I was having a staredown with the sun. As I lay on my back floating on the lake's surface, the only way I could get a good look at the sun for more than a second was to plug my nose and slowly submerge while keeping my eyes open and trained on my opponent. The lake water was alternately ally and foe as it cooled and stung my eyes. My underwater vision gave the sun a dreamy quality encasing all sound in a liquid pillow cut only by the electric razor-like wheeze of a far away motorboat. When I felt my lungs aching, I told myself I was bored with the staredown and ceded the present battle, but not before vowing to give the sun a good looking-at one of these days.
I had been swimming since late morning, and was aching for a three-hotdog lunch, but I was unwilling to leave this solitary summer place, where time had stopped, and where my only playmates and opponents were the July sun and lake. In a fit of eleven-year-old freedom, I whipped off my bathing suit and buried it in the sand under the knee-high water, carefully creating a red emergency flag by leaving a bit unburied, and by marking it with the corresponding section of our dock. I wouldn't dare have left in on top of the dock, should my brothers ruin my life by stealing it, making me streak up the stairs to the house and Mom. I would die if she ever saw me
the sun as I crabwalked out to deeper water and then surface dove into the colder depths where I did my best to proclaim myself "King of Cass Lake!" I stood on the bottom and watched my proclamation float towards the sun in wobbly glistening ovals. With a sudden urge to beat the bubbles to the surface, I crouched down and sprang off the muck; and while rocketing upwards, I noticed with satisfaction and some alarm that my rapid ascent was being slowed by my
I felt more vulnerable now without my suit, and also vaguely guilty. But I liked the higher stakes.
I scanned the shore for any meddling siblings or neighborhood kids, and then despite (or because of) my fear of being caught with my
I floated on the surface, creating what I imagined to be a sailboat-without-a-sail effect. I laughed out loud and recklessly inhaled some water. As coughing fits do, it broke my playful reverie, and I began to wish I had my suit on.
While swimming in, the sun gave me a consolation prize by silently announcing something moving on the surface of the water. It disappeared seconds later, and I held my breath in anticipation of its return. My next playmate had arrived, though I wasn't exactly sure what it was. It reappeared and continued wiggling back and forth along the surface with admirable speed, and not an ounce of grace. I approached it crocodile-style, with my eyes at the water's surface. "It's a baby...," but with a plop, it was gone again. When it returned for more air, I decided it was a duckling, at which time he must have decided I was an eleven-year-old boy because he submerged and swam in the opposite direction. I panicked when I thought I lost him, spinning around to locate his little head on the surface. But since he hadn't yet developed the finer points of his flight instinct, he forgot to keep his little beak shut, and a prototype of a "QUACK!!" gave him away. My new friend had the gift of agility in his favor, but he was no match for my arsenal of endless determination, intense curiosity and time. I was soon holding him in both my hands and high stepping quickly through the shallow water towards shore so I could go up to show my mom.
During my hunt, however, I hadn't noticed that I'd attracted an onlooker. Mr. Goodrum, our ancient 50-something next-door neighbor stood shirtless, gray and very still in the water next to his dock.
"Did you lose something?", he said oddly.
"I found a baby duck!", I blurted out, only to discover from the direction of his gaze that I had been running towards shore wearing nothing but a frightened baby duck. In a mortified convulsion, I strategically lowered the duckling and then turned my back to Mr. Goodrum. With my toes, I frantically probed the sand to unearth my suit, since the water was opaque with the agitation of the event, rendering my emergency red flag plan useless.
My toe miraculously caught the corner of my suit. With a mounting panic and under a strangely palpable scrutiny, I began a tortured dance of
, wading ballet in order to arrange my suit with my feet, so that I could quickly pull it on with one hand, all the while keeping my hostage and my balance, if not my dignity. Just as I was about to sacrifice the duck to free my hands, I heard a low, breathy laugh, which sounded closer than I remembered Mr. Goodrum having been. Something in the laugh made me turn to face him now, and as I did, I saw him take in the sight of my
as he made a slow, exhaling noise. His eyes took their time meandering up my body, taking pauses here and there as if to catch their breath, and then finally locked into mine with a confused, pleading inquiry. I had nothing but my new duck to offer him, and I certainly wasn't ready to part with him. Contemplating his need in that instant, it occurred to me that my embarrassment had morphed into a strange new confidence. I didn't know what this new power was, but what I did know was that Mr. Goodrum wasn't going to tell my parents I'd been
I deliberately moved the duck up my body and pinned him against my chest with one hand, which allowed me to step into my suit, one foot at a time and pull the suit up my legs. I gracefully moved my hips back and forth to assist my hand. I watched my neighbor watch me.
I remember the duck as being silent during this whole episode, but once I was shorted up, I became suddenly aware of his loud peeping. I imagined he was getting bored and was anxious to meet my family and have a lunch of Cheerios and maybe some lettuce. I turned away and ran up the stairs to show my mom. After dinner, my parents and I went down to the lake and they watched from the beach as I waded into the water, and reluctantly released my baby pet duck, who'd had a trying day. He ran on top of the water and into the sunset so quickly that in seconds, he was invisible among the sparkling orange waves. I had a sad inkling that the duck took my childhood with him into the sunset, just as surely as he'd left his own on the shore. As if to confirm this, I felt a chill when my dad asked what might have been just a simple question: "Why is your bathing suit on backwards?"
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