My family felt the responsibility to visit my grandma in Poland for the summer every single year. We used to all get into the car, the first morning after school was out, and drive east for twelve hours until we arrived in the small town that she lives in. It’s not the most boring, but not the nicest place on earth, either. When I was reading Stephen King’s IT, I’d had no problem imagining the plot happening here, to say the least.
But what that town looks like is not important to us because we were not staying over there but in my grandparent’s summer cabin that they’d built with their friends back in… the middle ages, without any professional help, which they were very proud of. And yet, it stood there to this day. It was an honor to be allowed to stay there, I guess, so we never refused when we were invited. It was a beautiful place, about 15 kilometers outside of town, surrounded by high pine trees with long, slender trunks and dark canopies, reaching far above the house’s roof and covering the garden in long shades in the late afternoon. The garden was surrounded by a dark fence and beyond it, about fifty meters across from the verandah; the lake was blinking in the golden sunshine of the late afternoon, welcoming us as always through the fence. It looked like a river when you only looked at it from behind our fence, but if you stepped to the shore you would see how big it actually was.
It was a true giant and on the first day of our last stay, I vividly remember that the wind had settled for the evening, so there were almost no movements visible on the surface. It was sparkling in the sunshine and lay there calmly, like a mirror. It reminded me that, even though this place could be hella boring at times, it was still comforting. Calm, because those loud, bothersome assholes from my class were far, far away.
In fact, everything was far away. Aside from a big, but very old, camping site about half a kilometer down the dusty road from our hut, we didn’t have any neighbors. It was an uncommon thing to not have a lake like that be visited by many people on weekends, but except for a few students that had accidentally found their way there once in a while, no one except for us was swimming in it.
It was, like, the perfect place.
It just didn’t have Wi-Fi.
But we had German and Polish cable TV, which kind of made up for it, I guess. We discovered public television as a new world time and time again that we came here. It was kind of weird. One of the uncomfortable aspects of staying in that cabin however, was the fact that, when it got dark in the forest, it actually got dark. There were no street lights, no lighting on our fence, just that one LED over the front door leading into the kitchen, triggered by a movement sensor.
Except for that, you felt like someone had put you in a black box along with that house, when night fell.
You simply don’t want to stay awake because it gives you that really claustrophobic feeling. Anyway, the most important thing I could tell you about out first evening was that we shut all the lights off, but left the window curtains in my room open. I went to bed, I closed my eyes, and I drifted off to sleep. The door to my room was closed; my sister’s room was on the opposite end of the narrow corridor. I would have been very fine if I hadn’t woken up at 2:15 a.m. later that night.
When I opened my eyes, I realized it was one of those nights where I’d have to lay awake until the morning because I wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore.
As I got used to the darkness, I registered the silver square of moonlight on the floor. My eyes began wandering across the room, in every dark corner, to the door that was closed. I was probably too old for being afraid of monsters in the dark already. But I just couldn’t help. After my room seemed safe at first glance, it was time to take a look at the places I could not look into without getting up.
My bed was to be checked for intruders first. The footboard was pretty high and something-or someone- could easily crouch behind it without me knowing. One deep breath, then I crawled towards it, took a look.
Nothing. Just the blank wooden floor.
The small table and the couch were safe, too.
Every time I would wake up in the middle of the night, there would be this thought occupying my mind that I could have woken up because of something watching me. I had read some weird stuff about how your body can somehow notice it, if you’re being watched during your sleep. Sounds like bullshit… by day. But I was just thirteen and by night, everything looked a lot… more real.
Finally, I decided that my blanket would be the safest place to stay under until morning. It was my go-to escape. My heart rate had come down a little and I crawled under it carelessly and pulled it up to my chin.
In that very second, a thought flashed through my mind, like lightning.
You forgot to check what’s in the closet.
Of course I’d forgotten. I always forgot the closet. Maybe my subconscious didn’t want me to check it because it was that much of a risky place to check. Before you’d know, whoever was sitting in it could be jumping at you already!
With a deep breath, I turned to look at it. One of its two doors was only half closed and behind it was a deep black shadow I couldn’t help but stare at. There was probably something up with it, someone sitting inside, my imagination whispered to me.
No. No, there couldn’t be. There was not enough space for that, I tried calming myself down again.
And yet, I had to convince myself to be sure.
As if trying out for a race, I leaped from my bed across the room, grabbed the door handles and pulled them open.
Clothes. Swim Trunks, Pants, Shirts.
I breathed out and felt relieved, almost able to get back into bed again and try to fall asleep, but even after I had pulled my blanket back up to my chin again, the feeling of uneasiness did not go away. My room felt different, as if I was a stranger in it, stalking the proper owner, even though there was no one in there with me. As far as I knew. But what could I do about it? I just had to somehow shake it off.
I refused to close my eyes for as long as it was possible, until, at some point, my lids started becoming so heavy that I couldn’t help it anymore and just blacked out until the next morning.
Sunlight was flooding in from the right window and brushed away the feeling of cold fear that had crept its fingers around my chest seemingly mere seconds before and I was able to get up and leave my room just like on any other morning. Without turning to check the closet this time. Just childish paranoia, not a problem anymore, I told myself and went downstairs. Dishes clung together in the kitchen; the TV was on in the living room. After breakfast, I’d forgotten everything about the previous night already and I didn’t tell anyone about it, either. It seemed like just a bad dream, not an actual feeling that I’d really had and I was glad it was over.
After this, we spent a pretty normal day running around the woods and took a long bike trip to the grocery store in the closest village. Biking around the hiking trails in the woods again in a very long time was a wonderful feeling and it reminded me of how far away my next school day was.
And, well, of how far a way it was back to the grocery store if you forgot something important. Gladly, after noticing the lack of milk in the shopping bag about ¾ back home, my little sister reminded us that the campsite near our house did sell small things like milk or candy to those two or three families that used to stay there in the summer. There were never more than three trailers inside the gate, as far as I can remember, but this time, it was just one. Since the gate wasn’t locked we simply opened it by hand as soon as we arrived, got off our bikes and went inside. The site was old, the basketball court right next to the beach was in sight of the front-desk building and overall it was probably a nice place. Isolated and most likely the scariest place to be left alone at night at, but nice. Still, there was something off about the silence that greeted us. Usually, at least two kids would be playing around on the grass or swimming inside the safety buoys surrounding the small beach. But now, the red dots marking the swimming area only went up and down in the tiny waves of the noon breeze. It almost looked sad how empty the place was. Not even a sound escaped from the only trailer. Only the lake shone big, cold and empty. You could feel the emptiness of the place.
We walked past the parking lot, guiding our bikes next to us and leaning them onto the fence to enter the small orange building with an “information” and “shop” sign on it. It could use some renovation, but this was something you could apply to any polish building and compared to some houses in my grandma’s hometown aka Derry, Maine, Number Two, it was still in a rather acceptable state.
“Doesn’t look like high season at all”, my mom commented instead of a greeting as we walked to the counter with the camping goods. There was in fact someone sitting there, some old man in his late seventies with piercing blue irises swimming on yellow eyeballs that I couldn’t help noticing. He was the kind of old man with very loose flaps of skin on his neck and who almost constantly left his lipless mouth gaping open a little, with a very breathless voice coming out of it from time to time.
The air conditioning in the shop smelled horribly and seemed to not be working properly, either.
How come he could sit here all day?
“Oh, hello! Well, we did have a bigger family here until a few weeks ago. Maybe someone else will show up, eventually. We never had to worry ‘bout that”.
My mom asked for milk and paid for it.
“A family was staying here, you say?”, she asked, more out of politeness than out of actual interest. “Well, yeah. They went home a little early, were supposed to stay longer”. “Camping in this place probably wouldn’t be a long time thing for me, either”, my mom laughed, but the man just shook his head. “In fact, it was totally their thing. Nice people, nicer than many others, at least. But they left earlier than planned”. The man sounded a little too serious when he repeated the last thing form earlier, as if he really regretted having let them go. Or as if he wanted us to further ask why they had left outside of their planning.
“What a pity. I hope for you that there will be other people camping here, soon”, my Mom said. “Thank you, thank you”.
“Mom?”, my sister asked. “Can I maybe play on the swing for a little?”. The man, now inside his nice-grandpa-mode, answered in my mom’s place. “Sure, there is no one you could be bothering, is there”. “Thank you!”, she said and gave the man one of her sugary smiles that she reserved for moments like these only, then she went outside with my mom to check out said swing on the miniature playground the site had. I planned to follow them after buying a coke for myself. When the man handed me the drink, however, he gave me a strangely mysterious look, which might as well have been that of an old relative offering to tell their grandchild a secret. “Have you read in the paper why that family actually left?”, he asked, as if starting a scary story. “No, I don’t read the paper”, I replied, not caring too much. “Thought so. Well, the truth is, that the paper really didn’t write everything that happened. They wrote that there was a child murdered here and then found in the night-“. My heart skipped a beat at that word, because he said it with such indifference. “But they didn’t write a word about me seeing the murderer, did they?”.
“Excuse me?”, I asked and almost felt like I’d understood something wrong. It probably wasn’t for the smelly air conditioning, but a chill went up my spine and my shoulders twitched a little.
“That family. Something horrible happened to them. One of their younger kids, a boy, he was a quiet one, the scaredy-cat. Far younger than you, though. I found him floating in the water, all alone, a month ago. It was in the middle of the night and that kid was just lying there, face down, pale, with bruises on his neck”, he gestured towards his own throat as if he were to grab it, “and the joints of his hands twisted out of place”. The man demonstrated a sudden movement of his fingers in the air, pretending to grab me and doing the same thing to my own hand. I almost pulled back half a step, wanted to get out to my mom and sister already. But I, the shy nerd that is too polite for everything, of course stayed to stare at the white haired man with his piercing blue eyes, telling me a story about dead children on his very own camping ground. “Was he- dead?”, I spit out when I realized that he had chosen to pause his dramatic reenactment to let me ask a question. His eyes went darker for just a second when he heard me. “I don’t know. The only thing I know is that he could have looked far worse. They wrote about what happened in the paper, but there is something nobody was really talking about, and that was that I saw the murderer”. Wheels started twisting in my head and I was getting more and more confused but the man didn’t seem to care. “I was standing above that kid’s body, knee deep in the water, about to call an ambulance, and then I hear something moving in the reeds, maybe two meters away. It was dark, but I am sure that I heard a bigger body moving in the shallows, I would swear by my life. But before I could prepare or even move my light at it-it moved away”. “It?”. “Whatever it was, it killed that boy. Dunno what it could have been, could’ve been anything with two hands to squeeze him to death, for that matter. Didn’t behave like someone who has never killed before, if you know what I mean. Moving quickly, but not panicking at all, as if it didn’t mind. Swam away, I heard it paddling away from me, but when I shone my flashlight in the plants, I saw nothing. It was gone”.
“Oh, was it?”, I asked, half trying to end the conversation, but of course it was hard since he was the only person in the room. I was pretty sure I was talking to a crazy person right now, but tried playing along. Maybe it was some prank that had been funny a decade ago, when he himself had been thirteen. He continued: “Police heard me out but the paper wasn’t even talking to me, ‘cause they thought I was talking ‘bout an animal. Why swim away, when you could sneak away, right? Why hide in the reeds, right next to the body, of all places, if you killed him. But I know what I heard. There were steps in the water, paddling sounds”. Now, he was leaning over the tiny shop counter, talking quieter than before. I could not tell how serious he was about what he was telling me. In the background, I heard my sisters voice coming in from outside, laughing. “The person swam out onto the lake, I say, but I couldn’t see where it was the next second, because it dove under”. He used his “scary-story-voice” for everything that he said but at the same time, his pupils were widened as if he was vividly remembering something horrible that had gained his attention so strongly, that he could see it flashing before his eyes right in that moment. “Um, I… don’t know what you’re trying to tell me”, I now said in a more confident voice, and yet, he wasn’t breaking character.
In that same moment, my mother came in, and asked me why I wasn’t coming out. The man leaned back from over the counter and stopped talking immediately. His eyes began looking normally again and now I was pretty sure that he had only been playing a prank on me. A prank pretty negatively promoting his shop and everything, but yeah. Old people were weird.
I shivered again.
He just wished us good-bye normally and didn’t mention anything more about the story he had told me. But when we walked out, he shot me one last look, then looked at my sister still playing outside, then back at me and formed a short sentence without making a sound: Watch out. I turned away, didn’t even try to understand and decided to forget about what he had told me. We walked back across the grass and suddenly the world seemed greyer than before. Not just because of the clouds that had moved in front of the sun, but because I had a weirdly twisted feeling in my stomach. I shot a look at the beach, the reeds surrounding it; saw the image of a limp, blue-lipped body flashing before my eyes before I turned away. I had never been good with horror stories and awkward situations before, and I was sure that this combination of the both would haunt me for the rest of my life. The old man talking about this kind of stuff seemed as if it had ruined my day. When my mom asked me, what was wrong, however, I just shook it off, smiled at her and said I had just been lost in thought. She believed me and then told me that I’d only be allowed to drink that coke that I had bought after lunch.
At home, lunch passed, the afternoon passed, dinner passed without any more exciting things happening to us. Many things crossed my mind, but the conversation with the storeowner faded away. We went to bed, which was unspectacular, and I fell asleep without having to think about anything too much.
It was not until 1:27am the next morning that I woke up soaked in sweat. My heart was beating very intensely; I almost heard it ringing in my ears. Something horribly unsettling had happened in the dream I’d had just now, but I could not quite recall what it had been.
The first thing I noticed was darkness. The smell of the wooden house. The sound of the wood bending under my weight. Then, that I was cold. Then my shaking legs.
I was standing in the middle of my room. On both my legs, shakily but clearly awake and placed there by myself-I just could not remember how and when.
First of all, I thought I was still dreaming. Having a really bad nightmare. But I couldn’t be, I clearly felt everything, I saw my face clearly in the mirror on my closet when my eyes got used to the darkness.
Had I been… sleepwalking? It was full moon. I did that sometimes on full moons. But I’d actually hoped that I’d started leaving it behind, like, three months ago.
No, not again, I thought to myself, alone with my very dark room and staring at the wall, then slowly, shakily starting to get myself back into bed.
It was dark out, there was no moon, it was hidden by clouds, there wasn’t anything because I had turned all the lights off before falling asleep. Goddammit. I was a wreck; I wanted it to be daytime already.
When I finally made myself lie back down and pull the blanket up to my chin, I noticed that my door was only half closed and I saw the deep darkness of the corridor behind it. It was deep and almost looked like it had a vicious consistence that was about to form into arms and fingers gesturing towards me and inviting me to come outside. Outside, where I could not hide anymore. I couldn’t look away from it.
I could only imagine what could be sitting behind the door, waiting to strangle me, some Gollum-like creature wanting to make me his midnight snack. Or, you know, twist my wrists out of place and drag me to the lake to soak with smelly water, for the old man to be found in the morning and say: “Told ya”.
I had to close the door, or else, I would go entirely bonkers, I knew that.
After a few seconds of uninterrupted staring at it, I finally took a deep breath, then, in one movement, I let the blanket fall off of me and placed my feet on the ground, took two big steps towards the door and-
Saw a strip of light shining up the stairs at the end of the corridor. It had to be light from the living room. Someone had left it on. Or were my parents still down there?
Technically, I could still sprint back to the safety of my bed anytime I needed to, now that I knew that Gollum was taking a break tonight. But if someone else was actually awake in this house, I would immediately feel better after talking to them.
I quietly made my way down the stairs and glanced into the living room.
My mom was sitting on the couch with her reading light on and nose in between the pages of a detective novel. All of my tension immediately fell from my body and I sneaked over to her. When she raised her eyes from the book, she looked surprised but not angry. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”. “Um… I’m kind of… sleepwalking again?”. “Oh, honey”. She closed her book and gestured from me to the couch and back, telling me to sit down. When I did, she put her arms around me and I leaned against her.
Yup, I was the weird thirteen-year-old boy cuddling with his mom when he was having nightmares. “Did you have nightmares, too?”, she asked, patting my head. “Did you?”. “That’s why the light is on. I didn’t want to wake your Dad but I had to distract myself”. “Okay. Um. I kind of did”. “Tell me about it”.
What a hard thing to do. I honestly could not really remember the dream; just the cold, unsafe feeling it had left me with. I decided that I would leave it to be forgotten and just tell her about what was actually bothering me more-what the man in the shop had told me about.
She listened quietly and patiently, with a serious look on her face. When I had finished, she finally shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Gus. He was just trying to scare you, okay, I know the facts”. “What do you mean?”. My mom just pulled out her smartphone and showed me screenshots she had made of an online magazine article that just happened to be about the dead boy. So it did happen! I got a little bit unsettled by it and as I started reading, I expected a description similar to the man’s, but what I got was that the mother’s ex-husband had been found guilty of the murder and now sitting in prison, safely stored. “I shouldn’t have let us go to the shop knowing that story, I’m sorry. But see, they got him. They got the bad guy. You’re safe now, okay?”. Her words calmed me down because I was at that age where my mom’s words still counted as unquestionable and my heart warmed up at the suggestion of safety. A few minutes later, she was able to send me back to bed without protest and a light heart, after I promised her to not tell my sister one word of the story. It wasn’t until I fell asleep that a sudden image, a memory crossed my mind, and I realized that it was part of what I had been dreaming of before I had found myself sleepwalking.
It was a picture of the lake, floating before a background of endless darkness, black and calm, lying in a small distance before me, looking huger than ever. It seemed… inviting. Welcoming. Asking me to come closer. And when I closed my eyes, I almost felt like I heard someone speak right next to my ear, luring me: Come to me.
Steam was rising from the lake’s nearly unmoved surface when I stepped onto the small landing stage. A cuckoo called from the other side of the water and the sound echoed over the morning scenery. Everything was calm and I was able to take beautiful pictures of the orange morning light on top of the tiny waves that a group of ducks caused, swimming a little off shore. And I know I told you already.
But the lake was huge.
It had always been like an ocean to me, since I was small, even now it was not entirely just any lake. The shallow waters only started about four meters from the shore, after that, there was a drop right into green depths full of algae and long water plants reaching for the surface, for your feet. It had to be about twenty meters deep, at least, but you couldn’t see the ground from the surface, even on very sunny days. So maybe it was more.
I had never been out swimming all the way out there, only with a boat, and it had been really beautiful, but once, the wind had carried me a little off course and suddenly, there had only been black water around me. The underwater plants soaked off all sunlight, the sky was blue, the waves black, and the wind pulling and pulling my boat out of my Dad’s sight.
But, half a panic attack and a lot of tears later, I had made it back safely, obviously, and aside from that, nothing dangerous had ever happened to me here.
Places were only as dangerous as you behaved, my Dad had repeatedly told me. I’d always be safe out in nature if I only behaved mindfully.
But even though I would, of course, never drown in it, and it looked beautiful, I was getting a little nauseous at the thought of bathing in the same water a young boy had probably died in.
A few hours later, in the afternoon, my Dad suggested we go searching for a beaver dam that he had discovered the year earlier, a little upstream of a small stream connected to the lake and I agreed. We left my Mom and sister at the house, jumped on our bikes and made our way into the forest. The narrow path following the stream was barely maintained. An old fisherman, quite traditional and really stuck in his ways and, well, this place, had used to take care of it, but he had died in the last winter. He had not been a family friend, or anything, so no one was actually missing him.
My mom had told me that her own parents had already known him as the lonely, not exactly child friendly weirdo. Rumors had been told and scary stories made up about him being a pagan wizard of sorts, who believed in nature ghosts like sirens and old Slavic deities, that stuff people had worshipped before Christianity had become the most popular religion in Europe and that he would place offerings and hold rituals at his self-built shrine to be granted a long and healthy life.
Sometimes, when my mom had been young and playing around with her friends in the area, they had stolen the small packages of food or whatever he had placed around his house and garden for the spirits to take, and that he had chased them off with loud screams and curses every time they were caught, even with a broom in hand if he had the chance.
Every time I’d heard a story like that from my Mom, I was just glad that my generation had YouTube instead of… home invasion.
So after a while, we passed his house that was now empty. With no offerings or human sacrifices spread across the front lawn, it looked like a normal house in the middle of the woods. As normal as such a house could look, at least. It was now almost entirely overgrown with ivy, since nobody was cutting it properly anymore. My Dad didn’t say a word about it, so did I. It was at maybe 4pm that we reached the spot where the dam had supposedly been last year and we left our bikes at a resting spot to sneak up on the beavers to maybe get some good photos. In fact, lying down at the shore and focusing on getting a few shots of them was quite relaxing and I was glad that I’d come here. We were so lucky to see the whole family of five, climbing up and down their house, carrying pieces of wood in their jaws. In fact, we were so lucky, that we almost forgot the time. The sky was in a weird, plastic state in between sundown and late afternoon-ish when my Dad decided it was time to go. It was starting to get cooler around us and the shadows of the trees began growing around the stream. “We gotta go, Gus. Almost dinner time”. “Yes, just… one picture, okay?”. My Dad nodded and already started making his way back. I decided to use the time I’d been given wisely and focused on taking a good picture. Just one more.
As I set up the camera, however, something started shifting in the corner of my eye, the background of my motive. Like a black shadow moving in the water behind the dam, maybe four meters upstream from me.
At first, I thought it was a smaller beaver of sorts, but the more attention I paid to it, the more I couldn’t help but associate it with a crocodile head sticking its eyes out of the water to make out potential prey. It didn’t really look similar to a croc, it just… seemed to clearly have eyes sticking out of the water that were staring right at me, aware of my presence in a way I had rarely seen an animal be. As if it were testing me. The eye color was dark, but seemed to have a gleaming red undertone to it, like the rest of a fire shining through black ashes. That was the only body part of it that I could see, because the rest was hidden underwater. The sight was surreal and I didn’t even once consider that it might just be a weird looking log sticking out of the water. I lay there without any movement, just looking at it. It was so hard to define the exact shape of what I was seeing, but when I began connecting the dots, slowly, I made out that the thing sticking its head and eyes out of the water, mostly black as far as I could make out a skin color, had a limb stretched out, like a thin branch, holding onto a root sticking into the stream and keeping it in place.
The body size of the thing remained ambiguous, but for that matter it hadn’t been unreasonable to compare it to a crocodile.
It might as well have been one, because it was clearly more of a creepy situation than a magical one.
Mesmerized, I found myself in a situation that might have been ripped out of one of my favorite books. I was stuck in between believing that this fantasy creature was actually there and assuming that a few sticks were just placed the right way to make me see things. A feeling began growing in my stomach, that was not curiosity but a need, an idea that began burning inside me, to walk up to it. It was as if something invisible was pulling me towards it, towards the water.
In the same very moment, I heard my Dad call, the beavers shrieked away and the “limb” let go of the root, which was broken off by the stream and floated against the dam.
“Gus, come here, now”. “Yeah yeah”, I said, got up, shook the dirt off my pants and went back to my bike, only shooting one more look at the scenario upstream.
The creature was gone, instead, I just saw a stone in the water. The gleaming eyes were nowhere to be seen.
Even though my Dad and I were moving back home quickly, it was almost sundown already when we could finally sit together for dinner. We checked the photographs together and compared shots from both our cameras. There were some very nice ones and I felt proud of myself.
But, before I chose the nicest to brag to my sister about, I zoomed into the background of each and every one, searching the water for a shadow, a shape. A hand. And arm. A face.
None of that was on any of the photos.
I soon realized that I was searching for something similar to what the man in the camping shop had told me about, something evil, child-eating, with fingers and a stalking manner of swimming up to people when they were all alone. This was enough of an explanation to me: I had seen stones and a stick, added my own seasoning to the scenario and voilà: the exact same crazy thing some douchebag had tried to scare me with.
It was fine. I knew I did that sometimes. It was just about time that I’d stop doing it. When I went to bed that night, I forced myself to turn at the wall and not check the closet or bed or anything else before falling asleep. I was able to shake off the uneasy feeling after a while and so, I closed my eyes.
Only to open them somewhere entirely else. There was comforting darkness around me, not the kind that I had to be scared of, but that kind that hid all the sorrows and bothering thoughts that everyday life brought along with it. I had tunnel vision and before me, there I saw someone-or something, I didn’t care-standing, maybe a hundred meters away. The only thing I could tell was that it wasn’t above average in size, it.. had two legs, two arms, was quite narrowly built. Nothing more.
Come to me.
I knew what I had to do. I took a step forward, then another one. Any kind of space and shape around me was just black and I could not see or look at it. But even as I moved forward, the shape did not seem to come any closer to me, as if it were walking backwards. I began pursuing it faster. A thought, a goal was pulsing inside my mind like something that I wanted, more than anything else. I knew I had to get to it, because it was calling for me. It was going to pull me out of this mess that I was in, it promised me calmness. No more fear of the dark. As I put one foot in front of the other, I suddenly realized that, the closer I started getting to the shape I was following-the stickier the ground became-If there was a ground. Walking became harder, but that wasn’t going to stop me. By the time half my way was crossed, it felt as if I were stomping through heavy mud and only a few meters further in, my feet felt water. I heard splashing sounds every time I moved my legs. When I looked up, I was almost surprised to see that the shape had now begun moving towards me as well with slow steps at first, then quickening its movements. It didn’t make a sound as it made its way through the water on two legs and then stretched out one of its arms, offering me a hand. I was going to take it, entranced by the task I had been given, trusting blindly that nothing bad would happen to me-but then, everything around me went entirely black and for a second, I felt like I was falling down a tunnel.
“Gustav! Gustav, please”. Whispering.
I was breathing heavily and there was cold sweat all over my body.
“Gustav, wake up”. My sister’s voice sounded unnerved.
I opened my eyes and stared through the darkness of the living room at 2:30am right at the pale face of something standing far too close to my face.
“What- Lilli?” I was confused for a second. My little sister had tried to wake me up just now and… well, I was in the living room. Lights out, no one there except for us. Before I could get angry with her, I asked carefully: “Are you okay?” “N-No, I can’t sleep. I wanted to ask if I could stay on your couch, but when I came out you-you walked down the stairs right before me and I couldn’t talk to you! You had your eyes rolled back-”. She sounded like she was about to burst into tears. “Sh-sh! It’s okay, I was just… sleepwalking. I’m awake now, see, I’m fine! Now, uh- what were you scared of in the first place?”. “Had a bad dream and woke up at night. You know how that is”, she said, staring at her hands in which she held her favorite stuffed animal. She was just nine years old; I couldn’t blame her for searching my help because of it. I wasn’t going to tell her that I would always lay awake until morning instead of searching for help myself when I was in such a situation.
“You can tell me your dream and it will be half as scary”, I said. “But let’s go upstairs, okay, we don’t wanna wake Mom and Dad”. “Okay”. We sneaked back upstairs and I placed her pillow and blanket on the small couch in my room. She cuddled herself under it and told me about her nightmare. It was about how she had drowned.
My sister had been telling me her story and other stories of horrible dreams for a while already when we saw that the sky outside the window was taking on a greyish color. The sun would come up soon and I told her to get some rest for at least one more hour before she would get tired throughout the day and she agreed.
I tried as well, but it didn’t really work. As soon as my bright sunshine of a sister had stopped talking and fallen asleep, I couldn’t help but see the shape again, gesturing invitingly.
Come to me.
The next days went by… pretty normally. Shopping, cooking, baking cakes, having guests, sitting by the lakeside while the others were cooling themselves off in the water and my uncle even swimming from one side of the lake to the other, just like that. Not one anxious question about Loch Ness monsters or crocodiles. My glorious summer time. It was that exact time of year at which I’d be remembered of why this was the part of my free time I always barely looked forward to. Because it was so boring.
One day, we visited the cinema because of a movie my sister had wanted to see, we went to buy a new book for me in town and ate ice cream. That was the nicest day. It was great, and warm, and sunny.
Like that, four days passed and the next week would already be the last of our stay and it was very unspectacular by day. My nightmares did not continue, or if they did, then I could not remember, because I only recall myself waking up every single night, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling because I knew it was messed up and paranoid to be checking my room every time I woke up at night, not remembering anything. At some point, I could just convince myself that I was fine, and I did fall asleep most of the times, even if it was every one of those four nights. Every. Single. Night. I never told anyone. But in the end, I started feeling better because I realized that I had overcome my big fear of the darkness at least halfway. And of course, I was kind of proud of that. The frozen feeling of subtle dread sneaking up on me, which I had been carrying around with me since the vivid nightmare of the creature in the water, was starting to fall off of me and I forgot about it. I even forgot about the dead boy and the supposed creature at the beaver dam.
My triumph however was not supposed to last long. It was in the fourth night that I woke up with my Dad’s hand on my shoulder, shaking me carefully. For a horrible second, I thought it was that figures hand, trying to pull me out in the water with it, but when I opened my eyes I was incredibly happy that he had woken me up. I was standing at the verandah door, with both my hands clenching the lock, and realized that I had been trying to open it in my sleep. My entire chest froze. I had never tried that before, not at home nor anywhere else on a vacation.
My Dad just carefully smiled at me and said: “Well, glad that one was locked”.
I had been embarrassed as if I’d wet the bed. That night, I had lain awake until the morning because I was too afraid to have the same dream again. I even locked the door to my room. And it was on the very next day that our parents had left my sister and me alone for the evening.
They had promised to be back by nightfall so I hadn’t thought too much of it at first, but when I went to bed that night, they had not returned. They were still to be seen when something woke me up after only an hour of sleep. The sky outside still had a grey-ish color from the recent sundown.
I didn’t have a SIM-card for Poland and calls could get expensive, so I had been told only to call in absolute emergencies. Even if I’d wanted to call, I wouldn’t have been able to, because I had been watching a downloaded movie on my phone before going to sleep and had not turned it off. The movie had replayed endlessly while I was sleeping, until the battery was completely empty.
As I connected my phone to the charger and turned the lights on, I saw that on the other end of the corridor, my sister’s window was open. I quietly went to her room and closed it, so that she wouldn’t be terrorized by the many mosquitoes flying around the woods at night, and left her room, closed the door behind me carefully. She was sleeping peacefully which gave me a sense of not being alone, even though my parents were still gone. It calmed me down. About a month ago, I would have probably freaked because they had left me alone in the middle of the woods-At the goddamn lake- but now I couldn’t have cared less. I was at ease, everything was cool.
I sneaked down the stairs to not wake Lilli up and quietly turned on the TV to distract myself. Zapping through evening comedy shows and music videos, I wrapped myself into a blanket and tried to just concentrate on the screen because my parents would be back any minute now. I was sure of it.
Finally I decided to leave on an eastern soap my grandma was probably watching the same moment, at her own place somewhere in safe civilization. It was simply for the sake of not having to sit in quiet. As the sky outside began turning entirely black, I went into the kitchen to get something to drink. As I filled up my glass, I looked out the window into the darkness of the tree lines. There was nothing out there, just a tiny rabbit hopping across the lawn. The car was still not appearing.
Maybe they had a complication with the car.
No. They were supposed to call us in emergencies.
Maybe I should have been more worried about the case that they weren’t calling. But at that moment, I wasn’t.
I closed the curtains.
I only turned away to put the glass back on the counter, when behind me, outside the window, the movement sensor of the bright, white lamp went off that my dad had placed over the front door last year. So that we could see when we arrived here late and wouldn’t need flashlights. The yellow curtains flashed with light and I turned around quickly, opening them. Somewhere in the living room, the soap had reached a commercial break and I heard something about how awesome vacuum cleaners by this and that firm were.
I saw nothing. Just the empty front lawn, the end of the dusty road that was still empty, nothing.
Of course I saw nothing, I told myself, because it was the rabbit I’d just seen that had triggered the lamp, not a human.
Not something that had crawled out of the lake to eat me and leave me floating face down by the shore for my family to discover.
Nah. I shook my head.
That monster would be arriving from the entirely different side of the house, from the verandah, because the god darn lake was there, right?
I was fine, even grinning in triumph over my own stupidity.
When I was just about to leave the kitchen I froze on more time on that evening. Not because I’d heard something, but because I heard… nothing. Which was a problem.
The commercials had stopped screaming their jingles at me while the screen still shone brightly through the living room when I came back in. It was the only light source turned on. The TV had somehow put itself on mute without me doing anything.
It was as if the temperature in the room had sunken by about ten degrees in less than a second. What was going on, why weren’t my parents home, why me, why me, why me, why me?
Next thing I heard was a quiet rumbling that might as well be coming from the washing machine. A quiet sound, but definitely there.
“Oh god, come on”.
I looked around the corner. The living room was empty. I found the cause for the surprise soon enough; the remote had fallen from the couch, which had probably pressed the mute button. But why had it fallen down if it had been lying safely right next to me just two minutes ago. Now I was starting to get nervous.
I listened up.
“Lilli?”. My voice sounded a little cracked and I almost swallowed the first syllable. Searching for my sister playing a prank on me, my eyes wandered across the room. I fell into my old chain of behavior without even noticing it at first. First, to the table. I looked under it. No little sister. To the couch again. No one under it. The kitchen, the fireplace. No. Why would she hide in the dirty fireplace, anyway?
Then my eyes fell onto the closet we used for coats.
It was across from the couch, almost out of the TV’s light, and it was the only option I had left as a potential hiding spot. I swallowed. It was just my sister pranking me, maybe it wasn’t even her and maybe the remote had simply fallen from the couch out of pure, well, shit? Still, I felt myself thrown back into a situation all too familiar. Maybe that was a good thing, maybe this was the last step needed to convince me that I was in fact imagining things. I was checking this closet for me, for my mental health and I was going to open those doors right now.
Taking a deep breath, I walked across the living room. On my way I felt myself step into a wet spot on the rug, like someone had spilt water on it there. Another spot followed. Reminded me of footprints someone made after stepping into a puddle.
But that didn’t matter to me in that moment. Maybe it should have.
I grabbed the door handles of the closet and pulled them open.
Of course there were coats. What had I expected? I almost laughed out of pure enlightenment. The sole problem was that there seemed to be mold inside the closet or maybe on the wall behind it, because the closer I’d gotten to it, the stronger a certain smell of moisture had gotten. I hadn’t noticed it when coming down the stairs. Had to tell my parents when they came home.
I wanted to close the doors again and turn the voices on the TV back on to comfort myself again but something seemed to be stuck in the right door and I looked up to see what was suddenly blocking it.
For a second, I could not breathe nor move or do anything at all except staring at the space above the closet, cold all over my body, my eyes burning, filling with tears, maybe.
Out of the darkness, a hunched over figure leaned it’s dark, skinny face into my sight, with thick, wiry hair falling down around it. Its huge and lipless mouth was slightly opened and allowed me to see the short but sharp black teeth it had in its mouth. The reason why I hadn’t been able to close the closet was because it had put one of its paws in between the doors, lingering over me. I couldn’t do anything but stare at it, frozen to the ground while being stared at by the big black eyes it had in the middle of the frog-like face, the black eyes that began reflecting the light of the screen the more it leaned itself towards me, reflecting it in deep red. Just like gleaming coal.
I could not move away. It had frozen me in place.
I only heard my own loud breathing, smelled moisture and lake water. Saw the glittering reflections of the black metallic scales on its skin. It looked at me without emotion; there was only this familiar sting of testing, of curiosity in the glare. I almost felt like it was grinning at me, because of the huge mouth reaching from one ear to the other, and yet the eyes could not reflect this expression. It was so abstract that the image immediately burned itself into my memory forever.
And then, it jumped at me.
I felt the slippery fingers of the creature grip my shoulders, throwing me onto the floor, holding me down with all the might of its unexpectedly powerful small body. I gasped for air desperately, but it had already closed the paws with the green web in between the fingers around my throat. It was at that moment that I began moving, gasping for air, because my mind was screaming that it could not breathe, that I would die here and now if I did not do anything. The weight of the body felt as if it was about to break my chest, but I somehow managed to get my arm out from under it while the big eyes of the monster were still focused on my face, dead, emotionless, without a muscle twitching under them that could show what it was thinking. Black stars started to appear in my vision; I heard my heart beating and struggling to pump oxygen through my body that wasn’t there and tears of pain started filling my eyes, running over my face. The world around me began turning into a tunnel, with the frog-like face and a pair of burning eyes at the end of it.
Then, my free hand managed to grab the chair I had been searching for.
With all my power, I slammed the wood over the creatures back and for just a second, it’s grip loosened. That was enough for me to suck fresh air into my lungs and sit up while pushing the body off myself. It audibly gritted its teeth together and went in to strangle me again, but I grabbed its wrists before it could reach me. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of violence that it slapped into me with, it almost threw me over one more time. A thought flashed before my eyes, that it was stronger than me.
But then, just for a second, it stopped, looked at me with those giant eyes, as if in confusion. Everything stopped moving for a second and I felt the disgusting breath of the creature on my face.
Then it ripped its jaw wide open and started biting at my face. I leaned out of its reach, but then I held my arms up to defend myself. In response, it sunk it black teeth my straight into my stronger arm.
I screamed like I had never thought I would ever scream. I felt the bite tearing through my skin, my flesh, felt the teeth rubbing against my bone and still not letting go. But I couldn’t just let that thing strangle me, I couldn’t die here- The bone crushed.
A pain I had not known before shot through my body and I stopped breathing all on my own. I was paralyzed, for a moment I felt like I was just watching the picture of what was happening from above, like a ghost, but I wasn’t granted the wish to be a spectator in this. I had to help myself if I didn’t want to die.
Because my grip had clearly loosened, it freed itself and tried grabbing my once more. In the same moment I jumped up from the ground, kicked it away from me and started crawling backwards until I somehow managed to get up on my feet.
If only I could get it out the door, I thought. If only that, I could keep it outside and call the police, call my parents, and it would be okay!
Now I actually felt the heat of panic on my face and the tears running over it, I started being aware of the fact that this was just me and that thing, me with a broken arm, that it was my blood staining the rug and filling the air with its horrible metallic smell, mixing it with that of the creature and the algae growing in between its fish scales. Now, it was finally pitch black outside.
There could be more of them.
But there was no time to think about that, because the shape had already decided that it was going to take me out in here and I couldn’t do anything except walking out of its way every time it aimed to jump at me. I clenched my broken arm in my free hand and lured it around the table, towards the couch, then towards the door, the door that was just so close- I stumbled over something I had not seen. A pair of shoes someone had left in the middle of the room, I slipped, I fell onto my belly and the broken arm was buried under the weight of my body. As another wave of heat and pain overcame me, I screamed, and I screamed not because of my arm, but because the thing had grabbed one of my legs. I felt how it was eagerly trying to twist my knee out of its natural position to stop me from kicking at it ever again. “NO”, I winced. “No PLEASE”.
My breath went out, I lay still, except for the fact that my entire body was shaking, as if I was having a seizure. Even my lungs seemed to shake because of the vibrating sounds that my breathing made. I felt the pain overcoming me in waves, blurring my vision in the rhythm of my heartbeat. But I didn’t have to see the creature to know that it was above me right now, breathing down on my neck, smelling like mold on the walls of an old cellar, and slowly, almost gently, locking the grip of its claws around it, pressing the life out of me while I lay there, paralyzed with pain and fear, went limp, closed my eyes while still shaking all over. Thoughts began chasing each other in my head like clouds. There was my instinct telling me to fight back, there was my rationality telling me that it was all a bad dream and that I would wake up in no time, but suddenly, there was one thought that shone midst all of them.
Where was Lilli? There was no way in hell that she would not have noticed me screaming and the thing throwing stuff over. I had to find her, maybe she was waiting upstairs, crying for someone to help her. Maybe she’d even called the cops, maybe…
There was no way I could get her, I was dying, it was going to be over soon-and yet I felt my diaphragm moving, pumping in my belly for air that was not there, but hoping for it. When I tried opening my eyes, I saw everything so slow, black stars were dancing in front of my eyes… And then I saw the remote control lying only centimeters before my face.
I tried to reach for it and it seemed like I was moving in slow motion, with my fingers creeping forward over the rug that was stained with dark red spots.
The creature realized what I was doing when it was already to late.
With the last amount of power that I had, I grabbed the piece of plastic and slammed it into its face’s direction as fast and powerful as I could. I felt something blocking my way and thought I had been successful, but it just tightened its grip around my neck even more as I hit it repeatedly. My only weapon finally slipped from my bloody hand and dropped to the ground. Deep darkness greeted me with open arms.
My head slammed into the root of a tree sticking out of the ground. Something had grabbed me by my legs and was pulling me through indefinable surroundings. I was in incredible pain and felt like I was about to vomit.
Everything that had happened to me in the house in the few minutes before passing out flashed before my eyes. I couldn’t see anything. There were just pain and quiet thumps of the things footsteps, the grip of the things paws around my legs, pulling me through wet grass. My broken arm lay halfway across my chest, my eyes saw the actual stars in the sky. I was in too much pain to move or scream, I just felt crusts of dried blood on my lips and the pulsating pain on the back of my skull where I’d hit the root. My heart was beating against the inside of my chest and I tried forcing myself to calm down to avoid losing even more blood. Surprisingly, that barely worked.
I only heard the thing moving, now on both legs, with its arms occupied. The sounds that it made while moving were not human at all. It did not wear any clothes, its breathing was somewhat of a thin wheezing noise. It was out of place in my picture of the world, in any one’s.
Then- I was suddenly let go. I heard the creature moving somewhere quickly, maybe jumping over something, then, without a warning, it grabbed the foot of my harmed leg and pulled me towards itself once again. A stinging pain shot up from the twisted knee, all the way to my back but I tried hard not to make a sound as to not make it aware of my consciousness quite yet-I had to gather all my strength and prepare to get away from it. But how?
I realized that it was pulling me from one to the other side of an obstacle. Two wooden planks, floating above the ground horizontally.
Was that my fence?
I almost twisted my neck when I tried glancing behind me to maybe make out the house, but it was too dark and too much of a stunt to manage.
But if that had actually been my fence… we’d reach the water in no time.
A numb pain and nausea that had nothing to do with vomiting anymore began sneaking up on me. The water.
I would… I was going to die here. In less than few minutes. I had to be able to do something but my brain was just blocking me from any movement. I was panicking but I could not move an inch-I wasn’t even sure whether I would ever be able to get myself out of the grip. I wasn’t able to hold back a sob that escaped my mouth when I felt the ground starting to fall downwards towards the beach, then heard the creatures steps becoming softer as it reached the sand. If it had heard me, it ignored me.
I slammed down from the grass into the ankle-deep water and for a second it felt like my bad leg was going to be severed by the knee. It dragged me further and further into the water. My head was spinning.
No, I can’t die here.
Suddenly, when I was struggling to keep myself above the water because I couldn’t feel the ground anymore, I was let go. I tried reaching for the ground with my hand but just when I grabbed a hold of the sand, I noticed, that the thing had laid itself onto the water surface and was now crawling towards my head. A cold paw grabbed my hair and twisted my head so that I had to look at it.
My heart stood still.
The scales on the black face with the small holes for a nose and the long ugly tear for a mouth mirrored my expression, pale and dead from blood loss. The eyes swam on that face like two black ponds, studying me.
I thought it was going to bite my face off, hurt me in any way or try to strangle one more time, but what it was doing right now was far worse. It just sat there and stared at me. For long seconds, that seemed like hours. For minutes. Studying me. The fear was pulling me in so strongly that I was now even almost completely numb to the pain. I was begging for it to end, for it to let my hair go and just do what it needed to do to finish me off. It felt like that wouldn’t have to be much of a struggle anymore, anyway.
But then, it pulled back. It quietly crawled backwards from me, then turned away and disappeared into the reeds.
I felt so empty inside that I didn’t even realize what had just happened.
What was going on? Was… that everything? I could have started laughing hysterically but I didn’t dare to. Slowly, my heart rate began rising again, my rationality woke up and began screaming at me internally.
Get up, get out, get away, who cares if you’re hurt, you need to live!
Maybe this was a trap. It was faster than me, it could jump. It would get me before I’d even reach the fence.
But what else could I do?
My eyes wandered over the reeds swaying in the wind, just like they had been wandering over the furniture of my room all those nights before, searching for the monster.
I needed to try. I needed to take a deep breath, grit my teeth together and just run. If not for me, then for Lilli.
Still, there was nothing to be seen in between the plants. But maybe it was under water? I heard a splash a few meters away from me.
Might as well be a fish, might be a fish, might be-
I stretched out my arm and grabbed the sand, put myself up.
Another splash in the water behind me. The wind sang in the swaying reeds.
I began pulling myself towards the shore, one, two meters forwards until my hand touched dry sand.
Something was audibly moving in the reeds now. Not close enough for me to give up, but definitely close enough to make me want to scream. I held back and instead held my breath to not wince in pain when I got up to both my knees, quietly crawled onto land and-
I made eye contact with it.
It was kneeling on the shore, just five meters away, in a position so similar to mine that it could have had a comedic effect. If it weren’t for the circumstance.
In its paw, it clenched a limp figure by the back of its neck. It was hard to get away from the eyes and look at the person, because human, it was. A girl, very small in life already, but now with a broken neck even far smaller. The golden locks of her hair hid her face but I knew that it was her. That it was Lilli.
Because that goddamn thing had gotten into our house through the open window in her room, because it had killed her first while I had been downstairs, watching TV.
In the same moment, I heard a voice. “Gus? Lilli!”. It came from my house. So close and yet so unreachable. It was that voice that finally made me turn my eyes away from the thing-
I heard the creatures paws beating against the ground, I felt an incredible pain in my leg and heard horrible noises of the twisted bone rubbing against another, but I sprinted as fast as I could.
And there was the fence-the fence, if only I could get over that god damn fence then my parents could see me. “MOM, DAD”, I screamed but my sobs stopped my voice from being as loud as it could have been. Still there was a response. “Gus?”. My Dad.
Just one more meter!
And then, I had already stretched my good arm out to grab the fence and throw myself over it, I felt two wet, webbed paws sneak their way around my shoulders, grabbing me, forcing me to fall back onto my back and then pulling me back over the grass, a lot faster and seemingly more desperate than before.
“Mom! Da-“. It picked up a stone from the ground and slammed it against my temple. Warm blood spilled over my cheek and for a few seconds my vision went black.
I heard running in the distance, running from two pairs of feet on the wet grass. My parents, calling my name. But I was already in the water, it was too late, and when the thing leaning over me, paddling me into the middle of the lake saw my open eyes it slammed the stone against my head again and again and again until the darkness that sucked me under had nothing to do with fear or dreaming anymore, because it was permanent and inevitable.
by Veronica C. Baska