A Short Story By Luis A. Mendez
Little nine-year-old Leslie Thompson always wanted to go along with her dad Walt and fish together down at a spot known as Fisherman’s Grove for the annual Father’s Day outing. In the past, he and her older brother, Miles, left the house for a couple days for some father and son time together.
Now this year, she would finally get to go along, but the reason why was too depressing to linger on. Were it not for Miles’ passing away in a tragic boat accident during an ill-advised trip to the grove with his rowdy friends two years ago, in — for which he had not been given permission to go unsupervised — then he, not she, would be accompanying her dad on the annual fishing trip this year. In fact, she thought the whole tradition had died along with her brother. Last year, the first without Miles, her dad decided to skip the trip at the last second after planning to go alone. But now almost two years since Miles’ passing, she would finally get to go along on one of these trips.
Leslie’s dad had randomly asked her over dinner a couple weeks back if she’d come with him. Her mom’s eyes widened in surprise after he said he was going to return for Father’s Day this year.
“Of course, Daddy!” she answered without hesitation and with excitement in her voice and facial expression, almost spilling the bisque her mother had made for dinner.
While her mother had mixed feelings about the whole thing, she kept quiet at the dinner table. Later, as Leslie attempted to fall asleep, she overheard a conversation between her parents as they did the dishes together.
“I’m not sure how you’re gonna cope without Miles there,” Leslie’s mom said.
Her father retorted, “Leslie’s a big girl now, and she’s always wanted to go along on this trip.”
“But will you be able to hold it together?”
“I’ll be fine. Leslie will be there to keep me company.”
“Just don’t break down or anything. You weren’t ready to go back last year.”
“Last year was when I decided to return.”
“What do you mean?”
“I…I had a hard time going ahead and coming down with the guys last year. I thought I could, but, at the last minute, I realized I couldn’t go there alone. Then you know what happened that night of the trip I never made? Leslie caught me crying when I was washing some clothes. And she told me ‘Daddy, if you need someone to help you go back there, don’t forget about me.’ That’s when I realized I still had another friend to go with. That’s when I knew I’d go back this year.”
Yes, she probably would not have been asked to go long if Miles were still alive, and, yes, she was clearly the replacement to somehow help fill her father’s void when he went down there to fish, but, damn it, she finally got to go on this trip that she always envied Miles for being a part of and not her. Plus, if it would help her and her dad cope with Miles’ passing, it would be worth it.
Leslie, with her fishing hat on along with a red shirt, khaki shorts, and plain sandals, stuck her smiling freckled face out of the passenger side of her dad’s large pickup truck. She had a big grin as she watched the landscape change from the suburbs to a road, then the interstate, then rural country, and finally a long winding patch of trees in the middle of nowhere. She remembered vividly wondering in the past, as the outsider looking in, why the trip included Miles and her dad staying the night. Now she saw why, given the long drive. She couldn’t contain her excitement as the truck pulled into a clearing and down a dirt road, as brush gave way to a large space with parked trucks owned by various fishermen and a gleaming lake in the background welcoming them.
Fishermen dotted the lakeshore and in boats on the lake and makeshift camping spots were filled with family members and friends making do with whatever they had brought for the trip. Some were waiting patiently to catch fish, others had already hooked and reeled one and were preparing to cook it, and still others were relaxing by the lake watching people fish.
Overly excited, Leslie almost hopped out of the vehicle without a care in the world, but her dad brought her back to earth.
“Hold on there, Little Missy! We have to make sure we pick a proper spot, and then we have get all our gear out for the day,” he said as she reached for the door.
“Yes, Daddy,” she replied.
They got their camp all set up, and it was clear to Leslie that her father had situated their fishing spot right next to a friend named Joe that she recognized from holiday parties back at home.
“Walt! I was wondering if you’d make it this year,” Joe welcomed Walt. “And you brought the boss lady this time.”
“The assistant to the boss lady is more like it, Joe,” Walt replied with a laugh. “Wife is still the main boss lady.”
“So, she is. But seriously, I’m so glad to see you’ve made it this year. Everything alright? You and the family holding up well?”
“We’re getting there,” Walt replied with a sigh. He seemed ready to burst into tears, but gathered himself when he saw his little girl excited and ready for her first fishing trip with him.
“But we’re going to be okay, and it’s going to be fun to finally teach Leslie how to fish.”
Off in the distance, a boat was anchored in the middle of the lake, with a fisherman resting as he awaited something to bite his various lines.
“Daddy, why can’t we do that? We’d probably get the fish faster that way compared to standing here,” Leslie said as she pointed at the small boat.
The fisherman on the lake noticed this and politely waved them over. “Hey, Walt!” he shouted.
“Hey, Tom!” Walt shouted back before getting on his knees to talk eye to eye to his daughter. “That’s one of my friend’s boats. Be a good girl and a little later we might get a ride in it. Deal?”
“Now let me teach you how to fish.”
Fishing is easy peasy when everyone is just keeping track of how many fish they catch. After all, Leslie had always heard stories from Miles about what it was like to come here and fish for the year. They always came back with a couple of impressive catches. But in reality, it was time consuming and a true test of will and patience. Nothing seem to bite for them, and she was a bit taken aback about how much fishing was truly just sitting around waiting for a simple pull of the lines. Worse, she had to deal with live bait, which was one wild experience of Ickiness for a little girl.
But she had her favorite soda from the cooler to sip on and it was great to see her dad having a good time — something she had not seen much of since Miles’ passing.
Eventually late morning became early afternoon, and after a quick lunch of sandwiches made by Leslie’s mom (none containing any seafood), the same ones Leslie help her mom make for her dad and Miles, she noticed the boat from the middle of the lake was coming ashore. She could tell Tom had caught a couple fish.
“Walt, you miss coming down here or what?” Tom said with a big grin as he showed off his catches for the day.
“As soon as I finally catch one of these bastards for myself, Tom, I might be,” Walt replied, not catching himself early enough to remember his young daughter was there among them.
“Oh, don’t worry, Walt; you always catch yours late,” Tom said before grinning and pointing at Leslie. “Besides you got a new Plan B this year.”
“Daddy, what does that mean? Plan B?” Leslie asked in a whisper.
“Well, I was going to see if I could spare you the secret, Little Missy, but I have a confession to make,” her dad replied. “Truth is I’m not very good at the whole fishing thing. Miles was, and he was the one who caught almost everything we brought back. I think I may have brought you here to see if you have the same luck.”
“I don’t think I do, Daddy. I haven’t even felt a pull,” she replied.
“After all this time? Something is bound to bite,” he replied.
“Um, Walt…nothing’s bitten your line either,” Joe noticed.
“Well darn, you got me there,” Walt replied before sighing and commenting, “Guess we’re going have to pray for a miracle catch between the two of us.”
Although a novice, Leslie had an idea, “Maybe if you replaced my line, Daddy?”
Walt sighed knowing that wasn’t going to really help, but he put his line down and pulled out the tools to replace hers. “Okay, but no more excuses about the fish not biting after I replace your line.”
Tom had finished putting away his catches, when he suddenly had an idea. “Hey, I saw your little girl pointing over to my boat earlier. Why don’t I bring you and her on board, so we can go mid-lake and we can see if either of you have better luck?”
Walt hesitated. The fact that he was uncomfortable getting on a boat not so long after the accident took Miles away was not on little Leslie’s mind. So, when she pleaded with her dad, he couldn’t help but give into her charm and innocence. He had promised her they would get on the boat if she had behaved and they had a chance later in the day.
“Alright, let’s see if a change in location changes our luck,” Walt said as he began to gather up the fishing items they’d need with Leslie cheering and dancing at the news right next to him.
“You, too, Joe, just for a bit. It’ll be fun.” Tom said, pointing to their fellow fisherman.
Luck didn’t seem to change much for little Leslie or her dad after they got on the boat, but she was just happy to finally get in it after spending hours of envying it, and Tom was very nice to her and had a ton of snacks she liked.
“Might just not be your lucky day,” Tom said as he sat back calmly and cracked open a can of beer, and then handed another to Leslie’s dad and yet another to Joe.
“Maybe,” Walt replied, sighed and then leaned over to Tom to whisper, “It’s just not the same way that it was with Miles. He was so good at helping me bring back some great catches”
“But at least you’re spending some time with your daughter. Just relax a bit and kick back, man,” Joe advised. “After what you’ve been through, what she’s been through, and what your wife’s been through, don’t pressure yourself. Enjoy the moment.”
“You’re right, Joe.” Walt said as he then leaned back towards Leslie, “Let’s try our luck for another thirty or so minutes and then we can bail for that diner me and Miles always bragged about. How about that?”
“Okay, Daddy.” Leslie replied, a bit relieved he mentioned the diner now that she was getting hungry all over again and the snacks weren’t enough.
“This really is a nice boat the wife got you for Christmas, Tom.” Joe commented, looking around the deck.
“I know, right? You’d think I could afford staying at The Blackburn Hotel or something with the quality of this thing.” Tom replied with a slight chuckle.
“I’ve noticed no one’s really mentioned Big John this year,” Walt commented to Tom.
“Big John?” Leslie openly wondered.
“Big John is a legend of this lake, Honey.” Joe answered. “He’s a catfish almost as big as your daddy and me, or at least that’s what’s been said about him. And there’s been sightings of him going back for almost thirty years now. Way back, since me and your dad were around your age.”
“First of all, you just made us sound real old. Second of all, I don’t really believe in that legend,” Walt revealed. “But I’m always hearing something about it every year, but the talk has gotten less and less as time has passed as well.”
“The younger fellas coming in barely know anything about it, and that’s probably why,” Tom replied, “When we were younger, at least once a year, a couple of us would try to see if we could fish him out, but never got anywhere with that. I never even caught a glimpse of him really.”
“I had a friend when I was younger who swore up and down he saw him once,” Joe replied.
“Maybe he died?” Leslie opined.
“Maybe. Or maybe he was just a big old fish tale,” Walt replied.
“You still don’t think it was him who bit your line when we were in high school, Walt?” Joe asked.
“What does he mean by that?” Leslie replied.
Her dad explained, “When I was a couple years older than you are now, I came down here with your grandpa for Father’s Day to fish, just like I did with Miles. I got something really big to bite my line just as we were ready to call it a day. I tried to fight it, but after a good long time, I finally lost control and it got away.”
“Maybe it was Big John, Daddy!” Leslie shouted with a laugh.
“Or just a typical big fish,” her dad replied as he brushed her hair with his hand. “But whether it was Big John or not, I wouldn’t have minded a rematch.”
A good forty-five minutes later, Leslie’s dad realized more time had passed than he had promised for them to stay on the boat before bailing for the diner. “Time to head back, pack up, and hit the diner before we get to the motel. I’m hungry enough to eat five Big Johns.”
Leslie giggled at her father’s dad joke.
The boat was halfway to shore when Leslie’s fishing pole shifted a bit, then almost flew out of the boat all together as Leslie and her dad grabbed it at the same time. It was then they realized something had bit and it was a big one.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Joe shouted as he held his hand up to Tom to stop he boat. “They caught something!”
“Don’t stop, Tom, head closer to shore. This guy’s gonna be a challenge!” Walt shouted as he positioned himself behind Leslie, both working together in silence. “Let him try to outswim us a bit so we can tire him out and get him to shallower water.”
Leslie was simultaneously excited and a bit scared. She was elated to finally have gotten a bite, but she could also feel just how large and powerful the creature underneath them was. A little more than she had hoped to handle.
“Why is the boat shifting away from the shore?” Joe shouted over to Tom as he surveyed the situation.
“I…I think the damn thing is pulling us!” Tom shouted back.
“What? This boat isn’t that small! Walt! We have to cut this thing loose. It may be something else other than a fish. Could be some gator or something larger.”
“Hold on a second. I’ve handled something like this before!” Walt protested, obviously hinting that the large fish that had gotten away in his high school days reminded him of this monster that was currently then hooked on to their line now.
“Daddy, it’s really strong! I’m getting scared!” Leslie shrieked.
“That’s it. I’m cutting it!” Joe proclaimed as he took out a knife.
Walt’s will was starting to give in now, too. “Damn it, okay! Cut it!”
But as the line was about to be cut, the boat jerked a bit and suddenly Joe fell back into the water, knife still in hand.
“Man overboard!” Tom shouted, still trying to gain control of their direction with the beast.
“Cut the line!” Walt shouted as he turned around and realized what had happened, his heart sinking at the predicament they suddenly found themselves in, with his only living child caught up in it with him.
“Daddy!” Leslie shrieked again in terror as she started to feel like the fish would take her overboard soon as well.
“It’s okay, Little Missy” But the boat jerked again, and Walt fell back before he could finish consoling his daughter. Some sudden force seemed to have pushed him aside. He half-expected to watch his daughter get instantly dragged by the line into the water, but to his amazement she seemed to be holding the line stronger than he had been.
Leslie’s fears started to drop dramatically as a strange invisible force seemed to have replaced her dad to help her with the fish, and the force was stronger than her father, allowing the fish to suddenly start being pulled towards them and for Tom to start getting control of his boat again.
“This is amazing! All by yourself, Leslie?” Walt said as he watched on in sheer shock, frozen in position.
Leslie and this force that had pushed her father aside, whatever it was helping her, fought the fish together as the boat began to go ashore. Slowly but surely, the fish was beginning to lose fight. As soon as her dad snapped out of his frozen shock at what he was seeing, he jumped right back behind his daughter to help her drag in what was a massive and hefty catfish. Not as big as Big John supposedly was, but still a pretty large one.
“It may not be Big John, but that thing might be a record breaker around these parts.” Walt said as he celebrated the catch with his daughter and was finally able to rest at ease.
“Hey, guys!” a voice shouted from the lake. It was Joe who had been overthrown from the boat.
“Oh shit! We better grab him before another big fish shows up,” Tom said.
Leslie and her dad caught plenty attention from those ashore as they had watched some of the ordeal from afar and were impressed to see the size of the catfish.
“Good lord, wait until your mom sees what we bring back!” Walt said as they buckled up with the fish stored in the truck bed on ice. “We’ll skip the diner and get a fridge to keep this in until we get home.”
“You did it, Daddy. You caught the big fish,” Leslie told him with a smile.
“No way. This was us together as a team. You were superwoman out there when I got knocked back,” he replied with a hug. “We did this.”
“We…” Leslie thought, wondering if that invisible force that had helped them may have been that great fisherman in the making that had been taken from them too soon.
That night, after all the fishermen had long been gone, the lake’s calmness was disturbed. A fish twice as large as what Leslie and her father had caught earlier that day came close to shore. Ripples erupted as it swam by, almost as if to announce the lake’s top predator had arrived. Big John was on the prowl, swimming his lake. And close by a young man’s soul waited to finally get the biggest catch there ever was.