This was originally published at Publish Your Mind.
SHORT STORY: FLOOD PATROL
It certainly is dark, the patroller thought as he continued to paddle the boat through the streets. No, not streets. These were streets no longer. Now that they were completely filled with water, he’d have to call them something else. Canals, maybe- or perhaps rivers. But not streets.
The patroller sighed. He WISH he could call them streets. If the government had not so mismanaged the dam system, if the rains had not been oh-so murderous on Thailand this year, perhaps he could have been saved from a lot of trouble. But now, through events that he still found difficult to trace through, he had become a volunteer to help give out supplies to flood victims. He was a student on break in the dry, unaffected South, anyway- why not serve the country by coming up to help with the relief effort?
It was good to be able to say that back then. He had not known that duties as as a volunteer included night patrols. Apparently, there were so few volunteers in the entire city of Ayutthaya that they could not spare even one extra volunteer to go with him for night patrol. They could not.
“Oh, come on, you’re a grown man. You’ll be fine. You have a gun, don’t you?”
The night was completely dark, and if not for the big spotlight he had attached on the boat, he would see absolutely nothing. I wonder if my gun would kill a ghost, he thought to himself. Do bullets destroy ghouls, or do they just pass magically through, no damage caused?
The water-filled road ahead was dark. Houses lined up both sides of the streets, their doors not visible for they were beneath the water. The patroller thought that he could actually paddle the boat over and step right in through the second-floor windows of some really low-lying houses; the water certainly was high enough. Or perhaps, he could easily climb up trees, which stood as dark figures, their branches resembling ghostly arms and fingers. The patroller shivered as he took a look at these trees that stood still, as if ready to suddenly move and pounce on the boat.
It certainly didn’t help that he was in Ayutthaya. Once a capital of Thailand, the city had been completely destroyed by the invading armies of Burma. All that remained of the city pre-invasion are a few temples and the brick remains of what had been a royal palace. It had not been an easy death for the inhabitants, reflected the patroller- to be raped, to be killed for refusing to tell where they had hid their gold during the year-long siege? The patroller knows his Thai folk beliefs. People who die badly often stay as ghosts, remaining at the land they once possessed. A chill went through the patroller as this crossed his mind, and he desperately glanced back and forth as he paddled, as if a ghost might suddenly come screaming out of the floodwater and drag and drown him underneath.
The patroller paddled near a group of ancient temples. Wind blowed and he felt cold in the night. He noticed how flood barriers had been set up, enclosing the area from the floodwater. It did not help his paranoia to be near these temples. Built by the old kings of Ayutthaya, they were the most ancient part of the centuries-old city. What if…what if…the patroller quickly increased his paddling speed, rounding off to another street.
Damn the government, he thought as he passed flood-inundated shops and houses, their signs unreadable due to the darkness. Why did they have to manage the dams so badly? Damn the rains. Damn myself for dragging myself into this place, this dark, abandoned city. A ghost-filled city, possibly.
The patroller stopped paddling for a bit, slightly exhausted. No, there ARE no ghosts, he told himself. They don’t exist. They are confined to the world of horror movies. I may have been scared of ghosts, of darkness, for my entire life, but this ends now.
He shouted, at the top of his lungs, “I will not be scared. I am not afraid!” He put his hands up to touch the icon of the Buddha that he thought he wore around his neck. He felt slightly shocked when he did not feel it there. Had he forgotten it? He felt his hand around his neck, but no, it was not there.
Damnit, he thought. But still, he would not be afraid.
He then heard the sudden crying of a baby, out of nowhere, and immediately he sped away with the boat, frightened beyond anything he had ever known.
* * *
The mother cradled the baby in her arms, singing it a lullaby. As she sang, and as the baby slowly dozed off to sleep, she looked out the windows. It was completely dark outside, and if not for the three candles she had lit in her room, she would see nothing at all.
She wondered when she would get to leave. It’d been a mistake not to leave early. Her husband had been on a trop to another province. “Don’t go anywhere yet”, he’s aid. “I’m sure the flood won’t actually come that quickly. If it comes, I’ll quickly come back and evacuate with you.” That had been when there had been warnings of flood from the northern provinces. In the end the floods had come much quicker than anticipated, but she had refused to leave even while the streets were beginning to flow with water. Now there was no way she could leave except with a boat and the only chance she had was for a government official on patrol to pass by and take her to an evacuation center.
She grimaced as she thought of the upcoming days. She did not mind going a little hungry, but there was no more milk for the baby. There was no one to ask for help; all the neighbors had evacuated. There was only a bit of food left. She looked outside and still the water was only about a meter and a half away from the windows where she sat.
She stopped singing abruptly, now that she knew the baby was firmly asleep. “Now what do I do?” she asked herself. She gently placed the baby back into its cot, because she had to go check through the house to see what supplies were left. The baby will cry when it wakes up to find her not there, she knew, but the situation was desperate and as much as she wanted to stay to comfort the baby, she could not walk freely while holding it in her arms. Surely enough, only a few minutes after she left the room, the baby was crying.
* * *
The patroller was panting hard on his boat. He was right at the other end of the street and he was both frightened and exhausted. And I could actually be home, eating chips and watching TV right now, he thought. He began to slowly paddle on, even as his arms ached, not used to being paddled for hours on end.
Oh my, he thought. Everyone in the country knows what a crying baby out of nowhere usually is.
Did I just hear a crying ghost today, then? He tried to shut off such thoughts as he continued to paddle through the dark, abandoned town.
But how do I know if it was a ghost? he thought.
What if it was a real baby?
What if the baby had been abandoned by fleeing parents? Can I really leave it to die, here? He stopped paddling as the thoughts came through his mind, the boat continuing to flow slowly on.
My duty is to save lives. Can I really abandon a life? Just because of my fear?
But what if it didn’t have a life? What if it was lifeless, yet still alive, not breathing but still crying? He gritted his teeth. There’s no way I can really know, he knew. He began to paddle to turn back the boat and went back towards the house, trying to find a building along the silhouette of half-submerged blocks.
* * *
The patroller sat silently in front of the house. The crying of the baby had grown louder than before. I am in an ancient, abandoned city. I am about to break into a dark house to rescue a baby, he said softly to himself. Somehow those words sounded noble to him, and it lifted his confidence up slightly.
Or I might be breaking into a den of ghosts. He grimaced. He felt like a person with a split personality: an angel was sitting on one shoulder and a devil sitting on another. One boosts his confidence, one scares him to death.
He gritted his teeth and forced himself to begin to look for ways to get inside. “Is there anyone?” he shouted loudly, but there was no reply, only the continued crying of the baby.
“My word.” He paddled the boat closer to the house, still looking for a way in, some sort of opening or a vulnerable door or window. ALl the windows had metal bars and they could not be broken through, not easily.
There must be a way, he thought. I will keep trying.
* * *
The women searched through the closets of her kitchen. THere were still a few cans of canned fish that she had just found, one that had expired only a day before and one only a day away from its expiration date. For her survival, she will eat a can of expired fish. It did not really matter.
There were some bags of chips, two more bottles of water, three bags of rice and five more eggs, but that was it. Her thoughts darkened at the thought of actually having to cook the eggs. There was no electricity at all and cooking was an immensely hard task.
I should go and check the baby, she thought. She could hear faintly the crying of the baby, but only just barely; the kitchen was pretty far from the room. It was on the third floor. As she walked out, she cursed herself slightly for having left so much of the food downstairs before the flood. They had all been lost once the water started to leak in.
Suddenly, she heard a sound. Thump, thump, thump. She looked around suddenly, startled. Thumped, thumped, thumped.
It was not the sound of her own heart beating. It was something else. She swore softly. Who could it possibly be to try to break into a house in an abandoned city at midnight? She ran softly to the baby, scooping the crying son up in her arms and running back up to the third floor.
* * *
Breaking open the door had not been an easy task. The fact that the water covered up half the door did not help, but the door was weak and after using a hammer that all the flood patrollers had been given in case of emergency, he managed to break open the door. For a second the door hung on limply, but then lifted up and flowed away with the water.
The house was completely dark inside and he would see nothing if not for the spotlight stuck on the boat. The patroller could not see, however, that there was no way the boat could fit through the door and he slowly picked up the flashlight, hoping that the boat would not have been stolen or have drifted away with the water by the time that he was finished. By this time, the baby, alive or not, had already gone silent.
He groaned as he stepped slowly in the water. The water was terribly cold and it had a muddy, unclean feeling to it. The patroller waded through the water into the house, trying to make sure he didn’t accidentally drop the flashlight.
“Is there anyone here?” he asked. There was no response. Suddenly, the patroller again began to feel a tinge of fear that he had for so long tried to suppress. He gritted his teeth and told himself to keep going. You can’t stop now.
* * *
Who is outside? the mother wondered desperately to herself out loud. She was almost scared out of her wits by now and she had no idea what to to. There was someone coming. Who could it possibly be, other than a robber?
I don’t have anything for him to rob, she thought, almost in tears. She wanted to cry. Would she die here? With her baby still in her arms? It suddenly struck her that it might not be a robber. Robbers were not the only things that would roam the submerged streets of Ayutthaya on such a night.
What if it is a ghost?
She stepped up and picked up an icon of a monk that she had on a table. She began to pray, quickly and loudly.
* * *
The patroller walked up the stairs, dripping wet. He tried not to slop, but it was dark and he tumbled down the stairs into the water.
He tried to move the flashlight around, trying to find the baby. Where was it? Old fears creeped all over him. Was there nothing? Should he go now, when nothing had happened to hi yet and he could still get out, alive and breathing?
* * *
She continued to pray, faster and faster, louder and louder. The baby was crying once again, unable to understand what was happening. The woman did not understand, either.
She felt terrified, petrified beyond anything. She was stuck alone with a baby in the house behind locked doors that could stop nothing and an unknown force was coming up to her.
* * *
He walked slowly up the stairs, using the flashlight to try to see what was in front of him. The house was completely filled with darkness and only when he flashed the light on something was he able to make out any object.
The house felt cramped and the darkness made him even more uncomfortable. His legs kept tripping over supplies that laid on the ground that he did not see. All that time, he wondered if suddenly something might extend out its arms and grab him on the shoulder and rip him apart.
* * *
What should she do? Beats of sweat dripped from her forehead and she stopped praying for a bit to lift her hands up and wipe them off. The woman opened her eyes and glanced down at the desk. She suddenly remembered something. She opened the drawer, grabbing out a gun. “I’ve never shot a gun before.” she mumbled quietly. “It can kill a robber. It won’t save me from a ghost, but nothing would.”
She slowly opened the door and aimed out the gun. It happened to point directly at the chest of a man.
“Who the hell are you?” she cried out. She then saw the insignia of an official stuck on the man’s chest. “Oh, have you…have you come to help? Oh my. Oh my. Thank you so much.” she said, breathless, with new tears brimming from her eyes.
The man, for some reason, looked extremely relieved.
“No problem.” he said quietly.
This short story is mostly a made up story although its setting was based on the 2011 flood in Thailand. While the city of Ayutthaya, a rather large city, was never close to abandonment like described here, many people who passed through the suburbs of Bangkok remarked that it did look like an abandoned city.
This story also explores the theme of fear vs duty. In a night such as this, in an abandoned city with distant sounds of a crying baby, it is hard to see which would come first.