Memories can flow like water - Editor
The Dead Girls
by Aaron J. French
Chris Evans has heard the rumor of the two dead girls. But he thought it was only a superstition. He’s fished this section of Lake Erie since he was a boy, since back in the seventies when the water deterioration was so bad it spawned an article in Time Magazine and the subsequent Clean Water Act of 1972.
His father used to bring him here at dawn, when the sky was lit up with pink and the waters swirled a dark, uninviting gray. They’d sit in his dented boat and wait patiently for fish to bite. A peaceful experience, a time for father and son to be alone.
But now Chris is sitting alone on the lake in the middle of the night. In the same boat, the one his father bequeathed to him; a beer cooler at his feet, the sprawling tackle box on the bench. His pole leaning out. A Styrofoam cup filled with dirt on his lap.
It’s the smell that gets him, that earthy fresh aroma. Nothing fuels nostalgia like soil and worms and fat grubs.
When the pair of luminescent shapes first appeared over the water, he’d assumed it was a trick of light. But that was more than three hours ago. They’ve moved over time, drifting slowly across the lake, going up and down the shoreline.
When they passed before the boat, Chris forced himself to watch. He studied their golden faces, their long flowing hair, their tiny bodies wrapped in grass and reeds. They glanced at him, each girl putting a finger to her lips, then continued on.
At the moment they’re at the other end, but he still sees them. The night sky is reflected in the water, so they resemble two planets orbiting the stars. They’re absolutely silent, and aside from their luminescent auras, they’re undetectable.
He steadies himself, brings the pole back carefully to avoid the hook. Feels the weight of it above his shoulder. A deep breath and he whips it forward; the spool of line unwinds. Aside from insects, it’s the only sound for miles. The hook drops into the lake with a plunk, goes down quietly.
Leaning the pole over the side and wedging the handle up against the bench, he throws a back-glance at the glowing dead shapes. There they are, unmoving for the moment, two balls of light piercing the dark. They do that sometimes: sit perfectly still. But they eventually continue back along the shore.
His bladder is full, so he unzips his fly and urinates into the water. The night air chills his skin. He has the sudden memory of his father doing the same thing. Dad seemed larger than life: his towering form, his enormous member, the endless stream of gold that arced into the lake.
Chris sighs. He misses those times, back when he was a boy and the world seemed like a happier place.
He sits down and his pole rattles, just slightly. The string jerks through the eyeholes, then slacks. Then nothing.
Whoa there. What was that? A bite?
Gingerly he takes up the handle, applying his thumb and forefinger to the reel. No reeling though: he doesn’t want to scare it off. He must be patient and wait, just like Dad taught him to.
Dead. Dead—father—dead. The words don’t go together in his mind. But it’s the truth. Chris gave the order himself. Memories: the living will, the wheeze of the ventilator, the beeps of the medical machines, the decree not to resuscitate. Life fading from his father’s eyes.
He shakes his head and mutters, “Jesus, Pop, didja have to be so stubborn?”
The darkness swallows his words, but the answer comes anyway, up from the dregs of his psyche, his father’s voice speaking in a dream, I had no other choice. I watched your mother, my wife, wither away and go mad in that hospice, day after day, night after night, my heart breaking every time she forgot my name. You know. You were there. You saw the long drawn out mess, the pain spasms, the incompetent doctors. And in the end she died anyway. So yes I had to draw up the living will. I wasn’t going to suffer the same experience.
Chris sighs again. He doesn’t know why he keeps replaying his father’s answer, fiddling with it, wanting it to make sense. Because in all actuality it does make sense, if only he could let it go.
With a grin, he thinks, It’s because I’m just like my old man: one stubborn sonofabitch.
The rod jerks in his grip, snapping him back to reality. He almost loses the pole. He is fishing here, isn’t he? And this is what his father wanted from him, isn’t it? The rod jerks yet again and the slack is taken up. The pole thrashes, bends to the water, forming an upside down U.
He starts to reel. Slowly at first, like his father taught him. He doesn’t want to snap the line. Reels a bit more, pulls back, takes in some slack. Does it again. Something is fighting. He can feel it flopping in the water. Big, too, a bass most likely. Got to be careful, or he’ll loose it.
Reeling, reeling, reeling. Christ, how far did he cast out? It should be in by now. It’s the first bite of the night, and he ain’t leaving until he catches something. He made a promise to his father.
He peers into the water, hands moving automatically, and finally something is drawn into sight; but it’s not what he expected. Not a fish, no, a light—crawling upward through the depths.
He holds his breath but doesn’t stop reeling.
Christ, what is that? Something dead, something that shouldn’t be there.
He doesn’t stop. Can’t stop. He has to see what it is, what he’s nabbed.
A face swims up to the surface. A pale face exuding bright light, covered in soars and opened wounds, places where fish have eaten away the flesh. Blank staring eyes. Tangles of blond hair waving like an undersea plant. A smile, teeth, tongue, a grin.
He stops reeling as the shape explodes out of the water. Everything happens in half time. Blinding light erupts. Jewels of water spray outward. The hook is spit back at him, wormless. The dead girl springs up and rotates, like a pirouetting ballerina in an old-fashioned music box.
When she looks at him, pressure builds in his chest. He can’t draw a breath. Her mouth grows wider, wider, until it’s not a mouth anymore but a cavern. Filled with numberless teeth, with darting, flying, mindless bats, swooping out of her gullet and disappearing into the night. Or are those flies? Yes, that makes more sense: a cloud of flies, belched out and now expanding, now vanishing.
Now moving finally—mercifully—away, no longer looking at him with those horrid eyes. There’s a sound, high-pitched and hoarse, but where’s it coming from, and he realizes it’s his own scream, and he clamps a hand over his mouth, shuts his eyes.
Quiet: the crickets, the wind soughing in the trees, the lazy babble of the water. When he is able, he looks but sees nothing. The gentle surface of the lake and the rising slope of pine trees beyond. He looks back—yes, there—halfway to the other one, her twin.
He watches until they’ve reunited again and are drifting over the lake. He then withdraws into his boat, his little island of comfort out here in the night. He sets the rod down, opens the cooler and cracks a beer. Takes a swig, head angled up to the sky, relishing the cool taste and looking at the stars.
In ancient Egypt, they believed pharaohs became stars after they died. He wonders if this is relevant tonight.
He concludes the beer with a hollow burp, another trademark of his old man’s, and begins fitting a fresh worm onto the hook. He won’t be scared away by a pair of wandering spirits. No. He has a promise to keep, a deathbed promise no less. For this is no ordinary night.
Twelve hours ago he was at the hospital watching the last breath piddle out of his father’s lungs. His father, who always seemed so indomitable in life, so strong-willed and unaffected, but who in death had been altered, turned into a shriveled carapace, a husk with black and blue rings for eyes.
And at the last possible moment, when he should’ve been dead, when he shouldn’t have been able to say anything at all, he spoke. Pulled Chris down by the collar, blew hot breath into his ear. Hot death-breath.
“Go tonight,” he’d whispered, his words garbled by the tube in his throat. “Go catch one for me, ’cause I’ll never get to catch one again. And if I could be anywhere tonight, that’s where, sitting in the boat on the lake with the whole world around me. That’s living. Promise me you’ll go. Promise to catch one for me.”
“I promise, Dad, I promise. And I love you.”
Soon after: the order, the decree, the command. The machines being turned off. The tube being extracted, the convulsions, the three hours it took him to die.
Now Chris is crying. Christ’s sake and goddamn, there’s proof of the afterlife not seventy yards away and here he is bawling like a baby.
Eventually he returns to his task, making sure the worm is secured, standing, casting out. The hook drops into the water, and he sits, opens a beer. He’s going to get drunk, he’s decided.
But he’s still hearing the life support machines beeping in his head. Like distant demons. When he closes his eyes he can see them, tubes wrapped around, roller wheels on the bottom.
Slams one beer, two beers, three beers, four. Ah, finally, the world begins to shine. The stars in the sky become crystalline, the moon a hunk of bone, the lake a polished hand mirror, the surrounding trees a fairytale wood.
He looks up at the sky. His head swims with alcohol; his vision blurs then refocuses. He locates various constellations which he cannot name.
“You up there, Pop?” he mutters.
A sound—plink, plink, plink—from behind, and a series of gentle splashes on the water. He looks across the lake but sees nothing, scans the bank—nothing.
Plop: a stone being dropped into the lake.
They are right behind him. The dead girls. He can almost sense their glowing heat, their glistering light. Ripples pass beneath the boat, making it rock. His line bobs in the water.
Taking a sip of his sixth beer, the alcohol helps to fortify him, but he feels scared, and the fear is like a syrup traveling through his veins, making his blood pump slow.
The inevitable question: If they exist, then perhaps his father still exists. Maybe he’s watching right now, to see if Chris will be cowed by an old legend, or if he’ll stick around to catch a fish.
Another ripple shakes the boat. They must be close because he’s backlit, his shadow thrown out before him on the water. Or is it because he’s drunk?
Is he drunk? Not quite, but almost. Drunk enough to have to piss again.
Suddenly, the girls begin speaking. The hair on the back of his neck prickles. Gooseflesh erupts on his arms. Their voices, soft and warm, gel together, a conjoined effort of gibberish, a ghostly chorus. Their words unfold like tendrils, creeping over his shoulders and over his head.
What are they saying? Anything? No. They’re whispering. No. They’re singing. No—
Somehow that’s the worst. That means there’s no hope left in them at all. No mercy. No love.
He doesn’t move—can’t move. Sits there like a statue. Waits for them to pass, waits for their terrible moans to die down. The light to gently fade. He sees them drift into his periphery: twin lights, fallen stars, fallen angels.
He doesn’t venture a look until he’s sure they’re far away. Then he sees them, about ten yards past, and they remind him of lighthouse beams on the sea, reflecting off distant buoys. So silent and quiet, so slow now. When he closes his eyes, it’s like they don’t exist at all.
Their legend is not particularly nasty. Terrible, sure, but in the great scheme of haunting legends, relatively tame. Something to tell around the campfire, a tool for parents to scare good behavior out of their kids.
It centers around a man named Wilson. Old man Wilson, people call him. His house is still up there, back in the trees, a hulking, rotting, two-story abode with boarded windows and significant water damage. Chris has never seen it, but he knows people who have. There’s a rumor that junkies use it for a crashpad. It’s not known if the place was ever actually owned by anyone named Wilson. That’s only the prevailing belief.
Old Man Wilson lived alone, tilling the land, coming into town occasionally to buy provisions. Not a lot is told about him, but that’s how legends are: they don’t defer to logic or reason; they exist in a non-specified time that’s all their own.
One day Wilson decided he wanted a pet. Not any kind of pet, but a human one. (Not a lot of information is given as to why he desired this; loneliness would seem the obvious answer.)
That night Wilson descended into town under cover of darkness. He hid out in bushes, lurked in shadows, crouched behind trees, peered into windows. He was on the hunt for a perfect pet.
And he found her. A young girl around the age of seven, beautiful, with long golden hair, a smile like sunshine, the cutest of dimples. Satisfied, he snuck into her room, stole her from her bed, and carried her back to his house.
There he locked her up in the cellar, leaving her in total darkness. He didn’t do anything overtly cruel to her; didn’t rape, beat, or abuse her. In fact he did nothing at all. She was just his pet. She amused him for a while, and he’d bring her food, peek into her dark cell, watch her eat. But he soon grew bored and went back to tilling the land and living on his own.
Over the next year he continued to feed her, but that was it; no additional contact. During this time, the girl went insane.
The isolation, the lack of contact, is what did it. Being locked in total darkness everyday takes a huge toll on a person, as it did her. The only time she interacted with anyone was when Old Man Wilson brought her food or changed her bedding. Otherwise, she was completely alone.
This produced a mental meltdown. She lost her sense of time. She forgot how to speak (forgot English entirely). Forgot her parents. Forgot what life was like in the town. Forgot everything it meant to be “human.”
She started creating imaginary friends. But she couldn’t communicate with them because she’d forgotten how. So she’d sit there with them in the dark. After a while they came up with their own system of grunts and hand gestures, which progressed to entire words, which progressed to a unique vocabulary.
But when this failed to relieve her alienation, she realized she had to do something bigger. It wasn’t enough to have imaginary friends. She needed physical contact.
And so she split herself in two, creating a whole other self out of her first self. It looked just like her, acted like her, had the same thoughts as her. Sprang to life wearing the same soiled rags that she wore. It already knew her unique vocabulary, so they could communicate freely.
But the best thing of all was her touch. Her other self was physical, made of actual flesh, and she could touch, and also have herself be touched. They spent hours doing this, just tracing lines on each other’s skin with their fingertips. Holding each other. Hugging.
When Old Man Wilson heard two distinct voices coming from his cellar, he grew deeply disturbed. He opened the door to find, not one seven-year-old girl, but two, and both identical.
He screamed, threw a fit, nearly went insane. Terrified, he grabbed the closest thing at hand—the metal bowl in which he served her food—and bludgeoned them both to death with it.
Confused over what had happened, and appalled by what he’d done, he brought the girls down to the water, wrapping them in grass and reeds. Then he hurled them into the lake—
Legend says the girls haunt it to this day. But Chris has never believed that. No one’s really capable of splitting into two separate people. It’s only a myth.
Course, tonight could change all that.
Opening his eyes, hoping they won’t be there, hoping this is a hallucination caused by his father’s death, hoping he’s not crazy.
But they are, down at the far end, skimming atop the water.
Chris stands and urinates over the side of the boat, watching them. Can they see what he’s doing? Probably, but he’s beyond caring. The alcohol has finally tipped him over the edge.
Stupid brats, he thinks. I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but it ain’t gonna happen. I’m an Evans, and I made a promise to my dad, and in my family we keep your promises. So you can forget about scaring me off.
Zipping up, he’s hit by a terrifying thought. He’s the only Evans left. He has no brothers, sisters, aunts, or cousins, and his grandparents are dead.
Somehow this is infinitely scarier than the two dead girls floating across the lake. With a shudder, he sits down on the bench, cracks a fresh beer—
his pole starts—
—and he grabs hold of the handle.
Could be one of them trying to mess with me again, he thinks.
But, looking over his shoulder, he sees they are drifting along the shoreline. That means this’s a real bite.
He reels it in with extreme caution. The end of the pole wags and curls down, thrashes a bit from side-to-side. It’s a big one—which is good: he’d hate to waste this symbolic catch on a round goby.
Reeling, jerking, tugging. The whine of the spool filling the night. When first it nears the surface, he’s afraid of being tricked again, of the girl jumping up and scaring him.
But no. It’s a fish after all. Flopping on the surface, splashing. He stares at it dumbly for a moment, watching it writhe on the end of his pole. A decent white bass, probably two and a half pounds or so. Not the most impressive catch in the world, but not the worst either. Dad would’ve called it a keeper.
He fumbles drunkenly for his net and drops the pole, nearly losing it in the lake. Cursing, he reestablishes his grip to collect the fish. He slips the net underneath. Sets it in, places it in the boat, lets it flop to death between the benches. Eventually its movements cease. Everything goes quiet again.
He did it. He caught a fish for his father.
He holds it up to be inspected. Slick, a silvery body. An armor of triangular scales. And two big eyes, black and glassy.
“This one’s for you, Pop,” he says, gazing into its blank stare. “Hope you got to see me land it.”
Its mouth is still gasping in suffocation, but for the most part it’s dead. Reaching through its lips, he removes the hook and accidentally rips a section of gills out. He’s usually a pro at de-hooking, but his hands feel unsteady. Had too much to drink, not to mention one hell of a day.
He opens the cooler, laying the fish in the melted ice. Shuts it. A little arctic grave for it. Later he’ll chop off its head and tail, gut it, descale it. Cook it up with some lemon and a pat of butter.
But that’s later, once he gets home. Right now he’s significantly drunk and needs to get off this lake. Needs to get back to his jeep, sober up a bit before driving out of here.
Remembering the two dead girls, he slues around and scans the lake, but nothing, dark empty trees, a shiny black expanse of water. The moon high overhead, casting an obscene glow across the surface.
No they can’t be. Too many beers, is what. He’s having trouble seeing, vision blurry and such. They gotta be there.
Squinting, he searches again, but still finds nothing. The lake is empty, and he’s alone.
Goddam, did I hallucinate? he thinks. A shudder passes over him. For some reason their being suddenly gone is worse than their being present, as if they’ve hidden from him—or worse, that he imagined them.
No time to think about it now. He’s done what he came here to do. No point in wracking his brains about it.
Securing the cooler, his rod, and the tackle box, he picks up the oar handles and begins to row. The blades slip in and out of the water, propelling him forward, squeaking in their hinges. The dark forest crawls along the shore, and he can see the shiny reflection of his jeep back in the trees.
Then the lake starts to tremble, just like he knew it would. He knew he hadn’t imagined the girls. They were out there somewhere, biding their time. Waiting for him.
They weren’t going to let him off that easy.
Because once you see a legend you instantly became a part of it. You never get to go and tell your friends. Not if you really see it. Not if you really get a glimpse into the unknown.
He paddles faster but it’s useless. The oars pass through air, not even coming close to the surface of the lake. There’s no resistance whatsoever. He’s just winding back and forth, going nowhere, the metal hinges squealing and scratching.
The boat begins to spin. Light erupts from underneath, highlighting the black water. He realizes he’s not even on the lake anymore, and stops paddling. Round and round he goes. The oars are wrenched from their holes, bent, torn out, cast aside.
Round and round—round and round. The trees and mountains flashing by, gone, flashing by again. He feels sick. The beer is churning in his stomach, and before he can stop himself, he vomits. Is splattered with his own mess. Shutting his eyes, he fastens his hands to the bench, but in a whirl of confusion the sky dumps on end.
He’s falling. Arms up, legs up. He thinks he’s screaming, but can’t tell if that’s his voice or someone else’s. In his mind he calls his father’s name. Beseeching, begging, pleading for his assistance. But all that comes back to him is darkness . . . and the sound of two weeping girls.
He’s dashed into cold wetness, seized by tiny claws, dragged downward. Has he opened his eyes? Yes he has, but it’s still dark. Darkness everywhere now.
A light. Rising. Ringed with bubbles and sinewy water currents. Long blond strands, snaking lengths of grass, bobbing reeds. They’re coming up to meet him, those two dead lights, two dead girls who used to be one—who aren’t really supposed to be at all.
But I did it, he thinks, goddamn you, you little bitches, I did it! I caught my father’s fish! Do you hear me?! I caught his fish!
More bubbles swirl around him; he’s drawn down, deeper into a watery blackness. Twin mouths open like twin dead fish. Teeth or rocks piled high, jumbled, sprawling about and below.There you are, Pop; thought I’d find you here, cleaning the catch of the day. What’s that? You want me to carry you up the side of that pyramid? Sure thing, Pop, anything for you. After all, you are the Pharaoh, are you not? And me, well . . . I’m but the lowly Hebrew.