Bills camping trip goes horribly awry when he catches something unexpected in the lake
| The Mirror Lakes, high in the Rocky Mountains, are one of the most beautiful places on earth. Totally uninhabited, it is raw nature at its best. Bill Thompson went there every year for his vacation, for time alone in the wild. For him, there was nothing better than to hike into the Snowy Mountains of Wyoming with a backpack and his dog, just to get away from real life for a while. His life back in North Platte, Nebraska was alright, he supposed, but being single and without a family, he tended to immerse himself in his job. These trips were a much-needed stress relief for him.
The lakes are located deep in the mountains, in a lush and secluded valley just outside the Medicine Bow National Forest. The three connecting lakes remained frozen six months out of the year, and weren’t even noticeable under the usual ten feet of snow during the long winters. In mid-June, however, they were in prime condition. The snow was melted, the grass was green, and the water was cold and sweet. Bill hiked down the last mile of trail, admiring the beauty and serenity of ‘his’ valley. Dodge, his black lab, bounded ahead, excited to be back even more than Bill. It had taken them two and a half days to get here from the parking area, which was about fifteen miles west of Laramie. By the time Bill got to the clearing where he would set up camp, Dodge was splashing around in the first lake nearby, chasing frogs and butterflies.
Bill set his pack down beside a tree, and sprawled out beside it. Noon was fast approaching, but time didn’t matter out here. He had all the time in the world, for the next two weeks at least. A gentle breeze cooled his sweaty forehead, and he lay back and rested. The tent could wait, he decided. It was time to relax.
An hour later, Bill woke up from his nap, rose and stretched. Dodge was napping in the sunshine nearby, already dry from his swim. Bill untied the tent from the top of his pack, and began setting it up under a young aspen grove that would provide some shade from the afternoon sunshine. Dodge lifted his head and watched briefly, then lay back and sighed deeply.
“What’s the matter, boy?” Bill asked. “Are you too lazy to help me out?” Bill chuckled. Dodge would earn his keep shortly. He loved to drag branches around, and often brought in more firewood than Bill did. The sky was clear, but he decided to put the rain fly on the tent anyway. Showers had a way of coming out of nowhere out here, and he didn’t want to get caught by surprise.
When camp was set, Bill grabbed his camp ax, whistled at Dodge, and walked towards the tree line above the clearing. Dodge charged past him, and disappeared into the woods. Bill could hear him swishing around in the leaves, sniffing things and looking for a good place to hike a leg and mark his territory. Bill found a deadfall, and began chopping branches off and stacking them. When he had a good supply, and grabbed one in each hand and headed back towards camp. Sure enough, Dodge grabbed a branch in his mouth and began dragging it behind him.
“That’s a good boy,” Bill said. “You bring the rest back, and I’ll get us a fire going.” He dropped his wood beside the old fire ring and began to prepare a fire. Dodge dropped the branch he was pulling, and streaked back into the woods. By the time he returned, dragging another branch, Bill had a cheerful blaze crackling, and was chopping the other branches into smaller pieces.
“That’s enough for today, pal,” Bill called. Dodge trotted past him to the water and drank deeply. Bill grabbed his fishing pole and tackle box, and joined Dodge at the edge of the water.
The afternoon was wearing on now, and Bill was getting hungry. A nice trout would be the perfect meal to compliment this opening day up here, and he planned to catch one for supper. He took his fishing pole and tackle box down to the shore, and got his line ready with a new lure he had purchased on the way up here. After letting Dodge sniff the line for good luck, he selected a good spot and cast his line far out into the lake. He cast several times with no luck, and was just about to move to a new spot when something tugged on his line. He jerked the rod quickly to set the hook, and began reeling.
It turned out to be a nice brown trout, large enough to be a filling meal by itself. He put it on a stringer and continued fishing a bit longer. After a few minutes, he reeled in a smaller trout, just the right size for Dodge’s supper. Taking both fish to a large flat rock away from the camp, he cleaned and filleted them. He didn’t want animals invading his campsite, looking for the fish guts that they were sure to smell. Back at camp, he breaded the fillets with cornmeal and pan-fried them over the fire, which had turned into a nice coal bed. Bill thoroughly enjoyed the delicious meal, though Dodge wolfed his down so fast that Bill thought it was unlikely that he had even tasted it. After cleaning up, they sat by the fire; Dodge sleeping, and Bill simply enjoying the mountain sunset. Finally, as the fire died away and the stars began peeking out of the darkening sky above, Bill moved to the tent and rolled out his sleeping bag.
“See you in the morning, buddy,” he said sleepily. Dodge rolled his eyes in Bills direction, but didn’t move from his spot by the fire ring. Bill chuckled and zipped the tent door. He stretched out in the sleeping bag, worn out from the long hike into the valley. He dozed off almost immediately.
Several hours later Bill awoke with a start. He strained his ears, trying to identify the sound that had startled him from his slumber. Whatever it was, it was right outside the tent. 150 seemed like a conservative estimate of his pulse, and a quick list of all the dangerous animals in North America flashed through his head. He held his breath, making every effort to be totally silent as he fumbled for a flashlight. The noise was a low rumbling sound; so deep in tone that he could almost feel it vibrating the air. After what seemed like an eternity, his shaking hand closed on the familiar cold cylinder of his flashlight. The weight of the four D cell batteries gave him some comfort as he leaned close to the screen door of the tent. Why does all camping equipment have to be made of nylon? You can’t scratch your ass without making noise, he thought. And why in the world did I leave the ax outside? The rumbling sound was growing louder, and it suddenly dawned on him.
“Dodge,” he exclaimed, turning on the light and shining it out the doorway. “You scared the shit out of me!” Dodge flinched, but didn’t turn. He was on his belly with his legs drawn up close to his body. His ears were flat against his skull, and his rigid tail stuck straight out behind him. He was staring in the direction of the lake, growling.
“What’s wrong, buddy?” Bill asked. The momentary relief he felt was turning back into fear. Something was obviously out there, and Dodge was afraid. That was the really scary part for Bill, because Dodge wasn’t afraid of anything. He shined the light around, but couldn’t see much through the mesh door of the tent. After a briefly considering getting dressed first, he unzipped the door and stepped out, shivering in the cool night air. He shined the light towards the lake and swung it in a slow arc.
Suddenly the silence was shattered by several loud splashes off to his right. Bill shrieked and dropped the light as something crashed into his legs, and he went sprawling to the ground. Total terror now controlled him, but he managed to roll over and pick up the light. A noise was now coming from inside the tent, and as he pointed the light in there he saw Dodge cowering in the back end. He swung the light back around towards the lake, but there was nothing to be seen or heard.
“Well dog, I don’t know what that was all about,” he said, crawling back into the tent. “It’s gone now, whatever it was. Are you going to go back outside?” Dodge whined meekly and laid his head on his paws.
“Well, I guess that answers that, huh?” Bill patted his head. “I can’t believe you knocked me over, you big weenie. You’re supposed to be the protector here.” He paused. “Hang on a second, I gotta get something.” He crawled back out of the tent and returned a few seconds later carrying the camp ax. “Just in case,” he said with a wink. It was a while before either of them slept, and when they did, it was with an ear cocked towards the lake. As he drifted off, Bill thought again about the way Dodge had acted. That was really creepy…what in the world is out there?
The next morning dawned clear and cool. Bill hastily built a fire and put a kettle of water on to boil, warming his hands over the flames as he waited. Dodge was prowling in the reeds down beside the lake. When the water was hot, Bill poured himself a cup of instant coffee and walked down to the shore. Dodge trotted over to him, nuzzling his hand until Bill scratched his ears. Suddenly Dodge barked, and streaked away down the shoreline. Bill looked to see what he was after, and spotted two deer watering several hundred yards away. He laughed as they sped away, easily outdistancing the dog. Dodge kept up the chase for a few seconds, then gave up and trotted back. He plopped down beside Bill, his tongue hanging out and a sheepish expression on his face.
“Too fast for you, huh?” Bill squatted down and patted his head affectionately. “Don’t worry, I’ll catch us some fish for breakfast instead, how about that?” Dodge responded by rolling over on his back for a belly rub.
After another cup of coffee, Bill collected his fishing gear and set out. He wanted to try out the second lake this morning, which was roughly a half mile up the valley. Dodge gamely scouted ahead, surprising several birds into flight. Bill found a clear spot on the shore, and prepared his line.
“C’mon dog, give her a sniff. We want to catch us a nice breakfast,” he said, holding the pole out to Dodge. Dodge happily complied, then wandered down the shore a few yards and plopped down to watch. Bill cast the line out, and had a strike within seconds. He struggled to bring it in.
“Whatever I got, it’s big,” he told Dodge. Dodge jumped up excitedly, impatient for him to reel it in. The line zigzagged left and right, as the catch fought to free itself. At last, he worked it in near the shore, when the line went slack.
“Shit!” Bill cried. “I lost it!” Suddenly the pole was snatched out of his hands and shot across the surface of the lake. Bill watched in sheer frustration as his pole left him standing on the shore. Then it turned in a large arc, and began coming back towards him. It was traveling very fast, fast enough to keep it from sinking as it normally would. Bill watched it return, and grew hopeful that he might actually get lucky enough to get his pole back, and the fish to boot. He kept his eyes fixed on the pole, and never saw what happened to Dodge. Dodge, however, saw it all, but simply had no time to do anything about it.
The thing that Bill thought was a fish was not a fish at all. Without breaking the surface of the water, and indeed without even slowing down, it turned sharply about five feet out and ran parallel to the shoreline. A gill-like slit on its chest opened, and what roughly resembled an octopus tentacle shot out, wrapped around the dog, and yanked it into the water. Dodge barely had time to let out a startled yelp before becoming fully submerged. The creature turned left and dove to the bottom of the lake. The frigid water temperature effectively prevented the dog from struggling, though a gargled moan escaped him as he saw another creature swim silently past them, headed for the surface.
Bill missed all of this, as he prepared himself to retrieve his fishing pole. As the pole swung around and neared the shore, Bill leaped into the knee-deep water and latched onto it, stumbling over a submerged rock in the process. He jumped back to his feet, his own splashes drowning out the sound of Dodge going under. Bill backed rapidly towards shore, anxious to get out of the cold water, and yanked on the pole. The line snapped, and fluttered around him. At least I got my pole back, he thought to himself. He rummaged around in his tackle box for a bit. Choosing a bright colored spoon, he tied the new lure to the end of the line, and prepared to cast.
“Sniff it for luck, Dodge,” he said. He looked around. “Dodge,” he called. “Where’d you get off to?” Shrugging, he cast without the usual dog blessing. There was no hesitation this time, and he hadn’t even finished casting. The creature ignored the lure and charged Bill. This time Bill saw it coming, but just as Dodge, he could do nothing to save himself. The tentacle-type thing exploded out of the water perhaps five feet in front of him and wrapped itself around his arms and chest. It was wet, but sticky instead of slimy. He felt himself fly a few feet through the air before he crashed into the icy water. The cold sucked all the air from his lungs, and temporarily paralyzed his muscles.
It seemed to Bill that they went down for a long time, but he knew it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds because his lungs weren’t screaming for air yet. He couldn’t move, but he could see quite clearly. The initial shock of the situation was rapidly being replaced by sheer terror, combined with total disbelief. I must be dreaming, he thought. I'm still in the tent asleep. He struggled to keep that thought close, and the surging panic at bay.
The creature was behind him, but he could see darkness in front of him, with lake grass and rocks on the bottom of the lake. He was propelled towards a large mess of rocks and boulders, and knew that he was dead, about to be bashed into the jagged edges of the stones. The creature steered them into the shadows at the base of the pile, and suddenly Bill could see what appeared to be a tunnel.
They moved into the tunnel, and the water became much darker. Bill could still see, but only a few feet in front of him. The passage went down for a while, then leveled off and went straight. At some point during the journey Bill realized that he hadn’t had a breath of air in several minutes. Strangely though, he felt no need to breath. He could feel the creature’s tentacle wrapped tightly about his torso, and he wondered if somehow he was receiving oxygen from it. The whole situation suddenly seemed to be quite bizarre, and completely absurd. No more fish before bedtime, he decided. This dream is just too crazy. Then his head bounced off the ceiling of the rock passage way, and he knew that this was no dream.
The tunnel at last began to go upwards, and after a few more minutes Bills ears popped. Think, Bill. Think, think, think. Get a grip and try to be rational. Don't panic. He tried to focus on that and figure out what was happening. He knew that they had to have climbed up in altitude, which meant that they must be inside one of the mountains now.
Without warning, they broke through the surface of the water and back into air. The creature thrust Bill onto a stone ledge, and vanished back under the surface. It was nowhere to be seen when Bill managed to turn himself enough to look back at it. He looked around groggily. The light here was dim, and seemed to be coming into the cave from far overhead. He was on a small flat rock, and there was another shape on the other edge of it. He peered at it silently, trying to figure out what it might be. It rolled over, and Bill realized that it was Dodge. Dodge? How did he get here? Bill wondered. He crawled across the slippery rock to the dog, which lay still, panting. Just seeing a familiar sight like Dodge calmed him down a bit.
“Hey buddy, are you okay?” Bill croaked, as he rubbed Dodge’s head. Dodge moaned, licked Bill’s hand, and tried to sit up. He almost made it, but flopped back down. He coughed then, and vomited some water. Bill petted his side, and spoke softly to him, comforting him. Suddenly Bill began to retch as well, and vomited water all over himself. Then he took a huge gasp of air, and realized that he could now breathe again, and that he needed to do so very badly. After a few shuddering breaths, he got his breathing somewhat under control, and then vomited some more. He shivered, soaking wet and freezing in the cold, damp cave. He lay down and huddled against Dodge. It was time to make a serious effort to collect his thoughts, warm up, and figure out what to do.
By the time Bill warmed up enough to stop shaking, his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. He sat up slowly and peered into the gloom, trying to locate any possible avenue of escape. The tunnel they had come through was out of the question. Even if he thought he might make it back through, which he doubted seriously, he knew he would never get Dodge through it. The only other thing he could make out was a large rock ledge about one hundred yards away. It stretched out in both directions into the gloom, which at least offered a thread of hope. He made his way to his feet and rousted Dodge, who appeared to be sleeping.
“Alright fella, let’s see if we can get the hell out of here, and before whatever the fuck that was comes back.” Dodge stood up and shook himself, spraying Bill. The both walked to the edge of the rock and looked at each other. “See you on the other side,” Bill winked, then took a deep breath and plunged back into the icy water.
When he reached the other side, Dodge was already hauling himself up the slippery slope to the top. With some effort, Bill joined him, and they surveyed the ledge together. There was nothing to be seen to the left, but the site to the right stopped Bill in mid-breath, and Dodge resumed the low, rumbling growl from the night before.
It was obviously a campsite, and obviously recent. There was an enormous fire pit, dishes, and what appeared to be a small mountain of modern camping gear. Bill could make out sleeping bags, coolers, backpacks, axes, and a ton of fishing gear. The place was deserted, so he began to creep closer. Dodge stayed beside him, hackles raised. There was a strange odor about the area, though Bill couldn’t place it. He reached the pile, bent down, and picked up an ax. A few test swings confirmed its status as a weapon, but then his eye happened across a more appealing alternative. Oh, machete, he grinned to himself. How I will use thee, given the chance! He dropped the ax and picked up the machete. On second thought, I hope I don’t get the chance to use this. I just want to get the hell out of here and go home. He surveyed the rest of the pile for a moment, when the thought struck him.
“Where did all this come from?” he wondered aloud. Dodge whined and stepped back a few feet. “I mean, it looks like someone robbed a Bass Pro Shop or something.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when a series of loud splashes shattered the stillness of the cave. Bill spun around to face the water just in time to see two of the strange creatures emerging onto shore. They were carrying armloads of wet wood, which they immediately dropped upon seeing Bill and Dodge. One of them let out a puma-like growl, and Dodge charged.
“Dodge, no!” Bill cried out, but it was too late. The one that had growled was holding a hand ax, and it swung fiercely at Dodge, severing most of his head. “Oh no,” Bill moaned in frustration. That quickly turned to rage. “Oh, hell no, you motherfucker!” he screamed. He raised the machete and ran towards the creature. The thing turned away from Dodge and looked at Bill, but it reacted too slowly. Bill slammed the machete down into its shoulder, near the neck. The creature dropped to the ground in a torrent of blood, much to his satisfaction, but the blade had lodged itself in a bone. Bill struggled to free it, but suddenly found himself lying flat. Stars swum in his eyes for a moment, but darkness soon took over.
Bill awoke slowly, trying to decide where he was. He could smell food cooking, and wood smoke, and that made his stomach growl. He sat up, the lump on his head throbbing in protest. As he looked around, he saw a large bonfire, and five of the strangest beings that he had ever imagined in his life. They looked like a horrible crossbreeding experiment gone wrong. They had a body and tail similar to that of a fish, but with two arms, two very muscular legs, a head that was eerily human-like, and of course, the retractable tentacle-thing in their chests. Though they had a nose and mouth, and appeared to function quite well in the air, they also had what looked to be gills on their necks, which presumably allowed them to breathe under water, as well. Despite his state of shock, Bill wondered if they were aliens, or perhaps an unknown species. They look like mermaids with legs, he decided. Make that bodybuilder mermen. He had never put much stock in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but these beings certainly seemed to add credibility to the idea.
Two of them lifted a large pot and hung it over the fire. They conversed in a strange, guttural language, which was unlike anything Bill had ever heard. He saw that one of them had his fishing lure hanging out of its side. The barbed treble hook was pierced deeply in the creature’s strange skin, which appeared to be scales on the torso, but flesh on the arms, legs, and head. I snagged the damn thing, he realized. All of this, because I snagged it by accident.
The heat felt wonderful to Bill, but his mind was churning too furiously to enjoy it much. What were these things? What were they doing with him and his dog? One of the other creatures walked to the fire with what looked like potatoes, and dumped them in the pot. Another added corn, and began to season the lot with moss that it scraped off a small rock.
The setup around the fire made it evident to Bill that these things had lived here for a long time. On closer inspection, he could see that the fire pit itself was laid out in the shape of a T. A tripod made of metal bars stood over one leg of it, and it was from this that the pot was suspended. On the other end, three poles were sticking up on each side of the fire. These poles appeared to be lodged in the rock itself, and each had a Y at the top of it, so that a pole could be laid across the fire to hang things from. It didn’t occur to Bill that they might be used for other things too, things of a more sinister nature, at least from his perspective.
He realized that Dodge was nowhere to be seen, and then he remembered the fight. Grief threatened to overwhelm him for a moment, but fear took over. These fishymen meant business, deadly business. Especially since I killed one, he thought grimly. He watched as a meat carcass was speared and lifted onto the rack over the fire. One of the things carrying it was wearing a black animal skin, still bloody, on its head and shoulders. Bills heart broke as he recognized what used to be Dodge. He couldn’t prevent his mind from putting two and two together, and he finally broke down and cried.
Suddenly he felt a sharp blow on his head, and crumpled to the ground. He could vaguely feel his clothing being removed, and fought to remain conscious. Then he felt the most horrible pain he would ever feel, as his scalp was unceremoniously removed and tossed aside. He opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. He felt his torso being sliced open, and this time he did scream. His scream was cut short though, as his entrails were removed. A sharp metal rod was rammed into his mouth, and shoved roughly down his throat. He felt it distantly at first, but lost consciousness before it exited his rectum. He was hoisted up and settled onto a set of the upright bars over the searing flames, where what remained of Dodge soon joined him. Bill never regained consciousness, so he never realized that the setup he had seen, and was now on, was actually a crude rotisserie. Had he known, he might have appreciated the irony that he had become the breakfast that he had started out to catch.
Later on that day, two of the creatures returned to the surface of the lake. They packed up Bills camp and took everything to the cavern under the mountain, removing any trace that he had ever been there. They sorted through his possessions, keeping what was useful to them, such as his pot and frying pan, his ax and knives, and his waterproof matches, and burned the rest. The bones of Bill and Dodge were tossed into the water at the edge of the rock after being picked clean. They settled to the bottom, which was surprisingly deep, and rested among the bones of thousands of other people and animals.
A game warden pulled into the roadside parking area near the end of August, and parked beside an old Jeep. It had been parked here for quite a while, which was not unusual, but he remembered seeing it here back in June, and that was long enough to become suspicious. He got out and walked over to the driver’s side. There was a faded note on the dashboard:
12 June, gone camping for two weeks, please don’t tow!
The warden walked to the rear of the Jeep and radioed the license plate in to the state police.
“Dispatch, I’ve got a possible abandoned vehicle up here at Parking Area 5. I need you to run a Nebraska plate for me,” he said, passing on the license plate number. He looked in the windows for anything else of interest while he waited for the report to come in. There was dog hair covering the passenger seat, but nothing else caught his eye. It only took a few minutes, and his radio crackled.
“It’s registered to a William Thompson, reported missing in July by his employer,” the dispatcher informed him. The warden shook his head in exasperation.
“Well, it sounds like we got another lost camper,” he replied. “That’s been almost two months now, you think we ought to get Search and Rescue involved?”
“No point, really,” the dispatcher said. “Nobody is ever found alive after a month out there, much less two. Besides, there’s no telling which way he went, and there’s five hundred square miles of mountains to get lost in. I’ll get a wrecker out there to tow the vehicle.” She sighed. “Are you going to hang out there and wait for it?”
“Nah, just tell them it’s an old brown CJ-5 Jeep, and give them the license plate number,” he said. “I’ll drop off a report to you this evening when I get back to town.” He looked around for another minute, and then he climbed back in his truck. There were a few of these people every summer, usually city folk who thought they could hack it out here in God’s Country, and ended up getting lost or breaking a leg and starving to death. They almost never found the bodies, unless another hiker ran across them. He scribbled his name across the bottom of the report, and pulled out onto the highway. I hope the dog didn’t eat him, he chuckled to himself as he headed for town.