Riding the long yellow salami to school was about as much fun as experimental dental surgery. One and a half hours each way, bumping and slamming and swinging all over the padded green seats is enough to make or break a NASA cadet, let alone a small kid and his lunch bucket. Tommy Roe had travelled in this manner from 7:00am to 8:30 am in the morning and again from 3:20pm to about 4:30pm each evening (Phyllis had a tendency to cut a few corners on the way home, and more than once had been hauled up in front of the parent/teacher board to account for her speeding tickets). By the time the bus reached the Cedar Hills trailer park on the 7th concession road, delivering papers was about the furthest thing from the young boy's mind.
At the rear of the bus, most of the highschool kids played some type of card game or another. Usually it was euchre and Mike Lacocka was a notorious cheat, but got away with it because his mother just died and no one wanted to upset him anymore. Ed Hoover kept the colour commentary on everyone's hands by slyly peeking over the backs of those involved in the game. Poor Ed suffered from Euchre Chin, a rare form of perpetual facial bruising; a direct result from getting himself elbowed quite viciously following the untimely revelation of a right bower or otherwise giving away a player's strong suit. Timmy Mason, a distant cousin of the bus driver herself, had earned his own nicknames though his rather unorthodox hair style. 'Burrhead', or 'Curly Joe' was often his tag and Timmy didn't seem to mind too much. Only once when Ed Euchre Chin Hoover asked him if he got stuck on the way out of his mother and her crotch hair started to grow on his malformed skull did Timmy lose his cool. Euchre Chin became Blackeyes for about a week until the dark circles under his eyes began to fade. Then things went back to normal on the bus. Cards being shuffled, everyone getting razzed, and Tommy Roe sitting ten seats back from the front clutching his lunch box and trying not to throw up.
Finally, one cold winter afternoon, on the way home from another dull day at North Augusta Prep School, Phyllis saw a flash in that long narrow mirror which she was continually staring up into. The bus came to a jerky halt along the side of the dirt road about five miles from trailer park. At first Tommy was thankful for the reprieve from the random motion of the long since forgotten shock absorbers and their reaction to the countless pot holes which mark the side roads like dimples in a flattened golf ball. But when Phyllis started to squeeze her bulbous ass in through the narrow walkway between the rows of bench seats, all the while staring at Tommy with her lips pursed and nostrils somehow clenched, that sickening feeling started to return to Tommy with the volume way up high.
"What's that you've got in your hand?" Phyllis asked. Mike Lacocka was sitting in the bench across from Tommy and the back of Phyllis was directly in front of Mike's face. The entire euchre gang burst out laughing as Mike held his nose and waved his other hand in front of his face as Phyllis bent over to talk to Tommy 'eye to eye'.
What Tommy didn't know, was that Curly Joe, who was seated a couple of seats back of him, had just taken a pen from behind his ear to mark down the score of the game they were playing. What Phyllis saw, in her infinite paranoia and mistrust of all the rotten kids on her sixty thousand dollar bus, was Tommy Roe scribbling on the back of the seat in front of him, or worse, cutting into the ten year old vinyl upholstery.
Tommy slowly opened both of his clean white hands and revealed nothing. A small section on the frost covered window which Tommy had been keeping clean with the flat of his hands was now beginning to cloud over again - the snow was really falling hard outside, and before long no matter how clean Tommy kept his window, nothing of the outside world would be visible. Tommy's heartbeat quickened and he imagined being thrown off the bus (as Phyllis continually threatened to do to anyone who upset her in any of the thousands of ways in which that was possible), left in the middle of a blinding blizzard with no way home, and worse, no food or drink.
"Well where is it then?" she hissed and Tommy could smell the tuna fish sandwich on her warm repugnant breath. Mike Lacocka was really turning it on now. He had buried his head beneath his winter jacket and was flailing his arms around like a drowning sailor. The coughing fit which he started to feign finally broke through Phyllis's conscious thoughts of murder and she spun to face him. She pulled the jacket from over his head and landed a well placed open handed punch squarely on the flat of his forehead. Mike's head snapped back and he slumped down in his seat with his eyes closed. The euchre crowd was bezerk with laughter. The tattered old deck of 24 dog eared cards flew up in the air and drifted down all around the back four rows of seats.
Burrhead, who inadvertently started this whole confrontation yelled out, "Hurt me, hurt me!" in mock sexual tension.
Ed Euchre Chin Hoover screamed, "Do it to me baby!" and began thrusting his groin against the back of the seat in front of him with growing climatic moaning.
Phyllis yelled out over the crest of laughter which became trapped in the sealed tubular bus alcove, "Sit down, Shut UP!"
But that only served to increase the revolt fervour. Some of the little kids at the front started to cry and a couple got out of their seats and tried to get out of the front door. Once a few were stuck fumbling with the long silver handle which controls the door, one of the older boys up front got up to help them with their escape.
In her bid to regain some authority, Phyllis grabbed Tommy Roe by the ear and yanked him to his feet. "AHHHHH," he screamed and the little ones all screamed with him in vicarious pain. Half of the front of the bus were now outside the bus and involved in a mini snow fight war. The parade to the front was getting clogged and in the bottle neck of the turn to descend the stairs to outside, one fat student was shoved into the driver's seat. While trying to regain his footing and place in the rushing line to leave, he yanked on the emergency brake and disengaged it from its position. The bus started to quickly accelerate. Phyllis instantly forgot about tearing off Tommy Roe's ear and Mike Lacocka's smart ass antics and started to push her way back to the pilot's chair. Her chair. Her beaded seatcushion covered thermoblanket ass warming constipating fart absorbing chair. But she might as well have been trying to push a rope.
Outside the children screamed and laughed and watched the bus slide faster and faster down the snowcovered dirt road. When the bus finally collided with a culvert in the eight foot ditch a few of the little boys started to cry again.
Tommy Roe was rubbing his ear and standing on top of the side of the overturned bus when the first car drove by ten minutes later. During the past five years on the bus, Tommy sat in the same seat halfway from the maniac at the front of the bus, and halfway from the card playing fun at the back of the bus. For 90 minutes in the morning and 70 minutes each afternoon, Tommy had sat quiet and motionless, planning for just this eventuality.
"Be Prepared", his boyscout leader had taught him, and sitting in the seat beside the only emergency escape window had finally paid off. As he took a long pull off of his thermos, Tommy was glad that he remembered to fill it at the fountain before boarding the bus again tonight. His mother had long since given up on asking Tommy why he always brought home a full thermos of warm water, and now she saw why. Tommy had planned for this eventuality.
"Hi Mom," he said casually and jumped down off the yellow salami and skidded to the car. "Phyllis finally flipped her lid."
The school was officially closed the next two days due to the ravaging snow storm. But really it was the funerals of four euchre buddies and one bus driver which kept the kids and staff away. After the weekend on Monday morning another long yellow salami pulled up in front of the trailer park. "Good morning!" the pretty young bus driver said. "Sit anywhere you want fellas. And no writing on the seats!"
Tommy sat where he always sits. Halfway from the front, and halfway from the back.
Just in case.
Our little farming town in the Midwest was recently set on by a series of strange events which I will never forget, but wish I could. No one, excluding myself, can prove that the incidents were linked. It all started with the Howling.
When winter first set in, the howling was heard throughout the community. At first, it was thought that someone had picked up a new dog and that it had become homesick, but as the nights went on, the howling continued. Normally, a new dog will become accustomed to its surroundings in a few nights and then quickly settles into the new routine. After a week, the howling still continued.
At this point, certain inquisitive town members started asking not-so-discrete questions to find out who owned the creature that was so disturbing everyone's sleep. When the reports came in that no one knew of any new dogs in the area, it was then postulated that the creature was a stray or an existing animal that had wandered into one of the many pitfalls or coyote traps around the area. A search party was organized to investigate the town environs to see if the animal could be found.
That night, as the howling started again, the searchers set out to find the tormented beast. Six separate groups set out in order to search the town in a reasonable amount of time. Each group was armed with a firearm of some form in case the animal proved to be unfriendly or needed to be mercifully dispatched. The parties searched for several hours, but none could pinpoint the direction from which the cacophony emanated. It seemed to be an all pervasive noise that had no point of origin. Frustrated, cold and tired, the searchers returned to the local tavern to imbibe some warming fluids.
The conversation in the tavern was lively. Each person had his or her own opinion of what and where the howling came from. It was agreed that the following night they would gather as many more people as possible and try searching again. The consensus was that the animal was trapped in some cave that allowed the sound to echo and reverberate throughout the town. The hills to the north side of town were deemed the most likely with the winter winds having blown steadily from that direction the last ten-day or so. If the creature was trapped in a cave there, it would explain why the sound was heard throughout town. Once the decision was made, this being several hours after the search was called off, all were surprised by the several inches of snow, the first of the season, that now covered the ground when they left the tavern and headed to their respective homes to turn in for the night.
The howling that night was worse than ever. No one slept, and the tortured beast alternated between the wails heard previously and sounds of a more vicious nature. Several people suggested that screams were heard intermingled with the fiercer sounds. The next morning, Old Man Spencer was missing.
Old Man Spencer was always the first person in the doors at the restaurant. He always ordered black coffee, two eggs over easy, two strips of bacon, and two pieces of toast with no butter. He would then proceed to spend the rest of the morning reading the paper and getting free refills of coffee. This morning, he did not show up.
Several people suggested going to his house to see if he had had an accident and could not phone for help. I, being one of the better trained for emergency situations being the town physician, called the sheriff and asked him to meet me at the Spencer place.
When the sheriff arrived, we both proceeded to the door and knocked. After several tries, we received no answer and started around the back of the house. I examined each window as we went by, but could see nothing. When we reached the back of the house, the door was open and snow had drifted inside. It was as if it had been left open all night.
We entered the house and searched it. Old man Spencer was found frozen to his bed, eyes open, his face a rictus of fear. The bedroom window was open and snow lay several inches deep at the foot of the window. Swallowing the urge to gag, I checked the body and found it to be cold. It was obvious he had been dead for some time. Upon further examination, I found not a single mark upon his body. Apparently senility had struck the old man down. Not many people were surprised by his death or its manner. He had lived for over eighty years and was well known for his eccentricities.
Later that evening, when the searchers gathered at the tavern, I decided to add my efforts to finding the source of this relentless howling. Thirty people in all assembled for the hunt. It was deemed necessary that every member of the party carried a light source if the caves were to be searched efficiently. After this was accomplished, we set out as soon as the howling started.
The trek to the hills was not difficult, and we reached them in mere minutes. The search of the hills, however, lasted much longer. It was hours later that we finally gave up and returned to the tavern. Nothing was found, and the howling continued. Everyone agreed that the howling did not seem to issue from the hills and caves we had just searched. We were now in a quandary as to what to do.
No one stayed late at the tavern being tired from the search and sleepless nights caused by the Howling (and I capitalize this because it had now taken on the properties of a living entity with the proper name). As we left for our homes, once more snow had begun to fall.
Once again, as the night went on, the Howling changed tone. The snarls and roars heard the previous night were in evidence anew, and once again, no one slept. There were also reports of shots being fired, but no one was sure. In the morning, Nather Reese was found dead in his farm field just outside of town. Darren Olinsen found him when he delivered the paper, and ran back to town screaming.
Darren's parents called the sheriff, and he, in turn, called me. We went out to the Reese farm and found it as the boy had. There lay Nather cowered in a corner of his split rail fence. His shotgun lay not far away, and empty shells were scattered from the house to where the gun lay. Once again, no mark of violence was found. Nather's face, however, held the same look of fear that Old Man Spencer's had.
The following night, the pattern repeated. The Howling started toward evening. Parties searched the town and surroundings but found nothing. Fresh snow fell, the Howling grew vicious, and Gunther Mason was found frozen to death out by his barn. The same mask of fear frozen to his face, and not a mark on his body.
The town was now gripped by terror. Everyone was instructed not to leave home alone at night. Escorts were set up for the elder members of the community (who seemed to be the primary target). Armed patrols scoured the town from dusk until dawn. For the next three nights, nothing happened. The Howling continued, but everyone was alive.
By this time, tempers had become short. Lack of sleep had left everyone in foul moods and the sheriff was called to break up several disputes at the tavern as well as the store and various residences. The overall mood was that of a town under siege, and we were the beleaguered inhabitants.
The fourth night after Gunther Mason's death, it snowed again. The Howling grew fiercer than previously experienced, and both Nathan Harstead and his brother Emerson were found dead in their home.
The sheriff and I went to their house after they had not shown up at the store for their usual Monday morning shopping. The doors and windows of the house had been boarded and barricaded shut. After breaking the door down, we found the inside had been peppered by shotgun blasts. Weapons lay close to both dead men. Nathan had apparently been shot by his own brother, but Emerson lay untouched. Further investigation, found a window in the attic that had been broken at some earlier point in time and snow had blown into the open window, but no sign of entry was discovered. When I examined Emerson's body later that day, I found he had died from a heart attack.
Just before dusk, the sheriff called me and asked me to come down to his office. When I arrived, I found a very agitated Stanley Grearson, gesticulating wildly and pleading with the sheriff to protect him. I got him to settle down and the sheriff asked him to repeat his story again for my benefit. At this point, Stanley started protesting that he did not have time and that he needed protection now. The sheriff and I stilled him once more, and he began one of the strangest stories I have ever heard.
It all started seventy-five years ago. Stanley, Nathan and Emersom Harstead, Gunther Mason, Nather Reese, and Vernon 'Old Man' Spencer were all boys at the time. These six and Lloyd Andersen, a new boy in town, used to play and fish together. One early winter day after school, the boys found a wolf caught in a coyote trap on the Harstead farm. Lloyd wanted to release the wolf and make a pet of it, but the other boys snickered at him (at the time, wolves were considered a blight to a farming community like ours). Lloyd insisted that the animal was harmless and that it would be a great project for the seven of them to undertake. The other boys proceeded to laugh even harder at him and started poking fun at Lloyd and giving him good-natured shoves.
As it turned out, Lloyd stumbled and fell hitting his head on a close rock and lay unmoving. The wolf began snarling and the boys ran in fear assuming that Lloyd had recovered and ran with them. As they ran, the wolf's howl hounded them and they ran faster. Each boy ran home and no one knew what had happened.
Later that evening, Carr Harstead, the boys' father, heard the howling and went out to silence it. He discovered the wolf, and Lloyd's body. Carr believed the wolf had scared the boy causing him to fall and hit his head. Lloyd may have been alive at the time, but the cold and snow that was now falling had quickly robbed him of his life. When he tried to move the boy's body, the animal snarled and lunged at him. He went back to the house, retrieved his rifle, and returned to the wolf. The animal commenced snarling and growling when Carr returned. He carefully aimed his rifle and fired, killing the wolf with one shot. He then gathered Lloyd's lifeless body and returned to the house.
Nathan and Emerson were understandably upset at their friend's death. Both felt responsible, but could not tell their father what had happened (Carr was well known for his short temper).
At school the next day, they told Stanley, Nather, Gunther and Vernon what had happened. The boys agreed to keep silent about what had really happened in order to spare the brothers from their father's wrath.
The funeral was held the following day. The six friends and their families were in attendance. The Andersen family was truly grieved for this was a double funeral for them. Lloyd's mother had died in her sleep the same night he had. Olaf wept openly for his devastated family, for Lloyd was the only child they had.
After the services were over, Lloyd's Grandmother, 'Noisha' (the only name the friends could remember hearing Lloyd call her), came over to the six boys.
"You are responsible," she said in her thick Scandinavian accent. "You and your families will be held accountable for what has happened to my family." After this ill utterance, she stumped off.
The boys were once more scared, and went home vowing never to speak of the incident again. Later that winter, 'Noisha' Andersen was found frozen kneeling out in the yard. Just before spring, Carr Harstead was found dead. He had bled to death caught in one of his own traps.
A string of mysterious deaths plagued the six boys' families for the next three years. The Harstead brothers' sister and only other child drowned in a swimming accident. Gunther's older brother and sister died when the new well they were working on collapsed. Nather Reese's mother and two brothers were killed when a freak summer storm caused the bridge they were crossing to be washed out. Vernon Spencer was the only survivor when a tornado hit the house killing the rest of the family (he had been out with the friends when it hit). Stanley Grearson's father died when a previously well behaved bull gored him. The deaths suddenly stopped when Carl Andersen died of pneumonia.
The six boys thought that the death of the last Andersen had finally seen the end of the 'curse' that Noisha Andersen had placed on them.
Stanley came to a stop, and the sheriff offered him a drink, which he gladly accepted. Silence gripped the room as the office slowly darkened with the onset of nightfall. As we sat there, the Howling started.
The sheriff and I agreed that we would escort Stanley home and stay with him that night, it seemed the only way we could convince him to leave the sheriff's office. We each grabbed a weapon and started the short walk to Stanley's house. As we walked, something happened that I still can not believe.
We left the office just as snow was beginning to fall. When we reached the corner of Main and Fifth streets, the snow had become quiet heavy. As we turned the corner, we heard a low growling up ahead. The sheriff directed his weapon toward the sound and called out. The responding howl sent ice through my veins. Stanley started shouting and turned to flee. The sheriff turned and called for him to stop, and was immediately knocked to the ground by a large shadowy form. I stood there paralyzed as a smoky bestial form with red glowing eyes proceeded to chase after Stanley. The last I saw of them, they were headed into the fields across the street. I heard several shots, then Stanley's screams. I believe it was the last that finally released me from my benumbed state. The Howling continued, but it did not chill me as before. It almost sounded like a victory cry.
When I turned my attention to the sheriff, I found him laying face down on the ground. When he had fallen, he had apparently hit his head on the curbing and been killed instantly. The fear returned with a vengeance and I scurried to drag his body back to the office. Once there, I fished the keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. Just as I propped the door open and started to enter, the Howling changed to snarls and grew closer. Hurriedly, I dragged the body inside and tried to slam the door and bar it. The sheriff's foot blocked the door open and I hastened to move it. Just as I had accomplished this, I saw a pair of burning red eyes and a misty lupine form racing up the street. I succeeded in getting the door closed and had barely put the bar in place when a heavy thud rattled the door in the frame. I desperately scanned the room and found it sufficiently well fortified. I grabbed every weapon I could find (though what good I thought it would do, I do not know) and waited for the thing to find a way in.
The beast eventually gave up hammering the door, and recommenced the Howling which had so disheartened me earlier. The night passed slowly and I fought to stay awake even with the creature baying outside the door.
When morning finally arrived, I went out to find Stanley's body and bring it back to the sheriff's office. I found him frozen stiff with his hands entwined in a barb wire fence. It looked as if someone, or more likely something, had tried to drag him away. A search of the area revealed no tracks besides his own.
After retrieving the corpse, I went home, packed a suitcase, and drove out of town never looking back. The Howling stopped the day I left (I called a former patient to refer him to a doctor in another town and was informed that it had indeed stopped). I know the beast will eventually find me, but I want to delay that day for as long as I can. I hope to discover something that may help me fight the creature. I have since learned that 'Noisha' is a Scandinavian term for witch, and I feel sure that this beast is somehow linked to the Andersen family. I lay awake at night waiting to hear the tell-tale Howling. I know it will come for me because the sheriff and I shared the same thing. We were both sons of Stanley Grearson, and the only members left of the six cursed families. For now, I am the only survivor.
In the dream he was floating, waiting, hoping for a glimpse of her face. He had seen her many times before, but only in dreams. In the beginning, years ago, he always dreamed about her as a princess in a palace. She was young, and so was he, and they played together in the castle halls of his dreams. There, none could tell them it was improper, and rush them off to pursue "boy's" and "girl's" tasks.
The dreams changed with time. He never had the same dream twice, but the feeling that he saw his destiny in his sleep was always unshakeable. That feeling frightened him as nothing in his life ever had: Never had he been so sure about anything or wanted it so much.
At first, he thought himself foolish for thinking such thoughts about a dream woman. How could he be silly enough to fall in love with someone he had never met in the flesh? He had no proof that she existed. At first he thought that it could in fact be that he was simply feeling the need of a woman. But once he had quenched that thirst (with great pleasure), the dreams still came, stronger and more insistent than ever. He became more and more sure that his dream woman was real, and that he could not rest until he found her. After years of living with her image, there was no doubt in his mind that he needed to find her to quell the strange restless longing feeling in his heart.
In other times and places, this would not have been such a monumental problem, but this was not the first time Vincent had gone off to chase the rainbows in his dreams, and he knew that the King, his father, had a royal alliance in mind for him. Simply put, the King wanted his son to settle down so he could stop worrying about him.
In the dream, though, none of that mattered, and he watched as his beloved Snow White (he had named her so for her beautiful white skin) served her dwarven roommates in ways he would never have invented in his wildest imaginings. As he watched, he found his heart and his body becoming more and more hungry to be with her, whoever and wherever she was. After serving her companions dinner, she served them in other ways. He noticed that as she served them, there was a happiness in her eyes - she served out of love and genuine affection, not out of obedience. When the dwarves were not in his visions, and she was alone, she was as free-spirited as a child, running and laughing in the forest with her animal friends. Most of all, he saw, she loved her feathered friends, and would talk to them about taking flight to some distant land. He fell in love with her all over again every time he watched her pet and soothe a wild fawn or tame a fierce falcon.
When he woke the next morning, he lay in bed for a long time thinking; so long that his servants began to bang on his door, asking if he was all right, worried at his staying abed so much later than usual. He searched for reasons to stay at the palace, but he found he had none left that were strong enough to keep him there. The day after that he set out to see if he could find her. He tried to reassure himself that he had really only set out in search of adventure, that it was okay if he didn't find her, but he knew in his heart that once he started the search, he would never be able to stop until she was in his arms, and he trembled with the thought of how empty and obsessed his life would be if he failed to find her. At any rate, he told himself, the search for her was a convenient way to talk his parents into allowing him to wander again. It was well known that Vincent's dreams were often shades of the real world, and the kingdom often profited from his journeys to pursue them. If the woman was not real, he reasoned, then she must be a part of himself, enticing him to wander among the trees and creatures of the forest for some reason he could not fathom until he set out to answer her call. In either case, it seemed much more likely that he would resolve his dilemma by traveling than by staying at home.
His father had been resigned. "Where are you going this time?" he asked, "Is this another one of your wild goose-chases?".
"I need to get away from the castle for a while, Father," Vincent had replied, "I have some things to resolve in my mind."
"It's those dreams again, isn't it son? Are you sure this time? The last time I let you chase after a dream, I had to send Valiant out to ransom you from King Waldo for poaching ten of his prize wildebeest. I'm still trying to live down the infamy!"
"Which resulted in all parties becoming friends, and a new alliance with Waldo, after I was able to cure the sickness in the rest of his herd. As I told you then, I wasn't poaching them, I was only isolating diseased animals so that the disaster would not spread." "Humph", his father replied, "and I suppose you're going to give me that cockamamy story about invisible creatures causing disease again. I've never heard such a load of cow dung in my life. I warn you - this had better not simply be a case of your libido leading you to kidnap some powerful man's wife or daughter. The last thing I need is a war on my hands! Powerful desire is not such an unusual thing, you know, it just has happened later for you than for most men. Actually, I'm a bit relieved. Your mother and I were beginning to worry that you were going to turn out like your uncle Leo and begin turning your attentions to the stable boys."
"As I've told you before father, that is not a worry. I prefer painted ladies that are ladies..." Vincent sighed. His uncle's penchant for men dressed as women was a huge thorn in his father's side. "Perhaps on your way back you would consider stopping in to pay court to the princess Tira? That is if you don't find this mystery woman. If you were to marry Analyn's daughter, it would be a powerful alliance." For a moment, the king was far, far away, contemplating a possible future of ease and tranquility.
"I'm sorry, Father, I cannot sell my soul and my freedom to make your kingdom strong, it would kill me." That is, if making love with Tira didn't, he thought. The mere thought of her pimply skin, her stringy blond hair, her high whining voice...oh, he had to stop, he thought, before he made himself sick.
Vincent had taken leave of his father that day, feeling that he had done enough explaining to last him a lifetime. His mother's pleas, however, were not so easily dismissed. She was closer to his heart.
"I am afraid that I will never see you again", she had said, "I have seen my death this autumn, and I want to be sure that I have passed on everything I can to you." His mother's family was well known for its knowledge of visions, dreams, and potions, passed down through the women in each generation. It had been a great disappointment to his mother that she had borne no female children, and she had broken tradition by teaching the arts to her son. "I am counting on you to pass the knowledge of visions and the healing arts on to your daughters."
"If I ever have any", he had snorted. "I am approaching despair, Mother. No matter how many women I come to know or spend time with, I cannot get Snow White out of my mind. In the state I'm in, marriage to anyone but her would be an incredible farce. Besides", he said, forcing himself to be cheerful for a moment, "with any luck I will find her and be back in time to see you off to the next world. At any rate, I cannot forestall your death if it has already been decided in your mind, and I see it has. Have you made the necessary preparations?"
"Yes. But I am afraid that they will not be carried out as I wish - you know how your father feels about my ways. He may just throw up his hands in despair and have me planted in the churchyard to please the bishop. Besides, things are a lot more exciting when you're here - you could help me wring the last bit of lifeblood from this old body of mine." She said mischievously. Funny, Vincent thought, she had always acted as though she greatly disapproved of the trickster in his soul. It made him love her even more to discover that she took delight in even that part of him.
"Don't worry mother, our physicians have heeded your lessons in healing and burial customs well, perhaps even as well as I." His eyes twinkled with amusement for a moment as he remembered the time that he and his mother had healed a young girl that the palace physicians had pronounced dead and begun to bury, when it was really just a simple case of poisoning. The physicians' chagrin over that incident had finally forced them to acknowledge his mother's superior skills. "They can care for you as well as I can, now.", he said with tenderness in his eyes. "I really must leave right away. My dreams tell me that Snow is in great danger."
"I know you're right Vincent, I am old and I have many friends who will respect my wishes when the time comes, but I cannot help but wish for you to be here. You always were my favorite, Goddess knows why!" She chuckled, remembering the mischief he had caused throughout his childhood, and even into his young adulthood, then suppressed a cough as the laughing irritated her tired lungs.
"Do you really think she exists? You don't just think this is all wishful thinking?"
"As I told you before, my son, I can see her as clearly in my waking visions as you do in your dreams. I think anything is possible when true love is the issue," she said. "If this woman is real, then you are right, you must try to help her. Even now I sense a great danger drawing nearer to her, but I cannot see what it is."
And so he had packed up his important possessions and set off to explore the great forest.
Now he drowsed by his campfire in that half dream state and watched Snow in her after-dinner ritual with the dwarves. It was sweet, really, the way that she loved them all so. Each one received a kiss, an embrace, a caress from her. Vincent could see in the dream that the dwarves wanted her as their wife, and that they intended to keep her there with them. It was their way, he knew, to love anyone or anything that gave them material comfort in this world.
Vincent's heart began to ache. Snow seemed so happy there with the dwarves. They gave her food, shelter, even precious gems on occasion, the fruits of their daily labors in the mines. She had all the security she could wish for with them. How could he think that, if he found her, she would leave all that for him? He was, he admitted to himself, quite a scoundrel, with a reputation for recklessness and trouble making. In truth, even Analyn's revolting daughter would not have him, no matter how many visits he paid to her castle. He was well known as an unreliable person, and as a poor husband prospect.
Vincent sighed, feeling quite sorry for himself. It wasn't like him to feel this way about a woman. He had tried to deny it for a long time, but now that he was actually here searching for her, he knew that he was in love. He watched her night after night, saw how beautiful she was, how sensual, how she created beauty wherever she went, and ached for her.
Now here he was, lying on the forest ground in the middle of the night, with a rock poking into his back, feeling a little foolish. It never occurred to him to feel scared when he saw the ghost.
It started as a faint sighing of the breeze that continued to rise in intensity. At first he ignored the sound, but then he began to see a form in front of him, a young girl who could have been the woman in his dreams when she was much younger. She drifted toward him swiftly, and Vincent was intrigued.
"Do I know you, my lady?" he asked the figure. It seemed merely to sigh in return.
"Are you real, or merely another figment of my overactive imagination?" he continued. "I admit I am somewhat filled with ennui here in the forest, but I cannot believe I would conjure up yet another dream woman to entertain myself when I already have my hands filled with one."
The creature then looked down at him. She seemed surprised. "You can see me?" she asked, "No one has been able to see me in a long time, not since the invaders came," she said wistfully.
"How long have you been here in the woods?", he asked.
"Forever," she replied, "These woods are my home."
He got to his feet, intrigued by this presence that stood before him. It seemed somehow familiar, but he could not say why. "Why are you here though? Who are you?" he asked. "How did you come to live here in the woods?"
"I am one form of that which your mother would call the goddess. My name is Morgan."
"I must have finally gone off the deep end," he muttered to himself. The dreams and this journey have made me as mad as a march hare."
"I know of your visions, young prince," she said. "It was I who sent them to you. Snow has so far done well on her path, but the next test may require your help, for in the fabric of the universe, love is the most powerful force. The dwarves and her stepmother love her well, but they may not be able to bring her back from her next journey, for her heart has been aching for you, and she may have no desire to live without you. She has already had two close calls with death."
Vincent sank to the ground with an ungraceful thud, holding his head in his hands. "Everything you're telling me makes sense," he moaned, "it's just getting harder for me to see the line between dreams and waking these days. It seems to get thinner as time passes. I thought she was in danger, but I had no idea the situation was so grave," he broke off, then burst out laughing at his own pun, easing the tension in his chest, which had constricted painfully at the thought that Snow might die before he could find her.
"This is no laughing matter!" Morgan said, and her green eyes flashed against her dark hair. If you do not reach her by tomorrow's sunset, it will be too late to reverse the poison."
"Poison!" he shouted. "I thought you said this was a test! What has poison got to do with testing?"
"The poison is also a powerful drug, designed to induce visions. As always with such things, there is some risk involved. Those who cannot grasp or endure the visions die. This particular drug induces visions of the present, and it is killing her because the present does not contain you. Snow is dying at this very moment, sealed within a crystal coffin."
"So what I dreamed has already come to pass", he said. "It is already too late."
"Not if you hurry", the apparition said, "but you must be at the top of that mountain by tomorrow sunset, for that is where she lies now."
Vincent looked at the vision with disbelief. She had pointed to Mount Nigel, so named because he was the only human to ever have climbed it, and he had perished upon his return. It was said that no human could climb the mountain and live, that the gods would not permit it.
Slowly, he began to smile. Just such a challenge was exactly what he had been looking for. He began to feel very excited, and to plan his assault on the mountain.
"My lady", he said, "I will climb that mountain and save her tomorrow, or I will die trying."
"That's what I had hoped - and feared," she said. "Remember Vincent, you are special to me because you are one of very few men who has learned my secrets of healing and visions and used them for good." Then, with a waft of the chill night breeze, she was gone.
Vincent left immediately for the mountain. He knew that if he had only until nightfall the next day to save her, he had better get started.
A few hours later, Prince Vincent sat at the foot of the mountain, disconsolately wondering how he was ever going to pull this off. He sat and thought for many hours, because he knew that he would never make it to the top of the mountain with sheer physical strength. No, he needed a plan, a clever idea. Suddenly he heard an owl screaming overhead. That's odd, he thought, what is an owl doing here in broad daylight? Wait a minute, he thought, if he could fly to the top of the mountain, he could be there well ahead of the sunset deadline. He had already gathered the plants that his healer's training told him should be able to reverse the effects of the poison his earlier vision had described. He just needed to get there.
Suddenly he stood, and gave the owl a call that his mother, Maia, had taught him. The call was similar to that of a female owl calling to her mate, but was modified to lure and then soothe the animal, instead of inflaming it. In a flash, a flock of owls was circling over his head. How strange, he thought, owls do not fly in flocks. But his need for their assistance was greater now than any need to question their behavior.
The flock landed, one by one, so that they were around him in a circle. One particularly large, battered looking bird stepped forward, and using great effort to overcome the lulling effects of the song said:
"Please, cease the magic song, for we will help you willingly. We are great friends of Snow's, and we have just come from her coffin, where the seven dwarves and the forest itself weep for her."
"The goddess has asked us to carry you to her on our own backs, something we have never done for any human. Quickly, bring your medicines and come!"
And so Vincent lowered himself onto the backs of a hundred owls, and they soared into the air with dizzying speed. As he looked down, the meadow where he had been standing became no larger than the head of pin, and then he was forced to look at something else, for the foot of the mountain had disappeared from sight and he was feeling a little dizzy from the height.
Vincent laughed with the exhilaration of flight. Never before had he felt so free, so uninhibited. Suddenly he knew that this was where he belonged, flying through the skies, like the wind itself, unfettered and free. He realized that the search for this feeling was one reason for his wandering the forests and the countryside near his castle for most of his young life. Someday, he vowed, he would learn the secret of flight.
Just as he was beginning to relax a little, they arrived at Snow White's coffin, and as he stood looking down at her, he was faced with the reality of her situation. With his first glimpse of her face, his feelings for her hit him in the chest like a burning arrow, and he staggered like a man who had been mortally wounded. He loved this woman beyond all reason, a new thing for him. He could not explain it, which bothered him even more. Everything had a rational explanation, he thought fiercely, everything! Perhaps some witch had put a spell on him, he thought desperately, or perhaps he was merely feeling ill from something he had eaten the night before. But he knew it wasn't true, and he admitted to himself once again that the unthinkable thing had happened to him - he had fallen in love.
Slowly he moved toward her coffin, gazing longingly at her face, when he was intercepted by a sharp rap on the shin.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing!" a deep, crabby-sounding voice said.
He felt another jab from behind. "Yeah, get back! This is a private funeral!"
Finally, Vincent had the sense to look down, and found he was looking straight into the upturned faces of three very angry dwarves.
"Ah," he said, "You must be three of the famous seven dwarves."
"It is true," one of them said proudly, "We are known far and wide for the singular beauty of our priceless gems."
"That's beside the point," said another, "You're an intruder on our private land. What gives you the right to be here?"
"The goddess Morgan sent me here to save your beautiful friend," Vincent replied, "and I am in love with her." Either one of those reasons would be enough in any other situation, Vincent thought, but he could see that more than such flimsy reasons would be required of him by this pragmatic trio.
"Oh sure," the third dwarf snorted, "everybody's in love with her." They just want to get their slimy hands on her so they can have some kinky sex. Everybody's fantasy, the woman who can't resist them. You wouldn't believe how many men are in love with her!" he laughed.
Vincent found himself growing angry. "You fool," he said, "I can help her. I am trained in the ways of herbs and potions. I can undo what has been done to her, but you have to trust me."
"Why should we?" the first dwarf asked. "You don't especially look like the trustworthy sort."
"Please believe me," Vincent said, "I have been dreaming about Snow since I was a little boy. Finally the dreams became so disturbing that I knew I had to try to find her, and help her. I saw in my dreams how her life was endangered, by what I now suspect were the tests of the goddess. Four times: First by her wandering in the forest; second, by being laced with a magic bodice ribbon; third, by having her hair braided with a poisoned comb; and last, by eating a bite of poisoned apple."
"I have until sunset to help her," he continued, "and then it will be too late. Right now she is barely alive. It is the poison of the apple that makes her appear to be dead. With the herbs I have gathered on the way to the mountain, I should be able to help."
"And when you have cured her," the third dwarf asked, "will you take her away from us?" and a tear hovered in his eye.
"Only if she wishes it," Vincent said. "Only if she no longer wants this life. For me, I am perfectly content to remain here and learn the secret of flight, and the secrets of the forest."
"Then do what you must," said the first dwarf, and they stood back to make room for the prince.
Quickly, for the sun was getting dangerously close to its lowest limit in the western sky, Vincent mixed a potion over the small campfire that the dwarves had already lit for warmth. As the last rays of the orange sun shone through the forest leaves, he opened the coffin and lifted her head, intending to administer the potion.
Overcome by his feelings for her, he impulsively lowered his lips to hers and kissed her long and passionately, thinking to himself that the dwarves were now probably regretting their decision to let him near her, probably convinced he was indeed the sex maniac they had feared he was. But as he kissed her, he noticed that there was an obstruction in her mouth. When he opened her mouth he saw there a chunk of the offending poisoned apple. He quickly took a small sip of the potion himself, to prevent the apple's powerful poison from affecting him. Then as he prepared to remove the apple from Snow's mouth, her eyes opened, her mouth opened, and the apple fell out of its own accord.
Quickly, before she could swoon again, he gave her the potion to drink. As she drank, the roses returned to her lips and her cheeks, and, unbelievably, she was even more beautiful than he had ever seen her.
"I'm so glad you're finally here," she said, "I've been dreaming about you."
People of a religious persuasion are advised not to read this.
It was completely dark in a very blackened way.
No sound had the nerve to penetrate this eerie darkness, as if nature itself was afraid even to whisper a sigh or rustle a leaf.
Suddenly, quite strangely but very explicitly, a vague appearance of light seemed to arise at the horizon - only there was no horizon for it to appear above of.
Indeed, there was nothing at all. Even as the size and intensity of the light increased it did not shine on anything, for there was nothing for it to shine on, nothing that could whisper, no leaf that could rustle.
The light came closer and closer, and soon became easily discernible. It was, remarkably, emanating from eight old men dressed in white robes that seemed to float miraculously through the nothingness around them. They had halos around their bearded heads.
They were the Ancient Gods.
"Hey, Zeus," one of them said, "if this is not the perfect spot I am not called 0din."
There was a moment's silence.
"Well," the God called Zeus replied, hesitating, "I am not sure. That patch of nothingness about half a light year back seemed particularly promising if you ask me."
"WITH RESPECT," another God imposed in a bulging voice, trying to adjust his robe that allowed his giant belly to peer out, "BUT ODIN DOES HAVE A POINT THERE."
"Excuse me, dear sirs," a God called Jahweh said, "but I think I might be prone to agree rather wholeheartedly with our dear colleague Buddha; Odin could just maybe have somewhat of a point there, I reckon, methinks."
"Me too agree," a God called Allah said, "Odin no deserve head chopped off. Odin right. Yeah!"
Only Thor refused to add anything to the Gods' comments. Clearly, he could not have anything against the choice of this particular patch of nothingness, but he could not possibly agree with his father on anything. Just as a matter of principle.
Zeus, who was clearly the God of the Gods, floated in the nothingness thoughtfully. It was obvious that the others wanted him to make the final decision, and they all looked at him expectantly. Only Odin was adamant he was right, and feigned to study a particular patch of nothingness at quite a distance from the God of Gods.
Zeus nodded slowly, approvingly.
"Hey," Odin said, "I told you this was it! I never made a mistake before, except maybe for that dratted...."
He broke off abruptly, looking at his son with an annoyed expression on his worn face, as if remembering old grief.
"Would you please cut it down, if you wouldn't mind, fellows?" another God said, "I would like to believe we were put on earth for love, or at least I think I am lead to believe this, possibly. Maybe it might be a good idea if I...er...we, that is, if we sat down and maybe think of some constructive things for a chance, possibly, methinks."
"Me too agree," a reply came, "Jahweh no deserve head chopped off. Jahweh right. Yeah!"
"LET'S GET DOWN TO BUSINESS, SHALL WE?" Buddha bellowed, flapping his very long earlobes.
"Methinks our dear colleague Buddha is right, don't you think," Jahweh said, "I will therefore be as bold as to take an initiative - if you do not disagree against this, that is, which I think you might not..."
"Cut it, Jahweh," Zeus said, "get down to the real thing, man. Do it." Jahweh was quite unprepared there. He had, in all his modesty, never actually believed he would be allowed to set the first step. The First Step of the creation of Life, The Universe And Everything.
Not just the first step, but The First Step.
His brain was so occupied by the sheer realisation that he was allowed to perform this First Step that he totally forgot to breathe. Only when he nearly fainted did he get back to the reality that consisted of a vast nothingness in which eight old Gods happened to be floating miraculously.
He inhaled deeply.
"Well, I think it would probably maybe be a good idea, I think, if perhaps I was to..."
"Jesus Christ, Jahweh," Zeus said, "be concise if you will!"
It was clear in the look of Allah's eyes that he couldn't agree more with this statement by the God of Gods. He wasn't even certain any more whether Jahweh no longer deserved to have his head chopped off.
This God now inhaled deeply again, filling his lungs with boldness as it were.
"Let there be light!" he cried with all the power he could put in his voice, and with all the power he could put in his voice he cried this.
And there was light.
He was amazed at the feat he had just now performed, and astonished gasps indicated that his colleagues were just as perplexed.
"A neat trick," Zeus commented.
"Boldly done, dear colleague," Odin said.
"WOW. THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS!" Buddha said, flopping his huge belly back under his thick leather belt.
"Jahweh no deserve head chopped off! Jahweh done right! Yeah!" Allah added emphatically.
"Gasp," Thor could not refrain from gasping, even though he had been trying to prevent himself from showing any outwards signs of being content with this particular patch of nothingness co-selected by his father.
They now all looked at Jahweh, expecting more. Jahweh looked inquiringly at the God of Gods.
"You've got to finish what you started, old pal," Zeus said, stifling a chuckle of amusement.
Jahweh drew a breath even deeper than the one before. Before he had the chance to pronounce a syllable, however, Buddha interrupted.
"JAHWEH, OLD PAL," the full-figured God belched while once more repositioning his enormous bulk, "WOULD YOU CARE FIRST CREATING SOME NICE CHAIRS FOR US TO SIT AND WATCH?"
Jahweh, much like a magician, snapped his fingers, and his fingers snapped Jahweh much like a magician. The Gods gasped once more as neat, sturdy, fashionable leather chairs appeared under their bottoms with a puff of smoke, miraculously floating in the vast, light-shed nothingness much in the way they had floated in it themselves mere moments before. Buddha's seat had special anti-grav pillows located on it.
"MAYBE SOMETHING TO DRINK TOO?" the fat God ventured.
A bottle of Plantiac, hence to be known as The Divine Fluid, appeared floating next to the Gods, with seven glasses.
Now Jahweh took an extremely, utterly deep breath, and an utterly deep breath Jahweh took now. It was of such depth that his colleagues for a moment feared he might explode, like when he had eaten one mint tablet too many.
And so it came to pass that, by the time Jahweh had lost the last bit of his breath, six days of intense creation had gone by.
The Gods found themselves bobbing gently in their chairs high above a huge planet, wondering at what they saw around them in what had been infinitely vast and blindingly dark nothingness but days before.
The firmament above their astonished heads was filled with suns, moons, stars and milkyways. The planet below them was filled with trees, plants, rivers, creatures of all sorts and sizes, oceans, mountains...generally everything that Jahweh's immeasurable fantasy had been able to come up with.
He had even given something he called a soul to a particular kind of creature that happened to look very much like themselves (well, with the exception of Buddha of course).
With a sign of his hand, Jahweh told his colleagues not yet to applaud. He was not yet finished.
He breathed deeply once more, and once more deeply he breathed.
"And I proclaim the seventh day a day of rest," Jahweh panted finally. He conjured up another neat chair and seated himself in it, totally tired and worn.
"I would not have considered you capable of this, dear colleague," Odin said, firmly patting Jahweh on the shoulder.
"WELL DONE, OLD CHAP," Buddha burped while trying to move his fat rear end into a more comfortable position, "AND THE DRINK WAS GOOD, TOO."
"Me too agree!" Allah cried enthusiastically, "Jahweh no deserve head chopped off! Jahweh OK geezer! Yeah!"
"OK," Zeus said, his voice ringing with delight, "now let's find a nice spot down there to sit and play bridge."
Original written June 1991, rehashed a bit June 1994.
Ryan was nine, and it was the best time of his life. He spent it in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan at a small wood cabin by a bay off of Lake Huron. Each morning, the sun would rise and fill his attic room with light. He would race down the ladder into the tiled dining room for a quick breakfast before starting his morning expedition into the woods surrounding the cabin.
Each day he would follow a different deer trail into the woods until he found a previously unexplored territory. The green ferns grew tall there, sometimes even to the point of being taller than him. In many places these ferns occupied more of the forest than the trees, they would surround him cutting off nearly all of his vision, but he could not get lost in these woods. His father had taught him that if he walked in a straight line in any direction, he would either come to an old logging road or to water. He had tested this theory, and usually he found himself along the rocky shoreline of Macinac Bay. Then he could follow the shoreline back to the cabin.
His morning expeditions would end when he heard his mother ringing the cowbell back at the cabin. He would find his way back to eat lunch before beginning his afternoon exploration.
His favorite activity was hitting rocks. He would walk along the shore, looking for the perfect stick. It had to be 30-34 inches long and about 3 inches thick. If it had a flat side, that was a plus. Once he found the stick, he would sit on a rock, pull out his knife, and peel the bark off the stick. As soon as he was finished fashioning his stick, he would wade into the bay and find the smoothest, roundest stones visible and place them in a bucket. He would then carry his newly found rocks to the end of the dock, and one by one he would hit the rocks into the water with his stick. If the stones reached the reeds in the middle of the bay, it was a homerun. He loved baseball, and he was very happy.
He was sixteen, and it was spring. Sitting in the dugout he could almost smell baseball in the air. Jack, his best friend and the teams second baseman, sat next to him. Jack was the real star of the team. He was the team's best hitter, and he rarely ever made an error. Jack and Ryan had been playing together since fifth grade, and planned to continue playing together forever.
His team made their third out so he pulled his glove onto is hand and jogged out to his position at shortstop. He was no longer the short, chubby boy he had been. In the past year he had grown six inches and turned his fat to muscle. Added to this change in appearance was a slight amount of stubble on his darkly complected face and his dark hair had recently been cut short.
"Ryan! You're playing too deep!" His coache's voice grabbed his attention. He moved in a couple steps and began to scan the sparse crowd behind the backstop. His eyes moved from right to left looking for the familiar blonde head that had become so important to him. Finally, he found her, content that she was there, he could go back to concentrating on the game.
It was the ninth inning now, and his team was trailing by one run. Runners stood at the corners waiting for someone to drive them around. It was his turn at bat, and there was one out. After waiting on two outside pitches, he swung at the third. It was a ground ball at the second basemen. He raced for first knowing he had to avoid the double play, but his foot caught in a sandy patch on the infield. He stumbled, just for a moment, but it was enough for the other team to relay the throw to first. They had lost. He stood on the field staring blankly into space until Jack took his arm and led him to the dugout.
That night he met his friends at the beach for their weekly Friday night party. The bon-fire beside the dunes blazed high into the sky, lighting up the beach for 50 yards in either direction. In the distance he could hear the waves crashing into the shore, and he could see the whitecaps highlighted against the crimson sky. The tall dunegrass around him was bent over nearly double in deference to the strong sea breeze coming off the lake. He sat alone gazing at the lake and then the fire and then the lake again.
He smelled her perfume before he saw her. It was Lynda. "Ry, don't you want something to drink?" she sat down beside him and handed him a beer. "What's wrong?"
He looked at her and shook his head, "It's nothing, really, I'm just kind of bummed about the game. I'll be okay in a bit."
"Well, it wasn't your fault, you played a great game." She patted his shoulder and stood up. "Come on down to the water with us, you'll feel better." Her eyes twinkled and seemed to almost match the emerald water.
"Yeah, I'll be right down." He watched her silhouette run down the dune to the beach and the fire. Her short, brown hair bounced on her shoulders as she turned around and waved.
His mind wandered back to the ball field. He could still see the hurt in DeAnna's eyes. "I'm not going to drink, I just want to be with the group. Why won't you come?" He couldn't understand why she had to be so good.
"You know I won't go there. You'll all get drunk and make fools of yourselves. Why can't you ever spend a Friday night with me?"
He thought that her eyes had been glistening with tears. He loved her eyes, that was the first thing he had noticed about her. They were blue like the Carribean Sea, and seemed so pure and innocent. In the year and a half they had dated, she had cut her hair in different styles, and changed in other ways, but her eyes had never changed. Why did he have to hurt her? He thought that maybe he loved her.
"Ryan! Aren't you going to have any fun tonight?" The voices down on the beach brought him back to reality. He stood up and brushed the sand off his legs before running down the dune to the fire.
Someone had brought a radio, and the sounds of SUNNY FM echoed out onto the water. A few were attempting to dance, but a combination of the sand and intoxication was foiling the effort. Ryan looked around at the clumps of people surrounding the fire. He saw Jack wearing neon pink shorts. Jack was always wearing neon. As usual, he was the life of the party. Girls surrounded him and everyone was laughing at something he had done. "Let's go swimming," Jack suddenly said. Everyone laughed at first, until Jack peeled off his shirt and headed for the water.
Soon Ryan found himself in the water with everyone else, fighting the four and five foot waves. The radio could no longer be heard, it had been replaced by the sound of laughter, shouting, and the surf. Eventually, Ryan followed the crowd back into shore to sit by the fire and warm up.
It was totally dark now, and as Ryan held his hands up to the fire to warm up, he heard an invisible voice from the other side of the fire. "Hey, Ryan, where's Jack? Wasn't he with you?"
"He said he wanted to catch one more wave before he came in." Ryan glanced out to the lake as he answered. It had been a while now, and Jack should have been in. He walked to the edge of the water and shouted out to his friend, "Jack? Where are you?"
The only reply was the crash of the surf.
Every muscle in his body tightened as he jumped to his feet and raced toward the water. "Jack! Hold on, I'm coming!" He dove into the black mass of foam and water and swam frantically toward the voice. He caught ahold of Jack's arm, only to lose it as a wave crashed over his head. He reached out again, but couldn't find the arm. He struggled to the surface to grab a breath. "Jack!" he screamed, "Where are you?" The only answer to his question was the crash of waves against the shore. He felt something slam into his legs, and he dove back into the water. It was Jack. He pulled the body to the surface and stared into the blank eyes of his best friend.
He felt someone behind him reach for Jack and to pull the body toward shore. He let go, and stood in the water, bewildered and wondering why he was here. He could hear the ambulance, and could see the lights bouncing off the sky from behind the dunes.
He wanted to dive below the water and never come up.
Lynda took his arm and led him to shore.
He was seventeen, and it was summer. The sun burned hot on his back, but that was a part of the job. He grabbed the arbor tree by its roots and hoisted it up to the flat-bed trailor where the other trees had already been loaded. He leaned against the edge of the trailor and with a dirty hand he wiped the sweat from his forehead leaving a streak of dirt across his face. Mr Bolthouse climbed onto the tractor and began to pull the trailer toward the main field. Ryan jumped on the trailer to hitch a ride back.
It wasn't a bad job. It was hard work, but it paid well and he was working outside all day. It was the second summer he had been employed by "Black Lake Nursery" and it meant he couldn't go North, but that was okay because he could spend his time off with DeAnna.
He jumped off the trailer as it passed the greenhouses, and walked over to the hose to wash his hands off before lunch.
"Hi, Ry. Do you have a break right now?"
He knew without turning around that it was Lynda. "Yeah, I'm going on lunch break." He finished washing his hands and started walking toward the pole barn on the edge of the tree field.
She walked beside him. "I was thinking that maybe we could go see a movie tonight. My treat?"
"I already told DeAnna I would go out with her tonight. Sorry, Lyn." He hoped she wouldn't press the point.
"I thought you said you were done with her. Are you ever going to make up your mind?"
"I can't just dump her, I've given four years of my life to her. I really care about her. She's so good to me." He knew inside he wasn't sure he felt that way anymore, but he wasn't sure about Lynda either.
"Then what have you been doing with me? Do I mean anything to you?" She turned to leave, "When you're ready for something real, just call me." She walked away, her hair still bouncing like it always had.
He finished lunch and decided to go home for the rest of the day. He had to make one stop first, though.
Her mother answered the door. "Oh, hi, Ryan. How are you?"
"I'm doing good. How are you Mrs Verway?"
"Well, I'm fine. I'll go get DeAnna." She scurried off to the back of the house to get her daughter.
DeAnna came into the room with her usual cheer. "My dad just told me that the A's offered you a contract. That's great. Are you going to take it?" Her eyes sparkled more than normal at the thought of her boyfriend's success.
"Well, I'm not sure, it's just for the minors, but if they think I can do it, I'll probably give it a shot." He looked at her and wondered why he ever doubted. She was the most sought after girl in his school, and yet she had never waivered in her love for him. But here he stood, knowing that it wasn't working right now. "Uh, listen, DeAnna. The reason I stopped by was that something came up with my grandma's illness. I can't go out tonight. I'm sorry."
Her eyes lost their spark, but only for a second. "That's okay, I understand. I hope she's doing better. Will you call me tomorrow?"
He smiled, "Sure."
The waves angrily slammed into the shore, a warning of the forthcoming storm. Lynda took his hand in hers and squeezed it. "I'm glad you decided to come."
They were walking along the shore of Lake Michigan just before sunset. The sand was still warm from the long, hot day, but they walked on the hard packed sand along the water. The waves would run over their toes just enough to keep them refreshed.
"I guess I'm glad I came. What are we going to go watch?" He looked down at her. She was far shorter than he was, but he didn't really mind.
She looked up at him with that same old emerald twinkle in her eyes, "I don't care. It's up to you."
A dead tree had eroded its way down the dune and lay stretched across the beach almost to the water. He stopped and sat down with his back against the tree. She followed his lead and sat closely to him. "Do you really want to go see a movie?" she asked. She snuggled closer and her perfume drowned all thoughts of DeAnna.
The storm had trapped the humid air onto the beach, he could feel beads of sweat on his forehead. He started to stand up, "Let's go swimming."
Lynda took his arm and led him to the water. Later, the storm roared onto the beach.
He was nineteen, and it was early autumn. He hadn't been North in four years. He missed it, but he didn't have time anymore. Baseball had become his living, and he had a son to support. Such trivialities as vacation and fun no longer existed. He pulled down the window's tin-foil curtains to let the sun in, and brushed the sand off his bed before sitting on it. He pulled out the old letter.
"Dear Ryan, I know that most people think I should hate you. I don't, though. I still love you. I can see that it won't ever be the same between us anymore, and I can accept that. I'm sure it's hard on you now, my dad says that you probably aren't making a whole lot. We all have faith in you, though. You're a great ball player, and whatever you put your mind to, you'll do it. Anyway, I guess this is kind of short, but I just want you to know that I don't harbor any anger toward you. Please come home sometime soon, your parents really miss you, and so do I. Love, Dee."
The ink was beginning to smear because he had read it so many times, but this time he crinkled it up and threw it in the trash. He didn't need her forgiveness. He missed her, but he would never crawl back to that town. He picked up the other letter on his bed.
"Dear Mr. Sischo, We regret to inform you that you have been released from the Oakland Athletic farm system. We appreciate your two years of service to our organization and wish you luck. Sincerely, Cam Brody."
He stared blankly, then looked around the room. His Salvation Army couch was falling apart, the wooden floor needed to be swept. Four nights' worth of dishes lay on the table. His eyes rested on the pictures next to the tv. Lynda smiled out at him holding their son Cody. He had his father's looks except for the eyes. He could never see Cody's eyes without thinking of the lake...and then of Jack.
They were all gone now. Lynda and Cody were in Kentucky now. He thought back to the day she had left.
"Goodbye, Ry. I guess it has to be this way. I hope you succeed with your baseball." The tone of her voice almost mocked him now.
He looked back at the second letter. He hadn't been playing well, but he had just expected a demotion. Now, his baseball career was over.
There was no one to take his arm this time.
He was still nineteen, and it was nearly winter. He walked along the rocky shore of Macinac Bay. He had forgotten its beauty. He stopped for a minute to rest. He sat down on a familiar rock and gazed out into the choppy water. Memories flashed through his mind like a newsreel of his life. Jack, Dee, Lyn, Cody. The water splashed against the rocks and sprayed his face. It was refreshing.
He knew what he needed to do. He was twenty-four and it was graduation day. He sat in his seat between Janet Simmons and Paul Sites. Then they called his name. He walked across the platform and shook the dean's hand. He looked out over the crowded grandstand. DeAnna was there, so were his parents and Cody. Lynda hadn't come.
On the lawn afterward, he stopped to shake hands with his future employer, Mr. Frank Martens. "Thank you so much for offering me this job, sir. I won't let you down."
The man smiled. "We need quality teachers, Ryan. Besides, I think you'll make a pretty good teacher." He put his arm around his wife and gave her a squeeze. "Ryan will do fine don't you think, DeAnna?"
DeAnna nodded and took Frank's arm. Ryan watched the couple until they were out of sight.
He was twenty-seven and it was winter. It was his first trip North in four years. He sat in the cabin reading the morning newspaper, listening to the crackling of the fire. His son sat at an open chest looking at old table games.
The mother was on her honeymoon with someone she had met in Kentucky. His son was with him for two weeks. "Dad, what is this stick for?" Cody pulled it out of the chest and held it up.
He looked at the stick. It was an old tree branch almost three feet long. It was covered with notches of all different sizes. He smiled. "Put your coat on, Cody. I'll show you."
They walked down the short trail to the bay and out onto the dock. The ice had almost completely thawed, and so he easily broke through it with the stick. He leaned over the edge of the dock and found a perfectly round stone. He pulled it out of the water and carried it to the end of the dock. His son watched as he lightly tossed the stone into the air and swung the stick with all his might. The stone easily cleared the reeds.
A bird chirped in the distance. It was spring.