The sun rippled off the surface of the lake, lighting the edges of the ripples on fire. Talia leaned on the edge of the dock, breathing in the breeze, the scents of dying leaves, the moist, cold earth-smell of autumn. A shadow passed and she looked up at the hawk floating effortlessly above.
“Settling in?” the voice from made her jump.
She turned and said breathlessly, “I can’t get over how quiet it is.”
“Said you wanted peace and quiet.” Clark shoved his hands in his pockets.
Talia pulled her jacket closer. “I did. It’s perfect; especially the view.” She gestured towards the lake.
Clark’s dark eyes followed her hand. “It’s something.”
Talia tried a smile. “The cabin is great—very cozy. Are any of the others rented?”
“It’s just me and Pop up at the main house during this part of the season. We may get some renters in for a weekend. Just depends.”
Talia nodded. “I better go put the rest of my things away.”
“Give us a call if you need anything.” The offer sounded grudging and Talia hoped she wouldn’t need anything from Clark Foster during her stay.
She smiled and waved as she climbed the hill and walked up the embedded stairs towards the little green cabin. The inside was quaint and immaculately clean but definitely a step down from her Manhattan apartment. She brushed away memories, rummaging through the kitchen for a teakettle.
The call of an owl brought a smile to Talia’s face as she pushed the rocking chair back and forth with one sock-covered foot. It was quiet, lonely.
“It’s better,” she told herself, searching the moonlit night for the owl.
Something splashed in the lake. The ripples spread out in widening circles of fractured silver light. She stopped rocking, listening. There was nothing. Trying to ignore the prickles that crawled over her skin, Talia abandoned the creaking rocking chair and locked the screen and outer door behind her. She dreamed of drowning.
The sound of knocking on her door woke her far too early. She staggered to the door, peering out the little window at Clark’s solemn face. Talia opened the door a crack, shoving her disheveled hair out of her face.
“Yes?” she said, a hint of a croak in her voice.
“Sleep rough?” he asked
“You could say that,” Talia said, leaning warily against the door jam.
“Thought you might like some groceries to start of your first few days here. Pop and me always have extras.” Clark held an old-fashioned glass bottle of milk in one hand and a bulging paper bag in the other.
“That would be really nice,” Talia stood back to let him inside.
She couldn’t miss the way his eyes darted around the cabin, as though looking for something out of place. He seemed satisfied.
“Sorry you slept bad,” he said, setting the groceries carefully on the counter and sticking the milk in the fridge. “Something bother you?”
She snuck a quick look at him but his back was turned, unloading the sack of supplies.
“Probably just not used to the quiet,” she said, crossing her arms.
He grunted something that could have been assent.
“Clark, is there something in the lake?”
Clark swore as the tomato he was holding slipped out of his hand and splattered on the floor, coating the cabinet fronts with its pulpy insides.
“Sorry. There’s lots of things in the lake.” He bent down to scrub the dripping tomato guts off the floor. “You fish?”
Talia couldn’t help but laugh. “No, I don’t fish. I was just wondering if there were alligators or…anything.”
Clark smiled over his shoulder and she was surprised his face could bend into such a pleasing expression. “No, nothing like that ‘round here.”
“I see—I don’t know much about wildlife. Thank you for all this,” she said as he stood and rinsed his hands. “Don’t worry about the tomato.”
“Sure, sure. And the lake—I wouldn’t suggest swimming or anything. Too cold.” He didn’t look at her.
“I won’t be going anywhere near the water, don’t you worry.” Talia opened the door and ushered Clark out, trying not to look at the sparkling green water outside. She was glad to shut the door behind him.
The red and orange leaves that fell into the lake in a shower of flames vanished. Ice frosted the very edges of the green water. Talia leaned on the porch, cradling her phone against her shoulder.
“Hi, mom. Yes, everything is fine—it’s very peaceful here.” Talia glanced up as she heard the cracking of dead branches, but didn’t see anything.
She shook her head and raised her eyes to the ceiling as her mother continued in her ear. The dreams and the quiet made her jumpy.
“Only you, Dad, and Rachel know where I am, Mom. I told you that.” Talia lowered her voice, just in case someone was out there. “I have to go.”
With a sigh of relief, Talia fled back into the house searching for a distraction. She dreamed about drowning again the night before. Water closed over her head. Filled her ears and eyes and nose and mouth. Crushed her lungs. She scrabbled against the walls of the porcelain tub and the edges of her vision turned black. She loved the water, before. Talia pushed the sleeves of her sweater up and scrubbed the breakfast dishes with unnecessary vigor.
Clark watched from the shadows of the cedar trees surrounding the little cabin. The girl paced, talking on her cell phone. He could see the crease of worry or frustration in her forehead. He’d seen plenty of people pass through the little retreat—every one of them running from something whether they knew it or not. The radio on his hip crackled once and he hurriedly backed away as he brought it to his ear.
“Yeah, Pop? Yeah. Be right there.” Clark swallowed against the lump that rose in his throat and fumbled the radio back onto the clip on his belt. He pulled the gloves tucked into his back pocket on and flexed his fingers, willing them not to shake. He chanced a glance over his shoulder as he slipped back through the trees. The girl had disappeared.
Talia woke when her toes touched water. She blinked at it as she stared out over the lake, lit only by the sliver of moon. It looked like a dreamscape—all sliver and black and dark blues. Disoriented, she shoved her hair back from her face; it was wet. She shivered as the icy wind rose from the water. She looked down at her hands, green streamers of moss clung to her fingers, laced through them like a strange cat’s cradle. She bit down on the scream that threatened to burst from her lips. Sleepwalking. Nothing new. Trauma could do that. The mind did all sorts of things. The words rolled through her head like a mantra, repeated in the dry voice that reminded her of whispering book pages. There was something else, she realized. She strained her ears, listening hard for a voice that wasn’t there. Like trying to remember a forgotten melody, the words to a favorite song long-lost.
She scrabbled back up the hill to the cabin, panting as she tried to get back to the yellow glow of the light on the porch. Strong arms caught her around the waist and she screamed, the sound shattering the night.
Oh God, he found me, she thought.
“You’ve heard ‘er singing. The Witch in the Lake,” his rotting breath caressed her cheek. “She sings to the lost, tells them the way home. Especially them’s that’s afraid of the water. You’ve got it, that fear of it covering you, taking you in. She’ll take that from you. She’ll take it all.” The elder Mr. Foster held her easily as she struggled. He smelled of smoke and damp and dead things.
Talia struggled, but he dragged her back to the water and waded in with her. The cold went straight to her bones and drove the breath out of her as he pulled her deeper. It was the nightmare come to life. The gnarled hands of Old Mr. Foster became her husband Richard’s strong young fingers. They forced her beneath the water, water rushing into her lungs as she struggled. Frigid lake water or warm bathwater? Was it the muddy lake bottom she felt or the slick sides of the tub? The blurred face above the roiling surface of the water flickered. Mr. Foster, then Richard, then Mr. Foster again. She clawed frantically at the hands, at the water around her.
The lake tasted like liquefied darkness, it crawled into her mouth, thrust its tendrils down her throat. Black spots filled her vision. The arms tightened around her chest, squeezing the breath from her lungs, then jerked—loosened—released. She was floating.
Clark Foster’s hand pumped steadily against the girl’s chest, forcing the murky water from her lungs. He heard the distant sirens growing closer, but kept his rhythmic pushing, counting the pulses between each breath from his lungs into hers. He didn’t look as his father’s body sank beneath the black waters. They wouldn’t find it—they never found the others. The Lake took everything. Clark’s father always said it set people free. Clark thought he finally understood.