Watery, gray light was seeping in around the edges of the curtains when Ben woke. He stretched and rolled onto his side, kicking off the blanket as he went. He was alone; all the other bunks were empty, and the cabin seemed eerily quiet. It was unsettling, made him feel lost and isolated, so he hustled out of bed.
He shivered when his feet hit the cold floor, and his breath was puffing out in little clouds. He knew it was supposed to be chilly here in the mornings, but this just seemed excessive for June. He hastily pulled on a pair of jeans and the single sweatshirt he had brought, layered up two pair of socks on his feet, and hurried downstairs.
The creepy twins were eating cereal at the table. They were wearing matching red and white striped shirts under matching blue hoodies today. Mike and Asher were out on the back porch, having a furiously whispered conversation, and just past them, Ben could see the three adults huddled together at the mouth of the path down to the lake having their own secret conversation.
He sort of wanted to go out and find out what was going on, but he was odd man out here and wasn’t sure of how welcome he’d be in butting into anyone’s conversation. So he sat down at the table with the twins and poured himself a bowl of cereal.
“What’s going on?” Ben asked, pouring milk over his Cheerios.
“Tommy didn’t come back last night,” said the twin on his right. He was poking morosely at his cereal, Fruit Loops by the soggy, multicolored look of it.
“Oh.” He wasn’t too broken up about it - the guy was a dick - but it was concerning.
“The monster got him,” said the other twin. He wasn’t even touching his cereal, just staring into the bowl, his whole face twisted with anxiety and fear.
And that was why it was concerning.
Ben looked down into his own cereal, his appetite fizzling away. He gamely took a bite, anyway, and grimaced at the bland, cardboard taste. There was a reason why he stopped asking his mom to buy Cheerios years ago, and sudden lack of appetite wasn’t helping things.
The twin playing with his cereal let out a world-weary sigh and put down his spoon. “Who did you hear?”
Ben paused with a mound of cheerios half way to his mouth, suddenly the sole focus of the intense, laser-sharp stare of two very psychic, very creepy kids.
“What?” Ben said.
“You heard the monster. Owen wants to know who it sounded like.” The twin – this one was Jake, then – studied him solemnly. “It’s okay. You can tell us. We heard it, too.”
He almost lied, almost laughed them off, but they were serious. Deadly, horror movie psychic kid serious, and, horribly, trying to be kind and gentle with him. And Ben just couldn’t seem to lie.
He dropped his spoon back into his cereal, his gut heavy and twisting.
“I don’t remember,” he told them. There had been a voice, that voice, the one he had forgotten, and a name, he’d known a name, he’d said it out loud, but now he couldn’t recall it, couldn’t even summon a tip-of-the-tongue sense of it. There had been that glimpse of the scrambled eggs, and of leaning over an engine in the sunlight. It had only been for a split second, but he’d remembered. “I thought I did, for a minute, but not anymore.”
The twin across the table – Owen – nodded solemnly. “That’s why it likes you best.”
And with that disturbing, terror-inducing statement, the twins turned back to their cereal and began to eat in their strange, synchronized way.
Ben stared at them, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the morning cold. His appetite was completely gone; there was no way his stomach was going to tolerate food right now. He got up and poured the Cheerios down the disposal, saw the sky through the kitchen window, heavy with dark clouds, saw the trees looming menacingly over the cabin, and shivered.
Something bad was going to happen on this trip, something worse than the changelings. He could feel it.
Just then there were heavy footsteps on the back porch, and the adults filed back in, Matt and Asher on their heels. Scott and Harold headed for the coffee with a strange, anxious silence, while Barry went over to his sons. His left eye was bruised and puffy, ringed by a dark purple shiner, and his bottom lip was swollen and scabbed. Tommy had gotten him good.
He gave everyone else a very wide, very nervous smile. “Everyone done with breakfast?” he asked with transparent cheer. Everyone was clearly not done with breakfast, the twins were still working on their soggy cereal, both of them in the middle of synchronized chewing, but Barry clapped his hands together and rubbed them with false glee. “Great! Then how about a walk up to the playground, huh?”
None of the kids, Ben included, were excited about this plan. They all just looked at Barry, unmoved by his false excitement and cheer. From the looks on their faces, Ben was, for a split second, almost positive that Mike and Asher were as convinced as he and the twins were that there was a monster out there somewhere.
“Okay, Daddy,” Jake finally said, resigned. “If you want to.”
“Awesome. You boys go get your shoes on. We’re leaving in ten.”
You’re going to get us all killed, Ben thought darkly, irrationally, but went up stairs for his shoes, anyway.
The day was dreary and damp. Without the sun, it felt like February, and despite his sweatshirt, the cold sunk through Ben’s skin and into his bones, settling deep. The trees loomed above them, grim and heavy. Nothing else seemed to be moving today, not even a breeze; the only noise was the pad of their feet on the trail, the rustle of clothing, and the occasional sound of Barrys’ voice, pointing things out to the twins.
Ben wondered with vague panic if this was what it would feel like to be the last person on earth
Ben wasn’t sure what Mike had said to Barry, but, much to Ben’s relief, he had convinced him to give up on the playground and take the other trail, the one that split off to the right. The walking trails ran parallel to the lakeshore, and this one took them past a small picnic area for hikers and past another cabin, silent and empty. Barry and the twins walked in the lead, each boy holding one of their father’s hands. They were subdued and silent, their interest in sticks and poking things with those sticks was nowhere to be seen. Mike walked not far behind, hands tucked into his Michigan hoodie, while Asher and Ben fell in last.
Asher was sticking suspiciously close, making Ben feel a little claustrophobic. It felt like he wanted to talk, but Ben wasn’t about to make the first move, still too rattled by the conversation he’d had with the twins at breakfast. The tension was making him uncomfortable, though, and he had started to wonder if he could come up with a good excuse to go back to the cabin to get warm, when Asher finally came out with it.
“So what was the deal with the salt last night?”
Right. The salt. Ben should have expected that.
He shrugged, tried to play it cool. “It was just something to calm down the kids.”
Mike glanced at them over his shoulder, and Ben tensed, expecting mockery, but Mike said nothing, and quickly looked away.
“Well, that worked, but seriously, why’d you have it.” Asher nudged Ben with his elbow in a friendly way but it only made Ben tense. “You can tell me. I really do want to know. I’m not going to laugh at you or anything.”
Ben wasn’t sure how to explain it, not even to himself. The missing time between the home invasion in which his mom’s boyfriend Matt died and the car accident after that nearly killed his mom, the jumbled memories, and the stuff he and his mom knew afterward – how to line the doors and windows with salt, how to hide the devil traps under rugs, how to always keep a bottle of holy water around just in case – he just couldn’t make sense of it. They had never considered that they were crazy, no matter what the rest of the world might say, just accepted the knowledge for what it was. But Ben never could shake the idea that he had forgotten something important, and once Ben had asked his mom if she felt that way, too.
“Everyday,” she’d said, but they had never really figured out what.
Ben knew all that would sound utterly insane if he tried to explain it, wasn’t even sure Asher was the person he wanted to explain it to, so he said, “I read about it on the internet.” It was the answer he’d come up with should he ever be asked this question, and Ben glanced sidewise at Asher to see how he reacted. “I’m kinda superstitious, I guess.”
Asher didn’t laugh, as promised. He didn’t even look particularly freaked out. If anything, he looked a little disappointed.
“Oh,” was all he said.
Ben relaxed somewhat, feeling as if he had just cleared a huge hurdle, and they walked in silence for a few minutes more, though Ben was fairly sure that Asher was building up to another question from the way he kept glancing at Ben.
“So have you noticed there’s no wind?” he said at last.
Not the question he was expecting, but yeah, Ben had noticed. “Yeah, and no bird song or insects buzzing. Just like the trail yesterday.”
Asher looked up into the cloud-heavy sky. “I don’t like it.”
“No,” Ben said. “Me neither.”
In front of them, Mike glanced over his shoulder again and again remained quiet.
Barry and the twins turned down a path that brought them out at the lake. The lake was absolutely still, flat and almost black, reflecting the clouds above like a mirror. They turned and walked along the water’s edge, sand crunching under their feet, and Asher was shooting sideways glances at Ben again, and seriously, the kid was killing him with the build up.
“Dude, spit it out,” Ben said exasperated. “What do you want to know?”
Asher did this twitching thing, blinking rapidly and jerking his shoulders back. “What? Nothing. I-“
“Just ask him, Ash,” Mike sounded just as exasperated at Ben. “You’re freaking him out.”
“Fine,” Asher said, dropping his eyes and folding in on himself in embarrassment. He mumbled something Ben didn’t quite catch, but he caught the words lake and salt jumbled in there somewhere.
“Oh, for-“ Mike stopped and turned on them. “He wants to know if you knew about the thing in the lake before you came here.”
“I want to know?” Asher said, incredulous, and kicked his brother in the shin. “You butthead! Don’t make me look like the creepy one.”
Mike shoved at Asher, not too hard but enough to force him back a step. “I’m not. You’re doing it to yourself.”
“I just… I always take salt with me,” Ben said. “Just in case.”
Mike crossed his arms and loomed over Ben, even though they were more or less the same height. “Just in case of what?”
Ben shifted from one foot to the other. “Um…”
“Did you almost get eaten by monsters once, too?” Asher asked, eyes wide.
Mike ran a hand over his face. “Dude.”
Ben looked between them. On the one hand, he was more than happy with the idea of not being alone with a couple of psychic twins in thinking that there was something not right here at the lake, but on the other, it was entirely crazy to think there was a monster out here, and Ben wasn’t always sure that he wasn’t crazy.
“When I was eight, these things called changelings stole me from bedroom and replaced me with a creepy double that nearly killed my mom.” Ben just blurted it out, surprising himself, and apparently the other boys, by his sudden confession. But it felt good, somehow, not to have to keep it in anymore. “So you can think I’m crazy or whatever, but that’s what happened. And there’s other stuff out there, too. Ghosts and demons and things. That’s why I have the salt.”
There was utter silence from the other boys. Ben looked away so he didn’t have to see them trying to think of a way to make a strategic retreat, just in case some of his crazy got on them. It had happened, though, he knew it happened. Katie remembered it, and so did some of the other kids who were there. He’d asked them all once, sent them texts not long after the car crash just to make sure he hadn’t imagined what had happened in the basement of that house. Asher and Mike could think him crazy if they wanted, but it was real. Monsters were real, and the monster that had called out to Ben and the twins the night before, it was real, too.
It’s just… he hated this part, the rejection part.
“When we were younger,” Mike said, his words slow and cautious, “there was this thing in a black robe. It came through the window, and when it opened his mouth…” Mike trailed off.
Ben looked up in surprise. They wore identical looks of terror, as if the memory was almost too much to revisit.
“I almost died,” Asher said, picking up where his brother had left off. “I woke up and it was hovering over me. It opened its mouth and it was glowing, right? Its mouth, I mean. And it sort of… inhaled me. I was in a coma, but there were these guys…”
“Two of them,” Mike said. “They were staying at the hotel my mom owned back then. They had this big black car, you know, one of those old muscle cars. I pretended to be asleep when it came back for me, and they… they killed it.”
“A big black car?” Ben said. He remembered that car, had ridden in it. It was the most awesome car he has ever seen, and he remembered how they told him how well he’d done, helping those other kids get out.
“Yeah. Sam and Dean,” Mike said. “Those were their names.”
“One was really tall?” Ben didn’t really remember their names anymore, nor their faces. He just had a vague impression of them, both tall, but one taller, the big black car, the way it smelled of leather and oil and safety, the way they saved him, him and the other kids and made sure the mother changeling and her changeling children couldn’t hurt anyone anymore.
“Yeah,” Mike said. “Tall with lots of hair.”
Elation was building in him, elation and relief because he wasn’t alone. “I think those were the guys who saved me. That part’s all kind of a blur, and I don’t remember their names, but… yeah, that sounds like them.” He exhaled in a rush, something inside him unfurling in a way it hadn’t in years. “So, I’m not crazy.”
Mike offered him a smile in return. “No, man. You’re not crazy, because if you are, we are, too.”
“Good.” Ben looked away, out over the water, to the tree line on the other shore. “Because I really do think there’s something weird going on here.”
“You mean the weather?” Asher said. “It’s super weird.”
“It’s not really the weather, though is it?” Mike said. “It’s how quiet it is. Yesterday it was like this on the trail, but today it’s everywhere. And Jake and Owen-“
“Are totally psychic.” Ben said. “Like, The Sixth Sense and The Shining psychic.”
“Yeah,” Mike said with a breathy laugh. “You don’t know the half of it.”
“So do you think there’s a ghost or a monster or something out here?” Asher was looking around, at the sky, at the trees, at the lake like he expected to be pounced on at any second. “Like the maintenance guy said?”
“I don’t know.” Mike shrugged. “I mean, nothing has actually happened to anyone so far.”
“Except for Tommy,” Asher said.
“We don’t know that, though, do we? He was drinking pretty heavily. He could have just passed out in the bushes somewhere. He’s done it before.” Mike hit his brother lightly on the arm with the back of his hand. “Remember when we found him naked and passed out under the dock at that place in Tennessee?”
Asher grimaced. “Ugh. Don’t remind me.”
Ben wasn’t entirely comfortable with that, as much as he would like it to be true. “But last night, the one twin said they heard their mother, and the other said it wasn’t her, that it was a monster. I mean, either we believe they’re psychic or we don’t, right?”
“I know,” Mike said, “but sometimes they say stuff that doesn’t make sense, like they don’t really understand what they know.”
“Maybe they don’t. But I think they understood just fine last night. I mean, ‘cause I…”
Ben trailed off. He felt that empty place in his mind like an open wound, that place where there should be memories but there weren’t.
“You what?” Mike said.
“You saw something last night, didn’t you?” Asher asked with breathy excitement. “I knew it! I told you, Mike, I told you.”
“What did you see?” Mike asked, curious.
Ben rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “I don’t know. Shadows. But it talked to me.”
“What did it say?”
“My name, and it was calling to me, but it sounded like someone I used to know.”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
Ben expected more questions, expected them to probe deeper, to try to pull out that thing that Ben couldn’t remember, but the other boys were just looking at him, unaware that there was so much more that Ben could no longer access.
“So what kind of monster can do that? Sound like other people, I mean.” Asher’s eyes were wide, expectant, like Ben knew all and he was waiting on him to bestow his secret knowledge on him. And maybe he was the expert here, since neither Asher nor Mike seemed to know anything about the supernatural beyond what had happened to them, but he didn’t know nearly enough. Whatever he and his mom knew, it seemed to be the basics.
“I don’t know, man. I’ve never seen anything other than the changelings. I just know some stuff, you know, like how to protect myself.”
“Well, I know that telling the dads about this won’t work. Barry’s in deep, dark denial about the twins, and Harold is super literal. If science can’t prove it, it doesn’t exist. I don’t know about Scott-“ Here Mike looked to Ben, silently asking him if Scott would believe them, but Ben thought about Scott’s encyclopedic knowledge of Ohio State sports and the intricacies of the stock market, and shook his head. “So, yeah, no adult help there. We’ll just have to tough it out and try not to get killed before the end of this trip.”
“They like this place,” Asher said. “What about next year?”
“Bitch and moan and ask to go back to the place in Tennessee? I don’t know. Let’s just get through-“
A sudden, sharp scream echoed over the water. All three boys jumped and whirled towards it. Ben’s heart was pounding hard and heavy in his chest, his stomach trying to crawl up his throat in fear. He half expected to see something – in its mind’s eye, it had the face of the mother changeling – lunging out of the trees, but there was nothing, just Barry and the twins further down the shore like they had been last time he’d looked.
The twins, though, were in meltdown mode.
“No, Daddy! Don’t!” cried one of the twins, Jake he suspected, since he seemed to do most of the talking. He was hanging on his father’s arm, trying to pull him back, away from the water. Owen was crouched down next to them, hands over his face, his little body shaking with sobs. “You’ll make it come here!”
Barry looked utterly and completely bewildered. Ben suspected it was his default mode where his kids were concerned. “Guys, guys. Calm down. I’m just skipping stones.”
Out on the water, there was a series of concentric circles of waves drifting outward where the stone had skipped, bumping into each other and melding together.
“You can’t do that!” Jake howled. “You’ll bring it here!”
Barry looked from the twin hanging on his arm to the one crouching at his feet. “Okay. I’ll stop, guys. It’s okay. I’m not going to skip anymore stones.”
Jake threw himself at his father, arms around his waist, and clung. Barry pet his hair absently and looked towards the other boys, embarrassed and uneasy.
“I think it’s time to go back, boys,” he said.
No one disagreed with him.
The walk back to the cabin seemed about a thousand times longer than it had been going. Barry carried Owen the whole way, and he’d sobbed on his shoulder for a long time before passing out. Jake walked next to them until his brother fell asleep then he dropped back and curled his little fingers into the hem of Ben’s sweatshirt.
Sure, the twins were creepy, but Ben didn’t consider extracting himself from Jake’s grip, not even for a second.
Scott and Harold weren’t there when they all trooped up the back steps, and the lead weight that had settled in the pit of Ben’s stomach seemed to get heavier.
“Where’s Scott?” The pressure in Ben’s chest was building, and he couldn’t seem to get in enough air, and heat was prickling up the back of his neck. Scott was out there, unaware of the supernatural in general, let alone the specific supernatural thing that was out there in these woods, calling out in other people’s voices. “Where’d they go?”
“They went to look for Tommy,” Barry said, settling the sleeping twin on the couch and covering him with a blanket. Jake scrambled up on the couch next to his brother, not getting close enough to wake him, but close enough to pull some of the blanket over his lap.
Barry straightened, and as soon as he saw Ben, his face drained of color. It was only then that the Ben realized what he must look like, standing there on the verge of a panic attack, and not only that, that Barry knew. Which meant Scott knew and had told his bros. Which made the impending panic attack a thousand times worse now that it was flavored with the distinct taste of embarrassment.
“So, uh, Barry.” Mike was eyeing Ben with an assessing look. “Did you bring Uno?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I did.” Barry gave them one of those uneasy, too-cheerful smiles, obviously relieved to have an out. “I’ll go grab it.”
Barry all but fled into his room.
“You okay?” Mike asked. “You look kind of… shaky.”
“Panic attacks.” Ben grabbed onto one of the chairs, gripping it hard, and took a deep breath, deep and strong, then another and another, but it was hard. His lungs didn’t want to work right. “I have them sometimes.”
Maybe it was just the way Mike was, or maybe it was because his stepdad was a doctor, but he didn’t seem the least bit freaked out, which was good, because Ben was about two tiny steps away from melt down mode.
“Okay, um, breathe. Yeah, like that. Come on, sit.” Mike steered him into the chair. Asher hovered nearby with wide eyes, not so calm about it as Mike was, but keeping it together nonetheless. “Keep breathing. You’re safe, we’re safe, and I’m sure Scott and Harold are just fine.”
“Yeah, Ben. Don’t worry,” Jake said, suddenly right there, in Ben’s face, like the world’s smallest, creepiest ninja. “Mr. Scott and Mr. Harold are okay. They’ll be back soon. The monster doesn’t want them. They don’t have any flavor.”
That was both creepy and strangely comforting, and Ben’s next breath was a little easier.
“What do you mean, they don’t have flavor?” Asher said, voice trembling, and that’s when the back door burst open, letting in Harold and Scott.
Their faces were pink from the cold, and their eyes were bright, and they were both grinning. As soon as they saw Jake, Mike, and Asher all hovering over Ben, the smiles sloughed right off their faces.
“Everything okay?” Scott said, zeroing in on Ben.
“Yeah. Barry’s just getting the Uno deck,” Mike said, backing away from Ben a little. Jake was slinking back to his brother with his sneaky ninja moves, and Asher was dragging out the chair next to Ben.
Ben was deeply grateful that the other boys were covering for him and not making this a national emergency.
Ben dragged in another breath, noting how Harold was eyeing him, like he was ready to dive across the table with CPR or something. “I’m fine,” he told everyone. His voice was trembling and croaky, but he was feeling better now that Scott was there. He took another breath, in-out, and another, in-out. “I’m fine.”
Scott eyed Ben a moment – oh, yeah, his mom had definitely told him about the panic attacks, they were so going to have words - then gave him a forced smile. “So we’re playing, Uno?”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “Since it’s too cold for the boat today.”
“You’re back,” Barry said with obvious relief as he emerged from his room with the cards just then. “So no Tommy?”
Harold shook his head. “No Tommy. Wherever he passed out, he’s good and hidden. If he’s not back by dinner, we’ll get some help.”
Barry was clearly upset. He fiddled nervously with the cards. “You don’t think we should-”
“No. I don’t,” Scott said. “We looked, we didn’t find him. We’re tired of his crap, so we’re going to treat him like we’re tired of his crap.”
“But, the lake-“
“No. Stop, Barry. It’s not your fault he stomped off in a snit. He’ll come back like he always does, and we’re not going to let him ruin this trip, not again.” Harold pulled out a chair and sat down at the table, held out his hands for the cards. “Now, give me the cards. Everyone else, grab a drink and sit down. I have a championship to defend.”
There was a sudden flurry of activity as people were getting drinks for themselves in the cooler or the refrigerator and settling at the table.
“I think you’re mistaken,” Mike said, plopping down across from Ben with a can of Coke. “The championship is mine this year.”
“You wish,” said Scott joining them with a beer for himself and a can of Sprite for Ben. “It’s mine.”
Ben’s breathing was evening out now that Scott was there, and everyone was safe, and some kind of normality had set in. Harold dealt the cards, and they played until lunchtime, after which Mike hooked up his laptop to the TV and they watched Marvel moves for the rest of the afternoon –Iron Man and The Amazing Spiderman and Thor.
It was actually kind of fun, as much fun as it could be out in the woods with one guy missing and a monster using other people’s voices lurking around in the shadows.
Which was good, because that’s the last fun anyone had for quite some time.
At five, Barry fired up the grill.
There was an unspoken agreement among the kids that the adults couldn’t be left alone, so Ben and Asher had slunk out right behind him with a deck of cards and sodas, while Mike stayed inside with Harold and Scott and the twins. They causally settled the picnic table to play War and pretend that they weren’t freezing to death while they kept an eye on Barry. It was so cold that within minutes, Ben’s fingers were numb at the tips and achy in the joints, and the day had darkened significantly since their walk that morning. It looked more like eight o’clock than five, and Barry had to turn on the sodium light over the grill. It flickered and buzzed, making it seem as if the shadows between the trees were moving – writhing and slithering, and alive.
It was unsettling to be out in the open like that, in the cold and in the gloom; Ben was jumpy and having a hard time focusing on the game and on Barry, and really, Barry himself was freaking Ben out a little. He’d been drinking pretty steadily all day, throwing out fake smiles and laughing uproariously at things that weren’t that funny. After he got the fire going he just stared into it, eyes distant, and sort of rocked back and forth as he poked at the coals desultorily, taking a swig of his beer every now and then. Ben had never really seen anyone drunk off their ass before, but he was starting to think Barry might fit that phrasing perfectly. It made him nervous in a way that had nothing to do with the monster in the woods.
Time seemed to be passing at a crawl. Ben and Asher played what seemed to be an endless game of War while Barry poked at the fire and drank his beer. Scott eventually came out with the steaks. He hung out for a few minutes, asked Barry about the twins eating preferences, then went back in to so something or another with the baked potatoes. Ben declared War and lost. Asher declared War and won. All the while, the shadows shifted and deepened, the darkness pressing in on them.
Asher declared War again, but paused in the middle of laying down his second card, holding it up in the air. “The steaks are burning.”
“What?” Ben looked over his shoulder. The fire in the grill was spitting and hissing, licking the underside of the burning meat, and Barry was standing in front of the path down to the lake, peering into the dark. How Barry had made it over there without being noticed was beyond Ben, but he swore and nearly face planted into the picnic table in his haste to get up.
“I’ll get Mike,” Asher said, and the screen door slammed a second later.
Ben hurried to Barry’s side. “Barry, what are you doing?”
Barry was staring down the path with a dazed expression, beer bottle still gripped in his hand. “You hear that?”
No. No, Ben did not. The world was as silent and still as it had been that morning, but after last night, he could imagine. Very vividly, in fact.
“Tommy. I hear Tommy.” Barry dropped the bottle and started down the path. The bottle tipped onto its side and beer started to glug-glug-glug from it. “Tommy! I’m coming man! Hold on!”
“Barry! No! Wait!” Ben grabbed him by the arm, but Barry slipped his grasp with a quick twist of his wrist. Ben stumbled back as Barry started forward again, not at a run, but he definitely wasn’t strolling.
Ben hesitated; panic stirred in his limbs, in the pit of his stomach and the pinch of his lungs, but he knew, knew hard and solid, that if he lost sight of Barry now, he would lose Barry completely.
Ben took a huge, fortifying breath, and lunged down the path after him, his panic attacks be damned.
Barry grunted when Ben grabbed his arm again. Barry stumbled back as Ben tried to pull him to a stop, but then he started forward again, forcing Ben to stumble with him.
“Don’t listen to it,” Ben said, fighting to hold onto Barry and get him to stop. “It isn’t Tommy.”
Barry grunted like a pissed off bull, and the arm Ben was hanging on came up and grabbed a big handful of Ben’s sweatshirt. The next thing Ben knew, he was shoved backwards. Barry was a big guy, and he had a lot more muscle mass than Ben, and all of the force behind that shove put Ben down on his ass. Hard. Hard enough that when Ben hit the ground, his breath went out of him in one big whoosh.
Barry hadn’t even looked at him once.
Ben could only huddle on the ground and try to suck some air into his lungs, but he could hear Barry’s calls to Tommy dwindling in the distance, and from the direction of the cabin, a lot of shouting and cursing. Someone crashed past Ben at a run, and someone else was kneeling close by, hands on Ben, drawing him into a sitting position.
“Just breathe, Ben. Take a breath. It should pass in a minute.” Ben found that it was Harold, helping him up, talking to him in a gentle voice. “You okay? Feel like anything’s broken?”
Ben shook his head.
“Did you hit your head?”
Ben shook his head again.
“Any broken bones?”
Another head shake. It was like having a panic attack without the actual panic, but his breathing was coming more easily now, and he started to climb to his feet.
“Here, let me help.” Harold helped him up and Ben was quick to shake him off, getting plenty of air now, even if his back was screaming from the impact and the palms of his hands were burning from catching himself when he hit the ground.
Behind him further into the trees, Ben could hear Scott swearing, mostly at Barry. “Stop, Barry! Dammit, Barry, would you stop?”
“But Tommy’s out there! I heard him calling for me.” Barry’s words were full of anguish and wild terror. “I’ve got to go find him!”
“No. He’s not! All that’s out here is us and the lake.” Ben looked back; Scott had caught Barry, and he had hands curled into Barry’s shirt to hold him still. “You’ve had too much to drink, and you knocked Ben down enough to knock the wind out of him, and your kids, do you see your kids? That’s them, crying…”
And the twins were crying, standing there on the back porch next to Asher, tears running down their faces.
“Boys, why don’t you go back inside while Scott and I help your dad,” Harold called to them. “Mike?”
Mike was standing at the mouth of the path in bare feet, the poker from the fireplace in one hand, but he came forward at Harold’s request and escorted Ben towards the house.
“Don’t leave them,” Ben muttered to him when Harold turned back to Scott and Barry.
Mike nodded and stayed at the foot of the steps while Ben and Asher steered the twins into the cabin. Ben headed for the couch while Asher closed the door on the scene outside.
“You okay?” Asher asked.
Ben nodded as he eased onto the couch. “You got any aspirin?”
Asher disappeared into Harold’s room, and the twins stood staring at him, hands entwined, tears sliding down their faces.
“Please don’t be mad at Daddy. He didn’t mean it,” one of the twins said, Jake no doubt. “It was the monster.”
“Yeah, I know, man,” Ben said. His butt and back ached from the fall. “It’s cool.”
“It’s really mad, now. It’s not going to stop,” Jake said.
“I know.” Ben’s palms were stinging, and when he turned them upwards, he found they were scraped up, and little beads of blood were welling up from the abrasions. “We’ll try to get the grown ups to leave tomorrow morning, okay?”
“But it’s not going to let us leave,” Jake replied, this time with the hint of a desperate whine in his voice.
“Yeah,” Ben said with a sigh and wiped his bloody palms on his jeans. “I know that, too.”
Dinner was a solemn affair.
Harold and Scott somehow salvaged the steaks, cutting off the burnt side and putting the rest back on the grill. Barry was sent to his room, shamefaced and unfed, with orders to sleep it off. Mike put on Thor: The Dark World while they ate, and no one spoke or smiled, just bulldozed their way through their meat and potatoes. Mike and Asher were put to work cleaning the kitchen afterwards, while everyone else watched the movie in grim exhaustion. By the time the movie was over, it wasn’t that late, but it was dark and everyone was ready for bed. Harold promised everyone that they would be leaving first thing in the morning before he sent them all upstairs.
But when Ben was trudging up the stairs behind the other boys, wincing a little as he climbed, Scott came to the stairs with an air of intent.
“Ben, hey, can I talk to you a minute?” he said.
Ben paused and looked down on Scott, standing there in his sweatpants and an old Guy Harvey t-shirt, gazing up at him somberly. Dread settled hard and heavy in the pit of Ben’s stomach; he had a good idea of what was coming and he wasn’t looking forward to it.
Ben nodded and changed direction, trudging back down the stairs.
“Let’s, um, let’s sit,” Scott said nervously and went over to perch uneasily on the edge of the couch.
Ugh. Awkward. Ben trudged over and sat across from him on the big, overstuffed chair.
“Today was kind of a rough day. You okay?” Scott asked. “You’re moving kind of slow. Harold can look at it if it hurts too much.”
Ben shrugged and wished he hadn’t when his back gave a little throb. “I’m fine. Just a little achy.”
Scott looked super guilty. “I’m really sorry about Barry, kiddo. He’s kind of like a bull in a china shop when he’s drunk, and he feels responsible for Tommy wondering off, and anyway….” He trailed off with a sigh. “Look, Ben, I’m really sorry. Between Tommy and the weather and now Barry’s freak out….” He shook his head. “This just was not the fishing trip I envisioned.”
“Yeah. I’m cool. Don’t worry about it. It’s all good.” And it was, sort of, since the monster in the woods wasn’t Scott’s fault. But Ben had the distinct impression that Scott had more to say, since he was being so fidgety and nervous. He was supposedly a really good courtroom lawyer, the kind they made TV shows about, and it would have been hilarious to see him so unnerved if Ben weren’t the focus of whatever was unnerving him.
“Look, I get that I’m not Dean-“
Ben blinked at Scott, confused. “Who?”
Scott exhaled like he was trying to keep his cool. “You and your mom, I swear-“ Scott rubbed his hands over his face brusquely before he tried again. “Look, I know I’m not him, and I know you’re not my biggest fan, and I get that the only thing we really have in common is sports, but, you know if you need anyone to talk to, well, I’m here.”
Scott stared at him expectantly, and Ben stared back, realizing suddenly where this whole trip to the lake thing was coming from.
Ben huffed angrily, just really, fantastically enraged.
“Dude, I don’t need anyone to talk to, and I’m sick of everyone trying.” He and his mom were having such words when he got home, she just had no idea. And Aunt Abby, too, because she had obviously been in on this. “Talking about what happened to Matt and the car accident and all that won’t make it better, it won’t undo it. I just want to forget about it and get on with my life. If you really want to help, maybe you can tell Mom and Aunt Abby not to send you to use some bullshit guy bonding crap to get me to open up.”
Ben stood, fists clenched, and Scott gaped up at him in surprise. “So yeah, we don’t have anything in common, not even the same sports, so maybe you should take a hint and back off. I don’t need some kind of male role model in my life, and I’m certainly not interested in being the substitute son you’re never going to have. If I want to talk to someone, it’s not going to be you.”
Scott’s expression crumpled, but Ben stood firm in his anger. This was crap. He was fine. He had it all under control – the panic attacks, the missing memories, all of it. He didn’t need friends or a social life or Scott trying to butt in on it with a relationship they were never going to have.
“You should go to bed now,” Scott said, a warble in his voice.
“Yeah. I should,” Ben replied, and stomped upstairs.
Everyone was already in bed when slammed open the door, the twins curled up in a single bunk together, Asher in Mike in their separate beds. They had obviously been waiting for him to come up before turning off the lights.
“You okay, man?” Mike said, peering at him over the edge of his blanket.
“Yeah. Peachy,” Ben snapped. He toed off his shoes and dug out the salt, lined the window and the door, and all the while, he felt the eyes of the other boys on him, watching him and his sharp, angry movements. That just pissed him off more, and he threw the canister into his bag, tired of being under everyone’s microscope all the time.
He turned on them, put his hand on the light switch. “Everyone ready for lights out, or do you need to stare at me some more?”
The twins stared at him with big, round eyes, and Asher had hunched down under his blanket, leaving only his boy band hair visible.
“No, we’re good,” Mike said mildly, like Ben wasn’t throwing a giant temper tantrum. “Go ahead.”
Ben flicked the switch, and threw himself into bed, fully clothed. He could hear the boys in the other bunks, shifting around in their beds, tugging at blankets and getting their pillows settled the right way. Ben rolled onto his side and faced the wall, tugged his own blanket up to his neck. His jaw hurt from clenching it so tightly, and his back hurt and his feet were freezing and this whole lake trip was just one big train wreck, beginning to end.
Ben closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep. The sooner he could get to sleep, the sooner the morning would come, and the sooner they would get the hell away from this lake and its monster and Scott’s unwelcome interest in his life.
Sleep surged up at him pretty quickly, and one last, idle thought occurred to him just before he drifted off: And just who the hell is Dean?
continue to part 3