“Can’t you feel it?” asked Paul, his lipless mouth spreading across his face in a thin smile. “Beneath our feet lies the cold abyss, plummeting down for untold leagues. Can’t you feel it yawning under you?”
It was all too easy to answer yes. I didn’t have to listen very closely to Paul’s yarn to imagine it—men dumped helplessly into the watery void as their boat was torn apart in a storm. Our own vessel seemed pitifully small as Paul spun his tale. Every ripple was engorged by my imagination until it felt like we were caught in the labyrinthine swells of a typhoon.
A silly thing to imagine when you were only a few hundred feet offshore in one of Upstate New York’s Finger Lakes.
“Not one survived,” concluded Paul, his voice a hoarse whisper that barely competed with the lapping of the waves against our hull. “Drowned, every one of them—although some say that if you peer into the water, you can just see dark shapes moving around down there. Fish, you’re probably thinking. Maybe you’d be right, except I’ve never seen a fish that looked quite like that, and no one’s ever been able to hook anything there, either.”
“So where exactly did it happen?” asked Jim teasingly. “Just so I can avoid looking, if I’m ever in the area.”
Paul laughed. His gravelly voice echoed across the dark surface of the lake. “Does it matter? I don’t imagine there’s a sizable body of water anywhere that hasn’t seen at least one drowning. Even this one, I’d wager.”
All three of us, as though bidden by some unheard command, peered over the side of our boat. I couldn’t see anything except the sparkling reflection of our lantern. Everything else was black.
“Look at us,” chuckled Jim, “spooked by an old man’s ghost story. Oh, Paul, how’s your chest feeling?”
The oldest member of our trio waved off Jim’s concern with a wrinkled hand. “That’s done and gone. Haven’t felt a thing since late this morning.”
I redirected my gaze toward where I imagined the shore to be. I knew there were a few houses in that direction, but whoever lived in them must’ve gone to sleep, because I didn’t see any lights. “Surprised our wives haven’t come looking for us yet,” I commented.
“Yeah,” sighed Jim. “Although I guess we did say we’d be a while. They probably think we just stopped somewhere on the way back.”
Paul flipped the ignition key, as if by some miracle the passage of time had fixed everything. Still dead. Still stuck.
It was late in the season. All the people who rented lakeside cabins during the summer had already packed up and left, so we had most of the place to ourselves. We figured an evening fishing trip was in order, although we never planned to stay out past dark. Our boat’s motor had died around seven.
“I still can’t believe none of us brought our phones,” I said. “We could’ve been out of this mess an hour ago.”
“No sense fretting over it now,” consoled Paul. “Worst case, we wait until morning, when someone’s bound to find us.
“He’s right,” agreed Jim, “unless you want to swim to shore and get help.”
I shook my head and made myself comfortable. It would be a long night.
I awoke to Jim shaking my shoulder. It was still dark. “What time is it?” I asked groggily.
“You’ve only been asleep for about forty-five minutes,” came his reply. “Paul thought he saw another boat. He’s trying to flag them down.”
Sure enough, as I became more aware of my surroundings, I noticed the light was shifting back and forth. Paul was standing near the bow, waving our lantern in the air. There was something…surreal about it. Something was off, although I couldn’t place it.
I got to my feet and unsteadily made my way to the front of the boat. I followed Paul’s squinting gaze to a point about fifty feet out. It was still too far away for the lantern to pick it out, but I thought I saw a bulky object slipping silently through the ripples.
“Have they seen us?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” growled Paul. “Don’t see how they couldn’t, but I tried calling out a moment ago and got no response.”
I continued staring at the shape as I tried to put my finger on what exactly was wrong with the scene. A thought kept trying to form in the back of my mind, but it would always shrivel up whenever I tried to grab hold of it.
“They don’t see us,” groaned Jim. “They’d have signaled by now, but nothing. No lights, no sound—”
That was it, I realized. The other boat wasn’t making any noise. All along I’d been subconsciously expecting the hum of a motor, but there was nothing except the taunting slap of the waves. “Is it a rowboat?” I wondered out loud.
I received my answer seconds later when, at last, the object drifted within range of our lantern. It was indeed a rowboat. And it was empty.
“Must’ve broken loose from one of the docks up the lake,” conjectured Jim. “Hey, are there any oars inside?”
“No,” Paul grunted.
“Just our luck,” sighed Jim, dropping himself in the driver’s seat. Paul also abandoned his post at the bow, saying as he settled comfortably across from Jim, “Ah, well. Just wait until morning.”
While my two friends tried to catch a few winks of sleep, I watched the empty boat cruise silently by. It took its time drawing even with us, then seemed to linger there for a while, bobbing up and down, threatening to bump into us—although it never did. The lantern illuminated most of the vessel, revealing just how empty it was, but there always seemed to be a pool of shadow in the bottom, little irregular patches where the light couldn’t reach. The pools grew and shrank in organic patterns as the wind rippled the water, like they were living, breathing things.
The waves finally forced the rowboat to move on, passing out of sight as quietly as it had appeared.
“You know,” I announced suddenly, causing Jim to flash me a sleepy, irritated glare, “none of us caught anything today, did we?”
I checked my watch around 12:30, surprised at how little time had passed since I’d last looked. I tried to take comfort in Paul’s optimistic words that someone would come looking for us in the morning. It was hard when in the back of my mind I kept wondering why our wives hadn’t started a search already. They must’ve known something was wrong by now. It wouldn’t be like them to wait calmly until daylight. I imagined Marie, my wife of nine years, wringing her hands, fretting over the phone as she waited for it to ring, waiting for news from the police who were most likely sweeping across the lake that very moment.
I knew, however, that no one else was on the water. We would’ve heard the roar of their motor, felt the barrage of their wake. They’d have seen the light of our lantern and been on us in a second.
At that moment, the lantern flickered.
I shot a frightened glance at the rapidly dimming bulb. If it went out and there was someone looking for us, we’d never be found—or worse, our would-be rescuers would plow into us, smash our boat to pieces and send the three of us sinking to our deaths. I recalled reading somewhere that the Finger Lakes were some of the deepest in the country, and wondered briefly if our bodies would ever be found before embarking on a search for fresh batteries.
I was pretty sure there were some stored under the seat currently occupied by the snoring heap that was Paul. He grumbled as I roused him, stumbling toward the bow as I lifted the seat cushion and began digging around inside. Behind me, Jim stirred, and was soon awake.
“Still dark,” he commented. “What’re you doing?”
“New batteries for the lantern,” I replied, squinting to see what kind of junk I was pawing through. “Could you bring the light over here for a second?” Jim obliged, and with the extra illumination I quickly located the batteries.
My fingers had barely closed around the cool cylinders when a pained cry came from the bow. Paul was leaning over the edge, his violently shivering hand clutching his chest as he gasped for breath and stared wide-eyed into the dark water.
Without thinking, I leapt up and caught Paul around the waist, pulling him back and saving him from a nasty plunge. It was only a second later, as I heard a quiet plop-plop, that I realized my mistake.
But that concern was short lived. Paul wasn’t moving. The tremors that had wracked his body only moments before had ceased, although his eyes and mouth still gaped. Jim held a hand over that yawning mouth.
“Not breathing,” he gasped, his voice tight. Next he tried feeling the old man’s neck, checking for a pulse, but I could tell by the look on Jim’s face that it wasn’t good.
Jim gritted his teeth, choosing not to answer, confirming my darkest suspicions with his silence.
“M-must’ve been a heart attack,” I said. “He was complaining about chest pains this morning, remember?”
Still Jim said nothing. A tear was starting to meander down his cheek.
The lantern flickered again, coming back dimmer than ever, and I cursed myself for the slip which had doomed us to a long night of blindness. Reaching over, I tried to close Paul’s eyelids, just like I’d seen so many times on television. It wasn’t as easy as I expected it to be. They refused to stay shut. As soon as I pulled my fingers away, the eyes slid back open. It was sickening to watch, and eventually I gave up.
“What do we do now?” choked Jim.
“Nothing we can do,” I answered, feeling a hollow void spread through my stomach. “Just like Paul said: wait until morning.”
The icy glow of my watch broke the darkness. 3:14. I hadn’t slept at all in the past two-and-a-half hours, and judging by the sounds coming from across the boat, neither had Jim. The lantern had finally given out around two, and since then we’d both sat hushed. A few times I thought I heard Jim sniff or release a heavy sigh.
I switched off my watch light. It was harsh, and I’d long since grown accustomed to the gentler radiance of the moon. It wasn’t enough to see clearly by, but I could make out the faintest glimmer of the lake’s ripples, the vague silhouette of our boat—
Jim made a frightened noise, and I heard him moving around. A second later he was sitting beside me. “Awful nightmare,” he mumbled.
“I thought you were awake.”
He shook his head. “I tried not to sleep, but I couldn’t help it.”
I noticed that Jim’s stare kept being drawn toward the bow. I could just perceive the outline of Paul’s corpse slumped in the front-most seat. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?” I said.
Jim nodded, his eyes still glued to the front of the boat.
“Ellie’s not going to take it well,” I continued, thinking of Paul’s wife.
“I don’t like it.”
His response seemed a bit odd, but I figured it wasn’t that strange, given the shock we’d both endured. “I don’t either, but I guess that’s life.”
“No,” corrected Jim, “I mean I don’t like being stuck here with his corpse. I know, it’s just Paul, but it freaks me out.”
“That’s understandable—” I began, thinking to myself that it was really creepy. I hadn’t thought about it until now.
“I wonder what he saw,” Jim interrupted.
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you notice? When you were digging the batteries out from under the seat, he was peering into the water. He saw something, and it freaked him out. I could see it in his face when it happened.”
I knit my brow in concern. “You’re imagining things. He couldn’t have seen anything. It was too dark.”
“Then what did him in?”
Now I was confused. “Heart attack. The chest pains, remember?”
Jim’s face softened, as if the realization had struck him for the first time. “Oh yeah,” he muttered. “That’s right.”
I caught myself looking over the edge of the boat, trying to see beneath the surface. It was a pointless endeavor, but it was beyond me to resist the urge. The black glass was still. The air had…died was the best way to describe it…about a half hour ago. On a sunny day I might’ve stared into the eyes of my own perfect reflection, or pierced my way straight down to the bottom. I wondered how deep this particular lake was.
The longer I dwelt on the water, the more that feeling grew within me. The floor of our boat was a paper-thin sheet of ice over an abysmal sea. I could feel the dark waters shifting under my feet, and beneath that surface stretched the yawning void. Its hollowness grew and consumed my mind. It waited for the ice to crack so it could suck my soul into its unending depths of stygian terror. At any moment the ice could give out, and I’d be lost. I thought briefly of Paul’s open mouth, by now locked in that ghastly position by rigor mortis, then I was descending, sinking slowly into the void. It was nothing but cold blindness down there, crushing darkness falling into eternity—
Jim’s voice startled me out of my musings. I was grateful to feel the solidness of the boat beneath my feet.
“I can’t do it anymore!”
“We have to throw it overboard!”
“Back up, Jim, you’re not making any sense.”
Jim pointed toward the bow—emphatically at first, but his arm timidly retracted afterward, like he was afraid to put any part of himself too close to what he was pointing at. “Him.”
“Whoa!” I retorted, shocked at his suggestion. “We can’t do that!”
“Yes, we can! Just tip up his legs and dump him over.”
“Yeah,” I shot back, “and you can explain to Ellie how we threw her husband’s body into the lake because we weren’t man enough to spend a few hours with a corpse.”
Our argument was interrupted as we both turned toward the front of the boat. I was quick to recover.
“Pull yourself together, man!” I ordered, grabbing Jim by the arm and shaking him. “It was just a wave against the hull.”
“You sure?” begged Jim, and suddenly I pitied him. His eyes were wide and scared, like a child’s.
“Look,” I said, my voice softer, “I’ll prove it.” I led him to the bow, close enough to Paul that we could distinguish a few details in the moonlight. “See?” I offered. “Just like we left him.”
Jim seemed calmer as he replied, “Yeah…yeah.”
“Like I said. Wave against the hull.” I was right. I knew I was. I had to be, because the alternatives would likely break me. I only prayed that Jim wouldn’t notice, as I had almost thirty minutes ago, how deathly still the air was.
I hadn’t realized just how quiet it was during the night. Now, as our savior’s motor purred and carried us home, I shuddered. There was nothing natural about such a profound calm. It was the sort of peace you’d find in a tomb.
I sat with my knees drawn up against my chest. I dared not let my feet touch the floor, dared not look at the water as it rushed by. Dawn’s light wasn’t enough to banish the dread. I tried to comfort myself with the fact that Jim had fallen asleep a little past five-thirty. The last thing I needed was to console him when I was barely able to console myself.
The fisherman who found us asked only a few questions. He’d been shocked to see Paul’s pale, stiff body; perhaps he was too unnerved to make any inquiries, although I wasn’t sure if I was glad for this or not. It was too easy for me to think back on those last few hours before the night gloom vanished, and I would’ve welcomed the distraction.
As a substitute for conversation, I settled on figuring out how I’d break the news to Ellie. I played with dozens of wordings. Even after I’d decided on the best way to tell her, I kept brainstorming. I didn’t want to give my mind a moment to relax and remember…to remember…
It started shortly after Jim fell asleep. With him removed from the world of the waking, it was just me and Paul, sitting on opposite ends of the boat, staring at each other. I could feel the lake beneath us. It pulled, sucked, gasped—all silently, of course…that horrid silence. It seemed a miracle that our little boat managed to resist the pull of the abyss, a fragile miracle, and I expected at any moment the hull would crack. Water would come oozing up through the floor, and down we’d go, down and down forever…
I nearly screamed when a scratching noise ran along the bottom of the boat. Had there been even the slightest breeze, the ambient audio would’ve drowned it out, but in that utter quietude I could hear something clawing its way through the cold darkness beneath us. It was moving from the front to the back, away from Paul and toward me. I had the impression of uncut fingernails, caked with marine filth, so long that they’d started to curl at the ends. The thought put an uncomfortable tingle in my own fingertips as I imagined something raking its nails through our algae-infested hull.
The sound finally reached me, its source coming to rest in the water directly beneath my seat. There the scratching chaos intensified, scrabbling furiously at the bottom of the boat. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel in any danger. I didn’t imagine a malicious sea monster tearing our vessel apart out of hunger, but rather something struggling for survival against the pull of the void. My heart felt rotten as my mind painted the sad picture of a soul condemned to a watery hell, and more than anything I was moved with intense grief. The feeling was so profound that, when the scratching suddenly gave out, signaling the end of its hopeless struggle, my eyes welled up with tears.
But that wasn’t what caused me to hug my legs like a child, my sleep-deprived stare locked on my knees so I couldn’t see anything else.
I caught a glimpse of my watch as I wiped the tears from my eyes: 5:46. I’d never know what possessed me to gaze one last time at the black water. An absurd thought passed through my mind as I saw it, that the shape beneath the surface should have been a shadow, just like in Paul’s story. Instead, it was white with a cold tint. It’s outline was indistinct, distorted by distance and the refraction of light through the water. Its face, at first, was that of a dead person. The eyes were hidden in shadow, the lips downturned in a grievous frown. It was the sad expression of a doomed man.
Then it saw me.
Those frowning lips pulled back, revealing a row of vicious teeth, elongated by a dreadfully receded gum line. A faint spark lit in those hollow eyes, and from the invisible depths of the lake reached up two skeletal hands, draped in tattered webs of pale skin. Snarling and thrashing, the thing struggled against the pull of the deep, but in spite of its violent efforts it slowly sank beyond sight.
“What were you guys doing out here?”
The boat driver’s voice startled me. “Fishing,” I answered weakly.
He grunted. “I’ve never caught anything in this lake either.”