The following short story was an original submission to the 2013 Inlander Short Fiction Contest.
Public Displays of Affection
A short story
A short story
Max hadn’t seen his sweetheart Alyssa since before the flooding started. This was not normal for the 17-year-olds. They hadn’t spent more than two days apart for the past six months. Counting today – Monday – it had been nearly three weeks and Max was becoming very stir crazy.
Their separation had been forced upon them without their input. But then again, there really wasn’t much that could be done to tame or shape the unruly will of Mother Nature. People living in the mountain town of Thousand Peaks, Washington knew this better than most. In the winter they hunkered down under the unrelenting snow. In summer they enjoyed a brief respite of warmth, but it was spring that brought them the most turmoil.
In spring, the high mountain peaks surrounding the town slowly dripped away the layers of crusty snow that covered its namesake landscape. The crystal flakes of frost created an army of liquid filling every lake, river, stream, crevice, pond and puddle until they all reached a tipping point. And that’s when these bodies of water cried for mercy, spilling over their banks and washing their melted remains down the mountain to those below. “Ready or not, here I come,” the army bellowed every year.
But Thousand Peaks was ready - as ready as it ever was. The torrent of water went exactly where it was expected. It crept up the banks of the White River and into the low portions of waterfront streets and homes. The water would stay for a few days or weeks, then gently subside into the depths from which it came.
But the water didn’t cause Max and Alyssa to part. It was an uprooted pine. Well, several trees for that matter. A torrent of debris rushed downstream and pounded the pilings supporting the William’s Edge Bridge - the bridge that provided the only safe passage out of the southern end of the town. On the fourth night of heavy flooding, the White finally crested and the bridge gave way.
The weakened piling buckled and the two-lane William’s Edge Bridge partially sunk. The roadway cracked and swayed, cutting off roughly 200 residents in the southern portion of Thousand Peaks. It was impassable. With the treacherous mountains on three sides and an angry, bloated river to the north, Max and his neighbors were trapped.
Max Harper pulled the thick military-style duffle bag down from the shelf in the garage of his parents’ home and emptied the contents onto the floor. He meticulously laid out the two plastic paddles and a small two-person inflatable raft before searching the shelves for a foot pump. He had sworn this was where he’d seen his dad store it last summer. His face became red with anger and frustration as he dug through box after box for what seemed like an eternity, looking for the pump.
Moments before he would begrudgingly resort to blowing the thing up with his own breath, he finally found the pump. He double checked the raft’s valves for leaks and repacked it in the bag, this time adding the pump. He couldn’t be seen carrying an inflated raft the four blocks to the water’s edge. Someone would stop him. “It’s not safe,” they’d say. But he wasn’t worried about that now. His mind was elsewhere.
His worry was focused on his dear Alyssa. She hadn’t called him and hadn’t returned his repeated texts. Max knew Alyssa’s father was a monster - always sticking to her side for trips to the shopping center or driving her to school so she only had to take a few steps between the car and the door. He’d be there waiting for her when school was out too. Always there, suffocating her. Always next to her. Latched on like a handcuff.
Max would see Alyssa at school and that was it. He’d become used to this arrangement, even if he didn’t like it. The school didn’t like public displays of affection, he’d been told. So he made sure that he kept his distance when others were around, but the moments he was near her were the best of his life.
He would leave notes in her locker almost every day. That’s how he talked to her. Locker 0219. The ninth locker down from Mr. James’ science room. It smelled like her. Sweet.
So as he carried the duffle bag containing the raft down the street, he only had one thing on his mind – Alyssa. Damn the danger of the raging water. He had a plan. About a half-mile up stream from the William’s Edge Bridge, the river took a steep bend. If he pushed off just right, he’d be able to make his way across the span without having to fight the current. It would sweep him downriver, but he’d catch the other side of the bank without much trouble because the bend was so sharp.
It was a good plan. A good plan to see his girl. He loved her more than anything in the world and he’d do anything to see her.
The passing period was only five minutes, but Alyssa needed to grab her Civics textbook before her next class. She dashed down the hall to her locker, hoping she’d have time. Mr. Mitchell had made it very clear that she wouldn’t be excused again if she forgot it. Besides, with many of her classmates stuck on the wrong side of the White River, the halls were fairly empty and that made getting from one side of the school to the other a lot quicker. She didn’t want to go to the locker, but she couldn’t avoid it either.
The irony wasn’t lost on her. The damaged bridge that kept so many kids home meant she could make it to class on time. Yet this didn’t weigh heavily on her. She spun the dial, entered her school-issued locker combination and lifted the silver handle to open the door. On instinct she quickly moved her hand inside the locker to catch the notes that sometimes got stuck in the venting slats at the top of the door.
But just like everyday for the last three weeks, there was no note. She let out an audible sigh, snapped up her Civics book, slammed the locker and headed to class.
The foot pump worked perfectly as the small raft formed into a sturdy vessel in the water-filled backyard of a house on Front Street. The house was empty as far as Max could tell. He didn’t want any prying neighbors to ask questions about what he was doing. His parents had done enough of that. Always prying. Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? Why won’t you talk to me? What’s wrong? Max, just talk to us!
They didn’t understand him. Didn’t understand what he cared about. They didn’t know love like he knew love. Like he knew Alyssa.
Alyssa. He smiled. It’ll only be a little longer, baby.
If he hurried he’d be able to make it to school during lunch, which would give him enough time to shower in the gym locker room and put on a set of dry clothes and shoes.
He’d see her in the cafeteria sometimes, where she always sat at the same table with her friends, with her back to the lunch line. She was close enough to touch as he walked past to get the bland meals they served in the cafeteria. Her blonde hair cascading down her back over a sweater or light jacket. She liked to stay warm. He knew that. That’s why she wore sweaters.
He could smell her, even now. Sweet. His desire drove his actions.
He tossed the duffle bag to the side of the yard, knowing it would no longer do him any good. He tightened his backpack around his shoulders and lifted the raft up. It was heavier than he expected.
He carried the raft as far away from the water’s edge as he could. When he reached the deck railing of the house, he knew he’d backed up as far as he could go.
If he got the right momentum he’d be halfway across the water before the current would catch him. But he needed to be fast. Very fast. He dug his feet into the soggy yard and readied himself like a sprinter.
With both hands he gripped the rope that encircled the edges of the raft, but positioned the raft on his right side so he could see the path before him. He took off like a man being chased by a lightning bolt, taking big strides as he reached the deeper water.
He smiled as he thrust the raft onto the surface of the water, knowing that he was minutes away from seeing her. But the smile didn’t last long. He’d run too far into the water. He was in above his waist in an instant, so there was no way he could jump up into the raft that was quickly being pulled out of his hands and into the icy current of the White.
He tried to jump, but only once. The back of the raft hit the underside of his chin like a boxer’s uppercut, snapping his head up and throwing him further off balance. His left hand slipped off the rope, flipping him backward. The rope twisted around his right hand that was now helplessly attached to the raft as it shot downstream like the lightning bolt that had once chased him into the water.
Alyssa stood with a dozen or so of her classmates on the northern bank of the White River for the ceremony. The summer sun beat down on her face and she took in every bit of it. It felt odd to her. Standing with all these people, without her father at her side. He’d been with her every waking moment since the bizarre notes and texts started. Since someone began watching – stalking – her every move. Describing the details of her hair or the sweaters she wore to school. Professing how much he loved her even after she texted back and said to leave her alone. He didn’t stop. It frightened her.
The school did nothing about it, so her father did – as much as he could at least. He got her a new phone. He kept an eye on her before and after school, even tagging along with her friends on outings to the coffee shop or Dairy Queen. But he’d finally decided that he’d babied her enough. The notes and texts had stopped and she didn’t have the feeling of someone watching her all the time. She wasn’t nervous or scared to be alone anymore. So she got her freedom back.
It all stopped when the bridge went out. She didn’t know why. So today was a momentous occasion as the bridge re-opened after it was repaired. Would she have to live in fear again? Would he start, like before?
The ceremony at the bridge was a somber one that not only dedicated the new span, but renamed it for a boy in her class. It was now called the Max Harper Memorial Bridge.
For some reason Max tried to float the river during the floods and drowned. It made Alyssa sad. She’d seen him around school a few times. He was cute. He tried to talk to her once, but must have lost his nerve because he just walked away. She smiled at him a few days later, but he ignored her. He never once tried to talk to her again, in fact she never saw him around much after that, which was too bad. He seemed nice and she would have really liked to get to know him.