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Chapter One: Sounds in the Night
Keon stood up and stretched his legs. It was just too hot. The sun was going down over the trees and behind the limestone cliffs, but nothing had cooled things off here in Elgar, IL. Everything was hot. The pavement was hot. The grass was hot and the air blowing a slight breeze in their faces was also hot. What was the use of a breeze if it didn’t cool you down, he wondered?
“Guys, we should go swim in the Black,” he said.
He was with his crew. They were all around eleven or twelve. Keon was twelve, as was his best friend Tijani, but Darkeem, Varrien and Kadrick were all eleven. It was August, the height of summer. Elgar was about fifteen miles from the Mississippi River and less than an hour from St. Louis. Every year, at this time, the heat kicked on and stayed there, baking the tiny city where air conditioning was a luxury. Where old-timey methods of cooling a home were still in use.
“It’s too late, man,” Tijani said, waving his hand. “I just want to go home. Maybe I can take a cold shower and get into bed before I dry off.”
“You need a cold shower to make sure you don’t fall asleep with a boner,” Darkeem said, laughing at his own joke. He still thought everything about sex or the human body was funny.
“Shut up, Dak,” Keon said, rolling his eyes. “Man, I just want to cool off. We can do that, right? Are you all pussies? We can stay near the shore if you can’t handle swimming out too far.”
The rest of them looked down at their feet.
“The last time I ended up swimmin’ in the Black, my moms found out and beat the hell out of me,” Varrien said.
“Yeah, my mom says there’s no bottom and the water is full of chemicals,” Kadrick said. He was tall for his age, rarely spoke. When he did, it was in a voice unnaturally deep for his age. “I don’t want to swim in there anymore.”
Keon sighed. “Where do you want to swim? The nearest place with a damn pool is Alton. Way too far away and none of our moms’ll drive us.”
“Why you always wanna swim?” Tijani said. “We’re black and not supposed to be into that sorta thing.”
They all laughed. Even Keon. Tijani had a way of finding the right thing to make them laugh. He was particularly fond of using stereotypes to do so.
“You guys are all pussies,” Keon said.
They mounted their bikes.. The edges of night were visible around the horizon to the West, but some of the sky was still purple. It had been hot and rain free for days now and the farmers just to the East were already screaming about the weather and drought.
“OK, I’ll go home,” Keon caved. “You guys, wanna meet up again tomorrow? We can head over the basketball courts and shoot hoops. Maybe get there early before it gets too hot.”
“You got it, bro,” Tajani said. “I’ll be there about eight. Feel me?”
“I’ll see you then and beat your ass in one-on-one,” Keon said.
They fist-bumped and Keon headed off his own way.
Now he was moving and the breeze was a little bit better. Keon had visited his uncle up in Chicago once. They had a big giant lake up there and when the wind shifted from the North, the wind, even in the middle of August, could cool down the entire city. Not like here.
There was the Black River which was just a few blocks away, but it was just a river. No matter how deep or how wide it was (and it was both), it wasn’t enough to cool down hot summer air. Neither did the Mississippi, which was just a few miles away.
His home was elevated just a few feet off the ground. His mom kept the windows upstairs closed all day, letting the heat gather. When the air turned cooler at night, she opened the windows both top and bottom. Something about cooler air coming in through the bottom while the hot stuff went out on the second floor helping to cool it all down.
Keon did not understand about the physics of it all. He just knew it was too hot right now to sleep in his upstairs room. He would spend the night sleeping on the couch downstairs and try to get within the flow of the window fan.
As he turned right and headed down the small hill he could see the lights of Elgar. Not much to the town these days, but the lights of the houses were coming on. Everyone here was excited because the Gemini Corporation had bought up the old Swinson Paper Mill and were converting it to make electronic stuff. People figured jobs were coming back here for the first time in over thirty years.
The town still looked like a dying beast to Keon.
He saw the Black River. Flowing, as always, away from the Mississippi which fed it. He could hear it lap against the shore. It was an easy-flowing river, but deepest and widest right where near downtown. It was so deep, at the center, the water appeared pitch black. That, plus the fact most of the town was black, gave the river its name. Probably not politically correct these days, but no one wanted to change the river’s name.
The river itself narrowed and continued another fifty miles or so into Illinois, used by farmers for their fields, but eventually it became little more than a stream and just disappeared from the surface.
Hard to fathom when you saw how big it was right here.
Keon decided it was time to ride down by the river. He would not go in. He was smarter than that.
It was so hot. Yeah, sure, he could go home and take a cold shower, too. It would feel so good to walk into the water. Just to feel the sand from the tiny beach. He wouldn’t swim. Doing so by himself was crazy but maybe just up to the knees.
The Black River dropped off fast. Wading wasn’t encouraged either and there was constant worry about the current. Most of the time, the surface appeared placid, barely moving or flowing, but below the surface there were faster, harder currents. Keon had heard the Black was deeper than the Mississippi itself.
“Like water flowing over a black hole without a bottom,” his grandmother had said once after repeating the warning about trying to swim in its dark water.
Still, when it got this hot, they did sometimes climb through the fence meant to keep them out. Most of the links were broken and the entire structure had fallen down in many places. It wasn’t hard and there were no guards.
Right now, it would be so easy.
Keon took another right instead of the left which would take him across the Black River Bridge which connected the east and west parts of the town. The river bisected the downtown area, although there were a few homes near the bridge, too, including Johnny, the man who had once been the chief of police. He was the one Keon worried about the most. Johnny had a tendency to chase kids away from the river.
Taking this path led him down the streets where the streetlights were either non-existent or someone had broken them. No money to repair them. He was soon lost in a tunnel of darkness, which made him nervous. He was on the good side of town. The meth heads were across the river and up the ridge, but still. Sometimes they wandered like zombies. He kept his eyes wide, hoped they would adjust to the darkness, and pedaled fast.
He made the final left turn and there was the dirt path, once more off to the right. The path which would take him behind a few businesses and two old houses, right through the fence.
Keon could hear the water.
Johnny Miller sat in his living room and watched the television while attempting to create a new fly lure for his fishing pole. This was a new hobby he had taken up and spent most of the first few months buying flies made by other people, but he wanted to learn how to make them himself.
So far, his attempts had been nothing he’d want to show a fellow fisherman. His latest one was also not turning out the way he wanted.
On television, he had the 24-hour news channel on. Over in St. Louis, there were more riots. Another kid shot, apparently. He clucked his tongue. John had a dual nature and feeling about these things. He hated to think about black kids being gunned down, but he had been a cop himself back when this town thrived and the population was much bigger. He knew how these kids could be. Full of themselves, sure they were the toughest on this or any block and bulletproof.
He had only had to shoot his gun once, and he thanked the Lord he hadn’t hit a goddamn thing.
Johnny turned his attention back to the YouTube video he had been watching to learn how to make this fucking lure. He hit the Play button, then rewound the video.
“Yeah, goddammit, I did that,” he said to his computer screen. He looked down at the lure in front of him. “Why the fuck don’t you look like that?”
“Help! Oh my god, help me! Help! Stop! Stop! Get off of me! Get away!”
A long, extended scream abruptly cut off as if by a switch followed this shriek.
All of Johnny’s blood ran cold at once and he shivered. His A/C was on, but not so hard he should be shivering.
Cop instincts took over. Johnny moved his fly fishing gear aside, grabbed a flashlight from the kitchen and ran into his backyard.
From this side of the river, with the cliffs and the ridges in the distance, sounds played games on you from time to time. However, he had been sure the scream came from somewhere behind his house.
He wandered the yard, shining the light through the ever-increasing darkness. He saw the Black River. There was the tiny excuse for a beach. Nothing else. Johnny held the flashlight in his left hand, his old service revolver in his right. This was the side of town far from enough from the meth-heads who called the east side home. Still, you could never be sure. Meth heads wandered. Druggies went for walks.
“Hello?” he called out. It was stupid. If someone were murdering someone else, the last fucking thing you should do is call out, but if someone had just fallen or been hurt, he needed them to know he was here. “Is anyone there? Is someone hurt?”
No response, just the soft lapping of the water and the sounds of katydids and cicadas. Across the river, lights were on in the houses and he thought he saw a few people within the windows. Perhaps they also heard something and peered out, trying to see down to the water.
Damn, he thought. He had better call Dion. Johnny hated to do it, but he needed to call it in. Dion was busy dealing with the new company coming to town and trying very hard to clean up the east side.
Johnny headed back into his house, certain something was wrong. Very wrong. Had the scream sounded young? Maybe a child?
The thought made him move just a little bit faster.