Today was a pretty common day for me. Waking up at the "Crack Of Noon" on one of the few days off I had, with no real plans other than to avoid work at all costs. I normally just lie in bed and stare at the ceiling before dragging my lazy butt out from beneath the warm covers. I suppose it could be my own way of protesting a hard work week, or maybe I'm just simply lazy. Once the life returns a bit to my body, I'll throw on an old pair of sweatpants, T-shirt and an old pair of slippers and venture down to the kitchen to start the first pot of coffee and get the morning bathroom rituals out of the way. Then I plant myself in a chair, flip on the news and get some seriously needed caffeine into my system.
Today was no different than the rest, with one exception. I planned to get out and not waste one more day off sitting around the house. I have no real plans but, once behind the wheel of my little truck, I'll think of a place to drive. Hopefully away from it all, even if it's only for a few hours.
After catching the weather, I shut the TV off and refilled my coffee mug just in time to have my cell phone startle me. The caller ID display showed that all too familiar phone number. Decision time, answer it or throw it through the window… Hmmm…
"Hello?" I answered with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.
"Hi Mike, did I wake you?" 'Great, my boss. What now?'
"Nope been up for about an hour now. What's up?"
"Well, we are a little short on help and I was thinking maybe you could come in this afternoon, just to get us through the rush. We can always shorten one of your shifts later on in the week to make sure you don't hit overtime."
It only took a split second to make up my mind on this one. No extra hours and I lose another day off. 'Not this time, I made up my mind that today was for me, damn it.'
"I would but I already promised my nephew that I would take him to get his car worked on. I already blew him off twice and can't do it again." I lied. "Have you checked with any of the salaried managers?" I asked knowing full well that I am always the "First Call" manager, which is an honor I would gladly return if given the option.
"No, I thought I would check with you first. You have been working long shifts and I thought it would be a break for you to shorten one of them." She responded as if she was doing me some huge favor. 'Lose a whole day off to shorten one shift. Nope, no sale here…'
"Thanks, but I really can't today. I've blown off family matters for work way too often lately. I'm sure there are quite a few who would jump at the hours. Call some of the night shift, they have all been complaining about getting shorted on the schedule."
After a short pause, she perked up a little. Almost as if the idea that we had other people on the schedule who may actually need hours was some sort of revelation and she said "Thanks, I'll do that. Well, you have a nice day off."
"Will do. See you tomorrow." I responded and flipped the phone shut.
'Damn, if this is destined to become a ritual, I may be forced to make her clock me in for these "Day Off" conversations. It seems as if there is never a day that I can get away from that place.' After a little more consideration, I flipped the phone open and powered it off. 'That will buy me some peace and quiet for a while.'
"Now, before the house phone rings, finish your coffee, get dressed and run for the truck. Your day off is wasting." I said out loud in front of Buddy, our 11-year-old German Shepard, who really didn't seem all that interested in the whole situation.
I ran back upstairs to get dressed, grabbed my wallet and keys and ran down to let the dog out one more time and have 'one more coffee' before hightailing it for the door. 'Freedom, just a few hours. Free from the house, free from work.' I thought to myself as the truck reared to life. Now it's decision time, where to go. Never really gave it much thought until now.
"I just got paid so I have a good amount of money on me," I said to the steering wheel. "A full tank of gas and no phone..." I chuckled as I threw my phone in the glove compartment. "...so, maybe just a drive and see where it leads me."
Since I never "Flew too far from the nest" so to speak, the neighborhood I grew up in was about 5 minutes away. 'Maybe I will take a ride around my old stomping grounds. It's been a while since I've simply looked around that area.' Before climbing into the truck, I decided it would be a good idea to throw my bike in the back. 'Hell, I grew up in this area and my bike was always my transportation back then. Maybe the trails I used to ride were still there.' I thought. Being a little nostalgic now and then can be fun at times. Besides, now at age 33 I still love riding my bike. Hell, when I was a kid I used to ride around aimlessly in an effort to stay away from home. It carried some strong memories of these same "Need to get away" days that I need now and then to keep my head on straight.
With my bike loaded in the rear, I turned out of the driveway and aimed the truck south, time to put some thought into where to start.
"Well, I can save some gas if I pick a spot and park. The bike can be the transportation for the day." I said, more talking to the truck than myself. "Maybe, since school just let out for the summer, I'll go to one of my old grammar schools, get on the bike and hit the trails. Maybe even ride down my old street and stop at some of my old stops." Yeah, today was going to be one of those nostalgic days after all.
The school I decided to head for was more or less the center of the area I "Owned" back when I was about 9 or 10. It would be the perfect point to start my journey. So I turned off the main interstate and started to navigate the all too familiar back roads, not traveled by myself in quite a few years.
The area looked virtually unchanged, some stores had different names now but the houses and roads looked pretty much as If time had stopped and waited for me to come back. The sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky which added even more excitement to my having planned a day on my bike. "This was a great idea."
I stopped at the last intersection before my arrival at the school I chose. Right on the corner was the house of one of my best friends in the world back when I was about 10 years old. That yard was my refuge from my father when he was drinking and looking for a target to vent his anger on. Then that summer when my father had the stroke, when my family was put through one of its hardest tests of survival and I became the "Man Of The House". Back in the same time when I had the "incident" with my uncle. Those memories sending a cold chill down my spine.
"God, how the hell did I survive all that?" I asked no one in particular while staring at my friend's house. 'I wonder whatever happened to Dale.' I thought to myself as a wave of regret to never have kept in touch with him set in. 'Just go stupid, you can't sit here all day thinking about the past.' Were my last thoughts as I shrugged my shoulders, took one last look into his yard and let out the clutch to leave.
Just as I had started to pull forward, I heard a loud screeching of tires. Another car had been tearing down the street in the other direction and nearly took out the front end of my truck. He skidded and swerved as I slammed my foot back down on the brake, forgetting about the clutch and stalling the truck with a jerk. "BANG" was all I heard as his car made contact with my bumper. A hot rush swept over me, almost as if panic, coupled with shock overtook me. The hit knocked the truck back and to the left, out of instinct I drew both of my arms up and folded them over my face to protect it. When I finally brought my arms down and looked around, he was gone. Didn't even bother to stop.
"What an asshole," I said out loud as I set the parking brake and turned the key off to get out and see what damage had been caused.
"Wow, you're a tough little guy aren't you?" I said to my little truck when I looked over the area that had been hit. "Not even a scratch, I hope his bumper falls off," I added as I leaned up against the truck and checked for any real damage to myself.
"Guess I'm ok," I said to myself. "A little dizzy, probably just shaken up a bit."
"THANKS, STUPID!" I yelled in the direction he traveled offering a "One finger salute" down the now empty road. "And not one witness, just my luck."
After a minute shaking off the shock, I jumped back in the truck, started it back up and went right to the school. Nope, some idiot is not going to ruin my plans, not today.
When I pulled up in front of the school and shut off the engine, I looked over at the school itself. 'Hmmm…' I thought to myself. "I had been told that this school was completely renovated recently. Looks exactly the same as it did for years." I said out loud to no one at all. "Man, I need to stop talking to myself. Someone might think I've lost it." I said once again now grinning at the prospect of a passerby thinking I was insane or something.
Still feeling a little shaken from the near miss earlier, I decided to walk up the front steps and relax a bit before jumping on my bike for my planned tour. I sat back and surveyed the area. It was quiet, not a soul stirring in sight. Today is going to be perfect.
I stared at my truck, still amazed that there was no damage from the hit, when suddenly my concentration was broken by a small kid on a bike who rode around from behind the school building on his bike, skidding to a stop directly in front of me.
"Oh, Hi mister." He said as if a little surprised.
"Hey Kidoe, didn't expect anyone to be here did ya?" I grinned knowing full well that the only adults who ever were on these grounds when school was out were security and faculty. Poor little bugger probably thought he was going to get yelled at for trespassing.
"No, I'm sorry. I was just riding in the back playground and was going over to my friend's house, but he wasn't home…"
I had to cut him off, he definitely thought he was in trouble and I wasn't going to let him ramble on in a panic.
"Whoah there, Relax. I don't work here. I actually went to this school when I was about your age and wanted to stop by and see what's changed and maybe even take a ride around and see some of the places I haven't seen since then." There, That ought to put him at ease.
"Oh cool. Do you still live around here? I don't think I've ever seen you in the area." He said as he put his bike down in the grass and took a seat next to me on the steps.
"Sort of, I live on the other side of the river. I really have no reason to come around this way anymore."
"Cool, so… um… what were you gonna do today? I mean did you plan to do anything when you got here or are you going home when you leave here?" He asked.
Sounds to me like he's a little bored or something. Might as well let him in on my plans. I mean he seems like a nice enough kid. Don't see too many of those nowadays.
"Well, I really didn't plan on anything. I figured since I wanted to get out of the house and away from everything and everyone, I thought it would be cool to bring my bike up here and ride around to some of the places I did when I was about your size." I said with a grin guessing he was about 10 or 11 and that he probably goes to this school.
"Oh, you wanted to be alone? I mean if you did I'll stop bothering you."
"Hehehe, you're no bother. I meant I wanted to get away from work, family… That sort of thing. I wanted some time away I guess. You don't need to take off unless you had something else to do, I really wouldn't mind some company."
"Awesome. I was going to hang out with my friend today but his dad took him out somewhere and he'll be gone all day. If you want, I can ride with you. I know some neat places to go, I'll bet some you didn't even know about." He said with a renewed smile on his face. I guess the kid is really bored.
"I'll bet you do know a few spots, but I have to warn you, I spent quite a few years riding my bike around here. Maybe you'll learn a few new places to go, I mean if you can keep up with an old fart like me." I said as I ruffled his hair and got to my feet.
"Old fart? You don't look that old."
I responded with a grin. 'I think I may have found a new best friend.'
"Well, since we're gonna be riding partners for the day, let me get my bike out of the truck and we can decide who will be the tour guide first. Deal?" Sounds like this will be fun. I hope this kid can keep up. I may have gotten on in years but, I still feel at home on my bike. Always have, and hopefully always will.
He looked up at me and stuck out his hand for me to shake and said "Deal," As I took his hand he added; "Oh yeah, my name's Mike, what's yours?"
This added another smile to my face. "Did you say your name was Mike?"
"Mike as in Michael?"
"Cause that's my name and I do believe young man, I had it first. You need to go find a new one." I said as I was turning to walk down to get my bike.
He giggled and grabbed his bike up and rode down to where I was, then circled the truck as I was locking it up.
"This is your truck?"
"Yessir, it is. Gets me to where I need to go and back. May be old but runs good."
"What kind is it? I mean my uncle has a truck sort of like it but, yours is way smaller. I've never seen one that small before." Well now, I know it's old but, never seen one?
"Chevy S10, I like it cause I don't need a big truck but like to have a bed to carry stuff around like my bike or anything else I need to."
"It's neat. My uncle uses his for work. It's got tool boxes and stuff on it." He said, sounded like he was boasting a bit.
"Well, mine's just a ride, for me and my junk. Maybe someday I'll get a bigger one but for now. My little S10 is fine." I said as I reached in and lifted my bike out of the truck and set it on the pavement.
Just then, Little Mike came skidding to a stop and let out a long "Whoah." As if I had performed some major magical stunt.
"Whoah? It's just a mountain bike." I said as I planted myself on its seat.
"It looks like a 10 speed with straight handlebars. And the tires are awesome."
Wow, I guess this kid doesn't get out too much. "You mean no one around here has one of these. Man, I thought everyone on the planet owned one by now."
"Nope." He responded. "Everyone I know has bikes that look more like mine. I mean with these kinds of tires and stuff. Your bike is really neat though."
"Thanks, if you can get up on the seat, maybe I'll let you ride it for a while today."
"Really? You mean it?" He asked as if I were pulling his leg or something.
"Of course I do. What kind of bike are you riding anyway? It looks like one I had years ago."
"It's a Schwinn Sting-Ray, My Aunt bought it for me on my last birthday. Most of my friends have BMX bikes and stuff but we got this one, mostly because it's my favorite color. Some of my friends have bikes like this one too." He said as he turned it sideways to show it off a bit.
"Wow, That looks exactly like the one I had years ago," I said amazed that they were still making them that way. "That bike, if it's anything like mine was, will last you a long time."
"Yeah, I take real good care of it too. It's almost a year old and still looks like it did when I first got it. Except for a couple of scratches and stuff."
I was impressed. Most kids I know get about a year out of a bike before they beat it to death and need a new one. This kid reminds me of myself when I was his age. My bike was kept cleaner than myself most of the time and was always in top running condition. I promised my aunt when she bought mine that I would take real good care of it. Sounds as if he has sort of the same deal going.
"So, your favorite color is red, huh?"
"Yeah, why?" He asked as if it was going to be a trick question. 'Hmmm, maybe he sees through me already.'
"Well, first you steal my name, then my favorite color. And I've only known you for a few minutes now. We may need to talk about finding you your own name, but you can borrow my color though. Red definitely looks good on that bike so I won't make you change it."
With a big smile he giggled, looked his bike over and then mine. Thought for a couple of seconds and responded with "Your bike is blue, so I think the color is mine, and you will have to talk to my mom about my name. She might get mad if I change it."
'Hmmm.' I thought to myself with a smile. 'Do I detect playful sarcasm from my new riding partner. I think we will get along just fine.'
"Ok Kidoe, where to first? I'll let you pick the first destination and then we can take turns after that." I figured I'd let him set the pace so I don't outrun him for the remainder of our tour.
"Well, have you ever been down the trails near the railroad tracks?"
"Oh wow, yeah. I used to ride them as a shortcut to get to school. There even used to be an old fort on the other side of the big black bridge that a few friends and I used to hide out in on some weekends."
He stopped and looked at me funny. Almost as if I had surprised him or something. Since he wasn't saying anything, or moving at all I broke the silence.
"What? I was a kid one time too you know." That seemed to snap him out of his little trance.
"The old fort behind the big tree next to a big white fence?"
"Yeah, Don't even tell me it's still standing. It was pretty beat up when we found it." Nah, can't be the same one. Maybe someone built a new one.
"Wow, I didn't think any grownups knew about the fort. It was hidden pretty well and looks like it was built a long time ago. You really think it's the same one you used to go to?" He asked as if trying to figure out one of life's great mysteries.
"Maybe. If it is it must be in real bad shape now cause it was pretty rough the last time I saw it." Then I finished adding "Tell ya what, you lead us to the trails. When we get there, I'll lead you to the fort so if it is a different one, that secret of yours won't be blown. Sound like a plan?"
With a big smile, he almost shouted "Great, let's go." and bolted off with me right on his tail. Funny how some things can make you forget how old you have gotten. I think today is going to be just what the doctor ordered for sure now.
While riding to the pathway that led to the trails, we chatted a little about our bikes and what work we did to them and such. It was amazing listening to how he takes care of his bike. What made me chuckle was that everything he said about wiping it down, oiling the chain and even Vaseline on the chrome before putting it in the basement for the winter were all parts of my rituals of bike care when I was young. God this kid could pass for a younger version of me. Other than his first name, even his appearance could pass him off as my own kid. Kinda shaggy brown hair, blue eyes, glasses (I don't wear them anymore but did when I was a kid) and his taste in bicycles. I mean if I had a picture of my old one, I would swear that he was sitting on a replica of the same model. And that bike was my world for quite a few years until it got stolen.
The second we hit the pathway, we both came to a skidding stop. Little Mike looked up at me and smiled, I know it was my cue to take over, probably because he wanted me to prove that I wasn't just kidding about the location of the fort.
"Ok Kidoe, you ready to be amazed by an old fart, or do you need a break?" I said with a little giggle added for good measure.
"Yeah, you sure you know where you're going?"
"Yep, I think I can remember my way around. Let's see if that fort is where I left it." And without another word, I bolted off to the right with my new friend hot on my trail.
It was a fairly short trip to the bridge. It was one of those train bridges that had the tall black walls on either side just over a roadway, covered in gravel with a downslope on either side. They were pretty common in the area but this was one of the few that I never really explored. The downslope on the other side had a pretty steep hill to it and if you went off at an angle you could get some decent air and land into an open grassy area. I remembered it as soon as I got on the bridge and decided to show off a bit and do the ritual jump off the other side. Sort of to show him I really do know the area and maybe to prove to myself that I wasn't as old as I sometimes feel. So, without warning I picked up speed, and so did my little partner about two bike lengths behind me. Then as we got to the end, one at a time we jerked the handlebars and launched ourselves clear of the bridge and into the grass with two loud thumps.
Now both of us were laughing like a couple of kids when almost at the exact same time we both came out with "I love doing that." Which made us laugh even more.
Once the laughter died down, I laid my bike in the grass and motioned to Mike to do the same.
"If memory serves, It's right over there behind that tree. It was a great spot cause you can't see it unless you go up pretty close. The fence and tall grass sort of hides it." I said kneeling down next to him so he could see where I was pointing.
"Oh cool, it really is the same fort. You really do know where it is." He was visibly amazed that an adult had ever explored the area. When I was his age, I was also convinced that no adult would ever have any idea that it was back there.
"Wow. Unless you guys rebuilt it, It must be in awful shape by now. Back when I used to come back here, some 20 plus years ago, we used to have to patch it up on a weekly basis. It was old then." Yup, I guess it was my turn to be amazed.
"Yeah, a couple of my friends found it about a year ago. We did tons of work on it cause it leaked and the door was falling off and stuff. It's not bad now."
"Well, do you mind if I check it out?" I mean it did belong to his generation now. God only knows how many generations of kids that poor beaten old structure went through even before I took my turn. It was now his turn to have a "Private Place" so it was only fair to ask permission before intruding.
"Yeah sure. You'll be the first OLD guy I've ever seen in there." He said with a giggle before he ran out of reach to avoid my playful swing at him.
"You'll pay for that one tiny." And off after him, I ran.
When I rounded the side of the tree, I had to stop short and rub my eyes to believe what I was seeing. There it was, right in front of me. Seemingly unchanged by time itself. Mike got to the door and stopped, released the rope latch that we designed and yelled back to me "Are ya coming?"
I think I was in a bit of shock because I couldn't form any words. It had been years since I had even thought about this little hideout and even if I had I would surely believe after all these years the poor little pile of old wood and rusty nails would have rotted away by now.
After clearing my throat a couple of times, and my head as well I yelled back "Ye-Yeah." and walked up to the door. Well, if the outside appearance didn't shock me enough, the inside was going to put me over the edge.
Once inside the door, Little Mike opened the flip-up hatch on the side of the fort and propped it open to let some light in. I started to feel a little dizzy when I looked around.
"This can't be real…" I said in almost an inaudible tone. "How can all this stuff still be here?"
"What do you mean?" Mike asked me. "We brought all this stuff here cause it was empty."
I closed the door and made my way to an old couch cushion on the floor to sit down. Little Mike stared at me, he was probably worried about my reaction, or better put complete confusion.
"Mike, I don't get it. Where did you find all this stuff?" I asked, trying to make some sense out of something I knew to be impossible.
"Well," He started. "I found the milk crates and brought some wood to fix the door cause it was broken and part of the back wall was missing. My friend Freddy got us new hinges and got the candles and some of the pictures on the walls and stuff…"
Then I cut him off and finished the sentence while staring at the milk crate table in the center of the small room the entire time. "…and my friend Dale brought the cooler for sodas, made the rope lock for the door and the cushions from his mom's old couch."
Then there was an eerie silence between us as I added: "Which got him grounded for two weeks cause he told her he threw them out."
"How did you know that? That was a secret. How do you know Dale?" He asked, now just as confused as me, I'm sure.
I looked up at him and said: "Cause that's what happened when we found this fort."
Little Mike stared at me as if I had given him one last reason to think I was completely out of my mind. But he sat there and said nothing as I poked around at some of the junk in front of me.
I'm sure at that moment, he was just as confused as I was. "I don't get it, How could the same things have happened when you found the fort? I mean, how could it be the same as when we did?" He asked me but I had no answer.
"I don't know, but it really is weird. Almost as if time repeated itself. I guess that can happen. Why don't we just get out of here, it's your turn to lead anyway." I just had to come up with a diversion. I mean I was already weirded out, and by the look on my new friend's face, so was he.
"Yeah, we can come back here later if you want to look around a little. I'll close the window and we can go get something to drink if you want."
Now there was one hell of an idea. Wish I had thought of it.
"Cool, I got the door, let's get movin'. You pick the store Kidoe." I said with a half smile, still trying to make some sense out of the similarities in our stories in finding the fort. I guess weirder things have happened before. Probably best to not make a big deal of it. I don't want to horrify the kid.
He came out and I latched the door. It was a cool rope latch that hooked inside the door frame but, when you swung the board above it down, it hid the rope and would take anyone who wasn't familiar with its design quite a while to figure out. We were all impressed at our ingenuity in its design. Little Mike laughed a little when I latched it and swung the hatch over it as if I had done it just yesterday.
"I can tell you've been here before. It took us a while to get used to being able to lock up and not take forever doing it. Was the latch like that then too, cause I thought it was a new idea."
"Well, not exactly new. I'm sure we weren't the first to set up something like that. And since you guys did an almost identical job on yours, It probably won't be the last of its kind." I ruffled his hair and added "OK Sport, where to?"
He looked at me and started giggling. 'Ok, now what's so funny? Did I miss something?'
"What? I got something on my face?" I asked while wiping at my cheeks and looking at my hands.
"No, You keep calling me 'Kidoe' and just called me 'Sport'. Just thought it was funny that you keep calling me those names."
"Funny?" I asked. "I didn't think there was anything funny about them. Why? Do they bother you? I'll cut it out." OK, so they were kid nicknames but, I heard them all my life and I guess was just used to them.
"No, they don't bother me." He more snapped than answered. "I like them. It's just that my grandfather calls me Kidoe sometimes and my aunt, the one who bought me the bike calls me Sport a lot. It's kinda neat to have someone else call me those names."
Ok… This is getting a little too weird. That's exactly where I got those names from. They were my favorites too, that's why to this day I still use them to show affection and friendship. I figured it was probably best to simply answer by patting him on the head and saying "Cool, so we gonna get moving or what Kidoe?" which earned me a huge smile.
"Yeah, I'm thirsty. Follow me to the store then it's your turn to pick a place to go." And with that said, we jumped back on our bikes and launched ourselves out onto the path back in the direction we came in.
I followed him the length of the ride back, just thinking how strange today was turning out. Here I was leaving my old fort, which has oddly not changed one bit in over 20 years, and riding the same path back toward my old house, which I haven't been on in the same amount of time following what was turning out to be a clone of myself back in the same time period. I chuckled while watching him skip over the tracks like he had the area memorized. And even more when I realized that I was doing the exact same thing. 'Maybe someday when he's my age, these memories for him will be just as strong as they are for me.' Hell, I was completely amazed at how much I really hadn't forgotten about the trails and the whole area in general.
Just when I thought Mike was going to follow the tracks out to the main road and hit the 24-hour store I knew was right around the corner on the main road. He surprised me by taking a quick right and leading us through an open field heading down the back roads, once again back in my old path toward what used to be home.
"Hey, I thought there weren't any stores back this way anymore," I yelled ahead to the leader.
"Yeah, there is!" He turned and exclaimed. "Follow me and I'll show you."
We were off and around the first corner when that weird feeling started to set in again. Almost as if something wasn't quite right and because I was having such a good time kept putting it off. I mean the coincidences between this little guy and myself were a little odd, to say the least, but even this ride was getting a little weird. When we turned the first corner, we passed the bar that my father pretty much considered his "First" home. "Of course, ours was second to his favorite place…" But once we passed it, I remembered hearing somewhere that it had burned down a few years back. Of course, it could have been re-opened so I let it slide. Shortly afterward, we passed the house of one of the neighborhood punks back when I was a kid. I remember he owned an old beat up Dodge and I could have sworn I just saw the nose of it peeking out of the half-open garage door. 'Is it possible he still owns it? And after all this time, the loser still lives with mummy and daddy?' The thought did give me a chuckle but added to that "Not enough has changed" feeling. Hey, I suppose my family moved on and some people around here just aren't doing the same.
We got one more block down when my fearless leader took a left, just one street away from my old house. There used to be a small convenience store but, I know that had been closed down when the old man who owned it passed away. Then it became a beauty salon. 'I wonder if someone bought it and turned it back into a store.' I thought to myself then realized that it would not be probable since huge stores had opened up on the main road too nearby to let the smaller ones survive. Then I turned the corner to follow when I almost fell off my bike…
Right there in front of me was a small store with the sign "Gilley's Variety" prominently displayed over the door.
Mike set his bike down next to the door and looked back at me. "You OK?" He asked as he turned and started walking back in my direction. "Mike? Is something wrong?" He asked, now putting his hands on my handlebars and shaking them a bit to get my attention.
'C'mon mouth, work. You're scaring the kid.' Hell, scaring him? I was starting to wonder if I had lost my mind.
"Um, I thought this place had closed down. Who reopened it?" I asked after clearing my throat 3 or 4 times.
"I dunno, It's been here as long as I can remember. Gilley is a nice old guy. I even help him out sometimes by washing his windows or sweeping up for him when he's not feeling too good. C'mon, let's get a soda."
I felt almost as if I was going to pass out again like I did in the fort. 'Maybe Gilley had a son or something who decided to buy the place back and reopen it. Yeah, that must be it. This must be owned by a junior that I never know about.'
I set my bike on its kickstand next to little Mike's bike and followed him in the door. The hauntingly familiar ring of the two bells above the door rang out as we opened it to let the shopkeeper know we were here. Once inside, I was convinced I had in fact gone insane or the store's new owner completely restored the place to what it once was.
There was an old-style cash register on the counter Right next to the rows of Penny Candy that I always used to love. The cooler for milk and cold drinks were right back where they used to be and even the old deli refrigerator in the back of the store was still there with all kinds of household stuff displayed neatly near it. It was a tiny shop but, was my favorite stop on a hot day.
Mike went right to the cooler and turned back towards me. "What do you want to drink?" He asked with a big smile on his face.
"Um, do they have Mountain Dew?" I asked, still letting my eyes absorb the surroundings that were simply too much to believe.
"Yeah, He has it. You drink that stuff? It's green and makes you hyper my mom says."
I chuckled at his comment. "Yup, that's why I love the stuff. Keeps ya going. Have you ever tried it?
He looked at me like I was asking him to drink sour milk and said: "No, what does it taste like?"
OK, I got hooked on the stuff a few years back and realized that of all the soda I ever drank, it was one of the few that you weren't thirsty again right after you drank it. "Well, I guess it's like a combination of 7up and lemonade, sort of. I never really tried to describe it. All I know is I like the taste and it's great on hot days."
"I'll get one too then. I always get Pepsi but, my mom always says it's good to try new things." And with a huge smile on his face, he opened the frosted glass door to the cooler and pulled out two green glass bottles of Mountain Dew.
"Glass?!? They still make these? Oh my god who owns this place and how on earth did he find these?" I was guessing whoever owned the place was going for a nostalgic approach. It would be a great way to survive near all those eyesore superstores that have taken over in the years that have passed.
Mike looked at me and tilted his head. Almost like a dog does when you make a noise that he doesn't understand.
"They've always been glass, well here anyway." He stated as he placed his bottle on the counter before turning to the door in the back and yelling "Hey Gilley. It's me, Mike. You back there?"
I chuckled hearing those words. Exact same thing I used to yell at Gilley senior. He used to fall asleep in the back room while watching the little TV he had back there. 'Well, if it's his son, I guess he's like his dad in that aspect. It's no wonder he hasn't been robbed blind by not being in the storefront. You can't get away with stuff like that anymore nowadays.' I thought to myself as I pulled my wallet out of my back pocket to pay for the drinks.
"Michael? Oh, hold on I'll be right there. I was hoping you would come by today…" Came the voice from the back room trailing off as he obviously had more to say but didn't quite get it out.
Just then I silently thanked God that I had put the bottle on the counter. Because I surely would have dropped it when the old man came around the corner. 'He has got to be Gilley's son.' I thought to myself cause he was the spitting image of the old man I once knew so many years ago. Just to keep myself from gawking at him, I reached over and grabbed a newspaper. I figured thumbing through it would be a nice distraction.
The headline read: "Red Sox take home another win from Yankee Stadium" which gave me a smile at least. Once the old man opened his mouth, I couldn't help but get diverted from my diversion. 'So much for that idea…'
"Michael, I was hoping you would come by today." The old man said as he got up to the counter. "I have some boxes in the back that I need to get into the rubbish but they are just a bit too heavy for me."
"Oh yes, just like his father" I chuckled to myself. God how I loved coming here when I was a kid. Gilley Senior always had odd jobs saved aside for me to earn some penny candy or a cold drink and it appears the next generation has struck up a similar bargain…
"Oh I'm sorry young man, would you like anything else with that paper?" The old man said to me, snapping me back from my little trip down memory lane.
"Oh Gilley, this is a friend of mine. His name is Mike too. We are out riding our bikes and just stopped in for a break and something drink." Little Mike said as he pointed to the sodas on the counter.
"Well, nice to meet ya then. You new to the area? Don't think I've seen you around before." He asked me. I suppose being the owner of a small business, you do get to know the neighbors pretty well.
"No sir, I actually grew up in the area, but we moved away about 23 years ago. I love how you restored this store. It looks exactly as I remember and I used to come here all the time. Was it your father who owned it back then?" Yes, it may have been an introduction but, I really needed to try to make some sense out of this seemingly never-ending case of "Deja Vous".
"Hmmm…" He seemed to ponder a bit. "23 years ago this was a convenience store but I never had any relatives here back then since I came here as a teen, alone from Canada. It took years before I could afford to get the money saved up to open this store. Been here now going on 22 years."
"Well then, maybe it was the previous owner. You remind me of him I guess. Still, this place is exactly as I remembered it." Still confused, I decided to try to back out of the conversation. It was the easy way out without coming right out and saying that something screwy was going on in this area.
"Well, I'm glad you stopped in then. Help yourself to the drinks and paper. Michael, do you think you have time to help me? It will only take a few minutes." He asked turning attention to my little partner.
"Do you mind Mike? I won't be long and I don't want to see him hurt himself again trying to move stuff that's too heavy." I just admired him for his concern. How could I mind?
"No, not at all. Anything I can help with?"
"Nah, I do stuff around here all the time. If you want, you can go out and sit on the steps. As soon as I'm done we can finish our drinks and then it's your turn to lead." He replied with a smirk knowing that this stop was probably just a break, which still makes it his turn. Hehehe, the little cheat.
"OK, I'll come up with the next stop while I'm out there," I said as I ruffled his hair. "Gilley, It was great meeting you. I'll definitely stop in again now that I know you have soda in glass bottles. I didn't think there were any places that still sold them." I said as I offered my hand for him to shake.
"He looked at me with an odd smile, shook my hand and said, "Nice meeting you as well, and as long as they don't all go into those plastic bottles, that's the only way I get em."
I grabbed my paper, thanked him again for his hospitality, told Little Mike I'd be out in the front and sat down on the steps to cool off and thumb through the paper.
"As long as they don't all go into plastic bottles?" I laughed to myself. The last glass bottle I saw being sold in stores was back in the late 70's early 80's. 'Funny old man.' I chuckled as I opened the paper and looked at the headline about the Yankees getting beaten in their own stadium, something that gives me a bit of joy.
I began to read about the game, I may not be a huge baseball fan but, the RedSox have actually been looking good lately and so far the 2004 season is looking up for us. So I thought I'd read up on it a bit and at least have a clue what was happening.
Now I don't know the entire roster, but none of the names were standing out at all. Not that I really expected them to but, No mention of "Pedro". Come on now, you never hear anything about Boston Baseball without hearing about their famed Over Paid star pitcher. Then I hit a name that did stand out…
"Starting Pitcher: Jim Rice"
"What the hell is going on here?" I said as I looked at the date on the paper.
"Monday, June 29, 1980"
I took a long look at the paper, then swallowed down half of my soda and looked again to make sure I didn't miss-read it. I looked up and stared down the street, that light-headed feeling returning again in full force. 'He sells old papers too?' I thought to myself as I folded it and put it down. "God, this is getting unreal. Is this a Variety Store or an Antique Shop?"
Just then I saw an old "Country Squire" station wagon turn the corner and stop in front of the store. The car looked just like one that we had when I was still a kid. Tan with the laminated wood grain sides. I smiled at seeing that there was still one of those on the road and picked the paper back up to get another history lesson as it seems that was all this paper had to offer.
I heard the car door open and then close and at the same time, I heard the doorbell ring and Little Mike yell out "Hi Ma!"
I smiled as he ran to his mother to talk to her, but stopped smiling the second I got a look at her.
"Oh my god!" I said out loud getting both of their attention unintentionally. If I didn't know any better, I would swear that was my mother. A lot younger but, her just the same. 'What is going on around here?'
"Ma, this is my friend Mike. He used to live here when he was a kid and even went to the same school as me." Mike blurted out as I just stared at his mother.
I stood up, now feeling as if I was going to pass out, throw up or both. I took a deep breath, resigned myself to the thought that I had definitely lost my mind and offered my hand to her.
"Hi, Mike." She said as I shook her hand. "I hope he's not bothering you at all."
"Bothering me? No, he's been great company. It's been years since I've been around here and since we bumped into each other he's been showing me all the things that have changed. He's been a lot of fun so far." I added with a smile.
"Mike, you look a little familiar. I think I have seen you before, how long has it been since you lived around here?" She asked, making me scramble to find an answer that wouldn't cause her to think I was nuts.
"Oh, it's been 23 or 24 years now. I was a little older than Mike here when we left and I haven't been through here at all since really." There, that was vague enough to not make her question it too much. Besides, from the looks of things so far, "We" haven't left yet. 'I really need to sit down and figure out just what the hell is going on, or what is wrong with me.'
"Mike, I thought you were going over to Dale's house. Why aren't you with him?" She asked her son with a look that I recognized from my childhood to mean, "What went wrong?"
"Oh." He replied. "I did but he went out with his dad for the day so I was gonna come back home but bumped into Mike and we were just going to ride our bikes for a while. Do you want me to go home?"
She smiled at me then looked down at the kid who definitely had the "Do I really have to go home now?" look on his face.
"No. You can stay out as long as you are with an adult, but be home when the street lights come on, ok?"
"Ok." He quickly replied before looking back up at me. "Is that ok with you Mike?"
"Sure, so far I think I've gotten a pretty good tour and I know there is much more of the neighborhood to go still," I said while ruffling his hair.
"Great. Mike your Brother and Sister are at your Grand Parents house. I dropped them there for the day since you were out and your father has left for work already. I was planning on going back down to pick them up at about 9 because I'll be out for the day. If you and your new friend here want to go back to the house later on to grab something to eat there is some tuna salad made up in the fridge." She thought for a few seconds before adding, "Mike, are you sure he won't be a bother. If so I can come home early to pick him up in a few hours so you aren't stuck with him too late."
"Nah, It's my day off from work and I had no plans for the whole day. Since I was just visiting the area, I had planned on being around for quite a while anyway. 9 or 10 is fine with me. If you want I can make sure he is safe at home before dark and have him call his grandparents to check in." I said as I thought to myself that I may need him to help figure out why everything around here seemed as if time itself was playing a cruel trick on me.
"Thank you so much. Mike, you have your house key on you right?" She asked.
He checked his pocket and produced a key ring with two keys on it. "Yup, right here."
"Ok then. I need to stop at the house for a second then I'm off. You boys stay out of trouble." She said winking at her son then smiling at me.
"Ok Ma." we both answered. Which made her laugh even though it was a real slip on my part, not meant as a joke. Then she turned back toward the car, waved to us and drove down the road and out of sight.
"Ok, it's your turn. Where are we going next?" He asked with a grin.
"Well, is there still a small playground at that school over there?" I asked knowing full well it had been torn out about a year ago.
"Yeah, they just replaced the swings and stuff. You wanna go there?" He replied, further confirming that I needed to get my head checked.
"Yeah, when we get there though, I have a few questions to ask, if it's OK with you." That and I also need to buy some time to gather my thoughts.
We jumped on our bikes and went right for the schoolyard. All the way, I kept trying to figure out what was going on. 'He's riding my old bike, Gilly's is opened again, the fort is as it was when we found it, the date on the newspaper… What does all this mean and more importantly, why is this happening to me?'
When we entered the gate of the schoolyard, I saw what I was hoping I wouldn't. Unlike the school we started this little trip through the Twilight Zone at, it was more geared toward kids 5 through 9, so there was a full blown play area complete with swings, slides and even had hopscotch and mazes permanently painted on the pavement. Recently the school had been renovated and became an Adult Learning Center, making what I was currently looking at completely impossible.
"Damn it, this isn't supposed to be here," I muttered under my breath so Mike couldn't hear.
"Don't use the swing on the left," Mike stated as we dismounted our bikes. "There is a sharp spot on the chain that can cut you and they haven't fixed it yet."
I knew he was right, I had cut my hand open on it one day while waiting to walk my younger brother home from school.
We hopped onto the swings on the other end and lazily started swinging back and forth, Me gathering my thoughts and trying to figure out how to talk to him without freaking him out, and I'm sure he was waiting for me to say something, anything to break the silence.
"So, what did ya wanna ask me?" He asked snapping me back from my thoughts.
'Come on, don't chicken out now…' I thought to myself before asking the ground more than him, "Your Name is Michael Avery, isn't it?"
"Yeah, you do know my mother, don't you?" He said with a grin.
"Sort of, I think. Mike, is your Birthday next month?" I asked, trying not to creep him out or anything.
"Yeah, on the 17th. How'd you know that?" He asked, now dragging his feet in the dirt to stop swinging.
"Cause mine is too, promise not to get upset?" I asked staring him in the eyes now that we both had stopped swinging.
"Ok, I promise. What's wrong, you seemed happier before." He asked, now visibly showing concern for my mood change.
"Something weird is going on today. When I rode from my house to the school earlier, things have just gotten weird. Even more than that, you and I are way too much alike. Same names, the fort, Gilley, your mom. It's almost as if I was looking at myself as a kid again but, at the same time, I feel like I'm out of place. Does that make any sense?"
"Mike?" He asked after digesting what I had just said for a minute. "Your aunt, the one who bought you your bike, the one like mine that you talked about. Is she the reason red is your favorite color?"
'Yes, that answers my question. I am insane.'
"You know who I am, don't you?" Asking, obviously looking as if I had just taken a sucker punch to the gut.
"I… Um… I probably… I gotta go home." He stammered out as he jumped up off his swing and bolted for his bike.
Without another word, he jumped on his bike and peddled off as fast as it would take him. 'Nice one stupid, you just scared the hell out of the poor kid. Even better, you still have no idea what is going on, or even how he seems to know who you are.' I thought as I watched him round the corner and down the street that I knew his house was on.
"Well, I said to my bike as I lifted it off the ground. "Looks like it's just you and me now."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
To Be Continued...