The pool glowed blue in dusk light, every bit as beautiful as Kristen had promised. After the story she’d told him, of drowned children and a park closed many years ago, Luke couldn’t help wondering what lay beneath the surface. A light wind blew through pine canopies, but the thick trunks and steep slippery banks shielded the pool and not so much as a ripple crossed it.
‘Creepy, huh?’ Kristen was watching him, strands of dark hair falling across her green eyes. Luke shrugged. ‘It’s pretty cool, I guess.’
‘Pretty cool?’ She walked around it slowly, keeping back from the edge and peering inside. ‘It’s incredible. Just think about all of the death that’s happened in this one small circle of water. Most of them children. Come on, Luke, I thought you liked horror stories.’
‘Well, yeah. I mean, yeah, you know.’ He scratched his head, awkward. He remembered Vince slapping him on the back the day before. ‘Congrats, man,’ he’d said with a half smile. ‘There’s only one reason she’d be taking you up to that isolated spot all alone.’ And he’d given him an exaggerated wink. The idiot. Even if it was true, Luke had no idea what to do. Hey, wanna make out or what? Is that what the cool kids said?
‘You know, there’ve been disappearances around the area for decades. One every year or two, and the bodies never get found.’ She sat down on a rotted stump across the pool from him, broken in such a way that when she rested her back on the remains of the trunk it looked like a throne. ‘If you ask me, they’re all right there, in this pool.’
He shivered and stepped closer to the bank, looking down at the source of what he was sure was an urban legend. It was a pond, except that it was too perfectly circular, and if you squinted you could see the mud around the edges was actually dirty concrete, the remnants of an old public swimming pool. He recalled the ruined fence they’d passed on the way in. No Admittance. Now no more than rusted, overgrown wire, strewn across the path.
The water was black as coffee grounds, and when Luke leaned over it, he couldn’t see his reflection at all.
‘Dare me to jump in?’ She said, grinning.
He laughed. ‘No way, are you crazy? You’ll freeze to death.’
‘What if I fell? Would you dive in and save me? Although, you should know – that’s exactly how one couple died not long after the place got closed.’
He was making his way around the pool, thinking if he could just get close enough to her she might make the first move. Vince was right – he was getting signals from her: the way she looked at him, the way she smiled and listened so intently. Or was she just being friendly? But she stood up as he came over and stepped away. A long fallen branch lay nearby, the end of which hung over part of the pool. She stepped onto it, balancing with her arms outstretched.
‘I wonder how deep it goes,’ she said.
He watched her, hunched over with his hands in his pockets. ‘It was just a swimming pool, wasn’t it? Can’t be that deep.’
‘No, silly. It wasn’t just a swimming pool. It was a Death Pool. A pool of the dead. I bet it goes all the way down to hell.’ She looked up from the branch and gave him a crooked smile. Man, she was a twisted chick. Luke found he didn’t care. He was a high school boy who’d never so much as kissed a girl. She could have been freshly escaped from a mental asylum and he’d have been just as eager. If this was her idea of a date, so be it – she was just a horror fan like him.
‘So, this is it, huh? You took me out here just to show me this?’
‘Not just.’ She took another couple of steps along the branch, focussing on her feet. ‘But I thought you’d appreciate it.’
‘Yeah? I mean, it’s pretty beautiful. Like you.’ She burst out laughing and he felt his face redden. Holy shit, that was corny. Why would I say that?
‘You’re cute, Luke Freeman. But I didn’t take you here to make out.’ She took another couple of steps, now on the part of branch overhanging the pool. ‘I just wanted to show you how cool this place was, cos you have the same taste in horror movies as me.’
‘Oh. I mean, yeah I know, I was just messing around.’
‘The making out we can do later.’
He opened his mouth to respond and then closed it again, his heart pumping faster than it had watching Hellraiser at age seven. She was kept her eyes on the branch, but she was grinning. She seemed so confident. Had she been with guys before? A girl as pretty as her, she had to be. She was playing with him, not that he cared a damn.
‘Well, it’s getting dark,’ he ventured. ‘Maybe we should head back.’
‘Okay, in a bit. Reckon I can make it all the way to the end?’
He eyed the end of the branch uneasily. It didn’t look stable, although she was pretty light and small. Just tell her it’s too risky. But he didn’t want to sound like a sissy, so he just shrugged. ‘Yeah, maybe.’
One more step. Another. The heavy base of the branch lifted a little off the ground and she swayed, but didn’t fall.
‘Be careful,’ he said, trying not to sound as worried as he was. She was doing it on purpose, of course, testing him. All he could think about were the creepy stories she’d told him – of grown men diving under and never coming out.
‘If I fall in, would you save me?’ She said.
‘Why, can’t you swim?’
‘What if I couldn’t?’
‘Then, uh, yeah, sure I would.’
She smiled wider and took another step, one more from the end of the branch. ‘You wouldn’t be scared?’
He laughed. ‘No way. It’s just water. It’ll take more than your stories to make me scared of a swimming pool.’
She gave a mock sigh. ‘My hero.’
He grinned, his stomach doing a pleasant backflip even though he knew she was teasing him. If she got her clothes wet, she’d have to get changed. And his house was close to here, just the twenty minute walk down the path.
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘here goes.’
She lowered her foot lightly onto the end of the branch and shifted some of her weight on to it, neither of them daring to breathe. She was directly over the middle of the pool now, its surface so still and black Luke wondered if it might even be solid. Maybe that was the game she was playing – she’d step off the end onto hard ground and then laugh at the look on his face. He loosened up at the thought, and his eyes darted up to her face and then to her shapely ass, a guilty smile on his face. As Vince would have said, that girl was fine.
She lifted her foot and turned to head back.
The branch rolled.
Her right foot slipped on the rotted bark and she went down with a high pitched whoop! And then she disappeared in a splash of thick black water, some of it spattering Luke’s face.
He stood, frozen, his heat racing, expecting her to come gasping to the surface any second.
One of her hands came up, covered in a black paste. The pool wasn’t really filled with rainwater as Luke had initially thought – it was thick sludge, with a few inches of rainwater over the top. He came forward as far as he dared, keeping one foot on the bank and planting the other on the branch so that he could lean forward. ‘Kristen!’ He wanted badly to believe it was a joke, that she was keeping herself just below the surface with her hand up, resisting the urge to laugh.
But it was no joke. Her hand was sinking, small waves lapping at her wrist and then her palm, the weight of her clothes dragging her down. He reached for her but couldn’t get close, not unless he either dove in himself or left the bank and moved along the branch. Didn’t someone say never to let a drowning person grab hold of you? He stood half in and half out, staring at her sinking hand, undecided. She could swim, couldn’t she?
Grab her! Just wade in and pull her up! He couldn’t do it. He imagined thick mud sucking at his chest, his neck. Her pale desperate hand taking hold of his and pulling him down with her. I bet it goes all the way down to hell.
Only the tips of her fingers were visible now.
Too late, he thought of the branch. It was heavy, but he’d be able to move it. He turned away from the pool and grabbed the base, pushing it so that the twisted branches at the tip rolled closer to her hand. Twice his feet lost purchase in the mud and he slid to his knees. When he looked over after the second time, he couldn’t see her at all.
Shit, shit, shit. He got behind the branch and lifted it so that the end dipped into the muck where she’d gone under. Please oh please grab it, just feel the branch and grab hold.
A minute passed, and Kristen hadn’t surfaced. Luke lowered the branch and stared at the pool, breathing hard. If he dialled now, emergency services could get here in twenty or twenty five minutes. They’d be looking for a body.
She might be unconscious now, but still alive. She can’t be that far down. Just go in a bit and feel around for her hand. Do that at least.
She’d told him about two brothers from way back in the fifties. Ten and eight years old, they’d sneaked in for a swim soon after the pool was closed off. Both strong swimmers. Both found floating the next day. Just a story.
Luke crouched down by the side of the pool, searching for any sign of her pale skin. He saw nothing beneath the swirling mud. Another minute passed.
And another. The trees were silent, as though they were holding their breath along with her. But not forever.
He opened his phone and dialled 000 with shaking fingers. Had a conversation with the operator he couldn’t remember a word of later.
Then he put his head in his hands and cried.
He was there, his parents and Kristen’s beside him, when the police fished for her body with what basically amounted to sticks and cameras. Visibility was zero, and they couldn’t send divers because the mud was too thick. They dredged it, and found that most of the pool’s concrete base had long ago crumbled away. The bottom was non-existent, and there was no telling how deep the sinkhole went. Most likely the sludge they’d sucked out would be replaced within the next week or so.
When they told her parents that her body would likely never be recovered, the sounds of their hysterical weeping ate into Luke’s brain and settled there for good. He heard it that night before he went to sleep, and every night of his life afterwards. They hugged him and told him they didn’t blame him. She’d gone under far too quickly. He was soaked with mud up to his chest and they thanked him for trying. Her father, a tradesman with a stiff grey beard, shook his hand and said in a thick, restrained voice, ‘You were brave to go in as deep as you did, son.’
The police questioned him for a nerve racking hour, but despite his fears they wrote him off as a distraught witness to a terrible accident, not a suspect. He returned home with his worried parents, who consoled him and got pizza for dinner and told him these things happen, and it wasn’t your fault, and try not to think about it too much. He found a way to fall asleep, and the sun rose the following day just like on any other.
And just like that, a girl was dead, and the world went on.
He had breakfast, went for a long walk – nowhere near the pool, of course, and read light hearted comic books. That night, rain fell, and the old swimming pool would be filling up, and Kristen’s boot prints would be washed away, and it would be as though she’d vanished completely from the face of the earth.
Their weeping hadn’t been the kind of high pitched wailing they show in movies. It had been low, husky crying, the kind that scratched vocal chords and left you short of breath. The father had been silent, tears streaming down his drawn face against his will. Luke hadn’t had to listen for long, but he listened plenty now, in the early hours of the morning, a long way from sunrise.
He tossed for the hundredth time, then rolled onto his back and opened his sore eyes. It was the sixth day since she’d died, and he’d slept a grand total of about eighteen hours. The insomnia only made things worse, because his mind tried to dream while he was awake, and as a result the weeping grew louder and more vivid with time. Staring at the ceiling at night, he even saw things: her pretty pale face smiling at him from the ceiling, for example. Then he’d look closer and see it was only the round light seeming to glow in the dark.
‘Screw this.’ He threw off his blanket. If he was going to be awake, he might as well do something.
As soon as he got out of bed the air chilled him to the bone. The heater was on but it only ever managed to warm the ground floor. Maybe he’d have a shower. A long, hot shower, until steam rose from his skin. That would surely make him tired. Except the sound of water hitting tiles might wake up his parents. A bath, then. He could just lie in it in the brightly lit bathroom and drift for a while.
There was something comforting about the sound of the bath filling up and being in the cosy, clean bathroom, and by the time he slid into scalding hot water he was smiling. He rested his neck on the lip of the tub and relaxed, letting utter silence and heat engulf him.
He heard her laugh. Definitely in his mind, nothing but a phantom sound, but his exhaustion had him permanently at the threshold of dream world and the laugh was almost loud in his ears, a real thing. He took a deep breath and slid further down, letting the water come up to his chin. It was the perfect temperature – so hot that when he moved it hurt.
I wonder how deep it goes?
He closed his eyes. Maybe if he could just fall asleep here in this warmth and light he wouldn’t dream about her.
I wonder what it was like to drown? Did she try to hold her breath or did she give up once she was too far down? She didn’t strike him as the type to give up. He imagined her struggling against the mud, her clothes weighing her down, the sludge pushing on her. Had her eyes been open or closed?
He sucked in a deep breath and went all the way under, bracing himself against the side of the tub so he stayed down, his hair swaying a little in the water. It felt nice. If this was what it was like to float in one of those sensory deprivation tanks, he could see the appeal.
He remembered how her hand had stuck stubbornly out of the water, open and waiting.
There’s a moment of despair, he heard her voice speaking in his ear as though she were right next to him. It occurred to him that he didn’t even know her well enough to be sure it was the right voice. He thought she’d sounded like that, but maybe he was getting it wrong. He’d never know.
When you fight and keep going down, and then you realise no one’s going to grab your hand. Your stomach drops, like it does in a roller coaster. And it’s like, you just get it, you know? You just think, Oh, I’m going to die now.
His lungs were complaining. Soon he’d get to the part where his chest started seizing up, his body trying to force him to open his mouth and gasp. Had she left it that late, or had she tried to get it over with once she was too deep, just one long pull and that was it? He’d heard somewhere that the urge to breathe came not from lack of oxygen but an abundance of carbon dioxide. As long as you exhaled and then filled your lungs with something, you’d lose the desire to breathe. A lot of drowning survivors reported a certain calmness after that first lungful.
Oh, relief, sure. Once your body stops screaming at you to get air and your lungs aren’t burning up, there’s plenty of physical relief. But that’s when the panic really sets in, because then you know it’s happening for sure. Everything’s dark, but big black patches start appearing everywhere, not just in your eyes but in your mind. And your heart goes crazy, not beating properly, and all you can think is that it’s happening, you’re dying now and there’s nothing you can do, and it’s just totally fucking horrible.
His eyes were squeezed tight, his hands fists against the tub. He almost wanted to unclench his jaw and let hot water pour straight into his lungs. Maybe he deserved it. If he’d just had the balls to wade in a little, one hand on that big branch, and grab her hand. If he’d gone for it in those first seconds…
WHY DIDN’T YOU TAKE MY HAND?
The water changed in a split second, just as he was on the point of letting go and coming back up for air. From hot to ice cold, and so thick it was as though thousands of litres of it were somehow packed together in the same tub, pushing on all sides. When he opened his eyes it was so pitch black that for a minute he couldn’t be certain he was here at all but out there in the pool, and he fought, reaching for the side of the tub to haul himself out.
He got his head up at last and sucked in delicious steamy air. He tried to plant his foot underneath him so he could stand, but his legs extended fully, past where the bottom of the bath should have been, until they were kicking blindly in unknown depths, and still he couldn’t see for the mud in his eyes. Hands grabbed at his ankles, opening and closing, grazing his soles with fingertips as though they were stretching up but couldn’t reach high enough.
He heaved himself over the side of the bathtub, his lower half coming free with a sucking sound, and rolled across the tiles. He wiped his face and crawled backwards until his back was against the bathroom door and then he just stared, sucking air as though he’d run a marathon.
There was no mud, nor mud trail. The bath was pristine, clear water lapping over the sides in his wake.
He was so cold, and no steam rose either from his body or the bath. Shivering, goosebumps raising on his skin, he got up and went over to look. Everything was normal: white porcelain and silver taps. He even dared, now that his heart was settling, his mind already rationalizing what must have happened, to reach in and pull the drain. The water was freezing cold, but of course that made sense, because he’d fallen asleep, hadn’t he?
He dried himself off and walked back to his bedroom, where he lay awake until early morning, with both the ceiling light and bedside lamp on, and his ears tuned for a voice that didn’t speak.
His parents watched him closely, trying to be inconspicuous and achieving the opposite. Finally, when Luke caught his mother casting him a worried look for the hundredth time, he fixed her with a dark look and said: ‘What?’
She sighed and folded her hands in front of her. ‘I’m sorry, Luke. It’s just… I think you need to see someone.’
‘I don’t need to see someone, mum. I’m fine, just tired.’
‘Oh? Why’s that? Wouldn’t be because you were having a bath at three in the morning, and your light was still on when I got up at five thirty? Do you even sleep anymore?’
‘Sorry I woke you. I just wanted to warm up a bit.’
‘Luke, I’ve never seen you this depressed. I know it’s been horrible but you really have to talk about it. If you don’t want to talk to me, see a psychiatrist. We’ll field the bill, whatever. Just do something.’
‘Luke.’ She knitted her brow and leaned forward, as if she was about to tell him a secret. ‘I’ve been reading here for three and a half hours now.’
‘You’ve been staring at the wall without moving since I sat down.’
So he went to see a psychiatrist.
Gregory Tillman was a rational, attentive man with a perpetually concerned expression, glasses, and a build that made his suit looked like it was stuffed with wooden planks. He also had a clipped grey beard and the soft reasonable voice of a scientist. Luke liked that. If anyone could tell him that he wasn’t crazy, it was a man of science, right?
‘You’re not crazy,’ Tillman said after Luke told him everything that had happened.
Luke let out the breath he’d been holding and nodded. ‘Yeah, I know, I guess. I just wish I could sleep a little. When does that get better?’
‘Well, that’s a tricky one. Now, I could prescribe you some low strength medication and see if it helps, but… I’m not convinced it will, Luke.’
‘Sleep is a funny thing. There are some people out there who’ve completely lost the ability to sleep. The most, uh, afflicted insomniacs can even die from sleep deprivation over a long enough period. The fascinating thing is that only in rare cases are the reasons physiological, say in the case of the badly placed brain tumour or something similar.’
He saw the look on Luke’s face and chuckled. ‘Not to worry, that wasn’t what I was thinking at all. Quite the opposite. You strike me as a classic case of survivor guilt. And since that’s a psychological issue, it won’t be resolved with mere sleep aids.’
‘Yes. The things you say you saw in the bathtub were of course hallucinations brought on by your lack of sleep. But waking hallucinations are your mind trying to dream, and what interests me more is the nature of what you saw. The hands grabbing at your feet, Kristen yelling the words “Why me” into your ear, suggest that you feel guilty to have lived while she died. In addition, the muddy water and general feeling of terror you describe tells me you’re feeling a lot of fear right now. Am I close to the mark?’
Why didn’t you take my hand? ‘Yeah, right on.’
Tillman nodded to himself, took of his glasses and tapped them thoughtfully against his crossed knee. ‘Tell you what I’m going to suggest, and you don’t have to do this, but I really do believe it will help. Say the word and I’ll prescribe those meds, but I think you should try this first: go down to that pool – not too close mind you – and just be there for a while.’
‘You want me to go back?’ His mouth suddenly a little dry.
‘Take a friend with you. Do not on any account go near the water, Luke, though I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that. The reason I suggest this is threefold. One, you’ll face your fear, and see that the pool, while dangerous, is not going to find you and kill you. In the end, it’s just a pool. Two, you can create new, happier memories with your friend. Explore the surrounding area, talk about something pleasant, whatever. Three, you can think about what happened, and realise that really it was just an accident. And if you need anyone to tell you that, son, I will swear on my grandfather’s grave that there wasn’t a thing you could have done. You certainly did more than I would have in your place.’
Luke gave him an appreciative smile.
‘I’ll think about it, I guess. Thanks.’
‘I’m glad to hear it, Luke.’
Just before he left, he turned at the door, something nagging at him. ‘Would it be okay if you prescribed me some of those sleep meds, anyway?’ he said.
Alone, at dusk, the sky just the same mixture of grey and white it had been on the day, the mud just as wet beneath his feet.
It had taken him most of the previous day and double the recommended dosage of sleeping pills to work up the courage. They hadn’t worked, of course, but for the two hours he did sleep his dreams had been more alive and terrifying than any he’d ever had. In one of them, he was the one sinking and Kristen stood on the bank, waving him goodbye with a sad smile on her face. The other dreams were variations of what followed: he sank deeper and deeper, fighting the dense mud and getting nowhere, suffocating but never quite dying. He woke tied up in his blankets and face down on his pillow. The air tasted stale.
He left the house with narrowed eyes and a confident stride, hands jammed in his pockets. With each step he grew more certain that Tillman had been right: he just needed to face his fears, prove he wasn’t a coward, that he couldn’t have done anything anyway. Prove that she was really gone.
By the time he was halfway there, the tall trees having long ago obscured the house behind him, the familiar smell of wet pine needles and muddy water permeating the air, he’d lost a lot of his bluster. He caught himself moving warily, tiptoeing. He was primed for unusual sounds, laughter perhaps. He scanned the surrounding trees as though someone might be waiting behind one of the thick trunks.
He came to the rusted fence and looked down at it. The final threshold. A minute or so walking, round a bend or two, and he’d be at the pool. He could see it in his mind as clearly as if he were there now, so perfectly round and black, like an enormous eye reflecting the endless leagues of space.
She would be there – he was sure of that. He would come into the clearing and she would be sitting in that broken stump – the one that looked like a throne. Not quite the same as he’d last seen her. No, she would be drenched in a coat of mud so thick it was like a second skin, and though her eyes would be open, seeing him, they would just look like two pools of sludge in her face. When she opened her mouth to accuse him of his crime, more would pour out, along with twigs and worms and a rotted tongue.
Then she would come for him.
He closed his eyes, a feat of courage in itself, and counted to twenty – another suggestion of Tillman’s. Then, he whispered: ‘It’s okay. You got this. Just one more minute, and you’ll see it’s all in your head.’
Then he opened his eyes.
The rusty fence lay before him, and the path winding onward until it turned a bend a few meters ahead. That part of the path was mostly shielded by trees, and not so damp, but it was wet enough for someone in shoes to leave prints. They were small prints, left by a short man, or perhaps a tall girl. They led towards him, away from the pool, which was odd, because to his knowledge this path was the only way to and from the clearing.
No way, that can’t be – there has to be another way up. Think rationally. But it was hard to be rational when you were looking right at these prints and thinking they could have easily fitted the shoes Kristen had been wearing that day…
She called to him, on the wind. A distant shout, an indecipherable word. He couldn’t be certain that it was her voice, or his name she was calling, so faint was the sound. But it was her, wasn’t it?
Luke started back at a fast walk, which soon turned into a slow jog. He glanced over his shoulder every few steps, and followed the prints all the way down the path. How had he not seen them on the way up? He’d been too busy looking at the trees. The shoeprints were visible among his own all the way back.
No phantom girls followed him back, and when the trees thinned and he made it back to the grassy slope, his house clearly visible at the base, something in him unclenched and he slowed to a walk. You’re a coward. You’re nuts, man. You gotta get your shit together.
But he didn’t turn back. Instead, he caught his breath and rubbed his eyes and followed the prints. They were harder to see in the grass, but there weren’t any others to confuse them but his own, after all, which were too big. By now, he was sure they weren’t hers anyway – that was ridiculous – so he expected to see them curve at his back fence and follow the gravel path back to the road.
They didn’t curve away, but headed straight down the hill to the gated wooden fence that marked Luke’s backyard. Do they stop here, though? He wanted to leave it there, to go inside and turn on the television and not think about anything for the rest of the day. But a thought had settled in his brain, the kind that would nag and nag until he put it to rest, so he went around the house to the narrow muddy stretch on the side which held the big metal gas heater and the plumbing pipes and compost heap.
The prints were much clearer here, but he only needed to find them in one place for his fears to be confirmed, and there they were. Two clearly defined prints, these ones quite deep, set in the mud by the pipes. When he looked up, he saw a tiny square window on the second floor.
It was the bathroom window.
He spent most of the day in a state of helpless terror. He couldn’t show his parents the prints. Whether they were there or not didn’t matter – it was what they meant. She was after him, and no one, least of all the ever reasonable Dr. Tillman, was going to believe him. He hadn’t slept in over a week, nor gone to school. He wasn’t answering Vince’s calls, texting back I’m fine, just need time. He was depressed, lazy, tired, and barely existed in this world any more. He wasn’t himself because he was half insane, and they could all see it, and that was what they would say.
But just because he was insane did not mean he wasn’t also right, did it? Maybe he was insane because he was right.
Four in the morning crept along. It wasn’t raining yet but a heavy wind outside made the whole house creak and shift on its foundations. He had the curtains drawn and made sure all the lights in the house were off. He’d also dropped three times the recommended dosage of sleeping pills, just in case. Despite them, his whole body was tense, his eyes flashing open at the slightest sound.
Somehow in his paranoia and madness, sleep descended on him by inches, sneaking closer each time he shut his eyes and tossed in his bed, pulling him down into himself to show him things he didn’t want to see.
He was in this state, halfway between alertness and total coma, when something knocked lightly on his window. It was not in time with the intermittent gusts of wind, and too precise to be natural: three quick knocks, then a silence, as though waiting for someone to answer.
For a long time he was paralysed by fear, lying rigid straight in his bed and listening. The knocks continued, so regular that after a while he got to thinking maybe it was something real, and not a soft, dead hand. It would be impossible to sleep until he saw what it was, and Luke eventually found the courage to stand up and walk over to the window.
Knock, knock, knock. Pause. He drew back the curtains.
It was her. Not the rotting mud thing he’d dreaded, but really Kristen, wearing the same clothes and mischievous expression he remembered. She lifted the window with her slender arms, letting in the night air, and his first thought was whether she would be cold to touch.
This time, he didn’t feel terror at seeing her – only relief and something else very familiar, his heart leaping inside him, a warm stirring in him at the sight of her red lips and the way she smiled at him as she floated in through the window.
‘Are you okay? He hadn’t meant to speak, but the words escaped him. Full of concern for her, and the desire he’d felt so strongly that day.
‘I am, for now,’ she said, but her smile faded quickly. ‘But I’m so lonely out there.’
‘I’m sorry. I wanted you, you know. I really did.’ She smelled strongly of pine needles and bark.
‘Then why didn’t you do anything, Luke? Why didn’t you…’
‘I just don’t want to die. I got scared.’
‘No, Luke, no.’ She reached forward and wiped a tear from his eye, and he’d been right – she was cold, though that fact only served to make him wonder if he could make her warm. ‘Not that. I meant you should have kissed me.’
She was close now, her icy hand settling on the back of his neck, and he met her dark green eyes. This was it, his chance. His heart was flying now, but from excitement instead of fear, and he leaned forward and kissed her, one hand sliding under her shirt and across the freezing skin of her lower back.
Her tongue tasted like dirt and metal as it slid across his, and then deeper into his mouth and slowly down his throat and inside him like a snake, the base of it growing thicker until it pushed his jaw wide open. He tried to scream and couldn’t, grabbed her head and pulled at it, but her arms were tight around his body, pressing him close to her.
Her head crumpled and followed her tongue down his throat, the rest of her body folding in like a deflating balloon as her guts ascended through her neck. Luke gagged, his whole body heaving as it tried to expel the mass expanding in his belly. Her clothes and skin rose up into his distended jaw before he could grab them and he collapsed, mouth still open and begging for air.
It didn’t come. He clutched his belly, painfully stretched as though he were pregnant, and tried desperately to breathe, but part of her was lodged in his airway and wouldn’t come loose. Slow seconds of this hell passed, and he flopped helplessly on his bedroom carpet, wanting so badly to scream and being unable, until dark circles closed in around his vision and made him blessedly senseless.
The pain didn’t go away when he woke. If anything, it was worse, and as soon as he extricated his gasping mouth from his pillows he rolled out of bed clutching his lower abdomen. When the initial disorientation cleared away, he was relieved to discover that he knew what hurt so bad – and it was decidedly more natural than the corpse of a dead girl in his belly: he had to pee, badly.
He didn’t know what time it was, but the house was dark and he did his best to tiptoe on the way to the bathroom. By the time he reached it, he was doubled over and had to put a hand out against the wall to steady himself before he unleashed.
It was then, as he was beginning to believe that none of it had happened, that it had in fact been only a nightmare, the nightmare continued. At first, it was as though the sheer pressure on his bladder made it more difficult to urinate, but when he did at last manage it he found a more horrifying reason. Instead of urine, black sludge oozed forth in a thick stream.
He gritted his teeth against a scream as he watched foul smelling discharge leak into the bowl, litre after litre easing the internal strain with agonizing effort. His forehead was drenched in cold sweat when he staggered back out into the hall and headed downstairs, leaning heavily on the banister though the pain had passed.
I’m going insane. This is what madness is.
He had to do something, and he had to do it now. Tillman said his hallucinations would only get worse the longer he went without sleep. The way it was going, he would lose his mind completely long before that. Then and there, he decided he would go up the hill once again.
He would face his fear.
Four sleeping pills later, he headed out. It was just before dawn, the grey light and shadow identical to dusk. Or maybe it was dusk, and the sun would go down when he reached the pool and leave him in darkness. Forget it, you’re going. I don’t care how scared you get, you’re going. Don’t go for you, go for her. You owe it to her.
He’d thrown on a coat and track pants but his feet were bare – cold and slippery in the mud. The time it would have taken to put on his shoes would have been enough for his determination to vanish. This time, he didn’t look around, but kept his eyes on the path just in front of him, his hood muffling his ears, fists clenched in his jacket pockets. He didn’t dare stop for a moment, or look over his shoulder: such things would destroy this false courage as easily as sword might sever a fishing line.
Do it for her, do it for her. He passed the broken fence in a stride and kept walking. Something in him let go. He imagined a suicide jumper might feel the same way after his feet left the ledge. Point of no return. It was this or madness.
He made it to the clearing, stopping only when his bare feet sunk up to his ankles in the soft muddy banks. He was here: the Dreaded Place, the Evil Pool. For a long minute he didn’t move, just looked. She was down there, somewhere. Kristen, his first love: dark humoured, smiling, mischievous, beautiful.
And she was dead. She was rotting, probably nothing but bones by now, and this was just a pool, and his bath was just a bath, and he was just a sad boy who hadn’t had enough sleep.
He let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and flipped the hood off his head so he could see better. The pool remained still and impenetrable. The police had dragged the branch away before cordoning off the area, but apart from that it looked just as it on that day.
The day he didn’t save her.
She was sitting on the rotted throne, leaning back, her arms resting on the bark, and smiling as if to say I’m so glad you came.
The image vanished as soon as it appeared. He wondered if it was the last time he’d ever see her. Just like Tillman assured him, the fear and stress of the previous days fell away from him with each passing minute. He shook his head, hot tears burning in the corner of his eyes.
‘Goodbye, Kristen,’ he whispered. ‘I’m sorry.’ Already he felt the weight of his tiredness on his mind. He wanted to lie down right there and go to sleep.
A delicate hand rose from the depths in the middle of the pool. Her fingers, open and pleading, followed by her smooth white palm.
It’s just a hallucination. Your own memory playing tricks on you. The sleeping pills. Face your fears, Tillman said. Luke watched Kristen’s hand, half expecting it to disappear, or descend, or do something more, but it did nothing. She waited, her hand motionless, patient.
Luke took a step forward, and then another, his lower body sinking into deep mud, but not yet so deep he wasn’t sure he could get out. He could reach her from here, and he did, his cold hand closing on her wet one and squeezing it.
She pulled at him, but he couldn’t raise her, so he ventured just a little deeper. I won’t give up on you this time. I’ve got you, Kristen. I’ll never let go.
She pulled harder and he had time for a quick breath before the mud climbed his neck and up his face. He sank, letting her lead him down through meters of black mud, pressure building on all sides as his ears and eyes and mouth filled up. He took it into his aching lungs, and still he kept a tight hold of her hand and followed her down, down to where the mud was warmer and other bodies and hands floated past him and touched him as though meeting him for the first time.
He descended further, past the dead, and found her eager lips at last, welcoming him.
Luke drifted with her, and at long last, with the company of the dead, he slept.