Nicholas steps down the cold and narrow staircase. He comes here every week to visit his Grandpa, and yet his heart skips a beat when he pushes open the thick door at the bottom. Maybe, this time, he will encounter a monster on the other side pushing back at the door. Maybe, he will see that creepy woman in the wheelchair, who has pleaded with him several times already to visit with her in her room. Even if nothing of the sort happens, he will smell that strange blend of stale eggs and Bengay that defines old people.
The ‘old people’ smell slaps him across the face, but otherwise Nicholas encounters nothing on the other side of the thick door but a long hallway full of shadows. It is raining hard outside, and the dreariness bleeds into this concrete basement in the form of musty walls and iced cold air. Nicholas supposes those old people are shivering in sad silence beneath their blankets. On such a day as this, there is no reason to slide into a wheelchair and to pull open the curtains.
Grandpa lives in the one bedroom apartment at the other end. His room is identical to the others: A kitchenette and living room adjoined by a cramped bedroom and bathroom set that could fit on a train. The kitchenette is covered by avocado green tile. The television has rabbit ears, even though every one of Grandpa’s channels is now on cable. The top half of the window offers the view of a muddy backyard with broken patio chairs. Rain scars the walls, and as such everything seems to be sliding back into the dark earth from which it first came into this world. That includes Grandpa, whose long, whiskered face now seems to be melting into his chest.
Nicholas knocks on the door. He hears nothing, and he almost lowers his chin and walks away.
“Nicky, push the door open,” Grandpa bellows.
Nicholas does as he is told. The door is stuck in the rotted doorway, and he has to push with his left shoulder to force it open. Clumps of paint and wood fall onto his forehead.
Inside, Grandpa is leaning on his walker over his gas stove. He is boiling a pot of Cream of Wheat. He stirs the pot with a broken wooden spoon.
“Nicky, stir the pot for me,” Grandpa says. “I need to sit down.”
Nicholas takes the wooden spoon from his arthritic fingers. Grandpa nods appreciably, and he hobbles on his walker over to his La-Z-Boy black recliner by the television set. He switches on Matt Lauer.
Grandpa and Nicholas do not say anything, until Grandpa is done with his Cream of Wheat. Nicholas eats a small bowl, while seated on a stool beside the black recliner.
“Tell me again, Nicky,” Grandpa says. “What grade are you in?”
“Fifth Grade,” Nicholas answers.
“Ah, the fifth grade, that’s a special time,” Grandpa reflects.
Nicholas would not agree. He thinks of it as a misfit year. He is too old to play with the little kids on the other side of the yellow line, but he is not yet one of the feared and esteemed Sixth Graders, who pretty much own the upper class side of the schoolyard. When he looks at himself in the mirror he sees the soft features of a little boy. The Sixth Grader, on the other hand, more often is going to feature a prominent jaw, unruly hair, maybe even the first hint of fuzz on his cheeks. The Sixth Grader will have some muscle on his gangling arms and legs. The look in his eyes will be more predatory. Now, that is special, not that arrested development in childhood that Nicholas identifies with the fifth grade.
Nicholas washes the bowels and spoons in the sink. He scrubs off the big clumps of Cream of Wheat stuck to the inner lining of the pot. This is very hard to do, because Grandpa’s sink brush is dull.
Grandpa turns off Matt Lauer. He turns in his La-Z-Boy. He sees Nicholas leaning over the sink, while standing on top of a stool, and he smiles from ear to ear. He cannot recall the last time that he had been so contented.
“Fifth Grade is a great time to be alive,” Grandpa reflects. “And that is especially true on rainy days like this one.”
“Really, Grandpa?” Nicholas asks, while stepping back from the sink and making sure there is nothing else to wash.
“Yes, definitely so,” Grandpa says. “You’re young enough to get lost in a book still, but old enough to be able to read most of the big words.”
Nicholas admits that he is good with “big words.” Without a doubt, he is the champion speller in Mrs. Montgomery’s Fifth Grade class. He also has a real knack for remembering what most of those “big words” actually mean. He sees words as friends. Big Words just happen to be wearing an extra sweater, or two belts instead of one. They are overdressed nerds. Nicholas thinks of them as his fellow fifth grade misfits, even when they are used by grownups to demean him in one way or another.
“Nicky, go get the red book beside my bed,” Grandpa says.
Nicholas wipes the soap off his hands. He walks into the dark, mildewed bedroom. The rain is especially loud in here.
There are framed photographs on the walls. Nicholas cannot see them at this time, but he knows what they are. In those photographs, Grandpa is a very young and handsome man named Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Buckles. He wears a starched shirt with chevrons on his sleeves. In some of them he wears a yellow hardhat, while posing at a construction site. Regardless, in each of them, there is sadness, maybe even dreaminess, in his eyes, which seems incongruent with his “tough guy” exterior. It is like he can “see things” that cannot be captured inside of a photograph. His body gets older, but his eyes remain timeless.
Nicholas cannot tell if the book is red or not, but it is the only book next to the bed. It is a very heavy book, like the Family Bible, and it smells as old as the mildewed walls.
Nicholas gasps, when he returns to the living room. He is surprised to see his Grandpa sitting cross-legged upon the floor. Did Grandpa fall out of his La-Z-Boy? If so, then why does he look so contented sitting there on the cold floor?
“Nicky, there’s another lamp in the closet,” Grandpa says.
Nicholas finds the lamp in the back of the closet. It looks like one of the dainty ones an old lady might have in a Victorian house.
Nicholas plugs it into the socket closest to where Grandpa is sitting upon the floor. The light bulb is more intense than he had anticipated.
“Turn off all the other lights,” Grandpa says.
There is only one other light on. It is the light over the kitchenette.
As soon as Nicholas turns off the kitchenette light, the lamp on the floor looks like a beacon in a vast sea of shadows. Grandpa almost glows in this light.
Nicholas hands his Grandpa the book. Indeed, it is burgundy red in color. Printed in gold block lettering across the front cover is “Wondrous Stories.” No author’s name appears on the cover. Nicholas has never seen a book without an author named somewhere. Even the Family Bible names “God” on the front. So does this mean that the author is ashamed of what he has written? Or, perhaps, he is just bashful.
Grandpa lays the book on the floor beside his knees. He is about to open the book. He hesitates.
“Nicky, sit on the floor across from me,” Grandpa says.
Nicholas sits on his knees.
“Sit like I am, Indian style,” Grandpa urges with a grin.
Nicholas sits cross-legged, so that the book is between the two of them. He imagines an Ouija board lodged between his knees and his Grandpa’s knees. He and his Grandpa place their fingers on the board, and they wait in silence to get a message from the Great Beyond.
“I need to find something,” Grandpa says.
“What is it?” Nicholas asks.
“I don’t remember,” Grandpa says. “It’s been so long. Almost a lifetime; many, many years.”
“I don’t understand,” Nicholas says.
“Part of getting older is knowing with greater certainty that something is missing, but not being able to figure out what it is,” Grandpa explains. “It’s the damnedest thing. Makes me want to take up cigarettes again.”
“Smoking is bad for you,” Nicholas says.
“I know, Nicky,” Grandpa says with a sheepish grin. “But so is the stress of not knowing what it is or how to find it. I can’t sleep at nights. I’m going off the rails. Do you know what that means?”
“Bonkers,” Nicholas answers.
Grandpa chuckles. He reaches forward, and pats Nicholas on his head.
“That’s a good word,” Grandpa states. “Not the kind I’d expect to hear from the mouth of a fifth grader. But you’re not typical. You never have been. You’re wise far beyond your years, just like I was way back in the olden days.”
Nicholas looks down. It is hard for him to imagine Grandpa as a little boy sitting cross-legged on the floor. In his mind, Grandpa is what he is now, or he is a handsome man in the Marines or on a construction site. But Grandpa seeing the world through the eyes of a little boy? No. That does not ring true.
Grandpa leans forward. He stares warmly, until Nicholas finally looks up, and their eyes meet.
“Nicky, I want you to do something for me,” Grandpa says.
“Sure,” Nicholas says without hesitation. “Anything.”
“I want you to find what’s missing,” Grandpa says.
“How can I do that?” Nicholas asks. “You can’t even tell me what it is.”
“True,” Grandpa says, while sitting upright. “But I can tell you where to look. That gets you more than halfway there.”
“I don’t understand,” Nicholas says.
Grandpa turns the book around, so that “Wondrous Stories” is now facing Nicholas. He looks back at his grandson. His eyes seem to twinkle.
“You’ll find what’s missing in this book,” Grandpa says.
“I’ve never read a book this big before,” Nicholas says.
“You’ve read the Family Bible, haven’t you?” Grandpa asks.
“Well, maybe parts of it,” Nicholas answers.
Grandpa leans back and laughs.
“It’s all those ‘begats,’ isn’t it?” Grandpa confides. “Oh, and the Book of Leviticus is about as much fun to read as Ikea furniture assembly instructions. I know. I’ve tried myself. Too many dead bones to jump over before you can get to the good parts.”
“God needs an editor,” Nicholas observes.
Grandpa laughs again. He taps both knees with his arthritic hands.
“Yes, well, I pity the poor man who tries to tell Him what to keep out,” Grandpa remarks. “A keen observation for a boy your age. Do you know what? I know you’ve got what it takes to find what’s missing. I am confident you’ll find it, and bring it back to me.”
“So all I have to do is to read this book?” Nicholas asks.
“I’ll stay right here on the floor beside you,” Grandpa says. “If you have not found it yet before dark, I’ll call your mom, and tell her you’ll be spending the night here.”
Nicholas tentatively touches the edges of the book. Outside, there is the most vicious snap of thunder. Nicholas shoots his hands back from the book. He seems frightened that the book might electrocute him.
“You’re wise to be careful,” Grandpa remarks. “Stories are living things. They respond to the environment in which they may find themselves. Do not be surprised if it is raining cats and dogs on page one.”
“I don’t understand,” Nicholas says.
“You’re frightened,” Grandpa observes. “That makes it hard to think. It is best sometimes just to dive in.”
Nicholas grabs a hold of the book. There is another snap of thunder, but this time Nicholas holds on. He feels the book trembling under his fingers, or is that his imagination?
“Nicky, open the book,” Grandpa says.
Nicholas takes in a deep breath. He opens the book. There is yet another snap of thunder. This one seems nearer than the others. The lamp flutters for a few seconds. The apartment trembles.
Nicholas nearly shuts the book. He catches a glimpse of his Grandpa, and he decides to be strong for the man whom he loves. He hears his heartbeat. It is a pair of kettledrums in a fast marching band.
On the first page beneath “Wondrous Stories” is a drawing of a boy with a long stick leaning on his right shoulder. The boy is kicking up mud with his old galoshes. His overalls are dirty and torn. It is a wonder his mother allowed him to go out looking like that.
Still, there is something very real about the boy. Maybe, he got so dirty, since he left home. Maybe, he ran away from home.
On the next page, there is a drawing of the same boy. Now, the boy is on his knees exploring what looks like a rabbit’s hole. The long stick is on the mud beside him. The boy has half of his face already inside that hole. He had better watch himself, or he may fall into it. The hole does not look large enough, but what something looks like and what it really is are not always the same in these kinds of stories. Better to err on the side of caution.
Nicholas looks at his Grandpa. Should I turn the page?
Grandpa can read the question in Nicholas’s eyes. He nods.
Nicholas turns the page. This time, he sees that the small boy has fallen through the rabbit’s hole. As anticipated, the hole got a lot bigger, or the small boy got a lot smaller. Either way, he is now free falling down a wide, dark hole toward what must be the Center of the Earth.
Nicholas feels his own stomach caving into his spine. He comes very near to hyperventilating. He feels like when he is in that “free falling” dream. He is sitting cross-legged on the floor across from Grandpa, and yet he is also falling head over heels down an abyss.
What’s happening? Nicholas starts to say…
He looks up. Grandpa is gone. The apartment is gone. There is nothing, but blackness, and cold air slapping against his face. He is tumbling head over heels down a hole.
Nicholas tries to scream, but nothing comes out of his throat. He closes his eyes, but that does not help. He still feels the sensation of fall, and he is as dizzy as he would have been with his eyes wide open.
He reaches out, though he does not know that there is anything to grab, and he spreads out his legs as well. This actually helps to stabilize his fall, and the dizziness of rolling downward head over heels alleviates.
Still, his stomach climbs up his spine and into his throat. He finds it very difficult to breathe. He senses that he may pass out at any moment. Perhaps, if he passes out, he will awaken from this horrible nightmare.
Before he can entertain that thought any further, he smashes into a dark and grimy marsh. He can feel the mud in the water slide up his nostrils. He will choke on all this mud, if he does not get out of this marsh soon. He senses that the thickness of this marsh is slowing down his fall. With his eyes still shut, he leans his head back, and starts to breaststroke toward the surface.
He is about to lose consciousness, when he feels his face push through a soupy wet surface. He coughs out the mud, while treading water. Thank God he took swimming lessons last summer. He had not thought himself to be much of a swimmer then. Apparently, he had internalized his swimming lessons a whole lot more than he had known.
Still, he is too tired and frightened to tread water for very long. He has to get out of this marsh, before he sinks beneath the surface.
He looks around. He cannot observe anything, but tall stalks of grass and gurgling blobs of algae.
Just as Grandpa had predicted, it is raining cats and dogs. He will drown from all this rainwater, if he does not find shelter soon.
Nicholas swims in no particular direction. Maybe, there is a landmass, or a boulder, or even a stray log somewhere near. He has to grab onto something, and then he can figure out what to do next.
He feels tears streaming down his face. He is exhausted, scared, alone; and he is not confident that he can survive whatever this is. Grandpa had told him that he would be nearby, but where is he?
He has to push hard to keep his face above the surface. His exhaustion, more than the mud and the algae, is pushing him back into the marsh. He will be lost in all this dreck, if he does not grab onto something…
His face bumps against a log in the marsh. He had not seen it, due to the rain beating against his open eyes. He grabs at the log so erratically he almost pushes it away. He finally wraps his arms around the log, and he climbs his legs over the top.
He lifts up his head, and he sees that he is on a log in the middle of the widest marsh he has ever seen. If there is a landmass on either side, then he is not able to view it. Instead, in every direction, he observes tall grass and algae poking out from beneath a murky stew. The stew burps out noxious gases every once in awhile. Overhead is a gurgling, overcast sky that seems at some points to be sinking into the stew. There are vicious streaks of lightning higher up that bleed through the low hanging clouds. The thunder that follows is the sick and deep throated groan of an earth beast. It feels and sounds like mossy boulders smashing into each other underground.
The rain does not clear anything away. It smashes into the marsh, and at once sinks beneath the surface. The rain is cold, like something swept down to this dark place from the Arctic.
Nicholas can feel the log bobbing down the center of the marsh. There is a current, apparently, though it is so lethargic as to be almost imperceptible. If he finds something to use as a paddle, then he can pick up speed.
But does it matter? How can he know that there is a landmass up yonder? Perhaps, if he just falls asleep on this log, then he will awaken back home, and be freed from this nightmare.
Nicholas rests his left cheek against the log, while rain beats down upon his back and legs. He is too tired to paddle anyway. He will close his eyes. That is the only real choice that he has.
* * *
Nicholas hears a hook smashing into the log. Startled, he opens his eyes, and he sits up. He wipes soot out of his eyes, while he tries to remember where he is and how he got here.
Apparently, this is not an elaborate nightmare. Or, perhaps, he just has not yet awakened. Regardless, he has to presume that the danger all around is very real. He wants to scream out in fright, if only to relieve himself from all of the stress and the fear beating down on his shoulders. He restrains himself, for he senses that calling attention to himself is probably not the smartest thing to do. Instead, he just clamps his legs tightly around the log, while he looks to his left and to his right to try to figure out what is happening.
Nicholas sees the hook. It is deep inside the log. It is at the end of a long chain that stretches from the log to an unseen source inside of a thick fogbank. Someone or something hidden in that fogbank is pulling the log diagonally over the marsh. It is impossible to tell just how close or how far the fisherman may be, and Nicholas realizes that his only hope of getting away is to jump off of his log and to swim elsewhere.
He looks around for another perch. He does not see anything, but grass swaying in the wind. Even the algae seem to have dissipated.
He notices that the rain had stopped sometime ago. It is eerily quiet out here on this marsh, but for the wind whistling through the tall grass and the log slicing through the murky soup.
The log enters into the fogbank. Everything all around is cast now in the dismal greyish white of thick cemetery fog. The iced cold air chills every one of Nicholas’s bones.
The log is pulled onto a dirty, black, sand dune.
Nicholas slides off of the log. He looks around to see if there is anyplace to hide. The fog is so thick, though, that he cannot see more than a few feet in front of wherever he is.
Suddenly, black sand swirls up from the dune and takes the overall shape of one of the ghosts in the old Pac-Man arcade game. The primary difference is that this sand creature has two stubs for feet and two small arms. Its eyes look around with the comfort of a creature in its natural habitat. Though it does not seem to have a mouth, it “speaks” guttural sounds that call to mind rocks and sand being smashed in a machine.
The sand creature faces Nicholas. It does not “speak” to him, but at the same time its demeanor suggests that it would not look favorably upon Nicholas if he tried to run away.
Three other sand creatures swirl out from the sand dune. They form into a half-circle behind Nicholas. With the first sand creature in front of him, there is no place for him to run.
Nicholas sees that he is trapped. He holds up his hands.
The four sand creatures escort Nicholas across an isthmus that cuts down the middle of the marsh. The fog hugs the isthmus on both sides, so the overall impression is that they are walking a fine line into thick greyness.
A fifth sand creature trails far behind them. He is dragging the log. He is grunting every few seconds as a sign of his displeasure at having to perform the hard work.
The isthmus stays straight for at least an hour. Then, it starts to wind on top of the marsh like a snake. It also narrows, and Nicholas has to watch every one of his steps carefully to keep himself from tumbling down the side. He sees that the sand creatures hover inches above the isthmus.
Another hour passes, and the fog dissipates. Nicholas had not noticed all that time how the isthmus gradually sloped upward; but once the fog vanishes, he sees that he is walking at a forty-five degree angle up an enormous rock hill. The marsh appears to have given way to a coppery red sea. The tall waves of this blood ocean splash against the base of the rock hill nonstop. They shoot up a red foam that pockmarks the rock hill with millions of blood stains. There is a coppery scent to this blood ocean that suggests an infected, opened wound on dying flesh. An enormous bird flaps its wings overhead, but Nicholas cannot see it against the backdrop of red sky.
As they progress slowly up the side of the rock hill, Nicholas views many other sand creatures swirling out from the loose dirt along the side of the hill. They are all identical, except that the sand creatures formed from the rock hill are redder than the ones formed from the sand dune.
The narrow trail empties into a vast crater at the top of the hill. It is the mouth of a long extinct volcano. Hundreds of sand creatures swirl out from the dust at the base of the crater. They roam about the crater, until a gust of wind scatters them back into ashes. They then reform, and continue with their stroll around the crater. There does not appear to be any purpose to their existence, as they sift in and out of the wind indiscriminately. Like the sand creature far behind Nicholas, several of them drag logs and boulders; but that exertion does not seem to serve any purpose.
Closer to the center of the crater are tall men comprised of heavy rocks plastered together by liquid cement. The spherical rocks give the impression of perfectly fit bodybuilders without an ounce of fat between their huge muscles. They stagger about with clueless expressions on chiseled faces. Unlike the sand creatures, though, they have a clear purpose. The rock men exist to commit all manner of violence on one another. The result is an unending brawl punctuated by gravelly grunts.
Nicholas’s captors spread out once they reach the crater. Nicholas is left alone up there with no idea what to do next.
Nicholas sits on the edge of the crater. He looks down and sees the vast blood ocean stretching out in every direction. He hears an unseen predator bird swooping low over the crater. Perhaps, it is a scavenger waiting for Nicholas to lose consciousness. Surely, it is not going to dine upon these sand creatures and rock men. There is nothing more substantial to them than dirt.
Nicholas is unnerved greatly by the idea that this unseen bird has an eye for him. He cannot observe his imminent death, but he can feel it as well as he can feel the wind striking his cheeks.
The crater trembles. Nicholas stands up with real alarm. Surely, the long extinct volcano is not about to come alive again.
At least, that is what Nicholas’s reason tries to tell him. His fear screams out something much more alarming: The volcano is alive. It is ready to blow up.
Nicholas searches frantically for the trail. He needs to run down the side of this rock hill. That is his only chance at escape.
The tremble worsens, and Nicholas falls to his side. He does not stay on the ground for long. He scrambles back to his feet, and he starts to shove aside the sand creatures that get in his way. He is pleasantly surprised at his capacity to do so. It is as if they can feel his adrenaline rush. Fear is debilitating, but it is also powerful. Nicholas senses that he is going to have to learn better how to harness his own fear, if he is going to make it out of this strange place someday and to return to his Grandpa’s side.
There is a sand creature at the entrance to the trail. Nicholas is going to knock it aside, when the sand creature somehow turns much more compact and doubles the length of its arms.
The sand creature staggers forward on its two stubs. Its eyes turn blood red. Nicholas interprets this as rage. How dare he try to escape?
We have to get out of here, Nicholas pleads.
The sand creature either does not understand him, or does not care. It is not going to let him pass, no matter what he pleads.
Nicholas runs along the side of the crater. Is there another path down? If he just jumps over the edge, then can he grab onto something before falling all the way down to the blood ocean?
He stops a moment to peer over the edge. It looks like a straight drop to a bed of jagged rocks. Coppery red waves crash menacingly upon the rocks and shoot blood foam into the air. He will not survive the jump.
But he will not survive up here, either, especially if he is correct in what he surmises will happen next.
The crater cracks at the core. It starts to open outward, like it is a huge mouth about to swallow whole everything on top of it.
The rock men are the first to stumble into this mouth, since they are all fighting one another at the center. They stumble into each other, break apart, and tumble into the abyss.
An earthy groan reverberates out from inside the mouth. The groan calls to mind a fat man at a buffet table. He is excited not just at the prospect of an enormous meal, but also at the certainty that his stomach is large enough to be able to take in as much as he wants. This is the groan of a great foodie orgasm.
Not that Nicholas knows anything about orgasms. What he knows is that, if he does not get off this crater, he is going to be swallowed alongside the rock men and the sand creatures.
Nicholas makes another run for the trail. Perhaps, the compact creature there is gone.
Nicholas sees the entrance to the trail. There is no obstacle, not that he can see anyway, and so he sprints toward the finish line. He feels the crater on his heels sloping back and downward. If he hesitates now, then he will tumble back into that enormous mouth.
Nicholas jumps for the trail, just as the earth beneath his feet falls away completely. He manages to grab the edge of the trail with his hands. Rocks and sand roll into his face, but he holds on for dear life. He pushes himself up, and drags his legs over the edge.
He is about to start running down the trail, when the compact creature steps in front of his path. It intends to push him back into the mouth.
Nicholas stops in his tracks. There is no way he can push through it, and there is no way he can run around it without free falling into the bed of jagged rocks far below. Stepping back is not an option, either, unless he wants to fall into that gaping mouth.
“Grandpa, you said you’d be near me, Nicholas cries. “Where are you?”
Nicholas looks over the compact creature’s left shoulder. He sees a man sprinting up the trail. The man sifts in and out of the breeze like an apparition, and so at first Nicholas is not sure that he sees anything for real.
As the man gets closer, Nicholas recognizes his face. It is his Grandpa at around the time he had joined the Marines. He is young, handsome, and like all Marines a great runner.
The rock hill continues to shake, and the trail may fall away at any time. There is precious little time for Nicholas to escape.
Grandpa lowers his chin to his chest, like he is going to do one of those tackles football players used to do back in the olden days. He picks up his pace at that last minute, and he rams into the backside of the compact creature. He is not strong enough to break through all that rock and plaster, but he catches the compact creature off guard.
The compact creature stumbles around to see what hit it. It grabs at the stocky apparition with its longer arms, but there is nothing substantive to hold.
Nicholas sees his opportunity. He rushes passed the compact creature on the trail. He runs through the apparition. He can smell his Grandpa just then. It makes him feel so comfortable to know that his Grandpa is here, even if for no more than a few pivotal seconds.
The compact creature sees that Nicholas is getting away. It floats down the trail in pursuit. Grandpa manages to be more substantial, if only for several seconds, and he bends down and trips the compact creature with his torso. The compact creature flips over him. It lands on its back on the trail, and it begins to slide downward.
Nicholas picks up his pace to outrun the compact creature.
The compact creature disintegrates into dirt while sliding down the trail, and what little remains tumbles over the side. It crashes into the jagged rocks, and it is soon consumed by the blood ocean.
“Hurry, Nicky,” Grandpa says.
Nicholas looks back. He cannot see the apparition, but he can feel that his Grandpa is near. He runs down the windy trail as fast as he can, as the path behind him falls into the sea.
Nicholas stops to catch his breath, when the trail levels off. He is passed the base of the hill. Whatever is going to fall into the ocean is behind him now.
“Wait here,” Grandpa urges him. “You’ll be picked up by a ship before the end of the day.”
“Grandpa, I want to go home!” Nicholas cries.
But Grandpa is gone, at least for now, and Nicholas has no consolation at that time but the peaceful sound of waves crashing against rocks. He sits down on the isthmus cross-legged. He is prepared to run, if the ocean tide begins to pour over the sand. For the most part, though, he uses this time as a chance to rest, while the hot sun beats down on the back of his neck.
* * *
Nicholas must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knows he is sitting cross-legged on a narrow isthmus with coppery red water swooshing into the tight space between his butt and the trail.
He rubs the sleep out of his eyes. He stands up. The sky is dark purple in color. It is thick and electrical. He can hear thunder clapping in the distance. It is only a matter of time before the storm reaches here.
He looks back at rock hill. About half of it is gone. The isthmus ascends, but then is cut off long before reaching the summit. The ocean will claim what little remains soon enough.
Before the night is done, even this portion of the isthmus will have been overrun by the ocean. Still, Nicholas is calm. He believes that his real Grandpa had spoken to him. His Grandpa would never mislead him.
The dark purple sky descends into darkness. Either, there are no stars up in the sky around here, or the sky is overcast. Nicholas cannot tell for sure one way or another. What he does know is that he is as far from home right now as his imagination can take him, and he is inches from his Grandpa. He is alone on the dark side of the moon, and he is protected by his loving Grandpa. He is just a little boy unable to make sense of most of what he experiences around here, and he is a young man finding his legs.
Rain starts to fall onto his head. That answers one question. It is actually overcast. He imagines what the starts must look like beyond the cover of those low hanging clouds. Do they have the same constellations down here? Is there a North Star to lead ships to port?
He hears the creaking hull of an old ship approaching from the distance. He turns around and observes a light dangling from the crow’s nest. He hears a sail snapping in the wind.
Are they friend or foe? Impossible to tell, but they are going somewhere. The alternative is standing on this narrow isthmus until the waves crash over it.
Nicholas waves for the ship. He feels so small compared to the heavens, and yet he senses that someone will see him. There is nothing else around here to break the routine.
The ship turns in his direction. It stops about a hundred yard away, and drops a rowboat for him.
Nicholas watches as the rowboat approaches. A lanky man in an overcoat rows the boat. He holds up a lantern, when he gets near the isthmus. He urges Nicholas to come on board before the tide and the rain overtake him.
Nicholas steps onto the rowboat. The lanky man places the lantern down and starts to row toward the ship.
“Name’s Graves,” the lanky man says. “What be yours?”
“Nicholas,” Nicholas says.
“Nice to meet you, Master Nicholas,” Graves says. “You’re a strong boy to be out in this weather.”
“I am lost,” Nicholas says.
“So are we all,” Graves says. “Pilgrims in Terra Incognita.”
Graves does not say another word, while rowing back to the ship. He is a kind enough fellow, but Nicholas does not want to get any closer to him.
Graves returns the rowboat to the ship. He ties the rowboat, and grabs a hold of the rope ladder hanging from the deck. He holds it tight, while Nicholas climbs the rope ladder. He follows Nicholas with the lantern clutched in his jaw the whole time.
“Master Nicholas on board,” Graves calls out when on deck.
A dark mass stomps down the deck. Nicholas is frightened, even when he sees that the dark mass is really a huge man in an overcoat. He has a burly, salt and pepper, walrus beard. His ruddy cheeks suggest that he is never far from a swig of whiskey. His swollen nose suggests that he has lost more bar fights than he has won, though he is much too proud to admit that.
“Graves, you bring another stray on board,” the walrus beard observes.
“A lad, true, but also a survivor,” Graves remarks.
“Scrappy, eh?” The walrus beard observes. “But can he sing and dance?”
“He’ll entertain for his supper,” Graves remarks.
“Graves, put the boy in steerage for the night,” the walrus beard orders.
“Aye, Robert,” Graves says.
“I’m on my way to see the Captain,” Robert remarks. “I think we need a course correction.”
“Aye, Robert,” Graves says.
Robert continues on his way.
“Always changing course,” Graves mutters. “Doesn’t make a difference. The lost stay lost, and the found won’t be found on this ship anytime soon, let me tell you.”
“What do you mean by sing and dance?” Nicholas asks.
“You’ll find out in the morn,” Graves answers. “Just keep time, lad, and you’ll be fine.”
Graves escorts Nicholas to a square floor door in the deck. He pulls the door open. There is a ladder that leads down to steerage.
“Find yourself a bed down there,” Graves says.
Happy to get out of the rain, Nicholas climbs down the ladder into a dark and cramped space. He hears old men snoring loudly in stables on both sides of a narrow passageway. The last stable is unoccupied. He gathers the straw from around the stable to make a bed for himself. He is sound asleep the moment he shuts his eyes, and the roll of the ship lulls him into a dream.
* * *