I wrote this short story at a time when I had run out of steam with a novel I was trying to write. The story was screaming out to be told and starting to bug me. I was hoping writing it would give me a boost. A sort of shaking the tale by its throat and seeing what falls out kinda thing.
I think it worked. I also wanted to play with point of view and tense. I had a vision for how it would look. I wanted to play with the words on the page. In hindsight probably not the smartest way to embark on a short story. But I didn’t deviate too far from my novel.
This little ditty is all backstory.
Water thunders past her, a rage of white fury, a trail of ice lingers in its wake. The water, too loud, too angry, holds her in the damp grass.
Cold wind sweeps down from the top of the mountain gnawing at her cheek. Lucy looks up at the ranges, the tops a white glare staring back at her, boring into her eyes. She closes them imagining a snowy wind falling over the valley covering everything. If she lies down it will cover her too, hiding her. She listens for sounds that don’t belong, isolating them from the river and birds, silencing it all so she can hear a twig snap, a rustle of leaves, a footstep. Him. An icy gust races down the valley carrying a scent of something that doesn’t belong. A warning. Now, she can hear him, panting, ploughing through the undergrowth, pushing trees out of his way, hunting her down.
The roar of the river drowns out all other sounds, all she can see is green. She reaches out to the river to catch the spray, halt it. Her knuckles, black with bruises, won’t let her fingers straighten. A thick band of blood snakes around her wrist. She makes a fist to stop the bleeding only ripping raw flesh open again. She stretches out her other hand, holding it flat, small shards of glass dance across her knuckles. The glass cutting deeper as she stretches her fingers, small rivulets of fresh blood weave around her fingers to the back of her hand. Slowly she turns her hands, watching the flow of the small red rivers change direction until blood starts crawling down her wrists. Then, she turns her hands back over, the tips of her fingers gnawed till blood flows, fingers bent out of shape from shattered bones.
The car is still there, smoking, rammed into a boulder buried in the bank, wedged between grass and smooth grey slate. She can’t get it out, she can’t escape in it.
She can hear him calling her. He is close. She can smell his sweat-stained with rum and cigarettes and now she can see glimpses of him, shades of his work shirt or boots as he weaves through the trees, his axe swinging at branches and weeds as he sniffs her out, he looks like a stray dog tracking carrion. If he looks to one side he would see her, but he doesn’t. Too drunk. She shudders at the idea of her father drunk and mad finding her.
The damp ground releases her for a moment making her stumble forward as she trips on a fallen branch. She picks it up. It’s too light. She smashes it against the back of the car, expecting a bang. It crumbles on impact, the fragments of bark fall between her fingers. She feels a sharp burn in her cheeks, a spark from the fire, a shard of glass cutting into her cheek. She holds her hand to her face, her fingers searching out a splinter or blood. Her cheeks are damp. She looks up at the clouds expecting rain, but she can hear it too. A wail, it is distant, somewhere beyond the storm of white water and then it’s in her chest. She hears herself gasp, she feels her chest heave, her ribs ache under the weight of cold air.
The impact into the rock has made the boot pop open, just a little, the home of that tyre iron. The memory of the iron slams against her ribs, the weight of it crashing into her arms. The red heat that has burnt the ridges into the bones of her hands over years. Then she realises he doesn’t have it, he only has his axe. She pulls the boot wide open and grabs it. The iron rod is heavy in her hands. She hits the back of the car, it bounces off leaving a deep satisfying gash in the metal.
She can hear a footstep, perhaps a twig snapping under the weight of a boot. If he is there if he already has me in his sights. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to see the final blow. I don’t want to scream.
The water is cool, refreshing and deep. Lilly lets it lift her to the surface, then carry her down the river on her back before she dives deep to swim upstream to the bank and the old car. She can see the wheels gently skimming the top of the water like a mosquito dancing across the surface.
She moves quietly through the green water. The bottom of the river is still, like the sky above. He surprises her at first, she thought she was alone.
He is white. Lilly wonders if she looks as white under the water as well. He stares back at her, his face still, his eyes colourless. His lips look bruised, his head moving with the currents. He is holding onto the car with one hand, the other waving in the water.
She realises he can’t see her, his eyes white where they should be black. She wants to feel the sun on her face, kicking her legs hard, she glides to the surface. She doesn’t want this man in her river. The sky is empty of clouds, the air filled with dust from the road. The walk home takes too long. It is a hot, slow afternoon. A shimmering mirage rises above the tar seal.Is it a mirage if you can’t see water?
Even at this hour, it is still too hot. She wishes she was back in the cool river, diving off the back of the old car and annoyed someone else was there. She spins in circles sending dust from the road into a small spiral and starts running.
‘You’re home early,’ her mother says.
‘I don’t like sharing my river.’ She watches her mother, two bands of yellow flowers hang like garlands down the back of her skirt. They flutter through the air like butterflies as her mother turns with a plate of sandwiches in her hands. She puts the plate in the centre of the table.
‘Were there any other kids at the swimming hole?’ her mother asks without looking up.
Lilly picks a sandwich. ‘Jane said her kids were going to be there.’
Lilly keeps eating.
‘So, did you play with anyone?’
‘No, there was no one to play with, just a funny man.’
Her mother’s face is still, her eyes wide, hands frozen before her. The tomato in her sandwich slowly slips onto the plate. The small lines above her eyes deepen.
‘Did he talk to you?’
Lilly smiles. ‘Only mermaids can talk underwater, silly.’
The sandwich falls on the plate with a plop. Her mother stands. She looks odd. It was just a sandwich. Her mother is wringing her hands like she is wringing out a wet sheet. Lilly looks at the sandwich on the plate, the bread has slipped apart as it landed, tomato is embedded in the butter on one side, sprinkled with small black specks of pepper.
The bread is hard around the edges, dry, it looks stale, Jeff opens the sandwich to see small bubbles of yellow oil where the butter has started melting in the heat, then a small waft of rancid butter curls up to his nose.
The sandwich falls with a dull thud into the bottom of the rubbish bin by the front door as he follows his team out into the hot afternoon, and one by one they climb into the back of a police van.
The valley is hotter than it was in town. Heat weighs heavily over the valley, the thought of a decomposing body being dragged from the thick, sluggish river is horrifying, the smell, he wonders about the smell. If the body is new it could be bad.
He hopes it is a skeleton the little girl has seen. Oh, if it isn’t all bone now there could be eels or small fish having a feed. The muscles in the back of his throat seize violently. His eyes water. He looks out his window before anyone can see his face. He realises he has never been in the valley. He can’t recall ever being told why, or who told him, but he has known all his life the ground was poisonous. Now he realises he doesn’t know if it is real poison or childhood ghosts. Why would anyone live here?
The detective in charge is talking, his voice rattles like stones around the van, but blood is pounding in Jeff’s head and he can’t hear what the man is saying.
Oh god, how am I going to do this without making a bloody fool of myself?
‘Tom Blueridge is the man that owns that car. Been quiet for a good while now. We thought he had left town, dumped the car and hitched a ride. Seems we could have been wrong.’ The senior detective said.
He was driving, briefing the uniforms in the back of the van.
‘Sir, do we think it’s him?’ somebody said.
‘No way of knowing till we have a look. Look men, it was a small girl that saw the body, Lilly Brown, good family, but that kid’s a real dreamer. She could have seen anything.’
‘I know Tom, didn’t he have a wife and kid?’ someone asked.
‘Yeah, Lucy was the daughter. His wife was Alice, she’s been gone a couple of years now. He claimed she left him.’
‘You don’t believe him sir?’ The senior detective shrugged as he looked at the uniforms sitting behind him through the rear vision mirror. His face was set hard, his stare bore through them.
What the hell are we doing?
‘That family had a pretty miserable time with him. Hopeless drunk really. A brawler too.’ The detective’s voice reverberated through the van, but Jeff could tell the information was intended for him. The detective was staring straight at him. Jeff swallowed and nodded. It worked, his focus was now in the valley.
The valley was small, steep walls of bush on each side with a narrow river running through it. They reached their destination but had to walk through bush to reach the small clearing where the dumped car was attracting a crowd. A tow truck had already arrived, he couldn’t work out where it had come from. He searched for a road. A faint, dusty dirt path ran along the bank of the river, a path worn by car and truck tyres over years. The tyres of the tow truck still fresh in the dust. An ambulance was parked behind it. Two men dressed in white were standing beside it smoking, waiting while the tow truck slowly pulled the car from the bank. Clumps of grass and weeds gave way as the car inched backwards.
The first thing he saw was hair and wet clothes, both intact. He expected rags, a bald skull. The thought of flesh clinging in clumps to bone made him dry wretch. His body flinging itself forward involuntarily.
He stood up, his mouth dry, his heart racing. The locals were still flooding into the valley, silently moving closer and closer to the bank to get a better view. He moves with the other uniforms to form a circle around the detectives and doctors. A wall of blue, shoulder to shoulder, staring straight ahead over the river. He likes it when they move as one. He likes being part of a greater force that can not be broken. He turns to his neighbour. The man is white, with a slight tinge of mottled green scattered along his jawline. The air is heavy, swollen, a scent of sweet rotten earth floats around his head, he can’t place it and wonders if he is imagining it. The river is quiet. When they went in it would have been fast and swollen.
He hears a car door open and looks across to see the detective leaning in the back door pulling the contents of the car out and slowly passing them to a doctor standing behind him. The doctor carefully placing each item in a bag.
The detective lifts a small battered bag of clothes out of the car, the bag is not closed. The detective shouts out, holding up a small dress for the other detective and doctors. They look at each other slowly shaking their heads. He can hear voices behind him, a hushed mumble rises in volume until the noise is words.
‘She must have gone in the river too.’
‘Maybe dragged down.’
‘Could’a got caught under a branch or something.’
‘A violent end to a violent life.’
‘It was a cold winter too. Always hardest in winter.’
He turns, groups of women bunch together nodding, peering over their shoulders towards the riverbank, stretching on their toes, arching their necks for a better view.
‘Get that bloody crowd back. I don’t want them traipsing on the ground, messing up my crime scene.’ He turns with his men, a sea of blue, arms outstretched they push the small groups back by the sheer force of their presence. They stand on the newly claimed ground, focusing on a spot just beyond the crowd, an impenetrable gaze he has practised in his bathroom mirror many times. Shoulder to shoulder they stare above the heads of family and neighbours. It is still hot, he can feel a prickly sweat inch along his forehead, his head itches. A steady stream of sweat slips down his spine and under his belt. He wants to take his jacket and hat off.
The crowd is dispersing, a small group stands further back, a young girl hugs her mother’s leg with both arms, trying to hide in her skirts.He turns back to the car. The detectives are bent down over the body talking with the police doctor. A tyre iron dangles from the back of the skull, rattling as they turn the remains over. The tip must be wedged inside the skull.
The senior detective waves him over. ‘We need to seal this area.’
‘What do you think happened?’ Jeff says.
‘Hard to say?’ The detective says shaking his head.
‘What about Lucy, maybe she got away?’ Jeff says.
‘Or a terrible accident,’ the doctor says.
‘It’s something?’ The detective says looking up at the car.
The rusty car, wedged hard into a river bank, is slowly being dragged through the grass. Men at one end call out to move then stop. They seem more concerned with that silly man than my car. Lilly, bored, draws outlines of small flowers in the dirt with her big toe.
Her mother suddenly pulls her towards her, throwing her off balance. The adults around her getting louder, not words but aahs and gasps, heads nodding. She slips behind her mother’s skirt. She can smell bread and tomatoes on her apron.
‘Where’s the girl?’
‘Too small, probably pulled down the river. Eel food by now.’
‘Nasty piece of work, good riddance I say.’
‘Still, that poor tyke. Just a few years on this one,’ her mother says.
Lilly can feel her mother’s hand on the top of her head, her voice vibrates through her body into Lilly’s cheek. Lilly wants to go home.
She watches ducks lift slowly from the deep still water beyond the car and the men, as they lumber heavily into the sky dragging the thick heat behind them off the water and onto bush. The heat settles on the tops of the trees just beyond the river, the bank hazy, looks like it is melting under the weight of the sun. She turns to her side of the bank, a wall of trees just beyond the clearing, trees thick enough to create shade. In the middle she sees a small, barely perceptible path, worn smooth from silent feet, slip away into the bush. A girl stands in the shadows of this path. Lilly watches her watching the car. The girl suddenly turns to see Lilly. She stands still, her eyes grow wider. Lilly wonders if she is a fairy, she looks like she has a wand. She’s a forest fairy, cutting down the trees with her magic wand.
She tries to watch her without blinking to make sure she is real. The fairy stares back. Lucy can see her dress move as she breathes. The fairy lifts her wand slightly and Lilly can see it is not a wand, it is an axe. She’s a real girl.
Lilly starts to raise her hand to wave.
The girl holds her finger to her lips. ‘Shhh,’ Lilly hears it above yelling and oi’ing.
Lilly turns back to the car, a blue crackly sheet covers the man. She knows he is under there, she can see his arm.
She turns back
the girl has gone.