The One That Got Away

by Mae Siu-Wai Stroshane

A fierce summer sun beat down on the dry, yellowish fields along the Sacramento River. In the noonday stillness, cicadas buzzed to the steady pulse of the throbbing heat. A burnt smell drifted up from the desiccated trees that were always hungering to explode into raging fire at the slightest taste of a carelessly dropped cigarette or a stray ember from an illegal beer party.

Picking their way along the muddy bank, two children stopped to examine the remains of the latest nighttime revel. Crumpled red and white beer cans, torn potato chip bags, and smashed cigarette stubs lay scattered around a charred log like casualties on a battlefield.

"Hey!" The boy stooped and picked up an almost unused pack of matches. "Look at these. I bet I could get this fire going again." He put down his fishing pole and tackle box, and opened the cardboard cover on the matches.

"No, Peter, don't!" wailed the girl. Her shiny black hair, cropped in straight bangs across her forehead, stood in sharp contrast to the boy's yellow curls. Her brown skin glistened with sweat, and her heavy tortoise-shell glasses had slipped down almost to the end of her small nose. "You'll start a huge fire 'cause it's so dry around here."

"No kidding, Jas." But he paused and began to read the inside of the matchbook cover. "'Don't let the Reds sneak up on you. Get a Secret Spy Scope with super powerful vision. Range up to 20 feet. Fits into your shirt pocket so no one will suspect it's there. Only $1.95.' I oughta get one so I can spy on old lady Strohmann."

"You wouldn't dare," said the girl. "They say she's got a shotgun in her window and she can see you a mile off. Missy Barnes says she's a witch."

"That's just a lot of bull." Peter continued to study the Secret Spy Scope. "She's so blind and deaf you could knock her over with a feather. Don't believe everything you hear, Jasmine."

Her glasses back in place, Jasmine tried to rub her itchy nose. She hoped Peter would forget about trying to set the fields on fire, and began to whine, to distract him. "I'm so hot I can't stand it. I want to go home!"

"Aw shut up. We haven't even started fishing yet." But her trick worked. Peter picked up his pole and strode away, calling over his shoulder, "If you don't come, I'm never taking you fishing again!"

Jasmine struggled after him, looking longingly at the water. By the time she caught up with Peter, he was already baiting his hook with a fat pink night crawler. Jasmine shuddered at the sight. She used salmon eggs instead. They were neat round balls that didn't squirm and struggle in your hand. But Peter liked to collect the biggest, juiciest worms he could find after a rare summer rain. He swore the fish preferred them anyway.

Now he stood close to the edge of the water and cast out in a swift, smooth motion. They watched the hook with its wigging bait drop soundlessly into the water

Jasmine poked a salmon egg onto her hook and stood up, getting her fishing line tangled in the long grass.

"Jas, you dummy, you're such a klutz. Here." Peter came to her rescue. "Now pull your arm back, like this, then throw the line out."

After a few tries, Jasmine managed to get her line into the water a few feet away from Peter's. They stood on the bank and waited. In the cool dappled shade of the tree, they began to feel better after the long hot walk from town. Jasmine stole a look at her big brother, who had loomed large in her life for as long as she could remember

Moments like this were rare these days. At thirteen, Peter considered it an affront to his dignity to be seen with his baby sister in public But last spring, Peter's best friend, Ray Santos, had been killed in a freak accident on his father's farm, thrown from a tractor directly into the path of the harvester coming behind.

Jasmine never saw Peter cry during that terrible time, nor in the bleak months that followed. Instead he spent more time than usual at home, and was unusually kind to Jasmine. She felt guilty for being glad that Ray's death had given her back her brother, even if only temporarily.

The sun shifted to the west as they waited and waited, sweat dripping from their faces. Peter took out some licorice whips from his pocket and gave one to Jasmine

"Are you sure there's any fish here?" Jasmine fretted

"There better be. Last time I came, we caught about ten of 'em."

More time passed. Suddenly Peter said, "This stinks. I've got an idea." Holding his pole high so the line would stay straight, he went to the tree and hauled himself up onto the branch that extended some ten feet over the water. He crawled out almost to the end, then straddled it and cast out his line.

Jasmine jumped up and down in excitement. "Can I try it too?"

"In a minute. Now quit making so much noise." Peter settled himself to wait.

In less than five minutes his strategy paid off. His line went taut, and he whooped with delight. "Hot dog! Got one!" Gripping the massive branch with his legs as if straddling a bronco, he leaned back and reeled in a shiny trout. "All RIGHT!"

"Peter, be careful," Jasmine squealed as he slid backwards out of the tree, unhooked his catch, and dropped it into the pail. Jasmine picked up a stick and poked it into the fish's exposed gills.

Peter knocked the stick from her hands and shouted, "Cut that out, you sicko! He's gonna die anyway." Startled and frightened, Jasmine backed away at once. "I— I was just—"

"Aw, go jump in the river. Leave me alone."

Jasmine began to climb the tree. She wriggled along the branch as Peter had done, then flung her line into the water and waited.

Suddenly she felt a tugging on her line. At the same moment Peter called, "Jas, you've got one. Pull it in!"

Jasmine sat up, her glasses sliding down her nose. The tugging grew harder, and her pole sagged until it was almost bent in two. Something big was down there, fighting her with fierce determination.

"Peter, help me!" she cried. He jammed the handle of his own fishing pole into the mud and climbed onto the branch behind her.

"Give it to me, Jas," he panted. But Jasmine's fingers were frozen around the pole, and she stared down dizzily at the water below her.

"Let go, let go, you idiot!" His voice cracked, and he tried to pry the pole from her grasp. At last Peter yanked the pole away and began to crank the reel as hard as he could. A glittering trout flapped wildly in the air

"Golly, it's even bigger than yours, Peter," Jasmine said admiringly. Then she rubbed her eyes in dismay. "My glasses! I've lost them in the water."

"Well, if you weren't such a klutz with this fish—hey, Jas, wait! Don't go back in again." But it was too late. Jasmine had plunged into the water and struck out towards the middle of the river. In the shadow of the overhanging branch, she dove downwards. She had to find her glasses. They'd cost almost a hundred dollars, and her parents would kill her if she lost them. Most of the time they gave her special treatment because she was the adopted one, but not when it came to money.

As Peter struggled with their stupendous catch, Jasmine suddenly fell off the branch. "Peter, help, I can't get back!”

Peter cursed under his breath and cupped his hands to his mouth. "Swim hard!" She did her best, but the current pulled her rapidly downriver.

In agony, Peter looked back at the beautiful fish swinging in the air, its scales gleaming in the sun. If he let go of the pole now, he'd lose the fish for sure. Then he saw bubbles of blood forming around its gills, and his stomach turned over. Suddenly he hurled the pole away and plunged into the water.

By now, Jasmine had grown exhausted from fighting the current

"Jasmine, give me your hand!" Peter's voice cracked with near-hysteria as he swam towards her. "I'll pull you to shore!"

She saw him coming as if through a watery window. At last he reached her hand. Their fingers clenched in a tight knot. Her fierce, panicked grip nearly pulled him under. The powerful current swept them both downriver, far from their fishing spot.

As soon as they reached a shallow area where Peter could touch bottom, he hauled Jasmine to the bank and pushed her up onto the grass. Drenched and shivering, the children collapsed in an exhausted heap.

"You okay?" Peter asked.

She nodded, smiling up at him. "I thought I was drowned for sure."

"Not a chance," Peter said. "Not with me around."

Feeling stronger, Jasmine sat up. "I guess we're in big trouble now," she sighed. "But wait 'til Mom and Dad hear how you saved my life."

"Don't you dare tell!" Peter rounded on her.

"But...but—I would've drowned if you hadn't—"

"I don't care! I don't want them making a big fuss over me." He got to his feet and slapped the water from his pants. Then he stopped and said softly, "It'll just be our secret, okay? Between you and me."

Puzzled, Jasmine squinted up at him. "Okay."

He smiled, and a sudden warmth spread through her, flooding her with happiness. Her big brother was still the most wonderful person she'd ever known.

As they plodded towards home, rivulets of river water running from their shoes, Peter said, "That water did feel kind of good, anyway. I'm not hot anymore."

At the end of the path near town, Peter stopped so suddenly Jasmine bumped into him. "Now we're both dumb bunnies, Jas. We forgot our fish!"

Jasmine clapped her hand to her mouth. "I'll go back," she volunteered, though her shoes were full of slimy mud and her legs ached so much she wanted to cry.

"No way, Jose. I'm not letting you go back there by yourself." He stood still, biting his lip, lost in thought.



Jasmine twisted her hands together. "I--I'm sorry I made you lose that big fish."

Peter looked down at the ground, seeing again the first fish they'd caught, thrashing around in the pail, glassy-eyed and dying. He imagined his buddy Ray on the ground behind his father's tractor, all broken and bleeding like the fish. He said, "Forget the stupid fish. You're the one I couldn't let get away."

Jasmine's face was glowing. "You're terrific, Peter. The best brother anybody could ever have."

Peter cleared his throat. "Then I guess you're about as blind as they come. C'mon, let's go home. I'm so hungry I could eat a barge."

BIO: Mae Siu-Wai Stroshane is a longtime Boston writer. She specializes in historical fiction and enjoys time traveling on her days off.