Entertainment time – Troubled Water

Well, Halloween has passed so just for fun, here’s one of my stories from Underdog Anthology 9 – ‘Well Haunted‘.

I’m busy with a novel for publication at the moment, it’ll be done this week, but the rage is building at our political lunacy and I’ll be back.

In the meantime, a bit of fun…

Troubled Water

Murmurs in my dreams. Voices, insistent, persistent, nagging. It’s been so long. Why won’t they just let me sleep? Why won’t they let me fade into death in peace? I was so close. Nearly there. Nearly gone. They ignored me for so very long. Why now? I must answer. I am compelled.

He (or she or it, nobody was ever sure, not even itself any more) stretched and groaned from its slumber, then headed upwards. Slowly, reluctantly, it approached the tiny patch of daylight above it, reviving memories of so many years ago, of things it once enjoyed. No more.

***

“Take it easy. This isn’t a goddamn off-road wheelchair.” Brandon gripped the armrests as his chair lurched in another rut in the uneven ground. “And this field is full of cows. I hate cows.”

“You are wearing a leather jacket and we just had burgers for lunch. How can you say you hate cows?” Sally sighed and pushed the wheelchair forward a little more. “You’re heavy and it’s not my fault there’s no path from the road to the well.”

“I bought my jacket in a shop. We get burgers from a drive-through. What has that to do with cows?” Brandon coughed and spat. “There’s shit everywhere, don’t you dare let me fall in it.”

You might contaminate it. Sally closed her eyes for a moment. He’s my brother. He might be an insufferable arsehole but it’s not his fault, not really. He was born this way. I have to be more tolerant.

“I think I see it.” Brandon pointed ahead and a little to the left. “That pile of rocks. It’s like that photo on the Internet, not much of it left after nearly twelve hundred years but if it still has water, it should still be active.” He shifted in his seat to turn to look at Sally, a move that nearly tipped him over. “Well, come on, we’re almost there.”

Sally tightened her grip on the wheelchair handles, only just managing to keep Brandon upright. “Okay. Let’s take it slow and easy.” She moved the chair forward, watching for ruts in the cow-stomped wet ground. If this didn’t work, and she really didn’t think it would, she’d have to push him all the way back again.

“This is it.” Brandon leaned forward in his chair. “There’s a trickle of water. Not much, but the spring is still active.” He pulled a small metal cup from the recesses of his chair and handed it to Sally.

“You’re not seriously planning to drink that?” Sally turned the cup in her hands. The trickle of spring water flowed over grubby stones, into mud, and had cut a channel through several piles of cow manure. “Brandon, it’s disgusting. Give it up. Let’s go home.”

Brandon snorted. “This is my last hope. All you need do is get some of that water. Come on, Sally. I know you don’t believe it’ll work but we’ve come this far. I’m not giving up now.” He pointed to where the water emerged from the rocks. “If you get it from there, before it hits any of the crap, it’ll be clean.”

Sally blew a long breath. All those homeopathy sessions, all the faith healers, all the acupuncture, all the stuff Brandon had tried when he found modern medicine couldn’t help him. None of them worked, This won’t work either. Why can’t he just accept it? His spine is ruined. Nothing can fix that. There’s no magic cure. He has to learn to adapt.

“Come on.” Brandon rocked in his chair. “Just a sip of water. That’s all.”

Oh what the hell. Sally moved towards the trickle of water emerging from the algae-covered rocks, avoiding the worst of the mud and faeces, and resigned herself to the chore of pushing her brother all the way back to the car while trying to console him once again. He’ll never walk. The doctors said so, and no matter how deep he goes into this silly magic, none of it is real. She put the cup into the trickle of water.

You need no healing.

The voice reverberated in her head. Sally jumped back. The cup spilled its contents over the rocks and ground. Her fingers clenched so hard they threatened to crush it.

“What are you doing?” Brandon’s voice seemed to come from far away. “You just have to fill a cup, for God’s sake.”

Somewhere behind her, the moo of a cow sounded full of mirth and mockery.

Sally shook her head. “Did you hear that?”

Brandon came back into her reality. “Hear what? I just hear cows. Come on, sis. Just get some water in that cup.”

Sally stared at the cup in her hands. “It was a voice, but in my head. Everything went… far away… for a moment.”

“This is no time for you to have some kind of mental episode. Pull yourself together.” Brandon’s face filled with rage and expectation. “Come on. Get me some of that water.”

I actually hope this works. It’s the only way I’ll be free of him. Sally took several deep breaths. Since the death of their parents she was Brandon’s sole caretaker and he had been a remarkably unappreciative patient. She moved the cup towards the water again but this time she formed a thought in her head and pushed it forward. It’s not for me, it’s for my brother.

I see your thoughts. I understand. Take the water.

This time, the voice in her head was softer, almost gentle. Sally half-filled the cup and returned to Brandon’s side.

“Are you sure about this?” Sally held the cup in both hands. “We don’t know if this is safe. Anything could happen.” The experience of the voice still jangled her nerves. Something was going to happen, she felt sure, but what?

“Look at me.” Brandon spread his arms wide. “This is it. This is my life. How can it get worse?’

Sally stared into the cup. Mine too. It’s not going to get better as long as he’s stuck in that chair. Please, against all the odds, against all the logic and common sense in the world, let this work. She handed him the cup.

Brandon took a tentative sip, stared into the water for a moment then took the whole lot in one swallow. He closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, then opened them. His hands explored his legs, he slapped them, he moved them side to side, he roared at them. Nothing happened. Finally, he threw the cup at the pile of rocks and screamed his anguish at the sky while the cup clattered until it came to rest in a pile of cow manure.

“It didn’t work.” Brandon leaned forward in his chair, his hands over his face. “I’m stuck in this bloody chair forever. There’s nothing left to try.”

“Maybe it takes time.” Sally reached out to him, but hesitated. Of course it didn’t work. It’s nonsense. But that voice…

“You don’t get it. You never have.” Brandon’s voice came muffled through his fingers. “You can walk. I never have. I’ll never know what it’s like. I keep hearing that song, ‘Oh I would walk five hundred miles’ and you cannot understand what that does to me. I wish I could walk five hundred miles. It’s never going to happen.”

“Brandon—” A shifting in the rocks stopped Sally. Not so much a shifting of the rocks themselves, they didn’t actually move, it was more a distortion in the air that blurred their positions.

I have waited for you to articulate your wish.

The voice came from the air this time, not from inside her head. Sally glanced at Brandon and his lowered hands, the look on his face, told her he had heard it too.

Brandon blinked at the pile of stones. Sally understood, the rocks seemed indistinct, as though seen through a haze. A haze that thickened as she watched.

You drank my water but you did not say what you wanted from me. Now you have claimed your deliverance and I must comply.

“What the Hell?” Brandon gripped the arms of his chair. Sally moved to stand behind him. The haze formed into a skeletal creature, its fingers elongated and ending in talons, its smile coming from a strange place between benevolent and demonic. It stared at Brandon.

I am required to ask you. Are you sure?

“Sure of what?” Brandon trembled so hard, the handles of the chair vibrated under Sally’s hand. “Are you a demon from Hell?”

The creature’s laugh was deep and hollow, an entire cemetery of mirth, a sound from the places where happiness goes to die.

I was born there, long ago. Oh it wasn’t the most gentle of places but it was a lot warmer than my current prison.

“Prison?” Sally gripped both handles of the wheelchair. “You’re in prison?”

What, you think I lie around in shit-strewn fields, in a wreck of what was once a finely constructed well, and put up with being ignored for centuries as some sort of fun pastime? The creature’s eyes blazed. I have been here over a thousand years. Trapped by a man you people call a saint. I have other names for him. It was okay at first. People came, made offerings, I healed them. Then they stopped.

The rage in the creature’s eyes dimmed a little. They stopped coming. I could not leave. I am bound here but I had no purpose. Nothing. For many centuries I lay in the well. I watched it fall apart. I saw the farmers come and take stones to build their walls. I was here the day the last of it fell into rubble. I saw my holy field become a stomping ground and a latrine for cattle.

Sally took a step back as the creature’s eyes bored into hers. You think Hell is bad? This is far, far worse. Here I am entirely alone. Fading, dying, and I welcomed it, then you came along. One last wish, one last healing. Then I will fall back into the well and fade to oblivion.

Brandon found his voice. “But you can still heal me, right? You can fix me so I can walk?”

Of course. I can grant your wish. It is the only power your so-called saint left me with.

“Brilliant.” Brandon grinned, then frowned. “It’s not going to cost my soul, is it?”

The creature laughed its cemetery laugh again. I have no use for souls. The people brought me offerings. They gave me things that were important to them. It turned its gaze to Sally, who blanched and took a step back.

Brandon looked down at himself. “Well, this chair has been important to me all my life. Although if you heal me, I guess it won’t be important any more. Does it still count?”

It will do. I am beyond caring about the offerings anyway.

“Sounds like a deal to me. I get to walk and you can keep the chair.” Brandon clenched his fists in excitement.

I still have to ask the question. Are you sure?

Brandon’s earlier words came back into Sally’s mind. She leaned over him. “Brandon, don’t rush into this. Think for a moment. You’ve had nearly thirty years in that chair. Just think.”

“What’s to think about?” Brandon twisted to face her. “I want to walk. Yes, I am sure.”

The creature nodded and uttered a few incomprehensible words.

Sally held her breath.

Brandon pulled his arms around his chest. He coughed. Then groaned.

Then screamed, his arms flung wide.

Sally’s hand flew to her mouth. “What are you doing to him?”

The creature sighed. His spine is badly deformed. I have to re-route most of his nervous system. Of course it’s going to hurt.

“Can’t you use some kind of anaesthetic?” Sally grabbed one of Brandon’s hands and held tight.

What’s that?

Oh, crap. Sally tried to still Brandon’s flailing arm. This thing comes from a time when you got a shot of rum before getting your infected leg sawed off with five people holding you down. It doesn’t even know about aspirin.

I could have stopped the pain but he didn’t wish for that. I am constrained by the spells that bind me. I have to take the wish literally.

Sally was sure there was a hint of malicious glee in those words. This thing had a trick in store, she was sure of it. Was it evil? Or just bored and looking for one last strike back at the humans who left it to rot? What would it do to her brother?

Finally, Brandon passed out. He slumped in his wheelchair, breathing heavily.

“Is it over?” Sally faced the creature, who nodded.

Well, the pain is over for now. The wish begins when he wakes. He will walk.

Sally closed her eyes and pursed her lips. “Part of me wants to thank you, but another part thinks this is a trick.” She looked into the creature’s eyes. “Did you really take his wish literally?”

The creature raised some fleshy parts above its eyes that might have passed for eyebrows. I have no choice in this matter. It glanced away for a moment. I am not evil. I have a little leeway, but I must grant the wish as spoken.

Brandon groaned. Sally turned to face him. Brandon groaned again and his left leg twitched. Then his right leg. Sally’s eyes widened. There had been no movement in Brandon’s legs throughout his entire life.

“Can he walk?” Sally faced the creature. “I mean, his legs have never moved. He has almost no muscle in them. And it takes babies about a year to learn to walk. Won’t he have to go through all that?”

Oh I fixed that. I thought, since the process was causing so much pain anyway, I might as well boost his muscle strength and instil walking patterns in his brain. Those things hurt too, best get it all over with in one, eh? The creature tilted its head. Besides, I couldn’t fulfil his wish immediately if I hadn’t done those things.

Sally closed her eyes. His wish. Literally. What exactly did he say?

“Ah!” Brandon’s gasp made her turn to face him. He stood in front of his chair, legs twitching. He seemed unsure what to do next.

“Brandon. You’re standing! It worked.” Sally clenched her fists over her chest. Her brother was free of his chair at last And I am free of him.

Your wish is granted. You may begin at any time. Just move one leg in front of the other and it will all come naturally.

Brandon swayed a little, then put his right foot forward. He swayed a little more, arms out for balance, then shifted his weight to swing his left leg in front of the right one.

“Sally, look! I’m doing it! I’m walking!” He took another step, then another, and was soon striding confidently across the field. He turned, the first time with some difficulty, but soon mastered that too and marched back towards Sally.

“This is great.” Brandon flashed a smile as he passed, walked a little way more, turned and came back again. “I’m new to this. How do I stop?” He kept walking out into the field.

And I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more, just to be the man who walked a thousand miles… The song came unbidden to Sally’s mind. She remembered Brandon’s exact words when he made the wish. I wish I could walk five hundred miles.

The creature caught her gaze and sniffed. I did tell you I had to take the wish literally, and I asked him – twice – if he was sure.

“So he won’t stop until he’s done five hundred miles?” Sally put her hands over her face and breathed into her hands to stop herself hyperventilating. She lowered her hands. “What about when he’s done the miles? What then? He wished to walk five hundred miles but when he’s done that, is he crippled once more?”

The creature smiled. I also told you I have a little leeway, even though I must take the wish literally. No, when he’s done what he wished to do he’ll still be able to walk. Although he might not feel much like it for a while.

Brandon passed them again. “Sis. I don’t know how to stop.”

Sally faced the creature. “Can’t you do something? What if he drank another cup of water and wished again?” Her gaze flicked to the cup, now dented and slowly sinking into a pile of cow manure. She decided she might need a different cup.

The creature shrugged. He’s not in need of healing now. That’s all I can do— healing. All my other powers were stripped from me when your ‘saint’ conjured me and then trapped me here. He’s not sick so there is nothing I can do.

“How do I get him home? How can I get him in the car if he can’t stop walking?”

What’s a car? The creature furrowed its brow.

“Oh—” Sally threw up her hands and turned away, just in time to see Brandon heading back towards them. “Never mind.” Her shoulders slumped. “It’s only five hundred miles. I’ll cope. I always have.”

Brandon passed with a pained look on his face. “Sis, I need the toilet.”

Sally could have sworn she heard a giggle, but when she turned, the creature had vanished.

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