I read once that in the movie Psycho, Hitchcock used chocolate syrup for blood. Mingled with the shower water, it had a similar consistency as it ran down the tiles and swirled around the drain. The real stuff, trickling across the sand and into the water of Manitou Lake, looks nothing like that. I lift my foot and see the small stone beneath, it’s sharp edge stained red. The cut on my big toe is too small to see, except for the drops of blood that still cling to it.
The lake is calm today, a blue-green portal reflecting the surrounding walls of birch and pine. This patch of sand is one of the only openings in the treeline around the lake. There used to be a dock here, really just a couple of wooden pallets tied together, but that floated away years ago. There used to be a cottage too. My grandfather built it for my grandma as a wedding gift. At least that was the story she always told. All that’s left now is the mile-long dirt driveway, somehow still holding its own against the encroaching forest.
It’s the driveway that has me worried. I practically grew up here. I’ve traveled the dirt road through the trees a hundred times. I know which sections of overgrowth hide potholes, and where the gravel has been washed away by rain. I could drive the entire mile with my eyes closed. I can’t say the same for him.
Hayden has never been here.
We talked about coming. During those first few weeks when we still lived in one another’s orbit, and each of us was hungry for any chance to learn something new about the other. Or later, when he was fucking around, and a picnic at the lake seemed like a good way to prove that he was “making an effort.” During our three years together, I came to the lake plenty of times, but today will be Hayden’s first. That is, if he was being honest about wanting to see me. And, if he didn’t find something better to do on a Sunday afternoon. And, if his car makes it down the driveway.
Sunlight hits the surface of the lake, highlighting the variations in color. Here, closer to shore, the clear water takes on the greenish brown of the lake floor. About fifty yards out, at the point of the drop off into deeper water, the color takes an abrupt shift to dark blue. As a kid, I spent countless summer hours daring myself to wade closer and closer to the green-blue border.
“Not too far.”
My grandmother stood a few yards behind me, near the makeshift dock, pulling a garden rake across the lake floor. She wore her purple swimsuit, with the ruffly faux skirt that extended down past her thighs (an “old lady bather,” my mother use to call it). Stray wisps of gray poked out from beneath her daytime wig of soft brown curls. She grumbled as she raked, muttering about the number of stones and how she should have worn her sandals. Small piles of stones sat behind her at the water’s edge.
“That’s far enough,” she said.
I stood halfway between her and the dropoff, the waterline hovering just below my five year-old chest. She set the rake on the dock and gestured for me. I waded back toward shore, taking a brief detour to watch a young water snake swim past, its smooth, speckled body zigzagging across the surface.
When I reached my grandmother, I plopped down on the dock and let my feet dangle in the water. She sat next me, the pallet creaking beneath her. She was winded from raking, so we sat in silence for a moment, my grandma’s breathing mixing with the lapping of the water against the wood. When I turned toward her, she was staring out over the lake.
“Gramma?” I said, following her gaze toward the center of the lake. “Do you miss Grandpa?”
She let out a long breath, and nodded.
“He was a good man,” she said, still looking at the water. “I wish you could have known him. He found this lake, and build the cottage just for–”
“I know,” I said. “You told me that already.”
“Of course,” she said. Her voice lowered to a breathy whisper. “When I think about what he sacrificed for our family.” She wiped a bony hand across her cheek, and glanced down at me. I had already moved on from this moment of reflection, and was swirling my foot in the water to attract a school of minnows. She looked back out to the lake. “He was such a strong swimmer.”
One of the tiny fish nibbled at my big toe and I squealed.
“Come on,” My grandmother said, standing. “We’d better head in before we’re both too waterlogged to move.”
I giggled, and she took my hand and led me onto the sand, where we practiced making shapes with the stones..
I am thinking about checking my phone, which is stuffed into my shoe a few feet from the water’s edge, when I hear Hayden’s car.
“You know,” he says. His dark hair is shorter now, and somehow it makes his eyes seem bluer. “If you’re gonna insist on meeting out in BFE, the least you can do is answer my texts. I passed the drive three times.”
I realize I’m looking at him in that way that I told myself I wouldn’t. That way that says he looks better than I expected. That way that says I miss looking at him.
“I mean,” Hayden says, looking up at the trees.”We usually just meet at a bar or something for this kind of thing, instead of driving into the wilderness.”
“This kind of thing?” I say. “I didn’t tell you why I wanted to see you.”
I know what he means. I usually make it about three or four months without seeing him before one of us, usually me, calls the other and suggests we talk. And he’s right, it doesn’t usually involve a two-hour drive from the city. It usually involves us spending the night together. Sometimes, several nights. Last time, it was almost a month.
“I’m sorry,” he says, putting his palms up in a gesture of surrender. He’s wearing a white t-shirt with a deep enough v-neck to show that he’s stepped up his chest workouts. “What I meant to say,” he says. “Is that it’s good to see you.”
He’s not a hugger. So, when he steps in and puts his arms around me, it catches me off guard. At least, until his hand lands on my ass. He leans in until his lips are brushing against my ear. “You look good, Kev,” he says. “You look real good.”
“You too,” I say. I know that if I turn my head just a little, he’ll kiss me. That’s what I should do. It would be the smart thing. But, I don’t like how warm his arms feel, how comfortable. Instead, I take a step back from him and look out toward the water.
“So this is the lake you were always talking about,” Hayden says.
“This is it,” I say. “Only took me four years to get you here.”
He fakes a chuckle. From somewhere across the water, a loon cries.
“Why am I here, Kevin?” he says.
“I wanted to see you.” It’s not the answer I planned, but when I practiced what I would say, Hayden wasn’t standing in front of me with his blue eyes and his deep v.
“But why all the way out here?”
“You know how special this place is to me. I thought maybe if you were willing to drive out here–”
“Wait, this was some kind of test?” he says.
I’m blowing this.
“It’s not like that,” I say. “It’s such a warm day. I thought we could take a swim. You still owe me a do-over after all.” Years ago, on our second date, Hayden took me to a pool party. When I told him I had spent a semester on my high school swim team, he challenged me to a race across the pool and back. It’s not that he was faster than me, just more motivated to win.
“Are you serious? You want to swim?” he asks.
I nod, and pull my shirt off. Hayden looks at me, then the water, then back at me. He smiles.
“So,” he says, already lifting the t-shirt over his head. “If I beat you across, is the prize the same as last time?”
I step closer to him, put my hand on his chest, slide it down the smooth ridges of his stomach and under the waistband of jeans. He’s half hard, but I don’t flatter myself. Hayden has always lived in a constant state of readiness. He puts his hand on my wrist, coaxing me further beneath his jeans.
“How about we skip the swim race and go straight to the victory celebration?” he says.
I pull my hand out, and slide down my shorts.
“You have to beat me first,” I say.
In a few seconds, our clothes are in a pile and we’re stepping over the stones on the sand and into the water. It’s warm, and I can feel a gentle undercurrent swirling over my ankles. Hayden doesn’t take time to appreciate any of this. He’s focused on winning, already bounding through the shallows.
“It’s no fun if you let me win,” he calls back to me. I break into an awkward trot.
When the water reaches his waist, he looks back at me, and then dives forward with his arms stretched out in front of his head. I slog through the thigh-high water, but he’s already passing the point where the water goes dark. His body lunges forward through the blue, the pale globes of his ass breaking through the surface like the hump of a dolphin.
I stop a few feet from the drop off and watch him. He’s in better shape than when we were together. Such a strong swimmer. For a second I consider yelling to him, calling him back.
Then I see it.
There’s a rise in the dark water, several yards to the east, a sort of swell like a bubble rising to the surface. Then another, closer to Hayden. I realize that I’m back-stepping toward the shore, eyes still fixed forward. The water starts to swell a third time, and then it happens fast. So fast, I’m not exactly sure what I’m seeing. Not exactly. There’s a glint of sunlight just above the waterline near Hayden, and then the lake seems to open up in front of him. The dark shape that launches up through the surface is almost indistinguishable from the color of the water, except when the sunlight hits a blue-gray scale. It is wider in the back and tapers into a pointed snout, but I can’t tell that for sure because it is stretching open, growing into a toothy maw, almost large enough to engulf the naked swimmer. Hayden tries to scream, but only has time for a gurgled croak as the teeth come down on him. There is a spray of scarlet in the air as the thing drags him under. When the blood hits the water it darkens, floating on the surface like a cloud of ink, or chocolate syrup.
I stare at the place where Hayden had been for a few more seconds, before turning and making my way back to the shore. I walk out of the water and onto the sand, stepping over the place where the stones are arranged in the ancient summoning symbols.
Craig Anderson is a writer, trainer and part-time palm reader who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida (but will always consider himself a Detroiter). His work has appeared in Glitterwolf Magazine, the Eckerd Review, Former Cactus, and other publications. You can find him on twitter at @wildcraigdom.