Amos stood on a thick, muscular knoll on the shoulder of a dark river. He shivered, soaking wet from his silver hair to his leather shoes, and stared, disoriented, at the pines across the river. They seemed to stand with their backs to him. Amos felt his heart racing and realized he was out of breath. He turned. Behind him lay a rumpled blanket and an overturned bag of sandwiches. He turned again, still lost, and watched the swift surface of the river reflecting an apathetic sky. Somewhere in the tall pines a crow called. Amos heard a voice. His phone lay in the grass below him, and there was someone on speakerphone. The screen said Nina, in red letters. Amos picked it up.
"Hello?" he said.
"Daddy? Did you call?"
He paused, "I don’t know."
"Are you alone? Where’s John?"
"Not sure," he said. "I mean… I don’t know. I’m… there’s a river. I’m alone… and," he looked at his hand. "There’s blood."
Earlier that day John Faraday, husband of Dr. Nina Faraday, lifted their four-year-old into his brand new, overbuilt car seat, sufficient to protect the boy from almost any accident. "Dylan, time to hop-in strap-in. We’re going to get Grandpa," he said. Dylan sat, compliant, his curious eyes studying his father as he strapped him in.
"Gram-paw?" Dylan's voice squeaked, the second syllable a higher pitch, eyes widening as he finished the word.
John nodded. "We’ll pick up Grandpa Amos from memory care. Head to the river for lunch. Mommy will meet us there. Here’s your ball." She can help with Amos while we picnic by the river, he thought. Watching Dylan, and Nina's father Amos, who suffered from dementia, would be a handful without help.
"Otay," said Dylan cheerfully. He loved his grandpa, thought John.
John climbed in and shifted into reverse. In the mirror, he saw the boy again, long lashes, eyes luminous and so dark they were nearly black, just like Nina and Amos.
John gave silent thanks that Dylan could spend time with his Grandfather before Amos’s dementia worsened. It had progressed quickly. At times Amos seemed like his old self, then his confusion would swallow him, although he had frequent moments of lucidity which his doctor said was unusual for someone this advanced. Better to make the most of the time they had left with him.
Dylan and John collected Grandpa, stopped at the deli for sandwiches, and drove toward the river. Twenty minutes later, John's tires crunched over a gritty gravel parking lot along the river’s edge, a quiet place, away from crowds. John set Dylan free with his black and white mini soccer ball. Dylan sprinted around the car and tumbled into the dirt below his Grandpa. Amos lifted the boy and dusted him off. They both smiled, no tears, and Dylan touched the old man’s aquiline nose. Amos kissed Dylan's miniature hand.
For a time, Dylan and Amos kicked the ball together nearer by the river’s edge, but a minute later the ball skittered past Dylan, into the river. The three of them stood and watched it whisk powerfully into the current, then halt, bobbing just below the surface, pinned to a submerged branch. As a younger man John might have attempted retrieving the ball from that straining branch, but not today, not when the river looked like this. The ball was lost; it lay in plain view, but it was lost all the same. Dylan ran the other way and didn’t seem to care.
John checked his phone. Where was Nina?
An hour earlier, Nina crossed an auditorium stage toward a podium pulling a squeaky mop bucket, and the shuffle of two hundred students fell silent. The click of her mop handle against the podium echoed in the lecture hall. All eyes on her, she held up, of all things, a milkshake and took a long sip. She looked at the now silent crowd and unceremoniously tossed the milkshake across the stage. Pink goo sloshing out. Everyone gasped then laughed, and Dr. Nina Faraday, professor of physics, began her lecture.
"Bang," she said and smiled. She was a woman whose dark, bohemian features flexed into brilliant harmony when she smiled, making her look ten years younger. Now, the laughter died down. "What a mess," she said, shoes clicking across the wooden stage. "Though that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The point is not the mess, but the kind of
"When I drop the cup, it hits the floor," Nina gestured behind her. "We see the violent action—beautiful really—and then the liquid spreads in all directions. There’s no resistance, so it just spreads evenly until its viscosity brings everything to a halt, like gravity and—" The video stopped. "There you have it. A perfect mess, just like our universe, but with a few important differences." The video changed to a bright, multicolored image of whirling galaxies and stars.
"This is our mess. We are here," Nina tapped the picture of the universe. "And just like the milkshake, it’s pretty equally spread out, except for…here. This is called the 'Cold Spot.' There’s really nothing there—no stars, no planets, no black hole, a whole lotta nada; which is interesting."
She took the mop and touched a spot in the pink puddle, and then she sloshed the mop back into the bucket, both images projected side by side on the screen. Everyone leaned forward.
"If our universe were an apple, the Cold Spot would be like a bruise. But how do you get a bruise in the universe?" She paused. "Something touched us. But what?" The audience shifted. "What could possibly touch our universe except… another universe?" Nina laughed. "Just look at the size of this area. Imagine the damage that occurred. Clearly, even simple perturbations in motion have enormous consequences for celestial bodies. A tiny diversion here or there and disorder blossoms out like streams from a river." Nina continued her lecture for the remainder of the hour, then a door closed in the back of the lecture hall, and Nina looked up to see Charles. There he was, here to meet her for lunch. She ran her eyes back over the crowd and smiled again.
"What happens next? Well, we don’t know yet. In fact, we won't know for thousands of years until the light reaches our planet. Maybe there are more bruises? Maybe we’re next?"
"That’s all for today, but remember there will be a quiz on Monday." The auditorium erupted, making her last words inaudible. Papers shuffled, students filed out, and Nina started to mop the floor in her high heels. Charles walked down the stairs and took the mop from her. She saw his eyes. He didn’t want lunch.
John set the bag of sandwiches down on a patch of grass at the river’s edge. Shaking out their blanket, he heard Dylan laugh again. The boy and his Grandpa stood tossing little rocks into the river. It was called the Willamette, which meant "swift river." It was summer, but the river looked uncharacteristically swollen today, dark, lead-colored. The wind pulled the corner of their picnic blanket, but John didn’t see it. His attention was on Dylan, who had just waded-in one step too far.
"Dylan, wait. Amos, can you grab…" but as Amos turned toward John's voice, the bulldog wrinkles of his rusty smile washed into a blank, void of understanding. At the same time, Dylan tripped and fell hard, the way four-year-olds sometimes do.
Except this four-year-old was in the water, and the current swept him out.
John knocked over the sandwiches as he raced toward his son. Amos looked startled and then turned to see Dylan in the water. Amos took a few steps and managed to pull his grandson up, onto his feet. John breathed a sigh of relief and slowed to a walk. "Oh, thank God. Let’s play away from the water."
Nina sat close to Charles as he drove off campus and across town. Neither spoke. It began slowly, just spending time together. She'd felt drawn to his keen mind and clever charm. Then, little by little she'd felt herself drifting toward him emotionally and physically. He pulled into a nondescript hotel, stopped, and went inside. She waited in the car, and he returned holding a key. The fact that she’d planned to meet John and her father at the river drifted out of reach of Nina's memory. She was coasting now, absent of volition. If asked, she may have forgotten her name. Charles opened a heavy door with the number twenty-three in worn metal hanging on it, and she crossed the threshold.
John returned to their picnic spot to straighten the blanket, but then Amos said his name. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw Amos struggling to walk back through the water. Amos faltered and inadvertently released Dylan who slipped back into the water. A moment later the boy was out of reach, and Amos, focusing on staying upright, took two sloshing steps toward John.
John leaped into action. Splashing across the riverbed, water flying, he lunged for Dylan, just as the water went deep. They slipped under, came back up, and drifted about ten feet downstream into the submerged branch where the soccer ball was pinned. For a moment the large branch felt soft, but the current enveloped John and Dylan, straining them against the thick wood. Dylan’s head slipped underwater, and his cries fell silent after a quick bubble of sound escaped.
John pulled hard to get Dylan’s head above water, but it was too deep to stand, and the current was relentless. It covered John’s mouth and nose, and he groped to find purchase on the slick branch. He thrashed and found a crook where he could use one hand to push up while lifting Dylan with the other. Dylan’s head rose above the surface, and he gasped, choking, eyes wide.
John and Dylan were trapped close to the river's edge where the thick, grassy shore dropped off into deep water. Amos saw them now. A moment later he was on the shore, alongside them. Amos reached into the river and grabbed John by the shirt. He pulled, but the branch lifted with them, the current pinning them like a vice. Their heads rose out of the water, then they drifted back down, water hovering just over John’s submerged face, his eyes fixed on Amos. Amos pulled again. John’s head rose above the surface and he spoke.
"You have to get help. You have to call--," then John was under again. Amos pulled out his cell and nearly dropped it in the river. He let go of John. Amos’s hands shook. He pushed a button to call Nina, and her name appeared on the screen.
Nina and Charles lay on the bed. She’d dozed off after their lovemaking ceased and dreamed. Later she would recall her dream in fragments, unable to tell if she’d created the memory of it. In it, she floated, submerged in water but able to breathe. She felt peace. In front of her, and this was the part she was unsure of, she saw Dylan also floating underwater. His chestnut hair drifting weightless, the irises of his eyes sparkling as he gazed into hers, inches away, within reach. He touched her face. She never moved a muscle. The sun filtered through the liquid with soft light illuminating Dylan’s ears, translucent and pink. Then the light went dark. Nina awoke.
Clothes lay scattered across the floor. Charles sat next to her, silent. They hadn’t really spoken since leaving the auditorium. Nothing to say. She turned over. Charles opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, her phone rang somewhere in their discarded mess of clothes.
Amos dropped his phone on the grass growing along the riverbank after intuiting how to put the call on speaker phone so he could use both arms to help John. With all his strength he pulled John and Dylan up, pushing down on the thick branch with one soggy leather shoe. John started to slide up toward him, and the straining rictus on his face relaxed. Then the branch cracked and Amos lost his balance.
Nina got up. Her phone stopped ringing, but she searched and found it. Why was her father calling? Then she remembered he was with John. And Dylan. She touched her hair and felt Charles' eyes on her back.
She gestured at the phone, and Charles nodded then walked to the bathroom. The shower started with a cough, hiss. Nina walked outside.
Amos fell sideways off the narrow shore halfway into the river. He thrashed and managed to climb out, then struggle to his feet atop the knoll. John remained pinned to the branch underwater for too long. Fear emptied from his eyes, and he went limp, releasing Dylan who drifted through the branches and disappeared downstream.
Amos looked at his hands. The tabula rasa of dementia washed over him again, and he could not remember where he was or what he was doing. He saw blood, crimson on his hands. He touched the back of his head. It was warm and sticky. Why was he here? Behind him a crow called, then he heard a voice coming from his phone laying in the grass. Someone was on speakerphone. He picked it up.
Amos looked around at the quiet river, the pines, and a crow passing overhead. Below him, the surface of the water was opaque, like the back of some silent green beast, reflecting only an indifferent summer sky.
Bio: Cedar White is an independent author writing deep in the Oregon woodland near Eugene. His two young boys love to play in the Willamette River.