The Lost, Page 1A. Sparrow
Copyright by A. Sparrow
1. Black Ice (Horror)
2. The Last Yule (Historical Fantasy)
3. Hell Hounds (Paranormal)
4. The Bog Wife (Horror)
5. The Bridge (Horror)
6. The Latch Key League (Contemporary)
7. Shaper (Horror)
8. Wild Fruit (Fantasy)
9. Indigo 823 (Fantasy)
10. Bucket Run (Contemporary)
11. Noumenon (Science Fiction)
Jeremy squatted in the makeshift goal—three logs half-embedded in the pond ice. A scrapping, clawing horde of older kids homed in him, chasing a spinning, bouncing puck down the shrub-obstructed ice.
He braced for impact as Jason, playing defense, pulled up in front of the goal, his skates showering Jeremy’s snorkel coat with ice chips. Bobby Perdicci slammed into Jason and cleared him out of the way. Right behind him, Eddie flailed at the puck. Jeremy winced and closed his eyes.
Whop! The puck slammed into his sternum and bounced away. As Jeremy collapsed, clutching his chest, Bobby raised his stick and hooted like a chimp.
The scoring rule that required the goalie to be hit on the fly was Bobby’s invention. He had turned hockey into dodge ball. The goalie himself, confined to the space between the logs, was the goal. No hit, no points.
“Cuz we ain’t got a net,” Bobby had rationalized. “Beats losing it in the bushes all the time.”
That part—the not having to fetch—Jeremy appreciated. It made it worth enduring the pain and bruising. The goal he defended had the stand of dead trees at its back. The place was way less scary in the winter, but still, it bothered him. Weird stuff happened there.
But Jeremy was too excited to dwell on the bad. He seriously thought Bobby had been joking when came up to him and asked him to play goalie. Usually, he was lucky to hang out by their campfire without being harassed. They were more likely to ask Briggs, the man-child with special needs who always seemed to be roaming about the pond and woods. Bobby called him the village idiot, but Briggs was generally tolerated, probably only because everybody feared him.
That night, in bed, Jeremy gloried in his breakthrough. He wondered if this was a watershed moment. If, from now on, the big kids let him hang out with them. That he was now officially a big kid himself. Jeremy had no older siblings. He had always wished for an older brother.
The following weekend, he decided to go back to the pond and see if the big kids would let him play again. He couldn’t tell his mom, though. She wasn’t crazy about him hanging out with that gang. Bobby had been expelled from middle school for fighting more than a few times. He had even been arrested once, for shoplifting.
So Jeremy made for the woods on the sly, telling his mother he would be up the street playing Call of Duty with Sal and Phil who were his own age. He would just make sure he showed up at Sal's place by lunchtime when she was likely to be checking up on him. She would have freaked if she knew he was going up to Grayson’s Pond alone. She had been extra watchful over his activities ever since Harry Jameson went missing from the neighborhood a year ago on Thanksgiving.
Harry, only a year older than Jeremy, had lived up the hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. He had been famous for the fort of scrap plywood and two by fours that he had built in the woods behind his house. It had been the focus of much neighborhood hijinks. Torn down by his parents after he went missing, its remnants were now strewn along the path leading up to the pond. Only a few scraps of wood remained. Seeing them caused a chill to ripple through Jeremy.
The big kids blamed his disappearance on Briggs, who was twenty-something and a little slow upstairs. Apparently, he had been in a car accident as a teenager and had suffered permanent brain damage. Briggs was built like an NFL lineman, but he was about as malicious as a Golden Retriever puppy. Jeremy couldn’t see him doing anything to harm Harry. The kids who started the rumor were likelier suspects. They could be bullies of the nastiest order when someone rubbed them the wrong way.
As he made his way up the path alone, Jeremy told himself there was nothing to worry about. When the ice was good, there always seemed to be older kids up there on the weekend. A campfire always seemed to be burning on the south bank where everyone stopped to lace up their skates.
Winter transformed Grayson’s Pond from a stinky slough to a frozen jewel. In summer, it was a pond in name only, a weed-clogged mire plagued by mosquitoes, well on its way to becoming a swamp. Cattail and button bush filled all but a narrow slough that sliced up the middle like a gash. It never dried completely, even in the midst of the stingiest drought. If anything, it grew larger year by year, expanding its fringe of dead trees, even though the utility company folks came up every spring and broke down the dam at the outlet that the big kids rebuilt every fall.
When the trees leafed out in the spring, the contrast between dead and living trees was made ever more stark. Beneath the dead trees, gurgling splashes would occasionally boil up from the muddy bottom. Whatever made them didn’t behave like fish or frogs that had been spooked. They followed him around the periphery, and always seemed to move towards him, not away. Jeremy didn’t go up there much in the warmer seasons.
But winter changed everything. He could step out onto the pond’s surface and walk across it as confident as Jesus. Being frozen shackled the pond, dulling its aura of danger. A sense of threat remained, but it was the difference between seeing a lioness at the zoo and stumbling across one on some African veldt.
There was just a dusting of snow under the oaks and maples. Enough to decorate the fringes of the fallen leaves. Enough to reveal the passages of rabbits and coyotes. A brisk Alberta Clipper had swept through only a couple nights ago and a cold snap had preserved its traces.
He had badly wanted to bring along the ice skates he had just borrowed from his cousin Jamie, but leaving them home was the only way to maintain the ruse with his mom. He only planned to mess around up by the pond for an hour or so, play some goalie if the big kids would let him, and then make his way back down to Sal’s house, where Xboxes needed no power switches, and the marathon of virtual slaughter went interrupted only by homework, sleep and dinner.
Jeremy turned a corner on the trail where it passed beneath a deadfall tangled with wild grape vines and came nose to nose to Briggs, who was on his knees, licking the snow off some dead leaves. He looked surprised and embarrassed. Eyes wide and blank, he stumbled to his feet, acting almost fearful of Jeremy.
“It’s okay, Briggs. I’m just passing through.”
Jeremy kept on walking right past him.
“Don’t go … up there … right now,” said Briggs, his words halting, each sentence a struggle. “Stay … here.”
“Can’t stick around. Sorry. Have fun eating snow.”
Jeremy stepped up his pace. Briggs had the weirdest look in his eyes. What was that all about?
The slope leveled off into open woodland, with big old trees, outcrops of glacier-scarred rock and little undergrowth. The pond was nestled in a terrace in the hillside. Its outlet was dammed with rocks the big kids had carried over from an old stone wall they had dismantled, a relic of an abandoned pasture reclaimed by trees.
Jeremy clambered over the dam and up the exposed ledges that flanked the pond’s southern shore. The mica-studded outcrops descended through the laurels in steps to the muddy shore to a fire pit filled with cold ash and bits of charred wood. Not a trace of warmth remained. No one had been up here all day.
That was a shame. He had been looking forward to a toasty fire to warm his hands and feet. He had no way to start his own. The last time his mother found a lighter in his
pocket he had been grounded for a week. But where was everybody? Was there a big football game on or something? Maybe if he hung out a little while someone would show up.
Something rustled through the bushes behind him.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
There was only silence. Probably just a deer He looked up at the sky. The cloud cover was thin and steely gray. But the air had that crisp smell that always came before it snowed.
He stepped out onto the ice. It cracked under his weight. It was always thin around the edges this early in the season. But all of last week had been intensely frigid at night, so the center was solid.
Jeremy couldn’t remember the ice ever being so smooth and slick, unspoiled by frozen slush or crusted snow. Its surface was pure and slick, marred only by the marks of skates and those odd, clear circles that stared up like eyes here and there. They formed only when the weather got really cold. The big kids called it black ice even though it was as transparent as glass.
He shifted his weight from boot to boot, sliding across the ice. You didn’t even need skates when the ice was this perfect. The hockey rink was marked with rotten logs here and there that suggested boundaries, though live play usually continued regardless of where the puck ended up. The games only ever stopped when the puck got lost in the stand of dead and bony trees on the far shore.
Jeremy found one of the clear spots and knelt down. The ice over it was rippled but perfectly clear. He stared down into the water, searching for any movement that would indicate some kind of interesting pond life. The frogs and snapping turtles were probably buried deep in the mud and hibernating. But not everything went to sleep or died in the winter. He saw some little specks dancing around. Copepods, he supposed.
He sat back on the ice and enjoyed the nearly absolute silence. Nothing moved. Not a bird. Not a leaf. The wind barely whispered through the naked branches of the maples and beeches. He couldn’t even hear any cars on Great Hill Road.
A patch of red flannel flashed among the high-bush blueberries and then slipped back under cover. Someone was watching him from the bushes.
“Briggs? That you?” Had he even been wearing red? Jeremy couldn’t remember.
There was no response from the watcher in the trees.
He sighed and looked back down through the clear spot. The copepods were gone. He noticed some lumps and dimples in the sediment that almost looked like eyes and a mouth. He didn’t think much of it. It was kind of creepy, but nothing more than bumps and holes in the mud.
As he watched, the mud shifted, almost imperceptibly, as if some creature buried beneath were making itself more comfortable in its slumber. The longer he stared the more he could imagine these irregularities as facial features – a girl’s face, symmetric with full lips and cheekbones that could have graced the cover of a fashion mag.
His stomach seized. Was he looking at a corpse? Was an unseen current washing away sediment as he watched?
For a dead girl, she was perfectly preserved. Strands of algae twined through her hair. Her skin was as dark as the mud.
Footsteps crunched through the frozen mud on the shore. Briggs stood there, glowering. He indeed, wore a red shirt.
“No!” he said. “Come here. Now.”
“Briggs. There’s a body down there.”
The man-child turned all red and his mouth contorted. A strand of drool dripped from his chin. “Come!” he bellowed.
Jeremy had never seen him so agitated.
There came a tapping from the ice below his feet.
Jeremy glanced down and lurched away at the sight of a now pale, feminine face pressed against the clear port hole of black ice. The girl’s hair could no longer be mistaken for algae. She was blond. And alive! Her eyes panicked, imploring.
“Oh my God!”
He looked around for something to break the ice. He grabbed one of the stones the big kids used as pucks when their only real puck got lost in the weeds.
He dropped to his knees and hammered at the black ice with every bit of force he could muster. Beneath the ice, the girl clawed with her fingernails and pounded with her fists.
“No! Get away.” Briggs stepped onto the ice, breaking through the thin spots that ringed the weedy shore.
“Briggs! She’s gonna die if we don’t get to her. Help me!”
“She can’t die. How can she die? She already dead.”
The ice burst open. Water and ice chunks gushed all over the surface. The girl’s head emerged, gasping. Her hair, it wasn’t even wet.
“Stay away from that man! He is a bad one. He will hurt you, that one.”
She had the strangest accent. Sort of but not quite British. She sure didn’t sound like someone from Connecticut.
She reached one dripping hand out of the hole and gripped his ankle.
“Who are you? How did you get …?”
“No matter, love. I am come to help you. That man. He is a danger to you. Come down here with me. I will keep you safe.”
“Into the water? Are you crazy? It’s freezing.”
“Oh no. It’s not bad at all, once you get used to it. It’s not what it appears. And this is no mere pond. It is a portal. It is cozy and comfortable down below … in my place.”
“Under the water? How can that be? How do you breathe?”
“You don’t need to, love. You just be. Just come. I’ll keep you safe … and warm. Come down with me. Trust me. It will be nice.”
She tugged his ankle and dragged his leg into the frigid water. He lunged for a bush and latched on to its branches. He clung with all his strength. It was not enough. Twigs snapped and yielded. The girl was way strong. Too strong to be human.
He looked back at her. Her face, while still attractive, had been transformed by a grim predatory determination.
“Who … are you?”
“You! Come down here with me!”
“What are you?”
She bared her teeth, attempting a smile but achieving a grimace. “I am whatever you need me to be. Just come. That man. He is not right in his head. You know that. You should never have come up here alone. You should have listened to your mother.”
But she was grinning as she said that. Grinning, like someone who had just won a prize at the carnival.
“No!” said Briggs. He hauled himself up onto the solid ice and scrambled towards us on his knees.
“Quick love, come on down. You can slip through this hole. It’s wide enough. I will help you.”
“How would I breathe?”
“You won’t need to worry about that. Trust me. Just come down, love. Come down here with me.”
“It’s too cold. I … I can’t go in … underneath.”
“It’s okay. I promise. There’s a whole new world down here. Come. Let me show you.”
“What … kind of world?”
“A world without worries. A world with friends. You remember Harry, don’t you?”
The beautiful girl was no longer so beautiful. She didn’t even look much like a girl anymore as she dragged him into her hole.
“Nooooo!” bellowed Briggs. He battered his way deeper into the pond, cracking the ice like a human ice breaker until he was waist deep.
The mud woman shrieked at him.
He bellowed right back at her and lunged for Jeremy, grabbed his elbow and ripped him from the mud woman’s grip.
There was nothing blonde or becoming about her whatsoever now. Her hair had turned back to algae and her face was lumpy and brown.
“Briggs!” she screeched. “You bring him back. He’s mine.”
“No! He’s not.”
She bulged up out of the hole and inflated like a puffer fish. Nothing about her now was even remotely human. She was just a bloated sack of mud. With a sound like an enormous belch, she exploded in a shower of steaming mud that spattered everywhere.
Briggs held Jeremy’s hand so tight. There was no way he could slip free. He had no choice but to follow him up the outcrop and over the
dam. His grip was so strong.
As his jeans stiffened with ice, Briggs hauled him down the path. Jeremy could barely keep up with his strides. He kept glancing back towards the pond.
“Where are we going? Where are you taking me?”
Briggs kept silent.
When they got in sight of the first houses, Briggs stopped and released him. Jeremy rubbed his bruised wrist. Somehow, he hadn’t expected to be freed.
“Go,” said Briggs. “And … don’t … tell.”
“Don’t tell? But why not? You … helped me.”
“About her. Don’t tell … about her.”
“But … why not?”
“She’s … mine.”
The Last Yule
Wind-rattled beeches clung to their last pale leaves. The dishwater light of dawn birthed a chorus of curses, groans, snorts, fits of coughing. The noise of these men belied their meager number. So much for Janos’ pleas for stealth.
Shrouded in tattered blankets, the men of Turok roused from another dank and fitful night on the trail. Yet another night with no fire to take the teeth out of the chill, the wood too damp for tinder to catch.
The men kept close and the wolves kept their distance. Three days had passed since they last had been harried by Paludin raiders with their terrible, curved swords and wickedly nimble mounts. But now that they were entering the territory of the hill tribes. They could not afford to relax their guard.
Janos ripped a hunk of woody fungus off a dying beech and climbed atop a boulder as tall as a haystack. The stone did not belong to this forest any more than did Janos, its pale, quartz-studded facets alien to the dark shale and slate that made the bones of this terrain. Some ancient calamity must have dragged it here from its land of origin. Many like it were strewn about the forest.
Wences called such boulders ‘god stones.’ He never passed one without making an offering and muttering a prayer. To an unbeliever like Janos, the boulder was simply a handy place to survey the encampment and take the daily muster.
He sat and tallied heads, scratching the underside of the fungus with a twig. Thirty-eight men. Three consecutive days, none dead or gone lost. Ten of the hobbled who could walk no further had been left to convalesce in a friendly village by the lake. Someone would fetch them in the spring, if they hadn’t already made their way home.