Anne spit out the fishy tasting water and kept swimming.
She’d done this swim before, many times before, from one side of the lake to the other, but not at night, not with all her clothes on, and not with so much screaming.
In the daylight, even the gray sunshine of a cloudy day found a way to sparkle on the ripples of the murky water. Those free afternoons were spent racing across the lake, the narrowest part just a quick sprint to Anne, stripped down to her bikini and flowing through the water like she had scales for skin. It was a finite thing in the daytime.
Now, in the moonless black of midnight, the lake was endless, bottomless.
Anne pulled herself through the water, her clothes dragging her down, the water’s cold creeping through the layers, creeping under her skin, numbing her nerves, numbing her mind. Or maybe that was the fear making it hard to think, filling her mouth with metallic cotton, prickling her scalp with little bits of ice. It was no comfort that she wasn’t the only one in the water. No safety in numbers here. They had numbers, too. And those numbers were coming.
The lights of the cottages on the opposite shore guided Anne and the others swimming with her. It was the most help they were going to get, lights behind locked doors. There was no help for anyone caught on the wrong side of the lake after dark, no boats waiting to shuttle them to safety. Their only chance now was to swim for their lives, kiss dry land on the other side, and pledge their loyalty to home. No one knew why that ritual worked. Some people thought it was because even though they were just mindless things now, things driven by only one need, the love of country had been so ingrained in them from birth that even death and reawakening couldn’t shake it loose. A few thought that’s why they rose up at night. They were still protecting their land from those that would take it.
But not all of the things that rose at night were so old. Some of them were recent. Much, much more recent. They were always finding ways to add to their numbers.
Despite logic and reason, legend and rumor said it would work and Anne sure hoped it did.
She cursed herself for stupidly watching the sun sink lower in the sky, for stupidly thinking that she had more time than she did, for stupidly thinking that time didn’t apply to her. Now, time was really running out. When cursing herself became boring, Anne moved on to blaming everyone and everything for her mistake, but none of it wasn’t helping her swim any faster. The lights didn’t seem to be getting any closer. The group of about fifteen or so had scattered, spread out from the tight cluster they’d started in. Anne couldn’t tell who was ahead or behind, left or right anymore. Only the sound of desperate swimming assured her that she wasn’t alone.
A groan on the wind preceded the splashing that signaled their entry into the water.
A surge of fear made Anne’s breath hiccup and her stroke stutter. She splashed and floundered to keep from going under. Water stung her eyes. Her forward momentum faltered, which did little to ease her rising panic. She wasn’t the only one struggling; water was slapped all around her. A couple of people cried out, short strangled gasps. A few outright screamed.
They didn’t swim. They walked along the muddy bottom, no air required. Those things were long past needing air, or food, or water; the only sustenance they required seemed to be anyone currently living. No, they didn’t swim, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t. They’d kick up from the muck and grab a leg or an arm, and drag their victim down. If the poor sucker was lucky, he’d drown.
The moans died away and the splashing became less frantic and more purposeful as people recovered from the shock of impending doom and started to swim away from it.
Anne found her rhythm again, sliding through the water as quickly as she could without burning up her energy. She needed to keep herself under control if she was going to live to make another mistake.
She let the light guide her. The chill of the water continued to numb her. The strokes of her strong swim cutting through the water lulled her into a kind of focused trance. The splashes of the others sounded very far away, like erratic waves on a beach. The voice of the first person to reach shore hardly touched her ears. Concentration consumed her.
The shrillest scream shattered Anne’s calm, dunking her head under water, leaving her thrashing and gasping. It wasn’t like the fearful cries that Anne shared when they heard them first enter the water. It was a scream of absolute terror, joined by a yelping chorus of fear from the other swimmers. It deafened Anne, but at the same time, she could hear the words in it, words that pierced her brain.
“HELP ME! OH GOD! HELP ME! IT’S GOT ME! IT’S GOT ME! HELP-”
The plea died with a gurgle and the chorus got louder. Just as Anne realized that her own voice was echoing among the rest, her body thrust into action, arms flailing, feet kicking, pushing her away from the last tormented cry and towards the light on the shore. If this had been daylight, if she could have seen the poor woman being dragged down to her death, Anne might have tried to save her, might have felt shame for leaving her.
But not tonight.
Fatigue burned her body and fear burned her mind. Anne swam for her life.
More swimmers hit the shore; Anne heard them call the magical ollie ollie oxen free. Some swimmers were still in the water behind her; another agonizing scream shocked her to her core and made her choke on a mouthful of water. That’d be two bodies they’d find floating face down in the morning, if they found them at all. Anne had no idea how her brain had room to keep track of the count. She thought her mind was too full of fear and panic and survival for anything else.
Anne lost all form in her frenzy, arms slapping the water like an amateur afraid to get her face wet. She knew it wasn’t doing anything more than expending her energy without gaining much distance, but she couldn’t get her body under control. The light disappeared as splashing water filled her eyes and washed it from view. Anne kept swimming, hoping she was going in the right direction.
Another horrified scream rose from the water and Anne answered it with one of her own. She cleared her vision with the back of a wet hand and continued to flail towards shore. She was close. She should have been able to touch the bottom, but she couldn’t risk it; no telling what was down there. She swam as hard as she could, arms and legs and lungs and mind on fire.
The water around her churned.
Her death was coming for her.
A surge of adrenaline shot from her head to her toes and her stroke found a faster speed, but no grace. Something brushed her leg. It felt like a piece of seaweed with fingers dragging along the exposed skin of her calf. Anne kicked harder, kicking away from it, kicking it away.
It was going to get her.
The feeling of mud and sand sliding through her fingers felt like silk. Relief filled her lungs and mind. She pulled herself to shore like an alligator, clawing through water and sand.
The slimy, cold hand of a death long past and long waiting closed around her ankle and pulled her back into the water.
Anne cried out, pulling against it, kicking against it. So close. She was so close. It wasn’t fair. She was so close!
Something reached for her other leg and she kicked it away, screaming. It jerked her hard and her head went under. Anne came up coughing, somehow finding the air to scream again. No one came running, no one came to help. Anne screamed again in desperate frustration, knowing it wouldn’t do her any good.
Sand and mud slid through her fingers as Anne tried to stop herself from being dragged back into the deeper waters of the lake. She didn’t want to die like the others, drowned or worse, not so close to shore.
Anne jerked under again. She came up spluttering and realized in a horror that stopped her heart that she could no longer feel the bottom. The shore wasn’t so close now.
Hands clawing the water, both legs kicking, ignoring the tightening grip on her ankle, Anne swam for shore, keeping her eyes on the light of the closest house. She wanted to reach down and free herself, but that’s what it wanted, too. It would grab her hand and turn her around and then Anne would be face to face with it. Anne was strong, but not strong enough to recover from a shock like that. It’d kill her for sure if she looked at it. No, she wasn’t strong enough for that.
But she was strong enough to make it to shore.
It held on, pulled, and resisted. The fetid stink of it made her gag, the rot getting into her mouth with the water and choking her. Anne kicked, pulled, and fought. It was a tug of war with her leg as the rope. Progress came in inches and grunts. Her hands touched silt again and she buried them in it as she dragged herself forward, her death dragging right along behind her.
Anne pulled herself out of the water, dry sand sticking to her wet skin. It came with her, hanging on until the last.
Resisting the temptation to turn around and see what held onto her, Anne kissed the beach, grains of sand sticking to her lips, getting into her mouth and up her nose, and with the last of her strength said the words that released the rotting hand’s grip from her leg with an appreciative caress and sent it slipping back into the water empty.
“Erin go bragh.”