The Midnight Road: Chapter 5

This is the final installment, so enjoy!

If you haven’t had the chance, make sure to read Chapters 1-4! Chapter 1 can be found here.

 

Chapter Five

Lutz couldn’t tear his eyes away from the gruesome sight.

Bud McGuire’s face was frozen in a silent shriek, wide eyes fixed unblinking at the ceiling. His chest had been torn open crudely. The glinting white of ribs poked through the carnage.

Bud’s legs were bent at an impossible angle to his torso. He had been torn almost in two at the groin.

The first scream that passed Sheriff Lutz’ lips was quickly followed by a second. He fell backwards to the ground and landed hard on on his rear, using the heels of his feet to push himself away from the mutilated corpse. His back pressed against the rusted green bathtub, and he idly noticed that the calico dress lain across the edge had a faint pattern of purple violets.

Then Clarkson’s strong brown hands were wrapped around his own, and his deputy hauled Lutz to his feet. They exited the broken bathroom and its grisly contents and went into the corridor, where Billy Hudson was already halfway down the stairs leading to the first floor.

The ancient staircase creaked threatening beneath their boots as the two officers followed the younger man downstairs, desperate to get as fair away from Bud McGuire’s mutilated corpse as possible.

Lutz burst out still-open front door and stumbled down the porch steps. The humid summer air was like a soothing balm against his skin. His lungs heaved with the effort to draw in fresh breath and he sank to his knees, digging his fists into the hard gravel of the walkway. He could hear the footsteps of Deputy Clarkson and Billy sounding down the stairs and out onto the front lawn.

They remained mercifully silent as Lutz fought against the waves of heat and chills that kept alternating their way through his veins. Distantly, as if observing someone else from far above, Lutz understood that he was having a panic attack. With shaking arms he shifted his weight until he was sitting on the lawn bordering the front path. Dry grass crackled as he brought his knees up to his forehead and sat there, breathing in the night air. Somewhere nearby a cricket chirped, breaking the stillness.

Crickets were still chirping.

Somehow, this was an encouraging thought. Lutz raised his head and looked for a moment at the night sky. The sun was still hours away from rising and the sky was pitch black, except for the thousands of glittering stars.

Lutz took a deep breath and held it for a long moment before slowly exhaling. He repeated this steady breathing twice more then wearily got to his feet, wincing as both his knees cracked in protest.  He brushed dry grass off the pants of his uniform and looked at his companions, both of whom had remained silently nearby this entire time.

Nodding once in silent gratitude, Lutz resumed his authority as sheriff. None of them would speak a word of his temporary breakdown, but they could all feel a sudden shift in the atmosphere, as if a sudden bond of kinship had just been forged. Lutz knew that the three of them would forever be bound by the events of this night.

Officer Clarkson looked to his senior officer. “Do you want to check the rest of the property? Look for the rest of the family?”

Lutz began shaking his head almost immediately. “No, we found what we were looking for. This is officially a crime scene. It’s also a forty acre farm with two barns and at least ten outbuildings. We need more men.”

“You want to call in Miller and Sanchez?” Clarkson asked.

Lutz nodded, but then shook his head, “Yeah, we’ll call them in when we get back to the station. No radio signal out here worth a damn anyway. Besides, I think we also need to get on the phone with the mayor’s office. We’re going to need the forensics people in Iowa City or Davenport or wherever the hell.”

At this, Sheriff Lutz turned and began walking back the way they had come. He glanced back once more at the darkened windows of the McGuire farmhouse, which now seemed like looming eyes in the receding light from their flashlights. His boots crunched under the rough gravel of the long driveway as the three men headed back towards the car.

The yellow, sickly looking corn blocked their view on either side, looming far taller than a man even in this unhealthy state. Lutz was struck again by the eerie silence of the place. The humid summer air was heavy and still, not a breath of wind rustled through the stalks. The near-complete absence of sound made him antsy and uncomfortable. The sooner they were back to the car the better.

Billy must have felt the same way; he trotted up alongside Lutz, his rifle loosely grasped in one hand now that they were out of the farmhouse. In a low voice he said, “What will happen now, Sheriff?”

Lutz shrugged, “First, we’re going to go back to the station. I have a bottle of Lagavulin 16 in a locked box in my office. Sheriff Bradley gave me that bottle the day I took office. Now, he told me this whisky was peaty enough and smoky enough to burn away the worst night of your life.Told me there would someday come the night when I would need it. It’s sat in it’s wooden box every night until I really started to think that day would never come. But come it did, and tonight I’m going to open that bottle and drink deep. And you’ll drink with me, if you like.”

Heartened by this prospect, the men picked up the pace and within a few minutes they emerged from the McGuire’s driveway back onto the smooth paved surface of Highway 99. Like an angel in the darkness, Lutz could see the police cruiser sitting on the edge of the road about three hundred yards down. He breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that some secret part of him had expected the black-and-white Chevy to be gone, leaving them stranded at the McGuire farm.

Lutz’ palms were sweating, and he wiped them furtively on the thighs of his trousers. He checked his watch, then checked it again in disbelief. They had barely been gone forty minutes.

When they reached the car, Lutz’ fumbled in his pocket for his keys, then unlocked the door and slid into the driver’s seat. His hands trembled on the steering wheel, and he wondered briefly if he was fit to drive.

Can’t exactly ask Clarkson or Billy to chauffeur me home. He thought resignedly. Lutz unlocked the passenger and back doors, and his companions slid silently into their seats. Clarkson was still holding the buck rifle, and the shotgun was in Billy’s lap, the mounted flashlight still beaming a bright circle on the car’s upholstery. As one, the men fastened their seatbelts. The familiar, everyday click of the metal sliding into place struck him as utterly absurd after the night’s events.

Lutz slid the key to the Chevy into the ignition. He had a horrible, crawling feeling in the bottom of his stomach that when he turned the key, the engine would simply refuse to start. This was ridiculous since the cruiser was barely three years old and had never done anything but purr like a kitten. But tonight, right now, the car wouldn’t start. Because it couldn’t be this easy to just drive away.

The key turned, and the motor roared to life, just as it always did. The front headlights came on, casting two wide beams of light into the darkness around them.

Reflecting back, impossibly high against the skeletal pines of the forest, were a pair of glowing red eyes.

Clarkson screamed first, throwing his hands over his face and crying out in terror.

Lutz couldn’t scream, his voice seemed to have completely locked itself away. His mouth gaped open in horror, but the only sound that came out was a strangled choke.

Billy was scrambling to get out of the police cruiser, but since he was in the back the doors only opened from the outside. He tried rolling down the window, and when that failed he began to panic and bashed at the glass with his fist again and again, but this was equally ineffective.

Billy raised the butt of the shotgun and drew back, preparing to ram it through the window of the car. “NO!” Lutz roared, never taking his eyes from the glowing red orbs watching them from the forest.

He jammed the clutch in, praying to anyone who might be listening that the car did not stall. He shifted into first, gave the engine some gas, and the car began slowly moving. This entire time he continued staring at the red eyes hovering twenty feet above them. They looked back unwaveringly, glittering with a malevolent intelligence. As the cruiser rolled past, the eyes followed their progress, but did not advance. Lutz fixed his gaze on the rearview mirror, waiting for some ravenous beast to come charging behind them.

But there was nothing. The darkness of the night took over, and the eyes receded into the trees.

Intent now on putting as much distance between himself and the McGuire farm as possible, Lutz laid one heavy boot on the gas. Only after ten miles, when he could see the lights of Harry Gibson’s fuel station, did he ease his boot off the accelerator and relax the hunched position of his shoulders. Ten minutes later they pulled up to the darkened windows of the sheriff’s station.

Lutz killed the engine of the cruiser and the three men sat in silence. After a long moment, Henry Clarkson opened his mouth, “What was that thing –” he began, but Lutz put up on hand and stopped him. Lutz shook his head, opened the door of the cruiser with a loud creak, and stepped outside.

Every muscle in his body was accusing him of gross misconduct, and Lutz knew he would feel the punishment the next day. He unlocked the door to the sheriff’s office and went in.

The comfortable surroundings of the dingy sheriff’s station almost brought him to tears. Weakly buzzing security fluorescents cast a dim, yellowish glow on the familiar disarray of desks and chairs. Without bothering to turn on the main lights, he crossed the bullpen to the corner office at the back of the station and went inside his office. On the bookcase against the far wall was a narrow wooden box, which Lutz now opened for the first time in ten years.

Nestled against dark silk was the bottle of Lagavulin 16, given to him by retiring Sheriff Bradley on his last day in office.

There will come a day when you need it.

Lutz motioned to Clarkson and Billy, who had followed him into the station and now stood silently behind him, framing the door to his office. Clarkson had fetched three glasses from the small kitchen, and he set them down carefully on the stained wood of Lutz’ desk.

Andrew Lutz sat heavily in his black office chair. He twisted the cap off the bottle of scotch and poured three fingers into each glass. The amber liquid glinted dully in the dim light. The powerful, peaty smell of the alcohol bit into his nose as he raised his glass and the two men in front of him raised theirs.

“Drink up,” he advised. In the one smooth motion all three of them drained their glasses.

The scotch blazed a fiery trail to his stomach.

To burn the nightmares away.

He reached to refill his glass.

THE END

 

***

Acknowledgements

Creative credit for this idea must be shared with my father Mark, who greatly enjoyed scaring the shit out of his children during long trips on dark country roads.

The Midnight Road: Chapter 4

Check out Chapters 1, 2, and 3!

 

Chapter Four

Deputy Clarkson had been a wonderfully good sport up until this point, but when presented with the prospect of crossing the threshold of this house, he balked. He released his death-grip on his rifle, lowering it to his side and exclaiming, “No offense, Sheriff, but fuck this. I’m not goin’ in there. Let’s go back to the car and call–

“Call who, Henry?” Lutz said flatly. “The state troopers can’t do anything except write tickets to out-of-towners. The town police call us when there is a violent death. So who exactly should we call? Animal control?”

Clarkson glowered back at him, “Then let’s go back to the car and come back in the goddamn daylight, “ he hissed between clenched teeth.

Personally, Lutz felt that Clarkson was speaking the most sense that anyone had all night. But as much as he privately agreed with his deputy’s plan to retreat far away from the McGuire house, they were there and there was a job to do. “Come on now,  Henry. Billy’s been inside. Can’t let the kid show us up now, can we?” Lutz said with a forced lightheartedness that rang false in his ears.

He sighed, ran one hand along his forehead and through his salt-and-pepper hair, and tried again. “Yeah, this sucks. Doesn’t change facts. We have to find out what, if anything, occurred here tonight. So let’s just sack up and get it done, yeah?”

It wasn’t much of a pep talk but it seemed to do the trick. Billy gave a heavy shrug, scuffing his boots against the brown grass bordering the McGuire’s front porch. Clarkson closed his eyes for a moment as if offering up a silent prayer, then reshouldered his firearm and nodded at Lutz. “I’m taking a long weekend,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Gonna take my wife up to Iowa City. Gonna go to Red Lobster. It’s Crabfest.” He continued muttering to himself about his upcoming weekend, but brushed past Lutz and climbed the creaking steps onto the porch.

You can have the whole week off. Lutz mentally promised his deputy. Then he pulled his revolver out of its holster, thumbed the safety off, and followed the two men past the entrance and into Bud McGuire’s home.

A profound silence settled around the men as they crossed the threshold of the McGuire house. The footsteps made by the officer’s heavy boots were muffled by the layer of dust that lay upon the floor. In the beam of the flashlight, the wallpaper in the foyer may have been a sunny striped yellow at some point, but had been warped with water damage and was now the color of old urine.

Ahead of the men was a long corridor with a doorway on either side. On one side, Lutz could see the ubiquitous farmhouse “mudroom”, complete with rows of rubber Wellington boots and heavy winter parkas. The Wellies were dull and cracked with disuse, and the coats were moth-eaten and smelled of damp. A closed door led deeper into the house, probably into the kitchen.

On the left side of the corridor was a room Lutz’ wife would have referred to as a “parlour” when she was alive, with delicate furniture and assorted porcelain figurines. Here was the first evidence of human activity. The dainty tables were smashed to bits, and the rose-patterned loveseat was at a defined angle to a moth-eaten rug, as if someone had forcibly shifted the couch by standing with sudden force. A broken water jug lay in pieces on the floor.

Oddly enough, even these violent scene was gentled by a thick layer of dust. So far, the only sign that a living person had been in the house were the tracks he could see in the corridor that had clearly been made by Billy’s heavy workboots.

Where were the McGuire’s?

Lutz moved on a constant pivot, shining his high-powered flashlight into every corner and crevice. His senses felt electrified as he strained each one of his senses to determine whether or not a threat still lurked in this house. According to his eyes and ears, this was just a normal house, though terribly neglected. “Billy,” he whispered under his breath. “Why the fuck did you even come in here?”

Billy responded equally quietly, “Like I said, sir, I thought maybe someone was in trouble. But when I got here — it was like I just had to keep going. I had to see for myself.”

Lutz understood. He could feel it too. The panicky urge to head back for the car was drowned out by grim determination. He needed to find out what the hell had happened here.

Past the open doorways to the mudroom and the parlour was a flight of stairs that went from the first floor all the way to the attic in a long switchback. The stairs, like everything else in the McGuire house, seemed to be standing upright by sheer force of will alone.

Running along the right edge of the staircase, in a long unbroken line from top to bottom, was a wide swath of dried blood.

The first thought that ran through Sheriff Lutz’ mind in that moment was that he wished he lived in a larger city, with more resources. If they were farther north, near Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, the three men standing in the McGuire house could be surrounded by backup within an hour.

A small fleet of detectives, forensic experts, photographers, evidence baggers and rubberneckers could gather at the homestead. The living darkness of the August summer night would be be beaten back by high-powered flashbulbs and battery-powered spotlights. Under their harsh glare, and soothed by the shop talk of the gathered officials, whatever horrors had visited the McGuire family would be revealed as just another crime scene, still tragic but acceptable to the mind. A sane sequence of events. Unfortunately, his little pocket of eastern Iowa was small and underpopulated, the mechanics needed to properly investigate a potential crime were simply not in place.

As much as Lutz dreaded the idea, it would have to be him that ventured up those stairs, and it would have to be now. He would have to venture up there, and so would Clarkson, as department regulations forbade an officer from entering a potential crime scene alone. Plus, he wanted Clarkson’s steady presence beside him with the Winchester.

That didn’t mean they all had to go. “Billy,” Lutz said to the young man without turning, “if you don’t want to go up there a second time, now is your chance. Go wait for us on the porch. Stand guard.”

“With all due respect sir, there is no way I am staying down here by myself.” Billy squared his shoulders and gave Lutz a defiant look.

“Your choice, kid.” Lutz gave him a nod and turned back to the problem of the staircase. They would have to make sure they didn’t contaminate the crime scene with their boots. The blood was thick all the down the stairs, where it abruptly stopped on the second to last riser. Here, a slightly thicker pool of blood still shone with faint wetness under his flashlight.

Whatever had happened here, had happened recently.

“Slow and steady does it, now. Don’t step in it.” Squeezing his lanky frame to the far edge of the staircase, Lutz placed a heavy boot on the first riser. A puff up dust arose, and the stair gave an wheezing groan, but it did not buckle under his weight.

Lutz began slowly advancing his way up the stairs, pressing firmly on each stair first to test its stability. The staircase creaked and moaned but continued to hold firm, and he motioned for  Clarkson to follow. Lutz could hear his usually taciturn deputy muttering various prayers and swear words under his breath.

The swath of blood continued up the stairs in an unbroken streak. Now it veered off to the right and disappeared into the darkness of a long corridor. The overwhelming odor was of dirt and mold, but the coppery smell of fresh blood was also thick in the air. A few framed photos hung at uneven intervals, their subjects almost completely obscured with dust. The dust on the floor was disturbed now, but there were no distinct tracks; it had been swept almost clean away in some places.

Resigned now to seeing this through, Lutz felt his earlier fear retreat to the back of his mind. The adrenaline pumping through his system was working for him now, sharpening his focus and steadying his pulse. The corridor opened twice to the right, and Lutz circled warily around the open entrance to the first room.

A cursory glance revealed a dingy bathroom. Or perhaps it had once been a bathroom. Now it was a heap of stained and cracked porcelain, with a rusted out pipe hanging loosely where a sink may have been. Torn linoleum covered parts of the floor, but most of it was the same weathered floorboards as the rest of the upstairs. The air was heavy with the smells of stale grime and mildew.

The path of blood, which had become thicker as they advanced along the corridor, continued down the hallway to the second room. Lutz signaled to Billy to cover the entrance of the bathroom, then he and Clarkson advanced, firearms cocked and ready. Lutz still carried the Maglite, held to the top of his service pistol, so he was the first to cautiously peer around the corner of the room at the end of the hall.

 

****

 

When Lutz first shone his flashlight into the darkened room, he actually breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected to find the strewn and dismembered bodies of April McGuire and her children in pieces about the floor.

Instead, the room appeared entirely empty on first glance. There were no severed limbs clad in footie pajamas. There was also no furniture, curtains, rugs or anything else to indicate that the space had ever been occupied by inhabitants other than mice. The bare wooden floor was littered with their droppings, but not much else. He began sweeping his flashlight from floor to ceiling. The walls had been painted a deep scarlet that looked almost wet by the light of the–

Oh.

For a span of time that felt like an eternity but was in reality probably more like thirty seconds, Lutz stood stock still in the entrance to that room, his head cocked to one side like a man trying to figure out a really good riddle. One eyebrow was raised, and his mouth hung open in bewilderment.

The room had been drenched in great splashes of blood that reached all the way to the ceiling in some places. It was swirled in sporadic circles across the floor, and spattered against all four walls. The closest thing Lutz could compare it to

Behind him, Lutz could hear Clarkson’s sharp intake of breath as he also took in the scene before them. Then it was as if all the air went out of his lungs, and Sheriff Lutz suddenly deflated. He felt his knees give way, and had to lean one hand against the outside wall of the hallway for support as his vision blurred and his head spun.

He still held the flashlight in one hand and it was pointed into the room, shining onto the dripping walls. He felt more than saw Clarkson stumble backwards into the wall behind him.

Billy stood at the doorway to the demolished bathroom, studying the mud on his boots. Lutz realized that the younger man had already seen all of this. “Billy, did you see any bodies when you were here earlier?”

Billy met the sheriff’s eyes directly. “When I saw the blood on the stairs, I figured maybe someone was still alive up here. But when I got up here there was nothing. The batteries in my flashlight were starting to die, and then I saw that room, he gestured towards the room with the bloody walls, “I got the hell out of here quick as I could. I didn’t check any of the other rooms.”

“So then where the fuck are the bodies? It looks like Bud McGuire and his family in a Salad Spinner. There’s blood on the goddamned ceiling.” Clarkson queried, stepping closer to the open door of the empty room and glancing inside once more.

“Yeah, but that’s the problem. It’s blood. Just blood. No bones. No organs.” Lutz’ mind was still spinning as it frantically tried to bring a sense of logic into what it had just witnessed. “There should be pieces of the McGuire’s everywhere. But so far, the only evidence of an actual crime is that arm out on the road.” he turned to face the other two men, continuing to speak under his breath.

Clarkson faced him, his normally placid face a mask of tension and fear, “Yeah, how did that arm even get out there? Why does it look like no one has lived here in five years? Where the hell are the McGuires!” this last sentence he said in a whispered shout.

“Are they in the barn? The basement? Did Bud chop them up and carry them into the woods? Was it even Bud? What the hell were those claw marks on the door, Sheriff?” Clarkson continued his questioning in a voice that did not conceal his rising terror.

Lutz gripped his deputy tightly by the shoulders, his own fear gone in the face of his officer’s increasingly panic, “Of course it was Bud, Henry. We’ll find him. Don’t worry.” This idea, as nightmarish as it was, offered  a kind of morbid comfort. Bud McGuire might be a deranged madman who had just killed his entire family, but he was a man.

A man bled when you shot him.

This whole time Billy Hudson had been silent, his eyes fixed on the open doorway to the dingy bathroom. Now Billy cleared his throat, and almost sheepishly said, “Sheriff? You might want to see this.”

Had there ever been less welcome word’s in human history? Lutz pinched his nose between two fingers and reluctantly asked, “What is it?”

Billy just gestured with the head of the shotgun, and in the bright glow from his Maglite Lutz could see a thin line of blood slowly making its way from behind the open bathroom door.

Immediately his heart, which had just begun to resume its regularly scheduled beat, started jackhammering wildly in his chest. Somehow, in that moment, Lutz knew.

Whatever they had come here to find was on the other side of that door.

 

****

 

On their first walkthrough of the corridor, all three men had been preoccupied by the path of blood that led to the room at the end of the hall. Now, upon closer inspection, Lutz realized that there was the faintest glimmer of light coming from the darkened bathroom.

His mouth was dry as a bone, and Lutz swallowed hard and then, pistol still at the ready, he eased around the doorway of the bathroom and put his back against the nearest wall. He checked the corner and, finding it empty, proceeded to circle slowly around the room. Clarkson covered him from behind, while Billy stood guard once more outside the room.

The light was coming from two flickering candles, the tall glass ones of the sort his grandmother used to burn on Sundays. The flames were sputtering their last breaths, and two more candles had already drowned in their own wax. How long do those candles burn? Lutz made a mental note to check and kept his eyes on a swivel, trying to observe as much as possible about the scene.

The candles had been arranged next to a chipped green bathtub. The formed a small circle, in the middle of which was a blackened circle, as someone had foolishly decided to build a fire in the middle of the floor.

On the edge of the bathtub was a draped a faded calico dress. Lutz approached the garment, which had been carefully arranged so as not to wrinkle against the sides of the tub. The tub itself was empty.

Lutz suddenly froze as he heard Clarkson swore a low oath behind him. Filled with sudden dread, he pivoted instinctively on his heel and prepared to fire.

For the first time that night, Andrew Lutz screamed at the top of his lungs.

Slumped in one corner of the trashed bathroom, in a slowly spreading pool of blood, was what remained of Bud McGuire.

***

Click here for the final chapter!

 

The Midnight Road: Chapter 3

Be sure to check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!

 

 

Lutz twisted the steering wheel violently, and the ponderous car screeched its resistance to such treatment, fishtailing wildly across the road in long, snaking arcs before he was able to get control.

Heart hammering from the near miss, the Sheriff pointed the car at the shallow gravel shoulder and pulled over. His hands were clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, and it took a moment of effort to release them. He killed the engine and for a long moment the only sound was the quiet ticking of the engine as it cooled. Ahead of this curve, the trees would open on side at the beginning of the McGuire farm.

“Sorry about that guys,” he finally managed to say. Officer Clarkson was looking at him with pure astonishment, as if he had just seen a mountain lion in the farmlands of Iowa. In the rearview mirror, Billy met his gaze with a dark look as the two officers unclipped their seatbelts and stepped out into the humid summer night.

Immediately, something felt off, and the flesh on Lutz’ arms crawled. He motioned for Clarkson to join him, and released Billy from his cage in the backseat. Crossing to the trunk, Lutz pulled out the rifle and handed it to Deputy Clarkson. He grabbed the shotgun and two high-beam flashlights before closing the trunk. With a nod of understanding, he passed the shotgun and one of the flashlights to Billy Hudson.

All of the boys and most of the girls in this region learned to shoot before they were ten years old. Knowledge of firearms and firearm safety was deeply ingrained in a community where almost everyone’s deep freezers were stocked full of fresh venison every autumn. Lutz felt no hesitation about handing the shotgun over to the younger man. The kid had sense, even if he was overly fond of drag racing.

His driver’s side door was still open; Lutz reached in to turn off the headlights and then thought twice. The dim light was all they had beside the heavy Maglite he now carried opposite his service pistol. He left the cruiser’s lights running, closed the door to the car with a heavy thud, and the three of them turned to survey their surroundings.

That odd feeling was still creeping up the back of Lutz’ neck, but it was Billy who was able to give voice to his unease. “All the bugs are quiet,” the young man whispered. Lutz listened carefully and realized he was right.

This was high summer, the air was thick and humid and it should have been filled with the chirps of insects. The nightly concerto of katydids, cicadas, and crickets was usually enough to drive a man half-mad but here there wasn’t so much as the buzz of a mosquito. The only sound was the quiet tapping of the men’s boots as they began walking north towards Bud McGuire’s home.

The light from the headlights didn’t failed to penetrate the gloom ahead, and Lutz clicked on the high powered Maglite. Next to him, Billy shouldered the shotgun, his smaller flashlight pressed with one hand under the barrel. Deputy Clarkson was at the ready with the long Winchester rifle at his shoulder. Normally used when a deputy needed to put down a wounded animal on the side of the highway, Lutz was immensely grateful just now for it’s solidly reliable presence.

Lutz swept the flashlight in slow, careful strokes from one edge of the road to another. “Where did you say you saw this arm now, son?” he asked Billy.

“Umm…a little farther ahead, I think,” Billy’s voice came from his right. “Maybe another three hundred feet or so.”

Lutz continued methodically sweeping his flashlight from side to side. At the edge of the beam he could make out the burned rubber made by tires suddenly skidding across the road. The tracks continued up the road, fading away into the darkness.

The men were now far enough away from the relative safety of the car that it’s dim headlights could no longer assist in penetrating the gloom ahead. The beams from the two flashlights seemed to grow smaller and fainter as the walked in loose formation up the road.

Abruptly, the burnt rubber skids made by Billy’s tires came to an end about six feet in front of them. The three men all stopped together, staring dumbfoundedly ahead. In the beam of Billy’s flashlight, on the edge of the road as it faded into scrub grass, was the arm of a human female. It had been torn crudely at the elbow, and bloody strings of meat hung from one end. The other end was wearing a thin gold wedding band around the ring finger. The nails were chipped and embedded with dirt.

All the blood in his body seemed rush to his head, and Lutz could feel his heartbeat pounding sickeningly in his temples. Deputy Clarkson gave a violent heave and turned to vomit quietly into the ditch on the other side of the highway. Lutz squatted down on his haunches near the severed arm, and reached for the ballpoint pen he kept in his shirt pocket. Turning his head to take one more breath of unfouled air, he used the pen to lift one of the strips of flesh away from the wound. It had been almost shredded, and for one horrifying instant the image of Lutz’ late wife’s venison jerky came to his mind. Sour bile rose in his throat, and he fought against the urge to puke.

What animal could do this to a person? What animal would bother?

To his knowledge, there had never been a reports of bear in this area, and any wolves had been killed off generations ago. Coyotes would take a chicken or a duck once in awhile, but Lutz couldn’t recall a single instance of them going after a small child, let alone a grown woman. Besides, these weren’t the teeth or claw marks of a coyote. Whatever had done this had had much longer teeth.

A sudden snap from the forest on his left.

Lutz’ blood turned to ice in his veins. Clarkson heard it too. His rifle was back at his shoulder in an instant and he took a hesitant step towards the looming blackness. Next to him, Billy Hudson was utterly rigid, his fingers deathly white around the grip of the shotgun.

Another snap in the darkness. Had that one been closer?

He quickly swung the beam of the flashlight away from the grisly scene on the road, in the direction of the woods. It illuminated skeletal pine trees and waist-high thornbushes. The light shone eerily on the narrow trunks of the pines. With their ladders of broken branches, the trees became rows of menacing spears waiting to impale unwary travelers. The unnatural silence of the woods was oppressive.

Lutz peered into the darkness, willing the shadows to separate into shapes. He focused on the edges of the light, where it faded into a thick and impenetrable blackness. He thought he could see shapes in the dark, looming patches of shadow that were somehow blacker than the night. A hulking figure dancing just out of his field of vision.

But nothing came charging at them from out of the woods, and after a long moment Lutz relaxed his posture. Telling himself unconvincingly that it had been a deer, Lutz turned back to Billy. They now had evidence of a death, but not necessarily evidence of a crime. There was still work to be done before they could all go back home. “Did you say there were more bodies?” he asked.

Billy hesitated for a long moment and then replied, “Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. Just… just come see for yourselves.”

Clarkson looked bewildered by the answer, but rolled his eyes and shrugged, “Let’s get this done, Sheriff. This place gives me the fucking creeps.”

Hearing his deputy admit his apprehension somehow served to boost Lutz’ own confidence. The forest was now at his back, and he felt watchful eyes on them but he shook off his nerves. Nodding affirmation at Billy, he confirmed, “Let’s get this the fuck over with and go home.”

Leaving the lone, pitiful arm on the side of the highway, the men now began skirting the edge of the cornfield that bordered Bud McGuire’s home. The corn, which should have towered over them at a full height of sixteen feet, was sickly-looking and scrawny. This actually offered Lutz some comfort, the weakened stalks of the malnourished crops made it easier for the beam of his Maglite to pierce the fields.

Looming ahead, set back nearly a quarter mile from the edge of the highway, was the McGuire house. At first, it looked much the same as when Lutz had paid his visit eight years previously, but the disrepair of the home became increasingly apparent as they turned onto the loose gravel driveway.

At the start of the path was a rust-eaten mailbox, leaning precariously on its weathered wooden post. The McGuire’s had obviously failed to keep up with their correspondence. He wondered idly how Bud took care of things like electricity and plumbing if bills never came to their house.

The main house must have been truly lovely in some bygone age. It’s frame was a clean and crisp Colonial, with gabled windows and a large wrap-around porch. But the clean lines were obscured by a sagging roof and missing shutters. The porch was also drooping, with a dilapidated wicker couch sitting neglected to one corner. What must once have been cheerful white paint and blue trimming was now gray and peeling in great strips from the wood. The whole house had an air of exhaustion, like a once-proud old horse that no longer had the energy to hold its head up in the traces.

The front door was hanging open by one twisted hinge.

As the men approached Lutz held up one hand curled into a fist as a signal to hold position.His earlier jitters had cleared away, replaced by the curiously detached feeling he always felt when was approaching a crime scene that sure to be unpleasant. Normally it was a high school kid who partied too hard and wrapped his car around a tree. Or a trucker who came  home drunk and decided to put his wife in the morgue. After thirty years in the sheriff’s department, Lutz was no stranger to the violence inherent in men.

It wasn’t a man that tore off that child’s arm, though.

As if to confirm this chilling thought, Lutz shone his flashlight on the broken door of the house. Scratched deep into the wood, deep enough that the door was nearly splintered into pieces, were four parallel gouges running from the top of the doorframe to the bottom corner in one long, unbroken arc. The aluminium doorknob was twisted out of shape and hung uselessly to one side.

Beyond the door lay only more blackness.

***

Click here for Chapter 4!

The Midnight Road: Chapter 2

If you haven’t had the chance, be sure to check out Chapter 1!

 

Chapter 2

The twenty miles from the sheriff’s station to the McGuire farm passed in almost complete silence as the mostly darkened buildings of the small town gave way to the entirely darkened farmland that made up ninety percent of the area. Endless acres of corn and soybeans framed every small town in the county, with up to forty miles between communities. Lutz had spent his entire life in Richmond county, and for him the horizon would always be where the sky met the fields.

This limitless expanse of cultivated land was interrupted, rarely, by spotty patches of trees and scrub brush. Most of these “forests” were barely twenty acres wide, except the Iowa River Nature Preserve, which sprawled over nearly thirty miles of land on the western side of the highway. On the eastern side of the road was Bud McGuire’s farm.

Those woods had always given Andrew Lutz the creeps. It was an odd, silent place of skeletal pines and briar bushes, offering none of the secret trails and trickling streams of the patches of woods he had enjoyed as a boy. It was also unused by hunters, even in a region choked with hungry deer they had no desire to chew on the tough pine bark offered by the trees. Whatever “nature” the state government was intent on “preserving” was an open question.

The tiniest sliver of  waxing moon shone in the sky, not providing enough illumination to make out anything beyond the orange beam of the cruiser’s headlights. Each man was lost in his thoughts. Sheriff Lutz had conveyed the broad strokes of the matter to his deputy as they had pulled out of the station. At least one casualty. Likely more. Reports of a large animal. Possibly a mountain lion.

“A mountain lion, sir?” Officer Clarkson had asked in complete bewilderment when Andrew had told him. “Have you looked around, Sheriff? You see any fucking mountains? If we are going out to the Bud McGuire’s house, sir, you know as well as I do what we’re going out there to find.”

Yes. Lutz thought as he pulled onto the pitted asphalt of Highway 99.

I know exactly what we’re likely to find.

His hands itched for a cigarette but he pushed the urge aside. He allowed his thoughts to drift to Bud McGuire and tried to ignore the sinking feeling of dread in his stomach.

 

****

 

Andrew Lutz had been in his mid-twenties when he had first encountered Buddy McGuire. He had been out on patrol one afternoon, driving down the quiet streets of the town when he had seen a young boy in an abandoned lot, squatting in the dust next to a dog. The dog was lying on its side. Concerned that a beloved pet had been struck by a car, Lutz had parked and approached the pair.

The dog, a brindle mutt with wide, sad eyes was convulsing in the dust, panting shallowly as the young boy watched. Buddy could not have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, but he showed not a flicker of emotion as he watched the dying animal.

“Is this your dog, son?” Lutz had asked kindly.

Buddy hadn’t answered. Most kids were unfailingly polite to police officers, as least back in those days, but Buddy simply ignored Lutz and continued watching the dog as it’s breathing became slower.

“Do you know what happened to this animal?” Lutz tried again.

Still nothing. But then Lutz had noticed a sheet of butcher’s paper balled up at the boy’s feet. Looking closer, he could also see scraps of some kind of ground meat. A picture of what had occurred here was beginning to form in his mind.

“Did you give poisoned bait to this dog, boy!” Lutz demanded, raising his voice for the first time.

At his shout, the boy finally turned at met Lutz’ eyes. The blank, expressionless look on the face of the child caused the officer to take a step back in surprise. There was no fear, no hint of intimidation at being addressed by a stranger, a policeman at that. There was nothing reflecting back in Buddy McGuire’s eyes.

Shaken, Lutz had reported the incident to then-Sheriff Bradley. Bradley had hooked his thumbs into the sagging waistband of his trousers and pointed out that it had been a stray animal, not a cherished pet. It was a terrible death to be sure, but local farmers often shot or poisoned strays that wandered onto their properties. The mutts would occasionally kill chickens, ducks, or even begin menacing the farmer’s children as they played outside. It was a necessary evil; one the boy had probably learned from watching his own father.

Lutz had gone back to the abandoned lot later that evening and buried the animal himself.

Over the next ten years, Buddy McGuire made a name for himself as one of those boys who are just really good at hurting people. When he was in sixth grade, an upperclassman had teased Buddy about his dirty, unkempt hair. In full view of the students and teachers, Buddy had walked over to the older boy, grabbed his wrist, and twisted until bones crunched.

 

Bud McGuire had been expelled in tenth grade, and was just in time to be swept up by the Vietnam War two years later. No one quite knows what he got up to over there, but when he returned to the town in ’75, it was as if a blanket of rage had settled itself on Bud’s shoulders. His father had died of cancer while he had been deployed, and Bud took over his family’s hundred or so acres. This small farm was barely have been enough to keep food in their bellies and clothes on their backs, but it had been in the family for three generations.

The soil, that thick black Midwestern soil, failed Bud McGuire. Corn, beans, wheat, every crop he planted seemed to wither and die at his touch. His fellow farmers prospered, the rich soil of the land sprouting healthy rows of strong green corn seemingly overnight.

Despite all of this, Bud somehow managed to land himself a wife. In the fall of 1977, a mere fifteen months after Bud came back from the war, a pale slip of a girl was seen hanging laundry on the front lawn of the McGuire farm. She had long, mousy brown hair and wide blue eyes that were forever fixed on the ground. Who she was, where she came from, was anyone’s guess. This would have maddened the women of the community, all of whom were obsessed with lineage, but no information on the girl could be found. She was just there one day, silently feeding chickens or beating rugs. She never came into town. Never spoke to anyone.

The second time Andrew Lutz encountered Bud McGuire in a professional capacity had been about a year after the arrival of this mysterious woman. The locals had thrown their hands up in exasperation; all of their kind gestures and housewarming casseroles had been met with a closed door. The McGuire’s had never been seen attending any of the many churches in the community, nor had the young woman appeared at the supermarket where the wives could pounce on her.

The initial confusion had given way to righteous indignation. Who did they think they were, holed up all high-and-mighty on their plot of land? Did the McGuires’s think they were too good to associate with their peers?

But as the weeks dragged on and still there was no sight of the young woman in town. Winter set in, and she was no longer seen outside by the few people who drove on the old county road. The offended feelings of the townspeople began to shift into concern. Was she okay? After all, Buddy had always had quite the temper, even before his years in the jungles of Vietnam.

Finally, in the spring of ‘78 the wives nagged their husbands until the husbands had called the city police. The police in turn, called the sheriff’s department to tell them that someone needed to go check on that girl, to soothe the nerves of their worried neighbors. Lutz had been the junior deputy on duty at the time, and had set off up Highway 99 to the McGuire farm.

Barely three miles from the floodplains of the Mississippi River, the ground in March was a quagmire of mud that had sucked at Lutz’ boots as he stepped out of the police cruiser. The house was a traditional farmhouse, two stories with sweeping gables that rose to create a third story in the attic. A large, wraparound porch upheld by thick wooden beams led up to the entrance. Lutz had looked around warily before climbing the stairs to the porch. He had knocked twice. No answer. This had been expected, and Lutz turned away from the house and went instead around the back, where sure enough a petite young woman was sorting fresh spring herbs into an array of bowls.

She had bristled like a startled cat when she caught sight of him, and Lutz had held his hands in front of him to show he meant no harm. “Good morning, ma’am. I’m Deputy Lutz, I’m with the sheriff’s department. Can I ask your name?” he spoke in a low, gentle voice, taking very slow steps towards the girl.

The girl’s eyes had been sky-blue as they looked into his with an unreadable expression.

“April”

The word had been little more than an exhale of breath, and Lutz had been about to ask her to repeat herself when the girl’s eyes had focused on something behind his shoulder and widened with alarm.

Lutz had turned to see Bud McGuire standing a few paces behind them. His black eyes had been just as blank and soulless as when he had gazed upon that dying dog. Leaning with casual menace on his shoulder, pointed at the sky, was a double-barreled shotgun with a long, sleek muzzle.

Lutz had thankfully resisted the urge to startle at the sight of the burly man. “Morning, Bud,” he said. With slow deliberate movements, Lutz had moved his hand to the pistol hoisted at his hip and thumbed open the clasp.

Bud had noticed, as he was meant to. His mouth twisted in a scowl, he had replied, “You’re not welcome here,” he had said in a flat, toneless voice, and Lutz had realized this was the first time he was hearing Bud speak.

“I’ll be leaving shortly,” Lutz had replied in an authoritative tone. “People have been wondering how you two have been getting on up here by yourselves all winter. Thought I’d come over and make sure everything was okay.”

“Fine. You’ve seen. Now go,” and with that, Bud had crossed the short distance between him and his new wife. Lutz had waited for him to hit her, if he did than the deputy could bring him into the station, but Bud just stood a few feet from the girl with a look of pure fury on his face.

April McGuire had been utterly silent during this encounter. Now she sprang from her table of herbs as if scalded. She knelt then, and Lutz saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Under the table was a large wicker basket lined with woolen blankets. Nestled sleeping in the blankets was a tiny, swaddled infant.

The girl snatched up the basket and fled into the house without another word. Bud had turned, the shotgun still balanced on his shoulder. “This is my property. Ain’t no crime been committed. You got no right to be here.” All of this was said in the same eerie, deadpan voice.

Bud’s words, spoken in the same eerie, deadpan voice, were all true. April McGuire had not accused Bud of anything. It wasn’t against the law to hold a firearm while standing on your own land. There was nothing more for Lutz to say, so he had retreated back to the cruiser and headed back to the station.

He hadn’t returned to the McGuire property since that day nearly eight years ago. The McGuire’s had been seen no more than a handful of times in those eight years, most often driving in Bud’s battered Dodge Ram as the family returned or drove away along Highway 99. At some point another child, a daughter, was added to their number. Neither child was ever seen at the local public school or the local Christian school.

Many times Lutz had driven slowly down the county road, hoping to see April McGuire or her children out in the yard. But the house had been shuttered and silent, and Lutz had been forced to keep driving. Over the years, most of the people in the community had long since stopped gossiping about the McGuires. Everyone sympathized with the lonely young woman isolated with her children and Bud’s anger. But these were also a conservative group who prized their right to privacy. As long as there was no apparent problem at the McGuire farm, everyone merely shook their heads and went about their lives, even though they all knew what the ultimate outcome was likely to be.

As Sheriff Andrew Lutz neared the McGuire homestead, he was cursing himself for not doing more, for not inventing some ridiculous reason to go check on April and her children.

He only hoped he wasn’t too late.

But it didn’t look as though that were the case.

“Uh, sir?” the voice of Billy Hudson suddenly snapped Andrew Lutz out of his guilt and grief. Consumed by his ghoulish thoughts, he was about to miss the blind curve in the road leading up to Bud’s farm. The heavy police cruiser was instead aimed directly at a large pine tree.

 

****

Be sure to check out Chapter 3!

Kimberling Lake Chapter Two by Ashley Schlueter

If you haven’t read the first installment, you can find it here. Again, I welcome any constructive criticism and comments! Happy reading everyone!

Kimberling Lake

by Ashley Schlueter

Chapter Two

How long she lay prone on the deck, Nellie didn’t know. It could have been two minutes or two hours. She finally opened her eyes to an angry black sky above Kimberling Lake, and she shivered violently as rain lashed around her. She coughed hoarsely and tried to sit up, but her head spun and she sank back onto the wooden boards. Turning her head to the right, she could see the metal ladder where Jeanie had last stood. She managed to lift her head slightly to look for the bloodstain that had marked where her cousin fell, but the rain had washed it away. It was as if Jeanie had never been there.

Nellie was alone.

Bile rose in her throat. She rolled onto her side and vomited weakly onto the dock, shaking as her stomach heaved the contents of her breakfast onto the wooden slats. Her head pounded fiercely, and she was unbearably thirsty. Opening her mouth, she allowed rain to drip into her mouth and coat her swollen tongue. This helped clear her head, and Nellie slowly managed to rise, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the dock as far away from the lake as possible. She looked out across the choppy water to the beach. The picnic basket still sat on the rocks, next to Jeanie’s discarded clothes and shoes.

At the sight of her cousin’s shorts and T-shirt, Nellie was seized by a sudden rage. “Give her back!” Rising unsteadily to her feet, she screamed her frustration and helplessness over the water. Tears streamed alongside rain on her cheeks as she cursed the thing in the water. “Give her back! Give her back!” she howled over the lake. The lake, however; merely continued lapping at the buoys of the floating dock, deaf to the pain of one small girl child.

Nellie shouted wildly, “I’m going to kill you! You killed Jeanie and now I’m going to kill you!” Her voice hitched and her chest was tight with grief and pain. “I’m going to kill you!” she cried again. Looking around for something to throw and finding nothing, she resorted to stamping her small foot ineffectually.

Without warning the dock rose into the air, tilting violently to one side. Nellie was thrown off her feet. Scrambling for purchase, she grabbed for a gap between two of the wooden boards and dug her fingers in. Jagged splinters pierced her hands but Nellie gripped harder as the dock rose at a sharper angle out of the water. She screamed again, this time from terror.

Then, just as suddenly as it has begun, the tilting stopped and the dock settled back onto the surface of the lake. Water washed over the sides in waves. Nellie’s heart was hammering in her chest. She drew her knees up to her chest and rested her head against them, breathing raggedly.

It heard me. It’s under the dock right now, waiting and listening to the frightened girl alone on the lake. Nellie pictured the two malevolent red eyes watching her from the water, its slimy black claws curled for the chance to drag her into the drowning deep.

It’s there, and it wants to make sure I know it’s there. Wants to keep me scared. Maybe scared kids taste better. Or it’s just playing with me until it gets bored.

As if the monster could read her very thoughts a series of bubbles broke the surface of the lake, as if something under the water had released air very quickly. It’s laughing at me. Nellie’s head sank back onto her knees, and she struggled to calm her hammering heart, to ease her breathing.

Think. She commanded herself. Stop panicking and think.

How long had she been stuck out here on this rusty old dock? It felt like years ago that she and Jeanie had arrived at the lake. The girl in the yellow sundress who had flown to the edge of the lake with such joy felt like another person entirely. A completely different Nellie had dived down to the lakebed to grab some mud. That other Nellie’s biggest problem had been trying to earn the respect of her older cousin. Somewhere over the course of the morning, that girl had been replaced by a new Nellie. One who had seen her cousin dragged off the edge of a dock by a dripping black claw. A Nellie who was now trapped like a rabbit in a snare. Her chest began hitching and she squeezed her eyes tightly to stop the tears.

Breathe. Think.

She and Jeanie had left the house early that morning, around 9:30. The events of the ill-fated lakebed dive had occurred perhaps thirty minutes later. It was difficult to judge the position of the sun due to the dark clouds blanketing the sky, but Nellie would guessed it was somewhere around noon. Lunchtime. On cue her stomach gave a faint grumble. She and Jeanie were usually expected back at Aunt Cynthia’s for lunch. Perhaps when they didn’t show up, Aunt Cynthia would come looking for them.

The picnic basket.

Nellie groaned into the space between her knees. Of course. She and Jeanie had packed a lunch to take down to the beach. Her parents had left this morning with Uncle Frank and Aunt Cynthia for a boat show in Branson. They were going to eat dinner in the city before driving back, and probably wouldn’t be home until past eleven. Why would they hurry? Jeanie was there to babysit. Even if they tried calling and Jeanie didn’t answer her phone, they would just blame the notoriously bad service of the Ozark hills. 

What about the neighbors?

In the middle of a lightning storm, it seemed highly unlikely that she would encounter any fellow beachgoers. Besides, if her screams hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention by now it was doubtful that they were. Kimberling Lake was an isolated place, away from the raucous crowds of university students and families with speedboats that swarmed like sand flies over the larger lakes in the area. That was precisely the reason that her uncle had chosen to buy his particular property.

Shit! Nellie swore loudly in her head, and then rose her head, “Shit-damn-ass-sonofabitch!” she screamed at the top of her voice. For some reason, the taboo act of swearing lifted her spirits a little, and a fleeting grin crossed her face. “Damn-bastard-shithead-asshole-FUCK”. A tiny giggle escaped her lips. She had never dared to say the forbidden f-word before. But if any situation truly deserved the f-word, it was being trapped on a rusty dock by a lake monster. This new thought sobered her and she dropped her head back onto her knees, but her heart now pounded with defiance as well as fear.

Options. What are my options?

It was unlikely that she would last until her parents got home. The thing in the water would be picking her out of its teeth by then. It was equally unlikely that a neighbor would chance to come upon her. Nellie was on her own.

Breathe.

She needed to make a plan. She took a deep breath, held it as long as she could, and slowly exhaled. She had seen people do that on T.V. when they needed to come up with a good idea. No flashes of brilliance came into her mind. She breathed again.

Options. What are my options?

She couldn’t stay on the dock. Eventually the creature would tire of scaring her and come to finish her off. So that meant she had to get back to shore. Safety was beckoning from the rocky beach a mere fifty feet away. From where she sat it might as well have been fifty miles. The second she put a toe into the water, the thing would be there with its slashing claws and sharp teeth. It would drag her under the water down to where the sun couldn’t penetrate and it would sink its teeth—

Stop it, Nellie. Breathe. Think. What do you have? 

What did she have? Nellie took inventory of the objects at her disposal.

One pink-and-white swimsuit. One blue elastic hair-tie. One woven friendship bracelet that she’d been wearing since Christmas. Two silver earrings in the shape of crescent moons. One skinny blonde girl who was woefully unprepared for monster-slaying. None of this inspired her with great confidence.

What else?

Nellie looked around. One floating dock with weathered wooden boards. The boards were warped by time and exposure, leaving large gaps in some places. Could she perhaps pull up one of the boards and use it to bash the monster over the head? Crouching down, she inspected the wooden slats that ran across the dock. After forty years the wood had swollen to almost completely cover the rusty old nails holding it together. She wiggled her fingers between two boards and tried peeling it up. The board creaked slightly but didn’t budge. Leverage, she needed some kind of leverage. Face wrinkled with concentration, Nellie looked once more around the dock. Her eyes settled on the rusty metal ladder descending into the water.

What do you have?

Nellie tilted her head to one side. The rain was beginning to ease and a faint ray of sunshine peaked out from behind a cloud. For the first time since she had seen the scarlett eyes on the bottom of Kimberling Lake, a smile crept over Nellie’s face. A plan was beginning to form carefully in her mind.

To be continued….

Kimberling Lake Chapter One by Ashley Schlueter

I don’t practice writing fiction very often, therefore I am very rusty. I welcome any comments or critiques!

 

Kimberling Lake

By Ashley Schlueter

Chapter One

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.

Nellie screamed.

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.