Talia walked in pace with the rest toward the riverbank, her plain white Keds squeaking softly against the wet grass. Deb walked beside her in step. Deb’s flip-flops gave a soft clap each time she raised her foot, and Talia imagined someone giving a slow clap for their small procession. It was ridiculous, of course; no one would clap if they knew what was about to happen.
The matching white gowns of the eleven people walking astride the two girls picked up bits of dirt and grass as the hem kissed the ground with each step. Besides the accumulated debris at the bottom, their gowns were spotless and shone clear in the moonlight.
Deb looked over at Talia and could see the somber apprehension on her face. She reached out and took Talia’s hand in her own. Deb spoke softly, comfortingly, “It’s going to be okay, you know? This is what we’re supposed to do. This is part of His plan.”
“I know,” Talia responded without looking away from the river. “I’m just worried they won’t understand. If they don’t understand, what’s it all for?”
“The ones who are meant to join us in Celestia will understand. Those who don’t aren’t worthy, and you shouldn’t worry about them.”
“I just hope my family is part of the first group.”
“I think most of us feel that way. Hey, thanks for doing your part, by the way. I know I couldn’t.”
“Somebody has to,” Talia concluded.
Their conversation carried them to the foot of the levee. Deb let go of Talia’s hand as they began the steep climb to the crest of the levee, then carefully stepped down the other side.
When they reached the waterline Talia, Deb, and the others all took off their shoes and laid them neatly in a row on the riverbank. Again walking forward in unison, all thirteen of the gowned figures stepped into the cool, dark waters of the Mississippi until they were up to their hips.
Their gowns swirled and danced around their waistlines in the water. The water climbed slowly up their bellies and backs, clinging to their skin. Realizing her skin was showing through, Deb reached to her chest to cover her nipples from the world then remembered what was about to happen and let her hands fall to her sides.
Talia, who was at the far end of the line, leaned forward and peered to the right. At the other end of the row was John, their leader, looking out across the water. Even from a dozen yards away Talia could see the dread on his face.
John swallowed and looked over at Talia. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly then gave a single pronounced nod to Talia.
Talia broke rank and walked behind Deb.
Deb opened her mouth to speak. “Thank y-“
She was cut short by Talia grabbing her hair and slamming her head beneath the water. Deb was calm at first, but as the pain of emptiness began to fill her lungs, she started to struggle against Talia’s grip. Talia locked her elbows out, and though Deb thrashed and bucked against her, Talia held firm.
After a short eternity, the thrashing stopped. Talia let go of Deb’s hair, and the current began to carry her lifeless body south toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Talia walked to the next man in line and repeated the process, then on and on until she reached John.
Talia reached up to grab John’s hair, the retracted her hand.
“This is right, isn’t it?” She asked John doubtfully.
“It is what must be done, my child. You have served well and we shall both be rewarded in Celestia.”
Talia took a fistful of brown hair and pushed John below the water. He did not struggle like the others. She let go and watched the river take his body. When John was out of sight, she took the knife from under her gown and slit her own throat.
As the sun rose behind him, Officer Davidson stood on the crest of the levee, staring at the row of shoes by the waterline. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, hoping the shoes wouldn’t be there when he opened them. They were.
Davidson reached for his shoulder microphone and held down the button. His radio gave out the soft chirp of positive signal; a bird in a nearby tree sang in response.
“Davidson to headquarters,” Davidson spoke into his radio, trying not to tremble, “looks like we have another group gone into the river last night. Better notify Ascension Parish, tell ‘em look in the same place they found the last two bunches. Pier Celeste or whatever they call it.” Then, to Sgt. Shannon standing nearby “How the hell they always end up on the same little jetty, anyway?”
“Hell if I know, Luke,” Shannon replied, “probably just the way the current goes. Start in the same place, end in the same place. Something like that.”
“It just seems like way too much for a coincidence. Maybe there’s something to what these loonies are saying.”
Shannon shook his head as he turned away and started back down the levee. “If I ever hear you say that again, I’ll have you put on admin leave, you hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” Davidson shouted after him.
Davidson turned back toward the shoes, scanning the whole row from right to left, until his eyes rested on a dirty pair of plain white Keds.