The bone of his skull against the glass. Thin skin pushed hard. Outside rows of trees three deep drifting past and an endless fence made of wooden posts and thin wire. A vast empty field appearing in fragments.
He was watching something that wasn’t there. His eyes followed it, sometimes close to the road along the painted white line or up in the trees. His concentration breaking only for the moments when the empty space behind was filled to the horizon with bright yellow flowers that formed one mass of radiance, an opaque distillation of sunshine. Whatever he was following disappeared then, as if it had fallen to the dirt on the side of the freeway until the flowers were gone and his eyes began their familiar movements again.
His brother played a game on a green screened plastic machine he held in his hands. They did not speak. Their mother watched the cars pass in the opposite lane. If a truck passed close her hand would tighten on the handle above the window, and sometimes she would say ‘oh god’ as if close proximity to a truck was a gamble with death itself. She would ask their father how fast he was going and seemed convinced he was speeding whenever she looked away. Later when there was no traffic at all they could still hear her muttering to herself about those ‘bloody trucks’.
Their parents were on the shore, the distance between them measured by ripples slowly dying across the water. He sat on the wooden slat across the back of the kayak, his brother in front.
Their heads leaned over the edge trying to find dark shapes of fish or eels moving beneath. They rowed slowly without direction, only moving with any purpose when they came close to the trunks and exposed roots near the shore and pushed off with the oars. This guided them along the edge of the lake, beneath the trees overhanging with leaves that brushed their faces.
It led them to where the lake became a river and the trees grew closer, the path narrower, their parents obscured now behind the forest as an unnoticed force beneath the water dragged them further along. The branches closed above them over the sun and the water was black beneath the shadows. Birds watched lovelessly from high branches with halos of hidden sunlight against their back.
They no longer rowed at all. The kayak drifted onwards, straight and unnatural towards a line that cut across the river in the distance. A line where the river disappeared, where water flowed ceaselessly over the edge and the wind changed as the forest descended on either side of a cloudless blue sky. They moved slowly, peacefully and unaware.
It was as if some devil on the rocks below the waterfall was pulling them by a rope, trying not to make any sudden movements, trying not to show his hand before it was too late and their flailing young frames fell into his waiting arms. Soon the kayak quickened and they saw the edge and the water rushing over.
We have to go back, James said.
His brother did not respond but drew the oar in and placed it along the side of the kayak. He looked at the shore and then stood and dove headlong into the water, sending the boat into a rocking spiral toward the other bank. His arms drove on in a desperate freestyle until his feet touched the mud of the floor and he pulled himself up by a branch and disappeared into the forest without looking back.
The now weightless front end moved around aimlessly like a broken compass. James pushed the oar against the water, alternating his strokes, guiding the kayak to the lake and holding his position as the river flowed past him on either side. His arms burned. The sound of cascading water falling onto rocks was behind him. He did not look at it, only at the forest sometimes that remained empty and still.
He moved the boat in tiny increments, the wooden oar huge and heavy in his hands. His eyes were on the line of the last trees’ shadow before the lake, there they remained. He rowed twice on each side, trying to make up the distance he lost to the river each time he changed hands.
When he crossed the line he was exhausted and lay back in the sun. The wind changed again and the birds flew above him in full light. He let the kayak glide forward with the excess energy he had given it.
His brother stood with his parents on the bank throwing rocks across the mud. His mother spoke as he arrived and pulled the kayak in.
Oh you paddled all the way back by yourself?
He said nothing. The water disturbed by the kayak lapped against the back of his feet, leaving traces of fine black dirt up to his ankle. He gazed into the deep green of the forest, to where a gap between the trees indicated the river. A monitor lizard ran and paused with its wide black eye twitching, unaware it was being watched.
Vance Mikin-Laurie is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. He completed a B.A. majoring in literature and media studies at Swinburne University. His most recent published work can be found in Blue Crow Magazine, Ginosko Literary Journal, and Crack the Spine Literary Magazine.