This is my final submission for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge. The genre was left open, but the story had to involve a fisherman and jealousy. My fellow writers and I had 24 hours to turn around a story of approximately 1,500 words. Enjoy!
“Leave him alone!”
The words took on a distant tone, as though spoken through glass. Leon’s brain encouraged his body to struggle, but the message was lost somewhere past his heart. For the third time that month alone, a set of hands forced his head under the water. Struggling only made the torture last longer, and there were worse fates than being swept away from his attackers. He imagined opening his eyes to see sparkling beaches and vast, welcoming sky. If only the hands that held him beneath the surface would just let him go.
He had ceased to count the seconds that he held his breath. To do so was just a reminder of how little power he had over his body, his life, his fate. He counted only the incidents, the bullies, the witnesses.
A new set of hands sought purchase on his shoulders. He pulled away instinctively, but when he felt the catch of fingernails against his shirt, he knew this was not a man. Tentatively, he kicked toward her and let himself be drawn into her current.
A chorus of laughter welcomed him to shore, but he let himself sink down next to a pair of slim, tanned legs. He didn’t dare look up to see the rest of her. His world was not one that was privy to perfection. Five days shy of thirty, Leon knew his place in the world was isolated.
“Are you okay?” he croaked.
The woman laughed. She should have been the one to ask, but creek water and a few fresh bruises meant nothing to Leon anymore. When he stole a glance at her face, he was surprised to see her wiping her eyes. She was crying. “I’m fine,” she said, but she looked away from him. “You lost your shoe.”
“They always take it. That’s the first thing they do.” Had she seen? He smoothed his hands over his ankle to cover his clubfoot. He hoped the movement looked casual, but he could tell that she was pretending she didn’t see him. “You’d better go back to your friends. They’ll be angry enough at you for helping me.”
Tension settled into her jaw. She glared at the group of men, three former fraternity brothers still addicted to pranks to fend off the reality of adulthood. “They’re pigs,” she decided. “Do you live near here? I could use a towel.”
Imogen tried not to notice how the man limped when he walked. She had heard the rumors about him, of course. He was a recluse, an addict, a monster who had killed his parents, a shut-in who was cared for by his doting mother. None of the stories seemed to make sense given how often Nick and his friends found him down by Crow Creek, carefully slipping a worm on the end of his fishing pole before casting off. No one fished in such a turbulent part of the stream, and no one had ever seen him carry home a catch. Of course, they never gave him a chance.
“Does it hurt?” Her cheeks flushed as she realized how rude she was being. They walked along the road, her filthy Converse sneakers kicking up gravel while he hugged the edge of the asphalt. “I mean, without the shoe. The blacktop has to be hot.”
“My life isn’t exactly what you would call comfortable. I’m used to it.” She tried to imagine him as a child, his eyes cast down to carefully plot every step. This man kept his gaze trained straight ahead. “I don’t need your pity, you know.”
She winced at the unspoken accusation. Hadn’t she saved him? Wasn’t she standing up to his bullies at the cost of her own popularity? “It’s not pity,” she argued. “I just did the right thing.”
“They always let me up in the end. They’re idiots, not murderers. They’ll be back in a few days, maybe a week, and they’ll jump me again, whether you’re there or not. Probably especially if you’re there.”
“Why do you go back then?”
The man turned down a short dirt lane. By the time Imogen decided to follow him, he had stopped in front of a tan Winnebago. The vehicle was hardly new, though someone had taken pains to keep it in spotless condition. He opened the front door to slide his fishing pole inside.
“Is this where you live?” She couldn’t imagine being out here on her own. There was barely room for one person inside. How did he shower? How did he fix meals and wash up? Where did he do laundry? It was hardly a proper home for a normal person, let alone someone with a disadvantage.
“You ask a lot of questions, but you skipped one.” He pulled himself inside, and a moment later, a blue towel struck her in the face. “My name is Leon.”
“I used to be bitter.”
The confession didn’t seem to surprise Imogen, but Leon had never let himself admit as much in the past tense. Their legs dangled from a pedestrian bridge, thighs nearly touching. Any time she moved, he could smell the memory of honeysuckle on her skin. He could find trouble in those hazel eyes, pressed against that perfect pout of a mouth. She was young enough to believe that summer meant tiny jean shorts and sun-bleached hair.
Leon didn’t have a spare rod, so he had to teach her to fish using his own. Imogen hadn’t shied away from digging a proper worm from the muddy shore, though she insisted on wrapping the bait around the hook rather than impaling the grub.
“I’m listening,” she said, questions abandoned.
How could he explain, let alone to someone beautiful? How could she ever begin to understand what his life was like? He could find paradise in her smile, comfort in her company, but she would never be the one to feel the pain, to be pressed under the water just for a bit of twisted skin and bone. “You can become addicted to pity. When others stop giving it to you, you feed on yourself. You become the victim that others see you as.”
Her hand slid over his own. He wanted to tell her to keep her grip on the handle, but he couldn’t remember the last time a person had touched him for any reason other than concern. “That must be liberating.”
He wanted to laugh at her, but he couldn’t. How many times had he wished he could belong to her world? She could change in order to be accepted, but he was always beyond help.
Imogen jerked her right hand to the reel when something in the water splashed. They both leaned forward, but they couldn’t see a fish. “You might have scared a frog that was hiding in the weeds. Move the line a little. See if you scare up something.”
The next rock did not miss its target. Leon felt the sting behind his ear and pressed his palm to his skin, startled to feel blood begin to flow. Imogen cried out and dropped the pole. Leon turned to tell her that he was fine, but a stone connected with his jaw.
Imogen jumped to her feet, but he did not have her speed or grace. Nick stood smirking on the shore. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she screamed. “Quit acting like a child!”
The smile on Nick’s face spooked her. When he gave a whistle, other men stepped out of the woods, their hands full of rocks. She fumbled to pull out her cell phone, but another blow met her fingers, breaking two nails. She swore as the device followed the rod downstream. “That was expensive!” she fumed. “You’re going to have to pay for that!”
“I will.” Nick’s voice was calm, confident. “Just come off the bridge and let us deal with the freak.”
“Freak? You’re the goddamn freak, thinking you can just throw rocks at people. You’re supposed to be an adult!”
“And so are you, but you used to laugh. You could hardly keep your hands off me the first time I took his shoe. What changed? Do you think that spending time with him is going to make me jealous? It was funny at first, I admit, but it’s gotten boring.”
Leon tried to remember the first time this group of people had abused him, but he couldn’t. All of the scenes of cruelty in his life bled together like a strip of film negatives. He could hold them up to the light, or he could set them on fire.
“I’m sorry,” Imogen whispered. She slumped down to her knees beside him, but she was too afraid to reach out for comfort. She didn’t deserve it, not from him.
“Don’t be. They’re jealous of us now. Because we’re free.”
He held her hand as they slid from the bridge. This time, he would not close his eyes.