“Freshwater,” Kate Haggard
I knew this camping trip was a stupid idea. But damn if the smile Michael gave me hadn’t been convincing. “Come spend the last week of summer with me,” he said. “It’ll be fun. We hardly hang out any more.” And, like the horny school girl I am, I said yes.
Michael didn’t tell me he’d also invited Cherry. Yeah her name’s a total lie. She probably scored more this summer than our football team has in the last decade.
So here I am in the same tiny tent I had since I was ten, alone and without phone reception. Not that I’d call anyone. I’d rather spend one miserable night in the woods then face the shame of Mommy and Daddy coming to rescue me.
The drums only add insult to injury. They started just after Michael vanished into his tent with Miss Juicy Fruit, probably a cover for their other noises. It’s at a fever pitch now, matching the sternum busting rhythm of my heart. Or maybe my heart is matching the beat. It doesn’t matter; I’m quaking in my sleeping bag, in my pup tent, in the middle of nowhere.
Just as I’m sure it would break through my nylon dome, the drums recede. I lay in the depths of my sleeping bag until I can hear the wind in the trees. Something else comes on that breeze, high pitched like a pig’s squeal. I think of Michael with Cherry and throw the bag off my head and shoulders. It dawns on me; I’m his cover. He would never be allowed halfway up the mountains with the town bicycle. But tell good ol’ Mom and Pops that he’s off with the girl next door and he’s free as a bird.
Son of a bitch, I’m an idiot.
The faint percussion quickens my blood again. I tear through the flap, so blind in my desire to give Michael Hammond a piece of my mind that I trip and stumble out into the night.
No, it was too solid to be the tent.
A flashlight rolls against the toe of my boot. All I can see in the dark is that hand, thin and white, reaching out toward me.
“Michael?” I crouch for the flashlight, my butt nearly in the dirt, and click it on.
I wish I hadn’t.
“Paige.” My name bubbles up from his lips in a rivulet of dark fluid. I swallow hard, trying to ignore the black puddle forming under him.
“What happened?” I hold tight to the light, willing it not to shake.
“Cherry.” Michael coughs weakly and all the air just sort of leaves him like the last bit of helium escaping a deflating balloon.
“Michael?” I squeak. Every muscle locks down tight as reality hits me. The boy I grew up with, and spent seventeen long years having dirty thoughts about is dead. Doornail dead.
I scream. Maybe it makes a sound, but there’s no way to hear it over the renewed drumming. It’s no CD, but real drums. Close and now menacing. I run, blind with tears for Michael’s truck, which should be beside the road. I set my tent up facing the road, right?
Calm down, Paige. Deep breaths. This is a dream. All a bad dream. You’ll wake up and Mom will have waffles. Hot, delicious waffles. And bacon.
My foot catches in a root and I sail forward a half dozen yards. The landing knocks the air out of me. The drumming reverberates so fiercely through the ground that I can hardly take a breath. Somehow I gather my wits enough to realize that there’s too much light for it to come from the little flashlight. It’s a warm light.
I look up and there’s Cherry in all her miniskirted glory, tied to a black pillar beyond the fire. The flames cast shine and shadows on her insides, now her outsides. I catch a whiff of the burger from that truck stop on the way up the mountain. It’s turned sour and my stomach turns.
This time I’m sure my scream is audible. The drumming stops, not a single note lingering on the night air. As one solid mass, the people at the enormous instruments turn toward me. They shout in a language I’ve never heard. It takes one look at Cherry – God, even that skank didn’t deserve this – to put me back on my feet.
Too late. A ring of dark, smudged faces block the way back. Across the clearing is the bloody sacrifice that had been the school slut and even more angry men, all screaming – no, chanting – in that alien tongue. My only chance lies to the left, a lake with not a ripple across the mirror-like surface despite the breeze.
I thank whatever higher power is listening that they made me a strong swimmer and take my chance.
My feet fumble in the dirt, the rocks, then the shifting silt of the shallows. I’m to the center of the lake when I realize that none of those chanting lunatics have followed me into the water. Some of them are back at the drums, building up a slow, pulsating beat. The rest stand a good ten yards back from the lake’s edge, their hands held toward the sky.
“The hell?” I take a mouthful of water to rinse away the burning taste of bile. I’m a sitting duck out here. Exhausted with still a long way to go. All it would take is one boat, one guy, to come get me. What’re they waiting for?
I stagger and lose my footing as I’m lifted out the water. This isn’t happening. Lake bottoms don’t spontaneously come to the surface. Only when my hands grope a slick, smooth surface, do I realize that the earth isn’t rising up to meet me. I’m in the palm on an impossibly large hand, fingers like columns falling around me.
I’m pulled under and the stars go out.