PRW Runner-up Tour: Die Theta Kappa by Michelle Hoehn
“This is, without doubt, the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” I proclaimed loudly into the night.
“Standing on the bank won’t attract its attention, Riley. You need to wade out into the shallows.”
I looked back at Minori, my face a smoldering fury. He sat comfortably on his beach blanket up on the grass, holding on to my shoes and socks. I was barefoot, standing carefully in place to avoid stepping on the sharp rocks and who knew what else that washed up on the river’s edge.
“Just because I agreed to come out here after midnight and hold onto this…” I peered down at the squash I held in my hands. At least, I thought it was a squash. “…zucchini, does not mean you get to boss me around!”
During rush week, the life of a pledge gets a little random. And I didn’t even sign up for one of the usual sororities either. I opted for one of the safer service fraternities, a nice co-ed one that accepted all students. Delta Theta Kappa seemed safe enough, until Minori made me come out to the Hudson River at midnight, anyway.
And what the heck was up with the zucchini? I tried looking around to make sure there wasn’t anybody hiding in the brush with a telephoto lens, but the lights from the main road barely reached the riverbank. The glow stick around my neck didn’t emit much light either, giving anything within a few feet of me a neon green gleam. I hoped no one else was watching.
“It’s a cucumber, Pledge,” Minori called back, not-so-subtly reminding me why we were here. “Did you carve your name into it like I said?”
I waved the vegetable in the air. “Yeah, and my age, too. ‘Riley, nineteen,'” I replied.
“Then wade out into the water. Go on, you’re a big girl.”
“But the water’s going to be freezing!” I whined.
“Into the water, Pledge!” Minori barked.
I grumbled under my breath at the ridiculousness of it all. None of the other pledges I spoke to – the few they’d let me talk to, at least – said anything about nighttime river visits while brandishing a cucumber.
The brothers and sisters of Delta Theta Kappa were very focused in putting us through our paces during rush week. There were obstacle courses, foot races – I mean, the cardio itself was fantastic, and luckily there were no “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” situations to speak of. The frat had a zero tolerance policy towards alcohol and drugs, a high emphasis on grades and physical fitness, and a focus on service to the community. I thought joining this frat would be a cinch.
I still couldn’t see how my standing in New York river water would contribute towards community service, though. This had to be a prank.
Crossing gingerly across the stones, I stepped into dark water and suppressed a shriek. The water sent chills up my legs as it flowed passed me, leeching away my body heat. As I looked out across the water, I wished I’d worn something warmer than shorts and a hoodie.
“The water’s super cold, Minori! How long do I have to stay in here?”
“Until it shows up.”
There was that ‘it’ again. He kept referencing some ‘it’ that would show up and determine whether or not I was DTK material. For all I knew, frat kids were hiding in wait to dunk me in the river for some kind of initiation ritual.
I could feel my toes pruning up as I stood in the water and I shivered from the cold.
“Minori, this isn’t funny,” I said through chattering teeth.
He didn’t answer.
“Minori, I’m serious, this is-” I said, turning around.
Minori was gone, his beach blanket bare except for my shoes and socks, which looked as if they were tossed in a hurry.
Muttering oath upon oath, I splashed my way back to dry land. Minori thought he could drag me all the way out here just to ditch me? Did he think I’d be scared? I wasn’t going to give him any satisfaction.
Once I was back on the stony bank, the splashing didn’t stop. The water had been calmly flowing past when I was standing in it, making me think that someone else must be in the water.
A certain someone who was about to get an earful from me.
I whirled around to curse out Minori, but no one was behind me. Another splash caught my attention, and a small head bobbed up from the shallow patch of water I just left. Large bulbous eyes shone in the green light of my glow stick and stared hungrily at me from the water, then the head quickly submerged.
The water couldn’t have been more than two feet deep. Someone, if they really wanted to, could have crouched down in the water to try and scare me. I walked to the water’s edge, hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever dove under water to give them a piece of my mind.
The head bobbed up again, and soon the rest of its body rose up from the water. The water ran down the creature’s flesh, which was smooth, like a salamander’s skin. There was a small indentation filled with water at the top of its head. Strong muscles flexed underneath the mottled green and yellow skin of its arms. Webbed hands reached out toward me, and soon, the creature leapt for me from the water.
I threw my hands over my head and crouched down into a ball, trying to make myself as small a target as possible. When I realized it wasn’t attacking me, I peeked through the crook of my elbow to see where it went.
I wasn’t expecting to see a wrestling match.
Minori was there, and he managed to wrap himself around the creature’s back. His legs were locked around its middle as he attempted to choke out the creature. His left arm snaked around its neck, but the creature slid out of his arm’s hold and fell back into the shallows on top of Minori. The creature wriggled out from between his legs, flipping around to straddle Minori. It plunged its webbed hands down into the water near where Minori’s head would have surfaced.
I stood and looked frantically for something to strike the creature with before it drowned Minori. The stones were too small to inflict any damage, and there was no driftwood. All I found was my stupid cucumber, which I must have dropped when I ducked for cover. It was better than nothing.
Gripping the cucumber firmly in hand, I shouted, “Hey!”
The creature turned its head toward me, unveiling its jagged teeth in a snarl.
I hurled the cucumber at its face. The creature’s head snapped back and it lost its grip on Minori. He sat up, sputtering and gasping for air. The creature, however, lost interest in Minori completely. I had expected it to come after me. I didn’t expect it to scoop up the cucumber floating on the water, cradle it again its chest, and swim away from us.
I stared after it dumbly, finally shaking myself out of my confusion to help Minori out of the river. He looked like a drowned rat with his dark shaggy hair plastered against his head, and his sopping DTK hoodie clung to his chest. He slopped up the bank to his beach blanket.
“Good instinct with the cucumber, Pledge,” he said, wringing out the bottom of his hoodie. “Well, actually, I suppose you’re a full-fledged member now, so congratulations.” He put out his hand to shake mine, splattering me with a cold stream of water in the process.
Despite everything－being down by the river, the creature, Minori’s near-drowning－I felt remarkably calm about what just happened. But at the mention of being a full-fledged member, I remembered why I was down here in the first place.
“Wait, that was the ‘it’ you’ve been talking about all night? You wanted me to fight that thing?”
“No, not fight. We really just wanted to gauge your reaction to seeing a water sprite in person.”
“I threw a cucumber at it,” I said incredulously. “That’s an appropriate reaction?”
Minori smirked, picking up his blanket to towel the water out of his hair. My shoes and socks went tumbling to the grass. “It’s a good reaction. Kappas love cucumbers. And since your name is on it, he’ll leave you alone. For a while, anyway.”
“How is any of this even possible?”
“Old magic, usually,” he said casually, before draping his blanket over his arm. “I could kill for a cup of coffee right now. Want to go to the diner?”
His shoes squelched noisily as he walked back to his car. Since he was my ride back to campus, I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. I scooped up my shoes and socks and followed.
“So, let me just get this straight,” I said several hours later over a plate of pancakes. “Delta Theta Kappa isn’t a service fraternity at all. It’s actually an organization of monster hunters spread throughout the country.”
Across from me, Minori drank deeply from his steaming mug of coffee. He’d changed into a dry set of clothes he kept in the car in order to make himself look more presentable. We were two of the few people in the diner during the graveyard shift, so I doubt anyone would’ve noticed if he came in dripping wet anyway. He set his now-empty mug off to the side so the server could refill it, and tucked into his plate of bacon and eggs. Apparently, almost drowning can give one an appetite.
“Keep in mind,” he said through a mouthful of bacon, “we only hunt the bad monsters. We usually leave the other cryptids alone.” He swallowed. “Like the Plattsburgh chapter. They usually keep busy making sure no one finds Champ－the Lake Champlain sea monster?－and clearing out the lake of invasive species. Sometimes they cover Lake George too, but we’ll help out every now and then. The Adirondacks are full of old-timey water creatures, but we deal with other land-based creatures too.”
“The kappa we saw tonight, was he an invasive species?” I asked.
“Yeah, some critters hitch a ride in shipping freighters with the ballast water,” Minori said. “Usually the critters are harmless enough, but kappas can be mean bastards at times. We received some reports of drownings in the Hudson, and figured something like that was responsible.”
I looked down at my plate. My pancakes were cold, and I wasn’t as hungry as I originally thought. My orientation to DTK certainly wasn’t how I expected it to be. All the literature they passed out during rush week gave no implication of the organization being a secret monster hunting and occasional preservation society. Whoever put that advertising together deserved some kind of marketing award.
“You doing okay, Riley?” Minori asked. The server came around and poured hot coffee into our empty mugs. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but like I said before, you handled yourself out there pretty well. None of the other pledges reacted this well on their tests.”
I wondered how many other kids faced off with the kappa, or if they saw something else instead. “No one else was initiated? How do you keep them from talking about it?”
Minori hesitated. “We…kind of encourage them go on a bender, and then deny anything and everything they say after. Luckily, they get so blasted they usually forget what happened anyway.”
I was a little taken aback, but I had to admire the cleverness of it. A drunk college student talking about seeing monsters? Once they sobered up, if they didn’t forget entirely, anything they’d say would just be dismissed as a night of wild partying. It was the perfect cover. I may not have agreed with what happened reject pledges, but I couldn’t see any other way around it. How else would you make a person forget what they saw so you could continue to operate in the shadows?
“You know, you probably could have mentioned this at the ice cream social you guys hosted during rush week,” I said.
Minori smiled. “I’ll have to check and see what the other chapter heads think,” he said slyly. I knew he’d do no such thing, but a smirk crept across my face anyway.
“So, I faced off against my first kappa.” I leaned in across the table. “How do we kill it?”
After my formal initiation to the fraternity and a few more weeks of training, Minori and I were ready to return to the riverbank where we first met the kappa. During my training, I learned that kappas, if they left the water, needed to keep the indentation in the top of their head filled with water to survive. Our plan was for Minori to lure the kappa out of the water and since I was still protected from when I fed him during our last encounter, I would sneak up behind and clock him in the head. After Minori tried to grapple with the kappa, we determined the kappa was too wily to physically fight, so we decided it would be best to keep our distance, and let our baseball bats do the talking.
Minori and I arrived at the riverbank at dusk. He laid a couple of cucumbers by the water, leaving a larger pile further inland. Minori stood by the cucumber pile while I gradually receded into the brush scattered by the water.
Night fell. A light mist accumulated on top of the river, and I could hear peepers sounding off in the distance. It seemed much different compared to when we were last down here. I was about to ask Minori if he thought the kappa was still in the area, when a gurgling sound in the water caught my attention. A small, huddled shape crouched down at the edge of the water, quietly eating one of the cucumbers.
I gripped my bat firmly, waiting for the kappa to move out of the water. He reached for the next cucumber, and the next, but when there were no more he could grab without leaving the water, he slowly stood and locked his great round eyes onto Minori. He emitted a low, guttural growl.
“Come on, beautiful,” Minori said. “There’s loads more where that came from.” He gestured to the mound of cucumbers next to him, and the kappa’s eyes grew wide. Whatever lust the kappa held for that particular vegetable, it was enough to make him forget that a large, meat-filled human was standing next to them. The kappa lurched for the pile, and started to feast.
Minori waved, signaling for me to come out of hiding. I cocked the bat behind my ear and slowly approached the feeding kappa. He gnashed down on the cucumbers, his sharp teeth snapping piece after piece into his mouth. I could only imagine him dragging a poor soul out into the water and doing the same, and I shuddered. It was now or never, I thought to myself.
I pulled the bat back and swung straight for the side of his head. His rubbery skin absorbed some of the sound, yet a satisfying crack sounded as the bat met his skull. The kappa’s head shot back, and the rest of his body followed, collapsing in a heap onto stones. Deep red and purple tones blossomed where the bat struck his head, and a mix of blood and water leaked out of the hollow in his head. The body twitched a few times before ultimately falling still.
One thing I hadn’t considered was what to do with the body. “We don’t have to bring this back with us, do we?” I dreaded the idea of getting pulled over by the police and having to explain why the trunk of the car smelled like rotting fish.
“No, we’re just going to let nature take its course,” Minori said, grabbing onto one of the kappa’s arms. “Downstream, that is. The body will start to decay pretty quickly out of water, so we usually just let the water do its job. Drop the bat and give me a hand.”
I took the kappa’s other arm and we dragged it back to the water. We pushed it out into the shallows, knowing the tide would start to swell and carry the body away for the fish to eat.
“So,” Minori said as we drove back to campus. “You made your first kill, with no damage done. That’s pretty good for a newbie.”
I tried not to look to satisfied, reminding myself that feature assignments may not be so easy. But tonight, I had made my first kill as a monster hunter. That was a service to the community I could be proud of.
The kappa’s body drifted slowly down the river until a current pushed it under, submerging it completely. The indentation in its skull filled with water, jolting the kappa awake. Disoriented from the blow to its skull, it struggled to swim upward, flailing about as it finally breached the water. Exhausted, it floated on top of the river, letting it carry it wherever the water led it.
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