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 that she’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.
We are taking next week off, but come back Monday, January 30th, for an all new tangle started by me!
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