Ben was dreaming about a warehouse. It was dark and damp and smelled like garbage and mildew and sulfur, and he was scared but was running behind someone, someone familiar and safe, leading him out. There were others here in the dark, coming after them, and Ben’s heart was racing and his throat was stinging and his mom, his mom-
“Oh God, oh God someone help me, please!”
Ben snapped awake, a flood of adrenaline taking him from zero to sixty in half a second. It felt like every hair on Ben’s body was standing on end, and icy, bald terror rolled through him like a tidal wave.
The other kids coming awake too; he heard Mike’s muttered what the fuck and one of the twins whimpering and Asher making questioning noises.
“Barry! Harold! Scott! Help me! Help me, please!” The screams were coming from outside, sharp and clear, echoing into the night. It sounded like they were coming from the backyard, from outside the very window, so close, just right there.
Downstairs the adults were throwing open doors. Scott and Harold and Barry were all talking over one another, their words incoherent but clearly terrified. There was a heavy thump to Ben’s right, Mike, probably jumping down from the top bunk, and then the overhead light came on.
Ben squinted, saw Mike and his bed-mussed hair, saw Asher sitting up on his bunk and white as a sheet, saw the twins wrapped around each other in abject terror.
“Help me! Oh God, help me!” And then incoherent, agonized howling.
“That sounds like Tommy,” Asher said.
“That’s not Mr. Tommy,” one twin said.
“That’s the monster,” the other said.
“Yeah, we know.” Ben climbed out of bed and stumbled towards the door. “We can’t let them go out there,” he told Mike.
Mike nodded and then he and Ben were barreling down stairs, calling for Harold and Scott, but the back door had already slammed shut before they were even halfway down.
“Too late.” Mike said, and snatched the fireplace poker out of its canister.
He and Ben barreled outside after the adults, into the dark and the bitter nighttime cold. Ben leapt off the porch and hit the ground running, wet dew soaking into his socks. The glow of flashlights bounced around on the trees, bright as sunlight in the impenetrable dark, and the adults shouted for Tommy, terror in their voices, calling his name, asking to tell them where he was. There was no coherent answer to their questions, just inarticulate screaming that kept moving further and further away, leading them down to the lake.
Ben and Mike hurried after them, following the beams of their flashlights and their panicked shouting. The adults had a good lead on them, and he and Mike called out to them, begging them to come back, but they were in the full thrall of the monster, heading straight for the water where it was surely waiting to pull them in.
When the path finally opened onto the lake shore, and their feet hit the wet sand, all three adults were wandering along the water, tossing the beams of the flashlights across the trees, across the water, turning them up into the sky like they’d find him up there, floating in midair. Tommy’s screams were all around them, loud and immediate like he was just out of sight, in the trees, in the water, right beside them on the sand.
“Harold! Guys!” Mike shouted, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. He made no move to go closer to the water, and neither did Ben, too paralyzed by fear. The thing was out there. He could feel it. And the screams. They seemed so real. “Come back. That’s not him.”
Scott and Barry didn’t even acknowledge their presence, and Harold only spared them a brief glance over his shoulder.
“Mike, go back to the house,” he said. “Stay with Asher and the twins.”
He was at the edge of the lake, his bare feet only millimeters from the water. He was dancing the beam of his flashlight over the surface in wide arcs, searching for Tommy.
And in the light of his beam, something moved beneath the water.
It was black and massive, highlighted for just a second as Harold’s flashlight passed over it. Harold jerked the light back, and the thing was still there, its mass heading straight towards the shore, straight towards them.
“What the hell?” Harold said, following it with his flashlight as it moved.
“Harold, get away from the water,” Ben said, heart hitching in fear. Next to him, Mike swore.
“What is that?” Barry said, drifting towards the water’s edge, turning the beam of his own flashlight on the lake.
It was moving faster now, rising to the surface, water swelling over it like the ocean over the back of a whale, and Scott was joining them at the water’s edge, adding his flashlight beam to theirs. Around them Tommy’s agonized screams had fallen silent, and the silence went unnoticed by the adults, now securely caught in the monster’s spell.
“Scott! Don’t!” Ben shouted, but was ignored. Blood was pounding in his ears, his legs began to shake. He needed to move forward, go to Scott and haul him back, but his terror wouldn’t let him. He turned to Mike. “What should we do?”
Mike shook his head at a loss. He was as scared as he was, Ben could see it even in what little cast off light was reaching them from the flashlights, and neither of them wanted to go any closer to the water. But the black mass was close now, mere feet from the shore, and the adults were just staring at it, mesmerized, and if they didn’t do something, the adults would be taken down beneath the water.
“You guys, please get away from the water,” Mike begged, his voice trembling, but it was too late.
Something huge surged out of the lake.
It came up on two feet like a man. Its skin glimmered bright green in the glare of the flashlights, rough and bumpy like a reptile’s. Its pupils retracted into a slit in the light, and its eyes gleamed cat’s eye yellow. Its mouth was full of rows and rows of sharp teeth like a shark, and its hands ended in huge talons.
The adults just stood there and stared.
The thing crouched in front of them, its eyes roving from one man to the next, an evil chittering noise emitting from its throat. It must have hypnotized them or something, because they didn’t move, didn’t twitch, not even with the monster raised one long arm above its head, not when its webbed talons were spreading, and its shoulder was going back, and its intent to slice into them was being telegraphed in every line of its body-
“Harold!” Mike screamed, his voice raw, “Move!”
The claw came down, and sliced across Harold’s chest like knives.
The spell was broken. Harold bellowed in pain and fell back, taking Scott with him. Flashlights were dropped; the beams went wild, tumbling and rolling, aimed now at the trees, now at the water, now at Barry, standing there frozen, mouth gaping. He stood fixed to the spot as the monster as it turned slowly towards him, its talons dripping with Harold’s blood.
As soon as the monster took its first step towards him, Barry screamed. He stumbled back and lost his footing in the wet sand, hit the ground hard. The monster swooped in and caught him by the leg. Barry howled and flailed, legs kicking, hands scrabbling on the sand, trying to get purchase, but the thing was unaffected, just started a steady retreat back into the water, dragging Barry along by the ankle. Barry’s shirt rode up over his stomach, and he was making awful whimpering sounds in his throat like a dying animal, and the water was flowing up over him, over his legs, over his thighs, flowing up and over his bare belly-
Whatever fear was holding Ben in check released him, and he was running forward, towards Harold and Scott to help them up, while Mike rushed past him, towards the monster, the fireplace poker held like a baseball bat. He crashed into the water and let it fly with an almighty battle cry, like it was the bottom of the ninth and down to him to win the game, hitting the monster so hard across the back that the monster, now thigh deep in the water, staggered forward a step and let Barry go.
Barry flailed around in the water, still making those awful noises, got his feet under him and bolted out onto the shore. Mike’s footing must not have been good, though, because he fell on the follow through, crashing to his knees in the water. The monster turned, turned on Mike, arm going up for another one of those heavy, claw-riddled slaps.
Ben heard the No! roar out of his mouth, and then he was running, rushing Mike, knocking him out of the way, into the water. Ben felt the breeze as the claw missed his back by millimeters, then the rush of the icy water as he and Mike both went under.
The cold cut through him like knives, and they hit the bottom of the lake, the grit of sand flowing up and around them. Ben detangled himself from Mike and bounced back up instantly, flying on adrenaline and terror, water pouring off of him as he rose into the freezing air.
And it was right there, waiting for him.
It’s cat’s eye yellow eyes were glowing all on their own, and it loomed over him, eyes boring into his, and in that moment, Ben felt it’s hunger, felt that empty place in his memory start to fill with a jumble of images that were coming too fast to make sense of, the loss of those memories the very thing that gave the flesh of its victims the flavor the monster preferred.
Ben should have screamed. He should have jumped to the side or backed away or something, anything, but he didn’t.
He just stood there, transfixed, just like the adults had been, staring up into the things eyes and letting the lost memories well up from deep, deep within – scrambled eggs being pushed onto his plate with the command to eat, the engine and its carburetor, the sunlight on the back of his neck. Watching from his bedroom window while the man in the flannel shirt raked the leaves in the yard while the sun was still creeping over the horizon. Tiptoeing down the stairs when he should have been in bed and seeing the glass of amber liquid on the coffee table and the blue flicker of the TV and voice, rough and rumbly, asking him if he shouldn’t be in bed…
There was suddenly a fireplace poker in Ben’s face.
He stumbled back, flopping back into the water again, the sharp edges of reality coming back into focus with the rush of icy water around him.
The monster roared in agony, its skin spitting and smoking where the poker emerged from its shoulder, blood the color of black bile spilling from the wound. It hauled its weight to the right, as if it was trying to twist away from the poker, but it couldn’t escape. It roared again, its yawning mouth showing off its rows of shark’s teeth, and threw itself into the water and disappeared, swallowed up by the lake, and the fireplace poker with it.
Mike was standing over Ben, chest heaving. He hauled Ben to his feel and dragged him towards the adults. Ben stumbled with him, his steps dragging in the shallows. They were panting hard and shivering, their clothes and hair dripping with cold lake water.
Everyone was staring at everyone else in shock; Scott was holding up Harold, bare chested and holding his own shirt held against Harold’s wounds, Barry was standing just behind them, one hand fisted in Harold’s sleeve like a little kid, and they were just gaping, minds completely blown. Mike swept up one of the flashlights as they staggered out of the water. He aimed the flashlight at the ground at their feet, illuminating everyone’s shell shocked faces from below. There was blood everywhere.
“We have to go back to the house,” Mike said.
No one reacted.
“Hey!” Mike shouted. “Now!”
There was a beat of silence, and then they did as he said, the adults following his orders like sheep as they turned back to the cabin, Barry obediently grabbing the other two flashlights when Mike told him to.
Mike had to steer Ben homeward with one hand on his arm. It was like walking down a tunnel of darkness, nothing visible except where the flashlights fell, any hint of trees or sky swallowed in blackness. Ben’s wet clothing was heavy, weighing him down, his feet slipping in his wet socks. He was cold, so very cold, and his teeth were chattering, and his fingers were numb, and his ears ached in the chill. But he felt none of it, was barely aware of putting one foot in front of the other in the enormity of what had happened.
For a minute he’d remembered. He’d looked up into the glowing eyes of the lake monster, and for one split second of a moment, he’d remembered everything and completely understood just how much he’d lost.
The adults, of course, wanted to leave.
“We have to go,” Barry said, darting here and there, grabbing random things – a TV remote, a throw pillow, someone’s hoodie from the back of the chair. His hair was dripping water on his dry t-shirt, and he was trailing little droplets of blood on the floor from the shallow gouges above his ankle where the creature had gripped him.
Ben watched him from the couch in dry clothes, the blanket from his bed wrapped around his shoulders. He felt numb and disconnected. Whatever memories the monster had dragged out of him were gone again, but he’d had a taste of having them back, and there was a dark, reckless part of him that wanted to go back down to the lake to find them again.
“Barry stop,” Scott said wearily. He was wrapping Harold’s chest with gauze, his hands shaking as he following Harold’s directions. The slices across Harold’s chest were deep enough to show the layers of fatty tissue and muscle, and blood was smeared all over him.
Mike had been designated Scott’s assistant, and was handing him what he needed from Harold’s doctor bag. Asher was hovering close by, face pale.
“Stop, Scott? Did you see that thing?” Barry snatched up a random flip flop that Ben was pretty sure belonged to Mike, adding it to the other crap he was cradling against his chest. “It’s going to kill us. We have to go. Boys, go get your stuff. We’re leaving.”
“We can’t leave,” Jake said. “The cars won’t start.”
“What? Of course they will,” Barry murmured absently as he turned in a circle, searching for who knew what.
Scott and Harold shared a look as Scott taped down the edges of Harold’s bandages. Ben realized for the first time that not all the adults were in quite the same level of denial about the twins as Barry was.
“Boys, why won’t the cars start?” Scott said, pivoting on the balls of his feet to address the twins.
The twins were curled up on either side of Ben in their matching Captain America pajamas, his own, personal worried bookends. Owen burrowed into Ben’s side, pressing his face into his arm.
“Because the monster won’t let them,” Jake said.
Barry dropped the stuff in his hands and whirled on his kids, eyes wide. “What do you mean it won’t let them?”
He was nearly shouting, and Jake pressed himself closer to Ben in fear, which pissed Ben off.
“Don’t shout at them,” Ben snapped at Barry. “If you’d bothered listening to them ever, we might not be here now.”
“Ben, that’s enough,” Scott said, calm and cool as he stood. “Barry, find a place to sit and be quiet.”
“Scott, we have to go,” Barry said with a whine. Barry was actually whining. Ben scoffed in disgust, and Mike was giving him the stink eye.
“We will,” Scott said with admirable restraint. “But we’re not going to be stupid about it. Now sit.”
Barry opened his mouth as if to protest, but Scott folded his arms and fixed Barry with a stern look Ben had only ever seen aimed at his cousins. Barry deflated and ambled over to the staircase to sit.
Scott sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. “Okay, then. Let’s be logical about this. I need everyone’s car keys.”
Barry actually had his in his pocket. Mike fetched Harold’s from his room. No one knew where Tommy’s keys were and no one bothered looking. When all of the keys were in his hand, Scott took a flashlight and a meat cleaver and went out into the dark.
Whatever detachment Ben felt was gone in a wash of panic as he watched Scott walk out into the night. Ben all but threw himself off the couch, abruptly dislodging the twins from his side. Mike was right behind him with another flashlight.
Scott was only standing on the porch, though, casting the flashlight beam over the cars.
“Scott,” Ben said, voice strangled.
“I’m all right, Ben” Scott said mildly. “I’m right here. The cars look fine to me.”
“Doesn’t mean they’ll start though,” Mike replied.
“You boys stay there,” Scott said and hopped off the porch.
Ben didn’t want to stay there, he wanted to go with Scott, but he obediently stayed on the porch with Mike and watched Scott nervously as he slid into the front seat of the X5. He left the door open while fiddled inside, and after a moment, he jumped back out again.
“Nothing,” he told them, slamming the door.
He went to Harold’s X5, one car over and further away from the porch and safety, and Ben’s heart climbed into his throat as Scott tried to start it. After a minute, Scott got out, went to Barry’s Pathfinder, even further away now, and gave it the same treatment. Mike followed him with the flashlight, while Ben twitched nervously. Mike’s shoulder bumped his once or twice in solidarity.
Scott got out and slammed the door. “Okay, back inside.”
Ben didn’t relax until Scott was back on the porch, herding them inside.
“The cars won’t start?” Harold asked. He was slumped in the same chair at the table, pale and shivering. Asher had settled in the chair next to Harold and was watching him anxiously.
“The cars won’t start,” Scott replied. “The interior lights don’t even come on.”
His eyes slowly crawled from the twins, who had huddled together in the warm spot Ben had left, then Barry, who was still sitting at the foot of the stairs, face hidden in his hands. Then he looked back to Harold, and Harold nodded.
“So tell me, boys,” Scott said gently, perching on the edge of the coffee table in front of them. “What was the thing out in the lake?”
The twins shifted uneasily, not used to adults listening to them or taking them seriously. They looked to the other boys for help.
“It’s okay, guys,” Mike said, settling on the arm of the big chair. “You can tell them. They’re ready to listen.”
Ben sat down next to Scott on the coffee table and gave them an encouraging nod. He was relieved they weren’t going to have to convince the adults that the creature was real and a danger, but he hated that the burden of explaining everything was falling on these two little kids. He was sure it was hard and isolating, being creepily psychic; he felt that way just knowing the supernatural existed. It was probably a thousand times worse for the twins.
“It’s a monster,” Jake said.
“A hungry monster,” said Owen.
“And mad,” Jake said. “We stole from it, and it wants its stuff back.”
“Stole from it?” Scott said. “What did we steal?”
“The bone.” Everyone turned to Asher, huddling next to Harold with his hair falling into his eyes. “I found that bone in the water.”
“It likes to remember,” Jake said.
“It remembers with the bones?” Harold asked. He made a thoughtful noise. “Like a serial killer. Is that why it’s attacking us? Because of the bone?”
Both twins shook their heads in synch. “That’s why it noticed us, but people don’t come down to the lake anymore because they’re scared. It’s really hungry, and it likes the taste of lost things, and we taste good.”
“What do you mean it likes the taste of lost things?” Scott asked.
“We lost mommy, and that tastes good to it. And Mr. Tommy lost the way you used to be, before you had families. And now you lost Mr. Tommy, and it thinks that tastes good, too. But Ben lost something bigger than just one person and the monster likes the way that tastes best.”
Ben’s stomach bottomed out. “What?” he said, shocked. “What did I lose?”
“Memories and a person,” Owen said. “It’s all hidden from you.”
“What do you mean, a person?” Sure, he’d felt the missing memories the creature had dug up, had been aware that he had been missing something for a while now, but that it seemed impossible that he’d forgotten a whole person.
Scott turned this awful, searching look on Ben. “You and your mom really don’t remember Dean, do you? Abby and I thought you guys were just being stubborn.”
Now everyone was looking at him like he was the world’s biggest freak. Ben clenched his fists and refused to let the panic come. His chest was tight, and he wasn’t sure he’d win this battle. “Scott, I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Wait. Dean? As in Sam and Dean?” Mike asked. “But you remember them. We talked about them yesterday.”
“Wait, how do you know Dean?” Scott asked Mike, but was summarily ignored.
“He doesn’t remember him the same way you do,” Jake said.
“And he has more to remember,” Owen said.
“What does that mean?” Ben snapped. He couldn’t even begin to understand how the fuzzy memories of the guy who saved him from the changelings could possibly connect to the feeling of forgetting that he had after the car accident. “How did I forget an entire person?”
Both boys flinched at his sharp tone.
“Something hid your memories, but left some so you could be safe,” Owen replied, shrinking into his brother a little.
“What was it?” Ben asked.
“Dunno. But it was really big and bright.” Owen paused, eyes distant, head titled like he was listening to something no one else could hear. His nose scrunched up in confusion. “It had a funny voice.”
“How do you know that?” Ben was shaking, and his nails were biting into his palm, and his next breath was difficult in coming. “I didn’t even know that.”
Jake shrugged. “We just know stuff sometimes.”
Scott’s hand was on Ben’s back, rubbing his back in gentle circles. “Is there anything else we should know, boys?”
Owen, apparently done with talking, buried his face against his brother. Jake shook his head.
“Okay. You did really well, guys. Thank you.”
Jake frowned at Scott and didn’t reply.
“So here’s the situation,” Scott said, coming to his feet with a gentle pat on Ben’s back. “The cars won’t start. There’s no cell reception out here, even when monsters aren’t trying to eat us, and it’s the dead of night. What we’re going to do is try to get some rest, and wait for the sun to come up. As far as I can tell, we’re not going to be able to get out of here without a little light. How does that sound to everyone?”
No one said anything.
Scott nodded. “No objections? Then that’s what we’ll do.”
Ben and Mike pushed the couch in front of the front door while Scott and Asher pushed the big chair and the dining room table against the back. Then the boys were sent upstairs to sleep, but, except fort he twins, no one actually slept. Ben and Asher and Mike sat on the bunks in silence and listened to the adults downstairs. Voices rose between Scott and Barry, and somewhere in there were a few conciliatory murmurs from Harold.
“I’m going to have to be bait,” Ben finally said. It wasn’t even something he thought about, just a fact that had struck him like lightening and left no room for wavering. He wasn’t even really scared, just resigned.
“What?” Asher said, confused.
“You up for it?” Mike asked, rising up on his elbows and looking down at Ben from his bunk.
“Well, we’re not getting out of here unless we kill it, and the twins said it’s got a thing for me, so yeah, I’m game.”
“Wait, are you saying that we have to kill it to get out of here?” Asher said alarmed. “As in just us? No grown ups?”
Mike leaned over the side of his bunk to look at his brother. “No one except for Scott is in any condition to do anything to begin with, but they’re also only thinking about getting us to safety. We don’t have time to wait for them to realize the only way to be safe is to kill it.”
“But what if we gave it back the bone?” Asher said.
“Do you really think that would stop it?” Mike asked.
Asher opened his mouth to argue, paused, and then shook his head.
“Well, then we have to kill it,” Mike said reasonably.
“But how?” Asher asked. “We’ll need a plan.”
“I have a few ideas about that,” said Ben and explained what he had in mind.
By the time the sun came up, their plan was decided.
The only way out of the cabin was to climb out the bedroom window onto the porch roof. Mike and Asher went first, but while Ben was making his way out, the twins woke, and it fell on him to calm them down while Mike and Asher went out to the cars to get what they needed.
“It’s okay, guys. Seriously. Me and Mike and Asher have dealt with monsters before.”
One twin had his hands wrapped around Ben’s as he leaned half in and half out the window, trying to pull him back in. Ben’s skin was crawling, turning his back to the woods like this, but the twins were on the verge of hysteria, and that seemed to be the bigger danger.
“But this one has something you want!” Owen all but wailed, eyes welling with tears. Ben’s not quite sure when in the past two days he’d come to be able to tell them apart, but it was clear as day to him now which twin was which.
“I know, but-“
“But you’re going to out there get it back and you can’t get it back, not like this.” The tears spilled down Owen’s cheeks, and he tugged harder on Ben’s arm. “The monster is going to eat the things you lost ‘cause that’s what it likes. You won’t remember them because they’ll be gone, and you’ll be dead!”
Ben’s heart froze in his chest. “I’m not going to get my memories back. I’m going to kill the monster.”
“You lie to yourself, like he does,” Owen said fiercely and with the force of authority of someone much older, his weepy terror suddenly gone. Jake pressed closer to his brother, staring at Ben grimly over his shoulder. “But lying to yourself will let the monster kill you.”
Ben wasn’t really sure who Owen was talking about, but he could guess. “Owen-“
“No, listen,” Owen said and jerked hard on Ben’s arm. “You can’t want your memories, not with this monster. You’ll die if you let it give them back.”
A chill rolled over Ben. “Okay, I hear you.”
“Ben!” Mike called with a stage whisper from below. “Come on!”
“I have to go now, guys,” Ben said. His voice trembled and his stomach rolled uneasily. “Close the window behind me.”
Owen gave a single, sharp nod, his lower lip trembling, and let go of Ben’s sleeve. “It’s at the playground. Don’t try to remember.”
Ben nodded and pulled back, and the curtains swung closed over the terrified faces of the twins. As he crept down to the edge of the roof where Mike and Asher waited, he heard the bedroom window close behind him with a final, quiet snick.
It may have been dawn, but it wasn’t much brighter than the night had been. The clouds were still heavy above them, low and threatening, but they could at least see the trees around them now. They could also see how still everything was, like the evil of the monster had driven everything that might have life away, even the wind.
“Are you sure this is the way to go?” Asher asked as they jogged along the trail towards the playground they didn’t make it to two days ago. He waved the golf club in his hand at the trail ahead of them. “To the playground?”
Each of them had a golf club for protection, though Mike had the nine iron. The creature’s flesh had hissed and spit when the iron poker went through it, so they were working on the theory that iron was its weakness. The only thing made of iron they could get their hands on without going downstairs for any of the fireplace tools was the nine iron in Harold’s golf bag, and Mike swore it was made of iron because he had researched nine irons thoroughly before the gave this one to Harold for his last birthday.
“This is the way Owen told me to go.” Ben had a driver in his hand and a bottle of lighter fluid tucked up under his arm. He’d brought the lighter fluid and the box of matches in his pocket on impulse. Fire killed everything, and they’d need to do something with the body afterwards. “I’m not going to doubt him now.”
“But why the playground, though?” Asher asked.
“Because it likes the slide? I don’t know Asher. Maybe it has a nest there or something.” Mike had a miniature flashlight on his key chain, and he was casting it on the path in front of them. “Now be quiet. We’re coming up on it.”
Asher made an unhappy noise, but fell silent as they emerged from the path.
It wasn’t just a playground, but apparently a picnic area as well, right there at the edge of the water. There were several picnic tables and a couple of grills and a tiny set of bathrooms under a shelter. No one had been here for a long time, though; one of the grills was knocked over and the roof of the shelter had partially collapsed under the weight of a fallen tree. One swing was missing from the swing set and the other swing was dangling from only one chain. Several rungs were missing from the ladder of the slide. And the climbing frame…
“The hell?” Mike said, playing the flashlight over the structure.
“Oh, eww,” Asher said. “Are those… are those bones?”
They were. They were bones.
The climbing frame was a square structure of rungs and ladders for kids climb on and hang on and do all the gymnastics-like stuff that had made Ben feel like a bad ass when he was little. It was probably painted in very bright colors, but it was hard to tell from all the bones attached to it. Some had been stuck directly to the frame like a kid’s macaroni art, and other bits were hung from the bars by some sort of goop that had dried hard and dark yellow, dangling like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Other bones were strewn on the ground around the frame like they had been tossed aside either because they were found wanting or maybe because they had been replaced with something newer.
“Dude, this is its trophy case,” Ben said, disgusted.
“Well, the twins did say it liked to remember with bones,” Mike said.
“Like a serial killer,” Asher said, echoing his stepfather.
“Yeah. And this thing is totally sentient. Look how they’re arranged.” Mike played the light along the bars. “By, like, type and size.”
“Ugh. There’s even a pattern,” Asher added.
Which was true. The bones glued to the frame tended to be long, slender bones, like arm and leg bones, and there was a pattern of long short long short. Curved and round bones like spinal disks and pelvises were the favorites for hanging, and the smaller spinal disks were interspersed between the larger pelvises. Here and there was a curved rib bone for variety.
“No skulls at least,” Mike said, like that made it better somehow.
“Okay,” Ben said, feeling a little queasy. “Let’s do this.”
Ben handed the lighter fluid to Asher and dug the matches out of his pocket so they wouldn’t get wet. Asher juggled things around, sticking his own gold club under one arm so he could take the lighter fluid. Mike took the matches and stuffed them in the front pocket of his hoodie.
Then Asher was handing Ben a bundle. “Here. I found it in the back of the car with the golf clubs.”
Ben hadn’t noticed that Asher was carrying anything other than his golf club, and he reached out cautiously to take it from him. There was something hard and narrow inside. Ben opened it and found-
“Eugh,” Ben said, and dropped it. It was the bone Asher had found in the water the other day. The human bone. The one that used to belong to a human.
“Dude,” Asher said, scowling. He picked it back up and held it out to Ben, careful to keep it wrapped in the towel. “I thought it might help lure back to shore. Since, you know, my taking it got it so mad.”
Ben looked to Mike for some help, but Mike just shrugged.
“He has a point,” Mike said.
“God, this is gross,” Ben muttered, and took the bone back, holding it with the towel.
“Grosser than that?” Mike asked, nodding towards the climbing frame covered with dangling bones.
Ben didn’t dignify that with an answer. “Okay. Here goes.”
His stomach was flopping around anxiously as he walked down to the water’s edge, and panic was more than ready to well up and hit Ben good and hard with an attack, but it was easier to force it away. Something about knowing that he really had forgotten something important made it easier, like it was the not knowing that he had forgotten that had made him panic, not the forgetting itself, which was just as confusing as it sounded.
At the waterline, he glanced back once at Mike and Asher, standing back near the swing set with their golf clubs at the ready, then he looked out over the water, as flat and reflective as a mirror like it had been yesterday.
“I’m here!” he shouted at the lake. He half expected to hear an echo, but there was nothing, just his voice going out and being absorbed into the stillness of the morning. “Come and get me!”
Nothing happened. The lake sat there, still and silent.
Ben looked back at the other boys again. Asher shrugged, and Mike made a go on motion with his hand.
Ben sighed and turned around, waved the bone in the air. “I’ve got your bone!”
Nothing continued to happen.
Ben looked at the bone in his hand and wrinkled his nose. This wasn’t working.
Ben walked back up to the other boys.
“What are you doing?” Asher asked.
“I don’t think it’s as stupid as we think it is. It’s hurt, and it’s not just going to come up and let us hurt it again.”
“So what do you suggest?” Mike asked.
“It got pretty mad when Asher took this bone, right?” Ben grimaced. Ugh. He couldn’t believe he was holding a human bone. “And it isn’t even one it put on display.”
“Right,” Mike said, and Asher nodded.
“So if losing the crappy bone pissed it off….” Ben tossed the femur at the horrific trophy case, glad to be rid of it. The other bones knocked together with hollow tinkles as it passed through them and landed somewhere inside. Ben gestured at Asher for the lighter fluid. “How’s it going to feel if we burn its trophy case?“
Mike grinned and fished the matches out of the pocket of his hoodie. He rattled them in their box. “Who wants to do the honors?”
The bones blazed bright in the morning gloom.
Ben had drenched the climbing frame in lighter fluid, and Asher and Mike had played Rock Paper Scissors for the honor of throwing the match. Asher won and had whooped excitedly as the whole thing caught fire with an explosive whoosh.
The three of them stood a little distance away as they watched, and in the chill of the morning, Ben secretly and guiltily relished the heat cast off from burning the bones of the monster’s victims. The fire crackled and spit as it burned the weird goop affixing the bones to the frame, and the bones bounced and clinked on the metal as they fell to the ground when the goo burned away. The smoke smelled pungent, like rotting meat.
After watching it for a few minutes, though, Ben turned his attention back to the lake.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s try this again.”
Ben grabbed his golf club and went back down to the water’s edge.
“Hey!” he shouted. “I’m burning your stuff!”
The lake remained still and silent, and more of nothing happened.
Ben sighed in frustration. He called out a few more taunts, all of which were lame and stupid, because seriously, how do you taunt a lake monster? Eventually he trudged back up to Mike and Asher.
“This isn’t working.”
“Yeah. I noticed,” Mike said. He tapped the ground thoughtfully with the nine iron. “Maybe we should-“
The creature came out of nowhere.
It lunged out of the trees behind them, a dark blur against darker shadows, and Asher was suddenly on the ground ten feet away from them, straddled by the lake monster. The poker was still protruding from its shoulder, the flesh around it black and bubbly like it had been burned, but that didn’t seem to keep it from raising one webbed hand above its head to slice up Asher with its talons.
Asher screamed, wild and terrified, and Mike was on the move the minute it knocked his brother down, hauling up the nine iron above his head to bring it down on its back.
But Ben had been right. The creature wasn’t stupid. It had circled around on them, coming from the woods behind them instead of from the water, and now it whirled on Mike, using the momentum of it upraised hand to swipe at Mike’s unguarded torso. It knocked Mike aside with a powerful smack, threw him across the playground where he hit the slide and crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
“Mike!” Asher screamed, but the creature was turning back on him, raising his arm again. Asher cringed, covered his face with his hands.
“Hey!” Ben shouted, hitting the bars of the burning climbing frame with the driver to get its attention. He was bait. Might as well act like it. “Isn’t it me you want?”
The thing paused, arm still held high. Slowly it turned his head, its weird, slit-pupil eyes sliding towards him.
Ben went cold under its gaze in a way that had nothing to do with the weather. He swallowed thickly and straightened his back. He could do this.
“Yeah. Me. I’ve got all the tasty missing memories.” Ben hit the climbing frame again. “Did I mention that it was my idea to burn your trophies?”
Ben wasn’t sure if it was the taunting or just the fact that the monster just really, really wanted to eat him, but it came to its feet slowly, purposefully. Ben’s chest tightened and his whole body flushed. It felt like a panic attack was coming on, but Ben shoved that feeling away.
“Yeah, come on. Come at me.” He took a couple of steps back, towards the water to draw it away from Mike and Asher. The creature followed, its eyes fixed on Ben. It chittered evilly.
Behind the monster, Asher, no longer the focus of its attention, scrambled to his feet and hurried over to Mike. The creature noticed the movement and started to look in that direction.
“Hey!” Ben hit the climbing frame again.
The creature whipped his head back to Ben.
“How’s the poker feel?” Ben gestured at his own shoulder. “Couldn’t get it out, huh?”
The creature glanced down at its own shoulder. The damage looked worse on the front. The skin where the point of the poker stuck out over its left pec was torn and bubbly and raw, and the wound was bleeding sluggishly. Its left arm dangled uselessly at its side; it hadn’t lifted it once. Mike had really done the number on it, and Ben hoped that it would be enough of a handicap for them to come out on top.
The creature raised its eyes to Ben again; it actually looked insulted, like it knew Ben was taunting it.
Ben smirked, feeling reckless and strangely powerful all the sudden. He’d insulted a lake monster. That was kind of bad ass. He wondered if this was what Tony Stark felt like when he was mouthing off at the bad guys.
“Iron’s not your thing, huh?”
The creature chittered, and Ben had the distinct impression that it was swearing at him. It took a step towards him, yellow eyes aglow, and for a brief second Ben felt a little fuzzy, almost like he had a few hours ago when the creature had him in his thrall, but the feeling slipped away as quickly as it had come.
Ben blinked and shook his head. The creature chittered. It sounded a lot like frustration, and crap, it had just tried to hypnotize him again. But it didn’t because…
“The iron’s blocking your mojo, isn’t?” Ben grinned. This taunting thing was kind of fun. “Sucks to be you.”
Behind the creature, Asher was patting Mike’s face, the nine iron in one hand, and Mike was rousing with a groan. The creature was turning again, distracted.
“Hey! I’m talking to you!” Ben shouted and whapped the climbing frame as hard as he could.
This time, the creature turned back to him, and the noise he made wasn’t evil chittering, it was a low, throaty growl. And that was it; it was done with Ben. Ben could see it in its eyes.
The creature came at him, everything from the gleam of its white shark teeth to the slide and bunch of the muscles in its thighs radiating menace. Ben’s chest was tightening again with the threat of a panic attack, and he wanted nothing more than to bolt, but he stood his ground. He didn’t want to get too close to the water and give the monster the advantage of its natural element; Mike and Asher would need solid ground for their attack, and in no way did he want to feel the icy lake water closing over his head.
Ben widened his stance and raised the driver in his hand like a baseball bat, but the monster was on him with a sudden burst of speed, and its arm went back-
Ben blinked, found himself looking up at the sky, confused. His ears were ringing. His breath was gone out of him and his lungs ached in its absence. His face throbbed and stung. Ben blinked again and wondered why his body hurt so bad.
A hand closed around his ankle, claws pricking the skin of his leg.
It was then that the shock of getting slapped to the ground by a giant lake creature wore off, because holy crap, he was getting dragged to the water like Barry had been the night before. Ben twisted and scrabbled, trying to get purchase. His chest heaved in vain as he tried to get some air in. His shirt rode up and the ground and all its plants and twigs and random rocks scraped along his back. He was flying high on adrenaline, so at least he didn’t really register the pain, but panic had its grip on him now, its bitter, acrid taste flooding his mouth.
In a minute the creature was going to get him into the water, and that was it. He’d be dead. Dead, dead, dead. Just like the changelings had tried to make him. Just like the things in the warehouse, the guy with the British accent-
The cold water touched his skin, and Ben was deluged in memories.
The scrambled eggs pushed onto his plate came first, then the engine and the sun on the back of his neck. Then the guy out in the yard, raking leaves and the rumbly, deep voice in the living room, asking him if he shouldn’t be in bed. Then the black car under the tarp in the garage and the smell of motor oil and leather. Dean sitting on the back steps, a beer in his hand, peering up at Ben with a hand over his eyes to shade them from the afternoon light, a little half smile on his face, and then Dean in the stands at his baseball game, cheering him on-
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was aware that the thing had stopped, that his back was still on solid ground, but he was wet now, too. There were claws digging into his chest, pinning him in place, and the icy lake water was sloshing against his sides, over his legs, splashing against his face and clogging his ears. The creature was hurt and it was hungry, and Ben had the tastiest loss in these parts, and it was going to feast instead of retreat because the other boys just weren’t enough of a concern to drive it deeper into the lake.
But all of that was background noise, just little details that filtered in from the world above and slipped away the deeper Ben was pulled down into his past. His memories were like water, and he was drowning; they rose up over him, closing over his head and suffocating him, and the creature plucked them away one by one, ripping them out by the very roots-
</i>Listening while Dean explained his math homework in a way that actually made sense.
Nodding while he hunkered down in the empty garage with his mom’s cellphone, while Dean told him to fess up to his mom breaking over the heirloom vase that had belonged to his grandma.
Fleeing upstairs when Dean and his mom both sent him to his room after he tricked Dean into coming home.
Running in the warehouse behind Dean, his mom whimpering in his arms-</i>
There were no words for the pain of it, the incoherent agony, searing and sharp, and from that strange twilight place that Ben had once known as the real world, he felt the creature’s mouth, its sharp shark teeth biting into the flesh of his arm, seasoned now just right with all of Ben’s losses.
After that, nothingness.
At first, things came back to him in fragments, like an image in a broken mirror.
There was the golf club arcing down and the meaty sound of iron meeting flesh. The feeling of hands on him, dragging him away from something cold and sloshy. The shift of Mike’s back as he brought the nine iron down on the creature’s head again and again, black blood flying. Something warm around him, a voice speaking incomprehensibly in his ears. The grunt and huff of the others dragging the creature’s body up on shore. The acrid smell of lighter fluid. The whoosh of flames as the body of the creature caught fire.
At some point true awareness returned, though the world felt unreal and insubstantial. He could hear his own voice, words just spilling from him, I had it, I had it, and It was right there, I had it, and I remembered. I remembered. There were arms around him, warm and tight as he shivered, and something over him, fabric of some kind.
“But I lost it again. It’s gone now. It’s gone.” The words kept coming out of him, and his body wouldn’t stop shaking. His toes, he couldn’t feel his toes, so numb with cold, and all he could feel was his shoulder, burning and throbbing from the creature’s bite.
“I know.” It was Scott. It was Scott’s voice in his ear, and it was his arms wrapped around him as he shivered. “I know. I’m sorry, Ben. I’m sorry.”
He saw Mike and Asher standing over the burning corpse like victors. The flames burned a strange green color, and an awful scent like copper and motor oil and the darkness of a building where no light shone drifted on the wind.
Barry came over and squatted nearby. “He okay?” he asked, peering at Ben like he was an anomaly of nature, something he could never understand.
“I don’t know,” Scott said gently as he held Ben close against his warmth, and pressed something against the bite on his shoulder.
Overhead, the heavy clouds suddenly split apart, and the bright rays of the morning sun burst over the surface of the lake.
continue to epilogue