Olin shed his loafers and socks and tie in the oppressively humid Alabama August heat then rolled up his slacks to his knees before taking that first step out onto the top of the narrow dam that spanned about 80 feet between the banks of the Little Warrior River where the long-gone old mill used to be. He felt more than a little foolish, but not enough to retreat.
And not that it was much of a dam anymore. Long-neglected spillways had clogged and the river ran over the dam’s entire width. The water felt good and cool moving slowly over his feet up to his ankles and then dropping in a fall of about 10 feet to a pile of rocks and wood and rusting metal that could be trouble should one lose one’s balance and follow the water onto them.
What had it been, twenty-five years since he’d last been here standing in the same place? Now as a thirty-two-year-old adult, then as a seven year old who’d been visiting his grandma for the summer.
He’d come back from California for the first time in a quarter century for his 97-year-old grandmother’s funeral. Helped carry her casket from the church to the hearse and the hearse to the grave site next to her husband, finally joining Olin’s grandfather who’d been buried there since a year before Olin was born. He left the cemetery immediately after the ceremony and instead of going to a reception and being hemmed in by relatives he didn’t know, he decided to come straight to the dam, and it wasn’t much of a mystery why.
It was here that his second cousins Tommy and Leroy — twice his age — crossed the dam almost at a full run and sat on the other side smoking Lucky Strikes and sipping a big glass bottle of Mountain Dew and calling him chicken and worse for not being able to follow them. Even at this late date it still stung. A lot.
It was wetter, too. A lot. And as Olin took a few unsteady steps forward he also found it far more slippery, owing to the thick moss or algae or whatever it was that had found the top of the submerged dam a perfect place to proliferate.
“You can do this,” he said out loud, inching along the two-foot-wide top as if he was walking a tightrope. It sure felt like it, and he made a note that if he ended up falling to do his best to do so to his left into the murky deep water behind the damn rather than the void to his right. He also figured out that it was wiser to just shuffled his feet along through the muck rather than pick them up and out of the water and put them back down. Even though the current was lazy it was still enough to push his feet as he lifted and placed them making the simple act of taking a step that much more of a challenge.
“We’ll just leave them underwater,” he said to himself while wiping a trickle of sweat that ran from his temple down his left cheek and glancing across to the opposite bank — still a long way off. Only now Tommy and Leroy were sitting there smoking cigarettes and drinking pop out of a large bottle.
“What the –!”
Olin shook his head hard enough to almost cause him to fall to his right, then over-compensated and almost dunked himself to the left. Pinwheeling his and arms out perpindicular to his body as if he was trying to fly, he was able to regain his balance then cautiously looked up slowly and saw… nothing. Just the overgrown patch of riverbank next to what remained of the stone foundation of the old mill.