Authors: Cyn Balog
Tags: #General Fiction Suspense
Hugo picks up his camera and grins. “I got some good pictures. You know you were drooling?”
My mouth drops open, and all of a sudden I can feel a spot of drool hanging over my bottom lip. I swipe at it. “If I find out you took pictures of me while I was sleeping, that thing is going to be in the river faster than you can—”
“Hey, hey, hey. Chill,” he says, as if he wasn’t the one who started it. “I only photograph subjects that interest me.”
I glare at him. That’s it. Angela is no longer my cousin. It’s bad enough I have to deal with his attitude every day after school in the yearbook office, but this is torture. There are still a few weeks left before yearbooks get printed. I’ve been toying with the idea all year long since I was appointed editor of the seniors section, but now I’ve pretty much decided that the entry under his graduation picture is going to have
an unfortunate typo: “Huge A. Holbrook.” A smile comes to my lips as I imagine it. “When do we have to leave?”
“Right about now,” Justin’s voice echoes somewhere in the woods. A second later, he’s climbing down the rocky slope toward us, wearing a yellow hooded rain jacket, hiking boots, and shorts despite the frigid weather.
Angela follows behind him, hands in her pockets. “Well, that was a big bust.” She sighs, annoyed. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“Come on. We’ve got to be there by eight.” Justin starts stuffing his backpack with supplies. Suddenly he looks at me and leans forward, kissing my forehead. “Morning. Sleep well?”
“Yep. Great,” I say.
“You ready to do some rafting?” I’m about to nod and say “Ready as I’ll ever be” when he narrows his eyes at me. “Going for the tribal warrior look?”
“Why?” I begin, and then I realize he’s staring at my cheeks. Out of the corner of my vision, I can see something black on my nose. Dirt. I start to swipe at it with my hand and Justin takes his sleeve and wipes it, too. Feeling stupid, I ask, “Better?”
He nods. “I kind of liked it the other way, though. Made you look tough.”
He would. That’s Justin for you. He’d much rather a girl sport war paint than lip gloss.
Northeast Outfitters is right across Route 201, so once we pack up all our stuff, we head across the road and into a log cabin. There are already groups of people hanging around
outside on the deck, wearing wet suits and slurping down coffees in Styrofoam cups. Most of them are older people, in their thirties and forties, maybe. They look really adventurous. Well, more adventurous than I do, I’m sure. Hell, I’m nervous about how stupid I’m going to look in my rented wet suit.
Here we’re close enough to the river that I can look across to the other bank. Scattered among the black pines are bits of gray stone and concrete, what looks like the broken remains of some old building. For a moment I think I see someone moving there, but when I focus I realize it must only be the pine trees sweeping back and forth in the wind. At least, I hope.
When we go inside, Justin saunters up to the desk, self-assured. “Hey, Spiffy!” he calls, and I know he’s talking to Pat Skiffington, one of the guys who work here and one of Justin’s oldest friends. Justin’s family has been coming to the Outfitters for so long that the two families exchange Christmas cards—the last one I saw from the Skiffingtons had Frosty careening down a river in a yellow raft. Even when planning for this trip was in the earliest stages, it was always “Spiffy will hook us up” and “Spiffy knows this river better than anyone.” I peer around the shoulders of the other people in the room to see a guy with the most shocking red hair and freckles clap Justin on the back and say, “Yo, man!” He’s wearing a Red Sox cap turned backward and a rumpled T-shirt, and he looks about as unspiffy as a person can get.
I hang back with Angela, who is trying to find one of her
booties in her bag. She and Justin brought their own wet suits, since they’re up here all the time, and Hugo borrowed his brother’s. But for me, it’s rental city. Ugh. I don’t really like the idea of a suit that hugged someone else’s most private body parts hugging mine, but I’m determined not to complain. I’m determined to be okay with roughing it, which was why I pretended it was
that we didn’t brush our teeth, despite the thick film on mine that I keep trying to wipe away with my tongue. I bite my lip and focus on the pictures in a glass case along with a huge map of the state. Photographs of dozens of smiling people in ballpark-mustard-color rafts, surrounded by white water. They all look so happy. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to smile like that. Well, not surrounded by a raging river, at least.
Then I turn to another picture that looks out of place among all the color photos. It’s faded and yellowing, part of an old newspaper article, and the frame itself is cracked and covered with what looks like years of dust. The headline on it says: RIDE THE DEAD RIVER WITH THE SKIFFINGTON BROTHERS. There are two men, one clean-shaven in a suit and tie, and the other in a beard and a flannel shirt, standing under a GRAND OPENING sign on the porch of what must be the same cabin I’m standing in. The date on it is July 18, 1992.
“Got it!” Angela says, triumphant, hopping around to squeeze the bootie onto her foot. She’s already wearing her wet suit. It’s cute, mostly black with a little pink stitching. She looks even better in the wet suit than she does in regular
clothes: strong, statuesque, and athletic. I think I will probably look like a full garbage bag in mine: lumpy, shapeless, and sadly waiting to go to where its life will end.
Justin motions to us. I move through the crowd and lean against the desk as he hands me a pen. “You guys just need to sign this release,” he says.
I read it as both Hugo and Angela hurriedly scribble their names on the line. I have to focus on my breathing when I go down the list of possible risks: “disease, strains, fractures, partial and/or total paralysis, death, or other ailments that cause serious disability.”
I repeat Angela’s words to calm myself.
Then I stop when I see: “Signature of parent or guardian if under 18.” I look at Justin. He mouths,
It’s okay. Just do it
I hesitate for only a second. This is Justin. Justin, who always checks my seat belt to make sure it’s fastened before he takes Monster out. Justin, who religiously stays to my left when we’re walking down the sidewalk, to protect me from whatever peril might lie in the street. He wouldn’t have me sign anything unless there really was no danger involved. It’ll just be a leisurely jaunt down the river.
. I grab the pen and sign
“Let’s get you a suit. It’s twenty to rent,” Spiffy says, inspecting me as I fork over the crumpled bill that’s been glued with sweat to my palm. I think he’s probably just trying to figure out what size I am, but when he turns around and walks into the back of the office, Justin winks at me.
want me,” I mutter.
I stick my tongue out at him just as Spiffy appears in the doorway with an amorphous gray thing with pee-yellow arms that looks like it has seen better days. “You can try it on here,” he tells me, motioning to the back. “Want some help?”
I look at Justin helplessly. Is that some backwoods pickup line?
He grins at me. “Let him help you get dressed,” he whispers. “It will be the highlight of his young life.”
I scowl at him as Spiffy just pulls aside the curtain and lets me pass, as if he’s dressed teenage girls in neoprene a million times before. “You wearing long underwear?”
The curtain swings back, effectively shielding me from Justin’s
I told you so
expression. I nod, stripping off my North Face jacket. I’m actually wearing two layers of water-resistant skin and two pairs of extra-thick wool socks that go up to my knees because I know I’ll be freezing. Justin is wearing long underwear, and if he, the Snowman himself, the man who is known to traipse around in the dead of winter in nothing but gym shorts, is wearing long underwear on this trip, I know we’re talking about some
cold. I stare at the suit as Spiffy holds it out to me. “How do I get it on?” I laugh nervously. “I’ve never—”
“Here,” he says, leaning over and helping me step into it. I nearly fall over a few times before zipping it up over my long underwear. As I’m leaning over to fasten the booties, feeling
as flexible as a sausage in its casing, I realize the suit smells like feet. Feet with a thin Febreze mask.
I swallow as I look at myself in a floor-to-ceiling mirror. I’m pretty thin, but that doesn’t matter: I
like a sausage, or rather like a plastic bag of potatoes, lumpy and round. “Um, so,” I say, trying to take the focus off my foxy wet-suit-clad body, “your dad started the Outfitters?”
He nods. “My dad and his twin brother.”
“Twin? I was looking at the picture in the lobby. They don’t look very alike.”
“They aren’t. They lead completely different lives. My uncle is really into rafting and convinced my dad to invest in the Outfitters. My dad isn’t into that stuff at all, but he has a lot of capital.” He smiles. “My dad kind of hates this place now. He goes where the money is, and this is pretty much a money suck. I think that picture out front is the only one I have of the two of them together.” He holds out a plate of assorted breakfast goodies. “Pastry?”
I pluck a blueberry muffin off the plate. “Don’t they like each other?”
He shrugs. “Not even close. They may be twins, but Uncle Robert is so different. A free spirit. He was never around much, even after the Outfitters was started. Then he left two years ago to hike the Appalachian Trail and we haven’t heard from him since. But the guy always does things like that. Crazy things. My dad doesn’t know the first thing about rafting, so I pretty much run this place. I’ve been down the Dead a thousand times. Your boyfriend is one of
my best customers. And your cousin. They talk about you all the time.”
“They do?” I blurt, almost spitting out a bit of my muffin. I can’t imagine what they would say, other than
She’s not exactly an outdoorsy girl
He checks a clock on the wall and says, “We’d better get you out there. Bus leaves in five.”
“Okay. Are you going to be on our raft?” I ask. Maybe having The Guy Who Knows Everything About the Dead on my raft would stop my stomach from clenching like it is.
He shakes his head. “There’s a group of novices going out, and they’ll need my help more than you. With Justin and Angela, you’re in good hands. Your guide is Michael. He’s a good guy. Been with us a couple years.”
“Oh,” I say, unable to hide my disappointment. “Is it really wild out there?”
I’m hoping he’ll tell me that no, it’s calm, for some reason they just can’t understand. You can see your reflection in the water. Babies can bathe in it. Instead, he says, “Oh yeah. Wildest of the year is right now. Over seven thousand see-eff-esses.”
“Cubic feet per second. Great time to come up. Great time.”
I gulp. Oh yeah.
I feel all stiff in this getup; bending my limbs is nearly impossible. When I walk, I’m sure I look like I just peed my pants. We step out to the front and I see through the picture
window that a bunch of the rafters are already boarding the white school bus that’s going to take us to put-in.
We’re all alone in the building, so when I hear someone behind me breathe
What the devil is that?
I turn back to Spiffy and try to figure out what he’s talking about. But he’s just looking at me blankly.
“What the devil is
?” I ask, confused.
He stares at me.
“You just said—”
“I didn’t say anything.” He’s staring at me as if I have a horn protruding from my forehead. Come to think of it, it didn’t sound much like his voice. It had a rougher edge to it, but not only that, there was an accent. Australian, I think. I turn back to where the voice came from, but the room is empty. All I see is that picture of the two Skiffington brothers, smiling together.
“Um, okay,” I say, and then try to cover up by saying, “So, what’s over on the other side of the river?”
He waves his hand over there. “Oh, death. Destruction. All that good stuff.” I guess I must be staring at him, because he says, “I’m kidding. Well, only partly. It’s an old cemetery.”
He continues, “Haven’t you ever heard of what the west bank means?”
I shake my head.
“Many civilizations used to believe the east bank of a river symbolized birth and renewal. The west bank symbolized
death. And so people lived on the east bank. They buried their dead on the west bank.”
I shudder. We really should not be talking about death at a time like this. I’m about to say something like “How interesting,” although really I wish he’d talk about bunnies and rainbows, when it comes again:
What the devil is that?
This time I’m sure of it. It came from the direction of the picture. I stall in the doorway and turn to Spiffy right away, but he’s just jingling his keys and trying to usher me out the door so he can lock up the office. I want to ask him, “You didn’t hear that?” but I already know the answer. He didn’t hear a thing.
Maybe it was just the wind whistling through the trees outside.
But when I climb down the stairs to the gravel driveway, the first thing I notice is that the pines surrounding the Outfitters cabin are completely still. Overhead, a blackbird caws. We may be on the living side of the river, but I can’t stop myself from shivering as I board the bus and we rumble down the dirt road toward the put-in site.
ustin holds my hand on the bus ride down to the river. He likes to trace letters in my palm, secret messages, but this time I’m only getting fragments. First a
, then some other letter, then a
. He looks at me expectantly, but I’m just puzzled.