by Will Shadbolt
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The first day we played at the pool, Alison and I pretended to drink potions that turned us into massive giants, big enough to cross the globe in a single strut. We built sandcastles, mixing the dry sand with wet sand, which was the most efficient way to build, we believed back then, and then stepped back to take in our creations. I took a step forward, paused, and then continued and lifted my left foot high up in the air and brought it down on one of the castles.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Those potions we took, they made us crazy! We’re evil now, and we have to figure out how to be good again before it’s too late!”
She giggled and nodded and then we were off, running this way and that, through the ocean, through the desert, laughing and spinning and kicking up glittering sand as we went.
The next day we resumed where we left off. We were still evil, working for the ogre. He was living in an oasis nearby now, right by the snack stand. We ran over there, destroying imagined cities as we went, and raised our fists to him. He breathed his fire down on us and we both ran away to regroup.
“What do we do now?” I said.
“We fight harder!” she said panting.
We ran back over and battled and battled. We had to run away once more, but the third time we faced him, we kept throwing punches into the air until Alison shouted, “We won!”
We were back to normal.
Whenever we played, Max would only stare at us from a distance. When he saw us shrieking and running around with leaves in our hands, he’d shake his head, point it out, and laugh with other boys from his grade. We must have looked ridiculous to him but, to us, his incredulity only heightened our enjoyment.
After swim practice, Max and his friends wandered around the pool, doing flips off the diving boards. Every once in a while, they would leave the pool and walk to an ice cream shop two blocks down.
I never went to any of the meets, but Alison occasionally filled me in. Max swam in the backstroke events. He never won and came in last place a few times, but for the most part he finished in the middle of the pack, which was good enough for him.
“I know I can get faster,” he said once after a practice, his mouth full of ice cream.
“How can you be so sure?” I asked.
“I just know.”
I nodded, not quite understanding but accepting the answer out of awkwardness.
I remember another conversation with him, this one happening over the school year at their house. It was one of the few times Alison and I weren’t going on imaginary adventures. Max and we were playing one of his videogames when Alison slipped away to ask her mom something, leaving the two of us free to beat up her character and rack up as many points as we wanted.
He suddenly turned to me, making sure to keep the corner of his eyes on the screen, and asked me about the games she and I played together. My eyes remained on the screen as I began to describe to him our world and our adventures.
I told him about the monsters, about the treasures; I told him about our goal: the sun and the sandcastle. As I spoke, the tales began to seem light and childish, and I think my cheeks took on a slight rosiness, but he looked enthralled. His eyes were wide and prodded me into the confidence to keep spinning the stories.
He was about to say something when, from behind me, there came quiet footsteps. His expression changed — eyes narrow and dull, mouth shut, enthusiasm gone — in less than a second, as though he had put on a mask, and looking past me he said, “Your game sounds stupid,” before attacking Alison’s game character.
With a yelp and a threat, she rushed over to her controller. She immediately became engrossed in the videogame. She didn’t see his calculated smirk falter, nor his eyes go glassy and distant, as if in thought.
* * *
One day towards the end of July, Alison and I decided to fight the dragon. “This is the biggest adventure we’ve been on yet, Sir Anthony,” she explained. We walked for a bit around the pool and then she piped up. “There he is,” she whispered into my ear; we were staring at a large, low branch on one of the trees near the fence. He breathed a green fire, spurting into little flames like leaves. “We’ve got to get his treasure! It’ll help us get to the sun.”
“How do we kill him? Can we?”
“We have to! Let’s use our magic.”
I began waving my arms around and jumping up and down. After a moment she began to do the same. We were so absorbed in our game we didn’t notice Max or his friends walk past us to go to the ice cream shop.
“That’s it, that’s it! We’re killing him,” I screamed. A few people sitting down nearby gave us weird looks, but we didn’t stop. We wagged our fingers, casted spells. Alison began yelling out random words. “Apopty calamitus! Graw maw caw!”
“He’s almost dead!” I shouted.
“Oh no, Sir Anthony, he just healed himself,” she shouted back.
We kept our guard up. Alison stole a branch from the tree and pretended it was a sword, being careful to ensure no lifeguard saw her swinging it.
Eventually, we both agreed the dragon was about to be bested. As we decided how we would react when we defeated him, there came a sudden screech and yell and thump. We jumped and stared at each other.
Was the dragon real?
Then people ran to us, past us, to the fence. On the road beyond was a boy crying into his hands, one of Max’s friends.
Max wasn’t killed on impact. He lay helpless on the black pavement, joints twisted into angles and his arms and legs covered in small cuts. A crescent of blood, red as fire, flowed from his forehead.
Alison jumped over the fence and ran over to her brother. He looked over at her, not saying a thing and she stood where the sidewalk met the road, mimicking his silence. He gasped for breath as if lungs filled with air would keep him afloat in life as it did in the pool. She didn’t cry, didn’t whimper. She instead looked down with owl-wide eyes, like she didn’t want to miss an instant of her brother’s last moments.
There was no difference in how he looked before and after death. He never got better at backstroke.
During all this the door to the driver’s seat slowly opened and a hand, then arm, then body appeared from within. It was an ogre. It was my dad. He moved with familiar, exaggerated gestures, the kind I had seen many a night after I came home and he had had a rough day.
Then the paramedics arrived. Alison’s seal broke and she cried and cried.
And me, where was I? As soon as the help had arrived I had run away from the fence to a small grove of trees on the other side of the pool. Its murkiness no longer pool water but the familiar dark whiskey of my father’s study, where I thought no one would see me, and slumped down into a ball. The ogre had won. This time there would be no regrouping.
I could smell the liquor as if it issued from my own pores.
My father was convicted later that summer and sentenced to jail. He got out a few years ago and promptly drank himself to death.
To my knowledge, my mom had no contact with him at all during those years.
* * *
Later that summer, I saw Alison for the last time. I didn’t want to see her. I had stopped going to the pool with her family after the incident and rarely went on my own. When I did, it was to play by myself, imagine myself in a desert bigger than the planet itself, far away from any and all signs of civilization.
On that day, a tepid day complete with strong gusts of wind, I had decided to play God and create my own world. I built a sandcastle, a fairly large one and, with a little stick, I drew impressions on the wall of sand to make windows. Wet sand dribbled down on top of the castle to make towers.
As I put a small bridge of a stick out over the moat, I heard a familiar voice behind me: “What are you doing?”
“Making a sandcastle.” She looked down at it, her eyes widening as though she was seeing a gravestone.
“Do you want to help?”
She stood there, breathing. I looked up at her. The sun was right behind her and outlined her face with angelic and golden glamour. “It’s the final step,” I said. “Once we do this, we can reach the sun. Just like we always said.”
She sat down next to me, just as silent as she had been before. She stared at my creation, taking in all the details, every edge and corner and wall, with such concentration it was as though she wanted to memorize the position of every grain of sand eaten up by the castle.
Instead of looking at my castle, I gazed at her, but it’s been so long I barely remember what she looked like. Her hair color, her face, her voice: all purged from my memory. The only thing I can recall is the color of her eyes, a light blue, the color of the sky just over the horizon. I still sometimes see them at night: two disembodied eyes following me like a ghost.
After a time she spoke. “I’m not going to the sun. It’s your destiny, but it’s no longer mine.” She paused. Her eyes looked up at me. A mix of fright and anger and confusion pushed them down to little slits. “I won’t do it anymore, Anthony.”
She stood up again and looked down on me for a few seconds longer, and then began to cry and run away. I didn’t go after her. I simply watched her gallop out of the pool area, out of my life, out of my memory.
When she was out of sight, I faced the castle. And there before me to this day stood the grandest structure I’ve ever looked upon: spires erupted from its stone sides and rose as high into the sky as airplanes; a tremendous river of blue water filled the crocodile-infested moat; it was all great, all gold, all shining, like dappled sunlight flowing through tree branches.
I will never forget her words about refusing her destiny. Everyone needs a little something to keep them going, to cheer them up when they’re feeling down. Her words are my something. I repeat them to myself throughout the day, before I’m about to meet with a patient or before I leave for the day. It’s my own little mantra. They’re the reason I haven’t yet given up hope for myself, hope that I’m a good doctor and will continue to be one, hope that I’m not a failure in my other endeavors.
And hope that one day I’ll get home after work and won’t need my bottle of whiskey.
Copyright © 2016 by Will Shadbolt