I stand in the shelter of a copse of trees along the shore of Pewaukee Lake. The air has an icy bite to it, a harbinger of the harsh Wisconsin winter to come. A few dying leaves still cling to the trees around me and rustle against each other along the ground. The view of the lake through the trees is desolate. Gone are the summer beachgoers, the motorboats and fishermen. This is my reward for bearing the cold and the long trek through the woods — a glimpse of the unspoiled lake as it had been when I was a boy.
In a moment, I am that boy again. The dull aches which have frozen my joints for years, melt again under the fire of my youth. A cold breeze stirs against a softer cheek, untouched by stubble. Whether the trees seem taller or I have grown smaller, I cannot say.
“Nate, come here. You’ve gotta see what I’ve found.”
At the sound of my name I turn to see Greg Czenecki waving at me to follow him. He’s wearing a knit cap, his favorite flannel shirt and a pair of worn jeans that hang off his lanky frame. He’ll always be ten-years old.
When he sees me give chase, he crashes ahead through a tangle of bushes. Even without leaves, the undergrowth is dense and I follow him by sound alone — the crunch of dried leaves, the crack of broken branches and his breath coming hard and fast much like my own.
We emerge into a small clearing. The bare trees rasp against one another in the wind making a pitiful, lonesome sound. Greg stops in the middle and kneels down beside a round, wooden cover, almost as wide as I am tall. The wood is gray with age and covered in a wooly green moss impervious to the cold.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It must be an old well or something,” he says.
“Nuh-uh,” I say. “The lake is right there. Why would someone dig a well right next to a lake?”
“Let’s see what it is, then.”
His fingers are already under the edge of the wooden circle, pulling hard. I drop to the ground to help him. Wet soil soaks my jeans with mud. The wood is spongy under my fingers, but the cover yields to our combined efforts. We slowly pull it to one side.
At first I think I am staring into the mouth of a cave. The walls are lined with jagged heaps of limestone rocks. The center is the deepest indigo I have ever seen. I’m overwhelmed by a sense of vertigo and the certainty that the dark blue hole will pull me down into it, and I’ll fall forever without touching bottom. I imagine myself growing up and growing old suspended in mid-air, a life in motion without ever going anywhere but down.
I pull back, afraid. My eyes refocus now on my own reflection. Then I realize the blue hole is filled with water so clear it’s invisible, but I still can’t shake the feeling of standing on a precipice.
“It’s a spring,” I say.
Greg nods. He’s smiling, and when I see he feels none of the fear I do, I feel ashamed.
“It must be, like, a hundred feet down,” he says. “Maybe a thousand. Maybe it goes all the way to China.”
There are a lot of natural springs in the area including one in the middle of downtown Waukesha. Our class had gone there on a field trip the year before. Miss Venneford said the healing properties of the spring had lured people to the town a hundred years ago. Then the people had stopped coming, and the springs had all been covered over. Or maybe it had been the other way around.
While I try to remember exactly what Miss Venneford had said, Greg reaches his hand out to test the water. I see his hand reflected in the glass surface of the spring.
“Don’t,” I cry out and am surprised to hear the voice of an old man.
I’m in the same clearing, but Greg is gone, replaced by a family of three. The young mother and father turn to look at me and seem as surprised by my outburst as I am. A little girl in a pink coat toddles around in the leaves, oblivious.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
This is the bane of my old age. Memories come to me unbidden and more real than reality itself. I can spend hours or even days as the person I used to be, walking backwards through time. As powerful as these moments are, I still can’t change anything about the past. All I can do is watch as I make the same mistakes again. I don’t know if it’s like this for anyone else.
I have no one to ask.
The man and the woman watch me. The woman takes one of the mittened hands of the little girl and pulls her close. I understand the look on the man’s face as he decides I am too old and weathered to pose a threat. He smiles.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt you,” I say. I take off my green and gold hat to run my fingers over my bare scalp. The hat is itchy, but without it, my head is cold.
“No problem,” he says. “We’re just trying to get a walk in before the weather turns this afternoon.”
“Me too,” I say, but I don’t know anything about the weather. The events that occurred all those years ago mean more to me than what might happen today.
“I’d be careful letting your little girl run around here,” I say. I point to her with one gloved hand. She’s wriggled out of her mother’s grasp again and is poking a puffball mushroom with a chubby finger. “There’s an old spring around here somewhere. Don’t want her to fall in.”
They look, but there’s nothing except leaves and branches ankle-deep around them.
“Thanks for letting us know. We’ll keep an eye out for it,” the woman says, but I wonder if she believes the faded recollections of an old man.
“It’s here,” I say. “They boarded it up eighty years ago after Greg Czenecki fell in and drowned. Do you remember that?”
“No. I’ve never heard that story,” the man says.
“I suppose not. That would have been before your time.” I feel foolish for bringing it up. Of course they wouldn’t have heard of him. No one remembers Greg anymore but me. His mother and father died long ago, before either one of my parents. My mother said they died of grief. I asked my sister once if she remembered sitting at home with Nana and me while our parents joined the search party. She didn’t. Of course, she’d only been five-years old at the time. She’s gone now, too.
The man looks skyward as though the snow might start flying as we speak. It’s just an excuse.
“Well, we better get going,” he says. “Enjoy the rest of your walk.”
He gathers up his family, and they walk away from me through the woods. I raise one hand as they leave. Don’t, I want to say. Don’t go. I want to tell you about Greg. I want to tell you so someone will remember him when I’m gone, too.
Like that day we found the spring, I say nothing. I only think it.
Greg’s hand plunges into the still water up to his wrist. The water bends the light and his hand at an awkward angle, making it look broken. Then he pulls it back out again with a gasp.
“Man, that’s cold,” he says as he shakes the water off. The surface of the spring ripples from his touch for a minute before settling back into a smooth sheet again. “Try it. Feel how cold it is.”
“No,” I say and stand up. “We should go. My mom’s gonna kill me if I’m late for supper.”
Greg studies the light through the trees. “It’s not that late,” he says. “We have time to go down to the lake and look for crayfish.”
“Ok,” I say. Catching crayfish was one of our favorite pastimes, the thought of which lightens my mood. “Do you think we should cover that up again?”
We both look at the heavy wooden cover.
“Nah. It’ll be fine,” he says.
We find a game trail that leads down to the lake through a thicket of briars that snatch at our clothes. The light is fading fast but once we hit the shoreline, making it back to the boat launch and the road home will be quick. There won’t be time for crayfish, though. I push a branch out of my face, and the prickers dig into my bare palm. I turn around to warn Greg about the branch, and that’s when I first see it. Him.
The boy is watching us from the briar patch. His bare chest is limestone white and his dark hair hangs limp and damp around his shoulders. Even in the fading light, his deep blue eyes pull my gaze toward him. Greg turns and sees him, too. I can tell by his silence, he doesn’t recognize him either. He’s about our age, but he can’t be one of the local kids, and the summer people are all gone.
He comes toward us, seemingly unaware of the thorns. If they’re scratching him, they leave no trace.
“Hey,” Greg says, always the brave one between us. “Who are you?”
The boy stops. His lips move without his mouth opening, as though he’s trying the words out before he speaks them. “Sean,” he says. “My name is Sean.”
“Do you live around here?” Greg asks.
Hesitation again. “Yes.”
“I’m Greg and this is Nate. We live around here, too. How come I’ve never seen you before?”
Instead of answering, he comes closer. We see his naked body through the tangle of branches now. The temperature isn’t much above freezing, and it’ll drop below that when it gets dark.
“Why aren’t you wearing any clothes?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Don’t you have anyone to take care of you?” Greg asks.
Sean shakes his head. “No one knows I’m here.”
Greg and I agree we can’t leave him like this, but neither one of us can bring him home, either. Our parents would never allow it. It’s getting dark now.
“We gotta go,” I say.
“Here,” Greg says to him. “Take this.”
He strips off his flannel shirt, and hands it to Sean. Greg shivers in his cotton t-shirt while Sean puts the flannel on. It sticks to his wet skin.
“Well I’m not giving him my pants,” I say. The flannel shirt isn’t long enough to cover Sean’s nakedness.
“Give him your long-johns then,” Greg says through chattering teeth.
I argue with him while I pull off my boots and jeans. I wad up my long-johns into a ball and throw them at Sean who puts them on. The mud on the knees of my jeans is cold against my skin as I get dressed again. I start to tremble.
A bluejay squawks in the tree above me, and I realize I’m still trembling decades later. I bury my face in my gloved hands. I don’t remember the next part. I never do. Worse than the memories that come without asking are the ones that never come at all. I’m searching for them in the woods, but I can’t find them. I don’t remember why I did what I did. I repeat the story I’ve told myself, but it’s a shattered memory I’ve forced back together again.
At first it was the three of us together. We would meet Sean at the spring after school, sometimes on the weekends, too. Sean was our secret friend. We never told anyone else about him. He wore the long-johns and Greg’s flannel shirt until we brought him other clothes from home — socks and shoes and jeans. Sean took the clothes but never complained about the cold.
We brought him food he wouldn’t eat. We’d find it the next day, scattered and half-devoured by raccoons and opossums. We stopped bringing it. I’m not sure when I first noticed the three of us had become two, and I was no longer invited. It might have been when Sean and Greg starting speaking their own language together.
Greg said it was pig Latin, but it wasn’t. Sean would make a joke and Greg would laugh and I would look from one to the other trying to understand what I had missed. I asked Greg if he wanted to catch crayfish down by the lake, just the two of us. He shook his head. “Nah. I’m not into that anymore,” he said. When Greg started skipping school, I knew he was with Sean.
It’s colder now. The snows have come and gone again, but winter is patient this year. It isn’t ready to stay yet. Greg is home, grounded for playing hooky. I’m in the woods alone, looking for Sean. He’s waiting for me along the shore of the lake.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get this over with.”
He sounds more like Greg now, sure of himself.
I follow him through the briar. The game trail is now a well-worn path where Greg and Sean have beaten it back. We enter the clearing with the spring at its center. Sean stands at the edge looking into it.
I say, “Greg’s getting into trouble because of you. I don’t think you should be friends.”
Sean watches himself smile in the reflection of the water. “You’re just jealous. Can’t you see he doesn’t like you anymore?”
“That’s not true.” My voice is shaking because I’m afraid Sean is right.
“Greg is my best friend now,” Sean says. “We’ll be friends forever. He doesn’t need you anymore.”
“Why don’t you go back where you came from?” I say.
The branch is in my hand before I know it. The wood is still alive and wet with sap. Heavy. I swing it with both hands toward the back of Sean’s head. Both wood and bone crack, the sound echoing in the cold air. Sean pitches face first into the spring, spraying ice-cold water that stings my face and hands. My heart is pounding as I peer over the edge. I watch Sean as the deep blue darkness pulls him under. Greg’s flannel flutters behind him in the indigo current before it finally disappears.
The waters are still again, and I’m staring at my own reflection. The lines in my face are deep, and I’ve lost my green and gold hat. The hands that curl over the edge of the spring are mottled with age. My gloves are gone, too. I must have taken them off when I pried open the cover.
Greg sneaks out that same night and doesn’t come home again. He’s looking for Sean. When his mom calls the house, I play dumb. When they still haven’t found him two days later, I tell the police about Sean. I tell them he’s our secret friend who lives in the woods. They ask me where he is now, and I tell them the truth — I don’t know. I show them the spring which runs empty and clear and deep. The body surfaces a few days later, when Sean is finally ready to give it back. Greg’s body is wrapped in his favorite flannel when they find it. That’s how I know he found Sean. Sean who never felt cold or hungry. Sean who only felt alone.
Soon we’ll be best friends again, forever. I stop shivering though I’ve pulled off my jacket. As I stare into the spring, I feel the same vertigo I felt the first time I saw it. I feel myself being pulled down, but this time I don’t resist. I’m ready to be forgotten.
This short story was written by Debra Patskowski.
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