The Girl in the River
|Illustration by Justin Wood|
Krista felt him shudder, and he let out a groan, and then he was done. She lay still as Shane caught his breath.
You are so hot, he panted. I love you. He leaned his freckled, slightly pimpled face down and kissed her on the forehead, and then he rolled off of her and sat on the side of the bed. He looked over his shoulder and said, What time you say your parents get home again?
Five. She watched him scan the bookcase until he found the clock. It was 4:27, and so she figured that hed leave right away. Shane pulled on his underwear and jeans and said, Well, I better get going.
Cant you stay just a few minutes longer?
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Cmon, honey. You know thats not a good idea. Your dad would kick my ass.
Just then the doorbell chimed and the two of them froze.
Shit Shane grabbed his shirt off the floor and jammed his thick arms into the sleeves. Krista started to laugh.
Relax. Its probably just some Jehovahs Witnesses. Or Mormons. She lifted herself up on her elbows and yawned. Youre such a scaredy-cat.
You would be too if you knew what it was like to be a guy.
She wrapped the comforter around her and climbed out of bed and walked in the direction of the bathroom; she figured that he was watching her as she went, and she liked it. At least partly. In the beginning, shed worried that Shane would leave once theyd slept together, but now she knew that he was different she could feel it in her stomach. She could always give him what he wanted, and so why would he leave? Krista wiped herself and flushed the toilet and re-wrapped the comforter around her body.
Shane? she called as she walked back into her bedroom. He didnt seem to be around maybe he was in the living room and so she tossed the comforter on the bed and began putting on her clothes. She looked up as she was fastening her bra, and she saw him peeking around the doorjamb.
There you are.
Yeah, I went to go see who was at the door.
Who was it?
I couldnt see anybody. Anyways, I wanted to check cause I gotta get going.
Krista sighed and slumped her shoulders, and made sure he noticed. You always leave right after. Arent we ever going to do anything together?
What are you talking about? Were together, like, all the time.
She tried a different approach: You wanna smoke out?
Look, he said. How bout I take you out to ride the bikes this weekend? Me and Lawrence were just gonna go, but you can come too. Is that cool?
I guess so, she said, wondering why Lawrence had to come.
Great. He walked over and gave her a wet kiss. It made her lips feel electric.
Call me, she said as he turned away.
She heard his footsteps on the floor, and then the sound of the door opening and closing. The clock read 4:35, and so she quickly made the bed, setting her old Woodsy the Owl, and a big, fluffy white bear, neatly at its foot. The time between the end of the school day and her parents return from work was always the worst part of the day. It got way too lonesome, even though she was mostly used to it. She surveyed the room one last time to make sure there werent any signs of Shane, and then she went out to the living room and sat cross-legged on the sofa. Soon, Mom would come home and ask her about her day, which had been boring at least the parts she could talk about and then Dad would come home and get his beer and sit, and that would be the end of it. No more talking for the rest of the evening unless it was Dad ordering Mom to bring him something or telling a lame story about his stupid job at Newlands Chemicals. Which is exactly what he proceeded to do an hour later.
Somebodys gonna get fired, he said, settling into his easy chair. We just did inventory, and were missing a whole lot of red phosphorus.
Oh, dear, said Mom.
Yeah. That stuff is really dangerous, too. Could cause a big fire. You know, they think thats what started that fire up in the Sierras.
Really? I thought it was lightning.
Maybe, but it was probably fireworks. Like what happened up at my dads place. He leaned back and took a cigarette off the end table. Krista, go get me a beer, would ya?
She was glad to. What did she care about anything he said? She went into the kitchen and opened the fridge and pulled one of the cold cans out of the plastic rings and carried it back to the living room. By now, her father had shut up. She sat around for a couple hours more, waiting for Shanes call, but it never came, and so she went to bed and tried to put everything out of her head except the upcoming weekend.
At last Saturday rolled around, and the dust off of Country Drive billowed up thick and yellow behind the wheels of Shanes pickup. As he steered the truck up the dirt road toward the path that ran alongside the canal, Krista wrapped her hand around Shanes bicep and inched her body closer to his. Sitting beside her, Lawrence shifted uncomfortably and adjusted the air-conditioning vent. Shane drove with his elbow poking out the window and his right hand resting limply atop the steering wheel.
Succhino said that theres this spot up by the sand patch where you can see all these fish just kickin it in this little pond, he said. Its by this little concrete thing, and they just sit there. You could probably sit by the edge and just reach in and grab one of em.
Yeah, I heard that too, said Lawrence.
Krista gazed through the windshield at the bald mountains in the west. After a while she said, Are you ever gonna go horseback riding with me?
What? Why would I want to do that? said Shane.
Why not? Im coming with you to ride bikes.
What is it with girls and horses anyway? Theyre big stinky animals. And theyre stupid too, said Shane.
No, theyre not. Theyre very sensitive.
Lawrence considered this for a moment. You know, Ive got a theory about that. I think girls like horses because they can feel the horses muscles and shit between their legs. They like the feel of that big animal backbone against their crotch.
Shane leaned his head back and laughed.
Screw you, Larry. Krista squinted her eyes and removed her hand from Shanes arm.
Mosquitoes and gnats, rising in peppery clouds from the canals fetid waters, began to spatter wetly against the trucks windshield. Shane steered alongside an old and withered cottonwood tree and killed the engine. Shane and Lawrence climbed into the bed and eased the motorcycles out and onto the soft, powdery dust. Krista stood and watched, drawing long, straight strands of hair away from her face. Hopping out of the truck bed, Shane leaned close to Krista and circled his hands around her waist.
Ready to ride?
Sure, she said, smiling. She waited for Shane to kiss her, but he didnt. Instead, he got her purple backpack out of the bed and handed it to her. Thanks, she said.
Lawrence had already mounted his bike, and he kicked down on the starter and twisted the accelerator, and small puffs of gray smoke flowed out of the exhaust pipe. Shane climbed onto his bike and looked back at Krista. She grinned crookedly and lifted her leg over the seat and settled in behind Shane. Up ahead, a ribbon of dust trailed Lawrence as he went tearing up the hillside, and his wispy hair flapped in the wind. She heard his bike crying like a dying goat as he shifted gears and disappeared over the hill.
Why cant that asshole ever wait for two seconds? said Shane. He twisted the key, freed the clutch, and the bike leapt forward.
They rode past dried yellow weeds and dull, colorless stones as they approached the rise leading up to the canal. Krista saw a small, ragged dog staring with glazed eyes from behind the exposed roots of an elm. She drew her breath in sharply as Shane twisted the accelerator and the bike began the brief incline up the hill. Staring forward, Krista could see the clouds, sparse and cottony and flat against the blue sky. As Shane slowed through the turn and began driving along the brown waters of the canal, Krista could see a lonely farmhouse and the mobile homes of the people who lived on the outskirts of town. To the east, below the slope of the hill, was a windbreak of trees beyond which Krista could see unwatered lawns, rusting swing sets, chained dogs, and bobbing chickens.
Shane turned his head and shouted something over his shoulder, and then he twisted the handle, and the bike went rocketing fast and hard along the bumpy ruts in the path. The two of them rode for some time until at last they were surrounded by only hills and sage. Shane steered the bike toward a small copse of willows and stopped the engine. He let Krista climb off, and then he opened the kickstand with his foot.
This looks like a good spot to take a break, huh?
Sure, she said. She stared at Shane, his eyes round and wide and green as he looked toward the desert hills.
Where the fuck did Larry go? That dildo. He has no concept of companionship whatsoever.
Krista moved to a large flat rock and sat down. Shane hung his thumbs in his pockets and turned to her. He smiled widely, the freckles on his cheeks clustering together.
You got that shit with you?
Yeah. She smiled brightly and took the backpack off her shoulders. After she unzipped the pocket, she reached inside and took out a small plastic bag and a little silver pipe. Shane squatted near the rock and watched her small hands work the flakes of green into the bowl of the pipe. He reached into his pocket and got out his lighter and handed it to her. She thought of lighting it, but she looked at him and saw him staring blankly at the pipe, and so she gave it to him. He lit the bowl and inhaled deeply. She watched his face relax as he held the smoke and exhaled. He passed her the pipe, and she lit it and smoked. A few moments later she felt pleasant and happy. As Shane finished off the pipe, Krista reached into her backpack and brought out two ham sandwiches. She passed one to Shane, and the two of them sat and ate.
Once they were done, she stood up and went around behind Shane, rested her chin on his shoulder, and reached around his waist and ran her fingers up and down the ridge of his zipper. He turned and looked at her and smiled halfheartedly and kissed her on the forehead. She felt her stomach sinking, but she didnt say anything. Shane climbed to his feet and walked toward the bike.
Shane. He stopped and came back. She leaned herself against his chest. Will you hold me? He tried to focus his eyes on her face.
Baby. He paused, smacking his tongue around in his mouth. We cant do that right now. What if Larry comes back?
So what if he does? He wont care.
What, do you want him to join in or something?
Krista sighed and dropped her hands from his shoulders. Fine, she said.
Come on, then, he said. Lets go.
As they rifled across the dust, Krista could see down the mountainside and across the freeway. They curved around the bend and were surrounded by a red, rock slope on one side, and a steep, tangled hill on the other. Shane slowed the bike to a standstill. Krista could hear the rush of water at the bottom of the hill. He turned and said: Check this out. Im gonna pop the clutch.
Shane released the handle, and the rear wheel spit out dust before the bike lifted and went rolling forward, its front tire lifting toward the sky. Krista let out a shriek, and she could feel herself slipping off the seat as Shane swung the handlebars back and forth in an effort to regain control of the motorcycle. She flailed at his back, the bike struck a rock, and she lurched forward. There was a loud crack, and then, looking down and seeing only sky, Krista heard Shanes voice cry out: Oh my God.
Somersaulting down the hill, she heard alternating thuds and silences, interspersed with rasping, scraping noises as her hands, hair, and clothing caught on weeds and rocks. She kept her eyes closed so that she wouldnt see what lay at the bottom. She wasnt in pain at least not yet and was only aware of movement, and of intermittent contact between her body and the hillside. Then the rumbling in her ears stopped, and everything was still.
Gradually, in a disjointed way, Krista became aware of her own heavy breathing and of prickling, mounting pains in her back and leg. She propped herself up on her elbow and looked down at her body. She was covered from shoe to shoulder in dust, and her jeans were torn at the shin. The blood rose in crimson dewdrops through the dirt on her naked leg, and the ham sandwich rose up sour and acidic in her throat. She breathed in and swallowed and closed her eyes. She reached forward to touch the drops of blood, but a jolt of pain shot through her left arm. A flap of olive skin the size of a quarter hung limply just below her elbow, and the straight bone in her forearm looked lumpy. She closed her eyes again and lay back.
Holy shit. Are you all right, babe?
She saw Shanes dark form silhouetted against the sun.
I dont know. I dont think . . . Her throat tightened and she tried to fight back the tears.
Shane kneeled down beside her and held his hands shakily over her body. His eyes were bloodshot and his lips were parted dryly.
Dont worry bout nothin, babe. Looks like you broke your arm, but youll be fine.
She blinked the tears out of her eyes and looked at the scattershot freckles on Shanes face.
Shane . . .
He plopped down in the dirt and stared across the stream. He was breathing hard, and he reached into his pocket and brought out a cigarette and lit it. He sucked hard on it twice and then looked at Krista.
Its gonna be all right, babe. He stared at his cigarette and then levered the ash with his thumb. He watched the smoke for a second longer and then said, Im gonna have to go get help. Are you cold or anything?
A little. Shane, please, dont leave me.
I have to, baby. He rose and peeled off his shirt. Dont worry. Ill be back in like 10 minutes. Luckily the bike didnt get damaged too much. Just a light broke. He stood with his shirt hanging in his hand, his bare chest boyish and pale. Youll be fine, honey. Ill be right back. He leaned down and draped the shirt over Kristas torso.
Dont leave me here.
Shane turned and began jogging up the hill. You cant leave me here alone! Her voice was barely a whisper. She saw him look back, but she couldnt make out his expression. His figure grew dark and small, then she heard the motorcycle roar to life and drift away. Her eyelids suddenly felt heavy. It must be the pot, she figured. Ill be fine.
Krista woke up and heard the water in the creek trickling past the rocks and reeds by the shore. She swallowed and her mouth felt puffy and dry. She could no longer feel her leg, but her arm was throbbing steadily. She lifted herself up with her good arm and licked the dust from her lips. Near the horizon, the sun hung like a bloody egg above the mountaintops. How long had Shane been gone? She twisted herself around and looked at the creek. There had been a smell of upturned earth in her nostrils, but she didnt become aware of it until she noticed a horse standing across the stream. It was a white animal covered in caramel spots. Its mane was gray and bristled, its tail swung like a pendulum. It stood motionless, the eye at the side of its head staring back at her.
Hey there, she rasped. The horse didnt move. She collected herself, then began dragging her body toward the stream, using her good arm and legs to slide across the gravel. She made clicking noises at the horse, but it didnt move. When she came within a few feet of it, the horse snorted and trotted away.
She scooped up the cold stream water with her cupped hand, and wished that she could have captured the horse and ridden it home. As she wiped the droplets of water from her chin with her good wrist, she let the air out of her chest and realized that shed been holding her breath. Her stomach convulsed violently. She turned her head to the side and vomited up the remains of her sandwich. Once the heaving had subsided, she spit the taste of bile out of her mouth and drank a few more handfuls of water. She lay back down, and could feel every part of her body at once. Adrenaline poured into the pit of her stomach, and her head felt light. She thought for a moment that she could feel herself lifting up out of her body, with all of her warmth and her feelings levitating above the earth and considering her whole situation.
Krista tried to feel some kind of joy in her pain, and she looked down at the brownish-red crust on her leg and bit her lip. She lifted her hand and looked at her dark-blue fingernails. There was a star-shaped chip on one of them. She looked at the ring that Shane had given her as a present on Valentines Day and felt like she was going to be sick again. What was taking him so long? She realized that he might very well have just gone home and forgotten all about her. If he were here, she thought, I would smack him across the face. But then again, Shane was the only one who had ever seemed to notice anything about her. As she wondered if and when hed be coming back, she felt the tiny rocks and floury dust against the strands of her hair, and, turning her head, she gazed across the stream at a tree into which someone had carved their initials. By now the sun had dipped below the mountain peaks, and the trees trunk cast a long shadow across the creek. She rolled her head back and forth against the ground, and then, feeling mildly dizzy, she propped herself up on her elbow and looked around.
There was an itch building in her leg, and she began to worry about infections. She moved closer to the stream and carefully lowered her leg into the cold, running water. The stream glided around her calf as she eased her wound deeper into its waters. When the creek touched her torn skin, a shock of pain rippled through her bones. She lost her balance and plunged into the water.
The stream trickled past her ears, and the posts of her earrings felt as cold as ice. Then she was back at home, rising past her father. He was sitting in his easy chair, his stockinged feet up, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She passed her mother, who was sitting on the sofa reading a book that had a Hercules-type man clutching a flowing-haired maiden on the cover. Mom looked up and smiled cautiously, her chin hidden in folds of doughy flesh. Krista walked down the hallway and into the bathroom. She bent over the bathtub and turned the hot water on. As steam began to rise from the faucet, Krista stood before the mirror and took off her shirt, her pants, and her bra. She ran a finger under her eye where some makeup had smeared. Then she placed her hands under her breasts and lifted and gently squeezed them together so they formed real cleavage, and she decided that she looked good. She pushed her panties down and she climbed into the steaming liquid, gasping at the heat of it. Once she got used to it, she slid forward and leaned back until her ears were beneath the water. All she could hear then was the hum of some life not her own.
When she opened her eyes, she could feel the smooth stones at the bottom of the creek bed. She rubbed her fingers together and felt the raised ridges of her pruned fingerprints. Vaguely, she seemed to know that she should get out of this bed of water, but she was so tired. So, so tired. She closed her eyes and tried to remember who had brought her to this place.
Dusk had begun to settle across the desert, and if anyone were to look down at her, they would see her lying prone in the silvery water at the bottom of the hill. Her hair would be trailing away from her head in gently swaying tendrils. Her olive skin would be turning a light shade of purple, and barely discernible mists of red would drift from the open places on her arm and leg. She would have a soft, crooked smile on her dark lips, and it would seem to whoever saw her that she was either comatose or dead.
Then he was kneeling in the creek and lifting her out of the water. She saw him leaning his face down to hers, and she opened her eyes. She sputtered and coughed, and as her pupils began to focus, she realized that she was looking not at Shane, but at Lawrence.
Jesus . . . are you all right?
Her lips parted, and then she began to cry in heavy sobs. Where was Shane? She wrapped her good arm around Lawrences neck, and he lifted her carefully out of the stream. She felt like a dead, cold, heavy weight in his arms, and she could sense that his legs were trembling as he mounted the hill. For a moment, she was afraid that hed stumble, but soon enough they reached the top, and he carefully laid her down. She looked up at him as he caught his breath, and she thought that he looked like an old man.
Whered Shane go? he said, scanning the road. Did he go to find help?
What am I doing up here, Larry? Take me back down there.
What? Are you nuts?
Take me back down. I have to wait for Shane.
She lifted herself up a little and looked down the hillside at the creek, and she thought that she could make out the outline of her body being washed away in the current.
Please, Larry. Please.
No fucking way. Look, you just need to take it easy, okay? How long have you been waiting?
They heard a rumble, and Shanes truck came around the corner, followed by a county ambulance. The two vehicles pulled up next to Lawrence and Krista, and Shane and the paramedics climbed out. Shane ran over and shoved Lawrence.
What are you doing, you dummy!? Youre not supposed to move an injured person!
The paramedics hesitated, turning their heads from side to side. Krista saw Shanes motorcycle mounted and tied down in the back of his pickup. He moved over to her and circled an arm around her waist. Then he looked hard and cold into Kristas eyes and kissed her on the lips. She kissed him back weakly, still half-wondering who he was.
Baby, Im so glad youre okay. You dont know how worried I was.
Her eyes were on him, but it was as if she were looking at someone she didnt know.
It was nothing, she said. I slept through the whole thing.
Jeffrey Chisum was born and raised in a small town in western Nevada. He is in USCs Literature and Creative Writing Ph.D. program and is working on a novel about a family with a troubling past.
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