By Mary Kenagy Mitchell
It was against camp rules to be out on the water before breakfast, but Pete guessed that his father would be secretly proud of him, and probably relieved too. In the east the sky was turning white, and the last stars were disappearing over the opposite shore. The sun would rise in half an hour, and a breeze had begun to wrinkle the surface of the lake. It blew Pete’s hair back from his face and made him draw his hands into the frayed sleeves of his sweater as he walked out onto the dock. He wore shorts and soggy tennis shoes, and he carried a dingy sailbag. He was small for his age, twelve, but big enough to lift the removable mast of a Laser. He laid the mast on the dock, unpacked the sail and shook it out. It was patched with tape and stained with lakewater, like the boats. In two minutes he had the Laser rigged and running before the wind toward the fading stars. He let the boom out and leaned to counterbalance its weight. Each wave reflected the white, pre-dawn sky.
Pete squinted back toward the camp. He had gray eyes like his mother’s, and his skin was tanned from summers on the water. His knees were scabbed and scarred, and also blotched with curious white patches, a harmless sort of cancer, the doctor had told his parents. He was supposed to watch the patches to make sure they didn’t get bigger. Around his neck he wore a wooden cross on a leather thong, given to him by his father.
His father, Don Bonds, was the director of the summer camp, a barrel-chested man in his late forties who still wore nylon sandals and printed T-shirts and had an unhittable jump serve. He’d walk out past the back line of the volleyball court, pretending to hobble like an old man, then turn, make the high toss, take a slow two-step approach, fling himself into the air, and release all the force of his body into the ball. Then he’d laugh in the bewildered faces of the other team. “God breaks the rules all the time, just to get people’s attention,” he was fond of saying. “That’s what miracles are.” Loud Lake was a non-denominational Christian camp, and Pete’s dad was a sort of stationary missionary. Kids came to him, or were sent. He was an impressive person, deep and gregarious at the same time. He was a great and competitive talker. “You can’t force people to accept Christ,” he said. “You can only show them that they don’t have any other logical choice.” He would sit for a long time after dinner and “argue philosophy” with the older kids, who loved him most of all, the boys especially. He was generous with his time and affection. If he had a fault it was that his love of surprising people was mixed with a love for attention of any kind. He got up every morning at five to sit on the end of the dock and pray for an hour before calling the camp to breakfast over the public address system, using different comic voices. In the dining hall, everyone would beg to hear the voices again. Pete loved and respected his father, and assumed that he himself would eventually get on track and grow up to be just like him.
Pete didn’t befriend kids at camp the way his father did, not even the ones who came back summer after summer. He tended to hang back and observe during capture the flag and bucket ball, and the counselor hunt. He spent a lot of time sailing the old Lasers, cruising the edges of the afternoon sailing lessons. He’d show off a little now and then. “Watch Salt!” the instructors would shout at their students. “There’s a real rolling tack.” Praise shamed Pete, because he knew he wasn’t a great sailor, and he also figured the campers thought he was arrogant. In fact, he was shy. His father’s charisma made his shyness more painful.
His father took the older boys on grueling, perilous hikes and did special Bible studies with them, for which he owned large dictionaries in unfamiliar alphabets and a six-volume concordance. Every summer the older boys were a little gang, and he was their godfather. This year’s group wanted matching tattoos. At meals, girls and younger boys would gather around their table, and they’d tell how one of them had almost died rock climbing, and how another had saved his life. The one called Mike told Pete in a serious voice after dinner that his dad was the greatest human he’d ever met. They had just come back from a three-night survival trip. Pete said okay, thanks, and couldn’t think of anything else to say. He wasn’t sure he liked Mike.
That summer, Mike was legend. When he was six, his father had been killed on a fishing boat in Alaska. His mom had forbidden him to see the grave, and Mike would sneak out and go anyway, all the time, even though it made her scream. His friends spread the story around. “His dad left them right before he was killed,” explained Brian, the friend who had brought Mike to camp, “and his mom still hates his dad, but Mike’s not bitter like her.” Brian’s family had paid Mike’s way to camp.
On the back of Mike’s wrist was a bird-shaped scar. He told his table about it one night at dinner, and the story was all over camp before fireside. Pete heard it first-hand, since he sat at Mike’s table whenever he could. “I was playing with a knife my dad left me,” Mike said, “and just before Mom went to bed she said, ‘Mike, don’t do anything stupid with that,’ so I did it, over the kitchen sink.” The other kids leaned close, one forgetting the fork that hung in his mouth, and Mike told about carving the wings. It was a good bird, realistic-looking, a hawk or an eagle in flight. The healed skin was white and shiny as teeth.
“How come a stupid bird?” said Meg Holloway, the new girl. Everyone ignored her, as usual, and Mike described the blood going down the drain. Meg had come late to camp, and she made her cabin-mates uneasy from day one. At her first breakfast she refused the greasy camp food and instead drank coffee from the counselors’ table. Her cabin-mates, seventh graders, were worldly enough to be put off their waffles. They hesitated, making chicken scratches in their syrupy plates with the tines of their forks, until their beautifully sunburned, athletic counselor Gravity helped herself to bacon and assured them that girls had to eat too. They finished their meal, glancing at Meg, some with worry, some with disdain. At the far end of the table, Pete didn’t eat a thing. He was sure that if he had, Meg would have thought less of him. He felt solidarity with her in fasting, and he wondered whether she had noticed.
Nobody but Pete seemed to like Meg, while everyone admired Mike. His father’s death made him magical and tragic. Pete liked the story about the grave, though to him, defying parents only for the sake of defying them seemed mean. He felt sorry for Mike’s mom, coming downstairs in the morning to find a ring of her son’s blood around the garbage disposal. Mike was the first person Pete could ever remember disliking, and since Pete had no one to talk to, he disliked Mike in a secret and festering way.
One evening after dinner he overheard his dad telling his mom what a blessing Mike was. Pete was upstairs trying to get a radio station to come in, a hobby of his. His radio was large as a piece of furniture, made of fake wood, with an upholstered front and two aluminum dials like bottle caps. It had been left in the attic by previous tenants. The camp was distant from any town, and the radio received only garbled spurts of noise, but the idea of a world of continuous, unheard voices and music always existing in the air around him tantalized Pete, and he spent hours trying to get the antennae in the right places, inching the needle across the dial, trolling for a signal.
When he heard Mike’s name, he turned the sound down. “The one with the cheeks,” his mom said. It was true that Mike had big cheeks, and Pete liked his mom saying it. Popular opinion held that Mike was very good-looking, if tough. Meg’s cabin-mates all said so.
“That kid is something,” his dad said.
“He’d have to be, vicar,” his mom said. Her voice was warm and whispery, and the room went quiet. Pete turned the radio back up and wondered why Mike had to be something. Because he came from a tough home, maybe. Or maybe he was sick.
When Pete’s mom married Don Bonds, her family was confused. They were cultivated people, faintly Anglican, and Don didn’t seem like Joan’s type at all. They were made restless by the long, heartfelt prayer he gave when he first came to dinner. After that, Grandpa Gayle started calling him vicar, as a joke. “Well vicar, did you win your softball game last weekend?” he’d ask. Behind his back he was the vicar. Pete’s mom would call him that too, affectionately, when she disagreed with him. “Have it your way, vicar,” she’d say, closing her eyes.
Pete had once heard her tell him he should be careful how much he made the campers like him. “They’re like Konrad Lorenz’ baby ducks, some of them. They imprint on the first thing that catches their attention, and then they’re yours for life,” she said. “It can’t do them any good. You’ll be gone.” Last fall, she had fielded the angry, embarrassed, and confused telephone calls from parents whose children had come home from camp and given all their possessions to the Goodwill, and in some cases some of their parents’ possessions as well. Her husband had stood behind her chair, listening in and laughing. It took her the entire school year to convince him to be less exacting the following summer. “God gave me my wife to understand the world for me,” he told people, and she sometimes joked that without her to weigh him down he’d rise straight up to heaven without even waiting to die. Then he’d correct her theology, and she’d pinch his ear.
Pete respected his mom instinctively, but he didn’t work at pleasing her like he did with his dad. She was always in the background. During the summer, she rarely left the house. She ate few meals in the dining hall and did not go to the bonfires.
On the fourth night of every week, Pete’s dad gave an important talk in front of a bonfire in the amphitheater, and afterward lots of campers always accepted Christ. He would come home blustering and radiating, and talk with his wife for a long time. Though she never attended, she had never gone to sleep after a bonfire without hearing about it. They would sit in chairs side by side on the back porch, and he’d tell her how many, who, and what they were like. Pete would fall asleep with their murmuring voices drifting through his window.
Fourth nights spooked Pete a little. His father would stand in front of the fire, his long, flickering shadow falling across the benches and onto the pines. Behind him, a column of swirling ash rose from the blaze, the flakes floating upward into the dark. He would call kids forward by name, ask them questions, stare into their eyes, and pray with them. Kids cried, and other kids came forward to lay hands on them. Kids were filled with the Spirit, which made them stare and quiver and confront their friends with divine messages. Giving or receiving a message like that made a person act funny all week. That summer, Mike was first. Pete’s dad put his hands on Mike’s shoulders, and they looked into each other’s faces for a while and spoke in low voices until they were both nodding and smiling together. Pete guessed it was a good thing. He had watched from the woodpile, picking at the ashy scars on his knees. The first time he saw a fourth-night bonfire, he wondered whether he was really saved, because no such thing had ever happened to him, and later he asked Jesus into his heart again just to make sure. After a while he decided that things were different for him because of his dad. Maybe his revelation was spread out over his whole life, a little at a time, so that it never seemed like a big deal.
He did feel, when he was alone, that God was there with him, interested in him, and this was an idea that gave him some peace and also some fear. On one particular day the summer before, he had been sitting by himself above the rock climbing face, near the place where the lines were anchored to three wizened, stunted old trees that grew out of cracks in the rock slope. Below, he could hear climbers calling out to their belayers, and the belayers shouting encouragement up to the climbers, but he couldn’t see anyone; the slope plunged into a face ten feet away, and all he saw were the tops of the trees, and farther away the roof of the cookhouse, and beyond that the other side of the lake. He’d been minding his own business, thinking about going back to school in a week or two, when it occurred to him as it did from time to time that God, who heard all his thoughts, was hearing his thoughts at that very moment, but instead of seeming fearsome and mysterious as it usually did, the idea seemed perfectly ordinary and natural. Pete felt as if he’d finally given up on trying to pull off a fantastic and increasingly complicated fib, and some deep, rustling movement began far away inside himself, but soon he felt afraid, and the movement subsided. His father had probably been praying for him again.
Lately he had tried to make the feeling come back. He would sit still in remote spots and wait, but nothing happened. Once, as he stood in the cedar grove at the far end of the farthest trail, Meg Holloway walked by. She came out of a part of the forest where there wasn’t a path, and she said, “Hey,” as if they were on a sidewalk and not at the loneliest spot in the wilderness. Pete couldn’t think how to answer, and Meg shrugged and kept walking.
Meg Holloway made that summer different from any summer before, to Pete. He tried to sit at her table whenever he could, and since she wouldn’t eat he didn’t like to eat in front of her. He became thinner. Even his hands and feet got thinner, and he could see his own tendons and bones. Because she’d come one week late to camp, Meg was the new girl all summer. Word was that her parents were atheist psychology professors who had sent her to Loud Lake to observe Christianity in the field. She had a lot of curly hair and wore silver rings on all her fingers and some of her toes. She looked permanently bored, and her dense, baggy clothing concealed her shape. The other campers regarded her as a spy. Her counselor Gravity was forever hunting her down during activity periods, finding her in the empty kitchen with a paperback, or lying on a boulder by the lake. Pete’s father had tried several times to talk to her.
One day she had turned up missing from leather bracelet-making, and Gravity was just going off to search, when Pete saw his father motion to her to stay put, and go himself instead. On the back porch after dinner that night, Pete’s father asked his mother if she knew who Meg was. Pete was upstairs in his room, almost getting a station on the ancient radio. He’d made extensions of aluminum foil for the antennae. The reception was best when he held one antenna, touched the wall with his other hand, and stood absolutely still. There were voices, a man’s and a woman’s, impossibly muffled by static. He let go and adjusted the dial. He heard abrupt fractions of words, a blare of music, then a white hiss.
When he heard his dad say Meg’s name below on the deck, he turned off the radio and the light. The back deck was built on stilts over the water, directly below his window. “The one with the army boots,” his mom said.
“The faculty kid,” said his dad.
“They do mean well.”
They were both quiet for a moment. “She seems special,” his dad said. “Important to reach. There’s something about the way she looks at you that’s— Does she seem special to you?” Pete went to the window. His parents stood close together in the half-dark below. “I don’t know, honey. She seems like a normal kid, an outsider, but there’s nothing odd about that. She’s one of those people who need space.” His mom’s voice was whispery again. “You know people like that.”
“I’ve been trying to get her to talk to me, but she’s not having it,” he said.
“Really?” She set her coffee cup on the rail and put her arm around him. Above, Pete drew back from the window.
“I’ve practically been stalking her.”
“If you’re starting to make her uncomfortable you’d better leave her alone. I know you, but she doesn’t know you. There’s no telling what she thinks you want.”
“Geez, I wasn’t—” Something small and wooden clattered on the deck and rolled away. His father had dropped a napkin ring. “I hate it when you say stuff like that.” Pete laid his folded arms on the sill. His arms had turned harder since he’d quit eating. Skipping meals made his whole body feel sharper and more adult. Meg still wasn’t eating either.
“I’m just pointing out how it might look,” his mom said.
“I don’t like that you can even think that way.”
“It’s how most people think, vicar,” she said softly. Waves gently lapped the wooden pilings below the deck. “You should be glad you don’t,” she said. They were both upset. When his dad said Meg was important to reach, Pete knew he meant saving her.
A day or two later, coming back from the boat shed in the afternoon, he met Meg walking toward the south trail with Mike. Since they were two and he was one, Pete stepped off of the path to make way and stood under some low fir branches. Though they passed only five feet from him, they never looked his way. Mike never took his eyes from Meg, who looked straight ahead, unsmiling. This was the first time Pete had seen her alone with anyone, and he remembered that she’d called Mike’s scar stupid on her first day at camp. He hoped she still thought so. As the pair stepped into the thicker trees, Meg tucked an invisible strand of hair behind her ear and glanced at Mike, and Pete saw the quarter part of her face. Her smile was nervous, and he’d thought she breathed in excitedly.
That evening Pete made his plan to go out on the lake. He would go to the other side to sit and think and pray and watch the sun come up over the camp, and then come back while his dad was still on the dock. He knew that his dad would have to punish him for breaking the rule about being on the water before breakfast, and he knew that the punishment would probably be helping wash up. He liked working in the steaming industrial kitchen, slamming racks of dishes around, splashing water and listening to the cook’s R & B. And his dad would not actually be angry. His dad said often that when you broke men’s rules you had to take men’s consequences, but better men’s consequences than God’s. Pete imagined what his dad might say at breakfast. He would boast by pretending to complain about how stubborn Pete was, and how committed, and he would think, just like me at his age. Pete wanted people to say that he was a spiritual boy, just like his father was a spiritual man.
Pete also imagined he’d have to hear his dad’s praise and lookstupidly into his oatmeal. He wasn’t good with come-backs. At times like that, he knew he was letting his dad down. If only he could make a good story of his trip, the way Mike had with the bird scar on his wrist, everybody would like him. Pete’s own scars, his congenital knee patches, seemed bland and incoherent by comparison. They weren’t even scars really, just flat, blotchy discolorations. They had no story and no meaning, but there they shone on his brown legs, a stupefying pair of peeling white spots.
Pete was at the middle of the lake when the wind became stronger and the boat began to lift. He started scanning the opposite shore for a place to land. The sun wasn’t up yet. He wanted to stay clear of the spot where a stretch of road was visible, where there was a restaurant, the only other building on the lake. He saw another boat ahead and glanced automatically at his watch, disappointed that anyone else was awake. It was quarter to five, still long before breakfast. He gained on the boat, which was also heading away from camp. It was a camp canoe paddled by one person, a girl. She had seen him and kept glancing back, but didn’t call out or wave. She was paddling too fast, not taking the glide, and the waves rocked her. She seemed not to want anything to do with him, but the lake was big and empty, and it would be civil to see how she was getting along. Civil was his mom’s word. Maybe the girl hadn’t expected the wind. Rescuing someone when he had gone out to pray could be better than going out to pray by itself.
As he approached, he pulled in the sail. The girl’s hair was tucked inside the hood of her sweatshirt, and he could see flashing silver rings on the back of her hand. Meg Holloway. She held the paddle too close to the blade, and half her sleeve was black with wet. She must have known he was alongside, but she didn’t look. “Coming alongside,” he said.
She turned. “He speaks.” She’d been crying, and her face was wind-chapped. He pulled the sail in and coasted. In the bottom of the canoe were a large army duffelbag and a small backpack covered in black beads. He tried to think of something to say. “You’re Bonds’ kid,” she said. He nodded.
“You’re out awfully early.”
“Are you doing okay?”
She shrugged. “You have a camp name, don’t you? Salt.”
He picked at some splinters in the tiller. “My real name is Pete.” “You don’t like your camp name?”
This was going all wrong. They were supposed to be talking about her.
“You should tell people if you want to be called Pete.”
“That’s the point of camp names though,” he said lamely. He felt ashamed for letting people call him by the wrong name all those summers. “Where are you going?”
She began to paddle halfheartedly, and the wind pushed her off course. Pete offered to show her how to adjust her stroke, and when he reached for her paddle, she looked at him suspiciously and tightened her grip, and it occurred to him that she shouldn’t have been running away from camp, and that if he took her paddle away he could grab her painter and tow her home. His dad wouldn’t do it that way. His dad would convince her.
“I hate camp,” she said.
Pete did not love his father’s camp. He liked school better than summer vacation. His mom seemed more alive at the house in town. She talked more at dinner and smiled at his father more often. But Pete had spent every summer he could remember at camp. It wasn’t something he hated or liked. It was home.
Meg went on. “I hate the singing, the praying, people going batty and crying all over the place, the skits. I’m not staying two more weeks. And my cabin. Nice of them to pray for me, but it’s not like I need extra cosmic forces in my life.”
Pete could see that Meg had Issues of Faith. His dad talked about how to help people with this. He would practice on his wife, and upstairs Pete would listen, with the radio off. His dad would prove loudly and articulately that there was a God whose very existence demanded praise, and then Pete’s mom would cross-examine him. All Pete could ever hear of his mother’s argument was a low murmur. He looked back toward camp and thought he saw his father on the end of the dock, starting his morning prayer. He tried to think of what his dad would say to help someone like Meg. He remembered something he’d once overheard. “How could the world be so beautiful if there’s no God?” he said.
Meg looked at him as if he’d just appeared. “I never said I don’t believe in God. And do you really think this world is beautiful?” She didn’t miss a stroke.
His ears got hot, and they were both quiet. They had passed the center of the lake by now, and were nearing the other shore. Pete looked at Meg’s left shoulder and inhaled deeply. “Still, Jesus Christ died for you on the cross, and you need to—”
“—accept him as my personal Lord and Savior.” She paddled faster, tearing the water. “Listen, you’re a very nice kid, and I appreciate your concern, but I know about it already. I’ve taken it under advisory.” Pete felt crushed, and he must have looked it, because when she spoke next her voice was kinder. “But you’re much nicer than some people. Nicer than everyone, actually, and if I were in the mood to listen I’d much rather listen to you than any of them. But do me a favor and go home now, and when you get there keep your mouth shut.”
He continued to scull the Laser alongside the canoe. “Sorry,” he said.
She pushed out her lower lip and blew her bangs out of her eyes. “I’m sorry, too. It’s becoming a sore spot. I know you’re just doing your job.” She paddled in silence for nearly a minute. Then she said, “Do you actually like living here?”
“We live in town during school. Mom likes that better.” He wanted her to know all about his mom. They would have liked each other. “She’s a teacher. Seventh grade.”
“I’ve met her.”
Pete wondered how Meg had met his mom, but this seemed private. His mom was a private person.
“What are you going to do when you get across?” he asked.
“Going to stash the canoe at the restaurant, hitch to town, then back to the city.”
Pete was impressed. “Are your parents there?”
Dark lines swept across the surface of the water ahead. The wind was beginning to dance and shift. Pete tried to imagine what atheists were like. “Won’t they be mad you left?”
“They’ll probably ground me, but my dad will brag about me to his friends.”
Pete nodded. “My dad would do that, too.”
“He’d like it if you ran away?” Her voice was dull, unbelieving.
“He likes me to break rules. I know it’s weird.” She studied him more closely than before. “I’ll have to do punishment for being out here, but I won’t really be in trouble,” he said. He cinched the boom down a little farther and tried to think of what his dad would say to Meg next. Probably he’d keep asking questions.
“Your dad will be impressed,” Meg said. “He’ll be glad you had this experience.”
“I guess so. Are your parents really psychology professors?”
“My dad is. My mom teaches at the same school as yours.” She was short of breath, and her teeth chattered. She must have been on the water much longer than he had. “They both wanted me to have this experience.”
“Like an experiment?”
“No, not so perverse. They just wanted me to see it, in case I might like it.” She let the canoe coast. “Except if I did like it, I think they’d be embarrassed.” Pete didn’t see why, but he wished he could help her feel better. She looked cold and miserable in the canoe.
“My dad gets embarrassed when I’m too quiet,” he said.
She smiled a shivery, white-lipped smile. “Mine too. And my mom. They want me to be more of a tomboy. You know, no Barbies.” She laid her oar across the gunnels. “I’ll tell you something. I’m not leaving because of your dad. He’s okay. I don’t really hate camp. I’m leaving because of this guy Mike.” “I don’t like him either,” said Pete.
She smiled her shivery smile again. “I thought I was the only one.”
“Mike is how my dad wants me to be.”
“Mike’s a fake.” She looked as if she were weighing whether to say more. The canoe had stopped. He watched the water. She pushed her sleeve back and began to paddle again, slowly now. “I got tricked,” she said, and that was all. Pete thought of his parents’ talk on the deck, the vague, unmentioned things that upset them both. “That’s all you need to know,” she added. He realized he’d been staring.
The distant figure on the camp dock behind them seemed to be standing now, hands on hips, scanning the water. Pete wanted to stay out on the lake a little longer just talking with Meg, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to say the right things before they got to the other shore. Only his dad could say the right things to her. “Just let me show you something before you go,” he said.
She rolled her eyes and handed him the paddle. He’d known she would. She trusted him. Sadly, he released the sheet and shoved the boom leeward. The sail snapped full, and he began to overtake the canoe. “What are you doing?” she said. The Laser swept forward. As he passed her he leaned out, and without meeting her eye, picked up the canoe’s painter. “You absolute rat,” Meg said. She looked up at the sky. “I am so flawlessly naïve that there is no hope for me.” Pete cleated the painter to the Laser, watching the wind patterns on the lake’s surface. When the line was taut, he came about hard toward camp and yanked in the sail. The canoe followed the turn and almost capsized. Meg clenched the gunnels. She didn’t shout, but he could hear every word across the span of water. “I thought you were like your mom. Did you know she let me hide in your kitchen during bonfire? I bet your dad didn’t know that either.” But she was wrong. Pete was not surprised at his mom. She was that way.
Air roared across the side of the boat, cutting through his wet clothes. Meg crouched in the canoe’s bow, trying to untie the painter’s weathered knot. He could just hear her voice. “I should have known he sent you. You’re just like him. You and Mike both.” Pete felt like nothing, like a dry twist of lakeweed on a docked hull, light enough for the wind to blow away. Towing the canoe, the Laser moved sluggishly. He wanted to tell her all the ways he wasn’t like his dad, how hard he had to work to be even a little bit like him, that the difference between him and his dad was way, down deep inside, that really he was like her. He couldn’t drag her back. He didn’t care whether it was right or wrong.
He released the sheet and let the air spill from the sail. Both boats glided to a stop. They rocked and drifted, bumping against each other gently, blown backward by the wind. Their hulls made a deep thudding sound. Pete looked at his ash-colored knees, and at Meg, who tore at the painter knot with white-cold fingers, her face hidden by her hood. He watched until she looked up. “I’m not like anyone,” he said. The fierceness went out of her face. She let go of the knot and sat back down in the canoe. Her shivering had stopped, and she breathed hard, her mouth open. They were exactly in the middle of the lake.
Crows flew overhead in a long, noisy line, wheeling and rising on the wind, falling out and reforming, flying east toward the day. There were so many that their procession began and ended beyond the horizons, spanning the whole sky like radio waves. They kept coming and coming out of the West. Pete tilted his head back until he saw only sky and crows. Something was moving over the water around them, like the wind but not wind, and not crows, something he could nearly feel. It was right alongside their boats, some shape or shadow beyond the periphery of his senses. He wanted to look, and he felt sure that if he tried, whatever it was would disappear like a faraway radio station when he let go of the antenna. He kept looking up, hearing the crows and the hollow tapping of the boats. The cold air went right through his sweater. Meg was quiet, her breath calm. He remembered his dad saying that God is relentless, that he is always with us.
He looked. Nothing was there except boats and air. “It’s a strange lake,” Meg said. She put her hood back. Whatever it was had already begun to seep away. God would always be shy with him, forcing nothing. He uncleated her painter and threw it back into the canoe.
“It’s real,” he said. The thing was gone.
“A really strange place. Beautiful, though,” Meg whispered, hugging herself and looking at the sky around them. She took the paddle and began to push the canoe away. Pete drifted, watching. She moved awkwardly, still not taking the glide, but the wind had shifted and was no longer interfering. The line of crows ended. The last of them crossed the sky and disappeared over the dawn horizon, circling and dodging each other in flight, rising on an updraft like bits of ash. At breakfast, he’d eat. He felt hungrier than he’d been in his life.
The wind came from the east, from camp, and the Laser keeled hard as Pete cut his oblique path home, heading first to the right of it, then to the left. He braced his feet under the strap and hiked his weight far outside. Without the canoe, the Laser rode high. As he neared the dock, he saw the outlines of three people hugging themselves in the cold morning. Mike and his father stood side by side, dressed and ready, as if they’d known this would happen. His mom was in her bathrobe. He cleated off the main sheet and leaned back, feeling the spray soak his clothes. He had nothing to tell any of them.