James and I had been the first ones to find the portal in the river, but our friends that summer would tell the story as if they’d been there from the beginning. Then again, the portal being what it was, that might now be the truth of the matter. Could be they’re out there, days or months or years ahead of us, discovering an old path deep in the woods.
Apart from the sheer distance between the road and the overgrown path, that part of the river wasn’t even all that hard to access, which always seemed to me the most obvious reason that we couldn’t have truly been the first ones there. But such is the way of portals, as the literature suggests; they can seal up at any moment. Stay dormant for centuries. There was no mystical chosen-ness; like all things, we were simply a collision of coincidence.
We ended up there from pure teenage boredom. It was that lull at the end of summer when we refused to admit that we had run out of options to keep us entertained, and resorted to pulling onto highway shoulders and walking along any trail that appeared relatively passable, but tangly enough to be deemed adventurous. As suburban kids in the 90s, this was as large an exploratory scope as we could fathom.
When anyone asked about that first, historic leap he made, James always denied his bravery: “The water didn’t look different there than at any other spot in the river. Only after, when the two of us looked closer, could we see, like, the seam or whatever to it. Like a giant’s thin lip quivering. It just happened to be the place where I jumped, is all. Almost broke my ankle when I hit the concrete. And about broke my brain when I saw mom and me getting out of our old Ford Fiesta.”
He knew the place where he’d landed: the Ridley Mall parking deck. He knew the year: 1987. He even knew roughly the week: sometime in mid-December, when the movie Hook had been released at the Ridley theater. James watched as his younger self and mother, hand-in-hand, looked both ways and crossed the street to the box office.
“I remember that day cause it was so close to Christmas and I was excited to be going to the movies with my mom. We’d gone shopping after and picked out gifts for everyone.”
James didn’t get to relive the gift searching with the two of them. He’d barely hobbled to the street before he felt the pull of the present. “Like I was being jerked into the sky. Came out sputtering and flailing.” I hadn’t known what had happened at first, of course; assumed James’d been sucked into some weird spout-hole, then he spurted from the water and tumbled to shore. “Laughing and crying. Straight bewildered.”
When I went I ended up on the rooftop of my parents’ house. My younger self was in the backyard, lazily dribbling a basketball on the dirt court. The setting sun seemed to steam in the distance. There was nothing specific about this day like there had been for James. It could’ve been any random day of my childhood summers. I had just enough time to hear my father below me on the deck, calling me to dinner, before I was launched back to the present.
Neither James nor I felt we had the fortitude, at that moment, to attempt another leap. I can compare it now to coming down from hallucinogens, how your brain still tingles with the fantastic, too much so to think about plunging back into the deeper folds of your psyche just then and there. The shock of it all had to be re-formed and accepted as an experience both in and out of time.
Of course we couldn’t keep this to ourselves, and brought a dozen friends back the next day. After that, the news spread through the whole town. Group after group, generation upon generation, all came with their swimsuits and cutoff jeans and muumuus cinched up tight, ready to cannonball into their pasts.
The pure ecstasy of it. The weeping and embracing. From above it must’ve appeared as some rogue spiritual ceremony, or a cult’s final drug-fueled sendoff, leaping into the purifying waters and emerging with a kaleidoscopic knowledge of god blazing in our eyes.
Once the initial hysteria wore off, the town was able to transition to more stable, structured visits to the river that allowed jobs to resume, ballgames to be played, dinner to be had. The portal became, if not normalized, at least absorbed into the town’s sphere of special wonders, like the way the sunset looked at the top of Eno’s peak, or the uncanny amount of fireflies that permeated the summer nights, bunched in floating nests of palpitating gold.
No one remembers who was the first to go missing. Or, rather, the first to never return. Many maintained the hopeful—or morbid—ambiguity that it wasn’t necessarily by choice; or their choice, at least—the river, after all, suggesting a certain controlling sentience. The fact that many others around the same time found their way back from the woods, soaked and satiated, proved nothing to the imaginative and heartbroken.
Then one day the seam disappeared; the lip no longer quivered. Half the town—which by then, was the whole town—came out when they heard. We all stood there by the bank and watched the water just be water. I’m uncertain how many minutes or hours passed, but at some point I realized I was alone. Quiet and nearly dark, the path back was beautiful in the way I’ve found can only be brought about by loneliness.
The fireflies gathered across the fields. I heard a heavy rustling beneath the bridge. In the past it would’ve scared me. But that was the past, and I felt no fear.
Adam Cheshire is a writer living in the small southern town of Hillsborough, NC. His prose and poetry have appeared in The Adirondack Review, Foliate Oak, Vine Leaves, and Reverie: Mini Memoir, among others.