Unfolding the stale cookie from its crispy twist, I read the fortune and popped pieces of the tasteless wafer into my mouth. The ominous slip of paper inside encouraged, “Be adventuresome and try a new look.”
Were I a more suspicious person, I would fear an assembly line worker out there somewhere had it in for me. Wishing away any bad premonition for the future, I decided to not heed the advice. What had throwing caution to the wind ever gotten me before? A seat on the crazy train, perhaps.
The last time I tried to change things up and got a new ‘do, people could barely divert their eyes from my purple locks. Personally, I loved the dramatic swoop of my bangs as they rose into a pompadour. At first I told myself the stares were simple jealousy and had nothing to do with my pale makeup and pastel-floral blouse. Those hues went so well with the midnight blue leather mini-skirt and navy lipstick. The snag created when my tights caught on a grommet of my boot string only added to the overall effect of my “new look” at that time.
Hey, it was the ‘80s. My recent breakup and broken-heartedness called for something entirely different to counteract the negativity. A whole new me. I was peeling away the layers of an entirely redefined self, an emerging aspect of my persona. Uncovering a wonderful piece of me, of who I was to become.
Perhaps I was young and naive, but I still yearned for that dental assistant position. No one told me I should wear something different to the job interview.
Mother always warned that nothing good happens after midnight that couldn’t happen before then. So often I wished I’d listened more closely to her and followed the rules, but I’ve never been much one for towing the line. This was one of those times.
Our prank was to start at Watkin’s Mill by the old cemetery out on a county road. No telephone poles or electric lines are out there to impede the view of the stars, so we considered it the perfect place to do some sky watching. We wanted to tease Emily a little while we are at it. She’s always so gullible about that sort of thing.
The night began with a simple drive. A few beers never hurt anyone, and Perry behind the wheel with a can between his thighs was nothing new. He was a good driver and claimed to pay even more attention if he was buzzed. That sort of excuse-making someone does after the fact. But he said, “his car, his rules.” It’s not far out to Watkin’s, so no designated driver seemed necessary.
His friend, Aaron, rode shotgun, so Emily and I were in the back seat. My usual car sickness meant nothing to Perry either, and I suffered through by looking directly at Emily as we joked around and laughed on the way out there. She had no idea what was in store.
I admit it was a bad idea but blame it on Aaron. His crush on Emily had gone on for awhile, unrequited, so I was coerced to bring her along. Perry came up with the idea of pranking her, he being the sort of jerk I’ve now come to know.
Emily probably didn't think much of him either. We’ll never know the truth.
Old Waktin's Mill was built out in the woods, as the stream that used to feed it cut through that rough country. The road there is hilly, all peaks and valleys. All the better to jump as we sailed along at top speed to get there. Statistically, the road conditions and bad driving should have been what got us.
We made it to the cemetery alive, though, with Emily none the wiser. She was spooked by the creepiness of the darkness and the boys teasing us about spooks and wraiths. Mr. Watkins' own spirit was said to fly through the trees, and he might even swoop down and touch your hair. I can’t say I was totally comfortable with it myself. But the graveyard was only a ruse meant to make us go to the mill, stupid kids running scared and tripping over tombstones.
It was dark when we got out of the car at the mill, and both of us were so relieved to realize the group hadn’t arrived at the graveyard that we didn’t know how close we were to the stream’s edge. The mill used to run on water power, which was a lot more forceful back then. An actual river. The stream seemed so shallow now, so deceiving to the eye. An unbeknownst depth lurked there, though, and Emily’s yell accompanied the splash when she tumbled into the water. None of us realized Emily couldn’t swim.
It was so dark we couldn’t find her. Even the boys jumped in to search, dashing under the surface while I lay crying on the shore.
The first responders and County Sheriff couldn’t see Emily either. The rescue workers later found her limp body snagged on a fallen tree when they searched further downstream, as if its wooden fingers almost caught her in their grasp and pulled her aside to be discovered. Those limbs assured her parents would have remains to visit at her graveside for years to come.
Emily's time of death was noted as 12:10, just past midnight. My mom was right.
We didn’t care about things like SPF back then. When you’re brushing your teeth and spitting into a ditch in the morning, you don’t really think about slathering on sunscreen for the impending trip down a river in southern Missouri. It’s onto the junky retired school bus driven by the canoe outfitter’s scroungiest driver as you pop the first beer by 10 am.
The girls’ weekend float trip -- our freedom on the river.
The kiss of the sun was not a gentle greeting of welcome. Its glare bore down on pale flesh and cooked the epidermis to a fine scorch. Soothing any blisters would happen later that night after stumbling to the filthy bathroom, complete with cobwebs in the corners, broken toilets, and overflowing feminine hygiene product dispensers. You were lucky to not step in someone else’s vomit or fall down on the inevitably wet and scummy concrete floor. Being very lucky meant someone else had enough forethought to bring aloe vera to soothe your over-baked body, aflame with the after effects of too many hours in the elements.
You don’t know misery until you spend the night lying on top of a sleeping bag to seek a little relief from its slick, cool surface. A campground with that sunburn in a stuffy Midwestern July is the last place to find solace for crispy skin. Claustrophobia comes around midnight when the spinning tent walls start closing in. Funny how the front flap zipper was always more difficult to find on nights like that.
Only a gulp of fresh air upon flinging the vinyl opening to the side would quell the nausea. A freezing-cold soda in the cooler’s melted ice helped, too. Clutching a flashlight and willing the old batteries in it to illuminate the inky darkness outside, you’d look for the closest tree behind which you could squat to pee.
Looking back, we were probably irresponsible. Such alcohol binges seem dangerous in hindsight. But, damn, we had fun.
Before gaining our sea legs, my partner and I went bank to bank while figuring out how to rudder the boat and steer it straight along with the current. We’d been canoeing many times before but with the luxury of a brother, boyfriend or someone else more skilled at the helm.
Slapping paddles on the water’s surface to echo their smack against limestone cliffs never got old. Neither did banging the handles on the sides of the canoe to obliviously mock Indian chants. We proved it was possible to take the girl out of the city but not take the idiocy out of the girl. We sang as loud as possible and took dips in the water for bathroom breaks between beers. Red-eared sliders perched on submerged trees didn’t appear to mind as long as we kept our distance.
Walnut tree fronds sticking out of our swimsuit tops were meant to draw attention, no matter how ridiculous they actually looked. Short channels of tiny white caps capsized canoes when the people doing the paddling were too drunk to handle the miniature rapids. And the day always flew by too fast.
Sandwiches eaten at a sandbar meant our toes were nibbled by minnows if dangled in the shallows. We watched crawdads swim small tide pools, too afraid to touch their clipping claws, but almost touch and pull our hands away quickly. We’d brave the current to wade out into the swift moving water and almost be swept bodily downstream, with many butts bruised on the bed of slick rocks.
Before the end of the trip, everyone turned over their vessel - or “tumped,” as we called it - from some mishap or other. Two girls even sunk their boat, which is pretty hard to do floating such a shallow river. We were there for the laughs, no actual skills needed. The waterproof bag brought along never quite did its job.
Campfire smoke brings back traces of those days, although the smell never quite matches that of a summertime wood-burning fire pit ablaze more vividly than our parched skin. Other sensory memories stored deep in the recesses of my subconscious get stoked to the surface from time to time.
One is melted rubber from shoe soles being drug behind the pickup that delivered us back to the campsite. Creating a cloud in the gravel to follow us “home” was hilarious at the time. Our clothes were coated in dust, hair matted to our heads, and the best-tasting, yet disgusting, hot dogs ever cooked over a fire awaited us at our makeshift base. A couple bags of crushed potato chips, worse for the wear of a two-hour drive, and s’mores finished off a delicious post-float meal for our ravenous group.
A few extra six-packs might still be back in someone’s car at the end of the day, left by those ultra-planners who anticipated we’d drink everything else earlier. Well past saturation point, many of us still had the fortitude to stay up late. No one wanted to miss the usual retellings of “remember when.” Old war stories are always the best.
Especially the telling about being struck by lightning on the Niangua during the sudden onset of a thunder storm. The last place to be was in a metal canoe on the water. But that’s a tale for another day.
This bunch of longtime friends looked forward to such an adventure. Amy even found herself collapsed on a chaise lawn chair next to smoldering coals as sunrise woke her the next morning, but that story is also meant for a different time.
Some of the best memories of my young life, a budding adulthood, were born upon those river banks. I can’t help but cringe to think back to all the near misses and potentially broken limbs. We escaped fairly unscathed with most memories intact. If only I’d thought to indelibly capture every single frivolous moment in my mind, as those times could never be recreated.
We had so much hope when we signed the final paperwork to purchase our home. My fingers were crossed that no major repairs would have to be made, the foundation would remain intact, and trees wouldn’t topple onto the roof. I’d no idea our marriage would be the first thing to fall apart.
Saying goodbye to the house was almost harder than bidding my husband farewell. It meant all hope was lost for a future there. A grand family room window positioned over the spacious back yard would never again host holiday gatherings while a carpet of snow covered the lawn and a crackling fireplace played as background music. No more Christmas Eves sitting around an eight-foot tree in front of that plate glass.
I look at the hole in the wall next to the window, the exact size of the back of my head, that's never been repaired. There would be no more blood to wipe off the wall or broken glass to clean up from the floor. No more 9-1-1 calls made in the middle of the night. Never again.
I loved this house and tried my best to make it a comfortable home. My husband had different plans that made our original dreams impossible. A distant memory now.
Because I had the courage to leave and would not withstand his brutality again. With a heavy sigh, I turned away from the picturesque window and walked back toward the door to leave. A final bittersweet but triumphant goodbye. *This post was prompted by #GetYourWriteOn at Indie Chick Lit.
Winter finally takes its leave and exits at everyone's satisfaction, erasing the feeling of blue so common with aching cold bones. All creatures welcome the warming temperatures that envelope them in long-awaited comfort.
Smiles spread across the lips once used to blow warm breath across freezing fingers not buried in mittens. Layers of clothing are shed when the sun peaks out from clouds and greets gloomy creatures who not so long ago sang the blues and cursed its early setting.
The horizon meets a clear azure umbrella of sky to greet the wakening animals. Nature is renewed in the country, with a robin’s egg being laid in the nest and baby to hatch soon enough. She’d welcome her offspring as if they were royal.
Deep brown soil hosts a stirring of plant life ready to spring upward and break through its crust. The bachelor’s-button flowers impatient to spread their cornflower blooms and wave across the grain field so long dormant over the season past.
The slate of evening falls at last, and twilight’s periwinkle and pink hues crawl across the sky as if a Navy ship could set sail over the ocean-like waves. Midnight arrives.
*The Woven Tale Press weekly prompt was blue, so I used all the shades of blue and associated words (those in bold) I could remember - just for fun!