One of the most important people in my life is my best friend, Liz.
On the surface, we seem to have nothing in common. I’ve got lanky brown hair. She has bouncy blonde curls. I’m weak and sickly. She’s got the body of an athlete and the energy of a five-year-old. I prefer sitting in my room and reading. She prefers trying out for every club and activity that she can find. If she’s fire, then I’m ice.
Despite all our differences, we are still as close as sisters, maybe even closer. It’s a little strange, we met when we were both in high school and something just seemed to click. We quickly became inseparable. We have horror movie marathons together, we do plays and mock trial together, we go out for drives together…once, we even got lost and ended up in Iowa together.
And, most importantly, we both love swimming.
Actually, we’re both certified as lifeguards, although she’s been a guard much longer than I have. Although I usually hate sports, I never get tired of swimming. The feeling of gliding effortlessly through the water, twisting and contorting my body as I speed through the blue depths, is like bursting out of a cage, free, unbound.
Fortunately for us, we live in the land of ten thousand lakes (aka Minnesota). You can’t drive more than a few miles without seeing a creek, a pond, a lake, a river, or some other carpet of silvery blue water glinting in the sunlight.
When summer rolled around this year, Liz and I both decided to go swimming at the national park.
Although I live in a rather small town in Minnesota, we have a sizeable national park just a few miles away. Imposing bluffs rise above the neighboring towns, coated with a thick abundance of trees and prairie grass.
To get to the swimming hole, however, you have to go off the official paths. It’s not really that hard to find, if you can recognize the trampled grass for what it is. You follow through until you find yourself in a thicket of trees. Keep heading east and eventually the trees break and you’re left standing at the edge of a small lake.
Lots of kids come out here. Some of them go camping here during their senior year, almost like a rite of passage. Some summer nights there will be couples here doing what can’t be done with their parents in the house.
Oddly enough, no one goes swimming.
I can’t say I blame them. Living in a small, rural area means that there are lots of urban legends designed to keep kids entertained. One of them is about that lake, or, at least, people think it is. There’s some legend about a lake in the park that’s haunted. You go in, and you never come out. There’s probably more to it, but it never interested me all that much. Of course, there’s more than one lake in the park (it’s really quite extensive), but the location of this supposedly haunted lake is unknown. The story was probably designed to stop kids from going swimming in it in the first place – swimming in the middle of the woods with no adult supervision can be dangerous.
Being lifeguards, this did not deter Liz and I on a hot summer day after our collection of horror films had been thoroughly exhausted.
I’ll admit, I was a little reluctant to get in the water at first. I’ve always found the little lake a bit creepy. The water is deep and dark, with this feeling of sentience that I can’t explain. When I looked into the water, I felt like the water was looking back up into me. Like it was waiting for me. It lapped at me feet as though it wanted to draw me in.
But I’m not superstitious. And neither is Liz. She ran into the water and threw herself down. I watched her sink below the surface and then bounce back up with ease. “Hey, the water is much deeper than it looks! Be careful.”
Pretty soon we were both inside, twisting through the lake’s depths like fish. If we stayed close to the shore, we could touch the bottom. It wasn’t long before we were dredging up mud to pelt each other with. It was all great fun until Liz had one of her brilliant ideas.
“Why don’t we swim across the lake? I’ve never been over on that side.”
The water was deep and we shouldn’t have tried it. There’s something utterly terrifying about getting halfway across a body of water only to realize you’re completely exhausted and can barely propel yourself forward anymore. I should have been more careful. I should have said no.
But I didn’t. We decided to race each other. We set off, slicing through the cool shadows of the lake.
I didn’t look back when I overtook her. I was thrilled to be faster than her – usually she always beat me at sports. I expended all my energy flutter kicking until my exhausted feet finally rested on the opposite embankment. I threw up my arms, heaving air into my lungs and laughing. I turned around to taunt Liz…
And it was like my worst nightmare had come true. Because Liz wasn’t there.
I waited for a moment, confused. I figured she was just swimming underwater and would be up to take a breath shortly. But as I waited, nothing disturbed the surface of the water. No watered down blonde curls springing to life above the glittering depths. No arched back to signal a surface dive.
I tried to calm myself down but my panic was growing. No, she couldn’t have…could she? She’s a lifeguard, damn it, and this stuff doesn’t happen to lifeguards, right?
I was about to run back into the water, knowing full well how futile it would be, when the surface finally broke.
I could have cried for joy until I saw that it wasn’t Liz.
I don’t mean that she looked different or possessed or something, either. That’s always how it seems to go in horror stories, doesn’t it? People come back but they come back different… how I wish that were true.
No, the person who came to the surface was a man. He looked like he was in his late 20s, with a strong body and long black hair. The only strange thing was his skin… it was as white as snow, as though he’d never been out into the sun.
I was still worried about Liz, but I ran up to the man as he dragged himself towards the shore. Where the hell did he come from? I hadn’t seen anyone swimming here when Liz and I had gotten into the water.
I tried asking if he was ok, what had happened, had he seen another girl swimming here, with an athletic build and curly hair.
I stopped when I realized he was laughing.
He gave me a wicked smile, his eyes biting into me as they stared at my panic. He took one deep breath and said something that I’m sure I’ll never forget:
“She’s not coming back.”
I tried asking him what he meant, trying to get him to explain himself, but he took off before I could get any more information. Meanwhile, Liz was simply gone. I swam back across the lake and called the police, even though she’d already been underwater for half an hour at the very least. I was going crazy with fear and despair. When the cops came, I was still doing surface dives, doing a deep search like we’d been trained to do. Even though it was useless. Even though the area was so large I could never search it all myself. I wouldn’t get out of the water until they dragged me from it, kicking and screaming.
They’ve been searching the lake for weeks. No sign of Liz.
For a few days, I was in agony. I thought that at any moment the call would come saying they’d pulled up her body. I sat in my room, refusing to eat or sleep. My parents looked at me with pity, knowing what pain I was in and what worse was still to come.
But as time went on, no one found Liz. The police questioned me a few times, but I could never give them any more information. They looked for the man, but they couldn’t find him.
Nothing made sense.
After about two weeks, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to do something, but I didn’t know what. Not until I remembered the legend about the haunted lake.
In desperation, I turned to the library. Most of our town’s records aren’t in digital form yet, so if I wanted answers I’d have to sift through the old records.
I started my search pretty randomly. I leafed through a few newspapers saved from as early as the late 1800s. I didn’t know what to look for. When was the park established, anyway? I felt even more hopeless than before.
Until, completely by chance, I stumbled upon a very interesting headline.
TEN-YEAR-OLD BOY, PRESUMED DROWNED, RETURNS HOME FOUR MONTHS AFTER DISAPPEARANCE.
My blood felt like ice in my veins. The adrenaline pumped through my body like daggers as I tried to read the story. The newspaper had been poorly preserved, so some parts were indistinguishable. But I could still gather the gist of the story.
[redacted], Minnesota: Ten-year-old Robert Hackman returned home late last Saturday evening after being presumed drowned just four months earlier.
[…] and Mrs. Hackman were baffled by their son’s mysterious reappearance. Upon questioning, Robert revealed […] was trapped […]. “Sarah saved me, but she’s gone now.” Sarah Macalaster, sixteen years old, often cares for Robert, according to his parents. She left home on Saturday afternoon and has not been seen since. Police are […] Anyone with information regarding Sarah’s disappearance is encouraged to come forward as soon as possible.
I checked the date: 1936. I checked a few other newspapers from later that same year, but there was no further mention of Sarah or Robert.
I paged more carefully through the newspapers. The next was dated 1956.
DROWNED [redacted] MAN COMES HOME TO WIFE AND CHILD TWO YEARS AFTER DEATH.
[redacted], Minnesota: Emily Lynn and daughter Amanda Lynn were shocked this past Tuesday when husband and father Anderson Lynn returned home on the two year anniversary of his drowning.
“I was in the kitchen doing dishes when I saw him walking up the yard. I thought I must have gone crazy!” Emily told reporters on Wednesday afternoon.
When questioned about his disappearance, Anderson refused to give any information on his whereabouts for the past two years. “Some things just can’t be explained. No one would understand, anyway. The important thing is that I’m here now.”
The article went on, but didn’t say much else of note. I paged through more newspapers, Anderson’s words ringing in my head. What was it that he thought couldn’t be understood? What, if anything, did it have to do with Liz?
I didn’t find another case until 1986, this one a little different than the others.
TWENTY-YEAR-OLD WOMAN RETURNS TO FIND FIANCE MISSING.
[redacted], Minnesota: Esther Fick of [redacted], Minnesota, returned just one week after having been presumed drowned to find that her fiancé has gone missing.
Ms. Fick walked into the police station on Thursday morning. The police described her as “hysterical and unintelligible.”
“She kept telling us her fiancé, a mister Alan Manchester, was in trouble,” Chief of Police Martin Willis told reporters. “She begged us to send someone back to Silver Lake to find him, but even after sending a car out we didn’t see him. She kept going on about him being trapped in the water. We suspect her state is mostly due to shock from whatever she experienced during her disappearance.”
Although Mr. Manchester has been reported missing, no information has come to light as to his whereabouts at this time.
At this point, my phone lit up and I saw my mom calling me home for dinner. I quickly paged through the rest of the newspapers, but Esther’s case had been the last. I snapped some pictures of the cases I’d found and continued home.
One of the advantages of living in a small town is knowing everyone. I personally didn’t really ever pay attention to the town’s gossip because it never interested me. But I knew someone who did.
“Hey, mom, do you know someone by the name of Esther Fick?”
My mom looked up at me over her mashed potatoes, somewhat taken aback. “What’s this, all of a sudden?”
I shrugged, poking at the food on my plate. I didn’t eat much lately. “Nothing, really. I just heard some kids talking about her at the library.”
My mom hesitated a little, looking at my father. He seemed to be pretending he couldn’t hear our conversation. Eventually, she told me what I needed to know.
“You know that stuffy old house on the other side of town, the one with the gate guarded by lions?”
I nodded. Of course I knew it. Huge and pompous, it was the only house of its kind in our small town. All the little kids thought it was haunted.
“Well, that’s where Esther lives. She lost her fiancé when she was younger and ever since she’s been a bit of a recluse. Not much to tell, really.” Mom wouldn’t say anything after that, although her tone seemed to imply that there was much more to the story than what she was willing to tell me.
But, in the end, I guess she did tell me everything I needed to know. The rest of the night I thought about that house with the stone lions.
I hesitated for a few days before going to see her. What if she really was just crazy? Wouldn’t I be harassing a poor, confused woman? What if she wouldn’t talk to me? Or, worse than all that, what if this was a dead end?
Regardless, I had to keep pressing forward. I had to help Liz. Or at least keep my mind occupied until the police came knocking at our door to deliver the bad news. I couldn’t take the idleness any longer.
I called out at the gate. There was no intercom or doorbell or anything.
“Ms. Fick? Are you there?”
No answer, but when I tried the gate, I found it unlocked. I stepped onto the stone walkway that led to her house and wound up at her front door.
I knocked hard, all while calling her name. I hoped she was there.
Sure enough, the door cracked open a few moments later. She really did look crazy, staring at me from behind the door chain, glaring daggers at my eyes.
“What do you want?”
I took a deep breath. This was the moment I had been waiting for. “Um… my name is Anna, I live just across town. I read… I read about what happened to your fiancé. And I think you’re the only person who can help me. Can you just listen to what I have to say, please?”
I thought for sure I’d get the door slammed in my face. Instead, I was met with a look of surprise, then guilt. A moment later, the chain was off the door and it stood wide open.
“Please, come in.”
The house wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. It was kept immaculately clean, far from the hoarder’s haven I supposed it to be. She led me into a small living room, complete with a sofa and TV. It looked normal enough. On a shelf above the TV I saw a picture of a young man who I assumed to be her late fiancé. I remember thinking he looked a little familiar. His picture must have been included with Esther’s story in the newspaper.
We exchanged a few pleasantries and I found that she really did seem normal. She offered me tea and I politely declined. After a few more exchanges, we got to the point.
“Why would you come to me? And how did you find out about my fiancé?”
“Well… it started a few weeks ago. My best friend, Liz, she went missing in the lake out at the national park. I guess she drowned, only… only they can’t find her body.
“I was in the library looking for answers and I kept coming across these strange stories. These other people were drowned, but then they came back. And you were one of them. I have to know… what happened to you? Where were you during the time you had disappeared? Please, I need to find Liz.”
I could feel tears stinging my eyes. My breath caught in my throat as I tried to remain calm.
Esther looked at me with such pain in her eyes, a pain that I can’t describe. It was the pain of a loss that had never healed, a scar that had never stopped throbbing. She glanced out the window, her mind seeming to trail back to an earlier time.
“I have never in all my life told anyone what I am about to tell you. I tell you this because you need to know. Because I don’t want you to suffer like I did.
“I was sort of like you when I was your age. Lanky and quiet, but determined and with one hell of an attitude. I thought it was quite the blessing that I was marrying Alan. He never tried to rein me in, always let me run free….
“But that’s what ended up getting me in trouble. I went out swimming with some of my friends, despite my parents telling me it wasn’t safe. I was a good swimmer, so I wasn’t paying attention. The center of the lake is deep, much deeper than it looks…”
Her eyes weren’t seeing the same world I was. She’d traveled back through all those years. I was looking at a ghost of a memory.
“I was swimming down when I felt something grab my arm. I tried to wrench myself free, but I couldn’t. I struggled until the water filled my lungs and I suffocated with a burning throat. I thought I would die, but that lake… there’s something wrong with that lake.
“I didn’t die. Instead, I found myself trapped below the water. I saw someone swimming up and away from me, but I couldn’t follow them. I couldn’t feel my body anymore. I could only feel the water, rushing through me, scattering me like ashes and dust.
“I went on like that for a week. Do you know what it’s like, living without a body? Living without being alive? It was torture. I swirled along the bottom of the lake, desperate for any way out.
“And then, someone else came into the water.”
She was full-out crying, now, and she rushed on as though she had forgotten me.
“I wish it had been anyone but Alan. Living that kind of existence, do you know what it does to you? I just wanted to escape. I would do anything. I couldn’t even stop myself. I could feel myself reaching through the water, reaching with a hand that hadn’t been there since I’d drowned. I grasped his leg, even as he searched for me. I grasped him and I didn’t let go.”
She wept for a few minutes, utterly incapable of continuing. I shivered in my seat, wishing this would all just end. Her story was driving itself into me like a thousand needles, filling my head with all kinds of possibilities.
Eventually, she was able to continue. “I watched him die, putting him through that awful death. I killed him and freed myself. A few moments later and I was rushing for the surface, my body returned to me and my life restored. I left him in that crushing darkness and I…”
A short pause, then a scream, like a wounded animal dying in agony.
“I LAUGHED! I laughed like I’d never laughed a day in my life. I laughed because I was alive and I laughed because I had just killed the only person who I loved in this world. And after that…I never laughed again.”
She wiped her eyes and looked at me with an air of finality.
“That lake is cursed. You think it kills people, but it doesn’t. It traps them. And the only way you can escape is if you trap someone else.”
She got up and quietly opened the front door. I followed her in a daze. My eyes went back to that picture on the shelf and I remembered why it looked familiar.
The stranger that came out of the water.
I reached the door and she looked at me one last time, those years of sadness and guilt etched into her skin. “Now get the fuck out of my house.”
Esther killed herself yesterday. No one would have known if her neighbors hadn’t heard the gunshot, I’m sure. They found a man inside trying in vain to put back the broken pieces of her head, sobbing and calling her name. They took him in for questioning. I wonder what they’ll think when they find his name is Alan Manchester. I wonder why it took him so long to find her, but none of that matters, now. It’s too late for them, anyway.
As for me, I have made my decision.
I wrote Liz a letter. Her parents let me go into her room when I told them it would make me feel better to see it one last time. I’m kind of like a second daughter to them, so they didn’t even hesitate. I left the letter under her pillow where she likes to hide her books when she pretends to sleep. I hope she’ll find it soon after she gets home.
I would do anything for Liz. We may be best friends, but we’re closer than sisters or lovers. We’re as close as two people can possibly be. I think back now to what Esther said it was like, tossing and turning in those dark waters, searching for your body and never finding it.
Liz didn’t have a choice, but I do.
I love you, Liz. Please remember to tell my parents I love them, too.
It’s time to go swimming.