The River of Unlived Memories

Kristen Hogrefe Parnell

Elliot Kavanaugh’s slippered feet shuffled down her backyard dock toward the bench her grandson Mark had built for her on the end. She couldn’t miss the magic of golden hour—and she had to be back before Mark arrived or she’d add fuel to the fire about assisted living.

The rowboat docked there was easy enough to untether. Mark had honored her wishes and painted The Next Adventure on the side about the time he completed the dock for her. He told her never to take the boat out on her own, though knowing her better, he kept a life jacket under the seat.

It had been over two decades since her Sam had gone, but he never felt closer than when she was on the water. They still had so many places to travel on their bucket list, and golden hour lasted only a wink.

The cool late spring breeze teased wavy grey strands loose from her bun, but she didn’t have a free hand to tuck them into place. Already, the river was opening before her, and she was ready at the oars to pick up Sam at their rendezvous and make sure he kept his word that they’d go to Niagara Falls someday.

Well, someday was today.

She closed her eyes. She didn’t need them open to know he was waiting for her at the edge of the Cypress tree marsh that concealed their special portal, a place he had discovered right before he left.

“Elli, darling, anytime you miss me, you just come here, and I’ll be waiting.” Sam had stood at the end of his boat and swept back the overgrown vines covering a yet uncharted crook in the river.

“What is this place?” She had whispered.

“The river of unlived memories. I don’t have much time now, but I’m a man of my word. And we have more exploring to do.”

They’d since traveled the Amazon River, the Seine, the Mississippi, and the Thames. But tonight was Niagara’s turn.

She held out her hand. Sam took it and climbed into The Next Adventure. His toned arms took over the rowing, and his boyish grin rippled across his face. “Miss me?”

Readjusting herself beside him, she nibbled on his ear until he turned toward her for a real kiss. “Always.” His lips on hers still curled her toes, soggy slippers and all.

The overgrown vines fell into place behind them, leaving forward as the only option. But no longer was it the swampy, gator-filled river. The marshland gave way to steep banks, cut by the Niagara River, and the once stale water now surged, spewing them toward the falls on the American side.

A wave splashed over the side and the swaying boat threatened to dump her into the river. Elliot gasped, but Sam grabbed her hand. “I’ve got you. Just hold on to me.” 

It was like their first ride together on a jet ski when she had nearly fallen off. Weaving her arm around his waist, she never wanted to let go.

Ahead, the larger-than-life Canadian falls loomed and seemed to swallow a much-larger Maid of the Mist tourist boat. Those travelers had donned ponchos to stay dry, but all she had was the faded yellow scarf Sam had given her on their last anniversary together.

It was enough. Closing her eyes, she let the mist cover her and recalled the times they’d washed the car together with the “help” of their toddler Janet, Mark’s mom. They’d washed each other in the process, too. No ponchos were needed then. None were needed now.

“We should go back,” Sam whispered the warning she already felt. She couldn’t let Mark miss her and discover her secret. Elliot opened her eyes and nodded. Though Sam’s breath wasn’t as warm as she remembered, his smile lines crinkled the same way they always had.

Her gaze slid above them to the Canadian overlook where tiny dots—people—pressed against the rail. Were they young couples in love or old ones like herself? Did they have their whole lives ahead of them or would time cut some of their dreams short?

Both. For that was life.

Already, the mist was lessening. The chilly air on the border of Canada and New York felt slightly heavier with the encroaching Florida humidity. Their time was almost done.

She wrapped her fingers around Sam’s hand, reluctant to let go. Time was a funny thing. She could either view it as lost or as lent. The unlived memories taught her to love more fiercely the ones she had.

A mosquito buzzed by her ear as their rendezvous point drew near. She closed her eyes to savor one more misty moment and leaned in close to Sam. “Thanks for the memories.”

Somewhere in the distance, a porch door slammed shut. As if on cue, the warm golden sunlight faded to grayer tones. She had to hurry …

“There you are!” A voice made Elliot jump. She turned on the bench to see her gangly grandson striding down the dock to join her. Tucking a damp curl behind her ear, she smiled. “Hey, Mark.”

He dropped onto the bench beside her. “Hey, Grams. Sarah made lasagna and we brought it over for dinner. How about you come inside and join us before the mosquitoes carry you off?”


He reached an arm around her shoulder, then pulled away. “Why is your scarf all—damp?” His gaze swept over the rest of her, and his eyes widened. “Grams, your slippers are soaked! Were you just sitting here while the sprinklers ran?”

Elliot only smiled.

Kristen Parnell
Kristen Hogrefe Parnell writes suspenseful fiction from a faith perspective for teens and adults. Her own suspense story involved waiting on God into her thirties to meet her husband, and she desires to keep embracing God’s plan for her life when it’s not what she expects.

Her young adult dystopian novels, The Revisionary and The Reactionary, both won the Selah Award for speculative fiction, and her first romantic suspense novel with Mountain Brook Ink releases December 2022. Kristen lives in the Tampa, Florida area with her husband and son.

Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, BookBub, Goodreads, Pinterest, Twitter, and her website.