It was never the monsters hiding under the bed. Neither was it the dark of her bedroom when the lights went out. It was never the zombies that could clamber out of the packed earth and find and eat the little girls who played hide-and-seek in the graveyard. It wasn’t any of the things her best friend Clara had divulged to her once as they’d perched on the cobblestone wall that ran around the village. For Evangeline, it was the pitter-patter of raindrops on her head that caused her heart to seize.
Her mother, June, would be waiting by the back door, of course, wringing her hands until her daughter arrived, flushed and out of breath from running.
“Praise, God,” she would whisper, before crossing herself. Bustling Evangeline inside, the two of them would then huddle together by the kitchen window, uttering prayers for the clouds to part and sunny skies to bless them once more.
Sometimes, her mother would berate her for taking the rainless days for granted.
“You haven’t been praying hard enough,” she told Evangeline at the table, their hands still clasped from saying grace. “You’re not even trying.”
So Evangeline was always careful, after crossing all her fingers and toes, that her last thought before sleep overcame her was that she would awake to the pleasant heat of the sun on her face and the sight of a brilliant blue sky peeking through her curtains.
Yet although Evangeline deemed herself old enough now to know that zombies and ghosts could never hurt her, as long as she was home before dark, of course, for the life of her she could not explain why they should be so afraid of rain. Indeed, Evangeline had been sodden before when she had once ventured too far from the cottage and the storm had taken her by surprise. All she had felt whilst her mother had bundled her in towels were as if she’d just stepped out of a very cold bath.
“It doesn’t look so scary from in here,” she’d observed, cross-legged by the fire; not even while it had lashed against the window panes in droves and lightning had crackled across the sky.
“Well, you would be a fool not to be afraid,” said her mother.
Sometimes their garden would be ruined, reduced to a mushy, mulchy mess of sodden foliage. When Evangeline was younger, she used to believe that there were such things as giants that would use the cover of thunder to enter the garden and destroy all the pretty flowers. Her mother never used to tell her otherwise, and so Evangeline still had to scold herself whenever she could’ve sworn she’d seen a footprint the size of a dustbin lid left in the soil.
It was Monday morning, and Evangeline was peering at one of these very such indentations by the churchyard wall when someone called out to her and Clara. Glancing up, she caught sight of Mr. Reed striding past them on his way to the fields.
“I would start making my way home now, girls. You’re too close to the boundary wall when the sky’s looking this murky. That means you, too, sweetheart.”
“Yes, father,” her best friend mumbled.
Evangeline jumped to her feet, wiping her hands on her skirt.
“I don’t know why you try and run off so fast, Eve,” Clara told her as they began making their way back towards the centre of the village, deciding that they would stop by at Mr. Graham’s shop to buy toffee if they hurried. “We’ve both got caught in the rain so many times now and it’s never hurt us.”
Evangeline hushed her, peering up and down the lane. Old Mrs. Simmons was pruning her roses, but everyone knew that her ears were shot. They passed by her garden and she raised a gnarled hand at them in greeting, lips pulling to reveal a toothless crevasse.
“It’s just when you’re out in it for too long,” whispered Evangeline, “or when you go out on purpose. I don’t know what happens to you but all I know is that I don’t want to find out.”
Clara giggled, and they stopped in the middle of the path.
“See?” she said. “What’s so bad about rain, Eve? It makes everything damp and sometimes it makes the grass really slippery. And you can throw stones in the puddles! Why should we be afraid?”
Huffing, Evangeline readied her best grown-up voice. “Because that’s what we’ve been told. It’s all we’ve ever known. To run home as soon as the rain starts.”
“Eve. We both know zombies can eat you. Ghosts can scare you to death. What does rain do?”
They walked in thoughtful silence until they arrived at the shop. Clara went in first, as always, and they went up to the counter, contemplating the shelves of sweet jars behind Mr. Graham in his red-and-white stripy apron. He was already bagging up some liquorice for old Mr. Partridge, the same corduroy trousers flapping about his bow legs. The two of them were conversing quietly, and Evangeline’s ears pricked at some of the words. She felt a gentle nudge at her side, and she turned to see Clara slipping into one of the nearby aisles. She followed, and together, they listened.
“So what are they saying happened to the poor child?” murmured Mr. Partridge.
“That perhaps she tried to go swimming in the river. My Daisy asked if she could once when we were on a walk near the marshlands, and of course I told her that it was forbidden. It was beautiful weather and I know it’s tempting, especially when it’s as nice as it was on Friday.”
“Oh, it was beautiful weather Friday,” Mr. Partridge agreed in a rasp.
“Anyway, as you make your way further out, the current gets stronger. The girl was probably caught unawares some time Friday afternoon and got swept away.”
Mr. Partridge made a noise of anguish.
“Yes, I know,” said Mr. Graham. “I heard a child calling it The River Fury. Some kind of water dragon that is forever angry and tempts children to try and ride it. If they can do it, only then will the waters calm. Something like that.”
In her pocket, Evangeline clenched her palm around the pound coin her mother had given her for toffee. She remembered it had rained that Friday afternoon.
“I thought we’d seen the last of this ten years ago,” said Mr. Partridge sadly, before shuffling out of the shop. Exchanging looks, Evangeline and Clara stepped out from the aisle and approached the counter once more, though Evangeline wasn’t sure either of them were now in the mood for sweets.
“You must never try and ride the water dragon,” said Mr. Graham, and they blinked up at him in surprise. His eyes were hard. “Understand?”
Evangeline nodded. Besides, neither of them would ever be able to tame a dragon.
They had just finished another chapter of Evangeline’s bedtime story. Although Evangeline knew she was much too old for this sort of thing, and she was perfectly capable of reading on her own, it was a nightly ritual that she was certain her mother still enjoyed just as much as she did. It was also a way of distracting the both of them when the rain was beating down outside and it showed no signs of stopping.
This particular story was one of Evangeline’s favourites. It was a tale of adventure, and she loved listening to her mother read of distant lands and exotic locales, so far removed from the dreary existence of their little village that she found it hard to believe that there were indeed such other places in the world.
“Yes, darling?” Her mother got to her feet to slot the book back amongst the others on the shelf.
“Clara and I heard that a girl in the village disappeared on Friday. Is that true?”
Evangeline watched as her mother came to perch on the edge of the bed, bypassing her special reading chair. She adjusted the teddy bear that was sat on the windowsill, its stitched mouth coming undone.
“Yes. Yes, it’s true.”
“What happened to her?” Evangeline found herself fidgeting with a fraying edge of her blanket, eyes trained on the stray thread.
For a moment she thought that her mother had not heard her and was about to ask again, but then, “She got caught in the rain.” Her voice wavered. She stood, brushing her hands down her pinafore.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Evangeline whispered.
“It doesn’t have to make sense,” said her mother. She was staring out the window, her face sheathed in moonlight. The raindrops that cascaded steadily down the glass cast shadows on her skin, like tears.
Inhaling sharply and blinking as if she had just remembered whereabouts she was, she leant down and pulled the blanket up to her daughter’s chin, patting her shoulder and resting her hand there.
“You must promise me again that you will always come straight home when the rain starts. You come straight home to me. You promise?”
Evangeline swallowed, her glass of milk before bed now a bitter taste in her mouth.
With one last smile, her mother straightened.
“What about the water dragon?” said Evangeline, remembering. “Should I be afraid of that, too?”
“Yes, darling. You must beware that, too. Now, good night. I expect to hear you praying before you go to sleep.”
“What do you think is this water dragon?”
Evangeline and Clara were skipping down the lane to the pond, laden with bread for the ducks. It had been almost a week since they had eavesdropped on the conversation in Mr. Graham’s shop, and since then, the missing girl had been found in a ditch near the marshlands with water in her lungs.
“Who knows?” said Clara. “Just sounds like a load of rubbish to me. It was the younger children who were spouting all that stuff, after all.” She sniffed.
“You didn’t ask your parents? Mr. Graham did warn us about it.”
“Why should I?” Clara shrugged. “I’m already told to be scared of enough things. I don’t want to worry about something else.”
They’d reached the pond, a small pool of water about the size of Evangeline’s garden. It had lily pads and frogs if they were lucky enough to spot one. Evangeline tore off a scrap of bread and threw it to the mother duck and her ducklings, not finding it in herself to smile when they all gathered by her feet.
“You know, I have a theory,” said Clara, chewing on a piece of crust. “And it’s just a theory, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I feel like I can trust you enough to tell you.”
“We’re best friends, Clara!”
“Even so. I wasn’t sure if you’d run home and blab about it. Then your mother would tell my mother, and she wouldn’t let me out to play anymore.”
“Anyway, here’s what I think. Our parents tell us all these things we should be afraid of. Ghosts that come out at night, going past the boundary wall, this water dragon, the rain… but what if–”
A low rumble of thunder pulled their gazes skyward. Evangeline could feel her heartbeat in her ears, and she looked to Clara with wide eyes. Her friend sighed.
“We’d better make a run for it, then.”
The girls scattered the rest of their bread and began dashing back along the twisted, winding roads. The pond was the other side of the village, and Evangeline thought how stupid she was for not sticking close to the cottage on a day like today.
The rain began to fall. Evangeline felt her hair and her clothes grow wetter and wetter, and soon she was whimpering not just with the cold but with a gnawing fear that had a hold of her insides. Clara was ahead of her but she could barely make her out, the rain coming down so thick and so fast Evangeline was sure that she would disappear.
She grabbed for the cobblestone wall on her left, using it as a guide. With her free hand she attempted to shield her vision, the rain pouring into her eyes. Near-blinded, she let out a gasp as she slammed into Clara, the both of them stumbling. Her friend had stopped.
“Clara! What are you doing?”
“Look!” she shouted, pointing.
Evangeline did so, following her gaze, to find that they were directly outside Mrs. Simmons’ cottage. The old lady herself was standing beneath the porch, pruning scissors in hand, and she was gesturing madly at them, her mouth a silent chasm beneath the deafening roar of the rain.
“Come on, then.” Clara pushed open the gate.
“No!” Evangeline caught her sopping sleeve. “We have to go straight home–our parents will worry!”
“We’re still ages away! You said yourself we can’t be out in this for too long!”
Clara grimaced at her, slipping through the gate and running up the stepping-stone path towards the house. Mrs. Simmons stepped aside to let her through the door before turning to gesture again at Evangeline.
With one last sigh, Evangeline darted to follow her. The rain no longer beat down upon her head as she reached the shelter of the porch, and she felt herself threatening to slump with relief as she moved past Mrs. Simmons, finding herself standing in a musty living room that smelt of mothballs and soap.
“You girls are drenched.”
She spoke oddly. Evangeline had noticed this on the few occasions she had been up-close to Mrs. Simmons. Her mother had told her it was because of her ears, how she couldn’t hear her own voice too well, and so the sounds came out strange.
“Come and sit by the fire.”
She ushered the two of them over to a flowery loveseat. Evangeline felt herself sinking; the cushions seemed to swallow them up.
As the girls huddled there shivering, Mrs. Simmons disappeared into the kitchen for a moment before returning with two cups of hot, sweet-smelling tea. Evangeline sat there with it clasped between her clammy hands, not yet having the strength to lift the beverage to her lips. Mrs. Simmons then collapsed into an armchair herself, peering at the two of them.
“Are you girls alright?”
“We’re fine.” Clara nudged Evangeline in the ribs; she nodded her agreement.
Mrs. Simmons didn’t look convinced, but took a sip from her own cup, staring into the flames that licked the hearth.
“Mrs. Simmons?” said Clara. Then, louder, “Mrs. Simmons?”
The old woman jerked.
“Oh, yes, dear?”
“We both want to know… we feel that we should know…” Clara paused as Evangeline grabbed her arm, shaking her head. She could feel Mrs. Simmons’ pale blue eyes on them from over the rim of her teacup.
Clara pulled herself free and Evangeline receded back into the cushions.
“Why should we even be so afraid of rain, Mrs. Simmons?”
The question hung in the stale air. Mrs. Simmons’ eyes dropped to the carpeted floor, and she took a deep, ragged breath that seemed to give her some trouble.
“Back when I was a child, I had a friend, Ruth,” she told them. “She lived just down the bottom of the lane from me.”
She gestured towards the window, before a chuckle wracked her chest.
“She was a headstrong little lady. I always much felt like I was her lackey, always following her, secretly envying her.”
Evangeline glanced sideways at Clara, but her friend seemed to be enraptured.
“One day, we decided we would go on an adventure. We passed the boundary wall to go and play in the river by the marshlands. We followed it for what felt like miles. I wanted to turn back but, well, you can imagine what Ruth might have said about that.” Smiling, she watched the fire. Evangeline realised that it was dying.
“Would you like me to put on some more logs for you?” she asked.
“Oh, that’s alright, dear. I was getting rather warm, anyway.”
Evangeline sunk back into the loveseat, avoiding the frown Clara shot her for interrupting the story.
“Then it started to rain,” murmured Mrs. Simmons, her gaze fixed on the rapidly diminishing flames. “It came so quickly, and neither of us saw any danger. We were just children, after all. Anyway, I managed to get out. I got lucky, I suppose… I tried to reach for her from the bank… but she’d already taken on too much water. I watched as she slipped beneath the surface and never came back up. The water dragon took her.”
Her crooked hands were trembling. Evangeline and Clara shared an uneasy glance. At the bottom of the hearth, the embers glowed their last before finally growing dark.
“It stole my friend from me. And it felt cheated that it couldn’t have me, too. It lies in wait for me, to this day. The rain gives it the power to search for me, for the river to break its banks and seek me out. Do you know how many floods this village has had over the years? The last was before your time, anyway. Now, our children are warned to run straight home when the rain starts. To keep them safe. I thought it had ended. For ten years, I thought it was over. But then that little girl went missing and… it’s all because of me.”
Mrs. Simmons hunched over herself and began to cry. The girls shifted on the loveseat. Clara opened her mouth, but the words seemed to die on her tongue. Evangeline glanced out the window; the rain had stopped.
“We really must be getting back now, Mrs. Simmons,” she said, setting down her untouched tea. Her voice was barely above a whisper, and she realised her mistake.
“I can show you if you like.”
Mrs. Simmons raised her head. Something had changed in her eyes; they were focused, steely, glinting.
“I can show you where it happened on the river. It’s not too far to walk.”
“Mrs. Simmons, did you hear me?”
Clara sat up straight. “I want to see.”
Evangeline whirled on her. “Clara, what are you doing?” she breathed. “Everyone will be waiting for us, my mother is probably terrified–” A lump formed in her throat, her eyes prickling. “We have to go home.”
Her friend shrugged. “Do what you like. But I need to see this. I’m going.”
A smile stitched itself across Mrs. Simmons’ face. Evangeline stared between the pair of them, her mouth open.
“Come with us, dearie,” the old lady said, pushing herself to her feet. “It won’t take long, I promise.”
“No.” Evangeline stood. “No, I really must go back now.”
Mrs. Simmons cocked her head at her, like a bird. “She’s scared, bless her.”
“I’ll be fine, Eve,” Clara whispered. Evangeline turned to her, hot tears running down her cheeks now. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Well, if you’re sure, Evangeline,” said Mrs. Simmons from behind her. “You be careful, now. And tell your mother I said hello.”
Evangeline stepped out of her reach. With one last imploring look at Clara, met with a determination she had seen so many times before and likely followed, she headed towards the door. The latch was stiff beneath her fingers. With a dull thunk the door swung open, and she looked behind her into the living room. Both her best friend and the old lady were staring at her; Mrs. Simmons had a hand on Clara’s shoulder.
Outside, the sky was bright, and the ground smelt fresh and sharp. Pulling the door to, Evangeline ran all the way home.
Clara was found dead in a ditch the next morning with water in her lungs.
Evangeline repeated the story over and over again. She and Clara had been feeding the ducks by the pond. Then, when the rain had started, they’d tried to run home but had been forced to take shelter at Mrs. Simmons’ cottage.
The old lady had vouched for the pair of them and had also filled in the details where Evangeline could not, that Clara had said goodbye not long after her friend, and that that was the last she’d seen of her.
From then on, as Evangeline had expected, she was no longer allowed out of her mother’s sight. Not that she would have wanted to. And it wasn’t as if she had a friend to go out and play with, anymore.
As she and her mother made their way down the lane towards Mr. Graham’s to buy some necessities, Evangeline caught sight of Mrs. Simmons pruning her roses. It took a moment for the senile woman to hear them, yet when they passed by and her pale eyes landed on Evangeline, she gave her a gummy smile, her finger raising toward her pinched lips.
There was a rumble of thunder overhead.
“We’d better hurry,” said her mother, pushing her daughter along.
Evangeline knew she was right. There was a lot to be feared in this village. And she knew what Clara’s theory had been that day. She only wished that she had come to the same realisation sooner.
At least she knew now. Ten years old was as good an age as any to start growing up.