“You wanna do something fun?” Brandy asked, nudging Garret on the arm with her knobby elbow. “I think there’s a river nearby.”
It was a hot and stormy summer day. Heavy gray clouds clung to each other in the sky. Fat raindrops steamed on the burning blacktop soothing it so that Garret Perkins and Brandy Hershaw could run barefoot down to the river. It was their last summer before they knew to feel shame for going around in only their bathing suits.
Brandy and Garret met the evening prior around a fire pit where their parents stayed up chatting long into the night, drinking wine from plastic cups and cans of beer, cold and wet from their coolers.
Garret had gotten up from the fire and began wandering in the grass. Brandy’s eyes had been drooping from trying to follow her parents’ conversations with their new friends, but she perked up when she spotted Garret just outside the ring of firelight, silhouetted against the dark blue sky. He was searching for something in the yard and kept jabbing a stick into the grass like a fisherman with a spear. She’d slipped away from the fire and started to follow him.
“What are you doing?”
He didn’t look up, just kept going, his eyes perfectly trained on the grass. He sucked in an excited breath and lunged out with his stick. Brandy gasped and stumbled away. A snake was flopped over the stick like a scarf on a clothesline. It wriggled, slithering down toward the grass. Garret kept the stick twirling so it could never quite getaway.
“Whoa,” Brandy said, approaching him and the snake hesitantly. “How could you see it?”
Garret grinned, slowly pulling the snake back toward them. “I’m good at catching stuff,” he said, “I’m going to call it Cetus,” he said, slowly moving the branch and the snake toward Brandy. She scurried back, squealing. He kept moving it closer to her and she kept reeling back until he was chasing her around the yard with it, always just outside of the fire’s glow.
As they wandered to the river Garret Perkins carried a fishing pole over his shoulder. He knew it would be safer and more comfortable to hold it ahead of him like a dowsing rod, but he thought he looked cooler and surer of himself holding it against his bare, sunburned shoulder. Brandy Hershaw carried a plastic bucket and swung it while she walked. If she tried to hold it still, she found it would rub against her thigh. As far as she could remember this was not a problem she had the summer before. They hardly spoke a word.
The night before all they’d done was talk and talk. Garret had stopped chasing Brandy and convinced her to hold the snake. Once she’d summoned the courage they spent the rest of the evening passing it back and forth between each other. They sat beneath the stars, a healthy distance from their parents, and traded secrets and stories until they were called in for the night. Now, in the light of day, neither could think of what to say.
The silence broke at last when Garret, frowning pensively, looked down at his dirty feet and admitted shyly, “I don’t have any worms to fish with.”
Brandy didn’t really want to fish. She’d told her parents they were going to so they wouldn’t think they were going to swim without an adult around.
“Why are you wearing your swimming suit then?” her mother had asked.
“In case it rains again,” she said with the arrogance only a lying child could summon.
“You can wade up to your knees and that’s it,” her mother said shrewdly. Brandy only mumbled her agreement, but Mrs. Hershaw took her by her little chin and made her look at her. “What was that?”
“Okay,” Brandy whined.
“Go,” her mother said on a sigh, too hungover from the night before to worry. “Have fun. Be a kid. Don’t drown and don’t get struck by lightning.”
Brandy nudged Garret while they walked along, his sudden dower mood was making her nervous. The day couldn’t be ruined before it began.
“It’s okay,” she assured him, “we can dig for worms. There are bound to be plenty coming up from the ground with all the rain.”
Garrett was soothed. He paused while they walked along and plucked a tiny blue flower from the roadside. It was a common weed, but the blue was bright under the gray sky and rain clung like glass droplets to the petals. He held it out to Brandy. She stared at it.
“For you,” he said, smiling with his big, uneven teeth. Brandy smiled back with her lips pressed tight. She was suddenly self-conscious about her braces.
“Thanks,” she said and tucked it into her swimsuit strap.
When they reached the river at last Brandy’s eyes lit up as she beheld something unexpected. “A bridge!” she gasped and ran ahead to inspect it. It was an old iron car bridge, no longer in use judging by the fence on the other side that blocked any through traffic. There was a metal sign on the end, peppered with BB gun dents and tagged unintelligibly with neon pink spray paint. Beneath the vandalism was an unmistakable warning.
DANGER! NO JUMPING OFF BRIDGE
The grated iron was cold and painful against their bare feet. Brandy climbed up on the railing to relieve the pressure. Garret frowned at her. “It says no jumping.”
“I’m not jumping,” she said, kicking her legs back and forth. The river looked deep enough they wouldn’t break their legs. She took the flower from her swimsuit strap and tossed it into the water.
“Hey!” Garret said, leaning over the railing. Brandy craned her neck to see how quickly the water pulled the flower under the bridge.
“It’s not moving too fast,” she said, leaning so far, she lost her grip on the slippery metal railing. Garret grabbed her arm.
“Whoa,” he said, nearly pulling her off the railing. “Be careful! You could fall.”
She looked over her shoulder at him, grinning broadly, her braces forgotten. “Let’s jump.”
“The sign says—”
“I know, I know. Think about it this way though, the hill leading down to the bank is so slippery from the rain it’s way more dangerous to try and climb down. We could slip and fall and crack our heads open. This is way safer.”
Garret leaned over to get a better look. The bridge was not so high, but his stomach still leaped up his throat when he looked over the edge. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
“Look,” she said, pointing at the water, “do you see any ghosts?”
Garret looked at the water hesitantly. He was suddenly afraid that if he looked too closely he might accidentally see a ghost. He bit the inside of his mouth nervously. “No,” he conceded.
“Because I’ll bet you no one has ever gotten so much as hurt jumping off this bridge. They just have to put that sign up for legal purposes or something.”
Garret was starting to warm up to the idea if only because he liked the thought of jumping off with Brandy. “Come on Garret,” she said, leaning toward him a little with her hands clasped up by her face. “Puh-leeease.”
Garret set his fishing pole against the bridge and held out his hand. “Alright,” he said. There was a little flash of lighting enough that he could see a twinkle in Brandy’s eye that made his heart skip like a flat rock on a still pond. They climbed over the railing.
“One,” Brandy said and took hold of his hand, “two…” The thunder from the lightning came a second later. “Three!” They pushed off, the metal of the bridge biting into their bare feet once more before they were falling.
They were falling for much longer than should have been possible, Brandy thought. Certainly, they would have hit the water by now. The world was turning a little slower, slow enough that she could turn her head to look at Garret. He had his eyes clenched so tight she doubted he even noticed anything was wrong at all. The little half-dry, half-wet strands of hair stuck to his forehead were fluttering against the current of air flying up from under them. They never met the water.
When Brandy opened her eyes again the world was suddenly cool and dry. She was lying not at the bottom of a river, nor standing atop an old iron bridge, nor existing in any place she’d ever been before. It was nighttime and there was sand and gravel beneath her.
Garret was lying beside her, and he sat up. The full moon and twinkling stars overhead were bright enough to see by and he scanned the area around him. He looked at Brandy where she was starting to sit up too. The sand under them stuck to their bare, wet skin.
“Garrett?” Brandy whispered and looked right at him.
Before he could answer the sand beneath Brandy began to shift and slip. She was falling again, but this time so quickly by the time she blinked the sand from her eyes she was on solid ground again.
In the distance, there was a boom like a giant clapping his hands. Then another and another. They came quickly one after another like applause. Between them were blinding flashes of light, brighter than any lightning Brandy had ever seen. Something told her to go away from where she was, but she could not make her legs move. There was a lake before her, still as a mirror reflecting the dark sky above. The rain came from the opposite shore and distorted the perfect mirror shine of the water. Something began to bubble under the surface.
Brandy shifted her feet, but she still couldn’t move her legs.
The bubbles rose more rapidly by the second. Brandy held her breath as something pushed hesitantly against the surface tension. Something big. She stayed still even as sheets of rain came closer and closer until they were soaking her. She couldn’t turn away. Her feet were glued to the cold, soft sand of the shore.
“What are you doing?” someone said from behind her. She didn’t look, couldn’t look. She just kept staring at the thing rising out of the water. It was massive, bigger than should be possible in such a small lake. “Hey, what are you doing?” the person repeated, their voice rapidly approaching her. The lightning flashed again, and the shadow of the creature fell over Brandy and the stranger. Its silhouette filled the sky and blocked out the opposite shore of the lake where the wind was whipping the trees. The loose sand at their base washed away with the downpour until their roots were bare and they plunged helplessly into the water. That wind rose around the entire perimeter of the lake and it pulled violently on Brandy’s hair. No matter how soaked it became in the downpour the wind kept ripping so harshly at her ponytail it felt like someone was pulling it. Her skin was wet and freezing, but she was so frozen with fear she couldn’t even shiver.
Someone’s hand took her wrist and tried to pull her, but the sand had crept up her legs to her knees and hardened like concrete. The owner of the hand, a young man, walked in front of her. His eyes were wide, his uneven teeth too big for his mouth. He wore swim trunks with a little blue flower tucked into the waistband.
“Brandy,” he said. She blinked the water from her eyes.
“I know you,” she said, squinting, “you forgot to bring worms for fishing. We can dig some up with all this rain.” She pointed at things in the lake, bobbing out of the water with its gaping maw hovering over them “Think we can catch that one with a worm?”
The boy turned to see the creature and then suddenly his arms were around her waist and he was pulling her away from the shoreline. The sand around her legs loosened and fell away. The creature dove for them, roaring even louder than the thunderclaps.
A wave crashed over them both. The flood pulled the boy’s arms apart and dragged Brandy off the shore and into the lake. She swam for the boy, fighting the current until it swept her under the surface. The boy managed to stand firm on the shore as the wave receded, but he waded into the water toward her, shouting her name.
Brandy was making way against the current when she felt a smaller, stronger current wrap around her ankle and pull her toward the center of the lake. With the clouds overhead the water was nearly black, murky, and distorted by her splashing and the downpour so she could not see anything below the surface. When the current pulled her under again she got a final gasp in before she was plunged into the cold darkness. She knew the beast was nearby, could feel the water around her shift with every movement of its too-big body.
Brandy managed to break away from the current and breached the surface of the lake. She flopped the hair out of her face, gasping, and thrashing desperately toward the shore and the boy. He dared to wade deeper, arms outstretched toward her, just barely out of reach.
The water behind her shifted and Brandy felt the currents change, they gripped her harder, clawing at her legs, her hips. She felt water lift over her shoulders and drag her back under. She knew the beast was coming for her, but as hard as she swam she never seemed to get any closer to the shore. The boy was up to his shoulders now and she could feel his hands brush her wrist before the water gave a sharp tug and sent her careening down, down, down, the current swirling around her until she didn’t know what direction the surface was, let alone the shore. From the deep below she could hear the boy calling her name.
His voice was muffled by the water between them, but she followed the sound, setting herself right. She came up under the sky again just in time to see a wave rise and slam the boy back into the shore. Another surge of water engulfed, and she screamed just in time for her mouth to be filled with water, her scream swallowed up by the hungry depths. It was pulling her deeper this time, dragging her down like a weight around her ankles. Overhead lightening illuminated the sky again and the water. The massive, inky shape of the monster was floating on her right side, watching her curiously as she sank and sank. It started toward her, slowly, letting her dread build as if it had a taste not just for her body, but her fear.
She kicked hard against the invisible weight around her, thrashing toward the shore, toward the sound of the boy crying out to her. Another flash of lightening showed her a small, pale hand reaching out to her in the gloom. She reached for it, shocked at the warmth compared to the burning cold of the water. He gripped her hand so hard she thought he’d break her fingers and pulled, dragging her back toward the shore. She gave a final kick and surged up out of the darkness.
Garret pulled Brandy toward the slippery, muddy riverbank under the shadow of the bridge. She wriggled and kicked desperately, coughing, and gasping for air. He managed to drag her up onto the shore and away from the river’s mild current. She rolled onto her tummy and hacked up murky water until she was crying. Garrett sat beside her unsure what to do, his arms wrapped around his knees. When she was no longer spitting up water and bile she began to suck in deep breaths.
“Are you okay?” Garrett asked meekly. Brandy lifted up on her elbows. Her swimsuit was stained with mud, her eyes shiny and bloodshot. She looked up at Garrett.
“Did I drown?”
Garrett shrugged, “I think you might have hit your head or something.”
She sniffled and flopped over so she was sitting upright. “My mom’s gonna kill me.”
“You don’t have to tell her.”
Brandy nodded thoughtfully, turning her eyes on the river before them. After a moment she hesitantly extended her leg and dipped her foot into the water. Garrett saw her trajectory; a little blue flower was floating down toward them. She grabbed it with her toes and pulled her leg gracelessly back. Brandy gingerly plucked the flower out from between her toes and handed it wordlessly to Garret.
“Thanks,” he said, smiling once again with his big teeth. He tucked the flower into the waistband of his swim trunks and turned his eyes back on the river. When the rain stopped they left the shelter of the bridge and returned to their parents.