Little Sammy Nicholson fell off the bike for the third and final time. He scraped his knees and peeled the top layer of skin off his palms. The boy looked down at the miniscule spots of blood beginning to form, shock plastered on his post-baby face. His piggy eyes watched in a paralytic fascination as the blood ran the track formed by the grooves in his hands. A winding river of blood in his palms.
“Red River, Red River fresh blood please deliver.”
The tubby kid began to cry, yes, from the pain; but more so from the invasive thought. It was an interloper; not belonging to the boy, yet it was definitely voiced in his mind. It hinted that not all would be the same. Things change, and a tiny child is powerless to the inevitability of it all. Ideas come and go, yet this one lingered. It taunted the boy, teasing of secrets beyond his understanding. Hidden fruit, just out of reach.
Sammy, now, all too aware of just how far from the house he was, picked up his bike, nervously glancing around. The sun was quickly setting, with each second the day got darker. He wished he would’ve stayed with his little sister and mom, the idea of riding alone seemingly a grave mistake.
Forgetting about his grazed knee and bleeding hands, a fear unidentifiable grasping at every ounce of attention the young boy could muster. His eyes darted back and forth into the pools of shadows expecting to see cat eyes peering back at any moment. No figures, no creatures, no blood sucking vampires, no brain eating zombies; just blackness. This didn’t put his mind at ease, in fact, young Sammy became more scared with each glance.
A tickling sensation on his arm.
With a start the boy looked down only to see the forgotten stream of blood running down. It ran halfway down his forearm only to pool into pregnant drops and splatter onto the ragged pavement. Glancing behind him he noticed a trail of blood droplets leading from the scene of the accident. Sammy turned back to continue his long trek home; his heart skipped a beat. Standing about a football field’s distance down the road blocking his way home, a man. The figure stood on the bridge peering unblinkingly at the murky waters down below his feet. The boy, knowing he ought not approach, yet seeing no way past; gritted himself for the encounter that must be.
As the boy approached, he noticed more about the man. He was oddly dressed. The old timer wore khaki shorts, what seemed to be a Hawaiian shirt, and flip flops. Sammy thinks he looks similar to his grandpa who lived down on the gulf side of Florida. He loved going to the beach and skipping shells on the endless waters with him. The boy’s mood turns from downright fear to outright nostalgia. He misses his grandpa, who died the previous year from something his mom called cancer. Sammy doesn’t quite know what cancer is, but he is old enough to hate it. He wishes he could feel his grandpa’s rough hand ruffle his hair one more time. The boy hated it when he was alive, but now there is nothing he wants more.
No longer scared, mind entirely occupied and immune to the stingy pain from his accident; Sammy marches directly up to the stranger without a care in the world. The old timer not looking up from the bloated, rushing waters doesn’t seem to notice that he is no longer alone.
The boy stands next to the doppelgänger of his deceased grandpa, peering down at the river. The two, a mirror image of each other. A moment passes. Then two, still the pair has yet to speak. Without a word exchanged, a bond formed. A kid standing with his grandpa. At that moment, the boy had him back. No cancer, no funeral, no tears shed; just the comforting presence of a loved one.
In a small voice the boy said, “Excuse me sir, what exactly are you looking at?”
In a gruff, yet comforting voice the man responds “I’m looking at the last place I saw my son.”
The boy doesn’t quite understand this, but his mom always taught him to mind his elders. He holds his tongue not wanting to aggravate the older man, understanding that adults enjoy talking. As if to prove the point, the man says, “My son had an accident on this bridge, and fell into the river.”
The old man pauses for what seems to be an eternity, before turning to the boy and saying, “I am sorry young man, where are my manners, my name is Tommy Bahena. My friends call me Tommy Bahama, if you like.”
“Tommy Bahama! What a cool name. I’m Sammy Nicholson and I live right up the road,” said the young boy in a rush of words. “I am awfully sorry for your son. My grandpa died last year too. I miss him so much. You know it’s ok to cry? At least that is what my mom always says.”
“Your mom seems like a wise woman. Definitely had my fair share of tears shed on this bridge. That river is filled with them,” said the man with a little chuckle.
The man had a contagious laugh and the boy couldn’t help but join in. With an over-dramatic flourish of his hand the old timer presented it for a shake. At this, the duo belted out another raucous peel of laughter.
Sammy, completely forgetting his wounded hand, extended it to meet the man’s.
The old timer looked down, and noticed the blood. He stood erect; a queer smile dancing across his face. His face seemed to slide, distorting the comfortable features.
The boy saw the man in a new light. Well-weathered wrinkles turned into sharp cracks; bags turned into shadows hiding secrets. Dim, tired eyes became hungry, seeking pits looking for their next meal.
Sammy recoiled from the man, the fear he experienced earlier being reignited.
Tommy glanced down at the blood smeared hand, a lunatic’s fever burning in his sunken eyes. The twisted man looked at the boy, thirst clearly visible on the dark landscape of his face. In the same careless estimation, a lion sizes up the buffalo; the elderly man studied the child.
When the boy was certain the man was going to pounce, the friendly face seemed to reappear as if it had never left.
The boy, unsure of what he just saw, took a healthy step back from the man. In a voice a bit shaky, the boy said, “It was nice meeting you, but my mom will be wondering where I got off to. I should be going. Besides, I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“It’s never good to worry your mom, but it’s not quite night yet. I’m sure she won’t mind you chatting a bit with an old timer like myself,” said the man in a reasonable tone. “Sammy do you like stories? I love them and I’m old which means I got the best ones. Wanna hear one?” The man looked so lonely and eager to tell a story, the poor boy could hardly resist.
“You promise it will be a short one, I really do need to get home?” The boy exclaimed.
A somber looking Tommy responded, “Cross my heart.” With a goofy crossing gesture, the older man had the pair laughing once again.
Sammy, starving for the old stories his grandpa used to tell, excitedly nodded his head.
“Do me one favor first Sammy, look down into the river,” said the serious man.
The boy looked down into the gurgling waters below. The water in the golden light of the fading sun looked red. The dark red of blood fresh from the vein. Oddly enough the boy thought of the blood running in the grooves of his palms.
That delirious mantra rushed back into his mind, “Red River, Red River, fresh blood please deliver.” The undesired phrase repeated in his mind like a scratched record. The Red River flooded his mind, tearing at the dams of his sanity. It threatened to scoop him up in its rush of madness. To leave him stranded on the banks of lunacy.
Just as the boy thought he could not bear to hear it uttered one more time, the old man spoke once again. “The Red River is beautiful in the moments before the sun goes down. You see it’s the minerals in the water that when the sun hits it just right causes it to look like a river of blood. It always tends to remind me of the mortality of the human race. If you really think about it, we are nothing more than streams of blood. We have more in common with this river than we think. When the heart stops pumping, then we end. Just like this river eventually will run its course and dead end.”
The boy did not enjoy the old timer’s musings. They frightened him. It was just too similar to the eerie mantra that had been living rent free in his mind. Sammy, determined to not allow the incessant rhyme to return, blurted out, “Can I hear the story now?”
Not even giving the boy a passing glance, the man responded, “This place is a sacred place. It calls people to its burgundy banks. Natives used to fear it, they believed that the river calls for blood to fuel its eternal flow.” The man sighed as if releasing a great weight. The boy saw no humor left in the man’s blank face. His face was void of all emotion.
Sammy’s heartbeat began to thud, hammering away like a man trying to escape.
The man turned from the winding curves of the river to look at the boy with sympathy in his eyes.
In a regretful tone the man began the story, “A Spanish conquistador came to America looking for the streams of eternal life. He dedicated his whole life to the affair. His men were driven beyond their breaking point. They abandoned him, stealing his supplies and leaving him to die. One man stayed with the old conquistador. One man of a hundred, loyal to his cause. This man was his son, who grew up on the adventures his father shared. He vowed to his broken, beaten-down father that he would see it through. The father was proud, knowing that his son would do anything for him. They had been without food for nearly two weeks. They were diseased and their bodies were being consumed by their own insatiable hunger. The adventures came to this area. For days they had been led to this river. They heard it calling to them. Red River, Red River, fresh blood please deliver. This mantra filled their consciousness. They dreamed of red rivers, they trudged forward. Their feet began to bleed, and their skin blistered from the cruel heat. They felt no pain, until similar to us they looked from the banks to see the river of blood below them. Five years later the old conquistador returned alone.”
Young Sammy stared at the river in disgust. Entirely shocked that the man quoted the incessant riddle he had been hearing since he fell off his bike. Unable to move, paralyzed by fear the boy asked, “What was that old conquistador’s name?”
The man looked at the boy with a sly grin, “Very good, you might be the first one to make that connection. I do appreciate a smart boy. His name was Tomas Bahena.”
The boy’s jaw dropped and his bladder let loose. Wetness ran down his legs soaking his shorts. In a barely audible tone, the boy asked “How did your son die?”
“Bravo! It is quite a shame for such a clever boy to have such few years of life. You see, eternal life is achievable, but it has such a horrible cost. It is not free. Life for life is the trade. Your life shortened; my life lengthened.”
The boy, bike in hand trembling with fear, closed his eyes in resolve.
The sun went down on a frantic Laura Nicholson, desperately searching the front yard for her missing son.
Phone was in hand to dial the police department, when the concerned woman looked into the darkness and saw a shape. It was a male figure walking towards her. A sledgehammer beating away from the inside of her chest. The man stepped into the light and with a sigh of relief she noticed it was her son. She went to embrace him, yet something deep inside her cringed at his sight. He looked the same, if not a bit dirt smeared, but his eyes stopped her in her tracks. They were hard, the eyes of a man who’s seen too much. They looked her up and down and immediately dismissed her.
The boy, in an emotionless tone said, “Sorry mom the chain on my bike broke and I had to walk back home.”
Laura looked and saw what seemed to be blood stains on the sleeve of his shirt. She studied the boy’s figure; she saw no wounds on him. His unmarred skin shone bright in the pale moonlight. The woman, still holding her son, closed the door, drowning out the steady beating of the river off in the distance.
Credit: John Westrick
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