Asterisk Anthology: Volume IRound 3 Winning Story
© Andrea Stanet
Something dangerous is out there. I know it.
Sylvan Lake is like an aquatic Venus flytrap—beautiful and deadly. This whole giant puddle is my nemesis. I sense that every time I come here. Always have.
The lake is as warm as a bath. The sun’s scorching rays make my skin tingle, cooled only by the fluid lapping at the brown skin between my short, purple tank and the matching bikini bottoms. Unless forced, I don’t push myself farther.
Anchored twenty-five yards from the rope separating shallows from deep water, an aluminum raft mocks me, daring me to cross the distance.
The triangular swimming area is crystalline closest to the shore, dropping off to a murky abyss beyond the midline rope. Little nibblers called “sunnies” dart around seeking the bits of bread they’ve come to expect from the humans—a toll for entering their space.
My younger siblings, Jacqui and Paulie, share my big tube and paddle out toward the enemy with its white spatters of bird-shit art. My parents are both at work. They pay me to babysit. Because of her job, Mom comes home only on weekends.
She always insists I go with the kids if they go out to the raft. “Those staff members aren’t really lifeguards, Mariah. At least you’ll be close by if there’s a problem.”
Who’s she kidding? I do well enough to keep from drowning—more or less—but I’m not a strong swimmer. The ten-year-old twins are way better swimmers than I am.
They’ll be fine. Sorry, Mom.
Ignoring my jitters, I splash a couple of handfuls of soothing liquid over my shoulders and behind my neck. Jacqui stands poised to dive as Paulie runs, leaps, and tucks his knees into his chest. The raft rocks with the force of his cannonball. Jacqui doesn’t notice the tube sliding away, past the rope where the weeds reach the lake’s top.
Too late, she turns and dives for it. I wince as her fingers glance off the slick, green plastic and her skinny frame smacks against the metal. The tube slips out of her reach, into the water.
Since I’m not close enough to stop Paulie, he’ll go after the tube if I don’t. He starts swimming toward it.
If Mom hears I let them past the side boundary of the “safe” area…
I can’t let my fear rule me. “No! I’ll get it!”
Mentally grumbling a string of curses, I wade toward them until I’m in up to my chin. A sudden wave of alarm tries to paralyze me, but I push past it. My toes sink into the slimy silt below. A shudder of revulsion ripples through me. My fists clench, and I try to tamp down my rising dread.
“It’s floating away!” Jacqui whines.
I’m too focused on the more stable of two rickety ladders to remind her she should have put the tube farther from the edge.
The trick now is not to look down. If I focus straight ahead, I can’t see the shadows beneath the surface, past impressions I’ve locked away and tried to forget.
Paddling forward with cupped hands, I bicycle my legs. All sounds from the shore fade away as my goal claims one hundred percent of my attention.
At the ladder, I take a couple of quick breaths and lock onto my next target, ten feet away. Don’t look down. Get there. Get on top of the tube. Row back. Simple. I can do this.
My head above the surface, I push off the ladder. Ignoring the soggy weeds tickling my belly and legs, I fight with my brain not to freak out. A half-formed memory stirs in the back of my mind.
Only plants. Nothing out here but plants.
One big lunge ought to do it.
I kick hard and stretch forward.
A glint to my right causes me to break my cardinal rule. I glance into the abyss beneath the raft. A familiar gold oval with a black slit in the center blinks in the darkness.
A gasp pulls water past my bottom lip. Every sensation I’ve been trying to ignore assaults me at once. Weeds surround me, grasping, tangling. The twins scream unintelligible words, drowned out by my heart drumming in my ears.
It’s a struggle to remain vertical and buoyant. My chin dips lower. A slimy vise clamps around my ankle. My feet scissor to break free. I snatch at the water but there’s no handhold. Panic takes control. I gulp air, frantic, but my lungs can’t seem to process the incoming oxygen.
The pressure around my leg weighs me down like a cinder block.
Fluid rushes up my nose and into my eyes. Bubbles and froth fill my vision until I squeeze my eyes shut. My arms reach overhead. That way must be up. All sound muffles except my thunderous heartbeat. Oxygen has to be right there. I just need to kick, pull up. Kick!
The stringy restraint sliding up my legs is actually a cluster of hair-thin wires. Like razors, they slice into my flesh.
How long have I been under? I open my eyes, and my arms churn like propellers. Above, an image ripples beyond my reach—Jacqui kneeling and Paulie hanging from the ladder. So close.
They slip farther away. Pressure builds in my lungs. My brain screams to suck in a breath. Breathe. Breathe!
The need for air claws at my throat and chest. Open mouth. Breathe.
Part of me resists. It’s not too late. Come on, Mariah, get there! But, damn it, the lake has got me. It’s got me. There’s nothing left to cling to. Nothing.
Quit. Let go.
Jacqui and Paulie recede. Who will keep them safe?
More strings rise up, ensnare me. The evil depths tow me under. I knew they’d get me sooner or later.
It’s no use. It’s over. My arms and legs are exhausted. They can’t move.
Is it possible to cry underwater?
Something huge compresses my chest in quick, rhythmic pulses. A vision of gold with a black slit flashes through my mind. The creature is mashing my ribs. Chewing on me? No, that can’t be right. Teeth are sharp… would be front and back.
My searing lungs sting as if a swarm of wasps has taken up residence inside. I swipe weakly at whatever is crushing me.
Another squeeze. All at once, buckets of warm fluid gush from my mouth. I cycle between coughing out and gasping in as something…someone…presses the back of my left shoulder and rolls me to the side. The last dregs of drool ooze from the corner of my mouth. Out with the flesh-eating bacteria.
My eyelids flutter open to still frames of chaos. The sun, too bright, distorts and fractures the scene. A pregnant woman restrains a kicking girl. Jacqui cries and clings to Paulie the way she used to clutch her stuffed lion after a nightmare.
Hard thumps on my back snare my awareness.
The puzzle clicks together: I had been trying to rescue the stupid tube and a creature with a gold eye tried to kill me. I had drowned, or near enough.
With that realization, my breathing accelerates, firing up the burn in my throat and chest. Almost died…almost died.
Sand scratches my neck. Something crawls across my cheek. The creature? My panic level skyrockets. I whip my head side to side to escape the invader. Everything blurs.
Cool plastic mashes over my nose and mouth, holding steady as I fight to free my face.
“Shh… You’re okay.” Warm fingers cradle my cheek and still my jerky movements. Tawny skin and a straight nose lead to narrow, ebony orbs twinkling at me. “That’s better. You’re good.” A crooked smile reveals straight teeth with a small gap between the speaker’s two fronts as he shields me from the sun’s glare.
“Wh-what happened?” The mask muffles my question.
“Shark.” The guy’s husky voice holds no hint of humor.
My eyes bulge.
Before I can hyperventilate again, he snatches his hand from my face. “Whoa! Sorry. Bad joke.” He presses a steadying hand to my shoulder until I relax. “Do you remember what happened?”
A cloud drifts to blot out the sun as I relive those moments. My foot twitches. A band of skin above the ankle burns. I begin to shiver uncontrollably, and the chatter of my teeth prevents any explanation.
“Never mind, beautiful. Ambulance is here. They’ll take good care of you.”
A flurry of activity erupts as the paramedics shift me to a stretcher and carry me away.
Mom enrolls the twins in a day camp. I am officially unemployed—not for being irresponsible but because I need “rest.” Nightmares disrupt my sleep every night, so I don’t argue the point.
Dad takes off from his restaurant, Caribe Flavor, for a couple of days while I recover. His partners—a nice couple he’s known for years—send flowers. Darren, my best friend, draws me a Chibi character holding balloons.
August arrives in a sticky layer of haze about a week after my attack. Mom keeps insisting I call it an “incident” or an “ordeal.” Razor-thin lines of scabs spiral around my leg, barely visible unless someone looks carefully. The doctor says I probably tangled with an old fishing line. That doesn’t explain why my bloodwork from the ER showed me as suddenly anemic.
There was no fishing line.
I felt what I felt.
I saw what I saw.
Mom and the doctor must think I don’t see their non-verbal exchange before he asks if I want him to prescribe something “temporarily,” to “settle my nerves.” Like my next stop might be Arkham Asylum if I don’t let go of my crazy ideas.
I stop talking about it. Instead, I escape the house every morning before my family wakes up and go sit at the top of the beach under an old oak. Watching. For what, I have no clear idea, but the gold orb haunts me.
My dad has assured me that there is a bottom to this basin, that the depth at the raft can only be around twenty-five feet. And the water is so dark because our development, located in Hopewell Junction, New York, only clears the weeds up to six feet. He has no proof. It’s all guesswork.
I zone out and envision a cartoon: two giant waves crest up and crash together, ensnaring an innocent girl. When I come back to reality, I make a mental note to talk to Darren about doing a new horror anime short.
If these were normal times, I would have brought my pad with me to sketch storyboards. Returned calls or texts. Now I make excuses to avoid hanging out—even with Darren. There’s only so much pretending I can manage. The mystery of my attacker consumes my waking thoughts as well at my nocturnal ones. I go over and over each detail of that day.
The sound of feet crunching across the sand disrupts the replay of my mental movie—Going Under. An approaching figure startles me.
“If you’re thinking of drowning again, I should warn you—I’m only good for one free life-saving.” The guy with the gap-toothed grin thumps down next to me. “After that, I’ll have to charge you.” His style is a little boho chic with his long, faded cutoffs, paisley V-neck, and leather sandals.
“Um…hi. Didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
“I live right over there.” He points to the townhouse unit, identical to mine, a few yards from the beach entrance. “The odds were in your favor.”
The movie reference surprises a smile out of me.
He seems pleased with my reaction. “Saw you walk down. Hope you don’t mind. I wanted to ask if you were okay.”
“No, I’m glad. I never said thank you. So…thanks.” I attempt to tame my wild, shoulder-length coils by smoothing strands behind an ear.
He waves off any further appreciation. “No big deal. My buddy, Derek, is on staff here. I keep him company sometimes when I’m not working. I’m a lifeguard over at Evanston Pool.” Evanston is the next town over. “Right place, right time.”
“Lucky for me. If you hadn’t been there…”
“Anyway, what’s your name? Did you move here recently?” Our development, Cheery Cove, is tiny. Everyone knows everyone else.
“What?” He laughs. “No. Been here my whole life, Mariah.”
“Your brother and sister. Plus, I’ve seen you around here since forever. Like the new hairstyle, by the way. It’s cute. I’m Arun.”
My face heats more from sticking my foot into it than the compliment. “Nice to meet you, Arun. I never saw you at Roosevelt or Adams, and they’re too small to miss any…” I almost blurt out “cute guys.”
The conversation pauses. It doesn’t feel awkward.
After a minute of staring out at broad swaths of white sunlight contrasted against the murky basin, I resume speaking as if there has been no break. “Can I ask you a question?”
“I thought you might. Yes, lake sharks do exist, but not here.”
“What?” Recoiling, I turn my head toward him.
He grins, and I notice a dimple in his right cheek. The wind lifts a wisp of dark, wavy hair off his forehead. He’s a little bit of a wiseass. I like it.
“Funny.” I chuckle. “Do you have any idea what does live out there? Besides non-shark fish, I mean.”
Arun studies my face as if trying to X-ray-vision my brain. “Lots of things are out there. Snappers, muskrats, snakes…”
A woodpecker starts to drill into a tree, searching for his breakfast. A family of geese swims by.
His face goes blank. “Huh?”
“Never mind. I was just thinking out loud.” I pinch the bridge of my nose and squeeze my eyes shut. “Isn’t it crazy how something so innocent looking can be so dangerous?”
“You mean the lake?”
“Yeah, but like take those geese for example. You ever been chased by one? They can be really nasty if they feel threatened. And I bet that woodpecker could take someone’s eye out.”
He shifts position, crossing his legs the way every kid is taught in kindergarten. “I think everything in nature has a survival instinct and will do whatever is necessary to take care of itself. And technically, even though we don’t see them unless we’re super unlucky, tentacle monsters are part of nature.”
I try to cover my face. “So you did hear that.”
He seems to sense my embarrassment even though he’s staring out at the glass-like expanse ahead. “Why’d you ask? About what’s out there, I mean.”
As the sun gleams down over it, the scene appears so serene, like the lull just before a maniac slaughters the last few survivors.
“Hey, I’ve seen some weird things around here. You can tell me.” Arun touches my arm for a moment before withdrawing his hand.
“Promise not to laugh or call the psych ward?” I nibble my bottom lip. Do I really want to do this?
With his right hand, he makes an X over his chest and then holds his hand in the air like he’s about to recite the Pledge. Even though he’s joking, the sharp way he looks directly at me proves his sincerity.
I tell him about the cords wrapping around my ankle last week and the gold eye. Then I recount the day, twelve years ago, when I first understood this is no normal lake.
It’s a July day, I’m six, and Dad takes me to the lake. It’s a couple of years before he opens Caribe Flavor. Mom commutes over two hours to Wall Street every day while he stays home, caring for me. Even though we can afford summer camp, neither of us wants to give up our time together.
He has been trying to teach me the freestyle stroke, but I won’t go past where I can stand comfortably, near the rope. I refuse to go where I can’t see the bottom. Who knows what could be down there?
It is a quiet morning, just Dad, me, and two college guys who are on staff. He leaves to take a break while I stretch out in the water, buoyed up by the floats on the rope as if they were my personal pillows. Although gray clouds gather in the distance, the sun beams at me as splashes of yellow and red paint the insides of my eyelids. Occasionally, I let my feet touch the sand below me. The distorted view is funny. Sunnies come and nip at my ankles until I kick at them, and they scatter.
A lovely, lazy day lounging in the lake.
The clouds roll in to obscure the sun, but I’m comfortable. Content. Resting my head on my crossed arms on top of the rope, I could almost fall asleep.
Goosebumps suddenly erupt over my skin. The hairs on my arms stand up, like when I rub a balloon over them. The air around me is the same as when a thunderstorm is coming. Still, I know I’m safe because the attendants haven’t blown the whistle yet.
Movement at the corner of my sight attracts me.
Thin, dark slivers wriggle lazily beneath the surface a few feet from me. At first, I think it must be seaweed or grass. But these strands are black. They remind me of the spinach angel hair Dad tries to trick me into eating.
I stand, tilt my head to one side, and creep forward. More tendrils than I can count wave at me as if they want me to come closer. To draw me in. The Stranger Danger movie I watched at school pops into my mind.
Even as the tips worm closer to me, their ends fade silently into the murk beyond my sight. I don’t like their sneaky silence or the way they seem alive but dead at the same time.
Uneasy, I move away. They follow, unhurried, waggling, drifting toward me and each other until they unite into a shapeless mass of darkness.
The strands gel and remain underwater. Any time I’ve seen oil or gas in water, it has risen to the top. Even at my young age, I sense something is wrong and start to back away toward the safety of my dad and our big, fluffy towel. I sneak glances at the dog-sized glob. It has stopped.
A gold slit appears in its center. That halts me. The line widens and reveals a shiny oval with a black streak down the center. An eye—a sleepy, snakelike one that doesn’t want to open all the way. It looks and me, and I can’t look away. It’s beautiful and creepy. An overwhelming urge tempts my hand toward it. It’s as if it and I have formed a bond I don’t understand.
The dark clump extends and slithers toward me again. I can’t move. It stretches to a thin point. A sunny has braved its way toward my ankle. Under the water, one of the strings whips out, snatches the fish, and plunges it into the glob.
I scream and race from the water.
“My dad brushed it off. Told me it was what I originally thought—gas or oil. But it never set right with me. Lots of nightmares after that.
“A few weeks later, a girl who lived across the street from us—Grace—disappeared. She babysat me once in a while when my parents wanted to go out. Heard them whispering about it one night. She was found a few days later, scars across her wrists, body all bloated. They called her death a suicide. I was pretty much done with the lake then.”
Arun stares hard at the dark water. “Creepy,” he says. “You know, this used to be an iron quarry. Some people say the mine shut down after the ore was depleted and it filled in naturally, but other stories say a freak accident caused it to flood.”
He stands, shoves his hands in his pockets, and takes a couple of steps away from the tree. His voice softens, but I can hear him clearly. “They say equipment is still trapped at the bottom. And every so often a diver will find a body, like that girl.”
“I’ve heard urban legends about something else trapped down there. Some kind of creature, and whatever is keeping it down there protects the area around the lake. Like from storms.”
Almost on cue, slate gray clouds roll in. This isn’t uncommon for August when thunderstorms are in every daily forecast. But I couldn’t have timed them better if I had called “Action.”
The wind kicks up, shaking the tops of the steadfast trees that have survived through at least two devastating hurricanes in my lifetime. My family and I had joked that both those storms seemed to veer around us because our development came through them virtually untouched. I stand and move to Arun’s side. “We better go. Looks like a bad one coming.”
“What if there’s something to the stories?”
I give him my “you-must-be-joking” look—chin dipped, lips slightly parted, eyebrows dragged down toward the bridge of my nose. It was one thing for him to listen without laughing, but what was his motivation now? Could he really share my belief? My fear?
“Seriously, come look. Please?” The complete lack of tension across his features or in his posture makes me trust we’re in no immediate danger.
The first flash of lightning strikes over the far side of the opposite shore at a moment when young campers are probably just rolling over in their bunks. Less than two seconds later, thunder booms. The ground beneath us shudders. I brace myself to sprint away from the trees the minute the first drop falls.
The deluge hits hard and fast. And directly across from where Arun and I observe. It’s like watching God pour dumpsters full of diamonds down over the area surrounding the basin, but not directly on it. Its top layer remains smooth as satin. A drizzle sprinkles a mere few drops on our spot.
“Crazy, right?” Arun bites his bottom lip. “It’s like there’s a force field—a bubble—shielding this place. The staff jokes about it all the time, but no one really believes…” The storm steadily heads toward us. “Let’s go.”
His porch sits at the top of the beach. I wonder if he ever jumped from the rail into the sand as a kid. We wait out the storm there, and it only lasts a couple of minutes before the sky clears again.
“So you think the jokes about a bubble might be closer to the truth than anyone realizes?” In light of what I’ve experienced, the notion feels more than plausible.
Arun nods, goes inside, and returns with two bottles of iced tea and a half-empty box of cinnamon donuts. “Living so close to the lake, I see some bizarre things, usually when it’s overcast. Just the other day, a baby duck got yanked under. Zip. Pretty sure a fish didn’t get it. Anything big enough wouldn’t come so close to shore. Anyway, you pass by here every morning. Are you hoping to catch a glimpse of Cousin It?”
The obscure reference catches me off guard, but then I have to laugh. “God, I always hated that thing! Anyway, when I figure out what I’m looking for, I’ll let you know.”
I’m relieved not to have to carry around my secret alone anymore, and when he chooses not to press for more information, another weight lifts from my shoulders.
Later, we circle the development then head into town. Tree branches litter the middle of the main road. Several stores have no power. A few traffic lights blew out as well. Meanwhile, inside the development, the ground isn’t even wet.
Every day afterward, once I see Dad and the kids off, Arun and I meet on his porch and continue to the beach. Some days, we stay until the beach officially opens. When he has to work, we leave earlier. Sometimes we talk, mainly swapping theories about what’s out there. Most of the time we sit and watch.
“Maybe when they were digging, they released a creature or spirit that grew once the lake filled in.” I glance at my hand in Arun’s. It’s easy to smile with him.
His palms are large and strong and warm. Tiny hairs curl at the backs of his knuckles.
He plays with my fingers. “That would be one frickin’ huge creature—the shoreline’s over a mile long. Wouldn’t they have seen something?” He finally stops fiddling, clasps my hand firmly, and kisses the back of it. He’s corny but in a cute way. He reminds me a little of Aladdin.
“Maybe someone did see something. Legends usually contain at least a few facts.”
Nights become progressively harder because of the nightmares. They always follow a similar motif—ropes, strings, vines, all tangling around and choking me.
Even with the meds, bad dreams continue. It’s just harder to wake out of them—a different type of drowning.
My time with Arun is the only thing keeping me grounded. When we aren’t together, I spend hours researching the lake and the legends. Neither of the two closest libraries provides much of use, but I learn of the historical society in Poughkeepsie.
After a few hours there, I hit pay dirt.
A set of three leather-bound journals recounts the town’s history from the perspective of a farmer’s life partner. At the time of the mining incident, Thomas and Cassie had lived together for decades. They were never allowed to marry because he was Irish and she was a mulatto—the daughter of a white seaman and a free black woman. Cassie posed as Thomas’s housekeeper and veterinarian to the farm’s livestock. They avoided the townspeople as much as possible. The accident brought them to her seeking help.
Cassie’s paternal grandmother had taught her ancient Druid practices. No one ever accused her of witchcraft outright, but people had always talked about her strange remedies and healing skills. In their desperation, the townsfolk hoped something in her unusual knowledge bank could prevent the destruction of the town.
These folks only come round here when they want something. “Miss Cassie, you have anything for my aching back…? Miss Cassie, Ella McClaren went into labor early and doc says he needs you.” Always with their hands out. But they see me in town or at the store? They look the other way. Like I’m not even there.
I might have said no, don’t want to get involved, but one of them missing young men left behind a wife, hardly a woman, and a new babe. I was the one put the child in that boy’s arms. Now he’ll grow up without his daddy… I’ll help ‘em, but I won’t destroy Mother Earth’s creature so they can sleep easy.
The creature, disturbed, had broken through the rock and soil where the miners dug. Nothing in my research shows that anyone ever figured out how it survived encased in ore or where it came from. Cassie speculated that it had been there since the dawn of time.
She goes on to describe the scene of finding Jimmy McClaren’s body:
The quarry was half filled in when. A wide line a few feet from Jimmy’s body showed where his partner got dragged into the pit. Water had to be a good fifty feet deep by then. Jimmy looked like his wrists had been bound up with wire. His body was dried and shriveled as a corn husk in late September. A piece of the creature stuck to the wound. I brought it back to the farm.
By eye, it looked like a plain old black hair. With the hand lens, I saw it was flat on one side with tiny suckers and traces of brown blood around them. I imagine the beast was woke and hungry, pure and simple. Still, don’t suppose we should leave it to graze on townsfolk, though some might deserve as much.
Later, I recount the story to Arun. “Cassie did a ritual with a silver knife and a Celtic symbol painted on it in her blood.” I show him a picture I snapped on my phone of a drawing of the symbol in the journal. “The ritual created the bubble over the lake—like an invisible prison for the creature. It can’t get out, and most of the rain apparently doesn’t get in. She also wrote that her spell would protect the creature, which I personally think was just her way of screwing over the people who looked down on her. Whatever her reason, containing it wasn’t enough of a solution, was it?”
“Druids believed in protecting life, right? I could see sparing it if she was taught that way. Plus, it’s one of a kind. Not something to destroy lightly.”
“I guess. But, it’s killed people. Almost killed me. Will kill someone else eventually. We have to stop it. Permanently.”
“I don’t know, Mari. Seems to me she could have done that but decided not to. Maybe we should think about this—”
“And wait for it to get someone else? A kid? Like my brother or sister?” The thought flickered through my mind that this was our first fight. “You don’t have to be involved. I’ll understand. But I’ve spent most of my life scared of this thing. No more.” I stormed off.
A few days later, after we make up, we arrive at the beach earlier than normal, when the sane members of the community are smacking snooze buttons. The sun, hiding under a blanket of clouds, trying to catch a few more Zs itself, has been awake less than an hour, yet the temperature already hovers in the eighties. The atmosphere greedily hoards moisture.
Arun is off from work. “I don’t know about this, Mariah. This doesn’t feel right.”
“I get it. I’m scared too, but we can’t let fear control us.”
“Isn’t that exactly what this is about? Fear?”
“No.” Of course not. “This is about survival and making ourselves safe.” I’m certain there’s a difference.
He pinches the bridge of his nose for a long moment, as if he’s silently praying. “Okay. I’m with you.”
I hate the way his lips are pressed so tightly together, but he’ll see, once it’s done, that this is the only way.
“Don’t worry. I have this—” I withdraw the knife I’ll use for the ritual.
“All right. But if it looks like you’re in trouble—”
“You’ll have my back.” My smile is shakier than I intend.
He nods, brow furrowed and half his mouth turned down. No sign of the tooth gap now.
Gripping the knife, I wade into the shallows, still as warm and soothing as bathwater. I envision a dark blob with thousands of threads squirming outward from it. My heart rate accelerates with each anxiety that bubbles into my psyche. With the sharp edge of the blade pressed against my palm, before I can talk myself out of it, I score my hand.
Deep red droplets mesmerize me as they plop out of sight, melding into the brown water. Cassie had guessed the creature is attracted to blood. Will its senses be strong enough to detect possible prey from anywhere in the lake?
My guts constrict as I fight to ignore the memory of the hair-thin wires gliding over the skin of my legs. “Whatever you are, here I am!”
This is a dumb idea.
I’m tempting fate. Courting death.
I back up a step.
Between the raft and me, the water ripples. I glance down. Most of the sunnies dart away. An unlucky one is seized by a black tendril.
Beneath the lake’s membrane, shadows coalesce into a dim shape, a two-dimensional, floating abstract.
I weave my fingers together in prayer position, clamping them tight to lock down a scream.
The darkness deepens and lengthens and lurks toward me. Five feet away, it grows upward, breaking the water’s skin—a faceless head with long black hairs dangling down like a curtain. Thousands of strands ripple and writhe toward me as if each is independently conscious of my presence.
Cassie’s spell protected the town, but it protected the creature too. The only way for me to kill it is to undo her spell and strike fast. Finding an uncrossing spell had been a simple matter of searching Google and hoping it gave me the correct translations and pronunciations of the Gaelic words.
Stuttering through the unbinding incantation, I squeeze my fist until three more drops of blood fall into the water. The air changes, prickling my skin like I’m a live lightning rod.
Shoulders emerge into an androgynous figure that rises from the depths. Its coal-colored slivers encircle me, not touching yet penning me in all the same. If the tendrils form fence posts, the funk of rotting fish forms a nauseating wall between them.
Two cords snake toward me, crystalline droplets falling from the tips. They stop inches from my nose. I freeze, mesmerized.
The slick sensation I imagined around my leg manifests as mucousy coils slither down and around my calf. Still, the body rises higher until it towers over me ten feet in the air. Stringy bonds slowly envelop my arms and neck.
My insides churn, and I gag, but nothing comes up. The moment doesn’t feel right yet, so I wait.
I yank a wrist free.
Vine-like cables wind around my hips and waist. The manifestation of my childhood fear draws me deeper, toward the void behind the stringy barrier. Will it squeeze the breath from my lungs, or pull me under like before? I dig my feet into the silt below and strain backward.
Arun shouts, “Mariah!” He splashes toward me and is at my side in a moment, a knife of his own in hand.
The clouds shift, and the sun blazes down for mere seconds. The creature shrinks down, writhing and cowering with a horrible squeal, like a piglet being mangled. Like the sun is hurting it. Of course. After all, darkness is its home.
Light glints off the length of my silver blade as it slashes down, slicing a mass of cilia around my waist. A sonic shriek brings tears to my eyes as the tendrils shudder. Some shift from me to engulf Arun.
They lift him up out of the water. He kicks and beats at them with his fists. His blade arcs through the air and into the never-ending strings that seem to come from everywhere at once.
I use the monster’s own appendages to tow myself back toward Arun, cutting into them to free him.
His shouts are muffled as his face becomes engulfed. A wave douses me as he is slammed down. I ram my arm forward into the center of the creature’s mass and hope to turn its attention back on me.
Before I can check to see if Arun has resurfaced, the monster’s head dips down, and the curtain of vines melts to one side. The snakelike slit blinks at me. Revulsion wriggles through my gut. The feelers tighten around me again.
Recoiling, I grip the knife’s handle. This has to end. Right now.
I hack at my restraints and then jab the blade upward. The knife slides in with a squelch as if I were stabbing jello. Angry shrieks ambush my eardrums. Clumps of the thing’s tentacles loosen and whip, only to reform and slither around me at different points on my body.
Like a Tasmanian devil, I screech and slash in every direction. My frantic splashing adds a layer of froth that mingles with an oily substance floating around me. Cold seeps over my chest as it draws me farther from safety toward the dreaded raft. Fighting becomes harder as the water slows my movements. My shoulders are nearly submerged. If it tugs me under, no one will save me a second time.
Desperate to free myself, I stab directly into the eye. Here, there’s more solidity, resistance. Black goo shoots out if it as if I’ve severed a monstrous artery. Hot, inky slime coats my hand as the shank exits the other side of the humanoid mass of strands. The shrieks become a long, high-pitched wail in my brain, painful as a migraine.
The threads around me constrict but then weaken. They droop away, and the tall shape dwindles, returning to where it came from before dissolving back into the abyss. Its screams fade to silence.
I am disoriented, looking and feeling like I’ve been dipped in rank sludge. As if the temperature has dropped thirty degrees, I shiver. My gut clenches, and I might be sick. Only a moan escapes for now.
Sounds amplify again. Arun swims to me from near the raft. When he can stand, he sweeps me into his arms and kisses me hard on the mouth. Part of me wants to kiss him back, but I can’t seem to control my body.
“Mari! You’re okay. I’m so sorry.” One arm has a long gash as he crushes me to him with the other.
I melt into his embrace, because it’s all I can do, and soak in his warmth as if he were the sun. “What…?” I’m too shocked to finish my thought let alone process the last few minutes.
“I tried to help… I’m so sorry. I thought—”
“But you did it? You killed it?”
“Yeah.” But I have to wonder. Did I? Really? Only time will tell for sure.
Once my limbs respond to my commands again, I grab Arun’s hand and hurry him away.
The last few weeks of summer are hot and muggy, but we don’t see more than passing showers in the weather department. Arun and I avoid the beach anyway. The creature remains a buried secret. We still meet on Arun’s porch every morning and share plenty of kisses to make up for the first one I all but missed.
School starts again. It’s Arun’s second year at Vassar, and I begin media studies at Marist. September heralds hurricane season. The news predicts the latest approaching tempest—Hurricane Cassandra—will have higher winds and flooding worse than Sandy back in 2012. I force myself not to think of the name as a bad omen.
It’s a Friday, and neither of us has classes today. We follow weather reports and radars from our phones. By early afternoon, the winds pick up, and thunder booms. We’re not dumb enough to go out, but we bear witness with binoculars from inside Arun’s house. Foamy sprays erupt as the first raindrops crash through the lake’s skin—unprotected since the ward has been broken.
Before the storm gets too bad for me to walk home, I kiss Arun goodbye and leave to help Dad distract the kids. I’d rather stay, but eighteen or not, neither of my parents would be okay with me spending the night at my boyfriend’s house. Especially with his parents visiting their family overseas.
Jacqui jumps with each crash outside. Horizontal sheets of rain fascinate Paulie until a branch crashes against the window where he is watching. The patio floods. A tree across the street crushes a neighbor’s garage. On and on the rains fall, until it seems like cars floating away might be a real possibility.
I need as much diversion as the kids, but after being forced to watch every available episode of Steven Universe multiple times, I seriously begin to question my commitment to animation.
Then the power goes out.
At least my cell phone still works. Arun and I text instead of talk because Battery Lives Matter, as one message says.
A little after midnight, I’m still awake. The kids have finally fallen asleep—in my bed. My phone chimes.
Something weird. Call me.
I leave the room and tiptoe down to the kitchen. It’s still pitch dark, but the wind continues to howl furiously. “What’s up?” I say when Arun answers.
It’s still odd to me, in a good way, how I can always hear a smile in his voice, even over the chaos of a hurricane.
“I dozed off on the couch, and a noise woke me up. Before you say it was probably something blowing around, that was what I thought at first.”
“I swear I was not going to say that.” Lie. We both know it and laugh. “What did it sound like?”
“Slapping. Dragging across the deck. But I can’t see out there, and when I shine a light through the glass, it bounces back on me.” He pauses. “I thought about checking it out.”
“No! Don’t go out there! You could get whacked in the head with someone’s flying deck chair, probably for nothing. Promise you won’t.”
“This from the girl who stabbed a tentacle monster in the face.” He chuckles. “I’m not crazy, Mari. The noise was just creeping me out, and I wanted to hear your voice.”
“Aww. Well, you’ve got me now—”
My cell signal goes dead.
This night stretches into forever.
The next morning, the electricity is still out. Our battery-operated kitchen clock tells me it’s nearly ten by the time we finish a breakfast of cold bagels, peanut butter, and jelly. I head down toward Arun’s, wondering what he saw from his porch, hoping he resisted curiosity and stayed inside. Cell service was restored before I left, but Arun hasn’t answered or called.
My throat feels like I swallowed a peach pit as I witness a wrecked Cheery Cove. The destruction is worse than I’ve ever seen. Trees dent in the sides of homes. The main road is impassable in places. The sun shines down brilliantly on it all, smacking of malicious insult.
As I skirt downed tree limbs and tramp through rivers of water rushing into the gutters, my rubber boots sink into mud up to my ankles. I’m soaked by the time I’m done climbing over debris, heart thudding in my chest.
It’s not from the exertion.
At the top of the hill leading down to his house and the beach, a downed tree poses another obstacle. As if the universe is conspiring to stop me.
Skipping his front door, I head straight toward the glass sliders around back.
I go cold from the inside out.
The wooden deck is demolished and strewn toward the water line. Chunks of glass glitter in the bright morning sunlight.
I cover my mouth to stifle a scream. No!
In the rubble, I see a figure, face down, arm extended toward the water. The arm has a gray undertone and ends in a hand I know so well. Black strings circle the well-known wrist and trail into the cursed lake.
My body begins to shake, and I sink to my knees a few feet from the body I can’t bring myself to touch, knowing it will be clammy and lifeless. Hot rivulets trail down my cheeks as I silently crucify myself for bringing this on Arun.
Who was I to challenge a mystery nature?
I want to sit here and drown in my guilt and sadness, but that would add insult to Arun’s injury. I have to fix this. For him.
With the ritual Cassie performed all those years ago, I’ll have to replace the ward and trap the strand beast once more.
I have until the sun goes down.