They find the body, face down, in the shallows of Merlow Creek, arms drifting at its side and back drying in the summer sun, while his face remains hidden below the surface. Two fingers from his right hand are missing, leaving bones protruding through skin. The knuckles on his left hand are swollen. His shoes are missing, big toes poking through both of his socks.
Holes in the back of his shirt remind the boys of a connect-the-dots puzzle, though no one says this out loud.
Little Ray, the daredevil of the group whose room is filled with a growing collection of sawed casts, crutches, and a hand-me-down wheelchair from his grandmother, is the first to approach the body. He extends his mud-colored hand toward the blonde curls tainted with blood, admires how the strands stroke the surfaces of copper-toned rocks or twist around discarded branches.
“Don’t,” Manolo whispers in a voice too deep for his age. His front tooth is missing, accepting a dare to bite an extra-large jaw breaker after three licks.
Shaffer smiles, wiping snot from his upper lip with the back of his hand. Little Ray and Manolo can never tell what he’s thinking, always tripping over secrets that reveal themselves in one too many bruises or scars. When they used to ask, Shaffer just smiled, keeping the truth somewhere deep inside himself. Like why he is always covered in dirt, what happened to his eye that he always wears a black eyepatch like a pirate, and why he always smiles during all the bad times but is bored by all the good? Now they both stare at Shaffer, Manolo looking more at his cheek than his one good eye. and Little Ray looking at his mouth, where a bruise is starting to fade.
Shaffer just keeps on smiling, holding his snot covered hand to the sun before sliding it into his pants pocket.
“Aren’t you curious?” Little Ray doesn’t wait for an answer, already setting his mind to what he wants. He runs his fingers through the body’s hair, and it reminds him of the Brillo pad his Mama keeps tucked in the pocket of her apron to chew on when her nerves get bad.
“We should leave.” This time, Manolo is the one who has an answer already tickling his mind as he walks up the grass covered hill before Little Ray can dry his hands.
Shaffer licks his lips and gets right back to smiling.
Little Ray grips Shaffer’s shoulder. “We should tell someone.”
“Who would believe us?” Shaffer says to no one in particular, Little Ray and Manolo already half way up the hill. He kicks a loose rock into the water, watching the ripples and body collide.
* * *
Little Ray wiggles his fingers all the way home, remembering how those blonde strands clung to each one. Like they were still living, still fighting, though their host had given up.
His Daddy, Big Ray, though there is not much big about him except his laugh, has his head under the hood of a truck, forming words Little Ray’s never heard before. Words that his grandmamma says over the phone every time he breaks a bone or talks about money.
Big Ray’s stem thin body jolts, sheepish smile threatening to spread on his face. He pats the top of his son’s head while scratching the back of his.
“Hey boy,” his daddy’s voice takes on the same high tone when his mama catches him in a lie. “How much of that did you hear?”
“Nothing,” Little Ray lies because his Daddy is his favorite person.
Big Ray lets out something between a sigh and a laugh, crouching in front of his son.
Two fists split the air between them, Little Ray clutching a bit of his secret in one and a bit of feeling in the other. When both palms turn over empty, Little Ray turns the moment of his fingers running through the body’s hair over in his mind watching creases form on his Daddy’s face.
That feeling of life tickling his fingers while death stiffened the rest.
“I touched a dead body in Merlow Creek.”
Everything comes out in mangled words trapped in spit drops that land on his Daddy’s face. How he was the only one brave enough to touch it, pieces of hands missing, the holes in the body’s back. He comes up with stories of what might have happened, especially to the man’s shoes because who leaves home without shoes? He gets all caught up in the excitement that he doesn’t notice his Daddy’s face when he mentions the blonde strands of hair. Doesn’t hear his Daddy tell him to hush as he slams the hood of the truck he was tinkering on.
Doesn’t even know he’s flying until he lands in front of the bathroom sink, hot water burning his fingers.
Big Ray takes a bar of soap, rubs little Ray’s hands so hard he can feel his wrists pop.
“Stay quiet.” Tears start going down his cheeks and disappear in his neck lines. “Keep what you done to yourself.”
“But why?” Little Ray’s finger tremble under the hot water, more afraid of what he did to his Daddy and if the repeating scrubbings are a new form of punishment.
After all, he’s never seen his Daddy cry before.
“Do as I say!” Soap suds disappear down the drain and his Daddy’s back to washing his hands again. “You didn’t see nothing in that creek. Didn’t touch nothing either.”
“But Manolo and Shaffer…”
Little Ray does as he’s told. His Daddy kneels on the floor and removes his shoes. Little Ray’s feet feel the cold of the bathroom floor and he wonders if the body’s feet were cold too.
“Manolo…you boys…both of you are different from Shaffer.” His voice gets so deep Little Ray thinks his Daddy is trying to swallow his words. “People will see you differently. Treat you differently even if you done the same thing.”
Big, warm hands cup his cheeks, his Daddy’s thumb nails scratching his cheeks to swipe the tears Little Ray didn’t realize were falling.
“This stays between us.”
Little Ray agrees because his Daddy is his favorite person and the way his voice keeps catching on itself makes him afraid of whatever his Daddy has dwelling past his eyes.
* * *
Manolo makes up stories about what happened to the man’s shoes, murmuring “thank you’s” to Mrs. Stinson, promising himself he is only borrowing Daises from her garden. He does this every Friday, knowing Mrs. Stinson is out doing what ladies who ride scooters everywhere do on Friday afternoons.
He places the flowers in an old coffee can, listens to the sounds of water against tin, wondering what kind of sound the creek made when the body first fell in. Manolo loses himself to his thoughts as he often does, until he feels the cold water running over his fingers.
Manolo wonders if that’s what it feels like to be a body swallowed up in water, to not mind the water seeping between and over you all at once.
His mother looks nothing like the body in the creek. Where the body was full, she fades, her skin clinging to bone. She used to smell of fresh pestiños when she dreamed of desserts in bright colors and songs. Now, she waits for Manolo to create stories to replace her dreams, the flowers he steals providing the color.
“Hola Mamá.” He kisses her forehead, licks the salt from his lips. “How do you feel?”
“En Español mi hijito.”
Manolo knows he should not favor one language over another. Remembers every time his mother, when she was well enough to have more than one emotion at once, told him of her home and the joys of language. The rapid flicks and rolls of the tongue struggling to keep up with her thoughts in Spanish, the fire she felt burning in the back of her throat that would keep her warm every day. Or the slow crawl of English, a combination of choking and slow songs that had all lost their passion.
“Qué bonita.” She says, how beautiful, receiving every bouquet like it’s the first time. She smells their center, fingers caressing their white petals. She closes her eyes, pressing their centers to her cheeks leaving soft pollen kisses.
Manolo tells her of a brave Matador who crossed thousands of desserts in order to tell his Mamá he loves her. He takes his mother’s free hand and kisses her fingertips, telling her the Matador forgot, caught up in the excitement of the bulls and the flowers falling into the ring until a cactus, his mother’s favorite, landed at his feet.
He thinks he hears his mother laugh but isn’t sure. It’s been so long.
The Matador walks when he can no longer run, shoes evaporating from his feet. Birds peck small holes in his back, beaks trying to pull him back to the angry bull he left behind in the ring. He sacrifices his fingers to the birds, tells them they are worms that will feed them for months, bruises his left hand while wiping tears and sweat from his face.
Manolo nods, thinking about the sadness he felt seeing the body floating on the surface of the creek. He tells his mother that the Matador’s tears were too great, creating a creek, which he changes to a river, in the middle of the dessert. He remembers the feeling of water, seeping between and over him all at once and imagines what it would feel like for his Mamá and him to be carried away.
He keeps the blonde hair to himself along with the memory of wanting to touch the body’s scalp, not wanting to ruin his mother’s smile as he tells her about the Matador floating on the river’s surface back to his Mamá.
Even for just a moment.
* * *
Shaffer stares at the sidewalk on his way home, crushing as many ants as he can under the soles of his father’s old converses. He thinks about the body’s hands, how someone could lose two fingers and still have perfectly round holes puncture through their skin and shirt. Maybe he lost them after admitting the truth, or a lie, or maybe he didn’t lose them. Instead, maybe the guy decided to cut of those two fingers. It was his choice all along.
Shaffer likes this idea, glancing at his fingers and wondering which two he wouldn’t mind losing while opening the front door.
Dean, his father, though Shaffer doesn’t remember the last time he had use for such a word, floats on his recliner in a sea of bear cans and discarded cigarette butts. A fly fishing for scraps off the corner of Dean’s mouth. Shaffer touches the bruise on the corner of his mouth, caused by a beer bottle meant for his mother in one of his father’s rampages.
He makes his way to the kitchen, reads a note from his mom written on a pink post-it-note stuck to the fridge. “Forgot to make dinner.” No instructions on what to do next, though she always forgets something new every day. He balls up the pink post-it-note and tosses it in his mouth like a pre-chewed wad of gum. Imagines the tip of his tongue tracing over the dark lines of his mother’s handwriting as the corners scar the insides of his cheeks. Shaffer chews until all that remains is the burning of the adhesive and soggy paper bits caught in his throat, refusing to dissuade his stomach from wanting something real.
Dean lets out a snore that rattles the beer cans around his feet, sending the fly into a panic. Shaffer enjoys the sounds of buzzing while climbing onto the arm of Dean’s recliner, making sure his lips are right by his father’s ear.
“I thought of you today. Saw you floating in Merlow Creek with three bullet holes in your back.”
He forms a gun with his fingers. Fires. The fly stops buzzing.
“I’d take your middle finger first.” Shaffer peers into his father’s mouth. “And your thumb.”
That should be enough to clog his throat. Shaffer would let his mother steal Dean’s shoes and fill his body with holes. She deserves some kind of revenge for the way Dean treats her but only after he starts choking.
He wants Dean to see and feel death all at once.
Shaffer wipes the back of his snot dried hand against Dean’s face. Watches his mouth close, head rolling to the side.
“Thanks for the shoes.” Shaffer says more to the body of a stranger than to Dean.
Though they might as well be one in the same.
K.B. CARLE hates the thought of finding a dead body floating in the creek but, apparently, the thought has crossed her mind. Her work can be found in Fiction Southeast, The WomenArts Quarterly Journal, and FlashBack Fiction. For more information visit her at http://kbcarle.wordpress.com/ or follow her on Twitter @kbcarle.
Image: Christopher Campbell via Unsplash