A Wishology Storycoin
Family Relationships / Abuse / Conflict Resolution
Each breath inside the mill is a battle. Overhead, iron pulleys spin flour dust into every cubic inch of air, drying my eyes and choking my lungs. Every so often, my chest fights back with a violent coughing spell, and the outside air is my only reprieve.
Outside. Where trees gather by the river running alongside the mill to purify and rejuvenate the air, giving it a renewed purpose, restoring it to what it is meant to be. I would rather be doing the noble work of a tree, but that’s impossible. I’m just the mill’s squire, tending its wounds and fortifying its armor.
Here on the back deck, I can breathe freely, enjoying an aerial view of the mill’s massive wheel scooping water into its identical pockets and gently pouring them out as it rotates. Such a massive thing should make more noise, but it doesn’t. It silently turns, serving the mill without complaint. I wouldn’t make a good mill wheel.
I put my hands together and dip them into the trough that hangs over the wheel — my own pocket of water — and douse my face. The flour dust washes into the trough, but some of it forms a paste allowing tiny chunks to survive in my eyelashes and eyebrows. I’m used to it. The stuff never really comes off.
“Charlie! Get in here!” my father shouts from his front office.
Father has no trouble shouting with his booming voice. The same goes for whipping and his bulging biceps. I’ve never heard him whisper, so I assume he can’t. And he’s never whipped me softly either.
I take my deepest breath before heading inside, savoring the fresh air with my gluttonous lungs and reluctantly sending it back to the trees. I wish I could bring it with me. Keep it in a jar. Churn my nose through it, letting my nostrils scoop it up and gently pour it back into the world once I’ve had my fill. Maybe the wheel and I aren’t all that different.
I crash through the wall of mill’s stifling air as I run inside to my father’s office. He has never been a fan of overalls, but occasionally, he will dawn a pair—and nothing else—when he’s feeling particularly hung over. Today, he is wearing overalls.
“Yeah, I got it,” he says as he throws the phone receiver onto his desk.
He jumps up and pulls me out the front door by my ear, nearly ripping it off. He stops. I free myself from his grasp — he let me — and look up at him, but he’s looking up at the sky. I follow his gaze to the darkest cloud I have ever seen, as a gust of wind strikes us so violently I stumble backwards.
“That was Jerry on the phone!” His voice is almost lost in the roar of the wind. “This thing just started dumping an inch every five minutes up river! Go stop the wheel!”
Father runs toward our house to make whatever flood preparations he can. At an inch of rainfall every five minutes upstream, we don’t have much time before the river swells. A catastrophic flood has always been an unlikely possibility. There hasn’t been a serious flood in decades. I’ve heard stories of the strength of fast water and how it can topple a mill in minutes, but I never thought I would live to see one. If the stories are true, I may not.
The wind runs ahead of me into the mill, blasting a path through the offending air. On the back deck, I look down through the wheel’s spokes and see the river rising rapidly. A few raindrops slap me in the head and splat onto the wooden deck. One hits my glasses, but I don’t have time to wipe it off. I lift the latch that closes the wooden door on the trough, starving the thirsty wheel and bringing it to a full stop. This is the first time I’ve ever seen the wheel still.
As I run back to the front for further instructions, the storm’s torrent of rain begins to pummel the mill. I reach the front door but skid to a halt as I watch the river swell over its banks, slip the foundation right out from under our house and devour its crumbling remains.
It reminds me of the time I tried to pull the tablecloth out from under our dishes. Every dish shattered into pieces, and I received a merciless whipping with a thick rope—father’s favorite instructional tool. The water is no better at the tablecloth trick than I am, but it has my father’s temper.
My father… There is nothing I can do for him. I have only a few seconds before I become like the dishes.
I dash into the mill and leap onto a ladder just as a surge of water rushes underneath. The ladder vibrates from the pounding of the water’s angry fists as I scramble up it. Its nails begin to wriggle free of the wood’s grasp — a decades old union — and it collapses as I throw myself into the upper loft, smacking my chin on the wooden floor.
The hot air in the loft is still filled with dust, unaffected by the flood’s wrath. The mill is groaning underneath me—every joint, every bolt is fighting to live. I have hated this place, but now, I want nothing more than its survival. Our fates are intertwined.
My father’s voice echoes up into the loft, and I hear him coughing out water below. Instinctively, I grab an old rope that is lying on the floor. But I stop before reaching the edge of the hole where I entered and stare at the rope in my hands. I know this rope.
Trembling, I lay down and peek through a gap in the wooden slats of the loft floor. My father is losing his grip on the belt of one of the pulleys — which would be spinning out of control had I not stopped the big wheel.
“Charlie! Are you up there? Charlie!” he calls from where the ladder was.
My father’s face is expressing a terror I’ve felt many times—because of him. And for the first time, I realize we share the same dry eyes.
“Charlie!” he pleads once more as his head dips below the water.
What am I doing?
I start to cry.
He throws his head out of the rushing water with a huge gasp for air and reaches for the hopelessly distant opening. A board underneath me creaks, and he stops reaching. His eyes cut through the space between us, right through the wooden slats, until they meet mine.
Can he see me?
I slam my eyelids shut.
“Charlie?” my father asks, like it’s a question he knows the answer to.
I didn’t know he could speak that softly…
I can’t do this. I can’t deny him air. It is better to be like the trees than like the mill.
I leap to my feet, tie one end of the rope to a beam, and toss the other end through the opening. My father looks at me with relief and reaches for the rope, but before I can pull him up, the horrible sound of twisting metal reverberates throughout the building.
The screeching stops for a moment, and all I hear is running water. My father and I lock dry eyes, fearing what is about to happen.
The whole building tips to an angle as the screeching starts again. I am thrown to the ground where I roll to the other end of the loft and slam into the wall. Glancing out the window over my shoulder, I can see the old wheel being carried away by the river below—a trophy. But not its only kill.
I stagger uphill and back to the opening in the floor, but when I peer over the edge, I see only water. He’s gone.
“Charlie, it’s okay. Pull me up, son,” I hear a calm voice say.
Poking my head down through the opening, I follow the uncoiled rope to where my father is clinging to the end of it, bobbing about in the water’s current.
I pull him up through the opening and collapse to the floor with tears streaming down my face. My father walks behind me, and I expect I’m about to receive the worst beating of my life. But instead, I hear a noise almost like a zipper coming from the opening and see the rope disappear into the water below. Father let the rope drown.
Father kneels down and pulls me into his arms, rubbing my back as I cry there in his chest. He takes a deep breath, as if he has stepped onto a deck and found his fresh air, and I realize something wonderful — I make a pretty good tree.
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Featured illustration by Ryan Rehnborg