They say he drowned there around fifty years ago, and they say sometimes he comes back to the surface in search of companionship. They say so because they’ve seen it, and they’d be willing to swear on the good book that it was true. And for the last fifty years, kids kept disappearing, gone for days, and suddenly turning up dead in the river, looking like they’d been dead for weeks. Every time one body turned up, another kid seemed to go missing.
That’s what they say, anyway. And they blame it all on the Riverboy.
When I was eight years old, I was unusually brave for someone who was terrified of everything. I was a regular oxymoron, the bold coward, the pathetic hero. So it was natural that I would be afraid of being drowned by the Riverboy, but intrigued by the legend surrounding him. Mom always told me to stay away from the river, but it was a good place to play. During the day, there seemed nothing wrong with it. It moved too fast for skipping stones and too slow for makeshift rafts to be any fun. There used to be a swinging rope, but some grown ups complained it was dangerous and the parents of victims sobbed at the sight of it, so they had it taken down.
I never swam in the river, anyway, so that didn’t bother me much.
Kevin Pearsley and I used to play there. Sometimes we tried fishing. We never caught anything. Other times a police officer would come by to make sure we were okay, and we were always fine. Usually he asked us to go home anyway, or go to the park across the street because it was safer.
But the river was so much fun. There was something about it that made us want to go there. Maybe it was the way the waters sang, whispering over the rocks. Maybe it was the way it rippled in shapes unlike any other body of water I had ever seen. It was like another language. It was like art.
Once I thought it spelled out my name. There, in the shapes and curves of the waves, I saw it; “Bridget.” I asked Kevin if he noticed, but he didn’t. He never really saw what I saw. It said his name once, too.
It was June. I overheard Mom tell Dad another body turned up. Gracie Maydale this time. She was older than me by two years, so I never really knew her. Mom talked about moving. They had listed the house months ago, but I guess nobody wanted to move here. Dad said it was just the economy, whatever that meant. I thought it was the Riverboy’s fault.
Three days following Gracie’s death, I realized Kevin hadn’t called or come by or anything. He didn’t live very far, so I walked to his house and knocked on his big red door. His parents didn’t answer it, so I walked home.
“Mom?” I asked. “Have you talked to Mrs. Pearsley lately?”
“Oh, honey,” my mom replied in the voice she always used when there was bad news. I had heard it twice before; once, when she told me my guinea pig “ran away,” and again when she told me one of my old relatives that I never really knew had died. But this was different. This wasn’t a pet or a distant relative. This was Kevin. This was my best friend.
She told me he went missing three days ago. The same night Gracie’s body was found. How come they found Gracie, but not Kevin? Where had he gone?
There was only one place missing kids in my town were ever found.
The Riverboy’s river.
I waited for my parents to fall asleep, and even though I was more frightened than I had ever been, I found the bravery to run to the river in the black of night.
The streetlamps were dim, but they were enough. I flew past them, my sandaled feet hitting cold pavement. The farther I ran, the harder it was to make my legs move, like little weights jumped on with each passing yard. But I didn’t stop for anything.
When I reached the river, I stopped at the edge on a dime. The waters roared around me.
“Kevin!” I shrieked, cupping my hands around my mouth. The rushing water still drowned my voice. “KEVIN!” I tried again. “KEVIN PEARSLEY! You aren’t funny! Come out! Kevin!”
I heard a voice.
My best friend’s voice.
“Bridget?” he said.
It was so quiet, I thought it was impossible that I had heard it over the water. Yet it reached my ears clear as day, as if I had thought it myself, right there in my own head.
And then I saw him. Tiny Kevin Pearsley, standing stock-still in the middle of a rushing river. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he didn’t feel the water at all. And he was coming closer, hands outstretched, fighting the current effortlessly. His skin looked blue in the light of the moon, reflecting off the water.
“Kevin! What are you doing in there?”
“Bridget, it’s cold.”
“Where have you been for three days, you big dummy?” I cried.
“It’s cold,” he said again. His voice was monotone, and his eyes were dull, his face was expressionless. “It’s cold. Help me.”
He reached out his hand. I hesitated.
One more word, flat, emotionless. I didn’t even see his blue lips move. “Help.”
I reached down and grabbed his hands. It was like grabbing ice; he slipped, and he froze, and I shivered. I felt him come up out of the water, and for a moment I felt a sense of total victory. My heart rejoiced. I smiled.
But then I fell in. The water crashed around me, numbing my skin, filling my ears, my eyes, my lungs.
I watched Kevin float to the surface, drifting away from me, but as I sank deeper, I still felt icy hands gripping mine.
Kevin Pearsley’s body was found on the riverbank the next morning. Bridget Allan’s was gone.
I was Bridget Allan once.
I’m the Riverboy now. It was Kevin Pearsley before me. Gracie Maydale. Countless others. Like good children at the playground, we take turns. We share. We wait.
I’m still waiting.