The Cold Creek Voyage

The galoshes squeaked loudly against my bare, sweaty feet. Fear crawled up my spine but I forced it down. Step, squeak. Step, squeak. The door appeared, its white frame distinguished from the blackness by the dim glow of my pocket flashlight, aided minimally by early morning’s grey-blue light which warily seeped through drawn blinds. My mind raced, hearing every sound, seeing every shadow, my feet finding a silent path. A ragged inhale shot over my shoulder and I whirled around expecting to see Mother, Father, the devil himself. My bunk bed rattled, banging against the wall. An invisible voice coughed, “Ga ga ga.” Benny having another seizure.

My parents were coming, undoubtedly made aware of my brother’s latest episode. I ran for the bunks, my footfalls masked by Benny’s violent convulsions, my escape foiled. Seconds after I’d climbed the bunk ladder and slipped between my still-warm winter covers the hall door opened, framing my father’s haggard figure. He knelt beside the lower bunk and I smelled honey and heard three sickening gulps. I squeezed my eyelids shut until my father left and I was seeing stars. Then I repeated the same nerve-rattling journey to the backdoor, Benny snoring unhealthily.

Reaching up, my soft, round hand touched the cold metal of the doorknob. I turned and pulled. As the door opened, warmth and darkness were pushed back and cool grey-blue light covered me. I stood for a moment at the threshold, warmth at my back and the world in front of me. Then I was off, skipping all three steps, running down the concrete path — careful not to step on any cracks, passing through the chain-link gate at the edge of the yard and disappearing into the cozy, white smoke of dawn.

I passed a worn little building no more than eight feet high, standing like a ghost next to the irrigation pump. It was Benny’s “workshop” where he did his “projects.” He’d whittle sticks to a jagged points with shaky, jerking strokes, the blade often going wild, occasionally catching a finger. A smooth white line runs across the base of his three middle fingers which from my earliest memory have bent at strange angles — the result of a legendary encounter with a table saw. I’ve often asked my parents why they allowed him to keep his knifes. “Because we want him to live as normal a life as he can. We’ve had to say no to so many things. We have to find some we could say yes to,” my mother would reply.

Benny would lock himself in his “shop” for hours doing who knows what, though the stream of pointy sticks was steady. I imagined him sitting in the dark, staring off into nothingness the way he did sometimes.

My sister, Jessica, operated as my co-conspirator and guiding light through our world of weeds, trees and rust. One of our favorite games was a Boo Radley-esque affair: the old Ring and Run. The primary target? Benny. We gleaned endless joy from his yells and broken sentences, escaping effortlessly should he give chase.

Even after the proverbial dinner bell — my mother’s whistle — was rung, the battle did not end. Benny and I had a particularly strained relationship, each doing our level best to insult, inconvenience and generally degrade the other. His mental and physical capacities, being permanently set, were soon equalled and surpassed by my own. I couldn’t understand why someone nearly twice my age would act my age or younger. I expected big people to act big. And so I thought I was being deceived, that Benny was doing it all for attention, for honey. I hated him for it.

The giant upside down U roof of the barn escaped from the mist. Smelling oil, I passed my father’s machine shop which clung to the barn’s flakey white side. Hay, old wood, owl droppings; the barn proper’s wind-browned double doors swung, creaked. Dried manure. The long abandoned feeding pen flew by as I picked up the pace. Suddenly all became smokey green, botanical fragrance filling my lungs. A creek appeared, wandering wanly through a weed-choked world, our world. Jessica’s toothless smile greeted me, her cheeks round and red like fresh peaches. I walked with her to the creek’s edge where a pink mass of rough cut rectangles lay. We called it the Panther for the image printed on the material of which it was comprised: Owens Corning Foamular insulation board. Held together by shoddily placed rusty nails and a considerable amount of Scotch tape and made with material scrounged exclusively from our native environment, it’d been the product of our own hands and approximately two hours work. It was all ours; a raft built for two. We were beaming.

We’d made it in secret, the materials being more or less stolen, the previous day, finishing just as the sun crawled beneath her horizontal blanket and our mother’s whistle pierced the wind and our well-trained psyches. We agreed to meet at dawn, thus prolonging our leisurely voyage down the creek. I slept very little that night, my mind flowing with grand scenarios of adventure and glory, inspired in no small measure by Lewis & Clark, Huck & Tom and various other bad influences.

Now it was time for the Panther’s maiden voyage and Jessica had been gracious enough to allow me first boarding. I made no hesitation in pushing the Panther from dry dock into the smooth, whispering waters of Cold Creek. Everything was watching us now: birds, rabbits, the trees, the old barn and the cattails with their silken, bobbing heads. As I prepared to board I had a moment of doubt but quickly brushed it aside. It was foam, foam floats. God would help. I wanted this. I expected it. It would work. And so I extended a foot and placed it lightly on the pink board. The Pink Panther stared up at me, grinning, daring. I shifted my weight from the shore and in that moment I believed, I trusted, I knew.

Crack! Creeeak! Falling. Pink Panther grinning. SLAP! Blur. Cold like acid. Skin tight. Air! No, water. Nothing watching. Thrash, thrash. Burning cold. Air! No, water! Pink Panther grinning. A hand.

I emerged with a wailing gasp, flopping on the bank like a dead fish, coughing and shaking. Jessica stood over me, one hand dripping, a toothless smile spread wide across a laughing face. For some reason she always laughs at really inappropriate moments like, for instance, just after somebody’s almost drown. It didn’t seem to lessen her sympathy however because she helped me up and walked close to me all the way home. I looked over my shoulder at the debris of the Panther and tears ran hot down my blue cheeks.

The sun rose bright, ceasing doves’ sorrow and setting the round hills ruddy. I wanted it to go away, to leave the world dark and mournful. But, of course, it did not.

We were met at the kitchen door by my mother who out of seemingly inexhaustible stores of patience said nothing of my transgressions until I was warm and dry, a cup of hot chocolate before me. It’s good to have people ready to catch you when you fall from the heights of your own imagination.

With shuffling steps Benny entered the kitchen and fixed his empty, blue eyes upon me. “Did little baby brother fall in the creek?” he chortled.

“Shut up!” I retorted, bile spilling from my lips.

I should have learned a lesson that day.

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