Grunig Lake, nestled deep in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, was a quiet town. Nothing ever really happened there, until the day it was wiped off the face of the Earth.
* * *
Monday, July 16, 2012
Kevin Sheenan woke up early that morning. Earlier than usual for him, which was very early. The Sun had not even risen yet. In his basement, the walls and floors bare dirt, he laid down at his bench. The bar above weighed 350lbs. He did 3 sets of 5 reps, only struggling on the very last rep. He dropped the bar down with a clang and sat up. He checked his heart rate, 75 beats per minute. He smiled and stood up, walked over to the treadmill. He wanted to keep his heart rate up.
He ran for 10 miles, followed by 100 sit-ups and push-ups. When he came back up the stairs into the kitchen of his bungalow the sun was just beginning to peak out over the mountain tops. He watched the sunrise through his kitchen window as he made his morning protein shake.
* * *
Roxanne Elliot woke up at 5 a.m. that July morning, normal for her. She dragged out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen. Her Mr. Coffee was set on a timer and her coffee was almost completely done brewing by the time she shuffled, yawning, into her kitchen.
She savored the hot drink, feeling the rush of the caffeine. She finished her cup and left the mug in the sink. She showered and stopped to admire her fire-engine red hair in the mirror on her way to her bedroom. She dressed quickly, a pair of black slacks and a red blouse, and headed out the door. She made it all the way to her car door before she realized she’d forgotten her bag and went back inside for it.
* * *
Kevin Sheenan did not now or ever own a car. He didn’t even have a driver’s license. To him there was not much point in one. There was 1 main thoroughfare in town, and only one traffic light. Everything was with 7 miles of his home, easy walking distance, though the Winter weather did add a bit of extra work to any trek farther than 2 miles.
The morning sun was warm, and he soaked it in. Today was going to be a good day, he could tell. At the end of his drive-way he stooped to pick one of the wildflowers that grew around the base of his mailbox post. A lovely and lacey white number that smelled wild and sweet. He breathed in its fragrant aroma and smiled. Today was going to be a very good day indeed.
* * *
The drive to work for Roxanne was not long, only about 6 minutes, but she could not bring herself to walk. She was going to be on her feet all day anyway, and even if she was feeling motivated in the morning, she knew by 4 in the afternoon she’d be in no shape for the mostly-uphill walk home. Her 2004 Mazda pulled into the gravel road, marked at the end by the sign that read “Grunig Lake High School” at 6:15 a.m.
She parked her car in the farthest of the 20 or so spaces drawn out haphazardly in the gravel, her little effort to get more exorcise, and headed into the school. Grunig Lake High School was a high school in name only, the building housed grades 5-12, with a total student population of 350. Roxanne taught freshman English in the mornings, 8th grade geography in the afternoons and oversaw the math club after school. She was by far the most popular teacher, based both on her youth and her awkward good looks. Most of the students at Grunig Lake High School would follow her to the ends of the Earth if she asked.
Monday, July 16, 2012
During the summer, the modest library at Grunig Lake High school was typically empty. But today was not a typical day. Roxanne Elliot was in her glory, overseeing the addition, and classification of 1100 new books. To make room for the new volumes, the older, dusty books were being packed away into cardboard boxes and taped shut. The new books were a donation from one of the wealthy families that owns a home on the lake. It had come as some surprise, but with little fanfare. The school board, all four members, would have preferred an improved athletic field.
But Roxanne was aglow as she watched her student volunteers unload box after box of new books. Most looked like they’d never been read at all. And she was lucky, she knew, to have such dedicated students. These 6 students represented the 2013 graduating class, four boys and two girls. Roxanne had known them all since they were small children. One of the joys of living in such a small town was there were no strangers, aside from the tourists.
* * *
Kevin Sheenan stood outside the Grunig Lake High School, his boot boring a hole in the gravel driveway. He was more nervous than he’d been in a long time. Sweat formed on his forehead, beneath his thick, dark hair. The knuckles on his left hand had gone white, from gripping the flowers in his hand too tight. When was the last time I felt this nervous? He couldn’t think of a time, in recent memory anyway. In his 30 years on Earth, he’d had many close calls, but none got his heart racing like this.
To put it off further, he wandered back around the building, checking for a 3rd time that Roxanne’s car was parked in the parking lot. It was one of only four cars. He took a deep breath, checked his breath, and pushed open the door into the back hallway.
* * *
12 year old Debi Ayers splashed in the water of Grunig Lake. It was still early in the morning, but the day was already too hot. Her mother sat on the beach in a lounge chair, a big blue parsol blocking the sun from her eyes. She was deeply engrossed in the newest Stephen King thriller, and only occasionally glanced up to check on her daughter. There were signs posted all over the beach that swimming was forbidden when the lifeguards were not on duty, but Debi had not wanted to wait until they showed up for work. She wanted to swim now! Her mother had not seen any problem with it, Debi was a very strong swimmer.
Gabriella Ayers got through a particularly frightening scene and put her book down to check on her daughter. She was splashing happily enough in the cool lake water, not far from the floating deck that served as a barrier to the deeper waters. She looked farther out, but did not see much. There was a canoe making a slow track across the lake perpendicular to the beach about a quarter mile out, and a little further than that a show-boater on a Skidoo, but no other activity. She picked her book back up and read on, her full attention engrossed in the prose before her.
* * *
The lights were not on in the main hall, to conserve energy, but Kevin’s eyes were strong and he had no problem seeing his way down the hall to the library. Inside there was a bustle of activity. Off to his right there was a jumbled pile of empty boxes of different sizes. To his left was the circulation desk and all around it, behind it and on top of it was a colorful pile of books. He glanced around at the six teenagers moving quickly up and down aisles, heading in with a stack of books and coming out with a different stack.
Kevin realized these were all the new books that pretentious bastard had donated to the library. Kevin knew it was just jealousy talking, he had never met Justus Meaney, but he thought the thought all the same. He did not see Roxanne and so he stepped past the threshold, flowers in hand and approached the closest kid. She was 17, fresh-faced and clearly exuberant about their project. Her mousey hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she was sweating pretty good; the air conditioning was nonexistent in the library during the summer. Still, Kevin thought she was very pretty and would grow up to be quite beautiful.
“Excuse me,” he said to her, catching a book that fell from her stack, “I’m looking for Ms. Elliot.”
“Oh, hi, Mr. Sheenan,” Kevin was well known and well liked around town, especially by the kids, “I didn’t see you come in. Yeah, Ms. Elliot ran down to the ladies room. Wanna help with some stacks?”
He couldn’t see why not, and he grabbed a stack after carefully placing his flowers down near an empty box. “Where are these going?” He held up the book at the top of the stack with his free hand, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. The girl, Kevin knew her name from the diner but couldn’t place it, called back, “813, fiction. Second row on the left, all the way back.”
* * *
Cassie Penzack was the first lifeguard to arrive that morning. She was an hour late for work and hung-over. When she got to the beach it was, thankfully, empty aside from one woman reading a book in a lounge chair under a big blue parasol. There were no swimmers in the water, just an overturned canoe and jerk on a Skidoo.
She stood at the trunk of her car and stripped off her sweatpants and hoodie, revealing her not-as-streamlined-as-it-used-to-be body in its bright red one-piece. She stretched her legs, unwedged the bathing suit from the crack of her ass and grabbed her rescue can. She walked down the beach slowly, her eyes only half open.
She came up beside the woman with the book, it was easily 1000 pages, and said good morning.
“Oh, there are lifeguards here,” the woman said with no sarcasm, “I know I’m not supposed to let my daughter swim, but she just couldn’t wait.” Cassie looked out at the water again, thinking maybe she’d just missed a kid in the water, but no one was there. Still just the floating deck, the Skidoo jerk, and the upturned canoe.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said slowly, her headache starting to ramp up again, “What daughter?” The woman turned toward the water, her head darting from side to side, and dropped her book.
“Debi! Debi,” the screaming was intolerable to Cassie, so she walked away. Not toward the water, but back toward her car. “Debi! Debi! Debi! Debi!”
Monday, July 16, 2012
Gabriella Ayers continued to scream her daughter’s name, though she could barely speak. Her voice was raw from screaming for the past thirty minutes. A crowd had gathered, both locals and vacationers. Cassie Penzack and muscular older man who had been staying in the hotel down the road were in the water, taking turns diving down under.
Everyone had long ago lost hope of finding the little girl alive. Two more swimmers had gone out to retrieve the upturned canoe, and what they found was disheartening. The bottom of it was pushed in, as if pounded by a giant hammer; one of the seats inside was shattered. They pulled it ashore and a second, smaller crowd gathered around the canoe.
* * *
Warren County Sherriff Gabby Moores watched the scene with a sense of unease. Something was happening here that was bigger than any of this. He had an idea of what, but that just raised more questions. Luckily, he also knew who would have answers to those questions. The lifeguard seemed to have a handle on this situation, even though she was clearly sick. Besides, there was nothing more for him to do here, he knew as well as anyone else that girl was dead.
He walked down the beach, his boots and the sand not making it an easy job, and approached the mother from behind. She may have been pretty, once, but not now. Her face was a deep red, almost purple. Veins stood out on her forehead, cheeks, and neck; and her eyes were so bloodshot as to appear completely red. “Ma’am,” he said as he placed a freckled hand on her shoulder. She turned to him, trembling, and opened her mouth to speak, but barely managed a croak. She looked him up and down, this tall, thin, red-headed man in uniform and collapsed on the sand. The stress had finally taken her down. The crowd moved in, one person cradling her head, another covering her with a blanket, despite the near 70° heat.
Sherriff Moores moved away from the fainted mother and motioned toward the water, for the lifeguard and her new friend to come in out of the lake. Up close, Cassie looked almost as bad as the mother, and Moores swore he could smell vodka on her breath. “Listen up, Cassie,” he looked her right in her bloodshot eyes, “Are you ok? Can I leave you in charge for 20 minutes?” She shook her head, he thought she might throw up.
The older man, the one who had been searching alongside Cassie raised his hand. “I can handle this crowd, Sherriff.”
“And you are?”
“Staff Sargent Oliver Parish, United States Marine Corps. Retired.” He straightened up as he introduced himself, his pride in his title obvious. “I was MP for good stretch, Sherriff. I’ve done crowd control, and besides, this doesn’t look like a very troublesome crowd.”
Sherriff Moore looked up and down the beach, most of the crowd had moved further down, to the damaged canoe. Only a handful remained behind with the panic stricken mother. “No, I don’t suppose they will be a problem. OK, Sgt. Parish, you’re in charge here until I get back.”
He put an arm around Cassie’s shoulders, led her away with him, back up toward the road. “Cassie,” he turned her around so she was facing him, “You go home and sleep this off. I want you to come down to my office later this afternoon and be prepared to give me a statement. Understand?” She nodded and he took her car keys from their place on the passenger seat. “You can walk, Cassie.”
* * *
Cassie considered pulling on her sweats before walking home, but decided not to, it was too damn hot out. She walked up the main road’s thin sidewalk, heading in the opposite direction from the sheriff. Her bare feet burned on the hot pavement, but she barely noticed for the pain in her temples. She promised herself, like she did every year since she turned 16, that she was done drinking with the out-of-town boys.
Her home was down Birch road, two miles from the beach. Between it and home were woods that were thick enough to be dark even at midday. She skirted the edge, leaving the sidewalk, feeling bile rise up in her throat. It was coming and the feeling, combined with her incredible headache, caused her to lose her balance. She fell in a patch of moss and emptied the contents of her stomach on the ground in front of her.
Several cars drove by without slowing, they couldn’t see her in her mossy pit. She finished vomiting, spitting the remaining fluid out violently and going into a coughing fit. She brought herself to a near standing position, trying to calm the swimming feeling in her head. She held her breath, first voluntarily, then as a reaction to a noise in the woods.
A soft growl. The snap of a stick.
It wasn’t a bear, it sounded too small to be a bear. Maybe a wolf? No, the sound of the growl was too high pitched. She turned her head, slowly, the world spinning even more. She was surprised she was able to focus her eyes. What she saw confused her. It was about 3 feet tall at the shoulders, covered from head to toe in grey/brown feathers. It was no bird, though it moved in distinct, bird-like movements. It had no beak, but a leathery snout that she could see was lined with sharp, curved teeth. Instead of wings, it had three-fingered arms. It stared at Cassie with yellow eyes.
It stepped forward on powerful hind legs and Cassie saw with horror that it had on each foot one single, long, sickle-like claw. It was the last thing she’d ever see.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Roxanne Elliot was fuming. She stood in the doorway of the library and watched as Kevin Sheenan disappeared down an aisle carrying a stack of books. Two paces ahead of him, Georgina Heath, laughed as she led him toward the back of the library. Roxanne burst into the library, past the two students who were gathering new piles.
She found Kevin in the back, putting new books on the shelf, and placing the old books on the floor next to his feet. Georgina was on the other side of the shelf, placing her own books on the shelf. “Georgina,” Roxanne said, without even acknowledging Kevin’s presence, “Can you go back to the circulation desk for a few minutes.”
Georgina left without a word, but spared a moment to look back at Kevin and smile. “She’s a nice kid,” Kevin said. As an opener, it was weak. Roxanne didn’t say anything, she just stood with her arms crossed across her chest, and stared at him. She was going to wait to see what he had to say, and then she was going to tear his head off.
* * *
Georgina Heath left Ms. Elliot and Mr. Sheenan to their lovers’ quarrel. She had no interest in it unless it meant that Mr. Sheenan would finally be available, but she doubted that was the case. All the best men were taken, she had found; especially in a tiny little town like Grunig Lake. She passed Topher Carmen on her way out of the library, a decent boy, but a little slow, and borrowed a cigarette.
He decided to join her outside and followed her like a puppy dog down the hallway. It was behavior she was used to from the boys of Grunig Lake, she had long legs and firm breasts and that was all boys her age were interested in anyway. She used this to her advantage as often as she could, but she was not truly interested in any of the boys in town. The men however, were a completely different story.
Men possessed, she had decided, the maturity to handle a true beauty like herself. They didn’t follow her around with their tongues hanging out like poor, simple Topher. They challenged her, in most cases they refused her advances, Mr. Sheenan especially.
She didn’t go straight out from the library to the front entrance, instead she cut down the Junior High hallway toward the back entrance, facing the parking lot. Topher Carmen followed her the whole time, just a few feet behind her. She could feel his eyes on her bare legs, her flowery skirt reaching just mid-thigh. Neither of them said a word.
They reached the back door and she turned to face Topher. She held out her hand expectantly, and it took Topher a full 30 seconds to figure out that she wanted his lighter. He fished around in his pockets and pulled out a silver Zippo, with a stylized black “D” on it. The “D” stood for Donald, his father. He placed the lighter in her hand, but didn’t pull his own hand away immediately. Her hand was soft and warm, inviting. She did not share the feeling, pulling her hand away and turning back toward the doors. “I need a minute to myself, Topher. Not that I don’t appreciate the light,” she walked out the door, not bothering to hold it open for him, should he decide to follow her anyway.
* * *
“I just came by to tell you that I really listened to what you had to say the other night.” Kevin’s words were sincere, he reached out to touch Roxanne’s hand as he said them.
“That’s wonderful for you, you listened for once,” her words were full of venom. She was hurt, badly. She loved Kevin, had seriously considered it when he had asked her to marry him, but she just couldn’t see a life with him. A life with him and his obsessions, she reminded herself. “Kevin,” she continued, “I will always come second to this ridiculous quest of yours.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” he reached for her hand again, and again was disappointed. “I listened to what you said, and you were right. As long as I was focused on my father, we could never make it work. So I burned my notebooks.”
“What do you mean you burned them? You spent 15 years working on those!” She herself couldn’t believe that she was defending those damn notebooks and their damn conspiracy theories. But she knew what they meant to Kevin, and she couldn’t believe that he would just burn them. It would be like burning a part of himself, which was exactly why they couldn’t be together.
“I had a bonfire in my backyard, last night.” His eyes searched for hers, tears forming and running down her cheeks. Still, they shone a bright blue. He smiled at her, but she did not smile back. “I’m done with them forever. If the official story is my father was killed by a drunk driver, then that’s what happened. I won’t risk losing you, not for anything.”
She wiped a tear from her eye, then half-smiled. “I love you, Kevin Sheenan. I love you and because of that I am willing to give you one more chance. But that’s it, you hurt me again and I won’t come back to you.”
Kevin didn’t say a word. He rushed forward and wrapped both of his well-muscled arms around her waist and lifted her bodily into the air. He pressed his lips against her and they embraced for what felt like forever. But nothing good lasts forever.
* * *
Topher Carman burst through the library doors so hard the glass in one cracked. His classmates were sitting behind the circulation desk, pretending they couldn’t hear Ms. Elliot and Mr. Sheenan arguing at the back of the library. They turned to look at him, their faces turning an ashy white at the site.
Topher’s normally unruly hair was pasted to his scalp, his face hidden behind a deep-red mask. His shirt was stuck to his shoulders and chest, saturated with the same blood that covered his head and arms. He locked eyes with one of his classmates, Genette Eason, then screamed as he fell to his knees. Mr. Sheenan came running from the back of the library, Ms. Elliot not far behind.
At the sight of Topher on his knees screaming, covered from head to chest in blood, Ms. Elliot dropped to her own knees and turned away. Mr. Sheenan kept running forward, sliding to a kneeling position beside Topher. He put his hands on his shoulders and shook him hard, trying to snap him back to reality. “Topher, right? That’s your name?”
Topher stopped screaming and turned to look Mr. Sheenan in the eyes. The other student volunteers had started to gather in a semi-circle around the pair, and Mr. Sheenan tried to shoo them away. “Topher,” he yelled into the boy’s face, “I need you to calm down. I need you to tell me what happened.”
Mr. Sheenan turned to the other students gathered around, “Is there anyone not here?” But even as he asked it, he knew who was not here. It was the fresh-faced girl he had spoken to when he first came into the library. What was her name?
“Georgina!” Topher screamed the answer into Mr. Sheenan’s face. “Georgina! Dead! Georgina! Monster!” Mr. Sheenan gave him another hard shake, to quiet him down, but it was too late. The other kids had heard what he said.
“Did he say ‘monster’,” a young boy, with sandy blonde hair and a freckled complexion asked.
“Yeah,” Ms. Elliot said from her spot on the floor near the study cubicles, “He said ‘monster.’”