Where the River Ends

one.

after claire dies, i see her
standing in my bedroom.

when i look up from my book, she’s standing there, staring at me. her hair and clothes
are wet and dripping, forming a puddle on the floor at the foot of my bed. her feet are
bare. her blue nail polish is chipping. it matches the color of her lips.

i want to get her a towel
or make room for her
in my bed. i want her
to wind her wet limbs
around me so i can feel her
skin and bones and hear the water
in her lungs while she breathes
herself to sleep.

but we just look at each other, and she drips onto the floor, and she holds one elbow
with the other hand and shifts her weight and keeps looking at me. and while i look at
her, at her wet clothes and her blue lips and her white skin, i feel cold. i know she’s

there. but i know she isn’t, either.

two.

the day they found claire’s body, i turned eighteen.

my mother set a bagel with a candle stuck in the cream cheese down beside me at the
breakfast table. she stepped back and clasped her hands together, proud.

i blew out the candle
and my mother kissed my head
and the phone rang
and beth from up the street
was calling to tell mom
that claire had been found
six miles up the river

and while my mother gasped into the receiver, i plucked the candle from my bagel and
took a bite.

three.

i kissed claire for the first time while we sat on her bed after school one day when we
were sixteen.

her mouth was open
just a little

and her lips tasted like sweet tea

and i didn’t know what to do with my hands besides to let them move over her sides and
grasp at the thin material of her shirt

a drowning person

grasping for a rope

four.

the news calls her local girl.
tells us all that Local Girl was found
six miles up the river in beauford
early this morning.

and while they say it,
i’m thinking of mornings
and claire
and the time we stayed up all night
to see a meteor shower
and while we sat on her roof
wrapped in a blanket together
we realized the clouds were too thick
and we were going to miss
everything.

five.

even after she’s dead, our mothers don’t know about us.

even when we were all gathered at the police station, her parents across from me while i
waited to be brought in for questioning, we all stared at each other, and only one of us
knew anything close to the truth.

“meredith, just tell them everything you know,” her mother was whimpering, tissues
crumpled in her hand.

here is what i knew:
kissing claire felt like being asleep—safe and unaware. weightless and surreal.
claire, no matter how much i tried to fix her, was broken. a burned out lightbulb,
delicate glass shell still in tact, but insides rattling and rusted.
she had a tiny constellation of freckles on her shoulder where i would place my lips
whenever i tried to console her, to hold her pieces together whenever they began to
come unglued. she was heavy weight on a thin rope. she was a valley of sharp rocks
waiting under a dive into shallow water.
a week ago, while we were lying in her bed, she took a pen from the bedside table. she
turned over my wrists and on the pale skin there, wrote, help me.
the next day, i told her i would.

a detective brought me hot chocolate and set it on the table between us. while i pressed
my palms against the warm sides of the cup, he asked, in his best you-can-trust-me
voice, “you and claire are close, huh?”

close like what? close like florida is close to georgia? or close like the ocean to the shore,
where the waves hit the sand and it’s almost impossible to tell where one really ends and
the other begins?

“yes.”

“so, she must confide in you.”

“i guess so.”

“did she mention anything about running away? or wanting to?”

we used to wake each other up early in the mornings and run before school sometimes.
claire would tie her hair back in this messy ponytail that swung between her shoulder
blades while she jogged. the only reason i could even keep up was because i wanted to
stay near her. something about the darkness that still hung in the morning like a fog
over the wet pavement we ran on made me uneasy.

i would follow her through the subdivision and then down the bike trails to the creek,
our heavy breathing and footsteps the only sound.

“meredith?”

the cup of hot chocolate between my hands no longer felt warm. i pushed it away and
pulled my hands into my lap.

“i don’t know where claire is.”

my mother used to tell me
that every lie i told would stay inside my mouth
a little bug of a lie
and it would grow bigger
every time i lied
until it was so big
i wouldn’t even be able to speak

six.

when i sleep—
++++claire stands on the shore line
++++the ocean pulling at her heels
++++arms stretched out to her sides
++++like she’s worshiping some long-forgotten,
++++make-believe sea goddess

++++claire eats ripe peaches
++++and her mouth tastes sweet

++++claire wakes me before light
++++wraps her fingers around my wrists
++++tugs me from bed
++++and pulls me into an ocean

++++claire braids my hair
++++kisses my shoulders
++++shares my clothes

++++claire paints her nails purple
++++dyes sections of her blonde hair blue
++++and writes poems about dying

++++claire is the current
++++claire is the stillness in the mornings
++++claire is warm blood on my fingertips
++++++++and a whisper of, “please, you said you would help me.”
when i’m awake—

++++claire’s yearbook photo from last year is on the news again. they run the story like
there’s nothing else to talk about, like there aren’t piles of bodies stacking higher
somewhere in the world, or someone who got shot, or a store that got robbed, or some
other kind of injustice besides another dead teenager.
++++my mother brews coffee and watches the broadcast on the tiny television in the
kitchen. while she stirs milk and sugar into her mug, she shakes her head slowly.
++++“it’s such a shame,” she sighs. “such a shame.”

++++claire stands at the end of my bed, stealing my sleep, drinking it in slow swallows
and giggling when i close my eyes to block her out.

seven.

here’s what i know:
++++when describing herself, claire used words like empty and numb
++++when describing claire, i preferred words like endless and new
++++even while we kissed, claire would whisper to me about leaving
++++even while i was tucked between her and the living room couch, she would sigh
into my neck and ask in her softest voice if i would love her even if she were dead
++++before claire, i’d only known the hungry mouths of boys with names like jake and
brad and james and derrick
++++before me, claire knew the tongue and limbs and long, pretty hair of a girl named
abigail, who sat beside me in freshman algebra, and drew out claire’s name over and
over in her notebook
++++when someone told the whole school that abigail loved claire, abigail pulled her
mother’s crafting knife over her wrists and spent the rest of the school year in what her
mother was calling rehab but everyone knew it was really the psych ward.
++++even once claire had shown me the difference between kissing a boy and kissing a
girl, she still hummed out little sighs at the mention of abigail, and told me while she
braided my hair that she had dreams about abigail bleeding, but the dreams were
beautiful instead of sad
++++i often had dreams about claire—
++++in them, she wore pretty dresses that fell above her knees and her hair was a
thousand different colors and she was always painting a picture, but i could never see
what it was.

eight.

claire has been dead for a week and she won’t leave my bedroom.
she sits in the corner, most days, hugging her knees and crying, and her tears are dirty
river water that run down her legs and stain my carpet.

“you can’t stay here,” i tell her, when i wake up and find her still curled in the corner.
“you have to go.”

but when she tries to answer me, she coughs up black water and begins to cry again, her
wet clothes dripping into the puddle she sits in.

nine.

“i don’t know what happened to claire.”

it’s the third time i’ve had to tell detective what’s-his-name what i know about claire.
he’s sitting across the table again, and i’ve got my hands in my lap, and this time, he
actually starts to look frustrated.

“she never told you anything about where she was going that night?”

“what night?”

“the night she disappeared.”

“no, she didn’t tell me anything.”

“but weren’t you close?”

he’s using the past tense, this time. this time, claire isn’t missing. this time, claire is in a
refrigerated drawer somewhere with her name on a toe tag. this time, they know where
she is.

“yeah, we were close. doesn’t mean she told me everything, all the time.”

at least that wasn’t a lie. there were plenty of things claire didn’t tell me. she didn’t tell
me if she ever stopped having dreams about abigail. she didn’t tell me why her dad was
never home. she didn’t tell me why she cried the first time she took her clothes off in
front of me.

“did claire have any enemies? maybe people at school she was unfriendly with for any
reason?”

i think of abigail and her open wrists. the thick, white scars that decorated her skin when
she came back to school. the looks she threw at claire from across the hallway or
lunchroom. like claire had been the one holding the blade. like claire had held that blade
to abigail’s throat and yelled, “fall in love with me! confuse yourself and hide from your
family and love me until you bleed!”

i sometimes dreamt of her doing that to me. for claire to beg me to love her would have
been like a shore begging for the waves to crash against it—pointless, since it would
happen anyway. mechanically. automatically. involuntarily.

“no.” i shake my head. “everyone loved claire.”

ten.

when you live in a town this close to the ocean, every piece of water seems
inconsequential in comparison. the river that washed claire onto its shores leads into the
sea, eventually. the bank where they found her lies deep in the backyards of a high-end
subdivision. i imagined someone finding her, shoving their way through the underbrush
towards the water, searching for a lost tennis ball or frisbee. seeing a set of pale
fingertips reaching out from the mud—
++++a boatless anchor
++++left behind while its vessel
++++moved out to sea

eleven.

here’s how i fell in love with claire:
++++she moved in four houses up the summer before freshman year
++++while the movers brought in the boxes, she wandered barefoot down the sidewalk
to my house, where i was in the yard, laid out across a yellow blanket
++++she asked if she could sit with me
++++and she did
++++and i gave her one of my earbuds
++++and we laid there for hours, just listening
++++and her hair smelled like coconut
++++and her nails were painted blue
++++and even though a boy named jake had just told me he liked me
++++i suddenly didn’t care.

twelve.

i loved claire like the sun loves the horizon: so much that it cannot sleep without kissing
it goodnight.

thirteen.

“you promised you’d help me.”

she waded into the water. the hem of her dress brushed the surface, took on weight and
began to sink and cling to her body the further she waded in.

the gray sun veiled claire’s body, her skin glowing pale in its light. she dragged her
fingers in the water, her blonde hair stringy and tangled against her bare shoulders.

“meredith.”

the soft current pulled her dress.
i stepped both barefeet off the bank, sinking up to my waist in the cold water.

fourteen.

claire’s casket is painted a pale gold. her mother and father sit crumpled in the first row
of folding chairs set up beside her gravesite. i hear her mother’s whimpers as i watch her
shoulders shake. a reverend is talking about jesus, and eternity, and rest.

i am writing poems with my eyes on the gold paint of claire’s new bed:
++++you were january eyes and icicles
++++it burned to hold you

++++i’ll keep you like the river
++++i’ll keep you like calendars keep days

++++i’ll keep you like your lungs kept water

+++++++++like broken jewelry
+++++++++like empty frames

fifteen.

“you have to hold onto me.”

claire lifted her hands and circled my neck with them, dragging her wet fingers down my
collarbone. “hold me under.”

she didn’t move right away. instead, she kept her hands on me, and as she stared at me, i
could see her start to smile.

cheshire cat. rabbit hole. rabbitholerabbithole.

sixteen.

no signs of foul play.
she just fell in and drowned.
she was just swimming and drowned.
she was by herself, and she drowned.
Local Girl drowned.
tragedy, tragedy.

seventeen.

a day or two after claire’s funeral, the news stops talking about her. some dead kid is
found in the field behind the vacant k-mart, and she’s seven so she matters more. her
two front teeth are missing in the smiling school photo they show on the evening news.

while i sit in the living room downstairs and watch, i hear claire stomping around
upstairs in my bedroom. i stare up at the ceiling and watch the hanging light shudder.

eighteen.

i only did what she told me to do.

she was the glue that held my bones in place.
she was the wick. i was the wax.

before she went under, she kissed me. she held my face in her cold, wet hands and
pulled my lips to hers and gave me the kind of kiss that felt less like a goodbye and more
of a thank-you. it felt like burned out stars. it felt like endings.

she didn’t take a big breath in before she went under. she just let go of my face, touched
one more kiss to my chin, and sank under the surface.

she didn’t struggle against my hands.
she held them against her shoulders
until she let go.

nineteen.

my mother wants to know if i need to talk. she leans on the kitchen counter and holds
her mug of coffee with both hands. she looks like a made-for-tv movie. she looks like a
non-attorney spokesperson in a car insurance commercial. she cares, but not for the
reasons she should.

i shrug my shoulders. “i don’t think so, no.”

++++i’m tired.
++++claire kept me up last night.
++++she paced the floor in front of my bed
++++and left dirty, wet footprints on the carpet.
++++i begged her to go to sleep. she pulled on her hair
++++and it came out in wet handfuls.
“well, if you ever do need to talk to someone,” my mother offers, and then hesitates. “i
can find you a nice therapist.”

i pick up a pen and scribble absently on the corners of the newspaper on the table.
“sure.”

please

go

to

sleep

 

twenty.

two weeks after she dies, claire finally leaves.

i wake up and the corner of my room is empty.

all that’s left is a dark stain in the carpet
++++and a few words
++++scratched into the baseboard

+++++++++you

+++++++++did

+++++++++this

Sara WaltersSara Walters knows 384 things about Leonardo DiCaprio (on her last count). She has a little red dog named Weasley and drinks ridiculously overpriced coffee. She writes things that feel and sound rather than only say. Her work has appeared in Bridge EightSo to SpeakGone LawnSugared Water, and Barely South Review, among others.