It all started when I was forced to spend a day fishing with my Uncle Benny up at Jefferson Pond. I was being petulant about it, of course, and eventually complained enough that my mom agreed to let me take a friend along so I wouldn't kill myself out of boredom while my poor uncle was trying to bond with me.
I instantly asked to bring Hunter Kassman, who's been my best friend ever since I moved to Maple Creek, back when I was 7 years old. When I initially brought this suggestion to him, he replied with something along the lines of "God no, what the hell" but luckily for me our moms talked and his parents both thought it was a wonderful idea for him to tag along, so he ended up having to go anyway. Uncle Benny didn't mind. He was one of those corny old guys that always says shit like "the more the merrier!" so it was always nearly impossible to ruin an outing for him.
It was a sunny, hot, muggy, miserable day out, and the air conditioning of Uncle Benny's janky old car did absolutely nothing to help. The drive wasn't too long, as the lake was barely even a mile away from where we lived, but with a day of sitting still in the unforgiving summer heat ahead of us, we were ready to take any opportunity we could get to cool off.
Soon enough, we were pulling into the lakeside parking lot, constantly stopping and starting so all the other families could walk in front of us. For a town of like, maybe five thousand people (if we're rounding optimistically here), this place was absolutely packed. The sudden motions combined with the heat made me sick, and as soon as my door was unlocked, I collapsed into the grass to dry heave.
"Classic Cody!" my uncle chuckled as he started unpacking the fishing gear, "Get it all out now before the action begins, kiddo!" This sort of situation was kind of a regular occurrence with me and cars, so we were all used to it. Hunter stood next to me to make sure I didn't choke and die or embarrass myself in front of a girl or something. He was always good for that kind of thing.
After I was done with my "lovely performance," as my mother would call it, he pulled me upright and we started carrying all the gear down towards the docks while Uncle Benny was off renting us a boat.
"What did you say Shelly was doing again today that was so important?" I asked bitterly. Hunter's sister had been spared this day of monotony and dehydration, and unsurprisingly, we were both fairly pissed about it.
"Some sort of volunteer thing? I don't know, man," he replied, hefting a bag of rods over his shoulder, "you know how she is, always signing up for that bullshit." I nodded my understanding. She was always like that.
"We need to get back at her for abandoning us." I declared, immediately losing my grip on a rusty tackle box.
"Anything you had in mind?" Hunter asked, catching it without skipping a beat and holding it out for me to grab.
"Not really," I answered, taking it and setting it down with the rest of our stuff, "but we have all day to think of something."
"That is, if we don't overheat and die first," he said, wiping the sweat off his face with an equally sweaty arm.
"That would be a blessing." I groaned, leaning with my hands on my knees in exhaustion.
"The real blessing here is spending some quality time with family!" Uncle Benny said, walking up out of nowhere and patting us on the backs, making us both jump.
"Right, yeah," I laughed nervously, "Love that family time! Good stuff, Uncle Benny!" I made an o.k. sign with my hand for emphasis.
"Uh, yeah, I couldn't agree more!" Hunter added, just as unconvincing as I was. Obviously, we were both talking out of our asses, but we still felt guilty about getting caught talking shit on my uncle's special trip behind his back, and decided he earned at least some enthusiasm from us, even if it was of the incredibly fake variety.
Luckily, he seemed satisfied with our responses, and soon we were out on the water in possibly the ugliest boat conceivable to mankind. The name on the side read The Coral Queen in uneven, hand-painted dark green letters against a faded, peeling gnarly yellow wooden hull. Hunter and I started calling it a much more fitting name, The Piss Lady, which Uncle Benny was not a fan of.
"You've gotta respect your ship like she's a queen, boys," he explained, somehow completely serious, "She may not look like much, but she's royalty, and like a fine woman you gotta treat her right if you want her to treat you the same. Now, no more of this piss nonsense with our special gal, got it?"
We could barely stifle our laughter during his speech, but from then on she was only The Piss Lady when we returned to the docks for a bathroom break and it was just Hunter and I.
During one of those breaks, while we were leaving the bathroom, we walked past a group of dad-looking men talking, and overheard the words "lake monster." Instantly, we looked at each other and tried to casually perform a 180 degree turn to get closer to the dads again and hear more. Hunter pretended to have forgotten something in the bathroom and I waited for him outside, just within earshot of the conversation.
"Aw, that's some bullshit you're talkin', Craig!" a man in a frayed sleeveless shirt announced, taking a sip of beer.
"I swear, with God Almighty as my witness, Old Bob ain't some damn wives tale," the dad named Craig declared, pointing at the other, "I seen it myself!"
"Prob'ly saw a big fish past your bedtime and got spooked," a massive dad chuckled.
"Shut up Rick," a dad in a fishing hat said heatedly, elbowing the behemoth, "My Great-Grandpappy John saw him back in the 20's, and he ain't no fibber! He fought in wars, Rick!"
"Hank, how in the hell would Old Bob still be kickin' if your great-grandpappy saw him almost a hundred years ago?" asked the sleeveless dad.
"Shit, I don't know! Maybe fish monsters live forever, like they's immoral or somethin'. He's called 'old' for a reason, ya dumbass." Hank replied defensively.
"That's 'immortal', not 'immoral,' ya dumbass," the big dad, Rick, said to the guffaws of the rest of the group.
That was when Hunter came back, loudly stating to me so everyone nearby could hear that what he lost must be somewhere else, and with our plan masterfully executed and the dads none the wiser, I eagerly relayed the information I had gathered as we returned to the docks, where Uncle Benny was patiently awaiting our return in The Piss Lady.
"You boys sure were gone a while!" he exclaimed, "What took ya?"
"Oh, I just forgot something," Hunter said, flawlessly, and I nodded to add credibility as I cautiously climbed into the boat.
Back out on the lake, it had been at least an hour since anything had happened. Uncle Benny was reading a book, and Hunter was laying next to me with his arm over his eyes, half asleep. Finally, I worked up the courage to overcome my anxiety and break the silence.
"Hey, Uncle Benny?" I began, startling him a little.
"Mm?" he replied, recovering quickly and placing his bookmark where he left off before closing it to focus entirely on me. He was always a very attentive listener.
"Do you know anything about Old Bob?"
He gave me a weird look and started reeling in his line.
"Why do you ask?"
"Overheard some old guys talkin' about him." Hunter replied in my stead, sitting up and swatting at a mosquito hovering around his face.
Uncle Benny didn't say anything and continued to reel in the line, squinting at the water like he couldn't quite see what was under it, or as if he was lost in thought.
"We just figured you'd maybe have some stories for us?" I continued, stuttering slightly at my uncle's behavior. Usually I couldn't get him to shut up about his stories.
"Yeah, um, we thought it sounded really cool." Hunter added, trying to sweeten the pot with a rare display of genuine interest.
But Uncle Benny just shook his head and sighed, finishing his work on the fishless hook, and setting the rod down before turning to look at us.
"I don't want you boys askin' around about Old Bob," he finally said in an uncharacteristically subdued voice, "That's how trouble starts, and I won't let you two get into any of that mess on my watch. You leave those men to their talk, and you pay it no mind, do you understand?"
We both nodded and spent the rest of the day quietly waiting for the fish to bite, and just as the sun began to settle behind the trees, we packed up and drove home empty-handed, just in time for dinner.