Chapter 6: Crossing the River
After what seemed like hours, the path finally opened, and I could see a great river ahead of me. The sun was starting to set now, the world was turning to dusk. I wondered what the sun setting even meant here. Was I on another planet? Was this some remote part of Earth? I didn't know. I did notice how the sky was changing colors, going from a vibrant blue to a softer hue of grayish-black as the night sky ever so slightly dotted itself with brilliants points of light. A beautiful canvas that even while retreating to darkness seemed more alive than the sky I knew. The sun was shooting beams of orange and red, almost as if it was trying to hang on to the world by its fingertips before descending over the horizon.
The shore was mostly fine-grained sand, with a couple of darker colored rocks thrown in. The water itself was rushing and untamed, with a strong enough current to pull even the strongest swimmers underneath if they weren’t careful. Beached by the water was a dark wood rowboat and standing next to it was the hooded man from before. When he saw me, he offered a friendly wave to me, and gestured for me to come over to him.
Though all of this was not unfamiliar to me. I had been here before. This place was pulled straight from my memories, recreated to be exactly like that day. The day Dad and I had hiked up into the mountains, just the two of us. This river had been at the end of that hike. Dad said that if we crossed it, then we would only be one more mile away from the end. He had done that hike a million times, and all he wanted was to show me how beautiful it was once we reached the end. But I couldn’t do it then. I was scared. I let Dad down and I had let that river beat me. Was anything really that different now?
As I walked closer to the man, I looked to either side of the river. There didn’t seem to be any end to it, no way to go around it. And even so, if I tried, we would lose precious daylight anyway. When I reached the water’s edge, the man pointed towards the storm on the other side of the lake and then pointed towards the rowboat.
“I have to cross it this time, don’t I.” I said, with a defeated tone. Whatever this place was, it wasn’t going to make it easy to reach that storm apparently. He nodded and got in the boat. I hesitated. Something didn’t feel right about this. The water was too unruly, I didn’t want to be pulled in. I didn't want to be pulled under. I didn't want to fail. I felt my panic bubbling up, but this time I was in control. I shook away these thoughts. After all, if I could handle that storm monster back at the park, I could handle crossing this river.
He handed me a paddle and took one for himself. We pushed off from shore and began paddling to the other side, my heart pounding so hard it could barely be contained in my chest. The current kept trying to veer us off course, and the waves rocked the boat so much that they kept splashing water in. Rain obscured my vision and made it difficult to row. I had to use a bucket in the boat to bail out the water, so we didn’t start sinking. While this was hard, it didn’t seem impossible. We were making progress. Though I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was going to go horribly wrong. It was the same feeling I had when I looked at that monster from before.
And that’s when I saw it. Even with all of the waves making it difficult, I could see an unnatural ripple in the water, moving towards us. There was one to my left, and then I saw another one to my right. Two more behind and in front. We were being surrounded by something, and fast. The hooded man saw them too, and he began paddling faster, trying to outpace them. But it was in vain. All of a sudden, with a bolt of lightning to boot, the boat was slammed by this unseen force, and I was knocked out into the water.
The freezing water sent a shock wave through my nervous system. I fought hard to stay above the surface, but the current was too strong. I grabbed one last giant breath before finally being pulled underneath the waves. I tried to swim back up to the top, but something was weighing me down. To my horror, I felt tiny, scratchy hands on my feet, keeping me from resurfacing, dragging me further down to the bottom of the river. Panic coursed through my body like the lightning bolt that sent me here. This was it. I wasn’t going to be able to get out of this. Even if I wasn't able to die in this Dream, I would still have to go through the pain of drowning, of being robbed of my oxygen and left to suffer at the bottom of nothing but murky blackness, where I couldn’t even scream for help if I wanted to. My worst fears from that day with Dad were becoming reality. A reality I quickly was seeing no escape from. I was running out of air, my lungs seemed to be on fire and I could feel the hands at my feet clawing deep into my skin, cutting me and pulling me down. Deeper and deeper, I was going. At this point it just seemed easier to give up. I had come this far, that was enough for me. I had done good already. Slowly, I felt my body relax and succumb to oxygen deprivation as I began to black out.
But, some nagging, annoyingly motivational thought stopped me. I had to get to the end of this. I had to finish what I started. I wasn’t going to let these things tear me down. My panic was not going to beat me. I kicked as hard as I could and could feel their grip loosening. They had pegged me beaten, assumed I was easy prey. Now I had taken them by surprise. Free from their grasp, I used my remaining strength to propel myself back up to the surface. But it wasn’t enough, I wasn’t going to make it in time. The world was blackening, and I was starting to lose all feeling in my body. The momentum from my last-ditch stroke had run out, and I was starting to float back down. The last thing I remembered before passing out was another hand on my shoulder, grasping firmly.
I came to at the shore, coughing and sputtering out the water that had almost consumed my life. As I slowly regained consciousness, I realized that I had made it. Somehow, I had washed up on the other side of the shore, free from this ridiculously cursed river. Looking up, the storm was almost right on top of me, itself on top of a deep forest with the dirt path from before leading right inside of it. That’s where I had to go next.
Looking around, I spotted another figure on the shore. The hooded man. He was unconsciousness and extremely pale. I realized that he must have been the one to save me. The boat was nowhere in sight.
I rushed over to him to see if he was alright, and as I did I noticed that his hood had fallen off. His face no longer was rippling to my eyes, and I could make out his features, features once handsome but distinctly worn down. A face I knew all too well.