Esther and the River by Brynn MacDougall
Esther crouched down by the edge of the river bank, a blanket of red and orange leaves surrounded her. The leaves were soft and reminded her of home. Perhaps Allentown wasn’t too different from home after all.
The river water looked like glass, smooth, bright, and clear. Esther stuck her pointer finger in. The water’s coolness soothed her, each droplet embracing her finger for a moment before moving on.
“River,” she said. “I’ve got a problem. I’m new here. I don’t know anyone. I won’t have any friends in my classes and I’ll probably eat lunch alone. What if I get bullied for being gay or jewish?”
The river gurgled, the water continued to flow. Esther imagined that she could see her problems being carried away. “Thank you river.”
Esther ran back to the river the next day as soon as school ended, sending the crispy leaves at her feet flying. “River! River! You’ll never guess what happened!” She didn’t hesitate to plop down at the edge of the river bank. “I made some awesome friends at school today! Their names are Amanda and Ace! Amanda is bi and super pretty, she was wearing the cutest dress-” Esther paused and forced herself to breathe before continuing her word train. “She’s into WWE and zodiac stuff. She showed me one of the horoscopes she made in class! And Ace-she’s a muslim and she likes girls too! She’s super cool too! She has a pet bird and a pet frog. We have the same math and lunch periods so I didn’t have to eat alone! Thank you so much river! I feel like I owe part of this to you, because you listened to me talk and carried away my problems.”
The river gurgled in response, water slapping gently against the edges of the bank. Esther could almost believe it was applauding her for doing so well at school. “Thank you so much river.” She jumped up, knocking a handful of tiny leaves into the water. They floated downstream, just like Esther had imagined her problems did. “I’m gonna go call Riley and tell her too! I’ll be back tomorrow!”
Esther flew into the kitchen and snatched the phone. She punched Riley’s number in, expecting to hear the dial tone. Instead, she heard nothing. An hour later, her mother came home. “Looks like it’s broken,” she commented. “We’ll have to get a new one this weekend.”
Esther did not go to the river the next two days. When she returned, the river was no longer smooth, bright, or clear, but rather choppy, dull, and clouded with mud. It looked more like a liquid tree than a river. Esther knelt down at the edge of the river bank. “River? What’s wrong?”
The water kicked against the river bank.
It continued to thrash. Esther scooted back, just a bit. She didn’t want to get her new shirt dirty. “River is this because I didn’t visit you yesterday? And the day before? I’m sorry. I was busy with homework and my mom wanted me to visit the synagogue.”
The waters calmed a bit, the kicking and thrashing subsided to something more akin to a child squirming. “I’ll come visit you everyday from now on. Promise.”
Everyday for the next month, Esther made time to sit by the river. The water slowly returned to the glass-like state from the first day they met. It’s gentle gurgle became a constant in her life.
“River, do you remember how I said I thought Amanda might have feelings for me? She does! She does! I’ve got a girlfriend now! We’ve got a date next Saturday. Isn’t that exciting?”
It could’ve been her imagination, or was the river’s gurgle less enthusiastic than usual? It was almost like there was an angry dog hidden somewhere. “Well, I’ve got to go now. Mom wants me to help her organize the synagogue’s blood drive for tomorrow.” She stood up and brushed the leaves off her butt. “I-uh-might not be able to make it tomorrow. Because of the blood drive. And the date next week-I might not be able to make it then. That’s-It’ll be okay, right?”
The river went still and Esther didn’t sleep at all that night. She refused to turn her lights out when her mom came upstairs to check on her. The next morning, she tried to get in the car with her mom. “The blood drive. I want to go to the blood drive. I want to help people who need my blood,” she insisted. “I won’t pass out. I promise.”
Her mom’s frown carved itself into her face. “You didn’t sleep at all last night. You should stay home.”
“Mom!” Esther whined. “I’ll be fine!”
In the end, Esther was confined to her bedroom with the order to rest up. She waited a few minutes after her mom left to get up and check all the locks on the doors and windows. She avoided looking at the kitchen sink. She didn’t want to think about how the river had become visibly agitated when she didn’t visit it back in September.
Why was she getting so worked up? It was just a river. It couldn’t hurt her.
Around 2:30 Esther went downstairs to make herself lunch. Pasta would be nice. She bent down and removed a pot from the cabinet underneath the counter. She turned the sink faucet on, expecting to see the tap water pour into the pot.
Instead, a hand made of water squirmed at the faucet’s mouth. First, the thumb popped out. Then the pointer finger, followed by the middle finger, and the ring finger, and finally the pinkie finger. Bit by bit, the other body parts emerged. Esther stood still. She couldn’t move, it was as if something was holding her in place-there was something holding her! Without her noticing, the first hand that had come from the sink faucet and attached itself to her leg. For something with no bones or muscles, it was surprisingly strong.
“You,” the river spoke. It’s voice sounded like the absolute opposite of what Esther had imagined, it was made of broken glass and sharpened blades. “Why…didn’t…you…come..today?” Every syllable cut Esther to her core.
“I told you, the blood drive is today.”
Esther took a step back. “I-I didn’t sleep well last night, so my mom wouldn’t let me go.”
Another step backwards. “Please don’t. I swear I’ll be there tomorrow,” Esther protested. Her voice sounded wrong. It took a moment to realize she was crying. “Please.”
“TEEN GIRL FOUND DEAD IN RIVER” was slapped on the front page of the local newspaper the next morning. It had taken Esther’s mother all night to find her daughter’s body. The moment she saw her daughter’s brown hair floating in the crystal clear water, she’d wanted to drown herself as well.
Now she was contacting all of her relatives, asking if they could come sit shiva with her.