“His mouth began to form around a scream, but before a sound could escape a figure burst up out of the water like a tortured siren.” A short story where a sinister secret from the past emerges from the deep…
by: John Andreini ((Header art entitled “Unter der Oberflaeche” (beneath the surface) by Ute Laum.))
“In wide seas an’ narrow, deep seas and shoal, there’s no stone above you an’ no bell to toll.”
Mason Mansfield used the cadence from an old poem he’d been forced to memorize in college to silently pace himself as he ran. Sluggish grey clouds hung low on the hills around the north shore of Seneca Lake. A cold mist clung everything it touched, holding on tenaciously to its fleeting moment of existence. It was early October in the Finger Lakes region of New York, with the fall colors still on brilliant display despite an early cold spell. Mason’s morning run along a well-worn path through the state park took him down close to the water’s edge, where his already elevated body temperature rose with his anxiety. Despite being the “golden boy” at a well-respected Manhattan law firm, dealing daily with facts and evidence, he could not reason away his fear of the water. A reaction so overwhelming he could hardly bear to look at the cold, dark waves, the same water where his wife Sandy and daughter Elsa drowned when their sailboat capsized five years ago. The shock, the guilt, it all translated into a phobia of water that now plagued Maon, a one time diver and experienced sailor. He shivered at the thought of even walking out into the surf, let alone sailing again, but this trip was his fourth in four years on the anniversary of the accident to pay tribute to his wife and daughter, and when the time was right, to actively work on overcoming his fear of water. Would he find the strength to seriously start his journey this year? Mason wondered. The first five days were not a positive indicator.
The clouds split like tears in the grey fabric of the sky above Mason, allowing sunlight to slip through and the hoarfrost to quickly evaporate. Mason wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand and breathed deeply as the trail led up a slight incline away from the lake. The path turned a corner and a short distance up ahead was what looked like a small art show, with paintings on easels and leaning up against rocks and a woman sitting in a lawn chair reading a book. He drew nearer and saw the artist was younger than him, in her early thirties with a pleasant face, dressed in a long paisley skirt ending at Birkenstocks, and a tie-dye scarf tied around an unruly knot of dark brown hair. He wasn’t planning to stop, but the paintings demanded his attention. Their colors were vivid, aggressive, and the subject matter centered around people in distress, naked and struggling to move through a dreamlike world from darkness to light. Mason was pulled to one painting in particular that depicted a mother and child crawling toward a sun-drenched yellow field.
“One of my personal favorites.”
Mason turned and the woman was now standing near him and smiling.
“Yeah. It’s powerful.”
“Wow. Powerful. Thank you. I’m Katy.”
“I’m Mason. How much is it?”
She looked surprised. “Really?”
“$350?” she asked, cringing a little.
“Right. I don’t have my wallet with me, obviously, but can you hold it for me? I’m staying at the Geneva on the Lake Hotel back that way…”
“I’m familiar with it.”
“Of course you are. Duh. But after I get back and shower…well, how long will you be here?”
Katy studied Mason for a moment, sizing him up, and because of his relaxed body language she felt comfortable with Mason. “I was planning to leave soon, have to pick up my daughter from high school, but—”
“High school? You don’t look—”
She put up a hand. “Stop. Now, I just used my spidey-sense to evaluate you and the decision was positive, so please don’t spoil my reliance on my intuition with clichés or I could become hopelessly cynical and not trust anyone ever again. Maybe even….well, let’s just say you don’t want that on your conscience, do you?”
A burst of laughter escaped from Mason. “No. God no. I promise, no tired, overused clichés. Seriously, high school?”
“Okay, move along citizen, I have wares to sell. You’re blocking traffic here.”
“I will run back to my hotel, grab my wallet and run right back here. You can stay that long. Right?”
“What do you want, a signed contract?”
“Well, I am a lawyer.”
“I won’t hold that against you. Yes, I’ll be here.”
Mason started slowly running backwards south along the lake. “You won’t like the way I smell.”
“No, but I love the smell of money.”
Mason gave Katy a thumbs up, turned and shifted into running speed.
An hour later, the painting was in Mason’s hotel room propped up on the desk, and he had secured a dinner date with his new favorite artist. His attention wandered to the large window overlooking the deep green hue of Seneca Lake, and in the distance an excursion boat taking tourists around the long, narrow body of water. He followed with his eyes the large white billowing sails of a few late-season sailboats cutting across the lake under the semi-clear afternoon sky, reminding Mason of his one-time love for sailing. The water was dark and deep, however, and foreboding in its impenetrability. He shuddered and turned away from the window to calm his rapid heartbeat and slow his breathing. With the help of a generous glass of scotch, Mason managed to shake off the unease he was feeling and his worries about being too damaged to have a real relationship again. But, he reminded himself, he was here with a purpose, and a hot shower followed by another drink would help him regain his focus.
The Charter House restaurant was on the main floor of the hotel. Mason had dined there many times even though it was overpriced and stingy with its drinks because the view of the lake was breathtaking, especially at sunset, and the waiters were always happier than Mason assumed they should be. He was a few minutes early for his reservation, but found Katy already studying the menu at a window table. She had changed her clothes, however the gypsy vibe she radiated was still there.
“As my mother used to tell me, you clean up pretty well,” she said, setting down the menu.
“Thank you,” Mason responded, sitting opposite Katy. “How are you?”
“My bank account is happy and I’m doing well, thank you.”
An elderly waitress approached their table with a questionable expression. “Katy? Is that you? Haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Jenny, good to see you, too. This is Mason.”
“Uh, hello. I babysat her when she was little.”
“She did,” said Katy. “And I survived anyway. Just kidding.”
“Funny. So, where are you—”
“Hey, I think I’d like a Tito’s neat.”
“And a vodka martini for me. Nice to meet you, Jenny.”
Jenny smiled, but only to cover her confusion, and she went to fill their drink orders.
“These are my peeps,” said Katy, with a broad grin and no hint of sarcasm.
“Entirely different universe than Manhattan, but that’s part of the reason why I’m here.”
“What’s the rest of it?”
Glasses clinked and white noise enveloped the room as Mason looked down at the tabletop. A nearby table erupted in laughter as he met Katy’s eyes.
“Since you’ve lived here a long time, I’m sure you remember the sailboat accident five years ago on the lake, one where the people drowned.”
“Yeah…they were my wife and daughter.”
Katy unrolled her napkin and dabbed her eyes as the gravity of Mason’s words struck her. “Oh my god. Really? I am so sorry. Oh god.”
“I know it sounds masochistic, but I come up here every year on the anniversary of their deaths to…I don’t know, honor their memories, I guess, and try to confront the phobia I’ve cultivated after the accident, a fear of water. But it really hasn’t gone so well.”
“I’m so sorry Mason.”
Mason looked around absently. “It is what it is.”
“I do remember the accident. A cousin of mine is a paramedic and he was called to the scene. So awful.”
“Yeah, I really don’t like—”
“I mean, I hope I’m not being too nosy, but what happened?”
Mason was taken aback for a moment and it showed. He hadn’t expected a question like this from a person he had only met a few hours earlier.
“No, stop. I”m out of line and I apologize. We’re trying to have a nice dinner and I’m asking personal questions…forgive me.”
“It’s okay. In the city with friends and coworkers, it’s a strictly taboo topic, which on the one hand is okay with me, but on the other, I never really get to talk about it, or vent.
“Did you try counseling?”
“I did, but I just don’t do well talking about this to strangers.”
“Fair enough. Listen, I can’t erase the past and I’m sure as hell not a psychiatrist, but the water thing, I might be able to help. I have a friend who runs a lake excursion business with two large boats that guides tourists around the lake. If you’re serious about wanting to get over your phobia, I could arrange for a private cruise for just the two of us. Wait, that didn’t come out right.”
“No, I understand.”
“It wouldn’t be cheap, but you wouldn’t have to deal with any annoying tourists or crowds. Just you, me and Tony Soprano, the skipper.”
“Tony Soprano? You mean—”
“Yeah. Wait ‘till you see him. They could be brothers, except my Tony isn’t dead. I’ve known him since high school and he’s really a great guy. Should I set it up?”
Mason put up a hand for another drink and shrugged his shoulders. “No more excuses, huh? Okay. Let’s do this.”
The following afternoon at the lake was sixty-eight degrees with more sun than clouds. Mason pulled his rental car into the marina parking lot and found Katy at the arched entrance to Boyd’s Seneca Lake Tours dock. Beyond that sat the impressive thirty foot yacht, Maiden of the Lake, awaiting them. Katy was wearing surprisingly unhippie attire with fashionable sunglasses, white deck shoes, navy blue shorts, a white T-shirt with the name of a local bar on it, and a large satchel slung over his shoulder. It was almost as if she were an entirely different woman, until she spoke.
“Welcome to your worst nightmare,” she said with a nasty smile.
“My knees are wobbly and I haven’t even boarded yet.”
Katy grabbed him by the arm and led him toward the yacht. “Don’t get anxious. If things get too dicey we’ll just head back to shore. Okay? Here,” she said, taking Mason’s hand and dropping a small pink pill into it. “It’s Dramamine.”
“I’d like to wash this down with three generous shots of Johnny Walker, but…” He popped the pill into his mouth and swallowed.
They boarded Maiden of the Lake via a short gangplank and Katy guided the anxious Mason to a padded bench where he immediately sat and began looking down at his shoes. Katy brought over Alan “Tony Soprano” Boland who gave Mason a well-practiced, “Aaaayyyyeee.” Soon the engines rumbled to life and the Maiden of the Lake sputtered slowly away from the dock as Mason’s palms dampened. The water turned a dark green as they pulled farther from shore, but even though Katy sat next to Mason and held his hand, he did not look up.
“How are you doing?” asked Katy.
“I’m petrified. So stupid, I know. I used to love the water – sailing, snorkeling – but now it scares the shit out of me.”
“You’re doing fine, Mason. Take deep breaths, try to loosen the tense muscles in your arms and legs.”
The rumbling engines suddenly became quiet and Katy and Mason looked up as the skipper came down from the bridge. “I thought we might just float a bit, enjoy the serenity of the lake. Okay?”
“Great idea,” said Katy. She turned back to Mason. “The view is very calming. So tranquil. Take a look, Mason.” Reluctantly, Mason raised his head and saw a pale blue sky with sparse, slowly drifting clouds, the tops of evergreens in the distance, and finally, Katy’s sincere smile and kind eyes. “Not so bad. Right?”
“No,” admitted Mason. “Not bad at all. Beautiful, in fact.”
They soaked in the quiet for several minutes, just the soft sound of small waves lapping against the hull. “I need to stretch. Come on, let’s get up.” Katy said, breaking the silence. Mason frowned, but with encouragement from Katy, he rose up and walked unsteadily to the side and grabbed the chrome railing like a lifeline. He slowly lowered his eyes to water and the sun reflecting off of the small undulations across the lake. Katy stood next to him. “You’re doing great.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a tense smile. “Better than I thought.”
Mason still felt like the water beneath him was dark and foreboding, but to his surprise, he was controlling his fear and anxiety, looking down over the side of the boat. Katy was gently rubbing his back with her hand, which was a pleasant surprise. Then something caught his eye, a small pale dot appeared deep in the water and slowly grew larger as it rose to the surface. Am I watching a fish surfacing, wondered Mason, but as the whitish orb became larger, it began to resemble something familiar and unnerving, a human face. Mason’s muscles tightened again and he started sweating as the face became more detailed.
“Do you see that?” asked Mason.
Katy followed his gaze to the water. “No. I don’t see anything.”
The face was close to the surface and was familiar. “No. No…” cried Mason.
“Mason, what is it?”
The face broke the surface of the water. It was a marbled, bloated death mask of his wife, Sandy, with blueish decayed skin, reddish bloodshot eyes, and dark mud slipping free from her hair. Come join us, Mason imagined his wife saying through her twisted, bloated lips.
“Oh god,” cried Mason as he fell backwards to the deck of the yacht, his eyes wide with terror. “No, no…”
Katy motioned to an alarmed captain Arnold to start the engines and she knelt down beside Mason as he trembled.
“Mason. What is it? What scared you?”
Mason’s mouth moved up and down as if he was trying to speak, but he couldn’t make sounds. He finally found his voice. “I don’t know what it was. A face. It looked like…a person. But that’s impossible. Right?”
“I was standing right next to you and I didn’t see anything in the water. It had to be the phobia producing some kind of illusion or something.”
“It came up out of the goddamn blackness, like it…” Mason was staring past Katy as if seeing the face again.
“Like it what?” asked Katy.
He met Katy’s eyes. “Nothing. I…I’m sorry.” Mason pulled himself up onto a bench. “It was nothing, probably a fish or something. You’re right, my phobia just got the better of me for a moment. Really sorry.”
“No,” said Katy, taking Manson’s hand in hers. “Don’t be sorry. We’re heading back to the dock and then I’m going to take you to a local dive for fried food and beer. You deserve it. Okay?”
Mason hung his head like a bad dog. “You’re being too nice. I really don’t deserve it.”
“Well then, I do.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd blared from a juke box inside Chuck’s Tavern on South Main Street, the antique music box set like the perfect diamond within the linoleum, chrome and vinyl décor. Katy and Mason sat at a corner table, swiping off crumbs as they waited for their beers.
“I feel like I’m an extra in an old TV show. Very retro and very cool.”
“Yeah. So the food hasn’t really transitioned into the twenty-first century. You’ll be getting your monthly allowance of fat and cholesterol in a single meal. The draft beer is good though.”
The waitress set two mugs in front of them.
“This is exactly what I needed,” said Mason, leaving a foam moustache on his upper lip after drinking deeply.
“So are you ready to go out again?”
“Aren’t we out now?”
“I mean the lake. We need to go out again, tomorrow.”
“Really? Are you serious?”
“It’s the only way. Like falling off a horse, to use a horrible cliché, you have to get right back up in the saddle. Capiche?”
Mason felt as if the air were sucked immediately out of him, and his shoulders involuntarily slumped forward. “Okay.” He thought about the face in the water he’d seen earlier, Sandy’s dead face, and his stomach roiled. How could it be anything other than a hallucination? He thought. “You win.”
“We’re going to go out in a smaller boat.”
“How much smaller?”
She flinched. “A rowboat?”
“Katy please. This is like electroshock treatment to my system. A rowboat?”
“It belongs to a cousin of mine. He’ll let us use it for the day.”
“A rowboat?” repeated Mason, then chugged a third of his beer.
“Come on, rowing will be good exercise, too. You’re into that.”
“Okay, okay. Will there be another reward if I do well?”
Katy looked down and blushed. “That remains to be seen.”
Mason raised his beer. “Good enough for me. I’m in.”
The area where Mason met Katy the next afternoon was along a portion of Seneca Lake that had seen better days. Mason greeted his new life coach in the parking lot with a coffee and they walked past derelict buildings and stacks of neglected tires to the rundown pier on the waterfront. It planks were moss covered and weathered and didn’t inspire confidence in Mason as he edged out behind Katy to a small aluminum row boat moored at the end, a dented, overworked vessel about as far from the Maiden of the Lake as one could get. The piers planks creaked under the weight of the two voyagers. It didn’t help anyone’s mood that the weather was cold and dreary with a steady wind provoking small white caps on the water.
“Are you sure it’s safe to go out?” asked Mason, a hand on his brow as he scanned the lake.
Katy couldn’t help but smile. “No, it’s fine. It’ll be a little choppy, but nothing we seasoned sailors can’t handle.” She tossed her bag into the boat and then helped a tepid Mason into the wobbly tin can and followed him with a loud clang as she dropped to the hulls floor. She untied the rope to the pier, sat in the middle bench and began to row, while Mason hunched on the boats back bench looking around nervously. After five minutes of rowing and silence, Katy pulled the oars into the boat.
“Do you want me to row?” asked Mason.
“No. It’s peaceful out here. Just thought we’d float for a while. You okay? You haven’t looked at the water since we left the dock.”
“What’s to look at? Water is water.”
“I suppose,” said Katy as they rocked gently in the water. “I wonder if Sandy and Elsa would agree?”
Mason looked up at Katy, who met his quizzical gaze. “Not sure what you mean?”
“They died right around here. No?” she said, dipping her fingers into the water. “You see, I did grow up here, but ended up going to college at NYU. That’s where I met Sandy. We became close friends. Very close.”
“Really. We were lovers, Mason. Whether you knew my name or not, you knew she was unhappy and seeing someone. She told me that. And she told me she was going to leave you.”
“None of this is news to me.”
“Why weren’t they wearing life jackets, Mason? You convinced the police they somehow slipped out of them in a panic. You and I both know that’s a lie. The cops around here are notoriously thick. I figure you killed them or you were the cause of their death somehow, and then you used your oily lawyer skills to evade justice, until now.”
“Are you threatening me? What, do you want money? You can prove nothing, Katy, if that’s even your real name. Nothing.”
“You’ll never understand this, Mason, but Sandy and I had a relationship that existed beyond the corporal realm. Even the term “soul mates” doesn’t describe how close we were, not just physically, but spiritually, on a level beyond earthly love.”
“Beyond earthly love? You’ve been reading too many romance novels.”
Katy felt her forehead with the back of her hand.
“You feeling okay?” asked Mason.
Shaking it off, she glanced over the side of the boat. “Why don’t you look down there, in the water, then you might understand.” She blinked rapidly.
Mason looked where Katy indicated and he was instantly paralyzed. She recognized that just below the rippling surface of the dark water was what he feared most, Sandy’s bloated white face, staring up at him. His mouth began to form around a scream, but before a sound could escape a figure burst up out of the water like a tortured siren. Sandy’s very human arm was outstretched and her porcelain white hand grabbed Mason’s coat collar, pulling a shocked Mason over the side in one swift movement. There was a splash and the boat rocked violently for a moment as Katy watched Mason’s struggling body disappear into the inky black depths of the frigid lake. The boat grew still and Katy assured herself that no one was within view or earshot. The quiet and gentle back-and-forth of the boat was relaxing and she raised her face to the sun. Katy closed her eyes and soaked in the warming light of transcendent law that had passed between dimensions and realms of reality to bring her justice and finality.
“Katy?” came the distant calling of a man’s voice. “Katy,” then slightly louder. “Katy!”
Her eyelids fluttered and a burst of sunlight forced her to shut them.
“Don’t you want a last look, Katy? It is beautiful.” The voice was Mason’s. She forced her eyes open and through the glare could see the smiling face of the man she loathed. Her eyes went down further and she saw that her wrists and ankles were oddly bound, and the boat’s cement bucket anchor was next to her.
“What is this?” cried Katy. “What are you doing?”
“Reuniting you with your lover. Isn’t that exciting?”
“The coffee. Skim latte with an extra shot…from me. There, I think we’re ready.” Eyes wide and darting, Katy was about to scream, but Mason held up an oily rag and she regained control of herself. “I knew all about you two, but the timing and situation had to be right — and it is. The senior partners at my firm are, let’s say, old fashioned, and a promising junior partner losing his wife to a lesbian love affair would just not go over well at all. A good lawyer knows how to do research. I researched you, your past, your future plans, found out you were going to come up here at the same time I would be visiting, and I just thought, wow, what a coincidence. But then, your timing was just as calculated. Wasn’t it? “
“What about your daughter? Why did you kill her?”
“I do miss Elsa, but she was a talker, and was old enough to tell people like the police what happened and I just couldn’t let that happen.”
“You’re a fucking monster.”
“I am. And I’m okay with that.”
“This won’t stop the phobia, the hallucinations.”
“Since I’m never setting foot here again, that won’t be a problem.”
“Please don’t, Mason. I’m begging you.”
“You will be back with the one you love. It may not be what you want, but it is what you deserve.”
Mason stuffed the rag into her mouth, scanned for nearby boats, then pulled Katy’s panicked, squirming body, with the attached cement bucket, to the boat’s edge. At the last second, however, Katy reached up, and although her wrists were bound, her hands grabbed the lapels of Mason’s jacket like vice grips as she dropped into the water. The momentum pulled Mason overboard with her, and although he struggled violently to free himself, he continued sinking with the determined Katy into the frigid murky water, finally disappearing from view beneath the empty rocking boat.
John Andreini’s short stories have been published in Literary Yard, Horla Magazine, Oregon’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction (2018),Indiana Horror Review 2018, Hello Horror Anthology, Drunken Pen Writing, Dark Dossier (3), Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, Simply Scary Podcast; and Horror d’Oeuvres – Bite-Sized Tales of Terror (anthology). Films based on his short stories have been official selections at seven national film festivals.J