Strange Water

Unable to get his rowboat to move in the soupy water, Lester Tarbell pulled in the oars that were coated with algae and wished he was closer to the bank of his property. He took stock of his situation; he was stuck in the middle of the lake and the bottom of his boat had caught on something.

The long shadows of twilight was creeping across the water. The air felt thick as syrup and smelled like rancid meat. Even while sitting absolutely still on the cushioned bench, sweat poured from his body. It was like being in a fetid sauna.

Light shone like beacons through the windows of his cabin that sat back from the water about fifteen yards. Night was falling quickly and the woods around the lake were being swallowed in blackness. Pinpricks of white stars dotted the moonless sky.

(Image provided by Steve Carr)

On the opposite bank and sitting back from the bank about thirty yards and surrounded by tall pines, was the cabin of the elderly couple, the O’Briens, but it was dark and from the look of the lawn and many shingles missing from the roof, they had not been there for a while, nor had anyone looked after their property.

It had been three years since he had been to his cabin and it too looked abandoned and made him wonder what happened to the young man, Jessie, who had been hired to keep the place up. The change in the lake was even more disturbing and unfathomable.

As he unlaced his boots he surmised he was about a hundred yards from the dock that jutted out into the lake from his property. If his heart didn’t give out on him trying to swim through the muck, he figured once he reached more shallow water he could walk on the muddy bottom the rest of the way in.

Accompanied by a discordant chorus of croaking bullfrogs, he placed his boots and socks in the bottom of the boat and swung his legs over the edge. He raised himself out of the boat and into the warm, slimy water. Bobbing alongside the boat he pushed at it, trying to dislodge it from whatever it was snagged on, but the boat didn’t move. He tried to think what was on the bottom of the boat that would catch onto something, and thought of nothing, but it was stuck nevertheless. He turned and faced the glow of light coming from the cabin, then propelled his body lengthwise into the water and began to swim.

It was like swimming in sewage. He swam through floating twigs and branches, clumps of leaves, brushed past a couple of dead catfish, the carcass of a raccoon, and several pieces of clothing. At forty-seven he was still in pretty good physical shape, but his weak heart pounded in his chest with every stroke of his arms. Keeping his gaze fixed on his cabin kept his mind off the unpleasantness of the water; the taste of it was like sucking on a dirty sponge. He had no idea what the distance was that he had swum when his feet finally touched bottom. Breathing hard he stepped into the soft, clinging mud and felt it cover his feet above the ankles.

Before he took a step he let out a yelp. “Damn, what was that?” he said aloud.

He reached down into the water and felt the place on his calf that had been bitten into. It didn’t seem serious, but with mud clinging to his feet with every step, he hastily made his way to the bank and crawled onto the thick grass and laid on his back and slowly regained his normal breathing.

✸✸✸

Standing at the window of his highrise apartment, Lester wiped the sweat from his forehead with a wet washcloth. Looking down at the pond in the park he put the washcloth between his teeth and tilted his head back and bit down, letting the water mixed with his sweat trickle over his tongue and down his throat. He spat the washcloth out of his mouth and turned away from the window. The floor of his living room was littered with empty plastic water bottles. Kicking them aside he went into the kitchen and at the sink turned on the faucet and put his hands under it and filled his palms with lukewarm water, and then splashed it on his face. Startled, he jumped when his cellphone on the kitchen island buzzed.

He turned off the faucet and looked at the number of who was calling before he picked it up.

“Hey, Dan,” he said. He listened for a moment, then said, “The trip was good. I needed the time away. I’ll be into work first thing tomorrow.”

He then whirled about and vomited in the sink.

Leaving the kitchen and kicking aside several water bottles he walked down the hallway stripping off his shirt and removing his pants and underwear along the way, dropping them on the floor. He went into the bathroom and turned on the shower and stepped in, adjusting the knobs so that warm water sprayed out. He stepped under the nozzle and opened his mouth and gulped down water as it sprayed his face and ran over his body.

An hour later he turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. Without drying himself he sat on a stool and raised one leg up onto the other. The large spot where whatever had bitten him was swollen and bright red. He pushed around the edges of it with his fingertips. Bright green pus oozed from it, filling the bathroom with a noxious odor. As he had done several times already since returning from the lake, he got the bottle of peroxide from the medicine cabinet and sat on the stool, swung his legs around to inside the shower, turned the water on, and poured the peroxide on the wound. The peroxide bubbled and fizzed along the perimeter of the injury as the green pus dripped into the water and circled the drain, turning the water a pale green before disappearing into it. He put some Neosporin on the spot and taped a gauze pad onto it with surgical tape.

In his bedroom he opened the drapes and then the window. He shut off the light and laid on his bed and stared out at the night sky as a continual hot breeze washed over his body.

He didn’t sleep all night.

✸✸✸

Stepping out of the elevator holding a bottled water, Lester could feel sweat trickling down his sides beneath his shirt and suit jacket. He stopped at the desk of his secretary, Toni, who peered up at him from behind her computer screen.

“Geeze, Mr. Tarbell, you look awful,” she said. “Did you catch something while you were on vacation?”

“Maybe a slight bug, but I don’t think it’s contagious,” he said. “Just to make sure, see if you can schedule an appointment for me with Doctor Ellis for this afternoon.”

“Will do Mr. Tarbell. I’ll tell him it’s an emergency,” she said as she picked up her phone.

“Thanks,” he said as he opened the door to his office. He walked in and closed the door behind him and went to the large gold framed mirror hanging on the wall at the left of his desk. From the time he had left home until now, dark circles had formed under his eyes. His usually tanned face was pale and splotchy and there was a greenish tint to his parched lips.

Sitting at his desk, he turned his chair around toward the large window behind his desk, opened his leather satchel, and took out a bottled water. His fingers trembled as he unscrewed the cap, put the bottle to his mouth, and quickly drank the entire bottle. The city streets below were bustling as usual, but other than the faint hum of the air conditioning, his office was silent. He leaned his head back against the chair and looked up at the baby blue sky and tried to ignore the pounding in his temples.

When he heard his office door open he quickly swiveled around. “Hi, Dan,” he said. He tossed the empty bottle in the waste basket next to his desk.

His boss was standing in the doorway. “Good Lord,” Dan said. “You look like shit.”

“So I’ve been told,” Lester said. “Toni’s making me an appointment with my doc for this afternoon.”

Dan sat down in one of the two soft leather chairs in front of Lester’s desk. “You look in no condition to go to the Anderson account meeting this morning. I’ll send Laurie instead,” he said.

“I’ll be able to make it,” Lester said.

“That’s okay,” Dan said. “I was going to take you off that account anyway.”

“Why?” Lester asked.

“It needs a younger person on it. They’re a start up company made up of twenty-somethings. Laurie is a better fit for them,” Dan said.

“But I secured that account,” Lester said.

“Let’s face it, Lester, you’re not young anymore and the Anderson account needs a fresh face working on it,” Dan said.

“I’m not that old,” Lester said.

“That’s true but your work has been slipping lately,” Dan said. “I have to put our friendship aside when I make these decisions.” He paused, and then said, “It’s because of our friendship I’m going to ask for your resignation before I have to fire you.”

Lester felt like puking. “Just like that?” he said.

“We’ve been friends outside of work for too long for me to give you a song and a dance.” Dan rubbed his nose and looked around the room. “What’s that smell?”

Lester shifted his sore leg under his desk. “I don’t know. I noticed it too. I’ll have Toni call the janitor.”

Dan stood up. “I hope there’s no hard feelings. Go see the doctor and if you’re feeling up to it I’ll swim a few laps with you this evening at the club.”

“I’ll let you know,” Lester said.

Dan left the office.

Lester scooted his chair back and rolled up his pants leg. The gauze pad over the wound was green and reeked of the odor of rotting flesh.

✸✸✸

Seated on the exam table wearing only his boxer shorts, Lester watched Dr. Ellis at a small metal table put labels on three vials of blood.

“I’m going to have the lab analyze these STAT,” Dr. Ellis said.

Lester stretched out his arm and looked at the Band Aid the doctor had put over the vein that his blood was drawn from. There was a small round reddish-green dot leaking through the pad of the Band Aid.

“That’s a nasty infection where you were bitten and I think it’s coursing through your entire system,” Dr. Ellis said as he put the vials in a small metal basket. He turned to Lester and said, “Because of the strain this must be putting on your already weak heart I’d prefer to put you in the hospital at least for overnight so that we can monitor what’s going on with you.”

“I’ll be okay,” Lester said. “I’d prefer to take care of myself at home.”

“It’s your decision,” Dr. Ellis said as he stood up picking up two hypodermic needles from the table. “I’ll give you a tetanus shot and a shot of penicillin and I’ll give you a prescription for penicillin. You can take Tylenol for the fever and any pain.”

“Are you sure about what you said about the bite?” Lester said.

“I worked in emergency rooms for many years and I’ve seen many human bites and they looked just like the one on your leg,” Dr. Ellis said.

“It happened in lake water,” Lester said. “It would be impossible.”

“I guess it would be,” Dr. Ellis said, “but I’d bet my license that you were bitten by a human.” He tore open a small alcohol pad package and took out the pad and rubbed it on Lester’s deltoid muscle. He gave the penicillin shot and then the tetanus shot. “Go ahead and get dressed. I want a urine sample also. I’ll give you a cup. Just give it to the nurse at the front desk when you’re done.”

As Lester got dressed the doctor sat at the table writing the prescription.

“If you or that bite gets any worse, go immediately to the emergency room,” Dr. Ellis said. “Change that bandage on it every eight hours and keep applying the antibiotic gel to it and take the penicillin.” He handed Lester the prescription.

“Okay,” Lester said. He put on his tie and then his suit jacket. “You have my cellphone number to text me when you get the lab results.”

The doctor handed him the urine cup. “You really should be in the hospital.”

Lester walked out of the room and went into the bathroom that was down the hall. He turned on the water in the small porcelain sink and bent down and for a few minutes gulped in the warm water flowing from the faucet.

Standing at the toilet he gasped as he began to pee bright green urine into the toilet. When finished he flushed the toilet, zipped up his pants, put the empty urine cup in his inside suit pocket, and left the doctor’s office.

✸✸✸

Lester sat on the bench staring at the calm, glassy dark blue water of the pond. A child’s white plastic toy sailboat sat in the middle of it barely moving. He was thinking back to why he had taken the rowboat out in the lake. He had simply been bored, nothing more.

As people passed behind him he heard snippets of their conversations, nothing of importance, just the minutiae of their daily lives. Outside of work he had no one he shared any part of his life with. He had almost married, Deana, a gorgeous magazine editor, two years earlier, but she left him saying he was “too aloof.”

The late afternoon sunlight was at his back and cast a twinkling light on the pond’s surface. Looking up he could see the sunlight glistening on the windows of his apartment. He wiped sweat from his face with a sweat-dampened handkerchief, and then put it to his lips and sucked on it.

His cellphone buzzed. He took it out of his suit jacket that laid next to him and looked at the text from Dr. Ellis. “Ur very sick. Call me,” it said.

What Lester didn’t want to tell the doctor was that with all the problems the bite had caused, it also made him feel stronger than he had felt in years. If getting well meant going back to feeling weak, he preferred being sick.

He put the cellphone back in the jacket and looked around. There was no one nearby. He got up from the bench and went to the edge of the pond and knelt down. He put one hand in the water and splashed it around, stirring up the algae at the bottom. He leaned down and put his face in the murky water and began to drink.

Leaving the park he threw the urine cup and prescription into a garbage can.

✸✸✸

At four o’clock Lester opened the door to his apartment and was greeted with the aromas of furniture polish, glass cleaner and ammonia. Against the wall just inside the door there were four large bulging plastic garbage bags. As he entered his living room the floor was no longer littered with water bottles and every surface was cleaned to the point of shinning.

Then he heard Estella muttering to herself in his bathroom.

He placed his keys and cellphone on a table and walked down the hallway. His throat ached from thirst and his skin felt as if he had swallowed fire. At the open doorway of the bathroom he stopped and watched his housekeeper on her knees scrubbing the shower while running a steady stream of water into it. By the tone of her voice as she mumbled a litany of words and phrases in Spanish, none of which he understood, she wasn’t at all happy.

“Hello Estella,” he said at last.

She let out a small, startled gasp as she jumped back from the shower. She put her yellow rubber-gloved hand over her heart. “I didn’t hear you come in Mr. Tarbell,” she said. “You frightened me. When did you get back from vacation?”

“On Friday,” he said. “I’m sorry the place was such a mess.”

Estella stood up. “So many empty water bottles,” she said pushing a stray strand of graying black hair back from her face with her wrist. “Everyone at the party you threw must have been really thirsty.”

“There was no party,” he said flatly. “How is the cleaning in here going?”

She looked at the green stain on the brush in her hand. “There is this green stuff all over everything. I’m getting it off but I’ve never seen anything like it. What is it?”

“Just something in the water,” he said.

“It’s very strange,” she said. She peered at him closely. “You don’t look well, Mr. Tarbell. Are you sick?”

“No,” he said, then opened his mouth wide and spewed a gallon of thick, green, foul smelling liquid into her face.

She fell backwards landing on her buttocks and hitting the side of her head on the toilet. Dazed, she tried to wipe the stuff from her face as her skin began to melt. Through half opened eyes she saw blood and tissue on her gloves. “Help me,” she shrieked.

As she writhed in agony on the floor, Lester removed his jacket and tie and let them drop on the floor. He then leapt on top of her and covered her mouth with his and emitted green puke into her mouth. Her neck swelled double in size and then burst. While her body still twitched, Lester got off of her and stood over her and watched her until the twitching stopped and she was dead.

“She always did ask too many questions,” he said aloud as he wiped green algae colored vomit from his lips.

✸✸✸

In the empty locker room Lester took off his clothes and put them in a locker. As he passed a large mirror in the locker room he stopped and stared at the reflection of his naked body. His skin was a pale green and dark green scales covered both his right and left sides of his torso. Raising his head he ran his fingers along two newly formed vertical slits covered by flaps of skin that ran along each side of his Adam’s apple, marveling at the idea that he had gills. He ran his hand through his hair, painlessly pulling out a wad of it. He tossed the hair in a garbage can and walked through the short hallway leading to the swimming pool.

Inhaling the warm, moist air of the pool room, Lester stood in the shadows of the doorway and watched Dan taking long strokes with his arms and kicking his feet as he slowly glided toward the far end of the pool. Other than the splashing being done by Dan, it was quiet. Staying near the wall, Lester walked into the pool room and to the panel with the light switches. When he turned them off the only light on the pool was that of the dim light of night coming through the glass ceiling.

“What happened to the lights?’ Dan yelled as he reached the wall at the far end of the pool.

“Dan,” Lester said in a low guttural tone.

“Lester, is that you?” Dan said.

Lester went to the edge of the pool and shrouded in darkness, said, “Yes, Dan, it’s me.”

“I didn’t think you were coming,” Dan said.

“I’m here,” Lester said. He stepped into the pool, immediately going beneath the surface. A moment later he popped up, spitting out a large amount of water. The chlorine was bitter and made his skin tingle uncomfortably. “Meet me in the middle,” he yelled to Dan.

“Okay,” Dan said.

Lester dove under the water again, and by undulating his body. he propelled himself toward the sound and vibration of Dan’s movement coming from the opposite end of the pool. Once he reached what he thought was the middle of the pool he raised his upper body out of the water and took a deep breath and waited for Dan.

When Dan reached him, he said, “You must be feeling better. You got here really fast.”

“I’ve never felt better,” Lester said. “I’ve been thinking about what you told me in the office this morning. I’m not going to resign. I’ve put too much of my life in the company to resign. You’re going to have to fire me.”

Dan waved his arms in the water, keeping himself afloat. “I don’t want to do that, but you’re leaving me no choice.”

“We all have choices to make,” Lester said. “I just wish I could make a different choice than the one I have to make now.”

“What are you talking about, Lester?” Dan said.

Lester lunged forward and threw his arms around Dan’s shoulders and bit into his carotid artery.

As Dan screamed and began flailing about trying to free himself from Lester’s hold, his blood became an increasingly bright red stain in the dark blue pool water.

With his teeth still in Dan’s neck, Lester lowered them both under the water’s surface. Air bubbles arose from Dan’s open mouth as the water filled his lungs and within moments he stopped thrashing about in Lester’s grip. Lester let go of Dan and swam away as Dan’s lifeless body floated to the bottom of the pool.

After getting out of the pool, Lester stood in the shower and let the water wash the chlorine from his body while he gulped down the water shooting from the nozzle. He dressed hurriedly and left the building.

He stopped at the twenty-four hour convenience store and bought a case of bottled water.

✸✸✸

Lester stood in the shadows outside the Portsman Club and watched as Deana stretched one long, tanned leg out of her car and placed the spiked heel on the sidewalk pavement. Just as she swung her other leg around and was about to place the heel of that shoe on the pavement also, he jumped out in front of her. “Boo,” he said with a wide grin on his face.

She recoiled back in fear, and then seeing it was him, said, “Damn you, Lester, that wasn’t funny.”

“I’m trying to be more engaging,” he said.

“That’s being an asshole,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

Lester squatted down and dangled his car keys from his fingertip. “I was hoping we could talk.”

“We have nothing to talk about, Lester. I told you that when I left you.” She leaned forward gazing at his face. “Are you sick? Your face is a funny color.”

“I’ve never been better,” he said. “My heart condition has gone away.”

“Gone away?” she said. “Did you have surgery?”

“Something much easier,” he said. He raised his pant leg and showed her the exposed, raw, pus- oozing bite mark.

She put her hand to her nose. “My God, Lester, what is that? It stinks.”

“An unexpected gift,” he said. “It’s changed my useless, dreary life.”

“You need psychiatric help. I think you’ve lost your mind,” she said. “Now get out of my way so I can get out of my car.”

Lester stood, and then placed his hands on the top of her car and blocking her in. “You might want to join me someday,” he said.

“I highly doubt that,” she said.

“If you do, you’ll find me up at the lake. You remember, where my cabin is,” he said. He grabbed her arm and bit it, hard, leaving blood forming in the toothmarks in her skin.

“Goddamn you Lester,” she shrieked.

Lester ran down the sidewalk, laughing maniacally.

✸✸✸

The hot summer air blew in through Lester’s open bedroom window and washed over his naked body as he lay on his bed. Morning light began to stream in, casting the room in bright yellow light. Staring up at the smooth pale blue ceiling, he poured bottled water into his mouth. When the bottle was empty he tossed it on the floor next to his bed with the other bottles.

When his cellphone buzzed he rolled onto his side and picked it up from the bedside stand and read the text. It was from Toni and it said, “I’m in shock. Dan found dead in swimming pool. Police will be contacting you. Call me.”

He got out of bed and kicked the empty bottles out of his way as he left the room and went to the bathroom. Estelle’s body lay sprawled on the floor, covered in green vomit and blood. He stepped over her and peed into the toilet a large stream of green urine. At the sink he stared at his reflection in the mirror above the sink. Although his hair was gone, other than the greenish tint to his skin, he looked ill, but normal.

In his bedroom he put on a hooded sweatshirt, sweatpants and running shoes, and grabbed his car keys and was about to open the apartment door when there were several knocks on it. He looked through the peephole. Two men, one in a police uniform, were standing on the other side.

“Mr. Tarbell?” one of the two men said loudly.

Panicked, Lester glanced around the room. There was nowhere to hide. Then as he saw his reflection in the glass over a photograph hanging on the wall, an idea came to him. He removed his sweatshirt and quickly opened the door. Startled and uncertain of what they were seeing as they looked at his torso, they both hesitated just enough to give Lester time to jump on the one without a uniform. He bit into the man’s throat, quickly ripping out his Adam’s apple.

By the time the cop in uniform reacted by pulling out his gun, Lester was down the hallway. Just as he opened the stairwell door, a bullet ricocheted off the wall near him. He went through the door and went down the sixteen floors leaping six steps at a time. As he came out in the alley he heard sirens in the near distance. He put on his sweatshirt and walked out of the alley, across the street, and entered the park.

In the dim glow of lamplight, Lester sat on the bench and gazed at the dark motionless pond. Sirens continued to blare from the street on the other side of the line of trees that was the boundary of the park. When a teenage boy wearing a backpack and carrying a sleeping bag sat down next to him, Lester gave him a quick glance then turned back to looking at the pond.

“You from around here?” the boy said.

“Get out of here,” Lester growled, still not looking at him.

“Mister, you’re all green,” the boy said. “Are you sick?”

Lester jumped on the boy, wrapping his hands around the boy’s neck and choking him with all his strength. The boy dropped the sleeping bag and tried to fight Lester off with his fists, but Lester held on. As the boy opened his mouth, grasping for air, Lester puked green, liquidy slime into the boy’s mouth. The boy stared in wide-eyed terror as Lester’s vomit began to dissolve his tongue. Lester let go of the boy and stood back and watched as the boy choked to death on his own melting tongue.

Lester took off his clothes and hid them and his car keys under bushes along one side of the pond. He then took the boy’s sleeping bag and backpack and shoved them in the garbage can. He removed the boy’s clothes and shoved them under the bushes. Grabbing the boy’s foot he dragged him to the edge of the pond. As he waded into the pond he pulled the boy with him. The pond was barely deep enough to submerge himself and the boy’s body under the surface, but it would do until morning. Throughout the night he fed on the boy.

✸✸✸

At mid-morning, Lester drove onto the gravel driveway in front of the cabin. He parked the car and got out and inhaled the stench that hung in the air. He walked around the cabin and stood looking at the lake for several minutes thinking about Deana, certain she would show up soon. He removed his clothes and ran his hands over the scales that covered his skin from his neck down to his feet. He walked into the lake, enjoying the feel of the rancid smelling water as it covered his body. He opened his mouth and gulped in the fetid water until he was completely submerged. Then he swam to the middle of the lake, and waited.

This story previously appeared in Cadaverous Magazine 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 580 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, being published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers is due out in January, 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. Find him on Amazon.com.