written by: Beth Phillips
The annual disappearances of teenage girls around Anchorage in the summer never stopped my dad from booking a holiday there each year. Even the year after the divorce we still flew 15 hours and stayed at our usual lodge by the lake.
I liked to think we kept coming back for my sake. The clear lake was nothing like anything back in England. When I was younger I could see straight to the bottom. The lake had aged with me and now it wasn’t clear anymore but that never stopped me from getting in. It had become routine that every morning I woke up and swam five miles. There was something about the freezing Alaskan water that felt so comforting that I never wanted to leave it. When I jumped in the water just as the sun was about to rise, it felt as if every single drop was biting me. I could feel the smooth seaweed rising from the bottom with my arms as they propelled me forwards.
When I dropped my bags in the wooden foyer and ran to the back windows to look out at the lake it was covered in green foamy goo in thick patches.
‘Best not swim in that, Wyatt told me it’s some kind of Algae.’ My dad said from behind me, bringing the last of the suitcases in. Wyatt was one of the many friends my dad had made the very first summer we arrived.
‘How is he?’ I asked, sighing as I walked away from the window to take a few suitcases from my dad and walked up to my room, taking each turn without having to look. There was one corner of skirting in the hallway that jutted out further than the rest of them; originally I had hit my toe there every time on the last left turn to my room. Now I knew to not walk so close to the wall.
‘Ask him yourself. We’re meeting him down at Humpy’s in half an hour.’ He shouted up the stairway.
‘Legal age is different here dad. I can’t join you.’
‘Right, I always forget you aren’t actually a grown up. I swear half the girls in there look younger than you.’ He said. I heard the door open. Half an hour had turned to five minutes. ‘Oh and don’t wait up, Abby.’
‘I never do.’ The door slammed behind him. He met the locals the first time we were here. Eagle River was voted second most friendly neighbourhood in Alaska five years in a row, second only to a small fishing village that was home to the elderly and no one else because their noses had grown accustomed to the overkill of fish. The locals of Eagle River took it as a win. I could see why they did. When my dad and I had shown up for the first time back when I was seven they had welcomed us with open arms, even given us the cabin after a few years. Every year on our first night dad would go down to the local pub, Humpy’s, and they would try and convince him to stay. I always thought they were half convinced that if we did stay they would finally grab the number one spot.
Realistically it was the disappearances stopping that spot from being theirs.
I sat down at the computer in my room and looked up what caused algae in water. The computer beamed to life and told me information pile after information pile of chemical symbols that I barely understood. Something about phosphorous and nitrogen. I turned the computer back off.
It was decided. I was going swimming.
I got changed and ran to the edge of the lake, a thought ran through my mind as to whether jumping into the icy water would kill me or not. Last year it was around fifteen degrees. I liked my heart beating so I waded in.
Each step felt like home but a very, very cold home. The algae touched my skin and seemed to glide past, not even noticing I had been there, just like the seaweed on my body had. When I got in to my waist and the lodge was far behind me I dived in. I kept my eyes shut as I swam fully underneath. The water felt like knives before I got used to the cold. It had never been this bad in July before. The water pierced my skin and I could feel each wrinkle forming. I resurfaced ten metres ahead of where I went down and swam on my back into the middle of the lake, trying to avoid getting any green goo in my mouth. I could feel the seaweed underneath the water stroking my back. As the sun beamed down from above me and warmed me as I floated around, I knew I never wanted to leave Eagle River.
‘Get out of the lake.’ Someone shouted at me, knocking me out of my daze and in a move to get back up, face first into the lake chocking on the water.
When I looked back up I could see the faint outline of the beige Sheriff’s uniform in the sun. Wyatt was not at Humpy’s with my dad but in fact standing on the edge of the river.
‘Sorry.’ I said after I swam back to him. I stood in front of him slightly covered in green goo, and a distinct smell of fish about me.
‘It’s not safe to go in there at the moment. That algae could be poisonous or who knows what.’
‘Understood. Can I at least take Old Reliable out? I won’t be touching the water.’ I asked, pointing to the boat by the dock. Old Reliable was a little rowboat that we had bought when the place first became ours. It was an easy way to travel around the lake and sunbathe or just have some family time, when it felt like the rest of the world didn’t exist.
‘Fine. But please no more swimming. I don’t want you being sick during your time here.’
‘I won’t be sick. I have the immune system of a god.’
I threw up four hours later.
It took two hours of bathroom time for me to be able to get up off the floor and walk to the kitchen. I had the new knowledge that lake water does not taste good whether it was coming in or out. Hobbling to the kitchen, I hoped that we had some leftover SleepAid or anything that would knock me out long enough for the rest of the stomach upset to pass over. Searching through the cabinet provided nothing other than the simultaneous feelings that I was both somehow dead but still able to move around. I was the Alaskan zombie.
I spent the rest of the evening on the sofa, watching what ever show flicked past on the screen as I fiddled with the remote. I had tried, multiple times, to call my dad. Every time it went straight to voicemail. The news popped up, a rerun of Sheriff Wyatt was on the screen making his annual speech that the latest missing girl had been deemed a runaway influenced by previous years and so there was no concern to the public.
I dropped my phone under the sofa and whilst groaning and leaning over to catch it I heard the door open. My phone illuminated with the time 03.52AM. My ill brain decided that if dad hadn’t received any of my calls or texts he wouldn’t be happy to see me awake. I shuffled to my right and hid under the sofa.
Several footsteps followed him in; the open plan of the ground floor echoed their laughter and chatter. It was usual for my dad to bring back his friends after a night out, but one thing stood out beyond that.
‘Throw her there.’ The sofa thudded and sank above me. Keys jangled and the basement door was unlocked. The group of laughter disappeared down the stairs.
I had never seen that door unlocked.
Edging out from under the sofa I sat up and looked at what was clearly a very drunk girl groaning and rolling about as she tried to get comfy. Her blonde hair was nesting in front of her face and it looked as if it was starting to turn into dread locks. She stank of Gin and it made my stomach turn over again. I ran towards the stairs to go back up to my room, one foot made it onto a step.
A hand appeared on my shoulder and as I turned I was faced once again with the uniform.
‘Hey what’re you doing up so early?’ Wyatt said, eyeing the girl behind me. He ran a hand through his thinning hair and looked back to me, his overly white American smile seemed to reflect the moon.
‘Yeah I just needed some water.’ I said. ‘Who’s she?’
‘Avery Summers, a local girl. She got a bit too happy so we brought her here to keep her safe. We’re just grabbing a blanket before we drop her back home.’
‘This happen a lot?’
‘Too often. I’m sure if you two stayed around it wouldn’t happen half as much.’
‘Tell that to my dad. I’d stay if I could.’
‘Maybe when you’re older.’ He walked back towards the basement, placing his hand on the doorway. ‘Don’t forget your water.’
I looked down at my hands. They were empty.
‘Right.’ I said, walking back towards the kitchen, filling up a glass whilst looking at the girl. ‘She really doesn’t look okay.’
‘She’s used to it.’ He said, walking me to my room, when I was younger I had called him Uncle Wyatt and he’d had a lot more hair. He’d aged twenty years in the last ten. The moonlight from the windows in the hallway highlighted the creases in his skin.
‘How do you deal with it?’ I said. ‘The missing girls.’
‘They’re young and they’re happy where ever they’ve run off to. If they want to leave that badly then we can’t stop them.’ He smiled and walked away. I heard his footsteps as he walked down the stairs and took the wooden steps down to the basement.
When I woke up the next morning the sun was shining in my face, my phone read 8.05am. I walked out of my room and banged my toe on the skirting board as I ran down the stairs. The girl was gone, not even a dent was visible and the pillow they had put under her head was back in the middle. Like it always used to be.
‘Morning.’ My dad said from behind a cup of coffee. ‘Wyatt tells me you were up last night.’
‘Yeah I swallowed some lake water, gross stuff. So I needed some water to clean my mouth.’
‘Sit down.’ Dad said, and I took my place on the sofa. He stood in front of me, behind the kitchen counter, and put his coffee down.
‘Am I in trouble?’
‘I want to tell you something, before you hear it on the news.’ He said. ‘We got a call off Avery’s parent’s this morning. She wasn’t there when they woke up in the morning and we suspect she followed the other girls and ran away. Wyatt is looking all he can but…’ He didn’t finish his sentence. I took his coffee off him and finished it.
‘I’m going to go on the lake.’ I said, walking back upstairs.
‘I wouldn’t if I were you; remember yesterday. You should listen to Wyatt, he’s practically family.’
‘It’s just the boat. No swimming I promise.’
He nodded and went to the coffee machine. I forgot about upstairs or changing out of my pyjamas I walked down the dirt path towards the pier, my feet getting muddied as we went down. The morning air smelt fresh, as though it was untouched by anything before. It was as if even walking through it would disrupt the calm and silence that filled the air.
The pier creaked under my feet, fifty years of history moved under me as I walked across the floorboards towards where the boat was tied up at the end. A single line of rope hung over a half rotten wooden pillar. The rope used to be so long that the boat floated almost half way to the middle of the lake and you would have to pull it in. Now the rope had been shortened as time wore on and each year that boat got closer to the pier. As I pulled the rope off the pier and sat down, I pushed the boat away and sat back; letting the force of the miniature current I had created take us wherever it wanted to go.
The boat came to a halt somewhere near the middle of the lake. I moved the oars further in and lay back on the bottom of the boat. The wind blew past like a whisper through the air that I didn’t understand and the birds replied every so often with a high-pitched chirp. The water lapped at the boat and as I listened to every one of my movements ripple the water. I felt totally at home.
I wondered why these girls would ever want to leave this place. I wanted to stay longer on that boat and see what it looked like to really snow there. I wanted to see the snow fall so heavily that the entire sky would turn white, dropping slowly whilst transforming the entirety of my surroundings to one singular colour. Green goo replaced with ice and just the feeling of being entirely cold but without the wetness that came with snow in England.
But the sun was in the sky and there wasn’t even a single cloud as I lay in the bottom of the boat and stared at the sky. There was a small puddle of water at the bottom that had been warmed by the sun and was soaking through my pyjamas, adding to the feeling of floating.
A shout from the shore startled me out of my daydream and as their shout echoed I sat up, knocking the oars into the water. I could only watch as they floated further and further from me.
‘Just wait some one will come and get you.’ Wyatt shouted from the small pier. There were no other boats on the lake.
‘No it’s okay.’ I took off my pyjama bottoms and dived into the water.
This time I hit something, hard. My head vibrated and throbbed as I opened my eyes in the water. I had never hit my legs on anything and as I floated in the middle of the water I knew I was nowhere near the bottom. The water was still crystal clear underneath the algae on the surface and I reached out to grab the seaweed to re-calibrate myself. I grabbed a handful and pulled.
It was not seaweed.
Through the blur in the almost freezing water she almost looked alive, if not just… sleeping. A brief thought flew through my mind that her shoes were definitely ruined by this water and suede would never recover from this. I screamed, more water filling my lungs and the burn shot straight to my brain. Swim upwards. Air. Breathe.
As I turned around I was faced with more, I thought my own heart was going to stop but my pulse only got louder in my ear, like a drum banging in my head. Their faces nowhere near as clear as Avery’s if they were there at all. I looked down and saw rope wrapped around their ankles keeping them suspended in the middle of the water, stagnant. But their hair floated towards the top of the water, almost reaching the surface.
There wasn’t any seaweed in sight.
I thought that as soon as I reached the surface a cry, a scream, or anything would come out any sort of noise, but I coughed the water out of my lungs and silence followed. Nothing came out of my mouth. The birds flew overhead, chirping as they flew further away and the water splashed around me. My hair floated around me, covered in green Algae and my stomach turned over like I was on a rollercoaster right before it was about to drop. When I looked back towards the water’s edge and the lodge, my home, Wyatt was nowhere to be seen.
The boat was left behind. I swam to the shore and sat on the beach. I breathed in the crisp air and realised that I never wanted to return to Eagle River.
A hand touched my shoulder. I snapped my head around so fast from afar it might have looked like my neck had broke.
‘So you know.’ Dad said.
For a while there was only silence between us. I tried to rub the goo off my face but it felt as though it had stained my skin. Dad tried to brush some off my shoulder but I shrugged him off.
‘What did you do?’ I asked.
I swallowed air and my mouth still tasted like the lake water. My skin was starting to burn all over and when I breathed in I could smell myself. The air was filling with it, flowing down my lungs and staying there. I stood up and walked back up to the lodge, trailing muddy footprints through living room and up the stairs. I hit my ankle on the skirting board as I strode past, ignoring the blood as it starting to trail down my ankle. I stood in front of the bathroom and sighed, taking off the rest of my pajamas.
The shower burned my skin and I considered turning the temperature up. I wanted to burn my skin off, to melt through my face and my eyes straight to my brain. Her blurred face kept staring at me, flashing between her unconscious in my living room to eyes wide under the water.
A hand touched my shoulder.