← Back Published on

River Road

This short story placed second in the 2014 Daily Telegraph's Summer Short Story Competition

His feet were wet. The water was warm, though. It had stopped raining and the sun had been beating down on it all morning. It wasn’t deep enough to cover his toes yet but it would come quickly. The carpet in the bedroom squelched under his boots, a wet wool jumper pulled from the machine, as he walked towards the bed.
The room was nearly empty. The photo frames gone and the draws bare. He’d wanted to take the bed but, even dismantled, there wasn’t enough room in the damn truck. He could have strapped it to the roof if someone would have helped him but he couldn’t be that selfish. His neighbours were busy with their own belongings. Besides, they wouldn’t understand. To them it was just a bed but to him, it was their bed. It was the last place he’d slept next to her.  
A car started up outside. That was almost all of them now. The low rumble made the windowsill rattle and he could hear her voice: ‘If you’re not going to fix it, at least shove some paper down the side to stop that bloody racket.’
It’s funny, the things that reminded him of her. Everything in the house seemed to hold some small memory of the way she was.
He was suddenly gripped with fear. What if he couldn’t remember those little things after the house was gone? What if those moments, those memories, were lost forever in the rising floodwaters? He couldn’t help having one more look around the place, just to make sure he remembered it all.
“Brendan! You coming mate?” Chris, his next-door neighbour, called out from the front yard.
They had spent the day together helping sandbag on the edge of town and then moved as much as they could out of their own houses into the trucks. Sweat had poured down their foreheads and dripped tiny, foreboding pools of moisture onto the then-dry asphalt as they loaded everything from pots and pans to clothes and towels into their boots.
Chris’s wife, Cathy, had left with their two kids last night. The three-year-old twin girls had cried out as they drove away from their father. Cathy had been kind enough to take Brendan’s own little girl as well. She had just sat quietly in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead.
Chris worked at the local mechanic, one of only two in the small town. He wore a white singlet even though it was always stained with smears of grease. Around sunset each day, when the wives were cooking their meals, the two men used to sit on Brendan’s front porch and drink a few cans together. It was on one of these nights Brendan had told him about his wife’s illness.
“In a bit mate,” Brendan called from his slowly soaking living room. “Just…just got to grab a few more things.”
“Alright. But don’t take too long. Coppas said it’s coming fast.”
Brendan heard the sound of a crackling radio as Chris opened his car door and jumped in
…widespread…almost three quarters of the state has been inundated…expected to peak around midnight tonight…official death toll rises…worst natural disaster in the state’s history…
He walked into the living room. The muddy water was beginning to lap around his ankles now. A brown line crept up the white walls, staining the paint. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror nailed to the wall above where the couch used to be. It’s official. The big Aussie beer belly. He patted him stomach a few times and sighed. It had been three years since her death and he noticed a few extra empty cans in the garbage each week.
He’d had a lot of support from his neighbours. Everyone in the town knew Brendan, the manager of the best pub for miles. For the first few months he didn’t have to cook a single meal and there was always someone willing to look after baby Beth. He could be grateful for one thing: she was too young at the time to realise she’d lost her mum. Every day at work he’d get a pat on the back from the blokes and knowing smiles from the women and, eventually, he joined Chris back out on the porch again. Chris had always kept a cold beer waiting for him.
Brendan was determined to be strong for Beth. She was his saving grace. The kindest little girl you could imagine. She wouldn’t even let her daddy squish an ant if it got in the house.
“Ants are people too!” she’d say, pouting. He never once corrected her.
He looked around the living room and smiled when his eyes rested on the huge dent in the wall by the kitchen door. Beth was taking her first steps right there in the living room when she lost control of her feet. They got tangled up underneath her and she stumbled forwards, running straight for the wall. He dove like a batter reaching for home base and caught his daughter’s fragile little body just in time while a huge thud made him see stars. His head almost went straight through that wall. His wife had laughed like crazy. She had the loudest laugh, bellowing and un-ladylike. He’d loved it.
It wasn’t until he felt a sharp pain in his knee that he was brought back to reality. The bottom draw of the cheap Ikea bookshelf had floated over and the sharp corner had caught him just below his shorts. He glanced out through the back doors and saw the swings on his daughters swing set floating, their chains pulled tight as they tried to escape downstream. He was shocked at how quickly the water had risen. The sandbags must have failed. It was colder now and flowing around his legs in miniature whirl pools. A few leaves and small branches were drifting in through the open front door.
He waded through the living room and out the door. He had forgotten the power and weight of knee-deep water and struggled to move at all. A great, dirty river was running down his road. The water was moving faster out here and he had only seconds to dodge a pushbike as it silently sailed past. Fear gripped the pit of his belly when he looked down and saw that knee-deep was fast becoming thigh-deep.
He waded over to his truck in which he’d packed the final few things he’d wanted to take with him: some of Beth’s school work and a much loved painting of an emu his wife had bought from a local gallery. Another missile raced past now, this time part of a wire fence, narrowly missing his tire.
Time to go!
As he reached the truck door he took the keys out of his now wet pocket. His hand shook as he fumbled for the right one and time slowed down as they slipped from his fingers and fell into the murky water below.
Brendan bent his knees and bobbed around in the water. His nails scrapped along the driveway as he swept his fingers in circles. The current was powerful, almost knocking him right over. The dirty water lapped into his mouth as he reached further and deeper. His keys were gone, swallowed by the torrent. He stood up and looked around.
But there was no one there to hear him.
He looked back at his house. No way up onto the roof on this side. There was a huge tree out the back but there was no chance he’d have time to get around there now. He thought about getting into his car but couldn’t cope with the idea of being trapped, door held shut by the power of the water. He scrambled onto the bonnet of the truck, then onto the roof.
The beast groaned as the water level reached the rear vision mirrors. A branch the size of a stop sign collided with the truck, a mighty crunch. His life raft lifted from the driveway and was sucked into the street. One tire burst with a tremendous noise as they were scraped along the cement. The truck twisted and spun as the water turned to rapids. Brendan clung desperately onto the sides as he flowed with the river down the middle of his street and towards the centre of town. As he floated past houses he thought he could see faces or hear yelling but he was moving too fast to be sure.
Suddenly, the truck came to a wrenching halt as it slammed into a gum tree and became trapped in its branches. The force of the impact nearly launched Brendan off the roof but he held on, thanking God he had been stopped by something before the car flipped over.
He clung to the branches and waited, thinking of Beth. For what felt like an hour, the water kept rushing by, bringing everything from clothes to desks with it, pulling at his tiring body. Then, he heard a strange noise over the racing torrent. The roar became louder and louder, like approaching thunder. Oh God. Is it more water? He prayed that it wasn’t. He didn’t know how long he could hold on for.
Brendan could hardly open his eyes in the face of the ferocious wind and spray. He held up his arm to shield his face and saw it.
It was a red and yellow helicopter.
From it, dangled a thick black rope and a man reaching out his hand.