Nobody Swims in the Lake Anymore
Every town has its legends and superstitions. The further out into the countryside you go, the deeper those myths seem to be embedded in the minds of the people who live there. Old-timers tell those stories with a wistful look in their eye, trying to convince you that what they’re recounting is God’s honest truth as they tell you about the friend-of-a-friend’s-second-cousin-twice-removed who actually saw the beast or spectre or being, dang near took him off this Earth if he hadn’t winged it with the Winchester.
Well, I ain’t no old-timer and I ain’t nobody’s second-cousin-twice-removed. I know for a fact the thing that the kids in my town tell campfire stories about is real. Not gonna tell you it’s flesh and blood. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what it really is. All I know is that my brother’s gone and he isn’t coming back.
I grew up in this town, it’s not bad so I decided why leave? City life doesn’t appeal to me; too much concrete, too few trees. Even the trees they do have out in the city don’t feel real; they feel like they were placed there to look real, give people the feeling of real, but they ain’t. The only way you can see real trees is going out to the forest. Old growth. Those trees give you a sense of magic as you walk amongst them, like they know the secrets of our world, the kind of secrets you can’t tell, the kind you just have to feel.
Walking through the trees around my house fills me with the same sense of wonder now as when I was a kid. In the forest here you can walk the same path for 30 years and still feel like you’re stepping out into a new glen with each hike. I’m never scared out there amongst the trees. It feels like home.
Then there’s the lake. The lake has always reminded me of those city trees. It looks real, idyllic even as the forest gives way to the emerald green water at the shore which deepens to dark blue, almost black at the centre. When you step in, the water feels real. Summers here can get pretty steamy but the lake is always cool, beckoning sweaty hikers to take a dip, why not swim out, see how far you can go?
There’s a reason townsfolk don’t go out into the lake. The place isn’t off-limits or anything, people still go there, especially during the summer, to paddle or fish or barbecue by the shore. But everyone knows not to go out past the green. Never swim out to where you can’t stand. The kids dare each other to see how far they can make it before they get scared and swim back to shore. The tourists call it superstitious mumbo-jumbo as they splash about in the safety of the shallows.
You don’t need to read the signs posted around the edge of the lake to know the danger. The place exudes it. How often do you find a lake that animals refuse to go near? It’s almost like the trees themselves send out their own kind of unspoken warning about the place, beseeching other creatures to stay away from the water. Animals pick up this kind of language far better than us, but we can still feel it; that uneasiness you can’t quite put your finger on, like you can feel eyes watching you, you’re right on the edge of panic but you can’t imagine why. The trees know.
Pretty much once a year someone disappears around here, usually a tourist but every so often it’s one of the younger townsfolk. There’s a search party and an inquiry but we all know they’re gone. It’s chalked up to them not knowing the terrain and getting lost, falling down some hole, maybe even getting carried off by a wild animal. Happens everywhere right? People go missing all the time.
The one everyone around here knows about is little Danny Becker. His story is the one the mothers remind their children of every time summer rolls around, the one the gruff old-timers tell to the hikers and campers who come to traverse the hills. The kids snicker about it in their closed circles and the tourists roll their eyes at the earnestness of the craggy storyteller, but when they get to that lake and look over the water, feel the ambience, that story comes back. Then it doesn’t feel so ridiculous.
Little Danny Becker was 12 years old when he disappeared. I was a kid when I first heard the story but my dad said he’d just graduated high school when it happened. He was part of the search party that went looking for Danny. For 8 hours they combed the forest for that little boy, calling out his name into the trees, searching every crevice, under roots and in the ferns. They brought in search dogs to try and catch Danny’s scent. One of the dogs tracked the boy through the forest, all the way to the lake. There at the water’s edge, pointing out towards the centre, a pair of sneakers, heel-to-heel, white socks neatly rolled up and stuffed inside. The police dredged the lake expecting to pull up the drowned corpse of that little boy. All they found were his t-shirt and shorts, both torn straight down the middle.
It wasn’t until a week after the search had been called off that the other boys came forward to piece the story together.
Danny was a quiet boy, a good student, well-behaved and polite. But he didn’t have many friends. In a tearful interview with the local newspaper, his mother lamented that must have been why he had been so keen to impress the other boys that fateful evening at the lake. The three boys who came forward told the police they had been playing soldiers around the lake when they happened upon Danny sitting by the shore, apparently lost in some kind of daydream, humming to himself. They were a year older than Danny and said he had been shy when they approached, nervous even. The boys asked Danny if he wanted to play with them and he had said yes. They told Danny that if he was going to be a real marine, he needed to pass the training first. Danny said he could do it, he was brave enough to be a marine.
Out of the three boys, none could remember whose idea it had been to send Danny out into the lake. It would be easy to blame them, but you have to remember they were only children themselves. They told Danny that a true marine must be able to swim across the whole lake, no stopping. That generation had their own stories about the lake, so they knew the danger, but that kind of thing is always somewhat lost on boys, especially when they’re in groups. Danny said he could do it. He took off his shoes and socks and waded out into the water. The boys said they would meet him on the other side and watched as he went out past his depth and began to swim. Danny was making good progress at first, the other boys were genuinely impressed by the kid’s guts. He was clearly determined to join in with their game. As Danny got out near the centre of the lake he stopped. He treaded water there for a while, looking around himself. The boys said he seemed to grow frantic, started swimming again back to shore, back the way he had come, much faster now. All of a sudden he stopped again, though his arms and legs kept thrashing, spewing up water around him, miraculously swimming in place. The boys watched in horror as Danny was wrenched back towards the centre of the lake, whirled around like a leaf in a storm drain, all the while howling, screeching and gurgling as the water went over his face. The black water of the lake churned white and Danny finally whipped beneath the surface, and all was silent, blackness settling over the lake again.
The boys told the police they had stood there for a while, unsure about what they had witnessed. They made feeble attempts to call out Danny’s name, half-heartedly discussed going in after him. In the end, they decided to go home and never to tell anyone. They felt like it was their fault that Danny had died, that no one would believe their story and they would ultimately be blamed.
People theorised about what could have caused Danny to be pulled into the lake like that. Some of the more rationally minded people said a giant alligator was to blame, could have been someone’s pet that got too big and was discarded into the lake. Some said a kind of rare snake or maybe an overgrown pike could have dragged poor Danny to his death. If those were the case, why had this creature never been seen before? In all the time since, someone would surely have seen something. Some of the more superstitious said it was a monster. A creature of legend sent straight from Hell which called the lake its home, its hunting ground.
A scientist was called in to try and find a cause with sonar. He came up with his own conclusion. Though he discovered no monster or giant alligator beneath the surface of the lake, what he did find when mapping out the bottom was an opening, about 4 feet in diameter right at the deepest part of the lake. The scientist said he had used his sonar to detect that the opening was the start of an underwater cave system which stretched out beneath the lake, said there was no way of telling how vast it was. His hypothesis was that unpredictable variations in underwater currents caused by this cave system had caught Danny and sucked him into the hole, into a labyrinthine network of tunnels. The force had been so great that it had ripped the boy’s clothes clean off his body.
Accidental drowning was the cause of death officially logged on little Danny Becker’s file. Case closed. But not for the townsfolk. No one really believed underwater currents were at play in the lake. The surface was always so calm, the level never changed. Stories circulated that the cave system was where the monster lurked, its nest. Whatever the creature was, it lay there in its cave, waiting for little girls and little boys to swim over it, then, when its unsuspecting prey had ventured too far from shore to possibly get back, it would strike and pull them down, down into its lair where it would feast on them and wait for another foolish child to brave the depths.
Sounds crazy right? Another overcooked campfire story drifted so far from the reality of the situation that it has become more fiction than fact. Just a way to stop kids from swimming out past their depth and drowning. I guess a part of me used to think that. My brother too.
The part of the Danny Becker story that always stuck with me was the cave. It was intriguing to think that there was an undiscovered part of the place I called my home down there, a mysterious maze never seen by any human. Where I was interested, my older brother, Mike, was completely obsessed. His fascination must have rubbed off on me when we were kids.
Growing up Mike and I spent a lot of time in the forest around the lake. We would walk out there together, look out over the lake and come up with goofy ideas about what was really down there. Mike was convinced there was some kind of treasure down there; Blackbeard’s booty, Inca gold, the Ark of the Covenant. The two of us would draw out plans in sketchbooks, how we were going to find out what was down there, all the equipment we would require for the mission, the training we would need to go through first. We drew pictures of ourselves descending into the cave, finding grand atriums filled with lost cities, treasure beyond our wildest dreams. Bizarre deep sea creatures and mermaids.
That obsession was undoubtably the reason Mike left for the coast as soon as he was old enough. He was always so driven, had this way of setting his mind to something then just doing it. I always envied that in him; I’m more of a dreamer, but Mike was a doer. By the time I had finished high school, Mike was already living out his dream of being a fully trained professional scuba diver. Our dream, I guess.
He sent me postcards from all around the world for the years that followed, Mexico, Brazil, Australia. The few times a year he came back home he’d regale me and my parents with tales of his adventures, the places he’d been, incredible things he’d seen. It turned out he had come to be known as quite the specialist amongst the diving community. Bet you can guess in which kind of diving he specialised.
Cave diving is one of the most challenging and dangerous extreme sports out there. You’re navigating pitch-black tunnels, sometimes hundreds of meters beneath the surface, squeezing through holes so narrow that you might even have to take your gear off and slide it through first before you try to wedge yourself into the opening and out the other side. All the while you’re aware that one wrong turn, one mistake and you might run out of oxygen and never reach the surface again.
My parents hated that Mike was into cave diving, but Mike being Mike, he did it anyway and excelled. I’m not gonna go into all the advanced dives Mike had under his belt, if he was still here he’d tell you all about them. I couldn’t do it justice. Needless to say, if you hear of a dangerous cave dive this side of the equator, Mike had probably done it.
I guess I always knew what it was leading to, his quest to become the ultimate cave diver. Sure enough, that summer when he showed up with all that equipment in the back of his trunk, wide grin spread across his face, I knew it was time for us to live our childhood dream.
Mike wanted us to become the first people ever to explore the caves under the lake. He wanted us to spend that summer mapping out the tunnels as far as we could. Said, if that scientist was to be believed, it could be one of the most incredible fresh water dive sites in the world. And we would have full naming rights to it. Could even start a business taking others down there. Like I said, Mike was driven.
Enough time had passed since moving away for Mike that he’d all but forgotten the stories about the lake. The dread we felt as kids as we looked out over the black water had faded for him to the point where it all felt like unfounded childish fear. I was far more nervous about the whole idea, but Mike just had this way about him. He was my big brother, I trusted his judgement. His confidence, his certainty in himself and his own ability, it made me believe too. Besides, he needed me, he wanted me to be part of this adventure with him, and I didn’t want to let my brother down.
It was around noon, midweek in June so there wouldn’t be anyone else around, when we drove the ATV pulling the little wagon loaded up with our equipment to the edge of the lake. Whilst Mike was busying himself unpacking and preparing the equipment, I just kind of stood there, looking out over the water. It was so still, not a ripple breaking the surface, like a giant mirror reflecting a dark doppelgänger of the forest and blue sky above it. I felt that childish fear creep up my spine, noticed there wasn’t so much as a bird tweeting in the trees. Silence.
Mike mocked me for being lazy, no time for daydreaming, kid, threw me my drysuit and told me to gear up. We put on our suits and equipment without saying a word to one and other, like we were getting dressed for a funeral. Mike had this grave look across his face, at the time I wrote it off as deep concentration, but looking back, I think he was second guessing himself. First time for everything.
We went over the plan again. Mike would send the line down and we were never to let go of it no matter what. At the first sign of trouble, however small, I was to signal him with my flashlight and we would abandon the exploration for the day and resurface. This was the first of day of what could be months of exploring the tunnels, no point taking unnecessary risks.
I had scuba dived with Mike a few times before, so I already knew the basics. Even so he took me through everything again, had me ream off the checks I needed to do, what to do in an emergency, decompression stops when resurfacing. He gave me one final piece of advice; if something happens to me down there, don’t be a hero. The words rang in my ears as we did our final checks on each other’s gear. Then we just stood there for a while, staring out over the lake together.
I’m not even sure how much time passed as we waited there, not sure if we were waiting at all, maybe just delaying the inevitable. All of a sudden and without warning, Mike snapped out of it, lowered his mask, set his respirator in his mouth and waded out into the lake. I followed.
Being under the surface of the lake, approaching the actual bottom of it, filled me with a sense of wonder I don’t think I’d felt since I was a kid. It was so serene. Peaceful. The underwater landscape was utterly still, as if petrified in time. There wasn’t so much as a weed in the place, let alone fish. No life whatsoever. It felt as though we were two astronauts floating above the surface of the moon. Then we saw it, the mouth yawning open beneath us.
The feeling of serenity was obliterated when I saw that black pit that was the entrance to the tunnels. A powerful urge overtook me, my body trying with all its might to turn from that hole and force me back to the surface. The only thing that kept me down there was Mike, forging his way ahead, straight for the opening.
As we pulled up to the side, I was on the verge of a full blown panic attack. I could feel it coming on strong. I knew if I lost it at this depth, I would drown. Had to keep my composure. Follow the plan. Just breathe. Breathe. Mike removed the weighted line from his bag, wedged the anchor into place, sent it sinking down into the abyss. Instantly lost in the total blackness.
Mike looked at me. Gave me the OK symbol with his fingers. I hesitated. He gestured towards me, questioning with the circle of his forefinger and thumb. I returned the symbol. Satisfied, he gave the thumbs down, took hold of the line and vanished into the cave. I felt utterly hopeless watching my brother disappear into the darkness. All I wanted at that point was to somehow call out to him, tell him I had changed my mind, ask him to take me home. But he was already gone. It was too late.
I gripped the line as tight as I could, swam down into the pitch black.
The tunnel maintained the same diameter all the way down it seemed. I shone my flashlight around myself to get a good look. The walls were strangely smooth, little ripples in the surface blighted what would have been processed granite. It should have been beautiful but for some reason it just made me feel nauseous. I could see Mike’s flashlight ahead of me, reflecting off the walls. It dipped out of sight as he followed a bend, came into view again, curved away. Each time I lost sight of him, I went through an internal battle, trying to convince myself his flashlight would appear again.
I rounded another corner and up ahead a dim green circle appeared surrounded by black. The line went straight into it. I swam for it, the end of the tunnel.
The tunnel opened out into a grand chasm, it was just as Mike and I had imagined as children; an atrium, so vast my flashlight failed to find a wall in any direction. The water there felt different to the lake. Where the lake felt devoid of life, this place had an energy about it, a terrible kind of power. I caught myself allowing Mike to get away from me, though I could still see his light way off down the line. I hurried after him, unthinking, down into the belly of the hall.
What happened next almost felt inevitable. It was over so fast but I still remember each moment with crystal clarity.
The line jerked, first softly then so hard it ran like a saw blade through my glove, into my palm as it rushed past me into the chasm beneath. Before could register what was happening, the line was gone, leaving me floating in a growing cloud of blood from my hand.
Panic consumed me.
How would we find our way out? The roof was huge, there was no way.
I was halfway through swimming back up when it hit me. Mike. Where was my brother? The thought sobered me. I frantically swung my flashlight around into the infinite space around me. A glimmer below my fins, way down in the blackness, moving away.
I swam down, at least the direction I thought was down, I was completely disoriented by the darkness, my feeble light only managing to illuminate about 10 feet ahead. A lump had formed in my throat, my mask filling with tears. Where was he?
Something whooshed past me to the left. I stopped dead. Mike? Then it was above me. Below. My light caught it. Something black. Feeling out for me.
From behind, an otherworldly red light, so bright it illuminated the entire cave around me. I saw the things around me. Black tendrils, poised like snakes. I forgot my terror in the confusion, gazed around to see the countless holes which riddled the walls of the cave. Turned to the source of the strange light. An eye. Glowing red, the size of a Ferris wheel. Staring. Eternal. An awful calm overcame me. Acceptance. I looked into the eye and it looked into me. I began sinking. Something opened beneath me. A colossal beak.
The eye winked the cave into darkness again.
Next, adrenaline. I bolted for the roof. Swimming as hard as I could, legs sprinting, arms thrashing. I felt the tendrils coming to life around me, whipping past me, hitting into me, buffeting me around. One swiped the mask off my face and plunged me into blackness. I slammed into the roof. My flashlight was gone. I helplessly slapped my hands onto the stone, begging for an opening, totally blind. Anything.
One of the tendrils wrapped around my left fin, ripped it off my foot. Then the right.
I swam hard into the roof again. By some kind of miracle my head and shoulders went through a hole. My tank wouldn’t fit. I took one last deep breath. Unclipped my tank. Squirmed out. Squeezed into the hole. Pulled myself through the opening, arms out ahead, feet scrabbling on the rock. I was certain I would get stuck. Better than being caught by whatever was in the cave behind me. I pushed, pushed. Came out into a tunnel wide enough for me to swim. I could feel my breath tightening, like my lungs were going to burst. With everything in me I charged up the tunnel, swimming for my life in total darkness.
The tunnel was a straight shot. I’m certain if there had been a single corner, I would have brained myself and drowned. But I broke the surface. I was still in complete darkness, but there was air. I gasped it in. I felt around for the walls. Found one. Then a ledge. I heaved myself out of the water, skittered away from it as fast as I could, unsure if the tendrils were still following. Found the wall of the chamber.
I took a moment, trying to gather myself. I was too devastated to even cry. I didn’t know what to do. Unsure about what had just happened. Without any gear. Without my brother. Alone in the pitch black.
I think I passed out there on that ledge for some time, guess the adrenaline wore off and left me exhausted. I have no way of knowing how long I was out for. When I woke up, I decided to save myself. I was not going to die there. I felt around the walls of the cavern, making my careful way around, unsure if I was just moving in circles, about to fall back into the water.
A breeze caressed the side of my face. I followed it, gratefully sucking down the fresh air. Soon enough there was light, dim but real. I ran. An opening. A cave curtained by roots. I burst through and was back in the forest. I collapsed beneath the trees and then I did cry. I wept hard. For my brother, for myself.
The weeks that followed were a blur of police reports, inquests, testimonies. I told them what I had seen down there. The police told me I had most likely experienced nitrogen narcosis, a type of poisoning from too much nitrogen in the bloodstream. They said it had caused me to hallucinate, panic. I know what I saw. Against my protests they sent rescue divers down into the cave to retrieve Mike’s body. The rescue team never came back. Their disappearance too was written off as another accident in a notoriously dangerous activity. The decision was made to block the opening at the bottom of the lake to stop any other would-be-adventurers from going down there.
Whatever the thing I saw down there was, some flimsy grid is not gonna stop it. I don’t know what it was, frankly, I don’t want to know. I just want to forget it, but every night that eye peers at me in my dreams, pulling me into the depths.
I’m kind of a celebrity around the town now. My story is part of the mythos, part of the campfire stories the kids tell each other as they dare one and other to go into the lake. To most folks I’m that probably-brain-damaged guy who spends his days walking around the forest sealing up holes with explosives. Probably make stories up about my reasons for that too. Sure, they all feel bad for me and my family about what happened to my brother, but they give me a wide berth, as if nitrogen narcosis is contagious. Either way, nobody swims in the lake anymore. Not even the shallows. But it’s still there, serene as ever. Most days not so much as a ripple on the surface.