This story is by Cheyenne Freligh and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The man’s name was Frederick Welsh.
If the rumors were to be believed, he had sailed the oceans themselves in his younger years. I didn’t know whether I should put any belief in the claims, seeing as the man couldn’t swim. A man who cannot swim had no business being on the open ocean, and I figured he shouldn’t have any business sailing on a lake either, and his ship didn’t seem quite big enough for such a job as sailing across an ocean. It didn’t look any fancier than any other boat, and it was certainly older than the current 1955 models.
But a job was a job, and I wasn’t going to kick this off by insulting the man’s boat.
I approached the docked vessel as confidently as I dared, hoping he might see past my bare feet and raggedy clothes. When I reached the ship, the name ‘The Willow’ was proudly emblazoned across the side in big scrawling script, and I straightened my posture and called out a loud greeting.
Frederick approached, peering down at me from the ship. The man had a piercing stare which seemed to bite through me, but I only returned it in turn with my own. He’d grown his beard out a bit longer since last I had seen him a week ago, as though he’d been too busy to trim it. He wasn’t from around here, and he showed it, too, evident in the very way his American accent edged his every word.
“You Nes?” Frederick frowned down at me, “the one who signed on for the job?”
Frederick shoved the plank down to cover the gap, “come aboard, then.”
I eyed the rickety board of wood that was barely passing as a plank. The thing looked like it would snap at the touch of a cat’s paw, let alone the weight of a young teen. If it did snap, I would be dropped into the cold water of the lake below, and I didn’t feel in the mood for soggy clothes. I walked across it anyways, surprised when it managed to hold my weight.
Frederick gave a small nod to me, the smallest hint of a smile on his face as he turned and waved for me to follow. I did, wondering if it had been some sort of test. I wonder if I passed.
“You got a last name, boy?”
“No, sir. Didn’t even hold onto the first one,” I replied, “never liked it much, my name, so I took the lake’s. The tourists find it funny long enough to hand over a couple extra dollars if I ask. A name like Marco never really got their attention.”
Frederick nodded, “and what does an orphan want with finding a monster?”
I grinned, “well, sir, I figured getting paid to look for monsters sounded a lot funner than digging through garbage cans for dinner.”
Frederick let out a laugh at that, smile widening, “I can’t argue with that, my boy. Now, let’s beat feet and catch ourselves a monster.”
The days passed quickly enough on ‘The Willow,’ though we had to fish and transport cargo across the lake; monster hunting didn’t actually bring in revenue. I didn’t mind. A job was a job.
Frederick was kind enough. He taught me how the ship worked and how to work it, and told me so much about the ocean and the things he’d seen that I lost any doubt that he really had sailed the open seas. Plus, he gave me free food as well as lodgings, which was always a plus.
One night, about a year after I first started working for him, I found him sitting on the dock, his feet trailing in the water. I pulled off my shoes and sat down beside him, squinting through the dark towards the lake in an attempt to see what he was looking at. With our rate of success, I doubted that it was the monster.
“A lake full of monsters and not a single hint of one,” Frederick sighed, flicking a small stone off the dock. It landed in the water with the slightest of splashes.
“How do you know there’s more than one?” I asked him, “perhaps it is only a single monster?”
“Ha,” Frederick shook his head, “monster or not, nothing lives forever. There’s a whole family of them down there, I can feel it.”
I dipped my toes in the water, staring at the dark water that lapped at my feet, “maybe it can live forever. Maybe there’s only one.”
“How would a single beast hide that long?”
“Maybe it has magic or something,” I shrugged, “maybe it hides itself, so that it can come up and look at people without them knowing. Maybe it’s watching us even now.”
I paused, looking towards the lake.
“What would a monster want with people?” Frederick asked me.
“Maybe it’s lonely.”
Frederick stared at me for a moment before turning his gaze back to the lake, “do giant fish monsters ever get lonely, do you think?”
“People can never understand the reasoning of a monster, I suppose,” I said, “perhaps you’re right. A whole family of monsters in that lake. Together. Family.”
Frederick glanced my way again, “what about you, Nes?”
“Do people get lonely, too?”
I smiled, “maybe they used to.”
Things continued to go well. The days trickled into months, and the months trickled into another year. Everything was fine, and Frederick served as the family I’d been searching for.
But nothing good can last forever, and I was reminded of this fact when Frederick went overboard trying to drag a fishing net up. It was sudden, more sudden than it should have been, and all I knew was that it felt like my heart had stopped.
I paced the deck, my hands twisting in my hair as I gave the water below a helpless look. Nothing. He didn’t surface.
I had two choices. I could risk my life and try to save him, or I could stay safe and let him die. I let out a despairing cry and made up my mind.
I cursed and tugged off my shoes before leaping off the boat and into the water. It welcomed me like an old friend, the cold water engulfing me as I kicked under, gaining speed with every kick until the cold stopped bothering me and I no longer needed to kick.
Deeper and deeper I propelled myself, powerful feet and arms turned fins cutting through the water like propellers. I changed, picking up speed as I dropped my human form and regained my true one.
I caught up to him quickly, grabbing the collar of his coat in my sharp teeth; careful not to bite into his skin, I lugged the tiny form up and up until I broke the surface of the water.
I dropped him onto the deck of his boat and he let out a wheeze as he gasped for air. I snorted, a puff of water splattering off my muzzle as I shook my head. I was larger than his boat now, and I didn’t even attempt to climb on lest I capsize the thing.
Frederick’s eyes fluttered open and he took in a deep gasp of air, his eyes widening even further as he caught sight of my head hovering over him. His hand scrabbled for the pistol at his side and I let out a deep growl as I sunk beneath the waves, leaving him to fumble his way out of the net as I swam lazy circles around his boat.
He appeared quickly enough, peering over the side at me. I surfaced, raising my long neck higher and higher out of the water until the hump of my back broke the surface of the water and I towered above his boat.
“The monster of Lake Ness,” he gaped at me before a huge grin broke across his face and he turned, glancing quickly over his shoulder, “Nes! Nes!”
He turned quickly to face me again, a laugh of disbelief escaping his lips.
“Hello,” he said softly, holding out his hand. I lowered my head, letting him run his hand across my smooth skin, “two years. Two years of searching. And here you are.”
My eyes drooped, my heart heavy. Yes. Here I am.
I had made my choice. Frederick would live, but I would have to go back to being alone.
“Nes!” Frederick turned again, “Nes, my boy! Hurry! Come quickly! You’ll never believe it!”
I ducked back under the water and swam one more circle around ‘The Willow’ before I dove deeper beneath the waves.
I hear Lake Champlain is nice this time of year. I’ll have to wait a decade or two to bypass the wave of Nessie hunters that are sure to swarm the lake soon.
What would a monster want with people?
Perhaps it’s simply that we get lonely too.