Watering Hole
By Philip Roberts
A fight was what brought Justin out into the woods that afternoon. He walked along a dirt path made years before his life began. The
argument had been simple, his parents of the belief that Justin should be home by midnight and Justin of the belief that at the age of
sixteen, he should be able to stay out as late as he wanted.
He walked a path he'd gone down countless times before, this entire area no longer a mystery to him, or so he thought. Up ahead he
saw another path, nearly covered by the growing weeds, summer long since underway. This was a path he'd never noticed before, and
with nothing else to do, he turned down it.
The path led to an old watering hole. From the side Justin entered from, he was met with a sharp decline, which ended in water about
twenty feet down. On the other side was a slope, but that wasn't what Justin was looking at. His eyes were drawn to a roped tied to a
tree branch, the end of it knotted for a better grip.
His eyes moved towards the branch, sturdy, easily strong enough to hold the weight of a person and then back to the rope. Obviously
at one point someone hung it up in order to swing across the watering hole.
Given the size of the hole, Justin didn't think he could swing all the way across to the slope and would probably fall into the water. He
glanced down at the shimmering liquid below and then to the slope on the other side. The ground on the slope was soft dirt and if he
leapt off the rope at the right moment he could probably hit the dirt, unharmed. The thought sounded entertaining, so Justin reached
for the rope. He nearly fell trying—the rope just a little far out from the cliff—but his fingers were able to wrap around the weathered
swing.
He pulled on it to assure the sturdiness. A loop was tied at the base of the rope amongst the knots, so Justin placed his right foot in it.
Some rational part of his mind considered whether this was really such a good idea, but Justin wasn't about to be swayed, and with a
smile he pushed off the ground.
His stomach tensed as he flew through the air, both hands gripped firmly on the rope, half expecting it to break any second. He locked
his eyes on the other side and tensed up his right leg, ready to leap off, but when push came to shove and his arc was at its greatest,
Justin backed down.
Then the rope was swinging back and Justin's eyes moved towards the other side, back the way he'd come. Unfortunately, the rope
hung lower than he thought, the top of the cliff just a few feet above his head. If he leapt, he would have to grab onto the ground and
climb the rest of the way back up, so instead he stayed put. This time his swing back to the slope didn't even bring him close enough to
make the leap.
The inevitable was obvious, and with each swing, his momentum slowly faded and Justin knew a dunk in the water was how this was all
going to end. Still, he clung to the rope until it stopped its swing completely, leaving Justin suspended motionless in the air above the
water. Accepting his fate, he was releasing his grip when a flicker in the water caught his eye.
Grip once again firm, Justin leaned out from the rope and stared downward at his destination, watching the circular ripples of water roll
away from the point of impact where something had broken the surface. Then he saw it again, something underneath poking out into
the day for a second before going back under.
Now that Justin had a better look at the water, he realized there was something down there, something much larger than a fish. The
shape he saw seemed to take up almost the entire watering hole. It moved back and forth just a little within the confined space, waiting.
For a second, when Justin realized the size of the thing below, his grip faltered. He nearly fell, hands suddenly slick with sweat, the day
much hotter than before. Within the water he saw something that shouldn't be there. When he saw the arms reaching up out of the
water along the wall, he could do nothing but stare.
There were four of them along the steep drop off at Justin's back. He turned his head at the sound of splashing and saw what he knew
were only extremities. At first glance they almost looked like the tentacles to an octopus, but something was off. Fingers grew out from
the tip of each bizarre arm, only four, almost like human fingers but smaller, groping lightly at the rocky wall.
Below him it shifted and through the surface of the water Justin could see what he knew were eyes. He stared into the monstrous eyes
and then screamed when it reached out for its next meal.
What came out of the water were more arms, probably fifteen at least, small deformed fingers opening and closing eagerly as they
reached up towards him. Justin couldn't breathe as he watched them come closer, the skin a dark gray, hard and scaly like a fish.
Barbed nails lined
the underbelly of each arm and Justin could envision those little claws hooking onto his leg, tearing through his skin.
He screamed until the arms stopped, a foot at most below his hanging feet. They tried to stretch further, but apparently couldn't. From
below he heard what he knew was a growl of anger and then the arms retreated. Justin had no voice as he watched the arms withdraw
back under the water.
For the next ten minutes the only sounds he heard were that of the forest. Bugs chirped and birds occasionally sang. Leaves rustled as a
breeze blew through the day and the wind made Justin spin just a little from his perch, the rope creaking up above him as he remained
suspended over the watering hole. Through those ten minutes Justin did nothing but stare at the water and what he knew was below it.
Part of him wanted to deny anything at all happened. He tried to tell himself he imagined the whole thing, as impossible as that was.
Nothing waited below and nothing would happen if he just let go and fell into the water.
Before he had realized it, ten minutes turned into an hour and Justin found himself still hanging from a rope over a watering hole. He
briefly tried to scream for help, but if his earlier screams of fear hadn't alerted anyone, he doubted his cries for help would.
He knew the thing below him was still watching. Every so often he'd see the shape under the surface, but even when he couldn't see it,
he felt its eyes. It waited, ready for him to fall and then it could get its meal. The very thought made Justin's arms tighten on the rope,
but they were getting tired.
One hour turned quickly into two and above him the sun was starting to make its way towards the horizon. How long before his
parents came looking for him? They'd call his friends first, and after that, would they walk out here? The answer was probably no. They
would assume Justin walked to the mall or something similar and leave it at that until midnight rolled around and he still wasn't home.
Then would come another round of calls to his friends and maybe the police after that. Best-case scenario, people would come looking
for him out here some time tomorrow morning.
Such a wait was beyond him. Even if he did have the strength to hold on all night, he knew he didn't have the will power. His nerves
were shot, stomach more tightly knotted than the rope he hung from and part of him already just wanted to let go. This was too much
for him. An impossible creature reached up with fifteen arms and tried to grab him. The very same impossibility now swam in the
water down below and waited him out.
He tried as hard as he could to deny to himself that any of this was happening.
After another two hours passed, much of the light now fading from the sky, Justin didn't deny anything.
By that point his arms were growing sore, shoulders crying for reprieve. He could've relaxed his muscles and still managed to maintain
his grip, but any form of relaxation scared him. He'd spent
the past four hours with his body as tense as it could be and now he could feel the affects. It wouldn't be long now. And down below
him, the eyes kept watching.
When the sun was finally gone, Justin knew something else needed to be done, the most obvious course of action, what he should've
done right from the beginning. He needed to try to swing, build up enough momentum to get himself back onto land. He didn't know if
it was possible, but he knew his arms wouldn't last much longer.
He nearly lost his grip on his first attempt to make the rope swing  His hands slipped just a little when he jarred his body to the side and
the scare made him wrap both arms tightly around the rope. For the first time he realized his right foot was asleep, the entire leg numb.
Both hands gripped tightly on the rope, Justin slipped his right foot out of the loop and tried to insert his left. He missed on the first
few tries, his foot merely pushing around the rope. His hands grew tired and he knew this would be the moment he fell. Mustering up
all the focus he had, Justin slowly moved his left foot, and as gently as possible pushed it through the loop and regained his balance.
This time going a little slower, Justin moved his body and let the arc build, a little at first and then more and more.
As his body flew through the air, back and forth over and over again, Justin had to make a decision: which side. He was much closer to
the cliff he'd entered from, but that was slightly above him and had little to grip onto. The slope was a downward leap and his odds of
making it were far better given his current wariness. If he needed to climb up the cliff at all, he doubted he had the strength.
In the growing darkness, Justin had trouble seeing the slope, but it was there. Fireflies danced in the air around him, the night almost
magical if not for what he knew was still waiting below.
Apparently the creature understood what Justin was trying to do. His attention was drawn by splashing as the arms returned. They
reached eagerly upward; stretched as far as they could go, still short, but a little closer. A rumbling filled the night as the creature
protested Justin's current course of action.
In his mind Justin saw himself land, only to have the arms wrap around him and drag him under. He would need to run the second he
hit thr ground, but did he have the strength to? His right leg was still largely numb, foot tingling as sensation returned to it. If he needed
to run, he didn't think he'd be able to.
So his attention was turned once more to the cliff and whether or not a climb could be done. The idea of the slope no longer appealed
to him, so in mid-swing he shifted around in his position and turned the other way.
The arc was as big as it was going to get. His chance was now, whether he took it or not. In understanding of Justin's new destination,
the arms tried to get in-between him and the wall. They clawed at the stone, first a few and then all of them at once. They latched onto
the side of the cliff and down below, something giant broke through the water.
The arms didn't cling to the surface in order to get to Justin. They were pulling, bringing the monster out of the water and higher up.
He didn't look down, aware that what he would see wasn't something he'd ever be able to forget again. What his eyes did notice were
two arms,
latched onto the cliff, now higher up, almost able to touch him and in seconds they would.
What he did wasn't planned. His goal had been to leap onto the cliff and try to claw his way up, but in his mind he saw what he knew
would be the end result of such an action.
On the height of his arc, not towards the wall but away from it, Justin leapt backwards towards the slope. Below him the monster
screamed in anger at the sudden change of action, but Justin wasn't paying attention.
What Justin saw in his fall towards the ground was the night sky up above him through the trees. He stared at the stars as the ground
rushed towards him, but in truth a part of him just didn't care. He was expecting to miss the slope and slam into a rock. With his back
broken, the creature would have its meal.
But he didn't hit a rock. His body was jarred by the impact, but what he felt was soft dirt, and trailing this realization was a voice in his
head screaming hysterically for him to run, which was exactly what he did.
Behind him the creature submerged back into the water and Justin felt as the wave it created sprayed lightly on the back of his legs.
Justin didn't look back at the sound and didn't look back when he heard what he knew were arms snaking across the ground as fast as
they could
towards him, but not fast enough.
Justin didn't stop until he found himself on the curb to the street in his neighborhood, woods to his back, civilization to his front. His
lungs burned, right leg still tingling, shoulders and arms sore, entire body nearly dead, but he was alive.
Legs already about to collapse, Justin took up a seat on the curb and watched the quiet night. In awhile he'd walk back home and
probably go to bed. Whether or not he'd tell his parents was a question left unanswered. Maybe he could take them to the watering hole
tomorrow to see the creature and then they could notify someone who would talk to someone else. Maybe he would do all these things,
but for the time being, he just sat on the curb and rested.
All he wanted at that moment was to sit. Everything else would come later.