Short Story
                                              The Pool
                                                             By Ben Larned


Oopsy woopsy, daisy waisy,
Falling in the stream.
Clumsy wumsy, cry for Mumsy,
No one can hear you scream.


     Infamous were the three children who sat against the clubhouse gate that hot summer day, watching
the other children with shaded eyes. None of the other pool-goers spoke to them, or cared to look at
them for too long, except to make sure they were still sitting far away, out of trouble. The lifeguards knew
to watch them, though they didn’t have a clue of how to handle any situation that should present itself.

     But the three were preoccupied with the clubhouse caretaker, a weathered man who had the look of
dirt during a bad drought, spying on the splashing children from behind his toolshed. His eyes were
filmy, yellow-red with years of drink and smoke. The three believed those colors to be a sign of his
devilishness, and would dare each other to stare into the unnatural eyes for as long as they could bear.
Dan – whose dense brows and dark scrutiny commanded respect of even the older kids – currently held
first place, having withstood an entire eighty seconds before the caretaker had locked stares with him
as well. Now, the three only observed him, trying to guess what words were being formed by his silently
quivering lips.

     “He’s picking out which kid looks tastiest,” said Patricia, who demanded to be called Pat. She was
using her long red hair to shield her eyes, in case the caretaker should look her way and see her
examining him.

     “Don’t be stupid. He’s not a cannibal,” Dan grumbled. “He’s deciding where to hide the bodies in the
shed. They’re getting stinky. Bet he’ll chop them into pieces and throw them in the gulch or something.”

     Gerald adjusted his glasses and shifted on his towel, grimacing. He didn’t like to look at the old man
for too long.

     These rumors about the caretaker were familiar to the neighborhood. On late sleepover nights, the
girls spun wicked tales about his activities involving other little girls under the cover of darkness. Even
the well-poised adults in the nicer houses laughed about his lonesome murmurings, when no one could
hear them do so. But no one hated the caretaker as much as the infamous three, and most of the rumors
could be traced back to their mouths. The caretaker was aware of the stories, and of the way people
avoided him; but he had more important matters with which to concern himself.

     “He’s watching them all now,” Dan continued. “Deciding who he’s gonna follow home and chop up
with his chainsaw.”

     “Axe,” Pat interjected. “I bet he uses an axe.”

     “That’s gross,” Gerald whimpered. “I don’t think he really does that.”

     He received twin glares from his companions. “Would you like to bet on that, Gerry?” Dan chided.
“Why don’t you go up and ask him?”

     “No,” Gerard squeaked. “Never mind.”

     Dan, with his eyes that nearly projected his intentions from the pupils, watched the caretaker for a
while longer as he shuffled on the peripheries of the pool and mumbled his one-sided conversation.
When his friends had just begun to doze in the heat, he sat upright and shouted, “I’ve got an idea.”

     This exclamation brought Pat and Gerald back to consciousness. Dan’s enthusiasm buzzed off his
skin in affecting waves. “We’ve never pranked the old creep,” he whispered. “We’ve talked about it
enough, though. Let’s wait till it gets dark, and then come back with spray paint and stuff and trash the
place. And while we’re here, we can check the shed and look at the bodies.”

     The wicked excitement in his face began to fall off when Dan did not find equal emotion in the other
two. He waited for them to celebrate his genius idea, and when they did not, he growled, “What’s the
matter?”

     Pat summoned every ounce of courage she had to craft her response. “That’s crazy, Dan,” Pat
answered. “We don’t know if he leaves at night. What if we get caught?” Gerald nodded in fervid
agreement, but couldn’t add anything, for his jaw felt welded shut. Dan could see the tinge of fear hiding
in their faces, and it boiled the rage inside of him upwards into his head.

     “You guys are such pussies,” he spat. “Scared of a stupid old geezer who talks to himself?” He
waited for counter arguments, but none came. “Fine, then. If you don’t want to, I’ll do it myself, and the
whole neighborhood will know that you’re a couple of sissies.”

     Gerald and Pat knew he wasn’t lying. They could imagine the terror awaiting them in the clubhouse at
night; but the projected sound of jeering whispers from the groups of little kids who knew about their
failure, pointing and saying things, was loud in their ears. They exchanged a last look at each other,
desperate for another excuse but already resigned to their fate; and so it was settled.

     As planned, the infamous three met outside the gate at ten o’clock, when the rest of the
neighborhood had gone to sleep. It was no struggle sneaking out; even Gerald knew that his parents, in
bed by eight, would not notice that he was gone. Dan stole a can of spray paint from his father’s garage,
and Pat armed herself with toilet paper, a weak tool by Dan’s judgment but worth having nonetheless.

     The street was still wet due to the afternoon rainstorm, and the yellow streetlights reflected back in
the water like glowing eyes. Across the grass their shadows were cast, already stretched past the fence,
into the territory of the caretaker. Though the night air was thick and clung to their skin, Pat and Gerald –
even Dan – couldn’t keep from shivering. They – along with the rest of the neighborhood – knew the
legends well, about the phantom voices and formless shadows in the clubhouse windows, the watchers
that held sway over the grounds once the sun went down. There was a reason that the street was so
empty. A small voice in each of their minds reminded them of this and urged them to leave, take their
shadows away from the gate, but it was not loud enough to stop them.

     Dan surveyed the shadow-ridden pool and the shed beyond, a black mound untouched by the
streetlights, for any signs of the caretaker. He waited for a moment before declaring the coast clear.
Gerald went immediately to the gate and tried it, finding it locked as he assumed it would be. “Guess we
can’t get in,” he said in mock disappointment.

     “We’re scaling the gate, idiot,” Dan sneered. “But you can still back out now.”

     Gerald said no more and the three went about climbing over the fence, a more difficult task than they
predicted due to the condensation on the metal. With quick, determined steps, though, they managed it;
and landed with an echoing thud inside the clubhouse grounds. Before them, the pool and patio lay
silent, amplified in size by the emptiness. The water lapped at its cage, leaden and calm. A neglected
cluster of fallen leaves floated on the surface. The scent of chlorine and wet grass pervaded the air,
perhaps covering up what the three expected to smell emanating from the toolshed.

     They spent several minutes watching the abandoned clubhouse, unaware that they were doing so;
then Gerald said, “This place gives me the creeps. Let’s go quick,” and reminded them of what they had
come for.

     Without another word, they set about their work. Pat strung her toilet paper from the posts and rails of
the fence in mad spurts, until no more than an inch was left uncovered and the streams of paper fluttered
in the breeze like reaching arms. Gerald emptied the trashcans as best as he could, though the melted
ice cream stuck to his hands and spots of forgotten mustard plastered his clothes. Dan took to painting
the concrete and the folded chairs with as many phallic symbols and phrases as he could conjure,
repeating them when he ran out of fresh ideas. Their work was fast; none of them were immune to the
chilled atmosphere that oozed from the dark clubhouse windows, through which any number of dead
faces might be watching.

     Gerald’s digital watch read half past ten when they declared their work satisfactory. The job had
been completed in a record amount of time, and when the three surveyed its full effect from the papered
fence, they agreed that it was their greatest accomplishment.

     As they turned to leave, Gerald piped up: “Nobody did anything to the pool.”

     Slowly, the others turned, hoping to find a way to correct Gerald. But he was right – the inky water
had been left untouched, aside from the cluster of leaves. Their work was diminished by the evident
neglect. It would be criminal to leave without going all the way.

     “Fine,” Dan said, bitter. “You go do something then. I already did my part.”

     “No, guys, it’s okay. Let’s just go,” Pat said, but no one paid her any attention. Gerald was staring
into the water, monitoring its undulations against the side of the pool. His glasses reflected its motions
and Pat found that she couldn’t see his eyes behind the lens.

     At last, he walked to the water and picked up a pile of trash – within it a soggy cone of ice cream –
that had been dropped nearby. He lifted the trash over the water, his toes barely jutting over the
poolside. An infinite moment passed by before he let go. The used napkins and decaying cone landed
with a hollow splash in the murk. Pat felt her lungs release as the sound hit her ears. But it was followed
by the glint of Gerald’s glasses as they fell just after, bouncing off the cone before vanishing into the
depths of the pool.

     “Nice,” Dan teased.

     Gerald’s face flattened into a look of despair. His naked eyes pierced into the water, as if they could
make out the mocking shape of his glasses underneath the black. “My mom’s gonna kill me,” he said,
and his voice was carried to the others though he spoke in a whisper.

     “It’s okay,” Pat yelled. “Get them tomorrow.”

     But Gerald was already leaning down at the edge. His face was parallel with the surface. “I can see
them,” he said in a wet, dazed voice. “I can reach them from here.” He outstretched his hand, straining
his fingers, until the tips touched the water. The instant they did, he toppled headfirst into the pool,
without so much as a cry.

     Dan burst into forced laughter at the sound of Gerald’s body smacking and splashing down, but Pat
did not join him. He soon went quiet when they saw that Gerald wasn’t coming back up. There weren’t
any bubbles from underneath. The inkiness was rippling languidly as it had been before. A low moan
escaped Pat’s throat, unbeknownst to her. They stood still as they could, watching for any sign of Gerald’
s presence.

     Then he shot up from the bottom, without his glasses, but flailing and screaming madly into the air.
Heavy drops of liquid flew from his arms as he tried to swim, though he was prevented from moving
forward by something unseen. His eyes were crazed, open as wide as they could go, filmed over by
terror at a sight Dan and Pat could not fathom. He looked underneath his kicking feet, into the water, and
screeched in a horrible ruined voice, “HELP ME! OH GOD PLEASE, IT’S COMING, IT’S COMING FOR
ME, HELP ME….”

     Neither Pat nor Dan moved as Gerald, howling, finally grasped the concrete with his clawed hands.
His wild eyes rolled over with relief and he was just hoisting himself up when he stopped, snapped his
head back, and stared into the water at the thing the other two could not see. He let out one last scream,
damned and hopeless, before he was dragged under the water and lost from sight.

     Pat and Dan stood before the rippling blackness, paralyzed by a jolting shock that bolted down their
every nerve. Gerald’s pleas rocked their ears, though an unnatural silence had already taken over. They
continued to watch for him – even just a bubble of air, or the shadow of his body – but there was nothing.
Not even, they thought sickly, any blood.

     “Da… Dan…” Pat managed. “What… just happened, Dan?” Her body was shaking in its baggy
clothes, and she couldn’t stop it, no matter how tightly she squeezed herself in her arms.

     Dan was in no position to give her an answer. He was trying to think, compelling his brain to work so
hard that he thought it might shut down. Don’t be a coward, he told himself. There’s nothing to be afraid
of. But even he couldn’t believe that. He had seen Gerald. He couldn’t deny his sight.

     “We gotta go,” he said at last.

     He ran to the gate, abandoning his can of spray paint in the grass. Pat staggered after him, gripping
herself as if to keep her body from falling into bits. “We’ll climb over again,” Dan said, more to himself
than to Pat. “It’s how we got in, we can get out that way too.” He gripped an iron post and screamed. The
metal had turned hot, smoldering his skin and sending the stink of burning meat up to his nose. He fell
back in agony; and it may have been the pain, but he swore he heard disembodied laughter circling
around him, floating from the windows of the clubhouse.

     Pat gazed down at Dan, chin trembling and eyes moist. The despair in her face shook Dan even
more than the anguish and terror swirling around inside of him. He wanted to hold her, but his hands
were shrieking at him, and he couldn’t move. His own eyes welled as he looked up at the sky above him,
which seemed so far away now; and he looked at the streetlights, the tops of the sleeping houses, all
lamps shut off for the night. Dan knew that they couldn’t see into the clubhouse, or past the iron fence.
They weren’t supposed to.

     “Da-an,” Pat moaned. The waver in her voice suggested that she had come to the same conclusion.
“We have to get out of here, Dan. What are we going to do? They aren’t gonna let us go, Dan, they aren’
t…”

     “Shut up,” Dan barked, and regretted it; Pat’s wailing had been better than the quiet lap of the pool
water, like an animal’s tongue licking up the last of its feast. He sat up, pressing his hands into the cool
dew on the grass to relieve the burn. “We can make it out if we don’t go crazy. We just have to stay away
from the water, and it won’t be able to get us. If we stay out ‘til morning we’ll be alright.”

     Pat nodded, but didn’t reply. They sat without speaking for a long while, both thinking about the ‘it’
that Dan had spoken of. They tried to remember what they had seen when Gerald disappeared – any
shapes underneath, a dark bulk or a shadow – but there had been nothing. Each considered asking the
other for any shred of proof, but separately decided it wouldn’t help them anyway; so they watched the
sky for any signs of coming light. The night seemed it would last forever.

     After what felt like eternity, the silence was broken by an electric hum as the pool lights flickered on.
The black water was illuminated with a spectral blue glow that shimmered over the fence and trees. Pat
and Dan jumped to their feet and craned their necks, hoping for a glimpse of the pool floor; but the
murkiness hovered still; impossibly, the pool looked to be hundreds of feet deep, with no sign of Gerald’
s body.

     Dan turned to Pat to share his disappointment with her and found that the glimmering light had
enraptured her. Her eyes shone with it. “Who turned on the lights?” she said in a dead voice.

     Before Dan could stop her, she walked – or glided – to the edge of the hungry waters. Her eyes did
not move; they were locked on something in the deep that Dan could not see. Her fingers were quivering
in anticipation.

     “Pat,” Dan tried to say, but his voice was weak. “Pat. Stay away from the water. It can’t get you if you
stay up here.”

     She didn’t register his warning. “It’s so beautiful,” she muttered.

     Horror erupted in Dan’s core and he found his voice. “PAT! GET AWAY FROM THE FUCKING
WATER!”

     Pat turned and her eyes lost the glow as the lights went off and the water surged forward, leaping
upwards over the concrete. Screaming, Dan rushed to her as fast as his quaking legs would allow. In the
shape of hands – dark, moldy hands that had been down there for much too long – the water seized Pat’
s ankles and pulled down just as Dan reached her. As she fell, Dan wrapped his hands around her
wrists and held tight, gritting his teeth against the spiking burn.

     “NO!” Pat bellowed. “Let me go, please, let me go LET ME GO…”

     Her wrists were slipping through Dan’s seared skin. The hidden grip had impossible strength; Dan
could feel Pat stretching between them, though he was losing his hold. She began to wail in both torment
and fear until a loud popping filled the air. Dan saw her left arm go limp, bone moving freely within the
skin. Pat’s eyes had glazed over; she was failing.

     In his shock Dan lost his grip. The hands tugged one last time and Pat slid into the pool, slapping
against the concrete as she disappeared. Dan felt himself toppling over and tried to correct his balance,
but it was too late. He collided with the water and sunk.

     The first thought that howled in his mind when he surfaced was why it hadn’t gotten him yet. The
second was the realization that it would soon enough. He searched the roiling abyss beneath his feet for
movement, for any warning that the thing was coming for him. The frigidness of the pool seeped into him
and froze his limbs inch by inch until it took all his strength to stay afloat. He did not notice that he was
crying.

     A splash at the other end of the pool made him groan and sob harder. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered to the
invisible monster. “I’m sorry I made a mess. I promise I’ll stop, if you just let me out, I’ll clean it all up and
never to it again, just please, let me go…”

     The thing lurking beside him made no reply. The silence pulled more tears from Dan’s red eyes. He
tried to see through the fence, in case someone was walking by, or was looking through their window;
but he knew already that no one could see him, or hear his cries. If he was pulled down like the others,
no one would know what had happened. There would be no bodies. Only the caretaker would know the
secret; and he would tend to it.

     As he waited, Dan wondered if he would become a ghost there, wandering the clubhouse forever. Is
that where they all came from, the footsteps and bouncing tennis balls and obscured faces? Were Pat
and Gerald already inside? He did not want to be trapped in that hulking graveyard. He wanted to swim
away while he still had a chance, but his arms and legs were so tired, so cold. If he stopped struggling, it
would happen quickly, and there would be no more dread or crying.

     “NO!” he screamed to himself. “YOU CAN’T HAVE ME!”

     Then he heard the voice, which the others had heard before him. Something hovered over the center
of the pool, the white shape of a little girl, twirling her dress over the ruffling water. Her voice was small,
but piercing, and Dan felt it fill his head: Oopsy woopsy, daisy waisy, falling in the stream. Clumsy
wumsy, cry for Mumsy, no one will hear you scream.

     And he saw it. Through the unfathomable depths it was speeding toward him, outstretched and
ready. Dan at last tore through the water and swam for the ladder on the other side of the pool. It was an
eternity before he reached it, but he gripped the cool metal as hard as he could, oblivious now to his
ruined hands. He lifted himself up and stepped onto the concrete. I beat it, he thought. I can’t believe I
beat it.

     Before he could pull his other foot out of the pool, the icy, rotten claw of the thing grasped his ankle.
Dan shrieked as loud as he could, but it did not stop his body from falling back. He summoned
everything in him to keep his hands on the ladder. His skin was slipping down the metal as it dragged
him away. Please, he said to no one. Please.

     All at once, the ladder fell away from his hands and he was jerked under the water. He flailed for less
than a second – the last, endless second – before his body was submerged.

     The police never found out what happened to the three who went missing that summer night. Their
families were given no answers to fill the holes in their houses. Leads were followed and dropped with
no results for months until the case was declared closed.

     The neighborhood clubhouse did not change either. People still saw faces in the windows, and
heard noises by the tennis courts. The pool stayed quiet, drawing no attention. And the caretaker
continued to mumble to himself, speaking to three new voices that hadn’t been there before. He kept the
secret, and tended it well.
About Ben Larned

I am a filmmaker and
author studying at NYU.
My horror stories have
been published in several
magazines, including
Danse Macabre and
Sanitarium. My first feature
film, a psychological
horror called “Chaos
Theory,” will premiere at
festivals this October. I am
currently working on a
new novel, a Lovecraftian
twist on the campfire story
called The Night Shadows
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