First Place, the 14th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

Illustration By Christopher Jennings

Benjie sat in the mashed grass, eating soggy tater tots, while his Aunt Jill faked a seizure on the pool deck. He thought she looked pretty convincing, twitching all over like a pile of dogs’ hind legs. People were starting to stare. He reached for a tot, skimming his knuckles in ketchup, and thought it was a small sort of miracle that anyone could bear that much attention and revulsion.

"Ten seconds," Paige chirped through her silver-plated teeth. "Oh baby, this lifeguard sucks and blows." Paige was his 8-year-old sister and she was not allowed to say the word "sucks" or "blows," which is probably why she said them both with such fervor.

The lifeguard sat on his stand, across the tinsely blue water, a lovely American cliché – supple-skinned, flaxen-haired, lean and blasé – on the brink of being fired for negligence. Goodbye, sweet, stereotypical lifeguard, crumbling into golden sand. Benjie took pleasure in the thought because it reminded him of something else.

"Fifteen seconds!" Paige gripped her brother's bare arm and waved the stopwatch in his face. Her freckles looked like they were about to combust, her pigtails pop their rubber bands.

"Cut it out, Paige."

Aunt Jill's chin was glazed in spittle.

"I'm so glad I don't have epilepsy. I would have to wear a protective helmet and then people might mistake me for a sports car racer. And I'd have to say, 'No, I'm not a sports car racer, I have epilepsy and please put your wallet in my mouth if I start having a seizure.' And then they'd say, 'But I really thought you were a sports car racer,' and I'd say, 'No, no, I have epilepsy.' But it's like they're not listening and they offer me this contract to endorse motor oil ..."

"Paige, shut up."

A group of bathers was now gathered around his aunt, yelling at the lifeguard. When the shouts finally penetrated his parasol-induced haze, he snapped into action, quickly descending his perch like a bona fide rescue hero. But it was too late. Aunt Jill sat up, perfectly composed, and extended her hand to him. "Jill Smucker. Parks and Recreation." Then she stood up, smoothed down her avocado-green batik sarong and cued Paige with a nod of the head.

"Thirty-nine seconds."

"Let's go to the office. Shall we?" Aunt Jill asked cheerily, as if proposing a meadow picnic.

"Oh, man. This is going to be good. Aunt Jill is going to fire him and he'll have to go work in the mines." Paige stood up and wrapped herself tight as tin foil in her Keebler Elf towel so she could barely walk.

"What mines?"

She ignored him. "And when he comes out with his face all covered in soot and the black lung he'll say, 'Why, oh why, didn't I save that lady having the fake seizure?'"

Sometimes Benjie wanted to smack Paige; she was so clueless. She joked and screamed and threw herself to the masses like a hapless little porkchop. But wait until they returned to Swedesburg in August, when she would no longer be cute, but pitied, when not children, but adults, would whisper behind her back. Completely oblivious, she chattered on about showing Daddy this dive or that snail shell. And who was going to tell her? Not him. Not him.

Then he watched her drop her towel around her ankles, sling her elbow across her face, and yell to a nearby group of kids: "Ultraviolet rays are BURNING my EYES!"

Benjie and Paige were staying with their Aunt Jill, outside of Iowa City, from June to mid-August. Benjie would have lived in a pigpen, like the Prodigal Son, licking up slop and sucking the marrow from apple cores, if it meant escaping his father. His parents didn't tell him why they were sending them away, but Benjie knew. The walls in their house were thin and his mother thought she was whispering when she wasn't. His father, the minister, had felt up a young parishioner and it was all about to explode into a million pieces, raining down like flak on the entire family.

"Aunt Jill needs some help auditing at the pool." "Aunt Jill wants to spend some quality time with her niece and nephew." "Aunt Jill is lonely." Right.

Aunt Jill was 31, single, and not lonely. Benjie thought she was pretty enough to get a husband but maybe she scared men. She painted her lips colors that reminded Benjie of mandarin oranges and lava lamps. She cut her brunette hair boy-short and laughed all over the scale like a tonic solfa. She had spent three years in Kenya working on a church farm, could drive a tractor, and loved foods like manioc, yams, and garam masala. She held bonfire parties in her backyard and served curried goat. A man would see all this and feel bland, defeated, and supererogatory. Benjie understood this even then. His aunt was hermetically sealed in her own biosphere of exotic competence.

So, instead of enduring whispers and sympathetic looks, Benjie and Paige would spend their summer picking cloves out of their teeth and helping their aunt execute sting operations on pools all over Johnson County. Paige could not believe her good luck. She loved inventing new ways to drown, new things to scream. Sometimes she was stung by Africanized bees, other times she got a little too greedy diving for pennies. "I'm rich! I'm rich!" she'd yell maniacally as the lifeguard pulled her to the wall. Benjie wouldn't do it, of course. It was too embarrassing. Nobody drowns at age 14.

Aunt Jill understood all of this without explanation, unlike Benjie's mother, her sister, who practically demanded an affidavit from him each time he refused to participate in family activities. Like last Fourth of July when everyone, his family and half the church, was lighting sparklers, eating potato salad, and playing bocce ball while he just sat on the deck picking brownie gum out of his molars. Paige was skipping around the yard, a sparkler in each hand, swinging her arms in circles yelling: "Don't look at me, you'll go blind!" His father rolled the bocce ball off his fingers like it was a rotten fruit he didn't care to touch.

Benjie wanted to point to his father with a trembling finger and yell: "Hypocrite! Hypocrite!" as a grand finale of fireworks blazed behind him like the wrath of God. He would like to recite, under the spray of shimmering red chrysanthemums, a story or two about his father sneaking Internet porn, how the humble pie he ate every Sunday morning was nothing more than an empty crust.

In the evenings, Benjie and Paige helped Aunt Jill in the garden. Neither of them was really industrious. Paige mostly poked at earthworms, and Benjie often found himself drifting, staring at potato leaves beetle-bitten into Swiss cheese holes, thinking about August. It was clear to him what would happen. First and most obvious: Shelley, his almost-girlfriend, would avoid him like the plague. They had held hands during the Maquoketa field trip; she laughed when he smoked French fries and pretended to have emphysema; she gave him a cord of taffy wrapped in waxed paper that she had pulled herself. But she was a nice girl. Nice girls are skeeved out by perverted fathers.

The second thing that would happen is this: His parents, still trying to spare them the truth, would pretend their father was taking a sabbatical from the ministry. Paige would skip rope singing, "Sa-bba-tic-al, Sa-bba-tic-al ..." because she had just learned a new word.

One night, they would go out to eat at Saigon Café in Mt. Pleasant, where patrons would glare at his dad over their steamed pork rolls, but smile in pity, through cilantro-strung teeth, at the children. The only unknown would be their reaction to his mother. Then, before his family could even order, while they were still cracking apart their cheap wooden chopsticks, a fat, righteous farmwife would walk over to their table and dump her noodle bowl on his father's head. And he'd sit there, bearing his cross, as rice noodles slithered down his face and broth dripped from his nose. Paige would scream. His mom would cry. And Benjie would ... what?

One evening in late July, while Aunt Jill weeded the squash and Benjie pinched off cherry tomatoes, Paige announced she wasn't feeling so hot. Then, as if to illustrate her point, she puked on the rhododendrons.

Later, after Aunt Jill had settled Paige on the couch, she looked at Benjie and sighed, "Unless Paige miraculously recovers by tomorrow, I'm going to need you to drown for me, Benjie."

"I'm too old to drown," Benjie protested.

"No, no. You're not drowning because you can't swim. Don't think of it that way. You're drowning because ..." She tightened the red kerchief around her hair, then smiled broadly, "Because you're stoned."

Benjie looked at his aunt in shock. He had never even seen a joint, let alone been offered one, let alone smoked one. As a preacher's kid, he was strictly untouchable.

"Okay," he said.

Paige did not miraculously recover. They were to make a quick in-and-out maneuver at the pool, since she would be waiting for them in the backseat of the Volvo, clinging to her sweaty sheet and barf bucket.

"Jump off the diving board and just flail around until someone gets you," Aunt Jill said.

"Because I'm stoned," he confirmed.

"Because you're stoned."

The sinfulness of the scenario made the assignment more attractive, but he still felt a deep dread rolling in his stomach. What if the lifeguard was a girl? What if other girls were in line for the diving board? What if they all giggled at him in their Abercrombie & Fitch bikinis?

Aunt Jill entered the pool area first, her head wrapped, turban style, in a towel, her eyes hidden behind large square sunglasses that reminded Benjie of filmstrip. Benjie followed a few minutes later after he had showered. The sun seemed to fry the water droplets right off his shoulders as he surveyed the pool. It was packed with the typical stew of broasting skin, hot splashing, and soluble shouts, all marinating in the antiseptic smell of chlorine. Eight people waited in line for the diving board. None were bikini-clad girls.

Benjie removed his flip-flops in the steam-pressed grass and walked toward the springboard. He glanced at Aunt Jill lounging in a chair by the chain-link fence, right where she said she would be. "I'm high, I'm high. I just scored some weed in the parking lot. It helps me write better music. I'm in a band." He almost giggled in his nervousness, as he watched the line in front of him systematically diminish like a gun emptying its chambers into dives, flips, and cannonballs. He glanced up at the lifeguard, a young, waxy, Beaver Cleaver-haired guy, sprawled in his chair, twirling his whistle. Benjie couldn't tell whether he was watching him or not.

The boy in front of Benjie spun himself into a can opener and disappeared under the surface. When Benjie reached the ladder, his arms shook with nerves that he hoped would be mistaken for cold shivers. He hoisted himself up, flung himself off the handbars and ran full tilt until the board gave way to air.

The shouts, the splashes, the twinkling of the sun were immediately suffocated and exchanged for a blue, silent world – subterranean, the sun nothing but a limpid egg white floating weakly on the surface. For some reason, he thought of the empty church sanctuary, of green-stained glass windows. Bubbles poured from his nose as he sank deeper and deeper. Twelve feet was a long way to descend and he felt his sinuses compressing like lemons. He closed his eyes. Each second stretched and elongated upon itself. There was potato salad, melting in the sun, covered with scallions and flies. There was his father winking at him from across the picnic table. There was mermaid Shelley with her long, sandy hair suspended above her head like flower pistils. There was Paige skip-roping behind the barn. And there was that second when Benjie should have begun his ascent to the surface, but he didn't.

Afterward, Benjie was so exhausted and mortified that he couldn't remember exactly what had happened and what he thought had happened. He clearly remembered looking past the lifeguard's shoulder to see everything crystallized into a strange stasis rarely seen at public pools, as bathers stopped whatever they were doing to watch the rescue. He remembered, gratefully, that Aunt Jill didn't tell Paige just how thoroughly he had played the drowning victim, replete with panic-fighting the lifeguard and spitting up water.

And, then, the ride home – he remembered noticing how the golden hair on his arm shot straight up from his goosebumps. Paige was in the backseat, he knew that. And she had found a Jolly Rancher in the seat crack. He remembered that Aunt Jill looked like his mother. He had never really noticed it before, but with her red eyes and drooping mouth there was a striking resemblance. He thought he had seen her wipe away tears, but maybe he imagined that.

He didn't imagine what she had said to him, perhaps the only thing she said during the thirty-minute drive. She had looked at him, like she knew all about it, and said, "I appreciated your zeal today, Benjie. So much zeal. Too much zeal really. Save your zeal for something better."

Through the window, he must have seen the Iowa landscape slipping away in lengths of mud-caked pig farms, feed mills glinting in the sun, and milk-carton farmhouses. Maybe there was a fruit stand with fat watermelons stacked like logs, or an Amish woman hanging her black and green laundry beside a greener field of soybeans. But he didn't remember those things specifically.

He remembered Paige and the Jolly Rancher. How she had concentrated intently on removing the wrapper. She looked so small and pale, fumbling with the candy – so serious. It was a distinctly adult expression, nothing he had ever seen on her face before. Paige, the 8-year-old, was gone. This Paige glanced up at him and back down with dull, feverish eyes. He remembered that look. Actually he remembered telling himself to remember, to file it away, because it was important, though he couldn't say why.

And the last thing, when his aunt turned onto the dirt lane leading to her house, may have actually happened another day. But he thought it was then that he had noticed the road stretching out before him, a silver corridor between the tall and leafy corn, extending for long miles, folding in with dust from behind. He always thought of roads as ways to get somewhere, not as paths through. And he wondered if all roads were like that and he had just never noticed it before.

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