“How far into Massachusetts do you think we are?” Ken asked, slowing his kayak downto glide beside Tim.
“Afew miles at least. Maybe even five,” Tim answered. The two of them kept asteady, leisurely pace as they moved along with the current of the Nashua River. Along either side of them, where the river narrowed, the banks seemed tohave grown higher, but Ken knew it was only a trick of the eye. The summer hadbeen dry with near-drought conditions. News reports, which Ken usually disregarded as alarmist, proclaimed that the dry spell would continue, andsomething in his gut told him the meteorologists were right.
Asthe two men kept to the river’s center, wary of trees and snags lurking belowthe water’s deceptively calm surface, birds and squirrels called out from thetrees along the banks.
“Do you want to pull up soon?” Tim asked. “Figure out how far we are from Cross?”
“That sounds good,” Ken said, scanning the banks for a good spot. “What time are we supposed to meet your cousin again?”
“Eleven,” Tim answered. “She said to just give her a call, and she’d pick us up.”
“Cool,” Ken said, watching the landscape slipping past. The current was fast but not unmanageable. He and Tim were old hands at kayaking, and they had navigated through worse conditions. Ken kept his eyes open for a grassy spot to pull up, but reeds and deadfall choked the banks, and he didn’t want a rough landing.
“River’s pretty quiet for a Saturday,” Tim said.
“It’s colder than hell out here,” Ken complained, glancing over at his friend.
“Not that bad,” Tim said with a grin. “You’re out here.”
“True,” Ken agreed. “But soccer season’s started, too.”
“I keep forgetting,” Tim said in an apologetic tone. “Both girls playing this year?”
“Yup,” Ken answered. “Brenda moved up to the under 14 league, but Sam’s still in under 12.”
“Do they have games today?” Tim asked.
“Yeah,” Ken said. “The ex is there this weekend. We’re splitting the games now.”
“Still tough?” Tim asked, and the tone of his voice told Ken that the man already suspected the answer.
Ken gave a short nod and asked, “How are you and Melissa?”
Tim shrugged. “I think it’s almost done. She’s getting a little psychotic.”
“How so?” Ken asked, glancing at his friend.
“Little things. I’ll tell you more later. I think I found our spot,” he said, pointing with his paddle.
Ken looked and saw a narrow path through the tall reeds. The path of slower water ran along to the bank where it widened into a stream, curled around a turn and vanished into the tree line.
“What do you think?” Tim asked.
“I think it looks alright,” Ken answered with a grin. Dipping his oar into the water, Ken guided the kayak into the opening. Tim dropped into place behind him, the two of them moving cautiously forward. As they neared the mouth of the stream Ken felt a slight current, and he smiled, pushing the oar a little deeper into the water.
The stream wound its way lazily into a forest, young trees growing on the banks, their branches stiffening with the chill of autumn in the air. Ken eyed the leaves appreciatively, enjoying their varied colors and the way the wind scattered a few of them upon the surface of the water. As Ken and Tim continued on some of the leaves caught along the edges of the banks while the remainder made their way towards the river.
Ken steered the kayak around a large branch and hooked to the left, where the young trees suddenly gave way to ancient oaks and elms. Giant weeping willows clung to the banks, their long branches swaying with the breeze and rasping against a chain-link fence that crossed from bank to bank and vanished into the depths of the forest on either side of the stream. A large, rusting ‘No Trespassing’ sign was secured to the fence above the stream, and the clearance for Ken to get under the fence without rolling the kayak was slim.
He came to a stop and Tim nudged up beside him.
“What do you think?” Ken asked.
“Hold on,” Tim answered. He set his oar across his kayak, unzipped a pocket on his jacket and took a plastic bag with his phone in it out. Within a moment he pulled up his GPS.
“Well,” Tim said, “if we go about two hundred meters in and get out of the water, then it’s only a quarter mile to Blackfoot Road. I’m pretty sure that Anne can pick us up there.”
“Sounds good to me,” Ken said.
“Okay,” Tim said. He secured his phone and took up his oar again. “Lead the way, my friend.”
Ken nodded and allowed the kayak to slide towards the fence. He kept to the left bank, where the chain-link was a little higher, and he bent low over the kayak, pulling himself ahead with careful strokes. Once he was clear, he maneuvered ahead to give Tim room to follow.
With the fence separating them from the Nashua River, Ken felt strange. The forest around them sounded and felt different as if they had slipped into an older, richer time.
“This place is great,” Tim whispered after a minute.
Ken smiled and nodded. Taking a deep breath, he sighed and said, “So, two hundred meters?”
“What?” Tim asked. “Oh, yeah. Yes, two hundred.”
“Okay,” Ken said.
The stream widened and soon they were traveling along it side by side with several feet between them. Before they hit the two hundred meter mark, the stream took a sharp turn to the right and opened into a large pool dominated by a weeping willow. Shadows covered most of the surface, the sounds of fish hunting water-bugs loud in the stillness. Close by a turtle dropped noisily into the water as Ken and Tim steered the kayaks to a sandy patch of bank several feet beyond the weeping willow.
“Wow,” Tim said as they climbed out of the kayaks, hauling them up onto the sand.
“I know,” Ken said, looking around. “We need to remember this. It would be a great place to camp.”
Tim nodded in agreement.
“Want to,” Ken began, but a whimper cut him off.
Ken glanced at Tim, who shook his head.
The whimper came again, followed by a splash.
Ken turned, trying to pinpoint the sound.
Another splash rang out, followed by a deep, sorrowful moan.
“I think it came from near the tree,” Tim whispered.
Ken nodded and crept along the bank towards the willow. The splashing took on an odd rhythm while the voice settled into a melodic, plaintive cry. When he reached the willow, Ken pushed through the curtain of leaves and whip-like branches. The pool widened around a cluster of water-worn boulders, and Ken’s breath caught in his throat as Tim came through the willow’s veil behind him.
Standing waist deep in the water was a pale woman. Her back was too thin, and she wore a faded gray dress that was shapeless, torn and ragged. Thin, wispy white hair hung in wet clumps to her back while stick-thin arms slammed something wet and limp against one of the boulders. The steady cry came from her, the lament pushing itself deep into Ken’s chest.
Tim let out a low curse, and the woman heard him.
She twisted around to face them, her face sunken and her eyes a pale, milky white. What little color could be seen resided in her teeth, and they were coated with a film of green the color of algae. The woman’s mouth hung slack, the cry easing out like air from a tattered bellows. She held her arms out in front of her, a soaked jacket clutched in each narrow hand.
“My God,” Tim hissed, “are those ours?”
Ken looked hard at the blue jacket in the woman’s left hand and saw a tear. A small, inch-long tear he had put in his Northface jacket when they’d taken the kayaks off his SUV earlier in the morning. Ken glanced down, felt his stomach drop and twist into a terrified knot, and saw that he was still wearing the jacket, the tear glaringly apparent on the left arm.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Ken whispered as bile rose to the back of his throat. Without taking his eyes off the woman, he said, “We need to get out of here.”
Tim nodded, and the two of withdrew while the woman turned back to the rocks, her cries rising in volume with each slap of the wet fabric against the stones. Passing through the willow’s branches, Ken and Tim raced back to the kayaks. The horrific noises of the woman were a brutal reminder that they had witnessed something innately wrong.
In silence the two men climbed into their kayaks, pushing off and launched themselves along with the current back towards the river. As they rounded the sharp turn which had led them into the pool, a loud crack rang out, and Ken snapped his head up in time to see a great oak crash towards them.
The tree smashed into both kayaks simultaneously, driving them under water and into the soft, sandy bed of the stream. Ken found himself trapped, holding his breath as he tried to work his legs free. His face was a few inches below the water’s surface, and he could reach his wet hands up into the crisp autumn air to claw at the bark of the tree.
Growing frantic, Ken looked around for Tim.
His friend sat limply in his kayak, head and hair moving gracefully with the current. Blackness edged Ken’s vision, and his lungs screamed for air. He looked to the left for something to grasp and then screamed out the last of his air into the cold water as the woman from the pool settled down on the streambed beside him.
With an expression of great sympathy, she watched him take in great gulps of water, her long-fingered hands gently brushed the hair out of his eyes, and she waited for him to drown.
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