What Makes a River

What Makes a River

illustration by sam r. kennedy

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

It’s after midnight, less than twenty degrees, and a full moon has turned the night silver when Beth sees Amy walk out of Lake Michigan. Water cascades off Amy in sheets, like she’s standing in a downpour. Cold Lake Michigan water, twenty-degree air, but Amy isn’t shivering. Even Beth can tell that, from a hundred yards away, hidden in shadows so Amy won’t see her.

Amy stops several steps up the shore and turns back toward the lake. After a long moment, like held breath, she shudders all over and lifts her arms, looking down at herself as if she can’t understand how she got so wet. A stiff breeze rises off the lake and lifts the limp hair along the back of Beth’s neck. Amy wraps her arms around herself as if she suddenly feels the cold and stumbles up the beach to the parking lot, where her lime-green Beetle is the only car.

Beth remains, crouched in shadows. Each breath she takes pumps frosty moisture into the air.

For a long time after Amy leaves, there’s no sound except the slap of the waves against the shore. Then, the water begins to glow. It intensifies, the glow, until Beth, from her hundred-yard distance, can see that it’s not the water at all but something underneath. The water churns like a mini maelstrom until the something rises, looks toward the parking lot where Amy has just disappeared from view, then sinks slowly beneath the waves once more.

The glow fades; the maelstrom quiets. Waves slap gently against the shore.

A man?

No, not a man.

A Thing.

A rat. That’s what Beth’s daddy would have called it.

A water rat, she thinks. Just what we need.

* * *

Paul sends her email, and it drops her jaw because first, how does he know her email address? And second, why? Because he never made any promises, never even said “Thanks for helping me out that time.” But he does—he sends her email.

“Are you okay?”

Three words and a question mark.

She can’t figure out what it means. Is it a general question—in this moment on this day? Is it because he’s thinking about her—hey, just want you to know I’m here? Because it isn’t that he found her attractive; she’s not attractive. Is it about the Thing in the lake? Is he asking if she’s safe?

She wants to ping him back, to say, “Goddamn you, there’s a Thing in the lake and you’re a hunter. Come here and hunt it. Leave me out; leave me ignorant and alone.” Except she doesn’t want to be alone. And she can’t be ignorant—can’t unknow what she knows.

Damn him.

Damn the world.

She answers, “I’m fine. How are you?”

* * *

Beth’s accounting exam is in two hours. It counts for half her grade, covers things they never talked about in class, and she needs an A or better to keep her scholarship. So she’s studying and eating breakfast at the same time and she’s not wondering what possessed her to major in accounting in the first place, because she knows the answer to that question, when Amy walks into the kitchen.

There’s a certain stiffness in Amy’s gait, in the way she doesn’t look at Beth as she tosses back a mass of curly hair and turns her back to search through the cupboard next to the sink for a clean coffee mug.

Beth watches her warily as Amy pours her coffee and blows on the surface to cool it before taking a cautious sip. Things have been awkward for the last three weeks, long before last night, which Amy doesn’t know Beth knows about anyway. Since . . . well, Beth would explain things if she could, if there was an explanation for what happened back then. But there isn’t. And Beth’s never been much for talking anyway.

“Do you hear from him?”

When Amy finally speaks, her voice seems too loud for the room, harsh like sudden sunlight.

“Who?” Like she doesn’t know.

“Him. Max.”

Paul.

Beth closes her eyes. Yesterday, the answer would have been easy—no she hasn’t heard from him, no she doesn’t expect to. He doesn’t have her phone number or email address. He doesn’t even know her last name. Today, everything is different. He sent her email. But she doesn’t know what he means, doesn’t know what he wants. So really, the answer’s the same.

Amy sets her coffee mug down and faces Beth. Her hands are on the counter, elbows bent, like she’s spring-loaded. “I’m not mad,” she says.

“Why are we talking about this?” Beth asks. Because Amy walked out of Lake Michigan last night. Doesn’t that seem a little more important than one-night stands? Which she didn’t have, by the way. No one-night stands for Beth. “It’s not like—,” she began. “I didn’t steal him.”

“Oh,” says Amy, “I know that.” Because that would be ridiculous. Amy relaxes and takes another sip of rapidly cooling coffee. She looks out the window at a blue jay swaying on a branch. She looks back at Beth, tilting her head, like the bird. “You could . . . You know a little effort would go a long way.”

Beth blinks, because how did a conversation about a one-night stand Amy had three weeks ago turn into a conversation about what Beth looks like? She knows she’s not attractive. Her hair is baby fine, hangs limp to her shoulders, and is almost the same color as her pale skin. In sunlight, she looks like a ghost, like she’s faded. She’s thin—not magazine-cover thin, but bony, like there’s nothing to her but skin and bone—and she tends to wear mismatched clothes that she buys at church rummage sales. Still . . . “Amy, what do you want?”

Amy looks startled. “Um . . . hmmm,” she says. “Just . . . if you hear from him, let me know.” She sets her coffee mug in the sink and is gone before Beth can ask her about Lake Michigan and things that aren’t mermen and what she does at night after everyone else goes to sleep.

* * *

When Beth was fifteen, her father gave her a car. She didn’t have a license, didn’t even have a learner’s permit, though she was old enough. He told her it was in case she had to get out quick. She told herself the same thing on the back-country roads when she ran it all the way up to a hundred miles an hour. No other cars, just her and the big open, the road undulating just enough so she could feel it, could see the waning moon waver above her, like the Earth moved when she drove, like it spun just enough, just beneath her, like she could actually break free.

Beth left Nebraska a long time ago. She thought she got away clean. If she hadn’t met Paul—if Amy hadn’t picked him up in a bar one night—she’d still be happy, invisible, pretending monsters didn’t exist. And it was Paul’s fault—it was—because he’d made her look at things she didn’t want to see.

Three weeks ago, she helped him kill Things that were not-wendigos and fed him soggy French fries in an all-night diner. She put herself out there, became visible to him. He told her his real name—Paul. Amy still thinks that he’s Max.

Then he left.

Now there are not-mermen and Amy in the water and Paul sending her email, which doesn’t help. She should tell him it doesn’t help, because, yeah, if she could just get Paul completely out of her life, everything would be fine.

* * *

After her accounting exam, Beth drives north. She’s got no particular destination in mind—that’s what she tells herself—just her and the car and the open road, passing the other cars on the interstate as if they’re standing still. She’s in control when she drives. She sees everything, knows everything. Sunlight glints off the hood, the seat molds itself to her body, her hands sit loose on the steering wheel, and for a moment, just a fraction of a second of a breath, the world is her oyster.

Then, she crosses the border into Wisconsin, takes the first exit ramp, and—it isn’t like coming home, since she’s never lived in Wisconsin—it’s like coming back to an old, familiar state of mind, back to something she thought she’d left forever. She wonders what it says about her that even though she convinced herself a long time ago that she had left her old life behind, she knows where the biggest gun mart in three states is and exactly how to get there.

An hour and a half later, she’s got a brand-new pump-action shotgun, a hundred-count box of shells, a manual reloading press, and a scale. She feels like there’s something caught in the back of her throat. Something bitter. And bad.

Damn you, Paul, she thinks.

Later, she’ll call her sister and tell her that the money she promised to send to fix the machine shed roof isn’t coming. She’ll say, “Hope the weather’s good,” and, “Tell Stace I said hi,” and the whole time, she’ll be biting her tongue, trying desperately not to scream, “Get out! Get out now.”

Because it’s too late.

No one gets out clean.

* * *

That night after midnight, Paul sends her another email, full of nothing but quotes about rivers, like, “You can never step in the same river twice” and “Rivers always find a way,” and—Jesus!—how is that helpful?

At the end of the message, he says, “Rivers don’t die when they fall off the edge of the world.”

Okay, first, she isn’t having problems with rivers because—Lake Michigan? Not a river. Second, how does he know she’s having trouble at all? And third—WTF? No, really. What. The. Fuck. Is he talking about?

Why can’t he send her normal email, like normal people get: Hi, how are you? Been down in New Orleans (up in Seattle) (over in Topeka). The jazz (coffee) (main street diner) is fine—really great. Nothing is wrong (really) (really, really).

She’d be happier if he sent her spam.

She sends him a reply filled with quotes about rabbits down holes.

He responds within half an hour: “You are not a rabbit.”

* * *

Beth has the shotgun and the reloading press and the scale spread out on her bed, shotgun shells scattered across the rumpled bedspread like the detritus of another time, when Amy walks into her bedroom. She looks at the bed, looks at Beth, but all she says is, “Huh.”

 Beth scoops the shotgun shells into a box as if the problem is that there isn’t any place to sit. Amy slumps down on the bed with a heavy sigh.

After a minute, she says, “I might be going crazy.”

Beth’s gaze catches on the worn poster of a tropical island tacked to the wall just above the bed. She doesn’t like the poster anymore—the colors are too bright, too artificial, and the scene isn’t a life she dreams of or even wants—but it seemed normal when she bought it, the sort of thing regular people hung on their walls.

“Too much homework?” Beth asks. It isn’t as if she doesn’t know why Amy thinks she’s crazy. But she isn’t supposed to know, isn’t supposed to be following her roommate through the city at one in the morning. But she does and she is, because she knows things she’s not supposed to know—knows Things, whether she wants to or not.

Amy rolls her eyes and sprawls back on the bed, flinging her arms out so one of them thumps against the battered headboard. “I’m so tired,” she says. “And I can’t figure it out—I mean, I go to bed at like nine o’clock.” She sits up, leaning forward as if she’s confessing sins. “The other night, I was all wet, I mean, soaked through. And I don’t know how. I don’t even remember—” She stops and draws a shaky breath. She flings her arms wide again, as if trying to encompass the unencompassable. “See, crazy!”

Beth wants to say, “Why are you telling me this?” Because she and Amy aren’t friends. They’ve been roommates for the last two and a half years, sharing a big old ramshackle house with three other girls just off campus. But Beth knows Amy only asked her because she has a car, because she never gets drunk out of her mind, because she makes sure the bills are paid and the lights stay on and if anyone loses their keys . . . well, you can always call Beth, she’ll always come—what else does she have to do?

Amy huffs out a breath, and Beth thinks she’s angry. Then, the inhale hitches up half a note and she realizes that Amy’s trying not to cry.

“Jesus, Amy, you’re not going crazy, all right?” Amy raises both eyebrows, and Beth realizes that the words might not have come out quite like she intended. “I mean—what makes you think you’re crazy?”

Amy gathers her hair at the nape of her neck with one hand. “My God! Have you not been listening? I’m blacking out, is what I’m saying.”

“Like, from drinking?” How is she supposed to handle this? What is she supposed to say?

Amy frowns. “I don’t think so. Like, one time, I’m driving down the Dan Ryan, ’cause Jimmy—I mean, anyway, I’m driving, and then”—she snaps her fingers—“I’m at the lake and I’m soaking wet and—” She jumps to her feet and paces the length of Beth’s small bedroom. “You have to help me!”

“Why?” The word startles out of Beth and is not exactly what she means.

“Because I need help,” Amy says, as if it’s simple, as if help is always there when someone needs it.

Beth could say no. Right here. Right now. Tell Amy she can’t help her, put the shotgun away, and get out her books. She could put her head down and study like it’s all that matters, like her life depends on it. She could. She puts her hands together, intertwining her fingers, and bows her head as if she’s praying.

“Beth?” Amy’s voice is small, nothing like her usual vibrant self-confidence.

Beth takes a breath and lets it out. “Tell me everything,” she says.

* * *

Beth dreams about the Zambezi River. Not about its origins up in a black sinkhole of a marsh, not about the narrow, swift Zambezi running down through Angola and northern Zambia. She dreams about the slow, wide Zambezi down through the African plains.

And because it’s a dream, she’s on horseback in the middle of the river, on a gray horse with a dark mane—a horse that aspires to be blindingly white and possibly a unicorn. They are floating down the Zambezi—the horse and Beth astride him. She knows it’s the Zambezi because there are hippopotamuses and big damn alligators and a boat that goes floating by her with Zambezi River Boat stamped crookedly on the side. The men in the boat cry out to her—“Save us,” they say. “We’re going over.”

“Get out,” Beth yells back at them. “Get out, get out, get out.” But she’s almost completely certain that shouting doesn’t do any good.

* * *

Amy wants Beth to follow her everywhere she goes. “Stick to me like glue,” she says.

Beth thinks it’s the worst idea in a sea of bad ones. She would kill Amy or Amy would kill her if they were together all the time. And though that might solve one of their problems, it’s not the solution Beth is aiming for.

“I’m not going to class with you,” Beth tells her.

Amy sighs. She looks at Beth in a way that can only be described as puppy-dog sad. Beth can barely take the look seriously, and she wonders whether Amy even does. Isn’t she worried about what’s happening to her, about losing time, losing control, losing her mind?

“When do you black out?” she asks. “At night, right?”

“So far,” Amy says, as if it’s only a matter of time before her whole life goes black, before she’s walking and talking all day long and not remembering any of it. Beth’s pretty sure that isn’t going to happen. Because it’s just a matter of time before Amy walks into the lake and doesn’t return.

“Okay, then,” Beth says. “Really, I just have to be with you at night. Go where you go. Watch what you do.”

“Excellent,” Amy says.

Beth really, really hopes that it is.

* * *

For the second night in a row, Beth dreams of the Zambezi River. She has never been there, is never going there, but in her dreams it is clear, the details sharp as the noonday sun, as a bitter apple, as revolution.

In her dream the river is at full flood and she’s still on horseback approaching the falls. She and the horse are small and the falls are huge, like the falls really are—more than a mile wide, 360 feet from top to bottom. And the sound. She never hears sound in her dreams, but she can hear the falls, like a drumbeat, like summer thunder, like the rumble of a distant heart.

* * *

On Thursday, Beth accompanies Amy to three area nightclubs. The music is too loud. There are too many people. Beth is completely out of place, like an unstrung harp at a Southern rock festival. Amy is all bright chatter and high-pitched laughter, moving from table to dance floor to bar to another table, all so fast it makes Beth dizzy. She goes home smelling of smoke and stale whiskey and lemons gone sour.

Friday, they go back to the bar where she—or Amy, or…both of them actually—met Paul. The parking lot is packed out to the road, and Beth parks in a tiny space between a light pole and a jacked-up pickup truck. She has a knife tucked in her boot, and damned if she can figure out how she’s supposed to walk with a sharp steel blade snugged up tight against her instep. The bouncer sees her limping and asks if she’s okay. Before she can stop herself, she says, “I’ve got a knife in my boot.”

He laughs, like it’s obvious she’s kidding, and waves her through.

Saturday, Amy has a date with some guy who is not exactly her boyfriend. Beth tries to beg off—her whole life is being swallowed following Amy everywhere she goes. “You’ll be with Mike,” she says. “You’ll be fine.”

“Bob, his name is Bob,” Amy says. “Or Richard. One of those. It doesn’t matter anyway. You said you’d help me. I don’t even hardly know this guy.”

“You don’t even hardly know me,” Beth wants to say. Instead, she puts on her only pair of jeans and her battered hiking boots and a T-shirt that’s a size too big and says “Chicken Emporium” across the back. She grabs a jacket and a baseball cap and shoves the shotgun underneath the car seat and follows Amy and her almost-boyfriend three towns over to a restaurant she would never eat at herself—too expensive, too brightly lit, too pretty. She parks in the back of the lot where she can see the door and settles in to wait.

She’s been there less than forty-five minutes when Amy comes out the side door alone. A cab pulls up right away, as if Amy has called from inside the restaurant. It’s back on the street and almost out of sight before Beth is even out of the parking lot.

She isn’t worried about losing Amy because she’s pretty sure she knows where they’re going, and she slides into the parking lot by the lake just behind the cab. There’s a brief conversation between Amy and the cab driver—should I wait, no don’t wait—then the cab is gone. It’s just Amy and Beth, and Amy turns like she doesn’t even see Beth standing there not twenty feet away and heads for the water.

“Amy!” Beth closes the gap between them and grabs her arm.

 Amy doesn’t look at her, just shoves her hard and Beth stumbles. Shit. Beth has the shotgun in one hand, and she can’t just pick Amy up and carry her back to the car. Maybe someone else could, someone bigger and stronger, someone . . . better. “Amy, snap out of it,” she says. Nothing. Amy isn’t looking at her. She isn’t looking at anything. She marches straight ahead toward the water as if marching and water are the only things in the world.

They’re almost to the water’s edge, the hard-packed sand like iron beneath Beth’s feet as she trots to keep up with Amy. The water is already starting to glow, drawing back from the shoreline as if gathering itself for battle. In desperation, Beth throws herself at Amy, knocking them both to the ground. The water rushes up to them, over them, and—Jesus! Where’s the shotgun? Beth scrambles to her feet, desperately trying to hang onto Amy, who keeps walking as if Beth isn’t even there, as if she isn’t pulling on Amy’s arm with all her might.

The not-merman is singing or something—noise that sounds like shipwrecks and dying sailors and the crash of mighty impossible waves. And—crap—there are three of them, not just one, and they’re huge, bigger than Beth expected, bigger than she remembered. She grabs Amy around her waist and shoves hard—one step back . . . two . . . away from the water. If she can just get back to the parking lot—

Something grabs her by the ankle and she falls and—how bad can this get?—they have tentacles. Where the tentacle is wrapped around her ankle it burns, like dry acid. She plants her elbows and heaves back with all her strength, but she’s still being dragged inexorably forward.

Shit.

The freezing lake water is lapping at her boots when she remembers the knife. She scrambles forward, panicked and trying not to be, because panic never helps. She tears at her free leg, at her jeans; the knife is finally in her hands, and she folds over, straight into a face full of water. And it doesn’t matter; there isn’t time for it to matter. She hacks at the tentacle, at her boot, at her soaked jeans. Something screams, and the only way she knows it isn’t her is because the pressure on her leg is gone and she’s falling backward, like a snapped spring, coughing and scrambling and looking for Amy and the shotgun. Water surges up like an angry god, then subsides, leaving her and Amy and even the damned shotgun alone on the sand, like stranded fish.

“What the hell,” Amy says, coughing. “What are we doing here?”

* * *

Beth has three questions.

First, why Amy? Second, how does the Thing call her? Third, what happens when she goes to it, why does it keep letting her go, how close are they to the final time, the time Amy doesn’t return? Technically, the last question is three questions in one, but since Beth isn’t doing this—any of this—anymore, isn’t following Amy, isn’t carrying a shotgun, isn’t looking for Things anymore, ever, the exact number of questions doesn’t matter. The answers don’t matter. It isn’t her problem—really, really isn’t her problem—anymore.

It’s past one in the morning when she and Amy get back to the house. Their other roommates are out with their boyfriends or at least somewhere other than at the house. Amy hasn’t said anything since the lake, hasn’t yelled or cursed or done anything except sit in the passenger seat and stare out the window. At the house, Beth tells her to take a shower and put on some dry clothes. Beth makes coffee, and the two of them sit for a while in the kitchen, Beth in wet boots and slowly drying jeans, Amy in a tank top and boxers and a fluffy pink bathrobe.

Beth knows she should say something, but her hands won’t stop shaking and she’s pretty sure her teeth would chatter like a rumble strip if she started talking.  

“Maybe I’ll go see my mom,” Amy finally says.

“Hmmm,” Beth says, because she really, seriously, doesn’t have anything to say.

“Yeah,” Amy says. She gets up, puts her coffee mug in the sink, and leaves. Beth can hear the old wooden stairs creak as she walks upstairs.

Beth closes her eyes and rubs her hand across her face. She pulls herself out of the chair, feeling like she’s 102. Upstairs, she sits at her computer and writes an email to Paul telling him everything—what’s happening to Amy, what she saw, everything she’s done, everything she’s thought, how she feels right this minute, which is like her bones have turned to jelly, like she’s all alone in the world, like she wants to cry. Before she can think too much, she sends it. You can fix this, Paul, she thinks. You have to fix this.

Five minutes later, she gets a reply: addressee unknown; no such user on this server.

There are not enough swear words in the world.

She gets up, strips off her boots and her jeans and her T-shirt and only realizes once she’s shed them how really, really cold she actually is. She pulls on an old pair of sweatpants, another T-shirt, a flannel shirt gone faded and soft. She shoves her feet into a pair of shoes, doesn’t even know which ones, grabs her keys and she’s out of there, so out of there.

Lighting out for territory.

She doesn’t know exactly what that means, but she’s pretty sure it’s what she’s doing. Lighting out. Taking off. Getting the hell out of Dodge.

She takes the interstate north, driving as fast as she can, which is damn fast. She doesn’t care about police radar, would be grateful in some perverse way if the police stopped her. She’d like to be in jail. In jail, she’d have an excuse. Sorry, Amy, I can’t help you. I’m in jail.

No one stops her, though, and she clocks up to a hundred in the gray half-light before dawn. North, then west, then north again. The sun comes up behind her. The sky slides from black to gray to blue. Everything is clear and plain and focused. And all she has to do is keep the car steady on the road.

She drives without stopping until she runs up hard against the Lake Superior shoreline.

She gets out of the car and walks across leached-out grasslands and sits on the damp beach and looks out across the endless water. People used to think the world was flat, and she wonders if life would be simpler if it were, if there were actual edges you could drop off. She could get back in her car and keep driving, just go, forever and ever. But what she’s left behind would still be behind her. Just like the last time she left. And in a world that isn’t flat, inevitably, inexorably, she will always wind up right back where she started.

She pulls her knees to her chest and drops her head.

* * *

She’s there again—her and the horse and the Zambezi River. She can see the mist from the falls, hear the thunder the water makes as it drops off the edge. There are boats in the water—three, no, four. Boats full of people all looking at her, shouting at her. “Help us, we’re going over.” And she just sits there on her almost-white, almost-a-unicorn horse, not doing anything, not even saying what she knows she should have said to them half a mile up the river—get out, get out, get out.

* * *

She wakes with a gasp, sitting on the beach, cold and empty. The image of the falls and the water and the boats going over lingers. She wants to dive back in, to take control of the dream, to force the horse to shore, away from the fucking edge. If she’s not in the river, she can’t go over.

Rivers don’t die when they fall off the edge of the world.

Damn Paul. He isn’t here and he can’t help her and why was he talking shit about rivers anyway? She isn’t going back.

She isn’t.

She gets to her feet with a sigh, so cold she doesn’t remember being warm. She walks back to the car and gets her shotgun and a couple dozen empty bottles she was taking back to the redemption center. She lines them up, three feet apart along the beach, and practices with the shotgun, the waves breaking less than a dozen yards away, until she never misses a shot. She shoots until her shoulder feels as if it’s been pounded into mush, until her finger aches from pulling the trigger, until she runs out of bottles. She doesn’t realize she’s been crying the entire time until she’s back in the car and sees her face in the mirror.

On the way back to Chicago, she stops for the night at a motel in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. She looks at herself in the mirror over the dresser when she gets to her room. Her face is even thinner and paler than usual, as if it’s been peeled to the bone and only put halfway back together. She smiles without humor and doesn’t even take her clothes off, just falls into bed and into sleep, like the two are exactly the same.

* * *

The Zambezi River in the rainy season is wide and swift. Water goes over the edge of the falls and hits the bottom of the chasm, rises back up like rain, soaking her and the horse. The river in full flood only comes to the horse’s knees, which can’t be right—they can’t be standing knee-deep in the river. They ought to be drowning; they ought to be swept away, like the world is completely out of their control.

But they’re not, and she knows that this is the moment, as sure as any moment can ever be in dreams. She and the horse and the river all balanced.

Waiting.

Unlike Beth, though, the river doesn’t hesitate. It accepts that there’s an edge, that it’s going over, that there will be a place for it on the other side.

Beth gathers the reins, stands in the saddle. She can’t stay here forever, poised on the edge. The river won’t let her. But she still has a choice. She can let the river take her or she can take a flying leap.

* * *

It’s two in the morning when she wakes.

She checks out, which turns out to be more complicated than it should be, because who checks out at two in the morning? She’s a girl and she’s alone and is she okay, is there something she needs, can they call someone, help her, is she sure? It takes her twenty minutes on the highway to regain her equilibrium and focus on the thing at hand—on Things.

First, weapons. She’s got a shotgun with mixed silver shot. She’s got an iron-and-steel knife. And blood. She’s got the blood from one of the Things on her jeans from where she hacked that tentacle off.

It’s not much.

A crossbow would be useful—something that could stop an elephant. But she doesn’t have a crossbow. And she hasn’t practiced with one in years.

She gets back to the house around seven in the morning. She cuts the bottom of her jeans into tiny pieces and loads them with dirty silver shot into seven different shotgun shells. She wonders if it makes any difference which of the not-mermen the blood comes from. Then, she wonders how close she needs to get, because close is going to be a problem, and maybe she should have considered the crossbow more seriously.

Amy comes in while she’s changing her clothes. She’s quiet, dressed in an oversized denim shirt and jeans, her hair pulled back tight.

“Why is this happening to me?” she asks.

Beth bites her lip on words that leap, easy, to her tongue. Beth knows—she knows—that the only way to pretend to be safe is to hide, to be as invisible as possible. But being noticed isn’t Amy’s fault. She is not the villain. And what’s the point of telling her she’s done something wrong? The world won’t be better or safer if Amy gives up herself and becomes more like Beth.

“I don’t know,” Beth says. “And I don’t care. Tonight we’re going to end it.”

Amy gives her a grin that’s half its normal wattage, but she says, “Awesome,” like she means it.

* * *

On the way to the lake, although Amy hasn’t asked and Beth isn’t sure she ever will, Beth explains everything in far more detail than anyone anywhere would ever want to know. Amy listens and doesn’t say a word. Not even, “My God,” or “Are you nuts?“ Beth can’t tell if Amy believes what she is saying, if Amy’s too tired to care, or if Amy’s just so goddamned grateful that, even if Beth is insane, it’s better than waking up cold and wet on the shores of Lake Michigan.

“What does it do, though?” she finally asks when Beth is finished.

“What?”

“Why me and how does it get me and what does it want?”

Beth frowns, pretends she’s concentrating extra hard on the road, which she’s not—driving is the easy part. “They pick things—legends—to be,” she finally says, “even though they’re not those things, even though they’re just Things. They can become anything. Like it’s a game. Well, not a game to you.”

Or me.

She doesn’t add that last part because it’s never been a game to her and she doesn’t care—really, really has never cared—why the Things do what they do.

“Look,” she adds after a moment. “I don’t know. You came down to the water. It got your . . . your DNA or something. It calls you.”

“But what does it want?” Amy asks again. Beth is sure that to Amy this is the central question. But she doesn’t know the answer. Blood, she figures. Life. Because that’s what they all want, every Thing she’s ever encountered. Blood and weakness and fear. As far as she can tell, it’s what they thrive on.

She doesn’t have to answer Amy, though, because they’re already at the lake.

“You can stay in the car,” she tells Amy as she’s pulling the shotgun from the trunk. She says it like it’s an invitation, like it’s the goddamned prize—aren’t you lucky, you get to stay with the car.

“No,” Amy says.

“What?” Because, frankly, Beth stopped thinking about Amy the moment she told her to stay with the car.

Amy rubs a hand across her cheek. “How close?” she asks. “How close do you have to be to shoot them?”

“Fifty yards,” Beth says, like there’s a perfect answer to that question. “Maybe a little closer.” Amy looks at her, like she’s cursing Beth to tell her the whole entire truth. “Well, probably I need to be standing right in the goddamned water.” And how that’s going to work, she hasn’t a clue. Because there are three of them. And they have tentacles.

“If I distract them, can you get closer?”

There’s no answer to that question except no. Because what’s the point of saving someone if they sacrifice themselves for you to do it?

“But I should come,” Amy insists.

“You can’t help me!” Beth shouts.

“Jesus!” Amy steps back. “Okay.”

Beth tells herself that her hands aren’t shaking—they aren’t—as she walks down to the water. She can’t hear cars on the road behind her, no air traffic, no birdcalls. There’s just the soft shush of her boots on the hard-packed sand and the quiet lap, lap, lapping of the waves against the shore.

This isn’t going to work.

It’s not.

But there’s no one else. She’d hoped that Paul . . . that she could pass this to him. That she could know and still not-know. But that’s not how it works. And now she’s the only one who can stand here and at least try. Maybe she’ll get one. Maybe she’ll be lucky and get two. That’s something. That’s what she tells herself.

“Hey!”

Hell.

Amy is standing ten yards away from her, right at the water’s edge. She’s waving her arms like she’s trying to attract someone’s attention at a party.

“Amy!” Beth’s voice is half-shout, half-whisper.

Amy ignores her, steps into the water. “Hey, you! Stupid monster things! I’m here. Come and get me.”

“Get out!” Beth shouts. “Get out now!”

Too late.

The lake boils like a cauldron over a white-hot flame.

The Things that aren’t mermen rise from the water, rise higher and higher until they loom above Beth, above Amy. Like giants, like Neptune from the ocean depths, with beards and gold crowns that glint even in the thin light from a cold moon. They really do have tentacles, huge ones, thick as the limbs of an ancient oak tree. One of them has a trident, which he raises and points straight at Amy.

Beth feels it, the moment she leaps off the edge of the world. She thought she’d already done it—at Lake Superior, driving back, loading shells in her shotgun. But no, it’s right here, when she steps into Lake Michigan up to her knees and doesn’t look at Amy or flying tentacles or the big wave about to crash against her chest. She just steps in, raises the shotgun to her shoulder and fires.

The gun is empty and she’s digging wildly for the last shell when she realizes that the tentacles are only moving with the waves, that the water has stopped bubbling, that it’s over.

Amy splashes through the water toward her. “Oh my God,” she says. Followed shortly by, “Oh my God.”

The shotgun feels too heavy in her hands. Halfway up the beach she drops to her knees.

“Beth?” Amy says. Her tone isn’t impatient or demanding, isn’t anything except concerned and a little scared. It almost breaks her, that tone, because who ever talks to her like that?

She shakes her head. “It’s all right,” she says. And to prove it, she makes herself get up, walk to the car, and drive home. And it gets easier, every moment, every step. She begins to realize that although she’s finally done it, finally jumped off the edge of the world, things are still pretty much the same.

She and Amy sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee again with Amy chattering brightly for nearly half an hour before she finally runs down. “No one will believe this, will they?” she asks.

Beth shakes her head. “No.”

“Hmmm,” Amy says. Then, “I’m going to bed.”

Beth sits at the kitchen table after Amy’s gone, wondering how long it will be before Amy forgets or rewrites the story, before she turns Beth from girl with a shotgun to invisible girl with a car. Because she will. Amy has to live in a world without shadows and Things, in a world without edges to drop over.

Beth has tried—oh, God, she’s tried—to live in that world. But now that she’s dropped off the edge—jumped off the edge—there’s no going back. She takes her lukewarm coffee and sits on the back steps and watches the moon slide through the branches of the shattered oak in the backyard.

Her cell phone vibrates in her pocket, startling her so much that she almost dumps her coffee in her lap. “Unknown number,” it tells her. She answers it anyway.

“Beth?”

“Paul?” Her voice rises and pretty nearly cracks, because hasn’t he dumped her already? Isn’t he already gone?

She doesn’t say anything else, drained so dry by the night’s events she has nothing else to say. She can’t hear him breathing, doesn’t know if he’s still there or if he dialed the wrong number and is trying to figure out how to hang up quietly and pretend he never called.

“Are you okay?” he finally asks.

She wants to tell him everything, wants to cry, wants him to hear her, to touch her somehow through the phone, wants—

“Apparently,” she finally says, “rivers don’t die when they fall off the edge of the world.”

“Yeah,” he says, his voice sad or tired or resigned. “I know.”

 

Copyright © 2010 by Deborah Coates
Art copyright © 2010 by Sam R. Kennedy

Acquired and edited for Tor.com by Stacy Hague-Hill.

This story is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
18 comments
mbg
2. mbg
That was very interesting! More please.
mbg
3. veem
Intriguing from the very beginning. I like your style.
mbg
4. jenfullmoon
I want to hear more about Beth's life, how she met Paul, all of it. Wowza.
Deborah Coates
5. dcoates
Thank you!! It makes me happy to know that people are reading the story and liked it.

If you haven't found it yet and you're interested, there's a--let's call it a prequel to this story called How to Hide Your Heart
Melissa Lim
6. riande
You actually can -- there's an earlier story that covers just that on Strange Horizons:
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2008/20080121/heart-f.shtml

I highly recommend it. I wasn't expecting a followup story, but I'm glad it happened. Wonderful mythos being built here.
Jennifer McDuffee
8. Friday
I really liked this - would love to read more of this!
Madeline Ferwerda
9. MadelineF
Not bad! I like seeing stories about people who are poor and from forgotten states! It's fresh.
mbg
10. Antinomic
Fun stories, with a hint of strangeness. I grew up in the midwest, so it resonates. That was before I got smart enough to move near the sea.

And it sold another book for you, as soon as Amazon does it's thing...
Sarah H
11. gryphyn
Loved both stories. Off to look up your other work.
mbg
12. dcb
FYI, there's several words missing between page 12 and 13 of the PDF.
mbg
13. Plotstalker
A - maze- ing!!!!! Loved this. You are an amazing writer.....
mbg
14. Brian David
Hey Deborah, I really enjoyed your story. Keep writing.
mbg
16. Mercwriter
Excellent story! I loved the style. Very refreshing (also loved the setting--somewhere I know!) and I'm off to read the other story now.
mbg
18. JPL
From Cat Haiku to River Edge - what a breath! "There's no skimming with either one."

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