As the drought dragged on in Fayette, Hush Lake began to lose her secrets. She tried to hold on to them as she had done for centuries but it was no use. The dry, arid air was stealing them all, releasing them into the wind where they could do their damage.
Many people did not even consider her much of a lake, some thought she might technically be a pond but for generations people would come to her at night, sit on her shores, and whisper their secrets. That’s how she got her name.
She knew everything about the little town that lay beyond on her shores. She knew who was cheating on whom and with whom and how often. She knew who still picked their nose. She knew who had rearranged the letters on the movie theater marquis. She even knew who had really won prom queen before the ballots had been tampered with.
She remembered Susan Welter. Susan had been married to Bobby for 15 years. They had been high school sweethearts. He went into the electrician’s union after high school and she had nothing else to do so she married him. Bobby was good to her. He brought her flowers and always kissed her goodbye when he left for work in the morning. But she didn’t love him. She had whispered this to Hush one unseasonably warm November night. She cried and offered her tears along with her words. Hush took them and kept them.
She remembered Abe Gustafson who had a gambling problem. He confessed to losing $6,000 at the casino in one night. He swore he would make it all back and that then he would stop. He asked Hush to keep his secret and she did. And then when he returned a week later she even kept his new secret. It wasn’t her place to judge.
The first few weeks of the drought had gone by without Hush really even noticing.
She had plenty of work to do and secrets to keep. But after a month of no rain, she started to get worried. What was going on?
She asked a few ducks to take her message to the clouds. Perhaps they knew what was going on. When the ducks returned they had no answers for her, only more secrets. (Ducks have surprisingly complex social structures). So she waited and hoped for rain.
By month thirteen she felt it getting harder to stretch out onto the soft sand. She could only reach the rock line. Then she noticed that Jimmy’s fishing boat was much closer to her bottom than she liked. It wouldn’t do to have it get stuck. Thankfully he made it to shore without any trouble, but he hadn’t come back. Hush supposed he had noticed the close quarters as well.
At month fourteen she felt the first secret slipping away. She tried to push it down but there was only so much room.
It had belonged to little Corey Washington. He had given it to her when he was six. He couldn’t stop wetting the bed. It was the simple and innocent secret of a child. Surely the problem had corrected itself by now but she knew that kids could be cruel so she desperately hoped it didn’t reach the wrong ear.
But on the tenth day of that same month Little Corey, now grown to a wise 11 years, came running to her water’s edge. He picked up a huge stone and threw it at Hush. It crashed into her violently and fell quickly to her bottom. The ripples on her surface repeated the pain over and over again, a little less acutely each time. Not long after the rock, came the voices.
“Corey Wets the Be-ed. Corey Wets the Be-ed,” sing-song-y and ruthless.
Hush saw four other boys come into view. The tallest of them was Booker Carving.
Hush had a few of his secrets somewhere too but because the world was unkind, those secrets remained lodged in her depths.
“Gee Corey, I’m real sorry about your pee pants. Maybe you should just wear diapers from now on!” Booker yelled. The other three squealed with delight. Corey ran off the way he had come. Booker and the others followed. Hush could hear their nasty chorus ringing in the wind for ten minutes.
She had failed Corey. And there would be more failures to come. Hush was getting shallower by the day; she didn’t have long. She needed somewhere to store the secrets and she thought she might know just the place.
A person’s mind is fascinating, often as deep and mysterious as a lake. There are many crevices in which to keep facts, figures, feelings, and certainly, secrets. Most people have enough secrets to keep their brains filled to capacity. Except for Alice. Alice was what you would call an open book. She had no secrets. She never left Fayette and she always played by the rules. Each Sunday morning like clockwork she would visit Hush. She never spoke, she never divulged any secrets, she never cried. She would just sit and watch the water ripple in the wind. Hush enjoyed the company. Alice was there as a friend, not someone who needed anything from her. But now Hush needed something from Alice.
A couple miles from Hush’s north shore was a dark cave. Most of the town’s people were too scared to enter it. Legend had it that once a little girl went in and never came out. Someone had cleverly written “DEATH TO ALL WHO ENTER” on the rock at the opening of the cave. It was the perfect place for secrets.
Alice approached the lake as usual on Sunday. Normally she sat but today she felt compelled to feel the water. She kicked off her sandals and walked in, just far enough to cover her toes. The water was warm and soothing. A gentle breeze blew past her ear and she thought she heard a woman’s faint voice. She walked a bit farther into the water. Another breeze tickled her ear and this time she was sure she heard her name being whispered ever so softly.
She waded deeper into the lake. She was in up to her waste now. The water was so clear she could see her feet resting on the sandy bottom. Suddenly she felt the urge to swim. She’d never swum in the lake before and after diving in, she wondered why she had waited so long to try it. The water embraced her like a long lost friend.
She stayed under as long as she could before breaking the surface for a breath and then she was immediately back down again. She glided weightlessly through the water until she thought she had made it to the center. She came up again and she bobbed for a bit, blinking in the sun. She decided to see how deep she could go. She dove back under and made a run towards the bottom. Before she could reach it though, the water around her started churning. Her instinct was to panic and race for the top but then she heard that same motherly voice in her ear again. “Alice do not be afraid.”
She stopped swimming and let the water hold her. She didn’t feel the need to take a breath. The churning water began to circle her entire body, creating a whirlpool with her as its center. Then the voice returned.
“Alice I need your help. For years I have kept the secrets of Fayette safe but my time here is drawing to a close. I will no longer be able to hold on. I need you to bear the burden of the secrets I keep and bring them to the cave.”
Alice couldn’t believe any of this was happening. Of course people told the lake their secrets but she never thought the lake had actually kept them. And anyway, how could she be a messenger for secrets? She couldn’t very well hold them in her hands.
Suddenly the whirl pooling water began to circle faster and more violently. And then the voices began. There were old voices mixed with young voices, sad voices mixed with happy voices, whispers mixed with shouts. She couldn’t make any sense of the words but as these were her friends’ secrets she thought that was probably for the best.
Her head was filling up fast and she could feel herself getting heavier with each new word. She started to sink, slowly at first and then faster. She tried to kick but the weight was too much. Then the water started to calm and she felt a surge push her upward. She broke the surface like a breaching dolphin and gasped for air.
She swam as fast as she could toward the shore. Before she was out of the water’s reach, she heard a very faint “thank you” in the wind.
She laid her body flat on the sand. Her head was swimming with a thousand thoughts, most of them not her own. It was so different from the usual silence in her head. She couldn’t balance reality with what had just happened but one thing was certain if she wanted the voices gone, she needed to go to the cave.
Alice hoped desperately that no one would cross her path as she made her way to the cave. She was moving slowly, the weight of the town’s secrets literally on her shoulders. She heard the laughter of a group of kids and quickly hid behind a tree off the path. Thankfully they passed by. But she was so focused on avoiding them that she didn’t hear the hiker coming towards her. Making her way back onto the path she walked right into him.
“Oooph. Whoa there!” he said as he tried to steady her. By reflex, she opened her mouth to say “Sorry mister” but instead she said, “John’s got cancer and he doesn’t want me to tell anyone.” She clapped her hands to her mouth as fast as she could.
The man tilted his head and looked at her with concern, “John who?”
Alice locked her lips and shook her head vigorously while plowing past the man. She didn’t know who John was but she hoped the hiker wouldn’t try to find out.
She kept walking and the path began to climb. She tripped on a rock and it hurt like hell. She tried to scream, “Son of a bitch!” but what came out instead was: “Pastor says that it’s OK because we’re in love and God wouldn’t want us to waste that love.”
“Jesus Christ” she thought, being careful to keep the words in her head. She had no idea her neighbors were living such salacious lifestyles. For the first time, she realized what a bounty she was holding inside of her. All she had to do was open her mouth and she would know everything that the town didn’t want her to know. People would pay a lot of money to keep these secrets, well, secret.
Ruminating, she turned back to look at Hush Lake, she’d probably made it about a mile from the shore. The lake looked very small, the drought really had stolen a lot of her former glory. Or maybe it was the loss of all the secrets. Either way, Alice wondered if Hush Lake would make it much longer without some rain. The wind changed slightly and the ripples of the water began pushing toward her, urging her forward. The sadness of the view got the best of her and she kept her mouth closed and the secrets safe. She wouldn’t have known how to effectively blackmail someone anyway.
She could see the cave now. The graffiti on its entrance was less than inviting. When Alice was fifteen she’d wondered up there on her own. Some kids a few years older than her were already there. One of the girls caught sight of Alice before she could shy away.
“Hold up there. You’re Alice right? You’re in my Algebra class.”
“Oh right” said Alice “hi.”
“You ever been in this cave before?”
“No” answered Alice, backing away.
The girl, whose name Alice now remembered was Shelley, walked toward Alice with one of her friends. They grabbed her at the elbows. “Well there’s no time like the present.”
“Please no, please.” Alice begged as they dragged her toward the mouth. They shoved her in violently and she fell to her knees. She turned and rushed toward them. “Uh uh uh” Shelley said waving her index finger, “you can’t leave until you’ve gone far enough in where we can’t see you anymore. Get to walking.”
Alice pushed against them and tried to shove past but they wouldn’t budge. They pushed her back again. She knew they wouldn’t stop. She took a breath and began walking toward the darkness. The darkness felt thick and alive. She felt as if she was being pushed from all sides. Instinctively, she knew the darkness was trying to crush her.
She took a step and suddenly there wasn’t ground underneath her foot anymore. She fell forward and grasped for something, anything. She just barely caught the edge of the giant hole. She screamed for help and heard her echo fall deep into the earth.
Something grabbed at her feet, pulling her. It wanted her, the cave, the hole, the darkness; it wanted her to stay forever. She screamed and screamed but she knew no one could hear her. She’d gone too far in.
Standing at the entrance to the cave now, Alice couldn’t remember how she had done it but a bout of strength had come to her and she was able to shake the clutches of the darkness and pull herself up. She had run from the cave, past the girls and had vowed never to return.
So much for vows. She wished she had a flashlight.
She stepped into the cave and it felt all too familiar. As she moved forward the darkness crept toward her as it had done on that summer day fifteen years before. Her head ached with the pressure of the secrets. Somehow she remembered the location of the hole, though she couldn’t see it. She got down on her hands and knees and inched forward until she felt the hole’s edge. Something licked at her fingertips. She pulled them back but wasn’t fast enough. It reached out and grabbed her wrists and tugged hard. She fell forward and her chest hit the ground with a thud, knocking the wind out of her. Her mouth opened with an “umph” and the secrets came rushing out. Words tripped over words. Sentences merged with sentences. She felt her head emptying with every passing second. They tumbled from Alice into the darkness, never to be heard again.
When the last word was set free, the force on her wrists lessened and finally released. Alice collapsed, half of her body hanging over the hole. She scuttled back until her entire body was safely on solid ground. As she rolled over, she realized she could see the ceiling of the cave. The darkness had ebbed a bit. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, she scrambled to her feet and ran out of the cave and back down the path.
When she reached Hush Lake, Alice finally stopped. She couldn’t believe what she was looking at. Where Hush had been was now just an empty crater. There wasn’t a drop of water to be seen. Without the secrets, without any rain, Hush Lake had finally dried up. Alice felt empty too. She would miss the lake. But not the secrets.
As she tried to catch her breath, she leaned over and placed her hands on her knees. She closed her eyes and wished that a huge storm would envelop the town and last for days and days, filling the crater once again.
She picked up a rock and tossed it into the hole. “Don’t be stupid,” she said to herself, shaking her head.
“Why ya throwing rocks?” said a little voice behind her. Startled, Alice turned to find a little boy, about 11 years old.
“I was making a wish.” She said.
“I’ve got some wishes.” The boy said, smashing his hands in his pockets and kicking at the dry dust in front of him.
“Be my guest,” she said, moving aside and gesturing to the hole.
The little boy scanned the ground in search of a rock that would work. He picked up a medium sized rock, discarded it, and settled on a pebble that he figured he’d be able to throw much farther. He clutched it in both hands, shut his eyes, and bowed his head. He mumbled to himself and pressed his hands together as if trying to squeeze every last bit of his wish into the rock. Then he looked up, stretched his left arm back, and threw it with all his might. It soared high and landed with a respectable clunk right in the middle of the hole.
The two of them looked at the rock for a few seconds. “Whad’ya wish for?” Alice asked, turning to the child. He looked up at her as if she was dumbest person in town.
“Can’t say,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s a secret.”