News trucks from ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN had assembled in a weedy back yard in Abells Corners, Wisconsin: Robbie Hanratty, a skinny, brown-haired, sixteen year-old boy had fallen down the property’s deep well. Cameramen bustled across the patchy expanse of dirt and crabgrass capturing shots of the well’s imposing darkness and the stern faces of the assembled Fire and Rescue Team. The team had come the five miles from Elkhorn because Abell’s Corners, a sparsely populated unincorporated area, had no rescue squad of its own.
A couple of the news crews had second cameras recording atmospheric shots: the denuded aspens and sugar maples that thinly marked the edges of the property; the modest sliver of moon hanging in the frigid eastern sky. At the request of one of the reporters, the boy’s mother, Patricia Weigant, had produced a recent picture of Robbie. The boy had a long, comical face and stunned, dark eyes that seemed focused on something above the camera.
Glenn Watson, the burly point person of the Rescue Team attached his rappelling rope to his harness—he’d yelled down to Robbie, but had gotten no answer—as the reporters interviewed the boy’s mother. She was a heavy, distraught woman with wispy, dyed-blonde hair that floated in both directions across her forehead.
“I don’t know how it happened,” she kept saying. “I was just getting something out of my car and I looked up and saw his feet disappearing into the well.”
“What was he doing out here when it happened?” asked a reporter.
“I don’t know anything,” she said.
“When had you last spoken with him?” another reporter asked
“He’s excitable,” she said.
Down in the darkness, the boy stood in the waist-high water and tried to clear his head. He was still foggy from the force of the fall, though due to the recent rain, he’d merely kissed the cement bottom. The water was ice cold and it was so dark he couldn’t even see his hand as it rose to wipe his hair out of his eyes.
Through most of elementary school, he’d been afraid of the dark. He’d imagined angry monsters, purple and hulking, with blades protruding from their skin like porcupine needles; hiding in places he could not see. He felt them watching him with narrow, red eyes, their slick, dark tongues wriggling like eels.
During those years, Robbie’s father had a nightly routine: He’d put Robbie to bed, then rub Robbie’s back and sing lullabies to him in his deep, scratchy voice until Robbie fell asleep. After his father died, Robbie would sometimes stay awake all night, fidgety and watchful, until the sun was appearing over the horizon.
Now, however, his lack of sight soothed him. He stretched his hand toward the darkness as if it were a face. He wondered if he was in heaven.
The other end of Watson’s line was attached to a fire truck. He was wearing his heavy, navy fire coat with the small American flag sewn into the right shoulder and the double yellow piping that ran along the jacket’s bottom edge. Strapped to Watson’s forehead was a round headlamp that allowed him to just make out the surface of the water below. Clipped to his chest was a black, oval walkie-talkie. When he reached the boy, he was to either radio his crew or yell and pull on the line. At that point, they’d use the engine’s winch to pull them both up.
Watson ran a finger across his mustache, then, as was his habit, closed his eyes for a single moment before nodding to the others. They started the winch, and it began lowering him. He repeatedly bounced off of the stony lining of the well as he descended. He kept yelling to the boy, but heard no response aside from the faint sound of moving water.
Robbie heard distant voices. There were always sounds, so many sounds. The grinding gears of the tractor he rode every day before school; the sound of his stepfather, Larry, stumbling into the house, drunk, in the middle of the night, growling every time he bumped into something; the sound of the taunts at school: “bird brain,” and “weirdo” and “faggot.” For a short time, just after the hazing started in early middle school, he’d answered: Birds are actually smart and understand what they’re seeing at a younger age than people do; difference isn’t weird, it’s everywhere; I like girls, they just don’t like me back. But he saw quickly that this only egged them on more, so he’d stopped.
They called him “bird brain” because he’d always loved the sounds of the birds and sometimes tried to imitate them: the high chirp of the Wilson’s plovers, the cranky “waah-waah-waah” of the white-breasted nuthatches, the two-tone sing-song of the black-capped chickadees. They, along with Chopper’s happy bark—especially when the dog knew food or a Frisbee or a walk was coming—were his favorite sounds.
He tried to hear them now in his mind, but as had happened so many times recently, he could do so for only a moment before the loud noise of the world returned.
“Robbie!” shouted Watson. “Can you hear me?” The sound of his own voice bounced back quickly: He was nearing the surface of the water. He looked down to make sure that when he landed, he would not be stepping on an unconscious Robbie. He saw nothing in the slow water and no signs of blood on the walls. As Watson’s legs reached the surface, he looked up and down the corridor that made up part of the area’s underground aqueduct. Watson had been in the watery tunnel once before, a few years earlier—rescuing a feral tabby named Blister that’d slipped over the edge of a well on a property down the road—and when he’d returned to the station, he’d done some research. The hydration system, called a qanat, directed water up to individual wells from an underground table. Invented in Persia, they were still widely used in parts of Africa and the Middle East, but only in the most rural settings in the United States.
Watson continued scanning the area but saw no traces of Robbie anywhere. That made no sense: The water wasn’t moving fast enough to carry the kid away, even if he’d been knocked unconscious by the fall.
Shit, thought Watson. The kid must be on the move.
Watson again jerked his head one way then the other, trying to decide which way to go. He felt his stomach tighten. Given the temperature of the water, he needed to find Robbie quickly, before hypothermia set in. Where the hell was he? Watson took a deep breath and went to the right.
The boy trudged forward, smelling the odor of rock and sulfur. The fierce scent excited him. His legs were so cold they burned. That was interesting: how opposites could both be painful.
He marched on, wishing Chopper were with him. Robbie’s mother had brought the dog home six years earlier, just a few months after Robbie’s father died. She’d handed the squirming, white Samoyed to Robbie and told him that the dog was his to name and to raise. The dog was, he understood, to be his comfort.
At that time, the spastic puppy could fit into Robbie’s palm. The dog’s bark sounded so much like the “HA!”of a karate master that Robbie had seen on television that the boy named the puppy “Chopper.” In those first moments in Robbie’s hand, he nipped Robbie’s face and then jumped up onto his head. Robbie laughed hard for the first time in as long as he could remember.
The boy took the dog out for walks four times a day, though the internet said two would be sufficient. The dog was funny: He howled at twisting clouds and eased backward warily whenever he saw his own shadow. Robbie would say, “It’s okay, boy,” and rub the dog’s head reassuringly.
I hope I see you again, Chopper, Robbie thought. The possibility that he might not made the breath catch in his throat, and he tried to think of something else. His mind, annoyingly, defaulted to Linda. Shy, soft-voiced Linda who made finger puppets out of paper towels and who often draped her right arm over her mouth so that she could talk into her elbow.
During the first couple years of middle school, they’d eaten lunch together almost every day in a far corner of the cafeteria and played together after the final bell, usually at her house. Their favorite game was one they invented called Going Places. They pretended they were Arf (Robbie) and Schnarf (Linda), two Plains Pocket Gophers who traveled the world by burrowing their way into different countries. Linda’s mother had donated a couple of her ancient brown tablecloths to the cause and Robbie and Linda had cut holes in each for eyes. With their costumes draped over their heads, they’d go into the woods fronting her house to dig with a metal trowel and an orange spade that’d belonged to Robbie’s father.
They’d dig for a while, reach another country, then visit the king or queen of the new nation, represented by the tallest nearby tree. The ruler was voiced by him (if a king) or her (if a queen). Through extended discussions, Arf and Schnarf would invariably find that they were part of the royal family, end up moving into the royal palace, and start making decrees to improve the country. Arf and Schnarf never ran out of new laws, but they had their favorites: Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights often became ice cream nights which meant that every person in the land would have to eat ice cream for dinner; no citizen could ever be required to go to bed before eleven p.m.; school days would last no more than two hours; and at least one of the major networks had to be airing a show starring children at all times.
One sunny Thursday when they were almost finished digging to Middelfart, Denmark—they prepared for each journey by looking up funny destinations online—he tripped over a protruding water pipe and tumbled into her. They both fell down, and for a few moments, he lay on top of her in the moist dirt of the foot-deep hole they’d dug. Her eyes were unfocused—she seemed a bit dazed—and he suddenly felt breathless. She had thin, smiling lips and her eyes were the color of chocolate syrup. How had he not noticed before?
She finally came to and focused on him. For a moment, her eyes seemed to grow larger and brighter, but the shine vanished quickly, and she pushed him off of her.
For a few weeks after that, things felt weird between them. She seemed tense, and he tried to ignore the pressure that squeezed him from the inside whenever she was around (and often, even when she wasn’t). It was no use.
One night, Robbie’s stepfather, who’d heard about Robbie’s feelings from Robbie’s mother (she’d caught Robbie doodling Linda’s name on a piece of notebook paper), summoned Robbie out to the front porch for a “man-to-man.” Larry was wearing his blue overalls and his black “Dodge’” cap. He towered over Robbie, smelling of mustard and cigarettes, but there was a pleasant note in his voice as he told Robbie to “take a load off,” and he even pulled out a chair for Robbie at the porch table.
“Listen, kid,” Larry said when they’d both sat down, “I know you got the hots for this girl. They may not tell you, but girls want it just as much as guys. Find a way to get near her, then just lean over and kiss her.” Larry then slung his big arm around Robbie—as if demonstrating—and smiled. Like he was thrilled that Robbie might actually end up having a girlfriend, might actually end up being a normal kid.
It seemed like good advice, but Robbie wondered if he could actually pull it off. He wasn’t like Larry or the guys at school who always got the girls, the guys who had no trouble leaning over and kissing a girl even if she’d offered no encouragement.
A few days later, Robbie got his chance: He and Linda were sitting on the floor of her cramped bedroom, leaning against her bed playing Fortnite, and he was close enough to smell the coconut scent of her new shampoo. Even the thought of kissing her, though, made his throat swell up so much he had trouble breathing; like when he’d been stung by a swarm of wasps by the creek and had to go to the emergency room.
Just sway a little to your left, he told himself. You don’t even have to kiss her, just touch her shoulder with yours. His body wouldn’t move.
But he had to do something. The pressure in his chest made him feel like he was being crushed from the inside. So when he and Linda had completed another Fortnite mission, and she turned to him and said, “Want to start another one?” he said, as casually as he could, “Well, how about we go to The Square Table and have lunch?” The Square Table was a semi-fancy café a couple of miles down the road.
His high-pitched, quivering voice—the exact opposite of the smooth off-handedness he’d been attempting—reverberated in his own ears, and shame surged through him. The heat of it rose in his chest and cheeks and forehead. He didn’t tell her that he’d removed all of the money from his small metal lock box—forty seven dollars he’d managed to save from his allowance money over the previous two years—so he could take her, but his voice and face must have been revealing enough: Her face seized like she’d just been hit in the stomach.
“I got, um, you know,” she stammered, looking at his shoulder instead of his face, “a lot of stuff, and schoolwork to do.”
The following Monday, she was stiff and awkward around him, as if he had some communicable disease. She made an excuse as to why she couldn’t each lunch with him that day and found similar reasons on each of the days that followed, until one day she said nothing at all, just didn’t show up at their usual place. And she must have told someone what he’d done, because their classmates had started treating them differently. They talked to her more—her gossip had clearly made her more popular—and they taunted Robbie not just in the old ways but with pretend kissy faces and chants of, “Marry me, Linda, I love you!”
Now, she’d see coverage of his adventure in the well and wish she’d given him a chance. No way, he corrected himself, embarrassed he’d even had such a thought. She’d only be more certain of what she thought of him. The creeper dived down a well.
Watson slogged through the water as quickly as he could, repeatedly calling Robbie’s name and turning his headlamp left and right as he moved. Despite his heavy clothing, his legs were already going numb. If he didn’t catch sight of the kid within another couple of minutes, he’d turn around and go back in the other direction.
He felt his stomach tighten. He hadn’t lost many people in his two decades with the EFD. Fires, floods, mudslides, car accidents; if someone could be rescued, he managed it. It was because of his toughness, sure, but also his intuition. Something in him knew which floors were too hot to support a hundred-and-ninety-pound man, and which weren’t. And where the victims were trapped inside a sagging house. But all of those victims had wanted to be found. For some reason, the kid didn’t seem to.
Without stopping his pursuit, he pressed the button on his walkie-talkie. “Watson to base, over.”
“What you got, Glenn?” Lem Hubbard’s deep voice asked in reply.
“The kid’s running, Hub. I’d like to know why.”
“Roger that. Please stand by.”
As Watson surged forward, he realized he was sending a telepathic message to the kid: Whatever’s upsetting you, Robbie, this isn’t the way.
Sixteen. The kid was all of sixteen. A year older than Watson’s own son.
Robbie was numb now all the way up to his chest. It was strange, but not bad. Like giving away something you’d always had, but never loved.
He thought of his mother, the way she used to blow the hair off her face, out of the corner of her mouth. And how, often, when she did it, his father would joke about having fallen in love with her after seeing her “spittin’ like a coal miner.”
His mother had been different then, brighter, like a late sun showing its colors: pink, red, violet, purple. But when Robbie’s father died of lung cancer—having not smoked a day in his life—she changed. Two days after his death, she boxed up all of his clothes; didn’t keep a single shirt.
“We need to move forward,” she’d said. She said it again five months later, in the morning, after Larry had stayed over for the first time.
Robbie’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and the experience of sightlessness had started to feel normal. He thought of the thing the police always said on TV—“nothing to see here”—and that suddenly felt like an invitation to freedom. No need to be stuck: go.
The swish of the water as he moved through it sounded a little like a cheer. He heard little else, now, save an occasional distant rumble from the world above, maybe a large truck or a low flying helicopter.
Slogging awkwardly along, he thought of the clumsy waddle of the red-breasted mergansers. Though herky-jerky on land, they were remarkably adaptable. They could survive in both fresh or salt water, had serrated beaks that helped them hold onto even the slipperiest of prey and migrated away from rivers and lakes that froze in the winter, re-settling in places where the water continued to flow. They instinctively knew where to go and were expert homemakers.
Of course, they had nothing on the Wilson’s Plovers. The young, though tended to by their parents, actually fed themselves. And took to the air after only twenty-one days.
Watson had turned around and was moving as fast as he could back toward Robbie’s entry point. His legs were cold and cramping, but their discomfort, although noted, failed to influence him, like mail addressed to someone else.
He plowed through the water, letting his rage fuel him. He was angry at the kid’s strange, nervous mother who’d said not a single helpful word before Watson went down; and at the almost feral stepfather, the kind of guy Watson had seen in the army all the time, big and haunted and more than willing to take his unhappiness out on anybody or anything nearby. The hunting “accident” Hub had just told Watson about wasn’t even surprising: Neither Hub nor Watson believed the guy’s claim of having “no idea the dog followed me into the blind.” And even if that part had been true, who mistakes a cotton-colored Samoyad for a brown, four-point buck? But most of all, Watson was mad at the kid himself, sixteen and taking his life so much for granted that he was willing—no, determined—to throw it away. Sure, his parents were winning no awards, but where in the Bible did it say that God was supposed to make it all easy?
Watson thought of his own son, Paul: furtive, sullen and uncommunicative. Watson’s relentless will had been, he knew, a problem for Paul, and yet, Watson had been softer than the grim soldier his own father had been; and Watson still had faith that his toughness had also forged an invisible strength in the boy, a strength that would ultimately save him. That was the way it was supposed to be, wasn’t it? Each generation had its scars (its special pride and shame), and tried to do better for its own offspring. Watson thought of it as the human contract—payment to God for the gifts of life and family—the bargain that kept the species moving forward. But this kid, Robbie, was running away from help.
“Robbie!” Watson growled again. As before, he heard only his own hoarse echo, as if from an angry man who was trapped, like Robbie, inside the well.
Robbie needed to catch his breath, and he reached into the darkness to touch the wall next to him. It was wet and cold, but pleasant. He curled his fingers around the protruding stone. It felt smooth; peaceful.
Robbie had always learned things about the world through his hands. Chopper’s fur, so thick and warm, felt like home. Then there were the tall trees in the forest behind Robbie’s back yard: The bark of the quaking aspens was thin and speckled, like hope. The leaves shook at the slightest breeze, but the tree sprawled over more parts of North America than any other species. The sugar maples, cracked and veined, felt like wisdom; and his father had told him that extracts had been used to treat liver and kidney problems, coughing and diarrhea. The black walnut trees were thick and coarse as rage. When Robbie hugged them, their pulsing vibrations ran through him like wildness.
Every so often, Watson again yelled Robbie’s name. He hoped the kid was still trying to outrun him, as he didn’t want to think about the alternative.
As Watson slogged forward, an image came to him of Paul as a sandy-haired ten year-old: winding up and hurling a grass-stained baseball to Watson in their back yard, a determined grunt punctuating every throw. The boy had loved to play catch for hours, pounding his glove while Watson eased into his throws and narrating his own tosses as if he were Corey Knebel pitching in the bottom of the ninth.
“Steeeeriiiiiiike three!” he’d yell periodically to indicate that he’d struck out another batter and dance a little jig that looked like a combination of Michael Flatley’s river dance and a matador whisking his cape away from a bull. “Did you see how late he was on that swing?” he once asked Watson. “My heater’s got some giddyup.”
Paul often begged him to continue playing even after the sun had disappeared and they were throwing blindly to each other while armies of gnats buffeted their faces. That boy had joked and mugged and been happy. He’d shined like a new blaze.
Now, when Watson and Rita visited him in the facility—a locked, in-patient unit for dually-diagnosed clients—Paul’s eyes were narrow; angry; suspicious. He spoke in monosyllables. His badly wrinkled shirts all smelled like cigarette smoke—all but one of the staff members smoked when outside with the residents—and some had holes in them. His uncombed hair was long and stringy.
Worst of all, the sight of Paul now always brought back the worst memory of Watson’s life. One night, long after Paul had fractured four ribs, punctured a lung and broken his right arm while joyriding in Watson’s car, after he’d gotten addicted to the painkillers he’d taken for his injuries, after he’d been arrested for being under the influence of OxyContin, after he’d spent a month in rehab, after he’d set the kitchen on fire (having forgotten about a piece of toast in the toaster), after he’d gone a second time to rehab—at about two in the morning, Watson heard a thump coming from the boy’s room. Watson rushed in to find Paul on his back on the floor beside his bed. He was choking on the brown and white vomit that was also smeared across his face. The boy’s skin was ghostly, his eyes fixed and dilated—obvious signs of an opiate overdose—and though Watson had rescued a wide array of children during his time with the EFD, he momentarily froze, his heart hammering in his chest. For a terrible moment, he thought he’d be unable to move while his son died in front of him. Finally, though, he willed himself to remember his training and moved to the boy. He turned Paul on his right side, cleared his mouth of the regurgitated beef stew and mashed potatoes, and began to breathe for him.
Watson and Rita dropped Paul off at Cherryvale a week later. The boy was outraged: red faced, crying, he’d screamed that they were treating him like a criminal.
“We’re doing this out of love,” said Watson.
“We just want to see you better,” said Rita.
Paul’s eyes flashed and his face twisted into a joyless grin. “If you knew a fucking thing about love,” he said, quietly, “my whole life would’ve been different.”
“How you doing down there, Glenn?” Hubbard’s voice over the walkie-talkie bounced off the walls of well, startling Watson out of his reverie.
“In pursuit,” Watson said. “I hope.”
“Good. I’ll check on you in another fifteen.”
Robbie could feel himself slowing. He knew that the cold was sapping his body of his energy. He was feeling badly winded, too. There was something logical about that, about the oxygen decreasing as he got farther away from his farm, but he couldn’t reason through why it was.
His mind was slowing but felt no panic. Instead, he felt more connected to his body. For as long as he could remember, the physical form that he saw in the mirror each morning seemed to have, despite its proximity, no relationship to him, like a ticketless passenger who’d been shamelessly stowing away on his journey of mind. Now all of him felt like a part of the same thing. It was all slowness, and that was good.
He continued on, and the darkness seemed to join him, so that there was nothing to separate outside from inside. He was the thing that moved and the thing that stayed still.
As Watson willed himself forward, his throat narrowed. He grabbed a water bottle out of his coat pocket and took a long swig. He imagined, suddenly, that the bottle were a flute with which he could charm the boy into coming toward him, like the pied piper. If only.
Within a few more steps, however, in the distance, Watson thought he could make out a seemingly stationary figure. “Robbie!” he yelled. “Robbie!”
The figure didn’t stir. Watson tried to double his own speed, but realized he was moving only slightly faster through the water.
C’mon, for God’s sake, he commanded his legs; go. And, he thought, If it’s your will, Lord, please save this child.
“Don’t you die on me, son!” Watson hissed into Robbie’s unresponsive face. The kid had been floating on his back, his eyes fixed and glassy. But Watson had leaned down and heard the boy’s shallow breaths.
Robbie felt his father’s arms curl around him and inhaled his scent of cigar smoke and Aqua Velva aftershave. Despite the darkness, Robbie could now see, and his father looked good: ruddy and strong.
Watson got into almost a sitting position and held the boy from behind—their backs to the water they were about to move through—then radioed to Hub to start the winch. The two began slicing through the water.
Robbie’s father was beaming at him. Robbie was so overcome with joy, he couldn’t speak. And then, there was a third figure with them, jumping at Robbie’s stomach: Chopper. Robbie caught the dog and held him to his chest as his father held Robbie, with all of his strength, while the dog jerked excitedly against Robbie’s arms.
Jason Gipstein’s poetry has been published in Peregrine and The Todd Point Review. He earned his M.F.A. in fiction in January of 2022 from Bennington College. He’s attended fiction workshops at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers’ Conference, the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference and a number of others. He’s a psychotherapist and a recovering attorney living the dream in Los Angeles with his unparalleled Calico cat, Julie.
© 2022, Jason Gipstein