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“Hey, Gabe!”

He recognized Tarik’s voice. Then Simon’s, and Nathaniel’s. They had spotted him on the path. Annoyed, Gabe stopped and waited. They had guessed what he was doing. His whole group from Boys’ Lodge caught up with him, just Simon and Tarik at first; then they were joined by the others, who came running. “You going to do it, Gabe? Put it in the water? Can we watch?”

“We’ll be your rescuers!” Tarik suggested.

He had wanted to be alone for this. Too late now. Well, let them watch. When the time came, the real time, the time when he would leave for good—he would do it alone. Maybe at night. He’d leave a note at Boys’ Lodge. A separate note for Jonas, he thought, with a thank-you; Jonas had done his best for Gabe. Deirdre? No, that would be foolish. No note for Deirdre. Let her wonder about him always.

For now, though, no notes. This was just a practice. What was it they called it, in that book about boats? A sea trial. That’s what it would be.

“Hey, Gabe?” Simon saw the coiled rope beside his little shed. Gabe had tied stacks of boards together in order to drag them into place. He planned to return the rope soon.


“How about if you tie one end of this rope to the boat, and we’ll hold the other end when you push off? Then if you have any kind of trouble, we can haul you back in!”

Gabe scowled at Simon. “Like a baby with a toy boat in the pond?”

“No, I meant—”

“Forget it, Simon. Leave the rope where it is. I borrowed it from Jonas. He wants it back.

“Anybody who wants to help? Give me a hand pushing it into the water.” Several of the boys came eagerly to the bank where the boat was wedged in the slick mud.

“But listen, Gabe!” Nathaniel sounded worried. “Maybe you should at least take the rope with you in the boat. Because when you want to come ashore, you’ll need to grab something. Maybe you could make a noose in the rope and throw it over a tree stump or a bush.”

“Yeah, he’s right, Gabe!” someone else said.

Gabe stood beside his boat, furious. They were ruining everything, crowding around, criticizing, predicting disaster.

“Look there, where these two boards don’t quite come together,” a boy named Stefan said suddenly. “Won’t water come in through that crack?” He pointed.

Gabe glanced to where Stefan was pointing. He had meant to fill that wide crack with thick mud and let it dry and harden. “When the boards get wet,” he said, “they’ll expand and come together there.”

Stefan looked skeptical. “But what if—”

“Look,” Gabe said impatiently. “If you’re going to be all worried about it, I’ll stuff something in the gap. Hand me that rag.” He gestured toward the piece of cloth he had used to oil the paddle. It was lying near the shed. Stefan tossed it to him, and Gabe ripped it into strips. Then he stuffed one wadded strip of cloth into the space between the boards. “There,” he said. “Happy?”

Stefan glanced nervously at the others standing on the bank. Simon shrugged. Nathaniel looked very worried. Tarik grinned. “Sure,” he said. “Happy.”

“Happy to see you sink,” muttered one boy, and several others laughed.

Gabe ignored them now. He was concentrating on moving the boat into the water from its muddy resting place. His hands were slippery on the rounded wood. He leaned his shoulder against it and pushed. Several of the boys were pushing as well, and with a sudden lurch the bottom of the boat lifted from the mud and moved forward into the water. Gabe leapt in, tumbling onto his backside, and grabbed the paddle.

The river water was very still here at the shallow edge. Gabe raised himself first to his knees; then he stood upright, holding the paddle against the wooden floor of the boat for balance. He hadn’t anticipated that it would rock and tip the way it was, but he spread his bare feet for balance. He was still quite near the shore, and he forgot his anger and impatience in the triumph of the moment when he was finally standing upright without faltering. In a moment he would kneel and begin to steer with the paddle. But for now, it seemed appropriate to stand tall, to raise one hand from the paddle and salute his friends, who were watching apprehensively. They grinned.

Then, to his surprise, the boat began to rotate. Now he was no longer facing the shore and his friends; he was looking out toward the center of the river and across to the trees on the opposite bank.

Well, of course, he thought, realizing that he wasn’t steering it yet. He knelt. Balancing awkwardly, he raised the paddle and dipped it into the water. He had practiced this, pulling the water with the broadened end, and he knew how it felt, so the resistance didn’t surprise him. Leaning forward, he pulled the paddle against the current, and the boat responded slightly, revolving a bit, so that again he saw the boys, but they were farther from him now. The river was drawing him outward, away from the bank.

He had planned this. This was his time to practice controlling the boat, propelling and steering it. With the paddle, he moved it slightly toward the bank he had just left. But the river pulled him farther out again. All right, he thought. I need to steer faster. He took several long pulls with the paddle and brought himself, again, closer to shore, but he was moving with the current down the river, and a group of young alders were hiding the boys from him now.

He realized it would be hard to get back to them. The current was pulling him away from where they stood.

“Are you all right?” He recognized Nathaniel’s voice.

“Yes,” he called back. “I’m just figuring out how the paddle works!”

The boat spun slightly and tilted. It was hard for him to regain his balance. He planted his knees and feet. He realized suddenly that they were wet—not from the damp mud of the riverbank, but from water that was streaming in through cracks between the boards. He tried to aim for shore, pulling through the water with his paddle, but the boat felt heavier now, with water in it.

He could hear the boys’ voices, shouting, getting closer to him. He realized that his friends were running along the riverbank, following him as he moved, the boat twirling clumsily out of control. The water had risen and covered his lower legs. The paddle seemed more and more useless as a steering device. Finally, angrily, he plunged it straight downward through the water and felt it scrape the bottom. It slowed the boat. Through the bushes the boys appeared, calling to him.

“Here!” Tarik shouted. “I brought the rope! If I throw it to you, we can pull you to shore!”

Gabe knew what he wanted to call back. He wanted to call: Don’t bother! I can paddle myself to shore! But it wasn’t true. The paddle was stuck in the muddy bottom of the river and it was, at the moment, precariously holding the boat still. But the swirling water was rising.

“All right, throw it!”

At least he caught the rope on the first throw so he wasn’t additionally humiliated. He wrapped it around his wrist and waited until Tarik had found a firm footing on the riverbank. Two other boys reached for the rope as well, and when Gabe called, “Now!” they pulled as he lifted the paddle that had held him still. The boat swayed and the water sloshed around his lower body. Gradually it moved to shore.

When he looked up as the bottom of the boat scraped against the rocks at the shallow edge, he saw Jonas there as well, looking concerned.

“It needs work,” he muttered as he climbed out. He tied one end of the rope to the boat, threading it through a gap between some boards near the top. He took the other end from Tarik and looked around for a tree trunk to tie it to.

“Boys,” he heard Jonas say, “it’s time to start getting ready for supper. You go on. I’ll stay here with Gabe. Thanks for your help.”

Gabe knotted the rope around the slender trunk of a nearby sapling and glanced back at the small, leaky failure of a boat that he had been so proud of a short time before. It was smeared with mud and the torn rag was dangling from the gap he had stuffed it into.

Jonas was waiting for him, standing silently, his expression sympathetic.

“I don’t know why I’m tying it up. I should just let it float out there and sink.” Gabe’s voice was shaking with tears very near the surface. He wiped his wet, dirt-smeared hands on his dripping shorts and climbed the bank to face the man who was the closest thing he had to a father.

“I’m sorry,” Jonas said.

“It’s not even a real boat. It’s just a bunch of boards tied together. That’s all it is.” He wiped his face with one dirty hand and looked angrily at Jonas, defying him to disagree.

“It floated, though,” he added.

“Yes. It did float.”

“And my paddle really worked well.”

All that work. The weeks and weeks of planning, of building, of hoping. And all he could say now was that the paddle worked well. Gabe felt it all slipping away: his dream of returning, of finding his mother, of becoming part of something he had yearned for all his life. He had envisioned a triumphant return to the place where his life had begun. He had daydreamed about being recognized and greeted: “Look! It’s Gabriel!” In his imagination he had seen his mother running, her arms outstretched to enfold him as he stepped smiling from his sturdy little vessel.

The river still surged past. It moved and churned, foaming and dark, carrying leaves and sand and twigs from one place to the next. What a fool he had been, to think that it could have carried him as well.

Angrily he kicked at the boat, then turned away.

“Come with me, Gabe. You can come back to my house and get cleaned up there. Kira will give us some supper and we can talk. There’s something important I need to tell you.”

Gabe scowled at his ruined boat one more time. Then, grudgingly, he climbed the slippery bank. Carrying his paddle, he followed Jonas to the path that led back to the village.


Do you remember Trade Mart, Gabe?”

“Yes, sort of. Though they didn’t let children go. You had to be older than twelve.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Jonas said.

Gabe reached toward the plate and took another cookie. Kira was a wonderful cook. The cookies she had served for dessert were crisp and studded with dried fruits and nuts. He hadn’t been counting really, but he thought this was his sixth.

Gabe and Jonas were seated together on the pillow-strewn couch. Gabe had had a bath and Jonas had provided him with clean clothes. He was glad he hadn’t had to go back to Boys’ Lodge after the boat disaster. The other boys would have made jokes about it. They probably would for weeks to come. But at least for now, this first evening, he wouldn’t have to listen and try to smile.

Kira was tucking the children into bed. Gabe had watched her with them earlier, as she fed them their supper and wiped their smeared, sleepy faces, talking softly to them about the nice day they had had, about a picnic, and the flowers they had picked. In a small earthen pot on the table, the bouquet of yellow loosestrife, purple coneflowers, and lacy ferns cast a shadow against the wall in the dimming light.


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