Falling Water

Jem Burch

CAS for Database

Van Nuys, California

The Buckley School

Fiction

          He senses the storm long before it arrives.


          It is something about the sky when he wakes up. The whiteness of it. Out over the slate-gray sea he can see it shifting. Just slightly.


          He steps out onto the penthouse balcony, the small curve of concrete that perfectly conforms to the shape of the spherical spire. Cylindrical buildings loom in the mist like stalagmites. He grips the sleek railing with white-knuckled hands, staring out at the sea, not down to the dizzying spiral below. Standing there in the gloom brings him back to his time in the navy, right after college, a restless young man in a restless world. Someone once said that war is 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror, and that’s how he feels about his stint: the spray of salt, the buck and toss of a ship taking him to an unknown horror. And then the sinking feeling as he watched Peter tie a weight around his ankle and…the thought of it now makes him sick.


          He raises his hands to his bare arms, suppressing a shiver that never comes. Maybe he is cold, but the air is not. There is no breeze, but it moves like an eel: crackling with electricity, and muggy updrafts, and the sharp tang of salt. It smells of storm.


          He turns his back and walks steadily inside, making sure to lock the glass door. He doesn’t want to watch the sky. It unnerves him on some subliminal level that slips beneath consciousness. He feels it in the tightness of his throat, the pulse of his neck, the dull throb of his bones. The signals his body taught him after his first hurricane.


          He flops down on the couch and reaches for the phone, prepared to call in sick for work. But even speaking feels like a chore right now. Instead he stares without seeing at the penthouse’s blank walls. Calling it a penthouse is generous: it’s just a small apartment that takes up the whole floor, stacked like a squashed can in a tall teetering tower of small apartments. Small apartments for men like him: bachelors who can no longer consider themselves young, who come to this sleepy city to be together in their loneliness.


          A sigh leaves him, and he picks up the remote. His hand shakes as he flips to a news channel. The meteorologists are talking again. All psychic power and prediction, watching weather patterns for the storm. They don’t know what it is, but he does. In his bones. In the animal part of him that still acknowledges his fear. But he listens to the news anyway. It’s something to do. It’s something to take his mind off of whatever’s coming next.


          Outside the window, the birds are behaving oddly. Starting up in great rafts, settling on wires and then scattering all at once, flitting between buildings, searching. He thinks of that old Hitchcock movie The Birds. He still remembers when he saw it: in his film studies class in college, his backlit professor gravely discussing the schlocky crows and how the cinematography was considered revolutionary when it was first filmed. He had laughed then, just laughed. But now he feels that maybe he understands: that the birds know about the storm, and what they know is important.


          A gull crashes into the window and he jumps, watching it scrabble scrabble scrabble for purchase on the glass. It falls away. Somewhere far below, the sea shudders.


<><><>


          The listless day passes like a dream. He paces the room, watching the sky shift outside the blank windows, waiting. At last he allows his aching bones to settle on the couch, his eyes to shut. The tired afghan is soft and scratchy against his skin. He sleeps, dreaming again of that aircraft carrier, the one far out to sea, where—


          —Peter ties a weight around his ankle, stands on the edge, staring with eyes as blank as the sea. And he is shouting, shouting at Peter to stop, but the wind is tearing away his words and then, then—


          His eyes open with a start. It is dim in the penthouse. Late. He sits up, blinking, the pounding in his ears slowly fading to silence. The afghan has fallen to the floor, and he is shivering. From cold? From fever? It feels like a premonition.


          He stands, and the world tilts. He is on the ship again, one hundred miles from shore. And he is alone: Peter…Peter is—His cheek is cold against the floor. He rolls over.


          Outside, the sky is dark with clouds. Thick as stew. Something is falling. He is falling. Through the gray gray sky, the cold floor, the silent city, and back to that misty day on the aircraft carrier, when Peter, his friend, his lover, tied a weight around his ankle and jumped one hundred feet to the gray gray sea. It swallowed him whole, and then the rain began to fall.


          It is falling now. Like gunshot. He curls into a ball, whimpering. The sounds of war beat against the temple. He plugs his ears, screaming for it to stop. Screaming himself hoarse. And then the windows are water. It slithers under the glass door, sneaks between the blinds, drizzles down his shirt. Is this the purgatory he gets for failing to save the man he once loved? For loving at all? The water crawls into his mouth, and he sits up, coughing, crying. Tears falling, glass falling, water falling. It is falling. And then the room is water. The sky is water. He is water.


          Just water.


EDITORIAL PRAISE

This entire piece is gray and white; one can sense the haziness and restlessness of an oncoming storm. Here, water takes on many meanings, blurring the narrator’s memory and destabilizing reality as the back-and-forth story structure rocks readers like a boat. The tension and introspection of “Falling Water”, combined with its metaphor and voice, makes for a lethargic kind of suspense that keeps us all on edge.

Jem is an all-around word nerd who loves poetry, plays competitive Scrabble, and currently studies Latin, Russian, and Welsh. Both his writing and ceramics have been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and he was a semifinalist in the National Student Poets Program in 2020. In his spare time, he enjoys creating crossword puzzles (one of which was published in the New York Times in April).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR