Sometimes your past comes back to haunt you.
A city-wide panic ensued when a boy named Bobby Fischer bent to take a drink from the school water fountain on Monday morning and instead of water a thick sludge of algae oozed from the spout like a slug. The school was evacuated—the water tested. Every faucet produced the same results. As if that was the trigger, from that point on people all over the city began experiencing the same problem.
In his small hospital room, Sam gagged as a thick mineral smell wafted from the bathroom cubicle in the corner. An image of reaching wet, webbed fingers filled his waking darkness. He pressed the call button next to his bed and requested an air freshener, but the smell of Spring Rain they poured into the bowl only strengthened the scent and Sam had no choice to but to lie flat on his back with memories of green skin and flat eyes peering at him.
A state of emergency was announced. The Red Cross arrived at the start of the third week bringing cases of drinking water. A semi truck parked in front of City Hall so residents could get a free bottled water to take home with them, but as soon as the bottles passed from the hands of the volunteers to the desperate citizens, their clear contents turned a sick, muddy brown.
Wails of horror rang from the live broadcast. Sam wished he could see what was happening. He balled his fists on the blanket and strained his ears to hear past the panicking crowd. Fortunately the nurse, Meredith, was with him changing his bandages. Without being asked she described what was taking place.
The volunteer stammered a flabbergasted apology. He tore the lid off a bottle and emptied it over the ground. Water splattered onto the asphalt. A young boy ran underneath the stream to catch it in his mouth, but in midair the liquid transformed into toxic waste and his mother jerked him out of the way and shrieked for him to spit it out.
The station abruptly cut to a commercial.
“I hope you like soda,” Meredith murmured softly under her breath. Sam touched the fresh bandaging around his face and shuddered.
“I’m surprised they haven’t started evacuations yet,” he said a week later when Meredith brought his dinner. She was the only nurse who came in anymore. The others had all called in sick, she told him.
“They know there’s no point. A man in my building tried to move away somewhere in Arizona,” she said. “I guess he thought the curse wouldn’t reach them in the desert. But as soon as he turned the tap on in his new apartment the same black stuff came out of the pipes. He and his wife died of heat stroke. Can you imagine? All that desert heat and sun and no water. Poor things.” She sounded fascinated rather than frightened. Sam shifted, restless.
“Have they searched the lake for more of them?”
“Oh sure, they’ve tried,” she said, moving around the bed. “My brother said it’s covered in algae now. The whole lake. Algae and floating fish.”
The skin of Sam’s face pulled at the thought of the smell.
“Your friend was there—the one who killed her.” There was a pause in which Sam imagined her glancing toward the door. “My brother said that as soon as your friend’s boat pushed off from the dock something tipped it over. No one saw how it happened, but I’m sorry to tell you that they never found Mr. Reynolds.”
Sam had never seen her face, but he was intimately familiar with her voice. People were sick and dying in droves, but even that couldn’t quench her excitement at the thought of something supernatural living in the lake. Perhaps she thought Reynolds death signaled the end of things—after all she along with everyone else believed that he’d been the one to kill the creature. Only Sam new differently. Fear jumped in his chest like a leaping fish.
“Any word on when they’ll schedule my cataract surgery?” he asked, changing the subject. Meredith hesitated.
The picture he had of her in his mind changed with his opinion of her. Normally he saw her as a woman in her mid-twenties, the hair color changing from one day to the next. Sensing that he wasn’t going to like what she was about to say, he deliberately altered his mental picture into a thick-jowled hag with a hairy mole sprouting from her forehead.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” she said in a low voice, “but if I were in your position I’d want to know. We lost Dr. Everett last night and Dr. Peters last week. They were only ones qualified to perform the procedure. If things were different we could fly in another specialist of course, but no one’s willing to come here now. The city’s basically been cut off.”
Sam was glad that two thirds of his face was covered by gauze. It was as though the air had been let out of his heart. Quietly, she left the room. In the background the news reported the city’s rapid decay.
As the theme music of a syndicated game show heralded the end of the evening news Sam made his decision. His chest felt heavy as he swung his legs over the side of his cot. Slowly he removed the tubes in his nose, arm, and groin. He regretted the hospital gown, but it would take too long to hunt for a spare change of clothes, and he wasn’t sure if any were there. He’d been wearing the gowns ever since they admitted him. The clothes he’d worn when they brought him in had been thrown away.
Thanks to his daily walks around the hospital his steps were sure as he crossed to the door and wandered out into the hall. He’d only gone five steps though when brisk footfalls heralded Meredith’s return.
“Mr. Scott? What are you doing out of bed?” She didn’t mean to, but the question made him feel like an errant child instead of a man in his thirties who only weeks ago wouldn’t have thought twice about rock climbing and rappelling in the mountains by himself.
“If there’s no one who can fix me then there’s no reason for me to stay,” he said. A deadly calm washed over him.
“Mr. Scott…” she tried to assume a professional demeanor, but he shook his head.
“I’m not spending my last days in here. I’m the one that killed her—believe me or not, I don’t care—and killing her has killed us all.”
She didn’t move. He felt silly standing there with one hand on the wall and the other holding the back of his hospital gown together. Finally, after what seemed like forever he heard her shoes tap across the linoleum to his side. Her thick arm came around him and she slid her head under his shoulder to support his weight.
“Let me help you. It’s almost the end of my shift anyway.”
Together they made their way through the hospital to her car. No one stopped them. Either they were too used to seeing them walking the halls together or there was nobody left who still cared.
Sam felt like an idiot trying to shuffle through the revolving door without getting caught by the glass wall at his back. Meredith helped him into her car, forcing him to release the back of his gown and slide his naked cheeks across the junk mail littering her cloth seats. He felt a twinge of embarrassment, but his blindness gave him the false impression that if he couldn’t see or hear her reaction then she wasn’t having one.
They drove to Wheelwell. Sam pressed his cheek against the window, soothed a little by the coolness of the glass against his peeling skin.
She parked as close to the water as she was able and came around the car to help him out. This time there was no denying that she got an eyeful. Just as he was scooting out of the car a sudden breeze whooshed up behind them and blew his gown out from his body. Without a word, she gathered the edges and tied them in a knot behind his hips, preserving what she could of his modesty. Sam reminded himself that as a nurse she probably wasn’t even fazed. All the same, it didn’t do much for his pride.
The smell hit him like a slap, and despite the damage to his face he felt the burn of salt tears seeping from the ducts he was surprised to find he still had. He gasped and covered his nose and mouth with one hand. Death and decay hung in the air like a noxious fog. His skin felt damp and sticky. Rain was coming. The air was thick with a gathering storm. How long had it been since they’d had rain?
Sam tilted his head back, hopeful that a drop might fall against his skin. The breeze that blew across his face was the first breath of fresh air he’d felt since crawling down into that hole. For just a moment even the smell of rotting fish was blown away.
A strange calmness passed over him as he moved toward the water. He let go of Meredith’s hand. The gentle lapping of water against the shore was the only guide he needed. Even the sticks and rocks under his bare feet didn’t trip him up. A few more steps and he felt the touch of water across his toes. Thick slimy globs slid over his skin, but he ignored them, treating them like hands guiding his steps.
His next step took him shin-deep. Now swift currents moved between his ankles, urging him deeper into the lake. He kept going, stripping off the hospital gown once he was waist-deep. When his chest was submerged he felt the stir of something large moving toward him underwater. He nearly slipped but caught his balance at the last moment.
On the shore Meredith screamed. Sam felt the disturbance as something broke the surface. It towered over him. The drip drip of droplets falling from its body were the only sound apart from the whooshing of the wind bringing the storm.
Sam stood still, waiting.
Without warning a large wave smacked him full in the face, knocking him off his feet. Cold, clammy hands wrapped around his ankles, dragging him deeper into the lake. Sam didn’t struggle. The only protest he made was a small gasp as the water closed over his head, but it was replaced almost instantly by relief. The water that filled his mouth was cool and sweet as the purest mountain stream. He opened his mouth and let the water have him, letting it flow into him and through him until he and it became one there in the depths. The last sound he heard was a soft plink plink across the lake’s surface that gathered into a rushing roar.
That concludes this story. I hope you enjoyed it.