Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Literary Orphans, The Molotov Cocktail, Barrelhouse, Yellow Chair Review, and Empty Sink Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmsarvis or come to Jacksonville and grab a beer.
Chelsea had always been fine in the head. She wasn’t prone to anxiety or existential crises, but she was a dedicated med student. She’d wanted to be a doctor since we were in high school and our aunt had throat cancer. Our aunt survived, but it was the chemo that seemed to get to Chelsea. She loved how it made you suffer before you recovered.
She was so dedicated to school work that she’d fall off the grid for weeks at a time. Shut her phone off, hit the books, and still work forty hours a week. I’d only hear from her if she showed up at my door because I lived walking distance from the bar. So when it came time to work with a cadaver and they pulled the sheet back on the third one, she thought she might’ve recognized it, but couldn’t be sure. She snapped a photo and later sent it out in a mass text to friends asking, anyone know who this is?
It turned out to be a local hero, Daniel Jeffries, a man that had fostered over a thousand different children in his lifetime. It wasn’t long until news traveled to a resident and then an attending, and Chelsea was called into an office where screenshots of the text message were spread out on the desk before her. She showed up at my house clutching a garbage bag of laundry. Clean or dirty it didn’t seem to make a difference. Her freckled nose appeared swollen and irritated by excessive wiping. “I’ve got board games and groceries,” I told her.
She pushed past me, up the stairs, into her old bedroom, and didn’t emerge for a full day.
It was about four o’clock the next afternoon when she did come out. I was at my drawing table, working on my semi-weekly strip for The Horseman. A publisher was interested in a collection, and while the strip was still young, I needed the money. Chelsea crept into the kitchen and asked “What kind of groceries?”
I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to tell her or show her. The pencil seemed to lay itself and I grabbed my cutting board and a roll of salami from my fridge. As I pulled the knife from the drawer and prepared to slice, Chelsea made a face, so I replaced the salami and grabbed a box of Frosted Flakes. It seemed less medical. I poured two bowls.
Cereal was our means of bonding, always had been. Television, radio station, or board games, the disagreements on Saturday mornings could be tempered by cereal. It was always Frosted Flakes. While a cartoonist and hesitant to commercialize, I’d always dreamed of designing a cereal box. It was something our father started when we moved south. As a single-parent, he struggled to unite us (I, specifically, was a problem), and only found success by accident. He lazily poured the cereal in a popcorn bowl, dropped three spoons in the thing, and to his surprise, my sister and I bought into it.
Chelsea played with her flakes, and gazed at my drawings that hung on the wall. I’d taken beer brands and drawn them into different animals. “Is that a Yuengling beaver?” she asked.
“Nutria,” and I pointed to the swarm of sixty or so nutrias snuggled on the lake shore. They didn’t scuffle, or fight, but crept and slept on top of each other. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my boat. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, considering, but it’s almost plague-like out there.”
“How do you visit Dad?”
In the middle of the lake was a small island that we called Goose Island; for the geese that used to sunbathe there, but also after our father’s favorite brewery of the same name. He’d grown up in Chicago, met our mother at the University of Illinois, raised us just outside the city and moved us to central Florida when they divorced. 312 Urban Wheat Ale was his favorite beer. For whatever reason, I hadn’t painted that one yet. He died years ago and the pain was no longer raw. We buried him on Goose Island, using two boats to barely row him over. “I don’t,” I told her.
We finished our cereal and sat together, isolated by our silence. I returned to the strip I was working on, and Chelsea stole a glance. “Getting a bit obsessive, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“When did your characters become rodents?”
“Don’t pretend like you read it.” It was an uninteresting piece of something. Comedy? Commentary? Hobbie-try? The general premise centered on two buddies’ theological disagreements. It produced a handful of hate mail and death threats, which was a sign of success if you asked certain celebrities, but I was nothing resembling a celebrity. Lately, my two human characters were furry, whiskered and rat-tailed, and I was worried the collection wouldn’t sell. The nutria haunted me in a way that had to be deliberate, the fucking swamp rats.
“What are these?” Chelsea asked. She picked up a stack of opened mail, all from the same government agency, a black and incomplete seal stamped in the top right corner.
“Fines. Someone ratted us out,” I said and motioned to Goose Island. “I guess there are rules about burying bodies. Sanitation or some shit.”
She unfolded one, skimmed it, widened her eyes, and set it back on the table. Her fingers ran through her hair and I could see she was already calculating. How much did she lose by getting kicked out of med school? What would it take it move him? Where would we move him?
“How much do you think the house is worth?” she asked.
“It wouldn’t be worth leaving him there,” I said. Goose Island was pointless if the house wasn’t ours, but that’s the way Chelsea worked. She wanted to fix things before weighing them.
Chelsea rose from the table. “Can we play a game? I want to leave, but there isn’t anywhere I would go.”
“Don’t you have an entire class you could call?”
“Very ‘Greek Life’ over there. When you’re in, you’re in. When you’re out, well…”
“What kind of game?”
“I don’t know.” She turned and placed her forehead on the wall. “Hide and seek seems a bit melodramatic, right?”
“What about Battleship? One-on-one. Simple.”
“No, too random. And a sinking ship is all sorts of morbid.”
I didn’t have any cards, so I slipped on my shoes and left for the Wawa.
Some of the nutria had ventured further than the shore of my backyard into the front, specifically around my mail box. There was nothing there waiting for them, yet there they sat, baring orange teeth as I walked by. They didn’t hiss or arch their backs. Actually, they ignored me completely, apathetic of our mutual proximity.
I wondered if I should grab more cereal, or coffee, or tea, but I also didn’t know what Chelsea liked. It was always Frosted Flakes and Pepsi. Sometimes, we’d go with Fruity Pebbles and Dr. Pepper, instead, for no reason at all. Now we were adults. We did adult things. I bought a couple of six packs of 312. It wasn’t my first choice, but the yellow label shone through the cooler door. Chicago’s skyline burned behind the beer’s name.
When I returned from Wawa, Chelsea was standing outside, tennis racket in hand.
“Black jack?” I asked.
“We should find the boat.”
“We’ll need more than this.” I grabbed the racket from her hand and tossed it to the side. A couple of nutria scurried away. We walked into the house. “Gin rummy?”
“Only if there’s actually gin.”
We played a few games, sipping the beer, and Chelsea dominated. In a game composed partially of luck and partially of logic, she was more equipped than me to succeed. She was calculated in a way that led her to medicine and I was distracted in a way that led me to drawing cartoons. Lately, I wondered if the financial strain was worth the freedom to doodle.
“This isn’t fun if you never win,” she said.
Our father had been pretty competitive with Chelsea, which was probably why she disappeared so quickly after his death. They were always playing and I was always elsewhere. In the same room, but elsewhere. Cleaning our house, I realized how much I’d actually missed over the years. Our carpet was a faded blue, the bathroom mats yellow. The wood floors weren’t actually wood and he’d painted “Go Cubbies” into the cushion of his recliner. The more things I discovered, the longer I stayed, and my pencil produced more strips. There was still plenty of house to uncover and I had infinite time to make up for.
There had been a few times in our childhood in which I could beat Chelsea in games of strategy. She may have been better at counting cards, but I was better at reading her poker face. Her freckles would grow bold as her cheeks flushed red. The wrinkle between her eyebrows rolled when she was flustered. When we played Risk, I’d always win the war, if only because I understood the sacrifice each piece was making. The dice were inconsequential in a game of imaginary life and death.
But that had been long ago, before Chelsea started med school, before our aunt’s rounds of chemo.
We filled our glasses again, and Chelsea looked outside often. Goose Island was wild; the grass several feet long, its one tree flaccid and without fight. It was usual for our father’s grave to be out of sight, but I could sense her fear that it’d disappeared. A fear that it’d been neglected for too long. She didn’t say anything, though.
The unspoken truth was that it probably had disappeared, dangling that close to sea level. His coffin more than likely sank through the bottom of the island and to the bottom of the lake. When we dug, we only made it about three and half feet deep before water seeped into the grave. Despite the callouses on our hands, the sharp ache in our arms from digging and dumping, the hole insisted on filling itself. I remember pondering fate, then suggesting the blankets on the boat we’d used as seat cushions, hoping they would soak the water up. Though it provided no confirmation, visitation was our only solace.
“We can’t smack them all with a tennis racket,” I said.
“Maybe we can light a fire? Scare them with torches?” She was already searching through my drawers, pulling out a lighter.
“We’d be better off soaking them in lighter fluid.”
“Do you have any?”
“How about we decide on dinner first?”
With little discussion, I ordered a pizza and disappeared to my bedroom to change my clothing. The end of baseball season was approaching and the Cubs were set to clinch a wild-card spot. Though our father didn’t teach us faith, he taught us superstition. He’d left me his Ernie Banks jersey and if I didn’t wear it all nine innings, I would struggle with sleep for a week, calculating playoff odds in my dreams. The Cubbies were my responsibility now.
The summer before I graduated high school, our father planned a two-week trip to Chicago. The itinerary included a visit to our grandparents’ graves, a Cubs-White Sox double-header, several pictures by the Bean, and dinner with our mother. Though his sickness was the motivation, he hadn’t disclosed that to us. The dinner with our mother was non-negotiable and eighteen, self-righteous, and stupid, I refused to go. He didn’t argue with me, but instead put pizza money in an envelope and left it in the fruit bowl. Infuriated by the ease with which they abandoned me, I didn’t bother watching the game on television. He passed in the bottom of the sixth of game two, the Cubbies down by one. Chelsea drove him home in a rental and we never talked about our mother.
As I buttoned my jersey, my blue cap ragged and cocked a little to the left, a lawnmower started up outside. A startling roar, considering it was almost eight now, and my neighbors lived a couple hundred feet away on each side. It wasn’t until I was flipping through my channels that I realized the sound was coming from my own backyard.
Outside, Chelsea stood with her hands on the mower, seeming to deliberate where to start. The nutria covered the majority of my yard, some had retreated closer to the water at the rumble of the mower, and I put my hand on her shoulder. “We don’t have to do this. We’ll find a way.”
She stared at Goose Island, squeezing the handle. “It’s different when not seeing people is my choice. You don’t miss them as much when there’s the option not to.” She started forward, pushing towards the river, and succeeded in scaring away the nutria. They squirmed and shuffled in an animated panic.
“You have me. I’m still a choice,” and I wasn’t sure if I said it or simply thought it because the only sound I heard was Chelsea’s roar to the backdrop of the motor. She pushed in no particular direction, leaving an awful pattern of high grass in my lawn.
The sun was setting behind us, behind the house, and the far end of the lake had already grown navy and active. Nutria entered the lake in waves, submerging themselves completely save for their snouts. They left ripples akin to those of toy boats. When it seemed all had entered the water, I noticed that the few left on the shore hadn’t budged because they were dead, squashed or suffocated by the other nutria around them.
My boat was visible now, and I was happy that I’d left it unturned, otherwise it would have become a nutria coffin. A mass rodent grave. Chelsea cut the motor and I flipped the boat over. It was a small thing, about eight feet long, with one oar and built for fishing. It was made of plywood, I think, painted blue with “Chelsea” engraved across the side in red. There was a second boat marked “Logan” after me, but it cracked under the weight of our father’s coffin and sank when I tried to row it back.
I pushed it closer to the shoreline and asked Chelsea if she wanted to go tonight.
She didn’t answer and I turned to find her standing over one of the nutria I’d thought to be dead. It lay on its side, tail flat on the grass, its webbed toes curled in a stubborn grasp for life. Every few seconds or so, its side would rise with breath.
“It isn’t dead, yet,” Chelsea said. She pushed the mower to the side and squatted closer to the nutria. It didn’t budge. “What do we do?”
“You’re the doctor,” I said.
Chelsea disappeared inside and I held the boat in place so it wouldn’t drift away. She returned with a towel, laid it next to the nutria, and flipping the towel over the nutria, wrapped it like a sleeping child. She cradled it in her arms and approached the boat. I wanted to ask what she was doing, but I didn’t think she would’ve told me, had she known or not. She stepped in the boat, sat on one end and balanced the towel on her lap. I told her to wait and ran inside, into my kitchen, where I grabbed one of the six-packs from the fridge and returned outside. I pushed the rest of the boat into the water and hopped into the other end.
“What’s with the beer?”
“What’s with the swamp rat?”
We drifted towards Goose Island, only using the oar to keep us on track. The sun was gone and the wild life awake. The few ducks left quacked out of sight and insects reverberated in the trees. Around us, nutria swam absently and steady, unafraid of our creeping vessel, which reeked of wet dog. Chelsea hugged the towel close. She closed her eyes. The water rocked the three of us.
“How are you going to save it?” I asked her, assuming most human medicine could be applied to animals. I pictured Chelsea laying the river rat on my ironing board, wearing my yellow dishwashing gloves, and blue bandana over her mouth. She’d take the knife I almost used earlier and make a long but shallow incision. “To relieve the pressure,” she’d say. “So it can properly heal,” or some shit like that. Then I’d draw it and hang it in her old bedroom.
“It never had a chance,” she said. The boat reached Goose Island. Chelsea’s end slid on to the shore.
“Then what are you doing?”
“I didn’t want it to die alone.”
The sentiment hurt me. I hadn’t considered it myself.
We hopped out of the boat and pulled it completely on shore. The island was incredibly small, maybe a hundred feet across. In the moonlight and through the high grass we found our father’s headstone. Chelsea carried the nutria with her as we approached his grave. A few nutria scampered to the other side of the island.
I set the six pack next to his head stone where a dozen of other packs sat uninterrupted. A few of the bottles were empty, caps lost in the wild, from the days I had cartoonists’ block. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been there so I opened a bottle on the end of the boat and poured some of the beer on the grave. Chelsea laughed as the soil fizzed below.
She held the nutria closer to her chest, her eyebrow wrinkle rolled. “I made a mistake even you couldn’t fix,” she said. “I’m glad you missed it.”
From Goose Island my lawn looked like an aftermath. Nutria returned and squirmed in groups. My television flashed through a window on the far side and I imagined the Cubs were winning, if only because we needed them to. There was a cartoon somewhere in all of this, I thought, but wouldn’t find it until later.
I turned back to the grave and Chelsea was on her knees. Nutria in one arm, she pulled earth away with the other. The roots popped as she ripped them from underneath. She clawed and tossed but made little progress.
“What are you doing?”
“If this is going to be a thing, then I have to know,” she said.
“It’s not like we’ll be able to carry him. We barely got him over here.”
But she kept digging. I offered to take the nutria from her, but she shook her head, and I found myself on my knees, clawing with both hands. The soil was moist in a lively way, and I expected worms and beetles to crawl from the dirt in my palms. Small waves splashed onto the shore of Goose Island. With each scoop, a panic reverberated within me. Subtle, then exponentially worse. An unintelligible desperation struck and I dug like a dying ground hog.
We were about a foot deep and Chelsea stopped. “It’s dead now.” She stood up, nutria still cradled in her arms, and walked softly to the boat. I dumped the dirt from my hands and joined her.
“Did it help?” I asked, my breath short, still exhausted from the stupid panic.
“It did this thing, where it reached for my shirt.” Chelsea grasped at the air in front of her.
“So that’s it?” I asked, and Chelsea took a seat inside the boat. I lingered by the grave, unnerved by the piles of dirt. I wanted to replace them, pat it all down and make it neat again.
“You’re fine, Logan,” she said, and beckoned me with her free hand. “Leave it.”
And I did. I pushed the boat back into the lake, hopped in and set us adrift once again. On opposite sides now, the moon illuminated Chelsea’s dry eyes. We were halfway to my yard when she asked me to wait a minute.
“I’ve got to let it go,” she said.
We rocked in place and water splashed inside. The flash of my television was brighter, the dank smell of the lake a little stronger. Chelsea leaned over the edge and rolled the dead nutria in the water. It splashed, and rolled and bobbed in the rippling lake.
As the body drifted away from us, the current of the lake shifted. Having swum with no structure or pattern before, many of the nutria now swam in a single direction, towards us as a singular unit. No particular formation, but together they approached the dead nutria floating by our boat, and the two at the head of the pack nudged the body forward with their snouts. Whiskers tickling the surface, they swam on, others close behind. They pushed, carrying the body around Goose Island and out of sight.
We drifted back to my yard to find the other dead nutria gone as well, seemingly removed by the others, and as we stepped out of the boat, the lake was empty and peaceful in a way I hadn’t known before.
“So that’s what it’s like,” Chelsea said.