Dead River - By Cyn Balog


“Who are you?” I asked, my voice flat. Seven-year-olds are all about blunt. No “Hi, how do you do, nice weather we’re having.” After all, he was fishing in my spot.

“No one worth knowin’,” he said in a gooey Southern twang, turning back to his fishing pole. “Fish’re bitin’ like mosquitoes on a hog.”

I took a step closer. His fishing pole wasn’t a nice one like mine. Just a stick with string tied to it. His jeans were holey and dirty, too. He didn’t have a shirt; from the color of his skin he was probably one of those boys who went shirtless from May to September. Freckles like tiny coffee beans mingled with the deep russet hue on his shoulders and nose.

I kicked a stone with my big toe. “You’re in my spot,” I said as the stone skittered off the bright red paint of my dinghy, nicking it.

My spot was the best on the whole Delaware. It was on an island twenty yards off the bank on the Jersey side. The island was big enough for only a couple of shade trees, my cooler of lemonade, and the spot where I’d plant my backside. A lot of times when it rained, it was underwater. But now it wasn’t. It was a perfect time for fishing.

He wiggled his toes in the mud, looked around, patted the ground beside him. “Room enough for two.”

Just barely. I eyed the spot suspiciously. That was where I usually put my cooler. His backside was where mine usually went. I couldn’t tell how old he was; most everyone on my street was so much older than me, they might as well have been from another planet. He was a younger older, though. Maybe only a decade or so older. That made him the most interesting thing I’d seen all day. So I deigned to sit beside him on my mound in the river. “You talk funny,” I said.

He laughed. “Way I see it, you’re the one talking funny, kid.”

I gave him a big “hmph” and cast my line. He watched my every move, silently, like a cat, until his string began to bob. He pulled a big fat silver beauty out of the water and grabbed it in his hands as its tail swished back and forth, painting dots of midnight blue on his faded denim. Then he smiled and let it go.

“What did you do that for?” I asked.

“Don’t eat fish,” he answered.

“Then why catch them?”

He shrugged. “Somethin’ to pass the time.”

I shook my head. “There’re a lot funner ways to pass the time, if you don’t eat fish.”

He chuckled. “Well, kid, if you must know, I’m waitin’ on someone.”

“Oh yeah? Who?”

“A missus. She’ll be along in a shake.”

“A what?” When he didn’t answer, I asked, “Your girlfriend?”

“Nah.” His fishing line bobbed again. He pulled in another one, silver and beautiful. The fish dangled from the fraying, sad excuse for a line as he inspected it closely, smiling with pride. I looked at my own rod, glittering red in the sun, a present from my mother for my birthday. The sinker floated on the water, still.

“Well, she’s not taking my spot,” I muttered as he tossed the fish back. “You’re just catching the same fish over and over again. What bait you using?”

“Just some worms and bugs I dug up.” He looked at my pole. “You ain’t gonna catch nothin’ with that gleamin’ piece of horse manure. The fish’ll spot that thing a mile away.”

“I do just fine,” I said, even though I hadn’t caught anything with it yet. My fishing spot had always been good to me, but not lately. I’d been thinking that maybe it was a cursed pole, since I’d gotten a paper cut on the wrapping when I opened it. “I may be a girl, but I know plenty about fishing.”

He shrugged again. “You underestimate them fish,” he said with a snicker. “Fish’re suspicious creatures, kid.”

Know-it-all. And that was stupid. Fish, suspicious? Fish are dumb. About as dumb as he sounded.

His line bobbed again. I wanted to punch him. Instead, I just wrinkled my nose at him. Then I got my pole, stuffed it in my dinghy, and grabbed my oars. “You could give whatever you catch to my family. We eat fish. Which is what you’re supposed to do with them.”

“Maybe so, maybe so. You going, girl?”

“Yeah. You’re in my spot.” I sighed heavily, hoping he wouldn’t decide he liked my spot enough to frequent it. Then I pointed