Each bottle of Crystal Waters has a dangerous secret
|The White Water Whispers
Upstream from McCalister Point, some of Tanglewood, Kentucky’s rivals were milling around the river. A faded blue pickup was backed up to the stream at the boat ramp. The rusty tail gate was down and fifty cans of green dye filled the bed along with a couple of empty bottles of Jack Daniels. The three teens standing in the dented bed of the truck were laughing out loud. Two of them had to sit down to keep from falling out of the truck.
Darryl, the fat one, pried the lid of the first can of paint with his pocket knife. He spilled some on the truck bed before handing it to Leroy, the tall tanned farmer’s son who easily heaved the twenty pound can into the middle of the dark waters. The current rolled and swirled through the open can, turning the stream into an emerald bath.
The boys were cheering the tumbling can and laughing so loud that they did not hear the white van pull up behind them. The van’s tires cut into the soft ground and its various dents attracted the moonlight making the deformations in the metal gleam in the night. A man in khaki pants and a faded gray t-shirt stepped from the van and walked toward the boys. He tipped a plain water bottle to his lips, swallowing the contents. He tucked the bottle into the left cargo pocket of the shorts and straightened his faded Atlanta Braves cap.
“What are ya'll doin?” asked the stranger.
“We’re just having a little fun,” answered Darryl.
“Just take off, old man,” said Leroy. “There’ no fun for you here.”
“You call that fun? Can’t you hear the screaming?”
“What? Who’s screaming?”
“Her.” The man pointed toward the swirling emerald-tinged waters moving behind them.
“Uh, Ok, whatever, Dude,” said Leroy. “Just chill out. It’ll wash downstream.”
“Besides,” added Darryl. “Tanglewood stole our mascot last year.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing. You’re poisoning her.”
The man walked closer to the boys, passing the driver’s side of their truck. The boys steadied themselves on the side of the truck. Tommy tried to jump over the bed, but his drunken legs buckled beneath him, sending him sprawling across the rusty bed of the truck. He pushed himself up to his knees and wiped the paint from his face before challenging the stranger.
“Man, don’t make us hurt you.”
The man looked past them to the churning blackness. “Don’t worry; they won’t hurt you, ever again.”
The man reached through the open window of the truck and jerked hard on the gear shift. There was a screeching of metal as the gears ground from park into neutral. The truck lurched back a bit knocking the boys down into the bed of the truck. The truck then began rolling smoothly backwards toward the stream. They struggled to find their footing, but the bed was slick with spilled dye. The truck continued to roll and splashed hard into the water at the bottom of the boat ramp. Darryl was stunned by the impact and fell into the water, slipping beneath the surface. Leroy and Tommy scrambled toward the cab of the truck but got there too late. They were ten feet into the stream before the jumped over the side and into the water.
The current was not particularly strong, but the alcohol kept them from easily swimming to the bank. The cold water shocked them a bit and gave them enough clarity to paddle for shore. Tommy, the oldest one, was the stronger swimmer, but as he neared the shore, he was hit squarely in the face by a full can of dye. As the blood trickled from his broken nose, his swimming stroke deteriorated and he was drawn downstream. A second can whistled through the air and smashed into the side of his face, knocking him unconscious and pushing him beneath the swirling surface. Leroy tried to make it to the other shore, but his strength failed halfway and he started to slip into the current. The current picked up a bit at the rapids. His body tumbled over the rocks and his head crashed against a submerged boulder ending his struggle against the water.
“How could they not hear her? They never hear her screaming, Mama, but I do, don’t I? I always listen, my love.”
Downstream, three beer cans and a green ball cap with the Goliad Gators logo floated by.
Roger Wains never understood Willy’s inability to balance schoolwork with football. Roger had gone to college on a football scholarship and expected the same or better from Willy. But his son’s grades were closing more doors than they opened. Each day, Roger would come home and skim through the mail, looking for acceptance letters from college admissions offices. And every night, he would make Willy explain why the bigger schools weren’t knocking on his door.
The telephone rang. It was a reporter from the Tanglewood Puritan Press.
“Yes, ma’am. This is Roger Wains. That’s correct; I am the environmental consultant for Crystal Falls. No! What chemical leaks? I can assure you that our plant complies with all State and Federal conservation laws and our product is as environment-friendly as any in the area. No, not at all. Why would I have a problem with an investigation? In fact, I welcome an inquiry so that these types of accusations and lies will go away. No, I have not heard from the County Commissioners. Like I said, I welcome any investigation since it will ultimately discover a true culprit and exonerate Crystal Falls Bottled Water. No, thank you.”
He clicked off the phone and laid it on the kitchen table. His wife and Willy were still putting preparing food at the counter. Roger still had a few moments before dinner.
“I’ll be in my office. I have a few calls to make.”
Roger’s cell phone chirped. He flipped it open. Hal Thompson’s name blinked on the caller ID.
“What is it, Hal? No, they can’t do this to me! Stop telling me to relax. The Sheriff scooped three kids from the river, just downstream from our plant, and you want me to relax? I know it’s not related, but either way, we don’t want anyone poking around here. I testified before the County Commissioners that the problem had been solved. If they test the waters, we’re sunk. I need this to go away.”
The voice on the other end of the line crackled back at him.
“I’m sorry; Mr. Wains, but I can’t just fix it. You authorized the downsizing of the filters and seals. I can’t simply fit new ones. I warned you about this last summer and you told me to stop worrying. I believe you said the changes would be a ‘deal-breaker’, something about an unacceptable one-half percent increase in operating costs.”
“Don’t pin this on me. You’re in it, too, Hal. I seem to remember you having a slice of this sale Five hundred grand I think?” Roger measured his tone and calmed himself down a bit. “Look, it’ll take them a week to get their team together. Do whatever it takes. Show them the reports. That’s why we paid the scientists. Use them.”
“Are you asking me to lie to the County Commissioners and the EPA? I don’t think I can do that. “
“No, just show them how we are meeting the requirements.”
“Um…Ok, Roger. I’ll work it out.”
The next day brought a flurry of activity to Roger Wain’s office. Hal Thompson was scurrying around talking to attorney’s and environmentalists and a whole collection of “experts” that were handpicked to help clean up their problem.
Roger Wains was tucked in his office, phoning in any favors he could collect. His secretary came into his office and delivered a small envelope.
“Mr. Wains, you have a letter.”
“Just send them a form response,” he said flipping the letter back at her. “I’m too busy for fan mail.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but this isn’t exactly a regular fan letter. It’s from an employee of sorts, a delivery driver. He seems concerned about the plant.”
“Great, another homegrown environmentalist. Let me see it. And find whatever you can on his background.”
Roger spun in his chair and snatched the letter back from his secretary’s hand. He slid a fingernail along the edge of the envelope and pulled out a folded sheet of yellow legal paper. He unfolded one flap before snapping it open:
“Mister Wains. I don’ like what you doin’ to the river. She’s in pain from your plant. She can’t take much more. You gotta stop before it’s too late. Horace Tuoman.”
“Who the hell is Horace Tuoman? Send him a letter telling him to get a life.”
“He’s one of your delivery truck drivers.”
“Even better. Tell him to get a life or he’s fired. Whichever sounds better.”
“I believe you can tell him yourself. You have a guest.”
Roger’s secretary looked back at the door. A tall, thin man was standing there. He wore khaki pants and a white jacket marking him as an employee of Crystal Falls Bottled Water.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Roger.
“I’m Horace Tuoman, Sir. I driver route six through Peaksgill. Pleased to meet you, Sir.”
Horace never looked up or made eye contact. He carried a half-empty bottle of cloudy water in his left hand and meekly held out his right. Roger gripped Horace’s hand in a vice grip, squeezing until the thin man’s hand cracked under the strain. Horace tried no to wince, but Roger could tell he had made his point.
“Have a seat.” Roger gestured toward the big leather chair in front of the oversized desk. Horace sunk into the soft cushions of the chair, still looking down trying to recapture his thoughts. He sipped from the water bottle, wiping the wetness on his lips on his shirt sleeve.
“What can I help you with?”
“The river, Sir. She’s dying.”
“Is that so?”
“The plant. It takes the water from her, draining her. And then the waste you give back chokes her, it poisons her.”
“My, aren’t you the plucky young environmentalist? I appreciate your concern, but the EPA has signed off on the plant, so I’m not really worried about it.”
“But, she’s suffocating. You’re gonna kill her.”
“Here’s a flyer,” said Roger, handing Horace a glossy tri-fold brochure detailing the plant’s environmental successes and awards.
“I don’t need a flyer to see what you’re doing.”
Roger’s secretary returned and slipped a piece of paper on his desk. He excused himself from Horace and quickly read the one page document.
“You can’t keep doing what you’re doing,” continued Horace.
“I’ll take that into consideration. Say, I remember you. Your mother used to be a river guide didn’t she?”
“You know, I remember a kid’s story that river guides like your mother can talk to the river, read the emotion of the water as it ebbs and recedes. Any truth to that?”
Horace took a long draw from his water bottle, emptying it.
“Yes sir, sometimes.
“And what does the river say?”
“She says that you are killing her, just like I said. She asks me to do something. To save her.”
“That’s an admirable goal. You must get it from your mama. I seem to remember she was a popular guide for the tourists, at least until the accident. What was it the coroner said? Oh yes, a drunken boating accident. A terrible shame, it was. I heard your father didn’t take it so well. I’m sure losing the business and the trailer was rough. Ran off with some lady from Atlanta, leaving you a ward of the state? Terrible times, I’m sure, but you seem to be doing OK. And it looks like my company gave you a job and everything.”
“I’m obliged for the kindness, but that’s not why I’m here.”
“Oh yes, you’re here to tell my company to change our policies.”
“And I’m supposed to base my business decisions on the opinions of the retarded son of a crazy lunatic raft-rider whose own father skipped town. Oh yes, and your communications with a body of water? Is that it? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Listen, Horace. We are a simple company. We take water from the river, sterilize it and purify it with a FDA-approved procedure that’s been working for nearly fifty years. That’s it.”
“But the chemicals, sir. They’re poisoning the water when you dump the waste back into the river. There’s supposed to be life in a river and your chemicals suck that life dry. The things you call ‘impurities’ are what keeps the fish and plants growing. You’re cleaning the water by killing the river.”
“Have you talked to the press or anyone else about this?”
“I figured you’d listen to me. I hoped could settle it ourselves.”
“Good thinking.” Roger stood up from his chair and walked around in front of Horace. He sat on the edge of his desk and leaned forward, his head a few inches from Horace’s. “Listen here, you river-loving freak, how dare you come in here preaching to me while dragging moss over my carpet and dripping brown water on my floor. I know all about you. The weird trailer out by the boat ramp, the little hikes up and down the river bed. Unless you want to see that disappear, I suggest you go back to delivering water, paddling the occasional tourist around and leave the business end of the river to me.”
Horace’s eyes rolled up to meet Roger’s
“Water’s a funny thing, Mr. Wains. Too little and a man’ll die. Too much and a man’ll die. There’s got to be balance. Mama said ‘be good to the river and it’ll be good to you’”.
“And you’re mama’s dead, so thanks for the advice. Now get the hell out of my office!”
Horace slowly rose out of the chair and walked toward the door. He kept his head down and avoided eye contact with anyone and slowly climbed into his van in the parking lot. He grabbed a lukewarm water bottle from the back of the van and nursed it, relishing the reassuring taste. He pushed play on his cassette player. The van was filled with the jostling sounds of the river’s rapids. The sound had been dubbed several times over to create a thick white noise. Horace tilted his seat back and closed his eyes.
“I tried, but he won’t listen. We don’t have any other choice, mama. I guess you’re right. Maybe if he’s gone, someone else will listen.”
Back in town, Roger had managed to get away from the office and made it home early for a quick swim. He tossed his keys and briefcase onto the kitchen table and dashed towards the back door.
“What a day. Honey, I’m going out to the pool.”
Roger’s body glided through the water before slowly rising to the surface and beginning an easy stroke, cutting easily across the water. His arms and legs moved in familiar patterns. One stroke with his right arm, then one with his left. Then a third, then breathe. He kept a steady tempo and began churning out laps. A typical workout lasted about thirty minutes for 40 laps. Today’s workout would be harder. He was stressed out and knew it, so he needed to punish his body a bit. This was a habit he had learned in college and it always worked. Punish the body for the sins of the mind. It was cleansing and gave him something to focus on other than the tremendous pressures of work.
Today’s effort seemed a bit harder than usual. His breathing seemed shorter and the lactic acid building in his arms seemed a bit more bothersome. He held his hands out in front of him and glided for a bit before rolling over to his back to take a few backstrokes to catch his breath.
He rolled back over and decided to swim for the edge of the pool. His arms felt heavy, barely cutting through the water. They slowed and then stopped, no longer responding to him. His legs also stopped. He tried to roll over, but his body was no longer his own. He drifted forward and slowly began to sink, his head scraping the rough bottom of the pool. He was merely a guest watching as his body slowly came to a stop. He wanted to cry out, but his body would not. Water slipped past his opened mouth and into his lungs. He felt pressure building in his lungs. Bubbles erupted from his mouth and fought their way to the surface, no longer carrying the oxygen he needed to survive. His eyes now failed him and he could only stare ahead, hoping for help that he could no longer call for. Blackness seeped into the pool around him. Slowly, steadily, it spread toward him like ink spilled in a puddle. It rolled with the gentle current of the water and swept over him, taking him away with it.
Above the surface, Horace Tuoman stepped from behind the pool’s filter. He tucked a tiny vial into his front pants pocket and casually walked toward the back fence.
Behind him, a loud scream came from Roger’s Wains’s house. A loud splash preceded a series of splashes that Horace guessed were the frantic efforts of Roger’s family to rescue him. Horace stopped to look through the wrought iron gate at the screams behind him. His eyes locked on the young boy desperately dragging his father from the pool. He stared into the faces of the family he had hurt, feeling the grin on his face spread into a wide smile. But that stare was long enough for Willy Wains to lock onto Horace.
“Hey, man, help me. My father needs help.”
Horace froze, unable to respond.
“Please, man. I can’t do this alone.”
Horace lowered his eyes and looked at his hands. He slid his hands into his pockets and darted out of the yard. A few miles later, Horace tossed the vial into the passenger seat of his white van. The vial came to rest on a yellowed map of the Crystal Falls plant. A red line traced the river as if passed near the plant and a red “X” marked the center point of the levy that kept the river’s waters at bay.
Horace made his final deliveries for the day and slowly drove toward the eastern edge of the levy. Behind him, a red mustang slowly rounded the turn toward Horace’s van. Horace was already out of his car when the mustang approached. Willy Wains stepped out of the car.
“It was you wasn’t it. You killed my father.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know about Hal Thompson. The police saw your truck leaving my house this afternoon. My father’s in ICU and I pulled some strings to find out the rest of your deliveries and followed you here.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“You tried to kill my father.”
“I had no choice. He’d die either way.”
In a flash, Willy grabbed Horace by his lapels, lifting him off the ground.
“You’re gonna die today. And I’m going to do it piece by piece. With my bare hands.”
“Willy, we’re both orphans, now.” Horace’s reply dripped with familiarity, as if he was welcoming an old friend he had been expecting.
Willy lifted Horace up and slammed Horace against the hood of the mustang, denting it. Willy lifted Horace again, his feet brushing the ground as they dangled beneath him. Their faces were only inches apart and they could smell each other’s breath. Horace calmly slid his hand up his body and pulled the zipper on the front of his white Crystal Falls jacket. It fell open to reveal a double band of dynamite strapped to Horace’s chest.
The red shafts caught Willy’s attention and he released his grip, Horace’s body crumpling to the ground under his own weight.
“You shouldn’t have come here, Willy. I liked you. I really did.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just cleaning up your father’s mess.” He gestured toward the tiny plunger dangling near his right hip. “I press this trigger, wait ten seconds, then boom. I figure if I’m standing over the center of the levy, the blast’ll punch a hole through the levy and flood the plant.”
“But….it’ll also flood the town. What about them?”
“They had their chance before the plant was built. Besides, future generations will talk about this and what we do here today.”
Horace grabbed the plunger and draped his thumb over the trigger. Willy looked at the apparatus draped over Horace’s body. There were no lights, no magic wire to cut, no off button. Horace simply smiled back at him.
“Goodbye, Willy.” Horace turned his back on Willy. “They’ll remember this day forever. Mama, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to listen to your call. It’ll be OK in a moment. Just another moment.”
Willy was running out of options. “Ten seconds”, he remembered. Then he saw it. The solution. Right in front of Horace.
Willy took two steps and emptied Horace’s lung with a violent forearm across the chest. Willy extended his coiled arms and drove Horace forward, arms flailing as he flew forwards. Willy launched himself into Horace, driving his legs beneath them as they flew over the edge.
There was no scream as Horace fell into the river. He slammed into a rock hidden beneath the surface. The rushing water swirled around him, drowning out his final words. Willy grabbed on to a rock just below the surface and held on for dear life, cutting his fingers on the jagged rock. Despite the raging current, he held fast.
Fateful seconds later a terrible thunder erupted twenty feet downriver. A fountain of water, spray and debris flew from the water. The explosion was loud enough to draw the attention of the river patrol. Within ten minutes, they had fished Willy out of the water. The shore line was chewed up by the power of the blast but the levy held. It was damaged and would need immediate repairs, but it survived.
Despite the damage to the levy, the newspapers reported that the explosion was from a trapped pocket of natural gas. There was mention of a swimming accident at Roger Wains’ house and an industrial accident at one of the pumps.
There was no further word on Horace Tuoman, no obituaries, no missing person reports. The van was later reported stolen from a distributor near Edelburg, the delivery driver apparently murdered and left in a shallow grave in the mountains.
*** EPILOGUE ****
One month later, a doorbell rang at 1802 Sherman St. Sally Henderson, wrapped in a newly knitted shawl, shuffled to the door. She peeked through the peephole, but there was no one there. She opened the door and found a flyer hung on her doorknob:
“Crystal Waters wants to be your water distributor. We harness the power of a spring-fed river and deliver it directly to your house. There’s probably a delivery truck on your street already.”