Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.
Our final Staff Picks episode for 2017 is hosted by editor Marguerite Kenner.
Blood and Water
by Jason Kimble
The year we turned nineteen, the boy I loved disappeared under the waves of Lake Michigan, but he didn’t die. I never told anyone. That he was alive. That I loved him. That he
My fingertip goes white as I smash down on the delete key and the cursor devours my words.
The broken swimming trophy lies sideways on the kitchen table. I stare at it as I dial, ignore the cat mewling, exiled, on the other side of the door. I count the rings of the phone at my ear. Seven rings (for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone) before Mr. Gravere picks up.
“Why are you calling, Mike?” Gravere says.
“It’s about a book,” I say. “I … think that I loaned it to Andy, before–”
“That wasn’t his name.” I can’t decide if the ice sheathing Mr. Gravere’s voice is better or worse than his scalding anger at the funeral.
“It’s special. A first edition. Return of the King. My mother–”
“So special it took you five years to notice it missing?”
“It’s just … ” I turn the gilded swimmer in my hand.
“I told you when he died, Michael: you’re not welcome here. Live without the book. I’m living without a whole lot more.” Mr. Gravere hangs up.
The clouds outside hang low and white. Andy could have told me if it was going to rain.
Five years, and I still can’t tell Mr. Gravere the truth. Whatever that is. I shuffle to the other room, sit down at my computer. I was trying to write it again when the cat broke Andy’s trophy. One (for the Dark Lord on his dark throne) more time:
I keep getting stuck trying to start at the end, but that won’t work. You can’t know him backwards. Andy only makes sense if you start when we were kids.
I knew Andy was special our first day at the beach. We were ten. It was a yellow flag day at Lake Michigan. Red flags meant Mom turned the car around: the waves were too violent for swimming. Green flags, the lake sat flat and went nowhere.
When the waves bucked, but not so much everyone had to stay out, yellow flags waved over the beach. Perfect for a super-jump: swim out to the sandbar and wait. When those big rolls of water come in, time it just right and the wave lifts you all in a rush, then drops you back onto the sandbar.
I taught Andy the super-jump. He sank under the first few times, and I laughed when he came up sputtering. At, not with. It was one of the few times Andy truly needed something from me, and I laughed at him. For a minute or so, I wasn’t the most awkward person in my life.
There was a desperation in the way he practiced jumping. His healthy lips turned blue and his thin chest heaved. Still, he stayed as long as my mom would let us.
Two weeks later, Andy had redefined the super-jump. For me it meant riding the wave on its rise and fall. At best, I started to come out of the wave at the top, the breeze a chill kiss along the waist of my suit. But the wave always kept hold of my legs. Even good jumps ended with the waves sucking me back down.
Andy actually escaped at the wave’s crest. The afternoon sun wobbled out over the lake, and he jumped after it. He flew out of the wave, his whole body in the air. He looked like a gull, thin wings spread wide. He came back down straight into the top of the next wave, laughing, wet hair spiked and mussed.
“Here comes another!” Andy hunched to catch it. I only pushed off enough to keep my head above water. The tide drove me toward shore. I watched Andy, lobbed up out of the water and high into the air, arms spread, screeching another laugh. I was suddenly fascinated by his wet shoulder blades and the sunlight flashing off them.
“What are you doing back there?” Andy asked.
“Just … bad timing.” I jumped the next few waves to meet him, each time trying to duplicate Andy’s feat. Maybe catch the wave sooner, or do a little run before pushing off, or …. None of it worked. I couldn’t explain current and gravity and inertia at ten years old, but I knew that Andy had broken the rules with a grace I coveted.
“How are you doing that?” I asked.
“What?” The two of us started up the next wave. Andy broke out at the top. He did a flip this time, like a dolphin.
“How do you get out into the air?”
Andy wrinkled his nose and took the next wave the same way I did. “I just ….” He stopped.
“Just what?” I prodded. “I showed you how to jump. You’ve got to give back.”
“Let me ….” Andy shot out from the next wave to the cooling afternoon air. Droplets made a halo of light around him. When he came down, he said, “It’s not me. It’s the wave. The water.”
“If you don’t want to tell me …” I huffed.
“Michael,” he said, grabbing my wrist. His grip was warm after the breeze on my wet skin. He spun me out to face the lake. “The water knows, not me.”
Andy pointed to where we couldn’t see the lake end.
“This is some weird mountain thing, isn’t it?” I said, pulling away.
Andy cocked his head. “You can’t feel it?” he asked. His eyes fogged over as I spoke.
“Andy, people just don’t do that. They don’t jump out of waves. Teach me? I promise not to tell.”
He looked over the water, eyes locked on something I couldn’t see. He shivered once, though the wind had stopped gusting, then he stilled.
“I don’t think I can do it any more, Michael.” He crossed his arms over his chest, rubbed his smooth hands over his small biceps. Refused to look me in the eye. “It’s lost now.”
Andy lost his name because of me, too. The day we met, we were making bookmarks with our names on them in homeroom. When the new boy joined, Mrs. Crites made him say his name, then where he came from, how he got here.
“What kind of stupid name is that?” Geoff Gibblett asked at lunch. Geoff’s yes-boys loomed around, looking for a response, giggling. I sat a little farther down the table, trying to avoid notice.
The new boy looked up from his tray and smiled with fine, white teeth. His color struck me, because the only place I’d seen a tan so even and smooth was television. Ours was not a diverse community. He took the question seriously, missed the insult planted squarely in its middle.
“In English,” Andy said, “it means–”
“‘Andy,'” I said. “His name means ‘Andy.'” It was the only thing I remembered from homeroom: he came from the Andes. I still don’t know why I spoke up. He looked like someone had airbrushed over every imperfection. Perfect people don’t need saviors, right? But his smile seemed like something that needed protection.
“How would you know?” Geoff demanded, turning his bullish frame and his entourage on me.
“Read a book,” I answered. “Oh, I forgot. Your mommy still does that for you.”
“Dumb-ass,” Geoff returned. His courtiers seemed sated with the comeback; he left with his head up. My face burned as courage drained out of me. My fingers shook until the new boy’s voice broke the silence.
“Is it so hard to say?”
“My name. But … Andy. An American name?”
He turned his smile on me, a simultaneously nerve-racking and soothing experience. He understood that I had done something for him, but the wrinkle between his eyebrows told me he couldn’t quite fathom the significance.
“You don’t know,” I told him. “I guess you couldn’t, but you have to be careful about sticking out. It’s … teachers like it, but no one else.”
“And that is important?”
“Totally,” I said. “The best thing is popular, but it’s lots easier to just stay out of the way.”
Such was our beginning. I taught Andy what I knew about strategic invisibility, the most effective of public school defense tactics, and I thought I’d done him a favor. He knew how to keep out of people’s way, knew the keyword: same. I’d meant to help him survive, but all I had done when I named Andy was tie the line that would drag him under.
The Y had open swim–no laps, no lanes–three nights a week. When we were fourteen, on Wednesdays we came to play Marco Polo. Andy found the notion of man-made pools unnerving, but I convinced him pools were normal.
“I’m first?” Andy asked, moving out of the shallow end. There were only three other kids in the pool, all too little for the deep end, so that’s where we stationed ourselves.
“Of course. It’s the only way I ever get to not be it.”
Andy closed his eyes and started spinning, counted to one hundred. When he finished, I was holding on under the diving board.
“Marco,” Andy said.
Andy turned to the sound, but didn’t start toward it. I slid out to the left, hands below the surface. Water lapped quietly under my chin.
Andy swam a little closer and stopped, bobbing. I moved straight in. This was it. For once, I was going to stump Andy.
“Polo.” I sucked in air and shot straight down. I had fifteen seconds before Andy could call “Marco” again. I giggled underwater. In the deep end, I could swim right underneath him. The current slid across my belly as I spun in the water. I looked up through my goggles at where Andy would be treading water.
Andy wasn’t treading water. He wasn’t swimming at all. I floated up behind him: Andy was standing upright, though neck-deep, in the water. His legs and arms were still. The water lapped at his chin, but he stood as if there were some invisible shelf supporting him. Andy’s body bobbed with the water, but he didn’t kick or flail. There was nothing to support him but another five feet of water.
I never told anyone else about the water shelf. I was the only one who saw, like the wave jumping. And like the waves, I knew Andy couldn’t explain. If I let him see that this was unique, he would throw it away like the waves and his name. But I knew it made Andy special. I thought seeing it happen made me special, too.
In high school, Andy was a star. He swam varsity as a freshman, had grown into wide shoulders and a square chin. He was everything I wasn’t.
Right after my eighteenth birthday, Andy collapsed at a swim meet. When the gun went off, there was no question who would win, but then he was being pulled out of the pool, lying on the tile. I couldn’t see his chest rise at first.
In a sustained low-oxygen environment (like, yes, the Andes), people often start making extra red blood cells to help carry what oxygen they get. More blood cells means thicker blood. Sometimes too thick for a heart to pump. It’s how Andy’s real father died, why Mr. Gravere adopted him.
They called it severe polycythemia. All that controlled breathing from swimming, the doctor said, provoked Andy’s natural tendency for it.
“They bleed me, too,” he told me when I finally spoke with him. I had kept busy filling out college applications and taking SAT’s and ACT’s, avoiding my best friend. That night, for the first time in years, Andy invited me for a sleepover. When neither of us spoke, I could hear the house settling.
“Bleed you? I thought doctors stopped doing that forever ago?”
“It’s making a comeback,” Andy said, smiling. His hair was oily and his chest sunken. Andy’s white sheets set off the bluish tinge to his skin.
“Does it help?” I asked.
“They sit leeches on me, Michael. They take away what my heart’s spent a lifetime pushing through me to feed parasites.”
“‘No’ would have worked fine.” I always felt nervous when Andy talked like that, like some kind of oracle. I leaned over in my chair and picked up my backpack–a threadbare nylon monster that refused to die. “I got you something.”
Andy propped himself up on his pillows.
“I guess it’s more of a loan. Mom’d kill me if she knew, but … ”
I pulled out Return of the King. The pages were yellow and musty, but the print was clear and I thought the smell added to the read. Andy took the book gingerly and ran his finger under the title.
“It’s one of the early ones, isn’t it?”
“Actually, it’s the last book.”
“No. This story. It’s one of the early fantasy novels?”
I leaned back in my chair, not quite sure what I was hearing in Andy’s voice. “Well, yeah, it’s old. And, I mean, I know you’re not really into this kind of thing, and this is actually the end but I totally think you can follow it if–”
“You, I trust.” Andy laid his hand on my forearm. “You say I’ll like, I’ll like. Thanks.”
“Sure.” I crossed my arms and shrugged, suddenly warm. Sometimes it unnerved me, the way Andy didn’t need space when we were together.
“Whenever you get time to read it. I already did.”
“I’ve got the time.”
I nodded, not sure if it was a joke. “So … what now?”
“I want to sneak out tonight.” Andy shoved his covers off his legs. He’d developed knobby knees. “It’s going to rain.”
Andy dug out a black T-shirt and a dark pair of jeans.
“Andy, my mom’s addicted to the TV 8 weatherman. If there was rain coming, she’d never let me out of the house without an umbrella.”
Andy squeezed his head through the hole of the T-shirt; the fabric and his hair both pulled tight and then popped loose after his ears made it past the collar, an act which took more effort than it should have. “Do you know how long it’s been since I touched real water, Michael?”
“I was going to talk to you about showering, but I didn’t want to upset–”
“No.” Andy ignored the opening for more banter. He flopped onto his back to slide on baggy jeans that had hugged him tight last winter. “I mean real water, not that chlorinated, recycled stuff they pipe into the sink and the shower or that stagnant muck I had to put up with in the pool.” He stood and cinched his belt to the last hole.
“I thought you liked swimming,” I said.
“Swim team’s just going in circles in a dead, oversized basin. I only did it because it kept my blood pumping. There wasn’t time for the beach, or it was too cold, or whatever excuse we came up with. I had to do something.” He turned to me as I battled the zipper on my backpack closed.
“Just don’t step on the third or seventh step, stay to the right on the ninth, and Dad won’t hear a creak.”
We went to the park. Night made everything shades of blue: the see-saw with the paint chipped off its corner, the cement pipes set like a maze, the tarnished jungle gym. Some of them were navy, others indigo, deep sea, cornflower.
“I’m not any good at this,” I said. I was trying to get some height on the swingset, but kept dragging my feet.
“That’s because you believed Shelly Suzaine when she told you her second cousin went so fast he flipped all the way over the bar.”
The night was as quiet as Andy’s basement had been. I watched him clear the ground with each swing and climb higher.
“Here I come,” Andy announced as he swung down past me, then up and forward again. He topped out even with the bar. The seat twisted and the chain went slack, clanked against itself as he jumped. He arched out over the trampled playground grass, arms and legs spread wide. He lost his balance on the landing and rolled forward. By the time I got to him, he was brushing the grass and dirt off his elbow. The worry vein on my temple twitched.
“I forgot how fun that was.” Andy wiped at his forehead and left behind a wet, purple smear. He studied the blood as he rubbed it between his fingers.
“At least we don’t have to worry about clotting.” He flashed me a smile shaded pastel by the night.
“So,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets and scanning the playground for something that didn’t involve his illness. “Where’s that rain?”
Andy walked up the seesaw as if it were a plank. “I was just about to tell you: it’s here.” He looked up, still smiling, and pointed to the sky. I looked up, too, as the water streamed down.
Andy hooted his triumph, the seesaw balanced beneath him. He wiggled his fingers in the air above his head and I knew he’d called the rain to him, as sure as I could call my dog. I was never as elated by dog kisses as Andy looked in the rain.
Andy rubbed the water across his face like he was finally and for the first time coming clean. I only felt pinpricks of chill on my cheeks.
“You win,” I said. “Can we go back now before I get bronchitis?”
He vaulted off the seesaw, landing in a puddle next to me. “Don’t you love the rain?” he said. I gave a weak smile and he laughed. He grabbed me in a bear hug, lifted me, and swung us both in a circle.
“I give!” I called. “I give! I love the rain.” Andy let go the hug, though we both leaned on each other to keep our balance.
“Could we maybe just love it somewhere dry?”
“Almost finished,” Andy said. June, two weeks after Andy called down the rain. “You were right. It’s a good story.”
“Every once in a while I know what I’m talking about.”
“I need you to help me out.”
I felt tight along the back of my shoulders. Andy’s voice frightened me. His skin had developed large, red splotches. His father had been cutting his hair again: the cowlick on the right side of his crown sprouted wildly.
“Take me to the beach.” It was somewhere between a whisper and a cry, urgent and breathless.
“Your Dad won’t–”
“Michael, please.” Andy threw the covers off, but that wasn’t Andy’s body lying there. It couldn’t be, pale and beginning to flab. That was my body; Andy was better than that. “Stay over, then in the morning we can go early.” Andy, who was faster and smarter and stronger, tan and dark-haired, loved, popular, was pleading for my help. The last time that happened, we were ten and I taught him to jump, then I robbed him of it. All I ever did was drag Andy down.
We left in the heavy gray of the next morning. Andy said he wanted to see the sun rise over the water. Neither of us acknowledged that the sun only set over the water at South Haven.
The beach wasn’t open. I parked, then we hiked through the trees to avoid meeting anyone on the park driveway. The water rolled in from the horizon, dark and smooth.
The lake froze my knees, but Andy plunged under the surface without a sound.
“You’re crazy,” I said when he resurfaced.
“Race you to the sandbar.”
“The chicken gambit?” I crossed my arms. “You think I’d fall for that?”
Andy stood and shrugged, then walked back toward me. “Hey, a guy’s got to–”
“Readysetgo!” I shouted, diving in and screaming underwater, thrashing my way toward the sandbar when I surfaced. I knew Andy would win anyway. At least, he should have beaten me, but I stood first, shivering on the sandbar.
“Cheater,” Andy panted when he got there. I slunk down to stay in the water, out of the biting wind.
“How else do I get to win?” I said. The sun peeked over the trees on shore.
“Yellow flag day.” Andy pointed at the water. Compared to when we were ten, I didn’t have to push off much at all to keep my head above the waves.
“Everything’s bigger when you’re a little kid,” I said.
“No it’s not.”
“It’s not because you’re bigger,” Andy said. “It’s because you see less of the wave than you used to.”
“That’s what I said. When we were smaller, the waves looked bigger.”
“Looking and seeing aren’t the same thing,” Andy said.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
Andy grabbed my face and turned it back out across the lake. I wanted his fingers to be warm, but his circulation hadn’t been up to that for months.
“You never figured out how I jumped out of the waves in fourth grade, did you?”
“You’re an athletic guy and I’m a wimp.”
Andy looked out across the lake. “The water and I touched one another.”
I screwed up my face and broke his grip.
“Sure, Andy,” I said, splashing around. “There. I touched the water. So now can I–?”
“You can,” he said, “but not by thrashing around on the sandbar.” Andy breathed deeply. “I’m not going to die, Michael.”
Water pooled in the flesh that sank between Andy’s collarbone and shoulder blade.
“You keep listening to the wrong people,” he said. “Letting the wrong things touch you. This, with my blood, it’s not a medical condition. It’s not something you cure.”
I shivered as the breeze caught my own wet shoulders.
“My dad thinks he took me out of the mountains, away from the environment that could kill me, and I went and found another way to turn my blood hard. Like I have some instinct for all the wrong things, that I’m drawn to what hurts me most. But it’s not about that. It’s about passion. It builds up, and there’s nothing or no one to pour it into. It’s clogged up in me. That’s what this–”
“‘Clogs’ … ? Andy, you make it sound like you need an enema.”
He smiled, and I felt ten again.
“I’m leaving,” he said.
He pointed out to the lake.
“Michael, I need this lake,” he said. “The water knows me. Wants to – does – share everything with me. This is where my blood flows. Back there are only stares and lectures and people who keep telling me not to be who I am. What reason is there to stay, alone in a bed, waiting?”
I opened my mouth, but my throat clamped down tight. In the distance I heard a boat engine. A few seagulls gathered on the beach. Those things made sense. They were real, I told myself.
If I said it, and he didn’t say it back, had I made it all up? And if I made up what sat unspoken between us, had I invented the rest, too? If I just didn’t say it, it was always possible. That wasn’t better than real, but it was better than nothing.
That’s when he kissed me. His lips on mine were soft and desperate all at once. I couldn’t tell the sound of the waves from the crash of blood in my ears. His hands at my shoulders were warmer than they had any right to be. I forgot how to breathe.
He started out into the lake before I realized he’d let go. I hopped from the sandbar at the drop-off and tried to swim after him. I opened my mouth to call out his name. His real one, because that’s the name you use when you tell someone you love him.
But I couldn’t remember his real name. I could still taste him on my lips, but couldn’t find who he was anywhere in my mind. Only the stupid colonial steamroller I’d flattened him with.
Two waves churned up, ten feet apart, higher than something that called for a red flag. Andy swam into the first one and disappeared.
The wave shot him out the top. Andy arched up into the background of the brightening sky. Drops of water sparkled as he spread his arms, then he dove into the crest of the second wave. The water accepted him; it took back its long-suffering pupil. Its best friend. The love whose name it surely knew.
Then the waves were gone. So was Andy.
I stand at the threshold to the basement. One more door (where the Shadows lie). I flip on the lights and step through, my chest constricting. I have Mr. Gravere’s schedule from the college. I’ve got two hours. Despite that, I avoid steps three (Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky) and seven (for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone) and stay to the right on step nine (for Mortal Men doomed to die).
Andy’s room is a time capsule. His Xbox still has Bully in the drive. The Star Wars poster hangs just a little cockeyed in its plastic poster frame. The bedding is wrinkled. The only thing that’s changed since the day we went to the beach is the not-so-thin layer of dust everywhere.
The book’s here, too, laminated bookmark holding the page. Andy never read the last chapter.
Andy’s trophies still line the top shelf. I can see the small space, off on the left edge, where the missing one went. I found it in my car that morning, after I came back from the beach. It was small compared to the state championship trophies. Third place, but the trophy was from Andy’s first meet. I remember Andy’s arms slashing through the water, legs pistoning behind. I kept the trophy, but that one — every one — is engraved for Andy Gravere.
I scrounge up my notebook and a pen.
I visit the lake every summer, and swim out to the sandbar. I jump the waves, though they still pull me down at their crest. I try to touch the water, to let it know what I’ve learned since last we met. Hope the water might say what I never could, to find Andy out there, somewhere, his blood pumping fast through his body.
I looked you in the face, Mr. Gravere, and gave you a half-truth, that Andy went under and drowned. I gave that to you because I had nothing else. For you, anger was real. Anger for my failure to stop him (or secretly, anger because you suspected I knew exactly what Andy had planned).
Believing the lie only required what the world already knew. Believing the truth depends on the word of a boy who thinks his best friend can call down the rain. I took your anger because I knew you could never be comforted with the truth I saw at the lake.
I didn’t help him to die that day. For the first time since I stole his name, since I taught him to be what was expected instead of who he is, I was helping him to live. If I convinced him to stay in that bed, in our world, then I would have killed him.
My memory catches as I pick up the book. Its cover has wrinkled across the title and curled in along the edges. The cloth has frayed. It means one thing (one Ring to find). It means Andy was real. I lay my own story in its place, the last few pages handwritten. I slide my fingers into the pages and recognize the faded construction paper of the laminated bookmark. I still have one of my own, buried in a box of class souvenirs. Name bookmarks from fourth grade homeroom. Before lunch. Before Andy.
I open the book.
About the Author
Jason Kimble left the tornadoes of Michigan for the hurricanes of Florida, because spinning air is better when it’s warm. He lives there with his finally-legal husband. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Escape Pod and the Speculative Masculinities anthology from Galli Books, as well as twice previously on Cast of Wonders. You can find more of his nattering at this website, Process Wonk, or on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Your narrator – Paul Cram – is a scrappy actor who’s character in movies always seems to be the one that dies. His latest role in Anniversary has him awake at night seeing things that no one wants to admit are happening. While Paul still considers his voice to be somewhat new to the world of audio books, he has a few full-length novels under his belt, including the love story Flirting With Death set against the beauty of Lake Michigan & the Zombie Apocalypse. When not acting, Paul can be found out in the woods of Minnesota, arguing pop-culture with his little brother.