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Excerpt: "Lifeguard" (A Short Story)

Bullied relentlessly by his alcoholic step-father, 13-year old Jake is a boy drowning in fear when he meets an unlikely friend who just might save his life.

Here's a quick excerpt, which you can listen to me read via streaming audio (click the play button above!) -- or read for yourself below. Enjoy! - JS


I gasped for air, unable to breathe. 

My step-father’s hand was big; big enough to fit nearly all the way around my thirteen-year old throat there in the living room of our home on Willow Tree Lane. He lifted me up by my neck so that my face was in his, legs dangling. He spit at me through crooked teeth stained from years of nicotine and tea as he spoke. I could smell the Vantages hot on his breath along with a hint of the morning’s Earl Grey. Something in him had snapped and he was growing a darker shade of red by the second. I remember thinking how the rest of his face finally matched the color of those alcohol-induced veins, crawling broken from his nose down into those flushed cheeks. 

My step-father Morgan, now 45, had once been a marine, and he made no secret of the fact that his hands had been trained to kill. I wondered if he ever had killed anyone with those hands. Wondered if he might kill me. Not now necessarily. Not in this very moment. But in any number of moments that would surely come again, just as they had come so many times before. 

I refused to cry, numbing myself to the pain. I had become an expert at this, having learned to numb myself since the time I was six, when he had discovered I was still wetting the bed. I had shown fear then, and the kicks, which came hot like a burning furnace into my stomach and rib cage, had only come harder for it. And what was it this time? What could I have done that was so bad? So wrong? A bad report card? The refrigerator door left open? 

“Get outside and mow the lawn,” he growled through those yellow gnarled teeth. “I’m NOT going to tell you again.” 

Right. Wasn’t going to tell again. Mow the lawn. Got it. 10-4. Over and out. 

I felt his grip loosen the slightest bit and as it did, my mother walked into the room, her eyes widening at the sight of her thirteen-year old boy suspended there in mid-air, feet dangling below him, his face an exotic shade of bruise. She put her hands out in front of her. 

“Morgan, please,” she said trying to stay as calm as possible. “Put him down. Please.” 

He dropped me to the floor. 

Both of them turned, walking out of the room in opposite directions. 

As she slowly walked back into her bedroom, I could hear my mom say in a stoic, almost robotic tone, “Get outside and mow the lawn …before he kills you.”


Outside, the tears flowed now with reckless abandon, safely unheard over the loud whum of the lawnmower. I pushed the machine with all my weight against it. 

Perhaps I was living in some anarchic version of The Stepford Wives. Maybe an alien had taken over my mother’s body since we had moved to Florida just a few months before. I could think of no better reason why she wouldn’t just leave this man, who was tormenting us more and more by the day – and beating her senseless each night. 

It also crossed my mind that Florida might just be that much closer to Hell, what with it being south and so much closer to the equator and all. Maybe Sarasota was one of Satan’s own private circles. It did seem to be where a lot of old people went to die. 

Whatever the case, my mother seemed but a shell of her former self, now officially married to Morgan, the man with whom we had spent the last seven years in Bergenfield, New Jersey. 

“Mom, why do we have to leave New Jersey?” I asked, on the day we started packing. 

“Honey, everyone wants to leave New Jersey,” she quipped, rolling her eyes and smiling adorably. She took her hand and cupped the back of my head. “Morgan is going to marry me,” she smiled sweetly. “In his mother’s will, she left her house in Florida to him. And that’s where we want to start our new life together.” 

New life? It had been seven years. What was wrong with the old life? 

“But I won’t be able to see my dad,” I argued. 

“Oh, Jake,” she sighed. “You’ll still get to see your father every other year at Christmas, and for a couple of weeks during the Summer. Now, will you do me a big, big, big favor?”

Begrudgingly, I nodded my head to the affirmative. 

“Start packing your room?” She handed me an empty box, and I took it dutifully. 

As I trudged upstairs to pack my bedroom, head lowered, I felt ashamed for doubting her. Most boys would have trusted their mothers were making the right decision. And yet, somehow I knew it was the wrong one. I knew it with all my heart, and I felt it in my gut. But what could I do? I was like a prisoner, unable to escape. 

Remembering this as I pushed that lawnmower, sweat dripping from my chin, it dawned on me that childhood is like a prison. If free will is a God-given right, it is surely one denied to those under the age of 18. You do what you’re told. Even when you know it’s the wrong thing. Even when it hurts.

 

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