Bloody Valentine’s Day Contest Honorable Mention
A River Runs Over It by Jay Seate
Beneath the surface of the river, something hides in its shallows, or in the reeds along its banks, or pretends to be floating waste while it watches…and waits.
Everyone knows a place that doesn’t feel right. A place where shadows are ominous and movement distorted. A place you have no business being at, but are inexorably drawn to. An area along the river was such a place for Debra. In this age of Jesus sightings in a potato chip or the Virgin Mary on a piece of French toast, there was little in Debra’s life to surprise her. But, this was different. This wasn’t something conjured from an overactive imagination.
This was real.
Over the years, she’d seen the creature a dozen times or more, first with her parents and later with a girl or a boyfriend. When she was younger, she imagined it to be some kind of half-man and half-fish, the male version of a mermaid. And finding human company somewhat lacking, she had sort of fallen in love with whatever it might be. She further assumed it was visible only to her as no one else ever spoke of it. But as she grew into a woman, she feared it might be something more sinister, something that could bite rather than an object to be adored. Still, in all the times she’d been in the water, it had never harmed her, so she still came to the same spot along the riverbank and waded in the water’s ambling current, feeling her affection grow, wondering if someday a siren’s song might call to her.
With every crisis, Debra had taken refuge at the water’s edge. It was her way of escape. She never came alone, however, for she couldn’t be absolutely sure about the thing in the river’s intentions. The shadowy form she occasionally saw beneath the surface told her it was the approximate size of a man, or a gator, but there were no alligators or crocodiles in her little corner of the world.
She sometimes took moonlight swims in the buff wondering if her hidden creature might look upon her with admiration from the dark reeds. Her eyes would flicker with specks of light lifted on a wave of infatuation as she would stand where it was shallow enough to arch her back as if she were offering her torso to the heavens while the stream divided around her, a landlocked mermaid as statuesque as the figurehead on a sailing ship. She sometimes reached toward the sky as if a trapeze might magically appear and carry her away. And some of those times she would see the dark shape in the water knowing the creature was there and wonder if it would eventually make itself known.
Finally, there came a particularly trying evening in which she headed for the river by herself. It was a sultry night, and she had drank a little too much. She came to the place she always frequented, down the rocky bank to the water’s edge where tiny night creatures buzzed and swam, the sound of the river singing a rippling lullaby. Bright moonlight created diamond flecks on the water’s tranquil surface moving in rhythm to the song. Besides Debra’s breathing and the beating of her heart, the only sounds came from night creatures singing their haunting melodies, looking for a companion, perhaps, as was she. Anticipation stitched with a thread of unease blanketed her as she beckoned to whatever hid beneath.
A loon voiced its lonely cry. Beyond the reflection of man-made lighting, the moon shone down with a vapid eye, pouring its light onto things better left hidden. At that moment, Debra heard a new sound.
“Debraaa.” It was barely more than a garbled whisper, carried along on a gentle breeze.
Her eyes scanned the darkness, straining to see. There was…something. It had risen from the river’s center, the upper torso of something not quite human. Her instincts told her to back away, but she was held captive by her curiosity. The thing that swum near her for years was about to show itself. She was spellbound as the need to solve this mystery was stronger than her fear. The dark shape emerged from the water, glistening and raw. It came closer, silhouetted against the silvery expanse of the river, closer and closer, but still too far away to make out its features.
“Debraaa,” the thing whispered again. “My lover.”
Debra’s slipped out of her dress. Her naked body was a map of uncovered treasures. She slipped off the bank into the shallows. Wavelets of foam curled around her ankles like Medusa’s snakes. She waded in up to her knees.
“Yes, it’s Debra,” she said softly. “Who are you? What are you? Please be what I’ve wanted for so long.”
“I’m the thing in the river, what’s left of a man who drowned upstream many years ago. They never found me, but I found you. I’ve wanted you all this time, but you’ve never come alone…until now.”
Debra stood frozen like the ship’s mast she sometimes impersonated. An arm reached forward and a hand grasped her shoulder. She could see him now, a mass of wet, hanging strips of decomposed skin, empty sockets where eyes should have been; his mouth, a jelly-like, rancid maw.
“Mine at last,” the voice gurgled almost sweetly.
She caught a gamey whiff of the creature and her mouth opened to scream, but all that came out was a stifled croak. The split second was all she was given before being pulled down with him. No safe haven to prevent her worst nightmare from becoming what legends feed on. Two dark figures zigzagged into the depths of the river’s inky water. The soft ripples on the surface became a blanket of quiet enveloping the couple in a cold, black eternal embrace, lovers for the rest of eternity. As they moved downstream, the loon again cried out beneath an impassive moon.