One Thursday morning just a month before school let out, Simon stood on the sidewalk staring down at the puddle in front of him. The night before he had gone downstairs to watch the Wednesday Night Horror Hour from midnight to one a.m. He had learned that staying up late could get him into trouble, so now Simon only stayed up past his bedtime on every second or third Wednesday.
There had been a good one on last night. The Horror Hour had featured a short movie about a lake that had giant sea monsters in it. Giant sharks, giant alligators, and even a giant octopus. The heroes of the story mostly got eaten, but one guy, Ray, managed to kill all the giant monsters by luring them into an underwater cave and using underwater dynamite to collapse the cave on top of them. Ray almost died doing it, too. The movie people made it look like Ray had been crushed by all the falling rock and even showed Ray’s scuba mask floating all alone as if he’d lost his grip on it. But then just before the end credits began to roll, Ray came bursting up through the surface of the lake with only a little scratch on his forehead.
Simon knew that was going to happen because they had already shown the little escape tunnel Ray had discovered the day before when scuba diving with his friends (they had all been eaten, of course). Simon was starting to notice that the Horror Hour movies had a way of kind of letting you know that things would turn out OK … if you paid attention to the little details, that was.
The puddle Simon looked at was no lake, but for Simon it didn’t matter. Already he was imagining that this puddle was far deeper than the lake in the horror movie. Really deep. Down to the center of the Earth deep.
And inside that puddle was more than water. Monsters lived down there. In fact, the puddle wasn’t a puddle at all, but a doorway to another world. A world with all kinds of demony monsters. A different kind of horror lake. Only a step and a half wide, but very, very deep, and somewhere along the way you weren’t on Earth anymore. You were transported through a wormhole to another planet on the other side of the galaxy. It only appeared to be a normal puddle to casual passersby. Not a single ripple disturbed its surface. Unless, that was, one of the monsters living down there decided to reach up and grab your ankle if you should happen to get too close.
Simon stared down at the muddy puddle in front of him. His reflection stared up with a curious look on its face. Puddle-Simon seemed to ask why he didn’t continue on his way. Simon looked into the water and tried to look past Puddle-Simon and the reflections of the Puddle-trees above him and down to the bottom of the little span of water. Down to the ground he knew existed but for some reason could not believe in.
Simon held a stick in his hand and had been thinking about dropping it into the puddle. He wanted to see it dip down deep into the depth of the water that wasn’t supposed to be there. He wanted to perhaps see a dirty, hairy, muscle-toned red arm reach up out of the water, catch the stick before it even hit the water’s surface, and pull it down, never to be seen again. But since he knew these things wouldn’t really happen, Simon didn’t truly want to drop the stick. It would ruin the mystery of the puddle.
He watched the Puddle-stick reflection swinging slowly back and forth. He continued imagining the stick falling into the puddle, dipping halfway in before bobbing back to the surface. Then he was actually watching it fall, the stick and its reflection racing towards each other. His fingers had let go just at the moment he believed it possible. His mind screamed out to kick it away before it was all ruined. Yet Simon’s body didn’t move. His demeanor didn’t change. He was utterly calm. When the end of the stick hit the water, it made a small splash. And when it hit the solid ground beneath, it stood upright for an instant before falling over to the earth, half in and half out of the puddle.
Simon watched, disappointed, as the ripples slowly dissipated and the puddle began to resemble its mystery again. The stick soon lay jutting out over the deepest cavern on Earth, waiting for a hand to reach up and take it, or a boy to step on it and send them both falling into the dark, airless hole.
Across the street two other children walked past him toward the morning bus stop. But Simon didn’t notice them. He saw only the puddle and the reflections of himself and the trees. Would the demons below appear if it were him instead of the stick that dropped through the surface? And if he believed they were there, did that make it so? Then the Puddle-Simon staring up at him changed. Not in appearance, but in demeanor. That version of Simon no longer wondered. That boy knew. He knew that the demons were real. He knew the fate of any boy who stepped on that stick. And that was when Simon truly believed.
With no forethought, with no doubt, with no hesitation whatsoever, Simon stepped forward.
When his sneaker touched the water in the puddle, it seemed to hold him up for just an instant, feeling like he was standing on the water’s surface. And then it let go. But he didn’t just step through it like the stick had done. The water had let him go. And when it did, he fell in up to his ankle. It was too deep, too wet. Then he was already up to his waist. Then completely underwater. He looked up and saw the brown and green trees rippling from the splash his body had made.
A hand clasped his ankle, and Simon tried to scream. He couldn’t. The water flowed in instead, although this didn’t frighten him. He could still breath somehow because this water wasn’t really water, it was a weird kind of jelly-like fluid that was really pure liquid oxygen. He looked down at the hand as he fell deeper. In the dark, Simon could not see past his knees and the hand remained hidden.
Then the hand was joined by another clenching grip on his other ankle. Then another on right knee. Then two more on the left.
It was growing darker by the second in the water’s depth. Soon he couldn’t see anything at all. The hands were all over him. Hands on his arms, his back, his chest, his neck. And then one large, strong hand covered his face. Simon stayed calm and breathed slow and deep. He didn’t scream, and didn’t even wiggle. He knew that if he stayed calm he would be OK. That’s how the guys who survived the monsters in the Wednesday Night Horror movies did it. All you had to do to make it out OK was to stay calm and breath slow.
The hands all began to tighten, squeezing him all together like a giant carpenter’s vise. It began to hurt. He didn’t notice that he was still falling. There were only those squeezing hands and the weird jelly-like air. But he could not escape. He was trapped. They were taking him to their distant, alien world, and they’d never bring him back.
And all of a sudden Simon began to panic. He might survive, sure, but how would he live in an alien world with no way to get home? What if there were all kinds of puddles there and children from all over the world stepped into them and got taken there? And what if those children were forced to work long, hard, back-breaking slave labor for their whole lives only their lives went on forever because in this world children didn’t grow up and didn’t become strong adults who could organize and plan and fight back against a planet of demons?
As the hands squeezed and pulled him farther and farther down, Simon realized he was going to die. Here or there, now or later, he would die someday. He didn’t think about his toys on his bedroom shelf, so recently abandoned, or the unfinished homework in his backpack. He didn’t think about Barry Callas, his woebegone bully, or the ugly taste of overcooked liver. He didn’t think of making the B-52 Bomber with his dad or playing with magnets on the dining room table or climbing in his tree house or throwing a football up into the tree branches and trying to catch it after it bounced around or of how predictably awful each of Wile E Coyote’s schemes were or even of how warm and perfect his mother’s hugs were. He thought only that he was dying, dying, dying. He couldn’t shout, couldn’t swim, couldn’t breathe.
And very soon Simon was giving up. As he began to pass out, he remembered a moment just like this from the movie the night before. In the movie, Ray’s friends had thought jumping in the lake was fun. But then one had been pulled underwater by the giant octopus, and then they didn’t think it was fun anymore. And the friend who had been pulled down had struggled to swim back to the surface against the octopus and had gotten really close because Ray and the others had found a sharpened stick and were poking at the octopus’s head and just before they landed a solid blow in one of it’s giant eyes, the friend had given up fighting and had drowned. When the octopus let go, it had already been too late. If only he had fought for a second or two longer he would have made it. If only he had stayed calm he would have been fine.
Fading deeper and deeper into darkness and the impossible depths of the mysterious puddle, Simon didn’t think sneaking downstairs to watch the Wednesday Night Horror Hour was fun anymore. He didn’t believe in the fun of it. He didn’t believe in the monsters themselves. He didn’t believe.
He didn’t believe.
And suddenly, Simon’s pain stopped. The hands were gone. The fear was gone. The water itself was gone.
He opened his eyes slowly to the hard, fast beat of his heart.
A block away, Barry Callas and his new friend, Wendy, stood at the bus stop and watched Simon without realizing how close he had been to death or a demon planet on the other side of the galaxy.
Several blocks back, Simon’s mother watched out the kitchen window as her son continued to stand in the puddle and stare down, dreaming up all sorts of magical fairy-tale stories. She never understood his fascination with telling stories, but she thought he was smart, and she was proud of him.
Ten blocks further on, Simon’s father turned the corner on his way to work, wondering how much longer he would allow his son to sneak out of his room at night to watch the weekly horror movies. He knew it would make his wife upset if she knew he had been helping to hide Simon’s secret, but he was pretty sure that Simon really was thinking about his future somehow. And besides, Mr. Armbrister thought, Simon hasn’t gotten in trouble at school even once in the last two months. And his grades have gotten better, too. I suppose he can have his fun for a little while longer.
Two blocks away and approaching, the school bus carried a dozen other children who chatted about math tests, the funniest YouTube videos, the best new bands, and the weird kids in school like Frances Winsley or Simon Armbrister, each of them unaware of the limits of their imaginations.
And in the ordinary, everyday puddle at his feet, Simon saw his reflection looking up at him with wet sneakers and the innocent stick bobbing lightly by the edge. Beyond them all the reflected trees swayed lightly in the morning breeze, uncaring of bullies, kitchens, work, yellow school busses, or red-armed demons.
When the ripples on the water faded, Simon Armbrister smiled wide, hopped out of the puddle, and moved on.
Keith Edwin Fritz teaches seventh grade language arts and writes in his spare time. He also runs a writing group at the Princeton Public Library on the second and fourth Tuesday nights of each month. His other works can be found at www.FritzFiction.com.”