Cale is treading water in the middle of the deep end, water sloshing in his ears and lapping at his chin as he listens to the aqueous echo of the moon-faced timer at the end of the pool wind and wind and wind. How many seconds left? He tries to breathe.
One packing crate, he thinks. Forty-five planks of wood. One hundred and ninety two nails. Twenty-six feet of rope. Two hundred pounds of lead. One pair of cast-iron manacles. Fifty seven seconds.
He closes his eyes. When he opens them again, Lula’s orange-sandaled feet have appeared beside the timer, slapping impatiently at the wet tile.
Yo, she says, and raises an arm. Inside the YMCA’s humid, windowless indoor pool, her shrill voice is amplified.
Lula, he gurgles. Water gets in his mouth. He kicks with both his feet, buoying himself above the surface. His ears pop. The timer creaks louder, like a rope ready to snap. He doggy-paddles to the side of the pool and struggles to lift himself over the edge—his skinny arms shake; his elbows stick out.
Come on, kid, off that dirty gross floor. Think you can get away with leaving early or is your teach going to get mad?
It’s not dirty gross, he says, it’s chlorine. But he pushes himself to his feet anyway.
Where is she? Lula nudges him. Go tell her you’re helping me finish the packing. His shoulder has left a wet mark on her yellow tank top. Tell her—tell her you’ve got responsibilities to attend to at home. Teachers always fall for stuff like that. Bet she’ll let you off the hook.
Cale looks around. The timer winds on and his instructor is nowhere to be found. A bathroom break, he supposes, or chatting with the male lifeguard. He tries to tell Lula this. We can just leave. She—
OK, says Lula, grabbing his elbow and tiptoeing towards the locker rooms, OK, let’s do it. Go, go; I’ll meet you on the other side and then it’s a race to the car!
* * *
How was it today, anyway?
Lula yanks the door of her dirty two-toned Neon shut. Cale fumbles with the passenger seat buckle as she jabs the key into the ignition. Before he can answer, she steps on the gas pedal and they shoot backwards out of the parking stall; a mini-van stops short behind them and its driver leans on the horn, but Lula hums a bouncy Top 40s tune and continues letting the steering wheel slide back into place under her hands, flooring it towards the exit.
Well? she says after turning the car onto the road.
Cale shrugs. Same as always. He doesn’t like to swim half as much as Lula does. Lula is a technician—she likes it all: butterfly, breast stroke; especially front crawl, where each thrust of her arm breaking through water becomes a follow-me for her mouth, the intake of breath.
The problem with Cale: he is too cautious, for starters. This is what his swim instructor has told his father. Always enters the pool by way of the stepladder, feet first, wrapping his toes around each metal rung. As he descends into the depths, he clings to the edge so tightly that when he runs out of ladder and his legs flail in open water, he drops below the surface for one quick, disorienting moment, and comes up sputtering.
But you’re getting better, right? You must be.
Again Cale shrugs. I’m good as I’ll ever be. Good enough. Can’t I stop?
Get outta’ here, she laughs. You know what Dad would say to that: you can never get too good at something that could save your life. She takes one hand off the steering wheel and waves it around, stirring the coolant-smelling air coming out of the ancient AC vents. Or something.
People don’t die from quitting their memberships.
She laughs again, but it is forced, a quick burst of sound. But seriously, you can’t even hold your breath for as long as it takes to touch the bottom of the pool. Lula snorts. And you wonder why he never lets us near that boat of his without practically strapping us into Styrofoam suits.
He almost tells her he’s been timing himself in the tub after swimming lessons, when he’s supposed to be washing himself of chlorine—taking a breath, pinching his nose, sinking beneath the surface bubbled with the Satsuma bath gel he sometimes uses even though it’s Lula’s. This is the way he read Houdini increased his lung capacity when he was cuffed, nailed and bound into a packing crate with leaded weights and thrown into the ocean. In the bath, Cale counts the seconds himself. It takes twelve seconds to reach the bottom of the pool at the YMCA. He can do this. He can do better than this. Houdini? Fifty-seven seconds underwater was enough to make his escape.
Can too, is all he says to Lula.
Whatever. The second I leave for the airport tomorrow morning it’s not my deal anymore, so you can just talk to Dad about that. She takes both hands off the steering wheel and pumps her fists in the air. I’ll be—free!
Lula cackles and lets her hands drop back onto the wheel. Cale shifts in his seat. I thought Dad was supposed to be coming to get me today. Why’s it you?
Surprise, surprise, she says, he had a work thing—again. For a moment, all her features sink down her face towards her chin. Then her eyebrows lift, the corners of her mouth curl, and she is Lula again. Aren’t you happy? This is my last night here for the next eight months, so we’re going to do something to celebrate.
Immediately Cale wants to know if they’ll get ice cream at the Dairy Queen Lula’s been working at all summer, but she squashes this query with a cheery Nope!
Besides, I already quit. That means no more discounts.
No more discounts, Cale echoes.
Lula pokes him in the arm with her elbow. I have a better plan, trust me.
He spends the rest of the car ride crossing and uncrossing his legs in anticipation. Lula turns the radio up to drown out the wheezy nylon rustle of his swim trunks.
* * *
Lula has to lean hard on the front door to push it open. She’s piled everything she’s bringing with her to university in the narrow front hallway on the other side: old cardboard boxes with windows drawn on them in magic marker; a soft yellow duffel bag she used to take with her to sleepovers; the same tatty old backpack she’s been using all four years of high school, its safety-pinned zippers stuffed to bursting. It is leaning against a new one, bright black-and-white houndstooth, which she bought out of a stall during the end-of-season sale downtown with her last summer paycheque. She slips through the door first, leaving Cale outside, then pries it open again and puts her foot against the bottom so he can follow her in.
Don’t take off your shoes or anything, says Lula, we’re going straight out to the marina. Everyone’s meeting us there. I just have to grab a few things. She opens the coat closet and pulls a light cotton jacket off its hangar, tying the arms tight around her hips.
What’re we going to do there? Cale says, though he thinks he knows already and is afraid to be right.
One second. She skids past him down the hall and disappears into her room, banging the door shut behind her on reflex. Standing alone in the hallway, Cale cannot begin to imagine it ever open and inviting intrusion, the faded yellow room with its green-blue-pink, pouty-mouthed Marilyn pop art peeling off the walls ever empty of Lula. He doesn’t know how the queen-sized bed frame and its overfluffed duvet will fit into Lula’s suitcase, but neither does he know how the bed could exist in the house without the sister.
Instead, he inspects Lula’s early acceptance letter with its McGill letterhead, which has been taped on the wall next to the coat closet since early May. When their mother lived with them, she was stringent about keeping the face of their fridge pristine—she preferred clean, she preferred white—and though she never would have allowed adhesive tape to touch the hallway’s matte eggshell paint job, either, it has somehow never occurred to Lula, even after four months of motherless wear-and-tear on the house—of less-than-occasional vacuum cleaning, of two ‘good set’ plates cracked or broken beyond repair, of three bulbs going out in the dining room chandelier that have yet to be replaced—that she can now clutter the fridge with whatever she wants.
This Cale has already figured out. On the fridge he has trapped a yellowing article from the New York Times beneath a molar-shaped magnet he found in the mail reminding he and Lula to book appointments for routine check-ups at the family dentist. It is knee-height on the fridge, where no one looks, so maybe his sister hasn’t even noticed it’s there. The headline reads, "Thrown Overboard, Manacled in a Box." It is about a man his father’s age who re-created Houdini’s famous sinking packing crate escape act. He nearly died trying to get the world to notice him, this man. But he did not. Cale is not very good with scissors and, in an effort to cut neat, straight borders, accidentally sheared off most of the words, but the picture is there, and the picture is what he loves most: smudgy and dark, poor-quality newspaper print made up of thousands of little ink ripples, but if you take a step back, Cale knows, like an illusion, you will see it—a panorama of black water, and somewhere in the middle, a body like a bent white nail, treading water, victorious.
The caption under the image reads: “One packing crate, forty-five planks of wood, one hundred and ninety two nails, twenty-six feet of rope, two hundred pounds of lead, one pair of cast-iron manacles."
Ready? Lula yells from inside of her room, startling him. She throws open the door and comes whipping around the corner, white bikini bowtie poking out of the neckline of her tank top. The boys are waiting. She is wearing beaded earrings, perfume—something sweet and smoky. Baked brown sugar, like their mother. Coconut.
I don’t think I want to go.
You do. You have to.
I could just stay here. Immediately he regrets saying it, uncertain as he is now about how strong her desire is to leave him behind.
Right, and if you so much as bruised your elbow while I was gone Dad would gut me like a fish. She thumps him gently on the back between his shoulder blades. You’re coming with, she adds.
Cale says nothing.
You’ll like them, the boys. They’re fun.
Whoever they are. He knows them only by their height and shape. Lula never had any boys over during the school year, but this summer they’ve come to wait for her around the back, smoking on the porch steps. Sometimes after Cale went to bed, he’d hear the screen door bang.
They always tell me how much they want to meet you.
* * *
When Lula and Cale pull into the marina parking lot the boys are already there, sitting curbside with their backs toward the ocean, passing a Bic lighter and a pack of Marlboros between the three of them. Their cigarette butts are the same orange as the sun sinking into the water behind them. Lula gets out of the car with her nose wrinkled but strides towards them anyway. Cale follows a few paces behind her, dragging his feet.
Lula, the one in the middle says, and when he stands they embrace. He has bright, curly hair, the kind of blonde that would turn green in a swimming pool. The other boys echo him. They pat her back. They hold her against their chests. Cale does not like the way her name sounds in their mouths, or how much they seem to take pleasure in having it there.
We have the boat to ourselves all night, she announces. Dad has a business thing.
He can’t be at a business thing all night, says Cale.
Lula gives him a sidelong glance. Want to bet? When he doesn’t answer she turns away from him and smiles at the boys, plucking a plastic keycard out of her pocket that’s as white as her teeth and holding it up with two fingers.
Since their mother left, Lula has silently taken over her membership to the yacht club. It’s been her hangout all summer. She tans on the hood of her car in the parking lot, eats on tab at the oyster bar. She swims in the greasy shallows of the marina, where the boats come in and out. When she is charged with babysitting and has to bring Cale, she contents herself with catching silverfish—small prey, about the size of Cale’s hand with his fingers splayed—off the dock with bits of clam meat speared through a rusty hook and some fishing line wrapped around her wrist like a leash. She tugs them towards the surface of the murky water with the biggest grin Cale has ever seen; she holds them out to him to make him flinch, hook pierced through one foiled cheek, red gill , though after she’s given him his scare she unthreads them and drops them back into the water and rinses their tiny silver scales off her skin.
The five of them head down the metal plank to the marina and Lula slides the keycard through the lock on dock number five. Cale holds his hands close to his sides and focuses on his feet—if it were just Lula he’d turn around and make a break for the car, sit down on the pavement with his back against a hubcap, waiting for Lula to follow. But with these boys, he’s trapped.
Their father’s sailboat is a paltry twenty-five feet and third- or fourth-hand, what their father calls a "boat with baggage." It has had its insides ripped out and replaced. It has been painted and repainted and upholstered and patched. It is strictly off limits. Their father spent more time with it than he did with their mother when they were together. Lula and Cale are allowed to come on rides if they promise always to sit, to keep their hands off the till and the rigging and the sliding hatch door of the cabin, to wear swollen orange life jackets if they want to remain above deck.
But the rules are different with Lula and her friends: there are none. Once Cale has been helped on board, hopping from the edge of the dock over the lip of the boat while holding Lula’s hand, ducking the corded rope railing his father has installed around the boat’s perimeter, he is left to his own devices. He is not sure if he likes this better or worse. With so much movement around such a narrow space, he decides to press himself into a corner on one of the padded benches, right beside Lula and the thrust of the wooden till.
After a few tries, one of the boys manages to start the ancient engine, which glubs and spits ineffectually at the back of the boat but sends all the boys and Lula into panicked, hysterical laughing and shushing.
This old thing makes too much noise, says Lula, we should leave before we wake the whole yacht club up.
She jumps on till before someone else can call captain and manages to steer them out of the marina. Once the water opens up to more water, the boys hop on top of the hatch and wrestle with the ropes tying down the packed sail. They stay close to the shore, following the shoulder of land as it blurs into woods of tall, thin coniferous trees and then narrow stretches of grey-sanded beach. It is near one of these beaches that Lula cuts the engine, saying Now the anchor!, and on her command, the curly-haired boy monkeys over the hatch and releases the winch. The rusted, sickle-shaped block of metal plummets off the back of the boat. The five of them lurch forward as they crest a wave and then the boat is tugged backwards by the chain. Cale reaches out for a rope dangling above his head but thinks better of it. He holds his knees instead.
For a long moment, they are quiet, looking out into the darkness and listening to the gentle slap of waves against the side of the boat.
Then: Would you look at that, Lula says, her voice oddly hushed. There is a group of swans in the shallows bobbing near the sandy strip of shore, illuminated by their white plumage. Wonder what they’re doing all the way out here.
Want me to go catch one for you, Lu? The curly-haired boy asks, sitting above the hatch and leaning over it, and the spell is broken. She laughs, loud and shrill, remembering herself.
Cale does not find this funny. That’s stupid, he says. He is ignored, so he speaks again. You can’t.
The curly-haired boy turns to him belatedly, as if he’s only just realized Cale’s there. It’s your sister’s last night here, buddy. Anything she wants, I’ll do.
Lula steps in. Relax, boys, we’re just going swimming. Leave the birds alone. They’re probably scarier than you are.
All three boys holler their approval; they peel off their t-shirts and throw them into the tiny cabin. The curly-haired boy is the first to take the leap. He climbs down from the hatch and catapults himself over the corded railing. The splash is enormous. The other boys step over the railing and, shoving each other, jump in.
On the boat, Lula still has her cotton shorts tangled around her ankles. Cale flips the hem of his white t-shirt over his arms and then balls it in his fist, hesitating as his thin skin instantly pinches to gooseflesh.
Not you, Cale, not a chance, Lula says, kicking her clothes into a pile on the floor. Just stay here and be quiet, OK? Count to—oh, let’s say two hundred. Slowly. She takes a few steps backwards and points at him. We’ll be back before then. You can bet on it. Ice cream on me during Christmas vacation if I’m wrong.
When she throws her legs over the sagging rope rail and stands on the very edge of the boat, Cale’s feet propel him after her. She leans backwards, grinning, and is gone. He grips the rope boundary tightly with both hands, searching the black night, the blacker water, for movement, the glance of muted moon off of skin. He feels his throat tighten and looks down on the floor at Lula’s dirty orange sandals. He picks them up; he holds them sole-first against the body of his t-shirt. He suctions his top lip over his bottom lip.
Splashes like wings against water; wet, muffled laughter.
Lula! Lula! Lu—
Someone in the black shushes him. Or perhaps it is the hiss of a ruffled swan. Either way, he shuts his mouth so quickly that his teeth click.
* * *
After they tire of the cold water, Lula and her boys swing themselves over the back of the boat, howling with laughter, letting saltwater pool under the till and run along Cale’s bare feet. The curly-haired boy had gotten too close to the swans and had the wound to prove it: a bright red bill-bite on his shoulder, shallow but bleeding. While Cale huddles on the bench with his elbows crossed over himself, and one of the others cranks up the anchor, he watches Lula breeze past him, descend into the cabin and come back with a bottle of water. She cracks the plastic lid and twists it off, pouring a stream of water over the boy’s scraped shoulder. The blood trickles and dissolves down his arm in thin pink ribbons. She administers water on the wound until it runs clear. Then Lula leans in close and presses her lips against the boy’s collarbone. Cale stops breathing. He is sure he isn’t supposed to see this: Lula’s nose, fitted right into the crook of the boy’s neck, her wet black hair first in eely tendrils down her back, then gathered and held in the boy’s fist, the stretch and separation of her shoulder blades as she takes hold of his waist. They stand together for whole minutes like this, Cale’s ears and cheeks and neck burning as he glances towards them and away again, while Lula’s friends whistle and Lula’s boy tugs on her hair to bring her mouth towards his.
Cale’s skin feels too tight for his insides. Is this what it’s going to feel like tomorrow, too, he wonders, and the next day, and every day after that without Lula? He takes a step back, finds the rope barrier in his hands and ducks under it silently, escaping. He plans to skirt the thin starboard ledge to bypass the cabin and sit alone at the bow. He puts his t-shirt in his mouth and grasps the corded rail for support, lurching slightly as a wave pushes against the side of the boat.
One packing crate, he thinks, sliding his feet along the ledge, curling his toes around it. Forty-five planks of wood. One hundred and ninety two nails. Twenty-six feet of rope. Two hundred pounds of lead. One pair of cast-iron manacles—
His hands clutch at air and he realizes he has run out of cord to hold onto.
—Fifty seven seconds.
Cale tips backwards and drops. He reaches out blindly, in a panic, and catches the smooth-worn edge of the boat; his body knocks against the side and his toes graze cold water. Cale gasps and his white t-shirt drops from his mouth, bobbing once over the crest of a wave before falling quickly behind. He tries to make noise. The boat rocks and then leans into him, his weight holding down the starboard side.
Cale? The slap of bare feet above his head and then his sister appears hanging over the corded railing. She narrows her eyes in the darkness as she looks down at him in disbelief, then Lula yelps: a short, ragged sound from the back of her throat. She ducks under the rail and holds fast to a cranked winch with one hand. The other reaches out and hovers over his bent fingers. It is clear she doesn’t know how to help him. She looks at his white knuckles and he looks at her, and she raises her wide eyes to his face but all she sees is the tawny swirl of the part in his hair as he drops; the water catches him, the splash is minute, almost noiseless, a small pebble dropped off the dock. He thinks he hears her yelp again—yes, her open mouth, which he saw before the white body of the boat swelled over his vision—her teeth, her open mouth, saying something to him, saying—
—your breath, maybe. Hold your breath.
In the shock of the cold, saltwater accosting his open eyes, Cale thinks of the man in the newspaper clipping on their refrigerator door who shed his manacles, escaped his box and became, for a breath, Houdini. He kicks and kicks and breaks the surface.
Lula’s neck is craned in Cale’s direction. She has one foot on the edge of the boat and is trying to wriggle out of sweater she put on just moments before. Her boy has a hard grip on her arms and she flexes beneath him while he speaks through his teeth:Stop, stop, look—Chrissakes, Lula—he’s fine—see?—circle around and get him—hold on, there, bud! Hold—!
The boy wrenches the till and the boat turns on its nose, showing its shoulder. The weak motor sputters and cuts. They are trying to come back.
Small waves break against the sides of Cale’s face. Water fills his ears. He listens to the ebb and flow of noise. For a minute he treads water, watching. Then he takes a breath and lets himself go under.
Seconds, like tiny, weightless scales, flake away from him towards the surface.
Cale feels his chest sink to his feet. Soon he will have to come up for air. How many seconds gone? A little longer—he just wants Lula to wait for him a little while longer.