DARK AND DEEP, by Elle Cosimano

hanginggardenstories:

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The air tasted like salt and blood and smelled like creek sludge, and the grinder churned out mounds of pulpy red mush into a five-gallon bucket between my feet. I grabbed a handful of cold fish and fed them to the blades by their tails. When both buckets were full, I wiped sweat from my forehead, breathing hard.

I carried them down the wharf, eyes on the horizon as I struggled to find my balance. A red sunrise turned the river into a sheet of blood-brown glass. A heron dipped low, cutting it with long dragging legs, his eyes following me.

“Don’t even think about it,” I grumbled at him, and clumsily shifted my grip. The metal handles cut into my fingers, pulling every muscle from forearm to shoulder, and grazing my knees hard enough to scratch. If we didn’t need the money so bad, I’d have gladly thrown both buckets into the creek and let the gulls and osprey have at them. At barely six, the air was already thick enough to swim through, and my chocolate milk would be hot and my sausage biscuit cold before I finished.

But this was it. This was everything. The last good summer Dad had in him. The last summer before I’d be out on my own.

“Pick up the pace, Bait Board.” Mitch passed me, slipping his wiry brown body in the narrow space between me and the edge of the wharf. He laughed as one of my buckets knocked a piling, tossing a handful of chum into the dark water and alerting the gulls, who circled eagerly and shat white trails behind me.

I tried not to look at my chest, even though it felt like it was shrinking. Same way he made everything inside me feel like it was shrinking. God, I hated him. Hated them all.

“Man, it’s hot!” Mitch hollered from his perch above the Genevieve. He peeled off his t-shirt and crumpled it into a ball, shaking the sweat from his hair like an unruly wet dog. “Come on, Bait Board! Take your shirt off!” At that, Skeeter and Clayton followed suit, all of them prancing around shirtless and laughing like hyenas.

I gritted my teeth and pretended not to hear them, but a hot flush crept over my hairline, giving me away.

“You should put yours back on, Mitch. Sweaty Loser isn’t a good look for you.”

Mitch spit over the side, glaring at me like he’d as soon throw me in the chum grinder. David watched, half-sitting on a tar-topped piling, thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his shorts. The bright light made him squint, and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He made a show of inspecting a pair of rusty pliers, and I half-expected him to say something smart when I passed, but he didn’t say a word. He just glanced at me out of the corner of that squinty eye, his lip quirked up like maybe he’d been smiling. 

“Bitsy!” My father cracked his window at the helm and turned down the squawk on his radio. He punched coordinates into his navigation computer and logged an odometer into a logbook that would be forgotten in a matter of hours. He lost a little more of himself each day, and soon, it wouldn’t be safe for him on the water anymore. “Load us up, sweetheart. Tide’s a wastin’.” He turned over the engine and the big CAT rumbled to life, kicking up the smell of diesel.

I lowered my buckets into the stern of the Adrianna, sparing a quick glance at the other boats. Their crews scurried from bow to stern. Mitch was already prepping reels and tying liters and hooks. But their fuel lines were still running. Those bigger boats took longer to fill, and were slower too. We would beat them to the channel.

I didn’t care if they didn’t like me. This was it. This was everything. And I was better at this than all of them.

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