Greg Herren, a contributor to and the editor for the Anthony Award-nominated BLOOD ON THE BAYOU: BOUCHERCON ANTHOLOGY 2016 (Down & Out Books), was recently honored with a Macavity Award nomination for his short story “Survivor’s Guilt”, which appeared in the anthology. (The winners of the 2017 Macavity Awards will be announced at the opening ceremonies of Bouchercon in Toronto on Thursday, October 12, 2017.)
We are pleased to reprint “Survivor’s Guilt” here, with his permission.
I’m going to die on this stupid roof.
It wasn’t the first time the thought had run through his mind in the—how long had it been, anyway? Days? Weeks?—however long it had been since he’d climbed up there. It didn’t matter how long it really had been, all that mattered was it felt like it had been an eternity. He’d run out of bottled water—when? Yesterday? Two days ago? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was he was thirsty and hot and he now knew how a lobster felt when dropped in boiling water, how it felt to be boiled or scalded or burned to death.
He was out of water.
Not that the last bottles of water had been much help anyway.
In the hot oven that used to be the attic of the single shotgun house he’d called home for almost twenty years, the water inside the bottles had gotten so damned hot he could have made coffee with it and it tasted like melted plastic, was probably toxic, poisonous in some way. Wasn’t plastic bad for you? He seemed to remember reading that somewhere or hearing it on the television a million years ago when his house wasn’t underwater and there was still air conditioning and cold beer in the fridge instead of this…this purgatory of hot sun and stagnant water and sweat-soaked clothes.
But drinking hot water that tasted like plastic and was probably, maybe, poisonous—that was better than dying of thirst on the hot tiles of this stupid stinking roof. He’d tried to conserve it, space it out, save it, trying to make it last as long as possible because he had no idea when rescue was coming.
If it ever came at all.
He’d been on the roof so long already—how long had it been?
Days? Weeks? Months?
Should have left, should have listened to her, should have put everything we could in the truck and headed west.
But they’d never gone before, never fled before an oncoming storm, laughed at those who panicked and packed up and ran away, paying hotels and motels way too much money for days on end.
Hadn’t the storms had always turned to the east at the last minute, coming ashore somewhere to the east, and New Orleans breathed another sigh of relief at dodging another bullet while saying a prayer at the same time for those getting hammered by high winds and storm surges and power outages and downed trees?
Hell, that last time the storm had gone up into Mississippi and the highways south had been damaged and blocked, keeping people who’d gone that way marooned for well over a week.
So, no, there wasn’t no need to go this time, either, because Katrina would surely turn east like so many before her had.
Stupid, so damned stupid.
He could be in a hotel room in Houston at this very moment, basking in the air conditioning, drinking lots of ice-cold water, waiting for the water to recede and come home, see what survived, see what could be saved and what couldn’t.
He’d sell his soul for an ice cube.
But when rescue came, he’d have to explain…
No, no need to think about that now.
If—no, when—rescue came, he’d deal with it then.
The sun, oh God, the sun.
He’d never been this hot in his life before, at least not that he could remember.
The closest was at the beach in summertime, but there was always something cold to drink, the warm gulf waters to plunge into for some relief.
He felt like he was broiling inside his own skin.
Sometimes when it became too much he’d slip back down inside the attic. The oven. The air down there so thick and humid and hot and dusty he could barely breathe, but at least he was out of the sun. The air was barely breathable, clinging to his skin, so thick and wet he felt sometimes like he was drowning,
Every so often the wind would come, blowing through the vents at either end of the attic, and it felt so good he felt like crying.
But he couldn’t stay down there for long. He had to stay out on the roof, in case rescuers came. He couldn’t take a chance on missing them.
If someone came for him.
Don’t think that. Someone had to come, rescuers will come. If I don’t believe that I’ll lose my damned mind.
Maybe it’s divine punishment for—
Yet another helicopter flew past overhead, the latest of many. He’d stopped waving and yelling and jumping up and down when they passed overhead, like he wasn’t even there. His throat was so sore from yelling he could barely make a sound anyway. They never stopped, but he knew—he knew they were rescuing people. They had to be. What else was the point to the big basket hanging from the underside of the helicopter, if not for lowering down to people stranded up on roofs like he was?
He just had to be patient. It would be his turn eventually.
He just had to stay alive until it was his turn.
The whole city was probably underwater for all he knew.
At least it was for as far as he could see, shimmering filthy water everywhere.
Should have left, should have listened.
One of them would—had to—stop for him, before he died.
Meantime, roasting, baking, frying, dying in the late August sun, or was it September now?
Every once in a while he heard a boat motor passing close by. He didn’t bother making noise anymore when he heard those, either. There wasn’t any point. They hadn’t heard him when he could still yell. Back when he could still yell, whenever that was. However long it had been.
They never heard him. They never came.
His throat hurt so badly from all the yelling he’d done when his throat could still make a sound other than a hoarse rasp he might have damaged his vocal chords. He might never be able to talk again.
Which wouldn’t matter, anyway.
If I never get off this roof.
He picked up the wine bottle again, poured the last swallow of hot red wine into his mouth. Alcohol dehydrated the body, he knew that, remembered that from somewhere. But some liquid was better than no liquid.
The sour hot wine hit his empty stomach. He hadn’t eaten, hadn’t had anything to eat in—it felt like an eternity. He’d passed the point of being hungry.
But he worried that since all that was left was hot wine, he might make himself sick.
If he started throwing up he might just throw himself off the roof and drown himself.
It was tempting to think about. The thought came now and then, when he was so hot he could barely stand it, when his skin hurt so bad, blistered from sunburn that he climbed down into the stiflingly hot attic and wept, but was too dehydrated for tears to form. That was when he thought about drowning himself, diving through the trap door into the water and drowning himself.
Joining her down there.
Then he would get back to his right mind and open another bottle of wine and sip it slowly.
He looked at the empty bottle in his hands, and tossed it off the end of the roof.
It splashed when it hit the water.
It was the last of the wine. All that was left now was hard liquor—a bottle of hot gin and a bottle of hot cheap tequila.
He hadn’t wanted to touch the liquor, so he saved it for when there was nothing else left. Every time he took a swig of the wine he got light-headed, so there was no telling what the liquor would do, on his empty stomach and dehydrated body.
He wasn’t even hydrated enough to sweat anymore. He hadn’t had to relieve himself since—weeks ago? It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Time didn’t matter anymore, it was all one endless nightmare of heat and humidity and the sun, oh God, the sun.
Water, water, everywhere—but not a drop to drink.
No one was ever going to come.
I can’t believe I’m going to die on this stupid roof. I should just kill myself and get it over with.
No, someone will come.
Someone had to come.
Should have left, should have listened.
The sun was setting in the west in an explosion of oranges and reds reflecting off the stagnant, dark, oily water. The roof of his truck was still slightly visible when he looked down over the side of the roof, its white roof almost glowing through the filthy water. Paid for, finally, years of paying off that damned loan finally came to an end just a month ago, the pink slip arriving in the mail last week. And now it was drowned, just like the city and God knows how many people. Ruined, gone, the money he put into it wasted. He’d babied it, too—oil change every three months without fail, servicing it before it was needed, the fucking thing so well taken care of it would have lasted easily another five to ten years if he kept babying it.
It doesn’t matter anyway. Everything’s ruined. The city’s dead. We’ll never come back from this.
Thank God the old house had an attic—yes, thank God for that—the kind with a trap door with a long dangling chord that hung down in a corner of the bedroom. You pulled the chord, the door came down, and a wooden ladder unfolded. He’d left the door open when he came up, when the water came, as the house filled up, left it open thinking it might help when rescue came.
If rescue ever came.
Even though she was down there.
Someone will come, he told himself again, someone will come for me.
Someone has to.
If he didn’t believe rescue would come, he would lose his mind.
If he didn’t believe someone would come, there wasn’t any point in going on, to this suffering, to this agony of broiled skin and dehydration and starvation and air so thick he could barely breathe it, the stink of the wet wood rotting down below.
And despite the delirium, despite the agony, somehow—somehow he wasn’t ready to give up.
If he gave up now, the suffering of the days? Weeks? Months? Was for nothing.
But it would be so much easier to give up. Then I wouldn’t be thirsty anymore. Then I wouldn’t be hungry anymore.
If he stopped believing one of the helicopters would lower a basket for him, or a boat might come by to take him to safety, to whatever might still be out there, away from the water, he might as well kill himself now.
There was a rope coiled in a corner of the attic. He could tie a noose and find something, somewhere, on the roof or in the attic, to loop it around and just let his weight fall, his neck snapping, death coming quickly and easily.
That would be so much better than this slow, horrible death from heat exhaustion and dehydration on the roof.
But the sun was going down at last, and night was coming.
He’d survived another day.
It would still be hot, and humid, and the smell of the water wouldn’t go away, but the night was better.
Now he had to just survive another night.
He could still see the skyline of the business district in the distance in the darkening sky. There were no lights anywhere. Thick black plumes of smoke billowed in several places he could see, but there hadn’t been an explosion in a while.
Or gunfire. He hadn’t heard gunfire in a while.
Night wouldn’t relieve the relentless humidity, but at least being out of direct sunlight would be better, give his blistering and salt-crusted skin some relief.
There might even be a breeze.
And he could stay out on the roof, not have to climb down inside to get away from the vicious rays of the sun.
No air moved in the attic, the heavy wet air almost suffocating in its thickness.
He could smell his own stink, and sometimes imagined he could even smell his flesh frying in the hot sun. His skin was burned, red, raw, but he couldn’t breathe the fetid stale dead air in the hot attic all day. A cold shower to bring his skin temperature down was all he could think about, or packing himself in a tub of ice. That wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
Ice. The thought of it made him want to weep.
Should have left. Should have listened.
She’d been right.
“We need to go,” she’d said on Saturday, whenever that had been, however long ago that had been. She’d never been afraid of storms before, never wanted to leave. This unease, this nervousness, was something new, something he’d never seen before in her. There had been storms before when he’d wanted to go, and she’d laughed in his face, mocked him, and they hadn’t gone. She’d been right those times.
He had liked that she was afraid of this one, that it made her nervous. She seemed off-balance, for once, not sure of herself.
“It won’t come this way, you know they always turn east before land fall,” he’d replied, dismissing and laughing at her, shutting her down every time she watched another emergency news conference, or when The Weather Channel ran another worst-case scenario for the city, as everyone began packing up and heading west for Houston, north for Jackson, and the city began to empty out. He had mocked her panic, her nervousness, enjoying this new side of her he’d never seen before, and was determined to take advantage of it as long as it lasted. He’d sent her to the store for supplies. Batteries and bread and bottled water and peanut butter and protein bars and hell, might as well get some liquor, too.
Liquor never went to waste, after all, and it didn’t spoil.
She’d came home hours later, complaining about how crazy the Walmart had been, everyone talking about evacuating and the city being destroyed, whining the way she always did when she didn’t get her way.
“You know they say that every time,” he’d replied, sure of himself, smug he’d held firm and not given in, cracking open a beer and flipping away from The Weather Channel with its constant predictions of doom and aerial views of the traffic snarl on the highways out of town. He had found a baseball game and relaxed in his easy chair.
Probably no work on Monday, he’d thought as she clattered around in the kitchen angrily, muttering to herself, so might as well kick back and have a nice little mini-vacation.
Some mini-vacation this had turned out to be.
The sun usually set around nine in the late summer, didn’t it?
His watch was down on the first floor, under the water. The power had been off before the nasty filthy dirty murdering water had started filling up the house, drowning everything as far as the eye could see. Days, time, had all lost all meaning for him. The only thing that mattered was night or day. He didn’t sleep well—could anyone under the heavy hot wet blanket of humidity?
He didn’t really care anymore. Nothing really mattered other than the sun was going down and his skin would have some blessed relief.
And he would hear her again, whispering.
We need to go, Mike. We can’t stay here.
Every time the sun went down. Every time it got dark.
It’s a big storm. At least the power will go out and do you want to be here without the A/C?
Sometimes he thought he might just be going insane.
If he wasn’t already, that was.
He wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
We can stay with my sister in Houston, we don’t even have to pay for a motel, Mike, can’t we go, please?
The water lapped against the side of the house.
Water, water, everywhere.
Through the attic door into the downstairs, he could see things floating when he looked. Furniture, books, cushions, once even the dresser was there.
He hadn’t seen her down there in a while.
He was always afraid he’d look down and see her face, floating just below the surface, her eyes staring at him.
Should have closed her eyes.
He wasn’t sure where she was and he didn’t care.
Sometimes he would see her, walking on the surface of the oily water, pointing her finger at him, complaining, whispering, we should have left, I wanted to go, this is all your fault, you know, like everything is always your fault you can never do anything right this is why I never listened to you…
And he would wake from his fevered sleep, shivering even though it was so hot, even though the air was so damp and heavy and warm it just pressed down on him until he thought his bones might break.
His lips were so damned chapped. His skin was red and hurt, blisters here and there on the peeling baked skin. He wanted water to drink, something to eat besides chips and crackers and peanut butter and bread. He wanted off the roof. He wanted a bed. He wanted to be away from New Orleans, it didn’t matter where as long as it was far away from the drowned city. Sometimes he wondered if the entire world was under water, that it wasn’t just New Orleans that drowned.
Someone would come, he knew it. He just had to hold on, stay alive no matter how horrible it got. He wouldn’t die on the damned roof of the house he’d never liked in the first fucking place.
She’d wanted the house. Once she saw it when they were driving around looking, this was the house she wanted, even though it was on the wrong side of the Industrial Canal, even though it was in the 9th Ward. “It spoke to me,” she’d insisted, “and it’s cheap! We can fix it up ourselves. It’ll be perfect!”
He’d given into her, even though he didn’t want to live down here. She was right about the price—it was less than they’d been thinking they’d spend, and the monthly mortgage payments were a lot more affordable than any of the other houses they’d looked at. It wasn’t until later, when they’d moved in, that it even occurred to him that it was the only place they’d looked at in the 9th Ward. When he brought it up to her, she’d admitted she’d found it on her own and fell in love with it, colluded with the real estate agent to get him to see it.
They’d worked on him until he’d given in.
It wasn’t the last time she’d gotten her way.
We need to go, Mike. It won’t be safe here. I’m scared.
She always got her way, didn’t she?
Not this last time.
Which was why he was up on the roof. Because just once he didn’t want her to get her way, wanted to stand up for himself and not give in for once, put his foot down for good and mean it.
So, really, in a way, it was her fault.
And if someone did finally come, if someone ever did come to rescue him, he was never coming back to this godforsaken place.
Because she would be here, waiting for him. She would never leave him alone, not as long as he was here, even if the house was bulldozed and he built a new one.
Mike, we have to go, it’s scary, it’s a big storm, we’ve got to go.
He lowered himself back down through the hole in the roof, carefully avoiding the jagged edges of the beams he’d hacked through with the ax to make the hole in the roof, so he could get out there, out of that suffocating attic, away from the rising water. He switched on the flashlight, looking for the liquor, and saw there was actually another bottle of the red wine after all—it had rolled off to the side, and he hadn’t noticed before. There was no need to switch to tequila just yet. He fought with the corkscrew, chewing the cork up, little flakes floating down into the wine but he didn’t care, he could always spit them out, and took a slug out from it. The sourness made him wince but it was wet, and that was all that mattered.
He heard a splash.
That wasn’t from outside.
The trapdoor to the lower level was open, a large rectangle of dark with the long shadows creeping across the floor.
He took a deep breath and backed away, not losing his sweaty grip on the green bottle. He’d closed it before he went back out on the roof, hadn’t he?
He couldn’t remember.
Hadn’t he decided to close it, in case he saw her down there in the water again?
He could hear his heart beating.
He focused on keeping his breathing even, taking deep breaths, ignoring the rising fear creeping up his spine.
I just forgot to close it, is all, I meant to close it but maybe it didn’t latch, that’s all there is to it, just close it now. She couldn’t have gotten up here. I’d have heard her.
She’s dead, you idiot.
But that wouldn’t stop her, would it?
Just close the damned door. All that’s down there is water. You’re making yourself crazy. She’s dead, dead, dead. Just close the door and you won’t have to worry about her.
But he couldn’t move, wouldn’t move, he kept standing there and staring and trying to remember if he’d closed it or not. He would swear that he did, but he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. The heat, the humidity, the damned bugs and the sun and the monotony, the way everything kept changing in his mind, the way he couldn’t remember how long he’d been up on the damned roof, how long it had been since the water rose, since he’d climbed up the damned ladder to the attic, since he’d taken the hatchet and chopped his way out to the roof.
The shadows were getting longer. Soon it would be completely dark.
Mike, we have to go really, it’s a big storm and what will happen to us if the levees fail?
“Shut up shut up shut up!” he yelled, or tried to, but all that came out of his sore and parched throat was a croak.
He took a step forward, swallowed, and took another.
One after another until he was standing next to the dark opening, looking down into the flooded house.
She wasn’t there.
Shaking now, he reached for the flashlight and flicked it on, pointing it with trembling hands into the darkness.
The oily dark water reflected the light back up at him, the filthy water swirling around in what used to be his bedroom.
He closed his eyes and said a prayer before opening his eyes again.
No, she still wasn’t there.
The last time he’d looked down and seen her—when was that? It didn’t matter, it was after the water came and he’d gone up to the roof—she was still there, face up floating in the water, her dark hair fanned out in the filthy water, eyes wide open and staring up at him accusingly.
You killed me. We should have left, but we stayed and you killed me.
He knew he couldn’t really hear her, she was just in his head, but still—he kept the light shining down there, swinging back and forth. He heard another splash somewhere down there—maybe it was a gator? There wasn’t any telling what was down in that water.
During the day, he could see the river levee in the distance—maybe it had held, but there was no telling where the water had come from. That didn’t matter anyway. All that mattered was that it was there.
So maybe…if the bayous and canals or even the swamps had filled with water, it wasn’t out of the question there could be gators in the water-filled city.
But wouldn’t he have heard something if a gator had gotten her? Some loud splashing or something?
She’s dead so she couldn’t fight it but still a gator wouldn’t have been able to get her underwater without making some noise?
He’d seen snakes a couple of times, making S-curves to move forward in the water outside, but not inside the house.
What was left of the house?
The plasterboard was probably dissolving from the wet, and there was no mistaking the smell of wet, rotting wood. Hell, black mold was an issue even when the house wasn’t underwater—how many times had he had to climb a ladder to wipe down the ceiling around the air conditioning vents with bleach to kill it?
Yeah, this house had been a good investment.
Even if the water somehow got pumped out—and it didn’t look like that was going to happen any time soon—the house was ruined. It would take a lot of money to make it habitable again.
Maybe this time New Orleans would be left to drown.
He turned off the flashlight and backed away from the hole. He took another slug of the hot, cloyingly sweet wine.
She’d wanted to evacuate Sunday morning when The Weather Channel and all the weather broadcasters had gone into full-scale panic mode. “The mother of all storms,” the mayor had called it. He just shook his head at her fears, her complaints, his mind was made up and that was that. “They say this every time,” he’d scoffed at her. “Remember Ivan? Jorges? I can’t even remember how many times they said it was the end. If you’re so damned scared, you go. I’m staying put.”
She wouldn’t go by herself. He knew that.
And why get in the damned truck and be stuck in stop-and-go traffic, eight hours to go the seventy stinking miles to Baton Rouge just to hole up in a hotel somewhere that jacked up their room rates to gouge the evacuees only to have the stupid storm turn east like they always did at the last minute and New Orleans would be fine.
Yeah, no way.
They weren’t going anywhere.
They’d lost power sometime in the early morning before the full fury of the storm came, and when it did come, it wasn’t that bad. Howling winds and crashes outside, sometimes the house itself shook, but then, after what seemed like an eternity, it was over.
It was over and they’d survived.
He’d gone outside. Some tree branches were down, debris everywhere he looked, a big live oak down the street had been uprooted and smashed through a house. Everyone else was gone, evacuated, holed up in a hotel or shelter somewhere west on I-10.
They had a few hours before the house started filling up with water.
He’d lost his temper when she started panicking. He just meant to slap her but he hadn’t meant to slap her so hard, it was an accident, she slipped in the water and hit her head on the table and went limp, and before he knew it the house was filling up with water and she was dead and he had to get up into the attic, had to make sure food and liquid was up there…
He reached over and looked down into the darkness. He shone the light down, his heart pumping, as he waved the beam of light around.
Nothing but floating furniture.
No sign of her.
He heard something.
Was that an outboard motor?
Bottle of hot wine still in one hand, he tucked the flashlight into the waistband of his shorts and climbed back out onto the roof.
It was definitely an outboard motor, and getting closer from the sound of it.
The flashlight dimmed in his hand and went out.
Swearing, he shook it as he tried to yell, but his vocal chords were too fried, his throat too raw.
Miracle of miracles, the flashlight came back on, and he started waving it in the direction the motor sound was coming from.
Oh please, God, oh please, God, oh please, God.
He was almost blinded as a strong spotlight shone in his eyes.
“Hey, there,” a voice called as the motor idled, close by, near enough for him to see if not for the damned spots in front of his eyes. But as the bright red shapes began to fade, he could see someone swinging up onto the roof, and heard footsteps, and something cold and icy and wet was put in his hands. He almost wept, it felt so good, the cold against his hot skin. “Have some water, man. My name is Pete LaPierre, me and some buddies came down from Breaux Bridge to rescue some people—they told us we couldn’t and we thought, damned if we don’t have our own boat all we need is some water to put it in and here we are.”
He twisted the cap off the water and poured some of it down, the coldness stinging his throat. He dropped the wine bottle he’d forgotten, heard it hit the roof and roll down the side and splash when it hit the water. He didn’t care, this cold water was like he’d died and gone to heaven, he just wanted to cry—
“Are you the only one here? No one else around here, down in the attic? You must have been pretty lonesome.”
He took another drink of the water, slow and steady, and felt a cramp forming in his stomach—too much cold too fast—and he breathed in and out for a moment, waiting for the cramp to pass, pressing the cold plastic bottle against the hot skin of his forehead.
He shook his head no.
“Come on, then, let’s get you out of here.” Pete LaPierre clapped him on the back, and he followed him down the side of the roof, and dropped down over the side into the boat. It wasn’t much, just a fishing boat with an outboard motor and a large cooler filled with ice and water and beer and—
“You need you a hot shower,” Pete said, and he revved the motor, steering the boat away from the little house and away through the dark night, using the spotlight to make sure there was nothing beneath the surface.
He looked back at the house.
He might never ever see it again.
He slumped down in the boat and took another drink of water.
Someone was pressing a sandwich on him, one of Pete’s buddies, but he just waved it away.
They might not ever find her.
He exhaled, and watched the stars pass by overhead.
“Survivor’s Guilt” Copyright © 2016 by Greg Herren