I held the phone against my shoulder and I rubbed the corner of my eye socket. “Mom…”
“Casey, please, it’s already been arranged. Your father will pick you up from the bus station.”
“And the Anderson’s brought their dogs! You love those pups.”
“Plus it’s a holiday weekend and Casey, we just…your dad rented the boat for you. Please come. Bring Ben!”
I sighed into the phone. I loved my parents but the last thing I wanted to do at that moment was go on a weekend holiday – especially with Ben. “Any other weekend, Mom. If it was any other weekend I would go.”
“What’s wrong, sweetie? Don’t you want to see us? Dad bought fireworks, too.”
“Yeah, I just…it’s not a good time.”
“I thought finals were over?”
“Well, remember I tried. Don’t be jealous of all the fun pictures you see on my Face Page.”
“Yes, Spacebook. Love you sweetie – let us know as soon as you change your mind. And bring Ben with you!”
“Love you too, Mom. Bye.”
I hung up the phone and turned around to find Nicole shaking her head at me from where she sat at her desk. “Task, tsk, Casey Grace.”
“What?” I said. “You know I love my parents. I just don’t want to go up to the lake right now.”
“Why not? You love Lake Calhoun and you haven’t seen your parents since Christmas. I could literally feel your mom’s disappointment through the phone.”
I shrugged. “She’ll get over it. I promised to go up another time.”
“I heard. How much of this has to do with Ben? ”
“Are you kidding, it has everything to do with Ben. My parents love Ben.” I flopped down into an easy chair and propped my feet up on the window sill, looking down at the campus seven stories below.
“Well, you have to tell them sometime.” Nicole said.
“I’ll tell them eventually. But not today. Today is for drinking.”
Nicole shut her laptop. “Now you’re talking.”
The call came late on Sunday afternoon. I was lying in bed, drifting in between Netflix and sleep. A half empty water bottle lay next to me but I couldn’t find the energy to lift my head and drink it. Nicole was across there room snoring like a derailed train.
The piercing ring of my phone lit up the silence like a flash bomb. I pushed my fingers in on my temples and then threw the TV remote at the android which lay on the floor several feet away.
The phone cut off mid-song as if obeying my command but not a minute later the voice of MC Chris sliced through the silence again to torment me. I rolled off of my bed with an oaf and slowly dragged myself across the room. When I was within arm’s reach of the phone I collapsed in front of it.
I flipped it over and hit answer without bothering to check the caller ID. Then I laid my head down on the floor and closed my eyes.
“Hello?” I moaned.
“Yeah, isme. It’s me. Yeah.” Silence on the other end of the line. “Hello?”
“You sound terrible. Did I wake you?”
“Casey, it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”
“Thanks for the update, Big Ben.” I murmured.
“Casey Grace Milliard!”
Shit. “Aunt Evie?” I opened my eyes and sat up on my elbows.
“Yes, of course it’s me! Casey,” she sighed. “I…your…I really don’t know what to say.”
I rubbed my face and tried to concentrate. “Okay.”
“Sweetheart, you know your parents were at the lake this weekend. You remember that, right?”
“Well, honey…there was an accident.”
“Accident?” What did that mean? Why was she calling me?
“Casey, your parents were in an accident at Lake Calhoun with another boat. A kid, some drunk, stupid kid, he hit your parents’ boat. It’s just awful.”
“My parents don’t have a boat.” I said thickly and laid my head back down on the floor. “That’s a crazy story, Aunt Evie.”
“They rented the boat, Casey! Are you drunk?”
“Sweetheart, your parents, they…they didn’t survive the accident.”
“What?” No, that wasn’t right.
“I’m so sorry. Casey, you need to come home.”
The funeral took place on a Wednesday and cost more than I could have ever afforded on my own. Aunt Evie covered most of the expenses with her own money. In fact, my dad’s sister had stepped in and organized the entire thing – God knew I hadn’t been any help.
I was completely numb the entire day. I tried to concentrate on what people were saying to me but it was exhausting so I developed a few stock replies to their condolences.
Yes. Thank you. It’s going okay. I love you, too. Thank you for coming. My mom always loved you.
At the end of the short service everyone stood up to follow the pallbearers out of the church. I stared into my lap, as I had for most of the day, and played with the rings on my left hand while trying to conjure the energy to follow them out to the burial plots.
I felt someone sit down next to me and take my hand. My Aunt Evie was a beautiful woman of 53 with platinum blonde hair and bright, green eyes. But today she looked tired, sad, and even a little haggard.
“Casey… How are you doing?”
I laid my head against on her delicate shoulder. “You know I was thinking today that you’re the only family I have left.”
She patted my hand. “I will work my hardest to make sure that I’m enough. You’re the only family I have left, too.”
It was true. Aunt Evie had been married once but her husband left her when she couldn’t produce children for him. Evie’s infertility had always been her greatest heartache.
“Sweetheart…I don’t really know if there’s a good time to bring this up but did you know that I’m the executor of your parents’ estate?”
“I guess that makes sense.”
Evie said nothing.
“Well, I just want the house. The house I grew up in. That’s all I care about. The rest…” I waved my hand dismissively.
Evie sat me up. “Honey, you know, your parents lost that house years ago. From what I understand they worked out a deal to rent but…sweetie, the house isn’t theirs to give.”
It was like taking a bullet while I was already bleeding on the ground.
“Why don’t you let me speak to the homeowner and maybe he will sell the house back to you. Your father’s life insurance should pay out quite a bit.”
“Okay, yes, fine, do whatever, I just want our house. I was- I was going to take the summer off and stay there. I feel closer to them there.” A felt a single tear slide down my cheek. The only one I’d cried that day.
“I know, darling. But, Casey, there’s something else.”
“Of course there is.”
“Just tell me.” I dropped my head into my hands.
“Sidetracks?” I said into my lap.
“Your father never sold it.”
I sat up. “Yes, he did. He sold it after the…after Mike.”
“That’s what I thought too, but apparently he’s held onto the property for all these years, even the taxes are current. That cabin is yours now, Casey.”
Jesus Christ, Sidetracks? I’d spent every summer of my childhood at Lake Kagachante. It was a warm, happy, place; a place where I had made a best friend…and lost him. Micah – Mike to me – had been the closet thing I’d had to a brother for 10 years. Mom had told me that after Mike’s death Dad had sold the cabin – and now I hear that hadn’t happened. So why did she tell me it had?
Okay. So Sidetracks instead of home. “Do you think I should go up there for the summer? I can’t go back to school, yet. I just can’t.”
“I think it’s certainly an option.” Aunt Evie nodded. “We’ll have to track down the key and maybe clean it up a bit – I imagine it’s been awhile since anyone has been up there – but if that’s where you feel you need to be, then that is where you should go.”
I thought of the shimmering lake and the sounds of hummingbirds and children’s laughter competing for supremacy; the creaky wooden floors of the cabin and the fresh breeze teasing the curtains in the evening. What had happened to Mike back then was sad, but it was a long time ago and I couldn’t deny the elemental pull I felt toward the lake. Yes, Kagachante was where I needed to be.
As we turned onto the familiar dirt road that led down to the cabin I noticed a familiar, wooden building standing at the cross roads.
“That’s Last Call!” I said excitedly.
“What’s that?” Aunt Evie barely spared a glance for the old dive on the corner.
“It’s a bar. My parents used to go there all the time with the Metz’s. Mike’s older sister would babysit and she always let us stay up super late. You never went with them?”
Evie arched a delicate eyebrow. “No. Your parents have always had unique tastes. That place looks like it should be condemned. Was it much nicer back then?”
“Eh…no, not really.”
“Casey, you’re not honestly thinking of going there?”
“Why not?” I shrugged. “It’s walking distance.”
“Casey, we’re still miles away from the cabin. You could get assaulted out here.”
I rolled my eyes so hard I almost dislodged them from their sockets. Evie was well meaning but the woman was so out of touch with the world. If I could survive a university campus for 3 years, a well traveled dirt road would be a cakewalk.
The cabin had been my grandparents before it was my dad’s. Aunt Evie had been out here hundreds of times when she was a kid but she seemed to have forgotten everything about the lake except how to get there.
As the last pale light of day fell into the horizon Evie’s Mercedes crawled out into the open arena of the forest-encased lake. In the welling darkness the water appeared in front of us as a black void. The effect made it look like we were creeping toward a giant hole in the ground.
The other cabins around the lake were quiet and dark but I recognized them all and knew their family’s names by heart. Only the Metz’s cabin was lit and I choked a little as the breath caught in my throat. It had never even occurred to me that Mike’s family still came to Kagachante.
Evie worked her way around the lake and parked next our cabin. It was much smaller than I remembered and if it hadn’t been for the sign over the door which read Sidetracks I might have thought us at the wrong building altogether.
We unpacked the car and Evie went upstairs to put new sheets on the beds. I sat down on the long wooden bench beneath the kitchen window and laid my chin on my arms, staring out at the lake whose waves lapped eagerly at the grassy shoreline. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, hoping to breathe in some of the peace of the night.
After nodding off twice at the window I went upstairs to find a bedroom to sleep in. I smiled when I saw that Evie had made up the small room that had been mine as a child. It was just as I remembered it – a sturdy twin bed facing a pair of white double closet doors. A long bookcase ran along the wall and the wallpaper was covered floor to ceiling with pictures I’d drawn on it as a child. My parents had let me absolutely destroy those walls with crayon drawings; warm memories of the cabin and fun things I’d experienced there. I bent down to get a closer look.
There were simple drawings of my dad and I relaxing in the rowboat under a yellow son, pictures of the time we’d gone horseback riding, and a large, green drawing of my parents and I sitting at the fire pit making s’mores. I felt like a mace had hit me square in the chest.
I turned away from the happy pictures of a lifetime ago and collapsed onto the bed, wondering if I should move bedrooms to spare myself from the unwelcome pain I was suddenly feeling. I was asleep before it mattered.
“Are you sure you’re going to be alright by yourself? I really hate the idea of leaving you here without a car, Casey.”
I waved my hand at Evie while I took a sip from the coffee mug she’d handed me.
“If you need anything just call…”
“If I need anything I’ll ask the neighbors. Don’t worry about me, Evie, seriously.”
“I’m coming to get you on the 29th. See if you can have a landline hooked up while you’re here. Cell service is pretty spotty.”
“It’s fine, really. I kinda like being off the grid.”
“Alright.” Aunt Evie regarded me across the table and her expression sank into a sad, pitying look. I leaned back a little in my chair and looked out the window. Emotions always made me uncomfortable.
Evie noticed and stood up. “I have to get going. I promised to be back in St. Paul in time for a lunch meeting. I really hate to leave you this early.”
“Go, go,” I smiled at her and stood up. “How much trouble can I really get into around here?”
Evie laughed. “When you were a child: plenty. All you kids used to run around pulling pranks and tormenting the poor people down at Bay Lake.”
“Pfft,” I scoffed. “Bay Lake.” Those asssholes.
“Listen, I’ve put the groceries away and I was up early doing some of the cleaning. The water’s on and I put your suitcases in the basement. Food is in the cupboards and I…I…”
Evie yanked me into a sudden hug and coffee went splashing over the rim of my mug. I held it out away from us so it wouldn’t drip on her suit, making the hug all the more awkward.
“I’ll be back soon.” She said pulling away.
“Okay. Thanks for everything, Evie.”
She patted my head and then grabbed her roller board and disappeared out the front door. I stood there in that awkward position until I heard her car turn onto the dirt road back toward town.
I sat back down in the wooden booth and drummed my fingers on the table. What now? It was too early to drink so…cigarette?
I walked out onto the patio and sat on the wrap-around bench that faced the lake. I curled my knees up to my chest and lit a Marlboro Light. Nothing like a little fresh air, right?
It was still early and the lake was covered in a heavy, gray mist. All was silent except for the gentle lapping of the waves on the dock. It was peaceful here. I closed my eyes and tried to remember weeks I’d spent here over the years. Catching frogs, barbequing, taking the boat out with my dad, racing Mike around the lake… the memories turned on me so fast.
Mike was chasing me down the dock with a sparkler, his dad was yelling at him and I was laughing – but then the laughter turned to screaming and Mike was drowning, disappearing underneath the surface as if being dragged down. And then the vision changed and I was drowning too, feeling his pain, his fear…I couldn’t open my eyes and I couldn’t escape it.
The sudden whirling of a power tool lit up the morning’s silence and something shattered at my feet. I looked down at the mug which now lay in pieces on the deck. I swore loudly and threw my cigarette into an old coffee can. The whirling was coming from the Metz’s house where it sounded like someone was ripping the place apart inside. Maybe it wasn’t Jarod and Lanie after all.
I spent the rest of the day reading, cleaning, and waiting for the excited screams of the neighbor kids as they spilled out of their cabins. But the lake was still quiet when noon rolled around and I began to wonder. Maybe everyone had had a late night the day before? I decided to go for a stroll and see.
The walk around the lake was about 6 miles. By the time I was close enough to see Sidetracks again the shadows were long and the sun was behind the trees. I hadn’t seen a single person, or even a car, on my adventure around the lake. Other than me, and whoever was destroying the Metz’s cabin, Kagachante was deserted.
Mike’s cabin was the last before mine and I tried to be as quiet as possible as I walked past it on the off chance that it was the Metz’s in residence. The guilt I still lived with about Mike’s death – and the thought of breaking the news of my parents to them – kept a wide berth between us.
As I came around the corner toward home, something caught my eye – a giant, dirty, green pick up truck with Georgia license plates parked on the side of the cabin. I couldn’t imagine that it belonged to the reserved and proper Metz’s. I breathed a little sigh of relief and headed up the gently sloping hill toward Sidetracks.
The next day was much the same as the first – cold and quiet. I read for a while in the morning and then pulled my phone out to play Angry Birds. My battery was down to 18% percent before noon and I had to venture into the basement to grab a charger out of my suitcase.
I had never been allowed in the basement as a kid and still felt uncomfortable at the thought of going down there. I had no idea why Evie felt the need to put my bags in the basement but I guess that was just Evie – hide the mess, keep up appearances. I opened the basement door and felt along the wall for a light switch. Of course it was at the bottom of the stairs. In the little sunlight I’d brought with me I could see that the stairs went halfway down and then turned right at a landing. My suitcases were sitting at the bottom. The room was dark and mostly empty except for a few buckets and tools set against the wall. I grabbed my charger and ran back up the stairs, shutting the basement door behind me. I spent most of that night drinking Arbor Mist, watching Game of Thrones on my laptop, and trying to text Nicole.
The next day was quiet and boring as well, except for the interment sounds of someone working next door. The less I found to distract myself with, the harder the grief tugged at me like a two year old begging for attention. It was the perfect day to try out my parent’s old haunt so I waited until the sun went down and then dressed in jeans and a hoodie and started down the road toward Last Call.
The walk turned out to be almost 3 miles and the moon was out by the time I darkened the door of the bar. Several people turned to look at me as the door closed behind me and I quickly realized that this crowd was a bit rougher than I’d expected. I pulled my hood up over my hair and sat down at the bar.
After a few minutes the bartender came over to stand in front of me, but he didn’t say a word.
“Hi, ah…what do you have on tap?”
“Budweiser. Bud Light. Coors.” He clipped.
I leaned over the bar to see the fridge of bottled beer behind him. “Yeah, I’ll take a…Blue Moon I guess.”
He nodded at me and served my beer without the customary, useless orange I was used to.
I turned in my seat to look around the dive and tried to imagine my parents here: sitting at a booth, laughing with the Metz’s, avoiding eye contact with the surly bartender…
I smiled at the thought and took a sip of my beer. When I lowered the bottle I realized I was attracting some uncomfortable stares so I turned back around and pulled out my phone. I wanted to try and text Nicole since I was in town but the service here was almost worse than it was at the lake. I messed around with my settings for a few minutes before I pulled up Angry Birds. I was getting aggravated those arrogant, green bastards.
“Are you texting your boyfriend, beautiful?” A voice said beside me.
“No. Angry Birds.” I said without looking up.
“Mmm. Does your boyfriend know you’re out at the bar all alone?”
“I’m not alone.”
“Of course you’re not, you’ve got me. You wanna come sit at my table? Or maybe on my lap?” He purred in a raspy voice and leaned further into my personal space.
I released my last bird – a Qui-Gon Jinn that I lunched at an imperial tower. The structure shuddered for a few seconds but refused to topple over on the Imperial Bacon. Qui-Gon was not a good bird for a structure attack, it was a rookie mistake, I was better than that. I flexed my fist against the bar and tried not to slam it down. This game was infuriating.
“No, thanks.” I said and pushed Restart Level.
“What’d you say, girl?” His voice descended to a lower, more threatening octave.
“Well, like I said I’m playing Angry Birds.”
“Honey, I’m a lot more fun than Angry Birds.”
“I don’t think you understand: this Star Wars Angry Birds.”
“You think I give a shit?” He moved in until I was forced to lean back and look up at him. I really should have been paying attention. He was a lot bigger than I’d estimated and looking around I realized I’d unknowingly been taunting the biggest, rapiest guy in the bar. Holy Kenobi.
“Eh…” I started.
“AJ, I’m surprised to see you here. Thought Marissa still had a restraining order on you.” A new voice said from behind me and I turned to see a man leaning against the bar on my other side facing ‘AJ’.
“Marissa’s here?” The man croaked and stepped back from me.
“Oh, yeah, she’s out on the patio with Rick Clime,” he said casually. “I’m no expert but I don’t think there’s anywhere in this bar you can get away with 300 feet.” The new guy’s accent was thickly southern and he didn’t bother to spare a look for me as he sipped from a whiskey glass.
“Shit, man, you can’t let a bitch chase you out of your own bar.”
“Another pearl of wisdom, thank you for sharing it with me. Hey, aren’t you still on parole?”
“Man, fuck you, Rhodes.” AJ threw a $10 bill on the bar and then walked out the front door, slamming it behind him.
I kept my eyes on the front door in case he came back and addressed the man beside me. “I suppose you’re going to tell me I shouldn’t be in here alone.”
The man laughed. “I’m not gonna tell you anything.”
My eyes snapped back to him and he winked. I gave him a slight but cautious smile. The man sat down at the bar and ordered another Whiskey Sour from the bartender, who’d been watching the entire episode with inappropriate amusement.
Should I buy his drink? Is that what people do in this situation? Do I introduce myself? Make small talk? Whiskey Sour looked a decade older than me. Was that weird? Was I being weird?
As I was mulling it all over he picked up his drink, paid for it, and then left the bar to return to a pool game he’d apparently been in the middle of playing.
I looked down at the grinning pig on my phone. “Stop smiling, you smug bastard.” I muttered and clicked off the screen. Maybe that was enough excitement for one night. I asked for the tab while I finished my beer.
As I walked out to head back to the cabin I slid a quick glance at Whiskey Sour who was still playing pool at the back of the bar. He was leaning on a pool stick watching me; an amused smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. Two men were talking to him but he tracked me walk all the way to the door, not bothering to be discreet with his gaze. I gave him an awkward nod before pushing out into the cold air.
The walk home felt much longer – and colder – than the walk out had been. What should be a soft, summer breeze felt more like a late winter wind – yanking at my clothes and nipping at my exposed skin. When I turned the last corner before the lake I suddenly felt like I was in a very foreign place. The road seemed unfamiliar and the lake again looked more like a gaping, black hole than a body of water.
I finally entered the circle of cabins around Kagachante and walked along the shoreline, thinking it odd that the wind was whipping around the lake like a cat trapped in a paper bag but the water was as flat and still as a pane of glass. Well. Lake Kagachante was nothing if not odd.
I hurried along faster, eager to get inside the safe, sturdy walls of Sidetracks. I unlocked the door, pushed it open, and went straight for the fireplace. It was odd to think I was about to light a fire in the middle of June in Minnesota but Holy Kenobi, was it cold. I built a small stack of kindling like my father had taught me and then topped it with a few Firestarter logs that Evie had bought from the store.
I spent 20 minutes trying to light it before giving up in frustration. The wind was snaking down the chimney from outside making an unholy whistling and I didn’t feel like fighting it.
I walked toward the kitchen to retrieve my phone charger and suddenly found myself face up on the floor staring at the ceiling. Ouch. I sat up and rubbed the back of my head. I couldn’t possibly be drunk after four beers and half a bottle of Arbor Mist. Well…maybe.
My groan turned into a pathetic laugh. “You’re a fucking idiot.” I said to myself.
And then I heard someone else laughing. It sounded like a child’s giggle, but I had no idea where it came from. I braced my hands on the floor to stand up and realized I was sitting in a small puddle of water.
“What the hell?”
As I tried to deduce how exactly it had gotten there I noticed the basement door was wide open, too. I walked over to close it. The giggle must have been the wind in the chimney but…the water and the open door? I decided that was a mystery for tomorrow.
I doggedly climbed the stairs and fell into my bed. I was happy to see the closet door in my room was still closed tight. I’d never been able to sleep when it was open. I stripped down to my underwear and pulled the covers over me, burying myself into a cocoon. Then I groaned.
I could tell by the sound of crickets and toads that my window was still open. I knew it would only be a few hours before I woke up frozen but I was too tired to do anything about it now. I rolled over and stared at a drawing on my wall that I’d done as a child. It was a picture of my dad and I fishing off the end of the dock. My last thought before sleep claimed me was how silly that was – everyone knew there was nothing alive in the lake.
Trying to draw the likeness of Kagachante was an exercise in migraines. Each way sketched it the lake always ended up looking as it had the night before – a scary black hole sunken into the earth.
I looked down at the drawing I’d just penciled and then back up at the lake. My picture was identical to what my eyes were seeing but there must be some minute detail that I’d added or missed which made the lake look so much more ominous on paper.
I leaned back against one of the tiki torchs that lined my dock and picked up the coffee mug sitting next to me. Perhaps my heart just wasn’t in it today.
As I watched the rippling blue waves splash against the end of the dock I considered that maybe it was me. Maybe this was just the way I saw the lake in my head. My emotions could be influencing my sketch, making the lake look more sinister and threatening than it was in real life.
I suppose that made sense. Mike had drowned only ten feet off the end of the dock I was sitting on. I took a sip of overly sweetened coffee and leaned my head back against the pole. I idly wondered if they had ever recovered his body or if I was even now sitting a few yards above his remains. I’d been too young at the time to be told and too afraid to ask.
An uninvited memory began to pull at the strings of my conscience: a hot summer morning and two kids throwing sticks at dragonflies while their parents drank Bloody Mary’s on a nearby deck. It was the end of a long summer and everyone under the age of 21 had run out of things to do.
“I’m so bored.” I’d said to Mike. “There is nothing to do today.”
“We can go to Bay Lake.”
“They said they’d call the cops next time they saw us.”
“We can take the rowboat out?” He tried.
“My dad wont let me unless there’s an adult with us.” I frowned.
“I’m not allowed to because of the one that bit me last year.”
“Dang, Casey, well, what are you allowed to do?”
“Nothing.” I whined and glanced back at the deck where our parents were drinking and paying us no mind. ‘They’re not really watching us, though, are they?”
“No,” Mike laughed. “They’re not watching us at all. They probably won’t even remember we’re here until dinner time.”
“So…let’s do something we’re not allowed to do.” I said, rubbing my hands together like a villain in a cheesy movie.
“Like…let’s go swimming,” I said.
“You said we can’t go back to Bay Lake.”
“Not there. Here.”
We weren’t allowed in the lake – ever. The water was always so cold that our parents were certain we’d get hypothermia if we put one toe in it so when we wanted to swim they hiked us down to Bay Lake nearby. Nobody swam in Lake Kagachante.
Mike frowned. “Very funny, Case. It’s too cold.”
“Don’t be such a baby.” I said.
“Can’t you swim?”
“Yeah, of course!”
“Then why won’t you go in with me? We could do it real quick. Like two minutes.” I said kicking off my shoes.
“It’s not a good idea.”
“I don’t…” Mike watched me pull off my socks with unease. “Okay, two minutes only and we stay near the shore. Like right there next to that tall grass. That way our parents won’t see us either.”
“No way, it’s not even deep there. Look, they’re going inside anyway. Quick, let’s jump off the end of dock!”
He paled. “We don’t know how deep that is!”
“You said you could swim.”
“I can swim! Fine, let’s just go.” Mike tore the sneakers off of his feet and threw them up the hill. I followed him down to the dock to the edge and looked over. The tide was in so the water was high.
“Well?” I said.
“You first,” Mike crossed his arms and smiled at me. He thought I was going to back down. I wasn’t.
“Fine,” I said haughtily. “Out of my way, Rebel Scum.” I took a few steps back and made a running jump off the end of the dock. As soon as I hit the water I knew I’d made a terrible mistake.
The lake was so cold it seemed to push in on me like a vice. I felt my fingers begin to numb immediately and thought of all the times I’d been sprayed with lake water in the boat and how it always had made me shiver in the hot sun. This had been criminally stupid.
I struggled to the surface in a panic, gasping in chill and then in pain. As soon as I’d drawn warm air into my lungs I turned back toward the dock to warn Mike but he was already sailing over my head.
He went in cannonball position and breached the surface a moment later, the same panic and agony carved on his own face.
“Swim for it!” I yelled at him through violently chattering teeth. I turned back toward the shore praying I’d reach the dock before the blood froze in my arms and legs. It was seven feet away. Five. I could hear Mike behind me. He was an excellent swimmer, turned out, strong and fast. I felt him closing in on me, about to overtake me. But he never did.
The rest of that day was fractured to me; a blur of screaming, crying, sirens, and flashing lights. I remember all the neighbor kids looking at me in horror. And the quiet murmurs of the adults as they slid glances at me through guarded, distrustful eyes. It wasn’t my fault!
But I knew better now. It was my fault. I shook free of the memory and reached up to rub some warmth into my cold face. Something stabbed my cheek and I realized I was still holding my pencil.
I looked down at my sketch pad and realized I’d been idly drawing while playing hostage to the past. In my sketch, a few feet off the end of the dock, I’d drawn a small hand reaching up out of the water. But that wasn’t what made me gasp.
In the background a very tall, skinny figure stood alone and watched the drowning from where he stood on the opposite side of the lake. It had been drawn as a simple, black figure with hardly any detail. I kicked the sketchbook away from me and watched it slide across the dock toward the water. It teetered on the edge but didn’t fall in.
“Hey, Angry Birds.” My head snapped up to find Whiskey Sour striding down the dock. You’ve got to be kidding me.
I arched an eyebrow to hide my surprise. He was wearing jeans, a Metallica shirt, and a ridiculous black cowboy hat to compliment his deep, southern accent. As he walked he pulled out a pack of cigarettes, yanked one out with his teeth, and lit it with a zippo that was there and gone so fast all I could hardly be sure I saw it at all.
“Jesus Christ,” I said looking him over. “Who let you north of the Mason-Dixon line?”
“Oh, you like the hat?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Angry Birds, you wound me,” he laughed. I liked the sound.
“Oh, please.” I rolled my eyes. “So you’re the one tearing apart 205. You buy that cabin from the Metz’s?’
“I did. Actually, 205 is the third property I’ve bought in this area. I have one down at Bay Lake and I flipped that one last year,” he pointed at a cabin across the lake. “I tried to buy 203, too, but they weren’t interested in selling.”
“Hmm. Well, I might be.” I said.
“Ah, so you’re the new owner.” He eyed me with new interest and took a drag off his cigarette.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “That’s me.”
“Well, good luck selling if that’s what you’ve a mind to do. 214 has been on the market for 10 months.”
I laughed. “Perhaps you should have done some research before you bought anything on Kagachante.”
“Oh, really. What don’t I know”
“Well for one this isn’t your ‘typical’ recreational lake,” I said drawing my knees up under me. “Surely you’ve noticed Kagachante is…different.”
“Sure, I mean, it’s quiet here and the lake is…it’s…” I understood his hesitation. No one could ever really put their finger on it.
“It’s odd,” I said. “Have you noticed the tides?”
“They’re difficult to miss.” Whiskey Sour muttered as he flicked out his cigarette.
“Yeah, no kidding. I know a lot of lakes have negligible tides but this one is huge. I mean it’s like a six foot drop.”
“Yeah, it’s a mystery. But I don’t understand why that would keep people away.”
“Because it’s unnatural. And have you noticed how frigid the water is? In the dead of summer?”
“Yeah. But good for fishing,” he shrugged.
“Yeah, you’d think but there aren’t any fish in this lake, either.” I said.
“So you can’t swim and you can’t fish. Goddamn, that’s a hard sell.” He rubbed the back of his neck in an uneasy gesture.
“When I was a kid my dad told me the Lakota in this area believed that the own Devil’s heart beat at the bottom of the lake. And that’s why it has tides.”
Whiskey Sour raised an eyebrow at me. “The devil?”
“That’s why the Lakota named the lake Kagachante: It means ‘Demon’s heart’.”
“Of course.” He said seriously but the corner of his mouth pulled back in a smile.
“Don’t laugh, you’re the guy who sunk thousands of dollars into this area.”
“Well,” he said, “at least I got to meet you. So I guess it’s not a total loss.”
“You don’t even know my name.”
“Well, mine’s Jesse.”
“Oh God, of course it is.” I laughed. “I’m Casey.”
“I like that. Casey.”
“Glad you approve.”
He propped an elbow on the tiki pole and took off his hat to wipe imaginary dust from it. “Listen, seeing as we’re neighbors and all how about you come over for a barbeque tomorrow?”
“Hmm, I don’t know. I’ll have to check my schedule.” I picked up my coffee mug and poured the cooled liquid into the lake.
“I’m a nice guy, Casey, what more do you want to know about me?”
“Hmm.” I put a finger to my face and tapped my chin. “What do I want to know about you… How old are you?”
“Where are you from?”
“What’s your middle name?”
“Your favorite color?”
He eyes flicked down my body. “Green.”
I pretended that I was not aware I was entirely clothed in green.
I laughed. “A Georgia boy through and through.” He tipped his hat at me. “Alright, you win. I’ll see you tomorrow night. What should I bring?”
“I don’t have chicken. Or a car.”
Jesse shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I guess you better get huntin’ then.”
I scoffed. “You want me to go chicken hunting.”
He smiled at me as he pushed up off the pole, and then started down the dock toward shore.
“I mean, I’ve got some eggs.” I called after him.
“I can’t grill eggs, Casey.” He said without turning around.
“Tin foil!” I yelled after him.
Jesse laughed as he started toward the Metz’s cabin. His cabin. I watched him for a moment before I stood up and walked back up the hill toward Sidetracks. I felt the familiar fluttering of attraction and conquest stirring in my belly. This guy was either going to be the distraction I desperately needed or one I could not afford.
I rolled over and the pillow between my knees fell to the floor. Cursing, I opened my eyes a fraction to find the bedroom flooded with light. Morning. My oldest foe.
I reached down to retrieve the pillow from the floor, hoping for a few more minutes – or hours – of sleep. When I pulled it back up onto the bed I squealed as wetness immediately soak through the thin quilt covering my legs. “What the hell, come on.” I said to the room.
I sat up and blinked several times to let my eyes adjust to the sun. I swung my feet to the floor and then quickly picked them up again. There was a puddle of water next to my bed – and it was cold.
I got up, more confused than ever, and found that the water trailed out of the bedroom and into the hallway. “Ugh, not again.”
I wrapped the quilt around my shoulders and followed the puddles around the house. The water led down the hall, down the stairs and down into the basement – a door that had somehow creaked open again in the middle of the night.
I opened it wider and walked down to the landing, then said my first four letter word of the morning. The basement was flooding. My empty suitcases sat at the bottom of the stairs in several inches of water. I walked down and pulled them up onto the landing. It was just my luck, wasn’t it? Own my first house – pipes burst before the ink is dry on the deed. I stomped back up the stairs and pillaged the hall closet for towels.
I spent the next hour mopping up water and trying to soak it out of the carpet in the upstairs hallway. I had no idea how the water had gotten up here. Maybe pipes were leaking under the wooden floor. Was that even possible? Or had the water been tracked in somehow? I thought maybe Whiskey Sour from next door would be a good person to ask. I decided to wait until that evening when I went over to his cabin.
I’d just hung the last towel on the window sill to dry when I heard a deafening slam from the first floor of the house. The only door I’d left open was the one to the basement so I wasn’t surprised to find it shut when I went downstairs. Even though I wrote the culprit off as a draft from the open windows, I locked the basement door for the rest of the day.
“Here,” I said as I handed Jesse the bottle of Macallan. “You can’t grill Scotch either.”
He smiled and stepped aside to invite me into 205. I’d been curious to see if the place looked the same as it had when the Metz’s lived here but the cabin was absolutely gutted. Among the limited furnishings was a couch that sat alone in the living area and a kitchen consisting of nothing but a card table and three chairs. I peaked around the corner into the dining room and was surprised to see the wall had been knocked down between it and the back parlor. The smell of fresh cut wood and lacquer filled the air and heavy power tools lay on a tarp covered pool table.
“Where did you get this?” Jesse asked from where he was still standing at the door. “This is a ’92!”
I shrugged. “I found it in the kitchen. My dad used to drink scotch.”
“You dad has good taste.” He said admiringly. I didn’t correct his tense.
Jesse opened the bottle and poured with a reverence reserved for someone well acquainted with fine liquors. He offered me a glass and I took it skeptically. Scotch wasn’t usually my thing.
Jesse drank slowly, pausing between each swallow in a pretentious way. I watched him for a minutes and then shook my head and downed my entire glass. There was no need to stand on ceremony here.
Jesse didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t worshipped the Macallan as he had and nodded toward a few bottles of wine on the counter. One had already been uncorked and I carefully poured the velvety red into a wine glass. The scotch was already working its magic and I was felt relaxed and unguarded. It was the first time in weeks.
I picked up the glass and turned around to find Jesse watching me. He was leaning against the kitchen counter, one hand resting on the lip of the granite and the other swirling the scotch in his lowball glass. He was quietly watching me.
“So?” I asked bringing the wine glass to my lips. “Food?”
“Potatoes are already on the grill and steak is next,” he said casually. “How do you like yours cooked?”
“Generally mashed but I’d settle for baked if that’s what you’re doing.”
A smile teased the corner of his mouth.
“Medium rare.” I said.
“Good. I was afraid you were one of those ‘well done’ people.”
“I like to think I’m more civilized than that.”
“So you are. Would you like a tour?”
Seeing the house again had been a half the reason I’d agreed to come over. Seeing the hot neighbor had, of course, been the other half. But now that I was in a room with him, the house felt small and inconsequential. His presence was heavy…distracting…and intoxicating as hell. “Yeah, I should probably see the house,” I said.
There wasn’t actually much to see. The rest of the rooms in the house were empty except for one bedroom. The upstairs bathroom had been torn up and the carpet had been stripped out of Mike’s old room.
“This was my friend’s room when we were kids.” I said. Jesse nodded. “I figured it was a kid’s room. Lots of posters on the wall and kid’s toys.”
“They didn’t take that stuff when they moved out?”
“Nope. The guy was more interested in the money. Seemed happy to unload the place.”
That made sense.
After the tour I followed Jesse out front to the grill. As he threw the steaks on, I sat down cross-legged on the porch and leaned back again a wooden support to discreetly watch him while feigning interest in the sunset.
We chatted about where he was from and what I was studying. I didn’t bring up my parents and tried to work around the subject. We sat outside on the deck while we ate even though there wasn’t any furniture. Jesse noticed me shifting uncomfortably against the pillar.
“Yeah…I’m sorry about this. We can go inside if you want; I’ve got a card table in there.”
“It’s fine, really.” I said. I set my plate on the ground next to me and picked up the glass of wine I’d brought outside. Jesse was sitting opposite me leaning against the other pillar, one leg hanging off the deck. The cowboy hat sat back on his head and his wrist was resting on a raised knee where he continued to swirl the scotch around in his glass.
“Thanks for the save last night, by the way.” I finally said. Jesse smiled while he chewed on a piece of ice and tipped his hat at me.
“So, how long until you’re done with this place?” I asked.
“Awhile. I’ve got a lot on order and it’s just me working on the property so…maybe by the end of the year.”
“So flipping houses is your full-time job, then.”
“Pretty much,” he shrugged. “I like doing it and it’s profitable so I figure why not?”
I nodded down into my wine glass. “What were they like? The Metz’s?”
“Well, I only met the guy selling the place. He was…interesting.”
“I’ll bet he was. His son died while they were here.”
“I had no idea.”
“No, I wouldn’t think he’d talk about it much. Our families are – were – pretty close. It was traumatic for them.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Do you have kids?” I hoped the question didn’t sound as loaded as it was.
He shook his head. “Do you?”
“No. I don’t even have parents anymore.”
Jesse watched me, his expression unreadable.
I looked out toward the lake and took a long sip of wine. I realized that this was the first time I’d said it out loud.
“They died a few weeks ago in a boating accident. Both of them.” My voice broke over the last word.
“It sounds so stupid doesn’t it?” I laughed mirthlessly and looked down at the white knuckled grip I had on the wine glass. “Boating accident.”
I didn’t look up as Jesse set down his drink and stood. He walked over and sat down next to me, gently taking the glass out of my hands.
“I know you’re wondering why I’m here by myself.”
“No,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I shrugged. “I guess this is how I mourn: alone in a cabin getting drunk on Arbor Mist.” I frowned. “Ugh. So disgusting.”
Jesse sighed. “I don’t normally offer advice in situations like this. But, Casey, you really have to stop drinking Arbor Mist. Someone like you deserves Chateau Margeaux.”
“I don’t know what that is.” I said.
“Neither do I.”
I don’t know why it happened; maybe it was the clever levity he’d brought to the moment, or just being near someone after I’d been so alone, or maybe it was even the booze. It was probably the booze. I turned toward him and leaned in but he was already there, reaching behind my head to tangle his fingers in my hair and kissing me like an old lover. He tasted like smoke and scotch and-
He broke away.
“What…why?” I asked through labored breaths. Jesse stood up and backed away to the other side of the deck, running both hands through his black hair.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Casey, you’re obviously emotionally vulnerable right now but you just look so…so…” He stopped and glanced back to where I was still sitting on the floor.
“’Emotionally vulnerable’?” I laughed. “I appreciate you don’t really know me, but no one would ever call me that. Look, Jesse, we’re both adults. This doesn’t have to be a mess.”
He watched me for a second as if weighing the truth of that. Then he picked up his glass from where he’d left it and took a deep swallow of the amber liquid.
I raised an eyebrow at him in question and he leaned back against the pillar, shoving one hand into his pocket. “I don’t think I’d mind it if it was, Casey.”
A shiver ran down my spine but I’d never felt so warm. This guy was something else. “Pool?”
Four hours later, Jesse and I had found a comfortable cadence with each other. I’d won two games and Jesse had won…well…I’d lost count. He didn’t take it easy on me, which I appreciated, and he helped me line up my shots and gave me some good pointers.
But as the night wore on, the shots became more difficult and the positioning became more…intimate. I could feel his breath on my neck, his hands holding mine steady, his body leaning into the curve of mine as I bent over the pool table…it was a game much older than the one he was teaching me.
I’d long since switched over to the Scotch and as I poured myself another glass Jesse flipped through stations on an old radio that sat in the corner.
“Wait, stop!” I yelled. “Go back.”
“Where? To this?” Jesse turned the dial back to Alannah Myles and her slow, throaty version of “Black Velvet”. “Are you serious?”
“You don’t like this song? You know it’s about Elvis.” I said pointing to the Elvis Presley shirt he was wearing.
“Really…” Jesse said as he watched me. I could never help but dance to this song and I knew full well how provocative it could be, especially with half a bottle of scotch lending me confidence.
“I’ll bet I could make you like this song.” I teased as I slowly pulled the hem of my shirt up over my hips, exposing the skin underneath.
“I’ll bet you could.” Jesse said thickly.
“And I have a bet for you,” I said as I pushed Jesse down onto the couch and stepped back from him. “Look but don’t touch.”
Jesse took a long, slow sip of scotch without taking his eyes off of me and leaned back on the sofa. “I accept,” he said and I gave him a sly smile.
I won my bet that night. Jesse lost his.
It took me a moment to orient myself the next morning. The windows were covered in purple heavy curtains that almost entirely blocked out the morning sun and the bed was warm.
Jesse lay next to me, one arm curved possessively over my hips. In a burst like a camera flash the previous night rushed back to me. Every. Last. Detail. I shuddered. Jesse, mistaking it for a shiver, pulled the heavy comforter over my hip as he continued to doze.
I was wary of the kind of awkward encounter I could expect when he woke up. I quietly climbed out of his bed and braced myself against the window sill, waiting for the pounding headache to plow into me like a freight truck but it never did. In fact…I felt great. I glanced at the empty bottle of Macallan on the nightstand. Whiskey – who knew?
I pulled on my pants and tiptoed downstairs to grab my shoes. As soon as I was clear of the house I ran barefoot across the expanse of dewy-wet grass between our cabins. As soon as I was safe on the other side of my front door I leaned back against it and smiled. Holy shit. Holy. Shit. I needed to call someone. Anyone.
I was halfway through the house before I started to notice the water on the floor. I must have really been in La-La Land because it was everywhere. Shit. I’d meant to ask Jesse about this before I got…distracted.
The water trailed through the kitchen, up the stairs, and into my bedroom again. And it ended – where else? – at the basement door. The open basement door.
Okay. Pipes could be leaking. Basement could be flooding. But nothing could explain how a definitely locked door had somehow opened itself.
I jerked it open further as if I’d find the culprit standing right behind it. My stomach dropped to the floor when I saw how much the water had risen since yesterday – several feet. This was definitely a problem.
I mopped up all the water I could manage with the still-damp towels from yesterday and wrung them out in the bathtub. I re-draped them along the window sills before I took a shower with the only remaining dry towel in the house.
I dressed in yoga pants and a white tank top and lay in bed while I dialed Nicole’s number. The line couldn’t connect – no shocker there. I tried several more times with moderate success and finally left a garbled message for her to cringe over.
I rolled over and then tried Aunt Evie. The phone rang a little clearer this time and I traced my finger along the wall on a picture of Micah and me building a rock fort. I remembered that day. It was a fun day.
It was clear that the past was everywhere around this lake but I realized that the good memories more than out-weighed the bad ones. And last night had proved that good company could make the lake tolerable. More than tolerable.
I realized the phone had stopped ringing and pulled it away from my ear to see that it was sitting at the home screen. One thing was for sure: if I was going to stay out here I was going to get a landline.
It had by now been several hours since I’d left Jesse’s house and the sun was high enough in the sky that I considered the doorbell fair game. He answered fairly quickly but it was obviously I’d woken him up.
“Shit. I woke you up.”
He gave me a warm, slow smile and leaned against the door frame, crossing his arms in front of him. “Well, well, well. Casey Grace.”
“Jesse Devin.” I smirked.
“I hope you’re here to come back to bed.”
“Well, actually, I have a sort of situation.”
The smile fell off his face and Jesse pushed himself off the door frame. “What kind of situation?”
“My basement is flooded. My pipes are leaking. And there’s a ghost in my house leaving locked doors wide open like some sorta asshole.”
Jesse arched an eyebrow. “I think I can help with two of those things.”
After he looked over the entire house Jesse headed into the basement to check on the flooding. It didn’t take him long to make a diagnosis.
“It’s not your pipes, Casey.”
“But then where is this water coming from?” I asked from where I stood on the landing.
“It’s lake water.”
“Lake water? How the hell is it getting in here? I’m uphill from the lake!”
Jesse looked over at me and tapped the wall with some sort of tool I’d never seen before. “You have a two foot hole in the wall of your basement. It’s submerged right now but, believe, it’s there.”
“How does this explain the water upstairs?” I asked, incredulous.
“Well, what do I do?” I shivered. I should have known it was lake water. The temperature in the basement had dropped quite a few long, cold degrees.
“You do nothing. I’ll need a buddy of mine to come up here but I can patch your wall at cost.”
“That’s really nice of you but I’m just a poor college student.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
“A poor, orphaned college student.”
Jesse laughed. “I’ll take care of it, I’ll take care of it.”
I shrugged. “I’m just kidding. I have some money from my parent’s life insurance. Can you ballpark the cost?”
Jesse shook his head as he started packing up his tools. “I said don’t worry about it, Casey Grace.”
“I can’t let you do this job for free.” I said. He gave me an unreadable look and then waded over, stepped up out of the water and peeled off the gators he’d been wearing. “Damn, you were not kidding. That water is frigid.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s always that cold.”
“Well, I can’t imagine swimming in that.”
I turned back up toward the stairs. “That’s because you can’t.”
“No one’s ever tried?”
“I’m sure they have but there was a drowning about 12 years ago.” I tried to keep my voice as level as possible.
“Jesus. Did you know them?”
“Yeah, I did. Coffee?”
A few minutes later we were sitting out onto the deck. It was another cold, quiet, beautiful morning.
I took the seat facing the house while Jesse faced the lake. I pulled my hands inside my sleeves and cupped them around the hot mug of coffee.
“So.” He said.
I sighed. “You want to know about the drowning.”
“Only if you want to talk about it.” Jesse leaned forward and rested his arms on the table.
I shrugged. “Maybe I should. This is actually my first trip back to the lake since the day Mike died.” I set the mug down on the table and twisted it in my hands.
“Were you there when it happened?”
“Oh, yeah. The whole thing was actually my fault. We were bored, I suggested it…Mike went along with it because I basically called him a pussy for objecting. We jumped into the lake and-” I shrugged. “-he never came back out.”
“I’m sorry, Casey. But you have to know that wasn’t your fault. Kids-“
I gave him a dismissive wave. “It was years ago, I’ve accepted my role in it.”
“Did you talk to anybody about this stuff? A therapist? That’s a lot for a kid to deal with.”
“No, we didn’t even talk about it at my house. My parents acted weird around me for a long time. They seemed sorta wary of me for a couple years; like they didn’t trust me, like I’d done it on purpose.” I sighed. “I suffered nightmares. I saw myself drowning, I felt myself drowning. All the pain, and panic, and fear. It was awful.”
I looked up at Jesse to gauge his reaction to all this. He was looking at me with a certain intensity, solemn and sad. But it wasn’t pity, it was more like…
Something moved behind his head. My eyes snapped up to the second floor window and I saw a figure there. Small, and hard to make out in the darkened room, but definitely there.
I was out of my chair and through the door before Jesse caught the mug that had gone spinning off the table during my flight.
I ran up the stairs, taking them 3 at a time, and paused at bedroom door. The figure I’d seen was no longer at the window but there was water everywhere. I ran to my closet and flung the doors open – but the room was empty. I called for Jesse as I went running out of the room and literally ran into him at the top of the staircase. He caught me before I went tumbling down.
“What’s wrong?” He asked as he set me back on my feet.
“There’s a fucking kid in here! I saw him in the window. That’s what’s happening, some kid is coming into my house and tracking all that water up from the basement!”
“What? Where would a kid-“
“Bay Lake! It’s only a couple miles south through the woods. We always used to prank the cabins there and they would prank us. Like a friendly rivalry but WE DREW THE LINE AT BREAKING AND ENTERING.” I yelled the last part, hoping the little shit would hear me.
“Alright, alright, I’ll help you look.”
We went room to room, calling to the kid, yelling that wouldn’t hurt them, promising we weren’t mad. When the trail went cold back at the basement stairs I threw up my hands in frustration. “We were only outside for like ten minutes!”
“Yeah, this really doesn’t make sense,” Jesse shook his head. “I’ve been here since April and I haven’t seen any kids in this area.”
I shut the basement door and locked it again. “Bay Lake is really close. That’s where we went swimming when we were kids.”
Jesse frowned. “I think you should file a police report just to get something on the record.”
“No,” I shook my head. “It’s just some kid. Pranks are a part of lake life, especially out here where there’s nothing to do.”
“Alright, well listen, I have to go into town today and order supplies to plug the hole in your basement. Are you sure you don’t want to come and just talk to the cops?”
I sighed. “I’m sure. This is just a kid who doesn’t understand boundaries.”
Jesse nodded. “Keep your doors locked from now on, and your windows.”
“Trust me, I will. Thanks for helping me.”
“Casey Grace.” Jesse murmured pulling me in close. “How dare you suggest that I would do otherwise?”
Jesse left the next morning to check out another property he was interested in near the Canadian border. I heard his truck pull in late that night and debated getting up and going to spend the night with him. God knows I wanted to.
I breathed a sigh of relief the next morning when I woke up to dry floors and a locked basement. I didn’t bother to check on the flooding. The knowledge that Aunt Evie would be here in less than a week weighed on me with a new found gravity. For the first time in weeks I didn’t feel empty or alone. And I wasn’t ready to give that up.
There was no denying that there was a strong, almost innate, attraction between Jesse and I. I could blame it on the loneliness, or the emptiness, or the grief. But in the end, there it was. It was probably the type of thing that would burn bright and hot for a brief eternity and then explode in a thousand tiny embers of jealousy, anger and accusations. But still…what if?
What if, indeed. I spent all of Saturday trying to get Evie on the phone. I needed another week, a few more days, anything. I wasn’t ready to go home and face all the pity and uncomfortable looks. I didn’t want Evie showing up here, yet.
Jesse spent his Saturday in town checking on his Bay Lake property and picking up supplies for his upstairs bathroom. Since the inventory truck from Minneapolis wasn’t getting in until late that evening I told him to just stop by the next morning.
I gave up on Evie around 7 and watched Game of Thrones on my laptop. There was no way around it: if I wanted to get ahold of my aunt, I’d have to go to town. I felt uncomfortable leaving the cabin while some little jackass ran around thinking it worth his time to come into my house uninvited, haul water up from my basement, and spill it up and down my hallways.
Even though Jesse still wasn’t convinced I was being stalked, he kept an eye on my house when I was over at 205 with him. I could tell he was genuinely perplexed by the entire situation but seemed determined to end it.
I felt myself begin to nod off around 9 so I shut my laptop and set it on the bookcase. Before I got back in bed I went room to room double checking all the locks on the windows and doors – and triple checked the lock on the basement. When I was satisfied that nobody was getting in without breaking something heavy I stretched out on my bed and pulled the covers up to my chin. Even though I loved the sounds of the lake at night I wouldn’t be opening my bedroom window that evening.
I let my eyes flutter shut but now that I was ready sleep wouldn’t come. I flipped over and over – side, stomach, back – but nothing seemed to help. Something just didn’t feel right. After a few frustrating hours I opened my eyes, resigned to the fact that there was more Game of Thrones in my immediate future. I sighed and rolled over to grab my laptop – and then realized what was bothering me.
The closet was cracked open. I’d forgotten how much I hated that fucking closet. I’d never been able to sleep when it was open. It made me feel unsafe. The black abyss behind the doors seemed deeper at night, as if the closet stretched for a dozen miles. And it didn’t feel empty. It never felt empty.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar fear, in fact it was almost nostalgic. As I laid there staring at void between the doors I remembered telling my dad years ago that a monster lived in my closet. A big, buck deer that walked on its hind legs and wore clothes and had a skull for a face. Dad always made sure the closet was shut after that.
I got up and closed the doors. They clicked softly shut and I gathered my pile of quilts and dragged them into my parent’s room at the end of the hall. There would be no sleeping in my old bedroom tonight. Perhaps not again at all.
I flopped down onto their big, soft, queen bed and fell asleep almost immediately. It was unrestful. The closet haunted my dreams, spinning them into familiar nightmares. Something looked back at me from the abyss: the tall, thin, creature from my drawing. The thing wore black robes that were so long they piled on the floor at its feet. It chased me from room to room and then out to the dock and cornered me at the end. The child from the window waited in the lake, gentle waves distorting his face as he reached up out of the water.
I woke up completely out of breath. Any relief I would have felt to realize I was safe in bed was stifled by the unfortunate, familiar feeling of sleep paralysis. It didn’t happen often, but I knew it well enough to recognize it, thank god. It can be a perfectly terrifying experience when you don’t know what’s happening.
As I waited for my body to catch up with my brain my eyes tried to focus on something in the room. They settled on the doorway which I slowly came to realize was filled with a person; the same little kid from the window that day, that had returned to me in a nightmare. So I was still asleep after all.
I studied the figure silhouetted against the moonlit hallway and thought I recognized him. I could make out enough of the kid to age him at about 9, maybe 10. There was something familiar about him and it nagged at me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what my brain was recognizing.
The child was watching me too, and had his hands were cupped over his mouth as if to stop from making a noise. I waited for the nightmare to morph into a different scene as they so often did but as the seconds ticked by I began to feel control bleeding back into my body.
I was awake. I was awake. I screamed. The kid started laughing – a high pitched, giggling sequel I recognized from the night I tried to build the fire..
As I began to kick off the covers, the kid bolted from the doorway. I fell out of bed in a tangle of quilts and limbs. When I’d finally gained my feet, I looked around desperately for something to use as a weapon. After unsuccessfully trying to rip the curtain rods from the wall, I grabbed a bedside alarm clock and tore it from outlet.
I crept out of the room, avoiding the puddles of water that he’d left on the floor. I was no longer just annoyed with the little shit, I was downright angry, even a little scared. It was the middle of the night, what the fuck was he doing here?
I followed the trail of water along its familiar course to my bedroom and stepped inside. The water led not to the bed this time but instead trailed into the closet…which was cracked open…again. I finally had him. I thought of screaming for Jesse – he would probably hear me, he was a light sleeper. But he’d haul the kid off to the cops and I wanted to give him one last chance.
I dropped the alarm clock to my side and flipped on the light. I could tell before I got to it that the closet was empty. The kid had vanished and the floor inside was soaked in water. I wanted to scream.
I dropped the heavy clock onto the rug and rubbed my face, sliding down the wall to the floor.
“I can’t keep this up,” I whispered to myself. Nothing made sense, I felt like I was going insane. I knew that kid, I was sure of it. But what 11 year old kid did I know this far north? Maybe 10 years ago, but not now.
I leaned my head back against the wall and turned it to the side, closing my eyes. I was so damn tired but there was no way I could sleep in this house anymore. That kid had to have broken a window to get it here. Jesse was right, I had to involve the cops.
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. As I tried to muster the strength to stand, I noticed a loop of red crayon drawn behind the bookcase next to me. I’d never drawn anything behind the bookcase as a kid because it was too heavy for a 9 year old to move.
Curious, I sat up on my knees and with significant effort pulled the bookcase away from the wall. The picture behind it was large but simple. It was a dock, some crudely made waves, and two stick figures swimming in the water. One figure was swimming toward the dock and the other was below the waves. A third, impossibly tall stick figure was standing on the floor of the lake holding onto his ankle. The creature had a thin deer’s face…and horns.
I hadn’t drawn this. I didn’t know who had drawn it but there was no way I was spending another second in the house with it. I stood up and calmly walked down the stairs, out of the house and right up to Jesse’s door. 2AM or not, I considered this fucking nonsense an emergency.
I decided to knock instead of ring the bell at this hour, and a moment later Jesse opened the door.
“You know you don’t have to knock, Casey Grace.” He murmured in a thick accent that I was slowly beginning to appreciate.
“He’s back. That kid.”
Jesse’s teasing, casual manner dropped as quickly as his smile. “Come inside.” He said and led me into his living room, flipping on a nearby lamp. “Was he in the house?” He asked and picked up a baseball bat in the corner.
“Put that down.”
Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Was he?”
“I woke up and he was just standing there watching me sleep.”
“Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. He ran and I couldn’t catch him.”
“You have to get the police involved, darlin’. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And Casey…look, I was going to tell you in the morning but…I went over to Bay Lake today to check on my other cabin. I spent the whole afternoon driving around and there’s no one there.”
“What? That’s crazy. Bay Lake is always packed in the summer.”
“Maybe a decade ago but not now. I spend several hours there and trust me, your stalker isn’t coming from Bay Lake.”
“But there’s no one else here.”
“I know. Maybe it’s a kid from town.”
“Maybe. But that’s the other thing, Jesse, I found something else. There was this…picture on my wall. I used to draw on my walls all the time when I was a kid but I didn’t draw this.”
“A picture of what?”
“Of the day Mike died. It was a picture of us swimming and a figure was holding onto him underneath the water.”
“And you think this kid drew it?”
“Maybe. I mean, who else? I certainly didn’t draw it.” I hoped that was true.
Jesse crossed his arms and leaned back against the arm of his couch. “How would this kid even know about your friend Mike?”
“Well…look, I know this is going to sound fucking stupid but…that kid looked really familiar to me. I mean what if…what if it is Mike?”
Jesse stared at me. “You need a drink.”
I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Well, I can’t argue with that.”
Jesse disappeared into the kitchen and I threw my hands up in mortification, I was disgusted with myself. Had I really just accused a ghost of haunting me? This kid was really under my skin. I needed to rally the situation.
Jesse returned from the kitchen with a glass of wine in one hand and a whiskey in the other. I opted for the whiskey.
I took a long pull from the glass and when I lowered it I saw he was watching me again. In his face I saw serious concern but etched even deeper was hunger…and heat.
I’d forgotten that I had come straight to his house from bed. I chanced a glance down to find I was dressed in nothing but boy shorts and a white tank top.
“Sorry.” I shrugged, taking another sip.
“I’m not.” His eyes had yet to find my face.
“Look, Jesse, I know it sounds crazy but I really think something fucked up is going on in my house.”
“Okay, but what if it is, Mike. I mean, he’d have every right to be-“
“Casey, for the love of God, please.”
Jesse walked over and wrapped his arms around me. I sagged a little in his embrace and tried to draw the strength out of him. God, I was tired. “Stranger things have happened. If you say it’s your friend Mike, then maybe it is,” he murmured into my hair.
I pushed him away and tried to read his face. “You don’t really believe that.” I said shaking my head.
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you believe that I believe it.”
“There’s not much of a difference, Casey.”
“There’s a world of difference.”
He sighed.. “I just think that you’ve been through a lot lately – with your parents’ death, the hole in your basement, and this kid messing with you. It-”
“I am not having breakdown.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Don’t you think it’s in the realm of possibilities that I’m right?”
Jesse rubbed his tired face. “Yes.”
“But you don’t think that’s what’s going on.”
“No. Yes. Whatever you want.” He ran a hand through his bed-messed hair. “I really can’t concentrate when you’re looking at me like that.”
I realized the strap of my tank top had fallen off my shoulder. Fuck it, maybe I need the distraction.
I set the whiskey down on the mantle next to me and peeled the tank top off over my head without hesitation. Jesse choked a little and I smiled at him and then picked the glass back up and downed the rest of the scotch – topless and freezing. Worth it. I thought as I watched the look that came over his face. And it was.
When I woke up the next morning I was alone. I could hear the muffled whirl of a rotary saw from downstairs and I smiled when I realized my tank top was still lying on the floor in the living room.
I pulled the covers up further to ward off the cool morning air and squeezed my eyes shut. Had I really suggested to Jesse last night that I was being harassed by a ghost? Holy Kenobi. The cringe was so strong I buried my face in the pillow next me. Perhaps it was best if I just snuck out this morning.
I found a pair of Jesse’s flannel pajama pants in his dresser and pulled them on, then wrapped a thin, white sheet around my middle and quietly crept down the staircase. I snuck a look around the corner and saw that Jesse had laid my shirt on the back of his couch.
I turned around to find Jesse watching me from the kitchen; a coffee mug in his hand and an amused smile on his face.
“Coffee?” He asked a little too smugly.
I smirked. “Yes, thank you.” I raised my chin an inch and let the sheet drop to my feet while I reached out for the cup he offered me.
“My God,” he said appreciatively.
“Oh please.” I laughed and then walked into the living room to retrieve my shirt. Jesse seemed genuinely disappointed when I pulled it on.
“Listen, I’ve got about another hour’s worth of work to do but after that I was hoping I could take you into town.”
I sighed. “Yeah, that would be great. I really need to talk to my aunt.”
“And I’d really like to talk to the police.”
“You’re right.” I offered as I made my way toward the front door.
“And Casey – don’t go back into your cabin until I’ve checked it out.”
“Yes, yes, I get it. I’m just going to go sit on your dock.”
Sidetracks held an ominous glow in the gentling rising light so I avoided looking at it. I made my way down to Jesse’s dock and sat at the end letting my feet dangle over the water. The tide was out and the water was several feet below my toes. I thought about what I’d said the night before and tried to weigh if it held any water.
As much as I hated to admit it, the drawing behind the bookcase was consistent with my style. But I couldn’t believe that I had drawn it. If it was the kid, how was he getting in? If there were no broken doors or windows it meant that he had a key – or that he had been in my house all along.
And if that were true than logic followed that he must be hiding out in the basement, coming up occasionally to wander the house and leave a trail of water behind him. But I’d been in the basement: there was nothing down there and no where to hide. Okay…so that left the impossible. What if it was Mike? What did he want from me? Was he angry? Was he trying to warn me about something? I couldn’t in a million years picture Mike trying to hurt me – even an angry, spiteful, dead Mike. We had been best friend friends. And what of the tall, deer-like creature I’d absentmindedly drawn on my sketchpad, and seen in my nightmares, and somehow remembered from my childhood? Nothing. Nothing made sense.
I could feel Jesse approaching before I heard him on the dock. He didn’t say a word in greeting. I felt him kneel down behind me and entangle his hand in my hair, gently pulling my head back to him. He kissed me – soft, slow, lazy.
After he pulled away he sat down next to me and let one leg dangle off the dock while he rested his arm on the other. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”
“About what?” I asked.
“Your friend Mike.”
“If there’s even a chance that you’re right then you have to sell that cabin.”
“When are you leaving?”
I sighed. “My aunt should be here on the 29th.”
“That’s only four days away.”
There was a silence between that I couldn’t bring myself to fill.
“I want to see you again, Casey.”
I looked up at him and nodded. God knows, so do I.
“I can visit you at MSU.”
“Anytime…” I began to feel an aching in my chest that I didn’t care to explore. I decided to change the subject. “Can I shower before we go to town?”
“Definitely,” Jesse brushed tiny pieces of wood off of his shirt. “I’m covered in saw dust.”
“Great, will you give my house a once over so I can go shower and get dressed?”
Jesse didn’t find any broken windows or broken doors, and the basement had remained locked for once. When he was satisfied that no one was in the house I promised I would only be ten minutes or so before closing the door with Jesse on the other side.
The water from the showerhead came out ice cold so I let it run for a full 5 minutes before I checked it again. It still wasn’t at a tolerable degree. I swore out loud. My hair was thick and heavy and it took quite a while to wash. This was going to be an unpleasant experience.
I stepped into the tub and an inhuman hiss escaped my lips as the water sprayed down my back. “Now, I can’t wait to sell this fucking cabin.” I muttered.
I lathered soap into my hair as quickly as I could while taking measured breaths. After I’d rinsed the shampoo I smoothed on conditioner and scrubbed my body while hopping in and out of the stream of water.
Oh God, almost done. I had one foot out of the tub while I rinsed the conditioner out of my hair. This whole experience couldn’t be over fast enough. I yelped as I felt the water drop a few degrees more.
As I yanked my fingers through my hair to make sure all the conditioner was out, a clump of it came loose in my hands. At first it was just a few strands but suddenly I was pulling away huge, oily chunks and screaming. I looked at my feet and found that the bathtub was filling with grey, murky water. With bittersweet relief I realized it wasn’t hair I’d been pulling off my head – it was lake weed.
I hopped up on the edges of the tub and backed away from the showerhead, which had slowed to half-power as lake gunk backed up behind it. Holy shit – it was in my pipes!
I reached out with my foot and turned off the faucet, trying to avoid the trickle of the freezing cold demon water as much as possible. Stepping out of the shower I toweled off as quickly as I could.
After I was dressed, I decided to check the basement again on the way out of the house. The door was still closed and I unlocked and opened it with an unfounded caution, as if a deluge of water was waiting behind it to pour into the room like an elevator in the Overlook Hotel.
Daylight spilled down the staircase to catch upon the still, glassy water that had risen to just above the landing. I saw my suitcase floating across the room and groaned as I made a mental checklist of all the things in it that were ruined.
As watched it gently bump against the wall I noticed something stirring in the water. It was moving just beneath the surface and I was paralyzed as I watched it. Was it a fish? Some other type of animal? How the hell did it get in here?
It swam slowly under the water, and as it came closer to the staircase I noticed just how long it was – 12 feet, maybe more. Holy Kenobi, it’s a snake.
It reached the landing and as I backed up a stair something thin and black broke the surface of the water, and reached up toward me. It looked like a bone and I backed up the stairs and slammed the door hard, trying not to scream. I took a few deep breaths.
“What do you want, Mike?” I asked the basement door. “What do you want from me?”
“Please leave me alone. I’m, sorry. I’m so sorry. Please, Mike, this is my house, you have to go back to the lake.”
I leaned my forehead against the door. “Mike, please stop… I’m so, so sorry, I- I should never have made you go in the water. It’s my fault, okay? It’s all my fault.” I was crying. I couldn’t fathom how this was happening to me, or really how it was happening at all. “Please, go back to the lake, Mike…” I whispered through the door. “Please.”
Suddenly a new sound sliced through the cabin – the voice of MC Chris. My phone was working; the only problem was that the sound was coming from the other side of the basement door.
It was impossible. I dropped to the floor and peeked under the door to see if I could see anything. The light was now on in the basement, another mystery since the light switch was at the bottom of the stairs, under four feet of water. The ringing suddenly stopped as the phone sent the caller to voicemail and I tore the door open to grab the android.
It was there, as casual as ever, sitting on the step just above the waterline. I moved cautiously down the stairs, looking for any sign of movement underneath the water’s surface. I reached the step above the phone and snatched it from its place as quickly as I could. I ran halfway back up the staircase before I heard the sound of stirring water behind me and turned around.
Someone was crawling up the staircase behind me: slowly, step by step he reached out with the thin, black bones of his hands and I watched as his back broke the surface. His head was tucked down beneath the water and I didn’t wait to see anymore of it.
I slammed the basement door and backed up to the wall, eyes darting around for something heavy to push in front of the basement. Just as I spotted my dad’s old chair the sound of something scratching along the floor reached my ears. My eyes were drawn to the basement door again where something long and spindly was coming through the crack at the bottom. The thin, black fingers curled upward on the door as if to rip it from its hinges.
I dropped the phone and shot out of the house like a bullet. I was screaming loud enough for Jesse to hear me and I hit the steps of his front patio at a dead run. He opened the door as I cleared them and caught me while I screamed at him, hysterical and shaking.
“Casey, slow down!”
“I was wrong. I was so wrong, Jesse, he hates me. He wants to kill me. Please get me out of here. Please Jesse.”
“Alright, okay, we’ll leave. Come inside, let me grab my keys.” I followed him into the kitchen, absently rambling the entire way. “He’s angry that I killed him. He’s coming in from the lake, he was coming up the basement stairs, Jesse, he’s going to kill me, I can feel it. He wants to pull me into the lake and drown me.”
Jesse stopped and turned around to say something but when he saw how badly I was shaking, he wrapped his arms around me instead. “Just breathe,” he whispered into my hair. “Just breathe, Casey.”
And I tried. But my heart was going a million miles a minute and it needed the oxygen desperately. I reached for a nearby whisky with shaking hands. Jesse saw what I was after and took the bottle from me. I leaned back against the counter and tried to figure out how to put what had happened in the basement into words. As I rested my hands on the counter behind me to brace myself I felt a few sheets of paper shift under my palm and flutter to the floor. I leaned down to pick them up.
“Let me.” Jesse said.
I turned around to straighten the remaining stack and a name on the top sheet caught my eye. I grabbed it off the counter and re-read it, confident that I’d read it wrong the first time.
“Why does this have Mike’s name on it?”
“What?” Jesse asked.
“Micah Metz. Why does this paper say Micah Metz?” I asked.
“He’s the guy who sold me this house. Bit of an asshole, honestly.”
“That’s not possible.” I breathed.
“Casey, I know you’re a family friend but this kid was total jackass.”
“No,” I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head. “No, Micah died when he was a kid, Jesse, I told you that.”
“Micah Metz…is your friend Mike?”
“There’s no way he sold you this house.”
“Casey…” Jesse gently pulled the paper out of my shaking hands.
“Mike has been dead for over a decade.”
“Then this isn’t the same guy. This kid is alive, he drives a mustang…he’s your age.”
“I would never lie to you.”
“Who are you?”
Jesse reached out to gently grab my wrist. “Casey.”
The ringing of my phone sliced through the clearing and cut the tension between us like a hot knife. I jerked my wrist out of Jesse’s grasp and ran out of his house.
“Casey!” Jesse yelled after me. I didn’t know if he followed me – all I could focus on was the sound of my cell phone and help on the other end of it. Please be Evie. Please be Evie.
I snatched my phone from where I had dropped it in the hallway. Evie’s name was on the screen.
“Hello? Evie? Hello?”
“Casey? Sweetheart, what’s wrong? I have a dozen missed calls from you and every time I call back I’m sent straight to voicemail.”
“Aunt Evie, listen. I need to ask you something. Do you remember my friend, Micah Metz? From the lake?”
“Of course, his family owned the cabin next door. Why? Are they there?”
“No, no, 205 actually belongs to someone else now.” My eyes flicked to door. Jesse was there, leaning against the door jamb with his arms folded in front of him. He watched me through cautious, worried eyes.
“Alright. Casey, what is it?”
“Evie, do you remember the day Mike died? You and Mom and Dad were inside with the Metz’s and Mike and I jumped in the lake. Do you remember that?”
“Casey, do you remember that?”
“Of course! Why wouldn’t I?”
“Sweetheart…what’s brought this all on?”
“I think Mike is…still here. I think he blames me for what happened. I think…I think he’s trying to hurt me.”
“Casey, that’s impossible.”
“I know, but I can’t explain it any other way. I can feel it, Evie. I saw him.”
“He blames me for the way he died. He-“
“Casey! Casey…please calm down, I’m packing an overnight bag now. You’re not being haunted by a ghost.”
“I know how it sounds but Mike-“
“Casey…” Evie paused on the other end of the line. “Micah Metz isn’t dead.”
“But I remember-“
“Casey, it wasn’t Micah that drowned in the lake that day – it was you.”
I clutched the phone tighter to my ear. “What?”
“Sweetie, Micah was fine. He came tearing into the kitchen screaming that you went under. We ran out to the dock, your father and Jarod dove in to find you but…they couldn’t. Your mother was hysterical, I called 911. It was terrible.”
“I’m still alive…” I whispered.
“Yes. Because just as the divers were suiting up to recover your body you just sort of…walked out of the lake.”
I shook my head and looked up at Jesse, confident he was hearing every word.
“It had been three hours since you’d gone under the water and you walked out of it with only a bad case of hypothermia. Your skin was pruned, your eyes were bloodshot, but you were breathing. They took you to the hospital and the doctors couldn’t figure it out. You didn’t speak for months. Your parents decided not to mention the incident until you were ready to talk about it. It sounds like you finally are.”
“Why don’t I remember.”
“You remember what your mind can handle, Casey.”
“I have to go Aunt Evie.” I let the phone slide out of my fingers to the floor.
“Jesse.” I looked at him.
“I know,” he said quietly.
“I don’t understand.”
“If it wasn’t Mike crawling out of the basement, who was?”
Before he could respond something knocked on the basement door.
“Don’t open it,” I whispered.
“Casey, get out of the cabin.”
Jesse grabbed a fire poker and walked out into the hallway to stand in front of the basement door. He opened it slowly, weapon raised over his head. But there was nothing there.
“Listen, asshole.” He shouted down the stairs. “You are trespassing and I’m beyond exhausted of your shit. Show yourself or I will beat the ever-living shit out of you.” It was the first time I’d ever seen Jesse angry.
“Jesse,” I pulled on his arm. “Let’s go.”
“Get out of here, Casey.” He said quietly.
“I’m not leaving you here. This thing-“
Jesse turned around to look at me. “I’m going to handle this but I need you to get out of here.”
“No, please, let’s go.”
“Casey, go back to my house and wait. There’s-”
“Jesse, get away from the door.”
The water behind him had begun to stir. “Jesse, please, it’s coming back!”
He spun around and watched as a swell of water moved toward us, the thing underneath barely concealed by a thin layer of water cresting its back. “What the hell?”
“Jesse!” I screamed, but it was too late. The thin, black arm shot up out of the water and grabbed onto Jesse’s leg. He came down hard on the staircase and the creature pulled him down the stairs into the water. He was yelling at me but I didn’t know what he was saying.
“Jesse!” I screamed over him and ran down the few steps to where he was already halfway submerged. I grabbed his arm and began to pull but he pushed me away, back up the staircase. “Go,” he screamed.
“Case-” and then he was dragged under the dark water.
“Jesse!” I screamed. “Jesse!”
He had to come back up. “Please, Jesse.” I sobbed.
I thrust my hand into the water, searching for anything, any sign of him. I went down one step and reached further down the stairs. “Please don’t leave me alone.” I whispered as tears fell into the grey-brown abyss beneath me.
Something grabbed onto my hand and suddenly Jesse was there, crawling out of the water. I backed up all the way to the top of the stairs and screamed at him to hurry. He struggled to stand and I saw what it had done to him. His chest was ripped open, exposing the muscle and ribs underneath. One of his arms fell limply at his side, an open fracture protruding from his shoulder blade. Jesse started to pull himself up stair by stair, but as he dragged himself, flesh tore off his chest in ribbons. I ran down to help him.
“No!” He screamed. “No.”
Suddenly he stopped climbing and reached down to pull something out of his pocket, and then threw it up the stairs at me. I watched his car keys hit the wall opposite the basement door and turned back to look down at Jesse, who was now lying perfectly still.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered before he was suddenly jerked underneath the water again, as if he’d never been there at all.
“No! Jesse, no!” I threw myself down the stairs and waded as far in as possible before I had to start swimming. I’d only been in the water mere moments when I noticed I was sinking. The water was draining back into the lake – fast.
I swam into the middle of the room and by the time I got there my feet had touched the ground. It was seconds before the hole in the wall emerged and the remaining few feet of water drained out of it.
“Jesse!” I screamed into the empty room.
I heard a giggle and turned to find the child who had given me so much trouble standing on the stairs behind me, hands cupped over mouth. There were no secrets between us now.
In the light of the basement I could see her hair was wrapped behind her in a wet pony tail and her shorts and t-shirt had long ago rotted away or turned black with age, but I could tell they were mine all the same. The child I had thought a boy, had thought Mike of all people, was actually a girl. But she was ghost, I’d been right about that, the ghost of me; the part of me who had died in the lake all those years ago.
“Where’s Jesse?” I asked it.
She giggled again and ran up the stairs. I chased her and by the time I reached the ground floor, she was gone. But I didn’t need her to tell me where Jesse was – I knew where that hole led.
I ran outside onto the patio. I could see something moving impossible fast below the surface of the water toward the middle of the lake. I knew it was Jesse and the unholy creature who had taken him.
I made for the dock at a dead run and dove into the water at the end. The lake was even colder than the basement. I tried to ignore the chill as the ice crept into my fingers and toes, just like all those years before.
I swam for all I was worth but a part of me knew I couldn’t save Jesse and that he was probably already dead. The numbness snaking up my arms and legs told me I wasn’t going to make it anyway, but still I tried. I depleted every last ounce of energy I had to get to the middle of the lake. When I arrived there, I dove as deep as I could but the lake was pitch black underneath and no matter how far down I dove, I couldn’t find the bottom. I found nothing. I felt nothing.
I looked back toward shore. There was nothing left to get me there but I started back toward my house anyway. The swim home took four times as long. I could see the little dead girl, standing at the edge of my dock, waving and smiling at me. I put my head in the water as I swam and tried to ignore the needle-thin stabs of ice.
When I finally reached the dock, the child was gone. The tide was in and I was able to pull myself up and drag my frozen limbs out of the water.
In was midday but the sun was somehow already setting and the temperature was dropping. I lay shivering on the dock, breathing hard but as quietly as I could manage. Not that it mattered. I knew she was watching me, somewhere, and probably laughing. This was her playground and the creature was her master. But he wasn’t mine.
I forced myself up into a sitting position. If I had time, I would burn my fucking house to the ground but I was too tired and too cold and I had to get out of here. I couldn’t bring myself to think about Jesse, or the horrible death that I had very likely caused. I pushed my fist against my chest as the pain took root there and began to grow. No, not yet. Soon I will think about you, but not yet.
Grabbing onto a tiki torch I pulled myself to a standing position and began to limp stiffly toward Sidetracks. Jesse’s keys were my ticket out of here. I was halfway to the safety of the grass when the dock began to move underneath my feet. The water had risen several feet in as many minutes and there was something underneath the dock, pushing against it and tilting it to one side.
I never had a chance. I grabbed for one of the torches on the way over but it snapped in half as I was thrown back into the frigid water. The cold sliced through me like a knife.
I couldn’t see it but I knew the creature was under the dock. I felt an unnatural undertow begin to pull me deeper down toward the underside of the structure and I kicked for all I was worth. I couldn’t die this way, four feet from the beach and safety. I wouldn’t.
If it had wanted me, it could have taken me then, but it was just a game. I escaped up to the surface and grabbed handfuls of the long grass on shore to pull myself up the frozen beach. I was up again and running within mere seconds of lifting my foot out of the water, fueled by adrenaline and little else.
I had to get those fucking keys. Jesse had used the last seconds of his life to throw them to me; I couldn’t save him now but I could make sure he didn’t die for no fucking reason.
I limped into Sidetracks hoping it was the last time I would ever darken its door. The keys were still lying against the wall where Jesse had thrown them. I stumbled into the hallway but when I reached down to pick them up, my stiff, frozen limbs overshot it and I accidently kicked the keys through the basement door and down the stairs where they slipped in between and fell to the cement floor below.
I sagged against the wall and sobbed. I could try to run, try to make it to town, but my body was exhausted. I wouldn’t get more than a few hundred feet before I collapsed where I stood. And wherever I fell, that’s where I’d be buried. I knew I probably wouldn’t leave the basement alive, but I had to go down.
I could hear the flow of water in the room below as the lake slowly refilled the basement. I clutched the handrails for support and slowly descended, step by step, into the cavity below. The water was only knee deep but the room was still filling. The hole that I knew led to the lake was completely underwater again. If anything came through it I wouldn’t know until it was too late.
I stumbled over to the corner underneath the staircase and shoved my hands into the water. They were still completely numb and I wondered if my fingers would even be able to feel the keys if I found them. My body was shuddering violently with chill and exhaustion. Just a few minutes more. Just stay standing a few minutes more. My teeth were chattering so loudly that the sound echoed around the room, drowning out the vicious lapping of the lake water against the walls.
But it didn’t drown out everything. The sound of something surfacing from the water came from the corner directly behind me. I thrust my tongue in-between my teeth to try to quiet them. Tears made steaming hot trails down my cold face. It was over. I was over. I didn’t want to die but if I had no choice then I didn’t want it to hurt. Please don’t let it hurt.
I knew it was the tall, deer-faced creature, and not the child. I felt a sickening, magnetic pull whenever the child was around, a symptom of our disgusting bond. But now – I only felt fear. I didn’t want to see it, but I found myself turning toward the creature anyway. I lost my footing as I pivoted and when I stumbled forward my foot fell upon something sharp. The creature would know I had found them so I made no attempt to hide that I was picking them up. I braced a hand against a stair and bent down into the water. I couldn’t feel my fingers at all so it was like playing the Claw Game at an arcade. It was long seconds before I finally pulled my hand up to see the silver key ring dangling on my finger. I quickly assessed my path to the stairway and thought I might make it before the creature could catch me. I thought I might try.
I couldn’t help but look into the corner before running for the stairs. The thing was standing against the wall, as tall as the ceiling and dressed in some sort of heavy robe. Its antlers were long and sharp and its eyes were set so far back in the skull I couldn’t make them out. And then suddenly it was gone. The creature had dropped down into the water as if it’d disappeared entirely from underneath its robes. A sob stuck in my throat and before I could take another step toward the stairs it grabbed onto my ankle. The creature’s thin hand bit into my skin like barbed wire and I wasn’t able to take a breath before I was pulled under the water with it.
My body was aching for air within seconds. I could feel it pull me out of the room through the hole in the wall and into a tunnel. The only thing I could think in such an impossible moment was: Don’t drop the keys. Don’t drop the keys.
We were moving fast but the tunnel was so long. It wasn’t even a minute before I felt my body succumb to the instinct to breathe. The water that I drew into my lungs was cold but all I felt was white-hot burning. The creature pulled me around sharp corners and through bottlenecks so impossibly tight I thought most of Jesse’s bones must have broken when he was yanked through them.
I felt my body beginning to die. Even though I was in complete darkness the empty edges of my vision began to turn even blacker. The burning in my lungs ebbed away until I forgot where I was and what was happening to me. We’ve been told that Death’s grip is cold and sharp, but that isn’t true. It’s warm and gentle, like a lullaby. I welcomed its soft touch. I surrendered to it.
But the demon’s hold was even stronger. I was jerked upward so fast that I felt a bone snap in my leg. Cold air suddenly hit my face and my body pulled it into my lungs. As I coughed up murky, gray water, the darkness receded from the edges of my vision. I rolled over onto my back and laid there, floating in the water, only 30 yards from the shore.
The memory of my drowning had come back to me while I’d been under – the struggle, the pain, the desperation and fear as something pulled me down deeper and deeper. Evie was right: it was Mike who made it to the dock that day and it was me who never had.
But I couldn’t remember the lost time, those hours that I’d spent at the bottom of the lake, dead as far as everyone knew. But I knew what had happened then. In the deepest part of the lake the creature had ripped my soul in two and kept one half for himself. He knew that I would one day come back, drawn by the bond like a moth to a flame.
I realized, too, then that the accusation and suspicion I had seen on the faces of everyone at the beach that day had actually been fear. Fear of what I was.
As death slowly released its hold on me, pain began to bleed back in. And with it the instinct to live returned. Fight. Run.
I flipped over onto my stomach and started moving, slowly at first and then faster as I realized numbness could be an asset. I couldn’t open my fists so I kicked with my uninjured leg and doggy paddled to the tall grass next to my dock. I dragged myself up the beach and then rolled over to catch my breath for the second time. My feet were still in the water, but I couldn’t have made it another inch. My breathing didn’t slow down but it gradually became more consistent. While I lay there I pried open my right hand and warm blood spilled down my wrist and forearm.
The serrated edges of the keys had burrowed into my skin and I had to manually pull my fingers back to get them out of my hand. Then I rolled over and pulled my legs out of the water. I was in more pain than I’d ever experienced in my life, but with maximum effort I was able to finally stand and hobble toward Jesse’s truck.
I heard giggling bubble up behind me straight from the mouth of little, dead Casey. I catalogued her away along with all the other impossible things that had happened – a box to be opened and examined when I was far away from here.
I slammed into the side of the green truck and clutched the rearview mirror to keep from falling. Almost there, almost there, almost there. With my good hand, I flipped through the keys looking for the one with the Chevy symbol. I jammed it in the keyhole and turned until the lock popped open on the other side. His truck was so tall I had to conjure the strength from a place I didn’t know I had to hoist myself up into the driver’s seat. I screamed in pain as I dragged my broken, mostly severed foot into the cab and then righted myself in front of the steering wheel. I slammed the door shut and locked it.
Without bothering to look behind me I threw the truck in reverse. I tried to cut the wheel sharply to the right but my fingers wouldn’t close over the steering wheel. I had to painstakingly make the turn with only the use of my wrists. As soon as I was clear of Jesse’s house I pushed the shifter into drive and sped off over the grass toward the dirt road leading to town. There was nothing between me and the road and when I finally passed into the forest that surrounded the lake, I snapped. I laughed like an insane person; the sound so high-pitched and inhuman that I thought it couldn’t be coming from me – but it was, and I couldn’t stop it.
I was free. I wasn’t going to die. I was going to be safe and warm soon. I slowed down to take the sharp left bend in the road without rolling the truck. On the other side of it was town – streets lamps burning, cars cruising, police with guns, hospitals, warmth and safety – except it wasn’t. The truck had turned the corner but there was only blackness at the end of the road: darkness so deep and void that it looked like I was driving toward a black hole.
No. But it was too late. One second I was on the road and in the next I was in the air. The truck hit the water so hard I cracked my nose on the steering wheel. I heard it snap – more pain to flood my senses.
The truck was quickly sinking and I opened the door before the water pressure on the other side became too great. I fell out into the water – it wasn’t so deep in this part of the lake. I could feel the lake floor underneath my feet and the faster I moved toward shore the more purchase I found. I was crawling toward the beach, only two feet of water between my body and the floor of the lake. But I long ago exhausted all the strength I had.
As I began to slow down, I considered just giving up. It was clear that I had never been meant to leave this lake, my fate had been sealed the day Aunt Evie drove me out of the woods. Why fight it? It was just going to hurt more in the end.
I was only a few feet away from a copse of reeds. But what would I do when I got there? Again pull myself up onto a cold beach? And for what? There was nowhere left to go.
Something snaked around my broken ankle sparking a new bout of crippling pain. I didn’t bother to kick it off, I was done fighting. I was tired. I wanted sleep and warmth, and if that meant I’d have to do it in death, so be it. Jesse was dead because of me; drowned and broken. Why should my fate be any different?
I let go of the lake weeds I’d been holding and felt my body slowly turn over in the water. It wasn’t the creature that had ahold of me this time, but the child. I hadn’t seen her up close before. The girl’s thin skin was stretched over her face like saran wrap on a sugar skull. Her hair was a mess of twigs and lakeweed; tangled, dreaded, and turning white near her skull. But, she was me, there was no denying that. A corpse-like, rotting version of my past, but mine all the same.
The creature silently rose of out of the water several yards behind her; hardly causing a ripple in the surface of the lake. Its robe, I could see now, was black and crimson and seemed to shed water like the feather of a duck. His face was the bone-white skull of a buck and the horns that split off of his head were ebony. A thin, black hand appeared from the fold of the creature’s robes. He held it out to me as his mouth fell open and a sound that may have been a scream rolled across the lake from shore to shore. My eyes flicked back to the little girl and she smiled at me. “Please,” I whispered. Then I was dragged under and in the blackest part of the lake, I drowned.
Something warm was licking my face. The Anderson’s dogs, Lake Calhoun. That’s where I was. That’s where I must be. I opened my eyes to the blinding light of day.
The water that lapped at my cheeks was warm; the sun overhead, scalding. I was floating on my back at the edge of the lake, body fractured and torn open. My skin was white and more heat was bleeding out of me every second. My hand grazed a reed on the shore.
I was alive. Why? Why was I still alive? I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want know how long I had been down this time. I didn’t want to know what the monster had done to me. I could just sink. Sink to the bottom of the lake. No one would ever find me.
I turned over in the water and pulled myself out – one last time. I rolled onto my back and everything that had happened emerged unbidden from the void. The pain that broke over me like a wave was more excruciating than anything I was feeling in my body. All the death, all the horror, all the fear and pain. I wailed into the blue void above me. I screamed and sobbed until I convulsed. I cried until there was nothing left of me but my empty, broken body. And that was how Evie found me.
She dragged my body into the house. She set and bound my leg. She set fire my cabin and to Jesse’s, just like I had wanted. She carried me to the car and set me in the passenger seat. As we drove away from Sidetracks my eyes came to rest on the green pickup truck, almost fully submerged now, slowly sinking into the lake. The last of my humanity disappeared with it.
There is nothing left of me. Everything that remained of what I was had been expelled from my body the day I screamed in all into the sky. Evie is angry that I haven’t said a word since she arrived at the lake that day. She doesn’t understand that there is nothing left to speak for me.
She bought me a wheelchair, although I hardly ever leave her house. Only for doctor’s appointments, she says. The thing that grows inside of me is part me, part Jesse, and part something else. Every month: a new doctor. Every appointment: the same. The ultrasound tech’s smile fades into an uncomfortable frown and they fetch the doctor who speaks quietly with Evie. But I can hear them.
I’m so sorry. They say. Please let us admit her, she’s catatonic. It could be the shock.
If I had the energy I would run away. If I had the heart I would abort the unholy creature inside me. But I have nothing except the hope that it will kill me when it’s born. Aunt Evie has loftier dreams. She measures my stomach everyday as it grows and smiles happily when the thing moves or kicks her hand. She doesn’t seem to care that the baby has no heartbeat.