The river is a powerful thing. Its mighty flow that began from a melting glacier millions of years ago cut a swath through Sweetface Valley and it flows through it still. The river isn’t wide but even when the current is gentle at the height of summer it takes a strong swimmer to go from one bank to the other. During the winter a layer of ice forms across the top of its shallowest parts allowing skaters to do all forms of fancy skating turns and twirls without fear of falling through, although that has happened a few times. In Sweetface Valley where maple, willow and oak trees line the river banks, the land slowly slopes upward through meadows and grazing pastures to the forest covered hills that form the eastern and western boundaries of the valley that stretches along the river for about twenty miles. The dam at Swishburg bisects the river at the entrance to the valley; its main purpose to hold back the river north of the valley when it rises above flood stage, which happens almost every spring.
The river crested at the top of the dam and remained at that level for several days while the folks living in the town of Harp’s Landing, which totaled around six hundred, situated on the banks of the river midway through Sweetface Valley held their breaths. A metal drawbridge built before the dam was put in place spanned the river, linking the eastern side of Harp’s Landing, to the western side, which was much smaller. The bridge no longer raised and lowered and only two vehicles were allowed to cross it at the same time.
Tom Colby, the mayor of Harp’s Landing, had sent the word up and down the valley that out of caution everyone should be prepared to evacuate to the higher elevations, far back from the river banks and beyond the town limits. He was born and raised in Sweetface Valley and couldn’t recall in his sixty-three years of life if the water had ever reached the top of the dam. In the previous days the water it released into the river on its southern side caused the water to rise slightly above the banks and creep up main street a bit on the eastern side, but had done no damage. Tom stood at the railing on the bridge holding binoculars to his eyes, focused on the dam. He held a walkie-talkie to his ear, awaiting the response to his question to the engineers at the dam. “Is it going to hold?” A flash flood warning siren system had been installed in Harp’s Landing because of his efforts, something he had to fight hard for with the town council, damned their budgetary constraints.
A few minutes later the voice of Luke Jackson, one of the engineers, sounded through the ear piece. “As long as there’s no more rain upriver the dam will hold,” he said.
Tom heaved a sigh of relief, lowered the binoculars, and slipped the walkie-talkie into the leather pouch hooked to his belt. He turned to the west and waved his arms, signaling to Larry Mack and his wife Rita who sat in their car at the end of the bridge that it was okay to cross. He then turned to the east and waved onto the bridge walkway the Alberti sisters, both in their eighties, taking their customary early evening stroll across the bridge, which they claimed they had done since they were young girls, “Come hell or high water.” They wore bright yellow sun hats and their arms were linked.
Early that morning Tom left his house that was situated on an eastern slope of the valley, glanced up at the cloudy sky, and shook his head. In over a week rain threatened to fall, but there hadn’t been a sprinkle. He climbed into his pickup truck and drove down the winding road that led to the business district – a city block long main street – that ended at the bridge. The truck windows were down, and damp hot air rushed into the cab filling it with sauna-like heat. Along the way he noted that a pothole in the road had been filled in and that the garbage cans in the front yards had been emptied. Mrs. Riley’s pet border collie was running loose; something he would have to talk to her about, for the hundredth time.
The main street that ran through the center of the eastern side of Harp’s Landing was never named, although naming it has been brought up in town council and church meetings from the moment the first store was built on it back in 1887. Like the majority of homes in Harp’s Landing, most of the structures along the main street were red brick, with none being over two stories tall.
He pulled the truck over to the curb in front of his hardware store and sat with the truck idling for several moments as he watched Larry and Rita come out of Dr. Kyle’s office two buildings down. Larry was holding his wife up as she leaned against him. Tears streamed down her face. He knew the young couple well. His wife had taught them when they were in high school and they had been frequent visitors to his house after they married.
Tom turned off his truck and got out. He didn’t want to be nosy, but asked anyway, “What’s wrong?”
“Dr. Kyle got the tests back,” Larry said. “We may never be able to have children.”
Never comfortable with expressing his feelings, Tom offered a weakly stated, “I’m so sorry. Is the doc absolutely certain about that?”
Rita raised her head from Larry’s shoulder. “More tests need to be done and there may be a way to fix the problem, but we can’t afford any of that,” she said, her voice tremulous.
Tom wanted to hug them, to embrace them in the same warm manner that Pastor Jefferson of the Harp’s Landing Baptist Church hugged his parishioners, but in these kinds of situations he always felt as if his arms had become weighted down by iron chains. “If it’s just a matter of money, don’t you kids worry your heads about that,” he said. “The town of Harp’s Landing has a bit of money in an emergency fund that I’m certain the town council will be fine with using to help two of its own.”
Larry and Ruth stared at him, mouths agape. “Really?” they asked in unison.
“Really,” he replied. “Go home and tend to those injured animals you rescue. Mrs. Riley’s dog may end up joining them if she doesn’t start taking better care of it. Maggie and I would love it if you would come join us for dinner tonight, around six. I can tell you then what the council said.”
Unexpectedly and to his uncomfortable surprise, they wrapped their arms around him in a tight embrace and then rushed to their car and got in.
Tom stood on the sidewalk and watched as they drove onto the bridge and crossed over.
There was an aroma in Tom’s hardware store that never left; the mixture of rubber, metal and machinery oils. It was embedded in the walls and wood floor. The two fans fixed to the ceiling stirred the fragrances like an invisible soup while pulling in from outside the scents of honeysuckle and river water each time the door was opened. Tom’s assistant and cashier, Bernice Tolliver, spent the morning re-stocking and dusting the shelves while Tom waited on the customers, most of whom had come in to buy tarps to cover items they couldn’t move to the second floor of their homes and plastic bins to store smaller items in case the valley and Harp’s Landing was flooded.
Everyone asked the same question. “Is the dam going to hold?”
“The engineers seem to think so,” he replied each time. “But be ready to go to higher ground or your upstairs immediately if you hear the siren.”
Just before noon Emeline and Passion Alberti came into the store. They stood at the check out counter for several moments awaiting to have their presence acknowledged by Tom who was standing at the cash register straightening out the cash drawer which Bernice always left in disarray. She was a very able assistant and knew the hardware business almost as well as he did, but she was frequently distracted by the uneasy thoughts of how her four children were being babysat by her mother-in-law who was lax with discipline. When he noticed the sisters he closed the cash drawer and turned to them.
“What can I do for you ladies, today?” he asked, looking from one to the other.
Emeline, the slightly older of the two glanced around the store where several customers were milling about. “We need a cover for Lovey Dovey’s cage,” she whispered.
“A cover that will protect her in case it floods,” Passion added, also whispering.
The two women bought most everything they needed for their parakeet from his store except birdseed. Each time they came in they made him want to giggle in a less-than-adult manner.
“I’d recommend you put Lovey Dovey in your upstairs sewing room until the danger passes,” he said. “It’s the only way you can make sure she’s going to be safe.”
Emeline leaned toward him, cupped her hand beside her mouth and almost imperceptibly said, “She doesn’t like being upstairs.”
Tom repressed the urge to chuckle. “Birds can be that way, can’t they?” he said. He crossed his arms and said in a booming, authoritative voice, “You tell her the mayor of Harp’s Landing said she has to stay upstairs.”
The two women glanced at one another, nodded their heads approvingly, and turned and left the store.
Only two of the other town council members showed up at Yardby’s Diner for the council meeting, not enough to form a quorum.
“Everyone else is either moving their livestock to higher ground or carrying their furniture to the second floor of their homes,” Jane Melby, the Harp’s Landing Bank Manager, said.
Since the issue couldn’t be voted on, Tom didn’t bring up the problem that Larry and Rita had, deciding that he would take the matter into his own hands until after the flood waters north of the dam receded. He, Jane, and Morris Igby, the town’s volunteer fire chief, sat in a booth next to the window, drank coffee and each had the blue plate lunchtime meatloaf special.
Looking out the window at the mostly empty street, Tom stirred his coffee wishing he had issued a mandatory evacuation of everyone in the flood plains, but he knew that if he had and the dam held, he would be criticized for over-reacting and likely loose the next mayoral election. The one time they tested the newly-installed siren system caused a panic that took several weeks to recover from. He was thinking how lucky it was that it was summer and school was out when sixteen-year-old Josh Roberts rode up the street on his brand new motorcycle, heading east. The roar of his motorcycle rattled the diner window.
Morris looked up from his mound of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy. “The council is going to need to talk about making an ordinance about riding a motorcycle through town,” he said.
Tom turned away from the window. “Because of one motorcycle?” he asked.
“Josh’s parents have spoiled him,” Jane said. “They have no control over him.”
“What has he done?” Tom asked.
She took a sip of coffee. “It’s not what he has done but what he might do.”
“He helps his mother take care of his invalid father,” Tom said defensively.
Morris gulped down a forkful of potatoes and sat back and patted his stomach. “Josh’s father used to a volunteer fireman. He’s a great guy. What’s that saying about bad things sometimes happen to good people?”
It was nearly 5:30 when the last customer of the day left Tom’s store. Bernice turned the “closed” sign on the door around and locked the door. Tom was at the cash register sorting through checks and receipts when she stepped up to the counter.
“You told everyone days ago to prepare for possible flooding but it seems like a lot of folks are waiting until the water is actually at their doors before they’re doing anything,” she said, resting her elbows on the counter.
“That’s human nature,” he said. “We should have kept our doors closed too just like most everyone else.”
“Pete’s grocery store and the diner are still open,” she replied.
“People gotta eat.”
He put a large wad of bills and rolls of coins in a leather pouch, stood weighing the heft of it, and closed the cash register. He glanced up at the clock. “Do me a favor and on your way home stop by my house and tell Maggie I’m going to be a few minutes late for dinner. I want to take a look at the dam before heading home.”
“Sure thing,” she said. “I pray to God it holds.”
“Oh, and tell her the Mack kids are coming for dinner,” he added.
“Will do,” she responded. She retrieved her purse from under the counter and went to the door, unlocked it and went out.
Through the front window he watched her get in her car and drive off. He grabbed the pair of binoculars and walkie-talkie from a shelf beside the cash register, hung the binoculars around his neck and clipped the walkie-talkie onto his belt. He slipped the pouch holding the money under his belt and went out the door, locking it behind him. At the end of the street, before stepping onto the bridge he saw Larry and Rita’s car coming down the winding road from higher up the western slope. He walked across the bridge, feeling its slight tremble from the river beneath it pushing against the piles that held it up. The entire bridge was rusty and in need of fresh paint, something that the town of Harp’s Landing could afford and appeals to the state to have the bridge brought up to date or replaced had gone unheeded.
Midway on the bridge he stopped, raised the binoculars and stared at the bridge while talking to the engineer, Luke Jackson, on the walkie-talkie. A few minutes later, given the news that the dam would hold, he lowered the binoculars and put the walkie-talkie in its pouch. He turned to the west and waved his arms, signaling to Larry and his wife Rita who sat in their car at the end of the bridge that it was okay to cross. He then turned to the east and waved onto the bridge walkway the Alberti sisters. He then leaned against the bridge railing and watched the car slowly cross the bridge. It stopped and Larry leaned out the window.
“Did you talk to the council?” he asked Tom.
“Yeah, everything’s fine,” he replied. “They gave me a little upfront money to start you out.”
Larry turned, took his wife in his arms and hugged and kissed her.
“My, my, my,” Emeline said glancing over at the couple in the car as she and her sister reached the spot where Tom was standing.
“They’re celebrating,” Tom said.
And then the siren sounded. Its shrill cry reverberated throughout Sweetface Valley. Tom first turned to see the dam had burst. A wall of water poured through it. He then heard Josh’s motorcycle and turned to see him drive onto the bridge at breakneck speed. The boy leaned too far to the left and the motorcycle fell on its side, dumping Josh onto the bridge and then skid across the bridge. It became lodged under the front end of Larry’s car. Josh lay motionless on the bridge pavement.
In those last minutes before the water slammed into the bridge, Tom watched as Larry tried to get a shocked and screaming Rita out of the car, and then saw the sisters hugging each other.
And then the bridge and its occupants were washed away.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 630 short stories – new and reprints –published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.