Chapter 1: Blood in the Water
The warm, Ozark summer air had never tasted sweeter than when it was whipping through the open passenger side window. With my arm dangling outside, we raced down a crumbling two-lane highway, cutting corners without regard for the speed limit. The searing rays of sunlight warming my pale skin, and with the scent of the nearby river flowing on the breeze, I'm reminded of how much I missed this place. It's good to be back home.
"Whaddaya think, babes? Should we go to the boat ramp?"
Marena, my best friend of more than 8 years, turns to me with anticipation twinkling in her hazel eyes. It was her idea to go swimming, even though it's barely 80°F. The humidity already turned her ash-blonde curls into frizzy corkscrews which fall erratically out of their bun to billow around her tan face.
I'm so busy scrolling through her phone to pick the next song that her question takes a moment to register.
"I dunno, dude, it's hot out and everyone goes to the boat ramp to swim."
She hums thoughtfully, glancing around at our surroundings while her ringed fingers tap the steering wheel to the beat. I set her phone in the cupholder and look up just in time to see her rip the steering wheel to the left. Bracing myself, I laugh softly as she drifts her little 4-door car onto the county road, leaving a cloud of dust in our wake. She doesn't even have to glance my way to know I'm alright, considering our history, she could've run us in the ditch and I'd have been unbothered.
"Let's just go, it won't be too busy, it's a Tuesday afternoon," Marena suggests, never losing her drive for that ultimate goal: to get in the water and escape the sun's heat. She's relentlessly restless as always. But, that's hypocritical of me to judge her for though. After all, we've both been crashing through life, learning everything the hard way, since the day we were born.
"Fuck it, let's do it."
Marena gives me her signature mischievous grin and turns the volume on the radio to the max. We scream country music out of the open windows while we race down the gravel, and skid to a stop in the dirt lot above the boat ramp.
Old oaks dangle on the disintegrating earth that frames the small river, leaning towards the water as if peering at their reflection. Lush green moss grows on the stones in the shallows, where Minos swarm to obscure the crawfish skittering along the riverbed. Even the boat ramp is covered in a thin layer of algae, which makes trying to get in the water quite a nerve-wracking task.
"Careful," I practically shout when Marena suddenly slips. I lunge, narrowly managing to stabilize her without losing balance myself. We are only up to our ankles, both of us pondering opposite solutions to this slippery problem.
"I got it," she assures me with a confident thumbs up. All I can do is shake my head in disbelief and chuckle as I release her. Then, before I can even blink, she's leaping into the deeper water with reckless abandon.
I have to fight the urge to scream as the cold water splashes over me, shocking my senses. Marena's head surfaces so she can let out a blissful sigh, her curls clinging to her chestnut skin as she waves me closer.
"If you just jump in, and get it over with, it feels nice!"
I eye her wearily as I take cautious steps, inching my way down the boat ramp. I've always been more careful than she is, but that leaves room for her to provoke me to be brave.
So, against my better judgment, I leap as far forward as I can and crash into the depths. The cool water shocks my body for a second time as I sink, but as soon as i surface to breathe in a gulp of the hot air, I'm grateful. Marena was right, this feels amazing.
The summer sun has begun to set behind the swaying leaves, painting the clear sky in warm hues, by the time we get out of the water. We sit atop the massive rocks at the top of the boat ramp to watch the shadows of the oaks dance along the water. Incoherent voices mix with the sound of distant music echoing through the riverbed, just another sign that summer is here. Usually, that fact alone would put a smile on my freckled face, but not tonight.
I have this unshakable weight in the pit of my stomach as if danger is lying in wait for us. I'm not one to ignore my intuition, but Marena looks so content sitting beside me on this boulder. I can't bring myself to mention the anxiety I feel with every fiber of my being, so I pull out a cigarette instead.
"Can we share that," Marena requests as I light my stogie, already extending her hand. She knows the answer. So, I take a few drags before I pass it her way while the last light fades below the horizon.
"Everything here is the same and yet, it feels so different," I murmur under my breath, resting my elbows on my knees to prop my head up on my hands. Marena nods, exhaling a cloud of smoke in a deep sigh as she passes the cigarette back.
"We're different," she says plainly, as I have a hundred times before.
"I guess we are. Older and wiser, I'd like to think."
Marena lets out an easy laugh before she agrees, "For sure."
Just when I was beginning to forget about the knot in my gut, the sharp sound of a twig snapping nearby has Marena and I leaping to our feet. Heart pounding feverishly against my ribs, I carefully scan the shadows in the tree line beyond the dirt parking lot. The only car left is the one we came in, and the only thing I can see beyond the tall grass is the trees.
Marena suddenly snatches my left wrist in a death grip, making me flinch before I whip my head around. She's pointing at the sandbank, across the river, where a small tree is still swaying as if someone brushed by. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end, my muscles so tense they threaten to snap, and that pit in my stomach feels like a bottomless abyss.
Something is very wrong.
"Let's go," I demand urgently. With Marena's hand still locked around my wrist, I hastily drag her to the car where we jump in and lock the doors immediately. My skin crawls as I snap my head to and fro, trying to watch everything around us. Marena starts the car, and the loud music over the stereo is sudden enough to make both of us flinch.
"Shit," Marena barks in annoyance, lowering the volume with a shaky hand. Seconds later, we are tearing out of that dirt lot and back onto the gravel road. Marena keeps her hand on the gearshift, eyes darting between the road and the rearview mirror. I can't help wondering if she felt as uneasy as I did as if my bare human instincts were screaming at me in a warning.
"Did you see whatever it was," I ask her, once I'm sure we are far enough away that I can stop looking behind us.
She swallows hard, working her jaw like she's chewing gum as she checks the rearview once more. Marena has a rough past, she's not easily shaken, and seeing her so on edge only strengthens my conviction. Something was very wrong.
She takes the corner just like before, sliding across the gravel and onto the pavement so quickly that the tires chirp before they gain traction. I can feel the engine roar as she plants the gas pedal to the floor. I'm getting more scared the longer she struggles to find the words, I've known Marena for almost a decade and I don't think I've ever seen her speechless.
"Babes, just tell me," I plea for an answer, reaching across the center console to give her arm a reassuring squeeze.
"I don't know! I don't know, dude, I just thought someone was over there but all I saw was the tree moving. It felt like someone was watching us, though, right?"
With absolutely zero enthusiasm, I sink deeper into my seat and reply, "Yeah, it did."
Marena is doing the speed limit now that we're nearing the main highway, the cooler night air that flows through the window should be refreshing. But, there's a tension in the silence between us, even as the music plays softly from the radio.
The headlights make the white and yellow lines on the faded pavement glow, the only sign that there are any other people nearby is the occasional farmhouse rotting into the overgrown foliage. The world feels vacant as if Marena and I went to that boat ramp only to find ourselves in a different realm altogether.
My attention is ripped from the depths of thought when bright, L.E.D. headlights from the oncoming car round the corner. I feel my heart still, missing a beat, as the red and blue lights atop three cop cars illuminate the entire road. Marena and I reach out at the same time, taking hold of each others' hands, as she pulls the car over. The cops speed by, sirens screaming so loudly that my ears are ringing long after their lights disappear between the trees.
That awful feeling comes back tenfold, anxiety turns my veins to ice and my stomach transforms into an endless abyss. For a while, all I can hear is the pounding of my heart between each shaky breath.
"There was nobody else down there, was there," Marena inquires in a whisper, barely audible over the all too cheery song on the radio. She pulls off the shoulder slowly, stealing glances behind us through every mirror, and drives carefully towards town.
"No.. the parking lot was empty... just those campers across the river who were partying."
We exchange a weary glance and spend the rest of the journey back home respectfully stewing on what transpired.
The next day, I'm awoken by the sunlight streaming through the sheer curtain. I sit up with a drowsy groan, rubbing the sleep from my eyes with the butt of my palm. I lived with Marena's grandma a few years ago, for like 6 months, after an entire mess of domestic drama occurred. Marena went back to our old apartment, and her now-husband, while I stayed with Clementine: her grandmother.
Today is the first day in a long time that I wake up to sunlight, beneath the weight of a hand-stitched quilt, with the scent of coffee greeting me. I slide out of bed and shuffle down the hallway to the kitchen, stretching my arms over my head with a big yawn. Marena is sitting at the smallest of two dining tables with her ringed fingers coiled firmly around a pen. My vision is still fuzzy with sleep, the way she's hunched over the table, drawing almost feverishly, tells me she's freaking out.
"What happened," I croak, wandering to the coffee maker to make myself a cup.
"Dude... Grandma turned the news on this morning, right? Those cops we saw found a body in the river. Some campers downstream from the boat ramp called them after a body washed up on their little beach."
I freeze in place as those words sink into every crevice of my mind. Suddenly, I'm wide awake and far too nauseous for coffee. When I regain a shred of composure, I sit down in the chair across from Marena and stare at my trembling hands.
"Jesus fucking Christ..."
"I know, I can't stop thinking about it."
"Guessing they didn't mention who it was."
"Grandma said they don't know, and the few articles I found online said the body was... in bad shape, unidentifiable."
My stomach churns as I try not to think about the fact that we swam so close to someone's corpse, rotting in the same water. Any rational person in the right mind would assume they probably drowned, but I think Marena and I aren't in our right minds after last night. So, on a whim, I speak my mind.
"Whatever you almost saw... you think it might have something to do with that body they found?"
Her hazel eyes are sharp with focus when they meet mine, she doesn't have to speak for me to know the answer is yes. I press my lips into a thin, uncomfortable line and shift my weight in my chair. I wish I didn't agree because knowing she does too makes this all too real. I rest my face in my hands and sigh deeply, unsure what to do, feeling utterly helpless.
The second my eyes drift closed, the darkness behind my eyelids is subsumed by the memory of the river. It's as if I'm back there, only I'm standing at the water's edge instead of above the boat ramp. The low drone of distant music, as well as my own voice mixing with Marena's behind me, drifts on the cool evening wind. I can't hold the vision long enough to turn my head and catch sight of what moves on the sandbank. But, even as it fades and I open my eyes to reality once more, I can hear the song echoing through the riverbed, resonating through my mind like a warning.
"All our times have come, here but now they're gone."
Coincidences are something I quit believing in a long time ago, there's no way it's happenstance that we were in our hometown for a swim the same night a body turned up in the river. It feels like some sick joke, a warning, something with the purpose to get our attention. Or, more likely, I'm reaching anxiety levels that are triggering delusional paranoia.
"I had a weird dream too," Marena's voice cuts through my spiraling internal monologue, and raises my gaze to meet hers. The sense of dread in me shouldn't be able to multiply, given that it feels like a black hole has replaced my stomach, but there's a glimmer of curiosity that begs to know what she's talking about.
She nods solemnly, pushing the sketch she's been working on across the dining table. Her tan fingers are stained from her pen, but the side of her hand that rests on the page is the worst, inky black from caressing wet ink. The fanaticism it took for her to wind up so messy is almost more striking than the artwork itself. Almost.
The paper is stained with coffee, which her shaking hands likely spilled while trying to document her nightmare. I expected a scene, a landscape, but instead, I'm greeted with an unholy amalgam of shadow and spikes that looks almost like a person. It's leaning to the left, tilting its tentacled head with one eye wide and alert, watching. Strange, barbed, paddle-like limbs seem to slither through the air around it, waving or perhaps dancing, it's impossible to tell without more context.
"What the fuck is that," I utter in disbelief, snatching the paper up to stare more closely at the figure.
"It was just standing there in my dream, dude, outside my bedroom window... watching me."
I don't believe in coincidences. But, it's just a dream, isn't it? I lay the sketch back on the table and toss a weary glance over my shoulder. Clementine is smoking in the living room, the distinct scent of her cigarettes wafts through the kitchen as if to remind me we aren't alone. I wish that realization provided me with any sense of solace, but somehow it only makes me more concerned.
I spend a pensive moment of silence trying to recall the hazy images of my dreams, searching for any significance, but it's all an incoherent blur. Clementine's recliner creaks in protest as she rises from it, wandering into the kitchen.
"Oh, Wayverly, you're finally awake. You missed breakfast," Clementine comments, or rather lightly scolds me, as she heads for the coffee pot to refill her cup.
"Yeah, I was more tired than I thought."
"She drove all morning yesterday just to get here so," Marena interjects, calmly but it's clear she's defending me. Clementine eyes us both and chuckles under her breath, sensing the tension. She wanders back to the living room without another word.
"You wanna go for a drive," I ask Marena softly, pleading with my grey eyes. I need to get out of this house, get some fresh air, and clear my head before i go utterly mad. Marena is on her feet, grabbing her keys in an instant. As we make a beeline for the garage, she turns her head to say goodbye.
"We're going to town, Grandma!"
"Okay! Be safe!"
With that, we jump into Marena's car and roll down all of the windows before we begin our journey down the gravel road. My mind is still spinning, but the late morning air is hot today, and the summer sun kissing my skin makes it all a little more bearable.
I try to push last night into the back of my mind as i drape a hand out the passenger window, feeling the wind caress my fingers as i watch the trees whiz by. Marena is speeding again, but I don't even notice.
Not until, without warning, she gasps and slams on the brakes. As the tires lose traction and we slide across the loose gravel, I have enough time to turn my head before slamming into something. The impact is so violent that my face slams against the dash, smashing my lips against my teeth and filling my mouth with the taste of blood. Dazed, I sit back in my seat and attempt to see through the steam, wondering what exactly we hit.
Marena is still next to me, draped over the steering wheel with her nose and knuckles dripping blood.
The sight before me makes me wish I was unconscious, or better yet dead. A pair of grey feather wings, at least eight feet in span, flutter to blow away the steam and reveal a faceless being in glistening metal armor. The words carved into his chest plate appear to be Latin, "Deus lux mea est, Deus spes nostra, deus vult."
The creature yanks his engraved glaive free from the hood of the car and wraps his metallic fingers tightly around the handle, raising it with one hand to extend his other forward and aim right at us.
I guess I'm going to get my wish.
I have no children of my own. but I have many fears of the day when I do, wondering if I will do it right.
But, there is a ghost, a fractured little girl who dances in the grassy meadows of my heart, I am her mother.
I look at the woman who brought me life, and I can recall a time not so long ago that her beautiful face contorted with tsunamis of emotion, rage and pain and so much sadness. I always wondered what I had done, what was wrong with me, that made her hate every move I made. I remember once, spitting and screaming she told me she hoped I’d have a kid like me one day, maybe then I would understand. I remember being forced to spend every second she wanted watching my brothers or cleaning the house. She’d get mad if I wanted to see my friends, get even angrier if I wanted privacy. I couldn’t comprehend how, I’m so few years of life, I had become the target of her unbridled and constant shifting emotions. But, I understand now, though I have no children of my own.
Gentle, curious, kind, and so fearless in love is that little girl in the meadow, twirling her fingers around the reeds and smiling at the sun. She knows pain, anger, sadness too. But, she remembers the summer air through the passenger window of mom’s Camaro, the sound of the terracotta dirt road beneath the tires and Shania Twain on the radio. She can recall the sound of Mom losing her mind in the bathroom when her hair turned out strawberry blonde, not light blonde. That little girl cried when mom cried, laughed and danced and sang with her too.
When Mom got lost, that little girl and me were all alone with all these feelings, and for so long I tried to forget her. I only remembered the bad times, the isolation and loneliness of growing up too fast because nobody wanted to raise me.
I had to sit down with that little girl, bring my shadows into her sunny meadow, and apologize for adding myself to the list of people who walked out on her.
“But I’m here now.”
You know this story. The Sword and the Shield.
But, I wish I could’ve been Mom’s mom too. I wish I could‘ve taught her to love herself so she wouldn’t go through decades of trauma to discover loving other people wouldn’t fix how empty she felt. I’d be there at the door the night she came home, 17 and pregnant, and I’d love her unconditionally as she deserves. I’d wipe her tears and set aside any judgement, I’d help her find a way to cope and thrive in this situation.
My mother tried so hard, in her own way, and made my mistakes in blindness that I perceived as malice. She’d forgotten about the little girl she was, what it felt like to be “loved” as her parents loved her, the pain became normal. It wasn’t until I reared my ugliest head, kicking and screaming for years that it was wrong, that she began to question that sense of normalcy.
Love isn’t suppose to be painful, it’s not supposed to be turbulent, but this life of mine, this journey is one I wouldn’t change.
I love myself.
I love that ghost in the meadow.
and I love you, mom.
In a world of gods and monsters, myths and men, history is written by omitting the uncomfortable reality. Being victorious means one can forget the atrocities they committed to do so, and in vilifying the loser, warping the complexities of human nature to seem black and white, they look like a hero. As if every heart that stopped beating, every drop of crimson ichor that painted the soil was necessary for survival, as if it was the only option. Kill or be killed.
But, genocide is not an act of defense, and it has never been an attempt at survival.
What drives humanity to slaughtering one another so needlessly? Any individual with half a brain would tell you it's their nature. The sweaty, soft spoken preacher with that cross around his neck would call it sin, and blame the Devil's wicked influence. But, he may be the same one with his hand's wandering the flesh of his young congregation. Or perhaps you'd ask the copper-haired girl, dancing barefoot along the river's edge, and she'd tell you about the Universe and energies people carry. She may warn the very weight of cruelty, and hate, will shroud the soul unless cleansed by the elements. There are so many responses, each one more divine than the last, and yet no man or woman seems to know the real answer.
Humanity are a species better defined by blends of grey, the duality of their good and bad traits meld into an entirely unique shade, ever evolving. Every set of eyes perceives the world around them in a way foreign to their peers, each of their choices defined by their own desires or needs. And like any creature, when threatened, some will fight tooth and nail while others sprint in the opposite direction. Duality is one of the only things consistent throughout each one of them, because that balance is the nature of the Universe.
I suppose you're wondering: What's with all the rambling? What point are you trying to prove?
Humanity wasn't the first race of intelligent beings with so much gray in their soul. They certainly aren't the only ones at the moment, either. So, leave your judgements and preconceived opinions here, journey forth to meet them by name.
They left the unknown for us to discover.
The Sword and The Shield
It was a chilly, September afternoon, when I drew my first breath of air amidst the sunset-colored leaves of the oak trees. Beautiful and ignorant, I tumbled through the earliest years of my life without fear. Locks of hair like threads of gold, eyes blue like the summer sky, I came to hate every fiber of that beauty. The hatred in my mother's eyes, and the vacancy in my father's, each sign I'd been taught to observe told me one thing: I am alone.
It was a bitter cold, September evening, my 16th birthday, when I first realized that I was still that ignorant, freckle-faced little girl. Mature, that's what they called me, just another Old Soul. But, none of those "keen-eyed" observers seemed to notice the cost. I was fighting everyone's battles, and nobody was fighting mine. My heart eroded like a riverbed, leaving a gaping canyon, no longer flowing with love, in the aftermath. Alone, surrounded by so many porcelain smiles, and still so very far away.
That blonde little girl, her joy and her curiosity, calls out to the heart of an angry teenager who's seen her future, lived it...
"What's wrong? Why are you crying," the little girl asks, with so much empathy that her soft blue eyes glisten with tears.
"I tried so hard but I couldn't protect us, I failed! I can't do this, I can't do anything right..."
The little girl knows this tantrum well, she's seen her mom crumble this way a thousand times. But, that teenager is too busy drowning in her own darkness to hear the little girl's attempts to soothe her.
Rage and Sadness, red and blue.... a sword and shield, seemingly forgotten once they've completed their task. Until a third arrives in their endless void, this prison of shadow and thought.
"I'm sorry it took me so long, but I'm here," the new arrival says this like recalling an oath, as she kneels before the child and the teenager.
"You forgot us," the teen accuses harshly, pushing herself to her feet and waving her hands wildly as she adds, "You walked out on us just like EVERYONE ELSE!"
The littlest cries the most silent tears, too afraid to make a peep for fear of retaliation. The eldest, the newest, she nods her head as she tries her hardest to believe that statement isn't true. But, it is, and she wants to prove that she's going to make it right.
"You're right, I did. I think I've ran from 90% of the things that didn't work out the way I wanted, and I tried to help everyone before I stopped to help us... and I'm sorry for that."
The silence between the three of the is deafening, each soaking in those foreign words of accountability, the guilt of accepting responsibility. The teenager sits down between the other two, keeping a protective arm around the youngest to look at the oldest.
It's easy to see, all sat in a row like cute little ducklings, how the red and the blue have blended into a spectacular purple. The sword and the shield are polished and on display, so every viewer will honor the battles they fought and they many more to come.
We are healing, we are evolving, and we are going to be okay.