I started swimming the moment my parents failed to catch me as I ran into my Aunt Mary’s pool. They ran after me, holding bright yellow floatees but I never would wait long enough to get them on as I ran into the pool. It was then that my parents decided that they needed to take me to swimming lessons. I started them when I was about five. I quickly finished the entire program and got rid of those god-awful floatees. It wasn’t long after that that I joined my first competitive swim team. It wasn’t what I expected -we didn’t just hang out in the water splashing each other- but I eventually came to love it. The point I’m trying to introduce is that I was never afraid of water. While other kids shivered on the pool deck, I would cannonball in and start swimming. I stayed with that first swim team for many years before finally switching teams, but the event I’d like to describe happened when I was nine, only a year after I joined the team.
My mother signed me up to swim in a fundraiser called Cary’s Crossing, in which I pledged to swim a mile in Lake Erie and asked for donations from my parents' friends and neighbors. I raised over two hundred dollars and was feeling pretty good about myself by the time I actually got to Lake Erie. There was a huge crowd of people, thousands lining up at the edge of the lake with their respective groups. In my memory, there has never been a Carly’s Crossing that had nice weather. And I remember that dark clouds swarmed above the lake that day. There was talk about a massive thunderstorm, but before it started raining they tried to send out as many groups as possible. It was a clammy day, my nine-year-old body was cold and I shivered with the ever frequent gusts of wind. My group consisted of four people: one of my coaches named Jen, my friend Megan, someone else whose name I can no longer place and me. We stood on the brown beach for over an hour, waiting for our cue to leave.
I stared at the water; it had a green tint to it. I told myself that it was a freshwater lake, there weren’t any predators that would dare go near a human. But thoughts about Erie’s history of pollution slipped into my mind. The lake was supposedly clean now and mostly devoid of life, but what if it wasn’t? The thought also crossed my mind that I had never swam in a lake before. A lake is just water, it’s not as crystal clear as a pool, but it’s just water. I could deal with it, I told myself.
Finally, some people told us we could go and we started our run towards the lake. Blood was rushing through me, the crowd was cheering. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. This was going to be good. Then the hands of the lake wrapped themselves around my ankles. That was when I first felt anxiety. But it was quickly replaced by exhilaration. The water crawled it’s way up my ankles as we ran even further out into the lake. We had started into the lake hand-in-hand but now-as the water got deeper- I felt Megan’s hand slip from my grasp. The water hugged my torso, it’s cold fingers digging into my skin. My heart was pounding, but it didn’t register as fear. I didn’t have time to contemplate my feelings as it was time to put my face in the water and start to swim.
I put my face in the water and stared down at the bottom. But I couldn’t see it. The dark water blocked my view of anything about two or three feet down. Everything had a slightly greenish tint to it, making the water look diseased. I started to move my arms and kick my feet; I had done this a million times. I knew exactly how to move and how to time my kicks and strokes that it was usually a second nature to me. But that day, my arms were heavy and the arcs that my I needed to make were sloppy and all over the place. What was going on? I took a breath and realized my teammates were not longer close to me, the closest one was about six feet away. Even my breath was sloppy as I put my face back into the water. I again saw the darkness beneath me, only getting deeper the further out I swam. My breath was fast and heavy, I was breathing almost every single stroke just to keep afloat. What was wrong? What was I doing wrong? With my next breath, my teammates were even further away and I realized that we weren’t spreading out, they were getting further ahead. I tried to swim faster to catch up with them, but my arms just would move right. Through my blue goggles I began to see white streaks in the water. They reached up towards me. Seaweed?
That was the moment I understood. The heaviness of my arms, the irregularity of my breath, the feeling that I was doing something wrong. It came together.
I was afraid.
It was such a strong fear that I didn’t even recognize it as fear in the beginning. But now I got it as the arms of seaweed reached out for me. My heart took up like a rabbit locked in chase. My breathing intensified to the point I could no longer keep my face in the water. The helpless failing of my arms that had once been freestyle stroke devolved into a weak doggy paddle. I had to get out. That was the only thing going through my mind. I had to get out. But I knew that I had promised to swim a mile. So I swam forward. After a moment, my heart rested slightly and I mistakenly thought I had grown accustomed to the water. I put my face back in the water and tried to restore my foppish freestyle.
Then I saw it. Among the arms of seaweed reaching up towards me, there was a face. A human face that stared blankly up at me. It showed no expression, even when it’s moving eyes caught on mine. I wasn’t totally sure that it was alive. But then a piece of seaweed began to grow from the green darkness. It shot up from the depths toward me. It moved deliberately towards my leg and curled around it. Then gave a light tug on my leg. That was when I started to scream. I pulled my leg as far up as possible, crying out for someone to help.
“Rachel, are you okay?” I heard Jen call from up ahead. I shook my head ‘no’. I refused to put my face in the water. I didn’t want to swim back, that would symbolize I had given up. I had not given up, I just couldn’t will myself to go any further into those distressing waters. I tried to take deep breaths, but I knew it was over. My heart wouldn’t slow, my breathing was an untamable animal. I held onto my legs to keep them out of the grasp of the arm that grabbed me.
A man in a kayak pulled up next to me.
“Are you okay?” he asked. I shook my head. “Can you keep swimming?” I shook my head. He offered me his paddle to hold onto. I grasped it like it was the only thing keeping me alive. I was shaking, my stomach had tied itself in knots. My fingernails dug into the plastic of the paddle. What if it grabbed me again? What if this time it decided not to let go? I shut my eyes as hard as I could as I waited for someone to come get me. Finally, a diver swam up to me in full scuba gear holding onto a kickboard. He offered it to me and i held onto it with the same intensity with which I had held onto the paddle. My face flushed when I realized that I was probably the only one that had to go back to the beach after I promised that I would make it to the end. The people on the beach stared at me, they would later claim no hard feelings, but I couldn’t shake the guilt that haunts me to this day.
Four people entered into the water. I left early, but only two made it to the end. The missing posters for Megan would go up the next day. They never found a body, so she could never be determined as dead. But nobody had an explanation for her disappearance. I didn’t tell about what was in the lake. I was nine, who would’ve believed that there was a monster in the lake? I was on the edge of those childish fantasies and who would listen? It started to rain as the two that remained crawled out of the water, luckily unharmed. Their faces swollen with effort and tears. The story became that Megan had drowned. But her body would’ve risen to the surface had that been the case. To this day-regardless of my swimming ability- I have not stepped a foot in that lake. I know that it’s there, it’s soulless eyes watching. It’s seaweed waiting. I will certainly be next.