Friday, October 26, 2012

2012 Halloween Story: Over the River



Over the River
by Katherine Traylor

---

Sabrina couldn’t sleep with the moonlight shining in her eyes.

Her friends were having no such trouble. Jenny and Mark were sound asleep, cuddled up in their zipped-together sleeping bags. Brian had been snoring for half an hour. But Sabrina, pressed against him, was as alert as ever.

She’d tried snuggling closer to Brian, and moving farther away. She’d unzipped the bag for a breath of air, and zipped it back up when she’d gotten too cold. She’d rolled over, covered her eyes, counted sheep, and tried to meditate. But wherever she turned, the halogen light of the full white moon shone through her eyelids, keeping her wide awake.  

At last she couldn’t take it any more. She eased herself out of the doubled sleeping bag she shared with Brian, patting his shoulder when he whimpered in his sleep. Shoving her feet into her old yellow Crocs, she walked to the edge of the woods.

The air was cold tonight. Shivering, she rubbed her arms and stomped her feet. She’d put on sweats over her flannel pajamas, and the socks she wore were the fluffy SpongeBob ones her sister had given her for Christmas, but the wind cut through everything like scissors through gauze. Strange that it should be so cold: usually it didn’t get below fifty this time of year.

She supposed she could go into the house. It would be warmer. But the door was probably locked,and she didn’t want to wake Jenny for the key. Anyway, what if she encountered Jenny’s parents? They seemed like nice people, but she hardly knew them, and she didn’t feel like making small talk. Better to stay out here.

She could stir up the coals and roast some marshmallows, but she’d already brushed her teeth. She hadn’t even brought a book. 

Frustrated, Sabrina stared into the forest. The moonlight fell in broad beams through the leafless trees, chasing the shadows from the underbrush. Far below, at the bottom of the hill, the Little River glittered like tinsel. They had walked along the shore this afternoon, before sunset, but the place looked very different at night--fairy-haunted; forbidden.

She paced restlessly around the edge of the campsite, peering through the trees for a better look at the water. Every few steps she saw a flash of moon-bleached sand, a twinkle of water. Then, suddenly, a path came into focus.

She didn’t know how she had missed it. It was a wide, straight track between the trees, leading right down to the water. It looked much more passable than the glorified deer-trail they’d followed that afternoon. She could probably make it in her Crocs without twisting an ankle. And it wasn’t that far: the murmur of the water carried clearly over the chilly night air.

She could go down now, have a little walk, and come back without waking anyone. It would only take a few minutes. She might even be tired enough to sleep when she got back. Still, it seemed wrong to go off and leave her friends without saying anything.

Sabrina turned to wake them--let Jenny or Brian, at least, know where she was going. But they were all sleeping so peacefully--and she knew they’d tell her not to go. It wasn’t safe to wander by herself at night.

Making a quick decision, Sabrina shoved her hands in her pockets and started down the trail.




On the shore of the river stood the most beautiful man Sabrina had ever seen. 

He was a little older than she was, tall and broad shouldered, with a swimmer’s body--clearly visible, as he wore nothing but a pair of soaking-wet jeans. The moonlight was generous, highlighting muscles that might not have been visible by day. Half mesmerized by his abs and deltoids, Sabrina stepped closer.

His face would have been at home on a Grecian urn. His nose was aquiline, his complexion umber, his mouth sensuous and a little cruel. He had a satyr’s beard, and his thick dark curls shadowed his face like little horns. As she approached, he pushed his hair back, and his sharp black eyes nearly stopped her in her tracks.

“Hey.” His voice was deep and lazy.“What’s up?”

She couldn’t speak. She felt as she were being studied, as if he were assessing her fitness for some unknown purpose. She groped around for words, and finally came out with, “Aren’t you cold?” 

His laugh rippled through her skin. “I’m used to it. Where’d you come from?”

“Up the hill.” She pointed toward Jenny’s house, though she couldn’t see the path anymore. “We’re having a campout. You know. For Halloween.”

“Very nice,” he drawled, sounding entirely uninterested. “What’s your name?”

“Uh... Sabrina.”

“Nice to meet you, Sabrina. I’m Cyrus.” He held out his hand. “Well met by moonlight, et cetera, et cetera.”

Sabrina took his hand, found it warm and dry and strong. “You live around here?”

He laughed. “Sure. Over the river. We’re having a party, too.” He pointed at a spot far upstream, where the opposite shore was mostly obscured by a clump of deep, dark forest.  

Sabrina couldn’t see anything over there that looked like a party. She moved closer to the water, and a wavelet swamped her shoes, soaking through her socks in seconds.

Cyrus laughed as she cursed and staggered backward. “Don’t get wet.”

“Thanks.” She kicked off her shoes and peeled off her socks, rubbing her feet on the sand to try and dry them. She felt like she’d been frostbitten, and knew she should probably go back to camp. “How’d you get here, anyway? I didn’t see a bridge.”

He shrugged. “Walked. Ain’t that deep. I’m about to go back...” He looked her up and down thoughtfully. “Want to come with?”

She should say no, of course, but found herself stammering. “Uh... I... I don’t know.” She dropped her shoes and socks on the sand. “What kind of party is it?”

“Oh, you know. Just a small gathering--food, beverages, entertainment. Kind of a yearly tradition.”

Sabrina glanced back towards the house again. Would her friends wake up, if she went with this stranger? Would they find her gone, panic, and call the cops to search the river? “I probably shouldn’t. Didn’t tell anyone I was c--”

Cyrus grinned, and she stopped speaking abruptly, realizing that she should have kept that information to herself. 

But he only turned away, and said, “You’re probably right. Best to go on home. Could be dangerous over there--you might meet strangers.” He patted her arm. Her whole body tingled. “So long...”

“Wait. I...”

He shook his head. “You probably wouldn’t like it. I mean, you’re already scared...”

“Scared?” She looked down at herself, as if that accusation might be visible on her shirt. “I’m not scared. I just...”

But was she? A chill was running through her veins--but she didn’t think she was frightened. Excited, maybe. Intrigued. “I’m not dressed for a party,” she hedged.

Cyrus laughed. “You look fine. No one over there’s going to care what you’re wearing.”

Sabrina stared across the water. The moonlight was so bright that in places the surface of the river looked almost opaque. It rippled so smoothly she knew it had to be deep. “Isn’t it dangerous?” 

“Not if you’re with me. I can carry you over.”

He probably could, she thought, looking him up and down. He was as tall as Brian, and looked stronger, though Brian had been a football player before his injury. Cyrus looked like he’d never been injured in his life. 

She turned away, wondering if he could see her blush by moonlight. “What are you, the ferryman?”

He laughed again. “If you like.”

Well, he was a cocksure bastard of the first degree, but she had to admit he was oddly alluring. Unconsciously, she moved a little closer. “How do I know you won’t drop me in the river?”

“You don’t.” He held up two fingers, a Scout’s-honor gesture. “But I swear I’ll do my best to keep you dry.” Then he lowered his hand and leaned quite close, so his breath ghosted over her face. “I’ll keep you dry,” he murmured, “as long as you pay the toll.”

She breathed in, then exhaled, distracted by the smell of his hair: moss, dry leaves, and something animal. “Wh-what kind of toll?”

“Well, what have you got?” His lips curled into a teasing smile. His face was nearly touching hers. “I can’t work for free.”

Sabrina shivered, but stepped back, trying to conceal her disappointment. “I guess that settles it, then.” She tried, and failed, to smile. “Don’t have any money.”

“Oh, it doesn’t have to be money. Could be anything. A silver coin. A loaf of bread.” He pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Even a kiss.”

Even as her whole body came alive with interest, she thought guiltily of Brian, sleeping by himself at the campsite up the hill. She should walk away now--shouldn’t even consider the offer. But the moonlight made the river seem like a different world, and Brian had no part in it. “All right,” she said, surprising herself.  

Smiling, Cyrus opened his arms.

He was hot, and strong, and his mouth tasted like river water. It was the best kiss she’d ever had. 

Without taking his lips from hers, Cyrus gathered her into his arms. Despite his heat, a chill ran through Sabrina’s body. She realized, very faintly, that he was walking--wading into the water, his feet sinking into the sandy riverbed. Her heels dipped into the river, and cold water soaked the hems of her sweatpants, but she didn’t open her eyes. 

Finally, when Sabrina was quite breathless, the kiss ended. They were on the opposite shore, and Cyrus was setting her down on the hard-packed sand. The cold ground was like an electric shock on her bare feet. She staggered, clutching his arms for balance, and opened her eyes. 

While they’d been crossing, the moon had passed behind a cloud. The shore was entirely dark, and very quiet. Thick bushes crowded them like thugs. A strange bird cried in a nearby tree. Even the river sounded odd--its voice a sullen murmur, as if heard through a layer of ice.

She hadn’t realized, from the other side, just how wide the river was. It had looked small, and passable--an inconvenience, but not really an obstacle. From this shore, though, it looked wide, and deep, and dangerous. 

She turned back to Cyrus, suddenly unnerved. He was wet from the ribs down, and the muscles of his abdomen gleamed like oil. Unconsciously, she reached out to touch them. 

He pushed her away, almost gently. “That’s enough now.”

Embarrassed, Sabrina pulled away, confused by the distance that had come into his face and voice. “What’s going on?” Her voice, in her ears, was childish. “Where are we?”

“The other side. Come on, now.” He turned away, and started upstream without waiting for her to follow. 

---

Sabrina was suddenly, overwhelmingly conscious of the dangerous situation she’d walked into. She opened her mouth, about to ask him to take her back, but he was far away by then. His strides were swift, unfaltering: he seemed to have forgotten she was there. When she called to him, he barely slowed.  

As they walked, she started hearing voices, laughter and conversation and even song echoing out of the darkness. Far ahead, faint golden light reflected off the river. “Is that the party?” 

Cyrus nodded.

Then they came around a bend, and there it was. 

The shore had broadened, and the air was warm, fragrant with woodsmoke. Tiki torches had been set out in a large square across the sand. Inside were dozens--perhaps hundreds--of people, sitting around bonfires and under striped pavilions.  

She rubbed her eyes, but the picture just got clearer. How could they all have gotten here? This was parkland--she was pretty sure no roads led in or out. Had they come by boat? A few were tied up on the shore, but not nearly enough to have brought so many people. And the sound should have carried--why hadn’t she and her friends heard the party from their campsite? And who were these people, anyway?

They looked, at first, like a historical reenactment society with a very relaxed dress code. Their clothes spanned the last two or three centuries, and seemed to have come from a number of cultures and walks of life. Most of the guests were dressed as farmers--in shirts and homespun trousers, calico dresses, or T-shirts and overalls. A few, however, wore hoop skirts and frock coats. Some of the black people wore old cotton clothing, and had a beaten-down look that made Sabrina think of slaves. A number of the guests looked like full-blooded Native Americans, and wore beaded shirts and dresses with feather-topped hats for the men. There were soldiers, flappers, hippies, businessmen, and even a few people who might have come from Sabrina’s own street. 

Then there were... others. Firelight flickered off of faces and bodies that weren’t entirely human. There were small, nude people with bald heads and jagged teeth; there were enormous men with branches that looked like clubs. A woman in the corner had three or four arms, all pouring drinks for the crowd around her. There were even people who seemed to have animal heads: dogs, cats, birds, foxes. Sabrina thought they were masks, until she saw one blink.

She turned to Cyrus, meaning to ask she-knew-not-what, but he was already gone. A moment later she spotted him across the campsite, accepting a mug of something from the woman with too many arms. Even he looked wilder here--the curls that had shaded his face like horns now looked like horns indeed. She waved to him, but he didn’t even look at her.

Despondent, Sabrina crossed the line of torches. Friendly faces surrounded her immediately. 

“Hello, dear,” said a little round woman, whose skin was wrinkled like tree bark. “Is this your first time?” 

“Of course it is,” said the man beside her, a Native American in a beaded blue shirt. “Look, she doesn’t even know where she is yet. Bet the riverman brought her.”

He beckoned to a young black woman who was pouring herself a drink. She approached,  handed him the pitcher, and gave Sabrina a curious smile. Beneath her calico kerchief, her eyes were large and sad.

“What is this place?” said Sabrina, helpless.

The old woman had produced a mug from somewhere. She held it while the man in blue poured. “It’s a party, dear,” she said, quite kindly. Her voice creaked like ancient branches. “Haven’t you ever seen one?”

Not knowing what to say, Sabrina took the mug and stared at it. It was very simple, and looked handmade--plain red clay with a clear glaze that gleamed in the firelight. Its sides were cool, and wet with condensation.

“Take a sip,” the old woman urged her. Sabrina obeyed. 

It wasn’t beer--she wasn’t sure what it was. It had a strange, spicy flavor she couldn’t quite place. Was it mead? Some kind of cider? She took another sip. “I’m Sabrina.” It seemed suddenly important that they should know that.

The three strangers nodded. “We don’t use names much here,” said the girl, “but I’m pleased to meet you, Sabrina. I was Hannah.”

“I was Tom.” The man smiled. 

The old woman smiled, too, but didn’t give her name.

A few feet away, a girl with red curls paused to give Sabrina a filthy look. She was very pretty, and wore a tight sweater that showed off an excellent figure. 

“Who was that?” Sabrina said, when the girl had moved on.

The others sighed. “That was Kelly,” said Hannah. “The riverman brought her last year.”

“Sour grapes,” said Tom, smiling again.

The old round woman just shook her head, and filled Sabrina’s cup. 

Sabrina took another drink.

---

Time passed in a pleasant haze. Whatever was in the mug proved mildly intoxicating, and she didn’t get sleepy no matter how much she drank. From time to time she thought to look for Cyrus, but he was never nearby. He moved from fire to fire, greeting friends and smiling mysteriously at everyone. Once she saw him pat Kelly on the shoulder and kiss her cheek. Another time he seemed to be exchanging secrets with a beautiful dark woman in an old-fashioned dress. Not once did he look at Sabrina.

She soon forgot her disappointment, because it turned out her new friends were excellent company. They constantly asked questions about her life, and seemed fascinated by every answer, even things as simple as “I go to State,” or “I have three sisters.” Soon others joined them, and greeted Sabrina like one of their own. They all plied her with drink, and with food in little clay bowls: deviled eggs, cornbread, muffins, brownies. Everything was perfect, and she never felt full.

Before long she was in the middle of a large crowd of people, roasting homemade marshmallows over the largest bonfire. Its heat scorched her face, and the air was rich with smoke and sugar. Someone had remembered an old drinking song, and was teaching it to the others amid waves of laughter. “‘Twas on the good ship Venus--by Christ, you should’ve seen us...’”

Halfway through the song, Sabrina noticed that the crowd was getting a bit thin. Several of the more flamboyant partygoers were nowhere to be found, and most of the fires and pavilions had been abandoned.

As she watched, two Native women who looked like sisters embraced, sighed, and disappeared altogether. Before she could move, a little blond boy ran into the shadows and didn’t come back. Then a person in a long white cloak, whose face she’d never seen, bowed once to the crowd and vanished.

One by one, the guests disappeared. Some of them just left, walking from the torchlight into the darkness. Others faded slowly from sight, waving sadly to their friends. Others still were there one minute, then gone the next time she looked for them. 

She knew, in whatever part of her brain was still active, that this was not right, but she couldn’t make herself move. The disappearing guests seemed like someone else’s problem--an unfortunate fact of nature that no one could really change. Framing a comment along those lines, she turned to Hannah--and gasped. 

In the last few minutes, Hannah’s lovely oval face had shriveled like a month-old apple. Her dress hung from her body like a tablecloth, and she smelled of sweat and illness. She seemed to be dying of some wasting disease.

“What happened?” Sabrina said.

Hannah smiled faintly. “You know, I almost made it,” she whispered. “I got as far as the river--then I broke my leg. So...” With a sigh, she disappeared.

Tom, next in line, was covered in blood. It poured from a fist-sized wound in the center of his chest, which must have taken out at least one vital organ. “Bastards were waiting at the river.” Blood flowed through his teeth as he spoke. “We--” Then his eyes widened, and he too faded away.

Desperate, Sabrina turned to the old round woman, who was watching her sympathetically. “What’s going on? Why--”

“Don’t worry, dear.” The woman patted her hand with broad, soft fingers. “They’ll all come back next year, you know. You will, too.”

“I...” Her brain was spinning. She shook her head, but couldn’t clear it. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s just the one night, you know--before the winter starts. When the veils are thin.” She yawned, smiled apologetically, and stood. “But I’d probably better go, too--I’m getting sleepy. Lovely to meet you...”

“Wait,” Sabrina said, reaching for her hand. “Please--”

But the old woman was already strolling towards the torches, nodding goodbye to the few remaining guests. Her wide back swayed, and her brown skirts rustled across the ground like dry leaves. Before Sabrina could stand, the woman had left the campground, and vanished into the darkness of the woods.

In a few minutes, all the other guests had left--fading like mirages, or simply walking away. Sabrina could only watch, pinned in place by shock or confusion or whatever she’d been drinking. Finally, as the sky began to lighten, she was alone, still sitting on her log beside the abandoned fire. 

Or almost alone. There was Cyrus, standing at the edge of the campground, surveying the site with satisfaction. 

As if a spell had broken, Sabrina finally stood. “Cyrus! What happened?” She ran over to him, tripping on feet gone suddenly numb.

He smiled distantly. “Hello, Sabrina. How’d you like the party?”

“It--where is everybody?”

“Oh, they all went home. Back to where they died, you know. It’s almost sunrise.”

“To where...” Her voice guttered like a candle. 

Cyrus laughed. “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you didn’t guess?”

“You mean they were...” 

“Sure.” He gave her a pitying look. “You already knew there was no one over here--no one human, anyway. Where’d you think they all came from?”

Sabrina shook her head, sure there must have been something in the drink. “But... How do I get home?”

“Oh, you don’t.”

“What?”

“You are home, now.” Cyrus gestured around him at the abandoned campground. “You paid the toll, remember? Drank the brew, ate the food? It’s a one-way trip--you’re one of them now. If I were you, I’d just get used to being dead.”

“I... but...” Dead. The word echoed in her mind like a church bell. “But... you didn’t... I didn’t... why did you bring me here?”

“Because you wanted to come,” he said, smiling. He leaned close, and pressed a chaste kiss against her cheek. “I’m an equal-opportunity ferryman--I’ll take anyone over, as long as the toll gets paid.” He patted her cheek, then stepped away. “And it was a good party. But it’s over, now.”

Her mouth opened. The words fell out of her head, and she just stuttered. “I--but--we--”

“It’s not so bad, being dead--from what I hear, anyway. And you picked a good place. The river’s lovely, and you might even find some company if you look. If all else fails, you’ll see them all at the next party.” Then he yawned, stretching his exquisite muscles like a sleepy cat. “Afraid I’ve got to go. Got a drowning to take care of tomorrow--today, that is--and then a suicide after that. No rest for the ferryman.” He grinned. “Later, Sabrina.” 

She reached for his hand, but he was already gone.

It was getting lighter, and fog was rising from the dawn-touched river. Sabrina watched the moon set behind the trees, and listened to the calls of awakening birds. The torches went out one by one, and the embers of the bonfires slowly turned to ashes. 


---
"Over the River" copyright © Katherine Traylor, October 26, 2012. Please do not reproduce without permission!

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