26 Jul Before the Flood
Before the Flood
Jacob Ian DeCoursey
By the fifteenth month, the whole damn state had grown so thirsty the ground seemed to drink the sap of its own trees. Those of us who remember admit to speaking of rain the way some Christians speak of the apocalypse, so that in every town it seemed there was someone pointing out signs of the times. Dead fish lay rotting at the pebbled bottoms of shrunken streams. Nightly, stroboscopic heat lightning, like war in heaven, would herald strange distant fires. Behind the hills, rising smoke mixed with the ever-pregnant clouds so that the throbbing firmament seemed to cry out in agony of its pangs.
Even the Big Lake seemed much depleted, revealing the ghoulish remains of what once was. Dilapidated market signs, skeletons of slanted roofs, and just all manner of haunted shapes jutted from the still water, surrounding a tall church steeple that once marked the town’s center. In the full dark, one could appropriately mistake this fishing hole for a cemetery. Rumors swirled in that sticky heat the place was cursed somehow. In truth, it was simply forgotten. Its stories and secrets only gossiped by ghosts beneath the murky depths.
There were two brothers.
Likely, other siblings existed strewn about from one county border to the next and maybe farther, kin neither of the two knew about nor ever would. It didn’t matter.
* * *
Two brothers, and that was enough.
Their little flatboat sloshed between rusted and rotting structures, carrying their father home in a shoebox.
When they’d gone far enough, Alden let go of the long oar and stepped off the riser, took a seat and massaged his arms. Davis sat as he had been sitting the whole time, still and quiet. The night was starless. Strange calls filled the air from no direction in particular. The boat drifted a little ways and then bumped against something and stopped completely. They sat adjacent each other but said little. Instead, smoke wafted softly from their mouths in acrid cursive as they took cigarettes from the pack of Marlboro Reds sitting between them atop their father.
The dry full moon cast the two in near-monochrome, yet it was light enough. Alden bore the looks of a creature much older. His gaunt face was dark and sun-wrinkled. His thinning hair fell in burgundy ribbons against his lean shoulders and over his hungry eyes, the corners of which, if one looked closely, were a sickly yellow. His clothes were stained and hung loose on his bones, boots marred and untied with laces tucked in. Overall, he seemed a man who’d walked through thorny bushes all his life. Davis wore his shirt buttoned to the collar. His shoes were muddied, but nothing a little polish wouldn’t fix, and his curly hair was slicked tight against his scalp. His flesh bore the healthy color of a midsummer wheat field. More so, his face was plump, almond-shaped eyes flickering when kissed by the moonlight jumping up from the black water all around.
Davis reached and took the pack from the shoebox. He picked a bent one and placed it between his lips, removed a Bic from his pocket, lit it. A puff of smoke engulfed his features for a moment then opened. He reached through the smoke, picked up the shoebox. Its soft contents shifted.
“How’s this supposed to work?”
“You open the box,” Alden said, “and dump the sonofabitch in the goddamn river.”
“Shouldn’t we say something?”
“That he’ll be missed?”
“Ain’t about missing him,” Alden said. “Nothing to miss.”
Davis removed the lid. Inside was his father. The powder was gray beneath the pale light and coarse with little pebbles which must’ve been bone. The boat rocked causing the box to tilt in his hands, and he watched its shallow contents pour downward toward the left corner and form a small mound there. A curl of barely visible dust floated upward and went away into the darkness. He watched it go, squinting in the dark, until there wasn’t anything to watch anymore, then placed his finger into the mound, drew a crude face.
“Didn’t necessarily mean by us,” he said. “Somebody’s gotta miss him somewhere, or at least everyone wants to think that’ll be the case when they’re gone.”
Alden took a drag from his cigarette and held it a long time. His eyes looked away. Then he breathed out a pale phantom that writhed in the air before dissipating.
“Think at this point what he’d’ve wanted doesn’t matter much.”
Davis balled his fist beneath the box, then uncurled his fingers and replaced the lid, set the box down at his feet. “What do you even know about it?—”
Alden looked up with eyes like broken glass. He stood. Taking small steps so as not to lose bearings and tumble into the water, he moved to where Davis sat, and, when he was close enough, moved even closer until the intimacy of their inky forms became unbearable. Alden grabbed his brother’s hair, which was slick with product so he had to hold white-knuckle-tight, and yanked.
In a panic, Davis tried to swat and kick him away, but Alden stooped low and slapped him across the face. Davis calmed and raised his hands in surrender.
So Alden hit him again.
First with the back of his hand.
Then harder with his calloused palm rough as splintered wood.
A clenched fist plunged into the center of Davis’ face. He wrapped his arms around his head. Alden reached and threw the appendages away and, in the same motion, wound back to deliver one more blow. He steadied his feet. His boot soles slipped a little, something like small gravel beneath.
Then both men looked down.
Their father lay spread into small landscapes of silt, sleeping and colorless in the dim like some map of a primitive time. The smiling face was demolished, spilled into formlessness again and smeared in gray semicircles and footprints. The box stood at the center upside down.
Alden lowered his fist and released his brother’s scalp. He stepped over the mess and sat next to him. Davis didn’t say anything, only sat and bled, and both men were there but as though the world existed between them, and perhaps it did.
“Where’re those smokes?” Davis said after a while.
Alden toed the box over, and there they were.
Davis leaned forward, took the pack and fished out the last two, placed one in his mouth. The other he handed to his brother.
“He ever lay into you like that?” Davis said.
“When he was around enough to,” Alden said.
“Never struck me.”
“Figured as much.”
“Saw him whoop my momma pretty good once though.”
Alden shifted in his seat.
“Ain’t nothing to go on about. He beat her black and blue, then took off for a few weeks. I was small. I only recollect momma crying on the floor with blood in her ears and teeth. He was always taking off, most often at night, never stayed longer than a week at a time, but that was the only time I’d ever seen him go.”
“He came back though.”
“Yeah, ’course he came back. Momma’d always forgive him after long enough away. Said it was just how things were and ain’t no use in trying to change the course of rivers.”
“Looks like we both got reared by women who fell for the bullshit of a common garden snake,” Alden said.
“Everyone’s got their sins.”
“Why do you think that’s so?”
“I reckon it started somewheres and just got passed down. E’rything starts somewheres.”
Alden looked away. “Where’d you start?”
“Eh?” Davis said.
“I mean, how’d he end up your poppa.”
“I’d imagine same way he became yours.”
“That’s why I ask. I’ve no idea how I came to be.”
Well, from what I know, he’d known my momma when she was a young girl, watched her grow. He was much older.”
“He was always old. Nobody ever seen him as a young man.”
“Well he’d befriended her, told her all kinds of things she thought were so learned. Then when she was a teenager he started in making his moves. She wasn’t having any of it, though, the more she grew up.”
“Young women don’t often fawn for an old man, lest he got something to offer ’em, which I reckon he never much did.”
“Well it didn’t stop him none. Got her real drunk one night so she couldn’t’ve told a man from a maple tree if in broad daylight, and when she’d begun to take sick on her barstool, he took and walked her into his hotel room and had her until the daylight shone red through the treetops.”
“Did you remember him ever around for long at all?”
“Some of the time. When he’d come back around he’d tell my momma she’d better bring me out, so she would, and he’d drink from a bottle in a bag and tell me stories about his adventures on the road. And momma’d just set there in the kitchen and not say anything, outta fear, I suppose.”
“Did you like him?”
“I didn’t know any better one way or the other. And often as she’d forgive him, she never did forgive me.”
“Momma, my momma.”
“Forgive you for what?”
“Being the closest thing to him she could lay her hands on.”
After that, they both sat quiet. No sounds but the light sloshing of water.
“We’re outta cigarettes,” Davis said, crushing his half-smoked one beneath his heel.
Alden exhaled his last plume into the night and flicked his away too.
“Yeah. Looks like it.”
Davis stooped and began scooping handfuls of ash from the wooden deck.
“Here, gimme a hand.”
Alden shrugged. “Alright.”
So the two men swept the floor with their fingers, creating small hills of dust then lifting and depositing them in the shoebox. Time seemed to pass differently as they worked, as though its hands reached not left and right, up nor down, but front and backward as well and all at once. After a while, there was nothing but a layer of soot too thin to lift from the floor, so the two gave up and stood. Alden held the box.
“Which of us gets to do the honors?” Davis asked.
Alden handed the box to him.
“Why the hell not?” Alden said.
Davis took the box with both hands, wiped his nose against his shoulder, leaving a glossy smear of blood and mucous. Then he turned and dumped its contents into the water without a word. The dust cloud caught onto the wind and opened like a flower, a white dandelion scattering its seeds. A light hiss lasted a second or two as the grains hit the water one by one, then nothing, and it was over. Somewhere a fish lapped across the water then vanished. Alden looked over the edge of the boat, but saw only a few ripples expanding out of sight. He spat into the water.
“Guess that’s that,” he said.
“So it seems,” Davis said.
* * *
Later that night, in the hours just before dawn, Alden lay beside a young girl whom we will call Wren—though her real name is now lost. She was no older than sixteen and great with child, expecting any day now. He set his hand atop her belly and felt, but nothing moved. Her soft breathing lulled him, and as he drifted, a vision of his brother came to mind.
He saw through Davis’ eyes, and that he was still standing at the lake shore, staring out into the great inkiness. He felt his nose still bleeding, cool wetness running over his lips and down his chin. He looked and saw it dot the gravel by his feet; lifted his hand, which only moments before had rested on the girl’s belly, and felt the blood trickle into it.
A sound rumbled far away.
He looked up, and saw lightning in the sky, the bright kind that only comes with rain. He felt a droplet fall on his broken nose, held his hand out. Another landed in his palm, making a small star in the dark blood.
Yet the noise carried on like distant drums. He stepped forth toward the water from where it seemed to come.
Into the lake, and the water covered him slow and dark, first his feet, his knees, then his chest. The strange noise beat from below, like a muffled baseline to some danceable music. With a gasp he lowered his head into the murk and swam blindly toward the sounds, into the ruins.
As he moved closer, the drowned and collapsing houses were lit, as though lived in. Yet all were empty through their windows. The rhythm thumped through the water in his ears.
He floated on into the church. The pews were filled with all manner of bones. He wondered if the ghosts were dancing and if his father was joining them now. The music grew louder.
Davis closed his eyes and listened.
When Alden opened them, thunder beat against the window glass as a bright flash lit the room.
“That ain’t heat lightning,” Wren said. “It’s good lightning.”
“Doesn’t seem too good to me.”
Alden took his hand off her. There was another loud crash, as though the world had caved in on itself, and drops began to crackle against the Galbestos roof.
* * *
And it rained, and it rained and rained, and it rained for days, and then on and off for months so that all the world around flooded. And the floods erased all blood and histories from the ground in a series of violent muddy tides, and the tides filled the lake higher and deeper than it had ever been, covering the building tops at last.
Even the little flatboat, which had been left abandoned on the Big Lake’s shore, vanished mysteriously, perhaps beneath the mud and silt, or carried into the Lake itself and swallowed.
So in the end, when the rain finally ceased again altogether, everything was simply as it was and as it should have been all along, and the Lake was still and quiet once more—save for the occasional birdcall above it and catfish below swimming through the church steeple, unknowing of any secrets and without a care regardless.
Bio: Jacob Ian DeCoursey hails from Baltimore, Maryland. His fiction and poetry has appeared in The Scum Gentry, Horror Sleaze Trash, 9 Tales Told in the Dark, Grub Street, The Welter, Not One of Us, and Row Home Lit. In 2014, his story “A Guide to Being Punk” placed first in the CSPA Gold Circle Awards in two categories: Humor, and Experimental Fiction. His journalistic contributions have also featured in Brutal Planet Magazine, Shockwave Music Magazine, and Movie-Thoughts.com.