FYI: This tale began life as a flash fiction story. Have fun reading and comparing the two versions!
Tendrils of fog crept down the mountain, slid over the chill surface of Ipasha Lake, and penetrated the forest beyond. Sky, water, rock, and foliage grayed at its touch. Crouching on a slip of granite at the water’s edge, Shawna Givens tightened her coat against the fog’s clammy fingers. She peered across the lake, imagining shadows breaking its surface.
It was out there somewhere, lurking in the depths.
She’d seen it seven times before, dimly, rising within the vapors, stretching its jet black hide up, up, searching, probing, maybe hoping to catch a glimmer of sun before plunging back to its cold bed.
Before her, two small cairns marked her most recent sighting. A week before she had eased the river-smooth stones from her pocket and built the cairns to frame the dimly visible form protruding from the water, cloaked in cloud. If she focused one eye dead center between the piles, she could almost see its form once more, glistening just at the edge of vision.
Six more pairs of cairns dotted the shore, tombstones marking her memories. They bore no epitaphs, no names or dates or platitudes. Rather, each pair recalled a vision, the details of which had been carefully recorded in neat block letters in Shawna’s notebook. Each stack of stones, too, embodied data: the number of stones in the right stack a distance, the left a height. She had gathered the stones from the river cutting across her father’s property and bore them here in her coat pocket, where they knocked against her right thigh when she moved.
She stood, adjusted the straps on her green backpack, and moved on, circling the lake clockwise, passing slow and silent, a mountain lion stalking her prey, the stones in her pocket weighing on her. Tendrils of fog drifted by, bringing in their wake a thick cloud that shut her off from the world. She stopped and waited, hearing only the murmur of the wind high up the wall of mountains that surrounded the lake on three sides. Then another sound imposed itself upon her, a crunch of stone. Something or someone approached. She held her breath and tilted her head this way and that to gauge direction, distance, size.
The hiker blundered out of the fog and nearly collided with her. Tall and pale with sandy hair, a light blue backpack strapped to his back, he sucked in his breath and jumped when he saw her. “Oh my God,” he stammered. “Wow. I’m glad you’re not a bear.”
Shawna, equally startled, set a hand to her chest. “I’m glad you’re not, too.”
“Sorry. The fog closed in so fast, I couldn’t see a thing.”
“It does that. No harm done.”
The man nodded, but instead of going his way, he studied her round chocolate face and the blue and green dyed tips of her shoulder-length hair. He smiled tentatively. “What are you doing off-trail?”
She hoped he didn’t find her attractive. “You should ask.”
His smile broadened. “I left Stoney Indian Lake this morning. I’m heading down to Cosley Lake.”
“Then you’re either lost or wildly meandering.”
“Meandering. This looked like a good detour. The valley surrounded by peaks, the glaciers above.” He waved in the general direction of the ridge joining Mt. Kipp with Ipasha Peak. “Beautiful country. And you?”
“I’m camped at Mokowanis Lake.” That would be on his way but far enough from his destination that he wouldn’t care to linger there. Or so she hoped.
“Where are you going?”
Lips pinched, she turned toward the lake. The fog had thinned just enough to reveal a ghost of a shoreline. “I’m tracking something. Quiet would be appreciated.”
The hiker cocked his head in query, but got no answer. “Sorry,” he whispered. “Tracking what?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m Hunter, by the way. Hunter Falk.”
Shawna had used up her quota of small talk, or any other kind, for the day.
Her refusal to allow him her name didn’t deter him. “Are you — “
Out in the water, something splashed. She put a finger to her lips and shushed him. She wouldn’t have expected it, but Hunter heard, too, and peered with her through the haze. The thinning cloud now revealed hints of trees along the lake, though most of the water’s surface remained obscured.
Paying him no heed, Shawna stepped carefully along the shore, inching over the rocky ground, slow and silent as a snail. Soon she had forgotten about him. She advanced, eyes on the water, feet on the rock, not a sound to mark her passing. She covered nearly a tenth of a mile before realizing Hunter was still there, following like her shadow. His passage had been as silent as hers. She didn’t even hear him breathe.
Pausing on a broken shelf of rimed rock just overhanging the water, she waited. Whatever had stirred in the lake was gone, submerged or taken to the air or vanished into the forest.
Hunter tapped her shoulder. Startled, she nearly plunged into the water. Scolding him with her eyes, she mouthed, “What?”
He pointed down. At their feet, another pair of cairns marked one of her sightings. She motioned him away from the water’s edge. They came upon a flat-topped boulder and sat, Hunter keeping a half-body distance.
“I don’t work well with others,” she whispered. “Why don’t you just get on with your hike?”
Hunter smiled. Shawna had to admit he had an attractive smile, but she didn’t let it move her. Voice low, he said, “I find your snark hunt intriguing.”
“It’s not a snark hunt.”
She watched the fog and, whenever the mist parted to give her a glimpse, the glassy water. “There’s something in there.”
Hunter waited, either serious or faking it well.
“The cairns are mine.” She pulled her notebook from her left coat pocket where it had been cozying up to her camera. When she opened it to a page of observation notes, he leaned close to look. “Dates, times, locations, distances, heights. The cairns mark where I saw it. Seven sightings over four months. Someday, these numbers might tell me how to predict its appearances.”
He studied the numbers as though they meant something to him. Not that they could. “So what is it?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen it clearly. It’s always in the fog.”
“What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know.”
Hunter looked up from the notebook, still serious. “Take a guess.”
Shawna licked her lips. She really shouldn’t tell him, but somehow it felt like sharing a confidence with a brother. Strange. Because he sounded so earnest? Because she’d kept it to herself the whole time? “Nessie’s cousin.”
Hunter’s eyes narrowed and turned to the lake. “Nessie’s a hoax. She doesn’t exist.”
“Her cousin does.”
Still scanning the water, Hunter allowed her some silence. The fog thickened again, all but hiding the lake. Above, an unseen eagle cried as wind stirred the trees. Something clattered along the forest floor.
Five minutes passed.
“Say she does,” Hunter whispered. “Say you prove it. What then?”
Shawna shook her head.
“You don’t know much at all, do you?”
She gave him a sharp look. “And you do?”
“Only one thing.”
She refused to ask. Why was he still here? Why had she let him derail her work?
He smiled again. “Whatever happens, I’ll never forget today.”
Huffing, Shawna rose. “As pick-up lines go, that’s pretty damn trite.”
“Is that what you think?” Hunter slipped off the rock and adjusted his backpack.
“No man who ever took an interest in my work was actually interested in my work.” She resumed her silent walk around the lake, hoping their association had ended.
It hadn’t. He followed. “I apologize for my gender. Now be quiet.”
She shot him a glare but immediately heard the splash of water once more. Hunter pointed, and together they strained to see whatever lurked in the haze. At the second splash, Shawna held her breath. Carefully, she insinuated her hand into her left pocket and drew out her camera. Hunter noticed the movement but kept still and silent.
Something moved in the mist-covered waters.
Raising the camera, Shawna willed her eyes to pierce the fog. Hunter gasped.
Before them, just beyond the shore, a fountain of black ink erupted from the lake and jetted into the sky, resolving into a great neck, thin, rubbery, taller than a house, nearly as tall as some of the trees.
Shawna lifted her face in awe as frigid rain pelted her cheeks.
Hunter lunged for her. “Careful!” He hit the ground near her feet.
She was beyond care. Towering over her, a pair of wide, pale eyes looked down. A mouth filled with blunt teeth gaped at her. A noise like the squeal of brakes filled her ears. Hunter was on his knees, fumbling with something. She knew he was there but not why, nor could she take her eyes from the creature. For a moment it hovered, tall as an ancient oak, then water thundered in the lake and the great neck was sucked down. The last thing she saw were those eyes glistening in the waves.
She couldn’t breathe. Hunter clambered to his feet, gaping at the water, at her, at the water, at her. He took her by the shoulders and shook gently. “Are you okay?”
“I think I got it.”
He nodded at the ground. Her camera lay there among a scattering of crushed rock. “You dropped it. Don’t worry, it still works. I think I got the picture.”
Staring at the camera, empty of thought, Shawna didn’t know what he meant.
“It’s real. We have proof. I got the picture! No, you have proof. It’s your discovery.”
She slipped her hands into her coat pockets. The fingers of her right hand felt among the stones nestled there. She had taken them from the river cutting across her father’s property because she couldn’t gather them here, not in a National Park.
She swallowed and closed her eyes.
Hunter gaped as Shawna crushed the camera with the heel of her boot, as she gathered up the pieces and tucked them into her pocket, leaving no trace of its destruction upon the land.
“By the way,” she said. “I’m Shawna Givens. Walk me back to my camp?”
They left behind no sign of their passing except the stones on the shore.