The Lake Infected
By Nathan Good
The first time I saw the new kid I honestly thought we could be friends or something. He looked normal enough, and after the last kid to live next door I was excited to see anyone. The last kid had been called The Lump and he had been a real shitty neighbour on account of that he never left the house. He went to school, sure, but when he got back at the end of the afternoon he disappeared inside and that was it, nobody saw him until the next morning. Even when the summer rolled around we didn’t see him. The Lump stayed indoors for the whole six weeks. Kids said he was just eating in there and when I watched him hobbling back through the gates on the first day of school, I reckoned they were right.
So when the new kid arrived I was optimistic. I watched from the bedroom window as him and his Mum ferried their stuff up the little driveway from the estate car that she had parked right in the middle of the road. A couple of times another car tried to squeeze by and when they couldn’t fit they wailed on the horn until the new kids mum yelled something. She didn’t move it though, and soon they got bored and bumped up the curb, tearing up the grass to get around.
Unloading the car didn’t take long because the new kid and his Mum didn’t have much stuff. That was good because you couldn’t fit shit in those little houses anyway. Everyone called that whole street, and the next street over The Boxes. As in, “Did you know Sarah lives in The Boxes?” “Fucking hell, what a scumbag.”
I didn’t mind The Boxes. Dad and I had lived in our one for as long I could remember, and we were doing just fine, even if sometimes he liked to remind me that things used to be different. When Mum was around we were over on the other side of town. They didn’t have names for the houses over there, they were just houses. Anyway this isn’t about what things were like before and as I said, Dad and I were happy. This is about the new kid.
The thing about The Boxes that I liked best was that every single one of their little back gardens had a gate that led straight out onto the lake. That’s where I met the new kid properly for the first time, and that’s where I realised that this being friends thing wasn’t going to go easy.
I had a little spot out there where I used to go and mess around. I would take my lighter and burn things I found or just skip stones over the water. The whole lake was surrounded by a dense tangle of trees and reeds, so you could pretty much disappear over there. Sometimes I would get chased off by a couple of kids from the posh school, looking for a place to smoke some dope or tug each other off or something, but normally it was quiet.
A couple of days after the new kid moved in, I found him in my spot.
I could smell something was wrong before I saw it properly, but that didn’t prepare me for it. I don’t know how I stopped myself puking all over the ground. What the new kid was doing was, he was pulling fish straight out the water with his bare hands, throwing them down on the bank and stomping on them. They slipped around under his trainers and sometimes it took him a few tries, his leg pounding like a jackhammer until the insides of the fish were mashed into the mud and grass. He already had quite a pile going and the whole pink mess was slipping down the bank and dropping back into the water.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I said and the new kid spun around. He looked me up and down, his leg raised, mid-stomp.
“What’s it to you?” he said, like I was the one who needed to explain anything.
And that’s when I noticed that something was wrong. I mean, it was all wrong, but something was really wrong. The fish that were still in the water, the ones that he hadn’t pulled out and smashed to bits, were sitting there all fat and bloated at the surface. They were just letting him pluck them out, not trying to get away or anything. They looked weird too, a different colour to what you’d expect.
“What’s wrong with them?” I asked, and the new kid seemed relieved. He put his foot down and called me over.
“They are sick,” he said and pointed out bits of the mashed up fish along the bank. Speckled amongst the sludge were bright red eyes. Not the pinky eyes that some fish have anyway, these were the colour of blood, like demon eyes all staring up out of the slime. He showed me other things too. He pointed to the fish still in the water and showed me how their skin was almost see through and how their mouths were gnashing and gnawing for no reason.
The new kid had a point, the fish did look sick, but I decided to punch him anyway. I caught him on the chin and he wasn’t expecting it at all. He slipped across the fish guts and just managed to stay on his feet. Then he ran off back to The Boxes leaving me kicking through the fish slime to wipe my trainers against the reeds.
That night the new kids mum was banging on the front door, screaming that I was a piece of shit and I’d hurt her precious boy. Dad went out there and calmed her down, somehow explained it all away. Of course he chased me all round the house later on, but out on the doorstep he defended me, he always did that.
The next time I saw the new kid it was like nothing ever happened. I was ready to apologise and everything, but he didn’t mention it so I never did either. We found ourselves over by the lake together more and more. He was obsessed with it, and said we needed to watch out for anything that looked odd. I told myself that I was going out there to keep an eye on the new kid, to make sure he didn’t lose his mind again, but after a while I started watching the lake too.
Before long we were pulling creatures out of the lake almost every day. Most times it was fish, but there were cats too, and one day we went out there and found a badger clawing its way out of the water. Everything that came out of the lake was wrong. The new kid held a cat at arms length to demonstrate. It wasn’t just the glowing red eyes, there was something very wrong with the skin too - like it belonged to a different animal all together, like it didn’t quite fit.
We stomped on the fish. We drowned the cats and the badger.
I asked the new kid what he thought was going on. I was sitting on one of the lowest branches of a tree and he was standing by the water looking straight down into it.
“There is something under there” he said and pointed towards the centre. “It’s like a mouth, I guess. And sometimes if chews things up, swallows them, but other times it spits things out. Things that don’t belong here.”
I burned a hole through the branch I was sitting on and I thought about what the new kid had said.
Below me he just stood there gazing into the water.
Nothing happened for a couple of weeks after that, and maybe we both began to think it was over because we started to hang around in town instead of just by the lake. We got ice creams and raced shopping trolleys around the car park with a couple of the other kids from school. It felt pretty normal, pretty good.
Of course that didn’t last long. We were in the usual spot, me in the tree and him on lookout when we heard it. A moaning noise that rose every few seconds into something like a scream and then started again, low and deep. We knew it was an animal, something that had washed up a little further round the lake from us, so we trampled through the trees to find it, which wasn't hard because the closer we got the more it sounded like a fucking siren or something.
At first we didn’t know what it was. It was just this tangle of fur and limbs that even collapsed in a pile looked bigger than both if us. But when it raised its head we saw those huge antlers and we got some idea of how majestic this thing should have been.
The deer tried to stand but its legs were very weak, maybe even broken. I couldn’t be certain because I had no clue what deer legs should have looked like in the first place.
“It's like the others,” he said, and again he was right. The eyes were smouldering.
So here's what we did. We ran back to The Boxes and raided the little shed in my garden. We took a long length of blue rope.
The new kid twisted the rope around itself and when he held it up there was a noose on one end. We slipped that end around the deer's neck and threw the other end over a strong looking tree branch. The rope dangled back down to the ground. The new kid jumped at it and swang there. The pile of fur and limbs spasmed. The deer struggled but it didn’t stand a chance. It’s made wet noises in its throat and against the mud.
When it stopped moving the new kid said, “Help me get rid of it,” and together we pushed the deer back down the slope to where the water lapped hungrily at the shore.
For someone who knew so much about the lake, the new kid didn’t know shit about most other things. He was like a baby when it came to some stuff. One night we were out in our usual spot and we heard a couple of people coming along the path. They were loud, hooting and jeering, clearly drunk and as they got closer we could see it was my Dad and his Mum. They were walking side by side, clinging to each other to stay upright and tugging at each others clothes a bit. When they got to the back gates of The Boxes my Dad took his Mum by the hand and started pulling her away, towards the bushes. She was giggling the whole time, but still the new kid was up on his haunches, like a guard dog, like my Dad was about to murder her or something.
“What’s he doing?” said the new kid through gritted teeth, and when our parents disappeared into the trees and we heard them both starting to moan and pant he looked terrified. “What the hell?” he said, and I had to physically hold him back.
“Are you kidding?” I asked him. “Sit down. They’re fucking, man. Just sit down.”
He did, and we both shut up for a minute, pretending not to hear what we were hearing.
The last thing that washed up out of the lake is what this story is really about I guess.
I knew something was going on because of the helicopter circling the house all night, but I didn’t think too much of it. It seemed like someone was on the run every other week back then and if you were looking for a criminal then you looked around The Boxes, so we were used to the helicopters and the spotlights and all of that.
In the morning Dad was standing out in the back garden, leaning against the gate. I went up to him and he slipped his arm over my shoulder. The lake was a hive of activity. Police were jogging along the path in high viz jackets, their radios clicking and crackling. Some of them rolled out yellow tape and others took photos of things on the ground.
“What is it?” I asked Dad, but he didn’t know. He was just watching because it was different.
We found out later that they had found a body. A person, I mean. Soaking wet and naked on the bank of the lake. A woman in her thirties. No identification. It was all over the news immediately, but it was one of those stories where there wasn’t really a story yet. They had people reporting live from right outside our house, but nobody knew anything. Nobody knew who they had found or where she had come from. Dad made me stay in all day. I kept looking out the windows but the policeman were just bright green dots rushing back and forth, and they gave nothing away at all.
I kept the television on all the time, waiting for new details on the mystery woman. Dad thought it was morbid so I turned the volume down when he was around and just watched the pictures. Mostly it was the same shot of the lake again and again. I had never seen it like that, from the air, and it looked bigger, deeper than I would have thought possible.
It was a couple of days later before I saw the new kid again. They still had no idea who the woman was, but by then everyone knew that she hadn’t died in the water, that she had been strangled to death. And of course my mind went right to the blue rope, the kid swinging on the end and the deer thrashing about.
I ducked under the police tape and made my way down to my old spot in the trees. He wasn’t there at first but I didn’t wait long. He looked exhausted. He said he was pleased to see me and threw his arms around my shoulders.
When his Mum came banging at the door that night looking for him I said I hadn’t seen him.
And when she came back again the next night I said the same thing. She started to scream and Dad had to come to the door and get between us. She called me a liar. I was always with her precious little boy, I must have seen him. She was bright red, and she started to thrash her arms around. Dad had to grab her to stop her from hitting me, and then she turned on him, calling him everything you can think of, spitting right in his face as she did it. He protected me though, just like he always did, and we managed to fend off the new kids mum until the police arrived.
When the search parties started up properly Dad and I were right there with them, scouring the treeline for any trace of the new kid, but it had been raining hard and there was nothing unusual at all.
His mum moved away after a few months and The Box next door was empty. I didn’t mind. I was happy to have the spot by the lake to myself again. I kept going down there, but instead of burning things or skimming stones I pretty much just stared at the water. I wondered about what was at the centre of it all, and how it decided what to spit out and what to chew up.