I See the Lake. Part 4
“I- I know the way back. I’ll be fine,” I said.
“You know your way back, really?” said Tex. “Then why didn’t you move your ass back to your tent ages ago? I know. ‘Cause you weren’t finished spying on us from your tower up there.”
“No, I was…”
I didn’t tell them the lake was evil. I’m sure they wouldn’t believe me if I did. Simple truth is I was too scared. The water layered their bodies, and you might call me a senile old geezer, but I knew the lake was using them as a raft, clinging to them the same way the fire clung to my nail. The lake was trying to sink hooks in me, burn me, strip me down to muscle and bone and never let go. Consume. I didn’t know the word back then, but I know now. The lake wanted to consume me.
“I was going to leave, but I wanted to listen to that song you were singing.” Seemed a bad lie at the time.
Charlie lit up. “Really. Did you like the song, or was it the singing you enjoyed?”
I shrugged. “Both.”
“Good,” he nodded. “Right on.” And the intensity eased in his eyes, like he’d finally found me, figured out my game and knew my last name. If you catch my drift.
We stood there without anyone attempting to break the silence. I wiggled my toes in the mud, using the dirt as a stress ball and the gash on my toe hurt less than the panic stabbing my chest.
“You’re right Tex,” Charlie said. “Getting late.”
Charlie walked away without a goodbye, finished with the idea that I existed.
“One more swim, please Charlie?” Leslie called out after him.
Sadie made a huffed noise, one manic eye twitched. Before she left, she walked up and kissed the side of my mouth. I was too surprised to flinch. Her breath was warm and her lips sent a melting sensation into my gut. If there’d been water on her lips, I would’ve vomited all over her bare chest. I bet my last meal on it.
Tex told me to get moving and I did as ordered. I apologised as I left but sounded like a hamster head first in the hay. No one heard me.
As I approached the opening in the trees I looked over my shoulder, but the five naked strangers had already descended to the lower banks of the forest. I suppose they went for another swim in the lake, the stars their only audience.
I reached the bottom of the dune slope to see Dad wandering outside the tent with a flashlight, calling my name. I don’t remember running to him, but I remember how the rough wool of his shirt hurt the graze on my face.
“It hurts. It hurts.”
“What? Tommy boy, where the heck are your clothes?”
He half carried me inside and Ma patched me up. When she tried pouring water on my foot, I kicked.
“Whatchya doing?” Dad said. “Come on now, Tom, you have to earn your chest hair.”
I was going to tell Dad to shut up, which would’ve gotten me a clip round the ears. But seconds after I laid on Ma’s trundle bed, I passed out.
We left a couple days later. I refused to explain my evening ventures, refused to leave the tent too even after a wallop from Dad. In the end, it was my toe that saved me. Ma didn’t much like the look of the scab turning green.
I kept quiet through most the drive home except for one comment; if they ever planned a trip to the ranges again, I’d sign up for summer school. Dad sighed and said he was taking all feedback on board.
You know the story from here. News broke of the murders nine months after our camping trip and by then I’d stopped having nightmares of water rushing under my bedroom door, of wet fingers stroking my cheeks. The whole nation set their clocks to coo-coo. Our LA town acted Mother Theresa in public, heads flung in disgust, but in private we were dogs lapping up every blood-soaked detail.
The papers shoved the woman’s photo in my face every day, you know who I mean, the actress with the big eyelashes. Something-Tate? Headlines mourned her unborn baby in bold letters, but I guess you know that as well. I never read the names of the other murdered people.
Leslie was first to appear on our television set during the morning bulletin. When the camera zoomed out, manic-eyed Sadie appeared at her side. I watched them over my bowl of cornflakes, two brown haired girls dressed in identical blue, being escorted through the courtroom. My insides dissolved. I sprinted to the kitchen sink and chucked up my breakfast. Right there, right on the corner of my mouth is where Sadie kissed me. Do you see a mark there? No, suppose you wouldn’t.
Linda was invisible amongst the chaos that followed, I only saw Tex’s name in print. Then, days later, Charlie made his television debut. His coke-jacked glare penetrated the barrier between the glass screen and my sanity, and I touched my own cheek when I saw his face so gaunt. The cops discovered his jig and, quick-smart, Charlie became the focus, the ‘ringleader’, the ‘Father of Killers’. Christ, I dreaded seeing him every morning, on every paper and every news report. I waited for someone, anyone, to mention the lake and it boiled my guts that no one did. Of course, I didn’t say a word either.
During one evening report, Charlie appeared in a courtroom cuffed, tongue stretched over his chin, a red cross carved between his eyes. He scared me so fierce I had fresh nightmares and pissed the bed at sixteen. Afterwards, I avoided the news and the papers and I vowed never to see Charles Manson’s face again.
I didn’t mean to create a secret, but a secret is what I had. Wasn’t until I met Bess that the dam finally broke. We were in college and dumb in love, so I unloaded my heart thinking the truth would lighten under a second pair of shoulders. I told her everything, my crippled foot, the flame on my nail, the hiss of liquid running from Sadie’s hand to my cheek. I told her how the water clung to their bodies and then, talking like a bullet train, I said out loud the idea that had haunted me for years; the water found a way inside their bodies and stayed there, using them to inflict bloodshed.
Bess pursed her mouth in a way that would one day brand and break our marriage.
“How do you know it’s not the other way round?” She said. “They were all such monsters. Let’s suppose they swam in this lake of yours and leaked evil into the water. If the lake is magic, then those awful people created the magic lake.”
If. I’ve always hated her for that if. I hated the way she said ‘magic lake’ and hate her still for introducing an idea rivalling my own. See, she confused me. I saw the lake for the disease it was, but Bess was like you, all she knew were the murderers. I was a fool for thinking she’d believe me.
We never mentioned the lake again, at least not to each other. Bess was a talker — I’m bet she still is — and it wasn’t long before half of Stanford University heard my tale. Psych students asked for an interview and, for some reason, I agreed. The funny thing is Bess must’ve spread an edited version of my story because those students didn’t ask one damn question about the lake. Oh no. Their only interest was Manson and his crew, my guess is they had no clue the lake was anything more than a pretty setting. I was a good sport, I pretended to pause to recall moments hot-ironed in my mind, and warned them I was no talented storyteller, just as I warned you. The interview must’ve been a success, because a week later a local reporter called wanting an interview of his own and this time with cameras instead of notepads.
I’ve offered my tale to whoever asked over the years. There was a ninety-minute-special for the thirty-year anniversary of the murders called Manson Family: the Blood that Bonds Us. I had a small clip, but didn’t enjoy my cameo. Too much dramatic music if you ask me.
And though it’s made the roots of my teeth itch, I’ve never mentioned the lake.
I had chances. Problem is, those flashing red lights above the camera lens can easily be mistaken for eyes. Judgemental eyes.
Now I’m dying and for the first time in a long time, I’m scared. I’m scared if I stay silent, the story will keep me company in the grave. Students like you are the only ones I can trust, nurses would only increase my meds and reporters will paint me as a fool. Ma and Dad are gone, the twins live overseas and enjoy their own families. We don’t much talk. Never had kids myself.
I hoped to pass away the same way as Dad, warm in his sleep, but since I found out, my chances are low. I heard about it on the news a couple weeks ago. About Charlie, I mean. He’s dead. Charlie the killer is now Charlie the corpse. I heard and two days later the doctors nailed me with my own diagnosis. If I could stand, I’d stamp my feet. I think about screaming, I sure as hell want to but I’m scared I’ll squeeze out my last drops and die trapped in a rage. Charlie reached the other side before me and now all I think about is seeing him perched on a rock shelf in the forest, singing a Beatle’s tune while he waits. I tell myself the true evil belonged to the lake, only the lake, but the nightmares have returned and my old mind is confused. Bess confused me, time and too many crime documentaries have confused me. I’m not sure which I should fear; the dead man or the water. You might say both, but I think not.
I don’t sleep. Anger and terror are the only company I keep and my thoughts have become as unhealthy as my body. I can’t sleep.
One more thing before you go. My toe nail never grew back. Doctors couldn’t figure out why but I never needed an explanation. I’d dipped my toe into the lake and the water sapped out all the life in reach. Yeah, you could say I’m lucky my toe was the only part that touched the water. I suppose.
Ash Tudor is a horror writer from Perth, Australia who hides from the sunshine while she scribbles dark tales. She has a degree in ancient history and is a trained ancestry researcher, but now devotes her time to creating nightmares. Her debut short story released last year on Writer-Writer and her work has been shortlisted in several competitions. Currently Ash is writing a collection of short horror fiction and hording werewolf teeth in her attic.
Find Ash on Twitter @AshTudor888