Bourbon Penn 31

The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs

by E. Catherine Tobler

In the predawn dark, Annie found herself in a bed, holding onto another hand beneath the cool weight of the pillow. Floral case, it was the trailer—her trailer—and slowly she came back to herself, to her body, and kissed the folded fingers beneath the pillow before claiming the ringing phone, dreadful thing. The voice on the other end was frantic, offering double pay because the cops needed her—needed her boat, a man had gone missing—Ricky had that charter, didn’t she remember—it had to be her, there was no one else. Triple, she said. She lived plain, but there were always bills.

She dressed in the dark, phantom chill of the lake already clinging to her. Her skin pebbled everywhere and she was surprised when she pulled her hair back into its customary tail that it did not leak lake water across her shoulders.

It was twenty-four minutes from the RV park to the lake, not counting the time she spent hitching the boat trailer to the truck. Years ago they’d told her: don’t stay hitched overnight, anyone could drive away with the whole shebang. She’d never seen it happen, but there was plenty she hadn’t borne witness to that still was in the record of the world.

The sun stayed hidden the whole way there. The roads were barren and she liked them that way, listening to the even breath of tires over asphalt. Dry, smooth. The trailer had a wobble, a squeak, but it would wait until the afternoon—depending how long they kept her out. A man had gone missing.

It wasn’t the first time and surely wouldn’t be the last. She had helped the law before—it was a fine diversion, given how well she knew the lake, its surrounds. Usually people wanted to know where the fish were: rainbow trout, sockeye salmon. A man was many times larger than a fish, but the lake was larger still. Sometimes the lake won.

The police were gathered near the boat launch when she arrived. One of them thought he could guide her with a set of flashlights, like he was bringing in an aircraft; she said nothing, backing her trailer into the water and paying him no never mind. Men—policemen—meant well on the surface, but it was easy to slip below.

She met each one and shook each’s hand, and no one asked her name. They were all the same: overly warm in the cool morning air, redolent with musk and salt. Would be nice, one said, to get this done ahead of sunrise. The lake would be open then—it didn’t need saying. Summer profits were on the line, no one needed a missing tourist mucking up a perfectly good summer day on the lake. Whistling lines and reels, cold beers, shining ice to cradle any legal catch.

The lake would win that battle, though; she didn’t have to tell them it was five hundred feet at its deepest. If their man was in there, it could take a while. She knew the currents—where might a body go, they asked her. Wherever the lake liked, she said. You make it sound alive, one of them said with a cigarette-rough laugh, and she didn’t reply, because the idea that the lake wasn’t a living creature as any of them was absurd.

They went slower than any of the men liked; the radar on board wasn’t the best, needed an upgrade, but the men waved it off during conversation; she was the real radar, knowing the lake like no one else did. She’d worked it so long now—how old, the youngest asked with a gleam in his hazel eye, and she said softly fifty, because it was a good number, given how old he thought she was. Just a grandmother to him, silver hair tied back to show every line upon her face. When the sun began to rise, she somehow looked younger, like a girl the youngest wouldn’t hesitate to ask out, a stroll along the lakeshore where no one could go missing.

The radar sweeps showed fish and more fish; twice, the youngest shouted excitement over a fallen log, but the third time he wised up and let it pass in silence. The one in charge radioed the shore; told them the lake was closed until further notice.

She supposed they had good cause to believe this man was in the lake, but asked about other leads. There were two other lakes—but that this was the only natural one hadn’t escaped her notice. The man-made lakes were tamer. The men hemmed and hawed; she went back to driving the boat. It was what she did; it was what she knew.

Steve Miller, they said, was a father. Wouldn’t just wander off and leave his family to wonder. Plenty of things weirder than that had happened in the world, but she didn’t argue. When her radio chirped with a call from Ricky, she also didn’t argue with him, but told him in the covert way she had before to keep his eyes open. He was on the largest of the three lakes that day; maybe he’d turn up a missing father who’d never leave his family to wonder.

They came back to the launch for lunch. A crowd had formed behind yellow police tape some ways up the road. The police headed toward the lodge, but she stayed with the boat, not liking to eat with an audience. Eileen, who had called her that morning, waved from the porch of the lodge.

They didn’t find Steve Miller that afternoon; the chief called it, on account of how many men he was paying to look. He didn’t say it that way, but she heard it underneath it all. The chief asked her to come back tomorrow (he was bringing half his men); she said triple, and he bit down on the toothpick that had been working his teeth all afternoon. He didn’t say no, just gave her a curt nod and headed out.

The lake remained closed. She didn’t drive home, but lingered at the lodge, listening to the people speculate. It’s what people did best, spinning tales about affairs, thefts, lake monsters. From the lodge’s height, the lake didn’t look so monstrous, flat blue and empty under the cloudless sky. It was the perfect postcard photograph, framed by quaking aspens that circled the lodge porch.

Eileen brought her usual salty Lambrusco spritz with its olives, and asked her about the lake, about being out there with the police. Eileen always wanted a salacious story, but there wasn’t one here, not yet. The chief, she said, was cash-strapped, but that news didn’t surprise Eileen, who moved toward the lodge doors at the arrival of more local reporters.

Men wandered off; it was the easiest explanation. They got into their own heads so deep about life and the universe, they just dropped off the face of the earth—sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes forever, heads finding new pillows on which to sleep. Even family men.

She chewed green olives and pondered the lake, watching the empty water. Not empty, of course—running with life where they could not see. The fish and the reeds and the worms and the frogs and the dragonflies. The mosquitos, the water hyacinths, the long grasses she had not learned the names of. She craved the lake water in her mouth and needed for the day to end, so that she could accomplish that without anyone’s supervision.

But Eileen kept the lodge open late—people were worried, wanted to mingle and speculate because there was safety in numbers, and what if the man reappeared? The lodge lights would welcome him. Trusting the lodge lights would also mask the night-dark lake from view, she left the lodge as quietly as she had come. Truck and boat were where she’d left them, and she let them sit, hiking to the lake via no discernible path whatsoever. The water called her.

It was ritual, but it was also life, the way she answered the water’s call. At the lakeshore, she stripped out of hoodie, sneakers, and jeans. Underwear came last, all of it left in a heap in the summer-cool grasses she did not know the name of.

She walked into the water until the bottom came out from under her, then she sank and swam. She should have perhaps been blind in the dark water, but she was not. Every sense came alive in the lake in ways they did not on land.

Beneath the water she could search in ways that she could not above. She took mouthfuls of the fresh water into her nose and mouth, veils of bubbles gathering at her temple, her collarbone, her hips. She strained the water between teeth and tongue, and spat out what was of no use. She pushed deeper into the lake, and deeper still, finding the point where freshwater was occluded by salt. Where blood stained the water, she knew.

He still looked human, but even another twelve hours could change that. His eyes were open, but he saw nothing of his surroundings. He was dressed in a suit, his tie tangled around a log, holding what remained of him in place. To her relief, he possessed both hands, but his spine gleamed like pearl beyond where a monstrous mouth had taken most of his left side. The liver, she thought, the fatty, delicious liver.

Morning brought rain. The chief wore a plastic cap over his official hat, a camo rain poncho over his uniformed shoulders. He brought only two men with him this time, each also wrapped in plastic.

She took them out as she had yesterday, listening to them speculate about the man they sought. A real dirtbag, one offered up; Steve Miller looked like a family man, but harbored secrets the same way the lake did. In the wrong place at the wrong time, said the other; Steve Miller was a family man, but saw a thing he shouldn’t have seen. Were others out looking elsewhere, she asked, and was given a sharp scowl for an answer. She wasn’t in a hurry, given she was occupied with silent speculation all her own.

The lake had been her home—her world—for a while now. She would have to sit down and work out the years, because years meant something different to her than they did to these men. She could say she remembered the price of fuel for her boat had once been .50 cents, and was now $3.11, but that didn’t tell her how much time had passed.

No matter how long she’d been here, she had been careful. What she required to live, the town and its surroundings gave her. She had never taken more than was necessary. There had been other deaths throughout the years of course, but this was unlike those—this was something akin to her.

It made her uneasy. She hadn’t slept for the way the idea kept her thinking long into the night. There wasn’t supposed to be another like her here—they kept their distances intentionally, so they could pass unseen, so they could live. Matings happened, offspring came, but they were taught solitary lives, so that no person would know the truth beneath their skins. It could have been a youngling, she thought, especially given how careless it all was. Someone known, a family man—she would never.

When the police began to grumble at her seeming ineptitude, she gave them another half hour of it, then maneuvered the boat closer to the submerged body. She drove slower and scanned more carefully; a school of fish fled the crime scene, darts shooting north.

Looks promising, she said, and showed them the logs and debris on the radar, all places where things might get stuck. Things like bodies, one man asked, and she gave no answer; he didn’t want one. She slowed so the men could drop their underwater camera rig into the lake. The chief gave over controls to one of his men, seeming confused by the tech, or the responsibility that arrived with the body’s discovery.

The monitor showed what she had seen last night, the logs and the trapped body. But the man was floating upside down now, more of the body missing. The sight sent a chill through her; the predator had returned?

The chief let out a hard breath when he saw the body; said it looked like a shark had been at it. She couldn’t help but agree, even though they knew sharks didn’t live in these waters.

The chief had enough speculation for the both of them; she cut the engine and dropped anchor while he blathered on. He called for the coroner to come out, which took long enough the men were verbally dreaming about lunch. The chief wondered how they could think about food at a time like this, but his own growling stomach gave him away.

The men paced the length of her boat as they waited for the coroner’s team; the youngest smoked, even though he was asked not to. She didn’t mind, thought it made him smell more interesting. Younglings were interesting, after all, for the way they didn’t conform. The more she considered the body, the more she grew fixed on the idea that what had killed Steve Miller was young.

It wouldn’t be a police matter, she thought as the coroner’s boat arrived. The police would try—she had seen it before—but they wouldn’t understand what they were looking at. In these mountains, it would probably be chalked up to a bear. It made the most sense, and most people wouldn’t read the details—what was a bear doing in the lake, at that depth? Bears didn’t feed like that, or hunt like that, even in desperation. But people didn’t care; tell them a bear had killed a man, that was all they’d hear.

A bear wouldn’t necessitate the closure of the lake; they would call the rangers, see what they might find—a mother wandering with her new cubs—and would work to relocate the offender. That would be that, unless the presumed youngling wasn’t set on a new course.

She chewed the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. That wouldn’t be that unless she found the truth of the death. No bear, but her own kind, and she had never— Couldn’t fathom how, but when the body came up, pale and bloated like something from another time altogether, she knew one way. The youngling had come back, perhaps thought its cache of meat was safe. The youngling would come back.

Camera shutters, calculations, conversations had by small huddles of smaller men. She had nothing to do but watch the men work. Two divers went down, bringing up things that had likely been in the man’s suit pockets. A key for the lodge, a wallet, a wad of sodden paper.

The team spread these things upon a shaky folding table and photographed them one by one. She leaned in to see the wallet, spread open to show the drivers’ license—to show this man was not Steve Miller, but someone else entirely. Wallace Crescent, from Oak Park, Illinois.

The chief bit out a curse and she leaned against the rail, looking into the waters. They moved slowly, reflecting the day’s gray sky between lazy raindrops. Another body meant Steve Miller was still out there somewhere and maybe the youngling wouldn’t come back.

When the chief felt the scene was secure, he sent the coroner on his way, and then turned to her at the rail. The chief wanted another sweep of the lake, as many as it took, to ascertain they hadn’t missed their target. His eyes were unsettled; he had a considerable problem on his hands now and knew it.

She raised the anchor and they set back out, scanning, always scanning. The youngest officer stood beside her, asking where they were on the map. She pointed, showed him where the body had been, and he made marks on the lake map, checking off sections as they scanned through them. Sunken logs, tumbled boulders, the prow of another boat, a rack of mossy antlers looking like a melting candelabra as it peeked out of the lake. The moose she had taken a summer ago, she thought, but didn’t see the skeleton as they passed by. A moose, the young officer guessed, and she nodded, idly.

He marked it on the map with a big M, and they continued on, no sign of their family man emerging from the lake by the time the chief’s patience had worn through. At the boat launch, she kept out of his way, taking the warm Thermos Eileen offered her. It was filled with salty homemade chicken soup.

The chief ordered the lake closed one more day, but said he wouldn’t need her services. She watched him walk away with his men, and radioed Ricky from her truck. Ricky hadn’t turned up a blessed thing, and when she told him they’d found the wrong body, there was a strange pleasure in the whoop of laughter she heard over the channel. She supposed Ricky and Eileen were the closest she had to friends; their reactions provoked something similar in her.

For a second night, she didn’t drive home. She sat in her truck and felt something she hadn’t felt in a long while: utter confusion over what to do. She’d lived here long enough that the days had their own rhythm. Nothing untoward happened here. She lived off the land the way countless other animals did, and one path never interfered with another. One life kept clear of the other. Until now.

Beyond her windshield, the world darkened. Crickets made themselves known, but fireflies rarely roamed this far north so the woods remained unspangled. Only the sky put on its starry show and she watched the distant, dead light, pondering the potential youngling.

It wouldn’t be unheard of—had surely happened before somewhere. In every culture, younglings went off, thinking they knew what they were about, believing they understood the world they inhabited. A wrong step didn’t scare them because they believed themselves unbreakable if not immortal. Wounds would heal, so why not leap off every cliff presented to them?

She found the youngling on the lakeshore where she’d gone in the water the night before. It was no bear, but her own kind. Young, male, it added up. Males often got it into their heads more than females that they couldn’t die or be killed. She thought it was the process of giving birth that did it—carrying another life, birthing it. The experience changed a body, a mind, enough to know how haphazardly life was bound into a physical shell. The slightest mishap could send it fleeing.

The youngling was naked and crouched on all fours, smelling the grass where she’d discarded her clothes. She watched him in silence as he took a mouthful of grass and chewed the taste of her out of it. Piss would have been more effective, but she hadn’t had to mark territory since coming here.

Maybe he caught her scent when the wind shifted, maybe the long line of her shadow edged into the corner of his vision. Either way, he jumped backward at the discovery of her, feet sliding down the gentle bank and into the water; in his panic he vomited the grass he’d eaten, and pedaled backward into the lake.

She moved swiftly, pursuing him into the water. He made no sound but for the splash of water, mouth seemingly sealed against complaint. He dropped beneath the surface and she followed, lunging to take hold of his arms. He felt human, he looked human—they all did—but she knew he was not. As he knew she was something other, so she knew of him.

He also knew he wanted to get away—seemed to instinctively know that she understood his transgressions and had come to settle the matter with him. This territory was not his—he knew it wholly, the way one understands an arm is his own—and further, worse, mistakes had been made. Men had been taken.

She was old and perhaps wise, but he carried with him the luck of youth, the strength—the ability to surprise. She was solid, but he wedged an elbow into her again and again, and slipped from her hold in an explosion of bubbles and mud, and when she could at last clear her eyes, he had gone. She pulled herself from the water and onto the bank where the scent of him lingered, and she vomited water until she was empty. Shock rushed through her—that he was here at all—and she could not think what to do, and so she left. Got back to her boat and her truck and left, until she’d circled back to the RV park. She walked through the pulsing waves of crimson neon. NO VACANCY it flashed, and she wished the youngling understood the meaning.

That he had chased her from her lake was not lost upon her. In the trailer, she showered the muck from her body then lay on the cool floral sheets. She sought the hand beneath her pillow. It looked so small now, withered in death; the man whose hand it had been had not been small. She had taken her time with him and wouldn’t need another meal for some time, but the youngling … He wouldn’t understand the need for care.

She counted the ways on the hand before her—the ways she might help—and the idea of leaving was strongly at the top of her final list. Leave the lake to the youngling, go somewhere new, some place where she would not be noticed. But it was her lake—and she snarled at the idea of leaving it. The youngling would destroy the balance, would be found and—studied. She went cold at the word.

She studied the hand in her grip. It might have been Steve Miller—while she had destroyed the man’s wallet, after extracting $12.76, she had not read his identification. She could recall no photographs, no anything to tie him to the missing Steve Miller. If it was Steve Miller, the police would never find him, deep in her belly.

She drove to the launch come morning, and there was Eileen with the chief. Arguing, she thought, and when Eileen slapped the chief, it was everyone in the vicinity who jerked in response. When she got to Eileen’s side, the woman turned on her heel and vanished into the lodge.

Women, the chief muttered, then looked at the one who remained beside him. He made no apology, only lit a cigarette and took a long drag. He reminded her he didn’t need her, that they’d cleared the lake, then he strode away, toward his men. She followed Eileen, taking a seat at the counter inside where the woman was crying.

“Sam’s gone,” Eileen sputtered. “Chief won’t do a damn thing—says it’s too soon and you know young men,” she continued, imitating the chief, “they wander off, get drunk, and forget to call their mommas.”

But Sam didn’t, she thought. Sam was the responsible kind of offspring, helping his mother at every turn. He wanted to run the lodge someday. She gently touched Eileen’s shaking hand, thinking about mothers and sons and how the youngling might’ve been taking other men down because he saw them as competition. There might have been no reason—she knew that too, because animals were animals and sometimes hunger had no source, only was—but she wanted a reason, if only to explain to Eileen, her human friend.

The lake would open in the morning, but for one more night it was hers. As she had before, she sought the water’s edge, but crouched, listening, until long after sunset. The frogs began to sing, and deep in the trees the cicadas began, but when she opened her mouth to join, every other creature went silent. The sound that came from her was ancient, the kind of call scientists could only dream about knowing. It came from deep inside her, from a nameless organ—for her kind had never been discovered, dissected.

Her call rose from her body like a geyser, a building rush and then an exhale. A sound of isolation, of seeking. She had not called to others of her kind for longer than she could remember, and she did not want to do it now. She closed her eyes and called and called. Birds took nervous flight from nearby trees. The rest of the world did not move, did not breathe. Somewhere, she pictured a child sitting up in bed.

Dad, did you hear—what was it?

I don’t know, honey—listen again.

She sank beneath the cool, dark water and opened her mouth to call again. The water changed the call—or the call changed the water, vibrations moving in every direction all at once. She became a focal point, the center from which all flowed—an antenna, tuning. Come, she said, I am made ready.

The youngling came because he was helpless to do otherwise. Her body was old, but she might mate yet again, and she gave every indication to the youngling that it was time. He approached her with mouth open, dragging in the scent of her. He leaned into her shoulder to smell her more deeply and that was when she smelled Sam on him. Eileen’s offspring. Dead?

Her scent changed—from willing rut partner to hunter. She cursed herself as the youngling thrashed backward. She saw then the blood on him, the blood that had been trailed behind him. Human, crimson to her eyes even in the dark. The youngling fled. She followed.

He was not physically wounded, she thought, but something wasn’t right—he’d been too long alone, had forgotten the ways of their world. He was still a cunning prey, eluding her easily because the scent of human blood masked him. She called to him again, but the lake grew still. The frogs and insects came back to their songs and she listened in defeat. Barefooted, she padded toward the blood trail, bent down and tasted it along with the dirt of the world. The world was old, the blood was new, and in this way she found him, Sam huddled inside a cave the youngling had been using. Sam startled at the sight of her, naked and smeared with mud, blood. He would know her as his mother’s friend, but everything else about her would be unfamiliar. She stood unbowed before him. It was her lake.

“Your mother is at the lodge,” she said.

“You’re—” Sam broke off, shuddering.

What word would he have even chosen?

“Working,” she said, and waited until he had gone before she searched the cave. Bones, scraps of fabric, nothing that made a life, only a layover. She rubbed her hands across the cave walls and pissed a line in the dirt before she left. Outside, under the clear summer sky, she lifted her voice in song once more. It was her lake.

The frogs went silent and the insects, too. In the near distance she heard him, panting and compelled to run toward her omnipresent call. He came faster and faster, on two feet and then four. At the sight of her he stumbled and fled anew. She followed after. There was an unhinged joy in the pursuit; the faster he ran, the louder she called. His knees buckled, body betrayed by instinct, and she rolled him into the long grasses she did not know the name of. His eyes would not focus and fever had made his skin clammy. His neck became fragile between her hands, his body easily limp, pinned beneath a log.

A bear, the papers said in the morning; the animal had been caught, tagged, and relocated. The lake flooded with tourists, with summer money. The chief assured everyone there was no cause to worry because bear attacks were rare, but here were the precautions they could take if they were concerned. Sam and Eileen stood nearby the chief, proof that the police had got their monster.

In the night, when the summer people had bedded down in lodge or boat, Annie lifted her voice to call once more and no bear came answering.

E. Catherine Tobler’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and others. Her novella, The Necessity of Stars, was a finalist for the Nebula, Utopia, and Sturgeon Awards. She currently edits The Deadlands.