Join Us by the River (Short horror)
Done with work and leaving the mall is like an escape from Hell. What sick forces in Corporate America invented Black Friday? And why is it still legal? And how does the smallest state in the country have so many people?
Whatever, it’s over, just a short walk to downtown and I can catch the bus home. The cold air nips at my face and the clear night sky is refreshing after the heated stress of retail. I pull half a breakfast sandwich from my coat pocket and scarf it down in huge bites, crumbling the paper once it’s gone and shoving the wad back into my coat pocket.
It’s unusually quiet for a Friday night in Providence. Even after the holidays, the streets are buzzing with life. Right now, there’s nothing. No one. In the distance, a bus is heading toward downtown. Good. The lack of people in this city is a little unnerving, but it helps to know I’m not in some freaky rapture movie.
An odd sound and long vibration is coming from my pocket. I fish out my phone to find an emergency notice on the screen.
OFFICIAL WARNING FOR PROVIDENCE RESIDENTS: DO NOT GO NEAR THE PROVIDENCE RIVER. NEARBY RESIDENTS SHOULD COVER THEIR WINDOWS, SHUT OFF ALL LIGHTS, AND LOCK THEIR DOORS.
Huh. Weird. Maybe there’s a shooter in the area? A gang? Good thing I’m heading in the opposite direction.
I shrug it off and put my phone back in my pocket. My text notification goes off a second later. Then another one as I remove it again. One text from my mom, and one from my friend Marc. Mom first, just to avoid her motherly wrath if I forget to answer later.
Leon, it’s so nice out tonight! Come sit by the river with me.
By the river? My heart leaps out of my chest. I stop in my tracks, trying text fast enough to let her know. Trembling hands make it a little tricky, but I manage to get the words down.
I just got a warning about the river. Meet me by the mall and we'll go home. I think there might be a shooter or something.
I hit send and peer over my shoulder. The river is right there, under that bridge. If my mom is in trouble, I can't leave her. Another text notification, this time from my girlfriend. And then another from my kid brother. I go to my inbox. Another message comes in, this one from my aunt.
Hey Leon, it’s Aunt Cheryl! Come meet me by the river! I have a surprise for you!
With some friends by the river. Dancing on the stage. You should join us! Show off your moves!
Hello my love! Are you done with work? Let’s have a dinner picnic by the river! I made your favorite!
Aye man! It’s a full moon out tonight! Let’s sit and enjoy it by the river! I got beer!
My heart pounds in my chest as my mind races for answers. Maybe the gang is forcing them to send these to get to me. But what did I do to make them target me? I’m a bookworm who barely goes out on weekends, how could I make an enemy that would go to these lengths? No, it can’t just be me. Maybe it’s a quiet act of terrorism? One that’s holding people hostage and is making them text everyone to come and see them?
In any case, my loved ones are in trouble and I don’t have much time. I dial 911 and explain the situation.
“There's no terrorist by the river, son,” says the dispatcher. “What’s down there is much worse. I need you to go home, lock your doors and windows, and make sure no one outside can see you.”
“What? Worse! But-”
“We’ll do our best to save your family, kid. For now, worry about yourself.”
“What’s happening to my family? What’s down there?”
“Go home and hide. We’ll do everything we can.”
“Answer my question!” I growl, trying to be quiet in case whatever’s there can hear me, and glancing over my shoulder to make sure it isn’t coming for me. The fucking guy hung up before I could get the last word out. I lower my phone and stare at the ground beneath my feet. My entire body is trembling and there’s a lump in my throat.
Go home and hide? What do I do if I lose everyone? I have to find out what’s happening! I have to help! But what if it’s a trap, and I make things worse by being there? I dart back and forth, trying to decide what to do. The heavy steps are making my already sore feet hurt more.
Come on, man. We’re braver than this, I tell myself. We have to help. If bravery gets us killed, at least we didn’t do nothing, right? Right. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be careful.
Can’t look off the bridge. It’s too far to see and too hard to hide. I need to sneak in and get close enough to see what’s going on and make a plan to help everyone without getting trapped myself. I can do that from the lower walkway that leads to the river. I can try to hide around that corner. And if I get trapped? Then what?
I look around for a potential weapon and see nothing. I slide my backpack off my shoulder and swing it around a bit. It feels heavy enough to make a decent impact. It’ll have to do. The cobblestone walkway around the river breaks in some places. Maybe I can fill it with rocks while I creep around.
My hands are trembling as I realize I have no idea what's going to happen, but I've made up my mind. As I cross the street to get there, a woman holds a man’s arm as they make their way to the lower entrance toward the river.
“What do you think is happening?” I can barely hear her say.
“I don’t know, but everyone is down there.” The guy answers.
Somehow, watching them stroll toward the river makes me feel a little calmer, and a little dumb for swinging my backpack like a weapon. Maybe this is some random party with illegal fireworks or something.
They walk through the short tunnel and I’m not far behind. I stop before I get to the cobblestone walkway, and breathe a sigh of relief to see people casually leaning against the rail, admiring the river. The couple ahead of me look around as a young girl in a hood walks by them without looking up. I see her mouth moving, but I can’t hear anything. The two glance at her as she continues to walk, her large black hood covering her eyes. They shrug in response and walk to the rail to admire the river for themselves.
It isn’t until now that I notice a green glow coming from the river. I’m tilting my head at the sight when the hooded girl steps directly into view, pulling all of my attention on her. Her lips grin under the hood.
“You should look into the river. The water is beautiful.”
Her voice is calm and soothing, and for a second, I almost want to.
She lifts her head and looks at me with...black eyeshadow? No, it’s not eyeshadow. Her eyes are...gone. She’s looking at me with two large, empty holes, deep enough to see into her skull.
I can’t explain the horrible sound that came out of me, but it scares me as much as her face does, and throws me off balance, like something pushed me. I fall back onto the ground and scramble to my feet to run away, trying hard not to trip on my own two feet.
A small group of teenagers is strolling toward me. I blink, and I’m grabbing one of them by his shoulders, pleading with him to stay away from the river, screaming that something horrible is happening. I think there are tears pouring down my face, but I'm not about to stop and check. They chuckle to themselves and push me aside to see for themselves. I want to keep pleading, but as they leave, my attention turns to that girl.
She hasn’t moved, but it feels like she’s an inch away. Her hood is covering her eyes again, but her face keeps flashing into my vision. As I scramble to get away, her voice is singing my name, willing me to join her. My ears are flooded with the voices of my mom, brother, aunt, friend, girlfriend, all calling my name in soothing, siren voices, begging me to come back.
I turn a corner and there are a lot more people around now, most of them heading toward the river. This can’t be happening.
A bolt of pain surges through my body and I’m paralyzed, screaming. It only lasts a few seconds, but the aftermath is lingering. I fall to my knees, eyes focused on the street light above me. It’s all getting blurry, and I can’t breathe. Everything is going black.
* * * * *
I gasp for air and sit up, trying to catch my breath as I look around to figure out what happened. I’m in my room, and it's dark out. I look at the digital clock on my bedside. 2:37AM. My backpack is on the floor next to my bed, though I’m pretty sure I dropped it as soon as I saw that creepy girl’s eyes. I shudder to myself at the thought, but my heart is finally slowing down in my chest, and I take a moment to sigh in relief, dragging my hands down my face. How do I fathom such a creepy concept?
A dream. Thank the good Lord. Though somehow, I don’t remember getting home last night. I don’t even remember the bus ride or getting upstairs. I must have been more tired than I thought. I look down at myself and see that I’m still in my work clothes.
That weird alert noise comes on my phone again and I freeze in my spot. I don’t want to look, but I pull it from my pocket with quivering hands.
Please, I beg to myself, please let it be some thunderstorm or flash flood.
EMERGENCY ALERT TO ALL RHODE ISLAND RESIDENTS: STAY INSIDE. LOCK YOUR DOORS AND WINDOWS. TURN OFF ALL LIGHTS.
No hesitation. I run to the wall, turn off the light, then run to lock the only bedroom window I have and close the curtain and sit on the floor. Trying to keep my shaking breath as quiet as possible.
What is going on? Why is this happening? Does this mean I’m the only one in my house? Oh God, what do I do? I don’t even know what’s going on!
It feels like an eternity has gone by, and nothing has happened. Curiosity gets the better of me. I know I shouln't, but I grab the edge of my curtain and slowly, shaking, pull it just enough to see outside with one eye.
It's dark aside from the streelights. Still. Quiet. The only movement is a girl walking down the street. Not the hooded girl, this one has darker skin. Her walk is calm, like nothing is wrong. She stops dead in her tracks, and turns her head directly to me and grins. Her eyes are hollow, just like the hooded girl’s.
My heart jumps and I frantically close the curtain. Oh God she saw me! They know I’m here! What do I do?
A dull thud comes from downstairs, and my heart skips a beat. A shifting sound follows, and I can hear footsteps coming upstairs. Each step is slow, as if this thing is taunting me with its presence. My breathing gets heavier with each one as my heart tries to break through my chest.
The footsteps get closer and closer to my door. I quietly beg and plead for all of this to be an elaborate prank. The doorknob shifts and turns as slowly as possible, and I’m sure this thing is milking and relishing every second of my fear. I hide my face with my arms so I don’t have to watch this thing kill me.
The door opens, and a face pokes in.
Wait, I know that voice.
“Mom!” I leap from my spot, throwing my arms around her. I want to savor this, but the hollow-eyed girl from the sidewalk flashes into my mind and I pull back to grab her by the shoulders.
“Mom, something’s happening, something’s out there! We have to get ready, it could come any second! Grab a knife or something, we can’t let it get us!”
“It’s too late,” my mother’s eyes fade into hollow sockets as her face elongates to resemble the girl from the sidewalk.
The shock pulses through my body, and my knees buckle down under me. The girl grabs my hands from her shoulders and smiles at me.
“So gullible,” she sings in that familiar siren voice I heard earlier. It wasn’t a dream. But how did I get home?
I stand back up, trying to pull out of her grip, but they feel sticky, like they're covered in honey. As I look down at them, they turn into squid-like tentacles that wrap themselves all the way up my arms and hold me in place as I try to get away, screaming for help to whatever or whoever might hear me.
As I call out, my bedroom walls fade away, and I’m back by the river, surrounded by a ton of people, all with hollow eyes. My mom and everyone else are standing together, grinning at me. I call out to them, begging for them to snap out of it. Nothing works. Everyone is singing in soothing voices and I continue screaming and fighting, trying not to listen.
Full moon hung
Put an end to the rising sun
Our revolution has begun
I continue to wriggle and whimper, begging and pleading for everything to stop. I try to kick my foot toward the girl’s leg, but her tentacles push me back so I can’t reach.
“It’s a beautiful night, Leon. Just take a look at the river.”
As I struggle, the other side of the river comes into view, where a man in a business suit approaches the edge of the riverbank. He still has eyes, and his necktie is undone, as if he needs a relaxing evening.
“DON’T DO IT!” I call. “RUN! GET HELP!”
He doesn’t hear me, and he peers over the rail with tired eyes. The color drains from his face, and the whites of his eyes mix with the flesh of his eyelids and they melt with streams of red down his cheeks. His mouth hangs open as the empty sockets heal themselves into permanent holes, and a smile creeps onto his face, as if all his problems were solved.
“You see?” The girl sings as the chanting continues and the man takes out his phone to contact others. “It’s not so bad.”
No, it’s horrible! I keep struggling, but my energy is draining and my muscles ache.
“Such a naughty boy. I guess you’ll have to be first.” Her tentacles wrap further up my arms and around me as the others continue to sing. I keep calling and pleading with a cracking voice, my lungs throbbing, throat burning, and tears pouring down my face. My feet lift from the ground and I close my eyes, refusing to fall into the trap. I catch my breath as my body lunges downward and takes a sudden stop. My tears are running up my forehead now, and they aren’t slowing down. There’s a light barely able to peak through my eyelids, but I refuse to open them.
The air on my face is cool, almost relaxing, but the smell is making my stomach churn; Like rotting flesh drowned in low tide. My mom and the others are still calling my name in loving, reassuring voices, but I don’t dare open my eyes.
There’s a pressure on the back of my throat and my sandwich finds its way back up and out onto whatever is underneath me. The smell is still so pungent that I continue heaving, even with nothing left to come up. The acidic taste on my tongue is only making things worse.
Eventually, the light goes out and the song fades. Against my better judgement, I open my eyes and look below. It takes a second to process what I’m seeing. A tunnel made of dark red flesh, filled with long, needle-like teeth in rows going all the way down. My throat is burning, my muscles are aching and my lungs feel like lead. But watching this thing get closer is giving me my second wind to keep screaming and wriggling as much as I can. Memories of earlier tonight flash through my mind. All of those things I could’ve done differently.
I should’ve listened. All of those texts I could’ve ignored. I’m here because I fell into the trap. This is happening because I didn’t just go home. Am I dying for nothing?
Was being brave worth all of this?
I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be here.
If I had just worried about myself, would this have turned out okay?
I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be here.
Why couldn’t I keep my eyes shut so I wouldn’t have to know how it ends?
I don’t know.
But now I see.