Monday, July 05, 2010

Free Fiction: Seven Days of Rain

Seven Days of Rain was initially published in the late, lamented Demolition Magazine back in September of '07. I remember being pleasantly surprised when Demolition's editor, Bryon Quertermous, accepted it, and then utterly bowled over when it went on to win the Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story on the Web. Since then, Bryon closed up shop, and Seven's been without a home. So without further ado, here it is, for your reading pleasure:

Seven Days of Rain

It was bound to happen, I suppose.

There was a time, of course, when I didn’t think so. We were too smart, I thought. Too careful. But there’s men’s plans and then there’s God’s plans, and it looks for damn sure like God don’t think much of mine.

In all my years, I ain’t seen nothing like it. For six days now it’s rained. And not no spring shower, either. The kind of rain that soaks you clear to the bone. The kind of rain that gets in your joints and reminds you of every ache and pain you ever felt. The kind of rain that makes you feel like you ain’t never gonna be warm and dry again.

On the first day, nobody paid it no mind. Sure, the power flickered and the gutters overflowed, but most just figured it’d blow over by daybreak.

On the second day, the river swelled. Folks took off work to haul sandbags to the riverbanks, hoping to keep the rising waters at bay. They worked for hours in the wind and wet, and in the end, that river breached its banks and sent 'em running.

On the third day, they found the body.

I was out back in my workshop when the knock came. The place was leaking like a sieve, and between the hollow thrum of water into pots and the rain beating against the shingles, I barely noticed it at all. It wasn’t till he started yelling I thought to let him in.

“Christ, Eddie, I thought you were gonna leave me there all night!” Matt shook out his umbrella and shrugged off his slicker, tossing both across a chair.

“Hey, mind the finish!” I scolded. “That one ain’t been varnished yet!”

“What in hell are you doing out here, anyway? Can’t you see a storm’s on?”

“Yeah, well, you know what they say about idle hands,” I replied, returning my attention to the chair-leg that sat turning on the spindle before me.

“I guess I do, at that.”

“So,” I said, easing my gouge along the surface of the wood and setting narrow ribbons of pine spiraling away, “what brings you out on so unpleasant an afternoon?”

“They found him, Eddie. They found Timmy.”

The gouge kicked back off the spindle and skittered across my forearm. Blood welled red in its wake.
“When?”

“This morning. Body washed up on the bank.”

“They know it’s him?”

“Not yet, but they sure as hell suspect."

I dabbed at my arm with a fresh rag. “I don’t see what this has got to do with us.”

“You don’t.”

“No, I don't," I snapped.

“Eddie, we gotta tell 'em what happened."

“The hell we do! Ain’t nothing we can say's gonna change a thing. It was an accident. It was sixty years ago, for God’s sake. We were kids. Just leave it be, Matt.”

“You don’t think I tried? I don’t sleep so good these days. Doc says I ain’t got long left, and I can’t help but think I oughta tell somebody.”

“Fine, then. You go on down to Sheriff Brenner’s and tell him me and you and Hollis and Wilson went and killed that boy and see what he says. He’ll think you’re a nothing but a senile old goat.”

“So what if he does? We owe it to Timmy to tell the truth.”

“You think Timmy’d want us locked up? And what about your grandkids? You think they wanna see Grandpa go to jail?”

“Come on, Eddie, I just wanna be square. You telling me it never bothers you?”

“I sleep all right,” I replied.

#

I didn’t, though. Not that night, as the storm rattled the windows in their casements, and not the next, as the water climbed through town, flooding basements and washing away gardens. My mind kept taking me back to the summer of ’48 – to the old abandoned mill, and to Timothy.

“I can't do it!” he called. “It's too far.”

“Don't be a wuss. It's not that far.” I rattled the chain at my end. Timothy, with a hand on the chain some twenty yards above me, squealed. Far above us in the gloom, the pulley clanged against an I-beam, loosing a flurry of rust.

“Come on, Timmy,” Matt said. “Do it.”

Wilson and Hollis picked up the chant. “Do it, do it, do it.”

“All right,” he said. He gripped the chain in both hands, closed his eyes, and stepped off the ledge.

It was the noise I noticed first, or, rather, the lack of it. One second, the chain was jingling past, and then it wasn’t. When the pulley seized, Tim lost his grip. He plummeted toward me, screaming the whole way. Then he hit the ground, and he wasn't screaming anymore.

#

The fifth day of the storm, I found myself walking to Miller's for a bite to eat. There wasn't but a couple of beers and a half a bottle of mustard in my fridge, and the market had been closed since the elm out front came down and took most of the roof with it. I had a coat and an umbrella and my rubbers on my feet, but by the time I got there, I was soaked clean through, and my socks were squishing in my shoes.

I took a seat at the counter as Donna poured me a steaming cup of coffee. “Much obliged,” I said, holding the mug in cupped hands and suppressing a shiver.

“Any time, dear. You know what you're having?”

“Eggs, over-easy. White toast. A side of bacon, extra crispy.”

“Comin' up.”

I sat and sipped my coffee while she put in my order, my clothes hanging wet and heavy on my frame. It wasn’t long before I felt a clap on the shoulder.

“Eddie Hanscombe, as I live and breathe! I hadn’t seen you ‘round in a while – thought maybe the river’d carried you away.”

I winced inwardly. “Mornin’, Sheriff.”

“Your place still standing?”

“For now, at least,” I replied.

“Bad bit a luck, the river overflowing.”

“It is, at that.”

“You hear about the Driscoll kid? Washed right up in the center a town. Scared the hell out of the McCreary boys. Body was stuffed into an Amalgamated Paper barrel, if you can believe it.”

“No kiddin’,” I replied. “Your boys sure it’s him?”

“Got the ME’s report back this morning. I hear tell you and him used to run together – any idea what he’d a been doing up at the mill?”

I pretended to think about it a minute. “No idea,” I replied. “Place had been abandoned for years ‘fore he even went missing.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“Listen, Sheriff, I’d best be off. I got buckets that ain’t gonna empty themselves.”

“Course. You take care, Eddie.”

“You, too,” I replied. I fished a couple ones out of my pocket and tossed them on the counter, and then headed for the door.

Outside, I glanced backward through the rain-streaked window. Guilty conscience, I suppose. I was sure I’d catch Brenner watching me, but he wasn’t. Instead, he was frowning at the plate that had just been set down at the empty stool beside him.

#

I didn’t sleep a wink that night – I just sat on my porch in the dark and listened to the rain beat against the pavement. I couldn’t shake the memories that kept running through my head. Memories long thought forgotten. Memories best left that way.

“Eddie! Eddie, what the hell happened?”

“Shhh!” I hissed. “There’s someone coming.”

Footfalls echoed through the building, reverberating off the concrete walls. Above me, Matt ducked back into the darkness.

“Who’s in here?” A flashlight beam swung overhead. Security. “I swear if you kids don’t get out of here I’m calling the cops!”

I crouched over Timothy, praying the guard didn’t see us. He searched for what seemed like forever. Finally, though, his footfalls receded, and I raised my head to look around.

“Eddie!” Hollis whispered. “You still down there?”

“Where else would I be?”

“What about Timmy? I mean, is he –”

I looked him up and down, put a hand to his wrist. My mouth went dry. My heart thudded in my chest. “Yeah,” I replied.

“What’re we gonna do?”

“Just get down here. I’ve got an idea.”

Looking back, I wish we’d never done it. We coulda just come clean. We’d have taken our licks, to be sure, but it would have been nothing compared to the guilt we four carried around. Wasn’t but a few years later that Hollis took to drink, and a few more’n that that he wrapped his car around a tree. Wilson didn’t fare no better – the cops said it was a hunting accident, but me and Matt, we knew otherwise.

Morning arrived with an almost imperceptible lightening of the sky in the east. The clouds were low and unbroken, the horizon blurred by the unrelenting torrent. I rose stiffly from my chair, my joints achy and uncooperative. The street, I noticed, was under about a foot of water, and my lawn was a sopping mess. Beneath the patter of the rain, I heard the hollow burble of water poured from a height.

Ah, hell, I thought, wheeling toward the door. The basement.

I ran inside and down the cellar stairs, my bum hip creaking in protest. Sure enough, water poured in through my drainpipes, green-black and reeking. There had to be damn near two feet of water down there, its surface mottled with mud and leaves and bits of debris. Everything I had down there was submerged. An old photograph swam to the surface, where it floated for a moment, warped and discolored, before it was reclaimed by the seething water. A scuffed and timeworn bookshelf, the first I’d ever made, bobbed past on its side, and then foundered and sank. A lifetime of keepsakes, ruined.

I plunged into the murky water and waded to the far corner of the basement. After a few moments of blind groping, I found the floor drain. It was caked with thick, black muck, and no matter how much I scraped away, I couldn't seem to clear it. Finally, I gave up. I slogged upstairs and collapsed into a kitchen chair, sopping wet and covered in filth.

Beneath me, the water continued to rise.

When I regained my breath, I wandered the house, checking windows and changing buckets under leaks that seemed to strengthen by the minute. Walls and ceilings warped and stained. Windowframes swelled. Moisture seeped through the tiniest gaps. I spent hours pressing towels and rags into windowsills to stanch the flow, but it wasn't any use. The house was old and out of square, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do to stem the tide. Not that it mattered, really. The only things worth a damn are the furniture, and even then, only to me.

Still, I thought, I've got tarps and rope out back in the shed – it's not too late to save the pieces in my workshop.

I headed downstairs and out the kitchen door, not bothering with a jacket. Wind ripped the door from my hands, slamming it inward. Rain fell hard and sharp like needles. I leaned into the wind and made for the shed. I tried to slide open the door, but it barely moved, its runners clogged with thick, black mud. I reached through the narrow opening, wresting a couple of tarps and some nylon line from the musty darkness, and then I gathered them tight to my chest and set out for my shop.

I rounded the corner past the garage and stopped short. There was a figure, standing in the middle of the drive. Brenner, I thought at first, but it was only Matt, in a slicker and a pair of rubber boots, his feet hidden beneath the floodwaters. By the look on his face, I musta been a sight to see, all wild-eyed and drenched, clutching a tangled mess of tarp and rope.

“Eddie!” he shouted above the storm. “We gotta talk!”

“Ain't got time to talk,” I shouted back. “I gotta get this done!” I pushed open the door of the workshop and flicked on the lights.

“Then make time,” he said, following as far as the doorway. The place was a mess, and there had to be an inch or two of water on the floor already. I set about tossing the tarp over as much as I could cover. Matt just watched.

“What,” I asked, “can't you lend a guy a hand?”

“Eddie, I’m gonna tell 'em. I’m gonna tell ‘em everything.”

“Don't be ridiculous, Matt – you ain't gonna say a thing.”

“My mind's made up, Eddie. I only came by 'cause I thought you oughta know.”

“You can't tell 'em,” I replied.

“I can and I will.”

“You got as much to lose from this as I do.”

“Eddie –”

“Me and you and Wilson and Hollis, we all put that boy in that barrel. We all carried it to the river and watched as it sank. We swore we'd never tell. You'd break your word? You'd break your word when you're every bit as much to blame as I am?”

“We both know I'm not.”

I stopped tugging at the tarp. “What did you say?”

“You heard what I said.”

“What in hell are you implying, Matt?”

“Eddie, I saw you. I saw what you did. I saw Timmy wake up.”

“Who's in there?” the guard shouted, close. I crouched over Timothy in the darkness. Suddenly, from beneath me, he started.

“I saw you put your hand over his mouth.”

“I swear if you kids don’t get out of here I’m calling the cops!” Timothy's eyes went wide with pain and fear, and he started to scream. I clamped my hand tight to his mouth.

“I saw him strugglin' against you.”

“Be quiet,” I whispered, but still he thrashed beneath me. “Be quiet be quiet be quiet!”

“I saw you kill him.”

I held him fast so the guard wouldn't hear, whispering all the while. Finally, though, he stopped struggling, and all was quiet.

NO!” I shouted, lunging toward him. I couldn't listen anymore. I had to make him stop. My hand found the gouge on the workbench and I brought it down, again and again.

It wasn't until afterward, when the guard’s footfalls receded and I saw Timmy lying there so terribly still, that I realized what happened, and by then it was too late.

By then it was too late for all of us.

The next thing I knew, I was on the floor. Matt was beside me, lying half in and half out of the door. Sticking from his chest was my gouge, buried to the hilt. His eyes were open, and he wasn't moving. His slicker was beaded with blood and water in equal measure. My hands were streaked with blood as well. I climbed to my feet and stumbled past him out the door. Rivulets of pink cascaded off my fingertips as I staggered through the cleansing rain.

#

It’s past midnight now. I’m sitting at my kitchen table, water lapping against my feet. I’d told myself a thousand times since that day that it was an accident, nothing more. That I could never kill anyone. Now I guess I know the truth.

In a way, it’s a relief. No more secrets. No more lies. Now there’s only one thing left to do.

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. I can see the clouds lessening to the east. I expect the storm’ll break before long. After all, it got what it came for.

I don’t deserve your pity, I know, nor your respect, but should you see your way to granting an old man’s last wish, don’t come looking for me. I know where I need to be, and ain’t nothing can change that now.

Still, I expect there’re some who think I’d run, that this note ain’t but a bluff, so you do what you have to.

But if you have to come and find me, I suggest you look downstream.

17 comments:

David Cranmer said...

Now that's storytelling!

A real killer of a story, Chris. I bet you could send that into one of the Big Two and it would be accepted easily.

Julie said...

This was incredible.

Really, really amazing.

Chris said...

Thanks, guys! Glad you liked it, because apparently, I broke Blogger posting it. Seriously, every font in my sidebar's outta whack.

Laura K. Curtis said...

Totally, totally awesome. What a great way to start my week!

Chris said...

Thanks, Laura!

Hilary Davidson said...

Absolutely fantastic, from start to (chilling) finish. This belongs in an anthology.

Chris said...

Thanks, Hilary! That is very, very kind.

Charles said...

Fantastic. I felt it.

Http://arealgoodblog.blogspot.com

Chris said...

Thanks, Charles! And thanks for stopping by!

Austin Carr said...

Deft and gripping, Chris. Wow. Easy to see why the judges picked it.

Chris said...

Thanks! Them Spinetingler folks are all right in my book...

Ron Scheer said...

Well done. I like the way the dialogue keeps pushing the story forward. I am also struck by the way the continuing rain and rising waters sweep you along, immerse you in dread and the inevitable. As I said, well done.

Chris said...

Thanks, Ron! Glad you liked it! I think you hit the nail on the head with regard to the relentless inevitability of the story; I wanted the water to have almost a supernatural element to it, as if it were a manifestation of God's own wrath. But of course it's really just the backdrop for protag's projected guilt... isn't it?

T. B. Wright said...

That was really a well written short. I never felt compelled to read more, it just sort of happened. Very excellent, truly enjoyable to read.

Chris said...

Thanks -- and thanks for stopping by!

Curt Jarrell said...

Terrific story. If your novel is this tightly, seamlessly written then readers are in for a wonderful treat. Thanks for sharing it.

Chris said...

Thanks, Curt! Very kind of you to say.