Note: Though this work was inspired by the picture from the 8/17/09 Monday Challenge, I did not write it as a finished short story, but as a prequel to a much larger story. Feedback is greatly appreciated!
She leaned into him, distracting his attention from what she was saying to the shoulder of her over-sized Ramones T-shirt, which was slipping slowly with each breath. His eyes drifted lazily over smooth skin, marred only by the strap of her…His breath hitched with a sudden realization and his eyes went out of focus with the force of his shock. As his eyes reeled, he opened his nostrils and took a deep breath, opening his senses to the winds buffeting the open Jeep.
His body reacted to the smell before it registered in his brain. A sickly, salty smell caught his frozen body, beating him until he trembled.
“-alt! Walter, what’s wrong?”
He forced himself to blink the smell away, at least enough to see through the haze it now formed just in front of his eyes. His mouth twisted in a furious grimace as he turned away from Suze, who had guiltily readjusted her T-shirt, and leaned into the front of the Jeep.
“You bastard! You’re taking me to the beach!”
Kail’s face visibly paled, but he set his mouth in a tight, thin line.
“Dude, you’ve got to get over this stupid fear of yours. It’s your 16th birthday—”
“Not until tomorrow.” He replied automatically.
“Right. Yeah. Anyways, I knew you’d refuse, so me and the guys—”
Walter grabbed a fistful of Kail’s shirt and almost ripped it to shreds. His eyes looked accusingly at Laurie, Kail’s girlfriend, sitting next to him in the front.
“You were in on this, too? Just who else is part of this evil scheme?”
Laurie rolled her eyes and grabbed the fist that was threatening to cause an accident. She stroked his hand in both of his as Kail attempted to smooth the angry wrinkles in his shirt. Walter didn’t feel any better, but he wouldn’t be punching Kail any time soon. Laurie had a knack for taming wild beasts.
“Look, child, even your parents thought it was a good idea”, her low, soothing voice pleaded with him, “So did Lijah, Peter, Nilda, Wanda and the Terrible Twins.”
A groan ripped its way out of Walter’s mouth and threatened to turn into a sob, which he swallowed despite the tearing sensation at the back of his throat.
“Not the two T’s…”
Neil and Jason, or the Terrible Twins as they were affectionately called, were trickier than foxes; it was their vocation in life to make a practical joke out of everything. They didn’t have an emphatic bone in their bodies. Walter knew they would tease him mercilessly today. He slipped out of Laurie’s hands and slumped against the back seat, putting his arms over closed eyes.
“It’ll be fun, Walt, you’ll see. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Suze’s tentative touch on his arm didn’t distract him from the images playing like a movie behind his eyelids.
Not many people remembered their childhoods beyond a certain age, but he was unfortunate enough to remember many things about the time he turned three. His parents had a big celebration going for his birthday and everyone was in the backyard, laughing, eating and talking about the future. He was playing with some of the other kids in a corner of the yard, tossing a bright, multicolored ball back and forth, having a great time until one of the Terrible Twins viciously kicked the ball instead, and watched it sail right over the fence to the neighbor’s yard. Yup, they were terrible even then.
The kids dispersed, easily distracted by other activities, but not Walter. He wanted the ball. Plus he knew a secret. He knew Poppy’s secret entrance to the neighbor’s yard. Poppy was their incorrigible Dalmatian, who loved to sneak into the neighbor’s yard and leave little, (OK, not so little), surprises in their pool.
After making sure no one was watching, Walter crawled through the hole in the fence behind the bushes his mother let grow wild. It wasn’t a bad fit; Poppy had made a nice path for him. He laughed and felt terribly smart. He would be back with the ball before anyone knew he was gone. The ball had rolled into the pool, shiny and bobbing lazily along.
Walter had walked to the edge of the pool, looked inside and stretched his tiny arms; the ball was just out of his reach.
“Walter!” His heart pounded, frightened by his mother’s desperate scream. He lost his footing and fell into the pool, the ball floating completely out of his reach. His arms remembered what his father told him about swimming. But the more he moved them, the further he was dragged into the depths of the pool. It was almost as if something was grabbing and holding him down. He gasped for air, but his lungs filled with water and as he lost consciousness he thought he heard a voice whisper in his ear: “Not yet.”
Walter grabbed Suze’s hand and she yelped in pain.
“Please don’t do this to me.”
“We’re here!” Kail sang cheerfully. Everyone abandoned the Jeep as if it were infested with red ants. Except for Walter. He left the Jeep like a prisoner on his way to death row. Unwilling to even look at his surroundings, he followed his friends to some spot on the beach, where the rest of his traitor friends were waiting.
“Happy birthday!” Everyone laughed a little too loud, slapped him on the back or butt a little too hard and smiled a little too widely. He took it all in stride, trying to ignore the feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach and trying to avoid coming across as a complete jerk, big baby…insert the adjective of your choice.
Everyone tried their best to make him feel good and soon he was nibbling on a tiny sandwich, laughing along with his friends when the Terrible Twins had a competition of who could create the lewdest sand sculpture. He was pleasantly surprised they had not said a word about his water phobia.
Slowly, the party gravitated to the water, though Walter was nowhere near ready to go in, but he felt safer surrounded by friends. Kail and Laurie stayed with him on the shore; Laurie was in those days and couldn’t get in the water.
“Thank you.” The doomed feeling was back in the pit of his stomach, but his words were sincere. Walter frowned. But why did those two words feel so final?
Kail and Laurie smiled. I hope they have a long, happy life together, Walter thought sadly. He frowned again. It was as if there was another Walter inside him who had a secret he didn’t want to share. He shivered.
“I know you won’t go in the water, but I think we need to take a memorable picture. How do you feel about walking out to the edge of that pier?” Kail pointed to a few hundred feet beyond their spot to a sturdy looking pier standing in the calm water.
“Um…hold on.” Walter looked for the green backpack his parents had secretly packed and given to Kail for this occasion and slung it over his shoulder.
“OK, now I’m ready. This is gonna make a great picture for mom and dad.”
He smiled bravely and walked to the end of the pier. His legs grew more unsteady with each stride until he could not move any longer. He turned around and faced his friends, hoping they couldn’t see he was shaking, knuckles white where they held on to the strap of the backpack.
The camera clicked.
His wide smile collapsed as his friends tripped and fell, screaming in horror as a long, wide shadow fell over Walter.
The voice from long ago whispered in his ear again, as it tore his soul from his body.
“Now’s the time, my love. You almost escaped this time, didn’t you? But I always get you in the end. I’ll always get you in the end. Tremble and scream for me again. Scream for the next 16 years until you go mad!”
He did. He screamed as if he could cast his soul away from the shadow to safety. But it didn’t work that way. The sudden wave that formed in the calm ocean crashed against the pier, wrapped itself around him, and swallowed him whole.