Her lungs ached, but Ali ran faster. She was late. Again.
Jessica–her perfect sister–would scold her for sure. She had two minutes to reach her destination or face another sermon on responsibility. To be fair, it’s not like she’d been up late playing video games. Edgar Allan Poe was the culprit, which resulted in eerie dreams of a shadow man and a liberal use of the snooze button this morning. Ali could lie and tell Jessica it was a reading assignment, but then she’d have to fabricate evidence. Her best bet was to beat the bell.
Sweat trickled down the small of her back as she raced up the concrete steps. She ripped open the front door and charged inside the school like a stampeding elephant. Her canvas sneakers squeaked on the vinyl tile as she sprinted across the empty hallways before sliding to a halt.
With a wheeze, she adjusted her backpack to distribute the weight across her willowy frame and pushed her short brunette hair out of her dull brown eyes. The hall clock showed she had thirty seconds remaining.
She fanned herself as she rounded the corner.
A tall figure, completely bald, leaned against the wall and stared at the ceiling.
Ali gaped at his lack of hair. His blue eyes and slender nose were the same, but with his missing hair he looked older. If Ali passed him on the street, she might not recognize him.
The chemo rumor must be true.
Leigh wasn’t a friend, but she couldn’t enter the classroom without passing him and he looked so, pathetic?
Rumor had it Melissa Fairchild split with Leigh over the summer, but the cause was unknown. In the week since the start of school, speculation ran rampant as to his mysterious absence. The prevailing theory had him suffering from heartache, or less cleverly dubbed, ‘hart-ache.’ Another version claimed he underwent chemo as the result of cancer. Either way, Ali didn’t care. The happenings of the popular clique were far from interesting.
Except she couldn’t be ‘hart-less’–ha-ha–and ignore him.
“Um… are you okay?” She asked, pausing just short of the classroom door.
The final bell rang. Shit sticks.
Leigh’s eyes lit with surprise as he looked down at her.
“I… yeah.” Leigh said standing straighter, towering over her in his 6’6 basketball glory.
To his credit, he managed a lazy smile, but his somber eyes betrayed him.
Ali glanced at the door. Melissa was in her history class, and she ventured a guess Leigh was too.
This was so not her problem. She took another step towards the door and stopped. “Listen, do you want to walk in with me?”
“What?” Leigh asked.
Ali pointed towards the door. “Um… since we’re both late…”
“Safety in numbers,” Ali blurted. Now, she was the pathetic one.
His brow furrowed, but the corner of his mouth turned upward.
Ali took this as a ‘yes,’ although, she wasn’t certain. Leigh wasn’t much of a conversationalist. With a deep breath, Ali grasped the door handle and turned.
Her history teacher, Mr. Brown, stood at the podium as twenty-six pairs of eyes flew to the open door. Or, twenty-five and a half, if you counted Brian Denser, who suffered a football injury last week and was wearing a pirate patch.
“Miss. McMillan, glad you could join us,” Mr. Brown said, glancing at the wall clock.
Great. He’d report her as tardy, and she’d enjoy another oh-so-dull lecture from Jessica.
“Ah, and Mr. Hart,” Mr. Brown said with surprise. “Welcome back.”
All eyes shifted to Melissa, who stopped twirling a blond curl around her manicured finger, green eyes venomous.
With the focus on Leigh, Ali scrambled to her seat, which was next to Melissa.
Mr. Brown frowned and pointed to the empty desk behind Ali. “Mr. Hart, please take a seat behind your friend.”
Ali shrunk in her chair. She had front row tickets if the school king and queen quarreled. Why didn’t Mr. Brown assign Leigh a seat in the corner?
She smiled meekly at Leigh, who impressively wore a look of laziness.
Her chair jerked as Leigh plopped into his desk, allowing his book bag to slam into the floor.
“As I was saying, we can learn much from our ancestral history,” Mr. Brown said. “Miss. McMillian, would you be our first volunteer?”
Her face flushed as she glanced at the whiteboard for a clue. Scrawled in marker were the words ancestry and genealogy.
Without waiting for an answer, Mr. Brown gestured behind him. “Please come to the board and trace your family tree.”
The task caught her off guard. Mr. Brown was new, so he must be unaware of her unusual family dynamic. People gossip in this small town, so it was surprising he wasn’t more informed.
“No need.” Ali cleared her throat. “I have a sister, Jessica. My mother, Linda, died a few years ago. Father unknown; end of tree.”
Mr. Brown pursed his lips.
Ali didn’t bother to explain they were transplants in this tiny hellhole of a town.
Okay-to be fair, most people would call it quaint. It was one of those sea-side tourist destinations. Which, she’d never understand the appeal. There were three restaurants, a few trinket-type shops, some boats, and a rocky beach that never seemed to get wider than twelve feet. How their town attracted residents, let alone tourists was a mystery. But for a reason unknown to Ali, her mother shoved their small family into a car without warning, and the following morning Ali woke up here. If she had aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents, she’d never know. Her mother had refused to talk about the past, then she died in a car crash taking the answers with her. If it weren’t for Jessica’s willingness to fight for Ali, their family of two would have been separated by social services.
“This semester we’ll use Ancestrytree.edu to research your family lineage,” Mr. Brown said abandoning his probe into Ali’s family.
A collective groan greeted him in answer.
Mr. Brown brightened. “Perhaps you’ll learn something.”
The rest of the afternoon consisted of lectures in science, math, and literature. The highlight of her day was the issuance of reading assignments in her literature class. Poe and Plath made the syllabus. A bright mark on an otherwise bleak semester.
When school ended, it felt like she’d lost a week of her life. The day was long and the books she lugged grew heavy. She tossed her backpack into her old Volkswagen and attempted to turn it over. The car sputtered and died.
No, no, no… Ali tried again. The car whined, then flat lined.
Her Volkswagen had been on the fritz for a few weeks. Annoyed, she grabbed her backpack, slammed the car door shut, and trudged toward the lake trail.
The humid air cooled as she entered the canopy of trees, reminding her of the strange shadow man. He lingered on the edge of her consciousness this morning, fading when her alarm clock sounded. Ali had tried to force herself back into the dream, but the subsequent alarms from her repetitive use of the snooze button made it impossible. Then she was late.
Sighing, she adjusted her backpack where the straps cut into her shoulder. In hindsight, she should’ve left some of her books in her car. Too late. At least the scenery was worth the long trek home. The trail meandered through the earthy woods. She thought the trees were oak, but trees only fell in two categories: Oak or Christmas. Careful not to trip over a gnarly root, she rounded a corner as the lake came into view. Ali loved the lake. The gentle water lapping onto the shore soothed her.
She walked to where the water tickled the sand, retreating and advancing in a gentle dance. The peaty smell of algae lightly perfuming the warm air.
A large splash in the distance caught her attention. The water shot into the air like someone jumped off a diving board and did a cannonball into a pool. Ali squinted, but the waves settled into ripples, then the water calmed. At this distance she could have misjudged the size of the splash. The most likely culprit was a fish.
An insect buzzed her head, and she swatted it away.
With a final glance, Ali moved back onto the path and set a slow pace home. The sun warmed her skin, and she smiled. Numbered were the days of hot weather. Fall would creep in soon, then winter would take hold and seize the lake. Its creamy textures would turn brittle when it froze. Not enough to form trustworthy skating ice, but enough to look barren.
Today the water rippled in vibrant colors. Greens, teals, and purples raced along the bottom silt in shimmering flashes. Ali stopped.
She crept closer to the shoreline, seeing what looked like a purple fish. An outline formed the shape of a torso. She’d heard of a wolffish. Ali knew nothing about them, but maybe they were large.
A long slender appendage jutted downward into the silt, no wait… Four legs protruded from a torso and a head.
What the heck… What animal was purple with four legs?
She scrambled away from the shoreline as the creature emerged like a submarine breaching the surface. Shock rooted her in place. The creature wasn’t purple, but gray; and its legs had scales like a pangolin. Water streamed down its long face into its nostrils, dripping into the sand.
A horse! A freaking horse!
One word rattled the sensible part of her brain.
Her body didn’t cooperate. Instead, a hiss of a whisper drowned out reason.
It whinnied but didn’t approach. Paralyzed, Ali sifted through every bit of information she remembered about horses. Do horses swim underwater? Can they hold their breath?
Mostly, the horse seemed normal. Except its cold, lifeless eyes.
Adrenaline surged through her arms and legs, burning, aching for her to run. But the voice insisted.
No need to run.
The horse pawed at the ground with a backwards hoof, spraying sand bursts before kneeling.
She took a step back.
Crazy as it sounds, Ali was certain the horse wanted her to go for a ride.
Its dead eyes bore into her. Neither of them moved. Even as Ali’s heart thumped, the voice crept further into her head willing her to move closer.
I should pet it.
Her book bag slid into the sand with a thwack.
In a slow motion, Ali extended her hand. The horse didn’t move, allowing her to touch its slick coat. Enthralled, she ran her fingers over the oily texture. The slime growing sticky until her hand couldn’t move. She tried to pull away but couldn’t. Her hand was stuck.
Fear swept through her as the horse plunged into the lake, dragging her with it.
Thrust into murky greens, blues, and browns, Ali held her breath as the jolt of cold water assaulted her.
Panicked, Ali tried to yank her hand free.
She jerked harder, but she couldn’t free herself.
A spark tickled her palm, the sensation startling her. Suddenly, she could wiggle her fingers. She jerked her hand again. An electric shock bit her palm as she pulled herself free.
Immediately she reached towards the surface, pushing herself through the icy water. Her lungs burned, but she kicked harder, fighting against her shoes which slowed her efforts.
Two hands grasped under her armpits and pulled her above the surface of the water.
Air filled her lungs as she choked and sputtered. Breathing was painful, then a relief. She collapsed into the sand, her clothes heavy and constricting. Dirty lake water dripped from her mouth and nose as she coughed. As her brain cleared, the immediate danger registered. She was still near the water’s edge.
Panicked, wet fabric fought her as she stumbled toward the path. A hand seized her by the arm, stopping her. Water streamed into her eyes and she blindly swung her fists, falling backwards onto her butt.
“Are you insane!” someone yelled.
Ali scrambled away like a crab, her vision refocusing. Leigh stood before her. Water rolled down his forehead, dripping onto his wet clothes.
“What the hell are you doing?” Leigh wiped his face in disgust.
Her mind screamed at her to run, but her body was heavy. She looked at her pale shaking hands. Was she cold or in shock?
“There was… a horse.” Ali pointed toward the water.
Leigh’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “What horse?”
Ali’s lips quivered. “I…”
Leigh’s mouth pressed into a firm line and he extended his hand.
Reluctantly Ali grasped his warm fingers, allowing him to help her upright. Sand clung to her clothes and skin. She attempted to brush it off her face, but only pushed it onto her neck. She wanted to strip down to her underwear and remove her restrictive clothes, but not in front of Leigh. Instead, she hugged herself and stared into the now serene lake. The water appeared harmless. A deception if she ever saw one.
“Are you hurt?” Leigh asked. His expression unreadable.
Ali shook her head. “I-I need to go home.”
Leigh’s brows furrowed. He picked both of their book bags off the sand and slung one over each shoulder. “I’ll walk you.”
He didn’t ask, he told; but Ali couldn’t form a coherent argument to tell him no. Not that she wanted to be alone. Honestly, she was lucky he came along. Ali rarely saw anyone on this path. Shivering, she ran her hands over the goose pimples on her arms. “What are you doing out here?”
Leigh hesitated, averting his gaze. “I was hoping to bump into you.”
“What?” Ali asked, temporarily distracted.
“I wanted to thank you for this morning, then I saw you in the lake.” His gaze shifted back towards the lake, his eyes narrowing.
Ali nodded, uncertain of what to say. Instead, she hurried towards the trees, keeping one eye on the water until its blue surface vanished.
What was that monster?