I peered over the edge of the cliffs, squinting to glimpse the water below. The full moon cast just enough light that the lake shimmered, the surface smooth as glass and black as tar. Leaping off the rocky cliff and plummeting fifty feet before plunging into icy water held no appeal to me right now. I’d done it before, dozens of times even. Caswall Lake was a regular summer hangout for my friends and me. But tonight the lake felt unfamiliar, foreign even. While I couldn’t see the branches and roots protruding from the rock face, I knew they were there. Not to mention the ghost stories and urban legends associated with the lake, the ones about dead bodies trapped below the murky surface. In the light of day it was easy to ignore the tales, but in the darkness images of pale corpses haunted my thoughts.
“Stop stalling, Eel!” Devon Holloway, my best friend, prompted, before taking a swig from her beer. She winked one blue eye over the top of the can.
Devon’s boyfriend, Rick Hanes, chimed in next. “What’s wrong, Eel? You scared? I thought nothing fazed the great Endora Lee Andrews.”
Rick was one of my least favorite people, so his unwelcome teasing irked me more than it should have.
“I’m not scared,” I retorted defensively, turning away from the edge to glare at Rick.
Devon’s jerk boyfriend downed the rest of his PBR, crushed the can, and belched loudly. “Then what are you waiting for?”
I silently cursed Devon and the two others ― Elizabeth Bowers and Mandy Cowen ― for planning this surprise birthday celebration. First the trio burst into my bedroom, then blindfolded me, dragged me to the backseat of Devon’s ancient Chevy, and finally brought me here to Caswall Lake. A group of our friends were waiting in the woods with a roaring bonfire and plenty of cheap beer and fruity wine coolers.
Thankfully, Devon had thought at least to grab my bathing suit while Elizabeth and Mandy hauled me from beneath my comforter and stole the tub of mint chocolate chip that I’d been enjoying. So at least I wasn’t standing in front of thirty of my close friends wearing unmentionables ― that would have been humiliating.
Elizabeth stepped forward, stumbling drunkenly as she made her way to where I stood shivering in the green two-piece. “You only live once, Eel,” she slurred, wrapping a thin arm around my waist. Her long blonde ponytail smacked me in the face when she whipped her head around to look at me. “If it makes you feel better, we can jump together.”
As nice as the offer was, I doubted Elizabeth’s inebriated state would provide her with the wherewithal to jump out far enough to clear the obstacles on the way down.
“You should probably stay here, Liz,” I told my friend kindly.
“We didn’t climb all the way up here to watch you stand on that ledge,” Cooper Byrd, a good-looking junior called. He came to stand with Liz and me, slinging his arm around Liz’s shoulders to support her. She was unsteady and close to sending both of us tumbling over the edge. “Besides, you’re an adult now ― man up!”
Unlike Rick, Cooper’s teasing was good-natured; the soccer player didn’t have a mean bone in his lean body. And he was right. My friends had gone to the trouble of planning this celebration. Of course, diving off of a cliff hadn’t been on the original itinerary. Booze, music, watching the guys spit high-proof liquor into the bonfire, maybe a little swimming ― that had been the plan. At least until some guy I didn’t even know got it in his head that making the leap was somehow equivalent to declaring my independence. His brilliant idea spread like wildfire, and now here I was about to take the icy plunge.
“Jump, jump, jump,” Cooper began chanting. Someone else started a slow clap that made me feel as though I was about to take the game-winning foul shot in a feel-good sports movie.
“You don’t have to do this if you do want to, Eel,” Mandy spoke up tentatively, her words barely audible over the others.
I gave my friend a small smile, silently thanking her for her support. For Mandy, defying our peers was a big step. She usually tried to go with the flow, never disturbing the status quo.
“Jump! Jump! Jump!” The refrain picked up speed, growing more insistent until the words blended together in an indecipherable jumble.
I sighed, resigned to my fate. Now or never, I told myself. To the expectant crowd, I called, “Okay guys, back up so I can get a running start!”
My proclamation was met with whoops and cheers from my friends and I laughed despite my growing trepidation. I walked ten feet back from the ledge, stomach queasy and head spinning.
Calm down, this is no big deal, I lectured myself. The worst things down there are probably lost bikini tops and stray sneakers.
“EEL! EEL! EEL!” The crowd chanted my nickname over and over again.
With one last deep breath, I went for it. Pebbles and dirt clung to my bare feet and my heart hammered against my ribcage as I ran towards the edge. When only six inches separated solid ground from empty air, I leapt, pushing off with all the strength I could muster. The free fall was exhilarating, like the Tower of Doom at the Westwood County Carnival. Wind whipped my auburn hair across my face, an involuntary scream of thrill and fear tore from my throat. I bicycle-kicked my legs, anticipating the moment they would break the water’s surface. My friends’ cheers were drowned out by the air whooshing in my ears as my body dropped like a rock.
Much too soon the ride was over. First my feet hit the cold water, followed by my legs and stomach before my head finally dipped below the surface, abruptly cutting off the scream still coming from my lips. Water washed over my taste buds, a disgusting flavor of copper and fish, and I gagged reflexively. A slimy vine slid over my right foot as I kicked for the surface. Not a dead body, not a dead body, I chanted inside my head.
I kicked harder, suddenly desperate to get out of the water. The vine traveled up to my ankle and wrapped around my lower leg. It felt like fingers were digging into my flesh as it squeezed my calf muscle.
I started to panic. Air, I need air. Surface, must get to the surface, I thought. Fear made me irrational and I struggled against the hindrance that not only prevented me from swimming upwards, but was now actively pulling me down.
Think, Endora, I ordered myself. Don’t lose it now.
I dove down and clawed at the impediment encircling my leg. The vine was silky, smooth, and impossible to tear. The pressure on my calf increased at the same time a second vine coiled around my other leg. In the next instant, something that felt like long, bony fingers intertwined with mine in a perverse imitation of lovers holding hands. I twisted my wrists, trying to wrench my hands free. Blood roared in my ears as my heartbeat kicked into overdrive.
It’s your imagination, I told myself.
I opened my eyes, praying I’d find myself tangled in a fisherman’s net or something equally benign. Cold water stung my eyeballs, immediately making me regret the decision. The water was dark, murky with limited visibility. Lack of oxygen must have made me hallucinate, because I swore that eyes, shiny and black like polished pebbles, stared directly into mine. The eyes were set deep in a face so white that it emitted an ethereal glow, illuminating the mass of blue-black braids sprouting from the creature’s head. Those braids flowed all around me with a life of their own, slithering through the water to coil around my legs and arms.
The scream I let loose came out garbled, air bubbles floated in the space between my face and the hideously beautiful creature. More of that awful tasting water filled my mouth.
No, no, no, this can’t be happening, I thought with increasing terror. This is not real. I closed my eyes, started counting to ten, and prayed the imaginary attacker would be gone when I opened them. Three. I was on three when those slimy fingers released mine, moved to my throat and began to squeeze my windpipe.
My chest burned and my head was fuzzy. The little air that remained in my lungs was quickly running out, but now that the creature was actively squeezing the life out of me, it hardly mattered. I tried to dig my nails into the fingers around my throat but the creature’s skin was rubbery and my nails couldn’t grasp hold. My attempts were feeble at best.
Terrified by the hallucination and frustrated by my inability to save my own life, I began to thrash about wildly. A sharp pain in the sole of my left foot temporarily cleared the cobwebs in my head and I doubled my efforts to break free. My chest ached with the need for air, and my limbs were heavy, as if the blood had turned to lead in my veins.
I threw my head back, craning my neck in a last ditch attempt to sever my attacker’s hold. A sharp point pierced the base of my skull. Stars exploded behind my closed lids. A melodic male voice whispered in my ear, “Welcome back.” Then blackness consumed me and I felt nothing.
Devon once told me that drowning was an excruciating way to die ― she’s a wealth of useless knowledge. It wasn’t, though. Floating, weightlessness. That was what drowning felt like.
Tingling started around my midsection and the back of my knees. At first, the sensation was pleasant. But as feeling and awareness returned, it felt like barbed wire was wrapped around my stomach and legs, each barb pricking my skin over and over again. A strange buzzing noise, like the hum of an old radiator, filled my ears.
I struggled weakly, and the wires tightened.
“You’re safe,” a voice assured me.
All concepts of space and time ceased to exist. One minute the pins-and-needles feeling was all consuming. The next it was gone, replaced by a coldness that seemed to seep through my pores and settle in my bones. I trembled uncontrollably. The shaking was so violent that my teeth clanged together. I tried to speak, but my lips were too numb to form words.
“This should help,” the voice said.
Soft fabric was draped over me, forming a protective barrier between the chilly air and my exposed skin. The scent of Old Spice filled my nostrils, triggering memories of my father, who used to wear that brand of aftershave. Tears prickled behind my eyes. My father, I hadn’t talked to him today. I always talked to him on my birthday.
“Shh, you are going to be okay, Endora,” the voice soothed.
Strong arms lifted me, one under my shoulders and one under my knees. My cheek pressed against something hard and wet and the piney Old Spice smell intensified. I inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent and thinking about how my father used to carry me to bed after I’d fallen asleep on the living room couch.
The sudden influx of air was too much for my oxygen deprived organs. I began to cough, my stomach roiled, and my mouth began to water in that way it does right before you throw up.
“I’m gonna be sick,” I croaked through chattering teeth.
Hastily, the person holding me set me down on my side. Cold fingers brushed my skin as they gathered clumps of wet hair clinging to my face while lake water spewed from my mouth. Some part of me thought I should be embarrassed, but that part was overshadowed by the jolt of pain that shot through my right cheek. In the next instant, the fingers released my hair, and their owner emitted an audible gasp.
“Sorry,” the voice mumbled. Tentatively the person once again pulled the hair back from my face, this time careful to avoid skin-to-skin contact.
Even after all the water was out, my stomach continued to cramp uncomfortably and I continued to dry heave. Despite the cold, sweat beaded along my hairline and under my arms. The grass was cool and wet and I pressed my cheek against the blades, relishing in the refreshing feel of it. Pounding started at the base of my skull; it felt like someone was hammering my head from the inside. I moaned, immediately wishing I hadn’t when the pounding became louder and harder.
“You’re safe now, we just need to get you some dry clothes,” my savior said.
The situation was becoming clear. This person holding my hair, promising me that I was safe, had pulled me from the water. He’d saved my life. I hadn’t drowned at all.
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and then rolled onto my back to glimpse the person I was forever indebted to. Opening my eyelids felt like ripping off a scab. The ordinary act was extraordinarily painful, and I only managed small slits as I peered up into the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. Two blurry, green irises returned my gaze. I blinked several more times to bring them into focus. The eyes were gorgeous, brilliant emerald lights in the darkness.
“Do you know your name?”
I nodded, too embarrassed to speak. My rescuer, who’d just witnessed me emptying the contents of my stomach on the grass, was a boy about my own age. Not even my mother had seen me this vulnerable, not since I was old enough to use the bathroom by myself, anyhow.
“What is it?” he prompted, refusing to let me off that easy.
“Eel,” I whispered. My throat was raw, swollen and the single word was painful on my vocal chords. The creature in the water that tried to drown me, tried to strangle me, came flooding back in one sharp burst of memory. I shuddered. The experience felt so real. In my mind’s eye, I could see the dark eyes staring into mine, feel the bony fingers around my throat.
“Eel?” The boy said my name like a question, like maybe he hadn’t heard me correctly. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I snapped, edgy from the memory of the lake monster. “Eel’s a nickname, though,” I explained in a softer tone.
As a baby, my father had christened me Eel ― like electric eel ― after the mobile that hung above my crib mysteriously stopped working every night. Each morning, without fail, he replaced the battery. He joked that I singlehandedly kept Energizer in business. The nickname stuck around, even though my father had not.
I tried to sit up, but the effort was painful and I slumped back to the grass, defeated. The boy wrapped the blanket tighter around my body before placing one hand on the small of my back and the other on my arm, helping me to a sitting position.
“Short for Endora Lee,” he muttered, more to himself than me.
I stared at him curiously. How did he know that? Then I realized it wasn’t the first time he had said my name. He’d called me Endora when he first covered me with the blanket.
“How did you know my name? Have we met?” I asked, an ominous feeling creeping up my spine. I had the sudden urge to get away from him, very far away from him.
“You aren’t bleeding, so that’s a good sign,” he replied, dodging my question as he carefully examined the base of my skull.
He parted wet clumps of my hair until his fingers brushed the swollen goose egg protruding from my head. A crackle of electricity sparked in the air, sending a jolt of pain ricocheting through my body.
“Owwwww!” I exclaimed, as I pulled away from him.
“Sorry,” he muttered, averting his eyes from my face to stare at his hand. “Did that hurt?”
Of course touching the welt hurt, but that wasn’t why I’d pulled away. The literal shock of his skin on my mine, the current of electricity that flowed from his fingertips to my head, had come as a very painful surprise. Judging by the way he was inspecting his hands, he hadn’t expected it either.
We sat in silence, both of us looking everywhere but at each other. Water lapped the grassy bank, tree branches cracked in the distance, crickets chirped all around us. The longer we were alone, the more uncomfortable I felt. The boy gave me the creeps. When I finally did look at him, I couldn’t tear my gaze away. I admired the perfect slope of his straight nose, his golden brown hair dripping water, his full lips, and those intense green eyes. He was a magnet, a beautiful magnet, drawing me to him.
“Endora Lee?” His face was so close to mine that his breath fanned my cheeks, warming the skin.
“What happened in the water?”
“What?” I stuttered, surprised by his question. I rubbed the spot on my neck where the creature had wrapped its slimy hands. The skin radiated heat, a sharp contrast to the cold, clammy skin surrounding it.
“What happened in the water?” he repeated evenly.
Uneasy laughter bubbled up in my throat. There was no way I was discussing my hallucinations in the lake. He would think I was nuts.
At least three separate people called my name. The sound of breaking braches and crunching pebbles was growing closer. Devon was among the searchers, I recognized her voice. The other voices were harder to place, but I was pretty sure I heard Elizabeth and Mandy as well.
“Over here,” I called back.
My voice was hoarse and low and I doubted Devon and the others heard me. The boy and I continued to stare at each other, weigh each other, pass judgment on one another. I was torn. On the one hand I was unusually drawn to him, not romantically attracted so much as physically pulled to him. Even though we were practically touching, I wanted, needed to be closer. At the same time these feelings made me lean towards him, fear made me draw back. Something about him put me on edge, and considering that I had nearly drowned and he’d been the one to save me, it made no sense.
“How do you feel?” he asked, breaking the awkward silence.
“I’ve been better,” I mumbled, “but I’ll live.”
“Yes, you will.” The words were innocuous, the exact response that I would have expected had I given it much thought, but they gave me chills. It was like there was a hidden meaning behind them, one he thought I should be able to infer.
In the distance, Devon and my other friends still called my name, their urgency increasing.
“Endora Lee Andrews!” Devon’s voice was louder, more insistent, than the others.
I thought again about how this boy knew my name. Had we met? I studied his face, searching my memory for one that matched. Nothing. Not even the slightest spark of recognition.
“I’m over here,” I repeated, louder this time. I searched my surroundings for a landmark, since “over here” was pretty vague. All I saw were water and trees.
“By the water, Dev,” I shouted unhelpfully.
I returned my attention to the guy. He was staring at me with such intensity that I felt the need to recoil. But I didn’t. I returned his gaze, losing myself in the depths of his dilated pupils. My fight-or-flight instinct was a nagging voice in the back of my mind demanding that I choose flight. A different, stronger instinct won out ― the desire to be close to him.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Our faces were so close that if either one of us leaned forward we’d bump noses. My breathing was shallow while his was ragged, chest rising and falling in rapid succession.
The footsteps drew closer. “I’ve got her!” Devon shouted.
More trampling of leaves, cracking of branches, and low voices, but I didn’t acknowledge my friends.
“I should go,” the guy said, but he made no move to leave.
“Wait,” I reached for his hand, “you didn’t tell me your name.”
The guy drew his hand back as if the thought of my touch repulsed him. He said nothing and continued to stare into my eyes as if trying to see my soul. We stayed like that, gazes locked, ignoring my friends and the world around us, for what felt like forever. Despite the growing unease in the pit of my stomach, I didn’t want him to leave. I was intrigued, mesmerized, oddly transfixed, and didn’t want the moment to end.
“Eel?” Devon asked tentatively.
I barely heard her, but the sound of my name broke the trance. He quickly stood and backed away from me. Devon rushed forward, followed by Mandy and Elizabeth.
“Are you okay? Oh my god, I was so scared. You didn’t come up right away, and then you didn’t come up at all. But we couldn’t see well, so Rick thought maybe you had and we just missed it.” Devon wrapped her arms around me, hugging me against her chest. I was about to protest since I was soaking wet, but the comfort of a familiar person was too nice to turn down. I returned her hug, clinging to my best friend.
Over her shoulder, I watched my rescuer disappear into the woods. I wondered whether I’d ever see him again.
“Guess I overreacted, huh?” Devon muttered.
“What?” I asked, only half-listening to Devon.
“We thought you’d drowned,” Mandy said. Even in the darkness, I could make out the relief in her hazel eyes.
“No, I didn’t. That kid, the one who was sitting here with me when you showed up, he saved me.”
Devon pulled back and stared at me with confused blue eyes. “Really?” she asked skeptically. “Who is he?” She turned and looked into the dark woods, searching for the boy.
I followed her gaze, but he was gone. “I’m not sure,” I mumbled.
“Have you ever seen him before?” Devon asked.
Even as I shook my head no, I wondered if I had. He clearly knew who I was.
“Was he alone? What’s he doing out here?” Mandy interjected.
Again, I shook my head, unable to come up with an articulate answer.
“Probably the same thing we were doing before Eel ―” Rick started to say, but Cooper silenced him with an elbow to the ribs.
“It doesn’t matter right now,” Devon said. She returned her attention to me, accessing my face for signs of damage. “Are you hurt?”
“I hit my head, but I’m okay.”
Devon looked unconvinced.
“Really, Dev,” I added. “Let’s just get out of here. Where are my clothes?”
“I’ve got them,” Elizabeth supplied. She extended a pair of jeans, a tee shirt, and sneakers in my direction. Apparently, thinking that I’d drowned had a very sobering effect because she was much steadier on her feet than when I’d last seen her.
Devon helped me stand, aided by Rick and Cooper who both hurried to grab my arms when I stumbled. Mandy hung off to the side, nervously twisting a lock of short brown hair around one finger.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, embarrassed by the way everyone was fawning over me.
I took my clothes from Elizabeth, handing her the blanket in return. Between the headache from hell and the audience, I decided it was best to just put on my jeans and tee shirt over the wet bathing suit.
“What do you guys say we take this party back to my house?” Cooper suggested jovially.
After nearly drowning and being rescued by a mysterious stranger, I had no desire to celebrate my birthday any longer. Elizabeth spoke up before I was forced to make up some lame excuse for going home.
“Actually, we need to go back to my house,” she said. “Eel, your mom called.” Elizabeth produced a cell phone from her jeans pocket and waved the lit up display.
Great, I thought, overprotective mother to the rescue. Normally I begrudged her incessant phone calls and text messages, but tonight I was thankful. Since my mother, the Westwood County State’s Attorney, frowned upon breaking into private property, underage drinking and cheap thrills, I had told her that I was going to Elizabeth’s for a quiet night of movies and junk food with the girls. She had still been at the office preparing for a big trial that started the following Monday and hadn’t questioned the lie too closely.
“She said if you don’t call her from my house within the next hour, she will call the cops,” Elizabeth continued. Then, to my dismay, she added, “Anyone interested in late night hot-tubbing is welcome.”
“Party at the Bowers!” Cynthia Zeleski exclaimed in her high-pitched voice that was an assault to the ears on a normal day, but was particularly grating tonight.
Cynthia started into the woods, followed by the majority of the others. Only Devon, Rick, Elizabeth, Cooper, and Mandy remained.
I shoved my hand in the back pocket of my jeans, searching for the jewelry I’d put there for safekeeping. The new watch Devon’s parents gave me for my birthday was still there. But the necklace, the one my father had given me five years earlier, was missing.
“Liz? Where is my necklace?” I asked, trying to keep my tone even.
“Huh?” Now that she knew I hadn’t met a watery death she was back to her bubbly self, laughing loudly at something Cooper was saying.
“My necklace, where is my necklace?”
“Oh, Eel, I’m so sorry. Is it not there? I didn’t feel it drop, but…” Elizabeth’s voice trailed off and all the laughter faded from her expression.
I checked my pockets, all four of them. Nothing. I took a deep, calming breathe. The necklace was probably up on the cliff. All I had to do was take a flashlight and a couple of volunteers and go look for it.
“Let’s go check up there.” I pointed across the lake at the dark mound rising from the water on the far bank.
“Eel, you’re soaked and shivering. You really need to get some dry clothes,” Devon said.
“But ―” I started to protest but she cut me off with a wave of her hand.
“Rick and I will go look. You go to Elizabeth’s and call your mom.”
The necklace was important to me, it was all I had from my father and Devon knew that. She was right though; I was freezing, and needed to call my mother before she sent a search party.
“Go,” Devon insisted. She turned to Mandy and tossed her a set of keys. “Take my car. Don’t wreck it.”