Hector groused his way across the gravel, still annoyed that he had to bring his jacket. Bright gold, secondhand from the thrift store. It wasn’t even cold out! He tied it around his waist, inside-out, to minimize mortification should he see anyone he knew.
He rested his hand on the steel track, still able to feel the heat of the train’s passage. It had been almost ten minutes since he heard it blasting by. It always amazed him how long the rails held the warmth. He imagined it would burn his skin if he got there right after.
Holding his hand in place, his heart sped as he thought about the train reappearing suddenly, out of nowhere, simultaneously severing his hand and squashing it flat. He kept it on the rail, taunting fate, defying fear.
Hector knew there was no real risk. It wouldn’t be through here again for at least two more hours. Still, it was fun to pretend.
He slid-walked down the slope. Once the gravel thinned out, sparse grass popped up, gradually lengthening into weeds so tall they swallowed his knees. Swishing through them, Hector imagined he was exploring a Florida swamp, hidden alligators stalking him from all sides. He was always just a half-step ahead from becoming their next meal.
He burst through, diving into a somersault, coming up with karate hands. The close-cropped grass here was a green blanket, interrupted by a winding asphalt path, the occasional bench, and the enormous empty slab that once held the playground. They had torn it down after the fourth kid was accidentally maimed on the structure.
From the other side of the park, Hector could hear the river gurgling. It was quite a contrast since the last time he’d been here. Then, the water roared. It had been raining for days and days. The water had risen well beyond the banks, spilling into the park itself. Dozens of carp were trapped in the miniature ponds. Pedestrians stared and took videos with their phones. Eventually, the city came and caught most of the fish in nets, returning them to the river. Some were missed, however, and lay rotting; the park held the vague stink of death for days.
It hadn’t rained much since.
He strode quickly, ignoring the path, cutting straight across the lush carpet. It was still warm enough, despite being late September, that he could roll up his pant legs and wade in.
About fifteen feet up, a bluejay in a tree scolded him for having the audacity to walk under his tree. Hector stuck out his tongue.
Once at the bank, he sat in the dirt to untie his hi-tops. He stuffed his socks down to the toes. He had one pant leg above his calf when he saw the flash of red in the river. It billowed in the water, something caught on a fallen limb, maybe halfway across. Without taking his eyes off it, in case it should disappear, he rolled up the other leg.
It looked plastic or vinyl: a raincoat maybe? When not flooding, the river wasn’t terribly deep. The point at which the fabric was caught should be maybe chest-deep on Hector. The current meandered peacefully today so shouldn’t be dangerous. He didn’t particularly want to get all the way wet, so he stood on the bank, deliberating.
The red thing moved, rising up. It took shape. It was a raincoat. That’s the hood. The hood turned and Hector gasped. “Hey,” he called, looking around. “There’s a kid!”
Nobody was there. The park, or at least this part of it, was empty save for him and the kid in the water. Hector shoved his phone and house keys into a shoe. Then, he peeled off his T-shirt and dropped it over them, followed by the despised gold jacket. He’d still be able to see his stuff from the river, and to make it back pretty fast if someone tried to steal it. Not that anyone was around. He stepped further into the river.
The other kid watched him. He looked more curious than scared. Hector thought he might be in shock. He remembered, vividly, when Cleo Anthony broke her elbow falling from the monkey bars. The bottom half of her arm hung loose and flopped around. In a small, pale voice, she’d said, “Now that’s weird, isn’t it?”
“Hey, buddy,” Hector said now. “You’re okay.” He took another few steps, careful of the sharper rocks on the bottom. “I’m just gonna come help you back to shore now.”
The water was mid-thigh now. He went up on his toes to delay it hitting his groin for as long as possible. When it did, it was just as cold as he expected; he winced. Soon, it was over his waist, tickling his ribcage.
He stopped. The kid watched him. A trickle of saliva ran from his lip, stringing to the water. The boy’s eyes glazed over.
“Are,” he started. He cleared his throat. “Are you okay?”
One of the kid’s shoulders rose up. It kept going, higher than possible. The shape was wrong. It wasn’t bone under there. It writhed. Fluid, squirming, beneath the raincoat; Hector thought, tentacle.
He stepped backward, two, three times, shaking his head, negating the reality of what his eyes said was happening. Your imagination is going to get you in trouble one of these days. His mother’s voice.
The kid—or whatever was posing as a kid—rose, pushing away from the fallen limb. The child’s head, wrapped in a small raincoat, pulsed through the river. Beneath the coat, something propelled it, something greenish-black, glistening, with far too many limbs.
Hector turned and ran, fighting to get his knees up through the water.
Behind him, he heard it coming.
He smelled it: fish, sewer, rot.
He ran, each step easier as the water got shallow. I’m gonna make it!
His bare foot smashed down on a sharp rock. The pain was instant and crippling. He fell face-first in the water, coming back up, spitting, sputtering, and swearing. A word that would’ve gotten him slapped at home.
He turned. It was gone. The river was quiet, empty. His stuff was six feet away. Faintly, he heard his text notification noise from inside his shoe.
“Oh, thank god,” he said, standing, shaking his head. “My imagination, man. Wow!” He laughed and wiped river water from his eyes.
When he opened them again, the red raincoat was right in front of him. Tentacles flowed from each sleeve and exploded from the bottom. The child’s head opened its mouth to reveal a wicked-looking beak that clicked open and shut.
The tentacles wrapped around Hector, lifting him off the ground, screaming, high and thin. They both plunged beneath the surface.
An hour later, a red raincoat reappeared, floating listlessly, tantalizingly, near a fallen limb.
Ken MacGregor writes and edits stuff.
He has two story collections, a young adult novella, a co-written novel, and is a somewhat regular contributor to HorrorTree. Ken is the Managing Editor of Collections and Anthologies for LVP Publications. He’s curated two anthologies.
When not writing, Ken drives the bookmobile for his local library. He lives with his kids, two cats, and the ashes of his wife.
Ken can be found via social media on the following platforms: