They were almost to the lake. Matt could feel it. Sally turned and smiled at him from just ahead on the trail. He smiled back, though inside he was filled with anxiety. He wasn’t sure why but his stomach was cramped into a knot. He’d been feeling worse and worse as they hiked the whole morning towards this lake a friend of theirs had told them about. He kept finding himself dizzy in a way he had never been while hiking before. He usually enjoyed hiking, camping, backpacking and had been excited for this trip all week. Excited to see a lake he’d never seen before, too hang out and laugh with friends. They’d set up camp, drink beers, swim in the lake. It would be wonderful. And then, maybe later, he and Sally would cuddle next to the fire. Maybe they’d walk down to the shore of the lake, alone while the others stayed by the fire. These thoughts filled him with a warmth that dispelled his anxiety for a few minutes. But then Sally was at the top of a small rise, pointing, shouting, turning, and the anxiety came rushing back. It really was as if he could feel the lake, close, before he even reached the rise and laid eyes on it himself. The lake seemed to be washing him with waves of dread that grew more and more intense as he drew closer to it.
Sally hugged him, drawing him out of his thoughts. "We made it, Matt! Wow it’s as pretty as Sean described!" The sun glimmered off the surface of the lake. The water was clear and blue. Around the lake grew lush green grass and a smattering of aspen trees.
"Wow. Yeah, it is," he agreed. They each stood there for a few moments, an arm around each other, looking at the lake. Then Sally pulled away and began digging in her pack. She soon pulled forth a six-pack of PBR, broke one off and handed it to him, then took one for herself.
She cracked open the beer and raised it toward his. "Cheers!" They both took long draughts of the cold beverages. Dan, Mary, and Rob soon caught up with them and Sally handed them beers as well. The five of them all stood on the small rise, drinking, laughing. Then they started down towards the edge of the lake, eager to be setting up camp, swimming in the cool water. Everything’s fine, Matt told himself. This is going to be a great trip. It already is a great trip. Why does your brain always make things more intense than they need to be? The beer had helped though. He was starting to feel normal again. They got to the lakeside and began setting up tents, just in case a rainstorm blew through unexpectedly. They chose a spot near some trees a little ways up from the lakeside. Matt started on a second beer as he set up his tent, pad, and sleeping bag, and it seemed to help even more.
Rob was sitting in a camp-chair, already done setting his things up. "Anyone else hungry? Should we have lunch now?"
Matt zipped up his tent to keep the bugs out then walked over. "I’m going swimming first, cause it might rain later. Besides, it’s hot!"
Rob nodded agreement. "Okay I’ll join ya."
"Anyone else?" called Matt. He and Rob started down the hill, taking off their shirts as they went.
"Wait for me!" said Sally, and came jumping exaggeratedly down the hill after them. Rob and Matt both burst out laughing. They got to the lakeside and stripped to their underwear.
"Well, I’m going nude!" said Rob. He looked at them both, then deliberately removed his underwear. They all laughed. Matt and Sally exchanged looks, shrugged and then undressed fully as well. There was an awkward moment while all three snuck looks at each others bodies, then they all raced as one to the side of the lake where a nice little beach formed, and trudged in.
"Damn that’s cold!" exclaimed Rob, shuddering as he got up to his knees, then up to his thighs.
"So cold," agreed Sally. Matt marched passed them, his jaw set, going in up to his waist, further, up to his armpits, and finally plunging fully in. It was a shock of cold, but it felt amazing after the first plunge. Then the cold caught up. It was the type of cold that physically hurts to stay in after ten seconds or so. He clenched his jaw and began to swim, knowing the pain would soon go away. He swept the hair out of his eyes and looked at Rob and Sally. Both were in only to their waists at that point. He had a good view of Sally’s chest but he tried not to stare. He swept the hair out of his eyes and looked at Rob and Sally. Both were in only to their waists at that point, and were stepping in place, grimacing, laughing, fighting the stabbing pain of the cold water. He had a good view of Sally’s chest but he tried not to stare.
"Come in guys! It’s not too bad now."
"What the heck," said Rob. He rushed forward with a yell and dove into the water. Sally watched this and followed suite. Now they were all in the water, swimming close to each other, treading in place.
"See, I’m not cold at all," laughed Matt through chattering teeth. Rob and Sally laughed chattering as well.
The others soon got out, but Matt continued to swim about. There was just something nice about being slightly buzzed and swimming in icy water, with the hot sun shining down. He was now completely numb to the cold. It was hot enough still that he could get out at any time and he’d warm up pretty fast, he knew. He swam towards the center of the lake, reached, it. He let him sink down a few feet, but couldn’t touch bottom. The water was noticeably colder a few feet further down. Resurfacing he decided he’d swim to the other side, then he could decide to swim or to walk back around the small lake.
"Jesus, Matt, how are you still in there?" called Rob from the shore where he and Sally were sitting, now dry and with their clothes back on. Matt couldn’t think of anything to say so he just waved. And just like that, all of a sudden, the fear, the dread returned. He was in the center of the lake and he could feel waves emanating up from the bottom. He set off towards Rob and Sally on the shore, trying to keep all of his body in the warmer water near the surface as he swam. He made it to the edge, climbed out, and stood shivering.
Sally put hand on his shoulder. "Damn Matt, you’re freezing!" She picked up his clothes for him. "Here, dry yourself off with these. He did as she said, drying himself off with his shirt, then he put his underwear and pants on, leaving his now dry torso free to collect the warmth of the sun. He stayed further way from the lake for the rest of the afternoon, trying to ignore the waves of cold he seemed to feel washing over him.
That evening they sat around a fire, ate some pasta Mary and Dan had cooked, and drank more beer. Matt was feeling better again. He and Sally sat next to each other. Then as the evening progressed and the sky began to darken they drifted closer to each other. Soon they each had an arm around each other. Sally’s warmth felt nice against him, Matt thought. Every time she laughed he could feel her torso move. Things went just as he had imagined they would, which surprised him. At some point while the others were engaged in telling stories Matt and Sally looked at each other and, without speaking, both stood up. Rob was cackling as he told a story and Dan and Mary were laughing even louder at him. They didn’t pay any heed as Matt and Sally slipped off down towards the lakeside. They were facing west with their hands clasped, looking out towards the lake where there was still a faint brush of sunset on its surface. Sally moved in front of him, put her hands on his face, and leaned in, kissing him. He raised his hands, twined them in her hair, and began kissing her back. This lasted several minutes. Matt mostly had his eyes closed. Then at one moment, he realized he wanted one last glimpse of the sunset. He pulled away slightly and opened his eyes, peering over Sally’s shoulder. Then he recoiled in horror. Sally looked up into his eyes, saw his expression and whirled. But it was too late. The dark, writhing, dripping shape that had emerged from near the center of the lake, facing him, looking into him, flooding his entire body with a numb, cold horror and revulsion, had already sunk down, back below the surface. He stood shuddering as if he himself had just emerged from the cold waters once again.
"Matt! What is it, Matt?" She whispered hoarsely, grabbing his shoulders gently. He didnt respond. The waves of horror were still pounding through him, rocking his entire body, beating in his blood. He couldn’t speak. She was afraid too now. She shook him. Then she turned and looked toward the water, to where his sight was glued.
"What did you see, Matt? Matt? Are you alright?"
He couldn’t explain it to her. They went back to the fire, drank some more. Dan had brought a flask of whisky. Matt drank a lot. It seemed to help. He wanted to forget, forget the massive, slimy bulk of black oozing folds that had surfaced impossibly from the water to aim its gaze directly at him. They didn’t tell anyone else. The others probably assumed they’d had a bit of a fight. Sally joined him in his tent that night. They each kept a knife in their hands and neither slept much. In the morning everyone was hungover and sleep deprived. They packed up and hiked down with a minimum of jokes and humor. Mostly in silence. The further way from the lake they got, the better Matt felt. He could still feel the lake, feel it reaching out towards him, pulling him with a faint, cold pulse. It got fainter and fainter as they left the mountains, reached their cars. But it never really went away. For the rest of the summer Matt and Sally didn’t see each other much after that trip. But one evening Sally called Matt. He saw her name, and knew at once. He picked up.
"Hi Matt." Her voice was grave.
"Hi Sally." As was his.
"Matt? I... I feel it now." She paused for a long time. "Because I feel it, I know that you feel it too. Somehow I now that."
He wanted to deny it. Wanted, in fact, to hang up right then and there, derail what was about to happen.
Instead he said, simply: "Yes. Yes, I do."
They met the next morning at the trail-head. It didn’t take as long without tents and camping equipment. Soon they were at the lake, standing right about where they had been that very night. They stood and waited, hand in hand. The sun beat down overhead. The didn’t have to wait long.