The snow around the barn was untouched save for two sets of footprints that ran a path to its entrance and along its side. They were fresh; no new snow had come down in the last few days to bury them from sight.
Kerena considered the barn for a beat, remembering the last time she had been here and how different things were since then. The biggest difference? She came alone now. Her breath fogged the air in front of her. She took a deep breath, but it did nothing to calm the burning anxiety that swam in her stomach.
Even so, she took a step forward. And another, and another. Each step fell heavy into the snow, like lead. She willed herself up the hill, and each second stretched for miles in front of her. Her chest was tight, and she reasoned that it was because of the steepness, but what was the reason for the tears welling up behind her eyes? And why was her throat closing up, trying to swallow something down that she wasn’t ready to confront?
The barn was exactly how they had left it, the carving on the windowsill still new and rough. It was a pair of initials, his and hers, enclosed in a lopsided heart. She scoffed, a small smile turning up the corners of her mouth. It was such a cliché, bad-romance-movie thing to do, but they were like that sometimes.
She remembered how concentrated he had been as he carved the letters with the edge of his keys. A wrinkle between his brows, his tongue clenched between his teeth, and his eyes sparkling with an intensity that always . . . stopped her breath in her throat.
His eyes wouldn’t shine like that again now.
She ran her finger along the rough edge of the carving and hissed in a sharp breath when a small splinter caught under her skin.
It was like ice-cold water to her bare skin, the way it snapped her out of her memories and back to earth. A single prick of blood pooled against the splinter, so tiny despite the sharp pang of pain it brought. She quickly picked it out and pressed on her finger to dull the ache. Curious how such a small thing could hurt with such severity.
Everything felt wrong, this whole moment. She shouldn’t be here, drenched in anxiety and nursing painful memories along with a bloody finger. And least of all, she shouldn’t be on her way to a funeral.
~ before ~
He cared what she thought, so when she dared him, he knew he was in trouble.
The cold nipped at Elliot’s bare skin as the rain pounded down on his body. The bright light of the moon cascaded across the expanse of the lake. He knew he could still turn around. He could slip back into his clothes, get back in the car, and back into bed. She was begging him to come back, but something gripped him, urging him closer and closer to the water.
“Turn around! I was just joking!”
He ignored Kerena’s yells coming from behind him and dipped one foot into the water. The cold shot up his leg and stopped his breath in his throat.
“What's the point of this?!” Kerena’s voice was frantic, and she watched with bated breath as Elliot stepped further and further into the water.
He didn’t know exactly. But, she had dared him. He had to do it. Right? If he didn’t, well, nothing bad would really happen. They’d joke about it tomorrow, elbow him in the ribs and take jabs at him for being “too pussy” to go in the water and he’d laugh right along with them as the red heat of embarrassment crept up his neck. His self-preservation instincts weren’t great, he’d admit, but what were you supposed to do when your own fragile self-esteem was teaming up with cruel words of your fellow high-schoolers and creating its own personal hell for you?
She had started it in the lunchroom with their friends. They had a new assignment in their history class to write about their own town’s history. The most popular topic of discussion was an old wive’s tale that had led to multiple drownings over the years in this very lake. The town’s dark past was now looked as a sort of “attraction” and no one actually took the story seriously.
The dates are unclear, the details lost to history or adapted for folklore. The town wasn’t as populated or industrialized then, its original New England charm still intact. In spooky folklore fashion, it was a small town where everyone knew everyone. That was until a mysterious figure moved into town, of course. The new resident had no inkling to mingle with his neighbors, and this strangeness was what drew the townspeople to concoct their own stories about him. The townspeople were a creative bunch and dubbed him the Old Man.
Every day, twice a day, the old man would take a walk from his nearby home to the lake. This daily walk was not unordinary on its own since the whole town used the lake as a social activity. However, because they knew so little of their new neighbor, this daily walk started whispers amongst the town.
They ranged from mundane to deranged. Most reasoned it was just a daily stretch - but, that wasn’t the kind of melodrama the town wanted to hear, so they came up with their own stories. What was a sleepy town with slow news to do anyway?
Some gossiped that he went there to meet a secret lover. Others thought that was too cliche and posited that something more sinister was happening, such as a shady drug deal or an undercover spy assignment. Wherever there was room for doubt, the townspeople filled that space with their imaginations.
One detail that stayed consistent between the stories is that the old man was always seen clutching some sort of object, varying in shape and size but mostly small. He would go to the lake with it, spend time there, and head back empty-handed.
Soon, a legend started forming by word-of-mouth. The old man had retired and had no family or children. He was a recluse, and no one besides him ever entered his home. The townspeople imagined that he had been a wealthy man, grossly possessive of his property and unwilling to pass it on. Afraid his wealth would fall into someone else’s hands after his death, he planned to drown his belongings at the bottom of the lake where no one could get their hands on it. Burying it among the sand and ropes of seaweed, letting it be claimed by the earth rather than another human.
A silly tale, by all accounts. The lake was too deep for anyone to swim to the bottom, and there was no proof he had been wealthy. He was never flashy when about town and lived modestly. Perhaps he had been walking with food to feed the birds, or a notebook to write in. Who truly knows?
But then, the old man passed. Drowned in the lake in some accident. When they went to collect his body, they were shocked to find his home shockingly empty. Large furniture occupied the space, but it felt empty. No knicknacks, no photos. Nothing to indicate that a person who had lived a full life had resided there. Only the bare necessities.
The townspeople became frenzied after this discovery, now steadfastly believing in their own story. There must be something in that lake. Why was he so attached to that damned lake?
The funeral took place and of course, no family showed up to claim his meager belongings. The more - or rather, little - they learned, the more they truly believed the rumors they themselves had created. A few of the youth took it upon themselves to go in search of this lost treasure, excited to confirm the story as true and to take the prizes for themselves. They would retrace his steps and inspect the woods along the way in case he had hidden things there, too. There was nothing, of course. Then they would go to the lake, undress, and swim to the bottom.
There were ten drownings that first year after the old man passed.
The ones who made it back to the surface spoke of the overbearing darkness beneath the water. They never went back a second time and warned others who planned to do it against doing so. They wouldn’t find anything there, except an icy embrace that pulled them temptingly to the lakebed.
Soon, mothers began banning their children from even looking in the lake’s direction. They claimed there were wild animals who walked the lake late at night, or spirits that haunted the waves. The boys who survived seconded these claims, and told scary stories about the ghost they encountered in the water. How she pulled them in, made them feel comfortable so that the deeper they went, the less they felt the cold. Their limbs would stop swimming, stop fighting, and they felt themselves being pulled lower and lower as they saw less and less of the moon.
This story was recounted in the lunchroom that day between the group of friends, Kerena, and Elliot.
“We should do it,” one of the friends said in between bites of room-temperature pizza.
“Do what?” Elliot replied, twirling his spoon in his soup concoction.
“Swim down there. See if there really is something,” the friend replied, wiggling their eyebrows in mock horror. “Apparently there’s ghosts.”
“The lake’s locked all the time, they won’t let anyone past the gate without a pass,” Elliot said, shrugging off the suggestion. He didn’t want to be anywhere near that creepy lake. He’d known the story since he was a kid, just like all his peers, and it had scared him enough as a child that he still only went during broad daylight and left well before sunset.
“Aw, don’t be a wuss. I’ve been down there plenty of times after dark, we could get past that gate easily. Those guards are always snoozing by 11 p.m.,” the friend guffawed, picking up on Elliot’s discomfort. “What do you think, Kerena? Elliot should take a dip, right?”
“Hm?” Kerena looked up, half confused. She’d been dozing off during the conversation and frankly didn’t care much about the weird history. “It’s just a story, dude. A bunch of people fell for their own rumors and their kids ended up dying because of it. There’s nothing creepy or supernatural about it, it’s just sad.”
“That’s what I mean!” Their friend exclaimed, hands pointed directly at Sera. “It’s just a story. No truth. So what’s it gonna hurt to just go out there later and hang out? And if we just so happen to take a dip, so be it.”
“Nah man,” Elliot replied, shaking his head and focusing back on his food. “I’m not getting in trouble for all that. My dad will flip if I leave the house that late anyway.”
The friend let out a loud laugh, “Man, you’re such a goody-good. I think it’d be healthy for you to actually break a rule for once, don’t you think, Kerena?”
Kerena chuckled and Elliot turned to look at her. “Elliot’s not gonna break any rules. His dad is a hard-ass.”
Elliot’s spoon stopped mid-air. What did she say?
He had been expecting more of a defense, for her to say that going to the lake was a stupid idea or that they had better things to do. Not passing comments about him not liking to break rules. They hadn’t been dating long, but…wow, that hurt.
Kerena looked over at Elliot, noticing that he’d gone quiet. He was looking down, burning a hole into his food tray. Had she said the wrong thing? His dad was a hard-ass, his friends should understand that. She snaked her hand into his under the table, giving him a smile when he looked over. He gave her a dry one in return, and quickly refocused back on his food. Yup, he was definitely upset.
So, that’s why he did it, he reasoned. Because of her, throwing around casual cruel words she deemed harmless. It didn’t matter that they had been dating for five months and had started saying their I-love-you's. She cared what everyone else thought, too. She was still tip-toeing the line where she wanted to be cool with his friends but still be his supporter. And she did a bad job that day, he thought.
That’s why he kept taking more steps into the water, letting it move up his leg, his stomach, until all that was still visible was his eyes.
Kerena’s thoughts raced as anxiety and worry took over her mind. She had lost sight of him and had been running back and forth along the lake trying to spot him. It had only been a few minutes since he went in, but there was no sign of him in the water. Was that too short of a time frame to go looking for him? Or was it already too late considering the temperature of the frigid water?
She didn’t know, she didn’t know what to do or what to think and she thought she may be forgetting how to breathe, too.
“Elliot!” She screamed into the night air, desperation in her voice. Tears and snot ran down her face as she continued pacing along the lake. “Elliot, come back!!!”
Just then, she spotted a disturbance in the smooth expanse of the lake, not too far from where she was standing but deep enough for his body to be submerged. There was a spot of dark hair, a shoulder, hands reaching for the sky. She yelled his name again, and begged him to come back.
He turned to face her and she gasped. He was practically blue already, his wet hair slowly turning to ice in the cold air.
“K-ker-e-ena,” his voice was ragged and his teeth chattered. “H-help-p.”
Help? Okay, she could do that. She could do it. She would get right there in the water along with him and pull him out. They’d go home and forget all about this night. She made a beeline for him, splashing into the water and willing herself not to think about the bone-chilling water. She was up to her waist in the water when she stopped in her tracks.
There was something behind him. Another boy maybe, another…shape? But it was too dark, like a shadow, standing just a few meters behind Elliot.
She couldn’t feel the cold in her legs anymore. She couldn’t stop staring at that shadow. “E-elliot?”
“Kerena! The water’s not so bad now! You get used to it!” He said excitedly, splashing the water at his side. Kerena furrowed her brow, his face was still turning blue.
“Elliot, come towards me. Now.” Her voice didn’t falter this time.
“What - why? You wanted me to do this, remember? I’m doing it!” Elliot replied, splashing around as to demonstrate his point. Why was she saying this, could he not do anything right for her?
The shadow slinked closer to Elliot. Kerena watched it, frozen, getting closer and closer to him. Until suddenly, it disappeared under the water.
And then Elliot sank.
The lights of the ambulance shone red-white-red-white on her face. She shut her eyes, but the intermittent blinking burned through her eyelids. She didn't want to be here, she didn't want to think or even exist.
She could hear the commotion at the lake where first responders were pulling a body out. A police officer came over, asking her to give a report of what happened. She heard him, but it was as if he were speaking through glass.
She was embarrassed to admit that it had taken her a while to dial 9-1-1. She had been frozen to the spot when he had drowned, she didn't think she even screamed. She wasn’t sure how long she stood like that, but knew when she finally pulled out her phone that it was very late at night - or was it early morning? What was that barrier when night crossed into day? Was it a specific time, when dawn first peeks, or when the sun is finally bright in the sky? She didn't know. She supposed it didn't matter.
~ now ~
She was angry. Here she was, standing in the middle of the funeral procession, feeling simultaneously guilty and wronged. Who the hell jumps into a freezing body of water in the middle of winter? Worse, who jumps into a freezing body of water and doesn’t fight to come back out?
She tried hard not to roll her eyes as various relatives of his took their turns saying their teary goodbyes. She wanted to yell at them, ask them why they had raised such an irresponsible child. She didn’t want to stand there crying along with the rest of them and watching as they lowered his casket into the ground. She refused to let their old memories wash over her and or allow herself to sob over losing him. No way was she going to tear up hearing his mother wail for him or watch the distant look on his sister’s face, no way –
“It’s okay,” someone was grabbing her, comforting her with a soft voice. But she didn’t need comforting, why was this person hugging her? “I know, I know, shhh…”
She tried to tell the person to fuck off, but the words got choked off in her throat and a sob came out instead. When she went to touch her face, her hands came away wet with tears.
It was a dream, all a dream.
She had woken up with a scream, her heart clutched in her hands.
Her breath came out in pulses as she tried to calm herself down. Her free hand, the one not clutching her heart like a lifeline, curled into the sheets beneath her. It had been the most awful thing.
The dream hadn’t felt like a dream, almost everything about it felt so real. It started out so familiar, with her standing in front of the barn. She’d done it so many times before, just like the other day. But it was nighttime this time and there were no footprints to retrace up to the barn. The snow lit up blue under the moonlight.
She trekked up the hill to the barn, skipping past the window with the engraving and walking into the small building. It was empty, not like the inside of an old barn should be. She heard an owl hoot from a corner, making her jump. She spotted sitting on the sill of the window, its large eyes growing bigger and bigger the more she stared.
Something scurried behind her, and she whipped around in fright.
“H-hello?” Her voice was squeakier than she meant for it to be. She prayed she wouldn't receive a reply.
And she didn’t. For a few quiet moments, there was no sound permeating from any corner of the barn. She even held her own breath so she wouldn’t confuse it for someone else’s.
Finally, satisfied that it had just been a trick of the wind perhaps against her window or a mouse scurrying along the floor, she relaxed and let out a breath.
“Hello,” a smooth voice called out.
“Ahh!” She screamed into the darkness, scrambling back against the wall. “Who are you? Get away from me!”
A light turned on. Kerena looked up to see giant owl eyes in the place where the roof had just been, bright and illuminating the room.
Her whole body shook in fright, and she cried as she clenched her eyes shut. Her heartbeat was fast and loud in her head. She just wanted to wake up, just wanted to be back in her bed.
“Kerena?” A familiar voice called out.
Her breath caught in her throat. “Y-you-”
“Yes, it’s me,” Elliot replied, cocking his head.
Indeed, it was him. But also, not him. It was his face, but pale and blue. His same eyes, but with some sort of fog clouding over the iris.
“How are you- you drowned!” She yelled, pushing away from the wall and stepping towards him. It was him! He was back. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” He whispered. His expression never changed, as if that was frozen, too.
She didn’t understand. He stepped closer, stepping fully into her sight line.
It wasn't him. His skin was dry and flaking off in chunks and there was frost hanging from his eyelashes. His eyes were bloodshot and black and when he raised a hand towards her, she felt an icy chill run down her back. He resembled less himself and more like the shadow that followed behind him in the water.
“Kerena,” he stepped closer. “Go with me.” She stumbled back, scurrying sideways along the wall, anything to create distance between herself and -
A cold hand locked around her arm before she could make it across the room and yanked her back. She let out a horrified scream and…woke up.
She wasn’t sure how long she sat that, the aftershock of the dream leaving her completely speechless and thoughtless. What had she just seen? Were the stories about that lake true?
She relaxed her shoulders and lied back down. She tried to will herself back to sleep, but was afraid that she’d fall back into the same dream.
After tossing and turning for what felt like an eternity, she got out of bed and pulled on a sweatshirt and boots over her pajamas. What had he said? Go with me? Fine.
The lake was frozen now. She didn’t know why she was here, or how she got there. She was on autopilot and her brain felt ready to explode with grief, fear, and anger.
Her anger didn't make sense to her even. It was mixed with grief that filled her chest, nausea spilling down her throat, and guilt that pooled in her stomach. The guilt ate away at her most. After all, who had said those careless words to him? It had been her fault and she knew it. She just couldn't make peace with it.
Dawn had started to break; that’s how long she had tossed and turned for after the dream. The lake looked more peaceful in the daytime. The reflection of the clouds on the clear ice gave it the illusion of a never-ending sky. There was a strange calmness about it, one that didn’t let on that it had swallowed a person whole mere days before.
Honestly, she couldn't tell if she was still in the dream or awake in the real world. Nothing felt real anymore, like there was a blur over her daily life and you couldn't quite see through the haze.
She took one hesitant step onto the ice, flailing a bit before finding her balance and stepping onto it fully. Carefully, she made her way to the spot she had seen him last. She wanted to see things from his perspective, look at the last thing he looked at.
It wasn’t quite the same though, she thought. The sun was out and there was no one calling to her. She considered the ice beneath her. The water underneath would be the same. Without quite realizing what she was doing, she began stomping her feet as hard as she could against the ice. She just needed to feel the water. She kept stomping, going a little harder every time. She just needed to be in the same water he’d been in, just for a second. She stomped even harder and harder until her legs began hurting. She just wanted to know how it stole his breath and why he stayed. She needed the full experience.
She thought back to the nightmare she had. How - for a second - how happy she had been to see him. And how great it would be to see him again.
The cracks that had been forming underneath her expanded. She was so busy in her thoughts that she didn’t see chunks of ice break away. Her assault on the ice continued but this time her feet didn't hit a solid surface, but slipped straight into the biting water. The cold shot up her body and left her gasping, just as it had done with him. She was half in the water now, only one leg dangling into the abyss.
It was even colder than she remembered, and she pulled her leg back. The wind howled and whipped her hair around her face. She moved it out of her face and when she did, a shadow. Just a few meters away. It was just a shape at first, human-like. It drew closer and slowly, Kerena could pick out a few features. Dark hair, brown eyes, just like hers. Except not, the skin was sallow and gray. The hair turned to ice and her eyes became bloodshot.
She should be frightened, she knew. But she wasn’t. She felt a strange calmness overtake her. The shape drew closer, extending a cold hand. Kerena felt warm all of a sudden. She took the hand and let herself be pulled into the water.