Authors: Cyn Balog
Tags: #General Fiction Suspense
“Oh.” I want a shower so bad, I can almost taste the hot steam, feel it curling around my body as the water rinses the grimy river away. My skin is gritty, dirty. I take my hair out of the ponytail holder and try to comb it back with my fingers, but they stick in the mess of knots and dirt and who-knows-what in there. I might have a colony of something living in my hair follicles. I hang my shoulders and a tear slips out of the corner of my eye.
“You can take a shower back at the Outfitters,” he says brightly. “Hey, how about this. I’ll go get your bag, and you go back there and tell Spiffy. He’ll set you up.” He winks. “It’ll be the—”
I glare at him. “Highlight of his young life, I know. Shut up.”
“I’m just kidding. But seriously. I’ll walk you over. They have nice showers there. And Spiffy won’t peek.” He smiles. “That much.”
I punch him, but I go along with it anyway. “I can make it myself. You go on,” I say, giving him a kiss. His hand lingers on mine for a while before he lets it go, and after taking only one step toward the cabin, he turns right back, just to make sure I really am okay. He exhales slowly, and I know he’s thinking he almost lost me.
When I leave him, I can’t help picking up the pace. Showers! A chance to brush my teeth! To look and feel normal again! Just the thought of it sends me skipping back along the path.
I find myself slowing, even before my mind catches up with what is happening. I look up and across the river. Among the trees, their new leaves whipping in the wind, I see him.
The man across the river. Jack. He’s standing still, as in my dream.
, I think, my body turning to ice.
It’s him. He’s real
I turn down the path, wishing Justin, or
, were nearby and could see him, too. But once again I am alone. I start to walk again, knees weak this time, when out of nowhere a hand falls on my shoulder.
I gasp as a nearby voice says, “You should leave. I told you to, kid.”
The boy I’d spoken to on the island. He’s bleeding from that wound I thought I’d wrapped. It’s not wrapped now. The blood is dripping on his bare foot.
“I’m not going anywhere. You are not real,” I whisper.
But he’s so close. So, so close. He leans in, even nearer. If he’s not real, why do I feel his breath on my cheek?
He extends a long finger, pointing directly to where Jack is standing. “He’s got his hooks in you already? Geesh. I thought you were stronger than that, kid. You
. You just don’t get it. Suppose I’m gonna have to learn you what’s what. Never thought I’d have to learn a Levesque girl.”
I stare at his oozing wound. A wound he barely seems to notice. “You’re … still bleeding.”
He narrows his eyes. “Are you listening to anything I say?”
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Now’s not the time for proper introductions.”
“You know my name, somehow. I want to know yours,” I say bitterly.
“It’s Trey,” he says quickly, but somehow I already knew that. Trey. The boy from the story. These people are all from the stories I heard over the campfire last night.
stories. Ever since I heard them, I’ve been hallucinating. But why? Before I can ask another question, he speaks. “You love your boyfriend?” he asks.
“What?” I say. As if it’s any of his business. But the thing is, I don’t even wonder how he knows so much about me. It’s almost like I expected him to know everything. Because he
is just a part of my imagination, right? “Why am I talking to you? You’re not r—”
“Do you?” He positions himself squarely in front of me so that his eyes bore into mine. His blood drips on my hiking boots, seeping between the laces. For someone who isn’t real, his words hit me hard.
I bite my tongue. “Yes.”
“You love your life? You love your daddy? You want to get back home to him?”
I nod. “Yeah. Of course. What—”
“Then you need to hightail it out of here while you still can, girl. Don’t make me—”
I’m snapped back into reality when a bird caws in the trees. I turn and Spiffy is staring at me. The boy I was just talking to is gone.
“Hi there,” Spiffy says gently. “Sorry you had such a crap time out there. Not one of our better days on the Dead.”
For a second, everything is out of focus, and when I finally come back, I have to grab Spiffy’s shoulder to stop myself from falling over. He steadies me. “Still woozy, I guess,” I lie.
“You should probably lie down,” he says, his voice slightly condescending.
I swallow, wondering how much he witnessed. Did he see me talking to that guy? Judging from the way his eyebrows are raised, it’s very likely he saw me talking, all right—to nobody. I want to grab him and ask him if he sees Jack across
the river, but by then Jack is gone. I’m back in the land of the living. “I thought maybe I could grab a shower?” I ask, my voice cracking because I’m trying too hard to not sound insane.
He brightens. “Hey. Yeah. Sure. This way.”
I follow him, but now even the idea of a shower doesn’t sound so great. Because now, I really don’t want to be alone. Alone … with
wipe away the steam on the mirror but don’t recognize the face there. I scrubbed and scrubbed the river grime from my body in the shower, but no amount of scrubbing could wash away the voices in my head. The visions didn’t attack me while I was washing, but I couldn’t help worrying that they would. If Jack and Trey and the others would rip back the shower curtain and say, “Surprise!”
The thought makes me quiver. My eyes are sunken, and maybe it’s the fluorescent light or the deep creases in my forehead, but I don’t look very pretty anymore. And I can’t help wondering what it was my mother heard, what my mother saw, that made her walk into the river that day. Maybe she didn’t go willingly. Maybe she …
No, that’s stupid. She killed herself. End of story.
As I spread my toiletries along the glass shelf, I wonder if things would have been different if I had insisted on going to the prom. Hell, of course they would have. If I’d had a backbone. If I’d told Justin what I wanted.
I think of what that boy said to me.
I thought you were stronger than that
. Then I shake it away. I don’t want to think about him, about what one of my stupid visions said. They’re from
. They’re not real. What do they know?
I don’t have a hair dryer, so I towel-dry my hair and tie it up in a loop at the top of my head, then brush my teeth and throw on a bulky sweatshirt and jeans and my North Face jacket. I was hoping the shower would make me feel more comfortable, but I still feel … icky. Wrong.
When I step into the main room, Justin is waiting for me. “Feel good?”
He grabs me into a bear hug and gives me a peck on the nose. I smell peppermint and shaving cream. He must have showered, too. “Yeah. Better.”
Though not much.
We walk outside and immediately I smell chicken roasting. Smoke billows from a spot over the hill, near the river, and a bunch of people are congregating at picnic benches. We start to walk there, but I stop. I don’t want to be anywhere near the river. I don’t want to be where I can hear the whispering. Where I can look across the river and see
Justin senses something and hangs back. “Not hungry?”
I look down at my hands. They’re shaking. I’m pathetic.
Real or not, that guy was right. I am stronger than that. At least, I should be. And maybe if I can prove they don’t frighten me, the visions will leave me alone.
I take a step forward. “No, I am,” I say, picking up the pace.
I can ignore the whispers. And if he’s there, I’ll just ignore him. Besides, it’s not like they’re real. They can’t do anything to me. They’ve never done anything to me before.
By the time we make it to the picnic benches, my mouth is watering. We grab a couple of Cokes and stand in line. There’s a Tupperware container of dill spears. As I’m sucking a pickle into my mouth, a camera clicks. Oh no. Hugo. I can just see the next issue of the school newspaper, with my face on the front page.
“Would you stop—” I whirl around, fully prepared to stab him with my plastic fork, when I’m faced with an older man I’ve never seen before. He has a way-more-professional-looking camera and a way-less-smarmy-looking expression than Hugo’s. I step back. “Oh.”
“You’re the one, right?” he says, his words coming out kind of garbled because he’s trying to uncap a pen with his mouth while juggling his equipment.
I just stare at him.
He finally manages to get his things under control and extends a hand. “Mark Evans,
Portland Press Herald
. Heard about your little swim.”
Oh. My. God. “No, I—” But I don’t know what to say. All I know is that my dad always starts off his morning with two things: a bowl of Cheerios and a copy of the
Portland Press Herald
. And the last thing he needs is to find his daughter’s picture on the front page when he’s expecting her to be hiking at Baxter State Park.
This is not good.
“You’ve got the wrong girl,” Justin says behind me. “I think I saw her over near the front office.”
“Oh. Thanks,” the man says, hurrying off.
I turn to Justin, surprised. He’s usually the last person to catch on to anything; thinking on his feet, lying—these things come about as easily to him as rocket science. He grins at me. “My girlfriend, the celebrity. What do you say we get our food to go? The Bruins are on tonight. Playoff hockey.”
“That sounds just fantastic,” I joke. He knows how little I like to watch hockey, how much Wayview’s obsession with the sport drives me crazy.
We get two plates heaping with chicken, corn, and coleslaw, and head back up to the cabin. “That was a close one, huh? Don’t know what I would have told your dad.”
I shrug. “My dad likes you.”
“That will change easily if he finds out about this.”
“He won’t find out. And we went over this. Rafting is as safe as bowling. His fears of this place are completely irr—” I stop. I can’t really say they’re irrational anymore. Not after what happened today.
“It sucks that we had to lie to get you up here. I mean, it’d make a cool story. When I was waiting for you to take a shower, I heard all the guides talking about you. Some of them have been on the river for a dozen years and have never seen anything like it. They’re pretty sure you have ice water running through your veins.”
“Really?” I kind of like that. It makes me sound tough.
“Yep. They all want you even more now.”
“Oh, shut up!” I say, nearly dropping my Coke as I’m elbowing him in the ribs.
“All right. But still, it would have been sweet to see your cute mug on the front page. And a headline. ‘The Ice Girl Cometh’ or something.”
I think about it. I guess that would be cool. But the reporter would ask question after question, wanting to know how I survived the ordeal, and I wouldn’t be able to answer any of them. Nobody knows what happened on the river, least of all me. And part of me doesn’t want to know. “If my father knew, he’d kill me,” I whisper.
“I know, I know. Why do you think he’s so afraid of rafting, but he’d let you hike the Knife Edge in Baxter?” he muses as we climb the steps toward the cabin and stand at the edge of the highway, waiting for a pickup to pass. “The Knife Edge is not exactly kiddie play. People die there, you know.”
I shrug. I can’t explain that my dad would prefer me dangling from high-rises to even
sailing. Justin and I have been going out long enough, and I suppose I could tell him. Tell him that my mom walked into the Delaware one summer and never returned. But I’m not speaking of her. I refuse to let her have any bearing on my life right now, despite what my dad wants.
We step into the cabin and out of the chilly early May air. I set my plate of food on the small table in the foyer, let down my hair and start shaking it out, only to bump into Justin. He’s standing like a massive tree trunk in the center of the
hall. I try to shove him but I realize he’s dropped his plate of food. On his feet. And yet he doesn’t seem to have noticed that. He’s just standing there, frozen.
“Justin, you—” I start, but then I realize what has captured his interest.
“Hi, guys!” Angela springs up from the probably-fake bear rug at the center of the great room. She’s trying to straighten her rumpled T-shirt and wipe her mouth at the same time. Hugo gets up behind her. Both of them are all red, like they’ve been …
“Damn!” Justin shouts, like, twenty seconds too late, jumping back and looking at the mess on the floor. We both stoop down and start picking barbecue chicken and coleslaw off his hiking boots. “I mean, um, sorry if we were …”
“Oops,” I say, grinning at Angela. I take Justin’s plate and throw it in the trash, then pick up mine, trying my best to be quick about it. “You know, don’t mind us. We’ll just, um, take all this stuff and go upstairs. Okay?”
Angela looks totally embarrassed. She starts to argue, but then Hugo, who growls as if he’s about to kill us for disturbing them, pulls on her wrist. “Um, all right,” she says.
Justin plucks a corn kernel out of his laces. “Yeah. You guys … As you were, soldiers,” he mutters in an authoritative voice, taking my hand and pulling me up the stairs.
“What about your food?” I ask.
“What about it?”
“Do you want to get more?” I ask, but by then he’s slammed
the door behind me and has pushed me up against the bureau. I struggle to put my plate down as his hands find their way under my jacket. They’re warm but his skin is rough against my belly and so it tickles. When he pushes his tongue into my mouth, I can’t stop laughing.
He pulls away. “What?”
Oh, how can I explain it without hurting him? When Justin kisses me, his tongue probes my mouth, so I rarely get a chance to kiss back. And his hands are so big and pawlike, they don’t touch me in a way that elicits shivers. The words “Justin” and “romantic” are opposites. I don’t know if the stuff from romance novels is real, if it can be real to have a guy who is caring
who makes me feel weak in the knees. Justin is smart, sweet, and stable, which are all good things. He’ll never be the one to make me swoon, but some things are more important than romance.