The Girl in the Lake

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Detective Waldorf smiled his best, most reassuring “dad” smile. He’d perfected it over the years, both on the job—talking to young, skittish street rats and coaxing confessions from juvenile delinquents—and at home, dealing with his own brood of uncooperative children. “Oh, I think you’d be surprised at what I’d believe.”

Ana Alvarez looked at him sideways, a shadow of surprise on her face. “Really?”

He nodded. “I’ve heard just about everything over the years. And I’ll tell you, more often than not, it’s the outlandish stories that have proven true.” He clasped his hands in front of him on the table and looked deep into her eyes, willing her to talk.

She averted the stare, glancing into her lap. “This story’s really out there, though. It’ll sound crazy—”

“Try me.”

She met his eyes. Hers were big, brown, just a little bit wild. “Am I under arrest?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then can I go home?” Her voice was wobbly, like she was holding back tears.

He felt a pang of sympathy for the girl—only fourteen and having gone through such an ordeal—but he didn’t let that dissuade him from the task at hand. “We have a lot of questions, Ana,” he explained, slowly and carefully, thinking over every word before saying it. “We need to get to the bottom of what happened. And you’re the only witness we’ve got. We just need to know what you’ve been doing the last month. Okay? We want answers, that’s all. And then you can go home to your family and your nice warm bed.” He paused. “You want another water? Juice? Anything you want, you just ask.”

“I want to go home.” She let out a breath, slouching in her chair. She was wearing the clothes they’d given her—a nondescript, oversized T-shirt and pair of mud-colored pants. They’d gotten her cleaned up. She looked different than the girl they’d found roaming through the woods—that feral-looking creature, with the messy hair and the empty eyes—but more starkly, she looked eons’ away from the girl who’d gone missing, the one whose picture was on the news. That version of Ana—the normal, domesticated one—was pretty, plump, and well-kempt. That one smiled and wore Forever21. Detective Waldorf felt another pang as he wondered if she’d ever get to be that girl again.

“You’ll go home soon,” he promised.

“But I have to tell you everything first.”

“Well, that’s the idea.” He hesitated. “Not all the details, even. Just a broad outline would help. Like I said, we have a lot of questions.”

“I have a question.”


She put her elbows on the table and leaned toward him. Her lips were chapped; her eyes looked watery. “Are they dead?”

“Your friends?”

She nodded.

Shit. He hated this part. It took every ounce of strength he had not to wince as he delivered the news: “They passed away, yes. That’s one of the reasons we want to know what happened out there. As you can probably imagine, their families are very bereft, and they have a lot of questions.”

She stared down at the table. It was shiny and chrome. She could almost see her reflection. “I didn’t know the boys very well,” she said after a moment. Her voice was soft. “But Lexa’s my best friend. Was. She was my best friend.” Tears dripped down her sunken, dark cheeks. “Can I have a tissue?”

The detective nodded, stood up and grabbed a nearby box of Kleenex. He slid them over to her and she grabbed a handful, wiping her eyes.

“I know this must be hard for you—” he started.

She cut in. “It’s excruciating.

“Yes, well, I can understand that. But it’s been a month since they died and we just want to know what happened. If you could just shed some light, for Lexa, I think it would bring the families a lot of comfort.”

She took a deep breath, setting her fistful of Kleenex down on the table. “I figured they were dead,” she said, “but I didn’t see it happen. Thank God.”

“What did you see?”

She looked down at her lap again, saying nothing for a moment. Then: “I know who did it. I think. I’m pretty sure.”

“Who was that?”

“You’ll think I’m crazy—”

“I won’t. Really, Ana.”

“It was the girl,” she said, putting such emphasis on “girl” that she sounded suddenly exasperated. “The girl in the lake.”

Lake Wychamt. A broad, glassy expanse of water. Picturesque and peaceful. Waldorf took his eldest boy fishing there a few times. There’d been stories—urban legends—but he only knew bits and pieces. He could hardly remember them now. But the girl—that sounded familiar. A girl in the water, crouching in wait. A silly campfire story. Nothing real.

But Ana looked certain. More than that, she looked afraid. She had the expression she had when they’d found her: crazed, delirious, and very frightened. Like a wild animal that had been cornered by a larger predator.

The girl in the lake.

“What girl?” Waldorf asked. “You saw someone?”

“I met her. She . . . she liked me or something.” There was disgust in her voice. “I don’t know why she let me live. I don’t know anything about her, really. I knew the story—everyone knew the story—but I didn’t believe it.” She paused. “Lexa believed it. She said she didn’t, but I could tell she was lying. I could always tell.” She chewed her bottom lip, lost in thought.

“But the girl,” Waldorf urged, trying to steer the conversation back on track. “You’re talking about the urban legend girl?”

“Yeah. Only it’s not an urban legend.”

“Refresh my memory here. What’s the story about this girl?”

Ana sat back in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest. She didn’t meet Waldorf’s eyes as she spoke. “They say that years ago, a girl drowned there. In the lake. She was about my age, maybe a little younger or older. Anyway, she drowned, but she’s been haunting it ever since. At least according to one version. There’s another that says she’s one of those . . .” She made a face, trying to come up with the word. “The Greek thing, like a scary mermaid?”

“I’m not familiar.”

“You know, the—the creature, it’s called a . . .” Her face lit up with recognition. “Siren. That’s it. Some say she’s one of those, and that she’s been in the lake as long as it’s existed. Sirens, they’re these sea creatures that lure you in with their voices and their beauty or something like that. Supposedly they can make people crash their ships just by being so alluring. Or something.

“Okay, so she’s either a ghost or a siren? Or a mermaid?”

“Just a ghost or a siren. Though I guess a siren is kind of a mermaid . . .”

“And you believed this?”

“I already said I didn’t.” Ana sat up straighter in her seat, flicking a stray lock of dark, wavy hair from her eyes. She looked irritated. “Of course I didn’t believe it, I know it sounds stupid. But I saw her.”

“When was this?”

“The day after we got there. Lexa and I.” She looked up at the ceiling a moment before continuing. “Lexa knew the boys really well. She had a crush on one of them—Benny. The other one, Tyler, she was trying to set me up with. He was okay. I didn’t like him like that, but I was mostly just there to hang out with Lexa anyway, so it was no big deal. Of course, she wanted to spend all her time with Benny. But nothing could really happen between them because Benny’s parents were all over us. We were staying at his house, right by the lake. They had a guest room for us—it was on a whole other floor, far from Benny and Tyler, so there’d be ‘no funny business,’ as Benny’s mom said many, many times. Anyway, it was nice, you know? They were rich, Benny’s family. Are rich. And the room we were staying in, Lexa and I, it was big and it had a giant flat screen. If it were up to me, we would’ve just stayed there the whole time. But Lexa . . .” A dark look crossed her face. “Lexa wanted to spend time with Benny. You know, spend time with him. I don’t know if they were actually going to have sex or just make out, but either way, she wasn’t satisfied just playing Xbox with him under his parents’ supervision. So that’s when she suggested it.”

“Suggested what?”

“That we go to the lake. At night. After his parents fell asleep.” She took a deep breath. “The second night we were there, we all sneaked out. It was right by the lake. A short walk and you’d be there. So we all went, but I hated it. Benny and Lexa just kind of—you know, they were kissing and everything, and that left Tyler and me just sitting there. And I could tell he wanted to . . . you know, do what they were doing, with me. But I didn’t want to, so I walked away from them. I walked around the lake to kill the time. I know I shouldn’t have—not on my own, not at night—but they were close enough that they’d hear me if . . . if something went wrong. I never strayed that far. And the house was close. I thought it’d be okay.”

“So what happened?”

There was a long pause. She drummed her fingers on the table, staring off into space. When she finally spoke, her voice was a low rumble, barely audible: “I saw her. The girl. And like I said, I never believed in her. Lexa told the story a thousand times, both versions, and I always just shrugged it off. But then . . .” She trailed off.

“And where was she? In the water? By the others?”

“The water, at first. I was a ways away from them by this point, and I was kind of throwing pebbles into the lake as I walked around it. And then I saw something. I wasn’t sure at first, because it was so dark, and the lake looks black during the night. I turned my head and did a double-take. At first I saw nothing, but then—there she was. In the water, swimming. I thought she was a fish or some kind of animal. She looked kind of like a dolphin, with the shape and everything, and like I said, it was hard to see. But I kept watching—just standing there, confused—and I kept seeing this movement, and eventually, I saw . . . hair. What looked like hair. It was pale, and long, a little curly. I thought maybe it was seaweed, but it was blond. Really pale blond. White-blond.”

“Okay, and then what?”

“She started moving over toward where the others were. By this point, I was almost clear across from where they were. I could’ve called out and they still would’ve heard me, though. It’s not that big of a lake. But I still wasn’t sure if I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I kept quiet and just watched. Anyway, she swam toward them and eventually I lost sight of her in the water. I could see Benny and Lexa were still kissing. Tyler was sitting a few feet away, staring into the water. I thought he’d see her or say something if she was really real and made it over there. So I kept walking, looking toward them every now and again to see if I could spot anything. And eventually, I saw her again. She was kind of halfway in the water and halfway on land—her upper body was on land, maybe ten or twelve feet from the others. They didn’t notice her, though. Tyler was staring into the water but not looking to his right, where she was. He was staring straight ahead. And Lexa and Benny, well, obviously they were distracted. But I could see her. I was so far that I could only vaguely see her, of course. But I saw scales—or what looked like scales—and blond hair. And at first I just stood there, completely shocked. And then I yelled out to them. I said, ‘You guys, what is that?’ or something similar. And as soon as I said it, she jumped back into the water. They never saw.

“After that, I ran over to them as fast as I could. They were confused and didn’t get what I was shouting about. So I ran over, and I started to tell them . . . but then I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t, not exactly, but I think I just figured that whatever it was had disappeared—and she had disappeared, I checked the water and didn’t see her—so I thought they’d think I was lying or crazy. Maybe Lexa would’ve believed me, but not the boys. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. So I just said I thought I saw a bear but it was a shadow, and they laughed and that was the end of it. It was getting pretty late so we decided to head back. We didn’t want Benny’s parents to realize we’d gone.”

“And that was the only time you saw this girl?”

She shook her head. “No. That was the first time. The next time was more . . .” She paused, searching for the right word. “. . . intense.

“Tell me about that.”

“Well, it was the following night. Same thing happened: Lexa woke me up and said, ‘C’mon, we’re going down to the lake.’ I thought about saying no. It’s not like they really needed me there. Tyler and I could’ve easily stayed and Lexa and Benny would’ve had just as good a time. And honestly, I was still a little freaked out about what I’d saw. I hadn’t told Lexa even after we’d gotten back, and I told myself it was just an optical illusion, but I knew better. Anyway, I didn’t want to go, but I felt like I had to since Lexa asked. So I went with them. Only this time, they decided not to go to the lake after all. Benny said we should take a detour through the woods and mess with some of the people who were camping. I didn’t want to, and I don’t think Lexa did either, but Tyler and Benny were really into the idea. I went along with it, and Lexa did too, but I felt uncomfortable right away. I stayed for maybe five minutes—just long enough to watch Benny and Tyler rifling through some of the campers’ belongings—and then I had enough. I told Lexa I was going back to the house. She asked me to stay but I said no. Only I didn’t know how to get back to the house. It was dark and I didn’t know the area very well, even during the day. I guess I must’ve walked in the wrong direction because I ended up at the lake rather than the house. And that’s when I saw her again.”

“The girl in the lake.”

Ana nodded. “I started walking alongside the water, and I saw ripples. I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. And I saw scales. Glimmering, shiny scales. And then the hair again—really long, pale blond hair, like a princess doll’s. It barely looked human, it was so lengthy, and kind of . . . mesmerizing, I guess? So were the scales. Mesmerizing, that is. But I was afraid too, so I walked a bit faster, hurrying to get to Benny’s house. And it was right as I reached the area where Lexa and Benny had been making out—the kind of shoreline—that she did what she did the night before, and crawled onto the land. Not all the way out, but her upper body was there, on the ground. I was just feet away. I didn’t see her approach, just turned my head and she was . . . there. And she was beautiful, in an eerie kind of way. Silvery, a little bit blue—frost blue. Her scales sparkled. Her eyes were a pale, piercing blue, with just the smallest black dots for pupils. And her hands, they were—they had scales, firstly, and her fingers were webbed. Webbed. She was terrifying and stunning, and it was like—it was like I couldn’t look away. Actually couldn’t.”

“Okay,” Waldorf said, trying to keep the disbelief out of his voice. She’s been lost in the woods for a month, he reminded himself. Cut her some slack. She may not be thinking clearly.

Ana banged her hands on the table, making it quiver. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

“I never said that.”

“But you’re thinking it.” She laughed bitterly. “I knew it. I said you wouldn’t.”

“I’m just trying to take it all in, all right? I’m listening. Please continue.”

“Why bother?” She slouched in her seat again, shaking her head. “It’s just wasted breath. You think I’m making it up.”

“I never said—”

“It doesn’t matter what you said! I can see it on your face.” She grabbed the box of Kleenex, still resting near her arm, and pulled out another handful. She held them up to her face, hiding her eyes. “I’d never make this up,” she said after a moment. Her voice was muffled against the tissues. “I don’t even believe in this sort of thing. But I know what I saw.”

“Okay,” he said again. “Then tell me the rest.”

She took the Kleenex away from her face and glared at him. He sat back, thinking for sure that was the end of it—but, to his surprise, she continued, right where she’d left off. “I couldn’t look away, so I just stood there. Frozen to the ground, staring. And she was staring at me, too. And then I said—and I know it’s dumb, but it was the only thing I could think to say—‘Who are you?’ And she . . .” Pause. Ana readjusted herself in her chair. “She smiled.

Making an effort to play along, Waldorf earnestly inquired, “So this thing, it was an intelligent, humanistic creature. That’s what you’re saying, right? Not an animal?”

“Definitely not an animal. She was like . . . a person with scales. And webbed fingers. Or I guess maybe one of those sirens. Not that I believe in those, but I don’t see a lot of other explanations.”

“Okay,” Waldorf said. He gave an affirmative nod. “That’s good to know. Go on.”

“So she smiled at me. And then she did this”—she made a “come here” gesture with her pointer finger—“and so I approached her. It’s like . . . it’s like I couldn’t refuse. I felt like I was in a daze, and like I would’ve done anything she asked at that point. So I approached her, and it’s weird—she didn’t say anything, but it was like she communicated with me. She willed these thoughts into me. Like . . . like telepathy or something.”

“What kind of thoughts?”

“I remember specifically. It was, You don’t belong here. You’re not like those other kids. Go into the woods, away from them, and stay gone. Free yourself. And I just felt this overwhelming sense of calm, total tranquility—like when you get back from a spa. And I kind of nodded. And then she put out one of her hands—they looked like human hands, but scaly and webbed—and she stroked the side of my face. They felt wet, kind of slimy and sticky. But I didn’t mind because in that moment, I just felt totally at ease, for some reason. But then I heard the others—”

“Benny and Lexa and Tyler?”

She nodded. “I heard them coming, over my shoulder. They were calling my name. I turned to look but the girl—the fish girl—she held my head and didn’t let me look. She stared deep into my eyes, then took her finger and pressed it over her lips, and went ‘shhhh.’ And she gestured for me to go back into the woods, in the opposite direction of where Tyler and Benny and Lexa were coming from. And like I said . . . it was like I was in a daze, or under some spell—like I couldn’t refuse. So I nodded my head, and she smiled, and she did that ‘shhhh’ thing again and sunk under the water. And I ran off in the direction she told me to. And that was the last I saw of her.”

“And the last you heard of Benny and Lexa and Tyler?”

Reluctantly, Ana nodded. She clasped her hands together on the table and stared down at them, a mournful look on her face. “Afterwards . . . I knew what happened. Sensed it, somehow, even though I never saw her hurt them. But I knew. It helped that I heard some sounds as I was walking away, into the woods.”

“What kind of sounds?”

“I heard them scream.” She looked up, meeting the detective’s eyes. “You have to understand, I wanted to help them. I did. But it was like . . . it was like I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. You know? Like I was in a trance . . .” She shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut. “And then I heard this sound—like a wailing sound, sad but beautiful. I think that was her.”


“No, the girl. The girl in the lake.”

“The girl in the lake,” he repeated. Sounds like a goddamn horror movie title. “How old was she, this girl?”

“I couldn’t tell. But she had no wrinkles that I saw, so young, I guess?”

“Right. Okay.” He ran a hand down his forehead, exhaling. “And then after this . . . you went off into the forest and stayed gone for a month, until we found you. Why?”

“I just couldn’t do anything else. I thought about it. I fantasized about going home, or finding Benny’s house and getting help—but it really felt like being under a spell. Like I was compelled to stay there, in the forest. I survived by stealing the supplies of campers late at night, while they were sleeping. Ironic, since that’s why I’d left the group in the first place, the night they—the night I met her. They were going through campers’ things. And then I ended up doing exactly that just to survive.” She chuckled but it was a dry, humorless sound. Waldorf thought back to the reports of campers having their belongings stolen, and he felt a chill. “It wasn’t until you guys found me that I felt like the spell was finally broken. That I could go home again.” She wrapped her arms around her torso, hugging herself. “Can I go home?” she asked.

Waldorf wasn’t sure how to respond.

“So you think she did it?” Officer Bryans—a young, fresh-faced rooky cop—asked.

Detective Waldorf looked out at Lake Wychamt as the sun set in the distance. The beauty of nature had been disrupted by an abundance of bright-yellow crime scene tape, evidence markers strewn every which way, police vehicles parked haphazardly nearby and his fellow detectives mulling around, each trying to piece together the world’s worst puzzle.

He turned to Officer Bryans and shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve worked a lot of cases in my day, but this is the strangest. Here’s what I do know: the girl’s story makes no sense.”

“It couldn’t have been her, though,” Bryans argued, scratching at his shiny, pimply chin. “I mean, c’mon. You saw how those kids were torn apart. There’s not a fourteen-year-old girl on earth who could do that.”

“I never said she did it. But I wouldn’t rule it out. Way I see it, she might’ve had some accomplices. Or,” Waldorf added, gazing off at the lake once again, “she may not have been involved herself, but could very well know who is responsible and be covering for that person. That person, those people—whatever.”

“Any other options?” Bryans asked, a hopeful squeak in his voice. “I just don’t want to believe a little girl would do that to her friends.”

“Kids aren’t as innocent as we like to think.” Waldorf grimaced as he remembered how some of his fellow students in elementary school used to torture the insects they found around the playground. He shook his head as if to rid himself of the memory. “Of course, it’s possible she had nothing to do with it. Maybe she hallucinated the whole thing. Maybe she broke her brain after a month in the woods, by herself, living off other campers’ supplies.”

“Strange that it took us a month to find her,” Bryans mused. “It’s a small wood and we canvassed the whole damn thing.”

“That’s why we think someone was hiding her. She just hasn’t said who.”

Bryans glanced at him sideways. “We think that? Oh. I hadn’t heard.”

“It’s the obvious conclusion. That’s the thing about this case, though: there’s so many questions. And, sad as it may be, I have a sneaking suspicion a lot of them will go unanswered.”

As the sun sunk below the mountain range in the distance, an evening sky came out, giving the pretty lake an eerie edge: it reminded Waldorf, appropriately, of a setting in a scary movie where a group of camping teens get murdered. He looked toward the crime scene tape and the markers, thinking back to the victims’ bodies. He’d been on the scene the day they’d found them, the morning after their deaths, and he’d looked at the photos a thousand times, so the image was fresh in his mind. He worried, privately, he’d never be able to get it out of his head. Their lifeless eyes; their shredded skin; the rivers of blood. He’d seen plenty of crime scenes in his day, but this was the first that had made him feel a true, profound devastation. These were kids, after all, and their deaths had been brutal. What was worse still was the knowledge that whoever did it was still out there, potentially plotting their next kill. If only Ana would talk. Real talk—none of that fairy tale bullshit.

“Overactive imagination,” Bryans said.

Waldorf snapped his head in Bryans’ direction. “Huh?”

“The girl. Maybe that’s all it is, an overactive imagination. Might not be anything more sinister than that. Right?”

“Could be,” Waldorf replied, with a noncommittal shrug. Around them, the other officers, detectives and lab geeks were packing up their equipment and readying to leave. It had seemingly plunged ten degrees in the space of ten minutes, and the air now had a sharp bite, nipping at Waldorf’s face. He thought of Ana, now nestled at home, and wondered how she’d made it out here—if she’d made it out here at all, and not, as their current theory claimed, at somebody’s house. There had been no charges against Ana, of course. They had speculation and that was it. But he took comfort in the knowledge that a team of psychiatrists were working with her. He clung to the hope that eventually, they’d coax something useful out of her—hell, even just a hint would do. As it stood, her story had never changed, not even once. She remained adamant. Indignant, even, that she was being questioned at all: “Drain the lake,” she’d said once, off-handedly. “You’ll find her if you drain the lake.” They hadn’t drained it, but they’d done everything else. Waldorf had even looked into the history, searching for stories about women and girls who had died there to see if there was any merit for the urban legend. But of course, he’d found nothing. When presented with this evidence, Ana still wouldn’t budge. “She must be a siren then, not a ghost,” was her only frustrating response.

“She’s a smart girl,” Waldorf said now—partially to Bryans, partially to himself. “I just don’t get how she can claim this nonsense. It seems—well, it seems like she actually believes it.”

“You said yourself that maybe she broke her brain,” Bryans pointed out.

“Yeah, I guess that could be it. Still.” He sighed. “It’s a puzzler like none I’ve ever dealt with in my whole goddamn career.”

Bryans glanced at his watch. “Shit, it’s late. We should get out of here. This place gives me the creeps at night.”

“It’s not so bad,” Waldorf said, refusing to admit to his own newfound unease with the area.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Bryans said, walking backwards to his patrol car. “I know you won’t give a damn what I have to say, but you really should get out of here soon. Go get a drink or something. Don’t let this case eat away at you.”

“I’ve been around long enough to know all that,” Waldorf grumbled.

Bryans put up his palms. “Okay, okay. Just a suggestion. I don’t want anybody shooting themselves, is all, and this seems like a case that could drive even the sanest guy crazy.” He chuckled to himself. “Anyway, I’ll be down at the bar later, if you want to swing by. Lots of guys on the force will be there.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Cool. Have a good evening, Detective.” He flashed a big, dorky smile, then climbed into his patrol car and drove away. Waldorf watched him go, then watched several others leave as well, until finally, he was the only one left.

It was peaceful at night, when everybody left. Still eerie, still unsettling, but there was a beauty in the quiet, and it felt dully relaxing. Waldorf walked around the perimeter of the lake, thinking of Ana’s story, the kids’ bodies flashing through his mind periodically. He thought of his own lake memories, the times he spent fishing here. He thought of the look Ana had on her face when they’d found her, as she was scrambling up a tree. She’d glanced over her shoulder at them, startled, her mouth just slightly agape. He’d never forget that look. He’d never forget the way she’d been pawing at that tree, desperate to climb it.

It was as he rounded the lake and began to walk back toward where he’d been standing with Bryans that he heard it. Soft, low—a humming. Unmistakable. He froze, his body going rigid. The area had been cleared, closed off to campers. No one could get to the lake except law enforcement, and they’d all gone home for the night. None of them would be humming anyway. The sound was pretty, a feminine voice, and just slight. At first he thought his mind was playing tricks on him, but as it continued, he was sure of what he was hearing. And soon, it grew louder, as if the hummer was getting increasingly bold. Then it became not a hum at all but a . . . a moan? A cry? Singing? It was a sound, almost a melody, drifting through the air. That same feminine voice. He thought back to what Ana had said, how she’d heard noises after she’d walked away from the lake that night the others died. I heard this sound—like a wailing sound, sad but beautiful. That’s what she’d said. It was as good a description of what he was hearing as any he could think of.

He didn’t try to rationalize the sound, or to figure out where it was coming from. Instead, he focused on hauling ass back to his car, parked on the opposite side of the lake. He fast-walked toward it, shuffling along as quick as he could without breaking out in a run. He knew he was being paranoid and silly—it was just a sound, for God’s sake—and he knew any detective worth their salt would try to figure out the source rather than high-tailing it to their car, but this felt different somehow. The noise—it made him feel sad in some way he couldn’t explain, reminiscent of the deep devastation he’d felt when looking at the bodies. It made him feel dread, too. He couldn’t explain it other than feeling he had to get out of there, and fast, or else—

Or else you won’t get out at all.

The thought popped into his head suddenly. Strange as it sounds, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the thought was not his. That it had been planted in his head, given to him by some outside force. And that, too, made him remember something Ana had said about the lake creature: She didn’t say anything, but it was like she communicated with me. She willed these thoughts into me. Like . . . like telepathy or something. Ana had reported that the thoughts brought with them a feeling of tranquility. But what Waldorf felt was not tranquility, it was fear. Hot, stabbing fear. And overwhelming sadness, and an aching dread. His singular focus was the car, and soon his fast walk became a jog. His heart was hammering. The sound—the wail or song or whatever the hell it was—seemed to grow louder.

He got to the car, and a sense of relief washed over him. I made it. He reached out, grabbing the handle of the door—

Come here.

The thought entered his mind like the previous one: given to him by an outsider rather than springing up organically, or so it seemed. It was followed by another: Turn around. He did not want to turn around. Every bone in his body was telling him, begging him, to open the door and get inside, to drive far, far away.

But the thoughts were stronger.

He found himself losing his grip on the handle and slowly turning around, back toward the lake.

And there it was.

There she was.

The girl, the creature—just as Ana had described her. The pale hair. The silvery-blue scales. She was partly in the water, partly out, her upper body perched on the land. She was smiling at him. Her teeth were sharp fangs, bright white. They looked like shark teeth. They were terrifying, but her lips—normal, human lips, it seemed—were stretched out into a smile that showed them off, a beauty queen smile. It was all wrong—a mockery of humankind, some mad-scientist approximation of what a person is but without the right parts.

Come here. The thought leapt inside his head and forced his feet forward. He wanted to turn around but he couldn’t. He was willed toward her and found himself dropping to his knees, causing the two of them to be level with each other, mere inches from touching. Up close, she was even more horrifying: she had rows of teeth, and her scales winked at him. Her hands were almost normal, sans the scales, but the fingers were too long and she had no fingernails. Worst of all perhaps were her eyes. Ana had described them correctly: they were piercing blue, like a husky’s, but with only the tiniest black orb at the center, puny irises that looked cartoonish. Completely inhuman. He tried to see the lower half of her body, but it was difficult through the darkness of the water. He thought, however, that he could make out a tail—no legs, just a tail.

Look here. His eyes snapped back to her face. That’s better. She reached out one awful hand and stroked the side of his face, like she’d done with Ana. The hand did indeed feel slimy as it touched his cheek.

I remember you.

“I’ll leave,” he whispered. “I’ll leave you alone. I will. If you’ll let me.”

I remember watching you. There was a boy back then.

“My son.” His breath was visible in the night air. The creature’s pinprick irises flicked toward the white puff, watching it curiously. “He’s older now.”

I let him go. I let you both go, and the girl.

“Thank you,” he told her.

They say terrible things about me. But I have mercy.

“You do.”

She smiled that awful, toothy smile again. Then she leaned forward, closing the gap between herself and Waldorf. He felt sure it was the end, that her teeth would bite into him and her gaping mouth would be the last thing he’d see—but instead, she pressed her lips against his. Hers were wet, cold; they felt like algae. The kiss lasted only a second, but the sensation seared into his brain.

I have mercy.

He nodded his head. It was all he could do. The kiss, it seemed, had sealed his mouth shut; he couldn’t find the strength to say anything else.

Leave this place. Leave this place and don’t ever come back.

He nodded again. Slowly, he felt whatever hold she’d had on him subsiding. His body felt tingly, the way his foot did when it fell asleep. He rose off his knees and opened and closed his mouth just to see that he still could, but said nothing. He could feel her watching him.

He looked down, meeting her gaze. She was still smiling. Then she brought her finger to her lips and pressed it against her mouth, hissing out a long, stretched-out noise: “Shhhhh.”