The Orphans Treadwell
Rachel Stewart Johnson
The brothers Hank Treadwell and Russell Treadwell Jr. had made a habit of fly fishing together since they were boys. The pair would stand on riverbanks until just after dusk, past that mark of a summer evening when bats began to shoot chaotic rounds into the low part of the sky. When Junior and Hank were boys, the river water they found was always unhurried. In those days the water that ran downstream wasn't blue; it was a slow sort of gold, like a reflection of the temperature itself.
A favorite spot the men discovered as adults was Hot Creek, just off the 395 highway in the eastern Sierra Nevada, southeast of Mammoth Mountain. The brothers returned to this place once or twice a year, just the two of them, catching their rainbows and browns on fly rods and releasing the beasts back to the cold water, keeping track in their heads: three for me, one for him. The biggest of the day, maybe fourteen inches. Call it a foot and a half.
Russell Jr., called "Junior" by most, was a forklift operator and lifelong bachelor. His brother Hank, married at age 39 to Marian Meltzer, had recently retired from teaching high school algebra. On the final day of their first fishing trip since Hank's retirement, Junior and Hank awakened before dawn. It was December. The cold at sunrise was more intense than it had been the previous day. The temperature had grown smarter, studying the strategies of frozen things: straight for a man's interior. Just past sunrise, the air still thick from sleep, they arrived again at the creek.
“Maybe just an hour or so and then we head home,” Hank suggested. “S’cold. And Marian’ll--.”
Junior didn’t respond. He peered inside his fly box, squinting.
As the hour passed, the strikes on the brothers' hooks kept them by the water. Hank noted when the time expired but his brother had wandered down the bank by then. A second hour passed. Snow flurries began at noon. Flakes stuck to the men’s gloves as individual bits that disappeared on cue, maintaining their numbers. Just enough. Hank cleared his throat. “Maybe head out?”
Junior looked up. “We haven’t tried down by the big rock.”
So the afternoon continued, Junior not bothering to eat, wandering both to the north and south at different spans. Hank found a pack of beef jerky in his vest and ate that. The snow stopped and then returned, keeping time. It was less than an hour before dusk when they finally brought in their lines for good, the temperature dropping further.
By the time Hank and Junior were past the first switchback on the trail out the gorge, Hank was frowning, his lips parted in the shape of a wince. “Junior,” he murmured, but he explained nothing. His pace up the hill was faster than usual. At the moment he touched his forehead with the back of his hand, his foot failed him. He stumbled and fell onto the snow.
“Oh geez,” Junior said behind him. “Hold on.” Hank did not wait. He stood up alone without grasping Junior's hand. "Yeah it's icier now," Junior murmured. Hank only groaned. The two men both reached the lip of the gorge minutes later, the final switchback approached with greater caution.
The brothers were born eleven years apart. Junior was the younger, but he was the one named after their father, dead a month before the boy was born. “That’s why he got the name,” their mother told them. "Because it was--," she would begin, but she always stopped short of saying more. Russell Sr., at least fifty pounds overweight, died in his bed. He looked peaceful where he lay, telegraphing what had happened: he had slept and never awakened. Cardiac arrest, the coroner concluded.
When Junior was a boy, he enjoyed imagining that the father he had never met had instead died by poisoning, the method of secret toxins that lurked in a poorly chosen meal. Later he authored a bolder adventure: there had been a bear in the woods on a fishing trip. Russell Sr. implemented mind control to free himself. The bear spared him, but the effort slowed him and weakened his heart.
As Junior grew, he came to believe that his father's premature death was a dumb way to die. He decided as a teenager that he would plead against that history by claiming the many miles of the Inyo forest where his father had loved to go fishing. He would take no safety precautions yet survive the pines, over and over. He would sleep in the Inyo's thin air and startle its beasts and clear its brooks, and he would be safe every time, safe and defiant and ready for more, like a child reaching base. His father had not even been safe in his own bed.
Hank and Junior spoke little that December day on their long drive back to their homes in the northeast suburbs of Los Angeles, more than 300 miles to the south. They began with total silence, sharing not a single sigh on the opening leg as Hank eased the truck up the snow-covered dirt road that led away from the creek. "That’s kinda fun huh," Junior said when the truck finally reached the paved road and they sped toward home. “On the snow.”
Hank did not respond. He spent time biting his lips and occasionally he sighed or shifted in his seat. They rode in darkness, the sun in early winter quick to set. At one point, Hank looked toward the floor of the cab and tried to mask another wince.
"What?" Junior tried. "Engine?" Hank only shook his head. Junior kept trying. "Something in the chassis?" he asked.
Hank shook his head a second time. "No no."
"You alright? You seem – you’re okay? Want me to take a turn?" Junior said, and pointed toward the steering wheel.
The answer was no. So the men continued without comment and Junior returned to his gaze outside the window, the uniform darkness broken only by the variations in terrain that caught just enough moonlight to alter their tint.
As they approached Los Angeles County, Hank began to sigh every few minutes, his head always firmly forward, and he took on a strange way of finishing the sigh, with a flutter to his throat. Junior rubbed his knees. “Welp,” he said. When the truck reached the outskirts of the city, Junior turned on the radio. They listened to the chatter and the news, and when they finally reached the final freeway, Junior slouched. He sighed like Hank, with the flutter.
The journey ended at Hank's house. Hank fought a rough cough as they pulled in, his hand on the keys in the ignition. He growled. The seat beneath him exhaled as he exited. Junior didn’t push open his door. He remained seated as his brother entered his house.
“Bye,” Junior murmured to himself. Alone, he stepped out of the cab and raised the door of the camper shell, then lowered the tailgate and let it make a bold whack. He pulled out his two rods, still fully extended with tips that quivered as the rods were lifted. Junior might have been able to hear the sound of despair that came from the house not long thereafter, but his own car’s engine starting at that moment blocked his brother's voice. The cry pierced the property and then was gone, absorbed by the walls that had known the sight that awaited Hank Treadwell.
Hank remained by his wife’s dead body throughout the night. He did not touch her, even in his first moments of discovery, not to confirm a body gone cold nor to jar her back toward him. The tangerine tree outside the nearest window changed as Hank stared at the body of his wife. The tree pulled back its furthest leaves. Those were the bolder tips and edges that had dared, as the tree was left untrimmed, to touch the glass. A slick black wake was left behind.
As he arrived at his own house seven miles away, Junior first tinkered in the garage despite the late hour. He threw away some things. Inside one dusty box was a camping lantern in need of fuel and a pair of work boots he hadn’t worn in years. The items busied him. A block from a 2x4. A headlamp. Stiff pliers.
In the morning, Hank finally called the local emergency room. They told him what to do. Meanwhile, Junior turned on the television and opened a can of ginger ale not long after waking. After he finished, he crunched the can between his fingers and enjoyed the sound, heard so many times before. An hour later, Hank returned home to the edgy stillness of his house, having left his wife's body to await the coroner at the hospital. He removed his Laphroaig Scotch whiskey from the cabinet. His attempt to pour a drink resulted in the glass slipping from his hand, breaking into the sink.
The two brothers did not go back to Hot Creek that winter, and not the next. They returned as the third anniversary of that sudden December death approached, in mid-fall. The earth and plants that lined the scrawl of the creek's course had baked over the preceding summer until the brush was sharp and its russet tones turned toward gray, wearier. Junior and Hank's first morning back was without wind. The two did not speak as they walked down the gorge. Neither pair of boots stirred the heavy dust of the narrow footpath as they dropped closer to the water. When the men arrived at the riverbank, Junior took his time tying on a fly. A wasp landed on a reed near his feet. It chose a pool on the lowest part of the bank, a fetid setting where the water often breached the shore. The creek had always had an inviting sound, something legato, a melody in quarter notes only. Junior stepped closer to Hank. The conversations between the brothers had been utilitarian since the dusk when the two last stood there together. Neither spoke just then. That's the way it always was anymore.
Junior scanned for the dark form and the flick of a fish beneath the glint of the current. Hank stayed behind, not readying his rod, not choosing among caddis flies or nymphs. He only stood motionless. Junior looked back at him. "S'good to get back here, Hank, you think maybe," he said. Hank nodded, his eyes focused above the water to the far horizon of the gorge. Junior stared at the water again. After a minute passed he squinted back at his brother. "When Marian, passed. Did you know? You seemed like you knew that day."
The elder brother exhaled. "What."
"You seemed like you knew, the day that you found Marian -- like you knew before we even left here."
Hank dropped his gaze from the lip of the gorge to the golden water. "No. Didn’t know."
"I'm sorry, how it happened."
Hank coughed. "How it goes, for me I guess. They just-- go."
Junior chewed on his lip. "You're--," he began. That was all he said. He adjusted his cap.
Hank spoke again. "Never, there's never a chance to, you know to -- help."
The two men watched the river pull east. Finally Junior cleared his throat. "You don't have to. You can't always." He paused. "Help." He glanced at Hank, whose eyes were narrowed further. He faked a cough. "Mom always said Dad liked it here."
Hank's face eased. "Mmm." He took a slow breath. "He did."
Junior rubbed the stubble on his face. "Wish I could've gotten a little time with him. Even just something."
Junior didn't repeat himself. He squinted. "Yeah it's," he said instead. "S'all too bad I guess."
"He just got unlucky. I just got unlucky. Marian," Hank said, his voice stronger. He straightened his back. He opened his fly box, his shoulders relaxing as he did, and he studied the collection there. Finally Hank looked at Junior. The composition of the river's flow could only be heard if one paused to find it, catching the sound in the same way one spied the water's beasts. "Russ," Hank said, selecting the name he rarely called his brother. "I think our dad was, I think he was something else with the rod. He'd be bringing 24-inchers to the net out here."
"Maybe," Junior said. "Too bad your Marian never tried it," he added, and then let out the smallest puff of laughter. Both men looked down, Junior idly tapping the heel of one boot against the toe of the other. Hank gave a short laugh then too.
"Well it's just you and me," Hank said. "Let's see how it is today." He stepped toward the lip of the creek.
"Yeah one for you three for me," Junior added. “Your – our dad’s got nothing on me. On us.” Then he whipped his arm high and the line on his rod obeyed, free for the fraction that followed, and the fly rested on the water, still for its own fraction until the current pulled it away.
About the Author: Rachel Stewart Johnson is a writer based in San Diego County. Her short fiction has appeared around the web, in District Lit, Literary Mama, and Pif Magazine, among others. She is a former researcher in experimental psychology and lecturer in human development. Her nonfiction musings can be found here.