~ M. Shedric Simpson
The hands that drew me up were not the hands that had pushed me down.
“It’s okay,” she said. Her eyes were brown, and her skin was dark, and her fingers wrapped tight around my wrists. “I’ve got you.” She pulled, and I fell onto the rocky shore beside her.
A dull and listless light accosted me, and I squeezed my eyes shut. Anything seemed searingly bright after those silt-clouded depths.
“I’m Asha,” the girl said. “Can you talk?”
I drew a breath and forced out the word. “Yes,” I said, surprised to find it was true. I still felt the memory of water flooding my lungs, like a clenched fist inside my breast. “I think so.” I looked up and she smiled at me.
It was a warm smile, but sad too. It was the smile I’d seen on my mother’s face when she was reminiscing. “Do you remember how you got here?”
A beer bottle skating across the ground. The bright stab of pain on the back of my skull. The world spun before I even understood it was the bottle that had struck me. “I was walking by the river,” I said. “But something happened.”
Hey! Fucker! The words rang in my head. The pickup truck skidded to a halt, and four boys piled out of the bed in the back. A boot crashed into my ribs, and my body curled up like a pillbug’s. Go back to where you came from!
“It’s okay if you don’t remember,” Asha said. She tucked a twist of unruly brown hair behind her ear. “A lot of people don’t.”
But I remembered it too well. The flurry of words and blows that rained down. Shit, look at him bleed! the boy said, but I couldn’t see it, all I could see was the muddy brown sky. I ain’t going to jail for no chink. You better finish what you started.
I felt my hands twisting, and I looked away from Asha, not wanting her to see what was written on my face. Humiliation, rage, and hate formed a knot inside my heart; their threads cut through me like burning steel. “I drowned,” I told her.
“We all did.”
I tried to struggle when they dragged me into the river. I was still fighting when the blonde boy pushed my head beneath the water. But I was too weak. I’d always been smaller than the other boys. Whorls of silt blotted out the sky, and I couldn’t hold my breath any longer.
“All?” I glanced around. We weren’t alone on the shore. Other figures huddled beneath the murky sky. Children, all of them. A few were barely more than infants.
“About a hundred of us, now. There weren’t so many when I came here.” She placed her hand over mine. “If you’re ready, I’ll show you around.”
“I’d like that,” I said. Anything was better than reliving those moments over and over again. I pulled off my right shoe and placed it on the rock. I’d lost the other in the river, and I didn’t think I’d see it again.
I shoved my socks into my pockets as Asha led me away from the shore. The soil was warm beneath my bare feet, as if heated by the sun, though I couldn’t tell if it was night or day. A persistent breeze swept in from the water, cold and metallic and tasting of stone.
“Let’s go up the hill,” she said. “There’s a fire, and you can get a view of the whole island.”
I looked beyond her shoulder at the landscape above. Figures nestled amidst the pale grass that covered the slope. Some slept, curled into tight balls, while others stared out across the water in some long and silent vigil. Few seemed to notice our passage.
The grass was waist-deep and silken to the touch. I found myself yearning to lie down in it as well, but I followed Asha up the well-worn footpath instead. We passed a dwarf tree, leafless and skeletal. Dark bulbous fruit hung from its branches.
Asha grasped one. The tree shivered in protest, but relented. She pressed the fruit into my hand. “You can eat these,” she said. “Actually, there isn’t much else to eat. I tried catching fish once, but they smelled wrong.”
She shrugged. “Like they’d died days ago, even though they were still moving. So I just let them go.”
I nodded and held onto the fruit as she turned back to the trail. It felt warm in my hand. “What’s wrong with the children? Why aren’t they playing, or doing anything?”
“They’re waiting,” she said. “Some leave as soon as they get here, but for others . . . It’s been a long time.”
“How long have you been here?”
She glanced down at her feet. I couldn’t see the look on her face, but her voice was ragged when she answered. “I don’t really know anymore.”
I didn’t push her any further. We turned at the switchback and headed up along the ridge. The view opened up around us. The island was made of three low hills, all dressed in the same pale fields, and fringed with jagged black rocks. Across the water to my left and right lay the distant banks of the great river, though I could see nothing of what waited there. Faint points of light drifted across the span between them, crossing always toward my left, against the course of the wind.
The trail cut away from the ridge and into a small hollow near the top of the hill. A group of children huddled around a campfire there. Asha caught my hand and drew me towards them. A boy in a faded tank top stared at me with bright blue eyes. His skin was white and his hair was the color of dust.
“You’re new,” he said.
“My name’s Lee.” My father had spelled my name with the hanzi, but I always pictured it the way my mother had written it.
“I’m Toby,” he said. He looked up at Asha. “One of them is leaving.”
He stood and pointed down the slope. “Over there. He just started walking. Should we do anything?”
“It’s his time,” Asha said. “He has to go.”
She let go of my hand and moved beside Toby. I stepped next to her and gazed down the hill until I saw it too. A boy walking through the waxen field below. He might have been twelve at most; the grass came up halfway up his chest. None of the other children moved to stop him as he walked toward the shore.
“Where is he going?”
“Out there,” Asha said. “One of those boats.”
When she said it, I could see them for what they were. The tiny drifting lights were lanterns, hung from the prows of boats that crossed between the two banks. A lone figure sat in each. “They’re crossing over,” I said. “The souls of the dead.”
“I think so.”
It didn’t surprise me the way I thought it should have. I had died. It stood to reason that the others here had died as well. Some part of me had known it ever since I’d climbed back out of the water. “What about the boy?”
The boy pulled off his shirt as he reached the shoreline, then waded waist-deep into the water. He dropped the shirt, and the current pulled it downstream. His shoulders trembled, and then he dove. The river devoured him with barely a ripple. A few seconds later it was as if he’d never existed.
“I see him,” Toby said.
I strained against the uneasy light. A flicker of movement pierced the surface—an iridescent shimmer where there should have been a boy. It slid further out into the depths. A jagged fin. The serpentine twist of a coiling tail. Out, and deeper, until I could no longer track it.
We stood in silence for a long minute. The wind that wrapped around the island sent waves through the fields beneath us and painted whitecaps on the water. Toby sucked in a deep breath, and I felt myself do the same, tensing in anticipation.
One of the drifting lights flickered out. The silhouette of the boat vanished.
“He made it,” Toby said. His voice was sad.
“Of course he did,” Asha answered. “You will too, one day. I promise.”
Asha turned back to the fire, and I did too. We sat down on rocks. The other three children never glanced up, only stared into the flames with the ruminative gaze of ancient pyromancers.
“What happened out there?” I asked. “What was that boat?”
“He found the person who’d drowned him,” Asha said. “And carried them to the depths, so now they’ll never cross over. He’ll feast on their flesh for eternity.”
My chest tightened. “Is that all we’re here for? Just waiting—just waiting for that?”
“To set things right. To punish the ones who murdered us,” she said. “That’s what we’re waiting for.”
I still held the fruit in my hands, and I tore it open to focus on something else. The flesh inside was white, and filled with pockets of glistening black seeds. Like a pomegranate in monochrome. I slid one of the seeds past my lips and held it between my tongue and the roof of my mouth until it disintegrated. It was sweet, almost too sweet at first, but it drew my mind away from the taut wires inside my breast.
“Can I get some wood for the fire?” I asked Asha at last.
“It just burns,” she said. “It always has. I think it’s not really a fire. Just—the memory of a fire.”
I nodded, though I didn’t understand. I itched for something to do. I was like my father in that way. His hands had never been idle. I still remembered the grass stains on his fingers when he’d grabbed me and lifted me up to the sky.
My father had come with the factory, but when the factory moved away, he’d stayed for me and my mother. There were no jobs for a foreign engineer in town, so he took what work he could find. He trimmed hedges and fixed motors. He made sure there was always food on the table and new shirts in my closet. If there was ever any despair inside his heart, he channeled it into his work and never let it show. Not even on the day he died. I still remember Mrs. Siegel shouting at him from her porch when he collapsed in the middle of her yard. He kept trying to stand up and push the mower, even after his heart had stopped.
I swallowed another pomegranate seed and looked at Asha. “So there’s nothing to do? No work?”
Her eyes burned. “This is our work. Keeping watch. Waiting for our time.”
“Who are you waiting for, then?”
Her mouth twisted. “I don’t know. I don’t remember much of what came before this. Just glimpses here and there. Flames and darkness. Water, like ice inside my lungs. Someone calling my name.”
I shook my head. “If you don’t know who you’re waiting for, how will you know when they cross?”
“Everyone knows. They always do,” she said. “Whoever did this—” She pulled the collar of her dress to the side, and I saw the puckered scar beneath her clavicle. “I’ll know when they come.”
I knew I was asking the wrong questions, but it was too late to stop. “If you don’t even know who it was, then why not let it go? Just walk away?”
“Don’t you think people have tried? We can’t just leave.” She glared at me. “There’s a reason that we’re here.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but she stood up and turned away. “I’m going for a walk.”
“I’m sorry,” I called after her, but she didn’t respond. There was only the faint rustling as her figure parted the pale grasses, and then the cold wind stole even that.
“It’s okay,” Toby said. “She’ll be back.”
The flames whirled. I held out my hands and caught a whisper of warmth, or maybe it was only the memory of warmth.
“I think she’s been here a long time,” he said. “I think it’s hard for her to keep waiting.”
He didn’t look more than six, but I wondered how long he’d lingered here. “I shouldn’t have pushed her.”
Toby wrapped his arms around his knees and shivered. “It’s not really you that she’s mad at. It’s me.”
“Why would she be mad at you?”
He frowned. “Because I’m leaving soon, and she’ll still be here.”
I saw the way his legs shook, just like the shoulders of the boy who’d walked into the river. I saw his eyes, wide and darting. “You can feel it,” I said.
“But I don’t want to.”
“It’s nothing to be scared of. Asha said it’s what we’re here for.”
“But she didn’t mean to do it. I know she didn’t. She was just upset.”
“What do you mean?”
“My mom. She would have come back for me, if the car hadn’t fallen in the river. I know she would have.” He looked up at me with eyes that shone desperately. “I don’t want to hurt her.”
“Then don’t,” I said. “Don’t go.” I felt sick to my stomach.
“But you said it too. It’s why we’re here. We have to go.”
“I was wrong. Go somewhere else. Anywhere but here.”
He shook his head. “I can feel it pulling me already.”
“I’m sorry.” The words weren’t enough, but they were all I had.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s just what happens, right? Maybe I don’t have to hurt her. Maybe I can just hold her, like I used to before the river.” He turned his eyes back to the flames. “She was always nice to me, even when she was sad.”
My hands curled into fists and my thoughts twisted against each other. I didn’t know who I hated more. The mother who’d drowned him in the river, or the world that had cast him up on these shores just to torture her. I saw the face of the blonde boy, shoving me beneath the water. The ripples distorted his face. My jaw ached from clenching, or maybe it was just the memory of pain. I forced myself to eat another pomegranate seed, chewing it mechanically. “I’m sure she loved you,” I said.
The flames were silent, without any of the crackle and roar of the school bonfire last month. The quiet made the sky above us feel enormous and heavy. I leaned closer to the fire, watching the embers spiral skyward. I don’t know if I dreamt, or even if I slept, but I know that time passed in that timeless place, and it was only Toby’s restless stirring that brought me back to myself.
His face was taut with worry. I wished I could believe the story he’d told himself, but I knew Asha was right. All of us here had been murdered. There was a reason we were here. “Can’t sleep?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “You?”
I shook my head.
“The fruit helps sometimes. Make it easier to rest.” He glanced over his shoulder at the river. “But Asha won’t eat it anymore.”
“I don’t think I need it either.” I understood her anger; I was wrong to have denied it to her. I wanted to let mine burn, but I hated the feeling that I was being used by this place.
“I wanted to wait until she came back,” Toby said. He hugged his legs against his chest. “Will you come with me instead?”
“Is it time?”
His breaths were quick and shallow. He nodded.
I stood and took his hand. He climbed shakily to his feet. “I’m scared.”
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I said. My mother had told me the same thing, with sad dark eyes, before my father’s funeral. But when we’d gotten home, she’d held me when I cried for hours.
We followed the winding path through the fields of pale grass, until we came to the river’s edge. Toby stepped onto the bare rock and looked up at me. “I don’t want to go.”
I knelt, so that we were eye to eye. “Then stay,” I told him.
He shivered and pulled away from me, but I caught his other hand and held him. He craned his head to look over his shoulder. “It won’t let me.” Panic tugged at his voice. “Help me. Please.”
I pulled him close and wrapped my arms around him. “Of course.” I didn’t have any choice. My mother would have done the same in a heartbeat.
Every muscle in his body pulled taut, and he froze like a panicked deer, until his body erupted in tremors. His flesh turned to ice, so cold that it burned my arms. He uttered a choked sob. “Don’t let me go. Please. Don’t let go.”
“I won’t,” I said. “I promise.”
I kept hold of him, but the trembling didn’t pass. He cried out, and his skin peeled away. Glittering scales rippled along his shoulder. Bones twisted unnaturally beneath his tank top. I clutched him against my chest, desperate to stop the change. Spined fins erupted from his shoulder blades. I gasped as they tore through my arms, but I didn’t let go. There were no fins. I felt no pain. It was just the memory of pain.
There were no words to his cries, just a plaintive whimper that went on and on. The uneasy sky whirled overhead. The pale shoulder beneath my cheek was sometimes skin, sometimes scales, and sometimes both at once. His tears soaked the back of my shirt.
I pulled him against me, rocking gently. His breath came in ragged gulps. Slits flared along his neck, then sealed shut again. My mother would have sung to him, but I had my father’s voice, so I just held him until the shaking stopped.
The scales crumbled into shimmering dust, and the wind carried them away. The boy sucked in a lungful of air, then let it out slowly. “She’s gone,” he said. “She’s gone.”
I released him, and he took a timid step back. “She’s gonna be okay,” I said. “You are too.”
Toby slipped his hand inside mine as I stood back up, and we stood and watched the boats crossing in silence. I knew that one of them would call to me, one day. My flesh would writhe, and I would go out to meet the boy that had pressed me under the water. But I remembered my father too, lifting me up as if he were returning a constellation to the sky.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” Asha’s voice rang out behind me.
I realized that my hand was empty. I turned, but there was no sign of Toby. I hoped that wherever he’d gone was somewhere better than what this place had meant for him. “It was what he wanted,” I said.
Asha stood at the edge of the field, her mouth drawn into an angry slash. There were other children too. Some looked on with horror, others wide-eyed with wonder.
She shook her head. “That wasn’t right.”
I took a deep breath. I held the air inside of me, dark and metallic and tasting of stone. “Maybe that’s for each of us to decide.” I peeled off my shirt and dropped it on the black rocks. The cold wind wrapped around my body. “Maybe there’s a reason we’re here, but I have to believe that there’s something more.” I turned away, feeling Asha’s accusing eyes upon me. “I don’t know what’s waiting over there, but I’m going to find out.”
I waded out into the river. Gravel shifted beneath my feet, and I fought for balance. Waves crashed around my waist, pushing me toward the shore. For every step I took, the river only cast me further back. There was a weight inside of me—a knot that hung like an anchor from my heart. The image of the boy who’d held me under. Like a sickly jewel, it gleamed in my mind. Full of hate and heavier than anything. But I didn’t need it anymore. It belonged to this place, and I did not. I cut the threads that bound it one at a time, all the shame and hurt and bitterness, until the current carried it away.
I felt my father’s hands lifting me up. My mother’s hands wrapped around me. Those were the hands that mattered. Boats drifted like fireflies in the distance, drawn always toward that distant shore. Like the promise of daybreak, I would reach it too.
The water embraced me, and I swam.
M. Shedric Simpson is the familiar of a small black cat. They studied art in Baltimore, MD, before moving to Seattle to live between the mountains and the sea. They spend their free time crafting stories and other small things.