We have an ending. Is it THE ending. Maybe, maybe not. I haven't 100% decided. Let me know if you think there should be more.
We called it the forest. It was only a few hundred trees along the riverbank. If you stood in just the right spot and looked at just the right angle you could see clear through them - from the stubble field on one side to the ripening durum across the river. Surrounding the forest for as far as you could see was mile upon mile of sun blasted, wind swept prairie. For us this was the forest.
By 10 am, the baking heat would be unbearable. The trees might not have been much, but they stood thick enough to provide a little shade.
Bing was riding his Kuwahara. Chrome silver with black accents in liquid smooth powder coat. I had a rust spotted CCM bmx frame adorned with a mish mash of parts pulled from dead bikes. Bing’s bike was the envy of all the local kids but I prefered my frankenstein bike. It could hit a jump in just the right way. A smooth launch, a little give on the landings. The Kuwahara had footpegs, better hand brakes, and a brand new chain, but it felt a little too unforgiving. Antagonistic. It confronted the ground rather than rolling over it. Also, Bing was always on it.
The sun hadn’t really gotten going yet so the air was still a little cool. Wet streams drifted to the corners of my eyes as my feet spun the pedals. We didn’t talk but I could hear Bing breathing hard off to my left.
We hadn’t really discussed it but we both knew where we were headed. Since late spring we had been building a jump in the forest.
Greg Stevens had swiped a shovel from his garden shed and left it out there last summer. He had some plan for digging a WW1 trench and camping in it. His shovel caper resulted in a pit about two feet deep and four feet across. He couldn’t even lay in it without crunching up his legs. Greg decided not to bring the shovel back since his dad had blamed the neighbor and bought a new one. Now it was our primary jump construction tool, and the trench was our main excavation point.
We would all take turns scooping up some dirt from the trench and adding to the jump. Over a couple of weeks, it had gone from a small bump crowning the edge of a natural ditch, to a loose kicker a couple feet high.
We had ridden over the Jump dozens, maybe hundreds of times, but only the center had packed down properly. The rest of the jump was a pile of loose, soft dirt. Hitting it too fast or not dead center could end your run real quick. You might spin off to the side, dump the bike right there, or stop dead and go over the handlebars. Honestly it was hard to tell what might happen, except that it would probably be bad. We would bang on the jump with the shovel, or ride over it slowly, but without some rain to really tamp it down, it was just too scary to hit the jump properly, at full speed.
I made it to the edge of the forest where our jump was under construction and locked up my brakes on the loose dirt. I leaned hard, kicking out my back tire, planting my inside foot and sliding to a tripod stop. Bing, right behind me, did the same, but maybe not with quite as much style.
I gave the ramp a quick once over to see if any work had been done on it in the past couple of days. Swimming lessons had prevented me from making the ride to work on it but there were about five of us that regularly came out here who also knew where the shovel was stashed. From the landing slope all the way up to the crown the ramp was devastated. It was all deep gouges turning up the soft soil underneath.
“If they are gonna ride on it, they should at least stomp it down” Bing griped between winded huffs.
I silently agreed and made a sour face. Older kids had been coming out at night with BMXs and an 80cc dirt bike. The BMX tracks weren’t that noticeable but the dirt bike had left the ramp in an unusable state. They might as well have run a rototiller over it.
I stepped off my bike and let it fall to the ground in disgust. I had been hoping to take a couple of slow runs and maybe catch a little air before doing any construction work. Bing shoved out his kickstand and stepped off. He rhythmically slammed his hightops into the soft earth while I fumed into the forest to retrieve the shovel.
We kept the shovel up in a tree. It had been Bing’s idea. I would never tell him I thought so, but he could be pretty clever when he tried.
Shovel Tree was a little way past the Party Pit, an open area surrounded by trees. This clearing was regularly used by older kids for the kind of illicit late night parties where someone would mess up a ramp - so the shovel had to be hidden far enough from those jerks that it wasn’t likely to be seen. The tree we settled on was down nearer the river and had lost a branch about 15 feet up its trunk. The bony remnant sticking out from the tree was a perfect place to hang a shovel handle. The lower branches stuck out in such a way that you could really only see the shovel hanging there when you were right underneath it.
To hide or retrieve the thing required a daring leap from a nearby stump. You climbed up the stump, maybe a little more than waist height from the ground, jumped toward Shovel Tree, and either plucked or hung it all in one continuous motion. You then had the option of trying to hang on to the shovel, dragging it with you while avoiding the lower branches, or tossing it over your shoulder and hoping it didn’t slice the back of your neck on the way down. I had seen both methods attempted successfully and unsuccessfully, but I never saw anyone get hurt. At least not badly enough that it would require telling a parent what had happened. I usually opted for the ‘carry the shovel down with you’ method, since that always seemed the least likely to result in a head wound. It might have been a clever way of hiding the shovel but, because it was a Bing solution, that meant a higher than average risk of injury.
I snagged the shovel off of Shovel Tree and started back through the clearing. Bing was standing there nudging his toe against a discarded beer can. He looked up at me.
“Listen man, we don’t have to work on this today. We can head back into town. Find something else to do. We cou-”
“No!” I surprised myself with how loud I yelled at him. Surprised him too. We bickered, even tore into each other from time to time, but always as friends. I had crossed a line.
We just sort of stared at each other for a moment, feeling the waves of what was going on wash over us.
Finally, he curled his lip, flatly said “dick”, and stomped out of the clearing to go sit in the dirt beside the Kuwahara.
I had been in a sour mood since I picked him up at his house. I saw the boxes packed in the garage. It hadn’t really occurred to me that Bing might be feeling the same way. It was his family that was moving. His life that was getting lifted up and drifted across the country. I would still have my other friends here. Where they had always been. I was losing my best friend but he was losing everyone. I didn’t say that to him of course. I just started digging and slapping down dirt. Swinging line drives with the flat of the shovel against the ruined side of our ramp. Our ramp. Mine and Bing’s ramp. Other kids worked on it too, but it was just us two who had started it.
I rammed the shovel down hard into the center of the trench. I was angry at the dirt. I was angry at Bing. I was angry at Bing’s dad for getting a better job. I was angry at the kids who tore up our ramp. I was angry at the increasingly unbearable heat of the day. I was angry at me. I really didn't know what I was angry at. I stabbed the shovel as deeply as could.
The next thing I knew, I was laying belly down beside the hole holding my chin where it had bounced off the shovel handle.
I looked up to see Bing standing over me. My face was probably a mix of astonished and accusing, but Bing just stared right past me at the hole, eyes like pie plates.
“What in the hell, man?” Bing blurted out, less to me, and more to the shovel as he reached down to take hold of it. It took a couple of firm yanks to dislodge the shovel. Whatever it had sunk into made a strange rattling, sucking sound. Like a reverse burp.
I stood back up shoulder to shoulder with Bing, earlier animosities abandoned. Just like that, we had reset, united in our bewilderment.
“What happened?” I probed.
“Umm. Maybe like a crack or cave or something? Maybe you punched through into a cave?”
Neither of us believed that. Neither of us had ever seen a cave in the middle of a broad, flat, prairie. When Bing had hauled the shovel up bits of powdery wood had come up with it. Old dessicated fibers that had, at one time, been milled lumber. The edges were too clean and regular to be tree roots or buried deadfall.
“What about the wood?” I was already piecing together a picture in my mind of what I had “punched through” so I floated out questions to see if Bing was thinking along the same lines. I couldn’t bring myself to voice what I was thinking.
“Why would someone bury a wood box by the river?” Bing asked, walking the assumption forward to include not just wood, but a wooden box. He mirrored my tone and I could see dread ripple across his expression, before replacing it with a nervous grin.
“Is this a casket? Did you just jam a shovel into some dead guy’s casket?” Bing’s smile widened into a full toothed display. “Gross!”
“I don’t know that. We don’t know what it is!” I couldn’t help it. I was grinning now too. “It’s probably just old wood someone tossed out. And buried. On purpose. Beside the river.”
We traded conspiratorial looks but neither of us budged.
“You go check.”
“You found it”
“You have the shovel.”
We both took a step forward and arched over the hole. Bing used the tip of the shovel to begin a ginger excavation, careful and tense. Neither of us wanted to uncover anything grizzly, but then again, we absolutely wanted to uncover something grizzly. Something valuable. Something amazing.
My heart was beating so hard my hands shook with each pulse. Light glinted off something metallic a few inches below the soil and my whole body lurched.
“That’s treasure!” The words exploded from my throat.
Bing stopped clearing dirt and squinted at me.
He feigned excited endorsement but sarcasm dripped from every word. “Do you think pirates put it here? Sailed it up the river?” Then he tagged his comment with our favored insult to really make sure it stuck. “Child.”
“Shut up. It’s something shiny. There’s something metal down there. It’s metal in a box”
If Bing had any intention of spending more time poking fun at me, his curiosity overcame it.
We crouched down, relatively sure that we weren’t going to be nose to nose with a mummified corpse.
Enough dirt had been cleared away that we could start to make out the shape of what we had found. The sun had been climbing in the sky and was almost directly above now, more clearly revealing the shapes below us. Squatting to take a lower angle, I could make out a rounded metal edge. Maybe a large plate, or disc almost filling a box about two feet square.
Bing reached in, taking hold of the metal, and just as quickly dropped it, recoiling his hand.
“What! What happened?” I demanded.
“Damn it! That’s cold!” he had his finger tips tucked under his armpit and rocked back and forth in wincing pain.
He pulled out his fingers and looked at them. They seemed fine. No visible wounds or bleeding. He shook his hand aggressively in front of his bared teeth like a fan made of sausages.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Damn it, that is ice cold. It feels like burning, but cold, man.”
I wrapped my hand in the belly of my T-shirt and stretched it down to slowly touch the metal. Nothing. It felt hard and maybe a little cool, but nothing like what Bing was on about.
“It feels normal. Just like metal. Are you messing with me?”
“No. It was like frostbite, man. Still hurts a little.”
I took my hand out of my shirt and tentatively brushed a fingertip across the metal. Then all my fingers. Then the flat of my hand. A little cool, hard, metallic. Certainly not burning cold or frostbite cold.
I reached my fingers down under the edge and grabbed hold. The plate was incredibly thin, like foil, but solid and unyielding. I pressed hard with my fingertips but the metal didn’t bend or crumple. Although paper thin, the edge felt round and smooth, not sharp. I started lifting the circle of metal and found it so light that it didn’t seem to have any substance at all. It took some twisting and wrangling to pull it from the box, since the hole we had cut wasn’t quite large enough.
I set the disk on the ground between us, now fully visible under the full midday sun. We didn’t move. We didn’t breath. The only sounds were leaves twisting in a light breeze and the distant buzz of insects. It was treasure. It was beautiful and frightening and impossible.
Around the circular rim of the thing was metal, sure enough. A dull silvery metal with lines and markings along its circumference. Like a clock face, but with the minute marks set to irregular periods and angles. An interesting and unusual example of manufactured metal work. That part of the object I could wrap my mind around. What sat in the center of the ring was different. It was black. Just black. No reflections, no variation in the surface, no shadows. Light didn’t play off it. Encircled by a band of paper thin metal, there on the ground sat nothing. Nothing at all.
I felt my hand reaching before I had fully considered what I was doing. The middle finger of my left hand barely alighting on the black in the center of the disc. Just as unconsciously, I recoiled. The freezing, burning, cold was a shock.
“Cold, right?” Bing spouted gleefully.
I let out a cartoonishly long “ooowwwww!” that ended in wide smile. “What is that?”
“I don’t know. It’s like liquid or something. My fingers sunk right into it.” He mimed the wide grip he had used to try to pick the disc up. “What do you think it is?”
“No clue. Like a part off some old machine or something. How long do you think it was buried?” I rubbed at my fingertip until the feeling returned.
“It’s well up past the water line, and the ground around it is pretty dry. It had to be down there a long time for the wood to be so rotten.” Bing shrugged and slowly shook his head. “Hundred years maybe? I don’t know”
“A hundred years? That’s like, really old. Like pioneer old.” I stood up and snagged the shovel off the ground where Bing had dumped it.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“Just checking something.”
I hovered the blade of the shovel over the center of that black circle. No reflection. I could see the shadow cast from the shovel run over Bing’s sneaker, across the ground, onto the metal ring, and just sort of end at the black. Cautiously I lowered the shovel until the tip just touched the black surface, or at least I thought it did. It was almost impossible to tell. All the visual feedback I had come to expect sort of didn’t exist here, and I could feel my eyes struggling to find a point to focus on. I braced myself, expecting that same cold bite to crawl it’s way up the shovel and into my bare hands. It didn’t. Instead I felt a soft resistance, like the skin of a dried pudding cup. A small amount of downward pressure and I could see the blade of the shovel slip out of existence.
Bing must have been holding his breath because he exhaled with a long whistle. “It’s so weird.”
“Yeah” I agreed. “Feels kind of thick. Like stirring gravy or something.”
I pulled the shovel back up to check that it was still intact. It seemed okay. Even the clumps of dirt stuck along the edges seemed unperturbed.
“How deep do you think it is?”
I offered the handle to Bing. “I don’t know. Check it out.”
Bing proceeded to plunge the shovel until it was halfway submerged in the center of the black circle.
“Is that it?”
“Yeah. Seems like.” He bobbed the shovel a couple of times, each time stopping at the same spot along the handle. “It hit something.”
He drove it down a little harder and I could hear a muffled, distant, thunk. The shovel was maybe a foot and a half deep. A foot and a half gone, as far as we could tell. Bing moved to lift the shovel back up.
I waved my hands at him. “Just wait. Just wait. I want to try something.”
I crouched down and carefully took hold of the metal ring. My finger still tingled a bit where I had touched the black, so I kept them well back from the inner edge. Just like before, I lifted the disc and was surprised at how little it weighed. There was almost nothing to it, like a rigid piece of tissue paper, but the breeze didn’t seem to affect it at all.
“Are you still holding the shovel down? Like all the way down?”
“Yeah, It’s just sitting there. I’m not even pushing it. It’s just resting on the ground, or whatever. The ground at the bottom of that hole thing.”
I got down low, almost resting my head in the dirt. Under the raised disc, I could see the ground, the shadow cast by the metal ring and the shovel handle. On the other side were Bing’s high tops, patches of grass, and our ramp. Nothing else. No shovel handle, no shovel blade. I reached up with my right hand and pushed down on the shovel handle where Bing still had hold of it. It didn’t budge. It was passing through the ring and resting on something I couldn’t see. I waved the ring up and down a little. The exposed parts of the shovel stayed put.
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s like a hole or something, but you can move it around. It’s so cool! Scary, but cool.” I didn’t even try to keep the grin out of my voice.
We spent the next couple hours poking at the thing and laughing. We dropped in rocks and pine cones and watched them slowly slip through the black surface to disappear from view, seemingly forever. We stabbed it with tree branches and drew them back out, chilled but unharmed. Bing tried to ring the bell off the Kuwahara with a stick while it was on the other side of the black, but we couldn’t hear it very well. Just a whisper of dull metallic clanging. The experiment required getting his hands dangerously close to that nipping cold surface so he didn’t try it for long. I moved the shovel around on the other side feeling for its limits. It seemed fairly small, I could probably have reached every part of the hollow on the other side if I sunk my arm up to the shoulder, but that would have been crazy.
“I’m parched.” Bing licked his lips and sighed, sitting down heavily on a clump of grass.
“Yeah. Me too. I have to get home for supper too.” We had completely ignored thirst and hunger while we examined our find. Now that I had stopped for a moment I felt fatigue press down on me and we finally rested. Bing sprawled on the ground while I drooped limply over the shovel. “What do we do with this thing?”
I imagined trying to carry it home on my bike and couldn’t really figure a way to do it. The disc was light and strong but it was too large to tuck under an arm. Maybe Bing would attempt it but I wouldn’t risk that black stuff touching my bare skin while I was trying to pedal.
“Somebody will see it if we try carrying it back into town. It’s not the kind of thing that anyone would ignore.” Bing offered, head cocked to the side, eyes squinting. “Maybe we can hang it on the shovel?”
I swiftly laid the blade of the shovel flat in the black until I could hook the top edges under the ring and fish it up off the ground. The disc just dangled there off the shovel like I had plucked it from a carnival pond game.
Bing reached out and gave a firm tug on the ring. “I don’t know how or why that works, but it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.”
We headed over to Shovel Tree and this time Bing made the leap to hang both the shovel and the disc. The glint of the metal ring might catch the eye of someone skulking around over here but even in the mildest of shadows the rest of the disc just disappeared. It would have to do until we could find some better place to keep the thing.
On the way back to pick up our bikes we kicked as much dirt as we could into the rotten box. We couldn’t fill it. We would have had to go back and get the shovel for that but we disguised the square corners of the box well enough that it would hopefully pass for just another pit dug to add to the bike ramp.
We both took one slow pass at the jump before heading back into town.
I didn’t tell anyone what we had found. That night I didn’t sleep for a second.
One week later, Bing was gone. His mom and dad had been packing all summer, gathering the contents of their single story house into the garage and loading it into a rented box truck. One morning, the truck wasn’t there. I rode my bike past the house. Like a snail shell you find along the shore, it still carried all of the evidence of life only now it was empty. Not just empty, hollow. I knew that they were leaving. I knew that they had wanted to move before school started. Bing and his sister would be going to a new school, in a new city. I suppose I just didn’t expect him to be gone.
A few days later I rode out to the forest alone and just sat there looking at the river and brushing off mosquitoes.
For that whole week we tried not to talk at all about Bing moving. It helped that we were completely enthralled with The Hole. At some point during the week we started calling it “The Hole” and the moniker stuck.
We moved it to a more remote part of the forest and tested anything we could think of. We had put sticks, rocks, bits of cloth, action figures. Anything we could find that we didn’t mind losing went into The Hole. Bing dipped an old radio halfway into the black and it stopped playing almost instantly. It looked fine but the batteries had gone completely dead. We used a towel and an oven mitt in an attempt to press our hands through the viscous surface. It always ended with one of us vibrating on the ground, fingers shoved deep into our mouth or armpit to restore circulation while the other one pointed and laughed.
We talked about telling someone about the hole. Our parents. Our friends. A science lab maybe. We didn’t know of any labs in our town and we couldn’t even agree on what sort of scientist would study this thing.
Bing said that he should take it with him.
He started in sheepishly, as if this was all coming to him now, but soon he was laying down words with a salesman's patter.
“There has to be somebody at the university that would know what to do with it. Maybe they can test it and find out how it works. Maybe we can sell it. The Hole is probably military or NASA tech. Maybe there is a reward. I should probably take it, you know, so we can get it checked out or something.” The idea hadn’t just occurred to him. Bing was a poor liar. He had been thinking about taking The Hole with him for a while.
I could feel my jaw tighten involuntarily. I was barely aware of my hands curling to fists. When the loud, shrill “NO!” burst out of me it took a moment to register that I was the one yelling.
In an instant we were locked in a clumsy wrestlers clinch. I was dimly aware of the disc of black between us at our feet. I caught Bing's eyes as they flicked down to The Hole and then back up to mine. We stared for a few short seconds until a puzzled look drifted across Bing. I would have to imagine that I looked equally confused. Bing spoke first.
“What are we doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“This is stupid, right?”
“Yeah. You’re stupid.” I couldn’t hold back the chuckle.
We both pulled away and took a step back. Laughing was the only apology either of us would offer or accept. That was how it worked between best friends.
Of course, Bing had taken The Hole. He had ridden back out after supper with an empty briefcase before it got packed up for the move. There was no way that the disc would have fit in a regular sized case but the metal ring was so incredibly thin that he must have been able to close it well enough to bike it back home. He had stowed it somewhere in the box truck before his parents could see it and they had taken it with them. Out of town and across the country.
And I was out there, in the forest, sitting alone among the sounds of a late summer evening. Small birds singing to each other and buzzing, hissing insects gathering along the riverbank in clouds that danced in the gentle breeze. That’s when I heard something different. A distant tapping, like drums being played underwater. There was a thunk and a tip, tip, tap, followed by a scraping sound that was so faint that I could barely detect it.
I tried to follow the sounds by sweeping my head low to the ground and narrowing in on the source. I must have looked like snake tasting the air. Just outside the clearing and getting close to the ramp I got down and put my head right up against the ground. The sounds were coming from down there.
After discovering one impossible thing in the forest I wasn’t going to leave without fully investigating another.
The evening light was starting to fade by the time I finally dug through to the second box. The first one had rotted almost to powder having been buried for such a long time. This one was mostly intact. It was built from the same roughly milled lumber but the wood still had some strength to it. I had to dig around the top until I made enough room for the lid to open. There were remnants of old leather and fiber straps that must have bound the whole box together but those hadn’t held up the way the wood had. I wedged the tip of the shovel under the edge of the lid and used it as a lever to pry the lid off. The night was cooling but I was vibrating and sweating so hard there must have been steam rising off my back.
The old wood sent up a squealing creak before finally cracking apart. The lid flipped back like the cover of a book before slamming down into the newly dug soil.
There, strapped to the lid with wooden planks was an almost perfect duplicate of The Hole.
The metal disc was sandwiched between the planks and the lid along two of the sides leaving the black in the center completely exposed. The nails driven through the planks were rough and square. Whoever strapped the Hole on here had tried to drive one of the nails through the metal disc but that nail hadn’t gone all the way through to the lid because it was bent over and flattened into the wood.
Laying in the bottom of the box was an assortment of rocks, pinecones, sticks, toy cars, and action figures. I lifted a Greedo from the box and turned it over in my hand. Two-tone green plastic in an ancient wooden box. This was my Greedo, the one that I had dropped through the other Hole. The Hole that Bing had taken with him.
I dropped to my knees in the dirt and scrabbled for a sharp rock. I held my Greedo in one hand and tried desperately to steady my other hand. The tremors radiated through my entire body as I scraped two rough but readable letters into Greedo’s chest. HI. If I had spoken them there would be no way I could have held back the tears.
I dropped Greedo into the Hole and watched as it slowly sunk out of view.
I hoisted the box lid, bulky but manageable, and sprinted to my bike. The wood made my ride home difficult but I could have carried five of them and still made it back. It was almost like carrying nothing at all.