#MondayBlogs – GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM – A Short Story

Photo by Martin David Porter

 

Gently Down the Stream

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…

Jack bolted upright, the edge of a scream fading with the nightmare. He swiped at the sweat streaming down his face, realized it was tears, and dragged the sheet over his cheeks to erase the wet stains.

“Jack?”

Lori’s voice was heavy with sleep and concern. He’d woken her … again. He sat stiff, his back to her, and said, “Sorry. Go back to sleep.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Just a bad dream.”

She was quiet a moment. The sheets rustled and she touched his back. He wanted to swat her hand away.

“The same nightmare?”

“I guess.”

“Feel like talking about it?” she asked.

“No. I’m fine. Really. Go back to sleep.”

He felt her weight shifting on the mattress. Then she was sitting close, her head resting on his shoulder. Her voice held a hint of hurt. “Might help if you told me what you’ve been dreaming about.”

“I don’t remember,” he told her, though they both knew that was a lie. The same dream every night for the past two weeks. He wished he didn’t remember. He’d do anything to forget.

She put her hand on his arm and tugged gently. “Lie down then. Try to get some rest.”

“You go ahead. I’m too wired.”

She kissed his neck and murmured, “Maybe I can help relax you.”

Her breath was hot on his skin. The back of his throat burned and he worried he’d throw up. They’d been married less than six months and probably wouldn’t make the first year if he couldn’t keep it together.

She bit his earlobe, softly, teasing. Ordinarily that would have been enough to spring his body to attention. Now the idea was laughable. Pieces of the dream lingered, sitting like a barrier between them. Twenty-four years old and nightmares were keeping him from having sex with his wife.

Row, row, row your boat…

He scurried off the bed, away from her fingers and her tongue and the song in his head. “I’m going out for a smoke.”

“Jack…”

“Don’t start, okay?” He’d promised Lori he’d quit. He’d even gone four months without a cigarette. Two weeks ago, the first nightmare left him trembling for hours. The following morning, he’d gone straight out for a pack of Marlboros.

“I’m worried about you.”

He left her there on the bed, felt her eyes following him as he snatched his cigarettes from his bureau and slipped out of the room. The living room was dark, but he traveled this same path every night and had no need for lights. He pushed open the slider leading to their tiny balcony and stepped outside. Their apartment was on the fifth floor, and the balcony overlooked the rear parking lot. But at 3 a.m., everything was dark and quiet. Jack stood naked, his forearms resting on the rail, a cigarette burning in his hand, and a children’s song looping through his mind, making the hair on his arms stand up.

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…

*

Jack stumbled out of the cab his friends had dumped him into fifteen minutes earlier. He shouldn’t have had that last drink. Probably shouldn’t have had the last two or three. Or even the first, for that matter. He’d joined his coworkers at the bar around the corner from the office because he thought a couple of drinks would stop the song from running a loop through his head. A couple drinks had turned into a few too many. Someone had taken his car keys and the next thing he knew he was sprawled across the back seat of a cab.

Now he did a drunken stagger-sway along the walk leading to his apartment complex. Lori stood in the entryway, holding the main door open. He did a two-step backward. The sight of her there caught him off guard. Had he called her? How long had she been standing there waiting for him?

“Peter called me,” she said. “Told me he’d never seen you drink so much and was worried about you. Now I see why.”

Jack managed to propel himself forward. Lori caught his arm and steered him toward the elevator. When they were inside and the doors were easing shut, she let go of his arm and said, “Tell me what’s going on, Jack.”

The elevator lurched into motion. Jack’s stomach protested. He looked at Lori, saw two of her standing beside him.

Somehow he made it to his living room in the upright position. He hadn’t spoken and he hoped Lori would stop asking. An improbable wish, he knew. She was his wife. He was a drunken slob running from nightmares. She’d ask until he gave her an answer.

*

Row, row, row your boat…

Jack woke with a sudden start. He miraculously reached the porcelain god before the alcohol made its violent exit. Sure his stomach lining was burning, he considered swallowing a fire extinguisher. Finally the vomiting eased to a trickle of intestinal spasms. He rinsed his mouth and splashed cold water on his face. The mirror reflected a drink-sick stranger. Pale skin. Fear in his eyes.

He dropped the toilet lid closed and sat a little too heavily. He still wore yesterday’s clothes, minus the jacket and shoes. The sour odor of whiskey and sweat drifted out from his pores, saturated the cotton of his wrinkled Polo shirt. A shower waited a mere two feet away, but he couldn’t muster the energy.

“Jack?”

Lori’s voice came to him from the other side of the closed door. He didn’t want her to see him like this, though he knew he must have looked far worse last night.

“Jack, are you okay?”

His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth when he tried to answer. He closed his eyes and pushed the words out. “Yeah, be right out.”

He stripped out of his clothes, leaving them in a reeking pile by the toilet. The cold water jolted him awake. He stood under the cold shower until his head cleared, then adjusted the water to a more tolerable temperature while he fumbled with the soap.

Out of the shower and wrapped in a towel, he had no choice but to face his wife. The smell of coffee drifted down the hallway. His mouth watered and his stomach roiled.

Lori was sitting at their kitchen table with a coffee mug pressed between her hands. He noticed how delicate her fingers looked, the gleam of the diamond she never took off. She’d cried the day he’d given it to her. She was crying now but the tears were borne of anguish and despair.

*

Jack cradled his coffee mug with sweaty palms. Tired of his stammering, Lori had gone off for a drive. Saturday mornings used to be their time for lazy sex and big breakfasts. Now they were for arguments and long stretches of silence. These nightmares were like a virus infecting their relationship. Everything good between them was being whittled away, and he didn’t know how to fix it.

He thought he’d put all this behind him. For years he’d been fine. Normal. He’d even managed to forget for long stretches of time. Then that damn song brought it all back, like it had just happened, like he was living it over again and again.

Row, row, row your boat…

He’d been out for his morning run. Having gotten a later start than usual, he found himself competing for space with mothers pushing baby carriages and other joggers he didn’t normally see along his route. The neighborhood kids were gathered at the bus stop, waiting to be carried off to school. There was a puddle on the side of the road, and three little boys were squatted down, watching a twig float along. As Jack passed by, he heard them singing.

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…

In that brief moment, his life had derailed. He’d opened his eyes to find faces swirling around him. Voices asked if he was all right. Lying on his back, his face beside the puddle, he didn’t know if he’d ever be all right again.

He’d scrambled to his feet, waved off the concerned bystanders and ignored the gawking children. He’d sprinted away, putting distance between himself and the children. Running from that song. But he would never outrun the memories.

The past two weeks had him quietly self-destructing, contaminating everything he touched. Unburdening himself seemed an impossible task. His silence had worn a hole in his very being, turned his soul black and ugly. How could he give that truth to someone else, expose himself for what he really was? He could never tell Lori. Their relationship wouldn’t survive, though it was already collapsing into the emptiness created by his silence.

He’d managed to keep the secret for nine years. Somehow, he’d even managed to flourish; his world blossoming around the rot at his center. Now one chance encounter and a stupid children’s song would be his undoing.

*

Days passed and the poison grew. Jack hadn’t eaten for two days. He couldn’t shower; couldn’t stand the feel of water. Lori begged him to talk to her. She screamed and cried. He stopped listening and sank deeper into himself.

“You can’t go on like this,” Lori said. “We can’t go on like this. Jack? Do you even hear me?”

He did hear her. Of course he did. But what could he tell her?

“I’ve spoken to your parents,” she said. “We think it’s best if you see someone. A specialist. For your own good, Jack. Do you understand?” She paced across the living room, wine glass in hand, her voice taking on that high-pitched breathlessness it always did when she was upset. “I love you, Jack, but you need professional help. I’ve made all the arrangements. It’s a nice hospital, Jack. The doctor swears to me it’s the best place for you.”

Her words were like a slap. Hospital? He shook his head, said, “No.”

“Jack, please, talk to me. What’s happening to you?”

He ran a hand over his face, felt the scruffy whiskers there. He couldn’t carry this weight anymore. Maybe he should let them commit him to a psychiatric hospital. That was at least preferable to a prison, where he really belonged.

Row, row, row your boat…

He leapt to his feet with such abruptness that Lori jerked backward, spilling her wine. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. For the wine. For destroying what they’d had. For keeping silent when he should have confessed.

Confession. He thought of the priest who’d performed their marriage ceremony. Jack had grown up Baptist, where they sang songs and shouted out hallelujah in unison. Lori had grown up in the Catholic Church, where they did a lot of kneeling and listening. She’d wanted to get married in her church, which had been fine with him. The one thing he hadn’t liked about all the preparation was he’d had to make confession to the priest. He’d felt like a phony, confessing to the little sins while ignoring the biggest of them all. The priest had told him that confessing cleansed his soul, and that God would forgive his trespasses.

He grabbed his jacket and snatched his keys from the table. In his haste, he’d forgotten Lori was standing there watching him.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To confess my sins.”

*

The church was quiet and dimly lit. Jack stood by the altar, staring up at Jesus on the cross while panic bubbled inside him. What if the priest was gone for the day? Did they have office hours? Were confessions run by appointment only?

A moment later, the priest stepped out from a hidden door at the back of the church. Jack was suddenly at his side, babbling incoherently, begging for mercy and God’s forgiveness. The priest led him to a private box, where he sat in the darkness and wondered where to begin.

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…

*

Jack drove all night, fleeing from the church and the confession he couldn’t make. By morning the adrenaline-fueled frenzy had burned itself out, and he coasted along in a stupor. At just after 8 a.m., he passed the street he’d grown up on, the street where his parents still lived. He’d moved away six years ago, for college, and stayed away after graduation. He came back when necessary, for holidays and such, but preferred to keep his distance. Lying to himself was easier that way.

Another half hour of driving brought him to the river. He passed the popular spots where, on warm days, the parking lots would be full. On chilly days like this, only the dedicated fishermen and the occasional drunk came to the river. Even so, they stayed on the wide, well-used, public sections. None of them would even see Jack where he was going.

Several more miles brought him to a dirt path barely wide enough for a car. He turned in and bumped along over the ruts. One hundred feet in, he parked. He switched the engine off and sat for a moment in the silence. He hadn’t been back here since that fateful day.

Row, row, row your boat…

Jack found himself out of the car, ducking under the trees along the narrow path, though he didn’t remember making the move. Five minutes and he was there, at the edge of the marsh, where the river trickled into a stream. He kept walking, his shoes sinking into the muck and filling with water. He walked while the song filled his head and tears stung his eyes.

Then he was there, beside it, amazed but somehow not surprised that it remained right where they’d left it. The rowboat had become part of its environment. The land was reclaiming the wood, wearing it away, concealing it. The river water was cleansing the sin. But somehow not eliminating it.

Jack stood there and the song played in his head. He’d been fourteen, feeling full of himself for having a girlfriend one year his senior and light-years more advanced. He and Kerry had arranged to meet here to make out, and maybe more, but at the last minute her parents had left her in charge of their five-year-old foster child. Billy was a manic little boy recently removed from an abusive home. Kerry resented his very existence and treated him like the pesky inconvenience she considered him to be.

Jack remembered telling Kerry they should take Billy home, come back another day. Kerry had made fun of him, belittled him, called him a sissy boy. She’d stolen the canoe, stashed it there in the marsh for a little afternoon delight, and if he wasn’t up to keeping her company on the ride, she’d find someone else who was.

They’d waded through the muck, dragging the canoe out to the water. Kerry shoved Billy over to one end of the boat, telling him to sit and watch the fish or something. Then she had sat on the bench beside Jack and slipped her hand into his shorts.

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…

Billy began singing, leaning over the edge and splashing his hands in the water. Jack and Kerry had their back to him, but they could hear the kid clearly. Jack wanted to tell Kerry to stop, it wasn’t right to do this with the kid in the boat. He might have said those words, though he didn’t remember for sure. At some point, Kerry had spun around and shouted, “Will you shut the hell up!”

The singing abruptly stopped then. Kerry worked her hand up and down, and Jack’s mind shut down. In that lustful moment, he forgot all about little Billy. She let him touch her in that secret spot women had. Blood rushed in his ears as she wriggled against his fingers.

He didn’t last long. When it was over and he realized what they’d just done, he felt his face flush. He glanced over his shoulder, worried the kid had seen everything. But the kid wasn’t there.

Jack and Kerry both took too long to figure out that Billy had gone over the side of the boat. He wasn’t swimming or playing hide and seek. He was floating face down in the stream ten feet away. Billy drowned while they were busy getting each other off. If there were pleas for help, they didn’t hear them.

Kerry had sworn him to secrecy. There was nothing they could do for Billy now. Telling her parents the truth would get them both sent to one of those brutal juvenile detention places, where the bigger guys would mercilessly and repeatedly rape Jack and the older girls would beat Kerry for being a child killer. They’d dragged the boat back through the marsh and hidden it under the brush. They’d gone home separately, as if they’d never seen each other at all. He’d played basketball with the neighborhood kids. She’d waited at home for her parents, pretending to be shocked when Billy wasn’t in his room napping like he was supposed to be.

Later that afternoon, Billy’s body drifted up the river where a fisherman was casting his line. The fisherman pulled Billy ashore, but of course it was too late.

Jack stared at the rowboat, hidden away with its secrets, and listened to Billy’s voice drifting on the wind.

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…

Why, Jack, oh why, didn’t you hear me scream?

 

 

The above is one of my stories from Perspectives, the first book in the Mind’s Eye Series. All of the stories in this series are inspired by photos, which are included in the books.

 

  • Jason McIntyre

    YES! Loved getting the opportunity to re-read this one of yours, Darcie. That’s the thing about good stories: they last and last. You get to read a well-written piece of work…then…time moves along and other stories come and go, but a good one can be re-read, years later, and still have resonance. Thanks for sharing this here. My personal opinion is that you should post more of your shorts (and even chaps of some longer books) here for us to re-read and enjoy a second time. 🙂

  • Rene

    Oh that was a bit dark, my friend…😱

    • Don’t tell me that surprises you, Rene. Ha! You and I wallow in that darkness frequently.

  • Lacey

    Nice!

  • Angela Thomas

    I remember reading this! Very good.