Today’s story is based on MindLoveMisery’s Menagerie Photo Challenge #362, using the above photo as inspiration…
If the Creature Arrives
by Dave Williams
The scene could’ve been in a fairy tale, even though Harriet knew that wasn’t the host’s intention. Asher Griffin aimed instead for a scene in an Edgar Allan Poe story.
That was how Owen had described an over-the-top Asher Griffin party fo Harriet. Growing up with parents who loved to entertain, Asher appeared to have caught the bug. His parties weren’t held at the Griffin mansion, however. Once or twice a year, Asher rented a beautiful venue and threw a party in such themes as Venetian masquerade, Victorian gothic, and Great Gatsby.
Tonight was Harriet’s first time at one of the soirees, and she now believed Owen’s stories about Asher. The two men had met in college and swiftly became great friends. Owen didn’t belong in the wealthy arena of the Griffins, but his quirky sense of humor and his love of discussing literature more than sports meshed well with Asher.
Harriet had been introduced to Owen’s friend over dinner in a seafood restaurant, where she had enjoyed his boyish attractiveness and his enthusiasm to learn about her. She had assumed he would be stuck up and unleash comments like “Oh my goodness, the Côte d’Azur is delish!” She was glad her prediction had been off the mark.
After that night, Harriet had told some of her friends about the experience. They had suggested she should’ve ditched Owen in favor of Asher. The choice was akin to the woman’s version of Betty or Veronica, and a sizable percentage of the men to whom the friends had posed the choice had picked Veronica for the family bank account.
Except that Harriet had been dating Owen for ten months and she was too smitten to cast him aside for a rich man who made a good first impression. A man who might’ve had undiscovered hang-ups. Besides, Harriet didn’t match Asher’s type. According to Owen, Asher tended to date women who also came from wealthy families, and they zipped off to luxurious locales at the drop of a hat.
Here was a locale made more dream-like by the strings of fairy lights swooping from tree to tree in the spacious patio between a house and lake. The large house could’ve belonged to a tycoon during the Gilded Age of the 1920s. If so, this party would’ve likely fit with the parties of old: pretty little lights, glow of lanterns, well-dressed guests, waiters carrying silver trays of hors d’oeuvre and strolling amid the crowd.
Harriet thought the party’s masquerade theme added a bit of mystery. She would not have known the other guests without their masks. This was a societal circle in which she did not fly. Yet it was delish to fly in the circle for a night.
A series of tinking sounds calmed conversations and caused the guests to turn toward Asher standing on an ornate metal chair and tapping his cocktail glass with a spoon.
“Wonderful to see all of you tonight,” Asher said. “Thank you for making the long journey from the city.” (Long was subjective; the journey from city to lake had taken a few hours’ drive.) “I chose this place because the view is quite lovely.”
The host extended a hand to the lake, as if welcoming a special guest. The tiny lights were reflected on the lake’s surface, still and soft in dusk’s light. The trees ringing the lake and the few other houses were also soft in the dwindling sunlight of late summer.
Asher continued, “But that’s not the only reason I chose it. There’s a story about this lake. You see, folks around here say a creature lives in there.”
Murmuring came among the guests, and one gentleman said, “You realize we’re not in Scotland, don’t you?”
Asher laughed. “Come now, Reggie. I haven’t had that much to drink. Not yet, anyway.” As laughter from the guests faded, Asher said, “But Reggie’s right. We’re not in Scotland. Is this creature related to Nessie? I don’t know. But the locals say the creature comes out at night, under the cover of darkness. Easier to hunt that way. They call it Mugrik.”
“Just a myth!” another gentleman said.
The pessimistic statement brightened Asher’s face. “Maybe it is. But what if it’s not? What if we get to see this amazing thing? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”
While some in the crowd gave encouraging comments, most guests downplayed the idea, calling it preposterous.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Asher said. “Most likely, it’ll show up after midnight. And if it does show up, we can run into the mansion. We’ll be perfectly safe there. But in the meantime, please take a gondola ride while you can. The rides stop promptly at eleven o’clock.”
As the host stepped down from the chair, the guests returned to conversing in groups clustered around the patio.
Harriet thought Asher’s phrase “perfectly safe” was wrong. No such place existed. The risk of something bad happening always loomed over you. People were struck by lightning. People died in house fires. Granted, the risk was low of those events — but they did happen.
“You seriously think he believes in this thing?” Harriet asked.
Owen chuckled and said, “He really could. He’s mentioned it to me before. The Mugrik. Weird name. But it doesn’t really matter if he believes in it. He wants it to be true. He wants to see it with all these people around, all these witnesses. He wants to throw a party that nobody forgets.”
“I’m not going to forget this,” Harriet said. “It’s beautiful.”
“But the monster adds a nice touch, doesn’t it?”
Harriet had to agree.
The creature also added a conversation starter, one beyond the standards: What do you do for a living? How do you know Asher? Where are you from?
At times, Owen wasn’t by Harriet’s side, as he went to order more drinks or headed inside the house for the restroom. Harriet wasn’t very comfortable in a crowd of strangers, but the cocktails helped ease her mild anxiety. Everyone she talked with was polite, some even cheery. The other guests seemed to know each other (at least somewhat), and they were quick to fill silences during conversations with Harriet.
She and Owen joined the line on the dock. They watched the three gondolas glide along the shoreline. The wait wasn’t long for the dating couple to have a turn in a boat.
When the gondola departed the dock, Harriet said, “Why aren’t the boats going to the middle of the lake?”
“It gets too deep for our poles,” said the gondolier, a woman dressed in black-and-white striped shirt. “We could go farther than this, but we’ve been asked to stay close to the shore.”
Harriet guessed Asher had been behind that instruction, to give guests the idea that the lake’s center was too dangerous. A probable ruse. A lantern hung from the boat’s prow, its light dancing on the water. She imagined a beast’s head breaking the water’s surface, rising high above them, the long neck stretching. A silly idea. Harriet leaned against Owen and gave into the romance of the sliding boat.
Back on land, as the evening progressed, Harriet hoped the monster would appear and she hoped it wouldn’t. Its arrival would’ve been thrilling. She would’ve tried to snap a photo, record a video with her phone. She and Owen would’ve gone into the house, out the front door, to their car in the parking area, and driven off. Surely, they were faster than the older guests. A calculation from horror movies: the slowest of the fleeing mob was killed/eaten first.
But escape wasn’t guaranteed. She and Owen could’ve been in the car, and the monster could’ve breathed fire and roasted them — if the beast had such a power.
Harriet didn’t want the creature to stomp out of the lake simply because it would’ve ruined the luxurious time she was having. She inwardly laughed at herself for imagining the creature.
Guests said good-byes and left in small groups, and eventually half of the original crowd remained. Then a third. Then a fourth. They claimed to be ready to stay until sunrise. Then they would head to their hotels, their bed-and-breakfasts, and get some sleep. They could arrange for another night’s stay if checkout time was too early. Or slip the maid some cash to come later for cleaning the room.
As for the lake house, Asher had rented it until noon. Some of the catering staff left, and the remaining ones replenished the coffee urns and trays of desserts.
Owen switched from drinking wine to coffee before Harriet did. She was relieved. A few of the previous men she had dated would’ve continued swallowing booze — especially free and high quality — for as long as liquor bottles were available. She liked to think her taste in men had matured along with herself. She saw no need to drink tonight until she stumbled about.
Harriet also liked that Owen was game to stay at the party. The atmosphere was pleasant by the two fire pits. Harriet now felt the guests were friends from long ago rather than people she had met tonight. They kidded each other, they talked of other times they had stayed up through the night, like when they were kids and it was a grand adventure to see how the world looked when they would’ve typically been asleep. The magic of those times.
Harriet picked up a lantern and walked with Owen to the dock. To the end. They gazed into the dark water. Gazed across it, and were unable to see the opposite shore. Gazed at the stars seeming to envy the fairy lights still lit.
“If that thing actually exists and comes up,” Owen said, “we’re goners for sure.”
She grabbed his hand and squeezed. “So be it.”
The night had transitioned from a Poe-inspired party to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Harriet found enjoyment in both stages, as did Owen. A good sign for their future.
copyright © 2021 Dave Williams
The beast crashed through the jungle after the scientist, a far cry from its stealthy approach of his camp as he bent over his journal, noting and drawing the day’s botanical finds, and savoring sips of a claret. The computer’s beeping alerted the scientist to a triggered motion detector and firing up a night-vision video camera. On the computer screen, he saw a ghostly green image of the beast, sparking a horrific curiosity and spinning upright to see the thing straight on. Striped fur over muscles rippled in the darkness outside of the lantern’s light. “It can’t be,” the scientist gasped with a memory flash of an extinct animal’s illustration in an old book. Followed quickly by the conclusion that the mosquito netting offered no protection against the beast’s ferocity, so he snatched the tranquilizer rifle from the table and shot at the shape, but the thing lunged toward him. He panicked and ran off, leaving the startled grousing of his formerly sleeping crewmates, who were grateful the scientist led the beast away from the camp and for the camera’s evidence of the animal’s existence.