It rained all night and into the day, a sudden onslaught sucked from the Pacific and delivered to the somber forests of the Cascadian foothills. His dad paced between the window and the bed, where Sarah lay with the wires and tubes beneath the white sheets, saying again and again, “We’ll have to take the back road.” Then his mom and dad left with the doctor while the boy sat beside his younger sister. Her hand was small and cold in his own, and he didn’t know what to say, or if she could hear him, so he just held it and watched the bouncing line of the heart monitor. When his parents returned, he and his dad left for home with a list of supplies. The rain drops raced pell-mell across the car window, capturing and refracting headlights, the water crawling from the ditches, a chaotic dance that entranced the boy. They drove 5 miles out of the way to cross the swollen river by the new bridge in town, going slow and careful through the flooded roads, the tires kicking up roaring geysers.
Back in the dank chill of the house his dad collapsed on the couch, snoring in seconds. Despite a night of florescent lighting and grubby waiting room couches, the boy did not feel tired as he stared through the dining room window at the creek breaching its reedy banks and threatening to invade the backyard. So he put on his rubber boots and raincoat and went out to brave the storm.
The surging creek carried mud and moss and slimy leaves in a rush beneath the narrow footbridge that still had no protective railing, left unfinished like all projects started last summer. He wondered if he could drop in the inflatable raft, ride the swift creek between the barn and the pasture and through the oversized culvert that passed beneath the country road, take it all the way to the river, and then 15 miles to the bridge outside the hospital. He imagined Sarah’s face when he walked in, telling her about his adventure, and he let himself smile a bit.
He crossed the footbridge and squelched through the soggy pasture, the mud sucking at his boots until he reached the ditch at the edge of the property. The farmer down the road had suggested it, saying it would drain the land his dad had cleared so that his mom and sister could ride their horses, and his dad had rented a backhoe and trenched the borders of the pasture like a square U, starting from the creek on one side and coming back around to the creek at the other, right where it turned to go beneath the road on its journey to the river. Beyond the ditch was a wall of cedar and fir choked with ferns and hanging moss, the “Goblin Woods” Sarah had named it.
Mom had been skeptical at the time, wary of the high school English teacher from the suburbs of Seattle operating heavy machinery. “Let Earl do it, he has experience,” she had said, but Dad was determined to prove that he could work the land. And now the boy felt a surge of pride in his chest because the ditch was working, capturing the runoff from the deep woods on the ridge behind their property, transporting it down to the creek, keeping the pasture from flooding.
A flash of silver and a flurry of shadow in the ditch caused the boy’s heart to skip and his hair to stand on end. He blinked, wiping the rain from his face and holding his breath, almost as if he was afraid to be seen by the monstrous creature floating there just below him, its hooked mouth opening and closing to some primal beat. Chinook salmon, that’s what it would be, and he could see the deepening red of its sides that came with the spawning. But what was it doing here, so far from the river? The ditch was a dead end, too shallow, too narrow for a fish so big, no gravel beds for it to lay its ruby eggs. It would become trapped. Further down the ditch he saw more long shadows, and he scrambled along the muddy edge to count them, three, four, five now. And then he thought of the Polaroid camera sitting on top of Sarah’s white dresser, his gift to her on her birthday. She had smiled so big that day, despite the pain in her belly.
He shook his head, a sudden violent motion that sent rain droplets spraying on all sides, carrying that memory away, refusing to let it linger, for it would only bring the clenching emptiness, the black hole of the future. Better to focus on the now, his dad had told him. And so he raced back across the pasture, water splashing up to soak his jeans, the rubber boots flopping against his calves. He slowed on the footbridge, slick and dangerous, shuffled across, and then burst through the back door into the mudroom, flinging his boots off and racing upstairs.
At the open door to Sarah’s room he skidded to a stop. Her bed was as they left it in their rush, the solar system comforter she always kept perfectly smooth tossed aside so that Jupiter and Venus were now neighbors, the drawers of the white dresser left open like haphazard steps, the laundry basket tipped, spilling forth the few clothes she had worn over the last week. He swallowed the sudden hard stone in his throat and crept in, avoiding the floorboard that creaked, to grab the camera atop the dresser. Stuck to the bottom was the first Polaroid picture she’d taken, just after she’d opened the gift.
“You don’t have to shake it,” he had told her, but she did it in anyway, making the black print flutter until the fog cleared to reveal him and Mom and Dad smiling.
His vision blurred.
“Have you had anything to eat?”
The boy jumped, and the Polaroid fluttered to the floor. His dad stood in the doorway, deep shadows beneath his eyes, the stubble gray on his chin. The boy stooped quickly to retrieve the photo, placing it carefully beside the camera before following his dad downstairs.
They ate in silence, reheated macaroni and cheese from yesterday, the rain pelting the window as his dad stared out, seeming to search for something in that endless, dreary deluge.
“I need to get back,” he said, “bring Mom a change of clothes, some stuff for Sarah.”
“She likes the book about the wild horses,” the boy said.
“I don’t think she’ll be able—” his dad started to say, and then stopped and nodded instead.
The macaroni was like clay in the boy’s mouth. He took a long drink of milk, and just as his dad stood to clear his plate blurted out, “There are salmon in the West ditch.”
His dad paused, a silhouette against the large window, and then he sat back down. “Oh yeah? You saw them?”
“I went for a walk around the pasture.”
“Were they trying to spawn?”
“I think they’re trapped.”
“The flooding can turn them around.” His brow wrinkled as he thought, and the boy saw the spark return to his eyes. “Actually, do you remember when we moved in? That big flood, when the salmon came right into the driveway? I’d just laid down new gravel, so of course the flood was washing it all away. But they just kept coming, making beds, spawning.” He snorted at that, shaking his head.
“What happened to them?” The boy remembered, but he wanted his dad to keep talking, to hear the chuckle and humor and wonder in his voice.
“They died. God, the smell, I had—” He checked himself, eyes flickering to the boy, and then cleared his throat gruffly and stood. “I better get back.”
“I’ll do the dishes,” the boy said, and his dad smiled slightly, ruffling his hair before heading back upstairs.
After his dad left, the boy sat for a while in the living room, no lights on, the stormy dark of the rain filling his head to drown out the what-ifs that threatened to steal his breath. He started up the Nintendo and then shut it off, turned on the T.V. but could not bear to watch anything. Finally the exhaustion of the night overtook him and he fell asleep, curled under the afghan blanket that smelled faintly of mildew.
He awoke to a kiss, Mom hovering over him. “You want pancakes? I feel like pancakes.” The tall grandfather clock in the corner read 7:43 p.m.
“OK,” he said and followed her into the kitchen, watched her make the batter and sprinkle in blueberries like she always did, her careful ladling without spilling a drop. They ate in the glow of the hanging lamp.
“She woke up for bit,” his mom said and the pancakes stuck in his throat.
His mom nodded, carefully collecting wayward syrup with each bite of pancake, no drop wasted. She looked old, and he immediately felt guilty for thinking that, but he could see the lines around her eyes, the puckering about her mouth, and it was like seeing Grandma.
“It was the pain,” she continued, and his stomach clenched. “They changed the IV drip and she fell asleep again. Which is better. They’ve scheduled surgery for tomorrow morning at eight.”
“I’ll leave at six. Maybe I’ll get a little sleep this time.”
The boy nodded, but now the sweet blue berry pancakes made him nauseous.
“Do you want to come too? It’s okay if you don’t,” she said before he had a chance to respond. “Dr. Hansen said it’ll take about two hours, three depending on what they see once they get in there. Maybe Dad can come get you at lunch.”
They went to bed early, but the boy couldn’t fall asleep. He stared at the shadowed texture of the ceiling, remembered when he and Sarah would have “sleepovers” in his bed and she’d tell him it looked like the surface of the moon. But thinking about that made the pancakes turn over in his stomach, so he pushed it out of his mind. Instead he thought of the salmon in the ditch, imagined their long journey up the river from the ocean, and how they must have turned up the creek and followed it through the fields and under the road and then turned the wrong way into the narrow ditch with its dead end. Could they even turn around? How would they ever escape to find beds for their offspring?
Mom woke him at 5:50 a.m.
“The river overflowed the bridge by the hospital. I’m going to have to go way around. God, I hope I’m not late.” She kissed his head and left, and he stayed curled under the covers for a long time.
But then he sat up, for there was now a silence more deafening than the constant drumbeat upon the roof and windows. The rain had stopped.
He padded down the stairs and turned on the T.V. to see the hospital on the Channel 5 News. He grinned, imagining Sarah’s wonder when he told her that she had been on T.V. that a reporter had come all the way to their little town to film the rushing brown river and what remained of the bridge.
“—swept clean away,” the reporter said. “Really an incredible thing.”
The boy turned off the T.V. and went into the kitchen, looking out the back window at the heavy creek now streaming over the rail-less footbridge to the pasture. In the living room the grandfather clock chimed eight times. Four more hours before Dad came to get him.
He got dressed and then stood in Sarah’s doorway, the Polaroid camera a beacon upon her dresser. He remembered walking the electronic aisle with his dad last summer, and how his dad had focused on the digital cameras, comparing the different features and price points.
“She wants a Polaroid,” the boy had said, and his dad had smiled as if it was joke.
“They still make those? They take such crappy photos.”
“She likes that it gives you the photo right after you take it.”
“Digital cameras do that. You can see them instantly right on the screen.”
“She likes that she can hold the photo.”
The boy had picked out this specific camera, the turquoise and white one, not the pink. Now he picked it up, turned it in his hand, saw where the paint was already worn by her grip. He checked the cartridge count on the back: eight left. That would do.
In the mudroom he pulled on his waders, still a bit too big but a better fit than the last time he’d worn them, when he and his dad had fly fished the river back in June. He didn’t bother with the rain jacket, but grabbed the gardening rake from the carport.
At the footbridge he paused, mesmerized by the rushing creek that flowed about an inch over the wooden planks. It seemed to rise even as he stood there, and he squinted up at the dark ridge beyond the pasture, imagining all the little springs rushing down to fill the creek.
There were now seven salmon in the West ditch, long dark shadows in the water with crimson sides. He walked the whole length from the back of the pasture to where the ditch met the creek just to make sure. Once he had counted he took the first Polaroid, a snapshot from the furthest spot up the ditch where two crimson-sided salmon hovered near the bank. He waited as the image emerged from its white fog, but was disappointed with how little could be seen. So he carefully stepped down into the water, using the garden rake to steady himself. As he edged closer, the fish flinched in a sudden splashing flurry, and he nearly lost his balance, reaching out to catch himself on the steep bank with the hand still holding the camera. His heart pounding, he quickly wiped the mud from the turquoise plastic, and taking a step forward caused the closest salmon to surge ahead, bumping its companions and creating more splashing and twisting in the narrow ditch.
He raised the camera and snapped two more shots off before walking in measured steps toward the creek. The salmon wriggled and turned until they were all moving ahead of him, piling up like traffic on the freeway as it neared Seattle, and his heart beat fast with joy. He was their shepherd, and he would guide them back to where they were supposed to be before the confusion of the flood and the new ditch.
Then he felt a drop of rain on his head and then another. Peering up he saw the sky had darkened again to an angry tempest. He pulled his hoodie tight over his head, and snapped one more hurried shot, the camera whirring as it spit out its photo, and hid both inside his sweatshirt pocket beneath the waterproof safety of the waders. His steps along the ditch were sweeping, like a giant taking long strides that sent the water in waves to propel the escaping salmon toward the outlet of the ditch.
The boy could see the flashes of red as their bodies slipped one by one into the rushing creek, and he let out a laugh, a strange, almost vulgar noise that ripped through the heaviness of the rain-sodden world. Soon only one salmon remained, a slippery shadow that got turned around, thrashing in the shallow water in a sudden charge toward his legs, and he planted his feet to cut off its path, felt its heavy monstrous body thud against his shin, and resisted the impulse to shriek and stumble aside. Instead he kept steady, as he imagined his dad would do, and nudged the salmon back until it twisted around and sped away to disappear into the creek ahead.
He was breathing heavy, the rain now soaking his sweatshirt, but inside there burned a fire of victory. He let out whoop, willfully disturbing the world now, and then he climbed out of the ditch and pushed through the bramble to look into the creek.
At first he saw nothing, just the heavy wash speeding through the leafless willows and alder to rush into the culvert beneath the road. But then a flash of red caught his eye, upstream toward the barn. He hurried over and there he saw them, the whole troop, moving up the creek toward the footbridge. Breaking into a run, he raced the salmon to the foot bridge, imagining now the photo he would take of them passing beneath, and the smile such a sight would bring to Sarah’s pale face.
The rain pelted his face as he splashed through the flooded pasture, reaching the bridge as the first of the salmon slid beneath like dark shadows. The boy felt the rubber soles of his waders slip on the slick wood, the current pushing at them as it flowed over the edge, but he spread his stance against the rush. Fumbling with the Polaroid camera, he leaned over and clicked the shutter. The camera ejected the snapshot, and he cradled it against the rain, watching in awe as the image appeared, and there they were, sleek dark bodies with streaks of crimson. A grin broke across the boy’s face.
He raised his eyes with a sigh and then, looking upstream, caught his breath.
The salmon were turning up the other the ditch at the eastern edge of the pasture. They’d be trapped again.
“No,” he shouted, “you idiots, no!” And as he twisted to run, he slipped.
For a second he teetered at the edge, and then feeling the inevitability of the fall he tried a desperate leap to the bank. But it was too far, and he plunged into the icy creek.
Before he knew it the water had filled his waders and dragged him under. Something bumped his leg and he had the strangely detached thought that it was one of the salmon, and then the panic hit and adrenaline surged through his limbs as he floundered and sputtered, trying to keep his head above the surface. He caught a glimpse of the barn ahead, the current pushing far faster than he realized, and his numbed fingers clawed at the straps of the waders, releasing them so he could squirm and thrash to pull his legs from their deadly embrace. His hand caught a sapling and he pulled himself up the grassy bank, coughing and gasping and sobbing.
His body shook violently, and a massive weight pressed against his chest as he stared at the rushing water, for not only were his waders gone but the Polaroid camera too. His fumbling hands pushed inside the soggy pocket of his sweatshirt and found no flimsy snapshots. All had been swept away, devoured by the flood.
In sodden socks he staggered across the barn yard, squinting against the downpour. In the mudroom he stripped, leaving his clothes in a puddle as he crawled into the downstairs shower and crouched under the hot stream of water. There, alone and small and naked, the rush of the shower filling his ears and the steam enshrouding him, the boy cried.
When the mud and cold and tears had been washed away, he dried off and stood in the dark house. Then he began to clean. He vacuumed and dusted, mopped the mess in the mudroom, wiped down the sinks and the toilets and the white crusty spots on the mirrors. Sarah’s room he left for last. He pulled the comforter tight and smooth, closed all the dresser drawers, righted up the laundry basket, his mind blank, his breathing steady.
The grandfather clock began to chime, each hollow gong ringing in the empty house 12 times. The patter of rain increased in an answering crescendo before fading. Softly he shut Sarah’s door and went downstairs to wait.
Morgan Read Davidson is the Director of Creative Writing at Chapman University, a recipient of a Nichol Fellowship in Screenwriting, and is currently completing an historical fiction novel set in Dark Age Britain about two sisters separated by war. His short fiction has appeared in The Elephant Tree, Alt Hist, and Jelly Bucket. He spends his free time hiking the rugged High Sierras and joining his daughters in their imaginative worlds of dragons, fairies, and warrior princesses.