.a strange day in july.

my senior year of high school, i took this creative writing class where the teacher would pass out these stupid pictures and make us write stories about them. the first picture was of two adorable towheaded children frolicking by a lake. this is what i came up with. it's silly, violent, and burlesque-- but it was so much fun to write, i have a lingering affection for it.

Matthew hated visiting his Aunt Lucy.

She was a stout, strict-looking woman, with a scowling face and cold hands usually employed in slapping Matthew's wrists or shoving him out of her way. She lived in a big, dark, cabbage-scented house next to a lake full of opaque green water, in the country out of town, miles from anything fun. When Matthew visited her, she made him sit still on her itchy couch and drink V8, which he hated, while she watched church shows on television and occasionally yelled at him for fidgeting or not drinking his V8 fast enough. She sometimes lectured him, usually about his manners (which she considered slovenly), his appearance (which she said was messy and unbecoming), and his mother (who, Aunt Lucy said, was a disgrace to the whole family). Matthew would rather have done almost anything than go to Aunt Lucy's house. But in the middle of July, Matthew's grandmother in Connecticut got sick, and his mother went to take of her for a couple of weeks, and there was no one to watch Matthew... except for Aunt Lucy.

So Matthew went to her old, dark house for a two-week visit.

Aunt Lucy had a daughter a year younger than Matthew, a timid little waif named Mary Elizabeth. She was quiet and docile, and spent her days in a large, cold, barren playroom, dressed in old-fashioned white dresses and shiny black shoes. Matthew thought girls were icky, as 6-year-old boys often do, but he thought Mary Elizabeth was generally not troublesome. And after he had spent three days with Aunt Lucy-- sitting on the couch, drinking his hated V8-- he decided that Mary Elizabeth might actually be pleasant company.

So, one evening he got up the courage to ask, "Aunt Lucy? May I go play in the playroom with Mary Elizabeth?"

Aunt Lucy looked away from the television, startled. "I don't like to hear children speak when not spoken to, Matthew," she said. "And I don't think you ought to play with my Mary Elizabeth. She's a good child, not a messy little ruffian like you. You'll only be a bad influence."

Matthew frowned. "I'm not a ruffian."

Aunt Lucy's face purpled with rage. "Are you talking back to me, Matthew?"

Matthew shrugged. "I didn't mean to."

"You didn't mean to, what?"

"I didn't mean to, ma'am."

Aunt Lucy glared at Matthew over her pink dewdrop eyeglasses. "Young man, I think you need to be punished for your bad attitude."

"Isn't this V8 juice a bad enough punishment?" mumbled Matthew. The second the words left his mouth, he knew he had made a big mistake.

Aunt Lucy stood up angrily. "What did you say, Matthew Arnold Anderson?"

Matthew bit his lip. "I-- I'm sorry. I just--"

Aunt Lucy narrowed her eyes. "Sorry isn't good enough, young man!" She stomped over to him, snatched his glass of V8 from his hand, and grabbed his wrist. "That's it-- you're going to your room!"

Two hours later, Matthew was still sitting in the musty guest bedroom in which he was staying. He was bored-- and angry. Why did Aunt Lucy have to be so mean all the time?

Then, suddenly, he heard a faint sound... music. Quiet, lilting music. And it seemed to be coming from the playroom across the hall.

Matthew walked slowly to the door and peeked out. Aunt lucy was nowhere to be seen. Matthew stole quickly across the hall, and knocked on the playroom door. A moment later, it swung open slightly, and Mary Elizabeth peeked out.

"Hello," she said quietly.

"Were you playing music?" asked Matthew.

"Practicing the piano," Mary Elizabeth explained. "Mother makes me." She looked fearfully out into the hall,her eyes wide. "Does Mother know you're here? She said i shouldn't play with you because you're bad. And also your mommy is a trollop who's shaming the family."

"I hate Aunt Lucy," said Matthew angrily. "I'm supposed to stay in my room cause I was talking back, but I'm not going to. I'm going outside to play."

Mary Elizabeth gasped. "You can't! Mother won't let you!"

"Then I'll sneak," Matthew retorted. "She won't catch me. I'm going to the lake."

He turned around and began to stomp down the hall. A moment later he heard Mary Elizabeth running after him. "Wait! Wait! I never get to go outside to play! I want to go, too!"

And so Matthew and Mary Elizabeth snuck down the back staircase, into the kitchen, and out the back door. Once outside, they ran haphazardly through the yard, until the reached the huge lake, far behind the house.

At the lake's edge, it was eerily silent. The stillness was broken when Matthew picked up a rock from the ground and announced, "Look, I'm gonna skip it!"

With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the stone over the water. It skipped over the glistening green lake, sending up frothy white beads of water, bouncing crookedly over the glassy surface. It went out several feet... then began to skip back.

"It came back!" cried Matthew. "That's not how it's supposed to do!"

Mary Elizabeth knitted her eyebrows. "Maybe it was a bad rock."

"Probably," said Matthew expertly. "I'll try again."

He picked up a second stone and dashed it across the lake's surface. It flew for a few feet across the water and then skittered back, landing on the bank at Matthew's feet.

"You must not be throwing hard enough," said Mary Elizabeth imperiously.

Matthew nodded, picking up another rock. He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.

"Something's wrong," said Matthew, mystified.

"I saw it," replied Mary Elizabeth. "I saw something underwater jump up and knock the rock back."

Matthew leaned forward, squinting at the water. As a matter of fact, he could see a dark, blurry shape underwater, just at the spot where the rocks had begun to turn around.

As he watched, the shape began to move. Slowly, it drifted upwards, till it rose above the surface of the water. It was a creature with a long, black, scaly face, slitted yellow eyes, and craggy, pointed teeth. It stared at Matthew and Mary Elizabeth for a moment, then began to swim rapidly towards them.

"An alligator," Mary Elizabeth whimpered. "An alligator!"

Matthew wanted to cry. He backed up several steps, feeling his face crumble. Then he saw Mary Elizabeth. She was crying softly, pointing at the alligator with a shaking hand.

I have to save Mary Elizabeth! he thought. I'm scared enough-- think how poor Mary Elizabeth must feel. She's fragile.

Matthew grabbed Mary Elizabeth's wrist and pulled. She stood frozen for a moment, then began to run. They scampered towards the house. In the middle of the lawn, Matthew looked over his shoulder. The alligator was lying on the bank of the lake. Slowly, it turned and lumbered into the water.

Mary Elizabeth was watching, too. "That was scary," she said in a small voice. Her face was streaked with tears, but she had stopped crying.

Matthew let go of Mary Elizabeth's wrist. "We're okay now," he said.

Mary Elizabeth nodded and they walked slowly into the house.

"Mary Elizabeth Juliana Anderson Havisham! Matthew Arnold Anderson!"

The shrill voice of Aunt Lucy greeted the children as they slipped into the kitchen. The door between the kitchen and the parlor was open, and in the shadows of the parlor, Aunt Lucy sat.

"Children," she hissed, "come in here. Sneaking out of the house! Going to play by the river like heathens! Mary Elizabeth, you should have been practicing your piano!"

Emboldened by his encounter with the alligator, Matthew stomped into the parlor. A full minute later, Mary Elizabeth followed him. She was crying again, and her hands were hidden in the white clouds of her skirt.

"Mary Elizabeth," said Aunt Lucy coldly, "where are your shoes?"

Surprised, Matthew looked down at Mary Elizabeth's feet. Indeed, they were clad in only a pair of white socks. When, Matthew wondered, had she lost her shoes?

Mary Elizabeth's tears renewed their vigor. "It's M-M-Matthew! He made me go outside! He said he'd h-hit me if I wouldn't go! And then he threw my shoes in the lake and hit me anyway!"

Matthew gasped. "What? I did not!"

Aunt Lucy stood up slowly. "Matthew, I always knew you were no good. No good, just like your mother! You will be punished! Severely!" She turned to Mary Elizabeth. "Couldn't you get your shoes out of the lake, Mary Elizabeth? They don't grow on trees, you know!"

Matthew glared at his cousin as she wept. "B-but it's almost dark! I'm scared there are monsters in the lake!"

Aunt Lucy sighed. "You are a disappointment. Afraid of monsters! Ready to let a pair of expensive shoes go to waste just because of your childish fears!" She moved to the parlor door, turning to face her daughter. "I will retrieve your shoes, Mary Elizabeth." With that, she swept into the kitchen. A moment later, the back door opened and shut.

"Why did you say that?" grumbled Matthew. "I'm gonna be in the biggest trouble ever."

Mary Elizabeth looked at him, her pallor and her snowy dress making her look like a beacon in the dim parlor. She looked more defenseless than ever, more waiflike.

"You won't get in trouble," she said. Her hands emerged from among the folds of her skirt. In each one, she clutched a tiny black shoe.

Matthew gasped. "Your shoes! They're not-- why--"

Mary Elizabeth smiled. Her eyes were still big and scared-- and then, Matthew realized. Her eyes weren't scared. They weren't scared at all. They were watchful.

"It's almost dark," said Mary Elizabeth. Her voice sounded calm. Calm. In the half-lit room, she sat down on the floor. "Think of her, splashing around in the water, looking for my shoes. She won't even see the alligator, until it's too late."

Matthew wanted to scream. He grabbed his stomach and sat heavily down. "You mean--"

"I hated that piano," Mary Elizabeth murmured reflectively. "I hated that cold playroom." She looked up, straight at Matthew. "I hated being cold. All the time. I hated always being alone."

Matthew didn't move. After awhile, Mary Elizabeth stood up and walked into the living room. Matthew heard the sound of something breaking. A moment later, he heard the bubbly chatter of the television.

Outside, the sky dimmed from gray to black. The moon shone on the house, on the lake, wide and white. Matthew did not move, sat still and silent on the plush parlor rug. The night marched slowly forth. In the living room, frail Mary Elizabeth was laughing at something on the TV. Despite her, and the maid asleep upstairs, Matthew felt very sure he was alone in the house. And he sat still, he sat until the sun rose. But Aunt Lucy never came home, and the cold hours ticked by. Mary Elizabeth, in the next room, laughed and laughed.