“Wait here,” he gently touched her on her forearm to stop her. She was only 4 years old and getting any closer to the river could be dangerous. She was wearing her pale blue dress and white Mary Janes from the church service earlier; her light brown hair was swept up into a matching bow, making her seem very out of place in the middle of these woods. He was only 6, his dress pants rolled up around his calves and his shoes tossed to the side, but he was the one in charge here.
He stepped lightly toward the water, making his way over the big slippery rocks, worn down by years of the water rushing over them. They were usually under water, but the river was low this time of year. It made it seem more like a stream, really. He liked it better this way. He liked when he could see what was underneath it all, felt as though he was experiencing something that was never intended for him to see. It didn’t ruin the magic for him, in fact, it made it even more magical. He loved to figure things out, understand them, and decide for himself how they worked.
His feet started to sink into the wet sand as he got closer. He kept looking back up at her, just to make sure she was still following his instructions. She stood there, watching him intently. He appreciated that she was so patient; most little sisters he knew were not. But his little sister, looking even more like an angel today, was a wonderful little sister. He didn’t mind when his mom made him watch her, or when she grabbed his hand to cross the street; she listened politely and looked at him like he was the hero. She made him feel like one.
When he got to the water, he crouched down and felt the temperature- cold but not freezing. The water rushed through his fingers and he wiggled them, attempting to change the course. He knew that it would continue to flow just as it had before, but just the thought that he could have an impact made him want to try. In his developing mind, he wasn’t so rigid yet as to think that little acts had no effect. He understood that he could manipulate the environment and that sometimes magical things happened.
He dried his hand on his pants and, using his other to stabilize him, reached into his right pocket. He fished out a small, smooth, grey rock. He turned it over in his hand, inspecting how there weren’t any rough edges left. Years of being rubbed had almost made it soft to the touch. After staring at it for a few moments longer, then again looking over his shoulder to make sure she was still there (she was, of course), he gently tossed it into the river and watched it sink lower. He thought that he might still be able to see it at the bottom, the river was still quite shallow. He spent a few seconds staring into the place it had splashed, convincing himself that he could see its grey color under the brownish green water. There was part of him that had hoped the river was still high, still flowing strong, but he was also comforted by the fact that it might take months for the rock to actually move downstream. Perhaps he needed that time before he could let go too.
He stood back up and made his way back to his sister. He sat down on a tree stump, tried to dry his feet in the grass, then pulled his socks and shoes back on. As he was lacing them up, he looked up at her; she was still silent, just watching him. He stood up and said “you ready to go back?” She nodded and reached out her hand for him to take.
They made their way back through the woods; it wasn’t far, though it took their little legs about five minutes to come to the edge. He stopped at the edge of the trees and and squatted so that he could be at her height. “You ready, Em?” He asked sincerely. She shrugged her shoulders, unsure but trusting him. They walked through their back yard, past the swing set and sand box where he and his dad had built a castle this Summer, then up the stairs to the porch. He pulled open the back door and they went inside.
The house was still crowded, a flurry of people wrapping and unwrapping the food set out on the counter, picking at carrots and casserole on their paper plates. Their cousins were running around the house, playing tag. Some of their aunts and uncles were crowded around an old photo album, a few more were crowded around his grandmother. Their mom was sitting in the middle of the couch, politely nodding her head and trying to feign interest in the broccoli casserole on her plate. No one had noticed that they had been gone. He pushed through all these people, some he was supposed to know but had no memory of; he was jealous of his sister- she got away with her silence. At his age, people expected you to have something to say. He made his way up to his bedroom and closed the door behind him. He was sure that his sister didn’t need him anymore; she didn’t really understand what was happening and would join his cousins to play.
He opened his desk drawer and pulled out his notebook. He opened it to the the last page, the page where he and his father had written their last entry together. That was a week ago. He remembered how in Summer, it seemed that time moved so fast, but somehow the last week of his life had felt like it lasted a year. Sitting with his dad on the bed, writing their last story together, seemed like an eternity ago.
He wrote the date at the top of the page, like his dad had always done. Under it, he wrote, in his best handwriting- “threw the rock in the river.” He knew he needed his mom to help him tell the story, his vocabulary wasn’t good enough yet, but there was something that felt wrong about the handwriting abruptly shifting to his mother’s instead of his father’s.
He didn’t touch the notebook again for three months. He let it sit, not really thinking about it. It waited patiently for him, ready to be used again when he felt ready. One day, without thinking, he grabbed it back out of his desk drawer. He had so many new characters in his head, so many adventures and ideas, they were bursting out of him. He had to get them down on paper again.
He climbed up into his mom’s bed with his notebook. She had on her reading glasses and was flipping through a magazine. When she saw him coming, she set down her magazine and took the notebook he offered her.
“What’s this?” She asked.
“The notebook dad and I wrote our stories in,” he replied simply. She smiled, touching the book lovingly. When he settled in next to her, he finished “Do you want to write them with me now?”
She was touched and relieved, she had been worried that he hadn’t been writing anymore, “Of course, honey.” She replied, Where do we start?”
He flipped it open the to last page, the page where the entry was in his handwriting. She read it and asked, “What’s this?”
“Dad gave me that rock he always had in his pocket,” he started, “the one he rubbed when he got nervous.”
She nodded, knowing that rock well. He had taken it off the beach when he was 22, during a family trip to California when he was struggling with being home from active duty. He carried it around with him, touched it whenever he was nervous. When he was diagnosed with cancer, it was his comfort. When he was dying, he held onto it like it was the only source of life.
“He gave it to me and told me to keep it somewhere safe.”
She looked confused, “so you threw it in the river?”
He turned his face up to hers, “Yea. He always took me out to that river. He told me that when he died he would return to be part of the Earth again. Dad liked water. I thought that if he was going to return to the Earth, he would probably go there. So I gave it back to him.”
She smiled, tears filling her eyes. Her young son was so much older than his six years on this Earth gave him credit for. She kissed him on the forehead and grabbed the pencil, “so what story are we writing tonight?”
His voice became excited, “ok so there is this knight, and his dad, the king, was killed by an evil monster, but the knight knows he needs to save the kingdom….”