We were in fifth grade the February we played hockey on the lake. It was Ryan, Becky, a few other girls in our class, and I. It was my idea. Recently, I had seen curling on TV for the Winter Olympics and thought we could figure out how to do it with real stones and evergreen branches as brooms, but Ryan wasn’t interested and Becky just nodded politely. It must have sounded to them like the time I got really into Swiss Family Robinson and wanted to build a fort in the woods with the kids I babysat. When I instead said “hockey,” though, Ryan and Becky lit up. The rink in town was being used by the boys in our class that day and the snow had melted enough that we could ride our bikes to Clearwater Lake.
When we looked down at it from the top of the hill, he stood on the ice. He was a black pupil in the center of a white eye.
At that moment, I should have known what sort of story I was in. I used to yell at characters in horror movies who split from the group or went into the basement without turning on the lights. I threw popcorn at the screen which always made Ryan laugh and Becky smother her giggles. Maybe I didn’t realize it because, when you just think of yourself as the hero of your own story, you don’t realize you’re the bit player in someone else’s.
“It’s just a kid,” I told Becky and Ryan. “It looks like a boy.”
“Should we wait for him to leave?” Becky chewed on the end of the string from her hoodie. Her bobbed hair stuck to her round cheeks. She looked like Snow White.
Ryan shook her head. “Nah. We should tell him to fuck off.” You don’t see girls named “Ryan” anymore. She was singular even then.
“He might be angry. He was here first.” Becky chewed on the other string, now.
I saw some of the other girls arrive. Among them were Natalie, Sarah with an “H,” Sara without an “H,” Katie, Catie with a “C,” and Kady with a “D” like in katydid, which was a bug you get in that part of Ohio. They looked as baffled to see the guy as we were.
While Ryan and Becky argued, I went to the edge of the lake, sat down, and laced up my skates. I wanted to start the game before it got too late. Back then, being impulsive seemed like the grown-up thing to do, so I didn’t tell them. I shifted my hockey stick and goalie mask under my armpit, pulled myself upright, wobbled on the ice until I found my footing, and skated out to talk to him.
As I got closer, I saw how still he was. I thought he was a statue until I saw his shoulders rise and fall. It was when I got closer that he abruptly turned away. I saw the back of his head, a scalp of stubble, like he had been bald and it was just growing back. His ears stuck out and his neck was bare and tinged with pink.
I tried to skate in front of him and he twisted away from me again before I could see his face. He seemed vulnerable, shy. The idea of asking him to leave felt mean.
Taking a breath, I used my babysitter voice. “You can stay if you want, but we’re going to play hockey. We need a goalie.” I held out the mask. “Do you want to play?”
Silence passed between us. I heard snow bend a tree limb and hit the ground in a soft heap.
He turned slowly, moving like he was underwater. For a moment, I saw brown eyes with long, dark lashes and a small, flat mouth. A normal kid, as blank-faced as a doll in a box and plastic shell before you tear it open at Christmas. Then he moved like a cobra on a National Geographic special. He snatched the mask and strapped it on.
I looked down in surprise at my empty hand and then back up at him. The mask was a little big. It turned his eyes into round, dark pits.
I smiled at him. I hoped he smiled back under the mask. He continued to stare at me without moving, so I let the smile drop and gave him the stick.
At least he won’t stop us from playing, I thought to myself. I skated back to the other girls and told them he was a goalie now. If they didn’t want to play with him, they could go home.
Ryan shrugged. Becky began to chew on both of her hoodie strings at once. Natalie and Sara with an “H” glared at me for inviting him to play at all. Not, like, death glares. Their mouths just became grim but they couldn’t say anything.
We tried to divide up into teams, but Sara without an “H” and Catie with a “C” weren’t talking again. They had the sort of friendship where they fought every day at recess and never wanted to leave each other alone. I felt Ryan and Becky were easier to hang around. They made me happy and warm.
“Let’s just play one-goalie hockey.” Ryan nodded toward the boy out on the ice.
I was about to shout at him to ask if he still wanted to play as the only goalie, but he was already nodding back. I don’t know how he heard us.
I tilted my head toward Ryan. “If he’s not going to talk, at least he’s a good listener.”
It was about that time I noticed he didn’t have skates on, just heavy boots with thick soles. I had mentally given him skates when he wore none. I knew that was wrong in some specific, critical way. The wind whistled hollow in my ears.
I couldn’t find a moment to say anything. We started to play. Also, we never played games that weren’t interrupted. I don’t remember one that didn’t have some sort of incident— Sara without an “H” and Catie with a “C” yelling at each other, Natalie falling-down and crying, or a parent stopping everything to grab a kid who had promised to sweep the kitchen floor and hadn’t gotten around to it yet (me). Clearwater Lake was free from parents, though, and everyone was into the game. I didn’t want to risk ending it too soon.
Anyway, the boy was good.
Even though he moved slowly, we only got the puck past him once. Of course it was Becky, with her little, Snow White face. Her nervous tics and her bashfulness around strangers became fury when she was allowed to justify it.
Becky hit the puck with a furious swipe. The boy went down on one knee to block it, hitting the ice hard, but it slid right past him.
We cheered. It felt good to scream together.
If he was upset by this, we didn’t see it behind his mask. I, personally, don’t think he was. He just stood back up and we kept going. It was just part of the game.
We were almost done when we finally had an accident. Ryan was the toughest of us in many ways—she wore black nail polish, rarely smiled, and was the first of us to swear—but on the ice, she was about as sure of her skates as a baby deer learning how to use his legs. You didn’t notice it at first, because she was Ryan and breathlessly confident. Then you saw the occasional leg tremor or how she would sometimes stare at the ground too long as she tried to find her balance. She was staring at her skates when I ran into her.
I tried to right myself, but one of my legs went out wrong and I flailed my arms. The ice came up to meet my face and I skidded forward. Becky pulled me up and guided me to the shore, looked at me, and gasped in that theatrical way she always did.
My nose pulsed with what felt like a new bruise. I touched it. When I pulled my glove away, it was bloody. It didn’t feel like a break, but it did feel like the end of the game that I wanted to play all winter. I began to cry, big, embarrassed tears spilling down my chin and throat. I felt stupid for crying like a little kid—like the dumb, little girls the boys at the hockey rink thought we were—and with that thought, I cried even harder. My face grew hot.
Everyone followed us off the ice to see what was wrong. Our silent friend came, too. He took long, dragging steps rather than bladed glides, but he walked with purpose. The ice didn’t fight him.
“Damn. Does it hurt?” Ryan stood close, probably guilty this was kind of her fault, even though I hadn’t been looking, either.
I sobbed. “What do you think?”
Ryan didn’t argue. She just took some Kleenex out of her coat pocket. She didn’t even seem mad that I was mad. I think she just assumed everyone was furious all the time like she was and some people were better at hiding it. I think that’s why she and angrier-than-we-knew Becky got along.
Our masked friend reached out and took the packet from her. I didn’t even realize he was there until I saw his glove in front of my face. It was a gardener’s glove, stained with dirt, not a winter’s glove made to keep out the cold. I was so transfixed, I stopped crying.
Carefully, gently, he pinched a tissue out of the packet. Then he pressed it to my nose. It was soft.
He motioned to his own face, where his nose would be under his mask if we could see it. Then he pinched the air.
I copied him, pressing my nostrils shut. The tissue grew dark with blood. I looked up at him and murmured, “Thank you.”
He stepped back and let his arms fall to his sides. He didn’t move from that spot, not when we left the shore and not when we took our bikes up over the hill and through the old summer camp entrance.
I forgot to ask him for my hockey mask.
In the afternoon light, I saw the old cabins falling apart and the amphitheater covered in snow. My dad’s always told me the lake is the kind that resists freezing for as long as it can during the winter because “it’s a drowning lake, not a skating lake.” He went to the camp there when he was a kid the first time it reopened. It’s open and closed five times since then because of various accidents which, yes, include drowning.
Right now, the camp is open again. They’re in between no-one-could-have-prevented-this tragedies.
My nose wasn’t broken, which was nice. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the boy because I was distracted. My period started the same week. On our way to pick up my first pack of Kotex, Mom also helped me buy a training bra. I didn’t think much of either event, but they took up space. My body was shifting all around me even as my mind seemed to remain in place.
When I was fourteen, I came back to the lake. It was a dark night in May, a prom night. I remember because a high school senior had deigned to invite self-conscious, freshman me. His name was Luís and his family had moved here from El Salvador last summer. He saw me playing volleyball once and said, “Wow, you have moves.” He had a dimple tucked into his cheek when he smiled. Everything felt fuzzy and bright when I saw it.
He parked his car at the shore and killed the engine. Joy radiated out from inside me and made me grin like an ape. I felt cool, attractive, and, despite only having ice water with a lemon wedge at prom, drunk. At last, I was dating a handsome boy. I was going to kiss him and have sex. I was going to be normal like everyone else.
I leaned forward to whisper in his ear because that’s what you were supposed to do. “What kind of cologne are you wearing?” My satiny dress hissed along the leather seat.
He cracked up. “I’m not wearing cologne!”
“But you smell so good.” There was a dark mole on his neck. I kissed it.
Luís jerked away. “You’re fast, huh?”
I pulled back. “I am?”
“We’ve known each other for, what, a month?”
Now I was confused. This was what you did, right? You went on a date and fell in love and were married after high school. I felt like I had missed something. “But you brought me out to Clearwater Lake.”
“Is that important?”
“Teenagers fuck here.” I looked out at the black water. Something moved.
The boy in the mask was the furthest thing from my mind at that moment, but again, I didn’t know the whole story.
His eyes grew wide. “I just wanted to talk.”
“But you invited me to prom.” I no longer felt like an adult but a whining kid. My dress felt too short so I tried to smooth it down over my thighs.
Luís wrinkled his nose. “You’re nice. You remind me of my kid sister. I just wanted to see if you could help her babysit my cousins next weekend.”
“Will you be there?”
He winced, cleared his throat, and looked straight ahead. I knew that he knew he had messed up, somehow. “Oh. Yeah, no. Sorry. My girlfriend’s going to be in town.”
I wanted to cry. Instead, I exhaled anger. I opened the car door and got out. Again, an impulsive decision that felt adult, especially because I was embarrassed. “I’ll see you at school!” I yelled.
Luís was shocked. “No, no, I can drive you back!”
“I’ll call my friend.” I stood still. It was warm enough before the prom that I didn’t need a coat. That had changed and the evening was cool.
Eventually, after a few more minutes of trying to get me back in the car, Luís gave up and drove off.
I heard something splash in the water. It was eerie and I realized that, yes, refusing the ride from Luís was a bad idea.
I called Ryan. She came ten minutes later even though she only had a learner’s permit and borrowing her dad’s car was “a pain in the ass.”
We sat at the edge of the lake. “So, I’m an idiot,” I finally told her.
She clucked her tongue. “This dude literally asked you to prom, you dressed up super-hot, Becky did your hair, and he didn’t realize what it meant to park with a girl. Man, I’m pretty sure he’s the idiot.”
“But I assumed a lot.” My earrings were from the mall and made from a cheap metal. I was beginning to think I was allergic because my ears hurt. I unhooked them and squeezed my hand into a fist. “I threw myself at him.”
“He said that?”
“Okay, no. I think he wanted to cheat with you and chickened out. That was his guilt talking.”
“Are you sure?”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re going to find someone who’s crazy about you. You’re pretty, you kill at sports, and you’re the greatest.” She squeezed my shoulder.
I wanted to cry. “No, you’re the greatest.”
“I know. I’m amazing. It’s a cure.” She released my arm and smiled. “Now let’s get the hell out of here before we see that kid again.”
As soon as she said it, I knew what kid she meant. I smiled. “What’s he going to do, play hockey with us again?”
Ryan’s face soured. “All that time we were at the lake? He didn’t talk and he didn’t breathe. Remember?”
“I’m pretty sure I saw him breathe.” His shoulders arched up and down, at least.
“Did you? Because there were no steam clouds coming out of his mouth. And come on, it was cold!”
Some days, I thought, yes, maybe ghosts did exist, maybe aliens were out in space somewhere, and dragons in books were just dinosaurs who survived long enough to be seen by humans. That day wasn’t one of them. “Maybe he was just out there a long time.”
She snorted. “Well, yeah. I have a theory. I think he’s the first kid who drowned here. That was his ghost.”
My dad had told me why the camp had closed the first time one rainy car ride when I was little and we were getting Wendy’s. Everyone in town knew the story so well, it was less a story and more a part of the landscape, like the quarry or the hill by the school where kindergartners raced to the top and then rolled down. “How could a ghost block all those pucks?”
Ryan laughed at me. “Dude, call the ghost police! Tell them one of their dead people isn’t following the rules. Who knows?” She started her dad’s car. “Becky told me she’s doing a movie marathon. Want to show up at her house and yell until she lets us in?”
I let the ghost boy theory drop. “Let’s buy chips or something at the gas station on the way. Maybe the Walmart. We can get those candy bracelets where you eat one candy at a time? I love those.”
“Hell yeah.” Ryan backed up and headed toward town.
When we rounded the trees, I saw him out of the passenger window. He was taller but he still wore the mask. In the high beams of Ryan’s car, it blazed white, a condemning specter.
I was too shocked to scream, but I grabbed Ryan’s hand on the gear shift.
She jumped, laughed, and didn’t stop the car. “You okay?”
I looked at her. “Didn’t you see him?”
Of course, when I looked back at where he was, there were only trees.
I told her and she was quiet for a long time. “Guess I’m never coming back there again.”
“I like ghost stories. I don’t want to be in one.”
I laughed because I thought she was joking.
The next time I came back to the lake, it was a summer four years later. A rich guy from Cleveland bought the camp and wanted to reopen it. It didn’t matter to him who had and hadn’t drowned or who had been found with an ax buried in their brain. The police probably hadn’t told him, either.
I didn’t have the excuse of being ignorant due to fabulous wealth. I was foolish because I was distracted, again, this time by college and the prospect of moving away. If I ever saw the maybe-ghost boy again with his hockey mask, I decided I would say hello. If he could hurt me, I figured he would have done it already.
Like me, Becky became a counselor at the camp. She hadn’t gotten into her top choice school and thought it might be because she wasn’t “well-rounded.” After her first semester at her safety school, she told me she was planning to reapply. She said this as she gnawed her fingernails.
I was plenty well-rounded. By senior year, hockey, track, and the student newspaper were all things I did to keep myself from climbing the walls. I felt like I had outgrown the town and I had energy to spare. Marriage? Ha! I would give that energy to the summer camp at Clearwater Lake and then to the wide world afterward.
It happened a week before the beginning of the first session of camp. I slept with a fellow counselor, Ed, who smelled better than Luís had. Ed was from upstate New York. He laughed a lot, told stories where he waved his hands in expressive circles, and had a beard that felt nice on my face. His mouth tasted sweet and he was enthusiastic about using it. After an evening together in his cot, I found myself wanting those large, warm eyes turned on me as much as possible.
The counselors were me, Ed, Becky, Becky’s boyfriend Kevin, and Catie with a “C.” We spent the day cleaning and decorating the renovated cabins and mess hall. As a reward, Kevin used his fake ID to buy us beer.
I finished up the bathrooms and had a Keystone Light. Then another.
I wandered to the shore, lightheaded and pleased with myself. Further away, I saw Ed laughing with Becky and Catie with a “C” as they drank and listened to music around the fire pit. I suddenly felt like there was nothing special to separate me from the others. Like them, I was a girl from the same town with no small talk to make because everyone else had already said the things I wanted to say. To Ed, I might as well have been a clone.
The night was cool, I was hazy, and I was older than I had ever been before. Drowsy, I took off my clothes so I could go swimming. Beyond a babysitter who had a soft spot for Swiss Family Robinson and watched curling on TV, I knew I would be different if I was naked. Wouldn’t they all be impressed?
When I started to swim toward Ed, I was disappointed that I felt like the same kid I had always been. I drifted in the cool, amniotic water, melancholy but safe until I wasn’t.
Under the lake’s surface, my eyes opened against the dark, green murk and I saw him in his mask. He’s grown, was my first thought.
Ryan was right in that we didn’t know what the rules were for him. I still don’t. I know there’s something that tethers him to the lake. He isn’t the child that drowned, exactly, but those remains were possessed and nourished into a soldier by Clearwater. Whatever passes as consciousness in his head belonged to an angry dead kid who can never leave. That’s why I think he takes care of children that he thinks are good. He doesn’t protect the ones he thinks are bad. He wants to stab everything in the world that can do what he can’t.
It hurt. It still hurts when I think of trying to swim away. He grabbed my long hair and pulled me to him. His blade pushed through my chin and up through my jaw, behind my nose and skewering my prefrontal cortex. The pain rose and continued to rise without distance or space to contemplate it. Then the abrupt choking, clouds of blood in the water, red like the Kleenex he once held to my face. I felt the anger at my friends on the shore who were oblivious to what was happening five yards away. My future slipped from me as I inhaled water.
The last semi-coherent thought that attached itself to my guttering limbic system was, This is like being fucked without joy or love.
Then my body was just that. A body.
The thing that has continued to exist without my body, the “me” that refuses to dissipate with my flesh, muscle, and bones? I guess if that’s what you call a ghost, that’s what I am. I learned to see without eyes, to understand without the spark of neurons in a brain.
Ed, who I wanted to impress so badly, died after me. This gorgeous, bearded boy who planned the color war with such unironic enthusiasm, who I kissed between giggles and snorts, and who talked about wanting to be a vet because he liked cats. The creature from Clearwater Lake threw a javelin through his chest, collapsing his lungs. He choked on the air and went quiet, a stupid end like his life was a bad joke. What was left of him dissipated quickly, a spirit that hung like dew on the grass and then became mist. He didn’t have the impulse to linger like I had.
Catie with a “C” was after Ed. She was a girl who cried when we watched Cinderella in elementary school, and who all the other counselors knew still slept with a stuffed elephant but never teased her about it. He pushed her into the firepit and held her there so she couldn’t crawl away from the blaze.
He caught Becky’s boyfriend, Kevin, in the mess hall. I never warmed up to Kevin, especially not after he started dating Becky, who I thought deserved someone kinder and more reserved. He had a habit of bragging about his grades and chewing with his mouth open when he wanted to annoy us. He talked about being the genius-inventor-CEO of a tech start-up in Silicon Valley. I liked him best in junior high when he shared his Iron Man comic books with me even though I didn’t like them much.
The Clearwater Lake creature brought his head down on the edge of a lunch table repeatedly. When Kevin was a red, meaty pulp, he was thrown aside.
I hated watching it all. I started to pull away. The world’s knowledge began to flow through me and I understood the structures of cells and the logic of dark matter. Focusing on one moment, this horrifying present, was too much when the entire universe started pouring into me instead. Without a body, I was no longer limited to the senses I used to have or the concept of linear time.
Then I heard Becky scream. It pulled me right back down to Earth.
I saw her, wearing her rage in the blood splattered across her face and white tank top. She found his machete—as incongruous as that stupid mask—and faced him next to the lake. Becky screamed and sliced through his chest, angling through his heart. It was done with the same fury she had used to swat a puck past his ankle a winter long ago. I don’t even think she connected that this was the same boy.
When he fell, he rolled into the water, and sank down, looking up at her with holes for eyes.
And Becky laughed. This girl who had cried right along with Catie during Cinderella and who called every spider “Charlotte” because of Charlotte’s Web. Right then, killing him killed her right back.
Morning came, yellow and pink breaking over the sky like the yoke of a bloody egg. Police and paramedics arrived with sirens that washed the cabins in blue and red light. A man in a boat and his diver friend pulled the body that used to be mine out of the water.
One of the officers said, “This one took ‘drop dead gorgeous’ a little too literally, huh?”
The diver didn’t find the Clearwater Lake creature because the lakebed absorbed him. The cops already decided Becky was deranged, that it had been her who killed us. That hurt worse than anything the officers said about me.
Where I am is a place where I can almost see what I could have been: a college student who excelled at academics to everyone’s surprise, including her own, who made a pivot to biomedical science when she realized she could cut into corpses with relative detachment. She became a surgeon, married a poet from Oberlin College, and traveled to her spouse’s family home in Rhode Island where they settled and, one day, started a family. There are surgeries this person who could have been me did that would now be done by someone else, if they were to be done at all, and children I had that would never exist. A woman who would have loved me and been my wife would now go on to love someone else. All the possibilities of my future collapsed into, “No. Not for you.”
I also see him. When he kills, he does so in increasingly ludicrous ways, as if taunting the town to acknowledge him, to stop pretending all the people he kills are accidents. The lake takes him back every time, dressing his wounds. His body is something he wears as loosely as the mask, something he encountered and latched onto because it made it easier to exist. As an entity, I think he was there before anything resembling a child ever swam in Clearwater Lake, a shadow left behind by some long ago ice age. He’s part of the lifecycle here. In the late winter, when he surfaces, he’s a child; in the spring, a teenager; and in the summer, a full-grown man. That’s usually when he decides to play a game whose rules I’m not privy to. If he doesn’t decide to kill and autumn comes, I watch him become an old man. By winter, he curls up like a wrinkled seed pod, waiting to begin again.
Like him, my domain is now the lake and her forest. I hold on here because I can finally see all the moving parts of the story. I just want to know how it ends.
Becky, I hope, escaped the blame for our deaths. If she went to prison, I want her to be out now, having great sex, and drinking margaritas in Cancun. I hope Clearwater Lake is one chapter in a long, storied life that, after that summer, is now free from a waterlogged zombie taking his Freudian frustrations out on her or her friends.
Ryan went back on her promise and visits the lake, now. Sometimes, she brings Catie with a “C”’s best friend, Sara without an “H.” They laugh and weep together. It must be hard to be on the edge of something terrible and be closed off from it. Last time I saw Ryan, there was gray in her hair.
My parents visit, too. They grow leaner with the years. Every time I see their faces, it’s a surprise. I hope they don’t think of me, at least not the way I died in the wet, sad dark. I try not to think of me, too. My sense of self erodes with each new season. I become the air particles and dust motes in the sunlight, the ice that crystalizes on the lake. I grow closer to oblivion and it feels like peace.
I was angry at him a long time, but the anger has fallen away. Instead, I feel pity. Even dead, I can grow and change. He cannot. I will outlast him as I forget myself, as I become part of the chlorophyll in the leaves and the ants crawling through the grass. He remains, as remote and as inevitable as a cold winter that brings children who cheerfully play hockey over a lake of the dead. One day, I hope he’ll be cut loose from Clearwater Lake, that someone will finally kill him until he is only smoldering anger without form. Then, when he burns himself out, I will be in the breeze that blows his ashes away.