John Was Here
My buddy John is going to die tomorrow. He doesn’t want to make it a big thing. I got some beer. Mike bought cigars. There are five fishing poles lined up in the back of my truck, one for each of us. The plan is to go down to the lake and see what the spot’s got. One last time.
“This little story you’re writing,” he coughs. “About tonight. Make it in the present tense. Alright? Like I’m still here reading it with you. Even if I’m not.”
I tell him that’s fine. I’ll figure it out later.
“And not too much about the disease, please. I think cancer has gotten enough conversation out of me.”
I tell him that’s okay too.
We drive. A cool breeze slices through the open window. Highway lights begin to fade. I turn right and stay straight on Follaton Ave. I snag the roundabout next to the government offices. And then we’re there.
The old neighborhood.
The place where we met. The place where we grew up.
And now, the place where we’ll say goodbye.
We park. The houses on the block are all different but there’s still something so similar in the air. Almost like you can taste the feeling. Mrs. Walker’s dinners. Tom’s mom’s cookies. Before we could drive. Before we could even ride bikes down to the corner store without permission from our parents. Everything was so much simpler back then. We always had someplace to go. The lake was home.
“Do you remember the bench?” John asks. “The big one.”
I did. I do.
“Somebody left it at the curb. Busted half to shit. You dragged that hunk of marble two miles just so we could sit in front of the water and fish.”
You could have helped.
“We made it didn’t we?”
“And look at us now.”
Thirty years later.
We get out. The streetlights are all dimmed. Darkness paints shadows of abandoned toys in once familiar front yards. John corrals the tackle. I grab the drinks. My dad used to say beer should be heavy on the way in and light on the way out. He passed away some years back. I yearn for the past so damn bad and at the same time understand that it’s truly gone.
“When are the boys coming?” John asks.
They should be here already.
“All of them?”
“Alright. Are you alright?”
We walk. The path to the lake takes us out of the neighborhood and down into the valley. We march over a set of railroad tracks. On the other side is a steep rock hill. John huffs and puffs but takes the hurdle like a champ. We land on a soft embankment that leads right up to the lake.
We smack the dust off our jeans. We look up.
The guys are waiting for us.
Mike rushes forward first. The big brute wraps our small friend in a bear hug. He’s crying. He pulls back in embarrassment before grabbing a fishing pole.
“I’m honored to be here for you.”
Danny is next. He leans forward and whispers something meaningful in John’s ear. The two of them share a silent stare. Dan backs off and disappears down the path.
Jeff is last. He looks around the group. He pauses. He sighs.
“I don’t understand why you’re not in a hospital.”
“I’m just saying. You look fine to me! Do you have the best doctors? Are they sure this thing is fatal? How are you even walking right now? You can’t just give up and croak. Modern medicine is incredible. Who’s going to pull your plug anyway?”
John nods through it all. He takes a deep breath. He waits for him to finish. Then he responds.
“I get it. You think I’m crazy. But the truth is that this is the end of my life. The doctors know it. The specialists know it. The specialists’ fuckin’ attorneys know it. I know it. I could probably spend a few more weeks hooked up to machines, but…”
“What’s the point, man? Really. If I am going to die then I want it to happen like I lived. With my friends. With my brothers. You guys… you don’t understand. After my parents’ accident. After my uncle moved away. You were all that I had left. You were my family. I slept on your couches. I ate your meals. We ran around the paths behind the lake for hours. I mean, fuck blood, our blood is here. In the ground where we spilled it. On chicken wire and hooks and pike teeth.”
“And uh, that’s the other thing. We’re not going fishing.”
The guys are surprised.
“I’m sorry. I lied to you. I need your help. One last time.”
A gentle rain peaks in between the trees.
“There’s a legend about these woods. One that you might not have heard. A few hundred years ago, a soldier caught infection from a wound. His unit was ambushed and the remnants retreated down a trail into a valley. This valley.”
“They were half slaughtered and left for dead. So the enemy moved along. There were other battles to be fought against living men.”
“These guys, they knew they were fucked, you see. They didn’t exactly have backup and each of them just took serious wounds in battle. So they were basically just waiting to die.”
“One night near the end, the Devil comes across the group. He sees five murderers. Pillagers. Gears of the war machine. Clinging for life. He fixes to have himself a feast. The doors of the underworld open up. All of Satan’s minions pour out. The hounds get ready to eat.”
“But the soldier is smart. He offers up a trade. He tells the Devil that these are pure men. They killed for mercy and for country but none have committed a crime in the eyes of God for which they hadn’t repented. Hell could have none of them. Or it could have one.”
“Moved by the man’s bravery, and tempted by its taste, Satan agrees to the deal. One soul in exchange for the health and wealth of the remaining four friends. A clock is set for midnight. The group prepares their goodbyes.”
“At which point, a plan takes shape.”
“You see, the soldier knows a secret or two about these woods. A story older than angels and demons alike. The water here is sacred. The trees themselves are blessed.”
John produces a knife.
“He enters into a different sort of pact.”
John cuts his wrist.
“What the fuck man,” Mike whimpers. “I did not sign up for witchcraft.”
John smiles and slams his hand against the tree.
“He signs his spirit over to the lake. That way there is nothing left for Satan to take. He gives his body to the leaves. That way there’s nothing for the demons to eat. He gives his blood to the trees…”
John carves something underneath.
“…that way it remains there forever.”
We all stare at him.
“The soldier tells his friends to prepare a boat.”
Danny appears out of the distance. He’s dragging something through the reeds.
“They are so weak at this point. It takes all the strength they have left just to lift this thing over the lakebed. The soldier gets inside. They hand him his rifle. He tells the group to save their farewells, for this is not the end, just a new beginning.”
“The clock strikes midnight. A great wind gathers. A current takes shape. The soldier bids his friends to push him out to sea, so to speak, one final time. Darkness envelops the canoe inch by inch. A fog settles along the bank. Soon enough, he’s gone.”
“The Devil readies his army. Hellions pour in from the coasts to feed on the poor man’s soul. The meal is smaller than promised but the meat is still appetizing. The group ducks and hides in the trees as horrible beasts with claws longer than limbs sneak through the woods and slither into the lake like snakes.”
“The water grows restless with its new inhabitants. Waves of white froth back and forth. A whirlpool forms at the center. The boat is trapped in it but so are the beasts. Demons and titans and the Devil himself are caught up in the awful churning and chucking and turning. The lake opens up. Creatures cling to the edge. The wicked screams of furious spirits echo for miles. But it’s no use. Mother Nature unhooks her jaw and swallows the poisonous lot whole.”
“Hell and all of its acolytes sink back to the underworld.”
He looks at me.
“And now it’s gone quiet. The sky opens up. Buckets of rain pour forth and replenish the creeks and streams. Flames extinguish as fallen trees disappear underneath the breach. The soldiers stand up. One of them starts to laugh. Another begins to cry. Aching wounds are made mended. Cut legs are turned whole. The four run up the coast and shout with the unbridled joy of madmen given a second chance at life.”
“But amidst the celebration, the blue canoe drifts lazily back to shore. The group looks into the bottom and sees it’s empty. The soldiers take this to mean that their friend is damned. He’s paid the ultimate price. They pack up in a solemn silence. They start to leave. But on their way out of the valley, a funny thing happens.”
“They pass by a tree. This tree. In the bark is written a message. A pact with the water. A promise to the leaves. The soldiers realize then that this death is a beautiful thing. A wondrous thing. A trick between two ancient powers. A choice to remain here, in the valley, forever. Outside of the Devil’s reach.”
John gets into the canoe.
“The war ends. The four friends live long and full lives of incredible health, wealth and prosperity. As promised. But as the years come to a close, and death appears inevitable, they choose to form a new deal. A pact of their own.”
John pulls out a pistol.
“That no matter how they die. No matter when they die. They will all return to the lake. One last time. To join it.”
He loads one round. He looks at each of us.
“Now. Do you know what I want you to do?”
It’s twelve o’clock. Mike is crying. Jeff is bargaining. Dan stops them. Because this isn’t the end. And John doesn’t want to make a big thing.
We get into the water. We push off. We wave. I just want to grab him. I just want to pull him back. But he’s gone before long. Darkness swallows the boat whole.
An excited voice shouts out in the distance.
Then he starts to scream.
The lake begins to boil. It burns so quickly that the shoreline evaporates. Lightning cracks in the distance. The night is alive. Shadows race down from the hilltop and rip at the earth with hoofed feet. Their eyes are all rotted. Their teeth are like knives. They’re on us. Razor claws rip up my sweatshirt. Blood bursts from the holes like a sprinkler. I’m suddenly tired. So tired. I can’t open my eyes. I can’t scream.
A single gunshot rings out.
Then as if somebody turns on the sink faucet, it starts to rain.
Water overtakes the banks. The lake fills up like a bathtub. The boat drifts back to shore. Jeff gets up to check. The rest of us don’t need to see. We know.
On the way out of the valley we pass by a tree. Our tree. Carved into the wood are five names. Below them is a fresh one. The writing is much easier to read.
“John was here.”