After finishing college, I returned to finish high school, just as my great-aunt Clare before me would have wished. My resolution when I had received her name was to finish the two years of education she had always wished to finish. And I learned many new things along the way. It was definitely an interesting experience, as I gained a close following of friends, something I never believed I would ever have.
My new friends have set up a get-together for today; I guess some kind of party for my finishing high school. I don’t really want a party or anything, but it’ll be nice to be with everyone again before I have to go on to another life. Before I have to live under another name again.
I didn’t even need to look up the location on the invite. Not because it’s a riverside park, but because it’s the riverside park in downtown Canosha—the town, unfortunately, where I grew up. Why did it have to be by the river? Who would want to have a party by that river? Just the very thought of it makes me want to throw up and call in sick. But I guess I should probably go anyway. I want to see Janet again.
Spring is still in the air this lonely late May. The sky is two-faced; depending on where one looks, it could be perfectly clear, or it could be persistently depressing with gray clouds that will probably never rain. The distant sky’s shadow is just here to make our day miserable. Sigh. I hope that’s not an ill omen for me; I know someone else who was just like that.
Being by the water, the air is fresh and cool, like we’re at the ocean, and the wind dances through the banners on the buildings and spills some of the treats on the party table occasionally, threatening to steal the white tablecloth. Even with my fuzzy, light blue penguin sweater on, I shiver. But I know the real reason why I’m shivering.
“Oh, there you are!” Ruth beams, her freckles like embers to her long, sunlit hair. “I’m glad you were able to make it today! After all, there wouldn’t be much of anything without you, would there?”
She offers a hug as a greeting, and I barely accept it. I’m not good with hugs.
I barely mull out my words, lingering on the peculiar thought of my mattering solely for the existence of something—like a fulcrum to a see-saw. “Yah. Sorry I was a little late,” I return. “I had to take the dog out.”
I actually got up too late and debated whether to come here for hours before finally getting dressed and rushing out of the house with a peanut butter sandwich in my mouth in case there’s only junk food—but whatever. The norm for me, not the norm for them.
“Take whatever you want to eat! There’s plenty!” Ruth offers, panning her arm over the intricate array of food packed in on the transportable table.
There’s everything here. Someone catered from the grocery store and got rotisserie chicken with the buffet’s mashed potatoes along with juice, pop, snack food, and strange chips I’ve never seen before that are taking residence of a giant plastic bag crinkled and beaming pastel yellow. Well, at least I can eat. I take some chicken and mashed potatoes and green beans before making my way to those mysterious chips. They’re the size of whole potatoes!
“Those are baked tots!” Amy tells me. From the look of her wide emerald eyes, I believe she’s the one that brought them. “They’re whole baked potatoes made into chips!”
That’s insane and ridiculous. But at the same time, it’s rather interesting. I’m sure they have to taste different somehow. I’ll take one—after all, I need only one. It’s bigger than my hand, though it feels rather hollow inside where the soft pulp of the potato would normally be.
Now content with my food, I don’t have to worry about being too social. After all, they should all know by now I’m terrible at that. I’m just lucky they’re all so nice and accept me anyway; with such a diverse group as we have going, maybe I’m just the resident antisocial to fit their quota. Oh, who am I kidding? They wouldn’t have done this whole party thing if they didn’t care about me.
Amy and Ruth stand close together, as usual; the two are partners in crime, but they somehow retain themselves at a level of professional distance. Their relationship is like two managers if anything. Compared to Ruth’s fiery copper hair, Amy’s wiry locks look like an orange school folder. But that’s all right, because she more than makes up with herself by personality. Strange but heartwarming personality. She’d love to live in a futuristic novel.
But the one of the group that connects with me the most is Janet. She’s cold and distant compared to the other bubbly girls; her red and black clothes, beige face, and mysteriously black hair all speak of her rebellion, as well. She’d prefer to talk about political philosophy and dark, intelligent matters than go window-shopping for cute trinkets and shoes. But that’s why we get along.
Janet is waiting at the park bench, probably expecting me to want to be by myself. The other three girls are window-shopping during these dead hours of town, their eyes the only ones gracing the windows and the purchasable goods behind closed doors. This town sure has changed a lot. What once was a bustling community has now been reduced to a museum of what once was. The stores stand as façades for the possibility of the dead coming alive again or the morbid claiming its forgotten innocence. Basically, everything is left untouched to pretend Canosha is just another quaint downtown. If only.
I sigh, sit, and take a bite of food. The mashed potatoes are a bit plain with only a tinge of butter and garlic. It’s OK, I guess. The chicken’s cold and very juicy, which is fine, but I always feel a bit nervous eating cold meat. I don’t even want to attempt figuring out how to consume the traditional baked potato chip. Just touching it makes it fall apart into instant potato flakes.
Janet is completely silent, her words tucked in tight by a sulk; her thickly disapproving eyes hollow out to a void. I knew she wouldn’t want to be here, either. Just the thought of this river is enough to sour her whole week. Though she always acts defiant and confident, sad memories close to her heart can really shake her down and turn her into a floppy stuffed animal that’s only one tug away from falling apart.
My ear catches Amy’s distant phrase, “I’ll pass out the water,” and I have no idea why that suddenly catches my interest. Soon enough, blue plastic cups come by all of us, and I recognize the smell.
“This river’s water is very clear! We can have this,” Ruth indicates, filling more cups with the waterfall’s cascade.
What is this? A horror film all the sudden?! I’m not drinking this! I’m surprised anyone would!
The only ones in the group, apparently, that haven’t known the ills of this river are Sabrina, who’s always kind of oblivious (But in a naïve way, so I actually envy her), and Miss Jackson, who only likes to be called by her last name—probably because it sounds masculine and neutral as far as names go. They’re lucky.
Janet and I, of course, ceremoniously dump the water on the ground, feeling rebellious and certain of ourselves like two protestors.
All the sudden, Ruth starts in on one of the prayer songs we were taught at school. The memory shakes through me and sends me to simpler days—just a year ago—when I promised I’d begin the new phase of my life just before I was told it’d be over. True, I had promised my namesake I would, but the opportunity was for me, too. After all, they never told us we couldn’t live for ourselves. That’s what Janet taught me.
Amy and Sabrina join in.
To my shock, Ruth idly strolls, with closed and reverent eyes, to the riverside’s overlook caged in bars; she follows her heart gently as though she’s floating like idling waves. Facing the turgid sea, she mulls on the words of living life and trusting the wills of the divine and our hearts. Letting go of a childlike twirl, Ruth allegates a grand declaration to add to the song.
“This day, we join together for new beginnings and to recognize our lives. We also stand to remember those who have taken their lives in this river. The countless who now swim below—the unfortunate who couldn’t escape such a tragic fate.”
My stomach sinks and practically implodes. Why. Why did she have to bring that up all the sudden? I mean, I know it’s a constant reminder since it’s here—but why here and now?
Janet growls under her breath.
The others fall dead silent—punched dead by the sudden dark aura.
“I didn’t taste that in the water,” Sabrina comments, her ebony face overcome by nausea.
“What’s going on?” Jackson wonders, her face and body shaking back and forth to find a confident face. “What’s she talking about?” she demands.
It’s easy to assume that, like our group, every four out of six recognize the horrors of this river and have experienced them firsthand. The Red River is hardly a folktale.
“How could she bring that up now? This is supposed to be a celebration about you,” Janet fumes. Stomping up and tossing her cup aside, she huffs a puff of smoke from her nose and glares at me, instigating a challenge. “I guess this is going to be a funeral contest, huh?”
I say nothing—but I follow her.
It’s understandable that Ruth would have bad feelings here, and maybe she’s remembering what happened to her sister, Stephanie. But why now? I may not be one for social gatherings—but turning this time into a memorial? Couldn’t she have chosen another time?
Sure enough, Ruth’s attached to the metal railing, her eyes drowning in the depths of the water below. With all muscles relaxed, she has such a surreal smile on her face—like she’s achieved some sense of peace and understanding beyond the comprehension of this earthly realm.
“What’s the big idea?!” Janet shouts under her breath. “Can’t you see this isn’t the time for us to fight over who has the most miserable life?”
“That’s not what I’m doing at all,” Ruth returns, both fully and emptily emotional—like a word processor trying to form human speech.
“This isn’t the time for that!” Janet commands sympathetically. “This river’s ruined all of us! Not just you! If it’s around that time again, then just let it wait. We’ll be all gone soon.”
“Of course we will.”
A shiver runs down all of our backs as she delivers those words with steely eyes and her arms spread wide. The relaxation on her face doesn’t waver, but now her tranquil posture unnaturally contrasts the dead and cold look in her eyes.
The other girls walk cautiously behind us, trying to mask their footsteps.
Janet takes a big gulp and reaffirms her question. “What’s going on here, Ruth?” As much as she tries to hide it, her voice quivers when forming the query.
A creepily fake-genuine smile covers her face, destroying her freckles one-by-one. “I’m sorry. That’s not my name anymore,” she conveys robotically. “I was given another. One that I must avenge for.”
Without any fear at all, she steps up the four-foot metal railing backwards like it was nothing.
“Don’t tell me—” Janet and I speak breathlessly at the same time, and we all think it quietly in our choked throats.
“I’m Stephanie now.”
And, with that, she kicks away her footing and takes the eternal plunge. No sooner does the air fly around her does the water snatch her, kidnapping her as its own. Frantically, we all scream, shout, reach out—anything to try to take back what just happened. Sabrina breaks down and cries while Amy and the others chase Ruth’s frail body down the river, following the boardwalk’s stone path as far as it goes and leaping over the stairs.
“That idiot!” Janet yells out, joining the others’ trek, as well.
What just happened? Is that what she really thought living as her sister meant? She really wanted to avenge her, didn’t she? She really wanted it to be her instead.
“Look! She’s floating!” Amy screams out, her usual calm voice now bordering that of a screeching raccoon protecting its territory.
“But how can it be?! Is she breathing?”
No one who’s ever fallen has ever survived. The drop to the water and the water’s depth is just-so that those who are thin get knocked out by the impact, water immediately flowing through them like a ruthless, possessive spirit. And those that are heavier break through the water and hit the bottom, breaking their legs, the pain too unbearable for them to surface, as they slowly drown in suffering.
“Ruth!! Are you OK?!” Amy screams out desperately—but there’s no response except for the waterfall’s roar far behind us and the quaint lapping of the river that reaches out to sea.
Without any explanation or any idea of what to do or say, we just watch her as she drifts slowly away. The path leading to the sun, the water like liquid sunlight. Farther and farther until she becomes light.
But we’re all left in the dark.
Soft sniffles break out among us, and the girls cover their faces, putting themselves in their own worlds far apart from us and this foul place.
“Janet, are you OK?” I ask, being brave enough to speak first for once.
“Why did she do that? Isn’t it obvious that that’s only making this all worse?!” She lets go of a sigh and pushes everything aside. Her face is stricken with all shades of red; a disharmonious painting. “Whatever. Let’s get back to you, OK?” Though her words are brash, her eyes flow with hidden suffering, and she deftly wipes some tears away.
“I’m not worth it. Look what’s just happened,” I beg softly.
“We can’t let others’ decisions keep us from living our lives. I want to see what your new name will be. Not that it’ll make any difference to me. I mean, you’ll always be Clare to me.”
Hand-in-hand, Janet and I return slowly to the park bench. The others, to our surprise, follow behind us very lazily, reflecting on what possibly just transpired.
It’s obvious we never thought this would happen. This name-changing business has never brought anything good, it seems. No wonder Janet doesn’t believe in it. She just wants to be known by the name we know her as—the one she told me when I first met her or the one she will be if she meets someone new.
Still with tears in their eyes, the other girls gather around Janet and me, only half-curious about my new assignment.
Every now and then, a fortune cookie comes in the mail—a symbol of the fate we’ll now have to take and the burden that will affect our lives. Inside the tasteless cookie is a slip of paper with a name—a familiar name once borne of an ancestor that we’ll have to follow as we see fit. I can only imagine what’s in this small package—what’s in this crumbly cookie. A painful existence that will change all my days starting now until some undetermined time.
The transparent plastic package ruffles away. The cookie breaks to dust. I haul in a deep breath. What now?
The cream slip of paper no bigger than my pinkie finger reads my fate plainly in obvious letters.
My whole body shakes. No. It can’t be.
“Oh, that’s good. It’s just your middle name,” Janet sighs and pats my shoulder. “That ought to be fine, right?” she comments.
As I continue to tremor, concern arrests her. “Clare? What’s wrong?”
It’s the name of my brother who went missing four years ago.