Staying Afloat

by Justin Berry

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    First-Place FictionMartin was drowning on dry land—struggling to keep his head above the world. Then Sarah introduced him to a couple of lifeguards.

    The afternoon sun hung low in the sky as Martin walked along the path that led from his family’s summer home to the lake. A vivid splash of orange and pink streaked across the sky. This was a path he had walked many times before. It was all familiar to him: the trees, rocks, even the old boathouse at the end. He knew it all well. Often he had walked along this path to go fishing or swimming, yet tonight he had something else on his mind.

    The wooden boards of the boathouse came into view as he came over a ridge in the trail. As a child he had played in its walls with his brother. It would become the fort as they were under attack from an imaginary enemy, or a stop along a spy trail. They had spent so much of their youth there. But tonight the memories of the past faded to reflections in the dirty windows. He and his younger brother had both grown, and those playful times were gone.

    He stopped for only a few minutes to look through the dusty windows. He wiped the cobwebs away with his hand. Inside, the family rowboat sat, waiting for someone to come. Against the wall were several old fishing poles and boat oars. Several buckets and shovels were scattered across the floor. His mother had stacked all the life jackets in the corner, all but one that lay on the floor near the door. He moved around to the front and opened the door. The rusted hinges moaned with age and time. He pushed the buckets away and made his way to the pale orange life jacket. He picked it up and held it for a moment. His mind drifted back to those days when his father would say, “Don’t go in the boat without a life jacket!” So many times he had heard these words. He smiled and held the jacket close to his chest.

    He walked from the boathouse toward the water’s edge. The tired sun cast long, golden arms upon the water in a final embrace. As he walked, Martin put the old, worn jacket on over his black school sweatshirt. As he reached the weathered dock, he stopped. Again memories crept into his mind. He had spent countless hours at this dock. Here, his father had taught him to dive. This was where he had looked for a sunken treasure chest with his brother. He smiled at the thought of so many summers. He bent down and gathered a handful of stones before strolling onto the dock. A single lamppost at the end greeted him with a dull yellow glow. The feeling of his first summer romance filled his chest. Here below this very lamppost, he had said his good-byes to the “girl of his dreams.” They had parted with a small kiss, and his summer had ended.

    He sat on the end of the dock and removed his dusty canvas shoes. He then rolled his khakis up over his calves so that he could let his feet dangle in the water. He sat almost breathless as he marveled at the beauty of the evening. So many colors, so many pictures, all painted by God’s skilled hand. He let his feet down into the cool lake. A shock ran up his leg as he felt the cold mountain water surround his ankles. The sounds of evening seemed to float through the air around him. How peaceful it all was. He looked at his reflection in the water. Where had the messy-haired little boy gone? he wondered. The face of a 20-year-old young man looked back at him. He dropped a stone into the lake. He dropped a few more. He looked up toward the sky to find the sun had now slipped silently behind the mountains. Only the tattered lamppost cast out a few dim rays. He dropped another stone and watched as it sank quickly to the bottom.

    Martin had been at the top of his class in high school. Nothing was standing in his way. His future was so bright. Yet something had seemed to be blocking that light. He also felt as if he had to struggle to keep his head above water. He saw himself as the stones that quickly sank below the surface. He wondered why life was so hard. The words of his father again rang in his ears, “Don’t go in the boat without a life jacket!” That’s what he had wanted to find, a life jacket for life. It didn’t matter if he was with his friends or alone, he just hadn’t been able to keep that little bit above all the waves of life’s problems.

    Martin remembered the summer when a girl from school arrived at the lake. Her family had purchased one of the homes nearby. He had seen her around but had never said much to her. At school, he had noticed that something was different about her. He was happy to have someone to talk to. His brother had found other friends, so it was nice to find someone to spend the long summer days with. Many times they would take a boat out on the lake, or go for long walks, or just sit on the dock and toss pebbles into the water. One afternoon, they had walked to a small store in the town and made their way back to the dock. “Sarah, may I ask you a question?” Martin asked.

    “Sure,” came the reply.

    “You always seem so … happy.” He paused to find the words he wanted. “How is it that you can always be so happy when everything around us is so depressing?”

    The answer he received shocked him, yet it was something that would change his life forever.

    Summer soon drew to a close and school began. Martin found it easier to stay afloat as he thought of the words of his newfound friend. He set out to learn all he could about this new idea he had been given. He talked with his family, friends, and others he felt could help him. Sarah introduced him to two others who shared with him the knowledge he desired. They gave him a book and asked him to read it. As he did, the answers he had been looking for became clear. His life began to change, and the obstruction to his bright future seemed to move aside. So much just seemed to fall into place. He learned that he had a Heavenly Father and an elder Brother, Jesus Christ, who loved him very much, in addition to his earthly family.

    Two years had passed since the afternoon when it all began. Martin now returned to the very spot where it was started by a simple question. But this time he knew the answers. He pulled his feet out of the water and drew his knees up to his chest. He looked again at the man in the water. He laughed as he saw the reflection. There he was sitting with an old life jacket on. He marveled at how much his life had changed. Everything seemed so clear to him. As he looked out over the lake, his heart began to pound with excitement, knowing he too would be able to share his new knowledge with people. Much like the two young missionaries who had taught him so much about the life he should live, he would be able to give the same to someone else.

    Martin rolled over onto his stomach. He rested his chin on his folded arms. He thought of the words and ideas that had saved his life—the ancient writings of men who provided the wisdom and counsel for which he had searched. He closed his eyes and offered a simple prayer of thanks. Martin thanked his Heavenly Father for sending his Son to make such a change in his life possible. Tears began to well up in his eyes. He focused again on the image in the water. Two tears broke the surface. It was almost as though he felt the warmth of a hand on his shoulder and knew his elder Brother was near. He sat for a moment longer; then he sat up and put his shoes on. He stood and removed the old life jacket. As it fell to the dock he smiled and spoke the familiar phrase, “Don’t go in the boat without a life jacket!”

    Photography by Welden Andersen