deep breath

I wrote this story for a geography department art competition in university, to be completed in whatever form you wanted based on a series of photographs. I was the only entry and won first prize!

It's amazing how close the vibe is to another story I'm working on that had its genesis in the first attempt at writing for this contest. I suppose it goes to show how much geography, or pictures of a place, can inform a mood and influence a story.

Presented here with no editing, as "on the nose" as when I wrote it.


--Deep Breath--

            Tommy floated under the rail bridge face down.  Tommy floated under the wooden pedestrian bridge face down, not seeing the couple out for an evening stroll perched on the railing.
            “Is that Tommy?” asked the gal.
            “Atta boy Tommy!” said the fella.
            Tommy floated down a side channel, the overhanging trees forcing the setting sun’s darkening orange light into pleasantly nauseating dapples that played on the water’s surface.  If Tommy had been floating face up he could have been pleasantly nauseated.  Instead Tommy snagged on some roots and stopped drifting.  He stayed face down though, the creek darkening around him as dusk ascended, filling the land’s low spots before climbing slowly through the daylight.
            Rolling over without rush or worry Tommy refilled his lungs with one even pull before stopping his watch and looking down the tunnel of trees.  Gently blinking, the sun’s last efforts were enough to paint Tommy’s eyelids for only an instant before the white dots melted away.
            “Tommy, what was your time?”  The question pulled him from his reverie.
            Splashing through the river and shinnying up the supports of an overhanging balcony, Tommy stood dripping before his inquisitor before speaking.
            “12 minutes, 37 seconds.  Dead on.”
            “Were ya struggling?”
            “Not too bad.  Had to swim a bit to get into the channel.  Didn’t want to end up at the mill again.
            Lisa took his arm and gave it a peck on the spot he’d been cut a few weeks before.  Missing the side channel that carried him to his friend’s house had meant hitting the rapids by the old mill and getting smashed around a tad before he was able to get to shore.
            “I still think you should just practice on land.”
            “The water’s nice.  Moves me without me moving, I like it.”
            “It’s also wet and cold.  Take this towel before you catch a chill.”

            “What do you want to do?”
            “Let’s just walk.”
            Lisa’s house was old, at least the small town Ontario kind of old, which meant just over a century.  Made to last, out of limestone blocks, it had lost some of its grounds to younger brethren but still stood proudly on its lawn.
            Wearing the dry clothes he’d brought over earlier, Tommy breathed the cool evening air as only he could.  Looking at his slight frame of average height, verging on short, you wouldn’t guess what he was capable of.
            “Leave some for the rest of us,” giggled Lisa.  She slyly reached out to tickle Tommy’s ribs, forcing him to lose his breath in a startled hop.  “I’ll stop,” she said before her best friend could speak the protest that had quickly appeared on his face.
            “Smell the air.  It’s perfect.”
            A light mist had crept out of the river and that damp was now imperceptibly rolling over the two.  Freshly mown lawns, backyard fire pits and late barbecued chicken came with it.  Each smell held and seemingly thickened in the moist air, becoming a taste and something for a nose to savour.  Lisa followed Tommy’s lead, pushing softly through the night’s smells and matching his unhurried, unworried gait.
            “Are we going around by the fire hall again?”  The pair had just crossed the rail bridge, long rendered obsolete, with no rails running to or from it anymore, in either direction.
            “Guess we could,” said Tommy staring at the town’s big stone church and its blackened steeple, which pulled his eyes upwards to a star burning away furiously in the sky.  “Don’t you wish we could sit up there?  Or even in the fire hall tower.  Just sit back and look at the whole town in one go.”
            “It’s just we always go around by the fire hall,” Lisa’s voice carried a hint of exasperation.  “You really like retracing your steps.  Heck even your floats are the same each night.”  Tommy just smiled.  “You’re gonna have to walk some new routes soon though…I guess,” she added, wishing she hadn’t said it, but glad she had and not about to stop once started.  “I mean you’re going to New York for this Guinness thing, and I know you’ll get the record even if you won’t have a river to float in, but after that I don’t think you’ll want to come back here.”  Lisa was talking quickly letting things she had thought about at length tumble out on top of one another.  She was watching Tommy’s face, hoping for a response, any glimmer of stress about the fact they were high school graduates and about to enter a semblance of adult life, but she wasn’t holding her breath.
            “We can’t stay in place forever,” she continued.  “Sure we could just let the world move us, see where we end up, but it might be some place we don’t like.  Or worse still, with people we don’t care about…”
            They had stopped walking and Tommy was looking at the bank they were beside.  “I know,” he began hesitantly, unsure where to put his eyes, moving them from the building’s wall to the sidewalk.  “It’s not like there’d be anything here, I mean you’ll be gone.  I’ll probably get a job somewhere, like a different town or something, maybe travel.”
            His gaze passed over Lisa’s face, resting on her eyes for the briefest instant, long enough to register ‘sad’ and ‘confused’ before finding the bank’s wall again, unsure of how to continue.  “Why do you think they used this fake rock facing stuff?” he asked finally, picking at some loose mortar.  “It’s not like there’s a shortage of quarries around here for real stone.”
            “I don’t know Tommy.”  Lisa let her sentence hang there.  Wanting to press for more she knew it would be about as effective as struggling against a rip tide. “Hungry?”
            “I guess.”
            Lisa pointed at the Skye Dragon across the road, and over they went.  After checking for traffic of course.

            The Skye Dragon Restaurant and Pub, serving Canadian and Chinese food and fully licensed, hadn’t always had the “Cheap Food Late” that the sign proclaimed.  Mr. Lee, the owner and head chef, had been told earlier that summer that re-serving unsold buffet food repeatedly mightn’t be a good idea.  Taking the food inspector’s advice to heart, and not wanting to waste good, potentially profitable food, deals could now be had once more discerning clientele were gone for the night.  Sharing a quiet and reflective plate of chow mein, followed by a more ruminative half dozen chicken balls slathered in neon red sweet and sour sauce, Lisa and Tommy said very little while Mrs. Lee bustled around them with a broom.

            “Still want to go to the fire hall?” asked Lisa, back on the street and glad she had remembered a sweater.  September had apparently covertly crossed the border into August, at least for one night.
            “If you don’t mind.”
            “Not at all.  Maybe someone will have left the door open.”  The silence was uncomfortable for Lisa.  She was worried she might fill it with the wrong question.  “Why are these old wooden houses built right up on the sidewalk?” she asked instead.
            “More like why’d they build the sidewalk so close I figure,” Tommy was sure they’d talked about this before.  “Roads used to be for horses and they tended not to run at night, and if they did at least kept their headlights on low.”
            “Yeah,” she smiled.  “I guess when Mrs. Johnson moves someone will tear it down.”
            “Probably.  I figure sheltering one person’s entire life isn’t too bad for a house, not even counting the rest of her family that lived there.”
            Silence fell over the pair again until they reached the fire hall, and followed the well-worn path around back.  Checking the old rusted door more out of habit, than in the hope it would actually yield, Tommy was astonished when it drifted open quietly at his light touch.
            He looked at Lisa and back at the door, which his mouth had decided to mimic.
            “C’mon goofy, shut your yap and let’s go!”  Lisa laughed and ran ahead of Tommy into the darkness.
            The narrow metal ladder creaked and groaned as the two cautiously climbed through the musty blackness.  No hoses were hanging right now, at least none that could be seen or felt.  Neither Lisa nor Tommy was actually sure if the tower was still used, or if the volunteer department had a newer, better way to keep things dry.
            “There’s a trap door, I can’t move it,” Lisa hissed between her legs to Tommy.
            “I’ll try to open it,” Tommy whispered back.  “Why are we whispering?”
            “I dunno,” said Lisa at full voice, suddenly unnerved about how her words were received by the tower’s dank.  “I just like it better,” she breathed, managing not to jump when Tommy’s hand grabbed her foot.
            “I’m coming up.”
            The two found themselves face to face, at least that would have been a best guess, sharing the rungs of a ladder, barely built for one.  “I guess people were skinnier back then.”  Tommy braced himself, not wanting to put touch with sight on the list of senses currently not in use.  “Okay, hang on.”
            And she did, wrapping one arm around the ladder and another around Tommy’s waist.  He hesitated for a moment, and Lisa tensed, ready to release him if he asked, but Tommy said nothing.  Instead staring at the spot her face would be, he inhaled deeply, enjoying the feeling as his ribs and chest expanded into her arm, and then thrust his shoulder sharply upward.
            The trap door shuddered and popped open a few inches, letting an instant of light in.  Just enough to reveal Lisa’s face, serene and ethereal, with eyes closed and completely happy, before it clanged shut and darkness returned.
            Neither moved.
            “Did it work?”
            “Hmm?  Oh, yeah.”  Tommy pushed the trap door open and pulled himself onto the roof before turning and helping Lisa.  The two sat close on the roof and looked over the town, bathed in the buzzing yellow of streetlights and the clean light of a waning moon.
            “It’s a pretty town.  Look how dark the river is.”
            “Yeah.”  Tommy sighed distractedly.  It was a long sigh and Lisa looked at him.
            The breeze was stronger on the tower and Lisa pulled close, happy to be allowed to feel her head move up and down with Tommy’s shoulder in a slow, even rhythm.
            “You know, maybe you can come to Toronto with me.  Get a job or something.  I’ll be there for school so at least you’ll know someone.  I know the air gets to you, but you might get used to it.”  Tommy listened but didn’t respond, still looking at the river, partially obscured by trees and buildings, silently snaking its way through the centre of town.
“I think,” he began before pausing.  “I think I like to float because it’s a journey you don’t really control.  You lift your feet and the river takes hold and there are only little things you can do to steer.  Sure sometimes you end up some place you didn’t want to be, or it takes you longer to get there than you thought it might, but you get there.  Wherever that is.  Do you know what I mean?”
But Lisa didn’t say anything, she was crying.  Tommy hugged her warmly to him, feeling her body’s silent and gentle sobbing.  With Lisa pressed into his chest he thought he smelled something delicate and sweet, but it was carried away by the night’s breeze before he could be sure.  Probably her shampoo.  He liked that smell, tried to take a deep breath, but didn’t mind when it came up shallow.

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