Monday, August 5, 2019

Above Water, fiction by Brandon Barrows

The sky roiled. Heavy, low-hanging clouds hid the setting sun so completely it might as well have been night already. Morgan downshifted, the decrepit Camaro’s gearbox protesting the sudden change, as he took the tight turn onto the long, narrow, pitted dirt road that served as his Uncle Mike’s driveway.

He brought the car to a stop in front of the rusty, once-blue trailer, surprised to see there were no lights on inside. He’d expected to find the old man either preparing supper or already eating it. The Camaro’s struggling engine died, making the area eerily quiet for a moment. As he climbed out of the car, a raspy shout broke the silence. “Out back, whoever ya are!”

It was Mike’s voice. Head swiveling, searching for the source, the young man’s heart started to beat faster, a mixture of apprehension, fear, anger and more than a little shame coursing through his veins. He didn’t really want to see his uncle. It wasn’t that he disliked the man; he didn’t feel like he knew Mike Hughes well enough to like or dislike him. Aside from a few, rare childhood encounters, he’d really only met Mike the year before. What he hated was that he had nowhere else to turn, that he’d been reduced to begging. Again. He couldn’t let those feelings show, though.

A moment or two passed and then Mike came trundling around the side of the trailer, squinting against the gloom. “Who’s ‘at?”

“It’s me, Uncle Mike. Morgan.”

“Oh, hello there, son.” He approached, stuck out his hand for a shake. It always struck Morgan as odd, a little uncomfortable, having his uncle call him that. He’d never known his father and it was too late for Mike to take his place. With his mother’s passing the year before, though, Mike was the only family he had left so he guessed it didn’t matter what the older man called him.

Morgan shook his uncle’s hand, feeling the coarse skin stretched tight over fragile-seeming bones. He was suddenly acutely aware that it would be Mike’s seventy-third birthday in a few weeks. Something like jagged little fingers flicked at his insides. “How you doing, Uncle Mike?”

“Lousy,” the other man said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Damned well’s stopped up. Hope to god I don’t need to get someone from town out here. Lord knows what that’ll cost to fix.” He shook his head, the sparse white strands that clung to his pink-skinned skull bouncing back and forth. “Suppose you got money trouble again?”

The words ripped right through to Morgan’s core. Having his uncle see through him like that hurt. It was also a sort of relief, though, Mike bringing it up first. “Not trouble, exactly…” He hesitated. “I could use another loan, though, Uncle Mike. Just to help me get a few things squared away. You know, keep my head above water.”

Mike snorted. “It’s only a loan if you pay it back, son. This would be the fourth, as I recall.” He turned on his heel, headed towards the trailer. “C’mon inside and we’ll at least have some supper since you’re here.”

The rain the sky had been promising all day began to fall. Morgan followed his uncle into the trailer house.


Nothing more was said of the money until after they’d eaten a sparse meal of kielbasa and beans. Hardly anything at all was said, in fact. Mike tried a little football talk, but Morgan didn’t follow the sport and the older man gave up, lapsing into silence.

When nothing was left but dirty dishes and scraps, Morgan finally said, “Tell you the truth, Uncle Mike, I am in trouble. I’ve gotten in with some folks who ain’t very nice.” He swallowed around a lump in his throat. “Or patient.”

The set of Mike’s jaw hardened, the stubbled chin jutting out a little. “Gambling again?”

Not trusting words, Morgan only nodded.

Mike stood, tall and thin. He went to the window and threw it open, letting in the cool, moist evening air. The light from the window danced on the shifting water droplets clinging to Morgan’s car, parked on the bare earth in front of the trailer. Somewhere nearby, a night-bird screeched its displeasure at the storm.

There was trouble in the man’s eyes when he turned back towards his nephew. “How much?”

Hope surged in Morgan’s chest. “Twenty-five hundred.” That wasn’t even half of it, but it would get Carson off his back for a while, give him time to figure something out.

Mike lowered his gaze, shaking his head. “Can’t do it, son. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

Black anger washed over Morgan, smothering the little flicker of hope he’d felt a moment ago. He grit his teeth. “Uncle Mike—”

Head still wobbling back and forth, Mike said, “Morgan, keep in mind that I’m on a fixed income and I’ve already ‘loaned’ you at least that much. I worked hard all my life and I ain’t rich. I can’t drown myself keeping your head above water. I can’t give you no more ‘til you pay back what you owe.”

The younger man struggled to tamp down the anger, burning like acid in his guts. Mike just didn’t get it. He had to make his uncle understand. Morgan’s mouth began to move rapidly, the words falling off his tongue, tumbling over his lips. Almost babbling, he told Mike about the dog fighting, the huge bets that he couldn’t cover, how strangers had been hanging around his house. He didn’t mention the beating he’d taken a week ago, the cracked ribs that still ached, or the little Smith and Wesson revolver he’d taken to carrying, stuffed into the waistband of his pants. That, and the tiny, ramshackle house he’d grown up in, were the only things of his mom’s left that he hadn’t yet sold, trying to raise enough money to appease Carson’s thugs. He’d had to slip out of his own home in secret just to come see Mike and even then, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t been noticed. He didn’t dare go back without something to give them.

Mike looked long and hard at his nephew. The face staring back at him looked too much like his younger sister’s. He turned away, wishing he had a better answer for the boy. “I can’t do it, Morgan. I’m sorry.”

“God damn it!” Angry, scared, desperate, Morgan leapt from his chair, bumping the rickety old table, upsetting the dishes with a clatter. “Don’t you get it? They’re going to kill me! I can’t go back without—”

“Then don’t.” The older man’s eyes became watery as he stared out the open window. “You’re welcome to stay here, long as you need to. I’ll put you to work. Plenty to do around here.”

Morgan’s mouth twisted into a look of disgust. “Live in this shithole, in the middle of nowhere? You’ve gotta be kidding.”

The older man’s anger stirred, but it was a weary sort of anger. He felt very old as he swiveled back towards Morgan. “It ain’t the middle of nowhere… it’s less’n eight miles from town and I happen to like it. I got my privacy and I got friends nearby.” His eyes strayed to the clock above the door. “In fact—"

“I don’t care!” Morgan roared, unable to hold back any longer. He’d have that money if it killed him because not having it would kill him for sure. “This is my life, you penny-pinching old bastard! Don’t you understand? I’m—”

Frayed patience snapped. “Not getting one red damned cent ‘til I die!” Mike yelled back. “Then it’s all yours, but until then, I’m through! You hear me?” He could hardly believe the nerve of the boy, begging from one side of his mouth and insulting from the other. No, not the boy – the man, he corrected himself. Despite how Morgan acted, it had been years since he could rightfully have been called a boy.

And Mike had finally had enough of him.

He regretted not being closer with Myrna and her son until it was too late, until his sister got the news that she was terminal. Exhaustion, overworking herself for long years after she should have been taking it easy, all to support her son, to get him out of innumerable ‘scrapes’ as she called them, may not have killed her, but he knew it hadn’t helped, either. The thought of it, the memory of the wasted shell Myrna had become, and how he’d never known until they had no one else to turn to, saddened and infuriated him. Despite those feelings, he’d made a mighty effort in those last few months, and the time since, and he’d come to love Morgan in a way – the way you still love a troublesome child you feel you’ve somehow failed. Morgan wasn’t Mike’s failure, exactly, but he couldn’t help how he felt.

Love didn’t mean breaking yourself, though. It was time for a hard lesson.

“You’re a grown man, Morgan. Your mama’s in an early grave but I won’t let you do the same to me. You climb into that rattle-trap of yours—” he thrust a skinny arm towards Morgan’s Camaro, outside the still-open window, “and don’t you never let me see your face again unless it’s purely social. I hear one more word from you about money and I’ll—”

Black anger turned suddenly red and an inarticulate scream ripped from Morgan’s throat. Before he knew what was happening, he was on the old man, the little revolver in his hand and pressed to his uncle’s temple. He jerked the trigger once, twice and then dropped the weapon, the horror of what he’d done coming down on him all at once. Uncle Mike stood a moment, as if paralyzed, a look of shocked disbelief on his face, and then he crumpled like a string-cut puppet. He fell to his side, spasmed, flopped over onto his back and then was still. Thick, dark blood seeped from his ruined head, pooling on the peeling laminate of the floor.

Morgan screamed and collapsed to his knees, his pulse thundering in his ears, his heart slamming into his rib-cage so hard it hurt. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath and he felt like vomiting. He didn’t know how long he stayed there, staring at the thing that had been his uncle. Minutes, hours, days for all he knew, passed, until finally his pulse slowed, his chest stopped hurting and his lungs filled normally. He rose slowly, his eyes still glued to Mike’s body and the irregularly-shaped oval of red beneath his head, like a bloody halo.

He felt like he should say something, like something needed to be said. He took a deep breath. It came out as: “Serves him right, the old cheap-ass.” He surprised himself. Was that how he really felt? Had part of him been planning this all along? He shook his head. It didn’t matter now. It wasn’t like he could take back what he’d done.

“Yeah…” he said, half-aloud. “I had to.” Mike was an old man, one foot in the grave already. And he’d given Morgan the idea after all. Not one red damned cent ‘til I die, Mike had said. Money was no good if you didn’t use it and Morgan had serious use for it. It was Mike’s life in exchange for Morgan’s. That seemed like a fair trade. How much longer could the old man have lived, anyway? Morgan had his whole life ahead of him.

He did now, at least. Wouldn’t Carson be surprised when he paid off in full? It’d be nice to finally have a little peace of mind. He laughed out loud at the thought.

His train of thought derailed suddenly, snapping him back to the present like someone had flipped a switch. Something had caught his attention, though he wasn’t sure what. He stood listening. The gun hadn’t been very loud and Mike’s trailer was in the middle of nowhere, but Morgan wasn’t sure if there were any neighbors on the other side of the patch of woods that the property abutted. He realized, too, as he stood listening, that he was somehow clutching the gun again. Wouldn’t that be fine, if someone investigating the noise showed up and found him standing over the body, gun in hand? He shook his head at his own foolishness. Maybe Mike was right, maybe he did need to grow up a little, think things through a little more. Maybe—

No, no time for that. He stuck the already-cool gun back into the waistband of his pants. He moved to the cramped bedroom of the little trailer, opened the door of the shallow closet and took from it the battered old cigar box where, he knew, Mike kept his cash. The old man didn’t trust banks, he’d said once, liked to keep everything he owned where he knew he could get his hands on it. That was perfect for Morgan.

He opened the box and let out a gasp. It was empty – no, not empty. Morgan tilted it into the harsh light of the bare bulb overhead and saw, lying flat against the bottom, a leather booklet, long and thin. He plucked the thing out, tossing the box onto the unmade bed, and opened it. It was a bank book. Morgan’s jaw fell open. There was a tightly scrawled line of text across the top of the ledger: “DEPOSIT - $7,133.” It was dated just over a week earlier.

Morgan dropped the booklet. He licked dry lips then let out a little chuckle of disbelief. “That old bastard…” He’d banked the money, put it where Morgan couldn’t touch it. Had he seen this coming somehow?

Morgan laughed again, but it was hollow. It sounded almost like a sob.

He collapsed on the edge of the bed. His thoughts raced. What now? He couldn’t go home, not empty-handed. He sure as hell couldn’t stay here. His eyes fell to the bank book, on the floor near his feet. Over seven grand, everything Mike had in the world.

Everything Mike had.

It was all his now, Morgan realized. Mike had said it himself, it’d be Morgan’s when he died. Something clicked in his head. He began to feel better. Sure, it’d take a while to get his hands on it, but the money was his now, wasn’t it? He was Mike’s only family, after all. Carson would get his money, just as soon as Morgan got it. If he knew it was coming, Carson would wait, wouldn’t he?

And the money wasn’t all, either.

Morgan stood, looked around. The trailer was a shithole, but Mike had owned the land it was on. Selling it would bring in a nice chunk, for sure. He’d be set for a while. And with both his mom and Mike gone, why even stick around? He could sell the house, too. It wasn’t much better than the trailer, but it was worth something. With that kind of money, for the first time in his life, he could make plans. Get out of this hick country, get out of the state entirely, even. Maybe go north, to Pittsburgh. He loved that damned city – the bright lights, the clubs, the stylish women. It’d be nice to go and know you had enough to make more than a night or two of it. Hell, if he was going to a city, maybe he’d just keep going, head all the way to New York. He’d always wanted to see if it lived up to the hype. And why not?

A sudden splatter of rain against the bedroom window drew him back to the moment. The return to reality cooled his enthusiasm. Before he could make any plans, he had to have the money and to get it, he had to make sure he wasn’t caught. For a few minutes, he’d let himself forget what he’d done. That was dangerous. Even he knew that much.

He racked his brains. First, he should get rid of the gun. That was for certain. Then what? Maybe the best thing to do was go home and wait for someone, the police or whoever, to tell him that Mike was dead. He frowned. No, that wouldn’t work. He’d stopped at the Wawa by the crossroads and put a couple of bucks’ worth of gas in the Camaro. The clerk had tried to make conversation, but Morgan wasn’t in the mood and had brushed him off. The guy might remember that and even if he didn’t, there was probably security footage of Morgan.

No, he’d be better off reporting Mike’s death himself. He’d get rid of the gun then call the police, say he’d found his uncle dead. The cops would probably suspect him, but without the gun, what could they do? He’d seen enough television to know how important the murder weapon was. Without it, all they could they do was suspect and, when all was said and done, hand him the money.

But he was getting ahead of himself again. He needed to get rid of the gun before anything else.

Mike had mentioned that the well was giving him problems. Morgan decided that it might just be the solution to his.

He left the bedroom, went down the trailer’s narrow hallway, through the living room, out the back door, flicking on the outside light as he did. In the darkness and the rain, he found his way to the tiny well shed. In the scant light that reached the shed, Morgan saw that the cap was off the well and a small pile of tools was scattered around the base of the housing. Morgan peered down into a pitch-black hole, six or eight inches wide. He saw nothing, but didn’t expect to. He had no idea how deep the well might be, but it didn’t matter – it was deep enough for his purposes. He pulled the gun from his waistband, allowing himself a tinge of relief that it would soon be over. He took one last look at the thing that had changed his life, and tossed it down the hole. It banged and scraped off the sides once, twice, then landed somewhere below with the faintest splash.

The rain was coming harder as he tromped back towards the trailer and by the time he reached the rear door, he was soaked. When he tried the door, it would not open. Panic gripped him. When he’d left the trailer, he’d simply let it swing shut behind him. It had never occurred to him to check whether it was locked. Now, he was locked outside and Mike was still inside. . .

Calm down, he told himself. Front’s still open. He made his way around the side of the trailer, following the path Mike must have when Morgan had arrived. He rounded the corner, walked the narrow space between the house and where Mike’s battered Ranger was parked, then froze. Distant sounds, muffled by the storm but recognizable, stopped him. A car was coming down Mike’s road, approaching rapidly.

“Shit!” He hunkered down in the darkness beside the bulk of Mike’s truck, fresh fear soaking his brain. The road wasn’t long. Whoever was coming would be here any second.

Before he could think of anything, a splash of headlights swept across the front of the Ranger, hurling shadows over Morgan’s head. An instant later, tires rasped to a stop on the wet dirt and gravel.

What now? Had he been seen? If he hadn’t, there was still a chance, but he couldn’t let them find him first. Crouching in the rain and darkness would look guilty as hell.

He stood, pushed his way through the night towards the front of the trailer and the newcomer.

From the cab of a big F250 came: “Mike? That you?”

Morgan knew that voice. Wade Linklater, one of Mike’s town friends.

A second voice added, “Mr. Hughes?” That one Morgan didn’t know.

He stepped out of the shadows that clung to the side of the house. “Mr. Linklater? It’s, it’s me – Morgan Hughes. Uncle Mike… Uncle Mike’s been,” he choked on the last word, “killed.”

“What?” Linklater shouted, hopping down from his rig. Over his shoulder, to whoever remained in the truck, he called, “I knew something was wrong when Mike didn’t show at the rec center. In eleven years, he’s never missed Wednesday night poker.” He crossed the distance to Morgan. He was a big, stern-faced man, not as old as Mike, but with decades on Morgan. “When I called and he didn’t answer, I was afraid he’d collapsed again, had another one of his episodes. Figured we better get out here, but I never imagine. . .”

Called. That was it, Morgan realized. What had brought him out of his earlier daze: the ringing telephone. He’d been too stunned then to even realize what he’d heard. Shit. Linklater was saying, “What did you mean ‘killed,’ Hughes? What the hell’s happened here?” He spoke with an air of authority that reminded Morgan of something he couldn’t quite grab hold of.

Morgan kept silent. He’d planned to report Mike’s death himself, get it out of the way, but everything had happened so quickly, he hadn’t even thought of a story to tell. Now, it was too late. He didn’t know his uncle had a regular card game or friends who’d come looking for him if he missed it. He didn’t know anything about the ‘episodes’ Linklater had mentioned. The information was no good to him now. All he could do was brazen this out.

“I, I, I—” he stammered.

“Let’s not stand out here in the rain, Wade. Won’t do us or Mike any good,” the second voice said, climbing down from the truck. In the light of the headlamps, Morgan saw he was a small, neatly-dressed man wearing rimless spectacles. A compact, black bag was clutched in his hand. “C’mon inside.”

The little man led the way into the trailer. Linklater followed ponderously. When Morgan stepped inside after them, he saw the stranger staring down at Mike’s body with a critical eye. Linklater, too, was staring but his face was angry and his lips moved soundlessly, as if the words couldn’t find their way out.

The stranger spoke: “Well. . .cause of death certainly isn’t in doubt.” He sighed.

Linklater nodded, turned towards Morgan. “What happened here?” The voice was like steel. Morgan felt compelled to obey it. What he’d forgotten about Linklater came to him then: the man was a retired sheriff’s deputy.

“I was coming to visit Uncle Mike,” he began, piecing the words together as they came to him. The story had to be believable, but vague enough to be difficult to prove one way or another. “I heard shots, right before I got up to the house. I mean, I thought I did. I couldn’t be sure with this storm.” He swallowed, ran his tongue across his lips. The other men’s eyes bore into him like hot irons. “I found Uncle Mike like this, and I thought I heard the back door, the one off the living room, open so I ran out that way, trying to catch whoever’d shot Mike, but I lost him in the dark, I guess. When I came back, the door was locked, so I had to come around the side and then you all were here.”

“How long ago was all this?” Linklater asked.

Morgan thought. What was safe? He couldn’t tell the truth. “Twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, I guess. I, I wasn’t looking at the clock or anything.”

Linklater looked at him long and hard, his gray eyes peering out from beneath furrowed brows. “And you weren’t, by any chance, the one who ate supper with Mike, were you?” He gestured towards the table and the remains of their meal.

Keeping the panic from his face was difficult, but Morgan managed. He hadn’t even thought about supper! His fingerprints would be all over the cutlery and the can of Coors he’d drank. How to explain that if he’d just shown up?

“I… I didn’t want to mention it, but when I showed up, I’d driven straight from home—it’s more than thirty miles—and I was starving, and there was still some of the food left out on the table so, I—”

The smaller of the two men spoke up, “So you sat down and ate dinner with your uncle’s body lying on the floor a few feet away?” Disbelief was evident in every syllable.

Linklater glanced from Morgan to the other man, said, “How long has Mike been gone, doc?”

Doc? Morgan thought with a start. His eyes fell again to the black bag the man carried. A sick feeling spread through his belly.

The man called “doc” knelt, pressed his fingers to Mike’s neck, to his wrist. He held a palm over the dead man’s mouth and then pressed it to Mike’s forehead. He stood, shaking his head. “He’s still pretty warm. Half an hour, I’d say. Maybe as little as fifteen minutes.”

“I heard the shots!” Morgan cried, unable to stop himself. “I told you that, I told you when it happened. I—”

Linklater looked like he wanted to spit. “And I heard you say it. Doesn’t mean I believe you.” He turned to the third man, “Ben, get on the phone to county dispatch. I’d love to deal with this myself, but. . .” He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to; the look in his eye said it all. “And you,” he turned back towards Morgan, “Sit down and stay put.”

The fear and anger in Morgan exploded. He screamed, “You think I did it? Killed the only family I got?” Spittle flew from his mouth. “You’re crazy! Tell me how I did it, then? He was shot! So where’s the gun, huh?”

Linklater pushed him backward towards the chair he’d sat in while he’d eaten with Mike. Had that really been less than an hour ago?

“Sure,” Linklater said. “I’m the crazy one.” Powerful hands forced Morgan into the chair and then moved over his body with practiced, searching movements. “No gun on him. What do you bet that’s what he was taking care of when we showed up?”

Ben only shook his head sadly as he moved towards the telephone on the kitchen counter.

A frantic minute passed. Ben spoke on the phone in quiet tones. Linklater’s eyes scanned the room, but always came back to rest on Morgan.

Morgan’s heart felt like it was going to burst. His chances of escape were zero. Less than zero. If he ran, Linklater would be on him before he reached the door. And even if he did escape, where could he go? Carson was waiting back home and he had no way of going anywhere else. Hell, there wasn’t even enough gas in the Camaro to go more than forty miles, maybe. All he could do was stick to his story. It wasn’t a good one, but he’d covered all the bases, right? And the gun was gone. That was the important thing.

“All right, see you soon.” The phone was hung up. To Linklater, Ben said, “Deputies’ll be here shortly.” He threw a meaningful glance at Morgan. “They’ll get this sorted.”

“It’s already sorted,” Linklater said.

Morgan shook his head. “This is crazy. I just—”

“Convicted yourself, whether you realize it or not. I don’t know why you did it, but you’ve as good as confessed already. Get up.” He grabbed Morgan’s arm and jerked him to his feet.

“What are you—?”

“Shut up,” the former deputy snarled. “Come outside.”

Morgan’s knees wobbled and he stumbled. Linklater all but dragged him out of the front door of the trailer. It was getting hard to breath.

Something in Linklater’s tone sent tendrils of ice down Morgan’s spine, terrifying him more than anything else had so far. Had he missed something? No. It was impossible. He’d covered every angle. He’d admitted nothing. This was just a tough old man, angry at the death of his friend, trying to shake something loose. He couldn’t prove anything. All he could do was suspect and bully and try to trick Morgan into slipping up.

Outside, the rain had slackened, but showed no signs of stopping. The bare dirt and gravel in front of the trailer was soaked and muddy, and dozens of tiny puddles shone in the light spilling out of the open door and window. Linklater, still gripping Morgan’s arm tightly, stopped just past the trailer’s steps. Ben stepped down beside them, as curious as Morgan was afraid.

Linklater pointed. “Right there, smart guy.” Morgan thought Linklater was pointing at the Camaro. It stood right where he’d left it, dripping with rain and shining in the light from the house. He couldn’t see anything wrong, didn’t understand what Linklater was getting at. Ben took a step forward, tilted his head and gave out a little cry of realization.

Morgan looked from the car to Linklater, then to the other man. The fear was on his face now. What had he missed? What was it that Linklater had found? If he didn’t know, he couldn’t explain it away, he couldn’t—

Linklater said, “You told us you’ve been here half an hour, but it’s been raining more than an hour already. The ground is soaked, there’s puddles everywhere, and yet—” The big man shook Morgan like a rag-doll. “Look, you murdering little shit! Look under the car!”

Morgan looked and his legs went limp. Linklater released his grip at last and Morgan fell backwards into a mud puddle. They were everywhere – except beneath the car. Underneath the Camaro was a rectangle of gravel, dry and grayish-white, protected since before the storm hit. An area just about the size of a jail-cell’s door – or a freshly-dug grave.

The pain in his chest seemed to explode and grow outward, touching every nerve in his body. It felt like drowning.

Brandon Barrows is the award-nominated author of the occult-noir novel THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which have been collected into the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is also the writer of nearly one-hundred individual comic book issues. Find more at and on Twitter @BrandonBarrows.

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