This short story was published in UMSU’s Above Water creative anthology and awarded the grand prize for 2016. The author retains copyright. With grateful thanks to the UMSU Media Department.
Bark gunshots ricochet from the bush. Shiny black diver’s heads hover beneath the surface of the weir. The search lines are widening, the spaces between warm bodies stretching.
Wrapped in a fluorescent blanket, the mother stands at the water’s edge. Cutting a lonely figure beside a pale, mascaraed police officer. Shiny black boots nervously shift beneath hands forcibly steadied around two cups of hot chocolate. This lost vessel has an uncertain lifeline back to shore.
Another diver surfaces, shakes its alien head towards a supervisor on the adjacent bank. Still no sign.
Like everyone else, Michael’s desperate to slip away. The curiosity of running and shouting has died. They’ve faux-offered to help by being near: small country town charade of close-knit community and all that bullshit. Etiquette holds them rigid, impotent. Just like his sweaty cycling lycra, which is clamping his balls far too tight.
The policewoman’s phone vibrates a tune. Burst of John Farnham: he knows it before he hears; his childhood anticipates. We’ve got two strong hearts. She ducks toward the sound, flicks the screen, cradles her head into her palm. The silence screams. We stick together like the honey and the bee. Michael subconsciously power ballads. Johnny can’t be cut off, can’t go unsung.
He glances over his shoulder. Churning around the edges at the back of the group. The others are, by innocent bodyweight shifts, positioning themselves to slip away. That cheers him. Not much longer. No crime to fight here. No clear-cut wrong to right. Maybe writing to the local council for a better handrail. Not that Michael wants anything to do with government. But it’s a nice thought.
Dave the male nurse is one of the first to peel off. Clattering his carbon frame unapologetically over the gutter and crackling off down the gravel running track. Dammit, Dave. A bit sorry to see Dave go. The bloody cat is, if he’s honest, his only other source of company. He sucks the mucous in his mouth and drops a wad into slimy grass.
With hands full of hot chocolate and her phone cuddled in her neck, mouth in motion, the policewoman turns round. Her eyes follow the stringy trail of spit up from the cicada skeletons in the grass to Michael’s wind-numbed face. They make eye contact. She sees an escape. The cardboard containers are thrust at him. Fragmented apologies, vague gestures at the phone: she almost runs for it, back to the patrol car.
He had no time to respond. She was too quick. Might’ve done that before? And now he’s stranded in front of the beachhead, the space beside the victim. His first instinct is to sidle away, but no dice: everyone saw the mantle pass to him. Fuck. No choice. He shuffles forward into the role. Dutiful, leaden, unable to think up a way out. Can’t say he blames the officer.
He’s not great with faces but he recognizes the lady when he sees her up close. She has a backwards-sloping brow, a pert nose. Without her work clothes she looks horribly—high school—young. He places her: the frozen yoghurt franchise. He goes there when he hasn’t had enough beer to justify ice cream. (However, he read online that frozen yoghurt has more sugar than ice cream. The Internet is ruining his life like that.)
“Hi,” he says, awkward as a farmer on a date. Calm down. You’ve talked to people before.
She looks at him sidelong. Nice brown eyes.
“Sorry for your loss.” Christ, what a wanker.
“My baby ain’t lost.”
“No—no—not lost.” That sounds worse.
Jesus you’re stupid, no wonder you’ve got no friends.
Her mouth is probably the least nice part of her. Probably because she’s holding in a grim line: he remembers fuller lips. Might be the cold though, they are a bit blue.
Jesus Christ Almighty, wake up Mick you asshole. Her kid is fucking gone. No wonder the cat pisses on your pillow.
He looks down at his incongruous feet. At a stalemate already. This might be a conversational record.
“Sorry.” Very sorry he asked, and very sorry he’s here talking to her. Where’s that damn police lady got to? Probably halfway down the freeway now, running as hard as those stumpy legs will let her.
“Nothing to be sorry for.” Fishing line stringing her words together. As in, when the line snags on a large gunk gloopy and you reel it in and find some dark creepy clay river sculpture on the end, embedded with bits of junk and glass and strange insect corpses. Hate those snags.
“What’s it like making frozen yoghurt?”
Her warm brown eyes latch back onto him. Funny how people with warm brown eyes look welcoming even when they hate you.
“You made me a frozen yoghurt one time—when I wanted one—one time. That shop in the high street. That’s you isn’t it?”
“That’s me.” She hesitates, and then gives up on whatever she was going to say.
A creepy uncertain feeling is spreading in his guts. They should’ve found something by now. Where’s the body? More importantly, what is this without the body? Is it a wake, or, or, some sort of sick kool aid group hoping? Body bag lying deflated near the jetty. Just a garbage bag really. Covered in dew.
“You have a footy team?” He’s given up on closing his mouth; these words are coming out, unsettled and unsayable. The lactic acid from the ride has stopped pumping. It’s colonising his muscle fibers, corroding where it lands.
“You, you …” His brain has detached from its shaft like the rogue blade of a meat pulverizer in the dog food factory, whirring and bloody and it’ll take your fucking arm off. “You like frozen yoghurt?”
Of course she knows that her little boy got sucked into a storm water drain and was pinioned there until the bones bent and through he passed like cheese; grater. The water seized him and massaged those little limbs kilometers downstream—into the next catchment, into the next township, and now her little boy’s a part of their ‘close-knit community’, sweat of their footy team and chary green of their OCD lawns.
She pretends not to hear anything he says.
What the fuck to say.
Of course the kid might’ve sunk. Just sunk into the mud at the deepest part of this place that feeds Michael’s new beige-hellhole-backwater-nightmare town, his third in four years. Could take months to find a trace.
A train howls in the distance, over near the station. The cycling gear cuts tight around his fat gut. When he moves his head and the bulge follows his spine against the lay of the land, so to speak. Coming into station now. He hates remembering his gut and loathes standing up straight with the gimp suit on, usually hunches over when he wheels the bike out the garage so it’s not the first thing people see.
Gunshots returning. There’s a minuscule chance the searchers have stumbled on a sprawled body that only reaches hip-high when standing. But what good’s that? Only a drier tragedy. Only one without the humiliation of water seeping in through her little boy’s nose and encasing the flesh of her flesh’s brain, dampening and loosening the skin. Only a neater corpse, with more humanity. But—
The ground fog slips off the surface and rises as if the moment was preordained and he sees small black shapes in the water, blurred by an underwater cloud. The carp are breeding. The spawn floats past on the churn from the upriver runoff, reflecting the light like a chemical spill. Michael finally realizes the full horror, the cruelty. The water where a precious little boy died is septic with fish semen.
Fish spawn—he can’t even. This mother needs a real person. Stupid, fat, greedy, stuffed in a body condom, fluid and frantic and sad. He shouldn’t be here.
He puts the two hot chocolates neatly side by side in the overgrown grass and runs wildly towards his pickup truck, starting like the hundred meters, his bike forgotten; skintight sodomy suit in full swing. (What a sight for the pensioners on their slow motion Sunday morning walks.)
Breathing like a dying racehorse, he makes it to the truck, fumbles the key from his crotch pocket. Drops his bundle.
Hands and knees in the gravel. Where the fuck—where the fuck’s—skittering along the top of the tiny stones—the keys. Finally finds the bastards right in front of his weak badger eyes. Pulls himself up, glass daggers falling from crevices, misses the lock, gouges a long fissure along the doorframe. Hasn’t done that in awhile. But third time lucky, into the warm of the cabin, gasping. The temperature change like grievous bodily harm but he doesn’t even—he rips the glove box open and tips mostly empty orange vials onto the passenger side floor. Knocks a handful of pills back, dry, and feels them echoing around his empty guts.
Feels better, feels less sure and a bit better. Good enough to drive, anyway. Pulls out on the highway in a gentle roll, all his energy combusted. Hands loose on the wheel.
On the way back he lingers in the liquor aisle. He debates the cigarette counter. But he makes it home in one piece with a six-pack of ginger beer. Skulls the acid bubbles in fast throat contractions on his back porch. The sun slides into a rusty funk. Lies down on the bed unmade. Gets up and drinks another ginger beer in his boxer shorts in the lounge room. Calls Carly, says little, calls his son, doesn’t cry. It’s warm enough inside to cry. Lies down on his bed again and watches the moon shimmy up like nothing happened, and nothing happens. Feels like he’s going to have an aneurism.
Warm brown eyes open in the dark, black in the gloom, watching and watching forever and surrounded by inescapable filth. Fat fish are fucking in the weir. He flails to the kitchen and gulps down glass after glass of water to stave off another migraine, then comprehends where the water filling him up washed through. Breaks another glass, runs out to the porch and throws up on the wicker chair. Overgrown grasses wave zombie-like at him over the lip of pine planks.
He stares at the little orange translucent vial he keeps in the cupboard over the stove, neat and inviting, upright and yellow like summer dusk in the bare dusty cave. He stares it up and down and takes the lot, which if fine, totally fine, because you build up immunity. (Your insides slowly calcify, he read online, and you build up immunity to the harm you’re doing over time.)
Michael drifts back to his pickup and fumbles the ignition. His fishing gear is all ready to go. He and father used to go down the trout farm and dip bait into writhing trenches, bring back a fat catch like heroes. The rods are always in his truck as a memento. Sometimes he dreams about rainbow trout, with all their myriad colors, smoky and perfect on the barbeque or swimming lazily through an unclouded blue sky. Not like these bloody feral cocksucker carp.
The truck’s engine purrs confidently along the contours of the road. The sun hasn’t yet stirred. A few mad joggers are out before the first workday of the week. Their paranoid, fleshless asses wink menacingly at him in the gloom.
Michael positions himself in the reeds and watches the shiny black fish backs slipping in and out of the starry mirror. Shouldn’t be breeding in the winter. The little ones will die off when they hatch. Stupid fuckers must think its springtime. (He read online that this part of the country will be underwater in a couple of decades.)
Michael takes his gloves off. The knuckles will go blue in this frost, he knows, but he can’t grasp the spool or thread the holes otherwise. The line is frail and permanently curled.
Why would a kid come playing out here, in the cold? Only fish screwing in an eerie disembodied way out here. Small bodies aren’t big enough, not strong enough, to create warmth enough to survive in winter.
He’s gone cold up to the calf. The hazard yellow blanket is hanging in the reeds like a windless flag, creaking in the hushed breeze.
She must have waited here all night, he figures, as he wades out past the shallows and the yellow canvas. Otherwise the emergency services would have asked her for the blanket back. So many countless bodies that need warmth to get through trauma.
He casts and snags a fat one, reels it in and holds it up, glistening, contorting in complex reptile panic. One flat eye stares into him: questioning, despairing. No human spark, not really a question at all just his projection of one. Do they even feel? He takes out the truncheon, stuns it. Softening up a steak he forgot to take out the freezer. Up to his hip. The truncheon splashes into the water. His two paw-like hands tear flesh from fragile bones.
A red blot of light is crouched on the horizon. He sees the carp scattering away from him, and it dawns that he just unthinkingly did something terrible. So cold it feels warm: liquid running around his thighs, his cock, lapping his half-moon gut. What a life he’s made, what a drifting, shitty person he’s become. Was he really going to kill them all?
He can see his unshaven face from below, in the dawn, looking up from the height of a child. He’d never catch them all anyway. Those mythological days are over. Fingers dripping fish eggs, he wades out further into the rancid pond.
The body must be out here somewhere. Maybe it’s under his feet, maybe it’s in the scales slathering off him. If only he could be a hero again, if only for a moment, if only for himself. Maybe he can bring the boy back home. Yes, he could do that.
Silt slides up from fetid depths where his feet fall as he searches, spreading a slick shadow across the mirror surface. The oil slick spreads and spreads along the shore in a chain reaction, the dirt bubbling across the pond, reaching out. Terror touches Michael through the groggy haze. If it gets out into the wider water, there will be no chance of finding the boy. No chance. He lets out a low, hateful wail. Don’t take this as well.
He leans over and throws his arms wide to smother the spreading shadow, to catch it before it reaches the depths, to turn it around. But it’s too big and too hard to grasp. It slips easily past him.