Darius in the Lake

The cabin looked both harmless and haunted, and Darius thought he could feel the residue of a least a few people’s memories. All layered and interrupting. He walked in only to be faced with a large stone fireplace. With the flue open, he could hear the wind’s diatribe, and that was the only sound—other than a roar of vacancy coming down both wings. They were to either side of the fireplace. On the right, he saw a kitchen with a bar window that opened over its counter; the wing to the left held a door that was open only a crack. It had a darkness that spoke of depth beyond a closet or a bathroom. He decided to explore before the afternoon’s daylight expired.

Darius set his bag down on one of the five beds that sporadically lined the walls of the living room. They made him think of last night, and he lifted his right hand to his nose. He walked over to the cracked door. The pine trees and gaggle of boulders that stood behind this side of the cabin created shadows from which the wing seemed seldom to emerge. He peeked inside the doorway, didn’t see any corner-crouchers, and pushed it open. There was a powder room on the left, with a mirror ringed in florescence, and a bureau built for corners. He went down the hall, charmed by its piecemeal: past the powder room was a stand-alone shower that had a swinging glass door beyond its drawn curtain; further down was a room that was scarcely larger than the toilet it housed beside a grated magazine rack. The rack held a small stack of magazines, which, as Darius inched forward to see, were mostly Vanity Fairs and Sports Illustrateds from the 90s. He was relieved not to find any gun mags, but a tad disappointed that there was no porn.

At the end of the hall was a closed door which he was hesitant to open, but did nonetheless. It was a bedroom, the bed boarded by a window whose blinds were lowered, but cracked to show only the skin tone of the boulders outside. Darius figured he’d sleep in the other room, wherever that may be.

As he turned and headed back down the hall, Darius hoped his footsteps were the last thing he’d hear for the week. He passed a door across from the shower stall and saw that it led outside to a patio, boxed in by the cabin’s other wing. The door had a single window, rectangular and head-high, and it made Darius think of a widescreen horror film with his passing face made black and gray by the hall’s ambiance. He reminded himself to never look at it if he was to find himself out there at night.

He made his way back through the front room, sidestepping the fireplace’s rebuttals, and paused at the window that back-dropped the dining table. It was large and looked out over the front porch, street, and the houses across the way which peeked through the woods, affording glimpses of glistens off the lake afar. Out here with the curtains drawn, the cabin’s air held comparatively less peril and Darius felt he’d likely be enjoying most of his time here close to that window.

He picked up his bag and went through the kitchen, past the door that led out to the patio. This door had the same widescreen window and he could see the fireplace’s backside shared its chimney with an outdoor firepit. Flagstone carpeted the patio, furnished with a picnic table and a couple skewed benches. Darius went farther past the kitchen, a bathroom (this one unified), and finally a bedroom, all awash in the natural light of mid-afternoon. He set his bag down on the bed and twitched a vibrato as he heard footsteps outside, coming up the front porch steps.

He walked up to the front door as keys rattled outside. Darius noticed his own outfit for the first time, as this was to be the first person he would talk to after getting dressed that morning. He was wearing all different hues of gray and felt again like he was in a black and white film.

He nudged open the front door’s curtain.

It was some kid, maybe thirteen or fourteen. Darius cracked the door and repressed a guffaw when the kid jumped, keys fumbling a tune.

“’Scuse me,” Darius said. “How about not?”

“Oh shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone was staying here right now.”

“You didn’t see my car right there in the driveway?” Darius jerked his head.

The kid looked over at his car. “Oh sure. I thought it might be…” The thought faded. “My name’s Jeff,” he recovered. “This is my family’s place.”

“Yeah well, I’m renting it right now. For the whole week. So…” He looked down and took the key out of the boy’s hand, put it in his pocket. “I’ll put it back under the porch stairs when I leave.”

The kid looked like an actor who’d forgotten his lines. Finally, he said, “Yeah, for sure. Sorry,” and dissolved into: “Dang, I’m a dumbass,” as he made a hasty exit down the porch steps.

Darius denied the reflex to say goodbye. He spread the front door curtain to make sure the kid didn’t circle around the back. Then he locked the door and resumed exploration.

Just walking through and hearing the floorboards adjust, he flashed on the idea of a ghost following him around to make sure he was cool. Probably not. He felt the key in his pocket. That kid, as nice as he seemed, sure was a bad dresser. He was wearing a B.U.M. Equipment parka, for fuck’s sake. It made Darius think about when he got a Top Dawg T-shirt when he was about that age. And more so the resulting shame after he was accosted by skateboarding. He flashed on how skateboarding was still a footnote to most aspects of his life. Including being here, at Tommy’s dad’s friend’s cabin in Orange Lake County. (An apparently haunted cabin too, although Darius had assumed such was the case with almost any cabin in the woods.) Tommy had become one of Darius’s first good friends when he moved to the city. Skating around town, it was good shit from the get. They still skated when life allowed.

Here he was now, via Tommy, getting ready to tackle the second draft of his non-fiction book. He’d decided to re-write it in more of a dramatic tone than an essay, and at this point, each chapter’s metamorphosis was progressively more in need of some cover-up. On that note, he collapsed onto the couch and got out his laptop. He tried on the vibes before deciding that right here would be fine as a work zone, his back to the dining room table and front door so he could keep an ear open for any other creeping kiddies. He set himself up, put some water on for a cup of coffee to dust off the road grogs, and put his phone on silent in the less-haunted bedroom, all while his computer was waking up.

Then he sat, and as if it had been orchestrating its timing, the fireplace groaned. That was when he knew he’d made a good choice to come here to work on the book. The story was about something that he remembered happening in his hometown. It started when two boys went missing one night. They were in high school, on a double date before senior prom. As they ate dinner at the Shovel Bucket, one of them—a kid name Sam—got up to take a leak. He was gone long enough to inspire jokes from his friend Dana about either jacking off, taking a dump, or trying to slip out on the bill. Dana said he’d go check on him. After about twenty minutes, Shelly and Julia (their dates) growled to their waiter to issue the check. The waiter told them they were all good: the bill hadn’t been paid yet, but Sam had run to the car. Said he was getting his wallet after seeing some guy that he knew who was waiting for a table. The waiter was sure he’d be back any minute. Shelly asked who the guy was, who he had seen. After a long look around the lobby, the waiter said that the guy must have split too. The girls went outside to find Sam’s car with the driver’s side door (as well as the glove box) open, their four prom tickets fanned out on the driver’s seat like an exposed hand. Sam and Dana were never seen or heard from again.

Theories abounded and were deepened when both of the girls started making claims thereafter, from being followed around town some days, to waking up with what appeared to be a man’s silhouette in the corner of their room, to getting call slips at school asking them to meet someone at the office—and finding no one. The call slips happened to each of the girls exactly one week apart, down to the hour. First Shelly, then Julia.

On the night of graduation, both girls were involved in a deadly car accident. They were the only two in the car, which their friends had found odd. Shelly and Julia made arrangements that evening to go to a giant party out by the lake and were supposed to head out with a whole gaggle of friends. Nobody saw the accident, and they were far from the party, on a remote road. No one knew how long they’d been wrecked when they were happened upon by a manicurist and llama farm-owner named Cheryl. The coroner noted that their final scene had seemed surprisingly bloodless, and the wounds on the girls’ bodies were uncharacteristic of where they’d been sitting. He could see upon inspection that some of the wounds, despite how grisly they seemed, had already matured more than others. It was possible that they had already been dead when the accident happened. However, this wasn’t odd enough for their town’s rinky-dink homicide department to do anything other than chalk it up to an unsolved mystery. It was concluded by men who had no knowledge of such things that the summer sun had sped up the maturity of their wounds.

Later that year, Sam’s car (which had been sold to someone else shortly after Sam’s disappearance) was found up here at the lake, the driver’s side door open and the car empty besides for photos of each of the four prom dates torn from the yearbook, displayed on the driver’s side seat the way the prom tickets reportedly had on date night. The car was inspected and nothing was found, but it was noted that the car’s current registered owner, a guy named Mike, had been aloof the last few days. His body was later found about a half mile down some nearby trail. He’d been bludgeoned to death. The parks and rec guys who found him were so unfamiliar with the nature of impact wounds, they imagined the culprit to be one of the lake’s resident mountain lions. That’s how they reported it, and thus the case was closed before it even opened.

(There were folks around town who had since been drawn to the outskirts of obsession about these happenings. Darius was one of them. Part of this, he recognized, was because he’d once been in love with a girl named Elissa, who had also left the world mysteriously. Writing his book about the prom dates was his version of bringing dimension to Elissa’s shadow.)

When his friend offered a week at the very lake where the prom’s epilogue had unfolded, Darius considered it a sign. He just didn’t know what for, if not simply the air’s malicious aroma providing a canvas for his headspace. Especially at a haunted cabin.

He stared at his computer screen. Then he stared at the fireplace. He wondered if there was any firewood here. He stared at his screen again. Then he hunched to erupt, hands slam-dancing against his keys. His crouched seat made the occasional aroma from last night and this morning waft, but all thoughts of a girl (named Tara) billowed beneath the words that were elbowing through his mind to the tips of his fingers. He felt good and revised and hardly noticed when the screen’s false daylight replaced that from outside. He leaned back when he noticed that he was ready for a cocktail, which came with a Siamese hunger for food.

He made a few moves on the book to afford an easy reentry and stood up, stretched, growled, turned around to see dusk coasting against the skyline. He remembered that there was an alleged Ethiopian restaurant within a walk that also sold burgers and beer. He grabbed his jacket.

Darius imagined a cigarette as he made his way on foot, through the blue-grays of dusk. The mountain air felt and smelled pure. He couldn’t remember which way to go so he went toward the semblance of a town he’d driven through en route, where he’d seen a video store. He flashed on a joke he’d thought of, about how maybe the prom gents had just been in there the whole time—the place’s only customers since they vanished—with a manager sitting behind the counter, just praying for them to make a selection. But the lake was about forty-five minutes from his hometown, and video stores still flourished at the time the boys went missing.

It would be sweet to rent a horror movie tonight, he figured. Although when he thought of the hallway he’d explored earlier, he reconsidered. Maybe he’d get a rom-com instead.

The hill cruised him down toward a lightened burg that nestled within the trees. It reminded Darius of a stage and he felt like he was about to be a background extra. The lake was both the audience and the spotlight. It offered him some mumbles of a fractured stage fright. A jolt erupted when a cop drove by, until Darius remembered he was a grown-up who wasn’t breaking any laws. The evening was warm but had a dash of the mountain to it, and he could tell it was going to get chilly tonight. He wondered if the fireplace was going to be mumbling all night. The town’s quiet was accented by flashes: a random car’s engine, the wave of a radio, laughter somewhere, a jovial hello, a garage door opening, a tailpipe scraping against a driveway, a knock, a pulse. Otherwise nothing but the breeze. Darius suddenly wished he had an ass-pocket of brandy.

Then a hiss shot directly at him. “Psst.” He ignored it until it was paired with, “Hey.”

Darius stopped walking and looked around. He saw the kid from earlier running diagonally across the street toward him.

“Hey there,” Darius said. “Short time no see.”

“Hi.” The kid ran up and they resumed down the hill. “Whattcha up to?” the kid asked. “Grabbing some food or whatever? I almost couldn’t see you in all that gray. Like that Grateful Dead song. You know—”

“No I don’t. What are you up to? Just randomly running around? Sneaking into other vacationers’ houses?”

The kid looked up at him like he was a Magic Eye poster. “No.”

“I’m kidding.”

“I—mm. I was sitting on my porch and was about to go drink some of my mom’s vodka out in the woods. All my friends are fucking grounded. It was my fault anyway.”

“Them being grounded?”


Darius smiled. “Did you… What did you do? Puke in one of their mom’s beds or something?”

“Huh. Interesting question. No. I had an idea and we—nothing. It’s a long story. I’ll spare you.”


“Nah, I’m gonna go see a girl later. Just me. That’s why I was snooping around the cabin. I was thinking of taking her there. But… obviously not now.”


“Figure I’ll drink some courage or whatever.”

“Wise,” Darius said. “But also, not all girls like it when dudes come see them all twisted. Just keep it reasonable.”

“Really? Yeah. That makes sense. You sure?”

“I mean, I’m only speaking from my own past experience. You have it on you? Can I get a nip?”

“Sure.” The kid reached in his jacket pocket.

“Be cool though. I’m a grown-ass man. Don’t just—oh.” Darius saw that it was in a water bottle. “Never mind. Good move. Thanks.”

They walked on, trading slugs off the bottle. “Pretty lake,” Darius eventually said.

“Lake? I don’t know her. I know River. River Janesen. He’s really good at skating. He can ollie up picnic tables. One time—”

“No. The lake. That lake.” Darius nudged his head. “Sorry to interrupt though. What did River do?”

“He ollied? Up a picnic table at my school.”

“No shit. During class?”

“Yeah,” the kid said. “It was in seventh grade, during lunch one day. Well, kinda. It was one of the last days of school and we had a period where we were just all sitting around outside, doing nothing. It was rad. It was my Nexus class.”

“And guy just started skating?”

“Yeah. I mean, he always had his skateboard at school. Usually in his locker ‘cause no one was allowed to bring a skateboard to class, technically. But he had it with him, I guess because it was seventh and eighth period. End of the day. Some girl in my class told him to skate. She wanted to see how high he could jump—”


“Right. That’s what I meant. That girl liked River, I could tell. She was hot too, but I never bothered having much of a crush. Samantha. She was lightyears past my league. But yeah, he did it really quick and jumped off before our teacher got pissed. She just kinda shook her head. Mrs. Buzinski. She was one of my favorite teachers.”

“Sounds like a good one,” Darius reflected. “Skating during school. I love that.”

“Anyway, the lake. It’s pretty, yeah. I love it. I’m never gonna leave here. All my friends can’t wait to grow up and leave though. Most are claiming they’re gonna move to either San Francisco or New York—er, Brooklyn, I guess. It’s gonna suck kinda when they leave. But yeah, it’s pretty. I took a dump in it once.”

“Shut up. Really? In the lake?”

“Yeah,” the kid said. “Dead serious. I was fishing for crawdads in a big rock pile at Buck’s Beach and I had to go. I would have had to hike all the way back up there, to my house.”

“There’s no bathroom down at the beach?”

“I mean, there’s a Port-A-Potty, but… it’s so bad, they never clean it. I’ll take a piss in it, but I’d never want to… so I took a dump in one of the little holes between rocks. No one knew about it because the first person I told, my cousin Shara, she almost started dry-heaving. It made me feel not as awesome as I’d thought at first.”

“I know the feeling. You should tell your girlfriend about it tonight. Real ice-breaker.”

“Ha! Oh hell no. She’s really clean and rich. Anyway, I’m not sure if she’s my girlfriend yet.”

“Yet.” Darius chuckled.

“What are you up to though?” the kid asked. “On vacation and whatnot?”

“No. Well, kinda. Not really though. I’m working on a book.”

“No kidding? Uh, reading or—“

“Writing,” Darius said. “I’m writing a book.”

“Fuck yes. Is it horror? ‘Cause that house is creepy as hell. I think it’s haunted.”

“Really? Did anything happen there? Any grisly murders or, I don’t know, suicides? Prom queen kidnappings?”

“I better not tell you. Don’t want to ruin your vacation. What’s your book about though?”

“Some weird shit that happened a while ago. Before your time. It was in the foothills. A little cluster of murders, kinda. Kids going to prom. I guess that’s why I’ve got prom queens on my mind.”

“The two girls and disappearing guys from that restaurant?”

“Oh,” Darius said. “I guess you have heard about it.”

“Yeah, totally. My mom’s talked to me about it a lot, only when my dad’s not around. Some of it happened up here at the lake or whatever.”

“Right, but—”

“Well, not the actual prom-deaths and whatnot, but some other stuff that wasn’t… anyway, my mom keeps telling me to be careful when I go to prom in a few years or whatever. Maye there’ll be a copycat killer. Or the real guy. Like I’d go to prom anyway. So stupid.”

“Wait though. You said some of it happened up here? Do you just mean with the guy Mike?”

“No,” the kid said. “There was more than that. My mom was really good friends with those girls. She knew them because they would come up here a lot. They used to have boyfriends up here at some point or something. Some snowboard jocks before they met the prom date guys. Then they met the prom guys and kept coming up here ‘cause they liked it I guess, and had made some friends, like my mom. They would go to my mom’s other friend Kathy’s house all the time, ‘cause she had these big crazy parties that looked like something out of an 80s movie.”

“You watch 80s movies?”

“My dad does. He’s a trip.”

“So, wait,” Darius said. “They came up here—”

“Yeah, I guess they started coming up here a lot with the guys, Sam and Dana. And Kathy was super jealous of them. Even though she had a boyfriend. Mike? Mike, I think. But it turns out her boyfriend had kinda settled on her after Sam and Dana disappeared ‘cause he was secretly gay for them.” The kid’s voice lowered with conspiracy. “Check it out, Mike was totally in love with both of those guys, Sam and Dana. So that same night, prom night, my mom was down there ‘cause she dated a guy from that town who would work up here on the slopes in the winters. They all saw each other that night before the four went to the restaurant. They smoked a joint or whatever. I mean, my mom won’t tell me that but she gets this look in her eye whenever she talks about it. I can tell. So I guess Kathy and the other guy tagged along with my mom because, as I mentioned, the guy was quote-unquote friends with the two dudes. I guess he got pretty weird after they all four left for their prom dinner. Kathy and the guy weren’t together yet—”

“And this was the Mike guy? You’re sure that was his name?”

“Yeah. I think I’m sure. Yeah, I’m sure I guess. But after that night, the maybe-Mike guy was gone for a while. I mean it was a long while, a couple weeks or so. My mom goes over to Kathy’s one day and finds out that he has been staying there the whole time, on the under from her parents. Big house. Then she sees the dead bodies of those guys, all stuffed and preserved and made into sex dolls.”

“Shut the fuck up. Are you—”

“Nah, I’m just kidding. But she really did see the Mike guy over there. She never told anyone. Then suddenly, that guy and Kathy are never apart. It was their party that everyone was going to later, for graduation. At Kathy’s house. You know, the night the girls died or whatever. But check it out, my mom thinks Kathy and Mike planned to kill the girls, but then Kathy was jealous because it came out that Mike was actually all in love with the guys that he may or may not have killed. I mean, Mike had bought the car off of Sam’s mom after he did whatever he did to Sam. How fucked up is that? Kathy told my mom that after the prom night stuff, he became kinda obsessed with both of those girls. Following them around and being stalky and weird. Probably, I don’t know, sniffing their Hershey squirts or whatever—”

“Jesus, dude.”

“So it may have been Kathy who wanted to kill the girls after all. That’s what my mom thinks anyway. Like she was in love with him and got all jealous of his… jealousy I guess, of the girls. It’s all theory though because my mom says she hasn’t seen Kathy since then. She moved away without even telling my mom about it, that summer. Pretty nuts, huh?”

Darius was quiet as they walked. Then he whispered, “Holy shit.” And stopped. “Thanks, kid. Does anyone deliver food here?”

“Yeah. Wonderful III. Chinese food. Kinda good. Get the Kung Pao chicken. Do you eat meat?”

“Yeah. Thanks. Whoa. I’m gonna head back to the cabin. You swear everything you told me is true?”

“I mean, I swear that’s what my mom told me. I can always tell when she’s lying. All I know is she completely believes it. You better not use her name in the book. Or any—”

“I won’t. No. I mean, I can’t even say that it’s a fact, obviously. Would your mom be down to talk about it with me?”

“For a book? Fuck no.”

“Okay, that’s fine. I’ll just put some vague descriptions of their relationships to the four dead kids. I won’t even… I don’t know, but I’m going to re-work some things. A lot of things. Pretty much everything. This is rad. Thanks again.”

“Cool. Did I just give you a new ending?” the kid asked.

“Yes. But also, more like a new beginning. And a new middle. I’ll see ya.” Darius turned and started back up the hill. “Good luck with the skirt. And thanks for the drinks.”

“Don’t forget me in the acknowledgments page.”

“Hell no I won’t. What’s your name?”

“I can’t have my mom know I talked to you, shit. Call me Ballnuts.”

“Nice alias.”

“Good luck sleeping in that cabin,” the kid said. “And remember, ghosts are dead and can’t technically hurt you—”

“Dude. Chill on that shit.”

“That cabin doesn’t have poltergeists either, so you’re okay.”

“Bye, Ballnuts.”

“Later days, grays.”

Darius stumbled back to the cabin to start his new beginning.