LAGOON

Lagoon was originally published by Ballantine Books in 1990, under one of my pseudonyms, Alison Drake.  Amazon. $3.99

1
The Blue Inn

A disturbing scent rode the evening breeze and lingered in the air like spice or perfume or some last remnant of summer. And yet it was none of these things. Katie Suffield couldn’t figure out exactly what it was or where it was coming from. But it made her uneasy in the same way that the smell of smoke k a dark and crowded theater would.

‘What’s wrong?” asked Hank, glancing up from his menu. “I thought I smelled something weird.”

“Only thing I smell is food. So what’s it going to be, kiddo? Are we health freaks tonight or cholesterol mongers?”

“Mongers.” She laughed.

Her stepfather’s question and her response were always the same when they were eating out together at the Blue Inn. It was integral to their being alone, as much a part of the ritual as sitting at this particular table at the back comer of the deck, where it jutted out over the lagoon, a tongue of pine and redwood suspended magically above the water on pilings Katie couldn’t see.

If Hank’s girlfriend, Jo, had been along, they would have beer sitting close to the sliding glass doors at the front. Jo was afraid of being over the water because she couldn’t swim—and suppose the deck crumbled while they were on it? Suppose the railing gave way and she fell in?

The breeze skipped through the potted plants that separated the tables. Katie caught the strange scent again, then it flitted away, a quick, elusive butterfly escaping the rapidly cooling air. She rubbed her hands over her arms, wishing she’d brought a sweater. But as Hank was forever telling her, the major drawback of being sixteen was that you never planned ahead. The way he usually said this implied that his own memories of being sixteen were as clear as yesterday, which she doubted.

His memories, she was sure, went back only as far as the sixties. In some ways, he still lived in that time: his dark hair was long and pulled back into a ponytail; jeans and a work shirt were his favorite clothes; he preferred grass to booze; and he wasn’t fond of the so-called “establishment,” even though he was part of it.

If biology had never become his passion, they would probably be trying to live off the land in a shack in the sticks somewhere. Hank would be growing his own hybrid strain of pot, something that got you zonked in under five seconds, and he’d be teaching new tricks to the animals he adopted, and she would . . . Well, she didn’t know what she would be doing. She supposed that was another drawback of being sixteen. She didn’t have the faintest idea what she wanted to do with her life.

Whenever she tried to imagine herself at twenty-one or at thirty, nothing came to mind. Oh, she saw herself as taller than her present five-foot-five, ten pounds thinner than her chunky one-twenty, with eyes that were a deeper blue. Sometimes her long blond hair was short and fluffy, other times it was a mass of electric curls or maybe even a different color. But that had nothing to do with a profession. According to Hank, her future was limitless; she could be anything. But what?

“Want my jacket, Kate?” he asked.

“Yeah, thanks. It’s kind of chilly for August, don’t you think?”

Hank nodded and gazed out at the lagoon, as if the chili had originated in the center of it. “Weather everywhere seems to be going through changes.” He passed her the jacket and she shrugged it on,

“Hey, look at that.” He stood and leaned on the railing, pointing directly below. Katie got up to take a look. A long, thin snake twisted across the surface of the water, its glossy back gleaming in the last of the light.

“Gross,” she muttered. “What kind of snake is it?”

“I don’t know. It looks more like an eel, but there aren’t any in the lagoon.”

As they bent closer for a better look, the snake suddenly coiled and sprang at them. It lifted four or five inches out of the water, needle-thin, eyes glistening like wet rubies. They both leaped back from the railing. “Jesus,” Hank whispered.

He glanced at the water again but didn’t touch the railing.

Katie, her heart still careening in her chest, tugged on Hank’s shirt.

“C’mon, don’t get so close.”

“No way in hell it could jump this high, Katie. Don’t worry.” They watched it twist through the wheat-colored weeds toward shore. When it vanished, Hank sat down, checked the time, and jotted something in the notepad he removed from his pocket. “I don’t want you swimming in here for a while.”

She hated the way her laughter sounded, nervous and afraid, the laugh of a kid. “Like you need to tell me.” She took one last look at the water, the shoreline, the dwindling light tipping the weeds. “What’re you writing?”

“Date, time, what we saw.”

“Why?”

His dark eyes crinkled with amusement—and a secret pleasure that she’d asked. He gave her his full attention, something that hadn’t happened much since Jo had moved in with them six months ago. “It might be important. What good is a biologist if he doesn’t remember the things he observes?”

“But what’s the snake going to tell you?”

Hank’s brows farrowed as he laced his long fingers together: his studious look. “Patterns. Everything is part of a pattern. What happened with the snake might be part of an emerging pattern, something new.”

“Like cold weather in August.”

“Yeah, exactly.” He snapped the notepad shut. “When we get home, remind me to show you something Ike and Tina have learned that could be part of a pattern. Maybe the same pattern, I don’t know yet.”

Ike and Tina were the canaries Hank had rescued from the Hartwell lab, where he worked as a research biologist. “The only trick I’ve ever seen them do is take a dump in Jo’s coffee cup.”

Hank chuckled. “Better than that. You’ll see.”

She was about to ask him to give her a hint, but the breeze shifted just then and she found the scent again. Stronger, darker, menacing. It nudged at her. It tickled. She looked around, trying to follow it, and saw Ben, the inn owner, on the other side of the sliding glass door, which was open a foot or so.

Katie lifted her hand to wave him over and suddenly realized the dark odor came from him. As he opened the door all the way, the smell rushed toward her, a black wave that stank of closed cellars, cemeteries, of death. Then it crashed over her, stealing her breath, paralyzing her, filling her head with pictures, and she understood what it meant. She wrenched free of it and leaped up, shouting, “No, Ben, no!”

Heads snapped their way.

She heard Hank mutter. “C’mon, Katie, what the hell’s wrong with you?” But her eyes were on Ben, who hesitated, his mouth moving soundlessly, his eyes blinking fast, as though he were trying to clear his vision. For just a second, their gazes locked, and he frowned, as if he were trying to remember who she was. Then his lips drew away from his teeth in a grin that glowed like an early moon, a white, hideous grin, barely human, a grin she would remember the rest of her life. He whipped something out of his jacket, spun away from them, to the left, and sprayed bullets across the deck, cutting a path of blood and death through the crowd.

The chatter of the machine gun echoed out across the water, startling birds from trees, nearly drowning out the screams that tore the air as people ran, stumbled, twitched, fell. Time screeched into slow motion; visions of carnage filled Katie’s head, thick as a poisonous gas. Blood splattered everywhere. She couldn’t move, couldn’t pull air into her lungs, couldn’t take her eyes off Ben, Ben and the gun, Ben as he continued to turn, a deadly soldier on a lazy Susan.

Seconds before they would have been in the direct line of fire, Hank yanked her back, lifted her like she weighed nothing at all, and hurled her and himself over the railing into the lagoon where the snake had been swimming minutes ago.

She screamed. She dropped like a stone through the dark waters, weighted by her clothes, her shoes. She swallowed a ton of water—it had to be a ton; she felt it filling her lungs, inflating them, and knew she was going to die.

Her sneakers sank into the muck on the bottom, weeds tangled around her ankles, the screams on deck echoed with utter clarity. Katie swam frantically toward the surface, her lungs threatening to burst. When her head popped free, she coughed and sputtered and gulped at the air. Gunfire, more gunfire, echoed across the lagoon, covering it like an invisible mist.

She dived, tore off her sneakers, and swam madly toward the area under the deck, where she would be safer. Hank found her, clutched her hand, pulled her into the air again and back under the deck as far as they could go. They pressed against weeds, rocks, moss. Katie clung to him, her eyes squeezed shut against the screams and another burst of gunfire that swallowed every other sound.

Things moved and splashed in the water around them. Something slithered past her leg. People struck the deck overhead. She opened her eyes and, through the spaces between the deck’s planks, saw the dark shapes of fallen bodies. Blood oozed between slats several feet in front of her. Waves of dark smells rippled through the air. She buried her face against Hank’s chest, seeking the comforting scent of his shirt, a scent she could follow, a scent that would sweep her away from the blackness.

Chilled and terrified, she trembled against him, certain that in the next second or the next Ben would spray bullets through the floor of the deck, the snake would find them, they would die as they were meant to die before they’d leaped.

But there were no snakes and no more shots. The screaming stopped.

The only sound was the steady ping ping ping of blood as it dripped between the planks and struck the water.

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