“The River at the End of the Road” offers readers a compelling narrative with desires and stakes sharply felt. Reading this story, I was held by and enamored with the writer’s unwavering ability to make the disparate storylines and characters blend into something coherent, which made the story’s heart throb with tension, wonder, and delight. — Guest Judge Morgan Talty
Javiera pulls her SUV up to the closed gate. A skinned animal hangs next to a rundown barn. The carcass is stretched spreadeagled on a frame, the exposed muscles pale pink, the striated flesh glistening in the morning sun. She gags. Goats mill about in the pasture. The scent of manure hangs in the dry air. She wants to back up and leave. But she promised the kids a day at the river with their cousins. Her brother should be on his way.
Javiera sighs. Pablo should be the one driving, the one to ask for directions. She imagines him driving back in Santiago, someone else beside him, asking for directions to somewhere else.
She turns to check on the kids in the backseat. Her youngest, Dante, is sleeping. He’s three but still naps when given the chance. Her six-year-old twins, Benjamin and Tomás, sit on either side of Dante. Benjamin is watching cartoons on his iPad; Tomás is playing a game on his. Pablo gave them the iPads when he moved out. They were supposed to make it easy for him to call, to tell them good night. There were calls, at first. Eventually the calls were replaced by cartoons, the iPads another thing to argue about.
Two men saunter out from behind the barn. Father and son, she thinks. The older one waves, then takes a tattered cloth from his back pocket and wipes his hands. He gives it to the younger man, who wipes the sweat from his brow, then drapes the cloth around his neck.
Javiera climbs out of the car and waves.
“Busco el río. Someone told me this road leads to a bend in the river with a shallow beach where the kids could swim. I’ve got it marked on Google Maps, but I don’t get much signal out here. We’ve been driving for a while, so I wanted to stop and…”
The young man interrupts her. “Sigue no más.” He pulls the cloth from his neck, waves it towards the gravel road. “When the road stops, you’ll see the river ahead of you. Park by the blackberry bushes. Walk down the path. You’ll see the beach.”
Javiera thanks him. She climbs back into the car. Benjamin looks up from his cartoons as she maneuvers in reverse down the drive. He spots the skinned goat.
“Look! It’s dead! Mira!” Benjamin shouts, reaching over the sleeping body of Dante to punch his brother on the shoulder.
Tomás looks up from his screen.
“Yuck,” Tomás says, wrinkling his nose. “Mamá, how did they kill it?”
“I know, I know!” Benjamin shouts again, bouncing up and down in his seat.
Javiera shushes them. “Your brother is sleeping!” she hisses, ignoring the question. The boys quiet down, their shouts becoming exaggerated mimes of guns and death.
Javiera backs the SUV onto the road. She drives on. The road dips down into the valley, like the young man had said. She sees the blackberries, parks next to them in the shade. Dante wakes up and starts crying, straining against the confines of his car seat. The twins jump out and race each other to the river’s edge. Javiera plucks the little one from his seat, balancing him on her hip while shouldering a large tote bag stuffed with snacks, swimsuits, towels, and sunscreen. She lets the boys pick a spot. They lead her to a stretch of rocky sand.
Others have been here before; Javiera sees charred wood, pieces of toilet paper on the ground behind the bushes, a bottle cap buried in the dirt. But nobody else is here now on a weekday at the end of summer. Javiera sets the bag down, shakes out four towels, lines them up on the ground. The older boys dig through the bag to find their swimming trunks. They change, dropping their clothes on the sand. She yells at them to put on sunscreen, tossing Benjamin the spray can. Tomás stands, arms outstretched, while Benjamin sprays, front and back.
Javiera helps Dante into his trunks. She grips him with one hand while using the other to spray his chubby torso with sunscreen before he can wriggle out of her grasp. He still doesn’t accept sunscreen as a fact of life. As soon as she lets go, he runs off to join his brothers. Javiera sits down on a towel.
The eucalyptus trees crowd the river’s edge. A breeze blows through the valley. The eucalyptus leaves crackle, the branches creak, the sounds a cryptic conversation between trees. Goats bleat somewhere up the mountainside in a golden pasture above. The river ripples, the steady current shifting the rocky sand. An egret flies by, lands, a still white statue among the yellow and purple flowers on the other side of the river.
Javiera watches the boys as they play. Small, silvery fish flee as sand is dug and thrown and buckets swoop in to scoop them up. The children trap tiny toads in their little fists. Tomás holds one too tightly, its soft body no match for his excitement. He flings it back into the current. “Adiós, dead frog!” he shrieks as it floats away. Benjamin hears the goats and bleats back a response. A brown-spotted nanny ambles down the path through the brush. She looks around, sees only human children. She bleats a reprimand, then heads back up the hillside, disappearing behind the trees.
The truck appears suddenly, the engine’s growl nearly drowned out by the children’s shouts and laughter. It drives straight down the gravel road to the sand, stops, three-point turns, then backs into the shallow water. Two men hop down from the cab. They let out a thick yellow hose from the back end of the tank, dropping it into the clear waters upstream.
Javiera wades into the water to look at the truck. It’s a water truck. The tank says AGUA, nothing else. Sediment churned up by the massive wheels swirls about her ankles. The two men stand behind the tank, their pant legs rolled to their knees, no shoes. They light cigarettes and talk. They look at her, at the children playing. They lift a hand, acknowledging her presence. Javiera does the same.
She reaches into her pocket. She pulls out her phone. No messages, no missed calls, one bar of service. She holds it up to the sky, hoping it will make a difference. Her brother and her sister-in-law and their two kids should be on their way. She tries calling. He doesn’t answer. She drops a pin on the map—the red dot lonely next to the blue line of the river—and hits send.
She takes a picture of the kids, of the patch of sand at the end of the road. She records a message, telling him again how to get this lonely paradise: The asphalt will end, there will be no more houses, the road dips down, becomes rocky and uneven. Follow it down, down, winding down to the river. At the end you will see us. There’s a place to park next to our car.
One check, then two. The message, the photos stay gray, not blue. She imagines he is driving or his kids are screaming. Maybe they haven’t even left the house yet. She tucks the phone back into her pocket. The kids ask for their primos, want to know when they are coming.
“Soon,” she says. “Soon.”
The splashing grows rowdy. Javiera hurries out of the way, not wanting to get wet. She glances upriver. The men are still smoking, still talking, the yellow hose still submerged in the river, still sucking, sucking up water.
She sits down on a towel, turns her face to the sun. The water is shallow, the current gentle, the kids happy. She closes her eyes, then opens them. Javiera checks her phone again. No signal now, no new messages.
The kids are all shouting at once.
“Look!” they shout, pointing to the sky.
Javiera scrambles to her feet. She scans the river, counting as she goes. One, two, three heads. All there, all above water, all looking up, pointing at something in the clear sky. The truck is still there. The two men are no longer smoking. They, too, are looking up, their hands shielding their eyes.
A loud buzzing sound, mechanical, out of sync with the noises of nature. Javiera squints into the sun. A small drone whirs above them. It turns a little, as if scanning, though it seems to point towards the truck parked in the river. The kids are excited. They’ve seen drones before; sometimes fathers bring them to the plaza to fly while the kids look on.
The drone hovers a bit longer, then buzzes off. Impossible to tell where, though Javiera imagines there must be a car up the road; somebody nearby must be in control. The kids go back to playing, their hands busy building a sandcastle for the toads held captive in their plastic bucket.
Javiera looks over at the men. They argue as they wind up the hose. She can’t hear what they’re saying. The older man looks at her.
She sits back down on the towel. No signal, no new messages. She checks the time. Her brother is bringing the grill and sausages. The kids need to eat. Juice and cookies for now, then. They’ll be fine, so long as her brother arrives soon.
The truck rumbles to life. Its wheels spin in the sand, spraying water before finally finding purchase. It pulls itself out onto the riverbank. But instead of continuing on up the road, the truck stops. The engine shuts off.
Javiera sits, arms wrapped around her legs, phone in hand. She stares ahead at the children while watching the truck out of the corner of her eye. The doors open, the men hop down from the cab to the sand. Their shoes are on, their pant legs rolled down. They slam the doors shut.
She wills them to head up the hill, to the path behind her, to the golden pasture and the bleating goats. She wills them to stop, to light another cigarette. But they don’t. They walk along the riverbank and come to a stop next to her towel. She waits for them to speak before acknowledging their presence.
“¿Tienes señal?” the older man asks, gesturing to her phone.
Up close Javiera sees he is not as old as he looked from afar. He’s not tall, but his wide shoulders give him the air of a much larger man. His hair is short and neat, his skin creased and tanned by the sun. His hands are stained with grease, his fingernails dirty.
She stands up.
“Off and on. Sometimes a bar or two, sometimes nothing.”
The younger one shifts into her line of sight. He’s tall, but so is Javiera. She notices an elaborate crucifix tattooed on his forearm. His stubble extends past his chin down his neck. Unruly hair sticks out from under a baseball cap. Javiera looks at her kids. He follows her gaze.
“All yours?” he asks.
She nods. He puts his hands in his pockets, sticks out his chin.
“You called someone.”
“Was that his drone? You made a call. Then the drone showed up.”
“What? No, he doesn’t have a drone. Anyway, he’s driving. He should be here any minute.”
“You called somebody else,” the young man said. “Who did you call? Who did you tell about us?”
“Nobody. I didn’t call anybody else,” Javiera said. “I called my brother. I thought he might be lost.”
“Anybody can come to the water. We don’t have to ask permission to come here.”
Javiera wants to tell them it isn’t true. You can come to the water, but you can’t suck it up. She wants to ask them what they were afraid of. She wants to scream that she will tell everyone. That they will be punished. She wants to call them water thieves, like the avocado farmers responsible for the drought.
Javiera shifts her body. She looks past the men. She counts the heads in the water. One, two, three. The younger man steps closer, putting himself between her and the children. She can smell him, cologne, body odor, deodorant not strong enough to last the day.
“I saw you take a picture. Give me your phone,” he says reaching towards her.
Javiera slips the phone into her back pocket.
“Your truck isn’t in the photo. I swear. I was taking photos of the kids. I sent a photo to my brother.”
Javiera’s attention snaps back to the kids. One, two… three. Dante. She sees his arms splash about in the water as he struggles to find his footing. The gentle current is just strong enough to keep him off his feet, the water just deep enough to cover his body. The river tumbles him downstream.
“Dante!” Javiera screams.
She sprints towards the water. The men follow, stopping at the river’s edge. In seconds she is in the water, hauling Dante up by the arm, carrying him to shore. She looks into his face. He is crying and coughing. His little body trembles from fright, from cold. She grabs a towel, wraps it tightly around his body.
Javiera sits, pulls Dante onto her lap, hugs him close. She offers him apple juice and a lemon cookie. Benjamin and Tomás see the cookies and juice. They fly over, two greedy gulls demanding their share. The men are still there, watching, their presence like live coals searing the side of her body. The younger man steps towards her. The older one puts a hand on his shoulder, holding him back.
Javiera buries her face in Dante’s wet hair.
“Está bien. It’s okay. You’re fine,” she whispers.
Dante whimpers between bites of cookies. The twins argue. One of them has more cookies than the other. Tomás has finished his juice box, demands another. Javiera moves Dante from her lap to the towel. She digs through the bag for more juice, more cookies. She counts out loud, placing cookies into outstretched hands.
“One, two, three…”
From the corner of her eye, she sees the men turn around. They walk back to the truck. They climb in. The doors slam, the motor turns over.
Dante squeezes his juice box, giggling as it squirts onto the towel. His cheeks are still wet with tears. Cookie crumbs cling to the corners of his mouth. Javiera dries his cheeks with her hands, brushes the crumbs away.
“See? You’re fine. You were just scared,” she said, ruffling his hair. She smiles at her three boys. “No pasó nada. Nothing happened. Everything is okay.”
The truck rumbles. Javiera hears it shift into a lower gear. It climbs the hill, back up the gravel road.
Hillary Millán is a writer from Wisconsin. She lives in Tallinn, Estonia, with her Chilean husband and two trilingual children. Hillary has taught English in Colombia and Spanish in Vietnam and is currently the English-language content creator for Visit Estonia. She can be found on Twitter @writesintallinn and Bluesky @writesintallinn.bsky.social.