Dead Water (published in Beyond the Wail: 12 Grave Stories of Love and Loss)
Tear-streaked drops of rain slipped sideways along the glass as the old pickup truck continued down the empty road. A smear of water centered on the windshield where the wipers caught a leaf, the tapering storm quieting its deafening assault on the metal roof. The rain ceased, the wipers following soon thereafter, leaving the leaf trapped beneath the rubber blade at the base of the windshield.
Bob Dylan’s thin whine filled the interior of the truck, the sound almost enough of a trip back in time to seal the stretching cracks in the vinyl bench seat and silence the ever-present rattling under the ill-fitting hood. Eyes drawn to the captured leaf, Graham McQueen rolled his neck until a satisfying crack slipped between the beats of the music. The storm-filtered light from the afternoon sun glinted off a gold band on his left hand, pulling his wandering attention and forcing him to shift his grip on the steering wheel.
He folded his thumb inward and twisted the ring around his finger. Sara had texted that she made it to Seattle, her new life, yet he still couldn’t bring himself to remove the ring. It was going to take him more than a few months to end that seven-year habit.
Dylan sang on as the rattle in the Ford’s engine grew slightly more insistent. Graham glanced to the right where his younger brother, Tommy, slept hard enough to be graded on it later, lines like drawn-in parentheses around his eyes. The Semper Fi tattoo on Tommy’s left bicep peeked out from beneath his white T-shirt, and his blond hair was shoved upwards in a crazy tangle.
Graham sighed. The discussion ending his marriage turned out to be surprisingly short. Months after the papers were signed and his house was empty of her, it didn’t shock him to learn Sara claimed Tommy to be the reason she left. The IED that took his brother’s right hand also forced the removal of half of his right lung. Tommy was strong, but though loath to admit it, he’d needed help even after being released from the VA. Graham was his only family; as far as he was concerned, there was no other solution. He rubbed at his chest absently, remembering how Sara felt otherwise.
The truck shuddered and Graham focused his eyes on the dash, trying to assess the situation. He pulled well off the side of the road as the engine coughed, a mechanical death rattle shivering through the body of the old vehicle.
“Well, shit,” Graham breathed.
He sat for a moment, weighing his options, then pulled out his cell phone. No bars. Unfolding the paper where he’d scratched the directions to the lake cabin, Graham frowned. They should have reached the turnoff for Kingsford by now, but the road seemed to stretch in front of him for mile after deserted mile.
He looked over at Tommy, still sleeping despite the shift of the truck and the silencing of Bob Dylan. Cautiously reaching over, Graham gently shook Tommy’s arm. Tommy snapped instantly awake at his touch, somehow staying statue-still except for tiny muscle quivers that Graham would have missed if he hadn’t felt them beneath his light grip.
His brother didn’t speak, didn’t breathe. They’d been here before.
Graham swallowed, mentally encouraging his racing heart to slow.
“Tell me where you are,” Graham said, his tone almost conversational.
Graham watched as his brother took stock, his eyes darting around the cab, his body motionless. Tommy could sleep anywhere; waking was the problem. It had become a ritual, this way of anchoring himself, remembering where he was each time he opened his eyes.
“Your beater of a truck,” Tommy finally replied, his voice so thin it nearly evaporated.
Warily, Graham removed his hand from his brother’s shoulder and waited while Tommy uncoiled. He resisted wearing the prosthetic provided to him by the VA, and Graham had to force himself once more not to outwardly react when Tommy stretched his arms, only the one hand pressing against the dash.
“What’s got you scowling like a Russian judge?” Tommy asked, his voice once more registering at its normal timbre.
Graham rotated back to the wheel and tried the ignition. Not even a click.
He sighed again. Without another word, he pulled the release lever of the hood and climbed out of the truck. Bracing for what he’d find, Graham circled around to the front of the truck and lifted the hood. He heard Tommy open the other door to join him, but stared resolutely into the interior of the engine.
“Not quite at the lake, huh?” Tommy’s words were casual as he tugged on a grey hooded sweatshirt against the chill of the afternoon, but Graham didn’t miss the sarcasm.
“Neither of us could afford a rental, and you haven’t owned a car since before Iraq,” Graham retorted. “Not like we had a lot of options.”
“Well, there was always the option of not going,” Tommy stated, his voice like silk over the blade of tension between them.
“Don’t start.” Graham shook his head, gaze pinned to the corroded leads on top of the battery. “You know why we’re making this trip.”
With a low hum of disagreement, Tommy shifted a hip so he was slouching against the front quarter panel, his eyes on Graham and not the engine. Feeling the weight of his brother’s gaze, Graham glanced up, noting how the shockingly vivid blue of Tommy’s eyes accentuated the bruised appearance of sleepless shadows beneath them.
It was the only thing that marked them as brothers, their eyes. They’d been branded by a man they both hated.
“Don’t know why you bother looking in there like you’re gonna be able to fix it,” Tommy drawled, the side of his mouth tugging up in what passed as a grin. “This thing’s held together with paperclips and hope.”
“Not true,” Graham protested, peering back inside the engine. “There’s some duct tape in there, too.”
Tommy chuffed and rubbed the back of his neck in a familiar, distracted gesture. Conceding defeat, Graham slammed the hood. Lifting the faded Cubs ball cap where it covered the balding spot in his dark-brown hair, betraying the seven years he had on his brother, he scratched his head before tugging the cap back down over his eyes. Tipping his chin up to regard Tommy, he patted at the pocket of his faded denim shirt.
“You quit, remember?”
Graham blinked. He hadn’t even realized he’d been looking for cigarettes, but Tommy was right: when his brother came home with half a lung missing, Graham had flushed the last of his packs down the toilet.
Shaking his head, he dug a wooden match from his jean’s pocket and stuck it between his lips.
Tommy looked away. “Dad used to do that.”
“Suck on a match when he couldn’t find his smokes.”
Graham tilted his head in surprise, studying his brother. “You remember that?”
Tommy glanced back at him, and Graham saw his eyes purposefully traced the thin, now-white scar that claimed an inch of his left cheekbone.
“I remember enough.”
Graham looked away, spitting the match out onto the ground. “Well, what do you want to do? We’re still, like. . . twenty miles from Uncle Rick’s cabin in Kingsford.”
“That’s a hike. We close to anything else?”
Graham shrugged and moved around his brother to reach inside the cab of the truck and grab an atlas that had taken up permanent residence behind the seat.
“Seriously? An atlas?” Tommy arched an eyebrow at him. “What is this, the eighties?”
“Check your phone,” Graham snapped. “You get any reception out here?”
Tommy narrowed his eyes, looked at his phone, then shoved it back into his pocket and joined Graham in leaning over the hood of the truck, peering at the faded map. Graham traced a finger along their route from Chicago through Michigan to the Upper Peninsula where their uncle had a cabin he loaned them for the summer. Graham needed time to regroup after Sara left, and he knew that whether or not Tommy wanted to admit it, Iraq had taken more from him than a hand. Chicago allowed him to hide from too much.
“Near as I can tell,” Graham murmured, “we’re just to the west of that lake. See?”
“Anything there?” Tommy asked.
“Dude,”—Graham drew back from the atlas—“it’s a blur on a map.”
Tommy smirked. “A map from when, though?”
Graham flipped to the torn, faded cover. “1984.”
“Son of a bitch,” Tommy huffed with a disbelieving shake of his head.
“Well, our choices are heading west and hoping to come across a town, or hanging out here, hoping a car passes by.” Graham ducked his chin to catch Tommy’s eyes. “What do you say? Think you got a hike in you?”
Tommy lifted a shoulder, life sparking in his eyes for a brief moment in the face of Graham’s challenge. “You’re the one who’s been driving a desk for the past four years, old man.”
They cleaned out any valuables from the truck cab, then grabbed their bags from beneath the tarp stretched across the bed. Graham slung the strap of his ancient duffel across his shoulders, the bag hitting him at the hip.
Tommy managed to hook his left arm through the strap of his military-issue backpack, the name McQueen standing out at the top in black letters. Graham watched as Tommy worked to shrug the pack onto his right shoulder. Unable to help himself, he stepped forward, intending to slide the strap in place for his brother.
“I got this,” Tommy said softly, halting Graham’s movement.
“I’m just gonna—”
“I said I got it.” In an instant, Tommy’s low voice lost its softness and turned into a thing with edges that sliced just from the pain of existing.
Graham lifted his hands in surrender and backed up a step, waiting until Tommy had the pack under control. “You good?”
Tommy nodded, looking the same kind of tired he’d been for months. Leaving the truck locked, they began to walk two abreast, shoes scuffing along the gravel-and-grass edge of the road, trees lining either side and shading their path. The spring air was heavy from the passing rain, smelling strongly of dirt and tree sap. Sunbeams cut through the canopy of leaves and danced along the road in a strange gyration of light.
After a mile of walking in near-silence, Graham heard Tommy’s breathing begin to grow rough and purposefully slowed his stride. He tried not to worry about the fact that they hadn’t seen one car pass them since they started walking. A bit further and Tommy’s breath was more a staggered, stuttering, gasp for air.
“I could use a break.” Graham knew that if he made it a suggestion of help, Tommy would stubbornly trek on until he passed out.
Tommy simply nodded, moving a bit into the tree line. Graham watched as he shrugged out of the straps of his pack, dropping it to unkempt grass, and leaned heavily against a tree. He closed his eyes, tipping his head back against the gnarled bark as his face disappeared into shadows.
Just as Graham was about to call out instructions, he saw Tommy dig into his pocket and pull out the inhaler he’d been given to help his damaged lung. In moments, Graham could hear his brother’s breathing begin to even out, though a muscle worked along Tommy’s jaw. Recognizing the signs of Tommy’s stubborn denial of his weakness, Graham dug into his own bag and pulled out a water bottle, took a long swig, then handed it over.
“I’m gonna take a leak,” he announced, giving Tommy some space to catch his breath.
Graham wandered further away from the road, thinking about how much Tommy had been pieced back together in the year since he’d returned from Iraq. He was counting on this trip to give his brother a chance to repair what no prosthetic or inhaler could touch. Maybe even let him see that accepting help didn’t mean he wasn’t capable.
When he returned to the place he’d left Tommy, Graham frowned at the sight of only his brother’s pack propped against the tree.
He waited two beats, turning in a circle and moving further into the tangled undergrowth away from the road.
Tommy’s voice came at him from the left, and Graham moved inland from the road. At first he couldn’t see anything but trees, the underbrush, and the clingy, painful snags of thorn bushes pulling at his jeans. Then a beam of sunlight cut through the murk, and he saw Tommy’s gray hoodie stand out among the various shades of green in the thick foliage.
“Look at this.”
The unusual quiet amplified Tommy’s voice, tossing it around the copse of trees in a hollowed echo. Thick ropes of vines traced the tree trunks, the delicately clinging ivy creating a sort of curtained barrier around the clearing where Tommy stood. There wasn’t a bird or even the ever- present back beat of the cicada hum that usually supplied the soundtrack to the Michigan woods.
Feeling the trees press in on him, Graham drew inward. Even in the cool of the fading day, sweat sealed his shirt down the valley of his spine as he pushed through the last of the underbrush to reach his brother.
“What is it?”
Tommy glanced at him, then back down, encouraging Graham to follow his line of sight. Graham blinked in surprise. It was a graveyard: roughly two dozen stone markers, ivy creating a protective perimeter while grass and weeds grew wild between the stones. The clearing wasn’t visible from the road. Had Tommy not beckoned him forward, Graham wouldn’t have seen the stones. They were all but swallowed by the woods.
“Holy shit,” Graham breathed. “How’d you find this place?”
“I don’t know,” Tommy confessed, his eyes going distant. “I just . . . did. Look, though.” He crouched before one stone, bending the long blades of grass away from the front. “See?”
Graham frowned, reading the name etched into the weathered stone. A child, aged ten when she’d died. He’d expected by the faded lettering and moss clinging to the top of the curved stone to see a year from the previous century and was surprised to see 1968 as her date of death. He glanced from the stone to Tommy’s expectant eyes, realizing that he was missing something.
“She was young,” he stated.
Tommy frowned and moved over to the next stone, pulling back the grass. Graham shifted until he could read the name. An older woman, also died in 1968. Graham blinked, realizing that it wasn’t just 1968, but March 17, 1968. The same day as the girl. He glanced back at the last name of the child; no relation.
“They’re all like that,” Tommy informed him, using the top of the faded stone to push to his feet, having evidently seen something in Graham’s expression that satisfied him.
“Wait . . . all of them?” Graham bleated in disbelief.
He dropped the bags at Tommy’s feet and started to move around the small graveyard, noting where the grass had been trampled from Tommy’s previous exploration. Water soaked the edges of his running shoes, uncomfortably seeping into his socks, but he ignored it, instead focusing on stone after stone. Each read March 17, 1968.
“Something awful happened here, G. To wipe out this many people . . .” Tommy called to him.
Graham stared hard at his brother. Tommy held his right arm close to his chest, almost protectively, and reached up with his left hand to rub the back of his neck. There was something shadowed in his expression. Graham’s chest constricted with the same impotent need to help that had suffocated him since Tommy came home.
He looked back down at the stones. “You think some kind of epidemic?”
“Dunno,” Tommy mumbled. “Last time I saw this many graves on the same day, it was from something much worse than an epidemic.”
He began to rub at the back of his neck again. Graham made his way back across the small graveyard to stand near his brother, his wet shoes squishing loudly against the spongy ground.
“Worse like what?”
Tommy looked up at him and the emptiness in his eyes had Graham’s breath turning backwards.
“Evil people, man,” Tommy said quietly. “Evil people.”
Graham frowned but said nothing. There were times when even the violence of their shared past paled in comparison to what Tommy carried within him now. Graham had nothing to offer in the face of memories he only saw through the waxed paper filter of Tommy’s words.
“C’mon, we’re burning daylight,” Graham stated, wanting to get his brother away from this place. He reached for their packs, noticing then how the water that had soaked his shoes wasn’t just residual moisture from the afternoon storm.
“What the hell?” Graham muttered.
Dark water, heavy with oily silt, seemed to be literally rising out of the ground. It had drenched the bottom of their packs and was slowly soaking the cuffs of their jeans, saturating their legs in a frigid grip.
“Dude, where was that lake?” Tommy took a stumbling step back, water splashing noisily with his movement.
“The hell should I know?” Graham watched as the grave markers began to sink in the rising water. It had gone from nonexistent to ankle-deep in the space of a few heartbeats. “C’mon, man.”
When Tommy failed to respond, Graham reached out and grabbed his left arm, ready to haul him all the way back to the road, if necessary. Tommy didn’t budge; Graham tugged on him, roughly, until Tommy staggered a bit in the water, finally facing him. Graham flinched, seeing something reflect in Tommy’s eyes as dark as the water swirling and tugging at their ankles.
“Move!” Graham barked, shaken to hear the tremble in his voice.
Tommy obediently stumbled forward, and together they sloshed away from the sinking graves toward the road. A stench like rotten eggs rose from the churning, dark water. Graham coughed into the bend of his elbow, fighting the urge to gag, and followed his brother, exhaling with relief when they cleared the freezing water and stagnant air and stepped onto the graveled edge of the quiet road.
“What the hell was that?” Graham exclaimed, stomping his feet as if the motion itself would rid him of the icy water’s touch.
Tommy didn’t respond. He was staring at Graham, his gaze unfocused and hazy, a line of something like pain or confusion between his brows. Graham stared back, waiting. After a moment, Tommy blinked, then turned away to face back down the road.
Graham found it strange that he couldn’t catch his breath. “What was with you back there?” he demanded.
Tommy shook his head once, hard, as though trying to get water out of his ears. “Nothing.”
“That was not nothing.” Graham moved to stand directly in front of Tommy, dropping their wet bags at his brother’s feet. “I’ve seen nothing, and it looks very different.”
“I don’t know, G,” Tommy replied with a helpless shrug. “It was . . . it felt familiar.”
Graham took a breath; Tommy’s answer didn’t make any sense—and scared Graham a bit more than even the water—but it was getting late, they were both cold, and he had just discovered a serious aversion to random graveyards. Deciding not to push the issue, Graham looked around at the empty road, the growing shadows making it hard for him to see very far.
“Here’s the plan: we keep moving.” He kept his eyes on Tommy, watching for the moment when the darkness in his brother’s eyes slipped away. “If there’s a graveyard, there’s gotta be a town nearby. We’ll just stop at the first service station we see and get a wrecker or something.”
Offering him a grimace that tried valiantly to be a smile, Tommy said, “You really think we’re going to be able to save your truck?”
“Hey, I thought Marines never left a man behind,” Graham protested, recognizing the forced humor for what it was: a peace offering. He slipped his head through his duffel strap and watched as Tommy shouldered his pack. “I’ve had that truck since you were in grade school.”
“I think it might be time to let it go, man,” Tommy said, tipping his head and folding his brows in mock sympathy. “Put it out of our misery.”
Graham snorted good-naturedly and continued down the road. Tommy picked up the rhythm of his slower stride, the evening air chilling their wet legs. To the west, the sun didn’t so much set as throw itself behind the wall of trees, thrusting darkness upon the world in a sulk and drawing heat from the inhabitants below.
The sky was clear, but there was no moon. Instead, the empty starlight tossed insipid shadows across the road. Graham felt a shiver slip over his skin that had nothing to do with the chill in the air. When the tree line broke to reveal the edge of a small town, the brothers stopped and stared.
“Uh . . . I might’ve been too harsh about the truck,” Tommy recanted, crossing his arms over his chest, his left supporting his damaged right.
The place was deserted. No cars, no streetlights, not even a vagrant sprawled on the one bench they could see. The brothers walked cautiously forward, puzzled frowns mirroring each other’s expression. A gas station sat dark and seemingly abandoned to their left, and a bait and tackle shop with faded letters covering its windows stood on their right. Graham could see the lake just beyond the edge of a weed-choked parking lot.
As they walked down the center of the empty road, Graham continued to scan the buildings and alleyways for signs of life, the hairs on the back of his neck standing at attention. He looked over at Tommy; tension lined his face, coiling in his jaw muscles as his eyes never ceased roaming.
“Maybe they roll up the sidewalks at sunset,” Graham said, his voice hushed as though afraid someone might hear him.
“The road . . .” Tommy stopped moving.
“What?” Graham pulled up short and watched as Tommy looked back over his shoulder at the way they’d come into town. “What about the road?”
Looking back at him, Tommy said, “It led right here.”
Graham nodded, bothered more by the way Tommy held himself completely still, as if he were listening to the world with his whole body, than by what his brother had said.
“There wasn’t a turnoff or an alternate route,” Tommy continued and backed up a step, looking down at the cracked, weed-littered surface beneath their feet, then up at the empty buildings around them.
“It’s like they wanted us to come here, right here.”
Graham wasn’t sure who they were, but he’d heard this tone in his brother’s voice before. Tommy looked like one exhale might break him. Graham frowned, watching as Tommy’s eyes snapped and skittered across the broken road, his stuttering breath audible in the quiet of the darkened town.
“Tell me where you are, kid,” Graham said quietly, using their vocal anchor in an attempt to balance his brother’s obvious panic.
Tommy looked up at him, starlight striking his face and tucking his eyes into pockets of shadow. Graham felt his heart pull sharply in his chest. He saw Tommy take a slow, shallow breath and wanted to reach out, but he knew that contact in this moment could shatter his brother’s control. There were times when a thin veneer of pretense was the only thing that kept Tommy from falling apart so completely no one could put him back together again.
“I’m okay, Graham.” His voice sounded rusted through, as if he’d put it away a long time ago and was just getting it out now because he had nothing else to use.
Graham simply nodded, not pushing him. He waited another beat as Tommy steadied his breathing, then said, “What’s wrong with the road?”
“Look.” Tommy gestured to the weeds grown up between the cracks that bisected the center line. “No one’s been down this way in years, man. It’s like we’re on the set of The Walking Dead, not some small town in Michigan.”
Graham blinked, finally picking up what Tommy was putting down. He glanced over his shoulder. “You’re right,” he said in confused wonder. “The road led right here.”
“Is this the route Uncle Rick gave you?”
Graham nodded. “There was supposed to be a turnoff, but . . .” He pulled off his ball cap and rubbed his hair nervously. “Something else is bugging me.”
“No cars,” Tommy guessed.
Graham nodded and pulled his hat back down. “No cars.”
“What do you want to do?”
Graham studied his brother for a moment in the pale, cool light of the stars. Tommy listed slightly to the right in that way he had when the scarred-over wounds he bore pained him more than he was willing to admit. His right arm was folded across his chest, the sleeve of the grey hoodie hiding the missing hand. The only thing that didn’t look beaten was his eyes; they looked as alive as Graham had ever seen them.
“We know it’s an hour back to the truck,” Graham said, “in the dark.”
“Truck’s dead and the only food there are those nasty protein bars you shoved in the glove box.”
“True,” Graham nodded. “Unless we find some random vending machine in one of these creepy-assed buildings, looks like there’s nothing here, either.”
“I say we push on,” Tommy voted. “If nothing else, Kingsford is another fifteen miles east.”
“We’re gonna be walking all night, if the traffic on this road stays like it is. You think you can make it?”
Tommy waved a dismissive hand at him and started walking. Graham hurried to catch up.
“I thought you liked those protein bars.”
“Dude.” Tommy shook his head ruefully. “Nobody likes those protein bars.”
Before they’d gone more than a few steps, two flashlight beams caused them to stumble back and cry out in surprise as they each lifted a hand to shield their eyes.
“You boys lost? Or just unlucky?”
“How about you tone down the light a little, Dirty Harry?” Tommy spoke up.
He heard a mumbled word, and the beams were lowered. Tommy dropped his hand and felt Graham mirror his action. He still couldn’t see who blocked their path, but it was silent enough around them that he could hear a calloused hand rasp across a bearded face.
“To answer your question,” Graham spoke up, “unlucky.”
“What’re you doin’ in Ellsworth?” demanded a new voice.
“Our truck broke down a few miles back, and we were just walking to find the nearest service station,” Graham explained patiently.
“Shouldn’t have been on this road,” the same surly voice accused.
Tommy felt Graham square his shoulders and waited. Graham was the level-headed one, the diplomat. At once father, mother, and brother to Tommy growing up, Graham stood as a shield against the trouble they’d faced in their youth. When he returned from Iraq, Tommy found himself wondering if he might have been spared from that bomb if Graham had been with him.
“Sir, if we had the choice, we wouldn’t be,” was Graham’s even- tempered reply. “We’re on our way to Kingsford.”
“Turn ’round and head on over there, then.”
“As soon as we get a vehicle, we will.”
“All right, Wade,” spoke up the original voice. “How ’bout we not string them up for having car trouble.”
“They got no business here! I say they gotta leave.”
Tommy spared a glance at Graham, noting how his brother’s steady eyes never left the direction of the voices. Tommy stayed quiet. He was too tired to make anything out of the argument; his arm ached with more than just phantom pain, he’d had a stitch in his side since they arrived at this damn town, and he couldn’t shake the chill that had come over him at the graveyard.
“Well, luckily, you don’t make those kinds of decisions.”
The voice was cold; even Tommy felt slightly chastised by the rebuke.
Wade was silent after that, and Tommy exhaled in relief. The first man approached, his lowered flashlight creating a circle of light that reflected up and illuminated his and Graham’s faces. He smiled thinly and touched the edge of his wide-brimmed, brown hat. Graham echoed the gesture with his ball cap. The diplomat.
“Sheriff Jack Brooks,” the man said.
“Graham McQueen. This is my brother, Tommy.”
Brooks nodded at Tommy, turning back to Graham as he said, “Let’s just get you to the sheriff’s station; we can figure out what to do with you there.”
Graham glanced first at Tommy, then nodded at the sheriff. “Sure, sounds good. Unless your friend has any objections?”
Brooks waved a hand over his shoulder. “Don’t mind my deputy. He’s an idiot. I’m afraid it’s incurable.”
The smile Graham offered in reply was affable, but Tommy saw that it didn’t reach his brother’s eyes. As the sheriff and his deputy moved away from the darkened buildings, Graham stepped in front of Tommy. Always the protector. Biting his tongue to keep from reminding his brother that he didn’t need protection, Tommy followed.
Brooks paused at the door of a classic, 1960s model red pickup truck and waved them into the bed before climbing in behind the wheel. Tommy fought against rolling his eyes when Wade planted himself in the back with them, his small, dark eyes pinned to Graham.
“What is the deal with ancient pickup trucks today, huh?” Tommy grumbled softly to his brother, earning an elbow of warning in the ribs.
“Station’s just a little ways up the road,” Brooks called to them from the cab before starting up the engine.
Wade jerked his chin toward the cab of the truck and the back of Brooks’ head. “No matter what he says, you two shouldn’t be here. I had my way, I’da sent you back.”
“I bet you say that to all the fellas,” Tommy remarked, feeling Graham shift uncomfortably next to him.
They hadn’t been in the truck long when lights from the sheriff’s station spilled across their faces, and Tommy felt his body relax slightly. He hadn’t recognized how tense the darkness made him; it was too similar to night missions in Baghdad, only this time he had no weapons, no backup, and no air cover.
Just a big brother who didn’t know enough not to throw himself on the grenade.
Brooks parked in front of the sheriff’s station, and Tommy saw the name Ellsworth on the side of the building in dingy letters, moss clinging to the edges of the “E” and the “w”. He dropped his pack next to Graham’s and swung over the side of the truck, ignoring his brother’s offered hand.
Standing, he grabbed his pack and looked over at Brooks, the door of the truck slamming shut with a rusty creak.
“So, this town’s called Ellsworth?” Tommy couldn’t remember seeing that name on the map.
“Yep,” Brooks replied. “You saw the big lake?”
“Looked like it was practically part of the town,” Graham observed.
“Folks around here are drawn to the lake,” Brooks said with an enigmatic smile, then nodded toward the front door of the sheriff’s station.
Tommy didn’t say anything, but couldn’t help stealing a glance at his brother’s profile. Graham’s day-old scruff rippled as he clenched his jaw. He could practically feel the gears turning as his brother processed the events from the past few hours, crafting a plan for what to do next. Tommy had little need for planning; Graham did that enough for both of them.
They followed Brooks and Wade inside the station. Tommy was surprised by the complete lack of activity within. Eyebrows up, he glanced again at Graham and saw his surprise echoed in his brother’s expression. Whenever he’d been inside a police station back in Chicago, no matter the time of day, there was always noise: phones ringing, people shouting, cursing, crying.
“Maybe they really do roll up the sidewalks at dark,” Tommy whispered to his brother.
“How’d they know we were there?” Graham matched his tone. “Some perimeter alarm go off?”
Tommy shook his head silently, but couldn’t suppress the shiver he felt crawl up his spine and spill across his chest. It made his stump ache and his ears ring with warning. Something was very wrong here.
“Go open one of the motel rooms in the back,” Brooks ordered Wade.
Wade looked once more at the brothers, and Tommy lifted his hand in a wave, offering him a sarcastic, sunny grin. Wade slunk off, muttering, as Brooks turned his attention back to Graham.
“Now, you said your car broke down?”
Before Graham could reply, Tommy spoke up. “Our truck, just east of that old graveyard.”
Brooks brought his chin up. “Graveyard?”
“Yeah.” Tommy stepped forward, pushing past Graham’s subtly restraining arm. “About a dozen or so, all of ’em dated March of ’68. Sound familiar?”
Brooks fixed Tommy with an icy stare, his irises seeming to contract.
Tommy didn’t budge, despite feeling Graham move in closer to his back. His nerves were on alert since he’d stumbled onto those graves, like the low hum of electricity in the back of his brain, and the moment they walked into this station, it had amped up until he wanted to press his hand against his head.
“How ’bout we get you two settled.” Brooks’ chilled tone echoed the tight, empty smile he directed at Tommy. “Motel is . . . under repair, but you can stay in one of the back rooms.”
“Back room?” Tommy asked, his tone skeptical. “Isn’t that usually just called a cell?”
Brooks ignored him. “We can figure out how to get your truck when the gas station opens in the morning.”
“Sounds great, thanks,” Graham broke in. As Brooks moved to the same door Wade disappeared through, Graham leaned forward and hissed in Tommy’s ear. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Something’s not right here, G.”
“Since when are you Columbo, pal?” Graham rotated slightly so they were facing each other. Tommy was struck with the familiar blue of his brother’s eyes. They were seven years apart, different scars, different smiles, different hairlines, but Tommy saw himself when he looked in his brother’s eyes.
In more ways than one.
“We just get through the night and get outta here,” Graham declared through clenched teeth.
“You don’t want to know what the deal is with that graveyard? All those people dying on the same day?” Tommy asked in a low, tight voice. “What about why the road led us to the weirdest small town since Twin Peaks, huh?” Tommy tilted his head, catching his brother’s eyes when Graham tried to look away. “Or why no one else followed this route? Not one car?”
“No,” Graham replied, his jaw tight, his eyes low. “I don’t want to know.”
“I just want to get you out of here and up to that damn cabin, okay?”
“Why? Because you think it’s gonna fix me?” Tommy challenged on a low growl, his words barely audible but aimed at Graham like missile strikes. “Because it’s gonna make you forget about Sara?”
“Got you all set!” Brooks broke in, stopping whatever words might’ve matched the dangerous flicker in Graham’s eyes. “Wade will take you around back.” Tommy didn’t miss the look Brooks sliced his way. “’Fraid there’s not much to eat, this time of night, but there’s coffee in the break room.”
“That’ll be fine, thanks.” Graham’s reply was polite, but his eyes were pinned to Tommy, turning the younger man’s heart brittle enough to crumble like ash with its next beat.
They followed the wiry, grumbling man out of the front door of the sheriff’s station, down a sidewalk illuminated by a single, yellow-hued streetlight, and around behind the darkened building toward what appeared to be another moss-covered structure. As they rounded the corner, Tommy caught sight of the lake stretching out from the nearby bank with no visible opposite shore. He pulled up short, forcing the other two to stop as well.
“Holy shit, that’s a big lake,” Tommy exclaimed, uttering a low whistle.
“Best stay clear of it,” Wade snapped. “People messin’ where they’re not wanted screws everything up.”
Tommy looked sharply at Graham, but his brother’s eyes were on the water.
“What’s the deal with this town, Wade?” Graham asked, his tone even, casual. The tone he used to anchor Tommy when the world began to slip away. Tommy bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling; clearly, he wasn’t the only one whose Spidey-sense was tingling. “I mean, if everyone is so drawn to this lake, then where are they?”
Wade shot him a dark look. “They’re here.”
There was a frown in Graham’s voice. “Come again?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Wade said, shutting off the flashlight as he led them around to a series of doors. The starlight glittered off the lake, so close to the sidewalk Tommy could hear the sand suck back as the soft movement of the waves caressed the shoreline. “Shoulda just kept walking.”
“I’m starting to agree with you,” Graham sighed.
Tommy looked at his brother, questions in his eyes. Graham simply shook his head and moved past him toward the door Wade indicated with his dead flashlight. Graham tried the handle, and when it opened, Wade turned and all but vanished into the shadows that framed the building. The brothers went inside and shut the door, dropping their damp packs to the floor.
There was one bed covered with a pale green comforter that looked as though it had been new when their father was a kid. The carpet was deflated and moldy in the corners of the room; a small dresser with an old transistor radio on top of it graced the opposite wall. Just behind Tommy, a squared mirror hung crookedly on the wall, and beneath it was a small coffee table with one chair.
The room smelled like mothballs and cigarette smoke. Tommy saw Graham patting his pockets again, and this time didn’t comment when he stuck a match between his lips. He crossed his arms over his chest, waiting.
“Look, don’t even say it,” Graham commanded around the wooden match.
“Tell me there isn’t something spooky going on here.”
“New plan.” Graham’s shoulders sagged a bit, as if the decaying room were pressing down on him. “We get to a town big enough to have rental cars and just dead-head it to the lake cabin.”
Graham turned to face him, but whatever he’d been about to say died as the color of his face slid from anger-red to an alarming shade of gray.
Instinctively, Tommy stepped forward, his left hand out to grasp his brother’s arm, thinking the man was about to faint on him, when he realized that Graham’s eyes were pinned to something just over Tommy’s shoulder.
Tommy slowly turned, not sure what to expect. Nothing could have prepared him for what met his eyes. He gazed into the mirror on the wall behind him, heart pounding as he saw himself and Graham reflected in the murky glass, and next to them the unmistakable image of a woman standing with her back to the mirror.
His blood turned to ice as he choked out, “What the hell . . .?”
The brothers stood, frozen with the impossibility of the situation. The image flickered in and out, like film not quite aligned to a projector feed, until it suddenly snapped into focus. The woman turned to face them in the mirror, her features mottled grey and blue, eyes empty, dark holes that seemed to suck the light from the room.
Tommy tried to speak, but was overwhelmed as a strong stench began to waft around them. He knew this smell. He’d encountered it many times when clearing houses and buildings in the desert streets of Baghdad. It was rot. Decay. Death. The smell erected a tunnel around his vision, his memory like a skipping record, searching for the one thing he couldn’t grasp.
“Son of a bitch,” Graham breathed, snapping Tommy’s focus back to the mirror.
The woman opened her mouth and black, ink-like water began to spill from her lips. The same hollow sensation Tommy felt back at the graveyard came over him. He felt like he was nowhere, attached to nothing. He was scared, the knowledge sparking something inside him that had lain dormant since returning from Iraq.
The dark water pooled at the base of the mirror and began to pour over the edge of the chipped frame. It stained the wall, soaked into the carpet, and Tommy felt Graham’s hands tugging frantically on his arm, pulling him away from the mirror, lest any of the inky liquid splash on them.
“Out!” Graham ordered on a shaky breath, not even pausing to grab their packs. “Out now!”
Tommy lurched toward the door, slamming against it over and over, until he remembered that he had to pull it toward him. He fumbled impotently for the doorknob, his hand feeling as though it belonged to someone else, until Graham shoved him to the side and wrenched the door open.
The brothers tumbled from the room into the cool of the night, stumbling to an uncertain halt just outside the doorway.
“Move,” Graham demanded, but Tommy held still. “Move, dammit!”
Graham shoved at him, desperation making his grip clumsy. Tommy twisted in his grasp and shoved back.
His vehemence shook Graham from his fight-or-flight reaction, and he dropped his hands, staring at Tommy in naked surprise. Tommy was breathing hard, his right lung stitching a bolt of pain across his side. The fresh night air from the lake slipped over him, the smell of decay evaporating. A quick glance back through the doorway into the room showed nothing—no water soaking and staining the carpet, and no image of a woman in the mirror.
“Where’re we gonna go, man?” Tommy demanded, catching his breath.
“Anywhere that’s not here!” Graham snapped. “Let’s find Brooks.”
“He put us in this room! You think he didn’t know about the . . . the reject from The Ring?” Tommy thrust his hand back toward the opened doorway in the direction of the mirror. “He’s not gonna help us.”
His control snapping so suddenly that Tommy practically heard it echo against the night, Graham grabbed Tommy by the front of his hoodie and shoved him against the outside wall next to the opened door. “What do you want me to do, Tommy? What?”
Tommy shuddered at the feel of Graham’s hands gripping him, pushing him. He couldn’t suppress the panic that bubbled up in his chest. He needed Graham to step back, to step away. He was too close.
“I don’t know!” Tommy yelled, helplessly honest. “I don’t know what I want! I just know that there’s something wrong with this place, G. And we walked right into it.”
Something of his panic must have hit his eyes, because Graham’s expression collapsed into a strange mixture of fear and frustration.
“All right!” Graham exclaimed, releasing Tommy and stepping back to shove his baseball cap from his head, rubbing his hands roughly over his short hair. “Just . . . I sell insurance, man.”
“I know.” Tommy dragged a trembling hand down his face. “I just need . . .”
With the door open and the smell gone, the minutes before seemed like a moment of shared hysteria. The sound of frogs echoed in the distance, and the night wind blew a small cyclone of last year’s leaves around their feet. For one wild moment, Tommy thought they could talk, the way they used to. That they could just be brothers again, rather than invalid and caretaker.
“What do you need, kid?” Graham asked quietly. “Tell me, because I feel like we’re standing in a room with the devil, right now.”
Tommy lifted his eyes. “Maybe that’s what I need.”
Graham tilted his head, confused. Tommy cradled his right arm against his chest, the stump like a hot brand against his ribs. For the last year, he’d tried and failed to explain to his brother what it felt like to walk around with shattered pieces of himself rattling around inside like broken glass. He simply couldn’t find the words to make Graham see that peace wasn’t healing him.
Peace wasn’t in him anymore.
He had no idea how to make Graham understand that a summer vacation at the lake wasn’t going to fix all that was wrong with him. No idea, that is, until they were suddenly facing the impossible.
“Maybe I need to know the devil exists,” Tommy began, something catching in his voice—a sob, a curse. It pierced the haze of fear that surrounded both of them, and caused him to lift his eyes to peer at his brother in the filtered starlight. “Because if the devil exists, then maybe so does God. And . . . maybe I need to know that God’s out there.”
Graham’s eyes dropped to Tommy’s right arm, the scarred stump hidden by the end of his hoodie. Tommy knew his brother was seeing more than just the empty sleeve: he was seeing the scars on Tommy’s chest, the nights where he couldn’t wake up even when his eyes were open, the way he gasped for air when his wounded lung seized up . . .
Tommy watched as Graham’s jawline rippled, his nostrils flaring slightly as he pulled in a breath. “Okay, kid,” Graham whispered, reaching for the back of Tommy’s neck and pulling him close.
When Graham released him, Tommy pushed away from the wall and cracked his neck, squaring his shoulders like a boxer ready to enter the ring. He forced himself to step into the room. Graham followed, standing between him and the open door, looking as though he wanted to bolt.
“So, what do you think? Elaborate ruse to roll us and take all our Hanes T-shirts?” Graham tried, his voice a nervous tremble.
“There was something about that graveyard, G.” Tommy rubbed at the back of his neck, suppressing a shiver as he remembered another graveyard with so many names, in another time, another world. “I felt it while we were standing there. I feel it now.”
Tommy frowned, his brows pulling tight as he half turned so that he could see his brother in his periphery. “When that bomb went off . . .” He lifted his right arm, his stump burning through the cover of the hoodie. “It’s the same feeling.”
Graham stepped further into the room, curling his hands into fists at his sides, as though he were keeping himself from touching Tommy. “Felt what, Tom?”
“Death,” Tommy replied, meeting his brother’s eyes, watching them widen. “I think those people are haunting this place.”
Graham’s eyebrows bounced so high they disappeared beneath the brim of his baseball cap. “What, like Poltergeist?”
Tommy looked at him askance. “I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, G. Lot of stuff you wouldn’t think was real, except it’s staring you in the face.”
Graham shook his head. “But haunting? That’s fiction. Hollywood.”
“You gonna stand there and tell me you didn’t see a woman spit ink through that mirror?”
Graham groaned and rubbed his face. “How the hell are we even talking about this?”
“When you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
“Seriously? You’re quoting Spock now?”
Tommy gave his brother a derisive look. “It’s Sherlock Holmes, you moron.”
Graham narrowed his eyes and shot a nervous look at the mirror. “Fine. So, what’s the plan?”
Not expecting the abrupt role-reversal, Tommy swallowed, thinking quickly. “I say we find Wade. He’s the one who wanted us gone, right? Let’s find out why. What happened in ’68?”
He waited, watching Graham closely, pinpointing the exact moment his brother gave in.
“Has anyone ever said ‘no’ to you?” Graham scowled without malice.
“Sophie McKinney,” Tommy replied. “Tenth grade.”
Not wanting to stay in the room another minute, they grabbed their packs and began to retrace their steps to the front entrance of the station. The path was dark, lit only by the faded starlight reflecting off the lake, which was so close Tommy could swear it was lapping against the edge of the sidewalk.
Without Wade and his flashlight to guide them, he wasn’t sure where the path turned.
“You think it’s weird the only people we’ve seen here are the sheriff and deputy?” Tommy asked, tossing his voice over his shoulder toward where Graham followed.
“I can’t name one thing about this place that isn’t weird.”
“True, but still, it’s—”
Tommy slammed into something so hard it knocked him off his feet. He went down, instinctively thrusting out both arms behind him to stop his fall and catching his full weight on his left, rolling to the soft, wet sand of the shoreline with a gasp that was more surprise than pain.
“I’m okay,” Tommy called out, pushing the pack he’d dropped away as he caught his breath. He tucked the stump of his right arm beneath his left to press against the pain of impact. “Ran into something. Stay still a second.”
Tommy felt around to see what had stopped him when his fingers brushed against a shoe. He froze for a moment, tracing his hand from the thick sole to the cuff of jeans and a leg. There was something too still about the give of flesh beneath his fingers, the thrum of life completely absent.
Dragging his eyes upward, he saw in the cloying starlight that it was a man, standing utterly still and staring out over the lake, as though waiting for something.
“Oh, shit, G,” he muttered.
“I—I think it’s Wade.”
He was whispering, Tommy realized. Urgent mutterings slipping from barely moving lips. No more. No more. The chill that wrapped around Tommy earlier tightened its grip and he felt his breath leave him as he gaped at the corpse standing before him.
Suddenly, Graham was at his side, warm and real and all breath and beating heart, and Tommy dug mental hooks into that knowledge so that he wasn’t pulled toward the chill of death beneath his hand.
“We gotta get out of here,” Graham declared, grabbing at Tommy to pull him to his feet.
Tommy automatically shrugged out of his brother’s grip, his senses too wracked to consider that he needed Graham’s help, when he heard an unearthly sound coming from the lake. It sounded as though the darkness was tearing. Twisting around, he looked across the dark water. Before he could call out to Graham, he felt something grab his ankles, cold and wet.
Dimly, he heard Graham shout his name. He was powerless to stop the water from taking him. Darkness, like a living thing, slipped from the lake to climb his legs. Tommy thrust out his hand to stop his momentum, but the dark wrapped around him like webbing.
He was beneath the surface. His weakened lungs slapped ineffectually against his rib cage. He wanted to scream, fight, push it away, but the darkness, the water, was everywhere. It writhed around his body, slipping into his blinking eyes, filling his gaping mouth.
It was inside of him. A part of him in a way nothing had been before. He was wrapped in seductive darkness, its hands and mouth a caress. Its eyes bored into his until he felt himself shake.
An iron-like grip wrapped around his arm, ripping his body from the clutches of the lake. He was pulled free from the darkness, tendrils dragging down his body, leaving a tattoo on him not unlike the scars the bomb left behind. He was gagging, choking on lake water, trying desperately to breathe through lungs that had forgotten how.
He heard Graham almost crying with panic. Tommy reached for his brother, anchoring himself in the one solid thing that had kept him safe when the world tried to destroy him. Graham’s arms wrapped around him, close, and this time Tommy held on.
“I gotcha, I gotcha, kid, just breathe. Okay, that’s it, you’re doin’ great.”
It took Tommy a moment to register that Graham was moving them away from the water. He wasn’t exactly on his feet, but his brother was making it work. He felt chills wrack him, his stunted lungs retched water as he coughed, desperate for air.
“That’s it, Tommy, I gotcha, you’re gonna be okay,” Graham promised.
After several moments of struggle with uncooperative limbs, Tommy felt Graham finally set him down against something cold and solid. Graham’s hands were at his chest, alternating between rubbing in circles and pounding as he continued to gasp as though trying to breathe through a wet sponge. He pressed back against the moss-covered side of the sheriff’s station, blinking water from his eyes.
“What the hell?” Tommy panted weakly.
“You might’ve been right about that haunting thing,” Graham admitted as he pulled Tommy up against his chest, heedless of the water turning his clothes to a frosty glaze. Tommy instinctively pressed closer to the warmth of his brother’s body, shivering and trying desperately not to cry.
“You bet your ass, new plan.” Graham nodded against the top of his head. “This one mostly involves not drowning.”
“I l-like that plan.”
Graham cursed, too rapidly for it to be merely conversational. Tommy opened his eyes to see the darkness from the lake bucking the laws of physics and actually spreading along the shoreline. It parted, slipping around Wade’s statue-like figure, and approached them with intent.
Behind him, Graham was on his feet, pulling at Tommy once more, grabbing anything he could get his hands on. The wet, chilled clothing that clung to Tommy’s body made it hard to get a hold. His left arm gripped Graham’s bicep, his right unable to do anything but wrap around himself. Somehow, he was able to get his feet under him, and in an uncoordinated tangle of limbs, he and Graham made it to the street.
“You gonna tell Brooks?”
“Screw Brooks,” Graham practically growled. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”
Tommy shot a surprised look at his brother’s authoritative tone. He hadn’t heard Graham sound like that since he took him out of their father’s house to finish raising him on his own. Graham’s blue eyes were hot and alive with purpose.
They stumbled toward the old, red truck, Graham propping Tommy against the bed as he wrenched open the driver’s side. A hand slapped against the window and slammed the door shut. Both McQueen’s yelped in surprise.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Brooks demanded, appearing like a wraith from the darkness.
“We’re leaving,” Graham declared.
“Nobody’s leaving,” Brooks stated, his voice deeper and sounding not entirely human.
Tommy blinked and reached for Graham, taking a step back and pulling his brother with him. Eyes going dull and empty, Brooks opened his mouth, black water spilling from his lips and soaking the front of his flannel shirt, rapidly pooling at his feet.
“Son of a . . .”
Beneath his hand, Tommy felt Graham’s muscles tense. He knew in that moment his brother was about to fall on the grenade. Taking the hit so that Tommy wouldn’t have to.
Instinctively, Tommy used Graham’s body as leverage and propelled himself forward, ramming the Ellsworth sheriff squarely in the chest with his shoulder and sending the body stumbling back several paces. Unable to stop his forward motion, Tommy stumbled and landed in the inky water that had pooled around Brooks.
“Get in the truck!” Tommy bellowed as he sensed Graham lunge for him. “Get in the damn truck, G!”
Brooks leveraged himself forward, like a vampire rising from its coffin, more of the dark water spilling from his mouth, his eyes, his ears. He seemed to be melting, becoming the darkness that was the lake, and he reached for Tommy with blackening fingers. Tommy pushed to his knees, scrambling away, water sucking at his soaked clothes. A groan echoed against the decaying brick of the sheriff’s station.
“What the fu—”
“Tommy, move it, man!” Graham shouted from the opened door of the truck. “Come on!”
Tommy shoved himself to his feet, staring in disbelief as Wade appeared next to Brooks as though conjured by the black water itself. Stumbling backwards toward the truck, he watched in horror as Wade, too, began to melt into the dark water, his lips forming around two words that echoed inside Tommy’s head: no more.
Graham dove into the truck as Tommy reached its side, sliding over as he scrambled behind the wheel. Tommy slammed and locked the door behind him. It was then he realized that not only did they not have the keys, but the truck was a manual transmission.
“We got this, kid!” Graham declared, fear and adrenaline making his breath skip along his words.
Tommy stared in shock through the window as Brooks climbed to his feet, his entire chest now soaked in black water, and pushed Wade out of his way. Graham ducked beneath the dash of the truck, pulling at the wires.
Brooks slapped a hand on the window. Graham’s arms jerked as he sparked wires against each other. Water began to seep through the seal of the window just as the truck rumbled to life.
“I forgot you knew how to do that!” Tommy exclaimed, torn between staring in revulsion at the spectral figure outside the window and in appreciation at the back of his brother’s head beneath the truck’s dash.
“C’mon.” Graham shoved upright. “You steer; I’ll shift.”
Tommy slammed the clutch and gas down with equal force as Graham shoved the gear into reverse. They shot backwards from the sheriff’s station, unable for a moment to tear their eyes from the sight of Wade stepping in front of Brooks as though he intended to delay the sheriff’s pursuit. Shifting once more, the brothers headed down the deserted road through the empty town of Ellsworth.
“Are you seeing this?” Graham breathed, his body tensed to listen to the engine as he manned the gearshift.
The stars painted the hollow buildings that lined the lake in a cold, dead light. Black water spilled from the windows and open doorways, saturating the weed-choked lots and creeping closer to the road. Tommy floored the accelerator and pumped the clutch as Graham shifted the gears.
Graham’s right hand was braced on the dash, Tommy’s left on the steering wheel, both watching in horror as the water sped up, crashing like a wave against the side of the truck. Tommy shouted as the water slipped like oily fingers through the seals around the windshield, in through the radio, and beneath the dash, slapping their legs with icy malice.
Screaming in unified terror, they plowed forward toward the shadows of the overgrowth and trees that lined the road they walked down a few hours before. Tommy felt his chest seizing, his lungs protesting the recent abuse.
He coughed, gasping as the truck started to jerk and stutter, echoing the rasping sound of his breathing until it stopped altogether at the edge of town. To their dismay, moss crept across the dash before their eyes, coating the steering wheel and windshield from the inside as water continued to rise inside the truck.
Outside, however, the water began to recede, pulling away from the dead, moss-covered truck and back toward the empty town of Ellsworth with a sucking groan that Tommy never wanted to hear again.
Wordlessly, Graham kicked open the passenger door, water spilling out in a rush, then reached over and grabbed Tommy’s wet shoulder. His fist twisted in the sopping cotton material of the hoodie. He hauled Tommy across the slime-covered bench seat. They landed in a heap on the wet gravel, then scrambled to their feet, heading for the dark, empty road.
As they breached the tree line and found the main road, Graham twisted to look over his shoulder.
“What? Is it coming back?” Tommy rasped.
“No, man.” Graham’s voice was hoarse. “Nothing’s there.”
“What? No water?”
“I mean nothing. No road, no truck, no freakin’ town.”
Tommy stumbled to a halt, bent at the waist, his good hand on his knee as he tried to drag air into his aching lungs. His head was spinning from the implications of what his brother just said. Coughing roughly, he hazarded a look over his shoulder, expecting to see the bend of the road that had led them to Ellsworth in the first place. Starlight revealed only a vine-covered tangle of trees bent in a dark canopy over a weed-heavy shoreline. The dark edge of a quiet lake several yards back.
No obvious road; no town.
Tommy’s vision swam. He straightened and dug his inhaler from his jeans’ pocket, groaning slightly when he heard the water slosh inside. His lungs were spent, and his body wanted nothing more than to lie down in the middle of the road and sleep for days. Graham was having none of it; he wrapped one arm across Tommy’s back and tucked the opposite hand beneath his arm, dragging him upright and getting him moving.
“Dude, our packs . . .” Tommy managed. “We left them—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Graham stated resolutely, his jaw tight. “I can always get new clothes. I only got one brother.”
They walked on, their wet clothes squelching in the quiet of the night, their teeth chattering from the cold. Tommy couldn’t summon the strength to pull away from his brother, needing Graham’s help to keep him moving forward.
Just as he had, he suddenly realized, from the moment an IED ripped his life apart.
“Thank you,” he said softly.
He felt Graham’s muscles tense. “For what?”
“For . . .” —Tommy straightened a bit, but still allowed Graham to grip his arm—“hauling my ass out of that lake. Making me come with you. Just . . . being my brother.”
It was too dark to see Graham’s expression, but Tommy heard the smile in his tone as he said, “You’re welcome.”
They continued down the center of the road, Graham more or less holding Tommy upright. After a moment, Graham cleared his throat, drawing Tommy’s attention. “You were pretty badass, back there,” he stated.
Tommy blinked, tilting his head in question.
“I’m serious. The way you just took charge, kicked the hell outta that guy. I was impressed.”
“Thanks,” Tommy replied, feeling oddly humbled.
“You saved my ass.”
Tommy’s voice was rough with emotion. “Like you said, I only got one brother.”
They walked on, eyes roaming for the body of their truck. A sudden flash of light against the midnight-dark world dazzled Tommy’s eyes.
Graham pulled up short. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Never thought I’d be so happy to see a cop,” Tommy exhaled.
They hurried toward the startlingly bright blue-and-red lights, Tommy lagging behind as his weakened lungs protested. As they drew closer, Tommy realized the cop’s lights were masking the wrecker parked behind Graham’s old truck.
Graham caught the attention of the cop and the wrecker driver with a wave of his hand. Tommy drew closer, watching the cop’s initially wary expression shift to concern as he took in their ragged appearance. Graham pulled out his ID and quickly explained the situation, from the truck breaking down to finding the graveyard, while Tommy simply stood to the side and shivered.
“Hold up,” the cop broke in as Graham told him about arriving at the town. “What town did you say, again?”
“Ellsworth,” Graham repeated, shifting closer to Tommy.
The cop shook his head slowly, the bright lights playing across his face. “Son, that’s just not possible. Ellsworth was destroyed back in ’68.”
Tommy ducked his chin. “What do you mean . . . destroyed?”
“Someone blew the dam. The lake flooded the town, killed just about everyone in it.” The cop shook his head again. “Lake just took over everything; town’s still under there, somewhere.”
Tommy looked at Graham, his voice held ransom by shock.
“Who blew the dam?” Graham croaked.
The cop shrugged, hooking his thumbs on his belt. “Some sheriff name of Brooks went crazy. Deputy tried to stop him, or so the story goes.”
No more. Tommy didn’t think he’d soon forget Wade’s whispered mantra.
“You boys are lucky you broke down right at the turnoff for Kingsford,” the cop continued, nodding across the road at a sign Tommy swore wasn’t there earlier. “Might not’ve seen you, otherwise. I tell you what, we find more abandoned vehicles on this route than anywhere else.”
“Ever wonder what happened to the people who belong to those abandoned cars?” Tommy asked, coughing roughly into his shoulder.
The cop shrugged. “Folks must just decide to head off to the lake, close as it is.”
“My guess?” Tommy replied, wrapping his arms around his chest, trying to control his shivering. “That graveyard we saw is missing a lot of bodies.”
The cop shot a confused glance between Tommy and Graham, words clearly failing him as the implication of what Tommy suggested sank in.
Graham dragged his hand down his face. “Listen, we’re freezing and exhausted. Would you mind giving us a ride?”
“Not a problem,” the cop nodded, clearly relieved to have something normal to cope with again. “Where you headed?”
Tommy stiffened, waiting for Graham’s reply. He didn’t think he could take on more water, even in the form of their uncle’s lake cabin.
“Wherever that wrecker’s going. Once we get our truck fixed, we’re going back to Chicago,” Graham stated.
Tommy felt the corner of his lips tug upward, the tension in his damaged chest uncoiling at last. He reached out with his right arm, the stump now visible where the edges of his wet hoodie clung to it, and pressed lightly against Graham’s shoulder.
“You sure, G?”
“Hell yeah.” Graham drew his chin up, his mouth relaxing into a smile as he peered at Tommy from beneath the brim of his ball cap. “I’ve had about as much lake as I can stand.”