I wrote the following short story in late September 1994, as part of a short story writing course studied over 1993-1994. The story is presented as is, all its scratches and bruises intact. My tutor wrote,
Your story is a little hard on the reader. In spots I had to reread to be sure of what was happening, who the characters were or when a flashback had begun or ended. It is not necessarily a bad thing to demand something of your readers, but the more you demand, the fewer readers you will attract.
I know now my tutor was referring to ‘transitions’, an important technique to perfect in any fiction. At some point, I may re-write the story or better yet, take the basic story line and fold it into a current work.
I got the idea for this story from a real event that occurred in May, 1994 and was reported in both the Toronto Star (May 24, 1994, p. A.18) and the local paper, The Times (May 30, 1994, p.6). I don’t remember the outcome of the event, possibly I never knew, but my story suggests a fictional outcome.
I also hope to design a cover and will update here when it is done. At that point, I will also upload to Smashwords as another free short story — I know, I know, freebies aren’t a great idea, but this are very old stories that I am using not just to revisit early writing lessons, but also to learn the mechanics of preparing work for digital publication.
Thanks for stopping by.
Alex mashed his teeth, jaw pulling against the merciless cold, fingers feeling out a grip around the trigger, willing motion along his hand, his wrist, his arm and up and around his shoulders. It stopped the cold momentarily.
Alex stared at them, one eye through the sight, the other directly at the two people before him. This was going to be easier than he thought. Easy marks. Old. They stood in front of him in stupid silence, and Alex could have spit if it wasn’t so cold. They would do what they were told, just like any old couple staring down the wrong end of a .22 rifle.
Alex lowered the rifle and motioned them toward the house.
Stupid fools. They were frozen as the air.
“Into the house,” he said. The ancient fools stood like carved blocks of ice. Alex wondered if they were deaf as well as dumb. One night, damn them, that’s all I need. One night, some dry clothes, a hot meal.
The old man advanced a step. Alex raised his rifle, gritting his teeth until his jaw formed a stiff line, his eye’s locked on the other’s. This was not like shooting a buck, but damnit, he would shoot if the old man took another step. Cold beads of sweat froze on his eyebrows. His finger stroked the trigger. The old man followed Alex’s trigger finger, then looked back to meet his gaze.
“You’re a hard man, Alex Whitney, but you’re no killer.” The old man’s words echoed across the yard.
Without looking at either of them, the old wife turned abruptly and marched toward the house, leaving the two men to face each other. Alex watched as the door closed behind her. The old man turned, his boots crunching across the hard packed late winter snow, his pace thoughtful and steady as he followed his wife.
Alex’s shoulders sagged. He let out a sigh, his grip on the rifle loosened, the barrel angling downward. There never was a bullet chambered, but the old man didn’t know that. Did he? God I’m tired. And cold. He followed them in.
His dreams that night were dreams of cold sweaty horror, of icy water, of blinding mist, of treacherous rocks and falls ahead promising certain death. He clawed his way to shore, hauled himself onto the still frozen beach, his breath staining the immutable rifle as he clutched it, curling his body around it, trying to capture something of the sun’s puny heat.
Alex lay on the bank, his heart, his gasps both thudding against his eardrums. His uncle’s face loomed up and planted itself in front of him.
“Out,” the uncle said, “you gotta leave this morning, Alex. I can’t put you up any more.” Alex heard the hard flat voice and met the heat in the man’s eyes. Doesn’t that best all? His own uncle was tossing him out on both cheeks. Anger swelled up and rang bitterly through his taste buds. He ran his tongue slowly around his mouth, then spat at his uncle’s feet.
“You…” Uncle John’s voice trailed, but his fist remained a few seconds longer, threatening Alex’s face. Then he was gone.
Alex lashed out, his anger unchecked until the room was a shambles. He ran his palm roughly against the moisture on his cheeks, surveying the damage, but not seeing it. He slammed the door open to find his uncle. This wasn’t over yet.
John started out of his chair, but Alex reached the rifle first, hurled around and leveled it hard to his uncle’s chest.
“I’ll kill you, so help me.” John pushed against the barrel, forcing Alex back a step.
“Get out. You’re nothing but trouble — just like your old man. I should have left you there too.”
Alex backed out of the house, the weapon still aimed at his uncle, the words eating into his brain. He hadn’t the stomach to defend his father.
The keys were in the truck. It lurched crudely into reverse. Alex stomped the pedals and swung in his seat, the rifle beside him, a mean and passive passenger.
The rifle stared at him. Alex sat up, startled, blinking against the morning sun. The sheets were clammy and torn from the bottom of the bed where they were so neatly tucked the night before.
“Get dressed son.” The old man was as unyielding as the rifle he cradled. He sucked on a pipe and waited silently while Alex pulled on his clothes. He led him through the living room to a small room. Alex caught a glimpse of flashing red through the kitchen window. The door shut and locked behind him.
The pantry grew more distinct. Alex sat down on a large sack of potatoes, leaned forward, his head in his hands and waited out his fate. He knew the routine. First his name, then the charges, then the handcuffs. Brought down by a scrawny old man half his size, twice his age. Muffled sounds nudged at him through the door. Alex dragged his hand across a sweat soaked brow and though he heard a door shut, then silence. Then more silence. he stood and leaned against the door, nearly lost his balance as the door opened.
“You can come out now,” the old lady studied him, “and have your breakfast.” She walked over to the stove. Alex blinked at the space where she had been, then closed his mouth, licked his lips.
“Name’s Bishop, son.” The old man cradled the rife even after he directed Alex to sit on one of the stools. They were in a workroom at the back of the barn. “The wife’s name is Angelina.” Bishop hoisted one leg over a second stool and sat close to Alex. His other foot remained on the floor.
“You got yourself into one helluva fix.” Bishop reached into his breast pocket, extracted his pipe and a tobacco pouch, resting the gun up against his outstretched leg. Alex leaned forward, but the old man’s fingers were already wrapped around the barrel.
“Little less action, little more lisening is what you need right about now.”
“So talk.” Alex leaned his bulk into the back of the stood, his eyes following Bishop’s hands as he tamped down his pipe.
“I’ve got a proposition for you.”
“And the cops?”
“They found the canoe, or what was left of it. They said they’re going to drag the river, but they don’t expect much. They think you made it to shore. They warned us.” He lit, then pulled on the pipe. Blue–grey smoke drifted around his head. “Found the truck too. Smashed it up pretty good, didn’t you?”
Alex shrugged. “He’s got insurance.”
“You’ve got an attitude.” Their eyes met, Alex’s cloudy, Bishop’s steady and blue, but Alex refused to back down. The old man continued. “I need some help around here. Odd jobs, handyman stuff. You good with tools?”
Alex shrugged again. “Why don’t you just hire somebody?” This was bull. Still, his gaze rested respectfully on the rifle and he wondered if he was already hired.
“I can’t.” Bishop looked in the direction of the house. “She won’t have it. Not since the boy died. We were fishing you know. She said he was too young but I took him anyway.
“He drowned. Right about the same spot you took your spill yesterday.” Bishop drew on his pipe, then raised a finger toward Alex.
“Your old man was part of the search. Stone cold sobre he was that week. He took it to heart, us losing our boy like that, showed up every day even after the others had given up. But we never found him.” Bishop’s eyes drifted away a minute. He placed his pipe on the bench. When his gaze returned to Alex, it was sharply focussed.
“My guess is he was thinking about you that whole week. And he really wanted us to have our boy back. Really. I’ll never forget that.”
“Sorry,” Alex mumbled, looked away, not knowing what he could say. When he turned back, the old man nodded.
“Long time ago now son. All that confusion, people wanting to help, it was a nightmare for her, except your father. She understood that. But stranger’s around here now, it just reminds her of that week.”
Alex studied the floor. It was a payback. He never knew his father had collected debts.
Bishop promised to supply him another canoe and whatever supplies he needed.
“But no gun,” he said.
Alex agreed again. Whatever made Bishop and the old wife happy. Couple of weeks work in exchange for freedom, not a bad tradeoff. He’d worry about the rifle when the time came.
The old man stood, then Alex, who stretched and worked the muscles in his shoulders. He was stiff after yesterday’s near disaster.
“I’m not your son.”
Bishop nodded and left the barn.
Alex found Bishop in the yeard laying out planks, an open tool chest by the porch. He considered for a moment, overpowering the older man, taking what he needed, taking off. No, he thought to the muffled whomp of the chopper’s blades, too hot. Bishop turned to the sound, then their eyes locked. Definitely too hot. The police would probably spend the day around the river. They would guess he had portaged the falls.
No accounting a deadhead though. Alex forgave himself that stupidity. He thought it was a chunk of ice. There was still enough of it floating around the bay. He gazed at Bishop, who watched him, drawing thoughtfully on his pipe.
They agreed Alex should stay close to the house for the first few days. He worked in silence throughout the day, wondering if he could carry it off with the cops breathing down his neck. The sound of the helicopter crept around his thoughts. Still, it was a better option that tearing through the bush on the run. Once the tourist season began, he could blend in with the other canoeists and disappear right out of the province.
The cold gave way to the temperance of spring and the first soft colours promised a fresh season. The ground began to soften under foot, the air was crisp and damp, good for outdoor work, and the evenings were long and drowsy in front of the fire. Alex slumped in his chair, legs outstretched, eyes closed, enjoying the flames’ heat as it danced across his face. Bishop and his wife debated Alex’s chores for the next day.
Alex stood, yawning loudly and announced he was going to bed.
In the morning Alex watched Bishop start up the old truck. He was going into town to buy shingles for the barn and saluted Alex as he drove past. Alex nodded, then turned his attention to the well.
Alex climbed down, his feet feeling for the metal rungs. He swung the flashlight around and inspected the bricks, tapping them, scraping moss as he descended, taking one rung at a time. Heavy noise drew his attention upward. He caught the silhouette in a circle of daylight above.
She was shutting him in.
“What the…” The words echoed dumbly through his ascent. Alex’s right foot slipped. He banged his knee hard against the wall, hands grasping for the rungs above. The flashlight clattered down, splashing below, then loose pebbles, a soft disturbance brushing by him.
Alex’s knee throbbed as he steadied himself. His hands went clammy, the dankness closed around, musty odour stiffling his breath, a dizzy nausea creeping through his stomach. He closed his eyes tightly against the hard steel. Why was she doing this?
Her shape turned hazy in his mind, then thundered back, unrecognizable, blackening the light behind the doorway. Alex sat curled in the corner, sweaty, bruised, nauseated. He was playing in the truck, pretending to drive. The door opened but before he could scramble away a fist smashed the side of his face, then a stinging slap to back of his head. Two rough hands grabbed his shoulders, hauling him out of the seat. He stumbled, lost his balance and felt the boot in his side, propelling him forward. His head smacked the wall with an unforgiving crunch that rang in his ears.
“Leave the boy alone for chrissake.” There was a scuffle above Alex. He tried to brush away the haze and huddled closer to the wall, sobbing, hiccuping and holding his breath at the silence that followed.
Alex looked up. A figure paused in the doorframe, dark and silent and still. The figure disappeared. Alex closed his eyes. Bishop’s story of his father swelled up and mingled with the painful old beating, stirring up the old memories. He wondered if his father was not so drunk, that maybe he saved him from worse.
“You all right?”
It was Bishop. Alex climbed up cautiously, the black shape taking on form and colour, the arm stretched twoard him. But it was his father he imagined, not Bishop.
Alex scrambled out of the well and brushed off his jeans. Bishop reached out to the side of his face.
“Nasty scrape there, son.”
Alex waved him away, headed to the house. He was clammy. He shivered. He wanted to wash the musty stench from his body. He could imagine Bishop’s stare but refused to turn around, deliberately pacing his steps. He closed his eyes briefly. I’m not your son.
Angelina fussed over Alex all evening, blaming herself for his near catastrophe. Still, she insisted she heard the helicopter and she was afraid the police would come and take him away.
Alex turned his head aside, looking for a sign from Bishop while the old wife dabbed and worried the bruise on his cheek. He wasn’t sure how the pungent–smelling Ozonol® would ease a bruise, but he allowed her ministering. Alex did not remember banging his head. Angelina dabbed again. He flinched. Maybe she did hear something.
It was a good day for shingling. Alex knelt on the roof and angled his head to allow his face to absorb the sun. He looked down at the last of the old shingles lying in heaps on the ground while he waited for Bishop to bring the new ones from the truck. He decided to clean up the mess below, scrambled over to the ladder, turned, stretched his leg out for the first rung and missed.
Alex slide down, kicking. His hands clutched at the eaves but the old wood cracked and splintered and gave under his weight as he clawed helplessly for a handhold. He fell. The ground came up suddenly, noisily. A mist curled up around his vision leaving him in gloom.
Someone shook him. Alex scrunched his eyes, rubbed, opened them.
“You all right son? You were thrown clear.”
It was Uncle John. Alex’s eyes followed the hiss to the crunched-up hood of the truck, steam bleeding through the seams of the smashed engine block that had shoved its way clear of the truck’s decklid. The stench of gasoline oozed around the rear axle. Alex and John were transfixed.
“There’s nothing we can do. He’s trapped. We’re gonna have to tell your mother he’s trapped.”
“Oh.” Alex was confused. He wondered why they waited. He could make out the bulk of his father, slumped against the window. Flames belched. Alex pulled back. His uncle held him and promised again, “there’s nothing we can do.”
Orange tongues licked up and over the cab, hungry for air, searching for victims, pushing aside the greasy black smoke to reveal their victory. The bulk jerked suddenly, clawed at the window, pounded, screeched a tacit hollow echo that was quickly engulfed in the enraged flames.
“There, there. It’s just a dream.” Alex’s mother patted his head as she pulled the cover over his shoulders. She stood. Uncle John stood in the doorframe, his arms folded over his chest. Alex searched the cold empty face.
The eyes warmed. Alex felt the pressure of a hand on his forehead. As his mind cleared he realized he was looking into the face of Angelina. He tried to move, but sensed a light restraint from her other hand.
“Ssh. Not yet. You’ve had a nasty time of it, Alex. For the longest time I thought you were dead.” Angelina smiled at him and stroked his hair. Alex sunk to the pillows. She rose and turned to meet Bishop at the door, resting her hands, palms flat against the old man’s chest.
“He’s come back to us,” she whispered. She slipped passed Bishop who continued to study Alex.
Alex lay in bed all day nursing his stiff back, staring at the ceiling, wondering what happened to the ladder. His thoughts drifted to his father. The windows were closed, the doors jammed. But he was thrown clear. Alex closed his eyes, afraid to think more about the night his father died. He wanted to let it go.
He dressed early the next day, willing the stiffness from his back, ignoring the sweet smells of maple-cured bacon. He found Bishop in the barn. Bishop had pulled the canoe from the rafters. They worked silently, arrange his new gear.
Alex turned at Bishop’s question. He stood.
She was quite close to him, the rifle centred on his chest. He thought he heard Bishop speak again. An explosion rang in his ears then ran around the barn, echo after echo. Alex could not understand the noise.
He found himself staring into the dusty gloom of the rafters. The unrelenting cold of cement beneath him seeped through his clothes, swirling in and around his mind, picking him up until he drifted into its icy clutched. He passed Uncle John and his mother, a proprietary arm around her shoulder. They stared impassively, unwilling to help him from frothy tongues of fire that now engulfed him.
Alex passed the old couple, Bishop and Angelina. Angelina wept and covered her ears against the incessant whomping blades that hounded her. Bishop walked the bank beside him, ran until he could no longer keep up. Bishop slowed. He saluted.
Alex was drawn hypnotically forward. The sun danced on the water. Ahead he could see his father and beyond that, Bishop’s boy, floundering in the icy spring water.
“Wait for me Dad. We’ll get him. We’ll take him home.” His father nodded and smiled.
The merciless cold released its icy grip at last and Alex swam to the warmth, to his father, to the beckoning, growing light in his heart.