Copyright © 2013 by Erin Keyser Horn
For the pleasure of living outdoors you are willing to have your eyes smart from the smoke of the camp fire, and to be wet and cold, and to fight mosquitoes and flies.
~Edna Brush Perkins, in Sisters of the Earth~
If any house understands loss, it’s this one. It stares at me with baleful window-eyes, accusing me of desertion.
I heave the last box into the bed of my truck and slam the tailgate shut. After checking the house one final time, I step outside and lock the door behind me. I hurry down the steps to the driveway—only to find my truck blocked by a red Chevy Malibu.
Jen Toledo is lounging against her car, holding a styrofoam cup in one hand while talking on her cell. So this is her idea of helping me pack. Since we’ve been dreading this goodbye for weeks, I’m surprised she came at all. I half expected her to pretend it was only a day trip.
“Mom, I’ll be there soon,” Jen says. “I’m—” She’s interrupted by loud words spilling out of the phone. Then I remember it’s her first day interning at the law firm—her mother’s law firm. Upon closer inspection, I notice her sleek black pants suit and French-twisted hair.
She catches my eye and says, “Gotta go, Mom.” She snaps the phone shut.
“I bet she loved that,” I say, figuring Jen will later get rebuked for impertinence. Her mother is the only Latina lawyer in the county. She’s also the most intimidating person I’ve ever met.
“I’ll make it up to her while being her slave for the summer.” Jen waves her arm as if shooing away all worries, nearly spilling her drink in the process.
I reach out to salvage it. “What is this?” I sniff an unmistakable sweetness.
She grabs it back from me. “Mocha latte. I made it myself.”
“Because the coffee shop doesn’t add enough chocolate for you?” I like to tease Jen about having chocolate in her veins due to daily consumption. Her skin, hair, and eyes are all various shades of chocolate.
She’s always deaf to my jokes. She’ll often change the subject or keep talking as if I never said anything. Today she pulls a small square present out of her pocket.
Uh-oh. I narrow my eyes.
She knows what my glare means—it requires her soothing tone. “Kasia, it’s only a little graduation present.”
“We agreed not to exchange graduation presents!” When her voice gets softer, mine usually gets louder.
“Then it’s a going-away present. Whatever. Just take it.”
“No!” I’m not anti-gifts, but I feel like a jerk for not getting her something.
“I saw it and thought of you. Total impulse buy, so stop feeling guilty.”
I sigh dramatically, shifting my eyes to the bank of clouds hiding the sunrise. Too many emotions lately. Our high school graduation was yesterday, and now I have to say goodbye to my best friend.
“I’ll be an old woman by the time you open it,” she complains.
“You already act like one,” I say, forcing a smile. I take the present and rip the paper off, revealing a black velvet box. I feign a wide-eyed look of terror. “You’re not getting down on one knee, are you? Because I’m not ready for that level of commitment.”
Jen snorts. “I’m not marrying a biologist. That would completely ruin my social status.”
We laugh, amused at our pathetic inside jokes. I’m still chortling when I flip open the box’s lid.
My laughter stops instantly, as if I’ve opened a vacuum. But it’s not a vacuum—it’s a necklace. A silver cross on a silver chain.
My jaw feels unhinged. This gift makes no sense. One: I hardly ever wear jewelry. And two: neither one of us goes to church or talks about spiritual beliefs. I’m the wannabe biologist, the scientific one. Jen’s the wannabe lawyer, the evil one. How did she find a cross and think of me?
“I d-don’t know what to say,” I stammer.
“It’s not my typical gift,” she admits. “But I happened to see it and felt this crazy compulsion to get it for you. I thought . . . after everything with your mom . . . and with you leaving town . . . that maybe you could use something extra. Some type of protection, or good luck charm, or blessing. On the off chance that such a thing exists.”
Dumbfounded, I stare at her. What thing? Protection, good luck, or God? I’ve never seen Jen struggle with words before. Nor have I heard her talk of premonitions or superstitions.
She stops smiling. “It was a stupid idea. I’ll return it—”
Lurching forward, I hug her tightly, choking off the rest of her sentence. I’m tall enough for her head to tuck under my chin, and her coconut-smelling hair tickles my nose. “No, don’t return it. I need something to keep me out of trouble.”
She doesn’t laugh at my attempted joke. This isn’t something we can analyze, categorize, or explain away. Not a good start to the summer.
“Be careful,” she whispers.
That sounds way too serious. We need sarcasm, pronto. “You too,” I say. “Watch out for those filing cabinets.”
She gives me a playful shove. “We better hit the road, or we’ll both get fired on our first day of work.”
Nodding, I think of the long drive ahead of me. I don’t want to be late for my new job, but I don’t want to leave either. I have no other close friends, and I no longer have a family. Jen is all I have left.
I don’t tell her any of this. She hates it when I state the obvious. Instead I hold out the chain to her. “Can you help me with this?” She drapes it around my neck, and the unfamiliar weight of the cross settles on my sternum. “Thank you,” I say quietly.
Nothing left to say but goodbye. She hugs me one last time and hurries to her car, throwing a farewell over her shoulder. She despises crying as much as I do. I shout a goodbye, pretending to be cheerful, then hop in my truck.
From the driveway, she turns right and I turn left. I glance in the rearview mirror—not at the house, but at Jen’s car growing smaller in the distance.
Two hours later, I reach the parking lot for Thomson Sand Prairie. I’m the first to arrive, so the prairie feels like it belongs only to me. I stand at the edge of the wilderness and try to ignore the dark whispers of my past.
Gazing at the wide expanse of prairie, I notice how it dances under a spring-gray sky. A breeze rustles through the grass like a song. I lean closer to breathe in the rich perfume of the earth’s secrets. Little Bluestem tickles my fingers, the quiet comfort sweeping away all my darkness. I smile.
An unnatural rumble breaks the prairie’s harmony. A tiny blue car crawls into the dirt lot and parks next to my truck. This must be my new boss. I hold my breath as the car door opens . . . and he emerges. He. When my sigh whistles through my teeth, I realize I got my hopes up for a female boss. Which was incredibly stupid of me.
The oily whispers return, spilling into my ears and suffocating the wind-song. I hear Mom’s voice telling me to never get close to a guy. It was one of her two commandments—until she left and never came back.
Mom’s the one who taught me to rank every man and boy on the Scum Scale. He gains one point for each scummy characteristic, and Zero is the only passing score. No grading on the curve. No consolation prizes. No exceptions. We judge on the following criteria:
1. Lewd grin
2. Over-friendly eyes
3. Fake deep voice or pickup lines
5. Being male
My new boss is infected with a Y chromosome, which makes him an automatic loser on the Scum Scale. I try to feel sorry for him . . . but somehow I can’t.
Emotions won’t interfere with my job. I put on my business face for the boss I’m supposed to respect. He meets me between his car and the prairie, extending his hand.
“Hi, you’re Kasia Maier?” He gives a tentative smile, his teeth very white against his tanned skin.
My lips twitch in response, the biggest smile I can muster. I shake his hand and quickly let go. “Yes, sir.”
His eyes widen at the sir. “I’m Scott Emery, but just call me Scott.”
If Scott could subtract points for humility, he’d ace the Scum Scale. As it is, he only has one point against him so far. Could be worse. Despite my dream of becoming a biologist, I doubt I could stomach a boss who scored a five on the Scum Scale.
I size up Scott, searching for flaws. He looks a few years older than me. His hair is light brown; with his red t-shirt, he reminds me of a caramel-dipped apple. He also wears shorts and sandals, which seems like odd field gear for the prairie. I opted for jeans and hiking boots in case I step on a prickly pear cactus—a small plant that shoots spines into trespassers. They’re rare, but I had the misfortune of discovering them the hard way in the sand prairie I worked at last summer.
“Ready to work?” I gesture to the prairie.
“Oh. About that. . . .”
Scott hesitates, and his apologetic face makes my heart shrivel. I curse myself for getting excited about this job.
“There’s a problem,” he continues, studying his watch like he’s eager to get rid of me.
I raise my chin to hide my distress. “You don’t want me to work for you?”
“What? No, that’s not what I meant. I do want you.”
Is that a subtle pickup line? He seems innocent, but maybe he’s a pro at deception. The whispers in my mind warn me not to trust him.
“I’m sorry everything’s messed up. One of my interns took off. I’m guessing he quit and didn’t have the nerve to tell me. Another grad student is supposed to meet us here so we can work out the details.” He glances at his watch again, muttering, “Where is he?”
My heart puffs up, stupidly feeling hopeful again. My head expects to go home jobless.
I turn at the sound of an approaching engine. Dust clouds swirl as the vehicle—a yellow Jeep—slams to a stop next to my truck. The prairie’s parking lot has now reached its capacity.
New Guy slowly steps out of the Jeep. He appears close to Scott’s age, but he’s blond instead of brunette and wears field gear similar to mine. His eyes and fingers are glued to the cell phone he’s texting on.
“You’re late.” Scott sounds angrier than the tardiness warrants.
“Sorry,” New Guy mumbles, in a tone that proves he’s not sorry at all.
Scott scowls. “Kasia, this is Derick Hille.”
Derick finally puts away his phone. He double takes when he sees me, his pale blue eyes sliding from my bandana to my boots. A male with over-friendly eyes and lewd grin—Derick the Dirtbag scores a scummy Three at first glance. No way am I offering him my hand.
His gaze lingers on my hands shoved in my pockets. “This can’t be the new intern. She’s too young.”
“I’m eighteen,” I say through gritted teeth.
Triumph seems to flash across his face, but it’s gone so quickly I must’ve imagined it.
Scott takes a step closer to me. “Derick studies Ornate box turtles and is in charge of the sand prairie project.”
“I thought you were in charge,” I say to Scott.
He shakes his head. “I lead the trapping project. Fred didn’t tell you?”
“Dr. Janzen? No, he didn’t.” Dr. Fredric Janzen, a biologist from Iowa State University, hired me over the phone two weeks ago. He said a stand-in boss from ISU would meet me here for my first day of work, but he didn’t mention any names. I didn’t ask questions, afraid I’d talk myself out of the job if I knew too many details.
A sinking feeling leaves a hole in my gut. If I’m supposed to be in the prairie. . . .
“You’re working for me,” Derick says, his voice deep enough to merit another point on the Scum Scale.
“Not necessarily,” Scott says. “I think Jared quit, so now I’m one intern short. Maybe Kasia should work for me until I get someone to replace Jared.”
Derick glares at him. “If you take her, then I’ll be one intern short.”
Little boys arguing over a toy. I swallow my angry words and instead say, “What do you trap, Scott?”
The lines of his face soften when he turns from Derick to me. “Painted turtles. Have you studied them before?”
Painted. Ornate box turtles live in the prairie, but Painted turtles need aquatic habitats. My palms feel slippery, as if the oily whispers are leaking out of my skin. Mom’s second commandment: Stay away from the river.
“Janzen told me she worked with Ornates last summer, not Painted turtles,” Derick says when I fail to answer Scott’s question. “She’d be more help to me.” He props his boot on the bumper of Scott’s car.
Scott is too busy studying me to notice. He absently fidgets with his watchband. “If you can walk the prairie all day searching for Ornates, working for me will be easy—if you don’t mind the water.”
Now my face beads with sweat. My breaths are too shallow, too fast. Should I work for King Dirtbag or risk the water? Which commandment should I follow and which should I break?
“Kasia?” Scott’s voice has a tinge of concern. Usually I’m good at reading people, but his expression is one I don’t recognize. Maybe he’s warning me about Derick. Or maybe he only wants me so his project doesn’t tank.
Derick winks at me. Something about him—besides his frosted hair and ice-blue eyes—gives me the chills. “Quit badgering her. She can decide for herself what she wants.”
Neither of you, I almost say, but I have to think logically. I can’t find another biology job on such short notice; it’s May 24th, so most of the field positions have already started. No way can I go home and work a mundane nine-to-five job in a cubicle. I’m stuck here with these two bozos. It’s obvious they share an unpleasant history I want no part of, yet I’m forced to choose between them. So who would be a better reference, Derick or Scott? Easiest question ever.
Swallowing hard, I manage to say, “I’d like to try working with Painted turtles.”
“Thank you.” Scott’s blinding grin almost calms me. But I can’t let my guard down.
“Janzen will hear about this,” Derick growls. “I need to start walking transects today. How can I do that without her?”
“Fred will find a new intern for you soon,” Scott says dismissively. “Get your foot off my car.”
Derick is surprised enough to peel his eyes off me and glower at Scott. “Find me a new intern? You said you’d get someone to replace Jared.” Derick may be a jerk, but he’s not stupid—which is a crying shame.
Scott stares at the prairie for a long moment. Finally he says, “Blayne will know how to train Kasia, so I can help you until a replacement shows up. Deal?”
They lock eyes, as if not blinking proves their manliness. Derick pretends the deal is unacceptable, but I figure he likes the idea of being Scott’s boss, no matter how temporary the situation is. His eyes flick down. “You gonna wear those girly water sandals in the prairie?”
Scott doesn’t gloat about winning the staring contest. “I’ll change clothes, but first I need to call Blayne and introduce him to Kasia.”
“I’ll pick up Matt. When I get back, you better be ready to work.” Derick stomps to his Jeep and slams the door with unnecessary force, kicking up more dust as he speeds out of the parking lot.
“I think you have a new enemy.” I should probably thank Scott, but am I really better off with him than I would be with Derick?
“He’s nothing new.” Scott pauses, and I glance at his worried frown. “If anyone suffers in the long run, it’ll be you.”
“I can take care of myself.”
He nods but doesn’t seem convinced. “Just . . . stay away from him. He’s addicted to good-looking girls.”
I stiffen, and he winces. “I’m sorry, I know that’s offensive. Honestly, no girl should have to work with him. I hope Fred hires a guy to take your place.”
I’m speechless. Surely he’s not protecting me—someone he just met—so he must be playing the sensitive-guy role to trick me into liking him. I don’t know how to trust him; I can’t trust him. He’s only the better of two bad options. Someday I’ll be my own boss, and then I won’t have to deal with this crap.
Scott excuses himself and pulls out a cell phone. I hear him talking to Blayne . . . my coworker? Another guy—fabulous. What would Mom think of me working with a guy in the water? Breaking two commandments with one decision.
I grind my molars. It doesn’t matter anymore what Mom thinks; I’m on my own now. It’s time to accept it and move on. I can’t let my fears hinder my career.
Scott pockets his phone. “Blayne’s at the Causeway. You can follow me there, and I’ll explain to him about Jared.”
“Why did Jared quit?”
“No idea. I tried calling him, but he’s not answering. Which is strange—I didn’t think he was the type of person to bail on me. Maybe he was too embarrassed to tell me the truth. Some people aren’t cut out for fieldwork.”
I try to fathom this. To me, working outside every day is a dream come true.
“You’ve had a field job before, right, so you know what to expect? You get hot and covered with mosquitoes, or you get cold and wet, depending on the day.” He checks to see if he’s scared me off, but I nod reassuringly. “Then you’ll be fine. And Blayne is a good guy. He and a girl named Staci worked for me last summer. He just finished his freshman year of college, so I guess he’s a year older than you.”
Scott is trying to paint a happy scene for me, but he doesn’t know the truth—good guys don’t exist in my life. I’ll be more than happy if Blayne scores a One on the Scum Scale. Even a Two would be peachy after dealing with Derick.
“Why do you need two interns instead of one?” I ask. “Do we split up?”
“No, I want you to work together for safety reasons.”
“What are my duties?”
“You and Blayne will trap turtles in Potter’s Slough, part of the Mississippi’s backwaters. If you catch a new turtle, you’ll take measurements and a blood sample. Then you’ll mark it so we can identify recaptures.”
“Anything else?” My voice sounds high-pitched as I consider the word “backwaters.”
“You’ll also observe the female turtles when they come on land to nest. Later you’ll excavate the nests and weigh the eggs, then rebury the eggs and map the nest’s location.” Some of my confusion must show on my face, because he smiles. “Don’t worry, Blayne will explain everything. Let’s head to the slough so you can meet him.”
He insists on exchanging cell phone numbers in case we get separated. Then Scott drives his car and I follow in my truck . . . on our way to the river. My decision to spend the summer this close to the river is a suffocating weight on my chest. Attempting to calm myself, I touch my new cross necklace and wonder how Jen would handle this situation. Jen, who’s never afraid to go after what she wants. I envy her that.
Scott and I drive a few miles to the small town of Thomson. On the west side of town is a forested recreation area—Thomson Causeway. We stop at the first parking spots, where a silver Tahoe is waiting for us.
I fumble the truck keys in my hurry. By the time I find my sack lunch and water bottle, I can hear Scott saying, “Blayne, how’s it going?”
“Can’t find Jared,” comes the reply. “Is he with you?”
“Um, no,” Scott replies. “That’s what I need to talk to you about. I think Jared quit.”
I circle the Tahoe as Blayne says, “What—” His eyes widen as he notices me, his sentence dying.
My first impression of him is big blue. Tall and brawny—wearing blue jeans and a sleeveless, blue flannel shirt—he seems to dwarf Scott. Even his mop of black hair has a bluish hue. So this is my new coworker. I must calculate the likelihood of smacking him before the summer’s over.
After his initial surprise, his features seal shut like a tomb. He could be a mannequin for all the emotion he shows.
Usually when I meet guys, they’re either gross, like Derick, or they pretend to be nice, like Scott. Girls sometimes hate me at first sight because of my appearance, and guys often grow to hate me over time because of my personality. But I’ve never had a guy ignore me completely. It throws my system off balance. How am I supposed to rate this guy?
Scott says, “Kasia, this is Blayne Sherman. Blayne, this is Kasia Maier. She was scheduled to work for Derick, but I asked her to take Jared’s place instead.”
Blayne stares at Scott with single-minded force. “She can work for Derick, and I’ll work by myself.” He says this like I’m a disease he doesn’t want to be exposed to.
From the corner of my eye, I see Scott frown. “I don’t want you working alone. Besides, it would take you twice as long to finish the work by yourself.”
One corner of Blayne’s mouth twists, like the ghost of a smirk. I can’t imagine what’s funny. “Trust me, I’ll be fine.”
Scott gives me another apologetic grimace—this is becoming a habit. “Will you excuse us for a minute?”
I take my first normal breath since the moment I laid eyes on Blayne. “Sure.” Going past my tailgate, I hunker next to the rear wheel, making sure I’m out of sight but close enough to hear their conversation. I’ve never claimed high morals.
“What’s the problem?” Scott hisses.
“I’m not working with her,” Blayne says. “She’ll slow me down.”
“You don’t even know her, so how can you say that?”
“I can tell she’s soft. She won’t last a day.”
“She worked with Ornates last summer, and she comes highly recommended.” Scott’s whispers sound angry now, but it’s a fraction of how angry I am.
“Then let her work for Derick, where she belongs.”
“I can’t let her work for that slimeball. But you’re acting worse than he did, and I just told Kasia what a good guy you are.”
Silence. I strain my ears but hear nothing. Do they know I’m listening? Did they resort to sign language? I’m frozen though my blood is boiling.
A couple minutes pass until Blayne finally mumbles something. Maybe the conversation is over. I slink to my passenger door, shooing the mosquitoes that are already swarming near me.
Scott is the first to appear. “Well, I better get to the prairie before Derick has a conniption. Blayne will drive you to the site. I’ll see you this evening, okay?”
I study Scott’s forced nonchalance and try to figure out what’s happening. All I know is that with him gone, I’ll be free to punch Blayne. “Okay.”
He smiles tightly before getting in his car and driving away. I clutch my lunch bag and circle my truck again.
Blayne stands stock still behind his Tahoe, not acknowledging me. I wonder if Scott used some type of Medusa paralysis on him. Wouldn’t that be a handy trick?
My coworker will not grin, speak, or even look at me. I can’t tell if he’s chauvinistic or if I’m the only girl he hates. He’s unlike any guy I’ve ever met.
Blayne has shot my Scum Scale to pieces.
Suddenly he climbs into his driver’s seat without a word or glance in my direction. The engine roars to life.
He’s leaving without me.
In two bounding steps I reach the passenger door and yank on the handle. Thankfully it’s not locked. I leap into the seat as he throws the Tahoe into reverse. He’s backing up before my door’s even closed, and I hurry to shut it.
My heart pounds, more from anger than exertion. Would he really have left me, or was he playing some kind of prank? I chance a sideways peek at him.
His face is impassive—he’s ignoring me.
So that’s his plan. He said he could work alone, and now he wants to prove it. He’ll pretend I’m not even here. If I don’t help, then he can tell Scott I’m useless.
I consider yelling at Blayne. I should tell him I won’t surrender; that I never give up; that he’s acting like an amateur who doesn’t know how to work with others.
On the other hand, maybe that would play right into his hands. Maybe he wants me to react in such a bad way that Scott would have to fire me. Why else would he try to leave me behind if not to antagonize me?
Silence isn’t such a bad thing. It’s safer than yelling at a crazy person who happens to be driving a likely-to-roll SUV.
Blayne jabs a button on the steering wheel, and the speakers explode with sound. I wince, fighting the childish impulse to plug my ears. I don’t recognize the band or the song—some type of hard rock. It’s difficult to understand the lyrics over the booming bass and screaming guitar riffs.
I forget the music when my first glimpse of water shimmers into view. Not the river itself, but the backwaters—calm and swampy. A Great Blue Heron stands like a sentinel near the shore. A road sign warns, “Caution: Turtle Crossing.”
We cross over a bridge studded with speed bumps. Now the water borders both sides of the road, and I wonder if this is Potter’s Slough. In the distance, the slough links to the river. My breath comes out sharply—I can see the Mississippi. Only a fraction of it, but that is enough. My blood feels cold, yet my palms start to sweat again.
Finally pulling my eyes away, I focus ahead of me. Beyond the bridge are campsites. Interesting. I didn’t have time to research local campgrounds before I left home. I could sleep in my truck anywhere—at the risk of getting arrested—but I’d have to pay a fee to use a campsite. Still, easy access to bathrooms would be a nice bonus.
Blayne drives past the slough and the campsites. The road winds through a floodplain forest; one of the few dry areas boasts a hiking trail. Then we leave behind the woods and enter a large park with playground equipment, picnic tables, and a shower building. Just beyond the park—the river.
Even with the heavy cloud cover, the river sparkles with millions of gray diamonds.
I stare across the river to the banks of Iowa, realizing that Thomson Causeway is almost like an island between Potter’s Slough and the Mississippi. Only the bridge connects the campground to Illinois.
We park next to the shower building and Blayne hops out. Too bad he didn’t leave the keys in the ignition; I could’ve prevented another escape attempt. I need to keep a close eye on him. He strides to the river’s edge, once again leaving me behind. I follow, silent and persistent as a shadow. I don’t want to lag or he might complain to Scott.
Then I see what he’s heading to, and my feet sprout roots into the ground.
It floats next to the dock, looking deceptively harmless. A boat on the river.
My heart sounds like a bass drum in my ears. I gaze at the river with a parched mouth.
A distant part of my brain realizes Blayne is no longer moving. I glance at him, and for a moment he does not ignore me. He must’ve noticed my reluctance, and now his expression is smug. Like I proved him right.
My fists clench. I take one step forward, then another. I can sense the water, feel the imminent threat. But I keep my eyes on Blayne and watch his smugness melt to annoyance and solidify as impassiveness. Jeesh, he’s a pain.
Blayne the Pain. Excellent nickname—I feel better already.
I find the courage to speak, though anxiety makes my voice shrill. “Scott said we trap in the slough. Why are we going out in the river?”
His whole body tenses. He doesn’t answer right away, and I wonder if he plans to ignore me forever. Finally he grumbles, “I checked the slough traps before you showed up. Now I’m supposed to scout the river for new places to set traps.”
Nice of Scott not to mention that to me earlier. I look from the boat to the river and back again. “Where are the life jackets?”
“You don’t know how to swim?” His tone suggests I’m defective.
“Of course I can swim!” I lie. “But even good swimmers have accidents sometimes.”
He snorts. “I think they’re in the Tahoe.”
I waver only a second before stomping back to get one. I value my life slightly more than my pride.
When I return in my puffy orange vest, Blayne is sitting next to the boat’s motor. Now for the hard part—getting into the boat. Luckily it’s wide and not canoe-width. Still, if anyone can tip this sucker, it’s me.
Squatting at the edge of the dock, I grip the boat with one hand and the wooden planks with the other. I carefully stretch one leg into the boat. When my foot feels solid on the boat’s bottom, I shift my weight and bring my other foot into the boat. My butt plops awkwardly on the seat, and I swallow a sigh of relief.
Blayne rolls his eyes, then fires up the motor. He pulls in the anchor and gently steers us into the river channel. He seems so natural, like he was born with his hand on a throttle. I’m sure he likes this boat better than he does me.
Not that I care.
The only thing I care about right now is the river. We skim the surface, splashing up shiny droplets. I’m surrounded by water and flying over its murky depths. The clouds press down on me and the waves reach up. I feel claustrophobic in this gray world. I grip my knees to keep from trembling.
The speed of the motorboat vibrates my whole body, and the wind tugs strands of hair from my braid. Facing forward makes me dizzy, so I turn around and watch Blayne instead. He deftly handles the boat and ignores me.
I can’t keep my eyes off the river for long. It calls to me like a friend I forgot I had, in a language I don’t understand. Its appeal has nothing to do with the coolness on my skin or the beauty filling my eyes. I don’t know what it is or why it’s inside me. I only know there’s an ache deeper than the vibration in my bones, nearly as deep as the longing for my mother.
The first time I saw the Mississippi River—at the age of five—I felt an irrational urge to jump in. I wasn’t suicidal; I just wanted to be in the water. But since I couldn’t swim, it probably still equated a suicidal urge.
That same urge is slowly returning. Why now, after thirteen years of being afraid? The fear remains, but its squeezing hold has lessened enough for me to breathe.
The engine slows, and I turn to Blayne to investigate why. I follow his gaze to the middle of the river, where a turtle perches on a floating log. Blayne cuts the motor, then uses the oars to ease in. Closer, closer, now only a few feet away. . . .
Odd. Why doesn’t the turtle jump into the water? Any self-respecting turtle should escape from an intruder—I’ve watched enough National Geographic shows to know that. But this turtle sits there, not even retreating into its shell, as our boat approaches the log.
“Maybe it’s injured,” Blayne says. “I think I can grab it.” Setting down the oars, he reaches over the edge of the boat, his fingers stretching for the turtle.
Inside the hollow log, I glimpse a flash of color. I squint and lean forward.
I see two eyes, red as fire and focused on Blayne.
You will find it forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.
~Mary Austin, in Sisters of the Earth~
“Stop!” The word rips out of my throat in a panicked shout.
Blayne swivels toward me but doesn’t pull back his fingers. A black, slimy hand breaks the surface and grabs Blayne’s wrist.
I lunge forward—not quickly enough. The black arm yanks Blayne overboard, and his forehead hits the log. My fingers brush his boots as his body flops into the water with a huge splash. I swipe the water out of my eyes, trying to see.
The log and turtle have vanished. I catch one more glimpse of Blayne’s body before he’s swallowed by the river’s darkness.
It’s a waste of breath—he’s probably unconscious. I quickly scan our surroundings.
“Help! I need help!”
Surely there’s a boat nearby, or people on shore—people who can swim.
“Somebody help me!”
Silence. I see no one.
I snatch my cell phone out of my pocket and search my contacts. Scott. I push send, jittering impatiently. The phone rings four times and goes to his voicemail. I curse as I wait for the beep.
“Get over here right now,” I bark. “Blayne fell in the water and needs help. We’re south of the campground in the middle of the river. Hurry!” My trembling fingers drop the phone in the bottom of the boat.
I could try to drive the boat to the campground and get help.
But if I do that, Blayne will drown.
He has only one hope of surviving—me. Not that I’m a hope. I can’t even swim. But I also can’t sit here while he dies.
Mom’s voice reverberates in my head, telling me I must never touch the river, that it’s too dangerous.
Stripping off my life jacket and boots, I suck in a huge breath—and jump feet first into the Mississippi.
Cold. Gray. Swirling bubbles. My head’s never been underwater and I panic. I flail and splash and sink. Water in my eyes, nose, mouth, lungs. Water everywhere, smothering me.
I can’t save Blayne. I can’t even save myself.
Regret and anguish settle in my stomach like a stone. I stop thrashing, and despair pulls me down into darkness. I close my eyes and surrender my body to the river. I sink into the cool quiet . . . almost with pleasure. There are worse ways to die.
My foot bumps something—my eyes fly open. I glance down at a log, reminding me of the log on the surface that concealed the red-eyed creature. Is it nearby? My eyes dart in search of it.
Whoa—I can see. Before, all I saw were bubbles and muddy water. Now I see . . . everything. Fish and plants and trash. A catfish the size of a bathtub swims within inches of me. I gasp and jump back.
Another gasp—I’m breathing. Underwater. With no pressure on my lungs. I stand on the river floor, breathing and seeing. Like I belong here.
Did I die? Maybe I’m a ghost lurking in this river of death.
Maybe Blayne’s ghost is down here too.
Blayne! I must find him. I spin a three-sixty, trying to pierce the darkness with my strange new vision. Everything is weird but oddly beautiful: countless fish of different shapes and sizes, undulating water plants, murky particle clouds. . . .
There—an unnatural greenish-black flashing in the distance.
My first instinct is to run toward it. My feet get stuck in mud and twining plants.
Swim, you idiot!
I push off with my feet and sail through the water. But my momentum soon fails—I’m sinking again. I fluctuate between frog kicks, mermaid swishes, and dog paddles. Finally I settle on a combination stroke that feels natural.
Now I’m making progress and closing in on the greenish-black creature. It’s turned away from me, crouching on the river floor. It has a long tail with a barbed end, similar to a stingray’s. Is this monstrosity a fish? River pollution must be rank to create this type of mutant.
Then the creature shifts to the side, and I see Blayne. My heart skips a beat.
He’s sprawled on his back, unmoving and eyes closed. His long black hair swirls around his face, and his clothes flutter at the edges. He looks . . . dead.
He can’t be dead. He’s just unconscious. He’ll be fine.
The creature searches Blayne’s pockets. Only then do I realize the monster thinks more like a person than a fish. Fear and dread crash through my body like floodwaters. I have to get Blayne away from this . . . thing. I swim faster.
Monster Thing finds nothing in Blayne’s pockets so reaches for his watch. It tugs at the wristband and pulls it off. Thing pockets the watch—no, it’s not wearing clothes, so it can’t have pockets. The watch disappears under layers of black muck.
The monster is grotesquely bloated, like a drowned body. A bruised, broken body that rotted years ago. Both his hair and beard are long and matted, green like algae. His skin appears to be black, but he’s so caked with mud and weeds that I don’t know for sure. The moss-hair and trailing weeds float around him like tentacles. His hands and feet—or are they paws?—are too large for his body and have some wicked-looking claws.
Thing never pays attention to his surroundings. He must be confident in his domain; even the fish give him wide berth. He is solely focused on his victim, intent on finding treasure. Thing grabs Blayne’s flannel shirt and rips it open, popping buttons into the river.
But there are no more treasures to distract Thing, no chains or navel rings. Just skin . . . and now Thing acts hungry. It leans forward, an angel of death, one claw poised scalpel-like over Blayne’s heart.
I swim the last few yards and push Thing as hard as I can.
Using my hands was a mistake—they slide on his slimy skin. I almost gag. But I have the advantage of surprise, so Thing topples over. A second later he whirls to face me. His nose is long and black, and those horrid red eyes—like coals in a fire pit—seem to burn me into place. He smiles at me with a mouth full of rocks. No, not rocks—brown, craggy teeth.
Somehow I know: he wants to crunch my bones to powder.
No sound, no movement, no warning. One minute Thing is leering at me—the next he is on me, pushing me down into the substrate. I punch and kick and buck and squirm, the crazy thrashings of the hopeless.
Thing presses a slimy hand down on my face, his palm covering me from eyebrows to chin. The claws caress my forehead.
I’m gagging, choking, blind in the mud and moss. But I force myself to stop flailing, because Thing has only to twitch his claws and my brain will have portholes.
Something hard—his knee?—comes down on my stomach, and I grunt. He pins me there while his other hand pats me like a cop would. I almost scream—only the claws prevent me.
Thing grabs the collar of my shirt and yanks it aside. Desperate to squirm away, I am drowning in madness. I feel a slash of pain behind my neck—he’s tugging on my necklace. My present from Jen. If I struggle, he might kill me. If I don’t struggle, he’ll probably kill me anyway.
The chain is strong; Thing can’t break it. He reaches under my shirt and grips the pendant—then abruptly lets go, howling. The sound reverberates in my ears. He falls backwards, writhing.
I’m free. Free! I scramble up, wiping the muck off my face.
Thing is still shrieking, clutching one hand with the other. Through the churning water I discern the shape of a cross branded onto Thing’s palm.
He turns to me, red eyes flashing, brown teeth gnashing. Now I know he’ll kill me. With another howl he lunges for me—
Then he is spinning, faster and faster, until all I see is a green-black blur and a cyclone of water. Louder and faster and closer and larger. I shield my eyes and try to back away—
It’s gone. Thing has disappeared.
I do a spin of my own, in case it’s a trick and he’s hiding somewhere. The water is calm and quiet. Fish approach slowly, investigating the scene of the crime. One fish takes an interest in Blayne’s hair.
Blayne. I rush over and shake him, as if I could simply rouse him from a slumber. He has to wake up and swim. No way can I carry him to the surface.
He doesn’t respond to the shaking or to my not-so-gentle slaps on his face. I check for a pulse at his wrist. I think I feel it—too flustered to know for sure. How long have we been underwater? A lifetime seems to have passed, but probably only a couple minutes in reality. I have to get him to land so he can start breathing again.
I push up his shoulders and brace his back against my hip. Then I loop my arm around his chest and stand, pulling his body up with me. It’s easier than I expected—guess the water makes him more buoyant. But can we reach the surface? The sunshine seems like a twinkling dream I’ll never touch.
In this moment of despair, I would accept help from the devil. Or I could pray . . . if only I believed in God.
Readjusting my grip on Blayne, I take a deep breath and push off the river floor as hard as I can. I only jump a couple of inches, but it’s enough. Once I start swimming, I don’t even notice how heavy Blayne is. I hold him with my right arm and stroke with my left. My legs and feet kick strongly, propelling us up. I focus on the ever-closer and ever-brighter surface. Almost there. . . .
My head breaks into the air with an explosion of light. I cough and wheeze. Blayne feels a hundred pounds heavier. His dead weight pulls me back under the surface.
The transition is startling. Somehow it’s easier to see and breathe underwater, and Blayne’s weight is manageable again.
So. Underwater it is.
In my brief second above, I glimpsed the boat in the distance. Either it drifted in the wind or I veered off course. We’re now closer to the shore than to the boat. Which is fine—I probably couldn’t lift Blayne into the boat. Above water I am just a girl. Below water I am. . . .
No. I can’t think about that right now. Keeping Blayne and myself underwater, I tow him to shore. For a while I swim easily, naturally. But the closer we get to shore, the heavier he seems. My strokes become choppy and awkward. My body aches with fatigue.
Even harder is finding a clear path to the shoreline. I don’t want to drag Blayne over the rocks. Finally I spot a small, sandy area. I swim toward it slowly, dodging tree stumps, watching the river bottom rise up to meet me.
I go as far as I can without surfacing. My knees scrape the mud before I finally lift my head above water. Then my body all but shuts down. I collapse in the mud and choke up lungfuls of water. My muscles scream in agony. I shut my eyes and try not to pass out.
My lifeline is the feel of Blayne under my arm. He needs my help. I stagger to my feet, but I can’t lift him. I let go of his chest and crouch behind his head, gripping under his armpits to drag him up on shore.
I move him maybe a foot before giving up. His legs are still in water, but his head and chest are on land. I fall down next to him.
“Blayne, wake up.” My voice is raspy, not nearly loud enough. I grab his shoulder and shake it. “Blayne!”
His head lolls to the side. His face pale, lips blue.
No. This isn’t happening. He wasn’t underwater that long. He’s not—he can’t be—NO—
I haul myself up and stack my hands on his chest, trying to remember my CPR training. Something about not breaking the tip of the sternum . . . I guess at the right position and push down. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Are my jellyfish arms doing any good?
Now for the trickiest part. I tilt his chin up and pinch his nose. I need to put my mouth over his. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.
My lips touch his skin. As I breathe into him, silently I plead, Blayne, wake up. Please be okay.
His body jerks beneath me. I pull back, astonished.
He opens his eyes. Earlier I didn’t notice the color of his irises, but now I have no choice. They’re gray. Gray like the water on this cloudy day. Gray like the river when it’s moody and turbulent, powerful and breathtaking.
I can’t breathe. I can only drown in his eyes.
Then he rolls over and spews out half the river. I blink and suck in some air.
He’s too preoccupied with his own problems to notice mine. After a minute of hacking, he groans and struggles to sit up. “What happened?” He gingerly touches his forehead. “Why does my head hurt?”
So he didn’t see—he doesn’t know. I can’t think fast enough. I should tell him about the monster, but then he’d call the loony bin to take me away. “I think you hit your head on the log when you fell in. It knocked you unconscious.”
“I—I don’t understand. How did I fall? The last thing I remember is reaching for the turtle—and you, you shouted something. And then my hand felt cold. . . .” He trails off, bewildered, and maybe a little scared. He’s shivering in his wet clothes.
“I . . . I shouted because you were about to lose your balance. Your hand dipped into the water as you fell.” This is probably the stupidest explanation ever. But considering how my mind feels like a tilt-a-whirl, I’m lucky to come up with that much. “I think your watch snagged on the log. I caught you before you sank too far, but I couldn’t lift you into the boat. That’s why I brought you to shore.”
He glances past me to the river, where the boat is floating far, far away. “How did you carry me? I weigh almost two hundred pounds.”
I shrug, trying to look anywhere but his tempting gray eyes. “Adrenaline, I guess.”
“Adrenaline,” he repeats, his voice still hoarse. “I don’t think adrenaline can turn you into an expert lifeguard.”
As if I don’t know that. As if I’m not already freaking out and falling apart. All I want is to change the subject and never talk about this again.
“Next time wear a life jacket,” I snap.
He doesn’t reply. Water drips from his night-black hair. He looks like an oversized puppy lost in the rain.
I turn. Scott is running toward us along the river. Far beyond him I spot his car parked near the playground.
“Scott will take care of you,” I mutter. I can’t answer his questions, not yet. And I can’t talk to Blayne any longer. I stumble to my feet and lurch into the forest. My boots are still in the boat, so I run in sock-feet over leaves and sticks. I move faster and faster, barely dodging trees as I go.
In the middle of the woods, when Blayne and Scott and the river are out of sight, the shock finally catches me. I sink to my knees, quaking from sudden cold.
Blayne could’ve died. Something pulled him into the water and tried to murder him. I went after them, breathed in water and swam like a fish. I stole Blayne from—from Thing—and carried him to shore like he was light as a turtle. I revived him with one breath.
I lose count of all the impossible things that happened.
Then I stared into his eyes and felt something just as impossible. Something I shouldn’t feel for a coworker . . . for anybody.
Thankfully, he returned to Pain-mode by questioning me. A sure way to pull me out of my stupor. He never even thanked me for saving his life.
What dragged him into the water? How did I do all those incredible things? And why did I gaze into his eyes like an idiot?
I slump to the ground and close my eyes, trembling in the darkness.
When I zone in to my surroundings again, I’m face down on the forest floor. I sit up and take a breath of fresh air.
Something stings me through my shirt, like maybe an insect bite. I try to swipe it away but the heat remains. I try again, slower this time, and my fingers brush the chain of my necklace.
I unhook the chain and dangle it before my eyes. It looks the same. I drop the cross into my palm and flinch as it burns me like too-hot water. The necklace slips through my fingers and lands on the ground.
The faint pink image of a cross is branded on my palm.