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Stories flitted around the small town on the day the De Wets moved into their new house. Tall tales, folk tales, and shreds of yellowed newspaper articles dug from dusty cabinets; all with one chorus: young girls got lost out here.
Sarah rolled her eyes at the adults. She was, after all, sixteen – practically an adult. And she was from the city – she could take care of herself. But they watched her closely, phoning her parents whenever she ventured out alone. Their eyes on her made her skin crawl.
The old woman called Johanna frightened her even more than the staring eyes of the men. Johanna sat like a perpetual statue on a large chair in the shade of her veranda. Livid scars criss-crossed her face and arms. Every day she raved endlessly about snakes and dragons and demons in the water. Except for a few women taking her food parcels every now and then, everyone left her alone with her nightmares.
The freedom promised by the empty stretches of plains and rocky outcrops called to her. It was one of the reasons why they had left the city. Here there was peace and quiet, friendly people and a pace of living the body could contend with. But the strange silence here was choking.
At night tangible darkness enclosed the town. Sarah took to her bed early and slept wearing her earphones to keep away the call and the creeping dread of the darkness. Gone were the constant light, the voices and the cars that lulled her so easily to sleep.
During the dark hours something pulled at her mind. Called her. And on the rocky outcrops fires burned night after night. The old men sat by the fires with shotguns clenched in their hands. Some walked along the bank of the river and shone torches onto the water and whispered curses under their breaths. They watched, waited, listened and prayed for the girls of the town.
In the streets Johanna shuffled along like a phantom. She would only stop outside the De Wets’ house. Sarah sometimes saw her outside the palisades, staring at her in her room.
After a month Sarah convinced her parents that they should have a picnic outside the stifling confines of the town. They drove up a dirt track until they reached the top of one of the outcrops. The crumbling remains of a small fort stood sentinel over the silent town below them. Its cannons were long gone, but recent fires and a few discarded cigarette butts remained. Sarah breathed deeply. The weather was stifling, perhaps too hot for a picnic, but here no one would watch her.
They had barely finished their food when Sarah’s parents started fighting. Soon they were oblivious to anything else. Sarah listened to the same fight for the umpteenth time. Her mother was frightened of the stories. She was tired of the silence. She wanted to go back to the city. Sarah wandered away from the blanket, umbrellas and half eaten food. No one listened to a sixteen year old when she said that she wanted to leave.
Sarah spotted a hole in the rock and grinned. There were other stories as well. Snatches of tales about diamond smugglers, robbers and stashes of money hidden during the war a century ago. Men still scoured the countryside with metal detectors. Few had any success. She glanced back at her oblivious parents and went closer. A warning fluttered in her stomach. Stories were a good way to scare children. She knelt on the warm rock and tried to see into the hole. Cool air rose from the darkness and brushed against her face.
In town, Johanna rose from her chair cursing and screaming gibberish about water demons. She touched the scars on her face and wrung her scarred hands. Stinging tears blinded her. First he called. Then he made you curious. Then he pounced.
Sarah stuck her hand into the cool hole and felt around deeper and deeper until she had stuck her arm in up to her shoulder. With her ear so close to the rock she could hear the rushing of water far below. She frowned. It was only a narrow tunnel. Someone whispered her name. She ignored it. Then it called to her like so many times before. It called to her from below.
The voice called louder and louder until it became a roar. The rock trembled. Water splashed. The cool air turned scalding hot. Sarah yanked her arm back. Something cold and wet grabbed her wrist.
She screamed. Only it heard her. Claws clamped tighter as she pulled. And pulled. And screamed.