Boy at a Water’s Edge

by Eric Del Carlo

Mikey’s dad just kept on dying.  It was like he was insisting on it.  Mikey knew what death was.  Everybody on the island talked about it.  Mikey understood…sort of.  Enough to have already cried himself sick.

Now they’d sent him back to the cabin on the island’s shore, by himself.  Someone would be along to look in on him, to bring him any news.  Mikey dreaded that news, since he was sure it would be about his dad being dead–finally and completely, like hadn’t happened to anybody Mikey had ever known in his whole life.  He was ten years old.

He walked toward the water, already hearing its slow slap on the rocky brim of the island.  He breathed in the salty scent.  The island was big, with its wooded interior and the town where most folks lived.  Mikey was used to the waterside, to the desolate but not dreary curve of the shore, to the wet blue-black rocks and wind-blown fog.  He was used to the cabin and fishing and watching the water, always watching, always aware, even when he wasn’t really conscious of it.  His parents had taught him to stay–what was that big word? Vigilant.

His parents.  His mom and his dad.  Mikey was used to them too.

The grief grabbed him, and he stumbled on the gravely pathway over the last rise.  The sobs started again, as if a string were being jerked in his chest; and each hiccuping spasm hurt him, his lean young muscles sore and overworked by a sorrow he’d never known before this.

He didn’t want his dad to die.  But he was also angry because his dad seemed to want to die.  This dying had been going on for weeks, and Mikey, though he thought he understood death, couldn’t understand the reactions of some of the people.  Everybody on the island was an adult, except for him.  Adults were bigger than ten-year-olds, and they said things sometimes that Mikey didn’t quite grasp.  They had secrets.

By the time he’d crunched his way to the top of the path, Mikey’s eyes were blind with tears.  He stopped and wiped them with hard impatient swipes.  Ahead lay the water, spread wide.  He blinked repeatedly, and was glad for the calming sight.  His ribs ached.  His lungs burned.  But there was the water–familiar and beautiful…

Fog curled and coiled.  But there was something in the fog!  Mikey’s heart suddenly sped, and he narrowed his eyes, and peered out over the water, feeling fear and not a little excitement.

Virtually all his life he had been told to watch the waters which surrounded this island.  Bad things could come from the mainland.  His mom and his dad had said that often enough–

No.  He wouldn’t think about them now.  Mom was at the doctor’s place in town, with Dad.  Nobody was here, which left it up to Mikey.

Whatever was on the water, it was some ways out.  It was also big, real big.  A boat.  A ship.  People, when they talked about the old times, mentioned a ferry that had traveled from the mainland to the island.  A huge vessel, one that could carry people and cars.  Mikey had seen cars.  A few on the island hadn’t been totally dismantled for parts, though he’d never seen any of them running.  No gasoline.  He had never seen anything but the island.  You couldn’t get a peek at the mainland from here, not even on a fogless day, not even with a telescope.

The ‘scope!  Of course.

This was a watch station, and he was a watcher–or, at least, the son of two watchers.  Their cabin was just below.  Mikey leaped down the pathway’s far slope, scattering gravel.  But he kept the boat in sight, out there in the fog.  And even as he raced for the cabin and the telescope on its front deck, he heard noises.  These were sounds like nothing he’d ever experienced before.  Sounds he couldn’t place.  Horrible creaks and groans, clanks and scrapes, like the whole world had turned to rusted metal.

But worse were the…voices?  Yes.  Shouts and whimpers, weeping much more terrible than the sobs he had been making earlier.  Many voices.

Maybe even worse than that, though, was that Mikey couldn’t possibly be hearing these noises if they were coming off that ship.  It was too far away, miles out.  Yet he was sure, somehow, that the sounds came from there.

He jumped up onto the deck, ran for the ‘scope.  But when he aimed the instrument and looked into the eyepiece, there was nothing to see.  Just the roll of the fog.  He spotted no ship, not even the hint of one.  An instant later, he realized he also no longer heard that awful wailing.

After a while he went inside the empty cabin, keeping a part of his awareness on the water, just like he was supposed to.

The large island (or was it large?–Mikey had nothing to compare it to) needed lots of watchers.  Trouble might come from any direction.  The watch station nearest to Mikey’s parents’ cabin was occupied by two men, one of whom was now ambling this way along the rocky beach.

Mikey had fished in the morning, paying no attention to what he caught, just keeping his eyes on the water.

Now he threw down what he was doing, and waited anxiously for his neighbor’s arrival.  It was Stig, not Pete.  Pete was nicer, always ready with a laugh but always letting Mikey in on the joke.  But Stig would do.

Stig was a hair-tousler, something Mikey had lately started to dislike.  But when the thickset adult stepped up onto the cabin’s front deck, Mikey let him muss his salt-stiff hair.

“How’s Mikey, huh?  He okay?”

Mikey ignored the indignity.  He had urgent questions to ask Stig, but the man held out a canvas sack.  He looked at Mikey, like he always did, kind of glassy-eyed, as if he couldn’t quite believe the ten-year-old was real.

“I’ve got some vegetables for you, Mikey.  Pete, the nag, said you can’t live on mussels and crab, and oh, you know how he natters.  Let’s go in, shall we?”

The cabin was small compared to the homes in town, but Mikey found it strangely huge just now, what with his dad and his mom absent.

After unloading the supplies and after Mikey had thanked Stig, they sat down together, the way adults did.  One day Mikey would grow to look like this–big, the way adults were, and a little tired and a little gray.  And when that happened, he would just stop growing.

Stig, after taking a swallow himself, offered Mikey the flask he always carried.  Mikey wrinkled his nose at the smell.

“Right.”  Stig chuckled ruefully.  “Children don’t drink.  Amazing the things you forget…”

Mikey wanted to ask if Stig or Pete had seen anything yesterday out on the water, any glimpse of that big ship.  More, Mikey needed to know if they had heard the terrible cries, the suffering voices.

But before he could frame his first desperate question, Stig said, “There’s nothing about your father, Mikey.  Or–just more of the same, really.  Nancy Ishigori was by our place this morning, and she’d heard from–”

Pete and Stig lived nearer the town, where Mikey’s dad was still at Dr. Leberton’s, where he’d been since the pneumonia had come.  People on the island all went to Dr. Leberton, so that he could tell them what they had–what disease or what sort of virus or whatever.  Or else he diagnosed injuries, setting broken legs so the healing wouldn’t be too inconvenient.  But he hadn’t treated anybody for a long time.  That was what everyone had said when he started caring for Mikey’s dad, when the ailments began to come one after the next, switching up.  Pneumonia became arterial thrombosis; then came the embolism and the thing with the liver that Mikey couldn’t pronounce, then the heart valve trouble.

On and on.  Every time he healed, the way people always did, something new would happen to Mikey’s dad.

“My dad’s dying,” Mikey blurted.

Suddenly everything felt awful in the too-big cabin, with Stig smelling of his flask and the water outside heaving softly against the rocks.

Stig stared for a moment with that funny light in his eyes.  Finally he said, “That seems to be what’s happening, Mikey.”  A corner of his thick-lipped mouth twisted, like he was trying hard not to smile.

It made Mikey angry, but that wouldn’t do any good.  He looked away, out the windows.  Fog danced on the green-gray water, not too thick just now; but there was nothing to see.  He should ask about the ship.

When he looked back at Stig, though, he realized there was no point.  If Stig had seen the big boat out there yesterday, that would have been the first thing he’d said when he came up to the cabin earlier.  The whole island would be on alert.  After all, that had always been the biggest fear:  that troublemakers would come across the water from the mainland or elsewhere, invaders, wanting goods, wanting food.  The world was incredibly big.  Mikey had seen maps.  Those masses of land out there made this island look like a speck.  And that world was full of people.  Hungry, needy, desperate people.

Mikey, sometimes, wondered about them.  Who were they?  What were they really like?

What was life like away from this isolated, fog-bound island?

It was time for Stig to go.  Mikey walked him out onto the deck, where Stig gave the old telescope on its corroded base a glance.  He was lingering, wanting to say something more.  At last he did, in a strange hushed voice.

“You know, Mikey, when you were born, there was a lot of…oh, let’s call it commotion.  Most folks weren’t quite sure about you.  About you being one more person for the island to support, I mean.  Fixed resources for a fixed population and all that.  People were–  Well, never mind.  But your parents were right to have you, whether they meant to or not.  You’re like a miracle among us, Mikey.  Everyone loves you.  And just maybe your father is going to be a miracle too.”

He didn’t tousle Mikey’s hair as a farewell.  He just turned and went, taking another swallow from his flask.  Mikey looked once more at the water.

His first dream-flustered thought was that the moon had woken him.  But that was stupid.  When he sat up and a moment later pushed out of bed, he was again aware of the cabin’s awkwardly big size.  With moonlight pouring through the windows he crossed to the door.

Sweat chilled on his skin.  The deck creaked under his bare feet.  But there were other sounds in the night.

He heard–the moans, the mewls, the people weeping and screaming.  The gruesome voices spilled across the shifting dark of the water.  Mikey’s heart thumped rapidly in his scrawny chest.  He peered out, looking among the soft moonlit sheets of fog.

There the ship was again!  Much closer than last time, looming toward the rocky shoreline.  Its high sides were pitted and dripping with huge streaks of rust.  The thing was a monster, ancient and decaying.  A fading blue stripe marked it.  Didn’t the adults say the old ferry had been painted blue on white?

Mikey was sure this time that the screams of horror and hurt were coming from that boat.  Again the sounds were too loud, almost as if the ship were already on top of him, ramming onto the island’s edge, right here at his parents’ cabin.

What would his dad do?  The answer came so clear it might have been him speaking the words into Mikey’s ear:  raise the alarm.

Yes…but first, make sure.  The moonlight was dazzling and disorienting, the fog was billowing, he had just woken up from some weird complicated dream he couldn’t quite remember now.  He hurried to the ‘scope but before he got there, he fell, banging his knee painfully.  He had to pause to rub it; and that was when he noticed something else in the water, much nearer, washing in.

Heart still pounding, he leaped off the deck and went running toward the surf, kicking up the thick-grained sand.  Was this someone off that boat swimming ashore?  No.  A piece of the disintegrating ship itself?  Maybe.

He slipped on the rocks but didn’t fall this time.  Foam splashed around his knees as he reached eagerly for the strange treasure.  Stuff came floating in to the island from time to time.  Occasionally it was useful, mostly it was junk.  But always interesting junk.

Grabbing hold, Mikey hauled on the thing.  It was buoyant, light, some kind of big sheet of stiff plastic maybe.  About half again as big as Mikey’s bed and roughly the same shape.  Mikey, when he was younger, just a kid, used to imagine his bed was a raft and that raft was floating away through the fog, toward all those other lands across the water–

The boat!  He’d forgotten about the boat!  How stupid could he be?

He looked up.  The ship had gone; and the voices too had vanished, not even leaving an echo.

It was then that Mikey remembered the main part of his dream.  His dad kept showing up at the cabin.  Mikey had been waiting for him a long time, so long that Mikey was himself an adult now.  But every time he went to greet his dad, somebody else would be there–Mikey’s mom, Dr. Leberton, Pete and Stig.  And they all said the same thing.  His dad had stopped dying for a little while, but then had started again, and he’d had to go away.  Sorry, Mikey.

He pulled the big flat raft-like thing well up onto the shore and went back inside and lay on the bed, and wept until the moon turned black.

When his mom came back to the cabin, it was days later.  Mikey didn’t see her approach.  He was standing out on the rocks, taking his watching duties seriously.  He heard a crunching step behind him and turned, and there she was.  She was alone.

It was almost like with Stig the other day, when Mikey had made that mature mental leap, realizing that the man hadn’t seen the boat because he didn’t say anything about it right away.

Right now Mikey’s mom was silent, just looking at him.

Mikey wanted to jump off the rocks and race into her arms.  If he did, he would start crying–bawling.  For the first time he felt self-conscious about that.  So he just stared back at her for a minute, very, very aware that she had come to the cabin by herself.

She was tired and gray like everyone on the island except him, but she was beautiful too.  She looked different from last time he had seen her, at Dr. Leberton’s place, where she’d seemed dazed and scared.

Now she appeared calm, and sad…and something else.  Maybe a little bit of that weird happiness Mikey had glimpsed in the other adults?  No.  Couldn’t be.

She was finally opening her mouth to say something when Mikey cut in, his tone hard, short, “If Dad’s dead, just say it to me.  You got to say it.”  He had never spoken to his mom like this before.

Her eyes filled up with tears, just like that.  When she blinked, one rolled down her right cheek.  She drew a shaky breath.  She was still standing five or six steps away.

“Your dad died.  It happened this morning.  He died of–”

“It doesn’t matter what it was,” he snapped.  He hated that he was talking to her this way.  But it also felt, oddly, like what an adult would do.  Everything in him seemed to be roiling and boiling, but he didn’t let anything show.

“Sweetie, listen to–”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Okay.  Mikey.”


“Mike.  Yes.  All right.”  Even with the tears now flowing freely, she kept her voice steady and warm.  “Listen.  It’s okay to be sad.  I’m sad.  I’m…heartbroken.  I love your dad.  I love him forever and ever.  Him being gone–it’s just shattering.  But…”

Mikey, standing atop the shoreline rocks, looked down on her.  He didn’t like that she had said “But…”  He jerked his gaze away from her.  He looked at the small weather-beaten cabin.  His home, their home.  Theirs–the three of them.  The big plastic rectangle he’d pulled out of the water the other night was lying just below the front deck.

“But,” Mikey’s mom went on, “it’s also an amazing thing that’s happened.  It is something nobody, no one at all, has done in…oh, a long time.  A very long time.  It hasn’t happened to anyone on the island.  Maybe to nobody else anywhere in the whole world in all this time.  But, now, your dad–”

“You think it’s a good thing,” Mikey cut her off again.

She flinched at the accusation; that was what it was.  Her voice lost its steadiness.  She choked, “Mikey–Mike.  No.  Yes.  It’s not good or bad, maybe.  It’s just…”  Her hands bunched into fists, which she shook, frustrated and confused.  “It’s necessary!”

Mikey had heard enough.  He hopped from the rocks and went past her into the cabin, which was sort of dumb.  She followed a while later.  Where else was she going to go?  But he wouldn’t talk to her, or even acknowledge that she was there, as difficult as that was in so small a space.  The cabin had suddenly ceased to be too large, even with the continued and crushing absence of Mikey’s dad.

He wouldn’t eat that evening, and he didn’t sleep that night.  Instead, he lay in his bed and listened carefully as his mom, after having finally staggered to her own bed, eventually stopped tossing and twitching.  She was making dismal little murmurs as he got up and silently dressed.

The moonlight was softer tonight, but he could see well enough.  He retrieved the large buoyant board from under the deck, and dragged it toward the shiny rocks and the gently rocking water.

It was strange that with all the crying he’d done these past weeks, now that his dad was really dead he hadn’t cried at all.  The sadness was still there.  So was the anger.  But it was more like he had been hollowed out, gutted like a fish.  He was aware of how little he felt, instead of how much.  Like he was feeling his feelings from far away, somehow.  Was this how adults felt things?

Far away.  That was the idea burning in him now, his plan.  The front edge of the big board hit the shoreline rocks, and Mikey went to lift it over, so that he could slide the thing into the waiting water.  It floated; he knew that much.  The rest he would work out.  Things floated to the island.  Things floated from it.  He would float away on top of this raft, and go see the other lands, the rest of the world.  He would go where fathers didn’t die, and where mothers weren’t happy when they did.

Thinking this, he felt his teeth aching, and realized a crazy grin was on his face.  His mouth stretched wide.  He paused.  Was he really going to abandon his watcher’s duties?  Was he actually going to leave without telling anybody?

What would his dad have thought about something like that?

The thought held him where he stood a moment more, poised at the water’s edge.  That was long enough for him to realize the boat was back.  He looked out, and there it was.  Only…

Only it wasn’t the same ship as before.  Well, it was–but it also wasn’t.  Mikey was certain that this was the boat from those two earlier sightings.  This was the big ferry that had used to travel from the mainland to the island and back, in those long ago days when the island was a resort and the whole world was a different place.

But this time the ship wasn’t a rusted wreck.  He could see the bright blue stripe.  The white sides gleamed in the moonlight.

Something else that had changed:  there were no wails and whimpers and screams now, just the gentle thrumming of the healthy engines.  The sound was almost musical.

The ferry this time was not coming toward the island.  The prow faced the other way, and the boat was moving off through the fog at a stately, dignified pace.  It was the kind of departure Mikey’s dad deserved.  Dad, somehow, had figured out how to die.  Whether that was a good or a bad thing was something Mikey couldn’t know right now, but maybe he would understand it someday, when he’d made up his own mind.  Still, his dad was someone very special.  It might be that his son would prove himself special too, one day.

Mikey left the raft where it was.  Maybe it would slip into the water on its own and drift away.  He was no longer grinning as he stood and watched the ferry.  Of course, the boat wasn’t real; it couldn’t be real.  Even so, Mikey raised his bony boy’s arm and waved and waved, seeing his dad off with a flourish.

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