The mother stood in the spindly shadow of the lifeguard tower, first frantic, then numb. She told the young man on duty she couldn’t find her daughter. His shrill whistle drew the swimmers in. Barely a teen himself, he kept his calm, formed volunteers into a neat line from shortest to tallest. We worked our way into the marked-off area of the lake, the older children searching the shallows, the taller men treading the water nearest the diving dock all the way out to the algae-covered buoys. An ambulance appeared, maneuvered through the crowded parking lot and bumped up onto the curb to wait. We submerged at the sound of the lifeguard’s whistle until we felt sand and clay, came up with handfuls of nothing. The day was too bright for anything more serious than sunburns, but there we were like human needles sewing the sky to the surface of the lake.
We’d finished seven or eight dives when the missing girl strolled from the stand of pine trees, sappy green needles stuck to the bottom of her feet, a white Styrofoam cup in one hand, a purple change purse in the other. Her mother screamed when she saw her, bolted across the towels and blankets, and began slapping the back of her daughter’s thighs with one of her flip flops until bright red welts sang on her white flesh. No one tried to stop her. The girl’s soda splashed on the sand, disappeared. The light knifed from metal bumpers and windshields in the parking lot. The beachgoers rose as one and shook the sand from their blankets as if the sky threatened to open up and drown us all.
Young mothers in their bikini tops and cut-off jeans pulled their small children close and herded them across the hot asphalt toward their cars. They lit cigarettes and checked their pockets for car keys. I was too young to understand what moved them to leave. It was as if we’d dodged a disaster, as if something hungry lurked in the tree line past the dumpsters or the calm blue water out beyond the ropes. A deep breath we all let go. For weeks I would catch my mother looking at me or my brother, biting her lips, and when I met her gaze she’d look away. I didn’t swim in the lake the rest of that summer; strange dreams of water, pale bodies rising up to touch the soles of my wrinkled feet.
Brent Fisk is a writer from Bowling Green, Kentucky who has had work appear in Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Fugue, and Folio among other places. He still does not like to swim in lakes.