Written by Keith Owens, co-founder of Detroit Stories Quarterly
You’re not supposed to go out on the Riverwalk at night which, of course, is why we went. I and Little Sister. Because, the best way to make sure that a kid will do something is to tell that kid not to do it, especially two kids like us. I guess you could say we specialized in finding new and creative ways of doing the wrong thing.
It’s not that we were bad kids. Not really. Well, OK, yeah. But still, we were fun, and that is not something you can say about most folks you meet, right? Most folks, once they’re grown, just go about their lives doing what somebody they don’t even really like tells them to do because they have to work at some job to make money to pay rent and buy food and whatever else year after year, and then they die.
But. I kinda get it. I mean, if you’re an adult. It’s hard to be fun and responsible at the same time because the two don’t always get along. But, if you’re a kid? It is your responsibility not to be responsible. You have the rest of your life to blend in and come in last place in the rat race. But for those few, bright shining years before you become too busy dying to live — that’s the only time when you will ever really see. And if you remember anything about when you were a kid, then you know what I’m talking about; there are those things out there that you can see because everybody else sees them too. Things like the RenCen, Belle Isle, the Detroit River and the sky. But then, there are those other things —
Which is why I woke Little Sister up at 2:16 a.m. on that Friday morning in August. Actually, I don’t think she was asleep because she got up too easy and her eyes were too bright. But that’s beside the point.
“C’mon. You gotta get up now.”
“Stop shakin’ me, Tommy! You always shakin’ me.”
I shook her again because I was the older brother and I felt like it. So Little Sister took a swing at me which I didn’t see coming. Caught me right in the lip. Nine years old and she didn’t back up, back down or apologize. Just gave me that look, like “Do somethin’.” I had to grin. She had always been a tough one, and I knew I could have done way worse as far as siblings go. I had friends stuck with little sisters and brothers that they wished they could have traded in for a better model like Little Sister, or maybe just drown them in the river. Yeah, I know it sounds grim, but if you think kids don’t have thoughts like that then you don’t know much about kids — or you don’t want to.
Anyway, she got up. Swung her little, short pajama-clad legs over the side of the bed and stared at me. Already any evidence of that hot temper was gone from her eyes, like a storm had passed, and she was showing off that crooked smile that looked like it was copied from the Amazon logo. Not to advertise Amazon because I’m not a fan, but it’s the best way I know to describe it.
“We goin’ to see it?” she asked.
“Yeah. I promised you we would, didn’t I? But we gotta go now. That’s why I got you up. But you weren’t even asleep, were you?”
She shook her head.
“’Cause I knew it was gonna be tonight. I heard that voice again.”
I started to ask her about it, but I got that chill all over again just like the first time it happened and decided not to. If I needed to know who this voice was that had been reaching out to my sister the past few weeks then I guess I would find out, but maybe I didn’t want to know. Or maybe I already knew. Because the first time Little Sister told me about hearing that voice was the day after I had seen it.
It happened right down there at the Riverwalk by the carousel. It was close to midnight and I had snuck out of the house to meet this girl from school. She kind of dared me, telling me that if I really wanted to get with her then I had to prove it. This was the way to prove it. I told her I was pretty sure you couldn’t even get on the Riverwalk after 10 at night, but she said that was only if you didn’t know how. So I asked her how, and she told me that was for me to figure out. She would be waiting.
I figured it out, as any determined and horny boy would. But the girl wasn’t there. I waited a long time too, but she never showed. The moon was out and it was still summertime warm, not much of a breeze. Nobody else was out there and it was almost too quiet, so I decided to head back home. I imagined all the ugly things I should say — or do — to that girl the next time I saw her. Luring me all the way out there on a dare, just so she could laugh about it with her friends and tell them how she got this stupid boy to sneak all the way out to the Riverwalk in the middle of the night.
Yeah. I knew that’s what that was about. I probably even knew that’s what was going to happen when she dared me, but I still felt like I had to do it. Because, what if she had been there? Then, she’d be telling everybody Tommy was too chicken to show. But now, I was feeling like this was not the place I needed to be this time of night and that I’d better get my ass home before —
“Tommy? Why don’t you stay awhile? It’s such a nice night, after all.”
So, imagine the one time in your life when you were as scared as you could ever be. Imagine that time when something happened that made your breath get caught in your throat and your heart race into overdrive. Now, double that, and you’re close to feeling what I was right then.
When I heard it, I had just turned away from the river and taken a few steps toward home. The voice sounded watery and thick, but also too deep to be real. There was a man in our church who sang bass in the choir, and no one else could sing anywhere near as low as he could. Sometimes he would be featured on a song because his voice was like a gift, and everybody would get happy whenever he would hit those notes so low they made your chest rattle. This voice was way lower than that, and it echoed inside my head.
“My parents, they’re gonna worry if I —”
“They don’t even know you’re gone, Tommy. They are sound asleep, and will be for quite some time.”
“How could you know that?”
The way it laughed made my stomach hurt. I put my hands over my ears, but that didn’t help.
“Turn around, Tommy. Let me see you.”
“You can’t see me from there?”
“Turn around, Tommy.”
So, I did and was sucked into the absence of the moon and stars. Its size erased all boundaries of reality, swallowing the light — and me.
“So nice to meet you, Tommy. I have been waiting.”
“So what does it look like?” she asked, as we walked down Joseph Campau.
The only noise I heard were our footsteps on the sidewalk, which made her question sound that much louder. I shrugged.
“I dunno. It’s kinda hard to explain. You’ll see.”
Little Sister stopped walking. I didn’t.
“I thought you said you saw it,” she said. “You’re lying.”
“Ain’t lying,” I answered, without bothering to look back at her because I knew she would follow eventually. “It’s just hard to describe. It’s big, though. I can tell you that. It’s really big.”
I heard her jog to catch up beside me.
“Big like what? A whale?”
“Bigger than a whale? In the Detroit river, Tommy? You are lying!”
“So come and see for yourself then. Tell me if I’m lying.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence that didn’t really feel like silence; it felt like a silence that wanted to scream but couldn’t. Once we reached the Riverwalk, even the river wasn’t making any noise. My heart started to race again.
“So where is it?”
I shrugged as I gripped the railing, looking across at Canada.
“It comes when it comes.”
Several more minutes passed, and Little Sister was getting impatient.
“Are you sure this is where it’s gonna be? It’s a big river, Tommy. Maybe it’s waiting for us somewhere else.”
“Except that, I’m right here, little one.”
All I can say is that it wasn’t there at all — and then it was. Somehow it seemed even bigger than before, which was impossible, and it smelled like the sum total of everything that had ever died in the river. Why hadn’t I noticed that smell before? I stumbled backward, clamping my hand over my nose.
“Tommy was right, you really are bigger than a whale. But you can’t be … can you — ?”
It laughed, and this time my stomach hurt even worse. I called out to Little Sister, but I don’t think my voice was more than a whisper. How was it she couldn’t smell that thing?
“I can be whatever I want me to be, Little Sister. And so can you.”
“How you know my name?”
The laugh echoed louder, and I doubled up in pain on the ground. I was grinding my teeth so hard they should have broken into pieces. I reached out, hoping somehow my hand would grab some part of my baby sister and she would see what was happening, but she was already rising up slowly into the night air.
And she was smiling …