The Drowned Man

This is a story from ‘Doorways to the Unseen: 6 Tales of Terror and Suspense’ book

“You made out with Joshua Barger? That is so gross. Please tell me you didn’t do that.” April sat in the front passenger seat, scrutinizing her friend Jessica as the two girls drove down a roadway devoid of other vehicles through densely forested areas on either side of them.

Jessica kept her eyes on the road as she steered, smiling slyly, arching her chin upward, and said, “He’s really cute once you get to know him. Not at all like what people have said about him. But it was only one time anyway. I wouldn’t say that it ‘counted.’” Jessica continued to smile—this time with a wide grin breaking out over her plush, full-lipped mouth—while April looked away from her and out the car window, watching the bright midday sun shine over the tops of the soaring coniferous pine trees as they sped past. They were now close to Jessica’s parents’ summer home, which the two would have all to themselves for several weeks.

Jessica’s black Labrador retriever, Marcus, sat up in the back seat from his nap and began to force his snout into April’s face, nuzzling and poking her as he panted. April pushed him away. “You should keep Marcus outside as long as it’s not raining. He hasn’t kept his nose off me since we started the drive this morning. My only reprieve was his nap time that must have just ended. Marcus!” April pushed Marcus away from her face again. Marcus began to whine and pant more intensely, as he knew they were nearing the trio’s destination; he then turned around and resumed his earlier prone position across the back seat.

Jessica held a paper-thin smile on her face but didn’t respond to April. She remarked to herself that April had always been oversensitive about nearly everything: school, boys, her parents, food, things that were “gross.” It was truly amazing that the girl had made it to eighteen intact. Jessica glanced over, observing April adjusting her glasses and then shifting around in the front passenger seat, unbuckling and then rebuckling her seat belt. Jessica and April’s friendship had begun in middle school and then continued on into their high school years. Even though they were an unlikely pair, the girls had remained close friends, one maturing and the other staying largely the same.

Jessica had competed on the varsity swim team at their high school and continued to swim in college, developing a lithe, athletic build due to all those years of continual exertion. April was the wallflower of the duo and was working toward a degree in English literature at their university, hoping to be a teacher upon graduation. Jessica possessed an almost classic beauty, with long, light brown hair that extended over her broad shoulders, and luminous blue eyes. April appeared remarkably similar in this respect, having hair and eye colors that almost matched Jessica’s, but in contrast she was frozen in a kind of permanent physical adolescence. She was very thin, and her body was nearly curveless, having grown in height during high school but otherwise appearing mostly undeveloped.

Jessica saw the unmarked entrance to the gravel road that intersected the two-lane highway and began to slow their vehicle to a crawl. Her parents’ summer home was at the end of a very long, winding path that was just wide enough for a single mid-sized truck and would accommodate no other traffic. After driving deliberately down the flinty road and then climbing the small hill near its low apex, Jessica stopped their car to unlock the waist-high rusted-iron gates blocking would-be intruders from parking on the property. Jessica then pulled the maroon compact car to a second stop by the tool shed in the unenclosed yard and shut off the engine.

As soon as Jessica opened one of the car’s back doors, Marcus bolted out and started racing in circles around the two girls, the moment for which he had been waiting all day. Bounding around the lawn in the back and in the front of the lakefront house, Marcus then sat down facing the house near the red cedar wooden dock that extended about ten feet from the sandy shore into the pristine lake. He became very quiet, his pent-up energy now somewhat spent. Marcus tilted his head and just stared at the vacant house, making no sound, his sudden stillness mirroring that of the lake’s waters.

“We’ve spent every summer at Lake Ultio for five years in a row, and it’s always tranquil.” Jessica stood next to the parked car and looked out over the circular lake’s sun-spattered surface with its clear, cerulean waters as the early afternoon sunlight reflected on it. “There are neighbors on the other side of the lake, but there are some thick woods between us and their cottages. We have so much privacy here that I hate to ever have to leave it.”

April, who was carrying two of her bags from the car trunk, asked, “If the neighbors want to visit, how do they stop by? Or don’t they ever come to see you and your family?”

Jessica reached into the tightly packed trunk of the car and grabbed a plastic cooler by the handles. “They have to take a rowboat from the other side and park it at our dock, but neighbors don’t really pay us many social calls—at least not as many as they did in past summers. Those cottages are rental units, so their summer residents are different almost every time. I can’t tell you who might be living over there this tourist season.”

Jessica continued to lug her cooler as she spoke to April. “I’ve only ever stayed here with my parents and brother, and we’ve never brought company. This is my first time flying solo. We used to rent one of the tiny cabins on the other side of the lake until we bought this house.”

Jessica walked toward the house’s cement side porch with the bulky cooler and placed it on the ground near the porch’s metal railings. The one-story ranch-style house was of simple design and construction, with white aluminum siding and a red shingled roof, but it was well maintained and could easily fit into any suburban neighborhood.

“I used to sleep in what will be your room this time around, with Marcus at the foot of the bed. He would wake me up with his whining and growling in the dead of night—I’d have to throw him outside just to get some rest. Marcus never seemed to like this place. He’s more of a water dog than a guard dog. If there is an intruder, we’ll probably have to fend for ourselves.”

Jessica sighed a bit at the thought of keeping Marcus in her room at night if they were hit with a bout of rainfall and he couldn’t be allowed to roam free. She scanned the somewhat overgrown front lawn leading to the dock for Marcus, before stepping inside through the house’s side door that abutted the porch. The dog had not budged at all and had made no attempt to enter with them, persisting at his spot by the dock, his sight locked on the house.

 

April sat down next to Jessica at the kitchen table after they had finished filling the refrigerator from the cooler and stocking the pantry shelves from a few cardboard boxes that had been taped shut for the trip. Jessica had been talking at length while they stowed away their supplies and continued with the story that she had begun while unpacking. “So Richard and I went to Times Square for New Year’s Eve. We saw a live show at Radio City Music Hall, and then we wanted to grab something to eat on the way back to the hotel. There was a Burger Mecca just a block from where we were staying, so we walked in and got in line to order dinner.

“Ahead of us was a customer arguing with the Burger Mecca employees who were behind the counter. He was waving his arms and shouting, demanding a refund for his meal but not getting anywhere with his request.

“With no warning at all—no one could have seen this coming, as the Burger Mecca workers hadn’t even raised their voices to the customer during all this—two of the female crew members jumped over the counter and just started wailing on him. I mean, they were punching and kicking, and he was just taking it.” Jessica hunched her shoulders and leaned in toward April from her chair, with a gleeful expression on her face.

“The man broke free from their assault, and they ran outside after him, pushed him to the ground, and there he was, getting his a*s kicked in the snow.” Jessica smirked while remembering the beating. “We decided to order room service instead.”

“That’s a terrible story. You have a mean streak, Jess.”

Jessica smiled broadly. “I know. But you were always the good one, if not a little neurotic. A favorite of the holy sisters at St. Adjutor’s. I never had the disposition for pious observation.”

Jessica got up from her chair and said, “Time for me to hit the road. I’ll join you next week after I go white water rafting with my brother and his friends. Then we can spend the rest of the month here relaxing before our internship starts. You can catch up on some reading during your alone time, like you wanted to.”

April tried to seem pleasant. “Anna Karenina is tempting. I might be able to finish that in a week.”

April watched out the side door window as Jessica drove off with Marcus in the back seat, leaving her by herself in an unfamiliar house. It was late afternoon, so April decided there was enough daylight remaining to take a boat ride around the lake and see the other side with the rental cabins.

The latter part of the day had become windy, and April let the strong breeze wash over her while standing at the edge of the dock. She noticed a metal rowboat on cinder blocks placed next to a nearby tree, its inverted hull pointing up. The rowboat had been painted aquamarine and looked spacious enough for two or three occupants. April was able to find the oars in the shed behind the house and then returned to the shore, pushing the rowboat out into the water and stepping into the boat as it drifted past the dock.

She rowed fastidiously and made good time across the center of the lake and then coasted along the tree line near the opposite shore to rest from her endeavor. The boat glided by the rental cottages—six unadorned units, all within several yards of each other.

April saw a stout middle-aged man moving among the cottages. He was wearing a canvas teal fishing hat and carrying tin buckets that he then placed at the shore near the red cedar wooden dock shared by the cabins.

The man had been watching April’s boat askance as he laid down his burden. “Hello there, are you staying at the Snyder place across the way? The place has been empty since last summer.”

April sat up in her bench seat and responded, “Yes, but we’ll only be here for about a month. Do you know Jessica Snyder?”

The man shielded his eyes with a hand as he conversed with April. “Is that the daughter? I know that she stays with her parents each summer, but I’ve only talked to them, not her. Did know the previous owner, though.”

April’s boat came very close to the rental cabin dock and then halted its drift forward in the shallow water by the shore. The afternoon winds had died down and no longer disturbed the lake. The man continued speaking. “Name’s Bill Patterson, miss. You are…?”

“April. Jessica and I are friends from school.” April rested her hands across the boat’s oar handles as the two spoke.

“The last owner was a big-time lawyer from somewhere out west,” the man said. “Came up here for his vacations. I’ve been renting the same cabin here every year during perch season since there have been houses on the lake.”

Mr. Patterson took off his fishing hat and put one hand on his waist, holding the hat above his knee with the other hand. “Watched them build that house on the other side, the one that belongs to the Snyders now.” He gestured with the hat in his free hand at the direction of the solitary dwelling across the waters.

The orange glow of the day’s last rays before sunset began to shimmer over the aquatic-plant-filled shoal between Mr. Patterson and April, signaling the need to end their conversation and row back to the lake house. But April had become curious about the owner before Jessica’s family, so she continued. “Why did the first owner sell the house? Did he find somewhere else to take a break from his law practice or was it for some other reason? Just wondering.”

“No, ma’am, Mr. Tinsley is passed away. He drowned in this very lake.”

April was taken aback and now felt very uncomfortable returning to the unoccupied house by herself after hearing of the preceding owner’s fate. Why hadn’t Jessica mentioned this to her before she agreed to spend part of the summer at the house?

“I’m sorry to hear that. How did it happen? Wasn’t anyone around to help him if he was swimming in the lake?”

“I warned Charles about taking a dip at night—he had a weak heart—but he may have done it on purpose too. No one knows for sure. Happened five years ago this summer.” Mr. Patterson was noticeably upset but went on with his local anecdote.

“Don’t know why he would have gone swimming at night, but the sheriff’s deputies found his body on the lake floor, buried under layers of sediment. Lake Ultio is thick with freshwater plants, especially in the middle where it’s deepest. They had to drag the bottom and haul him up with chains around his hands and feet. I saw the whole thing happen and what the corpse looked like after it was recovered.

“The Snyders had just bought the place from Mr. Tinsley, and he was getting ready to move out permanently the next day. They were staying at a hotel in town when it happened.”

April looked away from Mr. Patterson and over the horizon, noting how little daylight was left. Even if the idea of being alone in a house with a checkered past didn’t appeal to her, she didn’t want to be out on the lake at night, either. “Jessica never mentioned any of this to me. She only said that her family has stayed at the house every summer, starting five years ago.”

“They did. They moved in for a while after the death was declared an accident. Then they came back the next summer as if nothing had happened.” Mr. Patterson replaced his fishing cap on his head and gave April a weary look.

“Good to meet you, Mr. Patterson, but I have to get back to the house. It’s been a long day.”

“Good to meet you too. I’ll be out fishing all day tomorrow.” Mr. Patterson extended his open right palm at April as a farewell and then stepped inside his unassuming abode for the evening.

 

April turned down the sheets on her bed and fluffed the pillows, flipping off the switch of the lamp on the nightstand as she lay at her side on the mattress. A dog-eared bookstore copy of Anna Karenina was close at hand next to the lamp, the evening’s reading that had helped April unwind and ease her nerves after the day’s disquieting revelation.

The dim radiance from the plastic night light plugged into a power outlet near the bed contrasted sharply with the total blackness that poured in from her bedroom window. A waning moon was barely visible over the peaks of the pine trees, and the kind of absolute lightless night only found in the deep countryside permeated the room, obscuring everything beyond the bedposts.

April drifted into a fitful sleep but after some time was able to find her first dream. She was out in the middle of the lake at night, sitting in the rowboat from her visit to Mr. Patterson. There was nothing discernible around her except the proximate murky lake waters and the perimeter of the boat, with all else being a yawning void. April looked down at her sandals and saw that brackish water had begun seeping into the boat from a hole in its floor. The boat was beginning to sink steadily.

While watching as the water filled the boat’s interior, April stood and then dove into the lake head first in proper swim form. April hit the water with a splash and then attempted to paddle forward into the nothingness, but her partially submerged body was held in place by an unseen force. It was as if she was being pulled down into the lake by invisible attendants, grasping at her clothes and holding her legs tightly as she was dragged downward into the tangled mass of underwater flora. April struggled and attempted to tread water, but the lake was able to engulf her, her head abruptly disappearing beneath its surface.

She had inhaled and taken an emergency breath before she went under, but April’s supply of oxygen was soon exhausted. She was hyperventilating and convulsing as her lungs filled with lake water, her nostrils burning from the unwanted intrusion.

April’s vision grew dim as she ceased fighting, and she involuntarily choked up on the fouled water, but she was still able to make out a figure that was under the lake’s waves with her, floating above her close to the surface…

April lurched forward in bed and gasped for air. She leaned onto her knees and consciously breathed until her breath had become somewhat even and normal again. Even so, she was inundated with a feeling of overwhelming sadness and loss that seemed to derive from nowhere. The nightmare had been so vivid; she had never dreamed of death by drowning before tonight.

A man stood at the foot of her bed and stared at April, bloated and saturated with lake water. He had clearly been underwater for some time, as he had aquatic plant debris in his dripping wet, matted hair, and his saucer-like eyes bulged horrifically. The man stood silently and said nothing, not making any motion at all but continued to gaze at April as she sat covered by her blanket.

Not sure if what she was seeing was more of the drowning nightmare, April crept out from under her blanket and onto the bedroom floor, reaching into the nightstand drawer for the crucifix that had been left by Jessica’s mother. She knelt at the side of the bed and said the first Our Father, periodically glancing at the unmoving phantom.

“Our Father, Who is in heaven,
Holy is Your Name;
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. Amen.”

April continued praying a second Our Father followed by a third and then a fourth. The fourth Our Father provoked a reaction in the drowned man, as he took one step back from the foot of the bed and also become less defined, melding into the bedroom’s outer darkness.

April watched him as she recited the next prayer, pressing the top of the crucifix to her chin. The specter retreated from her bed yet again as she prayed, and she could now see that the man’s distended hands folded in front of him at his waist were chained together at the wrists.

April lowered her head and continued to pray, observing that each subsequent prayer would cause the apparition to step farther back and become increasingly faint. The Our Fathers continued until April could no longer see the dreadful figure in her bedroom. This was definitely no longer a nightmare, as April was sure that she was wide awake and could sense her heart thumping at breakneck speed as she uttered the words to the final prayer.

Barefoot and wearing only the soccer shorts and plain white T-shirt in which she had slept, she stumbled past the foot of the bed and dashed outside through the front door of the house. Breathing hard, April was about to flee down the path to the highway when she heard Jessica’s voice call out for help. “Someone…I can’t make it! I’m going under!”

She looked out over the lake shrouded in the nighttime sky and could see Jessica in the distance, flailing and attempting to keep her head above water. A slight man of about forty years old with horn-rimmed glasses suddenly ran up to April’s side, oblivious to her presence, even though she was only a few feet away from him.

The man called out to Jessica, “What are you doing? Swim to the dock, and I will pull you to shore!”

“I can’t. My leg is cramping, and I’m sinking. Get the sheriff…please!”

“We don’t have time. I will swim out to you.”

The man turned around and ran toward the shed. As he moved, April could see that he was almost translucent. He then passed April again, holding a flotation vest. The man removed his sweatshirt and waded into the dark waters of the lake.

He swam clumsily toward Jessica, the life vest strung around his neck, but she was far from the shore, and his progress was slow. The man paused his strokes to breathe and then asked while he tread water, “Why are you out here?”

“I’m a star swimmer…thought I would be fine…but I can’t move my leg. Hurry!”

The man resumed his efforts and reached Jessica, passing her the flotation vest. Jessica donned the vest and began to push herself through the water with her arms, back to land. The man did not move as she swam away but instead began to struggle to stay above the shallow waves washing over him.

He called out to her, “I’m having an attack. Jessica, come back for me! I can’t make it without you.” Jessica stopped and floated in place for a moment, facing the man.

Without a word, Jessica turned around and continued to swim back to the shore, overcome by her fear of drowning in the lake. As Jessica came within reach of the shoreline, the man’s head went under the lake’s waters once and then resurfaced, gasping for air, and then went under for a final time, sinking out of view entirely.

The vision ended as the early morning sun rose over the lake’s tree line, bathing April in the light of dawn. She staggered back inside the house and collapsed on the living room couch, losing consciousness instantly.

 

“Did anything exciting happen while I was gone? Any of the local boys come looking for me, I hope?”

April met Jessica at the side door after watching her park her car near the shed as she had done before. Jessica was tanned from her outdoor excursion with her brother and seemed to be in high spirits.

“Jess, let’s just go home. We can relax there—catch some movies, go shopping. It will be fun.” April almost wanted to reveal her ordeal to Jessica but knew that she would be seen as delusional. Who could believe such a thing?

Jessica was adamant. “No, no way! We are staying put. I haven’t had any quiet time since last summer, and I want to be rested for our internship. My parents and your parents are at home, remember?”

April smiled weakly. She vowed that she would never set foot in the lake house again after this summer.

“Where’s Marcus?”

April looked behind Jessica for the rambunctious canine and then outside past the open door, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“I left him with my brother. We’ll be fine. Marcus is sort of a pain, remember?”

“The house will be quiet without that dog. I’m going to get back to my novel if you have everything unpacked.”

“Suit yourself. I’m going for a swim. Be back in a few.”

Jessica walked past April with a carrying case and then minutes later came back out into the living room in a one-piece bathing suit. She was headed out of the front door for the sunny waters of the lake, a perfect day for a swim.

April looked around the corner into the hall that ran in front of the house’s three bedrooms and the single bathroom. “Hey, why did you put your bag in my room? You can have a whole bed to yourself, you know.”

Jessica stopped at the threshold of the front door and turned around to answer April. “I’m going to stay in your room instead, which is actually my room, anyway. I like the view of the lake better. You only have one bag, so just move it to one of the other bedrooms.”

Jessica arched one eyebrow as she continued, “But what’s with the crucifix above my bed? That’s my mom’s. Are you entering a convent? You just need a date, girlie, that’s all.”

April walked toward Jessica and furrowed her brow above her clunky glasses. “I feel safer with it over the bed. It’s really a beautiful, hand-carved piece too. Leave it up, please, Jess.”

“I was worried for a minute that you had swallowed all that hocus pocus. I’ll leave it up…I promise.”

Jessica stepped inside the front door several hours later with a towel wrapped around her waist.

“I’m going to change, and then we can play a board game. I know which one is your favorite,” Jessica said, grinning. “The Monopoly box is in the linen closet, on the top shelf.”

Jessica and April put the game box away after sundown and decided to go to sleep early. Jessica looked out of the large front picturesque window from the kitchen at the calm waters, which were barely touched by the faint moonlight.

“April, there is something I didn’t tell you about this place…this house that we bought five years ago.”

April was yawning but then became expectant, hoping to hear a confession from Jessica. “Yes? Is it important? I’m really tired and just want to get some sleep.”

Jessica sighed and then gave her friend a genuine smile. “All right, I will tell you in the morning. Nighty, night. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

April moved her bag with her clothing and toiletries from Jessica’s room and closed the door to the bedroom farthest down the hallway as she retired for the night. Jessica sat at the side edge of her bed with only the nightstand lamplight illuminating the open drawer in front of her. She stared at the crucifix she was holding in both hands, running a finger over its depiction of the Christ figure. Jessica put the crucifix in the back of the nightstand drawer and closed it, shutting off the lamplight. She decided that she would tell April about Charles Tinsley first thing the next morning.

 

April woke to a still house. She rolled over in bed and peeked at the clock on the nightstand. The digital display said 9:27 a.m. Jessica had not knocked on her bedroom door yet for breakfast, so April went into the kitchen and poured a bowl of cereal and milk.

“Jess? Come and get some breakfast. It will be lunch soon if you don’t get up. Really. Jess?”

April went down the hallway from the kitchen and knocked on Jessica’s bedroom door. No answer. She knocked again. “Jess? I’m coming in. I hope you are decent.”

The shag carpet was drenched, and April’s bare feet sank into the soaked fibers with her first steps into the bedroom. Jessica’s body was sprawled over her mattress, the sightless eyes and slack mouth of her pallid, distorted face gaping up at the bedroom ceiling. Lake water ran in rivulets from her icy corpse over the bed sheets, dripping onto the floor around the bed that was littered with dead lake plants.

April gagged from the overpowering fetid smell of the drowned that permeated the room and wafted over her. She covered her mouth as she began to reflexively vomit, running from the bedroom tomb to escape its stench and the ghastly sight that lay on the bed before her. As she fled, April was able to glimpse that Jessica’s right hand was clutching the nightstand crucifix.