Read Dead River Online

Authors: Cyn Balog

Tags: #General Fiction Suspense

Dead River (2 page)

“It’s freaking cold,” I mutter, grimacing at Angela, Miss He’s-Kind-of-Cute-and-Really-Likes-Me, in the rearview mirror. She’s the same cousin who nursed a frighteningly ugly and smelly three-legged lizard back to health in her bedroom when we were eight, after my aunt and uncle ran it over with their Cadillac SUV. Most people wouldn’t have touched it with the back of a shovel, but Angela let it sleep on her pillow.

But Angela doesn’t notice my scowl. Her eyes are focused on the river. It’s black and churning because they released the dam yesterday, something they do about ten times a year so that the rapids will be intense for rafting. Not exactly as inviting as, say, a dance floor. And lucky me, I’ll be in the middle of it tomorrow.

We pass a wooden sign in a stark field: WHAT A MAN SOWS THAT SHALL HE ALSO REAP—GALATIANS 6:7. I shudder and avert my eyes. I’d actually convinced myself that I wanted this. That this would be fun. The sparkling white frost in the bottom of a roadside ditch makes me think about the ice-blue satin gown I saw in Macy’s. Then Angela says, “Turn here.”

She points down a narrow dirt road descending into the thick forest.

“You’re not going down there,” I say, incredulous, as Justin barrels in. It’s clear, of course, that he is, that we all are, but
I think the visions of white water are dancing through his head, crowding out all the sane thoughts.

“Why not?”

“Hello? Mud season?” Among other things. It looks so dark and final down that road. As in
People have gone in, but they’ve never come out

“That’s what four-wheel drive is for,” he says, shifting into gear. The engine revs and we push forward. He pats the dashboard. “That a boy, Monster.” Justin always wanted a dog, so since his parents forbade it, he named his truck Monster.

“It’s cool, Ki.” Angela smiles and pounds her fists on her thighs. “Come on, Monster. You can do it!”

I shiver again, thinking that if my aunt and uncle, Angela’s parents, didn’t own a cabin in Caratunk, we never would have considered coming here. But Justin, Angela, and I have been planning this forever. Well, mostly Justin and Angela. They’ve talked about it constantly. It was Justin’s idea. Instead of going to the prom, we would skip school and drive up to the cabin for a long weekend during the release. The two of them were so into it, and so anti-prom, that I didn’t want to be the brat to tell them I thought dressing up for one evening might be fun. Of course, since I thought my dad would freak out if I even mentioned the word “river” to him, I told Justin we’d have to lie. I didn’t explain the details to Justin, just that my father thought rafting was dangerous. So we decided to tell my dad that we were going camping at Baxter State Park. Justin hates deceiving anyone, so for him
to lie to my father so convincingly, I knew this was where his heart was.

Back when the idea was hatched, I’d convinced myself I didn’t care about the prom. My friends had a way of rolling their eyes and making snide jokes about the event every time it was mentioned, so I went along with it. Angela is a flip-flops and T-shirt girl, so she was dying for an excuse to dodge tripping in three-inch heels. Plus, she’s been on the Dead a hundred times. I’d always seen myself in ice-blue satin, descending a long, winding staircase with a tuxedoed prince, but I couldn’t tell them that. They would have laughed their heads off at me.

You reap what you sow
, I think, leaning my forehead against the cool window, letting my breath condense on it in a circle so I can draw a smiley face. Then I wipe it out as Monster sticks again and Angela shrieks, “Just gun it! Gun it, boy!” like a total hick.

sowed this.

It’s too late now. I should have said something to Justin. Something like “I’ll go rafting with you if you go to the prom with me.” After all, the heart of
. But this weekend is all him. And it’s too late to change that. I’ll just need to suck it up, pretend I’m enjoying myself, and make him take me shopping next weekend. This weekend can be his, as long as the next one is mine.

Justin grins, digs his foot into the accelerator, and we lurch forward. More shrieking. Laughter. This morning’s cinnamon raisin bagel gurgles in the back of my throat. I’m
not even in the water yet and I can already feel the current carrying me away.

A minute later the cabin comes into view, and my spirits brighten considerably.

“Whoa, Angela. You said ‘cabin’?” Justin asks, staring up at it.

“Yeah. Cozy, huh?”

My mouth drops open. Justin, Hugo, and I live in trailers on the west end of Wayview, Maine. It should be called Noview, though, because everywhere you look, there’s nothing but tall pines. It was Dad’s way of insulating me from anything that could possibly remind me of the river where my mother died. There’s not a brook, a pond, or even a puddle anywhere in sight. Angela’s house, or
, as most would say, is on the east end of the forest. Angela’s dad, my uncle, is a retired CEO and owns a lot of real estate. This vacation “cabin,” which they bought last year but have maybe used a total of twice, is probably bigger than all three of our trailers put together. I look over at Justin, and for once, his expression matches mine.

Then he sighs. I am sure he was looking forward to “roughing it.” I’m feeling better already. I can keep my distance from Hugo. Maybe we’ll even have running water. A steamy shower would be so …

She catches me smiling. “It’s nice, huh? But my parents turned off the water for the winter, so …”

Of course. They only use the cabin in the warmer months. The pipes would have frozen and burst during the long
Maine winter if they hadn’t turned off the water. I swallow the bad taste in my throat. “It’s cool.”

We pile out and Justin begins pulling things from the bed of his truck. Groceries, a backpack of my clothes, my travel chess set, the liter of Absolut Justin took from his dad’s overstocked and underused liquor cabinet to celebrate our conquering of the Dead. Hugo starts snapping pictures of all the trees, as if we don’t have enough of them back home. From here, the river sounds like the gentle hum of an electric toothbrush. The sky is the somber color of castle walls, and the leaves turn out, welcoming rain. Shapeless heaps of dingy snow fight for survival in the new spring grass. Angela grabs a handful of snow and molds it into a ball.

“Don’t you dare,” I whisper, shivering as I back away.

But it’s obvious she has other plans. She launches it over to Justin. It breaks into pieces squarely at the back of his neck, making him jump. He turns to us, amused, but before I can point her out, I realize Angela is already pointing at me, an innocent expression on her face. “Dude, I know it’s you,” he says to Angela.

He throws my pillow at her. It lands in the mud. “Justin!” I shout, annoyed, but I stop when I realize everyone else is laughing. Sometimes it bothers me how well the two of them get along. After all, they are best friends, and have known each other since way before I came into the picture. Justin once told me that Angela is like the sister he never had, and physically she’s not at all like the long line of fair, willowy blondes he’s been associated with, of which I’m the
latest. She’s not fat, but she’s solid, with wild, curly black hair and dark skin that turns almost chocolate in the sun. Angela was afraid that she would feel like a third wheel on this trip, which is why she invited Hugo, but she and Justin have so much in common, sometimes
feel like the odd person out.

I’ve heard the story a thousand times. They met on a skiing trip at Sugarloaf when they were both trying to learn the bunny slope. Their parents became friends and then they found out that they both lived in Wayview, so they kept in touch, going on vacations together sometimes in the winter and summer. Angela went to a private school in Massachusetts, but when I came up, my father insisted I go to the public school, mostly because we didn’t have the money. Justin was in my class, but I didn’t know him well. When we reached high school, Angela successfully convinced her parents to transfer her to public school by failing out of every class she took. Her parents thought that with my father teaching at Wayview High, maybe she’d be inclined to goof off less. Freshman year, she introduced me to Justin, but I didn’t think anything of it other than that he was really cute. He was dating some other blonde in our class, but we always seemed to get thrown together when Angela had parties. It wasn’t until junior year, when I had to do an article on the swim team for yearbook, that we fell for each other. He was the captain, and he came by the yearbook office one day after school to identify all the people in the group photo. He was
leaning over me, really close, and then he just moved in and kissed me. We made out for an hour, right in the yearbook office. I remember constantly saying, “But Angela …,” and him whispering, “Angela has nothing to do with this.”

I snatch the pillow up and dust it off. It’s not that bad. I feel stupid for overreacting. Hugo confirms the fact by snapping a picture of me and captioning it “Girl About to Explode.” He grins. “Not like there probably aren’t four thousand pillows in this place.”

I push the camera out of my face. I’m about to explain that my pillow is hypoallergenic and my allergies are always worst in the spring and it’s the only pillow I’ve found that’s comfortable enough, but he’s right. I do need to loosen up. Funny, I’ve spent so much energy trying to convince my dad that he’d be okay if he took the shackles off my wrists that I never even thought about whether
would be okay once I finally got loose. This is my first trip away from my dad, away from home. And that is thrilling … but terrifying.

I stifle a sneeze, then cross my arms over my chest, pinching my skin and mentally reciting my motto:
You will be chill. Ice cubes will be jealous of you

I’m about to pick up my backpack from Justin’s feet but stop when I see something in the woods. The curve of an elbow, pale white against the lush green, still and stark among the new leaves as they sway in the wind. But the next second, it’s gone. I suck in a breath, exhale slowly. The last thing I need to be doing is seeing things. Again.

The thing is, nobody here knows about my mother. Not even Angela. Hell,
don’t really even know. The mystery Nia Levesque became a part of is five hundred miles away, and I’d like it to stay there. Nobody here knows my history. And I’m going to keep it that way.

Chapter Two

t’s been almost ten years since I moved into the tall pines of Wayview, Maine, the last place on earth I’d have picked to live, if it was up to me.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

So I guess that means it will be the tenth anniversary of my mom’s death. Not that I’m keeping track. We left New Jersey only a couple weeks afterward, and we’ve never been back.

These are the facts I have: Nia Levesque waded into the Delaware River one fair summer’s night shortly after my seventh birthday. I know little else because how much a person’s mother hated life is not something people like to discuss with a seven-year-old. I remember things, though, like that her skin was always damp and clammy and that her hair always looked like it needed a comb run through it. Despite those things, she was my sun. When she was gone, it was like my whole universe went out of orbit, because I’d been so used to following three steps behind her.

I’ve heard that after a suicide, the people left behind always
look back and see signs in the victim, signs of pain or trauma they somehow ignored. I know I was only seven, but with my mom, there were no indications. Nothing. She was never distant; she smiled and hugged and kissed me all the time. When I look back at my mom, I can’t help but think there was so much about her I didn’t know, so much she must have kept hidden from me.

I know that I have forgotten things: the slope of her nose, the color of her skin, the exact blue shade of her eyes, the little mannerisms she had. Pictures don’t convey a whole person, and I only have one of those. It wasn’t the one I would have chosen, but I didn’t know that my father and I would never return home. I would have taken my whole photo book, which had countless beautiful pictures of my mother, but he chose one picture, from my sixth birthday. In it, she’s not even smiling. She’s leaning over me as I blow out the candles on my birthday cake and she looks worried, probably that a lock of my hair might get caught in the flame. I don’t know what her smile looks like anymore. Every memory I have is just a poor reproduction, merely a shade of her. I worry that as days go by I will forget more and more, and the only thing left will be this overwhelming feeling of abandonment. That and the worried, uneasy woman she was in that picture.

When we lived in New Jersey, we had a house right on the river. I had the best room, all pink, and the sunrise would bounce off the waves and create magical iridescent ripples on my walls. My father put glow-in-the-dark stars
on the ceiling, but when the moon shone, it would splash the brightest white ripples right onto them. More often than not, I felt like I was sleeping underwater rather than under a night sky.

Strange things happened around the time of her death. I can’t really explain it. I would lie in my bed, listening to the rush of the river against the rocks, and in time it would sound like voices. Whispering to me. Then the visions came. They didn’t start off frightening. I’d lie in the dark with my eyes open, watching them parade through my room, oblivious to me, a series of who-knows-what—ideas or dreams or ghosts, playing on a movie reel. Redheaded boys in overalls, fishing. Girls in old-fashioned swim trunks, holding their noses as they plunged into the blackness. Men in waders, sleeves rolled up. Sometimes I’d have conversations with them, play games with them, but usually I’d just watch them quietly, all night long, wishing I could be part of their carefree, happy lives.

Until the images … changed.

I fight back the picture of the girl in the pink party dress and tight, stringy braids. I didn’t know her name, didn’t know anything about her except that her expression was hopeless and sad, she was covered in dirt, one of her knee-high socks was pooled around her ankle, and her knees were bloody. I think she wanted to tell me something, but whenever she opened her mouth to speak to me, mud poured from it. Mud trickled from her nose, covering the lower part of her face like a beard. Her cheeks were muddy and lined with tears.

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