It was a cool November morning and the wind was singing through the threadbare trees with a whistle of excitement. The Sun was just peeping up from behind the cold earth, bringing with it the taste of frigid morning air, the world doing its best to ward off the harshness of the coming winter. Billy Simpkon felt all of this and none of this as he pedaled his three-speed bike down Rosebush Lane in the little town of Pennypack.
This was Billy at his most calm, his most serene. This is why Billy Simpkin woke up at 8 every Saturday morning; to experience the rush in his bones as he made his way to his favorite place in the world, Clearing Spring State Park. Every Friday night he would set his alarm, lay out his clothes and pack a hearty lunch for the journey, making certain nothing–nothing would hinder his rollicking adventure. Billy rarely missed a detail and this particular Saturday was no different. Sunrise at 7:03 a.m. Sunset 6:37 p.m. High of 65 degrees, low of 43. Even in the panic and the fury and the rush of all that happened, he was ready, he was not going to let anything get in his way.
Despite his rising excitement Billy stopped his small yellow bike at each stop sign and took each turn with an air of caution and sensibility. Whenever he made this trip with his friends, which was becoming far less common as the weather turned, they always sped by him, so focused on the destination that they never concerned themselves with the many dangers that came with such recklessness. Never worried that taking the corners with such breakneck speed, such foolhardy abandon may cut their journey short before it even began.
Billy was not about to let anticipation overtake him. Anyway, he always thought the tremendous expectation was something to savor. He looked on with disappointment at how flippantly his companions acted on their enthusiasm without ever really letting it in. He enjoyed every minute of the ride to the park because he knew the destination. He was willing to wait, to take a calm and steady pace, allowing the promise of adventure to make its way slowly through his body. That was just what he was doing as he turned down Dawson Lane on this brisk autumn morning.
He was getting close now and he could feel it. He could sense the stress and the stifling anxiety of recent events fall further and further behind him and his trusty yellow bike. The signs pointing his way toward Clearing Spring were checkpoints leading to full and complete serenity. All that existed outside the park – the tedious, half-finished book reports, the unmade beds, the hours spent staring at the the cold, hard linoleum floor of hospital waiting room – were worth it for a day like today, exploring and letting his imagination take him far away.
Billy knew, as a fourteen-year-old boy, he had seen very little of the sprawling world outside of his small town, but somewhere deep inside he knew he would never feel as at home as he did inside the friendly confines of the park. Even as he grew old and tired and grumpy like his parents, he would always long for those woods, for the world that lay just beyond the sign welcoming you to Clearing Spring Park.
He could picture it now as he approached Mulberry Street; the wide open fields of tall, ever-swaying grass, the hundreds of trails designed all for him, the bulking trees whose tops were only a thing of imagination, the winding creeks and the thousands of species that lived there. He imagined he could spend eternity in the park, living his days in perpetual exploration, and still never dream of discovering every pasture, of turning over every rock, of meeting every woodland creature. His world at home, at school, at summer camp, was small, but the park was endless. It was a neverending dream, a story where he could decide his own outcome.
Billy saw the sign welcoming him to Clearing Spring, hopped off his bike and leaned it carefully against one of the many benches lining the path. Billy was at home as he rushed headlong into the park with an impossibly large grin plastered on his fourteen-year-old face. He didn’t have a plan and he never did, but as he ran he knew this was going to be a special trip. The weather was brisk, not uncomfortably so, but rather in a way that made adventure necessary. Stasis was not an option and that was the way Billy liked it. The crackle of dead leaves beneath his feet made every stride feel alive, announcing his presence loud and clear, waking up the woods and letting it know he was back and ready for action.
Suddenly Billy stopped. He had officially arrived at his favorite spot in the park, Swallow’s Oak. Swallow’s Oak was the biggest tree in Clearing Springs but to Billy, it was the biggest tree in the country, the biggest tree in the world and maybe the single biggest thing ever. The knots alone, which sprouted up intermittently around the tree’s hulking base, were bigger than Billy’s entire body. The trunk seemed to grower wider each time Billy visited. It was a deep amber and had grooves so thick and chiseled they seemed ancient. He sat there in awe as the seasonably yellow and red leaves fell all around Billy like parachutes from some far off world.
He could sit here and stare at this mammoth beast forever, imagining all the secrets that this old dinosaur must have learned in all the time spent in the woods. He pictured it as a sapling, wavering with each gust of wind, unsure and unsteady. He saw it grow before his eyes, taking root, it’s spindly branches stretching for new light. The trunk would grow rounder each year, the foundation needed to flourish, the sky its only goal. Higher and higher it would grow, not concerning itself with the earth at its feet. In that moment he wanted to believe this mighty Oak would live on forever no matter what may befall the great beast. Whether it be disease or storm or age it would not falter, standing strong for hundreds of years to come.
He spent the early part of the morning in the shadow of the Oak, exploring the ground that surrounded its base. He moved about in wonder, investigating, as he often did, the many insects that called the park home; impossibly large ant hills, pitch-black spiders hanging confidently from intricate webs, butterflies whimsically fluttering out their last days before the deep freeze of winter, grasshoppers restlessly springing from leaf to leaf. Each and every creature happy and content with their place, unconcerned with the world in constant motion around them. They didn’t worry about the bus to school or the bullies or the homework or the teachers or the fighting or the banging or…
It was in this moment he heard, distant and quiet at first, a subtle squawking. The noise came to him from all sides, darting around his mind and leaving him utterly confused as to its source. Slowly and surely it grew, filling Billy up with excitement, dread, and bewilderment all at once. Just as the noise was reaching a crescendo, he saw it, a thick flock of birds rushing from around the tree into clear view.
The flock, which included all manner of birds from sparrows to finches to hummingbirds, remained at a distance, hanging above Billy like a sprightly chandelier. Though they remained poised above him they never stayed still, constantly shifting their positions and trading spots. Billy recognized patterns forming among them, like synchronized swimmers they arranged themselves into shapes, first a circle, then a square, then a hexagon. Soon they started experimenting, morphing into a flower or an elephant and eventually even a bird. Billy sat with his head toward this intricate arrangement in disbelief. It was in this moment they started to sing in concert with each other to create a performance more rapturous than anything Billy ever experienced.
Then just as suddenly as the show began it abruptly came to a halt, leaving the flock hanging the air in silence. Billy clapped wildly, hooting and hollering like he had seen his father do at concerts and ballgames. Then, all at once, the flock swooped down in unison straight toward Billy. Two of the larger birds grabbed him by the shoulders and hoisted him into the air and before he could squeak out a word of disapproval he was off, soaring through the air at the head of the congregation.
Higher and higher he went, the birds matching the height with their song which seemed to soar around him like an orchestra. As the birds picked up speed the rush of wind pulled the skin on his face taut and blew back his thick head of hair. All around him the world flew by in a blur leaving only the blue sky and a smattering of puffy clouds in his view. This was different than the boys speeding down the street carelessly on their bikes. No, this flight wasn’t impatience or foolishness, this flight was the destination. He trusted these creatures and was sure they wouldn’t let him down.
Then, just as the ascent came to a halt, their song began to wane until complete silence fell all around Billy and his fowl companions. This was the first and only time during his flight that Billy looked down and what met his gaze was something more astonishing than he could ever put into words. Everything lay below him, the world so tiny, so insignificant was all within view. He could see every single place he had ever been or ever hoped to go and felt, in this moment, the world stop. Nothing going on down below mattered, everything was alright and would always be so, as long as he had the trees and the birds and world of the park below him.
Then, as quickly as he had risen, he plummeted toward earth. The world below him, a moment ago so magnificent, now grew larger and larger, filling him with dread where once there was wonder. His stomach dropped out of his body and fear struck him as he gained speed at what seemed like an impossible rate. The wind shot in a fury against his face, his stomach lurched, his breath lost. is mind rolled and tumbled, his world blurring into memory. He was strapped in tight with his father at his side. He was back at Hershey Park, the old rickety coaster dipping and weaving with abandon.
His mind began to roll and tumble, throwing his world into memory. He was strapped in tight with his father at his side. He was back at Hershey Park, the old rickety coaster dipping and weaving with abandon.
Each and every year since Billy could remember his family took the two-hour trip to Hershey Park for a weekend spent with cousins, uncles, aunts and other assorted family members with names that Billy could never seem to recall. As a young boy, it was one of Billy’s most treasured traditions. He would get to the house they rented, unpack and prepare for a week spent exploring the theme park, playing countless carnival games, and gobbling up as much candy as possible. But this was back before Billy was old enough or tall enough to step foot on any of the rides in the park, back when he had a built-in excuse.
Now that he was ten, things had changed completely. Billy had shot up in size, growing three inches over the last year. He suddenly found himself eligible for nearly every ride in the park, a fact that was not lost on his family. Throughout the year he would see uncles and cousins at Thanksgiving or Christmas and receive congratulatory pats on the back, accompanied by some supposed encouragement. “Finally, you get to ride with the big boys,” his father said countless times on the way up to Hershey that summer, not for a second anticipating the stifling fear that lay in the pit of his son’s aching stomach.
Part of this was Billy’s fault. Throughout the years he always expressed his regret, his seeming frustration, at not being tall enough or old enough. He would curse his older cousins and envy their luck, but inside Billy was thankful the rules kept him back from the roller coasters. While Billy feigned an intense interest in the monstrous rides, with their hulking metal frame and ramshackle cars, he was in truth, utterly terrified. He would sulk and put on his best face of dejection when the others left him to ride The Rattlesnake or The Storm Runner or The Sidewinder, but inside he was grateful for his luck. No one wants to be afraid, but worse than being afraid is having that fear found out, having cowardice move from the shadows and become a mask for all to see.
Billy knew this day was coming and as the family moved through the entrance gate and made their way to their favorite ride, Skyrush, he could sense a rising tide of anguish and disappointment. Each of his lies, every bit of his perfectly fabricated excitement, was just another shovel full of dirt digging himself a deep cavern of a hole. The closer the time came, the more he knew it would be impossible to dig himself out. The other cousins and uncles and aunts all chattered away excitedly but all Billy could hear was the pounding of his own heart, which seemed to beat away in the dead-center of his brain.
He looked frantically around for a lifeline, praying as hard as he could for a lightning strike or an earthquake or some other act of God which could save him, but nothing came. He imagined the family could tell. He was sure they could see the fear bubbling to the surface, even as he did his best to look excited and triumphant standing in front of the height marker with his family cheering on. But it seemed Billy bluffed his enthusiasm so effectively throughout the years that he was able to fool them all. The knots in his stomach were all but invisible. Only the words he couldn’t possibly mutter would alert his family to his fear.
So he walked on in a state of shock and disbelief, moving slowly through the line, approaching the point of no return. He could hear his father bragging to his brother, citing how scared his son Tyler had been on his first ride and how calm and manly his son was now in comparison. It was one of the few times Billy could recall his father so openly boast about his son. It was a moment that should have filled Billy with pride and satisfaction but instead filled him with resentment. Resentment for his father and his subtle pressure, for his mother who he felt, had to know, deep down, that her son was so acutely terrified, but most of all resentment for himself. His lying, two-faced, cowardly self.
It was with this feeling, a mix of shame, embarrassment, and hate that Billy strapped into Skyrush. Through the entirety of the ride, through all the twists and twirls, the rush of blood to the head and the whirling in his stomach, this is the feeling that stuck with him. This was the feeling that he couldn’t possibly express to his mother or his father or the rest of his family. This was the feeling that led him to lock himself in his room for the rest of the trip. This was the feeling that made him want to disappear, that led to the tongue lashing from his father, to his parent’s fight, the bottles smashing, the cursing and yelling.
This same feeling rose now as if summoned by some nefarious force, as he plunged toward earth with his flock close behind. But unlike the weekend in Hershey, he wasn’t alone. He felt safe with his flock of fowl friends in tow, their song growing, fending off the horror of the fall. They grew louder and louder until he imagined their song filled the entire park. Each walker and runner and hiker and biker, each family picnic and each dog walking obediently alongside their owner could hear their magnificent melody.
Somehow he knew that his new friends would not let him down, and he was right. Just as they began to arrive dangerously close to the trees, he felt a tug at his shirt and the birds were back in control. Swiftly, they ushered him below the tree line, dipping and diving, narrowly missing each branch with precision. Billy could see other woodland creatures, chipmunks and squirrels, deer and hedgehogs, all looking on, impressed and amazed by Billy and his flock.
When he looked down again he saw, rising quickly below him, a wide welcoming creek. The same creek where he spent so many of his days in the park. It was one of the spots that marked a special occasion for Billy. One he wouldn’t visit on every trip into Clearing Springs but only on the special days where had the time to follow its long, winding trail. The running water, with its smooth white grooves of movement and its calming, ever-present babble, made him feel as at home now as it did on the days he wasted lying beside its welcoming shore.
Matching the quickly dissipating panic of impending death, so too the speed of his fall began to slow, till Billy found himself drifting like one of the large, discolored leaves from the great Oak tree. He eventually came to rest on a conveniently placed rock in the center of the creek, a rock he knew well. He would walk for what seemed like miles, following every bend of the creek, until he came to the rock where he now found himself. This particular rock was so special for a couple of reasons, the first being its size. Despite the fact that it lay in the center of the rushing stream it was large enough for Billy to lie flat on his back with his legs straight out. He didn’t have to balance or tip toe but could get a firm position without having to worry about taking an unfortunate spill into the barreling water that surrounded him on all sides. This big, circular gray slab of stone was constant and reliable and felt like something placed there just for Billy. He wasn’t about to let it go unused.
It was on this rock in which he now sat, resting from his flight. He could see his flying friends, still in formation off in the distance. Billy waved to them wildly, silently thanking them and already missing their fantastical presence, feeling a pang of loneliness as he sat on his rock with exhaustion setting in. Though he knew the birds had done most of the work, the combination of depleted adrenaline and the calming sounds of the trickling water made his eyes feel heavy and his body limp.
Just as he began to drift into an uncharacteristic mid-afternoon nap, a strong, cold wind slapped him hard in his unprotected face, shaking him free of the impending dream world. The gust was short and swift but felt colder than seemed possible, like an arctic freeze promising to kill all wildlife in its path. Billy quickly buried his face in his striped, woolen scarf and prepared for another gust, fearing the next might be enough to freeze him in place. There he waited, with his face covered and his senses heightened, but nothing came. No wind, no cold, no nothing. He could hear the birds chirping, the water rushing by and all the other familiar forest sounds, but he feared the moment he peeked his head out Mother Nature would once again test him with her frigid mean streak.
Just when he was beginning to question whether the flurry had ever truly blown his way, he felt a strange and subtle tremble arising from deep within the sturdy rock below. It was not a quake or a rumble at first, but rather a small, almost undetectable vibration, like the way his mother’s cell phone used to buzz softly on the kitchen counter on the summer days when she would work from home. Billy pressed his ear to the rock trying to get some hint as to the source of such a noise, but the buzz continued steadily, giving Billy nothing in the way of an explanation.
As his frustration grew so did the volume and power of the vibration, until the rock below him began to shake uncontrollably. Billy held on with all his strength, knowing that however unpredictable his rock was becoming during this sudden and mysterious moment, it was still far more trustworthy than the rushing water that taunted him from all sides. Billy spent so many days upon this rock, charting his next course of action, preparing for the journey ahead or just taking a moment of relaxation in the midst of his adventures. He felt sort of kinship with the gray lifeless slab he couldn’t explain. A feeling that the relationship he had with this hulking symbol of safety was not one-sided.
This feeling persisted even now, as the rock shook and twisted and Billy needed all his strength to hold on. Somehow, in the midst of all this panic, Billy senses were aware enough to pick up a noise, not the vibration of the rock or of the forest that surrounded him, but something else. A sound similar to the gust of wind that had blown across his face moments ago but somehow fuller, something almost alive. Up until this moment, Billy had kept his face concealed deep in his scarf, letting his other senses take over, but now with the noise slowly growing, he knew he had to face it, whatever it was.
He moved quickly, ripping the scarf from his face like a Band-Aid and raising his head just enough to see over the rear of the rock. There, he met the visual accompaniment to the powerful bellowing sound he heard moments earlier and his heart nearly jumped from his throat. About a hundred yards off, through the low-hanging branches, came a wall of clear blue water shooting out of the creek. Everywhere he saw the familiar woodland creatures, who moments earlier had been so content with their meandering existence, now shooting off in all directions in harried panic, fleeing the scene in which Billy found himself smack in the middle.
The wave, getting louder and shaking the rock more furiously with each minute, barreled toward Billy as his mind raced for a solution. Try as he might to move, the wave had some power over him, some gravitational pull of his senses. He watched as the white crest engulfed the horizon and felt a terrifying familiarity with the way it grew stronger and more boisterous each moment. Even when it got to the point where the crest was right above his head, promising to crash upon him and his rock at any moment, he couldn’t look away, couldn’t accept that this mighty, authoritative flood was about to overtake him.
Billy knew at this moment his only hope was the rock. Whatever his fate may be it was going to be tied to how well his old friend could protect him and how tightly he would be able to hold on. So Billy did just that. He closed his eyes, clenched his teeth, and tried his best to block out the fear pressing down on him from all sides. It seemed like hours passed in that single moment. He had experienced fear like this before, he was sure of it, but nothing ever felt so immediate, so important, as what was about to transpire.
Visions of his mother began to seep into his mind as he awaited the inevitable, her soothing voice the only oxygen filling his lungs. She had always been there during his life’s scariest moments and now some dark recess of his mind was dragging her to the surface when Billy needed her most. He couldn’t quite make out what the voice was saying but hearing it was enough to help fortify the barrier he was building to keep fear at bay.
But then suddenly, and inexplicably, a new voice rose to the surface, demanding Billy’s attention, quickly overtaking his mother’s calming whisper. He could hear the words distinctly this time and even see the source peeping through the darkness of his shut eyes. It was Billy’s father, with his hands placed firmly on his hips in the stance Billy had seen so many times. He was looking down at Billy with a powerful reverence only a father’s presence can muster. His baritone voice was hard to decipher at first but soon took shape. It wasn’t long till Billy was able to recognize the speech as more than ramblings but a specific memory, one that cut through the noise with a brute force.
It was a few years ago and Billy was sitting in the back seat of his father’s hulking SUV. He remembered this moment now as one he desperately wished to escape at the time and cursed his harried mind for bringing it back, especially as a moment like this. His father started talking in his deep, gruff voice and the specifics rushed back.
This car ride followed one of Billy’s little league baseball games, a frequent Saturday activity which Billy looked forward to with an excitement that rivaled a trip to the dentist’s office. It wasn’t that he didn’t like baseball but this particular memory coincided with the year Billy moved from coach pitch to kid pitch, and the transition was not a smooth one.
You see, Billy was actually one of the best players on the team, he could run and hit and throw and catch in ways most of his teammates could only dream, but the move to kid pitch ruined everything. Before, when the coaches were on the mound, Billy felt safe and confident, poised with the bat on his shoulder ready to swing, but now everything was different.
It started slowly at first, a taken third strike, a dive away from the plate, a tiny fear of what would happen if one of the pitches were to come screaming at Billy uncontrollably. But soon the fear grew into something much more. Try as he might, Billy couldn’t fully explain his fear to the coaches, his parents or his teammates. He was never hit with the ball and none of his teammates were ever hurt even when a pitch did happen to get them on the elbow or the thigh. Regardless his fear remained, growing slowly within him despite his best efforts to keep it at bay. Soon enough, just the thought of a trip to the plate left him nearly paralyzed as he stood there with the bat on his shoulder.
Each time his name was called he grabbed his helmet and made his way slowly from behind the metal cage, telling himself that this was the time he finally grew up and stood there like a man, but it never worked. No matter what anyone said about it not hurting, or about how no one would ever hit him on purpose, the fear remained, wrapping around him ever tighter, choking the joy that baseball once brought to his life.
It got to the point where Billy refused to hit. He would go to the game every week, play the field, run the bases, and take a seat on the bench when his team was hitting. Each time his spot came in the lineup the coach would look questioningly over and each time he would stare shyly into the dirt, his answer plastered all over his face. Soon the coach simply stopped looking over, his friends and teammates stopped asking him why, accepting that he was afraid and always would be, which made those Saturday’s all the more unbearable. His perpetual invisibility becoming par for the course.
While his father still came to every game and cheered him on, Billy could sense the overbearing weight of frustration his father did his best to hold inside. He remembered hearing his mother defend him from the kitchen, conjuring all the protective, motherly excuses she could muster. He could see his father’s ever-reddening face, the stifled anger promising to erupt with each emptied glass. He was always threatening that this would be the last time he even showed up, that he’d be better served spending his Saturday with Uncle Chris at McGurks. Even Billy knew his mother’s protests were in vain. There was no real reason he should be so afraid and no real reason to keep trying not to be.
The car ride rising to Billy’s mind in this moment of panic was a familiar one during this summer. His mother in the front seat, quiet, his father driving, bitter, and the crushing silence felt in every corner of the car. Disappointment and defeat floating around the SUV in equal measure. Until his father broke the silence, in a voice more delicate and soothing that Billy can ever remember hearing, the voice that overtook the rushing water and the bursting rock and all the calamity that now surrounded him.
“Billy, you don’t have to do this anymore. No one will be mad or disappointed or anything, but I want you to know that not going, that not getting up to hit when it’s your turn, won’t make it go away. That ball will still be rushing at you, hard and fast, whether you are up there to hit or not.”
Billy was focusing hard now, the memory completely taking over his present state. He could smell the stuffy car, taste the sugary remnants of his Gatorade still in his mouth, he could hear the silence between each of his father’s words, giving himself over completely and savoring every syllable.
“Fear does not take no for an answer. Fear is stubborn, more stubborn than you or your mother or even me. This might the first thing you have been really afraid of, but I promise you it will not be the last. So all I can say before you quit baseball, is this; let it in Billy. Picture the baseball hitting you square between eyes, imagine the hurt and the embarrassment, imagine getting knocked on your ass. Let the fear in, let the fear win and then move the fuck on or not, just don’t pretend the fear will go away, cause it won’t.”
And just like that the car, his mother, and even his father’s voice were gone. Abruptly shaken from his mind, dropping him back on the rock with his eyes shut tight and only his wits to save him. He looked up and saw the wave, now more powerful than ever, bearing down on him and poised to take him out. Resistance was useless and he knew it, but he still held on and he was still afraid. He tried desperately to follow his father’s advice, to let the fear in, but his body continued to reject it, continued to fight tooth and nail against its strength. He wanted to let go, unclench the rock and slowly stand up. He wanted to defy the wind, the water and all the forces of nature pressing against him. He wanted to stare his enemy in the face, but he couldn’t, and he cursed himself for his cowardice.
Then, the moment came, the wave hit and Billy and his rock and his whole world were underwater. He opened his eyes just enough to see the water, full of twigs, bewildered fish and the rest of the once serene creek, hurtling by him in a panic.
Memories, like flashes, came back to him in a frenzy. Smashing, crashing, crying. The water. The fear. The slowly budding nausea. Billy could barely tell which way was up as the creek tossed him to and fro, knowing that it was only a matter of time until he could hold onto the rock no longer. Coughing, spinning, cursing. Only a matter of time until he would be caught up in the furious current and be forced to give in to its unyielding power. He shut his eyes but the sound persisted, muffled as if through closed door…slamming, gurgling, moaning…still there and still powerful as ever.
Then came a faint electrical buzzing, a vague hum sprouting from the corner of his brain. There was something meditative about the gentle whirring that turned him inward, away from the rock and the rushing creek and the park and back, back to a place he hadn’t been for some time.
Billy is sitting cross-legged on a small patch of grass. The buzz is coming from the harsh solar-powered bulb hanging from the corner of the garage. A small halo of light illuminates patches of his vision, leaving corners of darkness he dares not explore. The air is muggy, the day’s heat hanging thick around his head. Every once in a while he fends off the advance of a mosquito, only to find two more buzzing around his sweat-coated legs.
He hears the noises. The screen door whooshes back and forth, whacking at the frame violently. The television mutters away unwatched, overtaken by the argument. The same argument he’s heard a thousand times. There’s a sharp clink, a bottle tossed in the recycling with the other fallen soldiers. The suction pop of the refrigerator door. The slam of the screen. Heavy footsteps down off the rotted deck. The garage door mechanism spins to life. The rustling from behind the white stucco slab. The, “get up, Billy”. The gurgle of the finished bottle. The slap of the ball on an old-leathery mitt.
His eyes are open for the first one. It’s there quicker than he could possibly imagine. A white orb, spinning, racing. Red slashes like tiny cuts breath life into its surface. Billy wants to look but his body betrays him, eyes welling, knees buckling. He can’t see the second one, but that only increases the pain. The blood is rushing to his thigh, a welt blooms but he doesn’t dare rub it. Whoosh, slap. The screen door. Are those his tears or his mother’s? He can hardly tell. The next one’s harder. Spite slaps his shin with a whack, his toes curl, vibrations rattle through his body. His hands clench hard. “Pathetic, pathetic.” A rib shot and he doubles, his head between his legs and his heart in his throat. “Get up.” More tears, pathetic. “Stay down, honey”. His backyard is only noises. Pain and fear are all there is. It’s still there.
BANG! Like the crack of door slamming hard enough to rip the wood from its hinges. With that the rock was free, untethered from the ground beneath and rushing headlong down the creek, staying mere inches in front of the rushing deluge of water close behind. Billy looked up to the world rushing by him and the angry wave struggling to keep up with his speeding rock.
The creek in front of him suddenly opened up into a full-fledged river. He and his rock were dipping and weaving, taking each bend with breakneck speed. The wave was doing its best to keep up, its roar becoming less powerful and more annoyed, like a child throwing a temper tantrum. Billy felt a confidence rising within him, death and despair that had moments earlier consumed him now seemed a distant memory. The woods around him once again came to life. The woodland creatures, who fled at the wave’s first appearance, were now cheering him on, rooting for his survival and expecting his triumph. Billy knew that everything was going to be fine, this wasn’t the end, he and his rock were going to beat out the dying wave of calamity which now quickly faded behind them.
The rock began to slow and the wave died to a mere current, the world returning the serene calm that usually accompanied his trips into Clearing Springs. Billy was able to let up his grip and relax, exhausted on the rock that was now bathed in a warm, fulfilling sunlight. Little by little the familiar sounds of the forest began to seep their way back into Billy’s calming mind. The chirp of the restless birds, the scurrying chipmunks, the ever-watchful fawn, the slapping tails of the mischievous beavers, it was all back and Billy had never been so happy to hear their familiar sounds.
Despite the feeling of peacefulness, he could not, would not, let go of his rock. His sturdy friend was the reason he was once again able to enjoy the park and all its splendor. To let go was to forget, to let go was to not appreciate all he’d been through. Sure, the wave may be gone, the danger may be a thing of the past for now, but not forever. The wind could roar back, the woodland creatures could go scurrying away, the water could rise and the river could move back into step with its treacherous dance, and this time Billy might not be so lucky.
Billy closed his eyes, held tightly to the rock and let this thought roll around in his mind. The birds chirping, chipmunks scurrying, fawn watching and beavers slapping, the gently warming rays of sunshine falling haphazardly through the trees, and that thought; fear will not win again. Billy let this wash over him, let it move slowly through his veins, accepted it as fact and then, with it firmly in place, drifted off into a wonderful sleep.
When he awoke a grey darkness had fallen over Clearing Springs. Billy had no idea how long he had been asleep but judging by the sun, which was now hurtling toward the horizon, it was far longer than he intended. Knowing full well his mother’s rules, which required Billy to be home by sundown, “no ifs, ands or buts”, he quickly stood and prepared for the journey home. Judging by the pink and blue streaked sky and the quickly plummeting temperature, it was going to be hard for Billy to get back home in time, and the last thing he wanted to do was upset his mother. The last thing Billy ever wanted to do was upset his mother, and even now, despite all that had happened, he couldn’t shake that feeling.
Perhaps it was just one of those lessons, like riding a bike or learning to write one’s name, that just stick with you. Being late was usually something he could avoid and so he did all he could to keep it from happening. Even now, as he ran alongside the creek, he could picture the few times he was late and all that had come with this error in judgment. He was not going to let her down, even now. Even if it felt pointless, a meaningless token of love come too late, he was not going to let himself be the cause of her anger or sadness or hate anymore.
He was running at top speed now, following tightly every curve and bend in the creek and praying for the sight of the great Oak and his bicycle. He could feel a burning in his legs and he knew he couldn’t keep up this pace. Worse still was the darkness that now covered the park like a sheet, taunting him and his futile attempt to make it home in time. Thankfully, just as his whole body implored him to stop, the tree came into sight and gave Billy an extra burst of energy. He continued to sprint, all but ignoring the Oak that had before so fascinated him. He had more important matters at hand. He couldn’t let his mother down, not now, not anymore.
He picked up his bike and jumped on. Exhibiting none of the caution that categorized his earlier ride. Just as he passed through the archway thanking him for his visit to Clearing Springs, he heard it. It wasn’t gradual like the birds. It wasn’t mysterious. It was sudden and it was on him before he knew it. A wail, fierce and grating, shot up from the thick bushes to his left. His knees shook, the bike wobbling uncontrollably beneath him. The caterwaul cut right through, cleaving its way through his brain and leaving him paralyzed.
It was all Billy could do to force his head to spin toward the direction of the noise. Nothing at first but darkness till suddenly the brush came alive. Shooting up from the leaf-covered dirt came vivid lights, white at first but soon alternating between equally radiant reds and blues. Billy stared deeply into the brush as the cones of light lit even the uppermost tree tops. A chill ran down Billy’s spine as his mind searched for an explanation for what he was witnessing when suddenly it all went blank. The lights cut. The wailing ceased. Darkness devoured the scene.
Then rising from the very same spot as the light moments earlier, came a figure. It seemed a shadow at first, nothing more than a bending tree or a cloud passing smoothly over the moon, but it soon took shape. Big bellied and tall, a dark outline of a man began to unfold itself upon the scene, quickly filling Billy’s vision. It was a darkness like nothing Billy ever witnessed. Not like his bedroom at night but something deeper, an otherworldly dark like death itself. The figure, now fully formed, was moving toward Billy and his bike, stepping over bushes and ducking beneath branches. It was slow but sure, it’s shadowy limbs swinging like pendulums.
There was no noise now, the silence reverberating around Billy’s mind like an echo. He would have traded anything to have the wailing back, anything to distract him. There was nothing, nothing but the blackness, the silhouette of terror dominating his vision. Billy brought his hands to eyes and tried to pretend he didn’t see it, to toss it away as his mind playing tricks on him. He had to get home and this was just a vision, the dying cry of a park that, for some reason, did not want him to leave.
His mind turned inward, looking for some safe haven away from the park. He was in the passenger’s seat of his mother’s car, the leathery seats sticking to his thighs, the radio announcer reading news at a low whisper. He saw the rain slapping the windshield of his mother’s minivan, the lights leading the way. He heard his mother’s deep sobbing and felt her attempts to keep the car driving smoothly despite the pandemonium.
Billy didn’t like where his mind was going. The park was terrifying and the darkness encroaching but nothing rivaled his mind, which seemed determined to destroy him. He felt tears now streaming down his face. The tears of a coward. The same tears that embarrassed his father. The same tears that let down his mother when she needed him.
He pictured his mother, sitting there looking out the dark window and waiting for him. Or was she even worried, had she all but forgotten about the son who wasn’t there. She had held him close, she had whispered into his ear that it would all be alright, she had cared. But that was before he ran away, before he chose to block it all out, jump on his bike, run to the park and pretend everything was as it had been. It was he who needed her and not the other way around, so maybe his running was a relief. Maybe she was glad to be rid of the little coward who would rather spend a frivolous day in the park than face the truth. The truth about his father, the truth about the drinking and the yelling and the bottles smashing, the truth about him lying on the floor in a pool of vomit, about the ambulance, the hospital, and the doctors who couldn’t do anything. He’d ran from it all and left his mother alone.
So Billy stopped. He stopped looking back, he stopped crying. Prying his clenched, wet fingers from his eyes he looked up. The specter was only inches away now, encompassing his vision. He was afraid. He was afraid of the silence, afraid of the ghostly figure before him. He was afraid of what came next. He was afraid a life alone with his mother, a life engulfed in sadness over loss, a life without a father. He was terrified. The fear filled him completely, flowing to every corner of his body until there was nothing but fear.