Howie unsnapped one corner of the boat cover and stepped into the boat, rolling and wadding it up the cover as he removed it. Chase and Rodrigo stood on the pier with the cooler, curling their toes in their flip-flops, unconsciously flexing their arms and abs and shoulders. Rodrigo was taller and darker than Chase and had better muscle definition, but Chase had sheer bulk and the air of casual confidence that came with knowing he could put up the most weight of any of them. Howie, the least impressive physical specimen, was the best natural athlete of the three of them, and indeed, the best natural athlete on the whole football team. He was good at sports in a way that couldn’t be quantified in a weight room.
As Howie stowed the rolled up cover under the bench-seat at the back of the boat, Rodrigo and Chase stepped aboard and set the boat rocking and bumping against the padded pier posts. None of them noticed the old brown-and-orange speedboat that came chugging out of Cat-tail Creek – the long, shallow waterway that connected Lake Wellwash to Glasseye Lake – until its pilot cut its engine and the other man on board hailed them from thirty yards away.
“Hello, boys,” called the man. “How are you today? Enjoying the sunshine, yes?” The man was wearing a black wetsuit that concealed his entire body but for his head, hands, and presumably, his feet. He wore his red hair in a thick, dirty-looking braid that hung down in front of his right shoulder. His sunglasses, tilted up on top of his head, did not look expensive. The boat’s pilot stayed in his seat, hunched over the steering wheel with his hand on the throttle, not even glancing at the boys. He wore an opaque shower cap, but the hair on the back of his neck was black and curly. His face, in profile, looked somehow both young and weathered.
The boys glanced at each other. “Look at this guy,” said Rodrigo in a low voice, smirking.
“We’re good,” Howie called back.
“You’re enjoying the sunshine?” the man asked again.
“Yes,” said Howie. He didn’t understand why the man was so intent on establishing this fact.
“Good!” said the man. He seemed genuinely pleased.
Howie fished in the pockets of his board shorts for the key to the boat’s ignition, then looked around on the seats and the floor, kicking life-vests aside. “You guys see what I did with the key?”
“He’s still watching us,” said Chase out of the side of his mouth. “You think he’s checking us out?”
“I don’t know,” said Howie. “Help me look for the key. Ignore him and he’ll go away.”
“I’ll tell you what,” called the man. Now he’d propped one bare foot up on the side of the boat and was leaning forward with his elbows crossed on his knee. “You boys look strong. You ever do any tubing? If one of you boys can stay on a tube for two minutes while my boy here drives, I’ll give you a hundred bucks a piece.”
“A piece?” asked Chase.
“A piece,” said the man. “Think what you could do with a hundred bucks a piece. Think of the party you could throw if you pooled it together. But I should tell you up front that I don’t believe any of you can stay on a tube pulled by this boat driven by this boy for even one minute, much less two.”
Rodrigo and Chase looked at Howie. “You’re gonna do it,” said Rodrigo. “I can already tell.”
“Don’t pretend like you’re not,” said Chase.
“You have the money on you?” Howie called to the man.
“Of course,” said the man. He picked up a backpack from the floor of his boat, unzipped it, and extracted a stack of bills which he waved back and forth. “Three hundred dollars in twenties,” he said.
“If I take your bet, can my friends ride in the boat to make sure everything’s fair?” asked Howie.
“Of course, of course,” said the man. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Bring your beer too, I don’t mind.”
“All right,” said Howie. “I’ll do it. I haven’t done any tubing in a while, but I’m pretty sure I still know how to hold on.”
The man laughed. “Easier to know how than to do it, I think. But, of course, you haven’t seen my boy drive.” He tucked the money into the backpack again and tossed it back onto the floor.
“So are you going to come pick us up?” asked Howie.
The man shook his head. “I apologize, boys, but no. This as close to shore as we can get. She’s an old boat. You’ll have to swim out to us if you want to accept my challenge.”
“Just idle up to the end of the pier,” said Howie. “It’s the same depth there as it is where you’re at now.”
The man shook his head again. “It’s not a depth issue. It’s a proximity-to-shore issue.”
“That’s retarded,” said Rodrigo to the other boys.
“Whatever,” said Chase. “It’s his money, so he makes the rules. It’s not even chest-deep where he’s at. We can wade the whole way. I’ll carry the cooler.”
Howie laughed. “You running low on creatine cash, Chase?”
Chase smiled as he lowered himself over the side of the boat into the waist-deep water. “Hand me the cooler,” he said, holding out his hands.
Rodrigo handed Chase the cooler and slid into the lake.
Howie glanced around the interior of the boat one more time for the ignition key. He didn’t see it. “We’ll find it later,” he said, and he vaulted over the side of the boat, landing with a splash and wading after Chase and Rodrigo who were already half-way to the other boat. The water was chilly, but not unbearably so. Growing up on the lake, Howie had grown accustomed to swimming in water that was rarely the ideal temperature.
The man in the wetsuit bent down and, from the floor of the boat, produced a circular, black and purple tube attached to a coil of white ski-rope. He tossed the tube into the water where it landed upside down a few yards from the back of the boat, its canvas underside gleaming wet in the sunlight. Then, holding on to the loose end, he threw the coil of ski-rope into the water as well and bent over the back of the boat, securing the rope to an eyelet designed for just this purpose. He gave the rope a few sharp tugs to make sure it wouldn’t pull loose from the boat and seemed satisfied. Chase and Rodrigo arrived at the boat and Chase handed the cooler up to the man while Rodrigo climbed the small, fold-down ladder just two few feet to the left of the boat’s dirty outboard motor. Chase followed him up the ladder and into the boat.
“Go ahead and get on the tube,” the man said to Howie. “No need to waste time. We’ll start from right here.”
Howie nodded and waded out to the tube, flipping it right side up. He lunged up out of the water, grabbing hold of both foam-rubber handles affixed shoulder-width apart at the front of the tube, and pulled himself on top. The tube squeaked against his wet skin as Howie shifted around, trying to find the most secure, well-balanced position.
“Here’s how this is gonna go,” said the man, kneeling on the the boat’s back seat with his arms crossed and a stopwatch in his right hand. The sun was clearly frying his pale forehead. Chase and Rodrigo flanked him on both sides, sitting sideways so they could look back at Howie, open cans of beer in their hands. “As soon as you give me the thumbs up,” said the man, “I’ll shout ‘Go!’ At that moment, two things will happen simultaneously: my boy will hit the throttle and I’ll start this stopwatch. Once that happens, you’ll have two minutes to hold on. The ride doesn’t end until you get shaken loose, give up and let go, or two minutes passes. Got it?”
“Got it,” said Howie. “What happens if I’m still holding on at two minutes? You kill the engine and pay us?”
“Yes,” said the man. “But you won’t be.”
Howie grinned, but inside his body, he felt the familiar surge of bitter defiance that had fueled all of his most legendary athletic exploits. Not only would he stay on the tube for two minutes, but he would find a way to crush this man, to humiliate him, to assert his dominance over this man and his “boy” in terms of tube rides, yes, but in every other way as well. That was the only acceptable way for this challenge to conclude.
Chase and Rodrigo must have seen this in Howie’s eyes because they shot each other a look and sipped their beer through confident smiles.
Howie squeezed the tube-handles rhythmically, feeling the power in his hands and forearms and shoulders. He rubbed his feet together as they dangled in the cool water behind him. He smelled nothing but lake.
“Do you want a life-vest?” asked the man.
Howie shook his head. He bounced the front of the tube up and smacked it down against the water.
“Stay loose,” said Chase.
“Stay centered,” said Rodrigo.
The man reached back and tapped the pilot on the shoulder. The pilot turned the key and the engine grumbled and churned to life, belching bluish smoke. The smell of the smoke mingled with the smell of the lake water and together they smelled just like summer afternoons. In his head, Howie was already making the man count and recount the money over and over again. Howie knew he wouldn’t let go.
The man knelt on the seat facing Howie with his thumb on the stopwatch and a ravenous grin splitting his face like a wound.
Howie let out one long, slow breath and then, without letting go of the handle, he pointed his right thumb skyward.
“Go!” shouted the man. Howie saw the man’s thumb twitch on top of the stopwatch and then he saw nothing but a blinding cold spray of water as the boat launched forward, instantly achieving a speed that Howie had never before experienced on water. The initial jolt was enough to yank the handle loose from Howie’s left hand, but he managed to cling to the right handle long enough to pull himself back into position on top of the tube with an incredible effort. Howie felt a powerful force pushing back against him, plastering his hair straight back, stretching his skin tight against his skull, trying to pluck him loose and throw him away.
The tube hurtled along in the boat’s violent wake and Howie was jarred and rattled until he thought he might simply break apart. His feet, trailing behind him in the water, felt as if they were being buffeted with planks of plywood, each plank shattering upon impact only to be followed by another and another. Howie squinted his eyes until they were almost shut, trying to discern something through the sheets of water stinging his face. He couldn’t.
The roar of the boat’s engine was all-consuming. The sound was so loud that it too felt as if it was exerting physical pressure on Howie, trying along with everything else to pry his hands loose from the tube-handles.
A grim thought occurred to Howie. The pilot hadn’t even turned yet. Howie already felt as if he was nearing his limit, and the pilot hadn’t even tried to shake him. Howie’s hands and forearms were throbbing. He tried to envision his hands as steel rings, his fingertips welded fast to his palms with the handles permanently trapped inside of his grip. Was this image helping? He didn’t know. But he hadn’t let go yet. Of course, only seconds had passed.
Then the pilot turned.
As the boat’s trajectory curved to the right in a wide arc, the tube was propelled to the left, popping out of the boat’s wake and picking up speed as it skipped and skittered sideways across the smooth surface of the water. Howie couldn’t breathe. He leaned back to his right as far as he dared, terrified that the left edge of the tube might catch the water just wrong and flip. At this speed, a wipeout like that might tear ligaments or shatter bones. Howie felt as if he might be crying, but between the water flying up into his face and the fact that the wind was certainly making his eyes water, it was impossible to tell. His jaw was clenched almost as hard as his fingers were clenched around the tube handles. How much longer could this turn last?
Howie looked at the boat. Now that he was out of the wake, he could actually see things, although it was all blurred from the water in his eyes and scrambled by everything that was going on internally. Howie saw the pilot’s white shower cap. He saw the other man watching him, still kneeling on the back seat of the boat, still holding the stopwatch, still grinning. His braid, whipped straight out past his face by the wind, was coming unraveled. Howie did not see Chase or Rodrigo. This realization struck him hard, but there was nothing to do except what he was already doing, which was hold on to the tube. Then the pilot spun the wheel back to the left, straightening out the boat’s trajectory, and the tube swung back towards the wake with horrible velocity. Howie leaned to his left as the tube careened towards the immense ridge of the wake. He cringed. The tube struck the wake and was launched into the air. Howie was spinning, his body completely disconnected from the tube but for his hands fixed to the handles. The roar of the boat sounded far away. Howie’s legs were kicking, flailing, pedaling through the air.
When he struck the water, Howie landed on his back with the tube on top of him. He was still outside of the wake, but on the right side this time, the boat dragging him mercilessly through the water, pummeling him, savaging him, water pounding at his head and face and shoulders, filling his nose and ears. Howie kept his mouth clamped shut, knowing that if he opened it for even a moment, he would drown. He didn’t know how he could still be holding onto the tube. It seemed impossible. He had to flip over. He had to get back on top of the tube, but he didn’t know how. All he knew how to do was hold on. And even that wasn’t strictly accurate. He didn’t know how to hold on, he just was.
Then the boat turned again and Howie and the tube were rushing back towards the wake. This time when he struck it, Howie’s weight hanging off of the bottom prevented the height and distance of the previous launch. Instead, he and the tube bounced up in the air just enough to switch positions. Howie was back on top of the tube, back inside of the wake, and his arms felt as if every fiber of muscle was being peeled apart like string cheese by a child with fat, uncoordinated fingers. He bellowed his agony through his teeth, but the sound was swallowed by the engine.
How much longer could it be?
He heard nothing but the engine. He saw nothing but water striking him in the face. He felt nothing but searing pain and the swift approach of defeat. It was alarming. He’d been defeated before, but it had always either come as a sudden surprise or been someone else’s fault. And where were his friends? Had they fallen out of the boat? Had the man pushed them out? At this point, Howie felt as if he was only holding on to the tube-handles because he’d lost the ability to make decisions.
Then, for the first time since he’d given the thumbs up and the man had shouted “Go,” Howie heard a sound other than the engine. Or rather, he still heard only the engine, but the engine made a different sound: a hacking, sputtering buzz. A moment later, Howie was struck in the face with something stickier and warmer than the lake water. Through his squinted eyes, Howie saw that he was passing through a cloud of white feathers. He squinted down at his bare hands and arms. They were spattered red. He could feel a feather stuck to his face, somehow adhering to his lower lip despite the wind and spray.
Howie felt his stomach heave, but with his teeth clenched so tightly, he couldn’t retch properly. He wanted to let go. He wanted to lose. He didn’t want the money. He couldn’t even make himself care about what had happened to Chase and Rodrigo. He just wanted to let go, to be shaken loose, to fail one way or another. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t pride. His hands just wouldn’t do anything except hold on to the tube-handles.
And then, abruptly, a hole appeared in the water, and the tube, carrying Howie, went straight down into it. Before he could grasp what was happening, Howie was under water. Though he felt as if he was moving faster than ever, Howie found that he could actually open his eyes all the way. The roar of the boat’s engine was blessedly diminished, supplanted by the roar of water in his ears. Of course, Howie knew he wouldn’t last long without oxygen. He wondered if his hands would finally unlock if he were to black out.
The water was dim and murky. Seaweed and lily pads zipped past. Howie saw fish. He looked down at his hands and saw that his knuckles were so white as to almost be glowing. Around him, the water began to darken. Was the sun going down or was he going deeper? His knuckles were glowing white. In the gathering gloom, it became harder for Howie to identify the things he saw. Huge, hulking shapes moving swiftly off into the blackness as Howie sped by. Distant lights that blinked blue and yellow as if trying to signal him. Something long and as narrow as a pencil moved through the water next to Howie for a short distance, briefly matching the tube’s pace, but then it fell back and was gone.
Howie needed to breathe. What would happen if he let go down here? Would he ever make it back to the surface? He could no longer feel his hands, arms, or chest. It was as if his head was mounted on the body of a granite statue. He stared at his glowing knuckles, willing them to burst. They did not. But their glow did appear to be losing intensity. That’s when he realized that the water around him was getting lighter. The tube was approaching the surface again. He turned his stiff neck and looked up out of the corner of his right eye. He saw the wavery orb of the sun screaming towards him and then the tube broke the surface of the water and took to the air, soaring above the boat by the full length of the ski rope. Howie looked down and saw the man looking up at him with his red hair flying loose around his face, making it impossible to see his expression. Howie saw the pilot in his shower cap, his posture unchanged, one hand on the throttle, the other on the steering wheel. Howie also saw his friends, lying side by side on the floor of the boat, asleep or unconscious or dead. This moment lasted for the length of approximately three moments. Then the boat rocketed forward and the tube began to swing back towards the water, the laws of physics conspiring to bring tube and lake together with enough force to perhaps destroy Howie, the tube, and the lake.
Howie felt as if he was riding on the head of the sledgehammer in the midst of what’s-his-name’s final swing. The swing that beat the machine, but also killed the guy, whatever his name was. What was his name? He was from American folklore. Super-strong. A black guy.
The tube struck the water.
There was a tremendous concussion and Howie felt that he was airborne again, as limp as if all of his bones had turned to powder and dissolved in his blood. He saw flashes of sky and water and the tube flying away from him. Then he was skipping across the water like a flat, well-thrown stone. It felt like he’d fallen from a moving car onto icy blacktop.
When he finally came to rest, he sank. The tube was indeed gone. He wondered if his hands had torn off at the wrists, if they were still clutching the tube wherever it had landed. As he drifted down through the cloudy green water, Howie looked and saw that his hands were still there on the ends of his arms.
Fortunately, the water was not more than seven feet deep, and when his feet touched the muck at the bottom of the lake, Howie had the presence of mind to push off and propel himself back to the surface. There he found himself next to the boat. The man was sitting on the edge with his bare feet hanging just above the water. He tossed Howie a circular, orange life-preserver. Howie hooked his arms through the life-preserver so that it supported him under his arm-pits, and he floated there panting and seeing spots at the edges of his vision. His body felt terrible. Not only spent, but diminished, shrunken, reduced.
“You didn’t make it,” said the man. His smile was back to being pleasant. “You were 34 seconds short.” He pointed the face of the stopwatch at Howie, but Howie didn’t bother to look.
“I didn’t let go,” said Howie.
“You were thrown,” said the man. “Either way, you lost.”
“I wasn’t thrown,” said Howie. “I didn’t let go and I wasn’t thrown.”
The man scowled, gathering his hair into a ponytail behind his head with both hands before letting it fall loose again when he realized he had no way to tie it. “You are here now and the tube is not. You lost.”
Howie, groaning with the effort, bent his arms at the elbow, lifting one hand from the water and then the other. Wrapped in each fist was a tube-handle, the ends where they’d been attached to the tube ripped and frayed.
The man gaped. Then he swung his legs back inside the boat and disappeared from Howie’s line of sight. “Wake up!” Howie heard the man shouting. “Wake up, you cretins!”
Howie heard some scuffling sounds and then the sound of flesh slapping flesh. “I said wake up! Get up! Get off of my boat!”
The man appeared at the side of the boat again, holding a blinking, confused-looking Rodrigo by the arm. The man shoved Rodrigo over the side of the boat and into the water. A few seconds later, he did the same to Chase. Both boys came to the surface coughing and gasping, treading water as they looked around and tried to figure out where they were and why they were there.
“You get no money!” shouted the man, pointing his finger down at Howie.
“I never let go,” said Howie, but there was no defiance in his voice. It was a statement of fact. He could still feel the tube-handles there in his hands, under the water.
“Swim back to shore,” said the man, sneering. “Swim back knowing you were bested by me and my boy! Knowing you failed!”
“I didn’t, though,” said Howie. “I wanted to, but I didn’t.”
The man almost said something else, but instead turned away. A moment later, the boat’s engine started up and the boat puttered away towards the mouth of Cat-Tail Creek at a normal speed and a normal volume.
“What’s going on?” asked Rodrigo. He looked and sounded frightened.
“Who was that?” asked Chase. He wouldn’t stop blinking.
“Help me back to shore,” said Howie. Under the water, where his friends couldn’t see, he opened his hands in defeat.