When I was a kid, my parents had a creek behind our house. It was pretty close, so every day of summer vacation, my brother and I would walk out to it. We would skip rocks or we’d make sandwiches and camp out until supper. Sometimes we’d bring our rods and go fishing even though we never caught anything, just little skinny gray fish that weren't worth keeping.
However, we never went swimming there, except for one time. It was during the first weekend of summer. I had just finished middle school, my brother just got out of fourth grade with all A’s, and my parents were exceptionally happy with us. Saturday came around and when the clock hit 8:00 in the morning; I woke my brother up, we put on our swim trunks and we went out to the creek.
It was a beautiful spot. The creek’s bottle green water danced and shone under the mild morning sun, and we could feel the soft wind brushing past us. On either side of the bank were old willow trees with long thin branches and flat green leaves that hung down like dogs’ ears.
We peeled our shirts off and plastered on the sunscreen, even at that early hour it was getting warm.
My brother didn't bother to change into his swim trunks, he was so set on getting in the water first that he just tore out across our camp on the riverside and pitched himself into the water completely bare-ass naked. I hobbled and staggered toward the water, trying to put my trunks on and pull them up, yelling at him "Get back here and put your trunks on Roger!"
“I don’t need ‘em!” he yelled back as he floated on his back like an otter does.
“What if something swims up your pee hole?” I managed to get my trunks on just in time to hit the water. It was quite a jarring feeling, feeling the coolness of it engulf you after having the sun beat down on your back. I bobbed back up just as he spat a mouthful of water right in my eyes.
My brother floated there and laughed as I splashed around blind for a second. When my vision cleared up, he was already out in the deeper part of the creek diving down and coming up again like a dabbling duck.
“I bet I can touch the bottom! What about you?”
“No, I’m fine,” I said.
“Come on, you scared? I can do it.”
I drew in my breath and went under. Under the water, everything was murky and green-black; with the sunlight stalled at the surface like a frightened camper with a lamp. I swam down, down past the fallen branches and freshwater weeds; And with a shaky hand, I touched the soft silt of the creek bottom.
I pulled back, leaving a palm print in the worm-brown riverbed. As I prepared to swim back up, I saw the outline of a huge fish. It was at least four feet long, with a sloping head and wide fins.
It drifted around me for a few moments before darting off. I came up to the surface, gasping for air. My brother was grinning wide.
“See? Isn't it fun? Now watch me.”
I told him to wait a minute and he cocked his head to the side like a confused dog.
I told him about the fish, his expression didn't change.
“So? It’s a big fish. I bet I can catch it with my hands.”
And before I could say anything else, he was under the water. A minute later, he didn't come up.
I called his name over and over; I was screaming it out loud when he finally shot back up with a clump of river moss on his head. I admit, I jumped a little.
“I scared you!” he laughed, taking the moss off and throwing it back into the water.
“Don’t do that again!”
“You were really scared!”
“I thought you were in trouble, you idiot!” I had to restrain myself from punching him at that moment.
“Geez. I was just joking.”
He looked sullen for a bit before he was right back to grinning like a clown.
“Hey, I’m going back down. I bet I can catch that big fish!”
And before I could say anything, down he went. A few seconds later, he bobbed up and was screaming. “Something bit me!”
“Roger, that’s not funny.”
Just as those words left my mouth, I noticed a cloud of red that was expanding in the water around him and my heart stopped. I swam over to get him, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark shape in the water curving back toward him.
I grabbed him in one arm and took off toward the shore, swimming harder and faster than I thought I ever could. Roger was thrashing about and shrieking like a dying bird and my ears were ringing.
Every so often he would cry out even louder and I would turn back to see the thing in the water right on our tail. I could see its face in the water.
The edge of the creek seemed to move away from us. Finally, we reached land and I threw him onto the grass and climbed out. My arms and legs were aching down to the bone and my head was pounding.
My brother was shaking and completely silent. I looked over him and saw a patchwork of shallow, red wounds where he had been bitten. My eyes follow them down to his right calf and I nearly threw up when I saw it.
On his calf, a golf-ball sized chunk of flesh was bitten clean off. The wound was deep red and oozing. I snatched up my shirt and wrapped it around the wound, the rest were superficial compared to it. We threw our clothes on and staggered back to our house. When we got inside, I told my mother everything and her face turned so pale, she didn't even yell at us.
My father told us to never, ever go there again but he didn't need to. My brother did not speak. Even when we were in the car driving him to the hospital he was dead silent for the whole trip.
When we walked into the hospital lobby, everyone else in there just stopped and stared at us, or rather, at the blood-soaked T-shirt wrapped around my brother’s leg. A nurse ran up to us and told us that my brother needed to go to the ER.
The words ‘emergency room’ prompted an outburst of dry sobbing from my mother, my father was stone-face, and my brother was still shaking and looking around like a caged rat. He got taken in for surgery; a bald-headed doctor came out and described the damage using words like “skin graft” and ‘eviscerated tissue’ I didn't know what those words meant at the time but I had a pretty good idea.
The doctor cleared his throat. “Also, we need to know how he was injured this way.” My mom looked at me. I told him about the fish, about how it chased us until we reached dry land. I could tell from his face he didn't really buy it.
“Are you sure it wasn't some other animal? There aren't any fish around here that can make that kind of wound.” My father looked down at me.
“Was it really a fish?”
I knew what I saw, I told him as such. The doctor said, “We checked the wound and there were indentations around the wound like human teeth, are you sure the boy’s brother didn't bite him?” and my father’s hand balled into a fist.
The doctor saw the look in my dad’s eye and immediately backpedaled, “I’m just asking because the bite marks were consistent with human teeth and the boy’s been saying 'Josh' over and over since we put him on anesthetic."
My father’s arm dropped. “My son would never…” The doctor apologized and said I would have to have a plaster mold of my teeth and take a psychiatric evaluation, ‘just in case’ he said.
I couldn't believe it, I looked at my father and he just sighed and consented to the evaluation.
For three hours every weekday for the rest of the month, I sat in a bleached white room answering questions given to me by an older woman in coke-bottle glasses and a cloying, condescending voice. My answers felt completely irrelevant. “Did you ever have violent tendencies towards your brother or other people?” I said no and she asked me to think harder, to try to remember everything.
She would second guess everything I said in the tone of voice you’d talk to a dog with. It was embarrassing, being told to answer honestly and then being told your honest answer was not consistent with your honest answer the day before or that you should think more clearly about your honest answer.
I was eventually cleared. Even with the plaster mold of my teeth, I still feel I probably wouldn't have been if my father hadn't walked in on us one day with a newspaper in his fist. He slapped it down on the psychiatrist’s desk and opened it to a page reading “Local Fisherman Catches River Monster.”
The lady looked to my father, my father looked at me, they knew I was right all along, and I wish I wasn't.
The fish was laid out in the pictures. It had the same sloping head and broad fins. And at the bottom was a picture of its open mouth. It had a row of square, flat, human looking teeth and they were stained pink with blood.
My brother recovered well. He still has a scar on his calf and walks with a slight limp, but the real damage isn't something you can see, like the nightmares. He would turn and writhe in his bed like a snake on fire, his sheets would be damp with sweat.
They were always silent nightmares except for this one time he woke up mom and dad. He didn't even know he was screaming. He told them the fish had come and dragged him down the bathtub drain to the deepest, darkest water.
Then the fish would eat him alive, tearing him open like paper and eating his insides as they slid out of him in the icy blackness. Mom put him on sleeping medication for a while, but that didn't help very much at all.
In my second year of high school, we moved away and that seemed to have helped more than anything. The nightmares stopped, he settled back into his old self. He still will not get in any water, not even swimming pools. Once, we went to a zoo and aquarium and the sight of the alligator enclosure made him run back toward the bird exhibit. I don’t remember where the creek was, exactly, but I’m fine with that.