River of Fire

by Taylor Brown

The roar of outboards broke the marshland hush, throttles to the stops. The No Wake sign hung slightly crooked from a barnacled post in the marina, the red letters smeared by years of salt weather but still readable. Hunkered over a flat tire in his shop by the river, Hector Francis could identify the boat without looking: MVP, a tournament kingfish boat helmed by the big league pitcher who lived two miles up the coast. Built on a 36’ offshore hull, the boat was propelled by dual straight-six engines, 300 horsepower apiece, the throaty howl of them unmistakable in the otherwise still afternoon. The boat boomed full song through the No Wake Zone without slowing, whipping whitecaps from tidal blackwater.

Nobody bats an eye, thought Hector, shaking his shock of red hair. His own 13.5’ sea kayak could cut silently through the water, sleek as a minnow in aquamarine blue. To each his own—but the breakage bothered him. The ballplayer, however, had become the pride of Hampton Island. His very presence elevated the price of real estate and lured tourists to the riverine resort that supported the income of most residents. So people kept their mouths shut, Hector included.

He’d had but one encounter with him. The pitcher had twins, girls, and at the beginning of summer, they had come to the shop to rent bicycles. They were eight or ten years old, Hector estimated, and quite cute—much cuter than their progenitor. Despite his seven-figure contract, the big-leaguer had balked at the posted price of rentals. Called them criminal. Hector, who’d inherited the bicycle shop two years prior, adjusted prices according to inflation, no higher. To insinuate otherwise was just short of fighting words. Not that Hector himself was a fighting man—far from.

As the wail diminished into the distance destined for open water, Hector stuck his tire tool back between the rim and rubber of the bicycle he was repairing, one of his rentals. A one-man operation, his establishment rented bikes to tourists from the big resort that fronted the river. His were big pondering bikes of lugged steel; they hummed quietly down island bike paths, greased to run without creak or clatter.

Hector liked that, the quiet. Thin as a reed, waif-like, with skin the translucent hue of a milk carton, he’d always found the world of senses intrusive. Sunlight cut through him like shallow water and loud noise addled him right to the bone, scattering his thoughts like a school of baitfish. Internal combustion was the worst. So he preferred human-powered locomotion. That seemed only logical for an island not ten miles long or five miles wide.

Lucky for him, most of the tourists thought the same.

He heard the bell jingle and hastened back to the storefront, assuming position behind the register. In walked a family of five. They looked around at the bikes, mouths agape.

“This the yacht club?” asked the father.

Hector got that question a lot.

“No sir,” he told them, “it’s right around back.”

“Oh,” said the man, “thank you.” He and his family fumbled out the door backwards.

The yacht club inhabiting the other half of the building shared the same square footage as the bike shop: not much. It was not a yacht club at all in the traditional sense, but an office that offered fishing trips and nature rides to guests of the resort. No fancy dinners or cigar rooms, though it did sell knit shirts with an ornate shield of arms.

Hector went back to the shop and began prying the tire off the wheel with a pair of steel-girded levers. Inside, the tube was fully flat. He pulled it free, reinflated, and then began to brush the long black tube along the sensitive skin of his cheek, slowly, until he felt the tiny whisper of leaking air. He saw by the slit-shape of the puncture that it was only a pinch, the tire itself not compromised. He patched the tube, placed it back inside the knobbed rubber, and kneaded the tire back onto the rim by hand.

Afterwards, Hector attempted to bolt the wheel right back onto the front forks but failed, putting the wheel onto the truing stand instead, his head hung low in resignation. It was a habit he couldn’t shake. Spinning the rim, he peered along the black tread for the slightest quiver of warping. This one wobbled faintly, a millimeter’s breadth. The imperfection was hardly enough for the most discriminating French racer to notice, let alone an overweight Virginian riding off the previous night’s shrimp grits. But Hector saw it.

Turning slightly on his stool, he opened a drawer behind him, no need to look, and got out his spoke wrench. If nothing else, his two hundred rental bikes gave the truest ride of any, every one of their alloy wheels made straight through long hours of balancing each and every 10-gauge spoke to unquivering perfection. When the bell rung to announce the next set of customers, Hector did not even hear them, sunk as he was in the nature of his work.

The next morning was Saturday, the week’s mad rush of weekenders. Hector filled out hard paper tickets for each set of riders, the same analog system perfected three decades prior. Then he doled out the bikes one by one, sizing inseams to frame geometries, fine-tuning by seat height adjustment. Test rides were taken; extension of leg at nadir of pedal stroke analyzed. Hector had once hired local high-schoolers to assist him, boys three-fourths his age, but they had no regard for fit or trim. So it was just him, his exposed flesh lathered with sunblock, his hands strong upon adjustment levers and hand tools. The two o’clock lull gave him time for lunch, a brown bag of sandwich, apple, and cookie he’d made himself. He made six on Sundays, saving one day for lunch out. The phone rang. On the other end was Alfred, king drunkard of the yacht fleet.

“Hector, you ain’t even gonna believe this.”

“Believe what?”

“I been around the water a long time, son, and I never seen the likes of this.”

“Of what?”

“You ain’t even…I swear.”

Hector scratched his head. “Well,” he said, “give her a try, why don’t you?”

“Damn—I got customers. Just go out to the dock and see for yourself. Over the edge near the fish trough. Gotta go.” He hung up.

Hector held the dead phone away from himself a moment and examined it, pursing his lips. The he shrugged and grabbed his keys from their hook under the counter.

A white gate, barred prison-like, guarded entry to the marina, but it was wide open at this hour. Not far beyond it hovered the tin box of the fish trough, irrigated by a garden hose. A clear sluice of water ran glistening down the center groove, channeled for clearage of guts and blood, and cascaded over the edge in a clean arc to the shallows. Hector stuck his hands in his old khakis and peered over the edge, ten feet down. There in the shallows, in hardly three feet of water, lay a manatee floating belly up, her ponderous side fins keeping her mouth positioned right under the falling stream of hosewater, her mouth slurping open and closed, drinking.

“Sweet Jesus,” Hector said quietly.

Sea-cows, they were often called, and the Conquistadors had thought them mermaids. Hector had never comprehended that belief, big, bloated and ugly as they were. Never had he been so close to one. She was more than ten feet long and must have weighed close to 1000 pounds. Her wide-set eyes were black and friendly, her dog-like snout bristly and jowled, her massive body haloed in concentric rings of surface water. No spout like that of a whale or dolphin, Hector watched her nostrils flare wide, breathing in the familiar fashion of a land mammal.

Not really pretty enough for envy, he saw, and not quick enough for meanness, she floated there in the tidals like God’s very own idea of innocent beauty being fed, the garden hose giving suck as if mankind made pap of his ingenuity. Hector felt as if he could stand there on those wooden planks and watch her for the rest of his life, his world silent but for the low murmur of running water and the hush of their common breath.

But then the manatee rolled slightly to keep the flow, and in doing so revealed a pink worm of scar—fresh—that curled snake-like around her body. Then she rolled still more fully, letting the cold current run down her back, and Hector could hardly keep down a hot bubble in his stomach. The wound was so fat, the girth of a boa constrictor at least, and it raked her humped back as but one of countless scars, chalk-white cravats of churned flesh. Tears stung in his ducts, trembling in saline fury.

Hector looked out at the river, a faint-rippling surface that belied what universe thrived beneath. Organisms of alien design, jellied and luminous of tentacle, jetted through the depths by strange modes of propulsion. The jelled grotesqueries might be built for eternal darkness, but not the manatee, a sea-mammal evolved of prehistoric land mammoths with four legs. Like him, she saw in color, and Hector worried how she could find her way in the brackish obscurity of marsh water, the world of sight but a foot-length of green-brown submersion chock-full of tidal minutiae, weedgrass, and six-hole soda can binders of white plastic. Hector had not been victim to the squeeze of sweet-panged talons for more than a decade, but he was now. His heart pounded like a bloodied fist, his throat constricted to the tiniest jet of air, and an insane urge to vault the railing into the blackwater beside her gripped him.

Just then he heard the squeal of children’s voices. The pitcher’s twin daughters, prepped and dressed identical in pink sundresses, came barreling toward the dock, skirts billowing like blown roses. Alfred and their mother followed behind. The pitch of their happy shrieks made him cringe, shrink, and Hector was drowned suddenly in the righteous flood of his own possession. Backing away to give them right-of-way, he bumped into the fish trough. His hand, steadying him, groped the flat handle of the fillet knife left there for charter captains. With no thought of why, he gripped the hardwood, either side screwed to a long hone of slightly curved steel. Behind him it gleamed like a scimitar, though his body blocked sight of it. The children would never have noticed anyway, enthralled as they were by the swelling proximity of the sea mammal.

The two of them leaned far over the water between slats of deckwood, chattering in voices strange to him. Hector thought he might be able to decipher the shapes of their words should his mind allow it, but he did not listen. Instead he watched their splayed fingers grope toward the violate animal and rubbed his thumb along the smooth, worn wood of the knife handle, feeling the high status of steel’s edge. He was not going to use the knife—never—but the fondled blade lent him the full swell of guardianship, accolade enough to share his bounty.

Alfred and the girls’ mother—the pitcher’s wife—arrived.

“There she is, Mrs. Slocum,” said Alfred, pointing as if she did not readily notice the phantasm of marine biology floating right beneath them.

Then Alfred walked over to Hector and punched his shoulder.

“Did I tell you, Hector, or did I tell you?”

Hector kept both hands behind him, clasped there as if in courtesy.

“You told me,” he said.

“Damn right I did.”

The mother, a lean forty-year-old of veined fitness, glared at them.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Alfred, looking sheepishly toward the children. He sidled closer to Hector, retreating from her. “I been around this river a long time,” he said, his voice low and guttural, “and I never seen one so far inland. You think she’s lost?”

“God I hope not,” said Hector, and said it with such urgency that Alfred raised his eyebrows a little.

Across from them, the mother had moved to the railing, standing tall and stately between her twin daughters.

“That French they’re speaking?” Alfred asked her, nodding toward the children.

“Yes,” she said, not looking at them, and Hector could hear the accent in her voice. Then she leaned over the railing, tightening her pants across her legs.

Alfred nudged him with an elbow, the camaraderie of their sex, but Hector was paying no attention. Instead, he followed the children’s eyes to where the manatee was breaking from the jet of freshwater to paddle for the river. Ahead of her, the barnacled post of the No Wake sign arrowed out of the shallows, her tortured rotundity swimming toward it dumbly, fatalistically, and Hector with no way to stop her. As the bottom deepened beneath her, she submerged. Just a black wake betrayed what swam beneath, no foam. Hector squinted far down the river bends, upstream and down, hunting for the faint sight or sound of a coming boat. Even with Alfred so near him, he could not let go the knife, gripping harder still to think what violence he might do the careless boater who came round the bend, no regard for what soft bodies swam beneath the twin or triple harrowing of steel-driven vortices.

Tiny palms still clutched for the submerging mammal, wanting her back. Hector saw them coveting her not for salvation’s sake, but to own her, a great aquatic pet to live in their swimming pool like a fish in an aquarium. He wanted to draw his weapon and leap between them, his back to the manatee, his blade flashing to defend her in the slanted light of afternoon. He would protect her from being sold off to a Floridian waterpark when they tired of her. But he could not blame them, not really, because of the desires that had lodged in his own gut within the last ten minutes. To feed her raw fish he bought from the market, to nourish her on hosewater, to landlock her in an above-ground pool where no rules could be broken but his own—he wanted all this for himself.

Hector put down the knife. Gently, to make no sound.

Just then the flat drone of a boat broke across the water. Hector squinted to see the white bow of an incoming vessel come round the bend. As it neared, he identified the howl of those twin outboards long before the family members could. When they did see who it was, the three of them, tall mother between twin girls, began to wave and jump with enthusiasm enough to catch his attention. Hector, meanwhile, hunted the surface worriedly, hunting for the red blossom where flesh and steel might intersect.

The pitcher kept the throttles pinned right up to the No Wake sign. Then he noticed his family. He yanked off the power and looped 180 degrees, sliding the big boat into an open slip with a jolt. Behind, a near perfect circle of white-churned wake floated atop the water, no blood that Hector could see. Relieved, he watched the girls clamor down the ramp between boats, their mother trailing behind, the both of them talking at the same time, chattering in the same strange language of smooth syllables, pointing frantically toward the river.

The pitcher, a tall man whose gangling limbs gave snap and power to his fastballs, put one hand atop his ball cap and held out his opposite palm like a traffic policeman. His daughters did not halt; their mother looked at him and shrugged. Though the ballplayer wore wrap-around sunglasses with polarized lenses, his brow could be seen crinkled in confusion, as though the velocity of language was too much for his stateside roots.

Though Hector himself could not understand a single word of the language, he made his own translation of the children’s meaning. He reckoned they were asking their father to try and catch the mammal lumbering somewhere beneath them. Catch her for a pet. That was what he would have asked, anyway, were he a child in their position.

Hector looked past them at the kingfish boat’s gleaming heraldry of razor hooks and brass reels, spools of high-tensile fishing line and saltwater rods of epic length. Tools to pull fishes from the depths, quick and quivering, they hung along the gunwales like the implements of a medieval armory. The pitcher had hung them unevenly, in no order of robustness or length, and the stout tapers of graphite—so many of them—seemed of a gauge too heavy. Meanwhile the outboards continued to chug, emitting plumes of smoke that curled across the water, blue and purple, while twin flowers of stainless steel churned the rear of the boat into a bubbling well of whitewater.

Hector thought vaguely of the knife again, but with the sleek white vessel floating before him, the slow burn of another idea began to illumine the dark corners of his mind. But it was only the smallest spark, just a fragment of a vision really, and much afflicted by the clamor of engines and voices. He shut it out, standing alongside Alfred in pained spectatorship. Soon thereafter, the ballplayer and his wife got into an argument. Above the short blonde heads their hot words raced back and forth, these in English. Something about money. Alfred tugged Hector’s sleeve and gestured toward shore. To listen would be indecorous.

Hector consented, looking a last long time at the otherwise glassy water, the pit of his stomach like an empty tank of cold water. Then he started back up the ramp, following Alfred. When he got back to the shop, three separate sets of customers were hovering outside his door, arms crossed, waiting for service. He was rolling bikes into a neat echelon for them when the roar of gunned outboards shook the steel frames on their kickstands. The anger spoken through those big engines needed no translation. Even as the ballplayer’s wife and daughters came back up the ramp, exiting the marina, the hulls of moored boats jostled violently behind them.

Dusk came late at this latitude in summer, but well into darkness a yellow slat of light could be seen below the shop-house door. Hector huddled over his work table in a long session of truing rims, eating his next day’s lunch for dinner. For in that silver silence of spinning hoops, spinning like pulleys or gears of a frictionless world, he had no thought of broken zones or the wreckage of flesh. To make each wheel roll true, he tightened and retightened along the whole circumference, working until the radial skeleton achieved perfect alignment.

The floorspace of the shop was small as a walk-in closet, but Hector had arranged the tools and material of his trade with the ergonomic forethought of a jetfighter cockpit. Each tool had its place, reachable without thought or look. This pleased him. He had been born early into the world, of course. Before he was ready. And, by death, left alone at an early age. With hardly double-digit years beneath his belt, he went to work for the man who had built this shop, the last scion of a family of tradesmen and smiths. No son of his own, he gave the shop to Hector in his will. One day, the old man, who had lived through two heart attacks and one round of chemotherapy, swerved one of his rental bikes to miss a tree-frog crossing the sidewalk. He swerved into the road, and a one-ton landscaping truck did the rest.

From then on, the shop was Hector’s. The income was plenty enough for him. Nothing exorbitant, but he was not a man who envisioned his life as a rising monument, ever accruing stories upon a tapered base, hungry to skyscrape. No, he felt a sharper alignment with the quiet cycle of these discs, trying to keep their rhythm true atop a world of jagged pavement and broken glass, potholes and steep curbs. Long ago, he had learned that this took well-observed maintenance, late hours, and—sometimes—a table-vice and mallet.

Hector came early to work the next morning, sliding the rubber-coated lock-cables from the long rows of bicycles and wiping the dew from their seats. As soon as the marina opened, he strolled as far out as the fishing trough, ostensibly to take in the view, and truly to turn on the hose. In an age of waste, no one would notice the faint leak of freshwater.

She came early that day, the manatee. And many a day after that. In the early morning hours, before the day’s profitable rush of bicyclists, she came. Or later, in the last light of dusk, when the water was glassy and thick. Like him, the sea-cow must not have liked the clamor of fishing tours, the tromp of boardwalkers. And always he kept the hose running for her.

Then, exactly one week after Hector’s first sighting of her, she disappeared. Hector stood looking into the shallows, watching blue crabs side-straddle across the bottom where she used to float. He felt out of balance, his head heavy as a leaden wrecking ball, his neck hardly enough to keep it upright. His hands clutched the old split wood, steadying him on the impalement of countless splinters.

Two nights later, a photograph near the back pages of the local newspaper depicted the beached carcass of a manatee, or what was left of it. The article stated that marine biologists from the Department of Natural Resources found the cause of death to be trauma inflicted by the propellers of a passing boat. The biologists concluded that the manatee, which was female, had been surfacing for air when the strike occurred, and that the boat was traveling at a speed of no less than thirty knots. The author of the article then offered an explanation of the species’ endangered status and advised caution to local watersports enthusiasts.

As he stared at the grainy photograph of mutilation, black-inked against a glaring strip of sand, Hector Francis felt the violent spin and wrack of unbalanced orbit. Like a rock-bent rim throwing flaps of tread across the highway, his head reeled, and sparks, like rage, tore through the dark of his skull. In no world of his could such deep intrusions go uncorrected. The vast and fluent cycles of the world, of tidal surge and outgo, of deposition and erosion, of death and birth—these the most eloquent of mechanisms—had to be kept operable, or the gears and ratios of tide and time would grind into disharmony, and red gore would trail in their wake. The cycles were greased to run on a thin film of blood, but man had taken to making the world in his image, a linear path of logic with ambition for closure, finality, and no forethought of the engines of history bled to a dry husk, the terrible screech of that halt.

Hector crumpled the paper into a ball of dusty ink. He needed to recalibrate his world, which tottered, and he knew beyond doubt which screws to turn, and with what torque. But he did not want that, not now. So he went out to the driveway, got in his truck, and drove out to the shop. There he bent over his worktable for another session of truing, hoping to allay his afflictions in another long midnight of corrected shapes. In quiet fury he worked, working past hunger and exhaustion, but minute adjustments escaped him. The nerves of his hands and arms longed for fast-twitch contraction, thwarting finesse. In the morning, a slew of mangled wheels were piled in the corner, broken ellipses that would not satisfy.

Two nights later, dusk was darkening the riverfront as Hector closed up for the night. He had received two complaints that day of bikes with wheels warped enough to drag upon their brake shoes, but still he could not seem to fix them. All he could do was think of that broken body on the beach, an image that wouldn’t be dislodged, and his blood burned and burned like its chemistry had been knocked out of whack.

As he slid the cable-locks through the neat rows of bikes, the twin outboards of MVP sounded from far up the river. Hearing that, he inhaled as if before a long dive and went inside. There he selected three items from the shop miscellanea at his disposal: a length of plastic tubing, a permanent marker, and an old rag dipped in oil.

Meanwhile, the pitcher hurled the boat into an empty slip like a first inning heater, ignoring the No Wake sign like usual. When he and his wife staggered past the shop, talking loud of next year’s playoffs on their way to a nice dinner at the resort, Hector gave them the polite wave of his station. The twin girls, dressed in white evening wear, followed behind them unspeaking. They returned his wave as their parents did not.

The resort was an old-fashioned one, the clubhouse itself a great white structure with dormer windows, black roof, and a wraparound front porch half-obscured from the marina by a line of gnarled oak. After the family ascended the front steps and disappeared inside, Hector cut the lights and locked up for the night.

At this hour of late twilight, nobody was in the employee parking lot. The shifts of the resort staff did not match his own. But he was given a specified parking space, number 113, and there his old Ford half-ton sat parked. The hull of his sea kayak glowed blue in the bed of the truck, as always. And as always, a two-blade carbon paddle and kayak-specific vest lay alongside. Black, with cross-strapped buckles and the hard sheath of an inverted river knife, the vest had the look of something a commando would wear. In the rear, a large pocket was stitched for a hydration bladder. Hector extracted the bladder, a clear sac not unlike the medicine drips of hospital rooms, and detached the top. Likewise, he unscrewed the gas cap of his truck and threaded the length of shop tubing down into the tank’s interior. Once it struck the bottom, he put his mouth over the open end and sucked, watching for the shadowy trace of liquid to come down the tube. When it did, he transferred the tube from his mouth to the bladder, siphoning a liter of fossil fuel for ulterior use. Finished, he replaced both gas cap and fuel bladder.

It was completely dark now and he searched the lot again for company.

Seeing no movement, he slipped off his sneakers, stuffed his socks into them, and put them inside the toolbox. Then he slipped on a pair of winter paddling gloves, full-fingered, and slung his arms into his vest, angling the drinking straw away from his mouth to prevent an inadvertent suck of 87 octane. He hauled his kayak on one shoulder to a trail that led down to the riverbank.

At water’s edge, he hovered a moment. The river was black glass under sparse stars and a sliver of moon. The mud was cool between his toes. There was no sound but cicada and the casual lap of waves. Hector slid the bow into the current, feeling buoyancy take the weight from his arms, and wiggled his lower body into the shallow hull. He dispensed with the spray-skirt, opting instead for quickness of egress. Then he pushed off. Soon he was far out into the river, flicking one blade flat while feathering the other to a whistle.

Ahead the marina floated on half-hidden barrels of blue plastic, airtight. It was dead at this hour. One weak floodlight illumined the walkways, but every one of the several boats bobbed darkly, inside and out. At the last far slip floated MVP, the upward rake of her white bow sitting higher than the others. Hector slid by the No Wake sign with hardly a ripple. He moored his kayak to one of the stainless cleats on the outside of the offshore boat and slipped over the side. Crawling on all-fours, he untied the infinity-shaped mooring lines and pushed off, letting the big boat drift free with the current. As it floated toward the center of the river, he took out the bladder of fuel and began hosing down the deck with unleaded gasoline. After that, he opened the fuel tanks. Capacity: 400 gallons. Plenty enough for what he had in mind.

Hector could hardly breathe now, such were the fumes. They smelled of quick death, curling deep down into his glands and heart. Still he stayed long enough to use his permanent marker on the windshield, writing FOR EMMY in block script, the name he’d given his manatee. His handwriting was neat and steady; his spoken message would not be. Satisfied that all was set, Hector stood upright for a moment on the deck. The boat rocked gently beneath him but his eyes leveled upon the twin outboards, unmoved, and he was pleased to find balance amid the waves. The white of the hull shone like ice in the darkness, very pretty. It had to be. He could not exact flesh for flesh, so the handsomest of boats, sunken, would have to remit what washed ashore.

He slipped back into the kayak and paddled to what seemed a safe distance. Knowing his throw had better be a good one, good as any late inning fastball, he balled the rag and got out his butane survival lighter. In one movement, he cocked his arm, lit the rag, and hurled the igniting fireball along a trajectory that arched high into the night, hovered there an agonizing moment, and dropped like a comet between the gunwales.

Scrawls of flame zigzagged across the decks, greedy for fuel, and then erupted skyward, a bright harlotry of pointed tongues. Hector dug the carbon deep beneath the surface, distancing himself in short bursts from the expanding heat. He kept just ahead of it, head low and hunched, paddling with balls of acid for shoulders. Then the tanks blew. Ten trucks’ worth of gasoline. Hector turned to see and saw, with wicked joy, the outboards dynamited skyward in bright jets of flame, twinned in wreckage. Then, a moment later, a white tongue of ignited gas shot low across the water, shooting straight through a blizzard of broken fiberglass, shooting straight for Hector.

He capsized the kayak and went under, kicking for the bottom. Around him, superheated fragments of hull hissed into the depths. He opened his eyes into the black sting and saw, above him, a blazing firmament. An oil slick had spread across the surface, ignited, and now he was trapped beneath a lake of manmade fire, his own. There, hovering weightless beneath the surface, he was forced to make a decision left mainly to young boys at a game of morbid hypotheticals. Between one mode of death or another. Between burning alive or drowning.

The oxygen slacked in his brain. Hector had warped the night to chaos, blasted bright fissures into its darkness, and given no thought to spilled toxins or the spread of fire on water. He looked around for his manatee, looking for help, but she was nowhere in the strange dark glow of burning water. Nor could she be. And if she were, not even she could have stayed under until the flames died, the flames he’d ignited for her, and that seemed to make ruin of all his calibrations. The water started to warm around him, the depths beckoned. Hector thought of the placental darkness from which he was thrust too soon. Part of him wanted to stay here until he too evolved, reborn into a creature with fins and tail, needing no land to live.

But as darkness enveloped him and his circle of vision collapsed, a cold jet of despair shot through him, giving vision to his legacy: a front page story in the local paper, by author of the manatee’s obituary, telling of a disgruntled ball fan whose plan of sabotage backfired—a story false, giving nothing to the blameless suckle of beloved dead, no spark, and he with no way to true it. His heart quickened then and he looked up to see a black fragment of broken sky. High stars wavered through the vent of darkness, undulant pixels in the heat, and though Hector could not tell whether they were stars of the night sky or stars his own, he kicked toward them, kicking for the dark wreckage of all his reckonings to save him, black fragments of a blasted hull.

On the bank stood the pitcher, his wife, his twins. All of them in white. They, like their neighbors, had left dinner cooling to see what glowed orange beyond the ballroom windows. The pitcher’s boat was unrecognizable; he knew it only by the empty slip. Furious, he started to tear off his ball cap to stomp on, but succeeded only in mussing his neatly-combed hair. Other spectators noticed the fit. Whispers began to circulate through the crowd.

“It’s the Slocum boat,” they said. “Who would do such a thing?”

“Probably a woman,” said one man.

“Or a Marlins fan,” said another, joking.

Profanities quaked in the pitcher’s throat, wanting release.

But each to each, his daughters grabbed a hand, averting an outburst. They spoke in English now, knowing he understood it better.

“Papa,” one of them said, “it was a bad boat for the manatees anyway.”

They had thrust this line hard on him the last week. He’d been standing staunch though, taking side with his boat. But they, these miniatures of full grown women, did not back down easily.

“Nonsense,” he told them, but wondered. He wondered too at the river of fire, how awful it was, and a sudden dread gripped him.

He squeezed his daughters’ hands.

“Well, maybe,” he told them, “maybe, we can get a different boat next time. One of those airboats. Flat bottom, no propellers. Would that be better?”

“Yes, Papa!” exclaimed the two of them, his twins, squeezing his hands in their own. The gripping warmth of those tiny hands, the warmth that bound them, would hold him to all his promises. They reached out and took their mother’s hands, closing the circle of them into a single shape against the night. His family smiled then, even for the whispers, their faces like jack-o’-lanterns in the floating blaze.

The pitcher managed to smile too, but still he wondered what madness must lurk beyond them, lurking in black depths beyond the flames. And somewhere in the deep of him, where he kept things never to surface, he remembered the sickening bump of impact. He’d been trying to keep that truth down, hidden, but what burned before him peeled back darkness like a torch. And with the blaze hot on his face, on his smile, he wondered whether all the madness was within him or without.


TAYLOR BROWN’s short fiction has appeared in CutBank, Pindeldyboz, Thuglit, The Dead Mule, and The Liars League, as well as The Press 53 Open Award and Spotlight Anthologies. In 2009, Brown received the Montana Prize in Fiction.