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Standing Water

Estimated reading time — 13 minutes

My family was doing pretty well until about a decade ago. My dad developed a bit of a problem with the ponies, a problem that certain businessmen decided needed to be solved with his death. Without his job and with him having bet his life insurance away a long time ago, my uneducated mother just couldn’t handle this present job market. My sister and I both dropped out of high school and started working two jobs, and after moving into the shoddiest apartment complex this side of Cabrini-Green, we’d finally been doing a little better. We might have been able to save up for a real house in a couple more years, too. It’s just a shame that that was the year that our turn came to be visited.

Among the many things that the social worker that got us into this place didn’t tell us about was that the pipes are pretty bad. Every couple of years, terrible clogs would effect toilets, bathtubs, and sinks. They would resist any attempt by supers and professional plumbers to deal with them and sometimes flood entire floors of apartments in the middle of a winter’s night. Then at some point, all fixtures would unclog as mysteriously as they clogged and the cycle would begin anew.

The saddest thing about this was that the clogs always seem to leave at least one person dead. Mrs. Lincoln, this cool old lady who seems to have lived in these apartments since the dawn of time, told me all about it.

“Mind you my memory’s not what it was, child. But as far as I can remember there’s been at least one death of a baby or a toddler, usually several, every year of these clogs. Now, some of these are just the usual deaths that happen to the little ones when there’s standing water around. The poor little thing will see his reflection in the water or something and get all curious and fall in and drown. But some of them were different,” at this her cheery brow collapsed.

“Different how?” I said.

“1960 was the first really bad year,” she said after some hesitation. “That was the summer that we lost the two McGee toddlers and little Sandy Dugan. Poor Mrs. McGee. She lived in the apartment right below me. She was a delicate little thing, couldn’t hurt a fly. I still remember the night that she found her two little ones drowned in the clogged tub,” Mrs. Lincoln paused to wipe her tears. “I didn’t know her really well, but I could tell from the screaming those last few nights that the kids were keeping her up.”

At this point I noticed that Mrs. Lincoln had gone from sadness to shaking a bit and looking over her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Mrs. Lincoln? Are you ok?”

She smiled, “Bless you, honey. The world needs more of your type. I just wish that you weren’t stuck in this damn pit. It’s no place for a child with her whole life ahead of her.”

“Thanks. We’re gonna be ok,” I said. “My sister and I are determined to get out of here somehow.”

“I can barely remember a time when I had your spunk,” Mrs. Lincoln said. “Just promise me you’ll never compromise on doing what’s right. That’s what’s been my downfall.”

“Ok, I promise,” I said.

“I don’t know exactly what happened over the next few days other than the screams. I only know what I’d been able to gather from old gossips. What I can tell you is that the McGee toddlers had been having terrible nightmares in the days leading up to their mother finding them in the tub. They would wake her up screaming and caterwauling saying that there were voices beckoning to them from the water. They were scared of something they called “The Dead Sailor.” Mrs. Lincoln shivered and crossed herself.

“They said that he had gotten their daddy (Mr. McGee was a dockworker who had died in a warehouse collapse years before) and that he was coming to hurt them. Several times Mrs. McGee had woken up to just barely pull one of them back from the clogged tub and then, one night…” Mrs. Lincoln began to sob.

“It’s ok,” I said, hugging her.

“Their deaths cast a cloud over the entire complex but the city in those days barely even bothered to send the cops out,” she said. “They would have ruled it a simple accident or at most hauled Mrs. McGee off to the asylum. But then poor little Sandy Dugan from the other side of the complex turned up dead too. The strange part was that she didn’t even drown, though. She had been having the same nightmares of an old dead sailor calling her to the water. But her parents said she was afraid to go near the clogs because she said that something was “growing” there that was threatening her.”

“Like mold or mosquitos or something?” I said.

“I don’t know. All I know is that the night that she died, poor little Sandy screamed and swatted the air as though something was attacking her.

“Can’t you see them? Can’t you see them?” she would say to her parents as they tried to calm her down. Then, one night the poor little thing just collapsed and died. They said she died of a brain aneurysm. It was the only time that we ever heard from a coroner that I can recall, actually.”

Mrs. Lincoln was exhausted at this point so I thanked her, finished my tea, and left. I met my sister Lindsay at the bus stop. She’d been trying to find any information she could on the clogs and deaths at the public library. Her expression as she got off the bus told me everything I needed to know about what she’d found.

“Seen a ghost?” I said. Lindsay shot me that glance that only she could do signifying something between, “Ha ha” and ” Go die in a fire.”

“Yeah, that might be a good way to sum it up,” she said as she rolled her eyes, thrusting a latte into my hands and started walking.

“There’s been over twenty deaths, most of them under four, over the past forty years,” Lindsay said as we walked back to the complex “All of them were accompanied by eerily similar nightmares and hallucinations involving demonic insects, voices, and a ghostly figure that all the accounts identify as ‘the Dead Sailor.’ I was able to find a few tacked on, sweeping statements about toxic mold and mass hysteria or whatever. It really seems to me, though, that the city government’s been trying to cover up the whole thing so that their little ghetto doesn’t look so bad to the state.”

“Mrs. Lincoln told me they never even got official explanations for most of the deaths,” I said.

“Yeah. There have been some independent investigations, though,” Lindsay said. “In 1967, the residents got together enough money to hire an independent law firm to prepare a class action suit. The law firm sent in a team of contractors lead by a man named Paul Niemann to figure out what could possibly be causing these clogs and hallucinations. What they found was disturbing.”

Lindsay paused for a second only to be interrupted by a scream. Mr. Parker, one of the residents, burst onto the balcony of his third story apartment, “Oh God, my son’s drowned!”

Without thinking, we dashed up the stairs and tried to fight through the quickly gathered crowd of neighbors. “How did it happen?” I asked.

“I swear to God I only left him in the living room for a second. I just had to check the oven. The bathroom door was locked, I-I-I know it was.” Mr. Parker said.

“Please, make way,” said Mrs. Yi, the nurse.

The two year-old was floating facedown in the half-full bathtub. The room was ice cold and there was this indescribable sense of what I can only call stillness. From the glimpse that I caught of it, the boy’s face seemed more than wrinkled or blue with oxygen deprivation. It seemed ancient as though the water had somehow aged him. There were flecks of green around the eyes and cheeks that almost looked like algae.

As Mrs. Yi and Mr. Parker left to meet the police, Lindsay drew closer to the bathroom door to examine the lock. It was forced open in a way that a two year-old could not have done. The space around the doorknob was covered with a watery film.

What really caught Lindsay’s eye, though, was a tiny mark above the wrenched doorknob. It was like a three-pronged fork with the tines going in diagonal directions. The right tine was bent and looked like it was about to snap off. The “fork” was surrounded by jagged lines that resembled barbed wire.

“I saw that mark today in my research at the library,” she said. “It showed up on a lot of the drowning victims over the years, including the McGee children.”

“It almost looks like a trident or some other nautical emblem,” maybe it fits in with the whole “Dead Sailor” thing,” I said. “So, did you find anything on what that could possibly mean? I mean, twenty unrelated children almost all of them reporting the same thing before they died can’t be a coincidence. Think we’re dealing with some kind of serial killer?”

“I was about to get to that when we saw Mr. Parker,” Lindsay said. “Paul Neimann’s team of contractors began their investigation by digging into the sealed off subbasement underneath Mrs. McGee’s apartment. The foundation was unusually wet, even considering the mold and water damage you might expect from the clog. Even so, one of the men reported that it was so cold in that subbasement that the contractors had to come back with heavy winter coats in the middle of August.

The ground in the subbasement was even worse. Neimann figured that the low bid construction company that erected the building had neglected to tell anyone that they were building on either a barely drained marsh or a piece of ground below the water table and that was the cause of the flooding. It still didn’t explain how these clogs and overflows could be so prevalent above the ground floor.

It seems like the mayor’s office was eager to take focus away from its shabby housing during an election year, though, so the death certificates were sloppily churned out. The McGee toddlers had slipped and drowned in the clogged tub. The construction company was found negligent and Neimann Contracting would be in-charge of overhauling the foundations of the buildings.”

“I take it that those plans never came through,” I said. “But what does this have to do with some alleged dead sailor?”

“You’re right that the foundation overhauls never happened,” Lindsay said, “but the reason was that Neimann and his men (or the children of the few who weren’t childless) wound up dead. One by one each of them died in a water related accident. Neimann’s head assistant careened off the road into a bog. His brother, Jerome drowned in his own toilet.

“Neimann himself slipped and fell off the dock while taking a trip to the lake with his wife. She said that he had been under a lot of stress, jumping at shadows ever since the court ruling. The day of his death he just got this wild, distant look in his eyes and just sort of went limp. She said it was almost a combination of a jump and a fall like he lost his will to live all at once. And just like the dead children, each of them had the same mark on an arm or a shoulder.”

Mr. Parker had to fight through an unusual amount of red tape to even recover his son’s body for burial. We didn’t even find out for a few weeks that the death was ruled an accident.

Things actually quieted down for the next couple of months. Lindsay continued her research down at the library, but things were slow going as she kept encountering holes in the records. I kept interviewing Mrs. Lincoln and the other elderly residents as often as I could. Slowly we began to fill in the details of the other deaths as much as possible.

Turns out, the area had had a prominent death even before the housing complex was built. In 1951, a World War II Navy veteran by the name of Honus Moon cornered the area’s river barge traffic with the blessing of the local crime families. Local businessmen called him the Dead-Eyed Sailor because of his expressionless manner.

They also knew that if he wanted your contract or your boat, you could only kiss it good-bye. He intimidated rivals with violence, with kidnapping, and even by spreading rumors of black magic. Eventually, Moon put enough barge captains and warehouse owners at the bottom of the lake, that he actually caught our fine police department’s attention beyond his ability to bribe them.

The police didn’t guess just how deeply Moon’s mob connections went, though. Thus for almost a full two days in July the wharfs were alight with machine gun fine.

The officer who led the team that finally gunned Moon down testified that his last words were the following. “If my soul is kept in running waters, then you have beaten me and all your debts are forgiven. But if the stagnant waters touch me, then I shall return to claim your children as my payment. Remember my sign.” Moon then rushed the police, pulling something from his coat pocket.

When the smoke cleared he had not a gun but only his hand, badly self-mutilated in a vice. It was crushed and twisted into a gnarled, three-fingered mark with the right finger nearly snapped in half.

Lindsay could not find any information on what happened to the body after the autopsy. The only relative to come forward was a grown-up niece from the other side of the state who called herself Lorna Coe. The next mention of Honus Moon the Dead-Eyed Sailor in the record is when his gnarled hand turns up in a marshy field- the same field that our apartments now stand on.

While Lindsay took our siblings to the park (other than Bobby, who had the chicken pox and was with mom that day), I decided to pay a visit to Mrs. Lincoln to ask her why she didn’t mention Moon or if she ever met Lorna Coe. What I would find at her apartment, robs me of sleep to this day.

Her front door was open and I could hear the sound of screams even as I approached from the stairwell. Mrs. Yi, Mr. Parker, and my mother were kicking and shoving against Mrs. Lincoln’s bathroom door begging for her to come out.

“Please! Leave my baby alone!” My mother said. I asked her what was happening. Mrs. Yi had to answer through my mother’s sobbing.

“Mrs. Lincoln has gone insane!” she said. “She’s trying to drown your little brother, Bobby!”

I joined Mr. Parker in trying to bash the door in. “Mrs. Lincoln! Why are you doing this?” I said.

“I’m so sorry, Holly. I had to lie to you, dear. I didn’t know what he’d do,” Mrs. Lincoln said. “Your little sisters and brothers are in my uncle’s sights. The sailor’s coming for them because you were too close. I see it in my dreams. I won’t stand by and play the pragmatist with people’s lives anymore. God forgive me.”

I could hear the thrashing and muffled screams of my brother. “Bobby, hang on! I’m coming to get you.” With a burst of strength like I’d never felt before, I charged through the bathroom door. Mr. Parker ran in and wrenched my half-drowned brother away from Mrs. Lincoln.

She was delirious and on the verge of a stroke. Screaming and crying, “No! You must let me save the child!” The bathroom was covered in images of saints and votive candles and good luck charms. A replica of the three-pronged sign was messily scrolled on the mirror in a wet, dark slime.

“He’s coming! No one can stop him! I thought I could distract him by half drowning the boy and buy you some time! Please, God forgive me,” said Mrs. Lincoln.

As Mrs. Yi and my mother tried to revive Bobby, and Mr. Parker struggled to restrain Mrs. Lincoln, I shouted into the phone. “Lindsay, keep them from the pond. It’s Bobby…” I was greeted only by the distant screams of children and the furious sound of splashes.

As I entered the park, Lindsay was struggling with some unseen force that seemed to be biting her all over. Our brother, Chuck and sisters Sarah and Autumn were in various stages of crying or shambling forward towards the pond. Three feet into the water stood Honus Moon himself, or at least the thing he had become.

He was sopping wet and covered in filth and algae and bullet wounds from which an unnatural amount of blood gushed yet seemed to disappear as soon as it touched the water. Thanks to my dad’s fascination with Naval history, I could just barely make out Midshipman’s insignias on his collar. His face looked like a chainsaw sculpture and was dyed greenish-brown like that of a mummy. He had no expression on his face but I didn’t need one to see his hate as he beckoned to the children with his crushed hand.

“”Suffer the little children,” eh, little wench?” Moon said. “This is what happens when you meddle in the affairs of grown ups.”

I tried to pull my little brother Chuck back but he was moving forward as if drawn by gravity. Thousands of invisible insects jabbed into my flesh and broke against my face like a hot wind, their amplified buzz assaulting my ears. Lindsay managed to fight her way out to the water and grab onto Autumn just as her head dipped below the water. Moon had only to shoot her a glance and Lindsay was brushed back as though caught in a rip tide.

Tossing Chuck behind me, I took a running dive into the pond for Autumn but she fought me as though Moon were somehow augmenting her strength. As I fought against Autumn with all my might, the “insects” surged into my back from above the water. In the moment that I was able to stick my head up with Autumn in my arms, I saw Moon fling a large rock and hit Lindsay in the side of the head. That moment of distraction was all that Moon needed to draw Autumn and me toward him like a whirlpool.

“It’s over, children, you’re coming with me,” said Moon chuckling. “We mustn’t have any more lose ends, now.”

My hands recoiled under the pain of the insects and Autumn slipped from my grasp. I was about to grab hold of Chuck as he floated by when my head struck a rock of its own.

I recovered from my daze just in time to notice that I’d drifted toward the small damn of stacked rocks that separated the pond from the creek that flowed into the park. I remembered Moon’s words about flowing water. Maybe that would be the solution! I grabbed onto the rocks as tight as I could. For what seemed like days, I fought against the slippery surfaces and the fiery stings of the insects all over my body.

“I see what you mean to do and it won’t work,” Moon said. “Though I have to give you credit for ingenuity,” my back cracked under the force of a thrown rock just as his voice reached crescendo.

I knew that my only chance was to break the dam. I thought about Lindsay and our sisters and brother, I thought about my mom and dad. I thought about poor Mrs. Lincoln and all the years of despair she’d had to live with. I thought about Bobby and hoped to God they were able to revive him. I had to do this. Just one more rock and then…

I awoke in the ambulance. Mr. Parker had shown up at some point and did… something that resulted in his death and likely saved little Sarah’s life. Chuck drowned in the pond and Autumn is nowhere to be found, though. Lindsey recovered from the rock, but she has some minor brain damage and no memory of seeing Moon or anything that happened at the park. I’m a bit jealous of her, to be honest. Bobby, at least, did eventually come back to us, though. Thank God.

As far as I can tell, bursting the dam did drive off Moon, but last we heard the clogs are still occurring in the apartment complex. I haven’t heard of any deaths, though.

It’s been a few years since we’ve lived in the complex, now. Between Lindsey and my scholarships, we’ve managed to get pretty good new careers going for ourselves as insurance investigators. However, neither of us can stand to go anywhere near a body of water.

I will beat this phobia, though. When I do, I’m going to go back to those damn apartments and I’m going to find Autumn no matter what it takes- even if that means just bringing back a body to mom. When I do go back, Honus Moon is going to pay with whatever’s left of his soul.

Credit To – Cosmo Fish

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