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It had been more than fifteen years since Ryan Maddox had seen his hometown. Why he’d come back he wasn’t quite sure. He just had to see Echo Lake one more time.
After the tragedy, his parents relocated, not just out of town but the entire state, never to return. Ryan could not get the incident out of his head. That day stuck with him all of these years. There was something more to it. It wasn’t just that his younger sister Emily drowned in Echo Lake, it was something else, something he couldn’t see. Something he couldn’t stop. That was why he was back. He had to know. He had to see that damn lake one last time.
He stopped by the family house and never got out of his car. The home belonged to some other family now. Strangers he didn’t know. People he didn’t care to know. He just wanted to see it, remember the good times but old ghosts haunted it. Someone peered from behind a curtain at him. It was a young girl who looked like Emily. For an instant he believed it was her.
Ryan moved on before they called the police. Echo Lake wasn’t far from his neighborhood. He and Emily used to walk to it, towels slung over their shoulders, her small hand in his. He watched over her just as a protective older brother should. His parents trusted him. Ryan was responsible. He could be counted on. If all that was true, then what the hell happened?
It shouldn’t have happened. They were both good swimmers. The lake was a popular spot, there were always plenty of people there–adults, parents, grandparents, teenagers. Just not on that day. The day that started it all. The day that destroyed his family and many others after that.
It shouldn’t have happened. There was something else there. He couldn’t quite see it, but it was there.
His car rolled to a stop at the edge of the road. Large rocks, not quite as big as he, surrounded the edge of the street, a natural buffer before the embankment. A few feet away the lake waited. Ryan tried to gather his courage. He really did. He wanted so bad to step out and set eyes on the lake. It was hard…harder than anything else he’d ever tried to do. For a long time he just sat there and stared.
After about thirty minutes he gave up. He couldn’t get out of the car. He started the vehicle up again and headed back to the motel where he was staying. The lake would have to wait for another day.
Ryan planted himself on the bed and lit a cigarette. He pulled a scrapbook from the end table beside him and flipped through it. Inside was a newspaper article of his sister’s drowning and some more recent clippings of other drowning accidents and…a disappearance. He shut the book and took another drag from his cigarette. He thought of the lake.
Echo Lake got its name from the way it would echo anything you yelled across it. A huge body of water, the lake was encircled by a thick forest of pines, maples and firs, a canopy of trees that at times would cast the water in shadows.
You could stand at any edge of it and yell your name, a joke, a song and almost immediately it would call back to you. The sound of your voice would skip along the gentle waves and bounce within the trees as if someone were standing on the opposite side, almost a mile away. It was rumored that sometimes, if you listened very carefully or were alone by the water, it would call out to you even when you hadn’t said a word.
That was what Emily claimed on that day. She giggled and called back to Ryan that the lake said her name. Moments later she waded into the lake while her big brother caught frogs by the water’s edge. He was supposed to be looking after her. He was supposed to be protecting her.
He did nothing as she got further away. He ignored her when she called for him. It wasn’t until the frantic splashing echoed across the lake that he finally paid attention.
Why didn’t he watch her more closely?
Ryan saw her flailing out in the lake, screaming, her arms waving. Within seconds he rushed into the cold water, the summer sun dancing on its surface and messing with his vision.
He was having a hard time reaching her. The water was thick, the bottom of it was filled with reeds and plants that ensnared his feet. He thrashed, forcing his legs to move as fast as they could. Emily went under once and came back up. That’s when he saw it.
It was there…he did not imagine it. It was not the sun in his eyes. It was there, glistening and black. Covered in green reeds. An arm reached out of the water and grabbed hold of Emily, clasping around her wrist. She screamed with all the strength she had left in her, the wail vibrated through the trees, rippled over the water and with one yank, she was pulled under and…was gone.
The echoes stopped. Silence swallowed Ryan and something inside him died that day. He swam under, searched, came up empty, spitting filthy water, shivering despite the humid air.
Divers searched the lake and were unsuccessful. They dragged the lake the next morning and found Emily’s body. His parent’s baby girl. Ryan’s little sister. Things were never the same.
Sweat dampened Ryan’s forehead. He pushed the scrapbook across the bed and sat up. He sucked in some air and let it stream out slowly. Relax. This is not that summer. This is not that day.
He looked up and saw a puddle of water in front of the bathroom door. …the hell? He got off the bed and walked up to it. He bent to touch it with his fingers when he heard splashing from inside the bathroom. The door was closed. A trickle of water streamed beneath it and joined with the puddle. A faint scent of damp rot passed his nostrils.
Ryan took hold of the door and forced it open. He rushed into the bathroom to find it empty and quiet. He looked back over his shoulder and found the floor dry. He rinsed his face and returned to bed to fetch another cigarette.
Today he finally managed to step out of the car. Ryan lit a cigarette as he skulked through the rock boundary and onto the grass that spread out to the edge of the lake.
A NO SWIMMING sign was a grim reminder of the past and of the careless souls that continued to ignore the trap in plain sight. Emily was most likely not the first, but she certainly was not the last. In the years that followed others drowned in Echo Lake, lured by legend, enchanted by nature’s serenity. Thus the sign was born.
It could not stop the lake. Ryan knew this all too well. Even after his family left, he continued to check up on the devil in disguise. Newspaper stories found their way into his scrapbook over the years until there were too many to ignore.
The lake slithered into his every thought. It fashioned nightmares in his sleep and even sometimes in the day. It chased away any woman that dared to get close to him and exposed old wounds and rancid memories. Relationships never stood a chance against a sister’s revenant and water made sentient in a poor man’s fantasies.
Ryan tucked the longing for love and family into the deepest reaches of his soul. A desire long killed. He could never bring children into the world. If he couldn’t watch over his sister what kind of father could he possibly be? It was a ludicrous thought. What if the lake got a whiff of them? What if it called to them? What if?
Father. Mother. He had not spoken to them in years. They turned off their love like a valve. Life with them lacked warmth and forgiveness, a bond broken, the seeds of resentment sown. The moment he turned eighteen he left home.
Now here he was. A place he should have shunned. A place that had robbed him of his childhood, of his family, of all he knew and loved. Yet, he had to see it one more time. God damn you Echo Lake. Get out of my head. Get out of my life. What is inside you? What is it?
Before he even realized, Ryan was standing on the edge of the lake, his legs having carried him there without his notice. It was cold where he stood despite the burning sun high in the sky. Just like the day it happened, so cold inside Echo Lake. A chilling breeze blew across the surface of the water and caressed him. His spine stiffened and gooseflesh spread down his arms.
“How many lives have you taken?” He finally spoke aloud to it for the first time in many years. “How many!”
Many, it echoed back to him.
Ryan laughed and sat down on the ground. He shook his hand and rubbed his face with both hands. He laughed again. “What am I doing?”
Laughter lingered in the hollows across the lake, wafting in the thick wall of trees beyond. He looked up briefly and paused. His eyes searched the water. Insects with gossamer wings glinted off the water among the curtains of sunlight. Ryan cracked a smile. “You’re not fooling me,” he said. “I see right through you.”
“No, I won’t stand for it, ya see? That’s why I’m sitting.” He laughed out loud again, rocking back and forth, rubbing his eyes and the bridge of his nose. “Jesus, I’m cracking up.”
Ryan stood up quickly and spread his arms wide. “Ryan!” he yelled.
Ryan. The echo called back to him, reverberating, coursing through the rippling water, sounding like his voice. It was not exactly his voice. The return was off. A subtle difference…distorted somehow as if it was calling from behind something… or beneath something.
He cocked his head, waited for more then his eyes welled up. “Oh Emily…” Tears rolled down his flushed cheeks. “I don’t know what happened that day. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there. I’m sorry I ignored you.” He placed his face in his hands. His shoulder hunched. He felt a sick feeling in his stomach. “Forgive me, Emily.”
“Huh?” He looked up and scanned the lake. “I didn’t yell that. I didn’t call to you.”
He moved closer to the edge of the embankment. The trees all around him swayed in a strong breeze. Rings formed in the center of the water and rippled toward Ryan. What areyou? He wondered. He feared. I knew I wasn’t crazy. Something was there that day…something is here now.
Ryan. His name echoed not in his voice this time, but in a very familiar one. “Emily? Is that you?” The entire lake ruffled. He peered into to the wavelet and saw something glide beneath the water’s surface.
A shadowy form swam past him. Cloaked in darkness, it was small in stature, fluid in motion, a mane of long hair flowed the length of it. It circled back in front of him twice before heading back to the center, flowing hair trailing behind.
“Emily!” Ryan’s heart leapt into his throat. His finger tingled slightly. He felt all the blood drain from his face. “It’s you! I know it’s you.” He wiped his damp palms on his hand. “I’m sorry Emily. Please don’t be mad at me.”
“I hear you!” She’s calling my name. She’s okay. Everything’s ok. For the first time in years, joy filled Ryan. A feeling of contentment swelled inside him. He smiled genuinely this time and almost waved to the lake. That blasted, infernal lake.
He watched the form fade from view but its wake continued to the middle of the lake. There he saw the water splash, it trembled, it gushed, something was wrong. He heard sounds of a struggle. Someone flailed and went under, again and again.
“Emily no! Not again.” Panic filled Ryan. He locked his gaze on the splashing water and slipped both of his shoes off. He rushed into the lake, feeling as if the water moved to either side of him to allow him entry. He pushed his way forward with ease. Nothing stood in his way.
“Not again Emily. This time I’m going to save you.” The world stopped as Ryan let the water fold in around him. His sister’s face glimmered in every wave. Her voice echoed in his ears. In the light, in the hues of green, white and blue that enveloped him he bore witness to lost years, his parents judgment, an obsession that never should have come to life and watched it all melt away.
Ryan swam now, his feet leaving solid ground, his body feeling weightless. The voice dwindled as sound muffled and only the water remained. “It’s going to be different this time Emily! You’re not going to drown. I’m here. Your big brother is here.”
In the center of Echo Lake all fear and guilt dissolved. Ryan filled with peace and tranquility. He was in a serene place at last. The water washed away everything that tormented his childhood, the cold, green water. Echo Lake did this for him. It brought him home.
The last thing Ryan remembered in the deep of the water, the center of its world, floating in the exact spot his sister disappeared in, was the hand clasping around his ankle.