The Thing in the Pond
by Peter Woodruff
part 1 of 2
It was a small farm pond, less than an acre, maybe fifteen feet deep at the center. Farmer Schmidt’s father dug the pond forty years ago. He stocked it liberally with catfish, bluegill, sunfish and large mouth bass. Schmidt added new fish every three or four years, including large grass carp to eat the overgrowth of water weeds and algae.
Bill Renfield was fifteen when his family moved from suburban Chicago to their new home, recently constructed on five rural acres. The Renfield lot, originally part of Farmer Schmidt’s three hundred acre farm, offered easy access to the pond. Immediately after the move Bill introduced himself to the Schmidts and asked permission to fish in the pond. Schmidt happily acquiesced.
The pond proved a fantastic fishing hole. Bill fished whenever time allowed. He also fished when time didn’t allow, frequently neglecting minor things like school and chores. He loved the thrill of the strike, the bent rod bucking in his hands, landing a large sunfish, bluegill or, as on several occasions, a bass exceeding five pounds.
Drawn to the pond’s quiet, reflective waters, he spent most of his adolescence along its grassy shore. He took his first date to the pond, hoping the quiet, romantic setting might lead to his first kiss, maybe more. It was a total failure. Bill may have considered a moonlight stroll to the pond an inducement to romance, but the young lady saw it as nothing more than a cheap date. Oh well, he thought, as his would-be girlfriend marched off into the twilight. It was still a great place to catch fish.
It was now early May, three months past Bill’s nineteenth birthday. Bill graduated high school a year ago. For the third time in as many months, he was between low-paying part-time jobs. Real jobs were hard to find in the rural county of northwest Illinois.
Bill’s parents encouraged him to go to college, or at least take courses at the community college in the neighboring county. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, besides fish in Schmidt’s pond. It’s not that he minded working, when it didn’t cut too deeply into fishing time. In fact, most of his part time bosses considered him a hard, dependable worker. One even wanted him to start full time. Bill considered it. He considered a great many things. What should he do with his life? Education? Career?
He stopped near the bank of the small pond. He’d worry about his future later. It was now time for some serious fishing. He opened his tackle box and pulled out a tangled mess of lures and hooks. He began the task of separating his shiny spinner lures when something caught his eye on the far bank. Shading his eyes with his hand, he saw two fishing rods carelessly left on the ground.
“Damn those kids!”
Farmer Schmidt’s nephews, ages ten and twelve, sometimes biked to the pond from town. They annoyed Bill with their sloppy habits, frequently leaving candy wrappers and soda cans cast on the ground. He tried to convince them to clean up after themselves. By way of incentive, he showed them the best places and methods to catch big fish. It was obvious the two weren’t holding up their end of the deal.
He’d deal with them later, maybe after he caught a big bass. He inspected his tackle box. Nightcrawlers and a bobber? Nah, he’d get mostly sunfish. His floating bass plug? He usually saved that for summer, when the waterweeds snagged his heavier lures.
He repeatedly glanced across the pond. Something about those dropped fishing rods bothered him. Bill set his own rod down and circled to the far side. He studied the abandoned gear. Strange. Both rods had lines in the water with bobbers attached. Why would they bait and cast lines then just leave?
Bill looked around. He didn’t see the boys anywhere in the surrounding fields. It didn’t look like they had gone swimming. There were no clothes strewn about the bank. And the water was still too cold. Did they go to their uncle’s house for a drink or a snack?
Bill felt a prickling on the back of his neck. Something was wrong. But what? The boys were both good swimmers. Even if they did go into the chilly water it was unlikely they drowned. Yet if they had taken a break and gone to their uncle’s house, they wouldn’t have left baited hooks in the water.
Bill picked up first one rod then another and reeled in the lines. Both hooks still had fat night crawlers stuck to their barbs. Now that was really strange. The fish in this pond had voracious appetites. Live bait was usually grabbed or stolen from the hook within seconds after casting.
Bill stared at the rods. He felt another prickle at the back of his neck as he gazed over the surface of the pond. It was a calm day, the water glassy and smooth. In the shallows near the bank Bill saw water plants and the muddy bottom. Why this strange feeling? Everything seemed as it should be, yet something was missing. It took Bill several minutes to figure it out. Fish! One usually saw dozens of small bluegill and bass in the clear water of the shallows, avoiding their larger predatory cousins. But today there were no fish of any size to be seen.
Bill slowly circled the pond. No fish. Something else dawned on Bill. The pond usually hosted a chorus of frogs and birds. Bill heard nothing but silence. There weren’t even any insects flitting or buzzing over the surface.
He backed away from the shore. For some inexplicable reason, Bill felt a strong desire to put distance between himself and the still water. He couldn’t even bring himself to recover his own rod and tackle. Bill walked backwards for about fifty feet, turned then ran up the hill towards Schmidt’s farm house.
* * *
“Hi, Bill! Catch anything this morning?” Mrs. Schmidt greeted Bill cheerfully. Bill and the Schmidt’s had become good friends over the past few years. Bill often did chores for them, refusing pay in appreciation for access to their great fishing hole.
“Bill, are you all right? You’re out of breath.”
“Mrs. Schmidt, did your nephews come by this morning?”
“Why yes, about an hour before you got here. Their bikes are over by the barn.” Mrs. Schmidt waved in the general direction of the large dairy barn. “Is something wrong?”
Bill tried to look calm, though certainly didn’t feel it. “No, I was just wondering where they were.”
“Down by the pond, I imagine,” Mrs. Schmidt said.
Bill paused. He didn’t want to worry the boys’ aunt, but felt he’d better tell her what he knew. “I just came from there. I saw their gear, but they weren’t around.” Trying to sound nonchalant, “Maybe they went for a walk or something.”
Mrs. Schmidt looked concerned. “You say their fishing poles were there. Do you think they went swimming?”
“No. There weren’t any clothes or shoes on the bank. Besides, they’re like me. They don’t go in until the water gets warmer.”
“Are you sure of this, Bill?” Mrs. Schmidt looked near panic.
“Positive. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Then why did you come up here asking, all out of breath? I’m going to find my husband.”
“Maybe you should call their home, first. You know how careless they can be about leaving things lying around.”
“They didn’t go home. I already told you, their bikes are still here. Beside, you know they’d never leave their fishing stuff behind.”
“So, maybe their mom came and got them. They may have been trying to skip out on chores or something.” Bill tried to keep the worry out of his own voice. At least his theory had credence, considering how many times he skipped out on chores to go fishing.
Mrs. Schmidt picked up the phone. After a brief exchange, she hung up and looked at Bill. “Darlene says the boys aren’t home. She said they had permission to come over this morning and go fishing. She’s on her way over right now.”
“Mrs. Schmidt, I’m probably getting you worked up over nothing. In fact, I bet if I go back to the pond right now the boys will be there.”
“I pray to God you’re right. Look, I’ve got to wait here for their mother. You go find my husband and tell him what’s going on. I think he’s in the machine shed. Maybe the two of you can go to the pond and find the boys. If you do, you have my permission to give them hell for scaring us.”
Bill was grateful he didn’t have to return to the pond alone. The idea frightened him.
* * *
It was early afternoon. The deputy sheriff, accompanied by Bill, Farmer Schmidt and the boys’ father gathered near the pond. Bill pointed out the fishing gear to the deputy, but could not bring himself to get within fifty feet of the water.
The deputy poked the gear with his shoe. “You say this is the boys’ stuff?”
The deputy looked over the pond, a wise, contemplative expression on his face. “So where’re the boys?”
“I don’t know. That’s why Mrs. Schmidt called you.”
“What were you doing down here?”
The boys’ father stepped in front of the deputy. “For Christ’s sake, he already told you. He was fishing, just like my boys were.”
The deputy stared at the father. “You were here, too?”
“No, you idiot.”
“Then how do you know he was fishing?”
Mr. Schmidt got between the men before the father could take a swing at the deputy. “This isn’t helping. Bill already said my nephews weren’t here when he arrived. We’ve looked around the farm and haven’t found them. Tom,” pointing to the boys’ father, “and his wife have called around town. What do you make of this, deputy? Could they have been abducted?”
The deputy continued to gaze wisely over the pond. “Nope, probably drowned.”
“Do you think, if you tried, you could be a little more insensitive?” Mr. Schmidt asked.
“Just tellin’ it the way I see it. Nobody gets abducted in this county. ’Sides, there’d be some sign of a struggle. The way I figure it, they went swimming and drowned.”
Bill pointed out the absence of clothes or shoes on the bank. “So they kept their clothes on,” the deputy said. “I’ll call the sheriff; get some divers down here to recover their bodies.”
Tom started to cry. Mr. Schmidt put his arm around his brother. “He’s right, Tom. Not about their drowning, but the divers are a good idea. They won’t find anything, and we’ll know for sure they aren’t in the pond.
“I already know for sure,” Bill said. “I’ve swam with these kids before. They didn’t drown.”
“Water’s awful cold,” the deputy said. “Coulda cramped up or something. You wait; the divers will find them in the pond.”
“Deputy, I think we’ve heard enough from... hey, where’re my steers?”
“Think the boys stole them?” the deputy asked.
“Shut up. I had fourteen steers in this meadow. I don’t see any of them.”
Tom sat in the grass by the bank. “I don’t care about your steers. I want to find my sons.”
“I know, but maybe there’s a connection,” Mr. Schmidt said.
The deputy looked at Bill. “You know anything about missing steers, kid?”
Bill scanned the meadow. “No, I didn’t even notice they were gone. But Mr. Schmidt is right. If someone stole the steers, maybe the boys were around and witnessed it.”
“And the rustlers drowned them in the pond,” the deputy suggested.
“That’s not what I meant,” Bill said. “But maybe they were abducted, or are hiding from the rustlers.”
“I’m going to check my fences,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Tom, you and Bill go back to the house and see if anyone’s heard anything. Deputy, get the sheriff.”
“I’m getting some divers,” the deputy said.
“Have it your own way.”
“I’m staying right here,” Tom said, regaining some composure. “Bill, you and Barney Fife go up to the house. Come right back if you hear anything.”
Bill and the Deputy headed up the hill.
* * *
They returned an hour later, Bill driving Schmidt’s ‘gator’ loaded with air tanks and other diving gear. The two divers, following the deputy, walked briskly behind, struggling to keep up.
They met Farmer Schmidt by the pond. “Found three of my steers in that little hollow over there,” he waved vaguely. “They looked worn out and dehydrated. I tried to herd them to the pond, but they wouldn’t budge.”
“No sign of the others?” the deputy asked.
“No. And the gate was closed and chained, and there was no cut fence or tracks anywhere, so I don’t get it.” Schmidt looked at the men. “Where’s Tom?”
Bill felt that all-too familiar prickling on his neck. “He wasn’t with you?”
“No. He said he was staying near the pond in case the boys showed up.”
“Must’ve gone up to the house,” the deputy said.
“But you just came from the house,” Schmidt said. The deputy shrugged.
The divers donned wet suits and strapped on their tanks, fins and masks. They checked each other’s regulators then clumsily waded into the pond, stirring up mud around the shore. They soon dove out of sight in deeper water.
Bill, Schmidt and the sheriff watched the bubbles in the middle of the pond.
“Just as well Tom’s not around,” the deputy said. “It’ll be pretty awful when those divers bring up the boys’ bodies.”
“And if they don’t find anything?” Bill asked.
“They will. I’ve investigated drownings before, you know.”
A violent storm of bubbles suddenly broke the surface. The men stepped closer to the bank, expecting to see the divers appear. Instead an air tank surfaced, followed closely by the other.
“What the hell?” Schmidt started to wade into the pond, but was restrained by the deputy. “Something’s wrong. Damn it, we’ve got to help those men!”
“They’re professional divers,” the deputy said, still hanging on to Schmidt. “They know what they’re doing.”
“Then how do you explain that?” Schmidt pointed to the two tanks, now bobbing gently on the water.
Bill backed further away from the water.
“They must have found something, probably the boys. They dropped their tanks so they could recover their bodies.”
“Deputy, you know that makes absolutely no sense. Something’s happened to those two men. We’ve got to help them somehow.”
“All right, but how?”
While Schmidt and the deputy argued, Bill was drawn, as if against his will, to the far bank where he had first seen the boy’s fishing rods. He looked into the shallows. He thought he saw something, but the water, disturbed by the divers, was slightly turbid. Ignoring his instincts, he leaned forward over the water. Bill let out a blood-curdling shriek.
“What the hell...” Schmidt and the deputy ran to the far side of the pond where Bill stood, almost in the water, pointing at the surface. Schmidt followed Bill’s finger. “What is it?... Oh my God! Oh, sweet Jesus.”
The deputy turned away and threw up.
It was a human corpse. Or at least what was left of one. It was little more than the skeletal remains of a head, neck and upper torso clothed with shredded fabric. The head, mostly a skull with scraps of loose flesh, stared with empty eye sockets out of the murky water, mouth agape in an eternal shriek of terror.
Copyright © 2007 by Peter Woodruff