I could tell it took Don all of his willpower to stop himself from trying to walk like Jesus across that lake. The body of water, glistening under the setting sun, had only appeared two hours prior. Fell right on top of—or did it rise up from?—the middle of the cornfield on the O’Neill property. That’s all the time the town needed to spread the word and get its population of 203 congregating at the water’s edge, some more hesitantly than others.
Nana Jan touched it first. Said she probably wouldn’t need her hand much longer anyway, but when her fingers didn’t melt away, others followed suit and the plunking of limbs into water started in earnest.
I arrived at its edge, hand running through my long, sun-beaten hair, wondering if this was a miracle or some long-awaited consequence of our many sins. Em walked up next to me, nudged me with her hip.
“Anyone tried to drink it yet?”
I pointed over to Don Brieton fifty yards away, lowering his face to the surface. “Not yet, but something tells me that’ll change shortly.”
Em’s fair features, already red and kissed by the early summer sun, scrunched in concern. “Shouldn’t he wait for the scientists or something?”
“Remind me what scientists live near town limits, Em.” A beat passed, and I knew I had already spoken out of line, like the sarcastic know-it-all she accused me of being the night before.
“Just trying to keep townsfolk from any unnecessary death, Beets.” She said her nickname for me like a dirty word, a curse that passed her lips.
This was just the latest step in the song and dance between the two of us. Next, we’d fuck out in the cornfields, letting flattened stalks wear patterns into our backs and exchange I love yous under the glowing fade of a midwestern sun filtered through clouds of pesticides. Later, we’d fight about getting out of town. Fuck again. Rinse. Repeat.
“Think the water’s covered up our spot?” Em asked, changing the subject before we let our laundry air in front of the nosy townsfolk.
I shrugged. “Could always venture a check.”
We walked, rounded the corner of the farmhouse where Em lived with her daddy, and made our way to the cornstalks nestled an acre away. With the rickety building at our backs, my shoulders relaxed. It’s not that her daddy would murder us or nothing. He knew Em was as queer as a midnight sun. He just didn’t like me much. Had bought the farm from my family some years ago. Seems he’s always a little suspicious of me, thinking I’d want it back one day, but all I’ve ever wanted is a nice, quiet life with his daughter—if she and I could ever stop bickering enough for me to ask for it, that is.
No bad blood between our families. No Juliet and Juliet shit here. Just a little bit of unease, given the precarious nature of the farming business and the quiet distrust veiled in the sickly-sweet conversations that our town lives and dies by.
“Your daddy say anything about the water yet?” I asked.
Em shook her head. “I imagine his ear’s being talked off all to Hell right now. Took me thirty minutes just to walk from my front door to the edge of the lake. Half the damn town telling me what they think it is before they even let me look at it myself.” Em sighed. “So, it’s either a sinkhole, extremely isolated stormwater, aliens—that one was Don Brieton, you know—or an act of God. From the amount of people running around thanking God, you think your money’d be good on that.”
“Understandable,” I said, “after this drought. Think I saw Pastor Wilkins out there already trying to get that water blessed.”
Our town breathes corn. Grows it, sells it, shucks it, and serves it. Now, we maybe had something else to breathe. Except, last I heard, breathing water is really just drowning.
We made it to our spot. Corn stalks flattened in tiny crop circles made by our rollicking bodies. Plaid wool blankets spread out at the circle’s edge. Couple of empty beer cans.
“See how far it is?” Em asked. The dry soil crunched under our feet as we headed in the direction of the lake, until we heard the gentle lapping of the water’s edge trying to push its boundaries, a calm pleading with the ground to let it move forth.
The lake wasn’t more than twenty yards from our spot. It beckoned to us, looking cool and ethereal in the hot rays of the sun. I felt uneasy knowing the water was this close to the section of broken corn we held so dear. Didn’t want some wanderer finding us naked as plucked chickens, doing God’s work, you know?
“You touch it yet?” Em asked.
“Did I touch the foreign body of water that appeared outta nowhere? Course I haven’t. We can’t all be Dumbass Don.”
“Do you want to?”
“Fuck yes. Let’s do this.”
Em laughed, a sound that seemed to echo across the expanse of the lake. I could hardly see the other side, but I managed to make out the shadowy movements of the townsfolk. No one around to watch us be weenies at the water’s edge.
“You first,” Em said.
“No way! It’s your property.”
“Yeah? But you’re my strong girlfriend who wouldn’t dare let a little water break her nerves.”
“After you brave the puddle, dear.”
I rolled up the sleeve of my flannel shirt, crouched real low next to the water. Still looked perfectly normal. Just water, pooled around the stalks of corn closest to the edge.
My fingers hovered, felt the chill air radiating above the glimmering surface. I wish I could say that something felt off in that moment, that with my pinky finger submersed into that pool, I could have seen what would happen.
But it felt like just that: water. Heavenly, cold, calm water.
Em kneeled next to me, our knees just barely grazing as she dipped her pointer finger in. Same plunk, same ripple. Same normal.
“Anticlimactic, huh?” I said.
Em grinned a sloppy smile. “Wanna do something a bit more climactic?”
And with that, we passed that first day doing the things we do in the spot where we do them.
For the next few weeks, the water stayed where it was, despite the drought and the blistering heat. We had no idea where it came from. Just wasn’t there until it was.
Just like anything else people try to stake a claim to, the town quibbled about what to name the lake. Em and I were of the mind that it wasn’t really ours to name but that didn’t stop Pastor Wilkins who had already dubbed it Lake Lazarus. Mayor Todd was thinking of something flashier to bring in tourists. Em’s daddy began to refer to it as just “the curse” with all the attention it was bringing him in the worst kind of way. Too many fools out there for him to suffer. Speaking of…
Don Brieton was the first to taste it. Got a mouthful, then a lungful, and an earful and probably a lot of other orifices-ful when he finally did try to walk like Jesus across its shimmering path. Made it about ten yards, his feet shuffling in the slosh of the water, ankle-deep, knee-deep, and finally all-of-Don-deep when he tripped and fell. He floundered like a fish outta water but ended up nothing but wet and grumpy, no worse for wear. Once he didn’t turn into a monster or nothing, a few days down the line, everyone kind of just figured the water was safe.
Country logic, I suppose.
Once they decided the water was safe, the men started arguing over it. Mr. Jefferson, whose well had run dry, asked Mr. O’Neill if they could bring in a water truck. When O’Neill refused, Mr. Jefferson called Mayor Todd and asked what could be done. Mayor Todd wanted to clear the land and turn it into a tourist attraction, but Em’s daddy’s crop was thriving, so he wasn’t hearing any of that. Things came to a head when Pastor Wilkins (who always wanted to be one of those jet-setting televangelists and likely saw the lake as his key to fame and fortune) declared it a gift from God to the town.
That’s when Mr. O’Neill stopped being nice and starting carrying a shotgun.
The town decided to hold a meeting. Pastor Wilkins tried to make his case, citing every biblical passage about water and community he could find. Mr. O’Neill claimed that, if the water was truly a gift from God, it was a gift to him and his farm alone, since it showed up on his land. Mayor Adams spent his time pitching a water park—which, honestly, seemed pretty damn great (though I’d never dare say so to Em or her daddy). Mrs. Jefferson simply asked Mr. O’Neill to please share some with them, as they hadn’t been able to water their crops or wash their dishes in eight days.
Turns out, they weren’t the only ones—wells ran dry at the Baker and Flores farms too.
It’s not that Mr. O’Neill didn’t want to share the water with them. Problem was, sharing the water meant loading up trucks to pump it out, causing a stir on his farm and damage to his crops, and he just didn’t want that trouble.
Em said that her daddy stomped about the house late that night, wishing the water never came from wherever.
Em and I were lying in our hollowed-out spot letting the cool night air intoxicate us after we’d done our usual by the light of the stars when we heard the whispers coming from the direction of the lake. We shuffled about, snatching up our clothes.
“What the fuck?” Em hissed, holding her shirt over her bare chest.
“How many people you think are out there?”
“Just sounds like one voice. Can you make out what it’s saying?”
I couldn’t. Just sounded like one word over and over.
We dressed quickly and slipped through the cornstalks, moving towards the sound.
Em tilted her head, trying to make out the word the hushed voice frantically chanted. “Dawn?” she asked, her forehead scrunched. “Is that what it’s saying? Something about the dawn?”
“I think so,” I said. “It sounds like—” A heavy splashing sound cut me off, and the whispers stopped.
We charged through the corn then, our feet submerged in the cold water, fanning the stalks to either side of us before finally bursting through the thicket.
Open air and still water met us, and nothing else. Not even a cascading ripple. No sign of disturbance. Smooth as glass, reflecting the thousands of stars overhead.
“You heard that, right?” Em asked, her voice trembling in a way I hadn’t heard before.
“I did, but there’s nothing out here.”
We kept watching the lake, but there wasn’t any movement and no more sounds except the hum of late-night insects singing their songs.
I wish we could say we did more than just shrug it off and head back to Em’s house. Wish I could say we didn’t just walk away.
But we did, blaming our beer-addled minds.
The next day, while grabbing breakfast in town, we heard rumblings about how Don Brieton had gone off at the bar that night, rambling about taking that water back to his farm mouthful by mouthful if he had to. Heard from his brother that he didn’t come home and must be sleeping it off somewhere.
I exchanged a glance with Em, knowing we were both thinking about the whispers, wondering if they weren’t calling for “dawn” after all, but for Don.
The O’Neill’s corn grew healthier than ever, but the town was dying. The Johnsons disappeared one day, leaving their dirty dishes to rot in the sink and their wilted crops to bake in the sun. Nobody could blame them. Figured they moved out east, where Mrs. Johnson’s family had some cattle ranches. The Johnsons’ sudden departure didn’t surprise us much—Mr. Johnson hadn’t been quiet about how fed up he was—but the Flores departure had everyone a little worried. Their family held that farm for near a hundred years. They’d never just leave like that. We should have known then that something was wrong.
We thought we’d heard a splash that night, and we were right. Fears were confirmed when I was helping Em till the fields near the lake when we heard Mr. O’Neill shouting Nana Jan’s name, saw him chasing her through the field. Then, we turned off our tractor and heard those whispers. They grew louder, sounding hungry almost as the old woman approached the lake. Mr. O’Neill yelled for her to stop. Em and I were closer, so we jumped off the tractor and sprinted towards Nana Jan, shouting the whole way.
We weren’t fast enough. She made it to the water’s edge before any of us could grab her, and when she did, the wave appeared. A wave with claws. A wave with fingers. A big fucking giant hand of water reached out to the entranced woman and pulled her under.
A blink of an eye. That’s all it took for the lake to eat Em’s grandmother alive.
I remember screaming, sobbing, and seeing Em run towards that water before her daddy swooped her up in his arms and carried her the other way.
“Don’t you dare, Em,” he said.
“But she’s drowning!”
“She ain’t drowning.” We looked out at the water, still as if nothing larger than a fly had touched her lips. “She’s dead already.”
It didn’t take long after that for Mr. O’Neill to start constructing a fence around the lake. The local authorities searched and found nothing, so the townsfolk didn’t believe him when he said Nana Jan had drowned in there.
Instead, people grew more angry with the O’Neills. Accusing them of running families out of town with their greed and using tragedy to close off access to Lord Jesus Lake Lazarus. The town had really taken to Pastor Wilkins and his evangelization of that damned body of water.
I stopped my duties of helping Em tend to the crops, instead acting like a full-time security guard, turning away people trying to get to the water, trying in earnest to keep out those enthralled by the whispers.
I was successful on the first front, cocking Mr. O’Neill’s shotgun in the faces of trespassers. But the threat of death wasn’t enough to discourage people once the lake started whispering their names. We lost Pastor Wilkins before the fence was up, but we were the only ones who saw it. The town mourned his sudden disappearance, wondering if God had better plans for the man who had tried to sanctify the lake.
The next day, some people saw it for themselves when Mayor Adams was swallowed up. In the middle of a meeting, the lake beckoned for him, and Mayor Adams stopped talking, stood up, and started walking straight to the farm. People saw him walking towards the farm in a trance with his colleagues chasing behind him and followed to see what the fuss was all about. They watched that watery hand reach up and grab him when he got close enough. No one was brave enough to search for his body.
Em and I had been huddled up in her room, wondering what the hell we were supposed to do about this hungry body of water. The whispers stopped our conversation dead. We heard the front door open.
This time, the lake was calling her daddy’s name and Lord help us if we didn’t bolt immediately, chasing him, calling out for him louder than the lake could muster.
Em ran, sobbing. Her daddy walked right up to that chain-link fence and started tearing at the metal. I reached out to grab him but his elbow shot up, cracking my nose open.
Em pleaded with him as I cradled my face. Like the others, he didn’t hear, only forced his way through the broken, sharp edges of the fence. Wires scraped rows into his arms and face. If I close my eyes tight, I can still recall those chunks of flesh dangling from the edges like wings on a dead moth, a steady stream of blood dripping from his shredded fingers.
“Daddy, please! No!” Em screamed. In desperation, she grabbed the shotgun strapped to my back. I didn’t even get a chance to tell her not to before she filled her daddy’s legs with buckshot.
I knew Mr. O’Neill was lost when that didn’t even cause him to falter.
The hand reached out and swallowed him whole.
Mr. O’Neill was the last person the lake took. Though it took a piece of Em that day, too.
Once he was gone, the crop closest to the lake wilted and died.
Em and I were packed, finally ready to leave town and put the lake and the fucking awful memories to our backs. There’d be no family, no farm, no legacy of corn and crops and dust and misery for us there.
My eyes lingered on the gap in the fence where Mr. O’Neill had nearly gutted himself getting through so he could die on the other side.
I felt a breeze on my cheeks, blinked once, and looked over at Em. She looked back to me, an empty sadness in her eyes and no words left on her tongue.
The lake was done, I suppose. That lake, offering a gift to a town that couldn’t take it fast enough.
I turned to look at the lake one last time, but it was gone.
Nothing but flattened crop, dry as my goddamned throat in the arid wind.