It was a warm, brisk Saturday afternoon, and Jack and I couldn't wait to get to the river. Crisp, dry auburn leaves were settling to the ground like fairies relishing their last ballet before reaching the forest floor. We knew they would soon be buried under mounds of snow, obscuring the path to the forest.
The wind snapped at our faces as we sprinted over rolling hills that made their way into the lush forest. We ran along the path, kicking aside piles of leaves which had formed a quilt of a million pieces for us.
Jack suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, and I stumbled, falling onto the path.
"What is it, buddy?" I asked him, as I picked myself up and brushed the crumbled leaves off my jeans.
He pointed to a glorious river as long as five blue whales linked tail to tail. It stretched up into the towering snow-capped mountains and emptied into the horizon. From there, it made its way back down the mountains and plummeted steeply over the waterfall.
"It's beautiful," I said simply.
"Yes, beautiful," Jack echoed in wonder.
Bighorn River was an exhilarating place to spend our afternoon. With birds and insects spotting the sky and the river winding its way through the mountains like a gigantic snake slithering in the grass, this place was paradise.
I loved the tale of how the river was named. Long ago, many buffaloes tramped over this land and caused it to rumble until springs shot out of the ground, forming the river. My mind traveled to the thundering herds, rushing through the trees, eager to reach drinking water. I could almost feel the vibration of the ground and smell the musky odor of their matted fur.
"Alex, we have to continue so we can spend more time at the river." Jack's voice snapped me back into reality.
We sprinted off the path to the edge of the forest. Directly in front of us, the river was waiting. We hurtled ourselves onto the bank and sank down into the warm, round pebbles on the shore, giving our feet a well-deserved reward. Our shirts were soggy sheets of cloth, for the autumn sun was flaming on our skin.
We cupped handfuls of fresh water and splashed them greedily on our sweaty faces. The crisp, cold water washed away our exhaustion, and we gave sighs of contentment.
As trout arched across the water, the afternoon sunlight sank into the river, spreading colors of light which faded into the depth of the water. The majestic river was overflowing with life and painted with beauty.
"Jack, how are you feeling about the... the... thing?" I asked uneasily.
"Look, my parents are divorced, and I'm sent to live with my relatives. So what?" He glared at me menacingly.
"I mean, if you need help to sort things out, I'd be devoted to helping you," I volunteered.
He just looked down and slapped some sand into the tranquil river. Frightened baby fish quickly scattered in fear. As they gathered back together at another cattail, a significant idea popped up in my mind.
"Jack, why don't you try getting your family back together?" I suggested. He looked at me with doubt.
"Alex, I know you're trying to help me and all that, but I just want to leave it the way it is. Really" I knew Jack was lying to cover his pain.
"Don't try to fool me, man," I replied, tossing a pebble into the rushing river. The rock sank and softly settled to the river floor.
Jack looked at me and snorted.
Both of us were mute with embarrassment. Finally, after what seemed like an hour of silent moments, I managed to utter, "You OK?"
Jack sat staring at the silent water.
"I feel bad for you, Jack. We haven't talked about the divorce a lot, but I had the feeling you could handle it," I said quietly. Jack couldn't speak, as if the words were frozen in his throat.
"Jack, talk to me! Is something wrong?" I shouted.
He just raised his head in sorrow and stared at me. Then he muttered, "I just miss my parents. I wish they'd come back." Tears trickled from his miserable, green eyes, making a faint path down his cheeks. He gazed up at the burning sun and quickly turned away in dismay.
A curious tadpole swam up to my big toe and circled it, wondering what this big peach-colored thing was. As I turned away, a hungry stickleback swam up and devoured it with greed. I spat at it and it hurried away shamefully.
I sighed and looked to my right. Jack was wading in the river, heading straight for the steep waterfall. I screamed his name, but he didn't come back or even turn his head.
I jumped in the river and landed on some jagged rocks, wincing with pain. The water, piercing my skin, was as cold as hundreds of freezing daggers.
Now I knew how my mom had felt the day she lost me in the mall. I was frantic with fear. I kept my eyes glued on the figure that continued to walk away from me. I started to cry.
What was Jack doing? I wondered. He must have lost his mind!
The river's current propelled me closer and closer to Jack. Just a few more steps, I told myself. I proceeded through the water with perseverance, my legs like robotic sticks that kept me moving.
I pushed and pushed, and I was suddenly there, right by Jack's side. He was floating facedown in the water like a dead person. I quickly snatched him out of the racing water and pulled him into an upright position.
"Why? Why do you do this to me? Why!" I demanded, weeping helplessly. My tears dropped into the river and were carried off.
Jack looked at me and took in his surroundings, and then said the strangest thing a thirteen-year-old boy would ever say, “Are you my friend?"
I gaped in alarm as he stared at me in wonder. All of a sudden, it was as though he were my brother. I dragged him ashore and we lay in astonishment, gasping for air. I could feel the tickling sensation of tiny insects crawling up my legs.
“Are you my friend?"
His words echoed in my mind.
What was that supposed to mean?
Finally, I decided to answer his question.
"Yes... I am your friend."
Jack suddenly sprang to his feet and shouted, "I can do this! I can bring my family back together! I just know I can! I can! I can!" He laughed jubilantly and whooped with joy as he cheerfully danced on the grass.
Then he looked at me and said, "You did it! You did it! Thank you! Thank you, my friend!" He suddenly hugged me with passion. I was momentarily stunned, and then returned the hug, squeezing his shoulder tightly.
He suddenly pulled away from me. Then he asked, "Are you my brother?"
I stepped close to him and laid my head on his shoulder. Then I whispered quietly, "Yes, I am... your brother."