26 May The River
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"The River"Written by Daniel Martins (a.k.a. Abtrogdor)
Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
The river is deep and dark, and it holds many secrets. At least that’s what they say, and recent events have left me with a completely unshakeable belief that what they say is entirely true.
There’s a river that runs through the part of the city that I live and work in. It’s got a proper name, but everyone just calls it ‘The River’ anyway. Originally it was outside of the city limits, but as the city grew the boundaries pushed ever outwards, eventually spanning both sides and beyond. My part of the city has a lot of steel, glass and concrete used in the construction. It was built during a fairly soulless period, architecturally speaking. There are a lot of high-density apartment blocks in my area, and I live on the middle floor of one of them. The apartment has a view of the river from the window; sometimes I’ll sit and look out at it, wondering what’s going on under that deceptively calm surface. I never look for too long, the river has a peculiar way of being able to give you chills. The river isn’t that wide, but it’s deep and has strong currents, especially near the bottom. Nobody swims in it, the current makes it too dangerous and the water is very, very cold; even during the hottest of summer days.
My work is in one of the office buildings on the other side of the river from my apartment. It’s close enough for me to walk, and there’s a scenic riverside pathway that the City Council built during the expansion, envisioning a bustling riverside precinct. This didn’t happen. People avoid the river if they can at all help it, but when quizzed about it nobody really knows why. You’ll get the odd tourist going for a walk alongside it, but they never linger for long. Even the ducks and other waterfowl seem to avoid it.
My walk to and from work would be probably ten minutes quicker if I went along the waterside, but I cut through the city streets where there are people. The only part of my walk where I get close to the river is where I cross it, walking quickly along the utilitarian concrete bridge as traffic passes. The drivers always have their eyes set dead ahead of them; nobody ever looks at the water. I tend to speed up as I cross the bridge, it’s not particularly high and there’s a well-sized concrete guardrail, but I really don’t like being above the water if I can help it. If you look over the side, sometimes the surface seems so dark that it’s almost black, and it’s impossible to see the bottom. If you really look closely, then sometimes you’ll see dark shapes moving rapidly through the gloom of the water, but it’s impossible to see if they’re just big fish or something else.
I live a fairly quiet life, all things considered. I’ve got good friends, a girlfriend, and a steady, fairly well-paying office job. I like my apartment, I like my friends, and I like the city I live in. I have no problems with the way things are going. All in all, I’m a fairly normal guy. But I don’t like that damn river, not one bit. I’ve never felt comfortable near it, and things have been a whole lot more unsettling since that night.
I’d stayed late at work on a Friday to finish up on some stuff I’d been putting off. Normally I’d have been outta there at 5 pm and off to meet my girlfriend for date night, but she was out of town for the weekend, off to stay with her parents. The plan was to pick up some pizza or some Chinese on the way home and to settle down on the couch for a relaxing night watching crappy horror movies.
I leaned back in my chair at work, looking around the empty office. I’d just finished up the last of my paperwork, so I shut down my computer, and glanced out the window, catching the flickering of the streetlights as they came on outside. The sun was just on the verge of setting, so you could see the harsh artificial light from the streetlights in the half-darkness. I was trying to decide between pizza and Chinese on my way down the lift, and settled on a large pizza to myself as an acceptable option, making a mental note to do extra cardio at the gym the next day.
I stepped out of the lift, shouldered my bag and headed towards the building exit, wishing the night security guard a good weekend as I went. Making my way out onto the street, I took a moment to appreciate the fresh, cool air that comes with the evening of a day that’s had fine weather. I called ahead to a pizza place near my house as I headed towards the bridge, placing my order for pickup (large meat-lover’s pizza, double meat, extra BBQ sauce). I figured I’d have maybe 5 minutes to wait at the pizza place before the pick-up, and then I could head to mine and settle in for the night.
All was well as I wandered along the street, taking a left after a few blocks and heading towards the river. I noticed that I was the only person who seemed to be out and about, the entire area seemed pretty much deserted. Not entirely surprising, given that it was probably 7 pm on a Friday night and I was in the business area of town, all the bars and restaurants are across the river on the side that I live. The night air was still and cool, and the sky was rapidly darkening; the sidewalks lit by the bright, harsh light from the streetlights above.
My pace quickened as I took a left and headed towards the bridge. The streets were still deserted, but I could hear faint noise from the restaurant precinct across the river. I kept my head down as I stepped onto the bridge, intently staring at the pavement as I made my way across. As I reached the halfway point, I felt a chill settle over me, and I froze in place. The noise from across the river had stopped. In fact, I couldn’t hear anything in the way of street or bird noise, I couldn’t even hear the buzz of the streetlights any more. The only thing I could hear was the water of the river rushing around the pylons of the bridge, and then I heard what sounded like a sob.
I looked towards the other side of the bridge, and then back towards the home side of the river that I was heading towards, when I caught something in my peripheral vision. I turned towards it, and took an involuntary step backwards in shock when I saw something I’d swear hadn’t been there a second ago. There was a girl sitting on the guardrail, facing towards the river, feet dangling off the side.
“Shit…” I said to myself quietly, breathing deeply and trying to slow my suddenly racing heart. “Man, you scared me! Sorry, I completely missed that you were sitting there”. I took a step towards her. “Are you okay?” She had long, dark hair that seemed to wet. It hung down over the side of her face, hiding her features. She was wearing a simple white dress that ended at her knees, and I could see through gaps in the concrete railing that she had bare feet. Her hands were resting on the rail she was sitting on, and they too seemed to be damp, putting some moisture onto the concrete they were placed on. I couldn’t see her face because of the hair, but her shoulders were hunched forwards, and seemed to be shaking slightly; as if she was holding back tears. I couldn’t see her face to tell for sure if she was young or older. I could tell she had a slim build, however, and I figured she was in her mid-20s at the most.
I took another step. “Miss?” I asked, reaching out a hand to touch her shoulder. She stopped shaking, and I stopped moving forward before my hand could touch her. She was… cold. So very cold that it seemed to be radiating out from her, and I drew my hand back with a shiver, grabbing it with the other hand to warm it up. She seemed to notice my presence, and straightened up, turning towards me as she did. I tensed with apprehension, suddenly worried about what her face might look like, but relaxed as it came into view. She was a pretty, normal-looking girl in her late teens or early 20s, and the only out of the ordinary thing I could see was that her eyes were red, I assumed from crying.
“Are you okay?” I asked her again. “Do you need any help?” The corners of her mouth curled up slightly in a sad, wan smile. And then she turned back, looked down at the water, gave a little hop and jumped off the side of the bridge.
I stood there for a second, completely dumbfounded. Then I heard a splash from the river below, and it snapped me out of my stupor. “Jesus!” I exclaimed, throwing off my satchel, and running towards the edge of the bridge. I looked over the edge towards the water, but I couldn’t see the girl, she must have gone under already. Placing both hands on the guardrail, I vaulted over it and plunged into the water below.
The river was cold. So icy cold that the shock of it drove all of the air out of me as I hit the surface and went under. I came up, gasping for air and treading water, and looked for any sign of the girl. I noticed that with some luck, the spot I was in seemed to be a fairly dead spot for the current, but I could still feel the pull of the water as it dragged me downstream, taking me under the bridge. I took a deep breath and dove under the water as I was taken under the cover of the bridge, and everything went dark as the light from the streetlights above was cut off by the shadows of the space under the bridge.
I could barely see anything as I swam around, in what I was by that point assuming was a futile hunt for the girl. To make matters worse, I could feel the current strengthening, and all of a sudden I was swept sideways as the river eddied around one of the supports of the bridge. I slammed into the support, the air driving itself from my lungs once more. The current spun me around and pinned my back to the support, my shirt snagging on some protrusion from the concrete. To my horror, I realized I was stuck fast, the freezing water rushing around me in the darkness.
“I’m going to die here.”
The thought entered my brain, and I began to panic, struggling back and forth, but the current was just too strong. I was going to drown, and I couldn’t even help the girl who’d gone in before me. I could see the glow of streetlights dimly above me, but I was too deep under for the light to really penetrate the water, and I could feel blackness closing in from the corners of my vision as my empty lungs began to take in water. It felt like a fire in my chest, and I coughed underwater, but instead of the air I desperately needed all I got was more water. Even worse, I could make out shapes in the darkness. They swirled around at the edge of my vision, pressing menacingly closer, and I could feel their malignant presence. I knew that whatever these things were, they would do me harm if they could. I closed my eyes, and the darkness turned to black.
With the last of my strength, I reached up behind me and felt around for where I was snagged. With what felt like a superhuman effort, I managed to tear my shirt away from the pillar and get my feet up under me against it. I pushed off, driving myself towards the surface, reaching out above me as I traveled up. As I flew towards the surface, I opened my eyes and saw a flash of white down low ahead of me, but there was no time to think about that.
My hand broke the surface first, and I coughed and vomited water as I gasped for air, struggling to stay above the surface. The current had me once more, and I could feel myself being dragged downstream. I could hear shouting from the shoreline downstream, but again didn’t have time to focus on it. The freezing water was fast sapping what little strength I had left, and I was still spluttering, trying to get the last of the water out of my lungs. I once again took a deep breath, and dove under the surface, heading for where the flash of white had been as I’d come up the last time.
Swimming down, I was struck by the thought that this was an incredibly bad idea, but I felt I had to at least try. Looking around, I tried to spy where to head for, but all I could see was the inky murk below me. Just as I was about to give up and resurface, I spotted the flash again! I kicked hard, fighting the current, and spotted the girl, floating face-up in what must have been a dead patch of water as the river didn’t seem to be moving her downstream. Worryingly, the dark shapes I had spotted in the water earlier seemed to be circling ever-closer, just out of my field of vision but close enough for me to catch near-constant flashes of movement. I tried to ignore them and swum for the girl.
As I got close, I felt the current grab me again, sending me quickly towards her. I could see I‘d overshoot her, so swam as hard as possible and reached down, managing to snag a grip on her arm as I went past. I pulled her to my chest as I swam upwards, and caught sight of her face, which was pale against the darkness, but looked surprisingly peaceful. We traveled towards the surface together and my heart sang to see I was only a couple of feet below the surface, and then we came to a dead stop in the water. Lungs aching by this point, I looked down to see what had stopped us, and saw her eyes snap open and look at mine. They were full of terror, and I could see her lip shake as she looked down at her right shoulder. I followed her gaze, and saw that the shape of a hand upon her, grabbing her tightly; the arm extending into the blackness that all of a sudden pressed in around us.
I stared in horror at the hand. It was the same darkness as the water and gloom that was pressing in on us, and I could see the figure that it was attached to looming behind her, but it was too murky to make out any details. I could feel its presence and I could make out a vaguely darker shape in the blackness, but that was all. The girl looked back at me, grabbing me by the upper arms as she did, and opened her mouth as if to say something, but then suddenly gripped harder; almost causing me to cry out in pain which would have wasted the ever-diminishing last of the air in my lungs.
The black hand had dug its fingers in, and I saw what can only be described as corruption flowing from it. The girl’s flesh turned grey and started to slough off, ever-widening holes in her skin exposing clammy muscle tissue and stark white bones. Within seconds, she looked as if she’d been in the water for months. I looked in horror at her face; her skin coming away, hair falling out in clumps, eyes widening and then seeming to burst, leaving empty sockets. Her lips came away and teeth became visible, and then came apart as her mouth opened in a silent scream. I realized by this point that I too was screaming underwater, the last of my air clawing its way from my lungs.
I looked at the dark hand and then into the gloom behind the girl, and saw what I could only describe as a grin in the blackness, but caught only a glimpse as the hand gripped even harder and jerked the girl from my grip, her hands torn away from my arms with the force of it. She was pulled away into the inky water, quickly disappearing from my view. I thrashed about in the water, trying to get to the surface. I felt something grab me by the scruff of my neck, and promptly passed out from a combination of fear and lack of air.
I came to on the shoreline, a young couple next to me, one pumping my chest and the other breathing air into my lungs. I sputtered and once again vomited and coughed up water. I could hear sirens in the distance getting closer as I struggled to sit up.
“Oh, thank God!” the guy exclaimed. “Buddy, we thought you were a goner!” He took off his coat and wrapped it around me, as I had begun to shiver violently. I’d probably been in the water for no more than a minute or two, but it had felt like a lifetime and was enough to chill me to the bone. “We called for an ambulance when you went in,” his girlfriend said. “They should be here in a minute.”
“Why did you jump in? Do you not know about how dangerous this river is?” he asked, looking slightly incredulous.
Trying to speak between bouts of violent shivering, I looked up at him. “There w-was a g-g-girl,” I stuttered. “She w-w-went in the w-water!”
The couple looked at each other. “….We didn’t see any girl…” she trailed off. He spoke up, and explained that they’d been walking along the waterfront as a shortcut, and had seen me jump off the bridge, surface and then go under again. Luckily, the current had taken me close enough to the shoreline for him to grab me as he went past. He thought he might have seen something dart past in the blackness as he lifted me out of the water, but assumed it was just a fish or a bit of debris. Neither of them had seen a girl in a white dress.
The ambulance turned up and took me off to the emergency room (picking up my satchel from the bridge along the way), where they got me warmed up and released me once they’d made sure I wasn’t hypothermic. They called the police when I told them about the girl and I was interviewed by some officers, but nothing ever came of the police investigation. They had divers in the water next few days but didn’t find anything, and the search was called off due to danger and lack of evidence. My girlfriend was furious when she found out I’d almost drowned, but softened when I told her I’d been trying to save someone. She was still angry at me for taking that sort of risk, however; saying I should have just called the police.
Life returned to normal fairly quickly. I took a week off work before going back, and my life goes on as it always did before that night. I did my own research on the river, and found reports a few years old of some missing persons who had last been seen by the river, one or two of who fit the description of the girl I’d seen, but I couldn’t be sure if it was any of them.
I walk a little quicker as I cross the bridge to and from work, however, often breaking into a jog. Every now and again I’ve heard a sob or caught a flash of white in the corner of my vision, but I just power forward, never breaking stride. And I’ll occasionally see dark shapes swirling in the water from the window of my apartment, but I try not to look too closely. Like they say, the River is full of secrets, and I’m of the opinion that some secrets are best kept.
Credit: Daniel Martins (a.k.a. Abtrogdor)
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