“Just watching the loons,” she adds. She wishes her dad wouldn’t talk. This is the time she likes best: before a fish strikes. Once the bait’s taken, it’s as if something breaks, because what happens next is a matter of life and death. That fish’s life is over, just like that, and all because Ellie danced a jumping jig with a juicy waxworm on that particular morning when a crappie swam by and decided, Saaay, that looks pretty interesting.
“Oh.” Her dad pauses. “Anyway, that phone call.”
“Yeah?” From the brush on shore, the mom loon suddenly emerges, with two brown-black fluff balls. Ellie feels a jolt of excitement. The morning’s so still, the wind’s sigh so light, she can hear the chicks’ peeps and the mom’s soft hoots. “Look,” she whispers. “Babies!”
“Uh-huh.” He squeezes her arm. “Honey, I need to tell you something important.”
“Sure.” Her eyes are glued to the peeping chicks. The dad glides over as the mother slips into the water and the babies follow: plopplop! “What?”
“I have to leave again,” he says.
For a second, the words just don’t sink in. Across the lake, the loon family is dodging around lily pads. Somewhere close she hears the plunk of a fish shattering the surface to snatch a bug. But inside everything has gone as dead and ashy as Iraqi sand.
“What?” she says, sitting up fast, as if she’s the waxworm on the jig now. The adult loons jerk their heads, too, as if they’re just as startled by the news. “You just got back!”
“Six months ago,” he says, his eyes on the water, jumping that jig as if his life depends on it. Her dad keeps his hair military-short, and a red flush creeps into the fish-belly skin behind his ears and at the base of his neck. “It was supposed to be a year, but they need me. One of the other handlers and his dog were . . . they’re out of commission.” The way he says it, she knows it means dead, but that’s a taboo subject, what her daddy calls bad juju. KIA is a jinx; say dead, it’s like stepping on a crack. Men and dogs don’t die; they’re out of commission. “Mina’s with another handler, but he’s rotating out, and I know her, so . . .”
It’s not a she. I’m a she. That’s what Ellie wants to say. It’s a dumb dog. It is as if her dad and Grandpa Jack have decided she’s like this Mina: must be time to rotate Ellie to another handler.
“When?” That’s not what she wants to say either, but fighting won’t help. She bounces her gaze from him to his water-twin. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter.”
“Two weeks.” In the water, the twin dad turns her a look. “Got to square some things away, but we can . . .” His voice trails off. She can’t even imagine what he thought he could say to make things better.
She doesn’t say okay. Or I hate you. Or every time you go, it’s like you die and I’m so scared I die, too. Besides, one is a fib. She has no interest in the loons now. Instead, she stares down at the little water-girl, trapped next to her water-dad, who says—
“. . . much longer?”
“Huh?” Ellie blinked away from the memory of that June morn
ing and into the here and now of March. Stuffed with high clouds,
the afternoon sky was the color of boiled egg white. As she looked
up from the blue-black eye of her ice-fishing hole, she had to raise a
hand against the glare. “What did you say?”
“I said, how much longer?” Eli’s long eyelashes were feathered
with frost. Flecks of ice clung to his scarf and dangled from a fraying
watch cap, like Christmas ornaments. His cheeks were cranberry red. Cradling his rifle, he stamped his feet with an exaggerated shudder. “I’m freezing. How can you do that?” He chinned the rod in her naked
right hand. “My fingers would fall off.”
“That’s because you’re not moving around,” she said, returning
her attention to the rod and gently playing it, up and down, up and
down, jumping that jig. To be honest, her hand was turning icy, the
nails bluing with cold. The few times she and Grandpa Jack ice-fished,
he’d always started a fire on shore so she could warm up with hot
cocoa and charred brats and blackened hot dogs. Her mouth watered
at the memory. She would kill for a hot dog. With mustard and relish.
“You okay?” Eli’s eyebrows, honey-colored and delicate, pinched
“Yeah.” She worked to stopper the sigh. Something her grandpa
said drifted through: If wishes were fishes. . . . No good wishing for
anything these days. You just ended up depressed or in tears, or both,
and she’d be darned if she bawled in front of Eli. He was cute, and
despite the fact that he was twelve, they hung together. ( Jayden called
them the Killer Es, which Ellie just didn’t get.) But Eli could also be
kind of a goof. Like, sometimes she thought she ought to be guarding him. She tilted her head at two nearby holes where she’d lowered
stringers. “Could you take those back? I have to break down the tipups, and since I’ve got, like, fifteen of those . . .”
“Me?” Eli wasn’t fond of fish slime, and Ellie had had a very
good afternoon: fourteen black crappies, all ten-inchers. “Well,” Eli
said, twisting to look toward shore and their patient horses waiting
beneath drooping boughs of tall hemlock. Nearby, a clutch of crows
hopped over the snow, probably hoping for a nice steaming mound of
fish guts, while a stern-looking, solitary gull perched on a thumb of
icy rock. “I guess I can wait. You’ll need help with the auger.” Right, so then I carry all the fish and the tackle. On the other hand,
she knew what Eli really wanted to avoid was storing the tackle. Well, avoiding the place that was near where they stored tackle. Even the horses hated that part of the woods. She wasn’t wild about it either,
but at least she wasn’t such a girl.
“Well,” she said, withdrawing her rod and reaching, with studied
casualness, to an inside parka pocket. Pulling out a plastic container,
she popped the lid. In a bed of sawdust, warmed by her body heat, were
thick white maggots, each about as long as the tip of her pinky. She
delicately tweezed one fat boy from the wriggling mass. “Ohkaaay,”
she said, stabbing the maggot with the jig’s hook. It was really a waste;