I stepped carefully over the train tracks, trying not to stumble in the dark. There’s no light out here in the boonies. Luckily the moon was fat and shining high. James had probably known that before he planned this. He thinks of everything. I followed the dark outline of his shoulders as he led the way to the woods.
My foot slipped as gravel skidded under my shoe. I tried to be cool and subtle about my balance recovery, but he noticed and laughed at me.
“What’s with the Sunday shoes, Preacher Boy?” he asked. “Those aren’t any good for a nighttime expedition.”
“They’re all I’ve got,” I said, “and I’m not a preacher, my Dad’s the preacher.”
“Preacher’s Boy, then,” he amended. He was teasing, but I wasn’t offended. He wasn’t being mean like other people can be. James isn’t like anyone else. As if reading my thoughts, he said, “If you didn’t dress like that, maybe people wouldn’t be so horrible to you. Just saying.”
“Maybe,” I said. I didn’t want to admit my mom still picked out my clothes. Besides, it’s more than just my clothes. Since the beginning of Sophomore year I’ve been wondering if burning in hell for all eternity for killing myself wouldn’t be preferable to staying alive. Until James showed up, I reminded myself, and I smiled a little in the darkness.
“Why are you smiling?” he asked. James’ voice always sounds lilting, amused, like everything is light and a little bit funny.
“I’m having fun,” I answered.
He laughed, loudly, startling me. “Well, David, I’m sure glad you think following me into the woods to look for imaginary crap is fun.”
“You said you saw it,” I said.
“I did,” he said. “I swear.”
“I believe you,” I said.
“I knew you would.” He turned at the treeline to look at me, his face serious. “I knew that about you.”
I have to look up at him, even though we’re the same age. He’s tall and I’m not. “How?” I asked.
His eyes are light blue and strange, fixed on me like they could see into my thoughts. Thoughts I didn’t want anyone to see. “Must be tough, being the preacher’s boy,” he said.
I felt the whip-marks burned into my back. Every stripe served to remind me I was weak, wrong and not what my father wanted me to be. “It’s not so bad,” I said.
“Liar,” he said. His face eased into his more customary smile. In the two months he’s been here that smile’s been the undoing of half of the cheerleading squad, according to my sister Lizzie. She says she hates him, can’t stand him, doesn’t understand the appeal, but I see her watching him just like everyone else does. You can’t help but watch. He has a dark grace to his movements, perfect confidence in his gestures. The way his hands move.
I felt a tightness in my chest, wanting something I can never form into thought or word. “Where did you see it?” I asked.
He laughed again. “There’s a lake back in there, not too far away,” he said. “I saw it swimming around in there. Wandering around the edge.” He smiled and waved his hands in the air, stretching them toward the sky. “Basking in the moonlight.”
“You said it was a monster,” I said. “You’re making it sound kind of nice.”
“Some monsters are nice,” James said. He began to walk slowly backward into the woods, beckoning to me. “Are you sure you want to see it?”
I hunched against the early spring chill and followed. I would follow James into a live volcano. I think he knows it, too. He’s the only person who’s ever bothered to get to know me, understand me, at all.
“Were you scared?” I asked. “When you saw it?”
“No,” he answered. “Why?”
“Well,” I said, “you know LeeAnn Rogers is missing.”
“Sweet LeeAnn,” he said dreamily.
LeeAnn was awfully nice. She’d bucked the school trend of shunning me way back in eighth grade and had eaten lunch with me on an especially bad day. She’d been missing for two weeks, no trace. I was bothered by the idea she might be lost somewhere, hurt maybe. “She disappears,” I said, “and you see a monster in the woods right after. Coincidence or what?”
“I didn’t say it was a monster,” said James. “You said the word monster. It was just sort of a…a thing.”
“But still,” I protested, “shouldn’t we have a gun or weapons or something?”
“Do you own a gun?” he asked.
“Me neither,” he said as if that were that. “Don’t worry about it, David. I’ll keep you safe.”
The woods were dark as velvet, stars twinkling overhead. James was sure-footed, silent, and I was blundering along like a fool. I tried to be cool and not trip, fall flat on my face, poke my eye out on a stick.
“Are we almost there?” I asked.
“Why, you gotta be somewhere?”
“I’ve got to be home soon,” I said. “They don’t know I’m out.” I pictured my mother, fretting and helpless. My Dad with a shadow in his eye and a belt in his hands.
“It’s right here,” he said reassuringly. “Over this hill.” He pointed up a steeply cluttered, bracken heavy incline. I’d never be able to scale it without injury. Pulling himself up without any apparent effort, he turned and offered his hand. “C’mon, I’ll help you,” he said.
After a moment I took his hand. Time danced around a bit as he patiently assisted me to the top of the rise. When I felt the ground go down on the other side, I looked up.
The moonlight skittered across the surface of the water, lending a borrowed glow to the surroundings. It was beautiful. “I’ve lived in Willoughby my whole life,” I said, “and I had no idea there was a lake back here.”
“You need to get out more,” said James. His hand slid away from mine and I felt where it had been.
“That’s true,” I said. “But still. I mean, no one’s even mentioned a lake to me.”
“Why would they?” he asked.
“My grandmother used to warn me about these woods,” I said. “People go missing in here all the time. You’d think a large body of water would have come up in the conversation at least once.”
“Maybe the monster ate them,” he said.
“You said it wasn’t a monster.”
“Let’s go and see,” he said with a smile and loped down to the water.
I ran after him and caught the back of his jacket as he reached the water, lapping up onto the sandy edge. “Aren’t you afraid?” I asked.
He bent down and brushed his fingers across the misty surface of the water. “No,” he said. “I’m never afraid. Why, are you?”
“Me?” I said, and I had to smile. “I’m afraid of everything.”
“Everything,” I said emphatically.
He didn’t laugh. He looked serious again, gazing out over the lake. “What are you afraid of the most?” he asked.
I thought of laughing girls and banging locker doors, my neat little bedroom and the vein pulsing in my father’s forehead.
“Myself, I guess,” I said.
He straightened up slowly and came over to stand in front of me. “That’s a good answer,” he said. “You’re smart.”
“Not so much,” I said.
He placed his hands gently on my face, those marvelous hands I could never stop watching. My face heated instantly, confusion squirming in my chest.
“Smart,” he said. “Unusually kind. Decent.”
All I could do was settle my shoulders in the slightest shrug, afraid to move. My heartbeat filled my ears.
“I could keep you safe forever, just as you are,” he whispered. “No more fear. No more pain.” His skin was cold, clammy, I noticed. So cold. His face was very close to mine, eyes bright as the moon hanging over us. “You’re sweet, David,” he said. “So sweet. Like candy.”
Water ran down his face, his clothes soaked and hair dripping darkly into his eyes. “Water once covered all of this land, did you know?” he said. “The waters were dark and sweet and deep and they covered everything. They will one day again, one day soon. I’ve been waiting for a long time and must wait longer still. Will you wait with me, David?”
“I don’t understand,” I managed to say.
His face changed and so did the shape of his hands. He grew longer and darker, eyes bright and glowing, grin sharper, so very sharp, but still James underneath it all.
“I’ll eat every bite of you,” he said. “Everything but the heart. Your heart I’ll keep with me until the water comes and I’ll be free again, and you will be free with me. Will you wait with me?”
I looked into his milky eyes. I thought of my life, the people in it. The crushing weight of it all. I said, “Yes, I’ll wait with you.”
His cold arms snaked around me lovingly. “I knew you would,” he said. “I knew that about you.”
His embrace tightened as I felt the freezing water close over my head. I was beginning to lose consciousness when he took the first bite. I didn’t feel anything.
My heart waits in the pale, dappled depths. Sweet LeeAnn beats nearby. James comes often, to stroke us and whisper loving things and sometimes he brings a new friend. He tells us the tale of the day when the water will cover this land again. Then we will be free.
We will all be free.