The sound of my feet dragging along the sidewalk, while bothersome to others, had become something of a comfort to me. Just as the steady “tch…tch…tch” was soothing, so too were the newly dead corpses of once vibrantly green leaves.
The sidewalk under the great oaks was littered with them, but the street to my left was practically clear of them, thanks to the work of the street sweeper. In the darkness of night, with the light from the street lamps reflecting off of the rain soaked road, I was reminded of a painting by Leonid Afremov I had once seen. That particular painting portrayed a colorful autumn night and a man and woman walking together with their dog. The similarity was not complete, though. After all, there was no beautiful girl walking with me tonight, and Missy, my pit bull, was at home.
As the wind picked up and the chill in the air deepened, I lifted the hood on my black, zipped up rain jacket. The memory of that painting, and watching her eyes light up at seeing it, was one that I doubted I would ever forget. Of course, she didn’t know that I even had this memory of her. It felt to me as though I had taken something that didn’t really belong to me, but the memory was important regardless of that; or maybe because of it. I hadn’t gone up to her that night, as I wanted to do. I was too afraid. Seeing her in my mind’s eye was but a short respite in the torrent of thoughts and emotions that came down on me more relentlessly even than the heaviest autumn rainfall in North Texas
My uncle Rob, who had been overseas for the last seven months somewhere in the Middle East, had been declared MIA. When Mom had called earlier today to deliver the terrible news I could hear the sorrow in her voice. She was barely able to get the message across through choked back sobs and quick, short breaths. At the time I had been standing at the edge of the lake behind the new high school. It didn’t seem to me that it was as big as a lake should be, really, but that didn’t make it any less damaging to my cell phone. The shock of the news had caused me to drop it right into the water.
I knew that I should go straight home but I just couldn’t imagine seeing Mom in such a sad state. I was already in a dark enough place as it was without that. And besides that I knew she would just break down as soon as I walked in the door. So, instead of facing her, I had been walking, for what seemed like a very long time, around Angel Grove. It was early autumn, about two-and-a-half months after the start of freshman year. The days were warm enough, and the nights nice and cool. This night, with the constant drizzle soaking me to the bone, it was especially cold. The biting wind made it worse by numbing my face and causing my nose to run. Still, though, it was preferable to seeing Mom sad.
Not only would she be sad but she would likely be furious. I hadn’t bothered to go into the water after my cell phone. I hadn’t asked someone else to use theirs, either. I had simply begun walking. It was all I could do not to run and keep running. I wanted to leave this town full of bad memories and at fifteen years old I considered just taking off for good on my own, but I couldn’t do that to her.
She needed me and truth be told, I needed her. We were all each other had in the world, save for Uncle Rob. And now he was gone. Just like my father – gone. It made me angry. I was pissed that he had decided to reenlist when he had a family, albeit not really a normal one, that loved him and needed him back in Texas. I knew that Rob was nothing like my biological father, he was a much better man, but that didn’t make his absence any easier. If anything it made it much worse. He was also the only thing like a father that I had ever known.
Rob had told me that he and my father had been close when they were kids. Rob was the younger of the two brothers by 18 months and the brothers hadn’t actually grown apart until I was born. After my birth it was said that my father had changed. They said that it was because my parents were so young when they had me. They said that 20 years old was too young. In reality I knew it was because he was nothing more than a selfish asshole. Uncle Rob, in many ways, felt the rejection by his older brother just as much as I did, maybe more.
The snap of a twig behind me gave me a start as I realized that my mouth was hanging slightly open. I snapped it shut defiantly.
“Hey, Mouth Breather.” The voice, colder even than the chill night in which we stood, was all too familiar. I despised the boy to whom that voice belonged nearly as much as I hated the name “Mouth Breather.” That nickname had been earned a few years ago after the owner of that voice had noticed my bad habit of leaving my mouth open while in thought. And I happened to be lost in thought quite often. The term was basically synonymous with “idiot” and more than anything I hated being called an idiot. I was no genius but I was far better off than most kids I knew in that department.
I turned around unhurriedly. It was never good to show your enemies that you were afraid. Rob had taught me that. The boy’s red hair framed his sinister looking face in a way that made my skin tingle. The expression he wore could freeze boiling water. This kid had been taunting me for years, but I had learned to put up with it. Now, though, I was in no mood to be bothered by him or anyone else.
“What do you want, Fish?” I knew that Bradan hated that insult of a nickname just as much as I hated the name “Mouth Breather.” The sneer that came to my face on the tail end of my words seemed to make Bradan’s face contort slightly, a dangerous look passing through his eyes. It was gone as quickly as it came.
“I heard what happened, with your uncle. That’s a real shame.”
That lack of concern in Bradan’s voice made it clear that he didn’t care at all about what had happened to my uncle. “You know, he probably got shot by those terrorists over there. That’s what happens to weaklings. Weaklings like you and your uncle make me sick.”
I wasn’t sure how I had maintained my composure through that little speech, but I knew for certain that I was going to make Fish sorry he had ever met me.
I took a step toward Fish, committing to a bloody resolution. Another step and my fists were clenched. The third step stopped me in my tracks.
The shadows behind Fish were shifting right before my eyes. At first I didn’t understand what was happening but it quickly hit me with unrelenting force that it wasn’t shadows moving, it was people. Three boys, two of which I didn’t know, stepped out from a small stand of maple trees. Fish leaned back against the maple nearest him, chuckling softly. “You know what we do to weaklings, Mouth Breather, and the way I see it: You’re the weakest of them all.”
I flashed back to that afternoon in sixth grade when Fish had been bullying that younger girl, Lisa. The vision of leaving Fish knocked out on the ground, less one tooth and some blood was vibrant.
“I don’t think you’re going to make it out of here on two feet, Mouth Breather.” Fish was the kid that everyone else steered clear of. He wasn’t unusually large, a couple inches taller than me, but most were afraid of him anyway. He had an air about him that reeked of emotional instability. His willingness to hurt anyone necessary to get his way attested to that instability.
I wasn’t afraid of him. I knew that Fish was just another kid with a sad story.
Everyone had a sad story.
I wasn’t afraid of Fish.
But this wasn’t just Fish.
This was a four-on-one fight and I had no weapon to defend myself with. The adrenaline had been pumping through my body since the snap of that twig, now it felt as if my body were in overdrive.
I had learned about the fight-or-flight response in school and now I knew exactly what it meant. I wouldn’t be able to hold off all four of these boys and I knew that if I tried I would likely end up in the hospital. Or worse.
There was only one thing left to do: run.
My heart pounded heavily as my lungs screamed for air. The sound of my feet pounding the pavement echoed down the empty streets and through the dark corridors between houses. I had been running for at least three blocks and I didn’t know where I was or how much longer I could stay ahead of Fish and the others. The pain was becoming too much.
If only I had been paying more attention while walking around Angel Grove! I might then have had some inkling as to where I was or which direction to go to more easily get away!
I could hear the grunting and heavy breathing of the boys behind me. Stopping wasn’t an option. I noticed another cross street racing swiftly toward me. I darted to the left down another long, dark road. My lungs and legs were on fire but I couldn’t quit. I had to do something quickly or this night was going to get a whole lot worse for me.
Angel Grove High was just coming in to view as I followed the curve of the road around the end of a row of houses. The monolithic library rose into the night sky on the south side of the school. The high school was the only building on this stretch and I knew that if I didn’t make it there and figure out some way to lose these guys or someone to help me then I would be caught. Their panting was now louder than ever and their curses growing more violent.
It felt as though the school was pulling away from me as I put everything I had into reaching it. As dark as it was it seemed as though my vision was growing even darker. All I could see was the single street lamp on the north side of the school creating a circle of light underneath it and dimly lighting the school’s entrance. There were no lights on inside. I kept running. Ten more feet and I breached the sacred light of the street lamp. I felt fingertips brush my back. A loud, frustrated growl from behind.
The light bathed ground stretched on forever before me. I knew that the school would be locked up and that there would be no quick way in, but I had been hoping that a teacher or someone else would still be inside, and then maybe I could have yelled or screamed; I could have dived headlong through their classroom window. That would have surely stopped the boys behind me.
But it was just my luck that there would be no one still at school. I didn’t even know how late it was and as this realization spread over me I began to understand just how foolhardy this half-plan had been. There was nothing left I could do. I began to think that the pain these fools would dish out couldn’t be much worse than what I was already feeling. It might be best if I just stopped running and got it over with.
Passing through the light from the street lamp, plunged back into darkness, I looked around in one last ditch effort to find redemption from the executioners on my heels.
And then I saw it.
The lake; the lake where I had been when my mother told me about Uncle Rob; the lake where I had dropped my cell phone; the lake that everyone in the city of Angel Grove called “Demon Lake.”
No one went in that lake.
The lake must have been more than three hundred yards to the south, but it was my only chance. Rumor had it that Fish couldn’t swim, as ironic as that was. I knew that the boys chasing me wouldn’t jump in there. I hoped they wouldn’t.
I raced across the parking lot on the west side of the school. It felt like with each step my feet were beginning to sink into the parking lot itself. My legs were heavy, my lungs in more pain than I had ever felt, my mind on the verge of giving up. But I couldn’t.
I reached the edge of the parking lot and met a short wall, about 4 feet tall. I put my left hand out to place on top of the wall to hold my weight for a vault. Hand in place I pushed off of the ground with all my might.
All of my might wasn’t enough.
My left knee clipped the top of the wall, sending me careening toward the expanse of dirt on the other side. Time had slowed and at that moment, hanging in midair with my legs higher than my head, facing the way I had come, I saw that the boys chasing me had fallen behind. They had stopped at the far edge of the parking lot. One was on his hands and knees, vomiting on the ground. Two were bent over at the waist, sucking air. Fish was standing tall, hands on his waist, breathing heavily, and glaring at me.
I saw his expression change as he realized that I was no longer on my feet. His eyes lit up and he screamed at the others to follow him as his feet began pulling him toward me at a quick pace.
I felt my chances of escape growing slim as the boys disappeared behind the height of the wall. My right hand touched the ground first and I could feel the skin being shredded from my palm as my weight settled more firmly onto my hand.
My wrist bent then with a sickening crunch, allowing the outside of my arm to take a beating, followed by my elbow. It felt as if everything was taking a lifetime to happen, as if my life wasn’t about to end.
I felt the back of my arm, then my right shoulder, then my upper back and the back of my head grind into the ground.
I kept moving. My body was now facing Demon Lake but my legs had still not hit the ground. That didn’t last much longer, though.
The world came crashing in around me and the final act of the fall happened quickly. My weight had been settling further, grinding my left shoulder into the dirt. My left arm was being dragged behind my body.
Then my legs landed with a thud, causing the right side of my body to jerk forward. I slid on my face and the front side of my body for what was probably only a few feet. The pain from it made the distance feel much longer.
I tried to climb to my feet but I couldn’t make my arms work. I turned my head to see that the first boy who had jumped the wall had also fallen, though not as hard as I had. Fish was up and over the wall with fluidity. He landed on the boy on the ground, who produced a clipped but loud screech of pain. The unsure footing brought Fish to the ground. The two boys behind fish had seen the mess and had stopped short of jumping the wall, not wanting to meet the same fate that the three before them had met.
Fish, on his back on top of the other boy who had fallen, was only about ten feet away. I had to move. My right arm was useless. My left arm, as much as it hurt, still seemed to be in working order. I pushed myself up on my left hand and knees. Climbing to my feet, I brushed the dirt and gravel from where it was stuck on the left side of my face. My hand came away wet and I felt a painful stinging well up in a line across my left cheek. Whatever it was I had no time to bother with it just then. Fish was climbing to his feet as well.
Grabbing my right arm with my left in a cradle hold I took off toward Demon Lake. I was sure that Fish wouldn’t follow me in there, and since he was the leader of the gang of misfits chasing me I could be reasonably sure the others wouldn’t go in either. Or they would, and I would likely drown.
I had no other option.
I turned my head to catch a quick glance behind me. Fish was catching up and two of the boys were not far behind. The other boy, the one that Fish had landed on when he jumped over the wall, was just getting up.
I felt Fish’s fingers grasp for the back of my shirt, nearly getting hold of it. I closed my eyes and ran with everything I had left in me. I lengthened my stride and pushed away from the ground with more force. All I could feel was the fire of fatigue and adrenaline coursing through my body.
My fear, the fear that had been built on a desire not to suffer at the hands of the morons chasing me, had been compounded with each step as I made good my escape. But make good my escape I did not. As I was spurred on by fear, Fish was propelled by something too. I didn’t know why he was putting so much effort into catching me, and that made me even more afraid.
My eyes shot open as icy water enveloped my body. I had to fight not to breathe in as my body sank into the hypothermia inducing waters. I hadn’t been ready for the water and in fact I didn’t really even believe that I would make it to the lake.
The water by the bank was probably only eight feet deep or so, and I quickly found my footing and pushed off of the lake bottom. My head breached the surface and I gasped for air like my life depended on it – because it did. Rowing with my left arm and kicking with my legs, all I wanted was to make it to the dock. It jutted out into the lake about 100 yards away and offered me respite from this ill-devised plan of escape.
Just then I heard wild splashing behind me. I turned in the water as best I could, feeling the pain of the fall that I had taken, the pain of the run, the pain of the cold water and air, the pain of my useless right arm.
There, about fifteen feet behind me, was Fish. I thought that he wouldn’t follow me in! I thought that he couldn’t swim! Fear gripped me tighter. I could barely hold my head above water, how would I fight him off?
I was going to drown.
Frozen in more ways than one, I stared at the spot where Fish’s head had just dipped below the water. The seconds dragged sluggishly on while I kicked my legs and waved my left arm under the frigid waters of Demon Lake. Fish wasn’t coming back up.
The three boys that had been with Fish had caught up. They were standing above the water’s surface at the edge of land, where it jutted out over the water. They each appeared to by trying to catch their breath, not yet grasping the severity of the situation.
Panicking, I began moving through the water as swiftly as possible, making my way toward where I had last seen Fish. Nearly to the spot, I yelled out. “Fish!!” I may have hated him, and he me, but that didn’t mean I wanted him dead. I couldn’t just do nothing as he drowned, not when I had the opportunity to help.
At the sound of my yelling the boys on the bank realized that their leader wasn’t anywhere to be seen. “Where is Bradan?” It was the one that had attempted jumping over the wall before Fish; the one that had fallen and had broken Fish’s fall. “He’s underwater!”
I had been in the water for less than a minute at this point, but it felt as though my very bones were freezing. My limbs were growing stiffer by the second from the cold or the pain or the exhaustion. I wasn’t sure which but I knew that I had to get out of the water as quickly as possible.
The three boys continued standing on the bank, dumbfounded. “Help me!” At my urging the one who had spoken jumped into the lake. He didn’t look like he was in very good shape after the fall he took a few minutes before, but he definitely looked better than me. He quickly made his way to where I was, where I had seen Fish submerge moments earlier. “Derek, what are you doing!?” One of the boys still on the bank was yelling. I remembered this kid; Derek. I had spoken with him before.
Why is he chasing me with these idiots?
I dipped my head under, letting the air out of my lungs so that I would sink to the bottom quicker. Once my feet touched the bottom of the lake I opened my eyes. It was pitch black under the water. Unable to see anything I began feeling about with my good arm. I moved farther in the direction in which I thought that Fish might be, feeling randomly in front of me. It didn’t take long for my lungs to start burning again.
When I surfaced I noticed that Derek wasn’t on the surface. He must have still been underneath the water. Taking a few big gulps of the cold night air I dipped under again. I slowly released the air, as much as I dared, as I sank. I didn’t want to end up drowning down here myself. What a story that would be! It would be terrible for Mom, especially right now with Uncle Rob being MIA in wherever. No, I had to be careful.
Feeling around aimlessly didn’t seem to be helping much, so I squatted under the water and pushed off of the lake bottom with my feet, propelling myself away from the bank. While this lake wasn’t very big, it could still pull a body out away from land. After making it a good ten feet I slowed my momentum, swimming in small circles near the bottom. My hope was that I could cover a good amount of space before my air ran out. No luck.
Feeling like my head was about to explode I set my feet down and prepared to push back to the surface. My arm brushed something. I reached out for it.
No – a shirt!
I grasped madly for the clothing. The pain in my head and lungs was building, compounding the already terrible ache in my right arm and left cheek. I had never experienced this level of pain or discomfort. Nothing, not running miles around the school track, not sprinting down the football field repeatedly, nothing felt like this. I didn’t pace myself. I didn’t stop. Everything in me had gone into escaping, and now here I was trying to save the life of my tormentor. My left hand gripping Bradan’s shirt, I pushed away from the lake bottom one final time.
I was finally able to breathe. Joy filled me, riding on the coattails of the air I inhaled. Bradan didn’t feel either of those things. The emotion in me evaporated with the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to keep my head above water without the use of my arms. I kicked my legs with all of my might in an attempt to reach the bank.
If I let go of Fish then I would have been able to swim to land and save myself. I didn’t, of course. My muscles were completely used up. I couldn’t even have waved my hand, had I wanted to greet the lake dwelling demons.
My hand held the cloth of Bradan’s shirt tighter than ever. I was unable to let him go and I realized that this would be my last night. Mom would be so sad; so angry. Maybe they would find Uncle Rob and Mom wouldn’t be alone. She could still find a man who would treat her right. That way even if Uncle Rob wasn’t found Mom would still have someone to dry her tears.
The last bit of air escaped my lungs, forming bubbles that rose to the surface without worry for me. Broken fractals of moonlight found their way through the shifting, cursed waters of Demon Lake to dance across my vision. Maybe the lake really was haunted. If I hadn’t jumped in, would I have escaped those boys chasing me? Would things be different now? Would I still have a chance at life?
I always loved books and stories, particularly fiction. Too many stories described the act of death as the character being enveloped by darkness. I was loath to see that same darkness blot out my vision and take my consciousness from me.
You need to be logged in to comment