This story is by Chris Farrar and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A shrieking sound rang through the dense forest like a gun shot. It was alarming over the rumble of the swollen river. The group of friends felt it like a clap of thunder. They all looked up from the campfire, like a herd of deer sensing danger. Jacob was the first to shout,
“What was that?” as he squinted into the dark. A few mossy trees were all that glowed in the flickering campfire light. It was now silent except from the river’s hum. They all stared at each other. Liz spoke next,
“Where is Billy? Wasn’t he getting a beer?”
“Billy!” she yelled, peering into the darkness. Out of the void a white light started flickering as it rushed closer. Billy then burst out of the forest. The tension in his face, and his terrified eyes projected a sense of danger.
“It’s Janice, she fell in the river!” his deep voice wavered.
“What! How?” cried one of the friends.
“I- I don’t know! We were by the river. Getting a beer. It was dark. I just couldn’t see. She fell. Slipped!” The vapor from his heavy breathing hung in the cool damp air and the smell of alcohol lingered. His bloodshot eyes now seemed dead sober in the harsh light of the headlamps.
“We need to get some light. Where did she go? Did she get sucked down the river? How can we get her?” someone blurted.
“She was pretty drunk, man!”
“Shit! That river is freezing. Let’s go!” Alex commanded as he jumped through the crowd of six and hurried down the embankment. The others followed. Billy hesitated a moment, as if he didn’t know what to do.
“We can sweep our way down the river,” yelled Alex.
“What about help?” someone shouted over the sound of the water.
“Help?” trembled Billy, “We’re 45 minutes even from a cell signal.”
“We’ve been drinking all night, no one should even be driving.” said Alex.
“Who cares about that, we need help. This is serious.” cried Liz. “I didn’t drink too much. I’m going to call 911.” She took off across the campsite and was gone.
The evergreen trees were dripping with moisture in the thick fog, which created a barrier for the bright headlamps. The friends scrambled over the river rocks. They each peered into the darkness, yelling
Everyone clambered down the bank in an urgent fashion, but it was slow going and awkward on the polished rocks and exposed roots. Each person could now sense the gravity of the situation. Billy remained quiet as he stumbled along the river in a desperate attempt to find Janice. “What even happened?” he thought. Adrenaline surged through his body. He kept searching in disbelief as he wondered if he should tell everyone the truth. This wasn’t the right time.
Three months later…
Billy stood on a giant rock that jutted into the river like a small peninsula. It was smooth from centuries of water flow and half covered in a dark green moss. His bare feet gripped the moss as frigid water lapped over them. He wondered why he chosen the moss to stand on. Stepping onto the smooth sloped surface, he could slip away. He pictured how a tree in a storm would be consumed by this indiscriminate force. The river didn’t care what was in it’s path. It flowed without concern and carved it’s way through the dense coastal landscape of cypress, spruce and giant cedars. Billy saw himself like that tree in the storm. Becoming part of the river was a process of natural selection for these trees. The river carried away the ones that were too close to the bank, too tall or too rigid. This was his turn to be taken away.
He was deliberate in choosing this location. His rock provided an opportunity to land in the deep fast moving water. It was also close to the location of Janice’s accident. The river was 20 feet across and raging from the recent spring rain. He didn’t intend to fight the current or struggle. He deserved whatever Janice had experienced.
She had been close friends for ten years, and her death weighed on him like a massive boulder. He had experienced pain before; when he crashed his motorcycle 2 years earlier, when he and his girlfriend had split, when his mother had died too early from lung cancer. Janice was there for him during those struggles. But now, as he started laughing to himself and fought back tears he blurted,
“That wasn’t pain!”
This was a much deeper ache. It was an emptiness on a grander scale that had no medicine. Fighting back more tears he spoke between his teeth,
“Why couldn’t I just tell the truth?”
The words surprised even him. To whom was he talking? The forest, the river, God? Even if the forest was listening it couldn’t hear his words over the water.
“And why would you even care?” he directed toward the river. No response.
“Janice is dead. I should be moving forward, but how could I?” he said as he shrugged his shoulders. A steady rain was soaking his light jacket. His short brown hair was wet as water streamed down his face.
He thought back to his childhood. On his sixth birthday his forehead had been split open by his brother while they played baseball. Billy touched the scar with his hand and felt the face of a much older self now. So much would change for that six year old boy. His young and playful mind seemed a lifetime away. He wished that he was still the same young boy, able to retreat to his mother’s arms.
Standing on this rock he realized that his life felt much like the river, cold and meandering. Months of guilt had led him to believe that punishment was the only suitable outcome for the secrets he kept. He chose to keep the truth to protect himself, but from what?
Looking across the river he saw an eagle perched atop a tall cedar. It launched itself off the tree, circled over the river through the cool misty air and landed on an adjacent tree. It was as if it said, “go ahead, human”. Billy imagined that the eagle didn’t care about him. Whatever baggage Billy harboured was irrelevant here, among the natural world. All that existed was truth. It sounded so simple. Just tell the truth! It was an accident and everyone would understand. But was he worried about what everyone else thought, or was he scared of what he would think? This is what he resisted for so long, and it was the truth that he needed. Billy couldn’t understand why, but being in this location made him consider this more than he had in a long time. He never intended any harm. Billy was only joking that fateful night when he pushed Janice by the river. He intended to scare her, but the harmless intention all went so wrong.
Surrounded by the honesty of the natural world, Billy understood that there was nothing but truth. The power was in his hands to change the situation, and he didn’t need to escape to find the solution. He raised his head, and lifted his feet to back off the rock. His feet struggled to grip the slippery rock. He had no chance to think as he fell backwards into the water. The cold water clamped down on him like a vise as it squeezed all the energy from his body. Light flashed and he struggled to scream. The river was an unbearable force pushing him forward. Then fifteen feet ahead it coughed him out. He made a terrible gasping sound to regain his breath, and then lay face up on a small sandy bank as his arms shook. The eagle circled above him. Billy imagined Janice struggling in the dark, and that she never had a chance. He stared at the water for a brief moment and then plodded up the embankment, toward his car. It was now clear to him that he had the ability to make a choice.