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DOWN BY THE RIVER

by

Peter Wild



There is a part of her -- a small part of her -- that knows exactly what he thinks: she is a dumb fourteen-year old girl who should know better but doesn't.

There is a part of her that knows she is a dumb fourteen-year old. And yet, at the same time, she is a girl like any other.

Prising her way through the bitter tangle of vines and bare trees down by the river, feeling the cold on her bare legs the way the trees no doubt felt it, losing their leaves.

All of it is clear.

She is aware of the world she pushes against (her fingers holding the branches back as she ducks her head into what space she can make, her hair, her skirt, her Moles t-shirt, the sound of the water up ahead).

At the same time, she is aware of this moment as if it exists independently of her. She is already imagining the telling of this story, tonight to her friends and later, to her husband, to her children, when she has children, her daughter. She will tell this story to her daughter, and by then the story will be a warning. Tonight the story will be a score but twenty years from now she will do everything in her power to stop her daughter pushing through the bare trees by the river on her way to stop being a girl.

I mean, the girls -- the girls she will see tonight at Ronnie's house -- know about Tate. They know she likes Tate. They know she thinks she shouldn't like Tate, that Tate will hurt her, and they also know that for whatever reason, Tate just rings a loud bell in her head.

They know all about everything. They just don't know the most recent development. They don't know about last night. Not that there is all that much to tell about last night. All there was, was Tate picked her up. She was walking home from Kate's house and his junked up car pulled alongside her and his window was already rolled down and out of nowhere -- even though she had spent the night studying, and hard too -- she felt dumb. Out of nowhere it occurred to her that the only sound she would be able to make if addressed would be the letter B over and over, but not B like the insect, buh like the stuttered start of a word, buh like a kid would say.

Tate, you should know, is twenty five and the kind of guy some mothers warn their daughters to steer clear of. He works out at Shaftmans, driving a forklift of boxes from A to B and sometimes he plays drums for six or eight different bands in town. He was always fighting and losing his job and getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly and Patty knew of three girls -- not women, either, girls under twenty -- he'd knocked up and left holding babies roundabout here. All of which would lead you to believe that he was a kind of dump truck lazily piling into whatever got in his way but that wasn't so. Or at least he said that it wasn't so.

He told her, in the car only last night, how he was always trying to stop things going wrong only somehow circumstances always conspired against him. In the car last night, he said those words: circumstances conspire against me. She was surprised he even knew words like that and she thought, yes, well, people get things wrong. Some people get things wrong and here she was in a car with Tate and she wasn't frightened and they were talking and he seemed like a nice guy.

It wasn't like he tried to cover anything up either. Yes, there were three girls who had children by him. What could he say? He fell in love, they made out, the girls got pregnant. He tried, with each of them, to get them to see sense and get rid of the baby and when they wouldn't do that he said: okay, we'll get hitched. Only the parents of each of the three girls freaked out and stopped him ever coming around again. He wanted what other people had. He wanted a girl and a family. He wanted to stop making mistakes. All he could seem to do well was make mistakes.

They were at her house, parked in the shadow by the stoop.

She could see the front room light. Inside, her father would be asleep in his lazyboy with the television on, her mother would be reading, glancing up at the bottom of each page, her gaze resting on the television, the window, her husband, and the clock in that order.

Tate has a place -- no more than a shed, he says, really -- where he goes sometimes to think and watch the river. He looks out of the car window and along the trees that line the street, looking but looking somewhere else (looking as if to give the impression he is looking somewhere else, a voice in her head told her).

He asked her if she wanted to meet him the next day, just to, you know, hang out, and she said yes (yes and not yeah, she usually answered questions with yeah but on this occasion she made sure to pronounce the s).

Yes, I'd like that.

Tate wondered if she wanted picking up, and she said no. Tell me where I should be and I'll be there, she said, firmly, as if she knew her own mind. He said okay, smiling.

And she was aware of the smile, just as she was aware of everything. She knew precisely what was going through his mind because a version was running through her own mind. And yet, she recognised Tate's meanness, saw it in his smile, saw it in his failure to conceal his wants and his needs, saw it in the way his hands fidgeted with his cigarette as he gave her directions. She was fourteen and she knew she wouldn't ever leave this town, knew she wouldn't go to college, knew she would live and work and marry in this town, knew she wasn't clever enough to do anything else (knew she was dumb); she was fourteen and she knew this man and -- by extension -- knew men and still that didn't stop her.

Later that night, lying in bed (beneath the pink and yellow Barbie duvet she has had since she was eleven years old), she closes her eyes and imagines him fucking her tomorrow by the river. They both stand in the lake, their feet and ankles submerged in warm wet marshy mud. She can only see herself. Tate is behind her, and even though Tate towers over her, in her head, he is obscured. She watches herself. Her legs are bare. She was wearing a skirt but that is rucked up, caught in the hand of the man behind her. Her face is contorted, anxious. Tate is having sex with her in the river, taking her from behind. She can both see and almost feel the anxious rhythm of his moving in and out of her, can see from her expression that this is not pleasure, that this is something to somehow be gotten through.

She can even imagine later, getting dressed, cleaning herself up so that people can't see what she's been up to. She can see herself, sat by the lake, staring at the muddy boots her feet have become. She can feel the sticky mud between her toes, drying in the sun on her ankles, and the sticky mud between her legs.

Because Tate wouldn't love her and she was not kidding herself that that would be so. Tate would want sex from her, pure and simple, and -- as difficult to understand as it was, given that she at least felt herself to have a rudimentary grasp of this man despite his protestations to the contrary -- she was willing (she was happy) to have sex with him.

So she moves now, following his simple directions, knowing that she is a dumb girl (knowing her parents would break their hearts, knowing that the world would think her dim and lost, knowing herself that the man she was seeking out was broken and ill-formed in some way and knowing -- compounding this knowing -- the fact that the man she sought out shared, in some important way, the feeling that each was committing some grave mistake and none of it mattering).

Something -- a twig, some stone -- scratches her calf and she says shit and then smiles, at herself, this girl who says shit aloud and arranges to have sex with a man.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Wild lives and works in Manchester, England. He's the co-founder of the Bookmunch website, which takes up a whole lot of time, but when he gets a moment free he's writing short stories and a(nother) novel. Either that, or he's catching up on the sleep his 20-month-old daughter deprives him of.




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