“The River” by Matthew Penwell
“This place is beautiful,” Roger said.
“I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid. It was,” Anna shrugged, “a place for me to get away.” A hurtful grimace crossed her face. She walked to the riverbank and sat down. Even at the deepest point, the water didn’t reach half a foot. The water-polished rocked gleamed in the evening sun. Memories that hadn’t crossed her mind for years surged. She remembered the first time she had stumbled upon the small river. Back then she didn’t know the secrets. In a way, the river was haunted. More than that, cursed!
“Roger,” Anna said over her shoulder. He turned away from a furry caterpillar. “Want to hear a ghost story?” She smiled slyly.
He raised both eyebrows. She had his attention. He sat down next to her, drawing his legs to his chest. He slung one arm around Anna’s shoulder, pulled her against him. Her bleach blonde hair smelled like warm apples.
“Believe it or not.”
“Guess every town has to have a haunted place. It’s an American tradition. Shouldn’t have built on the burial grounds of Native Americans, I say!” He mocked. Anna elbowed him gently in the ribs.
“I’m being serious! I saw the ghost once.”
“Now I know you’re pulling my leg.”
“Roger Best! I am ashamed in you. Since when have you known me to lie?”
“Never ever. Unless it’s on the nights I cook and you say it’s good.”
Anna laughed. “So what. Maybe I’ve not liked it as much as I said.”
“What was it, the veggie pizza? The pumpkin spice cake?”
Anna wrinkled her nose. “The pizza was pretty bad.”
“I always knew you didn’t like it!”
“I still ate it, didn’t I?”
“At the cost of hurting my feelings.”
“The taste of cardboard covered in pizza sauce was worth it.”
“Ouch.” Roger pulled her closer. No hard feelings. She nuzzled into his shoulder. “So tell me about this river. I’ve never seen an actual haunted place.”
“It’s not really haunted.”
“So you do lie!”
“No. Shh. Let me tell the story. It’s not haunted,” she coughed, cleared her throat. The floor was hers. “It’s cursed. Never take anything from here. Not a stone. Not a flower. Not even a blade of grass.”
“I’m trying to set up the story. Will you be quiet for five minutes?” Anna said hotly. A few seconds of silence passed. “Thank you. As the story goes, a long time ago, a witch lived along the river. The shack actually stood for another hundred years after her death, until lightning struck it on the eve of her two hundredth birthday.”
“Man, you know a lot about this.” Roger looked at Anna dumbfoundedly.
“It’s hard not to, growing up in town. This river is the only claim to fame we have. The story was always brought up around Halloween. I did a report on it in high school. Ms. Gordon-Waits gave me an A-plus on it. I still have it around, somewhere.”
“You’ll let me read it?”
“Maybe. Let me continue. June Shobin was her name. She was still in her mother’s stomach when she came to America. The reasons why her mother left England is unknown. Some say it’s because she knew what was growing inside her. She knew the baby was one with the devil. After all, there is no father anywhere in the picture.”
“She could have left because she didn’t know who the father was. That was frowned down upon.”
Anna sucked in a deep breath. “I swear to Jesus, one more peep out of you and you’re sleeping on the couch.”
Roger opened his mouth.
Roger closed his mouth and shook his head.
“That’s what I thought. Not another peep. And as a reminder, dad’s stomach is all jacked up and he farts like there’s no tomorrow. He always sleeps with the door open. And you know where the couch is. You would hear the farts.” Roger shook his head and poutted out his bottom lip. “I have your attention now? Just remember, babe. Pfttttttt.
“Okay. Where was I? La. La… Oh yeah. No father in the picture. So it was hard for the family to make a living. After the move there is no telling where they settled. They don’t show in Dasia until June is in her early teens. And then a virus swept through the town.
“It started with a girl in town, Hannah Williams, who got deathly sick overnight. It’s still unknown what Hannah came down with, probably the Flu, but it came on so suddenly people thought it could only be the work of black magic. Lynn Jackson came forward, claiming she’d seen Hannah and June playing. Without much evidence, they stormed the house.
“Not only was June put under arrest, but so was her mother. They were both accused of witchcraft. The trial lasted two days. As you probably know, they were innocent. By the time the trial ended, Hannah had recovered. And it’s claimed she even told her father she hadn’t been anywhere around June, as Lynn had claimed. The damage was already done.”
“So they killed them?” Roger asked.
“You’re sleeping on the couch.” Anna snapped. “But yes. They hung them. You know most of the Salem witches were hung. There isn’t any evidence that a single person was ‘burned at the stake.’ It’s all hearsay. Hanging the innocent women didn’t do much for the town. Maybe restored a little bit of Heaven that they had. But it did more bad than good. The tree, or so it has been said, suddenly started claiming the lives of the townsfolk. Over twenty people took their lives in that tree before it was cut down.
“This entire area is tainted in bad mojo. June. Her mother. The people who felt the need to repeat June’s hanging by their own hands. There’s an energy here. It’s woven its way into everything along the river. People who’ve taken things from it have found themselves with the worst of luck. It’s cursed.”
Anna stopped talking. She watched the water cascade off the small cliff. The sound was enough to lull anyone to sleep. She sighed. Roger kissed her forehead.
“You can talk now.”
“I have permission? No farts? No couch?”
“You’re already sleeping on the couch.” Anna smile.
“First things first: you believe the story, don’t you?”
Anna scoffed. “Well yeah. There’s bad luck all throughout the town. Failed breaks on brand new cars. The time Mr. Hanscomb nephew, I forgot his name, nailed his hand to the wall of a barn. He didn’t even remember what or how it’d happened. Umm. There are an unusual amount of suicide by hanging. Go back through the old news paper. There was at least three a week during the Depression. The town nearly died, literally, off. The boiler at the wood mill exploded in the ‘50’s. There was even a fuckin’ cult in this town, in the early 80’s. Nine members, believe it or not, hung themselves. Take a guess where? Along the river.” She didn’t give Roger a chance to speak. “This place has seen a lot of bad times.” Anna pulled herself away from Roger and pushed herself to her feet. She dusted off the seat of her pants. “We should head back.” Anna fished out her cell. “It’s almost seven.”
“Seven? How? We haven’t been out here for three hours.”
“Told you, bad mojo around here. What did Pascow say in Pet Sematary? ‘The ground is sour’. Or something like that. That’s this place. Sour ground.”
“Why did you spend so much time here, if you’re so scared of it?”
“I’m not scared of it, Roger.” She said hotly. “I spent time here because three hours passed like ten minutes. Time jumped here. It helped me get through my days.”
Roger’s face flushed. “I didn’t mean to upset you, babe.” He pushed himself to his feet and wrapped his arms around Anna. She allowed it. He yawned. “Lead the way, Clarke.”
“To the great Beyond, Lewis!” Anna shouted, pointing to the sky.
“How was the river?” Mr. Woods asked Roger. He sipped at his can of Pepsi.
“It was beautiful.”
“Didn’t take anything, did you?” He laughed.
“Good. Out of towners don’t believe the story. Hell. I wouldn’t either. But I have seen bad things happen to good people with my very eyes. Things that couldn’t possibly happen without some sort of interference. I took a flower from there once. The next day I tripped in a hole and not only broke my ankle but I fell at such the right angle that I broke both wrists. What’s the possibility of that?”
“Did you take the flower back?”
“My mother did. She freaked. She was an ole’timer. I thought she was going to kill me when I told her.” Mr. Woods laughed again and yanked off a hunk of buttery biscuit. “She returned it to the river. Nothing like that fall has happened to me in the last thirty years. It was because I took that flower. I’ll never change my mind on the subject..”
The phone rang in the middle of the night like the howling of a wolf. Mr. Woods stumbled through the darkness of his room, out into the dimly lit living room, to the blinking phone. He brought the receiver to his ear.
“Dad,” Anna blurted. “Dad.”
“Anna, you ‘right?” He was suddenly more awake than he’d ever felt in his life. “What happened?”
“We were in a car wreck. We’re both okay. For the most part. Roger is more banged up than I am. But the car is a total loss. I’m just.” Her voice hitched. “I was scared and didn’t know who else to call.”
Mr. Woods exhaled his soul. “Calm down, love. You’re all right. Roger is all right. That’s all that matters. Where are you now?”
“At the hospital. Roger’s leg is totally messed up. He’s in surgery.” Anna dropped her voice to a whisper.
“Anna, what’s wrong?”
“He swerved to miss a bear in the middle of the road. You know how uncommon that is?”
Mr. Woods got the hint. “You know how uncommon it is for a kid to nail his hand to a bar, or for a kid to break three bones in such a fashion as I did? Very.”
“I didn’t get a scratch on me. All of the damage to the car is on Roger’s side.”
Mr. Woods chuckled his famous hearty, belly jiggling laugh. “You tried to tell him.”
“I shouldn’t have showed…”
“Hey. Not your fault. You tried to warn him. He should have listened.”
“I guess you were right.” She spat. “It has me thinking, though.” She hesitated. “If he’ll lie to you about taking something from the river, what would he lie to me about?”
Matthew lives in a small Tennessee town. He has one previous publication, and another on the way, in April.