creaked back in his chair, resting the football on his round belly. “I remember I had a hamstring pull going into the section final,” he said, his eyes in this faraway look, “but I gutted it out. Your dad pulled me aside and told me-”
But I’m spared the legend when the office door slammed open. My eyes quickly traveled up her ratty, out-of-style jeans to her dingy, gray, Chicago Bears hoodie, and finally to the surprised look on her black face.
She gave me the same quick, toe-to-head survey, and I realized my mouth was hanging open a little.
“You must be Trinity!” Bergstrom stood and enthusiastically stuck out his hand. “Welcome to Trout Falls High!”
She crossed her arms and dipped her head.
Bergstrom’s beam faded a bit. “Okay, well, I’m Principal Bergstrom, and this is Stephanie Nelson. Her dad’s Big Sig, the school’s football coach.”
Trinity pulled her hoodie over her short, curly hair. I caught a whiff of her, of something like stale gym locker mixed with old fast food. Her ripped high top ground a circle pattern in the mauve carpet.
The principal again smiled big as he picked up the football and sidestepped Trinity to hold open the door. “Um, well, you girls have a great first day! Go, Walleyes!”
Trinity and I had every class together, which made it easy to show her around. What wasn’t easy was that as we made our way through the school halls, she barely responded to my awkward small talk, which made it even more awkward. I was looking forward to lunch so that I could have some human connection.
While Trinity waited in the hot lunch line, I picked a table near the back and looked around for my friends. Even though we had a graduating class of only 49 kids last year, it’s not always easy to distinguish between blonde girls at Trout Falls High.
My best friend Jenna waved and hurried over, followed closely by my other good friends, Taylor and Britney. They set their lunch bags – all matching the one I had – on the table, and we instantly erupted into best friend babble.
“Steph, where have you been all morning?”
“We’ve got a table over in that front corner. Come on!”
“Oh my gosh, my classes suck! Seriously, there are like no cute guys in any of them.”
“Speaking of cute guys, did you see Lukas? For real.”
“Yeah, and he’s sitting at a table up front, too, so let’s go!”
“Lukas Karlson? Oh my gosh, I know! The mustache he grew over the summer is really working for me!”
They fell into silence as all three stared at a point above me. I twisted around. Trinity held a tray with a heaping mound of tater tot hotdish.
“Oh!” I hurried to pull out a chair for her. “Guys, this is Trinity,” I say. “She just moved here from Chicago. Trinity, this is Jenna, Taylor, and Britney.”
My friends glanced their blue eyes back and forth from each other to me and back.
“Hi, Trinity,” Jenna finally ventured, and I smiled gratefully at her. Taylor and Britney gave quick, little waves.
Trinity alternated between glaring at them and staring down at her tray.
“We have a table up front,” Jenna offered, “so if you want to join us-”
The slamming of Trinity’s tray on the table cut off Jenna’s words. She plopped into her chair and stabbed her spoon into her lunch.
My friends exchanged glances again, and I said, “I think we’re just going to stay back at this table,” while gesturing them away but secretly hoping they’d stay.
“Okay, maybe tomorrow,” Jenna said. “Nice to meet you, Trinity.”
Trinity responded by shoveling a baseball-sized helping of tater tot hotdish into her mouth.
I watched my friends’ blonde hair swishing down their backs as they hurried off to join fun people who actually talked and weren’t sort of scary.
We ate in silence but for Trinity’s loud nose breathing and lip smacking as she wolfed down her lunch. She washed down the last bite of hotdish by swigging her entire carton of milk in one gulp and burping loudly.
I shoved my lunch remains into my bag and quickly swiped the crumbs to the floor.
“Them your friends?”
I froze mid-standing up. Trinity’s voice was softer and more high-pitched than I expected, but twice as harsh.
“I said, them white girls really your friends?”
I plopped back into my chair and nodded. “Since kindergarten.”
Her dark eyes followed my hand to the bag of chips and to my mouth as I stuffed in a handful to avoid having to say anything else. I glanced over at the kids leaving the lunchroom and turned back. Trinity squinted at me.
“I’ve known Jenna since I was like two,” I mumbled through a mouthful. “We went to the same daycare.”
“Do not tell me you was born in this cracker box.”
I glanced around. The lunch room was empty but for the couple of lunch ladies wiping the tables. I swallowed, the mass of soggy chips like choking down a rock.
“Nigeria.” I swallowed again. “My parents adopted me when I was six months old. I’m an only child.”
Her dark eyes popped open. She shrugged off her hood and leaned in. Some white flecks dotted the top of her hair. Heat crawled up my cheeks as I shoved in another handful of chips and stared down at the MM + SG – 1999 etched into the lunch table.
“So that’s it, huh? That the school? That the whole town, too? Just us two?”
She stared at me. I stared back. A small smile cracked her face, and she spun quickly from her chair, leaving her tray. She called over her shoulder, “What’s our next class?”
Every morning when I got to school, Trinity was leaning against my locker, bobbing slightly to her headphones, wearing that same ratty outfit, same dingy hood pulled up, ready to follow my every step until the 3:30 bell.
It’s not like she needed me to show her the ropes anymore. As you can imagine, a high school in a small town like Trout Falls is pretty tough to get lost in. On Friday morning of the first week, I tried to point that out to her in very Minnesota Nice fashion.
I avoided her altogether.
I set my alarm a half hour earlier and sprinted through the school doors just as the janitor unlocked them, and I headed straight to history class, where I met Mrs. Swanson at the door and begged her to “please move my seat up front so I can see better because I think I need glasses, but I totally don’t want to get them, so please don’t tell my mom, okay, because I know you two are like super good friends, and by the way, I was so excited to have you this year because you’re like everyone’s favorite.”
Mrs. Swanson beamed, of course, and gave me a seat right next to Jenna’s and far away from my previous back row seat by Trinity.
So I lied a little, but it felt good to not be under Trinity’s suffocation, to sit up front and share Brittany’s frappucino and talk with my friends about fun, normal stuff like Lukas Karlson’s super cute mustache.
I felt like myself again.
And maybe I avoided eye contact when Trinity came in the room and paused just a little by my desk before slowly shuffling past.
Hey, she needed to branch out and make friends.
But she didn’t, of course. When the bell rang, she slumped in her corner desk, hoodie up, arms crossed, head against the wall, looking like this was the last place on earth she wanted to be.
“Okay, class, as you know, today is Trout Falls School’s annual Cultural Sharing Day,” Mrs. Swanson said.
Like every year, I brought a Swedish flag, my dad’s ABBA CD – which always weirded people out, that the head football coach loves ABBA – and my mom’s homemade Swedish butter cookies to share with the class, and like every year, I planned to give my one-minute spiel about how my family came to Trout Falls from Stockholm and were loggers until my parents went to college so they could teach at the school they graduated from.
“Any volunteers to go first?” Mrs. Swanson scanned the room, smiling when her eyes fell on me in the front row. “Stephanie, why don’t you give our first Swedish heritage presentation? I think we have seventeen of them this year.”
At the front of the room, I looked out at sixteen other yellow and blue Swedish flags around the room and spread mine out over the lectern. “Um, my great-grandparents all came from Sweden, so I’m sharing about that.” Trinity sat bolt upright in her chair. She pulled her earbuds out and leaned forward, her black eyes practically boring holes into the ABBA CD I waved.
“Go ahead, Stephanie,” Mrs. Swanson urged. A few kids giggled.
“Oh, um.” I cleared my throat. “So my relatives…”
Trinity raised her eyebrows and smiled.
Except I don’t think smile is the right word.
“You’ve all heard this a zillion times.” I exhaled quickly and popped the Tupperware lid. “Here are my mom’s butter cookies.”
Scattered applause sprinkled around the room, and I zoomed up and down the aisles with the Tupperware while Tony Tomasi headed to the front to pass out coupons for his uncle’s pizza place and to tell his annual lie that his great-grandpa was a mobster who regularly fished with Al Capone.
I gave the Tupperware container a little shake toward her when Trinity didn’t take one. Her eyes traveled back and forth between the butter cookies and between me until I finally hissed, “Want one or what?”
She shrugged and took three.
As I headed for my seat, she called out softly, “You should’ve brought Oreos.”
Black on the outside and white on the inside.
I darted for my friends’ lunch table and set the Tupperware in the middle. My friends swarmed the leftover butter cookies as I quickly scanned the crowd for Trinity, relaxing a little when I didn’t see her.
Through a mouthful, Jenna mumbled, “These are incredible. How do I get your parents to adopt me, too?”
“You’re seriously so lucky.” Taylor reached for another cookie. “My mom’s idea of baking is buying Oreos when Super One’s having a sale.”
I changed the subject. “So what color are we wearing for picture day?”
“Blue,” Taylor and Jenna responded, as Britney called out “Yellow.”
“Aquaish or more like a night sky?”
“We did blue in 7th grade,” Britney whined.
“Well, I’ve come to realize it doesn’t really matter what any of us wear for picture day, anyway.” Jenna grinned and lightly elbowed me. “Stephanie’s still going to be the Trout Falls school district poster child.”
I elbowed her back and smiled. It’s true. Every year since kindergarten, my school pic embarrassingly ends up among those chosen for the huge billboard on Highway 19. It stopped being cool to me by the time I was like nine. I mean, who wants their awkward years blown up to 10-feet tall and next to the never-changing slogan: Trout Falls School – Home of the Trout Falls Walleyes – We Raise Nice Students, with the ever-increasing number of Minnesota state tourney football appearances underneath in forest green font?
Not me, but I guess that’s what you get when your parents are the most beloved Trout Falls teachers in history.
Taylor rolled her eyes. “Don’t get me wrong, Steph. I mean, you’re super pretty and all, but seriously, it’s like our town is trying to be like Minneapolis or something. It might as well say” – she spread her arms out and deepened her voice like an announcer – “Trout Falls High – Home of the Trout Falls Walleyes – We’re not like every other small town in Minnesota. We have actual diversity!”
My peanut butter-on-whole-grain-bread sandwich stuck in my throat.
Britney snorted in loud laughter. “Maybe they’ll put the new girl on the poster, too.”
Even Jenna cracked a smile at that one. Heat rushed to my face, and I dipped my head.
Like it mattered if I tried to hide it. A blush doesn’t exactly show up on this face.
Britney kept going. “It’s so weird how she’s always hanging around you, Steph.”
“Uh, Steph was her student ambassador? Seriously.” Jenna said gave me a side glance eye roll. “And be nice, Brit.”
“Okay, but she’s like this creepy shadow.”
Taylor punched Britney. “Um, hello? Racist?”
“What?” Then Britney smacked her forehead. “Oh, because a shadow’s, like, black.” She lightly tapped my hand. “Not like that’s bad.”
“You guys!” Jenna snapped. “Think of what it’s like for Trinity to come here from Chicago.”
Britney said, “The only black person.” Taylor punched her again, and Britney threw an apologetic look my way and added, “I mean, like, she’s black black.”
Taylor nodded, tossed her crumpled chip bag onto her tray, and stood. “Come on, Brit. I need to quick find some Polish YouTube vid or something I can show for Cultural Sharing next hour.”
Jenna followed the two of them a few steps but stopped. “You coming?”
My knuckles had turned white around my bottled water. I exhaled, shook my hands out, and nodded. I scraped my chair back, turned, and slammed right into Trinity. Her tray clattered to the floor with the rest of my butter cookies. She scooped up her tray and squished a cookie into the floor with her ratty shoe as she hurried off.
Jenna watched her dump her tray before turning back to me and whispering, “Do you think she heard any of …?”
All of it. And if she didn’t, it doesn’t really matter. She knows it’s still there.
Her outsiderness. Her differentness. Her blackness.
“Hey, are you okay?” Jenna stepped closer, concerned.
I blinked, nodded, and lied. “I need to borrow a tampon.”
“Ohhhh.” She grinned knowingly. “In my gym locker.” She tossed an arm around my shoulder and guided me to the gym next door. “Sucks that you’ll have your period for tomorrow’s canoe trip.”
“Yeah.” I shrugged.
“Are you sure you’re-”
“Jenna, I’m fine!” I shrugged off her arm, strode across the gym floor, and swung open the locker room door.
“Um, oookaaay,” she said, and headed to her locker. As she spun the combo, she said, “I think Brit and Tay just meant that Trinity’s lucky to have you here because” – she shrugged – “well, you know?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t, couldn’t even move, couldn’t look away from my locker door.
Scrawled in angry, dripping red paint.
Started with N.
Wasn’t my last name.
“Nig…” Jenna started. Her hand flew to her mouth, and the other reached for mine.
When we crunched to a stop in the gravel parking lot of the Trout Falls River trailhead early the next morning, Dad gave me his usual, “Have a good day.”
He patted my shoulder. “Love you, kiddo.”
Coach Big Sig Nelson, silent, stoic Swede that he is, has said the word love about something other than football probably like three times that I can remember. Two of those times were about Mom’s Swedish butter cookies.
My hand frozen on the handle and legs out the door, I twisted back around.
Did he know about my locker? Jenna and I had cleaned it up with her nail polish remover, leaving this weird pink stain. The word was gone, at least from the locker, but someone might have seen it before we did and told Dad.
A small, shy smile creased his lined face. He cleared his throat. “Uh, done at two, right? Pick you up then.”
Whatever the reason he said it right then, Dad saying that word was enough to make up for what being called that other word did to me.
“Steph!” Jenna and Britney jogged to the car in matching yellow and teal tank tops, shorts, and headbands.
“Love you, too,” I mumbled as I ducked from the car.
“Steph, what are you wearing?” Britney pointed back and forth between their outfits. “Didn’t you get the group text?”
Jenna squeezed my arm. “How’s it going?”
I nodded. “Okay.”
She gave me this look that only best friends can give. “For real?”
I nodded again and squeezed her arm back. “Thanks.”
“So like no one’s here,” Britney whined, and looking around, I saw she was right. There were only like thirteen or fourteen kids. “I tried to get Taylor to come, but the Catholics are bowling today, so she has to go with her confirmation class.”
In Trout Falls, all the Polish are Catholic. Everyone here fits into a category.
Pastor Marc clapped his hands and instructed everyone to find a “paddle buddy”, and Britney slid over to lock arms with Jenna. She gave me this sorry shrug. “Our outfits match.”
I glanced around at all the pairs forming.
Jenna said, “Maybe we can have a group of three.”
At which point Trinity stepped out from behind a tree.
No. No way.
“Stephanie and Trinity, good!” Pastor Marc nudged the two of us together and clapped his hands again. “Okay, a few things before we hit the river…”
Trinity wore baggy boy shorts, a red bandanna tied around her short hair, and that same dingy hoodie.
And, of course, her ever-present “If-you-look-at-me-wrong-I’ll-punch-your-face” scowl.”
“There’s a bit of rapids about a mile in. If you get separated from the group, just keep paddling,” Pastor Marc said. “It’s about three hours until our lunch stop at the landing.”
Great. Just wonderful.
Jenna gave me a sympathetic shrug as Britney pulled her to “this canoe for sure because it looks the least disgusting.”
Trinity picked up the front of a canoe. “You can steer us. Your ancestors were explorers or something, right? Weren’t they vikings?” She laughed, a single, sharp bark, and tossed me a paddle.
Trinity and I were the last canoe. For a while, Pastor Marc and his seventh-grade son Sven hung back with us, but eventually Trinity’s sullen silence was enough to break even our hyper-cheery youth pastor, and they skimmed ahead to check on the other canoers, leaving me with nothing to do but stare at the back of Trinity’s sweaty bandanna and try to keep us from crashing into the trees hanging over the sides of the river.
So I had a lot of time to think.
And a lot of time to feel sick to my stomach when I thought back to my locker.
I know everyone in Trout Falls, and I couldn’t think of anyone to blame. That was probably the worst part about it, that there was someone out there who secretly but not-so-secretly hated me, and I had had no clue.
The canoe bumped and scraped a fallen tree trunk on the left bank, and I double paddled on my left to push us away. Trinity’s paddle lay uselessly next to her. She’d taken off her sweatshirt and was tying it around her waist.
“Can you tell me next time you’re going to stop paddling?”
Annoyed, I dipped my paddle fiercely in the water. After three strokes, I froze.
On the same gray Chicago Bears sweatshirt Trinity had worn every day the past week, so much so that I had every stain memorized, there was something new. A few smudges dotted the corner of the hood near the drawstring eyelets. They looked like thumbprints, and they were red.
Like she’d been handling red paint.
The screeching of metal on rock slammed me onto the metal beam in front of me. Trinity whirled around and stood. She wobbled left, right, left again. Another hit of the canoe flung her over the side of the boat, and a third, me.
I swirled in the thick black until I bobbed and gasped to the surface. Our canoe was stuck in a clump of birch trees a ways downstream.
“H-hey!” About ten feet away, Trinity coughed, choked and slapped at the water. She gasped, “I- can’t… swim.”
I swam closer and extended my hand. Her fingertips slapped at mine, scrambled, stretched, almost –
Until I pulled my hand back.
Her eyes blew up big with surprise before she sank under again. She spastically sputtered up, her eyes blazing.
I calmly treaded water.
She jerked her hands out helplessly. “What the-” .
“Tell me it was you. That word. My locker.”
She didn’t have to. The look on her half-submerged, completely panicked face said it all.
Trinity and I may have been the only two black people in a 100-mile radius, but at that moment, there was no one in the world more different to me, no one in the world I understood less. I had a million questions for her. I asked just one.
She lunged forward, splashed under, and then sort of twisted her body to the side so she kind of floated and flailed her limbs out. “I wrote it…because… to remind you who you are.”
“Who I am?” I slapped the water. “I hardly know you! You have no idea who I am!”
I floated my way closer to her. She twirled and splashed around frantically to stay afloat, and I stayed just far enough away.
“I’ve lived in Trout Falls almost my whole life, and I’ve never, ever been called that word by anyone! I’ve never felt judged before, either, at least not until you came! And you know what else? I belong here, and I love it here, and if you hate it so much, just go home! Go back to Chicago where you belong!”
Fighting to keep her mouth above water, she sputtered, “I don’t belong anywhere.”
She stretched out her hand again.
I grabbed hold.
I guided her hands to my shoulders and swam us to shore. We clawed our way up the bank. Trinity flopped like a rag doll in a heaving lump.
The sun swam red and green across my eyelids, and eventually, my heart slowed to a gentle thud. When her gasping for air reached a probably-going-to-not-die pace, Trinity said softly, “We ain’t friends just ‘cause you saved me.”
I slowly twisted my head and rose up to my elbows. Her eyes were closed, her face tilted to the sun.
Something red inside me welled up, the same red I felt when I looked at that red hate on my locker.
I spoke low and controlled, pretty impressive, considering. “We’re not friends because I don’t like you.”
Her only movement was twitching in her cheek and jaw, and then she said, “My mom’s in jail. Linda’s sister. She’s a meth head.”
“So your mom’s…”
“White. And in jail for three to five.”
“And your dad’s…”
Your dad’s what? I don’t know what answer would help me to understand her life. Black? In jail, too? Dead?
She finally answered, “Who?”
We sat in silence for forever.
I finally said, “We’re not friends.”
She shielded her face with her hand as she looked over.
“Just because we’re both black. That’d be stupid being friends just because of how we look.” I stood. “Maybe we’ll become friends for other reasons.”
“Like because you tipped our canoe and lost our paddles, we have to walk miles to the landing for lunch, and I don’t really want to walk alone.”
She squinted up at me.
“Come on,” I said. “They’ve got our lunch coolers there. My mom packed a bunch of snacks. I’ll share, even though we’re not friends.”
“She pack you Oreos?”
Trinity smiled. A real one.
I held out my hand, and she took it and stood with me.