“Rules are meant to be broken.”
I should have put up more of an argument when Calder suggested we ignore the signs. Under normal circumstances, I’m good at both making rules and at following them. It’s part and parcel of being a primary school teacher.
But I love the beach. I wanted to gaze out across the expanse of blue lake, hear the rush of white water slapping the shore, leave my footprints behind on the silky sand, and dip my toes into the cool water.
Just one more time.
The yellow tape cordoned off the only access to the beach road, with pylons preventing vehicle access. Not a problem, since we had walked from our residential street to the road leading down to the lake. We were undeterred by the large sign warning walkers not to descend: DO NOT ENTER.
“Jeez, you’d think it was a murder scene,” Calder chuckled, pulling up the tape to allow us to duck under. “Crime scene. Do not Cross.”
“Well, people have died.”
“Because they went too far.” Calder rolled his grey-blue eyes. “So everybody gets punished.”
I shrugged, my palms upturned. “I don’t think anyone really wants to swim in a lake full of bodies, anyway. It’s kind of morbid, when you think about it. Why don’t we just go to the park overlooking the lake?”
“Come on, Zarya. I know you want to go down to the water. What are you afraid of?” Calder tugged my arm and led me down the walkway, the lake sparkling up ahead. “Ghosts wandering the beach?”
We’d watched too many horror movies the last couple of weeks, leading up to Halloween. Last night’s viewing was at his place. Calder and I have been next door neighbours since we were born, and neither of us seemed to have any intention of moving away from our parents and the lakeside town of Siren.
“At least it’s not foggy. No ghosts emerging from the mist on the water today.” It was intended to be a joke, but the truth was that the memory of last night’s film had spooked the hell out of me.
Calder laughed, getting it. He always got me. “No, definitely not ghost weather.” He waved his arms up at the blue sky, not a cloud in sight.
Breathtaking. The beauty of the lake was never lost on me. But it was so different from the last time we were here. Summer seemed like ages ago. Bodies on the beach, soaking up the sun. Castles on the shore, kids scooping up sand. Teenagers in the lake, splashing up water.
The sign greeted us at the bottom of the winding incline. Warning: Do NOT Go in the Water.
It was one of many signs that dotted the sand along the shoreline. But that wasn’t the biggest change since summer.
The place was barren. No less beautiful, but stripped of life. “It’s such a shame.” I pointed to the red print on the banner plastered across The Cove’s wooden archway: DANGER! Beach Closed. Keep away. Underneath, the sign’s lettering once welcomed people.
“A little dramatic, if you ask me,” Calder said. “It’s not the beach that’s dangerous. It’s the idiots who can’t swim and insist on heading all the way out to the sand bar.”
He was right, of course. There was certainly no harm in the two of us walking hand in hand along the deserted boardwalk, watching the gentle lapping of the waves. I squinted against the brightness of the sun, trying to envision the way things used to be.
But where people once strolled, only our footsteps echoed on the wooden boards. The blaring of radios from cars that toured the beach road, replaced with an eerie silence. No boats, no colorful flotation devices on the water, only the cerulean sky above a sapphire lake.
“It’s so peaceful,” I said. “But sad. There used to be laughter.” We stopped in front of the empty playground. The yellow and blue structure, devoid of children, now held only wind blown sand, as though the climbers themselves were lethal as the lake with the sun reflecting off it.
“Let’s walk over to the water. I know you want to at least set your feet in it. Maybe I’ll stick my head in.” Calder laughed, trying to get my mind off the reason for the abandoned playground.
A wall of rocks stood between us and the water. Heavy machinery had placed them along the shoreline to make it difficult for people to access the water. It was the town’s response to the tragedy of the summer. But we were young, physically fit, and foolish.
Calder went first, hoisting himself onto a rock, then extending his hand to help me up. We climbed across the rocks, then turned around. The beach shack, its window and door boarded up, stared back at us. All three godforsaken lifeguard towers loomed as sentinels guarding the water. A couple of lonely benches perched in front of the desolate breakwater jutting out to the lake, fallen trees blocking entry, the few trees still standing bereft of leaves, waves crashing against jagged rocks.
And we jumped. Off the rock pile onto the shore. Our sandals tread over and around the sticks and stones, the rocks and driftwood, protruding from the once soft, squishy sand. Seaweed entangled itself around my ankles, but Calder’s firm grip kept me upright.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous! I want to live here, right here, on this spot, overlooking the lake,” I said. “You can build a castle for us, out of rocks and wood and sand, with the seaweed to cover the roof.”
Calder brought his lips to my forehead, the corners of his mouth turning up. “Sounds perfect. What about when it storms? What about winter?”
I sighed. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it never stormed?”
We walked along for a while, in silence, just far enough away to resist the temptation to wade straight out into the water.
“What’s that?” A slab of wood with nails and chains lay strung across a hole as though someone had planted it there with a purpose.
Calder examined it, concluded it was probably part of a shipwreck, and steered me safely away. All I could think of was if the ship sank and that was part of it, where were the people? We advanced closer to the line where water met sand.
“AHH!” I screamed at the sight of bones as we approached the water’s edge.
The carcass had been picked bare by the gulls that circled above. It was just nature at work, but the hairs on my arms stood at attention all the same. I turned my eyes away from the fish's remains.
“It’s good to know the lake hasn’t been entirely abandoned,” Calder said. He nodded toward the flock of seagulls to the right of us. My eyes scanned the water where a large group floated on the surface, but Calder nudged me and guided my vision to the much bigger colony on the shore. “But the land division is a lot stronger than the naval fleet. I guess even the gulls are cautious.”
“I’m going in.” With wild abandon, I let go of Calder’s hand and ran to the water. If it weren’t for the sign, I might have kept running.
Beware! Strong current.
Common sense took over. I slipped off one sandal and tested the water with my foot. “It’s not that cold.” The warmth took me by surprise, this late in October. I took off the other sandal and stepped in further. “Ohhh! It is cold. Colder than I thought.”
The sand beneath my feet parted, sucking me in deeper, and I lost my balance.
“Gotcha.” Calder grabbed my waist, steadying me. “That’s enough, Zarya.” He led me out of the lake, his water-logged sandals squished as we walked and climbed our way back to the safety of the boardwalk.
As we continued strolling, we came upon THE sign. Everyone in town knew about it. Only few had the guts to come see it for themselves. Calder and I were among the brave.
IN MEMORY. A long list of names followed the year. And so many others before.
We stood in silence for a few moments, remembering those who had been lost to the lake.
I felt her eyes on us before I saw her. There was something familiar about her freckled face and red hair.
“Zarya? Calder?” Her face lit up as she recognized us, but neither Calder nor I could quite place her.
We spent the next few minutes chatting about what we’d been up to the last couple of decades. Amazing how you can have a conversation with someone, tell them all about yourself, and not know who on earth you’re talking to you.
“I better get going,” she finally said. “It’s been so nice seeing you two again.” She set off down the boardwalk, in the opposite direction we were headed.
“Who was that?” I asked, drawing my eyebrows together, trying to remember her.
“Cordelia,” Calder said. “She went to school with us. Moved away in Grade 2, though. Remember?”
I remembered once he told me. He’s the one with the great memory. I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached.
“That is so weird.” Calder shook his own head as though trying to clear it.
“I heard she drowned last year. I guess I heard wrong.”
We turned to watch Cordelia walk off down the boardwalk, but there was no trace of her. Hidden by the beach shack or the rocks, we assumed. Continuing our walk to where the breakwater curved, creating the cove the beach was named for, Sirens Cove, we heard voices as we approached. A sweet, sickly odor wafted up over the rocks separating the cove from the rest of the lake.
“Stop. There’s somebody on the other side of the rocks,” I cautioned Calder.
He understood. We turned and walked in the opposite direction, following the rocky shore unprotected by the breakwater. Diamonds sparkled on sapphire, like stars fallen into the lake. A whole other universe, just below the surface.
As I turned to Calder to ask him to snap a photo of the two of us, he picked up a pair of sunglasses off one of the rocks. “Someone must have left these here. Expensive. They’ll be missing them.”
He slipped them on, and looked out to the sun-kissed depths. “Shit! There’s someone drowning out there!”
Before I could stop him, he dove from the rocks straight into the crest. Gone. Not a sign of him. Only a sign sticking out of the rocks: Absolutely no diving or swimming. Only a pair of sunglasses sitting on the rocks.
The moment I slipped them on, in hopes of seeing better against the glare of the sun on the water, I saw him clearly. Arms flailing as he bobbed in the current, struggling to stay afloat. Calder was the stronger swimmer, but he’d kept my head above water so many times, it was my turn to do the same for him.
Disregarding the sign, I plunged into the lake. Through the shaded lenses, I saw it all. The teens on the beach, the sunglasses on the rock, Cordelia and Calder floundering in the starry depths, and more. So many more.
I wanted to save Calder. But when I reached out for him, the others grabbed on to me, dragging me down. I could only hope that one of the kids smoking weed would don the sunglasses and see us. Save us.
Opening my arms to them all, gathering them together as they wailed, we swam for our lives toward the abandoned shore. Just a little further and we’d be there.