There’s a little lake not far from where I live. My mother and I like to go out there sometimes, just to watch the birds and the water. It’s very quiet there, as it almost always is out on the Wyoming prairie. On one trip to the lake there was one other car, parked near the little outhouse. It was dusty, and looked abandoned. There was no one else there, either on the lake or wandering around.
That night, I wrote this story.
The car’s left front wheel hits a rut in the road. The car bounces. In the rearview mirror Henry sees the silver pill-shaped camper sway back and forth.
“Mind the road, dear.” Millie says. She doesn’t look up from her Sudoku book.
“Yes, Millie.” Henry rolls his eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes, dear. It’s not becoming.” Millie says. Her pen pauses in its scratching.
“Yes, Millie.” Henry doesn’t bother asking how his wife knows. After forty years of marriage there are things husbands don’t ask their wives about any more. How the wife knows that the husband didn’t get the cheapest milk at the store. How the wife knows that the husband still sneaks a cigarette out behind the garage, even though their doctor told him to quit two years ago. How the wife knows that the husband sucks his considerable gut in when a pretty young girl passes them on the street.
How the wife knows that the husband rolled his eyes at her.
“Is it much longer, dear?” Millie asks.
“I don’t believe so, Millie. The guidebook said Lake Arapahoe was not too far off the highway.”
“If it’s much further, dear, I’m going to need you to stop so I can get out and stretch my legs a bit.”
Henry grunts in agreement. His thoughts turn to the onerous task of helping his wife in and out of the car on their many pit stops. Millie was always a big woman, a product of a tough farm upbringing that bred a tough strong female, but in the three years since Henry retired and they started traveling her toughness has been slowly devoured by soft fat.
“I still say we should have gotten one of those things for the car, dear, like the Mikklesons had. You know, one of those computers that sits on the dashboard and tells you where to go.” Millie says. She chews thoughtfully on the end of her pen. A number is placed precisely in a square. Millie hasn’t done a sudoku puzzle in pencil in three years.
“GPS, Millie. The computer. I don’t trust computers all that much, Millie, you know that. What if the GPS got a virus and sent us in the wrong direction?” Henry says. He squints. A sign is coming up on the left. It’s still some distance away and Henry’s vision is not the best. He didn’t tell his doctor or his wife but there’s a certain cloudiness in his left eye lately.
“Hmm. The Mikklesons’ computer was very nice. Talked to you and everything. Where did they say they were going after Rawlins?”
“Over to Salt Lake City, Millie. They were going to visit their grandchildren.” Henry slows the car. The weight of the camper pulls the back of the car down a little.
“That’s right, dear. They were nice people, even if they were Mormons. Mrs. Mikkleson tried to give me a little pamphlet and I gave her a tract.” Millie laughs. It’s a snorting, wheezing laugh. She coughs and clears her throat. She still hasn’t looked up from her Sudoku.
“I think we’re here, Millie. Just look at those mountains!” Henry points at the starkly beautiful range rising up from the horizon.
“I’ve seen mountains before, dear. To be honest, I’ve seen just about all of Wyoming I want to see. You did say we’d be heading east in another couple of days, didn’t you?” Millie says. Her pen digs into the coarse paper of the puzzle book.
“Well, Millie, I’d really like to see Devil’s Tower. From here it’s only a day’s drive away.”
“Hmm.” Millie puts her pen down and looks up for the first time in three hours. “Henry, dear, we’ve spent the last two weeks in this state. One week alone in Yellowstone. You know how the altitude affects me, dear. I think it’s time we went east. Don’t you?”
Henry nods and puts on his blinker. There hasn’t been another car or truck on this road for miles. Old habits die hard. “Yes, Millie. You’re right.” He sighs, very quietly.
“Don’t sigh, dear. It’s not becoming.”
“Yes, Millie.” Henry turns, easing the car and camper off the paved road and over a rusted cattle guard. “Here we are.”
Millie looks through the dusty windshield. “Are you sure, dear? This doesn’t look like a campground with all the amenities.”
Henry looks. He closes his left eye and peers with his right. There is a lake here, not overly big. There is a concrete boat ramp. There is a dirt parking lot. There is wire fencing on one side of the lot, and an old black cow watching them. There is a single wooden outhouse. There is a single white car parked near the outhouse. The car is coated in dust.
Henry fumbles the guidebook out and turns to the map. He brings it up close to his face. “This should be it, Millie. Unless I took a wrong turn. Or maybe I didn’t go far enough down the road.”
“That’s why we need one of those computers in our car, dear. Help me out. I need to use the facilities.”
Henry turns off the engine. He steps out into the dirt lot and stretches. His arthritic knee is starting to sing, and he thinks to himself that regardless of what lake this is it’s where they’ll be staying tonight. He crosses around to Millie’s side and opens the door for her.
Millie takes in a deep breath. She turns sideways in her seat and plants her feet in their orthopedic sandals on the ground. One hand on the back of her seat, one hand held out to Henry. Another deep breath. Henry holds her hand and pulls. Millie leverages herself out and upright. “Whew! I’m a little dizzy. Too long sitting down in that car, dear.” she says.
“We should have stopped an hour ago. What was that town? We could have stayed in a nice hotel.”
“It was Laramie, Millie. And why stay in a hotel when we have the camper?” Henry says.
“Hmm. Bring me the good toilet paper, dear. You know I don’t like the cheap stuff these campgrounds use.”
“Yes, Millie.” Henry grabs a roll of extra-soft from the trunk and hands it his wife. “Do you need help getting to the outhouse?”
Millie tucks the roll under one arm. “No, dear. You look around and see where we are.”
Henry watches his wife trudge slowly across the short distance to the outhouse. When she has stepped inside and the door has closed he turns away and looks out across the lake. He likes traveling. He didn’t think he would; it had been Millie’s idea to buy the camper and hit the road. Now the roles have reversed, and he has a growing certainty that very soon the camper will be sold and he and Millie will be staying in one place.
He walks toward the lake shore, favoring his bad knee. There is a small sign posted just where the water washes up to the land. He squints to read it; it looks hand-made, painted letters scrawling across a piece of plywood. “Lake I-ax-as-see. I think. Must be some Indian word.”
The sound of his voice is very loud. Henry closes his eyes and listens to the nothingness around him. There is the soft lap of water and the wind high overhead, but otherwise the land is silent. He opens his eyes and turns in a slow circle, taking in the wide-open prairie, the distant mountains, the rise and fall of the land. He likes this, he thinks. Early this morning he’d seen a herd of pronghorn antelope racing along the highway, keeping pace with his car. Millie had been snoring in her seat and so that moment had been his alone, the wild animals and the gentle touch of pink in the sky.
A slap of something hitting water comes from behind him. Henry swings around quickly. Ripples are spreading out from the center of the lake. Big ripples, as if someone had dropped a very large stone in the middle of the lake. Beneath the warm summer sun Henry shivers, suddenly.
It’s very, very quiet here, he realizes.
He doesn’t want to turn his back on the lake. It takes a mighty effort to do so. His shoulders creep up to his ears and his skin twitches as Henry limps back up the gentle slope to where his car and camper wait. Maybe they won’t stay here overnight, he thinks. Millie must still be in the outhouse; she is nowhere to be seen.
Henry pauses to catch his breath. He looks back at the lake. The water is a blue just a little darker than the sky. Out in the very middle the ripples are still emerging. In his half-clouded vision it looks like there is something dark there, in the lake. “Millie?” he shouts.
“Just a minute, dear!” his wife’s voice echoes back at him. Henry relaxes a bit, not knowing that he had been tense or why. Yes, I don’t think I want to stay here overnight, he says to himself. He decides to walk up to the outhouse, the better to help his wife back to the car, and not because it puts more distance between himself and the lake. The other car that is here in the lot catches his eye. He crosses over to it.
It’s a station wagon, white underneath its coat of dust. Henry runs a hand over the rear passenger window. There is a lot of dust on it. How long has this car been here? he wonders, and looks around as if expecting a family to emerge and tell him to get away from their car.
There is only the quiet prairie and the old cow.
Henry clears more dust and bends over to look in. The rear of the station wagon is half-full with camping gear. He sees tents and bags and a cook stove, stacked neatly in the space. In the long bench-style back seat there is the usual detritus of a family road trip. Among the fast-food bags and candy wrappers a lone stuffed teddy bear stares back at Henry.
He moves up to the front passenger seat, clears away more dust. A denim purse has lost its contents over the seat. On the driver’s side, someone has spilled a large amount of some dark liquid.
Behind him, his wife screams.
Henry doesn’t really hear Millie at first. He’s looking at the driver’s side seat, the pale cloth and the dark liquid and the severed hand, just lying there. It’s a trick, or a prank, Henry thinks. Like the ones you see those young idiots do on the internet. It’s not very funny. It’s not becoming.
Millie screams again.
The joke hand is really well-made. White nuggets of bone stick out of the torn and fleshy wrist end. A long string is wrapped around the palm. The thick end of the purple-y string runs up to one of the air vents on the dashboard. Ah, Henry thinks. That’s how they control it. Someone off-camera pulls the string and the hand jerks. What these children nowadays think of.
There is another loud splash from the lake. The ripples of sound reach Henry and now he hears his wife screaming. He leaves the car and hitch-limps-jogs toward the outhouse. “Millie!” he calls. She might have seen a bee, or a hornet. Her sister died from bee stings, those killer bees, and ever since Millie has had a deathly fear of them.
Henry reaches the outhouse, the sturdy public facility maintained through your tax dollars, just as Millie falls silent. He slows. Again the absolute stillness of the lake and the parking lot make themselves known. He reaches for the door. There is only one door, one toilet for men and women to use.
The door is flung outward. The violence of the motion sends him backwards a few steps.
Millie is in the doorway. Her careful crown of finger-waves is mussed, the little ocean on her head crashing in on itself. Her hands grip the sides of the doorway. The Pink Pearl-covered nails are chipped. Her sensible cotton underwear hang around one ankle. Her eyes are wide and shocked and crazed. For some reason she has smeared bright red lipstick around her mouth, red oozing lipstick that drips down her sensible cotton blouse and sensible linen skirt. There is something thick and wet and purple coiled around her waist.
Henry, in this moment of utter confusion, can think of only one thing to say. “That’s not your normal shade of lipstick, is it, Millie?”
“Henry!”, she screams. From the gloomy darkness behind her a long tentacle emerges. It wraps around her chest with a damp and squishy sound. The tapered end of the tentacle slurps around Millie’s head and tightens. For a moment they all stand there, Henry in the sunlight and Millie in the dark. The tentacle shivers. In a rush of foul-smelling air Millie is jerked backwards and down into the stained white toilet.
Henry tries to scream. Weak gaspy breaths are all he can manage as he staggers away from the outhouse. The door settles back into the frame with a small thump. Everything is quiet again, beneath the deep blue sky and the sun.
“Millie?” Henry whispers. He is torn between what he should do and what he wants to do. He should go and open the door and look for his wife. He wants to turn and run as fast as he can back to his car. He wants to get in the car and drive away and head east, never going further west again in his life than New Hampshire. There is also the very real question to consider of what just happened. Is he having a stroke? Is this part of that internet prank that involves the car? Is Millie just inside the outhouse, laughing at him?
“Millie?” Henry says. A little louder this time.
The outhouse door swings open so forcefully that it is torn off its hinges. The cheap plastic goes flying. A mass of tentacles, thick as tree trunks and the color of dark bruises, bursts forth. They wave and sway in the air. They reach for Henry.
Now he can scream, and does, and turns and runs. His bad knee screams with him. There is a cold touch across his back and he screams again and runs a little faster.
The dusty white car is nearer. Henry aims for it, not thinking but hoping that a door is unlocked. It is shelter, and closer than his own vehicle. From behind him there is a sound like water going down a drain. He slows just enough to look back.
The mass of tentacles are drawing back into the outhouse. Smears of slime are left on the small concrete pad in front of the building. The tentacles pull in, blending with the semi-dark interior.
Henry slams into the dusty white car. He clutches at the trunk with sweaty palms, keeping himself upright with the greatest of effort. Breathing is a torment but his lungs are aching, and he leans against the car and waits for his heart to slow. The monster has returned to its lair. Don’t question why, Henry, he thinks, just be glad it did. Get to your car, and then get to the authorities.
The trunk beneath his hands trembles.
Henry steps back. The whole dusty white car trembles, and shakes, and then jumps. All four wheels leave the earth. Dust billows when the car lands. The ground itself rolls under Henry’s feet, and then in a rain of dirt and stone a massive bruise-colored tentacle breaks through the earth.
The abandoned white car is sent rolling, banging and crashing across the lot. Henry is already running toward his own car and the silver pill-shaped trailer. His body has been asked to do more today than it has in a very long while and is refusing its owner’s commands now. Henry’s run becomes a jog and then a lurching shuffle. Still he heads toward his car. It is the only thing his mind can focus on.
All around Henry a forest is rising. Tentacles erupt from the dry ground. Dust and pebbles and droplets of cold water and slime spatter the parking lot. The tentacles are everywhere. They reach for the sky as if they would grab the sun.
Henry dodges them. His body moves automatically, a little muscle memory of his days as the best soccer player in his league returning. A thick tentacle reaches for him from the right. He swerves to the left, then leaps over a curled pair slithering over the ground. A sudden stop, a spin to the right and a feint, then the way ahead is clear. He can hear the crowded stadium cheering him on.
The tentacles follow his path. There are more of them now, or maybe it’s just that some of them have sunk into the ground to emerge at another point. It seems to Henry that the tentacles are growing angry. They wrap around the scrub brush and small trees dotted here and there and pluck them from the earth to crush them in their coils. Stones are lobbed at Henry, landing on either side of him. The placid old black cow is gathered up and slammed into the ground. It explodes in a wash of blood and organs.
His car is there. Right in front of him. Henry reaches in one pocket for the keys. The car beeps at him. He pulls the driver’s side door open.
Inside the car is a writhing mass of small tentacles. Plucking at the air and the seats and the faux-leather trim that Henry paid extra for, ripping and shredding and tearing. The tentacles have come up through the air vents and the floor itself. Henry finds enough air to scream. The mass stops their frantic destruction and turns toward him.
Somehow Henry finds the energy to slam the door and turn away. He is trapped. On all sides is the forest of tentacles-
Not behind me, thinks Henry, not in the lake.
He backs toward the lake. The tentacles wave and search and thump the ground but don’t follow him. The ground beneath his feet goes soft and marshy. When his legs are wet to the knee Henry stops. He raises his fists toward the monsters on the shore. “Ha! You bastards! You can’t get me here!” His voice cracks and he starts to laugh.
The tentacles withdraw, all at once, sucking back down into the earth. His car rocks on its tires as its unwelcome passengers depart. Henry watches until all the slimy bruise-colored things are gone, and then he laughs some more. I can stay right here in the water all day if I need to! Someone will come along this road at some point.
Water laps roughly against his legs.
Henry turns. Rising up from the middle of the lake is a mass. It is dark against the sky, dark as a bruise, and it goes up forever. Henry watches it climb. It is only when the tentacles peel out from the sides and reach for him that he screams.
Ranger Wilcox climbs out of his truck. “Damn kids.” he mutters as he walks across the empty parking lot to where the damaged restroom door is lying. The door is easy enough to drag back to his truck. He has some tools with him and can jury-rig it until a replacement can be ordered. This isn’t the first time he’s had to take care of some structure out here. There used to be a public water fountain, but vandals destroyed it. If only he could get admin to install a camera out here, as he’s requested time and again.
Ranger Wilcox pauses for a moment. The day is beautiful. Sunny, bright, just a little breeze…and so quiet here. He looks at the mirror-still lake. Maybe he’ll come back here in a couple of days, bring his boat, get out on the water, he thinks, and then turns back to his job.
Out in the middle of the lake, something slowly rolls over.