Authors: Carolyn T. Dingman
For Scott, Tempel, and Parker
The strap from the overloaded canvas satchel dug into Janie's shoulder as she made her way down the well-traveled path to the river. She could feel that George was already there before she could hear him and long before she could see him. They were only ten years old but they had been tuned in to each other like that for as long as she could remember. As she jumped over one of the small creeks that fed into the river, she glanced at the wild blueberry bushes growing on its small bank. They had all been picked clean, so she didn't bother to stop.
Janie left the cool shade of the treelined trail and burst into the blazing sunlight on the bank of the water. She was at the Hitch, a bend in the river where the Dunk Pool formed every spring, which was what they called the slow, swirling pond of water that was deep enough for swimming. There were a hundred secret places on this river, and they knew all of them. She had sensed correctly that George was already there jumping off of the Overlook, an enormous granite outcropping over the frigid waters. Janie watched as he jumped high into the air before diving into the water.
The soda bottles clanked together as Janie put her heavy pack right next to George's. Strewn about in the mud were the contents of Oliver's bag. Oliver was George's twin brother. He had probably tossed the bag carelessly over his shoulder while running into the water. As Janie gathered his scattered belongings she noticed a handful of cherry bombs. She groaned thinking of the near catastrophe the week before when Oliver blew up a soda bottle with firecrackers. One glass shard had sliced his forehead open, requiring six stitches. He just missed his left eye.
Making sure the boys couldn't see her from their vantage point, Janie dunked the cherry bombs in the river, soaking them through. Then she tossed them back on the ground where she had found them.
George waved to Janie from the Overlook. “Get in already!” He dove again, and Janie jumped into the chilly water and swam to the deepest part of the Dunk Pool where her feet couldn't touch. George's head popped up next to her, and he grabbed her hand, pulling her through the water until she could stand.
They climbed onto the Overlook, the baking stone hot under their feet. Janie shielded her eyes and looked across the sparkling river for some sign of Oliver. George pointed to the far bank at the rope swing, which was tied to the overarching limb of an ancient water oak.
Oliver ran down the path and vaulted from the rocky ledge, his arms flailing until he connected with the lowest knot in the tattered, unraveling rope. When the rope swept up to its highest point, he let go. The rope whipped back as Oliver curled his sinewy body into a tight ball flipping through the air with no effort before landing with a graceful dive into the deepest portion of the Dunk Pool.
George and Janie watched this feat together from the Overlook. Like Oliver they were a vision of pointy elbows and gangly legs strapped with the tight muscles and scabbed knees of childhood.
George asked, “How can he be like that in the water but such a mess on land?”
Janie thought mess wasn't a strong enough word. She lay down on the hot rock, resting her head on George's leg. “He had cherry bombs.”
George tossed small stones and acorns into the river below. “I know. He bought them with his bottle-return money.” He didn't have to ask if Janie had already sabotaged them, and she didn't have to answer. Sometimes it was exhausting keeping Oliver safe from himself.
Janie said, “I brought extra food and some sodas.”
“Oh good, Oliver ate most of his food on the hike down here.”
George asked, “What'd you bring?”
Janie rattled off her list of provisions: fried chicken, biscuits, potato salad, homemade pickles, peach hand pies. She trailed off before even listing the two kinds of cookies she had brought: chocolate chip for her and George, peanut butter for Oliver. It suddenly occurred to her what a spectacular feast had been prepared for them.
George sensed what was wrong. All of that food could only have come from Maudy, and today was Sunday. If Maudy was at the house on a Sunday, then Janie's mother was getting worse.
George said carefully, “Well .Â .Â . it'll be neat to be up at Sunset Rock by ourselves.”
Janie sat up, nodding slowly. George silently gathered up more stones and acorns and handed them to her. Together they tossed them into the water below for a while. Sometimes being with George was the only thing that made Janie feel that she could live through her mother's illness.
Janie, Oliver, and George spent the day in the water just as they had a million other days in their summers on the river. When the sun started to drop below the treeline, they gathered up their packs and put their shoes back on to make the long hike up to the top of the ridge.
While they walked, George and Oliver recounted the Red Sox game from the day before in excruciating detail. Whenever they mentioned Ted Williams, all three proclaimed in unison, “The greatest hitter of all time!” That was Oliver's rule and it was always obeyed.
The evening had turned cooler once they reached the ridgeline, but the face of Sunset Rock still radiated heat from the warmth of the day. Janie unfurled the maroon wool picnic blanket that Maudy had rolled up and attached to her pack. That blanket had accompanied every outdoor meal that Janie had ever had, but Janie hated it, especially the way it made the backs of her legs itch.
Oliver helped Janie unpack all her food. It was by far the largest stash they'd ever had for a picnic at Sunset Rock, but this was the very first time they had been allowed to come alone so it was a special occasion. Oliver looked at the spread and waved his hands over it like a shopkeeper presenting a lovely display. “Janie, is this their way of making you feel better about your mom dying?”
“Oliver!” George shoved him.
Janie didn't say anything, but anger bubbled up from inside her. She grabbed the stupid, awful, itchy, picnic blanket and hurled it off Sunset Rock with a scream. It fluttered down very slowly and unsatisfactorily to the trees below.
The three of them stepped carefully to the edge and stared down at the heap. Finally George said, “I always hated that thing.”
Oliver said, “Sorry, Janie. I didn't mean it.”
“I know.” She turned her back to the ledge.
They stared out over the valley below, which changed with every slight dip of the sun. When they had finished eating, they all lay on the ground with their heads resting on their arms waiting for the pale blue sky of day to gasp white just before the red and orange of sunset burst through. Janie held one hand in front of her face. She had her mother's hands, exact replicas. It was the only thing about Janie that resembled her mother, and when Janie looked at them she wondered if she would someday grow to hate the sight of her own fingers out of sheer heartbreak.
Oliver spotted the first star, bright and low on the horizon. He jumped to his feet. “Star light, star bright. First star I see tonight.” His eyes were closed as he recited the incantation, concentrating on this wish. “I want to play for the Boston Red Sox just like Ted Williamsâ”
And the chorus chimed, “Greatest hitter of all time!”
Oliver continued as if uninterrupted. “And travel all over the world playing baseball.”
Janie understood why he loved baseball, but she never could understand his need to escape home. “Why would you ever leave Huntley?”
Oliver just looked at her with a confused expression as if he didn't fully understand the question, because he couldn't understand why anyone would stay.
Janie popped up next. “My turn. Star light, star bright.” Janie clasped her hands together and closed her eyes as tight as she could. She wanted this wish to count. She considered wishing that her mother wouldn't be sick anymore, but Janie had wished that on every star and every candle for the last two years, and it didn't seem to be working. “My wish is to become a lawyer when I grow up like my daddy and to someday marry George.”
As soon as the words were out of Janie's mouth, Oliver was howling. George turned a little pink in the cheeks, but he would never hurt Janie by acting like it embarrassed him that she had said that. And really the idea of marrying Janie someday didn't bother him; it was just the way Oliver was acting that was bugging George. Oliver doubled over laughing, hitting his knee, and pointing back and forth between George and Janie.
Janie stomped her foot one time before punching Oliver in the stomach. He went down hard, the wind knocked out of him. George debated stepping in, but it seemed that Oliver had had his fun, Janie had taken care of it, and in the end the score was tied.
Changing the subject, Janie asked, “Aren't you making a wish, George?” She glared at Oliver, still on his knees, daring him to make a comment.
George shook his head, laughing a little to himself.
Oliver croaked out, “Why not?”
“ 'Cause you guys just made a wish on a planet.” He pointed to the pinprick of light in the sky. “That's Venus.”
As dusk turned to night the children made their way back down the dark path toward home. Janie was moving more slowly than the boys, in no rush to get back to the house. Her flashlight cast a dim yellow circle of light on the trail. A bobbing beam of light turned back up the path toward her as George ran uphill, backtracking to where Janie was walking.
George moved his flashlight to his far hand and reached out for Janie. Their fingers locked together. Oliver had stopped walking and waited on the dark trail for George and Janie to catch up. When they reached him, Oliver fell in line, walking with the same cadence. Janie tried to release George's hand so that Oliver wouldn't tease them, but George held tight, not letting go. Oliver was walking on the other side of Janie, hitting his busted flashlight on his thigh hoping to shake some life back into it. He had broken another one; his mother would be so angry. Janie handed hers to Oliver, and she took the broken one.
Oliver put his arm around Janie's shoulder, and the three of them walked the rest of the way home. Silently holding on to each other.
I took the sharp curve too fast, causing the urn to tumble off of the backseat and roll across the floorboard. My niece, Logan, threw her arm back to grab it.
“Oh my God, Olivia. Be careful!” I was being scolded by a fourteen-year-old. “You almost spilled Grandma out in the backseat.”
“It won't spill. The lid is screwed on.” At least I thought it was. “Maybe hold it in your lap or something.”
“What? No! Gross.”
I glanced at the urn containing the cremated remains of my mother. It looked to be undamaged. I said, “At least buckle it back in.”
The narrow two-lane highway leading into Tillman, Georgia, was bordered on both sides with a suffocating canopy of trees. In the dark, with no streetlights and just the beams of the car allowing a glimpse of the shoulder, it looked like we were about to be swallowed by a tidal wave of thick, green water. There was no way I was pulling over to properly secure our cargo. I had seen that movie and I knew better than to stop the car on the dark shoulder of a deserted country road.