by Regan Puckett
Two summers ago, a girl drowned at this river. Now, Skinny-legged Sara Dawkins, four-eyed freckle-faced gap-toothed girl, is burying herself in the damp riverbank, sinking deep like a worm returning home. She’s yanked her denim skirt over her knees to let her calves rest in the cool, forgiving mud. Tugged on a fishing hat from a box her father left behind and shielded her face from the June sun. There were weeds lining the spot where she planted herself, hardy strands of straw husks, yellowed blades of dead grass the sun drank from till they dried up. She ripped them out in handfuls, let them drift in the wind. Some scattered fifteen feet away. Others found their way to the river and floated on.
The girl’s body was found miles away from where Sara sits, washed up and waterlogged. She was a girl people cared to look for, who got good grades and wore her hair in silken braids and stood at the helm of the annual Christmas float. A girl whose disappearance demanded a search party, with a hundred strangers calling her name into the night. Sara’s mother joined a search team. She wore a highlighter yellow vest and carried a flyer with the missing girl’s school picture. When the body was found, Sara’s mother cried an ugly cry, snot-nosed and swollen eyed. Sara tried to hug the sadness out of her, squeezing her mother’s folded arms like she was pulling her body back to shore.
Sara Dawkins never learned to swim, which is why she likes the river. It rushes like a speed train, spitting cold froth back at her when she stands too close. She likes to stand too close. When she feels brave, she sits on jagged rocks at the river’s edge, clings to the spine of a tree as she dips her feet in. The water pulls at her ankles like an invitation, but she doesn’t let go of the tree, not till her heels are back on the broken shore, and the pang in her stomach recedes. One day, she’ll grab onto a tree limb and swing into the water. Catapult, cowabunga. One day, she won’t be scared anymore.
Sara’s mother doesn’t know Sara spends time at the river. She’s never asked. When Sara comes in at night, all mud stains and sunburns, her mother rolls her eyes. Sometimes she leaves a plate of leftovers in the fridge for Sara, a pat of mashed potatoes that started as powder from a box, a lump of meatloaf with too much ketchup. Other nights, she tells Sara to fend for herself. Sara microwaves popcorn, squeezes bottled butter over the yellowed puffs, and devours it in her bedroom as she reads. Every page of every book is marred with sticky fingerprints. Sara likes to think of ways she can leave herself behind when she floats somewhere new. Her father is a box in the garage, fishing gear and dried up bait. Sara wants to become more.
Now, she stares at the whirling blue waters, looking for signs of life beneath the surface. The map she printed out says she could end up a whole state over if she lets the river lead her. Eventually, it pours into the Mississippi, and if she follows it all the way, maybe she’ll end up halfway across the country. She’ll walk into her new life dripping algae and smelling like fish, and the people she meets will think of her like Ariel, like a princess who needs saving. They will want to save her.
Regan Puckett writes from the Ozarks, where she drinks big cups of coffee and writes tiny stories. Find her new stories in trampset, MoonPark Review, and forthcoming in the 2021 Best Microfiction anthology