Page 5


An hour later, my bag was full and I’d walked farther than I’d meant to. I didn’t see anyone from my pack. Maybe I had been too far away to hear the whistle. Maybe the hot dogs were gone. My stomach growled, angry at that thought, and I jogged back down the beach. That’s when I noticed something in the water—a tangle of trash? No. It was dark hair. Small arms flailed from either side of it before the head and arms vanished below a wave. I slowed, staring, telling myself it was just some kid playing in the water instead of helping with the cleanup.
The hair and arms bobbed to the surface for a second or two and sank again. If there was a cry for help, it was too far out to be heard. No one seemed to be watching but me. Our beaches didn’t have lifeguards, and no parent was nearby, eyes searching the surf. If you wanted your kid not to drown, you watched him. Anybody with sense knew that.
My heart sped when seconds passed and nothing came back up. I dropped the trash bag and ran to the edge of the water, scanning the surface. Nothing. Nothing. Had I just stood there watching somebody drown? Without thinking, I splashed out into the water in my uniform, shoes and all.
“Hey, kid!” I yelled, my gaze sliding over the water’s choppy surface. Once I got chest deep, small rippling waves hit me in the face and kept me from seeing more than a couple of feet in front of me. I was such a dumbass. I hadn’t shouted for a grown-up. I’d just rushed into the water by myself, like the stupid shit-for-brains my dad said I was.
Something bumped me, and I opened my mouth to scream, swallowing a mouthful of gulf water. Hands out to ward off whatever it was, I coughed and spit and saw a flash of blue and pink. The drowning kid. Grabbing instead of shoving, I pulled the limp body to my chest and backed up as fast as I could. A big wave knocked me down and both of us went under, but I held on and shoved my feet against the gulf floor until we surfaced. The face flopped toward me, eyes closed.
It was the girl I’d called dumb.
“No!” I coughed out, hooking my arms under her neck and knees. I stumbled, yelling into her face. “Wake up! Wake up!” Dropping to my knees, I put her on the sand, but she didn’t move. I didn’t know what to do—people on TV breathed into people’s mouths and pushed on their chests, but people on TV also did a lot of stuff that wasn’t real like climbing up the sides of buildings or turning into vampires.
The girl’s Scout leader appeared. “Pearl! Oh God!” Her hands shook as she pressed her fingers against the girl’s neck. She laid her head on her chest, saying, “No pulse, no pulse, oh Jesus.” She pinched the girl’s nose shut and breathed into her mouth, but the girl’s eyes didn’t open.
I felt sunburn-hot, but I was shaking like I was sitting in a bucket of ice. People surrounded us, watching and mumbling, but I couldn’t see or hear them clearly and I couldn’t move. All I could see was the lady mashing on the girl’s unmoving chest and breathing into her mouth. All I could hear was my own pulse, thumping like a drumbeat in my ears. I was alive and she was dead, and it was my fault for not yelling for an adult instead of walking into the water alone. And I’d made her cry an hour ago—her eyes dark, sad pools, like Mama’s always looked after Daddy hurt her.
Then, like a fancy fountain, the girl coughed up water—lots of water. It gushed over her face as she jerked up, sucking in air, eyes flying open. She looked right at me, and not until I felt her hand tighten around mine did I know I’d been holding it.
The crowd around us cheered. I felt hands patting my shoulders and the back of my head as the lady started to cry, saying the girl’s name over and over—Pearl, Pearl, Pearl—and thanking Jesus and God and finally, me. “You saved her life. Thank you. Thank you.”
The past moments crashed around me like days instead of minutes. My eyes burned. My teeth rattled and my limbs quaked. I clutched Pearl’s hand, small and bronze in mine, and stared down at the dark hair tangled around her face, stuck to her cheek, and snagged around one of the Girl Scout pins on her chest—which rose and fell like it should. I gazed into dark eyes that were wide and alive and felt like I’d just learned something, but I didn’t know what it was yet.
When the paramedics arrived, my den leader wrapped me in a beach towel and pulled me away, breaking my grip on Pearl’s hand and hers on mine. “You done good, Boyce. You’re a hero, you know that?”
There was a story in the paper and two pictures: one of my smiling pack leader pinning a shiny Honor Medal just above my left pocket, over my heart, and another of Pearl’s mother, my parents, and Brent standing behind the two of us—both in our Scouting uniforms. The top of her head, a mess of dark curls pulled into a pink bow, didn’t even reach my shoulder.
That was my one occasion of valor—more than some people can lay claim to, I guess. Too bad I was only seven. It’s some kinda crap to peak before you hit puberty.
• • • • • • • • • •
I don’t always quit working at closing time. Most afternoons I’m wrapped up in the job and don’t want to stop until I’m done, but sometimes there’s just too much left to do whether I want to finish or not. I’d been considering hiring someone to help out, at least part-time.
I usually remember to throw the bolt and turn the Sorry, We’re Closed sign on the front door at six o’clock even if I’m still working, but I was ass deep in the installation of a cylinder block when the hour turned. When the bell over the door clanked at half after, I swore under my breath and called, “I’m closed,” glancing toward the doorway between the cramped front office and the garage.
Dad’s old lawyer (and failed AA sponsor), Barney Amos, appeared there, his expression twisted into a permanent warped grimace from the accident that had mangled his face and left arm, almost gotten him disbarred, killed his six-year-old son, and made him quit drinking—one day too late. Austin Amos had started Cub Scouts with me. He’d have been twenty-two or so now.
“Hey there, Boyce,” Mr. Amos said, one hand upturned like he was swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.
“Hey, Mr. Amos.” I wiped my hands on a rag and stood straight, rolling my shoulders and feeling the burn under my shoulder blades. “What can I do for ya?”
Barney Amos hadn’t been to the shop in years, though I saw him around town often enough. Dad’s attempt to quit drinking had consisted of two or three meetings followed by a binge that lasted the rest of his life. I knew where to place that blame, even if Mr. Amos tried to take a piece of it. It was all my dad’s choice. Every bottle. Every swallow.