This piece was the winner of our 'Do Not Disturb' horror short story contest! Congratulations to the author!

Fiction by Andy Charles

The summer after I turned nine was the summer first, I saw her.

She stood in the reeds by the lake, watching curiously as I walked along the boardwalk between the two cabins in the early morning, before the sun had peeked over the tops of the mountains surrounding camp. Her hair dripped water, but she waved at me, with a smile on her face. I waved back, intrigued but not all that surprised. It was camp tradition; at some point during the late night or early morning, the older girls would sneak out from their units, daring themselves to get closer and closer to the lake. Yet, she stood there, alone. The reeds rattled in the soft wind around her, beckoning towards the lake. For a moment, I headed towards the stairs down to the lake, but a counselor called my name, standing in the doorway to the bathhouse.

When I looked back at the lakeshore, she was gone.

The next morning, I picked through the poison ivy and brambles leading down to the lakeshore, where the reeds rattled together, and the light waves lapped against the shoreline. The mud stuck to the shoes I wore, before it finally claimed one, then the other. The cold wet mud seeped between my toes as I looked along the shoreline, for another set of footprints that should have been there. After a moment, the coward in me turned back, abandoning my shoes in the mud, hoping the counselors wouldn’t mind.

The summer after I turned twelve was the summer, I heard the story.

The sun hadn’t quite set yet but had dipped below the mountains surrounding the camp. Circled up around the blazing campfire, warming up from taking a late dip in the pool, the head counselor told us the story of the Whispering Girl. She went by many names throughout the years, but the story stayed the same.

One late night, after the sun had long set, after the head counselors had taken refuge from the younger girls in their rooms, she and her friends had snuck down to canoe beach. The moon was dark, stars providing little light that reflected off the lake. They were older than me then, teenage counselors, who had made bets and dares. Touch the water. Ankle deep. Knee deep. Waist deep. Chest deep. Every time, inching out just a little further and a little further, into the freezing lake. Their teeth clattered, as the cold sunk into their bones, goosebumps rising on their skin.
Then someone dared someone to go as far as she could.
The girl, braver than the rest, a strong swimmer, pushed off from the bottom. Even strokes, even kicks, she made her way out deeper than the others. The girls on the shore laughed and cheered, daring her further and further, until someone dared her to touch the bottom.
Letting herself slip under, the cold water engulfed her entirely. The mud and weeds at the bottom were soft to the touch, before she pushed off, back words the surface.
Her foot sunk into the mud, weeds wrapping around her ankle and leg, holding her under.
The girls on the shore fled the scene of the crime, swearing on their lives to keep quiet. Her body was never found.
It never floated to the surface.
The counselors always warned us if we got too close, or too deep, she'd pull us under

The summer after I turned fifteen was the summer I almost joined her.

Writing had become my passion, and the camp was rife with ghost stories to be explored, from the victims of yellow fever to the woman on the hill overlooking the Bay. And of course, the camp favorite, the Whispering Girl. Everyone knew to run the other direction when the lake reeds whispered their name. Everyone knew to never approach the lake shore. Everyone knew to never go out on the water unless in a canoe and with someone else.

Yet in my rebellious teen spirit, I refused to listen. I had seen her, unlike many of the others, yet I refused to believe their stories. The other trainees and I snuck down to the lake, after the sun had long set, after our head counselors had already gone to bed. There were seven of us, standing there on that same lakeshore. We’d scared the younger girls into not approaching the lake, yet here we were, just as scared as them. I don’t remember how it happened, but I ended up giving into their dares, heading deeper and deeper into the lake.

Soon, I couldn’t touch the bottom either. The others on the shore whooped and hollered. Then, someone dared me to touch the bottom.

I laughed, before taking a deep breath, holding my eyes shut tight.

The cold water soaked into my hair, surrounding me entirely. It came as a shock, and I shivered violently, trying to reach the bottom.

That same soft mud from the lakeshore lined the bottom of the lake, and my foot sank in.When I tried to push off, the lake refused to let me go. It held on tight, wrapping weeds around my ankle. Struggling, I thrashed my arms and legs, but I couldn’t even reach the surface.

Unwittingly, I opened my mouth to scream, feeling my lungs fill with water.

Then, someone grabbed my hand, pulling me back to the surface with enough force to break the lake’s hold.

When I came to the surface, coughing and choking on the water I’d swallowed, I frantically looked around for the person who’d saved me from what’d seemed like my inevitable fate. The other girls stood on the lakeshore, calling my name.

Weak and exhausted, I swam back to shore.

The summer after I turned eighteen was the summer I saw her last.

Camp was my second home. The mountains surrounding the lake, the sound of joyful screams, the smell of campfire, and the Whispering Girl, it was all part of my second home. Every night, once the camp had laid to rest, took the same path I did nine years prior, down to the lakeshore. My old shoes were long gone, the reeds denser than ever.

But she always stood there, waiting for me. For hours, we’d sit there and talk. I’d share modern life with her, and in turn she’d tell me about the camp back in her day.

It broke my heart to leave my friend, knowing I’d never be back.