There was a small town on the edge of a lake called Laketown, and in this small town lived five small friends. Their names were Delilah, Igor, Raja, Noah, and Gretchen.
Delilah, Igor, Raja, Noah and Gretchen were good friends indeed. They’d known each other for their whole lives, all six or seven years of them. Every day during the brilliant, warm summers in Laketown, the friends would rush down to the lake behind all of their houses to play games, laugh at each other’s jokes, and enjoy each other’s company.
Delilah was the oldest, a full eight months older than the youngest of them, and she had the most beautiful singing voice that anyone in the town had heard in a very long time. Grown men had to hide their tears when she sang a sad melody, whereas a delightful one brought out the type of joy usually reserved for mothers upon hearing their own children’s laughter.
Igor was the second-oldest, “The oldest boy though!” as he liked to say, and he was the most clever of them by far. His house looked like a library, and his parents always made him bring a book down to the lake that he’d finish before the sun set. He was the only one of them who could sit at a table with grown-ups, and when he left, they’d always say the same thing: “What a clever boy!”
Raja was right there in the middle, an ideal spot according to him, and he was as energetic as a bear cub. He was always the first one to jump into the lake and the last one to want to go home for supper. No one could swim as long, run as fast, or throw a stone as far as Raja. Some people in town even said he could beat the older boys in a race, though most of the time that was said by Raja himself.
Noah was the second-to-youngest, “Still older than Gretchen!” he’d often remind the others, and a more handsome lad the townsfolk had rarely ever seen. He couldn’t sing like Delilah, but my oh my could the boy perform. He had a presence and a smile that everyone adored, and if not for his five vigilant, older sisters, he’d only have female admirers for friends. The only reason they tolerated his current two female friends was because they loved Delilah’s singing and they thought Gretchen … well …
Gretchen was the youngest, though she’d protest, “We’re all the same age pretty much!” If Gretchen had one unique, defining quality, it was that she had no unique, defining qualities. She was average-sized with an average face and average-length hair. Half the time, the grown-ups around town thought she was a boy. “I’m a girl!” she’d rebuke, and they’d laugh and tell her what a beauty she was, though she suspected they weren’t telling the truth.
Oh, how Gretchen tried to be like her friends, though! She loved to sing, but she couldn’t sing, not like Delilah could sing. Yet she tried and tried, and once her warbling got so bad that Noah’s sisters banned her from their home for a whole month. Still, she tried, and Delilah just smiled and tried not to sing herself after people’s ears had been deadened by Gretchen’s voice.
Gretchen loved to read, but the books her parents gave her were short and trite, and besides she read them all already anyway. Her parents’ books were all written in some strange language she couldn’t understand, so she was always borrowing Igor’s. Yet whereas he could start one of his books on his way to the lake, finish it by the time the sun set, and still have time to play with the others, she couldn’t get through half of one in an entire day even without speaking to anybody. Then one day she lost Igor’s favorite book, a strange one about pigs and windmills, and her library privileges were officially revoked.
If there were somebody who had a fighting chance at beating Raja in any contest of strength or speed, it wasn’t Gretchen. However, fight she did, and every time Raja challenged his friends to anything, she would often be the only one to accept. Raja would roll his eyes, “Not you again!” Yet there she’d go again, not being able to make a bigger cannonball splash than Raja, not being to climb as high up a tree as Raja, or not being able to hold her breath as long underwater as Raja. To Gretchen’s other friends’ pleasure, however, this eventually made Raja bored of challenging them to anything.
Like every girl her age, including Delilah as well secretly, Gretchen was in love with Noah. That smile! That charm! When other girls showed up at his door, his older sisters usually were like a wall–an angry, intimidating wall–blocking their path to him. Even Delilah, whom they loved, they would sweep away to a different room from Noah when they played together and whisper other boys’ names into her ear. On the other hand, they allowed Gretchen as much time as she wanted with Noah. They even laughed about it, though it reminded her of the way grown-ups laughed when they called her a beauty.
Noah was delighted, however, to have a friend whom his sisters allowed to visit him, or more specifically a friend who wasn’t always challenging him to a push-up contest like Raja or trying to explain the phases of the moon like Igor. Gretchen and Noah’s favorite game was playing dress-up, where Noah would put on one of his father’s suits, Gretchen one of his mother’s dresses, and they would have what they assumed was a grown-up conversation.
One day Noah suggested he try the dress and Gretchen the suit, and he played the mother while Gretchen the father. Noah’s impression had Gretchen crying on the floor in laughter, and it was the most fun either had that entire summer. However, when his sisters caught their act, they made Gretchen go home, and the next time she visited, she found herself face-to-face with an angry, intimidating wall.
Down by the lake, though, their time belonged to them, though it passed as swiftly as the summer itself. Soon school would be upon them again, a thought they all dreaded, even Igor, who hated being told he had to put away his beloved novels and to read the flimsy books they had in school that were mainly pictures. The five friends’ time at the lake began to feel even more meaningful as the days themselves grew shorter, though those days were about to get rather peculiar.
The sun was setting on a particularly hot late summer evening when they first spotted the creature sniffing around the grass by the water. Raja later would claim that he spotted it first, although the rest agreed that since Delilah screamed first, she should get the credit. There was nothing terrifying about the creature–Delilah was merely surprised–but it did look strange.
It was just smaller than the typical neighborhood dog, the ones that slept outside, not the ones carried around in ladies’ arms. It had dark, wet skin that looked too fleshy to be fur but too smooth to be scales. Instead of legs, it had flippers, and two nubs protruded from its skull. It didn’t have much of a snout, but it did have a white patch of skin on its chin that looked like a beard as well as the most curious eyes the children had ever seen.
“It’s an ugly platypus,” one of the old men by the lake said.
“Are platypuses pretty?” asked Gretchen.
“Well, then it’s a platypus,” he said and walked off shaking his head.
Igor brought an encyclopedia of animal pictures to the lake, and the friends looked through every page trying to identify it. Then he brought out a book about mythical creatures, and they looked through every page of that book, too.
“Maybe it’s a basilisk,” Igor suggested, “But it’s been staring at us all day, and nobody’s dead yet.”
Gretchen didn’t like the way Igor added a “yet” at the end of that sentence.
“It’s a platypus,” Raja replied. He had stopped paying attention halfway through the real animals and was skipping stones across the lake.
“I know what it is,” Noah said. Everyone looked at him, even Raja. “It’s a lake monster! A giant mommy lake monster laid an egg right here, and now the baby’s hatched, and when the mommy comes back it’s going to eat all of us!”
“That’s stupid,” Raja said, skipping another stone across the lake. “Nobody’s seen a giant mommy lake monster here.”
None of the other friends said anything, but they didn’t seem to disagree with Raja either. They all stopped paying attention to Noah except Gretchen, who watched nervously as Noah got on his hands and knees and slowly crawled towards the creature.
“Be careful!” she said. “What’re you doing?”
“Shh! I’m going to be his friend so when his mommy comes back, she won’t eat me.”
Though no one thought this was a good idea, as they hadn’t yet decided whether this creature really belonged to a race of child-eating monsters, the friends all huddled together and inched forward behind Noah. He got very close to the creature, which stopped sniffing around the grass and lifted its head to stare at him. Its neck was longer than they’d expected, and it stared down at Noah on his hands and knees.
“Easy, boy, easy,” he said to the creature.
“Maybe it’s a girl!” Delilah whispered.
“It’s a platypus!” Raja said, a little too loudly as the others hushed him.
Noah lifted up his left hand, slowly stretching it toward the creature’s head. It looked at his hand, cocked its head to the right, then let out a shrill SQUAWK and furiously flippered away to the lake where it dived in and swam away. Noah was left only with mud on his face and an outstreched hand to nothing.
Eventually the Laketown newspaper caught wind of this platypus-basilisk creature and sent a reporter to take a photograph. The reporter sat by the lake with the five friends all day, but the creature never appeared. However, the reporter happened to be a talented artist as well, and he drew an impressive illustration based on a colorful description by Noah. Igor disapproved of what he considered to be “a lot more fangs and claws and horns than I remember,” but the image nonetheless ran in the next morning’s paper.
So vivid was the reporter’s illustration that the sleepy town was soon overrun with reporters from all across the county, each looking for a chance to get a picture of this terrifying beast. The townsfolk of Laketown came out in droves, and the friends were surprised to hear that every one of them had seen the creature.
“Eight feet long, at least! Razor-sharp claws, too,” one man said.
“It wasn’t eight feet, it was ten feet! And scales tough as steel,” said another man. “I know because I grabbed it by its tail, but it slipped away. That’s how I got this scar.”
“Is it a danger to the children? Do you think the police should do something about it?” asked a pretty young reporter.
“Oh absolutely,” said the man’s wife. “These kids play by the lake all the time. Imagine the horror if it got one of them!”
The reporters all turned and looked at Noah, a look of terrified innocence on his face, and they all melted. Gretchen scratched her brow. Did these people really see the same, funny little creature that she did? Did Noah?
“It had those demon eyes,” said yet another man. “Like a…a, uh…what was it called again, kid?”
He looked at Igor, who proudly declared, “A basilisk. The king of serpents.”
The gathered reporters all nodded, impressed. “What a clever boy!” one of them said, and Igor beamed.
“It was an ugly platypus!” said the old man who had seen the creature. Raja nodded his head in agreement, then added, “And I grabbed its tail, too!”
The reporters ignored them and gathered around Delilah for a child’s perspective on the story.
Laketown was abuzz for a few days. Much to the friends’ disappointment, they weren’t allowed to go to the lake anymore for fear that a giant, 10-foot long, fire-breathing basilisk with steel scales and dragon wings would swoop down from the sky, snatch them up with its razor-sharp claws, and swim away in the lake with its shark tail. The two officers of the Laketown police department sent down to protect the area from this monster weren’t too pleased with their new assignment either.
Despite all the commotion down by the lake, what never appeared was the curious little creature that caused all the excitement in the first place. Eventually the reporters left, the townsfolk went home, the two police officers returned to their lookout point at the doughnut shop, and the friends’ parents decided it was safe for them to go play by the lake again as long as they stayed in sight of their houses and away from any lake monsters.
Sadly for the friends, the summer had now dwindled down to the last day before school started. They spent it quietly down by the lake. Igor read a book on Greek mythology. Raja and Noah floated on their backs in the water. Delilah sang a whimsical song while Gretchen listened and dreamed.
This time it was Raja who screamed as something in the water brushed under his back and swam towards the surface. The creature had appeared again, flippering its way onto shore. All the friends stared increduously. After all the clamor about lake monsters, they’d almost forgotten there was a real creature behind it all. Yet there it was now, sniffing around the grass, its inky skin gleaming in the sun and its head nubs nubblier than ever.
“We should catch it,” Raja suggested.
“I think we should leave it alone,” Delilah said, a little wary and now hazy about what actually was real about this creature and what everyone had just made up.
“I agree with Delilah,” Noah said, remembering his rejected friendship request.
“Maybe I should just get my dad’s camera, and we can take a picture of it,” Igor said. The others murmured agreement, and Igor got up to get the camera when Gretchen stood up.
“No, we should catch it,” she said, turning to them. “Then we’ll be the kids who caught the lake monster! Then we’ll be in the newspaper again, all of us this time!”
Her friends liked the sound of that. They remembered what it was like to be the kids who saw the lake monster, but the kids who caught the lake monster? They’d be famous forever!
“Okay, what we should do is–” Igor started before Raja leapt out of the water and dived at the creature.
“Catch it!” Raja shouted, as the creature squawked and flippered away, much faster than Raja even on land. Gretchen dived at it, too, but missed as it swam out into the lake again. It didn’t go far, though, stopping only a few yards away from shore and poking its long neck out to stare at the friends, as if to see what they’d do next.
Igor convinced Raja to calm down enough to come up with a plan. They took down the netting that Delilah’s parents kept around their garden to keep birds away and fashioned it into a large fishing net. Then Raja and Noah swam out into the water and tried to ensnare the creature, but it was too quick and slippery underwater.
“We’ve got to get it on land,” Igor said.
“Maybe I can make it come by singing to it,” Delilah offered. The others were not impressed by this idea, but Delilah, full of confidence in her magical voice, walked straight to the shore and started singing.
It was a soaring, joyous song, the kind in the movies that made all the birds and animals come out of the forest just to listen. Sure enough, the creature poked its head out of the water again and looked at Delilah. She became excited and sang even louder. Her friends were shocked. Could Delilah’s voice charm a lake monster out of the lake?
“Squawk!” the creature squawked. “Squaaaawwk!”
Delilah was not used to someone interrupting her singing, but she kept going undaunted, singing even more loudly and directly towards the creature.
“SQUAAAAAAWWWK!” it squawked, increasing its volume as well. “SQQQQUUUAAAAAWWWWKK!!!”
“Stop it!” Delilah yelled. She picked up a tomato from her family’s garden and threw it at the creature, who leapt out of the water and caught it in its mouth. It then flipped over on its back, grabbed the tomato with its front flippers, and devoured it in two bites.
Igor had an idea. A few minutes later, they’d gathered all the tomatoes from Delilah’s family’s garden and given them to Gretchen, who took responsibility for luring the creature out of the water onto the grass. The other four would then come up behind the creature and bring the net down on it.
Gretchen walked to the shore and floated a few tomato slices out into the water. The creature swam to them and gobbled each up while warily keeping its eyes on her. She backed up slowly, leaving tomato slices on the shore and then the grass as the creature made its way out onto land and followed her. When it was far enough out, Gretchen laid down an entire tomato. The creature ran up to it, sniffed it, and looked up at her. It seemed to her almost to be smiling, as if it were saying “Thanks, friend!”, and for a moment Gretchen felt a tinge of regret.
That was all the time she had, however, as Raja, Noah, Igor, and Delilah came screaming down on them, covering the creature and Gretchen both with the net.
“We got it! We got it!” Raja shouted and everyone cheered, all except Gretchen who was also stuck under the net and the creature, which was squawking furiously. It then stopped squawking and furiously attacked the netting.
“It’s chewing through the net!” Noah said. Sure enough, the creature quickly chewed a hole large enough to crawl through and flippered past a startled Delilah to shore. Once again, it didn’t flee altogether. It just ran far enough away to keep an eye on its would-be captors.
The five friends sat on the ground, dejected.
“Well, so much for that,” Igor said.
All of them stared back at the creature. Then suddenly, Gretchen rose up, pulled the net off of her, and ran down to shore with it. She dived at the creature with the net, but it easily dodged and flippered away. She got up again and dived again, but again it easily slipped away, this time into the water. Gretchen waded into the water to try again.
“Gretchen, stop! Just let it go!” Delilah shouted at her.
“It’s not worth it!” Raja shouted, his enthusiasm now sapped as well.
Gretchen stood neck-deep in the water, the net floating on the surface next to her, watching the creature that was now way out in the lake. It stared back at her, and then it sank under the water and disappeared.
The next day the friends all went back to school, and their attentions turned to other things. Gretchen’s did as well, but she kept going back to the lake every day, snatching up all her family’s tomatoes until she convinced them just to grow their own tomato garden. Day after day, Gretchen would go back. Some days she saw the creature. Some days she didn’t. She could get it to come onto land again, but her friends were no longer interested in catching it.
Less than a year later, Noah, all his sisters, and his entire family moved away. Gretchen and Delilah were both devastated, as were half the young girls in Laketown. Some time later, they saw him on a television show. Noah was a TV star! He was much more famous now than he’d have been as one of the kids who caught the lake monster. His show was on for a while, and then it wasn’t anymore. The friends never saw him again after that.
A few years later, Delilah’s family moved, too. They took her to a city with a music school where she could sing for more people and maybe become a famous singer. The friends thought they might see her on TV, too, but they never did.
Raja ran away one day, but the police brought him back. No one knew why he ran away, not even Igor or Gretchen. They only saw him at school after that, but they didn’t talk much. One day his family disappeared. They probably moved, but no one really knew.
The only friends left in Laketown were Igor and Gretchen, and they both stayed for a very long time. Igor went to college nearby, where he met a beautiful young woman and got married. They had two children, a boy and a girl, and settled down in Laketown. Not long afterwards, Igor ran for mayor and won. He was the youngest mayor in the history of Laketown, but he may have also been its most clever.
Gretchen eventually found a job teaching at the local elementary school. She stayed in the same house by the lake, even after her parents moved away. She also never stopped chasing the creature. Most townsfolk had forgotten about it long ago, a local myth that crazy newspaper reporters made up. Not Gretchen. Over the years, she’d tried numerous ways to ensnare it: traps, nets, cages. It avoided or escaped each one, yet strangely it kept coming back, and Gretchen would as well.
Every day Gretchen would go down to the lake, a basket of tomatoes in hand. Some days the creature would show up; some days it wouldn’t. It’d been a very long time since she’d actually made an attempt to catch it. It was just habit now for Gretchen to go down there and wait.
One day Igor took his children out to the lake and saw Gretchen on the shore, basket of tomatoes in hand. He went over and greeted her warmly. It had been a while since they’d spoken.
“Have you caught it yet?” he joked.
“No,” she laughed. “Not yet.”
“You know, no one else has even seen that thing since we were still kids. You still see it?”
“Once in a while.”
“Amazing. Maybe I should put together a search party and send it out to find the thing.”
A look of horror crossed Gretchen’s face, which made Igor laugh. “I’m just kidding, Gretchen. It’s all yours.”
She smiled, relieved, then noticed Igor’s children staring up at her. Igor put one hand on his son’s shoulder and another on his daughter’s.
“Kids, I want you meet my friend, Gretchen,” he told them. “In all my life, I have never met anyone as persistent as she is. That means when she sets her mind to something, she’ll never give up. No matter if it’s singing, reading, racing, or even catching a monster. She’s truly one of a kind.”
The two friends spoke fondly of years and other friends gone by, and Gretchen bid them goodnight as Igor took his children home.
It was getting dark, and she was about to head back inside when she saw the creature rising out of the lake. Over the years, it had grown tremendously, and now it towered over her. The nubs on its head had become full-grown horns, and its flippers giant fins. Its neck rose like a giraffe’s, and the white stripe on its chin had turned into an actual beard. Its skin, on the other hand, remained inky dark and smooth, gleaming against the rising moonlight.
Gretchen took a tomato out of her basket and held it out. The creature craned its neck down, and its large tongue scooped it up out of her hand. It lifted its head back up, those giant, curious eyes staring down at Gretchen, and she stared back at the creature.