People said they could hear church bells ringing under the water.
It wasn’t true, of course. No buildings had been left standing when the place was flooded, because they’d be a hindrance to boats. But people still said they heard them, ringing matins and vespers, weddings and funerals, twenty feet below the surface of the man-made lake.
There was another rumor far more fearsome than the sound of bells: that there were things in the lake that no one had put there. Not the fish that the state dutifully stocked and restocked, trying to keep the tourists and weekenders coming. Not the other animals who came to drink or swim or make homes in the mud, but never came back out of the water— raccoons and frogs and baby deer. Sometimes the tourists’ dogs. Sometimes the tourists.
Most people could not make sense of it, and Stanley knew why— because it wasn’t something you could understand if you lived in a house by the lake, on a grassy hill, with a paved driveway and paved road and all the other obstacles of life similarly paved over. Sometimes the houses by the lake were second homes, rarely occupied, only dreamed about while their owners worked their sixty-hour-a-week jobs. They’d rush out for a quick Sunday of fishing, spend one night in bed by the lake, and then back to the city, leaving the house empty again.
Sometimes Stanley broke into those houses. A lot of them didn’t have alarms, because the local police were pretty far off and nobody wanted to pay for private security for an isolated lake house. And Stanley never took anything. If the people had known he was there, they would have paid for security, and Stanley would have lost the roof over his head on rainy nights.
Stanley didn’t have a house at all. He lived in the woods in a tent, and that was why he understood what had happened in the lake. He knew why, when he bicycled to town for supplies, he saw strange footprints in the mud by the road. He knew why he had to go to town to take a shower and wash his clothes rather than use the lake. It was because something terrible had been there before the lake, and it was still there.
The land that was now the lake bed had once belonged to a man named Martin Clay, who owned everything nearby, the land and all the buildings on top of it. Even the church whose phantom bells sounded from the depths had been built for the private use of the Clay family. They had sometimes allowed others to use it, but probably, Stanley thought, just to show it off. The rest of the time, the church sat empty, like the lake houses would later.
Martin Clay had been the last of his line, which was why he owned nearly everything where the lake would be later, but also why, when he died, the state was able to take the land for its own use.
The lake was a grand idea, really. The state cleared the place of all its buildings: the old Clay estate, the church, the guest quarters, the barns. They damned a small river and flooded the land, which provided a steady supply of water for the town. And around the shore, they built a campground to draw tourists. Locals loved the lake too— at first. They watched fireworks from their boats on the Fourth of July and scheduled school field trips to look for frogs. Stores in town stocked sunscreen and kites, kayaks and marshmallows.
Martin Clay would not have approved of any of that, of course. He never wanted anyone on his property at all. Perhaps, Stanley thought, that was how he’d managed to die without an heir. But Martin Clay did get his revenge, in a way.
Stanley wouldn’t call it revenge, really. It was more just a reflection of how things were. Life as usual. Some people had houses, some people had tents, some people had nothing, and Martin Clay had had everything, and he’d grasped it very tightly, even though he’d never come close to losing it. He’d also never come close to needing it. But he’d had it all then, and he still had it now, even after his death.
By the private church there had been a graveyard where generations of the Clay family had been buried. Martin Clay was no exception. He was interred just before his land was ceded to the state. Now, it was not state policy, obviously, to cover graveyards with water, and so the government made arrangements to move the dozen or so graves elsewhere. When the church was torn down, the coffins were dug up, and that was when Martin Clay’s grave was found to be empty.
Stanley hadn’t lived in the area then. But when he’d relocated to the newly-formed lakeshore, he’d learned the story along with the hours of the food pantry and the free medical clinic. And Stanley, with his experience of life, instinctively knew the answer to the mystery.
No, Martin Clay was not really alive somewhere else, drinking martinis on the beach and laughing. Martin Clay would never have relinquished his land and moved away. He was dead and in the ground, mouldering in a satin-lined coffin that kept a dead body far warmer than an old sleeping bag could a living one. But Martin Clay had left instructions that the site of his grave was to be kept secret. He’d hidden his body in one last effort to keep claim on his property.
So when they’d flooded the land, the lake got into the grave. And the greed got into the lake.
It had started with the lampreys. Stanley was not a huge fan of lampreys. They looked like eels and acted like leeches, with slimy bodies a couple of feet long, and mouths that were nothing but a silky, endless throat behind ring after ring of teeth. Beneath the surface of the lake, they would latch onto whatever they could, and drain it dry.
Lampreys did not, Stanley knew, have legs. Until the lake was about a year old. The fish had already started disappearing, and Stanley had awoken one morning to find a lamprey outside of his tent. It was a shriveled thing, dried up and dead from lack of water, but it had little back legs whose feet matched the small footprints Stanley had been seeing around the shore.
Stanley had moved his tent away from the water even before the land animals started to go missing. First it was those that swam daily: frogs and snakes, and larger things like beavers. Then the ones who ventured into the water only sometimes: raccoons and foxes, small deer. And then missing person posters started being hung on the wooden message board by the lake and in the windows of the grocery store in town.
The footprints that Stanley would see now were large, almost human-sized. He’d moved far from the lake by then, far enough, he thought— he hoped— that he’d never see the things come by on their heavy legs, with grasping arms and mouths that were just a throat behind rings of teeth. They were hungry for everything: for what they needed and did not need, for what they wanted and did not want, but still took because it was possible to take.
Maybe, Stanley thought, it was better not to have a house, to be able to pack up and move so easily. Perhaps he would leave the area entirely before long. Although he knew, of course, that any other town and lake would have its empty second homes, and empty private churches, and thin little tents all the same.
Written for the Spook Me event on Dreamwidth