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Underwater by Kim Fahner

Her grandfather had always frightened Lauren with stories about what creatures lived at the bottom of the river. It might have been because he didn’t want her swimming without adult supervision. She had always loved to swim, even as a little girl, and so she thought perhaps that was why he constantly tried to keep her from the edge of the shoreline.

“No! Lauren! Come away from the edge now! You don’t have your life jacket on!” He would usually shout this while running across the lawn at the cottage, waving his arms at her and turning red in the face.

“I’m just…putting my feet in…seeing what the minnows do.” This had been her usual response to his overreaction, mostly because she loved to see the minnows scatter away like bits of quicksilver and then flutter and rush back as if they were iron filings rushing towards a magnet.

There were always big fusses made of her being too near the river, and that just made her want to be even closer to it. Tell a stubborn girl child not to do something, and then, well, just watch her do it. With aplomb.

“Listen. Do you know why I worry about you being so near the water there, Lauren?”

Shrugged her shoulders, then, which likely had just irritated him more. “Nope.”

A big sigh and his hand raised to gesture to the river. “There’s stories about what lives under there, you know. Did your dad ever tell you those? The stories? Shaking her head, she shrugged again.

“Well, you best know: there’s tell that there’s an underwater cave down there, just beyond the rocky point, you know? Some kid drowned there years and years ago. I knew him. He went for a swim and just…never came back. They never found his body.”

Her mouth had opened to the shape of an ‘O’ then.

“Just, you know, stay away from the edge. It’s best, okay?”

She had nodded, chastened, a little bit freaked out by the idea of a dead teenager who had drowned. Hearing the story when you were just ten could frighten you enough to avoid difficult waterways.

For years, while she was growing up and far into her teens, she and her parents had gone to stay her grandparents’ cottage for a couple of weeks at a time in early August. Sometimes, her grandparents stayed, but sometimes they let Lauren’s parents have the cottage to themselves, as a holiday place. ‘A gift,’ is what her father always called it when they packed up the back of the old blue station wagon, stuffing Coleman coolers into the empty spots that lived between suitcases, boxes of food, and ratty old sleeping bags.

After everyone died, when she was older—a woman, then—she came to inherit that cottage. Going back, traveling from her hometown and up into the northern woods, she drove her Toyota Yaris, singing Broadway show tunes and missing musicals since the pandemic had begun. She went alone, as an adult, and almost missed the turn off to the cottage. It had been left for too long. She’d have to see about sorting that out before she decided whether to sell the place. Her parents had kept it for the longest time, but then their health had declined, so they had let it fall into disrepair, always refusing to sell it in case she somehow later decided to use it for herself.

The rough gravel road in from the highway was overgrown with tall green ferns, and pine needles had fallen to create a thick mat above the dirt. If you didn’t know this was a road, it’d be hard to tell it led to anywhere but deeper into the woods.

Lauren started to hum the Sondheim song from Into the Woods, thinking about those lines that talk about how no one is there to guide you, and how you’re on your own. Shaking her head, she rounded the last bend in the road that led up to the cottage door. Everything was bolted up, with wooden window coverings latched up over the glass panes. Old school. If you could imagine it, you’d be thinking you were in a 1950s Rockwell painting.

Getting out of the car, she felt as if she were ten again. Closing her eyes, she felt as if she could hear her grandfather yelling at her to get away from the river. Opening them again, she shook her head and smiled. Now, who would tell her to step back? No one.

Lauren walked around to the front of the cottage, down to the edge of the dock. It had almost rotted through. She cursed herself silently, wishing she’d taken the time to help maintain the place. Stepped out on the dock, gingerly, not expecting that it would give away just like that. In a second, she was through it and into the cold of late October water. She was out of her depth, she knew. Panicked. She kicked her way to the surface, struggled. Sputtering a lot now. So cold.

Suddenly, there was a hand on her back, grabbing at the fabric of her jacket, pulling her to shore. Someone she couldn’t see, behind her, yanked her onto the lawn. She coughed and coughed, spluttering out mouthfuls of brackish water. Footsteps then, moving away from her, and out onto the wood of the dock. A sudden splash.

Lauren rolled over, trying to get her breath back. No one was there now. Just a clear trail of sneaker prints walking out to the end of the dock, footprints that belonged to a boy who swam here decades ago.

She looked out, then, to the river. There were ripples there, leading towards the rocky point. Everything except the water was silent. Lauren sat up. He was there now, the shadowy outline of a teenager, raising his hand to wave.

Shivering from head to toe, she raised her hand and waved back.

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