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Murky Waters

Murky Waters (Horror) written by Grant Kauffman

The lonely, dusty stretch of Texas Highway 35 that leads from Alvin to Liverpool is a familiar ten-mile trek for the area’s teenagers. For years, it has been the route that takes eager high-school kids to the region’s most sought-after make-out spot, a heavily wooded parcel of land near Liverpool called Freedom Park. Freedom Park holds none of the typical park equipment—no swings, no slides and no picnic areas. In fact, Freedom Park doesn’t resemble a park at all. It is more like a pristine piece of real estate that lies within the boundary of a marshy area known as Chocolate Bayou. The most important thing about Freedom Park is that if a young man is lucky enough to convince someone to accompany him there, odds are that he will walk away even luckier.

Chocolate Bayou is a heavily treed swampy region which includes a small ship channel that feeds several local oil refineries. The waterway begins just north of Liverpool and runs approximately twenty miles, spilling into Galveston Bay by way of two lesser known bodies of water called Lost Bay and Chocolate Bay. The waters of Chocolate Bayou are dark, murky, and brackish, a mixture of both fresh and salt water. The meandering river is home to many of the same animals found in the swamps of Louisiana: gators, snakes, a variety of rodents and fish, and of course plenty of birds. It is also home to more obscure animals such as the nutria, a cat-sized rodent that is willing and able to remove a person’s finger with its impressive orange-yellow incisors, and a massive and elusive prehistoric-looking fish with a nasty reputation, the alligator gar. Chocolate Bayou is also the home of a dark and dangerous secret, one that resides only a few miles from the main waterway.

Chocolate Bayou’s wildlife and its frightening secret have nothing to do with the teenagers whose raging hormones pull them to Freedom Park like metal to a magnet for the adventurous exploration of the opposite sex. In fact, for ninety-nine point nine percent of kids, what’s hidden in those woods is no more on their minds than what steps are needed in order to obtain some sort of peaceful existence in the Middle East. You see, in this area, Freedom Park is the main attraction, the wonderland of teenage angst. It is a rite of passage for these teenagers, something kids in Alvin do and have done for generations. It’s something that all locals grow up knowing about their town, a tradition almost as well-known as its most famous former resident, Nolan Ryan.

So when Kyle Francis opened it up on Highway 35 and took his four-on-the-floor pine-green Chevy pickup truck to the edge of one hundred miles per hour, it was nothing that he hadn’t done before, nor was it a shock for the five passengers in his car. Tony Canty and Randy Greene were Kyle’s best friends. The three were inseparable. They had all grown up in Alvin and had stayed friends all through middle and high school. The seniors were anxious to maximize their final year of serving time in the Alvin Public Schools and most likely their final year of being together. Randy was going to leave Alvin after graduation, having already been accepted into Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Tony, a standout pitcher on the Alvin High baseball team, was hoping for an offer from either the University of Texas or Baylor University. He already had two standing offers from smaller schools—Sam Houston State in Huntsville and Trinity University near Austin—so he was certain to leave the area as well.

Kyle, on the other hand, was a third-generation resident of Alvin and most likely never going to leave. His family had worked in the petroleum industry for generations, and they’d lived in this area for as long as anyone could remember. His father, Ron, was a hard-edged man who’d spent his life working in various oil refineries. Kyle’s mother had left home when he was a little boy, and Ron had raised him alone ever since. Well, alone is probably not the right word to describe his father. There was never a shortage of interesting female residents who enjoyed his company and the endless supply of barley water he kept on hand. Needless to say, the Francis men and their two-bedroom home were visited often. In fact, their home had been the after-school destination of Kyle and his friends for several years. Not a lot of constructive activities had taken place at their house, which is exactly why it was so popular.

The boys had decided early in their senior year that they were going to take advantage of their class standing by attracting as many female underclassmen as possible. Not long after the school year’s opening bell had sounded, the boys had convinced three naïve yet willing participants to accompany them on a mid-September Saturday evening drive in what they labeled Freedom Fest: The Final Year”. It had been a very successful evening. In fact, it was so successful that two weeks later, they went on another outing with similar results. Their third pleasure trip would come mid-October, around the time when tales of ghosts and goblins filled the air, and it would be grand: a campout, three boys and three girls. Nothing says “score” like three scared sophomore girls diving into the arms of three brave senior boys for safety, especially when each couple would have their own tent. At least that’s what the boys had planned. They had it all figured out, down to the very last detail, even going online to purchase something called Rattlebone Tales, a book of scary short stories written by someone they’d never heard of. It was going to be an epic weekend.

The girls—Hannah Kingsley, Celia Carter and Sarah Starling, all sophomores—were more than willing to accept the challenge issued by their older schoolmates. There was no way they’d back down from the offer of hearing some spooky tales while camping out in Freedom Park. Their only challenge was in making up their own story, one convincing enough to tell their parents to avoid them knowing they’d gone to spend the night in Freedom Park with senior boys. The other component for the girls was that they had been put in charge (by Kyle, of course) of providing most of the supplies. They brought pillows, sleeping bags, food and drinks, at least of the non-alcoholic variety. The boys each brought their own tent, the adult-oriented beverages and a cooler with ice. Tony was an avid fisherman, so he brought his gear in hopes of being able to try to catch an alligator gar. He also brought his prized possession: a new seven-foot, two-person inflatable dinghy boat, perfect for fishing the many small ponds around Alvin. Yes, all five passengers had come equipped for an exciting, memorable evening of teenage camping shenanigans. The driver, on the other hand, had something else in mind, a better plan, one that he figured no one would have agreed to had he brought it up, and on this point, he was right. So when the car slowed down and turned off onto Highway 192 heading south, confusion filled the Chevy’s twin cab.

“Dude, where are you going? The park is that way,” Randy voiced from the seat directly behind Kyle.

“I know where Freedom Park is. We’re not going there.”

“Uh oh. Someone’s got a trick up his sleeve,” Celia said. Sitting next to Kyle, she gently poked her fingertip into his thigh, creating a lustful excitement between the two.

“Y’all will see. It’s a surprise.”

From Highway 192, the green pickup turned on to 171 and roared east. Three miles down, they turned on an aptly named road, Chocolate Bayou Road, and headed south. From there Kyle turned onto FM 2917 and followed it approximately two miles. The passenger cab grew increasingly quiet with every turn; each new road drew more concern, more shifting glances. Soon, everyone could see where Kyle was headed—a large and ominous wooded area up in the distance. The trees were tall, mostly oak, maple and pine, and long trails of moss hung gallantly from the thick old branches. As they turned off onto a dirt road, one that headed directly into the mouth of the forest, all five of them were more frightened then they would ever admit. Sarah, who was seated in the back row directly behind Tony, began to chew her thumbnail, a trait she’d inherited from her mother and one she’d kidded her mom about for years. She spit a small nail fragment onto the truck’s floor, not caring if anyone saw. Once engulfed in the forest’s shadows, the dirt road wound its way through the stationary army of trees. Small bodies of water could be seen on either side of the road, as they were now traveling through the marshy wetlands that spread all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a far cry from Freedom Park; it was about as creepy a place as any of them had ever seen. Kyle took one more turn and followed another dirt road as far as he could until he came to a dead end so heavily wooded that the evening sun was unable to reach the ground. He put his car in park and turned off the ignition.

“Okay, before you freak out, let me tell you why we’re here. We thought,” he continued, pointing at Tony and Randy, who didn’t have the slightest idea as to where they were. “We thought it would be fun to tell some scary stories tonight. So we bought this book, this Rattlebone Tales book and had planned to read it to you. However, I have a story that is probably far scarier than anything we’ll read in here,” he said, holding up the book. “I mean, why read from a book of fiction when I can tell you a story about something real that happened right here?”

The car fell quiet as the girls looked at one another. Sarah brushed aside the long, light brown bangs that had fallen in front of her eyes. She looked outside into the darkening woods, feeling for the first time like something really bad could happen. Celia, the most eager to please her man, Kyle, the ringleader, voiced her approval.

“This is so cool. C’mon guys. Why are you looking so scared? This will be fun.”

“I’m not interested in forcing anyone to do something they don’t want to do. If we’re not all in favor of this, I’ll start this car right now and we can drive back to Freedom Park. No harm done. However, if you agree to it, I know of a place back there in those woods where we can camp. It’s a perfect place to be alone, but also, legend has it that the people who go back there don’t ever return.  Who’s up for a little spooky dare?” The car was still and silent, and it was growing uncomfortably warm with the air conditioner off and the windows rolled up. Tony, whose forehead had begun collecting tiny beads of perspiration in the tan valley above his thick black eyebrows and below his short black hair, began to feel a bit uneasy.

“Bro, I know you’re into the drama and all that but this is a bit silly. Why don’t we just head back to Freedom Park and do what we planned? I mean, you could have at least asked us if we wanted to do this.” Sarah, Tony’s date, nodded in approval from directly behind him, feeling better about her choice to be with him.

“Yeah, but I was afraid you’d all say no, and then I’d never get to come and see it for myself.  Come on!  YOLO, brothers, YOLO!”

“What’s YOLO?” Sarah whispered to Hannah.

“Seriously? You only live once. Duh!” Hannah responded, above a whisper, embarrassing Sarah.

“You don’t need to agree to this, girls,” Tony said.

“Yeah, but what’s the worst that could happen?” Randy asked, his wavy blond locks hiding his sweaty forehead and furrowed brow.

“Dude, that’s the worst question ever,” Tony shot back.

“Here’s my thing,” Kyle politicked. “We’re here now and may never get the chance to do this again. And if we leave, Tony, I’ll be sure to let everyone know that you got so scared you pooped your pants! In fact,” he said, pulling out his smart phone, “maybe I should just post something right now.”

While the others laughed at his bluff, Kyle looked at his phone and noticed there was no signal.

“Anyone got a signal on their phone?”

The others looked at their respective cells, and none of them had service.

“Guys, this is perfect! We’ve got an entire forest to ourselves, no other cars rolling up and no parents bothering us,” Kyle said, holding up his phone.

“He does have a point there,” Celia said, flashing a tan, mischievous smile at Kyle. He looked into her stunning blue eyes, suddenly feeling like a fat man at a buffet.

“I guess I’m cool with it,” Randy said, interrupting Kyle’s grand visions of the beautiful young girl before him.

“Yeah, me too,” Hannah added from the back.

“Awesome!” Kyle blurted out. “Come on, let’s go explore!”

The kids began exiting the car and collecting their supplies from the bed of the truck. Tony was the last to get out. He wandered over to Sarah and put his arm around her and then looked out into the woods.

With Kyle leading the way, four of the teens set out into the woods, carrying their respective camping gear with them. Tony and Sarah stayed behind to inflate the dinghy boat with the small air compressor Kyle always kept in his truck.

“I was gonna make a joke about you helping me inflate my dinghy,” he said.

“Oh, you were gonna, huh? Sounds like you just did,” Sarah replied. The air compressor hummed as the boat continued to inflate. “Well, I’d love to help you inflate your dinghy, but first, let’s get your boat ready,” she bantered. Tony gulped, his heart pumping blood to all sorts of regions.

There was a small trail cut into the woods, something the four followed closely. The farther they walked, the more the sun began to set, the longer the shadows stretched, and the more their paranoia increased. They were in unchartered territory and creepy territory at that. Less than a mile into the woods, they came to a small clearing where the thick weeds seemed to disappear and the grass wore a welcoming look. In the clearing were five tall maple trees, grouped together in the center of the open space, looking as if they’d been left there on purpose. They provided the perfect protection for a campsite, so the kids decided to stake their territory there. It was a nearly flawless camping location, one with a clear view of what would surely be an extraordinary star-filled Texas October sky. A few minutes later, Tony and Sarah caught up with the others, and within the hour, their camp had been set up. Three tents, two blue and one green, protruded from the clearing like houses on a Monopoly board. Kyle had created a fire, a sickly, weak little flame straining to grow big and healthy. The couples set up some lawn chairs and began to settle in, each flirting with their mate. The mid-October sun was officially on its way to its nightly slumber but gave off enough light to keep everyone comfortable as they waited on the fire. Once Kyle had a full, crackling blaze, he sat back next to Celia, opened a can of beer, the discount kind he’d taken from his father’s stash, and he began to speak.

“I first heard this story as a kid. I remember hearing my grandpa talk about it. My dad would sometimes take me camping and he’d talk about it, too. But it’s not something that many folks know about anymore, just a few old-timers. I’d never really given it much thought until we decided to go camping this weekend. Now, I can’t stop thinking about it.” The others shot each other excited looks, Tony feigning a scared expression. “We all know about the great hurricane of 1900, the one that wiped Galveston off the map.” The kids nodded. “We’ve all seen the photos and heard the awful stories. What we haven’t heard much about is what happened farther north, up in these woods. Very few people know about what the storm brought up here, and, more importantly, what it left behind.”

Kyle continued, the kids descending further into nervousness the more the story unfolded. What he told was an extraordinary tale, a tale of strange creatures that had been spotted in these woods. This was nothing like Bigfoot, though. No, what had happened in this remote area was far more sinister. The great hurricane of 1900 had produced so much rain over such a large area that it had actually created a series of small ponds. It was already a marshy area, but when the storm came in, it cut through the land, knocking down trees, and it created strange clearings in the woods, just like the one where they were camping.

In addition, Kyle explained, there had been a series of waterways that formed, in particular, five small finger-shaped ponds, long and skinny, joined by a small canal that fed into the main river of Chocolate Bayou. The ponds were virtually impossible to detect from the air with the thick forest canopy, but there was no doubting their existence. What people did doubt were the strange stories that began to circulate after the storm, stories started by the locals who called these woods home, well, used to call them home. Things in these woods were different after that fateful September evening back in 1900. Not only did the landscape change, but something else did, too. People began to report strange behaviors with the local animals, gators especially. The animals began to move in large numbers away from these woods, like a migration. Only many of the animals weren’t migratory at all and had no place to go. It was a movement to flee, to go anywhere but there. The people also began to leave. Some packed up their families and were never heard from again. The bottom line is something strange was living in those ponds, something that should not have been there, something awful that was causing both people and animals to fear for their lives.

“Over the years, locals began to retell stories they’d heard, stories about an awful creature living out here. Legend states that when the storm left the area, it left something even worse behind. There were eyewitness accounts of gators being pulled underwater and eaten whole. And that wasn’t all.”

Kyle told of one tale in particular that had been bounced around the region for decades. A local farmer had taken his livestock near the water’s edge for a cool drink on hot summer day back in the early ‘30s. He had gone to sit beneath a tree to rest and cool off in the shade. A loud splashing sound and a horrendous cry woke him from his short nap. He shot to his feet and discovered one of his cows was missing. The others had retreated to the trees. A week later, he tried to bring them back to the pond, but the cows wouldn’t go, not even for water.

“The most disturbing tale of all came from the 1970s, when my daddy was a little boy. A family of four went missing in this area. They had been camping in these woods, maybe right here where we are. They never returned. Local law enforcement only found three things: a shattered wooden canoe, a cooler with two gaping holes in it, and the missing man’s head, a horrified expression frozen on his face as if he’d seen something—something awful.”

The five kids cringed at the canvas Kyle was painting.

“So what was it?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t know. No one does. No one has ever seen what they say lives in the ponds out here. There have been several people who’ve come out here and investigated, scientists and such. But no one has ever found anything unusual. There’s nothing out here—so they say. People figured whatever it was has long since been dead or it was all an urban legend to begin with. So it was put to rest. But then something else happened, something more recent that guarantees no one will be bothering us tonight. It was the summer of 2007, and some granola dude who came out here to camp, well, he went missing just like the others. All his gear, his tent, his clothes, everything was left here. It was found right over there next to those trees,” Kyle said, pointing to a section of woods. “There was nothing left of him. Oh, except for a hiking boot…with a foot still in it.”

“Come on, man,” Tony said. “This sounds a little hokey. If something was out here killing folks, people would know.”

“Would they?” Kyle asked. “I mean, isn’t it possible that something got sucked out of the Gulf of Mexico by the hurricane and dropped here in a pond? Isn’t that possible? Plus, there is a lot of land here to explore, water everywhere. Just because the few people who have looked haven’t found it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  Whatever it is.”

“Wait a sec. You said sucked out of the Gulf. You mean like a sea monster?” Celia joked.

“Ooooooooo, scary,” Randy feigned.

“You guys can laugh all you want. I’m just telling you what I’ve been told.” Silence followed.

“Can you tell us more?” a suddenly inquisitive Sarah asked.

“Sure, if you want, but there isn’t much more to tell.” She nodded. “The legend I always heard said the storm actually lifted some of these creatures from the Gulf, carried them over Galveston Island, then through Galveston Bay and up into Chocolate Bayou, before finally abandoning them in the small ponds out here, the same ponds the storm created. You don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to, but according to my information, those ponds are only a couple hundred yards from where we’re sitting right now. And these creatures have remained there ever since, feeding off the local wildlife, including the humans who can’t resist the urge to cool off. So, I figured it would be fun and creepy if we walked to the ponds to see if we can’t lure a sea monster to the surface…I mean, if there is such a thing.” There was silence and much contemplation.

“Dude, you almost had me,” Tony blurted out, breaking the tension. “I mean, I was freakin’ out a bit at first, but a sea monster?” He started laughing and was soon joined by the others, minus Kyle and Sarah.

“We need to go get the Rattlebone Tales, man. This is lame,” Randy blurted out.

“Why is it lame?” Kyle asked.

“Okay, stop. First of all, you’re saying you believe in sea monsters, so that in itself is lame,” Randy joked. “Second, this thing would have had to survive over one hundred years to still be here. I mean, hello, it’s 2013. The hurricane was September 8, 1900. There’s no creature living in these woods or in the ponds or in the trees or whatever. It’s a legend, a myth, a story old-timers tell to scare kids. Again, it’s silly, and you, my friend, are lame.” Randy rose from his chair to grab a bottle of water from the cooler. “But I still love you, brother. And besides, how could a salt water creature live in fresh water? Duh!”

“Dude, these waters aren’t fresh,” Kyle countered. “They’re a mix of salt and fresh, so something could survive. I mean, they find sharks in the ship channel all the time.”

“How could something survive that long?” Hannah asked.

“I’m not saying it did!  Obviously if these creatures—whatever they are—are still around today, it’s because there are more than one. Who knows how many are out there?”

“So they reproduced?” Sarah asked rhetorically.

“Hey, now there’s a topic I can get into. Let’s talk about how reproduction happens,” Randy joked.

“I’m serious, guys. This area is secluded for a reason. My grandpa never let us near here. Said people would come here looking for the creature, trying to hunt it, but they kept disappearing. That thing or those things could very well still be back there,” Kyle said, pointing in the direction of the ponds.

“No way,” Hannah said.

“Kyle, I really like you, hon, but this seems a little out there,” Celia said.

“Well, if it’s so lame, then why don’t we go investigate?” There was silence as the five contemplated Kyle’s challenge.

“Ok,” Randy said. “I’ll do it. Who’s in?”

“I’ll do it,” Celia said.

“Me too,” Hannah added. The girls looked over at their friend, but Sarah didn’t look convinced.

“You guys go on ahead. I’m gonna stay here for a bit.”

“Come on, girl,” Celia said. “It’ll be fun. We’ll go investigate. It’ll be like CSI or something.”

“Nah, I’m good. You guys go ahead.”

“T, you going?” Randy asked.

“I’m gonna stay here with Sarah for now; she doesn’t need to stay here by herself.”

“Come on, Tony. Didn’t you want to do some fishing anyway? Maybe you can catch a few catfish for a midnight snack. Or an alligator gar, get yourself a cameo on River Monsters.”

“I dunno, man. I’m not feeling much like fishing in those ponds now,” Tony responded.

“Oh, come on, man. Take that little raft of yours and go get some fish. That’s why you brought it.”

“Not right now. I’m gonna stay here with Sarah. You guys go on ahead.”

“You afraid the monster is gonna grab your little dinghy?”

Tony laughed. “I’m cool, man. You guys go. We’ll be there in a little while. And just so you know, my dinghy is magnificent.”

Everyone laughed as the four adventurous teens made their way over to the narrow dirt path which continued back into the rapidly darkening woods. The day’s light was going into hiding, and soon they would be dependent upon artificial illumination only. As it was, the evening light was creating quite the intricate design of devious shadows in the thickest part of the woods. They continued forward nonetheless, but they moved far more cautiously than they had when the evening light was stronger. Within a few minutes, they felt the forest floor beneath them begin to moisten and soften with each step. The darkening path ahead of them finally gave way to an opening, a small body of dark water, no longer than two football fields in length and less than half of that in width.

As they approached it, they noticed a subtle change in the air, a thickness that hung still and heavy with a waft of sea water, not at all what they were expecting. The water was calm, as were the surrounding trees, and combined with the dimming light, it was a beautiful landscape, like something Bob Ross would paint. There were happy little bushes all around the water’s edge, except for on the side where the teens stood. On that side there was a clearing, a beach of sorts, only the ground was clay and dirt. While the water was calm, it was unusual somehow, strange looking, not like anything they’d seen in and around Alvin. It looked black, like a giant liquid tarp that barely moved. A dead pond. They approached the water’s edge with caution, its tiny ripples gently tapping the mud-packed shoreline. No one would say it, but it had an unfriendly aura, almost like a bad personality, as if the pond itself was giving off negative energy the way people with bad intentions do. Suddenly the bushes didn’t look so happy; instead, they appeared to be conspiring with one another, the keepers of an awful secret. Hannah began to think Sarah and Tony had the right idea.

“Dude, this is awesome!” Randy shouted out, a shout which echoed back at them. Noticing the reverberations, Kyle yelled out, too.

“HEY!  Hey…hey…hey…h…” A big smile developed on his face. “I love echoes. I said, I LOVE ECHOES!” he yelled. They answered, “echoes…echoes…echo…e…”

“That water is so calm. It’s perfect for skipping rocks. I bet I can get the most skips,” Kyle challenged.

“Dude, you’re on,” Randy countered.

“I’ll beat both of you,” Celia boasted.

The four scattered about looking for flat rocks that could win them some bragging rights for the night. Once they each had a few good, smooth stones, Kyle set the rules.

“Okay, we each get three throws. The one with the most skips wins. Ladies first.”

Celia went first and only skipped hers four times.

“Ha! That was weak!” Kyle said.

Hannah followed up with a dud. A clunker that fell directly into the water without a single skip.

“Wow, that was a good one, babe,” Randy said. “The good news is that you looked really good not skipping that rock.” She gave him a playful punch on the shoulder. Kyle went next and skipped his six times, followed by Randy’s five skipper.

“That’s all you got?” Celia asked. She stepped up for her second toss which, again, managed only four skips, but her first skip bounced off the water perfectly and sailed a good distance before puttering out in the middle of the pond.

“Not bad. Not bad at all,” Kyle conceded. The boys took their respective turns, as did Hannah and Celia, with Randy’s eight skips eventually winning the title. Whereas he won the number of skips contest, it was Celia who’d actually won the distance title with her second throw, the one that had sailed to the middle of the pond. It was Celia’s throw that had been the most impressive, and it was Celia’s stone that had fallen into an unseen hole carved into the bottom of the pond. The stone managed to sink past a web of old trees that formed the fabric of the pond floor, covering much of the deep hole. The stone continued its downward spiral all the way to the bottom. As the four teens sauntered off to explore the opposite side of the pond, they had no idea that Celia’s stone had just awakened an awful secret.

Kyle and Celia walked just a tad faster than Randy and Hannah, allowing each couple to hold their own conversations along with their hands. They had made their way around the back side of the lake when Hannah noticed something.

“Hey, look! It looks like a small island out there.”

“Cool,” Randy replied. “Maybe we can go out there later and have our own private party.” She smiled.

It was indeed a small island, no bigger than a public swimming pool, but circular and covered with dense pine trees, its shores lined with rocks. It blended into the landscape so effectively that they hadn’t even noticed it was an island. It sat substantially closer to one side of the pond, only thirty yards or so from one shore and probably sixty yards from the other. Hannah looked closely and thought she saw something moving on it, but it was hard to see, and the night sky was now a dark purple, rapidly approaching black, so her eyes could have easily been playing tricks. As she squinted to study her new find, another discovery was being made directly behind her.

“Whoa, look at this thing!”

Hannah turned and saw one of her nightmares walking ever so creepily across the dirt, just a few yards from its burrow. It was a hand-sized Texas tarantula, out on an evening stroll of its own, canvassing the shoreline, hoping to score a fix for its carnal needs as well. Kyle squatted down low to study the furry find. The girls stayed at a safe distance but both leaned forward to check out the monstrous spider. Doing his best to hide his lifelong fear of giant, hairy spiders, Randy took a step back, just behind the girls, but he kept his eye on Kyle. There had been enough times in his life where his friend had taken nasty critters and flung them at him, so Randy knew to keep his attention on the spider and his buddy. However, in doing so, he’d made a horrible mistake, one that many naïve people had made in swampy regions—he turned his back on the water.

While Kyle was busy wielding a long piece of bark which held the giant spider, and while the girls closely studied the awful arachnid, and while Randy stood guard against Kyle’s potential antics, something quietly emerged from the blackness of the water. Two long tentacles rose up from beneath the surface of the pond and slowly extended their reach out toward Randy. They were gray and slippery and widened at the end into a cone-shaped barb. Like a big cat stalking its prey, they moved gingerly, testing the air as they made their way closer to Randy’s back. They were twenty feet away, then fifteen, then ten, then…

With the quickness of a rattlesnake, the wet, rubbery arms snapped out of the water and wrapped around Randy, pulling him back into the water with frightening force and speed. Within two seconds of grabbing him, Randy was gone. Whatever had snatched Randy had angled his body in such a way that it was as if he was diving into the water. He went in head first, barely making a sound, but it was enough of a splash to startle the others, who each jumped. Kyle, thinking a gator was attacking, jerked his hand holding the bark and inadvertently flung the tarantula skyward. The spider sailed through the air and landed squarely onto Hannah’s right thigh. She let out a blood-curdling scream that pierced the calm evening, her nightmare clinging to the bottom of her shorts. She could feel its hairy legs tickling her tanned skin. She screamed again, causing Kyle to cringe, the same way he did upon hearing babies screaming at a restaurant. Hannah’s instincts took over and she began jumping up and down until her hairy nemesis tumbled to the ground and scurried off into the grass, fleeing its own nightmare: being stuck on the thigh of a screaming teenage girl.

Tony and Sarah were high on life, staring into the fire’s strengthening glow as darkness fell upon their campsite like a warm, fluffy blanket. Unlike the other two couples, they were operating on more than lust and both felt the relationship could grow into something exciting. And what he hadn’t been willing to admit to his friends was that the past two weekends at Freedom Park had produced nothing more than good conversation between Tony and Sarah. Something he was proud of but gun shy about telling his buddies was that he actually cared about this girl. The two love birds sat side by side, giggling and flirting. Tony filled every opening in the conversation with a corny joke as his nerves caused his stomach to zing, the way it does for teens in the discovery stage of a new relationship. The young boy was falling in love. Their time together was intoxicating, and Tony felt a newfound sense of confidence. He was about to reach out and hold her hand, when their time alone was abruptly ended by a disturbing sound: a scream. An intensely long scream.

“That sounded like Hannah,” a startled Sarah said, sitting up in her chair.

“Yeah, and it sounded real,” Tony added.

“What should we do?”

Before Tony could answer, they heard Hannah scream out a second time. There was no doubt about its authenticity. Tony shot up out of his chair.

“Come on. Let’s go!”

“Are you kidding me?” Kyle shouted at Hannah, who had now faded quite successfully, albeit unintentionally, into the newborn night.

“Don’t you yell at me!” she hollered back. “You put that damn thing on my leg and that’s what you get for being a jerk!”

“I didn’t do it on purpose. I heard a splash and it scared me, so I flung it accidentally. Wait. Where’s Randy? Randy, you jump in the water, bro?” Kyle asked, his heart now pumping with a vigorous mix of adrenaline and fear. There was no answer. “Randy! Where are you?” Again no answer.

“Randy, this isn’t funny. I’m starting to get scared,” Hannah pleaded, referring more to the remaining unseen critters lurking in the grass than to where her date was. The three kids began walking along the shoreline, searching for their friend.

“I think he dove in,” Celia said. “Do you think he would try to swim out to that island?”

“Randy!” Kyle continued. “Why didn’t we bring a flashlight? We gotta go back and get one.” Just then, a voice rang out from the other side of the pond.

“Hey! You guys all right?” It was Tony. Kyle quickly responded.

“Yeah, we’re okay, but I don’t know where Randy is. He jumped in the water or something and now he won’t answer us. I think he’s hiding in the dark, maybe on that island. You aren’t funny, Randy!”

Kyle, Celia and Hannah continued to scour the shoreline, making their way around the pond. They had gone over halfway around it and were now closing in on the patch of long grass that was closest to the island.

“Hey guys!” Kyle yelled out. “Could you go back and get the flashlight? And Tony, bring the dinghy back.” Tony and Sarah acquiesced.

As Kyle and the two girls approached the area just across from the island, Hannah again saw something that didn’t look right. This time it appeared to be an orange splash of color on the island’s rocky shoreline, but in the dark it was hard to be sure.

“Oh my God! I think that’s Randy! Randy, is that you? Oh my God, it’s Randy over there on the rocks!”

Without thinking, Kyle immediately dashed into the water until it reached his waist. Then he dove forward and swam as fast as he could to his friend. As he approached the island, he could see that Randy was indeed laying face down on the rocks, the lower half of his body submerged in the water.

“Randy, dude. Are you okay?” Kyle continued swimming until his feet connected with the island’s rocky front porch. He ran toward his friend, but something stopped him, something that rubbed against his calf, something snake-like. It wrapped itself around his lower leg but immediately withdrew. Kyle sprung out of the water like a rocket, horrified at whatever it was that touched his leg.

“Holy crap! Something just grabbed me!” He ran as fast as he could to his friend.

“What was it?” Celia yelled from the shore.

“I’m scared, Celia. I want to go home. We should have never agreed to come here,” Hannah said.

Kyle quickly made his way to Randy’s half-submerged body, making sure his own was completely on land. He squatted down to inspect his friend, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Unfortunately, his idea of the worst was nowhere near as bad as the reality.

The evening ritual in the Texas marsh lands hasn’t changed much over the thousands of years it has existed. Like Old Faithful, nocturnal creatures predictably leave the comfort of their dens night after night in search of food or a mate. For wildlife observers, hunters, and fishermen, it’s a routine that seldom disappoints. For the two girls, it was about to unleash something that each of them feared even more than giant spiders. Dense grassy areas near water in swampy lands have always been a thriving environment for small rodents, and even large ones like the nutria. Unbeknownst to Celia and Hannah, they were standing smack dab in the middle of one of nature’s busy intersections. It wasn’t long before the two worlds collided.

Two field mice were the first to make an appearance, scurrying about the grassy banks near the water. They ran in different directions, each with the intent of finding something good to eat. Celia was the first to feel a set of scratchy feet run across her open-toed sandal, causing her to nearly jump out of her skin—and the grass.

“Ahhhh! Something just touched my foot. Something just ran across my foot!”

Hannah did what nearly every scared teenage girl does when they have just heard a friend scream with fright. She screamed, too. Soon there was another mouse, then another. Pretty soon both girls had field mice scurrying across their feet at a furious pace. They began to panic and took off running back toward the trail leading to the campsite. They were already almost three-fourths of the way around the pond, so rather than backtracking, they took the shortest route available. The only problem was it really wasn’t available. It was dark, however—so dark they couldn’t see that thirty yards in front of them, the trees and bushes were so thick that they were impassable. Unfortunately, the girls didn’t notice this until they were running full force into and then fully entangled in the thorn-covered shrubbery. It tore through their exposed flesh, sending hot flashes of pain through both of their bodies. Celia, who was in the lead, came to an abrupt stop. Hannah ran up against her. They had nowhere to go but back the way they had come. So they slowly stepped back through the path they’d just created, which was a gauntlet of skin-ripping thorns. It was the only way to go. It didn’t take long to exit the brush, but by this time, both of them were bloodied with multiple wounds on their legs, arms, torsos and faces. Yes, life in the swamp can be brutal, especially when you can’t see.

“Why the hell didn’t we just go to the damn park?” Hannah yelled out to her friend. “I will never go anywhere again with that Randy!” She had no idea how accurate her statement had just been.

Kyle reached out to his friend and turned him over. He didn’t move. Clearly he was seriously wounded.

“Randy, say something, brother. Say anything. Can you even hear me?”

Kyle reached down to gently slap Randy’s face and felt a warm sticky substance touch his hands. He quickly withdrew. The “get the hell outta here” mental alarms were sounding off at record pace. Only loyalty to his lifelong friend kept him by his side. Unable to see, he dug in his pocket for the only light source he had, a cheap butane lighter that was nearly devoid of butane. He’d bought it at the RaceTrac convenience store for ninety-nine cents. He was drawn to its price and its NASCAR logo. The lighter had never worked well, and as his buddy lay before him on the rocks in a world of hurt, his expectations of a healthy flame were not high. The expectations were met. The lighter did light but it was a small, immature flame. Cheap-ass lighter is hardly worthy of a NASCAR logo, he thought. The good news was that it was enough to at least create a small circle of light with the diameter of a grapefruit.

Kyle lowered the light toward Randy’s face and revealed a horror far beyond anything he could fathom. It took his mind a few seconds to process what he was seeing. Randy Greene, the boy who’d been one of his two best friends since elementary school, no longer had a face. It was gone, like it had been sucked off. In its place was a grotesque pallet of wet pinks and reds and a couple of holes where eyes used to be. He could see the nasal passage and the mouth, but there was nothing else, not even teeth, as the entire jaw had been ripped from the skull. Almost by instinct, Kyle lifted him from the water, a task that proved far easier than it should have been. Randy Greene not only had no face, he also had no lower body. There were only scraps of flesh dangling off of what used to be his friend. Kyle had thought he was simply halfway submerged under the water, but Randy was severed in half just below the sternum. Kyle dropped him and quivered with fear.

“He’s dead! Oh my God, Randy is dead.” He fell to the ground and began to cry. It was about this time that Celia and Hannah made it back to where they had seen Kyle dive in the water. They could hear him sobbing from the shore of the island.

“Kyle!” Celia yelled.

“He’s dead. Randy is dead,” Kyle said, barely above a whisper, but the soberness with which he spoke said volumes, and it was all the girls needed to hear to launch into full-scale panic mode.

“Oh my God!” Celia screamed. Hannah stood in stunned silence, numb with fear.

“Kyle, we have to leave. Come on. We have to go get the police,” Celia pleaded, but Kyle just sat there in shock next to his dead friend. “Kyle! Get over here now! If he’s dead, there’s nothing we can do for him! We have to leave.”

“You don’t get it,” he shouted back at Celia. “His face is gone. He’s…he’s…cut in half!”

As sick as the girls and Kyle were all feeling, the local wildlife had no opinion on the unfolding events whatsoever. Yes, the wildlife in the swamp is an interesting study. The never-ending cycle of life just keeps churning out the documentary fodder day after day. Whereas field mice running wild is a nightly occurrence, so is the cause for their mad-dash food grab through the tall grass to the rocks. The mice come of out hiding at the same time every night for a reason. They are after a protein-filled snack of water beetles that appear on the rocks about the same time each night during the fall months. There is only a one-hour window for the mice to gobble them up. And the many mice that had forced the girls to run into the thorns were still scurrying about. The girls did their best to avoid them by standing on the rocks, but never did they imagine they were worried about the wrong thing entirely. If the mice run wild for an hour, it can only stand to reason that the same hour would make for a perfect hunting opportunity for the area’s pit vipers. An isolated patch of wooded swampland holds many intriguing animal interactions. Unfortunately for the girls, they were standing right in the middle of an episode from a nature show.

The first rattle was heard not long after the girls returned to Kyle. This was followed by another and another. It seemed two teenage girls were not welcome visitors at the rattlesnake fast-food joint. The intensity of the evening was cranked up yet again as the girls quickly learned they were trapped.

“Are those what I think they are?” Hannah asked.

“Oh no,” was all Celia could muster up. These kids had all grown up in Alvin, so wildlife was something they knew well; anyone who lives in and around the greater Houston area is accustomed to the humid subtropical climate and all that thrives in those conditions. The sound of a Western Diamondback’s rattle was easily recognized. The years of training in the art of avoiding poisonous pit vipers were about as useful as a VCR to the girls right about then. They were trapped on a piece of land not more than eight feet by twelve feet, and who knew how long it would be before the snakes came all the way to the pond’s edge.

“We gotta leave now!” Celia said, panic in her voice.

“We can’t. There are snakes everywhere,” Hannah countered.

“I don’t care! I’m getting out of here.”

“No, you’re not. You are going to wait here until Tony and Sarah bring the raft back and we’re gonna go back to camp and go home. We can’t panic, Celia.”

“I’m not sticking around here. I’m gonna swim back.”

“No!” yelled Kyle. “You can’t swim in this pond. There’s a gator or something out there that killed Randy. Stay out of the water!”

The girls could see the faint glow of the tiny flame Kyle was holding, but it didn’t illuminate much. Thus they had a hard time seeing what was happening when a splashing sound played out not far from where they were standing. Suddenly they heard Kyle gasp and yell out.

“Heeeeeey!” he cried.

This was followed by a loud slapping splash, like a big man doing a belly flop. Then another. Then another, and then one more. The girls began to panic. The sound of whatever was going on was beyond horrifying, and what was going on was Kyle being flung about like a rag doll. Whatever it was that captured him had jerked him up by the ankles and slammed him into the water so hard it knocked him out. The creature then lifted the boy out of the water and held him high in the air. In the moonlight, the girls could see the haunting silhouette of two long tentacles holding Kyle up in the air, like some kind of offering to the monster gods. They both gasped with fright. What they saw next was enough to cause Celia to vomit on the rocks. One tentacle grabbed Kyle around the lower legs, the other around his shoulders. The creature proceeded to bend Kyle backward, and the sickening sound of snapping bones exploded in the night sky as Kyle was bent in half—the wrong way.

The girls began to scream out in panic. Celia completely lost her composure and ran back from the shore into the tall grass in an attempt to circle back around the pond. The fire-like pain first shot into her left calf about ten steps into the grass. The bite was a direct hit, and the two fangs plunged into the meaty section of her lower leg, the venom immediately pumping through her bloodstream. She jumped and screamed, and the snake fell away. She continued on but was bitten a second time by another non-hospitable resident of the grassy marsh. As Celia ran through the mine field of pain and poison, Hannah could only stand and listen to her friend being bitten over and over. She called to her, but there was no reply, only screaming.

Hannah froze, unable to move. She didn’t want to talk, make any noise, draw any attention to herself whatsoever, so she just stood in place on those rocks, her back to the water, her eyes on the lookout for snakes. She could hardly breathe. She continued to hear Celia scream out, and she could only imagine how many snake bites she’d received. Hannah lost control of her bladder and could feel the warm stream running down her legs. She was taken back to her childhood, to the lake one day when she had to pee so badly that her stomach hurt. She couldn’t make it to the portable toilets, so she went right there in front of all her friends. The laughing children, the taunting and finger-pointing would stay with her for years. It was still with her as she felt that awful wetness in her shorts and now soaking into her footie socks. The soles of her running shoes began to absorb the wetness. Off in the distance, just behind where Hannah stood frozen, Tony and Sarah’s voices announced their presence.

“Did you find Randy?” Tony yelled. There was no answer. Hannah couldn’t make a noise outside of the tiny whimpering sounds she was unintentionally generating.

“Kyle! Where are you guys?”

“Celia! Hannah!” Sarah yelled. Hannah could see a large, cone-shaped light beam cutting through the blackness, zig-zagging around the island’s plant life as Tony looked for his friends.

“Where are you guys?” Tony yelled.

“Come on. Let’s go around the lake where they were earlier,” Hannah heard Sarah suggest.

“No. Wait. Don’t,” Hannah said, but it was only a whisper. Her cracking, shaky voice was unable to project enough to be audible. She continued to stand in one place. She could hear the two running through the tall grass on the other side of the lake. It was only a matter of time.

“Whoa. Holy shit!” Tony yelled out. “There are snakes everywhere. Turn back! Go back!” Hannah could hear Sarah scream in fright.

“Did you get bit?” she heard Tony ask. Again, Hannah tried to call out, but her fear had a firm stranglehold on her vocal cords. She began to shiver.

“No, thank God. Almost though,” Sarah said. The two made it back to the flat, clay beach, the only area around the pond seemingly void of rattles and fangs.

“Hey, give me that light,” Tony said.

Hannah, who had turned her back on the pond as to keep an eye out for snakes, could feel the glow engulfing her from behind.

“There’s Hannah!” Sarah yelled. “Hannah!”

Hannah didn’t say a word, instead choosing a simple gesture, the lifting of her right arm to indicate that she had in fact heard them. Tony could see that she was standing on the rocks near the tall grass. Hannah suddenly felt her voice was her only chance of survival. She gave it one more try.

“Snakes!” is all she could get out.

Tony and Sarah made the only rational decision people in their shoes could make: they put the dinghy in the water and went after their friend. Tony made quick work with his paddle, propelling them through the pond at an efficient pace and made it to Hannah, where he leaped out of the raft and grabbed her. He quickly lifted her in, putting her on Sarah’s lap. He then jumped back in and began to paddle back to the shoreline.

“What’s going on Hannah? Where are the others?” Tony asked. Hannah wasn’t able to answer. He put the flashlight in her face and saw an expression he’d never seen before. Hannah was in complete shock, shivering, unable to speak. The fear on her face was unmistakable. Something awful had happened to Randy. That was the only explanation Tony could think of. He could feel it when he’d run back for the raft. He knew his friend was hurt badly. The look in Hannah’s eyes told him it was worse than he’d expected.

“Hannah, I need you to help us here. Tell me what happened,” Tony pleaded as Sarah stroked her hair and whispered to her in an attempt to provide some sort of comfort.

“They’re dead,” she finally said in a voice barely above a whisper.

“What? Who’s dead?” Tony asked.

“Randy and Kyle. They’re dead. And Celia, the snakes, she’s probably dead, too.”

Tony paused in the water a few feet from the shoreline. He looked at Sarah and then at Hannah’s eyes, which were still frozen in fear.

“Hannah, show me where they are. Take me to my friends.” Tony began to reverse course and paddle back toward the small island. Hannah suddenly went into hysterics.

“No! No! Take me back to the campsite!” she screamed.

“Hannah, we need to find everyone else,” Sarah said.

“Nooooooo!” she screamed in protest. “Take me away from here now!”

There was far too much intensity in her voice for them to ignore her request. Tony paddled ashore, and the two walked Hannah back to the campsite where Sarah stayed with her. Tony added some more wood to the fire, made sure Hannah had a blanket and some water and began walking back in the direction of the pond. Hannah saw him and became noticeably upset.

“You can’t go back there! That thing is in there. It killed them. They’re all dead! It’s real. It’s in the pond!”

“What?” Tony replied.

“It was that thing! The thing Kyle told us about. It’s real. It killed Randy. It freaking broke Kyle in half! I saw it. It’s real. Oh my God, it’s real. We need to leave now!” Hannah shot up out of her chair in an attempt to stop Tony.

“Hannah, everything’s going to be okay. I know what I’m doing. I’ve spent my entire life in the outdoors. I just need to go back and find the others. I need to see what’s going on.”

“It’s not going to be okay. You’re gonna die if you go back there!”

Tony looked at Sarah, who reached out to touch Hannah’s arm. The frightened girl retracted her arm violently.

“Hannah, my friends are out there. I have to go find them.”

Tony’s deep conviction that Hannah had lost her mind was beginning to waver, and although he was unable to accept what Hannah was telling him, the heavy cloak of dread was beginning to descend. Clearly, something had gone horribly wrong at the pond, and as much as he fought to suspend his imagination, the reality was he was beginning to think some of what he’d heard was, in fact, true. He quickly processed the rumored death of his lifelong friends and gritted his teeth. If that was true, Tony Canty was going to exact revenge. With that, he turned and ran off into the woods, disappearing into the darkness. Hannah stood frozen, shaking her head in disbelief.

“You’re never going to see him again.”

Tony arrived back at the shoreline, stepped into his raft, and pushed off from shore. He rowed aggressively back toward the island, stopping short to float up to its rocky banks. He shined the light out to where his friends had been but saw nothing. He continued to look until something caught his eye. The rocks were clearly painted red in two separate places. There was blood everywhere, and Tony suddenly became sick with fear as he realized that Hannah was likely telling the truth. He pushed away from the island and began rowing to the far side of the pond where he and Sarah had first seen their friends upon arriving from the campsite. He shined his light along the shore. There was movement in multiple locations. He rowed closer, the fear beginning to take hold of him like a vise; he was too afraid to call out to his friends. He looked again and saw snakes, several of them. He panned his light to his right and came upon an awful sight. It was Celia lying face down in the grass, multiple snakes near her. He made a quick series of rowing motions in an effort to get to her. Just then, something bumped him from beneath the boat, something quite substantial. It moved his raft away from the shoreline, out toward the middle of the pond.

Speechless and now breathless, Tony watched as the water rippled and bubbled before him. Something briefly came up out of the water only to retreat back down into it. Whatever it was, it was huge. Tony thought of Kyle’s story, the hurricane, the sea creature, the missing people, then Hannah’s expression. He shined the light back on Celia’s face, and from his perspective, it looked as if she blinked. It was a small sign of life but a sign nonetheless.
“Celia!” he cried out. Her head moved ever so slightly. She was alive, looking like a member of the walking dead. Her face was devoid of color and her eyes were glassy. If what Hannah had said was true about the snake bites, Celia was suffering from the early stages of paralysis. He had to get her to a hospital soon, or she too would die. He began to move toward her again, rowing cautiously so as not to upset whatever was below him. He was within twenty feet of the shore and getting closer. His plan was simple: he’d get to shore, take out his oars, and smack the life out of the few snakes who were coiled near Celia. He’d grab the girl, put her in the raft and take her to the nearest hospital. The keys? Where did Kyle leave the keys? He had a habit of leaving them in the ignition, something Tony had scolded him about several times. Please let those keys be in the ignition tonight.

Before he could develop another thought, he saw two long tentacles emerge from the water and wrap around Celia’s nearly lifeless body. Whatever it was, it lifted her up at least ten feet in the air, and with monstrous force, it pulled her into the water. Just like that, Celia was no more. The waves from the creature’s movements rocked the dinghy side to side, nearly capsizing Tony’s craft. He quickly grabbed the oar and began paddling feverishly back toward the other side of the pond. Sweat poured down his face, his heart raced like nothing he’d ever experienced, and tears streamed down his face as he began to process the loss of his friends and the gravity of his situation. The rest of his body turned numb from fear as the young boy cut a path through the liquid blackness. He was about thirty yards away when a giant shadow rose out of the water, blocking his path. It quickly fell back into the water creating a monstrous splash, reminding Tony of a whale encounter he’d once seen on television. The splash was big enough to startle the girls back at the campsite, who jumped to their feet. Sarah ran toward the pond, and Hannah yelled out in protest.

Tony’s little boat rocked violently, so much so that some of the waves crested over the side of the dinghy and onto Tony’s feet. He was frozen in fear, his light shining down on the dark, oily water. The blackness swallowed the flashlight’s beam. Every so often he could see the creature break above the waterline, its gray, rubbery skin momentarily exposed. With seemingly intentional cruelty, the beast was now blocking Tony’s path, the only escape from the hell in which he now found himself. Each time he mustered up the courage to paddle, the creature would show itself, causing him to retreat back to the center of the pond. Suddenly, he heard another noise, this one coming from the back of the pond. He quickly turned and shone his light at the monster now breeching the water behind him. Without hesitation, he began to paddle back to shore until he was stopped again by whatever was lurking below the surface. He found himself trapped between the noises behind him and the splashing in front of him, and it did not take Tony long to understand that he was dealing with two monsters. And just like that, he was hopelessly stuck, out in the middle of the blackest pond he’d ever seen, sitting in what now felt like a laughably small raft. There was no moving forward and no going back. Tony was simply caught out in the middle with nowhere to go.

Within seconds, Tony heard the voice he secretly hoped he’d spend many years waking up next to.

“Tony! Are you okay?” Sarah shouted, running toward the shoreline with Hannah trailing close behind.

“Yes,” he replied in a calm, reserved tone. “I need you to listen to me.”

“Where are you?”

“Sarah, please be quiet and listen to me very carefully.”

“Okay, okay,” she said, out of breath.

“I’m out here in the middle of the pond in my boat. There are two creatures under this water. They got Celia too. I saw it. It’s real. I can’t move, Sarah. I’m stuck out here. I need you to do something for me. I need you and Hannah to go back to Kyle’s truck, and if the keys are in the ignition, I need you drive to the police station in Liverpool. Tell them to come out here immediately. I think I’m going to be okay as long as I sit very still and quiet. Don’t ask me any questions and don’t say ‘no’. I’m not saying another word so get out of here.”

Like most girls, it was in Sarah’s nature to want to ask more questions, to make a comment, any kind of comment. But before she could, Hannah was pulling at her arm and leading her back through the woods toward the campsite. They continued on to Kyle’s truck and found that he had, in fact, left his keys in the car. Luckily, Sarah was well versed in driving a stick shift. She quickly started up the green Chevy and sped off toward Liverpool.
Tony, on the other hand, was sitting in complete darkness. He’d decided to shut off his flashlight in case the creature was attracted to light. He sat still, staring up at the night sky and somehow managed to appreciate its beauty. The stars at night are big and bright…clap-clap-clap-clap…deep in the heart of Texas. It was an odd thought but so true. There was a lot on Tony’s mind as he sat motionless, moving only when the random ripples of the creatures’ movements shook his raft. He hoped the girls wouldn’t screw it up. Please let them remember that it’s October and the time of year when teens pull gags on the cops. Please don’t tell them there is a sea monster in a little pond that killed three people. He hoped with all his might that they’d just run in and say some kids are hurt and one is stuck out here. Anything other than that could lead to a major delay.

Tony, if you get out of this, you are going to dedicate every free second of every day to being the best pitcher you can be. No more wasting time. Maybe this is the wake-up call you need in order to be the guy you know you can be. Maybe now you’ll get good enough to get that offer from UT. Oh, my poor friends. No, don’t even go there. You can’t think about them right now. There’ll be plenty of time to mourn. Now you just need to think positive thoughts and nothing else.

The time crept along about the way a turtle makes its way across a busy highway: slowly. The odds of a violent death increase by the second as it walks into traffic. Tony suddenly understood that turtle a bit better. He just wants to survive. But the longer he’s out there, the more likely things will not turn out real well. Such is life sometimes—a series of events, predicated on the decisions we as humans make on a daily basis. The boys, well, Kyle, had made the decision to come to this place for a cheap thrill. Had they listened to their instincts and shown the courage it takes to make an unpopular decision, especially in the face of peer pressure, none of this would have happened. Tony couldn’t help but beat himself up a bit. He knew Sarah didn’t want to come here, but he was only thinking about his own selfish desire to finally kiss her, to touch her, to explore her. What he’d do to push the reset button, but alas, he thought, life is not a video game; this was a painfully clear realization as he sat alone in his raft.

I really like Sarah. I think I’m going to let her know that I would like to date her and only her. I bet she would…

A mighty force came down upon Tony and his prized dinghy raft. The stealth nature of the tentacles’ movement was impressive.  Before he could say or think anything else, he felt the squeeze of a powerful force close in around him. That was followed by the coldness of water engulfing him. He felt a rush of water fill his nose. It burned, and the only thing he could think was, I hate when that happens. He opened his eyes but it was so dark there was nothing to see. He suddenly felt weightless, like a massive burden had been lifted. Tony Canty felt at peace with himself and his life. He’d done all he could do in the seventeen years he’d lived on this earth. Well, almost everything. The final thought that crossed his mind before he was bitten in half was that he wished he and Sarah could have experienced the thing he’d never admitted he’d never done. She was perfect and he would miss her. But at least the three best friends from Alvin would not be separated after all. They would remain together for eternity in the pond off Chocolate Bayou.

By the time Deputy Jenkins had agreed to take the girls seriously and drive them back to the secluded location in the woods, the girls were nearly frantic, so much so that he threatened them several times that he would take them back to the station if they didn’t be quiet. The good Deputy had a reputation for being an easy target for pranks. He took his job very seriously, and with every call he received, he felt he owed it to the caller to take them seriously as well. However, this one reeked of a Halloween prank, which is why he hadn’t let anyone else know where he was headed. Probably some sort of violation of department policy, but come on. Three dead kids? A fourth one trapped on a boat in the middle of a small pond? Hell, three kids hadn’t been killed in these parts since, well, since never. There’d been plenty of disappearances but certainly nobody watching anybody get killed. As he followed the directions of his two backseat drivers, things began to look familiar to him. He’d been here before. Why was that? Oh, yeah, that freak from Boulder who was hanging out in town for a while. Then he disappeared. I think it was out here in these woods actually. Hmmmm. Interesting.

It was nearly three in the morning when they pulled up to where Kyle had first parked. Within ten minutes, they were at the campsite, and it took Deputy Jenkins only three seconds to start the scolding process.

“You know you can’t start a fire out here like this, don’t you? If this ends up being a prank, you all are gonna get a citation for that. You hear me?” The girls nodded and told him to keep walking.

The closer they got to the pond, the more Deputy Jenkins’ mental alarms began to sound. Something doesn’t seem right here. He found himself with his hand on his gun. He’d seen enough shows about troubled teens to understand that these two seemingly innocent children were more than capable of luring him out here for an ambush. Yeah, an ambush. It has that sort of feel to it. They made their way to the clay-covered bank, where Sarah and Hannah had last stood talking to Tony.

“Tony!” Sarah yelled out. There was no response. “Tony!” she yelled even louder, a hint of panic in her voice. No response. “Oh no!” she screamed. “Nooooooo!”

Deputy Jenkins awkwardly made some attempt to calm the teen and shined his light on the water. It was still and black. Everything felt strange to him. It was quiet for this type of location. No birds, no frogs, very few noises at all. He led the girls around the outer edges of the pond, looking for anything at all to validate their story, but he found nothing. There were no snakes, no mice, no raft, no boy in a boat on the pond, no dying girl with snakebites, nothing. They went all the way around to where Hannah had been stranded but saw nothing. The girls were now both crying: Sarah, for the realization that her newfound love was probably dead like the others, Hannah, for the brief flashback of the horrible ordeal she’d been through. They stood by the shore of the pond in total silence. None of them really knew what to do. Deputy Jenkins shined his light on their faces and was struck by how genuinely horrified each of them looked. Surely this can’t be a prank, can it? The air was still, muggy as hell, but still. Something wasn’t right.

There’s a thrill ride at most amusement parks. Some parks call it the Scrambler, others the Spider. Regardless of its name, it takes its riders on an exhilarating spin, a couple of minutes where they feel the impact of G-force, where they lose their bearings, get a little dizzy. However, the tickling sensation in their stomachs is what keeps them coming back for another ride. It was the same sensation Deputy Jenkins and the two girls felt simultaneously, the feeling of being totally out of control of their own movements. They felt the G-force, the dizziness, the tickling in their stomachs as they were suddenly lifted off their feet and turned upside down. But the last thing all of them felt was the cold blackness of murky waters.