I still remember Peter standing at the edge of the lake, his body tall and thin, skin white against the morning air as he did his warm-up routine. There were only two houses around the lagoon, my family’s and his, each on opposite sides, surrounded by the trees and the dirt path that led to the main road. Every morning, I would watch as he swam the full length of the lake to our side, then back again. He would climb out, dry his hair with a small towel and walk back inside without ever looking back. At fifteen, he was a few years older than me; I suppose for him, I was just the strange little girl who lived across the lake.
That day he jumped from the pier head first, like he always did. I was sitting on the grass barefoot, studying an ant as it climbed on my toe; pressed my thumb against it until the damn thing bit me. I looked up to find that Peter was gone, the only sign of him those final ripples expanding outward from the centre of the lake, forming a small wave that multiplied until it reached the pebbles near my feet.
It was a beautiful morning and nothing changed around me: the tree branches shook in the wind, the birds kept on singing, a car drove by on the side of the hill. His towel was gone – somehow I convinced myself he had just gone home, that he hadn’t just drowned. I went back inside, sat at the kitchen table, ignored my mom while she spoke and stared at the lake through the tainted glass window.
During breakfast, beyond the thin veil of camomile mist produced by my mother’s tea, I saw Mrs. Davis looking for her son in their garden. “Peter,” she called out. She looked for him in the garage, then went down to the pier, stood at the edge of the lake, retreated back into the house. My heart sank into my stomach: had he been in the water? And then it happened, all too fast for my ten-year-old mind to process: Mrs. Davis ran out of the house screaming, her face contorted in despair; my mother got up; her teacup fell off the table and broke into a million pieces on the kitchen floor.
My recollection of that morning consists mostly of sounds and images, not fully formed memories. The red and blue lights of the police car as it approached Peter’s house. The officer stepping out and closing the car door, walking on the gravel. People asking me if I had seen Peter swimming in the lake. “Think, think!” More policemen arriving, throwing rubber boats into the water, large men in scuba gear diving into the lake. My mom comforting Mrs. Davis, the two of them sobbing by the pier.
The police searched the lake for days. They assured Mrs. Davis there was no way he was in there, he most likely ran away, try to remain calm, we already put out an APB, teenagers do this all the time, who knows what they’re thinking. The same policeman told my mom they had spotted large lampreys in the lake though, better not to go in. Lampreys are not like eels, he said; they look like tentacles with small teeth, they latch on to you and don’t let go. They seem real agitated, better not to go in, he said.
Weeks later they called off the organised walks through the woods, with all the locals and friends lined up, taking small steps forward, gazing at the fallen leaves, cold hands holding scorching hot coffee in paper cups. In the days that followed, I would often see Mrs. Davis sitting on her old porch, just sitting there and staring at the lake. She didn’t know it at the time, nobody did, but her son would stay gone, gone for good.
Over the years I saw her sit there many times: while I was studying for my degree; later, after I started working, when I would come back for the holidays. Mom sometimes invited Mrs. Davis over for dinner, I suppose out of pity. She would bring onion soup and a present for me, smiled politely at everything we said. For her, Peter was still out there somewhere. A few years later she moved to the city. We never saw her again.
It took time but the nightmares eventually found me. Maybe I had seen Peter calling out for help as he tried to escape the lampreys. Maybe he had managed to free himself and throw one away, only to have the tentacle come back under the water to get him, several of them grabbing at him, curling their bodies around his arms and legs, pulling him down into the dark. Maybe I had seen all of that, maybe I just wanted to forget.
They say some things stay with you. Almost fifty years later, I still think about Peter and that morning by the lake. After mom passed away, I toyed with the idea of selling our house but never quite had the courage. The paint is cracking on the walls and every year I make a mental note to have it re-painted. Sometimes I sit at the kitchen window and look across at Peter’s old house, where a new family now lives. I never go near the lake.
It’s still there, as quiet as ever. Sometimes, when I lie on my old bed, I feel as though I can leave my body. I float out of the house and glide over the surface of the water. I hover over the spot where Peter was pulled under and try to peer inside but all I see is my face reflected in the dark. I wonder if down below the lampreys still hold his lifeless body against the muddy lake-bed, if he is still looking up at me with hollow eyes, if he is still asking me why.
It’s in one of these dreams that something clicks and turns inside my mind. It starts with a vision of blue sky; a single white cloud travelling along my line of sight. The hand of a child covering it playfully, making it disappear like magic. The sound of birds. As I return to that morning by the lake and stand with my small feet over the pebbles, I once again spot the ant as it crawls on my toe. I start to bleed from the insect bite and limp toward the lake, half-expecting it to swallow me whole. But then I hear it – the sound of tires gently scratching the dirt road. A car driving along the hill, seeking to avoid detection. I see Peter unconscious inside the trunk, his hair still wet, the handkerchief lying next to him and still smelling of chloroform.
I turn around to see my ten-year-old self staring bewildered at the lake, oblivious to the significance of that fading engine sound. I spot the lampreys wrestling fish near the centre of the lake, while back home Mrs. Davis stirs her onion soup with a smile. I see my adult self checking for Peter’s towel on the other side, then giving up and walking back inside. I shout and shout at all of them but it’s pointless; as the car drives away only the lampreys can hear me.