Bewildering Stories

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Almost Worth It

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

On the third day underwater, while Rick Nightingale's long black hair was still waving softly in the cold current, and his dead water-bloated body was leaning left again, hovering over the grey silt, like some sort of puffy, too white, too-much inflated balloon character; there came the mystical moment when even the unalterable and god-ordained sleepy tempo of his body's back and forth drifting, began to gradually wane.

The darting schools of fish nearby, the big catfish down near his chained feet, the small sailboat testing the wind for diligence while patiently riding that silver surface high over his head, all were seen to slow measurably; the slow change in their journeys beginning to drag them into gentler and gentler forward progress, until at last these perfectly conventional things slackened in their motions, moving through that one final step, where they are now ready to be described as... completely immobile.

Everything held perfectly still for one long moment. The tall aquatic plants stopped swaying. Murky shadows on the soft silt held their places. Even the small bubbles that oozed from his open mouth stopped drifting up toward the dim patch of sunlight over his head. The bubbles, most of them as tiny as pencil points, slowly, ever so slowly... began to descend.

For the first few minutes the change appeared to be in equal measure both momentous and minuscule. So bubbles no longer rose, they fell, so what? Then something surprising materialized out of the shadows. Gliding through the water tail first, running its smooth life backwards, a strange graceful inevitability connected to its every replayed motion, a catfish wandered by.

With his whiskers tucked smooth against his sides, he made good progress back to his past, even though every thirty feet he interrupted his strange journey, by throwing open his scoop-sized mouth, and, acting the regretful scavenger, he was seen setting in the water; small bits of food, small bits of plant, and small creatures now returned to life. The catfish having given back to the water all he had there obtained, continued to amend his former gluttony. With a final disgorged morsel he was gone, his round-eyed droopy-corner face slowly receding into the silent shadows.

And it wasn't only a local phenomena, no! The patch of light high above retraced also, it's ponderous gains, giving back to shadow each slow yard of surface. Giving it back at the same rate that the exchange required in its first enactment. So the oval shimmering illumination over his head began to drift off and darken slowly. And so he spent again the night of June the seventh, under the water, out from the pier, over the stench-ey silt; but this time the sparkle of stars danced over the water to a new tune, the orchestra turning pages from left to right.

On the second arrival of the second day, the surface overhead was zipped closed a dozen times. Great v's appeared, covering the length of the deep lake, and then with strange churning full-throated growls to accompany the process, fast official craft could be seen bumping along stern first, as they scooped up the wide wakes, and deposited their beginninglessness at dockside. Men with badges on took gasoline from the outboards. They walked backwards to their clean cars. And the cars rolled backwards to the station house. The uniformed men sat in chairs growing less restless as the clock lumped off quarter hours. On the table nearby, the coffee pot filled one cup at a time. The officers were forced to hear, from end to beginning, the directions to where they just had been, and the instructions for what they had just done.

In the lake, Rick Nightingale's body no longer resembled Oliver Hardy, the fat component of Laurel and Hardy. Rick was returning to a thirty-six in the waist, and there was now room at the sleeves and cuffs. His face began to have features, his fingers weren't cucumber sized. Though still smeared and partially erased by the indifference of his surrounding, in his pocket the folded note began to contain information. It said...


Gregory is a jealous man. I will be alone Wednesday. I hate sleeping alone.


All day long, as the amount of time he'd be spending under the waves began to lessen, Rick Nightingale regained his looks. At noon a swirling pile of sunfish gathered in a tiny knot near his face, and ungracefully spitting out soft ocular scraps they re-supplied his body with two lustrous grey eyes.

Another long, silent, dismal, lifeless night.

And then evening. And then noon. And the dawn sun slipped down, the early hour light just a sliver-wide peek out the door of a black closet.

The white sedan rolled backwards out of the woods and came to a stop fifty feet from the small pier.

Both the men inside pointed their index fingers out their open windows, pointing for an instant at the damp ground outside the car. Right where they have their hands pointing there explodes a small shower of red sparks and short white cigarettes float quickly to the car's windows, and the men deftly regain their lost effects and they place them in their sneering lips.

They exit the sedan and walk backwards to the pier. For three long minutes they smoke, they look at the stars overhead, and they discuss women, money, and Burt Lancaster's movies. The one named Junkyard leans his head over the water, and a big drop of spit jumps out of the cold lake, and it rises up towards his face, and it squeezes back in through his tight lips.

Eddie moves to his right and walks to the very end of the creaky lumber. He peers into the dark cranny and shows no surprise as Nightingale's body crashes up from the wet dissolution and head-first rockets up to the level he occupies. As Rick Nightingale teeters on the wooden edge, Eddie Blackjack pulls him in quickly and surrounds him with two powerful arms.

Junkyard rubs the small of his back, then he bends over and grabs at the dry, at the impossibly dry, legs, and with Eddie's help they move the limp body off the pier and carry it toward the waiting car. They stand him up and unchain his feet. Junkyard un-breaks his nose, and with a deadly backward motion of a right hand, un-doubles him over. At this moment Rick looks most handsome, he has lost his grey pallor, his slack expression, he has lost every bruise and though his clothes are still rumpled, they are well tailored and durable. A gun is pointed, and it remains pointed as the rescued victim climbs into the car's trunk. Eddie turns the key, Junkyard puts the gun inside his coat, and Eddie looks with complicitous meaning at his companion.

The wheels remove their marks as they roll back to Joseline's apartment. The sedan rolls backwards up Elm avenue. Suddenly, with the car still moving, one of the men exits his seat and in three big backward paces he's at the trunk of the car, pulling Rick out and prying a big cloth from over his head.

Even now, still half caught in this net of danger, a net he knew might come someday... the net he earned by loving the woman Gregory Dirk called his own. He remembers the words. The words he shared with her. The timbre in her voice as she said... "I'm surprised you're here."

"A gentleman listens when a lady speaks, even if the whole statement lies within her dark eyes."

"You know what Gregory is... what he's like?"

"I only know you are lovely."

She stood, placing her drink on the low table. She took off her earrings and placed them beside the drink. She started towards the interior of the apartment, her walk everything she could make it, her pace slow, her energy a wild avalanche that swept him up as it passed by. He could see her as a great fire that would start warm, then sweep through him, consuming even the portions he believed were safe. He was wax on an iron stove. A cup of water poured on desert sand. A starship made of ice landing on the sun. Whatever would happen,

with her,

with Gregory,

with his surrendered heart...

whatever happened...

he hoped it would be worth it.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith