The Man by the River
The Bentley family had found exactly what they were looking for: a seven-foot-tall Douglas Fir.
“Told you we’d find the perfect tree,” James said to his three children: Eva, the oldest, Megan, the middle child, and William, the adventurous, inquisitive four-year-old.
“Doesn’t it look a little…bare?” Eva asked.
“We’ll dress it up a bit,” their mother Elise said as James bent down on a knee and started hacking away at the tree’s trunk with his saw.
“Mom,” Megan said, turning around. “Where’d Billy go?”
“He was just here, wasn’t he?” Elise called for him. When her son didn’t respond, Elise muttered, “Shit.”
Truthfully, Billy hadn’t wandered far—but it was far enough.
The boy discovered a path that cut through the family of firs, which led to a ravine beyond them. Snow covered the ground and the limbs just enough to muffle the sound of his mother’s voice.
Billy loved exploring the forest near their home, so what made this Christmas tree farm any different?
When Billy came out the other side, he spotted the ravine, but the sunset caught his attention even more. It had barely dipped below the mountains in the west, leaving behind it a wake of intermingled pinks and purples.
“Whoa,” he whispered, stepping closer.
The crest of the ravine was coated in a thin layer of ice. When Billy’s boots met its surface, he slipped and fell hard on his back. Before he knew what was happening, he was sliding down the steep slope, picking up speed. Fast.
The boy tried to reach out to anything nearby to slow his descent, but there was nothing to grasp. Only ice.
When he saw what was fast approaching, he tried to scream, but nothing came out.
Billy sped off the two-foot bank and plunged into the water’s icy embrace. The river wasn’t all that deep, but Billy wasn’t all that tall.
And he didn’t know how to swim.
The boy inhaled a mouthful of water and tried kicking himself to the surface, but his feet couldn’t reach the river bottom. He thrashed in the water, opened his eyes, and looked up through its cold, murky depths.
He couldn’t see—couldn’t breathe. The struggle went on for endless seconds. He felt the life leave his body.
But then, as if out of thin air, he felt a strong hand—a fierce grip—on his forearm.
Billy was pulled out of the river, coughing and spitting up water. When he glanced up, he saw a man standing before him that he didn’t recognize but would never forget. The man appeared to be his grandfather’s age. He had a thick mustache, round spectacles, and ruddy cheeks.
The sound of muffled voices and crunching footsteps broke the silence that separated the man and the boy.
Billy heard his mother’s voice, “Billy! Oh my God, Billy,” and then his father’s: “Jesus Christ!”
And that’s when William Bentley blacked out.
Three weeks later, Billy and his family sat by their Christmas tree in the living room. It somehow looked more alive than it did at the farm.
Billy never mentioned the man because he must have imagined it—plus, his parents never asked.
Eva and Megan had taken out the old photo albums from the cedar chest in the basement. Billy was by the tree, building a racetrack for his Hot Wheels when his sisters called him over.
“Oh my God, Billy,” Eva said. “Dad looked just like you when he was little.”
“Oh my gosh, Eva,” Elise corrected, to which the girl rolled her eyes.
Billy walked over and sat between his sisters. Eva pointed at the old photo of their father. But it wasn’t their father who caught his eye.
There in the background was the man from the river.
Billy tried to speak, but it felt like he’d been thrown back into the frigid water. It caught his breath.
“What’s the matter?” Megan asked, ever in tune with her younger brother.
Billy shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Doesn’t he look like you?” Eva asked, pointing at their father’s boyhood photo. Billy nodded but couldn’t take his eyes off the man with the mustache, the man who wore the spectacles.
The man who likely saved his life.
“Who is he?” Billy asked, pointing at him. The girls didn’t reply at first.
“Isn’t that Grandpa’s dad?” Eva asked her parents.
James walked over and grasped the album. “Ah, it sure is. That’s your great-grandfather, William. None of you ever had the chance to meet him. He passed away before you were born, Eva. He was a good man, but he was tough.”
Billy continued to stare at the photo.
“Why’d you ask, buddy?” James turned to his son.
Billy wanted to tell his father he was wrong—that he had, in fact, met the man.
Instead, he said, “Just wondering.”
Christmas came and went. Then another. And another.
The boy grew and became a teenager—the teenager a man.
Billy never stopped wondering until he was an elderly man on his deathbed.
In the middle of the night, his bedroom door creaked open. A faint light poured in, illuminating the figure who walked to Billy’s bedside.
It was his great-grandfather, William. He wore the same spectacles, the same bushy mustache.
William held out his hand and smiled. “Remember me?”
Thank you so much for reading “The Man by the River” today. I hope you enjoyed it.
I have some exciting news to share! Within the next week or two I will be releasing my first book, 50 Fifties: a Justin Deming Literary Project. As you may have guessed, it contains fifty of my personal favorite “fifties” I’ve written over the past couple of years. I’m beyond thrilled with how it turned out and forever grateful to those who helped me throughout the process.
Please keep me in mind when you are purchasing books for the holidays!
Stay tuned for an official release date.
This Friday, December 1, will be our next Fifties by the Fire meetup. As usual, I’ll schedule the thread to pop up in your inbox at 3:00 PM EST. Please see the prompt below if you’d like to get a head start on writing your fifty-word story!
Prompt: Write a fifty-word story (fiction, CNF, or poem) that utilizes the name of a town, city, state, or province.
Happy writing, my friends!
I hope you have a wonderful week.
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