Third Place Winner of the 2023 Writes of Summer Short Story Challenge
the water is silky smooth. Quiet. Now maybe he can think. He pulls his ball cap down low, so the big sky feeling isn’t ‘too much’ and dips his paddle in to establish a rhythm. It is slow - methodical. There is no resistance. No need to rush. If only his thoughts would skim by with the same ease. No. They are a jumble, leaping one across another, settling nowhere. It’s all Sam’s fault.
All he said was “Too cool for school.”
Maybe he also made a little flourish to show off his first day of junior high outfit. But Sam didn’t need to jump all over him.
“Gawd Ronald. That is just so cliché. Everything about you is cliché. What are you wearing?”
All her vowels were drawn out.
He looked down. What was wrong with his hoodie and cargo shorts? The oversized hoodie was soft and comfy and red – his favorite color. The kangaroo pocket meant he could keep his hands tucked away from anything he didn’t want to touch AND he could rub his favorite rock without anybody noticing. Yah, the cargo shorts were a little frayed, but they had so many great places to cram away all the neat stuff he found during the day. He didn’t need everything to be shiny new. Sam had so many new clothes. He had no idea how she would ever decide what to wear.
“You could at least lose the stupid shoes or those awful ear-things.”
His crocs couldn’t be the issue. They were so awesome; he had specifically selected his best croc jibbitz just to show off. His hand moved to touch his new headphones. He missed his old earmuffs. The blue and orange fuzzy stripes were rad, but Mom was right. They had gotten ratty and with the touch of a button – the headphones let him tune out the world.
“They’re headphones, not ear-things.”
But Sam had already started to walk away.
What was her problem these days? Nothing he did seemed right. Just cause she was going to high school this year, didn’t mean she had to be so judgy. On the other hand, she had given him a new word. Cliché. Clee-shay. Hard and sharp to start, soft and mushy at the end. Yep, he was going to have to test that one out.
He started with Mr. Lonsdale at the corner store. He plunked down his money and jujubes.
“Will that be all Ronald?”
“That is so cliché.”
“Huh. Sure – ok. Whatever kid. Here’s your change.”
Nope. That wasn’t right. Next, he tried his mom.
“Do you want ice cream sweetie?”
“That is so cliché Mom.”
“Is that a no?
Hmm. He needed to work on context.
All this rumbles through his head as he heads out of the bay to the point. A sudden snorting snuffle disrupts his thoughts and his stroke. He looks back. A shiny dome with soulful wet eyes is following him. The seal stares. He stares back. What is it thinking? Is it following him? Is it scared and checking him out or is it trying to scare him away? Is it curious? Does it know how to be curious? It slips back below the surface of the water.
The seal’s appearance releases him from his clanging thoughts. He can breathe. He can look. He can listen. He spots bubbles ahead and to the left. Ring interrupting ring. He gets close enough to see a school of herring snipping at the surface bugs. Maybe that is what the seal really thinks about.
He hears a hush of wings over water. A great blue heron hovers inches above the ocean on its way to shore and a meal. Ronald’s stroke becomes leisurely and at last he rests the paddle on the gunnels as he nears rocks revealed by the low tide at the tip of the bay. Some of the seal herd is likely still sleeping and he wants to see how close he can get without disturbing them. He ducks down low resting his elbows and chin on the yoke of the canoe. Perhaps if they don’t notice him and see only the boat, they won’t get spooked and slide off the rocks into the water. He floats closer.
A head pops up less than 10 feet away with a loud watery huff. It startles him and he slumps to one side. Little wavelets emanate away from the unstable canoe.
Suddenly he can hear Sam’s voice in his head – ‘Ronald, don’t rock the boat.’ The edge that has crept into her tone over the last year is present even in his thoughts.
He sits back on the seat abruptly, startling the seals. They start to splunk into the water. It is seal dominos – one following the other.
“Oh my god Sam. I get it.” He grins. “That. That is so cliché.”
More seals flop down from their resting place. He realizes something else.
“But you should rock the boat Sam. How else will people know you are there?”
Only the seals hear. The one closest sinks below the surface. Ripple meets ripple.