Scottie wakes in the loft with the sun streaming through the window into his eyes and onto his pillow. He looks out across his grandparents’ large backyard into the forest. Down on the lawn are remnants from last night: an inflatable unicorn wrapped in a towel, a beer bottle one of his many aunts or uncles had half-finished, two floaties and a small pink shirt half-stuffed into a shopping bag.
It is quiet.
He slips out of bed, pulls on his swim trunks and tiptoes past his sleeping cousins. Downstairs in the kitchen he uses both hands to pour himself a glass of milk.
Eight large glass jars sit on the kitchen counter containing baked goods and baking supplies. On tiptoe, he takes a donut from one jar and drops it two jars over into the sugar. He flips the donut, then plucks it out, noticing crumbs layered through the sugar jar. He licks his fingers and grabs his milk. Trailing a path of sugar, he leaves the kitchen and heads back through the dining room.
No one is awake yet.
Out the back door he crosses the lawn, kicking the unicorn, to the side of the cottage where his towel, damp with dew, hangs over a clothesline. Sunlight reaches through the forest, casting long tree shadows onto the brown sides and yellow trim of the cottage. The air is cool. The sky is a cloudless blue.
A sparrow sings from the birch tree over the clothesline where the towels hang. Scottie wonders where sparrows sleep at night. Do they sleep on tree branches?
How do they not fall? He would fall if he tried sleeping up on a tree branch. That high up, he’d be too afraid to sleep. Can a bird be afraid of heights? That’d be terrible.
He pauses at the top of the steps, surveying the scene, then steps onto the dock.
Slinging a towel over his shoulder, he pads barefoot over root, rock and grass to the old boathouse, now just another place to sleep when more cousins come. He slides the large nail on a string out of the metal hasp that fastens the door. Inside the boathouse four small cots are jammed into the room. The boathouse has a low ceiling, exposed studs and stale, damp air. An orange, yellow and brown shag carpet covers the floor. Lake water laps against the big window at the far end of the room.
Scottie finishes his donut and wipes his fingers on his swim trunks. He scans the room: a water-basketball net, two fishing rods, a tackle box, three paddles, a yellow plastic raincoat, two winter coats, a sleeping bag, two yellowing extra pillows, a stack of old newspapers, three mohair blankets, a quilt, a stack of buckets, a football, two oars, an ancient reading lamp and, on hooks mounted to the walls, a bunch of life-jackets. Under a pillow on one of the cots he sees the bill of his baseball cap.
He hid here last night during kick the can. He would’ve won the game if Jason hadn’t found him. Scottie lost his cap ducking Jason and dashing from the boathouse to the backyard, where the empty coffee can sat on the gravel driveway. Just as he was planting his foot to kick, Michael tagged him. When the game was called, Scottie forgot to go back and get his cap. By the time he remembered, it was bedtime and he was in pajamas.
He puts the cap on and leaves the boathouse. Stepping gingerly over the wet grass to the concrete retaining wall, he gazes out at the water. The lake is calm. He takes a sip of milk and wonders which is colder, the milk or the lake? He turns and places his glass on one arm of a yellow Adirondack chair, drapes his towel over the chair’s back and puts his cap on the seat.
Two cement steps lead down to the dock. He pauses at the top of the steps, surveying the scene—the water, the other cottages dotting the forest, the endless sky. He steps onto the dock.
Yesterday his older cousins—Michael and Tim and Andy and Peter and Karen—had run down the dock, leaped high into the air and plummeted down in cannonballs, jackknifes, swan dives and one almost-somersault. He sat cross-legged on the retaining wall and watched them, unsure.
“Scottie! C’mon!” Tim yelled as he sailed into the sky, twisting back to smile.
Scottie smiled back.
A little while later, his mom came over and asked, “Do you want to try?”
He shrugged her away.
Uncle Paul came over, “I could go with you?”
He shook his head.
Finally, to Scottie’s dismay, Jimmy came from inside the cottage and saw him.
Cousin Jimmy was eight, with orange curly hair, freckles and a scary twinkle in his eye. He had seven brothers and sisters, but Jimmy liked to stand out. He had left his younger sister Marcie up the tallest tree in the forest until one of the aunts noticed she was missing at dinner. He had convinced some of the younger cousins that mud was as good as snow for a fight, and that the doctor’s white Lincoln Continental made a good fort. He had found Grammy’s cigarettes, snuck one up to the kids’ fort in the forest, and then left Ryan there to get caught—Ryan who was three years younger and who Jimmy wouldn’t even let in the fort until he needed someone to blame.
“You gonna jump?” Jimmy asked with his hands on his hips.
Scottie didn’t answer.
“It’s easy! Look,” Jimmy ran off the dock and did a cannonball.
When Jimmy got out of the water he came over to Scottie and said, “See? It’s fun. Kinda scary, but fun.”
Scottie looked Jimmy in the eye. Jimmy’s eyes weren’t like mom’s eyes or Uncle Paul’s—they offered no comfort.
“You can do it,” Jimmy said, but his shoulders, arms and face said otherwise.
By now, the other cousins were looking.
“Look. I’ll even go with my eyes shut!”
And he did. Jimmy ran down the dock with his eyes shut and jumped in.
Karen squatted beside him and said, “Don’t mind him. You only go if you want to.”
But Jimmy called from the water, “What’re ya, chicken?”
“Stop it!” Karen warned, but Jimmy didn’t even listen to adults.
“Scaredy cat! Nya nya! Look at the scaredy cat!” Jimmy pointed and turned to the crowd on the lawn, smirking. “Won’t even jump in the lake!”
Now the adults noticed.
“That’s enough!” Uncle Ed said.
“But he’s chicken! Bock! Bock! Deep fried!”
“I said, THAT’S ENOUGH!” Ed rose from his seat.
Jimmy knew he was in for it, but he didn’t stick around. He climbed out of the water and ran down the path beside the cottage, smiling and yelling, “Chicken pants! Scaredy cat! Too scared to jump!” He had an audience and a victim and no one fast enough to catch him.
He counts 12 steps to the water. If he runs, there are fewer—10 strides and then jump.
Scottie stands two paces from the water’s edge of the dock. A loon paddles in the middle of the lake. It is black with white markings on its back. The loon is too far away for him to see its eyes. As the loon moves across the water, Scottie calls out “Hi!” and waves. His voice echoes off the trees and around the cove. He thinks the loon stops for an instant and looks his way. Morning allies.
The water at the end of the dock is just over his head. He won’t hit bottom, but the lake has fish and clams and leeches and who knows what else? Things that might swim up against him and touch him on the leg, or get inside his swim trunks or—hang on! Does anything in the lake bite?
Down through the surface of the water the dock’s supports are stuck in the sandy bottom. Uncle Paul and Robbie put in the dock at the start of the summer. He sees a piece of rope connecting one of the legs to a cinder block. Around the cinder block something is moving. Minnows. Minnows are okay. They don’t bite or touch or get caught anywhere they aren’t supposed to. Minnows scatter when you come near. They are tiny and fast and afraid.
Scottie likes minnows.
He paces off the length of the dock. He counts 12 steps to the water. If he runs, there are fewer—10 strides and then jump. If he jumps too soon, he might not clear the end of the dock. He could scrape his back or hit his head. The minnows would scatter; they wouldn’t help. He might fall into the water, bleeding. Blood in water brings sharks! Wait. Sharks are in the ocean. He takes a deep breath.
Scottie walks out and bends his toes over the edge of the dock. He imagines pushing off with his toes, grabbing one shin in a jackknife, holding his breath and then…
He walks back to the Adirondack chair and puts his cap on. He sits in the chair and finishes his milk. Pretending he is undercover, Scottie pulls the brim of his cap down over his eyes so that he can just peek out from under it to watch. If he were really undercover, he would have to write a report. He’d need a little spiral flip pad and a pencil to make notes. He’d have to swallow his notes if he got caught. That would taste bad.
A ladybug crawls up his towel toward the top of the chair. Scottie watches the ladybug on her steady climb. The towel must seem a lot bigger to the ladybug than the dock seems to him. She isn’t afraid. He decides that as soon as the ladybug makes it to the top of the chair, he will run and jump off the dock. Slowly she climbs the towel. Past an orange stripe and then a white stripe and then another orange stripe. Her legs move quickly. Could his legs move that quickly? If they could, how fast would he go? The ladybug stops. She is almost at the top. Come on, ladybug! Then the ladybug opens her spotted wings and flies away.
That’s not fair! She can fly. She didn’t actually get to the top—does he still have to jump?
When Jimmy had gone, the older cousins went back to jumping off the dock. The adults returned to their papers and conversations, but something had changed. Even though he tried to make himself small and quiet, he felt people not looking at him. After a while he stood and joined the line of cousins waiting to jump from the dock.
“You can do it!” Peter said quietly. He was the oldest cousin and the nicest. “The first time is the hardest. After that it’s just fun.”
Michael agreed, “We were all scared the first time, even Jimmy.”
One by one the kids launched themselves into the lake, until Scottie found himself at the front of the line. He looked at the dock. He looked at the water. His heart pounded inside his chest as he searched the yard to find his mom, who nodded and smiled.
“C’mon now! You can do it!” their neighbour Mac called.
Everyone was looking now.
Then someone clapped. One person’s clap turned into two. Two into four and soon everyone was smiling, clapping rhythmically, encouraging him on.
He stood at the front of the line, unmoving.
The clapping grew louder, then chanting began: “Scottie! Scottie! Scottie!”
He knew they were trying to help. They weren’t like Jimmy. He wanted to jump. He really did.
He looked at the dock, then looked at the water and then looked at everyone clapping and chanting around him. He saw the line he would run, the edge of the dock and the perfect jackknife. He imagined the moment, after the jackknife, when he would break through the surface of the lake, smiling, with his arms raised high.
He crouched and took a big breath.
The clapping seemed to grow louder.
He pictured his perfect jackknife and the big splash and then—
He turned, bolted inside, ran up to the loft, jumped into bed and pulled the covers over his head, hoping no one would follow.
It’s just the first one that is a bit scary. Not that he’s scared. That’s for little kids.
Scottie shivers. In just his swim trunks, he doesn’t have much protection from the morning air—even if they are Batman swim trunks. He pulls himself out of the chair and, with his arms crossed tight against his chest, tiptoes to the steps.
If Batman saw the others doing it he’d run… faster than any of them… and jump off… higher than any of them… and do a perfect cannonball into the lake. Scottie flexes his biceps in his best strongman pose, ribs and pelvic bone prominent. His swim trunks slip down his hips, so he grabs them.
He makes his way out to the middle of the dock. The minnows are still there. Hundreds of little black and silver fish. Now they’re floating just a few inches below the surface. What are they doing, anyway? Eating? Maybe they’re sleeping? Every few seconds, one darts ahead of the group or school or whatever a bunch of minnows is called.
Do you call a bunch of minnows a school?
He’ll ask his teacher when he starts first grade in September.
The loon is still out there. The loon’s call sounds sad, like the loon wants someone to come and play. Cousin Peter says there is only one loon to a lake—unless they have a partner and babies. Still, not a lot of company. Scottie wouldn’t like to be a loon.
He remembers the cap on his head, turns and frisbees it onto the front lawn. He stands on the dock. He goes up on his toes three times. He bends at the waist and eyes his takeoff. He again pictures a perfect jackknife. Once he has done one, the others will be easy. It’s just the first one that is a bit scary. Not that he’s scared. Being scared is for little kids.
He will count from 10, then jump.
Behind him the window blinds go up. He turns and Grammy waves at him through the window holding a plate. Scottie waves back.
Grammy points to her plate.
Breakfast? If there’s bacon, it’ll get eaten first.
He looks out at the loon. The loon probably already had his breakfast. It’s easy to swim once you’ve had breakfast.
Scottie runs to the front door.
After a good breakfast he will jump.
He knows he will.
“Scottie” is the winner of Alberta Views’s 2017 fiction contest. Tim Ryan belongs to Calgary’s East Village Writers Collective.