From the edge of her vision, Julie saw a flash of yellow, a blur of rocks. The little boy giggled as his feet slipped, splashing into the raging river. Loosened leaves and dirt caught in the current, flew like clouds before a storm, then gone.
Julie yanked him up by his shirt, “Billy, watch yourself!” Her heart raced, pounding a drumbeat of what could have been. Just five years old, he laughed, kicked his feet, thinking he was indestructible. The rapids of the American river roared wild, white foam horses thrashing just below her blue gingham picnic blanket. She had felt it pull on her, wanting her back, suddenly remembering the pain of not breathing, being under the fast running river, so many years ago. “Mom, let me go!” She recognized the ache in her forearm from holding him tight and released, he ran off safe into the cold granite rocks and brush.
Julie needed to make a choice. Wait here for her past, or leave to move toward her future.
“Your Father and brother should be back soon.” Julie’s smile left as Billy turned away, her eyes up the river, her teeth grinding. The simple picnic she had brought, was gone and the t-shirt and shorts she wore were little protection from the chill, or her anger.
The two hour rafting trip had stretched past four hours, and still no sign of them. Just like that man to ruin her day with his plans. She turned her wrist to look at her watch again, not seeing the time, but the goosebumps on her skin from the creeping cold. She needed to see Billy's father, Matt. The goosebumps started all over again thinking about him, and his strong warm hands. If she left right now, she would make their dinner, but she wanted to see her other son, 15 years old but no where near being an adult, to be sure he was safe from his trip with his father. And of course there was no cell phone signal to call out here on the river. Again she wondered how she became the woman with two 'baby-daddies'. Both needed her, but what did she need for herself?
Other groups floated by, cheering as the professionally guided rafts flowed through the giant boulders, floating and bobbing in the rumbling white water like brightly colored butterflies.
“I am sure they are having a great time. They must have stopped for a long lunch.” Julie spoke to the back of Billy’s head as he built a cairn of rocks. “They lost track of time, maybe…”
Her once- husband didn't pay attention to time, or safety, gambling his easy charm and athleticism against life and nature. His masochism worked with puppies and rough boys, but it scraped his sensitive son raw. What risks would he take to prove his worth as a father on the raft?
Her own experience on the river so many years ago had been forgotten, buried deep in her memories. But the smell of the water, the rumble of it flowing past teleported her back, squeezing her lungs so her breath caught in her chest. Her thoughts spun like a twig in the rapids, being tossed and turned from fury at his delay, to concern, to outright panic.
It had been hours since she dropped them and the small, orange raft off at the Put-in. Just the two of them, and the small waterproof bag of a lunch. All around them big groups stepped into larger rafts, wearing matching life vests from the tour groups, with serious young men and women as guides. Billy desperately wanted to go, but Julie held him back, the small orange raft was too full already, weighed down with the anger between the unforgiving father and misunderstood son.
The glint of metal she had seen in her older son’s hand as he got in the boat, flickered in her mind’s eye, what could it have been? The small object had fallen out of his swim shorts before he scrambled to bury it deep in his pocket. Staring at the river, as a gray cloud crossed against the crystal blue sky, she suddenly knew it was the buck knife, the brass bolsters catching the sun. The knife, a gift from his father, she had last seen in a box in the back of his closet with a clean football and unused baseball glove.
Julie felt the weight of the time passing like a heavy cloak, pulling her down. Matt was waiting for her. Matt and Billy were her future, their life together easy and joyful. She should just leave, they were fine in their raft right? They had a car parked here to bring them home.
The water flowed endlessly, following the course nature intended in its rush to the sea. A few boats flipped as the river tried to take them, laughing heads bobbing in the white water, oblivious to any danger. Julie’s heart tossed in her chest each time people entered the water, panicking for the unthinkable to happen right there in front of her. Pulled into shore they reunited with families, safe again on land. Spray from the river reached up cold hands for her and Billy. She stood up to be ready, to look farther upriver for any sign. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, all the dots of color were gone, no more boats littered the gorgeous scene.
Julie knew she was making a decision by not moving, waiting for a sign, anything to calm her fears.
A golden eagle swooped down low over the white capped blue-green water, then up, over the tall trees and gone into the cerulean blue sky.
“Father and Son time, it’ll make a man out of him, he said.” Julie choked back a sob, her legs twisted tight underneath her. “This was his Dad’s idea.” She said, more to herself than Billy. The lie tasted bitter in her mouth. Desperation fueled this trip, anything to get her boy to act like a boy. Her first marriage had flipped on the rocks of her son’s too long hair and earrings. She had looked to find the person under the make-up and dresses, while his father just saw disobedience, and rebellion. Her beautiful boy sat alone with a man neither of them trusted. She remembered the fight to get him into the old, faded orange equipment, him agreeing only when she called it pink. Scared of the river, he wouldn't let go until she pushed him into the tiny raft. Her older son still needed her, needed her to pull him out of this river. Why did he bring that knife on a rubber boat? The cold wind from upriver blew hard, scattering the picnic plates, and her life.
Rowing fast, a yellow raft came down the river toward her. Then, there it was! The orange raft appeared around a far bend, jerking strangely in the water, bouncing in the fast current, only a single paddle solemnly moving. Why were there not two? The motion confused her until Julie saw the rope connecting the two boats, pulling taught when they drifted apart, then dropping into the water as they moved closer. Seeing the orange boat finally, she allowed herself to release her fear, her tense muscles and her breath. Julie’s lungs burned and she did not even know how long she had been holding her breath in. The two boats moved so slow, an eternity of waiting. The first boat came close, the men were strangers, but their tension vibrated even from this distance. Julie could only see them waving, pointing behind them, the roar of the rapids drowned out their voices.
“What are you saying? Julie held a cupped palm to her ear.
She needed to move on, go with Billy to find Matt, leave this mess in her past. But, what if?
Julie made a decision, she would-