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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

A Dead Man
by Catherine Woods

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We had no idea we were going to find the dead man that day. Really, how could we? It was just one of those lazy Sunday mornings; hot pockets of air and dry dust floated about us as we ambled down towards the river. We had planned to sit on the grassy bank, light up cigarettes and giggle about people at school that we hated.

But the dead man changed all that.

He was snagged on an overhanging branch, caught by the sleeve of his sky-blue jacket. The water swelled into the material, inflating it like a puffer fish. His flesh was pale, almost white, and rose and fell gently with the swell of the water. It looked like he was dancing.

A dull ache at the pit of my stomach jolted upwards but when I opened my mouth to scream, nothing came out.

Abby spoke first.

"Touch him," she whispered and turned to me. "I think you should touch him."

It didn't occur to me at the time that she had said it with a curious half smile.

One of my earliest memories of Abby Jenson was my mother's funeral.

There was a terrible smell in the air that day. Like something was burning right inside my nostrils. I was just five years old; too young to understand the tall men in dark suits, and ladies with ironed hair and stifling scents.

Sitting on a little wooden stool in the corner of the living room, I wiggled my fingers and passed the hours catching snippets of sentences about my mum and wondering if she would be home any time soon to do my hot water bottle.

That was, until Abby appeared.

She had a mesh of wild jet-black curls and curious eyes. She wore an odd mismatched outfit; a brightly lit floral skirt with an over-sized woolly jumper which she later told me was her dad's. Covering her feet were huge patent leather boots with purple laces that trailed along my parents' hardwood floorboards.

I adored her immediately.

She approached me on the stool and without a single word, put her arms around me tugging my face into her thin body. From inside the thick wool of her jumper, I could hear the grown ups chatter.

Abby kept hold of my head that day until I could barely breathe and struggled to catch air in my lungs through the tiny holes in the wool. She was eventually pulled away from me.

"We're always going to be best friends," she told me as she was hoisted away and out of the room.

And I remember clearly just wishing I understood.

The soles of my trainers did not grip very well on the grassy embankment and I slipped towards the bottom, righting myself at the river's edge.

The dead man was Barry Burrows. Although he was face down in the water, I recognised the rust-brown hair gathered either side of his freckled crown. He worked at the bank and gave my dad an old armchair not long back. I had liked the way he carried a cigar in the top pocket of his suit jacket and tapped it every so often with his middle finger while he was talking.

There was a single length of rope around his broken neck, which undulated with the swell of the water, like some kind of entranced serpent.

I wondered why. I really did. But it didn't stop me reaching over to touch his flesh with the tip of one finger.

And the thing is, it wasn't even because Abby told me to.

He felt like over-cooked meat.

"It's dad," I hissed at Abby in my bedroom some years after the funeral. "Go."

"Why?" she shot back with a lazy smile.

"You know we're not allowed to play together!"

"Can I come in?" My dad sounded weary.

Abby shot me a wry grin. And as quickly as she was there, in a mist of something musky smelling, she was gone. And I could still taste her as my dad entered the room.

"Mr Burrows is dropping off an armchair for the front porch today."

He seemed oddly distant, his voice muffled.

I tried for a moment to remember the old him - the daddy that used to chase me around the garden with his big endless arms, and sit me on his broad shoulders to let me play drums on the crown of his head. That was when everything was different. And it was so long ago, it felt more like old movie footage in my head than something real. "Be nice to him okay. We... we've forgiven him."

"I'm always nice."

The look he returned made me shuffle a little uncomfortably on the bed. He stood up and I watched the wrinkles in his cotton trousers dissolve. He paused at the door and turned, gazing at the spot next to me on the bed where Abby had been sitting.

An awkward moment fluttered between us and he looked as though he was going to say something, but instead, he left, closing the door quietly behind him, and I smoothed out the dents in my bedcovers.

Barry Burrows arrived at 6pm on the dot. A short man, he had a podgy frame and dull red hair framing a bald head. He wore a brown tweed suit and cotton sky-blue jacket.

He stood in the doorframe of our living room and tapped on the fat cigar in his top right-hand pocket. He and my father were making small talk.

"Oh you know, you know..." Barry Burrows was saying. "Each day as it comes."

My dad was nodding rigorously. Too much so. He looked like one of those dashboard dogs. I wanted to tell him to stop.

There was an uncomfortable pause that slipped into a silence. Finally Barry spoke.

"Is she still talking to...?"

"It's been six years now."

They both glanced over at me, standing rigidly still in the corner of the porch.

"Dr Lovitt says she will grow out of it." My dad cleared his throat and dropped his voice a notch but I still caught what he said. "She lost so much so young."

Barry Burrows tapped the cigar in his top right hand pocket. He had that look about him. It was the same one my dad wore constantly; haunted.

"Gordon..." Barry turned fully to my father and placed one hand on his sagging shoulder. "I know it's not much. It's just a stupid chair. It doesn't make up for what happened and it doesn't bring them back."

"Barry -"

"No, let me. I've never really said what I should have said to you all those years ago. I'm a coward, I always have been, settled for taking the easy way out my whole life." He paused to tap repeatedly on his jacket pocket. "I took them away from you."

"It was an accident Barry. A stupid accident."

"But I still took them from you. And now you have to raise a little girl without her mum and without her sister. I close my eyes and I see them. I see the car. But there was no time to stop. No damn time."

His quiet sobs filled the spaces between us.

"Like you said Mr Burrows, it's just a stupid chair." Abby's cold voice over my shoulder startled me. I hadn't even known she was in the room.

"Abby," dad snapped. "I told you to be nice."

And quite suddenly, without warning even to myself, I began to scream. I placed both hands over my ears and I cried out until my throat felt raw. I screamed because I felt so completely alone and I didn't stop until I opened my eyes to see how they had reacted.

It was only as Barry Burrows and my dad began to manoeuvre the old-fashioned armchair into the porch that I realised I hadn't actually made a sound.

I hunched over the dead body with my hands outstretched and thought about the day of the crash.

Funny, I hadn't felt a thing when we hit the tree. Just a bizarre hot whiteness flashing through my head.

Mummy was taken before me and that had been the scariest part of it all. I remember glancing over at her, with her long tousled auburn hair and smooth pale skin dashed with freckles. She was so beautiful and so perfectly still against the steering wheel. It wasn't long after that that the calm wave washed through me.

"How does it feel?" Abby called down to me from the top of the riverbank.

She had always been a difficult sister. With a constant desire for attention; I guess that's why she needed me there.

There were lacerations where the rope had dug into Barry's broken neck. As it turned out, he had remained a coward to the end, but in an odd way, I knew he had set dad and Abby free.

When she gazed down at me, I nodded.

"Feels about right," I whispered.

She took a bit of a breath before turning to leave. I trailed her small frame until she was merely a dot on the horizon. And I didn't wave goodbye until she had disappeared.

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