Prologue. The Last Night of the Old World
When Margo exited play rehearsal it was already nearly pitch black outside, and she could tell that biking home was probably a bad idea. Fortunately, things being bad ideas never really stopped her. Besides, how else did she expect to get home? It wasn’t like her parents would drive her at this time of night, nor let her take the car.
Anyway, she felt surprisingly unexhausted. Play practice did that to her, making her wide-awake and ready to take on challenges. Which was good, because she still had a lot of homework. Tuesdays destroyed her. It was lucky that they weren’t in intense theater god-mode (as Bradley called it) yet. Not for another few months.
She unzipped her backpack and carefully slid the script in between two different textbooks. She was too lazy to actually stow it safely in a folder, so putting it in a place where it wouldn’t get rumpled was just a weird compromise. She zipped the backpack up and tossed it over her shoulders, adjusting the straps so that it the weight of three textbooks and four notebooks didn’t totally crush her spinal column. Not today, high school...not today. She grinned at a few people from play practice, waving aggressively. Despite not having classes with most of them, they were her best friends except for Katherine. Margo might have been the loser-iest of all the losers, but no one thought about that at play practice. I should make Katherine join, Margo reminded herself for the fiftieth time. She’d love this.
“See you next time!” Evelyn Cooper called at Margo’s retreating back, her voice detached from her form through the shielding darkness.
“See you!” Margo shouted back.
“Don’t forget your script!” Bradley Hall, their stage manager, warned them all. “Practice tomorrow—yes, tomorrow! At four! Don’t forget or you’re out of the play!”
“You’re a loser,” Wynn Pelletier said good-naturedly, and most of the cast laughed.
“Need a ride home?” Evelyn asked.
Margo smiled. She doubted that Evelyn’s parents wanted to drive her. After all, she was somehow considered a bad influence by the WASPiest of Bucksport. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Are you sure? It’s late.”
Margo lifted up the front of her bike a little bit. “I appreciate it, but I’ve got Georgie here. He’ll get me home.”
Evelyn laughed. “Georgie is the best, huh?”
“He’s seen me through every time.”
“Okay. Be safe. I’ll see you tomorrow!”
Margo pulled on her helmet and turned on her lights, mounting her bike. She shakily rode the first few feet and then got the momentum to stay straight. It was pretty dark out, but her lights illuminated the path ahead of her pretty well, and she did this often. It was only October.
She biked away from the high school and past the food options that the high schoolers made a mass exodus to every day at lunch, then past the combined middle and elementary school that her annoying younger brother Max went to. Then came a residential area, which was followed by Bucksport’s tiny downtown. Then were the low-rise apartment buildings, followed by more houses.
Most people that Margo knew lived a few miles down the highway. She was no exception: her family wasn’t old enough to have a place near the center of town. She carefully got onto the abandoned highway and began biking down it. She pumped her legs as fast as she could, eager to get home. It was cold outside.
The forest got thicker and thicker and Margo began to hear the gurgling of the river that ran by the highway. The guardrails dropped away, leaving Margo biking next to the slope of a hill that led down through the woods and eventually to the Stubbs River. She biked this path at least twice a day, and could name nearly every landmark along the highway: the exit signs broadcasting highways and states an eternity away meant that she was only three miles from home. The gigantic pine tree right next to the highway, nicknamed Old Man Hector, meant that she was two and a half miles away. The first dilapidated farmhouse where the Murdock family lived was the two mile point.
She recognized Isobel Fitzsimmons’s house and winced, and then passed Katherine’s house and waved at the darkened windows, as was her tradition. Hi, Kat! Notice me! Wind bit at her face, and she biked harder, her calves burning. She could feel the excitement of play rehearsal burning off, leaving her exhausted and ready to fall into bed and sleep until her alarm clock forced her to wake up the next morning. The sooner she got home, the better. I still have bio homework...can I put it off? But he’d probably notice. She internally swore.
Her energy had officially fled, and it was getting to the point at night where she saw things in the woods that weren’t there. The trees, rushing past and very dark, seemed to bend and undulate. The small brush along the ground looked like people waiting at the edge of the highway. Back when she was younger, Margo had liked to pretend that there were people in the woods, people that were waiting for her to join them. She and Katherine had had a whole world of friends in those woods.
Margo closed her eyes for a brief moment, trying to take in a deep breath despite her lungs feeling ready to give out. That was when she heard the hum of an engine.
Her eyes jerked open as her heart jumped. She felt a shock pass to her fingers and toes. Out of the darkness buzzed a car, screaming forward and making the darkness fall back. Its unholy halo spoke only of danger. Margo’s hands tightened on her bike handlebars, and she stopped moving her legs, unsure of what to do. Was there really a car there? Or was she imagining it? And surely, it couldn’t hit her...right? Was this how a deer felt?
Do something, idiot!
Margo forced herself to wake up, jerking her handlebars wildly to the side. She screamed as she tumbled over the edge of the highway and onto the loose dirt of the hillside. Her bike fell, crushing her left leg beneath it. She could feel every rock like a knife on her left arm as she slid down the hill. Her glasses bounced up and down on her nose. Desperately, she tried to stop herself. Let go of the bike! She had to get free of the bike! But she couldn’t make her limbs obey her mind, and she kept sliding down the hill!
At last she came to a halt on the flat ground. She could hear the splashing of the river and knew that she was close.
She lay on the dirt, tangled in her bike. She felt like she was bleeding, like the skin on her left side was completely gone. Just let me die...aagh! It was too late at night for this! She was so tired! This was so unfair!
Groaning, she moved her leg, getting it out from under the bike. She made herself move her arms, and then her upper body. Nothing...broken...God. This hurts!
She was bruised and bloody and covered in dirt, but by some miracle mostly unharmed. She touched the bridge of her blue plastic glasses. They seemed okay. Hopefully, God willing, the same could be said for Georgie. She couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed by the bike, but it wasn’t the bike’s fault. It was that Goddamn car’s fault, and Margo’s own for not being more alert. Her left side was burning. She should probably call her parents.
But that would be humiliating and her mother would be angry and annoyed and make her quit the play. Sighing, Margo made her way over to the river, hoping to was some of the dirt off of her hands and maybe wake herself up. This is total bull right now, by the way—I’d like to request a refund from the universe. She tried to recall exactly what the car had looked like—she knew how most people’s cars looked as a side effect of living in a small town for her entire life. Rally the lawyers, I’m going in.
The trees and bushes around her were shifting in the wind, flowing back and forth like creepy fingers and Margo briefly flashed her middle finger at the forest. Please stop freaking me out. It had been a while since she had been down by the river at night, especially alone. Especially when it was this late in the year, this dark out. I can’t believe I was stupid enough to fall down here. Why had she thought it was a good idea to close her eyes while biking?
She trudged through the wet, sticky soil near the river, going over to a large rock in the hopes that it would break the current for her, just in case. She didn’t want to risk falling into the river. At this point, she was in so much pain and was so tired that if she fell in she’d probably never get back out.
It became obvious that the rock wasn’t a rock as she got closer. Maybe a log? But then Margo saw the clear outline of a face, of an arm, and let out a screech so loud that they probably heard her back at the high school.
Oh my God!
Was that—no—there was no way that it was a body! This was Bucksport, Maine! Bodies didn’t end up in rivers around here! She was just super tired! But—as she got closer, it did look like it was a body! Oh my God! Margo froze. She had to approach, right? She couldn’t just leave the body there! But it was a body! Margo hadn’t been trained in how to deal with this! “H-H-Hello?” Margo tentatively called.
Idiot, she immediately thought. It’s a body! It’s not going to respond to you! You have to get closer!
Heart pounding, Margo took a step forward. She hissed as her feet were soaked by freezing water. The body was lying in the shallowest part of the river, the water lapping at it. Bile rose in Margo’s throat.
Despite the water being shallow, the current was strong. It always was in this river, which defied most common logic and insisted on washing away whatever was thrown into it. They were all warned to stay away from the river when they were young, lest the current sweep them away.
Margo’s hands were shaking as she reached for the body. Her toes were numb, which was probably a good thing. If she could actually feel her feet, she’d be running the hell away! Don’t be a coward, Margo. Don’t be a coward. She touched the freezing wrist of the body and waited a moment. After a few seconds, she felt a pulse under her fingers (or something). beat. Oh, thank God! The body was alive!
Margo had no idea how to move the body from the river without hurting it but she did her best, grabbing it from under the shoulders—her fingers were going numb—and dragging it to the bank, when suddenly it let out a gasp.
Margo dropped it and jumped back. “Gah!”
“Gah!” said the body.
Margo screamed again.
Shut up, Margo! I can’t be a coward here! An actual, living life is depending on me! Margo approached again. She had a plan to say something comforting, really she did, but when she actually opened her mouth all that spilled out was “are you—okay?—Jesus, that’s a bad question—how do I—what should I—”
She could see the body’s face. It was feminine, sharp-nosed, small-lipped, somehow familiar? The girl from the river opened her mouth, coughing. CPR! I should do CPR or something!
“Please,” the body rasped—
“Here, I’ll get you to a hospital—did you fall in the river—”
I’m asking all the wrong questions!
“It’s gonna be okay—can you stand—no—okay, I’m gonna move you—”
Margo fell silent, wanting to scream at the river for not being quiet so that she could hear the girl speak!
“Don’t tell who?!”
“Okay, that’s fine. I’m gonna move you—please don’t fight me—you’re safe—”
Margo looked up at the hill. It would be near impossible to get up it carrying someone else, but she had to. She had to get this girl to safety. “It’s going to be okay—come on. Can you put an arm around me? Please try, I need to get you up the bank—this might hurt—”
“I won’t! I promise! It’s going to be okay!” The body was too heavy and Margo was weak and freezing. She couldn’t do it. No! That’s not acceptable! I have to do this! But she literally didn’t have the ability!
It was in her backpack about thirty feet away. She could call 911! “I’ll get help, okay? Just wait—”
She turned and sprinted towards her backpack. She heard a gasp but didn’t stop running. She fell to her knees beside her backpack and yanked out her phone. She turned back to the river—
The body was gone.
She sprinted again, back towards the river, splashing through the shallows to where the body had been. There was nothing there, no indentation in the sand of the river, no disturbance in the rocks. She craned her neck, looking down the river. It was calm and flat, disturbed only by the wind and by leaves swirling in the water. She couldn’t see anything. “What the hell?”
Her voice shattered the laughter of the river. Had she imagined it all? No! There had been a body! She needed to tell someone! But what proof did she have? She couldn’t just claim that a girl had been washed downriver without any proof or way to help the girl!
She felt sick.
Margo forced herself back to her bike, which was muddy but otherwise undamaged. Feeling like she would throw up, she hoisted it straight and started walking back up the hill, her backpack and guilt dragging her back. Had she really imagined it? Did she have a concussion or something? Was she letting a girl die?
Her parents were going to kill her.
She put her leg over the bike and biked down the road again, shakily and much slower.
I’m going crazy. Right?