This story is by Olga Holtz and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The lake called.
James watched Maria gaze out at the jet black waters, her eyes wide and unblinking. Neither had spoken since they arrived. “A fresh start is just what we need,” James finally said, trying to sound upbeat. From her glance, he knew that he failed.
As darkness claimed their new house, James ascended the creaking staircase to his new bedroom. Four hundred and forty days ago, it would have been their bedroom. But then it would have also been their boring, suburban home — Emily’s bedroom next, her neon-colored toys strewn around the living room.
James’ throat tensed. There was no point in dwelling on that.
A fresh start is just what we need. He drifted into restless dreams. Minutes later, he heard a moan, then a tortured whisper. He awoke with a start, struggling against the tangled sheets. The whisper faded as he lit a candle against the dark.
Opening his bedroom door, he saw a wreath of mistletoe and cypress on the floor. He hadn’t noticed it earlier. He pushed it into the corner. Strange.
A muted whimpering came from Maria’s room. He rushed there. She was thrashing in her sleep, mumbling words he couldn’t understand. She woke up with a shudder as he laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Are you alright?” he was relieved it was Maria he heard. He wasn’t getting mental.
“Yes. Just a bad dream,” she said, avoiding his gaze. “Please go back to bed.”
Next night jolted him up again. Moisture floated in the air. Outside his room, he saw the goddamn wreath on the floor, exactly where he found it last night. Maria’s new age crap was getting on his nerves. He breathed in and out. Nothing he can do about it for now. Maria’s mental state was still too delicate.
James looked around and froze. A trail of wet, shimmering footprints lead down the shadowed hall. Heart racing, he followed the tracks to her room.
She slept peacefully, her long, wet hair spread on her pillow. He thought of waking her up, but a new firmness in her face stopped him.
He tracked her footsteps back to the front door instead. As he opened it, a pyramid of smooth black stones stared at him. James shuddered, then went back inside.
The next evening, he sat hunched at the corner of the deserted local pub. Across the room, the pretty bartender hummed as she stacked glasses. When she offered James a smile, he averted his hollow gaze. He had no right to companionship when his own wife had become a stranger.
Back home, sullen, he watched Maria tend her new garden. All of a sudden, branches of nearby trees gave way. And then he saw them. Half dozen crazies in medieval hats were poking around the garden.
Startled, Maria dropped her trowel. They approached.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” one said, reaching for her hand.
“Me?” Maria said. She didn’t sound too alarmed.
James stood up. “Hey! Leave her alone! You’re trespassing.”
“You belong with us,” another pointed hat said. He looked only at Maria.
“I’m calling the police!” James said.
This must have had an effect: they were then gone just as they came.
“What the hell was that?” James didn’t like it. “You know, maybe coming here wasn’t such a bright –”
“Why? I really like it here,” she said. James decided it wasn’t his time to object.
From then on, it all felt like a nightmare one couldn’t awaken from. Heavy footsteps wandered the house while they slept. Whispers echoed, an insistent susurrus conjured from shadows. There was no reasoning with Maria about leaving the damn place. Her doctors saw nothing unusual. Grief is normal, they said.
James felt trapped. He couldn’t leave her alone. Not after what happened to Emily.
Even daylight brought no respite.
For long stretches of time, Maria would now disappear. James could swear he once saw her in town, speaking with a figure in a pointy hat. By the time he got out of his car, nobody was there. At home, Maria was adamant he was mistaken.
Seeking numbness, James slumped nightly on the same bar stool. Jenny, the striking bartender framed by wild red curls, told him the weirdos were nomads, cultists who worshiped the Lady of the Lake.
“The Arthurian legend? ” he asked.
“Something like that… What’s wrong with your wife?” Jenny finally said.
”A year ago, our daughter Emily passed. She had leukemia.” James swallowed hard. “There was no treatment we didn’t try. Now things have gone from bad to worse. Sometimes I think my wife is haunted by Emily’s spirit.”
It felt better just to tell someone, to feel Jenny’s warm fingers on his hand.
But when James glimpsed shadowy spikes lurking beyond the tree line at midnight, the glint of silver daggers at their waists, he knew he had to confront Maria.
“Where do you go when you disappear?”
Her eyes flashed fiercely. “That is not your concern. I asked you to give me space.”
James had no choice but to find out where she kept going. What twisted rituals were these crazy guys luring his vulnerable wife into?
Once she sneaked outside, he followed silently behind to the lonely lake shore below his house. At the lake, the robed outcasts greeted her with reverence. As she waded in the water, they chanted with feverish ecstasy.
She raised her arms. The nomads sang ancient words in a long forgotten language.
Suddenly, the lake waters rose up, enveloping them all in a shining black caul as they slowly submerged into liquid darkness. Maria reemerged, arising anointed, resplendent, trailing streams of glimmering water. A goddess incarnate.
James fled into the forest, his mind reeling.
Jenny took James’ hand in her delicate grasp. “You cannot blame yourself for Emily’s end. Nor Maria’s tortured mind. You must find some way to heal…”
In the early hours, racked with guilt, James returned to the deathly quiet house after hours spent in Jenny’s bed. Maria stood at the top of the stairs swathed in white.
“Do you think I’m an idiot?” she hissed. “Seeking solace between another woman’s thighs while our daughter is dead?”
James stammered useless denials. Maria’s lashed out, merciless.
“You think I’ve forgotten that day on the beach? Too busy talking up that chick in a Brazilian thong to watch over our girl!”
The image flashed in James’ mind – Emily’s small pale body bobbing limply as he frantically swam against the swirling tide. The slow shake of the EMT’s head as he emerged with her diminutive corpse in his arms.
“No!” James was pale. “I tried to save her! We both did! Look, we knew it was our last trip together. Emily was too sick, she was going to die anyway.”
Maria glared. “Just say it. You wished her dead.”
By dusk the following day, Maria was gone.
No matter how desperately James searched, no traces could be found – only the lingering scent of murky water coiling beneath the floorboards. Panicked, he begged the police to drag the lake. Had his wife been lured to a watery sacrifice?
Law enforcement scoffed, dragging their feet. But after insisting they search the water, James wished he could rescind the urge. One by one, the police dredged up a succession of pale, wide-eyed corpses in dark robes. Their mouths stretched open in soundless screams, their throats slit by their own daggers, leaking crimson spirals. No Maria.
Her last medical tests came in the mail with inexplicable anomalies. The doctors stonewalled James’s frantic questions. He didn’t dare think through what it meant.
Lonely days bled into weeks. The night voices swelled. Wandering the lake shore, talking to himself, James was now shunned by everyone, including Jenny.
Visions tormented him — Emily’s delicate corpse intertwined with bloated cultists… Maria floating beneath the surface, faintly pulsing with luminescence…
The voices called seductively from the black lake, promising oblivion. Shackled by anguish, James finally descended the crumbling shale bluffs at the lapping shore.
“Maria!” he shouted. “I know you’re out there. I know it! I feel it!”
The lake roiled. The water convulsed. A hand broke the surface – long pale fingers ending in slime. A figure emerged, trailing algae like a bridal gown — Maria, eyes clouding over with cataracts, claws tapering her webbed fingers.
As she enfolded James in her embrace, he glimpsed tiny Emily clinging fast to her mother’s back, a luminous water sprite giggling with delight at the reunion.
James sighed with surrender. Through the green haze glowed Emily’s shining face beside her mother’s. Maria and James sunk deeper, oxygen chains loosening. The family drifted together, at peace at last in the silent deep.
Above, the lake dimmed mirror-smooth.
Today, townsfolk swear that on certain nights, a distant bright laughter can be heard, and talk about the Lady of the Lake.