This is a story written for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge.
I have wanted to take part for the longest time but have always found an excuse not to. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have time. The other stories were so good that I had no chance of winning (this actually still stands).
Part of the challenge is the prompt, this time the photo below, of a tree in fog. Chuck took the photo and it is reprinted here without askin’.
Well, I found some time and found some confidence and hammered out a little story after looking at the photo of the tree. I hope you like it. I think it’s a good one.
Bend, Don’t Break
As we carry our father’s body through the swamp I notice a tree in front of us that grows outwards, away from those around it. It seems to be reaching up to the stars, almost within reach now that it has left the view-covering canopy of its family.
I hold up one end of a carpet, rolled-up around my father’s body, through the swamp-darkness and think about the time he brought it home. He was drunk and smiled as he stood and admired it and told our mother that he “got the thing at half price from that Ay-rab store in the strip-mall.” It was colorful but thin, one of those fancy Persian rugs that had a repeating pattern sewn in. Our mother said something and he beat her and the blood-stain ruined the pattern in the carpet.
My feet sink up to the knee in the soggy ground and insects bite my arms.
“Keep your end up!” My brother holds the front end and leads the way. So it has always been. Somehow he learned to not love. It was me our father turned to when he felt that the family had wronged him after he struck our mother or my brother.
“I jus’, you know, get so angry because I love you all so much,” he would say. “You know?”
I always “knew”. And, secretly, I enjoyed being the one he confided in. I loved him for it. These were the only times he was tender, or showed affection to any members of the family. I longed for those moments, even knowing what preceded them.
My brother is a good fifty pounds heaver than me, at least, and yet I sink deeper into the swamp as we walk. And I think I know why; I’m carrying the heavier burden. By accepting my father’s excuses and explanations I allowed him to abuse the rest of the family. He made them crooked but I made him straight, after.
A sudden flash of enlightenment at the birth of my own child made me realize what I had done. The mother, sweaty and bone-tired from a long delivery; the child in my arms, small and feeble and new to the world. I cried out of love that day, and I cried for all the times my father patted me on the back after unloading his guilt for beating up my mother. Or my brother. Or both.
Now I walk behind my brother as we hold our father’s body in our arms and sweat, bone-tired. The world has been reduced to this swamp and the still-warm gun sticking out of my brother’s pants.
My brother shot him in the stomach from three feet away.
In hating our father all those years he had turned into him, as I knew he would, and in a rage of clarity Steve had driven, drunk, to our childhood home and pulled the gun on our father and shot him with a tear in his eye and curses in his mouth.
“I need you now brother,” he said on the phone, after. His voice told me most of what I needed to know and that this was one of those times you did not say no.
I sink knee-deep into the swamp and I stop.
“Dale! Don’t fuckin’ drag behind,” Steve says without turning around.
“I keep sinking. I’m not wearing the shoes for this,” I say and feel stupid. I never knew what to say to him. Could never talk my way out of the guilt.
“You and your fuckin’ shoes.”
I got a degree and got away and married a nice girl. Bought nice shoes.
The carpet moves then and I scream and drop it and my brother curses. The swamp immediately tries to take it away from us. Steve turns and shouts at me.
“What the fuck, Dale? It’s jus’ a few more yards.”
I almost don’t hear him. Just stare at the carpet.
“It moved. He’s not dead.”
There are noises in a swamp, but all we really hear is the pathetic moan from our father.
“Fuck!” Steve inherited our father’s vocabulary.
He pulls the gun out from his pants and tosses it to me. I almost drop it but then hold it like it’s a large insect trying to escape from my hands.
“Ok Dale, I’m going to unroll it now and you gotta shoot ‘im, right?”
Steve grabs the end of the “Ay-rab” rug and pulls. It unrolls and I see my father. His skin is pale, like the underside of a swamp-creature, and looks clammy. Blood all over the belly of his wife-beater. His eyes are open but do not see anything and his hands are splayed out. He isn’t moving.
Forever passes by in a few breaths.
I break the silence. “Maybe he -” and then he moves. Twitches and coughs and I point the gun and shoot.
The body now has another hole, right there between the lungs, in that organ my father had that beat but never loved.
Steve rolls the carpet up again and takes the gun away from me. He smiles. I see that he’s proud of me and I will forever hate him for it.
We dump the body into a deep secret place in the swamp.
On the way back I look at the tree again, the way it seems to be trying to get away from the others, the way it reaches up into the sky. The way it tries to distance itself from the trees around it. But the roots are deep, in there with the rest of them.