I'm pleased to report our bicycles were indeed where we'd left them and none of us had suffered any severe physical damage aside from cuts and scrapes, although Henry sported a few nasty gashes where the fish had latched onto him. Riding home, we were all too exhausted to talk much, but we managed to come to an agreement: nobody was to know what had happened out at Slocomb's Pond. Our reasoning was that nobody would believe us anyway. But as Tim pointed out, that pond was dangerous. Something had to be done to make people stay out of there.

The following weekend, we met at John's house. It was there that we came up with a plan.

Tim stated, and we all agreed, there was no way to stop anybody from going to Slocomb's Pond except for one: make it so there wasn't a Slocomb's Pond anyway.

But that was a tall order. It wasn't as if we could pool our allowances and order a bunch of dirt to fill the thing in. Even if we could, who was to say those creatures wouldn't emerge to tear whoever brought the dirt there to pieces? John, for his part, wanted to dump gasoline or some other flammable liquid in the water and light the whole thing on fire. But that brought up the same problem of getting the quantity of flammable liquid we would need. And what if those monsters sensed our presence before we had put enough in the water to do them any real damage?

Not bragging here, but I was the one who came up with the winning strategy.

The monsters lived in water, I reminded my friends; even if they could travel over land for a short time, they apparently had to return to the water soon or die.

So the solution, I said, was to poison the water.

Right away the other guys jumped on me with questions. What kind of poison and how were we supposed to get our hands on it, let alone deliver it to those monsters? How was my idea different from any of theirs?

Calmly, I replied that we wouldn't be the ones doing the poisoning.

Mother Nature would.

Here's what I had come up with. Slocomb's Pond was burdened with one weakness: it couldn't sustain itself. For the pond to exist it had to have access to the swamp with its bountiful supply of freshwater. All we had to do was fill in the shallow ditch linking the two. And the beauty of my approach was that we wouldn't have to come anywhere near the banks of Slocomb's Pond. Once the ditch was erased, the Pond's waters would stop circulating, become stagnant. Then, slowly and softly, Mother Nature would land the killing blow.

Her weapon?

Algae.

Fabulous, overpowering, beautiful, disgusting algae, growing at the bottom of the pond and eventually floating to the top, more and more of it every time you turned around, stealing the oxygen, plunging the depths of the pond into darkness...cold, suffocating darkness, in which no higher life form could live.

So it was that every afternoon, for the next three weeks, we devoted ourselves to the execution of Slocomb's Pond. We took shovels out to the property and left them there overnight so they would be ready for our use the next day. Three of us would toil away filling in the ditch while one kept watch.

Bit by bit, three-quarters of that ditch vanished. We buried it to within fifty yards of Slocomb's Pond and stopped there.

Then, for another eighteen weeks, we bicycled out to Slocomb's Pond on the first and third Friday afternoons of each month to watch it die, always sure to keep a reasonable distance.

The demise of Slocomb's Pond was long and slow, but also certain. With each passing week, more algae appeared in the water: first along the edges, and then extending into the center. The minnows disappeared, replaced by mosquito larvae. And all the while, under the harsh, evaporating gaze of the afternoon sun, the water level went down, down, down.

Slocomb's Pond staged a few comebacks, to be sure. Every time there was a thunderstorm it recovered some of the volume it had lost. The water would briefly take on a healthy tea-colored hue, and the marvelous algae would be stretched thin. But the gains never held. Drop by drop, Slocomb's Pond was fading from the Earth.

In all this time we saw no sign of the creatures. For what reason we could only guess. Maybe they hibernated; maybe they only came out at night; maybe they had resorted to cannibalism and devoured each other until only one was left and then the lone survivor starved to death. I got close to wondering, especially toward the end of those eighteen weeks of observation, if perhaps we hadn't experienced some kind of mass hallucination and there were never any creatures at all; that any scrapes and bruises we suffered were from sprinting through the dark woods, scared of what ultimately had been our own shadows.

The other boys might have been thinking the same thing, because we started to get pretty brazen after awhile; on each visit we came closer to the banks from which we had once fled in terror.

Then, on one late summer visit, John and I happened to be patrolling the far side of the Pond when he caught my arm and pointed to something pale and football-sized, glinting under the shallow, now algae-laden water.

"Look," he gasped.

I looked.

And felt the air rush out of my lungs.

Just over thirty years have passed since that day.

I've made a lot of visits to the site of Slocomb's Pond in the time intervening, and I can safely predict that, in another decade or so, you probably won't be able to tell a pond was there at all. These days it's just a big muddy depression with a few stagnant pools of groundwater in the center. Rain has eroded the banks, and where once small waves lapped at soft black shores on breezy days, now you find dandelions, tall grass, and clumps of ink weeds. Slocomb's Pond as it was before 1981 is naught but a memory...and a bad memory, at that.

But I no longer take much satisfaction in being the guy who came up with the idea for the Pond's obliteration. Older now, I often find myself wishing we had reported the creatures after all. They were a species never before seen in the world, and perhaps will never be seen again, thanks to us. I guess, being boys who thought of themselves in heroic terms, we felt that we and we alone should protect our parents, our families, our town, and anybody else from the menace of the Pond. But now there's so much I would like to know: things that would have been easily discoverable, I imagine, had biologists and scientists been able to study the monsters in Slocomb's Pond. Why were they only active every ten years or so? Did they appear spontaneously in the Pond, or migrate there? Most importantly, how did such animals come to be? Was it something unique to the Pond, or a particular food source, or what? Now we'll never know, and that's solely because of us, because of the actions we took. So if I had it all to do over again, I think I would do things differently. But who on this Earth hasn't said the same thing about some event in his or her past? Life is what it is. Slocomb's Pond is gone, and it has taken its menagerie of monsters with it.

Tim, now a successful building contactor, has a hunting lodge near here. It's actually just a little cabin he built on two hundred acres he inherited along the river, but it's a nice place and he likes hosting guests there; me, I liked to be hosted. We all take our families to Tim's place throughout the year, but one weekend in February is reserved just for us: the Slocomb Four, as we secretly call ourselves. It's a successor organization, you might say, to the Order of Slocomb's Pond. On these occasions we hunt, grill steaks and corn, drink beer, play cards, talk about sports and business and politics and pretty much anything else under the sun. Present with us are the ghosts of Percival Slocomb, Otis Smith, Bert Hinson, Grayson Jones, Jocelyn Meriwether, and others, perhaps, who met their demise at Slocomb's Pond and are officially listed as missing, or, worse still, not remembered at all. I like to think these spirits have peace now that the threat of Slocomb's Pond is no more.

And you could probably find the same basic scene being played out by a million guys in a million places across America: a group of jowly middle-aged dudes coming to terms with the reality that their lives are half-over and it's pretty much all downhill from here. But it's okay because these same guys know a downhill journey can still be fun, even rewarding; they know downhill doesn't have to equal decline. It can simply mean slowing your pace a bit; not needing to struggle as much now that you're over the hump. It can mean having an opportunity to take stock of the world you've made and the lives you've touched or created. It can mean recognizing that, even if you didn't get to be all the things you dreamed of being, you still did good, maybe great, with what-all you had. And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?

So, yes…a typical scene. In fact, the only difference between our little group and the many others out there is our choice of centerpiece. It's the object John spied under the water all those years ago. We always place it in the middle of the card table during our games, to watch us as we watch it: this ghastly but somehow welcome fragment of our shared youth, a monument to nightmares challenged and conquered. It's bleached out, flimsy, deteriorating in some places but overall still in pretty good shape. We refer to it as our Guest of Honor, and that's a distinction we take seriously. As an example, Henry once tried to put a baseball cap on it, but we ordered him to take off the hat immediately. After we explained our reason, he understood and might even have been a bit embarrassed to have pulled such a stunt in the first place. But it's the rule: a worthy foe deserves respect and admiration, not mockery. We as human beings don't like to admit it, but the things that terrify us shape our lives as distinctly, and as inalterably, as the things we love. Slocomb's Pond shaped the four of us, and so we pay it homage through the relic that sits on our table.

It belonged to one of the creatures.

Its skull.

FIN