We arrived at Lake Scourge as the sun graced the sky with hues of gold and pinkish red. The soil was sticky beneath our feet and each step came with an audible suction. The air was bitter and smelled of fish. My father led the way, through a brush of drooping leaves, until we could see the muddy shore.
“Get a move on, Chris.” He grunted and dropped our tin boat to the ground. “Early bird gets the worm.” He was a burly man of forty-five, grim-looking and normally chipper. He had two large wrinkles that creased his cheeks and peppered stubble that made him look wise. Today, he wore a thick flannel shirt beneath his khaki colored overalls.
“I’m coming,” I said and emerged from the brush, exhausted by the weight of our utility bag and the pace of our stride. “What’s in here, anyway?”
“Things we’ll need.” He awaited me by the lakeside. “Come on, Chris. We don’t give up.”
“We or you,” I sniped and heaved the sack over my shoulder. He gripped the straps and tossed the thing into our boat like it were empty. “You couldn’t have done that half a mile ago?”
“Struggle builds character,” he assured me and nudged our ship partly offshore. The water didn’t ripple. Neither could the rising sun pierce its darkness. He looked to the horizon as clouds spilled from his nose and his fingers trembled. “Colder than I expected.”
“It’s not too late to go back.”
“We never back down from a challenge,” he declared and held the boat steady. “Besides, we could use the quality time.”
“Suddenly one of you care?” I quipped and boarded the wobbling contraption.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re always working. Mom’s always on the phone.”
“Let’s not talk about your mother right now.” He stomped a foot in the ship and nearly sunk it. “She’s the last thing I want to think about.” He grabbed his paddle and passed me the other. “Ready, captain?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Whatever.”
We didn’t say much until we got to the center of the lake. According to him, he and my mother used to visit Lake Scourge all the time. “Back then, this place was bright and blue, with all the magic of nature that you could ask for,” he said. “Now, it’s just sludge.”
“Mom says it’s vile.” I recalled, “‘… a disgusting, filthy, mess.’”
“Your mother’s a difficult woman to please.” He spoke with conviction and lifted the bag from between his knees. He laid it on his lap, unzipped it, and scanned the contents. “Some things just need a little tending to. Besides, she’s less than perfect herself.”
“Because she doesn’t like the lake,” I asked.
He fell silent, tossed me a bottle of water, and continued to dig in the bag—occasionally casting his gaze back to the shore, then returning his focus to the abyss. “What are we doing out here,” I asked. He didn’t answer. Instead he rose from the ragged sack with two sticks of dynamite in one hand and three steel rods in the other.
“Screw those together for me, will you?”
“Okay,” I dragged. “Are we fishing?”
“Something like that.” He struck a match and the scent of sulfur filled my nose. “You might want to put a rush on that net.”
A resounding boom exploded some yards away, hurling water and fish guts into the sky. He leered at the resulting ripples until he found red. “Ha,” he exclaimed. “Got those bastards.” He examined the following stick and set it alight. “You can throw the next one.” The dynamite flew in an arc over his head and into the syrupy current. Seconds later, it too exploded. “Ha!” He boasted again.
“Dad,” I asked as he reached for another.
“Who’s Tom?” I’d heard my parents arguing about the stranger for several nights straight. I was curious and admittedly mortified by their clear frustration with each other. Neither seemed apologetic but both looked guilty. The next thing I knew, Dad and I were on a trip with no apparent destination.
He cut his eyes away and stood at the edge of the ship while staring out into the void. “Pass me the net,” he said. I passed it to him and his arms dove into the darkness beneath us. He jerked, side to side, amidst a series of grunts and fragmented quotes from the altercation with my mother. She called him a ‘loser.’ He disagreed.
“Dad,” I intervened.
“What are we doing?”
His arms swayed left and slowed gently back to where they were. When he arose, the net was full and dripping shards of textile skin. He turned it over and a weight fell between our feet, poor smelling and flopping wildly. The fish looked like it sprang from hell and oozed a chunky green goo as it suffocated. “Carp,” my father growled. “An invasive species. They destroy everything, everywhere they go.”
I examined it closer, holding down the vomit that curdled in my throat. “Who put it here?”
He stepped on its face and held firm. The flopping ceased. “Someone foolish,” he said. “Someone who lacks respect for the sanctity of things.” He lifted his boot and tossed the corpse overboard. “This invader was invited. But we can’t give up. Not ever.”
“Why not just find a new lake?”
He paused to consider my question, before dunking the net back into the pool of fresh guts and gunk. For the first time that day, he looked me in the eye. “Easier said than done.” He threw another stick of dynamite, staining the air with a blood-colored splash. “Ha!” He laughed and grabbed as many of the explosives as he could hold.
“Dad,” I whimpered.
He lit the wick and tossed one more. “Just another carp in our lake.”