THIRD PLACE: Of Peace and Pardon
By Henry (Hank) Rothrock
She sat in the aluminum boat with a numbness that traveled through her veins and out of her fingertips like cold rain from a rusted gutter. In this boat so much had happened. She had watched those most precious to her be taken away far into the darkness of the forest’s void. In the boat were three and she was the only one of the original four. Before everything happened she probably would not have noticed the existence of the two that now sat beside her. At these final moments she needed them not only for protection, but also for something she could not express or fully understand. Both were smart in a common kind of way, which seemed to be of the most importance for current survival. How long had Danny been gone she wondered feeling with her fingers the markings she had made on the inside of the boat’s edge. The answer amounted to weeks and she quickly tried to forget she thought of such a question full of hopelessness and dread. Instead she switched her thoughts to what they all had learned.
First was that it was important to keep the rubber and plastic on for protection from the water. A splash here or there would only cause a rash, but if one were left in it for up to a minute the skin would already start to peel away. Second was to stay with the boat in the water and in the middle of the river. If they got too close to the land they could be attacked and taken like Danny or killed like Richard. Survival on the land seemed impossible and the only reason to bring the boat to it was to quickly grab goods. Third was the water of the river was poisonous, but the rainwater was not. Though this did not make any sense to her it seemed to be a fact. She still routinely tested the water caught in the bucket from rainfall on her skin every time before drinking it like a Catholic priest intoning the “Our Father.” Fourth was they now appeared to be all alone on the river. When it first happened the river was packed with other boats floating along side each other like bumper cars at the fair. She had thought the whole thing some type of freakish social experiment. As time went on people would switch from boat to boat growing tiresome of their limited company. Whenever the river would narrow the boats would sometimes become jammed like blood platelets rushing to the end of a cut to clot the wound. Becoming panicked many of them would cause the boats to capsize or spring leeks from unnecessary collisions that could be avoided if anyone out there on the river had an idea of what they were doing. This was a far cry from the white water rafting trips she had taken in college with the paid and overzealous guide. These people were idiots because fear was written all over them causing a plague of stupidity. In one such impact she had her finger smashed and broken between their boat and another’s. The fourth of the original four in the boat, Mr. Lippey, had given her a stick to bite down on before Richard aligned it. She remembered Mr. Lippey well, an old man with round glasses and tiny teeth.
“Carol, bite down on this.” Mr. Lippey had told her and he then turned to Richard and asked, “How long have you been a doctor?”
Halfheartedly Richard responded, while still looking at Carol and her finger, “Eight years,” he said and then violently straighten the mangled finger as she bit down on the wood so hard she thought it would snap.
She spit out the wood and said to Mr. Lippey, “He’s a fucking dentist.”
She remembered her words like razorblades across her kneecaps. She could have been better to Richard and she should have been. She knew this, but it was not new that she did. Just months earlier they had been on vacation and that attitude she held in her bathing suit with her butt in the sand was not that different from the one she held now covered in the wet and the grayness of it all. Richard was always her song and dance man and she was always there to be cheered up. Their roles seemed sorted out and stuck like a gnat on caramelized looking flypaper.
Now Richard was not around to cheer her up and Danny, her little Danny, was not to be found. She was not a woman that carried any kind of hope in her old life and she couldn’t imagine starting to now. In the present Richard, Danny, and Mr. Lippey had been replaced by the old and fat woman named Wanda who smelled like a soggy dog that rolled in coffee grinds and Darrell, a beastly looking man with his unkempt red beard and his black stained hands. She saw the way he looked at her every once in awhile grabbing that thing behind his pant’s buttons if only for an instant. She was grateful that the rumpled Wanda with six layers of sweat pants was there to dissuade his primal desires. Though his appearance said otherwise Darrell was not in the sense of the term a heathen. He didn’t speak much, but when he did it consisted of his past. She did not understand this denial of the present. On a personal level she did not see any sense in it. It was not as if they had anyway of going back to their past lives, their suburbs, their homes, or their luxury vehicles. That was gone and everyone saw all of that turn to ash. Still she did not say this to Darrell because she didn’t need him tapping into his primordial caveman rapist. She needed him to remember that at one time he was a lawyer, that he had a daughter, a son, and a wife. The situation called for him to have hope they were still alive somewhere down the river that never seemed to end.
The three of them didn’t talk much; instead they just floated by in silence. Every once in a while Darrell would point out ahead at something jutting out of the riverbed, while Wanda’s eyebrows would widen only to find a build up of miscellaneous items from the wreckage. Toys, clothes, scrap metal, sticks, and grass all crowed the curved corners of the river. These hopes kept his eyes peeled constantly and made hers roll every time. She didn’t ever hallucinate and see Danny running through the woods next to the river. She didn’t imagine him sitting next to her with a crumpled up nose and bushy hair. She just sat in the boat in the middle of the river with rubber boots on and a makeshift jacket she made out of a plastic bag. She sat there and judged the other two and this kept her distracted in ever moment except her dreams.
Diversion is something she had always lived with and revealed in. At home she would have the radio on and the television at the same time. From the house to the car she wore headphones until entering the car and turning the key with the dial already turned up and on. If she were in a common social situation she would simply retrieve a book from her purse and read feverishly with the words moving horizontally across her brain blocking the discussions of storm patterns, little league games, and dental jargon. Sure it was harder to pull off in a boat with two strangers traveling down the same river that seemed similar to the repeating backgrounds in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. It was a challenge, but she still managed to ignore their quest for something more. She disregarded them all to well, yet in her dreams she still saw Richard’s death picture for picture and sound for sound. The way they came out of the woods all in white shooting fire from strange organic contraptions still frightened her. How quickly they took over the boat and pulled them to shore seemed almost super-natural. And then in her dreams she always saw Richard burning like he did. The only difference was at some point in her dreams it switched from what happened to something else. Richard stood in front and to the left of the others in white. He did not flail about anymore, but instead rested now with calm in his eyes as his flesh burned and sizzled. Danny placed himself dead center in front of her chanting words over and over again.
He repeated, “Give her peace and pardon, peace and pardon, peace and pardon.”
Her little angel — her little saint stood repeating these words like a machine that somehow evoked more passion within her than she had ever felt. Every night over and over again she had this exact dream and every night at the end of the dream before her eyes opened she got into the boat and left her husband there burning and her son still reciting.
And every morning she woke up and saw the other two still as confused as the days before. She knew where she was, but didn’t have the heart to tell them. She somehow knew that the river had no end and: the boats disappearing, the attacks to her loved ones, and the same dreams every night were there to persuade her. She knew the river would end for her eventually, but that she was not ready for this just yet. She knew this and the boat kept on like an old record turning.