Brightly, Brightly

Kathleen Latham


“Let’s swim out to the island,” Gavin’s father said, too brightly.

Gavin shrugged because he was twelve, and it was hard to get excited about a clump of trees in the middle of a lake.

They left the rental cottage unlocked. Hobbled over moon-shaped stones. Kicked at weeds until their feet floated free and they were slicing through water—late afternoon sun on their backs, eyes shut to the shimmering glare.

The island stayed pinned in the distance.

“How much farther?” Gavin asked, arms heavy.

His father laughed, as if he were joking. Sunlight glinted off his bald spot.

Halfway there, Gavin’s right calf seized. He gagged on silt and copper.

“Easy,” his father said, hooking a hand under Gavin’s armpit. His pale legs bicycled beneath them, flashes of white in the deep. “Did you know you could float to China if you had to? Right on your back. Like this.”

They floated like starfish—sound muffled, then clear; muffled, then clear. They were alone in the middle of the lake, the blue shutters of the rental cottage barely visible in the distance. Streaks of clouds feathered the sky.

They resumed swimming, more slowly than before. Gavin spluttering and complaining. His father counting strokes. When they finally made it, Gavin clung to a speckled boulder, gasping for air.

“Farther than I thought,” his father admitted, his eyes on the far shore though Gavin knew he’d left his glasses behind.

There was no beach to speak of. Just shattered rock. Dirt, not sand. That cluster of trees.

Gavin cut his leg climbing ashore. Cheese grater grooves, angry with blood. “I won’t make it back,” he said, embarrassment making him hate the sight of his father dragging himself over the rocks, his belly saggy and soft. Blue-veined feet slipping.

“We’ll give it a bit. Have an explore.”

But there was nowhere to go. A thicket of bushes blocked their way, a sun-bleached Mylar balloon incongruously caught in its clutches, red ribbon tail flapping a warning.

The lake grew wider in Gavin’s mind. The water, deeper.

His father made a half-hearted attempt to rescue the balloon, but the ribbon broke off in his hand. Skittered away like a snake.

The sun dropped.

Finally, his father clapped his hands, decision made.  “I’ll go back and get the canoe,” he announced.

Gavin searched his face for worry but saw only brightness.

“Just stay out of the water, okay?”

His father scooched over the rocks on his butt, and Gavin turned away, mortified by his own weakness and his father’s awkward descent.

“Burgers for dinner sound good?”

Gavin shrugged, and his father gave a lopsided grin.

“Just stay there, all right? I’ll be back in a flash.”

He swam off with a steady stroke.

Gavin tried to track his progress, but after a few minutes, the dark shape he thought was his father’s head took to the sky—a loon, soaring over the empty lake with a cry, the horizon red beneath its wings, the water a bruise.

Gavin wandered to the edge of the thicket, peered at the trees, went back to the rocks. He threw pebble after pebble into the water. The lake swallowed them greedily. Waited for more. The mountains in the distance blurred into inky black fingers.

Gavin sat and poked at his cuts. Wondered if he’d get a scar. Thought about the story he’d tell if he did. Finally, he lay on his back and tried to play his favorite video game in his head. Gave himself the Level 3 sword power-up. Drifted off hacking away at imaginary thorns.

He woke in the dark, cold and confused; mosquitos feasting. He scrambled to his feet and gaped at the lights on the far shore. Blackness behind him. The lake, a creature breathing.

He shouted till his lungs were raw. Used all the swear words he knew then cried big, sloppy tears and had nothing to blow his nose with. He was being ridiculous. His father wouldn’t just leave him there. Surely he’d appear any moment with some story about missing oars or getting lost. What a night, he’d say, over and over as they rowed back beneath the blanket of stars. Isn’t it lovely?

And it would be if Gavin wasn’t so cold and afraid. If his cuts didn’t sting and the shuddering in the trees was just wind. Lovely to be there, under all that brightness.

Somehow, he fell asleep again. This time, he was swimming to China. His father, with the head of a bird, cheering him on.

He woke at dawn to the sound of a motorboat. Wisps of fog hung suspended like curtains in the early morning light. They parted, and an old man in a fishing hat appeared steering a boat. His craggy face froze at the sight of Gavin alone on the island.

The man brought the boat close and helped Gavin onboard. Wrapped him in a blanket and offered his phone. Frowned when Gavin’s father didn’t answer. Turned his back and made a call of his own. “There’s a kid out here,” he whispered, as though it were a secret.

He offered Gavin his breakfast—hard-boiled egg, apple—which Gavin wolfed down with two bottles of water. Between bites, he did his best to direct the man towards the rental, but the mist bled the shore of details. Finally, remembering, he said, “Blue shutters?”

The man nodded and turned the boat. Accelerated. Asked again what had happened.

Gavin would tell the story so many times in the days and years to come, it would take on a linear nature: swim, cramp, island, boat. But that morning, motoring across the still, wispy lake, all he could offer were disjointed fragments: Silty water. Scrape of rock. The glint of sun on his father’s bald spot. The slant of his smile. His cell phone, ringing and ringing.

Even after they found the house with blue shutters—the canoe still in place, his father’s glasses exactly where he’d left them. Even after divers came and boats pored over the lake. Even after they found him.

Gavin would return to those fragments obsessively, worry them in his palm like stones—searching over and over for the why of things, but seeing only his father swimming away. Transforming into a loon again and again. Soaring over the red horizon. Leaving.

How was he to know about love and the way it makes us stupid and selfless? About fatherhood and the things we do? Those lessons would come years from then, after the blazing ball of guilt and shame streaking across his life’s sky falls to the earth, diminished and cold. He’ll look up then and see a thousand pinpricks of light.

How many there are. How bright.


Kathleen Latham is a poet and writer living outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Twice nominated for Best Small Fictionsher work has placed or been shortlisted for Bath Flash FictionFish Flash FictionFractured Lit, and New Flash Fiction Review. Words in Reflex FictionThe Masters ReviewFictive Dream, and others. She tweets from @lathamwithapen and can be found online at



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