Remember Zoey Grafton.
The single piece of laminated poster paper had been stapled into one of the Birch Trees and had barely weathered in the four weeks it had been up. It was hard to believe it had already been a month since someone had put it up atop the path leading down to the beach. That same sign, with her smiling wide for her senior grad photo, had been posted all over town in the days after they had found her body.
Zoey fit the profile of the type of person society doesn’t like being robbed of. Her story was the type mainstream media picks up and broadcasts all over the State. She was only seventeen and valedictorian of her graduating class of thirty-three students. It was the only school in our small New Hampshire town and we’re not exactly the type of place known for producing lots of superstar talent. She was a sweet girl and beautiful too. Her parents grew up in the area and were the type of family everyone knew by name. She was set to travel across the country for a full scholarship to Stanford that coming fall.
So who in their right mind would take such a promising young person from the world? Then again, perhaps the better question would have how did they do it?
This was back in the summer of ninety-seven. It was only the beginning of June but it already felt like mid-July where the summer heat usually starts to peak in the northeast. One Saturday morning, Zoey and four friends from school decided to hit the shops on the main strip and then take a walk down to Lake Bulger.
It’s a small lake in a small town. You won’t even find it on many of the regional maps. It’s big enough to warrant swimming in, but not large enough to shake that typical murky texture an overgrown pond might have. It has a small beach that can only be accessed by a dirt path coming down through threes off of one of the suburban roads. It’s on the outskirts of town but hardly out of the way. It’s maybe a ten minute walk from the main strip and there are houses back onto the water once you swim farther out.
Zoey’s friends told police that they quickly got bored sitting on the beach and wanted to head back to one of their houses and play some N64. Zoey being herself wasn’t overly interested and decided to hang back and catch more sun. They left her there without thinking anything of it— and it’s not like it was out of the ordinary for a local to hang on the beach on their own.
When they got back to the top of the path, they remembered being surprised there were no other cars pulled over and parked. It seemed like too nice of a day to pass up enjoying the beach– even if the water was still too cold at that point in the season. They figured it wouldn’t be long before someone else in town would head down there.
They said they had barely started back towards town before her friend Keisha remembered she still had Zoey’s house keys in her purse. The others waited while she jogged back down to the beach. They insist it couldn’t have been longer than one or two minutes since they had left her there.
Keisha was baffled when she didn’t see Zoey. Things were remarkably still and her towel and backpack were lying where she’d just been. She walked over and saw signs of struggle imprinted in the sand. There were two distinct body marks and long kicking streaks all over. Her sunscreen bottle had been crushed and was leaked onto her towel.
Keisha looked all over Zoey was nowhere to be seen in the immediate area. She called for help and said she ran helplessly around the tiny amount of ground Zoey could have feasibly disappeared into in such a short amount of time. There was no sign of anyone in the water. There was no one in the trees the beach backs onto or the gentle dunes near the base of the path.
Two of her friends sprinted back up to the road and then to the closest house to call the police. Within less than fifteen minutes of them leaving their friend on the beach to tan, local constables swarmed all over the surrounding area trying to find her.
They started recruiting people in town to join the search. They had all the local boats in the area scour over the small surface area Lake Bulger in the off chance she’d somehow managed to slip way out and drown but there was no trace of her ever entering the water in the first place.
More police and rescue personnel were called in from surrounding counties and eventually they started knocking on every door in town in desperation.
They finally knock on the door of a man Walter Heard. His house was out in the country, totally in the opposite direction from Lake Bulger. He’d been on the local police shit-list for previous misdemeanours and was regarded mostly as a pariah by most of us in town.
Walter must be six-foot-five, if not taller. All while weighing maybe no more than a hundred-and-fifty pounds. He’s got long grey hair that’s knotted and falls all the way down to his waist. He answered the door all disoriented and dressed in nothing but his underwear. He wasn’t even trying to hide what he’d done. Zoey’s lifeless body lay limp on the floor of his living room right behind him. He could barely keep upright as they walked him to the back of the cruiser in cuffs.
The official cause of Zoey’s death was strangulation. The skin around her neck was scratched and bruised and her windpipe had collapsed. Walter would later try to explain to the authorities, in between his vomiting, that he knew he’d done something wrong, but he couldn’t remember exactly what it was or how that girl had ended up inside his home. He was useless beyond that explanation and remained sick for several days in custody.
No one was willing to accept that at face value. Everyone wanted some form of closure. At least some semblance of an explanation to how he’d been able to ambush Zoey and kill her in such a short amount of time, all the while sneaking her off the beach where there was no other exit aside from the path. Even if he’d somehow managed to navigate along the shore so swiftly, he would have only ended up landing on someone’s property farther down the lake.
No physical exit made any sense. And above all, how had he done it so silently? How could have no one within earshot heard such a terrible crime take place? Had Zoey not managed a single scream?
There were too many loose ends in the tragic story and the aging degenerate who killed her seemed incapable of providing any tangible answers.
They may have had their man but it never felt like justice had properly been served. Rumour had it that Walter’s State-appointed attorney was pushing for him to plead insanity for a more favourable sentence. I think a lot of us in ton wouldn’t have been so humane if we ever got the chance to lay our hands on him.
We lived in a sullen place in the weeks that followed. Shops closed early, parents arranged carpools with trusted neighbours to pick up their kids from school and no one went out after dark.
I’m fairly certain that I was the first one to dare step foot voluntarily back down at the beach that day. It was the second week of July. I felt bad knowing that it had only been weeks since the murder had taken place but the unrelenting heatwave had pushed up into the one-hundreds. I could only sit in my tiny apartment with no AC for so many consecutive days without it taking too much of a toll on my mental and physical health.
So, I did what I had always done when I needed to relax on a hot day. I walked down to Lake Bulger. Perhaps I would be the first, but slowly the others would follow suit. Time eventually mends all wounds.
I was already soaked in sweat by the time I made it to the path. I saw the Remember Zoey sign stapled to the tree but quickly dropped my eyes down to my feet as I descended to the beach.
The sand was so hot it stung the bottoms of my feet. I had to slide my sandals back on and carefully wander towards a spot right next to the water to drop my towel. The surface was choppy by Lake Bulger standards, but nothing significant enough to resemble proper waves.
I didn’t waste any time lounging. I pulled my shirt over my shoulders and debated whether I should slab on some sunscreen before heading out. I thought I’d rather take a shot at evening out my farmers tan even though I’d always been the type who goes beet red then back to pasty white a few times before I start to develop a base tan.
It was amazing how empty the area was. As much as a little peace-and-quiet is appreciated in what was normally such a busy spot, there was a distinct eeriness in the feeling that I was the only one down there on such a scorcher of a day.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The treetops shook in the gentle wind that came off the water and little bits of sand picked up off the beach and drifted towards the dunes.
I high-stepped into the water, trying to make sure my feet rested against the burning sand for as little time as possible. It was instant refreshment once I fully in the shallows. It was perfect lake temperature– a little colder than the average person would keep their backyard pool. The kind of water that cools you down but doesn’t force you out so you can wade around and lounge in as long as your heart desires.
It was probably the most physically comfortable I’d felt since the day Zoey had been murdered. And perhaps it was the first time where that terrible reality had slipped to the back of my mind and was hardly more than a fleeting thought.
I dove head first into the deeper water and started swimming out. I stayed along the bottom for as long as I could hold my breath and then returned to the surface. I’d ventured far enough to where I couldn’t touch the bottom with the tips of my toes. I thought I might try to swim all the way to the other side.
My dad had always said if that I was going to swim across the lake that I should do it with a partner so there was someone to lean on if I started to cramp up. Usually, I was a good boy about it, but being in the water that day felt so freeing that I couldn’t bring myself to worry. It’s not like I’d ever had any trouble with the endurance swim in the past. I was in desperate need of physical exercise and there was no more pleasant version of it than that.
The swim was as rewarding as it was invigorating. I had made it roughly to the lake centre before I started to wonder if I was truly fit enough to make it to the other side and still have enough gas in the tank to make it back.
I stopped and started to tread. I spun in circles to get a three-sixty view of the scene around me. The whole place still felt so empty. I was far enough out I could see the houses with lakefront properties. No one was out relaxing on their back patio or doing choirs around the yard. There was no one standing on the docks or taking the kayaks out for a little whip.
I figured it was likely the only time I would ever have Lake Bulger to myself, so I tried to enjoy the experience for what it was. I turned towards the beach and started my gentle breaststroke back.
About halfway back is when I started to hear the voices. It appeared I wouldn’t be alone on the beach that day after all. Apparently others in town were had also had enough of the never-ending summer heat.
A group of kids headed down the path. Their young voices carried over the water, their careless laughter sounded like nothing was wrong or out of sorts.
I lifted an arm out of the water to wave, but couldn’t capture their attention. I started to swim faster, genuinely excited to have people to share the day with. It did make the whole thing feel a little less wrong.
I reached the point where my toes could barely touch the bottom. “HEY,” I yelled.
Something odd had happened. It took me a few moments before I could put my finger on it. I yelled loud enough for them to hear me on the shore, there was never any doubting that. However, none of them reacted. Not even a prickle of recognition that someone was out there in the water.
Had they rehearsed ignoring me as a group before coming down? Was it some kind of practical joke? Their faces were familiar, but not anyone from my immediate social circle.
One of the girls pulled a towel out of her backpack and laid it on the sand. The others took a knee or stood there with their hands in their pockets. Their voices started to fall fainter. It got to the point where I couldn’t hear them at all.
I tried yelling again and it dawned on me exactly what was wrong. It wasn’t just them I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t hear anything in that moment. No gentle wind flowing through the trees, no splashes atop the surface of the water.
Not even my own voice.
I tried to swim in closer. But it was like I couldn’t get push any of the water back behind me. I tried to press off the muddy lake bottom, but couldn’t get any traction. It was as if some external force held me there in place.
Panic set in. I thrashed as much as I could in the water but couldn’t move my body in any direction. I couldn’t even drop my head below the surface.
Nothing stirred save for the group of kids onshore. They still seemed so blissfully oblivious to the scene around them and all of them except for the blonde girl on the towel had started heading back towards the path.
I waded there helplessly as she sat up and waved her friends goodbye. She lifted her sunglasses down from her forehead and then scanned over the water. Her gaze went right through me like I was never even there.
Then again… maybe I wasn’t.
Because if I were truly there, then she couldn’t have been. It was Zoey Grafton who lay on her towel and looked over the water on that hot summer day. Roughly four weeks after she’d been strangled to death, presumably in that very spot.
I felt nothing but panic and sensory overload. Too many things were happening at once that shouldn’t have been possible in the reality I thought existed. Still, nothing stirred except for me and Zoey. Even then, my body had already started to tire. I stopped kicking and paddling with my arms, and even then I remained buoyant.
Zoey lay back down flat and through one of her arms over her eyes. It was as if covering her vision spurred the next movement from the dunes.
From out of the tall grass emerged a lanky man who moved with purpose to the unsuspecting Zoey. Walter Heard walked with a limp and was dressed in nothing but his underwear. His grey hair hung in knots down to his waist. He rubbed his fingers together in anticipation once he was only steps away.
By the time she finally realized he was upon her, it was already too late. His shadow eclipsed over her and her eyes widened so much it looked like they might pop out of her head. She tried to push herself up to her feet but he jumped on top of her and used his weight to pin her down.
He slid his knees up so they pressed her shoulders against the sand. His bony arms wobbled as he strengthened his grip around her neck. She kicked wildly in desperation. She thrashed to either side and clawed at his arms, but she couldn’t knock him off his balance.
It was the most helpless I’d ever felt. My toes dangled far enough down to feel the bottom again. I tried kicking off and actually managed some traction. It wasn’t much, but I shifted a little closer to the beach. It was like if I expended three times the amount of energy that I should, I could start to move in small increments towards them.
The two struggling back onshore took no notice as I struggled forward. Zoey gasped helplessly. Her movement grew weaker. A crooked smile spread across the weathered face of Walter Heard and it looked all but sure that she would pass if he could choke her out a little longer. He leaned back and relaxed his grip for a moment.
That’s all Zoey needed. She pounced on the opportunity and twisted violently to the side. Walter toppled off of her and she landed two heavy kicks in his sternum and scrambled to her feet while he fell to his hands and knees, heaving trying to regain his breath.
Zoey darted towards the path. Her steps crisscrossed all over the place. She kept wobbling to either side as she struggled to keep her balance. She’d suffered heavy damage, but it was only a short distance towards the path.
I had moved close enough that I could land both feet firmly on the ground and start to walk. Whatever force had kept me in place seemed unable to do so once I had my legs under me again. I pushed forward with full strides. I bounded up through the shallows and onto the sand which no longer burned my feet. For a little while, it seemed like I might be able to get back onshore and intervene the event that was supposed to have already taken place.
Walter had regained his composure well enough to stand up. He started after Zoey, gaining ground with every giant leap. She looked back and screamed.
Still, there was no sound. Perhaps I was fortunate for not having to have heard it.
He dove forward and snared one of her ankles. She fell in a heap, too disoriented to regain her balance. She clawed uselessly at the sand trying to pull herself forward and onto the path which was only a body length away.
She tried kicking back at him, but he grabbed her other leg and pulled himself on top of her again. She didn’t fight him anymore after that. It looked like she’d finally given in, like her last bits of will to live had left her.
I was only a few steps away from them. As he wrapped his arms around her neck again, she looked back and saw me. I swear there was recognition in her defeated eyes. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear her. I was close enough to read her lips as she muttered her final word.
I launched myself forward with everything I had and was able to grasp a good chunk of that degenerate’s hair and pull.
Then I hit the sand.
Then the sounds of the gentle splashes atop the water and wind blowing through the trees returned. I jumped up, my heart pounding, adrenaline blistering through my body. I was on full alert, ready to kill that piece of shit and unwrite the terrible history which had plagued our once quaint little town.
But there was no one to fight, no one to save. They were both gone. Her towel and pack had disappeared too. Only my things were left on the beach, just as I had left them. It was as if I had returned to the same scene before swimming out.
That would mean that everything I saw, everything I felt, was all part of some kind of full sensory hallucination. That would be the most pleasant explanation to believe. If only it could have been so simple.
The reality of the matter is that what I believe I experienced down at the beach that day was no figment of my imagination. Not even something in between.
I think I now know how Walter Heard had been able to murder Zoey Grafton so quickly and quietly without anybody taking notice. He did not accomplish that on his own accord.
Something greater took place on the beach that day. And it was there on my trip down as well.
In the moments that followed me getting back to my feet on the beach, where the sand started to feel hot beneath my feet again, I suddenly started to fall painfully ill.
I dropped to my knees clutching my mid-section. My head started to feel clouded like I couldn’t quite put in place the sequence of events that had even led me down there earlier that day.
I think it’s likely that in some stretch of reality, I was able to make myself part of what happened on the beach the day that Walter Heard murdered Zoey Grafton.
If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have fallen face-first into the sand clutching a lock of Walter’s grey and knotted hair.
The Devil walks among us.
He manifests himself in all the minute fears that creep inside your head during the late hours of the night. The Devil’s In The Details Volume 2 features twenty stories of psychological horror to seize your mind and resurface all the thoughts you tried to bury.
Monsters in the dark, hometown possessions, ghosts bound by tragedy, deals with the Devil– the twists and turns of this collection will keep you up at night wondering why you ever let yourself get sucked in.
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