Short Fiction: “Adrift” by Max Wheeler

Max Wheeler


Like so much in Hassan’s long life, this transition was something done to him, not by him.

My mom sounded resigned when she called me the night before my monthly visit. Her husband had been changing in small ways for a while already.

“Look, honey. I have to tell you something.” I could tell she’d rehearsed these words: “Hassan is in the lake.”

I think I laughed, which I feel bad about now. There’s a lot I feel bad about now. “What do you mean? Did he go for a swim?”

“No,” she sighed. “He’s in a boat. The doctors warned us this would happen eventually. I just didn’t want you to be surprised.”


She was frantic when I got there, a dish towel over her shoulder, her hands wet and soapy. “Why don’t you head down to say hello. I’ll join you in a second.”

On the dock, the sun glinted painfully off the water. The wood rocked slightly, droplets splashing up through the cracks between boards. I was wearing the wrong shoes. Shading my eyes with my hand, I made myself look right at him and smile. “Well, it’s very nice to see you.”

“Yes, yes, very nice. Very nice to see you,” he said, bobbing.

By the time she came down to join us, I was already walking away.

“Let me just give him his snack. Wait a moment, okay?” I stood on the edge of the path, ripping up a leaf.

We walked back up to the house and drank milky tea on the shaded porch. I talked about my job. She talked about her dog, her neighbors, her baking. During a lull, our gazes drifted towards the water, where he was swaying gently, his eyes on the sky.

They still had meals together. She would cook, as she always had, and bring the food out to him. He’d paddle over to be closer to her. She’d pass him curries, sausage and peppers, roasted potatoes, microwaved quiche, a bowl of cereal, a bar of chocolate.

“This is the good life,” he would say, as he always had, his eyes shining. My mom held his hand and agreed.

In an alternate version of our lives, he might have been my dad. My stepdad, at least. A father figure. In that story, where I’d been less angry, he might have become someone I trusted and, I guess, loved. But I was stuck here, where my teenage resentment had eventually receded, but I didn’t find anything to replace it with. There was an empty space between us that I never bothered to fill.

Here we were, twenty years later, and my thousand small failures meant I couldn’t sit alone with him for five minutes.


Nothing else changed for a long time. Doctors said the speed of the condition was hard to predict. My mom built a little roof on the boat to keep him dry. I visited once a month, walked down to the dock, and we smiled at each other like two people in a good mood who pass on the sidewalk.

The following August, I got another phone call before another visit.

“Look, honey. It’s about Hassan. He’s … further away than before. I just didn’t want you to be shocked.”

Sure enough, when I walked down to the dock, his little boat was no longer on its line. He was out in the middle of the lake, paddling slowly to get closer. His age made it difficult. He stopped twenty feet away, breathing heavily. We exchanged our hellos. A great blue heron glided by, and I shouted, wanting him to see it. But by the time he understood what I was saying, it was gone.

I had a flickering memory of him at Christmas many years before, grinning, a Santa hat perched askew on his head.

“How is this all for you?” I asked my mom, gesturing towards the lake.

“Oh, you know. We are making do.”

I saw the swim cap hanging from the peg.

“Do you …? To feed him?”

“We only have the one boat, sweetie. He can’t always make it over to me. And what am I going to do, let him starve?”

“That’s very kind of you, mom.”

“Let’s talk about something else.”


In September, she met me urgently as I walked up to the front door.

We walked to the back porch; he was a speck, adrift. Closer to the far shore than to this one. We waved. She handed me her binoculars, and I watched him wave back. Or he was swatting weakly at a fly.

If I had known it was the last time, would I have lingered? 


The next month, at a café, she told me about how he’d managed to paddle back to within shouting distance. He’d lost language almost completely, but she felt his tones conveyed emotion. The table felt crowded with all of the conversations I’d chosen not to have with him. I resolved to be more generous in the future. With others.


We went on a hike in October. She cried under a sickly oak, her shoulders shaking. I put my hand on her back. What was there to say? Your husband, who is not my father, will not make it home.

She still watched him every day through binoculars. He’d be arguing, gesturing wildly. Or weeping. Sometimes he was still, staring intently at a presence invisible to her. Sometimes he seemed to be asleep. Dreaming.

It was a Tuesday when she called again. Not our usual day, so I was ready for the news before she said it. I brought biscuits with me to see her. She was red-eyed, calm, and small in the doorway.

We held hands and walked down to the dock together. The lake lay completely still, its surface unbroken. At first I couldn’t see anything. Then a heron glided again across the water, drawing my eye to the far shore, where the boat lay empty.

Max Wheeler is a trans writer from Oakland, CA, who recently quit teaching high school and is now pleasantly adrift. His fiction has appeared in Rough Cut Press and the Civilian Climate Futures Project. You can find him on Instagram @mxwheels.

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