It was up at my grandparents’ cottage that I saw the thing in the water. Back then it was pretty normal to have a little place up north. Nowadays most people can’t even afford one house, let alone a second, but that’s another story. Meghan, my therapist, says I’m prone to diversions when talking about my past. She tells me I “intellectualize” and get into bigger issues that aren’t really about me as a kind of defense mechanism against engaging with my personal history. I’m trying not to do that here, but old habits die hard.
Anyway, my grandparents bought the cottage back in the late 70s. My grandpa had a good job at a steel mill — union to boot — and they wanted a little place to spend the summers a few hours north of the city. A few of their friends in the neighborhood already had cottages up off the 400, so they bought one there too. I looked at a map of that area the other day and it’s real strange to see these little blue streaks across the territory. Minnesota is called the Land of 10,000 Lakes but those ones all look like little dots on a map. In the stretch of land between the Georgian Bay on the west and the bigger lakes like Muskoka and Rousseau in the east, it looks like the ground is getting sliced up by long blades of freshwater, like one day the whole thing might just dissolve into Lake Huron.
I used to hate going up there. As a kid I wasn’t much for the outdoors since I was pretty anxious and it seemed like the furthest thing from a controlled environment you could get. All kinds of creatures lived out in the woods and the waters and I liked to read about them from the comfort of my home but I didn’t necessarily want to meet them firsthand. Plus I couldn’t stand the bugs — I remember one time my dad made fun of me for putting on an old mosquito net hat I found in the back room and walking around in it. I also couldn’t see the appeal the adults did in just sitting out by the lake doing nothing. Of course back then I didn’t know sitting by a lake with a couple of beers and some friends is one of the nicest things in the world.
So my dad and his girlfriend — my parents had split a year prior — dragged me up there in the spring of ’98 for the Victoria Day long weekend. Canada is the only country that has an official holiday for Queen Victoria, but most Ontarians just call it May Two-Four, because the day off usually lands around May 24 and because that’s what we call a case of twenty-four beers. Just one of those bits of language you think is universal until you go south of the border for the first time and you’ve got Americans looking at you funny for saying toque or washroom.
I had a couple of rented VHS tapes, my Discman, and an old Game Boy with me, which might have been enough to make it through the weekend except that my dad and his girlfriend always insisted I come out with them on the lake and socialize with them and their friends. My dad used to get real mad at me for mumbling and not making eye contact with adults when I talked to them. I guess I was just a shy kid and he didn’t quite know how to deal with it. His girlfriend, a younger woman who taught at a private school, tried to get me to be more social and I could tell she was making an effort, but it always felt like she was treating me like a problem student in her classroom and that rubbed me the wrong way. I was fifteen and I thought I knew more than anyone and just wanted to be left alone.
After my parents split I would alternate between their houses each week because they only moved a few blocks away from each other. I liked staying with my mom because she mostly let me just hang out in my room playing games or reading. My dad tended to get drunk at every meal and he never hit me or anything but would become unpredictable and flip out sometimes over issues that to me seemed really minor like getting a B on a math test or dripping water onto the tile floor when I came out of the shower. I didn’t realize it at the time but the separation must have been pretty hard on him. I wanted them to get back together but I had more or less given up on the possibility and resigned myself to this permanent back-and-forth lifestyle.
We got in to the cottage late on Friday because my dad liked to try and wait out the long weekend traffic rush in the afternoon. The drive always seemed to take forever even though it was only about three and a half hours. Someone told me once things like that seem to take longer when you’re a kid because you don’t have as much life to compare the time to. We didn’t have GPS or phones with live maps or anything back then so I used to try and spot landmarks to gauge the time. The way I knew we were getting close was when we drove through some steep rocks with little channels cut into them where they drilled down and placed dynamite to clear space for the road to go through.
I slept on a little pullout couch in the back room that was actually a veranda that had been converted into part of the house a few years before. Big windows stretched across the length of it, looking out onto the huge backyard where my grandma hung the laundry and grew raspberries. Past that the land dropped off almost vertically to a shallow river that led through some marshland into one of the bigger lakes. There was an old, rotten staircase you took down to the dock built against the side of the drop, where my dad kept this little motor boat he liked to take tooling around or would park in one of the rivers to go fishing, though the only fish I ever remember him catching were bottom feeders.
On Saturday morning my dad woke up early like he always did, though he let me sleep in a little. By the time he made me get out of bed, he, his girlfriend, and my grandparents had already been up for a few hours puttering around the old linoleum tiled floor of the kitchen reading the newspaper, drinking coffee and eating fried kielbasa and eggs. When I think about my grandparents my memory always goes back to that kind of floor. It hasn’t been in style for a long time but they had it at their house in the city too, this elaborate floral patterned lino in browns and greens.
I had a little orange juice and some toast with butter and my dad filled me in on the plan for the day. It was overcast but not supposed to rain until the late afternoon, so he wanted to get out on the boat while we could. My mom used to hate going out on the lake with my dad because the motion of the waves would make her sick so he would go out with his brother or one of their friends and she and I would go for a walk down the gravel road and look for foxes and deer. Of course my mom hadn’t been up to the cottage in a while at this point.
I thought about lying and saying I had a stomach ache so I could stay back and play my Game Boy but anyway I wouldn’t have the place to myself even if I did, because my grandpa was in a wheelchair and was going to stick around while my grandma went into town to get some things for dinner. I didn’t hate the guy or anything but spending a few hours alone in the house with him trying to make conversation sounded worse than the boat so I said the plan was fine by me.
Anyway, I figured that I could bank some goodwill then to get out of something even less appealing later in the weekend, like going for a barbeque dinner over at Gorky Park, which is what my dad called the bunch of cabins that housed a raucous extended family of Russians some of whom lived up there full-time. That always seemed strange to me. I’d grown up in the city and couldn’t imagine what life would be like out in what I thought of as the wilderness for more than a weekend or so at a time.
So I helped my dad and his girlfriend whose name was Laurie load our stuff into the boat — life jackets, gas, some snacks and water, an old pair of water skis and a rope with a handle for towing my dad found in the garage. We set out a little after noon, which was later than my dad would have liked. Still, he was in a fine mood as we broke out of the reedy wetlands with the boat’s motor running low and emerged onto the lake. He always liked the water. Me, I can’t handle anything bigger and more open than a swimming pool. Meghan says that makes sense considering what happened out there, but even before that I never really liked lakes or the ocean. Too many unknowns.
It’s not just big bodies of water either. For instance another thing my dad used to get mad at me about was how I did the dishes. He always filled the sink up with soapy water and dumped them all in then reached in and grabbed them, rinsed them off, then left them to dry. Me, I couldn’t stand the thought of plunging my hands into that murky basin so I just turned the tap on a little at a time to rinse each dish after I’d scrubbed them. He hated that but I figured it used less water anyway and to this day even the thought of reaching into a sink full of gray water and dishes and scraps of food makes me sick to my stomach.
I wanted to take my Game Boy out on the boat but my dad wouldn’t let me and anyway the boat was pretty small so I was worried it might fly off into the lake, which was quiet that afternoon but my dad liked to loop around and crash into the wake the boat had left behind it to send it jumping into the air. We drove around for a bit and then my dad set up the trailing line and put the water skis on which must have been from the 70s or something. He got Laurie to drive and though it took him a couple of tries to get up out of the water he got the hang of it pretty quick since he used to do it all the time when he was younger. He liked to show off, doing things like ditching one ski and balancing both feet on the other for a while. It was an overcast muggy day but the wind and the spray felt great and I had to admit that I was having a good time despite not wanting to be there in the first place.
Eventually Laurie brought the boat to a stop and my dad swam back over and climbed in and said, why don’t you give it a try, handing the skis to me. Normally I wouldn’t have done it but I guess I must have been in such a good mood that it overrode my distaste for the open water and I said sure. When you waterski you start out bobbing in the water behind the boat waiting for it to roar to life and rip you out of the water. The trick is to keep the skis at the right angle so they lift you up onto the surface. I couldn’t crack it at first and after a few tries that ended with me splashing face first into the lake I was ready to pack it in but I decided to give it one more try and I finally managed to do it. It felt like flying, gliding along the placid lake like that. My dad gave the boat a little more gas and I had to tighten my grip to hold on and then he started making these big turns that gradually got sharper and sharper.
At that point it occurred to me that my old man was trying to shake me off. Maybe it wasn’t so hostile as that and he just thought I needed more of a challenge since I’d gotten a handle on the basics. But I felt that he was trying to reassure himself of his place as the king. He used to do that when he noticed me getting better at something like a board game or drawing. One time playing basketball at Cub Scouts before I quit he ran into me at full speed and toppled me over. I blacked out and woke up embarrassed propped up in the stairwell with everyone looking down at me. My mom always hated these antics — she checked his impulses and reminded him that he wasn’t in competition with his own son. But she wasn’t there, just Laurie.
Normally on water skis you’re in clear water between the boat’s wake streams but if the driver turns hard enough you’re liable to get flung out to one side like a truck trailer and you’ve got to be steady to stay upright when you cross over the artificial waves. It’s even harder on the way back in when you’re running head on into the white fury of the water. Well I made it out to the side hanging on for dear life, but when the boat straightened out and the rope pulled me back behind it, one of my skis caught in the wave front and pitched me ass over tea kettle into the lake.
What happened next is the reason I’m writing this at all. Meghan thinks it’s important to get it down on paper even though we’ve been talking about it for months now. I wasn’t able to bring it up at first because I thought she’d laugh at me, to be honest. I’ve never told anyone else about it either because I know that claiming to see what I saw is the kind of thing that makes people think you’re a lunatic in polite society. When I was a kid I had a friend who lived in a tall apartment building a couple blocks away from our school and one time for his birthday a bunch of us stayed overnight there on the living room floor in sleeping bags. At one point his mom came out and said she had seen the devil and she hoped none of us ever had to see him and we all knew even that young that she was fucking nuts.
I also never took it seriously when I was young and other kids my age said they had magical powers like being able to read thoughts or move things with their minds. I guess I was just jaded pretty early on but I recognized those kinds of claims as requests for attention and even though I wanted badly to live in a world that was as fantastical as the ones in the stories I read and the video games I played, I knew that real life was something more concrete and dull than the misty realms of imagination. But what I saw when I plunged into the lake wasn’t some watery vision — it had substance and solidity.
Even now I have a hard time describing it. I say “it,” but maybe “her” is more appropriate. She was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen, a radiant thing made up of countless sparkling points of light and flowing greenery that reminded me of the time my parents took me to an art museum and I spent fifteen minutes sitting in front of a huge painting of people at a park and felt like I was actually there before my parents dragged me off to see the rest of the exhibits because they wanted to get their money’s worth.
This shimmering goddess — I still don’t know who or what it was — told me that she could grant my heart’s desire. I was too entranced to remember any of the stories I’d read about the dangers of accepting bargains from mysterious creatures so I told her, not knowing how I was able to talk or breathe underwater but it seeming irrelevant given the circumstances, that I wanted my parents to get back together.
Maybe that was a bum wish and I should have asked for money or fame but we never had much money when I was little and I was still plenty happy, and personally I never really wanted to be famous. All I could think about at the time was Saturday mornings when my mom and dad would make breakfast and we’d sit around the island kitchen and then spend time out in the yard and maybe rent a movie and watch it together all on the couch in the evening with popcorn and I felt like I belonged somewhere instead of ricocheting back and forth between two people angry at each other all the time.
She smiled and said it would be done but that there would be a price to pay and I suddenly came to in the boat looking up at the sky. Laurie said that when I’d gone down I hit my head on one of the skis and fell unconscious but I remembered blacking out before at the basketball game when I was younger and the two experiences didn’t seem to have anything in common. We went back to the cottage and had some lunch and lazed away the afternoon until my dad and Laurie said they were going out to Gorky Park for dinner. I told them I wasn’t feeling up to going and whether because I’d been so good-natured earlier or because of the accident they let me stay. I ate dry tortilla chips because I was picky and didn’t like the way salsa had chunks in it and drank store brand cola and played my Game Boy until I fell asleep on the couch in the living room with the old iron wood stove and black and white photos framed on the dark walls.
I woke up a couple of hours later when my dad came in but I couldn’t see Laurie with him. My grandma and grandpa woke up too and he told us that there had been an accident over at Gorky Park, that a fire had started and the firefighters had shown up but by the time they had half of the cabins had burnt down. Laurie had inhaled a lot of smoke and my dad had tried to get her out but when the paramedics showed up they pronounced her dead on the scene. Being young and not having much understanding of mortality other than my maternal grandfather who had died of stomach cancer when I was about six I didn’t know what to do. I was sad but I hadn’t really known her that well. It wasn’t until I got into bed and overheard my dad calling my mom from the kitchen and explaining to her what had happened that I got a sick feeling like I had somehow caused this all to happen.
We drove home the next day and there was hardly any traffic on the roads because it was only Sunday and everyone still had Monday off. The whole way it was just me and my dad and he didn’t cry or anything but he was real quiet. I thought about taking out my Game Boy or putting on my headphones but it seemed disrespectful. When we got home my dad took me over to my mom’s place and I could hear the muffled sounds of them having a long conversation downstairs while I was up in my room reading comics. The hospital or police or whoever transported Laurie’s body back down to the city too and there was a funeral a few days later with her family and friends there, most of whom I’d never seen before except for a few who were mutual friends of my dad.
My mom and dad started talking more again after that. They stopped speaking so badly of each other to me and we had a few family dinners together out at restaurants like we used to. One time my dad put his hand on my mom’s at the table and she smiled at him and it felt like maybe the last few years had just been a fluke. After all, they had never gone all the way to actually getting a divorce.
Eventually the two of them announced that they were getting back together. My dad moved into my mom’s apartment and it was kind of strange at first but I was thrilled to have both my parents under the same roof. Of course my recollections of how things had been before they had split up had been confused by the pleasant memories of being a child with no responsibilities or real understanding of the world, and the sense of security and happiness I’d expected when I’d dreamed of them reuniting never fully materialized.
Some of my enjoyment of it all was also spoiled by recurring nightmares of Laurie burning up in the cabin. I hadn’t been there when it had happened and in fact she’d died of smoke inhalation and not in the fire itself but my unconscious mind still tormented me with images of hair crackling and flesh sloughing off of skulls for years.
When I wasn’t dreaming of Laurie burning to death I was dreaming of the thing I saw under the lake. Fire and water. Those dreams though calmer at first were no less terrifying because when I looked at the beautiful monster that had somehow granted me my wish I began to feel that I was holding my breath and when I couldn’t anymore I felt draughts of cold lake water pour into my lungs. It got to the point where I would stay up all night and started doing bad in school because I was so exhausted until my parents sent me to a psychiatrist who prescribed me some pills that helped me sleep dreamlessly. A few years later I went off to college.
Anyway, that’s the story. From there, I led a pretty normal life, got married, had a couple of kids, and ended up getting divorced — though my parents are still together. The dreams came back after I split from my wife, which is what got me into therapy in the first place. Meghan thinks my adolescent brain must have felt guilty over my feelings about my dad and Laurie and that over the years my dreams and memories got mixed up to the point that I came to believe I was responsible for her death. That might be the case — we all find ways of tearing ourselves up inside for things that aren’t our fault. But I’m not so sure.
See, there’s something I didn’t tell Meghan. Laurie dying wasn’t the price of my wish, it was just the means of making it a reality. The tragedy at the cabin pushed my parents back together, and though it might sound kind of cold I was never really that close to Laurie anyway so even though her death weighed on me in my sleep it didn’t represent my end of the bargain. The price for my wish has yet to be paid.
The thing I saw, whatever it was, it said that it would exact its price in thirty years. Well, I’m 45 now and the anniversary of that day is coming due and I know I have to go back. Maybe nothing will happen and I’ll finally be able to accept that this was all the fevered invention of a guilty kid with an overactive imagination. I haven’t been up that way in a little over two decades and my grandparents sold the cottage off years ago before they both passed away but I rented a place, a little cabin close to the lake and I’m going to make the drive up on my own for the first time in my life and see this thing through. I expect the trip will seem much shorter than it used to.