When Kira first stepped outside her house to go on the boating trip, the thick whitish vapour blanketing the streets compelled her to swallow hard. She crinkled her forehead and turned around, asking her mom one last time if she really couldn’t pass up the trip and stay home to watch Live and Kicking reruns instead.
“Darling, we’ve talked about this.” Her mom patted her shoulder. “Trust me, you’re going to look back on this day many, many years from now and be glad you spent these last precious moments with your friends from high school.”
Her grumbled protests did nothing to change her mom’s mind. Minutes later, she was on her way to Zen’s house and arrived just in time to see one of the other kids jump in the school van and scream out a spirited “Bye Bye, high school!” to the moon.
That was an hour ago.
Now she stood on the creaky boat slowly spearing its way through the fog. The unblinking moon still stared down at them, flanked by its army of stars as it lounged against the backdrop of the inky night.
Swallowing hard, Kira narrowed her eyes at it, her lips quietly counting. There had to be at least a hundred stars up there. Or maybe a thousand.
Or maybe a million.
Their gazes felt like countless needles prickling her through the darkness, through the fog, straight into her chest. Making her fingers itch as she clutched the railing.
Kira snapped her eyes away and chose to look at the revelry behind her instead.
But the sight of her heavy-eyed, loose-mouthed, loudly celebrating schoolmates couldn’t sizzle out the disquiet in her.
She didn’t understand. How could they be so unbothered?
Did they not realize where they were? Where they’d all decided to hold their graduation party?
Had they forgotten the legends—the stories—the horrors centred on this very river, passed down through the generations? Did they—
“Yo baby, check this out!”
That proclamation, and some accompanying activity which Kira couldn’t see through the circle of whooping teens who started chanting, “Chug! Chug!! Chug!!!” distracted her long enough for her to notice she was still alone on the gunwale. Where was Zen?
She narrowed her eyes, slowly sifting through the crowd in search of the outstanding fiery orange hair that covered the head of her best friend. The colour was impossible to miss. Even when the shadowy fingers of the night seemed bent on flicking out the boat’s light-bulbs, she finally zeroed in on his head bobbing to something Christopher was saying.
She sighed. And waited.
One minute passed.
By the third minute, she had to accept that he’d either forgotten that he was supposed to go get her a soda in the first place, or that Christopher had trapped him in a conversation about something ‘ground-breaking’, like the boy always claimed.
“Zen!” She called out, blinking at the coarseness of her voice. She pushed herself from the bar and grabbed a nearby cup, only to throw it away as the stench of alcohol seeped into her nostrils. Biting her lower lip, her stomach turned at the pungent sensation, threatening to erupt. She shut her eyes and inhaled. Slowly. Deeply. Until the nausea went away.
“Zen!” she tried again, clutching her throat. It seemed her throat had been momentarily paralysed from disuse. The only people she’d spoken to all day were her mom—to protest her banishment to this boat trip—and Zen, to ask his help in getting a soda.
Why was he taking so long to get her a damn soda?
She rolled her eyes up in frustration and came face-to-face with the milky moon again. This time, it wasn’t vague. Or gentle. This time, it boldly peered back as if daring her to turn around. It wanted her to look at the wind mercilessly toying with her hair, at the thick darkness into which the boat was diving, and at the pulse of the ebbing river below.
She fumbled with the watch her mom had bought her last week, refusing the compulsion to be swallowed in the overwhelming picture in front of her. She looked at the watch instead. Its glittery blue, plastic cover featuring the blonde princess with the cheeky smile was nothing but poor, misguided taste, really, considering Kira was seventeen, a new high school graduate and too old for it. But her mom’s good intentions didn’t miss the mark.
There was something about the large, mirror-like surface of that watch. The longer Kira stared into it, the more she saw the moon’s face—closer, more imposing—with loose grey clouds clinging to it like shredded rags to a ghost.
She gasped, shutting her eyes.“Calm down.” Kira whispered, clutching the rail again, “I need to take deep breaths and calm down. I need to—”
“Kira!” The butcher’s son, Ben, whose arms always seemed like inflated hotdogs, wobbled towards her. “Are you going to stay there forever? Or will you come dance with me?” He hummed, puffing up his chest.
“Huh?” She breathed, unhinging her fingers from the banister. They were so stiff, sweaty, almost unwilling to let go.
“Yeah, weirdo,” drawled Hillary, popping beside Ben with a glittery smile, “Why are you leaning against the edge of the boat like that?”
“It’s called gunwale, not the edge, Smartass.” Kira muttered without thinking.
“Oh.” Hillary latched a large eye onto Kira’s shivering fingers and smirked, “Did you boyfriend leave you? Is that why you’re all sad and lonely by yourself?”
“For the millionth time, Zen is my best friend, not my boyfriend. And he just—”
“Yeah, whatever.” Ben shrugged, gulping down the contents of his red cup before belching and dragging a giggling Hillary to the dance floor, which really was only a poor shot at turning the Principal’s archaic boat into a floating club with Christmas lights. It would be so, so easy for a boat like this to sink.
Kira shivered, muttering, “Well, pardon me if I’m the only one who actually cares that we’re in the middle of a cursed river on an old, battered boat.”
With the power of her undivided attention, the river blinked back at her, its surface glistening gently. It seemed unconcerned with the resentment purging from her narrowed eyes, so that it was almost impossible to believe that something sinister was in there.
But Kira had heard too many legends of people who disappeared on this river.
They usually began the same way — some merchant, family, or group came here and for whatever reason, decided to cross the river. But every time, as the wide-eyed storytellers stared into the sky, entranced by an otherworldly force their listeners strained to see, they grimly announced that the voyagers never made it to their destinations.
No one — at least nobody who had lived in Wayhill since the end of the 1800s — had seen The Thing which had caused those disappearances. But they knew that the river monster fed, and that one could never know when.
Shivering, Kira grabbed the red cup again. It vibrated within her palm. She tilted her head, frowning. Peering into it, she saw the brown liquid dancing to and fro, slowly at first, then with an increasing violence, like a volcano about to erupt.
Kira slowly turned, looking around the boat for three long, heavy seconds within which her heartbeat accelerated and a stone wedged itself into her throat. The boat was gradually shaking, from left to right, to left and then back again, as if some invisible force was mothering it from the dark, silent waters below. She could almost hear a hollow “Rock-a-bye, baby.” ringing through the humid wind.
“W-what is . . .” Her voice quivered almost as fiercely as her fingers now gripping the gunwale. She tried to take a step forward but wobbled when the boat suddenly dipped to the left. The cup crashed to the floor.
“Oh, my goodness. Ben! Ben!” She shouted, gritting her teeth at the sight of a shirtless Ben flexing his stomach at Hillary.
Her eyes strayed to the liquid now staining her white shoes.
“Guys! It’s it’s really shaking.” Her voice pattered to a whisper as a bottle toppled and shattered onto the floor. Her voice went up a pitch “Everyone stop dancing!”
“Zen!” The welcome sight of her friend spurted a gurgle from her lips. She wished to walk to him, but too afraid to do so. “Zen, t-the boat. The boat! The—”
“What?” He shouted, interrupted as a chorus of panicked screams and crashes rang out behind him. “Wait a minute. What’s going on?”
“No, no, no. Zen! Zen! I said the boat is—”
Just then, the river slowly, heavily heaved, crashing its illusion of perfect serenity.
The boat dipped to the left once more. Kira swerved, grunted, and screamed as the force smashed a chair against her. Amid the chaos that followed—and the spineless ringing that burst out from her ears—Kira thought she heard a scream that sounded terrifyingly like Zen’s.
Suddenly, it was raining, hard.
Blood-curdling screams still tore through the air from every direction, but that was nothing compared to the unforgiving anger of the river turned demon. It could have been a simple storm overturning the old boat but in Kira’s mind, it was a living, breathing monster. It rose and roared, the lightning echoing its sentiments, and lashed out. Again. And again. Whipping the boat from side to side, forward and back. It unleashed a merciless rage, determined to separate Kira from the railing onto which she had gripped for dear life.
Kira was one of the last to crash into the river, just before the boat gave way and disappeared under the waters. With the river biting into her bones like a thousand cancerous ants, she flapped her arms. Using her last spurt of warmth, she joined the broken orchestra of screams. And cried out—
“Z-Zen! Zen!! Zen!!!”
And at last, she saw him. But it wasn’t really him. His white face was expressionless. His still body, half-swallowed by the water, floating away. His eyes, wide open, staring at the moon. Cold. Detached. Unblinking.