The lake used to always be a happy place. A safe place. But, last summer ruined it all. Ruined me.
I remember getting out of school each year on June 3rd. We’d pack up all our school supplies and throw them into brown paper bags. It didn’t matter if it was organized or not. I didn’t care. It was summer. Afterwards, we would play outside until our rides came to pick us up at 3 o’clock. My mom would show up with our grandpa. We’d race home to toss our schools bags on the floor and then pack back into the car. We headed over to Red Lake, where our grandparents lived. Grandma waited for us with a three-course dinner in celebration of school being over and the start of a fun summer on the lake.
Red Lake was surrounded by a few houses owned by elderly people like my grandparents who got away from the city and suburbs for their retirement. The nearest Wal-Mart was forty-five minutes away, and the nearest Target, even further. A trip to town happened once in a while and when we really needed something. Red Lake was isolated, and I loved it.
My little brother Avy was five years younger than me, and my baby sister Hira even younger. I played by myself most summers, which was nice. I read comic books in my tree house and timed myself racing around the lake, beating my time each year by a few seconds. It was here at Red Lake where I fell in love with swimming. Swimming is an individual sport for the most part, and since I never had any friends at Red Lake, I got really good at it.
I was nine years old when I swam across the lake and back. Mom had no idea that I was out in the water by myself, and she freaked when she realized I swam across the lake and back. I was scolded for not wearing a life jacket, but she was impressed that I made it to and from. Grandpa and Grandma laughed and told Mom that I was a natural born swimmer. They gave me the nickname, “Fin,” and that became my name from then on.
I practiced every day, with Mom watching me, and I could only practice swimming on the shallow end. But, when Grandpa or Grandma watched me, they let me go out deeper. Those summers were care-free. I’d swim all day, eat barbecue with my family, make s’mores, and watch movies with Mom and my grandparents after Avy and Hira went to sleep.
When I entered my freshman year of high school, I tried out for the swim team. My high school had a lot of students in it so the competition with sports was pretty difficult. There were fifty guys trying out and the team needed only thirty. I’d really have to make an impression, and I did. I was small, but quick…like a fish. Not only did I make the team, but I became a team captain as a freshman for the JV. Guys were jealous and some talked about me behind my back, but I didn’t care. I knew I was good, and I started to make a reputation for myself. Popularity ensued my freshman year, and it only grew. I tried not to let it get to my head, but it’s hard not to, especially as a freshman in high school. I did fairly well my freshman year, and the coaches really focused on developing my skills. The summer before my sophomore year, I became voraciously dedicated to swimming. I got up at six and swam until eight. Grandma would make me breakfast and then I’d swim more until lunch. Mom made lunch and then I swam for another two hours. I’d take a nap and then swim until Grandpa made dinner. The next day, I’d get up at six and swim…you get the idea. It was no surprise that I became varsity captain my sophomore year thanks to Red Lake. My sophomore year was no doubt my favorite year of high school. I crushed all the swimming records at the school and the surrounding schools. I made state but got third place. I still wasn’t fast enough, and I set to spend ninety percent of my summer inside Red Lake.
That summer was the summer everything shattered, specifically on July 8th.
My entire family went into town, but I stayed back. I finished up lunch and ran down to the dock. I jumped into the water and started to swim. I had kept my promise to my mom that I wouldn’t swim past the point where I couldn’t stand up when they weren’t around or watching. However, I made that promise a long time ago back when I was a novice swimmer. She’d trust me now, and I was the third best swimmer in the state. I’d be fine. I started swimming out to the middle of the lake. No one else was out on their docks or driving their boats. It didn’t seem odd to me until after everything happened. I made it across the lake no problem. I felt really good so I started to swim back as fast as I could. Dark clouds rolled in over the lake and blocked the sun. There was a storm coming. The waves started becoming a little more violent against the wind. I swam faster. I kept my eyes on our house and kicked. A wave crashed on top of me, and I swam up. But, I never reached the surface. I kicked again, but something was pulling me down. My heart stopped beating, and I looked down. A gray hand clasped onto my leg. My eyes widened, and I tried kicking it off with my other foot. Another gray hand grabbed my left foot and pulled. I kicked with all my might, but my legs were powerless. The light around me was going black. I was drowning. Someone was drowning me. I struggled and thrust my legs. What I loved was not also going to kill me. The hands tightened their grips and burned my legs. I reached my hands down to get the hands off, and flaming, red eyes met my gaze. I threw up in my mouth and tried punching it. A slimy, black body wrapped around me. I tried shaking it off, but it was like a snake. Choking me. Suffocating me. I screamed for help, but all that came out were bubbles. There was nothing I could do. I read the headline in my head, “Sixteen-Year-Old Swim-Star Dead at Red Lake by Drowning.”
I blacked out.
“Fin! Fin! Wake up!” My mom exclaimed over me. My eyes cracked open, and I saw my mom hovering over me, holding grocery bags. “Wake up, we need your help unloading the groceries.”
I was on the beach covered in sand. I was alive! My mouth opened up to tell my mom about how I almost was drowned by a monster, but I stopped myself when I realized that meant I would have to tell her I went across the lake. I kept my mouth shut and stood. Pain shot throughout my body, but I played it cool. I know I didn’t dream it. What happened was real.
“Why are you limping?” Mom asked.
“My foot fell asleep,” I lied.
I brought some bags into the kitchen and set them on the counter.
“What happened to your legs!” Grandma gasped.
“What?” I asked. I looked down and saw purple bruises and red rashes covering my ankles.
“Fin!” Mom shouted. My siblings rushed to see the commotion and started pointing at my injury.
“You must have run through some plants you’re allergic to,” Grandpa figured. “I have some allergy medication you can take.”
I ran to the bathroom and stomped my leg onto the toilet. My ankles looked disgusting. I took the medication and started to tremble. The red eyes played over in my head. I know I didn’t dream. I know I didn’t imagine, but I couldn’t tell them. They’d think I’m crazy, and I did what I was told not to do.
The next day, the entire family decided to take the boat out. I stayed on the platform, sipping on lemonade. I was still shaking from the day before, and the color in my legs started to fade away.
“Aren’t you going to swim?” Grandma asked.
“No, I’m alright,” I said, slowly drawing my knees into a hug.
“What’s wrong?” Mom interrogated. “You only don’t swim unless something is wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong!” I defended.
“You haven’t said much at all today, and it’s a perfect day to swim. Something must be wrong.”
“Mom!” I spat. “I’m fine. Look, want me to swim? I’ll swim!”
“Something is wrong,” Avy whispered.
“Watch!” I shouted and jumped into Red lake. “See, I’m swimming!”
My family ignored my tantrum and talked amongst themselves. I rolled my eyes and swam further away from the boat. I was safe. I definitely imagined what happened to me, and I was not going to have my mom treating me like a kid. I waded in the water for a few minutes, and my skin slowly started to crawl. My breathing went short, and my lungs felt like they were collapsing. I was imagining, right? I had imagined everything…right? I spooked myself and swam back to the boat. I jerked back. My stomach flipped. I looked down, and all I saw were those gray hands grabbing my ankles. I started screaming and yelled out for my mom. She was on the boat, laughing with my grandparents. She couldn’t hear me. I shrieked louder, but no one heard me. I pushed with all my might and swam. I hauled the gray hands along the water. I felt the red eyes piercing me. Swim! Swim! I yelled out. I was not going to die out here. The hands tightened their grip, and the boat floated back towards me. I waved my hands and yelled out. The boat drew closer, and the hands slowly let go of their grip. I raced up the ladder and scrambled onto the platform.
“Fin! What is it?” Mom said. “What happened?”
I threw up all over the boat and ran to my mom.
“There’s…. something in the water is trying to kill me. It happened yesterday, and it happened again today!”
“What?” Grandpa said. “Fin, it’s fine. There’s nothing that could try to kill you except the water.”
“Let’s go home,” I cried.
I haven’t stepped a foot into Red Lake since that day, but it didn’t stop there. I couldn’t go back into the water. Not just Red Lake, but any water. It took me a month to get used to taking a shower again, but they were quick.
School started, and what was supposed to be a great year, started spiraling out of control. It started with the first swim practice. I bit the bullet and told myself I was safe inside a pool. It had walls and a bottom. People were constantly in the water with you and watching from above. I was safe, and I was captain.
I jumped into the water to warm up a few minutes before practice started. I waded in the pool like normal. I looked down. Nothing there. I swam a few feet but kept glancing to make sure those gray hands were not reaching out to snatch my ankles. My heart beat quicker, but I was trying to keep myself calm. Some of the other swimmers piled into the gym.
“Hey, Fin!” They yelled.
“Already in the water?”
“That’s why he’s captain!”
I ignored their comments and looked down. Those creepy, gray hands reached for my feet again. I screamed. The guys rushed over to me, and I swam to the wall. The hands tickled the bottom of my feet, taunting me. I felt those red eyes pierce me again like two lasers searing through my body.
“Get away! Get away!” I squealed at the water. Two guys stuck their hands out to help me and pulled me out. I ran out of the gym and never stepped back inside. I knew if I’d go back into that pool those hands would be waiting for me. I explained to my mom what was going on, but she didn’t believe me. She eventually saw how scared I was and got me to meet with the school guidance counselor. That didn’t help, and I moved onto a different psychologist.
I quit the swim team and lost everything the water had given me. No one wanted to be my friend anymore. I ate lunches by myself and was known as “psychotic.”
But, I know I’m not.
I know what I saw. I know next time I step into the water, I’ll die.
It’s June 3rd again today, and here I am standing at the edge of Red Lake. There’s something beautiful and enticing knowing that you are staring death in the face. The crash of the waves beckon me. They call me to come play with them one last time. Do I listen?
The water creeps up my leg as I step in. I can’t help myself. The water chills my skin. It’s colder than normal, but I embrace it. I start swimming. If I can make it to the other side and back, this disaster will be over. I make it across and look down. Nothing in sight. No gray hands coming to seize me. I see my grandparent’s yellow house. I need to make it to there. That’s all I need to do. I kick my legs and stroke forward. Some sips of water slide through my lips. It tastes like death. I look down, and my body freezes. The gray hands were coming. They were frustrated and tired. I escaped them too many times and now would be the day they would become victorious. They claw at my heels, but I keep swimming. If they were going to drag me down, I would be swimming. The hands feel like branding irons on my legs. I want to scream out in pain, to yell for my mom, but I don’t have the strength. The water covers above me, and I’m sinking down. Do I fight it?
The hands notice I’m not struggling and take advantage. They grip tighter and whip me down. I’m plummeting through the water towards the bottom. My lungs start to burn, begging for air. Just a breath of air. Water pierces through my ears, and my head starts to pound. There’s a ringing…or is it a beep? It hurts. My eyes close, and my arms fly upwards. I’m drowning. I’m dead.
“Stay with us, Fin.”
“Can you open your eyes for us?”
“Fin, can you hear me?”
I open my eyes. White, ambient light fills around me. A doctor and two nurses are by my side. My mom is hovering over me, crying. I want to close my eyes again, but they don’t let me.
“Fin, can you say something?” The doctor asks.
All I can muster is a soft grunt.
“Good! Good!” The nurse beams with as many tears in her eyes as my mom.
“Fin,” the doctor continues. “Fin, you’re in the hospital. You were in a swimming accident. You’ve been in a coma.”