The first time the lake tried to take me, I was six. I can’t remember all of it, just the sensation of being pulled under and the chill of water folding around me as I submerged. One would think that nearly drowning would have traumatized me away from the water, but the memory isn’t particularly frightening.
It should be, but it isn’t.
Staring at the lake, I couldn’t help wondering how I ever believed in magic, especially a magical lake. There was nothing remarkable about the wide, black surface, not anymore. With the gray light of storm clouds overhead, I couldn’t even see Granite Peak reflected in the water. There was only the dark, rippling waves lapping at its banks and the dull glimmer of daylight across its surface.
Snow clung to the evergreens ringing the lake and a wintry wind pushed through the trees of Morgan’s Park. It made a pretty sight, but I wouldn’t have called it magical. A cluster of mushrooms crowded the base of a pine tree at my right, but there were no sprites or fairies crawling over them.
A year ago, I might have drawn them that way, etching them into my private notebook with tiny doors and quaint windows as decoration. But my book was hidden away at home, untouched in months.
It went away with the magic.
Snagging a pebble from the dirt, I turned it in my fingers, feeling the bite of early winter pulse through its smooth surface. It was flat and round, perfect for skipping. With a flick of my wrist, I sent the stone soaring, watching as it skipped over the water twice before sinking. It made a hallow sort of sound as it disappeared beneath the surface and I stared after it for a long while, wondering again at how dull the world seemed.
Granite Peak stood vigil on the horizon, as unmoving as mother’s gravestone and I frowned up at it, fighting back a scream. I wanted to scream a lot these days. I was pretty sure people would understand, given the circumstances. They would smile that infuriatingly compassionate way they all did since the day she got sick and tell me it was all right.
Which was a lie because Mom was dead, and nothing would ever be all right again.
Our pastor said it was normal to have questions after a loss, but the only question ringing through my mind was how?
How could she be gone?
How could this happen to us?
How were we supposed to move forward from here?
My phone buzzed and I pulled it from my pocket, scrolling through the alerts; two voicemails and five missed text messages. The voicemails would be from Josh, my stepdad, so I ignored them, skimming through the messages instead. And, of course, four of the five messages were from good old Josh Campbell too. It seemed there was no getting around the guy today.
The fifth message was from Jake, my only remaining friend, and I opened it to see the contents. “Who’s the old guy at your door?”
Fury ignited in my gut and I typed; “That’s my dad.”
The shock of seeing my biological father again was wearing off, replaced by an urgent desire to hit something. Anything would do, but I was pretty sure I’d be happiest ramming a fist into Mason Hamilton’s face.
Jake responded quicker than usual; “Want me to run him off?”
Imagining all the ways Jake might insult Mason away, I smiled and typed; “No thanks.”
“He looks like a car salesman from the seventies. Who wears tan jackets anymore?”
Huffing a laugh, I started a response but was interrupted by the sound of footsteps crunching through leaves. It didn’t take a genius to realize Josh had probably been looking for me a while, but it was still a surprise. I thought I would have an hour before being forced into another fight, so I did my best to breathe.
Josh would probably be on my side, but I should have at least told him where I was going before storming out of the house.
But as Josh moved to lean against a nearby tree, hands crammed in his coat pockets, I could tell there wasn’t going to be an argument. His feet managed to miss the cluster of mushrooms and for a heartbeat I imagined Mom gasping in horror, insisting he move before demolishing a fairy house.
I stared at the mushrooms, trying to coach myself into breathing because I could almost hear her voice again. She used to see magic all the time and everywhere, and promised that if I looked hard enough, I would see it too.
But the only thing I saw anymore was the hospital room, Mom wasted down to sinew under thin blankets, tubes and contraptions running from her face and arms. A hallow ache took up residence in my guts and I forced myself to concentrate on my stepfather.
Josh crossed his arms, revealing auto grease stains at the cuffs of his sleeves. There was a defeated expression on his face, the same one he’d worn since the funeral, and I forgot about the mushrooms. Snow settled in Josh’s hair and beard, making the blonde look several shades darker than normal. He heaved a sigh and shook his head, looking older than he had this morning.
“I didn’t know he was coming, Kev,” Josh said at last.
I reached for another pebble, letting the cool rock chill my palm as I debated what to say. Mom always said it was better to be quiet than to be sorry.
An ache pulsed in the center of my chest, one word repeating with every pounding beat; Mom, Mom, Mom.
I turned the rock in my fingers. It was warm now, the heat of my skin soaking into the thing until its winter frost was banished.
“Kev,” Josh said.
Not quite ready to face him yet, I nodded and gazed out at the lake. “It’s all right. I should have known he’d come knocking after…”
I trailed off, unable to reach that one throbbing word; Mom.
“Yeah, me too,” Josh said.
“I suppose he wants to know if there was anything left in her will.”
I’m not sure why, but I held my breath, waiting for Josh to answer. It’s amazing that after ten years of silence, I still had a sliver of hope that my father would be coming to make sure I was all right. I tried to deny it, but it was there and in the middle of my grief I couldn’t quite let it go. Which, of course, made me feel guilty because hadn’t Josh already proven himself more of a father than Mason?
Wasn’t it a betrayal of sorts to care this much?
“He might have mentioned something about the will,” Josh said after a moment.
The reluctance in his voice hurt more than the actual words.
I sent the stone skipping across the lake. “Well, what does he want?”
“He says he wants to talk to you.”
Yeah, right, because I’ve been such a huge concern all these years.
But I didn’t say that. I wanted to, just like I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs or break the mountain, but none of this was Josh’s fault. Instead, I asked; “What about?”
“Come on, Kevin. What do you think?”
Fighting back a scowl, I turned to face him. Josh stayed where he was, watching the very unmagical lake.
“I don’t want to talk to him,” I said.
Josh’s shoulders relaxed a fraction. We went silent, neither of us moving. The lake made little lapping sounds against the shore, and the sky seemed to darken a shade or two. The cloud cover hadn’t moved off and didn’t look like it meant to for the night, but the sun was nearing the horizon. Insects buzzed and chirred, but we just stood there gazing at each other.
Maybe it was a battle of wills, each of us waiting for the other to break first, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I was relieved when Josh spoke again.
“I can tell him that for you,” Josh said. “But I think we need to prepare for him to get more insistent.”
A cold knot settled in my stomach. “You don’t think he’d try to take me away, do you?”
Josh shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Well, he couldn’t win in court. I mean, he gave up that right when he let me take your name, didn’t he?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” Josh said. “He didn’t fight the name change at the time, but that was ten years ago. And he didn’t sign away all his parental rights, just the name. So it’s anyone’s guess what he does next.”
Rubbing the back of my neck, I fought the urge to scream again. Why was Mason doing this? Didn’t he know what we were going through right now?
I tried to imagine what it would be like living with Mason, but there weren’t a lot of memories to fall back on, just sporadic contact and yearly gifts at Christmas. Which only seemed to feed my frustration and I clenched my fists, wishing the man would disappear or something.
The idea of leaving Josh behind made my gut turn. “I won’t go with him. I don’t care what he does.”
Josh heaved another sigh and pushed away from the tree. I glanced at him, fear making a vice of my chest, and then glared out at the lake again. It was a desperate sort of fear, hedging in on all sides, cold and fathomless and undeniable. For several panicked seconds I thought maybe Josh would tell me I had to go, that maybe the sight of me reminded him too much of what he’d lost, and he didn’t want me there.
But his hand gripped my shoulder, firm and warm, and I began to relax. “I will do whatever I can, son,” he said. “If this is where you want to be, then we’ll fight to keep you here. But you gotta make sure it’s what you want.”
“It is,” I said. I didn’t even have to think about it. There was no doubt, no question.
Josh gave a ghost of a smile. “Well, I guess that’s that,” he said. “But we still gotta talk to him.”
I was about to reiterate how much I didn’t want to see Mason, but Josh shook his head. “I’ll tell him to come back another day, Kev. But eventually you’re going to have to face him.”
Scowling at the shore, I shoved my hands in my pockets. He was right, of course. Problems didn’t disappear just because I didn’t want to face them. But at least I wouldn’t have to face it today.
“I know,” I grumbled.
“Good,” Josh said, his fingers squeezing my shoulder once before letting go. He turned in the direction of home, then paused to say; “Don’t stay out here too long. You know your mother doesn’t…”
We both froze, recognizing the mistake.
Choking on the words, Josh cleared his throat. “You know she didn’t like you up here.”
I nodded, too afraid to use my voice. Listening to Josh’s retreating steps, I tried to tell myself that there was no way a court would let Mason take me away. The man hadn’t been my father for ten years. Surely they would see that.
Picking up another stone, I bounced it in my hand twice, feeling the weight of it in my palm. Too heavy and ungainly for skipping but then, I didn’t really want to skip stones anymore. What I wanted was to smash Granite Peak open with my fists, to see something crack and break.
I threw the stone with all my might, watching as it sailed over the water, splashing down with a minor explosion of waves. Glaring out at where the water rippled, I suddenly wished the lake had taken me when I was six. I wished my mother hadn’t been there to save me and this awful emptiness gnawing away at my insides never came to pass.
The thought grew and grew until I couldn’t suppress it anymore and I muttered; “You should have taken me then. I wish you had.”
It was crazy, talking to a lake. But it was better than breaking things, so I let the words linger, feeling oddly unsettled. I’d been in a constant state of turmoil for months, but this was different, like somehow my admission had been heard.
Turning, I was prepared to head home when something caught my eye. On the far shore of the lake was a black swan, its feathers soft as velvet and a great orange beak accentuating the curve of face and neck. I stared at it, too surprised to move.
Mom used to tell the story of the day the lake took me as proof undeniable that it was magic. She said a big black swan seemed to lure me deeper and deeper, gliding toward me and drifting away in the next instant. Every time she called my name to come back, I would stop and look at her, give a baby-faced grin and take another step forward.
A cold sensation slithered up my spine as I watched the swan glide across the water. It was headed straight for me and Mom’s voice – finally her voice – teased my memory; “Don’t go near the lake, son. I don’t know why, but it seems to want you.”
Mom’s warning felt close, so near I could close my eyes and see her again. Straight brown hair, which she hated because she thought it looked flat no matter how much Josh told her otherwise. Oval-faced with a thin nose and a wide smile, and eyes that seemed to change color from green to blue depending on the day.
My feet were cold and wet. Looking down, I was startled to find myself standing knee deep in the lake. I couldn’t remember moving, but there I was with my feet sunk to the ankles in muck. There was something odd about the reflection in the water too and when I peered closer, I saw a gaunt, hallow-cheeked woman with spidery-black hair staring up at me. Her eyes were shadowed pools and as I watched, her mouth opened into a silent scream.
I jerked back but my feet were cemented in silt. Flailing my arms, I tried desperately to keep upright but within seconds I fell. Icy water splashed over me, soaking through my jeans and jacket as I submerged. Scrambling to get back to air, I thrashed through the shallows. My head broke the surface and I could see the shore impossibly far away.
How had I gotten so far out?
Water sloshed into my mouth and I choked, tasting fish and brine and something foul. The swan was nowhere to be seen, I noticed that much as I started swimming back for shore.
With my heart thundering against my chest, I wondered how I could have forgotten how terrifying near drowning was. There was nothing peaceful here, just the cold and the wet and the weight of my shoes dragging me down.
Something slimy curled around my leg and I screamed. I kicked and thrashed, but whatever had me only seemed more determined to hold on. It felt like a rope of some kind and it was cinching tight. With one powerful yank it towed me back under the water.
Fully submerged, I reached for my leg. The slimy tentacle gripping me held fast, unmoved by my attempts to free myself. Silt clouded the water, freed by my thrashing, but I thought I could see something green through the murk. It seemed to be originating from the lake bottom, down where the sunlight couldn’t penetrate, and I realized I was about to lose all sight.
I dug my fingers around the rope-like thing, but my grip was clumsy, my hands uncooperative, and I continued to sink.
The foggy colors of the lake smeared in my vision, growing dimmer with every labored heartbeat. My waterlogged lungs strained and swelled, desperate for air. I coughed, which only brought in more water, and my fingers stopped working altogether.
There was light shimmering off the surface of the lake, but it was too far away and whatever was holding me hadn’t loosened its grip.
Mom had been right. The lake really did want me. And without her there, it finally had me.
Muffled sounds filtered through the water, bubbles racing to the surface and the constant hum of being submerged. Everything was lichen green and distorted, but I saw her when she got close and my already galloping heart stuttered; the screaming woman. More than a face this time, she floated close, all that web-like black hair drifting around us.
Her spindly arms wrapped around my shoulders, clawed fingers digging into my back as she drew me into an embrace. She was cold, or perhaps I was cold. All I knew was that when her hair brushed against my cheek it seemed to bite into my skin like frozen metal.
My eyes drooped. The strain in my lungs wasn’t so bad now. Everything spun and for a confused second I thought maybe we were in a whirlpool, churning and circling down toward the lake bottom.
The woman held on. Her mouth opened, revealing a gaping hole of nothing. She had no teeth. No eyes and no tongue either, just the general shape of a face with skin stretched thin across the bones.
A hand gripped my arm, which had drifted up in the wake of our descent. Surrounded by seaweed and black hair and the darkness of the lake, I couldn’t see who had me, but someone was grasping my arm.
Maybe it was Josh. He couldn’t have gotten too far away, after all.
Oh, thank God.
I wasn’t sure how long I had been in the water, but I imagined I should have passed out already. Perhaps I was passed out. Maybe the skull-faced woman with the spidery hair was the angel of death and I just needed to relax into her embrace.
The hand on my arm tugged, pulling me upward. There was resistance at first, whatever creature had my leg wasn’t ready to release me, and my leg stretched uncomfortably from hip socket to knee. My rescuer tugged again, more forcefully, and my leg came free. The skull-faced woman held a moment longer, her icy fingers scratching over my skin until she too let go, vanishing into the depths.
I fought to keep my eyes open, to stay alert as the surface came nearer and nearer, but it seemed I’d been under too long. A wave of blackness washed over me, and there was the dizzy spin of oblivion. My last conscious thought was that something evil lived in this lake.