The dead numbered in the hundreds. The current count loomed in red on a large interchangeable sign on the side of the highway: two hundred seventy-five.
“Ay nako,” her mom said and smacked her lips, and then she repeated the number in a thick Filipino accent.
Bella wondered how many more bodies lie hidden. On the radio, news of a young girl who had gone missing near the river led to search and rescue teams scouring the area. She saw a group of them in yellow vests at the entrance of the campsite. Her mom wagged a finger at her and looked at Bella as if she had been the direct cause of the missing girl. Bella’s family spent Memorial Day weekend at Lake Isabella every year, partly because the drive was only forty-five minutes from the city, the longest driving time her mother could tolerate. Partly because a few other families in the local Filipino Community made it their weekend “mini-vacation” too. And every year her mother marveled at the death toll of the nearby river. She always warned Bella to stay out of it, that the river was enchanted, and Bella believed her.
Bella’s cousins were already there with their tents set up in the prime locations. Not like her mom and dad who picked one of the cheaper spots because, as they saw things, it was all the same.
Their space was small. Brown leaves covered the ground. The site was inland but at least this time there was a table with bench seats and a small barbecue nearby. Bella’s dad pitched two small tents, one for her and one for them. Bella’s mom unpacked the food, a barrage of Filipino and American “camp food.” Among them, hot dogs, buns, and a package of stinky fish—dried fish from the China market, the kind that smelled up the whole area when cooked. One package sat opened on the table, and Bella left with her cousin before her mother put the dried fish on the barbecue. She imagined the shocked stares from the neighboring white families when and if they get whiff of the rancid odor the fish made.
This year, there were four families. Bella’s real relatives where there: Auntie June, Uncle Beau, and her cousin Julie. Besides her own, there were two other families from the Community, who Bella also called Auntie and Uncle; she called their kids cousins too. The “cousins” were two boys, Kyle and Phillip, and a girl Julie and Bella’s age named Sandra. The boys were fourteen and fifteen, respectively, which seemed like adults to twelve-year-olds.
Phillip had brought a thick rope with him, which he had hung on a tree overlooking the river. The two were already doing daredevil flips into the water. Sandra sat on a towel in her bathing suit. Julie, of course, was waiting for her turn, arms crossed in determination.
“Come on,” she said. “It’s my turn.” Her breasts had already come in, and she proudly wore her favorite polka-dotted bikini. She signaled for Bella to join her.
Bella shook her head no. “I don’t have a suit.” Which was true. Bella had left her swimsuit at home, but she had done it on purpose. She didn’t believe her mom about most things, but the river scared her. Maybe it was the sign with its red numbers or the articles she had read about the people found dead in its raging waters. She only knew something about the river terrified her.
Julie rolled her eyes and puffed a sigh. “Whatever.” She climbed onto a rock and grabbed the rope that Phillip held out to her. She took a deep breath, and with defiant strength, pushed herself off and landed in the middle of the river. Bella gasped. Julie was under the water for a few seconds before punching through as she gulped for air. Laughter riddled the air.
Bella considered marching right over to her mother to tell her what Julie had done, not that she ever would, but with Kyle and Phillip there, it was more of an incentive to not tattletale. She’d hate for Phillip to look at her like she was a child. She was admiring his smile and the way the sun glistened off the water on his shoulders when she heard Julie scream. There was Julie who drifted slowly from where she had landed. Her hair looked good even when wet. Bella immediately thought she was faking. Julie was what her Auntie June would call, theatrical. But when Sandra stood up and put her hand to her forehead as if they were binoculars, Bella inspected Julie’s face more closely. She actually appeared scared, and Bella’s stomach knotted with worry.
Bella stood frozen for a few seconds, though it seemed like an eternity. She had never been in the river. Her mother’s words rang in her ears. The river was enchanted.
When Julie screamed again, her face riddled with horror, tears streaming down her face, Bella’s hesitation ended. She pushed her mother’s warning aside and jumped into the river. Wading through the water was sluggish despite her urgency. Then when she reached the middle, her feet no longer touched the ground, only an undercurrent pulling rapidly at her legs. Bella had taught herself how to swim, not like Julie who had lessons at the Y. Bella had learned how to doggy-paddle first, and then to take broad strokes by watching others. Now she lifted each arm up and over, propelling herself toward her cousin.
By the time Bella reached Julie, Bella’s side hurt and her legs were tired. Julie’s arms wailed and flapped in Bella’s direction until her arms grappled around Bella’s neck with the force of her panic. Bella’s head dunked under the water. Alarmed at the sudden seizure, Bella inhaled. When her head poked above the water, she coughed and her lungs stung with pain.
She pointed her toes searching for the ground again, the undercurrent pulling her legs downstream. The girls held each other in a tight embrace, crying as the river took them. Bella imagined yellow-vested strangers searching for her body in the river. She would be a casualty, another cautionary tale. Her mother had warned her, “Stay out of the enchanted river!”
Bella thought of her mother’s face when they had first arrived and stopped crying. She felt the riverbed scrape against her feet. She dug into the bed but it was mushy and the mud slithered between her toes. It felt like dead fingers from all those the river had consumed. Then she looked down into the water and imagined she saw the outlines of faces and eyes staring back at her, arms outstretched welcoming her. Tears poured again. She didn’t want to die. With her muscles fatigued and her arms still holding onto Julie, she let her body relax and closed her eyes.
Something large and cold brushed up against her leg. Bella thought maybe she shouldn’t open her eyes. If she were going to die, that it’d be better that way. She only hoped she wouldn’t feel teeth or dead hands. But she couldn’t help herself. She needed to look.
It was good thing she did. When she opened her eyes, she saw that they were sliding against a large rock. She reached out with her hand and tried to hold on, but her hand slipped. Hopelessness hung heavy. Then she realized the current had led them closer to the riverbank. She reached out again and grabbed onto a low hanging branch from a tree. With all the strength she could muster, Bella pulled.
Firm hands gripped her arms and lifted both Bella and Julie out of the water. It was her dad and the boys.
The tears came again, uncontrollably. Bella and Julie bawled as they coughed and shivered. Everyone surrounded them now, both families and onlookers. Bella’s mom held her as she wept, then she cupped her face in her hands. “I told you to stay out of the river!” Her voice riddled with a mixture of pain and relief instead of anger. Then she squeezed Bella again.
“I’m sorry,” Bella said, her voice barely above a whisper.
The four families congregated at Auntie June and Uncle Beau’s camping spot. It was bigger and had multiple tables and benches. The barbecue raged with smoke. The smell of cooked meat permeated the air. It was as if nothing had happened. Everyone was laughing, the parents were chatting near the food, and the boys were nearby tossing a football. Julie and Sandra were coloring in a corner near Auntie June’s RV. Julie wrapped herself in a blue blanket. Bella sat alone. She had gone back to camp and changed into navy blue shorts and a white-striped shirt. Only her hair was slightly damp.
When Julie caught sight of Bella, she bee lined toward her. Bella wasn’t in the mood for a scolding. She didn’t want to hear how she’d embarrassed Julie. But when Julie reached her, she smiled. It was a soft expression and not like a snarky smile that usually occupied Julie’s face.
“Thank you,” she said. Julie looked just as surprised as Bella when she said it.
Bella shrugged. “You’re welcome. You would’ve done it for me.”
“Maybe,” Julie said. She took a seat next to Bella. “Please don’t say anything.”
“Huh?” Bella asked.
“Don’t tell on me,” Julie continued. Bella looked confused. “About jumping into the river when I wasn’t supposed to. You know how our moms are. They think the river is cursed.”
“Oh,” Bella said. She hadn’t really thought about it. She probably wasn’t going to say anything anyway.
“You can hang out with us.” Julie gestured toward Sandra.
“Don’t worry,” Bella sighed. “I won’t say anything.”
Julie stuck her pinky out. “Promise?”
Bella wrapped her pinky finger around Julie’s. “Promise.”
Bella, Julie, and Sandra seemed inseparable, spending their time engaged in activities near the RV. Sandra folded a piece of paper into a makeshift fortuneteller.
“Pick a number,” she said to Bella.
“Four.” Bella pointed at the number four on the paper.
“One-two-three-four. Pick a color.”
“G-R-E-E-N.” Sandra unfolded the paper, ready to reveal Bella’s fortune.
“Look,” Julie said and pointed to something beyond their camp. Bella and Sandra followed her finger and looked carefully.
Officers were coming up into the camping area from where the river was. With them were people in black jackets that looked like emergency medical workers. They were carrying a gurney with someone lying under a white sheet.
“You think it’s the missing girl?” Julie asked.
As soon as she asked the question, the sheet blew off the girl’s face, as if the river itself had answered.
On the gurney was a young girl, twelve-years-old, give a take a year or two. They were close enough to see the girl’s brown hair, pale brown skin, that her dark eyes were opened. Bella imagined the deathly hands of the river’s occupants still impressed upon the girl’s skin, around her feet and ankles—she could see the shock frozen on the girl’s face as the river claimed her.