My mom took us to the river, just like how she did whenever she was doing her research on different birds. Me and my little sister, Ayumi, were always dragged here with her. There was a forest that surrounded the lengthy river, and a few small islands that poked out of the surface. The usual woodland creatures scattered here and there. I enjoyed every bit of it. Catching random lizards and bugs, swimming in the water, climbing the trees; this place became more of a home to me. But Ayumi saw it in a different way.
Ayumi had a very severe form of aquaphobia; a fear of water. Her perfectionist ways made playing around the river hard, as well. Mud, dirt, and water seemed to be her worst enemy. I, on the other hand, was called 'half-fish' and 'mudball' for a reason.
The day was a hot and humid one, so I was swimming in the water in an attempt to cool down. When I resurfaced from a successful dive, I thought I was seeing the impossible.
At the edge of the water, I saw Ayumi. She was barefoot, and looking at the water with an unsure expression. Her black hair was tied back and she was wearing a swimsuit.
"Is that a swimsuit, Ayumi?" I asked, teasing her. "Are you finally going to swim with me?"
"I don't know, Mia." She responded. "I-It looks scary!"
"You're not a cat! There's no reason to be afraid."
"But look at the current! What if it drags me downstream? And how do I know how deep it is? I could fall in and drown!"
"The current is so weak in this part to carry so much as a pebble. You're too heavy to let it have any effect."
"But what if the weight pulls me under?"
"Just step into the shallow part. Then it won't pull you under."
Beads of sweat began streaming down her face. "But when do I know to stop? How do I know how deep it is? Nevermind! I can't do it!"
I just rolled my eyes. I was more irritated than alarmed by her fright. I had been trying to help her aquaphobia for years, now, and I never did have any luck.
"Stop that, Ayumi," I sighed. "This phobia is getting old. You're eleven years old, and you should've outgrown it when you were five. Just step in, and I'll tell you when to stop moving, alright?"
She was clearly nervous, but she simply nodded.
When she managed to touch her foot to the surface of the water, I noticed that she was shaking.
"Almost!" I said. "You're doing great. Just a little more!"
At this point, she was beginning to cry. She forced herself to step into the water. It only rose to her ankles, but she was clearly afraid. Her hands were covering her eyes, as if she couldn't bear to look at what she had just done.
"Take three more steps," I commanded.
She nodded, still covering her eyes, and stepped forward. One step, two steps, and on her third one, she was knee-deep.
Ayumi let out a small squeal, then retreated to shore.
"I think that's enough for today!" She explained, shaking droplets of water off of her.
Honestly, I couldn't help feeling proud. Ayumi would probably prefer to face a man with a loaded gun before stepping too far into the water. This rule was especially strong with the river. She was no germaphobe, but something about river water made her uneasy.
"But..." I spoke to myself. "She wasn't so skeptic about the river in California. I don't know what it is, but it's like something about this particular river is...suspicious? No, that's not the right word."
I stopped worrying about it, and swam to shore. Once ringing out my hair, I began trekking down the riverbank. I was intent on telling our mom about Ayumi's progress.
I found her at the edge of the forest. She was laying in the dirt, taking pictures of some large bird with extravagant feathers. I recognized it as a Pileated Woodpecker, thanks to mom's constant yammering about bird species.
"Hey! Mom!" I called.
"Mia, you scared away the woodpecker!" She complained, watching the fancy bird fly off. "Be more careful, next time!"
"Sorry, but this is going to shock you." I was buzzing with excitement to tell her.
"What is it?"
"Ayumi came into the water! This could be the start of her getting over aquaphobia!"
Like usual, she said 'wow,' and focused on the pictures from her camera. It was like her work was more important than us. She missed several events, because of sightings of birds that sometimes didn't even exist.
She was ignoring me, and I was getting impatient. "Hey, if I tape a few feathers and a beak on me, will you listen?"
Mom broke her attention from her work. "What do you mean?"
"Did you even hear what I just told you?"
"Sorry, it's just that this is a new species to document, and-"
"Ayumi came into the water, alright?"
"Oh...Oh! That's great! Why don't you bring her here?"
I just sighed, and then began running back along the beach. I did think it was strange when I looked over my shoulder and saw that mom was nowhere in sight. I ignored it, though. Things always seemed to disappear. I can't even count how many towels, toys, or other things that I've lost here. It was also because I was a bit spacey.
I realized that Ayumi could not be seen. Beginning to worry, I began sprinting down the bank. I may be a little paranoid, but I was always protective of my sister. When I was this far from where we usually were, I instinctively knew that something was off.
My heart then stopped, and my stomach churned at what I was seeing.
I rubbed my eyes, but the sight was still there.
Ayumi was neck-deep in the water. She was facing the opposite bank, as if she meant to go farther. Another step, though, and she would fall into a deeper part of the river. I knew very well that she couldn't swim.
"Ayumi, come back!" I hastily commanded. "It's dangerous in these parts! The current is stronger, the water is deeper, and there are snakes!"
No response. She didn't move a muscle, nor did she make a sound.
I knew what I had to do. Something about this was wrong, though. I was terrified to get close.
Stop it! I thought to myself, there's nothing wrong! Just get her out!
My subconscious disagreed with my mind. It was like something was preventing me from getting to close.
I stepped closer, and reached my hand out to her.
Closer. . .closer. . .closer. . .
My middle finger managed to graze her shirt.
Before I could blink, a bruised and bloody hand had snapped out of the water, and grabbed my wrist. I squealed, then fought to release myself from the thing's grasp, but it would not budge.
That's when Ayumi turned around. I screamed when I saw the frosted white dots that had replaced her eyes.
"Mia! Calm down!"
When I opened my eyes from blinking, the sight of the river was replaced with the roof of my bedroom.
Springing up from the bed, I saw the full moon outside the window, and Ayumi at my bedside.
"What happened?" My sister inquired. "You were thrashing and yelling, like you were possessed."
My heart was still racing, but I tried to hide my terror. "It's nothing. Just a bad dream, that's all."
That following day, I was beginning to realize that parts of the dream from last night were correct. Mom did see a rare bird by the river, on a previous trip, and took us there that day. Ayumi was her usual self once more. She refused to get near the water. Instead, she sat on top of a boulder, with a small notebook and a pen. I was sitting on the bank of the river, with my feet in the water. It may have been just a dream, but it seemed so real. The sight of the water now made me sick.
Ayumi seemed to notice my trouble. It wasn't long before she closed her notebook and approached me.
"What's wrong?" She asked. "Why aren't you swimming, or doing your other usual things?"
"Nothing," I responded. "I'm just not in a swimming mood."
"Oh! Does this have to do with the night terror from last night? You used to get those all the time, y'know. What made this one so bad?"
"Nothing. Just go back your drawing, or whatever you were doing."
"It's better to talk about it, Mia."
I figured that she did have a point. Sometimes, my mind would become a scattered mess of thoughts. Ayumi had the same problem, so we got used to sharing thoughts and secrets. She listened to me, and I would listen to her. It helped with the night terrors that I used to get from when I was five years old.
"That nightmare from last night was a weird one," I spoke. "We were all here, at the river. I was doing what I usually do, but then I saw you neck-deep in water. When I tried to get you out, something grabbed me. I woke up before anything else could happen."
"You know about my phobia," said Ayumi. "I wouldn't get that far into water if you paid me! That dream you had was completely wrong, so just ignore it."
"I guess so..."
We both heard mom angrily shout at something.
"Her camera probably got jammed again," Ayumi explained. "I'll take care of it."
As she ran off, I continued to sit there and think. After a while, I got bored and began skipping stones. Watching the flat rocks bounce across the water was relaxing.
But then it stopped. The stone hit something that confused me.
Standing on the opposite bank was a small boy. He was covered in dirt, mud, and algae. His skin was pale and blistered. Soaked brown hair covered his eyes, and he did not move a muscle. He was staring down at the water, as if contemplating on stepping in.
"Hey, kid!" I called. "Are you lost, or something?"
"Why are you just standing there? Look, if you're lost, then-"
His head shot up. I shuddered as I saw a pair of frosted white eyes glaring at me. Everything was recognizable, now. The eyes and the bruised hands were something that I had seen quite recently.
The weight on my chest was crushing, as I choked out breathless words. "W-W-What...who are you?"
"What do you want?"
His hand slowly rose and pointed at what he desired. It was pointing at where Ayumi had run off.
"No! Go away!"
I blinked once, and he was gone. The boy had disappeared into thin air. Nothing was left that marked his presence. In a state of panic, I hurriedly got up, ready to run to either mom or Ayumi.
As I turned around, I immediately tripped and fell. I glanced at the water, and saw the boy's bruised and blistered hand. It had tripped me, but then disappeared into the murk of the water.
Once the ripples in the water's surface lay still, I retreated back along the shore.
I dreaded going to bed, but I was too tired to fight sleep. In the dream that came to me, I stood at the river. The time in the dream matched the time in the real world. The moonlight was barely enough to let me see anything, and no star poked through the blackness of the sky. Instead of an enchanting forest, all I saw were tall and ominous trees that loomed over me like evil black towers. The layer of fog that covered the place made it even harder to see than it already was.
"Hello?" I spoke with chattering teeth. "Is anyone there? Can anybody hear me?"
I looked around, but saw nothing.
Then I saw a barely visible figure in the mist. A girl that wore a skirt and hair that was pulled back.
"Hello? Who are you?"
No response. It simply stared at me.
"Please, I need to get home. I don't understand what's happening. Is this a dream? But it feels so real..."
She giggled, and began running farther along the bank. I recognized the laugh. It was Ayumi's.
"Ayumi? Why are you running from me?"
I chased after her, but she was already far ahead. I could just barely see her. No matter how fast or how much I ran, I kept the same distance from her. Getting no closer with my effort baffled me, and my legs were beginning to tire. Despite this, I kept going. No one, not even me, would ever question me when I was determined.
I shuddered as I saw the dark silhouette of another smaller child. It made no movement as I ran past it. Nothing seemed to be following me, either.
Soon enough, though, I saw another child, shrouded in darkness. When I ran past this one, another one appeared on the dun horizon.
Another one spawned to the left, and three more to the right. Two generated in front of me, and they just kept appearing. They watched me without moving a muscle, like an audience of death.
Though my eyes had been firmly fixed on my sister, I could not see her. Black silhouettes had me surrounded, getting closer and closer with each step that I took. I tried shoving them away, but it was like trying to push away cold air. I touched nothing, and they did not move.
But then I stopped running. I could no longer tell which figure was Ayumi.
Mom was on a 'breakthrough' with her research. I asked her if there was any other place to find the rare bird that she was hunting, but she insisted that the river was the only place to go. Like usual, she ignored my plea to stay away from the river, and dragged both me and Ayumi with her.
As I tailed Ayumi, walking down the riverbank to our usual spot, I rubbed my eyes and yawned. Only two hours of sleep had left me exhausted. Combined with the lack of sleep from the other day, I could barely keep my eyes open. My legs wanted to give out and collapse. They felt as if they had been running all night...
The more I thought about this, the more I saw that my worry for Ayumi was now turning into rage at the river, and whatever haunted it. I was sick of waking up and seeing its eerily dark water. I felt like this place was mocking me.
The sound of mom complaining over broken equipment could be heard, and Ayumi ran off. I was going to follow, but she was running too fast. I was too tired to so much as think about running, and I was too caught up in my thoughts to care.
The sickening state of vexation grew worse. I hated what had happened. In a matter of a couple days and nights, this beast in disguise had turned what was once my home into the cell of an insane asylum. A place where I was trapped, and slowly descending into a state of madness. It was playing with my mind as if it were some kind of toy.
"Show yourself!" I shouted, in a fit of rage. "Come out, you coward!"
There he was.
The boy was at the center of the river. He was submerged neck-deep in the dark water. His frosted eyes glared at me as I picked up a rock and threw it at him.
"Leave us alone! Go away!"
He grinned and shook his head. I was furious to see him point in Ayumi's direction.
"You repulsive sadist!"
With adrenaline washing away my exhaustion, I leaped into the water, and coiled my fingers around his neck. After forcing his small body underwater, I squeezed until I felt sinews snapping underneath the skin, and a slowing pulse.
"Leave us alone! She'll never be one of you. Stay away from my sister!"
The body went limp. Shock and dread consumed my mind.
"Did I...did I just kill a little kid?"
I pulled the body to the surface, but then let out a bloodcurdling scream.
The sight would not go away. I was looking at the body of my dear sister.