What Makes a River

What Makes a River

2.6 8
by Deborah Coates

There's a Thing in Lake Michigan and it's after Beth's roommate. Beth wants someone else to take care of it. But when no one steps up, not even the mysterious Paul, who does this kind of thing for a living, Beth realizes that she'll have to do something herself before it's too late.


There's a Thing in Lake Michigan and it's after Beth's roommate. Beth wants someone else to take care of it. But when no one steps up, not even the mysterious Paul, who does this kind of thing for a living, Beth realizes that she'll have to do something herself before it's too late.

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Tom Doherty Associates
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What Makes a River

By Deborah Coates, Stacy Hague-Hill, Sam R. Kennedy

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2010 Deborah Coates
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2701-7


It's after midnight, less than twenty degrees, and a full moon has turned the night silver when Beth sees Amy walk out of Lake Michigan. Water cascades off Amy in sheets, like she's standing in a downpour. Cold Lake Michigan water, twenty-degree air, but Amy isn't shivering. Even Beth can tell that, from a hundred yards away, hidden in shadows so Amy won't see her.

Amy stops several steps up the shore and turns back toward the lake. After a long moment, like held breath, she shudders all over and lifts her arms, looking down at herself as if she can't understand how she got so wet. A stiff breeze rises off the lake and lifts the limp hair along the back of Beth's neck. Amy wraps her arms around herself as if she suddenly feels the cold and stumbles up the beach to the parking lot, where her lime-green Beetle is the only car.

Beth remains, crouched in shadows. Each breath she takes pumps frosty moisture into the air.

For a long time after Amy leaves, there's no sound except the slap of the waves against the shore. Then, the water begins to glow. It intensifies, the glow, until Beth, from her hundred-yard distance, can see that it's not the water at all but something underneath. The water churns like a mini maelstrom until the something rises, looks toward the parking lot where Amy has just disappeared from view, then sinks slowly beneath the waves once more.

The glow fades; the maelstrom quiets. Waves slap gently against the shore.

A man?

No, not a man.

A Thing.

A rat. That's what Beth's daddy would have called it.

A water rat, she thinks. Just what we need.

* * *

Paul sends her email, and it drops her jaw because first, how does he know her email address? And second, why? Because he never made any promises, never even said "Thanks for helping me out that time." But he does — he sends her email.

"Are you okay?"

Three words and a question mark.

She can't figure out what it means. Is it a general question — in this moment on this day? Is it because he's thinking about her — hey, just want you to know I'm here? Because it isn't that he found her attractive; she's not attractive. Is it about the Thing in the lake? Is he asking if she's safe?

She wants to ping him back, to say, "Goddamn you, there's a Thing in the lake and you're a hunter. Come here and hunt it. Leave me out; leave me ignorant and alone." Except she doesn't want to be alone. And she can't be ignorant — can't unknow what she knows.

Damn him.

Damn the world.

She answers, "I'm fine. How are you?"

* * *

Beth's accounting exam is in two hours. It counts for half her grade, covers things they never talked about in class, and she needs an A or better to keep her scholarship. So she's studying and eating breakfast at the same time and she's not wondering what possessed her to major in accounting in the first place, because she knows the answer to that question, when Amy walks into the kitchen.

There's a certain stiffness in Amy's gait, in the way she doesn't look at Beth as she tosses back a mass of curly hair and turns her back to search through the cupboard next to the sink for a clean coffee mug.

Beth watches her warily as Amy pours her coffee and blows on the surface to cool it before taking a cautious sip. Things have been awkward for the last three weeks, long before last night, which Amy doesn't know Beth knows about anyway. Since ... well, Beth would explain things if she could, if there was an explanation for what happened back then. But there isn't. And Beth's never been much for talking anyway.

"Do you hear from him?"

When Amy finally speaks, her voice seems too loud for the room, harsh like sudden sunlight.

"Who?" Like she doesn't know.

"Him. Max."


Beth closes her eyes. Yesterday, the answer would have been easy — no she hasn't heard from him, no she doesn't expect to. He doesn't have her phone number or email address. He doesn't even know her last name. Today, everything is different. He sent her email. But she doesn't know what he means, doesn't know what he wants. So really, the answer's the same.

Amy sets her coffee mug down and faces Beth. Her hands are on the counter, elbows bent, like she's spring-loaded. "I'm not mad," she says.

"Why are we talking about this?" Beth asks. Because Amy walked out of Lake Michigan last night. Doesn't that seem a little more important than one-night stands? Which she didn't have, by the way. No one-night stands for Beth. "It's not like —," she began. "I didn't steal him."

"Oh," says Amy, "I know that." Because that would be ridiculous. Amy relaxes and takes another sip of rapidly cooling coffee. She looks out the window at a blue jay swaying on a branch. She looks back at Beth, tilting her head, like the bird. "You could ... You know a little effort would go a long way."

Beth blinks, because how did a conversation about a one-night stand Amy had three weeks ago turn into a conversation about what Beth looks like? She knows she's not attractive. Her hair is baby fine, hangs limp to her shoulders, and is almost the same color as her pale skin. In sunlight, she looks like a ghost, like she's faded. She's thin — not magazine-cover thin, but bony, like there's nothing to her but skin and bone — and she tends to wear mismatched clothes that she buys at church rummage sales. Still ... "Amy, what do you want?"

Amy looks startled. "Um ... hmmm," she says. "Just ... if you hear from him, let me know." She sets her coffee mug in the sink and is gone before Beth can ask her about Lake Michigan and things that aren't mermen and what she does at night after everyone else goes to sleep.

* * *

When Beth was fifteen, her father gave her a car. She didn't have a license, didn't even have a learner's permit, though she was old enough. He told her it was in case she had to get out quick. She told herself the same thing on the back-country roads when she ran it all the way up to a hundred miles an hour. No other cars, just her and the big open, the road undulating just enough so she could feel it, could see the waning moon waver above her, like the Earth moved when she drove, like it spun just enough, just beneath her, like she could actually break free.

Beth left Nebraska a long time ago. She thought she got away clean. If she hadn't met Paul — if Amy hadn't picked him up in a bar one night — she'd still be happy, invisible, pretending monsters didn't exist. And it was Paul's fault — it was — because he'd made her look at things she didn't want to see.

Three weeks ago, she helped him kill Things that were not-wendigos and fed him soggy French fries in an all-night diner. She put herself out there, became visible to him. He told her his real name — Paul. Amy still thinks that he's Max.

Then he left.

Now there are not-mermen and Amy in the water and Paul sending her email, which doesn't help. She should tell him it doesn't help, because, yeah, if she could just get Paul completely out of her life, everything would be fine.

* * *

After her accounting exam, Beth drives north. She's got no particular destination in mind — that's what she tells herself — just her and the car and the open road, passing the other cars on the interstate as if they're standing still. She's in control when she drives. She sees everything, knows everything. Sunlight glints off the hood, the seat molds itself to her body, her hands sit loose on the steering wheel, and for a moment, just a fraction of a second of a breath, the world is her oyster.

Then, she crosses the border into Wisconsin, takes the first exit ramp, and — it isn't like coming home, since she's never lived in Wisconsin — it's like coming back to an old, familiar state of mind, back to something she thought she'd left forever. She wonders what it says about her that even though she convinced herself a long time ago that she had left her old life behind, she knows where the biggest gun mart in three states is and exactly how to get there.

An hour and a half later, she's got a brand-new pump-action shotgun, a hundred-count box of shells, a manual reloading press, and a scale. She feels like there's something caught in the back of her throat. Something bitter. And bad.

Damn you, Paul, she thinks.

Later, she'll call her sister and tell her that the money she promised to send to fix the machine shed roof isn't coming. She'll say, "Hope the weather's good," and, "Tell Stace I said hi," and the whole time, she'll be biting her tongue, trying desperately not to scream, "Get out! Get out now."

Because it's too late.

No one gets out clean.

* * *

That night after midnight, Paul sends her another email, full of nothing but quotes about rivers, like, "You can never step in the same river twice" and "Rivers always find a way," and — Jesus! — how is that helpful?

At the end of the message, he says, "Rivers don't die when they fall off the edge of the world."

Okay, first, she isn't having problems with rivers because — Lake Michigan? Not a river. Second, how does he know she's having trouble at all? And third — WTF? No, really. What. The. Fuck. Is he talking about?

Why can't he send her normal email, like normal people get: Hi, how are you? Been down in New Orleans (up in Seattle) (over in Topeka). The jazz (coffee) (main street diner) is fine — really great. Nothing is wrong (really) (really, really).

She'd be happier if he sent her spam.

She sends him a reply filled with quotes about rabbits down holes.

He responds within half an hour: "You are not a rabbit."

* * *

Beth has the shotgun and the reloading press and the scale spread out on her bed, shotgun shells scattered across the rumpled bedspread like the detritus of another time, when Amy walks into her bedroom. She looks at the bed, looks at Beth, but all she says is, "Huh."

Beth scoops the shotgun shells into a box as if the problem is that there isn't any place to sit. Amy slumps down on the bed with a heavy sigh.

After a minute, she says, "I might be going crazy."

Beth's gaze catches on the worn poster of a tropical island tacked to the wall just above the bed. She doesn't like the poster anymore — the colors are too bright, too artificial, and the scene isn't a life she dreams of or even wants — but it seemed normal when she bought it, the sort of thing regular people hung on their walls.

"Too much homework?" Beth asks. It isn't as if she doesn't know why Amy thinks she's crazy. But she isn't supposed to know, isn't supposed to be following her roommate through the city at one in the morning. But she does and she is, because she knows things she's not supposed to know — knows Things, whether she wants to or not.

Amy rolls her eyes and sprawls back on the bed, flinging her arms out so one of them thumps against the battered headboard. "I'm so tired," she says. "And I can't figure it out — I mean, I go to bed at like nine o'clock." She sits up, leaning forward as if she's confessing sins. "The other night, I was all wet, I mean, soaked through. And I don't know how. I don't even remember —" She stops and draws a shaky breath. She flings her arms wide again, as if trying to encompass the unencompassable. "See, crazy!"

Beth wants to say, "Why are you telling me this?" Because she and Amy aren't friends. They've been roommates for the last two and a half years, sharing a big old ramshackle house with three other girls just off campus. But Beth knows Amy only asked her because she has a car, because she never gets drunk out of her mind, because she makes sure the bills are paid and the lights stay on and if anyone loses their keys ... well, you can always call Beth, she'll always come — what else does she have to do?

Amy huffs out a breath, and Beth thinks she's angry. Then, the inhale hitches up half a note and she realizes that Amy's trying not to cry.

"Jesus, Amy, you're not going crazy, all right?" Amy raises both eyebrows, and Beth realizes that the words might not have come out quite like she intended. "I mean — what makes you think you're crazy?"

Amy gathers her hair at the nape of her neck with one hand. "My God! Have you not been listening? I'm blacking out, is what I'm saying."

"Like, from drinking?" How is she supposed to handle this? What is she supposed to say?

Amy frowns. "I don't think so. Like, one time, I'm driving down the Dan Ryan, 'cause Jimmy — I mean, anyway, I'm driving, and then" — she snaps her fingers — "I'm at the lake and I'm soaking wet and —" She jumps to her feet and paces the length of Beth's small bedroom. "You have to help me!"

"Why?" The word startles out of Beth and is not exactly what she means.

"Because I need help," Amy says, as if it's simple, as if help is always there when someone needs it.

Beth could say no. Right here. Right now. Tell Amy she can't help her, put the shotgun away, and get out her books. She could put her head down and study like it's all that matters, like her life depends on it. She could. She puts her hands together, intertwining her fingers, and bows her head as if she's praying.

"Beth?" Amy's voice is small, nothing like her usual vibrant self-confidence.

Beth takes a breath and lets it out. "Tell me everything," she says.

* * *

Beth dreams about the Zambezi River. Not about its origins up in a black sinkhole of a marsh, not about the narrow, swift Zambezi running down through Angola and northern Zambia. She dreams about the slow, wide Zambezi down through the African plains.

And because it's a dream, she's on horseback in the middle of the river, on a gray horse with a dark mane — a horse that aspires to be blindingly white and possibly a unicorn. They are floating down the Zambezi — the horse and Beth astride him. She knows it's the Zambezi because there are hippopotamuses and big damn alligators and a boat that goes floating by her with Zambezi River Boat stamped crookedly on the side. The men in the boat cry out to her — "Save us," they say. "We're going over."

"Get out," Beth yells back at them. "Get out, get out, get out." But she's almost completely certain that shouting doesn't do any good.

* * *

Amy wants Beth to follow her everywhere she goes. "Stick to me like glue," she says.

Beth thinks it's the worst idea in a sea of bad ones. She would kill Amy or Amy would kill her if they were together all the time. And though that might solve one of their problems, it's not the solution Beth is aiming for.

"I'm not going to class with you," Beth tells her.

Amy sighs. She looks at Beth in a way that can only be described as puppy-dog sad. Beth can barely take the look seriously, and she wonders whether Amy even does. Isn't she worried about what's happening to her, about losing time, losing control, losing her mind?

"When do you black out?" she asks. "At night, right?"

"So far," Amy says, as if it's only a matter of time before her whole life goes black, before she's walking and talking all day long and not remembering any of it. Beth's pretty sure that isn't going to happen. Because it's just a matter of time before Amy walks into the lake and doesn't return.

"Okay, then," Beth says. "Really, I just have to be with you at night. Go where you go. Watch what you do."

"Excellent," Amy says.

Beth really, really hopes that it is.

* * *

For the second night in a row, Beth dreams of the Zambezi River. She has never been there, is never going there, but in her dreams it is clear, the details sharp as the noonday sun, as a bitter apple, as revolution.

In her dream the river is at full flood and she's still on horseback approaching the falls. She and the horse are small and the falls are huge, like the falls really are — more than a mile wide, 360 feet from top to bottom. And the sound. She never hears sound in her dreams, but she can hear the falls, like a drumbeat, like summer thunder, like the rumble of a distant heart.

* * *

On Thursday, Beth accompanies Amy to three area nightclubs. The music is too loud. There are too many people. Beth is completely out of place, like an unstrung harp at a Southern rock festival. Amy is all bright chatter and high-pitched laughter, moving from table to dance floor to bar to another table, all so fast it makes Beth dizzy. She goes home smelling of smoke and stale whiskey and lemons gone sour.


Excerpted from What Makes a River by Deborah Coates, Stacy Hague-Hill, Sam R. Kennedy. Copyright © 2010 Deborah Coates. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Deborah Coates grew up on a farm in western New York. She has degrees in Animal Science and Agronomy and once helped plant a field of sugar beets in northern Ohio in the rain. She currently lives in central Iowa with a Rottweiler and a German Pinscher. Deb has published stories in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, and SCIFICTION. Her stories have been reprinted in Best American Fantasy 2008, Year's Best Fantasy 6, and Best Paranormal Romance. She recently sold her first novels, the beginnings of a new contemporary rural fantasy series, to Tor. Find her on Twitter and Livejournal.

DEBORAH COATES, author of Wide Open and Deep Down, lives in Ames, Iowa, and works for Iowa State University. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov's and Strange Horizons, as well as Year's Best Fantasy 6, Best Paranormal Romance, and Best American Fantasy.

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What Makes a River 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Merrymoon More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book, but it was short and left unanswered questions that could have been explained with a little more writing. Was an interesting story, just could have been better.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is this book good? I've never read it.