Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Writing Prompt: Nocturne of the Salt Marsh

It was my little sister’s idea. Mom says I always blame everything on her anyway so this time I’m going to start early and get it out of the way.
We always used to watch every nature show that came on TV. We didn’t care if we had to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to turn on PBS, and we didn’t care what kind of nature show it was: astronomy, search for Sasquatch, lions on the Serengeti, or aquatic dinosaurs. We loved them all. We didn’t live in a desert or a great forest where we could search for lost creatures. The only thing remotely interesting nature-wise that was nearby was the Salt Marsh.
Before he left for college, our older brother Geoff would tell us stories about the Terrifying Beast that roamed the Salt Marsh at night. He promised that someday, when he had his film making degree, that all three of us would go out with a camera and make the world’s first nature film about the Terrifying Beast of the Salt Marsh. Every story he told us would end with his usual warning: “Don’t go out to the Salt Marsh alone at night,” after which he would add, in a sinister tone, “or you’ll get lost. And die.”
We missed Geoff terribly. Even though I tried my best to take up the mantle of older brother, my Terrifying Beast stories weren’t nearly as terrifying or beastly, and Ella and I very nearly got into trouble within the first week of Geoff’s absence because we’d gotten up too early one evening to watch nature shows. Geoff was always the best at being able to tell when our parents were really asleep instead of just in bed reading.
One night, about three weeks before Geoff was due home for Thanksgiving, Ella had her idea. I had to admit that it was a good one, even though I didn't think so right away.
"Are you trying to get me killed?!" I shouted at her. She shushed me, in case our parents were still awake.
"Think about it," she cajoled. "We can't start filming on the Salt Marsh right when Geoff gets back. These things take time and research! You think dudes with cameras just drive out onto the savanna and boom: lions? No! They study migration patterns! Weather! Animal behavior!" Ella was into nature shows for the actual nature. I, admittedly, was mostly in it for the scene when the lions brought down and devoured the unsuspecting zebra.
"You... think we should study animal behavior on the Salt Marsh," I said, sounding like a prisoner who had just been condemned to death.
"How else will we know where to start when Geoff gets back?" my sister reasoned.
"But... why should I go by myself?" I whispered, hoping that I wasn't about to become that unsuspecting zebra.
She rolled her eyes. "Think about it," she said again. "What would Mom and Dad do if they came to check on us and found both of us gone?"
"They'd probably think we were kidnapped or something," I admitted, forgetting under the force of my sister's very persuasive arguments that my parents had never come to check on us when we sneaked downstairs to watch television.
"Exactly," she said, sensing that I was finally giving in. "Now, here are two flashlights and a couple of pairs of binoculars. I'll stay in my room and watch you. Shine your light at my window when you find a good spot so I know where you are."
Before I could think of any more excuses or perfectly good reasons not to go out to the Salt Marsh alone, I found myself standing in our backyard in a warm jacket and galoshes, clutching a flashlight and binoculars, with my older brother's words ringing in my ears: "Don't go out to the Salt Marsh alone at night... or you'll get lost... and die."
I didn’t really expect to see anything. After shoving Geoff’s prophetic words out of my head, I decided that I would show Ella that I wasn’t afraid so that I could challenge her to go out on watch another night. It was only fair that we should share the researching duties.
I trudged out as far as I felt safe yet far away enough that Ella wouldn’t make fun of me for being afraid. Then I shined the flashlight back at the house. I saw a returning gleam from my sister’s bedroom window, so I turned my back on it and hunched down in the tall grass. It was too wet to sit down, even though I was on mostly solid ground, and I figured that crouching like that would help, since there was no way I was going to fall asleep in the Salt Marsh.
I’m not sure how much time went by. Sometimes I watched the distance through the binoculars. Sometimes I put them down and just looked around. Nothing happened.
I was beginning to suspect that my sister had been playing a trick on me, that she’d gone to bed hours ago, and that in the morning she would laugh so hard that she wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast. I glanced up at her dark window and decided to go back inside. I could always make something up about what I saw (instead of a boring report about what I didn’t see).
But that was when I saw the lights.
They were too big to be the flashing eyes of the Terrifying Beast. Even so, my heart was beating like I’d just finished running the mile in gym class.
I looked around, hoping to see someone standing in the distance. At first, I thought that it had to be a spy signaling a nearby zeppelin. (Some of Geoff’s stories had featured James Bond types passing covert messages in the Salt Marsh.) I crushed the binoculars to my eyes and searched the skies, but there was no trace of any aircraft at all (annoying birds don’t count). Then I convinced myself that the lights were coming from a speed boat, which had obviously come to meet up with some smugglers. (I was never sure what exactly was being smuggled in the stories Geoff told, but they were always exciting.) I swept the binoculars over the horizon, but then remembered that I hadn’t heard any sound, and speedboats can’t sneak up on you without turning on their engines.
I sighed into the night. Maybe I had imagined the lights I saw. There was probably nothing out on the Salt Marsh except for me.
Just as I was beginning to feel silly again, I froze with fear. I saw it! The Terrifying Beast prowling over the Salt Marsh! I knew deep down that I should have followed Geoff’s advice. I should never have come out to the Salt Marsh alone at night. It wasn’t like I was lost, but now I was sure I was going to die. I would be mauled by the Terrifying Beast and they’d find my remains spread across three states, and it would be all my sister’s fault.
The Beast’s shaggy form came closer. Its steps weren’t rocking the earth like I’d thought they would, and its breath wasn’t flattening any vegetation as it had been known to do in Geoff’s stories. In fact, it seemed to be walking very daintily as though trying not to make much noise.
I almost jumped out of my skin when one of our neighbors, a high school kid who lived across the street, walked past my cleverly concealed position and straight toward the Beast. I wanted to shout a warning, or grab him, or something, but I was already so scared that I couldn’t move. As I watched him walk closer to the bush where the Terrifying Beast lurked, all I could do was selfishly hope that he would distract it long enough for me to get away. I buried my face in my hands. I had no desire to watch that unsuspecting guy become lunch for the Terrifying Beast.
And then I heard something strange.
A girl.
“I thought you wouldn’t come,” she said.
“You didn’t really give me much choice,” replied the guy whom I had just given up for dead.
“I’m glad I changed your mind, then,” the girl said, giggling.
I looked up to see something even more strange: the Terrifying Beast was removing its Terrifying Shaggy Hide. It tossed its coat over the bush, revealing a girl in a skimpy dress. She looked sort of like Geoff’s ex-girlfriend Mara.
“I guess I’m glad I did, too,” said the guy.
I only realized what was actually going on when they started kissing.
Quietly, as though I were slinking away from the actual Terrifying Beast of the Salt Marsh, I turned and made my way slowly back to my house. I had no idea what I was going to tell Ella the next morning, but I knew there was no way I was going to tell her the truth. I told Geoff when he came home for Thanksgiving, though, and he laughed so hard that he started to have trouble breathing.
Stupid Ella and her brilliant ideas. Next time, she could go out to the Salt Marsh alone at night. It’s not like she was going to die out there. But if I was lucky, maybe she would get lost.
Writing Prompt #446

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