Read Dead River Online

Authors: Cyn Balog

Tags: #General Fiction Suspense

Dead River (3 page)

I stopped sleeping. My dad was stressed out enough teaching history to inner-city kids in Paterson, in a district two hours from our house, so he didn’t need me screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night, like I so often did. He thought I missed my mom. And yeah, I did, but there was more. And I was afraid to tell him. Turned out I was as good at keeping secrets as my mom was.

I lost so many things from that room. My fairy brush, my favorite blue hair ties, my stuffed zebra. And every picture of my mother, except for one. One day, my dad took me out for what I thought was ice cream but turned out to be forever. He’d hastily packed a bag with only a few of my clothes, and so I lost my brand-new Cinderella T-shirt and my comfortable jeans. I don’t know why we left so quickly. Luckily, he’d said, he had family up in Wayview, with a kid just my age, and he couldn’t wait for me to meet them. I knew my father was anxious, because when he is, he repeats himself. As we drove, he kept telling me, over and over again, how much I’d like Maine. How Aunt Missy and Uncle Jim and Angela couldn’t wait to see me. How I was his “everything.” That’s the thing I remember the most, “You’re my everything,” spouted out again and again until it didn’t mean anything. I didn’t care. I had to pee so bad but kept thinking we were almost there. With every passing mile, I became more and more certain I’d never see my things, my old house, again. And I couldn’t stop thinking that if Mom were here, she wouldn’t have agreed to this. She hated the cold. I realized then that this was the first of many things she wouldn’t be around to protect me from.

That was when I started to hate her. Not long after, I stopped asking questions about why she did what she did. My father always changed the subject anyway.

Last year Angela hooked up with this guy named Spee. Ken Specian, really, but everyone called him Spee. He was a big jock, totally full of himself, which tells you how much I liked him. Angela has the worst luck with guys; watching her trying to get on with a guy she’s really into is like watching a plane attempting to touch down without landing gear. Anyway, she was so into Spee, but it was obvious that he didn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about her, because, well, he never took her out in public. He never took her anywhere they might see other people from school. All they ever did was go to Frank’s Diner, ten miles out of town on this deserted mountain road. Angela would just mention Frank’s and I would know what she was up to. It was a place the toothless crowd frequented, so she and Spee brought the average age of the customers down to ninety.

But then, after three months of meeting her there every week, he just stopped calling her. Angela never said as much, but I know she was devastated, because two months later she finally convinced me to go with her to Frank’s. “I need to see our place one last time. To prove he has no hold over me,” she told me. So we went. It was completely uncomfortable, sitting among dozens of people who had to put their dentures on the paper advertisement place mats to keep them clean while they nursed their free senior citizen coffees. But we did it, and there was no mistaking the look of
triumph on Angela’s face when we paid our bill and stepped outside.

That’s kind of what this trip is like to me. I think my dad thinks I’ll have a mental breakdown if I see another river. Maybe because that’s what he would do. But not me. This weekend, I’m proving that the river, that my mother, has no hold over me. She hasn’t been here when I needed her, so there’s no way I’ll let her dictate where I can and can’t go. She lost that privilege ten years ago.

And seriously, I’m fine. More than fine, now that I’m out of the Monster. I inhale the crisp, clean scent of pine and feel just perfect.

Angela bounds over to the front porch and pokes around in a snow-covered planter for the key. She and I never talk about my mom. I know Angela never met her, and I don’t think my aunt or uncle did, either, so there really isn’t anything they could say. I think someone told Angela my mom was sick. My mom sometimes complained of not feeling well. Headaches, usually. She tried to hide that from me, too, but I was lost without her, so I’d often sit outside her bedroom, waiting for the Excedrin to kick in. She had a giant green vat of headache pills in the medicine cabinet and a little matching one in her purse. I guess the whole illness thing was the way to go if you wanted to avoid the “uncomfortable truth.” Which, really, everyone did.

Inside the “cabin,” there’s a three-story-high stone fireplace decorated with giant moose antlers. Uncle Jim loves the outdoors, too, but he’s no Davy Crockett. He is all about
modern conveniences. Their place in Wayview, while full of big windows that bring the outdoors in, is crammed with all the latest gadgets: space-age coffeemakers that do everything but pour the stuff down your throat, wall-sized televisions, things like that. I should have known this place would be no different. Angela catches me looking and says, “The antlers are fake.”

“Oh,” I say, wondering where people buy fake moose antlers. There are paintings of mountain and forest scenes everywhere and it smells like pine, not real pine like outside, but pine air freshener. Something about it inspires me. There’s a poem in here somewhere. I pull out my trusty notebook and scribble some notes:
What is real? What is good about nature anyway?

Justin looks around, his upper lip curled in disdain. It’s not exactly the great outdoors. He turns to me and laughs. “Well, aren’t we just glowing?”

I smile. “Oh yes. I’m going to go pick out my bedroom. Do you think it has a fireplace? Maybe a robe and fuzzy slippers?”

“What are you writing?” he asks.

“Notes. Observations. ‘My boyfriend’s upper lip disappears completely when he is disappointed.’ ”

He realizes what he’s doing and sticks out his lips, moving them up and down like a fish gulping for air. “This better? Ah, well. And here I thought we would get the chance to snuggle.”

He’s mocking me. I’m always cold, so
I’m
the one usually
trying to snuggle against
him
. I punch his shoulder as we climb the open staircase to the loft.

Angela follows us upstairs and leads us to a giant room with another fireplace and a huge brass king bed. “You can have the master suite, if you want,” she says, giving me a wink.

We throw our stuff onto the bed. It’s not really a big deal, having the master suite to ourselves for a weekend. Teaching AP history and supervising three extracurriculars, Dad can’t always be around to watch us. At my house, we could have wild monkey sex every afternoon on the kitchen table if we so chose. As it happens, we don’t choose that, ever. I know of people in my class who live under their parents’ thumbs, so the second they’re free, they’re going at it, in public restrooms, parks, wherever. Justin and I aren’t like that. We never were.

Not that I have much to compare him to. Justin dated a bunch of other girls before me. I don’t think I ever saw him single. But Justin is my first boyfriend. So when we started dating, there were a lot of things I didn’t know. But we’ve been together since freshman year. Now being with him is like sliding into a favorite T-shirt.

And yet somehow
, I think as I pull my long underwear out of my bag,
I still couldn’t tell him I wanted to go to the prom
.

Maybe because, after three years, he should have just known.

Angela walks back down the hallway, whistling something that sounds like a cross between “Let’s Get It On” and
“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Justin puts his arms around me. He looks around and sighs.

“I know, you wanted to toast marshmallows over an open fire,” I say.

He nods. “Yeah.”

“Fine,” I say, thinking,
Next weekend. Next weekend we’re going shopping, come hell or high water
. And high water is definitely coming, whether I like it or not. He can handle a couple of hours holding my bag as I try on new clothes. “It’s pretty warm tonight. You and I can go out in our sleeping bags and light a fire and sleep under the stars. Okay?”

He raises his eyebrows. “You’d hate that.”

“No, it’ll be … fun.”

He laughs, because I’m sure my face must be twisted in disgust. “I knew I loved you for a reason.”

“Besides, Hugo’s really getting on my nerves. It will be nice to get away from him.”

“He just makes fun of you all the time because he wants you,” he says matter-of-factly.

I try to swat him away. Justin is always under the impression that anything with a Y chromosome is after me. This includes priests, dogs, and old men with walkers. “What? Oh please.”

“What can I say? You’re hot. Especially in that getup.” I start to look down at my boring North Face jacket, which is the exact opposite of hot, but he pulls me back and hugs me tighter. Hugging him feels right, comfortable, like my pillow. “Besides, he’s a guy. And I know what guys are thinking.”

“Oh, right.” I’ve heard this one before. “Sex, twenty-five hours a day.”

“Yep. We basically want to nail anything female. Especially when she’s hot.”

“This is very comforting news, coming from my boyfriend,” I mutter. I might be alarmed if he didn’t tell me this anytime I get any attention whatsoever from a member of the opposite sex. Usually with a nudge-nudge and a
See-I-told-you-so
smirk of satisfaction. “So why aren’t you trying to get some right now?”

“Because duh. I am a
gentleman
. Obviously.” He pats my butt to show me just how chivalrous he is.

“Oh.
Obviously
.”

“Well, the important thing is not that we’re thinking of sex with every girl in the world. Because, trust me, we are. The important thing is that we don’t act on it.”

“Ah, I see,” I say, as if we’re discussing the theory of relativity. “So this is proven? All guys? Sex all the time?”

“Ask any guy. Go ahead. Ask Hugo.”

I cringe. If Hugo is thinking about sex with me, I really would rather not know. “I’ll just take your word for it.”

We both turn toward the large picture window. I can make out the black water through the trees. It’s not far away. For a moment I’m in my old pink bedroom, watching the ripples dance on the walls. Then I think of that little girl, the one dressed in pink. She opens her mouth and the filth begins to ooze over her bottom lip just as I’m jolted back to reality.

“You okay?” Justin asks. When I look at him, confused, he says, “You’re shivering. Come on, Hugo’s not that bad.”

“No, it’s not that.”

“What, then? Look, you don’t have to spend the night outside with me,” he says, stroking my cheek softly with the calloused pad of his thumb.

“No, I wasn’t—” I begin, but it’s better he doesn’t know what I was really thinking. About that life that he knows nothing about. It’s not worth explaining anyway. The past belongs in the past. This trip is all about moving on, and that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Chapter Three

M
y cell rings while I’m pulling on my long underwear. I check the display and see a familiar number. “Hey, Dad,” I say, watching Justin do a little jig by the window. He’s so excited by the river, he’s gotten dance fever.

“Hey,” my dad says. “Where are you?”

“Just got to Baxter,” I lie as Justin turns to watch me. I plant my butt on the edge of the bed. “We’re setting up our tents now.”

“Cool,” my dad says. “How’s the charge on your phone?”

“It’s fine,” I say as Justin twirls around the room like he’s Julie Andrews in
The Sound of Music
. Totally sexy.

“Mount Katahdin is
breathtaking
! The hills really are alive up here!” Justin shouts. Then he falls down on the ground. Then he pretends that something is attacking him. He gets up, runs, and falls, and by then I guess the imaginary thing is on top of him because he collapses onto his stomach and screams. “And they’re … going … to eat me!”

Shut up
, I mouth, but my dad must have heard. “How is Justin?”

“Um, he’s …,” I begin, watching him miraculously revive.

Justin calls out, “Going to wait until
after
dinner to murder your daughter.”

I reach over and smack him. “… good.”

“Are you okay? Do you need anything? If you do, just call. Just call me anytime. Let your old man know how things are going.”

I sigh. That’s my dad. By now Justin is making funny faces at me, trying to get me to laugh. He almost succeeds when he rolls his eyes back in his head and pushes up his nose to look like a pig. “Everything’s fine. And I’ve got to go. We’re going to the store. We forgot …” I look around but can’t come up with anything. I’m terrible at thinking on my feet like this.

Justin offers, “Beef jerky?”

I’m about to say it, but I catch myself in time and smack him on the shoulder again. “I mean, we’re going on a hike. And we want to get up there before it gets dark.”


You’re
a beef jerky,” I whisper at Justin.

“Now?” my dad says. I can just picture him in the living room, looking at the kitchen clock through his bifocals and shaking his head. “It’s awful late for that. Bring flashlights in case you’re not back by nightfall.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Levesque. Everything’s fine,” Justin calls, starting to make faces again.

I smack him again as I disconnect from my father and sigh. “I hate having to lie to him.”

“He’s being irrational. People who don’t know the facts are quick to condemn it, but white-water rafting is completely safe,” Justin says, sounding like a public service announcement. Then he grins. “Now let’s go outside!”

We don’t get to ditch Hugo after all. While we’re gathering our bags and trying to sneak down the stairs, Angela comes out of her room, her eyes big and round. She has eyes that would make the most hardened criminal confess and beg for mercy. They should be surrounded by a nun’s wimple. “Where are you off to?”

“We were just, um …” Justin looks at me. He’s terrible at confrontations.

“We thought we would camp outside. Just for tonight,” I explain.

“You?”
she says to me, incredulous. When I nod, her eyes get wider yet. “But you can’t leave me alone with Hugo!” she whispers. “That would be so … awkward.”

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