Story: Gently Down the Stream

Part 5: The Homecoming

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This is part 5 of 5 in the novelette Gently Down the Stream
Cherry floated in a green haze. Her eyes stung and her body screamed for air, but where was the surface? She couldn’t see far in the murky water. It was cloudier on her left side; that must be silt she’d stirred up from the bottom. In the distance on her right, the haze was brighter. She needed to swim that way.

Cherry thrashed, struggling to right herself. Her clothes and pack dragged in the water, holding her back. Cherry ripped open her jacket and slipped it off along with her backpack.

She stroked toward the light as fast as she could, fighting the impulse to take a breath. Only a little farther, and she’d reach the surface. Then she could breathe… and the wights could see her. They had to be looking over the canal right now, waiting for her to come up.

The water’s surface gleamed a few feet away. Resisting her burning lungs, Cherry slowed her ascent. Her limbs felt clumsy and sluggish, and her heart pounded in her ears.

Almost there. Not too fast.

She tilted her head back, and her face broke the surface. She gasped for a lungful of air.

High above her, the bridge blocked the sun; she hadn’t gone far. Cherry brought her head under again and dived farther down into the canal. To have any hope of escaping the wights, she’d have to swim underwater as far as she could and take as few breaths as possible. If they spotted where she came back on land, they would corner her again, and this time she wouldn’t have an emergency exit.

Pushing herself between breaths, Cherry slowly made her way down the narrow cut. Finally, the concrete walls on either side of the canal ended, and it opened up into an inner bay. She had to stay as close to the canal as she dared; Leo’s burrow was somewhere near the bridge.

Cherry popped her head up to survey the shoreline. Walkways ran on either side of the canal and under the bridge. Wights were spreading along them, searching for her, but they hadn’t reached the bay. As the canal curved into the bay on the south side, the slope descended gently into the water under the cover of trees and brush. Maybe if she surfaced quickly and got under the vegetation, the wights wouldn’t notice her.

She swam gently to her destination, staying in the water even as it became shallow and murky. A large patch of knotweed packed around the shore. After a long summer, the plants had grown to twice Cherry’s height. If she slipped through the bamboo-like stems, the ceiling of light-green leaves and lacy flowers should keep her concealed.

Cherry spared a last glance at the canal and rose unsteadily from the water, shivering under the light breeze. She wedged herself into the knotweed. The flexible stems parted to make way for her, and the entire patch shook. Crap.

If Cherry hurried through the patch, it would be obvious that a big animal was here. She was only partially concealed, but getting back in the water would make her more visible. So she inched into the knotweed, trying to keep the movement small and steady enough that it might look like the breeze off the water. After a painfully long time, Cherry was fully under the living ceiling. Then she took a breath and worked on getting the rest of the way through.

Cherry collapsed on the other side, resting her limbs and taking slow, deep breaths. Before her, a narrow path led under falling leaves. Maybe it would go to some old homes, and Leo’s burrow would be among them.

Even if it was, this was not how Cherry had planned her reunion with him. She wrung the water from her ponytail and tried to brush the mud and grit from her clothes, but it was no good. She reeked of marshwater, and she bled from a dozen cuts and scrapes. She didn’t even have a gift for Leo; everything she’d packed was at the bottom of the canal. The machete had come unclipped from her belt sometime while she was swimming.

And showing up unannounced at his home, covered in filth, was the least of her concerns. His letters and the hints they contained were gone. Could she find his burrow without them? If she didn’t, how long would she last? She didn’t have food, water, or her jacket. A fire would lead the wights right to her, and the nights were getting colder.

Cherry followed the path to a small curving street with old houses. Ants traveled over the crumbling facades, and tall grasses sprouted from the walkways. Clematis adorned the structures, its ragged leaves and yellow flowers creeping in through the cracked windows. These few square blocks were isolated, cut off on one side by the water and the other by the highway. Leo’s burrow had to be here.

Even so, the wights were close by and on the prowl. Could Cherry find it in time? She looked left and right, but nothing suspicious marked the quiet street. She stepped out from the bush and hurried across the road to an old lawn.

A faint buzz came from up the block; it was getting louder. Cherry was too far from the trees. She spotted a nearby manhole cover, showing through a scraggly layer of clover and crabgrass. She ran and pulled at the cover, but it was incredibly heavy, and… not actually on top of a manhole. It was just sitting on the ground. Oh no.

She dived into the overgrown lawn, narrowly avoiding the thistles. The grass was tall enough that the wight might miss her if it didn’t come too close.

Through the strands of grass, she spotted a woman with wind-tossed blond hair riding on a bicycle. The buzzing came from the wheels. Cherry could thank the wights for their dedication to accuracy when mimicking objects. Or did it make noise because it was an actual bicycle in really good condition? That didn’t matter now. She held her breath as the buzz of bicycle wheels drew closer.

The cyclist couldn’t be more than twenty feet away.

Then the sound faded.

Had the wight seen her? She didn’t know, but even if it hadn’t, the wights were clearly spreading out to search for her, and not just along the canal. There would be more. She had to find Leo’s burrow quickly. If the wights caught her while she was searching, not only would they take her away, but they might find Leo too.

She had to think: What clues had Leo left for this? He’d written that the wizard’s home – the bridge – was almost at his burrow. Then there was something about family… and luck. Leo knew her family hailed from Hong Kong; maybe he meant the house number of his burrow had an eight, the Chinese lucky number.

Cherry hurried down the block, looking for houses marked with an eight. There – that house number was 2806! Wait, the eight wasn’t the last digit in the house number: all of the houses on this street would have eights. Cherry rubbed her temples. She didn’t have time to search the entire neighborhood and knock on a dozen doors.

Leo wouldn’t have wanted her to wander the whole neighborhood anyway; he would have given her another clue to narrow it down. But she couldn’t remember any others. Well, what if “luck” didn’t just mean the number eight? Red was also lucky. That wasn’t a common house color, but it wasn’t
unheard of.

Cherry glanced down the block again. One had a red door; did that count? Another had red trim. Oh no.

She needed to choose a house and get inside, even if it wasn’t Leo’s burrow. Cherry made for an old alley and paused. Across the street, a humble brown house had red fence posts. She counted them: eight. The lucky color and the lucky number, and it had been put there on purpose – Leo!

The house had just one door in front, exposed to the street. That didn’t make a good burrow, but she couldn’t complain now. She ran up the front steps and tried the front handle. The rusted brass wouldn’t budge. Should she knock? If she was too loud the wights would hear, but if she was too quiet then Leo might not hear it.

She started with a gentle tap. Nothing. She knocked a little louder. She counted to ten and tried it louder yet.

A faint buzz drifted down the street; the bicyclist was coming back around. Cherry banged on the door. Just open it!

“Cherry?” said someone behind her.

Cherry spun around and flattened herself against the door, expecting the wight from the bramble.

Instead Leo gawked at her with an open mouth. He wore a sweater that was mostly patches and carried a fraying basket of dandelions in his arms. His polished copper curls gleamed in the warm afternoon light.

“Leo – ” Cherry choked up, but she didn’t have time for greetings. “The wights are here. We have to get inside!”

She got out of the way as Leo rushed to the door. He reached over the top of the frame and pulled on a string there. The latch clicked, and he turned the knob, opening the door and beckoning her to follow him. As she did, he backed up quickly, stumbling and bracing himself against the far wall.

The bicyclist rode down the street out front just as Cherry closed the door.

She turned to face Leo, dread knotting her stomach. “I’m so sorry, I brought the wights right to you.”

“It’ll be alright. I have a secret exit we can use if we need to.” He smiled as he removed his shoes. “I was worried, but you made it here. My hints must’ve worked.”

Cherry felt the knots in her stomach uncoil. “They did. But I didn’t mean to show up wet and covered in” – she winced – “everything.”

“You’re perfect as you are.” Leo opened his arms for a hug, then paused. “Oh, I’m sorry, you’ve been through a lot. Let me get you, uh…” He disappeared into the hall, still carrying his basket of produce.

Cherry looked down at Leo’s shoes, dark gray clunkers with a neatly patched toe. He actually took his shoes off instead of tromping dirt everywhere like most Westerners. She slipped off her once-bright athletic shoes and placed them neatly next to his. The two pairs would be sitting next to each other every day from now on, whether the world rotted or flourished around them. Cherry smiled and closed her eyes, her lashes soaking in her hot tears.

She breathed in the scent of vanilla and roasted rice, and Leo returned with a plate of something and a large beach towel. He stepped into the living room, piled with books and hung with pictures of crowded cityscapes, and put the plate down on the coffee table. Then he stepped toward Cherry and opened up the worn and faded towel. He wrapped it around her shoulders and pulled it taut in front, making her feel warm and snug. She grabbed the ends of the towel, and he let go.

Cherry peeked at the plate of food. On it were small round pastries. Were those mooncakes?

“I’m so glad you’re here.” Leo smiled shyly and opened his arms for a hug.

Cherry was still gross, but at least now there was a clean towel as a buffer. She smiled and stepped toward him. He’d actually made mooncakes for her. Wait – how could he do that?

Cherry stopped about an inch from his chest. She looked up into his hazel eyes, partly obscured by bangs she itched to push out of the way.

Leo lowered his arms. “I’m sorry, I thought -”

“No one can make a simple pastry these days, much less a mooncake. You knew I was coming, and you called me ‘Cherry.’” It was all too perfect, too artful. Cherry backed up until she was against the door. “You’re not Leo.”

“I don’t understand.” Leo’s brow creased. “You asked me to call you Cherry, three times at least.”

“Did you take him?” Cherry put a hand to her mouth as she drew in a ragged breath. “I led you right to him, didn’t I?”

“Oh.” His eyes widened. “No, please, I’m okay, I promise. Nothing happened to me.” He raised his hands placatingly.

“You’re not Leo, you’re a wight.”

“Cherry, I…” He paused, gazing at her with hurt eyes. “I’ve always been this way. Since we met in the playground that night. You told me you couldn’t stand all the drama in your old warren, remember? You were going north to get away from everyone. I told you I was looking to settle a little ways to the south, and you sent a letter to the maildrop nearby, our first. You told me you’d met Jackie, that she was an asshole, but she was helping you.”

Everything he said was how it happened. Could she really have been exchanging letters with a wight? For years? Cherry hadn’t imagined such a thing, but then, most people didn’t send letters to someone they’d only known for one night. Or a stranger they’d met out in the open. How could she be so reckless?

“I only wanted to make you happy.” Leo put his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumping. “You said in your letters that you wanted to join me, but you didn’t think you could make the journey. So once I understood enough of your hints, I came to find you.”

“Wait – you came to find me?”

“Yes, of course I did. I wasn’t going to leave you up there where you were miserable. It was easy to figure out your neighborhood, but I had more trouble with your burrow. By the time I knew which house you were in, you’d already left.”

“You were one of the wights we were hiding from… I led you there. Oh god, Jackie.” Cherry had insisted on sending him directions despite Jackie’s warnings, and he took Jackie away. If Cherry had just listened to her, they’d still be at the burrow up north together. Cherry put her face in her hands and slid down to the floor.

“Please don’t cry, it’ll be okay.” Leo sat down a few feet away.

Cherry sobbed. “No, it won’t.”

“It can be. Just let me take care of you.”

“By making me disappear? Where have you been taking us? Where is Jackie?”

“She’s with us.” His voice was gentle. “They’re all with us, and you can be too. I love how strong-willed you are, but you don’t have to do this to yourself. You don’t have to keep running and hiding. You don’t have to eat terrible food every day and put up with the dregs of humanity. Choose to be with me, and I’ll do the rest. I promised you a happily ever after, didn’t I?”

Cherry gazed at Leo through a blur of tears. He was leaning toward her, his brow lifted and eyes pleading. This had been her dream. Without that, what did she have? Life was one disappointment after another. And after what happened to Jackie, Cherry didn’t even deserve a good life. She might as well disappear. At least this way, maybe she could be happy for a few moments first. She could feel loved again.

Leo reached his hand out to her.

She reached to take it. I’m sorry, Jackie.

If Jackie could reply, would she forgive Cherry or wish her taken? Cherry remembered again that moment when Jackie stood just outside the door before leaving. How she took her last look back and chose her final words to Cherry.

If I don’t come back, go north.

Cherry’s hand froze. Of course that’s what Jackie was going to say – why hadn’t Cherry thought of it earlier? Jackie’s words were always terse and practical. Since Jackie suspected she wouldn’t return, these words must have had practical use to Cherry.

Jackie would have wanted Cherry to carry on without her, to do the cautious, practical thing. Even when it meant letting go of an impossible dream.

Cherry grabbed her shoes and opened the door.

“Wait!” Leo leapt after her, but Cherry was already out, running down the front steps in her socks.

“Please don’t go!” he called after her. “I’ll do better. I’ll be whatever you want.”

Cherry paused and glanced back at him. He was teary-eyed, his hair in disarray, his feet caught up in the towel she’d left by the door. She could almost believe, but the time for that was over. “You can’t be what I want, because you’re not real. Goodbye, Leo.”

Leo’s calls faded as Cherry ran down the block. She ducked into an alley and pushed her shoes on her feet. She had to find a new warren, whether she hated them or not. There must be one somewhere in these parts, but she had no idea where and no time to look. Now that the wights had all but caught her, they would close in fast. With so many nearby, they could search through every house on the block in short order. Her only chance was to use a hiding place they would never consider.

The wights embodied hopes and desires. Where would no one, particularly Cherry, ever want to be?

Someplace dirty and gross. The sewer. The manhole cover! It had to go with a manhole, didn’t it? But when she’d tried to use it to hide from the wight, she found it hadn’t been where it belonged. It was too heavy to become dislodged on its own; a person must have moved it and probably not very far. Cherry should have realized that before, but she’d been so focused on Leo that she ignored all of her real paths to safety.

Cherry raced to the patchy grass where the cover was still sitting. If she were using a manhole for her burrow, she’d do something to hide the entrance. The disguise had to look natural, or it would attract attention. She stepped through the overgrown grass, pushing aside ruffled stalks of tansy ragwort. A few feet away, a speckled aluminum sheet poked out from under a fern. She tugged on it, and it slid easily, the ferns growing on top of the sheet moving along with it.

The manhole was there, smelling of damp concrete and mildew. It was the size of a tall closet, dark and unadorned, and definitely not the entrance to anywhere luxurious.

Calls came from the street. Cherry steeled herself. Would she ever be clean again after this? Go north, Cherry. She drew in a breath and stepped down the manhole ladder. She paused a few steps down and slid the metal sheet back over the entrance.

The concrete cylinder was silent and pitch black. She continued down to the bottom, carefully feeling out each rung of the ladder as the cool, earthy air enveloped her. The floor was covered in chunks of broken concrete, and she fumbled to find her footing.

Now she was hiding in a hole where people used to keep their sewage. Wonderful.

She reluctantly stretched out her arms and stepped forward until she was touching the grimy concrete wall. Since pieces of the wall covered the floor, someone must have gouged a hole in it somewhere. She slowly turned, feeling up and down, until her fingers brushed the edges of a jagged hole. Inside it was a panel of rough wood. Could it be a door? It had no handle, at least not from this side.

She had only one thing to do. She knocked.

Were those faint voices on the other side? She put her ear against the wood. Footsteps drew nearer. Light poured out from a small peep hole. Cherry backed away, squinting as the beam hit her.

“Who’s there?” The voice was abrupt and wary.

“My name is Cherry Lam. The wights are outside, and I need shelter.”

A moment passed, and then the light went dark. The footsteps faded away. They thought she was a wight. She was being left to die of thirst.

“Wait!” Cherry pounded on the door. “Oh come on! I’m wet and dirty and bleeding, hardly wight material.”

Still nothing.

She had to stop being polite to strangers; that had only landed her with Leo. “And if I was a wight, I’d find someone to touch me who didn’t build their front door in a sewage system! Just so you know, when my body decays on your doorstep it will get even grosser out here, not that you’d care. You’ll probably come out and roll in it.”

The wood door swung open. Cherry blinked as her eyes adjusted.

A Black woman crowned with outgrown braids bent forward in an elaborate, mocking bow. “Welcome to Montlake Warren, home of the mean and ugly.”

Cherry smiled. “Thanks, I hate it already.”

 

Comments

  1. Sydney

    Wow this story was a roller coaster. I love it!

  2. mysterious ghost

    Whoa. Unexpected ending! I loved the last line there.

    Will there be a sequel? And will this be published as an ebook or paperback at any point? I’d love to own a copy!

    • Chris Winkle

      Thank you

      I’m thinking of doing a follow up novel that delves more into the mystery of the wights, but it’s not for sure. I’m going to work on some more novelette or novella length works first, and see what I’m most interested in when it’s time to take on another novel length project.

      I don’t think there will be enough demand to justify the time spent making a paperback or ebook from this novelette, but if I ever end up making a few keepsake copies, I’ll let you know.

      • mysterious ghost

        Ah, okay! Cool! Well, I’ll be interested to read the follow up novel if and when that happens! But I know how it goes with waiting to see what strikes your interest. Best of luck!

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