The Master was surprisingly tall for a Chinese man.
Bryan was being made painfully conscious of this fact by the hands on his ankles, which were holding his feet effortlessly in the air.
They were deep in the woods, he and the Master, ankle-deep into the lake.
Well, the Master was standing ankle-deep in the lake. Bryan was waist-deep. Upside down. In the lake.
Bryan was a decent swimmer. He had proved in the past that he could swim without the use of his legs. Swimming with his legs fixed in place several feet above his head, however, was a different matter. At the moment he was gamely trying to avoid drowning, but the Master's inexorable hold on his legs prevented him from moving forward, and his basic anatomical structure prevented him from pushing his head above water. They looked like those racers you got at picnics, where one was running forward on his hands because the other had grabbed his legs and was pushing him forward like a wheelbarrow. The only difference was the presence of several feet of water. No matter how much Bryan flailed upwards, his body just didn't bend that far without his spine breaking.
"I know what you're thinking," the Master was saying, voice even, "You're thinking, 'Is this old geezer trying to kill me?' And the answer is no, Bryan; no, I'm not. I'm not trying to kill you. Worthless people kill themselves. I'm just speeding up the process."
Bryan went still.
Without his desperate paddling to deal with, the current was able to drag Bryan's shoulders back, so his body formed a straight line, so his head was even deeper than before. (He's serious about this, he's really going to hold me like this until I manage some kind of miracle or die, Bryan thought hollowly, although that should have been the least of his worries.) From this position though, Bryan suddenly realized, if he pushed himself in the opposite direction, towards the Master, he might actually be able to pull himself up, gym-style.
Easier said than done, but the living body prefers to stay that way, thank you, and finally, clinging desperately to the backs of his own knees, Bryan managed to break the surface of the water, bent awkwardly at the waist, curled around himself like a fetus. He expected the Master to drop him back in, possibly hold his head under for good measure, but instead the Master let him back on solid ground (thank the gods) and held him up while he choked up water and possibly a few fish.
The drive back to civilization was silent and a bit damp. Petty Road. Maple Ave.
Friendship Lane had no houses on it, just miles of empty farmland that had been left fallow too long. The Master appreciated the irony and drove down it frequently.
They passed a barn with no roof and a bulldozer with a bright pink smiley face spray-painted onto its shovel. Finally, as they turned onto Canal Road, Bryan gathered the courage to speak. "I'm not worthless, you know," he said, eyes raised defiantly though his voice was still weak.
"I know," said the Master refuting Bryan's argument with a few brief words and a calm tone of voice. "You proved it when you refused to die."
A few days later, the Master completed his next painting: a young boy bent double by a clear lake, soaking wet and gasping for air. People thought it was a rather unpleasant piece, but the Master was proud of it, and so was Bryan. After all, Bryan had been that young boy. The only difference was that the boy in the painting was alone, while he had had the Master there by his side.