“Darren, in Charge” is one of my short stories published in the literary magazine, The MacGuffin
“What are ya’, Charlie, a mommy’s boy?” Darren Chambers dangled the orange life vest high above the child’s head, juggling it from hand to hand. Dark strands of hair stung Darren’s tired eyes limiting his access to the fears coating Charlie’s face. Darren shook his head violently, briefly. Still the bangs slid right back into place carrying the stink of last night’s cigarettes and the tide of a rum headache.
“But, I can’t swim,” the boy protested.
“You never tried.”
“I’m—I’m not supposed to swim without my vest.” Charlie was close to tears. Darren could see it in those glossy eyes and quivering lips. Despite the racket in his brain and sweat clinging to his skin, Darren grinned and lifted the jacket even higher. A good yard taller than Charlie and a decade older, he might as well have been offering the jacket to the gods above. Darren pressed his other hand into Charlie’s small chest, holding the boy in place against the child’s own weight. “Mama’s boy. Mama’s boy!” Darren chanted.
“A-am not.” Charlie’s voice was a whisper.
Darren wondered what Charlie was thinking. Of tattling? Hardly. Even this pebble of a kid had some pride. More than once Darren had seen Charlie carry a fifty pound bag of feed grain behind the heels of the real ranch hands. He’d even watched the boy get kicked by a bull and stand right back up. Damned fool this kid.
With the jacket still thrust in the air, Darren removed his hand from Charlie’s chest and pressed it against his ear. “Can’t hear ya’ Mama’s boy.”
Charlie kicked at the sand, rubbing at his skin where Darren’s palm had left a scarlet print. Fear reflected in the intensity of the child’s dark pupils. But instead of backing down, as Darren had expected, Charlie’s eyelids lowered and turned into angry slits. The boy planted his hands on his hips. He sucked in a breath and shouted: “AM NOT!”
“Prove it.” Darren motioned to the water. “Dare ya’.”
The child followed Darren’s gaze to the murky waters of Willow Lake, an unintended watering hole for the livestock on Charlie’s uncle’s farm. The Colorado landscape was littered with these cavernous bowls, dangerously useful for washing away the stench of cattle sweat and manure after a twelve-hour shift.
The pool seemed harmless enough, except to those familiar with the mountainous architecture that sliced through the water. Steep drops, sharp boulders and deep valleys hid beneath the shimmery surface. Last year a young steer had ventured passed a breach in the fence, lured by the fresh drink. He set foot near a drop-off, broke a back leg and drowned. A few feet to the right, Charlie’s uncle had said, and the steer could have stood up and walked right out.
“Dare ya,” Darren repeated.
“What about you? You’re not just gonna’ stand there are you?” The boy challenged.
Darren glared at the water, licking his dry lips. “You first.”
Charlie’s eyes turned sharp and defiant. Darren’s hesitation seemed to fuel the boy’s confidence. Charlie puffed out his chest. “What—you scared now? Darren’s scared. Darren’s scared.”
Darren gritted his teeth, felt his right arm start to lift, his fist curl into a ball. But instead of lashing out at the child, he turned his attention to the water, searching for sharp lines beneath the liquid. He shifted his weight from one leg to another, as if carrying a burden invisible to all but himself. How dare Charlie make him feel so small. He was the man here. Charlie was the kid, just a damned kid. A nobody.
The word rang through Darren’s head. His heart pounded. The blood and everything else inside his body wanted out so badly, his father’s steely voice the driving force. Nobody. Darren clawed at his ears with his free hand, but could not stop the grating of his father’s mocking tone against his eardrums, pounding, itching, egging him on.
“Can’t hear ‘ya, Darren,” Charlie said in defiance.
Nobody. He’d show that damn kid. Darren threw the jacket onto a rocky ledge behind them and pried off his shirt. With a sudden surge of breath he crashed into the cool water. He barely noticed anything at all: not his hands or feet clawing at the water, not his brain beating against his skull, not the sharpness of a boulder nipping at his left fingertip, or the shimmering shadow of Charlie on the other side of the crystal layer that Darren struggled beneath. He noticed little but his father’s voice following him into the depths of the cool water.
He hadn’t sensed the pain of his breath on hold until his head popped back to the surface, and he let out a gasp of great relief. Noticing the boy’s piercing eyes, Darren tried desperately to hide the need his lungs had for air. He dropped his legs to the gritty bottom fearing he would never find it. But when he stood, the water was barely belly deep.
Diluted blood trickled from a splice in Darren’s finger. He wiped the blood on his chest, leaving a smeary crimson trail. “Your turn.”
Charlie frowned, poking his thumb at the corner of one eye. Quickly, as if fearing Darren would think he was crying, the boy brushed away a lose tendril from his face and grimaced. “That’s it? You’re done already?”
“Yep. Your turn.”
Charlie eyed the jacket on the ledge behind them. “But…”
“Uh—uh. You’re not chickening out.”
“But the steer—“
“Was a stupid animal. Are you stupid like that steer?”
Charlie stood there.
“Well? Are ya?”
The boy shook his head.
Darren turned away from Charlie and climbed along the edge of the boulder, scrambling to the top. He pulled his shirt against his chest, afraid the boy might see the fury of his heart punching at his skin. “I’m not waiting forever. Either you go, or you don’t.”
Charlie peered briefly at Darren resting on the boulder. “It sure is hot,” said Charlie. He dipped his big toe into the water, slowly allowed his entire foot to submerge. “If I go in…,” Charlie turned back to Darren, squinting from the sun, “can we go home?”
“You’ll stay right here? On that ledge?”
“I’m responsible for you, ain’t I? Besides, where else am I gonna’ go?”
“Promise?” Charlie was already up to his knees. He moved slowly, cautiously, stopping to let his eyes sweep once more from the jacket to Darren and back to the cool water. He took a deep breath, plugged his nose and slipped into the lake, reappearing with his eyes as wide as his grin. “Awesome!” The child’s voice gave way to splashing, kicking and cautious diving.
Straps from the life vest dangled from the rocky ledge over Darren. Watching Charlie slip further from the shoreline, Darren leaned back his head and extended his body to catch the warmth of the western sun on his moist skin. The boulder beneath him burned sharp and cold on his backside. He smiled at the contrast: fiery pleasure and cool pain, a combination of heaven and hell. But which was which?
He closed his eyes.
A frantic splash and gasp for breath followed the tortured call.
Slowly, Darren opened his eyes, shielded them from the sun and glanced toward the pond. Ringlets marked a bulls-eye on the southern edge of the water, but all was quiet.
Darren closed his eyes again.
Once more, his head pounded with his father’s mocking laughter.
Taunting. Demanding. Daring him. Slamming him into unwanted memories. “Come here, NOW, boy,” his father had screeched from behind the neighbor’s shaggy hedge. “Come take a look at your cat.”
That awful day, when Darren had been about the age that Charlie is now, he’d found his dad standing over the plastic edge of a child’s pool with a stick in one hand and gin and tonic in another, pointing the fat glass at the pool and sloshing alcohol over the rim. “She’s swimmin’.”
Darren glanced at the bloated fluff in the water. The cat wasn’t swimming, only her fur shimmied in the blue liquid. Her eyes were shut, the rims lined with pus. The feline’s nose bobbed beneath the water line.
“Not very good at it—eh?” His old man laughed, downing the entire drink and tossing what was left of the ice into the water. Chunks landed on the cat’s belly.
Darren’s stomach tightened. Spasms ran through his gut. He clutched his belly.
“Awe, come on, boy…It’s just a cat. Ain’t nobody cares about that cat.”
Darren charged passed his father, risking a glare as he passed. The man’s face was hard, set and full of disgust.
“What? You care, boy? Huh,” his father sniffed.“I guess that makes you a nobody—a NOBODY, ya’ hear!”
Bile crawled up Darren’s throat and settled in his nostrils. He ran faster, cupping a hand beneath his quivering lips.
“Yeah—go run to your mommy.” His father shouted behind him. “But don’t you go blaming me for this!”
Darren raced up the front porch steps and through the creaky doors of the family’s aged farmhouse. He tripped on a loose floorboard and caught a sliver in his naked foot but kept running. “Mama. Mama,” he shouted. Tears rippled down his cheeks and into his open mouth. “Mama! Daddy killed Misty. Daddy killed—”
Darren’s voice disappeared into the drawl of his mother’s favorite record, a shrill, scratchy piece of used-up vinyl twenty-five years old, cranking out words his young soul understood far too well. Pain...fear…loneliness. The volume rose with the help of an unseen hand, drowning out Darren, just like the cat, just like a nobody. Darren crashed against his mother’s locked bedroom door, pounding at the ancient, peeling wood. She could not hear him—would not hear him, preferring the sad melody over the cries of her only son. Darren slid to the floor, his legs giving out in surrender, his head banging against the frame on his way down.
That was the last time tears ever fell from Darren’s eyes. Only once more, when Darren had lost his mother for good, and just before he would get shuffled around like a misplaced trinket, did a single sliver of salty wetness reach Darren’s open mouth again.
He opened his eyes once more, adjusting slowly to the harsh sunlight. The top of Charlie’s head popped up at the edge of the lake, dipped below the surface again and reappeared in full. The boy coughed and gagged. His arms flailed. Darren locked eyes with the boy and then turned away.
People were supposed to cry when bad things happened.
Closer to the shore, the surface of the water erupted once more. The bubbles burst, sprouts of hair appeared, reddened cheeks, hands clutched the air.
Darren stared at the water. He could almost feel his father’s breath, almost see the patches of fur in the water.
More and more of the child emerged. Chin. Shoulders. Chest. Charlie coughed and spit. Slowly, painfully, as if held down by anchors, Charlie dragged himself out of the water, heaving and dripping. He collapsed on the rocky sand, his entire body shaking with each breath. The child’s laboring left him silent, but empty words lingered in the air between Darren and Charlie as they stared at one another.
Darren accepted the boy’s glare, kept his eyes locked in place. Charlie was heaven. Darren was hell. Someday Charlie’s Uncle Jack would figure out the truth and send Darren away. They always sent him away. “Don’t blame me for this.” Darren lowered his back to the ledge, flattening himself against the sharpest points of the jagged rock. He closed his eyes once more.
Darren could hear Charlie weeping a few feet away, and wondered why his own eyes were forever dry. He spoke to the boy without any hint of sympathy. “Don’t you go blaming me for this,” said Darren again. “All you had to do was stand up.”