Riverflesh

chapter eleven

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I was stumbling across the lawn, my screams fading into breathless gasps, when Jack suddenly appeared on the porch. He stared at me, his expression unreadable. Then he moved quickly. As soon as I blinked, he was off sprinting towards the forest. His lean body moved like lightning; his footsteps thudded vigorously on the sodden ground. I couldn't watch him go. I couldn't even think about what he would find in the woods a few moments from now – Cooper's hacked, woebegone body, the blood still pouring across the rain-flooded earth. I was so terrified of myself – and of what I had done – that I collapsed on the grass. The wetness soaked into my knees, but I didn't care. I could only breath in deep, ragged, gulping breaths, and attempt to push the grisly image of what I had done out of my mind.

Jack returned seconds later and knelt beside me. While I hyperventilated, he placed his hand between my shoulder blades. His touch made me start wailing. "I killed him, Jack. I killed him, I killed him, I killed him, I-"

"I know," Jack said. "I saw the body."

"I didn't mean to do it. You have to believe me. I don't know what happened, I swear I would never do something like that – but I did, I did do it, and I don't know why." My trembling fingers reached up and scrabbled at Jack's shirt. I clung to him like a drowning woman, not knowing what else to do. I felt dizzy. I felt like I was going to puke or pass out. "What did I do?"

"Well, it looks to me like you hacked away at our dear landlord. With an axe."

"I have to turn myself in," I sobbed against his chest.

"You'll do no such thing."

"But…"

"We'll sort this out, kiddo."

"How? How can we possibly sort this out? Tell me, because I don't fucking know. I'm a murderer, Jack."

"So am I. So is Melanie. So is just about everybody who has come into close physical contact with Cooper."

I stared at him, tears seeping from my eyes. "What?"

"Haven't you already realized that touching Cooper is a big no? Doing so only leads to undesirable consequences…like axe murders and such. At least you made his death quick. When Melanie first killed him, she cut off each of his fingers with a pair of scissors and then sliced off strips of his skin using only box cutters – while he was still alive. Grisly, huh? I bet getting killed with an axe was cake compared to the dismemberment Melanie executed."

But I didn't want to listen to anything that he was saying. I started rambling. "I'm a fucking raving lunatic. I'm a psychopath. I deserve to be locked up in an asylum. I deserve to be executed for what I did. I deserve–"

"No. No, no, no. You're a lot of things, but you're no psychopath. Now take a look at Elliot – he's a prime candidate for being psychotic. You? Not so much."

"Somebody say my name?"

We both looked up to see Elliot skipping jauntily across the grass towards us. He was wearing a pair of aviator goggles that was pushed up to the tops of his eyebrows. "Well hello there, you two! Cole? What are you crying about-?" He stopped abruptly when he saw the blood splattered on my clothes. His eyes widened, and I thought he was going to run back inside the house. So you could imagine my surprise when he thrust a victorious fist into the air and said, "Amazing! Simply amazing! I was wondering how long it would take you to do Cooper in. I mean, the two of you been hanging out together lately, so it was only a matter of time. How'd you kill him? Tell me you didn't pull a Melanie and make him suffer. Poor Cooper doesn't deserve something like that again, no sir…"

"Hey Elliot," Jack said. "Can you do me a favor and be anywhere but here right now?"

"Unlikely! Where's Cooper's body? I'll go fetch it and take it to the river."

"Don't even think about it," Jack said sharply, glaring at Elliot. "Get Melanie. She's the only one who can do it."

"But I really want to see what happens when he-"

"Stop. Your blabbing. Go. And get Melanie."

I had no idea what they were talking about. But I could care less. I was done listening to the pair of them, so I scrambled to my feet and staggered inside the house. There was only one thing I could do now. I was going to call the police and confess. And when they arrived and found Cooper's body, I would be held accountable for voluntary manslaughter. I was going to face years in prison – possibly a life sentence. It was chilling to think about, and the very idea of it sent me sobbing into my hands. Jack followed and caught me by the waist just as I was running for the phone. I slammed my fists against his chest and shoulder, battling with all my might to free myself.

"Let go – let go of me!" I bawled.

"Like hell I will. You're not calling the cops, kid."

"I am!" I screamed into his face. "Do you think I'm going to run away? Live with this on my shoulders for the rest of my life? Do you think I can just bury his body in secrecy and hope that I'll get away with it? Hope that he'll just rot away into the dirt and soil and plants and shit, and the police will never find his remains?"

"Well…not exactly."

"Fuck you!"

"Rude. Fuck you, too."

"Get off of me!"

"No. I'm not letting go. So you can stop moving any time now."

I jerked my body around and elbowed him in the gut. The blow didn't even faze him; he simply clamped his hands around me even tighter. I continued to kick and thrash, desperately flailing my limbs as I tried to escape his steel embrace. When he seemed to have had enough with my struggles, he grabbed me by the wrists, swung me around, and pinned me against the wall. "That's it," he snarled at me, all traces of calm washed away. "We're leaving. Before you can do anything reckless."

He gripped my hand and started dragging me across the living room towards the front door. I screamed to Elliot, "Call the police! Listen to me! Call them! Elliot!"

"Sorry, Cole, but I can't," Elliot said, pushing the aviator goggles down over his eyes. His mouth was pressed into a thin line; his voice was heavy with unease.

I lurched down the porch steps as Jack led me outside. I thought I might be able to break away from his grasp and flee; being a dedicated everyday runner, I was certain I could outrun him. But his grip was far too strong. It was vice-like, closing upon my fingers and refusing to loosen up. Escape was probably futile. Realizing this, I lowered my head and allowed myself to be taken to Jack's car.

"Get inside," he ordered.

I glowered at him. He released my hand and pointed to the passenger's seat.

"Get in," he repeated.

With my hand free, I considered running away again. Jack seemed to have read my mind. He warned me, "I'll only chase after you and bring you right back here. Don't be an asshole. Get in the car. Please," he added as a grumpy afterthought.

I did as he said, slamming the door behind me. As I sat there, silently brooding and holding back stinging tears, Elliot appeared at the front door and tossed a bundle of clothing into Jack's waiting arms. Jack clambered into the driver's seat and passed the bundle to me. I recognized my favorite beige sweater and a pair of plain black pants. "For you," he said dully. "Go ahead and change out of those bloody clothes. I'm not looking. I swear. There's nothing I want to see, anyways."

I did as I was told, wanting to get out my current clothes as quickly as possible. They smelled of earth and rain and blood. It was absolutely sickening. Jack kept his head turned to one side, glaring out at the woods as he attempted to give me a small sliver of privacy. When I had dressed myself and finished wrangling with the button on my pants, I gathered up my old clothes and handed them to him. He tossed them into a plastic bag and flung it into the backseat. Then he started up the car and pulled out of the driveway. I couldn't find the words to ask him where we were going. I simply buried my face into my hands, all rationality gone, and cried.

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We seemed to drive for miles. Darkness fell beyond the windows, softening the forest with the solemn presence of night. The road felt endless. The interior of the car felt cold, wintry. My heart felt hollow. Tears cluttered my eyes and spilled down my face as the unforgettable scene of Cooper's death replayed in my mind again and again. The whoosh of the axe as it swung through the air. The sound it had made when I buried it into his flesh, into his skull. The crunch and the crack. The pooling blood. His glossy, unseeing eyes. And then I started remembering all sorts of other things – things that had taken place before the slaughter. The shy, nervous way he had looked at me. The time he had brought me to his secret tree. The way he had asked me to go for a walk with him…All of these recollections burned in my mind, singing everything and anything.

Jack was as quiet as I was. He said nothing as we left the town of Boris behind us. His eyebrows were pulled together in a serious frown, and not once did he feel the need to give me any sort of explanation. I had no idea where we were going; I had no idea what to expect. I just sat still, hugging my knees to my chest and staring out the window.

Soon the rolling green mountains began to transition into suburbs. And after the suburbs, there came a sleek, polished city that glittered in the rainy blue evening. Skyscrapers sliced at the sky, gridded with a multitude of glass and structured with steel. The iconic Space Needle beamed in the midst of the buildings, tallest of them all, and I knew in an instant that Jack had driven us to Seattle. I did not know why he had chosen to take me to the city. Perhaps with more people around us, he figured I would be more inclined to act civil – instead of running around, screaming my head off and scrambling to call the police. It didn't matter where he was going to take me, though. I was going to turn myself in as soon as possible. Murderers like me did not deserve to roam free. We didn't even deserve to live.

I was surprised when Jack pulled in front of a very lavish, expensive-looking hotel. Valets jumped towards us and grandly opened both my door and Jack's. "Good evening," one of them said to me, bowing low as I stepped out on the curb. I noticed Jack sweep inside the back seat, grab the plastic bag full of my bloody clothes, and discreetly enclose it within a black satchel I hadn't noticed before.

"Welcome to the Fairmont Hotel," the valet said to us, smiling.

I tried to smile back. But I just couldn't. I hung my head and had to wipe away tears. The young valet stared at me, not sure what to do. But he was saved from the possibility of comforting me when Jack placed his hand on my back and wheeled me towards the front entrance. Even though I was feeling terrible, I couldn't help but be amazed by the hotel's luxury. The lobby was magnificent, lit by crystal chandeliers and luminous blue globules that gave it a mysterious, watery feel. Fountains whispered with liquid music while aquariums flickered with silvery fish. Ornate steps of white marble ascended to the upper mezzanines to our right, and a sushi bar bustled with rowdy patrons to our left. At first I was amazed by all of this glossy blue grandeur. I had never been somewhere so extravagant. And then I remembered Cooper, and my surroundings turned bleak. Cold and gray and meaningless.

"Take me home," I whimpered to Jack.

"Not yet," Jack replied.

"Why are we here?"

"I had to get you away from Cooper. But I have to admit I didn't really put a lot of thought into our destination. Seattle was just the first place that came to mind. And this hotel just happens to be a place I've stayed at before." I skulked after him, shivering with misery and uncertainty, as he approached the receptionist. The smiling woman beamed at us. But her smile faltered a little when she observed my wet eyes and running nose.

"Hello…how are you two doing tonight?"

"…We're well," Jack said thinly.

"May I have your first and last name so I can look up your reservation?"

"Well, here's the thing. We were hoping to see if you have any vacant rooms for the next three nights."

"I'll check sir, but we might be all booked up…"

While she clicked on her computer, I snagged Jack's arm and whispered to him, "Three nights? What're you playing at?"

"Calm your tits, will you?" he muttered back at me.

"I can't stay in Seattle for three nights!" My voice rose shrilly. The woman's typing halted as she surveyed the two of us.

"You can and you will," Jack murmured quietly in my ear. He turned back to the woman. "Success?"

"Yes, sir. But I'm afraid it's our presidential suite, priced at three thousand a night."

"Whatever works," Jack said in an offhand voice, handing her his credit card. She looked stunned, clearly not expecting this reaction from a man in his early twenties. However, she said nothing and proceeded to swipe the card. Jack folded his arms. Looking haughty, he asked her, "How late is that sushi bar-restaurant-thing open? My friend and I were hoping to grab a quick bite to eat."

"It's open until midnight, sir."

"Excellent."

"May I ask where you two are visiting from?" She was all cheer and chipper now that she was dealing with presidential suite customers.

"Boris," Jack said shortly.

She peered at the name on his credit card. "You wouldn't happen to be the heir to Harper-Wheatley Inc–?"

Jack cut her off. "We'll also be needing toiletries – toothbrushes and such."

"They're already provided with the room, Mr. Harper."

"Good."

By the time she had finished checking us in, I was swaying on my feet. I hated the sound of the fountains; it made me want to scream. It reminded me of the waterfall near our house – reminded me of so many dark, turbulent thoughts I was still struggling against. When Jack was handed back his credit card, he neatly tucked it into his wallet and placed it inside the satchel. Then he took my hand and escorted me up the stairs to the elevator bank. The glass elevator swept us high above the lobby, launching us up almost fifty stories. Our room was on the highest floor. There were only three doors on this level. Jack walked down the glowing hallway to the third one and opened it with his card key.

"Ladies first," he said indifferently.

As soon I entered the suite, I felt close to flying into a rage. I wanted to smash the large glass mirrors fixed into the far wall, smash them until the shatters became mere glittering dust. I wanted to cut up the two white sofas until they were feathers and tatters. I wanted to launch the bottles of champagne off the gleaming table and let them spill their contents all across the tiled marble floor. I wanted to do a lot of things – awful things – but I just stood there and hugged myself tightly. The suite gleamed around me, regal and inviting, but I simply crumpled into the nearest chair and did not get up.

Jack knelt beside me and brushed my hair from my eyes. "Take a shower," he said. "Then meet me downstairs at the sushi restaurant. You don't have to call the police. You don't have to run. Because I'm going to explain everything to you."

"What can you possibly explain?" My sweater muffled my teary voice.

"Oh, I can think of a few things. I have something else I need to tell you, too. Something that's very, very important. Something that will stop all this sniveling you've been doing for the past four hours."

I lifted my head and sniffed. "What, Jack?"

"Cooper's alive," he said simply.

Seeming satisfied by my silent shock and disbelief, he swept to his feet. He started for the door, calling over his shoulder, "Get to showering. Then meet me downstairs. And don't keep me waiting too long, kid."

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A half hour later, I found myself standing in the opulent lobby, beneath an icy light that fell from the crystal chandeliers. Troubled, I approached the sushi bar and scanned the tables for Jack. I found him sitting in the far corner at a private booth, beneath a set of hanging white lanterns and one rippling blue noren curtain. A Japanese hostess smiled and asked if I was meeting someone. When I nodded at Jack, she led me through the length of the restaurant – past the bar where chefs sliced and diced raw fish, past a second liquor bar where a mixture of business men and college students slugged cups of sake – until finally we arrived at the table where Jack sat. The hostess left and I sat down, staring at my companion through weary eyes.

"Well, you certainly look nice for a change," Jack said. When I said nothing, he continued, "I think it's because you've stopped all that crying. I can't stand crying. I'm still wondering how I managed to put up with you during the drive here. Although…I have to say, I'm glad you stopped. It wasn't a pleasant sight, you know. You crying. I didn't like it. Yeah."

"Can you blame me?" I asked him. "I killed-"

"I know who you killed. But what you need to know is that he isn't dead."

Our server appeared quite suddenly. We stopped talking. "Konbonwa," she greeted us. "What can I get for you tonight?" I noticed her eyeing Jack a little suggestively. I didn't blame her. Jack was a good-looking guy with dark hair and light eyes. Even though he was constantly grumpy, his brooding look only added to his physical appearance.

I hadn't even glanced at the menu. But Jack was quick. "One order each of your kappa, unagi, spicy tuna, and spider maki rolls," he said. "I would also like to order tamago, maguro, and ebi sashimi. And two pieces of inari. And a seaweed salad with a side of steamed rice. And an order of your vegetable tempura. I'm forgetting something….Oh yeah. A cup of sake, please."

The waitress and I stared at him and he said defensively, "What? I'm hungry."

"And for you?" the waitress asked me, after she had scribbled down Jack's lengthy order.

"Just a cup of miso soup and an avocado roll, please."

"All right, sounds good, you two. Enjoy your evening."

She drifted away, the light from lanterns sliding across her water-blue kimono.

I turned to Jack. He was watching me with amusement.

"I'm surprised you haven't realized what's going on right now," he said. "You're usually a lot sharper."

"I've realized a little. While I was taking a shower, my head felt clearer. And I remembered what Jonathan Watkins told me earlier at the bakery. He seemed to think that there was something, something about Cooper that made people want to kill him…"

"You're getting warmer."

"So it's true?"

"It is."

"But you seem to think that he's still alive," I surmised.

"He'll be alive by this time tomorrow," Jack said, nodding his head. "It usually takes about a day."

"A day for what? To live again?"

"Certainly."

My head was reeling. "Can we just start at the beginning? Tell me everything."

"I'll explain," Jack said simply. "But just so you know, we have a long, long evening ahead of us." He folded his fingers in his lap and stared straight at me. "When you first arrived at our house, Melanie probably briefed you on its history, am I right? Can you remember what she said? I know it was months ago. But just try and think."

"She didn't really say much. She said the house had been remodeled…and that it was built in the early 20s by…" I shook my head.

"Egon Wishaw. Cooper's father."

"Father? But that's impossible. Cooper couldn't have been born in that time frame."

"That's where you're wrong, kid."

"I don't think so."

"Cooper was born in 1922."

"No."

"No?" Jack smiled at me, clearly amused. "What's with the 'no,' Cole? Am I wrong? You think you know more about this than I do?"

I frowned at him and gave my head a grudging shake.

"Good," he said smoothly. "Now pay attention. And don't interrupt. Cooper was born in the year 1922. That's right. Nineteen-twenty-two. Growing up, he had always been a quiet sort of person. He had been more interested in nature and things than other people. He was an average boy – not strong, not ugly, not especially noticeable. He rarely spoke – not because he was incompetent, as many people thought – but because he really had nothing to say. His mother died from a terrible disease when he was twelve, and after that, he grew even quieter – more independent, too. He started working on a local strawberry farm, harvesting ripe summer strawberries and what not. He was always working, always toiling. But when he wasn't, he would spend his leisurely time at the river. Swimming, fishing, sunbathing – it didn't matter. He was always there.

"Egon and Cooper Wishaw heard the news on December 7th, 1941. Better known by FDR as 'a day that will live in infamy.' At that time his father was too old to go to war, but Cooper definitely wasn't. He was drafted at the age of nineteen and sent to Ford Ord, California where he was to be trained as a marine rifleman. He was scared and not particularly confident in himself – all he wanted to do was go home. But of course that wasn't going to happen. I mean, this was war, for god sakes. Not just a war, but a world war sequel. Anyway, a few months passed and he was placed into a marine regiment. He never made friends with the other men in his battalion. They always regarded his skinny frame with critical eyes and wondered how someone like him would be able to handle himself on the battleground.

"But regardless of what they thought, he was still an exceptional swimmer. He excelled in landing maneuvers and basic underwater training exercises. He was a patient, obedient serviceman. And then, only a year after he was drafted, he and his division sailed off into the Pacific with a fleet of other forces – transport ships, destroyers, battleships, light and heavy cruisers. They were to be sent to the Tarawa atoll, where they would make an amphibious landing and sweep the beach to destroy enemy forces. There were 35,000 troops total.

"I don't know much about what he experienced during the battle. Melanie hasn't managed to get too much out of Cooper and we haven't been able to find any old accounts. All I know is that bodies were falling around him as he stormed through the reefs and onto the beach. Soldiers were getting shot, getting struck by shrapnel, getting blown to bits. He told me that after he took an arrow – oops, I mean, a shrapnel fragment to the knee, a man near him was blasted apart by a land mine. And Cooper got covered with burning bits of the man's flesh."

Our food had arrived, but neither of us wanted to eat. I just dipped my spoon into my soup and let it sit there as I listened to what Jack had to say.

"Cooper fought other battles, but it was Tarawa that hit him the hardest. Only in 1945 did he return home after the Japanese surrendered. When he arrived back in Boris, he found that his father was barely clinging to life. Egon Wishaw died of lung cancer a few months later. Their family logging company went under, too. Cooper was alone and a little paranoid for the next few years. He distanced himself from civilization almost completely. The more he withdrew from people, the more he came to forget about them. He could care less about being devoid from humanity. All he needed was his house, the river, the woods, and a little bit of food from time to time.

"But there were underlying problems. His limp, for one. Did you ever notice how he lurches sometimes when he walks? Well, when the shrapnel struck his knee during the Battle of Tarawa, it ruined the patella indefinitely. And if that wasn't enough, he also started to have nightmares about the war. Terrible, realistic ones. He began to see and hear things that reminded him of Tarawa especially – the whistling of bombs before they exploded, the screams of agony, the metallic rattle of a machine gun shooting off rounds. He couldn't take it anymore. So he decided to end it."

Benjamin's words, spoken what seemed like so many years ago, echoed in my mind:

"There's a trail on one edge of the lawn, and if you walk along it you come to this massive river, with waterfalls and rapids and everything. Sometimes when it's real quiet, you can hear the water moving all the way from the house. I used to think it was just the sound of the wind until I went exploring. Anyway, apparently in the late forties, shortly after World War II, a young soldier who came home had a horrible case of posttraumatic stress disorder. He committed suicide by jumping over the waterfall. His body was never found."

"That's awful."

"Tell me about it. I can't even imagine what he went through. The second World War was some tough shit."

"He killed himself at Spruce Falls, didn't he?" I whispered.

Jack laughed and scooped up a sushi roll with his chopsticks. "Well, look at that! Your sharpness seems to have returned. I'm impressed."

"So Cooper drowned," I said, ignoring his question.

"Not quite. The river wouldn't let him."

"What do you mean, the river wouldn't let him?"

"It was furious that he tried to kill himself."

"Rivers don't have emotions," I said. "You're talking as though it's sentient. As though it's alive."

"That's because it is." Jack gave me a grim smile. He took a large bite of tempura before informing me, "And this, Colette – this is where things get pretty fucking complicated."

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A/N: I'm so sorry it's taken so long to update, I've been so busy blah! Anyway, I'm also sorry I had to cut off the chapter. It would have been much too long if I hadn't, plus I'm still putting information together about Cooper's little situation. Hope you all had a Happy New Year!