by Laura Libricz
Calvin heard Old Man Hayes cough and cuss. A screen door slammed followed by the shot from a .22. Calvin knew he was in for it this time. He ran blind towards the sound of rushing water, the smell of rotting fish directing his steps. The recent rains had swelled the river up over its banks. Calvin stopped, wiped the bangs from his sweating brow and tried to find the trail that would lead him to the bridge.
“Stop, ya little bastard! I’m right on yer tail,” Old Mann Hayes shouted.
Calvin turned his head right and left like a nervous sparrow. He picked a precarious path through the stinging nettles. His foot slipped on some wet leaves and a branch snapped as he fell. A high-pitched shriek involuntarily escaped his lips. Another shot rang out.
“I’m gonna get cha. I’m right behind ya!”
Dull, thudding footfalls thumped through the underbrush. Old Man Hayes was so close that Calvin imagined he could smell the cheap bourbon that his father’s best friend always drank. Calvin was supposed to call him Uncle Frank, but to Calvin he would always be Old Man Hayes.
Summoning all of his faculties, Calvin got back on his feet and shot forward, not caring which direction he was running in. He never saw the steep slope. He only felt himself rolling out of control, somersaulting down through the stinging nettles. He was then surrounded by a muffled silence, suspended in a cold watery womb, swept away by some unearthly current.
He wanted to penetrate the water’s surface with his face, his lungs desperate for air. His hands flayed about, splashing cold droplets into his eyes. His feet thrashed as the rushing river carried him downstream. He thought he saw the bridge out of the corner of his eye. The water was shallow there, maybe he could stand. His feet touched the rocky river bottom. He tried to slow himself down when something slammed into his face. It pulled him under the water.
Calvin threw his whole body into a furious motion. Something grabbed at the nape of his neck and had a hold of his sopping-wet jeans jacket. He kicked and screeched like a little girl. Old Man Hayes always made fun of his high-pitched voice and teased him about being a ball-less brat. That’s why Calvin set those snares around his barn. He wanted to watch ‘Uncle Frank’ Hayes fall flat on his drunken snoot. He didn’t really want to break that window when he threw the rock. It just happened.
Calvin heard Old Man Hayes scolding as his face was forced back under the water. He fought with all his might to get out of the old man’s grip. He broke the water’s surface and gulped some air. His face was forced back under. Bubbles escaped his nose. He was done for. Again he rose for another gulp of air.
“Would ya stop fighting me and let me get cha outtahere?” Old Man Hayes said.
Calvin felt a sharp slap on his cheek.
“Goddamit boy, don’t be so thick,” Frank Hayes said. He waded towards the rocks under the bridge, with a limp Calvin in tow. He pulled him up the softly sloping river bank and deposited the boy next to his .22.
“Nearly drowned, ya damn fool,” he said.
He turned Calvin onto his back and remembered a trick he’d learned in the army during the war. He’d fished a few buddies out of that goddamn foreign ocean. Pumped the water out of their lungs, he did. He placed both hands over Calvin’s ribcage and pressed his bear-weight down onto the boy. A rib cracked, then another.
“Ball-less brat. Shoulda been a girl,” he said.
He moved his hands over Calvin’s stomach and pressed down again. There shouldn’t be any bones there. Calvin spluttered and coughed. The equivalent of a tablespoon of water tricked from his lips. He helped Calvin sit upright. He noticed how much Calvin resembled his father. A good man, Calvin’s father, trying to raise this devil’s child by himself. Always in trouble, this Calvin. Skipping school, robbing houses. A good slap, that would fix him up.
“Got cha outtathere in time, boy. The whirlpool is just beyond the bend there.”
“You ok, now? Do ya think ya can stand up?”
Calvin looked at the old man. Frank Hayes sniggered. The boy had eyes like a cornered squirrel.
“Yeah, I think so,” Calvin said and coughed again.
Frank Hayes stood, grabbed his rifle and pulled Calvin to his feet. He put two fingers under Calvin’s chin and pulled his face up. Their eyes met. He summoned as much anger behind that gaze as he could.
“Fine,” Frank Hayes said. “Now just wait til I get cha home to yer father!”