Author’s Note: The inspiration and first line of this piece is not my own. It comes from the Harris Burdick photography set. For those who do not know what that is, I highly suggest researching that before reading. The photograph and first line belong solely to Mr. Burdick, whoever he may be. And on the slight chance he is reading this, I’d like to thank him for the inspirational legacy he has left.
He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back. Just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. It was always the third stone that came back. Never the first, or the fourth, or the twenty-seventh; it was always the third stone. It was as dependable as clockwork.
And that was exactly why Benjamin was determined to break the cycle.
It made him angry from the deepest part of his seven year old heart, setting it on fire in the hottest flames he could muster. Fire burning hot with confusion and anger towards things he could not understand or were out of his control. To an adult this was merely a flickering candle but to Benjamin it was like the Chicago fire of 1871 was roaring inside his chest. Benjamin didn’t know much at the age of seven but he knew about that fire. He knew because his great-grandfather had been there.
Some families told stories of crossing the ocean or being descendants of ancient kings or fighting in wars from long ago, but for Benjamin the story passed down to him was always about how his great-grandfather had fought the flames for three days without rest in the same city he now called home. How every adult who told the tale swore up and down his great-grandfather had seen spirits running through the smoke in the sky by the end. Horses and gazelles and even human figures swirling and curling about within the chocking pitch black. And whenever Benjamin asked if that was true, they would all answer yes. It was as dependable as clockwork.
Benjamin had come to hate that too.
He had thought about this as he walked down the grassy hill to the lake the family summer cottage was nestled beside. The huge expanse of cool green-blue lapped against the shore, almost tauntingly, daring him to try again to break the cycle of the boomeranging third stone.
The first stone he’d thrown didn’t even sink because he threw it so hard. Instead it arched its way through the air before meeting the water in a determined ‘cher-splunk’. The second had skipped only once before disappearing beneath the lake’s surface. He had taken this as a good sign. So he snapped his arm back and then forward, sending the pebbling flying. It skipped once, then twice and then a third time. Benjamin held his breath as he waited and watched. Then, just like clockwork, the pebble came bouncing back, akin in motion to that of a small puppy.
Benjamin opened his mouth to scream in frustration, when he heard a giggle behind him.
“It happened again didn’t it?”
Benjamin turned to see a young girl behind him. She crouched behind a rock and was watching him with a lop-sided grin.
“What’re you talking about?” Benjamin grumbled.
“The third rock you threw. It came back. It always comes back.” She proceeded to sit down on the rock and swing her legs. It was then Benjamin took into account her appearance, which could only be described as peculiar at best.
“Why’re you in a night dress? People don’t wear one of them down by the lake.”
“I wear my night dress because I want too. Simple as that. But that’s not important. What’s important is your rock isn’t listening to you.”
“Whadaya mean it isn’t listening. It’s a rock.” To emphasize his point Benjamin picked up a fourth rock and chucked it into the water. Just as always, the fourth one stayed sunk.
“That’s not the rock you’re talking about though. The third rock is what’s special.”
“Me that’s who! You’re only seven but I’m ten so I know way way more than you do!” She puffed out her chest as if to emphasize her point. Benjamin scowled.
“Ya know what? I don’t care if you’re ten or twenty or a hundred and seven! I’m sick of people telling me what I can and can’t know! I hate it and I hate you!” Benjamin sunk to the rocky shore in a heap of shaking frustration. The little girl watched for a moment before getting off to rock to sit beside him.
“Awww. I didn’t mean it like that! Don’t cry. I’m not here to make you cry I’m here to help you.” Benjamin slowly lifted his gaze to meet her eyes. She continued, “Yeah. And to prove it, I’m gonna tell you why your third rock always comes back to you. But you gotta listen really carefully okay ‘cause I’m only gonna explain once.” If she hadn’t had his attention before, she had it now. Benjamin’s gaze was locked in the eyes of this mysterious little girl.
“The reason the stone keeps coming back is because it’s a present for you from your grandpa.” In the silence that followed, the little girl did not blink. Instead her face remained blank and solemn, as though it were carved of marble rather than flesh and bone. All Benjamin could do was stare for a good minute or so until he found his voice.
“That’s…so dumb. I’ve never heard a dumber more stupider thing in my life.” At this, the little girl’s stony gaze melted away like lava.
“You’re only seven!”
“Yeah but I’m not stupid! I know my great-grandpa ain’t throwing no rocks! And besides that has nothin’ to do with why I always get the third rock back! You make no sense little girl.”
At those words she fell flat against her back and stared up at the sky. The wind rustled through Benjamin’s hair and the world brightened as the full extent of the Sun’s power filed out from behind a cloud.
“Most things in life don’t. They don’t make sense at all. People like to think stuff we imagine and the stuff that’s real don’t mix. But that’s not true. And you know it too. Whenever you tell your Mom about the third stone, she doesn’t believe you does she? At least not really. She says she does but she doesn’t”
Benjamin shook his head. The little girl nodded and kicked her feet out, wiggling her toes.
“Not all adults are like that though. A lot are but not all of them. Your great-grandpa is special like that. He gets that imagination isn’t just for dreams.” Suddenly Benjamin felt heat rising in his chest. Not hot like his anger, but rather a strange sort of warmness, unknown but not unwelcome.
“You…you knew my great-grandpa?”
“Sure I know him. I talk to him lots. That’s how I know about why every third stone you throw comes back. He told me so. And he told me it’s him who’s throwin’ them so there!”
It was at that moment Benjamin noticed the lapping of the waves against the shore. Back and forth, as steady as a drum. Whenever his family told him stories about his great-grandpa and the fire, they always said how he had saved countless people by telling them to leave their homes, run out to the shore and wade into the great lake that sat kitty-corner to Chicago. He had said the water would protect them. His family said he saved lives, going so far as to carry a young girl who had passed out from the smoke out to the waves so she would be saved. The smoke had been too much for her, but he had given her family her final moments if nothing else. In thanks, the girl’s father gave him their summer cottage when they moved away after the fire. It had been in the family ever since.
Benjamin thought about this. Then he thought about the fact there was no conceivable way this little girl could know his great-grandpa, who had been gone long before he was born. He wanted to argue with her. To question her. To tell her everything she was saying could not be real.
But something stopped him. A tiny voice, murmuring in with every caressed of water upon stone. So he asked a different question instead.
“What does that have to do with my rock?” The little girl gave him a toothy grin, clearly pleased by his choice of question.
“You throw stones from the shore out to the lake. He’s just doing the same. His way of saying ‘hi’. After all, you’re the third generation since him to use the cottage. He said it would be kinda ‘symbolic’ whatever that means.” With that the little girl got up and brushed the dirt off her nightgown.
“Well anyways I gotta go. I can’t be home late. I wish you were ten like me, but seven is okay. Your grandpa said I had to wait for you to be seven before I could start talking to you. I’ve been awful patient. But I’m glad we can be friends now! It’s nice to have a new friend, even if its only for the summer. See yeah Benjamin!” With that, the little girl waved and ran off along the shore.
Benjamin watched her go until the horizon swallowed her whole, leaving nothing but ripples of her laughter in the air and a few shoe prints in the dust.
The next day, he ran down to the lake side as usual. And like clockwork, he began to throw stones. The first skipped five times, a new personal best. The second almost went three but he had put a bad spin on it so it wavered as it sunk. Then came the time to throw the third rock.
He felt a tingle in his fingers as he rubbed them across the smooth stone surface. At this point a part of him still wanted to break the cycle, to fix it in a way he could understand but now there was a new feeling as well. A feeling content to not question the unknown but instead allow it to just be and relish in that.
So as Benjamin through his rock out onto the open waters of the lake, and that same rock came bouncing back to him, he laughed instead of feeling angry or confused. And if anyone ever asked, he would swear up and down that a ten year old girl, a great-grandpa he ever knew but considered a friend and the lake itself laughed with him. Because in the heat of July and the heart of a seven year old boy who is willing to believe, who’s to say what’s strange isn’t real, and what’s real isn’t strange.