RETURN TO PINEY CREEK
by Steven Lester Carr
There's Russell. Lying on the bank of Piney Creek he feels the sunlight on his bare chest. It lays across his skin like a thin layer of sterile gauze, warm and healing. The damp moss under his body provides a soft mattress. In the nearby pine trees black capped chickadees jump among the branches emitting their squeaky chirps. From inside the pine forest the nasally groan-like call of a bull moose echoes out. The air is alive with gnats and butterflies. Only inches away from his feet the clear water gurgles as it rushes over eroded stones. He feels the gentle breeze fragranced with the forest scents as it washes across his scarred skin. He sits up and then leans over and looks at his reflection in the water. Running his fingertips over the ridges and grooves in the skin on the left side of his damaged face, he watches as a school of minnows swim by just beneath the surface of the water.
With every bump on the dirt road, Russell's pickup truck that needs an alignment bounces and rattles, shaking his entire body. He has both of the windows down and the dirt kicked up by the truck's tires has formed a hazy cloud inside the cab. He can feel the grit on his tongue when he runs it across his lips and between his teeth when he bites down. On the seat next to him is a license plate he found stuck in the mud along Piney Creek's bank. It's a fairly new plate and although slightly bent, the numbers on it haven't been tarnished. He has it weighed down with a black rock from the creek; a rock so smooth it felt like glass as he lifted it out of the water. There are blood-red streaks that crisscross its surface. He can see his reflection on the rock. Without slowing he exits the dirt road and turns onto the paved two lane road leading into Maysville. He slams his foot down on the brake bringing his truck to a screeching stop. The car he nearly collided with, also headed for Maysville, stops also.
Russell can feel his heart thumping wildly. He sits back in his seat. Blood trickles down his chin from where he bit into his lower lip.
Carl Laughton gets out of the car and walks over to Russell. He sticks his head through the passenger side window. “What the hell is wrong with you, Russell? You could have gotten us both killed.”
Russell wipes away the blood with the back of his hand. It's warm and sticky and adheres to his skin like syrup. “I'm so sorry, Carl. I wasn't thinking.”
“Well, at least no one was injured,” Carl says. He looks down at the rock. “That's quite a rock. You been down to the creek?”
Russell lays his hand on the rock. It feels cool, soothing. “Yeah. I hadn't been down there since getting back to town.”
“You should go up to the gorge,” Carl says. “That's where that miracle happened.”
“You haven't heard about it?”
Carl looks up and down the road. “This isn't safe standing here in the middle of the road. Meet me at Shiny Pete's later, around eight, and I'll buy you a cold one and tell you all about it.”
“If I can,” Russell says. “Debbie might want me to stick around the house.”
“Alrighty then,” Carl says as he slaps the truck with the palm of his hand. “You two have been through a lot. I can understand her keeping you within shouting range.”
Russell can feel his cheeks redden. “It's not that.”
“Maybe not,” Carl says. “If you can make it, I'll see you later.” He goes to his car and drives off.
Russell waits a few minutes before starting the truck.
The shower water is tepid. Russell holds his face up to the spray, turning his head from side to side, as always feeling the difference of how the water feels on each side of his face. The scarred skin around his left eye twitches when the water hits it directly. He closes his eyes as he runs the bar of soap down his chest and stomach, feeling it glide over the topography of his torso. He slowly turns, allowing the water to run down his back and legs, the only areas of his body untouched by the flames.
When he steps out of the shower the tiles feel slick beneath his bare feet. He drys off while looking at his reflection in the mirror above the sink. After eight months, he still has difficulty recognizing that the person he is looking at is him. The surgeries and skin grafts could only do so much. He wraps the towel around his waist and goes into the bedroom.
Debbie is setting on the edge of the bed with the rock in her lap.
“You sure you don't want to come with me?” Russell says as he begins to get dressed.
“No, thank you,” she says. She lifts the rock. “What kind of rock is this?”
He sits on the bed next to her as he puts on his shoes. Still without a shirt he can feel the warmth emanating from the skin of her bare arm. “It looks like a hematite, but I didn't think that kind of rock was found around here.”
She runs her finger along one of the red streaks. “These look like human veins.”
He stands up and puts his shirt on and tucks it in. “What are you going to do this evening?”
“I'm sorting the photographs. I'm still trying to see what photos can be saved. Being in storage all this time after being damaged by the smoke didn't do them any good.”
Sitting on the dresser, leaning upright against the mirror is the license plate. Russell runs his fingers across the top edge.
“Did you hear anything about a miracle up at the Piney Creek gorge?” he says.
“No. After losing Mia and almost losing you I know longer believe in miracles anyway.”
He goes to her and places his left hand on her cheek. Her skin feels warm and soft. The two missing fingers and scarred flesh of his hand seem out of place against the perfection of her face. He pulls his hand away.
“Are you sure coming back to Maysville was the right thing to do?” he says.
She gazes at the veins in the rock and says, “We grew up here. This was where Mia was born. Boston had too many bad memories.”
There's Russell entering Shiny Pete's. He walks into a fog of stale air mixed with the aroma of beer and peanuts that clings to his skin as he walks into the saloon. He's only been here once since his return to Maysville, and without looking at anyone directly, he can feel their eyes on him. The saloon is dimly lit, crowded and noisy. Peanut shells crunch beneath his shoes. He joins Carl who is standing at the bar.
Carl slaps him on the back, and then quickly pulls his hand back. “Sorry,” he says.
“The burns. I thought maybe . . .” His voice drifts off.
“My back didn't get burned. Besides, none of the burned areas hurt anymore.”
Carl waves at the bartender and holds up two fingers. The bartender nods and takes two large glass beer mugs from a counter and begins to fill them.
“I was really sorry to hear about what happened to your daughter,” Carl says.
“Thanks.” Russell glances up at the ceiling, feeling the slight breeze from the slowly rotating blades of a ceiling fan directly above him.
The bartender places the beers on the bar.
“I'll get this,” Carl says as he hands the bartender money.
“The next round is on me,” Russell says as he raises the glass to his lips and slowly drinks through the frothy head. The cold beer chills his throat as he swallows. “What was this miracle at the Piney Creek gorge you mentioned?”
Carl takes a long drink of his beer. “You would have never met Sam Whitaker because you didn't live here at the time, but he and his wife owned that large cabin for a while near the top of the hill on Ludlow Road. This all came out afterward, but seems he was depressed or crazy or something and was having hallucinations and seeing a guy in the rear view mirror of his mint condition 2010 Dodge Viper.”
Carl took another drink.
“Sam Whitaker decided he was going to kill himself so he drove at top speed down the hill and crashed through the guard rail at the turn headed toward the bridge. His car went off the cliff on that side of the gorge and while it was soaring over Piney Creek, the fellow, ghost, or angel, or whatever it was, lifted Sam out of the car and lowered him to the bank of the creek. The car crashed into the limestone wall of the gorge on the other side of the creek and blew up, dropping a large part of the car into the creek and scattering pieces of it all over. When they found Sam, he didn't have a scratch on him. Word has it that the whole incident cured him of whatever was ailing him. The Whitakers moved away a few months after that.”
There's Russell returning to Piney Creek. Water from the soggy moss wets Russell's bare feet as he walks the short distance to the creek. Bright moonlight carpets the the gorge and illuminates his naked body. The cool, pine scented air bathes his skin. As he steps into the swiftly moving current he struggles to keep his balance as his feet touch the slippery creek bed rocks and stones. The remaining taste of beer has soured in his mouth. He wades out far enough to be waist-deep in the water. He spreads his arms and opens his hands, palms up, and tilts his head back.
Staring up at the star freckled sky, he says, “Whoever or whatever saved Sam Whitaker, save me. When I started the fire that burned down our house I only wanted the insurance money. Lord knows I didn't mean to kill my daughter or disfigure myself trying to save her. I was lucky no one ever found out. Please take away the memory of what I did and remove the scars from my body.”
He stoops beneath the water's surface, and with his head submerged, he counts ten seconds and then stands. For just a moment his thoughts are about nothing other than the feel of the water cascading down his body. Then he touches his face and feels the scars, and then he remembers it all, every burning flame.
Steven Lester Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 530 short stories published internationally in print and in online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June of 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel, 'Red Bird', was released in November of 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, twice. Steve is on Twitter and on Facebook.
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