by Gerry Johnston
Where am I?
I awoke to the distant rumble of thunder, along with a gentle breeze that precedes summer storms. Stretched out, face up, my hands were in the river, feet back up on the bank. As I pulled my hands out of the water, my fingers brushed something slimy and yielding. Jerking back from the touch, I rolled away from the bank. The sky was thick with stars, aided by a lop-sided lunar grin, so it was easy to see what it was. It was a hand. There was a man floating dead in the water.
I’m no doctor – and he was face-down, thank God – but he’d been there long enough that he’d begun to bloat, so he had to be dead. The one hand I could see reminded me of uncle Erne’s fingers that time he got stung by a bee and had to have his wedding ring cut off with a pair of bolt cutters. The way he screamed, you’d think my Dad was taking the finger too.
Like me, this fellow didn’t wear any rings.
The body had been mere inches from my outstretched hands – pinned between a half-submerged rock and a tree branch that had likely fallen into the water sometime in the spring – it rocked lazily with the flow of the river.
I was with Bob last night, out drinking at The Stubborn Mule, but he has blonde hair; this guy’s hair was dark like mine – brown or maybe black; too hard to tell, what with it being wet and caked with river mud.
As an image of a movie I’d seen in my youth played through my mind, I fought the sudden overwhelming urge to poke it – him, sorry – with a stick.
I shucked my cell from my front pocket and touched the screen. Nothing. It was either dead or had gotten wet. Shitty. A thought occurred to me as I shoved to phone back in my pocket: I should’ve been way more freaked out than I was, what with waking up next to a corpse and all.
I was in shock, that’s what it was. Had to be.
Off in the distance, lightning squirted across the horizon like a neon herald for the thick clouds at its back. The storm was heading this way, and, for some inexplicable reason, panic rose in me. Each strike sent a wave of pain through my body, and my head throbbed in time with my heart.
After a glance toward the floater – a word I never thought I’d use outside the men’s room – I stood, turned, and walked to the edge of the trees that flanked the river. The moon, still ahead of the approaching storm, cast enough light for me to see past the woods. Barely visible, blue under the glow of the moon, was the highway.
A flash followed seconds later by a chest-booming crack of thunder told me the storm was almost upon me. I had to move.
I took a step past the first tree and stumbled...
As I fell, the breeze turned cool and carried with it the pat-pat-patter of raindrops as they pelted the leaves. Closer now, I sensed it as a living thing and tasted its foul breath on my neck.
The ground came rushing to meet me, then began to lose cohesion and bleed away. I tumbled past the forest floor and into a void.
I awoke to the after-image of lightning overhead, followed closely by a boom of thunder. Stretched out, face up, my hands were in the river, feet back up on the bank.
Where am I?
A strong breeze filled my nostrils with a blend of ozone and rot. Above me, the moon hung, poised at the jaws of the star-eating storm heading its way. Beneath the advancing storm, the trees and undergrowth disappeared before a darkness so absolute that it seemed more a wall than a storm-front.
Lightning filled the sky and thunder rolled – and I bolted to my feet. Below me, a body bobbed in the water.
I should care.
I should do something...but can’t.
Whoever they were, they were dead and there was nothing I could do for them. I had to get away, had to leave before the storm reached me. I backed away from both body and storm, turned, and ran.
Lightning split the sky and thunder followed fast and hard, shaking the ground at my feet. I chanced a peek over my shoulder, and tripped over a tree root...
I awoke in the eye of a storm; no breeze, no sound, and all colour had bled from the world. Above me a funnel rippled, and a form swathed in a flowing white hooded robe descended toward me.
To my left, a body floated face-down in the river.