A Day at the Lake
The day a girl nearly died at the lake was one of those windless, scorching October days that began like nearly any other, though it was a high point on the summer calendar. Word had gotten out that, finally, after months of sustained high air temperatures, the lake had warmed to a reasonable, swimmable level. It was crazy to think that the stifling heat that empties the town every year takes so long to turn the water from frigid to warm.
Jerron and Zephyr were fumbling around the kitchen of the cottage with their dirty breakfast dishes. After scraping eggs and melon-cured whitefish into the compost bin, Zephyr charged outside onto the porch. Jerron fished from the refrigerator two lunch packs of wheat cakes, more jerky, and real apples from real trees that her father had procured from the commissary. Their mothers, deep in conversation, didn’t look up when the children left.
Outside, the sky was a brilliant blue, smeared with thin strips of high clouds. Through a narrow hedge of succulents that lined their street, the lake sat black-blue on the horizon, a dark, strange color. Jerron’s father had told her salinity levels were higher than ever, nearly unstoppable now, and she wondered if this was the result.
“Ready?” Zephyr was bending and stretching at the bottom of the steps. He drew a starting line in the dusty path and beckoned her over.
The two cousins were left to their own devices that last summer they shared the small subsidized clapboard cottage not too far from shore. Jerron’s father, like all essential personnel, was given a dispensation—and a hefty bonus—to stay in town, since he managed the records for the regional De-Salinization Authority. Zephyr’s father spent those long, humid months on a mid-sized trawler nearly 80 kilometers or so to the north, hunting the giant speckled bottom feeders that were making their way into the lake after decades of shifting rain belts and terrific storms and upended weather patterns. Jerron missed her father when he stayed in town. Her mother, however, was as light and innocuous as a breeze.
Though Jerron was older than her cousin by a few months, Zephyr took it upon himself to plan their days. Grabbing guppies by the hand in the shallows by the old de-sal plant, ambushing high-schoolers making out in the dunes, searching for bloated, gelatinous corpses of jellyfish, cuttlefish, and the big octopuses that were rumored to have washed up on shore. Sightings of the invaders had moved much farther south, closer to the cottages assigned to their town, much faster than the De-Salinization Authority had anticipated. Jerron couldn’t remember when people weren’t wondering how and when these creatures made the jump from the ocean.
In the sunlight of the first clear day in weeks, Zephyr looked to Jerron as if he had morphed into a different specimen of boy overnight. His face retained the deep-set eyes and the soft mouth that seemed almost feminine in its youthfulness. It was the rest of him that was new. Bulges appeared at his biceps, and the muscles of his legs strained under the skin encasing them. There were hints of this transformation throughout the summer since the mandatory exodus to the lake. Not just a physical grace, but a newfound confidence to go along with it.
When she stepped up to the line, he screamed “Go!” and took off.
Jerron flinched, then stopped, judging that the race was already over. She stood still at the starting line, her arms crossed in frustration. This wasn’t the first time Zephyr had jumped. It wasn’t even the first time this summer, but it was the first time with the new body, the new something else. A brazenness she had seen coming once she thought about it. She tightened her arms closer to her body and poked and prodded her waist.
“False start,” she said firmly when he emerged from around the hedges. She pulled her hands away quickly from her chest.
“Aw, sis, lighten up,” Zephyr said and grabbed her hand. He pulled her toward the storage shed where they kept the sand bikes.
“You. Committed. A. False. Start,” Jerron repeated, her hand limp in his. She enunciated her words slowly in a way she knew would irritate. His pet name for her—neither had siblings—vexed. She heard disbelief in her voice, despite a summer of evidence. He had cheated a hundred, a thousand times before. So why was today any different?
“Why do you always do that?” Jerron asked and swung open the door to the shed hard, nearly ripping it from the hinges. She felt off kilter. Not like losing balance in a canoe, but a sensation more fundamental and irreversible. She was embarrassed, too. A voice from inside the cottage shouted at her to deal with it. Her aunt’s voice, her mother’s, she couldn’t tell which.
“Oh my god, why are you so pissed?” Zephyr asked.
She hesitated mounting the bike, and he grabbed the handlebars, holding them steady in one hand. Jerron wasn’t sure if he was helping her get on or if he was angry.
Like everyone else, Jerron had been waiting for this day all summer. She wriggled her bike free and led the way down the path toward the water. “Let’s just go. We’re already the last ones to get there anyway.”
As they pedaled to the beach, sweat pooled behind their knees and in their armpits. Jerron tasted salt in the still air. When they arrived, she dropped her bag and her bike into the scrum behind the empty lifeguard chair. All of their summer friends were already there, darting like flying fish in and out of the waves. She sprinted to the water without turning back.
Spray from a nearby squealing infant pelted her startled skin and she sank into a small wave, bracing her neck and shoulders for the initial shock. Underneath the surface, it felt like someone had switched on the heat jets of a hot tub. Warm, strong currents swirled turbulently around her legs, her hands, her nostrils. But the water smelled cold. What struck her most was the unfamiliar mix of saltwater and fresh. Her father had warned her about the strangeness of its texture, how changed it was even from last year, but she was not fully prepared for the silky sheen that met her fingers as she drew them through the currents.
Jerron spat and bobbed up onto her back. The salty residue on her tongue was disgusting but she could get used to this effortless buoyancy. A boy called her name and she turned to her side without losing balance. The lake used to swallow up skinny boys like him—their legs would sink like stones—but he was managing to keep his entire body on the surface. The twins Portia and Pascale had entwined their legs, and, sculling with their fingers, were spinning along the surface of the water like the blade of an old washing machine. Doris, bulky and ungainly on land, was in her element, blissfully stroking out from shore on her back despite the stiff currents. Everybody loved Doris. She was one of the girls and one of the boys. And when she paused in her paddling and waved, everyone acknowledged her in return.
“Zip it, Zephyr.” He had splashed up behind Jerron. His sharp-chinned face blocked the sun.
“Didn’t say anything,” he taunted her. “You’re going to be the last one out there. Might as well give up now.”
“I might,” Jerron said, face to the sky. “But I might not.”
The goal was to be the first to swim to the small floating dock about 200 meters from shore. The dock was a wooden platform about four meters square with a small water slide hanging off one corner. Everyone made it a point to race when the chance arose, but not Jerron. She was confident and comfortable in the water but cared little for speed.
She watched her cousin paddle off, convinced that this new Zephyr would soon easily overtake them all, even Doris. Something she saw in the language of his muscles back at the cottage and in the way his body knifed through the water.
When he stepped onto the dock to join the others, they greeted him with reverence, like a king of the mountain returned taking his rightful place. They parroted the slaps and hugs she’d seen much older boys do in town. Even the girls.
“They treat him like an adult but he’s the same as me,” she had complained to her father when he was given leave to attend the Founder’s Day barbecue last month. She pointed to her cousin surrounded by gaping fools laughing at his every word. “He’s like a magnet.” She sounded whiny, she knew, and regretted not telling her father sooner.
By now Jerron had adjusted to the temperature so she submerged and opened her eyes wide. The water was murkier than last summer. Not unlike the ocean, with its dusty shafts of light that she remembered from when they visited her father’s college on the west coast. The lake was deep, even this close to shore. It was known world-wide for it in fact, and she strained to find the bottom. She had a healthy respect for the unknowns in its depths and the stiff currents that seemed to come out of nowhere. She wondered about the other kids, though, how they’d fare as the lake transformed into something different.
Jerron stretched her arms above her head, tightened her elbows against her ears and snapped her ankles, propelling herself downward. When she could hold her breath no longer, she burst back through the surface and resumed her back float. The sky was clear. Nothing new had rolled in from the west. She scanned the surface of the lake. She spotted legions of fishing trawlers to the north. There was no haze obscuring the gleaming steel towers along the lakeshore. A small de-sal stood close to their cottage. It was unmanned and barely efficient, but every lake community still needed all the help it could get. On the opposite bank loomed the mammoth plants that churned through millions of gallons each hour. Jerron had learned to admire in them a strange kind of beauty. Sometimes it was the intensity in the way something worked that most appealed to her.
A commotion came from the dock, the thunking splash of cannonballs perfectly executed in quick succession. Zephyr’s voice rose above the rest. He always fit in with this summer crowd in a way Jerron did not.
She closed her eyes and succumbed to the rhythm of the water. There was so much quiet. She thought of the ocean out west and the creatures she saw at the aquarium there, which doubled as her father’s lab. She imagined what it would be like to be a jellyfish. What must that feel like, to give yourself over to an all-powerful force? He once explained that some jellyfish possess rudimentary propulsion capabilities. And seahorses have barely visible fins they use to swim. In the end, though, both exist at the mercy of the water.
Jerron rose and sank with the swells. Maybe she, too, was at the mercy of something much larger than herself, with just the minutest ability to shift the contours of her life. If that were the case, she would be a lot like Zephyr and most of the people she knew, who firmly believed in the Way Things Are. But she didn’t.
Just then, Jerron was borne upward. The sudden eruption of a rogue wave wasn’t unusual in a lake of this size and the constant boat traffic, so she wasn’t surprised. Then a scream sounded close by. She righted herself and noticed a bloated, reddish-black object floating sluggishly in the waves a few meters from the end of the slide, not too far from where she sat treading water.
“Link arms!” She heard Zephyr’s voice from within a mangle of limbs lashing at the water on the opposite side of the dock.
Jerron watched them all clamor up onto the wooden platform, which sank slightly with the sudden weight. She counted five.
“C’mon, sis!” Zephyr was speaking directly to her now, motioning to the floating object she had noticed moments earlier.
But she was annoyed. All of the meditative contemplation of the past few minutes dissolved into petulance.
Zephyr kept shouting and gesticulating wildly. Then Jerron noticed that the floating object was actually Doris, not some piece of wood or plastic bag or clump of kelp. The girl didn’t look so serene anymore. She realized, suddenly, that an octopus was cradling her in its tentacles.
“Sis, come on! Helps us get it off her!”
Zephyr’s voice rose above the screaming and sobbing from the dock and the shouting from shore. But Jerron was transfixed. Veins of color crackled across both the octopus’s skin and Doris’s striped one-piece. From red to blue-black to bright orange. As she swam closer, Jerron saw that only the tentacles were visible above the water’s surface.
“Get the hell on up here!”
Jerron heard but she didn’t listen. She couldn’t be sure she would ever again come this close to encountering such an alien creature. No amount of berating from her cousin was going to stop her from moving closer. Sure, she was aware of the danger—a large unpredictable animal in the wild—but pushed that to the back of her mind.
She dipped her head under the water to get a better look, but at first couldn’t make out much of anything, though the octopus was only three or four meters away at that point. What was it doing on the surface so far from a safe hole at the bottom? Was the food supply so low it had to flee across open water? How was it even alive? Jerron had never heard of a freshwater octopus—or at least one that could survive in a mix of saltwater and fresh.
Her father had never seen one either. In his life before the De-Salinization Authority, he had studied octopuses and other creatures in the cephalopod family while her mother took any odd job she could get. Then things got in the way. Jerron was born, her father’s funding dried up, and smart diligent people were recruited back here as the water situation became more and more untenable. At that point, octopuses were a scourge and a pest, not an object of wonder.
She inched closer with short, slow strokes. The waves seemed to be higher and stronger than even just a few minutes ago. Doris’s face was fixed in a rigid panic. It was strange to see her in a compromising situation, but Jerron was convinced of the octopus’s benevolence, that it was making sure to keep her head above water.
For a moment, the two girls gaped at each other. Victim and would-be rescuer. Jerron knew her only as part of her summer world. They attended different schools in town the rest of the year. She considered Doris a friend but wasn’t really that fond of her. Sometimes that happened with friends.
Just then, the octopus extended a tentacle toward Jerron right under the surface of the water. She was startled, but didn’t retreat. In a strange way, she had expected it.
“You’re not your dad, you know!” Zephyr shouted from the dock.
Jerron heard something in his voice. Was it fear? Jealousy? No one else on the dock was speaking anymore. She was surprised he could see what was happening.
She slowly offered her own arm and the end of the tentacle curled around her fingers with a firm, wet pressure. There was an electric connection. The suckers on the underside inspected her skin—the hairs there—and caressed her wrist and her fingers. She expected a more gelatinous sensation, but the texture was harder and slightly spongy, like a soft wood. Her father had once described how each tentacle had a “mind” of its own. Faced with a real live specimen, she wondered what that meant. That each tentacle had its own brain? If she cut one off—the one touching her, for example—would it wriggle like the zombie chunk of an earthworm?
“You just going to shake its hand?” Zephyr said. He didn’t shout this time, and spoke with deliberate matter-of-factness that threw her off. She felt the intensity of his gaze on her skin. She sensed, again, that he was trying to hide something from her. Had he spotted something from the dock that she couldn’t? Something in the way the octopus had moved?
Then, as mysteriously as it was offered, the tentacle was retracted, and left dangling between them, as if it were beckoning her even closer. Its absence was a hole that needed filling, an addiction. And she blamed Zephyr for ripping that from her. She glowered in defiance at her cousin and plunged back under the surface.
The octopus, even with Doris in its embrace, seemed more graceful to her up close than she could have ever imagined. A painting come to life. What appeared to be the head loomed large. Its tentacles were fluttering like leaves on a branch in a strong breeze. Right away she sensed she was under observation. She remembered reading that it was best to not look into the eyes of an ape or a lion to avoid the appearance of a challenge, and figured the rule was the same for other animals. So she fixated first on the pulsating skin, the colors more vivid under the water. She wondered what they were trying to communicate. A warning, maybe. But something magical had happened, and Jerron wanted more. She wanted to know what it had seen along its journey across the lake and how it was coping in its new environment. She wondered what life was like without a skeleton. How it felt to squeeze through small holes. She reached out her arm again in a gesture of such confidence and supplication she shivered.
But the octopus had had enough. It squirted a jet of ink at Jerron that she just managed to avoid, relinquished its grip on Doris, and darted away, all eight arms—all minds as one—trailing in its wake.
For a moment, Jerron felt an urge,innate and powerful,to follow along. But then something else obliged her to stay. Something stronger that told her she wasn’t ready. Not yet.
Back above the surface, Jerron watched Doris make her way toward the dock. She realized she hadn’t thought much about the girl at all. It was obvious she was struggling and Jerron thought she spotted circular red abrasions on her upper chest. Maybe the octopus had snatched her as a defense mechanism. Or maybe Doris was simply in the way of its mysterious journey across the lake. As far as Jerron knew, the suckers weren’t toxic but probably dangerous to an open wound. The beak was bad, though. The bites of some species were poisonous. At least this one hadn’t seemed large enough to consume Doris for food.
A peculiar sensation coursed through her. A feeling of accomplishment, of triumph. The octopus had reached out to her, not Zephyr. She wondered whether anything similar had ever happened to a girl her age ever, in the history of their lake. A smile spread across her face, and water trickled through that pesky opening between two of her side teeth. It tasted sweet.
The next few minutes passed swiftly around Jerron, almost as if she weren’t even there. Zephyr and the others on the dock clasped hands and, one by one, jumped into the water to form a human chain. At the head of the chain swam Zephyr, of course. Dragging the others behind him, he moved like an eel. The water simply parted for him. Just a few meters from where Jerron remained treading water, he snagged Doris, sluggish and glassy-eyed, by her suit strap.
He glanced at Jerron, a sheen of water glistening off his face. “Why didn’t you help her? Why didn’t you help us?” He was still angry, Jerron could tell.
Jerron stared back at him in a kind of regal silence. She felt stronger somehow and sat higher in the water as Zephyr struggled to drag Doris away.
He pushed Doris to the next swimmer in the chain, and that person did the same until she was hoisted up the ladder onto the dock, where she immediately sprawled out, breathing heavily. Her rescuers milled around her, wondering what to do next. Jerron felt their eyes—but not their attention—avoiding her.
That night, after the EMTs had carted Doris away and the Parks Department closed the beach and directed Zephyr’s father and the other boats to expand their hunt further south, Jerron found herself sitting on the beach waiting for her father, wondering how to explain herself.
She wanted someone to share her experience with, someone who’d interacted with the slippery creatures like herself. She worried, though, that he would admonish her, pepper the conversation with questions she couldn’t answer quickly or with any clarity. What happened to her survival instinct? Why didn’t she listen to Zephyr and help the poor girl? What’s got into her?
Jerron stared out over the water. The sun was sinking to the west and she felt the heat and light of the disintegrating day on her back. She remembered reading that at night the oceans are alive with millions of tiny creatures rising to the surface, many that can only be seen in the dark. She pictured one day herds of octopuses exploding from the deep to hunt those nighttime surface dwellers.
In the weeks that followed, Doris barely survived a nasty bout of sepsis, which saddled her with severe cognitive difficulties for the rest of her life. It turned out there were puncture wounds on her torso and the backs of her knees. Investigators tried to determine whether they were bite marks or from the suckers of the tentacles. Jerron told them she never saw the beak. They hoped to use the accident to identify the species and create models on the influx of invasive sea creatures. Jerron felt a tremendous sense of pride at this news. She would insist on returning to the lake to assist in their efforts. And by the time she would finish high school, their community by the lake, their haven from the heat, would become mired in marshes and swampland, the small cottage unlivable.
Zephyr avoided the cottage during the day, coming home only for dinner. Their families shrugged away their children’s rift as a natural and brief consequence of their shared trauma. A blip in an unbroken, lifelong bond. But Jerron knew things would never be the same between the two cousins. It wasn’t just the accident or even the cheating, for even Jerron at her age realized the trivialness of that. But she had come to realize it didn’t have to be that way. A door opened, and she went inside. No. She opened the door.
Still, she and her cousin had spent most of their lives together, and she knew she would miss that part of her life. Not unlike a phantom limb or an octopus tentacle. In its place, though, was something else. Something new. Something better.