Dusk seeped into the clouds and darkened the light in Jolie’s eyes. Her brother’s stuffed tiger, Tilly, lay somewhere along the lakeshore after a game of keep away with the other children catapulted him over the fence. Whatever monitory line the orphanage had drawn around the property, she stepped across it today.
On the other side of the tall, cedar fence, the one her brother had climbed over last year and never returned from, she stood with arms drawn in. Unseen creatures lived in these parts, creatures that squirmed and hissed for warm, soft flesh. Water Devils she had heard one of the caregivers once say. They took her brother, and they would take her too; their appetite for the living was without fill.
But, Tilly was the last possession she had of her brother’s, so she didn’t intend on reversing her path despite the warden’s firm counsel,
“Stay away from the lake or they’ll take you too,”
—and the other children’s threats,
“The water devils will pull you under and turn you,”
—because if they had lost the one thing they loved most, they would do the same–brave their fears regardless of the cost. Jolie would do anything to find Tilly. Losing him would be like losing her brother all over again, and she couldn’t bear another loss, couldn’t sleep knowing his fur grew cold, matted, and soaked in muck the same as he.
The creeping night brought with it a cold breeze from the hills. The journey’s distance stretched in front of Jolie vast and dark like a cosmic ocean. She kept a hawk’s eye gaze, for the marsh around the lake harbored dangers, balanced beauty with death. Even while Jolie knew this, understood that her decision to leave the safety of the fenced yard risked a run-in with sharp, clawed hands and hungry mouths, she carried on with a shallow breath of hope.
Ahead through the reeds, cattails grew tall and tilted into the dirt like thrown spears.
“Never venture beyond the cattails,” her bunkmate, Gnagn, had told her, “or the water devils will sense you.” She held up a velvet, pink rabbit she called, Rosie. “Rosie says they can hear anything. They can even listen in on your dreams.”
Then the water devils would know of Jolie’s dream to have a family. Like her, Gnagn didn’t have any family either. She would understand how important Tilly was, how it was easier to walk the dangers of the marsh than to think of what was lost.
The full Chaste moon rose over the fir tops in the distance and illuminated the narrow dusk-shrouded path to the lake. Tunnel-dwelling spiders skittered underfoot, and the slither of black-striped garter snakes rustled through the reeds at her side.
Jolie plucked her fingers through foul moonseed and thorny brambles like inching earthworms. She pushed aside the brush of unbending, bristly twigs that nicked at the softness of her skin.
The ground beneath her feet squished around her sandals and between her toes, leaving footprints in the mire like letters to the Earth: Tell Tilly I’m looking for him; I’ll be there soon.
As she neared the belly of the lake, thick, cold water inundated the shoreline, and she sank up to her ankles. Near a corner of decayed wood, overtaken by yellow stalks of skunk cabbage, she could see the glistening reflection of the moon and stars above.
Water Devil Lake.
So pretty, and just as deadly. Jolie crept closer to the shoreline, her heart a thundering mess of palpitations. The lake appeared darker standing at its edge, more so than the glimpse through the backyard fence. The cattails were behind her now. Still, she stepped closer into the deep chill of the lake’s breath. She scanned the glassy surface, watchful of both Tilly’s orange fur and air bubbles that might fizz up from beneath, the sign of rising water devils.
A dark pool of slate green clouded with rust-brown shadows in front of her. Behind that, a patch of orange lay half-sunken between the fingers of plant roots.
Jolie climbed around a clod of lilies, finally reaching him. She stretched her arm out for his leg when an ascending halo of bubbles surrounded Tilly’s head.
It was not a conscious choice. Instinct prevailed, and the hot pump of determination rushed through Jolie and plunged her forward. She swiped a hand out for the tiger and missed, her reach no closer than the stars. Her balance faltered, and the cold, dark lake wrapped its arms around her legs.
Behind her, mud-slopped heads pushed through the water with black, crystal-like eyes and snapping bear-trap teeth. Her brother was one of them now. She recognized the shape of his face, only now discolored and etched with scales. In a shower of mud and fury, the water devils sprang around Jolie with the swiftness of the serpent’s strike. Slippery, cold hands grappled at her limbs, bound around her middle, and lugged her shoulders down into the cold, wet darkness.
Two skid tracks in the mud disappeared into the lake.
The struggle was short, the clawed hands too many.
Nightfall deepened. After the parade of flashing police lights, the warden’s shouts, and whistles ceased, bubbles rose from the lake again, sour and hot like volcanic breath. A small blue hand broke through the dark shell of the lake and clenched its fingers around the throat of a sopping, orange and black-striped tiger. A bubble popped at the surface with a whisper,
Together again, like family.
Mid-afternoon laughter and screams gurgled across the surface of Water Devil Lake. Nearby, a plush, pink rabbit splashed into the water and brushed up along the shoreline. That night, Gnagn dreamed of family.
Author Bio: Erin Cole writes dark fiction from a small attic in Portland, Oregon. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and has work published in Niteblade Fantasy and Horror Magazine, Dark Moon Books, Space Squid, and more forthcoming in Fantasy Scroll Magazine, and her novella, Feral Things, with Damnation Books this December. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys cooking ‘real’ food, adopts rescue animals, and loves all things geology.