Jamie’s been living in the disused Maersk shipping container next to the harbor for two days when he spots the paddle boards. It’s the hottest week of the summer, maybe the hottest week ever. The air inside the shipping container is close, dense, filled with swarms of invisible bugs. Jamie wakes up scratching. Blood seeps under his fingernails. It smells like a cheap metal ring he once found on the ground at the carnival Phoebe took him to, a gold circle pressed into the dirt that had turned his finger green. Phoebe told him that when the copper on the state house dome rusted, they repainted it gray instead of removing the rust. Later they covered it in gold leaf. Leaf, like on a tree. The taste of blood on Jamie’s fingers makes his mouth water. He hasn’t eaten anything since two bites of pizza Wednesday night. Stupid to toss the rest away when Dennis shouted at him.
Late in the day he walks to the edge of the water. Its gray surface boils with tiny thrashing fish, like the minnows Dad taught him to scoop with his net. Birds circle above the water, flapping and squawking. Now and then one dives for a fish. Black and white birds with split tail feathers. Terns, Phoebe said, you remember them from when Mom and Dad took us to Plum Island. Once you said you thought you could sit all day and watch the waves break. But five seconds later you started running around again.
The waves roll in and roll in and roll in, never stop. No one’s missing him. His mother thinks he’s at the Center getting his meds adjusted, Phoebe thinks he’s at his mother’s, and the Center isn’t expecting him until the eighteenth. He feels weightless, insubstantial as a shadow. The paddle boards lie just beyond a fence that runs down into the water. Jamie strips off his pants and shirt, wades around the fence and pulls a board from the pile. He rolls up his clothes and pushes the bundle under a crisscross of ropes at the back of the board. He doesn’t see any of the oddly bent paddles kids use when they stand up on the boards. But he’s strong, he won’t need one. He carries the board to the edge of the water, hops on and leaves the shore behind.
The boats in the harbor all face the same way, like kids at desks in school, like cows in a field. The boats face the water tower painted in colorful swirls that he can see from his bedroom window after the leaves fall. One boat has a light on inside that makes him think of coming home from school on dark afternoons to his warm apartment, Phoebe doing her homework at the kitchen table.
A breeze comes up as the light fades. Boats float near him and away again. One motors by and the paddle board bucks in its wake as if it’s alive. He grabs the sides, hangs on through a series of waves. The front of the board hits something hard. A dark silhouette looms, the letters ERWORL painted on its side. A wave hits the board and his clothes slosh off, float out of reach, and sink. He climbs up a small ladder hanging off the back, if it’s called back, and pulls the board up behind him. He makes out in the dim light a wheel, mast, boom, seats, coils of rope. He pulls open a small door and pitches down into pure black dark.
He lands on his hands and knees. Light from the moon shines in on him. He’s in a small room with some seats and shelves of books and maps. Here are the three steps he missed. Beyond is a room with a bed and more shelves. He sleeps on the bed. The boat bobs and rocks all night.
He wakes at first light, mouth so dry his head hurts. His knees ache, his hands are scraped raw. He rummages through the shelves, puts on a man’s turquoise shirt and loose blue pants. In the cabin are a table, benches, pillow with the word Otherworld in navy blue thread, a small empty fridge. Shelves hold canned fish, tins of this and that, box of rice, franks and beans. He turns the tap at the sink. No luck. He finds a pump. It’s not working, but he’ll fix it. He can fix anything. He’ll fix the pump, then he’ll start the engine and motor away from here. Raise the sails. Didn’t he sail once with Dad at Plum Island?
He pulls a thin curtain. Shower head, tiny toilet. Another room with a bed. What are rooms called? Boats have their own language. In his grandmother’s house there was something she called a piano that they threw their coats on. It didn’t have keys. Why did they call it a piano, when it was only the old shell of one?
In the front bedroom, if it’s called front, a stuffed blue cat sits among a small boy’s toys. A child lives here.
He goes up the three steps to the deck. Black birds dry their wings on wires strung along the shore. He watches which birds leave, which stay, how they move their wings. Light gleams on the water so hard his head hurts. He sees the beach where he set off from. Now he doesn’t know why he left.
The board is gone from where he had pulled it up last night on the back of the boat. The waves must have carried it away. He’ll have to swim back to shore. But he can’t. Dad tried to teach him at a lake one day when Mom said Get those kids out of here. She was sick that day. There had been blood, a lost child, the third one of them, now gone. At the lake, Dad jumps off the dock. Feebs does a back flip. Jump in, Dad tells him. I can’t, he says. Come on, says Feebs. It’s fun. She’s ten and swims like a fish. No can do, he tells her. She lifts up her hands to catch him. A voice in his head says Don’t do it, don’t jump. They leave him on shore and swim far out.
He finds ropes, wires, fiddles with the pump, the engine. He finds a bowl, leans over the edge, fills it with water, cools his hands, splashes his face. He winds rope around the bowl, everything has meaning, everything is something else, he makes a scene, here is the lake, here the lakeshore, from far out Dad and Phoebe swim back to him.
Down the three steps to the small room, he pull things from the shelves. Cans and boxes of food, mismatched dishes. He looks for food, drugs, wine, beer, something. He needs his meds. Hands reach out to him, not Phoebe’s this time, but the hands at the Center where he gets his meds. The hands hold a cup. He drinks, the pills go down. The meds help for a time, then they don’t.
Far on the back of a shelf, he finds milk in a box. Milk for the boy. He drinks it.
White taste. Smell of cardboard.
He sleeps again, this time on deck. That night his skin is red, burnt. He’s made a mess of the boat. He drinks more milk, pisses off the back of the boat. There’s no one to see him, no one here. A lone black bird flies low, swoops up to join the rest on the wire.
He stares at his raw hands, thinks of Feebs’ hands. She deals cards for old maids, combs his hair, ties his shoes, plays pat-a-cake, miss mary mac all dressed in black with silver buttons buttons buttons.
In the main room, if it’s called room, a spider weaves a web. Airy, complex home, intricate as veins in a leaf, as stars in the sky. How did a spider come to be on the boat? A shelf of trucks, small round wood cylinders with round tops, blocks, a mat with roads drawn on it. He sets a truck on the mat, adds two wood men, sets blocks one on top of another: it’s the building, unfinished, next to it is the blast site. Dad dead one day on his break, asleep in the back seat, didn’t move his truck while they blasted rocks at him. Dennis, his friend, pulled him out, too late. Jamie’s mother was still waiting for the settlement. Dennis came around a lot after the accident to help out, then moved into his mother’s bedroom. Dennis came to Jamie’s apartment, opened his mail, his private mail that was his own to open or not, yelled, moved him back to his mother’s, into his old bedroom under the eaves. What’s that word, Mama? he asked when they moved in. He was seven. Like Christmas Eve? He liked the sound of it. Eaves were a spell, the magic sequence of thoughts he lived under.
Dennis tells his mother thought you said he had a job, was doing well. Jamie did have job, at Home Depot, he was sick a couple of days, they let him go, he had roommate too, friend from Center, roommate moved out, stopped paying rent. Dennis had old trailer, thought perfect for Jamie. Phoebe had good job, small house, said Dennis could park trailer in driveway, she would fix up for Jamie, he could move in when fixed up. Phoebe had boyfriend she lived with, Casey. Casey moved out when trailer came. Phoebe alone. House small, she said, trailer better for you, your own space. Feebs cups her hands to create this space. The hands at the Center, offering his meds. Dennis’ hand, tightened into a fist.
He blinks down at the scene he’s made, sweeps it away. Clatter of wood on the floor. If it’s called floor. Sweeps away the spider web with it. The spider escapes, dropping down on an invisible thread.
Dad’s accident divides his life in two. Before it, he was reading the news on his phone. After he couldn’t imagine how that interested him. Before he was looking forward to going to dinner at Mom and Dad’s that night. After he couldn’t imagine eating again. Before he got up and went to work every day, took his meds. After he didn’t go to work, let his meds slip through his fingers.
It wasn’t like that, Phoebe says.
Before you were a little nuts already. Remember fourth grade, remember Joey?
That kid I took on?
He took you on, is how I’d put it.
Remember when you took me to the carnival and we rode the Ferris wheel? he says. It was where he found the ring. He doesn’t remember now why he was thinking about the ring.
Phoebe says, Dad told me to take you.
Night, alive with sound. Lights come on, faraway dots that break up the dark. Crickets buzz on shore. Mosquitos pester his ears. Gulls call out to each other. Rhythmic clap of ropes. Shush of water on hull. The sky is too big, the earth floats inside a great balloon, the stars pinpricks in the balloon.
One sound separates itself. Motor roar, wavering light bouncing on the waves. Phoebe has come for him. She’ll reach out her hands. She’ll guide him into the boat, carry him to shore, give him water and food, salve for his skin. She’ll say, Why do you look so sad?
The boat glides past. Music and laughter drift away. The wake rocks Otherworld.
Day three dawns yellow. Yellow sky at night. Yellow sky at morning. The milk is gone. He’s eaten all the tins. Salty fishes and smoked oysters. Pimentos and tiny pickles. Capers like tiny pine seeds. The boat smells of rot, of shit. He feels wrung out, an old sponge. He lifts benches, finds a sheet of canvas, goes up the three steps and rigs it over the back of the boat for shade. He goes to the boy’s room, fetches the blue cat, ties it with rope by the ear to the end of the room. The day drifts by. No one comes. No one but birds. One perches on the cabin roof, if it’s called roof.
What are you doing? Phoebe says.
I’m waiting for a clean sunset. Then I can leave.
What’s a clean sunset?
When the sun drops into the horizon instead of into clouds first.
Tonight there are gray smudges of cloud above the distant hills. Phoebe turns and looks. He tries to keep watching the sun sink, but his eyes catch on birds gliding just above the water. He points. See those birds? What are they?
I don’t know, Phoebe says.
You always know everything.
No, I don’t, Jamie. I don’t know everything. I don’t want to be the one who knows everything. Stop worshiping me. I can’t help you anymore.
You’re letting me live in the trailer.
Mom asked me to.
Oh. He starts humming.
Don’t do that, she says.
Start humming when you don’t want to talk about something.
Why can’t I?
It bugs me.
He stops humming. What else bugs you? he says.
Christ Jamie, don’t even ask.
The sun disappears into low clouds, the light fades quickly. Dennis was going to hit me. For taking a slice of pizza. Like it had his name on it.
We all want to hit something sometimes, Jamie.
Darkness falling. He can hardly see her.
You can move in next week, after the Center. When you’re feeling better.
Feeling better. Feeling a little off. The way they talk about what’s wrong with him. Jamie’s not feeling well, his mother tells his friends and teachers and aunt when he doesn’t come out of his room for days. Feeling better? she asks him when he comes out.
The air around him moves. The bird is gone.
The harbor is rough. Waves crash on the shore. The boats face the open sea. He sees the light skipping on the waves before he hears the engine. The boat comes up alongside. A man ties the two boats together with ropes. Bright lights blind him. He calls out: Phoebe? A woman answers: Jamie? Then a man’s voice: Jump in. You can do it. Hands reach out to him. Phoebe’s hands. He reaches out his own hands.
Silver gleam in the hands. Too late, he pulls his arms back. Solid click. Cold metal around his wrists. A wave rolls in, tilts the two boats, pulls them apart. The man lets go for an instant, and in that instant Jamie soars, up and away.
The cool slap of the water. He floats, weightless, for one glorious moment. Then he’s sinking, down down down, into the cool of the deep where the fishes swim, where there are no more hands to reach out to him.
He wakes on a hard bench, shivering in the man’s damp clothes. Drunk guy yelling. Guy yelling at drunk guy yelling. Guard yelling at guy yelling at drunk guy. Guard sticks cup in Jamie’s hand. Dark liquid. Coffee.
Can I have something else? He doesn’t drink coffee. Hates coffee.
This ain’t the Ritz. Hands him a wrapped thing. Smell of grease and egg. He eats it. Drinks the coffee. Taste of warm styrofoam.
Phoebe is back.
I bailed you out. Mom told me to.
They walk down the sidewalk. Glittery pavement. Jamie’s hands shake. Phoebe passes him her water bottle. He drinks, swallows. What about work? he says. Shouldn’t you be at work?
He’s lost track. His head feels funny, his ears buzz. He was underwater too long. Or maybe it’s the coffee.
La de da, Phoebe says. Jamie living the high life on a yacht.
It wasn’t like that, he says. Who called the cops? Dennis?
Someone on another boat. Phoebe reaches into her purse. Here. Her hand opens. Three pills. He swallows them.
They reach her car, orange Mazda, rust spots painted over in white. An unshaven man approaches, dressed in sweatpants, dark shiny jacket. Smell of urine, stringy hair. He mumbles some words. Jamie looks around to see who he’s talking to. No one there.
The man lurches into Feebs. Jamie takes her arm, pulls her away.
I don’t want you to be like that guy, says Phoebe. Opens the car door.
A memory: one day before school Phoebe pulling off his hat, his jacket. Take those off, she says. It’s hot out. Too hot for a jacket.
I’m not that guy, he says, sliding into the car. He lets down his window, lets out trapped air.
Phoebe joins the traffic moving along the street. The wind rushes past his ears. Phoebe is talking again and he hears Mom meds Dennis but the words don’t make sense. He catches a phrase: sell the trailer to pay your fine. He asks: Where’re we going?
I can’t move back in with Mom. Not with Dennis there.
Dennis isn’t going anywhere. He won’t hurt you. And he’s good for Mom.
I miss Dad.
I miss him too. She brakes at the light, puts her blinker on. Dad was a drunk.
It wasn’t his fault.
I’m just saying we’re better off.
If it’s called better.
Jamie wakes at midday tangled in sweaty sheets. He’s in his old room under the eaves, his bed steady, not tossing in waves. He pulls on jeans, a sweatshirt. In the kitchen, he turns on the faucet, wiggles his finger in the running water, splashes some on his face, fills a jelly glass.
Small pink tablet. Darker pink hexagon, flat, its edges precise. Blue oblong. He swallows, opens the refrigerator, with the palm of his hand touches the cold: beer bottle, carton of milk, apple, tub of sour cream, an egg. He carries the egg down the stairs, sits on the bottom step, cracks it on the step’s worn wooden edge. Squats on the pavement, pries apart the two halves. Colorless goo slides through his fingers. The yoke slips out whole.
The sky is better today, smaller. The edges of the egg turn white on the hot pavement. People stream by on the sidewalk, step around him, send him bits of talk: a man she met at a party … pushed ahead of me in line … he was there for three days before anyone noticed …
The white spreads to the center, shiny and opaque. The yoke, yellow sun, solidifies, a round gold dome surrounded by a sea of white: a clean fry. He arranges sticks and rocks around it. A clean sunset, if it’s called clean if it’s called sunset.