Are you happy, Jake? I know you’re not, even though you won. Even though you fell in love and got the girl and the summer sun blessed your wedding. There are monsters and currents flowing under the earth.

 

I still dream about the hole in the lake. That endless maw and its hideous refusal to be understood. I hover over it, suspended by the thinnest of threads, waiting to be dropped in. Swallowed down.

 

I remember the hike, the first time with just the three of us, you and me and Catherine. I think that was when we finally understood what we were doing. That moment when she came out of the water laughing, dripping. Shivering for a towel. Everything in that moment was so symmetrical, wasn’t it? The towel precisely between us and Catherine in the middle, equidistant.

 

Do you remember when she first appeared? You were nineteen and I was trailing two years younger. I bought cigarettes off you at five dollars a piece. I watched over your shoulder as the modem squealed and pictures of breasts slowly materialized from the pixels. It was 1994, and it was Washington, and the summer sun had turned Catherine’s freckled skin to caramel.

 

“Who’s first?” Mike said, and a nervous tremor ran through the group. “Kyle?” he said, grinning at me, knowing I wouldn’t, and I didn’t. I just stared at the water below. A few kids inched to the cliff edge and looked over, then backed away, shaking their heads. We gave each other playful shoves and called each other pussies. Then Catherine just stood up and walked over and jumped off. Tucked herself into a slender blade, pierced the water and disappeared into the green depths. Her head popped up and she blinked water out of her eyes, grinning and gasping.

“Whooo!” she said.

Catherine was young and shy and new to the group, Mike’s little sister, and she had jumped first. It was an insult to everyone still on the cliff. Of course you were the next to go. You yelled some battle cry, Geronimo or Banzai, and you leaped out.

They yelled for you. “Do it!” and “Yeah!” and “Go Jake!”

You landed just a few feet away from her. Could have broken her neck but I was the only one who thought about things like that. You surfaced right in front of her and she screamed, splashed you in the face. You chased her back to shore.

When the sun started to fail we headed back to the cars, tired and happy, damp and gritty with sand and pine needles between our toes. We piled into the back of Mike’s Jeep, with Catherine squeezed between us. I remember the feeling of her arm against my naked ribs. The way it stuck there, warm and salty, peeling gently away when she shifted.

 

When we got home I asked you about her. Empty questions like, “What’s the story with Mike’s sister?” You answered them with a blankness that I found odd but not worrisome. You were my older brother. You were a different species.

 

The weather that summer was something no one in Washington could grasp. A dry, brutal heat that shocked our rain-drenched bodies and emptied the Home Depot of its usually untouched air conditioners. It melted our brains and turned Skagit Valley Community College into a third-world country, sweaty men without shirts slumping against trees or pacing the square, fights breaking out over nothing. I sat at my desk in a pool of sweat and thought about Catherine, letting the algebra in front of me blur into clouds of gnats.

I spotted her sometimes on campus, her mouse-brown hair bouncing in a loose ponytail. She was young, but a different kind of young. Sweet-sixteen and already out of highschool, well on her way to an A.A through the Running Start program. I was older than her in the calendars but not in reality. Highschool dragged along behind me, clinging to my back like a half-dead animal.

You were graduated, Jake, employed part-time, and I envied your freedom. Wished I could advance time by sheer willpower. Through hard work and determination, somehow catch up to your age and pass you. Those strange days when youth was a curse.

 

When I found the hole in the lake, there was a brief flicker of memory, as if I’d been there before and somehow forgotten. Glimpses lost in the wrenching and twisting of waking up, buried in the nauseous haze of old fever dreams.

 

I don’t know exactly how we pulled Catherine into our circle. In the unbearable summer heat, the trips to Whistle Lake became a regular necessity, but you and I became the cheerleaders for it. The truth was I hated the cliffs, the blinding terror of looking off that edge, shutting down every natural instinct and jumping off. I know you did too, secretly, but we faked it, and became the initiators, the ones who made the phonecalls. The more often we went up, the smaller our group got. Eventually it was just you and me, Mike and Catherine, and then Mike got a job, and it was just us.

I remember the first time we picked her up without Mike. Pulling up at her house in your Honda, me in the back seat like a taxi passenger. The cautious smile on her face as she climbed into the front.

“Hi guys,” she said.

“Hi,” we said at the same time. but I couldn’t tell if she heard mine. I stared at the back of her head where it peeked above the seat, at the little blue clips holding her hair where she wanted it.

 

We sat in the shade while she swam alone. We smoked Camels and munched Keebler pizza chips. Watching the rippling shape of her legs kicking underwater. You pulled a beer out of your backpack and twisted off the cap.

“You have beer?” I said, wide-eyed.

You grinned and handed me one. We sat there in the dirt drinking the thin lager, watching Catherine climb up the cliff yet again. She seemed to genuinely love jumping. Even when there was no one watching, no one there to think she was cool.

“Hide it when she comes back,” you said, and took a drink.

“Why?”

“She doesn’t like people drinking.”

I looked at you. “How do you know?”

“She told me the other day when I was at Mike’s.”

“Oh.”

“I guess her dad drinks a lot.”

“Ok.”

Catherine flew down and slipped gracefully into the water. She was so small and smooth, there was hardly a splash. She emerged onto the sand, pulling her hair back, adjusting her bright blue bikini top, her browned stomach glistening.

“God it’s cold!” she laughed, rubbing her arms, and we both jumped up. Grabbed for the towel between us like it was piñata candy. Such a simple action, but it revealed everything. Our eyes locked, I hesitated, so briefly, and you got the towel. You handed it to her, and she wrapped it around her shoulders. She looked at you and said, “Thanks Jake.”

 

It was evening when we dropped her off. She waved and we waved back. We were quiet on the way home.

“Catherine’s cool,” you said after several miles. You said it like an offhand observation, an inconsequential thought, but that was how we talked and we knew the meaning.

“Yeah,” I said, watching the yellow road lines dart under the car. “I think she’s pretty cool too.”

Your head twitched like you were going to look over at me, but you didn’t. We drove home.

 

 I started to see more of her at school and felt a tightening in my guts. At home you and I talked less. Undertones and overtones appeared in our voices. She called out to me from across the tiny college campus, and I waved. She ran up to me, actually ran, and hugged me hard. I saw my handprints on her back when she walked away, bleach-white on her blue Hypercolor shirt. Later she appeared in a new class and sat next to me. She kept smiling at me like my presence made her happy. I didn’t know what to feel.

 

When you got home from work you would ask me if I saw her in school and I’d say yes. Then you’d tell me you saw her at Mike’s last night and talked to her about going to the lake again. I’d tell you we walked over to the gas station and got lunch. Sat under a tree and drank Clearly Canadian. Talked about Weezer. You’d nod and tell me you went on a walk with her outside her house. Talked about her dad. I nodded, but I wanted to scream at you that it wasn’t fair, that you were too old for her, that you had promised you’d never chase the same girl, that we were brothers and you’d sworn never to fight me this way. You saw it all in my face but it was too late now. We were young. We didn’t have control.

 

I found the hole in the lake on our fifth hike. Friends sometimes joined us, but that day it was just the three of us again. We kept repeating those hikes, like rematches. Going back to the same arena again and again, hoping for some kind of outcome. Something conclusive so we could stop.

You were ahead that day. You threw a twig into her hair and she smiled. You chased her on your bike and I chased her too, but you were faster. You caught up to her and pedaled beside her, grinning, and the baked earth coughed up clouds of dust that stung my eyes.

There in the forest, by the lake and the cliffs, you were sitting on a log talking to her about going to see Pulp Fiction that weekend. I thought I saw her touch your arm.

“Kyle!” she said as I walked off into the trees. “Where are you going?”

“Just walking around.”

She frowned. Her attention was all on me now. She was ignoring you. But did that mean anything, really. I walked away.

I walked up the mountain for a while, and then I went off the trail. Wandered through the trees, everything brown and parched in the scorching heat. Brittle underbrush scratched at my legs, leaving white lines in my dry, taut skin, sometimes biting deeper, drawing little sips of blood.

I walked out onto a high ledge and there it was. At the bottom of a deep mountain basin of dark evergreens and dusty rocks. A lake. A different lake. Not Whistle Lake, not the cool green sea we spent our afternoons in, floating on our backs with eyes closed like babies in a bathtub. A different kind of lake. Unfriendly, somehow. Foreign. And then I saw the hole.

 

I hope you never forget our talk. That moment when I caught you on the staircase and said, “Hey. I want to say something.” Mom and Dad were gone. The house was quiet. Sure we were just kids. Nineteen, seventeen, sixteen. But look at what happened. The moment had weight we never expected.

 

“Hey,” I said from the trees behind you, and you both startled. “Come look at this.”

I took you back to the ledge, and we stared down at the new lake. It was almost round, a huge, deep bowl in the mountainside, like a crater or a caldera. The water was clear all the way to the bottom, but with a rusty murk to it. A cloudy haze of silt that blurred the edges of things inside. I could imagine it smelling foul, squirming with mosquito larvae. Like tiny human spines, thrashing the water in some pointless agony.

“Do you see the hole?” I said.

Catherine nodded.

You just stared blankly, like you were daydreaming.

“What is it?” Catherine said, and no one answered.

It was hard to make it out in the murk. A ring of ancient concrete wide enough to swallow a house, rusted rebar sprouting all around the rim. And inside it, just blackness. Fathomless depths. It lay there at the very bottom of the lake. A drainhole in the world.

 

Some of my associations don’t make sense to me anymore. Why one thing should remind me of another thing, with nothing there to link them. The first time you called me from jail, still slurring your words a little, I thought of the hole. And when my wife got sick and the doctor put his hand on my shoulder and lowered his voice, I thought of the hole. Just lying there under all that red water, still and silent and empty. Patient. 

 

The three of us stared down at the lake. I looked at you and you looked back, and I sensed that you were feeling the same thing I was. A churning nausea. Nameless dread. Smell of wrinkled skin, bony limbs sprawled in grim alleyways, red bricks and barbed wire, dark evening skies over a forgotten world. There was a feeling that we weren’t supposed to be here. Shouldn’t have seen this. That by looking at it, we had invited up something horrible.

You swallowed and fidgeted. Your face was pale and so was Catherine’s. She looked at me with some kind of expectation.

“Let’s go,” I said.

I didn’t realize none of us had been breathing until we got back on the path and I heard us inhale. It was several minutes before anyone spoke.

“For a billion dollars,” you said quietly as we walked, staring straight ahead, “would you swim in that lake?”

“No,” I said from somewhere deep in my chest. The images began to form at that moment, seeds for later dreams.

“Who do you think built that hole?” you asked.

“Who knows.”

A long pause. When you spoke, still not looking at anyone, there was a small quiver in your voice. “What do you think’s down there.”

“Shut up, man.”

There was no reason for that response. No rational cause to spit your question out of my head and scrub out my imagination. But you nodded, and stopped talking.

Catherine looked from me to you. I couldn’t tell what she felt. We were quiet all the way to the bikes.

 

It was that night I stopped you on the stairs and told you to take her. Told you that I didn’t want to do this anymore. That you knew her first and she was your friend’s sister, so if you wanted to make a move, I would stand back and let you. I don’t know why I did it. It wasn’t something I’d been considering before that moment. It just came to me all at once in the car after we dropped her off, while the evening air cooled the sweat on my forehead. I remember thinking about those mosquito larvae while I talked to you. No wings or limbs. Just helpless bodies writhing, flailing, silently screaming.

 

The weight of our deal faded as time passed. You started dating Catherine, and I met other girls and laughed at myself, looking back on a teenage love as light as balloons. But then, of course, you kept dating her, months became years, and you married her. Standing at the altar waiting for her to come down the aisle, you glanced my way and the serendipity seemed overwhelming. You smiled at me, because at that time it felt like undeniable destiny. Everything turning out for the best.

 

You started to drink more and more. Catherine begged you to stop but you couldn’t, and she cried often. During another scorching summer you got her pregnant. At family barbecues the women crowded around her to share stories and touch her swollen belly while her freckled cheeks radiated joy. The baby was born the next spring and died in its crib for no reason.

 

I got married too, but didn’t want to. It seemed to just happen on its own, and I came so close to leaving her at the altar, but didn’t. I finished my degree and got a demanding job and rarely ever saw her.

There was a thickness to the air that never seemed to go away. Even in winter, my skin felt gritty and I would sometimes find myself sweating, though it was cold. In the rare times you and I saw each other, family reunions, birthdays and funerals, we never talked about the old days or any of our old friends. We didn’t even talk about the weather, which seemed hotter and drier every summer. Everything in our memories seemed to be growing thorns.

 

And there was something wrong with you and Catherine. The doctor said you shouldn’t try to have any more children, but you did anyway, your genes mixed with hers and curdled, and made a deformed boy, forever helpless and dependent, unable to walk or speak or eat on his own. You drank feverishly, desperately. You began to boil over and hit your son, and hit Catherine, and one night you cracked her skull and went to prison, and came back years later broken, everything lost.

I had to remember it then. That strange conversation held on a staircase when we were just kids. That little pivot point. A small choice that might have reshaped everything.

 

The night my wife died I went back to Whistle Lake, drunk and raging and terrified. In the starless dark I hiked the old trail to where we used to sit and smoke Camels, throwing soda cans into the water and watching them sink. I wandered through the trees all night looking for the rusty lake with the hole in the bottom, but I never found it. I never found it, Jake. Even when the sun came up and I was sober and got my bearings and searched again, I never found it.

 

I find it in dreams now. Sometimes I’m flying over it, safe but wary. Other times I’m in the water. The water is sickly warm, and I’m swimming, and then I look down and see it gaping around me. Right below me, those infinite shadowy depths, and I feel a current begin to swirl up, an undertow to pull me in, swallow me down. And a deep sound. A rumble chuckling up from that dark, bottomless throat.

 

 

 

   

 

 

   

 

 

 

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