“Take me to your leaderrrr,” I spoke into the whizzing fan.
I imagined the neighbors peering over from their back deck with the potted plants and red umbrella, momentarily entertaining the idea that perhaps there really were aliens taking a tour of their cul-de-sac.
“Blee-bloo-blap,” I sang loudly, my eyes squinted against the wind and my bangs pressed against my forehead.
Sighing, I leaned back from the fan and glanced at Randy, still sifting through his drawer, looking for the slingshot. I knew better than to rush him.
“Maybe you left it at the pond last time,” I suggested.
“I’m not stupid,” he replied, switching to the next drawer without shutting the first. I studied the gray-white underwear on the floor and wondered if Randy ever washed his clothes or if he just placed them back in his drawer after wearing them. Mrs. Mason probably sorted through his clothes and found the dirty ones she needed to wash. That seemed like a motherly thing to do.
His muffled voice from the drawer: “Check under the bed, will ya?”
I went over to his twin bed with the blue quilt. According to his mother, Randy’s grandma had knitted it during the Great Depression to keep her kids warm. We were allowed to sit on it but not if Randy’s mother was in the room because it was a “family air-loom, whatever that is,” and not a single butt-print could be made on the quilt. It seemed like a lot of fuss over a blue blanket to me.
“Never mind, it’s here!” Randy pulled the slingshot from the depths of the mass of fabrics. “Quick, before the sun sets!”
I raced after Randy, down the stairs and out the door to our bikes laying in the front yard.
“To the pond!”
We raced through Randy’s neighborhood of square, closely-placed houses full of grandmas and babies and pet cats. We cut through Mr. Burchill’s yard because he was probably asleep by now and his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, so odds were all he’d see would be two deer running through his yard at dusk. That’s what Randy figured, anyway.
We sped up as we approached the big hill, standing on the pedals and puffing our cheeks full of air at the steepest part. Randy peaked first and his head disappeared for a second before I finally reached the top and then followed his descent, stretching my legs out straight and leaning back, letting gravity do me a favor for once. The consequences of a loose pebble getting stuck in the bike chain or a tire striking a tree root in the wrong way could mean major fatalities, and that prospect made the ride even more thrilling.
The bottom of the hill, a sharp turn, and then it was smooth sailing for a couple minutes. We had forged our own trail through the tall grasses, two inches wide, just big enough for our bike tires. The dozens of times we had taken this route had left it free of rocks and bumps in the dirt, so my shoulders relaxed and I let my hair whip across my face as I sailed after Randy. It was just his back and the lofty grasses, the sky and my handlebars.
Randy waited until we had exited the tunnel of grass to turn around and shh me as we approached the pond. I nodded and bent my head down a little, as Hunter Willie did on my favorite show, Forests and Jungles.
Hunter Willie carefully approaches the animal, studying and taking note of its behavior, the narrator whispered.
Randy stopped ahead of me and I quietly pulled up beside him. He nudged my side, keeping his eyes glued to the pond. I followed his gaze and found the swan, gently gliding through the lily pads, making her way toward the reed fortress.
The animal continues her daily routine, unaware of her observer.
I dismounted my bike silently and laid it in the grass, my eyes trained on the swan. Randy glanced at me for a second before laying his own bike down and motioning toward the large, moss-covered rock.
The sun was a ball of fire now, hesitating before it went to bed. The clouds surrounded it and seemed to cushion the sun from the indigo sky, a mass of orange and pink and lavender pillows. It was the perfect time of day, still southern-summer hot, but you could tell that a breeze was moving in and it was about to get cooler. The mosquitos hadn’t emerged yet but the crickets had started their symphonies, and it was early enough for the promise of adventure to be alive and well.
Randy touched my shoulder and pointed at the swan making her way through the reed curtain. He usually was the one to spot her journey into the nest.
The creature returns to her habitat, preparing for slumber.
I motioned with my chin and we skirted along the outside of the rock to better view the nest. As the swan’s tail disappeared into the reeds, Randy and I looked at each other and nodded.
Hunter Willie is completely in-tune with nature and its creatures. He senses that it is time.
Randy crept out first, easing his way along the edge of the rock, moving closer to the pond’s perimeter. I crawled behind him until we reached the edge, ten feet from the swan’s nest. I peeked over Randy’s shoulder as he parted the reeds for a clearer view.
All we saw was the mossy log, patch of lilypads, and barrier of reeds, but we knew behind them was a magical creature cleaning her feathers, innocent of what lay outside her safeplace.
The goal of the game was this: whoever could hit the swan with the slingshot first, won. I made it very clear at the beginning of the summer that rocks were disqualified and only walnut shells and sticks smaller that my pointer finger could be used. After much persistence on my end (which Randy was not accustomed to), the rule was set. And that was the only rule in the game.
Randy usually won. It was his slingshot so he got more practice with it, and he deemed it was only fair that he got two shots for every one of mine (since he was being so kind as to let me use it). Trying to avoid a fight, I agreed.
He was an expert with the device, knowing just the angle and force to pin the swan on her wing or tail (bonus points). Neither of us had ever been successful enough to hit the long, skinny neck or beak, but one time I hit her chest, where the feathers were soft and downy, and Randy had been sore about it for a week. The hunting game was my favorite time of day, better than boring school or quiet home, and I didn’t want Randy to stop playing just because he lost. So if he was having a bad day I’d let him win, although I did score a couple points every now and then.
The swan had become our target through a long process. We had gotten bored with frogs and squirrels, which were either too tiny or too far away to get real pleasure out of hitting. Over the last year, the swan had become a widely-discussed subject, as many people were enthralled by the way she had graced us with her presence, almost randomly. Nature Man Bill, one of my father’s friends, had spotted her at Windham’s Pond one day, and from then on she was famous.
The people in town talked daily about the swan and how beautiful she was.
“I saw her bathing in the pond the other day, just magnificent.”
“When she had babies last spring, oh my, they were the cutest things you ever saw!”
“And how gracefully she lands in the water, I could sit at that pond and watch her for hours.”
It was the way they used to talk about my mother, before she left. I was too young, my father said, I didn’t remember; but I knew I could never forget the way people looked at her. I couldn’t repeat what they said or even why they admired her so much, but I had seen it in their eyes.
After church she’d hold me on her hip and I watched the way people greeted her, asked her how she’d been. She would flash her gorgeous smile at everyone she talked to, and I could tell they were enthralled by her beauty–her deep brown eyes and thick dark hair that sat in big curls just above her shoulders. I remembered the white gloves with the lace at the wrist, which I would try to suck on while I was toothing.
But her unforgivable act made those memories sour, and my anger toward her swelled whenever I saw the swan. It held the same qualities as my mother–her beauty, her gracefulness, her innocent smile; even the tiny swan pendant that hung on the gold chain around my mother’s neck.
I and everyone else had been oblivious to her darker side, to the plan that was forming in her head. And when she left, she stole the happiness she had given me, leaving a dark blot in my chest that could not be wiped away.
Since Randy was a boy and didn’t care about anything pretty or fragile, he agreed to my plan to make the swan the object of our game.
“Aim steady now,” Randy whispered, handing me the slingshot.
I took the slingshot and studied my subject. The feelings I held toward my mother rushed at me all at once, as usual. Admiration and adoration, then surprise and confusion, then resentment and contempt. I felt the emotions rising in me as I lifted my hands and closed my left eye. She was in the perfect position, her neck and head placed right in the center of the clearing in the reeds.
Hunter Willie aims carefully at the creature, being careful not to make any drastic movements.
Keeping my eyes on the swan, I thrust my hand toward Randy and he placed the cold, solid object in my hand. I silently placed it in the pouch of the slingshot and pulled backwards, feeling the tension rising.
I felt confident, certain that this time she was mine. I waited until her head was right behind the tip of my thumb, and for a second, I thought I saw her deep, black eye looking into mine.
And then I let go.
Randy’s head snapped in my direction; his eyes large white disks and his mouth a similarly-shaped ‘o’.
“That-that doesn’t count!” he sputtered, pointing at the swan. At first I was confused, and then I looked at the swan, who was flapping her wings and causing a storm in the water. She half-flew, half-swam behind a thicket of cattails and when we couldn’t see her anymore, she was silent.
“What do you mean that doesn’t count??” I spun to look at Randy. “I hit her fair and square! And right on the head, so that’s bonus points!”
“Uh-uh.” Randy shook his head from side to side; quick, tiny motions like a dog shaking water from its fur. “You shot a rock, not an acorn or a stick.”
“What?” I looked back at the water and the ripples where the swan had been sitting just a minute ago. There was no shell or stick bobbing on the surface, and my palm felt cold and empty with the absence of the rock that was there only a short time ago.
“Why did you give me a rock?” I glared at Randy, wanting to stare through his brains, straight to the back of his skull. “ That means you cheated!”
“I was going to tell you it was a rock but you fired too fast!” Randy yelled back.
We stared at each other, arms crossed, as the crickets’ song got louder.
Finally I stood and turned my back to Randy. “I’m going home.”
I grabbed my bike and jumped on, pedaling back down the corridor of grasses, around the corner, and up the hill. It was the first time Randy and I hadn’t left the pond together, and it felt quiet as I sped across the field and into my backyard, the fireflies collecting around my bike as I dropped it in the grass and went inside.
My father grabbed his pack of cigarettes and I glanced up from my bowl of Wheaties.
“I’m going to Bill’s.”
His hair was slicked down with water and I smelled the Barbasol from the kitchen counter–his usual Monday-Wednesday-Friday shave.
I hadn’t had enough courage to look him in the eye since last evening. He knew about Randy’s and my nightly adventures and our goal of hitting the swan, whether he pretended to listen to my stories or not. I would be telling him about one of our hunts, and he’d be sitting in his red leather chair, reading the paper and smoking a Lucky. When I paused between stories, he would nod his head and grunt a little, and I would think he hadn’t been listening at all. Then the next day he would ask me if Randy had actually hit the swan or if I had let him win on purpose.
My father had a way of surprising me with information I already knew, asking me about parts of my life I hadn’t thought he cared about.
“You going to Randy’s?” he tucked his wallet into his back pocket, always the left side so there was a faint, square outline on the left butt cheek of his pants from the edges of the wallet rubbing in the same spot day after day.
I didn’t think my father actually cared where I would be spending the day. Ever since kindergarten, school took care of me for eight hours and Mrs. Mason for three more until dinnertime, when I came home with a peanut butter sandwich and red apple. He’d have a scoop of vanilla ice cream waiting for me, chocolate sauce drizzled on top. We’d sit together until I finished, him feeling satisfied that he had fulfilled his parenting duties for the day.
If he was in an extra generous mood, he’d let me have a sip of his coffee, sometimes sweetened with his Irish cream or Kahlua. I didn’t like the strong taste of alcohol, but I wanted my father to see me as grown-up and mature, so I’d take a small sip, close my eyes, and nod, just as he did. He’d nod back once, maybe offer a smile, and wouldn’t offer any more the rest of the night. Four years later, I realized he knew I didn’t actually like the taste, and he had been training me to hate alcohol so I wouldn’t turn out like him.
“I dunno,” I shrugged and mashed one of the Wheaties with the backside of my spoon. Usually I was eager to go to Randy’s, where his mother made us popcorn and lemonade and let us eat it in the bedroom.
My father looked at me for a second, studying my mouth as he usually did, because he knew that was the part of my face that gave me away.
“Why don’t you come into town with me, say hi to Bill?” I looked at his eyes then, because they were his feature that told the truth. When I saw he was serious, I pushed my bowl of Wheaties into the sink and slipped my feet into my tennis shoes.
“Sure! Yeah,” my voice gave away my excitement, and my father didn’t reply but turned his back to me and walked toward the door. The only reason I knew he would still let me come was that he held the screen door open, just an extra second, for me. Then he opened the car door like he said a gentleman should always do for a lady, no matter how young or old, how wealthy or bum.
The leather seats in the Pinto were leaned way back, and my father leaned with them, but I sat forward on the edge, crossing my legs Indian style and leaning my head toward the window.
I wanted the wind to push my hair off my face, to split apart my lips and blur everything passing by. Maybe then I would forget about my disagreement with Randy and how unfair it all was. I had shot the swan, rock or not. Maybe I wouldn’t get bonus points because I hadn’t used a stick or walnut, but I still wanted him to admit I had a better shot than him. I just wanted to win for once.
“’Member, don’t touch anything,” my father said as we pulled into the antique shop.
I nodded, continuing our tradition of corresponding with as few words as possible.
Bill’s was a little antique shop filled with “treasures from around the world.” Some of these included a tiny cloth Chinese doll I had received for my birthday and a tin box with the words “Boston Beans” printed on top in blue, which my mother used to keep her powder blush and perfume in.
Of all the times we had stopped at Bill’s, I didn’t think my father had ever bought anything for himself. The real fun for him was to talk to his old-time friend over a rum-n-coke, discussing politics or on a relaxing day, baseball. But no matter how much my father disagreed with Bill, he never yelled at him, like he did at other people who didn’t share his opinions. I was always amazed at how calm they both kept, Dad with his drink and Bill polishing a china plate or jade Buddha statue.
This time when we walked in, Bill had his glasses on, a screwdriver sticking out of his apron pocket. He held what looked like a cross between a sewing machine and a tiny tractor built for a chipmunk or bunny rabbit.
“Afternoon, Smith,” he nodded to my father.
“Bill,” my father nodded back, the usual start to their conversations. I wandered around the shop, leaving my father to talk freely with his friend. He didn’t censor his language much around me at home, but I could tell Bill felt more comfortable talking about LBJ and Russia and the new teacher at Jackson Elementary without me around.
“I went on my rounds this morning,” I heard Bill say, a little louder than the rest of his conversation. Bill was the town’s Nature Man, everyone’s nickname for him when he roamed the fields and pond to make sure everything was as it should be.
“The swan’s gone.” Bill kept tinkering with his sewing machine-mouse tractor but my father looked up from his drink.
“Is that so?”
“Yup. I’m going to check it out again later, but I thought I saw her body in the little cove, behind the logs. It’s too bad, I thought she had a few more years to live.” He continued twisting one of the wheels as my father returned to sipping his drink, but I walked quickly to the barstools at the front of the store where my father was sitting. My heart was racing and I suddenly felt like I had made a huge mistake.
Now I wanted Randy to be right. It should’ve been a fowl; it shouldn’t have counted. I used a rock, not a stick or chestnut or acorn or shell, and it clearly stated in the rules that rocks weren’t allowed…
Randy had to still see it my way, he had to agree that I wasn’t the one who caused the swan to disappear behind the reeds and never come out again.
“Are you sure it’s dead?” I whispered, and to my surprise Bill and my father both looked at me.
“Dead or sick, she ain’t coming back,” Bill replied, picking up the screwdriver again and hankering with the wheel. “A sick or injured swan in this town don’t have many high hopes of getting better.”
I saw my father watching me from his barstool at the old diner counter and I could tell that he knew. I didn’t know what he would do next. Yell and throw me out of the store? Never allow me to see Randy again?
But my father just took a sip of his rum-n-coke and looked back at Bill.
“I say good riddance,” my father leaned back and crossed his feet on the adjacent barstool. “This town is better off without that bitch.”
When I got home I turned on the TV.
I sorted through an Ed Sullivan rerun, The Andy Griffith Show, and Burke’s Law before landing on Forests and Jungles. Today Hunter Willie was following a grizzly through Alaska, a giant fur parka pulled around his face as he spoke to the camera.
“Grizzlies mainly eat berries, fish, and dead animals, but they can get feisty when protecting their young,” Willie said to the camera, commentating on his every step.
Hunter Willie plans his descent toward the bear and toward victory.
Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to watch the show anymore; I didn’t want to think about losing another living being in the world. I got up and switched off the set, making my way back out the front door. My father watched me from the corner of his newspaper but didn’t say anything. He had a way of knowing what I was going to do before I even knew myself.
I found myself lifting my bike from the front yard, heading across the field, up and down the hill, through the grass, and to the pond. I didn’t realize my final destination until I was there, sitting on the rock, scratching at its moss with my fingernail. It was quiet except for the wind in the grasses and a few bullfrogs making their hollow, throaty noises.
The sound of Randy’s tennis shoes in the grass startled me, but then I realized I had actually expected him to be there first.
We sat in silence for a minute, then he started working away on his own patch of moss, bit by bit. He paused, his finger bent to the underside of the patch, a tiny tug away from being removed.
“She’s gone,” he whispered, his knees bent close to his chest and his eyes staring down at the moss.
He didn’t look at me but I nodded anyway, not feeling brave enough for a vocal response.
Randy continued scratching until his patch of moss was in bits on the grass and the rock was displaying a new bald spot, dark from the moist fungus and lack of sun exposure.
“Let’s just catch fireflies tonight,” he said, pushing off the rock and heading toward his bike.
“Okay,” I said, watching him mount the bike and push off from the ground with his left foot a couple times.
“See ya,” he called over his shoulder once he got to the grass tunnel. I could tell he didn’t want to cry in front of me, and I was fine with that. I didn’t want him to see me cry, either.
Elizabeth MacLean is a 19-year-old aspiring writer from Stratham, New Hampshire. She received the Elizabeth O’Neil Writing Award and multiple Merrill Awards for her short stories. She is an editor for the University of Tampa’s Honors Journal and enjoys sharing her work and connecting with other young writers.