The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2023 Winners Anthology, Enter the Imaginarium here.
“June 2020: Deep Waters” by Brianna Bird, Marist High School
Third Place, High School Level, 2023
June 2020: Deep Waters
Marist High School
Eden hadn’t really wanted to go kayaking. For one thing, there was a lot of water out there. And water made you cold. Or wet. Of course, there could also be humans out there. Humans who breathed. Breath, Eden thought as she inflated the banana-yellow kayak, was such a fleeting thing. So hard to hold onto; in one moment, and out the next. Jacob had insisted to their grandparents that the trip would be good for all of them. Chloe, Roslyn, and Jonathan had happily agreed, of course. The day smelled pink, like pink apples and red books, and pink, hot days. This was not a good sign. Pink was the color of disappointing summers. It was sweet and rotten.
Eden reluctantly strapped on her life jacket and joined Jacob and Roslyn beside the yellow kayak. Jacob pushed the boat into the water, and the two girls seized their oars and hopped in behind him. Jacob had been the one to propose the spring break vacation to their grandparents’ home. They arrived the day before the world turned upside down. Of course it would be that day, the day that they were visiting their grandparents, that they got stuck. Stuck for weeks. Weeks turned to months. How much longer? That had been when everything started to smell blue. Blue, like Grandmother’s hydrangeas, like Eden’s teacher’s background during school. Like the rainy texture of Oregon.
Eden really didn’t want to do this.
Jacob pushed his oar through the surf, and Roslyn pulled the bunch of wildflowers from her overalls to braid into Eden’s hair. The voyagers—Eden decided that was what they were—had set off along the river. To find what? Treasure, Eden thought, buried within the watery depths, strewn about by a serpent of the deep.
Roslyn cocked her head, watching the fish slip beneath the boat. She had her dreamy look in her eyes, the one that told everyone she was going into her romantic philosopher mode. “Why do you think we exist?”
Eden looked at Roslyn, only slightly caught off guard by the question; it was from Roslyn, after all. “Why do we exist? Well, why not?”
Jacob looked thoughtful. “Is this a ‘what makes us exist’ question, or a ‘why should we exist’ question?”
Roslyn shrugged. “Both. They’re tied together, aren’t they?”
Eden stared at the rippling water. This was not part of the quest. Or was it? Maybe it was. After all, no one really knows what to anticipate upon an adventure. Wasn’t that what “venturing” was?
“I think we’re here to do good,” Roslyn decided. “But why? Why should we? What is good, and who says so? After all, isn’t everything good for someone, in some fashion?”
Jacob thought for a moment. “If ‘good’ isn’t the absence of bad, what would still happen even if there is no bad?”
“You need to take action to do good things, right?” said Eden, suddenly. “So the meaning of life obviously isn’t to spend your whole life thinking about that. It’s got to be an action.”
“So are you saying that if there’s no bad in the world, or even if there is, we’ve got to actively do good?” Jacob asked. “I mean, what is good? How can we tell?”
Everyone thought for a moment, watching the trees cast strange shadows across the waters, reaching down beside shafts of light to strike a hidden treasure. The serpent had moved on, thought Eden, waiting for them at a later part of the venture.
“Well, creating things is good, right? You have to create good. Bad is usually corrupting something that used to be good, or grew from warped good things. Take spring break vacation, for example; it started out fun, and by the end we were quarantined, you were doing online school, and I was losing most of my ability to breathe properly due to a world-wide pandemic.”
“But what makes creating good?” Roslyn was finishing Eden’s crown braid, and began studding it with flowers. “Who’s to say what’s good and bad?”
“The creator, I suppose. The one who created in the first place; they know best.”
“So then how can you trust that the creator is good? How do we know what the creator does is right?” asked Roslyn.
“We look at what the creator does, and how it impacts people. Does it bring real joy? Is it beautiful? Sure anything can be used for bad in human hands, we just need to trust the creator knows what they did, and how to use it,” Jacob concluded, ignoring the frivolous hair-braiding.
Eden bit her lip. “But all we have is the here and now. How can we know what we’re doing is good, that it’s right? For all we know, we could drown today. Right now. That’s all that we know for certain will happen; we don’t know how our actions will impact tomorrow. What if tomorrow, we’re going to be quarantined? Who cares if we leave flowers on the doorstep of the governor, if our government is the one keeping us quarantined? All we have is right now, right here. We can’t take the risk of doing stuff—what if we get hurt?”
“Trust. All we have right now is this moment, and trust. We need to trust it all was created for a reason.” Jacob lifted a hand from his oar, and gestured to Roslyn. “Take the creation of you, for instance: you were born from chaos, the universe generates chaos. So why are you here? You were created to resist chaos.” Jacob paused to adjust his grip on the oars. “So you resist chaos and deterioration, you create. So the creator can be trusted to create beauty.”
Roslyn leaned back to look at Eden’s hair. “You are the Princess of Caterpillars.”
Eden blinked. “Right. Whatever you say.” She turned to Jacob. “But how–”
Roslyn ignored her, pointing to the flowers. “No, you’ve got a caterpillar crown stretched over your hair.” She pointed to the flowers. “Do you think caterpillars eat flesh?”
Roslyn really was an interesting person.
Behind them, Eden heard a soft splashing before she could continue her question. Chloe and Jonathan’s kayak pulled up alongside them. Jonathan turned to Jacob. “Do you still wanna do our bet?”
Jacob gestured to his bag. “Yeah, I’ve got a package of chocolate chips right here. Do you have yours?”
“Of course! It begins now!”
“I’m sorry, what?” Roslyn and Eden both stared at Jacob clueless.
They all began rowing harder for no apparent reason.
“Why?” Eden called, over the spray and splash of their oars.
“To beat Chloe and Jonathan!” Jacob shouted back. “Whoever wins gets a bag of chocolate chips!”
The adventurers rowed, their oars scraping against the hulls of the ship. Eden, apprehension in her eyes, could see the spray rising up, landing on her skin. True, chocolate was a good motivation. But water. If it got into her lungs, what would it do? She pictured the stuff flooding her chest, filling her nose. Breathe. In, out. Breathe. There were endless cases in which she could see herself falling into the water; a stray bash of an oar, an over-excited wave. Breathe. Eden’s shoulders inhaled, her lungs tensed, afraid to let go. If she let go, would she inhale again? She couldn’t get it back. She remembered her last day of school, her last time seeing her parents’ faces in the flesh. Her last real breath.
The sickness had left her, but it haunted her lungs, clinging about her rib cage; a ghost of an old monster, slithering through her every breath. Fear. It branded itself across her brain, and smelled of hot, mushy, rotting, things. It had swept through everything, even her food. The heat of the sickness and smell of rotting apples had followed her everywhere. The fear had never ceased to plague her. As she inhaled she smelled pink. And blue. And brown.
Eden’s fear swirled within her chest, brushing against her heart and lungs. If water touched her lungs, no one knew what could happen to her. No one, but her fears. They had told her many times. They had told her each ending, and each, scratched upon her mind like a memory, lived for her. Moved for her. Inhaled for her.
Eden slowly realized she had stopped moving. Her oar was limp in her hands. Jacob was beside her, his hand on hers. “Eden, exhale. C’mon.”
Eden sighed, then gasped. “I don’t like this.” She couldn’t look him in the eyes as she said it. “I wanna go home.”
The brave adventurer let her weapon drop in surrender.
“Eden, you’ve got this. Breathe. You’re gonna be fine.” Jacob carefully took the oar from her. “Just sit for a moment, OK? There’s a drop coming up. Have your wits about you.”
Eden exhaled. Roslyn sat beside her, and murmured, “Remember, you’re a caterpillar princess.” Eden smiled.
The adventurers journeyed on, leaving their rivals behind them. The girls could smell the scent of sage and lilac wafting down from the bushes on either side of the river as they continued. There was a wildness, a freedom, in the wind susurrating through the trees. It tangled itself in the flowers in their hair, and it brought a cold mist to settle across Jacob’s cheeks, the soul of wonder emblazoning itself across their hearts. The light of the sun fell across the tree branches, gilding them in light and reaching down to the deepest shafts of the watery depths to illuminate the treasure of centuries past, forged and shaped by the rough forges of the river. The water rippled about their vessel, parting silently and rippling as the ship sailed on, leaving the rivulets of their voyage engrained upon the surface, reverberating and gliding across the river. The waters had at last settled their graceful reverie when another craft brought its oars to rake across the face of the river, slicing stealthily through the glass and leaving the water to once again feel the repercussions of rivalry coursing through it.
And yet, ahead of them, the beast lay in wait. Charybdis, her jaws gnashing, formed a mighty ledge within the ravine. Eden pushed her oar through the white surf. Rocks bit their stone teeth against the vessel’s hull as they approached the waterfall lying ahead of them. The river’s sides grew close, forming a chasm; apprehension was visible upon the faces of Eden and Roslyn. The voyagers were fast approaching the drop, and Eden forced herself to keep her eyes open. The waves beat upon the sides of the rocks, tunneling down the cliff to the next section of river. Jacob’s eyes were wild with adventure, his arms pushing back the water with his oar, as though to restrain the others attempting to follow him. The prow of the ship neared the breakers, and was quickly sucked into the all-consuming current, Charybdis unleashing her power upon them. Jacob shouted in ecstasy as the party was born over the drop, Roslyn and Eden clinging to each other’s hands as they felt their hearts plunge down and then–
“That was awesome!”
“The chocolate chips!”
“We literally almost died!”
“The chocolate chips!”
Jacob looked up to see his bag of chocolate, his treasure, sailing through the air. Eden looked on in horror, her heart hammering with the fear of the moment. Water. It was surrounding her. She was drowning in a sea of fears.
Trust. Eden took one look at Jacob’s face, at Roslyn’s despair, and jumped over the side of the kayak as the chocolate chips hurtled towards the surf.
For a terrible moment, everything was full of surf and flailing limbs; Eden’s lungs felt strangled with a combination of terror and the icy river. The monster had unleashed its fury against the trespassers, gnashing its jaws and slicing its serpentine coils about Eden’s frame. Distant screams came to her from her silent struggle against the roar, the screams drowning beneath the turmoil. What had she been thinking? It would end her, down within the deep, no breath left to scream. And then light stabbed through the waters, piercing the violence of the dark, and bringing up Eden through the waves, arising from the chaos. In her hand, she clasped the fruits of her labors, free at last from the serpent’s watery grasp.
She had done it. Eden’s head reached the surface. She had vanquished the monster, beaten down her terrors to the bottom of the river bed, where her toes had felt the presence of the treasure lying there. Heck, she had beaten COVID-19. She was living in a pandemic; she was fighting to inhale and exhale every day. But she was surviving.
“Eden!” Roslyn screamed as Eden swam up to hold onto the side of the kayak. She held the bag of chocolate above her triumphantly, her crown glistening with the blood of her enemy. A light shone in her eyes, full of glory, of strength. A girl made of courage and light.
“Eden, omigosh! The other kayak literally went over you, and I literally thought you were dead!” Roslyn hauled her over the side of the boat, before wrapping a towel around her and, to Eden’s relief, shutting up. Jacob grinned as Jonathan and Chloe’s boat drew near.
“Dude, we so beat you!” yelled Jacob to Jonathan.
“Hey, there’s more of you guys!”
“Yeah, and you just tried to drown one of us! She totally deserves chocolate!”
Eden laughed as Jonathan reluctantly tossed the bag of chocolate to the older kids, muttering something that sounded like “We didn’t do it on purpose.”
It felt so good, Eden realized, to laugh unrestrained. Roslyn was back to her normal, quiet self, thankfully—and Eden was alive.
At the landing, all five of them clustered around the small fire to share the bags of chocolate. Wrapped in fluffy towels, Roslyn looked over at Eden.
“You know, we only have this exact second right here. In fact, we don’t even have that, or the second after it. The only thing we have is trust.”
Eden nodded. “Yeah.” And she did have trust. She was a girl made of courage. Not her own, but that of something bigger, something beautiful. Beauty, courage, light, trust.