This is an excerpt of a story I think I’ll probably call “Rain Like Bones.”
When I was five, my family went tubing with my dad’s friend Ray. On my turn, I fell out of the tube and started sinking.
We were in the middle of the lake. The boat hadn’t turned around to come back for me. I didn’t have a life jacket on. I could swim in a pool, but I could see in a pool. The further I sunk, the darker green the water got, the less I could see.
Instinct tells children that monsters live in the darkness. As the blackness of deep water closed in around me I heard someone whisper it: Monsters live in the darkness.
I panicked. My mouth opened and I screamed most of the air out of my lungs. No one was down there to hear me. No one alive. I had to get to the surface.
When I started kicking, my foot hit the trunk of an old dead tree. I felt the thunk vibrate through the water and down the tree to the roots buried in the mud at the bottom of the lake. I felt myself start to cry. That sound—that bass vibration—was how it called the shadow.
I knew if I looked around, I would see the shadow coming. I’d see it go from a shadow to a form to the monster that—
Monsters live in the darkness.
I squeezed my eyes shut and started flailing my arms. When I thought I was far enough away from that skeleton tree, I kicked my legs. My lungs started burning long after they should have. My chest was heaving, trying to make me take a breath. My mind tried to sabotage me: What if I was swimming down instead of up? Or sideways, just below the surface? How could I tell with my eyes closed?
The water started swirling around me, and I knew the shadow was at my side. The shadow had chased me right into the trap. I’d swam down instead of up, down into the dead village under the dead trees. They were waiting, waterlogged hands, no more solid than pudding in their gooey froglike skin, ready to grab me. I’d be just one more dead girl in their dead village.
When the first hand closed around my ankle, I took a deep breath, ready to scream, but ended up choking on lake water. As I coughed and heaved, an arm encircled my waist. It wasn’t cold, rotting pudding under gooey frog skin. It was solid, and warm, and hairy.
“Here, take her.”
Rough hands grabbed me by the elbows.
I opened my eyes. My dad’s friend Ray was pulling me into the boat, Mom hovering over his shoulder. As soon as he laid me on the deck, she pushed to my side.
“Honey, are you okay?” she said. I couldn’t answer because I was still choking. She started pounding me on the back. “Thank goodness your daddy hopped off after you fell.”
“Dad?” I choked out. He was holding onto the ladder at the back of the boat. “Dad!” I screamed it in my broken voice. “Get out of the—”
“Lie back, honey, Daddy’s coming,” Mom said.
“—get out of the water! There’s a monster!”
“Don’t worry, kid,” Dad said, swinging a legful of water onto the deck as he climbed up. “It was just an old tree.”
He came and sat on the deck by me and pulled me into his lap. His body was hot and the carpet of his chest hair rubbed against my face. I never felt so safe in my life.
“Jeez, Deeanne, give her a little space,” he told Mom. She backed up. “See, kid, before they were lakes, lakes were valleys with rivers or creeks running through them. During the Depression, a lot of people got put to work building dams and flooding some of those valleys so we could have lakes. They didn’t cut down the trees or tear down the houses or nothing. Most of that stuff they just left.”
But I knew all that before he told me. They’d been after me. They wanted me to join them.
“So, it wasn’t a monster at all, kiddo. It was just a tree.” He sat me down like that explained that and there was nothing to worry about. “There ain’t any monsters.”
But I know what I’d seen below the surface of the water as he climbed into the boat. The shadow had come just close enough to my daddy to get a taste of his scent.
Dad died four years later. He, Ray, and a couple of their buddies were night fishing when he fell out of the johnboat. The police report said he’d had too much to drink. He was too drunk to swim and his friends were too drunk to save him. It was a regular Let This Be a Lesson to You ending the way the papers printed it. The searchers were unable to recover his body.
For years I woke up screaming from the same nightmare: Daddy tripping into the blackness of the water from the johnboat. Daddy laughing bubbles and trying to swim to the surface. His foot hitting an old dead tree. The thunk vibrating through the water. The shadow. The dead village. Arms made of rotting pudding in frog skin closing around his shoulders.
They couldn’t find my dad because he had become part of the dead village. I didn’t tell Mom.