J.G. Formato is a writer and elementary school teacher from North Florida. She’s moved far from the lake to a little house in the woods, where she lives with her beautiful family. Her short fiction has appeared in Giants and Ogres(Fairy Tale Villains Reimagined), freeze frame fiction, and Youth Imagination Magazine.
I was six when Lake Jackson disappeared the first time. Well, it was probably more like the hundredth time, but it was the first time I saw it, and that’s what counts. Months of drought had reduced it to a sprawling puddle peppered with algae and cigarette butts. Sediment slurped at my Hello Kitty galoshes as I waded through the muck, looking for frogs. My mother was capturing hot remnants of lake water for her seventh grade biology class.
“Can I look at some, too? In your microscope?”
No answer. Squinting, she held the vials up to the sun, ensuring their uniformity. I tried again.
“It doesn’t really look like a lake.”
“It doesn’t right now,” she said. “Actually, the Muscogee Creek tribe called it the Okeeheepkee, it means ‘disappearing waters.’ It’s been draining and refilling for centuries.”
“The Oh Keep Me?” I repeated, wrestling my boot from the mud.
“The Okeeheepkee,” she corrected me before the words were even out my mouth. I sighed, the way little kids do, a honking growling expulsion of frustrated air. Then I went back to hunting frogs.
A small one, spring green and delicate, skipped over to me and landed right at my feet. “I got one!” I shouted, and gathered her up in a crushing hug. I rubbed my face against her sleek skin, leaving a damp smear on each cheek.
“What are you going to do? Kiss it and see if it turns into a prince?” Mom asked.
“Actually”—I drew out my favorite big girl word, Mom’s habitual sentence starter, preparing to impress with my knowledge—“in the real story, she gets mad and throws the frog at the wall and that’s what makes it turns into a prince.”
“Love hurts, I guess.” She shrugs, unimpressed. “Go ahead and put the frog down. I’m done, it’s time to go home.”
I held the frog to my chest, and she nestled closer to my heart. She didn’t want me to put her down. “But she likes me.”
“Laurel, that’s ridiculous, the frog does not like you. Drop it, it’s time to leave.”
Holding back crybaby tears, I knelt down in a shady spot and let the frog jump from my hands. She looked back reluctantly, blinking once with her bulging eyes, black and rippling like night sky on water. Then she was gone.
I turned to follow my mother, but the lake held me tight, my feet embedded in the sloppy earth. A loud pop split the air around me, followed by a soft whooshing sound. At first I wasn’t sure if it was an in-my-head sound or a real-world sound. It was an awful lot like the rush in my ears when I’m upset.
But it was a real-world sound. The lake’s remaining water hurtled past me, serpentine rivulets grinding mini-canyons into the lake’s bed.
My mother grabbed me by the waist, pulling me from my boots into her arms. Hello Kitty bobbed along the steady stream toward the newly opened sinkhole. Mom held me on her hip, and we watched as the rest of the lake drained like a bathtub, my galoshes sucked down into the final whirlpool.
The next day, a little white kitten showed up at our door and I actually got to keep it. I named her Hello Kitty.
I had officially grown up, just graduated from FSU, when Lake Jackson disappeared again. It had been doing so well, too. A decade of steady rains had kept it full and strong. But it just couldn’t handle this dry spell.
They said it would be a magical night. A grand farewell. As an honorary theatre geek, my old posse had invited me out for one last night before everyone scattered.
Well, before they scattered. They were all taking their BFAs to New York and L.A. I was taking my teaching degree to the elementary school down the road. I had switched majors after the diagnosis. I needed something I could do here, so I could look after my mother when the MS got worse. I had a minor in theatre, though.
We parked at Faulk Landing with trunks of Pabst beer, cheap and nasty, and chugged it like freshmen. Someone, I’m not saying it was me, but it was probably me, decided that the slippery muddy incline down to the lake’s floor would perfect for Florida sledding. I’d never actually been sledding, but it seemed totally comparable. We took turns squeezing our asses into the lids of our coolers and rode shrieking through the mire. Nobody really made it, most of us tumbled off about halfway, if we even made it that far. I don’t really understand the mechanics of sledding, but maybe you really do need snow. And a sled. The New York crew promised to let me know.
Plastered with mud and beer, we settled at the bottom of the lake staring up into the heavens.
We took turns pointing out constellations, but the only one I could see was Cassiopeia. She’s the only one I can ever find. I like her—the only reason the gods hung in the sky was because she bragged about her daughter too much.
I was reaching for her, wildly tracing the W with my finger, when the clasp of my bracelet broke. The charms spun drunkenly, consuming and expelling the moonlight as it arced toward the earth. I staggered over to retrieve it and heard a familiar pop and whoosh.
The sinkhole had opened, calling home the last bits of lake. My bracelet floated down ribbons of glittering star-filled water until the ground swallowed it up.
Sinkholes are kind of scary, so we scrambled up the edge of the mudbowl. Abandoning our cars, we moseyed back to my mother’s house and crashed. The crispy brown body prints we left throughout the living room made my mother think twice about my abilities as a caregiver. But what could she do? I was all she had.
The next morning, after a long lecture and a hot shower, I walked back to get my car. On the hood sat an exquisitely pale and dainty frog, grasping a coiled copper bracelet in its webbed fingers. Drips of water ran from its skin and pooled around the metal in rings. It blinked slowly at me, then bounded into my hands. Startled, I shrieked and dropped it. The glossy black eyes stared at me reproachfully, then disappeared into the memory of the lake.
I wiped my hands on my jeans and took a closer look at the bracelet. It evoked an ancient sunset, burnished with rays dimmed by time. I probably should have taken it to the museum. People are always finding artifacts at the lake, arrowheads and stuff. But it felt like it was for me only, and anyway, it was on my car.
“Thank you!” I shouted at the lake.
I slid it on my wrist and it’s been there ever since.
Ten years later, and it’s dwindling again. I’ve gotten to know the cycles, the rhythm of the lake. I don’t kayak now, and I have no idea what happened to all the fish. Where do the fish go when the lake dries up? It’s nothing but a depression covered with a muddy blanket.
I only come here by myself now. No one I knew ever comes back, I mostly just Like their stuff on Facebook. Mom passed last winter.
So there’s only me to visit, to watch and wait for the lake to bleed out. I stomp around in my grown up galoshes, a mature sensible black, and listen for the pop. I know it’s coming.
It’s Wednesday, not the most respectable day for a midnight lake meander, but it’s halfway to Friday so I go for it. Instead of Pabst, I have herbal tea in a thermos. Instead of friends, I have conversations in my head. Rehashing moments from the day, all the things I could have, should have said. To the rudeass lady at the bank, to gropey gas station guy, to the mom who wants to know for the ten thousandth time why I don’t teach math “the way she learned it.” All my confrontations happen internally and alone. In person, I usually just smile and apologize for something.
Standing in the prairie of stilled water and reeds, I start to feel more like myself. The damp air clings to me, wrapping me in a cloak of humidity bedazzled with lightning bugs. Stars spill across the sky like marbles, and I try to pick out the constellations I’ve seen. A few lakehouses have their porchlights on, disrupting my view.
“Turn it off,” I whisper fiercely.
“That doesn’t work,” a voice murmurs behind me, each word a stone skipping on the water.
Strangely, I’m not startled. I knew someone was there. I feel like I know the someone that’s there. The first thing I notice is her eyes, large, black, and limpid, with an unmarred reflection of the moon in each. She runs her hands through her silvery white hair, wet, like she’s been swimming. There’s not really enough water for that, though.
“What doesn’t?” I ask when I find my voice again.
“They always leave the light on. I can’t see as much as I used to.” She rubs her hands nervously against her skirt. Except it’s not really a skirt in the traditional sense, it’s marsh grasses twisted into coils and wrapped tightly against the curves of her body. A girdle of lilypads encircles her waist, little green hearts that hug her tight. Tiny water droplets cling to her bare arms and legs, mirroring the stars above.
I’m weirded out by how not weirded out I am.
“Do I know you?” I ask, which is stupid. I would remember if I knew her.
“Nobody knows me.” She looks disappointed and her face drops. A breeze ruffles the lake’s diminished surface, and it lowers around my ankles.
“Does anybody really know anybody?” I laugh uncomfortably, I’m doing this conversation all wrong.
“They do if they want to. If they pay attention.” Her lip juts out, a child’s pout on a woman’s face. She crosses her white arms and stares me down.
“I guess so.” Long, awkward pause. “I should go home. I have to teach in the morning.”
She nods and dismisses me with a wave of her thin, pointed fingers.
I exit the lake clumsily, stumbling up the crumbling dirt slope. “I like your bracelet!” she shouts, but with a bit of an attitude.
I almost call in the next day, but improper fractions aren’t going to teach themselves, so I force myself through. My encouraging smile and specific, effective praise are a Herculean exercise in willpower. When the bell rings, I grimly and metaphorically pat myself on the back.
I draw the line at the faculty Mmeeting, however. It’s too much to ask today, and I’m about 99.9 percent sure no one will even notice if I skip it.
Instead, I return to the lake where my mind’s been all day. I sit on the scratchy grass at the lake’s edge, waiting for the sun to set. When the sun dims to orange and bleeds pinkly into the twilight, I feel her next to me. Her damp shoulder bumps against mine and she lets out a soft sigh.
“It’s nice of you to come back,” she says, her legs drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her knees.
“So, who are you?” I ask.
Tiny tears creep up her lashes. “I thought you would know. You’re the only one who ever saw me.”
“I’m sorry.” Her sadness makes me wretchedly guilty, and my heart is swallowing itself.
“It’s alright. I don’t know either.” She jumps up, and the tears spring from her cheeks. One lands on mine, splashing wetly beneath my eye. I leave it there until it dries. It’s an indescribable feeling, wearing someone else’s sadness.
“What’s your name?” That seems like a good starting point, albeit a kindergarten one.
“I don’t even know.” She bites her lip and grimaces. “I don’t think I have one. Which is fine, since there’s no one to call me by it anyway. There never has been.”
She’s glaring, so I just sit quietly wondering if I should go. But I can’t, not yet. The glowering silence quickly becomes unbearable, though, and I have to break it. “It’s okay, I have a name and nobody ever calls me by it. I’m just Ms. Frost.”
“Laurel.” The way she says it is musical with a slight upward lilt at the end. She holds my hand.
“Do you live around here?”
Something between a hiss and a shriek pours from her mouth, and she snatches her hand back. “I live here. I’ve always lived here.”
“I’ve been here forever, since this damned lake formed. Since the moment I existed, I have been here. Alone.” Almost every word is punctuated by an angry finger point or foot stomp.
“What about your parents?”
“I’ve never seen a parent.” She spits at the ground. “I have always been as I am, trapped in this place.”
“You could leave, you can stay with me. It’s just me at the house now.” My heart is being pulled from my chest, crushed and sucked through my ribs. She’s stealing it.
“I’ve tried,” she says through gritted teeth. Then her tone softens. “If I go too far, I start to fade. It’s bad enough no one can see me, I couldn’t bear not to see myself. I belong to the lake.”
“Maybe the lake belongs to you,” I say before thinking.
“Well, I don’t want it. I hate it. I wish it would dry up and disappear.” A gust dances over the lake’s puddling waters, and I swear the level drops another inch.
“It’s okay, you’ll be alright.” I fall back on the standby nonsense I say to my kids. I might as well have told her to walk it off.
She shrugs, then laughs. “Maybe so. Anyway, tell me about you. Tell me about the world outside of here.”
I spend the rest of the night spilling my guts. She smiles and claps her hands when I tell her about the time I got the part of Emily in Our Town. She cries angry tears when I tell her about the time my mother got drunk and told me I was a mistake, and that she never wanted to be a single mother. Every insignificant detail of my sad, little life comes pouring out of me and that sweet, crazy lake girl acts like I’m the most fascinating person she’s ever met. I guess I am.
When I say I have to leave, she cries and hugs me tight.
I can’t sleep. I probably just should have camped out at the lake with her. I can still feel the damp outlines of her hands on my face where she grabbed it, forcing me to look in her eyes and promise to come back. The Milky Way splashed across them then, a glittering rainbow of ivory floating in shadowy desperate pools.
I want to take care of her. I want to be the one who helps her find out who she is.
I pull my phone from beneath my pillow and throw myself down the Google rabbit hole. I read about naiads, nixies, nymphs, and sirens. I read about selkies and mermaids. I read every Muscogee Creek legend I can find.
But none of them describe my girl.
I awake to silence, a dead silence that smothers the house and makes my ears ring. I turn on the T.V., but it just reinforces my loneliness. Your only friends are on television.
Weekends are the worst, without the buffer of little kids to hide myself from isolation. And I refuse to get a cat. I won’t be the crazy cat lady. Besides, I could never love another cat like I loved Hello Kitty.
I don’t eat breakfast. Sometimes I get scared I’m going to choke on my food and no one will be there to notice.
I go back to the lake.
I sit there all day, watching dragonflies and uncreative, rebellious teens smoke cigarettes and make out. Mostly it’s empty.
Every time I see a frog jump by, my heart beats a little faster in my chest. I think maybe I’m crazy, and my nameless friend isn’t even real. Your only friend is imaginary.
I hum “Eleanor Rigby” to myself for hours, twisting the bracelet on my arm like a magic talisman. My mom used to call it the Passive Aggressive Juke Box. Apparently, whatever I’m thinking comes out in a song. Forget mumbling under my breath, I sing under my breath. Like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” when I wasn’t allowed to go out, or “Love is a Battlefield” when things got tense. An all-out war broke out the day I inadvertently belted out “She’s Leaving Home” in the shower. It’s a weird habit.
“Do you like it?” my lake girl says, her voice like wind in the reeds. Her hand runs gently over the bracelet.
“It was from you.” She nods.
“You lost your pretty shiny one. I couldn’t find it, but I found that one. I hoped you’d like it.”
“I did, I always wear it. Did you give me the cat?”
“Mm-hmm. Well, I sent her your way. I thought you must like cats.” She smiles, a sly feline quirk to her lips.
“Are you the frog?” I blurt out.
“Sometimes,” she giggles, and crouches down, froggy jumping all the way to the center of her disappearing lake, singing a loud, wordless song. The whole picture is ridiculous, yet somehow graceful. I follow her in kind. Minus the grace.
Dead center in the stagnant lake, she stops abruptly and scoops up a handful of mud. She packs it tightly and chucks it at me, giggling. A Florida snowball. Nice.
Naturally, I return the favor. We scramble and slip through the lake pelting each other with our earthy missiles. She drops a ball of clay down the back of my shirt and rubs it into my skin. Breathless with laughter and probably more physical activity than I’ve had in ten years, I collapse onto a dry patch next to her.
“Your lake’s going away,” I say, tracing a heart in the dirt.
“It always does.” She shrugs.
“My mom said the Native Americans called it the Okeeheepkee, which meant disappearing waters.”
“I remember that. Much prettier than Lake Jackson.”
I’m struck with a sudden inspiration. “Maybe I could call you Kee?”
“Cute, I’ll take it.” She grins. “I never had a name before.” She sighs and rests her head on my shoulder, her perpetually wet hair sending warm streams down my arm. The blood in my veins chases it.
“I’m sorry,” I say, pulling her closer.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m disappearing, too. I get so lonesome, I can’t take it. I just want it to go away.” She clenches her fists, and the water pooling in grooves around us shudders.
“And then the lake disappears?”
She nods against me. “And then the lake disappears. But then after a while, I feel like trying again. Like maybe someone will find me, and then the lake comes back. But it never gets better.”
“I know.” I do. I just don’t have a lake. “I could be someone. I found you.”
“We found each other,” she says, wrapping a strand of my hair around her finger.
“Do you feel like trying again?” I ask.
“Do you?” she counters.
The question catches me off guard and my answer’s lodged in my throat, too big to push out.
“I don’t want to be alone anymore,” Kee says, echoing my unspoken words. Centuries of isolation drip from her tongue, and I don’t know how she’s borne it this long—these past few months almost killed me. But the past few days have brought me back.
“I don’t either.”
“Stay?” She holds out her hand, her dusky eyes boring into mine.
“I can never leave, Laurel, I belong to the lake. I’m a part of it.” The wind catches her hair and throws it in violent waves around her face.
I take her hand, fingers entwining as our palms kiss.
Then I hear it, the familiar pop and accompanying whoosh.
The ground crumbles beneath me as the sinkhole opens. But before the damp hungry earth can consume me, soft arms surround me. Kee gathers me to her chest and whispers lovingly, “You’ll be part of it, too. You’ll belong. I’ll keep you, Laurel.”
It’s exactly what I wanted to hear.