Sunday, January 25, 2009

Red River (Full Story)

I roll my window down just so I can watch Gentry’s hair blow in the wind, from the passenger side of his old Chevy. He smiles, a dimple hidden beneath the honey colored stubble on his face, like he knows I’m watching him.

He reaches for the radio and bumps up the volume and we sing off pitch to Sweet Home Alabama, my bare feet tapping along to the beat on the dashboard. The smell of honeysuckle hangs in the air and it mixes with Gentry’s cologne and the exhaust from the pick-up and it all brings one word to my lips; summer.
I try not to notice the leaves have started to change. I don’t want to see the summer end. I’m not ready to say goodbye to this.

To say goodbye to Gentry.


Gentry grabs my hand to steady me. One foot after another, I balance on the railroad track, only leaning on him because I want to.  His fingers are long and warm and I try to memorize the shape of his hand and how mine fits into it.

“I’m gonna miss this smell,” he says. His eyes are hidden beneath the brim of his baseball cap. The shadow it casts makes his jaw line sharp and I have the urge to kiss him there.

But I just breathe in deep instead--Iron, rust, tar, and honeysuckle. I’d miss this smell too if I were the one leaving, but I’m not. I can’t imagine ever leaving Red River. It’s a thought I just can’t have. “You don’t have to go,” I mumble.

If Gentry hears me, he doesn’t show it. He kicks a rock with the toe of his boot and it skitters down the small incline and plops into the river beside us. “You wanna go for a swim?”

Neither of us has a bathing suit, but that’s never stopped us before. The river water is crystal clear and it’s real deep beneath the railroad bridge just a ways up the track. Gentry likes to jump from the bridge, but I’ve never tried. Today I think I will.

“Sure.” I smile at him like he’ll always be mine, and we’ll always have this. And if just for today, I try to believe it.


I didn’t know it was the last time I’d see Gentry. He cut our summer short when he left for California two weeks sooner than he’d promised. I told myself I wasn’t going to think about him after he left, but he’s in me. Like the hot iron of the railroad tracks, the feel of the cool river water on my skin, the sound of Sweet Home Alabama on the radio. There are some things you just can't let go of.

I head down to our spot on the river, wanting solitude, and wanting more than ever not to be alone. I stop short on the river bank, looking up at the boy on the railroad bridge above. My eyes play tricks because I think it’s Gentry, until he jumps and a mess of dark hair plunges into the water.

When he comes back up, he swims to me. I watch, as he climbs up the rocky slope, water dripping from his naked shoulders. “Hi,” he says. Goose bumps cover his chest and arms.

“It’s too cold for a swim.”

The boy laughs. “Yeah.  I guess so.” He rubs a hand through his brown hair and then he looks at me in a way that makes my cheeks warm. His eyes are deep, dark brown, set beneath a heavy brow. “I’m Jake.”

I smile, but it feels wrong. It’s too tight on my face. I haven’t smiled like this for anyone but Gentry. “You don’t look like a Jake.” His name should be something more exotic. It’s right on the tip of my tongue but I can’t grasp it. A name I’ve only heard in stories.

He laughs again and my breath catches. “You know, I’ve heard people look like their names, but I never really believed that.”

The wind blows cold and a leaf that’s just started to turn orange falls down and lands between us, floating on the water. Jake bends and picks it up. He hands it to me. “I bet your name is something pretty. Something like Summer.”



The leaf is cool and wet in my hand and I imagine what Jake’s skin feels like. Cool from the river, but warm against my fingertips. He points to a towel hanging from a dogwood branch. “Hand me that, please?”

I move aside so that he can reach it himself. I don’t like the way he makes me feel. Intoxicated, almost. It took me years to feel this way about Gentry. He leans in close to me, so close that I can smell his skin. My eyes close and I expect something like Gentry’s cologne, but that’s not right. The scent isn’t right.

I step back and watch him dry his hair. Something about this boy feels wrong. The way his eyes shine, the way his skin seems to move like it’s part of the river.

“Where’d you say you were from?” I ask.

Jake grins and just beneath his lip I can see his teeth—pointed, sharp. “I didn’t.”

I know him by his teeth. The sight sends warmth fluttering down to my fingertips and yanks me out of his intoxicating spell.

It’s clear from the twist in his smile that he thinks I’ll be easy. I’m happy enough to let him go on thinking it. Tucking my hair behind one ear, I drop my eyes and give a shy smile.

“I’ll trade you for your name,” he says, probing. But I know better.

Dropping to one knee, I grip the hilt of my knife, hidden safely in my boot. He doesn’t see me coming. He’s too focused on what my blood will taste like or how my screams will sound muffled by water. When I stand, thrusting the silver knife beneath his ribcage to the place his heart would be, his eyes are soft and bewildered. Only for a second. Then, his skin shimmers and all the water that was his body rushes down over my hand and back into the river.

I haven’t killed in weeks. Not since before Gentry left, and even then, Red River had been a quiet place.

Gentry thought our work was done. He thought we’d finally found the last of them and it was like knowing that the danger had passed drained the life right out of him. The river was just a river, the tracks were just tracks, and I guess I was just a girl.

On the ground, something gleams in the mud. I push my knife back into its sheath and lift the little pebble between my thumb and forefinger. It’s black with a hole through its center. Proof that their hearts are hard as stone. To be sure, I should set it on the tracks and wait for a train to come by and shatter it into a thousand pieces. That’s the drill. They aren’t dead until the black rock is broken.

My feet are soaked and I’m beginning to feel the chill of autumn resting on the tip of my nose. I stuff the stone into my pocket and head for home.

* * *

It’s been two months since Gentry left Red River. By the time he calls, I’ve stopped hoping for it. His number lights up on my phone and I’m all too eager to answer. But when I hear his voice, thinned out be the distance between us, I only say that I’m fine, and that Mr. Poll from the feed shop was found wandering main street without his pants again.

Though the stone hangs on a cord around my neck, I don’t say one word about the Protean I killed last week.

* * *

When the full chill of autumn moves in, hunting is more of a challenge. They’re harder to detect when the water becomes sluggish. It’s less likely that their skin will shimmer like the river, and more likely that they’ll hold their shape.

The scent of honeysuckle is long gone, replaced with the earthy smell of rotting leaves, but when I take a long, deep breath, I can still smell the tar from the tracks. It’s holding onto summer as hard as I am.

I visit our spot by the river every day. It was against our rules to hunt alone. But what choice did he leave me? One kill isn’t likely to bring him back, anyway. I need to convince him this town’s worth his time, that this town needs him.

They’re out there, I know it. Waiting to lure unsuspecting boys and girls down to the muddy banks and bleed them dry. There’s something about this place that attracts them. Something about the river bed they find irresistible; something about the tracks that delights them. Gentry may not have known it, but I do.

I find the second one a short distance down the tracks. He looks like a normal boy – slight build, dusty blond hair, ill-fitted clothing – but he leaves a trail of watery footprints behind him, so faint you’d miss it for the dirty gravel of the tracks. He might’ve made it all the way to town if I hadn’t caught up to him and pushed my knife into the soft spot beneath his ribs.

I almost lost his stone between the railroad ties. It was black as the tar that coated everything, but just as I was about to give up, my pinky fell into the hole and hooked it.

It makes a soft clattering sound when I thread it onto my cord with the first. Seeing both of them together looks more like proof than one on its own. Still not enough, but now I know what I’m going to do to convince Gentry this town’s more than just a small town in the middle of nowhere.

I’m going to kill myself a baker’s dozen Red River Proteans. I’m going to hunt them harder than ever before. And I’m going to do it all on my own.

It’s a strange thing, wearing someone’s heart around your neck. At first, I barely noticed they were there. Unless I was hunting, I didn’t think much about them. But now that I’m up to number four, I can feel their weight. Not a heaviness, but a pull. A deep longing for the cool waters of the river. 

I'd always thought of the Proteans as monstrous things hidden in pretty, human-looking packages. They didn't have feelings. They had hearts, but they were made of stone. Proof that they were cold and unfeeling. But this – this is an ache I know all too well. Their hearts call out for the water, but can't reach it. They have lost everything, their home, their bodies, and they are left to do nothing but endure it. It's how I feel about the summer, and Gentry, and it makes me sick to my stomach. 

I should crush them all, and end their suffering, but that won't help me get Gentry back. And like that old saying, "misery loves company". At least in a way I don't feel so alone. 


It’s early morning when I see my fifth victim. A girl this time. She stands with her feet still in the water, her ankles blending smoothly into the surface so that it’s hard to tell if there’s anything below them at all. She’s dressed for summer, despite the late October chill, and there’s no puff of white when she speaks.

“Please,” she says, her hands reaching out to me in a way that says both I’m begging and don’t hurt me. Her eyes are wet as they fall to the stones around my neck, but I can’t tell if it’s tears or just the way she is. She lets out a soft gasp as she stares at my trophies and for the first time I realize how garish they are. I must look like a monster to her. She quivers slightly, an unnatural movement, and I remind myself thatshe’s the monster. Not me.

“Please,” she says again, her voice watery and trembling. “You have my…” She searches for the word, “my soulmate. Please, just let him go, and I promise we’ll never come back here.”

Something pinches in my gut, but I shake my head no. California has my soulmate, and I need hers to get him back. My fingers grip the handle of my knife. “I can’t do that.”

She quivers again, but lifts her chin high as she steps out of the water. “Then take me too. I don’t want to be here without him.”

I try not to see the fear or the love in her eyes as I lift my knife. They are monsters, I tell myself, they don’t have emotions. If I don’t stab her now, she’ll grab me, pull me into to the icy water.

She makes no sound as I slide my blade into her chest. Just a splash, and a soft thud as her heart lands on the mud. I ignore the sting in my eyes as I string hers next to the rest.


I keep finding myself on the tracks over the river. Whether I'm headed to school, or the library, or the store, I seem to end up on the train tracks, staring down at the half frozen river. It's too cold now to catch Proteans. Snow lines the banks and the water is barely a trickle. My plan to get Gentry back is stalled until spring, and I only have five hearts to show for it. I can't even show him those, because he decided to stay out in California for Christmas. I gaze down through a gap in the tracks and let the stones' longing wash over me. 

Gentry's never coming back. That's what I imagine they whisper at night when I'm trying to fall asleep. That's what my gut says now. Let them go. Gentry too.

I know I'm probably just imagining their pain, but I feel guilty nonetheless. At least when the Proteans deal death it's quick. They don't leave their victims to suffer for months on end, halfway between living and dying. It's starting to feel cruel. And I'm starting to feel foolish. Like I've been holding onto something I never really had. 

I picture Gentry that last day in the sun and wonder if he ever felt the way I did. I can't see the kind of sadness in his eyes that I carried. Only the excitement he felt over something new. Maybe he never cared about Red River or me. Maybe he just liked the rush he got whenever he slid his knife into their soft bodies, and felt the cold water splash down his arm. 

It was Gentry that taught me about the Proteans, how they were evil, and I trusted him. But now that I know their pain, I can't help but wonder if he was wrong. I think maybe I should toss the stones back in the river, but I can't. 

Misery loves company.


The banks of the river are slick with ice. The air is brisk but calm and I barely notice the sting on my cheeks. I take a seat on the same rock I was on when I made my first kill, Jake. It's him that I feel the strongest. I finger his heartstone and remember the soft look of surprise in his eyes when I slid the knife into his chest. It was the last thing he expected, and I don't know why. His heart aches the most, a mirror of my own longing for Gentry and I find myself wanting to talk to him and find out.

Carefully, I pull the cord over my head and undo it. I slip Jake's heart off and hold it in my hand. If I throw it into the water, what will happen? Will he just swim away? Or will he come out of the water to demand I release his friends. Will he pull me in with him? It's that last question I find myself thinking about the most.

I never thought I could leave Red River, but without Gentry, it's unbearable here. I pray for summer to come and yet I know that when it does, and Gentry doesn't come back, I will feel even emptier than I do now. Red River is already just a shell of the town it once was to me, and I will be the hollow girl in it.

It’s time to let go. “I’m sorry,” I say, to Jake’s heart, to the river, to myself. I slip the other four hearts off the cord, and with a deep breath, I throw them into the water.

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