By William Falo
I walked past the empty playground. The rusty bars, broken swings, and pieces of trash that littered the ground made it clear no children would ever be brought here again.
Closer to the lake, a sign showed a fish with a red circle around it and a line through the middle of it. Below was a list of toxins and dire warnings if you consumed fish from the lake. I kept walking until I saw a man fishing. Nobody fished in Strawbridge Lake anymore.
Suddenly, he pulled the rod back and started to fight a fish.
“No way,” I yelled out.
He turned the reel with increasing speed.
Whatever he caught got closer to the shore. With a few final turns, it hit the bank. It looked dark and slimy. I couldn’t believe it.
“Yes.” He held his rod over his head.
I saw what he caught and started to laugh.
“What is it?”
I held it up. “You caught a stick fish.” It was a long time since I laughed so hard.
“It’s not that funny.” He smiled.
“Yes. It is.” I dropped it then looked at my hands. Slime covered them.
He pulled out some rags and gave them to me.
“Thank you. I’m sorry I laughed.”
“It’s pretty funny. I bet it’s the largest stick fish ever caught here.”
“It’s the only thing caught here anymore.” I wiped my hands off.
“I know, but I keep trying.”
“It’s too polluted.”
“Yea. I saw some truck dumping chemicals in the lake last night. They may come back tonight. I’m going to come back and catch them. Do you want to help?”
“I don’t even know you.”
“I’m Jacob. What’s your name?”
“Now you know me.”
“I can’t.” I couldn’t do it. I am not an outgoing person. The stick fish took me out of my comfort zone, but now I felt embarrassed. My arms itched, and I wanted to run away.
“I’ll be here tonight if you change your mind.”
I left without looking back.
At home, I sat alone in the dark. The wind picked up as a storm approached; a branch
broke off an old tree out front and hit the ground with a thud. I thought of the stick fish and
Jacob. I knew he would be at the lake, and I ran toward it.
Darkness covered everything. A truck drove past me, dragging a hose spewing dark liquid on the road. When lightning lit the sky, I saw a dark form in the lake.
I ran into the water and saw someone face down. Jacob. I dragged him to shore. He gurgled but managed to sit up. Water and slime-covered him.
“Are you okay?”
He nodded and coughed up water.
“They were pumping stuff into the lake.” He coughed and spit up more water. “I snapped pictures, but the flash caught their attention. They demanded my phone and threw it into the lake. I went after it.”
“It’s an iPhone 13.”
“What happened in the lake?”
“I tripped over something; maybe it was the stick I caught.” He laughed. “I hit my head and blacked out. I would have drowned if not for you. You saved my life. Nobody ever did
anything like that for me before.”
“Anybody else would have done the same thing.”
“No, they wouldn’t.”
“It was all for nothing since your phone is ruined.”
“No, it wasn’t. I emailed the pictures before they took my phone.”
“Do you want to get a cup of coffee with me tomorrow?”
“I have plans.” I lied. “Besides, you don’t want to be with me. I’m broken. I have depression, take meds, I used to cut myself and still might do it.” I don’t know why I blurted that out, but I turned and ran away. In fishing terms, it was catch and release. It was necessary to let him go.
“Mia, wait.” He yelled, but I kept running.
I became stuck. I couldn’t leave, where would I go, but I was afraid to stay here. I desired happiness, but it seemed so hard to find. There were some good memories, though, but they were lost under the dark clouds of the bad ones. I caught fish at Strawbridge Lake with my father before he died. I was happy then, but it seemed so long ago. Before the bullying at school, my father and mother died, and the loneliness followed.
I needed to get outside, so I walked to the lake. In the distance, a man was holding a fishing rod. Jacob.
After a few minutes, I reached his side. He looked at me and put the fishing rod down.
“You know I never caught a fish here. That stick doesn’t count.” Jacob said.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“You saved my life.”
“Sometimes, I’m impulsive.” I looked at him.
“I haven’t seen the polluters since I posted the pictures online.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
“You may regret it.” I pulled up my sleeves, revealing scars.
“I doubt it. I’m pretty messed up too, and I’m not a fan of catch and release.”
The bobber went underwater.
“A fish,” I yelled and grabbed the rod.
Before I could get the fish to the shore, the line snapped.
“It got away,” Jacob said.
“But there’s hope for the lake. It means there’s hope it can come back.”
He fixed the line. On the other side of the lake, I saw a stick surface with a bobber and fishing line twisted around it.
He saw me staring across the lake. “Did you see something?”
“No, nothing at all,” I said and smiled. “Do you want to go to the store? I need to buy a fishing rod of my own?”
“Sure,” he said.
He packed up his gear, and we left together. When I looked back, I saw the stick sink below the surface, leaving behind small ripples that grew larger as they spread across the lake.
* * *
William Falo lives with his family, including a papillon named Dax. His work has been published in various literary journals. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and Instagram @william.falo