Fantasy

The Riverboy

By A.M. Dellamonica
4,632 words · 17-minute reading time
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4,657 words

 

 

 

 

The Riverboy

 

by A.M. Dellamonica

 

Midway through summer vacation, Michael runs afoul of Barry Sandler and his cronies, who take him to the old Creek Campground, peel off his clothes and toss him out of the car. Idiotic way to express homophobia, but is Michael going to antagonize them by saying so? Not when he's twenty miles from town with roadrash on his ass.

He does risk a beating for the sake of his feet, wrestling with Ken Zandrachuk to get his shoes back. His former friend broke a finger last winter playing basketball; now Michael lunges into the car window and yanks the digit back. Ken loses one sneaker, and the connection between them breaks with an elastic snap. Michael falls back, panting as the car pulls away.

It is July, a night with searing, breezeless air like the inside of a crematorium. A delicious sense of tension hums between land and sky, electric and ruthless.

But this is no time to sit around composing odes to the coming storm. Michael slides the lone rescued shoe onto his left foot and tracks a quiet splash, looking for Petal Creek. In town, the creek is almost wide enough to deserve the name, a shallow green-gray band of water which is Rosen's big claim to scenery. Out here it is so narrow he could miss it in the dark as it dribbles through countless sloughs and ponds, providing nesting turf for ducks, and watering the small cottonwoods on its banks.

There--moonlight mirrors from shivered water and he sees a muskrat watching him. Michael kicks pebbles and it backs away, rolling its slick wet shoulders.

"You could've helped." He speaks not to the animal but the presence which sent it. "Hello? Gonna get me out of this?"

Blank stare from the wildlife. It roots in the wet bank of the stream, digging up a crocus bulb. Taking dainty bites, it watches him carefully. No rescue, then.

"Great. Screw you." Just then he spots the trail--a band of flattened grass winding east between shadowy bushes--and starts marching grimly in the direction of town. Maybe he can make it home before it gets light.

He gives himself a sideache hiking the trail, his gait a stride-hop-stride to protect his bare foot. A crop of blisters comes in on the left ankle, and mosquitoes make dive-runs on his stomach and dick. As he plods onward the sky blackens, the air cooling slightly, thickening like soup. He wonders how Cinderella felt, walking home from the ball with a pumpkin under one arm and a slipper missing. Did she break down and cry? Or was she angry?

Then he hears the whizz of bicycle tires.

A glance confirms there's nowhere to hide: the trail is lined in thistle and wild rose. Covering his groin with both hands, Michael edges as close to the thorns as he dares. A lance of light cuts through the creekside foliage; then the bike rounds the curve. He's caught in the beam just long enough to give the rider a good look.

One look is enough: the shadowy figure skids out. The headlight bobbles and the bike skates to the edge of the creek. The cyclist's bark of alarm is deep-voiced, male.

Thank God, he thinks. Not a woman: maybe the town won't label him a pervert. Then he recognizes the cyclist, and his heart lurches. It's Will.

Dale Willer is a rookie music teacher from out East, barely older than his grade twelve students and crush inducingly gorgeous. Strip the man's shirt, shove a baby in his arms and take a black and white photo: you could sell it poster-sized to every fag in the world. The girls at school have a pool going to see who will marry him one day. Michael has never encountered this before: in his experience, teaching aptitude and great looks come from mutually antagonistic ends of the gene pool.

As if that isn't enough, the man is dedicated, directing a concert band, jazz band, choir, and two string quartets. Michael is his star pupil, playing sax in everything but the quartets.

Tonight Will is in civvies--jeans, a tank top, and a long flannel overshirt which is caught in the rosebush. Even wiped out and surprised, dark hair curls over his forehead like he's been touched up by a band of vigilante stylists. He gapes at Michael, who is wishing the creek was the kind of raging torrent a humiliated teen could fling himself into, with fatal results and a decent chance they'd never find the body.

"I'm training for the nude triathlon," he says finally. "Hiking, bare-hand fishing and bobbing for apples."

His words break the spell--Will untangles himself from the bicycle. The brambles surprise Michael by stretching and then pulling free of the overshirt. Squinting, he peers into the trees, finding nothing but shadows.

Luckily, Will is too flustered by his near-miss with a naked student to notice trivialities like moving foliage. He takes the shirt off--an image from Michael's daydreams--and, averting his eyes, extends it on the ends of his fingers.

"Thanks." He ties it around his hips, loincloth style. Now maybe he can look his teacher in the eye.

But Will is messing with his bike chain. "Barry Sandler do this, Mike?"

He shrugs. "Didn't see."

"Lucky for him." The words are dry, but mercifully Will doesn't try to press the issue. Pushing the bike, he turns back toward town. Michael shuffles to catch up.

"I, uh... hope you didn't hurt yourself when you fell."

"No, I'm good."

The trail curves away from the trees, meeting up with a narrow gravel road sliced between high fields of canola. The creek follows the ditch on one side of the road; the other side is grassy and smells of horse manure. Rocks bite into the ball of his bare foot, making his hopalong gait downright springy.

A gopher waits at the roadside, black eyes wide and watchful, as they emerge from the trees. Michael scowls at the thing, and this time Will catches him.

"Pests," he grunts. That's all you have to say about gophers in Rosen. The small ground squirrels inspire plenty of gunfire, but not much in the way of deep thought.

"You're too big for him to eat."

"Give it time." He slaps a mosquito. "They're whittling me down."

"There's another gopher up there," Will says, pointing. "Funny. I didn't think they were nocturnal."

There's lots you don't know, Michael thinks. Welcome to Rosen, population four thousand. Due to a high rate of mystic activity, swimming and fishing in the creek are prohibited. "Maybe they're following your example."

"Pardon?"

"It's kind of late for a bike ride."

"I had some energy to burn." Will gives him a knee-melting grin. "Couldn't sleep."

"Way out here?"

"I live at old Grayler farm. It's only a couple miles."

"Oh. But isn't it..." Suddenly agony shrieks upward from the arch of Michael's bare foot, so intense that his knee buckles and he hits the road on all fours. Pain-blind, he rolls sideways, driving blunt rocks into the flesh of his thigh. His hands, flying to the injury, connect with metal, a short, nasty scrap of barbed wire. Distressingly hot blood spills over his fingers as he gropes, finding one barb buried deep in the curve behind his big toe. He gives it a tentative pull, hoping it will slide free, and the answering flare of pain burns to the top of his sinuses.

"Fuck!" Now he's crying and angry. Far-off thunder cracks as he pinches the wire between his fingers and thumb, giving a hard yank. It comes loose, tearing as it bounces to the creek bank, and he curses in fury, both hands clapped around the gash.

Will has turned on his bike light, providing a maddening view of the damage. Red wetness covers his hands and foot in sticky patches. The edges of the cut are crusted with road dirt, and the wire glints rustily.

At the edge of the circle of light another gopher is watching, as inconspicuous as a drug addict hailing his dealer.

Closing his eyes, Michael fights for self control.

"What a mess. You okay, Mike?"

"Fucking Barry." He wipes the tears away. "I'm realizing anew why so many Alberta-born queers curl for Vancouver teams."

"Turn him in."

"I'm not photogenic enough to be the Tolerance Poster Boy." Deep breath--then he lifts his bare thigh off the gravel, balancing on his good leg and both arms. Maybe he'll get lucky now, and Prince Charming here will peel his tank top off to make a field bandage.

Happy thought. Too bad the prince is in the grip of social conscience. "People have to pay for these stunts, Mike. If they're made to learn..."

"Barry's graduated. He's gonna go to university and make some nice fraternity very happy."

"They have gays on campus too, Mike."

"I'll worry about that if I survive grade twelve."

"If you stop him..."

But by now Michael is safely inside his calm again. "There's always another Barry."

The luscious mouth tightens, almost pouting. "You can't walk any further like that. I'll bike back for the car, okay?"

"Okay. Thanks." Will slings a leg over the bike and pedals once, carrying himself ten feet. Then he pauses, looking back with a puzzled expression before finally cycling away.

Overhead, the stars are bright and white overhead, the moon huge and pale. There's so much light he can see colors: bright green shoots of canola, red-brown patches of blood on his skin. He relaxes onto a clean patch of long grass and foxtails in the ditch. The gopher is still watching.

"Roadkill munching little prick--" he tosses a pebble at it. "Why am I out here?"

It cheeps once, vibrating with nervous energy while the dense pre-storm air hazes with a sense of expectation. Then he hears a low scratching across the road.

Levering himself up, Michael sees the scrap of barbed wire, twisting and curling like an earthworm at the edge of the creek. "Oh... another stupid magic trinket, maybe? As they say in French class, quelle surprise."

He crabwalks on three limbs across the road. Maybe this will be all right. His first find was a flat piece of willow that he uses as a saxophone reed; it brought his music alive, taught him grace and breathing and tone, made him the town prodigy. That had worked out all right; this could too.

Sure. He looks at the sharp barbs waving blindly in the moonlight and tries not to reckon the odds. His second find...

A rush of air above Michael's face heralds trouble--he drops to the gravel, flat on his back as a brown form dives over him. A near miss. Stiff tailfeathers graze his chest.

The owl's flight path curves low, so that it seems to skid through the air horizontally, inches above the road. The gopher tries to run, but there is a soft impact. The bird arcs skyward, the gopher in its talons struggling weakly, dust and drops of blood leaking down through the moonbeams. Then, with a random twist, it gets loose. Falling back to the gravel, it tries to drag itself to cover.

Unexpectedly, his throat burns. That's how it always goes, isn't it? Always another victim.

The surface of Petal Creek is disappointingly rippled, just plain water where he was hoping to see a face. "You're shy tonight," he says. No answer--with the gopher immersed in its own misery, Michael feels completely abandoned.

Pinching up the wire gingerly, Michael feels it twisting in his grip. The loose ends bend and twine gently around Michael's index finger, nestling the juncture of the barbs harmlessly against the web of his thumb. He closes the hand slowly into a fist; the points do not break the skin. Two sharp tines protrude between his index and middle fingers while the others poke out alongside his thumb.

Something happens to his hearing then, tuning him to a faint hint of choir music emanating from below. Wordless harmony vibrates the ground--violins, piano, and bells, vaguely distorted and far away. The murmur of Petal Creek takes on a percussive rhythm; the rub of grass on grass is like brushed cymbals. A discordant whisper of feathers through air reaches him just in time.

"Go away!"

The owl misses the injured gopher and rises a few feet, violent booms of timpani in its beating wings. Michael can smell the blood on its talons.

He rolls to the creek, flinging a handful of rocks which manage to make it angry. Mid-air, it pivots, eyes flat with menace, coming for him claws first. Michael curls an arm over his eyes and sticks the other one out defensively, too scared to put thought together, to do something useful. Cold feathers make first contact with his outstretched hand. He shrieks.

The owl cries out too, a brief note of inhuman whistling pain. Then it is gone. The wingbeats are silenced, and something heavy tumbles into the grass across the creek.

Shaking, Michael uncovers his face. The bird is under one of the cottonwoods, mauled in a bright silvery strand of barbed wire. Its feathered breast is a bloody rag.

He stares at the loop around his finger. Was it fear that set the thing off, or being attacked? He is about to pull it off his finger when a far-off hum makes him glance up. More owls are above, circling and rustling. His eyesight is so keen he can pick them out, great horned, barn and snowy owls.

He gapes at them, mystified. He had thought of the animals as one collective entity, the eyes and ears of a single sentient force. Now, he watches the gopher drag itself into a sheltering burrow, and wonders if he had it right.

Enlightenment doesn't come. Will does, though, driving a pitiful orange Toyota and brandishing Bermuda shorts. Michael maneuvers into them, hissing with relief as the thin fabric covers his genitals. Hobbling out of the glare of the car lights, he unwinds his makeshift loincloth, making it a shirt again and slipping it on. Then he hops to the passenger door, struggling to open it without displaying his wire-bound finger.

Fighting his gearshift, Will drives in the direction of Rosen as a sliver of searing egg-yolk sunshine appears at the far edge of the world. Brilliant pink light streaks the bottoms of the thunderheads growing on the horizon.

To Michael's right, the line of canola suddenly drops and disappears, giving way to uncultivated terrain. Short grass and dandelions flow towards a white house with a brick chimney. The music is louder here, but the song comes from another melody--brisk string instruments, booming hostile bass. Spiderwebs hang from all the gaps in the fence, heavy with tiny bugs. The splattered remains of a field mouse lie in the drive.

Despite the renewed heat of the morning, the chimney of the house belches smoke. Gray shadows and shapes swirl around the house--serpentine ribbons, sails without sailboats, floral explosions like muted, silent fireworks. Miraculous, but Michael's first reaction is horror. He has never seen the prairie dish up its wonder so openly. There's no way Will won't notice this.

Sure enough, the car slows and stops.

"You gotta be wondering..." Then he reads identical fear on Will's face. Michael bites his lip. "This is your place, huh?"

The teacher nods. Shadows twist and caper as they stare at each other, and eventually Michael's surprise ebbs, leaving a strand of hope. Maybe they can share the burden. A co-conspirator would be nice.

"You hungry, Mike? Breakfast and pow wow, what do you say?"

"I say fine." He can smell coffee from here, fresh and acrid. The Toyota proceeds up the drive while vibrations of bass notes hum through the car floor. Past the barn, two coyotes lurk near the raised spray of a gopher hole.

Will supports him as he limps up the farmhouse steps. This is something he never thought to daydream: close but impersonal contact, the press of hard muscles through the thin tank top, body heat and the sweet yeasty smell of the other man's perspiration. He is aroused and flustered when they reach the kitchen and he can fall into a chair.

"Be right back," Will says, disappearing down the hall.

Michael spreads out his hand, dismayed to see that the wire is embedding itself in his finger, squeezing grooves into the flesh. No fears about the owls here--he digs in with his nails, forcibly extracting it. There is no pain. The skin is dusted rust-red, but does not bleed. Avoiding the barbs, he deposits it in the pocket of the shorts. It twists against his leg as his eyesight and hearing dim. Outside, a smoke butterfly flits against the window, leaving a sooty, insect-shaped smudge.

He frowns. "Are you doing something to encourage them?"

"They like music," Will's voice rumbles from the depths of the house. "Souza and Wagner. I play for them at night."

"You could mess up some kind of balance."

"Or restore a better one, Mike."

"They're scary enough as it is."

Will reappears in a baggy t-shirt, which is simultaneously a disappointment and a relief. He has a bag of frozen bread in one hand and a photo album tucked under one arm. Throwing two slices into a toaster, he pulls up a chair. "I thought I was the only one who knew. Is it just you and me?"

Co-conspirators. Michael takes an almost guilty pleasure in answering. "Mostly people are clueless. But Livia Redwing told me once there are chantments in the creek."

"Enchantments?"

"Chantments. She said the first explorers brought men with them who killed off the land's medicine."

"Meaning its magic?"

"I guess. Anyway, people hid the medicine in reservoirs and in objects called chantments. They're like cosmic piggy-banks."

"But they do things, Mike."

Which implies that Will has at least one, Michael thinks. Wonder if he wants another?

"Stored magic," Will murmured. "She know where they are?"

"She's dead now." He remembers Livia, ancient and cryptic, hinting secrets and making animals from pipe cleaners and twist ties. Wires. She had hinted she knew how to make chantments. Is the barbed wire one of hers?

"How about you, Mike? You know where to find them?

"No." The wire contorts in his pocket, a sharp barb poking through thin cotton to scratch at his thigh.

"We'll have to track them down." Will opens the album to a collection of photographs, all portraits, of a gangling, nerdy youth. His features are distantly familiar. "They can do anything."

"It's not that simple--" Then Michael touches the album as realization dawns. "These are you?"

It's Will's turn to look embarrassed. "Not long after I moved here, I woke up feeling this... compulsion, I guess... to clear a bunch of brush that had blocked the stream behind the barn. It was spring. The water was ice-cold and I got soaked fast. Tugging on logs damn near ripped my arms out. I was going to give up when I saw a fox trapped in the dam. Barely had its nose above water. So I got it loose, it jumped out of the water and ran. Later..."

"You thought you saw a boy in the water," Michael says wearily. "You thought he asked your fondest dream."

Will pauses, jolted out of his rhythm. "It was a woman. A woman made of smoke."

"But she asked you?"

"I thought I was running a fever. Hallucinating. But... I'd grown up believing I was conspicuously funny-looking. I don't know why, just one of those weird ideas kids get. Anyway..." His hand rises to brush his chin. "She helped me find an old razor, said to shave with it. Pretty soon I looked like this."

"You're not going to say you're bitter." He can't help the jealousy. Newcomer gets movie star facelift. Old faithful Michael gets barbed wire in the foot.

"No," he shrugs ruefully. "I suppose that seems shallow."

"No." No more than getting kudos for being more musically gifted than I really am, he thinks. He tries to untangle the barbed wire from his pocket but gophers whistle outside, alarmed. "What did you tell your folks about the new look?"

No answer.

"You feel like you can't go home, right? Listen, Will. Chantments change you. They make you more like them. The riverboy and the smoke woman."

"You'd rather be like everyone else?" Mild tone of voice.

"Me? I'm all herd instinct and no herd. I'd love to be like everyone else." Michael stares at the table, stirring his cooling coffee. The whole night lands on him like Barry on a rampage. Energy drains from his muscles and he's left feeling weepy, with nothing but caffeinated strain to hold him up.

"I guess two doesn't make much of a herd," Will says. "But we can help each other, Mike. I had a feeling that someone was in trouble on the trail tonight. That's why I was there."

"Believe me, I don't want to seem ungrateful. But a big chantment hunt is not a good idea."

"We'll talk it through. I'm not an idiot, Mike. You've been here longer than I have. I respect your experience."

"Yeah?"

"Absolutely. What do you say? Herd of two?"

"Herd of two," he echoes, tasting it. Sharing a secret with Rosner's most eligible bachelor. They shake hands, making him flustered and tongue-tied.

"Now--am I taking you home? Or the clinic?"

"Clinic," he says. Stitches. Tetanus shot. Then explain his disappearance to the parents. It won't be the first time, he thinks, as they hobble back to the Toyota.

A mile or so down the road, they come upon Barry's car.

Michael tenses, but the car is parked--not crashed, not burned, not wrapped in barbed wire. Its motor is running and its windows are shut.

Will pulls over. "Perks, Mikey."

Michael hops to the car. Barry and his merry men are passed out inside, snoring. Their lips are dry and cracked, their cheeks red, their chins stubbly. They don't look innocent, the way some people do when they're sleeping. They look spoiled.

"They drove out here looking for you, Mike. Probably expected you'd hike to the highway when they dumped you."

"Hitchhike home naked? No chance."

"What do you think they'd have done when they caught up? Give back your clothes? Apologize?"

"Don't." Struggling for calm, his fists clench all on their own. "This isn't helping."

"It's not enough they leave you to walk home bare-assed. They came back for a second go-round."

"So they're idiots. It's nothing."

"You found a chantment tonight, didn't you?" Seductive musical voice, inviting him to violence. "Use it--teach them."

"They're helpless," he says, drawing in molten air.

"That wouldn't stop them."

"Or you?" With that, his temper finally breaks. Hot wind ruffles his hair and warm raindrops patter the dust. Clouds roll overhead, towering and black. He could bring down hail, pulverize the cars. Fry them with lightning, burn them. And for a moment, he almost wants to. Will's never going to get it, he thinks. I'm still alone.

Rain sluices through his hair and down his face. Tiny rivulets flow into the torn flesh of his foot. The violent atmosphere struggles against the constraint of his will.

You can have anything. The whisper is faint and female, not the boy's voice he remembers from the day he found his saxophone reed. Eyes form, briefly, in the smoke from Will's car exhaust. You can be anything you want.

Like a small-town despot with a cover boy face? No chance.

Opening the door, Michael retrieves his clothes from the back seat and shuts down the engine. Then he lifts Barry's hand, tucking it deep into Ken's shorts. He turns their heads so they are nose to nose, kissing close.

They'll have a heart attack when they wake up.

He allows himself one long glance at Ken, until thunder rumbles at the edge of his control and he has to turn away.

Will is jubilant. "What did I tell you?"

"This isn't new," Michael sighs. "When I was ten I rescued a rabbit from someone's burn pile, and I saw the boy in Petal Creek. Your dearest wish, he offered. I asked to make a thunderstorm. Just one. It had been hot, and I love rain."

"And now you can have storms whenever you want."

"Whenever I want, yeah." He doesn't share the details, doesn't say the boy gave him a robin's egg and the egg summoned the storm. When the Creek flooded, Michael crushed the thing out of terror and remorse, and tawny gold magic had oozed out of the chantment like blood, infecting him with something unstable and dangerous. "Storms come when I have nightmares. I barbecued a dog once for scaring me. I told Ken I'm gay last October. We were friends, remember?"

"And then lightning burned his house down," Will says. Incredibly, he smiles. Michael feels tears threaten and fights back the thunder.

"Eight years of friendship and he blows me off like I'm nothing. I couldn't get past it. So the house burns..."

"He paid. He paid, Mike."

"Him and his family. And you'll notice he took the lesson to heart." Wishing he could make it home on his own steam, Michael hops back, collapsing in the passenger seat of the Toyota. He leans across to honk the horn until he sees Ken stir. "Will. Were you really on the Creek trail looking for me?"

The gorgeous eyes narrow.

"Or were you looking for the piggy banks?"

Will yanks the gearshift and the car jerks back into motion. Tires purr as they roll away towards town. "I said I'd listen to your point of view."

"You don't want a herd, you want a hunting partner," Michael says. "I can't do that. Sorry."

The look the teacher gives him then is full of menace, like the low brass and strings in a symphony. A hunter's face. "You can't stop me from looking, Mike."

"I wouldn't try."

"So at least you'll stay out of my way?"

"Me?" Michael says. "You never know where I'll pop up."

Will wrenches the car off the gravel road and onto the highway, with its black surface and neat yellow lines. As he accelerates a gopher darts into the ditch, just dodging a quick and grisly death. Ten miles up, Michael can see Rosen, a small circle of buildings bisected by the creek, lights twinkling in the last dimness of night.

"You've still got a year in my school, Mike."

He burps laughter. "And you'll what? Make my life hell? Better install some lightning rods."

Will's face goes fury-white, and Michael slips his hand into the pocket of the Bermuda shorts. With Will on the search, the scrap is too dangerous to hide or throw away. He'll have to learn how it works and what to do with it. Another chip of his humanity gone, maybe. Just something else to accept, like losing Ken. Like solitude.

The barbed wire settles around his finger with a silent scrape of metal over metal and Michael's view of town sharpens. Streetlights blink out, block by block, and he hears the music again, voices of grain and roadside poppies crooning high, cheerful notes. Sunlight makes a golden ribbon of the creek and he catches a glimpse of the riverboy in a pocket of rising mist, pacing the car's journey to Rosen. Making sure I'm okay, Michael thinks. Watching over.

And maybe that shouldn't be comforting, but he leans into the vinyl seat anyway, closing his eyes and letting the hum of the tires sooth him into a doze.

This story originally appeared in Land/Space: an anthology of Prairie Speculative SF.


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Author: A.M. Dellamonica

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