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HEY were moving farther away from shore.
His father paddled as Jacob scooped up water and dumped it over the side. His father kept looking down at him, and Jacob guessed what he was thinking. He wanted to somehow hide it from his father, he didn't want his father to get angry at himself, but Jacob couldn't help it -- the water was still rising.
His father sat down and stared back into the bilge. His feet were wet and he was shivering again. Jacob looked down too, but in the darkness he couldn't see the bottom. His father removed his jacket again and thrust himself beneath the water. He stayed down so long that Jacob almost touched the white skin of his father's back to make sure he was all right. Then his father burst out and stumbled back across the boat, landing against the tiller.
"Damn. It's not the bolt. There's a crack in one of the lower planks. One of the ribs must have pushed out when we hit and split the plank or something. I don't know. I can't patch it from inside."
His father's eyes widened when he saw his briefcase sitting on one of the seats. He lunged across the boat and fumbled with the latches.
"Let me," Jacob said, rising and standing next to his father, but his father pushed him away.
"I got it." The two latches clicked up and the briefcase popped open. His father grabbed the phone with his numb hands. He had to cradle it in one palm and aim with the index finger of the other hand at the POWER button. Jacob could see his father's teeth gleaming in the moonlight, but he turned his attention to the phone and waited for the yellow lights to appear on the panel. Nothing happened. His father pushed again, and again.
"The battery's dead. Didn't you turn the power off?" His father looked at the phone in total disbelief, and then at Jacob, who, to avoid his father's eyes, also looked at the phone. He tried to remember if he had pushed the POWER button after talking to his mother. His father let out an awful noise, half growl, half scream, and threw the phone toward shore. Jacob heard it plop like a small stone. His father picked up his briefcase, too, swung it against the deck of the boat with a crack, and then hurled it out as well. White papers fluttered through the air like a flock of panicked terns before drifting slowly to the water and vanishing. The open briefcase tipped sideways and sank from view.
His father watched the place where it had been. Jacob watched his father and thought that they could have used the briefcase to bail. Maybe they could have stayed ahead of the leak until morning, when someone would see them for sure. "Maybe someone will see us out here tonight," he said.
His father looked up at the rigging, his shoulder blades pinching together. "Not with red canvas. We'll have to patch the crack from the outside. Hand me my shirt there, and the anchor."
Jacob rested them on the deck as his father removed his shoes and slacks, groaning when his body slid into the cold water. The white arm came up and grasped the shirt and anchor. Then he put the anchor back on the deck.
"You'll have to dangle the anchor over the side for me while I use the edge of it to stuff the rag into the crack." His father's voice was shaky, and his teeth chattered.
Jacob leaned over the side and watched his father descend into the dark water.
"Give me a little more slack," his father said after coming up for air. Then he went back down again, and Jacob heard faint taps on the hull. His father came back up. "It's a long, narrow crack," he said. "It must bend inward, but we can't get to it from the inside without ripping up the floor. Even then I think it's out of reach from the inside."
Jacob didn't want to say anything. His father went down again, tapped, and came up. This time he let out a long moan before sucking in air and going back down. Tapping turned to banging. Jacob could see the outline of the silver anchor swinging through the water below. His father was swinging as hard as he could through the water at the crack. Jacob had an idea which plank it was. The last thud was muffled. He looked down to see his father pulling back on the anchor.
"No!" Jacob said, but it was too late. His father jimmied the anchor out and then came up for air. Jacob hauled the anchor aboard and stuck his arm down into the bilge. He could not reach the plank his father had been hitting, but he could feel the flow of water rushing in where the anchor had made a gash.
"I'm too cold," his father said.
Jacob turned and wrapped his hands around one of his father's arms and pulled. His father kicked and lunged up, eventually getting his stomach over the gunwale and grabbing the edge of the seat. Jacob put his arms around his father's waist, feeling the hair on his father's back press against his face, and tugged. The flesh was cold to his lips and hands, and Jacob was afraid to let go, even when his father was safely on the seat.
His father drew away, rose to his feet, and found the anchor. He dropped it, and then clamped it between his hands and swung it over his head like an ax. The anchor bounced off the deck and fell to the floor. His father grabbed it out of the water and lifted it over his head again.
"No, no!" Jacob reached for his father, who was using the last of his full strength to swing the anchor against the deck. This time the anchor bounced into the ocean. They both watched as the chain and fifty feet of rope snaked out of the boat, snapped in the air, and disappeared. Jacob felt embarrassed for having cried out.
His father sat down on the seat. The water rose almost to his knees. Jacob shook, but his father was beyond that stage. His eyes drooped.
"We'll have to swim." His father barely mumbled, he was so groggy with cold.
Jacob nodded, but he knew that was impossible. The tide had taken them farther out. Even in late August the water was cold, and they wouldn't have much time before hypothermia set in. Jacob was an excellent swimmer. He swam for a team at school, but that was in eighty-degree water at an indoor pool. The distance to shore would take him an hour and a half. A long string of lights followed the shoreline of New Wagon Harbor and seemed close enough to touch.
"You swim for shore and get help."
Jacob couldn't see his father's lips moving. "No."
"Don't argue. Take the paddle and swim as well as you can. Don't let go of it. Go now."
Jacob stood on the gunwale with the paddle in his hand, looking down into the water. The deck was less than a foot off the surface now. He eased himself in, gripping the paddle in his hand.
"I'll be right back," Jacob yelled, but he heard no response. He could see the silhouette of his father's head and thought about checking on him, but decided he had better keep going, focusing on the brightest light on shore, probably someone's dock, and kicking with all his force. He felt strong at first, but then he grew stiff, his legs moving in slow motion. He looked behind him. The outline of the sails seemed lower in the water. He turned and kicked harder, afraid to lose sight of the dock but also thinking that maybe the wind would still come up. Soon he could barely move his legs, and the water felt warmer as he turned onto his back to rest. His thoughts slowed. Tomorrow, he thought, they would tow the Sassanoa to Heron Island and patch the hole. But the dark triangle set against the stars sank into the blue-black horizon, and there was no sign of the pale shoulders and arms of the man who had promised him summer afternoons when he would finally sail alone.
Jason Brown teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His first collection of stories, Driving the Heart and Other Stories, will be published this month.
Illustration by R. Kenton Nelson
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Afternoon of the Sassanoa; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 84-96.