Short Fiction - The Waterline

Benjamin Britworth

The water stunk of salient decay. I bobbed, stretching my arms to the mildew walls. My jacket hung heavy round my shoulders, sticky against my flesh. I was going to die down in this dark. My realisation of this fact had bitten in soon after I fell, with the panic I'd felt in the first few minutes giving way to a mellow shot of Valium calm. Now I ebbed in stagnation, the shallows of my mind as putrid as the liquid I floated in.
            It was better not to fight. I should already have sunk my head under the swill and swallowed as much murky blackness as possible, but I couldn't bring myself to do that just yet. A small part of me still believed I might survive. I knew a quick death would be comelier than a lingering one, and if I didn't kill myself soon then exhaustion and cold would slink in to murder me. I was afraid. I didn't want to die. With my hands bloodied and my fingers numb, I drifted, hoping for a miracle. It was a foolish hope, thinking that maybe my fiancée was still alive and had gone for help. Death infected the idea one iota at a time. Soon it would dissolve and I would accept my fate. My footing, so carefully dug into the stone walls, slipped, and I ducked beneath the surface. Black water ran metallic on my tongue and I spluttered it out, spit trailing from my lips.
            Searching for purchase, I pulled grim fingers along the rough stone. My nails cracked. Blood oozed and mingled with the moss. I knew the skin was broken, but I could only feel the tug of loose flesh and the slick sticking of the thickening blood. The rest was gone, and what should have been agony measured only as a dull roar. I found a hold and clutched it. The water stilled once more.
            The part of me that still believed in rescue screamed, Catherine! Find me out...! Then I shivered, knowing there was no hope.

Catherine and I had been driving to visit her parents. It was a world away from where my ride ended. The twisting grain harvest scented our car with sweet hay. We had the windows cracked wide, so they buffeted in the breeze. Lilac heather lined the road, while great trees scattered the sunshine, dappling the bonnet in flickering greens.
            Catherine's creamy hair was bowed in a bun to avoid that windswept look. A pair of aviators perched on her nose. Wide rimmed and silver-tinted, they gave her the impression of being a movie star from the old world: a Rita Heyworth double with red rouge lipstick to match. One wink, an idle eye, and I had fallen head over heels for that bombshell of a gal. Then again, it wasn't just her looks that bowled me blind; it was her altogether charm. She had wit and smarts, and I knew from the off that we shared more than sex alone. I adored her, and was blessed with love in return. It was a sweet ticket. One I found out was too good to be true.
            Perhaps if we had travelled a different route...?
            She fluttered awake and groaned, rolling her window closed. The air rustled stray strands of her hair, then the thunder gave way to calm as the outside was removed. In the quiet she turned to me and murmured, “How long was I asleep?”
            “Thirty minutes... an hour?” I guessed, keeping one eye on the road, “We passed Barnes.”
            She stretched, hook-clawed, like a cat, “I had such strange dreams.”
            “Oh yes?” I mused, “Try me.”
            “You saved me from a gunshot wound-”
            “Jumping in front of bullets for you...? Not likely!”
            She shoved me, and the car swerved.
            “Careful,” I cried with a laugh.
            She tittered in return, saying, “Seriously though, would you take a bullet for me?”
            “Yes, several.”
            She punched my arm. “You're so cute when you lie!” Her arms curved monkey-like, and she mimicked me in a grunting tone, “Jumping in front of a bullet for my girlfriend... Ogh-ogh, I'd rather fling dung-!”
            She squared me, one eyebrow jutting above her sunglasses, “What?”
            “You're my fiancée, not my girlfriend. And I'd do anything for you, you know that...”
            It took a second for her to register what I meant, but then she smiled. “Anything?” she said, and rested a hand on my thigh. Her fingers dipped towards my crotch and squeezed.
            “Not while I'm driving,” I replied, and pulled my leg away.
            “Lots of people do it in the car! They all do in the movies. It could be fun,” she slipped her fingers over my groin, “You could try and keep focus while I-”
            “Whoa,” I said, swerving, then laughed, “Seriously, Cath, not while I'm driving.”
            She withdrew, peeked at me over the top of her sunglasses, and said, “What about if we pull over?”

I was not alone in the dark pit. The water rippled beneath me, as though a large beast cut through it now and then. The bottom of the well hollowed wide to expose my legs. Was it a monster? I didn't want to know. I feared what jaws might unhinge and pull me under. The slow death I dreaded would be nothing compared to teeth gnawing holes. I weighed my fate, listening as broken sticks, or what I imagined were bones, floated with me and played rhythmic blues against the walls. One stuck my back. I tried to move it, only to lose my footing again. My forehead hit the wall and scrapped down the gravel grain. Blood burnt my nose, and I hissed cold air, fighting off this newfound pain with tears in my eyes. I missed Catherine, and wished myself out of this hell.

We had parked in a quiet track, clambered into the back seats, and tangled. She kissed me, and I kissed her back, removing her blouse as she unbuttoned my shirt. I moved downward, caressing each firm breast as I went. She knotted her fingers through my hair, rough, and excited.
            “Michael,” she whispered, then sounded shocked, “Oh, that's cold...”
            “You don't like it?” I replied, hastening my lips to look up.
            A solid weight settled in my stomach, and my pleasure fell away in an instant. The door of the car was open and a rusty gun barrel rested against her temple.
            “What in the-?” I started to say, before a pair of hands tugged me from behind. I was dragged, yelling, into the mud.
            Disorientated and filled with rage, I reeled in the dust. Catherine screamed, and then was silenced with a heavy whack. The gun had not been fired, but used as a ram instead.
            “What we got here?” said a man's shadow from above. He spoke with a grating accent, as though his throat was cut with glass.
            “ It look like dirty rutters to me,” replied the one with the gun.
            “Out on our patch?”
            I tried to stand, but a boot slammed me back down. My trousers were around my ankles, and my shirt hung loose, trapping and stopping me from fighting.
            “Danny won't be pleased,” said the one above me.
            “I- who-?” I started, but was cut off with a kick.
            “Shush now. You're making too much noise too think.”
            A scruffy hand shot down, and the man came into view. His lips were rusty and chewed, and his face riddled with pock marks. One eye swelled closed. “You don't do that dirty rutting on our land,” he said, grinding his fist against my chest, “Not so long as Danny is the man.”
            “We should teach them a lesson,” said the gunman.
            “A lesson's what they'll get.”
            “I knocked out the girl. She's bleeding pretty bad from her head.”
            I tried to wrestle free, but the man punched me down. My ears rung, and my vision exploded with sparks. The weight of his boot lifted from my chest, and I coughed as the air returned to my lungs. He crunched away, and there was silence for a moment as he went to look at the damage done.
            “Eh- She's learnt hers, I suppose,” he said, sniffing, “Just this dirt bag to go-”
            “The well?”
            “Yes, it's close.”
            Hands grabbed me, and before I knew what was going on I was dragged across the gravel, great gashes scratched along my bare back. I set to struggle, and the men dropped me. One approached and roughly booted me in the face. Sparks stung my vision. A stupor took over. I stopped fighting and let them drag me on.
            The pair left me face down in the dirt while they set about with the well lid. I could not move, my body no longer being my own. The sound of crickets hissed in the dusk. There was a mellow musk, and the taste of muddy blood in my mouth. A roar clattered through my skull, and then there came a thump as the two men dropped the heavy lid nearby. I thought of Catherine, and hoped she wasn't dead.
            My body shifted as the men grabbed me again. Vomit slipped up my gullet, mixing with the blood.
            “He got sick on me,” said one.
            “Deal with it,” replied the other.
            The first one grumbled but said no more.
            The pair lifted me, grunting, over the well's lip. Then they shoved me in and there was nothing but rushing air. I tumbled, slipping into the grinning pit. My stomach lurched. My head spiralled. Before I could scream I hit the water like a shot. Breath froze in my lungs. My eyes popped wide and I felt fire as my senses screeched against the cold.
            I swum for the surface, broke the top, and relished the sour air. Half blind and frozen I scrapped at the walls, not certain what had happened. From above rattled guffaws rained down. I yelled, and they laughed louder. Their heads passed out of the light, and then a horizontal slice closed half the well mouth.
            “No!” I screamed, “No!”
            There came a slam, and the darkness became absolute. I screamed louder, hoping it was a bad joke. I screamed until my throat turned raw, then I cried in a muffled croak. When I could scream no longer the quiet crept in. There was only the swirl of the water, my chattering teeth and the clunks of the twig-bone chorus left. I was alone.

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