The water in the lake slapped lazily against the side of the boat.
“Gramma, I don’t want to pedal anymore.” The boy sighed, lifting his hat off his head before wiping the sunscreen-laced sweat from off his forehead.
Barbara sighed. She knew for a fact that he hadn’t been pedaling for the past fifteen minutes. She hadn’t expected much from the seven-year old boy, but his lack of effort made moving the small pedal boat exponentially harder.
“You wanted to go to the cove, didn’t you?” She questioned, raising an eyebrow. He nodded. “Then you have to pedal. Just a little bit.”
The boat was only fifteen feet away from the shore. The water deep enough for them to safely travel without fear of hitting the bottom, but shallow enough that they could still spot anything beneath the surface. They were pedaling parallel to the shore, following the curve of plants and dying foliage.
Barbara looked to the shore and shook her head. Tall, straw-colored plants stood against the water, some cracking and bending over. If it had been June, the reeds would have been tall and full of life. However, it was late August, and they had slowly dehydrated as the water level lowered throughout the summer. Instead of the rich, green, plants that she had hoped to show her grandchild, she had been forced to show him the bay during its dying breaths of the season.
“I’m so tired!”
Barbara held back a glare. It wouldn’t be fair to chastise the boy. He had been surprised when she offered to take him for a ride in the boat. In fact, she had surprised herself. She hadn’t used it in years, and it was the first time she had seen Jesse all summer. It was an impulsive decision, she wanted to impress him and make him realize his grandmother wasn’t as boring as he thought. And to his credit, the sun was hot. She could feel the tightness of her skin as the rays left their mark. The only relief came from the occasional splashes of water hitting her feet as the boat bobbed through the water.
“Well, I know that the Jesse-engine has enough power to get us there.” She pointed ahead, “Look. You can almost see the clearing from here.”
There was a break in the plants up ahead, just wide enough for the boat to sneak through. She had only been there once before, the last time she had tried to impress a relative with the wonders of nature, but Barb knew that the small opening would widen into a large cove. It was secluded and she doubted that anyone besides herself knew about the spot. It was far, enough that local fisherman wouldn’t bother trying to access it, meaning that the water would be full of creepy crawlies for Jesse.
He nodded, and began to move his feet, nearly straightening completely in his chair. He stood with his feet on the pedals to exaggerate his efforts.
“Stop that. The water is deep here. If you fall over the side I won’t be able to get you.”
Jesse sighed before sitting normally, kicking at the pedals.
“Do I have to wear my life jacket? It’s squishing my face.”
“Of course you have to. It’s the rules.”
“So if you fall into the water you won’t sink to the bottom.”
“What if I’m too heavy?”
“You’re not. The only way you’d sink is if something dragged you down. Let me tell you, it takes a lot to hold someone down at the bottom of the lake.”
After a few moments, she sighed. He’d stopped pedaling again. She was the one who had offered to take him on this adventure, but he was getting more irritating by the second.
They approached the entrance, and Barbara grabbed the net from behind them, using it to push the reeds out of the way. The plants cracked as the boat slid through, snapping those on the edges of the entrance in half.
“Yuck, why is the water covered in goo?” Jesse exclaimed.
Aside from the ripples coming from the boat, the visible surface of the water was unmoving. However, most of the water was covered by thick, green, bubbling pond scum. Subconsciously, Barbara clutched the side of the boat, relishing the barrier it provided between herself and the water.
“It’s not like the rest of the lake. People don’t usually come here, and the water doesn’t get to move very much. All of the gunk just floats to the surface.”
With the churning of the pedals, the boat pushed its way through the muck and algae that was clinging to its sides. Through the breaks in the scum, Barbara saw insects skimming the surface and the occasional fish gliding through the water.
“Have you been here before?” Jesse whispered, leaning towards the side of the boat.
“Once, years ago.”
“With Mummy? She hates boats and fish.”
“No, your Aunt.”
“Auntie Janet? She told me she’s afraid of boats. She said that if we can’t swim by ourselves, we shouldn’t be in the water.”
“Not Aunt Janet. Your Aunt Brenda.”
“Auntie Brenda?” Jesse frowned.
Barbara stopped pedaling and the churning noise stopped. Up ahead, there were outlines in the water, murky figures about to break the surface. She placed her index finger against her lips, signaling that they should be quiet if they wanted to see anything. He nodded.
They sat, the world surrounding them completely quiet aside from the hum of the cicadas in the bush.
To their right, the grass cracked loudly and out of the corner of her eye Barbara saw the leaves shake. As she turned her head towards noise, the sound stopped. However, she would have sworn she could hear laughter coming through the trees.
An inch of water had accumulated on the floor of the boat.
Barbara sighed. The boat was old, probably at least ten years older than Jesse, and it had the tendency to pick up water. She leaned forward to examine the floor, usually she could spot the source and plug it, but there was no evident source of the water.
“Don’t worry. I’ll pedal us out.”
Usually when the boat accumulated water Barbara would climb out of the boat and bail the water with a bucket. However, the pond, filled with who knows what, was not something that she wanted to be standing in. Plus, she wasn’t sure how deep it was.
She began pedaling her feet, splashing as they pushed through the water. As the boat jerked into a halt, Jesse screamed,
Jesse shrieked and Barbara closed her eyes, annoyance flowing through her. She was sitting right beside him. He didn’t need to scream every fucking word. Once she opened her eyes, however, a wave of nausea hit her.
The neon yellow nylon rope, the one that tethered the anchor to the side of the boat had become twisted and wrapped around both the pedal and her grandson’s ankle at least four times. It was a knotted mess, braided nylon intricately twisted around itself. It had created an effective knot, tying Jesse’s foot to the pedal.
“It’s okay. Take a deep breath.”
She leaned forward. She wasn’t going to be able to pedal the boat with his foot trapped to the pedal, and she began to untie the knot. The combination of Jesse’s fidgeting and the rope being half-covered with water made it difficult to untangle. It wasn’t long before Barbara realized that she wouldn’t be able to untie the knot herself, it would have to be cut.
“Gramma, are we sinking?”
Jesse had stopped crying, and instead stared at the front of the boat. When they had entered the small cove, the bow sat approximately a foot above the water. Now, it was barely on par with the water. The water on the floor was nearly two inches deep now, twice what it had been ten minutes earlier.
“Just stay quiet for a minute, okay?”
Barbara weighed their options. If she jumped out and began bailing the water it would slow the sinking, but it wouldn’t stop the process. She could continue to untie the knot, but she hadn’t gained any traction, and the water wasn’t making it easier. She could attempt to cut the knot but without a knife it would be unlikely she’d be able to do it. She would have to swim to the edge of the pond and find a rock big enough to cut the rope.
The bushes on the shore rustled once more, and again Barbara heard a giggle coming from the grass.
“Is anybody there? Please! We need help!”
Barbara looked up and scanned the shore. The area was secluded; it would be hard for any sound to travel. If it was a giggle she had heard, it was close.
“Please! We need help!”
Taking one last look at green gunk floating on the water, Barbara leaned over the side of the boat and jumped in. The water wasn’t as deep as she expected, it came up to her neck, and she began to swim to the shore. With each step she felt the mud from push up between her toes and ooze across her foot.
“If anyone can hear me, my grandson needs help!”
Behind her, Jesse continued to scream, pulling and twisting in his seat.
Barbara scanned the shoreline for something that could be used to break the rope. As she approached, she dug her fingers through the water and mud, frogs leaping out of her path. Above her, the grass rustled once more, and as Barbara looked towards the sound of the noise, she could have sworn she saw a flash of orange through the reeds.
Pain shot through her fingers as her hand sliced across a broken beer bottle lying in the mud. She grasped it, wincing at the pain, and ripped it from the dirt. Blood dripped from her fingertips as she raised it above her head, screaming in triumph.
She turned towards the boat, and sprinted back. As she ran, she felt a laugh begin to bubble deep inside of her chest. The entire situation felt like a dream. The way she was trying, so desperately to move but the water was holding her back. It was an ironic thought, morbid, that this living nightmare was becoming more dreamlike by the moment.
By the time she returned to the boat, the bow had just sunk beneath the water level. She submerged her arm into the water that had filled the boat, and began tearing at the rope.
As she cut, Jesse squirmed, moaning. His constant movement splashed the water, flicking it towards her face.
“Stop moving! For god sake, stop fucking moving!”
Even through the water she could see that his foot was a dark purple, almost black. Jesse had struggled so much that the rope had begun to embed itself in his skin, dyeing the fabric red.
The sound of movement echoed from the shore once again.
The last strand snapped, releasing Jesse. Barbara wrapped her arms around him and pulled him out of the boat, clutching him against her chest.
Jesse was limp in his Grandmother’s arms, silent tears pouring down his face. As he began to sob, Barbara turned towards the entrance of the pond and began to walk back to the dock.
They walked alongside the shore, her shoulder occasionally brushing against the tall leaves beside them. After the first fifteen minutes, she tried to get Jesse to walk on his own, but it was clear that his ankle wouldn’t be able to support his own weight. She picked him back up, muscles aching, and continued to walk.
Ten minutes later, the reeds began to rustle. At first, it was quiet. An occasional stock in the distance snapped loudly as if being stepped on. She ignored the sound, hoping that it was a beaver or other creature making its way home for the evening.
She stared vacantly ahead and didn’t notice the dead fish until it bumped into her ankle. The grey body floated, a single eye staring blankly at the sky above, and a sudden, primal feeling of revulsion struck her as its flesh touched her own. As it made contact, half a dozen black flies flew into the air.
“Don’t look, Jesse. It’s fine.”
She carefully stepped over the body, pushing Jesse’s head into her neck until the body was too far away to see. As they walked, the rustling noises continued. She had expected the sound to eventually vanish, whatever was moving in the reeds would disappear eventually. However, the noise persisted, the sound snapping almost in time to her own footsteps.
Barbara looked towards the reeds. She peered between the stocks for the source of the noise but couldn’t see anything. She stopped, perhaps it was only her own footsteps echoing. The noise slowed, but it did not stop.
It took forty-five minutes before the pair made it back to the dock. She climbed, wobbly, up onto the wooden planks that lead off the edge of her property. As Jesse sat on the bench near the side of the embankment, she forced a smile.
“Jesse, I’ll bring you home in a few minutes. I’m just going to call your Mum and tell her what’s happened. Do you mind?”
She walked to the edge of the dock and rummaged through the dirt. Pushing over a small pile of rocks, she lifted a small plastic baggie containing her flip-phone, wallet, and a pack of cigarettes. She dialed her daughters number, and began to describe the afternoon.
“You’re fucking kidding me, right Mom?” Her daughter’s voice was harsh.
“You brought Jesse to that swamp?”
“I thought he would enjoy being outdoors, you know he spends too much time on that tablet and-”
“So you thought you’d take him to where my sister drowned?”
Barbara sighed. She knew this is what would happen.
“That was years ago. A tragic accident. If she had kept her life jacket on like I’d told her it never would have happened.”
“I can’t believe you even get in that fucking boat after your own daughter died in it.”
“That was years ago,” Barbara repeated, “It was an accident.”
“Stop it. Just stop it. You’re acting like a child. You’re so fucking lucky nothing happened to Jesse.”
Barbara hadn’t even mentioned the incident, just that she had taken Jesse out on the boat, and Katherine was already furious. Katherine would go ballistic once she explained what had happened that afternoon, and that wasn’t a fight she was particularly interested in having.
“Jesse is fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry. I’ll see you tomorrow when you come to pick him up.”
“No, I think I’ll come tonight. I’ll see you in a few hours, Mom.”
Her daughter hung up the phone and Barbara sighed.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted movement in the bushes. Barbara stretched upwards, trying to look over the tall reeds. She couldn’t see anything over the plants, and went back onto her flat feet.
“Did you see that?”
Jesse stared blankly ahead, then slowly shook his head no.
She walked towards the dock, and as she approached the waterline realized that the movement wasn’t in the bushes as she had originally suspected, but floating towards the dock in the water itself. There was something moving towards the dock.
“Jesse, just wait here a minute.”
The planks of the dock creaked as she walked across it. Suddenly, the reeds began to whistle, and she broke into a sprint down the wooden beams. She stopped at the end, panting, partly from exertion and partly from fear, as she stared into the water.
The pedal boat was in the water, ten feet away from the dock.
It stood bright against the blue water, like the sun shining on a cloudless day. It certainly didn’t look like it had just been submerged at the bottom of a scummy pond.
“How did you get back here?” Barbara spoke out loud as she took a step towards the boat.
“Gramma!” Jesse called from the shore, “What are you doing!”
For a moment, Barbara considered returning to her grandson. He was hurt after all. However, his mother would be here any minute, and she would take care of him. Unlike the boat, which was starting to float away from the dock.
She stepped off and into the water, hardly feeling the water as it splashed across her legs.
Barbara climbed into the boat. The bow was pristine, there wasn’t a speck of dirt in either of the seats. The accumulation of dead bugs and algae had been scrubbed clean. The only thing in the boat was in the passenger side seat that Jesse had occupied earlier that day. There sat an orange, dirty, ripped life preserver. Long faded sharpie marked the front of the jacket, showing a faint outline of the letter B.
For a moment, she sat without moving. Then, she slowly put her feet on the pedals. Before she asserted any pressure on them, the boat began to move. Over the sound of the rustling reeds, she could hear Jesse calling her name from the top of the dock.
As the boat moved forward, she felt resistance as her feet hit water. There was an inch of water accumulating bottom of the boat, coated in thick, green pond scum. Her feet penetrated the layer, and it clung like a sheet to the top of her foot. She didn’t mind anymore.
Barbara already knew where the boat was taking her.
Carlie Thompson is an emerging horror writer from Southwestern Ontario. Passionate about gothic fiction, she uses writes to emphasize the societal issues that haunt humans today. Her work has been published in the literary journal Occasus, as well as a number of newspapers.