I’ve really let time get away from me lately. Work, family, family work – I have a million excuses, but just let me say sorry. But, just because I haven’t been writing here doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I’ve finished my first two books of the year – two novels! – and will be (hopefully) releasing them for sale on Amazon beginning May 1.
But, just to prove that I’ve been busy, I’m posting chapter one of “The Red-Eyed Monster Bass,” a chapter book for kids in the 10-13 year-old range based on stories I told my son, Dylan, when we visited my parents Up North last summer. Read it, let me know what you think. I’ve always wanted to write books for this age, because it was at about this age that I discovered Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” and became a reader myself.
I’ll try to get back to more regular writing here next week – we’ve got a lot to catch up on – but in the mean time, without further ado, here’s chapter one of my first novel.
The old man reached up to the lantern strapped around his favorite old fishing hat and flicked the switch on. The pitch dark evening was suddenly shattered by the light, making it impossible to see anything outside of the focused beam. The rough outline of the trees on shore, the silhouette of the island on the other end of the small lake, even the edges of his old canoe suddenly vanished, leaving only his hands, the translucent line and the tiny eye of the hook. His fingers trembled slightly as he squinted his eyes in concentration, trying to thread the fishing line through the hook as he had done thousands of times over the course of his life. In the darkness surrounding him, the sounds of the woods seemed amplified as they traveled across the still water to him sitting in his tiny boat and his fingers moved skillfully to fasten the lure to the end of his line.
“Tonight is the night,” he said out loud, though there was no one else in the boat and no signs of anyone on shore. “Tonight is the night. Tonight is the night.” He repeated over again as his fingers tightened the knot. His voice was neither excited nor scared. It was quiet, old, certain in his belief that after decades of searching, tonight he would finally land his prey, would finally bring to an end the quest he had begun as a young boy stalking these waters with his father.
Over the years, this nightly ritual had taken on a special meaning. It was more than simply fishing. It was pursuit. He was after a fish, but not just any fish – the fish that had been the topic of conversations around campfires, in restaurants and at the bait shop for nearly a century. It was more than a fish. It was a legend – a creature so famous in this corner of the north woods that nearly everyone who had ever visited knew it by reputation, though few, if any, had seen it and lived to tell the tale.
All fishermen tell stories. Every person who has ever baited a hook will tell you about the monster they nearly landed, the pike that nearly sunk their boat, the perch that broke the state record, but got away just before the fisherman could get it in the net. But this fish was different. It was specific. It was special. No one could say exactly how big it was, though everyone knew there had never been one like it. No one could say for sure exactly where it lived, other than in the little Lake in the Woods. No one could say how they had nearly caught it, because no one ever had.
But how could it be that such a creature could exist? How could it be that a fish no one had caught or even seen for certain could be the topic of such uncertain certainty? How could a single fish become a legend that everyone knew, but no one had experienced? It was the eye. A fisherman only had to mention the giant red eye and everyone knew exactly the fish he was talking about.
The old man had been after this particular fish for almost his entire life and hadn’t so much as felt its tug on the end of his line. But there was something different about this night, something special. He was certain that this would be the night when his luck would change, when his pole would bend and he’d fight with everything he had to prove the legends were more than legend, that stories were all true.
This night, unlike all the hundreds, thousands of others, the old man would catch the Red-Eyed Monster Bass and he, too, would become a legend, mentioned in the same breath as the fish that had captured the imagination of generations of fisherman who had soaked a line in this small lake way up north in the woods.
He selected his best lure, one that had caught hundreds of fish over more than 20 years. He’d designed it himself. It was a combination of a Ballistic Bass Bomber and Silver Shimmer Spoon. He’d made more than a hundred prototypes out in the garage, hunched over his work bench, before he’d gotten this one just right. It was his lucky lure and this night, more than any other, he wanted luck on his side. So, he put an extra twist in the knot to make sure it held tight and reached up to turn off his headlamp. The light made him blind to anything more than fifteen feet away or outside of the beam. He knew precisely where he wanted to cast, so he sat in the quiet night for more than ten minutes to let his old eyes readjust to the dark. As they did, the world slowly came alive. Above him, millions of stars shimmered in the midnight sky. The moon, high up and off to his left, cast its beams across the whole of the lake, making it possible for him to, once again, make out the shoreline, the trees, the island on the other side of the lake.
He waited ten minutes more, giving his eyes time to adjust and his mind time to settle. Moving around in the small canoe while he searched for his lucky lure had sent ripples across the surface of the water. He waited to be sure the lake was still and calm, that anything – any fish – he may have disturbed had settled back into its hole, back into its sleep. He wanted his cast – one perfect cast – to be a sneak attack, so he said nothing, didn’t move, just sat still, becoming part of the lake, part of the water, part of the night itself.
Twenty minutes after he had flicked his headlamp off, it was time. He moved slowly, not wanting to rock the small boat, and carefully. His net rested on his lap. His tackle box was secure under the front seat of the canoe. His life jacket was cinched tight across his chest. He tugged gently on the brim of his favorite fishing cap, settling it into its familiar, comfortable space and, just as gently, slowly and smoothly flipped open the the gait on his reel and raised his trusty rod high into the sky behind him. He and the pole were one in the same. It was his lucky pole, the one he’d won countless fishing contests with over the years, his lucky lure, his lucky night, he hoped.
In a smooth, practiced, patient motion he flipped his wrist forward, pointing the tip of his pole directly toward the spot where he aimed. The sound of fishing line pulling from the reel and through the eyes of the pole hushed into the night. The lure, the one he’d worked so hard to perfect, rang gently as it toppled through the still air and he waited for the small splash to indicate he had hit his mark. But the splash never came.
The water exploded just before he calculated the lure should land. It was coming from the direction of his cast. Something big, something massive and powerful had leapt from the water and taken his lure from the air. It landed in crash that send three-foot waves out and across the surface, rocking his tiny canoe to the brink of being overturned. By instinct, he reeled and tugged the tip of the rod up to set his hook, but the rod would not rise, instead, it bowed deeply toward the surface like a performer at the end of a show. The weight, the power, hunched the old man forward and he could tell his lure was being carried down to the bottom of the lake.
This is it, he thought. This was the Red-Eyed Monster Bass. After a lifetime spent searching, it was finally on the end of his line and the powerful beast was completely in control. The drag on his reel fought back, but still the fish took line. Down, down and then out across the lake, nearly pulling the rod from the old man’s weathered, strong hands. He held tight as the fish made its run, pulling the canoe backwards with such force that the old man had to lean backward to avoid being pulled out of the seat. Wind and spray pelted the old man’s face as the canoe picked up speed. The fish returned to the surface, it’s top fin sticking out into the night air and the old man could barely make it out as water was kicked up into his face by the massive swishing tail. He held tight, held on with every ounce of his strength as the canoe was dragged across the water toward the distant island and his muscles began to burn from the power on the other end. The fish dodged and darted, weaved and wandered, covering the width of the lake in seconds, which would take the old man and his electric motor fifteen minutes or more to cross.
But even as it zigged and zagged, the fish’s direction seemed pointed toward the island, the small uninhabited chunk of land at the other end of the lake. After more than ten minutes, the fish seemed to be gaining strength. Was this a fish at all? Or was it a whale or some other kind of giant beast? The old man had little time to wonder. He concentrated every thought, every shred of strength he had into holding onto the pole for dear life. The island drew closer and closer.
“He’s going to wreck me,” the old man said out loud. “He’s going to crash me right into the rocks.” There were legends about this, legends about the bass that could sink boats, the fisherman in them never to be seen again. Suddenly, the old man wondered if he had gone too far, if, in his chase of this particular fish, he had put his own life in danger. Fear began to creep in, worry, but still he held on. The island drew closer and closer. His palms began to sweat. Closer and closer. His back began to scream in pain. Closer and closer as the water and wind spit in his face. Closer and closer until…
Just before the old man thought he would make contact, just before he thought his boat would be run into the rocks, his line went slack, his pole straightened and the small canoe stopped dead in its tracks. The violence, the power of the previous minutes ceased just as suddenly as it had begun and the night was once again still. The surface of the water settled into glasslike stillness and it was all over.
Realizing for the first time that he was out of breath, the old man drew one trembling hand off the handle of his pole and up to the switch on his headlamp. He turned it on and saw just how close he had come to certain danger. Ten feet in front of him was a large rock, mostly submerged, but jutting jaggedly up out of the water. His hands trembled greatly, his breath came in short bursts and he tried to settle himself from what had just happened.
After a moment, reality set in. He had just hooked into the Monster but it had gotten away. He began reeling in his line, which was limp and weightless. His lucky lure was gone, the end of the line tattered and frayed, dangled in the night air. It took several minutes for him to calm down, to regain himself. There was no point in tying on another lure. The night was done. He stowed his rod, unfastened the top buckle on his life jacket and lowered the small electric motor into the water for the long, slow trip back across the lake. He had gotten so close, closer than anyone ever had and, yet, he was going home empty handed, without even his lucky lure.
The small electric motor hummed as it picked up the little bit of speed it was capable of, pushing the old canoe across the surface of the lake. He could hear the waves lapping against the bow and knew where to go by heart. Another fisherman’s story, he thought. Another tall tale to tell at the bait shop or the diner over his morning coffee. Another legend to add to the long list of legends that centered on this particular fish. How would he tell it? And could he even be certain it was the Red-Eyed Monster Bass? He felt cheated knowing that he was left with nothing but some assumptions. He was nearly to the other side of the lake, to the ramp where he would load his canoe back onto its trailer for the drive back to his cabin up the hill when a strange feeling came over him. It wasn’t the sense of loss or the sadness that comes with a near miss. It was something else entirely, something darker and more unsettling.
He felt like he was being watched.
The old man eased back the throttle of the electric motor and his canoe came to a stop twenty feet off shore. He took a deep breath and scanned the shoreline for signs of life in the beam of his headlamp – a person, a bear, a moose. He was increasingly convinced that someone or some thing was looking at him, studying him.
“Hello?” The old man called out. He’d never been afraid in the woods before. These woods, this lake were like second nature to him. He’d always felt comfortable there. But feeling like he was being watched made his heart race and quickened his breath. “Hello?” he called out again. “Is someone there?” There was no reply, just the quiet still of the north woods night.
That’s when he heard it, a tiny swish in the water coming from behind him. Barely more than a whisper, but he knew it was there, knew it was real, knew what had caused it. He turned his head slowly, carefully, without rocking his small boat and searched the surface of the water with his focused beam of light. That’s when he saw it, just below the surface and less than five feet away – a giant, unblinking red eye. It was the size of a dinner plate and he could tell it was focused directly on him. It remained still, didn’t move an inch for nearly a minute and for that minute, they stared at each other as predator and prey. But it was the first time in the old man’s life that he was not sure which one was which. He had always felt like the predator, as nearly every fisherman does. But in that moment, on that night, sitting in his tiny boat and confronted with the unflinching gaze of a giant red eye, he thought the roles might be reversed. He knew, in fact, that he was the prey.
His entire body trembled, shook with fear. He didn’t breath, didn’t move. Didn’t, couldn’t do a thing. He just looked at the eye, which stared at him from just below the surface. It moved slightly and there was a flash of silver as something came out of the water, a sting as it latched onto his arm. He screamed and looked down to see his lucky lure, the cross between a Ballistic Bass Bomber and Silver Shimmer Spoon he had made himself embedded in his skin. He turned back quickly, but the eye was gone. Panic set in and he turned at the sound of the water exploding to see the massive form – as big as a car – of the monster fish arc through the air and back into the water with a crash.
It had been a lucky night, but not for the reason he had hoped. The old man escaped with his life and little more than a small scar on his arm from where his lure had stabbed him. That night, the predator had become the prey, the victor, the loser. That night, the fisherman lost and legend had won.