Just Beneath the Surface of the Lake
Already August and so far that summer no one had died in Harris, CT of anything other than natural causes. It was unprecedented: not a soul drowned. It might seem a miracle, this record-low lacustrine mortality rate, if it weren’t for the fact that no one went in the lake anymore at all. The beach was fenced off, fines set high, sensationalist warning signs posted to every telephone pole.
The lake water grew green and scummy in the absence of human disruption. The thick, vegetable scent of it stretched far from shore into downtown. Long-legged bugs now walked the water’s surface; snakes cut trails through the algae, left thin, dark paths of reflected sky; Maryanne Gross and Tilly Hently hopped the fence and climbed up onto a rock by the lakeshore, off of which, in summers past, they might have jumped.
Both girls wore clothespins on their noses to block the stench, so when they laughed it sounded strange and when they spoke it was nasal and when they kissed atop the sun-soaked rock they had to contend with the wood protruding from their faces, careful not to poke one another in the eye.
“What are we gonna do when school starts?” Tilly asked, rubbing sunscreen into Maryanne’s back, fingers flirting with the dangling strings of her bikini.
“I know, right?” Maryanne said. “Have you started the math packet? AP’s gonna be brutal.”
“I meant about us.”
They hadn’t talked about it at all. Maryanne kept deflecting. Like now she plucked a small, tenacious wild flower from a crack in the rock and handed it over her shoulder to Tilly. Tilly was smart enough to recognize this as an evasion but not smart enough to resist sighing and taking it, dropping a kiss to Maryanne’s shoulder.
Her skin tasted like sunscreen. Tilly spat.
“Do you think there’s really something down there?” Tilly asked. “Just beneath the surface?”
“Nah, it’s definitely scare tactics.” Maryanne tossed a pebble into the water. It landed with a tiny splash. Across the shore, a great number of little black birds quit an oak tree all at once.
“What are you doing?” Tilly yelped, reaching to drag her friend – best friend? girlfriend? – away from the drop.
“Chill,” Maryanne said, “Just last summer that would’ve been us jumping off here.”
“Last summer, twenty-seven people drowned,” Tilly said. “People we knew, even. That girl from my sister’s year?”
“Yeah.” But then: “You really don’t wanna?”
“Is that why you brought me here? God.”
They gathered their things and biked back to their houses. Didn’t kiss goodnight before they parted.
James Calhoun’s end-of-summer party was still held at the lakeshore, a tradition not to be tampered with. Sandy solo cups of beer, bowls of chips. Someone’s phone docked in portable speakers, blaring:
Let’s get drunk
Not love but it’s fun
We’re all too young
“I’m so sick of this song,” Tilly said.
Maryanne grabbed her hand, pulled Tilly in. It wouldn’t out them. Just the way straight girls danced at parties.
Later. Moon out, crowd dwindled. No one knew who said it first, from where the suggestion whispered forth: truth or dare.
“Really?” Maryanne asked. “We’re not thirteen.”
“Something to hide, M.A.?” Caroline Forney laughed.
Tilly tried to catch Maryanne’s eye across the circle. Couldn’t.
“Just for that, you’re up first, Care,” said Justin Lang. Maryanne smiled at him. The stench of the lake hit Tilly’s nose with renewed, putrid strength.
Tilly finished her beer, ignoring the game to stare at where Maryanne and Justin’s knees almost touched.
“Hey, Maryanne,” she called, stealing a turn. “Truth or dare?”
Maryanne looked at her. “Truth, I guess.”
“Boo, boring.” Justin Lang knocked their shoulders together.
“Who’s the last person you kissed?”
Maryanne was silent for a second too long. Then she turned, grabbed Justin by the shoulders, planted her lips on his. Whoops and cheers erupted all around.
Maryanne pulled away, looked Tilly in the eyes, answered, “Justin Lang.”
Justin offered up a dazed little salute to the circle at large.
Tilly pulled out her phone. “Oh, shit, my parents. I gotta get home. Sorry, guys.”
“Nuh nuh nuh,” said JC. “Rules of the game, Tilly Hently. It’s your turn.”
“Yeah, Matilda. What’ll it be?”
Tilly thought of every confession whispered into the dark at sleepovers, every secret shared between the press of lips to skin. “Dare.”
Maryanne’s mouth unwound.
“I dare you,” she said, “to jump into the lake.”
The night was warm, the moon half-full. Peepers warbled. Mosquitos feasted on exposed young flesh. The lake was still and waiting. The lake was still and wanting.
Julie Markey broke the silence: “Dude, what the fuck?”
“Maryanne,” Tilly said. “I didn’t mean…”
“Yes. You did. So you know what, Tilly, go jump in the lake.”
“Hey, hey,” JC said. “I dunno what’s up with you ladies, but this is a friendly game, right? Do a truth instead.”
Tilly stood, slid off her shoes. Protests from the chorus:
“What are you doing?”
“Okay, good joke.”
“Maryanne, c’mon. Call her off!”
Tilly ignored them, making her way to the rock. She stumbled, skinned her hand catching her body-weight on stone. She looked back at the group in the sand, a dark blur. She turned to the lake.
Took a breath. Plugged her nose.
The next day, Tilly woke at noon, took an advil, ate some cereal, hopped on her bike, rode back to the lakeshore. She’d never tried to scale the fence without anyone there to give her a boost. She landed ungracefully, walked across the beach with shoes in hand, toes burning in the sand. At the water’s edge, she kept going. Scum clung to Tilly’s skin as the lake took her in bit by bit: knees, waist, chest, neck, head. She kept her eyes open as she went. The Lake Creature turned to greet her. She hadn’t imagined it. Vast and ugly and strange and wonderful.
About the Author: Phoebe Cramer is a queer writer and performer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, and has appeared in Longleaf Review, Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit, NonBinary Review, and elsewhere. She works as a bookseller and hangs out on twitter @PhoebeLCramer.