Two boys sat on the empty beach of Lake Erie with their backs against a hollow tree trunk that had been washed ashore . They were building a sand castle. Their hands dug deep into the sand until a circle had been carved around the towered structure. A castle wasn’t complete without a moat.
“Let’s go in the water.”
“I don’t know, Tommy.”
“Come on, Billy. It’ll be fun.”
Billy noticed the tower he built was uneven and piled sand on it to level it but instead sent it crumbling down. “It’s cold,” he said. “Mom will bitch if she finds out.”
“You always are afraid. Besides, your mom’s at the picnic tables.”
“I guess so.”
The boys threw down their toy shovels and stripped off their shirts. Billy’s body was white and skinny. He rubbed his neck were there was a pink scar; just one long line. He had just had surgery. His mom had found a lump on neck and on the doctors wanted get a sample of tissue.
“Come on,” Tommy said as he ran to the water.
Billy ran after him until he was knee deep in the chilled water. He hugged himself. “I told you it was gonna be cold.”
“It ain’t that bad,” Tommy said. “Just keep moving around. It’ll get warmer.” Tommy took a deep breath and plunged below the surface.
Billy strained to see him through the water. There were pieces of seaweed floating along with grains of sand. He pushed the seaweed out of the way and squinted his eyes.
Tommy popped out of the water like a cork and screamed “Marco!”
Billy sliced the water with his hand and slowly swam away from Tommy, making sure not to cause any disturbance. “Polo,” he said, still moving.
Tommy moved with his eyes closed and his hands stuck out in front of him. He turned to his left, away from Billy. Tommy lunged in the direction and sank underneath. He came back up gulping for air.
The boys played the game for a while before Billy got tired of trying to catch Tommy. They swam out, each daring the other they couldn’t go any further. The beach resembled a small line in the distance before Billy backed down and began to swim to shore. Tommy followed behind.
They lay on the sand to dry off, looking at the sky. They talked about Maggie, the red head in Mrs. Love’s class. Tommy figured she was probably the cutest girl in the class. Billy agreed.
“Boy, you know what Billy? One day, I’m gonna ask Maggie if she wants to be engaged with me.”
“Suppose that’s so. Well, I want to be engaged too.”
“You can’t just get engaged. You gotta be in love.”
“But that’s what people say when they hate each other. I know ‘cause Johnny said it. He said his parents say they love each other, and they’re always fighting.”
“True. I heard the same. But I guess that’s how it has to be.”
Billy rolled onto his stomach and could feel Tommy’s eyes staring at the scar on his neck.
“Tell me something. Ain’t you ever scared, Billy?”
Billy rubbed the scar. “Scared. Naw. Ain’t no reason to be. Mom tells me I should be happy. I got more reason to enjoy things.”
“Yeah, but I heard my mom tell a friend about it, and she said she’d be crying every night ‘cause of it.”
“Well, my mom cries sometimes. But she says it ain’t nothing to worry about.”
“I wouldn’t be scared either then. You know, I’d be proud.” Tommy pounded his chest with his hand.
Billy sat up. “Well, I’m proud. Mom told me, no matter what, I’ll be like my dad. He went young, too, you know? Mom says he was a hero when he went. Happened at Normandy. My dad was one of the troops. He helped carry his best friend who had his leg blown off. Wasn’t for him, his friend would never be alive.”
“Ain’t no reason to live if a man ain’t got both legs.” Tommy rubbed his legs and tried to imagine what it would be like without them.
Billy pushed a hole into the sand with his finger. “Sure there is. I met the man. He walked a little funny, but he still walked. All they did, them doctors, was give him a wooden one. And he told me that everything I heard was all true. He and mom both say when I go I’ll see my dad.”
“Where at?” Tommy asked.
“The greatest place there is,” Billy said.
Tommy looked across the water. There was a boat way out in the distance, where the water kissed the sky. “Better than this?” Tommy asked. “Must be really great.”
“Course it is. It’s the greatest.”
Tommy grabbed a fistful of sand. “You know Billy, you think my dad might be there as well?” He threw the sand into the wind.
Billy squinted. “Well, I’d say he was. Long as he went to church every Sunday and told Father Robinson all he did wrong.”
“I’m sure he did. My mom wouldn’t let him get away without doing that.”
“Well then, he’d be there.”
Tommy wiped sand off his chin. “Then, I gotta ask a favor of you. Think once you get there, you’d tell him I say hi?”
“Sure. I’d think he looked just like you.”
Tommy smiled. They lay there, each one dreaming of what their dads looked liked and what they’d say to them when they got the chance to meet them. Tommy pictured his dad to be very big and muscular. He’d have scars all over his body and face to show how tough he was. Billy saw his dad as tall and thin with a big smile. He’d still have his uniform on, and he’d salute Billy when he saw him.
The boys dreamt for what seemed like an hour. Finally, Tommy broke the silence. “Hey, let’s go explore those rocks over there.” He pointed along the beach where there was a stretch of boulders stacked about ten feet high and five feet across, separating the beach from the surrounding woods.
Billy felt his stomach tighten, but decided not to object anymore. He wasn’t going to be afraid. “Alright,” he said.
They walked down the beach until they faced a grassy hill. Tommy climbed it and stood looking along the distance of the wall of boulders. He stuck his left foot forward and felt for the closest boulder. He tapped one and saw it rock back and forth, and chose another one. He carefully stepped onto it and was relieved it didn’t move. He repeated the procedure until he had crossed three boulders. He looked behind him to see that Billy was still on top of the hill. “Come on! Just step on the ones I did!”
Billy shuddered at the thought of what his mom would say if she saw him. He moved forward and stepped onto the first boulder. It began to tilt back and forth, and Billy took a quick step to the second boulder.
“I said step on the ones I did!” Tommy yelled back. He moved across to another boulder.
Billy scolded himself for making such a mistake. He stepped onto the boulder that Tommy was just on.
The boys continued to walk across the boulders. Tommy walked faster and faster. Soon there was a hundred feet separating them. Ahead, he could see where the path of boulders led to. It curved leftward, and as he began to come around it, he saw a huge wall made of rock. He stood still. The boulders led into the opening of a cave. He had never noticed the mountain of rock because it had been hidden by the woods. He wondered how many people had ever been inside it. Perhaps he could be the first.
Billy was still far behind. Exhausted, his bare feet were covered with scratches. He wasn’t going to cross another boulder. All he wanted was to be back on the beach, but there was no way off of the path. He thought to jump off of the wall, but the beach below was covered with rocks and tree limbs brought in by the water. The only thing he could do was turn around and head back. “Hey Tommy!” he yelled.
Tommy didn’t turn around. He took a step to the next boulder.
Tommy took another step.
“Tommy, let’s go back! Don’t ya think our moms are gonna get worried!?” Billy couldn’t understand why Tommy wanted to keep going.
Tommy began to step onto the next boulder in front of him. He was so close to the cave, he could begin to see the inside walls. His big toe touched the boulder when he heard Billy scream, “Come on!” He planted his foot on the boulder and turned his head to tell Billy to keep coming when he felt the rock give way. It tilted off the stack and fell into a gap between the boulders.
Billy couldn’t believe what he saw.
Tommy fell with it. His leg scraped against jagged edges as it fell into the gap. His other leg slammed onto a boulder and began to slip off. He lunged forward and grabbed onto the boulder across the gap. He tried to lift his dangling legs, but they wouldn’t budge.
Billy didn’t move. Fear crawled up his legs and into his body. He shuddered. He knew this was a bad idea.
Tommy struggled to hold himself onto the boulder. He looked down into the gap and saw nothing. He tried to climb up, but his arms weren’t strong enough. He wasn’t sure how long he could hold himself there. “Billy! I’m slipping!” he yelled.
Billy heard Tommy’s yell echo. There were so many boulders in front of him. He reached his foot out in front of him and stepped onto the next boulder. “I’m coming! Just wait!”
Tommy breathed heavy. “I’m trying!” He lifted his hand to climb out of the gap but only slid further down.
Billy crossed another boulder and fell forward with his hands in front of him. They smacked onto the next boulder. He crawled forward.
Tommy’s hands began to sweat. The boulder he hung onto suddenly felt smooth. “Billy, I’m scared!”
“I know. Just hang in there!” Back on his feet, Billy was only twenty feet away now. Two more boulders crossed. Ten feet now. He crossed another boulder. There was only one boulder left.
Tommy’s hands were drenched. There was no friction left between them and the boulder. He slid.
Billy saw Tommy’s body slide down into the gap. He ran across the last boulder and threw his body forward, sticking his hand down into the gap.
Tommy could only wonder how much the fall would hurt. He never got a chance to find out. He felt a weight around his right wrist and a jerk as his body hung in mid air. He looked up and saw Billy’s face staring down the gap. “Billy. Help me.”
Billy heaved as he grabbed Tommy’s hand. It felt as if his arm was being torn from its socket. “I’m trying, dammit. Now don’t let go, whatever you do.”
“I won’t.” Tommy gripped Billy’s wrist.
Billy stuck his feet behind the boulder he was laying on and pulled Tommy with both arms. His toes dug into the boulder to not let go. “Think you can grab on with the other hand?” he asked.
Tommy grabbed Billy’s arm with his other hand.
Billy let out a huge breath and pulled with all his might. His toes began to let to loose their grip. With a final heave Billy hoisted Tommy out of the gap and dragged him onto the boulder. There was just enough room for the two.
Tommy closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He couldn’t feel his left leg. He took another deep breath. A gust of wind blew across the lake and gave him a chill. He opened his eyes. He was alone on the boulder.
It took Tommy about an hour to drag himself back along the path. He made sure every boulder he crawled onto was stable. He had never been so happy as when he crawled onto the grassy hill.
Tommy lay there and listened to the waves from the lake. In the distance he heard Billy’s mom holler. He let his heartbeat slow down. His lungs drew slow breaths. He missed Billy. He knew he would go young, but he never thought about what it would feel like. He wanted to cry, but boys didn’t do that.