I think I’ve chosen darkness. Or maybe I’m just lazy. Not really sure. There was a boy, drowning. I was sitting against a tree, reading. The birds, the damned birds, flew in circles over his head, flew from him to me, back and forth, again and again, flapping their rust-colored wings.
Down the hill, through the trees, and across a small dirt beach, ripples spread across the surface of the lake. He was slapping the water with his hands, screaming.
And I sat there. I watched as he drowned.
The birds were diving close to the boy’s head, then across the short distance to where I sat. They were harassing me. They have this annoying whoop. It sounds more like a car alarm than a bird call. But of course it does.
The boy looked to be about my age, no older. His round head was bobbing in and out of the water, thrashing, soaked hair throwing droplets. His hands reached up again and again, seeking to grab the air, nothing there, his legs kicking useless against the current.
And it was a strong current. I’ll give him that, he picked a good spot. It’s where an undertow draws water from the center of the lake into the treatment plant pipes.
I refused to move.
The air was cool up on the small hill. Below, I thought, the water would be very cold.
Maybe that’s why I stayed put.
Maybe it wasn’t darkness, or laziness. Maybe I just was tired and wanted to stay warm. Stay dry.
I remember sighing. Then cursing.
I remember saying, “Not me. Not this time.”
I muttered, “Goddamned kid.”
I remember muttering, setting my book down and muttering. Watching him drown.
Then I found myself running, shaking my head, toward the lake. Of course I did.
I think I was still muttering.
I found a long branch near the edge of the water. The birds had ceased their commotion, and now they circled around the boy, each bird precisely equidistant from the next. A faint creaking sound carried over the water, the creaking of wings. The boy was still yelling, but he’d turned toward me, his rescuer. He yelled and yelled. He swallowed water.
I stripped off my sweater and hung it carefully over a rhododendron. I kicked off my sneakers, bending down to stuff my socks inside. I was in no hurry. I figured my spandex pants wouldn’t hinder swimming, and I’d rather leave the sports bra on. I put a foot in the water. So cold. What would entice anyone to swim in water so damned cold?
I took a deep breath, held the long branch above my head, and waded into the lake.
Should have hit him over the head with it. Felt like doing that. Serve him right.
When I reached the boy, he said softly, “I think I can swim in. We’ll split, fifty-fifty, okay?”
The birds were circling, watching us. I didn’t think they could hear us. Could they? I’d never considered that.
I turned back toward shore. Fuck him.
He said, “Okay, how about I take thirty and you get seventy?”
I said, “Asshole. Criminal fucking bastard.”
He said, “Come on. Just gimme the end of the stick. I’ll pretend. They’ll never know. They’re so fucking stupid.” He was dog-paddling, frenzied. He looked exhausted.
On the beach, I was breathing hard. I stretched my arm, trying to work out a cramp. My legs were shivering fiercely, despite the spandex. The kid was curled on the ground nearby, pretending to gasp and puke, doing a really poor impression of oh-my-god-I-almost-drowned-you-saved-me.
One of the birds landed by my foot. As I turned my head to look at it, the thing opened its beak, like they do, and somewhere inside tiny gears whirred and something started clicking. Light flashed in my face from one beady glass eye. Something was off about the body, some damage, stuff no longer fitting together.
I turned my head up to the sky; more circling birds, watching. But I could still see the small, narrow paper strip running out of that bird’s mouth. A slicing sound, and it fell to the wet dirt. I looked over: 1,508 likes. A sizable amount, a bonus, a bounty. Another flash of light as it took a photo and scanned my eyes. There’d be posts on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok. Maybe a YouTube Short: watch girl save drowning boy.
He wouldn’t have drowned. But maybe I would have let him.
I contemplated leaving the receipt right where it was, letting the paper blow into the lake.
I pulled my sweater over my head, wrestled it on, got it settled over my shoulders. So fucking cold, wet. And for what? I jammed the receipt into the waistband of my spandex pants.
Across the lake, I could see where the birds had settled down in a group, imagined the small pins under their claws plugging into a Tesla field. I wondered, for the first time, who kept them in repair. Did anyone these days?
“Please,” the boy bawled.
“I did nearly drown out there. For real,” he lied. “And you looked like you were gonna wait until my head went under. Just gimme some likes. I got nowhere to go. I got nothing and I’m freezing.”
He had the deep eyes of someone on something: some drug, some game, some black market ASMR. Lean face. Thin.
I took my phone from my bag. The app’s illegal, isn’t it? Nobody cares.
I think I’ve chosen darkness, but I gave him the likes.
In the darkness they can’t see you.
Maybe they can anyway. I don’t know.
I’m just tired. Tired of the game of it. Tired of likes and dislikes, all of it in your face. In your Facebook. In your Twitter. Tired, really tired. Tired of Doing the Right Thing. Kindness is a monster.
Another bird landed.
It opened its mouth.
20,007 likes fell out.
Oh, that’s right. So now I get . . . more likes, because everybody knows I gave druggie-boy my likes.
Light flashed. I blinked my eyes. The bird flew off.
The worst of it is, it isn’t external. Those birds get inside you.
So I thought I was going to post this, attempt to explain what happened, why I didn’t jump in to save him right away—though I did jump in—but maybe, just this once, this is for me, not anyone else. Maybe I’ll put this away in the dark.