Tom's mother stood next to an open box at the edge of the room, inspecting it as if making sure everything was in there. Tom took another bite, further depleting the size of the bread in his hand. He pulled out a piece of folded rumpled paper from his front pocket, unfolded it with his left hand and pressed it on his thigh, looking down at it as he scoffed his bread. His mother, Mrs Jackson observed his hurry from the corner of her eye.
"I will birch you if I hear that you've been at that river, you hear me?" she threatened. "A boy drowned there again just yesterday. I don't know what's on the other side that makes you stupid kids wanna swim across it."
"Who died?“ Tom asked.
"You heard me, didn't you?" she repeated, swiveling around to face him fully, "just lemme hear that you went there with those lousy twins again!" She pulled the lid down over the box, locked it and set it down just by the wall.
Tom ate the last of the bread, chewing quickly. He lifted the piece of old comic strip off his lap, swallowed and then whispered to himself "Superman." He folded it along its lines and put it back in his front pocket safely.
His father had stepped outside the room a couple of minutes before and his mother had brought down a second box and begun to inspect its contents.
"Take that bag of trash outside before it starts to stink in here" she commanded without looking at Tom.
He got up promptly and walked to the side of the door where a small plastic bag filled with garbage was sitting. Tom picked it up and went outside.
There were clay brick houses on each side of the narrow street with low fences made of old corrugated roofing sheets and broken lattice. The houses were packed so close together and the gutters had stopped flowing. Tom walked toward the end of the street where a large garbage dump formed a small mountain. There were scavengers walking alone or in twos atop the mound of garbage, salvaging anything that could be reused or resold. He drew his arm back and flung the plastic bag toward the top of the mountain while standing a few metres away from it and watched as the plastic bag ripped open mid air, emptying some its contents on the refuse dump before falling unceremoniously between other plastic bags of trash.
Tom turned around to leave but stopped when he spotted two boys of exactly the same height approaching the dump. They both had dark hair that formed identical bobs on their heads. Each of them had a tied up plastic bag in hand. Tom waited as the pair walked toward him.
They arrived where Tom had been standing and threw the bags they held in a synchronized motion, listening as the bags landed on the ever growing mountain in thuds. The three boys stood silently and watched the hill of garbage for a moment. They could hear the irritated grunt of a heavy engine starting up in the distance.
"We had beans for breakfast today" one of the dark haired boys finally spoke.
"I had flat bread, I think we'll have rice for lunch today." Tom replied him.
"Can Jimmy and I come eat some rice with you?"
"No, Johnny! My mom is gonna whang me if she sees me with you two, no sir!"
"Sneak some out for us then" Johnny pleaded.
"Alright if there's enough, I'll save you boys some"
"Tom," the other dark haired boy called, "you heard about Charlie?"
"No Jimmy, What about Charlie?"
"He drowned and died in the river. Me and Johnny watched them pull him out yesterday evening."
"He wasn't moving!" Johnny rushed to add.
"Our dad said the river is cursed." Jimmy continued. "He said we can't swim in it no more."
"I can swim in it." Tom declared defiantly.
"I heard they wanna build something over the river" Johnny threw in, constantly afraid of being left out of the discussion. "That's why the big machines are here"
"Its called a bridge, Johnny" Tom said, "The machines are here to break down houses, make way for the bridge. I heard my dad talk about them. He says we'd have to leave the neighborhood soon."
"Will they break down our houses too?“ Johnny inquired.
"Yes. Mine, yours, everyone's house. To make way for the bridge. Dad says they're flattening the neighborhood, they already started. Can't you hear the machines?"
Johnny and Jimmy listened to the machine growl in the distance. A muffled crumbling crash of cement and metal sheets followed the revving of the bulldozers every few minutes.
"That's another house." Tom said. " I wonder how long before they get to our houses."
Tom and the twins began to walk down the street. They reached the end and turned left. The garbage mountain was now out of view.
"Charlie's folks are packing up to leave the neighborhood." Jimmy begun breathlessly, "I think they're too sad to remain here without Charlie"
"Did he leave any toys or shoes?" Tom asked.
"Charlie's mom filled the toes of his shoes with old paper and gave them to his little sister." Jimmy responded.
"I bet Charlie never had a toy in his life. His folks are moving out anyway, I saw them pack everything up this morning on our way to the dump."
"That sucks." lamented Tom, "When Billy, from next door, died of measles last summer, his mom gave us his toys and sandals."
"They're breaking down Billy's house to make way for the thing, that's the real reason his parents are leaving." Johnny cut in.
"Its called a bridge, wimp."
"To make way for the bridge." Johnny corrected himself embarrassedly.
"What's a bridge anyway?" Jimmy asked after a moment of quiet plodding, "I never seen one."
Tom jumped a step ahead and stopped, dramatically spinning around to face the twins. "A bridge is this big long thing, it carries cars over a river, and cars and buses can drive on the bridge's back."
"That's a lie" Jimmy retorted. "There's nothing strong enough to carry a car over a river." he laughed.
Tom reached into his front pocket and paused, he noticed the Twins eyes following his hand. He waited a second or two to further rouse their interest, then he pulled the comic strip out of his pocket, unfolded it, and held it up for the twins to see.
Johnny tried to snatch it, but Tom had anticipated that and swiftly pulled his hand back. Johnny tried to mask his shame with a plastic smile.
"Where?" Jimmy asked inquisitively, moving his face closer to the comic on display.
"Right there." Tom said, pushing the paper through the air. "Superman flies in to save the schoolbus falling off the bridge. That's two things." Tom gloated.
"What's two things?"
"Superman and a bridge. Two things strong enough to carry cars and buses."
"So that's what they're gonna break down our homes for?" Johnny said, squinting for a better look.
"I wonder where we'll go"
"I don't know too." Tom folded the comic again and returned it to its nest on his chest. He turned around and started to walk again and the twins followed enthusiastically. They had reached the end of another street and were now about twenty feet from their destination.
"I have superman blood, unlike Charlie. I can swim across the river in a minute." Tom boasted.
"I can swim across it in thirty seconds!" Jimmy bragged.
"You two just watch, I'll reach the other bank first" Johnny declared.
They drew nearer to the river now and narrowed into a line as they walked. The unbroken sloshing sound of the swift running river swallowed the noise of their eager footsteps.
They made their way carefully down the wet path that led to the river. The path had short stubborn weeds growing in patches on the left and on the right, with brown earth in the middle, compressed by a lifetime of treading.
The boys were alone at the riverbank now. They could see a lone farmer on the other side of the river digging an irrigation channel in the ground through to his small corn farm. His canoe was halfway beached and tied to a fallen tree trunk. He was scooched down, immersed in his work and didn't see them.
The boys stepped off the path and began to push their shorts down their waists. Tom disrobed with utmost urgency while the twins peeled off their shirts deliberately.
"Maybe we should wait another day, you know what Father said!" Jimmy shouted, his voice shrouded by the lively splashing of the gushing water. He was looking fearfully at Johnny, his hands refusing to let go of the shorts now gathered around his knees. Tom was already undressed and walking toward the river's edge.
"Yeah, if we die, our dad is gonna whang us." Johnny agreed, pulling his shorts up. Jimmy pulled his up as well.
Tom stopped walking and circled round to look at the boys. There was betrayal written over his face but the the betrayal quickly morphed to defiance.
"Fine, chickens. I knew you had no superman blood." He turned and continued into the speeding water. He waded in, his feet carefully finding flat surfaces on the mudbanks. Then he threw himself, stomach first in the coursing river.
"We're not chickens, we just don't wanna die!" one of the dark haired boys called out as Tom began to coast further away from them.
The river bed suddenly disappeared below Tom's feet and he now had to jerk his arms up and down a lot more frantically to keep afloat. The water slapped his face and jumped in his eyes as the current gained velocity further down from the left bank. His ears suddenly became plugged with water and the sound of the angry river, clashing into itself as it swept by, became a numb, dull, thrashing noise. The rushing water wrapped itself around his chest as it wrestled to overwhelm him. A sudden extraordinary fatigue gripped his shoulders, a result of waving his arms for so long in the turbulent waters in an effort to keep his head above.
His legs paddled furiously beneath underneath until he felt a muscle spasm in his right thigh. It stung and shot a jolt of pain that nearly paralyzed his entire body. He tried to hold the right leg in place, hoping for a release of the pulled muscle while paddling his left leg. The water pulled him further downstream where the current gathered even more momentum over the deep middle of the river.
Tom barely had his head above water now. His entire body was submerged, except his face which he had tilted skyward amid the splashing.
The water poured over Tom's face in furious bucketfuls. He had his mouth wide open and the water poured freely into it. He blew the water out with repeated heavy exhalations but the fast running fluid refilled his mouth without delay. His body had long gone limp beneath the water and he slowly surrendered to the violent current. He couldn't spurt out the water that ran into his mouth fast enough and he began to gulp it copiously until his stomach felt full. His eyes began to feel heavy and his alertness gradually dimmed. His face joined the rest of his body submerged below the roiling roof. The dark haired boys watched in alarm then spun around, and took to their heels for fear of that whanging from their father.
The lone farmer across the river was hunched over, breaking the earth with his pick axe to form a shallow gully to direct the raging water to his young crop. He had forgotten his short hoe inside his beached canoe and ambled toward the vessel to pick it up. On his way to the canoe, he caught the final sights of Tom's face and hands before they were swallowed up by the surging waters. The farmer threw down his pick axe and ran toward the bank, diving in with his hands pointed in front of him like an arrow. He plummeted beneath the crashing waves, a few metres from the spot where he saw Tom's last movements.
Tom fell sleepy beneath the water. It had gone quiet save the lazy humming swooshes of the whirling current. His ribcage had expanded and stretched from within and the dense water enveloped him and squeezed him from without. Tom began to drift into dreamland.
The farmer finally caught sight of Tom below the surface, he swam behind him and slipped his upper arms below Tom's armpits. Using himself as a buoy for the unconscious Tom, he reclined backwards in the water and pushed with his feet. The pair made steady movement as they floated toward the right bank.
The farmer pulled Tom shorewards and lay him on his back. He placed a palm in the middle of Tom's chest and pushed the palm down with the ridge of his other hand. He repeated the maneuver four times in regular intervals until Tom began to cough, spurting water from his orifices. The farmer turned the dripping boy on his side and Tom threw up even more water.
"What the hell were you trying to do?" the farmer asked, still on his knees beside the coughing Tom. "You could have drowned."
Tom lay on his back, catching his breath. His eyes wandered to the other bank, straining to see if the twins were watching, he was disappointed at their absence.
"Where's your house, son?" the farmer asked.
"It's up the road." Coughed Tom.
"Alright I'm taking you home. Your folks around?"
Tom didn't have the energy to respond. He focused on catching his breath.
The farmer lifted Tom up the ground, cradling him in his muscular forearms, and headed up the road.
"We go left at the end there." Tom directed the farmer, exhausted, as they made their way. Immediately they turned on to the dirt road on Tom's street, he saw his mom sitting on a stool, just in front of the house, doing the laundry in a wide iron bucket. Her head was down, focused on the washing and she didn't see Tom being brought in until they approached the front of the house.
As they neared her, Mrs Jones instinctively raised her head as a person would when they register a person walking in their direction. She put her head down again before the image of Tom and the farmer registered in her brain. She looked at them sharply a second time and instantly threw the apron she had been gnashing between her knuckles into the foamless water in the bucket.
"God almighty! What's happened?" she jumped up, running toward them. "Tom!" she screamed.
"He's fine," the farmer began to reassure her, slowing to a stop in front of her, "Just exhausted."
"Where did you find him?"
"I was at my farm by the river, saw the poor boy struggling in the water, God knows what woulda happened if I hadn't seen him quick."
"Set him down here" Mrs Jones pointed inside the house where a thin mattress lay on the floor. The farmer walked in -he was dripping a little less now- and placed Tom on the mattress. He knelt beside Tom and rubbed the boy's wet hair from his forehead.
"Just give him some warm broth, he's shivering, and let him get some sleep, he'll be alright in the morning."
"Thank you so much, kind sir. I don't know what I would do if I lost him" she began to bawl, "That's my only child" she was kneeling on the other side of the mattress now, her palms places delicately over her breasts as she stared at Tom through tears. "I will tell his dad to come thank you personally, you're a savior."
"Now, now, don't cry, the boy is fine. Just give him something warm and let him rest up." the farmer said, standing up to leave. He looked at Tom one more time, "Don't go swimming in running rivers, kid. Current will sweep you away." He turned around and left without bidding the mother and child farewell.
"Don't tell dad." Tom said the moment the farmer had stepped out.
"I warned you not to go that river! What if you had drowned?“
"Mom, Please don't tell dad" Tom pleaded again.
"You need some hot soup" Mrs Jones got up from beside him and paced to the iron stove on which a pot sat. She lit the stove and fanned it to grow the flame. "We need to leave this neighborhood." she said out loud to herself.
"When will the machines break our houses down Mom?"
"I don't know, could be any day now, could be tomorrow. They already tore down the street before ours." After a few moments, she turned the wooden laddle in a circular motion in the pot and smeared it on her open palm to determine its temperature, then she licked the smear and reached for a small wooden bowl beside the stove.
"Where are we gonna go?"
"I don't know, Tom," she sighed, "your dad is out trying to figure something out."
"I hope the machines don't come tomorrow, we get to keep our house. We get to live here and swim at the river." Tom said thoughtfully.
Mrs Jones turned from the pot, her eyes fiery with anger "I swear to God I'll drown you myself if you ever go near that river again! Not one more word from you now“ she glared at him a moment longer then
turned and laddled some soup out of the pot into the wooden bowl. She walked over to Tom and placed the bowl beside the mattress then helped prop him up." Eat now and go to sleep. No more talk you hear me?"
Tom nodded as he sat up weakly. He brought the bowl up to his lips and blew gently across the top. He briefly slurped the steaming stew and chewed with his mouth full then swallowed and slurped again, longer this time. After a few slurps, the soup was gone and Tom laid on his side quietly. He closed his eyes and suddenly remembered that he had forgotten his clothes with the comic strip in the front pocket. He almost sat up but remembered his mother was in the room, watching him. He lay still on the thin mattress and pretended to fall asleep.
I have to go back to the river he thought, I have to get that comic and try to swim across again. Maybe tomorrow.
Tom heard his father's voice outside and shut his eyes tighter, making every effort to remain still. He hoped his mother wouldn't rat on him.
"What's wrong with him?“ Tom heard his father ask, moments after hearing his heavy footsteps trudging into the room.
"He's just a little ill, he's had some broth and should be fine when he's up." Tom's mother covered up for him, relieving his fear as he lay playing possum.
"We might have to leave tomorrow, the bulldozers are coming." Tom's father said.
"Where will we go?" his mother asked.
"I don't know. Let's see what tomorrow brings."
Tom listened and truly tried to fall asleep this time. I must go back to the river in the morning. I have to get that comic before we leave. I have to show the boys I can swim across.
Tom was awoken by sizzling from the frying pan. Tom's mother was awake and making fried dough, the smell was unmistakable. He sat up on the mattress, pulled his knees up to his chest and yawned. His mother heard the yawn and turned around.
"You awake? How you feeling?“
"I'm alright, I feel strong."
"Well, get up and go throw the garbage out then come eat. We need to start packing."
Tom stood up lazily walked over to pick up the tied plastic bag. He rubbed his eyes with his forearm and yawned again, then went outside the house. The neighborhood was just beginning to rise and only a handful of people were outside. Tom saw that some of them had began to bring bundled up belongings out to the front of their houses. He realized he needed to hurry. He threw the plastic bag on the side of the road and began to run down the street. He made a detour at the dark haired Twins' house just down the road. As Tom reached the lattice fence outside the Twins' house, he saw Johnny bringing out a box of old tools.
"Johnny!" Tom called out.
Johnny raised his head of black hair and saw Tom. He was flummoxed. "Tom!" he screamed, "I thought you had died , me and Jimmy couldn't sleep last night, we thought you had drowned like Charlie!“ He set down the box of old tools down with a thump and ran toward Tom, touching Tom's face as soon as he was close enough as if he wanted to make sure the boy in front of him wasn't a ghost. "By God its you!"
Jimmy had just began to walk out of the house with a briefcase tied shut with a blue plastic rope. The hems of various clothing could be seen peeking out of the overpacked case.
"Tom is that you?!“ Jimmy inquired. He stood frozen where he was.
"Well come over here idiot, we have to go to the river now!" Tom said.
"What for? You almost died yesterday." Jimmy said, slowly putting the briefcase next to the box of tools and sauntering toward Tom and Johnny.
"Well here I am alive. Superman blood."
"Pfft, you didn't swim across, we saw you drown."
"And then you ran away, chickens."
"We didn't wanna get a head whanging from our Pops." Jimmy explained, "Charlie just died there a day ago."
"I'm not Charlie. Listen boys, we have to go back to the river, I left the superman comic there with my clothes yesterday. I won't have superman blood if I don't get it back and we might have to move soon. Today maybe."
"I don't know, we could get an ass whooping" Jimmy tried to decline the invitation
"Do you want to be chickens two days in a row?"
The twins looked at each other. "No!"
"Then lets go!"
The trio ran all the way up the street and made their way to the river following the same route they had used the day before. They arrived at the river panting and out of breath. Tom slowed to a stop around the area he figured he had left his shirt amd shorts the day before. When he found the rumpled pile of clothes, he hopped toward it and went down on his knees in the grass. He fumbled through the clothes, his fingers reaching inside the shirt pocket. He found the old folded piece of paper in its place and pulled it out, unfolding it. Tom grinned widely. He folded and returned it to the pocket then stood up and began to take his clothes off.
"Please don't go in the river again, you'll drown." Jimmy pleaded.
"You don't have to come with me, just watch! You'll see I have superman blood." Tom said, dropping his shorts around his ankle and stepping out of them. He rolled the clothes roughly and piled them ontop of his clothes from the day before. He began to walk briskly toward the wet bank.
"I'm leaving, let's go Johnny."
"No!“ Tom screamed running back in front of the twins who had already turned around to leave. He jumped in front of the boys, placing a palm on each twin's chest to stop them." If you don't witness me do this, no one will ever believe it happened. I need you two to watch. "
"It's none of my business if you drown." Johnny warned.
"I won't drown."
After making sure they weren't going to leave, Tom began his brisk walk again toward the river. He stood at the edge, took a few deep breaths, turned around to assure himself he was being watched, then took a plunge into the rolling river. He went underneath for a moment but resurfaced and began to paddle furiously. He had learned from the previous attempt to control his breath and go with the current. Swimming against the current had quickly drained him of energy the day before and left him gasping for air. Today, he used the force of the water to his advantage.
When he reached the midway point, the current became a lot stronger and swept him violently down the river's path. The water ran into his eyes and nose and he began to panic. He paddled wildly with his legs and flapped his arms about to change course but the speed of the river at the middle was too great for him.
The twins watched from the elevated grassy bank. Johnny turned around and started to walk away. "Let's go, dad is gonna whip us."
"No, whatever happens, we must be here to witness it." Jimmy stopped him.
Tom was rapidly losing strength. His hearbeat pounded wildly in his chest as he began to have flashbacks of events from the previous day. In a flash, he made his decision. He drew the longest breath he could, the water spraying into his wide open mouth and nose, then went under. He was prone now and didn't have to waste anymore energy trying to stay afloat above the surface. He pushed himself with his legs and arms, going with the tide until he was in sync with the force of the river's push. He quickly made his way up to the surface again, pulling the nearest oxygen into the deepest parts of his lungs. He was now close to the other side of the river and managed to use the last of his energy to swim ashore.
Crawling on his elbows and knees, he pulled himself onto a patch of wet grass and lay exhausted on his back. The sun shone directly into his eyes and he shut his eyelids. He was breathless but felt an immense sense of accomplishment. Tom suddenly jerked upward, sitting up straight to check if his witnesses were still at the other side of the river.
The twins were there. They had seen everything. They saw him struggle in the middle of the river and disappear below, only to be shocked by his reemergence on the far side.
Tom knew that his feat had been acknowledged. He knew his story would make rounds in the neighborhood. The only kid to successfully cross the river. Tom looked at the twins in the distance, on the far side of the river and saw one of them bend over his pile of clothes on the grass. The dark haired boy went into the pocket, pulled out the comic strip and put it in his own shorts pocket. Then turned around with his brother and ran off the way they had come. As Tom watched the twins running away, he heard a sudden loud crash amid the revving of bulldozers and saw a dusty plume of smoke rise skyward right above where his house stood.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, FrenchyCarlinoWrite a Review