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Fear River

a short story

By Mackenzie DavisPublished 24 days ago Updated 24 days ago 7 min read
Photo Credit: Gary J. Wood, Flickr

From time to time, Old Annie could remember how she found the piece of that vintage telephone. How a creek running out from the swamp had washed it down, held crawdad hatchlings under an eddy, and then tumbled itself shiny along the bed.

Me, I’d heard the stories from my ma. There’s a shop in the backwoods of Folsom, some dingy salvage store offset from the asphalt. That’s where the mouthpiece was laying one sunny, mid-April day, up on a shelf Old Annie stored things to buy for her son. The store knew her as its favorite customer, in there nearly every day of the week. She could do what she wanted in there, ‘sides stealin’. I imagined her apple eyes sparkling at the sight of that piece, a sign from angels that it belonged to her.

Old Annie thought things like that.

‘Fore too long, she had shelves put up on her own walls, all four of ‘em, where she put those items for Beau. Coupons, vinegar, and bits of old things she thought were something special.

My ma knew Beau back when Old Annie was still Mrs. Annabell Young, all trim and rosy and never not measuring the spaces between furniture. She used to say she liked the idea of order; everything in its place. Mister Young liked to show us a wrinkled clipping of a sofa at West Elm. He’d pull it out from under papery onions and say Annie liked the idea of that too.

Truth was that Annie liked best the idea of fittin’ old things with the new. She made surprises out of the lived and used-up, beauty out of the faded and dry. Where animals and river water had left indelible marks on factory-made shapes, she polished up the imperfections and put ‘em on display. So when the piece of that old telephone came home, she put it smack dab in the middle of a dimpled copper pot and a spineless first edition of The Wizard of Oz.

“It should be easy,” she said once to Beau, “to dispose of the possessions kept in these rooms. There isn’t much I care about.” My ma heard the exchange when she was over helpin’ with her will.

“Okay, Ma. I’ll handle it all.”

“But don’t you touch those shelves ‘til I’m gone.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I have my spies, you know.”

“Oh mama, I’ll be seeing your spies even when you’re haunting this place,” he said with a smile.

“Mmph,” she’d grunt, but then pat his cheek. My ma always said Beau was the kindest man she ever knew, patient like a riverbed that needed to stretch.

When she first went to the Home, Annie made it clear to leave everything as it was. Decades of stocking up passed with the shelves having more time with them than Beau ever would. Yet, something about the waiting gave him a kindness behind his eyes that spread just to the edge of his brow. He understood something about her that Folsom didn’t, something like a regard for the everlasting. It was his kindness that helped when Old Annie couldn’t remember what day it was. It helped when she yelled in fear at her reflection. It helped when she forgot she ever had children.

Oftentimes, I sit by the creek behind the old salvage store and wonder what it might be like to travel by water, at complete mercy of the current. Takes so long for a creek to become a river, but maybe a pebble along the bed gets to find itself sooner. I imagine it’s something like what Old Annie was doing in the store, preserving all the joy so she could keep rolling along.

Toward the end, Old Annie liked the idea of moving around. Yet ma said she could never commit.

“That woman keeps making me get up,” she’d say. They’d be drawing up her will sippin’ coffee in her bedroom.

Ma would smile. “‘That woman’ is there to help you..”

“She makes me walk back and forth to the kitchen. I know where my damn kitchen is.”

“You need to move sometimes, Annie. Why not the kitchen?”

“I just wanna lie in my bed. I know where the damn kitchen is.”

Ma would roll her eyes, telling me. She can’t decide between being a dead ghost or an alive one.

I like to say she gave up thinking, it just took a while for her brain to realize it should stop. Or maybe she just forgot to remember after a time, too many ideas to linger in away from real life. Ma said she’d lay there in bed fiddling with a tape measure ‘til it got too heavy.

There was something about that telephone mouthpiece made me wonder if Old Annie had refused to answer a call. Beau still calls it one of her “restricted fragile materials.” It had been disconnected from its source, changed into a forgotten relic and grew ghostlier and ghostlier on its shelf. Restricted, like Beau, and I suspect not as kind.

“She never could see how much she kept locked away from me,” he said. My ma thought that meant she’d been cruel to him, but I don’t think so. I think Old Annie never let him be kind to her. That’s a kind of robbery to a son, a greedy sort. ‘Cause a wall ain’t cruel, it just is what it is.

When Beau finally got the contents of those shelves, he told my ma he had half a mind to toss it all in the dumpster in the driveway. He’d lived his whole life without them, after all. But that kindness on his brow was too well-worn to not investigate the decaying house and all of its maggots. And he did it with all the due care.

To get to my archives, my son will have to put his ear to the ground. My ma could never forget that part of Old Annie’s will. Said she must have been half-baked when she wrote it.

“What on earth did she mean?” she’d say. “It must be a riddle meant to drive Beau insane.”

See, the thing about Southern women when they get old is that they make everything precious. The very shoelace you need to throw out is the core of the town’s oldest folk story, the one told at all the crawfish boils. It’s history. That pebble. That piece of mama’s dresser, the dead dog’s water bowl. And a woman such as Old Annie, who feared the very water she drank if it was too deep, stockpiled the trash of others, strangers. She constructed a trove of stories only ghosts could truly know.

An archive.

Then she made herself a prisoner to it.

When Old Annie’s ghost came to me, I suddenly understood something about life. Must’ve been a year after her death and she was back in the Home, sippin’ her coffee in bed, late afternoon. Instead of ma, it was me there, and I couldn’t speak. She just said one thing: “How will I tell Beau that the river I feared to drink from has come to drink from me?”

She wished him well, kinda like she’d talk about a guardian angel, and that’s when I woke up. Old Annie had that effect on people.

I bet Beau did the very thing she laid out in her will. He put his ear to the ground. He heard the scream. He unlocked the groundwater, that river of fear, and listened to the lamentations. It’s not illegal to want to hold on. He listened to the praise, felt alive on his mama’s intangible lingering.

Now, if I know one thing about Old Annie — and this is somethin’ my ma never taught me — it’s that she knew nothin’ about antiques. When the mouthpiece of the telephone got washed down the creek, it was shaped like a short and squat funnel, black, and connected to a wire. ‘Course, all the traveling it did made it chipped and lesser, but it wasn’t a mouthpiece.

Old Annie had filled it with ignorant, endless chatter and you can guess what Beau could hear when he finally pressed to his ear. He knew all along what it was. As she faded into her bed, decrying her walks to the kitchen, she knew Beau would witness her hauntings.

My ma said Annabell Young loved the idea of praying in the water, floating upwards to the sky and talking to God. When they were putting together the will, she spoke often of water, moving water, how it healed the soul. How a creek running out from the swamp had washed that piece of the telephone down, held crawdad hatchlings under an eddy, and then tumbled itself shiny along the bed.

How she had been scared of the water ever since she put it on a shelf.

“How can someone so in love with compiling history be scared of a river?” my ma would say. “That’s ignoring the loudest voice in the world. Imagine what a river has lived through. Imagine what a river knows.”


They say that piece of the old telephone had broken off during a home demolition. The force from the wrecking ball had sent it flying into the creek and the rest of the machine was hauled away and taken to the dump. I’ve heard folk talk about the river as its final call, waiting for someone to answer.

Old Annie hung up before she realized it was for her.



Author’s Note

I based this story on this poem by Catherine Barnett. It’s called “Restricted Fragile Materials.”

This is for Randy Baker's Prompted #4 Challenge.

Short Story

About the Creator

Mackenzie Davis

“When you are describing a shape, or sound, or tint, don’t state the matter plainly, but put it in a hint. And learn to look at all things with a sort of mental squint.” Lewis Carroll

Find me elsewhere.

Copyright Mackenzie Davis.

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insight

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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Comments (8)

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  • Belle7 days ago

    This is amazing! The story is incredible. The content and the background is just astounding... Every time I read something of yours, I fall more in love with your writing. The personification of the river, the ambiguity and vagueness about Annie's fears and the telephone... it all leaves goosebumps!! Amazing!!!

  • Alexander McEvoy16 days ago

    Can't say I know the poem, but this was an awesome story, Mackenzie! Slow, but in a determined, measured, artistic way! It flowed in just the way that a river does on a nice summer day, gentle and steady and perfect to canoe down! Congrats on winning Randy's challenge!

  • JBaz22 days ago

    As I was reading I was trying to place the poem. The flow was exceptional, how you managed to tell a story yet behind every line was an untold secret. Congratulation

  • Heather Zieffle 23 days ago

    Lovely story, so well done! I love the southern vibe that you instilled in your story. A well deserved win, congrats!

  • Matthew Fromm23 days ago

    Ahh man well deserved win. I tip my cap to you!

  • Hannah Moore23 days ago

    This goes so perfectly with the poem. So much pathos.

  • D.K. Shepard23 days ago

    Wow! Masterfully done! You really brought the poem’s narrator to life in Old Annie

  • Joe O’Connor24 days ago

    This is so descriptive and beautiful. It really conjured up some great imagery for me!

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