Robert R. McCammon's "The Deep End"

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The Deep End

by Robert R. McCammon

Originally published in
Night Visions IV

Winner of the 1988 Bram Stoker award for Best Short Story
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Summer was dying. The late afternoon sky wept rain from low, hovering clouds, and Glenn Calder sat in his Chevy station wagon, staring at the swimming pool where his son had drowned two weeks ago.

Neil was just sixteen years old, Glenn thought. His lips were tight and gray, and the last of his summer tan had faded from his gaunt, hollowed face. Just sixteen. His hands tightened around the steering-wheel, the knuckles bleaching white. It's not fair. My son is dead—and you're still alive. Oh, I know you're there. I've figured it all out. You think you're so damned smart. You think you've got everybody fooled. But not me. Oh no—not me.

He reached over the seat beside him and picked up his pack of Winstons, chose a cigarette and clamped the filter between his lips. Then he punched the cigarette lighter in and waited for it to heat up.

His eyes, pale blue behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, remained fixed on the Olympic-sized public swimming pool beyond the high chainlink fence. A sign on the admissions gate said in big, cheerful red letters: CLOSED FOR THE SEASON! SEE YOU NEXT SUMMER! Beyond the fence were bleachers and sundecks where people had lolled in the hot, sultry summer of north Alabama, and there was a bandstand where an occasional rock band had played at a pool party on a Saturday night. Steam rose from the glistening concrete around the pool and, in the silence between the patter of raindrops, with his windows rolled down and the moody smell of August's last hours inside the car, he thought he could hear ghostly music from that bandstand, there under the red canopy where he himself had danced as a kid in the late fifties

He imagined he could hear the shouts, squeals and rowdy laughter of the generations of kids that had come to this pool, here in wooded Parnell Park, since it had been dug out and filled with water back in the mid-forties. He cocked his head to one side, listening, and he felt sure that one of these ghostly voices belonged to Neil, and Neil was speaking like a ripple of water down a drain, calling "Dad? Dad? It killed me, Dad! I didn't drown! I was always a good swimmer, Dad! You know that, don't you...?"

"Yes," Glenn answered softly, and tears filled his eyes. "I know that."

The lighter popped out. Glenn got his cigarette going and returned the lighter to the dashboard. He stared at the swimming pool as a tear crept down his cheek. Neil's voice ebbed and faded, joining the voices of the other ghosts that were forever young in Parnell Park.

If he had a dollar for every time he'd walked through that admissions gate he'd be a mighty rich man today. At least he'd have a lot more money, he mused, than running the Pet Center at Brookhill Mall paid him. But he'd always liked animals, so that was okay, though when he'd been young enough to dream he'd had plans of working for a zoo in a big city like Birmingham, travelling the world and collecting exotic animals. His father had died when he was a sophomore at the University of Alabama, and Glenn had returned to Barrimore Crossing and gone to work because his mother had been hanging on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He'd always planned on going back to college but the spool of time just kept unwinding: he'd met Linda, and they'd fallen in love. And then they'd gotten married and Neil was born four years later, and....

Well, that was just the story of life, wasn't it?

There were little flecks of rain on his glasses, caused when the drops ricocheted off the edge of the rolled-down window. Glenn took them off to wipe the lenses with a handkerchief. Without the glasses, everything was kind of fuzzy, but he could still see all right.

His hands were trembling. He was afraid, but not terrified. Funny. He'd thought for sure he'd be scared shitless. Of course, it wasn't time yet. Oh, no. Not yet. He put his glasses back on, drew deeply at his cigarette and let the smoke leak from his mouth. Then he touched the heavy-duty chain cutter that lay on the seat beside him.

Today—the last day of summer—he had brought his own admission ticket to the pool.

Underneath his trousers he was wearing his bathing suit—the red one, the one that Linda said he'd better not wear around the bull up in Howard Mackey's pasture. Glenn smiled grimly. If he hadn't had Linda these past two weeks it might've made him slip right off the deep end. She said they were strong, that they would go on and learn to live with Neil's death, and Glenn had agreed—but that was before he'd started thinking. That was before he'd started reading and studying about the Parnell Park swimming pool.

That was before he knew.

After Neil had drowned, the town council had closed the pool and park. Neil had been its third victim of the summer; back in June a girl named Wanda Shackleford had died in the pool, and on the fourth of July it had been Tom Dunnigan. Neil had known Wanda Shackleford. And Glenn remembered that they'd talked about the incident at home one night.

"Seventeen years old!" Glenn had said, reading from a copy of the Barrimore Crossing Courier. "What a waste!" He was sitting in his Barcalounger in the den, and Linda was on the sofa doing her needlepoint picture for Sue Ann Moore's birthday. Neil was on the floor in a comfortable sprawl, putting together a plastic model of a space ship he'd bought at Brookhill Mall that afternoon. "Says here that she and a boy named Paul Buckley decided to climb the fence and go swimming around midnight." He glanced over at Linda. "Is that Alex Buckley's boy? The football player?"

"I think so. Do you know, Neil?"

"Yeah. Paul Buckley's a center for Grissom High." Neil glued a triangular weapons turret together and put it aside to dry, then turned to face his father. Like Glenn, the boy was thin and lanky and wore glasses. "Wanda Shackleford was his girlfriend. She would've been a senior next year. What else does it say?"

"It's got a few quotes from Paul Buckley and the policeman who pulled the girl's body out. Paul says they'd had a sixpack and then decided to go swimming. He says he never even knew she was gone until he started calling her and she didn't answer. He thought she was playing a trick on him." He offered his son the paper.

"I can't imagine wanting to swim in dark water," Linda said. Her pleasant oval face was framed with pale blond hair, and her eyes were hazel, the same color as Neil's. She concentrated on making a tricky stitch and then looked up. "That's the first one."

"The first one? What do you mean?"

Linda shrugged uneasily. "I don't know. Just . . . well they say things happen in threes." She returned to her work. "I think the City should fill in that swimming pool."

"Fill in the pool?" There was alarm in Neil's voice. "Why?"

"Because last June the Happer boy drowned in it, remember? It happened the first weekend school was out. Thank God we weren't there to see it. And two summers before that, the McCarrin girl drowned in four feet of water. The lifeguard didn't even see her go down before somebody stepped on her." She shivered and looked at Glenn. "Remember?"

Glenn drew on his cigarette, staring through the rain-streaked windshield at the pool. "Yes," he said softly. "I remember." But at the time, he'd told Linda that people—especially kids—drowned in pools, ponds and lakes every summer. People even drown in their own bathtubs! he'd said. The city shouldn't close Parnell Park pool and deprive the people of Barrimore Crossing, Leeds, Cooks Springs and the other surrounding communities. Without Parnell Park, folks would have to drive either to Birmingham or go swimming in the muddy waters of nearby Logan Martin lake on a hot summer afternoon!

Still, he'd remembered that a man from Leeds had drowned in the deep end the summer before Gil McCarrin's daughter died. And hadn't two or three other people drowned there as well?

"You think you're so damned smart," Glenn whispered. "But I know. You killed my son, and by God you're going to pay."

A sullen breeze played over the pool, and Glenn imagined he could hear the water giggle. Off in the distance he was sure he heard Neil's voice, floating to him through time and space: "It killed me, Dad! I didn't drown . . . I didn't drown . . . I didn't. . . I—"

Glenn clamped a hand to his forehead and squeezed. Sometimes that made the ghostly voice go away, and this time it worked. He was getting a whopper of a headache, and he opened the glove compartment and took a half-full bottle of Excedrin from it. He popped it open, put a tablet on his tongue and let it melt.

Today was the last day of August, and tomorrow morning the city workmen would come and open the big circular metal-grated drain down in the twelve-foot depths of the deep end. An electric pump would flood the water through pipes that had been laid down in 1945, when the pool was first dug out. The water would continue for more than two miles, until it emptied into a cove on Logan Martin lake. Glenn knew the route that water would take very well, because he'd studied the yellowed engineering diagrams in Barrimore Crossing's City Hall. And then, the last week of May, when the heat had come creeping back and summer was about to blaze like a nova, the pipes would start pumping Logan Martin lake water back through another system of filtration tanks and sanitation filters and when it spilled into the Parnell Park swimming pool it would be fresh, clean and sparkling.

But it would not be lifeless.

Glenn chewed a second Excedrin, crushed his cigarette out in the ashtray. This was the day. Tomorrow would be too late. Because tomorrow, the thing that lurked in the public swimming pool would slither away down the drain and get back to the lake where it would wait in the mud for another summer season and the beckoning rhythm of the pump.

Glenn's palms were wet. He wiped them on his trousers. Tom Dunnigan had drowned in the deep end on the fourth of July, during the big annual celebration and barbecue. Glenn and Linda had been eating sauce-sloppy barbecues when they'd heard the commotion at the pool, and Linda had screamed, "Oh my God! Neil!"

But it was not Neil who lay on his stomach as the lifeguard tried to force breath back into the body. Neil had been doing cannonballs off the high dive when Tom's wife had shouted for help. The pool had been crowded with people, but no one had seen Tom Dunnigan slip under; he had not cried out, had not even left a ripple in the water. Glenn got close enough through the onlookers to see Tom's body as the lifeguard worked on him. Tom's eyes were open, and water was running between the pale blue lips. But Glenn had found himself staring at a small, circular purple bruise at the back of Tom's neck, almost at the base of the brain; the bruise was pinpricked with scarlet, as if tiny veins in the skin had been ruptured. He'd wondered what could have caused a bruise like that, but it was so small it certainly wasn't important. Then the ambulance attendants wheeled Tom away, covered with a sheet, and the pool closed down for a week.

It was later—much later—that Glenn realized the bruise could've been a bitemark.

He'd been feeding a chameleon in the pet store when the lizard, which had turned the exact shade of green as the grass at the bottom of his tank, had decided to give him a bite on his finger. A chameleon has no teeth, but the pressure of the lizard's mouth had left a tiny circular mark that faded almost at once. Still the little mark bothered Glenn until he'd realized what it reminded him of.

He'd never really paid much attention to the chameleon before that, but suddenly he was intrigued by how it changed colors so quickly, from grass-green to the tan shade of the sand heaped up in the tank's corner. Glenn put a large gray rock in there as well, and soon the chameleon would climb up on it and bloom gray; in that state, he would be invisible but for the tiny, unblinking black circles of his eyes.

"I know what you are," Glenn whispered. "Oh, yeah. I sure do."

The light was fading. Glenn looked in the rear seat to check his gear: a snorkel, underwater mask, and fins. On the floorboard was an underwater light—a large flashlight sealed in a clear plastic enclosure with an upraised red off-on switch. Glenn had driven to the K-Mart in Birmingham to buy the equipment in the sporting goods department. No one knew him there. And wrapped up in a yellow towel in the back seat was his major purchase. He reached over for it, carefully picked it up, and put it across his lap. Then he began to unfold the towel, and there it was—clean, bright, and deadly.

"Looks wicked, doesn't it?" the K-Mart clerk had asked.

Glenn had agreed that it did. But then, it suited his needs.

"You couldn't get me underwater," the clerk had said. "Nossir! I like my feet on solid ground! What do you catch with that thing?"

"Big game," Glenn had told him. "So big you wouldn't believe it."

He ran his hands over the cool metal of the speargun in his lap. He'd read all the warnings and instructions, and the weapon's barbed spear was ready to fire. All he had to do was move a little lever with his thumb to unhook the safety, and then squeezing the trigger was the same as any other gun. He'd practiced on a pillow in the basement, late at night when Linda was asleep. She'd really think he was crazy if she found what was left of that tattered old thing.

But she thought he was out of his mind anyway, so what did it matter? Ever since he'd told her what he knew was true, she'd looked at him differently. It was in her eyes. She thought he'd slipped right off the deep end.

"We'll see about that." There was cold sweat on his face now, because the time was near. He started to get out of the station wagon, then froze. His heart was pounding.

A police car had turned into the parking lot, and was heading toward him.

Oh, Jesus! he thought. No! He visualized Linda on the phone to the police: "Officer, my husband's gone crazy! I don't know what he'll do next. He's stopped going to work, he has nightmares all the time and can't sleep, and he thinks there's a monster in the Parnell Park swimming pool! He thinks a monster killed our son, and he won't see a doctor or talk to anybody else about—"

The police car was getting closer. Glenn hastily wrapped the towel around the speargun, put it down between the seat and the door. He laid the chain cutter on the floorboard and then the police car was pulling up right beside him and all he could do was sit rigidly and smile.

"Having trouble, sir?" the policeman on the passenger side asked through his rolled-down window.

"No. No trouble. Just sitting here." Glenn heard his voice tremble. His smile felt so tight his face was about to rip.

The policeman suddenly started to get out of the car, and Glenn knew he would see the gear on the back seat. "I'm fine!" Glenn protested. "Really!" But the police car's door was opening and the man was about to walk over and see—

"Hey, is that you, Mr. Calder?" the policeman sitting behind the wheel asked. The other one hesitated.

"Yes. I'm Glenn Calder."

"I'm Mike Ward. I bought a cocker spaniel puppy from you at the first of the summer. Gave it to my little girl for her birthday. Remember?"

"Uh . . . yes! Sure." Glenn recalled him now. "Yes! How's the puppy?"

"Fine. We named him Bozo because of those big floppy feet. I'll tell you, I never knew a puppy so small could eat so much!"

Glenn strained to laugh. He feared his eyes must be bulging with inner pressure.

Mike Ward was silent for a few seconds, and then he said something to the other man that Glenn couldn't make out. The second policeman got back into the car and closed the door, and Glenn released the breath he'd been holding.

"Everything okay, Mr. Calder?" Mike asked; "I mean . . . I know about your son, and—"

"I'm fine!" Glenn said. "Just sitting here. Just thinking." His head was about to pound open.

"We were here the day it happened," Mike told him. "I'm really sorry."

"Thank you." The whole, hideous scene unfolded again in Glenn's mind: he remembered looking up from his Sports Illustrated magazine and seeing Neil going down the aluminum ladder on the left side of the pool, down at the deep end. "I hope he's careful," Linda had fretted and then she'd called to him. "Be careful!" Neil had waved and gone on down the ladder into the sparkling blue water.

There had been a lot of people there that afternoon. It had been one of the hottest days of the summer.

And then Glenn remembered that Linda suddenly set aside her needlepoint, her face shaded by the brim of her straw hat, and said the words he could never forget: "Glenn? I don't see Neil anymore."

Something about the world had changed in that moment. Time had been distorted and the world had cracked open, and Glenn had seen the horror that lies so close to the surface.

They brought Neil's body up and tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he was dead. Glenn could tell that right off. He was dead. And when they turned his body over to try to pound the life back into him, Glenn had seen the small purple bruise at the back of his son's neck, almost at the base of the brain.

Oh God, Glen had thought. Something stole the life right out of him.

And from that moment on, maybe he had gone crazy. Because he'd looked across the surface of the pool, and he had realized something very odd.

There was no aluminum ladder on the left side of the pool down at the deep end. On the pool's right side there was a ladder—but not on the left.

"He was a good boy," Glenn told the two policemen. There was still a fixed smile on his face, and he could not make it let go. "His mother and I loved him very, very much."

"Yes sir. Well . . . I guess we'll go on, then. You sure you're all right? You . . . uh . . . haven't been drinking, have you?"

"Nope. Clean as a whistle. Don't you worry about me, I'll go home soon. Wouldn't want to get Linda upset, would I?"

"No sir. Take care, now." Then the police car backed up, turned around in the parking lot and drove away along the wooded road.

Glenn had a splitting headache. He chewed a third Excedrin, took a deep breath, and reached down for the chain cutter. Then he got out of the car, walked to the admissions gate and cleaved the chain that locked it. The chain rattled to the concrete, and the gate swung open.

And now there was nothing between him and the monster in the swimming pool.

He returned to the car and threw the clippers inside, shucked off his shoes, socks and trousers. He let them fall in a heap beside the station-wagon, but he kept his blue-striped shirt on. It had been a present from Neil. Then he carried his mask, fins and snorkel into the pool area, walked the length of the pool and laid the gear on a bleacher. Rain pocked the dark surface, and on the pool's bottom were the black lines of swimming lanes, sometimes used for area swim-meets Ceramic tiles on the bottom made a pattern of dark blue, aqua and pale green.

There were thousands of places for it to hide, Glenn reasoned. It could be lying along a black line, or compressed flat and smooth like a stingray on one of the colored tiles. He looked across the pool where the false ladder had been—the monster could make itself resemble a ladder, or it could curl up and emulate the drain, or lie flat and still in a gutter waiting for a human form to come close enough. Yes. It had many shapes, many colors, many tricks. But the water had not yet gone back to the lake, and the monster that had killed Neil was still in there. Somewhere.

He walked back to the car, got the underwater light and the speargun. It was getting dark, and he switched the light on.

He wanted to make sure the thing found him once he was in the water—and the light should draw it like a neon sign over a roadside diner.

Glenn sat on the edge of the pool and put on his fins. He had to remove his glasses to wear the facemask; everything was out of focus, but it was the best he could do. He fit the snorkel into his mouth, hefted the underwater light in his left hand, and slowly eased himself over the edge.

I'm ready, he told himself. He was shaking, couldn't stop. The water, untended for more than two weeks, was dirty—littered with Coke cups, cigarette butts, dead waterbugs. The carcass of a bluejay floated past his face, and Glenn thought that it appeared to have been crushed.

He turned over on his stomach, put his head underwater, and kicked off against the pool's side, making a splash that sounded jarringly loud. He began to drift out over the drain, directing the light's yellow beam through the water. Around and beneath him was gray murk. But the light suddenly glinted off something, and Glenn arched down through the chill to see what it was—a beer can on the bottom. Still, the monster could be anywhere. Anywhere. He slid to the surface, expelling water through the snorkel like a whale. Then he continued slowly across the pool, his heartbeat pounding in his ears and the sound of his breathing like a hellish bellows through the snorkel. In another moment his head bumped the other side of the pool. He drifted in another direction, guiding himself with an occasional thrust of a fin.

Come on, damn you! Glenn thought. I know you're here!

But nothing moved in the depths below. He shone the light around, seeking a shadow.

I'm not crazy, he told himself. I'm really not. His head was hurting again, and his mask was leaking, the water beginning to creep up under his nose. Come out and fight me, damn you! I'm in your element now, you bastard! Come on!

Linda had asked him to see a doctor in Birmingham. She said she'd go with him, and the doctor would listen. There was no monster in the swimming pool, she'd said. And if there was where had it come from?

Glenn knew. Since Neil's death, Glenn had done a lot of thinking and reading. He'd gone back through the Courier files, searching for any information about the Parnell Park swimming pool. He'd found that, for the last five years, at least one person had died in the pool every summer. Before that you had to go back eight years to find a drowning victim—an elderly man who'd already suffered one heart attack.

But it had been in a copy of the Birmingham News, dated October tenth six years ago, that Glenn had found his answer.

The article's headline read "Bright Light" Frightens Lake Residents.

On the night of October ninth, a sphere of blue fire had been seen by a dozen people who lived around Logan Martin lake. It had flashed across the sky, making a noise—as one resident put it—"like steam whistling out of a cracked radiator." The blue light had gone down into the lake, and for the next two days, dead fish washed up on shore.

You found the pipes that brought you up into our swimming pool, didn't you? Glenn thought as he explored the gray depths with his light. Maybe you came from somewhere that's all water, and you can't live on land. Maybe you can suck the life out of a human body just as fast and easy as some of us step on ants. Maybe that's what you live on—but by God I've come to stick you, and I'll find you if I have to search all—

Something moved.

Down in the gloom, below him. Down near the drain. A shadow . . . something.

Glenn wasn't sure what it was. He just sensed a slow, powerful uncoiling.

He pushed the speargun's safety off with his thumb. He couldn't see anything, dead bugs floated through the light like a dust storm, and a sudden newspaper page drifted up from the bottom, flapped in his face and sank out of sight again. Glenn's nerves were near snapping, and he thought with a touch of hysterical mirth that it might have been an obituaries page.

He lowered his head and descended.

Murky clouds swirled around him. He probed with the light, alert for another movement. The water felt thick, oily; a contaminated feel. He continued to slide down into the depths, and they closed over him. His fins stirred more pool silt, and the clouds refused the light. He stayed down as long as he could, until his lungs began to heave, and then he rose toward the surface like a flabby arrow.

When he reached the top, something grasped his head.

It was a cold, rubbery thing, and Glenn knew it was the grip of death. He couldn't help it; he shrieked around the snorkel's mouthpiece, twisted violently in the Water and caught sight of slick green flesh. His frantic movement dislodged the facemask, and water flooded in. He was blinded, water was pressing up his nostrils and the thing was wrapped around his shoulders. He heard his gurgling underwater scream, flailed the thing off him and thrashed desperately away.

Glenn kicked to the edge of the pool, raising geysers. The aluminum ladder was in front of him, and he reached up to haul himself out.

No! he thought, wrenching his hand back before it touched the metal—or what was supposed to pass as metal. That's how it had killed Neil. It had emulated the other ladder and entwined itself around Neil as he entered the water, and it had taken him under and killed him in an instant while everyone else was laughing and unaware.

He swam away from the ladder and hung to the gutter's edge. His body convulsed, water gurgling from his nostrils. His dangling legs were vulnerable, and he drew them up against his chest, so fast he kneed himself in the chin. Then he dared to look around and aim the light at the monster.

About ten feet away, bouncing in the chop of his departure, was a child's deflated rubber ring, the green head of a seahorse with a grinning red mouth lying in the water.

Glenn laughed, and spat up more of the pool. Brave man, he thought. Real brave. Oh Jesus, if Linda had been here to see this! I was scared shitless of a kid's toy! His laughter got louder, more strident. He laughed until it dawned on him that he was holding his facemask's strap around his right wrist, and his right hand gripped the gutter.

In his left hand was the underwater light.

He had lost his snorkel. And the speargun.

His laughter ceased on a broken note.

Fear shot up his spine. He squinted, saw the snorkel bobbing on the surface five or six feet away. The speargun had gone to the bottom.

He didn't think about getting out of the pool. His body just did it, scrabbling up over the sloshing gutter to the concrete, where he lay on his belly in the rain and shivered with terror.

Without the speargun, he had no chance. I can use the chain cutter, he thought. Snap the bastard's head off! But no, no: the chain cutter needed two hands, and he had to have a hand free to hold the light. He thought of driving back to Birmingham, buying another speargun, but it occurred to him that if he got in the car and left Parnell Park, his guts might turn to jelly on the highway and Neil's voice would haunt him: "You know I didn't drown, don't you, Dad? You know I didn't . . ."

He might get in that car and drive away and never come back, and today was the last day of summer, and when they opened the drain in the morning, the monster would go back to the lake and await another season of victims.

He knew what he had to do. Must do. Must. He had to put the facemask back on, retrieve the snorkel, and go down after that speargun. He lay with his cheek pressed against the concrete and stared at the black water; how many summer days had seen him in that pool, basking like a happy whale? As a kid, he couldn't wait for the clock of seasons to turn around and point him to this pool—and now, everything had changed. Everything, and it could never be the same again.

Neil was dead, killed by the monster in the swimming pool. The creature had killed part of him, too, Glenn realized. Killed the part that saw this place as a haven of youthful dreams, an anchor-point of memories. And next summer, when the monster came back, someone else's dreams would die as well.

He had to go down and get the speargun. It was the only way.

It took him another minute or so to make his body respond to his mind's command. The chill shocked his skin again as he slipped over the side; he moved slowly, afraid of noise or splashes. Then he put the mask on, swam carefully to the snorkel with his legs drawn up close to the surface; he bit down hard on the mouthpiece, thinking suddenly that if there was really a monster here it could have emulated the snorkel, and both of them would've gotten a very nasty surprise. But the snorkel remained a snorkel, as Glenn blew the water out of it.

If there was really a monster here. The thought caught him like a shock. If. And there it was. What if Linda was right? he asked himself. What if there's nothing here, and I'm just treading dirty water? What if everything I've thought is wrong—and I'm losing my mind? No, no, I'm right. I know I am. Dear God. I have to be right.

He took a deep breath, exhaled it. The collapsed green seahorse seemed to be drifting toward him again. Was its grin wider? Did it show a glint of teeth? Glenn watched the rubber ring move through the light's beam, and then he took another breath and slid downward to find the speargun.

His thrashing had stirred up more debris. The water seemed alive with reaching, darting shadows as he kicked to the bottom and skimmed along it, his belly brushing the tiles. The light gleamed off another beercan, off a scatter of pennies left by children who'd been diving for them. Something bony lay on the bottom, and Glenn decided it was a chicken drumstick somebody had tossed over the fence. He kept going, slowly swinging his light in an arc before him.

The dirty clouds opened under his waving hand, and more metal glinted. Another crushed beercan—no, no, it wasn't. His heart kicked. He fanned the murk away, and caught sight of the speargun's handle. Gripped it in his right hand with a flood of relief. Thank God! he thought. Now he felt powerful again, and the shadows seemed to flee before him. He turned in a circle, illuminating the darkness at his back. Nothing there. Nothing. To his right the newspaper page flapped like a manta ray, and to his left the clouds parted for a second to show him a glimpse of the drain. He was in the twelve-foot depth. The deep end, that place where parents warned their kids not to go.

And about three feet from the drain lay something else. Something that made Glenn's throat catch and bubbles spill from his nostrils.

And that was when the thing that had taken the shape of a speargun in his hand burst into its true form, all camouflage done. Ice-white tentacles tightened around Glenn's wrist as his fingers spasmed open.

The bubbles of a scream exploded from Glenn's mouth, but his jaws clamped shut before all his air was lost. As he tried to lunge upward, a third and fourth tentacle—pale, almost translucent and as tough as piano-wire—shot out, squeezing into the drain's grate and locked there.

Glenn fought furiously, saw the monster's head taking shape from its gossamer ghost of a body; the head was triangular, like a cobra's, and from it emerged a single scarlet, blazing eye with a golden pupil. Below the eye was a small round mouth full of suction pads like the underside of a starfish. The mouth was pulsating rapidly, and began to turn from white to crimson.

The single eye stared into Glenn's face with clinical interest. And suddenly the thing's neck elongated and the mouth streaked around for the back of Glenn's neck.

He'd known that's where it was going to strike, and he'd flung his left arm up to ward off the blow an instant before it came. The mouth sealed to his shoulder like a hot kiss, hung there for a second and withdrew with a sputt of distaste. The monster's head weaved back and forth as Glenn hunched his shoulders up to protect the back of his neck and spinal cord. His lungs heaved; his mouth was full of water, the snorkel spun away in the turbulence. Water was streaming into his mask, and the light had dropped from the fingers of his left hand and lay on the bottom, sending rays through the roiling clouds like a weird sunset through an alien atmosphere.

The thing's head jerked forward, its mouth aiming at Glenn's forehead; he jerked aside as much as he could, and the mouth hit the facemask glass. Glenn felt tentacles slithering around his body, drawing him closer, trying to crack his ribs and squeeze the last of his air out. He pressed his left hand to the back of his neck. The monster's eye moved in the socket, seeking a way to the juices it craved. The mouth was bright red now, and deep in the folds of its white body, Glenn saw a crimson mass that pulsated at the same rhythm as its mouth.

Its heart, he realized. Its heart.

The blood thundered in his head. His lungs were seizing, about to grab for water. He looked down, saw the real speargun a few feet away. He had no time for even a second's hesitation, and he knew that if he failed he was dead.

He took his hand away from the back of his neck and reached for the gun, his own heartbeat about to blow the top of his skull off.

The creature's head came around like a whip. The suckers fixed to the base of Glenn's brain, and for an instant there was an agony that he thought would end only when his head split open; but then there was a numbing, floating, novocained sensation, and Glenn felt himself drifting toward death.

But he had the speargun in his hand.

The monster shivered with hungry delight. From between the suction cups tiny needle-like teeth began to drill through the pores of its prey's flesh, toward the spinal cord at the base of the brain.

One part of Glenn wanted to give up. Wanted to drift and sleep. Wanted to join Neil and the others who had gone to sleep in this pool. It would be so easy . . . so easy . . .

But the part of him that clung to life and Linda and the world beyond this pool made him lift the gun, press the barbed spear against the monster's pulsing heart and squeeze the trigger.

Sharp, head-clearing pain ripped through him. A black cloud of blood spilled into the water. The spear had pierced the creature's body and gone into his own forearm. The monster released his neck, its head whipping and the eye wide and stunned. Glenn saw that the spear had gone right through the thing's heart—if that's indeed what the organ was—and then he wrenched at his arm with all his remaining strength. The spear and the heart tore out of the monster's writhing body. The pupil of its eye had turned from gold to black, and its tattered body began to ooze through the drain's grate like strands of opaque jelly.

Glenn's lungs lurched. Pulled in water. He clawed toward the surface, his arm puffing blood. The surface was so far, so terribly far. The deep end had him, was not going to let him go. He strained upward, as dark gnawed at him and his lungs hitched and the water began to gurgle in his throat.

And then his head emerged into night air, and as he drew a long, shuddering breath he heard himself cry out like a victorious beast.

He didn't remember reaching the pool's side. Still would not trust the ladder. He tried to climb out and fell back several times. There seemed to be a lot of blood, and water still rattled in his lungs. He didn't know how long it was, but finally he pulled himself out and fell on his back on the wet concrete.

Sometime later, he heard a hissing sound.

He wearily lifted his head, and coughed more water out. At the end of the spear, the lump of alien flesh was sizzling. The heart shriveled until it resembled a piece of coal—and then it fell apart like black ash, and there was nothing left.

"Got you," Glenn whispered. "Got you . . . didn't I?"

He lay on his back for a long time, as the blood continued to stream from the wound in his arm, and when he opened his eyes again he could see the stars.

"Crazy fella busted in here last night," one of the overall-clad workmen said to the other as he lit a cigarette. "Heard it on the news this mornin'. Radio said a fella broke in here and went swimmin'. That's why the chain's cut off the gate."

"Is that right? Lawd, lawd! Jimmy, this is some crazy world!" The second workman, whose name was Leon, sat on the concrete beside the little brick enclosure housing an iron wheel that opened the drain and a switch that operated the electric pump. They'd spent an hour cleaning the pool out before they'd turned the wheel, and this was the first chance to sit down and rest. They'd filled a garbage bag with beercans, dead bugs, and other debris that had collected at the bottom. Now the water was draining out, the electric pump making a steady thumping sound. It was the first morning of September, and the sun was shining through the trees in Parnell Park.

"Some folks are just born fools," Jimmy offered, nodding sagely. "Radio said that fella shot himself with a spear. Said he was ravin' and crazy and the policeman who found him couldn't make heads or butts outta anythin' he was sayin'."

"Musta wanted to go swimmin' awful bad. Hope they put him in a nice asylum with a swimmin' pool."

Both men thought that was very funny, and they laughed. They were still laughing when the electric pump made a harsh gasping moan and died.

"Oh, my achin' ass!" Jimmy stood up, flicked his cigarette to the concrete. "We musta missed somethin'! Drain's done clogged for sure!" He went over to the brick enclosure and picked up a long-handled, telescoping tool with a hooked metal tip on the end. "Let's see if we can dig whatever it is out. If we can't, then somebody named Leon is goin' swimmin'."

"Uh uh, not me! I don't swim in nothin' but a bathtub!"

Jimmy walked to the edge of the low diving board and reached into the water with his probe. He telescoped the handle out and began to dig down at the drain's grate, felt the hook slide into something that seemed . . . rubbery. He brought the hook up and stood gawking at what dangled from it.

Whatever it was, it had an eye.

"Go . . . call somebody," he managed to tell Leon. "Go call somebody right quick!"

Leon started running for the pay phone at the shuttered concessions stand.

"Hey, Leon!" Jimmy called, and the other man stopped. "Tell 'em I don't know what it is . . . but tell 'em I think it's dead! And tell 'em we found it in the deep end!"

Leon ran on to make the phone call.

The electric pump suddenly kicked on again, and with a noise like a heartbeat began to return water to the lake.

Copyright © 1987 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology Night Visions IV, first published in 1987. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2020 Robert McCammon Last updated 2020-07-17 00:17 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha