NYC Midnite 2016 Short Story Challenge

Round 1 – Heat 43

Genre: Mystery…Subject: A breakup…Character: A gas station attendant

Max words: 2500


Salty Dogs

     The sturdy skiff cut through the dark waters of Salter’s Creek and headed into the red glow of the horizon.  The three teens aboard huddled deeper into their hoodies and bowed their heads against the chilly breeze, each lost in his own thoughts – or possibly praying he’d catch the biggest fish today.  Joey Willis sat beside the old outboard motor, watching the tiny town of Belhaven grow even smaller behind them, when something in the marsh grass caught his eye.  He cut the engine, and the boys suddenly found themselves adrift in the quiet gray world.

     “Hey, why are we stopping?” muttered Pete, still half asleep and nursing a hangover.

     “I thought I saw something back there,” Joey said softly, almost to himself.  “It – it looked like a dead body.”

     “Dead body my ass, Joey! Don’t start this crap again!” Pete protested.

     “No really, I’m not kidding you guys this time.”  Joey turned the boat around and doubled back up the creek, slowly creeping towards the shore.

     “It was probably just a dead deer,” Billy reasoned, hugging his hoodie tighter and closing his eyes.  “How can you see anything in this light anyway?”

     Joey ignored him and cut the boat’s engine again, this time tilting the prop out of the water so it wouldn’t run aground in the shallows.  He grabbed an oar from the bottom of the skiff and used it to inch the boat closer to the weeds.  “There,” he pointed. “What’s that?”

     Each boy questioned his own eyes as he peered over the gunwale.  A grotesque form took shape among the pristine marsh grass.  Pale, naked legs, and stringy blonde hair played tricks on them in the dim light. “Maybe…maybe it’s a mannequin?” someone stammered. The boys sat frozen for a few long moments.

     Pete Donnelly had enough with the maybes and wanted answers.  “You guys are a bunch of sissys.” He made his way to the bow of the boat and looked down at the somber figure sprawled in the reeds, still not trusting his own eyes.  Waves lapped at the pale legs as he reached over to touch the silent form.  He immediately recoiled and spun around, struggling to keep his balance in the teetering boat.

     “Jaysus! Jaysus it’s a fookin dead body!” he cried, his normally restrained Irish brogue unleashed by the horror of the moment.

*     *     *

     Mitch Davis grabbed the line that was tossed from the boat as it sidled up to the dock. “Nice catch,” Gavin Willis laughed and cut the engine off.   “Better be careful, people might start to believe you actually belong here,” he added with a wink.

     Mitch ignored the comment and expertly hitched the line to a cleat, then grabbed the handle of the nozzle on the ancient gas pump. Without a word he began filling Gavin’s tank.  A friend of his grandfather’s, Mitch had known Gavin his entire life.  And while twenty-four years was a lifetime to Mitch, it was just a drop in the ole bucket for Gavin Willis, who had lived and worked on these coastal bays and waterways for most of his seventy-eight years.

     “I guess your Grandpa’s having a bad day?” Gavin asked quietly, looking past him as he spoke. Mitch followed his gaze towards the run-down shack a few yards away from the dock. A withered skeleton of a man rocked silently on the warped porch.  The wooden house, rocking chair and floorboards blended together in that same weathered coastal gray shade and matched the man’s scraggly beard.  His sun-bleached cap half hid the hazy blue eyes, but they both sensed he was staring right through them, searching the sea beyond.  Gus Davis was like this most days now, unaware of his surroundings and unreachable.

     “The doctor says it’s not uncommon for an elderly patient to slip into dementia following surgery,” Mitch stated without emotion.  “Something to do with the use of anesthesia.”

     “I’m sorry,” Gavin said simply, and he meant it both for Mitch and for himself.  He and Gus had grown up together and were best friends.  It was hard to see his pal in the throes of dementia. An uncomfortable silence followed, broken only by the chink–chink–chinking of the gas pump as the old rotary dials tallied up the gallons and dollars.  Both men turned to follow the sound of a motor as a police boat cruised slowly past the gas dock.

     “They must be investigating the dead body,” Gavin mused.  Mitch just looked at him until he continued. “Yeah, didn’t you hear my grandson and his pals went out fishing this morning and found a woman’s naked body in the marsh?”

     The gas pump stopped chinking, and Mitch bent down to disengage the nozzle from the boat.  “No, really?” he said, without much interest.  He hung the nozzle back on the pump with a clang and turned to face Gavin expectantly. “That’ll be forty-eight dollars.”

     “Yeah, they think maybe it’s that paddle boarder from New Haven that went missing about a month ago,” Gavin added.  He thought it strange that the news of a dead body was taken so lightly, and searched Mitch’s stony face as he dug the bills out of his billfold.  Just then a muffled cry sounded from the porch.  They turned and watched as Gus Davis stumbled to his feet and raised a hand toward the dock.  “Bwaaaa…mwhaaaaaa,” was all they could make out, as he hung on the railing with one hand and pointed at them with the other.  “Mahaaaawaaaaa!  Baaaaaa!” he added, desperately.  Snatching the now outstretched bills, Mitch turned and hurdled the porch railing in two quick strides. He grabbed his grandfather’s arm to steady him.  “It’s my fault,” he called back to Gavin.  “I forgot to give him his pain medication this morning.”  He carefully led the stumbling old man inside the house.  “Take care, Gavin, and thanks” he called over his shoulder, effectively dismissing the man on the dock.

*     *     *

     Gavin returned a few hours later and rang the old bell at the gas pump.  Mitch emerged from the cottage but hesitated when he saw Gavin.

     “Hey, Mitch.” Gavin waved. “I’ve been thinking.  I want to take Gus out fishing …kinda get him back around his old routine and surroundings. Maybe it will help?” he shrugged.

     Mitch stared at him for a few moments. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he replied. “Supposed he went overboard? Besides, they’re calling for a squall this evening.”

     Gavin wanted to believe Mitch had Gus’s best interests in mind. After all, the handsome young man literally abandoned his life upstate six weeks ago so he could help his grandfather through back surgery.  If he hadn’t come to Belhaven, the already struggling dockside gas station would follow the way of many properties in this rural coastal community and sail into the nightmare of foreclosure.  As Gus’s last living relative, he was glad the lad stepped up to the plate and kept that from happening.  Still.  Gavin trusted his intuition and couldn’t shake the feeling that something was just a bit … well … a bit off.

     “Look son,” he began affectionately. “Aren’t you forgetting that your grandfather and I are best friends?  We’ve been there for each other long before you were even born – heck, even before your parents were born! You’re not the only one affected here …and I can’t stand idly by while my friend slips away,” he added quietly. He stood staring down at his shoes, overcome with emotion. “Just let me take him out on the bay and dunk a few worms,” he pleaded.  He fought hard to hold back tears and looked up to see Mitch studying his face.

     “Okay,” Mitch said flatly.  “Just let me give him his afternoon meds before you leave.” He turned his back on Gavin and disappeared into the house. Moments later they reemerged, with Mitch leading a seemingly catatonic Gus. Although now recovered from the back surgery, his steps were unsure little shuffles, and Gus stopped every few steps and looked around anxiously, before finally making it out onto the dock. Gavin reached over and wrapped a protective arm around his friend’s shoulders.

     “C’mon buddy,” he crooned.  “You and me are going fishing …just like old times.”  His soothing words were met by a vacant stare that tore a hole in his heart.  He swallowed the meaty lump in his throat and focused on making Gus secure and comfortable aboard the boat.  At last he looked over at Mitch on the dock. “We’ll seeya in a few hours, Mitch,” he called.  Mitch tossed him the mooring line and stood watching them for a while.  The little boat grew smaller in the distance as dark clouds and screaming gulls gathered overhead.

*     *     *

     Gavin dropped the anchor in a spot near the ocean inlet, hoping to catch a few flounders for dinner on the incoming tide.  Gus didn’t understand what was going on, so Gavin baited his hook and cast into the water before placing the rod firmly in his friend’s hand.  He choked back tears as Gus blinked and turned the rod in his hands, bewildered.  He gave in and let the tears fall as they sat there for a long while, but he was determined to keep his voice cheerful.  “Looks like we might be in for a bit of weather, mate,” he said as he eyed the dark clouds.  As if summoned by his words, a brisk wind picked up and whipped the waves into a considerable chop.  Gus’s face remained expressionless as the waves bounced him around in the boat, but he somehow instinctively hung onto the fishing rod.

     The first few raindrops beat a little tune on the deck and Gavin scanned the tiny boat’s cabin for some rain gear. “Okay buddy, change of plans,” he whispered, as he grabbed the rod and replaced it with a rain slicker in one swift motion.  He got the coat on the hunched figure just as great stinging sheets of rain began falling and turned their world a steely gray.

     “Just hang on!” Gavin shouted over the wind as he cranked the engine.  They were close to the shores of Great Banks, a narrow, uninhabited barrier island that sheltered Belhaven and its inland waterways from the pounding ocean surf.  Gavin headed for the giant dunes at the center of the island, where he knew the National Parks Service kept a few rustic cabins. The mainland was just too far away to reach in this fast moving squall, and he was already struggling to keep an eye on Gus.  He said a quiet prayer when they made the beach and felt the boat scrape bottom.

*     *     *

     Mitch weathered the storm at the old kitchen table in the ramshackle bungalow.  He knew where Gavin and his grandpa usually fished and figured they would most likely seek shelter on Great Banks during the storm.  The men were old salts and had been out in worse storms than this.  No, what troubled Mitch was the fact that his grandpa’s medication would soon wear off …then what? And would the men remain out all night? Should he mention them to anyone yet? He definitely didn’t want to go to the police or Coast Guard.  They’ve been crawling all over Belhaven today, ever since that dead body turned up this morning. He wondered if they identified the girl yet…

     He got up from the table and began pacing the worn out floor.  He rummaged through the cabinets and found a bottle of Irish whiskey.  He poured himself a jelly jar full and sat back to let his mind wander.  It settled on his girlfriend, Carrie Keenan, and the last time he had seen her – maybe two or three weeks ago now.  He regretted the argument they’d had and the way they parted, but Carrie had wanted a change in their relationship.  Mitch wasn’t too receptive to change these days.  Hadn’t he changed his entire life by giving up everything and moving to this godforsaken town? Now she wanted him to change his future too – to a future that didn’t include her? Mitch took a long swig of whiskey.  Yep, he was sorry they parted the way they did.

*     *     *

     Gavin woke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and wondered if maybe he was dreaming.  His eyes searched the dimly lit cabin.  He vaguely remembered the storm and getting into the cabin on Great Banks, but he fell asleep exhausted shortly after. He got up, and as his eyes adjusted he found Gus sitting at a weathered table, an old fashioned percolator coffee pot bubbling away in front of him atop a propane camp stove.

     “Well, it’s about time you woke up,” Gus chuckled. He grabbed a couple of chipped white mugs from a shelf under the window sill and poured out two cups of the rich brew.  “If you want milk or sugar, you’re shit outta luck,” he added.  The glow of daybreak crept in the window, and Gavin was never happier to see the old twinkle back in Gus’s indigo eyes.

     “But how…” Gavin began.

     Gus silenced him with a wave of his hand.  “Sit and drink your coffee while we watch the sun rise, my friend.  I have much to tell you.”

*     *     *

     Later that week Gavin pulled his boat up to the gas dock and rang the old bell on the pump.  He smiled when Gus Davis waved and made his way down to the boat.  “Hiya Gavin,” he bellowed, as he removed the nozzle and began filling the boat’s tank.

     “I’m really sorry about your grandson,” Gavin said awkwardly.

     “Thanks,” Gus replied.  “I’m sorry too.  I guess the stress of moving here really got to him, and then when Carrie broke up with him, it sent him right over the edge. I just wish I hadn’t been there when he killed her, but I was only just recovering from the back surgery.”

     “Well, I think you’re lucky to survive at all,” Gavin said, shaking his head.  “And to think he kept you drugged up and catatonic so you wouldn’t rat him out.”

     “Yeah, and if it wasn’t for you…” Gus’s eyes welled up, and he embraced his friend.

     Gavin quickly brushed a tear away from his own eyes. “Hell, you would’ve done the same for me.  Besides, you can’t keep a good dog down.”

     They laughed and listened to the gas pump chink – chink – chinking in the promise of the early morning as the seagulls soared overhead.