On a whim, my middle school chum Josh Edgar and I decided to brave the swollen creek that darted wickedly fast through the woods behind his grandfather’s property. We were lost in that held breath between junior high and high school, and something had to give.
We’d appropriated a two-man inflatable raft — a delicate, even comedic, contraption garishly bedazzled in day-glow colors and a gamut of nautical glyphs meant apparently to lend the craft an appropriately seaworthy aspect — from some unfortunate soul somewhere in our collective family tree.
The large package proclaimed its suitability for delivering two grown men unscathed across a body of water. Yet we two half-grown, hair-splotched adolescents couldn’t fit all of ourselves aboard. Decisions were required, triage performed, and it was soon determined we were each allowed our torso, one arm and one leg aboard ship while all leftover appendages — though likely blue and useless due to cold creek currents — were to be dedicated to assisting our otherwise lackluster steering and propulsion systems.
Truthfully, from the onset we’d seen little need for either. The frothing brown water of the creek, yards higher than normal for the season, had already hijacked its banks in search of floodable space. It would propel us plenty. As for steering, there were two options: Upstream and down. No matter how effective our mechanical interventions, the path and direction were already set.
With that rank and foolish determination common to male children about to undertake an errand of stupidity, we stripped down to our stained skivvies and T-shirts, tossed our designated dry legs aboard our intrepid little craft, then hopped and stumbled through the mud and ferns until we felt the water take hold, its volatile current tugging at the hairs on our skinny legs.
There was no turning back, we knew, so when we pushed off the bank with our already chilled wet legs, surrendering completely to the whims of wild water, neither of us chose to give voice to the overpowering sense of dread that overcame us just as the creek water gurgled over the side and into our laps to cool our shrunken junk.
Then we were adrift, accelerating loosely under the storm-ravaged sky, our corkscrew view bisected at every turn by the last leaves and branches of riparian forest. Adrenaline kicked in, and we both flailed wildly at the murky water with our wet limbs, clumsily handled like so many slabs of frozen meat.
We were sinking, and we were wet. We were also hauling ass down a narrow broiling channel, two chipmunks surfing hard and fast along a rusted bit of nature’s own plumbing pushed to its sodden brink.
Just as we simultaneously yowled out loud to celebrate our suddenly unfettered ecstasy, our boat ceased to be.
One second, we were aboard our fickle yet somehow floating adventure-bound craft. The next, our drooping device tacoed in half, releasing our torsos — and thereby our centers of gravity — into the riotous run of water.
I spied the hard plastic boat handles — yellow as bananas — as they sunk out of reach before snarling on finger-wide branches of snag submerged beneath two feet of foam and shimmering riffles.
Fear found us as we drifted apart, flipping end over end, side to side in panic, trying somehow to scan the blurry banks and moss-slick branches for the miraculous handhold that might just save our lives.
Enter the exacerbators.
We were each coming of age, young men tossed about by a torrent of hormones and unprocessed trauma, social outcasts lacking in self-confidence.
We were boys on the cusp of something greater, something more frightening and rich with an odor of aggression. It confused and thrilled the both of us while also promising the end of all things childish.
My father by now was dead, a victim of cancer and a broken mind. He’d left me with a darkly refracted and wholly tragic concept of manhood. I knew I wouldn’t follow him, but who?
Josh had father issues as well. We were both untethered by this formative moment when all things permanent suddenly became unmoored.
This identity crises was further complicated by change.
We were confronted with impermanence everywhere we turned. Life, family, security, safety, even our parents were suddenly prone to vast and inexplicable change as we began to see them as people rather than the roles they filled in our lives.
Transformations of every sort loomed in all directions, a sudden and unforgiving shift in what had seemed a fixed universe. Even our own friendship, once tried and true, seemed somehow threatened by the onrushing high school years.
We’d already been in occasional conflict, each of us struggling to define who and what we were and at times resenting the other’s intransigence. New possibilities beckoned the both of us, and we each privately worried that the other might hold us back.
All these concerns were in the water that day, lapping over our heads and threatening with each passing second to send us sinking like a stone to the dark places underwater. We were unsettled and afraid. The water and our sunken boat merely made concrete the first existential crises of our short lives.
We lost sight of each other, though I could vaguely hear Josh thrashing about in the shallows to one side. I rolled in that direction and reached out for a handful of grass that promptly fell off in my hand.
James! I heard his voice and cast clumsily about until I spotted him, one arm looped around a thick tree branch and his feet wedged in the mud of the creek bottom. He was leaning hard forward so as not to be overwhelmed by the current.
Unthinking, I dug in my own feet and pushed myself in his direction. I came about sideways and lodged my body against his knees, water pouring thickly over me and between his legs. Exhaustion was already taking its toll on both of us.
For several seconds I savored the stillness. Anything was better than careening down between flooded banks, all control lost to momentum. Soon, though, I sensed the strain in him and realized he was using all of his strength to keep me in place and stay standing. One flinch either way and both of us would again be lost in the current, this time probably for good.
Using him as a ladder, I slowly and carefully got my feet beneath me and stood up. I felt his body shudder and relax in relief even as the force of the water threatened to up-end me once more.
Together, though, shuddering and cold, we managed to crab walk against the flow and finally find purchase on the same side of the creek where we’d started. If we’d landed on the other side, I don’t know that we’d have made it.
Embarrassed by our shared experience, and giddy with the simple heroics, we trudged messily back up through the trees to Josh’s grandfather’s house in silence. Something had shifted, though — the world was as unknowable as ever, but as long as I had a friend between me and coming flood, I knew now that everything would turn out all right in the end.
And in the meantime, our foolishness — as always — became the stuff of legend.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.