By: James Bates
We were walking home at sunset from the neighborhood rink, skates swings from the blades of our hockey sticks. Little Eddie was eight years old, younger than me by three years and smaller by a head and a half. He was revved up after the game since it was the first time he’d gotten to play with ‘The Big Kids,’ as he called us, so he was excited and talking a mile a minute while I ignored him, thinking about Christmas coming up in two days and wondering if our parents would call.
The temperature was near zero and we were getting cold, so I did something I never should have done. I had us take a short cut across the big pond that formed one edge of the boundary to the trailer park where our grandparent’s double wide was parked. The ice had recently formed, but I figured it’d save us ten minutes, so why not take a chance, being as cold as we were.
Cold but thirsty. We were eating handfuls of snow as we shuffled along, and I was watching a dozen or so crows flocking to roost in dead tree on the shoreline a hundred yards away, when suddenly the ice made a sickening sound and started to crack. I immediately thought of Eddie. If we broke through he’d be toast. He wasn’t the strongest swimmer in the world.
I put my hand out, “Stop.” I commanded, and for once my brother obeyed me. I was about to say, “Don’t move,” when suddenly the ice gave way and we plunged into the frigid water, sticks and skates flying. Eddie held onto me while I grabbed for the edge, but the ice kept breaking away until I lost my hold and slipped off, pulled under by the combined weight of our waterlogged clothes. We sank down, down, Little Eddie clinging to me in terror, bubbles streaming from his mouth. I thought for sure we were done for when miraculously my feet hit the mucky bottom.
The water was so muddy all I could see was opaque light from the hole above, but I figured we had a chance. I held Little Eddie tight, squatted down and then extended my legs fast like two pistons, shooting us upward. We broke through the surface, coughing and gasping. I tried to tread water, but my boots were so heavy I soon became exhausted. Worse, I started to lose my grip on Little Eddie, so I tightened my hold on him and slung my other arm over the edge of the hole, but the ice broke and we started to sink again. Panicking, I kicked my legs as hard as I could to stay afloat, breaking through more ice before I finally found some solid enough to support us. I hung on for dear life completely spent with no idea what to do next.
It was then I heard Little Eddie whimpering. He had turned his cold, wet face into my neck for warmth or comfort or both. He was even more terrified than I was. His raw fear jump started my will to save him. With a sudden surge of energy I didn’t know I had, I kicked and pushed and shoved with all my remaining strength until I was able to lever my nearly frozen brother up out of the water and clear of the hole. He lay panting and coughing while I hung onto the edge, fighting a losing battle with the unrelenting cold.
Slowly, Little Eddie began to revive until he was able to roll over and look at me, ice crystals forming on his wet clothes. “Rick, are you all right?”
“I’m freezing to death,” I told him, my teeth chattering. “You need to get help.”
“Won’t we get into trouble?”
These days, when we talk about that night, my brother’s statement always makes us laugh. Back then, though, our situation was too dire to be even remotely funny. I swore, “God damn it, Eddie, run and get help. Now. Fast.”
He scrambled to his feet, and even though his clothes were beginning to freeze solid like icy boards, he ran like I’d never seen him run before.
I’ll never forget waiting for him. Night had fallen completely and the temperature had become dangerously cold. My body had lost all feeling. My waterlogged boots and clothes threatened to drag me back under water at any moment. I passed into and out of consciousness as hypothermia took over. I wondered if I’d ever see my little brother again. With our parents both in prison for years to come, he was the closest family I had. Grandpa and Grandma did their best, but it wasn’t the same without Mom and Dad. Little Eddie…Well, he was my brother. We were family. We needed each other.
I finally passed out for good. I was slowly freezing to death when I thought I heard a voice. Was it my imagination? Probably. Then, I heard it again. What was going on? I forced my frozen eyelids open and saw Little Eddie. He’d returned with a neighbor who had called the police. But my little brother hadn’t waited safely off to the side like a prudent person would have done. Courageously, he had edged back onto the ice and laid himself out prone, extending his hand to me, “Here, Rick. Grab on.” Through the fog of my near unconsciousness, I followed his instruction. I reached for my brother and felt him grasp my hand.” I’ve got you,” he said. “Hold on.” And I did.
Behind him the neighbor was yelling at him to get away from the hole, but my brother ignored him. I couldn’t move or respond, but it didn’t matter. Little Eddie held my hand, whispered words of encouragement and stayed with me until help arrived. That’s what counted. Me and him, brothers to the end, safe and together. It was the best Christmas present I ever received.
Popularly known as Jim, James Bates lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared inCafeLit, The Writers’ Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal and The Drabble.