The Monster of the Green Lake
1. Before Shelley made it to the bend of trees that led to the lake, an indecent fog had set in, obscuring everything but the enormous wooden sign:
Green Lake: No swimming after 8 p.m.
Fishing with license, in season.
She braked with a sudden jerk, feeling the bike chain seize, then go loose. That always happened when she hit the brakes too quickly. She climbed off, setting the bike on its kickstand, and knelt down to inspect the chain.
It had come off. Shelley swore lamely and stood, looking around, seeing that the strand of red-and-pink yarn led to a tall weeping willow. She crept over and found that the yarn had been double-knotted around a single, low limb, with several loose strands hanging down. The girl, Jamie, had left some kind of object tied to one of these strands. It was an extremely small silver key, the kind from a locket or diary.
Shelley reached out and touched the key, quietly untied it from its loop, and placed it in the pocket of her coat.
Behind her, she suddenly felt something moving. An irregular shadow of some kind appeared and quietly faded away. “Hello?” Shelley said, trying not to sound nervous. She turned to face the fog. “Hello? Who’s out there?” she said into the darkness.
The only sound was that of the lake, ageless, almost placid.
“Hello?” she said again. “Is anybody there?”
Out of the low, green fog came an unusual creature — fearsome at first, then absurd: the Monster of the Green Lake.
Shelley stood up and nervously backed against the tree, unsure of what was standing before her.
The monster was over six feet tall and was really just someone in an enormous rubber suit, the shape of which resembled a cross between the Loch Ness Monster and a child’s idea of a dinosaur. The suit looked several decades old, its rubber skin flaking, with wide cracks around the elbows and knees. From a panel near the center of the monster’s chest came a labored sound. Shelley did not know if it was trying to speak. It sounded like “Hpmph” or “Hello,” but she continued to back up.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Hmphraphm?” the monster replied.
Shelley took a step forward, and the monster stopped moving. “What do you want?” she asked. “Who are you?”
The monster tried to remove its gigantic mask, lost its grip, tried again. Finally, it came free, and the face of a boy, roughly 20 years old, with reddish-brown hair and squinting eyes, appeared.
“Who am I? I’m the monster of the goddamn lake. I’m practically the mayor of this town. That’s how much personal charisma I happen to have. Let me guess. You came up here to get your picture taken? It’s 10 dollars. Fifteen if you actually want me to stand in the lake.”
The boy spoke so fast it was hard to know how to answer.
“No, please.” The girl said, shaking her head, recognizing him from somewhere. “Wait a minute. I know you.”
“Of course you do. You used to be friends with my little sister, Anne,” the boy said. “I’m Junior. Junior Hanford. You know Anne. Anne with the cleft lip. You used to come over and have sleepovers and play ‘light as a feather’ at my house on Friday nights. You even sent me a Valentine once. Then you decided you were too good for me. Went on to boys in your own grade.”
“I don’t remember that,” she said with a half-grin.
“Well, I’m sure you don’t. You were a lot younger and a whole lot nicer then.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means what it means. I saw you walking into church, and you acted like you didn’t even know me.”
“I probably didn’t see you.”
“If that’s how you want to play it, kid, it’s okay by me. What are you doing up here by yourself anyway? The entire town’s in a panic. Everybody’s out looking for that girl, or didn’t you hear?”
“I know,” Shelley said and leaned against the tree. “What are you doing up here?”
“I got a job working for Mr. Dupont. I’m a night clerk at his motel. The one by the highway. He asked me if I wanted to make a few extra bucks this week, for Founder’s Day. People come by and get their picture taken, that sort of thing. But nobody’s been by in the last few hours.”
She felt her hopes suddenly dashed.
“Did you ever hear the story of when Grant Dupont first spotted that thing?” he asked.
“Only a thousand times,” Shelley said with a frown.
The boy ignored her, his voice suddenly becoming practiced and exuberant. “On September 15, 1953, a quiet summer evening, Mr. Grant Dupont, of Somerset, Illinois, was alone in his boat fishing when, all of a sudden, a tremendous tidal wave erupted from the center of the lake, and a gigantic green creature reared its head above the waves. Mr. Dupont just happened to have his camera with him, and he snapped a photograph, which revealed the monster’s strange, fearsome shape. And that’s what happened right where you’re standing. The Monster of the Green Lake.”
She rolled her eyes. The boy noticed and grinned.
“Mr. Dupont asked me to memorize all that before he gave me this costume. I did it in a couple hours. I have, like, a nearly superhuman memory. It’s uncanny, really. I scored so goddamn high on all my intelligence tests that the army almost didn’t let me in. Made me a communication specialist. Boy, was that ever a mistake,” Junior said. He reached behind his shoulder and tried to unzip the costume. He struggled for a few seconds, then stopped, too proud to ask for help.
“I’m supposed to stand around here until 10:00 in case someone wants to get their goddamn picture taken, but nobody’s been around the last couple of hours. I guess they’re all at home, talking on the phone to one another about what happened to that girl.”
“It’s terrible. I…you didn’t see her up here by any chance?”
“Nah. I mean I’ve seen her up here before, swimming with a few of her friends. Or just sitting back by that tree. But not today. I guess it was too hot for everybody.”
Shelley gave a slight nod. “I came up here because I thought maybe she was here.”
“No. Nobody here but us monsters.”
She gave a false laugh, and knelt down, going back to fixing her bicycle chain.
“What’s wrong with your bike?”
“The chain always comes off when I stop too fast.”
“Need any help?”
“No, thank you.”
The boy shrugged at this and examined his rubber-suited glove.
“Hey, what time is it anyway? I ought to be heading up to the motel pretty soon.”
She gave a quick look at her wrist. “Almost 10:00,” she said.
“I don’t mind working at night. I start at eleven and get off at seven. I don’t sleep very much, but the pay is decent.”
Shelley kept working at the bicycle chain, fitting it back among the sprockets. “That sounds awful.”
He tried to unzip his rubber suit again but was unable. “No, I like it, actually. I do a room check every couple hours. I just poke around the motel, make sure there’s no trouble. Mostly closing people’s doors, turning off the outside lights. I like it because I get to look into people’s rooms every night.”
“You look into their rooms?”
“Sure. It’s the best part.”
“What do you see?”
“It’s mostly people sleeping, some of them watching the TV. Sometimes you see a couple fighting. My favorite one was one night, about three in the morning, I was walking around, and I see this naked woman, and not that she was ugly—she was just a regular woman—but she was naked, and it made me stop, so I kind of crept up close and looked in the window, and she went and lied down in her bed, and there was a naked man in there, too, and I thought, well, I know what this is, but then I looked and there was a baby between them. It was the whole family, and they were together in bed, sleeping. Like they were at home. It was one of the best things I ever saw. You know, I didn’t expect to see that baby there. That’s what I like about that job. I’m always seeing things like that. People forget that they’re in public, you know. They always end up surprising me.”
Shelley thought of what it must look like, the shadows and light, the stillness of the near-empty room, the sound of something no one else would ever see. “That sounds lovely,” Shelley said. Junior looked deep into her eyes, and then quickly glanced away.
2. By then, Shelley had gotten the chain back on. She wiped her greasy hands on the slick, dark grass and dried them with her skirt.
Shelley stood upright and faced the boy. “I should be going,” she said.
“Sure, but first, can I ask you something? I see you singing in the choir in church sometimes. How come you like singing with all those fuddy-duddies?”
“I don’t know. It’s just something to do. I started going with my grandma.”
“I like to watch you sing. Because you stand in the back row, and you think nobody is noticing you. You think everybody is watching Amy Talbert. So sometimes you roll your eyes at her.”
Shelley felt her face go flame red. “I never do that.”
“Oh, sure you do. You do it all the time. You are a champion eye roller. I used to think you had to be practicing at home. I bet you were afraid nobody was noticing you. Was that it? Let me ask you this: You still got a beau? That fellah with the rough older brothers?”
“That’s him. You still go around with him?”
“No. I mean sometimes. Not seriously or anything.”
“Not seriously. Well, that’s good.” He smiled. “You know I’d like to know what you like about him.”
“I mean why do you like him? His personality, the kind of car he drives, his big old dumb glasses, what?”
“I just like him. He’s nice to me. And we work together at the diner.”
“Wow. He’s nice to you. And you work together at the diner. You got awful high standards.”
“You’re one of those people who think they’re smarter than they actually are, aren’t you?”
The boy grinned. “I don’t know. Probably. I guess that’s a pretty accurate way to describe me.”
“Don’t you think most girls find that annoying?”
“Usually. But I don’t have much interest in most girls.”
“Oh, and why not?”
“Because there are a lot of girls in this town who don’t know how to do anything but yammer on and on about who said what or who wore a dress one size too small. None of them have an interesting thought in their awful little heads. There’s nothing the least bit surprising about them. And besides that, I mean, most of them don’t even know how to kiss. Or what’s supposed to come after that.”
“Which you have all figured out, I bet.”
“You bet right. I’ve made up a whole new way of kissing.”
She smiled and quickly remembered why she was standing there in the dark, at the lake. The boy, Junior, tried to unzip his suit once more but could not get his arm around behind him.
Shelley could not help but laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’m sorry. Nothing,” she said.
“Go on and laugh,” he said with a mock frown. “You know I thought about calling you up sometime, but I still haven’t made up my mind yet.”
She laughed even louder. “I’m sorry. I should go.”
She looked over at the red-and-pink strand, saw where it ended by the lake, and took hold of the handlebars of her bicycle.
“Oh, I get it. The cold-shoulder routine. I know how it works. I got three sisters.”
“That isn’t it. I just have to be going.”
The boy shrugged unhappily.
“Before I go, do you mind me asking?” Shelley quietly whispered. “Are you sure you didn’t see that girl up here tonight? Earlier today, maybe?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” He itched the side of his sunburned nosed and said, “Come to think of it, the other day, maybe a week or two ago, I was on my way home from the motel, walking back through the woods, and I saw her. Jamie Fay. Out by the cemetery. It was early. Maybe close to six or seven in morning. And she was out there, by herself, sitting by those Civil War graves, by the one that looks like the Washington Monument. It’s funny. It was like she had already disappeared, the way she looked sitting there. Like she was practicing being a ghost.”
“The cemetery? You saw her there?”
“A week or two ago. It looked like she was waiting on somebody. But then a police car pulled up. Someone from the sheriff’s office must have driven her home. I haven’t seen her out there since.”
She nodded, coming to a decision. The boy looked at her and smiled slyly.
“You thinking of going out to the cemetery by yourself?” he asked.
“No.” The sound of it was so clearly a lie that both of them chose to ignore it.
“You’re braver than you look. But you ought to leave all of this to the sheriff.”
“I will,” she said. “Thanks for your help.”
“Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”
“Maybe next time we can practice rolling our eyes at each other.”
She quietly reached over and helped the boy unzip the back of the rubber suit. He smiled shyly. Shelley rode on once again, pedaling into the dark.
Two miles away was the new cemetery, with its slanted iron gates. Shelley paused as she passed through, finding a white ballet flat, a generic one from the failing shoe store, placed on one of the finials of the cast-iron fence. She climbed off her bike and took the shoe in hand.
There, along the grayed instep, were the missing girl’s initials.
She looked up when she heard something move.
Before she could make a sound, Shelley saw the outline of someone’s shape blocking her path.
Continue reading Episode 6: A Hidden World