Illustration by Dylan Tanner
Illustration by Dylan Tanner
Illustration by Dylan Tanner
Illustration by Dylan Tanner
Illustration by Dylan Tanner
Illustration by Dylan Tanner
A look through the Chinook Observer’s police blotter would convince no sane person that Nathan Anderssen and Kyle Olson were men steady of heart and mind.
But when young Sara Olson went missing, and the community turned to uproar, fearing the worst, Nathan and Kyle chugged enough courage one moonless night to want to hero it out.
And even though the police had cleared Black Lake and its vicinity weeks before, even though the search parties had moved out to combing the sticks and bogs beyond Ilwaco proper, Kyle had a real hunch the answer to poor Sara Olson’s disappearance still lay among the reeds and trout at the bottom of Black Lake.
Nathan had no reason to doubt his friend’s inkling. After all, it was Kyle who had found Cory Hoyt’s stolen Dodge Ram accordion-smashed against a fir in a ditch near Raymond. He boasted something of a local reputation for sniffing out lost things. He had conjured car keys, wedding rings, missing cats and dogs, a Garmin fish finder and even a half-pound of primo kush Nathan had misplaced after dipping into it.
Then there was Charlene — oh, sweet Char. The night she left, Nathan woke up on his face in a field, rain and rot clinging to his beard. He’d been socked with mud down to his crack and felt like he’d fled a grave. When he reached the trailer near dawn, the cupboards and utensils had spilled onto the counters and floors. Broken plates rested in shards like so many discarded fangs. He kicked silverware across the linoleum, puzzled a coffee mug back together.
Char’s vanity was empty.
Nathan had been a sleepwalker most of his life. To know your body clocks in after you’ve clocked out was something he could never get used to. Neither could Char, he guessed. Even with her clothes gone, he couldn’t help but chew over whether he had done something primal and unconscious to punctuate her exit.
Kyle was the one who told him to steer north — think Aberdeen, Seattle, British Columbia. Sure enough the cops returned a couple of days later having found Charlene’s car at the Tacoma bus station.
That was all they ever found.
So when Kyle again pointed north, Nathan helped him exhume Bill Lingard’s 20-foot troller, the Ansa Ansa, from the old man’s front yard, and they towed it across town to slip it into the dark, still waters of Black Lake.
The signs posted next to the boat ramp were all warnings to be ignored.
STOP AQUATIC HITCHHIKERS!
ELECTRIC MOTORS ONLY
SPILLS aren’t SLICK
As the boat drifted away from the shoreline, Nathan watched the flickering candles of Sara Olson’s makeshift memorial grow smaller and smaller until all the lights bled together into one winking point like a dying star.
The shrine had erupted at the base of a gnarled hemlock, its roots leaping four feet out of the earth, leaving a mossy hollow bedded with needles. Photographs, handwritten notes and drawings, votives and vases of flowers huddled limp and soggy with rain on a damp wool blanket. Yet someone was still coming around to rouse the candles.
Sara had been — is — an Ilwaco High track star and would run the perimeter of the lake rain or shine, with or without her teammates. So it made sense to honor her here, even if the tree was just stage right of the porta potty.
Earlier, as Kyle had dipped the trailer into the lake, Nathan couldn’t help but shudder at the bobbing glow cast off the shrine. As shadows shimmied against the exposed roots, he imagined this must be what cell bars looked like inside a murky medieval dungeon.
He hadn’t told Kyle this, but the night poor Sara Olson had gone missing, he had woken up shivering fetal, way off-trail somewhere in Cape D., with enough bumps and scabs about him to think that he’d wrestled a blackberry bush that had won hands down.
Now every day they didn’t find that girl was like hoisting another ten-pound sack of guilt upon his shoulders.
Kyle chirped a happy cuss as the engine began to churn, spitting a cloud of invisible black smoke into an invisible black night. He tossed Nathan a congratulatory beer.
“I can see why Bill kept this out of the water for so long,” Nathan said.
Beyond the beer, they’d brought a handle of Fireball and scared up a crab pot and an old trawl net.
One bare bulb mood-lit the tiny wheelhouse with the wrong mood. There was a fillet knife near the stern on the portside, a tuna hook hung starboard. When they usurped the vessel, there had been a pile of cinderblocks set above the fish hold, but they had left those on Lingard’s lawn. No need to take on extra weight when you are sure to take on extra water.
“How long’s she been dry?” Kyle asked. “Three, four years? Lingard’s not been right since Ansa up and left. That’s why you should never name a boat after a woman you love. The boat may be around longer. Still, that Ansa though.”
Nathan nodded, sipped his beer.
Ansa Lingard fell into legend shortly after arriving at port on Bill’s arm. No one had ever seen her before they shacked up. She was obviously foreign-born but no one could throw a dart at the exact place on a map.
Beautiful and she could drink like a fish. Plenty coveted her; others snickered, considering the postal costs Lingard had dropped to move so much wife internationally.
But, in the end, she was wiry, curious, friendly, hard-working, unassuming, perplexing, charitable, a little handsy, elegant, direct, and then gone.
Bill cut weird pretty quickly after that. He dumped his boat on a trailer in his front yard and wandered the lawn in slippers and a bathrobe. Nathan and Kyle would spy him often, sitting atop his cinderblock thrown aboard the Ansa Ansa, just drifting through an arpeggio on his guitar, cooing at his knees. Sometimes he was just there reading out loud or crying or whispering, even if it was raining.
Nathan now understood, knowing what it was like to smell empty drawers, searching for something that will never come back. He looked out now upon Black Lake and saw nothing but the blue, spotted phantoms that coiled around the edges of his eyes.
Kyle spanked the crab pot, trying to contort it into its original form. He was sitting on top of the fish hold and making quite the damn racket.
“So I know how to find some fish. You look for a couple of jumpers, maybe some birds,” Nathan said. “What are you supposed to look for when you’re fishing for a dead girl?”
“You don’t know that she’s dead.”
“You don’t know that she isn’t.” Nathan thought about that for a second. “I mean, do you?”
Kyle sprung the trap in his hands back to life.
“So, where to?” Nathan asked.
“The hell if I know,” Kyle said.
“Well, you’re the damn psychic.”
“The hell I am.”
Nathan glanced at the fillet knife portside and saw Kyle eye the tuna hook starboard.
“You’re telling me we stole Bill Lingard’s boat, plopped it in this pond, and you forgot your damn tea leaves?”
“You sonofa— ”
Kyle lunged from his perch and cracked Nathan’s jaw, scattering a flurry of electric waves across his face. Nathan shook him by the collar and scooped Kyle’s breath with one cut to his gut. They splashed across the wet and wobbly deck, all elbows and knees, until Nathan bit one of Kyle’s pinkie fingers hard and the venom passed. They both stood up, sniffling, erecting their vertebrae, then dipped the crab pot and the net into the abyss below them and dredged Black Lake.
Their first haul was a rotten smorgasbord. Vintage beer and Coke cans, a few rusty license plates, lots of limp paper and cigarette butts, two not-quite-similar hubcaps, a healthy-sized, flopping bass and a tennis racket.
Neither man had worked a fishing boat in a long time. They could both feel the sting of the work return like a memory to their shoulders as their welts took shape.
The trees loomed silent as totems and there was no other sound save the sputter of the engine and the persistent tapping of Kyle’s foot.
“So what exactly are we looking for?” Nathan said.
“Is that one of those self-help questions?”
“Would you at least stop tapping your foot?”
Nathan watched Kyle step a little closer to the tuna hook and kept his own eye on the fillet knife from where he sat upon the transom.
Then the engine stopped spitting. Nathan noticed the bow begin to nod. He couldn’t see the wink of the shrine any longer and wondered if the candles had fizzed or if it had just spun out of sight.
“Crap,” Kyle said, returning from the wheelhouse. “Out of gas.”
Even with the dim bulb still throbbing, the night and the water seemed to hold thicker until they were just one black thing. Nathan eased into vertigo, imagining they were astronauts. Was there really a dead girl floating somewhere in this outer space?
“You know, I used to envy you, man,” Kyle said.
“You should aim higher,” Nathan quipped.
Kyle was still tapping his damn foot.
“Come on,” Nathan said, pointing to the water.
“No really, man,” Kyle said. “You had that football scholarship, got into a good school. That 50-foot boat. Charlene …”
“Man,” Nathan said, a slug of cinnamon still burning his throat. “What the hell are you talking about? You know I got cut from the team, couldn’t hack classes. That boat went underwater before I could even get it out of port and give it a proper sinking — captain and all. I still owe that whole crew three grand a pop and can’t show my face at church. As for Charlene, she’s long gone. My brother won’t talk to me. I’ve never been a father as far as I know …”
“Hey, hey.” Kyle raised his hand in peace. “Like I said, man, I used to envy you. Truth is I have never seen someone piss so much away.”
Nathan’s mother used to say that it would be his daydreaming, not his sleepwalking, that led to his end. By the time he had finished that thought his knuckles had found the soft tip of Kyle’s nose and had opened a spigot that flooded Kyle’s mustache.
“Bet you didn’t see that one coming,” Nathan growled.
Before he knew it, Kyle had tackled him. As Kyle reached for the tuna hook, Nathan bonked him on the head with his fist. Kyle deposited a series of elbows to Nathan’s pelvis before they both threw up their hands. They stood wearily; older than they ever once expected to be. Kyle wiped his face. And then they swept the pot and the net over the transom into the soup and dredged Black Lake.
Kyle jerked the dripping crab pot onto the deck, but Nathan felt the net snag against some reeds below and, for a second, had the sensation the lake was calling him in. As he tried to cuss the net above surface, the only other sound was Kyle’s foot tapping, tapping.
“Phew.” Kyle rubbed his swollen cheek. “I told you I’m no psychic, but you know what? I kind of did see that one coming.”
Nathan let the net slack until he could tug it free.
Somehow Kyle’s tapping pounded louder, like some undiscovered drip in a ceiling. But then why did it sound bone-dry? The deck was soup.
He tried to see if Kyle was eying either port or starboard, but couldn’t tell with his back to the bow.
Hand over hand, he drug the net back toward the stern, but couldn’t erase Kyle’s broken metronome.
“I asked you to stop tapping your damn feet,” he said low.
“I’m not,” Kyle said.
Then, and this might have been an accident, but when Nathan flopped the net and its treasures over the stern, he clocked Kyle, slapping him onto the deck. When Nathan next pounced, there was no more debate about fault. So they bit and fought and got roped in the net and then tried to snuff each other in the nostril-deep water, and one of them probably would have succeeded this time, if the fish hold hadn’t opened, letting one slender hand emerge.
They froze, swallowed in the foul net, as Ansa Lingard climbed from the fish hold as naked and white and thick as raw milk, holding something that looked like a deflated panther in her hand.
Even the dull bulb illuminated the porcelain glint of her skin. She looked down at them without a lick of modesty as she shucked the rest of her ties.
“Oh god,” she hissed. “You two.” Then she asked, “Where’s William?”
“Ansa?” Nathan gawked in disbelief. “What the— ?”
Turns out Ansa had met Bill the old-fashioned way: when he yanked her from the drink in his trawl. “I got caught,” she shrugged. “It happens to a selkie, like, three or four times in their life.”
Since he had her seal skin, dooming her to remain human, they decided to make a go of it. “It’s traditional,” she said.
But Ansa began to crush hard for the sea, spilling Morton’s into her bathwater. “It’s so hot and dry on land,” she complained. “How do you stand it? And it’s getting hotter every year.”
Come their third wedding anniversary, Bill returned her skin, but it wasn’t a gift. “It was a test,” she admitted, “which I failed.”
When she tried to escape to the harbor, Bill was there. He locked her in the fish hold, weighting it down.
“I was his wife for three years, his prisoner for four — hmph, so his slave for seven.”
As she spoke she began to squeeze into her skin like it was a wet suit three times too snug. Nathan and Kyle struggled in the net.
“During the day, he would sing to me, read to me, plead like a broken little boy.” She shook her head as she slipped beneath her true face. “At night he would visit.” She spat. “And we’re the ones you call animals.”
Her prison had been painted with her name twice, announced plainly for all to see.
She nodded to the fish hold wistfully and sighed. “I never should have come to the Pacific.”
She stretched her skin across her chest as if about to button a sweater and her whole body flopped to the deck, bipedal no more. Nathan and Kyle shed the net and watched the longest, sleekest seal-like creature they’d ever seen whack her tail against the trembling boards.
Her eyes, now black and polished as marbles, cut straight to Nathan. He was surprised that even after her parlor trick, her voice didn’t waver, didn’t change tone, when she said to him, “Why do so many men confuse love with possession?”
He cocked his head in confusion.
“Do you want to capture me too?” Ansa said. “Make me your wife? Your pet?”
Nathan suddenly realized he was still holding the net. He dropped it at his feet and slipped a step back, eying the fillet knife portside, the hook starboard.
“And you!” She threw her snout toward Kyle, whose mustache shivered. “You knew about this!”
“What?” he said. “That’s nuts!”
“Liar! You knew what William did! You saw it with your eyes.”
Nathan couldn’t help but wonder if Ansa was implying that Kyle had had a vision of her captivity.
“Ansa …” Kyle started.
“Liar!” she said. “You have always been a liar. Now everyone will know.”
The boat shifted as the selkie slid across the deck.
“They will all know,” she seethed. “But now,” and she smiled a toothsome seal grin equidistant from terrifying and adorable, “I have to go. I have a date with an old lover. Afterward I will need to take a very long, cold bath.”
As Ansa breached the gunwale with a splash, both men rushed portside to see if there was anything to see, but all they found was the dark, still waters of Black Lake.
Nathan peered into the open fish hold. As his eyes strained to dig through the darkness, he noticed a clump of spotted seal skin in one corner. Did Ansa molt? But it soon became clear this was a pup that hadn’t moved or molted in a long time.
“Oh Bill,” he said. “What have you done?”
He turned to see if Kyle had heard him, but he was still spellbound by the water.
“Nathan,” he said. “You got to see this.”
Below the surface of the lake, ribbons of neon green as effervescent and unnatural as antifreeze began to snake out from the spot where Ansa had dived, cycloning through the opaque water with a gathering speed. The lake began to bloom an unhealthy glow and bubble like a cauldron, though it was a cold boil, like off dry ice.
“What’s happening?” Nathan said.
“I think we got cursed.”
There were times that Nathan would have welcomed a curse if only to explain why he left things in ruin. Now was not one of them.
Then things began to float to the top of the lake. Nathan leaped to the stern and scooped his hand in the water.
In his palm was his own mother’s wedding ring and a soggy billfold.
“Kyle?” he said. “Why did Ansa say you knew what Bill was doing?”
“I really don’t know,” he said. “She’s crazy. I mean, she’s like a fish witch or something.”
Nathan plunged his hand into the water again and pulled out an antique watch, a silver broach and a credit card with the name Peter Gunderson on it, which was the name of their tenth grade math teacher.
“Kyle?” he said again. “Why did Ansa say you knew?”
“I don’t know!” he said. “Okay, maybe one night I was driving by the marina and I saw Bill and Ansa slipping below deck and she caught my eye. I mean, hell, she always caught my eye. I didn’t think anything. They were doing their thing. I was doing mine. I mean, I hadn’t even heard she had left yet.”
“She never left,” Nathan stated flatly.
The water began to cede larger objects as if the glowing lake had refuted gravity — stereo equipment, fishing rods, animals too. Dogs and cats broke the surface, paddling, a parakeet wobbled into the night sky.
“This is impossible,” Kyle said. “None of these things could be here. There’s no way.”
Then the smashed front of a Dodge Ram emerged from the sickly water.
“Kyle?” Nathan asked. “Why is Cory Hoyt’s old Ram in Black Lake?”
“This doesn’t make any sense! I gave it all back!”
“Kyle, I’m going to ask you again.” Nathan inhaled a sense of calm that had evaded him all night as he picked up the tuna hook. “Why is— ?”
“Because I stole it okay?” Kyle yelled. “Because I could, because it was funny, and because Cory Hoyt was the one that burned me with every damn fishing boat on this port! So, yeah, I stole his damn truck. I crashed it. And then I told him where to find it.”
Kyle ran his hand through the water, but didn’t pick anything up. Dogs were yapping like geese.
Each item and every animal was an apparition implicating him further, rising from a different dimension — the deep. Nathan didn’t know squat about selkies, but he was beginning to figure you shouldn’t cross a selkie scorned.
“So I stole it all,” Kyle mumbled. “But I gave it back.”
“Why?” Nathan asked. With the hook in his hand, he backed Kyle towards the bow.
“Why?” Kyle snickered. “Why? Because it’s fun. Because I didn’t have a thing like football, like you did. Because my daddy didn’t leave me a boat. Because it’s a rush to get away with it. But you know what the real rush is? The thank-you you get when you show someone where to find their most precious thing. Then, I guess, after a while—”
“No,” Nathan stopped him, gripping the wooden handle of the hook so hard he thought it might splinter. “Why is Char’s Buick floating out there?”
“Whoa, Nathan.” Kyle put his hands up as his calves bumped the bow. There had been 3 inches of water at the stern, but here they had reached higher ground.
“You had messed her up pretty bad,” Kyle said, shaking his head. “I’d stopped by with a six-pack and you were gone. She wouldn’t stop talking.”
Nathan raked the hook starboard.
“She was going to call the cops,” he said. “I was just trying to keep you out of trouble.”
Why did Kyle have to smirk with only his mustache?
“She just wouldn’t stop talking.”
“I don’t believe you,” Nathan said, shifting the hook to his left hand so that he could drum Kyle with his dominant, just above his heart, until Kyle’s legs folded, slipping him onto his back.
“What did you do to that girl?” Nathan whispered, leaning his knee against Kyle’s lungs as he held the hook to his throat.
“What? Who? Sara?” Kyle squirmed. “I didn’t do anything to her, man. She’s like a distant cousin or something.”
“Then why the hell are we out here?”
Kyle tried to slurp a deep breath but couldn’t. “I thought if we found her, we’d be like famous or something,” he said. “I thought it would change our lives.”
Nathan bore into Kyle’s eyes, searching for a shade of BS in his pupils. Outside the boat, a cat yowled as it tried to stay afloat.
Nathan and Kyle had always been proximity friends the way countries that share borders are often allies and then not. He thought he had Kyle pegged 100 percent. Now he had no idea how to read him.
“How can I trust you?” he said.
He punched Kyle in the throat repeatedly as if expecting him to cough up an answer truer than blood.
“I don’t know what’s out here, man,” Kyle gasped. “I keep trying to tell you I’m not a damn psychic.”
Nathan then understood that he’d lost track of the fillet knife hung portside as it entered his ribcage and began stirring around in there.
He picked at Kyle a few times with the hook until Kyle stopped twisting the blade, then Nathan swam back onto his feet, crashing up against the wheelhouse.
Kyle raised two red fingers as if asking for a timeout. Nathan wanted nothing more, but instead he tilted forward and, with enormous effort, tossed Kyle off the bow of the boat into Black Lake.
He shook the lock of hair from his fist. He’d never thrown anything back before.
He slumped to the deck and cringed. The knife handle was still planted flannel-deep in his chest. He pretended to count to three and slid it out on one, the pain so acute it felt cold, like exhaling mountain air through a new hole.
The boat drifted backward until it knocked against some unmovable thing in the lake. With the bow raised Nathan had no trouble stammering down the deck to the stern, which had by now taken on a foot of water.
It was the trunk of Char’s submerged Buick, showing like the tip of an iceberg. There was a Scottie dog swimming around it. Nathan was close enough to pet either of them, but decided no.
Black Lake is not a particularly deep lake, in fact, for its size, it’s quite shallow. Nathan had never really cared why its waters were, normally, so dark and lifeless. If pressed, he might spout something about the trees cradling it against an absentee sun, or soil whatyamacallit, but he was beginning to take to the notion that it had something to do with the lake’s temperament.
Blinking his eyes, he followed the phosphorescent waters to find the shore. He had already given so much blood to this boat he hoped Kyle had never stolen a shark.
Sara Olson’s shrine burnt ablaze. Holding sentry at the water line were a dozen people carrying torches. They were hooded in robes and wearing fish masks — no, not masks, actual fish heads, halibut, stretched and bound across their faces, each of their deep-sea mouths cocked aghast, exposing razor-sharp equipment. Some seemed to be holding a platform about the size of a wiggling door, sharing the weight like pallbearers.
“Man,” Nathan said. “There really are no secrets at Black Lake.”
Some kneeled, plucking rings and jewelry from the shore as dogs and cats shook off all around them. Others tended to Sara’s candles. The rest stood right as Beefeaters, either hoisting the platform or holding the torches.
The young voice echoed across the lake and could probably be heard on the other side of Sandridge Road.
When she screamed, they stopped their pilfering, turning 24 beady eyes never meant to see the night air right at him.
He raised one bloody hand, tapping out. There will be no more years from here.
Could Kyle have twisted an antenna upon some grand business he was too dumb to tune? Even a fake psychic can nickel off a winning scratch, right?
Without a word between them, the halibut people slunk off down the dirt road away from the boat ramp toward Cranmac Farms, their lamb now docile and in tow.
Nathan wanted nothing more than to help that poor girl but he didn’t have enough syrup left in him to help even himself. What irked him hollow as that hemlock over there was the idea that Kyle could have been selling even a single half-truth tonight.
Dawn would burst soon, even over Black Lake. He took a hard seat up to his waist in burgundy. The stern kept kissing the Buick’s bumper.
He liked the idea of rest under the warranty that his body would remain still.
“Oh Char,” he said. “I could have never done anything like that to you, right?”
You’ll never really know, will you?
The objects in the lake began to sink as the sky began to break with pink and orange cracks. The barking ceased. There is an impermanence to everything, he was beginning to see: life, relationships, even a selkie’s curse.
Soon all of Kyle’s misdeeds would return to a deep much deeper than the true bottom of the lake allowed, but at least one thing besides the sinking boat would remain floating face down on the surface.
And someone had to be here in the morning to tell the police exactly what they would find when they dredged Black Lake. Someone had to be here to get a thank-you.
It wouldn’t be Nathan. He wouldn’t live to see the sunrise finish or get his handshake. He would never be revered for his so-called gifts the way Kyle was. He would find his rest, though — both body and mind finally slumbering together. First, he would find it on a cold metal slab, bunking next to his bloated friend Kyle and whatever scraps of Bill Lingard the police could collect. Finally, he would repose in a state-bought urn.
Cranberry harvests will start the next weekend. They will find the body of Sara Olson bejeweled in ruby-red vines in a bog down the dirt road from Black Lake. The police will scratch their heads, having combed this marsh, but you cannot find a body before there is a body to find.
Unlike Nathan, Sara Olson will not be forgotten. She will be survived by her friends and family who will think about her often. There will even be a large yearbook spread and a scholarship started in her name made possible by a large donation from something called The Halibut Club.
Some will thank her every harvest.