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A Long Way Home

by Charles C. Cole

We were enduring a newsworthy spring deluge. Record snow melted down into the ravines of our local mountains. Rivers overflowed. With energy to burn, my brother Cobb and I headed up Pecos Peak to watch “amped up” nature fight back.

“Come on, Ponyo!” called Cobb to his Golden-Lab mix. “Dad’s asleep, and the truck needs to be exercised.”

Our enthusiasm quickly fizzled out, however, when we ran out of gas high up on a winding dirt road that rarely saw traffic.

“In Drivers’ Ed.,” I offered, “Mr. Turkington says it’s the driver’s job to watch all of the gauges.”

“I drove, which means you’re responsible for everything else, including the gauges,” my brother countered.

“How are we getting down? I still have homework to do.”

“I got us here. You figure a way. For now, just enjoy the view because it’ll never get any better than this. Ask Dad, he’ll tell you.”

So we were sitting on an outcropping, finishing our colas, a mountain stream maybe twenty feet away, when I found a pen in my pocket and started writing on the plastic bottle: “If found, call Morton Blatt. Tell him his sons are stranded—”

“What’s up?”

“You know in movies when they put a message in a bottle? Wouldn’t it be funny if this bottle made it down the mountain stream to the river and then as far as town?”

“And you get fined for littering.” He laughed. “Nice try.”

Ponyo started barking excitedly. She bolted down to the swollen water’s edge, barely stopping herself from rushing in. We jumped up and followed. We spotted a cave in the vertical rock face opposite, an almost perfectly round hole about the size of a trashcan lid and maybe six feet above the splashing.

“Bats?” Cobb asked. “Cool!”

“Watch this,” I said, winding up as though to throw a pitch and hurling my soda into the center of the dark oval. There was a thunderous POP as it disappeared.

“Idiot,” said Cobb.

“Ponyo, go get it!” I teased. “Go on, girl!”

She was dying to be asked. She flew down the river bank and made her way quickly over the large, jagged rocks that littered the stream.

“Ponyo, stop!” Cobb called to her. Then he snarled to me: “If she goes in the water, you’re following her.”

Thankfully, she made it across, hotfooting it to the lip of the cave, leaping furiously. Shockingly, she got halfway in, hanging by her hips, while scrambling with her hind feet.

“We’ve got to stop her!” said Cobb.

I scooted down to the wet rocks below. She’d made it look easy! The first rock I stepped on wobbled, but it wasn’t bad after that.

Cobb yelled. It was the darnedest thing, an optical illusion of a sort: the hole seemed to sag under Ponyo’s weight, and then the dog, too, stretched out and “distorted.” She found her footing, and the back half of her “rebounded” to the front half, like a Slinky, then she vanished in the hole with that weird POP!

I stepped on a slick rock and dropped into the icy water up to my waist. Then I pulled myself up and headed back, my left hip sore from my fall. “We need a rope,” I said.

“No time for that,” said Cobb. “I got to get my dog.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I said. Cobb cuffed me across the back of the head.

“Wait here,” Cobb yelled as he retraced my steps. “This is pretty stupid.”

“Then don’t do it,” I yelled back.

“I’m telling Dad it was all your idea.” He reached the cave easily. “Pretty small for a doorway to hell.” He shrugged and grabbed at the hole, dragging his chest against the edge, elbows out. The hole seemed to reach for him, as though he were standing but the middle of his body was elongated.

“Cobb, wait!”

Then he was gone, with that crazy POP! Several large rocks shifted and dropped from higher up.

I couldn’t go after him, I reasoned, because whatever happened to them would happen to me. “Cobb, if you can hear me, I’m getting help!” I called.

I sprinted down the road, my sneakers squishing. I was grateful I was running downhill. I made it to Old Man Smitty’s just before dark. He wasn’t happy to have unexpected company, but he let me call the police. I explained how Ponyo and Cobb had fallen into a cave. I didn’t dare mention the weirdness of it, like the popping and how it seemed to grab them. Then Smitty took me home.

The police and Dad wouldn’t let me help with the search. Around two in the morning, we got a call saying they’d found one of Cobb’s sneakers. And the rockface I’d described had collapsed.

It was a long night. Dad couldn’t decide whether to stay at home with me or stay out with the searchers, so he tried to do both. It was the only time he ever smoked in the house. When it seemed all was lost, I think he was afraid to look me in the eyes, so the second and third day he stayed at the office until all hours.

Four days later, farmer Ben Meserve called the house. Dad was out so I took the call. Farmer Ben had a small duck pond near his orchard, no bigger than a Dairy Queen parking lot, a convenient place to fish with his grandkids. He’d been out in the paddleboat with his wife, listening to the peepers, when she found a bottle floating on the surface — with our phone number on it! He wanted an explanation.

While he read me the riot act about trashing his property, I heard a scream in the background and then the bark of a familiar dog and I knew Cobb would be just fine.

People think a wormhole is an undocumented shortcut: enter your closet and step instantly onto another planet. But if you ask me, a “natural” wormhole’s more like a river than a bridge, more like a “longcut.”

Copyright © 2012 by Charles C. Cole

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