All Our Canoes Are Safely Ashore
B.J. Hollars


She says that if it’s over and we mean it, then one of us should jump.

But these are my good shoes. 

She shakes her head.  Of course I wouldn’t have the courtesy to jump. 

She wobbles upright.

No, wait.  I’ll do it.   

A moment passes.  The canoe rocks twice.

You gonna do it?

Yeah, just a second.

I dip a hand in.

That’s cold.

So? 

I’m just saying.

I fill my lungs and jump, needling twenty feet deep before bobbing back to the surface.

Jesus!

I snort the way I horse might, treading water.  I want to leap back in beside her in reverse, the droplets shedding off me.

Think you can get back all right? I ask.

Think you can?           

Sure I can.

I pull and kick until I bump into a soggy log. 

It’s not. 

His lips are the color of—. 

Jesus.

What?

No, I mean—

I really don’t care what you mean.

There’s a man in here.

In where?

Here.  In the water.  Dead.

What?

He’s dead.

Dead how?

I kick away from the body. 

*

The shape he makes in the water—an overturned crocodile.

Move.  I’m getting back in.

She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even try to balance as I push up and over the gunwale. 

We nearly lose it.

Careful!  God!

Relax.  We’re fine.

Just…be careful next time.

Next time I will.

We stare at the body in the water.

So, do we bring him on board?

The canoe? 

I shrug.

What do you think? she asks.

 Yeah, I guess that’s what we do.

I tug at his wet clothes,  heaving him into the space between us, filling the clunky gap.  He is rubbery and heavy. 

We paddle until this man dead between us slips, his head tumbling onto the hard plastic. 

She screams as we tip over.

*

There are maneuvers.  We make them.

You go that way.

Which way?

 Just…away.  I’m got to flip it back.

 What happened to the guy?

 He’s not here?

Well, he’s here somewhere, obviously.

I know that.

I scan the water and spot him just behind her.

Okay, he’s still here. 

Damn it.

Well, what did you expect?

Nothing.

I try to flip it but can’t.

OK, go push down hard on the back end.

She does, and the opposite end lifts in the air.

We flip.

It turns.

There are a few inches of water in it, but the thing floats.

Now what? she asks.

Now we get back in. 

All of us?

Yes, all of us.

She points to the dead man.

Yeah, I say.  He’s not the reason we flipped.

*

We paddle to shore, pulling the canoe to the grass.  She climbs out first, while I step in ankle deep water.  Behind us looms her parents’ house.

Do we call the police?

Probably.

She starts toward the house.  The dead man is in the grass.  A flagpole alongside him.  A flag pinging against it.  Two lawn chairs stacked neatly beside me.

She returns to catch me leaning over him.

Okay, they’re on their way.

She’s not kidding.

There are headlights in the drive within minutes. 

Newly fallen raindrops collect on the dead man’s skin.

I hear car doors opening, see figures starting the long walk down the hill.

Hey, I’m gonna take off now. 

But the police…

Yeah, I’m gonna go. 

The police, she repeats. They’ll want to ask questions.

If they want to know why I was in the water just tell them it was my idea.

I move toward the water, settle my body in back and paddle away from the dead man and the girl.

Do you think he’ll be okay? she asks stupidly.

I tell her he’s not going to be any worse.

*

Spotlights catch pieces of me, but never the whole thing.

The paddle churns and rips at the tendons and seaweed.  I hear her shout something to me, the words muffled. 

Another voice, a cop maybe.

No,  I’m not coming back.

The water hiccups against the canoe and far off, a motor thuds to life.

Then faster.

So what? I say out loud.  I’ll paddle harder.

An officer approaches in an aluminum boat.  He cuts the engine.

Hey!  Hey pal, you gotta get back here.

I wonder if he’s this polite to murderers. 

On the shore, two lights.  One in the house and one pointed up at the flagpole.

What’s your name? I ask.

Officer Bradley.

No, what’s your name?

It’s Jim.

Jim.

There’s something like ten thousand fish beneath us.

Don’t worry, I’ll go back with you.  Wouldn’t look good if I didn’t.

No, it wouldn’t.

But I’m going to stay out here a couple minutes first.

He’s unsteady.  He adjusts his weight and straightens up on the metal bench.

Yeah.  Okay.  I could use a minute, too.
*
Back on shore, her mother offers tea.

Nah, no tea, thanks, though.

Earl grey?

Nah.

You all right, son? her father asks. 

Sure.  I’m okay. 

And you? he asks his daughter again. 

She nods.

The police ask if we’ve ever seen this man before, and everyone shakes their heads no. 

Mrs. O’Neil looks closer. Now hold on…that couldn’t be Dr. Sedgwick, could it?

That’s not Sedgwick, her husband replies.  Sedgwick’s grayer.  Remember last time we saw him?  He’d gone almost completely gray.

Mrs. O’Neil crouches low, inches from the man’s mouth.

I still say it looks like him.  It’s not, I know that.  But…isn’t there’s a slight resemblance?  The jawline.  Am I crazy to think there’s a slight resemblance in the jawline?

You’re not crazy, her husband assures.  Nobody here thinks you’re crazy.

*

The dead man is wheeled off on a stretcher, unmoving except for the shakes in the bumpy hill.

The O’Neils tell us to come inside.

That we should all just get some shut-eye and worry about things in the morning.

She tells her parents we’ll be right up, and then it’s just her and I and the flagpole.

Want me to help drag the canoe up?

She nods.

So we do, pushing and pulling on opposite ends, our toes slipping in the grass.

I imagine the body being driven quietly through the dark, in the back of an ambulance that does not blare its sirens tonight. 

At the top of the hill, we lean the canoe against a plastic picnic table in the garage.  Between two kayaks. 

I grip car keys.

Okay, I’m going to take off now. 

Bye.

The screen door pulls closed behind her, slapping once at the doorframe before quieting.

*

It is a malfunction with the radiator.  Or a dead battery.  Flooded engine. 

I start listing off things that sound familiar.

Fifteen minutes later, she walks outside to see why I’m still loitering in her drive.

She stands in the garage, raising her hands, so I try the ignition to show her. 

Something’s not turning over.

Faulty alternator.  Busted gasket. 

I watch her brave the rain to the passenger seat, throw open the door and seat herself beside me.  We listen to the drumming on the roof.

Maybe a loose belt, I begin, or something electrical…

She stares at her reflection in the rearview.

You can sleep in the guest room, she tells me.

Yeah, okay.  That’ll work.

Neither of us moves, though it’s clear the rain isn’t slowing.

Okay, ready? she asks.  On three?

One, two—

*

The house wraps itself all around us. 

Paula the cat brushes against my leg with the backend of her body, tail wrapping around my ankle like always.  After awhile, I just stopped being allergic.

You can sleep here, she repeats, nodding to the closed door.

I thank her but do not put my arm around her waist.

I slip inside the cold room with the pressed sheets and close the door behind me while she drips on the hallway floor.

And then, a slight tap at the door.

Yeah? I ask, opening it wide. 

There is no one.

Only Paula.

She enters, tail touching me once more before settling herself on the quilted bed, curling up on my pillow.

*

Shut up with the purring, I think.  Just please shut up with the purring.

I hear the whine of the bathroom pipes, the sink at first, then the shower.  I leave the cat to peek outside the guestroom, spot a light glinting from beneath the crack in the door.  A hallway clock informs me that it is 3:18.  A family portrait on the wall reminds me that, once, she was twelve years old.

I stand outside the bathroom feeling the knob, wondering how things might be different if I turned it.  What might change if I peeked inside and saw her body obscured through the heavy fog?  I know that shampoo. 

I envision her hands at her head as she wrings out the water.  Maybe she’s humming, maybe not. 

I step away and close the guestroom door, but I am not inside.  One minute I am in the hallway, in boxer shorts, but then I am not even there.


B.J. Hollars is an instructor at the University of Alabama, where he received his MFA in 2010. He served as non-fiction editor and assistant fiction editor for Black Warrior Review, and edited the book You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside The Story. His work has been published or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, Fugue, and The Southeast Review, among others. Once, he went down a water slide 100 times in a single day.