Fantasy Horror ghost swimming lake

Savannah is Six

By James Van Pelt
May 11, 2019 · 6,935 words · 26 minutes

Small lake pier

Photo by Atte Grönlund via Unsplash.

From the author: Poul, Leesa and their daughter Savannah vacation at the lake every year, but the waters there are deep, cold and hold memories as toothy, dark and silent as the pike who glide just out of sight. The story received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Contains adult content.


            For as long as Poul could remember, he’d spent the summer at the lake where his brother drowned.

            This year, as they climbed in the van, Leesa said cryptically, “Savannah is Six.”

            Poul held his hand on the ignition key but didn’t turn it.  “I know.”

            Each year since Savannah was born, it became harder to come out.  The nightmares started earlier, grew more vivid, woke him with a scream choked down, a huge hurting lump he swallowed without voicing.  Poul took longer to pack the van; he delayed the day he left, and when he finally started, he drove below the speed limit.

            They pulled into the long, sloping driveway down to the cottage just after noon.  Leesa had slept the last hour, and Savannah colored in the back seat, surrounded by baggage and groceries.  Her head was down, very serious, turning a white sky into a blue one.  She always struck Poul as a somber child, for six, as if there was something sad in her life that returned to her occasionally.  Not that she didn’t smile or didn’t act silly at times, but he’d catch her staring out the window in her bedroom before she’d go to bed, or her hand would rest on a favorite toy without picking it up, and she seemed lost.  She was quick to tears if either parent scolded her, which happened seldom, but even a spilled drink at dinner filled her eyes, the tears brimming at the edge, ready to slip away.

            Their cottage sat isolated by a spur of nature conservancy land on one side and on the other by a long, houseless, rocky stretch.  He bought the place fourteen years earlier, the year after he married, from Dad, who didn’t use it anymore.

            Only a couple of hours from Terre Haute, Tribay Lake attracted a slower paced population; county covenants kept the skiers off, so the surface remained calm when the wind was low.  From the air it looked like a three-leafed clover, with several miles of shoreline. An angler in a boat with a trolling motor could find plenty of isolated inlets covered with lily pads where the lunkers hung out.

            By mid-June the water warmed to swimming temperature–inner tubes were stacked next to the boat house for a convenient float–and the nights cooled off for sleeping.  Poul and Leesa took the front room overlooking the lake.  In the first years they’d opened the big windows wide at night to listen to crickets.  Lately, though, he went to bed alone while she worked crossword puzzles, or she retired early and was asleep by the time he got there.

            Poul knew the lake by its smell and sounds–wet wood and fish and old barbeques, and waves lapping against the tires his dad had mounted on the pier to protect the boat, the late night birds trilling in the hills above the lake, and an echo of his mother’s voice, still ringing, when Neal didn’t come back.  “Where’s your brother?” She’d asked, her eyes already wild.  “Weren’t you watching Neal?”  She called his name as she walked down the rocky shore looking for the younger son.

            Savannah closed her book and said, “I’m going to catch a big fish this year.  I’m going to see him in my raft, then I’ll hook him.  But I want to visit Johnny Jacobs and his kittens first.”  Over Poul’s objection, Leesa had bought Savannah a clear-bottomed raft, just big enough to hold a child, and it was all she’d talked about for weeks.

            Poul said, “They won’t be kittens anymore, Speedy.  That was last fall.  They’ll be cats by now.”  Gravel crunched under the wheels.  Leesa didn’t move, her sweater still bunched between her head and the window. 

            Poul wondered if she only pretended to be asleep.  It was a good way to not converse, and the lean against the window kept her as far away from him as possible.  “We’re here, Leesa,” he said, touching her hand.  She didn’t flinch, so maybe she actually had been sleeping.

            Leesa rubbed her eyes, then pushed her short, black hair behind her ears.  She’d started dying it last year even though Poul hadn’t noticed any grey.  His hair had a couple of streaks now, but his barber told him it made him distinguished.  At thirty-five, he thought “distinguished” was a good look.

            “I’m going to walk down to Kettle Jack’s to see if he has fresh corn for the grill.  I like grilled corn my first night at the lake,” Leesa said.  Poul wondered if she was talking to him.  She’d turned her face to the side, where the oak slipped past.

            Poul pulled the car under the beat-up carport next to the cottage.  Scrubby brush scraped against the bumper.  Leesa opened the door and was gone before he could stop the engine.  Savannah said, “I don’t like corn on the cob.  Can we have hotdogs?”

            “Sure, Speedy.”  On an elm next to the cottage, a frayed rope dangled, its end fifteen feet from the ground.  Summers and summers ago, there’d been a knot in the end and Neal hung on while Poul pushed him.  “Harder, Poul!” he’d yell, and Poul gave another shove, sending the younger boy spinning.  Poul looked at the rope.  He didn’t remember when it had broken; it seemed like this was the first time he’d seen it in years.  With the door open now, forest smells filled the car: the peculiar lake-side forest essence that was all moss and ferns and rotted logs half buried in loam, damp with Indiana summer dew.  He and Neal had explored the woods from the cottage to the highway, a half-mile of deadfall and mysterious paths only the deer used.  They hunted for walking sticks and giant beetles, or, with empty peanut butter jars in hand, trapped bulbous spiders for later examination.

            Someone yelled in the distance, a child, and Poul jumped.  He stood, his hands resting on the car’s roof.  Between the cottage and the elms beside it, a slice of lake glimmered, and a hundred feet from shore, a group of children played on a permanently anchored oil drum and wood decked diving platform, whooping in delight.

            “I’d like mustard on mine, and then I’ll go see the kittens,” said Savannah.  She had her duffel bag over her shoulder–it dragged on the ground–and was already moving toward the back door.

            “Sure, Speedy,” Poul said, although Savannah was already out of earshot.  Poul arched, pushing his hands into his back.  Sunlight cut through the leaves above in a million diamonds.  He left the baggage in the car to walk to the shore.  To his left, a mile away, partly around the lake’s curve, Kettle Jack’s long pier poked into the water.  A dozen sailboats lay at anchor, their empty masts standing rock still in the windless day.  Part way there, Leesa walked determinedly on the dirt path toward the lodge.  Slender as the day they married.  Long-legged.  Satiny skin that bronzed after two days of sun.  He remembered warm nights marvelling at the boundaries where the dark skin became white, how she murmured encouragement, laughing deep in her throat at shared joys.

            Poul unpacked the van.  Most of the beach toys went around front.  He stuck the yellow raft on a high, open shelf in back of the cottage where rakes and old oars were stored.  Maybe she’d forget they had it.

            A screen slapped shut behind him.  Savannah came down the steps.  “I couldn’t find the hotdogs, and something smells bad in the kitchen.  I’m going to count fish.”

            Poul said, “Let’s go together.  Life vest first.”  He found one in a pile in the storage chest against the tiny boathouse.  It had a solid heft that reassured him.

            She pouted as he put it on.  It smelled of a winter’s storage, a musty, grey odour that rose when he squeezed the belt around her.  “Guess you aren’t the same size as last summer?  Can’t have you grow up this fast.  We’ll have to quit feeding you.”

            Savannah didn’t smile.  “Da-ad,” she said.

            Minnows darted away when they stepped on the pier.  To the left, weeds grew up from the mucky bottom, starting as a ten-foot wide algae belt next to the shore, and waving languidly below after that until the lake became too deep to see them.  To the right, white sand began at a railroad tie border six feet from the cottage and reached into the water, a smooth, pale stretch for thirty feet.  It cost two-hundred dollars every other season to have several dump truck loads of sand poured and spread to create the beach.  A blunt torpedo silhouette a foot long moved toward deeper water.  Probably a bass.   Most perch were stockers in the lake, and a foot long blue gill would be a trophy.  Only catfish and bass reached respectable size.  Poul watched the fish gliding at the sand’s edge, perfectly poised between the artificial beach and the lake’s invisible depths.  Once he’d stood at the same spot with Neal, fascinated by a three-foot long catfish, nosing its way beneath their feet.  Through their reflections, through Neal’s glasses and wide brown eyes and sun-blond hair, and through Poul’s dark hair and blue eyes, they’d watched its broad, black back.  Later they’d baited huge treble hooks with liver or soap, but the fish never returned.  Dad had told them some catfish lived longer than men.   That same catfish might still be prowling the lake’s bottom.  Would it remember a summer of two small boys?  Or was it now a ghost?  Did old ones die to haunt the undersides of piers?  Were there places even fish were afraid to go?

            Poul shivered and glanced up.  Savannah was on her stomach at the pier’s end.  Her knees not touching wood, her weight precariously balanced.  His throat seized up, and he walked quickly, almost a jog (although he didn’t want to scare her) to where she looked into the water.  Poul put his hand on her back, holding her there.

            Savannah’s hands were flat out, fingers splayed, nearly touching the surface.  Without a breeze the lake was smooth as glass.  “Look, Daddy.  I’m underwater.  Do you think she sees me?”  Her reflection stared at her, its hands almost touching her own, the vision of a little girl six inches deep, looking up.

            Poul’s tongue felt fat in his mouth, and it was all he could do to speak without a quiver in the voice.  “Yes, dear.  You’re lovely.  Now let’s go in, and I’ll find the hotdogs.”

            Savannah held his hand as they walked toward the cottage.  The boards creaked underfoot.  Through the wide gaps, water undulated in a slow, fractional swell.  He shook his head. She’d never been in danger.  Even if she’d fallen in, the life vest would have popped her to the surface, and he was right there.  He wished he’d signed her up for swimming lessons during the winter.  Poul kept his head down, watching his feet next to Savannah’s, her white sneakers matching his small steps.  She gripped his little finger, and he smiled.  After lunch, he’d break out the worms and bamboo poles (anything to avoid the clear-bottomed raft).  He’d have to dig up the tall, skinny bobbers and show her again how to mount the bait on the hook. 

            He remembered fishing with Neal.  Dad used an open bail casting reel, sending his lures to splash far away, but they had as much action tossing their bait a few feet from the boat.  Poul would stare at the narrow, red and white bobber’s point, held upright by the worm’s weight and a couple of lead shot.  The marker twitched, sending ripples away.  It twitched again.  “Something nibbling you, Poul,” said Neal, his own pole forgotten.  “Yeah,” said Poul, concentrating on the bobber, which wasn’t moving now.  He imagined a fish eyeing it below.  Could be a bass, or maybe even a pike, like the stuffed one mounted on a board above the bar at Kettle Jacks, its long mouth open and full of teeth.

            Savannah cried, “Help him, Daddy.”

            “What?” 

            She pulled away, dropped to her knees and poked her head over the pier’s side, trying to look under.  “Help him!”

            “What, Savannah?  What?”  Poul knelt beside her; a splinter poked his shin.  “Don’t fall in now!”

            She sat up, her hair wet at the tips where it had dipped.  “Where’d he go?  Didn’t you see him?  He was reaching up between the boards, Daddy.  You almost stepped on him.”

            The sun dimmed, and everything around them faded.  Only Savannah was clear.  Dimly children shrieked on the distant diving platform.  When he spoke, it sounded to him as if they were in a bubble: his faint voice travelled no more than a yard away.  “What did you see, Speedy?  Who was reaching up?”

            Her lip quivered.  “The boy, Daddy.  He was under the pier.  I saw his fingers right there.”  She pointed.  “He was stuck under the pier, but when I looked, he’d gone away.  Where do you think he went to, Daddy?”

            Between the boards, the lake breathed gently, the surface smooth and untroubled.  A crawdad crept along the muck.  Poul watched it through the gap.  “I don’t think there was anyone there, Speedy.  Maybe your eyes played a trick on you.”

            Legs crossed, her hands in her lap, Savannah studied the space between the boards for a moment.  Slowly, she said, “My eyes don’t play tricks.”  She paused.  “But my brain might have imagined it.”

            Poul released a long, slow lung full of air.  He hadn’t known he’d been holding it.  “If you’re hungry, sometimes your brain does funny things.”  The sun brightened.  Poul shivered, and he realized sweat soaked his shirt’s sides.  “Let’s go in and have a hotdog.”

            She nodded.  He had to open the porch door for her; it was a high step up, and her fingers barely wrapped around the nob.  Neal had been so proud his last summer when he could grip it.

            Later, while Savannah put mustard on her meal, Poul said, “Why did you think it was a boy under the pier if all you saw was his fingers?”  Savannah swallowed a bite.

            “He had boy hands.  Boy hands are different.  I can tell.”  She pushed the top back on the mustard. 

            In the evening, Poul walked to the end of the pier.  A breeze had picked up, and on the lake, two sailboats glided side by side, their sails catching the sun’s last yellow rays.  Now all the lake was black.  If he jumped in here, the water would barely come to his chest–it would be just over a six-year old’s head--but within a couple strides was a steep drop-off.  The wind pushed waves toward him, a series of lines that slapped against the piles as they went by.  He could feel the lake in his feet.  Deep in his pockets, his hands clenched.  Cottages on the far shore glowed in the last light, their windows like mica specks in carved miniatures.  Behind them, forest-covered hills rose to the silence of the sky.

            They’d found Neal ten feet from the pier’s end, his hands floating above his head, nearly on the surface, his feet firmly anchored on the bottom.  Poul stood on shore, his fists jammed into his armpits, and watched them load him in the boat, wearing the face mask and snorkel, limp and small, his arms like delicate pipes, his six-year old skin as smooth and pale as milk, black boots on his feet.  They were Poul’s snow boots, buckled at the top and filled with sand.

            Long after the sun set, and the boats disappeared and lights flickered on in cottages, music and voices drifted across the water, Poul came in to go to bed. On the porch, Savannah slept on the daybed.  He checked the screens to make sure they were tight–mosquitoes were murder after dark–then locked the deadbolt, taking the key.   Sometimes Savannah woke before he or Leesa did, and he didn’t want her wandering outside.  In the kitchen, he shook as he poured a cup of tepid coffee.  A humid breeze had sucked the heat out of him.  The cup warmed his hands.  Moths threw themselves against the windows, pattering to get in.  Leaves hushed against themselves.  Years ago he’d sat at this same table, sipping hot chocolate, laughing at Neal’s liquid moustache.  That day they’d swam.  The next they’d fish, and the summer at the lake stretched before them, a thousand holidays in a row.

            Poul slipped up the stairs, keeping his weight on the side next to the wall so there would be no creaks.  He left his clothes on a chair.  Dock lights through the windows illuminated the room enough for him to get around without running into anything.  A long lump on the bed, swaddled in shadows, was all he could see of Leesa.  Except for his own breathing, there was no other noise, which meant she was awake.  When she slept, she whistled lightly on each exhalation.  From the beginning he’d found it charming, but never mentioned it, guessing it might be embarrassing.  If he spoke now, he knew, she wouldn’t reply. 

            Three years ago when they were at the cottage, she began suffering headaches at bedtime, or sore throats, or stomach cramps, or pulled muscles, or dozens of other ailments.  That same summer she went from sleeping in just a pair of boxer shorts to a full, flannel nightgown.  She’d start complaining about her night time illness before lunch, and after a while, he figured they were all a charade.  The last time they’d made love had been a year ago, in this bedroom.  He remembered her back to him, and he pressed against her; he could feel her muscles through the flannel, her hip’s still delicate flare.  She didn’t move away, so he pushed against her again.  It had been months since the last time, and the day had been good.  She hadn’t avoided him.  She laughed at a joke.  Maybe she’s thawing, he’d thought, so he watched her, and when she went to bed, he followed.  No chance for her to be sleeping before he got there.  But she undressed in the bathroom, came out with the collar buttoned tightly at her neck, didn’t look at him, and laid down with her back toward him.  He didn’t move for a while.  They’d been married too long for him not to recognize all the ways she was saying, “No”.  Still, it had been months.  He moved next to her, his erection painful.  Outside, waves slapped upon the shore.  The boat rattled in its chain.

            A third time he pressed against her.  Finally, without rolling, she reached back with her hand and held him.  He took a sharp breath, moved into her palm, slid against her fingers.  She squeezed once, not moving in any other way.  When he came a few minutes later, sweat heavy on his chest, his breath quivering, Leesa slowly pulled her hand away and wiped him off on the sheets, as if she were already mostly asleep.  It was the most loveless act he’d ever committed. Within moments, her whistling snore began.

            That was the last time.

            Why was she angry with him?  Why had it gone so terribly bad?  The closest they’d come to talking about it came that Christmas, after Savannah went outside to play in the snow, and he and Leesa sat wordlessly in the living room.  He’d finally said, “What’s wrong?”  The sweater he’d given her draped across her hands; she didn’t meet his eyes.  “I don’t like this color any more.”  Later he found the gift tossed in the back of the closet. 

            Whatever the source of the anger, it grew worse at the lake.  The distance widened, and the nightmares came more often.  He lifted the covers as little as possible and lay down.  Leesa didn’t react.  Poul looked at the ceiling.  A light from a passing boat swept shadows from one side of the room to the other.  It’s small motor chugged faintly.

            Leesa wasn’t whistling.  He knew she heard the same motor.  If her eyes were open, she’d see the same shadows.  “Savannah scared herself on the dock today,” he said into the darkness, the sudden sound of his own voice startling him.  Only the cooling cottage’s creaks and groans answered.

            Hours later, still awake, he heard a noise downstairs.  A muted rasp.  He propped up on his elbows.  Footsteps, then another scraping sound.  A bump.  Nothing for a long time.  His eyes ached with attention, and saliva pooled in his mouth he didn’t dare swallow.  After minutes, he slipped from the blankets and moved from the bed, crept down to the living room, every shadow hiding an intruder, the pulse in his ear like a throbbing announcement.  He turned on a light, flicking the room into reality, then into the kitchen where moths clustered against the screens.  On the porch, Savannah lay atop her covers, sleeping.  Scratch marks showed where she’d pulled a chair to the door.  She’d unhooked the chain, but the deadbolt defeated her.  Poul tucked her in, then he grasped the door nob to check the lock again.  Slick brass felt cool under his palm.  Savannah had sleepwalked.  When she was three, she’d done it for a few months, but she hadn’t done it since.  The pediatrician said it wasn’t uncommon; that she’d outgrow it.

            Through the porch door’s window, the eastern horizon glowed, turning the lake surface purple, but the dock was black, a long, black finger with a black boat’s silhouette beside it.  A muskrat swam, cutting a long V in the flat water.

            The nob turned under his hand.  It turned again.  Whoever held it on the other side was shorter than the window.  Poul slapped his head against the glass.  A bare stair.  He ran to the kitchen, banging his shin against a stool, breath ragged in his throat, grabbed the deadbolt key from its drawer, and stumbled back to the porch.  Outside, he looked up and down the shore.  A quarter mile away, his closest neighbour loaded fishing gear into his boat.  Poul ran around the cottage.  There was no one.  Mindless, he sprinted up the long dirt driveway until he stopped at the highway, bent, with his hands on his thighs, gasping.  Empty road vanished into the woods on either side. 

            He sat on the shoulder.  A deep gouge in his left foot bled freely, and he realized both feet hurt.  It took ten minutes to hobble back to the cottage, and wearing only shorts, he was profoundly cold.  The sun bathed the cottage’s front as he walked to the door.  Grass cast long shadows.  His own barefooted prints showed in the dew.  Poul stopped before going in.  Another set of prints led to his door, rounded impressions, small, like a child wearing galoshes, coming from the lake.  Then, as if the sun was an eraser passing over the yard, the dew vanished.

            Leesa took Savannah into town for lunch and shopping.  They needed to stock the refrigerator and freezer, and Savannah decided she couldn’t live without fruit juice in the squeezable packages.

            Poul sat in a lawn chair at the foot of the pier for most of the morning.  The sun pressed against his forehead and eventually filled him with lazy heat.  Ripples caught the light, sending it in bright, little spears at him.  Waves lapped the shore.  The boat, tied to the dock, thudded hollowly every once in a while like a huge aluminum drum.

            If he shut his eyes, it could be thirty years earlier.  The sun beat the same way, and the same ripply chorus floated in the air.  On the beach he and Neal had talked about deep sea diving and fish.  Poul was frustrated.  He had a wonderful face mask, fins to push himself along and a snorkel, but the mask was too buoyant.  He could dive underwater, but he couldn’t stay near the fascinating bottom where the catfish lived. So he had a brain storm.  In the boathouse he found a pair of rubber snow boots he’d left from January when he and Dad had come to the lake to fix a frozen pipe.  They were supposed to fit over shoes, so his bare foot slopped around.  He held the top open.  “Fill them up, Neal,” he said.

            His brother looked at them doubtfully.  “Why do you want to do that?”

            “Cause this will keep me from floating.”

            “Oh,”  Neal said with admiration.  He used a yellow, plastic shovel to dump sand in.  When it was full, Poul forced the bottom buckle closed.  The sand squeezed his leg; he fastened the next one, and it was even tighter.  Sand spilled over the top.  After the last buckle, there was a strap that cinched the boot closed.  It felt like his feet were in grainy cement; he couldn’t even wiggle his toes.

            Neal laughed when Poul tried to walk.  Each foot must have weighed an extra ten pounds, and it was all he could do to shuffle forward.  Poul adjusted his face mask and snorkel.  “Wish me luck.”

            “Luck,” said Neal.  “Find the big catfish, okay?”

            Poul nodded as he waded out.  The water slapped higher on his body with each step from shore.  When it reached his armpits, he put the snorkel in, then slowly squatted, his feet holding firm beneath him.  He turned; underwater, the sand held ripples, a sculpture of the surface motion, while the underside of the surface undulated, meeting the beach at the shore.  Then he stood, blew water from the snorkel and gave Neal a thumbs up.  Neal waved back.

            A few steps deeper, and the water line rose on the face mask.  Another step and he was completely underwater, breathing through the snorkel.  No fish, but a lot of suspended material, bits of algae.  Exotic noises.  A buzz that must have been a boat cruising along.  A metallic clink that might be a chain under the diving platform a hundred feet away.  His breath wheezing in and out of the snorkel.  Other, unidentifiable sounds.  Poul the adventurer, an explorer of undiscovered countries.

            Then, a fish just at his vision’s edge, much deeper, swam along the bottom.  Poul froze, hoping it would come close, but it stayed maddeningly far.  He moved toward it, sliding his foot only a few inches.  It flicked away, then appeared again, still now, head on, as if it were watching him.  An encounter with an alien would not have felt any more exotic.  Poul leaned toward the fish, his hand out.  A gesture of hello.

            Water filled his mouth, straight into his throat and he was choking.  It hurt!  Eyes tearing, he looked up.  He’d gone too deep.  The top of the snorkel was below the surface.  Blind panic!  He flailed his arms, trying to swim up, but his feet didn’t budge.  He jerked, screaming through the snorkel.  No air!  No air!  He turned toward shore, and took a step.  He took another, then blew hard, clearing the water and breathed in gasps.  Without pause, he continued toward shore.  When he was shallow enough, he ripped the face mask off and sucked one huge breath after another.  By the time he got to shore, his throat quit hurting, but he wanted to get away, to lay down and cry.  He could feel it in his chest, the horrible pressure of no air, the moment when he didn’t dare inhale. 

            “Did you see a fish?”  Neal asked.  He was sitting with his toes in the water, arms wrapped around his knees.  “Was it totally cool?”

            Poul shook his head, hiding his tears by unbuckling the boots.  He scraped his feet pulling them out.  Later that day Dad would smear first aid cream on them, his eyes unfocussed, his hands shaking.

            Poul left the boots on the beach and went into the woods to cry.  He’d never been so scared.  He’d never been so scared!  And when he returned an hour later, Mom was walking up the shore, calling Neal’s name.    “Where’s your brother?” She’d asked, her eyes already wild.  “Weren’t you watching Neal?”

            Poul rose from the lawn chair; he could feel the nylon webbing creases in his backside.  Neal was six, he thought.  Savannah is six.  The two facts came together with inevitable weight.  For years he hadn’t thought much about Neal’s death.  Every once in a while, a memory would flare: the two of them talking late at night, after they were supposed to be asleep, the model airplane Neal had given him for his birthday, the words carefully inscribed on the back, For mi big brother.  Luve, Neal.  Neal trusted him, looked up to him, but most of the time Neal didn’t exist anymore.  Then Savannah was born, and Neal came back, a little stronger each summer.  Maybe that’s what Leesa sensed: the younger brother, dead within him.

            Savannah is six, Poul thought, and Neal has been waiting.

            He went through the cottage and made sure the screens were tight.  It wouldn’t do for the house to be filled with mosquitoes when Leesa and Savannah returned.  For a moment he held a pen over a notepad in the kitchen, but put it down without writing.  A beach towel went over his shoulder, and he walked to the end of the pier.  Standing with his toes wrapped over the edge, a breeze in his face, felt like leaning over an abyss.  Beyond the drop-off, he saw no bottom.  The big fish were there, the fishy mysteries he’d left to Neal.

            He dove in, a long shallow dive that took him yards away without a stroke.  Water rushed by his ears.  Bubbles streamed from his nose.  He came to the surface, treaded.  From his shoulders to his knees, the lake was warm, a comfortable temperature perfect for swimming, but from the knees down it was cold.  Neal didn’t know how to swim, he thought.  To even go on the pier, Dad had made him put on a life jacket, and Poul was the older brother.  How many times had he been told to protect him, to watch out for him?  And it didn’t matter what he’d been told, Poul wanted to keep his brother safe.  At the playground, he listened for Neal’s voice.  When someone cried, Poul stopped, afraid it was Neal.  Loving his brother was like inhaling.

            Neal went into the lake; he never came out.  Neal must have hated him, Poul thought.  At the end, he must have cried out for him, but Poul didn’t come.  He didn’t warn him.

            Poul swam deeper, put his face down, eyes open.  Without a mask, his hands were blurry.  Beyond them, blackness.  How deep?  Were there pike?  He imagined a ghost catfish, its eye as broad as a swimming pool rising toward him.

            But try as he might, Poul couldn’t drown himself.  He floated on his back, letting his feet sink until his weight drew his face under, and just when the time came to breathe, he kicked to the surface.  He couldn’t let the water in.  Swimming parallel to the shore, he passed Kettle Jack’s, swam by dozens of cottages like his own until his arms tired.  Each stroke hurt, his shoulders burning with exhaustion, but they never quit working.  The lake let him live, and Neal never came up to join him.  Poul waited for a hand (a small hand) to wrap around his ankle, to pull him down where six-year olds never grow older.  Instead, the sun moved across the sky until Poul was empty.  Completely dull, drained and damaged, he turned toward shore, staggered up a stranger’s beach, and walked on the lake road toward his cottage, staying in the shoulder, where the grass didn’t hurt his feet.

            If Neal didn’t want him, who did he want?

            This far above Kettle Jack’s was unfamiliar to him, but the look was the same: long, dirt driveways that vanished in the trees below, or led to cottages camped along the shore.  Old boats sprawled upside down on saw horses.  Bamboo fishing poles leaned against weathered wood.  Station wagons or vans parked behind each house.  Towels drying on lines.  Beyond, in the lake, sailboats cut frothy wakes; the wind had picked up, although he didn’t feel it much here.

            He started walking faster.  Leesa and Savannah would be home by now.  He wondered what they were doing.  Leesa never watched Savannah like he did.  Her philosophy was that kids take care of themselves, generally, and it’s healthier for a child to have room to explore. 

            He hadn’t realized how far he’d swam.  Way ahead,  the tip of Kettle Jack’s pier poked into the lake.  Maybe Savannah and Leesa would walk there to see Johnny Jacob’s kittens.  But it was hot, and Savannah hadn’t swam yet.  Yesterday she’d fished.  Today she’d want to swim.  He could see the scene.  Leesa would pull into the driveway.  Savannah would put on her swimsuit to go out on the beach.  She had sand toys, buckets, shovels, rakes; little molds for making sand castles.  Leesa would set up a chair, lather in sun lotion and read a book.  Savannah could be in the water now.

            Poul broke into a jog.  How idiotic it was to leave the cottage, he thought.  No, not idiotic. Criminal.  If vengeance waited in the lake, if some sort of delayed retribution haunted the cold waters, why would it care for him?  Where would his suffering be if he drowned, like Neal, relieved of responsibility at last?  He was running.  Kettle Jack’s passed by on his left.  It was a mile to his cottage.  He’d swam over a mile!  And maybe that was the plan: to get him out into the lake and away.  Suddenly he felt as if he’d lost his mind.  What was he thinking?  What sane father would dive into the water away from his daughter?  Savannah is six, he thought, and she needs her daddy.

            The van was parked behind the cottage.  Poul ran to the front, his breath coming in great whoops.  Empty lounge chair.  Sand toys on the beach.  A child’s life vest lying next to the boathouse.  No sign of her.  He yelled, “Savannah!” as he went through the door onto the porch.

            Leesa sat at the kitchen table, eating a sandwich.  “What’s wrong with you?” she said.

            “Where’s Savannah?”

            “Puttering around in that raft I bought her.  We had a heck of a time finding it.”

            “I didn’t see her!” he said as he ran out of the kitchen.

            Out front, he scanned the lake again.  Boats in the distance.  No yellow raft.  He had a vision: Savannah paddling, looking at the bottom through the clear plastic.  Sand, of course; she’d see sand and minnows.  Then she’d move farther out, her head down, hoping for fish, not aware of how far from shore she was going.  The water would get deeper.  She’d be beyond the sand, where the depths were foggy and dark green.  “What is that?” she’d think.  A moving shadow, a form resolving itself, a face coming from below.  The little boy from beneath the pier.

            Poul pounded down the dock, scanning the water to the left and right.  Leesa followed.

            “She was right here a minute ago!  I’ve only been inside a minute!”

            At the dock’s end, Poul stopped, within a eye blink of diving in, but the water was clear as far as he could see.  Even the sailboats had retreated from sight.

            “Maybe she went to see the kittens,” Leesa said. 

            “With the raft?  She wouldn’t go with the raft!”  Poul’s voice cracked.

            A bird flew by, wings barely moving.  It seemed to Poul to almost have stopped.  His heart beat in slow explosions.  Leesa said something, but her meaning didn’t reach him, the words were so far apart.  Then, a round shape pushed from beneath the pier.  At first he thought it was the top of a blonde head, right under his feet, and it moved a little bit further, becoming too broad to be a head, and too yellow to be blonde.  It was the raft.  He could feel himself saying, “No,” as he bent, already knowing Savannah wouldn’t be in it.  He tugged on its handle.  It resisted.  Who is holding on?  It slid out.  No one held it.  Six inches of water in the bottom made it heavy.

            “Savannah!” Leesa screamed.  Then the bird’s wings beat twice and it was gone.  Poul’s pulse sped up.  The lake had never seemed so empty.  He remembered Dad, who had stood at the end of the pier, mute, when they pulled Neal out.  Now he stood on the same board.

            A high voice called from the lake, a child.  Poul looked up, his skin suddenly cold.  It called again, and Poul saw her, lying on the diving platform a hundred feet away, Savannah.

            He didn’t know how he got there–he didn’t remember swimming, but he was up the diving platform’s ladder, holding his weeping daughter instantly.  She nestled her head under his chin and shook with tears.  Before she stopped, Leesa arrived in the boat, and they both held her.

            Finally, when Savannah’s crying had settled into a sob every minute or two, Leesa said, “How did you get out here, darling?  You scared us so.”

            Between shuddery breaths, Savannah said, “I didn’t mean to go so far, and I couldn’t get back.  I paddled really hard, but I fell out.  The wind pushed the raft away.”

            She looked from Poul to Leesa, her eyes red-rimmed and teary.

            “I swallowed water, Daddy.  I couldn’t breathe.” 

            Poul swallowed.  He could feel the snorkel in his mouth, the solid, leaden ache of water in his lungs.

            Leesa gasped, “Thank god you made it to the diving platform.  We could have lost you,” and she burst into tears herself.

            Through Leesa’s crying, Savannah looked at Poul solemnly.  “I didn’t swim, Daddy.  The little boy helped me.  He took my hand and put me here.”  Savannah rubbed her eyes with the back of her arm.  “He kissed my cheek, Daddy.”

            Poul nodded, incapable of speech.

            “He looked like the boy in your baby pictures.”  She sniffed, but seemed more relaxed, her fear already becoming vague.  “My eyes didn’t play tricks on me.”

           Poul spent the sunset sitting on the end of the pier, his toes dipping in the lake, surrounded by the watery symphony.  Aqueous rhythms beating against the wood, lapping against the shore.  And fish.  He sat quietly, and the fish came: a school of bluegill, scales catching the last light in a thousand glitters swirling in front of him and then were gone.  Later, when the sun had nearly disappeared, a long, black shape glided by, its eye as big as a quarter, a long row of teeth visible when it opened its mouth.  Poul had finally seen a pike.

            He sighed, pushed himself up and found Leesa in the kitchen.  She’d already put Savannah to bed in their room upstairs.

            She looked at her coffee cup dully.  It was almost hard to remember what he’d loved about her when they’d first met, then she turned her head a little and brushed back her hair, and for a second, it was there, a picture of Leesa when they were young.  Before Savannah.  Before coming to the lake had become so reluctant.  The second disappeared.

            He pulled a chair out for himself and turned it around so he could lean his arms on the back.  She didn’t speak.  Poul shut his eyes to listen to the woods behind the cottage.  The air there was always so moist and living, but it didn’t penetrate into the kitchen.  With his eyes closed, he could swear he was alone in the room.

            “I want a divorce,” Poul said.

            Leesa looked at him directly for maybe the first time in a year.  “Why now?”

            The low, slanting sun cut through the trees behind the cottage, casting a yellow light in the room.  He knew that on the lake, now, it highlighted the waves, but didn’t penetrate the depths.  Fisherman would be out, because the big fish, the serious fish, moved in the evening.  The evening was the best time to be on the lake, after a hard day of swimming, of hiking in the woods where he’d played with Neal, and just before they went to bed to tell each other stories until sleep took them, two brothers under one blanket lying head to head, and they dreamed. 

            Poul said,  “When you realize a thing is bad, you’ve got to let it go or you’ll drown.”

This story originally appeared in Dark Terrors #5.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."