The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Erthelene and Billy Joe woke to brilliant sunshine the following morning. The soggy gray jungle around the shack was transformed into something quite beautiful with colorful birds flitting above the small island. The air was pleasantly cool, with no biting insects for a change.
The two skiffs were pulled up on the bank and Crazy Charley dished up pan bread from a skillet over the campfire, along with hot coffee. Erthelene and Billy Joe had taken advantage of the heavy rain to wash away their layers of caked-on mud and both looked like themselves again.
In a quiet moment before breakfast, Erthelene took Billy Joe by the hand, to a secluded spot under the oak tree. They sat down together, still holding hands.
“We need to have a talk, honey,” Erthelene said, looking into Billy Joe’s eyes. “The good Lord has given us a second chance, Billy Joe, to go home to the ones who love us. Running away will not solve our problems this time, baby. We have to be strong and face up to things, no matter how hard that is.”
Billy Joe put his head on Erthelene’s chest and whispered, “I understand.”
As soon as breakfast was over, the return to civilization began. Crazy Charley led the way, pole pushing his skiff through the black water, Big John with Erthelene and Billy Joe following.
“Keep an eye out for big gators. They can swamp ya easy and make a meal out of ya.”
Two hours after beginning their return, Big John recognized the wide channel that led into Black Water Lake, having fished it many times. Crazy Charley pushed off into a side channel a few minutes later, and after waving goodbye, his gray silhouette was soon lost from sight
Black Water Lake was over a mile wide, and it took Big John an hour to push the skiff along the shallow edge until they were in sight of Miller’s dock. Several fishing boats were tied up there and a knot of people began gathering as soon as Big John’s skiff was sighted.
“We’re almost there,” Big John said to Erthelene. “Praise the Lord.”
“Can we go home to see Uncle Mabus and Snake Dog, first?” Billy Joe asked.
“Yes, honey,” Erthelene replied with a smile. “We’re going home.”
* * *
The phone rang in Otilla Harrison’s bedroom at four-thirty that afternoon. She answered it on the third ring. It was Sheriff Rogers, but she didn’t recognize his voice at first, he sounded different.
“It’s good news, ma’am. They made it,” he said excitedly into the phone, forgetting to identify himself. “They are on their way home to Uncle Mabus.”
There was silence as Otilla Harrison absorbed the full impact of his message. When she tried to speak, it was difficult. The only words she could manage were, “Thank you.”
When Cordella answered the door, she found Sheriff Rogers and Otilla Harrison waiting on the porch. She also saw people gathering in the front yard and cars pulling up near the driveway. The look of fear on Cordella’s face caused Sheriff Rogers to step into the cabin and speak quickly.
“It’s good news. Erthelene and Billy Joe are alive and my deputy is bringing them here from Black Water Lake.”
“Thank you, Lord Jesus.” Uncle Mabus’s voice came softly through the open door from the back porch, where the old man sat with Snake Dog in his arms.
Otilla Harrison stepped forward on seeing Uncle Mabus, and took off her hat and gloves. “I don’t know about anybody else,” she said with a smile, “but I could use a strong cup of coffee.”
“It’s already on the stove,” Cordella answered, wiping tears from her eyes.
A few minutes later they heard the wail of a police siren. Snake Dog was already pushing against the screen door, his tail wagging violently.
“He knows Billy Joe is coming home,” Uncle Mabus said. “He loves that boy beyond words.”
The crowd in front of the cabin made way as the police car pulled up. Erthelene squeezed Billy Joe’s hand when she saw Uncle Mabus and Cordella standing in the doorway. Big John made a path for them through the welcoming and smiling faces, until they reached the porch.
“Home at last,” Erthelene whispered leaning on Big John’s arm.
Uncle Mabus pushed the screen door open and Snake Dog jumped with such force into Billy Joe’s arms that they both fell over.
“I love you,” Billy Joe tried to tell him, but the boy’s words were smothered by Snake Dog’s kisses. Erthelene embraced Uncle Mabus and Cordella with all of the strength she had left.
Otilla Harrison, staying back purposely, now made her way quietly onto the porch, taking Erthelene’s hand. “It’s about time you and I became friends,” she said softly.
“Yes, ma’am,” Erthelene replied. “I believe you’re right.”
Turning to Uncle Mabus, Otilla Harrison smiled. “Now might be a good time to plan on how I can help you two raise this boy. While we’re at it,” she added, looking at Erthelene and Big John, “it might also be a good time to plan a wedding for these two.”
“Wow,” Billy Joe whispered in Snake Dog’s ear, “did you hear that? I’m getting a father.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen