River Never Tells
I was passing
through town when I met a woman at Broncos Bar and Grill. Janet wasn’t the prettiest filly in the
stable, but looks aren’t everything. What she lacked
in the beauty department, she made up for with an understanding ear and an ample bosom. By the third beer, I showed her the scar on
my neck. By the fourth beer, she invited
me to her place.
Janet lived by
the river. There was something magical about
that waterway. I didn’t know what it
was yet, but I felt fated to that tributary. Janet
had a six-year-old son named Jimmy. That
was weird. He was a little guy with red
hair, and fully devoted to superheroes and Frosted Flakes. He ignored me, giving
a batman movie his undivided attention, which was convenient on account of what Janet and
I were about to do in her bedroom.
This was a good deal.
I wanted to stay. Janet was onboard,
but said I had to pull my own weight. She’d
had several freeloading men in the past, and wasn’t interested in supporting another
deadbeat. I asked around town about work,
and it wasn’t long before I was pointed toward the sawmill up the hill.
I hitched a ride early one morning, but nobody
was there. I wandered around the woodpiles,
and looked down a steep and misty ravine beyond the back of the lumberyard. A car approached, so I returned to the parking lot. A small truck passed, carrying three men. They parked, leaned against the side of the pickup, and scowled at
me while spitting tobacco.
I was about to
scratch this job opportunity when another truck pulled
into the parking lot. A massive man oozed
out of the cab, and heaved my way.
“Morning,” he said. “What’s your business?”
“Heard there might be work.”
“You staying somewhere? Ain’t camping out?”
“I got a roof over head.”
“Them’s the magic
words. We pay the minimum. You
ever worked in a mill, used a saw?
“Perfect, we’re looking for
somebody to pile lumber. How’s your
“Fine,” I said,
and stood up straight.
“Welcome aboard,” he said, but didn’t
shake my hand. “My name’s Big
Henry. You’ll like it just fine around
“My name’s Jake. Will they like me just fine around here?”
I asked, shifting my eyes toward the three men, staring at me across the parking
“That’s Karl, Jerry and Kemp. Don’t worry. They’re
looking at you funny because they think you’re homeless. The bums camping in the gorge behind the stacks steal our wood. The boys are getting mighty tired of it.”
I set to work hauling lumber from the mill to
the yard. Most of the other workers were
friendly, and when Karl, Jerry and Kemp learned I held residency, my presence was tolerated. I wouldn’t say we were peachy-keen or anything,
but they didn’t look like they wanted to kill me anymore.
I didn’t have gloves, and my hands blistered. I was sore
from head to toe, and dog-tired by the end of my shift. When I got to Janet’s,
the pain dissipated into her smile, and her low-cut blouse.
I sat on the back porch in contemplation, watching the water, and wondering why
I felt so content. The reason eluded me,
but as I stared into that hypnotic current, it hit me: with Janet, I was no longer following
in my father’s shadow. With Janet, I
was my own man. Jimmy came out back, and disrupted my
thoughts. He wanted to play superheroes,
so I became The Incredible Hulk, and although my hands and back ached, I lifted him by
the ankles, and swung him back and forth as he giggled with glee.
Jimmy gave me the lowdown on Bruce Wayne at the
dinner table while Janet served hamburgers. I
felt like I could have eaten a half-dozen, but I stopped after three when Janet gave me
a look of amazement.
“I’ve never seen somebody wolf
down so many hamburgers so fast,” she said.
After Janet tucked
Jimmy into bed, we smoked a joint and watched TV before
hitting the sack. For the next several weeks,
Janet would wake me on her way out the door with Jimmy. I’d pour a bowl of Frosted
Flakes, make a pot of coffee, mourn my aching limbs and then thumb a ride up to the sawmill.
“That’s the second
pallet this week,” Karl said. “They’re
building a city down there.”
“They cut a hole in the
fence,” Jerry said. “That’s
how they steal lumber.”
“Well boys, we need to mend that
fence pronto,” Karl said with his thumbs sticking through his belt loops. “And
we need to nip this situation in the bud. Once
a pony gets a lump of sugar, he keeps on coming back for more.”
“What do you suppose?” Kemp asked.
“We have ourselves a problem for
sure,” Karl said. “But it’s nothing a
cold brew can’t solve.”
“Okay everybody,” Big Henry said,
coming out of his office. “Get to work.”
At lunchtime we sat out back at picnic benches.
Most guys ate sandwiches, but I never packed a lunch. Karl sat down, placed a six-pack of Budweiser on the table, and removed
a beer. Jerry and Kemp each grabbed one. The guy next to me looked like he wanted to, but
thought better of it, and left the table. Two
other guys cautiously grabbed bottles. I was the last person, so
I grabbed the last beer. We all cracked them
and clinked necks. I took a sip, but noticed
everybody chugging, so I did the same.
“Bring a hammer or a
crowbar tomorrow an hour before work, agreed?”
“Agreed,” they all said.
After lunch, Karl lent me gloves. I
was worried I’d be unprepared for tomorrow’s task, so I confided in him that
I didn’t have the required tools. He glared
at me like we were back in the parking lot my first day, and then he laughed.
“Not to worry,” he said. “I’ve got you covered.”
I sat on Janet’s
back porch, drinking a beer and watching the river at sunset. I was worn out and hungry as hell.
The routine was growing thin. A shadow
stretched across my mind, and I wondered, is this really what I want? To be a broke roustabout, chained to a woman and child, or would it
be better to be like Old Man River, and just keep rolling along? It’d be a damn sight easier.
I could just wade out into the water, forget about the backbreaking work at the
sawmill, forget about Janet and Jimmy, and float away.
Several mosquitoes bit me on the neck and face, so I went inside. I turned on the game, and Jimmy threw a temper tantrum. Janet promised him a Spiderman movie if he
quieted down. I promised him an ass whopping
if he didn’t.
“Turn off the game, and put the Spiderman movie on, and don’t you ever
threaten him again,” Janet said.
“Fine,” I said, putting on the
DVD. “He wants to watch a guy prancing
around in colorful tights instead of football, who am I to judge.”
of guys prancing around in colorful tights,” Janet said.
“Enjoy your movie,”
I said to Jimmy. “Your mom and I’ll
be in the back having private time.”
“Not tonight Jake,”
“Come on,” I told her, but she
wasn’t interested. “Fine, I’ll watch
this shit with the kid. Any beer in the fridge?”
“What did you just say?”
“You cooking anymore
hamburgers?” I asked.
“You can get out,”
she yelled. “And don’t come back
if you’re going to disrespect my family. You
hear me, fucker?”
I spent the evening wandering along the river, thinking to
hell with this town, this job and this woman. I
didn’t need any of it. In the morning,
I’d follow the river to somewhere else.
I found a sandy spot and lay down.
The cool dark water rushed by, and the stars speckled the
evening sky. My troubles faded into the river’s
tranquility, and I felt light as air. A
splashing sound nearby interrupted my momentary contentment. I looked
out over the black current, but saw only moving water.
I heard another splashing sound that caused me to sit up, and train my eyes into
the darkness. Something large and sinister
with glowing yellow eyes crawled out of the river under the night’s shadows. Its long razor sharp jaws grabbed me by the neck,
and dragged me into the water. I kicked and punched
and flailed, but to no avail. As the creature
held me under, crushing my windpipe, I saw my father’s face.
I woke in a cold sweat. It was first light, and I was still on the
sandy bank. My neck was stiff, but intact. I was groggy, but made my way to the highway,
and caught a ride up to the mill. My stomach
growled. I was haggard and irritable from
sleeping on the ground.
“About time you showed,” Karl
said, handing me a crowbar. “We was
about to leave your ass. Let’s get a
We walked through
the stacks in the back of the lumberyard. At
the rear fence, we came to a locked gate.
“Over there’s the
hole they made,” Jerry said, producing a key from his pocket.
A steep dirt trail wound down through thick shrubs and thorny blackberry vines. The sun glowed through the treetops. I hadn’t understood what the job entailed until we left the
yard for the forest. I thought this was on
the up and up, but as we entered the brush, the gravity of the situation hit me.
The forest was
dense, and the trail grew narrow. I thought about my father, and how he had
walked out on us so many years ago. I took
a deep breath, and thought about Janet and Jimmy. I wished I were in bed
with Janet, or pouring a bowl of Frosted Flakes for Jimmy instead of descending into the
mist with Karl and the boys.
We hit the canyon
floor, and came to a stream. Around a bend, we got our first glimpse at
the homeless camp. Several shacks built from
pillaged lumber leaned against large knotty pines on the away shore.
We crossed the stream on dry rocks.
As we landed on the far strand, a man stuck his head out of the closest shanty.
Karl shouted, raising his hammer.
The man hollered, and fled into the bush.
A din erupted as the occupants of the other shacks realized the danger, and scrambled
into the safety of the woods.
“Knock down these rat’s
nests,” Karl said.
“What’s the point?” Jerry
asked. “They’ll just rebuild them.”
“Pile everything on the
shore. The lumber, all their garbage, everything,”
Karl said. “We’re having a bonfire
“Wish we’d got our hands on those
sons-of-bitches,” Jerry said as we dismantled the hovels, and piled their belongings
next to the stream.
and blankets lined the floors, but there were also stoves
and clothing. I also found some stuffed animals
and children’s books. We heaped it on the shore,
and Kemp lit a fire.
“Hey,” Jerry yelled when he
entered the last shack. “We got one. He’s piss drunk.”
“Bring him over here,”
the guy by his ankles to the bonfire.
“You stealing our wood boy?”
The man’s head swayed on his neck.
He was dirty and in need of a shave and a haircut.
Like me, the poor fellow was late in comprehending his predicament. Karl slugged him in the gut. He gave out a bellowing yowl
of pain mixed with fear. The others fell
on the inebriated guy, cursing and working him over with angry fists.
I stood back, watching them beat the transient.
That could have been me: some poor bastard, down and out, and in the wrong place
at the wrong time.
“Come on,” Karl yelled.
“Don’t just stand there.”
“Yeah, you fucking idiot,” Jerry
yelled. “We’re all doing this.”
I hesitated for a moment, and then walked over
to the luckless man, and clocked him in the head with my crowbar. I’ll never forget that hollow sound.
Karl said. “What did you do that for?
I wanted to rough him up. Teach him a lesson, not bash in his brains.”
“Hey guys,” Kemp
said. “The fire.”
“Holy shit,” Karl
said. “It’s catching the brush.”
We crossed back
over the stream. Sweat poured down my face as we hustled up
the narrow trail to the fence at the back of the lumberyard. Jerry’s hand
trembled as he locked the gate behind us.
“What the hell you boys
doing?” Big Henry asked.
“We was fixing that hole
in the fence when we saw the fire,” Karl said.
Henry frowned, but didn’t ask any more questions. He told us to evacuate the area. Dark
smoke clouds rose from beneath us into the sky.
It wasn’t long before sirens approached.
I went straight
to Janet’s and apologized for last night’s
behavior. I wanted to make it up by taking
her and Jimmy out to eat. Janet liked that
idea. She dressed pretty, slicked down Jimmy’s
hair, and we went to Broncos.
For dinner I
had a double cheeseburger with bacon and a dark beer. Janet had the fish and chips and a glass of white
wine. Jimmy had the macaroni and cheese with
bacon and a root beer. It was a nice meal,
but we sat near the television in the bar, and everybody around us watched the news, and
talked about the fire.
“Those bums started it,” the bartender said. “A couple of firefighters almost lost their lives. Almost lost the sawmill.”
“A homeless guy burned
to death,” our waitress said.
“Good,” A man at
the bar said. “Serves his freeloading ass right.”
We went back to Janet’s.
I tucked Jimmy into bed, and read him a Curious George story. He fell
asleep, and I went into the living room and cuddled with Janet.
After a few days, the mill reopened.
None of the guys would talk to me. Karl asked for his gloves
back, but that was it. They treated me like
a ghost, like a wood piling specter. Before
the weekend, a detective arrived.
“Where were you when
the fire started?”
His name was Detective Banks. He was old and wrinkled with a purple nose,
but he had a severe stare that worried me.
“I just arrived when I saw the
smoke,” I said.
“Can others attest to that?”
“Yes,” I said.
finished my shift at the mill, but I couldn’t catch a ride so I walked. As
the sun went down behind heavy cloud cover, the shadows from the trees grew into the road,
and enveloped me in growing darkness. With
each step, my mood blackened. There had better
be some hot food waiting for me on the table, I thought, and Jimmy had better be on his
best behavior. I wasn’t going to put up
with his shit tonight. As I made my way down
the road, I had the strange sensation that something was following me. I
peered into the gloom beyond the edge of the trees.
I stepped off the side of the road into the duff. A chill wind cut through me.
In the shadows, a set of yellow eyes appeared, staring at me from within the forest. I took another step toward the trees as a
drop of rain hit my forehead. I looked up
at the sky. Storm clouds ran overhead like
the river’s current. I stepped back
onto the road, and quickened my pace.
I was soaked by
the time I reached Janet’s front door. Detective
Banks stood in the living room. Janet sat on the couch. Jimmy was on her lap. Tears flowed
from her eyes. The detective squinted at me.
My pulse quickened, and my face reddened, and the scar on my neck burned. I clenched my teeth and fists as dread filled my chest.
“Who?” I asked.
“What about him?”
“He’s dead,” she sobbed.
“They identified him
as the victim of the fire,” Detective Banks said.
“We suspect he was high, and trying to cook another dose when he passed out
and started the blaze.”
I breathed a
sigh of relief, releasing the bad thoughts inside. I tried to ease Janet and Jimmy’s grieving. I did the dishes, swept the floor, and made hamburgers. They didn’t turn out good like Janet’s,
but they were edible. I put on Spiderman,
and let Jimmy tell me about Peter Parker. After
he went to bed, I stayed up consoling Janet.
The next morning after making breakfast for Janet and Jimmy, I thumbed it up to
the sawmill. The rain had stopped in the
night, and the ground was wet and fresh smelling.
My ride let me off in the back of the parking lot.
I walked toward the main building as Karl’s truck passed me.
I said as I reached the front of the parking lot.
They leaned against the automobile, spitting tobacco.
“For some,” Karl
said, wiping spit from his chin. “For
others not so much.”
“I’d hate to be you right now,”
Jerry said. “In a world of shit.”
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“What you done to that homeless
guy,” Kemp said. “I wouldn’t want to be
wearing your shoes.”
“Hold on a second,” I said,
looking at my sneakers. “We’re all to
blame for what happened.”
“Not according to us,” Kemp said.
“Who started the fire?” I asked.
“Depends,” Karl said.
“I smell where you’re
stepping,” I said.
“Knew you would,” Karl said.
I went about piling lumber.
At the end of my shift, Big Henry paid me in cash. It wasn’t much,
but it was enough to show Janet that I could pull my own weight. I tried to hitch it down the hill, but I couldn’t catch a ride,
so I walked.
“Jake, where you been?” Karl asked,
pulling along side me. “Thought we were
“That’s right. I almost forgot,” I said, and
kept walking. “I tell you what. Now’s not a good time. What say we square up later?”
“Hop in the back of the pickup,
and we’ll discuss,” Karl said, leveling a handgun at me.
“All right,” I
said, and climbed in the bed of the truck.
Karl turned onto a bumpy dirt road.
We went down the gnarled path for several miles.
Scanning the bed for a weapon, I saw only old beer cans, empty bullet shells and
fast food wrappers until I found a tire iron under a ripped up tarp.
The sun ducked beneath a row of pine as Karl pulled
“Give me your money,” Karl said,
pointing the gun at my chest.
“You’ll have pissed your pants
when we get done with you,” Jerry said.
“Doesn’t seem like a square
deal,” I said. “Giving you my money, and
getting the piss beat out of me.”
“Sure it does,” Karl said.
“How do you figure?” I asked.
“The money buys our silence. The beating lets you know
that you should move on.”
“What if I keep my money,
and beat the shit out of you instead?” I
closing in around me. I picked up the tire iron, and flung it at
Karl. Diving out of the truck, I tackled
Jerry, and knocked him to the ground. He
instantly went limp, so I got to my feet, and went for Karl, but he was already in the
truck, turning over the engine. He sped
off as Kemp tried to open the passenger side door, but was dragged to the ground, and flipped
onto his head.
I went for the tire iron, but noticed the gun beside it. Kemp picked himself up out of the road.
He was covered in mud, and blood dripped out of his ear. He limped over to Jerry.
“What was the play?” I asked.
Neither man said
anything, so I cocked back the hammer, and repeated
“Take your dough. Leave you for dead,” Jerry whispered
with his eyes closed.
“What if instead,” I asked.
“I take your dough, and leave you for dead?”
into his pocket, and tossed me his money. I
noticed a dark pool forming around Jerry’s head.
When I knocked him to the ground, he must have cracked his skull on a rock.
“You sure the second
part of your plan was to leave me for dead?” I asked.
“Sure it wasn’t to leave me dead?”
“Don’t matter,” Jerry
whispered. “Karl’s heading straight to
the police to tell them what you did.”
“What I did? What we all did. You’re both as guilty as me. Karl too. I never wanted to hurt anybody.”
“That’s your story,”
Jerry said in a low tone. “I don’t
remember it that way.”
“How do you remember it?”
“You smashing that guy’s
head in with a crowbar.”
“Is that how you remember it too,
Kemp?” I asked. “Do you remember
starting the fire?”
“I can’t remember nothing,” he said.
“But back in town, your memory
“Don’t matter the way I feel
right now,” he said, touching his bloody ear.
“Then let’s have the truth,” I
“Take your dough. Make
it so nobody finds your body,” he said.
I thought about
pulling the trigger, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t
I left Jerry
and Kemp on the side of the road, and walked at a quick
clip. I wished Karl hadn’t gotten away. Soon he’d tell the police I murdered Jimmy’s
dad, and set the fire. It was only a matter
of time before Janet found out what they were accusing me of, and for that, she’d
never forgive me. Time would have bought
an engagement ring, a wedding, and a proper upbringing for Jimmy, but now time was the
I ditched the
gun, and walked for hours in the dark until I came to
the main road. I heard an automobile approaching,
so I hid behind a large tree. A sheriff’s truck
drove passed. I stayed put, and another went by.
In a short time the sheriffs would find Jerry
and Kemp, and they’d corroborate Karl’s story.
I was a wanted man. Heading to Janet’s
on the main road was no longer an option, so I started up the hill along the side of
the road, skirting the edge of the forest.
The parking lot
at the sawmill was empty except for a truck near the
front. I walked around back through the stacks,
and was just about to reach the fence when somebody lurched in front of me with a shotgun.
“Hold up, Jake,”
Big Henry said. “Police radio says
you’re wanted in connection with arson and homicide.”
“I didn’t do it,”
“That might be so, but you’re
staying put until the cops arrive,” he said.
“I can’t,” I said, and ducked
behind a stack of lumber.
I reached the
back gate, but it was locked, so I felt my way down
the side until I came to the hole in the fence. As I crawled through,
buckshot ripped into my thigh. I fell onto
the other side as another blast stung my shoulder, neck and face. I tumbled down the ravine
and over an embankment. Fortunately, a
tangle of vines and reeds broke my fall. I
thrashed around, and when my shoes touched the ground, they filled with water.
I limped downstream. With every step the current grew deeper and stronger. I waded in the cold water until the stream
became a river, and I swam with my head bobbing out of the runnel.
The river’s gradient steepened, and I struggled
to stay afloat in the turbulent white water. The rapids pushed me through several
narrow sieves, and over submerged boulders until I was caught in a powerful eddy, and an
undercurrent pinned me beneath the water. After a short time, my
struggles for oxygen evaporated into peaceful blackness.
I thought about Janet as my limbs relaxed.
Just before I lost consciousness, the undertow relented, and I rose to the surface,
gasping and choking.
The river calmed
as the waterway widened. Stars shone bright overhead, and every so
often a meteor flashed across the sky. I
was cold and tired as I reached my destination, and swam to the shore. My body
shivered as I staggered to my feet. Tiny blood rivulets trickled down my face,
arms and legs, mingling with my wet garments.
I threw myself
into the backdoor, and it burst open.
“Don’t move. Stay where you are,” Detective Banks shouted.
I stumbled through the kitchen, and barreled into
the living room as he opened fire. It felt
like a mule kicked me in the chest, and I fell backwards. The detective stood
over me, pointing his weapon. I closed my
eyes, and was about to quit when I heard screams coming from the bedroom.
“I said don’t move,”
Detective Banks ordered as I turned onto my belly, dragging myself through the hall.
He fired several
shots into my back, but I was able to reach the knob
and open the door.
Janet huddled in the corner holding Jimmy.
I took a deep and labored breath.
I made it.
I was home.
Morgan Boyd lives in Santa Cruz, California
with his wife and two cats. He collects carnivorous plants and enjoys the outdoors.
He has been published online at Flash Jab