Mom’s in her ignore phase again, and today I biked around the lake to Uncle Zack’s. He makes his living from a little cluster of cottages he owns on Lake Trick. In the summer he rents them out to vacationers. In the fall he rents them out to hunters. He also cleans fish and game for people who don’t want to do it themselves. At the height of hunting season, the cleaning shed turns into a war zone. Silver fish scales float on top of a slick layer of scarlet blood. It’s almost Christmassy, in weird kind of way.
I came down the driveway to the cottages, lined up in their rubber duck row on the shore. Summer vacation is still ongoing, so they were all rented. Vacationers sat on the tiny beach or splashed in the water. Some of the canoes Uncle Zack lets the renters use were gone, and I spotted them out on the water, gliding along like mercury crocodiles.
I parked my bike and went into the rental office, which is in the front part of Uncle Zack’s house. There’s an entry area where renters come in, and a half-door leads to the back part of the office. A full door behind Uncle Zack’s desk goes into the main house. Uncle Zack is sole proprietor and employee at Lake Trichonida Cottage Rental, which means that during vacation and hunting seasons, he works continuously. Something almost always needs to be fixed or cleaned or dealt with. But today I caught him sitting at his desk. He was staring at a framed picture, and he didn’t hear me come in. I leaned on the half-door.
“Hey,” I said.
He looked up at me, a little startled, and I saw that his eyes were shiny, like warm water was about to spill out of them.
“Hey, Danny,” he said, and quickly set the picture down. It showed two of his kids, a blond boy and a brown-haired girl about my age. Uncle Zack cleared his throat hard. “How’s it going, kiddo?”
I’m not stupid. I could see he was half-crying about his kids. The problem was, I had no clue how to handle it. This is where I sometimes envy girls. They seem to know what to do or say in these situations. None of the guys I know do, including me. So I did the guy thing–I ignored it.
“It’s going pretty good,” I said. “I came by to see if you had the money from when I mowed the lawn last week.” Mowing the cottage lawns and raking out the beach’s fire pit are my main summer jobs.
Uncle Zack blinked at me. He’s a pretty good-looking guy. Thick blond hair going gray on the sides, brown eyes, square face and big body. He could probably wrestle a cow to the ground without breaking a sweat. He’s getting a little soft around the middle, but it still looks okay. In the fall he wears boots and a lot of flannel. In the summer he goes for cargo shorts, polo shirts, and sandals. His face fell when I mentioned money.
“Oh shit. Danny–”
I entered the office and plopped down onto the extra chair beside his desk. “I’ll guess. Child support again.”
“I can’t get caught up,” he admitted. “No matter how hard I try. It seems like I send every cent I bring in, and it still isn’t enough. Look, I’ll make it up to you.”
“No biggie,” I said, lying. I’d been hoping to get some decent jeans and maybe a new shirt with the cash. I hate shopping for clothes, but Mom won’t buy them in her ignore phase, and in the Supermom phase, she buys me what she thinks I should wear instead of what I actually want. So I try to buy my own stuff whenever I can.
“It is a biggie,” Uncle Zack said. “I don’t like owing people money, especially you and my kids.”
I liked the way he put me in the same context as his own kids. “You miss them,” I said without thinking.
“Yeah,” he said. “E-mail and pictures aren’t the same as being there. But that’s enough shitting around. Look, let’s go out in a canoe for a while. Just you and me. Things are quiet around here right now, and we may not get another chance until after Labor Day.”
I was up for that. Uncle Zack put up a sign that gave the renters his cell phone number in case an emergency came up, and we went down to the beach. I got in front and Uncle Zack, the power paddler, got in back. The bottom hissed against sand as we shoved away from the beach, and Uncle Zack waved at the renters enjoying warm sun and water. A red-haired woman in a knockout bikini waved back, and I almost dropped my paddle. I flushed, glad she was too far away to see my face redden as Uncle Zack and I glided quietly out onto the clear lake. Together.
I don’t really care about the lawn money. His kids can have it.
Steven Harper Piziks was born with a name that no one can reliably spell or pronounce, so he writes under the pen name Steven Harper. He lives in Michigan with his family. When not at the keyboard, he sings, plays the harp and recorder, and collects folk music. He maintains that the most interesting thing about him is that he writes books. He is the creator of The Silent Empire series, the Clockwork Empire steampunk series, and the Books of Blood and Iron series for Roc Books. You can find him on-line at http://www.