Twenty-four hours from now, I’ll be jumping into nearly three weeks of non-stop work. I doubt I’ll get much done otherwise. Yesterday, with no real stories to tell and an hour to kill between projects, I slammed out this short piece of fiction. I showed it to a friend who told me he liked it and said I should put it online. It’s not really what you’d expect from me, I guess, and it’s a really, really rough first draft. Nonetheless, I’ll probably never touch it again and if it’s going to die, it might as well die online like the rest of us.
At least the moon was out. That was something new.
Leo dangled one bare foot in the Reedy River. Copper water, the product of a six-day rain-wash through red clay ditches, hid Leo’s toes from midnight light. Something slid by in the fast water. It licked the ball of Leo’s foot. He pulled his leg back, slipped, and fell in the red mud. Anyone watching from the shadows would’ve seen the dirty black-haired man jump up and look around. He was embarrassed and scared. But nobody was watching. Leo was alone.
The moon his only torch, Leo put his face down close to the water. It was a lonely man’s futile practice in investigation. Even if the moon had been bright enough to see, whatever had tickled Leo’s foot would’ve disappeared in the little rapids. Ten days ago, the river had been stagnant. Leo spent no less than an hour a day moving his camp upwind. The smell burned his throat. He couldn’t afford to vomit anymore.
The rains started on a Monday. Leo sat under the First Federal bank’s stone overhang and pulled the pocket calendar from his backpack. On the second September Monday, Leo had marked a large X, like all of those over the past six months of days. On one Thursday in August and one Sunday in April, Leo had written the word “sprinkle” and drawn what he considered an ironic little smiley face. On Monday, over the X, he wrote the word “rain.” He duplicated the Monday notation every day for more than a week. He wondered what he’d do when the year ran out. He could find more red markers. He wasn’t sure if he could find a calendar for the next year. He thought wanting for next year’s calendar was probably a tad optimistic, anyway.
Leo looked in the water for another minute before climbing back up the shore and pulling a boot over his naked foot.
“It was probably a stick,” he said out loud. He could still feel the touch on his wet foot. “Probably a stick.”
In his backpack, wrapped up in a zip-top baggie was a picture of Joseph. “Stick’s aren’t soft,” Joseph said. His voice was as strong as it had been when they were boys. In the photo, Leo and Joseph stood on either side of their grandfather. The old man was shirtless and strong, his muscles taut against one of the three beagles they had raised. The other two dogs stood beside the boys. Joseph had his granddad’s ropey biceps and round chest. Leo was smaller. They all were smiling.
Leo pulled the backpack tighter on his shoulders and thought, “A stick with moss on it, then.”
“You know what it was,” Joseph said, his voice traveling up Leo’s back and into his ear. “No reason to be scared, though. It can’t hurt you.”
Leo looked up the moonlit river and followed it to the bend. In March, when the water was still cold, a group of people like Leo had used a deep spot in the cold water as the best substitute for a deep freeze.
“We have to keep it all as cold as possible!” shouted one of the six men. Leo had disagreed, but couldn’t find his voice to protest. Instead, he’d walked away to look for others. The other man looked crazy. In the rainless sunlight, everybody Leo found looked crazy. There hadn’t been rain in months, and certainly not enough to wash the madness off everybody’s face. Leo made it a habit to avoid mirrors.
Now, the rain had come in sheets for more than a week. The river was swollen, white-capped, and plunging over the falls in bone-crushing torrents. Two weeks before, the water couldn’t float deadwood to the banks. Now, the mountain water was picking up everything in its path and carrying it the 70 miles to Lake Greenwood. The bodies the crazy man had thrown in his natural morgue were coming loose and floating downstream.
Leo turned his back to the moon and ran as fast as he could.