So it had come to this. When we first said it, I was sure it was a joke. We laughed about it as we set the specifics in place. It was just a game of horseshoes and we were bored. How do you make a game where you throw metal around, interesting? Throw the things at each other? No, that would not be interesting, that would just hurt. We were good aims.
It was hotter than usual for June. And wetter. But the weather is rarely so much interesting as it is either scary- tornadoes, blizzards, sandstorms- or boring-more rain, less rain, more sun, less sun. Ho-hum. We actually talked about the weather, as if commenting would make it behave. So we decided to toss the horseshoes around and practice ringers. If you don't know what that is, it doesn't matter. It's a thing. We found some shoes that were bigger and heavier than others.
"From a bigger horse, like a Clydesdale," Tommy remarked. "And the little ones are from ponies." Tommy probably knew more about horses than the rest of us combined.
We decided to weigh them and separate them by weight for fairness. We also decided to make up a point system by which if you chose to throw a heavier shoe, landing it closer to the stake would garner more points. Lighter shoes were worth fewer points, but easier to hit the mark. It all seemed fair at the time.
"I wish it would rain," Marla whined. I looked over at her, sitting by the well, playing with her hair, to see if she was serious. She looked bored. I couldn't tell if she really thought more humidity would help the situation. She glanced at me, saw my disbelief and went on. "No, really. If it rains, the clouds will empty out and move on and then it will cool down."
I could see she thought she was real smart with that one, so I had to wilt her superior attitude. "You know it won't rain now. It never rains during the solstice. You know that. It's like a rule or a custom or tradition around here. Everybody talks about it. It's just going to be muggy. No rain."
Marla sighed in resignation. She either didn't have an argument, or she was too drained of energy to muster one. That's why she played so poorly, later.
I looked out over the park where we played. There was a horse ranch right next to it that rented out rides. Whenever we could get the cash together, we would go. After we rode, we would ask if they had any old shoes we could have. Sometimes, they gave them to us. Tommy's family owned the place and if his cousin, Bart, was running the rentals that day, he would give us a big discount so we could get sodas after. Those days were the best.
How did we get from that conversation to this situation? Situation. Hell, it was more than a simple situation. This was a crisis--for me, at least.
Sitting there, on that motorcycle, clutching the grips until my hands hurt, the events that put me here were jumbled. What happened? Oh, yeah. Michael, beautiful, talented, Saint Michael some called him. He said let's make it really interesting.
"Okay, how?" I challenged him. Something fun, I was sure.
Michael proposed that we would use the somewhat elaborate points system and slowly eliminate players until there are two. They would then be allowed to cook up the prize and the punishment. So the winner could crow about their win and the loser would sail off. Banished for a length of time, or something. Oh, Michael, why weren't you more specific about the punishment?
James, the Bad Boy, had a great idea. But I didn't want to hear it.
"Let's play and if you make it to the final game, then you can share, okay?"
"Fine," he smirked and winked and turned on his heel and marched off to the boy's restroom.
I'm such a good player. I figured either I or Tommy would win. His idea of punishment would be that I'd have to eat a chocolate cone when he knew I hated them, and follow with strawberry soda, which I also hate.
James must have taken something to enhance his game while he was in that bathroom. He played with such finesse, I think we were all floored. Then it came down to me and him and he kept choosing the heaviest shoes and making them sail like feathers on a phoenix, right to the ground with a clang. Ringer after ringer, he stacked them up like a pile of pretzels.
Tommy declared James the winner. Marla planted a kiss on James' cheek. She was kind of sweet on him, I knew. I warned her about falling for the bad boy, but she wouldn't hear a voice of reason in that matter. James responded by wiping his cheek, claiming her lip gloss was gross. Then he turned to me and laughed in triumph. The jerk.
"Oh, I'm going to spend some time conjuring up your punishment," he nearly crowed like a peacock.
Everyone was laughing so loud, they didn't hear me moan. James was not an easygoing guy who would make my punishment silly or humiliating. He wouldn't want to embarrass me. He would want to hurt me. He wanted to impart physical pain, the way I had hurt him, emotionally.
His family had moved here three years ago and we had graduated from middle school to high school together. Only not together. James had a learning disability or something. While I was making the Straight A Honor Roll and getting prizes for writing short stories, he was in detention. I teased him about it. He seemed to take it, but then he would do something stupid, like deface school property or jump on the vice-principal's back at a pep rally. I never really thought it was my fault. He was just incorrigible.
Now, I searched through my skills and knowledge. I was so smart, I must have a way to get out of James' no doubt harsh punishment. My first thought was retreat.
"Gosh, it's late. I'd better get home."
"Sure," James piped in. "It can wait. Your punishment can wait."
Tommy grabbed my arm to prevent me walking off. "Hold on, James. You can't make Janice wait forever, wondering what you cook up. There has to be a deadline. Say, forty-eight hours. You have to give her some punishment by then."
I couldn't quite believe my friend Tommy was going to let James punish me for a stupid game of horseshoes, played on a hot day in June. I turned to Marla, hoping she would turn her charm on Tommy, since James thought her lips were gross. She was staring at the ground, as if a fascinating movie was playing in the dirt.
James nodded. "Okay, sure. We'll do it sometime in the next two days."
Michael smiled and nodded in agreement. "That seems fair."
I chimed in, "The next two whole days? Can't you be more specific than that?"
James started to walk away. Over his shoulder, he tossed these instructions. "If it doesn't rain, tomorrow morning. And bring that old parachute you found in your attic, Mike."
Oh, God. It never rains during solstice. It's a thing, like a tradition. Still, I found myself praying that it would rain like the monsoons of Thailand. Buckets and buckets. I prayed for floods. Little ones where no one got hurt, or property damaged. Then I realized floods would be too hard to control in my wishes, so I downsized it to just a lot of rain. For three days, just to be safe. James was capable of hurting me hard and I wasn't going to like it. And I added to my prayer, "Please, let St. Michael NOT find that stupid parachute, anywhere!" I even made the sign of the cross to make it official, even though I wasn't Catholic.
Overnight, the clouds moved off and the morning dawned, full of the promise of a nice day. I had actually forgotten about James and his punishment. I had worried myself to sleep about it, so I guess I dreamed it out of existence in the real world. Until Marla called to remind me.
"James got in trouble at home last night. Tommy says he's grounded. I guess you can enjoy this beautiful day!" Marla's relief was one tenth of mine, and she sounded very relieved.
We made plans to meet up in the afternoon. We both had applied for special summer school classes that would qualify us for Early College classwork in the fall. Marla wanted to study nursing while I hoped to earn a PhD in Physics so I could work for NASA and explore the universe. We dedicated the morning to studying before classes began. I found it difficult, to say the least, since my thoughts went back to James. What had he done? Did he get in trouble on purpose, so he wouldn't be able to issue punishment? That would be kind to the point of heroism, in my book. Then I would imagine him plotting in his room, preparing to lower the boom tomorrow. If it didn't rain. What did rain have to do with it and why did Michael need to bring that parachute?
I called Michael. "Mike, did you find the parachute?"
He sounded pleased to have finished a chore. "Yep. Yes, I did. It was up in the attic, right where I left it. I brought it downstairs so I could just grab it and go. But I don't know where to go."
"Michael," I began carefully, "Michael. Should you check it out? I mean, open it up, unfold it or something? To make sure it's in good working order?" I saw myself leaping from a tall building, like the high school, pulling the ripcord and falling to my death. I saw it replayed over and over for the rest of the long solstice day and into the short solstice night.
The next day, the clouds moved in with a vengeance, filling the sky with dark gray swarms of heavy rainclouds. The air was heavy. Thunder rumbled often, moving across the hills and down into the valley. There were even occasional flashes of lightning, deep inside the clouds, trying to get out and slam into the ground. I sat huddled under a tree near the horseshoe pads. I didn't think the lightning could get me there. After a while, Marla found me and joined me. She had apple slices which she shared. As we munched on the crunchy fruit, we looked out over the park area, to the horse ranch across the way. A few fat drops fell from the sky and Marla began to chuckle.
"Yes! There's my old friend. Rain! Thank God. I was afraid James might get his way and punish you with something awful."
God must have heard Marla's big mouth, thanking Him for something like rain, but for the wrong reason, because the rain stopped, just like a faucet turning off.
Marla looked over at me, shocked.
Before I could say anything, Tommy ran over from the horse ranch, wearing a rain poncho and carrying a toolbox.
"Hey, Tommy! Why the toolbox? What's inside?" I was feeling confident the rain was coming and it would be a big storm, and that lightened my mood considerably.
Tommy got to us and dropped to his knees. "Tools. James told me to bring them with me."
"Why?" Fear pierced my heart.
"Jannie," he began, using his childhood name for me, "Jannie," he repeated. "James is going through with your punishment today."
"What? I mean, what punishment? It's going to rain any minute, any minute, Tommy. He said-"
Tommy interrupted, "I know, but now he says maybe rain won't matter. Rain will make it more interesting, he said." Tommy rested his hands on the toolbox as if it contained gold.
I remembered it was Michael who had said that a couple of days ago. Interesting. Was Michael really behind all of this?
The three of us stayed there, under that tree until we heard the roar and sputter of an engine. James came around the corner, riding a dilapidated motorcycle. It spit and sputtered as he pulled up to us grinning inside his helmet. He turned it off and removed the helmet before he spoke.
"Good day to you all. How are you enjoying your day, today?"
Marla stood up and stepped toward James on the bike. "That thing looks mostly dead. How did you even get here from your house?"
James smiled with pride. "Michael helped me get it running. He's pretty handy with motors."
I looked around for him. How inconvenient that he wasn't around for me to choke him with my bare hands. I realized with a sigh of relief that if there was no Michael, there was no parachute. At least I didn't have to worry about how that went into play.
Tommy had squatted down to admire the motor and Marla walked around to the other side. From where I stood, they made a pretty picture, the would-be assassin and his admirers. The rats.
James looked behind me and called out, "Hey, Mike! Over here!"
I turned to see Mike riding a bicycle up the path toward us. And strapped to the rack on back was--you guessed it--that damned parachute. He pulled up behind James. "Hi, guys." Then a special, "Hi, Janice."
After that, things became a blur. James put the helmet on my head. Marla rubbed my back for some reason. Tommy took out some tools and fiddled with the motor. I saw Michael pull James away, behind the big shade tree. I felt like I was going to throw up. I gagged and caught my breath and the nausea went away. I sat down on the ground because there was a tremor, I think. The ground shifted. My heart fluttered and all the while, Tommy kept tinkering with that motorcycle and Marla rubbed my back. The helmet muffled the sounds, making me feel even more isolated.
Michael came out from behind the tree with James who was grinning even more than before.
Resolutely, I struggled to my feet. "So, what's the plan? Do I ride around town with the parachute opened behind me? I'll get a ticket for that, and for not having a license, James. I'm not even sure I can drive that thing," I added, pointing at his machine.
"Actually, Princess," he half-sneered. He called me that before when my parents paid for me to go to a music camp that he wanted to go to. He wanted it badly and I was only cared mildly. Getting to go made me a princess, somehow. He was bitter about that. Using that moniker on me now was significant. "What we're going to do is turn the tables on you. I've decided that this will be my reward and I'll think up something else for your punishment.
"We're headed up the hill to Peller's Peak." James came over to me and pulled the helmet off. Not gently. He put it back on his own head and swung his leg over the motorcycle's body. He patted the seat behind him. "Hey, Marla the Magnificent, come ride with me."
I was stunned when Marla giggled and hopped right on. James gave her his helmet to wear and they rode off, before I could even take a good breath to shout at them to stop. Michael, Tommy and I were left to walk the whole way.
But Tommy led us to the horse ranch and we got Bart to lend us three horses. There wasn't any business on such a muggy day. The clouds had lifted some. The rumbling of thunder was gone. It would be safe to ride, for now. Tommy led the way up a shortcut he knew to get to Peller's Peak. I followed and Michael was at the rear on the narrow trail.
There wasn't much opportunity for chatting because we traveled single-file most of the way. I wanted to grill Michael for details about this change of direction the day-and my life- had taken. As we wound up the way, I felt the clouds seemed to press down again and I thought I heard distant rumbling. I hoped the storm would hold off for now. No more solstice rain!
As we pulled up at the top of the trail, James and Marla were waiting for us. They seemed surprised to see us on horseback, before James laughed and said, "Of course. The Three Geniuses would find a better way!" he said "geniuses" derisively. "I thought me and Marla would have more alone time, you know?" He put his arm around Marla's waist.
Tommy jumped down from his ride and strode toward the couple. "We're here, though, so what are you going to do?" His glare spoke volumes.
"Mike, hand over the parachute. I'll have it, now." James kept smiling as he moved away from Marla, toward Mike.
Michael tossed it over, seeming to proclaim sanity in his action. James caught it as if it were an envelope of comic books, not potential death. If it didn't open, or tore, or if the wind blew the wrong way...
James climbed into the contraption's straps as if he'd been doing that forever. Marla approached him to watch more closely. Was she trying to learn how to use it? James stood straight, giving himself a shake to adjust the straps and tightened them. Then, seemingly satisfied with the fit, he walked back over to the motorcycle and stepped back onto it.
"So the new plan, Princess, is for me to ride this baby right off the cliff, like Evel Knievel, only I'm not jumping from one spot to another. I'm going to see how far out I can get and then float to earth, nice and safe. Unless the 'chute is bad. Or doesn't open. If it all comes unravelled, then I'm- well, you know- I'm dead!"
"James," Marla reached out to touch his arm, "this is crazy. I mean, at least check that 'chute out before you try this. You could really, truly get hurt. This is't stupid, it's foolish."
James grinned at her. "Thanks. I'd rather be foolish than stupid. I'm really tired of being stupid. I had plenty of time to think about this, while I was imprisoned in my room. Michael put it all together for me, but I hatched this all by myself. I'm going to prove that I'm not stupid. Careless, maybe. Foolish, okay. But not stupid. I'd rather be dead than stupid."
"James, J-James" I stuttered and tried again. "Look, if you're expecting me to try to stop you, you are mistaken." Behind me, Marla gasped and Tommy uttered some sound of disbelief. I turned to find Michael. He was petting his horse! Tickling his nose. The horse nickered. That's when I saw Michael for what he was. He was the true antagonist of this event. James was his puppet. Michael, who I had loved since 4th grade, was evil.
I turned back to James. "Be safe, Fool. Any last words?"
James seemed a little shocked. "I guess I'll see you back at the park. That's what I'll aim for. If I do this, I want to be proclaimed the Wisest One until you leave for college."
I corrected him. "Until we all leave for college. You're going too."
James chuckled as his foot reached for the ignition. "We'll see about that."
Marla tried to go to him, but Tommy pulled her back.
"Janice is right. We can stay here all day trying to convince him not to jump, but the storm is coming and it will only make it worse for him." As if to confirm Tommy's insight, there was a much louder, closer rumble from the clouds.
James the Foolish had to try the ignition three times before it finally caught. He revved the motor which sputtered and coughed and threatened to stall, but he feathered the gas until it caught better. Even through the helmet, I could see his eyes, wide with what, fear? And his smile wavered a bit. He either had to go for it or do the wise thing and call it off.
He didn't call it off. He revved the motor again and released the brake. The machine lurched forward, nearly throwing James off, like a bronco at the rodeo. He gave it more gas as man and machine hurled toward the open ledge. I know I stopped breathing at some point, watching the leap.
The machine turned on it's side and skidded to the edge, sputtering out. The sound of gravel being chewed up was the prominent sound now, accented with Marla's cries of shock and concern, Tommy's shouts of encouragement that were suddenly silenced and silence from Michael. I remembered to breathe and it came in as a gasp. As the dust settled, the machine rested about five feet from the edge. The parachute straps had not held together for the sliding across the rocky ground and it lay sprawled out in the shallow trench the slide had caused.
James' moans grew louder as we all approached him. His left leg was caught under the motorcycle. Tommy and Michael lifted the beast off to reveal the leg. Miraculously, it seemed intact. No bones had punched through the jeans, but the cloth was quite shredded. Apparently, James' jeans were sturdy enough to protect his leg. Later, we would be treated to a view of his bruises and cuts-lesions, Marla educated us to call them. And contusions. Marla would make a great nurse someday. Her affectionate inclinations toward this patient might have affected her reactions, though.
I walked over to the parachute's remains and gathered it up while Tommy and Michael helped James to his feet while Marla fussed. It was clear James could not walk back to town so they put him on a horse with Marla behind him. Tommy led the way back down the path, holding the reins for James and Marla. That left Michael and me to ride together, bringing up the rear. It was slower going with two of the mounts riding double. Plus, it was dark, getting darker by the moment. Once again, I felt the oppressive humidity that held the assuredness of a severe thunderstorm.
I wanted to ask Michael about his actions today. What were he and James talking about so secretly, out of earshot? Why was he so passive about James' loss of sanity? And why, by all that is morally correct, did he stand by while the rest of us begged James not to jump?
I never got a chance to ask him. We got back to the horse ranch. Michael said he would go back up to Peller's Peak and collect the cycle while the rest of us collected James from the horse and got him to the hospital. Once there, the doctors remarked about the condition of the leg wounds. They said they expected this kind of thing during the solstice. Longest day of the year means people's rhythms are off kilter. But given that he was dragged some 50 feet, under a big bike like that, they also called it miraculous. We marvelled and gave thanks. Then we heard the heavens open up. The lightning flashed so brightly, it shone through the outer doors and thunder shook the building. Once James was getting X-rays, I made my way to a window. The downpour was impressive. The clouds seemed to hover just above the tallest buildings, pressing buckets and buckets of rain upon the streets. From our slightly higher vantage point on a hill, I looked out over my hometown. I had never seen it quite like this. A flash of lightning blinded me, and a deep roll of thunder threatened more to come. I turned away, suddenly concerned for Michael. Had he gone straightaway to collect the evidence of our mischief? He was usually clever enough to avoid such dangers. Wasn't he? I turned back to the window and said a prayer for him. I felt the rain wash it away.
James was released from the hospital, bandaged but not broken. Marla was in heaven, insisting he lean on her as we made our way to his family's car. We left him with his folks, hoping they would not be too harsh in punishing him. They punished him often, it seemed. Then Tommy, Marla and I walked in the rain, which had gentled in delivery. Thunder still rumbled, but far off now. We worried over Michael together, almost deciding to climb up to Peller's Peak to check on him, but it had already been hours since the accident and we weren't sure where he would be by now. Tommy promised to check it out after the rain subsided. He walked off toward his house, pausing to offer a hug to Marla. He was so gone on her. I wished she could see it. Marla and I parted ways at her house and I was left to get home alone.
I walked past Michael's house and I was stunned to see a "For Rent" sign posted in the front yard. Had that been there this morning? I was in such a fog, I didn't remember seeing it. I would have noticed, wouldn't I? Even in those circumstances, I would have noticed. I walked up the stairs and up onto the porch. It was quiet. I peeked in through the front window by the swing and there were no drapes. No curtains. No nothing. The living room was empty. I peered in a little further and could make out the dining room. Also empty. My heart lurched in my chest. Where did he go? Where had his family gone? I went home to ponder the day's events with more questions.
The next morning, I called a meeting with Tommy and Marla. Marla reported that she had gone over to James' house and he was doing fine. He wasn't punished. His parents felt the pain in his leg (and his pride) was enough. The motorcycle was demolished, according to James and verified by Marla, so he would not get another until he could buy one. That would take a while, since he would be in summer school and would only work part time. Tommy added a mystery to the meeting. He had gone up to Peller's Peak at dawn, to collect the wreckage, only there was none. The trench was shallow from the rain, but it was there to confirm it had happened, but no wreckage. I added with my own mystery about Michael. We three went to the nearest realtor to ask about Michael's family, but they wouldn't tell us where they went. They didn't really seem to know. Later inquiries to Michael's neighbors also revealed nothing. The family was well-liked but they had disappeared without a forwarding address. Strange.
The takeaway from this tale is simply that we will never get all our questions answered. We had to grow up and realize that was true. Sure, James healed. Marla and I helped him study and he finished in the top ten percent of our graduating class. Marla married someone else right after nursing school. James married someone else when he was in doctoral school. Tommy had a perfect girlfriend who loved horses as much as he and helped him run the Horse Ranch, and I...I'm still looking. Maybe I'm looking for Michael. He may turn the corner right in front of me and I can ask him those questions I had while riding behind him on a horse. One night, I had a dream that maybe Michael was sent to us, to save James for greatness. I have to wait and see about that.
I thought I loved him until that last day. If I loved him? Well, who wouldn't love Saint Michael? Stay tuned.
About the Creator
Actor, writer, voice-over artist, teacher, author, mother and Grammy of 4. I've done a lot. I grew up in Bolivia, Laos and Taiwan. Married 25 years, widowed. Please read my stuff and leave a comment! Thanks.