Sleetmagazine.com

Volume 14 • Number 1 • Spring-Summer 2022

Mike Herndon

Timber

The twang of a country guitar grew louder as four bearded men approached in thin, single-seat kayaks. The river was shallow, the sandy bottom visible all the way across, and just wide enough to no longer be considered a creek. There was no way for anything bigger than a tube to make it downstream without running aground somewhere, he’d thought. But here they were, waving as they paddled past him, a fifth man following in a pirogue with a Bluetooth strapped to the hull.

He lay sprawled in the oversized innertube, floating sideways, his hands and feet draped into the water, nodding as they passed. He watched them maneuver around the girls, who had created a web of their legs and feet to hold their tubes together downstream, then leaned back and looked up at the faint blue sky. The clouds seemed mere wisps, their shapes undulating and transforming but never quite dissolving, and somehow obscuring the sun.

“How can you keep from looking ahead?” He turned to find Belinda next to him, facing upstream and floating backward, looking over her shoulder in his direction but not exactly at him. He shrugged and followed her eyes, spying the fallen log jutting into the river off the bank. Something broke the surface of the water beside it and she called out to Christina and Sydney to watch for snakes, paddling furiously with one hand to keep from drifting too close to the timber and whatever was lurking nearby.

He had not come here looking for more to worry about. The doctor’s visit hadn’t seemed to trouble Belinda, who’d been brushing off the pain in her back for the last month as just a pulled muscle, but the way the man had said “biopsy” wouldn’t leave his mind. There would be more tests, expensive ones, and she didn’t know about the layoffs that would be coming next week. The hammer had fallen that Friday in New Orleans. Mobile would be next, and trying to predict who’d survive was a blindfolded crap shoot. You wouldn’t know until they told you.

The insurance benefits he’d once taken for granted now seemed like the most important thing in the world, a ring buoy in an angry sea. The New Orleans severance packages extended them only for six months. And Christina would be graduating and leaving for college and Sydney was getting serious about ballet and it all costs money.

There was nothing he could do about it now. Just let the river carry him wherever it may.

The staccato pops of the firing range behind the trees on the south bank grew louder as the sky dissolved to a silvery gray, the strands of clouds gathering into darkening coils. He began to wonder whether they’d make it to the egress point before the rain started, when he was jarred by the innertube colliding with something solid. He turned to take stock of how far he’d drifted, how much work it’d take to get himself unencumbered, but found himself spun around and already floating past the fallen pine. The tube had bounced off it and the river carried him on. He saw Belinda grinning at him, heard the girls laughing downstream, and leaned back to catch the first drops when they fell.

Mike Herndon is a former journalist who earned an MA in Creative Writing from the University of South Alabama and currently teaches future journalists there that past-tense verbs are their friends. His fiction has appeared in Change Seven, The Blue Mountain Review, Aura, Oracle Fine Arts Review and other publications, as well as the Mobile Writers Guild's latest anthology, Stormy Pieces.