Cold Fish - Short Story
|short story |horror
Mist covered the lake like a blanket, seeping over the bank to cloud the edge of the woods. The sun was still low, lining the horizon in a shade of burnt-orange, blurred and indistinct.
Marcia loved mornings like this. She inhaled deeply, ignoring the small voice of warning in her head telling her the damp air was probably no good for her. It felt good. That was all that mattered.
The leaf litter, scattered twigs and other natural debris felt pleasantly spongy under her booted foot. Marcia’s pace was slow, relaxed, taking in the early morning. Cooper had raced ahead of her, drawn to a large log; the remains of a tree that had fallen long ago and had itself become a habitat for small creatures. He was snuffling around its base, his glossy red coat gleaming as he trembled with excitement, tail wagging. She smiled at his enthusiasm, giving vent to a sudden yawn that caught her by surprise.
Losing interest, Cooper pricked his ears at something beyond her hearing. He bounded along the worn pathway, determined to find whatever had caught his attention.
A sheet of fog from the lake divided them, all at once obscuring Marcia’s vision so completely that she stopped in her tracks. It hung like a physical wall, blocking her progress. Unsettled, Marcia took her hands from her pockets, ducking her head side to side in a bid to see past it.
“Cooper!” she shouted, her cry harsh and offensive against the silence of the woods, “Cooper!”
She could just step through the mist. Yet all her instincts were telling her not to, nor to even touch it, if it could be avoided. For a heart-stopping moment, Marcia thought she had lost the dog. Irrational, she knew; he rarely came back on the first calling, or even the second, but she didn’t like the sense that he had somehow gone somewhere she couldn’t follow.
“Cooper!” she shouted a third time, a touch of panic to her tone.
Then, as quickly as it had formed, the mist dissolved, allowing her to see once again. Cooper came bounding back along the path towards her, tail high, eyes bright, apparently undisturbed and unconcerned. He stopped at her feet and sat, looking up at her hopefully.
Marcia laughed, brushing off her unease. It was the mist from the lake, nothing more, it was just especially thick this morning. She dipped her hand in her pocket, bringing out a treat which she tossed to the waiting dog. Cooper, expectations met, went back to his exploring.
Movement, out on the lake. The mist too dense to see clearly, the sun too low to illuminate it, Marcia sensed rather than saw the motion. She turned to face the lake full on, aware that her feet had begun to feel almost icy cold within the confines of her cosy boots. She ignored it. Someone was out there, on the water.
She stood stock still, staring intently. Here and there were clear patches, though irregular and fleeting. Through them, Marcia thought she caught sight of a figure in a boat, before the mist closed again, leaving her wondering if she had imagined it.
Of course she had. No one in their right mind would be out on the lake this early, in these conditions. It would be sheer stupidity; madness, even. She was no expert, but even she knew that an apparently still, serene lake held hidden dangers for the uneducated and the unwary.
The narrow prow of a small boat nudged the bank, coming out of nowhere. In it, a tall figure stood erect, not losing balance even a fraction as the boat bumped to a halt.
Marcia screamed aloud, stumbling backwards. The mist around the boat had melted away completely, shrinking back over the lake just as Marcia shrunk back in shocked surprise.
The figure on the boat lifted two hands to the hood that shrouded its face, pulling the cloth down.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to make you jump.” It was the falsest apology Marcia had ever heard, the speaker’s voice laden with sarcasm.
“What are you playing at?” Marcia demanded, turning her fear into anger, “Of course you made me jump! You scared the life out of me!”
The woman in the boat laughed, the sound low and cold, “Cleary not,”
Marcia frowned, nothing humorous in the situation as far as she was concerned. She looked the woman over. It was her; the newcomer. She had moved into what had once been the old barn, now renovated and converted into a small, quirky property. Everyone called it the Upside-Down House, its bedrooms and bathrooms being on the ground floor, the kitchen and living areas upstairs. It had served some time as a holiday rental, but it hadn’t lasted, the owner packing everything up and putting a For Sale sign out front after less than a year. No one ever found out why, they had simply assumed the market wasn’t what it once was, that the house wasn’t making its money back. It had stood empty for quite some time afterwards.
Until the newcomer. The current owner of the Upside-Down House stood before her; long, dark hair coiling around her neck and shoulders in thick strands, piercing green eyes intent on Marcia. Neither beautiful nor ugly, she was very average-looking. Normal, Marcia concluded. Except for her figure. She was long-legged, slender limbs encased in loose-fitting jeans, the feet hidden in the well of the boat. The baggy hoody was zipped up over an obviously slim frame, flaring gently at the hip. The shapeless clothes hid the woman’s bodyline to some extent, yet her body language exuded lithe assuredness. Marcia felt a twinge of envy.
The woman. Marcia realised she didn’t even know her name. Ever since she had become the source of gossip amongst the tiny population that lived in the surrounding cottages, she had been referred to always as ‘the woman’ or ‘that woman.’ This was Marcia’s chance to learn something concrete about the stranger, something she could be the first to share amongst her neighbours.
“What are you doing out on the lake at this time of the morning?” Marcia tried to make her voice sound normal, uncomfortably aware that the whole scene was an odd one.
The woman didn’t answer, just stood stock still, unmoved by the gentle rocking of the boat. Her stare was so intense, so unflinching that Marcia had to look away, her skin crawling under such a blatant appraisal. All at once, finding out the newcomer’s name didn’t seem so important.
“Lilith,” the woman said out of nowhere, making Marcia jump again.
“What?” her voice a breath on the air.
“My name is Lilith,” the woman repeated, “You wanted to know,”
Marcia’s brow furrowed, trying to remember if she had asked the question out loud, certain she hadn’t. This place, always so soothing and reassuring to her, at once seemed a dark and lonely place to be, especially in Lilith’s company.
Using Cooper for an excuse to turn away, Marcia began calling the dog in a shrill, high voice that was not her own. She paused, waiting to hear the crash of undergrowth as Cooper made his crazy way back to her.
Nothing; the woods, the pathway, the lake all seemed devoid of natural life, even the birdsong falling silent. There came no response at all to her calling.
Still standing in the boat, Lilith laughed again. A cold fear forming in Marcia’s chest, she turned her attentions back to the woman.
“Who is Cooper?” Lilith enquired, a sly smile on her sensuous lips, as if she already knew the answer to the question.
“My dog,” It sounded pathetic; like a child overawed by a grown-up. Marcia set her shoulders back, determined to reassert herself, “My dog, Cooper. He’s a Red Setter,” she added unnecessarily.
“Ah,” Lilith said, the boat moving softly from the bank as if someone had punted it away, though Lilith hadn’t moved an inch, “a bit like this one?”
She stood aside, performing a graceful gesture with one hand, allowing Marcia to see Cooper standing in the well of the boat behind her. He looked back at her with imploring eyes, tail tucked between his legs submissively.
“What? How the hell? How did he get there? Let him off please, give him back,”
“Sorry,” Lilith said, insincerity once again lacing her words, “We’re on the water now,”
The boat continued to drift, inching slowly away.
“I don’t think so!” At last, Marcia could hear real forcefulness in her own words, all trace of the little girl gone. There was no way this woman was going anywhere with her dog, least of all out onto the lake, “Fuck that!” she shouted, “You get that boat back here and you let my dog off, right now!”
“Or what?” Lilith challenged.
Marcia couldn’t believe her ears. How had this come about? It was as if they were a pair of teenagers, indulging in a childish, pointless dispute.
At a loss, Marcia pulled her phone out of her back pocket. Selecting the ‘Record,’ option, she held the phone up, filming the boat moving slowly off; it was definitely doing so of its own accord, perhaps caught in a surface current. Keeping the phone held high, Marcia glanced away from the screen to check the water. There was no disturbance to the lake other than the break caused by the boat. There was definitely no motor powering it, just as there no one else aboard to row. As she watched it on the tiny screen it slewed sideways, showing her its name; Futility.
Again, she looked away from the on-screen image to look at the reality. The boat was drifting in the shallows, less than six, maybe ten feet away. She could wade out, grab the side and hope that Cooper would come to her when she got there.
She had no idea what Lilith might do to stop her. The woman was obviously nuts. Either that or she was just plain sadistic, enjoying Marcia’s discomfort. It was clear she was out to pick a fight, eager to piss Marcia off. Why, Marcia had no idea.
She experienced a pang of panic as the mist began to close around the boat, threatening to conceal it from Marcia’s sight altogether. Desperate, she shouted, “I’ve got you on camera! You don’t let Cooper go right now, you’re going to have the police to deal with!”
“No you haven’t,” came Lilith’s cool response.
Confused, Marcia said, “Haven’t what? What are you talking about?”
“You haven’t caught me on camera. Just check,” The boat came to an abrupt stop, giving Marcia time to check her phone.
Hands trembling, Marcia keyed in the pads to get the video to replay. Nothing but a minute or so of flickering blackness showed upon the screen. Unnerved, Marcia looked up.
“What is going on here?”
“Justice,” Lilith said flatly.
Justice? Marcia tucked her useless phone away, putting her hands on her hips, helping her adopt an air of bravado. Now who’s being false? she thought to herself.
“What do you mean, justice?” She noticed that whilst she kept Lilith talking, both the boat and the mist fell still. Perhaps she could persuade the crazy bitch out of stealing her dog before he became dinner, or a hat, or a lifelong partner; or whatever the hell else she had planned.
“I mean exactly as I say; justice. A fair reckoning,”
Silence fell; Marcia at a loss for words, Lilith apparently feeling no need for them. Scared the boat would begin to drift away again, Marcia had to blink a couple of times to be sure her eyes were not deceiving her.
Lilith’s clothes were changing. The cheap, plain hoody unzipped itself and fell to the floor of the boat, revealing the slender body Marcia had suspected was there all along. A long, elegant neck led to a pair of firm, shapely breasts, they in turn leading into a toned and sculpted stomach. It would perhaps have been a beautiful sight, were it not for the blueish tinge to the flesh, coupled with the twisted lines of cartilage that snaked out from the band of Lilith’s jeans up into her torso, trailing away to nothing on the surface of her skin. Black lines formed patterns like roots, as if they were trying to reach those breasts, to twist and writhe their way over them, too.
Marcia’s mouth hung open, her throat drying as the chilly atmosphere sought to invade it. Her mind, refusing to acknowledge the abnormal, settled on the mundane instead. ‘No one normal paid out good money for tattoos like that,’ Marcia thought. They did nothing to beautify the body and everything to spoil it. Those black tendrils looked like corruption…
She snapped her mouth shut, swallowing hard a few times. Behind Lilith, Cooper had sunk to all fours, his ears laid back against his head, his eyes wide. She could barely see him over the wooden seat that stretched across the boat’s width.
“You want him, come and get him.” Lilith said, an unmistakable challenge, “I know you talk about me, you cursed land-walkers. I know the things you say, I see how you look at me,”
So that was it. The crazy bitch was out for revenge, just because Marcia and a few others spoke a word or two about her behind her back.
“Land-walkers? What are you, some kind of water dwelling nymph?” Marcia was openly mocking, “Are you for real?”
“More real than you would ever want to know,”
Marcia shivered, sensing she was straying into dangerous territory, “You’re stealing my dog because you think I talked about you?”
“I don’t think; I know,”
“And that’s why you’re doing this? Really? My dog never did anything to you!”
“Just as I never did anything to you,” Lilith’s eyes were hard.
Sensing Lilith’s mood darkening, Marcia tried a different tack, “Look, whatever I may or may not have said about you, I never meant it to hurt or offend you, okay? If I did, I apologise. Now give me my dog back, please,”
Lilith appeared to muse over her words, cocking her head as if thinking it over, “Why hasn’t he just jumped overboard to swim back to you? They are good swimmers, aren’t they, dogs? I am not holding him here against his will, nothing is chaining him down. Why doesn’t he simply come to you?”
Marcia hesitated. It was a good question. She glanced at Cooper again, still hunkered down, terrified, in the back of the boat. Maybe the unnatural sensation of being on water, coupled with the mist and the cold, was too much for him. He’d never been in a boat before.
Or maybe he hadn’t expected to find himself on the boat and, like Marcia, was wondering how he’d got there in the first place. She couldn’t find anything to explain that. She hadn’t seen Cooper anywhere near the boat, nor even in the water. Yet there he was, firmly aboard.
Maybe this strange woman was scaring the shit out of him as much as she was scaring Marcia.
Marcia considered her choices. There was no way she was going anywhere for help. She knew instinctively that if she turned her back the woman, the boat and the dog would be gone, and she would have no idea where. She had a feeling that a search of the Upside-Down House, if she could even muster one legally or otherwise, would reveal nothing. It would be too late for Cooper by then, she just knew it.
He wasn’t great at coming back on command. As obviously scared as he was, it might be even harder to get him to comply. She could strip down to her underwear and brave the waters, see if she could grab both Cooper and the edge of the boat and pull him forcibly out of it if he didn’t come at her call. She didn’t relish the idea.
She looked at Lilith, standing tall and intimidatingly strong despite her obvious femininity. If the woman put up a fight, Marcia knew she couldn’t overcome her. In the water, one hand on Cooper, she was an easy target. A whack to the face from an oar would be enough to finish her off.
Except there were no oars that she could see. She wondered if Lilith was capable of actual violence. Her supple frame concealed subtle muscle, sitting comfortable and ready beneath her flesh. The look in her eyes, the set of her body, told Marcia that yes, Lilith was capable all right.
Resigned, Marcia unbuttoned her coat, letting it fall around her feet, hands already busy at the buttons on her shirt. She looked around, considering finding a stick hefty enough to use as a weapon if need be. She soon abandoned the idea. Anything in her hands would slow her down and render her clumsy. She didn’t want to fight. All she wanted was to get Cooper safely back, put him on his lead and get home fast.
She kicked off her boots and socks, dropping her jeans, shivering as her warm skin met the cold. She would never speak ill of this woman again, beyond reporting her to the authorities and telling the neighbours she was a potential danger. Her feet sank into the mud of the bank, oozing thickly between her toes.
The very air seemed to freeze in anticipation, the mist creating a marled pattern against the amber glow of the sun as it rose. Lilith had become even more statue-like, watching Marcia with keen interest.
Her skin prickling under the woman’s gaze, Marcia dipped a toe into the water. It was frigid, near icy, her skin puckering at its touch. That couldn’t be right. It should be cold, yes, but not mid-winter cold.
“You said to come and get him if I want him. You’ll give him to me when I get there?”
“If you get here, yes,”
Lilith ignored her, watching for her next move. Marcia swore under her breath, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,”
She stepped more fully into the water, gritting her teeth at the pain the cold brought with it. The sensation of sinking into the bed of the lake, small wriggling things squirming at her invasion, made her feel instantly nauseous. Her skin reacted, the flesh rising, goose-bumps covering her like a pox.
The water lapped gently, sending enquiring wavelets higher up her leg. Committed now, Marcia took another tentative step forward, trying not to flinch as pondweed crawled across her skin like wet spider legs. When it reached her crotch she gasped aloud, paddling at the water as if to move it away.
Once free of the reeds and weeds that bordered it, Marcia could see clearly the bed of the lake beneath her. Determining where she would next place her foot, dreading the feel of the water on her stomach, she took a deep breath and stepped forward.
Expecting it to reach no higher than her abdomen, Marcia plunged instead into deep water, the lake-bed disappearing beneath her, any kind of foothold far below. Taken by surprise, she went under once, twice; her breath stolen both by the cold and the shock.
When she came up, her hair was plastered to her scalp and face, her vision yet again obscured. She coughed and spluttered, fighting not to give in to panic, her frenzied splashing slowing as she began to tread water.
Futility was even further away than when she had first stepped into the water. It took her a moment to realise that she was seeing it unimpeded by the mist. She could see all the way across the lake; an oddly serene, hauntingly beautiful landscape.
She looked up. The mist was still there; it had simply risen to form a roof over the lake, hanging there like a solid thing. Marcia had never seen anything like it. It gave the unsettling impression that it might fall at any moment to physically strike her, closing her down like a lid on a box.
She shivered, a wracking convulsion that left her body aching. Praying she would not succumb to cramp, Marcia turned her attentions back to the boat. Cooper was standing now, watching her eagerly, his agitation obvious. Lilith did not appear to have changed position other than to turn her head Marcia’s way.
“You damn well better come when I call you,” Marcia muttered through chattering teeth. Hoping the dog would survive the shock of the water as she towed him back to shore, she struck out with a determined overarm stroke, generating some small warmth from the action.
She didn’t dare stop, even though her limbs soon felt heavy and cumbersome. She couldn’t rid herself of the feeling that the lake here was bottomless. A yawning eternity waiting below, just willing her to weaken and pause, when it would suck her down into its irredeemable depths.
She was almost at the boat. She could see Cooper looking down at her hopefully, the merest trace of a wag in his tail. The name of the boat loomed large in front of her. Two more strokes and she’d be there. If she had her way, that bitch Lilith would soon be in the water and she would be rowing back to shore, not a hair on Cooper’s glossy, red back so much as damp.
She stretched outward and upward simultaneously, aiming for the side of the boat. Her plans now changed, she would not pull Cooper out, she would haul herself aboard. Lilith had wanted to piss her off and she had succeeded. Let the dice fall where they may.
Looking forward to feeling solid wood in her grip, Marcia was flummoxed when her hand found only air. She plunged clumsily head forwards, once again forced to tread water as she reoriented herself.
Futility was not where it should have been. She spun in the water, trying to locate the boat.
It was sitting in the centre of the lake, a good way out of reach, so still and unmoving it could have been a painting.
“What is going on here?” Marcia spluttered, spitting out small mouthfuls of bitter water.
Something slithered around her ankles, coiling loosely round her foot before trailing away. Marcia cried out, tucking her knees up. There were fish in the lake she knew, eels and other creatures too. It must have been an eel; that was it. Except Marcia couldn’t rid herself of the notion that whatever had brushed against her, had done so with a thousand tiny feet. She shuddered, a fresh wave of cold coursing her body. She couldn’t last much longer in the water. She had to make a decision: either get to the boat fast and not let it escape this time or go back to the bank and get warm.
She should call for help. It was obvious to her now. She didn’t know what had possessed her to get into the water when she had her phone to hand and could have called someone, but that was exactly what she was going to do next. The police, a good friend, anyone who would come first and ask questions later.
Something so light and fleeting it could have been a dream traced its way down Marcia’s inner thigh. As it writhed away, a sharp edge, fine as a blade of grass, sliced a thin, deep incision into her skin. Marcia gasped, dismayed to see her own blood seeping into the water, mixing with it in twisting coils before diluting to nothing.
Her mind made up, she spun, heading for the bank as fast as she could, her chest heaving with the effort. Her thigh was stinging even through the numbing effect of the water. She tried to focus on the bank, on her boots and clothes where they lay discarded.
Her head spun, suddenly dizzy. She stopped striking out, so sick to her stomach she was afraid she would vomit into the water. Her eyes filled with fluid, weeping and blinding her yet again. When at last the nausea passed and her eyes had ceased their welling, she looked up to find the bank had gone.
She must have turned when she was trying not to be sick, had somehow changed direction when she was trying to clear her eyesight. She spun in a slow circle, expecting to find the bank ahead of her at any moment.
Nothing in front of her but the lake, its grey waves lapping gently. No sign even of the boat.
A cold sweat broke out on Marcia’s brow, a lump forming in her throat. This wasn’t just a misty lake and a crazy woman, this was something else completely. Something she wished she’d never become part of.
Her teeth had begun to chatter, there was a tinge of pale blue to her skin. She had to get out of the water, even if it wasn’t at the spot where she’d left her clothes. Even if it meant walking home in nothing but her underwear.
Even if it meant leaving Cooper.
She started out in a cautious breast stroke, her eyes wide, alert for any sign of movement. For anything that looked like the edge of the lake where she could haul herself back onto dry land.
The water eddied around her, creating a sound that she once would have found calming. Now, every muted swoosh brought with it a sense of alarm, that she was signalling her position to anything that might care to find her.
It took her a few seconds to comprehend that the mist had begun to descend, the air around her becoming at first smoky, before thickening to a dense whiteness. Visibility reduced to absolute zero, the weird mist halting about an inch or two above the water. This time, fear and panic joined forces, assaulting her so fully that she could hardly breathe. Not daring to continue, Marcia halted her breast stroke, bobbing helplessly in the water. A single, hot tear found a way down her clammy to cheek to drop soundlessly into the water.
There was an immediate flick of a large tail. Whatever the creature was, it sank down into the depths too fast for Marcia to identify it. All she knew, from the span of its tail fins, was that it was big.
Horrified, Marcia struck out blindly, hoping her actions weren’t a draw to any predatory animals, not that she had known there were any. She had never heard stories of giant catfish or other such creatures around here. Besides, the shape of that tail was all wrong for such a fish.
Whatever it was, she hoped it was gone. Her wound was still emitting watery strings of blood, made worse whenever she kicked that leg. She had no choice but to keep going; she could only hope that sooner or later her fingers would settle upon something solid.
Something sliced the underside of her left foot, from the tip of her big toe to the base of her heel. Deep, hard and precise. This time, Marcia screamed, the sound absorbed by the fog. She knew without looking that this wound was far worse than the first; hot, searing pain engulfing her foot, billows of blood contaminating the water.
She began to cry, sobbing and choking back mouthfuls of water as she tried clumsily to carry on swimming. She felt a ticking sensation across her bare belly. Sucking her stomach in, at once terrified that whatever had cut her foot open meant to cut her there, too, she was close to giving into her fear when her hand hit something hard.
She grabbed at it like a mad woman, her fingernails sinking into wet mud. Weak with relief, she used what was left of her strength to heave herself up and safely out of the water.
She lay flat on the bank, panting with exertion, her ribs sore, her foot agony, sobbing helplessly. She had begun to lose hope of ever seen Cooper again. As for Lilith, if she never laid eyes on her again it would be too soon.
She needed something to bind her foot. It was bleeding profusely, a thick, deep red puddle forming in the brown soil. She sat up and looked around for something she could use.
She was on the edge of a thickly wooded copse. There was nothing but trees, shrubs and plants. All useless.
The only thing that was remotely useful, that could be applied bandage-like, were the two remaining items of clothing she was wearing. Her bra or her pants.
Marcia looked down at her foot, the throbbing intense, the blood still oozing freely. She couldn’t bear the prospect of removing her pants, it felt somehow wrong. It had to be the bra.
“Oh God,” Marcia sobbed as she undid the clasp, grateful that she had at least chosen a cotton one that morning, that might be some use for absorbing the blood. Trying to position it so that that the cotton cups, wet as they were, were over the worst of the cut, she wound the back straps around it as many times as she could, stretching the fabric tight and using the hooks and eyes to secure it in place. When it was done, she lay back gasping. Sapped of much of her strength, she knew she couldn’t lie there and let the cold and her tiredness win. Struggling to her feet, she saw she would have to forge a way through the bushes, there being no trail or pathway for her to follow.
The minute she set her foot on the ground, a fresh shock of pain travelled up her leg, crippling her. She bent double, wrapping her arm about her bare breasts, feeling horribly vulnerable. She hobbled into the foliage, pushing the leaves and branches aside one-handed, numerous tiny scratches, stings and itches dotting her nakedness as the plants protested at her intrusion.
It felt an age before she was finally free of the dense growth, stepping into a clearer patch of more thinly planted trees. Pausing to lean against one, Marcia lifted her foot to inspect the cut. The bra cups were already sodden with blood, covered in mud and leaf debris, the cloth hanging loosely from her foot. She loosened the straps and bound them around her foot one more time, stretching the fabric so tight that a few stitches gave. Re-fastening it as best she could, she scanned the ground for a branch long enough to use as a cane. She found one up ahead, surprisingly smooth to the touch, slightly longer than she needed, but it would help her walk.
By her reckoning, since she had just climbed out of the lake behind her, then all she needed to do was keep going forward. At some point, she would have to hit the road dissecting the woods, leading to the car park where so many others like her abandoned their vehicles for the sanctuary of the trees. It would be heavy going, but the road couldn’t be far off now. Failing that, she would emerge onto the car park itself or onto the rough trail she and Cooper had been loosely following through the woods. All she had to do then was grab her clothes and her keys and get back to the safety of the car.
A few times, Marcia put a protective arm across her chest at what she thought was the sound of a vehicle approaching. Each time, it turned out to be nothing more than the wind in the trees; endless trees that had not yet broken to expose the road or trail. If she looked directly up, she saw the sun had well and truly risen, blinking her eyes at its brightness. Yet down here, in the woods, the strange amber glow that had greeted the early morning still held sway.
Marcia sensed a change coming. The trees had once more begun to thicken, leading into more dense and scratching foliage. She used the stick to help battle her way through this time, her tender, swollen foot agony whenever she rested it on tip-toes to take a step, the only part of it that could still tolerate being set down.
Hope building, she stepped clear of the last overhanging branch, to find she was once more at the lake’s edge.
She stood in stunned silence, taking in the scene. The mist over the water, the faint, plaintive cry of some water bird, the gentle lapping of water as it met land.
“But how?” she murmured aloud, “I don’t understand how,” as if there was someone there to answer her question.
Something to her right creaked; not the natural sound of wood bending to the breeze, but a more obvious noise somehow. She turned to see a signpost, the kind made of rough arrows nailed into a post, like in a kid’s cartoon. There were three arrows on it, two of them bare. One bore a logo depicting a thick black arrow pointing firmly at the ground. It read ‘Eris Island.’
Marcia’s heart sank. Eris Island. Understanding dawned, initial despair giving way to sheer anger and frustration.
“An Island? Really? I’m on a fucking island?” She hadn’t even known this lake had an island. In all the years she had been coming here, this was the first she had heard of it.
She was out there somewhere; that evil, twisted thing that called herself Lilith. Marcia knew her words were reaching her, wherever she was.
The mist once again lifted as if picked up as a whole and definite thing, the surface of the lake gleaming in the suddenly bright morning sun. Far across, on the other side, Marcia could just make out the spot where she had first entered the water, her clothes heaped exactly as she had left them.
To the right of that was Futility, in the same spot it had been when Marcia had first set out to reach it.
Lilith’s frank gaze reached across the open water, giving Marcia the feeling she was examining her nakedness even from this distance.
Covering herself as best she could, Marcia scanned her eyes along the boat. No sign of Cooper, unless he was hunkered right down, out of her view. She wouldn’t allow herself to believe Lilith had done him any harm. She couldn’t, otherwise all of this was pointless.
She was exhausted, shivering with pain and cold. Her foot felt huge and heavy, she didn’t like the way it was pulsing. The bra now hanging so loose it was useless, she kicked it off impatiently. It fell into the water with barely more than a light splash.
A coil of something serpentine rose in and out of the water like a smooth, dark wave. It reached the bra before it began to sink, raking it up in a twist of many fingered coils, nails sharp as flint atop each one. They grabbed the bloody cloth with relish, snatching it down into the depths before Marcia had time to process what she had seen.
She stepped away from the edge of the lake, grasping the stick for balance. Whatever that was, it had to have been the creature that had cut her in the water. She thought she could make out long, waving fronds of dark hair and the flick-flack of a wide, silvery tail fin before the sank out of view.
“That’s right, a fucking island,” a cool voice enunciated, mimicking Marcia’s words.
Marcia jumped, forgetting her foot, letting out a howl of pain as it hit the ground hard. For a minute or two she could do nothing but bend double, tensing her whole body against the agony. When it finally subsided, she looked up to see Lilith standing in the boat, its prow gently nudging the shoreline, just as it had been the first time she had laid eyes on it.
Her blood ran cold. Lilith was wearing her bra, complete with bloodied cups and stained, stretched straps.
Not for the first time that morning, hot tears welled in Marcia’s eyes. She didn’t understand any of this.
“Perplexing, isn’t it? When things are not as they seem?”
Marcia tried to concentrate, to make some kind of sense out of Lilith’s words. She would never refer to her as the woman again. She knew now that, whatever Lilith was, it was nothing human.
“I can see you are struggling. Here, let me help you,” Lilith supplied, “I thought this was a small neighbourhood, the kind of place where you land-walkers kept to yourselves, that you would mind your own business and let things be. But no. This place is a denizen of gossips and mischief makers who cannot leave well enough alone. Little devils, all of you,”
“But it was nothing!” Marcia’s voice was barely more than a whisper, “It was just curiosity, that’s all. Just people wondering about the new neighbour, about you. You were always so stand-offish. We just couldn’t understand, we don’t understand…”
Marcia’s voice trailed away to nothing. What was she thinking, trying to argue her case against something so aberrant, so patently supernatural? She had been tried and found wanting, she understood that now.
Lilith bestowed a wide smile upon her; her most convincing yet. “You don’t understand what, Marcia? Why I am such a cold fish?”
Of their own accord, Lilith’s jeans unbuttoned, the zip unlinked. Marcia saw now that the lines of cartilage she had earlier thought a distasteful tattoo, led down into legs the shade of a blackened bruise. The woman was naked beneath her clothes, the dark bruising covering her womanhood. As she looked on, Lilith’s jeans fell away to her feet, dissolving away to nothingness, leaving no trace of their existence.
Except Lilith didn’t have feet. In their place was a single wide, silvery fin. It twitched restlessly as Marcia looked stupidly down at it, mouth agape.
“Now you know,” Lilith said, her tone satisfied and smug, “and before you make any unwise remarks, I suggest you look down,”
Dread covered Marcia, but she did as she was bid, unable to disobey. Her foot had stopped hurting she suddenly noticed. It had turned a shade of deepest black, the very tips of her toes edged in silver. The blackness was spreading even as she watched, etching its way up her calf.
Lilith uttered her soft laugh, “Now you have another choice to make. Stay on the island and die, where my venom will act like a poison; or step into the boat and come with me. It gets lonely on this lake, sometimes. I could use someone to gossip with,”
“I won’t do it! I’ll stay here! Someone will come looking for me sooner or later, there’ll be something they can do about this, even if they have to cut my leg off!”
“By the time anyone comes looking, all that will be left is a corpse so blackened and hollow they will think it a death that happened months, even years, ago. What they will find of you is your clothes in a heap, blank footage on your phone and your dog running loose, looking for you,”
“Cooper? You mean he’s okay?”
“Of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?”
“But you taunted me with him! You told me to come and take him from you!”
“Did I? Ah well, goes to show you shouldn’t believe everything you hear,”
“But he was there! You had him there, I saw him!” Marcia was shrieking, her throat sore with the effort as she pointed into the back of the boat.
Lilith shrugged, “A trick of the light, perhaps. The mist can make a fool of you, it can make you see things that are not really there,”
Marcia sank back, the fight seeping out of her, “How do I know he’s okay?”
“Look for yourself,” Lilith turned to the far bank.
Marcia followed her gaze. Cooper stood there, looking out across the water, his tail wagging, his red coat shining. He began barking crazily, bound to catch someone’s attention sooner or later. Every now and then, he broke off from his noisy tirade to sniff at Marcia’s clothing, snuffling into it as if he was already forgetting her scent.
She had no doubt it was really him. She knew her dog’s body language, his posture, even his bark, so very well. He was safe from harm. The irony did not escape her, that this whole thing had started because she wanted to keep him from danger, yet here she was herself now, firmly in the grip of it.
“Can there not be a third choice? Can’t I chose to live here, on this island, with Cooper?”
“You don’t think that would attract attention sooner or later?”
“Is that why you live like a human, then? In the Upside-Down house?”
“It is why I pretend to live like one, yes. I cannot fulfil my destiny if I am constantly fending off annoying angry mobs or inquisitive loners,”
“The whole thing’s a front?”
Lilith smiled appreciatively, “The whole thing’s a front,” she agreed.
“So I would come and live with you?”
“Oh no, we have other plans for you,” she left it at that, the sentence hanging in the air. Marcia was too scared to ask what she meant by ‘we.’
She looked down at her badly injured leg. The blackness had reached her knee. On the other one, where she had been sliced across the thigh, the corruption was travelling downward as well as up. The thinnest lines of grey were weaving their way up to her hips. It did indeed look like the rotting flesh of a corpse, Marcia noted with dull surprise.
“I have no choice, do I?” she said.
“Of course you do. There is always a choice,”
Marcia looked behind her, at the way she had come. She was standing on an island that didn’t really exist, Lilith’s venom already coursing through her veins. She had the feeling that the agony in her foot had only stopped because of Lilith’s presence. If she chose not to go with her, she was certain she would be wracked with unimaginable pain the second the boat drifted off. She did not want to die like that.
She caught sight of the signpost out of the corner of her eye. Looking at it again, she saw one of the previously bare pointers now had a word inscribed upon it. Fixed directly at the boat, it simply read, ‘Futility.’
Cooper began barking again, the sound both joyous and inquisitive. She took the time to look once more at his beautiful form; his long-legged, reckless gait, the way the sun shone upon him, turning his coat a shade of warm copper.
She looked up at Lilith; cold, hard Lilith, standing unmoving at the prow of the little boat.
“Permission to come aboard?” she asked.
Lilith’s response was many-voiced, deep as the lake, old as time.
“Granted,” it boomed.
Alexis was enjoying the brisk pace his gun dogs were setting. Evening was coming on, but at this rate they would soon be back at the car, clear of the woods before night fall.
As he walked, he pondered over Marcia’s apparent suicide. It was inevitable that his thoughts would turn to her, this being the very place they had found her belongings, poor Cooper curled up on top of her jacket, waiting for her return. It hadn’t been difficult, finding such an affable dog a loving new home and by all accounts, he was doing well.
It was sad, Alexis reflected. More than that, it was downright weird. Marcia had been vivaciously alive, exuberant, always ready for a chat. It didn’t seem quite right that she should come out here, abandoning Cooper, the dog she had so adored, to take her own life. They still hadn’t found her body.
Even so, there had been rumours of foul play, some of them even going as far as to speculate over the involvement of the new neighbour in Marcia’s disappearance. There was no real basis for this, other than that the was woman new to the area; and quite strange. She was never at home, not even there when the police had knocked as part of their routine enquiries. Alexis wasn’t even sure they had managed to get hold of her yet. Marcia had disappeared months ago. Between them, the neighbours always referred to it as a disappearance, not a suicide. None of them were convinced.
No, she was an odd one, that woman. A shade too cool, a touch too unreachable. Alexis wouldn’t be that surprised if she was involved somehow.
He became all at once aware that the air had turned deeply cold. He had been looking at the ground, absently watching each booted step he took, deep in thought. When he looked up, he was surprised to find he had walked straight into a wall of dense fog. He stopped in his tracks, the moisture in the air settling in droplets on his shoulders. Beyond, he could hear the baying of his dogs, as if they had smelled out something interesting amongst the trees. Alexis shrugged. It was unexpected, but it was only mist. If he just kept walking, he would soon come out the other side…
S P Oldham