Have you ever been in a situation where you couldn't say no to someone? Of course you have. All those times you passed by someone on the street and they ask for change, anything you can spare. At this point, it would just be rude to say 'no, sorry,' because they know you do by the wallet in your hands. So you do it. Even though that's money you need, you do it. And those times a friend has asked you for a favour and they smother you with compliments, begging. All words you can't refuse. So you do it. No matter how much you don't want to, you do it because to not do it would be worse. It would paint you as the bad guy, so you heave a heavy sigh and agree with as kind a smile as you can manage, hiding that tiredness from your expression. People do this a lot. People take advantage, and you know you should be stronger than that but to let people down just feels like a worse alternative to just letting them.

So you're walking back home, the light of the street lamps drifting by in slow intervals, and you hear the same set of words you've heard so many countless times - “Can you help me?”

Of course, it doesn't cross your mind as to who has spoken these words, at first. You have an instinctual reaction to just stop and see who needs your help. Even then, it takes a while to register that the direction you are facing is the river. It's not a small river and it's certainly not a friendly river, so a number of questions bubble up in your mind as you seek out the owner of the voice. You, a person with which 'no' doesn't play a substantial role in everyday language. Questions sit on your tongue, at the very brink of wanting to be spoken; who is asking me for help now? Why did it come from the river? Should I just leave?

You don't leave though. It's not in you to turn away when someone asks so sincerely for help. And when that question is followed by so much curiosity, it's not really a possibility to just carry on home. So you call out, you can't see the person at this point so the only thing to say is an unsure 'hello?' And there's no reply, at first. Just the sound of water ripples as the river lulled against the bank and the insects you hated, especially at night. You start to think maybe you imagined the voice, that the heat and the long day were just getting to you. It's only when you turn to leave that the voice sounds again. Repeating the very same words that stopped you in the first place.

“Can you help me?”

The reaction is a natural one. You inhale a deep breath and heave the same, silent sigh that always came before the inevitable happens. You get closer to the river bank and squint your eyes to try see out across the water. It seemed strange, that a voice would sound so close and yet you see nothing, for a moment. You bring you focus back round to centre, and there they are. You don't question why you missed them the first time. The night settles a heavy darkness on the river, a misty sheet hovering above the water, so to your mind it made sense that you wouldn't have seen them straight away.

You can't make out the persons face, obscured by the fading street light glow and the shadowed mist that clung to the air. There's a niggling feeling in the back of your mind that perhaps you shouldn't stay, but ingrained politeness urges you to speak, to ask them what's wrong.

“Can you help me?”

They repeat themselves again. You can't see their feet as they stand in the water. As you look down, you notice the state of their clothes. Torn, muddied and wet. You respond again, with the same reply 'What's wrong? I'll try to help, just tell me what's wrong,' you want to ask why they're in the river, but the words get stuck in your throat as the person holds out their hand to you. They say nothing. Still you cannot make out the features of their face. It feels like static. Like a sensation of fizzy numbness hits your head, eyes straining as you search to make eye contact. Stepping closer to the water’s edge, you hold out your hand, reaching for theirs and going on the assumption they needed help getting from the river. The bank can be hazardous to climb and, without help, runs the risk of mud slipping underneath your feet. The person stays standing where they are. They do not reach for your hand, only keep their arm outstretched in the same position. A tightness grips your chest, teeth gritted as you look to the person. A want to ask them what they are doing, why they aren't taking your hand, coiling in your mind before the words finally escape in a sound of exasperation. They look at you blankly, their head tilting to the side. There's a pause before they speak.

The tone of their voice came flat and calm, “help me.”

It didn't help you at all. Your head falls and it crosses your mind to simply give up and get someone else. But you were there, there was no one else. How could you not help them? So you let your arm fall back down, your palms pressing against the cold mud beneath you. Manoeuvring so you were sitting down, your face creases into a grimace as your jeans soak the moisture from the ground. You lower yourself carefully into the river, cautious as to where you place your feet. The current felt stronger than you thought it might have been, and you keep your arms up beside you to help in keeping balance. The persons arm was still outstretched, expectant as you approached. You stop, enough space between you to take their hand, but you wait for a moment. It occurs to you then that you would have been home by now if you had just carried on walking. That it is possible to climb the river bank on your own. But you acted out of habit. Acted out of a wish to keep everyone happy. And so there they were. Watching your every move. A tight shiver runs down your spine, more of a spasmodic sensation than a shiver of cold.

You take their hand, turn around and begin leading them to the river bank. You can feel them pull tighter, using you to pull themselves forwards in the water. You get closer, reach out for the bank - but touch nothing. There is no cold, wet sensation. No feeling of smooth mud squeezing through your fingers. You turn to face the person you were helping and it's only now that you notice a small smile pulling at the corners of their mouth.

When you look back at the bank, it's further away than it had been when you'd grabbed their hand. The phantom feeling of movement fizzes through your limbs. You feel water against your chest. That weight pulling against your arm being this person, this stranger who had asked for help, dragging you deeper into the river. You find yourself trying to yank your hand free, but in doing so make it all the more easy for the stranger to tug you that one final step into water too deep for you to stand. You thrash your arms out in front of you. Reach for the light scattering across the water’s surface - but a weight holds you down. As if your legs were trapped in the mud. Your lungs burn. Eyes sting. The beating of your heart. The rush of blood to your head. Any other sound gone, drowned. The stranger is nowhere to be seen.

* * *

The only light visible from the river is that coming from the street lamps spaced at even intervals. It's an orange light, barely worth anything when mixed with the starless sky and the mist that blanketed the river. You watch as someone walks up the path and you want to call out to them but as you open your mouth nothing follows. You try again. Nothing. Again. Nothing.

“Can you help me?”

It's your voice you hear, and you're relieved. The words had come to your mouth before even entering your mind, but you're glad you said them. They felt right, natural, as if you had meant to say them all along. You needed to get that persons attention. They looked familiar. In the way they dressed, the way they carried themselves. You needed that person’s attention. Their face stirred something in your chest. Help. You needed their help.

“Can you help me?”

Have you ever been in a situation where you couldn't say no to someone?

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Published by Bethany Osguthorpe