The floods started as a small disturbance. First, the kitchen sink went, filthy, tepid, water pooled to the brim of our once functioning, silver sink. I tried the plunger but couldn’t get the water to give. I stabbed at the drain with a knife, but still no movement. The water sat in the sink for hours. Moving about the house, I felt like the flooded sink watched me. The water a stalking predator waiting for me to let my guard down, so it could spring over the edge, flood the house and drag me under, choking on a torrent of putrid waters. But eventually, I couldn’t stand the paranoia, or the stench, any longer, and scooped the mess out with a bucket, tossing the scuzzy water into our backyard splashing across the heads of Eli’s, my six-year-old, abandoned lego city.
Then the bathroom sinks fell prey to the toxic waters. Of course, this version of discolored water came complete with curled hairs skimming across the surface. You would’ve guessed right if you had said the toilets would go as well, since they went around the same time. Water bowled up over the porcelain edge releasing all variety of foul-smells to haunt our hallways. Who could tell they’re burning their son’s morning oatmeal when the entire house smelled like a landfill?
So, we built a fort in Eli’s bedroom. A peaceful sanctuary secluded from the ugly state of the remainder of our house. A place we watched cartoons. A place where we stuffed our cheeks with chocolate chip cookies and barbeque chips. A place I even let him stay up past his bed time. Anything to keep his mind distracted.
I looked up home solutions on the internet. Baking-soda and vinegar was supposed to have worked, but all that did was further complicate the mess, chunks of clotted baking soda swam around the surface like disfigured teeth. Bleach didn’t work either. In fact, my hands were so wet from the wretched waters the bottle slipped, then spilled all over my jeans, eating through them along with a the top-most layer of my skin.
So, since I was clearly in over my head, I gave up. I didn’t want to call a plumber. The idea of strange men nosing around my house unsettled me. I mean, who can trust a man to be honest? Don’t they always get away with whatever they want?
My husband Frank, for example, left us without so much as a note, didn’t even take his truck. One day he was tossing the ball out back with Eli, and the next he was gone. No explanation. I called the police, but they had patronizingly dictated to me how these types of things happen all the time. They even went so far as to insinuate that I was to blame for my husband’s sudden departure. And that, maybe I needed to take a look in the mirror first, examine what it was about my character that a man would want to abandon.
I tried Frank’s brother. But he had no answers either. He explained how he was deep into his own issues: Shirley wanted a divorce citing his drinking among many other issues — it runs in the family. Work hadn’t seen my husband either, so I was left trying to explain to our son where his father had gone. Eli believed he was still coming back. But that was the least alarming of his behaviors.
One night, I left him in the tub, only for a quick minute to refill my wine glass — I also hadn’t taken the disappearance well. At that time the floods had begun, but the tub still worked, or maybe it was that we had yet to use the tub. It’s hard to keep track of the details. My memory feels like a collection of thought bubbles floating whimsically, landing with me only at random. When I returned to the bathroom, Eli’s soap-bearded face lit up.
“Mommy, I just saw dad. He came back!”
“You saw him? What do you mean? He’s in this house?”
“He was in the tub.”
“Eli stop that. How could he be in the tub? You know better than that. What did mommy say about lying?”
“If I lie then I’ll go to…I’ll go to…I can’t remember.”
“You’ll go to hell. Now look, do you see your father anywhere in the water?”
I splashed my hand around to demonstrate how, besides the toy boats and scuba man, there was no one in the tub with him.
“But he was laying in the tub. The water got all red. He looked broken.”
“Oh come on Eli, get with it. I told you your father left us. There’s no way he would be lying in the tub. He couldn’t even fit in there. He’s not coming back. Okay? He hates us. Can’t you see that?”
He burst into tears. I realized my hands were shaking. The wine glass shattered onto the tile floor like a crime scene.
“But it was him mom, I promise.”
I grabbed a towel, pulled him out of the tub and bundled him up tightly in my arms.
“It’s okay honey. It’s gonna be okay.”
I dried him off and tucked him into bed. We then read his favorite story about a little boy who goes in search of his parents with a tiger in a boat, sailing around the world. I blew him a kiss goodnight from the doorway, but before I walked away he asked me:
“Mom, do you think he will come back again?”
“I’ll tell you what. If he comes back, you tell him to come and speak with me because I’ve got some things to discuss with him. Okay buddy?”
I left the hall light on for him. Back in the bathroom, I noticed a lot of water around the tub. Droplets had somehow splashed as far as the vanity, but then, when I looked closer I thought I saw ripples in the discolored water, as if something had just moved, something large. There was no way. I pulled Eli out of the tub a long while before.
The tub water was so gray I couldn’t see through it. Anything could have been lurking within, waiting for me to reach my hand in. I could’ve sworn I had pulled the chord when Eli got out, but the water hadn’t drained at all. Then I wondered: What if Eli was right? What if there really was someone in the tub? I had to go downstairs for another glass of wine before I returned to brave the task of reaching into the mysterious waters of my own bathtub.
Wine in hand, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and sunk my other hand into the water, waiting for the bite or clench then subsequent abduction to hell. But my hand parsed through the grit all the way to the drain. Clogging the drain was what felt like the coarse fur of an animal or beast. I tugged at it coming up with a fistfull of hair. Except it wasn’t Eli’s. Or mine. The knot of hair was indeed human and still attached to a small section of skin, scabbed with blood.
Then it hit me — the same rotten smell from the toilets drifted off the hairs and I gagged, then ran from the bathroom, slamming the door behind me.
The next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to open the door to the bathroom. Decorative squares embossed into it’s white surface like mouths, mocking me, laughing at me, like the door knew exactly what was happening in my house; took pleasure in my discomfort.
Below the door the dirty, gray water had seeped out, soiling the hallway rug. So, I shoved a stack of towels at the bottom of it and decided that we needed to leave the house, at least for the day. Between the gory waters and Eli I didn’t know which caused me more anxiety.
I called off work and school for Eli. Sure, my boss said he’d have to write me up. But, I only took the stupid retail job to appease Frank. Now that he was gone I would have to find a real job anyway. Go ahead write me up. Fire me. There was some strange and dark presence in my house. I couldn’t care less about what type of bath soap was the least pollutive, or what candle scent would settle some housewife’s chakras.
I figured we could go to the park. Try to have a little fun. I worried Eli may have been developing some type of disorder or trauma that the internet is always going on about. It’s like everytime I turn around somebody is opening up about some type of scarring incident, something their parents did they will never recover from. What if my son grew up to be one of those people?
On our way to the park, passing through the quiet, still suburbs, Eli was right back to it.
“I saw daddy again last night.”
It was hard to believe this tiny, round-cheeked person could have grown to be such a disturbed child. He was too young. Where had I gone wrong? I pulled the car over. A sprinkler stream inching closer to the windshield.
“I thought I told you to come get me.”
“I didn’t know what to do.” He pulled down the brim of his blue ball-cap.
“Eli, listen to me. Next time this happens you have to get me, I mean it.”
“I had to go down to the kitchen to get a cup of water. And then, and then, I saw one of his eyes floating in the pool in the sink. It kept looking at me.”
“Enough Eli! Stop with the stories.”
“But, I heard his voice too. He had a secret to tell me.”
I sped away, windshield blurred with sprinkler water. I couldn’t seem to find the wiper lever. Our car kept going faster, everything in front of us melting together. I couldn’t understand if I was going blind with rage or the water was in fact blocking my vision. The car sped faster.
“Not now Eli. Not now!”
“Mom, red light.”
I slammed the brakes at what looked like a red light. Then found the wiper lever and when I looked in front of me there was a woman pushing two children in a stroller, glaring at me.
At the park, the sky was an empty blue, not a cloud in sight. It was so blue that my vision of the outside world was too highly defined. I could feel the murmurings of a migraine somewhere in the depths of my head. The subtle bird chirps. The trickling creek. The buzzing cicadas all sounded like clattering metal,
grinding gears. It was too hot out. My breath felt short like my lungs had a belt clamped around them.
“Mommy, will you push me on the swing? Pleeease.”
I took a deep breath.
I pushed Eli, tried to take my mind off things, but then I thought of Frank. Still confused why he would leave me. I felt like I must’ve been forgetting something. Like I had blocked out the bad memories. Then, the next thing I knew, all the wind left my lungs. Eli’s sneakers had kicked me in the chest on his backswing, sending me to my knees.
“I’m going to take a break for a minute. Why don’t you run around the pyramid thing, or try the slide or something for a while.”
“But I wanna swing more.”
“You know what Eli? Do whatever you want. But, I need a rest.”
Surrounding the jungle-gym were benches. Two women in bright workout clothing talked quietly next to each other on one of the benches. They cupped their hands over their mouths like they were talking about me. Their manicured and polished fingernails glinting so sharply in the sun I thought my eyes had cuts.
Maybe they knew me, but I couldn’t remember their faces. Maybe I knew them from one of the PTA meetings I was forced to attend twice a year? Or, the wine club Frank used to drag me to, as if going to a club gave his drinking more credibility. Just because half the town drank at these gatherings didn’t mean it was okay for him to come home stumbling drunk, scaring our son.
I waved to the women and they turned their gaze to a small blond girl in overalls picking at the yellow dandelions.
On the other side of the playground, far away from the nosey women I found respite under a large oak tree. Listening to wind pass through the dangling spanish moss finally settled me. I didn’t even mind the scratchy grass under me. Above me, a spider climbed around the tangled vines of moss. I wondered what it would feel like to be that spider. All alone. Stalking this gigantic tree for food and then waiting, spinning webs, to trap and devour anyone who got in my way. What a life that would be.
Suddenly, a shriek broke my reverie, sprung me to my feet, gasping for breath like I had been underwater for hours. Over by where the girl had been playing, one of the women stood above Eli wagging her finger. The girl clutched the other woman’s stretchy, purple shirt in her tiny fists, her face buried in the woman’s bosom.
“What’s going on?”
I stepped in front of Eli, shielding him from the ravenous woman, who appeared poised to strike. Sweat percolated on her forehead under her curled dome of blonde hair.
“Your little devil of a son is trying to give our Daisy nightmares is what’s going on.”
“I’m sure whatever he did was an accident. Right Eli?” I confirmed with my son who only stared back at me. “Eli, apologize to the little girl.”
“I’ll tell you what he did–”
“Ma’am, please let my son speak.”
“Show your mother what you showed our little girl.” She lunged toward Eli’s hand but I stepped in the way. “Of all the things. She’s going to be scarred for life. You know I didn’t want to believe what they said about you, but I guess the rumors are true.” The woman continued to rant.
She had passed off the young girl, pigtails bouncing, to the other woman. The two of them then retreated, leaving behind the purple shirted woman to take me down.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Oh please honey. Everyone knows Frank walked out on you and honestly it’s easy to see why. You’re a mess. Keep that little demon of yours away from our precious child, or I’ll call child protective services so fast you’ll regret ever leaving the house.”
“Excuse me?” I was too shocked by what she had said to confront her any further before she stormed off to her car.
Her words only further shook my thoughts, my paranoia. What was everyone in town saying about me? It felt like everyone around me had gone mad.
“Eli what on earth did you do to their girl?”
“I just told her about dad.”
“Oh God, again with the stories. Why do you keep doing this to me? Do you want your mother to go to jail. They’re going to take you away if you keep this up. You’ll never be allowed near me again. Is that what you want?”
He held out two teeth in his hand: full size, roots like dinosaur talons, speckled with dried dirt and blood.
“What are you doing with those filthy things?” I tried to smack them out of his hand, but he took off running into the field. He was too fast. I went back to the car to see how long he would play this game of chicken.
Part of me wanted to just drive away, leave everything. Frank got to, why couldn’t I? So, I did. I put the car in reverse and was on my way to my own future. Free from all of this madness. Free from my possessed son.
I slammed the brakes.
I had to be better than Frank. I had to prove those women wrong. Sure enough, the sight of our truck pulling out of the parking lot had sent Eli running back. I took him to get a scoop of his favorite ice cream, Rocky Road.
When we came back home, chewing what was left of our ice cream cones, the entire house had flooded. The basement was, what I assumed, a foot or two high. The water scared Eli. He didn’t want to come inside the house. The walls were sweating with the humidity. I wanted to be there as little as Eli, so I caved and called a plumber.
An hour or so later, I answered the door to an attractive man dressed entirely blue: blue work shirt, blue jeans, and blue boots. The only non-blue item on the man was his sagging work belt.
“Hiya, here to fix the pipes.” He chuckled.
“Right, come on in.”
“Oh my.” His large boots squished around the soiled carpet in the front hall. “Quite the situation here. When did you say this all began?”
“I don’t know. A few weeks now? Maybe more, maybe less.”
“All right, and no remarkable incidents? No flushing something crazy down the toilet? No cherry bombs, or rats chewing away the piping?”
“No, not that I can remember.”
I tried to remember when the flooding began. But it felt like my life had always been this way. Like the time before the flooding was the same. Then there was Frank, a shadow on my thoughts. But yes, perhaps it was him. Maybe he had sabotaged the pipes as a way of getting back at me, but why?
He was the one who left. He was the drunken one. The one forgetting birthdays and needing me to bail him out of jail. If anyone should have exacted revenge, it should’ve been me.
“Do you remember where it first started?”
“Maybe the kitchen?”
“All right then. I’ll check around, but this is worse than I imagined. It may take quite a while…this the door to the basement?” He asked.
I nodded. His large, calloused hands pulled at the door. I then realized how large of a man he was. He could crush me in the palm of his hand if he so desired. He scratched his head with those meaty hands.
“Let me recalibrate here.”
He walked out to his work truck in the street and returned wearing what looked like the same type of water-proof overalls Frank used to fish in. But before he went down the steps, he turned to me. His blue eyes sparkled through the wild mess of eyebrow and facial hair that covered his well-tanned face. He really was quite attractive.
“Hey, weren’t you that lady on the news?”
“News? No. What do you mean?”
“Yeah, it was you. Your husband went missing? They couldn’t find any traces of him anywhere. The reporter accused you of murdering him.”
“What in the world…that’s a strange thing to say to someone you just met. I think you should leave.”
“Whoa now. I’m sorry. You’re right. I apologize. I can’t leave you in such dire straights. It goes against the plumber’s code.”
He winked. For a moment, he stood there, staring, uncannily, before heading down the steps, whistling his entire journey deeper into our house.
First, the women in the park and then a random plumber. What did everyone know that I didn’t? There was no way I could have gone on the news without remembering it. Through the kitchen window, I saw Eli splashing in a puddle of water.
“Eli, get out of that dirty water and come in here.”
“Don’t question me when I tell you to do something. Get in here. I need to talk to you.”
He ran in the house, cheeks flushed. His red sneakers smeared with mud.
“Sorry, I know I’m not supposed to play in the mud but—”
“Do you remember your mother being on the news?”
“You said we can’t talk about it.”
“Talk about what? What happened?”
I grabbed him by the wrist.
“You said that we can’t talk about the people with all the cameras. And the, and the —”
“And the what?!” I screamed
“And the lady who talked to you in the living room.”
My blood felt like thousands of ants marching under my skin. How had I not been able to recall this moment? What had happened. I couldn’t believe it. A ringing grew in my head. My head spun. Eli must’ve been lying again. That was it. Eli was lying, of course.
“Are you okay mommy?”
“I told you to stop lying.”
“Mommy you’re hurting me.”
The skin of his wrist had turned red around my fingertips. I let go quickly, shocked.
“Go play outside.”
He ran away. I poured a glass of wine, to the top. Then, the plumber appeared in the doorway to the basement.
“Ma’am, there’s some type of major blockage. I can’t tell what the hell is going on. I tried snaking the pipes, but got no movement. Something is lodged somewhere in there causing the entire system to back up. I’m gonna have to get inside the pipes…is that something you’re ready to do?”
“Huh? Get inside the pipes? What do you mean?”
“You see, to fully diagnose the problem I’m going to have pull apart your plumbing. It can be a large undertaking. We’re talking maybe a few days, weeks maybe, which means a lot of labor. The water will be turned off.”
He looked at my pityingly. What was it with these men in my life?
“And I suppose you’re going to say this is my fault? Accuse me of some other despicable action?”
“Whoa now. Maybe you were right. Maybe I should go.”
“Oh no you don’t. Not after you fed me all that crap about the plumbers code. Get back down in the basement and finish what you started. Smash the pipes to hell for all I care.”
He threw his hands up in caution. When he came back from his truck this time he carried two heavy bags in each arm. They were large enough to fit bodies into if he had to. What was this man’s plan with me and my son?
Bags clunking down each step, thwap, thwap, he made his way to the basement, whistling the whole time. Maybe he had killed Frank. Yes that was it. Then he had sabotaged my pipes in order to get a large payday. That was it. He was out for money. Sure, prey on the newly single mother. Just another man trying to get one over on me. Well, he had another thing coming if he thought that was going to work.
“Can I go downstairs?” Eli asked.
I realized I had finished my entire wine glass and was sipping at nothing.
“I want to watch the plumber. I was gonna bring my boat down.”
He had already changed into a bathing suit and rain boots holding his boat in hand.
“You know what Eli, I want you to go pack your bags for a long trip, okay honey?”
“But mom, I want to help the plumber.”
“If you’re good we can get ice cream again. Okay honey? Now, go and be a good boy.”
From the butcher block I pulled the chef’s knife and walked down the steps with it behind my back.
“Oh hey, glad you’re down here. I think I’ve found something.”
I watched the plumber pull a leg from out of the pipe, still adorned in blue, now blood-red jeans, my husbands’, I mean ex-husband’s favorite blue jeans. The skin inside was sodden and colorless, and the rotten odor almost enough to knock me over.
“Oh jesus lord. This is someone’s leg. Looks like it’s been clear cut off.”
He threw it down into the water. Then my knife was in his gut, to the handle. I pulled it out and plunged it in again. His last breath exhaled, hot in my face before he dropped into the water with a splash and then everything was silent just like when Frank died.
I remembered it all then.
I was scared for my life. Frank, so drunk I thought he would kill me or Eli. I was only trying to keep him away. Trying to protect myself. It all happened so quick. He stomped toward me, cornered me in the kitchen. The butcher block of knives behind and then his blood rushed from his slumped body in torrents. I tried stopping the wound with a kitchen towel. The wound that I had opened in him but it was too late.
It was an accident. I couldn’t leave Eli with no parents. He needed me to protect from all the craziness in the world. So, I cleaned up the accident. I cut and shoved and flushed whatever I could into the sinks and toilets of our house. I just wanted to be there for Eli.
Blood spread into the waters around the plumber’s head. But the ringing in my head had stopped. I could see clearly. I knew we had to get out. then ran up the steps out of the basement.
“Eli? Where are you? Eli?”
I rushed around the house searching for Eli. I found him under his covers, shaking.
“What’s going on mom? Why is dad in our pipes?”
“Daddy? No, no honey what did you see? That was nothing. It was a joke the plumber was playing. I think he found an old possum in the pipes. Okay sweetie?”
“I saw dad again downstairs. Right before you came up. He was all bloody.”
“Okay sweetie, okay.” I hiked Eli up on my hip and packed a bag for him with one hand. “Can you be a big boy and help your mother put this in the truck?”
“Good, then wait in the car for me.”
When I pulled out of the driveway, Eli asked me “What about the plumber?”
“He left us honey. Just like your father. It’s like I said Eli, you can’t trust men.”
“But his truck is still there.”
I turned up the stereo a little louder and tilted Eli out of the vision of the rearview. I could finally see clearly, not a man in sight.
Joseph Buckley is a poet and dark fiction writer. His work is featured in December, Fogged Clarity, The Horror Zine, and elsewhere.