Frank wasn’t surprised to see the green-haired girl by the lake. He knew she probably lived nearby. What grabbed his attention was that she stood there, looming over his wife Lucy tanning on the beach. Can’t be her, Frank tried to convince himself. That hair, though. Unmistakable. She turned away from Lucy and looked toward where Frank waded, staring. Sunlight glinted off silver eye makeup, another familiar detail. Definitely her. Jesus, what did she want? Frank stood in the chest-deep water, blinked his eyes clear.
Just Lucy, alone. Nobody nearby, green-haired or otherwise.
Frank lay back, drifted, tried to relax. Behind closed eyes he saw a female shape. Still couldn’t remember the name. Had he ever known it? Two summers ago, he’d come to the lake, spent nights alone at the bar, thinking of what he’d left behind. Some midnight he’d stumbled around the shore’s perimeter, shouting grievances into the water. She swam up, out of the black, climbed out and stood next to him. So dark, almost couldn’t see her, yet heard her laugh. A few words, as if she understood, then she turned to him. She pulled her orange halter overhead. He could see it in the dark, and her smile. Drawn together into a kiss. So soft. More like a hint or a memory than solid lips, even as it happened. Wet, liquor-tasting. She led him into the water and below, moonlight glinting her silver eyelids.
He pushed the memory away, opened his eyes. Back to today. His wife, their son.
A swish nearby. Lucy half-swimming, half-walking toward him. She circled Frank twice and playfully splashed their son. Moshe was small for eight, too fearful of the deep to go beyond where his toes touched. He stayed near one parent or the other, bobbing chin-deep.
“It’s music, mommy.” Moshe’s tiny voice. “Hear it?”
The words meant nothing at the time. The stuff a kid says. Later, Lucy would tell Frank that Moshe pointed toward the center of the lake when he mentioned the music.
“Watch him a minute?” Lucy asked.
Small waves lapped Frank’s ears, intermittently blocking her voice. Moshe’s thin blond hair was slicked over his scrunched-up eyes scrunched. Trying to float like Daddy, head back. Moshe bobbed, and when his mouth broke the surface, sprayed through pursed lips.
Frank’s mind was on the conference, just days away. He had a presentation to give, and if he had to stand up in front of two or three hundred, he wanted to get a little tan first. Color in the face made him look younger.
He heard Lucy, near him in the water. She was saying something. Could she see his ears were under water? Her arm brushed him from beneath, as if to buoy him. He looked up. Nobody nearby. Lucy remained on the beach, fifty feet away.
Had Moshe bumped him? No, not close enough. In fact, where was he? Frank couldn’t see his son anywhere. Frank swam and flailed, frantic. He stopped to scream Moshe’s name and his foot brushed something. Even as he screamed, his mind flashed a TV matinee horror, some unseen Black Lagoon swimmer. Frank spun, looked around and behind. No sign of the boy. No head bobbing at the surface, no white form beneath.
“Moshe!” He shouted again and again, until the sound seemed to come from someone else.
Lucy ran down the beach into the small waves.
Frank dived under. He fanned both arms through the water, blindly seeking.
Up again, he surveyed. “Moshe!” Nothing, no signs of thrashing or struggle? Other than his own churn, the surface was flat. He sucked in a breath, went under and searched with hands until his lungs burned. Up, a frantic breath. Down again.
Lucy was scanning the beach but Frank knew. Moshe never left the water. One moment floating on tiptoes, the next gone.
The sheriff had cleared the shore but kids still darted like skimbugs in the shallows. Too young to be afraid.
All sound arrived muted, reflected down a long tunnel. Vision, a series of blurred colors. A yellow dinghy motored up to help in the search. The lifeguard’s red-striped Speedo rode below his tan line as he staggered in, chest heaving like an Olympic runner at the finish. Gray clouds looming, a wool blanket. The dead green lake.
Down shore volunteer paramedics watched. One leaned toward another and mouthed, “Won’t find anything.” The second nodded.
Frank awaited the lifeguard at the waterline. “Nothing?”
The lifeguard passed, eyes down. “I’m sorry.”
Sorry you didn’t find his body, Frank wanted to ask. Sorry this happened on your watch? He knew in his gut the lifeguard never expected to find anything. Just going through motions.
The sheriff, a narrow, hunched older woman, guided Frank and Lucy away. She asked about names.
Lucy composed herself. “We’re the Tynans, T-Y. From Portland.”
Frank couldn’t stand the sheriff, the paramedics, even the lifeguard. He stood away, looking at the lake.
“Moshe. That’s his name,” Lucy told the sheriff, and spelled the name. Tiny waves dashed over her feet at the shore’s edge. Black leaf shards scattered in the water as if some lake monster had chewed up trees and vomited them back, half-digested.
The sheriff scrawled notes. Concerned nod. Grim set of mouth.
Will writing down his name bring him up back from the mud?
Frank envisions faceless men dragging the boy up with a hook-ended cable. Little Moshe spits algae and silt from between blue lips. The sheriff, with her clipboard, asks: “Why’d you go under, Master Tynan?”
Frank’s imagination played Moshe’s gurgling reply, horrible and wet as drowning.
“Because I heard singing.”
Frank swirled his glass at the window. What’d she give him? Chianti?
Beyond the vacation home’s weathered gray deck, the lake’s cold heart spread out beyond the trees. The view, which earlier seemed like a travel brochure, made his hands tremble. Somebody else’s remote-controlled hands, attached as a joke. Who the fuck drinks wine at a time like this? Having a swell vacation? Nice little glass of red?
“Will you stop?” Lucy’s voice came sharp, an air raid siren.
He breathed. “What?”
Her tears recommenced with a choke. Hands jerked to her face as if to catch something slipped loose. “Stop.” Lucy let the tears run. “You keep muttering. Don’t you hear yourself?”
“I can’t help it.”
“It’s morbid, patrolling like that. You think you’re going to see him from the window?” Lucy snatched her glass and gulped.
He watched her reflection.
“Why couldn’t…” Her tone shifted. “I told you to watch him!”
“I did watch.” He’d gone over it so many times.
Lucy’s body convulsed in depleted sobs. Frank approached. She shrugged him away, both hands clamped over her face.
He brought her another brim-full glass of that insipid wine. That quieted her. After a while, Frank crossed to the window. He remembered she’d asked him to stop it, but he continued anyway.
Frank convinced himself the woodblock strikes were too slow and discrete to be door-knocks. TOK. A long interval of silence. Again, TOK.
But then the front door squeaked open.
In the living room, Frank stood. In the entryway stood a withered old man in brown corduroy cap and fisherman’s coat. He’d let himself in, and now creaked along mahogany floorboards, something held in his outstretched hand like an offering. A liquor bottle.
“This lake,” the man said, “it’s taken many.”
“I do appreciate…” Frank trailed off. Appreciate what? “Just, it’s getting late–”
“You’d like privacy.” Each feeble, swaying step brought the man nearer the living room. Still he held out the bottle.
Frank blocked him. “My wife’s asleep. Had enough today.”
“I know you’re the same one rutted with that local girl.” The old man squinted at Frank. “The lake girl. Down by Aybree’s bar.”
Frank’s eyes darted to Lucy, shifting on the couch. “I’m here with my family,” he hissed.
“She’s asleep.” The old man edged past. “You left the family behind, last time here. Came alone, looking I’d guess for a taste of the strange.” He settled into the chair within arm’s reach of where Lucy slept.
Frank’s heart pounded. “No, I–”
The old man raised the bottle. “Got a glass?”
Frank went to the kitchen, came back with two glasses.
“You never knew what you were into, here.” The man poured them both triples. “Even now you don’t.”
Frank accepted one. An earthy smell, like Laphroaig’s peat, but strange. The potent burn came as a relief after too much wine. “We were separated when I visited before.”
“Visited. Made that lake girl pregnant.” The old man glared. “Why’d you think your boy swam down?”
The mention of Moshe stabbed Frank in the chest. “What are you talking about? Swam down?”
“The lake might beguile a person.” The old man revealed teeth like butts in an ash tray. “You picture her, don’t you? See her around, like dreaming wide awake? Maybe today?”
He was right. Frank had seen her standing over Lucy. “Maybe.”
“You think at all what brought you back here? Every reason to stay away, this is the place you deliver the family?”
Lucy breathed in a slow, sleepy rhythm. Frank rubbed his eyes and smelled the strange liquor on his hands. Definitely not whiskey. “Why are you here?”
The man paused as if taking measure. “I think you paid enough. Now get away before there’s more.” He gulped the glass empty and clunked it on the table.
“You’ve got to go.” Frank stood, grabbed the man’s arm and hustled him down the hall.
“Your wife done no wrong.” The old man didn’t resist, but his voice became a threatening caw. “You get her away tonight.”
Frank slammed the door against the intruder. His heart thudded against his ribs as he returned to the living room.
Lucy sat up, disoriented, blurry drunk. “Who’s here?”
“An old man. Local.”
“What about?” she asked, eyes half-mast.
Frank was about to sit by Lucy’s feet, but his urge to comfort her was outmatched by exhaustion. “Condolences. Behalf of the town.” He wanted to get away. If he went to bed she might just follow. He might go down the lake. Aybree’s bar?
“Look.” Lucy slurred, both with sleep and drink. She stretched her bare feet into the lamp’s circle. Blotchy marks stained her vivid red from toes to shins.
The room distorted, a wave of heat and fear washing over him. Something’s wrong, something bad.
“You have them.” She angled the lampshade. “Sucker marks!”
He choked out a foreign sound, realized he was crying. It’s not just Moshe, he thought. Something’s wrong with us. He compared their feet. “Maybe just a rash?”
Lucy squinted at the liquor bottle, half-empty on the coffee table. Frank hadn’t noticed the antique label, letterpress-printed with a mermaid insignia, glued-on with thick green wax.
17yr pvt issue
[ cask strength ]
“Some local distillery?” he guessed.
“Mermaid, that’s strange,” she said. “Your dream. You fucked a mermaid.”
“I did?” He averted his eyes, trying to remember. “No.”
“You told me about it, after you came home from the separation.” She sat up. “I dreamed it too, just now.”
He recalled not the dream but the exile of separation. Sickening loneliness, unbearable. The return home felt like a plunging on fire into water’s cool rescue and relief.
Lucy nodded. “In my dream, you said Moshe’s gone because you fucked that mermaid. You said, you thought you only fucked her in your dream, but it turned out real. That’s why we lost him.” Her voice trailed off in a squeal, her face desperate glowing white, spotlight-struck. Tears returned, not the afternoon’s raging howl, but plaintive, exhausted grief.
Frank couldn’t sleep. After a while he tired of staring at patterns on pine ceiling boards and went to the window. Out on the deck Lucy cradled a glass, the end of her third bottle. She’d gone beyond swaying and slurring to emerge into vacant stillness, transparent and ghostlike against pinpoint stars.
As if she sensed Frank watching, Lucy’s sobs recommenced, then something else: a spoken word stretched out into a cry. “Mosheeeee.” She elongated the name into a howl.
Frank heard nothing of his son within that terrible sound.
“Mohhhhhsheeee.” So much pain.
Frank slid the door open. “We need to do this together–”
“Together!” she barked, throat ragged. “Since when?”
“I’ll never leave again–”
“Shhhhh.” She froze, poised. “Hear that?”
“What? I don’t–”
She halted him with a raised hand. “Music,” she whispered. “On the lake. Just like Mo said.”
Frank leaned at the rail, straining to hear. “You sure?”
Lucy trembled visibly. “Little Mo… he heard it.”
She climbed barefoot up the deck rail and swayed. Momentum almost carried her over. Twenty feet below the packed dirt was sprinkled with dead pine needles.
“Stop!” Frank lunged, grabbed her legs.
“Get off!” Lucy screamed. She teetered on the edge.
He slid up to clamp around her thighs and lifted her down. “You can’t jump down here, Lu. It’s too high.” He averted his face from her flailing hands.
Lucy’s feet touched down. Her elbow smashed Frank’s temple and he reeled. She vaulted the rail and disappeared into the dark. A terrible, meaty THUNK coincided with a SNAP.
Frank raced to the rail. Maybe she landed on a bush, a tree, something to break her fall? Only thin traces of light from above filtered down through the deck. Was that a human shape in the dark? Something wobbled sideways in the lakeside mud. Crablike, slurping and flailing, barely outlined by the moon. The shape of a woman heaved on bent-wrong legs. Moans, wounded-animal scuttling.
Frank raced downstairs to the yard. His eyes adjusted but he found nothing in the dark stillness. Where she must have landed, a rough spot of ground. A stain he hoped wasn’t blood.
Find her. Don’t lose another.
Water sounds, like trout splashing. He rushed to the edge.
“Lucy! Lucyyyy!” His throat was raw, painful. It was the second time that day he’d yelled after someone lost.
Frank waded in shallows, crawled the mucky shore. Time blurred in desperate seeking. In some unknown segment of the lake’s perimeter he found a small moorage. Heart rattling, hands trembling, he mounted the pier. A rotten, disintegrated rope tied an abandoned boat to a pile. He climbed into the wobbling craft. A shredded life jacket sloshed in shallow, brackish water. A single oar. He pushed out.
I should’ve seen him. Could’ve stopped him going under.
Had there been any sign, anything in Moshe’s face? He should’ve been watching, not thinking of the girl.
He rowed toward the rental house, back muscles aching. He cried out for Moshe, then remembered Lucy and alternated between their names. He found nothing in the water near the house so he swerved toward the public beach. Every sound raised hope. He changed course, kept seeking, but found nothing. The boat worked a random zigzag toward the lake’s center.
Were you scared, little Mo? Oh God, water in your lungs.
Sweat soaked Frank’s shirt, streamed down his neck. Beyond the reach of shore lights, the dark water yielded nothing. Through exhaustion and despair he considered giving up. Then below the surface, he saw something. A subtle glow. Maybe a trick of his mind, a wish? He tried to blink the light away but it remained.
That light drifted nearer the surface, carrying some kind of sound. Music, some old-timey tune. The static of radio, or gramophone noise.
I’ll find you, Mo. I’ll catch up.
Hands reached toward him from just below the surface, as if from the opposite side of a pane of glass. Frank dropped the oar and reached. Watery hands tugged him under. His chest scraped over the boat’s side and by the time he realized what was happening he was submerged.
The water supported, seduced. It filled his mouth, streamed through his lungs. The sensation panicked him briefly, until the music soothed him. A chill spread through his body. Fingers pulled him down. He wanted to follow.
Show me the way to the songs.
The water, murky green at the surface, cleared to brilliance. Nearby flashed the mermaid’s skin. Light glinted off eyes like goldfish. The green-haired creature unlaced her bikini top, let it drift. Together again, like at the docks. By the light from below, her belly and breasts glowed perfect white. Gold and green scales ran down sleek sides to her hips. Brighter now, everything brighter. The moon rising from the lake’s bottom. A shifting shape, a taste on his lips. A girl, white and green.
Somehow he’d known of the baby. She must have reached out, sent a message. Somehow compelled him to return.
Gently tugging gelatinous strands, barely more solid than water, wrapped and pulled him along. Headfirst he descended until he faced a great, open pipe, like a tunnel emergent from the sloped bedrock. Strewn near the opening were shovels and pickaxes, some standing like candles on a rough birthday cake. Most lay scattered, silt-covered amid awful, pulpy rot.
Within the tunnel two figures beckoned. A woman and child hovered adrift in currents, waving, mouths in motion. Beckoning.
He moved again, swam without effort. The woman and child were well ahead. Urgency drew him onward like a magnet.
Near the end of the pipe brightness increased. Frank emerged in a crowded restaurant and lounge, elegant white marble everywhere. In water clean and perfect as air he felt no need to breathe. Formally-attired patrons gathered around a shallow-walled pool, raised like a stage. Mounded gelatinous creatures seethed within, invertebrate things squirming and spilling one over another.
The refined atmosphere turned ominously dark, threatening. Despite growing revulsion Frank could not turn back. The creatures were not the unthinking monsters he’d first assumed. Human-like intelligence was apparent in their actions and demeanor. They watched him, seemed to understand without words. Though at first they seemed to tangle aimlessly, Frank saw they fought over raw meat, cracking bones and rending blood-red flesh. With flexible arms they shredded prey which appeared human.
From among the well-dressed crowd of men and women, some shifted in form, became more like the monstrous things and joined them in the pool to take part in the feeding. Other shapeless things, having fed, resolved into human shape and rejoined the crowd of watchers. They were all the same, shifting between varied forms. All but Frank, and some few like himself, unable to change, solidly human, casually dressed drifters or vacationers.
Amid the throng gathered on the pool’s opposite side, the green-haired girl wore the shape he remembered. He thought even now of the taste of her kiss. That sweet, vaporous tingle of lips and tongue, like strong liquor. No longer nude, but dressed as when they first met. The crowd shifted to reveal an infant floating at her side, holding her hand. The toddler’s black hair flowed like seaweed with a current.
What he first took to be indifferent passivity on the part of those few genuinely human visitors present, apart from himself, now registered as the paralyzed terror of cattle led down the slaughterhouse chute. No screams, no sounds of any kind except that distant radio music. Despite its faraway quality the song originated from the mass of thrusting, vying creatures, who came here from surface lives surrounding the lake’s shore, where they passed as bartenders or shopkeepers, until by night they shifted and submerged to mingle among their own. To sing. Sometimes to feed.
A wet-faced gray thing, its pink inner mouth speckled black, shuffled over the pool’s low walls. Half-floating, half-lurching, ever nearer. Frank knew its intent. The music pierced his mind. No longer distant but shrill, immediate, though still as inscrutable as a foreign tongue. Their voices soared to crescendo the way a stage crooner concludes with a crowd pleaser at show’s end. Emotion rose within the throng, and within Frank, a transcendent sublimity. The voices of the soft things merged, harmonized.
The green-haired girl stood forth from the crowd and held the child up for Frank to see. A tiny body, wrapped to the chest in white swaddling which disguised its shape.
“Your father,” she said to the child. Then to Frank, “Your only son.”
He looked around for Lucy and Moshe but couldn’t find them. The girl’s shape shifted like a slow current, from woman to mermaid to a shimmering, amorphous convolution like the singing beasts. What was her true basis? Her form shifted to the white breasted, green flanked gold eyed creature. His mouth tingled.
Beside her, floating higher, the child. Frank never knew his name, but recognized the eyes.
The gray thing gripped him with multiple arms but did not stop singing as it pulled.
Michael Griffin’s fiction has appeared in Phantasmagorium and Electric Spec, among others, and will appear soon in Apex Magazine as well as the Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets and the Current 93 tribute Mighty in Sorrow. He’s also an electronic musician and founder of Hypnos Recordings, an ambient music label he and his wife operate in Portland, Oregon. He blogs at griffinwords.wordpress.com and his Twitter feed is @griffinwords.
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Story illustration by Nick Gucker.