It is Fresh Free Fiction Wednesday, and . . . drumroll please . . . today is my day! I got moved up a week.
Last week Joe Courtemanche got us started off on this Fresh Free Fiction round with his wonderful story about those poor Mariachi singers (click here to read it). Today I bring you a story that seems to tap common themes for me. I didn’t realize this until I thought about it today but young boys, mysterious adventures, and their relationship with grandpa figures pops out a lot in my stories. The best example similar to this is The Jolly Rogers (click here).
If you are the kind of reader who is interested in background, keep reading. If not, skip down to the story. The inspiration for this tale came from the recent edition of Texas Monthly. There was an article (click here) on The Estelline Spring. I didn’t know such things existed and was intrigued. The next thing I knew I was in my boyhood and thinking about mysterious bodies of water.
I hope you enjoy the story. Joe Shaw is up next week as we have swapped places.
Jack and Robin Go Swimming
Jamie D. Greening
The chili cheese fries disappeared in less than three minutes. Jack and Robin ate them with the voracious appetite ten-year old boys are famous for. Robin, who had dark hair and hazel eyes, dredged his fries through the chili and paired each one with a vinegar-soaked jalapeno. Jack, in contrast, scraped most of the chili off of his. He preferred the yellow goo which Dairy Queen called cheese. Somehow, he had gotten cheese in his bright blonde hair.
Jack sucked chocolate milkshake through his straw as fast as humanly possible. His speed was rewarded with a headache. Robin sipped his cherry coke like an old man enjoying brandy by the fire on a cold winter’s evening. It was their Saturday afternoon ritual.
The two boys lived less than three blocks from the restaurant, and for as long as they could remember, they had been friends. Their moms worked at the school. Their dads were oil men, which was usually good work in the Texas Panhandle. Except the only summer Robin and Jack were ten years old was 1983, and 1983 was a bust year for oil in Texas. Both their fathers were trying their luck in Alaska.
That meant, for all intent and purposes, Robin and Jack were on their own and free to do whatever they wanted. And on this July afternoon, they plotted certain doom.
“I’m going to do it,” Jack said. “You can watch from the bank if you want, you big sissy.”
“I’m not a sissy,” Robin protested. “I’m smarter than you. Old man Glover has made it known to all men that anyone caught on his property would be shot on sight.”
“So! I have no desire to be dead. That is what is so.”
“Oh, live a little,” Jack bounced up and down in the booth. “Don’t you understand, the salty lake calls to us. It exists therefore we must swim it. It must be done. Just like Everest demands to be climbed and Evil Knievel has to jump the Grand Canyon.” He remembered his melting shake and sucked the straw. Refreshed, he said, “It is our destiny to swim it, and to swim it this afternoon. God intended it to be so.”
Robin shook his head. “I studied that lake. It is forty-three percent salt. That means we will float and probably can’t swim, really. We’ll just bob up and down like a couple of corks.”
Jack laughed, “You read too much Robin. Why you spend so much time in books? Books is for losers. The real fun is in living. Living don’t come from no book.”
“I like books. You learn stuff in books. It is usually stuff you need to know.”
“Well,” Jack said, “I like doing stuff rather than reading stuff. I heard from Shawn Drucker that salt lake don’t got no bottom. It goes all the way to the middle of the Earth. Do you hear that – all the way to the middle of the Earth. Are you telling me you don’t want to swim in a lake that goes deeper than any swimming hole known to man? This isn’t some old cow tank in a pasture. This is an adventure. Are you coming with me or not?”
“I don’t want to get shot,” Robin said.
“We won’t get shot. Trust me. What kind of man shoots a couple of kids? Old Man Glover is a deacon at the Church of Christ. He ain’t gonna shoot no kid.” He smirked, “But if that lake goes all the way to the center of the Earth, that old Devil he teaches about in Sunday School might come up and grab you by the ankles and drag you to h-e-double-hockey-sticks.”
Jack tore his pants on the barbed wire surrounding Glover’s ranch. “Crap! These are expensive jeans,” he shouted.
“Ripped jeans are the wave of the future,” Robin said.
“What makes you say that?”
“I read it somewhere. All those celebrities and rich folk in Hollywood and New York all spend a lot of money to rip their jeans so they can look cool and fashionable. See there, you just did it for free.”
“You think?” Jack said. “If Bo Derek could see me now.”
“Oh please,” Robin said. “You have no chance.” He smiled as big as the moon. “Now, Angie Reynolds, she is one you have a chance with.”
“What makes you say that,” Jack said. “Has she been talking to you.”
“Let’s just say my sister is friends with Angie’s sister, and Angie’s sister says that she thinks about you a lot and is always talking about you.”
“Really? What does she say?”
“She talks about how she wishes your jeans were ripped.”
Jack slugged Robin hard in the arm. It didn’t matter to Robin. He laughed all the way to the saltwater shore.
The hot air blew over the top of the lake. It smelled like Galveston to Robin, who had spent a month there with his uncle last summer. Salt clung to the few bushes and tufts of grass that dotted the briny shore. The salt formed a hard, rough surface over the natural Panhandle hardscrabble. The boys stood there for a long time just looking at it.
“What’s that?” Jack said.
“Looks like a crab of sorts,” Robin replied. “Not much lives in here. It is too salty for fish.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Jack snorted. “I heard there is a monster that lives out there in the middle. At night it sneaks out of the lake and eats cattle, dogs, cats, and even the occasional person.” Jack paused for effect. “Do you remember when Rosie and Philip went missing a couple of years ago?”
“Yeah,” Robin nodded.
“Well, some say they’s out here late one night. The way I heard it, they were in the back seat and Philip was rounding third heading for home, and Rosie was all worked up, and Philip, though he normally would have been aware, was caught up under Rosie’s womanly charms, and right there as they were about to hit that happy high note, the monster came through the windshield. They say it ate Philip in one big gulp but dragged Rosie’s naked body alive back to the salt lake. The salt in the water preserved her body, they say, like a human jerky for the monster to savor later when hunting isn’t as good. Like winter.”
“That’s crap,” Robin said. “Everyone knows Rosie and Philip went to New Mexico to get married and then Philip joined the army the next day.”
Jack began to laugh as much as a human can. Robin turned his back and looked away, trying to see if Mr. Glover had his rifle trained on them.
When Robin finally turned around, Jack had taken off his shirt and boots. His jeans were already unzipped.
“You really going in?” Robin said.
“I didn’t come out here to look at it.” Jack sat down on the bleached shoreline and pulled his Wrangler jeans and Hanes underwear off in one swift motion. Three seconds later he was in the water. “You coming in or are you just gonna watch me like some weirdo?”
“I don’t think it is a good idea,” Robin said. The wind picked up and he had to say it a lot louder than he expected.
Jack had swam further out, but then he moved toward the shore. As he did, he began to float. “Look at me,” Jack said. “I ain’t even trying.” He began to bob up and down. “I think it is might near impossible for a man to drown in a body of water like this.” Jack made his way to the shoreline and sat in the shallows. “Robin, you might live your whole life and never get another chance to do something like this. This is private property, and some day you and me will be too old and grown up for shenanigans like this. You don’t want to live your whole life thinking you missed out on an adventure because you were afraid. Now get in here, you big baby!”
That was all it took to convince Robin. Once the decision was made to swim, the boy was out of his clothes and boots before Jack could start floating again. He let out a victorious “Yahoo” as he plunged head long into the water.
The boys did not swim, as such, but floated. The buoyancy of the water was unlike anything they had ever experienced. Jack stuck his head under the water and foolishly left his eyes open. The burn was instant. The salt stung his tender baby blues so badly he made for the shore to wipe them with his shirt.
“I read in a book you shouldn’t stick your head under,” Robin said.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“You were too busy talking about monsters and devils and other nonsense.”
A gust of wind blew by Robin’s face. At first it felt good to him, but then his nose turned upward. The stench of a thousand matches struck at the same time combined with the putrid air of an oilfield surrounded him. The water bubbled like it was boiling. The odor didn’t come from the wind, it came from the water. The bubbles increased. Robin panicked. It was a fortunate thing he couldn’t drown, because he lost all sense of his body. He began to flail, making his way for the shore. He called out to Jack.
Robin couldn’t hear Jack’s words, but he saw Jack jumping up and down and yelling.
The water began to circle like a bathtub drain. It spun clockwise. The outer arm of the spiral, which was about forty yards in diameter, caught Robin in its pull and spun him around and around like a cheap ride at the county fair. Robin kicked with all his might fighting against the pull. He worked his way beyond the outer arm and back into the calmer water, but he was farther away from the shore, nearer the center of the small lake.
He rested a moment and caught his breath, thinking about his options. He decided to float in the opposite direction from Jack and his clothes to avoid the swirly. He didn’t know what it was, but he wanted to stay clear of it and get out of the water.
Robin had no sooner started when, to his horror, another stench of sulphur arose. The water began to churn in the same clockwise direction. This time, he was in the center. He threw his hands up in surrender to the hydraulic forces against him. The current pulled him under.
Jack waited for two hours for Robin to reappear before he left to go get help.
The next Saturday they held a funeral for Robin at The Baptist Church. The choir sang and all the teachers spoke. Both of their father’s flew back from Alaska. The entire town grieved. Old Mr. Glover sat on the back row and stared at Jack the whole service.
None grieved the way Jack grieved.
The following Saturday, two weeks from the day Robin disappeared, Jack sat in the same booth at the Dairy Queen. He tried to eat the chili cheese fries, but he had no appetite. His chocolate shake melted before he took the second sip. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Robin’s face. The look of surprise. The panic. The fear.
He also saw the betrayal. Robin would have never gotten in the water had Jack not talked him into it. The thought that it was all his fault paralyzed him. He was stuck in an infinite loop of memory and regret. The only action he’d been able to muster was to return to the salt lake on Friday evening. Police markers lined the area, but no one was there. Jack waited and waited. He looked for Robin, looked for his body. He held out hope.
Jack considered getting in the water to look but decided against it. Whatever it was that took his friend, he wanted no part of it.
The worst part of it all, no one believed his story about the swirling water. Because of the saltwater, no one believed it possible for a strong boy to drown in the lake. The whispers, though, were that Jack had killed Robin. Most people were charitable and said it was an accident. Those two boys, their fathers away, their mothers reckless, probably got a hold of a pistol or rifle and were messing around. Poor Robin probably was the victim of an accident and his body now long eaten by coyotes.
No one believed the story Jack told.
The normal comfort of sympathy was denied him.
Guilt swelled. There in the Dairy Queen he felt the condemnation of everyone else in the restaurant. He slid out of the booth and stood up, ready to run out into the hot sunshine. But before he could turn, a strong hand settled on his shoulder from behind.
“Have a sit, Jack.”
Jack turned around and saw it was Old Man Glover. He was tall, his hair gray, but not cut short like the other old men. His hair was thick and long, well past his shoulders. On his head was a wide brimmed straw hat. His hazel eyes were bright, not dimmed by age or illness. He wore his usual attire, a pair of khaki pants, white cotton shirt, and a red bandanna around his neck. His gray beard hung low below his chin. A coffee cup was in his hand.
“I said sit, Jack. I want to talk to you.”
Jack did not sit. He looked down. Tears fell from his eyes and made puddles on the brown tile floor. Through sobs he said, “I am sorry Mr. Glover. I am sorry I was on your ranch. I am sorry me and Robin went swimming. I am sorry . . .” His words became inaudible.
“Jack, sit. We need to talk.”
“What is the last thing you remember about Robin?” Mr. Glover asked Jack.
“His face,” Jack said this without taking time to evaluate the question or questioner because it was all he could think about. “His face looked terrified. He died afraid.”
“He was afraid,” Mr. Glover said. “But we don’t know about how he died.”
“What do you mean? Do you think he is still alive?”
“I know he is still alive.”
“What the blazes are you talking about, old man. If you know where Robin is, we need to tell the sheriff. We need to get him right now.” Jack slid toward the edge of the seat, but Mr. Glover reached his hand out and stopped him.
“It is funny, you calling me an old man,” Mr. Glover said. Now the tears came from his eyes, but not in large drops like Jack’s. Mr. Glover’s tears formed moist in the hazel eye, then found the corner and made the slow but certain journey down his cheek and to the edge of his gray beard. “Robin was afraid, but not anymore.”
“I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“I am Robin.” He swallowed his own name as words were hard to form. The emotion of the moment was too much for him. “In fact,” he cleared his throat, “I haven’t gone by that name in such a long time I’d almost forgotten who I am. Or who I was.”
“I don’t believe you,” Jack said. “You’re just that old kook who lives out by himself. You’re not even Baptist.”
“A man can be two people at the same time. I am the old kook, that is true. I am also Robin.”
“How can that be?”
“I don’t know. It used to be something I tried to solve, like a puzzle or a riddle. I researched, read, studied old legends, looked at the newest science discoveries, but eventually I quit trying to understand what happened. It is what it is.”
“Then what happened to Robin? How did you get so old?”
“The vortex that formed in the lake sucked me under. It made my eyes sting and burn as I fought and fought and kicked. I remembered something our old third grade teacher, Mrs. Smithwyck said about riptides. Don’t ask me why I remembered, but she said you can’t fight them. You just have to let it take you and then when it is over you swim to shore. So, I stopped fighting and the current kept dragging me deeper and deeper. I was losing my breath and I knew I would drown. But just as I thought I was a goner, the current pushed me into a cavern where the water turned into a stream that ran through it. There was a shoreline on both sides.”
“And the air was breathable?” Jack nodded his head.
“Yes,” Mr. Glover said. “I was tired from fighting and I sat there for a long time and recovered my breath. Light came up from the water, like there was a giant lightbulb under it making it glow.”
“Did you swim back out?” Jack’s eyes had grown large with curiosity.
“I couldn’t. The current was like a rapid pushing through the narrow hole in the cavern. “Jack, there were animals down there.”
“Animals?” Jack whispered.
“Some I recognized as dinosaurs, and others were things I had never seen before and have never seen sense. Not in life or in a book.”
“You’re pulling my leg, old man.”
“I’m not, Jack. Look in my eyes. Can you see it is me? I am telling you the truth.”
Jack looked into the man’s eyes and there he saw his old friend, who a week earlier had sat in this same booth and was ten years old. Now here he was an old man.
Mr. Glover continued. “I followed the water for what felt like about a mile. It might have been more, but eventually it darted back underneath the ground but not until it led to the back end of a cave. It wasn’t very big, but I could see light up ahead. I followed the light until I emerged in the middle of a great field filled with buffalo.
“Buffalo. There must have been ten thousand of them.”
“I’ve never seen a buffalo around here,” Jack shook his head. “In fact, I’ve never seen a buffalo.”
“I hadn’t either,” Mr. Glover said.
“When you came out, were you all old and wrinkly?”
Mr. Glover laughed. “No, I was young, young as you.”
“Then how did you get so old in two weeks? And what did you do with the real Mr. Glover?”
“I am Mr. Glover.” Robin took a sip from the Styrofoam coffee cup. “Jack, this is where it gets really weird. When I came out, it wasn’t 1983. It was 1845.”
“You’re crazy?” Jack laughed. “Either this is the most messed up thing ever, or you’re a lunatic who thinks he’s my best friend who died two weeks ago.”
“I am your best friend. I did not drown. But I am old.”
“Prove it!” Jack said. His voice was loud enough that two middle-aged women three booths over gave them dirty looks.
“I expected that,” Mr. Glover said. “There is probably still a scratch on your leg. When we were going to the salt lake, you tore your jeans on the barbed wire. I made fun of you and your torn pants. I think I teased you about a girl. I can’t remember her name. It has been so long.”
“Angie,” Jack’s skepticism vanished.
“Angie Reynolds,” Robin finished it. “Now I remember. She was friends of my sister.”
Jack said, “How did you know about that? I told no one.”
“I am Robin.”
“No, you’re creepy old Mr. Glover.”
“I am both.”
“But,” Jack started counting on his fingers, “If you came out in 1845, then, you’d be long dead by now with Davey Crockett and Sam Houston. You’d be more than old. You’d be an artifact.”
“I can’t explain that either.” He smiled. “Whatever happened to me made me age slower. I still got older, but I didn’t reach puberty until the 1890s which was good because that kept me from having to get involved in the Civil War. In fact, I am not actually as old as you think. I dress a certain way, act a certain way, and speak a certain way to make people think I am older than I really am. If I were to shave off this beard and wear regular clothes, you’d think I was in my early forties.”
“You were alive in the Civil War?”
“Sure was, and I spent most of the war here. You can’t believe how awful it was when I first came out of the cavern. I was naked and didn’t have anything. What I really missed was my knife. You just don’t know what a wonderful tool a pocketknife is until you don’t have it. Things would have gone much better if I’d had it. And clothes.” Robin shuddered. “My real problem was Comanches. They almost killed me three times before I finally got enough sense to move back East for a while ‘til things calmed down.”
“But what happened to Mr. Glover?”
“I told you, I am Mr. Glover. Since I didn’t get older, every twenty years or so I would move somewhere else under a new name. The benefit was all those books I read when I was a kid that you made fun of me about, told me what would happen so I always knew what companies would do well. I invested my money wisely. I also won a lot of money betting on football games. It still broke my heart to see it twice, but I won so much money betting against the Cowboys in that game with San Francisco. And I made even more than that by predicting Dwight Clark would make the catch to win the game. Now I am so rich I can buy anything I want. Which is what I did about thirty years ago when I bought all that land out there where the salt lake is.”
Wait?” Jack said. “When we snuck in, we were actually sneaking into your own property?”
“Why didn’t you tell us. Why not stop us from going swimming?”
“Because for me, it had already happened, several lifetimes ago. My life is good, and now I think it will get better, because I finally have my old friend back. I’ve been waiting a hundred and thirty-eight years for this.”
Jack and Robin laughed for a long time. Jack hadn’t laughed since he saw Robin go under the water at the lake, so it was a great emotional release to feel joy again. Robin told Jack all about steamboats, the first cars and how he traveled to Michigan and invested early in Ford Motor Company. He explained about how Germany had a lot of sympathizers in America before the war started. Then he went on to talk about the fear he felt in the 1960s as the country divided again a hundred years after the Civil War.
After two long hours, they walked out of the Dairy Queen into the hot Panhandle sun. Jack was still laughing, a grin permanently formed on his mouth. Robin laughed too, until he felt the pain in his chest.
“Jack,” he sat down on a bench. “I think it’s over. I think the years just caught up with me.”
Jack realized what Robin meant. “But I just got you back. I just got you back. You can’t leave me again. Not again!”
“You’ll always have me.” Robin collapsed to the ground.
After his death, the whole town was amazed with the eccentric old man’s choice to leave his entire his hundred million dollar fortune and ranch to the boy whose best friend drowned in his own lake two weeks prior.
It was September, and Jack was sitting on the shoreline of the salt lake. His salt lake. It all felt like a dream. He still lived with his parents and the money was in a blind trust for him until he turned twenty-one. Most of that didn’t matter to Jack. It was the expansive property he’d enjoyed roaming. He always came back to the shoreline of the salt lake. Today, he brought a bag with him.
He tied the bag to his waist and floated out into the middle of the lake. He waited. Jack floated there for at least two hours in the blistering sun. Nothing happened. He prayed. Nothing happened. He repeated this procedure every evening after school and on weekends. A cold front came through on Monday morning, Halloween. Jack didn’t care. The sun was already low in the sky and it was freezing cold. Nevertheless, he stripped down and tied the plastic bag to his waist and floated out to the middle where he’d seen the vortex before.
This time, it happened. The vortex formed. Jack didn’t fight it. He did just as Robin had said. He let the current take him. Soon, he surfaced in what he assumed was the same cavern Robin had emerged from. He followed the stream until it disappeared. He walked toward the light. When he came out of the tiny cave, he saw a naked ten-year-old boy surrounded by a herd of buffalo.
He yelled out, “Hey Robin, I brought your clothes. And your knife.”