There’s a lot of people who think death is the end. They think we vanish without a trace, leaving nothing but a rotting corpse that has as much to do with who we were as the molding shirt we were wearing. Those people have never heard the echo of the dead. The last thought someone ever had before they die, that stays rooted to the place almost like a tree planted in their honor.
It’s getting dark. I hear that one a lot. Or I wonder if she’ll miss me, or Take me home, God, or things of that nature. I don’t know how it works, but ever since my little brother’s death when I was young, I’ve started hearing the echo of all the people who have died in any given location.
That’s why I’ll never set foot in a hospital. My mom tried to take me for a sprained wrist once, but I couldn’t get within a hundred feet of the place before thousands of whispered echoes started flooding my mind. I couldn’t take it — I just bolted and ran the second I got out of the car.
Later a therapist told me that I was suffering PTSD after what happened to my brother, but I never believed it. The echoes are too real. Too close. And I hear them wherever I go.
You’d be amazed at how many people have died in the most innocuous places. I can hear the whispers in the park where some geezer must have keeled over from a heart-attack or something. Sometimes there are muted screams along the highway or at sharp turns in the road. Even the coffee shop at the end of my street has an echo of: The ambulance should have been here by now.
…And then there was Ferryman’s Lake.
This was years later when I was a senior in high-school. The whole class had agreed to go to this remote lake for ditch-day at the end of the year. The atmosphere was electric: music blasting in the cars, beers in the trunk, and that desperate, almost maniacal energy of anticipation tinged with heavy goodbyes.
But I could hear the whispers long before we arrived. I didn’t want to be the weird kid that day. I just wanted to be normal and celebrate with my friends. I tried my best not to listen — I’d gotten pretty good at tuning it out — but this time was different.
These whispers weren’t nostalgic musings. They weren’t profound or contemplative or sad. There was nothing but absolute, mind-numbing terror, and it kept getting louder as we approached the lake.
“You feeling okay?” Jessica, the kind of girl who makes smart men do stupid things, asked me as we parked.
“Of course. Just tired of the drive,” I lied. I think she said something else too, but I couldn’t even hear her over the echoed screaming. It was the loudest I’ve ever heard — even louder than the hospital. This close, I could finally start to distinguish some words too.
Did something touch my leg?
What the fuck is that thing?
The five other cars had all parked on the graveled shore. Kids were unloading picnic baskets and stereos. I sat in the car, completely frozen by the tumult of madding echoes.
I can’t breathe!
Get out of the water! Get out get out!
“You getting out, or what?”
Jessica again. I had to stare at her lips to understand what she was saying. She met my gaze while she casually stripped her t-shirt to reveal a well-employed bikini top. Then the flash of a smile I couldn’t return. I nodded through the numbness, climbing out of the car to gaze at the calm blue water.
Not a ripple disturbed the tranquil mask. Not a hint of what could be under there. There was a ferry tied up along the bank with a cobblestone cottage nearby. A few of the kids were already beginning to investigate.
“Don’t go…” I couldn’t tell whether a whisper or a shout escaped my lips, but Derek, one of the guys hauling beer out of the trunk, was the only one who seemed to hear.
“What’s the matter? You’re not afraid of the water, are you?”
He must have said it loud for me to be able to hear it so clearly. Jessica was already ankle deep in the water, but she glanced back. Her smile wasn’t for me anymore — it was tinged with the hint of mockery. Everyone would be laughing if they knew what was really going on in my head.
“What are you idiots doing? Get out, get out!”
Someone else had saved me from having to say it though. An old man, more beard than face, was standing in the doorway of the stone house.
One of the kids said something, but I couldn’t hear it over the incessant echoed screams. I forced myself to get closer.
“Legend has it that something lives in the water near this shore,” the old man replied loudly.
Everyone was out of the cars now — twenty-six kids in total, all gathering around the stone cottage.
“Something that has hidden since before mankind first walked the Earth,” the old man was saying. “Something that strikes once without warning, and once is all it ever needs. Of course if you prefer, you can fork over five bucks each and I’ll sail you to safety on the other side.”
“What’s to stop the monster swimming over there?” Jessica asked. She was still smiling — I could tell she wasn’t buying it. No-one was.
“Too shallow for it,” the old man grunted. “100 bucks for the lot of you, special price. Better safe than sorry.”
“No way, I want to see the monster!” Derek said.
He was almost up to his waist now, smacking the still water to send ripples echoing into the deep. Several other kids were starting to follow his lead.
“We should do it,” I announced loudly, straining to keep my voice calm. “Hey look, I’ll pay for it, okay? The ferry will be fun.”
There were so many eyes on me while I fished out a brand new 100 that I got for a graduation present. So much for being normal, but at least I could live with myself this way. The old man snapped the money out of my hand before I could even extend my arm.
“Smart boy, smart boy.” He winked, his eye glittering with sly recognition. “All aboard, don’t be shy. Bags and heavy stuff go in the middle.”
I avoided eye contact while boarding. For a terrible second I looked behind me and saw I was the only one. The people in the water or those already setting up their stuff on the shore were obviously reluctant. They all looked back and forth at each other, trying to read the invisible will of the group.
“Last one is going to work at fast food for life,” Jessica shouted, flinging her backpack into the middle of the ferry. She gave me a quizzical smirk and mouthed the words: you owe me. If only she knew how much. Soon her friends were following her, and a moment later the whole senior class was converging on the boarding plank.
I was hoping the echoes would disperse as we got past the shore. They didn’t. Dozens of unique voices soon became hundreds as we approached the center of the lake. Echoes rebounding off echoes, reverberating and growing, flowing and slithering into my head like persistent intrusive thoughts. Cries for help, screams of pain, or just the animal bellow from the minds utterly devoured by fear.
The ferryman hadn’t mentioned the monster again — it was all tourist trivia and blithering about the local plants and animals. He kept looking at me and grinning though, the discolored motley of teeth appearing almost feral at times. The further he went, the more excited he grew, spewing spittle into his beard with every-other explosive word or declaration.
The continual pounding of sound was making me nauseous. I just closed my eyes and waited for this part to be over. I tried not to think about what might be in the water. There were so many voices that I had trouble keeping them straight, but I made a game out of trying to untangle them. Even so, it took several minutes of concentration before this came to the surface:
I never should have trusted the old man.
It sounded like a young boy around 12, no older than my brother was when he died. I glanced at the ferryman who was leaning against the wheel, staring wistfully at us all. No-one was paying him any attention anymore. Not even when his pale tongue flicked greedily over his lips.
The old man flipped something and the motor gave out. He stretched luxuriously in the sun before making his way to the railing.
“This is a good place to take a dip if anyone wants to swim,” he called out. “Real shallow here, and if you’re lucky you’ll see some turtles.”
“You sure it’s safe?” someone asked.
“I’ll prove it.” Flash goes the feral grin. Several people laughed and gasped as the old man clamored up onto the railing, launching himself into a graceful dive and vanishing with barely a ripple. Other people would be jumping in any second, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. I closed my eyes again, sifting through the mounting pressure of echoes…
Where’d the ferryman go?
He’s not human.
Get back to the boat!
I opened my eyes again. There was a loud splash and the cheer of laughter which accompanied someone tumbling into the water. I was out of time. I leapt behind the wheel, turning the key and stirring the engine back to life. People were shouting, but I didn’t care. It didn’t matter who was already in the water — every instinct was screaming for me to just save as many as I could.
The controls were intuitive enough, and I pushed the lever full throttle. We were accelerating quickly — faster than I thought we would. The laughter around me was turning to distress, but I was ready to fight anyone who tried to stop me.
No-one had time though. We were moving for less than ten seconds before something exploded out of the water behind. By the time I looked back, it was gone. All I could see was a massive misshapen shadow underneath the surface, twisting and morphing and growing by the second.
He’s not human. Then what the fuck is he?
There wasn’t time to find out. Real screams were starting to mix with the echoes now.
“What are you doing? Jessica and the old dude are still in the water!”
Why her, of all people? Was it some kind of cosmic joke that made her jump in first? No, that’s just who she was. She was a brave and enthusiastic leader, and it was going to get her killed.
I slid the throttle down, and the ferry slowed. I didn’t even register going on without her as a choice. There was nothing I could do. Her head bobbed under as soon as the black shadow drew near. There was a flash of scaly skin above the water, then a brief glimpse of Jessica’s fingers clawing for the surface. Everyone on the boat was shouting, but soon they were going to just be echoes too.
Churning water bubbled red, and I shoved the throttle again. The shadow was moving toward the boat, gliding directly under us. Louder than the echoes, louder than the thrashing water or the shouting kids, there was one more voice which joined the haunting chorus of the lake that day. It said:
Don’t wait for me.
And I didn’t. I should have done more, said more, while I still had the chance. But I didn’t. And now it’s too late forever, and I’m so so sorry…
I think I’m the only one of us who keeps returning to that lake. I don’t go in the water, but if I close my eyes and concentrate, sometimes I can still make out her pale voice peeking shyly from the wall of noise. Don’t wait for me.
I know she’s right, but I’m still here waiting because in the end, an echo is all that will remain.