Ten Years Ago
Dennis’s ragged breaths joined the quiet symphony of the night alongside the chirps and hoots of the surrounding forest fauna. Using only the cold and distant moonlight for guidance, he was unsteady as he approached the grassy slope and neared the dark expanse of the lake. During the day, the enormous body of water was clear and inviting, but at night, it was inky black like tar and impenetrable to the human eye.
There was something hungry about its stillness, like an animal laying low, ready to strike. He always kept his distance from it after sunset, avoiding its lapping lure with drawn curtains and locked doors… but tonight was different. It had called to him, whispering dark nothings through the drafty gaps of his home and tickling his paranoid parts.
He shook it off at first. He told himself that she’d gone to her mom’s house just like her letter had said. His internal reasoning wasn’t loud enough to tamp the lake’s mutterings, though, and he peered through the gap in the vegetable-print kitchen curtains. A speck of white had dragged him out of his home until he found himself by the top of the hill, flashlight raised, scared to press the on button. He depressed it with a click and blasted a shaky beam of blinding white at the nearest edge of the mirrorlike surface.
Dennis ran a shaky hand through his unkempt hair and found it wet from sweat and humidity. The heat was an unusual visitor at this time of year in Glenville, Washington, but it had made itself at home for over a week, coating the lakeside residents in a sticky glaze. The haze of mugginess had also brought a plague of mosquitos to the town. The bloodsuckers bred in hordes by the water and feasted on the exposed skin of sunbathers. Even in the cool water, there was no respite from hungry mouths as baby leeches hatched en masse from their springtime cocoons.
The invasion of the little pests had been the main topic of small talk in Glenville all week, the minute monstrosities having covered his distant neighbors in pox-like lumps. For a few days—thanks to sprays, ointments, oils, bracelets, and bug zappers—Dennis managed to avoid the prick of thousands of proboscises, but eventually he lost the war, leaving him with itchy welts all up his arms and legs.
He scratched at his skin, accidentally catching a cut and hissing in reaction to the sharp pain. But the itchy mounds weren’t the only way Dennis’s skin was damaged. Graying bruises covered bony joints and red scratches—deep enough to sting in the shower but not enough to break the skin—marred what was left. His work kept him rough, and he rarely thought about his appearance except when he looked at his wife with her shiny hair, soft skin, and increasingly cold demeanor. He scratched again, satiating the itch with his dirty nails as he shone the light around. Whatever he thought he’d seen before had disappeared, but as much as he wanted to turn back, his body wouldn’t let him. He teetered on the edge of the embankment and called out for his family.
“Lori! Emma!” His voice was loud enough that anyone for miles could hear him on such a windless night. The closest thing he received to a reply were the faint echo of his cries returning to him and the rustling of frightened deer in the undergrowth. He longed to hear his daughter’s voice… the secret language toddlers speak that only parents understand. Her cherubic face and tufty, brown curls made him feel like it was all worth it: the arguments, the late nights, the isolation.
He took a step closer to the lake and, forgetting the angle of the slope, lost his footing in the marshy grass. He slid, struggling to stay upright, as he descended toward the gently lapping edge. Halfway down, he tumbled forward and landed in the mud by the shore on all fours. Silty and sandy, the texture made his skin crawl. The smell was worse, and the more he writhed, the worse it got; soon he was covered in a thick layer of fishy muck. Dipped in sludge, he finally righted himself and sat on his haunches, resembling a cryptid lake monster. It was almost funny, but he didn’t laugh. Instead, he tried not to swallow the pond scum on his face as he cleaned the head of his flashlight, turned it back on, and skimmed light across the water.
When he saw it, he let out an animalistic moan. It was a sound he had never made before, like the distressed braying of a dairy cow separated from her calf. Once it had ripped out of him, raw and awful, he had no sound left to make and instead gaped at what he saw. Unable to look any longer, he removed the spotlight from his wife and daughter’s pale, unmoving bodies, floating face down in the black just a dozen meters away.
“No, no, no,” he muttered, pointing the lamp down into the dirt. He hoped it was a trick of the mind, the night, the lake, but as he shakily returned the light to them, they were still there, cold and still—and undeniably his family.
He crawled into the lake, not caring about the icy temperatures that came with nightfall or that his chin was soon submerged. He kept trudging until forced to swim. All wiry musculature and no body fat, Dennis traversed through the water quickly, but when he reached them, he knew he was far too late. He stood, feet barely touching the bottom despite their proximity to shore, and flipped the bodies onto their backs. Though their blue lips and milky eyes told him what he already knew, he checked their wrists with calloused fingers to discover their absent pulses.
In shock, he thought to take them one by one back to shore, but after two steps with his wife under his arm, he stopped and looked back at his lonely daughter. He couldn’t leave her out there, so he turned around, scooped her up, and carried them both toward dry land, huffing and grunting with the effort. Though he wanted to, he didn’t cry as he laid them side by side on their backs at the top of the small hill. Numbness had consumed him inside and outside, so instead, he placed their hands as he’d seen in open casket wakes and laid down between them.
He left their eyes open so they could have one last look at the stars before the cloud of death covered their pupils and pointed out his favorite constellations between the spattering of moonlit clouds.