Otto dipped the oars just below the surface, pulling farther away from the cabin his family had rented for the summer. The flat-bottomed boat rode over the small waves. Fir, oak, and hickory grew from the silt and rocks at the water’s edge. Aside from a few homes and summer rentals scattered among the low hills, he was alone for the moment. His older sister Meg didn’t care about the boat, and he’d learned faster for having it to himself, his blisters already turning into callouses.
As he drew closer to Correctional Facility Bass Lake, Otto could see twenty or so prisoners out in their yellow skiffs. A guard sat in a plastic chair on the shore with binoculars to make sure everyone stayed within the boundaries – about half a mile along the shore and a quarter mile out – marked by a string of yellow and red bobbers. A few inmates hung fishing lines over the sides of their boats, but most just floated around, chatting.
Raban fished away from the others at the southern end of the boundary, where a creek five feet wide joined the lake and Otto could use the spit of the cove to stay out of sight from the guard and other prisoners. Raban insisted that the fresh flow of water drew fish and caught walleye, perch, or bass each day.
Raban had a stocky build and shoulder-length white hair and knew how to hunt and survive in the wild. Otto had met Raban one of his first days learning to row. He’d made it a mile and a half up the eastern rim of the lake – pretty good for a twelve-year-old, he’d thought – and was about to turn around when he’d seen the little yellow boats. He’d paddled closer, and Raban had called out asking if Otto had extra fishing line, which he did, in a way. He’d found a rod in a shed behind the cabin and only realized the reel was broken after he got onto the water. Not knowing Raban was a prisoner, Otto had rowed up to the bobbers and handed Raban the rod, saying, “It’s broken, so take what you want. I don’t know how to use it anyway.”
While Raban removed the line from the broken rod, he told Otto about himself as a young man when he had traveled through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Manitoba doing handyman jobs and living in the backcountry in the warmer months. He showed Otto where frostbite had cost him two toes on a late March afternoon when a black bear tore through his tent and sleeping bag for a packet of dried venison. Raban had found the mess when he returned to camp that night. It was too cold to sleep without the down bag and he’d had to hike eleven miles out in the dark, accidentally stepping in a creek on the way. He had no way of drying the boot and sock. The doctor told him he was lucky it was only two toes gone and not the whole foot. Otto watched Raban’s scarred hands and pockmarked face and tried to remember every detail. He’d never met anyone with missing toes before.
With the newly transferred line, Raban had landed a smallmouth bass that fought him for five minutes, once even jumping out of the water. He pulled it up right as the guard sounded three blasts on the air horn. Time to come in. The fish thrashed in the net. Its scales shifted from brown to green to silver in the sunlight, and to Otto the landing net seemed to hold something that was more force than animal. Raban pulled out the hook and handed the fish to Otto. Its eyes bulged and its body rippled in his hands, as if he were holding somebody’s leg muscle.
“Now put him back,” Raban said. “If he doesn’t swim right away, hold him a minute.”
Otto leaned over the water and watched through the reflection of his face as the bass twitched and swam off. Even though Raban had caught it, giving the fish its freedom again made his skin prickle. He’d returned the following day with more fishing gear. Gear in exchange for stories. Raban hadn’t encouraged Otto’s visits, and there were still times when he pushed Otto away. But on the good days Raban seemed to pull him in close, schooling him in survival tactics and tales from the bush, and those kept Otto coming back. It hadn’t taken him long to run out of gear, but Raban still let him come for the four days he was allowed on the water each week.
Otto had been visiting Raban for three weeks when one night at dinner his mom told him to steer clear of the eastern half of the lake because the government saw fit to let convicts, possibly even serial killers, out on the water to do as they pleased. She’d had a couple extra spritzers at dinner because Otto’s dad was still at work. He spent more time at the office than with his family. Otto had heard his mom say that to a friend on the phone. Otto hadn’t told anyone about Raban. He’d realized by the end of his second visit that Raban was some kind of prisoner. He promised his mom he’d row in the opposite direction of CFBL. Even as he said it, he knew it was a lie, but no one ever saw him except Raban.
Meg rolled her eyes. “It’s a minimum security joint. They’re nonviolent offenders and con artists who were too dumb to skip town. They probably don’t even make grabs for each other in the showers.” Their mom told Meg to watch her language; Meg called her a sanctimonious bitch; Otto took his plate onto the porch and finished his dinner outside. Raban had never actually told him CFBL was a prison. He seemed to assume Otto already knew. Otto didn’t mind it now, but he’d been upset when he’d first figured it out. He hadn’t liked feeling that he didn’t know who Raban was.
“How’re your hands?” Raban asked Otto.
Otto stowed the oars as Raban had taught him and held them out. His palms had turned white and hardened into ridges of dry, dead skin, except for one lingering blister on his left hand. Raban poked it approvingly. “The last one,” he said. “Hands of a fisherman.”
Otto bit his cheek to hide a smile; Raban was in a good mood. Sure enough, he launched into a story about poaching elk in Kittson County, Minnesota. As he talked, he reeled in the line, making the freckles and faded, blue tattoos on his forearms ripple. “Do you know the hardest part of hunting elk?” he asked.
Otto shook his head. He loved these stories. They had adventure, but they were real. He had only to look at Raban’s khaki uniform and calloused fingers on the line or the lake and forest around them to remember that. They were what he told himself when he heard ice clinking in his mom’s glass or watched his dad re-draft the same page of notes for his boss. They were reminders of things he’d never seen firsthand – the crooked curve of a moose jawbone in his palm, the waving tips of cattails as a mouse burrowed under their roots, the wild careening of a lone bank swallow over a marsh at dusk. The sunlight flicked along the backs of the waves, and occasionally his boat and Raban’s knocked together, the little line of buoys bobbing on the surface between them. Raban passed him the rod and repositioned his boat so he could keep an eye on the entrance to the cove – a precaution against other prisoners. He’d told Otto that if anyone ever found them, Otto should row away and not come back. Otto knew Raban didn’t really think this would happen, but it was exciting to believe it could.
“Butchering it,” Raban said. “Your lower back will go into spasms if you don’t take breaks. The first time you do it, it’ll get to you. Don’t let anyone tell you it won’t.”
“Does it get better over time?” Otto asked.
“You learn not to think about it. It’s a worthwhile skill, feeding yourself and not having to depend on others. A kind of freedom. Still, you have to know what you can handle.”
Otto wondered if he could ever get used to cutting something up like that. A fish maybe, but he wasn’t so sure about an animal that was bigger, possibly older, than him.
He’d finally told Meg about Raban the night before. It had taken a lot of work to convince her Raban wasn’t molesting him or planning to use him as a hostage in an escape. But the one question he couldn’t answer was why Raban was in prison. Otto didn’t think Raban had hurt anyone, but he could see Raban placing himself at risk robbing small town banks or breaking into rich people’s homes. Something where he used his survival skills to slip in and out.
Otto glanced at Raban, wondering if he’d get an answer. “What did you get busted for?” he asked.
The furrows in Raban’s cheeks stirred, contracting with darting, animal quickness. He tipped his head forward, and a band of shade fell across his eyes. “I told this woman I’d invest her money in a high-risk deal I had an inside tip on.”
Otto pressed his lips together and looked down at his hands. He’d wanted it to be more exciting. Not about a woman. “You cheated her?” he asked.
“I’m not a swindler,” Raban said quickly. “Sometimes you don’t have a choice.”
Otto mulled this over and decided that Raban could have committed other, more dangerous crimes and just not gotten caught for them, though he doubted Raban would tell him. “I guess Bass Lake is for nonviolent offenders,” he said, thinking how Meg had put it.
“That was the idea,” Raban said. “Because of overcrowding, they’ve been sending down guys who should be elsewhere. Supposedly just people with good behavior records, but that’s clearly a load of shit.”
Otto didn’t know what ‘sending down’ meant, but he thought ‘overcrowding’ would mean Raban had to share his cell with other people, roommates. Either way, it would have been better if Raban had committed a violent crime. Otto wouldn’t have minded. He only cared that Raban wasn’t violent toward him.
“When’re you getting that fly rod your Pops promised you?” Raban asked.
“One week exactly,” Otto said. “My birthday.” He wished his dad understood more about fishing so Otto wouldn’t have to thank him for a gift that didn’t mean anything to him.
“That’s a good present for a young man. Once you learn to fish…” Raban shook his head and began paddling for the guard on the shore.
Otto’s mom propped open a window with a log meant for the fire and stood chopping carrots, slices occasionally rolling onto the red Formica countertop or the floor. She wore cut-off jean shorts and a T-shirt. In the beginning of the summer, she would revert to pleated khakis and collared tops – what Otto thought of as her town clothes – on the weekends, but tonight she cooked in bare feet, her auburn hair hanging long and loose down her back.
Otto’s dad sat in the next room with papers on his lap. At intervals, he would go into the kitchen. He’d look at his wife and rake his fingers through his short hair or run some water into a glass, drink a few sips, then rinse the glass and place it back on the drying rack.
“Just take a cup with you,” she said, but each time he returned it to the rack.
Otto flipped through Guardians of the Galaxy. He’d stopped following the series though his dad remembered to bring each magazine as it came out. Otto wished he wouldn’t. The exchange was always awkward. He could tell by the way his dad hovered that he wanted to talk, but what came out were questions about Otto’s mom. Still, Otto always made a show of reading if his dad was around.
Last week, after another strained conversation with his dad, Otto had asked Raban how old his kids were. Raban held still for so long Otto thought his question would be ignored. Then he said, “I had a daughter but only for a month. Crib death. You never find out why it happens. It just does.” Raban went quiet, and Otto suddenly felt shy. He hadn’t realized how much of a gap could exist between him and someone else. Raban had rowed in early. The next day he was back to telling stories that, Otto noticed for the first time, never had people in them, except in passing. Raban rarely talked about crime. Instead, he taught Otto things. Otto pictured Raban going to bed in a crowded cell after a grease-clogged dinner. He couldn’t imagine his dad living like that.
Otto’s mom told him to set the table even though Meg wasn’t back from town yet. His dad put aside his papers and asked when Meg would be home. Otto rolled his eyes and tried to tune it out. Most of their fights started like this. His dad would be in a bad mood from something else and then anything his mom said was fair game.
One night last year his mom left his dad’s dinner at the end of the driveway. His dad didn’t pay enough attention coming home and ran over the plate and Meg’s cat that was eating from it. Meg had cried, and for a month after both parents spoke politely to each other. Otto thought they were done fighting, but then everything unraveled worse than before. Otto picked up a plate.
“Not until Meg joins us.” Cheeks flushed, his dad took the plate from Otto and stacked it with the others on the counter. His face was so earnest Otto had to hold back a smirk. His dad didn’t seem to realize no one else took the family dinners seriously anymore.
His mom usually won these skirmishes, but sometimes his dad would snap. He wouldn’t yell but he’d suddenly be across the room, faster than anyone had thought possible, and he’d throw something – a book, a pot of peas – with a violence that made him seem a different person. These sudden rushes of anger scared Otto, and until a few months ago they could make him cry.
“You need to pay more attention,” his dad said. “You didn’t find out about that prison until you got here and you still let Otto go out on the lake alone.”
“Says the man who buys him new fish stuff!” Otto’s mom pulled an ice cube tray from the freezer and slammed it against the countertop. “The lake is eight miles around and he goes the other way. I asked in town and no one’s ever heard of a prisoner escaping or hurting a boater.”
“Well he doesn’t need to go out of sight in the boat.” His dad looked at him. “You can fish from the shore. It’s safer.”
Otto thought of how Raban would say it. “I need to move to the fish. I can’t just call them up and ask them over.”
“You don’t have to take everything fun away from him, Frank,” his mom said.
The flush had spread to his dad’s ears – a bad sign.
Otto’s mom nudged him toward the stack of plates, but his dad grabbed her wrist. She pulled back, twisting her arm in his grasp. It slipped out before Otto registered what he was saying. “Asshole.”
His dad’s clean, close-clipped nails turned white at the tips. Otto saw the hand jumping away from his mom, reaching for him. To do what, he wasn’t sure, but he wanted it to happen.
“Otto,” his dad said quietly. “Go to your room. Now.”
Otto felt a sudden space in his gut, like he was walking down stairs and missed a step.
Otto’s bedroom was on the second floor, wedged between his parents’ room and the bathroom. Meg had the attic. Otto knocked on the door at the base of the stairs. She rolled her eyes but let him in. A towel sat on the bottom step, and he grabbed it as he headed upstairs.
“Leave it.” Meg stretched it out and jammed it against the base of the door with her foot. “If you tattle, I’ll shave off your eyebrows while you’re asleep. They don’t always grow back.”
“Tattle about what?” Otto asked.
Meg smiled and squeezed his arm. “Really? You’ll be thirteen soon.”
They leaned out the westward window and passed the joint back and forth, though after a while Meg kept it to herself. The sun had set, but it wasn’t quite dark and they gazed over the tops of the trees, squinting to see the glimmer of the lake in the blue light.
“God,” Meg said after a while. “I wish Frank would unpucker his asshole for long enough to see why everything here is so good.”
“He does kind of see out of his ass.” Otto felt loose and dippy, like everything was hiding something funny and he just had to poke at it to find the joke.
Meg yelped with laughter. “Man, he’d flip if he heard you say that. That’s their problem. They don’t want us to change.”
“It’s more than that.” Otto tried to focus. “Dad gives Mom a hard time.”
“She gives it right back to him. She’s just smart enough to wait until we aren’t around.”
“She sticks up for us.” Otto didn’t know why he was defending her. He’d always gotten along better with his dad.
“I’ll give you that. She’ll let us do anything.” Meg grinned and arched an eyebrow. “I go out every night Frank’s gone and she doesn’t care as long as I’m home by twelve.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Otto asked.
Meg smiled. “I’m seeing a couple guys. It’s more fun that way. But I have a favorite.”
Otto remembered they were talking about their parents. “Do you think they’ll get a divorce?”
“Probably. Nancy would get the house, so you’d still go to school with your friends.”
Otto could see his dad driving off alone – exiled – the rear of the green Ford Escort bumping as it turned out of the driveway. “But what would Dad, I mean Frank, do at dinner?”
“He’s brought it on himself,” Meg snapped.
Otto flinched. He used to look for similarities between himself and his dad – how much they laughed for friends who could spin out jokes, how comfortable they felt when other people used familiar codes of conduct – and he used to watch for people’s reactions to his dad as a way to learn about himself. His thoughts moved slowly. “You hate him.”
Meg stubbed out the joint. “I don’t like either of them. You won’t either once you understand how selfish they are.”
Raban didn’t look up until Otto bumped into his boat. “The young fisherman returns.” He smiled despite a split lip. “Don’t worry,” he continued before Otto could ask. “Jeb’s just a little guy. Crazy but thin as a matchstick. I won the fight.”
Up close, the scabs and swelling on Raban’s face made Otto queasy, but he kept peeking at them. He thought for his parents to go at it the way they did, they couldn’t love each other anymore. Meg was probably right about the divorce. “Did you love the woman whose money you took?” he asked.
“I told her I’d get restless.”
Otto wondered if Raban was lying to him by not saying no or by not saying yes. “She didn’t believe you,” he prompted.
“People see what they want. You need someone who will let you do your own thing when you need to.”
Everything Raban said sounded straight and simple, but Otto didn’t know enough to go off alone. He was trying to get there though. He’d come up with a plan for next summer.
“My dad doesn’t love my mom.” Otto knew Raban couldn’t fix anything, but he needed Raban to know. “We’re here to get some time away from him.” His voice went up as he said it. He hadn’t meant to exaggerate.
“Does he hurt her?” Raban asked after a minute.
“Yes,” Otto said. “I mean, no.” He blushed. “He doesn’t beat her up.”
Raban rolled his shoulders. “Sometimes you’re too far in to know how much you care. Other times a little space can make you see how badly you need out.”
Otto tried to hand Raban the rod, but Raban gestured for him to keep it. Otto wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear Raban say. “My dad’s an asshole,” he tried again.
“It’s a lot, raising a kid. At one time I thought I’d be good at it. Now I’m not so sure.” Raban broke off as Otto’s line jerked.
Otto wanted to ask when Raban would be getting out. It could be next summer. Otto would have a year to prepare: looking up plants, learning knots. He’d have to word it carefully, but he could see them together in the bush, eating berries and stalking elk. Falling asleep under their tarps to the night sounds of the North Woods. In the mornings they’d wake to find fresh bear tracks along the edge of camp. He wouldn’t tell his family. He’d just have to go, and maybe later they’d understand he was capable. When he thought about what had been important to him before this summer, he saw how close he’d come to ending up like his dad.
Raban was frowning and Otto focused on the fish. He reeled it in, grinning at its gentle, insistent tugs. He could tell it wasn’t a bass. Raban watched him but didn’t say anything. He’d stopped calling out advice as Otto worked, waiting until after to give a few brief pointers.
Otto held the fish as he eased out the hook, its sides a deep dandelion yellow with gray-green stripes running down them. He passed the fish to Raban, who said, “Your first perch. You had one before?”
“No,” Otto said.
Raban flipped the fish upside down and cracked its head against the gunwale. “Perch is the tastiest panfish around,” he said and held it out to Otto. “Remember how to clean it?”
Otto looked at the fish in his hands, maybe seven or eight inches long. He’d never thought about catching a meal for his family. Of course Raban made it happen. “Yes.”
“Good,” Raban said. “Cut into the flesh to remove the fins. You don’t want to bite down on even a small piece of that.”
Rowing home, Otto wondered if Raban had stunned the perch, so it wouldn’t know it was suffocating, or killed it. At the cabin, he collected newspaper, knives, and kitchen scissors. He ran a hose around the side of the building, where there weren’t any windows. He didn’t want anyone supervising; he wanted to surprise them with it – clean and ready for the pan.
Otto let his fingers brush the dorsal fins once before holding the perch belly-up in his palm and sliding one of the scissor blades into the anus. He cut up to its throat, raked the guts out with his fingers, and hosed it down. Taking the head off was harder. Twice the knife punched through the paper and slid into the ground. When he finished, it looked like he’d tried to go through the neck with a saw. Dirt stuck to the ragged ends of flesh. He hosed it down again and trimmed off the fins and tail.
“Oh, honey,” his mom said when he showed it to her. She sat on the porch, her book in her lap, half a sandwich on a plate by her feet. “We can’t cook that. We don’t know what kind of fish it is. It could make us sick.”
“It’s a yellow perch,” Otto said, annoyed. “They’re really good.”
“You’ve never had one.”
His dad came out from the front room, holding a pen without the cap. “I doubt it’s poisonous, but we don’t know how polluted that lake water is.”
Otto pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth in frustration. “Of course you can eat the fish,” he snapped.
His dad’s fingers tightened around the pen. “Watch it, Otto.”
“Lighten up, Frank” his mom said. “If other people fish here, then I’m sure it’s fine.”
“He isn’t supposed to be taking that boat out of sight. We both agreed on that.” His dad’s arms were clamped against his chest.
The back of Otto’s throat quivered. His dad could be so blind to what mattered. He wanted to run at him and knock him into the porch railing.
“It was sweet of him to bring home something to share,” his mom said. “You don’t need to make such a big deal over it. Here, Otto.” She reached out for the perch. Otto had been holding the fish with both hands to keep the ends from flopping. He stretched his half-cupped palms toward her. She was still watching his dad and her hand hovered in the air above the fish without actually taking it. “Nobody can love a tyrant,” she said.
Otto’s dad lurched forward and tried to slap her hand aside. He missed and grazed her fingers. Otto closed his hands around the fish and held it to his belly, but his dad pulled it away from him and marched to the porch railing. The perch flew into the trees, rotating in circles like a tossed pizza dough.
“How’s that for a tyrant?” his dad called.
Otto didn’t want to see his dad or have to speak to him and call him “Dad.” He didn’t want to address him as anything. He walked off the porch and into the woods.
The fish had landed in a bramble bush. By the time he got it out, the flesh was torn and spattered with dirt. He threw it back for some forest critter to eat.
It poured for the next couple days. Meg disappeared with her friends and Otto practiced tying flies. They looked like crap. He tried to read but felt too restless and frustrated.
“Maybe this rain’s a good thing,” his mom said. “School will be starting up soon and you’ll need to get used to being inside learning again.”
“I am learning,” Otto said.
Despite the weather, he rowed to Bass Lake, but no yellow boats floated on the water. Of course, he thought, they’re prisoners and nobody can see in this mess enough to guard them. Rain gathered in the bottom of the skiff, sloshing as he rowed.
Back at the cabin, his mom made him strip off his wet, muddy clothes on the porch. She kept her back turned. After he showered, Otto stood at the bathroom window, wrapped in a towel and looking at the rain until somebody walked out of the woods toward the cabin – Meg.
He dressed and hustled downstairs. His mom and Meg were outside, talking under the overhang of the porch roof. Droplets hit the wooden railing and bounced onto their clothes. Meg was soaked, her navy bra showing through her flowered shirt.
“Was it that boy Chris with the radio always turned up?” their mom asked.
Meg looked out at the rain shooting in spouts from the overhang. The dim light drained the color from their faces. Their mom started to reach for Meg but pulled back, restlessly thumbing her engagement ring.
Meg faced her and said, “It doesn’t matter.”
“I need to tell your father.”
“No,” Meg hissed. “You know what he’ll say. I’ll find a way to do it on my own.”
Their mom squeezed her hands against the back of her head. A few hairs snagged on her bracelet as she dropped her arms, and she pulled at them angrily, tearing them from her scalp. “I’ll take you. But you can’t go out with those kids anymore.”
Meg’s thin shoulders twitched. “What do I care?”
Their mom pulled Meg to her and began to cry.
Meg held still, arms hanging at her sides. Otto retreated upstairs. He couldn’t think of what would be bad enough to make Meg cry. The way Meg had just stared at the rain, asking for help, scared him though. It reminded him of what Raban had said once about recognizing when you couldn’t do something as being important to survival. Self-aware, Raban had called it. Knowing your limits protected you and others.
Otto stood with his nose pressed against the window, watching the lake. Meg had made a choice – he knew now which parent she trusted.
On Friday when the rain stopped, Otto rowed to the prison. He would turn thirteen tomorrow and his dad was bringing up the rod that night. He wanted to watch Raban closer than ever to see how he made his casts.
“The young fisherman,” Raban said when Otto pulled up alongside him. Raban’s lip had healed, but pouches of skin drooped under his eyes. “How’re your flies coming along?”
“Not good,” Otto said. Seeing Raban again, he tried not to think of the perch lying in the woods, uneaten, except maybe by a fox. His stomach tightened, almost with embarrassment; he needed to know. “When do you get out?” he asked. “I was thinking when you’re free I could come up and we could do a real fishing trip.”
Raban cast the line into the water. “You should hitch out of town to fish. But don’t hang it on me. Do it on your own.”
Otto swallowed. It was all a matter of how he presented it to Raban, and he’d started off wrong. “How much time do you have left?”
“Four more years, though they might shave one for good behavior.”
“I’ll write you,” Otto said. He wanted to make Raban look at him, so Raban could see how he meant it. He reached out and touched Raban’s elbow.
Raban jumped and reeled in the line. “Here,” he said and handed it to Otto, his eyes still on the water. “Practice for when you get your own rod.”
Otto wrapped his hands around the cork grip, thinking how many times he and Raban had touched out of simple necessity over a fish or a lure. Pressure built on the inside corners of his eyes, against his nose, and the muscles of his throat constricted. He knew if he gave into it, Raban would look at him and see only a sniveling kid.
Raban coughed beside him, and Otto glanced up to see another inmate rowing around the spit, a youngish man with curling blonde hair and a small, pointy nose.
“Go, Otto,” Raban said. But Otto wasn’t ready to leave with the plan still unfinished.
Raban seized Otto’s boat but the other inmate got there first, ramming into both of them. Otto slipped off the seat. The foot braces and rod dug into his back. He tried to right himself, but the two men jostled the boat as they wrestled with each other. Watching the hands above him, Otto knew he wouldn’t escape. He could hear himself gasping.
Raban grabbed the back of Otto’s shirt, pulled him close, and pressed something cold, sharp, and metal against the skin below his ear. Otto tried to yell, but his chest clenched, making him dizzy.
“I should have known you’d made a friend, Raban,” the man said. His khaki shirt was tucked neatly into his pants and his eyes were a lighter blue than Otto had ever seen, as if someone had diluted the color by pouring cream into them. He hefted a wooden oar.
“Fuck off, Jeb,” Raban said. “It’s your blade I’m holding, and you know that. It’s not me they’ll bag if something happens to the kid.”
Otto told himself it was a bluff, but the dizziness continued to spread, as if the blood from his heart couldn’t reach his head.
A ripple passed over the man’s face. “Bullshit,” he said.
Otto’s neck stung and a thin, warm trickle slid down to his collarbone. As he dry-heaved, the knife pricked him again, and he thought of the first fish he’d ever caught, a smallmouth bass of all things, and the feeling of another being on the end of the line, fighting to get free.
Jeb sat still, watching Otto. Then he grinned and slowly lifted an oar, paddling one stroke back, and another. Otto didn’t know if it was a trick. He felt too sick to think. Jeb paused to open and close his hand in an exaggerated wave. “Have fun playing with your friend,” he called.
When the gap widened, Raban’s hand, wrapped around a rag and a blur of silver, grabbed the stern of Otto’s boat and shoved it hard toward the buoys. Cool air raced down the sweat droplets on Otto’s face. Hair rose on his arms. He felt a hurried fear, a need for a locked door between him and these men.
The force of Raban’s push was enough to carry him over the buoy line. Otto made quick strokes that scraped at the tops of the waves. Then the oars dipped low enough to catch an edge. He bent over them, stroke after stroke. His nose ran. His cheeks were wet. Raban might have been protecting him. Otto understood that. But Raban didn’t need to hold a knife to his throat to do it. Didn’t need to draw blood.
Raban’s rod lay in the bottom of the boat. It had snapped a third of the way up when Otto landed on it, white insides showing through the sleek, black exterior. As he pulled away from the cove, he tried not to look at Raban’s sweat-stained uniform and slumped back. He raised two fingers to the side of his neck; the cut was small, the size of a staple. He pulled off his wet T-shirt and saw a rust-colored stain had already spread along the top of the collar. He balled up the shirt and threw it into the lake. It unraveled and spun, landing gently on the waves. The cloth ballooned on the surface and floated. He felt cornered, as if he was still trapped on the floor of the boat, slats and braces sawing into the notches of his spine as the two men fought above him and he didn’t know who would reach him first.