When I was younger, there wasn’t anything I liked more than visiting my grandparents at their cottage on a lake in Upstate. Years later I can still smell the fresh-fallen rain on their patio and taste the buttered corn on the cob from their grill. While they’ve since moved to a retirement village in California, I’ll always have memories from their home.
Some memories, unfortunately, are darker than others. That night in August when I was fourteen haunts me to this day.
A family friend of ours’ was visiting with their twin sons, both of which were a year older than my cousin Sofia and me. There was something about bratty teen country boys that to a young suburban girl, seemed so fascinating. They were the motorcycle boys from all my teen novels, the ones who came off as jerks but brought out a girl’s wild side. Sofia was four months younger than me and equally drawn in by the danger that they promised.
They talked about smoking weed, about exploring graveyards, and even taking their dad’s truck without his permission. Contrastingly, Sofia and I had been given massive books of the top 300 colleges in North America as “back to school presents.” To think of escaping was devouring dark chocolate and pomegranate juice while wearing white lace.
Late at night, when our parents were drinking beer on the porch, we roasted marshmallows over a fire pit right on the shoreline. The moon shone bright over the broad span of water, the opposing shore about a mile across and a blackened silhouette with sparsely scattered windows against the night sky.
“I want to swim across there someday,” I said. In my head, I dreamt of great athletic achievements, tainted only by my lack of commitment to intramural sports.
The boys laughed. “You’d better not swim at night,” Craig, the older-by-five-minutes one, said cockily.
“Yeah,” said Matt, the slightly younger one echoed. “There are wicked crazy animals out there. Like you wouldn’t imagine.”
Sofia laughed. “In a lake?” she asked. “How?”
“People in the sixties left some crazy animals out there is what I’m saying,” Matt said. “And they all bred together.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “My dad said Grandpa got them a bunch of baby alligators when they were little and when they got too big they just let them loose.”
Sofia scoffed. “Yeah, my mom said that too. But that’s just alligators, and they’d definitely die in the winters.”
“Aren’t alligators saltwater too?” I asked.
“No, that’s crocodiles,” Sofia said.
“Okay, yeah,” I said. “There’s nothing that would survive the winters out here, Matt.”
“Nothing natural,” Matt fired back.
“You need proof?” Craig said. “There’s a power plant a few miles up and all their waste flows into here. Makes the animals all sorts’a fucked up.”
“Sure,” Sofia said sarcastically.
“And not just that,” Matt said. “But it’s haunted.”
It was my turn to be sarcastic. “Yeah, right.”
“He don’t mean like, the plant was,” Craig said. “Separate thing. It’s some Seneca shit from pioneer times, and it ain’t real.”
“It is real,” Matt said. “They’re who made the bad energy.”
“Oh yeah?” Sofia said. “They made a bunch of bad energy when we stole their land?”
Craig scoffed. “We paid ’em, didn’t we?”
Sofia glared at him. “Well curses aren’t real, and I don’t see any alligators or weird creatures around here.
“Not here,” Craig said, sounding defensive. “There’s an island we can get to with the boat tonight after our parents go to sleep. That’s where the shit goes down, I hear. Small thing but packed to the gills with creepy-crawlies.”
I got a butterfly-in-my-stomach thrill and looked to Sofia. She exchanged a knowing glance with me. As much as these boys were assholes, this was a chance to do something we’d never do on our own.
The summer was winding down, and then it would be school, tutors, theater society… Things we enjoyed but that didn’t leave us with many stories to tell. These boys likely weren’t even planning on going to college. Their parents didn’t even care if they finished high school, so long as they got a GED and a job.
So when we could hear our parents snoring from their rooms, we snuck out to the dock and boarded the small boat. We used the paddles, mainly because the engine was loud but also because it was rarely reliable at all. I remember being a little scared that we’d be grounded for leaving the house without permission, but I brought my Motorola RAZR with me. At least my parents would be able to know I was safe if they woke up, looked for us, and didn’t find us.
The water was completely dark, illuminated only partly by Craig’s flashlight, and in the thrill of the night I did wonder if something would come up from the gentle waves.
“You ever been to the island?” Sofia asked. I was grateful that someone broke the silence.
“Nah,” Matt said. “But everyone knows about it. It’s got creatures.”
I felt for the aluminum baseball bat I’d brought with me. Everyone had brought a weapon– Sofia held a putter, Matt had a pocket knife, and Craig had taken my grandpa’s small axe. If there were creatures, as the boys seemed to believe, I didn’t want to be defenseless against them.
We hardly spoke in the twenty minutes it took us to paddle. Aside from the waves gently lapping at the sides of the boat, there was no sound. Not even, I noticed, as we neared the small rocky island, the sound of insects coming from the woods. All was still.
It was enough to cause me to jump out of my skin when I heard the boat scrape over the gravelly shore. The boys laughed but Sofia shot me a concerned look.
“I want to stay with the boat,” she said firmly after stepping onto the beach.
“Lame,” said Craig. “I always knew you city girls were a bunch of pussies.”
“We came all this way!” Matt whined. “Why not?”
“Someone has to man the boat,” she defended. “What if one of those creatures get it? Then we’re stuck on this island with nothing.”
“She’s right,” Matt said, after pausing. Craig scoffed.
“I’m staying with her,” I said.
“What the hell?” Craig said. “We don’t need more than one person at the boat.”
“Yeah, but I am a pussy,” I said.
Craig glared at me, before laughing. “That’s a good one, Grace. But I’m blaming it on you if we get in trouble.”
I nodded. A pang of guilt hit me though, thinking they’d be going into the wooded island with nothing. “Take my phone,” I offered. “You can take pictures if you find something!”
A glimmer of happiness flickered across Craig’s eyes. “Will do, sweet thing.”
Matt gagged. “You’re such an idiot,” he said, before heading towards the woods.
Sofia and I watched their backs disappear into the path, their neon-colored t-shirts slowly fading. The air was thick and drenched us in a chill that I hadn’t expected when I chose to wear cotton Soffe shorts and a tank top.
We sat there for a few minutes when Sofia broke the silence.
“There are no mosquitos out tonight.”
I realized she was right. In the summer we usually ended our nights covered in a patchwork of bug bites. And, taking in awareness of my limbs, it would seem like there were none to be found in the whole state.
“I don’t like it here,” I replied. “It feels wrong.”
In fact, it felt like the air before a thunderstorm, the type that soaks into your cheeks and hums with static. I clutched my baseball bat tighter as goosebumps broke out on my skin.
My eyes had adjusted to the night quite a bit, the moon casting everything in navy. I didn’t think anything was moving but it felt like at any minute, some oversized gator could appear and snap us in two. Sofia seemed to notice, moving further up the beach.
“I think I see them,” she said before I heard a massive crunch of gravel behind us.
We whipped our heads around to see the boat adjusting in the water. It made a splash, and I was instantly reminded of making waves with my hands in the water and stopping them midway.
Sofia jogged back towards the water. “Grace!” she exclaimed. “We need to get it before it floats away!”
Without even knowing why I grabbed her arm. She stumbled forwards, teetering on the edge of the lake. The water shifted.
“Sofia, look at the water,” I whispered.
Under the shadow of our forms, something, or some things slithered in figure eights, not breaking the surface of the lake.
“Oh my god,” she whispered back. Our bodies stiffening, we slowly retreated, not wanting to make a single step closer to whatever creature stood between us and the boat.
“It could be water snakes,” Sophie breathed. “We still shouldn’t go in there.”
“Are lake eels a thing?” I asked. The boat began drifting away in a straight direction as if it, too, wanted nothing to do with the creatures of the island.
“I guess we’re camping,” Sophie said.
We’d traveled west on the lake to get to the island, and could see the closest shore about 200 yards in front of us. But 200 yards was a long way to swim risking water snakes, only to return and tell Gramps you lost his rowboat. Better to wait till morning when the water is clear.
Sofia turned on a flashlight I forgot we even brought and in that instant I saw something flash out of sight in the water.
“Where are they?” she asked, shining her light towards the trees.
“They’ve only been gone like five minutes,” I said.
Sofia’s light shone right at me. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “It’s been an hour.”
“Are you kidding me?” I asked.
“No, Grace, it’s been at least an hour. Maybe more.”
“You’re completely wrong,” I said. “They just left.”
Sofia screamed, her light shining behind me. Stumbling backward, she kept screaming and dropped the flashlight. Next thing I knew, she grabbed my hand and started running, tripping over rocks as we sprinted into the woods. My heart was in my throat. I wanted to look back but she ran too fast for me to risk the chance. I couldn’t see where we were going, but she pulled me behind a tree and we pressed our backs against it, panting heavily.
“Grace,” she whimpered. “There’s something out there… It came from the water.”