By Devan Bierbrauer
You watch the sun turn your skin a pinkish-red as your yellow and orange life jacket chafes away at your shoulders. It’s a weekend in July, and the sun beats down from its unadulterated perch in the sky. Some of the kids at school have cabins they go to on the weekends or pools to swim in, the chlorine turning their hair a sick shade of green; you have a boat and Beer Can Island, your summer home. Looking out over the dark, murky waters of the St. Croix river, you and Robbie, your best friend, add the final touches to your sandcastles, fully understanding your creations will be destroyed either by the island drunks or their toddlers.
Your mom lounges in a molded plastic chair beside Robbie’s mom, feet left to cool in the water. You hear the clink and cheer of your father claiming the title of horseshoe champion once again behind the row of rainbow beach umbrellas. Sandcastle now finished, you and Robbie dash into the shallow water of the sandbar, a long outreaching point of shallow water that extends from the beach a good hundred feet. Your mother stands up and whistles, the sound resonating like a bullhorn. Immediately everyone stops what they’re doing and looks to the far point of the sandbar. Someone else has fallen into the Beer Can trap.
The local boaters understand the dangers of the sandbar and usually turn their bows away from that particular corner of the island, realizing the depths of their keels may not agree with the depth of the water. A smile breaks across your face; the driver and his wife look up at the sound of your mother’s signal. Up go the signs: your mom gives them a 5.4 while Robbie’s mom ups the score with a solid 7. Fathers join in with their own scores: 6.4 and 3.2. Sometimes the trapped boaters laugh at this little joke. Those Beer Can Islanders, they think. Other times they scowl, embarrassed at their mistake. If they had any hopes of appearing to know the river, they are surely dashed now.
These particular boaters simply chuckle as they put their boat in reverse and, as per the yelled directions of your mother, go far around the point before attempting to reach the channel. You and Robbie run out to where the boat struck the sandbar to see if the indent from their prow is still there, a chip in the island’s sword. This happens several more times that day. Some boats reverse back the way they came and go around the bar, and some attempt to plow through by throwing their throttle to its maximum power (these boats always find themselves more stuck than they initially intended).
Finally, near the end of the day, with the sun setting as you and Robbie gaze across the bay, one final boat of twenty-somethings springs the island’s snare. You can see the flash of silver cans in hands, the sun glinting across the aluminum. The whistle goes off again as your mother begins shouting, ”Sandbar! Sandbar!”
Their music is blasting and they don’t hear her. One man in a white T-shirt stands atop the bow, peering into the dark water. There is one thing about the St. Croix: no matter how hard you look, you never know how deep it is. Your mother whistles again, still getting no response. The man in the white shirt motions toward the water, his friends laughing all the while.
That’s when he dives.
Hands poised above his head, his body hangs for a moment in mid-air as the realization strikes: the water is three feet deep, at most. The man in the white shirt breaks the cardinal rule of the river—never dive into water without knowing the depth.
You turn to your mother. Her jaw is ajar. By the time you turn back to the man in the white shirt, he’s no longer there. Instead you see the shocked faces of his friends, no longer laughing, staring at the water beneath their bow. You follow their looks to the object in the waves. Ripples emanate from the white, floating form.
Next thing you know, Robbie’s father, Mark, rushes by, phone to his ear. You have never seen the gruff ex-Marine move so quickly. Your mother is by your side at that moment, hugging you into her, blocking your sight of the man floating in the water, unmoving.
Robbie keeps asking, “What’s happening? What happened to that guy?”
There you sit, on the sandbar, in your mother’s arms. You hear Mark’s voice yelling at the twenty-somethings. You hear sirens rise into existence and then fade away. Soon your mother lifts you from where you are sitting and carries you back to the boat. Wrapping you in a towel, your mother explains the reason why you don’t dive into the water head-first. The man in the white shirt, you learn later, didn’t survive. His neck snapped upon contact with the riverbed. By the time his body reaches the surface of the water, he is already dead.
Devan Bierbrauer is a creative and professional writing and English double major with an additional certificate in electronic writing. She works as both an assistant FYRE coordinator at BSU and a food and beverage supervisor at the Sanford Center. In Devan’s spare time, she drinks tea, plays far too many video games, and dreams of the day when she’ll finally own a dishwasher.