The River1

Author notes: title and story basis are from the song "The River" by Missy Higgins, and also the song "Katie" by Missy Higgins.2

The wind met her head on, harsh, relentless, so cold that after a few minutes, Katie could no longer feel her face, was barely aware of the tears the icy force of it produced, seeping out the corner of her eyes. It tore through her long straight hair, sending it into a tangled disarray about her face so that between her hair and the darkness about her, she could barely see where she was going. Its blustering pressure easily went through the thin cotton of her short nightgown, plastering the material to her chest and winding it about her legs, making it difficult for her to run without tripping. Still Katie ran, pumping her arms, lowering her head as she strained in face of the powerful March air, her heart thudding, her breath emerging in uneven gasps. She had to get away, she had to leave, she had to…3

Her shoulder throbbed, its aching pain unaided by the rapid face with which she thrust her arms forward as she ran, by the steady blows the wind forced against it. Katie set her face grimly, determined to ignore it, at least until she got there. It wouldn't be much further. Just a little bit longer…and then she could rest, then she would be safe. She would lay down, she would look at her shoulder, and she would not be afraid, she would not be angry, she would not cry. She didn't realize that unbeknownst to her, the weather had already worked against her, forcing the tears she had long ago learned would get her nowhere, solve nothing. At ten years old, Katie already had a clear picture of just how much control she had over things in her life, and unfortunately, she had come to the conclusion that the answer was not very much.4

She tried, even as she ran, not to think about the dampness of the material of her nightgown at the shoulder, chest, and sleeve, tried not to feel it sticking to her, wetting the skin, made even colder and more sticky with the wind's persistence against it. She tried not to smell the strong odor the alcohol had tainted her clothing- tainted HER- with, tried to distract herself from her nearly irresistible urge to rip the nightgown off, to fling it as far away from her as possible, so no part of the horrible liquid touched her any longer. Instead Katie focused on the wind, on the racing of her heart, the stagger of her breaths, the slapping of her bare feet on the ground as she ran. She focused on the slight pain of her soles as she tread over rocks and sticks, leaves and rough soil, and felt the resulting pain as slightly removed from herself, even as she tried to concentrate on its source. 5

Almost there…almost…there…6

Her heart lurched, her stomach flipping with sickening relief as she saw it in the distance, its darkly shimmering surface, heard the quiet, soothing flow of its contents. The river…she had found it, even in the dark, even by herself, even though it was just over a mile from her mother's trailer. Katie had thought in a split second decision as she stumbled out the front door that she could find it, that she would go there, that it was the only place on earth she wanted to be right then, and she had been right.7

Reaching the river's edge, several feet away from the water's start, Katie let herself sink down on the bank's grassy surface, flopping onto her back, letting her limbs loll lifelessly as she struggled to calm her breathing, to let her heart slow its beats. Her stomach churning, she stared up at the sky, the scattering of stars blurring before her eyes so that it seemed to her that there were twice as many present as the already large number actually there. She found herself subconsciously pressing her body against the ground attempting to shy away from the sodden areas of nightgown that touched her skin, but of course the material moved with her; Katie was unable to escape it. Now that she was lying still she could more vividly feel her shoulder's aching, and it was difficult for her to ignore. Her lack of movement and focus had served her well in suppressing her thoughts, her feelings, whether physical or emotional, and Katie found herself struggling now, her thoughts scattering as the images flashed once again through her mind, replaying the earlier events of the night.8

She had heard him yelling at her mother as she lay in bed in her small, cramped room, her fingers wrapped tightly around her blankets, holding them to just under her chin. Katie never was able to block out the sound of their fighting. She didn't want to be able to block it out. If she didn't hear, if she just went to sleep, how would she know that her mother was okay? How would she know that Wilson hadn't hurt her again, that he wasn't still angry?9

He had only lived with them for one week and already Katie had come to learn that every time she went to sleep, she would be awakened by the volume of his voice, by the list of shortcomings and slurred accusations he had for her mother. She wished sometimes that she could hide the bottles that always seemed to proceed his railing, that she could pour them down the drain and then break them, one by one, deriving vicious satisfaction with each one smashed into unusable fragments. She wished even more strongly that Wilson would leave, that one day he would get so mad he just wouldn't come back…or better yet, that her mother would ask him to go.10

But she wouldn't. Katie had learned over the past two years that she wouldn't, she never would. No matter how horrible the men were, no matter how mean and loud and gross, or how they treated her or Katie, she never would. Her aunt Rosie had told her one time that her mother was one of those who needed a man, even if he wasn't much of a man at all, and Katie believed it. But why couldn't she at least try a little harder to find a good man? Why couldn't she find a man like Katie's father?11

*12

Katie hadn't moved when she heard a door slam, when she felt the floor shake slightly with the impact of Wilson's stomping feet on their thin floors. She had remained still, eyes open wide, fingers tightening around her blanket, heart hammering in her chest rapidly as she heard the sound of shattering glass. But when Wilson's voice raised, his swears penetrating her ears in sharp bursts of harsh rage, and she heard a loud crashing sound, her mother's cry of pain, she couldn't stay still and silent any longer. He could be hurting her mother… he could really be hurting her, he could be-13

Unwilling to finish the darker thought forming, Katie scrambled out of bed, hurrying into the small kitchen. Her bare feet slapping the worn carpet of the narrow hall outside her room, she cried out even before she could see what was happening.14

"Stop it, you jerk! Stop hurting my mom!"15

Wilson turned around abruptly, his eyes narrowing; even from across the room Katie could smell the alcohol on his breath. He was standing very close to her mother, in her face, almost, cornering her so that her back was pressed against the cabinet, his body blocking hers from moving away. As Katie stared, fear cramping her stomach, her mother bit her lip, deliberately shifting her eyes away from her, and said nothing. There was a dark mark forming on her cheekbone, and both anger and fear coiled inside Katie, compressing her chest. He had hit her, he had HURT her…16

"Don't you tell me what to do, you little bitch," Wilson snarled, and when Katie flinched, torn between going to her mother, defiantly standing her ground, and running back to her room, Wilson took the sudden movement as an intended rush towards him. 17

His eyes darkening, he picked up the half full bottle from the table and threw it at Katie with great force, the majority of the heavy glass hitting her hard in the shoulder. As alcohol sloshed out of the bottle, wetting her shoulder, chest, and arm, Katie cried out in shock and pain, staggering back. As her eyes flew to meet her mother's, hoping for sympathy, reassurance- hoping for anger, motherly protection at seeing her hurt- her mother looked back with no expression in her gaze before slowly turning her eyes away from her again.18

This had been more than Katie could bear, and without any conscious thought on her part she turned and ran, opening the back door of the trailer's hallway and stepping out onto the small stairway leading down to the outside ground. Her heart twisting, eyes stinging hotly, she had begun to run, not knowing where she was going, lead only by the blind instinct of her need to escape.19

Of course she had come here… even though she had not known at first that the river was where she was heading, it all made sense to Katie now. This was where she had needed to go.20

Lying on the bank, Katie listened to the constant, soothing sound of the water nearby as her breathing slowed, her heartbeat calmed, and the pain in her stomach, feet, and shoulders began to lessen. The heavy gusts of wind from before had mostly subsided, and she began to shiver as the feeling returned to her face, fingers, and toes, the bitter night air settling in her skin. Turning her face to the side, she eyed the river, knowing that its waters would be colder still. It didn't matter to her; a part of her longed to feel the near pain the icy water would bring her, the certainty that it would purge the lingering smell of Wilson's gin from her clothing, her skin…and maybe in the process, the events of the night from her heart.21

Katie stood slowly, making her way to the water's edge, the damp grass and sand sticking to her chilled toes. For a moment she stood shivering, regarding the dark waters before her solemnly. Then, with one sudden gesture, nightgown and all, she plunged in.22

The cold shocked her so that she gasped aloud, at first unable to take a breath. It was worse than the wind, worse than any cold she had ever known, and Katie shook, her limbs flailing, at first unable to move with any degree of coordination. Finally she simply ducked herself fully underwater, in hopes that by submerging herself she would more quickly grow accustomed to its cold.23

It turned out that she was right. As Katie let herself sink to the river's rocky bottom, wrapping her arms tightly around her knees to keep from floating back to surface, she felt the cold lose its sharp edge, her heartbeat slowing down. As the faint noise of the rushing water over her heard surrounded her, Katie found that she no longer heard the echoes of the slamming doors, breaking glass, Wilson's yells reverberating through her ears… and slowly she opened her eyes, her posture relaxing. 24

She saw nothing, of course. The water was too dark for that. She kept her eyes open nonetheless, still hugging her knees to her chest as she held her breath, calm settling over her. She was always at peace at a river…at this river.25

She remembered when her father would take her fishing here, how he had showed her how to bait the hook, laughing at her when she squirmed away from the wiggling worm. She remembered his hands on hers as he showed her how to cast, his proud smile when she reeled one in for the first time. She remembered him teaching her to swim here when she was very small, his hands on her waist, holding her up, keeping her from sinking down. 26

"I won't' let you go," he had promised her, "not until you're ready."27

But he had let her go, two years before…and Katie hadn't been ready. She still wasn't. And he couldn't stand nearby to catch her anymore when she started to sink. 28

Her chest began to burn, pressuring her with her need to come up for air, to swim up to the surface, and for a moment Katie began to unwind her arms from her legs, to let herself be able to do so. But a thought came to her then, and she stayed still as its dark possibility slowly settled into her mind.29

What if she didn't come up for air…what if she never came up at all?30

Her mind held this idea slowly, cautiously exploring, cradling it as a new chance, an undiscovered option. She could stay here…she didn't have to go home. She didn't have to go anywhere. She didn't have to do anything…she could just stay here, and everything would stop. It would just be her, just the quiet rush of the water, the calm darkness around her. No more hurt, no more pain, just this…just this…31

She didn't have to try, if she didn't' want to. She could give up…she could just give up, give in. Like her father. Like her mother.32

She could just give in.33

For several moments Katie remained, her chest so tight it hurt, pain exploding through her lungs so that she could no longer stand to hold her breath, so that she feared she would burst. Any longer and she would have to open her mouth…any longer and she would be breathing in water, taking it into her lungs. Any longer, and she would begin to drown.34

Two seconds passed. Three. Four. And then Katie unfolded herself, pushing herself to break the water's surface, breathing in the night air in great, gulping gasps. 35

For several minutes she stood there, allowing the water to flow past her, allowing her thoughts to stumble until they ran down entirely, until she felt and heard nothing at all. And then with slow, heavy movements, her nightgown heavy and sodden, clinging to her form, her hair dripping down her back, Katie began to trudge back to the river's edge.36