Thickness of Water

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A collection of dark short stories vaguely tied to themes of family

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Inherited Interest

James Warren always jogged north, toward the river. The last day of his life found him two miles along a southwestern route. James was alone, in shock, and looking at what remained of the last person to have endured the situation he found himself in. His last hours taught him that, under maximum terror, the pounding of a heart was strongest in the throat, not the chest or ears. His throat was dry, ached from screaming, and the rhythmic thump-thump of blood was exaggerated in every angle of his twisted body. At times, during moments of high adrenaline, he had often felt his heartbeat in his chest. If he exerted himself physically, he felt it in his ears. This was different. This originated from fear.

He screamed.

Four months ago, Mrs. Warren moved out of their house and into an apartment. She took the cat, the coffeemaker, the best television, and his recliner. His Tuesday morning brought divorce papers, a fresh wave of anger, and a second fist-sized hole in the bedroom drywall.

Wednesday morning James parked in his old parking space, grabbed his waist pack, and started along his normal jogging path. He ran every morning at six o’clock. This particular day he arrived at seven. The recent company downsizing allowed quite a bit of freedom in his workout schedule. He still maintained his exercise routine as a way to control something in his life; every other aspect seemed to change at the whims of others. James’ thin frame spoke of a disciplined runner, his red eyes of a middle-aged and soon to be divorced unemployed HR manager.

Overall, James was not having a good summer. He knew things would change, and he decided the changed would start Wednesday morning. One block north of his car he turned around. Change would start small, with his jogging routine. He headed south, snaked around the buildings in Radcliff Kentucky, and ended up heading southwest at a brisk 8 mph pace. Chest and ears pounding in unison.

No one would care about his change of course, or bother James on his run. Radcliff was a simple town, coated in southern politeness, ragweed, and work ethic. Few of the population worked in the business district, and fewer would be late for work on a Wednesday. Nobody bothered a soul in Radcliff. At least, not since Tara Cunningham went missing.

Tara Cunningham changed Radcliff 30 years ago. She left her ninth grade field trip with a boy and never returned. Being the Police Chief’s daughter, her disappearance marked the only time Radcliff had ever made the national news cycles. The teenage couple had walked away from the lake, and deep into the woods. They walked alone and in secret. The boy ran off and hid. He later told police he only wanted to scare Tara, returning a few minutes and hoping to find a clingy and emotional teenage girl.

James thought of Tara as he ran toward the lake. Every resident thought of Tara when near the lake. Most of the people in Radcliff avoided Lake Swanson, and only the kids swam in its deep waters anymore, being too young to have experienced the idea of her drowning there.

At least once each year, someone called the police with a tip on the missing girl. Most tips involved strings, ribbons, or scraps of old clothes. Tara had a habit of removing the ribbons in her hair when she played outside. She tied them around her ankles. Tara was eager, like most 14-year-olds, to dress and act like the way they thought a 20-year-old might. Tara’s mother was eager, as most mothers of teenage girls are, to keep her young.

James instinctively scanned the woods for hair ribbons as he took a dirt trail to some hills a few miles from where he started. The older citizens of Radcliff still kept an alerted eye on the lookout for hair ribbons that would have faded of color over time. James’ vigilant approach was unique in his thirty-year-old age group. James had good reason. Tara would have been his Aunt.

He did not notice any ribbons, but did spot a bright blue tarpaulin covering something several yards off his path. He was about a half mile into the tree-lined trail when he stopped. James stared at the tarp, caught his breath, and drank from the water bottle on his hip. He guessed he would find the temporary camp of a homeless man passing through town. James hopped over fallen limbs, roots, and rocks as he approached. He picked a long stick up off the ground and made his final steps on the balls of his feet. He was ready to run if needed.

Two steps away he grabbed a rock the size of a grapefruit. James now had his offensive and defensive plans established. He slid the longer instrument under the tarp with care, one inch at a time, hoping to upend the cover in one motion. One foot into the job and the stick stopped. Something had obstructed its path, something heavy, judging by the way it seemed from the other end of the six-foot limb.

Thoughts of Tara filled his mind. As the pounding in his chest began to affect his breathing, James decided to act. He tightened the grip on his weapon, pivoted away from the tarp, and flung the end up and over itself. He began his run before his stick had reached its resting place on the ground.

Twelve feet away he chanced a glance. Twenty feet away he stopped and stared. He was stunned by what he saw. Horrified and angry, but mostly embarrassed. A rock was all that lay underneath the tarp. He walked back, flipped over the cover, and realized the plastic concealed nothing. Tara disappeared a generation ago. Any sign of her would not sit so visibly, bright and blue after thirty years.

James wondered if his wife had left him because she thought he was a coward. He had walked away from every fight, refused to ask for a pay raise, and avoided ex-boyfriends whenever the couple encountered them. James always believed he was taking the smart path, not the cowardly one. He made his second change one-half mile into the deep woods of Radcliff Kentucky. James Warren would no longer be a coward.

He stood tall near the towering trees. With an extending chest, he turned in tight circles, almost hoping to spot a challenge he might confront. He did not see humans, bears, or wildcats. Just the lazy tarp now half covering a vine-covered bush.

As he pulled back the tarp, the bush shook, giving James a quick glance at a hole in the side of the hill. Had he not been keen for hidden danger, the space likely would have gone unnoticed. He placed his hip against the bush and found his small flashlight in his runner’s pouch at his back. He rarely ever put the tool to work, only for the darkest of morning runs. He thumbed the switch and shined the light.

The obstructed hole hardly had enough room for a child. Roughly the diameter of a trash can lid, the entrance extended through three feet of rock, dirt, roots, and the general foundation of greater Radcliff. James held his light to the mouth of the hole, but his flashlight was not strong enough to light whatever rested beyond. The newly courageous jogger knew what to do. After two deep breathes, James hoisted himself, head first, into the chest high cavity. He crawled forward. As his shins entered the shaft, his head penetrated the other side.

A room-sized cave burst out of the small opening and rose two stories above the ground. Before sliding forward, James surveyed the enclosure. He was courageous now, but not stupid. His first look calmed his fear; the cavity was free of animals. The slower second examination told him he was not the first person to enter the cave. Sparse graffiti crudely marked a back wall, likely drawn from loose rocks. A few names and a handful of dates met his eyes, but nothing remarkable or significant. The most recent date was from eight years ago. A back left corner of the room held a small pile of empty beer cans. The remains of a long-extinguished fire owned the back right.

James dropped into the room and explored. His adventure came to a quick end, little existed for him to examine. He drank some from his water bottle and then walked back to the entrance. Never figuring to return to the cave, James took one last view before leaving and spotted a second hole.

Just stomach high and maybe a little wider than the entrance, this second hole led to darkness. Four feet from the wall, the hole turned a sharp left at ninety degrees. He reached in, but his arms would not reach the turn. James found a small stone and bounced the pebble off the narrow walls of the tube-like passage. The stone disappeared in the turn, but he heard the object hit a wall and fall to its stop just beyond sight.

James placed the flashlight in his mouth and hoisted himself into the second opening for a quick look. The walls and floor were very cool to the touch, but dry and rough. One peak around the corner told him the tunnel did not end at the turn. The rock he had tossed must have hit the three-inch ridge running along the right side wall. James held his flashlight in front, but the dim tool barely illumined the next two feet. He tossed the rock for the second time. He heard it bounce down the rock corridor for many yards.

The turn would be tight, but James had enough room to be up on his knees, so he placed the flashlight back into his mouth and twisted to the left. Another foot in and his fingers inched over a ridge, just one foot below the floor on which he was crawling. The inside walls seemed to open wide, so James continued. He crawled his feet up under his waist and moved to do the same with his hands. He extended his right hand, leaned forward with his weight, and dropped it on a sharp unseen stone.

On pure instinct, he retracted his right hand, shifted his weight to the left, and hopped his left hand forward to take the shift. But the one-foot ridge was just one-foot wide. James’ support hand landed on a cool wet slope and shot forward. With his full body mass a few feet above his hands, his body moved into the darkness.

His right foot managed to catch hold of some rough patch in the tunnel, holding him from falling further in. His flashlight had fallen out of his mouth and gone out. James could not see his hand in front of his face, but felt the trickle of blood running down his extended fingers. He lay against the slick rock, angled toward a destination he was unable to assess.

Any shift in his body might loosen the tenuous hold his foot had on the floor. He spread his hands as far as they would go, but felt no wall. The sloping floor was smooth as glass and wet with condensation. His only hope was to maintain his foothold while he pulled his torso up. If he could get a hand on the ridge along the side wall, he might be able to pull himself out.

The moment he began pulling his body up, his toehold gave, plunging him down a slick, dark, slide.

His body skidded over a few small bumps as he raced into the unknown. James had no control over his path. The floor began to tilt, making him shift to the side, and bounce against an angled wall to his left. His speed began to slow, but still, he shot deeper down the abyss. He shoved his left hand forward to protect his head, and his right hand to the side, hoping to latch on to something.

He dropped what must have been 30 more yards before he noticed that the grade eased and his speed slowed. Hs right arms raked against a few larger stalagmites, but his descent was still out of his control. He quickly moved to turn himself around, so his feet would land first, but his plan came too late.

The passage narrowed quickly, like the end of a funnel. Before he was able to respond, his right arm pinned against his body, and his speed rapidly decelerated as he wedged into a tight cavity. His feet hung in the open behind him, but his knees only had a few inches of room. His head was wedged against his left shoulder, and his right arm felt broken.

His left hand scurried across the ground but found little more than a few scratch marks on the otherwise smooth surface. The walls pressed tight against his shoulders, chest, and hips. James frantically tried to twist and move, but he only slid forward another inch. His head faced the right side, with a slight angle forward. His eyes darted around in every direction, but his jawbone rested snug against the wall. A spot on his head began to throb from an impact collision.

His heart pounded against the rock prison, and his throat owned every beat. He wiggled his right fingers as much as possible, but only felt the water bottle, still attached to his hip. Each movement of his hand screamed an ache through his entire side.

His breathing sped and the restriction on his head brought the terror of lifelong fears to reality. Childhood nightmares turned adult phobias turned real. A coffin, buried in the earth, or trapped in a cage. Each nightmare had at least allowed movement of his head. He could look around, assess the situation, and control something. This situation had his movement confined, his head trapped, and no lights. Worse than the worst nightmare his brain could ever conjure.

He tried to pull with his knees, hoping to scoot backward until they could find leverage against the widening just beyond them. The wall pushed tight against his butt, and each push with his knees was met with equal force behind him. Like a stopper in a wine bottle, he had landed snug on all sides.

Tears streamed down his face, and his heart was ready to explode through his mouth. He could not breathe. As the walls prevented full breathes, panic overtook him. James screamed and twisted as much as possible and lost consciousness.

Minutes… Hours… Days…

James woke to find his situation no better. He now had no concept of time. Each wave of panic brought gasps for air as his chest was unable to expand to its fullest. The restricted airflow made him use shallow gasps, leading to dizziness, and then to more panic.

He cried until the realization of dehydration made him stop. He figured a successful rescue depended on him being found before lack of water killed him.

Three to five? He recalled reading that a person was able to, under reasonable conditions, last three to five without water. The time frame must have been days. He couldn’t go weeks without a drink. He squeezed at his water bottle hoping to spill its contents forward, but nothing happened. Could his condition be considered reasonable? The temperature worked in his favor, probably a cool 65 degrees, but the broken arm and downward angle were not ideal. If only he could move his head.

He screamed.

He figured his jammed body muffled the outgoing sound. The long descent into the earth didn’t help. He screamed again, just to have something to do. James wiggled and twisted against the unyielding rock, frantically forcing his head to search for a weakness. Blood began to trickle down his cheek. Water would be cool. Sweat would move quickly. Blood was slow and warm. He sensed torn skin on his scalp, and oddly the pain was distant. He knew the gash hurt, but compartmentalized it in his brain.

His throat began pounding again. He tried to calm himself. His left hand began scurrying around the open space beyond his head. His middle finger gently brushed something. He brushed it again and fought back tears. Something sat just beyond his reach. He had no idea what it was, but it felt manmade. Like a piece of rubber. Like an old car tire. Whatever lat there was of no use to him. Had he been smaller he might have been further in, allowed him to grasp the thing, or push against it.

His head was pounding inside his skull, his neck muscles knotted in their useless exertion. The cave had trapped him. He forced his fear into hiding and began to think of his rescue. James closed his eyes, took slow breathes, and his heart settled. A search party would come looking. Radcliff still reeled from Tara’s disappearance, and nobody would want to spend a moment with another missing person on the communities mind. He needed only think logically about how the police would react.

First, a report of a missing person would be issued. He could trust the police to gather within an hour to gather facts and recent photographs. The force would scour the streets and search his home. The police would contact his friends first, and then visit stores he frequented to ask questions. Within another two hours train, bus, taxi, and car rental places would explain how they had never seen the missing man.

By nightfall, a team of nearly fifty would begin a methodical grid-by-grid search from where he parked his car. Once one of them noticed the tarp, he would only be a few hours from any rescue. He needed to relax and save his energy for the next few hours. He could survive a day in his trap.

But a few obstacles fought their way into his thought process.

Who would report him missing? He was out of work and estranged from his wife. They spoke about once a week anymore, and last spoke on Tuesday morning. He had parked his car in his usual spot, so no alert would come from that. Even once the alert came, he knew the search would head north from his car. Everyone who knew him knew he ran toward the river, not two miles away from it. Even with 1,000 searchers, they would never think to go southwest. If someone did stumble upon his trail, and find the tarp, they would need to rustle the bush to see the entrance. And that is only the first obscured entry into his hell.

He recalled how he had almost not seen the first entrance, and almost not seen the inside ledge even once he entered the cave. His rescue would take a series of long-odds scenarios to align in perfect unison, and within three to five days.

He screamed.

Minutes… Hours… Days…

James woke to find a finger on his left hand resting against the rubber surface. He must have thrashed in his sleep, settling himself deeper into the hole. Perhaps he slept for a few days, and dehydration had shrunk him a few centimeters. The rubber ridges rumbled against his fingers. One the ground, resting beside the rubber, his fingers found a small round object. The flashlight! The tool must have landed just a small distance from his hand. He rolled the object toward him with his fingers, grabbing tight once he was able.

He found the thumb switch and pushed forward. The click sounded like a gunshot in the quiet confinement. His eyes registered the light now shining beyond his head. He blinked and allowed his eyes to adjust to the new light.

He pushed against his shoulder with all of his strength. His head turned a small amount. He strained his eyes ahead. James saw shoes in front of him. And two small hair ribbons neatly tied where an ankle once lay.

He screamed.

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