THE SHOCK OF COLD WATER • by Douglas Campbell

When his father called him, Winston went into the living room. His father was seated in a chair he’d pulled all the way across the room and up close to the couch, where Ronnie, his little brother, was sitting.

“Hey, Winston,” his father said. “Have a seat.”

Winston sat beside Ronnie.

Their mother, his father said, was very sick, and she needed time away from the family. “And I have to work. So you guys are going to the St. Lawrence River this summer, with Uncle George and Aunt Julie.”

“I don’t want to,” Ronnie said. Winston smacked him on the leg.

“Easy, Winston,” his father said.

“What about Little League?” Winston said. “I have new spikes.”

“Maybe next summer, kiddo. If your feet don’t grow.”


Uncle George and Aunt Julie put Ronnie in their spare bedroom, where only one bed could fit.

“You have to be the brave one, Winston,” Aunt Julie said. “We’ll put you out on the porch.”

He slept on a cot, under blankets that stunk of mothballs. That first night, the whoo-whooing of owls in the dark scared him. He’d seen pictures of them, fierce faces, claws like curled knives.

“They won’t hurt you,” Uncle George said, in the morning. “But they’re bad news for mice, moles, little critters like that.”

“I couldn’t see them,” Winston said.

“No, they’re dark, like the night,” his uncle said. “And their wings don’t make any noise. They swoop down out of nowhere.”

Winston decided if he couldn’t wear his new spikes he wouldn’t wear shoes at all. But his feet were town feet, soft as bread. A bee stung one foot and he cut the other on glass.

“Winston, put your sneakers on,” Aunt Julie kept telling him.

He did, then took them off as soon as she looked away. He saw other kids going without shoes. Their mothers didn’t care, didn’t yell at them.

He wanted his mother to get well. She’d made him well when he had the flu, her cool hands pressed to his blazing cheeks, pulling fever out of him.

If she got well the house would be bright and neat when they went home. Not wrecked and dark like when she was drinking whiskey, pulling curtains closed, slamming doors, screaming at them with devil eyes. Juice and milk spilled on the kitchen table. Socks, magazines, dog food chunks on the floor.

He watched those other kids running barefoot on pebbled driveways and splintery boat docks. You had to let it hurt until the soles of your feet got tough. He hoped it wouldn’t take too long. But he had to be the brave one.


Uncle George warned the boys to stay away from the old boathouse, but one afternoon Winston wandered down to the river, pushed the boathouse door open, and went in. Rotten wooden oars and torn fishnets hung on the walls. Spiders everywhere. The doors facing the river hung open in ruins, a few boards on rusty hinges.

But in the shallow water Winston saw fish, beautiful little fish. Yellowish and silvery, happy families of them, darting here and there together. He bent over for a closer look, but he leaned on one of the old doors. The rusty hinges swung, and he plunged into the water.

Freezing, icy water – way colder than the swimming pools at home! The shock of it made him leap to his feet, dripping and gasping. He scrambled up the ladder to the dock and ran to the cottage, shivering.

Later, he thought if you stood in water like that long enough the cold would ache. Then you’d go numb, like his fingers when he went tobogganing. Up your legs, through your chest, arms, neck. All numb. You wouldn’t feel them anymore.


On his cot at night, as the weeks passed, Winston thought about his new spikes back home in his closet, black, shiny wings waiting to fly him through the daring baserunning and leaping catches he imagined. He tried playing baseball with Ronnie one day, but the ball hit Ronnie in the nose, and he ran away, crying. Hopeless. Next summer, maybe. His mother would drive him to his games and give him good luck kisses.

She was with doctors, somewhere where she couldn’t have whiskey. What were they doing to her? Giving her medicine?

When they went home she’d come out the back door, waving and smiling, then run to the car to squeeze her love into them with hugs. She’d be pretty and clean, happy to answer all his questions. She’d sing about the moon hitting your eye like a big pizza pie and run her fingers through his hair like a tickly rush of wind.


The end of August came, with cool, windy days. School would start soon, and on a Saturday afternoon Winston’s father arrived.

Winston sat with Ronnie on George and Julie’s couch.

“We’re going home tomorrow,” his father said. “But your mother won’t be there.”

“How come?” Winston said.

“She’s trying to get better, buddy. But she needs more time.”

Ronnie started crying again. “I want Mommy to come home.”

“Shut up, you baby,” Winston said.

“She sends her love to both of you,” his father said.

That night, Winston rose from his cot and stepped off the porch onto the lawn. On bare feet, toughened now, he walked over sharp stones on the dirt road, then headed downhill through prickly weeds and fallen branches under the trees.


An owl, hunting. Bad news for little critters. Swooping down on them out of nowhere, on dark and silent wings.

At the river, Winston waded in up to his waist. Fingers of chilly wind rushed through his hair. He twisted his feet down into the mud, and stood for a long time, stars overhead, cottage lights on the far shore.

“She sends her love to both of you.”

The water wasn’t as cold as he needed it to be. His legs ached, but he could still feel them.

Douglas Campbell‘s fiction has appeared online and in print, in publications such as Flash Me Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Litsnack, and Jabberwocky. Sometimes his writing wins prizes, too. He can’t seem to resist telling stories, and tries to do it as best he can. Douglas lives and writes in southwestern Pennsylvania.

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