Chris reached his hand into the darkness and groped for the light switch along the grimy cinderblock wall. After getting his fingers tangled in a few cobwebs he flipped the switch and the sickly pallor of the fluorescent light was cast upon the little crawl space. The room was outfitted with an assortment of ancient recreation equipment. There were frayed tennis rackets, deflated balls, moldy bean bags, creaky chairs, and other forgotten items. Chris scanned his eyes around the perimeter until he found what he was looking for: life jackets. He looked back at his two friends who still stood outside in the dim twilight.
“See? I told you they would be in here,” he said smirking.
“Well, Chris, that’s great and all. But I mean, do we really need to wear life jackets? We know how to swim perfectly well,” complained Forest.
“It’s always better to be safe than sorry,” Chris said. As he walked over to the jackets he tripped over a stray oar and unceremoniously fell onto the floor.
“On second thought,” Forest began. “If I’m going to paddle out onto the lake with you I probably should wear a life jacket. What do you think, Barry?” Barry simply remained silent, as usual. The ever confident Forest took the silence as an agreement and picked out a stylish neon yellow jacket from the pile. His two friends followed suit with more muted colors.
Now properly outfitted, the three boys made the short hike over to the jetty where a neat line of rusty canoes lay dormant. The boats bobbed up and down in the murky, black water with their reflections hardly visible in the rapidly fading evening light. The sun was a mere sliver peeking over the horizon with its light being further reduced by the dense forest that surrounded the lake. Chris looked towards the ground and was somewhat disturbed to discover that he hardly had a shadow due to the low light conditions. A sense of unease began to germinate in the back of his mind. I’ll bet that it’s going to get dark pretty soon. Maybe in about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Don’t know why Forest waited until now to drag us out here. Could have come at any time, really. We’ll just make this a quick one…
“Hey Forest,” Chris piped up. “Let’s make this a quick one. I think it’ll be too dark to see soon.”
“Too dark to see?” Forest cracked a smile. “Hey man, when your night vision kicks in you’re going to be able to see fine. Hell, we could probably do laps around the lake all night if we wanted to. Right, Barry?” Silence.
Chris spoke, “Yeah, but let’s not do that. I’m getting in…” He carefully eased into the nearest canoe. The way the black water rippled with his disturbance reminded him of melted black licorice. Forest hopped in next with all the grace of a newborn deer, nearly capsizing the boat as he landed. Barry was last, stepping in with neither pomp nor circumstance. Chris and Barry each took up an oar while Forest relaxed with his arms behind his shaggy haircut. From there the canoe lazily made its way out onto the open water. Chris turned back to the shore and watched as it shrunk in his field of view. He couldn’t shake the feeling that that patch of land wasn’t going to be the end point of their little expedition. He also noticed a little sign sticking out of the ground that he hadn’t seen before. Bold, white letters were engraved on its face.
"TIE UP CANOES WHEN FINISHED."
"NO CANOEING AFTER 8 PM."
"WE MEAN IT."
What time is it now, anyway? He had completely lost track. The last time Chris had seen a clock was at 5:30 when they had been driving up in Barry’s old wood-paneled station wagon. The time was lost on him.
Forest was already whistling some song that had been played to death on the local pop station. The notes floated quietly across the silence of the vast outdoor space. There was something strange about the lack of ambient noise, Chris thought. There were no birds chirping; there were no toads croaking; there were no crickets singing; even the sound of their rowing seemed somehow muted. The air was thick with an eerie atmosphere. Then again maybe I’m just psyching myself out. So what if it’s a little dark out? We’re just paddling around. This is supposed to be relaxing. He shot a glance over at Forest who seemed to be dozing off. Maybe he won’t protest if I steer us back towards the shore… Chris reversed his rowing direction, causing the canoe to rotate. Forest opened one glazed eye but did not seem to fully register what was happening. Suddenly there was a voice.
“What the hell?”
It was Barry.
Forest was tickled by this. “Been awhile since I’ve heard that melodious voice of yours, Barry,” he joked. “Now what is it that made you speak?”
“I saw something in the water.”
There was an uncomfortably long pause. Forest continued, “… and?” But Barry declined to speak any further. The expression on his face was that of utter bewilderment. It was like… it was like… Like he had seen a ghost. Chris almost had to laugh at this sudden thought. The whole thing was just too perfect. First he hadn’t really wanted to go out on the lake, then the fading light made him nervous, then he read the (not really) ominous sign, and now Barry was saying that he had seen… something… in the water. Even though he recognized the silliness of the series of events, the desire to make haste for the jetty still gripped him.
“Well if you’re not gonna talk, I’m not gonna ask,” Forest said, resuming his relaxed position. Chris ever so slightly sped up his rowing speed and continued in the direction from which they came. They had rowed far enough out so that their starting position was not in view. Chris was fairly certain that he could recall the series of bends that had led them to their current location. I’ll find it soon enough. The lake is only so big. And if push comes to shove we can always just ditch the boat and walk along the shore and find where we were. But it’s only a little ways from here; I’m sure of it. Chris suddenly became aware that the sun had already sunken well below the horizon and that there was much less light than when they had left the shore. The world around him had almost no color save for Forest’s stupid neon jacket. The lines between objects were grey and imprecise. He did not like that one bit. His rowing speed increased even more.
After a few more minutes Chris was able to make out a little grey sign on a shore of the lake. Aha! We made it! A sweet wash of relief came over him was they drew nearer to the edge of the water.
“Hey,” said Forest. “What happened to all the other canoes?” Chris looked and found that the jetty was completely bare. Before there had been at least four other canoes tied up. He found it highly unlikely that a bunch of people had decided to go canoeing after the sun had completely set. And besides, wouldn’t they have seen or heard the other boaters? While musing, Chris happened to read the little grey sign and his stomach dropped. It no longer said what it had before.
"YOU DID NOT HEED."
"YOU AWOKE THE NARKIA."
"NOW YOU WILL SEE."
“What in the name of God is a narika?” Forest asked aloud. “If this is somebody’s idea of a prank then it’s a pretty lame. I could have come up with something a million times cooler than hiding a couple of canoes and putting up some stupid sign. Really, I think anything would have been more interesting than… huh?” Forest stopped suddenly and looked down. Chris did the same and was shocked to see that the canoe was sliding backwards away from the shore of its own volition. What’s going on? Chris stabbed his oar into the water in an attempt to stop the canoe, but it was immediately sucked underwater. Barry also attempted to stop the boat but was met with the same result. The boat began to accelerate in its trajectory.
“Hey, now this is pretty elaborate,” said Forest, smiling. “They must have tied a really long wire to the canoe or something. Man, this is surreal…” At that the boat came to a sudden stop in the middle of the lake’s largest basin. The three boys sat in utter silence for a few moments. “Now how do they expect us to get back?” Forest looked around. Chris glanced down at the water and nearly jumped out of his skin. About an inch below the surface of the water there was a face. And it was staring right at him. He let out a silent scream as he looked into the dark abyss of the face’s gaze. Its eyes were almost entirely black with barely an iris to speak of. Its lips were drawn back and its mouth was curved into a mysterious smile. But the worst park, Chris thought, was its hair. Thick, black locks clung to its cheeks and floated out several feet behind its scalp, floating lifelessly in the water like some sort of dead cephalopod. The face opened its maw and Chris heard a voice inside his head.
Oh… I like you…
The face broke the murky surface and rose up on its serpentine body to Chris’ eye level. It was coated in a thick layer of green lake slime with various fish and plants clinging all about. As it rose it seemed to blur the space surrounding it. Just the slight bobbing of its body left an extreme after-image on Chris’ field of view. He could feel his senses becoming dull and imprecise.
Let me touch you.
A long, fishy arm with webbed fingers extended towards his face. He tried to think of some sort of action he could take. The oar! He fumbled around in the boat for the oars that weren’t there, falling over in his panicked motions. The webbed hand grabbed ahold of his cheek and gently turned his head towards the front of the boat. Barry and Forest were gone.
Just you and me now, friend…
Chris felt the disgusting, scaly body flop down into the boat and slither up on top of him. The thing brought its face only inches away from Chris’, close enough so that the thing’s hair dripped nasty lake water into his eyes. Chris felt the cold, slippery hands clamp down on his cheeks and cock his head up slightly.
No tricks here…
The mineral stink of lake slime and the endless afterimage aura of the thing began to overwhelm him. He could feel himself drifting away from the conscious world. He tried to snap up but found that he was paralyzed. He tried to scream but his vocal cords refused to vibrate. He tried to blink but found that even his eyelids had failed him. His thoughts were muddled. "Lake… Narika. Barry didn’t see I can’t Forest neon can’t pass out not pinned down not even real ha ha murky musty where the hell is that light switch gotta find those boats…" The face drew in closer. Through the haze, Chris could just make out something deep in one of its eyes. It was very small, but it was something familiar. It was a humanoid figure. It was a young man. He was laying on his back. It was… it was…
Chris shot up with a start and gasped a great breath. The haze and muted sounds were now gone and his senses seemed ultra-sharp. He realized that he was no longer floating on a canoe on the dark lake, but rather he was sitting comfortably on the shore of the lake. The same neat line of rusty canoes from before was laid out in front of him, seemingly untouched for a long period of time. He was completely dry and his life jacket was nowhere to be seen. Where’s Forest and Barry? He glanced around at his surroundings, but found himself utterly alone. As he stood up, he realized that he had been leaning on that creepy grey sign. It had changed back to its original state.
"TIE UP CANOES WHEN FINISHED."
"NO CANOEING AFTER 8PM."
"WE MEAN IT."
But something else caught his eye. Just below the third line, scratched out in deep read, was the message: "Leave before I change my mind." Without giving it a second thought, Chris walked briskly away from the sign and back towards the little shack where the old equipment was stored. He found the door wide open and the interior light still on. Barry’s car keys sat ominously in the middle of the floor. There was still no sign of either of the two boys. Chris scooped up the keys and made a break for the old station wagon. As he sped down the gravel road and away from the lake he kept thinking, How am I going to explain this, how am I going to explain this, how am I going to explain this, how am I going to explain this, how am I going to explain this, how and I going to explain this…
But he couldn’t. And that was that.