Surprise Island

Henry Hoke


What don't you like about your cousins? Men came down here to the woods a long time ago and they tore out all the trees and cleared the land and dug a hole for miles and miles and they dug it so deep that one of the cranes got stuck and had to be left far down in the dirt there and they filled the hole up with water and made the dirt mud and made a lake with lake houses all around it and people came and bought the lake houses and your grandfather was one of them and he built the dock, all so you and your cousins could sit on it and swim around it and be young and have fun.


They sat in a circle on the dock and decided which adult to kill.


"You can't pick Grandpappy or Granmamma," said Older Bro. "It has to be somebody younger, so it's somebody real."


Mosquito spray stink was big in the air, alongside the smell of very wet wood. The dock rested on foam blocks and that's how it floated. The kids were eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen and they held onto these numbers like the ones on sports jerseys. Older Bro was the oldest, followed by Cuz and then Weeza, then Little Bro. Three boys and one girl. Weeza wasn't blood, she was Cuz's cousin by marriage, and so she wasn't allowed a vote on the killing.


Nothing had been done to any of them recently to invite any bad vibes toward the folks, it just seemed that when you sit by the side of a lake in the South you feel obligated to plan a murder.


"I'd kill y'all's mom," Cuz said with no hesitation to the two Bros.

"Me too," said Little Bro and Older Bro's head snapped left and he glared.

"Yeah well I'd kill your mom," Older Bro snarled at Cuz.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah I hate her."


"I don't know. Why do we have to know, whatever."


Little Bro made a muscle with his right arm. Little Bro was the only one who was still really little. Cuz and Older Bro both wore A-shirts and swim trunks with neon geometrical patterns, and Weeza wore a black one-piece. Little Bro wore plain navy swim trunks with no shirt. It was the first summer he had a swimsuit that wasn't identical to Older Bro's. Their various folks were constantly saying that the Bros could stand to gain some weight and that on the other hand Cuz and Weeza could, well.


"Maybe just a tornado comes and knocks down the whole house," said Weeza. "That's dumb," agreed the boys.

Five years later a tornado would come and tear a hole in the lake house and remove the dock from its sketchy tether to the shore, but that night (it was late at night, humid with no breeze so barely any ripple on the water), that night the house was intact and full of adults, alive mothers and uncles all snacking and drinking and playing dominoes. The kids had been banished to bond on the dock with a red Playmate cooler full of cokes. They didn't bring a flashlight because the sky was clear and the house lights were strong enough that they shone through the woods onto the kids and the kids could make out each other's facial expressions.


"I'd probably kill someone else," said Weeza but the boys in that instant were done with the death topic.


Cuz opened the Playmate, pulled two coke cans out and opened them both at once, "Ever since the accident I need a lotta caffeine."

Earlier that week the uncles took the boys out on the boat and tied a big inner tube to the back. One boy at a time would hold onto the tube with all their might as the uncles gunned it and tore across the wakes of other boats, trying to throw whichever boy. When it was Cuz's turn the tube hit a big chop and he got smashed in the face, concussed, and had to go to the hospital. Two days later, he was back and milking it.

"Ever since the accident."

Head injuries were Cuz's recurring thing. The previous summer Cuz got a gash that needed six stiches to fix, after he was hit upside the head with a chunk of soapstone (no kid copped to being the thrower).


Weeza didn't go out on the boat because she didn't like wearing a lifejacket. When the Bros took their shirts off the day of Cuz's accident, she asked if they were afraid of the sun, and they asked back if she was afraid of not eating. Weeza was short for Louisa and she stared off across the small inlet to the only other house in sight, a much newer place, above the opposite dock.


The boat had been returned to the marina so the boy's fun was in shorter supply. Weeza and the bros got and opened cokes.


"I want the boat back," said Older Bro.

"She's got a better one," said Weeza.

They all looked at what Weeza had been looking at, the opposite dock, all plastic and metal, and the new boat tied there, close and far.

"Lady is loaded," Cuz said.


"So she's got a better house, too."

"But that's, like, her only house."


"She lives in it."


A lake house isn't a lake house when it's your only house. It's just a house.


"I wish this was beer," said Little Bro and sipped.

"Shut up," said Older Bro.

"Her boat sucks," Cuz butted in and everyone killed their cans and cracked more.


They had other conversations for a while, about the abandoned construction crane of legend, about how some day they should go out on the boat and try to dive deep enough to touch it, about how the water was way totally too deep for that to ever happen. For that whole half hour of chatter, what mattered more were the things they didn't talk about. Cuz didn't talk about how the accident hurt and wasn't really funny, was scary. Older Bro didn't admit that he was kind of afraid of the water, its darkness. And Weeza didn't say much of anything, she definitely didn't tell them her secret, not just yet. The boys kept saying man-made. Man-made, man-made.


They all had to pee at the same moment.

Each of the boys picked a different corner of the dock and turned outwards to let fly. Weeza sat up on the back of the dock's built-in bench.


Someone, let's say a crane operator, probably peed in the lake long ago, when it was pre-lake, when it was empty, and the kids were peeing in it now, full.


Older Bro finished last and spat, he was facing the newer house across the inlet. The opposite dock was floating there like a taunt.

"Okay, remember in the cartoon when they want to keep trick or treating and they're like 'look at all those other houses across the river?' So they try and get across the river and all. To get more candy."

"Uh-huh," said Little Bro, returning to sit by the Playmate cooler.

"No," said Cuz, and got another coke, waited for Older Bro to explain:

"We should go rob her."

"Yeah. Or at least check out her boat."

"No, for real break in."

The boys were working themselves up, locked back in their circle where Older Bro had joined them to scheme. They drank more cokes after peeing than before, and faster. "Maybe this can be our murder."


Weeza was still sitting on the edge of the bench, ignored.

"I found a toe," she let the secret slip.

It took a minute for the boys to actually hear. In that minute, Weeza looked over her shoulder at the lake house, where the adults were most likely drunk, winding down. "Okay what?" said one of them.

"I found a toe on Surprise Island."


The inlet inhabited by the lake house and the neighbor's house formed a little sideways horseshoe, but the vastness to their right was the open lake. A good ways out in the open lake, before it really dropped off, there was a sandbar that only ridged up when the water level was low, only existed at those times. The folks called it Surprise Island, and it had long been a place to make your way out to for bragging rights. First that you made it, but then that you found something, an arrowhead or shell or a particular piece of garbage to bring back. Weeza was already looking right, out toward Surprise Island, underwater there, and again the boys followed her gaze.


Cuz was dubious, "When?"

"When y'all were out on the boat I went by myself. It wasn't that hard. But yeah, in the reeds there was just this big toe. Cut off. With dry blood on it."

The boys were quiet, but the fuse was lit on their attention spans, so Weeza kept going, excited: "I wanted to figure it out before I told you, like a mystery. But it could be anything. Like some fish or animal might've eaten everything else. Or like the simple thing would be that it got sliced off by some boat's propeller and washed up. But maybe, I was thinking maybe it's something to do with her . . ." Weeza nodded toward the opposite dock. "Because we see her with men and people, but like . . . what happens to them?"


The boys held their collective breath, and Weeza almost found a smile.

"Did you bring it back?" asked Older Bro.

A bird made a noise in the woods.

Weeza shook her head no.


Then all the boys erupted at once, "Ugh" first.

"You didn't bring it back?"

"You just left the bloody toe?"

"What, was it too heavy for you?"


"There's no toe."

"Yeah, nah."

"God you suck, Weeza."

The boys stood, all together.

"There's no way you swam to Surprise Island."

"You can't make that, not even baby boy here can make it, and he can smoke you in the water."

Little Bro shoved his brother. "I can make it to Surprise Island."

"No way."

"I'll race you, c'mon."

"Hell no, not at night. You can't even get to the opposite dock."

"Can so, I get there fast."

"Bullshit. Look," Cuz stared down Little Bro, "I bet if we run around the whole shore here and you swim straight, we'll beat you to the opposite dock easy."

"How much?"

"Thirty bucks. All my birthday money. Come on, you've got a shot, ever since the accident, I can't run that fast."


Weeza was dizzied by the derailment, and her mouth moved up and down like she was chewing gum.


When the tornado would hit, in five short years, the water levels would drop, docks would sag and flatten themselves on the dirt. After that, Surprise Island would just sit there, without surprise, no fun anymore above the lake. It would never hide again. When they filled the hole and made it a lake, where did they get all the water from?


The race was on, and Weeza came off the bench, having lost her audience for good. She sat down and looked at the wood, tried to see down through a gap. Little Bro was flexing and clapping his hands together by the drop-off to the water. Cuz and Older Bro lurked by the walkway to the shore.


There started to be significant wind. The water rolled against the lakeside soapstone in loud laps and there was a slight seasickness to the movement of the dock.


"Count down for us, Weeza."

Weeza looked up at a handful of stars, let out a "three . . . two . . . one . . ."

"Go," yelped Little Bro and dived in.

The older boys sprinted up the dock and leapt down to the rocky lakeshore, hooting.


The big boys scrambled fast as they saw Little Bro's progress. "Shit, thirty bucks," Older Bro said to Cuz. "You're putting up half," Cuz shot back, falling a little behind. "Hell no," coughed Older Bro, "keep up!" They rounded the bend of the horseshoe shore and felt far from the docks and the race itself.


Weeza watched Little Bro get smaller as he swam, struggle. She pulled the red Playmate cooler close to her, like a friend. This was never going to be a good mystery.


Little Bro had been swimming at a strong pace to beat the running boys, but then they couldn't tell how far he'd gotten, were panting and squinting to see him. There were a few light splashes and Older Bro shouted Little Bro's name: "Dumbass!"


The lights went out in the lake house. The phantom of their folks had abandoned them. It was only moon on the lakeside stones then, and it takes everyone's eyes a minute to adjust when it's just the moon. There was no hint of movement in the water.


Weeza took the last coke from the Playmate, left it open, stood and walked up the dock away from the lake, toward the almost invisible house.


Older Bro and Cuz were sprinting, scrambling on the rocks, and Cuz called out "Talk to us, man. Ever since the accident I don't see so good!" They laughed for a sec at this, but stopped, because they really couldn't see Little Bro.


He didn't make it to the opposite dock. Nobody ever did.