He swam farther out in the lake than he ever had before. The knot beneath his chest, perhaps six inches below his sternum, won’t go away. He closes his eyes against the blazing sun, reflected into a thousand piercing motes by the choppy waters that sloshed around his ears. He had been swimming hard to get away from his friends, the boys, who were ostracizing him again. The wind is hot, the waves are hot, the cloudless sky is hot, Anthony’s arms are taut and stiff, almost cramping. He stops and looks behind him. They seem very far away, spindly outlines like water spiders making a perimeter around the docks. The water churns, Anthony pants, and the rest is silence.
When he squints, he can see they’re still tossing around that yellow water polo ball. He imagines Bill’s hairy knuckles clenched around it, his shoulders pulling back and tensing before the throw, the arc of arm and ball released. It was of course Bill who had shifted the game from friendly toss-and-catch to keep-away from Anthony. The smaller boy’s protests encouraged them, he thinks. He vows to stay quieter next time. In short order the game became one of scaring Anthony by throwing the ball close to him, then Bill, of course Bill, started throwing it directly at him. His goggles, tinted to shield his pale eyes from the sun, had come off in the scuffle to keep him confined in the circle of boys. They failed, but he doesn’t feel like he succeeded, either.
The water shimmers. Anthony kicks his skinny legs to stay above water. They have to leave eventually, he thinks. Bill laughs and shouts, his face stubbly and tanned. His eyes, deep brown, are lightless and cruel. Anthony banishes them from his thoughts: Bill’s eyes now, and when they held his furtive gaze in calm warmth. When they welcomed the sight of his own pale blue. When they welcomed that embrace, amid shadows and the breezes of summer’s night. Anthony shivers, though his skin burns.
The sound of a motorboat truly breaks his reverie. A white and red shape hacks through the water about twenty feet behind him, oblivious to his presence. The wake lifts him up like an insect, crashing him down beneath the surface. Anthony emerges, sputtering, water singeing his nostrils. The growl of the engine fades to the airy, bright silence of water and breath. He realizes he must leave.
Towards the docks the sun burns at his eyes, a white-hot sky of grimaces. Spiders still dance there with a yellow ball. Spiders with their dark and slender legs outsplayed, like the hairs on Bill’s arm. A softness pressing down on him, intent and unguarded. The sweat and the stifling summer night air. His eyes gazed up, marking new and undiscovered constellations in the sky between gasps as the other boy’s mouth descended from ear to neck to–
A wave slaps Anthony’s face hard and he shudders. The undulating lake is dragging him towards the docks. He can’t go back. He doesn’t ever want to go back.
Anthony swims further out. He imagines he can make it to the neighboring beach, that he can make himself visible to any passing boats. He swims against the waves, against the brightness of the sky. Why is everything so bright? he wonders, his eyes stinging. His legs and arms are tingling with fatigue. He sucks in gulps of air between the ragged crests of waves. His chest burns, hotter than it should even in this state. The knot of blackening, tangled flesh is coiling beneath his chest, pulling in his organs, twisting and charring them.
God damn him, he thinks. Him and the others. The knot tightens. Tears well in the corners of his eyes. He starts to sob but his breath catches. Water fills his mouth. He spits it out with a sound like a kicked dog. His swimming has become a flailing turmoil: wild kicking and slapping at the water, an ant fallen into the sea. He is tiring himself out, and he doesn’t care. The wind is too hot, the sky too bright. He just wants the knot to go away. Wants it all gone.
Anthony’s breaths heave. He stops, eyes blurry and closed, and floats on his back. How far out is he? The sounds of distant engines drift over him. The sky is a fierce red-orange flame, even through his eyelids. Something pinches at his chest. Sitting on it is a squat, black horsefly the size of his thumbnail. His left pectoral is bleeding. He splashes at the insect, brings himself upright. Its wings rasp like a chainsaw as it circles him. His legs hurt treading water, and soon he relents and resumes floating, eyes closed, pale chest towards the sun.
The fly lands again. It lowers its head and two shearing barbs razor across his flesh. He can feel his blood oozing out, mingling with the lakewater. The fly’s proboscis is fleshy and bristled, suckling at his riven skin. For a moment, the pressure in his chest abates.
“Stop,” he whispers. “Please…”
The horsefly beats its wings, a deep rasping that sounds to Anthony like the word Poison. The sun’s fire fades from his eyes as though a cloud were passing over it, though the sky is clear. The water around him begins to feel cool, like the runoff from glaciers. It soothes his muscles like soft fingers.
The fly buzzes to his forehead. Full of poison, its wings seem to say in voiceless vibration. Where its feet touch his head itches. His chest slips below the water again, limply relishing the chill. Goosebumps up and down his legs and arms. He is floating without swimming, as though lifted up by a rising current from the cloudy depths. He looks around. The shore in all directions is very far, now. Farther than seems possible. He can no longer see the boys around the dock except in his memory, in his bruised skin where the ball struck him. In Bill’s deep-furrowed brow and spit-flecked grimace.
The pincer-prick of the fly’s bite blossoms on his forehead, but this time it isn’t painful. It is a numbness. He feels the poison from inside him run in a thin rivulet down between his eyes, feels the frondlike tongue of the fly lap it from him with the gentleness of a lover.
“Take it all,” he says. The lakewater shifts around him, as though something stirs far below. Fist-sized bubbles rise to the surface, bursting to release flies that start to swarm around his head and face. Make hollow, their wings rasp.
He puts his face under water and looks down. A gulf of dark-grey water broods under him, a shadow welling upward. The bubbles and icy currents emerge from it. His muscles tense. Is this emptiness vast enough to hold my poison? he thinks. To hold the pain, and the memory of pain? The dark shimmers. He exhales, and in the bubbles from his mouth there are the dim shapes of flywings twitching, chitin scissoring behind lips, tongues barbed with bone and nail. He surfaces once more. The mirages of the deep are less cruel than mirages made by men. His eyes are clear.
The horsefly hovers before his eyes for an instant, then dives into the water. Make hollow, its wings rasp. He watches it descend into the gloom. The sun is peeking back out, but the water itself has become darker. He holds his breath and dives after it. Soon his chest constricts and his lungs burn, but the knot is gone.