Chapter 5 ~ The River

Liseli didn’t know if she’d slept or not, that night.  She must have; she didn’t remember lying awake the whole time, and she thought there had been dreams.  Or was it just her thoughts running over the day again and again as she lay sleepless?  She seemed to be walking up and down hills perpetually in her half-dreams, searching the endless wilderness for something familiar and safe.  Some sort of sign that things could be right again.

She did not feel rested, as she watched the sky turn colors in the morning.  She crawled over to where Russ lay, and tried to rouse him.  He was in bad shape: the night’s sleep did not seem to have helped him.  His face had a grayish appearance . . . maybe that was just because of the thin covering of black stubble that popped up over his pasty jaw overnight, but she was sure that it was more than that.  He couldn’t even focus on her when he opened his eyes — they looked clouded and glazed.  She couldn’t tell if he comprehended who she was.

She backed away and stood up.  “No, no, no . . . this isn’t good . . . ” she moaned.  “I’m a restaurant manger, not a nurse!  I can’t manage sickness,” she said to him, but he just turned over and groaned.

“What to do what to do what to do.”  Liseli began to pace.  Her first thought was that he needed water — water’s good for everything, right?  But she was torn between the pond and the river.  Which is closer?  The river certainly looked healthier, but it might be a long walk.  The pond wasn’t that near, either . . . .  It seemed like Russ couldn’t even come to enough to get up, much less walk down either slope.  And she didn’t have anything to carry water to him.  And how much would water do, anyway?

“This is ridiculous!” she exclaimed, “I should know what to do!”

She swallowed down the feeling of panic, and knelt beside him.  The thing to do, she decided, was to get him to the river.  Water couldn’t hurt, and then she’d think of what to do next.

“Come on, Russ.  Get up.  You can get up, can’t you?  It’s just a short walk.  Downhill, too.”

He licked his lips and murmured, “I’ll be okay.”

“Yeah, sure.  Up,” she said, trying to tug him up by his shoulders.

“Jus’lemme rest,” he pleaded, his voice slurred and raspy.

“You’ve been resting all night,” Liseli argued.  “And you’re just getting worse.  Aren’t you thirsty?”

His eyes flickered open, and he looked to be almost focusing on her face.  “Ge’me some water?” he whispered in supplication, like a little child asking one more favor before bed.

“I don’t have anything to carry it with,” Liseli insisted.  “You have to get up, Russell.”

“Alright.”  He closed his eyes and made no move.

“Stop being so difficult!” Liseli barked in exasperation.  She felt a tinge of regret a moment afterward, but got to her feet and added, “Well . . . I’m going to the river.  And . . . if you don’t come, you’ll just be left here.  Alone.  Because I may not come back for you.  Do you understand?”

This prompted him to roll over again, and slowly lift himself up to one elbow.  “I’m trying,” he gasped, wincing up at her.  “My bones . . . feel like mush.”  He paused, and added, “Burning mush.”

“Don’t say that.  Here, I’ll help you up,” she offered, unable to stand just watching his slow progress.  She bent down and slipped her arm beneath his, offering her shoulder.  She tried to boost him up, but he was very heavy.  As her legs buckled, she cursed her petite frame.  But she managed to keep her balance, and he got his legs under him.  She drew away for a moment, and he stood alone.

“There . . . that’s better,” he said, turning toward the river and taking a step forward.  “I’m good, now—”

Russ wavered, and Liseli saw that he was about to topple over.  She thrust her arms out to stop him, but he caught his balance on his own.  “Sorry . . .  blacked out for a sec . . . .”

“Are you gonna do that all the way down to the river?” Liseli asked.

“No, I’ll be fine.  But . . . the pond’s closer?”

“You wanna die of pond scum poisoning?”

He hesitated, thinking about it.  “No . . . .”

“I was being sarcastic, Russ.”  She rolled her eyes.  “But seriously, you’re bad enough as is, that stagnant water isn’t good for you.  The river isn’t that far . . . c’mon, I’ll walk you down, okay?”

They ventured out in the still cool morning air, the sun a pale light emerging in the east.  Standing upright and breathing in the fresh air seemed to revive Russ a little, and he was able to make his was down the steep hill, leaning on Liseli less and less as they went.  At the bottom, Liseli dropped her arm from beneath Russ’s shoulder blades, and after a moment he took his arm from around her and walked on his own.  The ground leveled out into a field that led to the eaves of another wood.

It took longer than she’d expected to traverse the woods, and she was acutely aware of Russ’s stymied breathing.  She felt as if she should make some sort of hopeful, encouraging observation, but drew a blank.

The underbrush grew thick and tangled, and Liseli cursed at the thorns and prickers.  They picked their way through the woods with difficulty, until the trees thinned out again.  Liseli could hear the gentle rush of water, and caught a glimmer of blue between the trunks.  She quickened her step.  A stretch of calf-high field grass and flowers lay between them and the river.  There was a road, also, a worn line of weed-pocked dirt stretching from north to south alongside the river.

She didn’t take the time to wonder about where it went, but sighed with relief.  Her happiness was short lived, though.  Russ had dropped behind, and he emerged from the trees looking like a zombie.  Liseli glanced back at him, saying, “There!  It wasn’t that far after all, was it?”

He didn’t answer.  Instead, he dropped to his knees, swaying back and forth as he tried to keep from falling flat on his face.  Liseli was over by him in an instant.  “What’s the matter?  Come on, Russ, this is no time to quit, we’re—”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, “for being such a sick bag of shit.  I don’t know . . . what’s wrong with me . . . .”

His eyes rolled up into his head and he fell forward, fast and heavy.  Liseli’s eyes widened in shock.  She gripped his shoulders and kept him from hitting the ground, though his sudden deadweight nearly sprained her wrists.  She laid him down on the grass, and pushed him over so that he was on his back instead of his face.  “Russ!” she gave him a futile shake, then tried patting his face, but he remained unconscious.

She tugged at his shoulders again, and his head just listed to the side.  Alive?  She fumbled for his wrist and tried to feel a pulse, and she saw that her hands were shaking.  She couldn’t feel anything, and dropped his arm.  It flopped to the ground.  “Sorry,” she muttered automatically, then swore under her breath when he didn’t respond.  She couldn’t tell if the pulse wasn’t there, or if she just couldn’t find the right spot to feel.  She bent down and put an ear to his chest, and heard a heartbeat, but also felt his breathing.  Of course, he never stopped breathing, it doesn’t take a nurse to figure that out, just a brain, you little nitwit, she thought, with relief.  But the feeling dwindled as he began to shiver, even though he still felt burning hot to touch.

She sat back on her heels and put her hands to her forehead, her mind whirling with panicked thoughts . . . . What is the matter?  Was it something in that pond water?  But I drank it, and I feel fine . . . or is that because he was already been sick . . . and weak?  What kind of bacteria do they have in this place . . . stuff we’re not immune to?  Oh God, he has some unknown disease, I know it, I know it, I know it . . . .

Stop, stop, stop!  She tried to calm herself, pushing away the string of disturbing thoughts, taking deep breaths.  Calm down, manage the situation, don’t panic . . . .

She nervously brushed his hair away from his face, trying to think what to do.  She couldn’t carry him to the river . . . and what if there was just worse bacteria lurking in that water, anyway?  She shook her head.  It was a river, not a mosquito infested mud hole, so it should be fine.  And she could at least try dragging him there, she thought.

Liseli hooked her hands under his armpits.  She tugged at him, grunting at how heavy he was.  She cursed her petite, wimpy little frame again, but persisted doggedly.

It made the hike of the day before seem like a stroll down a hallway.  Shuffling backwards, bent over, would have been hard enough even without trying to pull Russ.  Her spine screamed in protest and she tripped and fell on her backside more than once.  But finally, as she hung her head upside down with the blood rushing to it, looking between her legs at where she was going, she saw that the river was only a few feet away.

Liseli sat down and put her hands on her back, grimacing and rotating her neck to loosen it.  Then she crawled to the water’s edge and thrust her hands into the cool rushing current.  She splashed it up onto her face with a shiver of delight, and then took a few hungry slurps from her cupped hands.  It washed down her throat cold, clean and refreshing, and seemed to instantly tingle all through her blood.

When she looked into the water, she didn’t see her reflection, or the riverbed.  It shimmered, a deep, clean blue, but instead of simply reflecting the sunlight it seemed to glow with its own light.  How odd . . . .  She blinked, feeling a little dizzy — or no, just . . . light and loose and . . . free . . . .  It was a good feeling, and she smiled, a sudden giggle escaping her.  Something appeared in the water below her, a face, a woman’s face, but it wasn’t hers.  It was pale, with dark hair and dark eyes, and it stared out at her solemnly.  She didn’t feel alarmed, just stared curiously into the eyes . . . wanting them to laugh — to laugh with her.  The eyes closed and the face disappeared.

She saw her own face now, wavering in the water, a white cloud behind her head.  She looked up.  Sure enough there it was, hanging in the sky . . . the very blue sky.  It is just clear water, after all.  And . . . what had she seen?  Seen?  She couldn’t think why she thought she had seen something.  Silly.

She sat back on the bank.  Well.  Wow.  Can’t remember water having ever tasted better . . . .

Liseli suddenly remembered why she was there.  She crouched back over the edge, and dipped her hands back into the river, scooping up some water to transport to Russ.  She turned, walking on her knees towards him, squeezing her fingers together as tightly as she could, to keep as much water as possible from spilling on the ground.  She looked down at him, and felt silly — she had thought of lifting his head and trying to get him to open his mouth and swallow the water . . . but she could hardly do any of that with both hands pressed together.

Liseli paused, her hands hovering above him, but then she simply parted them, letting it splash down over his face, watching the water with fascination as it cascaded down.  Russ blinked and spluttered a little, then opened his eyes all the way and stared back up at her.

“Can you get up?  The river’s right here.  C’mon, try drinking some water.”  She tugged at one arm with her wet hands.

He groaned, but pushed himself up to his knees and crawled to the river.  Instead of drinking from his hands, he just stuck his face in the water.  He drew back, coughing for a moment, but then he braced his hands on the bank and dunked his entire head under the stream, so far in that the collar of his jacket was soaked through.  Liseli watched him in bemusement, but laughed out loud when he surfaced again and shook his hair out like a dog, sending little droplets of water flying in every direction.  He coughed, and thumped his chest once, but when he looked over at her his eyes were clear, and he smiled.  She noted, with surprise, that there was barely a trace of the sick haggard look he’d worn for the past two days.  As he sat back on the ground and inhaled, he drew in a long clear breath.

That felt good,” he said, running his hands through his hair to slick it back down against his head.

“Uh, are you okay?” Liseli asked.

He wiped a hand across his forehead and replied, “Yeah . . . I feel better . . . .”  He inhaled again, and smiled, stretching his arms out to the side as if he’d just woken up from the most refreshing sleep of his life.  “Mm.  Don’t have water like that in Fayette.”

Liseli just stared for a moment.  Sure, the water had been good, and had rejuvenated her, but . . . .  “No fever?  You feel all right?”  She creased her forehead in disbelief.

Russ just shrugged as his smile widened.  She leaned toward him and felt his forehead to make sure — it was getting so that she didn’t think twice about touching his face.  “You’re right . . . your temperature is normal.  I just don’t understand it.”  She lowered her hand, shaking her head.  “I mean . . . you can’t just be perfectly healthy just like that . . . you . . . I . . . I mean, do you know how worried I was about you?  I thought you were . . . well, dying!”

“Sorry to disappoint.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”  Liseli frowned at him.

“I know.  It was a joke.”

“Oh . . . .  Ha.”

He looked at the ground with another shrug, and nodded.  “Well.  Thanks for being concerned, anyway.  I didn’t think—”

“I would be?”  She lifted both eyebrows.  “No, really, I like seeing people pass out; gives me a twisted kind of satisfaction.”

He peeked back up at her with a half-grin.  “Hmm, thought so.”

“Ha.  Ha,” she reached out and jabbed his shoulder.  “See if I ever feel concern for you again.”

Encouraged, his grin widened mischievously, “Was that supposed to be a punch?  Or were you brushing grass off my sleeve?”

“I was swatting a fly.”  She tilted her chin up and crossed her arms.

“Oookay . . . .”

“A big, pesky Russell-fly . . . of the . . . of the, eh, loutish variety,” she finished, nodding.

“I see.”  He still looked pleased with himself, as he lay back and stretched out on the ground, folding his hands under his head.  He smiled balmily up at the sky.  “I like that.  From now on, you can consider me the buzz in your ear . . . the bug in your hair . . . the crunchy surprise in your food . . . the splatter on your windshield . . . the guts on your swatter . . . the—”

“You are a very silly boy.”  Liseli leaned over and looked down at him with practiced sternness, her mouth twitching in a reluctant smile.  “But I am glad you’re feeling better.  So there.  Flyface.”

He reached up and tugged at her ponytail dangling above him.  “And you’re the window I beat my little fly brains against . . . the zapper I fry myself with . . . the Venus flytrap I—”

“Stop there.”

He sat up.  She leaned back out of the way, but their faces were close together as he suggested, “Or you’ll swat me again, right?”

“Alright, what has gotten into you?”

“Nothing.”  He blinked innocently.

Liseli paused, then huffed, “Did you just bat your eyelashes at me like a girl?”

“No!”

“Yes, you did.”

A chuckle escaped her.  Isn’t really that funny, she told herself.  But she just felt like laughing.  “Your fever isn’t gone, it just went to your brain, Russell.”

“Yeah.”

They fell silent.  Russ watched her face, but Liseli cautiously cleared her throat and darted an awkward glance around at anything besides him.  In the silence she noticed how close he was.  She stared at a bush to her right, but felt his breath brush by her face as he exhaled.  It smelled like the river . . . not a bad smell . . .  and she was aware of his hand moving as he lifted it to . . . scratch the side of his face.  Then he returned it to rest on the ground.  Very . . . close . . . by . . . .  Her eyes drifted back to his face.  “Nice place by the river here isn’t it?” she asked, turning it into one word.

“Uh . . . um . . . yeah, I guess.”  He shrugged.

What the hell.  Do it.  Liseli lurched forward and brushed her lips across his in one quick swipe, then planted a light peck on the corner of his mouth.  She rocked back and settled rigidly into her previous position, blushing.  Russ stared at her for a moment, mouth working as if he was trying to say something.  But then he just reached out for her, grabbing her arms and pulling her toward him in an awkward jerk.  She didn’t resist, and he kissed her back, tasting her lips hesitantly.  His mouth was warm, and the overnight stubble was itchy as he pressed closer.  The kiss tickled, but felt good.  Very . . . very . . . good . . . .

“Nh-uh-uh.”  Liseli suddenly pulled back, shaking his hands away.  She scrambled to her feet.  Russ stared up at her and gulped, but didn’t say anything.  Liseli turned and took a couple steps away.  He drew his knees up and looped his arms around them with a sigh.  They said nothing, but when her back was to him, Liseli stared at the flowing ripples in the river and couldn’t stop a smile from creeping onto her face.

Not bad . . . not bad at all . . .  mused a voice, at once inside her head yet distinct from her mind. She barely had time to comprehend this strangeness before it continued, Tastes good, does he?  I thought he would.  Looks like the type, you know them when you know them.  Shouldn’t have stopped him, sweetheart.

“What the . . . ?”  She looked around, cheeks flushing; then she caught sight of the familiar figure of the child standing a little ways up a hill across the river, staring down at them.  All other thoughts fled.


Thank you for reading the first five chapters of Alisiyad. Please visit my Lulu page to read the rest of the story!