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.
Come back Friday for Part 3 by Valerie!
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