Bad Water – Katrina Carrasco

I’m supposed to be in Port Townsend “taking some time off.” I didn’t want to come here. I wanted to stay in Portland and show I was sorry. But I was encouraged by my father and my legal counsel and Mr. Crandall to take the disability payments and wait a while before returning to work.

It’s weird, right, that I chose a town on the water? That’s a form of therapy, though. I think it’s called exposure therapy. As in, if a body is afraid of flying, exposure therapy suggests getting onto as many planes as possible. Even if a body only boards a plane and then gets off before the panic sets in, too bad, that’s considered a step in the right direction. But who’s allowed to get on a plane and then get right off anymore? What is this, 1985? Is a body supposed to pay for a ticket just to walk down the jetway, duck through the door labeled with the super reassuring DO NOT OPEN MIDFLIGHT graphic, get into seat 32A, hyperventilate and perhaps crap a body’s pants, then run off the plane? Is that worth $300? The hell it is.

Anyway, my sister lives nearby. That was probably one of the main reasons I chose Port Townsend. She’s on Whidbey Island, just across the bay. I haven’t gone to see her much. The one time she visited we met in town at a bar under a derelict theater, because I didn’t want Agatha to get upset about company. And I wanted to be able to leave quickly if my sister started going on about how I ought to be using the disability payments to get back on my feet, to maybe try something life-affirming and healthy like yoga or guided meditation or juice cleanses. I mean, what the fuck, Becky? After everything that happened you’re going to tell me to eat kale?

But she didn’t go there. She didn’t parrot what I’d expected. My therapist called that a projected fantasy, by the way: I’ll make up whole conversations in my head about what a body is going to say, about what a body is going to do, so I can get defensive and work myself up. In this case my projected fantasy was wrong. Becky and I had some whiskey and talked about Dad and his new job at the sewage department and the unseasonable cold sweeping the coast this fall. Then I walked her to the ferry terminus and she went home. That was two weeks ago, I think.

Now it’s just me and Agatha. We share a creak-jointed Victorian on the hill: purple paint, two stories, ancient fixtures. Bad pipes dribble milky filth. I can’t even plug in the toaster without shocking myself. Agatha is pretty quiet, so I pass the mornings at the library down the old timber road, and the afternoons puttering around in a boat my father sold me. He said boating would be good for me. He said he was doing me a favor.

So far I’ve motored over to two of the three state parks that used to be active forts: Fort Flagler and Fort Casey. I still need to visit Fort Worden. The navy built the forts, on this peninsula and the islands to the north and south, and then they put cannons in the forts and called it the Triangle of Fire. Wow, right? I’m not quite sure who that was meant to scare off back in 1890-whatever but they did give it a good name. During WWI they shipped the cannons away – the whole fire triangle migrated to Europe.

I learned all this at the library. I’ve been taking lots of notes as I read about the forts, and I mean lots of notes — I’ve already filled two spiral binders, but I can’t read some of my writing and also I’ve been drawing little stop-motion scenes of ducks flapping and Christmas boxes with ribbons that catch fire and explode so I can’t really claim to have “taken notes” on all those pages.

Once I was up in my room working in my notebooks, working on a close-to-real-as-I-could-make-it sketch of a pelican I’d seen sleeping on a pylon in town. There was pretty good shading going on in the wings and it even looked like the bird was smiling, I was glad he was coming out happy and peaceful, belly full of fish, I bet, when my pen stopped moving but its sound went on. Scritch. Scritch, scritch, scritch.

It was Agatha.

She was scratching at the door.

#

There’s a woman at the grocery store who’s pretty nice to me. She tells me when the bread is in fresh from the bakery and lets me run back to grab a loaf while she’s checking out my items. Today she makes a big pile of all the dry goods — cereal, protein bars, trail mix, chips, peanut-butter M&Ms, beef jerky, walnuts — and then looks around as if there should be something else on the conveyor belt.

“That’s everything,” I tell her.

“Going camping?” she says.

“Just not cooking much,” I say, but nod at the celery and bananas to show her I am conscious of a balanced diet, five a day, vitamins and minerals and their importance to bone health.

“Where’s all your fresh produce?” she says. “I’d never seen someone buy so many veggies as when you got to town.”

“The water in my house is not so good,” I tell her, lowering my voice as I hand over some cash. “Not so good for rinsing.”

“Sweetie, you should talk to your landlord, then,” she says. “You need potable water.”

“Oh yeah, oh yeah, I will do that,” I say, and start bagging things up. My face is getting red, I can feel it, and I cut my finger on the edge of a paper bag and drop two dollars of my change and you try chopping up fresh produce in the kitchen when Agatha is there, you just fucking try it! I want to yell at the checkout lady. But suddenly every body in the store is staring at me and they all have blurred-out eyes, the tall bodies, the little bodies, the paper bodies on my box of Cheerios. Oh, shit. If the checkout lady has blurred-out eyes now too I might piss myself, so I focus on cramming all the groceries into two bags and pushing the loose dollars into one of them. Then I walk out.

It’s raining again. The paper bags suck up droplets and start to wilt. A protein bar falls onto the asphalt but I don’t slow my dash to the car. In the driver’s seat, I eat two bananas in a row — five bites each. Bananas are a rich source of potassium is what I’ve heard but what the hell is potassium good for? Can it really help with bone health? Can it help with shaky hands? Can it help with looking up to find every body in the store staring with weird blurred-out eyes? I mean, that was freaky, right? I can’t go back there. I don’t know where I’ll do my shopping. I need to get more bananas. I haven’t slept in three days, so I’m not really in the mental state to be a good problem solver.

#

My father calls just after sundown. I am eating a bowl of dry cereal at the table, and Agatha is by the window again. If I can keep her at the very edge of my vision it makes things sort of OK. But lately she’s been getting restless. She’s been at the window less and in other parts of the house more. I’m thinking of giving up my bedroom entirely. I mean, if she hates it up there so much she has to start tearing holes in the braided rugs, well, I can’t pay some hefty deposit for a bunch of damage. That wasn’t something I’d factored in when adding up expenses.

“How are things?” my father says.

“Oh, you know,” I say, “doing lots of reading, doing lots of boating.”

“That little piece of crap dinghy is holding up OK?” he says.

“Sure, sure,” I tell him.

“I talked to Mr. Crandall today,” he says. “He wanted to make sure you’re not having too much trouble.”

“You know, that’s nice of him, that’s real nice of him. Tell him I’m feeling like this is a good time for me, this is a good time for me to rest and read and do some boating.”

A twitch of shadow in the corner. I drag my gaze along the hardwood, along the molding so I’m looking straight at the bottom of the window, where Agatha’s feet should be.

She’s not there.

She’s somewhere else. There is a smell behind me like old spilled milk.

“OK well it was great talking to you Dad but I have some onions frying that are gonna burn so I will talk to you again soon, real soon, yeah?”

I don’t want to look at her face so I instead I focus on her sort of greenish, grayish feet beside my chair and keep whispering sorry, sorry, excuse me as I wiggle out of the seat and scramble up the stairs and lock the bedroom door.

I think Becky came to the house while I was out today because there was a note on the door that said “BAD WATER” but I don’t recall speaking to Becky about the produce-rinsing issue, so maybe it was the checkout lady from the store. Or maybe that was the notice Mr. Crandall had to send out after the incident. I don’t know. I don’t remember. I should have brought some food up to the room. My stomach is all twisted. I’d take plain saltines at this point. I think of the protein bar I dropped outside the grocery store — was it yesterday? — its gold foil dappling with rain, its mass of chocolate goodness mashed under some body’s shoe.

#

Today was supposed to be my trip to Fort Worden, finally, but a storm’s come in and the waves are too choppy to chance in my rundown boat. Which is a shame because it’s nice to be out on the water, though I don’t really think of it as water when I’m in the boat, I picture it more like a sheet of glass or plastic that’s thick and blue and friendly so if a body fell onto it a body would just bounce right back up again, like a rubber ball or an undercooked hot dog.

So instead of the fort I visited the library. The road was nearly flooded in the dips and there was that bulging tree I mistook for a bear but I made it and now I’m copying down the Fort Casey barracks menu from the week of March 31, 1912: boiled onions, apple tapioca, turnips, pea soup, fried cornmeal mush, stewed peaches, Lyonnaise potatoes. I don’t even know what Lyonnaise potatoes are but I bet I would eat a gallon of them, a bucket, a platter, whatever the largest serving dish for their solidity or lack thereof might be. And the creamed green beans. They sound great. They really do, so I say them out loud: “Creamed green beans.” My mouth is full of saliva. I run my sleeve over my chin and turn the page of the menu.

“Excuse me.”

A woman is standing at my table. She’s wearing a yellow sweater with roses stitched onto it and she has pink clean-nailed hands and she doesn’t smell like sour milk, so I squint up at her face, tensed to run. But her eyes are real eyes! I am so grateful I smile wide, lips trembling, and spit rolls hot out the side of my mouth so I have to wipe my chin again. Maybe this means I can go back to the grocery store. Maybe the bodies there have gone back to having real eyes, too. I miss the grocery store a lot. They sell bananas at the gas station but if I could get my hands on a stalk of broccoli or a bell pepper or a bunch of lettuce I wouldn’t leave a leaf, I wouldn’t leave one single fucking seed.

“You’re going to have to go,” the woman tells me.

I don’t stop smiling even though I have to keep wiping my chin as I check the clock over the bookshelves.

“Are you closing early because of the storm?” I ask.

“No, I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to leave,” she says, and now her real eyes aren’t on me, she’s crossed her arms over her yellow-sweater-covered stomach, pressed closed her lips, and is staring at a nearby table.

“Some of the other patrons have complained about the smell,” she says. “The research center is open to everyone, but you must respect your fellow readers.”

The smell? The sour milk smell? Is Agatha here? I duck my head and scan the bottoms of the bookshelves, the space over the carpet for her feet, for her sort of greenish, grayish feet, but there are only boots and boots and galoshes and boots and the yellow-sweater woman’s pink sneakers. Maybe the smell has followed me here, crept into my clothes or my hair. I haven’t had a bath in a while but the bathtub is scaly, I want to tell the yellow-sweater woman, like lizard scaly. Like alligator scaly, and alligators kill by shaking not by biting, I want to tell her, by shaking and holding their prey underwater so also by drowning. I want to tell her, the water in the bathtub is weird and not-clear and once when I was taking off my shirt to get in I saw something moving in that white liquid, something long and greenish-grayish and only sort of visible. But the yellow-sweater woman is staring at me, eyes tight, mouth tight, her whole face really is pinching into a shape I don’t like so I stop looking at it and grab my things.

Outside the rain crawls into my eyes and ears and collar so when I reach the car I am soaked and that is like a bath, right? That is like a bath, to be cold and wet and panting and kind of breathing in the water a little but not choking yet, that is like a bath? Right?

#

I’m sort of disappointed by Fort Worden. All these weeks leading up to seeing it and it’s just a beach and a hill with some brown-painted buildings at the top. The beach and hill and buildings bob up and down as the boat rides the waves. There’s some kind of science center near the dock with a ton of bodies milling around it, waving ice cream and screaming as they are attacked by seagulls. What that has to do with science I don’t know, but I also don’t want to look at the bodies too closely, though I do notice they are pointing in my direction, so I flop into the bottom of the boat and hope the seagulls win. From down here in the cold layer of wetness only the hill and buildings bob up and down, while above them the shadow clouds are twitching, are starting to seem ominous, and I have a very strong feeling that at any minute Agatha is going to put one sort-of greenish grayish hand over the gunnel and then another sort-of greenish grayish hand and then her face which I have never seen might rise above the side and fall down on me, trapped here at the bottom of the boat in an inch of water while the bodies on the dock just won’t stop screaming.

#

I guess I sleep a little, finally, because the first thing I’m aware of is gray fuzz under my eyelashes, then tapping rain sounds, then my sour smell filling up the car. My back is dented by the driver’s side armrest, my knee marked with a divot by the gnawed-on parking brake. I probably shouldn’t have stayed in the car overnight but I just couldn’t deal with Agatha and her feet and her noises and I wonder if it’s worth staying here in town anymore at all. I mean, I thought the forts would be more useful. What’s the point of living in a town surrounded by forts if they don’t make any difference, if they don’t offer anything instructive about how to feel more secure? I went to all the forts, the whole fire triangle, and I still couldn’t figure out what makes them out of all other buildings safer, because aren’t they supposed to be? Doesn’t fortification mean making something more secure? I don’t keep a dictionary in my glove compartment so I can’t confirm that, but the point is what makes a fort safe? Is it the location? Is it the walls? Is it the cannons, which are now rusty and also cemented into place so a body couldn’t even pretend to swivel them toward a house on the hill and shoot? The forts are useless, my whole reason for coming here is useless, I thought maybe Agatha would go away but she hasn’t and I think I might as well drive back to Portland, I hope my father and my legal counsel and Mr. Crandall can figure out the warrant situation there because I just don’t think I can stay in this town, I can’t stay in this house, I can’t go on living on gas station corn nuts and shitting into a bucket by the back door. I can’t. So I start the car, I’m really leaving this time, but I forgot not to think that, and just like before, just like the drive out of Portland, as soon as I make up my mind to leave for good Agatha scratches into the back seat, her sort-of-greenish-grayish shape blurring the rearview mirror, along for the ride as always, always, always along for the ride.

 
 
 
Katrina Carrasco's short stories have found homes at Quaint MagazinePost Road, and Circa. She is writing a novel about a detective who alternates between female and male disguises in her undercover work. Katrina received her MFA from Portland State University.
 
 

Categories: Features, Fiction, Short Story