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Getting a Life in New Jersey

by Ron Van Sweringen

Bobby Pringle didn’t care. It wasn’t like he was stealing it or anything, only borrowing it for a few hours. “No one will know, it’s cool,” he said to himself, untying the bleached rope from the rowboat’s bow. She wasn’t much anyway and probably older than he was at fifteen.

The sun was unusually hot for May and it poured golden over the New Jersey shore. Bobby watched the sail of a skiff on the choppy blue water, farther out than he could manage with only oars. It didn’t matter though; all he really wanted was to be left alone in this new world.

After rowing for twenty minutes, he stopped to examine the red patches of skin shriveling on each palm. “Blisters,” he said, feeling a stinging sensation as he lowered his hands one at a time into the warm, inky-blue water. After a while, Bobby opened the old canvas back pack next to his fishing rod.

A mayonnaise jar full of water and a sandwich his mother made that morning were pushed to one side in his search for a small plastic bag secured with a rubber band. When he opened it the rank smell of seafood filled the air. It was the shrimp that Mr. Potts, his Aunt’s neighbor, had given him for fish bait. “Might as well get some use out of ’em, boy,” the old man said. “Been in my freezer too long now.”

Bobby baited the hook and cast out his line. There was a world of difference between this and fishing in Indiana with his brother, Will. Lake fishing for catfish, perch and crappie, sitting under shady oak trees, telling each other jokes. This was the first time Bobby had been to the ocean. ‘Who knows what’s down there?’ he thought, watching the sun dance on the water’s surface.

His heart pounded a few minutes later with a sharp tug on his line. It surprised him so much that he missed the exact moment to jerk his rod in response. “Come on, do it again,” he said under his breath, waiting for a second tug. It came fast and hard. There was no need to set the hook; whatever it was had already done that. All Bobby could manage, was to hold on to his rod and watch the reel spin.

* * *

Sally Pringle finished the breakfast dishes, watching through the open window as her son disappeared down the beach with his fishing rod. It was the first interest he had shown in anything for months, and she gave a sigh of relief. The ocean offered a beautiful view, but Sally missed being home. The rolling corn fields, her garden of day-lilies and the large oaks shading the small white house in Mason, Indiana.

Next month was her son Will’s twenty-first birthday, but there would be no party. Three months ago, what they could find of Will was buried in a flag-draped coffin. The rest of her first-born son was scattered across the desert half a world away.

“God,” she whispered, “why did he have to die?” The question haunted her until she felt like screaming it at the world. Her younger son, Bobby, had withdrawn into himself with his brother’s death. She often found him sitting in Will’s bedroom, refusing to talk.

One morning over coffee, Sally’s husband said it out loud. “This isn’t doing us any good, Honey. You need to take Bobby and get away from here for a while. Go stay with my sister for a few weeks. The shore will do you both good. I’ve made the plane reservations and Martha’s looking forward to you coming.”

* * *

Bobby fought the fish, slowly reeling in his line a little at a time. The pull was growing weaker, he was winning the battle. Finally he caught sight of the fish breaking the surface about ten feet from the rowboat. Its sides glistened in the sunshine like tinfoil as it rolled back and forth. Bobbie was mesmerized by the fish and did not notice the large black fin cutting silently through the water behind it.

Moments later a huge dark shape catapulted itself up through the water, its gaping jaws ripping at Bobby’s hooked fish. The attack was so sudden and powerful that it tore the rod and reel from his hands. Bobby fell back in the rowboat, watching in stunned silence as seconds later the fin reappeared, accompanied by two others, slowly circling the boat.

Bobby knew they were sharks, but he had never imagined a fish large enough to tear him apart. Panic overwhelmed him when one of the sharks swam forcefully against the side of the rowboat, rocking it violently. He desperately searched the horizon for the distant shoreline and was stunned to realize there was none. The ocean stretched endlessly in every direction. He had no idea which way the shore was.

Fear gripped Bobby as another heavy thud hit the side of the rowboat, almost capsizing it. “Stop it,” he screamed at the vast emptiness. “Help me, Will.” It was the first time he had spoken his brother’s name since the funeral, and it brought a rush of tears. “Please come back, I need you,” he pleaded.

When Bobby opened his eyes seconds later, the black fins in the water were gone, but not the feeling of helplessness that engulfed him. He sat for a long time, thinking of Will. He had felt safe with his brother. Will always knew what to do, but he was gone now and Bobby faced the fact that he was not coming back. Slowly a feeling of peace came over him the way it always did when Will put his hand on his shoulder. Bobby reached up instinctively to touch it.

“What are you doing out here in that dingy, boy?” A man’s voice called out, startling Bobby from his thoughts as an old fishing trawler came into view. “You’re lucky I saw you son, you’re in a world of trouble this far out.”

“Yes, sir,” Bobby shouted back, waving his arms. For the first time in months a feeling of happiness surged in him. When the trawler drew alongside, a wide smile flooded Bobby’s face when he saw the name painted on her bow: The Will o’the Wisp.

Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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