Word Count: ~27.5K
Warnings: character with panic attacks, language, show level violence
Author's Notes: Inspired by this prompt: Ben Braeden is on a hike with the local scout troop; joining up with another troop that includes Mike and Ash Sorenson (Something Wicked) - when a campfire story comes to life, can the boys who've been "touched by a Winchester" save the day? (yes!) Many thanks to my beta reader, claudiapriscus
Summary: “I’d stay away from the water while you’re here. Things down there you don’t want to get near.”
“We’ve been up here a couple times before,” Scott said, pulling his very expensive BMW X5 up next to the one in the driveway, the same exact model as Scott’s but slate gray instead of black. “The fishing is awesome, and it’s not as well known as some of the other lakes, so there aren’t as many tourists. Too far out in the boondocks, I guess.”
“Cool,” Ben said for lack of anything better to say. A large cabin looms in front of them, with a big front window with red flannel curtains and a stone chimney rising above it. There are trees everywhere, and blue sky above them, and Ben gets that people find this fun, staying in a cabin in the woods for days at a time, fishing and hiking and being outdoorsy, but this was very much not the way he had wanted to spend his first weekend of summer break, and he’s finding it nearly impossible to drum up any enthusiasm.
Scott threw the car into park and cut the engine. But instead of getting out like Ben was trying to do, he shifted towards Ben, one arm draped over the steering wheel, and said with complete sincerity, “I’m glad you came, Ben.”
Ben froze, one foot already out the door.
“I think you’ll have fun.” Scott sounded hopeful and desperate all at once, and Ben felt kind of bad for not wanting to be here. “Harold’s stepson Asher is your age, and his brother Mike is going to be a sophomore in college next year. And hey, as the only two guys in the family, we need to stick together, right?”
Ben hoped the smile he gave Scott didn’t look as insincere as it felt. “Yeah. Right.”
“That’s my boy,” Scott said proudly and clapped Ben on the shoulder before he opened his own door and all but hopped out.
Ben sighed and followed.
It wasn’t that Ben didn’t like Scott. He did for the most part. It was just that he was one of those guys who liked to talk about his stock portfolio and microbrews and how many hours he had clocked at the gym. His favorite band was the Dave Matthews Band (the biggest strike against him, in all honesty), and he lived and breathed college football, was nothing but an obsessive fanboy for the Buckeyes between September and January. He popped the collars on his polo shirts and wore his hats backwards and all of his sunglasses hung around his neck on Oakley straps. He was what a bro looked like when it grew up, and as much as his bro-ness got on Ben’s last nerve sometimes, he also treated Aunt Abby and the girls really well, and he always helped out Ben’s mom out when she got a flat tire or when she was sure the plumber was trying to overcharge her. In the end, those were the important things, how he treated his family, but that didn’t mean he wanted to hang out with the guy or anything.
Since Ben had started high school and got a spot on the baseball team, Scott always wanted to do guy stuff with him. Mom said it was because Scott lived in a house full of girls – three now, all a year apart - and had been deprived of what she had called the heteronormative myth of the perfect son. She also said Ben should have mercy upon him and hang out with him a little, but Ben had definitely not expected ‘a little’ to become a three day camping trip with Scott and his frat brothers and their kids.
And yet, here he was. With Scott. And the frat brothers. And the kids.
Scott chattered on while they pulled their bags out of the back, going about how they’d just hang out and swim and grill today while they waited for the other two guys to show up. Tomorrow would be the big fishing day, Barry knew a guy on the other side of the lake with a boat and blah blah blah. Ben helped Scott slide the giant cooler full of ice and beer and steaks out of the car and lug it up the steps, making noises of interest when it seemed appropriate.
Inside, the cabin was just one big great room - living room and kitchen and dining area all together, with a giant, flat screen TV (which was pretty cool) and oversized furniture around a big stone fireplace. There were four closed doors along one wall, probably the bedrooms, and a staircase that ran up the other. The walls were all unfinished wood, and the curtains over the sink were red flannel to match the front window, and there was an honest to God deer head hanging over the mantle.
Ben had thought places like this only existed in the movies. Seemed he thought wrong.
A tall, skinny guy was standing in the kitchen, slapping ground beef into patties.
“Harold!” Scott bellowed. Ben winced. It was a happy bellow, but still.
The guy in the kitchen looked over his shoulder, peering over the tops of his glasses as they maneuvered the cooler over the threshold and dropped it just inside the door. He grinned and waved with a meat-covered hand. “Don’t come too close. I’m covered in animal carcass.”
Ben wrinkled his nose, because, ugh, gross, but Scott laughed in delight and gave Ben another manly clap on the shoulder. “Ben, this is Harold. Harold, Ben. Harold is the pediatrician. His stepsons are the ones who are your age.”
“Oh,” Ben said awkwardly. “Hi.”
Ben had technically met all these guys back when he was younger and still lived in Cicero, but he didn’t really remember any of them. He knew that Scott had been BFFs forever with Harold and couple of other guys since college; they had all gone to Ohio State and had pledged the same fraternity and had been best men in each other’s weddings, but Ben had never bothered to pay much attention to the details before this. At this point he was just hoping he could remember everyone’s names.
Harold gave him a pleasant smile. “Nice to meet you Ben. I’d shake your hand, but…” He held up his meat-covered hand again and wiggled his fingers. “The boys are down at the lake. They’re expecting you if you want to join them after you put your stuff away.”
“Yeah, um, okay,” Ben said, thinking that standing around awkwardly with kids he didn’t know was preferable to standing around with adults he didn’t know. “Where am I…?” He lifted his bag.
“Upstairs. Pick a bed.”
Ben muttered his thanks and went up. It was one big room with three sets of bunk beds and a single window. Green flannel curtains gave the room a Coke bottle green glow, and the bunks had a green flannel blankets to match. The bunk closest to the window already had stuff on the top and bottom – Harold’s stepsons must have already claimed those – so Ben threw his bag on the bunk on the opposite wall. As someone who had always had his own room, he wasn’t too excited about sharing the room with strange kids, but he could make it through three days. He just hoped Harold’s kids were cool, or at least, not total freaks.
Ben took the stairs back down two at a time. Harold was still making hamburger patties, and Scott was leaning against the counter with a bottle of his favorite microbrew in his hand, telling Harold about how awesome the golf course he had played on in Miami had been. He gave a jaunty wave and called out to Ben to have fun as he passed them on the way out.
Relief surged through Ben as soon as the screen door slammed closed behind him.
The trees loomed over the back yard, casting the whole yard in cool morning shade. One of those big brick grill setups dominated the space and there was a picnic table nearby. Three paths branched off into the trees, one directly to the left, another directly to the right, and the last straight ahead, with a little sign at its entrance. A white arrow and little blue lines, scalloped like waves, told him the lake was down that way.
Ben took the path with the sign.
It was worn bare, and the quiet of the woods was filled with the chatter of birds and the whisper of the wind. He wished he had his iPod, but like his cell phone, it had been taken away for the weekend. Do something different, his mom had said, and get some fresh air and interact with actual human beings for once. Which was unfair. He interacted with people all the time; it was called social media for a reason.
Mostly, though, he didn’t like being so… disconnected. Not from his friends so much, but what if something happened to his mom? This was the first time he’d slept away from home since the home invasion and the car accident, and he was worried enough without being able to call home and check on her. We can’t live our lives in fear, his mom had said more than once, and it wasn’t that he disagreed with her, but, just what if?
“Yeah, Ben, what if?” she had replied the last time they had argued about this, standing against the kitchen counter with a dishtowel over her shoulder and the sink filling with hot water for the dishes behind her. “What if I get hit by a bus crossing the street? Or what if I fall in the shower and hit my head? There’s always a ‘what if’, and we can’t let ‘what if’ run our lives. So you’re going to go with Scott and be a normal kid. Have some fun, catch some fish, do whatever normal boys when their moms aren’t around to police them.”
Normal? Normal kids didn’t get kidnapped by fairy tale monsters or watch their mom’s boyfriend get their necks snapped by strange people breaking into their house, so Ben wasn’t sure anymore what being normal was like. Joining the baseball team should have been normal enough. Can’t get more normal than that. Expecting him to go away for three days without any contact with the outside world was just a step too far; anything could happen back in the real world, and he wouldn’t even know.
The path widened and the trees gave way finally, and the lake was suddenly there, dark and wide and deep. The far shore was a line of green in the distance, and sunlight gleamed on the water, glittering and shifting as tiny waves danced across its surface.
Two kids with longish, boy band blond hair were on the shore. One was wandering in the shallow water, his pants rolled up to his knees. The other was lounging against one the logs around a fire pit, legs out stretched and crossed at the ankle, face turned up to the sun.
Ben almost turned back; he could easily escape before he was noticed and head back to the cabin, maybe take a walk along one of the other hiking trails, but he’d have to spend three days with these guys, so he should probably try not to be a crazy recluse. Ben stuffed his hands into the pockets of his hoodie and moved forward, bracing himself for human interaction.
The kid reclining on the shore looked up when Ben’s shadow fell over him. He threw his hair out of his eyes with a little toss of his head, and said, “Hey. You must be Ben.”
Ben nodded. “Yeah.”
“I’m Mike. The freak wandering around in the freezing cold water is my brother, Asher.” Mike cupped one hand around his mouth and shouted, “Asher! This is Ben. Say hi!”
Asher didn’t even look up, just gave a distracted wave of his hand.
“Harold’s your dad, right?” Ben asked.
“Stepdad, but yeah,” Mike said easily, like it was a mistake he often corrected. “And Scott is your… uncle?”
“Cool.” Mike tilted his head to the side and considered Ben like he was sizing him up. Ben shifted uneasily under his scrutiny. “So you’re in what? 9th grade? 10th?”
“I’ll be in 10th,” Ben said a little defensively, but at least he hadn’t asked him if he were in middle school.
Mike grinned. “Cool. Asher’ll be in 9th.”
Ben knew that it was his turn to ask a question, and he shifted from foot to foot, trying to come up with something, anything that didn’t make him sound too socially awkward. “You’re in college, right?”
“Yep. Just finished my first year at the University of Michigan.” Mike shrugged like it was no big thing, but he didn’t quite pull it off.
“Cool.” And with that, Ben had officially exhausted his stores of small talk.
They fell into an awkward silence. Ben looked out over the lake, feeling out of place. He didn’t quite know what to say or do next, especially with an older kid like Mike. He used to be pretty good with people, but since the accident, well, it just wasn’t as easy as it used to be. There was stuff out there, evil stuff, stuff that could get you at any time, and people just went about their daily lives without ever noticing. How do you relate to someone who doesn’t know? What do you even say?
Ben turned abruptly and walked away, down the shore, frustrated. Why did he have to be here, with these people whom he didn’t know and who didn’t know what was really going on in the world? Why did he have to small talk and smile and pretend?
Ben kept close to the water’s edge, close enough that the wet sand made squelching noises under his feet. The lake was clear enough for the first few feet to show the sandy bottom and little clumps of algae, and tiny rolling waves lapped along the shore, washing up sticks and leaves and other debris here and there.
The warmth of the sun was nice at first, then it became not so nice as sweat began to trickle down the side of his face and gather at the small of his back. When it got warm enough, the cold water would be tolerable, and they’d be able to go swimming, which was starting to sound pretty good right now. Ben stopped to pull off his hoodie and tie it around his waist and saw that he had wandered pretty far down the shore, far enough that Mike and Asher were little more than silhouettes in the distance.
Panic rattled through him; the other guys were total strangers, but he’d rather be with them, than down here, with just the water and trees and strange wilderness sounds around him. His breath caught, and his heartbeat surged and he had to get back to the other two right now.
Ben turned back, putting a bit of hustle in his step. The distance between him and the others seemed infinite, long and insurmountable, just miles and miles and miles away, and he had the sudden, irrational feeling that he was being watched, that at any minute something was going to lunge out of the woods and snatch him up. A new wave of panic struck him, and he had to get back, he had to get back before the thing in the woods caught him. Ben put on an extra burst of speed, his lungs tight in his chest-
“You’re a freak,” Mike said, and Ben was back, back with people, not alone, but coming up to the other boys where they argued on the shore. For a minute he thought that Mike was talking to him, but no, no, he was saying that to Asher, who had come out of the water. “Throw that back.”
Ben stopped on the edge of the fire pit and just breathed, so very grateful that it hadn’t been a full blown panic attack. He hadn’t had one of those in over a couple of months and hoped to keep it that way. He just hoped the other kids hadn’t noticed his near freak out, because the only thing worse than a panic attack was the embarrassment afterwards, when people started looking at you differently, started keeping their distance and making excuses about why they couldn’t hang out anymore, or worse, started treating you like you were broken and irredeemably fragile.
But Mike and his brother were pretty focused on their argument, and didn’t even seem to be aware of Ben standing on the periphery, taking deep breaths like he’d just run a marathon.
“No. I’m keeping it.” Asher said, twisting his body to hide whatever it was he wanted to keep. His pants were still rolled up to his knees, and little beads of water were tricking down his legs.
“You’re not,” Mike replied, face screwed up in disgust. “That thing is not coming into the cabin with us.”
“Fine. I’ll keep it outside.”
“No, you won’t.
“What is it?” Ben asked, a little curious now that the panic was subsiding. His voice even sounded fairly stable, so that was good.
The kid whirled, and thrust a long, green tinged thing in his face.
“Dude! I found a femur!”
And sure enough, that was a huge ass bone the kid was waving around, covered in green and black lake goo.
Ben stepped back, vaguely disgusted. “That’s not human, is it?”
“Nah,” Asher said, eyeing his find proudly. “It’s probably bear or something.”
“Seriously, man, throw it back,” Mike said, getting to his feet and brushing off the back of his shorts. “It’s gross.”
“It’s not gross, Mike. It’s biology,” Asher said. “I’m gonna go show Harold.”
And with that he was gone, trotting back towards the cabin.
“Oh, for…” Mike muttered to himself, and with a frustrated huff, jogged after his brother.
Panic tried to surge up again, but Ben stomped it down, determined not to freak. The trees and water and sky were just that. There was no one watching him, there were no monsters, no one was going to lunge out of the trees and break anyone’s neck. There was no reason to be afraid.
Ben hurried after the other boys anyway.
“You found this in the water?” Harold was saying as Ben came jogging into the backyard a few feet behind Mike. Asher on the back porch with Harold and Scott and another guy with a beer gut and an Ohio State hat pulled down over his eyes. Harold was holding the bone delicately by both ends and turning it this way and that, and Ohio State hat was looking at Asher with a disgusted little twist of his lip.
“Yeah.” Asher sounded concerned now, too. “I thought it might be bear or something.”
“It’s not, kiddo,” Harold said gently. “It’s human.”
Asher’s eyes got big and round and started brimming with tears. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I-“
“Hey, Asher. Hey, it’s okay.” Harold put his hand on Asher’s shoulder, and suddenly Ben just really liked Harold. “Someone probably drowned years ago, and some of the remains are just washing up on the shore. Go wash your hands, and I’ll deal with this. Okay?”
Asher sniffled. “Yeah. Okay,” he said and bolted into the cabin.
“Mike, would you…?” Harold jerked his head in the direction Asher had gone.
“Yeah. I got it.” Mike jogged up the steps and followed Asher inside, while Harold jumped down from the porch and disappeared around the side of the cabin, leaving Ben standing there with Scott and the dude in the Ohio State hat.
“That kid’s such a freak,” Ohio State hat muttered, making freak sound as bad as any swear word Ben had ever heard.
Okay. Ohio State hat was a dick. Duly noted.
Scott gave an awkward little laugh. “Uh, yeah. So, Tommy, this is my nephew, Ben. Ben, this is my buddy Tommy.”
Tommy peered down his nose at Ben. “You’re the baseball player, right?”
“Yep. He even pitched one game,” Scott said, as proud as if Ben were his own kid and not his wife’s nephew.
“Huh.” Ohio State hat took a swig of his beer. His eyes flickered over Ben with a critical eye. “Kinda scrawny, aintcha, Stretch?”
Ben shifted uneasily and glanced at Scott. He’d grown like six inches in the past year, and he knew he was all skinny and gangly, his knees and elbows sharp and pointy. His mom had assured him that he would eventually put on weight to go with the height, but it didn’t mean he didn’t feel all weird and self-conscious about it. And he really didn’t need some douchebag frat bro pointing it out, either.
Scott gave Ben a pained sort of smile; he knew how Ben felt about it because Mom and Aunt Abby had big mouths. “Why don’t you go see what Mike and Asher are up to?”
Ben nodded, grateful for the out, and hurried up the porch steps and past the two men.
He found Mike and Asher upstairs. Asher was hunched over on one of the bottom bunks, shoulders slumped and head hung low, his boy band hair hanging in his eyes, and Mike and perched next to him, talking to him in a quiet voice.
Mike stopped abruptly as soon as he entered, gave Ben a look that made him a little worried he was going to get punched in the face. “What?”
Ben shifted awkwardly “Nothing, man. I just…” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to hang around that dick any longer than I had to.”
Mike relaxed a little, his punch-you-in-the-face vibe gone. “Tommy?”
“Yeah, well, join the club.” He turned back to his brother. “Hey. Let’s go take a ride to the Gas N’ Sip. I want a slushy.”
Asher sniffled and wiped at his nose with the back of his hand, but he didn’t respond.
Mike bumped his shoulder again. “Come on. We’ll get a slushy, take a ride around the lake, see what’s going on at the beach.”
“The one with the volleyball court?” Asher asked in a small voice.
“Yeah. You up for it?”
Asher sniffled again and nodded.
“Cool.” Mike glanced up at Ben, hesitated briefly, then said, “You wanna come?”
Ben hesitated because Mike had hesitated, but he also wasn’t going to make friends by hanging around the cabin alone. “Yeah, okay.”
And that’s how he found himself in the back of Harold’s SUV with a red slushy in his hand and Led Zeppelin pouring out of Mike’s iPod. When the next song was AC/DC, Ben decided Mike was pretty cool. He was still out on Asher, but then, Asher had been walking around that morning with a giant human bone in his hands, so he probably wasn’t at his best right now. He did seem perkier though, asking his brother if they could rent a canoe at the beach and grumbling when Mike said they didn’t have time.
But it was a moot question. No one was renting canoes at the beach because there was no one at the beach. It was completely deserted except for a maintenance guy doing something or another over by his truck.
“I take it this isn’t normal?” Ben said, squinting against the sunlight bouncing off the sand. It wasn’t a big beach, just a stretch of yellow sand and the fore mentioned volleyball court, a hut for canoe rentals, and a building nestled up against the surrounding tress, probably the bathrooms.
Mike threw the car in park and cut the engine. “No. Usually this place is hopping by now. You guys wait here a minute,” he said and jumped out of the car.
Mike made a beeline for the maintenance worker, and Asher lasted all of thirty seconds before he was scrabbling at the seatbelt and throwing himself out of the SUV to follow his brother.
Ben briefly debated whether he should follow or not, and finding no good reason to stay behind, let himself out of his seatbelt and jogged across the parking lot to catch up.
“…drowned here yesterday,” the guy was saying. He was wiping his hands on a rag, his eyes roaming from one boy to the next from under the brim of his hat. His nametag said his name was Sal, and there was a gleam in his eyes that under normal circumstances would have made Ben step back slowly. “The beach is closed until they find his body.”
“Someone drowned?” Ben said.
“Sure did.” Sal nodded thoughtfully as he tucked his rag into his back pocket. “Kid about your age. It happened in plain sight. Went down and didn’t come back up again. Right out there.” He pointed out into the water, where there was a line of red and white buoys, demarking the swimming area. He sighed forlornly and shook his head. “Damned shame, too.”
He turned his crazy eyes back on the boys. “I’d stay away from the water while you’re here. Things down there you don’t want to get near.”
“Like a ghost or monster or something?” Asher’s eyes were wide. He was buying it wholesale, but Ben was a little more skeptical since the guy was pretty much radiating crazy.
“Maybe.” The guy shifted from foot to foot, hitched his pants up by the belt. He was really getting into it now. “Maybe not. Whatever it is, it likes to drag ‘em down deep so no one ever sees them again. It’s been happening a lot in the last few years, but this month’s been particularly bad.” He leaned forward, dropped his voice like it was a juicy secret. “My granny, she came from the old country, and she figures it a grindylow, but she’s getting up there in years, so…”
He leaned back with a shrug. “Might could be a ghost, tough.”
“Are you serious?” Mike was glaring at the guy with the heat of a thousand white-hot suns. “If that’s true, why haven’t we heard about the drownings before? We’ve been coming up here for three years now. And if the beach is closed while they look for the body, why isn’t there police tape or signs or something?”
Sal didn’t seem at all bothered by Mike’s hostility or his completely logical questions. “You think the town wants it getting out? The local economy needs the tourists. Can’t have ‘em cancelling their reservations because people are afraid of some kind of monster drowning.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Whatever man. Guys, come on, let’s go.”
“Then why are you warning us?” Ben asked. “I mean, you’d be out of a job, too, if word got out.”
The guy smirked, and yeah, he was enjoying the hell out of this. “A man’s gotta have a clear conscience to sleep at night, don’t he? It just ain’t right, letting people go to their deaths.”
“Don’t listen to his jackass,” Mike grabbed Asher by the arm and started hauling him away, despite Asher’s furious protests. “Come on, Ben. He’s just yanking your chain.”
“I ain’t yanking nothing, kid. I’m just trying to do my Christian duty and warn you.”
“Dude, whatever. Come on, you two. Let’s go.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you!” the guy called as Mike marched them back across the parking lot.
The piled back into the car in silence. Mike started the car again, and whipped out of the parking space at warp speed.
“Do you think that bone I found belonged to someone who got drowned by the monster?” Asher said in a small voice once they were out on the main road again.
“Dude,” Ben said. “That’s grim.”
Asher shrugged. “Well, it could be.”
Mike scoffed. “Really, Ash? That guy was just trying to scare us. He was totally getting off on it.”
“Well, he did a good job,” Asher said, and sipped forlornly at this slushy.
“Whatever,” Mike said and cranked up the music.
But Ben thought about the way he’d felt earlier, down by the lake, and wondered.
“Ugh,” Asher said, when they pulled up in front of the cabin. There was another SUV parked there now, a red Pathfinder with an Ohio State sticker on the bumper. “Barry and the creepy twins are here,”
“Don’t call them creepy,” Mike said, cutting the engine. “They’re just kids.”
“Yeah. Creepy kids,” Asher said with no little relish.
Mike scowled at his brother. “You’d be creepy, too, if you’d been in the back seat during a car wreck and watched Mom die in front of your eyes.”
“Dude, shut up,” Asher said. “Don’t say things like that about Mom.”
“Well, don’t be a jerk to little kids,” Mike said, and punched his brother in the arm.
“Ow!” Asher rubbed at his arm. “You’re the jerk.”
Inside, the last and final bro was talking to Scott in the kitchen, and the kids Mike and Asher had been arguing about were sitting at the table, chowing down on sandwiches and Cheetos. Mike and Asher headed for the sandwich fixings laid out on the counter, but Scott waylaid Ben so he could introduce him to his last BFF.
“We’ve heard a lot about you, Ben,” Barry said as he gave Ben a hearty handshake. He was big guy, and if Ben remembered correctly, he was the one who had actually played ball in college. “Those are my boys, Owen and Jake.”
He waved towards two redheaded boys at the table. They were identical twins, maybe seven years old, and they were dressed alike in Ohio State t-shirts and cargo shorts. Ben felt kind of bad for them, being dressed to match like that. He wondered how Barry told them apart.
“Mike, will you boys take them for a walk or something when everyone’s done with lunch?” Barry asked, twisting off the top of one of the microbrew Scott had handed him. “They’ve been holed up in the car all morning.”
Mike looked up from the epic-sized sandwich he was making, glanced at the twins, who were, honest to God, eating in synch, and nodded. “Yeah, sure,” he said with not a lot of enthusiasm. As much as he didn’t think Asher should call them creepy, he sure didn’t seem too excited about hanging out with them. “I’ll take them up to the playground.”
“Great!” Barry said enthusiastically, and disappeared out onto the back porch with Scott where, presumably, the adults were all hanging out and drinking beer.
Ben was the last to make his own sandwich of a size that rivaled Mike’s, then joined the other kids at the table. He sat down between Mike and one of the redheaded boys. The kid looked up at Ben and eyed him like Ben was a bug skittering across the floor.
Ben was a little insulted, but he was a little kid, and Ben was going to try to make nice. “Hi. I’m Ben.”
The kid didn’t say anything, just shared a look with his twin across the table before they both went back to eating in synch. Ben had the irrational thought that this seven-year-old kid had just judged him and found him wanting.
He looked at Asher, who nodded and mouthed the word creepy over his sandwich.
Ben couldn’t say he disagreed.
Mike had a map of all the hiking trails around the lake, and after lunch, they took the walking trail on the left. Apparently the playground was between their cabin and the next, about a mile away. Asher whined about walking in the heat, but the two creepy kids followed without complaint, weirdly in step with each other. They had both found long sticks and poked at stuff as they walked, also in synch, and sometimes one pointed out stuff to the other, and they would nod at each other without saying a single word.
Asher was right. These kids were seriously creepy.
“They’re, like, communicating telepathically or something,” Asher muttered to Ben as the paused yet again so Mike could relieve the twins of their poking sticks and usher them along the path. “I’ve never actually heard them talk.”
“Asher!” Mike snapped as he passed his brother. Now both boys were looking at Asher as if he were the bug skittering across the floor.
“What?” Asher said balefully. “It’s true.”
“It is not,” Mike said as he steered the boys past them. “You’ve heard them talk. And stop being a jerk.”
“Okay, fine. They never say normal things,” Asher whispered once everyone was moving again, and Mike and the twins were far enough ahead that they wouldn’t hear him.
“Did they really see their Mom die?”
“Yeah. They got hit at an intersection by a semi a couple of years ago. She bled to death before the ambulance even got there. It was actually kind of freaky, because for like a month before hand, they started refusing to get into the car. They would throw full-blown fits and stuff, screaming and crying and saying their mom was going to die. They did it once when our families were going to dinner together. It was epic.”
The two boys were slowly falling back from Mike. One of them stopped and picked up another stick. He started poking at something in the foliage. As soon as the other noticed his brother had stopped, he went over to investigate. They were totally consumed by their poking as Ben and Asher passed.
“They knew their mom was going to die?” Ben whispered when he thought they might be out of earshot.
Asher shrugged. “I don’t know, but once, I lost my math book and they said it was under the bed at my friend’s house.”
“Were they right?”
“Dude,” Ben said.
Asher nodded and grinned, his eyes bright. “I know, right?”
Up ahead, Mike stopped and turned, saw that the twins had been distracted by something that needed poking again.
“Could you, like, give me a hand with this, Ash?” Mike said in frustration as he stomped back towards the twins.
The boys looked up at his approach. They clenched their fists and screwed up their faces in determination, ready to fight to the death to keep their poking stick this time.
“Why do you guys keep stopping?” Mike asked barely masking the frustration in his voice.
“We don’t want to go to the playground,” one said.
“Why not?” Mike asked.
“The monster lives there,” the other said, with perfect, reasonable calm, just like every psychic kid in every horror movie ever made.
Ben shivered as a feeling of dread crawled over and through him, setting in the pit of his stomach with a twisting, heavy weight. He was suddenly profoundly aware of how quiet it was this way; there were no birds singing, no chitter of insects. There was no wind, not even a soft breeze; the treetops still and silent in its absence. He looked back along the trail uneasily, and that irrational feeling of being watched rose again. The warnings of the maintenance guy were suddenly ringing in his ears.
Ben was, right there and then, completely and thoroughly convinced that there really was a monster somewhere down that trail, watching them and waiting for the right moment to strike. And wouldn’t that be an awesome told you so to his mom? He’d told her taking away his cellphone was a bad idea.
Mike licked his lips and glanced at Ben and Asher, then past them, up the trail where they had been heading. Ben wondered if Mike had just realized how still and quiet things seemed that way, whether he felt the same itching, horrific feeling of being watched as Ben did.
Asher frowned and followed his brother’s line of sight; Ben could see the moment that he noticed something seemed off as well.
“What monster?” Mike asked.
“The one that wants to kill us all,” the twin said.
“Well, we don’t want that, do we?” Mike’s voice was strained. The twins shook their heads. “So, let’s go swimming, then. It’s probably warm enough now.”
The twins both grinned like Christmas had come early and ran back down the trail screaming with joy.
“Mike?” Asher said, his voice trembling.
Mike’s glanced at Ben, then gave the fakest of fake smiles and shrugged fake-casually. “Don’t want to run into a monster, right?”
Asher also glanced at Ben, and gave the fakest of fake laughs. “Yeah. A monster.”
Ben just rolled his eyes. “Don’t quit your day jobs, guys” he said and started off after the twins.
He’d rather go swimming, anyway.
The creepy twins kept up their creepiness for the rest of the day, though they eased back on the creepy for a while they were splashing around in the lake like normal kids. The water was freezing, and Ben had hesitated to go in first, not just on account of the cold, but also because of the maintenance guy’s warning about the lake and the twins’ insistence that there was some monster up the trail.
But the sun was warm and bright, and the twins were happily splashing each other in the water, not all that worried about the monster they mentioned, and Ben just felt stupid for getting so worked up. Sure, the supernatural was real, there were things out there that wanted to eat you or worse, but what are the chances of running into some kind of monster again? How many monsters could there possibly be?
Ben waded in and between the brisk chill of the water and the game of Marco Polo Mike started, he soon forgot to worry. It didn’t take long to adjust to the temperature of the lake, and it was actually kind of fun, splashing around with the other kids, even the creepy twins. They played Marco Polo for a long time, then practiced handstands in the water, and tried to teach the twins how to float. When the twins got bored and returned to their favorite past time of poking at things with sticks, they all headed back up to the cabin. The adults were starting dinner– hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill – and afterwards, everyone put on warm clothes and trooped back down to the lake to build a bonfire in the fire pit and roast marshmallows.
And that’s when things got really uncomfortable, and didn’t have anything to do with ghosts or monsters or creepy telepathic twins.
“So, Mike,” Tommy said while all the kids were making their way through the second bag of marshmallows. His face was bright red and his voice slurred from drinking pretty much all day. “How’s Michigan treating you?”
Tension snapped through everyone, hard and tight. Ben hunched down, stomach twisting. He wasn’t sure of what was going on, but whatever it was, he was more than happy to go unnoticed.
“Good, sir,” Mike said politely, even though his jaw was clenched his jaw and his grip had tightened on the stick in his hand. “I had a really good first year.”
Tommy scoffed. “Michigan,” he said like it offended him on a deeply personal level.
“Tommy, knock it off,” Scott said.
“What, Scott? Harold’s letting his kid go to Michigan. Someone ought to say something.”
“Lay off, Tommy,” Harold said. “Mike chose the school he wanted, and I’m certainly not limiting his choices based on a stupid football rivalry.”
“Stupid, Harold?” Tommy said, scandalized. He crumbled his beer can in one hand and tossed it over his shoulder where it hit the water with a distant </i>plunk</i>. “I cannot even believe the words coming out of your mouth. You ain’t been the same since you married that woman. Ain’t none of you the same since y’all had kids. We’ve always gotta bring the freaky brats on our fishin’ weekends and no hard liquor, and we can’t stay out too late ‘cause of our wives, and now you’re letting the one normal kid in the lot go to Michigan…”
“Oh shut up,” Barry said. He jumped up and curled his fists and planted his feet, ready for a fight, which seemed to be just a little more intense than the situation called for. “For God’s sake, grow up already. College is over. It’s been over for fifteen years! It’s time to frickin’ move on.”
“Oh, and you’re the worst one, Barry. With those two little freaks and their matching outfits and their creepy little-“
“Shut your mouth,” Barry took a step forward to loom over Tommy. “Don’t you say a word about my kids, Tommy, or so help me-“
Harold and Scott got to their feet, slow and cautious, like they were trying not to spook a wild animal.
“Hey, guys,” Scott said reasonably, sidling up to Barry. “I think you two need to cool it a little.”
Both men ignored him. Tommy peered up at Barry from under the bill of his hat, eyes glittering in the firelight. He smiled slow and malicious. “Or so help you what? You going to fight me, Barry?”
As soon as he said that, Harold turned to Mike. “Mike,” he said quietly. “I think you should take everyone back to the cabin.”
Ben was on his feet immediately, more than ready to get away from this train wreck. Mike nodded and started gathering up the twins, who were watching their father with wide eyes.
“I might.” Barry was saying, taking another threating step toward Tommy, getting up in his personal space now.
Tommy laughed, mocking. “Like you have the-“
Barry launched himself at Tommy with a cry of rage. They both went over the log in a tangle of arms and legs, grunting and swearing.
“Everyone back to the cabin. Now!” Harold yelled and he and Scott climbed over the log and tried to pry apart the two men.
“Asher, come on.” Mike snatched up one twin, grabbed the other by the hand, and headed for the cabin with long, hurried strides. Asher wasn’t far behind, and neither was Ben. He wasn’t used to violence, he’d been raised by a mother who had taught him that using his fists was not the way to settle conflict, and he was happy to get away from their brawling. It was scary and primitive in the way that the hypothetical lake monster would never be.
“What just happened?” Ben asked when the sounds of the scuffle had faded behind them, and Mike’s pace had slowed to something more reasonable.
“Tommy’s an asshole, and Barry can’t hold his liquor, that’s what just happened,” Mike shifted the twin in his arms, who had his skinny arms and legs wound around Mike like an octopus. The other one was hustling along at his side, sniffling. “I don’t even know why they keep letting him come.”
“Tommy’s always like that,” Asher added. “Just mean. He hates all of us, like a lot.”
“He thinks we ruined their big bromance or whatever, but it’s just that everyone else grew up, and he’s still stuck in drunk frat boy mode and gets Barry going everytime. Here, Owen. I’m going to set you down now.”
The path had spilled them out into the back yard of the cabin. Mike peeled the clinging twin away and set him on the ground. He immediately sidled up to his brother and clung, and Mike led them up the back steps, one twin clinging to him and the other clinging to his brother. Asher followed him up, and Ben was close behind, even had his foot on the bottom step, when he heard rustling off to his right.
Ben paused and peered into the darkness. He heard the other boys inside the cabin, footsteps moving here and there, the murmur of voices, the sound of the refrigerator opening, but off in the darkness he heard the rustling again, and somewhere in the shadows, he saw movement. Something big was out there, on the trail to the playground, moving around in the trees.
Ben removed his foot from the step and moved toward the sounds. This was the moment when he should start running, when he should be heading away from the mysterious dark shape not towards it, but he couldn’t help himself, couldn’t stop himself from taking another step forward, towards the trail and its shadows.
Ben, someone said from the shadows. Ben. This way.
Ben knew that voice. He had heard when he was eight, praising him, telling him he was brave for helping those other kids get out of the basement. He’d heard it two years later, telling him to eat as scrambled eggs were pushed onto his place, explaining how a carburetor worked as he leaned over the slate-gray puzzle of a car engine, the sunlight warm on the back of his neck. He associated that voice with safety, with big black cars that rumbled around you, thrumming into your very core, with his mom smiling and happy and a bone deep sense of home.
He’d wanted to hear that voice again for so, so long.
“Dean?” The name just slipped out of his mouth, simple and easy, both known and not known. Ben’s heart was pounding, and his feet were moving again, pulling him closer to the darkness. “Dean, is that you?”
Ben, said the voice. Ben, come here. The shadows shifted again, and something gleamed out there, just a flash of cat’s eye gold, there for a second and gone again, and Ben took another step forward, needing to see what it was-
“Ben? What are you doing?”
Ben started, jerked back from the shadows, from that voice, and found Asher by his side, practically on top of him. Ben hadn’t even heard him approach.
“Hey, are you okay?” Asher asked.
“What?” Ben felt a lightheaded, a little disoriented. “I don’t… I thought I heard-”
He looked out into the trees again, into the shadows, and for a brief second, he remembered the eggs, the engine and the sunlight on the back of his neck, and then it was gone.
“What?” Asher asked, a little fearful, but also curious, curious and concerned. He peered into the darkness, trying to see what Ben was looking at.
“Nothing.” Ben shook his head. “I thought I heard an animal or something in the trees, but it was nothing.”
“Oh.” Asher’s glanced uneasily into the shadows and back again, gave Ben the weakest, most uneasy smile he had ever seen. “Well, I don’t hear anything. We should go inside.”
“Yeah.” Ben said and stuck close to Asher as they climbed up the stairs.
He did not look back when he heard the rustle and shift of the trees behind him again.
In the middle of the night, Ben woke to crying.
He was confused at first, disoriented. He could hear that kid a few cages down sniffling, probably because the monsters were coming back, and he was probably next, since they had gone for the little girl in the cage next to his last time, and he was so scared and cold and he wanted his mom-
The light came on, and Ben was slammed back into reality. He wasn’t in the basement with the other kids, waiting for the changeling mother to come feed on them. He was in the cabin by the lake, and he was cold because he had kicked off his blanket, and the crying kid was one of the creepy twins, huddling close to his brother as he sobbed.
Mike was crouched next to their bunk, squinting in the harsh light, his hair all mussed up from sleep. “Hey, man. What’s wrong?”
The twins were both on the bottom bunk. The one was crying quietly and didn’t seem inclined to stop, so the other answered for him, his arms wrapped around his brother.
“We heard Mommy.”
“What do you mean?” Mike asked.
“She was calling our names,” the twin said, rubbing his brother’s shoulder absently. “She wanted us to go into the water with her.”
“It wasn’t Mommy,” the other twin whispered, voice hitching with tears. “Not Mommy. A monster. And it’s mad.”
Ben was too rattled from his own nightmare to shrug off the creepy kids’ words as the same. What had happened on his way back to the cabin was still with him, the shifting of the darkness, the voice calling out to him, telling him to come. He got up and dug a canister of salt out of his bag because screw it. They could think he was crazy if they wanted, but there were like a million horror movies where people ignored the warning of creepy psychic kids and died for it, and Ben didn’t plan to be that stupid. He should have salted the window and door the minute he got back.
“What are you doing?” Asher asked as Ben popped the spout and flipped open the curtain of the room’s single window.
“Salt keeps out monsters,” Ben said, as he laid a line of salt out along the sill. “It should keep the monster away.”
“Really?” the non-crying creepy twin said, his voice hopeful while his brother’s tears slowed and quieted.
“Yep. Monsters can’t cross a line of salt,” Ben looked out into the darkness from behind the salt line. He couldn’t see anything, but he had the skin-crawling feeling that something could definitely see him. He let the curtain fall closed and turned to the bedroom door.
“Why? Is it magic salt?” a twin asked.
“Nope. Just regular old table salt.” Ben crouched by the door and poured a line along the crack. “But salt is pure, and monsters can’t cross it.”
When Ben stood and turned, he found himself the center of attention. The twins were watching him with utter awe, but Asher was watching him with a distressed crease in his forehead, and Mike had him pinned with a hard, suspicious stare.
Ben threw back his shoulders and marched back to his bed, where he stowed his salt canister in his duffle before climbing back under the blanket. He was half expecting questions or maybe even to get called crazy or something, but he wasn’t all that surprised when those things didn’t happen.
“Cool.” Mike turned to the twins. “See? Nothing will bother us again tonight. You going back up to your bunk?”
The one holding his brother shook his head. “No. Owen doesn’t want to sleep alone.”
“Okay,” Mike said, and helped them get settled, then flicked off the light and climbed back into his bunk.
Ben could practically feel the fear and tension in the room as they all lay there in the dark, listening to the silence of the night and the uneasy breathing of the other boys. This was like being that basement when he was eight, waiting for the monster to come back, to take another kid and make him scream.
“Will the salt really work?” Asher asked after a few minutes.
“Yeah.” Ben had never seen proof of it himself, but he knew. He knew, and his whole body relaxed, the twisted lump of fear in the pit of his stomach dissolving. “Yeah, it’ll work.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Mike said. “Now everyone shut up and go to sleep.”
Ben wasn’t sure what the others did, but he fell asleep fairly quickly, and mercifully didn’t dream of anything at all.
continue to part 2