Slow No Wake 


From where Sonia Greene stood on her widow’s walk, she could see a quarter mile up and down the North Carolina Intracoastal Waterway. Her home was situated in front of the maze of connections that threaded their way between the villages and towns. Boats maneuvered as they passed along the 3000-mile stretch of marina, though they only infrequently crossed her view as she watched from the third-floor of her Holden Beach property. She stood at the railing or sat in her rocking chair, waved to the occasional boater or returned their friendly gestures with a smile and a nod. Greetings were always exchanged, an unwritten rule, a general check-in that everything was all right.

Usually skinny blondes in tight bikinis accompanied slightly drunk shirtless men, or the boats were home to college kids hooting and hollering as they sped past. The waters churned and sloshed in their wake as they rushed to their destinations. The waves rocked Sonia’s pier and made the three-story foundation creak and groan like the bellows on an accordion.

Other than her fixation on the waterway, Sonia’s mind was occupied with an odd phrase that continuously whispered in her mind, One hundred for ten. The origin of the statement was foggy, a buried memory that was just beginning to resurface. She was only recently aware that the unusual idiom signified a goal she was aiming for, a targeted sum she was closing in on. She had come to realize that ten referred to ten years, a decade of servitude. That much she knew. It was the number, one hundred, that still wasn’t clear to her. One hundred for ten. It was vague, like the photo of a long-lost or forgotten relative that you were unable to identify. But the oath—and that’s what it was, that much she knew—still remained in place, still bound her to the house, and to the duties set before her, specifically the positioning and removal of the cautionary notice, Slow No Wake.

On this stiflingly hot day in late August, Sonia sipped her lemonade, relaxed into the rocker. She idly reached through her blouse to finger the key that always hung from a chain around her neck, her sole piece of jewelry. Just over three inches in length, it nestled between her breasts, a warm spot over her heart, generating its own kind of heat. The key’s presence alerted and reminded her of her main responsibility. When it was time for her to fulfill her duties, it prompted her in a simple, spirited manner, steadily changing temperature. From a comfortable body-warmth, it would begin to cool as the ground does when the sun moves behind a cloud. The key would become so chilly against her skin, it almost burned. When she could endure it no longer, Sonia knew the time had come to fulfill her vow.

One hundred for ten.


It had been Marty’s idea to visit Holden Beach.

For many years, she and Thomas vacationed on North Carolina’s Bald Head Island with their daughter, Jasmin. Thomas inherited the house from his parents, and summered there for more than fifty seasons, so he knew the waterways. Each August they’d invite friends to stay with them—he’d rent a pontoon boat and take them on a daylong cruse through a twisty section of the Intercostal Waterways. This year, Theresa and Lee, accompanied by their daughter, Kyra, were guests staying with them.

It was on the third day when Thomas announced the trip and pointed out the destination on a map.

“How far?” Theresa asked, fanning herself from the relentless heat.

“‘Bout three hours getting there, and we’ll do lunch, relax, swim, so it’ll be a full day.”

“In this heat?” Kyra groaned.

“Not so bad on the boat,” Thomas said defensively, sensing a mutiny. It had been hotter than usual, a record was being set, and everyone was complaining about the muggy, oppressive environment.

“Or,” Marty said brightly, snatching the map away from him. “We could try something new since we always do the same trip every year. Let’s instead go to…Holden Beach! It looks nice. It’s much closer, and we can be there in a little over an hour.”

Theresa and Lee agreed. Marty smiled triumphantly at Thomas—it was rare when she made a decision on Bald Head Island since it was his turf. He knew his way around and was used to the rest of them following.

“Fine,” he said, good-naturedly, studying the map. “Holden Beach it is.”


The phrase, Slow No Wake, meant that any vessel in sight of the posting must reduce its speed so that it does not produce a wake, or turbulent waves. It must pass so slowly as to not cause possible injury or damage to other persons, boats, or property.

Sonia’s house stood alone in the narrow, secluded canal. Passage was always a concern since the violent swells could easily cause damage if they swept up too high. But the rare, occasional boater she encountered over the seasons were all accommodating sorts, so when she was alerted by the key to display the sign, everyone slowed and waved a lazy, friendly hello to her. She returned the greeting on the widow’s walk, often toasting them with her lemonade, watching to see what would happen next.

This August day was to be different from the others that month.

Earlier that morning, the key had begun to cool against her chest. There was an urgency about its transformation; it went from cool to cold to freezing in just minutes.

Sonia set her drink down, stood, and peered apprehensively at the water. The rocking chair had bobbed three times against the back of her legs before it settled. She carefully climbed down the spiral stairs into the third story bedroom. From there, the chilliness of the house was a bit of a shock after the heat from outdoors. She descended two fights and made her way down the shadowy, out-of-the-way passage on the first floor, until she stopped in front of the locked door. It was the only location in the house that was always inaccessible, and the one space where the odd, indecipherable diagrams were etched over the doorframe. The symbols always captured her attention, caused her to hesitate before proceeding. The engravings appeared to constantly be in motion, circling about one another, expanding outward. She grew dizzy if she stared at them too long.

Her hands nervously trembled as she lifted the necklace overhead. It was an old, old door and the lock had been accessed countless times. The area around the keyhole was scarred from those before her who had been anxious to gain entrance. She learned to be patient, to allow the lock a moment to accept and receive the key. Once that agreement had been met, it was easy to twist the short handle, listen for the solid crunch as the tumblers fell into accord. Then, the satisfying Click as the catch was released and the door was opened.

The room was small, really no more than a closet. It was stuffy, smelled of incense, a heavy, perfumed and waxy-scent. It always took a moment for Sonia to steady herself from the rush of aromas that rose to greet her. The Slow No Wake placard was where she had left it, face down on what looked to be an old drawing table. A thick, velvety cushion was affixed to the tabletop, protecting the sign from scratches. The notice was made of wood. It was heavy, solid, weighed almost thirty pounds, and was three feet wide. There was a reinforced iron opening in the back that allowed it to be pegged on a sturdy pole, assuring it was clearly and securely displayed on the dock for approaching boats.

Even though she had handled it many dozens of times, Sonia was always surprised at how heavy it was. She grunted as she struggled to lift it, and was breathing heavily as she strode through the house and then outside. She hurried across the dock in her flip-flops as the sun bore down, an additional sluggish burden she endured. She thought of the lemonade waiting for her on the widow’s walk and looked forward to refilling the glass.

The sign bit down hard on the peg with a loud Clunk, and was immediately secured. Sonia stepped back, straightened it, her lungs tight as she tried to recapture her breath. She wiped the perspiration from her forehead. Even after all the years of use and exposure to the weather, the red letters on the white background were bold, unmistakable, easy to read: Slow No Wake.

Once the message was read, boaters would cut their engines and reduce their speed so completely that in the sudden hush, Sonia was able to hear their voices as they cried out in shock, surprise, and then absolute terror.


The pontoon boat radio was blaring David Bowie and he still didn’t know what he was waiting for. Thomas was skimming along the water, comfortably relaxed in the captain’s seat, sipping a Diet Coke, chatting with Lee. Behind the two men, Marty and Theresa were under the canopy while Jasmin and Kyra were scrolling through their phones, giggling over the images and postings. It was a good day. Thomas was glad they had gotten off the land and onto the water—everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

He was moving along nicely at almost 20 miles per hour, loving the sound of the motor churning through the water, and the steady bounce and swoop as they rushed over the surface. He checked the map with Lee, and then steered into a canal.

A Slow No Wake sign was prominently posted.

“Damn,” he muttered, cutting the engine.

“Why are we slowing?” Lee asked. Jasmin and Kyra looked up from their phones.

Thomas explained the meaning of the sign, jerked his thumb toward his wife. Grinning, he shouted, “You can thank Marty. When we take my route, we rarely encounter these!”

She waved him off, hollered back, “God forbid we try something new!”

Theresa supported her friend, adding, “Have a sense of adventure, Thomas! Who knows what’s around the next bend?”


Sonia heard the pontoon before she saw it. She had just managed to refill her glass and settle in the chair when the sound drifted up to her. The noise cut abruptly, indicating the passengers had seen the sign. After a few seconds, the vessel drifted into view, the motor gently gurgling. Six people were aboard: A man was seated at the controls with another fellow talking to him; two women were in the back and two girls were sunning themselves. The men and women waved at her, the girls did not.

Sonia stood. She always did out of respect for what was about to occur. She returned the greeting, putting extra energy into her wave, making it big and wide, realizing that it was really more of a farewell.


Lee was the first to notice the water. “Why’s it so black over there?”

Directly in front of them was what looked like an oil spill. It hadn’t been there a moment earlier when they had pulled into the waterway.

“No idea,” Thomas answered.

His uncertain tone was easily heard over the muffled motor. He flicked off the radio, cutting the group Boston in mid-feeling. The boat slowly drifted toward the inky blackness. The canal was too narrow to go around the dark patch and there was too much forward momentum to back up.

Thomas glanced up at the woman who had waved at them. “What’s that black area of water?” he called out, pointing.

She didn’t answer, just leaned against the railing, intently watching them.

The boat was about a hundred feet from the dark water. With the radio off and the motor speed cut way back, the vessel was as quiet. Everyone on board was staring at the oily spot as they lapped closer and closer.

They were less than fifty feet from it when it began to spin about as if a huge bathtub plug had been suddenly yanked free. The shadowy water transformed into a vortex, a black mouth that opened wide and began slurping everything into itself.

Then Jasmin screamed, “There’s something in the water!”


From the third floor of the house, Sonia sipped her lemonade, watched the familiar sight. The confusion, the awareness that something wasn’t right, the frantic attempt to back out of the canal as the water began to do its work, pulling the vessel forward and gradually under, the screams and, eventually, the silence.

The two shrieking girls were taken immediately. The Mistress always seemed to grab whomever screamed first. Tentacles or what resembled a swollen, bloated hand with only three fingers rose up out of the swirling blackness, clutched the young women, and then yanked them under. It happened so quickly that the men, intent on the spinning dark water in front of them, didn’t see. But the mothers did. They cried out in unison, ran to the back of the boat where their daughters had been only seconds earlier.

The two men turned in confusion as the women rushed to the stern. Again, the slimy gray tentacle, at least twenty feet in length, appeared. Fast as lightning, it snatched one of the women and quickly dragged her off the vessel. A man screamed, “Theresa!” as the boat increased its ferocious spinning, circling faster and faster as it began to sink in the massive whirlpool. Seconds later, the man lost his balance and was thrown overboard as the pontoon pitched vertically.

Sonia watched as the captain tried to control the boat as it continued to madly loop about. The one remaining woman staggered to the captain and they clung together just as the circling vessel started to take on water. Each time it passed the pier, the couple looked as if they were going to jump ashore. Sonia was amazed to see that the man did exactly that. He landed with a hard sound, then hugged the pilings, his legs wrapped tightly around the planks.

The woman was grabbed in mid-leap and then flung violently at the pier. She landed with the sound of mud on concrete and immediately slid from the dock to the black water and then out of sight below the churning waves.

Sonia nervously watched as the man began to climb to the safety of the dock. She had never seen someone survive before, had no idea what to do. A moment later, she gasped, startled, as the iron key suddenly burned ice cold against her chest.


Behind Thomas, the water roared in fury. He was trembling so much that his muscles were locked tight, and he labored just to make his arms and legs move. He had to get away from the creature.

He summoned his strength and willed his limbs to obey as he struggled to climb the pier. He landed clumsily on the dock, then collapsed face down.


Sonia had never been in the small room if it wasn’t to take or return the sign. She had no idea what to expect when she entered. Two ancient candles, with barely any remaining wax, were dimly burning. Between them, a stone tablet she had never seen before. She attempted to lift it but it seemed affixed to the table. She leaned in closer to see how it was attached. By the candlelight, she read aloud the strange words at the top of the granite plaque.

When she finished speaking, the stone was released and almost leapt into her hands. At the same instant, her body suddenly seized up and then began to violently shudder. Sonia cried out and clung to the tablet as she staggered backward out of the room. Unable to speak, she could only nod her head in agony at the insights and directives that were being forced upon her. Once she had acquiesced to the commands, the blazing, throbbing pain fell away from her body like a discarded cloak. Disoriented by all she now knew, and propelled by the urgency of what needed to be done, she hurriedly left the confined area.

Minutes later, she was relieved to set the heavy tablet on the wooden deck; it made a dull, echoed thud. Exhausted from carrying the stone, she sat down, panting for breath. The man’s breathing was harsh, mixed with sobs and groans. Startled by her presence, he managed to raise his head to her. “Help me! Something….”

Ignoring the man’s pleas, Sonia knelt before the stone and began reading from its markings. The strange words were easy to see under the harsh sunlight and she chanted them loudly several times.

Behind them, fewer than twenty feet away, the unsatisfied water continued its furious agitation.


Thomas continued to weakly beg for help as the mad woman in front of him shouted nonsensical syllables.


For Sonia, repeating the phrases aloud was like the sound of many keys turning many locks. What had been tightly bound all at once sprung free and there was clarity and understanding. She felt as if she had trudged through a long, difficult journey but she had at least reached her destination. She now knew what One hundred for ten meant.

Her body tight and achy, Sonia stood and stretched. She realized how exhausted she was and how she longed to sleep. She closed her eyes against the sun’s early afternoon glare, irritated by the sounds of the man who continued to plead for her help. But soon there would be silence and rest, for now she knew that he was to be the one hundredth to be taken by the Mistress. After that, Sonia would be released, her oath fulfilled. “One hundred for ten,” she said and opened her eyes.

She looked down—the man was too heavy to carry, and she was so tired. Wearily, she looked about for what to do. After a moment, a thought manifested. She did as it suggested and hobbled to the canal. Somehow, that man would join her there. She stood at the edge, and stared deeply into the smoldering black swells, waiting.

The swirling mass immediately mesmerized her. She watched dully as the dappling waves abruptly took on the shapes and curls of the mysterious inscriptions above the door to the small room. She leaned in closer to decipher the sparkling letters. Perhaps this last message would be one of gratitude for her years of loyal service.

One last key was turned, and then comprehension registered, and one final lock was secured. She tried to recoil from the Mistress’s final edict, but Sonia Greene could only fulfill her vow and her destiny.

She stepped forward into the seething water, one hundred for ten.


Thomas heard the harsh splatter as something fell into the canal. He painfully rolled over. The deck leading to the waterway was now empty.

He rested on the pier, physically and emotionally spent. The sun was quickly drying his clothes. He couldn’t recall why he had gotten wet. His back was stiff from lying on the hard wood planks. He managed to get to his knees. He coughed up some water, felt suddenly revived.

Thirsty and seeking shelter, Thomas turned from the now calm water and staggered toward the house. He nearly tripped over the tablet. He bent to pick it up and almost collapsed, he was so dizzy. He waited until he recovered, then grasped the stone, stood up. He was surprised at its heft. He felt a sting on his right hand, noticed it was cut, the result of a sharp edge at the base of the tablet. Drops of his blood slid into some deeply cut grooves at the bottom of the jagged granite. He peered closely at the bizarre etchings that were now filled with slivers of crimson. He sounded out each word and once he had awkwardly spoken the phrases, a retched spasm swept through his body, followed by a massive shuddering. He collapsed to his knees, still holding the tablet close to his chest.

Feeling nauseous, Thomas groaned as a passing flare of something akin to a migraine sliced through his mind. He felt as if a destructive storm was rooting its way through his body, tearing up and displacing all of his thoughts. He rolled about on the deck in anguish, unable to scream or make any sound at all. Whatever was inside of him was making its home there, and he was powerless to resist its intentions….

He gasped, opened his eyes wide. Later—it had to be later—the afternoon sun didn’t seem as intense. Time must have moved ahead. He took a deep breath, managed to sit up. No pain this time, his ribs no longer seemed bruised. He rolled his shoulders back; no stiffness or aches, no vertigo. He felt strangely reinvigorated.

“One hundred for ten,” he announced, his voice raspy.

Where did that come from? he wondered. In hopes that clarity would arrive with repetition, he began to mutter the words soundlessly under his breath as he trudged toward the canal, desirous to be close to the shimmering sea.

The waters were now calm, bright blue, sparkling and inviting under the dancing sunlight. Thomas hoisted the Slow No Wake sign from its post. He placed it under his arm, and on the way back to the house, he gathered up the stone tablet and awkwardly carried the two heavy objects into his new home. It was blessedly cool inside. The sign and tablet seemed to nudge and lead him about the residence like a divining rod or a magnet seeking its mate. Soon he found himself in a dark passage, then he faced a locked door. A thin chain with an old key attached was hanging on the doorknob.

Once inside the small room, he placed the warning sign face down on the thick velvety cushion. The stone tablet was housed in a sliding drawer. How do I know these things? he marveled as he locked the door and slipped the chain around his neck.

He headed upstairs to the widow’s walk. Soon he was comfortably rocking, gazing out at the waterway, sipping lemonade. He continued to absently mutter the phrase, “One hundred for ten,” in time with the squeak of the rocker.

For the rest of the afternoon, Thomas stood at the railing or sat in his rocking chair, waved to the occasional boaters who entered his canal or returned their friendly gestures with a smile and a nod. Greetings were always exchanged, an unwritten rule, a general check-in that everything was all right.