Short Story written for Short Shots Contest, May 2018
"Ah!" Darrin screeched as Tommy went flying past him. He had never lost a race to him yet, but his younger friend had been getting closer and closer in the last year or so. Now, the twelve-year-old had more than caught up with his thirteen-year-old pal. Darrin dug in and strained with all his might, but Tommy kept moving farther ahead. Another hundred and fifty yards or so and they would be at the clearing in the woods and the race would be over. Tommy relaxed as he ran, as all good runners do, and prepared to bound over the last little stretch: The Mossy Bridge. It wasn't really a bridge, but that's what the boys called it. It was really more like a series of steps made of boards and logs, about five feet wide, with moss covered logs for rails on either side. Tommy figured he'd leap and take each of the roughly eight-foot-long steps one stride at a time. The first two sections went fine; but he barely cleared the second step, and he caught his heel on the wet log at the end of the third one as he tried to leap onto the fourth. This sent him sprawling backwards.
"Oh, no!" He yelled, and those were the last words out of him before his head hit the rail and the world went black.
"Tommy! Tommy!" Darrin cried. He watched as his unconscious friend's eyes opened wide, rolled, went blank and closed again. He stared aghast for a few seconds, and then he really got scared.
The next thing Tommy was aware of was a voice - a male voice. He heard his name called. He heard a question: "You alright?" But he did not know if the question was directed at him. Tommy opened his eyes, but his vision was blurry. There was someone leaning over him, and he was saying something, but Tommy could not quite make out what it was. More words came at him, and every so often he'd catch his name; but the images in front of his eyes were unclear. Many different colors seemed to flow about him without forming distinct patterns. Suddenly a bright yellow light flashed above him, and the features of a human face began to emerge. Another person, another presence appeared to float beyond the first one. His head hurt so badly that he moaned.
"Can you hear me, Tommy?" It was Alton Roberts. "How many fingers do you see?"
Tommy tried to focus his eyes as best as he could. His head was splitting, and his vision still blurred; but he made out the shape of the victory sign anyway. "Two," he said.
"That's right. Now how many?" Alton showed his whole right hand, backside facing his subject, only the thumb tucked out of view.
"Four," Tommy replied.
"That's good," Alton affirmed.
Tommy recognized Alton now, but something still did not make sense. He tried to push himself up into a sitting position, but he was overcome with wooziness and fell flat on his back again.
"Take it easy now, and we'll get you home."
The world went dark once more.
Well, it's still here. I am kind of surprised. The old man stared at the "bridge." The structure ascended to the southwest, the direction he was looking; and the afternoon sunlight danced through the summer leaves as the orb made its westward descent. To the south were more woods, but not as many as he remembered. To the north and to the east, what had been woods and meadows was now all subdivisions. If it were held today his fateful boyhood race would end in somebody's driveway. That's too bad, but at least The Mossy Bridge is still here.
The old man had been retired for five years now, and his wife of forty years passed on the year before last. He was finally taking the trip he had wanted to take for years - the trip to his past. All the things that he needed to remember, needed to relive, needed to resolve, needed to understand, needed to close, and, perhaps, would now be able to forget - all those things, this trip would bring him face to face with once and for all. That was the grand goal anyway.
His life had happened so fast. His family moved out of state the year after the race, and they moved every couple of years after that. His odyssey continued after he left home: college, career, wife, kids... Never in one place for long until the last few years of his work life; never able to really get his head around it: what became of that boy who ran through the woods and played with his friends? Who was a happy part of a little community, who had such promise, and who had spent the bulk of his days as an adult just getting by, fulfilling his responsibilities as he watched his childhood dreams evaporate. His kids grew up and left, and they were alright. His wife was gone, and he was alone. He was very much alone.
Thomas Hartley stared at the spot where was knocked completely unconscious for the only time in his seventy-four years. Right there, he pointed with his finger, there on that log between the third and the fourth sections. This may be the most important stop on the trip. He had seen something when he started to come to, but he wasn't sure what. Light, colors, flashing and flowing - was it just desperate neurons firing madly in his damaged brain? But there was an image, a face of some kind hovering above Alton. He had always assumed that it was Darrin, but he had never seen Darrin again after that day. Darrin started junior high school a few weeks later; Tommy was still in grade school. Before the end of the year, the Hartley family was gone for good. Alton took him home, as he promised. Tommy slept for a full twenty-four hours. His recovery was rapid, and it was complete before the school year started. He quickly became his old rambunctious self. But something more had happened then, something significant that he couldn't quite get his head around.
"Pretty day." A voice seemed to come out of the air behind and above him. The old man turned and saw another man a few feet behind him. This man was about his age, but he had a ruddy complexion and a youthful appearance. Thomas felt old and tired when he gazed at him.
"Yes, it is." The newcomer looked familiar, but he couldn't say how. He looked back toward the bridge and over to his left at the setting sun. He expected the fellow to pass on now.
"I've always liked this place. Especially at this time of the day when the sun is going down. It's so green. I used to like to walk through this park when I needed to reflect, or when I needed a break from a sermon I was writing."
"So, you're a pastor. Is your church nearby?"
"Yes, it is, about a mile away; and I've lived in this neighborhood all of my life. This little wooded area used to be in the country when I was a kid. We played in the meadows and streams and fields. Caught fish and crawdads and horned toads. There were snakes too, some poisonous - Water Moccasins and Cottonmouths. I used to see deer and feral hogs, even encountered a bobcat once. Now it's all been developed except for this little park." The pastor smiled.
"My name is Alton Roberts," he continued and offered his hand.
"I'm Tommy Hartley." The old man stared in amazement at his childhood friend and hero as he took his hand. "You saved my life ages ago, right over there." Tommy pointed at The Mossy Bridge.
"I know. I remember, but it wasn't me who saved your life. I just carried you home."
"Well, I guess it was you and Darrin. You two certainly helped me in a time of need. If you two hadn't have been there, who knows what could have happened. I was unconscious for a whole day. I might have been eaten by wild hog or a bobcat."
"Darrin wasn't there," Alton replied. "I saw the whole thing. I saw the two of you racing down the trail. I was fishing over there." He pointed to the east at a forty-year-old brick house where the old creek used to run. "I saw you slip and fall. You were trying to jump to that fourth step from just a little too far. You almost made it. Darrin ran up to you, looked at you for a few seconds, and called your name. Then he got scared and ran away. He never came back."
"I never heard from him again." Tommy was stunned. "What ever happened to him and his family?"
"Well, the family left a few years after yours did. The father was in some kind of trouble for embezzlement or some white-collar crime. He was a banker, you know."
"Then who was that behind you when you were leaning over me and asking me how many fingers I saw?",
"Hmm, I wonder." Alton smiled warmly at Tommy, who was feeling considerably more vigorous now. "You know, it's Saturday night and we have a service tomorrow, Tommy. I am still preaching at this little chapel over on Center Street. You may remember it. It has been there for seventy years. My dad was the pastor before me. If your going to stay in town, why don't you come tomorrow? The service is at ten a.m. In fact, I'm headed over there right now if you would like to walk with me. We'll just go up The Mossy Bridge, and that's Center Street up ahead. You can't quite see it from here, but you can hear the cars."
"I'm not sure. I'm thinking I ought to get back to the motel," Tommy protested mildly as Alton stepped onto the nearest section of the bridge.
"I often think of these steps as like Jacob's Ladder. You know The Lord said, 'I am the ladder.'" Alton looked back at Tommy, smiled, and beckoned him forward. "Come on."
It was getting dark now. The sun had set in the west, and the western horizon had a Halloween orange glow. Straight ahead of Tommy, to the southwest, Alton was on the fourth step of the bridge. He turned and looked back at Tommy again. For just a moment his face seemed to glow. It might be a reflection of some kind. Maybe from the headlights of a car on Center Street. All was silent.
"What is your sermon going to be about tomorrow?" Tommy asked his friend.
"Angels," Alton replied.
"I'm coming," Tommy said as he stepped firmly onto the first rung of the ladder.
Word Count: 1821