J.T. sat balanced on the thick limb that swung out over the muddy marsh and looked curiously out to the old shrimp boat. The rough exterior of the tree bark bit into the inner flesh of his legs through the heavy overalls he threw on that morning. He ached to be able to slosh through the water and muck and climb up into the old boat, but grandpa Emit warned him not to.
“Listen. I don’t want ta have ta tell you again to stay away from that place. It just ain’t safe.”
Oh, grandpa tried his best to scare him away with the tale of the lost little boy. Erin, he thought his name was.
Looking around, J.T. tried to measure the risk with the prize. If he stripped down to his bare essentials, he could wash up in the inlet afterwards, and Grandpa would think he’d just been swimming all day. With no one else around, J.T quickly climbed from the tree and jumped out of his canvas sneakers. He set his white socks inside each one, and then unhooking the brass buckles of his pants, he stepped out of each leg making sure to keep the bottoms from grazing the mud that would surely be noticed. He neatly folded the pants and stuck them in the crook of a tree limb high above the water’s surface. On top of those he stuck the sneakers and socks. Now he’d know just were to look for them when he got back from his exploration.
Down, now, to just his tighty-whities, he wallowed in the deepening depths of the grass-covered marsh. The thick ooze of the mud squishing between his toes and the sucking sound made with each step left him gleeful with anticipation. He felt like one does on the eve before Christmas, sneaking down to get a glimpse of all the presents under the tree, face pressed against the rails of the stairs.
Waist-high in the water now, he felt fear begin to creep into his thoughts as bits and pieces of the story resurfaced and danced in his mind.
“ …a trip with his father…climbing the nets…leg caught…falling overboard…never found…”
“I ain’t afraid of no stinkin’ story…or ghosts!” J.T.’s rational mind insisted a moment later as he pushed himself through the fear and the mud… “There ain’t no such thing anyway.”
Taking the last ten feet to the edge of the boat he pulled himself up by the last rung of the ladder that was welded to the side of the boat. It was much bigger than it looked from the other side of the marsh. Up close, he could see the large patches of rust peeking through the dull blue paint, and he could make out the name outlined in faded red.
“Erin’s toy.” J.T. read.
The shrimper had named it that because his young son thought the red buoys attached to the nets were balls and he’d reached for them saying, “My ball.”
J.T. banged hard on the iron with his fist and heard a deep hollow vibrate across the side of it.
“Hello! Anybody in there?”
He laughed to himself when no reply came.
Pulling one leg from the muck underneath him, he pushed and pulled his way up to the second rung and then the third, until finally, J.T. could swing a leg up and over the bottom rung and climb the ladder to the top of the boat. Standing over the side and looking up, he saw the huge holes in the heavy nets and wondered how far up Erin had gotten before he slipped and fell to his death. He noticed the floor of the boat littered with more netting and large drapes of rope dangling every which way. Cages hung from hooks the size of which he’d never seen. Climbing inside, he saw canisters that he thought still smelled like fish.
J.T. meandered into the cabin of the old boat and played a while with the dials on the pane. He imagined the great arms of the boat being lowered, the nets sinking into the depths of the deep ocean.
“Hello, this is your captain here. All hands on deck!”
“ Huh?!” J.T swung around. Just as sure as the sun rose daily he heard his name being whispered. He stopped his play and listened more intently, straining his ears, but heard nothing but the sound of some distant gulls keowing.
He grabbed the mic from the wood-grained panel and was about to speak into it when he heard the sound of a small boy crying.
“I want my daddy. Can you get my daddy, please?”
J.T. looked around the small room and saw nothing, but could feel the hairs on his neck and arms crawl. His heart quickened a bit as he yelled out into the thick air of the marsh.
“I want my daddy!” a tiny voice came from a trap door leading to the cabin below.
J.T., feeling confused but braver than he felt, held his breath and flung the trap door open.
“Who’s there?” He shouted. “Answer me!”
J.T. looked into the darkness below him and felt a cold gust of air hit him in the face.
“Help! Please!” the voice came once more.
“Erin? But… you’re dead…” J.T. took the first steps down on the creaky, wooden steps and tried to peer deeper inside.
Just then he felt the grip of something cold grab his leg and pull him below. Screaming he clung frantically to the sides of the opening, digging his nails, kicking, and clawing to reach the top of the steps again.
“J.T…stay and play with me” the voice now said louder.
“Stop! Let me go!” J.T. yelled.
The grip became tighter and stronger and J.T. felt himself being pulled farther down the steps.
“Help! Help me!” He screamed.
But no one could hear J.T.
For the next five minutes, the sounds of his muffled screams could be heard from the inside of the locked trap door leading to the cabin below.
As the sun sank below the horizon, so too, quieted the sounds of distant screams and pleas for help.
The search party that night produced nothing but the folded clothes placed carefully in the crook of the gnarled cedar tree on the edge of the marsh a stone’s throw away from the old shrimper boat; but as the last man drove away in his beat-up truck, the sounds of young children playing could be heard carried on the breezes of a warm autumn night and a red ball could be seen flying from the top of the old boat’s nets to the water down below.