Instincts by Gregory Knight Miskin

The yellow life raft snagged a branch, gashing the side. Air erupted from the tubular compartment, gurgling the water. Within seconds it foundered, tossing the fifteen-year-old boy into the lake. Raleigh surfaced and sprayed a jet of water into the air. He grabbed one paddle as it tried to drift away but the other was nowhere to be seen. Half the raft had deflated.

“Shit!” he yelled but nobody could hear him. In July, 1974, Lake Sammamish teemed with speed boats. Metal flake paint jobs, beer, bikinis. V8’s with straight pipes bludgeoned the stillness. He had saved up for months to buy the two-man raft and this was his first time out. Trying to keep clear of the countless boats, he drifted too close to the cluster of bushes living in the water at the south end of the lake.

The raft was far from useless, which was good because the park was a quarter mile away. Raleigh pulled the inflated section under his arm pits and used the one paddle and his legs to propel himself forward.

Ten minutes’ effort washed away when a boat wake pushed him right back where he began. Two, or maybe three, geological ages passed while Raleigh inched along. Finally, he was able to stand in the chest-deep water at the edge of the park’s swimming area. He slogged the final yards, half-dead life raft in tow, then dove onto the sand, spent.

When he could move again, Raleigh inspected the damage. Hopes for a patch job shattered when he saw the long, jagged tear. He opened the valve to the still-filled section and let the air hiss out, and his summer plans with it.

He spotted a pair of kids playing on brightly colored inflated animals. Probably brother and sister. He waded out to them, handed the paddle to the girl and turned away without a word, ignoring the gleeful shouts behind him.

Raleigh dragged the limp raft over to the pay phone. From his pocket he pulled a dime and a quarter, all he had. He dropped a dime into the phone and dialed his home number.

His mom answered, “Hello?”

“Mom, I need you to come get me.”

“I have people here. I’ll get you at five. Make it six. You can play a little longer. Have fun.” He slammed the receiver down.

Home was nine miles away. He decided to walk but first he needed something to eat. His lunch was at the bottom of the lake. Standing in front of the concession stand, he scanned the menu.

The cheapest item was fifty cents.

Raleigh dumped the body of the raft into a chipped green, stinking dumpster.

“Hey, kid.”

A short distance away, a young man waved at Raleigh to come over. The man looked in his twenties, dark wavy hair, arm in a sling, dressed in tennis whites.

“Come on kid, snap to it.”

Raleigh walked over and the man put his arm around his shoulders in a collegial, confidential way. The man was a couple inches taller and much stronger. He looked straight down into Raleigh’s eyes with razor intensity, “You like girls?”

“Sure, who doesn’t?”

The man smirked, then shook his head. “Right. Who doesn’t? See that girl in the bikini heading into the restroom? See her?”

“Yeah, she’s pretty alright.”

“I’ve been wanting to ask her out all day but I’m a little too shy,” the man said. It was a lie. Raleigh could tell this guy only knew the word “shy” from the dictionary. “Be a pal and help me out.” It was not question.

Raleigh tried to shrug off the man’s grip on his shoulder but he couldn’t, and he began to be afraid. He twisted and squirmed to escape. “Let go of me, man!” he shouted.

The man released Raleigh and held up his hands in surrender, looking around to see if anyone heard. “Hey, we’re just talking here. A couple of guys talking about chicks. Right? Mellow out, man.”

“Just don’t touch me.”

“Sure, no problem.” The man pulled out a handful of bills. “How much did your rubber boat cost?”

“Fort…fifty bucks. Why?” Raleigh eyed the cash, wanting it, his memory burned with the hard work it took to earn that much, and something else inside trying to warn him about… what? He didn’t know this new feeling, but being poor he did know. The man waved fifty dollars in front of Raleigh’s face while he explained the cost of the money.

Raleigh positioned himself outside the women’s restroom, not too close, not looking at who was going in and out. Not directly, just enough to know. The longer he waited, the more uneasy he felt about taking the money. He’d deliver the message because that was the deal. But the hope grew with every passing minute that the girl would walk away, and he hoped then the ache in his gut would go away, too.

Finally, the right girl came out. He stepped forward, “Excuse me, miss? Can I talk to you a sec?” The girl wasn’t all that much older than him, maybe a senior or just starting college, and she was very pretty and wearing almost nothing. It made his face hot. “There’s a guy who wants to ask you out.”

Raleigh hoped for anger, disgust, anything to make her storm off, away from that man. But the girl’s eyes brightened. She scanned the crowd from tiptoes, “Oh? Where?”

Raleigh stepped closer, looked down and away. “I don’t think he’s a good guy.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Raleigh.”

The girl put her hand on his upper arm. “Thank you, Sir Raleigh, for your chivalry. My name is Lady Denise. I’m sure it will be just fine. I know how to handle men.”

The cash in his swim trunks felt like lead. He pulled it it out, he wanted to return it or throw it away, anything except keep it.

Denise said, “That’s a lot of bread for a kid.”

It gave him an idea. “Don’t go with him. Let me take you out instead. I’ll buy you dinner, a movie, whatever you want. Just don’t go.”

“I’m much too old for you, Raleigh. Don’t worry! I can take care of myself,” Denise assured him, giving Raleigh a hug. “Now tell me where this guy is.”

Raleigh felt crushed by failure. “He’s waiting at this car.”

“He has a car? Is he good looking?”

“I don’t know. Suppose.”

Denise began backing away towards the parking lot. “What kind of car? What’s his name?” She kept moving away, her face filled with hope.

“You shouldn’t go,” he pleaded, but Denise only smiled and signalled for him to cough up the answers. Raleigh shook his head until she planted her feet and put her fists on her hips, trying to look fierce while smiling.

“Okay, okay, I give up,” he surrendered. “It’s a tan Beetle.”

Denise skipped away.

“His name is Ted!”

Raleigh stood over the bathroom sink brushing his teeth when the sound of the eleven o’clock news wafted down the hallway.

“Two women are reported missing from Lake Sammamish today. They were both last seen with a man named Ted, who was driving a tan Volkswagen Beetle.”

Raleigh punched the mirror, filling the sink with broken glass. He spat out the toothpaste onto the thousand fragments of his reflection.