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The Fiction Issue 2015

A Short Story About Love, Death, and Childhood

'Roy and the River Pirates,' by Barry Gifford

This short story appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.

For Jayne Anne Phillips

Roy had no idea that this would be the last summer of his father's life. Roy was 11 years old, and his father was 47. His dad had always appeared strong and healthy. He smoked cigarettes and cigars and drank Irish whiskey but did not exhibit any obvious respiratory problems, nor did he ever give the slightest indication, in Roy's presence, of a lack of sobriety. The cancer that took Roy's father's life appeared in the fall, and by the end of that winter he was dead.


His father and his father's second wife, Ellie, along with Roy's younger brother, Matthew, and older female cousin, Sally, were staying in a house his father was considering purchasing on Key Biscayne, Florida. Matthew was six and Sally, the younger daughter of Roy's father's sister, Talia, was almost 15. All of them lived in Chicago, although Roy, who lived mostly with his mother, frequently resided wherever she decided to spend time, alternating among Chicago, New Orleans, and Havana. This summer of 1957, Roy's mother was with her current boyfriend, Johnny Salvavidas, in Santo Domingo, or traveling with him somewhere in the Caribbean. Roy did not expect to see her again until sometime in September.

Roy had a crush on Sally; he thought she was very pretty, with honey-blond hair cut short, hazel eyes, unblemished skin, and a slim figure. The best thing about her, though, was how naturally kind she was, even-tempered with a good sense of humor, and not at all stuck up. Sally was a straight talker, too, and she could be silly in a good way; she kidded around easily with both Roy and Matthew. Roy's father said that Sally did not get along very well with her parents, and she had asked him if he would take her to Key Biscayne for the summer if it was all right with her mother and father. Talia told Roy's father that Sally was "different," that she had her own way of thinking and doing things, which too often conflicted with Talia and her husband Dominic's ideas of how Sally should behave. Roy's dad didn't know exactly what Talia meant, but he and Ellie liked Sally, so they agreed to take her with them to Florida.


"What do you think Talia and Dominic don't understand about Sally?" Roy's father asked his wife.

"She's too airy-fairy for them," said Ellie. "Her parents are all about business. If it's not about money, it's not worth their time. Sally's not like that."

Roy liked looking at his cousin. Sally was the first girl he knew who made him feel a little goofy just by looking at her. Whenever Sally noticed Roy staring, she smiled at him and sometimes brushed the hair off of his forehead with her hand.

The river pirates struck on the third night. Roy, Matthew, and Sally had draped their bathing suits to dry over the back fence after they were finished swimming late that afternoon and left them there overnight. When they came out to get them the next morning, the bathing suits were gone. The intercoastal canal flowed right behind the house, making it easy for anyone on a boat to steal items of clothing hung over the back fence.

"We have to find out who took our bathing suits," Roy told Sally and Matthew. "It had to be river pirates."

"This is a canal," said Sally, "not a river."

"You mean real pirates?" asked Matthew. "With swords and patches over one eye and a black flag with a skull and crossbones on it?"

"Probably just kids in a rowboat who live around here," said Sally.

"We'll find out," Roy said. "Come on."

"Come on where?" Sally asked.

"Talk to the neighbors. Somebody might have an idea about who the thieves are."


None of the residents on the block had any suggestions about who could be responsible for the thefts, so Roy, Sally, and Matthew decided to camp out at night in the yard and surprise the pirates if and when they came by again. As before, they hung their new bathing suits over the back fence after they had ended swimming for the day, and as soon as it was dark outside, they prepared their bedding on the grass. Ellie and Roy and Matthew's father both agreed that it was a good plan but asked what the kids intended to do if the thieves returned.

"Shoot 'em!" said Matthew. "I've got my bow and arrow set."

"The arrows have rubber tips," said Sally.

"We can describe 'em and get the name of their boat and track them down," Roy added.

"We'll give the information to the cops," Matthew said.

"No cops," said his father. "Handle it yourselves."

Roy and Sally and Mathew camped out in the yard several nights in a row, but the river pirates did not appear. Of the three, Matthew was the most obviously disappointed. Roy was disappointed too, but he enjoyed sleeping on the ground next to Sally. Early in the morning, after what they decided would be their last night camping out, Mathew shot a few of his arrows over the fence into the canal.

"What did you do that for?" Roy asked him.

"I was pretending the pirates were there. They were probably afraid to come back."

Matthew walked over to the fence and shouted, "Chickens!"


For the remaining few weeks, Roy stole looks at Sally whenever he thought she wouldn't notice. She was always nice to him, but this was not enough for Roy; he made up his mind that before they returned to Chicago he would try to kiss her.

Roy waited until the night before they had to leave, when Sally was alone in the yard standing by the back fence. He went out and stood next to her. His father and Ellie and Matthew were inside the house, packing.

"What are you doing out here?" Roy asked her.

"Oh, just looking at the water," she said. "I like seeing the reflection of the moon in it."

"It's too bad we never caught the pirates," said Roy.

Sally didn't seem so tall to him now; Roy figured he must have grown two or three inches since they'd been in Florida. He leaned over and kissed Sally on the corner of the right side of her mouth.

"What did you do that for?" she asked.

Sally was calm and smiled at Roy, as if she were not surprised.

"I like you a lot," he said.

"I like you a lot, too. I'm going to miss being down here with you and Matthew and your dad and Ellie."

"We'll see each other in Chicago."

"Sure, but it's not the same as Florida. The air is sweet and warm here, and the sky is always beautiful, especially at night."

"You're beautiful, too," said Roy.

Sally looked directly into his eyes. She was not smiling.

"Thank you, Roy," she said.

"I wish I were older," Roy said, "so I could be your boyfriend."


Sally looked back at the water, then up at the moon.

"There aren't any river pirates," she said. "Your father took the bathing suits and made me promise not to tell you and Matthew."

Roy didn't say anything. A large white bird flapped past them.

"You're not angry at me, are you?"

Roy walked back into the house.

"Come on, son," his father said, "give us a hand."