My cousin, Ben, had a lakeside cabin where he and his parents would spend their vacations. I was always jealous of my cousin when he came back with stories about his adventures in the woods and on the lake, so I was ecstatic when his family invited us to join them that summer.
We stayed up late our first night there, sitting around a campfire and roasting marshmallows. Our parents caught up on each other’s lives while Ben and I swapped ghost stories.
A sound caught my attention as it drifted over the lake, like laughter from far off. I looked over my shoulder, across the dark expanse, and saw the tiny flickering light of a fire on the far shore. I had imagined my cousin’s cottage as a secluded retreat, but then I realized such a picturesque location was sure to attract other rich families who would build their own lakeside cabins and enjoy their own campfires each night.
“Huh?” I replied stupidly. Ben had finished his story, and I had missed the terrifying punchline. I thought about it for a second, then began my own ghostly tale.
The next morning, I stepped out onto the deck and gazed across the peaceful water. I remembered the laughter from the previous night, and turned towards where I recalled seeing the light of the campfire, hoping to catch a glimpse of another cabin. I scanned the far shore for several minutes before my cousin joined me.
“Where’s the other cabin?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said, “there are a few down that way—” He pointed towards the north end of the lake. “You can’t see them from here, though. I think there might be one at the south end too.”
“What about directly across from here?”
Ben stared out in the direction I was pointing. “No, there’s nothing over there. It’s all swampland that way.”
“Huh,” I grunted, trying not to sound too surprised. What had I seen last night? I had heard of swamp lights before—a natural reaction when gases were released into the air—but what about the laughter? What had I heard? I decided to tell my cousin about it.
“Are you sure it was laughter?” he asked. “It could’ve been animals. Raccoons, you know…
Had that been all? I could not be sure if it was just my brain trying to make sense of things, but thinking back the sounds had seemed a bit off, less than human.
“We could go check it out today, if you want,” my cousin suggested. “Our dads said they wanted to go fishing, but we can use the old rowboat.”
“Sure,” I agreed.
The water sloshed lethargically against the side of our little boat as I dipped the oars in and out of the murk. I imagined, even when the wind ripped across the open water of the lake, that this corner remained still, and that the wet slapping against our bow was the swamp’s outrage at our presence.
“Look at that,” Ben pointed. Two sickly trees grew out of the water, and wedged between the pair of rotting stumps was a ruined old rowboat. The hull was decayed beyond hope, upended so it formed a canopy over the dark water, and I imagined all manner of frogs, snakes, and other slimy things making their soggy nests underneath its protective dome.
“Do you think they drowned?” I asked, wondering at the fate of the rowboat’s owners.
“Who knows,” my cousin answered. “Probably.”
Something splashed underneath our boat, and I tried not to imagine what it might have been.
Ben took over the rowing once we were under the trees, and he guided our little vessel through the maze of moss-covered trunks until our stomachs began to growl from hunger.
“I’ve never actually been here before.”
I looked at my cousin, surprised, as we dug out the sandwiches his mom had made for us.
“When we were younger, Uncle would tell us stories about it, trying to scare us. I always pretended to be brave, but I guess the stories worked, because whenever we came out in the boat, I would tell my dad not to get too close to this place.”
“What kind of stories?” I asked.
“I guess you couldn’t really call them ghost stories, not really, but…scary stories. The gist was that children who got lost in the swamp were cursed to live there forever, transformed into something not quite human. Uncle said that at night you could hear them, and if you weren’t careful they’d lure you into the swamp and you’d become one of them, lost forever. Whenever we’d hear a strange noise from across the lake, Uncle would say ‘The swamp children are playing.’ Of course, it was really just raccoons fighting.”
I finished my sandwich, all except the crust, which I crumpled up and dropped into the water. I peered over the edge of the boat, trying to follow the remains of my lunch as it sank into my reflection. My grimy twin stared back up at me, almost taking delight in blocking my view, nearly smirking as I tried to make out the bottom. “Do you think there’s any truth to those stories? You think some kids did get lost here?”
“It’s possible,” Ben replied. “Maybe that ruined rowboat belonged to them. More than likely they drowned, like you said earlier.”
I continued watching my reflection as it danced in the ripples below. It smiled a big, mischievous grin, and its arms slowly reached up, threatening to break the placid surface.
“Watch it!” Ben warned, yanking me back. “You nearly fell in!”
“What?” I replied stupidly. “I thought…nevermind.”
Our lunches finished, my cousin turned the boat around, and we began rowing for home.
A cool breeze rustled the leaves overhead, and Ben looked worried. “It’s the evening draft,” he said. “Comes every night just before dusk. We should’ve been out into open water by now.”
A cold fist squeezed my chest at the realization that we were lost. I tossed my head back and forth, trying to catch a glimpse of open sky, but there was nothing but water-logged trees, draped in vines and moss, as far as I could see.
With a dull clunk, our boat shuddered to a halt. “What was that?” I asked.
“We hit something.” Ben prodded under the water with an oar. “Feels like a rotten log. This isn’t good. Here.” He handed me the other oar. “Help me push, see if we can get free.”
I thrust my oar under the boat, and almost instantly felt it dig into something soft. “Are you sure that’s a log?” I asked. “It’s awfully squishy.”
“It’s got to be,” my cousin replied, rocking back and forth in an attempt to shake the boat loose.
Suddenly, with a soft splash, we were free. The unexpected movement threw me off balance, and I grabbed onto the edge of the boat, saving myself from being tossed overboard. In my panic, however, the oar slipped from my fingers and landed in the water. Without thinking, I reached out to grab it, momentarily dipping my hand beneath the surface. My fingers wrapped around the wood, grimy from the swamp water, and another hand, slimy and bloated, wrapped around mine.
I yelled out in shock, recoiling from the water and bumping into my cousin who, with a shout, tumbled overboard. I was alarmed at first, but before I could even catch my breath, Ben’s head popped back up with a grimace.
“This water tastes awful. You need to be more careful.”
“Sorry,” I apologized breathlessly. “You alright?”
“Yeah. It’s not too deep, actually. I can stand.”
I helped him climb back into the boat, where he sat shivering. “I’m really sorry,” I apologized again. “When I reached in to get the oar, something grabbed me.”
“It was probably just a fish. We have bigger things to worry about, anyway. It’s getting dark.”
Indeed it was. Under the trees, nightfall was accelerated. Already, the bright greens and browns of the swamp were beginning to bleed together into a muddy gray. “What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Probably just wait here. I wouldn’t be surprised if our parents have started searching for us already.”
And so we waited. Before long it was completely dark. The tiny traces of moonlight that managed somehow to find their way down into the swamp were hardly enough to see by, and we were surrounded by vague dark shapes.
“Do you smell that?” My cousin’s voice, trembling as he shivered in his wet clothes, startled me. I sniffed the air. A rotten odor assaulted my nostrils, faint at first, but steadily growing stronger.
“Yeah. What do you think it is?”
“Swamps smell sometimes, I guess.”
Somewhere in the darkness, leaves rustled, followed by a tremendous splash.
“What kind of animals live here?” I asked, failing in masking the fear in my voice.
“Bears, deer. But they wouldn’t hang out here. They definitely wouldn’t go in the water.”
A steady, rhythmic sloshing started up, growing louder, like something walking through the water towards us.
“It’s probably just a boat wake from out on the lake,” Ben said.
“Who would be out on the lake at this hour?”
The sloshing stopped a few feet from us, although we still could not see anything, and then something thumped hard against the side of our boat. I inched away from the noise, and I could hear Ben doing the same. The rowboat tilted dangerously as our weight shifted.
The thumping continued, again and again, like a fist on the wooden hull, pounding relentlessly. Suddenly, it was joined by another, on the other side of the boat where my cousin and I cowered. We scrambled to the center, as far from either side as possible, feeling the boat shudder under the assault of the unseen hands. A few more joined in, and a few more again, until we were completely surrounded.
And then we heard laughter. It came from all around, like countless little children mocking us.
A bright light suddenly exploded to one side, and the noises abruptly stopped. In the orange flickering glow, we could see our surroundings. The water was perfectly still, like a layer of black-coated glass, and not ten feet away from us was the shore. There, hovering above the ground, was a blazing fire.
“That looks warm.”
I glanced over at my cousin, who was shivering violently in his wet clothes. “Is it real?” I wondered out loud.
“Who cares,” Ben replied, grabbing the oars and starting to row. “I’m freezing!”
Our boat slid gently onto the shore, and before I could stop him, my cousin jumped out and ran to the fire. Before my very eyes, his silhouette blurred, and before long he was lost in the glare.
“Ben!” I tried calling out to him, uncertain whether or not I should follow. “Ben!”
Another voice answered me, not Ben’s, from the opposite direction.
The scene was plunged into darkness. The fire, as if startled by the voice, had gone out. A smaller light appeared, bobbing up and down as it grew closer and brighter. A flashlight.
“Son, is that you?”
“Son, are you alright? Everyone’s been worried sick. We’ve got to get you back.”
“Wait,” I protested as he started to help me into his boat, “what about Ben?”
“It’s alright,” my dad said. “We already found him.”
“What?” I replied, looking back at where the strange fire had been with a confused look on my face. “But—”
“I know,” my dad interrupted. “His body floated back to the surface. That’s how we found him.”
“What?” Somewhere in the back of my mind I understood the words that he was saying, but I could not make sense of them. “What are you talking about?”
“Ben fell overboard, don’t you remember?”
“Yeah, but he…” I looked again at the dark shoreline where the mysterious blaze had been only minutes ago. “He’s not…”
“Come on, son, let’s get you back to the cabin.”
I will never be able to forget that sight. There was Ben, laid out on the kitchen table with his eyes closed. He was sopping wet, and his skin was a nauseating shade of pale green. I still wanted to deny it, but how could I with his drowned corpse lying there in front of me?
I had no explanation for what happened. When Ben’s parents asked me about it, I simply said he had fallen overboard, and that the rowboat had drifted away when it got dark. That was what they expected to hear. It was what I told myself over and over again, and what part of me wanted to believe. I wanted to forget our foray into the swamp, along with all its strange sights and sounds and feelings, but to this day I cannot seem to put it from my mind. Whenever I go near a pond or lake or soggy woodland, I swear I can hear laughter.