He tried to pull the figure above the waterline, but out of the water it was incredibly heavy, entirely dead weight. He lifted it as far out of the water as he could, and began paddling for the shore. His progress, carrying the figure on his back, was painfully slow. His arms quickly began to tire, and his face dipped closer and closer to the waterline. Soon he couldn’t even keep his mouth above the water, and had to breathe heavily through his nose. The bank looked so far away. He sank further beneath the water. He thought if he didn’t reach the bank soon, he’d have to drop the figure or risk drowning.
Finally, his feet grazed the bottom of the creek, and a few seconds later he was able to plant them firmly on the ground. Slowly, he waded up and out of the water. He was thankful for the late spring weather, the early morning already warm enough that at least hypothermia wasn’t a concern. He lay the figure on the riverbank, and got a good look at it for the first time. It was a young boy, probably the same age as the red haired boy in the shelter, blond and small. His eyes were closed, and he was blue and pale. God, so pale. Carter tried to feel for a pulse, but he couldn’t find one. He held a hand over the boy’s mouth, and felt no breath. Desperately, he placed his hands in the center of the boy’s chest and began pumping them up and down, hard. He counted out loud as he did so, desperate to get it right.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…”
He heard the sickening crunch of ribs snapping, could almost feel them breaking as he pushed in the boy’s chest, trying to keep his blood flowing.
“Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…”
He was vaguely aware that the other boy, the red haired one, had emerged from the shelter and was sitting some distance away, watching him. He wanted to tell the boy to look away, but he didn’t dare stop counting, afraid he’d lose count.
“Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three…”
Please. Come on, please. If this fucking river is so fucking holy then let’s have a fucking miracle. Please.
“Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty!”
He pinched the boy’s nose and locked his lip’s over the boy’s own. He breathed out, watching the boy’s chest, continuing his breath until he saw it rise. He took a deep breath, and repeated. There was still no response from the boy. He still wasn’t breathing. Carter began his compressions again.
“One, two, three, four, five…”
He repeated the process again, and again. His arms burned. His lungs burned. He felt dizzy. He kept up the process.
“One, two, three…”
He felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned, to see the other boy, who proceeded to hug him tight. He hugged the boy back, and wept.
“Fuck, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”
They sat there as the sun rose, hugging each other tight, and crying. They didn’t move until the sun had well and truly risen, the red haired boy picking up Carter’ backpack, Carter lifting the body of the little blond boy and carrying it gently, as if he were a father bringing his sleeping child to bed. They walked in silence, following the creek. Carter felt drained, and numb. He barely even registered when they finally came upon the church. He just stood for a minute, and stared at it. He wanted to tear it apart, brick by brick.
Behind them, the water of the creek bubbled and swirled.
The events that followed felt like someone had broken into his mind and filmed his worst nightmares as he slept, and was now playing them out in front of him like some kind of demonic piece of theatre.
He walked straight through the center of town in the middle of the morning, a dead child in his arms and a severely malnourished and traumatized one clinging to his shirt. Slowly, people began to crowd around when they spotted him and registered what was going on. Someone screamed, and the part of Carter where his anger was stored, the bloodthirsty part that he worked so hard to suppress, hated them. The worst had already happened. Who were they to scream, now that it was almost over?
He was dazed, and it took someone physically taking the boy from him to snap him out of it. He watched as a tall, muscular woman lifted the boy out of his arms and placed him gently on the ground. She began to pat his face, calling out to him, trying to get him to respond. Carter wanted to tell her not to bother, that he was dead, but he didn’t have the energy to form words. Henry and Gwen had appeared by then. Henry joined the group that was attending to the red haired boy, and led him up to the Wanderer for some water and a place to sit while they waited for an ambulance. Gwen linked arms with Carter, and led him up to the Wanderer, too. Carter couldn’t help but turn and look back at the boy lying in the street. There were people all around. Some of them were crying. Some were making phone calls. Many were looking at him. In that moment, for a dull, burning second, he hated them all. Then the second was over, and he just felt tired. He collapsed on Gwen’s shoulder, his body forcing out great heaving sobs. Somehow, they made it to the Wanderer, and she guided him upstairs to his room. They sat on the bed, and she held him, and he cried, grieving for a child he had never known.
She didn’t try to tell him that at least he had saved one child, and she didn’t try to tell him it was going to be okay, and he was grateful for that. He knew he’d want to hear that later, but she seemed to understand that for now, the words would ring hollow, and it was best not to try.
He lost track of how long they sat there. It was long after he had stopped crying. They sat quietly, staring at the floor. Below them, they could hear the sirens when the ambulance arrived, the stomping of the paramedics as they collected Joseph and took him away to hospital, the growing noise as more and more people filtered into the Wanderer, looking for companionship, a shoulder to cry on. Anything to ground them, anything normal to hold onto. At some point, he dimly heard Gwen tell him she was probably needed downstairs, but promised that she would return. She left, and he lay on the bed, and somehow, finally, drifted off to sleep.
Tobias was sitting up in his hospital bed. His head still ached. He couldn’t feel his ankle – he had been given some heavy-duty painkillers. There were flowers sitting beside his bed – gifts from concerned friends in the Creek. The television is his room was turned off. He had not requested any books or entertainment, and barely acknowledged any visitors when they did come. He just sat, and stared at the wall. The nurses and doctors assumed he was despondent over his missing son. In truth, he already knew he would find his son – it was his duty to the Fisher, and he had never once shirked a duty. No, he knew that Joseph would be returned to him. Tobias stared into space, and planned the harvest.
In recent years, the situation in Fisherman’s Creek had grown more dire. He had ignored it until now, but the Fisher had shown him that this was an error in judgement. He had assumed that the Fisher would provide for them, as it always had, a reward for their faith and devotion over the decades. How foolish had he been. The Fisher was not altruistic. Of course it wasn’t. That was not its nature. Their prosperity had not been a gift, it had been an exchange. The harvest wasn’t a show of faith. It was payment.
And although he had not realized it – or perhaps he had, but he had just refused to acknowledge it – the price had been growing steadily higher.
The reason that businesses had been shutting down, the reason that there had been so much dissatisfaction and in-fighting – the reason, Tobias thought privately, his son had still not shown any interest in girls, no interest in continuing the line of Fisher Men – was that they were in debt. Deeply in debt. If he had needed any more evidence of this, then Joseph’s disappearance had been it. The Fisher was showing him the price. He would get his son back – the line of Fisher Men had to continue – but there was still an outstanding debt to be paid.
This year’s harvest would have to be a truly exceptional one.
There was a knock at his door. When he didn’t answer, the knocker walked stepped into his room. He was absorbed in his planning, and barely registered their presence, but he recognized the woman as one of his nurses. She called his name, softly.
Tobias didn’t reply. He found that his silence over the past few days didn’t actually change much – if people had something to say to him, they would usually say it, with or without any input on his part.
“Your son has been found. Joseph. He’s okay, malnourished and frightened but otherwise fine. Paramedics are bringing him here now. The other boy didn’t make it.”
She turned to leave, then stopped when he spoke. His voice was raspy from disuse.
“Who found him? Who found my boy?”
The nurse thought for a moment.
“I’m not sure. They didn’t say his name. Mentioned that he was new to town, though. We’ll let you know when Joseph gets here.”
She left, and Tobias’ blank face cracked, giving way to anger.
Still the outsider interfered. Worse than intervening in a Creek dispute, now he had interfere with his duties as a Fisher Man – as a father?
This was unacceptable. His town teetered on the brink, and this man had wandered in like a drunk and started breaking everything in sight. The time for patience was done, then.
He leaned back in his bed, and shut his eyes. His head throbbed. The pain in his ankle was returning, as well. Soon he would ask the nurse for more painkillers.
A crusade, then. To truly root out the blasphemers and the sinners. And Carter, as a false prophet, a pretender who dared to assume his, the Fisher Man’s, duties – he would suffer most.
Tobias drifted off into a fitful sleep.
The harvest time nears, he thought.
And I have a duty.