The calendar said it was early summer, but the chilly breeze coming off the lake through the trees forced Eric, James, and Robbie to huddle around what remained of the fire they started six hours before a few feet away from the tent in Robbie’s backyard. The once low flames gave way to glowing embers that emitted just enough light so that James could barely read the face of his watch when it was held within a foot of his face.
“What time is it?” Eric asked as he banged a yellow, flickering flashlight in his hand.
James squinted and looked at the watch. “5:15.”
“What time does the convenience store open?” Robbie asked as he rummaged through the busted, green Jansport backpack filled with card binders.
“You mean the marina?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I guess sometime around 6, about sunrise. It kind of depends on who is working.”
“HA HA!” Robbie shouted as he hoisted a trapper keeper with a picture of red ‘83 Ferrari on the front into the air. “Found it.” He opened it and pointed to the first nine pocket page filled with random baseball cards. “It’s right h-”
“Wait,” Eric interrupted him. “I thought you said you had the whole first two series of Garbage Pail Kids. That’s stupid baseball cards.” Robbie winked at him and flipped two-thirds of the way through the binder. A light blue wrapper with a cartoon boy sitting in the middle of it caught his eye. The empty wrapper from the cards was placed in the top left corner of the page and was only slightly ripped.
Garbage Pail Kids
All New SECOND Series
5 Stickers * 1 Stick of Bubble Gum
“You know you gotta hide these things. They’re as good as gold. Kids’ll give you their lunch money for them and adults want to destroy them. One kid on the bus told me his mom took his and left them out in the rain overnight so that he’d see them ruined in the morning before she threw them away.”
“Ok,” Robbie said as he blew his black hair out of his eyes. “We need to get a move on. We got a schedule we gotta follow or we’re busted. You know she don’t want us going all the way down to the store...especially to get some cards.”
“So your mom wakes up about 7:00 on Saturdays, right?” Eric asked.
“Yep,” Robbie answered.
“And then she fixes her coffee?”
“And what time will she check on us?”
“About 7:30, but she’ll think we wandered off in the woods and probably go back in and watch some show...but we gotta be back by 8:00 because she’ll know something’s up if we’re not back by then.”
James looked up and said, “So that gives us a little less than three hours to get to the store, grab the cards, and head back.”
“Yeah,” Robbie answered.
“Should we grab a fishing pole or two just in case?” James asked as he picked up a cane pole. Robbie and Eric shrugged their shoulders. “Well, let’s go.”
The boys bolted at once for the pile of bicycles by the corner of the house. Eric carefully strapped his flashlight with a bungee cord to the front of his dark blue, He-Man bike as James picked up the blood red BMX and hopped on it in one motion. Robbie’s Kuwahara was like the one in ET the Extra-Terrestrial. In unison, they pulled a baseball card from their respective pockets and shoved it into the spokes.
Eric moved out to the front with his flashlight illuminating a dirt path most people would miss without assistance as the crickets announced their arrival in the woods. They made clicking noises as they eased downhill on the path in the general direction of the lake.
“You know it would be a lot easier to sneak around if we didn’t have these cards in the wheels making all this noise,” Eric said without looking back.
James’s voice broke through the clanking and chirping sounds behind his head. “Well that’s how my pop said to do it, so that’s how I do it.” They traveled the remainder of the path in relative silence, save for an “oof” or “ah” as one of them hit a bump
The lake was calm. Off in the distance, the glow of a power plant broke up a orange horizon blending into red that was starting to change to dawn. The blinking lights on the faroff structure seemed to signal the bicyclists. The smokestacks sent semi-transparent, gray billows of smoke into the atmosphere. They stopped, but Robbie was the only one to use his kickstand.
“You know what that reminds me of?” Eric asked as he gestured to the smokestack on the left.
James looked inquiringly as Robbie asked, “What?”
“That place in Lord of the Rings.”
“Which one? The shire?”
“The shire? Why would it be the shire?
“Well what then?”
“You know. The mountain at the end of the book.”
“Doom,” James added.
“Huh?” Eric asked.
“Doom. Mount Doom.”
“Oh yeah. Where they threw the rings.”
“Yeah keep dreaming on that one, Bilbo,” Eric said.
“Frodo,” James corrected him.
“Frodo was Lord of the Rings. Bilbo was The Hobbit. Frodo tossed the ring”
“NERDS!” Robbie shouted as all three burst into laughter.
“Besides,” Eric added. “I don’t think even the Goonies could pull that one off.”
“Goonies never say DIE!” they shouted in unison.
“We better hurry if we are gonna get the cards and get back before Mom notices.”
For the next 40 minutes, they carefully followed a series of loosely connected trails along the edge of the lake. Eric and James would occasionally get off their bikes and push them. The sky shifted from the former colors of daybreak to the light blue of early morning. James adjusted his sunglasses on the edge of his nose, and Eric wiped a few beads of perspiration off his forehead as they passed the faded No Trespassing sign. Robbie’s blue GI Joe t-shirt was drenched in sweat as he stood on the pedals of his bicycle and used all the strength in his legs.
“How close are we? Eric asked.
“Another mile or two,” Robbie said.
Then it happened.
The back wheel of Eric’s bicycle caught the front spoke of James’s. The rubber part of the Eric’s tire wedged itself in the fork below the handlebars of the BMX. James was catapulted off the bike and towards the bank heading into the lake as Eric was slammed to a halt. He hit the slope and tumbled down through brush and rocks as Eric dragged his right foot on the ground to brace himself.
In one swift motion, Robbie leapt off his bicycle and made a failed attempt to grab him as his rough journey down the hill started. “James!” he shouted.
The briars ripped at James’s clothes and tore at his skin as the rocks and sticks reminded him how rough mother nature can be. His bike followed close behind flipping wheel over wheel. The fishing rod bent nearly in half and then launched into a nearby bush.
James continued his tumble down the steep slope as Eric and Robbie watched helplessly from their perch. James hit the edge of the precipice and the next sound they heard was a splash.
“JJJAAAAMMMEEESSSSSSSSS!” Eric and Robbie shouted in unison.
Nothing. The two began their careful descent. Eric’s foot slipped on a stick, but Robbie quickly caught his arm.
“James! We’re coming.”
“Robbie! Go. Go. Go. We gotta hurry!”
“I know. I know.”
Branches, shards of rocks, and even an occasional bottle attempted to impede them.
“James!” Eric shouted as they reached the edge.
“I’m...ok,” a familiar voice came from below. They peered over the edge and there he was floating on his back with his right hand on his forehead. “I mean this. I’m ok. Trust me.” He winced. “It just… It just…knocked the wind out of me.”
“Hold on,” Eric said. “We got ya. Hold on.” He looked over at Robbie. In a low voice, he said, “What do we do?”
“What do we do?”
“Heck if I know.”
“Guys,” the voice below them said. “Think y’all could help me out of here?”
“Ok. You gotta hold on.”
Robbie’s eyes surveyed the surrounding area. “We need something. We need-” The fishing rod sticking halfway out of a nearby bush caught his eye. “That! We need that!” He bolted straight for it.
“Hey, James!” Eric shouted down at him. “Can you swim?”
“Not really. My leg hurts. Pretty sure I banged it on the way down.”
“I’m here,” Robbie said as he pushed Eric to the side. “I got the rod. Grab it and we’ll pull you over.”
Robbie deliberately lowered himself over towards the edge with the rod in his right hand. Eric braced him by holding his opposite shoulder.
“Here it comes.”
Robbie stretched the pole out as far as it would go. “I can’t quite get him,” he said with a panicked look back at Eric. “Grab my leg. I think I can get him if I get a little more-” The rocks under his right knee shifted throwing off his balance. In a moment of panic, he grasped for Eric and grabbed his shirt.
Over the edge and into the water they plummeted. Robbie landed first a few feet away from James, and Eric splashed down a moment later almost on top of him. They flailed in the water as they attempted to regain their composure.
The boys wiped the water from their eyes and realized they were within the grasp of each other. Eric reached out for James’s right shoulder and Robbie did the same on the left. They pulled him over to where the shore leveled off between solid ground and the water where they helped James to his feet and made their way to a large boulder halfway back to the woods. They collapsed on it.
“You ok?” Eric asked.
“Yeah,” Robbie answered.
“Not you, dummy. Him!” he said with a gesture to his other friend.
James took a moment and looked up and down his body. Blood trickled from one knee, his shirt was ripped at the bottom, and scrapes covered most of his visible skin, but they were not deep enough to draw blood.
“Yeah. Except I’m soaking wet.” He started to chuckle.
“Well thanks to you we are all soaked.”
The friends broke into hysterical laughter before lying back on the massive rock. James shut his eyes and Eric looked for shapes in the clouds. Robbie walked over and grabbed both halves of the broken fishing pole.
“That one looks like my dog, Buster,” Eric said.
“That cloud. It looks like my dog.”
“Oh,” James said. “Well that one looks like a clock at my grandma’s house.”
“Wait. What time is it?” Robbie asked.
“Ummm. Oh God! It is almost 7:40,” Eric said as he glanced at his watch.
“Mom! Oh crap! Mom!”
“What about the cards?”
“Forget about the cards. We need to worry about my mom! James you good?”
He nodded and hoisted himself into the air.
As if being chased by the devil himself, the boys grabbed their bikes and tore off to Robbie’s house. Disregarding low hanging branches, briars, and the random rabbit, they tore through the forest surrounding the lake. They cleared the woods behind his house as they saw a silhouette move past the window in the kitchen.
“We’re wet,” James said. “And I’m bleeding. What are we gonna do?”
“Jump in the sleeping bags, zip them up, and hope she doesn’t check.”
They dove through the tent door and into the bags as the back-porch door opened.
“Did my boys have a good night?” her voice rang out.
They did not answer.
“Y’all in there?”
“Yeah, ma,” Robbie said.
“Ok. Well hope you had fun.”
“We did.” He could hear her hand move to the zipper of the tent. “We’re ok, ma. Just tired.”
“Well hopefully you didn’t get into too much trouble.”
“Nah, ma. We didn’t.”
“Well I’m leaving you a little something out here for being so good.”
“Ok. Thanks.” Her feet retreated to the house, and they heard the door open and close. Robbie popped one eye out and looked towards the house.
“What is it?”
“What did she bring us?’ Eric asked. “Donuts or something?”
“Man, I’d love a donut.”
Robbie looked down at the bottom of the door of the tent. There sat six packs of the cards with the familiar blue wrappers and the little boy on the front. He laughed as the kitchen window opened.
“You know I hate those things, but I picked them up last night for you boys. They were the last packs at the marina.”
“You mean we didn’t even have to-” Eric stopped himself as he wrung water out of his shirt.
Phillip Gillis is a teacher, writer, wanderer, semi-retired professional wrestler, and father of two beautiful children. He is also a proud native of Allensville, NC and grew up in in a hardware store, C&G Supply Center.