“Can I play in the water, momma?”
Mandy twisted her rearview to look David eye to eye. It was the only way he heard her anymore, like she wasn’t real until that visual connection made her real.
“So you’re feeling better, big guy?” David had been up puking all night. She’d risked giving him orange juice this morning, though he complained he wasn’t hungry. He seemed more fragile than ever. His skin had gone translucent, a half-shade lighter than his normal paper-white. Like he was fading away. Mandy told herself it was just one of those twenty-four hour things that come and go with kids all the time. But she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that Michael’s illness had begun the same way. At the end, Michael ate nothing at all, and he weighed less than Mandy.
“Better,” David said, and then, his mind stuck in that one-track groove of his: “Can I play in the water?”
“No, honey. It’s not clean. And it’s too cold out.”
“It’s not too cold.”
“I’m sorry. Wish you could, big guy. I’d go in with you.”
“Can I throw rocks in?”
“Big as you can lift. Strong kid like you, you’ll be throwing boulders in that creek.”
That did the trick. David sat back in his car seat and stared out the window. Late holiday traffic was brutal. Everybody had somewhere to go, somewhere to be. It would be getting dark soon.
Mandy just wanted her assignment over and done. Finish what she started. One person on this shithole of a planet doing what they said they’d do. Then, back on the road to Mom’s, ninety minutes south on the turnpike with all the crazies. She felt bone tired just thinking about it.
Collect some data, take a few pictures, and that would do it for the semester. Once they got to her mother’s, she could relax, spend some last quality time with David. He sure could use it. She hardly saw him anymore except at night between supper and bedtime. He deserved better. David never said it out loud, but Mandy knew how much he missed his father. Her mom would be able to give David the care he needed.
He’ll be better off, Mandy thought. The best of me is gone.
“Daddy let me play in the water.”
Mandy blinked away a blurry windshield. “Daddy used to pretend he was drowning, didn’t he? And you’d swim out to save him.”
“I’m the lifeguard.”
“That you are. A good one, too.”
There was a bridge, not far from the house where Mandy grew up. A train trestle, high above the river. When she was only a girl, she’d sit on the trestle, legs dangling, watch the brown water flowing beneath her toes. And dream about flying.
She’d been thinking of it more and more. The bridge. It had become her obsession, filling the emptiness Michael had left behind. When she got to her mom’s, she would put David to bed. She’d kiss him, tell him to be a good boy. She’d take a walk, sit on that bridge, and dream about flying. Yes, she’d dream about flying all the way down.
For months she had been only numb. Now she moved with purpose. It was all in the deciding.
“Momma, do hostpitals have lifeguards?”
Mandy almost missed her turn. She punched the brakes and made a left at the last minute, tires squealing in protest. David’s sippy cup, still full of juice, plopped to the floor. An oncoming Lexus honked his disapproval. “Blow it, buddy,” she told him. “Where’s the holiday spirit?” In the rearview, her son’s fracas of wild hair bobbed back and forth to the music of his own imagining. Wiry black hair like his father. “I just want this behind me,” she said over her shoulder. “So we can head to grandma’s. Are you excited to see grandma?”
The bridge. It had become her obsession, filling the emptiness Michael had left behind. When she got to her mom’s, she would put David to bed. She’d kiss him, tell him to be a good boy. She’d take a walk, sit on that bridge, and dream about flying. Yes, she’d dream about flying all the way down.
The dashboard clock said 3:39. It was ten minutes fast. They had maybe one hour to park, get to the spot, and hike back to the car before it was too dark to see. Nowhere was safe anymore. A woman had been assaulted on the trail earlier that month. Some man pulled her off the path into the woods. He ran away when she started screaming. He was never caught.
Michael had told Mandy to finish her environmental science degree, that now was the time to take matters into her own hands. “We can’t escape our fate,” he told her. “But we can make our own destiny. I want you to do that, Mandy. Promise me, no matter what happens, you’ll do that.” She promised him. She promised him everything.
“Do hostpitals have life guards?”
“No, David. Lifeguards are just for swimming.”
“Oh.” Quiet from the backseat, her son staring out at the bare trees.
The woods unfolded around them as the van descended Kitchens Lane towards Wissahickon Creek. The trail was popular with joggers and bikers, and occasionally they’d see signs of horseback along the path. David was fascinated by horses. Mandy had once planned to take them all horseback riding. That was before.
She pulled the van up to the trailhead. Cars lined the dead end street. Good sign. Still lots of people on the trail. She found a spot near the gate. In and out. That was the idea. “Ready, Freddy?”
“Ready,” David said. His voice had taken on a quietness in the last weeks. It broke her heart. He was too young for it. That familiar anger flooded her lungs again. Sharp and bitter. She yanked at the handle and pulled the door open too hard. It bounced against the frame with a thud and made the van rattle. David noticed but pretended he hadn’t. She loved him all the more for it. She knew in her heart he’d forgive her. One day.
Mandy unbuckled David’s seat belt and took him into her arms. “Want your sippy for the trippy?”
David shook his head. Still not hungry. She set him down on the gravel and bent over, feeling around under her seat until the plastic cup settled into her fingers. She mustered a smile and presented the cup to him.
“Try to drink some. You’ll feel better.”
He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and took it.
The sun was bright and cold in the late afternoon. Mandy zipped her son’s jacket and then her own. She grabbed her pack from the backseat, a red nylon bag with a black skunk silkscreened across the front that said Stinker Stores. Michael had given it to her as a gag. The company warehouse tossed out old inventory once a year, employees got first dibs, and he always went for the corniest stuff. He called it the “Grand Haul.” He’d come home with a box packed with carefully selected warehouse misprints and overstocks. The Stinker Stores bag was from last year’s grand haul. He’d brought Mandy the bag, and David got a stress ball shaped like a grenade that said Relax before you explode.
Michael never made this year’s haul. The treatments had left him too weak to stand. He was really torn up about it, Mandy could tell. He’d promised to make it up to them the following year. It was a solemn vow, he’d said.
Mandy hung the red pack off her shoulder and pulled the van door shut. She hit the locks again and took David’s hand in her own.
An older lady was climbing up out of the trail with her labradoodle. She gave Mandy and David a great big smile as she passed. Mandy smiled back, and in that moment she almost felt normal. The dog wagged its tail and sniffed at David’s sneakers. David observed it silently, cradling his sippy in both hands.
They crossed the concrete bridge over the Wissahickon, sunlight glinting off the green water like a thousand diamonds, like the creek was made of light instead of polluted water that fed the Schuylkill into downtown Philadelphia.
The naked branches spread out overhead like a wicker canopy, darkening their trail. On the other side of the creek, a good hundred feet high at the ridge top, a huge statue glowed white behind dark tree trunks. Mandy had noticed it her first time here and had looked it up online.
Of course David noticed it right away, too, just like his momma. “What’s that, momma?”
“That’s a statue. Some people call it ‘William Penn,’ but its real name is ‘Toleration.’ It honors the open-heartedness of the first European settlers here. That big boulder is called ‘Mom Rinker’s Rock.’ Some locals say Mom was a witch. Others say she was a patriot who spied on the British.”
David’s green eyes went wide. Mandy immediately regretted the witch comment. “Oh, David. She wasn’t really a witch. The British called her that because she kicked their imperial butts!”
David giggled at her use of the bad word, but Mandy was sure she hadn’t repaired the damage. She’d been returning home late nights for a while. The new babysitter had let David stay up waiting for her. They watched Wizard of Oz on cable, an innocent if boring old movie for a teenage girl. For a four year old kid, though, the world is a scary enough place without a wicked witch in it. Michael was in hospice by then.
“The witch got Daddy,” David was certain of it. “The witch got him.”
“No, David. There’s no such thing as witches. He’s sick. Your father’s very sick.”
David refused to sleep in his own bed after that. Mandy stayed up with him all night long, night after night. That was the thing. Staying up with him through the night, outlasting the darkness. He’d always feel better in the morning, in the light. Mandy wasn’t getting much sleep either these days. She kept having a recurring dream about Michael. He’d driven their van off a bridge and was sinking into the black water. Mandy could see his face through the window, could see his silent screams. In the dream, she could only watch him sink. Sometimes his face would be like before, cheeks all cute and pudgy behind that flaming red beard of his. Other times he’d be clean-shaven and gaunt, a face blasted by chemo. This was the last face he’d worn, and she tried her damnedest to remember the other one. Some faces were easier to forget than others.
As they neared the assigned monitoring point, two joggers bounded past down a side path, and for moment Mandy thought it was deer coming upon her, so heavy and steady were the footfalls. The joggers wore black toboggans, sweatshirts, and tight Lycra pants. One had earbuds wrapped around a close-cropped beard. He stared at Mandy until she averted her eyes.
“Who is it, momma?” For a moment, Mandy thought David was asking about the jogger. Her son was staring at a flyer duct-taped to a light post. There were flyers on every post along the length of the trail. On them was a photo of a kid in a Nirvana t-shirt, beside a close-up photo of a Cadillac logo tattoo.
Missing: Rick Hamilton
22 years old – brown eyes – light brown hair – 5’10’ – 135lbs
Last seen at Killian’s on Main Street in Manayunk on November 2,
wearing green sweater, blue jeans. Cadillac tattoo on upper arm.
REWARD for reliable information: $20,000
There was an FBI phone number as well as a Philadelphia police department number. A college student most likely, gotten drunk and fallen in the river. It happened more often than it should have.
“Who is it, momma?” David asked again.
“He’s just someone people are looking for.”
“Is he lost?” David craned his neck to see down the length of trail that stretched before them.
Mandy imagined the dark thoughts blooming behind her son’s eyes. “No, David. He knows where he is. Other people are looking for him is all.”
“Oh. Did they check at the hostpital?”
“I don’t know, sweetie.” Mandy felt like she was swallowing her heart. “Come on. Daylight’s burning!” It was one of her husband’s favorite sayings.
“Daylight’s burning!” David repeated happily. He knew what that meant.
They saw one more jogger, and a woman walking terriers. Both moved on without acknowledging Mandy, an urgency about them to finish their business and get out of the cold.
At the stone cottage, built in 1938 according to a plaque on the door, they left the trail. Mandy helped David navigate the twisted roots jutting from the hillside and raced him down to the water’s edge.
David at once hoisted a softball-sized rock in both hands and lobbed it into the creek. The resulting splash, deep and fierce, sent dark green ripples pulsing out from the center of impact.
“Hold on there, partner.” Mandy said, pointing him downstream. “You throw that-a-way. I’m sampling this-a-way. Okay?”
“Okay.” David trotted off in search of his next rock.
Mandy’s phone said 3:53. Maybe forty minutes of daylight left. Just enough time to take readings and get back to the van. She fished a printout from her bag. At the top, it said, “Hello volunteer creek watchers!” followed by a logo for the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association. Mandy reviewed the instruction sheet and set two blue plastic boxes on a boulder that came up to her chest like a natural work desk.
She pulled on rubber gloves and took a test tube from the kit. She kneeled by the creek and filled the test tube. The water was cold, even behind gloves. At the boulder, Mandy squeezed two drops of phosphate acid from a tiny bottle printed with the words CAUTION: CORROSIVE. Despite the bottle’s meagre size, this warning compelled her to store the kit high above David’s curious reach. She used to feel silly about it, but you never can be too careful. Man plans, God laughs.
At the creek’s edge came another deep splash. David had already turned his back to the water in search of another rock. Up the slope by the trail, a man stood in the shadows of the stone cottage porch. Mandy thought maybe he was watching her, or perhaps he was just reading the plaque about the cottage. Shadows covered his face so it was hard to tell.
She set two thermometers to float in shallow eddies. She considered that someone else would be checking creek’s temperature next time. What would change, really? The man still stood at the cottage. The plaque had few words on it. Mandy kept working and pretended to ignore him.
Down the beach, David had tired of rocks and was climbing on boulders. Mandy cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, “David! Please be careful!” He looked her way and waved, and went back to climbing. She was struck by how resilient his little spirit was. He must have gotten that trait from his father.
Mandy retrieved one of the thermometers and noted the water’s temperature on her worksheet. Just above freezing. Upstream, the creek’s surface was a smooth green mirror. Beside her, the water broke abruptly to white rapids over a spill of rocks. She stood there on the shore, listened to the creek roiling over the stones, and stared up at the cottage. The man had gone. She and David were alone.
Almost done. Just a few pictures of the creek. Leaving her kits spread open on the boulder, she made her way up the shore, keeping one eye on her son the boulder climber. She peeled off the gloves and pulled her phone from her pea coat. From this angle she could get a close-up of the brown muck. That, and one more shot along the length of the creek. Then she was done for good.
She turned towards the bridge, away from the setting sun. The man was walking along the shore towards her, his hand cupped at his brow to shield his eyes from the last of the light. He moved in slow, gaping strides, stepping on the larger stones to avoid the wet sand. He waved his arm in a wide greeting when she looked his direction.
Mandy lifted her hand in a half-wave and turned to take the picture she lacked. She slid the phone into her pocket without checking how the photo came out. The sun had fallen below the hills, and shadows had widened along the shore. The wind had grown noticeably colder.
She retraced her steps to the boulders and began packing up the kits. She heard the man approaching from the clicking of the stones he trod on. He grunted in effort with each step. Mandy forced herself not to look at him. Instead she called to David. “C’mon down, honey. It’s time to go! We’re leaving now!”
“Hi there,” said the man.
Mandy thought about ignoring him but acknowledged his greeting anyway. “Hello,” she said in her most businesslike way.
“I was watching you there. I was wondering what you were doing. I said to myself, now there’s a person who cares about the shape of things.”
Mandy gathered the test tubes and tried to fit them into their slots in the kit. Her hands were shaking. Maybe it was the cold wind.
“I told myself, now there’s a determined woman.”
Mandy turned to him. His head was shaven. Not a hair on his face, either. His skin was chapped and red, especially around the mouth. His eyeglasses were smeared with mud on one lens. The expression on his face made her stomach knot up. He looked sick. Like sickness personified.
“The name’s Arnold,” he said.
“David! Time to go.”
“My mother always called me Arnie. So I like that way best.”
“David! Right now, please!”
“And you are?”
“That’s a lovely name. One of the very prettiest.”
Mandy pushed the test tube into the kit, clicked the lid, and put it in her Stinker Stores bag. She dumped the other kit into the bag without bothering to close the lid.
“What are you doing here, Mandy?” The question sounded accusatory. Maybe it was just her imagination. She hadn’t been getting enough sleep lately. “It looks downright fascinating. I swear I could just about watch you all day long. What is it with the little blue boxes? Do you mind my asking?”
“I’m a volunteer creek watcher. I’m monitoring the water.”
“Monitoring the water?”
“The health of the creek.”
“Trying to make the world a healthier place? That’s a worthy endeavor. I’m a bit of a creek watcher myself.”
All Mandy lacked was the other thermometer. The thermometer and her son.
“What’s in those blue boxes? You have test tubes and such. May I see?”
“I’m sorry. I really need to get going.”
“You come here to monitor the creek often, do you?”
David came up, sniffling from the cold. Mandy put her hand on his head absently.
“That’s your boy?”
“Yes. My son. Say hello, David.” It was a politeness required on playgrounds and at the grocery store. Her son stared up at the man, saying nothing.
“I always wanted a little brother to follow me around,” said the man to David. “You want to be my little brother, do you?”
“Momma? I dropped my sippy in the water.”
“Listen, I hate to be rude, but we really have to get going.” Mandy picked up her red Stinker Stores bag and slung it over her shoulder.
“Don’t let me slow you down any,” said the man. “Pretend I’m not here. You like the creek, do you, little brother?”
Mandy felt David’s cold hand in hers. “Momma, is he sick, too?”
“What’s that?” the man asked.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Mandy. “David just sees, it’s your shaved head. It’s just that… his father. My husband. Was sick,” The words slipped out. Mandy hated herself for telling him.
“Was he now?” said the man. “No there, David. I’m not sick. Not yet.” He laughed at some private joke.
Mandy didn’t like the sound of her son’s name on his lips.
“Illness arrives unbidden, is all I mean. Arbitrary, but not spiteful. Never spiteful. Is the fox spiteful to the rabbit?”
Mandy closed her eyes and conjured an image of Michael throwing up, neck taut, his face making half-moons in the toilet water.
The man giggled, rousing her from her reverie. She’d been grimacing.
“But illness can be a blessing, too. Whether fortune falls in your lap or onto your head depends on your perspective. Which are you, Mandy?”
He stared at her intently, attempting to divine secrets from her expression. Up close, too close, she could see his lenses were greasy with fingerprints.
“Anyway, it’s what I’ve observed. I’m a bit of a creek watcher myself.” He turned his attentions to David.
“Are you a creek watcher, little brother? I bet you’ll make a fine creek watcher.”
“Do you throw rocks in, too?” David asked him. Mandy followed her son’s gaze. In his right hand, the man was holding a softball size rock. The hand was dirty, and his fingernails were bleeding at the edges.
“All day long I do,” said the man.
The sun had set, and the sky to the west glowed a brilliant orange. The naked trees cast long shadows across the shore. Parts of the creek were swallowed up in the gloom.
“Please,” said Mandy. “My mother is expecting us.”
“Well, then. It’s been nice to know you, Mandy-Candy. I’m sure we’ll meet again very soon.”
Mandy lifted David and made for the hill, walking fast as she could without running. She tripped once over the roots and came down hard on her knees, cradling her son’s head in her hands. She set him on his feet and stood. The trail was quiet and dark. She could make out the path only by a slight change in color against the black valley dropping off to her right.
They came to the concrete bridge that spanned the Wissahickon. It seemed as if suspended over a yawning black void. She thought of her recurring dream, of Michael screaming inside the van as it sunk into the black water. She thought of the train trestle near her childhood home, its dark ceaseless currents.
Damn you, Michael. She thought. Damn you. You made a solemn vow. Tears were streaming down her face, but Mandy wasn’t afraid. She was done being afraid. Sickness was everywhere. Everywhere you turned. Unbidden. It filled her with such anger. She shook all over.
Her van lay in deep shadows by the gate, alone on the empty side street. Mandy knew already, knew it before she even heard his staggered steps on the stones, and that sickening effortful grunting, that the man was coming up fast on the trail, that he was not far behind.
Wicked witches were real. It was a lie to say otherwise. Witches, monsters. Worse things than that. So much worse. The hell with that bridge, the hell with dreams of flying. She would stay up with David as long as night lasted. No matter how long. Damned if she’d abandon him to the monsters and the sickness that pursued you everywhere.
We can’t escape our fate, her late husband had told her. But we can make our own destiny. Mandy had promised Michael she would do just that, even if the worst happened. Well, the worst had happened, but it was a promise she intended to keep. Someone had to keep their promise in this broken world, how could she have ever thought otherwise? She tossed her Stinker Stores bag into the woods. It would only slow her down.
Night had fallen, dark and too soon. But the stars, the fierce stars, were shining. She scooped David into her arms and ran with all she had, determined to leave the sickness behind them for good.
Feivel Wolff misspent his youth in an indie rock band, setting stories to music in Southeastern bars. He blinked and found himself raising a family—and saving the stories for bedtime. These days, he misspends adulthood designing training for the corporate wastelands, and writes because he can’t remember the tune. His stories and poems have appeared in Red River Review, The Haunted Traveler, LTEN Focus Magazine, Red Booth Review, and Coffin Bell (forthcoming). Late nights may find him haunting the manuscript of his second novel or maintaining his status as Twitter’s best-kept secret @PhPWolff.
Cagibi Issue 6