Here’s one of my Double-B stories. It was originally published in Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley in 2005. It was nominated for a Derringer Award by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.
TWILIGHT OF THE FIREFLIES by John Weagly
“Why am I here?” I asked.
“You’re the strongest guy in town,” Reno said. “It was either one of you or two of somebody else.”
We were in a canoe on the Mississippi River at ten o’clock at night. The sun had set an hour ago. I was in the back, paddling, Reno was in the front, shining a flashlight on the water, near the riverbank. We sat facing each other. Mosquitoes and fireflies buzzed and lit up the air.
I wasn’t exactly comfortable. At seven feet, three hundred and fifty pounds a canoe is a tight fit.
Reno Keefe and I have been friends since high school. He’s a stocky guy with brown hair chopped short enough to be called a military cut. After graduation, Reno went into law enforcement and I went into professional wrestling and we lost touch. When my career came to an abrupt end, I moved back to Currie Valley and Reno and I became closer than we ever were in our younger days.
“Why not get a couple of your fellow officers?”
“I drew the short straw, so I have to take care of it. This isn’t an official Currie Valley Police Department undertaking.”
Undertaking, a good word for our project, although grave robbing or body snatching would also work.
“Why did they do it?”
“They like to give us a hard time.”
“And why do you guys want to put him back?”
The Currie Valley Police Department is made up of great cops, and Reno is the best of the best, but apparently cops don’t like to deal with floaters. Earlier that day, one of Reno’s co-workers saw a couple of Penville police officers moving a dead body from the Penville side of the river over to Currie Valley. Now Reno and I were moving it back.
In truth, I didn’t understand all of the law-enforcement/serve-and-protect/right-to-jurisdiction details. It seemed to me like a morbid game of ping pong.
Reno’s flashlight stopped on a white bloated object that floated on the surface of the river and he said the words I’d been dreading for the last hour. “There he is.”
I maneuvered the canoe as close as I could to our newfound friend. Remembering that corpses have a reputation for stinking I braced myself for a stench, but all I could smell was river mud and moist nighttime air.
“Who is he?” I asked.
Reno leaned out of the canoe and turned the body over to get a look at his face.
“He doesn’t look familiar. We haven’t gotten any reports of anyone going out on the water and disappearing, so I bet he floated down from up river.”
Reno took a rope and tied it under the guy’s armpits. Then he fastened the rope to a hook set in the back of the canoe. As I sat and watched, the same question kept running through my head.
“Again,” I said, “I have to ask, why am I here?”
“Just sit tight.”
Watching Reno work with the body made my stomach feel like we were on the high seas during a storm. As a wrestler I saw hundreds of scrapes, cuts and broken bones. I saw guys become battlefield medics by creating homemade splints out of wire hangers and duct tape and by using Superglue to close forehead gashes. I always knew wrestling put me in body breaking life and death situations. Now, watching Reno handle something that used to be a human being, I realized my in-ring adventures were just one of many, many ways a person could tempt mortality.
I looked away and let my eyes follow the fireflies. They danced on the air, leaving short trails of radiance.
Whenever I see lightning bugs, I feel sad. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they only burn for a short while. Maybe it’s because they signal that another day is done. Maybe it’s because they stir something in my memory that I’ve forgotten. It doesn’t matter. This night the sorrow they inspired seemed to go hand in hand with our activities.
“Ready,” Reno said.
I picked up my paddle and started rowing us across the river, our guest trailing behind. There was about a quarter of a mile of water between the Missouri and Illinois banks. We’d be on the Missouri side in a few minutes.
“Poor guy,” I said.
“Any time you’re in more water than you can drink,” Reno said, “there’s a chance you can drown.”
I paddled and looked at the water all around us. Reno was right; it doesn’t take much to end a life. I know the Mississippi can be dangerous, but on the surface, on a calm night, it can be so peaceful. I’m a big strong guy and it’s amazing to me that something as soothing as a river is actually bigger and stronger than I am. Deep, muddy power.
“What do you want to watch tomorrow night?” Reno asked, snapping me out of my melancholy. Every Thursday night we got together, ordered a pizza and watched a movie. We’d been doing this since the week I moved back to town. Sometimes we watched new movies; sometimes we watched the stuff that got us through our teenage years.
“We haven’t re-watched Night of the Living Dead,” I said, grateful for the distraction.
Reno grimaced. “How about something else?”
“Sorry. The Blues Brothers?”
Once we reached the Missouri bank, Reno got the body lodged in some tree-roots that came out from the shore and into the water. As soon as he was sure the floater wasn’t going anywhere, he looked at me. “I suppose we should say something.”
I looked into the roots, mud and river at the deceased. I wondered what I would look like after several days in the water. I wondered how much longer he had to go before someone pulled him out.
“Good luck,” I said. Reno nodded. We sat there for another minute, rocking in the current.
“Ready to head back?” Reno asked.
“You still haven’t told me why I’m here.”
“I did tell you. To help me.”
“But I didn’t do anything. You found the body, you tied it up. You could have paddled the canoe. You didn’t need me.”
“You hear about that lake that disappeared?” Reno asked.
He wasn’t answering me, but I decided to play along.
“Near St. Louis.”
“It was a pretty big lake, one day it was there, the next day it was gone. They think it went down a sinkhole.”
“Is that why I’m here? Were you afraid the Mississippi was going to go down a sinkhole?”
“No,” Reno said. “It’s just that all of that water, here one minute and gone the next…I don’t know…and now dealing with this guy…”
“He was here one minute, gone the next.”
“You just didn’t want to come out here alone.”
Reno answered me with an awkward smile. The canoe swayed gently. I started paddling us back across the river as the fireflies trailed behind us in the night.