Miss me, babies? Good. Squirm. SQUIRM, I SAY.
It’s snowing outside. It’s mid-March, it’s snowing, and I’m fucking grumpy for reasons beyond shit weather. But, by circumstances outside my control, I have been given a few free minutes to toss another Short Fiction Monday post into the interwebz. Today, it’s an excerpt from my WIP, Reaper, which will hopefully be in second draft form sometime next month. Thanks to a new project with a character who haunts my dreams (damn you, Tabitha!) the process is slow going. In any case, ease off the reports and enjoy the fiction. It’s the only thing that makes Monday tolerable.
The drop lasted less than five seconds, but when he looked up Oz saw nothing but blackness – like a starless sky – blackness so dark you thought of it only as nothingness. He landed in something wet that spilled over the sneakers Bard had given him and soaked his socks. It smelled like he’d landed in a backed up sewer.
A short distance in front of him, a faint, swinging light shone against the brick walls of – wherever this was. Oz assumed by falling into the crack in the earth he’d be entering Hell, but he’d yet to see any fire or politicians.
Walking on tip-toe to stay as far out of the water as possible, he inched toward the light.
The light, which turned out to be a lantern attached to the front of a small boat, cast a large enough glow that when he was close enough, Oz saw a group of seven or eight people huddled together behind a tall red-headed man in a grey mechanic’s jumpsuit. The man dribbled a blue yo-yo as he watched Oz approach. In the other hand, he held a small, tin bucket.
The name tag on his jumpsuit read, Arizona.
“You’re just in time. We’re about to shove off,” he said as he held out the bucket. “Drop your coins in here and we can be on our way.”
“You’re the boatman?”
“So you’ve heard of me? The name’s Arizona.”
“Spectacular. If you’d be so kind as to drop your coins then, Oz?”
He jiggled the bucket inches in front of Oz’s face.
“I don’t have any coins,” Oz said.
“That’s impossible. Sure you do. Maybe you just stuck them in your pockets and forgot. Unless…”
Arizona tucked the yoyo into his pocket and poked Oz’s arm with an extended finger.
“Shit. You’re one of them aren’t you? Fuckin’ A. Doesn’t anyone trust a man to do his job anymore? Now they gotta send one of you folks down here to make sure I’m not dumping Bas over the side or something? You people think that just because I spend my time talking to the shadows and learning how to ‘walk the dog’ that I’m not competent enough to pilot a tiny excuse for a boat across an even tinier excuse for a river? Huh? That it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Because I can guaran-damn-tee that you won’t find anyone else to do this thankless job in this stink pit.”
Arizona moved closer to Oz with each accusation, finger still jabbing his arm.
“No, calm down. I’m not here about your job. I need to find someone. A kid. He was brought down here by – by accident.”
Arizona shook his head noticeably calmer now that he knew his performance wasn’t up for scrutiny.
“Sorry, Oz. Can’t help you.”
“It’s okay if you haven’t seen him. Just take me across and I’ll look for him myself.”
“Can’t do that either.”
He jiggled the coin tin again.
Arizona turned away from him, preparing to load the group of Bas huddled behind him – oblivious to the interaction with Oz – onto the boat.
Oz cupped his hands and attempted to manifest a pair of coins for Arizona.
“Your tricks don’t work down here. It’s a whole new set of rules.”
He was right. No matter how many times he tried, the only thing Oz could blow into his hands was air.
“Please,” Oz said.
“I’m sorry. Really.”
He turned toward the Bas.
“Alright, now, everyone in.”
A plank formed between the boat and the stone step where they’d all gathered. They trudged across, one by one, until they were all seated. The boat was so small that they nearly sat on top of each other, packed together shoulder to shoulder. They didn’t seem to notice.
Arizona pushed the boat away from the step with the end of the stick that held the lantern, and as the plank sank into the water, as did Oz’s stomach and his hope of reaching Jamie.
No. It couldn’t be over. Not when he was so close. He knew Jamie was here. He felt it. He just had to find him, and in order to do that he needed to be in the boat. Fuck the coins. Fuck the rules. He’d broken them all so far. He wasn’t going to start playing fair now.
With little regard for what may or may not be lurking beneath the surface of the cloudy green river, Oz reared back and dove in.
It was like swimming through oil, slimy and clinging but not impossible to move through. Oz kept his eyes closed and pumped his arms in wide circles, hoping to hit the boat with his hand before his head.
Something cold and angry gripped his ankle and pulled him straight down.
In his panic, Oz opened his eyes and he felt as though they had been set on fire. Closing them again did nothing to cool the burn so he chanced a look down and saw –
A green and black abyss that went on forever. But the grip was there, cutting into his skin. Swirls of blood rose from his ankle as he was yanked further and further down. He looked up, lashed his arms and kicked the invisible attacker while looking for something, anything, to grip onto.
He was choking. The collar of his shirt had been ripped backward and dug into his jugular. He was going to die here. The oil-water rushed over his face. He’d lost all sense of direction. Up or down, it didn’t matter. His lungs were ready to give up.
Oz’s face broke the surface and something hard rammed him in the gut. The breath he held was expelled in a mucousy glop and he breathed in. And he breathed in again.
“Should’ve known you’d try something stupid like that.”
Oz gagged and was lifted by the armpits. His chin rested on the side of the boat.
“Nuh uh. You’re not puking in my boat.”
He couldn’t breathe again. His body was determined to purge everything from his system. Finally, it was over and his jaw ached. Soaked, Oz leaned backward against the side of the boat with his legs curled beneath him.
“Thanks,” Oz wheezed.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Arizona said.