Today I offer the second installment of my three-part short story. Check back on Saturday for the harrowing conclusion!
Ben and Curtis followed the road to a river, only to find its old wooden bridge had vanished. Befuddled, they scoured the muddy riverbank, but not so much as a plank or nail remained. The bridge wasn’t destroyed, or washed away. Just missing.
Slow-falling starlight pooled opaque and silver in the river. Even under ordinary circumstances, its waters were deep, fast-moving, and treacherous to ford. Now, contrary metallic currents ran both upstream and down, forming unpredictable whirlpools.
With a muffled groan, Ben sat among the swaying rushes and sipped from a canteen. He wouldn’t admit his fatigue, but it felt like they’d been walking for hours. Still, the Glancing Hour showed no signs of ending, nor the sun signs of rising. The elder villagers said the Hour favored travelers, walking beside them like a living presence. If he and Curtis were lucky, they’d return from their journey before they were ever missed.
First, they had to find a way across the river.
Curtis plodded through the wild grass, rattling the wheel of his magic staff and twirling its animal figurines. The oversized robe trailed behind him like a king’s ceremonial cape. “Maybe the bridge is still here.”
“You mean it’s hiding?” asked Ben skeptically. “In that case, we should count to 100 before seeking it. Fair’s fair.”
“The Hour plays tricks.” The round-faced boy knelt to scoop up a handful of stones and chucked them at where the bridge used to be. They plopped scattershot into the mercury-colored river. “Hm.”
Ben laughed. “So you don’t know everything.”
Curtis grinned sheepishly, and his pale cheeks reddened. “Did it seem that way?”
“I was hoping you did. You were starting to remind me of the Jaded Scholar.” Rubbing a dull ache from his legs, Ben stood and surveyed the land. He knew that a long hike downstream, past a crooked bend, the river widened and slowed. But he wasn’t eager to plunge into the metallic-looking waters even if they could outswim its currents. “What would the Scholar do now?”
“Well,” said Curtis, chewing his lip. “In that one story, he came across a lake whose waters seemed as still as glass. Then he walked across the glass, because seeming is being.”
“Walk to the other side, huh?” Ben shuffled to the muddy bank and stretched out his boot. It dipped slowly beneath the river’s surface, like stepping into thick syrup. When he pulled his boot back, the silver starlight clung to its leather and dripped off in fat globs. “Hey, it’s like liquid metal!”
Curtis hurried over, nearly tripping on his robe and falling into the river, before poking his finger at Ben’s boot. His eyes widened. “Amazing! But won’t that make the currents even more dangerous? Once we start to sink, how will we get out again?”
“Oh, yeah.” Ben yanked up a bouquet of reeds and flung them away in frustration.
Curtis plopped down beside him and sighed.
Three years ago, the whole village had gathered at the bridge to send off their conscripted neighbors. The atmosphere had been festive, with plenty of cheers and hugs to go around. The war certain to be won by winter. Ben hadn’t understood back then. He still didn’t. But he remembered, vividly, the buttons of his father’s army jacket painfully pressed against his cheek as they embraced. Most days, he still felt them.
Why was it so easy for soldiers to leave, but so difficult to follow them now? He could spit to the far side of the river, but he couldn’t reach it.
As Ben watched the currents speed along, spin, and reverse, a few reed stalks floated back to the surface. Then lifted into the air. Considering the thick consistency of the water, that didn’t seem possible. He glanced sidelong at Curtis, but the other boy was busy chanting and shaking the animal figurines with his eyes closed.
Ben pulled up another handful of reeds and threw them more deliberately, scattering them across the width of the river. The stalks that fell into downstream currents steadily sank, but the ones that landed in upstream currents returned to the air, sailing along out of sight. He sprang to his feet in excitement and ripped up the riverbank with both hands, wildly flinging debris.
Curtis opened one dubious eye, and his chanting trailed off. “What are you doing?”
“Look, look!” Ben laughed deliriously, pointing at the impossible phenomenon. “It’s time!”
“Time for what?”
“No, it’s time. Like, the flow of time.”
Curtis looked between him and the river, blinking in confusion.
But Ben had more confidence than patience. Instead of explaining, he stepped off the riverbank, striding quickly through the heavy, mercury waters, against the downstream current. He didn’t sink, so long as he walked against the river’s flow.
With a short lateral step, he landed in an upstream current. His boots lifted from the river and he flailed his arms helplessly as his body took flight. He drifted down and grazed the waters, only to bounce again, skipping along like a stone upstream.
Curtis shouted something indistinct as Ben twisted to watch his friend recede into the distance. Wind whipped and streaks of starlight blurred his vision. His heart thrilled at this airborne voyage, but he had no control. If he landed in a downstream current, he might sink and drown before he had a chance to swim. As his body gradually descended, he clawed and kicked at the river, propelling himself against the flow of the upstream current.
It took him two attempts before he gained enough traction to slow down. He began with a crawl and slowly stood, walking steadily on the silver waters, neither floating nor sinking.
Now that he’d learned the trick, it was kind of fun. He hopped sideways and turned, walking against the new, downstream current. After one more reversal, he landed on the far riverbank, shaky and off-balanced. Curtis had sprinted after him, along the opposite bank. Across the river, they met again, both hunched over, out of breath, but smiling from ear to ear.
“I think,” Curtis said between gasps, “you’re the Jaded Scholar. How did you do that?”
“It’s easy. You just have to walk against the current, no matter which way it turns. Got it? Against the current.”
“I don’t know.” Curtis squeezed his walking stick and eyed the river, looking queasy. “Maybe you should go on without me.”
Ben’s stomach dropped and he shook his head violently. “No I- I mean, you need to finish this, too. Don’t you?”
Curtis paced nervously. “I’m not brave like you. I’m not the son of a great hero or anything.”
If Ben was so brave, how come he was too scared to continue on alone? “But you are a son. And sons like us have duties, don’t we? That’s why we came out here.”
“You’re right.” Curtis’s voice wavered but didn’t crack. He sniffled and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his robe.
“C’mon, you’ll be fine.”
It took a little more coaxing before Curtis edged closer, his jaw firmly clenched. His expression grew in confidence as he stepped in the river and didn’t sink. Ben hadn’t realized how bizarre his crossing must have looked until he watched his friend striding rapidly over the mercury waters without moving forward or back, up or down.
Curtis’ transition to the next current was a little awkward, but he only wound up sailing a short ways upstream. Still, Ben couldn’t help laughing at his friend floating along, the dangling robe giving him the traditional appearance of a ghost.
Just when all looked well, Ben saw it: Curtis had landed on the edge of a whirlpool. Facing the other way, and gritting his teeth, Curtis hadn’t noticed yet.
Trying not to sound worried, Ben asked, “Uh, can you go any faster?”
Curtis breathed heavily. “I. Don’t. Know. Why?” He peered over his shoulder and shrieked. His feet started churning, but that extra speed unbalanced his careful equilibrium with the currents, and he started to sink. He yelped and stopped walking completely, which promptly caused the river to shoot him back into the air. As he flew over the whirlpool, it seemed to hold him, like the vortex of a tornado. Spinning, slowly sinking, he shouted, “Help!”
“What should I do?” Ben wrung his hands. Would it help to re-enter the river himself? Or would he only get dragged in himself? “Your magic staff!”
Still rapidly rotating in mid-air, Curtis stretched his arm out. At increasingly short intervals, the wood staff almost reached the riverbank where Ben stood. There was a much better chance of getting clobbered in the head than of catching it. But Ben had to try.
Bracing himself, he stepped within the staff’s rotational arc and raised his arms. The bruising impact sent him stumbling backward, but at the last moment he grabbed a fistful of the dangling animal figurines.
“Hold on!” he called, pulling with all his might.
With surprisingly little resistance, Curtis tumbled toward the riverbank, landing half in and half out. After a desperate scramble, he joined Ben safely in the grass.
As they struggled for breath, Curtis started laughing uncontrollably, holding his belly and rolling on the ground. Ben thought he’d gone crazy, but it wasn’t long before he was laughing, too.
“What would have happened,” Curtis gasped, “if I’d fallen in?”
Ben ran a hand through his curly hair. “Well, I think the river was time.” He pointed downstream and then up. “That’s the future, and that’s the past. That way you sink, and that way you float back up. I don’t know about the whirlpools, though.”
“It was easier to move upstream.”
They sat for a long time, sipping from their canteens and munching on jerky from their pack. When they had recovered from the excitement, they turned perpendicular to the river, neither upstream nor down, and set out on their original course. Starlight rained upon them more heavily than before, so that they could hardly see the path ahead.
Finally, exhausted but hopeful, they arrived at Cloverbow Field. Almost a year ago, the villagers had hammered dozens of old fence posts at intervals around its border. Ben and the other kids from the village hadn’t been allowed to help, but he’d watched from a distance. They’d marked the top of each post with a warning slash of yellow paint. Now, in the light of the Glancing Hour, the paint vanished before his eyes, leaving only plain, splintered wood. No warning, only invitation.
Ben turned to Curtis and found resolve in his eyes. The two friends crossed the invisible boundary and stepped onto the battlefield.
Thanks for reading, and the story concludes with Part Three on Saturday!