The train journey down was uneventful; Samuel alternated between reading on his smartphone and sleeping fitfully, head rocking against the window. Outside, the landscape shifted smoothly from red-brick suburbs to wide fields to rolling green hills, patched with woodlands.
And rivers, of course: silver-shining, threading the fields and the woods, glittering between rocks and trees, following the train track and the roads like serpents.
Samuel woke up as the train crossed the bridge, rattling and swaying. He opened his eyes blearily to see the glittering surface of the largest river turning dark and transparent in the shadow of the bridge, little rills lacing up rocks. It was beautiful, but he did not try to look at it closely as the train clattered off the bridge and into the town.
At first glance, Elton Bridge had changed little since Samuel’s childhood. There were the same deep-shading trees, the same red-brick and wooden-slatted buildings and the broad walkways, the river glimmering through it all. He stared out the window, blinking.
Then he saw his cousin Charlene standing like a grim monument on the platform, her skinny pink-haired daughter beside her, and he was reminded forcibly of how everything was, in fact, vastly different.
He staggered off the train, suitcase a deadweight in his hand, and Charlene’s eagle gaze turned in his direction. “Samuel!”
She strode in his direction, the daughter confusedly yanking her earbuds out. “Good to see you, Samuel,” Charlene said briskly, giving him a rather gentler hug than she would have in years past. “How was the trip down?”
“Ah, well…” Samuel shrugged. “Okay, I guess.” He smiled at the daughter. “Hi, Lenora.”
She managed a half-smile, still covertly goggling. “Hi, Uncle Samuel.”
How you doing? Samuel was about to say when he suddenly bent in half, racked by an attack of coughs.
Lenora stared, wide-eyed, while Charlene fussed around him. “Your medicine! Did you bring your medicine?”
Slowly, the onslaught eased. Samuel drew one breath, then another. He looked up, hands still braced on his bony knees, to see Charlene still hovering, Lenora gaping, and half the platform staring.
Samuel managed a weak smile. “It’s all right, people. I’m fine.”
Muttering darkly, Charlene firmly took his suitcase and led him out of the platform to the parking lot. Lenora trailed beside Samuel, eyeing him dubiously.
“Are you really okay?” she asked in an undertone.
“I’m fine for now.”
“But you’re not—”
“Lenora!” Charlene turned a blazing glower on the teenager. “Don’t ask things like that!”
“I was only saying—”
“It’s okay, Charlene,” Samuel sighed. “Let’s just go to the house.”
Samuel’s things were slung into the trunk, Samuel himself bundled into the passenger seat. Lenora reinserted her earbuds while Charlene, still muttering, started the car.
Once they were in motion, Samuel relaxed somewhat, watching the town go by. The familiar sights—the red-brick library, the bakery where he and Arianne had eaten cookies as children, even the river promenade—were balm. Then they crossed the bridge.
The river was closer beneath this bridge than the one the train used. Closer and darker. A group of kids were wading nearby, but all Samuel could see was the broad dark pool, shaded by the bridge, ringed by rocks, spattered with leaves. For an instant, Samuel thought he could see movement, deep beneath, even though there was no way the doors could be open at this time of day, in this weather.
He looked away, no longer soothed.
“So how long have you got?”
Samuel leaned back in his chair with a sigh. On the mantelpiece, the clock ticked, on and on, while outside the river gleamed in the night. “Not long. Six months, more or less. Have you told Lenora?”
“Yes,” Charlene said. “But she won’t rest until you’ve confirmed it, you know.”
Samuel sighed. “Understandable.”
Charlene leaned forward on the sofa, eyes soft as they seldom were. “But, Samuel. Shouldn’t you be where you can get treatment easily? Not in this little town.”
“Treatments won’t do me any good now, Charlene,” Samuel said flatly. “It’s too late for that. And I wanted to see you again. And…this place.” He nodded at the room, at the house that had changed so little in thirty years.
Charlene’s gaze hardened. “Are you sure you’re not torturing yourself?” she asked, slightly sharp. “It won’t bring her back, you know.”
Samuel glared. “Yes, Charlene. I do know that. But…I had to come back.”
She shook her head, standing up to go to the table and pour them both another amber glassful of whisky. “Well, I guess you know what you’re doing. But I hope you’re not making a mistake.”
So do I. He accepted his glass, felt the drink in his throat like fiery gold. “I’ll be trying to finish my book here as well,” he said. “So I won’t be in your way.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Charlene. “God knows I had enough practice when George was alive…I’ll tell Lenora to keep quiet.”
Samuel laughed slightly. “Let her slam doors and shout. It’ll take my mind off things.” He took another measured mouthful. “Does she spend much time by the river?” he asked, keeping his voice casual.
Charlene’s sharp glance told him she wasn’t fooled. “Not anymore. She’s always on her laptop or her phone.”
“That’s good to hear.” Samuel felt another attack coming and put down his glass only just in time.
Charlene waited until he’d finished coughing. “Are you sure you don’t need something…?”
“Bed, I think. It’s been a long day.”
Charlene sighed again, eyes deep wells of worry. “Good night, Samuel. Sleep well.”
Somewhat to his surprise, Samuel did sleep well, deep and dreamless; and the first day went by relatively smoothly. Charlene had assigned him as his bedroom the downstairs den that had belonged to her husband; he spent a peaceful morning setting up his laptop and books. He sat before the window, with a mug of the herbal tea the doctor had recommended, while outside the shadows shifted on the lawn and the river glimmered through the trees.
He saw Lenora stalking about, eyeing him sidelong, and he guessed, whatever dire threats Charlene might have delivered, that it would not be long before she confronted him directly. Sure enough, that very first day, after Charlene had driven off to work, she marched right up, staring at him with laser eyes.
“Are you really sick?” she asked.
“If by ‘sick,’ you mean dying, then yes,” Samuel said calmly, taking a sip of tea.
She recoiled. “Dying?”
“Yes. I’ve got about six months or so.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Lenora shifted awkwardly. “Is that why you came here?”
“More or less. I want to finish my book too.”
She looked even more surprised at this. “Book?”
“Economic history of the northeast.”
“Oh.” Her face fell flat with boredom. “Well, uh, can I get you anything? Or do anything?”
“No, I’m fine. Though if you could avoid playing music really loudly, I’d appreciate it.”
As he’d intended, she giggled at this, whole face brightening. “I promise.” She checked her phone, suddenly adult. “I’ve got a babysitting job in a couple of hours anyway.”
“Good luck with that. I hope they’re not too awful.”
Again, she laughed. “No, not too bad. But, seriously, is there anything I can do?”
Samuel smiled at her, sadly. “No, Lenora. Nothing.”
The rest of the week passed quietly enough. But, that Saturday night, it rained.
Samuel had been watching the clouds gather all afternoon, dark and heavy with water, and as night fell, hastened by the clouds, the rain began to fall. Warm, heavy summer rain, beating down, bouncing off the leaves, billowing in sheets before the wind, soaking everything, hissing into the river. Samuel listened to the water gushing past, its sigh and roar.
Samuel and Charlene were both silent and uneasy, preoccupied with memories thirty years old. Lenora, picking up on the adults’ mood, said nothing, but interrogated them with wide dark eyes.
Samuel answered none of her silent questions. Avoiding her gaze, he went to bed, alone in the thrashing, moaning night.
He woke up suddenly, past midnight. The night was silent, the storm passed on, but the doors were open. He could feel them in the sudden gulf of strangeness, hear them in the barely audible voices outside.
Slowly, Samuel stood up, pushing his feet into sneakers, and stepped out down the hall. The house was full of shadows; he moved silently through them and out into the rain-spangled yard.
The clouds had cleared, making way for the moon. Silver light sparkled everywhere, flashing from puddles and twinkling in the jewels lining the edges of leaves.
At the end of the yard, the river rushed, the moonlight dancing on its surface.
Samuel made his way to the bottom of the yard and sank down on the wooden bench, heedless of the wet. The bench had not been here, thirty years ago.
It had been so dark that night. And the rain had been so hard.
Samuel looked down and was not at all surprised to see the dripping black head peering up at him from the water’s edge, nor the long white arms braced against the bank. A thin face grinned at him, as pale as his own was dark. In the water, a silver tail flashed.
“Hello,” he said wearily.
A sharp-toothed, green smile flashed. “Samuel. It is you. It’s been long…” The siren pulled herself onto the bank, tail dissolving into legs as she crept closer. She sat down on the bench beside him, cold fingers crawling over Samuel’s face and hands. “Thin,” she mourned, her voice like water chattering over rocks. “So thin…You’re dying.”
“Yes,” Samuel said, stiff and upright. “Yes, I am.”
She let out a keen, bending over his hands, cold lips pressed against his flesh. “Poor Samuel…So young.”
“I’m human. Humans die.”
The siren stood up, pale breasts peeking from her curtain of hair. “Come, Samuel. You won’t die.” She nodded at the water.
Samuel looked at the river. Moonlight still frosted its black surface, but it was more restless than before, waves churning over its black depths. “No.”
“She’s there,” said the siren. “She’s still there. Beneath.”
Samuel sat still by the black river, memories of a black river flickering. “Is she.”
“Yes. Still there. Still there, Samuel. With us.” The siren was flowing now, flesh transforming into water that trickled back over the bank. “You’ll be with us. Pretty Samuel. Soon, Samuel. Sooooon…” Her voice slipped away as she dissolved, flowing over the bank and splashing back into the river.
Samuel sat a long moment before standing up and making his way back in the darkness.
It was difficult to concentrate the next day.
Samuel sat before his laptop as usual, but only occasionally tapped at the keys. Outside, the yard was still covered with raindrops, sparkling and refracting the fresh morning sunlight, while the river gushed beyond, strengthened by its dousing last night. Overhead, the trees dipped leafy branches into the water. It was a beautiful scene, but Samuel watched it through a haze of dark memories and steadily growing pain.
Behind him, the door opened and Lenora stood in the doorway, awkwardly balanced on one leg. “Hey. Uncle Samuel.” She cut herself off abruptly.
“Yes, Lenora?” Outside, a bird swooped down for a bath in a puddle, splashing and cheeping.
“Uh…you need anything? From, like, the store? ‘Cause Mom said to ask you.”
Samuel shook his head. “No. Thank you, Lenora. I’m going to the doctor’s tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Lenora shifted to her other leg. “This must be really bad,” she said at last.
“Well, I’d rather not die at the age of thirty-nine,” Samuel agreed with a faint smile. “But we don’t always get a choice about these things.”
Lenora shifted yet again, and Samuel watched with interest and some amusement as curiosity welled up within her expression, warred with guilt and embarrassment, and won out.
“So, Uncle Samuel. What happened?”
“What happened when?” he asked, though he already knew.
“When you were kid. Mom won’t talk about it. But didn’t somebody die?”
“My twin sister,” Samuel said shortly. “Her name was Arianne.”
Lenora forgot even to wriggle in her sudden horror. “Oh, my God. What happened?”
“She drowned. We used to come here every summer, you see. Arianne liked playing by the river. One night she slipped and fell in.”
“In the river?” Lenora was temporarily distracted by this new puzzle. “But how? That river’s two feet deep, max!”
Images flashed: the churning waves that night, over the bottomless black abyss, the depths that went down and down. “A person can drown in three inches of water,” he said, “if they’re facedown long enough.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Lenora looked ready to climb out of her skin with discomfort, but couldn’t resist one last question. “How old was she?”
“We were nine.” Nine years old and clinging to the rain-slick roots, freezing cold, while shining black heads emerged from the churning water, silver forms rising from the depths and those voices ringing through the rain, that chorus of unearthly voices from the black caves below.
“That’s awful. I’m sorry.”
Samuel shrugged. There was, in his experience, very little he could say to this.
“How could you come back here?” Lenora’s eyes were wide. “If this is where she died?”
Samuel smiled a little. “That’s why I came back, Lenora.” And I hope you never have to understand that.
Lenora clearly did not. She shifted around some more. “Oh.” Pause. “I’m really sorry, but…please don’t tell Mom I asked, okay? She’ll kill me.”
Samuel grinned. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
“Thanks.” Lenora paused; then asked, rather helplessly, “You need anything now? Tea? Medicine?”
Samuel decided to take mercy. “Some tea would be great, thanks,” he said, and let her scamper off.
The rain might have passed, but there was a full moon that night.
It took a conjunction of circumstances for the doors to open; by itself, a full moon was not quite enough. No sirens would be crawling out of the water tonight, but there was no denying that a full summer moon on the sleek, rain-swollen river would thin the boundary, making the barrier shifty and uncertain.
He was nine years old again, skinny and shivering in the darkness of a rainy night, thin fingers clinging to the wet roots as Arianne, smiling dreamily, was pulled down by the multiple arms and eager faces, into the black river. Samuel cried out—Arianne!—and the sirens all turned, swishing around to gape in astonishment, eyes white and wide in the darkness.
Then he himself was journeying, swooping to the middle of the rain-pounded river. No sign of Arianne or her escorts now; but he dived down, the water striking him like a tearing veil as he entered the depths below.
Not the shallow pools that humans knew: those pebbly, sunlit shallows that could scarcely hide the trout that flashed from wading feet. No, these were the depths that lay behind the doors, that went down and down, past all light, past all laughter save that of the sirens as they flashed past him, black hair waving in the current, green teeth gleaming, escorting him further and further down, to their watery grottoes lit by phosphorescent algae, where Arianne waited.
Not the Arianne he had known and remembered still, but the creature she had become. Her arms long and graceful, glimmering with strings of shells and polished stones, round breasts blooming darkly among her cloud of black hair. Her silver tail shone, and her smile was as green and fanged as her sisters’.
She reached for him. Said his name.
And Samuel awoke.
He lay there a long time, alone in the moon-drunk night, and wondered if, even with the doors closed, the creatures that waited below the river could hear his pounding heart.
The next day, Charlene took him to the doctor, driving him out of town and past cow pastures and fields to the nearest hospital. It was a quiet drive through the hills, but not a particularly peaceful one. Still reeling from the dream, Samuel was unresponsive to Charlene’s communicative sallies, and the medical inspection itself did not help matters.
“I think Dr. Lee’s right,” Charlene lectured as they made their way back to the car. “You need better care than this little place can provide!”
“We’ve been over this, Charlene,” Samuel said wearily. He opened the door and threw in the latest prescription, still in its plastic bag. “All the care in the world won’t do me much good now. And I want to die with some dignity, not hooked up to a bunch of machines.”
Charlene glared at him, eyes bright and hard.
“What?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” she said, and swung herself into the car.
Sighing, Samuel followed her.
As he’d expected, she turned to him almost immediately. “It’s about Arianne, isn’t it.” It was not a question.
Samuel sat back in his baking-hot seat. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“It happened, Samuel.” Her voice was firm. “She’s with God now. And nothing’s going to bring her back.”
Samuel sat and stared at the sunlit windshield, at the heat-blistered parking lot beyond, and saw only dark water, cold shadows, and flashing silver scales. “What if she’s not with God?”
“What if she’s still there?” Samuel spoke more strongly. “Still in the river?” He paused. “Beneath the river.”
“Samuel.” There was an edge of exasperation his cousin’s voice now; and just a little fear. “I know what you thought you saw. But—you were nine years old—there’s no such thing—”
Samuel thought of the siren, dissolving into river water at his feet. He thought of his dream. I wish you were right, Charlene. “Just keep Lenora away from that river, okay?”
After a moment, Charlene started the car.
When they got back, it was late afternoon and Lenora was not in the house.
She wasn’t babysitting either, or shopping, or out with friends. She was sitting on the bench, staring out at the river.
Samuel, pausing halfway down the lawn to catch his breath, frowned at her. She had her smartphone, but it lay limp in her grasp; she wasn’t texting, or reading, or listening to music. She simply sat and looked at the shifting shadows, deepening by the minute, broken by the dancing patches of light. He couldn’t see her expression from where he stood, but there was something about her stillness, her silence, that was as familiar as it was disturbing.
Arianne. “Lenora,” he said, before bending over another coughing attack.
Thank God, she turned her head immediately, and he saw the tranced look drain from her dark eyes. She stood up, hurrying over. “Uncle Samuel? Are you okay?”
“F-fine,” he choked out. He peered at her worriedly. “Are you okay?”
“Me?” she blinked. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
“You were…just sitting there. By the river. I didn’t-didn’t think you heard me.”
“I…I…” For a moment, she looked lost, eyes wide as she groped for words. “I don’t know; I just wanted to sit for a bit.”
“How long were you there?” It came out sharper than he’d intended.
“I-I’m not sure. Lost track of time, I guess.” She pushed back strands of dyed hair, distractedly. “Uh-how did the doctor’s go?”
“About as expected. Lenora, what were you doing?”
“Nothing, okay! Just looking at the river. That a crime?”
“No, but—” He broke off, doubling over another coughing fit.
Lenora’s face softened. “Come on, Uncle Samuel, let’s go in…”
Samuel willingly let her lead him solicitously back into the house, relieved at every step that took them farther from the water, while knowing it was not far enough.
The moon waned, the days continued hot and clear, and the doors did not open; but Lenora grew more and more silent. She went through her days with a distracted air, barely responding to her mother’s increasingly exasperated questions and demands, and there was no keeping her away from the river. More and more, she was to be found sitting on the bench, with or without her phone, staring hard at the water, fascinated by the shifts of light. The adults did their best to keep her away, calling her from the water’s edge, but she was less and less responsive, her head always tilted, eyes slanted away.
“What’s wrong with her?” Charlene demanded in frustration. “It’s like she’s always got her earphones in, even when she doesn’t! What’s she listening to?”
Samuel said nothing, but he knew exactly what she was listening to. Knew, because he could hear it too.
It was a far-off, dim sound by day: their voices just barely brushing the edge of his hearing, not quite audible, but always present. The eerie chorus grew louder at twilight, when blue dusk lay along the river; but it was during his sleep that Samuel heard them most clearly. And saw them.
It was not the knife-edged clarity of his full-moon vision, but still he saw: saw the caverns beneath the surface, darkly glimmering with ancient gold, and the sirens floating, their hair storms around their heads, their mouths open in the song. Arianne floated among them, tail beating the water lazily as she sang, her eyes shining as she looked up toward the surface. Toward Lenora. And toward him.
The sirens never forgot a human they desired. Especially not if that human had surprised them.
Samuel wasn’t sure, but he suspected that Lenora was going out at night; the back door was always unlocked in the morning, and there were strange, muddy footprints on the floor. He always scrubbed them away before Charlene noticed; there was no point getting Lenora into trouble. He examined them as he wiped them away. Sometimes they were sneaker prints, but more often they were narrow bare feet, mixed with sand and blades of grass. Sometimes they were still wet come morning. There were dark circles now, under Lenora’s eyes, and she was quieter than ever.
Samuel waited up one evening, avoiding the prescription sleeping pill, resisting the pull of exhaustion. It was the night of the dark of the moon and the song was dimmer tonight, the river’s power less insistent, but he guessed that Lenora would still not be able to resist, and he was right.
He heard her sneaking quietly down, pausing before venturing across the floor, slowly easing the back door open. The dim sound of her footsteps across the porch, then silence as she descended onto the lawn.
Samuel waited a long moment before levering himself out of bed.
He was getting weaker now; his heart pounded as he stumbled and shuffled down the hall and out the door. Outside, the night was still, so bright with stars that, even without the moon, a grayish twilight filled the yard. But the shadows were black cutouts, and the river sang invisible in the darkness beneath the trees.
Down at the river’s edge, a splash.
Samuel made his way down the lawn. “Hey.”
He could just barely make out her shadowy form, feet dangling in the water. “Uncle Samuel…?”
“Can you hear them?” With great effort, Samuel lowered himself to the ground beside her.
“Yeah.” She pulled her feet out of the water with a splashing gush. “They’re not so loud tonight.”
“There’s no moon. Moonless nights strengthen the barrier. Moonlight opens it, a little. But, really, summer rain is best.”
Lenora hummed a little, swaying beside him. “I hear them all the time.”
“They’re singing to you. The way they sang to Arianne.”
She stopped. “Arianne?”
“You think she drowned?” Samuel laughed mirthlessly. “I was there. I saw them pull her down.”
“Below the river.”
“Below it. There are places…caves that exist beneath the river—or maybe somewhere else and the river’s only the door to them, I don’t know. They live there. In the deep caves, full of water. They live there, and they watch us, but they can only rise when the conditions are right. Like when there’s a summer rainstorm, at night.”
“Like that night?”
“Precisely. They sang to Arianne, like they’re singing to you, and she went out to them, during that rainstorm, and they pulled her down, and now she’s one of them.”
“What are they?” Her voice was fascinated, soft in the night.
“I call them the sirens, but I don’t know what their proper name is. If anyone knows…They’re the ones beneath the river. They’re immortal, always young, always beautiful, but they’re dangerous. They take humans. Girls, women who can see them.”
“You saw them.”
“I’m maybe the only man who ever did. They were so surprised, that I could see them…” He remembered their astonishment: their wide eyes, their shocked face turning in the water as he cried out: Let her go! Those long arms grabbing for him… “I escaped. But they never forgot me.”
“Why’d you come back, then?” Lenora’s voice held only interest and curiosity; she was, perhaps, too siren-spelled to feel any fear, even now. “If you knew they’d be here.”
“Because…I was sick…” But it was too late for lies, even to himself. “Because it was inevitable.”
There was a moment’s silence, broken only by the soft, continuing song.
“You know, I’m probably not going to believe any of this in the morning,” Lenora said eventually.
“Daylight has that effect,” said Samuel. “But day always ends. And there’s always another moon.” Slowly, effortfully, he pulled himself to his feet. “Come on; let’s go in.”
“I want to stay here…”
With a sigh, she stood up and trailed off up the lawn, casting glances behind at the river.
Samuel stayed behind, like a sentinel by the dark flow, and it wasn’t until the door safely slammed behind Lenora that he followed her in.
The next day dawned, but Lenora was worse than ever.
“For God’s sake, Lenora, eat your breakfast!” yelled Charlene, covering her fear with anger. Lenora looked languidly away from the window to spoon up more cereal, still staring into the distance.
As Samuel shuffled by, Charlene paused in her harried going—to—work preparations to nod at Lenora. “Keep an eye on her, okay? Make sure she eats.”
“You’ve got to get her away from that river,” he muttered back. Lenora was staring out the window again, meal forgotten.
“How?” Charlene demanded, with an edge of hysteria. “I can’t take time off work!”
“Then arrange for her to get a job out of town. Or I’ll pay for her to go to summer camp. Or something.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Charlene, which was, Samuel knew, the closest she was going to get to admitting that he was right. “And eat your breakfast!” she snapped again at Lenora before whirling out.
Samuel sat down at the table. Lenora barely responded to his arrival, head tilted as she listened to the music.
“You know, I think I do believe you,” she said abruptly. “Even now.”
“The sirens are hard to ignore,” he agreed.
She hummed, smiling dreamily as she swayed to the sirens’ tune. “It’s so beautiful…”
“It is that.” Samuel looked outside. The light was grayish; the day heavy with humidity. He couldn’t see it from here, but he imagined that the sky was starting to gather clouds. “Not long now, until it rains.”
Lenora looked up at this, half-hopeful, half-afraid. “Will we see them then?”
“I hope not,” Samuel said. But he didn’t think his hope would be fulfilled.
The pair sat at the kitchen table, listening to the sirens.
The day grew ever more oppressive, dark and humid; and the days that followed were worse. The clouds mounted in the sky, the air grew still and breathless, and still it did not rain.
Lenora’s babysitting jobs were suspended; the neighbors thought—not incorrectly—that she was ill. Charlene, seeming to heed Samuel’s words, gave her lists of things to do, that took her out of the house, and Samuel did his best to steer her away from the river’s edge. Still, she spent long hours sitting by it, gazing at its flow and listening. Truth be told, so did Samuel. It was getting ever more difficult to ignore the sirens’ call; it was easier just to sit and let the music flow.
“What’s it like down there?” Lenora asked suddenly on the afternoon of the third day. Overhead, the clouds were like a low gray lid.
“I’m not sure,” said Samuel; and paused to catch his breath. It was getting harder to speak, harder to walk. He could barely make it down the lawn now. “Only what…I’ve seen in dreams. It’s dark but t…beautiful. The caves are beautiful. There’s glowing algae, and flashing fish, and treasures older than…than the human race.” He broke off, silenced by a coughing attack. “But there’s no warmth. No light. No love.”
Lenora put out a steadying hand, but her gaze remained on the river. “Doesn’t Arianne still love you?”
Samuel pulled in a deep, rasping breath. “I don’t know,” he said hoarsely. “I honestly don’t know.”
There was a sudden, warm impact on his hand. Samuel looked at the drop of water; then glanced up to see the next few drops splashing into the river.
Lenora held up a hand, gathering raindrops as they increased momentum. “It’s raining.”
“So it is.”
Lenora had to help him to his feet before they went in, while all around them the rainstorm slowly gathered strength.
Samuel was not sure what woke him that night.
It might have been the rain, pounding harder than ever on his window. It might have been the siren song, increasing its volume. It might have been Lenora, walking past his room. Or maybe it was just the doors, slowly opening between the depths and the surface…
Samuel got up. Though the song was pounding in his brain, flowing through his soul, his body’s weakness made him slow. He moved like one in a drug-laced dream as he shuffled, barefoot, out of his room and down the hall.
Lenora had not closed the door behind her, and the scents and sounds of the night flowed in: rain, wind, grass and leaves, all sighing and gusting in the storm. But through it all, the sirens sang, their voices all the louder for the tempest.
“Lenora,” Samuel called, but his voice was so weak now he could barely raise it above a whisper. Cursing his pain and exhaustion, he stumbled out into the night.
He was soaked in instants, the tree branches shaking and screaming above him. Lashed by the winds, his pajamas whipping against his legs, he hobbled down the lawn, where he could just barely make out Lenora’s thin still form by the churning water. “Lenora!”
But she had already stepped off the edge, into the sirens’ embrace.
Arms wrapped around her, heads leaning in, eager-like last time, like thirty years ago—their voices raised in wild laughter, their tails foaming the rocking water: deep, deep water that reached down to the bottom of the world, to the caves that preceded earthly existence. The river that was not the river frothed with whitecaps, and Samuel saw Arianne’s daggered green smile as she pulled their cousin down—
His voice was a mere puff of air in the rain-mad tempest, but still they heard him, all their wet heads turning. In their grasp, Lenora stirred, languidly, and gave a dreamy giggle.
Arianne unwound her arms and broke away, surging through the waves to the bank. She hauled herself out, her legs growing from her tail. A moment’s unbalance, and then she stood before her brother, eyes bright, smile beaming.
“Samuel,” she sighed, her voice the rain on the river.
“Arianne,” he replied, with a sigh of his own.
Her eyes devoured him, blackly glowing in the night. “It’s been so long.”
“Thirty years,” Samuel said. “It’s good to see you again, Arianne.”
She laughed, briefly. “And you.”
“Don’t take her, Arianne.” Samuel gestured toward Lenora’s prone figure, still held at the surface by the still, listening sirens. “She’s not the one you really want. You know that. Take me instead.”
Arianne considered him gravely. “You’ll come with us?”
“Yes. Leave Lenora here—leave her alone—and I’ll come with you.”
Slowly, a beautiful smile grew on Arianne’s face, until even her hair was shining with her joy. She held out her long arms, gleaming with shells and stones.
Without hesitation, Samuel stepped into her embrace. It was cold and tight and hard, but still, there was peace there, and relief. For, at last, the struggle was over.
“Samuel,” his sister sighed, “you’re home.”
Lenora was drowning.
She cried out, kicking against the freezing, frenzied water-was this the river?—as the arms that had supported her unwound, letting her fall away. She went under, the waves sucking at her, pulled herself to the surface, gasped for air. Her kicking legs touched nothing but water: she could feel the infinite depths below her.
Then cold-clawed hands grabbed her, pulled her, hauled her roughly through the water. Lenora was pulled down, came up gasping, but still the hands yanked her on. Unceremoniously, the siren shoved her out onto the muddy bank, turning back without a second glance.
Desperately, Lenora grabbed at the slippery roots, hauling herself up, rolling out onto the grass. Sobbing, she lay, beaten by the rain, face and clothes smeared with mud, and looked out at the river.
The water heaved, but still the sirens gathered, untroubled by the waves, around another prone figure, held at the surface in their multiple supporting arms. It was Samuel, Lenora saw, who lay among the creatures, his face serene in their black glow, the years seeming to fall away even as Lenora watched, the sharp light already entering his eyes, teeth turning green—
“No!” Lenora screamed, scrabbling forward, plunging back into the water, but already the sirens were pulling him down, their song crooning and loving as they retreated back below the surface.
And then Lenora stood, bedraggled and alone, in surging shallows that barely reached her knees, while the rain hissed into the empty river.