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The Ghost of Caroline Wald Excerpt

 

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Chapter 1

 

“Frankie,” he shouted to himself over the roar of the river, “this is it. If this stick breaks, you are gonna die.” His mother told him not to go to the river–there was a storm coming. But Frankie Johns was eighteen–now and of independent mind, and he needed to show it. So, he went to the river, decided to cross it on foot, and found himself up to his neck in fast-flowing water, struggling against the current to get to an island in the middle. Only his walking stick, jammed against a rock on the riverbed, saved his scrawny body from the river’s deadly bear hug.

He had underestimated the ferocity of the flowing water. If he lost his footing, he would be swept away and be dragged across rocks and rapids. The paramedics would find his stinking, bloated carcass, in a day or so, snagged by some branch.

His objective, what he and his friend Dan called ‘the island,’ was little more than a strip of sand with some trees on it, barely large enough to put up a tent. He had camped on the island many times, and had crossed the river here before, with no problem. The spring rain, though, had caused the river to swell. He inched along using all his strength to stay upright. He considered retreating, but decided it would be better to continue to the other side than to go back. Anyway, it was his rule never to go back once he started to move forward, though after today, this rule might come under review.

As he moved he developed a system. He slid the stick a bit, and then moved his feet to catch up to it. The river pushed violently against his body. He was not a big boy, maybe 120 pounds, and not tall–well under six feet. Maybe his size helped to save him–he was less of a target.

Funny thing, though–despite feeling a certain concern for his well-being under the circumstances, he was not afraid. Was he too stupid to be afraid? Did he not yet fully comprehend the danger? He was either very brave or very stupid. So far, stupid was winning. To him, however, it wasn’t stupidity, but courage that made him feel that way. That’s the way he was. Faced with a situation like this, he did not panic, but plowed through, doing what he had to do.

He slid the stick a foot or so along the river bed, then inched his feet over to meet it. He moved the stick again, then moved his feet. He repeated this process several times.  Then he encountered a large unstable rock that moved when he stepped on it, causing him to slip off it into the rushing water. The river grabbed him. “Now I have you,” it said. His face went under the water, and he could hear the river gurgling in his ears. He gasped, taking some water into his lungs. He coughed and spit, and in an instant, as by reflex, he planted the stick in a way that kept him from being washed down river, saving his now cold and waterlogged hide.

In a matter of a few minutes more, and a dozen movements of the stick, he felt the bed of the river rise, and the water pressed on less of his body as it grew more shallow. Soon, he was on the island laying on the sand, or such of it as remained, given the height of the water.

“Okay,” he said out loud to himself, “lesson learned.”

He wasn’t sure how he was going to get off the island, but the immediate danger was over.

It was 1974, and Frankie, less than a year out of high school, after being eighteen for about twelve hours (making him an adult under the law) went camping on the island, despite his mother’s objections, and her telling him that he could not go. She had seen the weather reports and knew that there might be tornadoes, this being the State of Michigan, and it being the season for tornadoes. As an eighteen-year-old, however, he no longer had to listen to his mother, which fact he made clear to her. As a matter of honor he had to go camping anyway. So, here he was. Not dead yet, but working on it, as his efforts in that arena were not over for the day–he still had some death defying feats up his sleeve although, like crossing the river, they did not seem so at the time of their conception or initiation. He did not engage in them because he chose to tempt fate, it just happened.

He and Dan had not stashed any food on the island, but they had managed to hide some cans of beer, dangling in the water secured by a rope. He drank one, then  decided to go for a swim. The notion of swimming so soon after nearly drowning in a raging river might seem strange to some, but it was all part of Frankie’s new-found freedom–the ability and the right to do as he pleased without asking anyone’s permission.

The water on the other side of the island was somewhat still, as there was a small cove there, and they had rigged up a rope so they could swing out and drop into the river. As there were no lifeguards here, he swam at his own risk which, as it turned out, was considerable.

He took hold of the rope, swung himself out over the water, and let go. He had done this many times, and it was about as much fun as a boy could have, in the absence of a girl. He released the rope, and floated for an instant ten feet above the water, then fell to the surface–landing squarely on his back. He presently found himself several yards from the bank of the island, with the wind knocked out of him.

Being in the water that distance from the shore, with the wind knocked out of you, is not a healthy state of affairs, and borders on being a near-death experience. “Son, you gotta get to the shore,” he would have said to himself, but he had no air in his lungs that could be pushed through his vocal cords, so he thought it, instead. Whether spoken or merely thought, it was good advice, if only from himself, but it didn’t matter, as at his age he listened only to himself. Otherwise, he would have stayed home and be nice and safe and warm, watching TV.

Being young and brave, although not particularly strong, he struggled to get himself back to the island. Half way there his breath came back, and he gulped air just in time to keep himself from passing out.

“Damn, son,” he said to himself, “perhaps you should stay here, keep out of the river, make a fire, and drink the rest of the beer.” This advice he took, as it was given by himself to himself, and was what he wanted to hear. He fortunately had been a Boy Scout, and had brought matches that had been dipped in melted wax, which he carried in a plastic bag.

He got the fire raging to such an extent that he feared the trees would catch fire. Although a small island in the river, it had a few very large trees on it, and the flames and the sparks licked the branches and leaves. He toned down the fire because he was tired of living dangerously that day, and he just wanted to get warm and dry.

He intended to stay the night on the island, but he did not have any proper camping gear. He had a few sheets of plastic and an old coat, but that was it. He set up his camp as best he could near the fire and settled down to rest.