Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fiction: The Lake

                                                 The Lake.
                                           By John A .Ryan

“You boys really thinking of doing the Six Lakes Swim?” The old bar owner at the Lodgepole Inn deposited our breakfasts in front of us. He had a long nosed ungainly lank-limbed melancholic air that reminded me of a moose. The Lodgepole was not the ideal venue for a pre-swim breakfast. It's grimy wood paneling, flickering neon beer signs and clientele that appeared to be mostly left over from last night identified it more as a seedy small town dive bar than a place to get a good meal. It was however, the only eating establishment in the tiny town of Barrelhead

“I am” replied Dave starting in on his buckwheat pancakes “Tim here is my support team. Right Tim?”

I paused Monster Push on my tablet and looked up “That's right. I follow along in the canoe in case he gets in trouble.” I took a sip of my bitter coffee and hungrily contemplated the mountain of greasy eggs and bacon that was my Lumberjack Special

“Not many make it all the way through”the bar owner mused aloud

“We aren't many” Dave grinned and took a swig of orange juice “I've already beat Juniper, Monroe and Wolf lakes.

“Tuurngait is the breaking point for folks. Four miles of glacial run-off against a headwind. It claimed that Sorrel girl last summer and that fellow from Whisper Falls” he gestured with the coffee pot towards a wall of yellowing newspaper clippings. “You city boys might find it more than a match for you”

“They said the same thing about Monroe, didn't they, Tim?”

I mumbled affirmation through a mouth full of toast “We broke the old record”

“Take my word, friend Tuurngait Lake is the tough one. It'll change you. If you make it out the other side, there's no saying you'll be the same person as dived in.”

“You sound like you're speaking from experience” I said

“Back in '73” he confirmed with a nostalgic smile“Sooner or later everyone round here tries the Swim”

“What happened?” asked Dave

The Barkeep chuckled through the mists of recollection
“I never left. I'm still here, aren't I?”
With that he stalked through the swinging doors to the kitchen.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Do you think it's some sort of local past-time to try to freak out tourists?” Dave asked me as he downshifted the pickup

“They have to do something. You can't even get a decent radio station this far north” I flicked a twig goblin causing him to explode into a cascade of leaves and earning a hundred points

Dave clicked his tongue
“What is it with you and that game? You've been glued to that screen for the whole trip”

“You need to try it. It's seriously addictive. You travel through the Magic Woods looking for treasure and try to push the hidden monsters away before they grab you. ”

“Christ, Tim! We're surrounded on all sides by pristine wilderness and you're ignoring it to bop invisible monsters! We just drove under an eagle's nest and you didn't even notice. How can a digital forest possibly be better than the real thing? Just promise me you'll leave that thing in the truck when we're out there okay? I need you focused.

“Have I let you down yet?”

“No, man, and I really appreciate you doing this for me. I'm just a little on edge”

“Don't let that old coot from back in Barrelhead get to you, Dave. It's like you said. They have nothing better to do than to try and scare people. You'll make it fine and we'll have a celebratory dinner in his bar and be off to Pinetop in the morning. Just like we planned, right?”

“Right” he relented “Could you do me a favor though and turn that off? It's making me nervous”

“No problem”

I traded my tablet screen for the windscreen. Dave was right. The view was spectacular.


“Isn't it weird the way the mist hasn't burnt off yet? It's already 11:30 ”

The mountains keep the cold air trapped down here. Makes the water nice and brisk” Dave grinned as he zipped up his insulated wet suit “ I wouldn't have it any other way. Just look at this place! If it were warmer it'd be teeming with tourists”

I had to admit he had a point The snow cloaked peaks rose like spires into the clouds appearing in places to bleed into them. armies of deep green conifers ascended the mountainsides from the lake shore accented here and there with highlights of crimson and gold from the occasional maple or birch that had already begun to turn, even though August wasn't even halfway through. In the distance a loon's clarion call rang over the ghostly waters. As I stood on the rocky lake shore with my friend it felt as though we were the only two people in the world .

Watching Dave go through his series of leg lunges, knee bends, and shoulder stretches I contemplated how we had come to be here. Most men going through a divorce would sink into despondency and drink. Dave, for reasons known only to himself, threw himself into the idea of open water swimming with a frightening zeal. We had known each other casually for a few years. Like most of our circle of friends, I had viewed Dave's aquatic pursuits with a mixture of admiration and detached amusement. Then Bethany left. After four years of gradually growing apart, she finally decided that she'd had enough of my antics. Even though I was devastated, I understood. If I were honest, I had to admit I wasn't a particularly boyfriend. Brooding over my fate one night at O'Malley's I ran into Dave fresh off a triumphant race. Several rounds later he confided that he wanted to try longer swims but he needed a spotter. He surprised me by asking me to take on the role. To my further astonishment I found myself agreeing. That was eight months ago. In all the hours of training, long drives, and poring over topographic maps, we rarely discussed anything personal, but a friendship born of the bonds of shared purpose and mutual heartbreak.

“Here's the plan” he announced, shaking me out of my reverie “We'll take it nice and easy today. Once we get about 50 yards out, I'll do my plunges. From there I'll check in every twenty minutes for a breather. That should be every half mile or so. I reckon we'll make the other side in about two hours. You ready?”

I nodded my assent

“Fantastic” he said, snapping his goggles over his eyes “Lets go swimming”

Dave marched intently towards the water. With his beard pushed up into a sharp peak by the rim of his wetsuit hood and his jaunty swaggering gait he looked like a fugitive from an early animation. I scanned the cargo of my candy-apple colored canoe one last time to make sure everything was in order and pushed her nose into the lapping waters.

Just past the halfway point, I had fallen back into the easy paddling rhythm that had become automatic after several months. Just off the left side of my bow, Dave had switched from an Australian Crawl into his preferred Butterfly Stroke. I could see his arms break the gray surface of the water in canted parabolic arcs punctuated by the sharp intake of breath. It had become a subconscious game for me to time my paddle strokes just after these breaths. One of my first cues of trouble, should it arise, would be the interruption of this pattern. For the moment, his labored flight across the lake's surface continued unabated.

Although I would never admit it to Dave, I had come to relish these moments out on the water as rare moments of quietude. He often accused me of having a technology addiction. In the privacy of my mind, I agreed. It seemed like my entire life was bathed in the glow of screens. I like computers for their endless entertainment value and their logical nature. You could get any information you wanted out of a computer, provided that you knew how to ask. In my lifetime I had run into few things that were this simple to understand. The trouble was that so much screen time left you unprepared for the messy and illogical real world and filled your head with electronic chatter. Skimming across a silent northern lake allowed my mind to work unencumbered and made some much needed reflection possible. Of course, if I ever let Dave know this I would never hear the end. Dave is one of those people who is relentless in his opinions and advice. Conceding that he was right on a point would be inviting a ceaseless barrage of well intentioned council on every aspect of my life. Well intentioned or not, I felt uncomfortable at the thought of inviting that level of external scrutiny.

Far above my head, an osprey hovered, silhouetted on ruler straight wings against the clouds. I wondered if it was the same bird that half an hour ago glided almost within arms reach, examining me with it's mad tangerine eyes. On the near shore a mule deer doe and her twin yearlings collectively decided that my friend and I posed no threat and began to drink. Nearby in a stand of tall spindly trees-

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs, for what I saw, what I believed I had seen, could not possibly be there. A second closer look confirmed this. There was nothing among the trees. For just an instant I had imagined that there had been a figure standing in the copse of pines. It had been taller than any person could be, almost the height of the surrounding pines. I thought it was the form of a man, seemingly composed of the limbs of trees, a gangling coniferous Colossus. dark as the shadowed bark gazing out over the water with an air of infinite sorrow. It was a trick of the light conspiring with my overstimulated imagination that made the shadows of branches resolve themselves into a pine tree giant straight out of a fairy tale illustration or off the screen of Monster Push. Even knowing that it couldn't possibly be real, the impression stuck powerfully and eerily with me. I decided that it would probably be best if I took a break from that game for a few days and resumed paddling. My momentary lapse in concentration had caused me to fall an embarrassing distance behind.

I strained my shoulders for almost ten minutes behind the paddle. My redoubled efforts seemed to do little to close the distance. For fear of pulling a muscle I called out to Dave to slow down and let me catch up. He slowed his strokes to a stop I saw his grinning head turn towards me. His arm broke the surface to give me the OK signal. Dave tread water for a moment or two before, to my horror, his head vanished beneath the glassy water with barely a ripple. A shout of panic escaped my lips as I began to paddle with all my might. From the cold water rescue course we had taken, I knew that every second underwater was potentially lethal. I was still to far away to reach. Dave and he had already been under for longer than was safe. I had just reached the point where I saw him disappear when an explosive inhale shattered the silence. Dave had re emerged supported by two other swimmers. His face was drained of color except for the sickly bleached violet of his lips.

“Get him aboard now” commanded a woman's voice from the smaller figure in the pale blue wetsuit. We heaved Dave's dead weight onto the canoe. I hastily tore open the package of a Mylar blanket and wrapped it around my friend's shivering body

“We'll start a fire onshore. Meet us there, quick as you can” With that order the woman and her companion shot away swiftly and gracefully as a pair of otters.

“Cold grabbed me all the sudden” sputtered Dave “Must've hit a thermocline. Froze right through me.”

“Hold still, man. I'm so sorry! I got distracted and fell behind. It's just lucky those two turned up.”

“Yeah, lucky” agreed Dave, teeth chattering.

By the time we made it to shore, the woman was already tending the beginnings of a good sized campfire. I could see her companion's yellow and black suit clearly among the trees as he searched for more wood. She helped me beach the canoe, and lift Dave onto the shale by the fireside.

“Blankets and dry clothes in the big orange float bag” I instructed her as I peeled away the wetsuit.

We helped Dave into a dry sweatpants, sweater and draped a wool blanket over him.

“I can still move my fingers and toes. No permanent damage” Dave announced. He attempted to sound clinical, but I could hear relief pouring from each syllable.

“It's really lucky you guys showed up” I told our new companions “Do you live around here?”

The woman made a sound halfway between a laugh and a grunt.

“That's one way of putting it. I'm Megan Sorrel. He's called Quinn. He doesn't say much.”

I shook hands and introduced myself. I was astonished at how cold their hands remained even after drying by the fire. With their hoods and masks removed, I finally could get a good look at them. Megan was a handsome woman with her dark hair cropped in a fashionable short style I couldn't pinpoint it, but she looked familiar somehow. Quinn would have been a perfect specimen of a blonde breezy Californian were it not for an unusual network of facial scars and his pale skin. Both of them had skin even paler than Dave's when he was first pulled from the water and the same unusual shade of green eyes. I wanted to ask if they were related and how Quinn had come by his injury, but I felt that it might be impolite. Instead we sat for several moments in mildly oppressive silence.

“The Lodgepole man says that you have come from far away” said Megan, more as a statement than a question

“That's right. We live down towards Carson.” I affirmed. “Dave wanted to swim the lakes.”

“Thanks for saving my life, by the way” Dave chimed from beneath the blanket

“I haven't yet, but I will” Megan told him “I will save both of you. Take my word on this. You do not belong here. You should go and never come back. Forget your swim”

“Okay, I choked up a bit, but I'm sure I can make it across after a few days rest” Dave protested

“You aren't listening. We're showing you a kindness because you are strangers here. Get in your boat and turn back. If you swim another stroke the lake will claim you and you will never leave it again. Tuurngiat Lake is protected ”

“Look, Don't think I'm not grateful to you and all, but you can't scare me with whatever superstitious nonsense there is about this lake. I don't believe...Where'd they go?”

The mysterious pair had vanished as suddenly as they appeared, leaving not even a footprint. The campfire was the only sign that anyone else had ever been there.

Once we had loaded up the last of the gear, we sat in the cab of the truck with the heater blasting watching the sun descend behind the peaks.

“Okay, that was a little weird, but I think we ought to try again next weekend, don't you?” Dave announced, breaking the silence.

“No.” I said “I think that's a really bad idea.”

“Oh come on! Just because they slipped away and hid while we weren't looking? I thought you had more sense than that Tim.”

I took a deep breath and weighed my words carefully, scarcely believing what I was about to say.
“It's not that. Well, it's not just that. If it were just the disappearance, I might think it was just some sort of trick but-”
“But what?”

I considered telling him about what I had seen, but after I regarded my friend's incredulous expression, I knew Dave would think I had completely lost my mind. Another detail, no less uncanny, floated to the top of my recollection .

“Do you remember the girl who was supposed to have drowned here last year?”

“Yeah, sure. What about her?”

“Well when you got up to use the bathroom back at the bar, I read the clipping. I just remembered. Her name was Meg Sorrel.”

“Are you kidding me? That's your reason? It's either some locals messing with us or a coincidence. It can't be the same person.”

“I think it was. There was a picture”

Dave sighed heavily
“Unbelievable! I'm the one who has a near death experience, and somehow you are the one coming unhinged. Tell you what, Let's go back to Barrelhead. We'll have some dinner at the Lodgepole, you can take another look at your article, and you'll see how stupid you're being. Maybe then we can talk about this like reasonable people. All right?”


An hour later, as we were arguing over the map on the shoulder of the road, a highway patrol cruiser pulled up behind us in the dark.

“There any trouble, fellas?” The trooper was a large suet-y man in his late fifties His gleaming pink face appeared as though it had been shaped from pressed ham

“Hi officer, we're a little lost. We're trying to get back into Barrelhead.” I said

When he burst into laughter, it occurred to me that I had never actually heard anyone guffaw before.

“Now what on earth would you want to go there for?”

“We thought we'd get a bite to eat, and maybe spend the night” Dave told him

“I suppose you can if you want” the trooper chuckled, “But you'd be the first people to do so for about a hundred years. Barrelhead's a ghost town, boys. I have no idea why they keep putting it on the map. The only road in has been totally grown over for at least sixty years. What you want to do is push on for Smokesville. That's about forty to forty five minutes south on Route 18. Tell Erma at the diner that Officer Daniels sent you. She'll treat you allright. Drive safe now.”

Still chortling to himself, Officer Daniels swaggered back to his car and sped off.

Dave's face was a mask of disbelief.
“Okay, now I'm freaking out.” he muttered “ What the hell did we eat for breakfast?”

-J. Ryan 2013

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