Derek J. Goodman
The river ran red, but not because of anything in it. Brian Evans had seen this before when he had first lived in the town of Horn, and it was one of the few things he was glad to see again. He’d stood here at this very outcropping of land to watch as the sunset turned the sky crimson, and the crystal water reflected it. The river made little more than a burbling noise here, but further down Brian could hear a hiss like some soft and slightly off-key music where the river made a waterfall over one of the dams. He’d long ago stood on that thin finger of land and imagined that the river would finally erode it away and he would fall into the river, fall into the red water, and it would just take him away. Even as the water would change from the red of sunset to the blue-black of night he would still let the river take him. Wherever it went and however far, he would go and he would see what there was to see.
In the end he hadn’t taken the river to get where he would go, but he had gone just the same. He had seen things, done things, things of which he was proud and things of which he wasn’t. He could not tell anyone what they were, but he had done all he’d dreamed of and he’d come back. He hadn’t wanted to come back, but he had anyway.
He stood on the finger of land watching the red sky and red river, and for the first time since he’d left he wished that the land beneath him would collapse. Then he could leave again. He would never have to return here. Just down the river and away.
When the land didn’t collapse he instead waited for the sun to disappear and leave him standing in the night. When it didn’t he instead just walked away.
The town of Horn was always busy at this hour, especially on Main Street. People were getting off work and trying to get home to their families, and by now every single one of them should have known that taking Main Street would only slow their efforts. Every day they took the same route, though. Brian walked down the street and glanced into the windows of snail-paced cars on the street as he passed. In a large city each and every commuter would have been laying on his or her car horn, but here the traffic crawled on in eerie silence. The only noise was the low hum of engines and the occasional high-pitched background screech of brakes in need of service. None of the drivers that Brian could see seemed particularly angry about the hold-up. They all just sat behind their wheels with calm, vaguely pleasant expressions like stoners on a buzz.
Brian didn’t have any particular destination in mind, but he still felt like he had to go somewhere. Elsewhere in his travels he’d always been able to find something to do, something new or exotic that he could tell stories about later. Horn, though, wasn’t the sort of place that was busting at the seams with adventure. There was only so long that he felt comfortable staying at the river and he certainly didn’t want to go home. Things waited there that he didn’t want to face. Main Street, then, was the only place he figured he might find any sort of escape.
Brian paused and looked into the display window of one of the stores. Multiple rows of television sets stared out onto the street, each one flickering with the same program. Some newscaster in a navy-blue suit with perfectly coifed hair that made his head seem overly large sat at a news desk and stared at the camera. He leaned forward with his hands supporting him on the desk, and his smiled looked just a little too big, a little too forced. His voice had a pinch of barely controlled mania in it, as though he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to be a newscaster or a used-car pitchman.
“Everything’s fine now, folks. The crisis is averted and we are all safe in our own way. No, really! We are safe! We are safe…”
Brian pushed open the store’s glass door and found hundreds more televisions sitting of a wide variety of ramshackle shelves. Some looked modern, sleek and sexy, while most looked ten years outdated at their youngest. A few even had bent rabbit-ear antennae sticking from the top. They all played the same news program, but unlike the ones in the window none of these had sound. The anchor was now leaning on his desk with his face getting ever closer to the camera. He appeared to be screaming.
A man stood behind a counter with a dusty cash register and stared at Brian. The entire left side of his body, from his arm to his facial muscles, hung limp like he had as some point suffered nerve damage. His eyes stared straight at Brian, and for several moments neither said anything. Finally Brian couldn’t take the silence and spoke. “What crisis was he talking about?”
There were several moments where the storekeeper shuffled his feet like he was preparing to come around the counter, then he stepped back into his place at the cash register.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. His words were slurred to the point of being almost incomprehensible. “We are all safe in our own way. Safe like Ezekiel Brown.”
Brian knew the name. It was so familiar and yet it made him shiver. “Who is Ezekiel Brown?”
The storekeeper stared at him, shuffled, and then stared some more, but he didn’t answer.
“Ezekiel Brown is someone you don’t want to get involved with.” The voice came from behind Brian, from the direction of the door. Brian turned to see a woman about his age standing in the door with both hands on either side of the doorframe as though to keep him from leaving. She had a familiarity to her, a way of parting her hair or standing or smiling that brought to mind vague memories of his mother when he’d been younger. Somehow that made her more attractive than if she had been any other woman. On a vague level Brian was sure that idea should have disturbed him, yet it didn’t strike him as being important enough for a second thought.
“You’ve got to be new around here if you don’t know anything about him,” the woman said, then stepped further into the store and offered him a hand. “I’m Tess.”
“Brian Evans,” he said and shook her hand. There was an odd lack of warmth in her skin, but not enough that he would actually call it cold. It was more like she had no temperature at all. “I’m not exactly new. I just moved back to town. How long have you lived here in Horn?”
“I don’t. I actually live a couple miles down the highway in Ivory. I just come here for the sunsets.”
He nodded. She continued talking, but most of the words blurred in his ears. They left the store together, but not before Brian tried to ask the storekeeper another question. When he looked back the storekeeper was in the process of disappearing, first becoming transparent and then turning red before vanishing completely. Brian didn’t want to disturb him, so the question went unasked.
Brian followed Tess down Main Street and back to the river. The afternoon rush hour silence continued for the entire time, and the only noise he heard other than Tess’s chatter was a woman on a cell phone in one of the cars.
“…no really, that’s how you can tell if a star is moving further away from you. Uh-huh. Red. No, really, that’s how you can tell if a star is…”
The woman’s voice faded away before they even finished passing her.
“I enjoy coming here. Best place to watch the sunset.”
Tess stood at the very tip of the finger of land, swaying slowly back and forth, running her fingers through her hair and staring out at the red sky. The water occasionally splashed on the shore for no apparent reason at all, but Tess squirmed out of the water’s way before she could get wet. To Brian it looked like hands trying to reach up and grab something slippery.
Brian stood a little farther back from the river and watched Tess’s every movement. She moved like there was a rhythm only she could hear, and although at first she talked to him about strange odds and ends from teddy bears to pacifiers she eventually lapsed into silence with a strained look on her face. She kept an ear cocked as she danced, listening for music Brian couldn’t hear, and all the while her body kept moving. Shake her hip, lift her hand, toss her hair. Brian watched it all in silence. Eventually Tess began to hum low in her throat, and the hum grew louder until it was more like singing. Her lips formed words in other languages he couldn’t and didn’t want to understand, but the actual noises she made were clear English, and the song kept pace with the burbling of the river:
“All the dreams that are,
These are the only dreams there will be.
The dreamer may die,
But his dreams are forever.”
Her song trailed off, but she continued to shimmy in the sunset. Brian watched her for several minutes in the quiet, thinking about the song, letting his head soak it in. It touched on a thought in his head, something he’d almost forgotten, and as her movements started to slow he spoke.
“I have dreams.”
She stopped all movement except for a gentle sway of her hips. She wouldn’t look directly at him, but she cocked her head in his direction as though telling him to continue.
“In my dreams I’m awake. I mean, in them my waking life is actually my dream and only sleeping can wake me up. And I’m not me in that world, either. In my dreams my name is Ezekiel Brown, but that doesn’t mean anything. Nothing means anything, because nothing is all there is. Just emptiness and void. I have to go back to sleep in order to wake up again.” Tess turned to look him in the eye. If the look was supposed to be a message to him or have any meaning then he didn’t understand it. “Who is Ezekiel Brown?” Brian asked.
Tess swayed her hips again in a dance only a few heartbeats long, then reached around to a back pocket in her pants and pulled something out, a handle. A few movements of her fingers, the press and click of a switch, and a blade popped out of the handle. “Ezekiel Brown is a tyrant.” She looked at the blade, turning it this way and that to watch it reflect the red light, and let her voice drop to a whisper. “He keeps us all here. We are slaves, servants.” She touched a finger to the end of the blade hard enough that it should have drawn blood. It didn’t. “I intend to kill him. Then we can all be away from him.” She folded the knife back into the handle and smiled at Brian. “You would like to be away from here, wouldn’t you? No longer trapped in Horn?”
Brian said yes. There was nothing he wanted to more than to get away again. So what if he knew there was more to what was happening than what she told him.
They tried to make love right there by the river, but it didn’t work. Tess went back to her low babbling along with the river as she took her clothes off, and beneath her clothes she looked exactly as he knew she should. Her breast, her nipples, the space between her legs, all the way he remembered. The problem was when he took off his own clothes. He wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think he had everything he needed. Tess said that was fine, that they could still do it, but Brian couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Maybe he was supposed to put something between her legs, or maybe something was supposed to come out of her. That second idea seemed to make a little more sense. But they rubbed up against each other for a time and nothing happened. Brian apologized when they finally stopped, but Tess didn’t seem too disappointed. She just said it made sense and laid down next to him for a while.
Tess wanted to go home with him, and Brian tried to tell her that wasn’t a good idea. That was where all his troubles were, that was why he was back in Horn to begin with, and he didn’t want anyone else to have to deal with it. Tess insisted, though. Brian finally acquiesced, but he wanted to take a few more moments at the river first.
Tess stayed some distance back as he took his shoes off and stepped into the river’s edge. He could feel the water speed up around his ankles, trying to knock him off balance and carry him somewhere else. He still wanted the water to take him, but it wasn’t strong enough, not here at least. He would have to go farther out into the river where the water was deeper, stronger, and the red water would be able to just take him. That would be bad for right now, though. Tess was waiting for him. He had things to do with her. At this thought the water slowed, and Brian lost his chance. Perhaps later.
As he stepped out of the tiny pebbles and fine sediment at the edge of the water Brian’s foot brushed against something and he heard the clear ringing of metal somewhere among the rocks. Brian bent down to see what had made the noise, but at first there was nothing. Just red water and fine shifting sands. He reached a finger into the sediment and felt something hard and cold just below the surface. Tess came over to watch as he pulled the object up from the river and held it where she could see.
It was a key, a very old looking one. It was about as long as his hand, and instead of all the intricate notches of a modern key it was simple a long cylinder with a flat, featureless piece near one end and round handle at the other. The entire key was thick with rust, and although it could have started out as any color it now matched the red of the sky and river.
“Do you know which lock it’s for?” Tess asked.
Brian shook his head, then dropped it in one of his pants pockets. It was surprisingly light, and for some time he forgot it was even there.
They both stood outside Brian’s house and stared at it, but neither made any move yet to go in. It wasn’t particularly imposing, and yet Brian was afraid of entering it anyway. It was a two story and well maintained with bright yellow paint and purple trim. Sunflowers had been planted and then left to grow in whatever manner they pleased in the front yard, and the tall stalks stood at odd angles on either side of the walk leading to the front door. Brian was sure that if any measurements were taken the house would have been shown to be perfectly straight and level, yet to him it had always seemed to mimic the wavering angles of its sunflower guardians. If Tess shared his unease she made no sign of it.
“Tell me again why you returned home,” she said. Brian took a step towards the front door. One of the nearest sunflowers bent in the wind as if to attempt blocking his way, but the yellow petals grew splotchy with red and started to whither.
“Family things,” Brian said. “Stuff I need to take care of.”
“Yes, but what kind of stuff?”
“Family things,” he said again, and with no more hesitation he walked to the door. None of the other sunflowers bent towards him, yet each one started to whither with the same red disease as the first.
Tess followed him inside, and Brian stopped for several moments to look around. He knew this was the right house, it had to be, and yet the interior was all wrong. Immediately inside the front door there should have been a large living room with a fireplace and wood paneling. Cozy, perfect for lazy days lounging inside. Instead there were in a long gray featureless hall. At the end there was a single blue door, but at the moment it escaped him where he might have seen it before.
“This is all wrong,” Brian said.
“But we can fix it,” Tess said in his ear. “It’s all simply a matter of making us safe.”
Brian nodded, then walked down the hall towards the door. The walk took longer than it should have. Twice Brian was sure he had made it to the other end only to find himself back at the front door again. Tess followed him each time, unquestioningly, and by the end of the third try they reached the blue door and stayed there. He tried the handle but it didn’t move.
Tess pointed to just below the handle at a keyhole, but Brian wasn’t entirely sure it had been there before. He took the key from his pocket and tried it in the lock, and he had to be careful as he turned it. The rust had become worse since he’d found it and great big pieces of the key kept flaking off as he handled it. The door lock clicked just as the key crumbled into dust and powder.
The door started to darken and change color, first to purple and then red, as they opened it and stepped through.
Brian smiled as he entered the room. He couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled. He didn’t even need to look at the room. He could just close his eyes and know exactly where he was by the scents. The new plastic smell of toys and various items only recently bought and assembled, diapers (yet without the harsh stink that usually accompanied them), baby powder. A powder-blue crib sat in the center of the room with a mobile hanging over the top. The mobile was supposed to look like the solar system, except Brian wasn’t sure it had the right number of planets. Even if it did, he was pretty sure the real planets didn’t have silly faces painted on them. The only part of the mobile without a cutesy face was the sun itself, but it still didn’t look right. It was red instead of yellow with odd lumps that pushed out here and there. Had it been a real star Brian might have guessed it was about to explode. Or maybe even puke.
Brian and Tess stepped closer to the crib and looked in at the pile of tiny blue blankets inside. The baby underneath them might have been just over a year old. Even though his tiny hands clenched and unclenched and his legs kicked at the blankets he appeared to be asleep. Or maybe he was dead and the body hadn’t realized it yet. Tess poked Brian in the side, and he turned to see her holding up her switchblade. She popped the blade and handed the knife to him.
“Are you ready?” Tess asked.
“No. Ready for what?” Brian took a closer look at the knife and saw red spots start to form on the metal.
“To kill him. That’s Ezekiel Brown. Only when he’s dead can we be safe.”
Brian held the knife over the baby and looked down at it squirming in its red crib, its red blankets.
“I think he’s already dead,” Brian said.
“Not completely,” Tess said. Brian looked at her and saw that her face had taken on a red tint. “He’s the one that’s doing all this.”
Brian looked down at the baby one last time and thought he understood. “You’re right, he is.” Everything in the room had to turned red, and from there the color began leaking to black. It was hard to see anything anymore, but Brian still thought he could see the knife in his hand. He turned to Tess once more, his movements all blurred with a strange sort of liquid feel, and he shoved the knife into Tess’s stomach.
“The dreamer may die,” Brian said, and the baby in the crib mimicked his words. “But the dream is forever.”
Tess didn’t scream or fight him or even look like she was in any pain. She just faded to red and then disappeared as the color returned to everything else.
The sky was blue when next Brian walked down Main Street. Rush hour traffic was still in full swing, though, and didn’t show any signs of stopping. Someone had strung a banner up to hang between buildings over Main Street that read, “Ezekiel Brown is dead! Long live Ezekiel Brown!” Every driver who went under it cheered before lapsing back into his or her own calm silence.
The water was still red when Brian got back to his spot at the river, but everything else was the correct color. The water had picked up it’s pace, too, and Brian’s peninsula of land had started to erode away. Brian stood on it and listened to the river burble and hiss, waiting for the land to drop out from beneath, waiting for the river to take him away from Horn, away from Ivory, and on to every adventure he could dream of beyond.
Derek J. Goodman is a young writer currently living in Wisconsin. At the age of 18 he moved to Denver to attend the Colorado Institute of Art, but left after a year and a half to pursue writing. His work has appeared in such publications as Neometropolis, Space Squid, Time for Bedlam, and Gods and Monsters. He maintains a blog at www.myspace.com/derekjgoodman.
Photo Courtesy of 123rf.
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Fiction Copyright © 2008 Derek J. Goodman. All rights reserved.