Estimated reading time — 24 minutes
Ever since grade three, my friends and I could make Derek Zimmer believe anything. Anything. From Pop-Rocks and Coke will make your stomach explode; to earwigs actually burrow in your ears (and one’s on your shoulder right now!); to the typical urban legend of the babysitter and the killer upstairs – and that it actually happened to someone in our neighborhood.
The best prank we pulled on Derek had to be in grade 6, when we told him that everyone had to go into the girl’s bathroom to change because a toilet had overflowed in the boy’s. This was during gym class too and in our school, the bathrooms doubled as change rooms. Geez, he didn’t even question it – didn’t even wait to see us go in first. We followed right behind him, him carrying his spare set of clothes, a towel over his shoulder. We didn’t even need to shove him in; he just walked through the door and we locked it behind him and from then on there was nothing but hollering and shrieking from the other side. I got to admit, I still get tickled thinking about it.
After grade seven it stopped being funny – pulling fast ones on him all the time. But, like a bad habit, we kept feeding him lies and watching him fall for them over and over again.
I guess it didn’t help that he had sheltering, hovercraft parents. I mean, the guy believed in Santa Clause until he was thirteen, for God’s sake! And they kept walking him to school even though he lived literally just up the street. It wasn’t until Derek begged them, after being tortured by our sneers and jeers, that they finally stopped.
You’d think that they’d have tried to protect him by teaching him not to believe everything he was told. But I guess since they did everything for him, he just always needed someone else to make up his mind.
I don’t want you to get the impression that Derek was slow or something. He was actually a pretty bright kid. He wasn’t top of the class or nothing – and his math and science marks were pathetically low. But, if you spent time with him, you’d see he was actually very insightful, especially when it came to abstract stuff like morality and friendship and artsy stuff too. Oh yes, I was friends with Derek, even though I constantly tricked and made fun of him. Yeah…I was one of those friends. He would actually analyze our favorite TV shows, comparing the ones he liked and the ones he didn’t and go into really meticulous detail about why some were good, and some were bad. What made a joke funny and what didn’t.
At the time, even though I liked talking with him, I kind of thought that all this information was pretty useless – I mean, I just watched shows, movies and played video games for fun, not to write a goddamn dissertation! If Derek had any brains, I thought, he’d put more of his energy into his schoolwork. But now, looking back, it makes me wish our school had a Philosophy class or even an Arts program. I think he would have excelled, rather than constantly being stuck getting C’s and D’s. But we grew up in a small, frozen town in northern Ontario that only offered the bare necessities for a diploma. And in a town where most people work in the mines and spend their spare time ice-fishing or playing hockey, Derek stuck out like a sore thumb.
All the teachers seemed to like him, but you could tell they were pretty frustrated by how difficult he found the material. He was also a bit stubborn at times. For instance, you’d think he would have done well in English, right? Wrong. He shined only in the creative writing assignments but didn’t follow instructions and would never read the books that were assigned. The funny thing was, he was a voracious reader, always reading something. He just didn’t want to be bothered reading Lord of the Flies or Of Mice and Men. He just thought they were a waste of his time.
One thing that Derek excelled at, besides being a very loyal friend – to a fault – was storytelling. When he got hold of an urban legend, or a dirty joke, or if something happened to him, he would tell it in such a way that we would hang on every word he said. There was no rambling, no “um’s” or “uh’s” – he always took his time and told the story perfectly. The punchline or the ending of his story was always clear and left us howling with laughter, terrified, or desperate to hear more.
More than a few of the stories Derek told us were uncannily frightening – tales of ghosts and creatures in our own hometown. Most of them I could trace back to some origin – usually Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. But there were also a few I had never heard of and could not find a source for. Whenever I confronted him with this, he would give me this knowing smile, his light eyes at ease, and say, “There are somethings that can’t be explained.” He would then pontificate about the other world and how everyone was able to access it if they just suspended their prejudices and disbelief. That was how he got “beamed” his stories, he had said. At the time, I thought it was bullshit. This was the only thing I had ever known Derek to lie about. Now looking back, I wish I had realized that this honest, gullible boy was incapable of telling falsehoods. And that what he was telling me was something he at least believed to be true.
Eventually, I got a bit jealous of Derek; I never had a good memory for details – aside from numbers and figures – and often when I told a joke, I’d forget an important part of the set-up and the punchline would fall flat. Or if I told an anecdote about something that happened to me that I thought was funny or exciting, after I’d finish, the listeners would just stare blankly, their vacant faces tacitly screaming, “That’s it?”
(Believe me, it took me a long time and a lot of effort to write this story as well as I have).
I was also jealous of Derek because of the attention he got from girls. Although he wasn’t very athletic, he was tall, fit and good-looking. And his gullible nature, I think, made a lot of them think he was cute. You know, like a lost puppy you just want to take care of. Unfortunately for them, Derek was too absorbed in his own world of Marvel comic books, Stephen King, Family Guy, and Doctor Who to ever take a hint.
This got really interesting in grade ten when Christie Blackwell, a preppy girl from the states, came to our town. Her family was from Montana and her father had come here for some administrative job at local the mining company. We didn’t know it at the time, but his position and his family’s move were only temporary.
Now, we had likely nothing in common with this girl, but both Derek and I were absolutely smitten. When you’re in a small town all the kids date each other’s sisters and exes, so I guess everyone was pretty intrigued by this new, pretty face from somewhere exotic – like Montana.
For a few weeks, she was all Derek and I could talk about. Some of our other friends thought she was cute too, but Derek and I were head-over-heels. I, however, never got up the courage to speak with her. I might have been top of my class and on the lacrosse team but, I knew what I was in the eyes of girls – a short, fat, sarcastic little boy with a sour disposition. Derek, however, he didn’t have the same cowardice I had. He actually went up to her during lunch break and talked with her!
I watched him approach, grinning from ear to ear, waiting for the humiliation and the peal of shrieking laughter from the other girls. But – she actually talked with him. She was positively radiant when he introduced himself and – I thought I was going to have a heart attack when – she invited him to sit down at her table.
I’ll admit, I was enraged. It wasn’t fair. It just. Wasn’t. Fair. For some idiot like Derek, with no prospects for the future, to have that girl. And what would that mean for me? Why would he want to hang around some loser when he had that girl on his arm?
Luckily, Derek – as I’ve said – didn’t take hints easily, so it wasn’t until a rumor had started about her liking him that he finally was ready to ask her out.
Of course, he told me first.
“Jimmy!” he shouted over the phone one night. I remember I actually winced from the receiver. “Guess what?” his voice blared at arm’s length. After placing the phone back to my ear, I asked him, and he told me that he had heard it from one of the girls that Christie liked him.
I felt a stone form in the pit of my stomach. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that I wouldn’t have gotten Christie. I just thought neither of us would. So, the fact that he got her, and I hadn’t, really burned my ass.
But then, I got an idea. An idea that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
“Derek,” I said into the phone. “She doesn’t actually like you. I overheard her and Jennifer (the girl who told him). They’re just playing a trick on you.”
There was silence on the other end.
Derek mumbled out a pitiful “But…” and I knew I had to pounce.
“Listen,” I implored, “if you ask Christie out on a date, everyone will just laugh at you. They’re just doing this to make a fool out of you in front of everyone.”
Again, silence fell on the other end. I could then visualize Derek with his head hanging down, all mopey like he sometimes got.
Then, I took it a bit further. Over the line.
“I mean, c’mon, think about it. You and her? She’s only been in our school three weeks and she’s already top of the class.
Everyone turns their head to see her. How are you going to be good enough for that?”
I felt that stone in the pit of my stomach again, but this time for a different reason, after hearing Derek sadly mumble, “You’re right…”
Shamelessly, I changed the subject, asking him if we were going to still hang out this weekend to play X-box at his house but, his voice never came back to normal.
That night, I barely slept. I really felt like shit.
This was the first trick I pulled on Derek that made me feel that way. But it wouldn’t be the last.
It was grade eleven, when Lloyd (our other friend) and I took the pranks too far.
Lloyd and I had just gotten back our exam results for grade 11 Physics and, while we didn’t fail, these marks weren’t going to look good on a university application either. Plus, it was December, so there wasn’t much time left in the semester to make up for it. Of course, ole Derek wasn’t in Physics. Or Chemistry. Or Biology. He found some loophole in a technicality to take something called “Earth and Space Science” in grade 12 for his science/technology credit (don’t ask me how the Ontario education system works).
Also, around this time, Derek was getting super-obsessed with comic books and writing his own (report cards and postsecondary prospects be damned). At the time we thought it was really funny. He didn’t just draw the six boxes with stick-figures in ‘em and the poorly graphed word bubbles like most kids; he actually found out the proper format to write a comic book script. He kept trying to make us read them but – I mean – we didn’t know how. Plus, we were busy. You know, with school?
Anyway, Derek had this long bastard of a comic book script freshly printed from the school library – an adaptation of some classic horror story by Poe or Lovecraft, I think – and he ran up to Lloyd and me in the cafeteria all smiling, waving it at us, begging us to read it. And, remember, this was the same day we got our abysmal test scores back.
Now, despite our understandably pissy mood, both Lloyd and I resisted the urge to tear Derek’s head off. Lloyd said feebly,
“Sure, Derek. Give it here. I’ll read it tonight.”
Derek almost leapt off the table bench, he was so excited. He thanked us and then was off to God knows where.
I turned my head and glowered at Lloyd.
“Are you serious?” I asked him. “You realize we have presentation for Chemistry to finish tonight, right?”
Lloyd blew out the side of his mouth.
“I’m not gonna read it, dude,” he said, his eyes cast woefully down on the crumb and grease laden tabletop. “I’m just pranking him,” he concluded, quarter-heartedly.
I sat there and stared at it for a few seconds. Then, another mendacious scheme started spinning in my head.
I knew that my Uncle Eric was coming over for supper that weekend. I told Lloyd that we would both tell Derek that my uncle worked for Marvel Comics and that he had read his script and loved it. And that he was interested in publishing it and giving Derek a job writing for Stan Lee. I’d invite Derek over to speak with him to discuss this “job prospect” at greater length. The funny thing was, my Uncle Eric was a belligerent drunk who’d mostly been unemployed between his time as a trucker and his time as a garbageman. But never – it probably doesn’t need to be said – did he ever work for Marvel Comics.
Lloyd and I both grinned and giggled like evil children. It was perfect. This way, we wouldn’t have to be drilled by Derek’s questions about what was our favourite part; he would be too preoccupied by the idea of having his work actually published. Working for Marvel Comics for God’s sake! An early Christmas present for our naïve young friend.
…I guess you can probably figure out what happened next. I’ll try to spare you the cringe-worthy details.
The next morning, Lloyd and I told Derek about my uncle and fed him our line. Derek beamed like I’d never seen before and bought it hook-line-and-sinker. Of course. That Sunday, he came over for dinner, all excited. Of course. My Uncle Eric was two-sheets to the wind, six gin-and-tonics deep and on his seventh that night. Of course. And when Derek approached him, asking about his script and what it’s like to work for Marvel, my Uncle Eric harshly barked what in the hell he was blathering about. Of course.
I promised Lloyd I would give him all the details on Monday. But seeing Derek, hunched over and defeated, like some withered daffodil – I just, had to look away. I didn’t laugh. Didn’t chuckle. Didn’t even smirk. All I could do was look away, that pit in my stomach turning to stone.
On Monday, in front of the school entrance, about thirty minutes before first bell and thirty degrees below zero, Derek stormed right up to me. Indifferent, seeing this coming and finding no despair, surprise or pleasure in it, I stood where I was and let him hammer me.
Instead, there were no threats, no curses, no accusations. Just one question: did I lie about Christie Blackwell too?
Despite being exhausted from the endless stream of assignments and last night’s interminable guilt, I somehow managed the strength to slowly shake my head and mutter no. One last prank on Derek.
With that, Derek said nothing. And simply walked away.
At that moment, standing there alone with sticky icicles running down my upper lip from my nose to my scarf, I thought I was going to throw up.
The next day, I advised Lloyd we give Derek some distance at lunch hour. I suspected we were personae non grata.
But, to my surprise, Derek came over to our table. Stone-faced, without a word he sat down and ate. Lloyd and I glanced over at him then at each other. The three of us just sat and chewed in silence.
Then, after finishing his serving of oily cafeteria French fries, he told us one of his typically great, terrifying stories. His last.
“You guys ever hear about Melvin Sinclair?” he began, cryptically.
Fake-sounding name. Still, a pretty good start.
Lloyd and I both shook our heads, wordlessly.
“He was a student at our school. Way back, when it was run by the nuns.”
I later found out this part of his story was true. Our high school – Pendleton College – was once run by the local nunnery – but this was when it was still a residential school, with only poor, shipped-in Native kids as its student body.
“He’s actually the person I am going to write my next comic-script on. I know you two won’t read it, but I think you should hear about him anyway.
“Sinclair was a funny kid. A bit stupid, you know? Believed anything his pals told him.”
This, of course, immediately rang a bell for both of us. Lloyd and I looked at each other knowingly. Still, we were hooked. At least, I was.
“He was also very poor with a sick father at home who couldn’t work. So, a lot of his friends could make him do things with the promise of money.
“So, one night, around this time of year – just before Christmas, all those years ago, Sinclair and his buddies went out onto Saul Laskin Lake. It was frozen solid then, just like it is right now. Sinclair got dared by his buddies to walk out onto the lake – see if he could make it to the other side.
“Now, Sinclair was afraid. Terrified, you know? Saul Laskin is two football fields long and three fields wide. Sure, he knew it had been frozen solid for three months straight and a jackhammer couldn’t make a dent an inch deep in it. But still, he was unsure. He never walked across ice in the middle of winter before. Never even put on a pair of skates.
“To his buddies, he shook his head, no. He didn’t care if it made him a chicken. He wasn’t going out there, risking falling through.
“So, his friends decided to sweeten the deal. They told him that if he made it to the other side, they’d meet him there, after walking along the shoreline, and pay him three-hundred dollars.
“Now, his buddies didn’t have three-hundred dollars, but they did have a thick wad of ten two-dollar bills. So, they slipped one into Sinclair ’s hand, as proof there was more where that’d come from. They both figured it would be worth it to see Sinclair fall through the ice or wet himself from fear.
“Again, Sinclair wasn’t too bright. He was also very poor, and his family was way behind on the electric bill, which was bad since this was one of the worst winters in Canadian history. Not to mention, Christmas was right around the corner. So, he took the two dollars as proof they had two-hundred-and-ninety-eight more and made his way across the ice.
“The two of his friends giggled behind their frozen-snot-covered mittens, egging him on, telling him he was doing great. Sinclair didn’t clue in though. He just kept going, waddling and swaying from side to side like a tight rope walker, terrified the rhino-hide-thick ice would give.
“Now, his two buddies didn’t want Sinclair to get hurt. Not seriously anyway. At worst, they were waiting for him to slip and fall on his ass, so they could laugh at him until their bellies were sore.
“So, Sinclair got sixty feet across the ice when his buddies at the shore heard a sudden crunch. A sharp, unmistakable sound. The ice had cracked. Saul Laskin was giving under Sinclair ’s weight. Apparently, the lake wasn’t so titanium at the middle.
“Feeling a sudden rush of panic and just a bit of guilt, both of them started hollering at the top of their lungs for Sinclair to get off the ice. To turn back. Sinclair didn’t turn around though. He didn’t even stop walking. He was determined to make it to the other side. To make that three hundred dollars. Cracks in the ice be damned, his house needed heat!
“His pals on the shore watched in horror when Sinclair took four more steps before plummeting through the ice on the fifth. Unable to think, being dumb kids, they freaked and ran away. It took them ten minutes before they realized they needed to go get help.
“A couple of the nuns and one of the farmers from town came out onto the ice. When they got to the break where Sinclair had fallen in, they made a horrific discovery. On the other side of the hole, was a set of freshly frozen footprints. Like prints in the snow but upside down and inside out. They were glistening and raised, like a trail of swollen scar-tissue. And they headed to the other side – to the end of Saul Laskin Lake.
“On the shoreline, the five of them ran to the other side of the pond, coming to the very end, to find that the steps ended at a second gaping hole in the ice.
“Sinclair ’s body was never found. But the doctors were certain it should have been impossible for him to have walked that length of the ice without succumbing to hypothermia.
“Ever since that night, on the anniversary of Melvin Sinclair ’s arctic plunge, they say he comes back, still drenched and half-frozen stiff, looking for the three-hundred dollars promised him. And taking any unfortunate soul who dares wander across the ice, mistaking them for his two pals who had played that cruel joke on him, so very long ago.”
Lloyd and I stared back at Derek speechless, our mouths agape.
The silence was interrupted when two loud, chortling sophomores bumped into Derek from behind, making their way past him.
“This has got to be bull,” Lloyd insisted, rearing back from the table.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked, my eyes having never left Derek’s face.
“I told you,” he said. “It’s the basis of my next comic script, which you won’t read. There are somethings out there that can’t be understood. But you can find them out if you just suspend your disbelief.”
I looked hard at him. He smirked.
“I heard it from one of the teachers and from one of the upper-classman last year,” he confessed. “Both of them told the story exactly as I just did.”
I was then fairly certain what Derek was going to say next. And I was right.
“The anniversary of Melvin Sinclair ’s disappearance is tonight,” he whispered, as though we were sharing state-level secrets. “I say we go to Saul Laskin after dark and check it out.”
Lloyd blew out his mouth, his lips making that ‘pffft’ sound.
“Yeah, all right,” I said hastily. Almost automatically.
“What?” Lloyd blurted.
“I’ll go,” I continued. “Hell, let’s all go.”
“Great!” said Derek, over Lloyd’s grumbled protest. “Meet you both at the shoreline near Tenth and Mockingbird. Be there at ten, sharp.”
With that, Derek stood from his seat, carrying his meal tray to the metal rack and exiting the caf.
“Dude,” Lloyd spun on me. “What gives?”
“Look, man,” I offered Lloyd, weakly. “We did a really lousy thing to Derek. I think the least we can do it spend one late night with him on this little whim.”
“That’s crap!” snapped Lloyd. “This is your way of playing another prank on him.”
I shook my head vigorously, vexed by his charge. “No way!”
“Yeah? Well, maybe this is Derek’s way of getting us back. Playing a prank on us. You ever think of that?”
“I doubt it. Derek’s not like that.”
Lloyd just shook his head, obviously pissed.
We didn’t say anything after that. But we both knew, we were going to Saul Laskin Lake that evening to meet Derek.
I remember it was ten below zero. Felt like minus twenty with the wind and even worse that close to the ice. The stars were probably out, and fully visible, but I don’t’ remember seeing them. I could barely see what was in front of me from my face being two-thirds buried behind my scarph and tuque.
I met Lloyd on the way there, about ten yards from the shoreline on Mockingbird, and he was likewise dressed like a winter mummy. As we got closer, we saw a figure standing upright, unfazed by the cutting gale. It was Derek. He was in his snow-pants and a parka but wasn’t wearing anything to cover his head. Just a pair of earmuffs. Bizarrely, he seemed completely comfortable out there, his flushed red cheeks the only thing betraying how cold he was.
“Well, here we are,” he greeted us, cryptically. A just as cryptic smile on his chapped, purple lips.
“What are we doing out here?” Lloyd growled, rubbing his thickly gloved hands together and bouncing from one foot to the other. “It’s freezing!”
“We’re here to see if Melvin Sinclair ’s ghost shows up,” I told him.
The look he gave me could have thawed Saul Laskin Lake.
“I never said it was a ghost,” said Derek, just over the wind.
The two of us stared at our guide into the other world.
“Then what is it?” I asked.
“A zombie?” Lloyd mocked.
Feigning ignorance, Derek just shrugged.
The three of us just stood there, in the middle of December in Canada, staring at the frozen lake like three wallflowers around a dancefloor (an analogy that’s not much of a stretch for us).
Predictably, Derek broke the silence.
“How about we play some Truth or Dare?” he asked. I looked over and saw that cryptic smile on his now bluish lips.
“How about we play some Go-Home-And-Sleep-In-A-House-With-Central-Heating?” Lloyd barked.
Me, I couldn’t help myself.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s play some Truth or Dare.”
“You first,” Derek pounced.
Ordinarily, I would have bickered back and forth with Derek to try to get him to go first, but my recently-grown conscience forced me to accept this condition.
“Okay,” I said. I then looked out onto the ice, anticipating what the dare might be and not having any of it. “Truth.”
For the first time that night, Derek’s strange smirk disappeared.
“All right,” he said, his face and voice now very serious. “Yesterday morning,” my mind then immediately raced to that moment, regretting my choice for Truth, “when I asked you about Christie Blackwell,”
“Okay, okay, never mind!” I shouted over him, before he could even get the question out. “I changed my mind. Dare. Give me a dare. What? You want me to walk across the lake? Is that it?”
Without speaking, Derek nodded his head, that cryptic little grin reappearing.
I then looked back at the frozen lake. Derek hadn’t lied when he said that it was two football fields long. In fact, it was longer. 273.5 yards to be exact. From where we were standing, I could see only half of the ice, the other side swallowed up by night and fog.
“Okay, here’s a deal,” I said, trying to negotiate my way out of it. “I’ll go as far as when that fog starts. That’s just before you two won’t be able to see me.”
“No deal,” said Derek, his eyes colder than Saul Laskin. “You go all the way across, or until you see Melvin Sinclair, or you admit you believed my story enough that you’re scared to go out there.”
“Or choose Truth.”
“I’m not scared of that boogeyman crap!” I exclaimed.
“Then why not go all the way?” said Derek. “You know that lake is perfectly safe for skating. It’s been frozen solid since October.”
“Because it’s stupid, that’s why.”
“Or because you’re afraid Melvin Sinclair will get you.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Fine. Then choose Truth. Answer my question.”
Astonished, I shot him an incredulous look.
“Man, screw you!” I cried. “You’re the one who’s so stupid that you believe that dumb story. You probably did hear it from an upper-classman last year. They knew you’d be gullible enough to buy it.”
I turned to the frozen pond, my eyes melting the ice.
“I’m going to go as far as that fog starts. From there, I’ll be able to see over to the other side. I’ll also be right in the middle so it will prove two things: One, that no one could fall through the ice when it’s this cold out, and two, that there isn’t some supernatural creature roaming around at night. I’ll prove to you there’s no such thing.”
Derek looked back at me. That strange smile disappeared again from his lips and never came back.
“I’m not gullible,” he insisted in a low voice. “The story is true.”
“Ah, up yours,” I said, walking to the edge of the shoreline and shuffling gingerly onto the ice. “Come on, Lloyd. Let’s go.”
“Me?” I heard from behind.
“Come on, you wimp. Let’s show this moron how stupid and full of it he is.”
The two of us waddled onto Saul Laskin. We inched our way closer and closer to the foggy middle, the thick air never seeming to thin out and recede like it normally would. Truthfully, I could barely see an inch in front of me; the whipping, cold air caused me to tear up and turned my tears to icicles on my lashes. But I was too angry to care. In my mind, I told myself I just wanted to prove to Derek what an idiot he was. In truth, I just wanted anyway to avoid telling him the truth about Christie Blackwell.
We were well past the center-point when I finally decided to stop. Lloyd was a bit ahead of me. I looked around. The fog was so dense. Even worse, I had to blink my eyes rapidly to break up the frozen moisture that accumulated on my lashes.
I roughly cleared my vision with my gloved thumb. And then I saw it. A hunched figure, just obscured by the fog, hobbling slowly toward Lloyd. Lloyd must have been having the same trouble I was, because he made no effort to run or communicate with the figure, even though it was practically right in his line of sight.
At first, I thought it was Derek. Thought he had somehow caught up and was trying to scare us. But I was wrong. I was very, very wrong.
I tried to warn Lloyd. To shout out. To ask who was there. But I couldn’t. The words were trapped in my throat. I was as petrified as the ice I stood upon. I stared, seeing the nearly naked figure come into focus. It was a man – or…what was once a man. The skin was pale, translucent, all the blue and purple veins visible. The hair was blonde – silver and slicked back, like the head had just been submerged in water. It looked like a cadaver that had escaped from the city morgue. Its brightly-colored eyes resembled a pair of round broken mirrors, and never once did I see them close. Not even blink.
Then, I… I heard it speak!
“I did it…” it muttered, hoarsely, the sound like the ruffling of crumpled paper. “I did it…where is she?”
The creature was mere feet from Lloyd, but he’d turned his back to it like it wasn’t there. He then lifted his head, one red eye open, and asked, “Jimmy? Did you say–”
Before he could finish, the walking cadaver shot a long, bony arm, grasping his shoulder with its claw-like fingers.
Lloyd looked around and shrieked.
“Where is she?” the thing muttered huskily. “Where’s my baby?”
Undoubtedly terrified, Lloyd tried to sprint away, only to slip and fall on the ice. The walking cadaver’s grip remained unbroken, causing Lloyd’s winter coat to rip. The thing pinned him onto the ice, its grasping claws shaking Lloyd by the lapels.
“You said if I did it, you’d tell me where she was!” it hissed into Lloyd’s face. I watched, still petrified, only able to imagine the look of confusion and terror on Lloyd’s bundled-up face.
“Where is she!” the creature screamed. “Where is she? You promised. You promised*!” * Its voice cracked on the last syllable.
It then started throwing Lloyd’s torso up and down, until the back of his head hit the ice with a shuddering thud. I cringed. It was like the sound of a bowling ball being dropped straight to the tiled, wooden floor. The thing then mounted him, clawing and punching at his lifeless form in a hungry frenzy. With its cracked, blackened teeth bared, the canines resembled a set of fangs.
I wanted to run. I wanted to help – to fight that thing off of my friend. But I swear, I – I couldn’t.
By the time that thing had stopped, I could see freshly fallen red droplets, steaming on the ice around Lloyd’s head. I knew then that he was gone.
What happened next, I can’t explain. The creature laid down on Lloyd’s supine body, putting its pale, grotesquely scabbed head on his chest, as though listening for a heartbeat. I then realized that the fog was thickening. There were whole plumes of smoke wafting up from the ice beneath their bodies. I realized when they began to sink, that the ice was melting.
The creature sunk down beneath the ice, pulling my friend’s carcass along with it. Once they had slipped out of sight, I heard the worst sound you could possibly imagine. The sound of the ice cracking. I looked at my feet and saw a deep gash, shaped like a lightning bolt, tearing a path through the ice beneath my feet and between my legs. Several mini fractures splintered off, creating a spider-web of icy shards.
My senses returning to me, I ran, falling and stumbling, back to the shoreline. I don’t know how many steps I made before I slid and fell through – and was completely submerged in Saul Laskin.
I don’t remember how cold it was – though it was freezing beyond imagination. I just remember the disgusting feeling of my clothes soaking in the water beside my skin– and the sheer panic blaring inside my skull.
Remember how I was short and fat? Well, I also didn’t have a clue how to swim. I just floated there, under the water, not seeing a damned thing, my mind a riot of horrible scenarios and images.
As you would expect, I flailed in desperate mortal fear when I felt a hand grab at me and pull. Thankfully, the hand was pulling me upward, to safety. And it belonged to Derek.
“Jimmy,” Derek panted, after he’d dragged me up onto the surface. “It’s – it’s okay,” he struggled to say, as he too was drenched from head to toe. “Here’s my – my coat…p-put it on.”
He then laid his open parka over my body. Luckily, he had taken it off before diving in to save me. I’m sure now if it wasn’t for his quick thinking, I’d have died that night.
“L-listen – listen to me,” he stammered on. His lips were turning a deep blue, as was his face. “My phone is in one of the coat pockets, call 9-1-1.”
“W-what?” I said, not understanding why he didn’t do it himself.
“Just do it,” he said, then turned and began walking in the direction of that creature.
“I’m – I’m going to g-g-go get L-l-l-loyd!” he blurted out. Now, this is where I’d like to tell you that I forced Derek to stay with me. That I told him the truth about Christie Blackwell. That I apologized for the cruel joke I had played on him with Lloyd and my Uncle Eric. And for always taking him and his friendship for granted. But that didn’t happen. Shivering from the cold and my own fear, I just watched as he marched away, disappearing into the fog.
I took out his phone from the right pocket and dialed 9-1-1. I remember hearing the phone ring, the monotonous sound reverberating in my skull. I don’t remember anyone answering.
The last thing I remember is the feeling of my body growing warm. All the pain and fear evaporating with the fog. And then, there was blackness. Blackness save for a horoscope of horrible images playing on a loop in my mind.
I woke up in the emergency room.
I was told that the paramedics and fire department were called out. That they’d scanned the ice but never found Derek or Lloyd. I was told that I was lucky to be alive. Even luckier that I didn’t have frostbite and would therefore not have to lose any appendages.
Eventually, they got around to asking me why we were out there and what happened. I told them everything. Every last detail. Of course, they all looked at me like I was crazy. Some of them even thought that I might have gone into shock and asked my parents to have me undergo a CAT scan. I never did though.
During my time in the hospital, three thoughts kept spinning around my brain. One, how grateful I was to Derek Zimmer for saving my life. Two, how amazed I was that his story was actually true. And three, why that creature kept asking for its baby, instead of for money, like in Derek’s story. I found out later that the story Derek had told us that afternoon was one of many legends concerning Saul Laskin Lake and that night. Some were about a man whose daughter had been kidnapped by a gang of thieves; that the man was thrown into the lake, his feet encased in concrete, after he’d paid their ransom. Some were of a mentally disturbed woman who had drowned her baby, thinking it was possessed by the devil. And at least half a dozen more I can’t stomach reciting here.
Perhaps the worst moment after that night was when I got a visit from Missus Calhoun, the principal at Pendleton College. She was in her early seventies, stout, with a tight, silver bob cut and a pair of owlish spectacles on her round, little nose. She sat down at my bedside, wearing her shapeless, riotously patterned muumuu, and asked me what had happened at Saul Laskin. I told her. The same story I had told everyone since waking up in the emergency room. When I was done, she just stared at me, expressionless, before giving out a sharp sigh through her tiny nostrils.
“This is what I think happened, James,” she began, a subtle disdain in her voice. “I think you dared Lloyd Apanowicz and Derek to walk out there on the ice. We all know how you tricked and tortured that poor boy since primary school.
“I think when the ice cracked, and your friends fell in, you panicked and came up with this ludicrous lie to cover your tracks, because you think we’re all as gullible as poor Derek Zimmer. Because you think you’re that smart and the rest of us are that dumb. I think you’re a cruel, immature, sociopathic little boy who’ll end up becoming a cheat and a fraud and spend his adult life in and out of prison.”
From my bed, I stared back at her wide-eyed. It was so surreal. An adult – a teacher – speaking to me in such a way.
“And I don’t care who you tell this to,” she hissed. “Because I’m retiring at the end of this school year. And if I never see another sadistic child like you again, it’ll be too soon.”
When I brought up how I had been rescued, had almost succumbed to hypothermia myself, she grunted and said, “I don’t know. You seem all right to me. After all, you didn’t even get frostbite out there, did you? And you’re the only one of those boys who survived.”
She then shook her grey head at me, making a tsk-tsk-tsk noise with her tongue.
“In and out of prison,” she repeated to herself, before rising from her chair and leaving me on my own.
Today, I’m happy to tell you her prognosis was false. I haven’t been in jail at any time in my life and the worst I’ve ever gotten is a speeding ticket. That being said, guilt has followed me around ever since that night.
I never told Derek that I had lied about Christie Blackwell, and for that, I am eternally sorry. As I am for making Lloyd come with me across the frozen lake. I had also doubted Derek about his story of the spirit that haunts Saul Laskin once a year on a December night, just a few weeks shy of Christmas. For that too, I am sorry.
I don’t know what compelled me to play so many tricks on him, besides my overly logical, and cynical nature. But ever since that night, I’m not so quick to dismiss something – even if it does seem fantastic. Or even impossible.
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