This story is by EJ Fordham and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I was only eight years old when I rode the riverboat Twilight. That day Dad picked me up early from school. It was right before show-and-tell. I had been ready to show off two pennies that I had pressed flat on the South Side tracks when the school’s secretary, Ms. Richardson, poked her head into the classroom.
“Lillian, honey? Your daddy’s here.”
I whined in frustration but shoved the pennies into my pocket and said goodbye to my best friend, Rebecca Moyer. We made plans to meet up later to work on our clubhouse, then I followed Ms. Richardson out the front doors of the school.
Dad was waiting in front of his car, smiling. I was relieved. That morning at breakfast he hadn’t been smiling. He’d been shouting and making a scary face.
I ran over and hugged him, burying my face in his t-shirt. It was sour with old sweat. “Where’s Mom?” I asked.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he held out an unwrapped popsicle. It was purple. Mom knows I like the red ones best, but I didn’t want to make him feel bad for not knowing, so I took it.
He opened the back door and I crawled inside. My little sister Rosemary was already buckled in and fast asleep. Her lips were purple and a licked-clean popsicle stick was nestled in her open hand.
I ruffled her messy blonde hair. “Heya, Rosie Posie.”
She didn’t wake up. I pulled the stiff nylon seatbelt over my lap and announced that I was ready. Dad started the car, and I took a bite of my popsicle. It tasted bitter, like burnt sugar.
Dad was quiet on the drive home, and I did my best to fill the silence. I was in the middle of telling him how Rebecca’s dog had puppies and that I had already picked one out and named it when my stomach twisted in pain.
“Dad, I don’t feel good.”
He didn’t respond.
“You’re probably carsick. Close your eyes.”
My insides and outsides were burning. I wanted to roll down the window, but my fingers wouldn’t work. I pressed my forehead against the cool glass. Looking outside, I tried to focus on something in the distance and realized we had passed the turn-off for our street. “Dad, where are we—”
“It’s fine. We’re just going for a ride.”
“Dad, I—I really need to throw up.”
“Just close your eyes.”
Something was wrong. Dad was crying. I had never heard an adult cry before. I felt embarrassed, like it was something I wasn’t supposed to hear. I obeyed and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the pain was gone.
Dad was right. I must have been carsick.
I sat up. I wasn’t in the car anymore. I was sitting on a wooden bench in front of a river. I rubbed my eyes.
I guess I fell asleep.
I got up and headed down to where Rosemary was playing. She had found a stick and was drawing hearts and stars on the sandy beach. On the opposite bank was a faded billboard with a picture of an old-fashioned steamboat. It advertised river cruises with “Rides Daily” written on the bottom.
Dad must have planned a boat ride.
Rosemary stood up and flung her stick into the muddy brown water. “Where’d Dad go?” she asked, stamping the ground to warm her feet.
I shrugged and shoved my fists deeper into my pockets, disguising a shiver. My show-and-tell pennies brushed the back of my hand. I grabbed one, running my fingers over its sharp edge.
Rosemary sniffed. She cupped her hands over her mouth and blew puffs of warm air into them. The bubblegum-pink tips of her fingers stood out against her pale skin.
I heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Here.” I grabbed her hands, interlaced our fingers, and returned them to my pre-warmed pockets.
She hummed in relief and snuggled closer to me, the top of her head fitting just underneath my chin. “Thanks,” she murmured.
“Welcome,” I replied absently, listening for the boat’s arrival. The constant buzz of insects drowned out the quieter sounds of the river, but I could still hear the occasional yelp of a wild turkey.
“Lilly, what’s that?”
Rosemary pointed into the gray fog and I followed the line of her finger. Across the river, barely visible, a dark shape swayed back and forth.
I didn’t reply. I couldn’t. The twisting shadow was heading straight for us, cutting through the water like an eel through silt.
“Lil?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
I was frozen, unable to escape the blackness that poured towards us. Its greedy fingers reaching, its terrible mouth gaping open—
The long, powerful blast of a steamboat’s whistle jolted us, and we both shrieked. My heart slammed against my chest.
Rosemary pointed again. “It’s gone.”
She was right. The dark shape had disappeared, along with the fog. The boat’s whistle had chased them both away.
The steamboat came into view. It was a three-decker painted baby blue and white. Its name, Twilight, was emblazoned across the side in vintage capital letters. A bright red paddlewheel and two smokestacks completed the picture. Passengers on board gathered at the bow and waved at me and Rosemary while the steam calliope’s cheerful toots echoed across the river valley.
“Dad’s not here yet.”
“There’s still time.”
The riverboat swung toward the bank and a wooden gangplank was lowered. A deckhand wearing a black wool cap, its visor pulled down over his eyes, marched down the plank toward us. Rosemary stared up at me anxiously.
“Dad can meet us at the next stop,” I assured her. “He knows where we are. It’s fine, let’s go.”
Rosemary sucked on her bottom lip, but nodded. She took my hand and we crossed over the narrow span of water. Our footsteps clunked noisily against the wooden boards, disturbing the creatures in the water below. Something large and pale swelled up to the surface and then slipped back into the darkness. I leaned over wanting a closer look, but the deckhand grabbed my hand and pulled me and Rosie up the plank.
“A lotta folks lose their balance tryin’ to cross,” he warned. “Ya don’t wanna fall in.”
“There was something in the water.”
“There always is,” he replied, not unkindly. “Tokens, please.”
Dad must have them.
“We—we lost them,” I lied.
The deckhand tugged on his cap. “Did ya check yer pockets?”
I reached into my pockets and pulled them inside out. Something fell onto the deck with a clink. It was my smashed pennies. The deckhand picked up the coins and nodded. Cupping his hands he cried out, “All ‘board!”
The Twilight replied with one long, enthusiastic blast on her whistle and lifted the gangplanks. The dark river water roiled as the paddlewheel churned the murk like a witch’s brew. We stood at the railing, watching the shore grow more distant when a familiar voice called out behind us.
“Lillian?” Mom’s voice cracked and her eyes were wide. “Rosemary?
We ran to her. Rosemary jumped up and down chanting, “Mom’s here! Mom’s here!”
Mom hugged us tight and I rubbed my face against her flowery dress, inhaling deeply. She smelled like lemons and fabric softener.
I was about to tell her that Dad hadn’t made it in time when I saw a figure running toward the river. It was Dad. He waved frantically from the shoreline, shouting.
“What?” I yelled back.
Dad stumbled into the water. He shouted again as we pulled farther away. The water shuddered as a dark shape sped toward him from the opposite bank.
Mom took our hands. “It’s time to go, girls,” she said, leading us away from the railing.
“What about Dad?”
Mom didn’t answer. As his cries grew softer, Mom, Rosemary, and I walked side by side into the Twilight, to ride her to the final stop.