Upriver: A Short Story

The thin dawn made the wet asphalt gleam slate-blue and pink like salmon skin. Shoes slapping and plodding through shallow puddles, Cecelia imagined the narrow side street as a river cramped with emaciated, hook-faced males and egg-swollen females, their vibrant striped bodies scarred and spotted tails shredded from their daring migration against the current. She remembered her uncle holding up a hump-backed male in an old browned photo labeled “Chum Salmon, Churui River, Japan” with a smudged, unreadable date. His light, angular handwriting looked childish and cumbersome.

She used to thumb through an album of her uncle holding up fish against the backdrops of oceans, rivers, and lakes world-round. The foreign names fed her imagination and desires so that her fearful mother eventually locked the album away in a cedar chest beneath a Victorian stained glass window. Cecelia learned to pick the ancient lock within a week. Atop the chest with the photo album in her lap, she daydreamed the world as a cobalt-blue swirling body of water, dotted by patches of deep green land and icy gray landscapes.

She stopped in her driveway to stare at the abalone swirl of colors from where her mother’s old, rumbling truck leaked on the pavement. Delighted by the silvery blues and violets, she ran a brittle dogwood branch through the pool of color, distorting it into various curls and swoops.

A fat neighborhood cat pressed against her legs, arching its back and yowling in a tone that strangers mistook for threatening but Cecelia knew as a friendly greeting. “Hello. Zula,” she said, calling the cat by the name she favored at the time. The cat circled her and tilted its head back to stare at her insistently with wide green eyes. Understanding, she reached down to scratch the cat’s back until some sound or motion beckoned it across the street.

“Cici!” Winona called down from her bedroom window. The gritty black screen obscured her face like white noise on the television. “Mom is sooo mad at you! Get inside!”

Cecelia waved at her sister from the driveway and laughed. “Winona! I am eighteen as of 11:34 last night! I don’t have to do a damn thing!” This declaration made her feel powerful and large. For a moment, she imagined herself as an elegant, classy woman preparing to embark upon the journey of her life in blue rain boots and a matching, knee-length raincoat.

The image dissipated when she saw her reflection in the glass door as she mounted the slippery wooden steps. The humid air had kinked and frizzled her long dark hair around her freckled face until she looked too juvenile to be elegant in her bright blue coat and boots. No one looks elegant in rain gear, she reminded herself, as she slammed the door behind her, except for Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard kissing in the rain as they sandwiched a drenched tabby cat.

Winona stood at the top of the stairs with crossed arms in a kimono-styled silk robe. “Cici, she’s looking for you right now. Hurry up and tell me where you were all night. Before she gets back.” She waved Cecelia up the stairs excitedly, robe swirling around her knees as she turned down the hall.

They shared a bedroom lit by paper lanterns and crowded with bookshelves. Colorful geodes, bird nests, Russian dolls, Venetian fans, and so many odds and ends filled the empty spaces between and in front of stacks of books that little room remained to add to their collection. Their mother threatened to “clean out” the room, a term which meant throwing away what she deemed unnecessary, but her job as a nurse kept her busy and tired while their father supported their eclectic tastes.

“You were with Rob, weren’t you?”

“Winona,” Cecelia lowered her voice, “I’m leaving.”

“Leaving where?”

“Rob and I are going to Florida.”

Cecelia had planned on leaving since the age of eleven. In a mason jar next to her bed, she began saving change until her father asked what it was for. When she announced her intention to travel, he advised her to tell her mother that the jar was for a college fund. She proudly filled two jars with pocket change. By the end of the year it only added up to eighteen dollars and seventy-seven cents.

“I like your dedication,” her father told her on her twelfth birthday and began giving her allowance every other week. “A dollar for every year you’ve been alive,” he said. Winona’s allowance was only eight dollars, and she spent it on books, but Cecelia put every dollar into a cookie tin from Christmas. She kept it hidden under her bed with her uncle’s photo album until she made the mistake of dreamily announcing at dinner her plan to follow his footsteps worldwide. Only the masking-tape label that read “College” loosely clinging to the tin saved her travel fund.

“How much do you have so far?” Her father asked as she hid under her covers hiccupping with glistening eyes and a red face.

“F-four hundred… sniff thirty… sniff—thirty-nine dollars and…”

He finished for her, “Seventy-seven cents?” She nodded, and he said, “Tomorrow, you and I are going to the bank and starting a savings account.”

The years passed, and she spent little money on herself. When she began working at the gas station two blocks away, she spent a little on books and sundresses. She desired little else. Nature provided gifts of fossils, robin egg shells, and flowers, which she decorated her shelves with. She bought a bike for two hundred dollars because it was cobalt-blue, but most of the money that passed through her hands went into savings. “I have thirty-eight hundred in the bank,” she told Winona as she discarded her raincoat and boots at the foot of her bed.

“Really?” Winona leaned forward, beaming. “That’s more than enough to get to Florida, isn’t it?”

“Of course. Bus tickets aren’t expensive.” She fished a bobby pin out of the bedside table. “I’m getting Uncle Buck’s album.”

“Wait until mom goes to work,” her sister interjected before she could reach the door.

They sat on their beds and talked about all the places Cecelia would explore with Rob. Rob Hunting. Cecelia loved to say his full name, breathing the “H” across her lips as if she might swoon. Four years ago, his family bought the modern-styled house with dark tinted windows on North 21st Street just one block away. The two named it the “vampire house” because it looked empty and dark even after his family moved in.

“Spooky,” Cecelia used to say when they paused on their long walks to stare at the house. During one of these walks, Rob Hunting appeared on the porch. He looked nothing like a vampire with his dark features and mundane navy blue t-shirt. He waved at the girls who blushed for being caught staring at his home. “Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Nowhere,” Cecelia said, and he joined them.

Rob was a year older than Cecelia and shared the same dreaminess and love for nature. Her sister was convinced that they were soul mates long before he stole her first kiss up in a sticky long needled pine with branches as thick and wrinkled as elephant legs. “I saw it coming,” Winona chided proudly when Cecelia told her.

“I always knew you’d run away together.” Winona picked at the purple fingernail polish on her toes. She liked to pretend she was older and wiser than Cecelia.

The phone rang and both girls sat rigidly for a moment. “Are you going to answer that?” Cecelia whispered. Winona jumped up from the bed and ran down the hall. Her footsteps thudded hollowly against the pockmarked wood floor that her father polished back to life one summer after discovering it beneath the dirty beige carpet.

While she waited, Cecelia stared at the paper flowers on the ceiling above her bed. Delighted by the carefully crafted roses, daisies, and over-sized violets, Winona asked her to craft a dozen more for the view from her bed. The flowers dulled the sharp cold winters that always seemed to slip a few chilly breaths into the house no matter how high they turned the dial on the thermostat. In the abrasive heat of summer, the brightly colored petals made a perfect sky to read under. She continued to add to the flowers over the years until they lined the window beside her bed.

“Cici!” Winona called before she reached the bedroom door. “Mom is furious but had to go to work, so you’re not going to hear about this until she gets home.”

“I’m not going to hear about it at all,” she reminded her sister, leaping up with a grin. She grabbed the bobby pin and skipped steps as she bounded downstairs. Well practiced, she picked the lock on the cedar chest with ease.

The edges of the photo album were soft and lighter in color than they once were. A swirling design that reminded her of water was pressed into the cover with “Buck” etched in the middle. She ran her hand across the soft leather out of habit. Inside the cover was an inscription in some swirling, foreign script. A piece of yellow paper clipped to the first page read, “Translation: The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.” She stared at the foreign letters so often that she learned to hold her thumb against the paperclip to keep it from slipping out of the album every time she opened it.

She packed the album among the necessities in a canvas backpack painted with stylistic fish and birds. Where the paint chipped away from age, light stains of color remained. “Well Winona, I’ll see you in a few months,” she said eventually, standing tall in the doorway.

Winona’s eyes swelled with tears, and she rushed to hug Cecelia. “I don’t know what we’ll do with mom,” she said. “Dad and I have to deal with her worrying about you, you know?”

She squeezed her sister tightly and laughed. “You two will be fine. Then, when you’re older and go on your trip, she’ll take it better, okay?”

She sniffed. “Okay. I love you, Cici. Write me letters. I want the stamps.”

“I’ll send you all kinds of things,” she promised. “I love you, too.”

Cecelia could feel her sister’s gaze as she rode her bike down the street, a mist rising around the wheels as she cut through damp yards to avoid the puddles. Cecelia felt so big and free that the houses flew by like faces, the windows shining and staring while the garage doors gaped. “Look! Look! I’m leaving! I’m doing it!” She shouted over and over between proud laughs.

She pedaled furiously for two blocks before breathlessly flinging her bike in front of Rob Hunting’s house.

© Sarah Day, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.


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indie author. artist. wanderer.

About Sarah Day

Sarah Day is a native Arkansawyer and professional writer. She grew up in the Ozarks and has been carrying around piles of books for as long as she can remember. In 2014, she graduated from the University of Arkansas with a creative writing degree.

Writing: LGBTQ Sci-fi + Fantasy

Published: Ora and the Old God

Upcoming: The Valor Queen + Mortal Restraints

Sarah Day ©2021