Crossing the Water
Zeke rolled the cold bottle between his palms. In the interest of self-preservation he’d delayed having friends visit but the concern proved unfounded. The greedy bastards ate, consumed his alcohol and departed in record time. He’d discovered the lone soldier of Cadwallader Hard Cider stripped of its sodden label and sequestered beneath a patriotic streamer in the ice chest. Tipping back the amber glass, he swirled the chilled tart flavor over his tongue with satisfaction.
A column of flame had flared up from the grill and singed Zeke’s left eyebrow, produced an appreciative smattering of applause from amused half-drunk guests. Hoots and whistles accompanied his frantic splashing of Sweetwater brew on his forehead. Once the coals settled, the pork shoulder fell apart succulent and sweet, vinegar brine soaking the flesh in southern flavored perfection.
For a moment Zeke debated joining the crowd at the fireworks display in town but decided he was too tipsy for crossing the water. The stream had already taken Gramps. He stuffed another hunk of blue ribbon barbecue in his mouth and continued rooting for a beer.
He smiled when Gramps manifested. “How’s it hanging?”
After four months of death he was still pleased Zeke had burned their dilapidated homestead to the ground, severing the umbilical cord connecting their collective ancestry to this world. The afterlife was quieter as a result.
“I know you were raised better, but to the right like always.” His grandfather dropped onto a lawn chair. “Your grandmother was a church-going woman, kept me to the narrow line, but seeing how I slipped off the path once or twice, I’m relieved to elude an eternity with her harping about my indiscretions.”
Joe floated forward. “I miss food.”
Zeke dismissed the mournful note in his tone. “For such a badass you were stupid enough to get whacked by the old man.”
Joe flipped him a lazy bird and angled his ear, listening. “There’s a Sheriff’s deputy coming.” His gaze lurched to Zeke’s. “It’s risky leaving my corpse buried under the woodpile.”
Gramps agreed. “I’ve come round to his way of thinking, boyo. You should move him.”
Zeke pinched the bridge of his nose. He refused to dig up Joe’s stinking body. “Maybe when there’s nothing but bones left.”
“If a cadaver dog gets one whiff of my carcass, you’ll be riding the big bus.” Joe grinned. “Well maybe not, since you weren’t the bastard that hit me with a shovel, but you’d best call the Sheriff anyway. Tell him there’s a powerful bad smell out back. He’ll blame the old coot.”
Gramps sat up straighter and nodded. “Town’s hankering for new gossip. People done speculated themselves out deciding why you burnt up the house.” He rotated toward the stream. “Deputy Collier’s carrying something official. Your name’s typed on it.”
Thirty seconds later the deputy pushed aside the dangling branches of the broadleaved trees and called out a greeting. “This came from the state office.” His voice deepened and he pressed forward to dispatch the delivery. “It’s been on the duty desk all week and well, I thought I’d officially serve it.”
Pulling deep on the remaining cider, Zeke reached over to accept the envelope. “Am I in trouble?” They’d gone to the same high school but Collier was two years older and he couldn’t remember the guy’s given name.
The deputy shook his head. “I know you’ve had a tough year with your granddad’s accident. Just read it, okay?” The man compressed his lips and stuck out his hand.
Startled by the gesture, Zeke fumbled with the letter and cider bottle and limply exchanged a shake. He watched until the deputy was swallowed up by the woods. Looking down he frowned at the printed return address of a social services agency. He tore the end from the envelope and tapped loose a single sheet of paper. Unfolding the document, he ignored the others and scanned the text. The happy booze buzz in his head burgeoned into a clanging security alarm. Eyes wide, his breaths shallowed as the contents digested.
His broken whisper contained a hint of panic. “Holy hell.”
“Zeke?” Gramps rose, passed through the still-smoking barbecue pit and approached.
Hefting the Cadwallader, Zeke trickled the last drops on his tongue and tossed the empty in the recycle bucket. The glass landed with a resounding crash as he cursed. “Joe, you dumbshit.”
Joe appeared affronted.
Gramps looked puzzled.
Zeke rattled the page for emphasis. “This writ notifies me you were killed in the line of duty while employed by the State Office of Criminal Investigation…two months ago.” Zeke speared his grandfather with a glance. “We know that’s not what happened.”
“Could be it’s a mistake.” Gramps said.
Joe’s features went blank. “It’s difficult to misidentify a body –“
Zeke waved them silent. “There’s more.” Adam’s apple bobbing with indignation, he reviewed the passage. “You’re dead. The government has identified me as your immediate next-of-kin. I inherit everything.”
Gramps elbowed Joe in the ribs. “Leave the boy anything good?”
Joe scowled. “Now there’s some fucked up irony. Don’t count on shit from me, Zeke. My car was leased, apartment filled with cheap IKEA furniture, and my bank balance hovered at zero by the end of the pay cycle.”
Fury flushed Zeke’s pale cheeks. “Can’t think of anything else, eh? That says a lot, asshole.” He swiveled and met Gramp’s eyes. “The final paragraph requires me to appear before the State Judicial Court on July 25th. I’ve been declared the legal guardian of five-year-old Lilliana Buchanan Morovsky.” He jabbed the air in front of Joe’s face. “Your daughter.”
The startled man lost his grip on the corporeal world and blinked out.
Gramps sidled closer. “Well, I’ll be jimmied.” He muttered.
Joe rematerialized without warning. He crowded in, peered across Zeke’s collar, and spoke with flat inflection. “Angela Buchanan never told me there was a child.”
“Happy Independence Day, Zeke.” Gramps cackled with mirth. “Congratulations. You’re a family man now.”
Zeke swayed. “I need a drink.”
Flash Fiction Challenge: The Fourth of July @ www.terribleminds.com