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Jay knew he shouldn’t have been there with them. Jay was a good kid. He saved his allowance to buy a poor family toys for Christmas. The Gang, a title the others liked to use for themselves, was known for shoveling the toys out of the donation box. The Gang consisted of three boys – Leroy, Fred, and Mike. Jay was being considered as a fourth member.
The boys used Jay to do their homework. Jay knew it was wrong, but he did what they said. The others were fond of their scarred fists, and Jay didn’t have many friends. Their teacher enveloped Leroy’s first grade above a C, and Leroy told Jay they were having The Gang meeting on Saturday by Rover Lake. Everyone knew it was an invitation. Their get-togethers were secret. The rest of the group snarled and huffed quietly. Jay was a kid who did their homework. Jay was their worker, their pet. Jay wasn’t them. Jay was an outsider of The Gang, but Leroy hinted he wasn’t, so the rest didn’t protest.
Jay stuffed his hands in his pockets while The Gang passed a cigarette around in a circle and took turns puffing the smoke. Jay was glad he wasn’t asked to join. His uncle had died of lung disease.
It was nearly seven p.m., and the lake echoed with noise of The Gang hacking. Jay could see his breath. The heat escaped through his thick boots, and his ears were reddened under his hat. No one complained about the weather, especially not The Gang members, who were sheeted in sweatshirts. Mike’s exposed knees were purple. Snow soaked through their jeans, since the group was sitting. The lake was condensed as a floor of ice. The ice was strong. It was tough – against certain weight. It could withhold a step onto the ice, but with too many feet, it would collapse like a shot deer.
The Gang followed Leroy to the place where Jay stood. They had dipped the cigarette in the snow. The Gang reeked of smoke, and they stretched up their lips in a smile and lifted their heads. They felt prideful, taller.
Leroy slapped Jay’s back. Jay stuck his foot out before he fell. “Hey, Jay,” he mused. “What were yah staring at there?”
Jay shrugged a shoulder. “Just the lake,” he mumbled.
“We can do lots. Nobody likes Rover Lake, ‘cept for us. We have it to ourselves,” said Leroy.
Jay nodded. He knew about Rover Lake. It was empty, nothing but dark water. No one could fish there, because there were no fish. Boats didn’t glide on the water. The lake was frozen half the year and everything was still and haunting. Only one person lived five miles of the lake, and that was Helen Refeinga, though she never left her fenced-in property. She lived on herbs and plants from her greenhouse.
“Hey, Jay, I have a report due Tuesday. You’ll do it, right?” Fred said.
“Uh, sure…yeah,” he confirmed, listing excuses in his mind to get out of soccer practice Sunday. He’d have to bench next practice. He’d already missed four practices, and his coach liked the team present.
“Me and Katie are goin’ to the dance together,” Fred declared.
Leroy snorted and punched him in the shoulder. “Right!”
“We are!” he insisted. “I’m going to ask her.”
Leroy and Mike shared a glance. “You aint got no guts, Freddy boy,” said Leroy, poking his friend’s stomach.
“No, I do,” Fred said, his pitch raising an octave.
“Don’t,” the other two chimed.
Jay flinched, and Leroy eyed him.
“Jay’ll tell yah. He’s got none, right, Jay?” Leroy said.
There was a pause. Jay kicked some snow. “Oh, I don’t know.”
“Say he’s got no gut.”
Jay lifted his head, his eyes darkened and looking into Fred’s. “You have no gut,” Jay rolled out and then dropped his head.
Fred clenched his fists. “You! You! What do you know? Why do you know everything? Huh, Jay?” He shoved him. “Huh, majesty? I bet you think you’re better than us, huh?”
“No,” Jay said. He wondered if he should call his mom to pick him up.
Fred shoved him again. “You’re so better than us that you come ‘ere and say what we are, huh? You think you’re so much better than The Gang, don’t you? Why don’t you prove it, majesty?”
“No, I don’t want to,” said Jay.
“Prove it! I wanna see!”
“No.” Jay didn’t even know how he’d try to prove it.
“Aw, come on, Jay,” Leroy broke in. “Take a challenge. Let’s see you guys walk across the lake. See which of yous is gutless.”
Fred glared at Jay. “Come on, Jay,” he said, gesturing towards the lake. “Ladies first.” Fred crossed his arms.
Jay shifted from foot to foot and stared at the lake. His teeth chattered. Fred crossed his arms. He stood, and The Gang clustered under a tree in the sidelines and waited.
“Wait!” Mike said. “Someone, hold his hand! It’s getting dark!”
The boys snickered. Jay stayed. He slide his hands out of his pockets and blew on them.
“It’s okay, you can suck you thumb. We know you wanna,” Fred added, sending The Gang into laughter.
Jay’s hands returned to his pockets.
“A brave person got no fear, so there aint be any reason to hesitate,” Leroy mumbled, glaring at Jay.
Jay breathed deeply and stepped towards the ice. It was just a floor of ice. Jay rollerbladed dozens of times. Walking was simple. It was just walking. Jay could do that. What did it matter what he walked on?
Jay pressed one foot onto the ice, then the other. He bounced a bit, and the ice ignored his presence. Feeling assured, he stepped away from the edge. The ice was slippery, so he walked slowly. Jay nodded once at the opposite side of the lake and went a little further. Checking over his shoulder, he saw The Gang still under the tree, still watching him. Jay turned back around, puffing out his breath into the air. When he was almost halfway across the lake, he heard a creek. Jay spun around, and noticed that Fred had stepped onto the ice. Jay froze. He thought they would go one at a time – him and then Fred.
“Why the hesitation, majesty?” Fred called out.
Jay turned forward, and they walked on the ice. Jay pretended not to hear Fred’s jab when he slipped. Jay got to the middle. He smiled. The length back was the same as to the end, so he might as well have gone forward. Jay lifted his foot to take another step when he heard another creek. Leroy and Mike were joining them.
Jay’s stomach jumped. He felt the ice wobble underneath his boots. He swayed and opened his mouth to shout to them. He didn’t get a chance. The ice buckled under him, and Jay plunged into the water. The cold shot through his body. It rushed in his veins and squeezed his heart. His brain pinched his head. Where the ice broke, his head burst out of the water. He wailed around, slapping his hands onto the ice to pull himself out, only to have them slip off. His body shook. His fingers froze. Breathing was difficult, and he could feel his mind clouding. He felt tired…sleepy…exhausted.
Fred swore. “Guys, get off the ice!” he shouted, and Leroy and Mike hopped back on land.
Fred rushed forward, swears dropping off his tounge. He got to the broken part, where Jay’s eyes were rolling back. Fred dropped to his knees and dunked in his hand. He jerked it out. “It’s freezing!” He gritted his teeth and dove both arms into the water. He grabbed Jay’s arm and pulled. The ice was slippery, so Fred struggled to not fall in with him. Fred skid and heaved. He got Jay’s upper body hung over the ice, so he hugged Jay’s waist and flung his feet over the edge. Fred crossed his arms together tightly while matching his breaths to his heartbeat. Fred rested for about twenty seconds and then looked over at Jay.
“Oh, crud!” he whispered. He coughed and shouted, “Guys, I think he’s dead.”
“Bring ‘im over,” hollered Leroy.
Fred wiped his running nose on his sleeve and dragged Jay across the ice by his wrists. Fred let go, and Jay’s arms flopped down on the snow. Jay laid, some of him pail, the rest purple-blue. He was unconscious.
“What do we do?” Mike asked, staring.
Fred sat on the snow and rubbed his hands.
“Mike, call 9-1-1,” Leroy instructed.
“Dude, I’m grounded. My mom took it,” Mike whispered.
“Mine fell in the water.” Fred swallowed.
Leroy cussed. “Okay, bring ‘im to Refeinga’s.”
Mike snapped back. “What! Dude! Refeinga’s a crazy witch!”
Leroy looked at him. “Then she can cure ‘im. And really, Mike, we aint got a better choice.”
The Gang lifted Jay off the snow. Jay was a freezing ragdoll. The boys could see Helen Refeinga’s house, a little shape on a hill. They carried the boy across the snow and up the hill. They found Helen Refeinga in her greenhouse, surrounded by colorful fruit and vegetables. The Gang dropped Jay and relaxed in the warmed greenhouse. Refeinga had thinning white-blonde hair and bony fingers.
“What are you doing?” the lady shrieked when she saw Jay’s limp body on the ground, her eyes bugging. “My goodness! What is the meaning of this? What’s happening?”
Helen Refeinga wasn’t used to visitors, and a frozen body was quite a shocking way to greet her.
“He fell through the ice,” Leroy explained.
Refeinga gasped. “My! Oh, goodness! We need to warm him up!” Wrinkles sunk into her face. She set down her rake and went by them. “We’ll warm him up, and we’ll have to carry him to a doctor.”
“You aint got a car?” Leroy asked.
“No car,” she sighed.
Helen directed The Gang into her house. It was three stories and filled with books and paintings. They sat Jay in an armchair and engulfed him in the blankets that were piled in the corner. Helen Refeinga lit the fireplace. She put Jay’s feet in a steaming bucket. She left and returned with a cluster of herbs. She set them on Jay’s lap.
“Now, when Jay wakes up, you make sure he eats them,” she told the boys. “It’ll warm him up.”
The Gang nodded, and Refeinga plopped onto a couch.
Mike stood by some paintings and observed them. “You should sell these,” he said.
The lady’s eyes twinkled. “Maybe.”
The house fell silent, and eyes fell on Jay. A clock ticked somewhere. Refeinga rose to her feet.
“I might…I might have a phone somewhere,” she realized.
“Good.” Leroy nodded.
Refeinga shuffled out of the room, and The Gang stared at the flames. The clock ticked.
“This is my fault,” Fred split the silence.
Leroy frowned and shook his head. “Naw.”
Fred turned his head away from the fireplace and to Leroy. “It’s my fault. I dared him. He fell in, because I dared ‘im. If I didn’t dare, this wouldn’t have happened. Now he’s dead. My fault.”
“Shut up, Fred,” Mike snapped. “We all do stupid stuff. Jay’s still breathing. He aint dead yet.”
“I hope he aint gonna die,” Fred murmured.
Refeinga burst in, beaming.
“You got a phone or not?” demanded Leroy, standing.
“It turns out I do!” Refeinga exclaimed. “It took a while to find it and remember how to use it, but I called, and ambulance is comin’; they are!”
“Good,” said Leroy.
“Real good,” added Mike.
Fred bit his lip.
The ambulance arrived and boosted Jay in the back. They cupped a breathing mask on his face. The ambulance didn’t want to wait for anyone to come, so they yelled out the hospital name and sped away, a red light flashing atop the vehicle.
Jay’s mother was the first visitor. She sat hunched in the waiting room, a box of Kleenex on her lap. The Gang bought Jay a candy bar and balloons, and Fred delivered them, along with the herbs, in the morning. He tried not to look at Jay’s swollen and missing pieces.
“Hey, uh, h-hi, Jay,” he stuttered. “The-these are for you.” Fred tied the balloons to the bedpost and laid the candy bar on the small table. Fred didn’t know if Jay could eat it with the IVs in his wrists and considering his condition. He handed him the herbs. “You’re supposed to eat these. They’re supposed to warm yah up or something like that.”
“How yah doin’ man?” Fred said, his voice fast.
“Jay, I’m so – ”
Fred flinched, taken aback. “Huh?”
“I don’t think I’m, uh, better. I wasn’t there when you guys decided. Which one of us is gutless?” Jay was curious.
Fred scoffed, remembering when he challenged Jay. “We didn’t decide. It doesn’t matter.”
“Thanks for saving me,” Jay said.
Fred watched Jay’s heart monitor. “I wouldn’t have had to if I didn’t dare yah.”
Jay knew he almost died. He knew fingers could be pointed at Fred. Fred dared him. All of The Gang influenced and pressured him, but Jay was the one to free-willingly step onto the ice. No one pushed him. It was his decision. The ice collapsed under too much weight, but it was a mistake. No one purposely went onto the ice so Jay would fall through. Any one of them could have been the casualty; they all stepped onto the ice. It just happened that Jay was at a more fragile spot at that moment. No one knew that, and nobody would have risked themselves falling by getting on the ice. It was a game of chicken, a game to see who was gutless and who was not. The point was to see who would risk a dangerous event, not who would be the victim of a dangerous even. It was a stupid dare and stupid to take up, and a careless decision oftentimes ensues in bad things to take place. They were all imprudent. They were all foolish, but foolishness is a frequent occurrence. Bad events could happen anytime, as quickly as a snip of scissors, and it just happened then.
“I guess we all have a little too much gut,” Jay proposed.
Fred rubbed his hair. He nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed. He sighed. “I’m real sorry, Jay. Real, really sorry. I know an apology isn’t good enough.”
Jay hid his grin in the hospital pillow and shivered. He made a mental note to ask the nurse for more blankets “I’m not going to be doing your homework anymore, you know.”
“I know,” he said. The herbs were still on Jay’s palm. “Dude, eat your herbs. The witch said they’d warm you up.”
Jay raised an eyebrow. He was unconscious at Helen Refeinga’s house. Jay crunched into the plants. Fred stayed while he ate.
“Uh, so, Jay,” he dithered. “Anyway, man, I’m real sorry. I don’t know what to do. I mean, you’re more than welcome to hang with us, but I don’t think you’d want to. God, we’re such jerks, Jay.”
Jay nibbled through his last herb. He sighed, feeling summer sun rays in him. He was still cold, but didn’t feel like he was lying in ice any longer.
“No, we can hang out,” Jay said.
Fred shook his head and sat on the visitor’s chair that was against the wall. He folded his hands in his lap. “You don’t wanna to hang with us – really,” said Fred.
Jay pulled his covers to his chin. “No, I want to. Not, um, The Gang meetings but maybe something else?”
Fred watched him. “Yeah? Like what?”
“I got a basketball court in my yard. It’s just two hoops with duck tape marking. We’d have to clear the snow, but you should stop by and play sometime.” Jay sounded sincere.
Fred never been to Jay’s house, but he’d pass it on the way to The Gang meetings sometimes and school. He’d always see a bucket of soccer and basketballs. One time, Jay was kicking around a soccer ball and said hi as Fred was going to a group meeting. Jay was being friendly, and Fred was surprised. He had purposely tripped Jay at school, and Jay knew it.
Basketball seemed casual, simple. Fred wondered if Jay would like his dad’s homemade chocolate fudge cookies.
“Okay, yeah, I think I will,” Fred told him. A basketball game wasn’t a challenge, it was an invitation.
Jay smiled. “Cool! I’ll see you then.”
Fred returned the smile. “See yah then.”