Tate didn’t like how the kid was acting. The teenaged male in the second-hand cruiser’s back seat—who could produce no ID, but had given the moderately improbable name of “Jamal Kartazian”—was far too compliant. As a rule, kids like this—scrawny white boys with lumpy dreadlocks and grimy hoodies—were a spewing font of the Three Bs: bravado, back-peddling, and begging.
But not this kid. Jamal Kartazian was cool and collected; he almost seemed satisfied to find himself locked in the back of a cop car. And, in contrast to every other kid Tate had ever busted in his short two-act career as first a cop and then a rent-a-cop, this kid was actually asking to be “hauled back to the station.”
Granted, that “station” was just a concrete box of an office where the kids Tate caught messing around the half-finished condo development cooled their heels waiting for either their parents or the actual cops to come pick them up, but still: No one ever asked to get hauled in.
Tate feigned confusion. With his soft features, piggy jowls, and small, damp, eyes, it was an easy sell. People naturally took him for an idiot.
“Wellll,” Tate said, exaggerating both the word and his bewilderment, “I still just don’t get it.” He clicked his pen ceaselessly, arrhythmically. His first partner had called this “Dry Water Torture,” insisting it drove annoyed suspects to answer questions, just to stop the damned clicking.
The kid sighed, slumped further into the sagging back seat, and shook his head.
“Officer,” he sighed. Tate—who hadn’t been an “officer” of any sort for two years—didn’t correct him. “I don’t get what you don’t fucking get. The weather was good, it was Labor Day weekend, so I figured I’d come out and do a skinny dip; that’s it. You caught me fucking fair and square, trespassing and whatever. Indecent exposure, private property. You’re straight-up honor bound with sworn duty, or whatever, to drag my ass downtown and toss my shit in a cell. Case closed.”
“Skinny dipping on a moonless night?” Tate asked, scratching his head like a yokel from central casting, “Alone?”
Mucky little lakes like Lake 19—ones that didn’t even merit real names, let alone development—didn’t have the benefit of lighted parking lots. And when Jamal Kartazian had stumbled out of the brush 20 minutes earlier, he’d done so without so much as a Bic lighter to guide him. As a rule, teenaged dippers don’t skinny dip in dark little lakes on moonless nights with no flashlights.
And teenaged dippers never dip solo.
“You were swimming alone?” Tate repeated. The boy’s hair was dry, and there was fine dirt in the creases at the corners of his mouth and eyes.
Jamal Kartazian’s lips twitched, just a little, as though several answers were vying to see which could make it out first. What finally escaped was a tight, “Yup.”
“OK,” Tate replied, pretending to laboriously note this on his legal pad. “I was just wondering why a lonely solo skinny dipper has two pairs of shoes in his car?”
Tate had come upon the seemingly abandoned Honda almost half an hour before the leggy barefoot kid stumbled out into the neglected access road, and he hadn’t spent that time playing Candy Crush on his phone. Instead, he’d thoroughly satisfied his curiosity, peering in through the car’s dust-caked windows to see two pairs of shoes on the floorboards, one dainty, the other clunky. The driver’s seat was pulled up close to the steering wheel. Tate’d tried the doors—locked—-and even poked around for a hide-a-key stuck to the underbody or behind the license plate. He’d then settled into his dark cruiser a dozen yards back down the lane, one hand on the spotlight’s grip. Jamal Kartazian had popped out of the tangled wall of brush not ten minutes later. It was immediately obvious that he was far too tall to have been the one sitting behind the steering wheel with the seat so far forward.
The teen had frozen when the spotlight hit him—a response that was so consistent among teen trespassers, Tate assumed it was a prehistoric reflex.
But then this trespasser had done something odd: He’d visibly relaxed when he recognized the light as a cop-car spotlight.
That definitely wasn’t normal.
Jamal Kartazian, sitting pretty behind the cruiser’s chainlink divider, finally looked up from his sneakerless feet. “I . . . Like to have back-ups. So the shoe can match the mood, you know?”
“Oh.” Tate said dutifully. “OK.” He pretended to carefully write this down as well. “Your backup shoes, for when you don’t feel like wearing the big puffy DCs that are on the passenger-side floorboards of your,” Tate hit the word hard, “Honda Civic are a little pair of mint green Keds?”
“Yeah,” Jamal Kartazian answered dryly. “I like to rock a diversity of kicks, officer.” For the first time the boy looked nervous. He glanced out the window—not the windshield, not toward “his” car and the diversity of kicks within, but out the side window, toward the dark waters of Lake 19. “We sorta been sitting here a long time, officer.” The boy licked his lips. “Maybe we oughtta—”
“And your name is ‘Jamal Kartazian’?”
“With no ID?”
“It’s in the car—”
“Which is locked, and you lost the key skinny dipping, by yourself, in the dark, with absolutely no smaller-than-you female person who usually wears mint green Keds?”
“That’s right. You’d just confiscate my shoelaces during in-processing anyway, so I think it’s basically OK that my shoes are safe and sound in the car. Howsabout we book me, Danno? Call it a night?” Another glance out toward the lake.
Tate, of course, could book no one, because he was not a cop any more. He hadn’t been dismissed for any dramatic reason—that likely would have increased his job prospects: Mid-Michigan’s moderately crooked businessmen seemed to have a soft spot for moderately crooked cops. Unfortunately for Tate, he was straight as an arrow. He’d simply had the ill luck to be the newest hire in a department with a shrinking budget.
Tate clicked his pen with finality.
“It would be a shame to leave your vehicle out here where some delinquent might vandalize it.” He picked up his heavy black flashlight and clicked it on. “I’m happy to help you go look for your keys down by the water.”
“No!” The kid snapped, his face pale and eyes wet. “No . . . sense bothering, is all I’m saying. Lost is lost ‘til morning light. Probably best to pack it in.”
“Who’s down by the lake, Jamal?”
The kid shook his head and smiled the sick smile of the long ill. “No one,” he said purposefully, “Is down by that lake, dude.”
“Then whose car is this?”
Jamal Kartazian flopped back in the seat “Mine, dude. And it’s even, like, illegally parked, I’m sure. I’m totally half out in the roadway, all obstructing the flow of whatever. Just bust me already. Just let’s get gone.”
Tate reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a tiny patch of turquoise cotton. “These yours, too?” He asked, holding the brand-new thong underwear aloft so that Jamal Kartazian could see the maniacally smiling, spangled SpongeBob Squarepants emblazoned across the tiny swatch of fabric.
The boy’s jaw dropped with surprise and wonder.
Tate had bought this thong himself—it had been reduced for quick sale—expressly for the purpose of goosing guys like young “Jamal Kartazian” into accidentally ratting out their friends hiding in the brush. This technique had been taught to him by his predecessor, creepy Old Bob Dowagieac. Tate had felt like a total perv buying the thong—in fact, Tate felt like a total perv just walking past Wal-Mart’s Young Miss fashion department. He’d noted that Old Bobby D. suffered no such pangs—and also devoted an unseemly amount of time to “staking out” the more popular skinny dipping lakes with his Sony Nightshot handycam.
As far as Tate was concerned, his own indefinite furlough from publicly funded law enforcement had served the common good in at least one regard: When the developers had hired Tate to patrol the property, they’d taken the opportunity to cut leering Old Bobby D. loose. All that aside, Tate had to admit that Old Bob’s beloved “thong method” worked like liquid wrench on an old padlock, as promised.
Tate pressed the thong against the chain-link separating the back seat from the front. “These were on the ground next to your door, Mr. Kartazian.”
“Those would never fit Mimi,” the boy gasped.
“Is Mimi down by the water or out in the bushes?”
The boy recovered. “I said ‘me.’ Those would never fit me.”
Tate glanced down at the kid’s bedraggled skinny jeans—which looked like they’d come from the Young Miss section, too. “I don’t know if that’s true, but you said ‘Mimi.’ Why don’t we go out and get Mimi in here and all head up to the office to make a call.”
The kid slumped, and finally dropped his mask of calm. “Let’s just roll. She isn’t out there anymore,” he said miserably.
“Then where is she?”
“Dead, I guess.” The kid’s face was blank and voice flat.
Tate froze. He briefly wished he could call in the cavalry, and then briefly cursed his bottom-of-the-barrel pre-paid cellphone, which only had one bar by the half-finished marina footings at Big Lake (formerly “Lake 5”), and that was three miles closer to cellularly networked civilization.
“Why don’t you just give me the whole story from the top?” Tate said carefully.
“Yeah,” the kid agreed in that eery, flat way, “OK. Me and Mimi came down here . . . a couple nights ago, I guess? She said she knew a good spot for skinny dipping, ‘cause, like, no one went there and the cops basically didn’t patrol it.” Jamal Kartazian smiled ruefully. “Mimi said she and her folks used to hike back here all the time when she was a little kid, before the land got sold and sold and sold again. Her folks are sorta hippies, and would do, like, Naturist picnics.” The boy smirked then, and came back to himself for a moment. “Which sounds more awesome than it is. Like, Mimi’s folks and their friends? They aren’t exactly the people you wanna see prancing all naked in the mud.”
The boy reached up absently with his right hand and worried one of the dreadlocks at his temple. His sleeve slid up, revealing deep abrasions on his forearm. Maybe they were defensive wounds, Tate thought. Maybe the boy had been gouged by the brambles as he chased someone through the undergrowth.
“It was dark as shit, just a little sliver of moon, and real cloudy. Me and Mimi were picking our way through these fucking prickers, giggling and shit . . .” the kid coughed a laugh, “All we had was this little bullshit Hello Kitty flashlight on her keychain. I was pretty excited to get down to the stupid water, right? And get naked. My buds were always like ‘Mimi isn’t really much to look at,’ but that was because they totally didn’t get her. She was fucking sassy, yo. I was mad crushing on her.”
It did not escape Tate’s notice that the boy kept using the past tense. His stomach did a single lazy flop.
“And so our shit is good and tangled in the woods, when the clouds sorta thin, and this big fat full moon pops through. All the trees and bushes and shit are like . . . like they’re coated in silver. We’re totally closer to the lake than we thought. The water was still, like a big pool of oil with liquid silver floating on it. Right then, right there, everything was just so fucking beautiful. It was like dropping E—just pow, all through you. Mimi laughed and we high-fived. She stumbled out into the clearing at the edge of the water while I was still all tangled in this pricker bush bullshit. Standing down there on the pebbles, she looked back over her shoulder smiling, then crossed her arms and took hold of the bottom part of her t-shirt to pull it off. And then there was this light.”
The kid said the word “light” the way an EMT describing a shut-in cat lady’s apartment says “smell.”
“This fucking awful, searing white light,” the kid said. “Like lightning, but not a flash. A steady light that just kept getting brighter and brighter. ‘cause the thing was, that full moon that lit our way wasn’t the fucking moon. The moon was just a shitty little sliver down near the horizon. This light up in the sky was like a spotlight. Mimi turned back to look at it, and something in her changed. She went tight, and then slack, like she was just awestruck. Like, literally, like she’d been actually struck with the weight of the shit she was seeing. Like . . .” the boy was casting around in his head, “Like, OK, a couple years ago me and my folks and my brother, we did this eco-tour thing, right? Where we went to Ecuador and then got on this, like, yacht boat with some other eco-tourists and cruised around the Galapagos islands with a guide. It was basically OK—you could drink on the boat, ‘cause of the international waters or whatever. The food was fucking awesome. They have these giant lobsters down there. Huge. Like, for reals, two-feet-long huge, but no claws, ‘cause they’ve got no predators. Still, awesomely delicious. The best lobster, and we had it every night. Seemed totally lux, right?
But then one night the boat’s, like, janitorial muchacho asks to borrow my flashlight, and I’m all like ‘¿Por qué?’ and he says ‘langostas.’ And it turns out that the reason we were eating lobster every night was that it was free: the cook and this dude would row out in a lifeboat and shine the light on the water. The lobsters would come up to check it out, and then the muchachos would just scoop up the clawless bastards and dump ‘em in milk crates until dinnertime. I rowed out with them that night, and it was like magic: You shine the light on the face of the water, and it’s just empty murk. Then the lobsters cruise in. They swim butt first, but once they’re in the light they stop swimming and drift around to face it, and you see it reflected in their little black eyes, and they go sorta slack. They look, like, fascinated and hopeless. Then the chef scoops ‘em up. And . . .”
The kid chewed his lips for a long while, tugging at that dreadlock all the while. “They grilled ‘em.” He said. “I mean later, to cook them, that night. The cook’d put them on the griddle alive, with a grill weight pinning each one down so it wouldn’t drag itself off. But those lobsters didn’t really fight it like you’d think. They’d wave their feelers and squirm a little, but they didn’t seem real motivated.” Another long, long pause. “I didn’t eat any more lobster that trip,” he finished. “I haven’t really eaten meat since.”
Tate waited, and when the kid wasn’t forthcoming, he finally asked. “So her body, you left it out by the water?”
“What?” The kid jerked, his hand finally dropping away from his hair and eyes locking on Tate’s. “No, dude, my point—the light, it scooped her up. She’s gone.” The car’s dome light popped on when Tate opened his door. “No!” the kid shouted, clutching at the chain-link divider. “Nonononono!”
Tate glanced again at his cellphone, saw that there was no reception, sighed, and stood out of the car. “Ma’am!” He called toward the lake, shining his flashlight on the scrim of dark trees. “Mimi! Can you hear me? Are you injured?”
“Shhh,” the kid hissed hysterically, rattling the divider for emphasis. “Dude! Dude! Did you not hear what I was telling you! Get back in the car and get us the fuck away from the lake!”
Tate leaned back in to the car, pulling the keys from the ignition and clipping them to his belt. “Listen, ‘Jamal,’ I totally accept that the heavens may well be populated by a terrible Devouring Janitor from Beyond the Stars, flashlight in hand, just like in your story. I don’t care. All I know is that two of you came down here in that Honda, only one of you is in my cruiser right now, and that one is acting like he’s done a Very Bad Thing.”
Tate stood back up and slammed the door, which significantly muffled the kid’s protest. He walked away from the cruiser, into the dark, unbroken silence: Not a buzz or chitter or chirp, just the gentle lapping of Lake 19.
He killed his light and listened, hoping to hear Mimi, hoping that she’d just been ditched or mildly assaulted, or maybe gotten lost. Or maybe, God willing, she was hiding, in cahoots with “Jamal Kartazian” and ready to bail once Tate had been sufficiently misdirected.
The night was cool, still, and dark. While Tate had been entertaining the kid’s bullshit in the cruiser the clouds had rolled back in, smothering the vast flurry of stars. Tate understood why the kids came back here, to this secluded corner of the universe, where even the lonely rent-a-cop rarely tread, and cellphones could find no signal: You could hear no hint of the freeway back here, catch no glimpse of the rotten glow of the high-intensity lights leaching out from the truck stops and fast-food joints. They weren’t under a flight path. Even the “access road” was little more than a farmer’s two-track. On a clear night the starry sky was breathtaking and terrifying in its depth. Judging from the ambiance of Lake 19, you might think that humans had never really gotten a toe-hold on this continent.
But as a cop—albeit an indefinitely furloughed cop—Tate understood the other side of that. These kids didn’t take their trash with them to preserve the virgin watershed; they were minimizing evidence. They didn’t come to the forest primeval to be liberated from society’s constraints; they were back here getting red in tooth and claw.
Standing in the dark, Tate thought about the light that the boy claimed to have seen scanning the lake, searching out the owner of those mint green Keds. He was suddenly reminded of the picture Bible he’d had as a kid. In it, there’d been an illustration captioned “Darkness was upon the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” But mostly the picture had shown the dark expanse of water itself—the void earth—under a vast, cold, blank sky. Little Tate had countless nightmares about the uncountable depths of those dark waters, the formless things that populated them. The little smear of light hovering over the face of those dark waters—not God, the Bible told him, but the Spirit of God, whatever that distinction was supposed to mean—hadn’t been much of a comfort. To Tate, it had looked like a hunting eye.
Tate had paged through that picture Bible often, fascinated and disturbed. The paintings reproduced in it had all seemed greasy and sinister, full of veiled threats. He particularly recalled one of Jesus collecting a wayward sheep, with Psalm 23 printed alongside the illustration: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .”
In that illustration the landscape almost seemed to ooze beneath the starless sky. The Lord cradled the lamb gently, but He had hooded eyes and a sly smile. Tate had grown up far from any farm, but he still understood that the Shepherd doesn’t spend all His time chasing down lost sheep and guiding them to green pastures and still waters out of the goodness of His heart. The Shepherd cares for His flock so that, sooner or later, he can take them to slaughter. Their value, after all, is not in their restored souls; it’s in their meat.
Tate thought about Jamal Kartazian’s claim that the light had “scooped her up.” Tate thought about sly, greasy Jesus scooping up that luckless lamb beneath the dark and formless Heavens. Tate thought about the Spirit of the Lord and its hunting eye scanning the face of the waters. A shiver ran through him. He was spooking himself.
Tate clicked his light back on, illuminating the wall of intertwined buckthorns and sumacs. He carefully picked his way forward, until he found the break in the trees the boy had described. It opened on a flat, muddy meadow, tapering to a little patch of pebbled beach that slid into the still waters.
The erstwhile cop pivoted around, shining his light on the ground, into the bushes and little knots of stunted trees. He crouched to peer under the sagging cover of the pines.
No girl. No Mimi. He cut his light again and listened, hoping to hear her ragged breath. Nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing skittering in the underbrush, no chorus of toads and peepers. Not even a rustle of leaves.
“Mimi?” Tate whispered. He had a moment to wonder why he was whispering, and then the awful light hit him. It was over the lake, and it was huge and searingly bright, cutting through the low clouds. Tate jumped to attention. He was momentarily mesmerized by the swaying beam, which seemed to be searching for him in the clearing.
“Oh,” he said, not realizing he was speaking. “Oh wow.”
It was just as Jamal Kartazian had described, but even more beautiful. Tate could hear the light. It sang, like a wine glass being stroked around its rim by a damp finger. The light was literally wonderful, Tate thought: It was full of wonders.
The light shifted again, found him—and then he saw that there were really two lights: The second was down on the face of the waters, a smaller light moving in unison. The tiny, long-dormant mathematician in Tate’s head pointed out that it wasn’t a second light, but the same light—he wasn’t being spotlighted from beyond the sky; the beam came from under the water, and was reflecting off the low cloud ceiling.
And then it was gone.
Tate only had a moment to be disappointed, and then his feet shot out from under him. His left ankle was encircled by a thin tentacle that had crept out of the water as he marveled at the wonderful singing light. It flexed as it contracted, winding up his pant leg, abrading his calf with the tufts of wiry hair that circled each sucker. Tate rolled and clawed at the hard-packed dirt. A second tentacle wound around his thick leather belt. A third slithered up over his shoulder, caressing his neck, slipping into his shirt.
Tate let out a strangled scream, a wavering cry of existential disgust. His shirt hiked up as the tentacles dragged him on to the jagged gravel that passed for Lake 19’s beach. He dug in with both hands, like a swimmer caught in a rip tide—with just as little effect. The cold shock of the water tamped his panic. He had just long enough to remember the knife clipped to his pocket. It was out in an instant, sawing at the awful pinching tentacle wrapped around his shoulder. But the thing in the lake, unperturbed, dragged Tate down below the face of the waters.
The deep water was dark and terribly warm, full of weeds and movement.
The teen—who really was named “Jamal Kartazian”—sat in the second-hand cruiser for a long time. The cop had closed the doors and taken the keys. The car quickly grew stuffy.
There was a 20 ouncer of Mountain Dew in the cop’s cup holder. It wasn’t more than two feet away. But it was on the other side of the chain-link barrier, so it might as well have been on the other side of the galaxy. The boy—who’d had nothing to eat or drink since the start of the long holiday weekend, apart from a few regrettable sips of scummy stump water—stared fixedly at the soda, pointedly not thinking about his predicament. At least he was free of the thing that lived beneath the dark waters. Yes, he was now condemned to either bake to death or starve in a cop car at the ass-end of nowhere, but it was still an improvement.
Unexpectedly, his door popped open. Jamal hadn’t realized how deeply he’d acclimated to the warm, sepulchral silence of the locked car until he was blinded by the dim dome light, deafened by the tiny ding of the open-door buzzer, and chilled by the whoosh of fresh air.
He burst out into the night, immediately turning back to open the driver’s door. He slugged back the soda in one long, starved gulp. It was warm, and the carbonation burned, but it was sweet and wonderful. Jamal belched a satisfied burp so long and deep that it seemed to vibrate him wholly, from toes to nose hairs. He stood for a moment, eyes closed, hugging the bottle, blissfully waiting for the cop to scream at him or taser him or whatever. Whatever came next.
But nothing came next.
When he opened his eyes there was no cop. Just a tentacle, flexed tall, wavering before him. Another still gripped the handle to the cruiser’s rear door. One more slid out from under the car, feeling its way like a huge earthworm. It didn’t quite touch the boy, let alone grip him, but he knew from hard experience that as soon as he thought about bolting it would already have manacled his ankle.
“Oh,” the kid sighed, looking at the upright tentacle, which seemed to nod, then point at the open rear door of the cruiser.
“Oh. Yeah. Thanks.” The tentacle curled back and pointed at him then dipped, as though bowing. Jamal knew it was sort of crazy, but he felt like the tentacle could hear him. Whatever lived at the bottom of the lake certainly could hear him somehow. Probably tentacle-hearing was no crazier than anything else.
“So, like, how many more we talking?”
He and Mimi had come with two other girls, who’d sprinted out of the Honda to strip and hit the water before Jamal could get an eyeful. With the cop that made four. Four seemed like a pretty good offering to Jamal. Maybe he’d be able to just walk away soon. Maybe . . .
The tentacle looked at him a bit longer, eyelessly eye-balling him like yet another distrustful boss, and then began slowly and deliberately thunking on the side of the cruiser.
One. Two. Three. Four. . . . It went on and on. Nine. 10. 11 . . . The boy sighed, and kept counting even as a hunger pang twisted his gut. 13. 14. 15. . . . He quietly hoped that the next guy had some Doritos or something in his car. 17. 18. 19.
The tentacle paused, and Jamal slowly realized that this pause was a full stop.
- 19. It wanted 19 more. 23 total.
Jamal had no thoughts or feelings about such a number. Like six-figures of debt or a triple life sentence—or the full bulk of the thing curled into the depths of the dark lake—the number 23 was just too large to fathom.
Jamal hoped for Doritos, and for another pop, but more than anything, he hoped for a hard winter. He hoped Lake 19 would freeze early and deep, so he could go home.
David Erik Nelson lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has become increasingly aware that he may be “that unsavory character” in other people’s anecdotes. Folks who liked “The Lure of Lake 19” will also enjoy his story “The Slender Men” and interactive fiction “Brights.” Find him online at www.davideriknelson.com.