About two months and a few days. The age of our knowing each other. Still so new, so unaware of so many parts of the other. The eye of the flashlight curves around his back jean pockets, the leather brand tag under the right side belt loop worn and illegible, a white square on the lower pocket where the wallet would bulge out. But, he’s left it in the glovebox of the car, under the driver’s manual.
I was going to ask him about this extra precaution. Why the hiding? If they’d already gone through all the trouble to break into the car, to pry into every corner, they’d probably take the time to lift up the owner’s manual as well. It could be a well known treasure spot for car burglars. A trick of the trade. Always check under the car guide to get to the good stuff. And besides, the trunk seemed the safest place to me. I didn’t ask though. Too soon for our young romance. Taking him here on this night presented a big enough risk.
“Are you checking out my ass, or looking for our prey?” He turns his light on me, I see red through my eyelids. Give my best put on smile and pose like a 50s spread model, one hand on hip and the other behind my ponytail.
“A girl takes whatever chance she can get to enjoy a nice view.” The spotlight still on me, I pout like a selfie girl and blow him a kiss.
“Fair play. Just getting my return.” The light slides away from my face. A white mass floats in front of my eyes, takes a few seconds to normalize in the darkness again.
The pond smells the same, ancient mud and sweet plant rot. Flower perfumes from the bordering trees fight with the dark scent. A smell like the fear I had as a child. Under every bridge a troll waited, a troll with popped eyes and broken edged teeth ready to kidnap any trespassing child down to their hovel in the earth and water below. That same smell, like now. Fear slithers down the back of my neck, makes my arm hairs stand up. Always terrified of bridges. But not then, and not now at this pond.
He begins to lead the way again around the edge of the pond. Cattails bat at my head and face, the fronds and grass edges cutting at my cheeks, bare arms and shoulders. The moonlight makes creature shadows on the surface of the dark water, behind the jungle of grasses. All the while, our wellingtons squelch above the hum of the pond’s inhabitants. We make soft steps, rowing through, trying not to disturb, on the hunting path.
No luck yet. “Maybe we should turn off the flashlights. They’re light shy and fast. Easier to hear them and follow without it. I’ll hold your hand, so you won’t fall.” I think of the wallet again. “Don’t worry. I know this place well.”
“Whatever you say.” He shrugs and switches off. The lack of battery light allows the full moon to release its’ strength. The pond glows along the water surface, light drawing up the lines of the plants and piercing through the branches of the trees. We slip our fingers together and touch palms, a zap passes between us, like one of us’d just rubbed our stockinged feet up and down the carpet a few times. We both look up at the moon and the stars, more visible here a good mile away from most of the city lights.
That night I remember the moon full too, or close to full. The night it had a troll face- scooped out mouth, round and ready to swallow me whole. Bulb eyes, more like mouths too. It might eat me with its’ eyes. Hypnotize and lure me in. But, mom held me with her lotioned hands, nestled around my cheeks, we stood in defiance of that troll moon. Aloe vera battling against that foul creature smell. I didn’t see her face, but the troll moon meant something bad. Something terrible had come.
Tonight the moon had come back to itself. Singing, serenading the earth with a long love ballad. We tried to make up the words for it when I was small. The rule was one chorus per family member. As we stand watching the singing moon, I tell him this piece of my family lore. The off key moon songs, bellowed out without hesitation, continuing until one person couldn’t think of another word to go on. My brother and I often used this device to try to stay up later, but never succeeded much further than adding another 15 minutes to the inevitable bed time. My brother passed out in the room alongside mine, we kept the sliding door open, but I hated bed time. Mainly the bed part.
“I believed a troll could come camp out under the bed. Even if someone checked under, I believed it would squish itself up against the wall or up near the box spring to hide. Trolls are malleable that way, you know? Tricksters. The worst kind of evil.”
He laughed. “For me it was crocodiles. Every night, I made a running leap into bed, convinced that they would make a run at biting off some of my toes or even a foot. I never understood why beds couldn’t just be on the floor to prevent this whole problem.”
“Me too.” I didn’t tell him then. After that night at the pond, the fear got so bad for awhile I did have a floor bed. Mom bought a futon after finding me wrapped in my quilt on the couch every morning after the troll moon night for two weeks.
“We had that in common, irrational fears of what lies beneath. Although I’ve gotten over mine.” He puffs up his chest displaying his considerable broad shoulders and muscles to full advantage. “Not scared of much anymore.”
“I am.” The chorus of bugs and frogs has become a pounding roar. “Scared of what lies underneath, in the dark.”
That night. The water gapped black at us, luring and pulsing. A black doorway behind a flat sheen of water. The pond life lay silent and still, afraid of the coming. The trolls entrance from his world into this one. I grabbed my mom’s hand tight with both of mine and held my breath. I knew, he was coming to take us, to pull us down. The water had rippled, I watched with wide eyes, hearing my pulse throb in my head and feeling it against my mother’s, through our hands. Pointy ears, pointy ears. They would appear through the water. But instead, he waited, toying with us. I heard crying. Was he sad, the troll depressed. That didn’t fit into my fantasy of his cruel under earth kingdom where he ruled a tyrant among all the magical creatures.
No, it was much nearer. My skin prickled with the realization of it. Mom, she was crying. Something bad had happened, really wrong. She bent down to my ear. “Oh sweetheart, your father is gone.” To the troll, to the troll. In my maturing mind, I knew the troll to be unreal, but a part of me whispered. He’s taken him under. For a moment, every rule of my world came apart, gravity giving way and the earth spinning hard. My body began to float off the earth, but only for a second. The physical forces came back and slammed me into my feet, to the ground, to the reality. I yelled, making mom jump. I yelled at the troll. Give him back, give him back. Then, we yelled together until our breath got cut short, and gave way to crying.
There it is. I pick up a lily pad hidden frog. “My brother and I often came back here to curse at the troll as kids. But not my mom. She never came back.” The head of the frog is cool and wet. Breath pushing against my fingers holding it still. He clasps my other hand now the same way I had my mother’s. I bring the frog between us and he shines the light down. Tiny green triangle head and throat fluttering in and out. Its’ legs struggle against my palm. Pearl black eyes. I open my hand flat and it gathers feet underneath itself and hops out of the beam of light into the blackness.
“Some developer has bought up the land now. I guess it won’t last like this much longer. But, for now it looks the same as it did that night. Only the moon less mean.”
“Are we trespassing?” His hands go cold and sweaty around mine.
“Yes.” I keep walking through the cattails toward the middle of the pond. Attached by the hand, he gets pulled along behind, sloshing through. “Are you afraid?”
“Don’t worry. There’s nobody out here yet. We are quite far from where they’re building the clubhouse at the moment.”
We step out into the full circle of the moon now. The middle of the pond, hidden by the crowds of tall grass and a weeping willow on one end. Almost a perfect circle around the gateway. Maybe it was too soon to bring him to this place, to tell this story. I had planned to come here on the anniversary night, to see it again once before the wilderness became a golfball trap for the rich to swear at. This wouldn’t be a good old boys course where I could talk the owner into letting me traipse across the greens at midnight for a dip in the pond. This developer made resorts for the elite, guarded by fences and alarms. I had planned to come alone, my last night to rage against the troll. But, he happened, and would one day learn of my troll, and truth be told, I was afraid.
Maybe the wrong decision. We could’ve just met up tomorrow night for pizza or something. He waits behind me, ducking his head, trying to keep it below the level of the highest grass. Trying to look everywhere at once, tense. Were he a dog his ears would be perked up to attention for every suspicious sound. Uncomfortable under the gaze of the orbiting white ghost above us. He doesn’t understand, doesn’t know that it protects against the creep of the dark breathers in the pitch black. Keeps the troll hidden under the mud waters of the pond. That’s always what he said, standing hip deep with his fishing overalls, his ratty old baseball cap still on and blonde hair sticking out around his ears and where it pressed against his head. “See,” he said the first time. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, especially if the moon is out in full force.” I was five then and very much afraid.
Most of the lyrics have gone from my memory, but I start to sing. Like we did all together. Songs to keep the dark away, the monsters in the deep. To the tune of you are my sunshine.
“Maybe it’s not a good idea to sing,” he says in a stage whisper, as if that was any better. Maybe it would have been better to pass through this night alone. His skin looks glassy in the beams coming down. He scans the surface of the water back and forth like a security camera on its’ rounds.
I step forward, the level underfoot drops a few inches, boots sinking into silt and water tumbling over the top in a warm soup. Sliding my feet forward through the mud, the water crawls up around my knees, then slowly up my legs.
“What are you doing?” Again the non-whisper.
“Waking the troll.” I laugh, even sounding a bit maniacal to myself . “Come in for a swim, the water is warm.”
“Are you kidding? There’s all kinds of…stuff in their. Maybe even leeches.”
Worse than leeches. He continues to mumble to himself and scan the area. The bottom of the pond drops away from the soles of the boots; a little too big, they slide off. The smell strikes my nose now so close. A smell like life dying and birthing at the same time. I lay back and stroke away. His voice comes and goes from the edge of the reeds. At the middle, I stop and spread myself wide to the sky silhouetted for the monster below. Try and come. Come and get me. I am not afraid. A current of water moves below me. Skin prickles from the back of my neck down my arms and legs.
“PLEASE. Come back. I don’t want to leave you here.”
I tilt my head up out of the water. He stands maybe a little bit forward now, hands in his pockets, but I can’t make his face out, my eyes too dazzled from the moon.
“Hey! Who’s there?” A sharp voice comes from outside the forest of the pond.
He reacts springing much like the frog back into the dense cattails we trailed through to get here.
“Hey you. Get out.” The guard can’t have seen anyone yet, no other faces among the plants. “This is private property. I’ve called the police.”
I close my eyes and fold my body in so I drop below the waterline, turn over and swim for cover. The algae and water plants caress against my cheeks and forehead. The shadow of the troll crosses my eyelids; he is watching me, reaching for me. Broken grin and gaps between broken tile teeth stained with the earth and plant life and the innards of frogs. I open wide and scream at him. Bubbles brush past my face, my lungs heave, but I keep going against the water. My father’s face comes to me with his movie star grin-what made mom fall in love with him. They couldn’t make it right for the open casket. It didn’t look like him without that smile, like a wax dummy. For awhile I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t, that somehow he would reappear. His hat though, clasped between his hands, that dumb hat that mom hated that meant it had to be him. My lungs creak and strain, I push forward one last kick and feel earth against my finger tips, the first stalks of the reeds. Breaching air rushes into me and spreads cool across my face.
“I know you’re there. Come on now. You aren’t doing yourself any favors hanging around there.” The guard closer to the right.
My heroic boyfriend has hidden well or ran off without getting noticed. I keep low in the water with just my head out. Listening hard for the hunter and the prey. The animal sounds have scattered away after all the shouting, with a quiet wind taking over and brushing through the cattails and trees. Soft light waves around the outside the border of the pond.
Then it comes. A sound beats loud and clear over the wind in solid rhythm. Suck, pop, suck, pop, suck, pop. “The police are…are coming.” The guards voice softer now. Suck, pop, suck, pop. It seems to echo in the clearing. The troll, he’s come out. Out of the water for the first time. Come out and coming after me. The steps close in.
“Hello?” says the guard, the idiot.
I am ready this time, to scare the troll back to the hole where he came from. The pit of the earth, his underwater kingdom. The growl vibrates from deep in my chest cavity, somewhere behind the heart and near the back bone. It builds in a ball there and keels out from me in animalistic fury. The steps stop.
“Shit.” Firmer beats on hard ground mark the progress of the unfortunate guard sprinting away as fast as his shiny black shoes and utility belt allow.
I set my feet wide and wait for the attack, feeling my heartbeat in my fingers and heels. “Is it you?” The voice is not gruff or monsterish at all. No, it’s familiar. The hero, my hero. He scared the guard away. His face comes out of the reeds, looking nervous and pale still.
I start to laugh, tears coming from the corners of my eyes. He manages to smile and give a humph of appreciation. We have conquered; the guard has run away. The troll gone back to his lair.
“You’re covered in pond stuff and mud.” I shrug, still smiling like that child under the singing moon. I stand from my crouching position. “You’re not thinking of getting into my car like that, are you?”