by Scott Craven
The line tightened for a fraction of a second, almost imperceptibly. But it was just enough for Jake, who pulled with all his fifty-seven pounds only to roll backwards on the dock, his hook as empty as when he tossed it in. “I had it, I had it!” he said, the hook twisting in the light breeze, taunting him.
“Fish can be tricky, Jacob,” his grampa said. Grampa was the only person who ever called him Jacob. Jake’s mom told him grampa was both old and old-fashioned. “Set in his ways,” she would tell him when grampa wanted to play Clue or Monopoly instead of Mario Kart. Grampa didn’t even have a real phone, only one that worked when it was plugged in. Still, grampa was pretty cool for an old man, always up for playing basketball or baseball when Jake was allowed outside. Which would be a lot more now.
“Tricky enough to steal my worm,” Jake said, tilting his pole so he could grab the hook. He jerked away when the hook snagged his thumb. A tiny drop of blood oozed from the tip. “Damn it,” Jake muttered, then instantly remembered the rules and hoped Grampa didn’t hear him, but of course he did because Grampa wasn’t always as old as he seemed.
“Language, son,” Grampa said, putting his pole down and taking Jake’s hand, which was tiny compared to Grampa’s. “Based on my experience, I do believe you’ll survive. Bet you never thought fishing would be so dangerous, eh?”
“Not until today,” Jake said with a sly smile. Of course, Jake had never been fishing before, maybe because it took so long to get to the lake. They stopped at a small store called the Bait Shack, and Grampa handed Jake more money than he’d ever seen.
“Just ask the guy for everything two folks would need for fishing,” Grampa said, keeping his eyes on the front door because he was weird like that sometimes. “Nothing fancy.”
“Be right back,” Jake said, and when he returned he had two poles and two kinds of worms (live and gummy). Jake knew Grampa wouldn’t mind the candy; it was nice not to have to hide it for once.
“Looks like we’re all set, sport,” Grampa said, pulling out of the parking lot. “Say, did the shop have any TVs behind the counter?”
Jake only needed a second to answer because he was always noticing stuff. “I’m not sure it was a TV because it was shaped like a box and the colors were all wrong. Then I saw myself on it and thought it was pretty cool.”
“Did you see our truck? Maybe in the background?”
“Um, no. Just me and the guy who picked out all our stuff.”
“So I wasn’t on TV?”
“Nope. Sorry, Grampa. We can go back if you want.”
Grampa laughed and said he was OK with not being on TV.
It was nice to be in the quiet, Jake thought. Just sitting here should be really boring, but his mind drifted to what might be going on under the water—all the stuff he couldn’t see. It reminded him of something he learned in school.
“You know that even though they’re underwater, fish actually breathe?” Jake asked. “Really?” Grampa said, rubbing his chin. “They still need air, like everything. They have these cuts along their necks called gills. Not sure how they work, exactly, but they suck up the air from the water.”
“Ain’t that something,” Grampa said, not fooling Jake at all because it was obvious Grampa already knew about gills. He knew about everything.
They’d been on the dock a long time when Jake glanced at the sun dropping low in the sky, a tiny shiver going down his spine. If he were home, he’d be in trouble for being outside because he was supposed to be playing quietly in his room before the sun hit the Carvers’ chimney. He didn’t need the sun on the chimney to know that if not for Grampa, he’d be in big trouble. Like, Igloo trouble. For a long time, Jake had no idea the big plastic box that said “Igloo” was for keeping food cold and not for keeping kids who didn’t behave.
Grampa must have seen Jake’s face—the boy’s “I’m gonna get it” look. Jake’s mom looked that way sometimes too, only there was no Igloo for her. It was worse.
“Relax, son, we’re fine,” Grampa said in that voice that always made things alright. “Everything’s going to be better from here on out.”
Jake stared at the water, reminding himself that only the babiest babies cry, like his dad always said. But he cried anyway. “Why, Grampa?” he choked out.
“It wasn’t you or your mom’s fault,” Grampa said. “I think you know that in your heart, and so does your mom. He had that way of twisting everything around, that you deserved it. But you didn’t. Never did. It was him.”
Jake leaned against Grampa, almost dropping the pole into the water and knowing Grampa wouldn’t be mad at all if he did. “But why?”
“I have some ideas. He wasn’t raised so good by his own pa, who always looked for answers in a bottle. I wish you weren’t old enough to know about drinking and what it does to a man, but you’ve seen it with your own eyes. More than just seen it. That will haunt me the rest of my days, Jake. I let it go on far too long.”
Jake looked out at the water, almost black now, hiding everything within.
“Too bad daddy doesn’t have gills,” Jake said.
“Not really, son.” Grampa stood with a groan. “Time to get going before your mom starts to worrying.”
“What are you going to tell her?”
“That we went fishing and didn’t catch a dang thing.” Grampa gave Jake a friendly nudge. “But we hardly came up empty, did we?”
No, we sure didn’t, Jake thought and looked to where the large red-and-white Igloo slowly sank below the lake’s still surface.
Scott Craven is a retired journalist with four decades in the newspaper business, most of that time spent as an award-winning feature writer for The Arizona Republic. He’s also the author of “Dead Jed: Adventures of a Middle School Zombie,” a middle-grade trilogy available at Amazon and on Audible.
∼ Read June’s story, “Here Kitty Kitty” by Paul Lubaczewski ∼