She is still screaming when I find her, eyes half-baked with broken things.
There are streams that are not rivers, brooks that are unworthy of their name. There are places in the world where water inverts, where a river that had been wide turns width into depth. Places where bodies can never be found, where voices can scream and almost be unheard.
I don’t know her name. I make it a point to never learn the names of ghosts. I just stand at the edge of the river, letting my magic burn bright in the air. Things seen and unseen circle it, circle me, but I ignore them all as she rising up from the water, pale as a dead shade of blue, and those eyes. Those eyes, in a face lined with horror. It drives the other presences away, which is seldom a good sign.
“Magician?” she says, and her voice sounds almost human, the wildness of the river reduced to a trickle of a roar. Almost safe. Almost sane.
“I am that, yes.”
The ghost moves closer, feet not touching the water. She is clothed in rags and seaweeds. “I cannot find him,” she whispers.
“My son. He fell into the river. I went looking. I’ve been looking for so long.”
“I heard that in your scream.”
“I was crying.”
I don’t correct her. I walk closer and she is between me and the river, her eyes a wildness again. “The river cannot take me,” I say softly.
“It will try. No matter the agreements you’ve made, the pacts you have sworn to. It will find a way to claim you here. There,” her hand stabs downstream, fingers that are almost all bone shaking. “The river is wide; here it narrows, hides. Disguises.”
“I know; it’s compared to the Strid, a rather famous one in England. But some people survive swimming Bolsen’s Creek, so there are fewer signs. Fewer warnings that are not stories. If just one person survives the swim, the creek gives everyone else a terrible hope.”
“I had no hope. I saw him go under.” A hitch, the ghost flickers. “I jumped. I thought to save him.”
I consider options, and thread a hint of power into my voice. There is power to be found in this place for any magician to use, but none of it is pleasant. All of it is tainted. “When did it happen?” I ask, in words that cannot be ignored.
“He fell in march.” The ghost moves back over the water with each word, as if jerked back, pulled.
“June,” she whispers, shuddering all over.
I wrap moonlight into the ghost, holding it above the water. “You saw him go under, and you were too scared to jump then. We all make mistakes, or we would not be human.”
“I should have saved him!” Her voice is a wild screaming beating on the air.
“You did not. Perhaps even could not. The river holds secrets well, and spirits as deep as it can. It is hungry, as all rivers hunger. That you can pull yourself free says much about your strength. But you are not driving people from the river,” I add, as gently as I can. “Your fear is pulling them here, your need drawing them to do what you never could. People are seeing a child, and they are leaping in.”
“No.” I say nothing. “No!” Her scream drives into me, pulling at me, tearing at the fabric between the grey lands of the dead and the tenuous ones of the living. But I did not lie, not about any of this. I will die by water in time, but not here. Not now. The ocean may have claimed my death, but many other things have claim to my life at present. Anchors against the river.
The ghost shudders, her scream turning wordless, her face a mask of raw emotion. Unable to find her son, she blamed the only person she could. Herself. She haunts herself, and that is her power in this place.
“The river claims enough without you adding more,” I say, and the ghost shudders. “I do not know if your son’s spirit is claimed deep below the waves. But I can release some of your guilt, perhaps enough for you to reach him.”
“You cannot – you cannot –.”
I reach out, with a hand and magic both, touching the essence of the ghost and pulling gently. The guilt falls upon me like a shroud, pulling me toward the river with its desperate power. I force it back, change the shape of it, and let it loose back into the world. Turning it into a conscience for those who thought they’d successfully butchered their own. It takes only a moment between breaths, but I am shaking afterwards, drained almost beyond telling by the effort.
“Magician,” the ghost says, and there is something like wonder in her voice.
“I have done what I can. I can make the opening, but I cannot be the door you pass through.”
The ghost steps into herself, and then under the water. There are no screams, just a desperate silence.
I have no idea if she will find her son. If his spirit is trapped by the river. If the river will ever let them meet or let them go. There are limits to magic. But even so, I crouch down by the river. Not close, not too close. “Here me,” I say, and don’t try and hide my power at all. “I am friends with a fae, Bolsen’s Creek, and she could unmake you in a moment if I asked it. I know others who could force you, who could bind even your wild power to their ends. I would rather not have to do this.”
Nothing in the river responds. But I think, for a moment, that I hear two cries of something that could be joy sounding far, far under the water. But I cannot be sure. I stand, slow and tired, and walk back to the motel Dana and I are staying in. I think about the dead. I think about he living. And I think it is a very good thing that magicians do not become ghosts when we die.