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Story: “The River Magnet” (March 2024)

The River Magnet

by April Grant

Suffering doesn’t solve anything. It just lets you see the shit that people usually suppress. The person doing the suffering in this case was Toggle, who’d taught me to play the fiddle. Normally he was a wacky old dude who had a welcome for everyone and attracted people to take up instruments or sit down and learn a dozen songs and remember what it was like to do things just for fun.

Now he was in the hospital with confusion, shaking hands, weakness, and no clear diagnosis. The hospital had almost reached the point of ruling out a stroke, but he and his husband Paul were still waiting for the results to come back. His blue eyes were sunken and staring, his beard was stained with ketchup from the now-cold chicken nuggets on his tray from lunch, and his remaining energy was going towards keeping him in a state of rage. I had never seen him like this before. The difficult thing is that I’m about to describe atypical behavior. Anyone who doesn’t know Toggle has no reason to believe me when I say, “He’d normally never do that.”

He’d gone into the hospital on Wednesday night, and I’d had work the next day. After that he’d been still undergoing a battery of tests and scans, so it was late Thursday evening when I was finally admitted to see him.

I’m sorry it took me so long to get here,” I said, standing awkwardly over his bed with my mandolin case in hand as if I was there for a lesson. “How’s life in the Big House?”

Toggle gave me a bitter grin. At any other time, he’d have said, “Life drinks deeply through a soda straw,” or some other cutesy way of telling me it sucked. Instead, he muttered out the side of his mouth, “They’re giving me aspirin and it’s making my blood run out my stomach lining. Hematochezia, they call it. They want to know me. If they only bothered to ask. At the end of the day, I can feel what’s coming and they can’t, and it balks them. Rrrahhh!” He bared his gross old teeth in a snarl, then broke up laughing.

My smile must have been pretty stiff. “You wanna hear a tune or two?”

I can’t play in this place, to tell you the truth,” said Toggle. “Literally can’t. The tremors are in my hands. They’re keeping me from my sleep, till my words depart from me. Gonna be a head case by the time I get outa here, which I don’t expect to. They want to biopsy my testicles, do you know that? They took words from me too. But they’ll not have me.” His voice usually sounded raspy and warm; now it was a phlegmy growl.

Meanwhile, Paul got up from the hospital armchair, kindly but firmly pushed me to sit down in his place, and left the room.

Toggle grabbed my hand and clasped it tight. His hand was cold and his nails were overly long, and I thought perhaps I could leave and come back with a manicure kit. Then I just thought about how good it would feel to leave. He continued lecturing me, all along the same lines. Sometimes he seemed to think he was about to die, and sometimes he renewed his resolve to live despite the hospital’s attempts to let him perish.

Can I trim your nails so you won’t feel so neglected?” I said.

For a second he looked like he was going to take a swing at me. Then he reached up and touched the side of my face. “Smile at me like that and you can cut my head off if you want to,” he said.

My heart sank further. That was a big neon sign that he’d lost all his filters. Toggle normally wouldn’t flirt with one of his students. He said it was unprofessional. We’d had meta-level discussions about love and crushes and being gay at different ages, but it was stuff I could have talked about with a relative, assuming I was still talking to my relatives. But, more than that, Toggle never made body contact with other men if he could avoid it. He wouldn’t hold hands with Paul in public because Paul had once been fired for being gay. It’s a special kind of messed-up when someone is casually affectionate and that ticks the “personality change” box.

But he was already going down another rabbit hole of fear. “Just promise me this,” he said. “Whatever happens to me, you’ll see that Paul’s not homeless. Please. I’m trusting you. He’s going to be homeless if you don’t help him buy the place.”

I’ll do whatever he needs to stay in place and stable,” I said. Toggle didn’t seem to buy that; he gave me a contemptuous look. I felt a chill, despite being pretty sure this was a delusion on his part. Paul had a well-paying day job he seemed to like, and the two of them lived in a nice house near Inman Square. It was rented, and they had tried and failed to buy it from the owners, but it was a long leap from there to death and homelessness. I wanted to stand up and shout, “You’re not dying! Not near it!” but it didn’t seem likely he’d believe me.

Instead, I tried to distract him by playing a tune on the mandolin. Thank goodness the other bed in his room was empty and there was no one for us to disturb. He quieted for a moment when I played “St. Patrick’s Day In The Morning,” and then said, “Keep your knuckles down, you hunch them up like that, you’re wasting half your energy out into the void.”

I’m a slow learner,” I said, deliberately flattening my hand out and strumming on.

Rhythm’s decent,” Toggle muttered. “Do the foot percussion. Don’t think about it, just do it, see how it goes.”

I tapped my heels and toes. Sneakers on a vinyl floor don’t give a very satisfying clack, but I stamped loudly enough that Toggle could hear it. He nodded. I got bold enough to segue into “The Cow That Ate Mam’s Shawl,” only missing one chord change.

Someone outside the divider curtain applauded and said “Knock knock! Can I just interrupt for a second?” in a young-sounding voice. I stopped, and a tall thin doctor hurried in and stood at the foot of Toggle’s bed. She beamed at both Toggle and me, and pulled up some notes on the tablet she carried.

Did I say you could come in?” Toggle barked at her.

Mr. Armstrong, it’s nice to see you,” said the doctor. “How are you feeling tonight?”

Well, you’re the clever so-and-so, you tell me,” said Toggle. “What’s my diagnosis?”

I’m just trying to find out what your physical experience is like right now,” said the doctor. “Are you in any pain?”

What was the first question I asked you?” As she hesitated, “Do you remember?”

The doctor visibly took a moment to have a couple of slow, deep breaths. “You did just ask me what your diagnosis…”

No,” Toggle sneered. “I asked you if I’d said come in, you goat.”

What I wish I’d said: “Jesus Christ, Toggle, stop it, you can’t talk to her that way.”

What I actually said: “Hey. Hey, take it easy, huh?”

Toggle rolled his head around to grin at me. “Notice I’m not calling her girly names,” he said. “You young ‘uns like gender equity, right? I’d call a man doctor a goat, too, it’s all the same to me.”

Don’t call anybody that!” I said.

You can’t tell ME what to do,” said Toggle, and he threw a fistful of cold chicken nuggets at me. He was too weak to throw hard. They pattered against my mandolin and left grease spots on the lap of my jeans.

I got up, grabbed my coat, said, “Good to see you,” exchanged embarrassed nods with the doctor, and hurried out of the room.

Paul was in the hallway, bent over his phone, frantically typing with his thumbs. I tried to rush off, but he sidled into my path and said, “Wait a sec, please, till I send this email to his sister.” He hit send, straightened up, and said, “Sorry. OK. Can you stop by the house and feed Church and Guilty? I wouldn’t ask, except I’m not sure how long I’m going to be here. I’ll stay all night if the nurses don’t throw me out.”

There is nothing I’d like better,” I said. “I’ll even give them a pet and tell them they’re good girls.”

A thousand thank yous. They each get one can of the prescription food, and please top up their water.”

Absolutely, I know the drill. It’ll be good to see them. Uh… I just have to check. You’re not at risk of homelessness, are you? Toggle seems to think you are.”

Oh, Christ, is that on his mind?” said Paul. “OK, we’re losing our current place. We just got the letter a few days ago: the landlord won’t be renewing our lease next year. But that does not make us homeless.”

I expressed my grief at what was happening. They’d hosted many amazing tune sessions at their home, and they’d been there for fifteen years, for ten of which I’d been Toggle’s off-again, on-again student.

Yes, I mean, thank you, sure, it’s a burden. But we have nearly a year to find somewhere new, and we’ve managed it before. It’s been preying on him, though. You know he has been homeless in the past. And now this. Maybe it’s the shock that put him here.”

Paul looks superficially like Toggle – they’re both short, with salt-and-pepper beards and receding hairlines – but he’s usually the most laid-back and calming man you’ll ever meet. Seeing him get bent out of shape destabilized me in turn; I felt myself well up with tears.

Can you do me another favor?” he added.

Yes, anything!” I said.

Tog ordered a bunch of stuff off the internet the other week,” he said. “I just logged into his email and saw he got a bunch of delivery notifications. When you go by the house, can you bring it all inside?


Paul texted me the current code of the lock box where they kept their keys, and added, “Oh. And. I hate to be a bother.”

Bother away,” I said. “Please. Give me an occupation, or I shall run mad.”

Paul smiled at me for an instant. “Same here. OK, can you please get a pair of scissors, open everything and just set it out on the table, except if there’s a live plant, give it water and put it out on the back deck so the cats can’t get it, and it should survive till I can get back there. I know he ordered peonies and I don’t want them to sit drying out any longer than they have to.”

Are you sure you want me opening your mail?”

One hundred percent. I give full consent for both of us. My ability to feel embarrassment was shot off in the war.”

I hugged him. He clapped me on the back stoically. Then I hurried out and found my car in the overpriced garage.

Toggle and Paul lived in the end unit of a row of brick townhouses, on the side of Inman Square that wasn’t completely gentrified. They had a Pride flag as a curtain in the front window, and a seashell shrine to the Virgin Mary in their tiny front yard; both men had a complicated worldview. Their basement flooded from time to time, but there were thick walls and a big living room, which made their house perfect for tune sessions. I’d been there dozens of times to play contra dance tunes or Irish music all evening, with at minimum a dozen other musicians. Their aesthetic was based on big piles of books, and walls covered in Toggle’s instruments and dance band posters, plus Paul’s lithographs of sunsets and mountain ranges. I envied their leisure to decorate the place as they wished, and then remembered the bad news and wondered how they would ever find a new place as good as this one.

There were puddles on the front walk. It seemed wrong that the weather had done anything as ordinary as raining and then clearing up while Toggle was lying in the hospital waiting to be told what was wrong.

There was a pile of packages on Toggle and Paul’s porch, and some of them felt like they were full of bricks.

In the dark living room, Church wailed at me and put her ears back, then clawed the throw rug to show how lonely she was. Guilty peered at me from under the couch. (They were named Guilty Verdict and I Deface Churches; Toggle told different people different stories about the reason.) I dumped the packages on the kitchen table, next to two half-full tea mugs that looked like they’d been there since Toggle collapsed the prior night. I got the cats some very late dinner and a change of water and stroked their ears while they gobbled their food.

The packages were fun to open. Truthfully, I could tell which packages were the live flowers right away because they were from a plant nursery, but Paul had said to open everything and, perhaps snoopily, I took that in a literal sense.

Toggle had bought loads of vintage tune books, including one on Tex-Mex polkas that I would have liked to play through at some less stressful time. There was a secondhand French press, and a bunch of new strings and rosin and hide glue for the fiddle repair bench, and fertilizer from a garden store. The peony sprouts were in the largest, lightest box, and I put them in a little water in a casserole dish, where they seemed happy enough. There was enough ambient city light on the clouds outside for me to pick my way out onto the back deck and set the dish safely down among empty pots on the railing, safe from Church and Guilty.

The last package held something heavy, wrapped in what appeared to be dirty tinfoil. A piece of crumpled notebook paper with a torn edge fell out with it. I smoothed out the paper first. It said in hand-printed capitals: RIVER MAGNET. There was a doodle of a hand lowering the magnet towards waves on the surface of a river, and underneath it said in cursive, Good luck!, with no signature. That was all it had in terms of a packing slip.

Inside the foil was a black disk like an outsize hockey puck framed in steel, with a big metal tube handle sticking out of one side. In the doodle, there was a rope tied onto the handle, but it hadn’t come as part of the package. The whole thing looked like a giant silver-and-black pocket-watch with no face. It was heavy. I tried sticking my keys onto it, but they didn’t react, so it couldn’t be a magnet in that sense.

Now I was curious. It did cross my mind that I’d done everything I came there to do and now I was just getting nosy, but I sat down on the rug and took out my phone – sitting on the couch would have felt too presumptuous, as they weren’t there to welcome me. I did a quick web search, and found that “river magnet” brought up pictures of a similar but shinier object attached to a long coil of rope. There were message boards for enthusiasts who used them to pick metal items off riverbeds. The top anecdote on one of them was from someone who had recently picked up a loaded handgun from the bottom of the Mystic River.

Well, if that’s the case, why the hell won’t my keys stick to it?” I demanded of Guilty, who had gone from hiding to remembering I was his best friend for life, and was shedding all over the knees of my jeans. “Are they made of some cheaper, crappier steel that won’t magnetize?”

It struck me that the fridge had magnets on it already. I gently set Guilty down and carried the magnet into the open-plan kitchen.

I never got to the fridge. As I passed the sink, there was a banging sound from under the sink, then a hissing bubble that made me jump. It was coming from the faucet. The sink was stainless steel – had I wrecked it just by coming near it with the giant magnet? Like a fool, I waved the thing in my hands at the sink.

The faucet banged and shuddered, and sprayed water into the sink. It was just a thin trickle but it kept coming. I tried to turn it off, but, of course, the taps were off already.

Church jumped up onto the counter and bushed her tail out, ready to fight the sink, and Guilty hid again.

The water didn’t look like water. It pooled and formed a bubble against the near side of the sink, large and growing. Oil? Glycerin? Whatever it was, it shouldn’t be in the pipes.

I instinctively backed away from it all the way across the living room, and as I reached the front door the sink stopped spitting out water. I had the creeps so badly by then that I just opened the door behind me, one-handed, and rushed out into the night.

The puddles on the front walk all wiggled and shook themselves and came trickling towards the bottom step. The weedy grass and gravel of the front yard was flooded an inch deep and the whole surface started crawling with ripples, though there was no wind to form them. They were all flowing towards me.

No. Not me. The thing I held.

I panicked and charged right through it in an effort to free myself. My shoes hit the walk so hard they scattered the water and I didn’t soak up much, and I made it to the sidewalk, then across the street to my car. I looked back to reassure myself that it couldn’t have possibly been that bad.

The flood was pouring out of the front yard onto the curb, then making its way towards me, slowly but inexorably, like a giant translucent slug. This involved its flowing up a slight incline, since the street surface was higher in the middle than at the sides. The water was unfazed. It was coming to the magnet.

I jumped in the car, magnet and all, started it and roared off into the night, or at least as much as you can roar off in a city where the speed limit is 25 MPH and everyone drives in the rudest possible way. Whenever I stopped at a light, I glanced nervously behind me, but the water was nowhere to be seen.

I started to go back to the hospital, but by the time I got to Kendall Square, it hit me that it was past eleven, they probably wouldn’t let me in, and Toggle might be asleep by now, with any luck. My initial plan of marching in there and demanding he show me how to switch this thing off faded away. It sank in that he might not be in a state to tell me anything about it, maybe ever. I remembered Toggle, covering fear with anger, maybe split off from his former self by a stroke or the onset of Alzheimer’s and never coming back. My heart felt like cold shit.

The car behind me started honking because the light had turned green, and I flipped them off and drove home.

It was midnight by the time I got back, but at least there was space to park at the curb right in front of my house. I was so hollow inside that I – what? Not quite convinced myself that everything was fine, but kidded myself that I hadn’t seen that water coming after me out of the puddles. I marched into the house promising myself a shot of whiskey in bed if only I would go right to sleep afterwards. Still, I had enough latent fear to leave the river magnet on the passenger seat of my car, with my old gray cardigan sweater over it. I felt wretched for taking it out of its owner’s house because the sink had frightened me. Part of me was making a Jesuitical argument that if I didn’t take it all the way into my own place it wouldn’t constitute stealing, and part of me was hoping someone would smash a car window and steal it during the night so it wouldn’t be my problem, Paul’s, or Toggle’s.

I slouched past all four of my housemates (we’re one over the legal limit for renters in Somerville, technically redefining us as the world’s least sexy brothel) with no more than a rote response to their greetings, hung my mandolin on the wall, poured myself a shot, and was unable to enjoy it or to fall asleep after I’d drunk it.

The Boston Public Library has a decent online archive of historical maps. I lay in the dark in the glow of my phone, peering at fine detail on maps of Cambridge from the 1800s, where the housing lots were marked with names like “Widow Lyman” and “G. Mulcahy” and there were irregular shapes labeled “Grazing land” and squiggly lines labeled “Ditch.”

I was hard-pressed to find Toggle and Paul’s house on any of the historical maps at first, but Trulia and Zillow and the other creepy real estate sites had accumulated enough info on the building for me to find that it dated from 1858, when it had been built as worker housing for a brick factory. So far, as expected. Before that, the area had been common land called Clover Green. It sounded so much like a name for a twee condo complex that I shuddered.

In a crackly yellow scan of an 1845 map, there was a squiggly line running across the common, labeled “Factor’s Brook.” It wasn’t there in the 1858 map that showed the row houses. That fired a memory – on one of the occasions the basement had flooded and wrecked their brewing equipment, I’d heard Toggle call it “the brook rising” as he was laughing the whole thing off. I hadn’t taken it literally.

It turned out, there were multiple websites with elderly-enthusiast-historian energy talking about Lost Rivers of Cambridge. To hear them tell it, the city was honeycombed with running water, now topped with rubble, forced into conduits and re-routed into storm drains. Presumably this was what had happened to Factor’s Brook, but I had a fruitless struggle trying to find anything about it because the words “factors” and “brook” appear together in a near-infinite number of unrelated contexts. It didn’t matter; I’d learned all I needed to know. Factor’s Brook was still active and the river magnet had pulled it out of its bed, or its storm drain, to come wriggling after me.

Somewhere in there I fell asleep, dropped my phone on my face, and fell asleep again while swearing. I had at least one nightmare about a big beige snake slithering past me with a noise like sandpaper, and not seeing me because I froze up and held still (my subconscious stole that from Jurassic Park, I realize). When I woke, it was early morning and someone was tapping on my door and whispering “Robin?” so as not to wake anyone else.

I felt a sense of well-being. I’d had some needless anxieties, but a good night’s sleep made everything look better. Toggle would be OK, and that water hadn’t been breaking the laws of physics to crawl after me. That would be silly.

Before admitting I was awake, I checked my texts and saw the top one was Dear Robin, can you feed and pet them again tonight? Not sure what we are in for today. Thanks very much, yours truly, Paul. I hope Paul never stops texting like that.

My peace of mind lasted till I crossed the room and opened my door. Fox, my youngest housemate, stood outside with her work bags, wild-eyed. She keeps early hours, but normally she leaves the house in silence and never wakes anybody.

She waved her hands and looked frantic but struggled to speak.

Did I leave the stove on?” I said.

Your car’s flooded,” she whispered.

Bits and pieces of the prior evening came back to me. I wanted to die of embarrassment; the reason why wasn’t clear to me yet, but the feeling beat the knowledge to the punch. “But we’re on a hill,” I said. I’m sure my face looked guilty as sin, even if Fox didn’t know enough details to see why. “What do you mean, flooded?”

I mean, water is behaving in a way I’m not familiar with.” Fox is scrupulously careful with her words.

I threw my coat on over my pajamas and pushed my feet into the rubber rain boots I keep for taking the trash out. On my way down the front stairs I started hearing a terrible whispering rushing noise like sandpaper in the distance. Shivering out on the front porch, I beheld the sight of a huge ridge of dirty water running uphill, along the middle of our street, and engulfing my car. It was brownish-gray and full of dead leaves and twigs, but it was a healthy bundle of water as big around as a five-gallon bucket, and it came zigzagging up the slight incline of our street, zigged over to my car and engulfed it, coiled around it and lovingly rubbed against the windows and doors. The sand and silt in the water was grinding against the metal and glass, and that was the noise I’d heard. It smelled horrible, so rotten it came back around to sweet.

Water doesn’t usually act like that, right?” said Fox. “There is much I don’t know in the world.”

I felt a surge of rage at Toggle for getting me into this. I could have drop-kicked him. But no sooner did the rage crest and diminish than I realized I wasn’t being fair. No one had forced me to pick up the magnet and run off with it when the sink started acting funny. Technically, I was a thief.

And for the dumbest possible reason!” I snarled under my breath when my train of thought reached that point. “No, Fox, I didn’t mean you!” I added, seeing her take it as a response to what she’d said. “Sorry. I… you are correct and also wise. Water wouldn’t normally act like this. This is my fault.”

I could see Fox wondering who I’d offended in order to get my car attacked by a body of water, but she was too polite to ask.

My options were limited. All my initial ideas involved dumping the magnet somewhere no one would ever find it. Maybe I could just throw it into the Mystic River; there was enough unpleasant stuff in there that one more piece of harmful trash could make no difference. Except yes, it could. The magnet had drawn little rivers twice since I’d unpackaged it. What if it stopped the Mystic River from flowing? What if it stopped the flow at one point, but the river kept coming from upstream, flooded the highway and people’s houses, and turned into a vast and spreading pond? Also, it would amount to stealing from Toggle in a way I couldn’t undo. The man had already had a horrifying couple of days and didn’t need me committing sort-of-accidental petty theft on top of that.

Leave it right where it was, pretend not to know what was going on, and wait till someone else phoned the city, and then let them deal with it? No. My car would inevitably get wrecked by the plumbers or fire fighters or whoever tried to drive away the little river, and the way my luck was going, I’d still get arrested for flooding my street; my sentencing would just be phrased in some way that sounded less silly than the reality.

The word “unpackaged” had been rolling around in my mind as my thoughts raced. I thought about the thick, good-quality metal foil I had peeled off the magnet the previous night, with my innocent fingers, in my folly. It must have been the foil that had kept the magnet from attracting every body of water in the neighborhood and made it possible to ship to Toggle’s house in the first place.

Tannery Brook Road,” said Fox, who had her phone out. “No wonder it smells bad.”

I must have looked lost. She wordlessly showed me a map of our neighborhood, pointing to the tiny side street two blocks away. I’d been happily walking past the street sign for Tannery Brook Road for all the years I’d lived in the neighborhood, and never having any reason to think about how there must have been a brook there once, now buried underground, and how vile it must have smelled.

Pee and manure, and old carcasses,” Fox added. “I used to think I could smell it faintly in the summers.”

I checked my coat pockets. My wallet and keys were still there from the previous night.

I’ll report back,” I said. “You may need to take me to the hospital with every disease in the book.” I pictured myself lying in the next bed to Toggle, raving at each other. “Fox,” I added, “could you do me a favor? Please hang onto this till I get back. All my other stuff can get wet, but not this.”

Wordlessly, she accepted my phone.

If I let myself think about it any longer, I’d never do it. I hit the power door-lock button and heard my faithful old Chevy beep and pop its locks, under the roar of water and grit. I ran down our crappy brick steps, boots flapping, uttered a yell of defiance at the water, and plunged my hands into the six-inch-thick glassy layer of Tannery Brook speeding over the driver’s door.

It opened quite easily. I’d thought it would contract, flexing its muscles to keep the car pinned closed, but it acted like water should act in that respect, cascading away from the door and onto me. It went into my face. It was ice cold and tasted worse than it smelled. I flung myself into the car.

So did about twenty gallons of filthy water, in the couple of seconds it took me to slam the door after me. The seats and my boots and the floor were all awash in a pond of Tannery Brook severed from the main body, and instantly it started piling up on the passenger’s seat, cuddling and enfolding the object under my sweater. I left the magnet strictly alone.

My ass was instantly soaking and cold. Otherwise, being in my car while a brook attacked was like being in a car wash, except that instead of soap and mops, oak leaves and dead rats dragged across the windshield over and over. The car started, thank God. I’d thought the engine might have been soaked through, but Tannery Brook hadn’t been smart enough to take the long way around and force its way in under the hood. It had just battered itself against the doors and glass, perhaps in the hopes of staving them in. The glass was etched all over with white lines of wear from the grit. I realized I was thinking in terms of the brook being smart and hoping for things, and at the same time the water in my boots started to crawl out at the ankles and wiggle its way over to the magnet.

Fox stood on the front porch, solemnly taking photos of me with her own phone. She raised one hand like an emperor saluting the gladiators in the arena.

I waved back and drove off surrounded by water.

It was the most unsafe driving I have ever done. If I’d realized how dangerous it was going to be, I would have tried to grab the magnet and call an Uber, and let the experts deal with getting me there. The water was with me all the way down our hill and out onto Broadway, and my wipers were going full blast and barely made a dent in the leaf litter and mud that the brook was pulling across the windshield. I could just see other cars ahead of us as Impressionist splotches on the world. I was permanently driving through a puddle, and my tires threw a huge bow-wave right into the oncoming lane. I heard someone go by honking and screaming about that, and on my right I heard rather than saw pedestrians on the sidewalk swearing as I soaked them. The water thinned out on the windshield and then parted completely with beats of the wipers, in the glorious morning sunlight which pierced the clouds to dazzle me at that very moment, making me even more of a danger to other people. Then I had to stop at a light behind cars backed up for half the block, and felt the terrible grinding hiss climbing up the back windshield again, as the whole giant snake of the brook piled itself onto my car. The weight was immense, and as it clung in a blob to the passenger-side windows, I leaned left and steered to compensate.

Still I was pulling ahead, enough that the windshield stayed clear. People on the sidewalks were turning to stare at me, open-mouthed. I have no idea what they thought. I saw one older man with a coffee and a paper step right off a curb and drop his drink in his shock. I still found it in my heart to hope he wasn’t injured, and thought that was very compassionate of me under the circumstances. Most of my compassion was for myself. I was cold as ice in water that my body heat couldn’t warm, soggy through all my clothes, and starting to shake, and when I looked at myself in the mirror my lips were blue.

I got onto McGrath Highway and lost the brook completely. A few stray drops of water and leaves flew off in all directions, but the car had been glued down by water and was now free. I could see clearly in all directions – what a glorious and unexpected treat! My mouth stayed closed, but deep in my heart I was singing “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go…” I slapped my own jaw to make it stop.

Then I glanced down at the ornamental wetland area under the raised highway, and saw a big tongue of muddy water stretch up out of the cattails towards the magnet as I passed above, and my sense of relief vanished.

I successfully got off the highway, and turned down Toggle and Paul’s street. It was a one-and-a-half-car-wide street, and currently blocked halfway down by a garbage truck. The trash men were whipping bins up into the dumping mechanism with great skill and speed, but they were jolting along, ten feet at a time, and stopping again. I couldn’t back up and circle the block; there were other cars behind me. I gave up, pulled my car into a total stranger’s driveway, grabbed the magnet (it weighed like a sledgehammer in my hand), and took off on foot.

Factor’s Brook rose up around me, through the street drains full of little rustling plastic trash, and out of front yards, seeping from the gravel, piling up around my shins. I couldn’t outrun it; it was coming from ahead of me. There was no malice in it. I was allowed to keep moving but the water just wanted to pile itself up to the magnet in my hand, and running through knee-deep water that was perpetually flowing towards me was almost impossible.

I covered the last hundred yards by climbing up onto the roof of a car, staggering down the windshield as the car alarm went off, and scrambling over at least a dozen other cars like that, as the water burst in waves up against their sides. There wasn’t a big enough wave yet to wash me off, but it was building up. The car hoods buckled under my boots and I kept thinking I was going to put a foot through. Somewhere in there I overtook the garbage truck, and the driver and I were briefly at eye level. He shook his head in disapproval.

I was outside Toggle and Paul’s place. In one panicked dash I flung myself down into the water again, charged up their front walk, and, on their stoop, realized I couldn’t remember their lockbox combination and my phone with the crucial text was two miles away in Fox’s care. Too far gone for finesse, I ran at the front door and kicked it beside the knob in the hopes of knocking it in.

It wasn’t locked or even fully latched. I stumbled in on Toggle and Paul, in their own home. They both looked up with the most tired expressions on their faces, too worn even to be shocked at a soaking friend racing in and slamming the door to keep out a surf-tide wave of dirty water.

I threw the magnet down on the rug. “I’m sorry,” I gasped out. “I brought it back. Where’s the foil?”

The hell happened to you, Robin?” said Toggle. He still looked pale and shaky, but he seemed far more like his usual self than when I’d last seen him. He was sitting on his couch, in a lumberjack-red plaid bathrobe, petting one cat with each hand as they fawned on him. “Is it raining out? I can let you borrow some clothes if you want to go shower and change. You’ll have flood pants but at least you’ll be dry.”

It’s attracting water! Rivers! Paul, you gotta switch the sink off!” I shouted.

Paul was frying baked potatoes on a pan at the stove, and he looked like I’d just gotten on his last nerve. “Sorry, my brain’s offline, too many late nights,” he said, as pleasantly as ever. “What foil?”

In the package! It was keeping it from attracting rivers!”

I saw the dread in Paul’s eyes as he started wondering if I was also about to lose touch with reality and go down the same road as Toggle.

Giving up on words, I scouted around for the litter I’d left on the table after unwrapping all the packages. It was gone, and the table was clean. Of course it was. Paul had tidied it away into —

There was water squirting in under the front door.

I dumped out the kitchen trash bin on the floor, saw a big ball of heavy-duty foil, grabbed it, and with what felt like all the time in the world, smoothed it out into two big sheets and compressed them around the river magnet, covering every bit of the surface. Then I threw myself down on top of it, pinning it to the floor with my chest. I may not have been reasonable at that point in my morning.

Paul was standing over me, repeating my name and demanding to know what was wrong.

Please look outside, but don’t go,” I said. “Wait, no, listen, PAUL!”

He strode impatiently to the door and opened it.

Nothing. No cascade of pent-up Factor’s Creek. Just the pale morning sunshine and the sound of pigeons on the roof and the trash truck down the street. The creek had subsided back into the ground or turned into inert puddles on the asphalt. There was a small puddle on the hall floor, and Paul had walked through it with his socks on and left splatters, but otherwise it wasn’t going anywhere.

Oh, you pocketed it?” said Toggle. He didn’t seem angry. “We spent a while looking at the fridge in case you might have stuck it there. I didn’t know how big it would be, just that it was a river magnet.”

I’m so sorry I went off with your magnet,” I said, slumping on the rug in my own damp spot. “It was pulling water into the house and I didn’t know what else to do.”

You look like one who’s suffered,” said Toggle. “It’s me who’s sorry you got that sprung on you. All’s well that ends well, eh?”

My memories of the past twenty-four hours packed themselves back into order. “Wait, hang on. You’re home?! What happened? I thought you’d had a stroke or something and they were trying to figure out the damage!”

Yeah, happy days, it was a UTI,” said Toggle. “Wish I’d had a stroke.”

Don’t jinx it,” said Paul.

Toggle flipped him off and immediately said, “No, no, I take it back. I love you, man. You’re a martyr to my bullshit.”

I am generally admired.” Paul put the pan on the marble-topped table, handed Toggle a fork and dug into the potatoes himself.

Toggle poured ketchup into his side of the pan, but held back from eating to say to me, “I don’t want to have to tell everybody I jam with that it was my goddamn bladder giving me the shakes and the creeping dread. I’m going out on a limb and trusting you not to repeat this.”

I’ll tell them all you had a brain tumor and they pulled it out your nose,” I said. The stakes were once again so low that I felt almost normal.

I knew you had my back. So apparently UTIs give you the shakes and the creeping dread and make you think everyone’s out to get you. Or at least they do that for me. So they gave me antibiotics and sent me home to take them and have the runs for weeks. Drink six glasses of water a day and don’t hold your pee, young man. It’s not worth it.” He lost his smile for a moment. “I think I said some grim shit in the hospital. I didn’t do anything mean, did I?”

I grabbed his free hand, and this time he gripped back. “Oh, thank God you’re OK!” I blurted out, then “Can I please take you both up on a shower and dry clothes? Then I’ll explain everything. I just can’t stand to smell this bad anymore.”

Paul cleared his throat. “As a first step, could you please just get the trash back in the bin? While you’re still dirty. Then you can have all that and breakfast too.”

I bowed, scooped up all the coffee grounds and four-day-old fruit peels, reassembled the trash bag, and took it outside just as the trash truck arrived. I handed it off to the sanitation workers in silent dignity.

After a shower that obeyed the laws of gravity, and after dressing myself in one of Paul’s flannel shirts and Toggle’s sweatpants that didn’t quite come down to my ankles, I sank down at the table beside Toggle, and stared at the river magnet where it lay in its bundle of gross old foil. Guilty and Church were still holed up in the pantry and wouldn’t come out while the magnet was visible.

OK, I have questions,” I said.

I’d say you’ve earned them,” said Toggle.

Two biggies. First. Where’d you get it?”.

EBay. Ultimately, some guy in England,” Toggle added. “He warned me over email to keep it wrapped in lead when I wasn’t using it, but it looks like he didn’t bother putting that on the packing slip, so you get an A for figuring it out on your own. I did ask why he was passing it on and he said he’d run out of uses for it.”

Well, since you bring it up. What are you going to use it for? Start a second career solving droughts?”

Wanna road-trip it to California?” said Toggle to Paul, looking everywhere but not making eye contact. He was red all over his broad face. “We could probably make enough for gas money, anyhow. That’s a great idea.”

I was wondering the same thing as Robin,” said Paul quietly.

It’s dumb,” said Toggle. “I mean, dumb as hell. I must have been high on a UTI already and didn’t know it.”

You wanted a magnet that would pull random metal out of the Mystic River for fun, like a metal detector, and they sent you this instead?” I ventured.

What? No. Jesus. Give me some credit here. I knew exactly what I was getting into. I was going to use it to screw with our landlord.” Toggle got up in a surge of irritation, took one of his fiddles off the shelf and hurried it into tune with the large pegs. “Man, I gotta change these strings.”

I pictured Toggle diverting a river through his landlord’s McMansion.

Paul just waited.

I was going to bury it in the basement last thing before our lease is up, and flood this place permanently,” said Toggle over his initial chords. “God willing and the crick don’t rise, oops, oh well.” He did a very slow hammy rendition of the last few chords of “Mr. Moore’s March.” His hands weren’t shaking at all. I almost got up and grabbed his other fiddle to join in.

Paul was roaring with laughter. He slumped back in his chair, threw a napkin over his head and absolutely cackled.

I thought you’d be mad,” said Toggle, scraping some random chords.

The cloth folds shook. “I love you so much right now,” Paul gasped out. “Let’s just do that.”

Can we figure out something altruistic first?” said Toggle humbly.

Sure we can, we’ve got months. Let’s figure something out when I haven’t been awake for twenty-four hours straight.”

I had just enough presence of mind to leave the house quietly as they embraced.

The rest of my morning involved finding my car leaking dirty water and adorned with a sixty-dollar ticket for parking badly, and turning up half an hour late to work, in borrowed clothes, with the beginnings of a stomach bug from getting contaminated water in my mouth. That was objectively miserable, but I relished every second of it because I wasn’t being chased by a river anymore. The sand-blasted places on my car looked almost like I’d given it a custom paint job.

Months have passed, and it only remains to be told that Toggle and Paul are on a two-month road trip together, because Paul had PTO coming out his ears. Every so often he and Toggle send me a postcard from the road saying “In Nevada! Filled a well! T. and P.” Sometimes one of them will text me a photo of the other standing by a green, marshy spot in a field of mostly-dead yellow grass, smiling and waving the river magnet. I like to think I helped Toggle figure out a lucrative new part of his life with that magnet, if only by accidentally setting him a bad example. Then again, I’m secretly hoping that, during the margin of time before he and Paul move into the new house, he’ll make good on his threat and cement the river magnet into the basement at the old place. But really, he should please no one but himself.