Authors: Cyn Balog
Tags: #General Fiction Suspense
Whispers again. Just fragments of speech. This time I know they’re senseless, so I don’t bother to listen.
My eyelids sting as I push my eyes open. The sky again, gray and somber. Pine branches above, dulled in the fog. The mist is thicker now, borderline drizzle. My eyelashes are wet.
I feel for my limbs, wiggling my fingers and toes. My fingers ache from the cold, and my feet, in scratchy wool socks, ache, too. My face burns as if from a thousand needle
pricks. I sit up, the same familiar pain slamming against my forehead, expecting to see the river on both sides of me. But I’m on the bank.
I turn around, but I’m alone. The boy who saved me is gone, but his voice is ringing in my ears:
Don’t you ever come back. It’s too dangerous
. What the … Who the heck was he? Hot as hell, but reminding me so eerily of my dad. Great combination.
I struggle to my numb feet and climb the bank, looking for him, for some sign of him, but there is nothing. It was a dream. It has to have been a dream. But all the while, I feel the pressure of his fingers on my back, and I can still hear his voice in my head—it makes me shiver.
No, it was just a dream. Normal people can have very realistic dreams, and that’s all it was.
I climb a little farther, and just as I begin to wonder how I’m going to get back to camp, which must be miles downriver, I see a sign in the brush. I stumble over to it on my useless legs and read: NORTHEAST OUTFITTERS. There’s an arrow pointing down a path, and the familiar rich wood of the cabin peeks from among the pines.
I want to cry from the beauty of it. I want to fall to my knees and thank the heavens. But I also want to be warm, and my legs must want that, too, because before I know what I’m doing, I’ve broken into a run. I racewalk, limping slightly because I can’t feel much of my feet, toward the log building, throw open the doors, and burst into the Outfitters, gasping in relief as the heat rushes to my face. It stings my skin, but
it’s a welcome sting. The only thing better would be a nice, hot shower.
Angela and Hugo are sitting on the big leather sofa, nursing mugs of coffee. A fire roars in the fireplace, and I can already feel its heat. She jumps up when she sees me. “Oh my God, sweetie! Are you okay?”
I nod. “I’m just—”
She’s not paying attention. She’s already shoved Hugo off the couch and is propping up the pillows for me to lie down. She quickly kneels in front of me and commences with Operation Flo Nightingale. “Is there frostbite? Can you feel your toes?”
Before I can answer, she orders one of the men standing idle nearby to get her some blankets and a tub of warm water. Soon she’s got pretty much everyone nearby helping out. She’s truly in her element. Hugo’s just standing there, and I half expect him to whip out his camera and start photographing my feet, which are a peculiar blue color, so I’m relieved when Angela orders him to go find Justin.
“Where is he?” I ask as Hugo runs outside.
“Looking for you, of course. He’s out of his mind with worry. We have fifty people out there, all looking for you,” Angela says. She stops rubbing my feet and studies me, then breaks into a sob. “Oh my gosh,” she wails, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. “I was so worried about you! I really thought you were gone. You’re not just my cousin, you’re one of my best friends. If anything happened to you, I would never forgive myself.”
“It’s not your fault,” I say, leaning over to pat her back.
“Uh-huh it is! We practically dragged you here.” She wiggles my pinkie toe and I laugh, which I guess is a good sign, because she sighs with relief and moves on to the other foot. “We looked everywhere, but you just went under and you never surfaced. I’ve never seen anything like it. What happened to you?”
I shrug. I want to say something about that guy who saved me, but that must have been a hallucination. Everything about it seems tinged with gray, like an old dream. Like one of those visions I used to have long ago, when I lived in New Jersey. I think about that dark figure looming in the distance, across the river, and shudder. “I guess I blacked out. And when I woke up, I was on the riverbank, right by the Outfitters.”
She wrinkles her nose. “That’s, like, impossible.”
“Because it’s fifteen miles! You floated downriver in the cold for fifteen miles and your feet look like this? And somehow the river just deposited you right on the shore in front of the Outfitters?”
I stare at her. “What, you don’t believe me?”
“No, I do. It’s just a miracle,” she says. “I’ve heard of people blacking out during times of extreme stress. Maybe you … I don’t know. It’s a miracle.”
The door bursts open, sending a swirl of cold air into the cabin. Justin rushes in, with Hugo at his heels. “Is she okay?” Then he sees me. “Kiandra, are you okay?”
I’m about to speak, but Justin looks at Angela for confirmation. “Yeah,” she says. “She seems okay.”
“The paramedics will check you out,” he says, his eyes wider than I’ve ever seen them. It looks like he’s the one who needs medical help.
Suddenly I remember the blood oozing from my back. I’d been so comfortable on the sofa I’d forgotten about it. “Oh, I—I think I hurt my back.” I lean forward and they both inspect it, moving me back and forth to see what I’m talking about.
Angela helps me pull off the wet suit. My limbs are kind of sore, but moving them feels good. The pain is a confirmation I’m alive. I sit there for a while in my long underwear, waiting for them to say something about how big the wound is or how it’ll need stitches, but I wait, and wait. Finally, I look up at their faces. Angela is squinting, not in horror, but as if she’s trying to see something on the point of a needle. Justin says, “Where?” and massages my shoulder. His hands are already warm, even though he’d just been out in the cold.
I hurt all over—but back there? No, it doesn’t ache anymore. Could that have been a dream, too? “There’s no blood?”
Someone comes with a couple of blankets. Angela throws one over me and says, “You should rest. You might have hit your head.”
The wet suit is a puddle on the ground. I lean over and pick it up, turning it over in my hands. No holes. It was a dream. Just like the ones I had in Jersey. Those used to feel so real, I’d known some of the characters in them by name. I used to
miss them when they weren’t with me. I find myself flashing back to the girl in the white dress, walking along the river. Lannie.
I look up. They’re all staring at me expectantly. “Um, what?”
Angela says, “I asked if you wanted something to eat.” She looks between Justin and me. “You know what? I’ll just get her a bagel. You guys talk,” she says, and speeds off.
Justin kneels down on the braided rug beside me. “You scared me to death,” he whispers, rubbing his face tiredly.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s not your fault. It’s ours. I just— You’re so light. I could carry three of you, if I wanted to. Why couldn’t I pull you in?”
I shrug. “Maybe my foot was caught in the branches of a tree or something.”
He nods, but the look on his face is doubtful. “And then how did you end up here?”
I explain to him what I told Angela. “She says it’s a miracle that I made it after that long in the water.”
He lets out a short laugh. “I’ll say.”
“So I should be dead?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never had it happen before. The few times we lost people we were able to get them back in the boat within a couple of minutes. That water was, like, forty degrees. How did you … Oh, right. You blacked out.” He exhales and runs his fingers through his hair. “Yeah. I thought you were probably dead.”
He gives me the most pathetic look I’ve ever seen. For the first time, his eyes glisten a little, maybe from tears, but
then I think I must be going crazy because Manly Justin does not cry.
“But I’m not,” I say brightly, trying to take the edge off his misery.
“But you should be. You were gone for
, Ki. That’s how long it takes to get down here from put-in. And you got dumped fifteen minutes into the ride. You don’t float down the Dead River in May on nothing but your good looks and end up back home
.” He reaches under the wool blankets and wiggles one of my toes, like he’s playing This Little Piggy. “And with all your cute parts still intact.”
I shrug. “Just call me Miracle Girl.”
He smiles. “Hell yeah, Miracle Girl. I’m so freaking relieved. How would I have explained this to your dad?”
Angela returns with a bagel with cream cheese and a mug of coffee. “You eat this and rest,” she says. “I’m going to go back to our cabin and pack, and you guys come over after the paramedics have checked everything out.”
I look at her. “Pack?”
Justin nods. “I think we’d better call it a weekend, don’t you? You can’t really want to …”
“No, it’s okay,” I say, wondering how I’d explain to my father why we came home from Baxter Park early. Besides, prom is tomorrow and it’s too late to even think about going now. The words
Don’t you ever come back. It’s too dangerous
play somewhere in the back of my head, but that’s no problem. It’s not like I was planning to go rafting again. And besides, that was just a dream. “We were going to hike and
stuff. I still want to do that. I don’t want to ruin your weekend. You’ve planned it for so long.”
“But—” Angela starts, and then looks at Justin.
“But really, I’m fine,” I say. Plus, the idea of hanging out with Justin tonight, alone, sounds really good. I’m fine. And I’m not going to let a swim in the river and some stupid hallucination tell me where I can and can’t go.
“All right,” they say in unison, then look at each other and laugh.
I knew it wouldn’t take much to convince them. After Ange leaves, I take a bite of my bagel, and then another, and before I know it, it’s totally gone. I’m ravenous. I could eat another one. Maybe two. I also could probably sleep for fourteen hours, because my head feels heavy, almost like there’s water in my ears. I try to stand up to get to the kitchen but Justin puts a firm hand on my shoulder. “I’ll get you another, as long as you chew the next one before you swallow. The last thing I need is you almost dying
.” He rolls his eyes like I’m a toddler in danger of ruining another perfectly good onesie.
I smile, thinking I have the best boyfriend in the world, then lean over to pick up my socks. I’m just stretching them out on the rug to let them dry when I realize something. I was wearing two pairs of heavy wool socks earlier. Now there is only one.
The other pair, I gave to that boy on the river. The boy who warned me to go away. The one I’d just convinced myself didn’t exist.
ow I’m at the edge of the river, watching the waves with the girl in the white dress. She’s crying. “Hi, Lannie,” I say
She smiles and wipes at her tears. “Tootsie. You came back. I can’t believe you came back. And you remember me.”
“Of course I do.” I try to see where I am, but the sun is bouncing off the ripples in the water, drenching everything around me in white. “Where am I, though?”
She doesn’t answer. Suddenly it’s like I’m in a white room with no windows or doors. Just me, alone. But the name Jack rings in my ears. I’ve never known anyone with that name, at least not until … No, it’s familiar. I did hear it, once before, quite recently. Jack McCabe
Sleesh … sleesh … sleesh.
Only a second later the story comes to me. I see the girl, dressed all in white, strolling into the woods. Lannie. And he’s watching, close behind, his eyes dark and intense
The man from across the river. Jack. Jack McCabe
I did everything you asked of me
Somehow, it’s dark now. He follows Lannie, deeper into the forest, toward the river, toward her. I follow, too, stumbling over the brambles and uneven ground. Lannie stops by the river, standing still at the very edge. I watch as Jack approaches, expecting him to call out to her, to reach for her. Instead, at the moment he’s supposed to do that, he turns. Lannie turns. They’re both looking at me
Blood is trickling over Jack’s forehead, making an upside-down Y over the sides of his nose. Lannie has the ax. It’s covered in blood. “Everything’s wrong,” she seethes. “Because of you.”
At first I don’t know who she’s speaking to, but her eyes are on me. “Wait—” I say
But she is storming toward me, ax raised over her head. Hatred disfigures her pretty face. Hatred for me?
Jack doesn’t move. “I did everything you asked of me,” he whispers, a tinge of sadness in his voice, but by then she is upon me
I wake with a start, expecting to hear the blade whistle down on me. Instead, the fire crackles. Far away, people are laughing. It’s warm, and the orange light of the fire is homey and inviting. A cuckoo clock cuckoos. I look down. My second bagel, slathered in cream cheese, is sitting on the coffee table. Justin is leaning forward, staring at me. “Nice nap?” he asks.
Yeah. Real nice.
I wipe my eyes and reach for my mug of coffee. It’s cold and bitter but I sip it anyway.
“The paramedics are here,” he says.
I sit up and two men poke me, take my vitals, and, as I
expected, tell me I’m perfectly healthy. I wonder if that’s what they’d see if there was a test they could do on my mind. Because the dreams, the dreams I used to have when I was a kid, when I lived by the water … I might be completely wrong, but that felt a lot like one of them. One of the bad ones.
“You okay?” Justin asks after we pack up our stuff and start walking back toward Angela’s place. By then, the sun must have come out, because it’s sinking beyond the tall pines on the other side of the river, painting the whole sky the color of flames.
I nod. “I just want to get back to the cabin. Take a hot shower.”
He winces. “Ooh, sorry. You know Angela’s place doesn’t have running water.”