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Surface Tension

By Patrick Zac All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Horror

Surface Tension

Things happen to people that can change—or otherwise chew on—what they believe. For Greg Rouleau, a middle-aged pastor in a small town, that thing surfaced on a hot evening in July.

Greg drove his minivan down the country roads just outside of Oxford District with his teenage son, Travis, whose head was leaning against the window of the passenger seat. The summer had been dead hot. Neighborhood lawns were yellow as hay. Stepping outside felt like walking into an oven. That day’s morning sun had already beamed down a solid eighty-six degrees, and it wasn’t even noon yet.

“Where are we going?” asked Travis.

Greg only glanced over at Travis, wearing the same impatient expression he had been wearing all morning, blinked, and then focused his attention back to the road.

“Dad?”

No response.

Travis shifted in his seat. “Dad, come on, is this going to be another—”

Greg raised his hand in a dismissive manner. “Trav, I told you you’ll see when we get there, okay?”

Travis sighed and put his head against the back of his seat, then looked over out the window.

None of it was familiar; the expanse of evergreens all along the horizon, the forests surrounding them, miles and miles of dark-green hills and an occasional bean-farm popping up after bunches of brush. The only thing he was sure of was that it all felt so isolated, so lonely.

Travis wiped his brow. “Can I open the window?” he asked.

“Wind’s going to blow all my papers around,” his father replied.

“I’m pouring sweat.”

“Then have some of your water.”

“It went warm.”

Greg said nothing; the road seemed to be more important.

“Dad?”

Still no response.

“Please, Dad!”

“Fine! Yes, open the window.”

“Thank you.” Travis cranked the plastic lever on his door, lowering the window. “Waste of a Saturday,” he mumbled, as warm wind blew into his face.

Greg only sat still, a stoic expression on his smooth face, and just a ghost of a crease between the thick dark eyebrows. All his attention was on the road, and he was thinking ... thinking about his wife, Carol, and wondering if she had been right about him, as he mulled over a little argument they had the day before.


He remembered getting home that day, eager to watch the U.S. Open golf tournament.

When he had opened the door, he was immediately greeted by his two screaming toddlers running around in their underwear, chasing each other, and throwing toys around the kitchen. His wife, an honest tart of a lady but aging poorly, was standing over the kitchen sink and fiercely scrubbing some dirty dishes.

Greg slipped his shoes off, eyeing the entrance to the living room. “Whew, hot as heck,” he said. “We got the fans going, Dear?”

His wife spoke without looking up from the dishes: “All five, Dear.”

“Ah.” He scratched the back of his head. Their house was old and had no air-conditioning. But it had been provided mostly by the church, and there hadn’t been a better deal at the time.

Greg crept along, avoiding the kids.

“Greg,” his wife piped up.

He knew what was coming. But he pretended not to hear.

“Greg.”

“Ah, hello Dear,” he said. “I’m off to shower.”

Carol turned away from the dishes. “Gregory!”

He stopped and turned around, looking at her impatiently.

“Travis hasn’t been going to church, you know that he hasn’t been going to church.”

“Yes, Dear.”

“Well do you know why?”

“I don’t know, Dear.”

She went back to the dishes and said: “I don’t know either, well, he can’t be going on like this, not in this house, he’s got to start going to church again, Greg, that’s not acceptable.”

“Yes, Dear.”

“And have you seen what he’s wearing, those heavy-metal bands, rocker’s shirts, he’s got plenty of other shirts that he can wear, not those ones, Greg—Greg? Are you listening to me Gregory?”

“Yes, Dear. Something’s going on with him.”

She slammed the pan on the counter and looked up, out the window in front of her, and went on: “Well if there’s anything wrong with him it’s probably because you don’t spend enough time together, you’ve got to do something, take him somewhere and teach him!”

Greg smiled with no enthusiasm. “Dear, this weekend? This weekend is The Open—”

“Everything is TV, you don’t spend any time helping around the house, you’re always too busy, but somehow there’s always time for TV, or golf, you’re your private meetings with the ministry, it’s starting to—”

He scoffed. “Oh, please, Dear! Too busy for my family?”

Carol paused. A trickle of water escaped her eye, gleaming in the sunlight from the window. “Well I don’t know what I’m going to do, if we don’t start acting like a family again I don’t know what I’m going to do—!”

And that was that. Almost the entire side of his face twitched at the thought of missing the tournament. But as the guys in the ministry liked to say during their meetings, ’Hell hath no fury ...’.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll talk to him. I’ll take him fishing. That’ll give us an opportunity to talk about it without any distractions.”

A smile appeared on her weary face, and then she seemed to become invigorated. “Thank you Dear.” And she continued scrubbing.

He wanted to say something, something very un-husband. But that was not a good urge to have. Urges like that hadn’t surfaced since he was a teenager, but at that time—maybe because of the heat—he really felt like a hot kettle with its lid rattling from unreleased pressure.

His inner-voice countered:

That’s sinful. I’m a pastor. I’m not like that.

And, after all, even ’Hell hath no fury ...’.

So he had simply said, “Yes, Dear.”


After three hours of taking turns, backtracking, and then driving in more-or-less a straight line, Greg and Travis finally arrived at the lake. It was a pretty famous spot, known back in the 1930s to have contained many prehistoric fossils at the beneath the lakebed—all of which were dug up long ago.

Most of which.

So tourists and locals alike took to calling it ‘Fossil Lake’, even though that wasn’t its real name.

They pulled up to a long asphalt road that led into a forest dominated by English Oaks and Ironbarks. Greg scratched the back of his head when he realized he couldn’t remember the name of the small town they were now in; it had been so long. But it was going to be the easiest, cheapest way to get some fishing in, without having to rent a boat.

The road led them all along the lake as they passed by house after house—all of them very small and very old—until they reached the destination: Greg’s father’s cottage. It was a tiny brown three-room bungalow which resembled a trailer more than a house. The garage attached to the side of it was almost the size of the rest of it.

They got out of the car and Greg went to the trunk. Travis hopped out and began stretching his legs. The ground was flattened dirt and the oaks there were more spread out there than other areas. Still, it looked like everything was enclosed by trees, except for a large clearing that opened to the beach.

“That took so long,” said Travis. “I can’t feel my ass—”

“Trav, language.”

“So Dad, what are we doing out here?”

Greg opened the back of the minivan and pulled out a dusty old tackle box. “Fishing,” he said.

“Fishing?”

“That’s right. You’ve never been here, but this was my dad’s cottage. He’d take us here. Every summer.” Greg cleared his throat. “Pretty neat, huh?”

“Uh, not really.”

Greg shoved some lifejackets into Travis’s hands. “Well, by order of your mother, we’re fishing. Come on.”

Travis groaned.

The heat was unbearable. Even with the shade from the ancient trees that towered over them, the air was still think and heavy. Greg wiped his brow and took out the old latchkey for the cottage which he had inherited.

“Grandpa’s old boat should be in the garage, here.”

They opened the grimy garage door and the old material gave a long protesting groan. Upon revealing what was inside, Greg cringed.

It was a storehouse of weapons: rifles, shotguns, semi-automatic pistols, revolvers, bows, arrows, slingshots, knives, large tin cans filled to the brim with bullets, and ammunition clips resting on almost every surface.

“Woah, sick! Grandpa kept some crazy shit here—”

“Trav, language!” He pointed at a big blue tarp which was covering something. “There’s the boat.” He pulled it back to reveal the aluminum fishing boat. Other than some dints around the edges and some greenish stains, it was in good shape.

And half of it was loaded with harpoons.

“Sick,” said Travis. “What did he need harpoons for?”

Greg shook his head. “Grandpa was—quite the hunter.”

“Look how huge they are, Dad.” There was a steely clinking sound as he picked it up; about two inches around, with a wicked-sharp barbed point. “Let’s take them!”

“Absolutely not,” he said.

“Dad, come on!”

“Trav, your grandpa was known to be a bit of a nut for this stuff. There’s no point.”

“You never want to do anything fun.”

Greg’s urges rumbled inside again, but he clenched his eyes shut and quickly suppressed it.

I’m a grown man and I’m a pastor. Let it go. I’m not like him.

“Fine! Fine, we’ll take them. Let’s load the rest of our stuff into the boat.” Then he shot a glare at Travis, pointing his finger at him. “And don’t touch anything else.”

Travis laughed giddily. “Sick!” he cried, hoisting some lifejackets and fishing supplies into the boat.

Maybe it wouldn’t all be so bad, Greg thought. In a way, he had to be somewhat thankful for an escape, even if it did mean missing golf.

As they pushed the boat out towards the water, Greg wondered what chaos Carol and the kids were up to.


Back at the house, Carol—while carrying one toddler around and picking up after the other one—was looking for a flat surface to put her boiling tea kettle down on; it happened to be that week’s newspaper. With her free hand she absently placed the whistling kettle on top of it, covering up the headline which read:

MISSING TOURISTS REPORTED AT FOSSIL LAKE

Below that was a grainy black and white photo which depicted the lake, and in the center was a black, ovular, jagged-looking shape, with what appeared to be sharp fins poking out just above the surface of the water.


After hauling the green and grey boat to the shore, Greg and Travis fastened up their lifejackets and hopped in. They used plain paddles to get the boat moving, about a mile out, further than Greg had wanted, and a little too far for safety.

They sat there for about an hour with no catches. Then another hour. Then an hour more, and all the while the sun’s hot rays bore down on them, baking them, stifling them. It was an awkward exercise, since both Greg and Travis hadn’t actually talked in years, and the high temperature only seemed to supress any creative thought.

Eventually, the sun started to set, and they would have to go soon. The sun had painted the entire lake orange and the tightly grouped pines at the edges of the lake turned black. They were the only ones on the water, their silhouette against what looked like thousands of sparkling diamonds floating on the water’s surface.

But Greg hadn’t asked his son about church. He tried to get around to it. He tried to tactfully break the silence a few of times with small talk, to which Travis only responded with one-word answers, and Greg sensed embarrassment.

Then Travis laughed.

“What?” asked Greg, a little eager to get a conversation going.

“Oh,” said Travis, “I—well, I was just thinking about how I’ve always had this fear of deep water. Like, with your feet dangling under you and nothing to touch below, the depth seems to go on forever. It’s like if you stop swimming you’ll slip right down and disappear.”

Greg nodded, and then said, “I think everybody has that fear.”

“Fear of the unknown?”

“Fear of losing control.”

Travis nodded.

Greg used this momentum to say a little more: “Yup, well, fear is not good. But I overcame most of my fears when I found God.”

“Well, good for you.”

Greg clicked his tongue at the futility of it. Then with a tone of exhaustion in his voice he just out and said it: “You haven’t been going to church, Trav.”

“Yeah, I know. Is that a problem?”

“Yes.”

“Uh, so?”

“So, Travis, you’ve got to start going again, okay?”

“I knew it.”

Greg scratched the back of his head and said, “Knew what?”

“This isn’t about spending actual time with me,” said Travis, “it’s just about getting me going to church.”

“Travis, you need to—”

“Need to what? Are you just going to sit there and tell me how I have to be and what I need to do—like always?”

Greg felt his cheeks getting hot, despite the heat.

But Greg was not his father.

I have control. I’m a pastor. I’m a rational adult.

“Alright,” Greg said. “Why.”

“Well, I’d rather not do anything with you, or Mom, because we can’t do one thing without some hidden agenda. Constantly forcing your values on me. You think I’m a box. And you thought that if you put God inside the box, I’ll be fine.”

“That’s not what I think,” Greg said.

“Uh, yes it is! It so is! Look at yourself—anything you don’t know you just fill in with whatever you think is the correct answer.” He raised both his hands, waving them at his father in a mocking gesture. “How do I explain what I don’t know? God. What’s my son missing in his life?” He raised his hands higher. “Must be God!”

Greg glared and pointed his finger. “Travis, enough—”

“You know nothing about me! So you’re just going to fill it in with what you want. Because that’s what you do with everything else. It’s my decision. Can’t you respect that?”

“It’s not a good—”

“Mom, probably nagged you into this. You probably just said ‘Yes Dear’ until she shut her mouth. Why don’t you fucking show some initiative and either leave her, or—”

“Travis will you shut up!”

Travis instantly went silent and just stared at his father wide-eyed. It was the first time he ever heard the man say such a thing.

Greg breathed in sharply, wondering how he was going to fix this now. But all he could think about was that Travis was completely right. Of course he was right. His wife had been right, too. Why else did he have nothing sensible to say, other than that? At some point, although he couldn’t pinpoint the exact time, he had just stopped caring. He had stopped sorting his mind out, and instead stuffed everything into a container labeled THINGS I DON’T NEED TO WORRY ABOUT.

Travis burst out laughing.

Greg looked at him in sheer bewilderment as his son spoke between bouts of laugher: “Ah-hah! That was awesome! . . . Like, you’ve never in your life said something so terrible! ... Did you see your face? Hah-hah-hah! You scared yourself!”

Greg rubbed the back of his head and grinned. He supposed it was kind of funny, but he was more so relieved that he hadn’t traumatized his son. It was going to be okay.

And that moment was when their boat rocked. Hard.

They both grabbed the sides of the boat to maintain balance. Travis’s bright smile was replaced with a grimace of curiosity.

Greg looked all around. Was it a wave? But the question was moot; there were no waves. Something was below them.

He looked over the sides of the boat, and it was at that time that he saw a raggedy black mass bubble up from beneath the water.

“Look!” Travis pointed at it. It was only a few yards away from them.

Greg saw it against the setting sun’s light.

“Is that a fish?”

“It’s not really moving. Let’s see.”

They paddled up to it.

“What is it, Dad?”

Greg squinted.

“Dad?”

When the boat got close enough, it appeared to be a mash of torn rags and denim. Greg grabbed one of the harpoons and aimed one end of it at the floating stuff, and then he poked it.

The mass sunk under the water for a second, turned over, then bobbed back up.

And up with it appeared a dead man’s head.

“Gah!” cried Greg, and he stumbled backward, pushing Travis back a little.

Travis, who hadn’t really caught sight of what was floating there in the water, began to mock him: “Hah! What’s the matter now, Dad, never seen garbage—gah!” At the sight of it, Travis also jumped backwards.

Greg got up quickly and peered over the side of the boat: It was pieces of a man—or, more accurately, pieces of half a man. The lower section of his body was gone, and parts of his arms and legs floated around him. The skin on the one side of his head was torn clean off, revealing parts of the skull between strands of wet wavy black hair. There were wide puncture wounds in his chest, leaving black holes torn into the fabric of his sweater.

“We’ve got to call someone,” said Greg. He looked over at Travis who was not moving; he was conscious, but just staring.

Greg sat him down, and then, rubbing his head, looked one more time at the mess floating next to their boat, analyzing it, wishing it wasn’t so, as if by some miracle the man could be helped.

But what he saw next was worse.

In an instant, a pair of huge serrated teeth burst out from the water. It was a jaw so big that it seemed like it would have no problem biting into the side of a sedan—or their boat.

Those teeth quickly snatched the body, and pulled it back into the lake, leaving only ripples and foam.

Travis blinked and looked over the edge of the boat. “What was that?” he said.

“I—I don’t know,” said Greg through his shock. “I don’t know. We’re going back to shore. Now.”

“Was it a fish?”

“Yes. Big fish.”

Greg grabbed a paddle and started in quick, short strokes.

It wasn’t even ten seconds before the creature which owned those terrible teeth burst out of the water right next to them, a monstrous kind of shark, big, and it bit right into the side of the boat, crumpling the aluminum.

It stayed unmoving for a moment; it looked muscular for a shark, yet its rough brownish-grey skin, which not only looked rotten but was literally peeling in places, told that it should not exist. It had rusty iron chains wrapped all around it haphazardly, around its head and around its fins, and broken padlocks dangling off. It wore a wide toothy scowl. Its eyes—lifeless black eyes—seemed to stare into a void, some other dimension. It was the gaze of a creature that, however possible, held a soul that came from some other world.

Its black outlandish eyes rolled over white, and then it looked straight at Greg.

Greg shifted backward, his eyes wide and darting up and down as he took in the fearful sight.

It swung its lower fin about, and as it did this it rocked the boat in its clutch, and then as if it was frustrated it let go and began swimming in a wide circle around them. Its pointy fins were jutting out of the water threateningly.

Both Greg and Travis grabbed the paddles and started fiercely paddling in the direction of shore, and in their franticness they may have been going even slower than they would have otherwise.

Travis spoke between big gasps: “What ... the ... What ... the ...”

“Just paddle hard, Trav!”

The thing of a shark suddenly veered away for a moment, then made a quick U-turn back in the boats direction. It was cruising directly toward them—fast.

“Hold onto the boat!!” Greg screamed, and they both did.

The gigantic shark rammed itself into the side of the boat, denting it inward. Although the boat didn’t overturn, it might as well have; it lifted enough to send both passengers careening into the lake.

There was a moment of pure helplessness. Then splashes. Then bubbles. Then nothing but water.

Travis came up first, and that vulnerable feeling in his legs was as real as ever. At any moment, something really could come up from under him and . . . chomp!

But he was lucky. He had surfaced right next to the boat, and so he hoisted himself back in with relative ease.

His father was not that lucky.

Travis looked around, whipped his head left and right, and then saw his dad. He was floating about twenty yards away, flapping his arms.

“Dad, here!” he shouted.

Then he saw the dorsal fins appear, swerving a little, back and forth, the water parting around them as they glided toward his father.

“Dad!! Swim!! Dad, SWIM NOW!!”

Greg knew by the urgency in Travis’s cries what was happening. His arms moved faster than he ever thought possible, so fast that even his body couldn’t keep up and went out of sync for a few seconds before he started up properly.

Meanwhile, the fins glided swiftly towards him.

Travis clumsily grabbed a paddle and tried paddling the damaged boat toward his dad. Futilely. “DAD, COME ON!!” he shrieked.

Greg swam.

It glided.

Closer, closer. Swishing, swishing.

As Greg sputtered and flailed in the water, his son’s cries were muted every few seconds when water splashed at his ears.

Still closer, closer came the fins.

Near his feet now. The shark reared its ugly decaying head and opened its freakish black mouth. The teeth glistened in the low sun.

Greg scrambled up the side of the boat, and Travis yanked him by his lifejacket inside. He got in just as the shark’s monstrous maw plunged into the water, right where he had been, and then it disappeared somewhere under.

“Spears ...” Greg said breathlessly. “The spears!”

As fast as his terrified body would allow, Travis grabbed a harpoon and shoved it into his father’s hands.

Greg aimed it at the water, pointing it around, looking for somewhere—anywhere—where the beast might be. “Keep them coming, Trav,” he told his son, “If I throw one, give me another.”

Travis agreed.

Then, just at the horizon, black fins.

Greg squinted and aimed. It reminded him a lot of javelin-throw, from high-school, only standing in a rocking boat, body gripped with fear, and a man-eating zombie-shark ready to bite his head off if he missed.

He threw, and really threw, so hard his arm felt a brief soreness. His ‘javelin’ soared across the orange sky, and landed with a spurt of red, directly on top of its target.

Greg smiled and raised his eyebrows in satisfaction, but only for a moment. His face quickly formed a stiff frown.

His target didn’t stop. It was coming.

“S-Spear!” he said. “Spear!”

Travis gave him one, and again Greg aimed and threw.

Another good throw, another spurt of blood.

The monster kept coming.

Another spear. Another throw. Another spurt.

Three of the metal rods were sticking out of it now. They gently rocked back and forth as the beast still came toward them, leaving a wavy trail of blood in the water behind it, but showing no sign of slowing.

“Grab the boat again, Trav!”

They wrapped their hands around the sides. But this time the monster did not crash into it. Rather, when it arrived, it emerged, and then bit the side of the boat once more.

Greg’s hand had been holding onto that part of the boat, just an inch too far in the wrong spot.

His flesh split right across his index finger as the thing’s long tooth slashed into it, severing it off. He howled and instantly retracted his hand, shoving it underneath his armpit in an instinctive attempt to pacify the wound.

The shark-beast wasn’t fazed, of course. It just shook violently as the metal literally cracked it its toothy grip.

Greg bit his tongue, trying so very hard to resist the lightheadedness that accompanied faint.

Something came over him. Something raw. The kettle lid flew off.

He jumped up, and missing finger be damned, grabbed a harpoon while Travis desperately held on to the boat as it rocked with the shark’s tugging and jerking. Greg tightened his grip, steeled himself, looked the monster straight in its black, dead eyes, and raised the harpoon over his head.

He roared: “EAT THIS, YOU BASTARD FUCK-SPAWN OF SATAAAAAANNNNNN!!”

He shoved the harpoon into its right eye. This was followed by an eruption of hot red liquid. He grunted as he continued shoving it in, pushing, shoving, and he could feel the metal jiggling through whatever bones once held the creature’s eye.

All at once, the beast bent backward, and Greg hung on tight to the harpoon still lodged in its eye. Greg’s weight on top of the harpoon pushed it in even further with a satisfying schlick!

The water went crimson, lit neon in the setting sun’s glare.

In a fit of rage and guttural gurgling the thing disappeared beneath that red surface.

“Is it dead!?” cried Travis. “Holy shit, did you kill it!? Is your hand—!?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know!”

They both looked around, analyzing the waters for even a hint of the beast. The red water remained calm, but both of them expected the monster to pop out at any second.

Then, up it came.

And it didn’t do anything else.

It only floated there, dead, with four shining steel rods jutting out of it, bleeding profusely.

They paddled back to shore, but it wasn’t over.


They stumbled out of the watery boat onto the beach, ready to get back into the car, call the police, and get the hell out of there. The cold waters had at least numbed Greg’s wound.

When they looked up, there were two very dirty looking men with long beards and long hair, holding shotguns.

“Oh, thank The Lord,” said Greg, “help us out here—”

Their guns clicked and they pointed the weapons at them.

Greg and Travis froze.

The taller one of the two bearded men spoke: “Had a living fossil here. Then you go and kill it.”

“What?”

“That was our damn shark!” the man cried. “A Ghen-soh, or some other—”

“Ginsu,” the other man said.

“Yeah, yeah, Ghin-sue, somehtin’. Prehistoric-dinosaur-shark, just about a goddamn hundred-million years old. Don’t ask me how it buggered up ’n’ got squirmin’, or why it preferred the meat of a man over anything else, but we figured it’d be worth something to someone. So we fed it.”

“Tourists,” said Hans.

“Anyway, you killed it now. So? How are you gonna pay us back?”

Greg’s brow furled and a grin escaped him. “You can’t—You can’t be serious, you guys—”

“Hell yes we are! Why else ya think there were chains all wrapped around the bastard? We we’re tryin’ to capture it! Chewed right through common rope.”

“Right through,” Hans said.

“So we made a net made o’ chain. Then after a while it chewed through that.”

“Iron chain,” Hans quipped.

“So now you’re going to pay us for it.”

But just before anyone made a move, they were interrupted by a loud siren. Four county police vehicles, along with ambulances, pulled right up to them, and the officers came out with their guns drawn.

“FREE-EEEEEEZE!!”

As if by the simple flick of a switch, the two bearded men immediately dropped their weapons and raised their hands into the air.

Greg heard a very familiar voice from behind the cars: “Greg! Gregory! I saw it in the newspaper, I saw it, ‘Missing people’, so I called the police right away!”

“Carol?”

She was striding toward them, carrying both toddlers in her arms.

“You really know how to worry,” said Greg.

“I worry because I love,” she said matter-of-factly.

Greg looked over to Travis. He had a blanket around him, from the paramedics. “You know,” said Greg, “I feel like I needed that more than you.”

Travis nodded faintly amidst his shivering.

“Got me thinking too. Maybe I need to re-evaluate myself, huh?”

Travis looked up at his father.

Greg continued: “Maybe I should start being a part of my own life. And the lives of my family. I don’t know. What do I know? Maybe there are lots of things I don’t know. Maybe there are sharks in the waters. Maybe there are things that can’t be explained. But sometimes—most of the time—we have to face them.”

Travis couldn’t believe what he just heard.

“And I promise,” said Greg, “that when we have to face the next thing, I will do my best to face those things with you. All of you.” A genuine, sincere smile appeared on his face.

Travis looked away, ebarassed. But he couldn’t resist smiling too.

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Ben Gauger: Kudos to Bryan Laesch, author of Remnants of Chaos:Chaotic Omens for his use of the Gothic style of writing and in addition the footnotes and endnotes at the end of each chapter, a welcome accompaniment to be sure, though his use of grammar could use a little improving, but his use of punctuation...

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