“See you later, Mom! Me and Alfred are taking the steamboat up the Mississippi for an adventure!” Hurley said.
“Hold on there, Lee. It’s your birthday; you know the drill.”
Hurley slid his shoes off, kicked them across the kitchen, almost hitting his sister Marina. “Sorry,” he said as he stood in the door frame. His mother grabbed a pen from the junk drawer and walked over to the door.
“Amazing! You’ve grown an inch and a half since last year. At this rate, you’ll be taller than both me and dad by the time you’re a teenager.”
“You better watch out mom, I’m coming for ya!”
“Ok, you and Freddy have a responsible day out on the water in the canoe,” she said. Most parents would say, “Be safe,” but she knew being responsible was more encompassing and helped him grow into the fine young man she knew he could be.
“Mom, it’s not a canoe; it’s a steamboat. I’m going to teach Alfred all the terms to become a pilot like me so we can travel the world together.”
“Ok then, you and Fred enjoy your day on the steamboat. Oh, wait! I still need to take your birthday picture.”
Hurley smiled obediently and posed for the photo. “Can I go now, mom?”
“You can go. Remember to be safe; I mean responsible. Be back before dinner. I’m making your favorite.”
Hurley grabbed the sack lunch he had prepared and headed to the backyard.
The shed door squeaked as Hurley pulled it open. There she was, the canoe—I mean, the steamboat.
He grabbed the boat at the bow and dragged it towards the water access point. Once there, he went back and closed the shed door, as a responsible boy would do. He whistled for Alfred, grabbed his lunch, and headed back to the boat.
Alfred jumped in the boat and laid down at the bow. Just as Hurley was about to launch the boat, he remembered.
“Paddles! Al, we forgot the paddles,” he said. The mutt just looked at him. It was clear this was a human problem.
He ran and grabbed the paddles, launched the boat, and jumped in. It looked like they would tip over for a second, but he caught his balance and stabilized.
“We’re off, Al,” he said. The pup stood up and peeked over the front of the boat, his tail wagging.
“Leadsman! What’s our mark?” He asked. “Silly dog. That means you should throw over the lead line to see how far down the river bed is.”
Alfred was not amused. He kept looking ahead windward with the river’s mist hitting his face.
“Ok. I’ll do it myself.”
He pretended to throw over the weighted rope and slowly lowered it until he felt the bottom.
“Just what I thought. Mark Twain. That’s two fathoms, or twelve feet to you, Al. Looks like we’re good to go on our adventure now.”
Hurley tapped the engine bell to signal full speed ahead, and they were off.
“Ok, boy. It’s time for your first lesson. If you’re going to be a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, you’ve got to know the basic terms,” he said.
Al looked at him, stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth, and listened to him attentively.
“First, you have the bow and the stern. That’s easy. That’s the front and back of the boat, in that order.”
Al gave him a bark.
“Second, you have the port and the starboard sides of the boat. Lots of people get these mixed up, so pay attention. The port side is the left side of the boat when you’re looking toward the bow or the front. Starboard is the right side of the boat. Got it?”
Al groaned a bit and looked at Hurley with his head tilted.
“Augh, it’s easy, Al. The port is the left side where you get on the boat. The Starboard is the other side. Starboard was originally called steer board. Since most people, unlike myself, are right-handed, it was on the right side.”
By this time, Hurley was starting to feel the work of his rowing. This was hard. He decided to take a few moments to rest and float along.
“What do you think so far, Al?” He asked. “There’s nothing like the cool water and the puffy clouds above. A guy could get used to this. One day, I will become a real captain and travel the world.”
“Oh no, Al! You forgot to do the most important job as a steamboat pilot—always be looking ahead for trouble, and trouble is ahead!”
Some forty feet ahead was a sandbar, and they were headed straight for it. He tapped the engine bell to signal full stop, but it was too late. The bow of the boat ran up onto the sandbar.
“Dagnabbit, Alfred! You’re supposed to be watching,” he said. He knew it was his own fault, but it felt better to blame Al.
Alfred barked as if to say, “Don’t blame me; I’m just a dog.”
“I guess our only option now is portage.” Hurley leaped out of the boat into the shoal and dragged the canoe over the sandbar. It took some doing, but he managed.
He jumped back in the boat and began rowing. He felt dumb about his mistake. Any pilot worth salt knows to watch out for sandbars on the Mississippi. A good pilot knows where every one of them is and communicates with other pilots to see how the river has changed since the last pass through.
“We also need to watch out for low bridges, Al,” he said. “It wouldn’t be good to rip the top of our boat off on the underbelly of a bridge.”
After paddling for a while longer, they saw a bridge ahead. He slowed down. It looked like it was going to be a tight fit. Slowly and meticulously, he navigated under the bridge. It seemed like it took a long time to pass under it, but in the end, they made it safely through.
“Whew. That was close, Alfred. You really pulled your weight on that one. I couldn’t have done it without you. At this rate, you’ll be a pilot in no time.”
Al jumped at Hurley’s lap and licked him in the face. Gross.
“I think it’s about time for some grub, don’t you, Al? Let’s jump in the skiff and row to the starboard bank for lunch. We’ll have to head ashore and find something cool to drink.”
He rowed to a small dock off to the right and tied up the boat. He grabbed his sack lunch.
“Come on, boy,” he said to Alfred. “Let’s go see what we can find to drink.”
Hurley and Alfred headed uphill from the dock. At the top, he saw a small gas station that was perfect.
“You stay out here. I’ll grab us a Dr. Pepper and some water.”
He entered the building and made his way back to the drinks. “Man.” he thought. “Dr. Pepper is expensive here. Sheesh. So is the water. I’m glad I brought some extra cash.”
He plopped down the drinks and waited for the man behind the counter to tell him the total. Instead, the man turned pale, like he’d seen a ghost.
“Are you Hurley Brown?” The man asked.
“Yeah. How do you know my name?”
“Are you the son of Charles and Jan from Anson Crest?”
“Yeah.” He said, confused.
The man was shaking. He slowly turned around the newspaper he had been reading. The headline read:
HURLEY BROWN MYSTERY STILL UNSOLVED
Ten years later and the trail is still cold.
The article showed the same photo his mother had taken a few hours ago. He was wearing the same clothes.
“What kind of prank is this?” Hurley asked.
“This is no prank, kid. You and your dog have been missing for ten years. Where have you been all this time?”
“I haven’t been anywhere. Look, me and Al have been on the steamboat all morning.”
“Alfred, my dog. We only left the house a couple of hours ago.”
“Listen, kid. We better call your parents,” the man said. “Do you know your number?”
“Of course, I know my number; I’m not a child.”
“What’s the area code?”
“The area code. Let’s just call 911.”
In any other circumstance, Hurley would think hanging out in the back of a squad car would be cool, but he and Alfred were scared. Hurley wasn’t sure what was going on. He kept thinking this was a prank that was about to be over. Maybe some of his friends would pop out from around the corner and yell, “Gotcha!”
“We got ahold of your mom and the chief, and they’ll be here in a few minutes, kiddo,” the officer said. “Just hang here for a bit.”
When mom and dad got there, mom was bawling her eyes out. It looked like dad was about to break too. Mom hugged him so hard his back hurt.
Hurley’s Mom and dad looked different. Mom’s hair was now completely gray. Dad’s had patches of gray. They both had gained weight. They both had more wrinkles than he remembered. Dad was wearing a policeman’s uniform, which took Hurley by surprise.
They all jumped in the wagon to drive home. He thought it was weird that they brought along Marina’s babysitter until he realized the thirteen-year-old girl sitting next to him was his sister. He didn’t even recognize her. Last he saw, she was about three. It was all too weird.
“Dad, was me and Alfred really gone for ten years?” He asked.
“Yes. A lot has changed while you were gone,” he said. “Listen, I don’t know where you were, but I’m glad you’re back.”
“Mom? What do I do now? I feel like I’m on a different planet.”
“Truthfully, I don’t know,” she said. “We stick together, and we figure it out.” There was a profound loss in her eyes that he could not fathom.
Hurley sat back in his seat and looked out the window for the rest of the ride home. The town looked the same and not the same. There were new buildings and buildings that were missing. This world looked like his, but it wasn’t.
After supper, he went to his room. Alfred was with him as he sat on his bed, trying to understand what was happening.
“Knock knock,” Marina said. “I’m glad you’re back, even if I don’t remember much.”
“Thanks. It’s good to be back, I guess.”
“Where were you?”
“I don’t know. All I know is me and Al left the house in the canoe this morning, and now we’re here.”
“You know how that sounds, right? It’s impossible. You had to have been somewhere for all that time.”
“I know how it sounds, but that’s what happened. I wish I knew what to say. Everyone keeps looking at me like I’m crazy.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy. I don’t know you well enough yet to know for sure,” she said and smiled at him.
“I think I just want to go to sleep. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and find that this was just a random dream. This has been one very long Saturday.”
Hurley’s alarm went off. He was glad for a new day. He got ready for church just like any other Sunday and headed downstairs to see what was cooking for breakfast.
He was surprised to find that he was the first one up. Usually, mom and dad were already up waiting for him by now.
“Mom? Dad? Did I get up too early? I thought we would be leaving for church soon,” he said.
“Oh,” mom said. “I guess it is Sunday. Charles, wake up; we’ll be late for church.”
“Late for what?”
The drive to church was awkward. The silence was finally broken when Marina asked where they were going. “Church,” Mom said. She just seemed more confused.
Finally, they saw the sign up ahead—First Anson Crest Church. They all spilled out of the car and walked up to the front door.
Mom looked at dad; he looked her straight in the eyes. It was as if they were speaking to each other without saying a word. Dad opened the door, and we all went in.
A greeter in the foyer handed dad a bulletin. “It sure is great to see you folks again. It’s been a while,” he said.
Dad said, “Good to be here, thanks.” He quickly moved on to get a seat at the very back of the auditorium.
Hurley looked around. He was sure this was the same church they went to last week, but it looked different. The pews were not the same color he remembered. The carpet was different. Most of all, he only recognized a few people.
After church was over, they went out to a cafeteria. They sat together and joked and laughed and had a great time.
For a few minutes, Hurley felt like things were normal, just like old times. Problem was, for him, “old times” were just a few days ago.
Days and weeks went by. Life became routine, but things never felt comfortable. It was like he was living someone else’s life. It wasn’t fair.
Mom and dad were trying, but they didn’t look at him the same. They had moved on ages ago and were swept back from a painful loss they hardly knew what to do with in the first place. It was as if they feared loving him in case he was lost again.
A year passed. It was once again his birthday. It was not an enjoyable year. All his friends had already graduated and scattered. It was weird that he and his sister were the same age. Even worse, his mother didn’t prompt him to get his height marked or take a birthday picture.
He put on that shirt from the photo in the paper. It had become his favorite over the last year. It reminded him of how things used to be.
He grabbed his sack lunch and headed out.
“Come on, Alfred. Let’s go for a walk.”
Alfred had been with him from the very beginning. He found comfort in that but still felt this new world had little to offer. Ten years had passed by and forgot to include him. He would never become a pilot and travel the world with such a lousy record. What kind of pilot loses ten years on a journey?
Hurly and Al found themselves back by the dock where they had left the canoe.
“We might as well take her back home, boy,” he said to Al.
Alfred tilted his head and whimpered. He jumped in the canoe and laid down at the bow, just like before. It seems Alfred agreed.
Hurley joined him. He untied the boat that had been sitting there for a year. Nobody wanted to mess with the boat of a missing boy and his dog.
He grabbed the paddles, backed away from the bank, and began rowing towards home.
They slowly passed under the bridge as before, without drama. He was too old now for pretending. It had been over a year since he had read about Mark Twain and his adventures. He could hardly remember all the terms himself.
Up ahead, he saw a sandbar. No mistakes this time; he navigated around it just fine.
Another hour of rowing, and they’d be home. Alfred moved back and sat next to Hurley. He found it comforting. Somehow dogs know just the right time, and this was the right time.
He finally reached the access point to his yard. He and Al jumped out. Alfred ran on ahead toward the house. Hurley grabbed the craft’s bow and dragged it up to the shed. He opened the shed and pulled the canoe in. The door squeaked as he closed it.
“Back so soon?” His mom asked.
“Yeah, I just wanted to bring the canoe home.”
“You mean the steamboat?”
“Yeah, the steamboat,” he said. He looked up at her and began to cry. “Mom! Your hair!”
“Yes, I have hair, son. I promise I brushed it this morning. What has gotten into you?”
He was at a loss for words. “It’s just so pretty,” he said.
“If you say so,” she said. “You know, I swear you’ve grown another inch and a half since this morning. You need to stop having so many birthdays.”
“I feel older too.”
“I tell you what. Why don’t you get washed up and play with your sister while I work on supper.”
He went to his room and threw the remains of his sack lunch on the bed. He sat down, opened the bag, and pulled out the article clipping. It was still there. It did happen. But now he was home, and that future didn’t matter anymore; it was the past, and he had gained a year in a single day.
Maybe he wasn’t such a bad pilot. He realized his adventure was just beginning, and the whole world was waiting for him.