That Sinking Feeling

The moment the SUV plunges into the thin ice on the mostly frozen lake. As captured on the local news.

“Oh man. Erich’s dad is so much fun.” The boy was breathless. They had a great time at the cabin. They made fires. They cooked on the made fires. They ran in the frozen woods at night with flashlights. Erich’s dad told the best ghost stories. He didn’t tell his mom, but Erich’s dad let him puff a pipe.

Mr. Bronch most definitely did not let him smoke, though. Sure, Erich’s dad was smoking. The boys asked him about it. Mr. Bronch didn’t want it to be a magical mystery, so he let all of them put their mouths on the lip of the pipe and suck or blow or whatever they did. It wasn’t a lesson in smoking, but a lesson that smoking wasn’t unknowable and wasn’t that important. But they were all sworn to secrecy. They very much liked that.

It was just an overnight trip, but it was the best day in the boy’s life. His own dad had many more rules, was always invoking said rules and was a big stick in the mud. You always had to do a safety check on your helmet before you got on your bike. You had to come in the house if it was thundering. You needed to do your homework before you could play your game–even though everyone else could do both. You had to go back and apologize to the second baseman you taunted after you stole that base. You always had to go to the bathroom before you left the house. Is there no privacy?? Just too much of the words “must” and “should.”

Mr. Bronch was good with them doing whatever they wanted. He didn’t intervene if they argued. He even jumped in on the one battle that got physical. That was hysterical. They all laughed so much they forgot what started the fight. But they remembered getting out of Erich’s dad’s headlock. And eating a huge bag of potato chips with a big jar of dip when they watched the movie that Mom did not want them to see. He got a little nervous, though, and looked away when they had that part with the lady without her shirt on. The guns, though, he was down with that. When that guy blew the other guy’s brains out? Erich’s dad told them it was all fake. They knew that mostly already.

“So can I go back to the cabin next week? Please?” His mom looked at him and shook her head.

“Not next week. Erich won’t be with his dad. Have him call me and we can figure out the next time.”

The next time wasn’t for a few weeks. But he was pumped and primed to go back. There would be him and Erich and Tom Jr. and Levi. And, of course, Mr. Bronch. They were going to bring their skates and skate on the lake.

His dad made him repack his backpack. “Where’s your toothbrush? Did you pack an extra pair of socks? It’s going to be cold. Here’s your ColdGear leggings. Just pack them!” Jeez. This was so annoying. He was sure that Erich’s dad didn’t poke in Erich’s bag.

Then his dad made him practice lacing up his skates. Seriously? And he went through a classic safety checklist. When he rolled his eyes, his dad grinned a little and said, “Guy, I just want you to be prepared. I trust you to do the right thing, but a little practice doesn’t hurt.” He went through the drills. He gave his dad a dap as he scrambled out of the car, his backpack swinging in his arm. He didn’t take the time to loop it over his shoulder. He was gone.

“See you tomorrow!” he chirped as he ran up the driveway to Erich’s dad’s big black truck.  The truck was running, but there wasn’t anyone in it. His dad parked the car. The boy rolled his eyes in his brain.

“What? Dad. It’s fine.” Erich’s dad came out the garage door, carrying some bags.

“Hey Tom.”

“Hey! How are you? Haven’t seen you for too long, man.” Erich’s dad grabbed his dad’s hand and pulled him in close for a hug.

“Yeah. Too long. You guys should come by. I finally got the direct gas line to the grill. We can put steaks and burgers on all winter.”

“Sure, but I think that your wife likes me not so much.”

“Don’t be paranoid. She can be friends with both you and your ex. She’d love to have you by. She was asking how you were doing.”

“Tell her I’m just fine. I talked to her last week anyway. She should have asked me then.”

“Sure, whatever. She was just doing logistics. Between my job, her job, the kids and her mom’s been sick.”

“No. Not her mom? That’s tough.”

“We think she’ll be fine. But it’s just a worry now until we go through the checklist of docs. Getting old seems to suck.” His laugh was a little hollow.

“We’re not going to do that, though. Get old that is. We have too much shit to do.” Tom’s laugh was full. They were interrupted by a yell from the tumble of boys in the front yard.

“Get OFF of me!” The boy’s dad looked over to assess the situation. Erich’s dad put his bags in the back of his truck.

“Hey, guys. Take it easy. I think Levi said he had enough.” The boy’s dad was good at deescalation. The pile broke up. The boy held out a hand to Levi. Tom Jr went behind him and lifted him up. Tom Jr was the youngest, but only by a Irish twin–ten months younger than his brother Erich, but bigger than all of them.

Erich’s dad clicked the remote to close the garage. The boy’s dad walked onto the porch and pulled on the front door to make sure it was locked. He stopped to give his son a quick hug before he returned to his car. “See you tomorrow!” The boy waved back. Then they all hopped into the truck. Erich had shotgun. The other three fought over who had to sit in the middle. Erich’s dad had them do rock, paper scissors and then told them to shut the hell up. They liked it when he cursed. They felt grown up.

They grabbed their backpacks and followed Erich’s dad into the dark cabin. It smelled of the fireplace and a little must. It was freezing.

“Okay, you guys go ahead and get your skates. I’ll get the fire started and meet you at the lake.” He flipped the top of a beer and shuffled through the branches next to the fireplace. “Erich, first go grab me a big log.”

Erich and the boy went to the back patio and pulled two big, for them, logs off the woodpile and brought them in. They found their skates. Levi and Tom Jr had already gone to the lake. Not like it was far. Just down a few steps, across the slatted cedar walk and down a few more steps to the dock. The other boys were laced up when Erich and the boy caught up.

The lake was plenty frozen. It was mostly smooth, too. As they skated across, it moaned underneath them. The moon provided the light for their games. They decided to run relays just as Mr. Bronch joined them. He skated out beyond their playground and they forgot about him as they swapped teams out for the next round of races.

Crack! Their was a fissure that was growing deep in the ice. Tom Jr. looked up to see if the rest of them were okay. The boy looked at Erich. This was his territory. Then they saw a dark figure racing towards them. He was coming fast. The boys locked their arms to be an impenetrable wall. They dug their skates sideways into the ice. Mr. Bronch was coming like a bullet fired from a gun. The boys steeled themselves and, just at impact, Erich’s dad snowplowed to a stop, showering the line of defense with ice. As the boys doubled over laughing, Tom Jr. lost his balance and fell.

Mr. Bronch pushed him along. Levi gave the next push. Tom Jr was laughing and couldn’t get up. The boy and Erich gathered Tom Jr by a leg each and swung him around the ice. His dad joined in and grabbed the boy by his arm and leg and swung him around and let go. Tom Jr. sailed across the ice and then disappeared. Out of their sight. The moon was behind the clouds. They were cracking up. Tom Jr flew off like a weird rocket.

“Tommy!” Erich yelled. They didn’t know where he was, not for sure. They couldn’t see Erich’s dad’s frown. “Tom?” He couldn’t have gone far. The ice cracked again underneath them.

“Dad, is he okay? Where is he? Is the ice gonna hold?”

“The ice is a foot thick. We are fine.” But he couldn’t see his boy. “Tom!? Hey, Tommy.” He raised his voice a little.

“TOM-MEEE,” Levi screamed. He was still playing. The boy joined in. “Oh, Tom. Oh Tom JOON-YER.” They skated out a bit. They couldn’t see very far, with the moon behind the clouds. It seemed like the wind was picking up. Or maybe it was the dark. “Tom. You okay? Say something.”

The clouds moved and let some moonlight through. Between that and their eyes adjusting, they could see a figure on the ice. Erich’s dad was surprised he was so far away. The four of them skated to the unmoving mass, the boys pulling up to let Mr. Bronch get there first.

“He’s okay.” They saw that Tom Jr was sitting up. Or maybe he was being propped up by his dad. “I’m going to take him to the cabin to warm up a little. You guys can skate for a while.”

Tom Jr was on his feet. He wasn’t talking but was responding by nodding to his dad’s questions. His dad supported him, really steered him, to the dock. “Man, you really flew!” The boys laughed. Tom Jr seemed to laugh, too. Then it was clear he wasn’t laughing, but throwing up.

“Gross!” “Jesus, what did you eat?” “I’m going to barf now.” “Does it taste the same?”

“Skate away from the puke,” said Erich’s dad. He sat Tom Jr on the dock and took off his skates. “He’ll be okay when I get him some water and get him warmed up.” Tom Jr couldn’t focus enough to get his boots back on by himself. His dad shoved his feet in his boots and tried to get him to stand up. Walking wasn’t working. Tom Jr threw up again. He wasn’t too big to carry.

The boy kept glancing over at Tom Jr and his dad. Nobody seemed to be very worried, so he worked to ignore his concern. The grownup had this. It was fine. It was getting colder and a big cloud was overtaking the moon. Erich pointed to the house, “Let’s get back in.” Erich grabbed Levi’s skate and the boy grabbed his boot so Levi had to sock skate after them for a little bit. It was too cold to play boot-keep-away for long. Erich tossed the skate back on the dock and ran up to the house. The boy waited for Levi to get his other boot on, and they raced back.

Tom Jr was on the couch in front of a big fire. He had a cloth on his head and a quilt over his body. His eyes were closed. He didn’t respond to any of them. The boy shook his shoulder. Erich grabbed his hand. “Dad. Dad. Dad. Tommy’s hand is really cold. Is it supposed to be so cold?” Erich’s dad had three microwaved hot cocoas looped on the fingers of his left hand. He put his right hand on Tom Jr’s as he handed the steaming mugs to the boys.

“Drink up. Then get your jackets. We’re going to take a side trip.”

When the boy’s dad came to the hospital to pick up the boy and Levi, the boy was more than relieved to see him. His dad wrapped him up in his arms and was surprised with the tightness of his son’s grasp around his neck.

The boy stopped being frightened. He was still scared for Tom Jr. but now that his dad was there, his dull, methodical and careful dad, he was exhausted. And he felt safe.

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