THERE WAS SUNLIGHT AND THERE WERE TREES.
There was a lake and then there was she.
Swimming, the water- so warm and so black -so terribly black in fact it was impossible to see beneath. Milky and thick, the water was a gelatinous pool of goopy syrup molded into variegated shades. Depending on the time of day, as well as the rays of light that blotched the surface, the water was a nightmarish, creepy inexplicable manifestation feared among so many. Gwen, who was often coerced into thinking the viscous substance was as impenetrable as it was glorious, chose to swim there almost every summer.
Today, she spread her arms far as they would go and closed her eyes.
With so few around, the swim was a rare luxury none were brave enough to stomach.
Most of Gwen’s body was submerged and ensconced by a deep warmth as she lay there still. Shivering in spite of the glorious comfort, it was a formidable sensation that only the lake could produce.
As a child, Gwen had developed a slight fear of the deep water.
For this reason, she’d chosen this place.
It was, in the end, the perfect location for her to go and to be…
Refusing to speak about this to anyone, Gwen’s own stories about this lake were buried along with more of her own broken, desolate tales. The lake was where she and her dad had spent most of their time. Then, Gwen remembered why it wasn’t safe.
She exhaled, closed her eyes. The lake was his too.
Gently kicking with pointed toes, Gwen stretched until her feet grazed something below. Small, quick, almost unnoticeable; if Gwen wasn’t here to die, then she believed she wouldn’t have felt a damn thing.
But she did. She did because she wanted to.
Her toes tapped something, something sharp and spindly.
Immediately reminding Gwen of hair, she thought maybe it was those one of those haphazardly assembled balls of yarns she’d come across in her grandmother’s closet.
Not a fish, she concluded. Couldn’t be.
People tossed things into the water. They tossed bicycles, grocery carts, and other kinds of miscellaneous trash.
Whatever it was, it could quite possibly be remnants of trash eroded and rotted from years of submersion. The thought made Gwen want to vomit; she also wasn’t precisely sure that’s what she felt.
At the age of five, something else had touched her feet.
Long ago, she had played in the lake with her friend. Her friend was Samantha. Gwen could see her now in the lake.
Playing, she felt what she thought was Samantha’s dainty little foot. Light, thin, almost threadbare, all was placed in the same category, that is the category of cheaply-made fabric that irritated a person’s skin.
But afterwards, Gwen saw. She saw it floating in the water.
There and gone, Gwen ignored it at first.
Then, she continued to feel it again before she felt the strands looping her ankles.
Kicking frantically, she tried to loosen whatever had latched her body. Even with immense effort, it would not give.
Jerking again, Gwen fought to shake whatever was down there free.
Samantha was Gwen’s friend, her closest friend until the day she was no more. Samantha dipped her head in the lake and looked to see. Popping up later, Samantha screamed. Gwen shuddered as she fell victim to Samantha’s possibly precipitous hysteria.
At the time, Samantha’s eyes were bloodshot.
All of this forced Gwen to go under too. She wanted to see what caused her friend to emerge so panicked. Kicking hard and fast, Gwen experienced what was a vague sensation- the threads she felt were in fact the hairs on a severed head.
Down below, a pair of sunken, white eyes leered while the skin of the once living entity looked pallid and rotted. The flesh bubbled with fat corpuscles and though, on the verge of screaming, even in the lake, Gwen continued to hear Samantha's cries through the pine trees.
Gwen swam to the dock.
She fled without saying a word. The last time she ever saw Samantha was christened by the pain of having to explain how their relationship came to an end.
Blacking out and then awakening sometime later, Gwen could not remember what happened, so she chose not to.
“Don’t go in the water without me…ever.”
Gwen’s father, not the kind of man to disobey, he told his daughter never to go swimming without his permission.
Floating along, the water splashed Gwen’s face. At spas, people would douse their bodies in cleansers and creams so they could exfoliate their skin. They restored. They cleaned, and all of this was done primarily to preserve their own beauty. She liked to think she was in a spa now, although she had only been to a spa once in her life. Here and now, she was comfortable, picturing herself in a chair. With two girls seated on either side of her, she was tending.
She was making sure she was safe and comfortable.
One drop of water did find its way into Gwen’s mouth. A funny taste, it tingled her taste buds.
The water wasn’t clean. Never was it ever clean.
People pissed in it. They tossed feces when they were drunk. Often, Gwen pleaded with her father not to make her go in. She saw what people did to the water, how they looked at it, and yet, most refused to hear her what she had to say or why.
“That’s stupid. Get in. Get in now.”
Gwen tipped until she fell off the dock. Treading the buoyant surface, she could still smell the fluid and spat out what landed in her mouth.
Gwen fought to empty her mind. She didn’t want to think for a second about the possible breeds of various infestations. The water was dirty, always dirty, but was it worse than the grimy cesspools in other lakes?
A park bench, even a public toilet, one way or another all of it finds its way into your body somehow. All that can really save a person is the blissful ignorance of not knowing it’s there or that it exists at all. It’s possible being in any pool and in any lake.
Anything that touches can make any person squirm.
What else did people throw in other than varying kinds of filth?
Bags of discarded food, clothing, recyclables, maybe even smelly, rotting trash?
Whatever lurked at the bottom scared Gwen. It was what she always thought of when swimming. It was also the same thought she knew one day she’d forget.
The corpse of a woman with a folded stomach and fractured skull were both uncovered before Gwen decided to take this adventure.
Not knowing how deep the water went was everything to her.
In Gwen’s mind, she insisted, this was a place so far down that no one could become trapped in perpetual stink. If they were strong, they’d float. If they were very strong, they would forget. Even if Gwen wanted to accomplish said task, and swim to the bottom for whatever reason, the water would be too dark for anyone to know precisely what was down there. Few could make the swim, but then this lake was not like other lakes, not for Gwen.
Surely it wasn’t as bad as she thought, but it was.
The word abruptly entered her mind and stayed there.
Shit. Shit. Fucking shit.
She shook away the possible dung clinging to her flesh; it looked like pepper grains. The pieces were not gone yet; Gwen swayed her arms back and forth and made sure her ears stayed above.
Avoiding the deafening and the numbness, Gwen’s father used to keep her head under for hours until she emerged breathless and shaken. Sometimes, he’d order her to swallow. For reasons she couldn’t explain, she always did. If she swallowed, then she could swim, at least for another day.
Her fear of dark water wouldn’t be as light as it was at this very moment, or so she assured herself. The truth, the one she had longed since denied, was never a facet of tales untold.
No, at the time, she was helping a boy she liked. His name was Elliot.
She remembered him well.
“I can’t. I’m afraid.”
Elliot, a bit of a braggadocious toad, that one time, unbuttoned his pants and untucked his shirt.
He spoke in a soft, almost saccharine tone. He inserted his hands beneath and rubbed. Slipping his dainty fingers further down his boxers, he slipped off the fabric and dove into the lake.
Quivering, Gwen joined.
Naked, the cool air clung to her hardened breasts. Her heart raced.
She could feel a scintillating sensation warming her fingers. She felt that now was the time to be happy, she thought she’d wait for Elliot. She refused to tell him how badly she wanted him to kiss her.
Once their lips touched, Gwen pulled back the stagnant fright.
She kissed Elliot, reached down, and felt for what she could find. She wanted to relish in the closeness- this kind of closeness -and all the unbreakable, brutal moments that the two of them were now sharing.
Treading back, Gwen’s arms cut against the water.
Bottle up, down the hatch as always, her dad was lathered under a thin layer of moisture Gwen could only assume was sweat. He didn’t swim. He liked it when other people swam instead of him.
“My…my…my father. Dad?”
“What’s he doing, just standing there?”
Gwen’s daddy consumed his beer in slovenly, intermittent slurps. His voice was broken when he called out to her a second time.
Gwen knew that look in her father’s eyes.
She never saw Elliot again. From then on, she was accompanied whenever she went into the water. It never bothered to fight either.
In the black lake lay the memories.
Gwen would have given anything to see how deep the water went, to go to where the darkness could not get to her, if it did desist in places so far below. Gwen brought with her own set of goggles, her own set of earplugs. She took several breaths before taking the plunge.
Head sinking, the powerful pressure of the depths moved into Gwen’s face. As she looked around, Gwen gawked at all the things she recognized. She leered at stringy seaweed, the stones with rough edges. There were only a few fish. The rest was reserved solely for the perpetual black.
In the abyss, Gwen could not see what was above.
All that was there were the things lost and things that didn’t float because they were too heavy. The human carcass so far below eroded into a hollowed cadaver of its once beefy self.
Next to it were immaculate boulders, all arranged in the shape of a near perfect circle.
Gwen noticed this but didn’t bother to think too long about how they managed to form into such a specific, yet undeniable shape.
Beneath it, and beneath all other things, beneath the trash, and beneath the flailing, slimy strips of gooey seaweed with black stains on its stems- were the remains of animals killed during hunts.
Gwen had come across a cairn in a space so apart from everything else. The bones didn’t belong to the carcasses. Choosing to bring her face as close as she could come without touching, it didn’t take her long before her hands wrapped around the entire skull.
The woman was the one Samantha had found in the black water.
She died from an apparent suicide, or so Gwen’s father had once told her. As Gwen would later discover, before she died, she waded for several hours. She was out there in the lake, alone- as a body floating among a canvas of black like a single star in a night sky.
No one noticed because no one cared.
Gwen closed her eyes as she hovered. She was thinking about the woman. She thought about what her own story might be, if it was like hers or if it was different. She thought the monsters in the depths were only the ones in her mind…
The skull was heavy, so heavy Gwen had to let it go.
Thinking about this dead woman, Gwen questioned how her time here might end.
Then again, sometimes you don’t need to hear the whole story to know how it ends.