The first time they encountered the beast it was when the children were all swimming at the Lake.
It was not really a ‘lake’ – it was a small body of water surrounded by tall fir trees. You could access it via a stony, winding path, the edges of which were flanked by a low stone wall built by hand over a century ago. All the town’s children traipsed down the path in the torrid summer weeks, picnics and clothes in baskets, their chatter and laughter rising higher than the trees which brought them relief from the heat.
It was the longest day of summer. The hottest day. From the moment they woke up in the morning, they were stifled by the heat. When a ten year old Laura went downstairs, all the windows had been flung open, and the drapes hung lifeless in a nonexistent breeze. They had a light breakfast of bread and cold milk, before their mother shooed Laura, John and Phyllis out to the woods to play in the shade. It was cooler there, and on her way out Laura asked if they could swim in the Lake.
‘Yes, yes of course. Don’t forget to take your swimming things. And have Minnie pack you a lunch,’ was the response.
They met Mary once they reached the winding stone wall path. She was picking her way among the scattered stones three paces behind Tom, her older brother. As they neared the Lake, they heard splashing sounds, laughter and screams, and they all smiled at each other in anticipation.
They had to turn a final bend, which, when they did, they found themselves faced by a larger thicket of tall pine trees, rather than the slope down to the Lake that they had anticipated seeing. Tom, who was ahead, stopped dead in his tracks.
‘That’s funny,’ he said, as the others reached him, ‘that isn’t supposed to be there.’
‘We must have taken the wrong turn,’ John said quickly, grabbing hold of his sisters’ arms. The earth went silent. They could no longer heard the shouts and whoops from the Lake.
‘We can’t have taken the wrong turn,’ Tom hissed, ‘there is only one straight path.’
The children stood still. Frozen in place.
A wind started to blow. They felt it surge at them, and before they had any time to react to it, it swelled around them with a shriek so deafening that they fell to the ground. It pulled at their hair, hot and damp, tugged at their clothes, and roared in their ears. Laura, who had fallen next to Tom, locked eyes with the older boy – his, vivid, green, wide, looking directly at her, just so, in that way; she knew immediately he had heard exactly what she had.
Then it stopped, and when they looked up, the world was loud again. Birds chirruped in the trees. The path was clear ahead of them, sloping down to the grassy edge of the lake, where they saw their friends leaping into the water, squealing and splashing as though nothing was wrong.