The Junction
Published in

The Junction

Photo by J.S. Lender © 2021

There and Back

I am going to tell you about something that happened last year. Most folks would not believe a story like this, but most folks also don’t understand that it just might be the sun that revolves around the earth, after all.

*

I was starting to feel better as I drove to Pete’s house. There was something soothing about driving alone at night in the cold. When you get older, privacy becomes a rare and precious commodity.

Pete’s desperate eyes peered through the curtains and out his living room window. Before I had finished pulling up to the curb, Pete slithered through the front door and down his porch steps before his wife could notice he was gone.

“Iron Maiden, dude, this is going to be epic,” said Pete.

We were off to Irvine Meadows Amphitheater to see our childhood Metal heroes who had become 60-year-old men with thinning hair, wearing tight pants and T-shirts with no sleeves.

“Fifth row! Man, we are going to be right there,” said Pete. “I’ll be stoked if Steve Harris points his bass right at me when he scans the crowd.”

“How’s work,” I asked.

“To quote the great Huey Lewis and the News — I’m takin’ what their givin’ cause I’m workin’ for a livin’,” answered Pete. “How have you been, bro?”

“My back and neck hurt me all the time, if only I could trade in this shitty body for a new one,” I said.

Pete contemplated this, then added “Think of it this way — your body only has to last you a few more decades, then you will get a nice long rest.”

“Thanks, that makes me feel much better. At least I can still jam on my guitar,” I said.

*

I used to play an old Fender Jazz Master guitar I had stumbled upon at a local pawn shop. It was chipped and ripped and rusted. Old and green, it was just like that down-trodden guitar Kurt Cobain played. Kurt always looked so happily angst-ridden with his greasy blond hair, post-pubescent beard stubble, and grandpa-garage sale green sweater vest. I put together a band and we practiced in the garage and played a few parties. We really thought we had made it big when our band’s name was up in lights on the marquee of The Troubadour in L.A.

Predictably, age and reality stole our dreams of music fame.

*

The Irvine Meadows parking lot was a bona fide time capsule. Metal music with demonic themes blasted from surrounding cars. Something looked different, though. Everyone was older, way older! We had become part of a mob of middle aged dads with eyeglasses, goaties and fat guts, wearing Iron Maiden T-shirts. Age transforms everyone in a cruel but unique way. People ultimately stop existing in their true form and become low-quality, broken versions of themselves.

We eventually made our way through the urine and beer smelling parking lot and passed the merchandise stands.

“$50 T-shirts! The whole world is nuts,” I said.

“We can buy two beers for $50 instead,” laughed Pete.

The beer was cold but sad. The secret behind alcohol’s success is that every drink tells a lie to the drinker. A drink at a happening bar or nightclub deviously convinces the drinker that there is world full of amazing opportunities. However, beer sitting in a big and flimsy paper cup at an Iron Maiden concert does not even try to lie. It just says: Dude, if you’re drinking me, things have not worked out well for you.

At least the tickets were good, fifth row in fact. Darkness — explosions — bright lights — loud noise — old dudes playing air drums. It was all there, just like I remembered it 25 years before. Pete’s excited hand sloshed some beer onto his shoes. We slapped high-fives with unfamiliar concertgoers who shared our enthusiasm for outdated man-metal.

*

I drove Pete back to his house around 1 A.M. He was disappointed to return home and I could tell. I suggested that we go surfing early the following morning. We agreed to meet at Trestles at 5:30 AM.

“See you bright and early, bro.”

Trestles is one of the best surf breaks in California. The wave has nice power with near perfect shape at multiple peaks.

I met Pete at the Trestles parking lot bright and early and we began our 1 mile foot journey down to the sand. This particular Saturday morning was damn crowded. The sand was cold but soothing on my bare feet. The sun was rising at our backs and there was no wind.

I was beginning to notice that full body wetsuits were becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate onto my joints as I got older. Still, I managed to squeeze into mine after a struggle. I was still skinny, but Pete had become rather lumpy. He would say that he had become “barrel chested.” Pete had purchased an XXL wetsuit to accommodate his growing torso, and he eventually slithered himself into the thing.

Nietzsche once said that a man’s belly is the only thing preventing him from thinking that he is God, and Nietzsche was right.

The initial shock of the freezing cold Pacific Ocean still makes my head scream after all these years. We made our way past the whitewash, just out to where the waves were breaking. The waves were decent size, but not huge. The water was smooth and reflective.

I saw a real nice one coming my way and I paddled hard for it. The force of the water thrust me upward and outward, toward the shore. The ride was smooth and peaceful. All sound stopped and my vision became hyper focused on the half-tube of liquid glass.

When the wave died out, I paddled back to Pete. “That was a nice one, man. I hope that it gets bigger as the tide comes in,” said Pete.

Pete and I sat on our boards, quietly bobbing up and down in the water for what seemed like a long time. We were surrounded by about 15 other surfers at the same break, but they were all just chilling too.

A surf line up is one of the last places where communication technology has no place. If someone paddled out on a surfboard talking on a waterproof phone I really do think that person would get his ass kicked.

We sat and waited and waited and waited. We stared at the ocean, but the ocean was cold and did not stare back.

Finally, a slick, dark blue mountain slowly began forming in the distance. Pete and I quickly lied down and our boards. We paddled fast and hard toward the approaching force. This wave was going to be a big one and both of us knew it. In fact, this wave was abnormally large, considering the modest waves generated by that day’s swell.

Pete and I were paddling almost 15 feet apart, heading straight toward the peak of the wave. This wave was too big and was breaking too far out. It was going to break before we could reach it and suck us into the whitewash and pummel us around a bit.

But the wave did not start to break as expected. It kept lurching forward and growing mightier. Pete saw that I was turning around to try to catch it and gave me a look that said are you crazy? Well, Pete must have been crazy too, because he flipped his board around and paddled frantically toward the shore.

The peak of the wave split me and Pete in two directions — Pete went left and I went right. The front part of my feet and especially my toes kept me from losing my balance. I barely hung on but managed to have a good ride.

I paddled back to the point slowly. Pete caught up and met me there. “That thing was huge,” Pete exclaimed.

“It started to close out and I couldn’t make the next section so I bailed out early,” I added.

As we both sat staring into the horizon looking for the next wave, Pete asked “where did everybody go?”

“That wave must have taken us down to the next peak away from the crowd,” I said.

“I don’t think so. This is the same point that we took off from, and there are no surfers, anywhere,” said Pete.

“Oh well, more waves for us.”

A few more good ones came our way and my old creaky joints got a good workout that morning. I finally let a small wave scoot me toward shore. I had to stop half way because the tide was still low enough to expose about 20 yards of barnacle-covered boulders. I was able to maneuver over them easily with thick rubber booties protecting my feet.

As I sat on the sand and waited for Pete to get out of the water, I realized that Pete had been right. There was no one else in the water. Or on the beach. Not a single soul. Pete made his way to shore and began walking up the hill of sand, toward the spot where our towels and clothes had been left.

“Did someone steal our stuff?” Pete asked.

I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I felt completely out of sorts and everything looked familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

As Pete and I walked along the sand toward the trail to the parking lot, we couldn’t find the trail. It was just trees and bushes. The houses on the bluffs were gone. The power lines and train tracks had vanished, too.

“Did the current take us south into Camp Pendleton Marine Base?” asked Pete.

“This is the same spot, I am sure of it,” I said.

But I wasn’t sure of anything at that moment. The beach was naked and the sky looked like it had been waiting for us.

We walked up the sand mound to the level ground. The sun was blindingly bright. We were alone. The railroad trestle was gone, or more accurately, had never been there.

We pressed forward, nervously peeling off our wetsuits. Mine clung to my sore, wet body like plastic wrap. Pete and I kept our wetsuits on at the waist, since our clothes had vanished.

We walked, then sat, and then waited, for nothing in particular. Pete and I sat and said nothing, both of us knowing that something was terribly wrong.

Thirst suddenly hit both of us fast and hard. It had been hot and sunny out in the water, and neither of us had anything but coffee to drink before paddling out. The sharp claws of the putrid thirst plunged deep into my throat and mouth. Unlike the feeling of hunger, the sensation of thirst lets you know that you will die soon without water.

I saw some weird-looking maroon colored fruit hanging from a short tree. I stood up, picked one off, and took a bite. It tasted like rotten mango, and I tossed one to Pete. He gobbled up the fruit like a hungry basset hound attacking corned beef dropped onto the kitchen floor.

After sitting for a few more minutes, Pete asked: “What are you thinking?” My head is a bad neighborhood and you don’t want to know. But I had actually stopped thinking a few minutes before. We both got up and walked over a small sand dune and into the weeds.

Our surfboards were left behind, looking abandoned and lonely on the white sand.

Through the brush Pete spotted something that was brown and rounded out. The Thing was a massive mound of long, reddish brown fur, about 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

It was hunched over some sort of machine with two screens. Pete looked back at me with his index finger placed over his lips. SHHH!

The Thing looked as if he were fiddling and tinkering with a bunch of metal instruments. Patiently watching the screens for any sign of whatever he was looking for. It was motionless, like a hairy caveman in a museum nature scene. Innocent and dumb, but potentially dangerous too.

The Thing was alone, but there were signs of other hairy kin nearby — a few straw beds, food and tools scattered about.

There was a forceful smell of some strange sort of fleshy BBQ, and I spied thick grey smoke rising from behind a stack of boulders.

We approached The Thing slowly from the side and the images on the screens came into focus. One screen showed surfers bobbing up and down in the water at Trestles, where we were a lifetime ago. The second screen showed the same beach, but empty. Peering around the boulders, I spotted a second furry creature cantilevering his face directly over the thick BBQ smoke and lusting after the large chunks of broiling meat.

I took two steps closer, but my feet made too much noise so I stopped. I looked toward Pete, and he was frozen in time like a sloppily made wax figure, where the cheeks and eyes just don’t look quite human.

My head slowly turned back toward the furry mound. Before I could focus my eyes, I noticed something very strong. That smell! Possibly the most horrific nasal sensation of all time. A combination of feces and death mixed with rotten heat.

Suddenly I was confronted with two big, dark brown watery eyes within a foot of my forehead. Under the eyes sat a mouth that formed a child’s happy grin.

I felt as if I were in one of those dreams where I frantically try to run but my legs won’t cooperate. In those dreams, I eventually start to run on my hands. But this was no dream, and I was paralyzed from head to toe with pure dread.

There would be no magical hand-running in this nightmare. Just pain, screaming, and agony while floating aimlessly through some time-wedge in a distant universe.

Pete’s feet stayed cemented to the wet dirt. What Pete must have noticed first was how the size of the encroaching mass blocked all sunlight from his face. The Thing slowly crept forward, with one hand fumbling for something behind his back. Pete wondered what it could be. A weapon? Poison?

The Thing seemed to have no consideration for the misery we were about to endure, just a curiosity as to who would be the tastiest. I swore I could see random thoughts bouncing slowly behind the Thing’s placid eyes — the one on the left is sure portly.

There was a tingling sensation at my legs that shot down into each individual toe. It was a sensation I had during dreams about slipping off the side of a high-rise building, or off a bridge. A feeling of terror and impending free fall, with the sense that my stomach was floating helplessly up to the infinite.

I tried to scream, but all I could do was shout a series of completely unintelligible sounds out of my face. I must have been half screaming and half crying a parade of mad sound bites. The horrific smell surrounded me good and tight. I felt the fur brush up against me and I knew my demise would come soon.

EEEKKKKKKKHH!! The Thing then let out a horrid shriek. I had quickly grabbed a jagged piece of bamboo and thrust it through the webbing of The Thing’s toes. It wasn’t blood that came out, but a purple gel, which blended with the brown fur, creating a blackish substance.

The Thing suddenly forgot all about us, and grabbed his foot and howled. It hopped up and down on the other foot before falling onto its butt to inspect the wound.

“Run to the water, go, now!” I ordered Pete.

But Pete was already gone, running faster than I had ever seen him. Small spoonfuls of white sand flickered from beneath Pete’s feet — arms like angry snakes thrusting back and forth, sweeping his torso.

A rough strip of flesh swiped my calf. The Thing’s hand had hit me hot like a burning fire poker. My stomach and chin were dragging across the sand now. The sand was smooth except for the jagged branches and bamboo that were cutting my abdomen.

There was a short piece of time that I cannot remember. I had wiggled or fought my way free somehow, because what I do remember is flying and screaming across the sand toward the water, with my legs racing under me. I passed Pete. The glistening water was almost within reach now.

The Thing may have been chasing us, but I didn’t look back to see. The water splashed my face and Pete was swimming beside me. I finally looked back and saw an empty beach. Well, not completely empty.

The Thing stood at the shore, peering at us with confused eyes, the cold water nipping at his furry toes. He still had that childish grin on his face, and I could almost envision him holding a bunch of yellow balloons and waving bye-bye to us.

The sun was bright and my eyes were burning real bad. The water was flat like a lake. Pete and I bobbed up and down in the water without saying a word. Then, a blue water mountain slowly rose on the horizon, but we no longer had our surfboards.

“Hey Pete, do you remember body surfing at The Wedge in Newport?”

“Shit yea!” Pete replied.

We swam directly toward shore kicking our feet like a couple of old white potato mashers, letting the cold blue water race by us. This wave was bigger than the last one, and picked us up and shot us forward. I put out my left hand and curved that way, and Pete went right. We kept flying down, down, down that water mountain.

Then BOOM! That wave crashed hard, flinging us through the whitewash, back and forth and up and down. I actually punched myself in the forehead, just above my right eye. At one point, my back was pinned right up against the rocks. I tried to reach the surface, but the more I swam, the more water there was. I started to crave oxygen as if I would explode without it, but I just kept swimming with both cheeks puffed out.

Finally, my left hand peaked through the top of the water, then my right hand, and my head followed. That smoggy Southern California air never tasted so good. I stumbled onto shore and just sat there.

Pete was about 50 feet south, marching his way out of the whitewash. He saw me and waved, with a big stupid look on his face.

All the other surfers were back in the water now, the hot babes in bikinis were back on the sand, and the lifeguard was sitting on his stand catching some rays. The Thing was nowhere in sight.

My cheeks got tight, my chin trembled, and I started weeping like a baby.

Pete sat next to me for a long while in silence, then said “Hey Cameron, let’s go get some fish tacos and drink some Coronas.”

“You read my mind, bro.”

THE END

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J.S. Lender

J.S. Lender

fiction writer | ocean enthusiast | musician | author of four books, including Emma and the Starry Night. Blending words and waves…reefpointpress.weebly.com