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Friday, January 15, 2016

The River's Mask

     I remember my Dad and I going fishing. We did a few times before the divorce. Probably when I was around eight. We fished in the river not far from our house. The Cherry River. We didn’t live in the country, but didn’t have to. That river cut a swath right through my home town. God, I hated that place. Lived in the not so great part of a not so great Midwestern industrial town. I remember fishing. Baiting the hook with something alive, watching it squirm; wondering if it could feel pain. I’d hoped so. I hated fishing more than I hated that town. Don’t really remember much of what my old man said in our few short years of acquaintance, but I do remember that day, and what he said that day. Probably because I was hot, sweaty, bored and miserable and would rather have been anywhere else.

“Boy, see the water there?”

“The river?” I asked. I cringed a little, expecting a slap to the back of the head.

“Yeah. That. But the water itself. See how the sun reflects? Sparkles all inviting like? Saying, ‘you know boy, it’s a hot day. Bet you’d like to cool off. Bet you’d love to jump in right now, wouldn’t you, boy?’ There’s more to that river than the water, boy. The river is what’s underneath that water. It’s the current that’ll grip you, hold you down, drown you without a care. The broken beer bottles that’ll slice your foot wide open. You’d bleed to death before you ever made it home to your Mama. It might be the tree branch you can’t see, just below the surface, that’ll spear you like a bullfrog when you belly flop. You see, the water ain’t the river; it’s the river’s mask. People wear them masks, too.”

     I probably remember that because that’s the most he’d ever said to me that wasn’t a direct order.


      I really think we were made for each other. I first saw her in the dorm cafeteria. She was very pretty, beautiful in an awkward way. Thin, maybe she thought too thin, jet black hair and pale skin. A crooked nose and a slight gap in her front teeth. Glasses with black rims. She gave me a quick half smile. So quick that I almost didn’t see it. She cast her gaze to the floor, her fragile hands in her lap. I knew her hair smelled of strawberries. It was love at first sight. Corny, I know. Hey, she wasn’t my first.

     That was weeks ago. Man, hard to believe. Now we traveled the highway together, to an unknown destination. How mysterious. The place we were going didn’t matter. All that mattered is that we were going there together. We’d be together.

     She was studying pre-med. That made me proud, I guess. And why shouldn’t I be?

     I’d dropped out last month. She didn’t know that, and I tried not to think about it. Does it matter? She slowed the car down as it began to sprinkle. Brake lights flashed briefly ahead. How long would we drive on before she revealed where we were going? I should’ve been tired, since I’d been with her since dawn, but the anticipation of where we might stop had me wired. I talked about everything and anything, until it started to feel a little weird, so I just shut up. Why did I always do that? All those regrets and failings, wants and desires. They shouldn’t matter now. Not now that I have Diane.

     Dusk turned to darkness and we drove on. I turned on the radio. After a half-dozen silly love songs and a few embarrassing songs filled with sexual innuendo, I turned it off. If only I knew where we were off to, just me and Diane. Even though I’d only known her a short time, I felt as if I’d known her forever. Like since we were kids, or something. I’d watched her with children at the clinic she interned at. She loved those kids like they were hers. I’d see that half smile as she lifted a toddler and held him in her arms, the kid giggling. She had pets, too. Two cats. I saw the first one, a big fat tabby right away. The second, a Siamese, was shy or maybe aloof is more like it. She loved them equally. I hated the thought of them dying before her, breaking her heart.

    Headlights streamed in streaks across the windshield. Now I was getting tired. It was late. We were still driving. She hadn’t stopped for anything; food, gas even a restroom break. I supposed I could hold on. How much longer could it be? I’m sure she was getting tired, too. We’d both been going since early morning. I guess I’d bear with it all, I’d come this far.

    I thought to myself how pretty she’d looked getting into the car. I guess wearing what you’d call a conservative light-weight coat, khaki, tied at the waist, covering what I knew was underneath: a silky lavender blouse with a “v” neck, just barely exposing her cleavage. The blouse covering the lace push-up bra that only she and I knew she was wearing. A short black skirt exposed her long slender legs from mid-thigh, her feet styling black low heeled wedges. Yes, I know about ladies shoes. Whatever.

     My mind wandered to places I’d never been as the miles ticked on. Diane and I, in bed together, her in her coat, blouse and skirt, me naked, excited. Then alone… but then I snapped out of my reverie. We were taking an exit. Finally! She pulled into a motel.

     I kept still as she went in, not wanting to do anything dumb to spoil the moment. It wasn’t long before she came out and walked ahead. I followed in the car. I parked and stepped into the cold, wet night. I couldn’t believe my luck as she slipped the card key through the slot… before she could close the door, I pushed my way in. She tried to scream, but I was quick. I hit her hard over the head and knocked her out.

     I would be with her tonight.

    I carried her out around two in the morning, putting her in the trunk of my car. I just left her car in the parking lot. I drove until I got to Cherry River, on the outskirts of town. It was nearly dawn by the time I had her body weighted down. I sweated as I dragged her to the edge. I was too tired to carry her. I gave Diane one last kiss, and then rolled her into the murky water, the lazy current reflecting the moonlight. The river’s mask looked so calm. But I knew what lay under the surface. Detective, she hadn’t been my first.

Check out my collection of short stories: "Ten Little Terrors"