This story is by George Lies and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Trolling the Reservoir
A harsh wind dared stocky Audra Holder out of her hovel located in abandoned underground pipelines so she doubled-up on sweaters before scavenging for whatnot. As daylight dimmed in the woods, she came across a man and woman who argued near the water reservoir.
They stood on a rocky ledge where the overflow dropped fifty feet into a creek bed. The tall man shoved a woman, she pushed back and they lost their footing. The man’s face held a wide surprise look when he tumbled backwards over the edge; the woman held on as she grabbed low branches of a tree.
Audra hugged her satchel, filled with ginseng roots she had dug up, and slid down over wet ground leaves. She tip-toed over wet rocks. “Hold on. Am-a coming.” She grabbed the woman’s elbows. “Got you.”
The woman scrambled onto the ledge, crawled across the flat rock and gasped for air. After a moment of silence she looked up. “Oh, thank you.” She stood, brushed off her thick peacoat, and began moving toward the adjacent hillside.
“Wait.” Audra had sat, her hands braced on the rock. “Where ya think you’re going?”
“Can’t do that, missy.” Audra pulled up. “You killed a man.”
“He fell—it was an accident. Not my fault.”
“Missy. Am-a witness—is that what you say happened?”
“He deserved what he got.” She flailed a hand before setting off on a soggy gravel path. “No way I’m going down there.”
Audra felt a devilish joy inside.
She saw her way of escape from the underworld and getting on with life: the Nordic gods had sent a surrogate as tribute for seven years of trolling at night, and scaring folks from beneath bridges.
“Gotta go get him.” She pinched her pudge nose and pulled a woolen cap tight over her braided locks.
From her exploration of the woods, she knew where to descend into the gorge—yet what then? She took a muddy path leading to where utility workers had been repairing a run-off pipeline. Sure as the moon shines, she found a mud-crusty wheelbarrow left unattended; she wheeled it down to the gorge. For confidence, she pulled out a flask found at a campsite and sipped until her eyes adjusted to the shadows: the man’s body had splayed across rocks in the creek bed. She pocketed the flask.
Near the water’s edge, she stretched her tiny arms until she hooked the man’s collar and tugged; she pulled several times until the body lifted from the rapids. Bloodied about the skull, the man appeared to be in his mid-life-crisis forties. She dragged him through ground debris, leaned him erect, and flipped him into the wheelbarrow.
While snow began falling, Audra wheeled the load home within an hour. She navigated the pipeline’s route underground. Inside her cubby space, she rekindled the fire in a large drum that she had scavenged from a utility shed, and tab-opened a can of chicken noodle from a dumpster. She heated soup in a pot on a rusted grill over the flames.
With her belly warm but feeling tired, Audra rested on a bed of newspapers covering a box spring. She opened a beef jerky stick, left at a camp site. The act of chewing focused her mind.
Aha—the woman will have a change of heart; she’ll return out of either grief or guilt.
Heavy snowflakes continued sprinkling the darkness although a crescent moon glinted off the surface of the water reservoir. Looking down into the gorge, Audra saw a flashlight tracing around the lower creek that flowed to the Monocle River.
“I left you here—.” A female’s voice carried in the chilled air as she sloshed through the snow-covered creek bed. “You fell right on these rocks.”
The flashlight beam flickered when a night critter thrashed bushes in the dark, causing her to recoil. Panic set in when she didn’t locate the body, so she took out a mobile phone and pushed buttons.
The phone’s glow lit her face: a witch-like bony nose, bland skin, piercing eyes. She listened for the ringing. At that exact moment, Audra’s coat hummed from vibration of a cell phone she had found in the man’s gray coat.
The woman’s cell phone could be heard, a new voice speaking: You have reached Doctor Stephen Davenport. Leave a message. If this is an urgent matter, call 911.
“No—you’re dead.” The woman reacted to the voice. “I know you’re dead.”
Audra crept toward the woman as her footsteps crackled fallen branches.
“Who’s there?” The flashlight angled toward boots plodding over debris. “I’m warning you. Stay away—I’ve got pepper spray.”
“Just me again.”
“Hey, you’re that one who—” The light beam scanned Audra head to toe. “—you’re so short.”
“Name’s Audra. A-course folks call me worse.”
“Am I dreaming?”
“You’re stuck.” Audra met her at the crest of the footpath and they began walking through snow. “Saw your SUV bumped by snow plows, over into a ravine.”
“Oh no. Well, I’ll call a car service.”
“Twenty five clicks from town—nobody’s coming in this snowstorm. “What’s your name anyway?”
“Virginia. I’m a professor—of psychology.”
“C’mon Virginia. I got a warm place just for us, not far.”
Virginia’s flashlight stoked the darkness. They crossed over frozen ponds before descending to a glen bordered by trees that hid hump-like oil and drainage pipelines.
“Right over there.” Audra scurried to an oval archway and pulled back a protective tarpaulin. They meandered through rusted hollow cylinders, their footsteps echoing as they crossed metal ripples. The flashlight’s beam bounced off sidewalls as they followed snaking curves of jointed piping. They descended a stretch going left-right before the passageway leveled off, and the labyrinth continued deeper.
At last up ahead, the light of a candle wavered in a lantern salvaged from a dumpster.
“Ain’t much but this is our home.” Audra drew back a red curtain as warmth from the fire in the old drum whooshed by. She clicked a switch on a slumping cord, and lit a 40-watt bulb swaying beneath a patchwork quilt labeled almost heaven. “Gerry-rigged the wires myself to a transformer half mile away.”
“You really live here?” Virginia slipped the flashlight into her pocket.
“Am-a caretaker, sorta.” Audra stoked flames in the drum. “Took over from the last tenant back when I was desperate.”
“I know desperate.” Virginia sat at the corner of a fractured wooden bench.
“Last tenant got his ticket to heaven—like I hope to get soon. Who was that man—a doctor?”
“Psychiatrist.” Virginia unbuttoned her jacket. “He recruited me for testing a new kind of therapy. One must stick to the rules like gospel. The meds were terrific. But he stopped listening to feedback. He wanted to take control of my life. Felt like I lost who I am—my own identity.”
“Cup of tea?” Audra held out a dented brewing pot. “Oh, we got that instant full-of-nuts stuff, a few spoonfuls left—and powdered sugar.”
“Usually I go out only at night.” Audra siphoned water from a plastic bottle taken from a utility shop, and heated the water. In a tin cup, she steeped green tea leaves with powdery sugar. “Good thing I saw you. We can help each other.”
“I begged him, let me go.” Virginia stared at the swaying light bulb overhead. “I said, let’s go talk in the woods. I remember listening to the rhythm of water falling on rocks, you know, when he said I never could leave him. His words ticked me off so much that I—“
“—pushed him over the edge.”
“An impulse. It’s all like a dream.” Virginia sipped the tea. “Wait, you saw us.”
“He’ll listen to feedback now.” Audra started hurrying around in the recesses of her quarters, grabbing odds and ends and stuffing a duffel bag. “He’s in a chair behind that curtain there.”
“He’s where—what?” Virginia stroked her forehead, the tin cup fell to the ground. “I’ve got to go now—storm or no storm.”
“You’ll go to jail. Maybe life in prison. Tsk, tsk—that’s not a good fate.”
“What are you saying?” Virginia stood but wobbled and sat down. “Where am I?”
“I chose this place, no one knows,” Audra said. “Got everything you need. Dry goods, rice, spaghetti, canned fruit, and soups. Water’s easy to come by. Good heat. No mattress yet. Rummaging first-aid kits pays off too—oh, those pills wear off soon.”
Virginia reached out for Audra. “It’s not what I want. No.”
“You’re lucky. You’re back in control of your own life again. No cell phone service here to bug ya, either. You’ll find a way out—Spring time, maybe.”
Virginia fainted and crumpled across the bench.
“Gotta go, missy.” Audra shouldered the duffel bag. “My ticket’s waiting.”