Chapter 27: Okeechobee
No one seemed to notice Cory hoarding the baseballs he'd find scattered outside the fences and in the fence cracks of the high school fields. Or the solitary practice he'd hold with himself after school. It was the offseason, and in the hours just after the final bell of classes, the baseball field lay empty.
Practice. Making up for lost time, and trying to improve himself to even further ahead than he was with the Brummets. After checking in at home and finding the house empty – no one to ask questions or grill him on his afternoon itinerary – he jogs back across to the baseball field, backpack full of discarded balls.
He's marked an X with spray paint on a stretch of the chain link fence, and with his arsenal collected, throws against the wall, building the speed and stamina back in his arm. Perfecting form, footwork, timing, as much he can without a witness or partner. When the bag has been emptied and all the balls pitched, he fires each one as far as he can towards the outfield fence, and once they've been cleared out, throws them all back to his original spot. And repeats.
I can feel myself getting stronger, every day. I can throw further and harder, arm hurts less at the end of the day with each week that goes by.
If only I would have started sooner.
With two rounds done, he calls it a day, scattering a few of the balls to the outer reaches of the field and dropping the rest down into his bulky backpack. It shortened the days, that's for sure. School and practice – he could see why he'd been reluctant to ever bother joining a team. It took work, determination, and a lot of sacrificed time.
Worn out, Cory slides his backpack across the floor of the garage and walks up behind the house. Kevin is making a sandwich at the table when his brother sneaks in through the back door.
"Hey," Cory says, a bit of a defensive yelp of surprise.
Kevin doesn't look up from his condiment display. "Some guy's giving me a job for a couple of days, test run, nailin up drywall and stuff down Okeechobee. Feel like coming?"
Cory edges to the sink and starts to wipe his face off, hoping to mask the red from the workout. "Why?"
"Uh…sure? I guess. I got the whole summer to do nothing."
And you're not gonna ask where I just came from? Why I look like I ran a marathon?
He was glad that he didn't, but Cory wondered why his brother never bothered asking questions like that, and never seemed to care what he was up to.
I would if I were him.
Cory makes himself a quick half sandwich and takes it up to his bedroom. He slides an atlas out from his bookshelf – one from the same store that Aubna had bought from way back when. Leaning up against his bed, chewing, he shuffles open to the page of the southern half of Florida, and looks over the area around Lake Okeechobee, the large body of water down in no-man's-land, in muck and swamp country.
"Interesting," he slowly mumbles out loud.
It was a drive that seemed to be growing familiar, south through the center of the Florida peninsula. Past Sebring and down into nothing. Where they had made a left in the past to voyage to the clearing, Kevin turns right, following the sun-bleached highway towards the lake, up and over the bridge in Moore Haven, to the agricultural town of Clewiston. A drive of almost three hours; and to Cory, what seemed like longest the two of them had ever spent together.
Three hours of two people who nowadays hardly shared anything alike.
Kevin unlocks and opens the second-floor door of their drab motel on the main parkway through town. A blast of air conditioning cutting through the humid air, a wall dividing inside from out.
"I gotta run down to the site and see what's up, finish up all the check-in, that kinda shit," he says to Cory. "Figure out what channels we got in here or something."
Kevin throws his bags on the first bed and retreats back out of the room. The door closes, locking in the cool air. Alone.
Cory drops his duffel bag down and pulls out the road atlas he'd brought from home, quickly studying over the southern Florida page again at the window table. Looking in closely on the roads around their area.
The site's only a thirty mile drive west of here. Less than an hour.
He drops the map back down and lies across the near bed.
And no one knows. All this space, all this empty space out around here. And it's just one acre out of millions. Who knows what else could be hiding in plain sight!
A white path rides atop the raised dike running around the perimeter of the enormous lake, separating it from the drainage ditches on either side. In the absolute middle of nowhere. No man made noises or buildings in sight. Marshy water extending forever into a hazy blue sky on one side, wilting fields of trees on the other, blazing sun beating down overhead. Hot.
Cory is running alone on the paved path. He throttles up to full speed for ten seconds before stumbling back down, out of breath and red in the face, heart thumping in his ears.
But it feels good, feels alive.
He takes a few stilted steps off of the path with his hands on his sides and surveys the water in front of him. Lets out a loud, triumphant breath. Cory takes another few steps down the embankment and sits on the sloped grass, spreading his arms out and airing himself down after the brutal jaunt out to this empty void. Alone. Completely alone. He could shout anything he wanted at the top of his lungs, shout himself hoarse, and no one would hear, no one would know.
Happy solitude in a stage of life that was teeming with hopes of perfection and completion.
And I didn't know how much I'd miss her.
I shouldn't have held back. Should've said more, should've done more.
He could yell it out loud, and has the thought of doing so, winds up the wind in his throat, but it lets it deflate away. He knew. That was important enough.
It's a long walk back to civilization, the back route away from the lake, down long forgotten, chapped roads. A world away from the world.
Cory knows that his brother is a sound sleeper. When the lights go out, he's down for the count until morning.
Just past midnight. He waits awake under the covers in the cool room, listening, until he's satisfied that Kevin's light snoring is growing rhythmic enough to trust. Cory inches out from under the covers, already fully dressed, and slithers his way across the thin carpet to the front door. It's quiet outside – a break in the traffic, no cars rolling by, nothing to send noise inside through an open door.
Grabbing the keys left on the windowsill, Cory slips out the door and stealthily makes his way down the hallway and the flight of stairs, to Kevin's truck parked below.
A dash in the middle of the night, one adventure to tide him over through his extended stay in reality. A chance to check in on the other side.
In the cloak of night, Cory drives west with the windows down, cool air rushing in and keeping him alert and awake. West, back over the bridge in Moore Haven, back into the familiar backwoods that may have once hid a massive, elusive prize.
With a crowbar from the truck in the other hand, Cory beams an industrial flashlight down the path ahead of him, a backdoor shortcut into the circular clearing he'd walked into a few weeks earlier. A creepy place at night, too quiet, too dark, even in the moonlight. But it was here, it was still here, he'd found it again.
He walks out to the stone pedestal and sets the flashlight down upon it. What may have been a piece of the other world, a connect point, a common place. It had some sort of special meaning. And Jack was apparently still anchored to it, in some realm of time, waiting to be unlocked when Cory restarted time again upon his return to Aubna.
Cory pats a hand on the pedestal. He didn't know exactly why he'd come here, and wasn't expecting to find anything even more out of the ordinary. Just a reminder, a familiar face – or object – to see that let him know that it was still real.
He takes the crowbar and begins to poke the ground around the clearing with it. "Somewhere around here," he mumbles, searching for a door in the ground while he slaps away at the mosquitos trailing
Useless. How the hell would I be able to find it now, even if it was still here?
Returning to the center pedestal, he drops the crowbar to the ground, and hears an obvious clink of metal-on-metal. He takes the flashlight and shines it down upon the base of the stone pedestal. Half buried in the ground is a small tin box, very small, about the size on top of index card. Cory sinks to the dirt and wedges it up out of the earth.
The thin lid detaches and comes off as he pulls it up. Cautiously shining the beam of light into the box, he breaks out in a wide grin. There was still some treasure left to be found here after all; a thick wad of $50 dollar bills folded over and clipped shut. If not for him, then who? He and his brother deserved the money.
"Thank you, friend," Cory says, and pockets the cash. "See ya soon," he whispers to the pedestal, and whatever its meaning was.
His footsteps crunch over fallen twigs as he reaches the truck, sides and windshield shining in the moonlight. As he nears the door , his flashlight bounces off of something else glistening in the night. With a double take, he refocuses the beam, and shines the light straight into a pair of alligator eyes, and the rest of the beast lying contently in the road's ditch. No mistaking it.
Cory restrains a scream and scrambles up into the truck bed to enter safely through the window.