The sun was already creeping high in the sky, its rays dancing on the rippling river. The golden wheat in the field beyond the opposite river bank fluttered in the gentle breeze, the church steeple peeking above it on the horizon. Bees buzzed lazily, already drunk on the pollen they carried. It was promising to be a picture-perfect day, except nothing about today was right.
It had been years since Simon had last walked along this path. Voices from the past rushed toward him in a jumble of confusion. Snatches of laughter and of happy conversation rubbed shoulders with angry shouts and terrified screams. He shook his head and stood still, concentrating on the gurgle of the water below.
Clarity descended over him as he stared down at the river. This was a mistake. He shouldn’t have come back. He turned around, intending to go back to the peace and safety of his mother’s house, but he knew it would do no good. Nothing was the same, nothing could ever be the same. The scars of the past were everywhere.
He decided to continue and do what he came to do. He had no choice. Fifteen long years had gone by, fifteen long years filled with nightmares and shame, of late nights crying into bottomless glasses of whatever spirit he could lay his hands on. He wriggled his toes in his flimsy canvas shoes, now wet from the dew that remained on the shady patches of earth beneath the spreading branches of the trees that lined his route. But he didn’t care. The sooner this bizarre pilgrimage was over the better.
His heart thumped in his chest as he saw the familiar bend in the river. It wouldn’t be long now. Soon, he would see the gnarled stump of an ancient oak, struck by lightning decades ago, but that wasn’t what he was here for. He stopped in his tracks as the thing that had haunted his dreams and every waking hour came into view. He let out his breath in a long, shaky exhalation and marched on.
The weeping willow was just as he remembered, tall and majestic, its strong limbs stretching out across the river, almost reaching the other side. He peered in amongst the leaves, a rush of nausea in his throat as he searched.
And there it was.
The rope dangled from the tallest and thickest branch, the old tyre tethered beneath, swinging gently in the breeze. He knew it couldn’t be the same one, not after all these years, but the sight of it still hit him hard. A torrent of emotion threatened to topple him as he was drenched in a wave of guilt.
The years peeled away and he was a child again, enjoying the rich days of those endless school holidays in the summer. He could see them all now, his posse of pals splashing in the water, taking it in turns to swing out on the tyre into the cooler depths of the river.
They’d been friends since they were toddlers, growing up together, facing the troubles and adventures of childhood together. But the friendships had changed when they entered their teenage years. Petty squabbles over Lego made way for arguments over girls. His best friend Hugh had also been his arch-rival and the two had fallen out many a time, only to make up again. But it was more than just a locking of horns. Hugh had it all: film star looks, confidence, money, luck. He won at everything he tried and was good at everything he did. Hugh was perfect. And he knew it.
Simon hadn’t meant to hurt Hugh. He just wanted to shake him up a bit, knock some of the swagger out of the self-proclaimed King of the River. It had been easy, just a little grease on the rope and hey presto! Hugh would try one of his famous elaborate spirals in the air, but would slip and instead of diving gracefully into the river, he’d do a belly flop and look an idiot. He just wanted Hugh to know what it was like to lose.
Except it hadn’t gone that way.
They’d all gone to the river one scorching hot August weekend. A group of girls had come too, giggling and gossiping, egging the boys on to do stupid things. And of course, the boys had obliged, only too keen to show off, full of the bravado that only 16-year- olds understand. Hugh had climbed up the tree and shimmied down the rope to the tyre. He’d swung out too far, lost control and fell awkwardly. Simon could still see the horror in Hugh’s eyes as his hands had slipped and his body had twisted horribly before hitting the water. He’d waited for Hugh to resurface with a flurry of swearwords, but it hadn’t happened. He could still hear the screams.
Of course, he never admitted what he’d done. The coroner ruled it to be a terrible accident, that Hugh’s hands must have been greasy before he took to the tyre, and everyone accepted the verdict. But Simon couldn’t move on. He wondered if anyone knew and was certain that Hugh’s mum had her suspicions judging by the way she stared at him from the corner of her eye. Eventually, Hugh’s family moved away, unable to cope with the horrific memories.
Simon thought he could escape it all by running away to university two years later, but it hadn’t worked. He saw Hugh everywhere, heard the screams and the crying, saw Hugh’s face as he was pulled from the river.
But he was here now. Fifteen years had gone by. He couldn’t leave it any longer.
Simon stared down into the water, expecting to see Hugh’s bloated face staring back at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. A sudden gust of wind whirled around him, ruffling the willow leaves. He shivered in spite of the warm sunshine beating down on his face.
He waited a while longer, hoping that he had finally made amends, that he could be forgiven.
Simon turned to go, his back to the river and the tyre which moved back and forth as though pushed by an unseen hand. He tripped over one of the ancient roots of the tree and gasped as he began sliding backwards down the steep bank. He reached out to grab one of the branches, but the breeze snatched it away and he clutched at thin air. He yelled as he tumbled backwards, the cold water shocking the breath out of him. Long weeds weaved around him, tangling around his hands and feet, binding him to the river bed. He struggled, which only served to tighten the bindings. A stream of bubbles from his panicked breathing twirled around his head.
He looked up to the surface of the water, where the bright sun dappled the river. The willow looked vast and enormous above him, distorted in the flowing river. And then he saw it. There was someone there, someone looking down at him. He fought against the choking weeds, desperate for the figure to see him.
Simon’s eyes stretched wide as he realised what he was seeing. The figure was above him, hanging over the water, legs dangling from the swinging tyre. There was something familiar about it. Simon watched as the figure leaned forward, its face seemingly only inches above him, its eyes filled with loathing. But it wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible.
Simon shook his head and yanked hard against the river weeds, using every last ounce of his strength to get free. His lungs were bursting and he knew he only had seconds left.
Was this what Hugh felt? he wondered.
He looked up to the figure in the tyre again, pleading with him to help. But the figure slowly shook its head.
The last thing Simon saw as the water stole his final breath was the look of gloating on Hugh’s face. The King of the River had won again.
*previously published by The Weekly Knob on Medium.com