A cool night breeze sweeps across the lake as the soothing sound of waves colliding against the hull of the old wooden boat slowly drowns out the motor’s dying rumble. This is the first time Benny’s ever been out on the water and he didn’t think to bring a sweater. ‘It’s the middle of summer,’ is what he told himself while he was waiting to be picked up by the other guys, ‘I’ll be soaked if I wear this thing.’ Well you got soaked anyway, little Benny. You sure could use that sweater now.
All the other guys have sweaters, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask one of them if he could borrow one. If Benny pulled some gay shit like that back in high school his head would have been dunked into a used urinal and then washed with a flushing. Yes, some time has passed since then, but things don’t just change randomly as time passes. They evolve. The punishment can only have matured along with The Punishers.
Believe it or not, tonight Little Benny Bronson is out fishing with The Punishers, a troupe of five boys who would reliably and unceasingly torment him all throughout his tepid, unstirred high school career. Chip Bradley, Bradley Peterson, Peter Taylor, Taylor Williamson, and of course Billy Bradley, the crew who singlehandedly handed Benny his success in track by chasing him around after the bell rang and forcing him to sprint for his dignity, although it felt more like he was running for his life. If they caught him they’d play all sorts of clever tricks on little Benny; they’d hang him on a tall fence by an arbitrary article of clothing, they’d strip him to his skivvies and toss his clothes on the roof of the school so he’d have to climb up there like a monkey in a zoo, they’d pick him up and see how far they could throw him; it was all exquisitely traumatic. But in the end it wasn’t all bad: Benny was the captain of the sprinting team because of them, and that’s just what he told them when he group messaged them on Facebook earlier. Lately Benny’s been contacting all of his past tormentors and thanking them for the role they played in his life as part of a thankfulness exercise he learned about through a cute Latter-Day Saints missionary who messages him about the Lord on Facebook. Chip and the boys were so taken aback by Benny’s confidence in his message that they invited him out nightfishing with them. They even offered to pick him up, as they were heading out their doors when he messaged them anyway. Bam, easy as that.
It took a total of twenty minutes for Benny’s social life to finally bloom after being stunted during the years when all his neighbors were off at college. Twenty minutes. A lot can happen in twenty minutes, that’s a whole boatload of time… yet in all that time, Benny didn’t think it a good idea to bring a sweater. Because he’s dumb, because he’s weak, you’re weak Benny, you’re a stupid little unattractive beta male who smells like bad cheese and I couldn’t even think to bring a Goddamned swea–’
From the silvery blackness of the moon-soaked lake, Benny’s face flows into form. At first he sees leaky red acne covering him from chin to receded hairline, crooked and jagged teeth falling out of his mouth like bricks when a chimney is hit with a wrecking ball, patches of unruly black facial hair reaching out from his cheeks like the legs of sickly spiders; then he blinks and sees his current face. Fair skin, clean shaven, short blonde hair that complements his green eyes. Benny’s matured right along with The Punishers, and they’ve recognized him for it. Perhaps it’s time he does the same.
Benny leans back into the boat and is greeted by five smiling faces. Everyone’s holding a shot glass in their hands. Chip has two.
“You feeling any better?” Taylor asks, smiling honestly.
“Yeah,” Benny says, then wipes his already clean lip. “I’m not out on the water very much, I just got a little nauseous.” He’s kind of chilly too, but he doesn’t mention this.
“No worries, lil’ buddy!” Taylor assures him, then doubles down with a pat on the shoulder. “Maybe a little drink will get you feeling right.”
Chip takes this as a chance to pass Benny a shot glass. It’s tall, fits in his hand like the grip of one of his pop’s fishing rods. It’s hard to make out in the moonlight, but there appears to be something of a man printed on the glass, too.
“What does this… Beefeater? What’s a Beefeater?”
“You are, numbnuts!” teases Billy. Always the jokester, that Billy. “Nah, just playin’. It’s a brand of gin. They all have different alcohols on them, we’ve never had anybody to drink out of the Beefeater one before.” Billy raises his glass. Everyone does the same, bringing them together for a group cheers. Almost reluctantly, Benny joins in. A glassy tink echoes across the surface of Atacama Lake. “Welcome to the crew, Benny boy.”
Everyone downs their shots. Everyone grimaces. Benny leans over the side of the boat again and everyone laughs, even Benny. Then a star twinkles a little too brightly it the night sky above and it all goes to hell.
There was a splash, but it wasn’t Benny’s splash. Benny’s splash was smaller, and the big splash came before Benny’s splash. He heard some muffled commotion before he broke the surface, but even after he comes up for air everything seems muddled up, like time had wandered into a bramble and got stuck. There’s some yelling, three voices. He can’t make out what they’re saying. There’s a lot of splashing, a light… no, a fire.
As his vision clears, Benny can see the boat is done for. Broken into many pieces, and not evenly. One of the pieces is on fire, another is floating. Most are sinking. The water is jelly, thick and glumpy and full of weedy pulp. Benny is beginning to struggle, but his hearing is fading back in.
“Chip’s gone and Brad’s startin’ to sink, I need to go after him!”
Benny tastes the lake water and begins to get nauseous again. Not twenty minutes ago they were launching the boat. Not twenty minutes.
“Wait for Taylor to come up, he already went down! Pete, n– PETE!”
Benny is starting to float away, the voices are becoming more distant. Quieter. The splashing is calming down.
“Fine, fuckin’ go then, I’ll… shit, BENNY! BENNY BEEFEATER, WHERE ARE YOU?!”
Benny can’t feel the heat from the burning boat anymore. The light on the buoy in the center of the lake is brighter than the fire is now. It’s almost as bright as the moon.
“BENNY! I’m, I… fuck man, what the fuck even happened?! I’M COMING, BENNY!”
The rhythmic splashing of waves against the buoy slowly drowns out the beating of Benny’s heart. He’s cold, so very cold, too cold, but he’s glad he didn’t bring a sweater. Benny’s not a very strong swimmer. A sweater just would have weighed him down.