by Jamie Lackey
Sheila first saw the monster in Uncle Jake's pond when she was seven. She'd pulled the dry-rotted canoe into the muddy water, climbed inside, and floated away from the shore. She imagined that she was lost at sea, that there was a reason for her to feel adrift and alone.
She ignored her cousins shouting at each other and playing tag in the field behind the house. It didn't matter that they hadn't invited her to play. She didn't want to play with them anyway. She'd have just as much fun in the canoe. By herself.
The canoe rocked, hard and sudden, and she cried out in fear. The boat rocked again, and she clutched the crumbling wood. Her cousins' laughter drowned her calls for help.
The boat rocked again, then flipped. The water was cold, even in the height of summer, and she could see nothing but hazy brown.
Then, she saw something else. A flash of blue scales, the glint of a huge black eye.
She woke up on shore, covered in dried mud and flaking pond scum and missing the smallest toe on her left foot. It was like she'd never had that toe—there was no pain, no wound. Her balance was shaky for a few days, but no one noticed the extra clumsiness on top of her normal lack of grace.
She sewed padding into her socks, and never went barefoot again.
No one ever noticed.
They didn't go back to Uncle Jake's till she was 18. It was Christmas, and the pond was frozen over. Her cousins went sled riding, then ice skating. None of them invited Sheila along, but she was used to that. She stayed inside with a cup of cocoa and her book.
But after everyone else had gone to bed, she snuck outside. Moonlight sparkled on the snow and glinted off of the smooth ice. Her breath misted in front of her.
She'd never even tried to ice skate before, but she snagged her cousin Mary's skates and laced them on. The blades hissed against the ice as she slid forward.
She managed to stop near the center of the pond. She stared up at the pinprick stars and shivered.
Coming back here was insane. She'd already lost a toe. What would it take this time?
But at least it wanted her. No one else did.
The ice creaked underneath her skates, then cracked. She tumbled sideways, away from the black water. Something hit the ice again and again.
She felt a tug in her missing toe.
She wondered how long it would take for them to notice she was gone. Would they notice at all? Would she vanish just like her toe?
She took a deep breath and slid into the crack.
This time, she woke in her bed, but there was ice in her hair. She ran her hands over her body, and found nothing missing. She could still see and hear, her tongue and voice were both intact.
The next week, she went to have her wisdom teeth taken out. But they were already gone. She smiled while the oral surgeon stared at her X-rays and mumbled to himself.
Sheila chose a college close to Uncle Jake's. At first, she hoped college would be different—that she could finally make some friends. But she had no place in the clubs and cliques, and her roommate dropped out after the first week.
She offered to watch Uncle Jake's place when he went to Florida in October. She drove out alone on Friday night and sat on the shore. She stared out at the water. Every once in a while, she saw something moving beneath the surface. She could feel it calling to her—feel its pull deep in her gums and in the empty corner of her sock. The monster was too big to leave, but how could it survive in this tiny pond? How had it taken her toe, her teeth? And why?
Was it even real, or was she crazy? Maybe she'd almost drowned when she was seven, and the whole rest of her life was a strange coma dream. Or maybe she had drowned, and she was dead.
She took her socks off and dipped her remaining toes into the cold water.
The sun dipped toward the horizon, and the red light reflected on the smooth pond surface.
She stood and took a step forward. Cold mud squished between her toes.
The monster reared its head out of the water, and Sheila got her first good look at it. Its scales were midnight blue, and its eyes solid black. It was just as she'd imagined it, with it serpentine neck and draconic face.
It loomed over her, holding a fist-sized pearl between its fangs.
Sheila held out her hands, and it dropped the pearl into her cupped palms. Today, it gave instead of taking. The pearl was flesh-warm.
Sheila realized that it wasn't a pearl at all, but an egg. The egg sang to her, a song of warmth and welcome.
It pulled at her, at all of her, and folding herself into its shell was as easy as slipping into the pond.
When she hatched, she'd be a lake monster. And neither of them would ever be alone again.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 130 published short stories. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Cast of Wonders, and is forthcoming from Apex Magazine, Escape Pod, and Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. Her debut novel, Left-Hand Gods, is available from Hadley Rille Books, and she has one short story collection available and one forthcoming from Air and Nothingness Press. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking.