What He Could Have Told Them
The helicopter came three days after the river had turned the bluff into an island, the white farmhouse perched on top like a decoration on a cake. Drinking coffee outside the house, wrapped in a hoary old blanket to ward of the chill he felt most mornings, Brad heard the thumping sound, but thought it came from his chest. Since returning from the Gulf, he’d often feel a tightness, followed by a jump in his heartrate, the sensation expanding until his whole body drummed. Irrationally, he’d believe anyone nearby could hear it, and he’d walk away, even in the middle of a conversation.
It normally happened around people or in town, not when he was alone watching the river ooze past, and feeling his only peace of the day. Is this going to start happening when I’m alone, for no reason?
But wait: the sound was external, faintly thrumming from across the river. It was only in his ears, not radiating from his heart to every extremity. He listened more carefully, and realized it was a helicopter. He stood to look, shading his eyes. The thumping grew more insistent, but he still couldn’t see anything.
Then he saw movement on the far side, near the line of trees that marked the normal river bank. Olive green, the helicopter blended into the landscape. No wonder he hadn’t seen it.
It nosed above the drowned land beyond the trees, whether looking for something specific or on a general search and rescue mission, Brad didn’t know. He assumed it would continue up that side of the river. Then it rose higher, froze, and began to move toward him. Some alert crewman must have noticed the house, realized it shouldn’t be surrounded by water, and then picked out Brad huddled in his blanket on the porch like a refugee.
Brad dropped the blanket and walked onto the lawn. The aircraft soon hung overhead, a helmeted and goggled crewman leaning on a winch in the open doorway. A metallic voice: “Do you need assistance or rescue?”
Mechanically Brad raised his arm, hand clenched in a fist. He extended his thumb sideways, then in a deliberate motion pointed it downward.
“Roger that,” the helicopter crackled. The crewman raised an arm as the engine surged to pull the aircraft up and into a bank toward the river. The increased rotor wash caught a pile of leaves, wood and grass Brad had assembled over the spring, blasting him with debris and forcing him to close his eyes, although not before he saw a faint image of a hand, reaching skyward and undulating like a belly dancer.
When he opened his eyes, the image was gone, his mouth dry as a desert, and his heart pounding for real. As he tried to tamp down the panic, he heard the screen door creak and knew his grandfather was joining him.
“National Guard?,” the old man asked. He leaned forward and spit tobacco juice onto the lawn.
“Wanting to know if we need help, I assume.” Hands shoved into the pockets of his Carhartts as always, Granddad shifted his weight off his bad hip.
“Yeah. I told ‘em ‘no.’”
Brad concentrated on his breathing, trying to slow his heart, now rocking his body like an unbalanced dryer. His skin prickled and grew damp: Granddad would know, would figure out he wasn’t right, probably already did know. He’d overheard enough scraps of conversation between Granddad and his parents. They knew something was wrong. “The boy never talks. It’s like the cat ate his tongue.” Even before he moved here, he’d hear his parents murmuring about him.
He knew he wasn’t fooling anyone, but he still had to walk away.
“I’m going to town,” he said, starting down the lawn. “See if they need any help.”
His grandfather didn’t object. “Okay, boy. Just be careful on that water. Lotsa snags out there.”
He strode down the slope toward the canoe, now tied to a tree stump next to the fishing boat since the dock was under the Mississippi. Near the water’s edge, he sank into spongy muck. He looked down. His body stopped at his ankesl, feet out of sight in the muddy grass. It was like they’d been amputated, leaving him to balance on the stumps. The ground slurped as he pulled a foot out to inspect the slimy mess of his shoe. He should have gone barefoot, but now it was too late. He needed to be on the water.
He fumbled to undo the knot, threw the rope roughly into the canoe, and kicked off hard, grunting as he leaned low to free the boat from the mud, then stepping in with one final hard push, almost losing his balance as he turned around and picked up the paddle.
When he first moved to southern Illinois to look after Granddad, he’d spent most of his time in the house. The two men would sit in silence, watching TV or at the dinner table. Granddad might join Brad outside where he’d talk about the river or farming, but never the war, either Brad’s or his. These talks were soothing, Granddad’s voice rising and falling softly, a flow of words that Brad let wash over him like an prayer he’d heard a thousand times.
Once he started working part-time at the hardware store, he needed time alone. In an attempt to compete, the owner had jammed the entire contents of one of the new superstores into a typical downtown storefront. The aisles were so narrow that Brad, with his broad build, had trouble turning around. He’d had a couple of panic attacks there when people had strayed too close.
He tried running, digging out his old National Guard sweats and hitting the pavement, but he couldn’t get used to traffic. Cars were okay but the sudden whoosh of a truck from behind would set off a panic attack.
Then after a particularly bad day, he’d walked straight from his truck to the dock, two hundred yards away. He plunked himself down and hung his legs over the end, the river flowing only inches from his feet. He felt a sudden warmth on his face as a beam of sun shot from under low violet clouds. He sat there until dark, watching the muddy water absorb the final light of day.
Walking back up to the house, he felt calmer and more self-contained. The feeling even lasted after running into Granddad hobbling down the lawn, and realizing the old man had been worrying. He didn’t say anything but Brad could see it in his eyes.
He started spending more time on the water. He’d drive back to the house, pushing dust up behind him as the sun set. Grabbing a beer, he’d take the path down to the river bank and sit for hours, mesmerized by the water’s stately movement. Or he’d take the canoe out and spend hours drifting, fishing rod propped unmonitored on a thwart. He’d hear the river’s voice, sometimes a guttural murmur, other times a rippling plink. He’d end up far downstream and then spend hours paddling back, maybe exploring the bank along the way, but more often than not just driving the boat hard against the current, working himself to exhaustion.
Now he escaped again to the river, a body of water everyone else was fighting. Although the flood made the current stronger, he’d discovered earlier that it was slower in the flooded areas, meandering and swirling back on itself, as if confused by its newfound freedom and unsure what to do. He took advantage of this now to push upstream towards town.
Arriving in town, he tied the canoe at the top of the mostly submerged municipal wharf. He heard beeping as a dumptruck backed up and dropped a pile of sandbags for the men working there. He identified the man in charge and asked if they needed a hand.
“We’ve got enough guys here but they could use some help up at the high school. They need some strong guys to load sandbags onto the trucks.”
Brad thanked him and started up toward the school, moving through deserted streets. Even the main street was quiet, the angled parking spots mostly empty. It felt like Twilight Zone, a show he’d seen on cable while trying to fight insomnia at his parents’ place in Ohio.
He stood aside, feeling his pulse rise, as another dump truck inched its way down the street. Strange how small the vehicle looked now after the equipment he’d used in the war. He’d always loved equipment so he requested assignment to a construction unit when called up.
He spent most of his time building temporary bases in Saudi Arabia. He never expected to see combat, but then he hadn’t counted on the Iraqis building huge sand berms along the Saudi-Iraq border, anticipating that the Coalition might try to hook around Kuwait through Iraq. The barriers of sand had to go, and that would take construction equipment.
The engineers would set off explosives they had buried on the U.S. side, leaving a mess of sand piles and craters. Foot soldiers would rush to the top of the remaining berm, and suppress any Iraqi fire, while the bulldozers from Brad’s unit made sure the route was flat enough for the tanks to crash through and make a right hook around Kuwait.
Simple, but Brad was nervous. His mind had adjusted to the idea that he wouldn’t face combat. It wasn’t until he understood that for a brief period his bulldozer would be the front line that he realized how much he’d come to accept being a non-combatant.
Waiting beside his machine under oily black skies, stars obscured by smoke from the fires the Iraqis had set in the oil fields, he gradually noticed a slight tremor. He thought it was fear or cold, until he realized it wasn’t him: it was the earth. He lifted the flaps on the side of his helmet, and pulled the headset away. The earth was vibrating and he could hear, above the noise of the machines near him, a distant rumbling from thousands of engines: tanks, trucks, Humvees. Hundreds of years of human creativity had produced an organism powerful enough to shake the world.
When the call went out at one in the morning, everything went smoothly. He’d barely settled into the seat and started the engine when the sky lit up. In the flashes of light, he saw sand rise and move like waves, clouds of it billowing skyward. He rumbled forward and for the next half hour drove the machine hard, smoothing, scraping and piling.
Then a call over the radio: “Bravo Company, pull aside. Cavalry’s coming through.” Brad backed his machine behind the berm, and watched a cavalcade of tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees power through the gap and disappear into the desert.
If only I’d stopped there. But he knew it wasn’t that simple. He would have learned what they’d done eventually.
At the high school, a small banner hung in the parking lot: “Volunteer Sign-In”. The desk was manned by a tiny ancient lady with a nest of perfect white hair. “Hello, young man. Are you here to volunteer?”
Brad nodded and then signed where indicated. The lady turned the clipboard around. “Brad Blackburn. Any relation to Herb?”
“Are you visiting us, or here permanently?”
What did that mean? What was permanent in a world that shifted and changed like sand dunes? “Permanent as anything I guess.” She pointed to one of the people supervising, and he found himself piling sandbags into a front-end loader.
It was mindless work and he was okay at first. He concentrated on the sights and sounds in the parking lot. The buzz of conversation. The warning beeps from equipment backing up. The pure physical motion of lifting each sack and dropping it onto the pile.
But all around him he heard the screech and squeak of sand against shovel blades, variations in the sounds from different types of metal and varying levels of effort. He felt it in his teeth. Then it migrated to the back of his neck, and down his spine.
He tried to ignore it but he was surrounded. All other noise faded. There was only the sound of shovels hitting sand, an irregular rhythm, like rain on a roof or a distant gun battle.
He concentrated on his breathing. Deep belly breaths, that’s what the therapist had suggested. “Bring the breaths fully into your stomach. Push your belly up as far as you can.” Sometimes it worked, but he found it hard to do while carrying heavy sandbags.
And then he saw the two children. A boy and a girl, on their knees, using their hands to fill vividly colored toy buckets. He watched their fingers carving furrows, five narrow rows. Tunnel vision started, his gaze narrowing to those thin fingers dragging through the sand.
“Hey buddy, you okay?” Brad realized he’d stopped right by the scoop of the loader, blocking anyone else, frozen in place for an indeterminate period as if someone had pressed the pause button. He lowered the bag, and tried to speak, but all his saliva was gone, the moisture replaced by silicate. He licked his lips and swallowed hard.
“Yeah…uh…I’m not been feeling so well. I should have eaten more this morning, I guess.”
“They’ve got food in the gym.” The man pointed, and Brad thanked him. Then the man gestured at the tattoo on Brad’s forearm: “Where did you serve?”
Since returning from the Gulf, Brad had done what he could to keep people from knowing he’d been in the military. The short hair he’d always had was now almost shoulder length, and he’d thrown out any clothes with military symbols. He normally wore a long-sleeved shirt to cover the insignia on his forearm, but carrying sandbags was hot work so he’d stripped to a t-shirt.
Brad touched the tattoo lightly before responding. “I was in the Gulf.”
The man nodded. Then the inevitable question: “So what did you do over there?”
“I drove a bulldozer, that’s all.” Then he took the man’s leave.
After the tanks rolled past and they received the order to dismount, Brad and one of his buddies walked through the gap to admire their handiwork from the other side. A Disney World of light and fire bubbled in the east. They could see a plume of dust marking the tank column’s path. The rumbling lingered, now joined by deep thuds from artillery shells and bombs although it remained silent in their immediate vicinity.
Turning back toward their lines, he thought he saw something move by the base of the berm. He squinted and wished he hadn’t left his night vision gear in the cab of the bulldozer. “Barnes, can I borrow your goggles?” he asked.
“Yeah, why? You see something?”
Barnes handed him the goggles and he pulled the contraption over his helmet, adjusting the straps until the eyepiece was in the correct spot. He switched them on, turning the world phosphorescent green. There was something moving, over where they’d piled sand. A small bush or a limb from a tree? It seemed to wave up and down as if stirred by the wind. Except there was no wind. Just still desert air.
He zoomed in. It wasn’t a tree. It was a human arm. It lifted from the sand and the fingers stretched skyward. Then it wavered and dropped back to the desert floor, where it shuddered and undulated, before lifting again, this time not as high.
Brad dropped to one knee and pulled the rifle off his shoulder. “What is it?” Barnes asked, dropping down beside him.
“There’s an arm in the sand over there.” Brad pointed.
“An arm? What the hell? Should we check it out or call someone?”
“Don’t know.” Brad scanned left and right but didn’t see any other movement. “Let’s take a closer look.” The two men held their guns ready as they crept closer.
Now Brad could pick up detail, noticing a bit of shoulder and some black hair in the sand below the arm. It was an Iraqi, desperately trying to pull sand away from his face. Brad glanced at Barnes, and the two of them dropped to their knees and began digging. The man had trouble breathing, so Brad poured some water over his face to wash off the sand, and then poured a little between his lips. Barnes continued pulling sand away, freeing the man’s arms. It took another five minutes until they had removed enough material to drag the Iraqi out – he had no energy to help himself.
As the freed soldier guzzled water, Brad noticed something else nearby: a small dark object that didn’t fit on the desert floor. He eased toward it. A running shoe, upside down. He nudged it with his rifle before realizing it was attached to a leg. He pulled but couldn’t move the body underneath.
Barnes had radioed their platoon commander for instructions, and a party of soldiers had joined them. Brad walked back to the group. One was fastening plastic handcuffs around the Iraqi’s wrists as he sat in the sand, legs crossed. “There’s another over there but he’s dead,” Brad reported.
The lieutenant nodded. “We’re going to find a lot more. There were hundreds of ‘em in trenches behind these berms. A lot of them got buried, I guess. Other units are reporting the same thing up and down the line.” A pause, then an afterthought: “Good work, men.”
There was embarrassed shuffling. Brad looked around but they were all taking advantage of the darkness to keep their reactions to themselves. The lieutenant gave orders to fan up and down the berm to look for more Iraqis.
If only I hadn’t walked off alone. He thought this sitting by himself in the high school cafeteria. He looked down and realized he hadn’t eaten the muffin he’d grabbed. Instead he’d pulled it apart, reducing it to a pile of crumbs in which he’d created random images with his fingers.
He watched an old lady, a carbon copy of the one who’d checked him in, make her way from table to table, talking to volunteers and picking up empty cups and plates. Before she could get to him, he stood up, scooped the remains of his muffin into his coffee cup, and walked out.
He found the canoe where he left it at the waterfront and with a wave at the men still down there, he pushed off into the flood. He drifted south until he saw the farmhouse crowning the bluff. Back from Europe with a British war bride and a newfound need for quiet, Brad’s grandfather had convinced his own father to let him build a separate place a mile away so he wouldn’t have to start his marriage surrounded by brothers, sisters and parents. A temporary arrangement until his parents retired and his siblings moved out, when they could sell the new house. But somehow he’d never left and now on the back-end of the twentieth century he was still perched above the river, alone except for Brad.
Brad knew he was being set up when his parents raised the idea of him moving to look after Granddad. “He’s all by himself out there, at least two miles from anyone else since that family stopped renting the old house. Now that he’s getting his hip replaced, he’ll need some help.”
True enough, but Brad knew his parents were worried, didn’t like seeing him drifting. He’d always been focused. Straight into the army after high school, did his service and got the experience to go to get a good job at the tractor plant. He expected to return to his supervisor position after his tour, but when he visited his old boss, he found half the plant shuttered, the equipment moved to Alabama, and the rest scheduled to follow, leaving only a maintenance facility. As a vet, he could have stayed on, but someone else would have lost a job, probably a guy with a family to support. Brad lived at home and didn’t even have a girlfriend, having broken up with his girl shortly after returning, unable to face her expectant looks and persistent need to fill the silences.
With no job, he spent his days disappearing. Taking a fishing rod and flowing up one of the creeks. Driving the roads on auto-pilot, one hand loose on the steering wheel, the other holding a luke-warm Bud. Driving right angles across endless undulating hills. Anesthetizing himself until three or four in the morning with endless reruns.
Until the suggestion from his parents put him into his pickup truck plying the roads to the house where he’d spent so many untroubled summers. The porches sagged a bit more and the white paint now shaded toward gray, but otherwise it was the same place. Easy to settle into, like sand in an hourglass.
As he pulled the canoe toward the lawn, he saw Granddad wave, indicating Brad should stay in the canoe. Brad held the boat just offshore until his grandfather drew close. “You got time to go over to the old house? I want to make sure everything’s okay over there.” Brad nodded and then pushed the canoe partway onto the lawn so Granddad could climb in. He dug the paddle into the muck hard to push them off, then directed the boat around the bluff away from the river.
Paddling through shallow water over flooded farmland, Brad could see their sideroad rising from the water where the flood had reached its furthest extent. He aimed for the road, figuring it’d be easier to walk there than try to go through the fields.
Sliding onto the hardpacked dirt, Granddad slowly got out and tried to pull the canoe up further, with little success. Brad finally hopped into a few inches of muddy water and helped. Then the two men ambled toward the farmhouse.
The house had been empty for years. Neither of his sons were interested in farming, so when he retired, Granddad rented out the land. In turn, one of the farmers had used the house for temporary workers. But after the last family had moved out, no one had moved in. The house needed too much work. But having grown up there and knowing it had been in the family for a century, his grandfather couldn’t abandon it. They’d closed it up instead.
Now it looked forlorn, the front lawn a jungle, and the air filled with the sickly sweetness of rotten apples from untended trees. They went to the side door, and Granddad worked the key into the ancient lock.
The house smelled abandoned. Brad waved an arm and watched the dust swirl like smoke. He noticed mouse turds all over the kitchen floor. He’d have to visit more frequently if they were going to get a handle on the mouse problem. He poked under the kitchen sink to see if there were any obvious openings.
A metallic bang startled him. He stood up to look through the gritted kitchen window. A piece of metal flapped on the shed in the backyard. A nail must have come loose and then the wind went to work, straining and pulling more nails up until the corrugated steel rippled in the breeze, each crack of the metal against the shed like a rifle shot.
Even though he could see it moving and knew when the noise would come, he still flinched with each sound. His hands locked on the kitchen counter.
When the sun rose over the desert, the company was spread out, still digging and finding more Iraqis. It had been the same all night: lumps here and there that turned into men with sand in their nostrils and fingernails torn out where they’d tried to claw their way out the sand, dying like entombed servants of ancient kings.
Between the heat, the smell, and the constant discovery of dead men, the platoon was flagging, and the lieutenant considered withdrawing them. But then they’d find another live one, and be spurred to continue digging.
Brad eventually found himself alone, two hundred meters away. I’d better turn back, but then he saw movement, a gray wraith shimmering on the desert floor. He pulled the rifle off his shoulder and walked closer.
It was another Iraqi, coated in sand and almost invisible. He faced Brad, upright but buried to the armpits, like a victim of medieval torture, except he’d freed his arms and scooped weakly at the sand around him. His head drooped and he didn’t notice Brad until he spoke: “Let me help you, pal.” The man’s head rose imperceptibly as Brad lay the rifle a safe distance away and offered water. Then he set the canteen down and started to dig.
As he pulled sand away, he discovered that this man, like many they’d found, wore a short-sleeved dress shirt instead of a uniform. At one time it was white, but now was stained brown and gray with sand and sweat. The man had the same thick mustache as many Iraqis, although he was so emaciated that it looked glued on, like a costume.
This is our war. We buried a bunch of dirt-poor draftees in the sand. He tried not to think.
Once he’d cleared enough space, he sat on the edge of the hole behind the man, grasped him under the armpits, braced, and started to pull.
The Iraqi let out a groan, and then a babble of Arabic, arms flailing. “It’s okay, buddy. I’ve almost got you out.” He must be crazy after being buried all this time.
Brad started to lever the man’s body to loosen the sand. The man cried out again, and Brad wished he’d learned more Arabic than “Put your hands up” and “Do you have any other weapons?”
The Iraqi looked up at him pleadingly, sputtering sounds didn’t seem like Arabic or any other language. He’d passed back through time to a place before language, when humans communicated with grunts and gestures.
Brad shifted his feet to get a better position, then gave a final hard pull and felt the man’s body yield.
He was blinded by hot, sticky liquid. For a microsecond, he had the odd thought that it was oil, that they’d discovered a new well in this empty place. But the man’s scream dispelled that notion.
He fell back, and used his shirt sleeve to wipe the liquid from his eyes. It was blood, dark and rich. Now he could see the corrugated metal in the hole, cutting into the man’s leg. It must have been part of the roof of the trench that had been here.
The man hadn’t been begging Brad to free him but pleading for him to stop as Brad had been sawing his leg against sharp metal. And with his final yank, he’d driven the steel cleanly into the Iraqi’s femoral artery, drowning them both in blood.
The Iraqi shrank quietly in Brad’s lap. He looked up, not with hostility, but with a lowering of his eyebrows and a pursing of his lips, the look of a disappointed father. Then he turned his head to the west, and spoke: “Allahu Akbar.” He said it again, and then, voice fading and eyes fluttering shut as his head dropped to rest against Brad’s thigh, he whispered something longer and rhythmic, like one of Granddad’s river prayers.
Brad put a bloody hand on the man’s back and whispered, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” But the soldier was gone, dead in Brad’s lap.
He scrambled backward to escape, hands scuffing in the sand, pushing himself to his feet. Arms flung over his head form Brad’s rapid retreat, the dead man looked like an arrow protruding from an expanding red circle on the desert floor. Brad looked about wildly. Then started up the berm, boots digging into the sand, calves tightening and screaming as his feet slipped backward. He pumped harder, sweat burning channels down his back, thighs shaking. He drove up and up until he was suddenly on top, collapsing onto his hands and knees, rasping for breath, blinded by sweat.
When he could breathe again, he rolled back onto his haunches and lifted his head. His hands hung loosely over his knees, coated in blood and sand. If I stay here, if I never wash my arms, they’ll dry in the sun and I’ll be sandpaper, I can rub my arms against things and make them disappear.
He pulled off his sandy, bloody t-shirt, poured water onto it, and tried to scrub his arms, succeeding only in carving paths through caked blood and sand. He pulled off his boots, then stood and dropped his pants. The blood had soaked clear through. His t-shirt was a ruin so he pulled off his underwear, soaked them with the remaining water, and dabbed at his arms and legs. But it was no good: he only spread the stains.
He stopped and raised his eyes to the horizon. Across the board-flat desert were hundreds of oil well fires, towers of dirty yellow flames topped with violent clouds of black, acrid smoke. Above him the sun shone brittle and pitiless, draining the little moisture from the air and intensifying the distant blackness. It looked like the smoke, fire and sand had combined into the mother of all sandstorms, the one that would devour the earth.
He looked down, arms spread back like a parachutist, and realized he was prepared for the end. Naked, body tattooed in patterns of mud and sand and blood, he was marked for a ceremony, an ancient tribesman perched on the edge of the plains.
“You okay, boy?” Granddad’s voice startled him. He was conscious suddenly of an ache in his forearms from gripping the kitchen counter so tightly.
“I guess so.” He exhaled sharply, hearing the air quaver as it escaped. He dropped his arms to his sides, but they wouldn’t stay still, twitching upward and falling back as a struggle played out in his synapses. “Just thinking about…” He stopped.
“The war?” When Granddad said this, Brad shivered and nodded. Granddad grunted softly. “Stuff stays with you, doesn’t it.”
He moved next to Brad and, after a moment, started to speak quietly. At first, Brad didn’t hear the words. It was like when Granddad spoke about the river: a flow of muttered sounds, a mantra. But then he heard the word “war” and started listening.
“There was a guy in my unit. A kid. Hell, we were all kids. We were in the Ardennes. Cold as hell. Living in foxholes with no warm food or clothes. Germans shelling the living hell out of us. We were in the woods, or what was left of them, treetops all blown to splinters, near the edge of this open field. Couldn’t walk out there or the Kraut snipers would pick us off.
“Anyway, this kid seemed like anyone else, no better, no worse. But something got to him. Don’t know what. One morning I hear all these voices shouting, kind of rippling up from back in the woods. I was in a real forward position, see. And I know it’s different from normal sounds. There’s no gunfire for once. No shelling. So I don’t know what’s going on.
“Then I see this kid walking toward me. Walking hell: he was marching. Arms swinging like he was on the goddam parade ground. I couldn’t see no gun. No weapons at all. Jesus, he wasn’t even wearing his helmet. Just marching with this intense look on his face.
“Other guys were calling, telling me to stop him, he was going to get shot. He was walking right past my trench. I started to get up. He was a little guy. I’m sure I could have handled him…”
Here Granddad paused, eyes cloudy and loose, and Brad noticed he was gripping the sink the same way he had. He cleared his throat. “I couldn’t do it. Felt my heart racing. Figured if I stood up, I’d get shot. I thought maybe if I yelled at him, I could snap him out of it. So I called out. Can’t even remember the kid’s name now. Can’t remember what I said. But he kept going, and then one of the other guys raced past me.
“Snipers waited until the other guy caught up and then plugged them both at the same time. Must have thought it was a helluva fun game. Right through their foreheads.” He stopped, lower lip trembling.
“Nothing you could have done about it, Granddad. You’re right: if you’d stood up, they’d have shot you, too.”
His grandfather nodded. “Oh I know. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. Things just happen. Maybe good intentions are enough.” He turned to face Brad. “Question is, do you know that?”
Brad froze for a moment then turned back to the window. In the next field, an irrigation system pivoted slowly, a rainbow appearing as its angle changed to catch the sun. Water pouring onto the earth only a few hundred feet from a river overflowing its banks. The two men watched until Granddad finally turned and shuffled over to the basement door.
After he’d dropped off Granddad, he paddled back out on the river. He drifted with the current, using slow lazy strokes to steer around debris: garbage cans, coolers, lawn chairs, anything not tied down. He drew close to a cow, spinning slowly on its side. Head down as if grazing, hooves perfectly aligned, he took it for a suburbanite’s life-size lawn ornament washed down from the north. Only when he was almost on top of it did he discover it was real and very dead, stomach bloated obscenely. Poor bastard. Too slow or stupid, or it got trapped and now it’s drowned.
Then the cow snagged on something and stopped moving. He backpaddled too late: the canoe hit the cow hard, and then turned sideways. Brad felt the equilibrium shift toward the tipping point as water poured over the gunwales. He reached out with the paddle, intending to brace against the carcass to keep himself upright. But he heard a voice: let it go.
He dropped the paddle and kicked out of the boat, arcing backward into the cool water. For a long moment, he hung below the surface, holding his breath without effort, light glowing through the phosperescent water. Suspended particles drifted with the current.
Then he exhaled and rose to the surface where he rolled onto his back and floated, arms outspread. Eyes closed, he let the current carry him, listening to the hum of the river. He opened his eyes, saw scattered cirrus clouds in an indigo sky. Rolled his head to mark the river bank, and saw birds fluttering through treetops silhouetted against the sunset. He felt lighter than air, like if he kicked hard enough, he’d rise above the river and hang like a helicopter.
He rolled onto his stomach, swam to the canoe and began to bail it out, as the current carried him away from his temporary island.