I don’t practice writing fiction very often, therefore I am very rusty. I welcome any comments or critiques!
By Ashley Schlueter
The bright July sunlight gleamed off the green waters of Kimberling Lake. A gentle breeze shook the heads of the reeds and cattails that lined the edge of the water, leading them in a merry dance that spread slow ripples along the surface of the lake. Overhead, the puffy white clouds looked like something out of a child’s drawing, and a lone hawk circled lazily, on the lookout for unsuspecting rabbits. A group of turtles pulled themselves onto the rocks to bathe in the early afternoon warmth. It was a glorious summer day.
In the distance came a high-pitched shouting. To the south of the lake towards the forest, emerged a thin girl in a yellow sundress. She squealed again with delight upon spotting the water and began running, her scabby legs navigating fearlessly over the upturned roots and gopher holes that covered the forest floor. Behind the girl, sweating and looking studiedly annoyed followed an older girl with long auburn hair. In both hands she clutched a split-oak picnic basket. Unlike the younger girl, the teenager’s eyes were focused on the ground beneath her feet as she carefully negotiated her way out of the forest and into the small meadow which led to the edge of the lake.
“Nellie! Slow down! Don’t you dare go in that water!” the older girl shouted. The girl, Nellie, had reached the lake and was looking into its dark green depths as if transfixed. She glanced back at her cousin, and then longingly back at the water. Nellie fought a brief internal battle with herself before heaving a great sigh of indignation and plopping herself gracelessly on the narrow, rocky beach. It wouldn’t do any good to annoy her cousin Jeanie. She would just go on for ages about how she was always stuck babysitting whenever Nellie and her parents came to visit. Nellie just wished she would hurry up.
However slowly, Jeanie did eventually manage to drag herself and her basket to the side of the lake. Breathing heavily with the exertion of leaving her bedroom for more than ten minutes, Jeanie stood for a moment with her hands on the hips of her denim shorts, squinting across the water with a slight scowl on her face. Nellie waited, silently screaming for her cousin to catch her breath and grant her almighty permission to go swimming. Finally Jeanie turned, sweeping sweaty strands of hair away from her face. She rolled her eyes, but her lips turned slightly upwards in what might have been a smile and nodded, “Go ahead then little tadpole. Off you swim.”
Grinning at her cousin’s use of her old nickname, Nellie didn’t wait to be told twice. She stripped off her sundress in one fluid motion, revealing a faded pink and white striped swimsuit. Jeanie had already settled herself down on a patch of grass and was wholly engrossed with staring at her phone. Nellie rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Tadpole” had been Jeanie’s name for Nellie since she was very little. Every summer she and her parents traveled down to the Ozarks of northern Arkansas to visit her mom’s sister. And every summer since she could remember, Nellie spent each long languid summer day splashing in the cool waters of Kimberling Lake with her older cousin. They would race from edge of the lake to the weathered floating dock that Jeanie’s grandfather had built fifty years ago. They had created the Lake Olympics, with competitions ranging from who could hold their breath underwater the longest to who could catapult themselves the farthest off the old dock. The fact that Jeanie was five years older and easily won most of these contests had never bothered Nellie in the slightest. Summers with her cousin had almost been like having a sister.
At least until last year, when Nellie had been nine. She had arrived at her aunt’s house ready for another series of endless summer days only to find that Jeanie was no longer interested in her young cousin. Instead, she spent all her time in her bedroom, staring at her phone. Or sitting on the garden swing, staring at her phone. Or on the couch in the living room, also staring at her phone. Nellie, whose parents had decreed that she would not receive her first cell phone until her thirteenth birthday, was by turns irritated, envious, and above all, bored. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to go down to the lake alone, and she herself was far too busy sipping white wine in the garden with Aunt Cynthia to supervise her daughter. Her father generally spent the duration of his summer vacation helping Uncle Frank tinker with the rusty 1969 Mustang that Frank referred to jokingly as his “second wife”. For four weeks, he was more or less oblivious to anything without four wheels and an engine. So Nellie had had to make due to the rare occasions on which her aunt and uncle would force Jeanie out of the house to “watch her cousin”. As if Nellie was a little girl who needed watching. As if she hadn’t learned to swim when she was three years old. It looked like this summer was shaping up to be much the same.
Heedless of the rough pebbles digging into her bare feet, Nellie waded out a few steps and then dove into the green depths of Kimberling Lake. The cold water was a shock after the hot July sunshine, but Nellie stayed underwater as long as she good, kicking hard. She surfaced about twenty feet from the shore and turned back to Jeanie. It was only another twenty feet or so to the old floating dock.
“Sure you don’t want to come in?” she called, “I’ll race you to the dock!”
“No, I’m good. Have fun.” Jeanie replied without looking up.
Rolling her eyes once more, Nellie dove back under the water and opened her eyes. As usual there was nothing to be seen. The lake water was a bright, opaque green near the surface, fading into a murky brown towards the bottom. When Nellie had been little, she had often been frightened by the fact that she couldn’t see more than a few feet below her legs. It was all too easy to imagine a hundred slimy monsters with a thousand slimy tentacles crawling along the bottom of the lakebed. Jeanie had quickly laid these fears to rest by diving the fourteen feet or so down to the bottom of the lake. She had returned with a loud gasp for air and a handful of mud. “No monsters down there little tadpole” she had said, laughing, “only up here!” Then she had splashed water in Nellie’s face until they were both giggling, all thought of lake monsters forgotten.
Smiling at the memory, Nellie decided to try to get some of that lake bottom mud for herself. The lake was only about ten or fifteen feet deep this close to shore, though it sank to chilling depths of over two hundred feet further out.
Filling her lungs with as much air as she could, Nellie flipped over and began dolphin-kicking as hard as she could. She stretched her arms out as far as they would go, imagining her body as an arrow. The water around her grew darker, and she grasped blindly for the bottom of the lake. She kicked harder, her lungs beginning to burn. The pressure built around her ears. She reached out and felt nothing. Damn. She would have to go back and try again. Perhaps if she dove off of the dock.
Just as she was about to turn back, Nellie felt her fingers brush against something. Victory! She thought as she curled her fingers around the mud. Her chest felt like it was about to burst from lack of air. She scooped the mud into her hand and flipped herself over, aiming herself at the water’s surface and the blessed oxygen that waited. The pale reflection of the sun seemed far away now, and the darkness around her absolute. As she began kicking, mud clutched tightly in her palm, she looked back down at the dark waters.
A pair of red, blazing eyes looked back.
Nellie screamed silently underwater, bubbles exploding from her mouth along with what little air had been left in her lungs. The eyes gleamed like glowing coals, huge and menacing in the dark waters around it. There were no pupils, only a steady burning fire that seemed to look straight into Nellie’s heart. I see you, little girl the eyes seemed to say. I know your name. Then Nellie felt a cold current of water swirl around her as the eyes shifted and moved closer. Whatever this thing was, it was pulling itself off of the lakebed.
Nellie began kicking desperately towards the surface, which still seemed so far way. I’m going to die down here and the monster will take me, she shouted wildly in her mind. Then, without warning she was suddenly surrounded by cool, wonderful air as she popped out of the water. She splashed frantically, trying simultaneously to gasp for breath and scream in terror. Swiveling around she realized she was much farther out than she had started, only three feet or so from the old wooden dock. Her legs burned with adrenaline as she jerkily swam up to the rusty ladder that had been welded on to the side of the dock. Her eyes swiveled wildly in her skull, trying to see everywhere at once, waiting for the red eyes at the bottom of the lake to rise up to claim its prize.
Nellie’s body felt like stretched out taffy as she made her way up the short ladder and collapsed onto the smooth wooden surface of the dock. Her heart pounded in her chest as she panted for breath, and all her muscles went limp with exhaustion. It’s going to come for me now, she thought pitifully, and I’ll never get away.
At this thought Nellie began to cry weakly, and she gave in to all of the terrible terrors that haunt the imagination of a child. There were monsters in the lake. She had been right all along. They had fiery red eyes and long claws dripping with lake water that waited to pull little girls down into the black waters and devour them. Her thoughts spun wildly.
Does this mean that all monsters were real? What about the monsters in my closet, and in the basement? Every time the grown-ups laugh and say there’s nothing to be scared of. They’re liars, all of them. They had probably seen the monsters too, when they were little. But they were just lucky enough to escape. And they grew up and told themselves it was nothing but a scary story. And the monsters just moved on to new children.
How long Nellie lay like this, face down on the wooden dock, consumed by fear and despair she did not know. She came back to the world with a start as she heard Jeanie’s voice calling, “Nellie! It’s going to rain! Swim back it’s time to go home.”
Nellie slowly turned over and lay on her back, looking up at the sky. Sometime during her ordeal, the beautiful summer day had ended. The puffy white clouds had been replaced by ominous gray thunderheads. The happily chirping birds had fallen silent, and the bright green waters of Kimberling Lake had turned a uniform slate blue. As if on cue, a low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Nellie began to shiver as a gust of wind rippled the water around the dock. She sat up and looked towards the shore. Jeanie stood on the rocky beach, the neglected picnic basket tucked in the crook of her elbow, an annoyed expression on her face. “Come on!” she shouted, “It’s going to storm!”
At the thought of entering the cold dark waters of the lake, Nellie felt her stomach give a sudden lurch. Her knees began shaking and she wrapped her arms around them. She shook her head violently, and whispered, “I can’t go back in. It’ll get me if I go back in. I can’t go back in”.
“What?” Jeanie shouted from the beach, “I can’t hear you! Get back over here before it starts to rain!”
Nellie cleared her throat several times, searching for her voice. “There’s something in the water,” she managed to say.
“What? What the hell are you talking about?” Jeanie shouted. She put the picnic basket down on the rocks and stepped closer. “We don’t have time for your games. Get your ass back here. Now.”
Nellie continued shaking her head, and rocked back and forth on her heels. “I saw it at the bottom of the lake. It has red eyes.”
“You didn’t see shit at the bottom of the lake, Eleanor. Stop being a baby and come back to shore!”
At being called a baby, what little control Nellie had been clinging to shattered and she began sobbing wildly, gasping for breath. “I’m not….a baby! I saw…it…in the water! I saw its eyes!” she managed to shout in between tears.
Jeanie paused, a concerned expression now on her face, “Nellie what the hell are you talking about?” she asked in a gentler tone, “You’re too old to believe in monsters. You know there is nothing in that water that can hurt you. I don’t know what it is you think you saw but it was probably just the light on the lake water. It messes with your eyes.”
Nellie considered this idea. Could she have imagined the red eye on the bottom of the lake? Maybe it was a reflection off an old broken bottle or something?
No, she had felt the water move as it the thing had shifted on the lakebed. She had felt an ancient evil in its eyes. It had seen her, and now it was hungry for her. Nellie shook her head before burying it in her knees once more.
Back on shore, her cousin pressed two fingers to her forehead and sighed heavily. “Okay, Nellie I’m going to swim out to the dock. Then we can swim back together before we both get our asses electrocuted. K?” Without pausing for an answer, Jeanie stripped off her tank top and shorts and kicked off her sandals. Muttering too quietly for Nellie to hear, she waded into the water, wincing as the rocky beach pebbles dug into her feet.
Nellie heard a splash. She lifted her head from her knees to see Jeanie waist-deep in the water. As she pushed off from the shore and began a front crawl towards the dock, a flash of lightning tore across the sky, echoed a moment later by the slow rumble of thunder. “If I get zapped out here I’m going to kill you!” Jeanie shouted between strokes, “My extra crispy ghost will haunt you until the day y—“ Jeanie suddenly stopped swimming and pulled up about fifteen feet away from the edge of the dock.
“What the hell?” she breathed confusedly.
Nellie’s mouth went dry and her heart dropped into her stomach. “Jeanie,” she managed to croak out, “Jeanie. Swim! Please!”
Her cousin shook her head and resumed swimming towards the dock, her brow furrowed with concentration. She was only ten feet from the ladder. Now five.
Nellie gave a sob of relief as Jeanie reached the edge of the floating dock and grasped the old metal ladder. “Why did you stop?” she asked as Jeanie began climbing.
“I thought I saw something in the water. Probably a big fish. You got me all freaked out little tadpole. Now can we please go home?” Jeanie stood on the top rung and extended her hand.
Nellie reluctantly nodded and began unlocking her knees, which seemed frozen in place from fear and adrenaline. She took a shaky step towards her cousin. Then she stopped, her eyes widening in terror.
Jeanie’s feet were on the top rung of the ladder.
Her feet were still in the water.
A black claw was reaching out of the water towards Jeanie’s feet.
The dripping claw wrapped itself around Jeanie’s feet and pulled. Before she had time to react Jeanie was pulled to the ground, her chin striking the wood of the dock with a sharp thud. Jeanie’s breath left her body with a sudden oomph, spattering blood across the warped boards as she bit her tongue.
Then, with a small splash, Jeanie was pulled backward off the dock and was gone.
Pools of water rippled outward from the place where her cousin had vanished beneath the waters of the lake. The ripples quickly faded, leaving only the smooth surface of Kimberling Lake, dimpled here and there by an occasional drop of rain.
A spray of blood in the shape of question mark stained the dock.
Less than five seconds had passed.
Nellie screamed again. She fell backwards, hitting her head on the wood. And then she knew nothing.
Click here for Chapter Two.