Jack awoke to an empty house and an even emptier stomach. He trudged down the stairs towards the kitchen, grabbed a slice of toast and shuffled towards the back porch to eat—just as he’d done with his mom every morning. But as he swung open the door, he felt a prickle of premonition: today was going to be different.
The morning air felt thick with secrecy, and the forest beyond the porch beckoned Jack into its pulsing green heart. Reason tugged at a corner of Jack’s brain. Like all Sandusky townies, he knew better than to enter the forest that bordered the Lake. “Keep away from the forest, away from the Lake,” his mom used to say every day as he headed to school. School, right, he needed to head to school, he willed himself to remember. But a breeze caressed Jack’ cheek, whispering a song of sweet mystery.
“Just poke around,” the breeze seemed to say or did Jack say it aloud on the empty porch? “I graduate next week, nothing’s holding me back,” sighed the thoughts in Jack’s head, as he laced up his sneakers and slipped on his baseball cap. Into the forest Jack plunged.
As soon as he set foot across the forest line, he became steeped in the plush opulence of the overgrown oaks. The shaggy treetops hung low as if bowing in respect for their honored guest, and the early morning mist danced around the forest floor, teasing his every step. Something wild and free pulled him forward, but secrecy still lingered in the air.
Suddenly, sunlight flooded his senses. As he blinked back disorientation, Jack finally registered what was before him—Lake Erie.
Shocked that he had made it through the entire forest, Jack checked the time on his phone. It was already late afternoon. School was over. He would have to be home soon. But as Jack looked back up from his phone, his eyes became married to the lake’s beauty. The forest fell silent as if it, too, was in awe of the sight before him.
The golden sunlight twirled around the water’s edge in artful pirouettes, banishing any hint of a shadow from its presence. In the luminous glow of the afternoon sun, the lake glimmered as clear as moonlight, reflecting the clear blue sky in a smudged likeness. Jack found himself at the water’s edge, taking care not to touch her, worried that his human roughness might bruise or insult her.
“Hi,” Jack said with a small wave.
The shriek of his phone alarm startled Jack back from the water’s edge. Dinner. With Dad. Now. With one last longing glance, Jack spun on his heel and flew through the woods back home.
When he got home, Jack kicked off his shoes and slid into his regular seat across from his dad at the dinner table.
“Where’d you go after school? I didn’t hear you upstairs,” Mr. Keller huffed as he cut through the chicken dinner before him.
“Group project for… history, I had to stay after to work on it.” The lie sounded awkward in Jack’s mouth, but he knew his dad would be mad if he found out Jack had skipped school. “It’s actually about the local history of Lake Erie,” Jack continued. “I was wondering if you could tell me the myth again?”
Mr. Keller guffawed.
“They’ll teach anything these days in school huh. Your grandma always said there was a darker past to that myth.” Mr. Keller rubbed between his brows as if he was trying to fish the myth out of his mind.
“It was during the witch trials. I think it was the town’s pastor that had…well…hurt this girl that was about your age.” As Mr. Keller shifted uncomfortably in his chair, Jack crept towards the edge of his, hanging off of every word. “But when she spoke out against him, he accused her of being a witch and well, they drowned her.”
“You probably remember the rest that your grandma used to tell you. Her being a siren and luring men to their death one day out of every year and all that,” Mr. Keller scoffed, stuffing a piece of chicken into his mouth. “Obviously that last part is bull, but the townies will believe anything. They’re too bored,” Mr. Keller trailed off.
They continued eating in silence, the room only filled with their soft munching until Jack asked to be excused.
“Can I go visit mom?” Mr. Keller nodded in response, focused on the bones still scattered on his plate. He was always like that when it came to mom—mute and inscrutable.
Jack pushed back from the dinner table, wincing at the screeching of the chair legs against the kitchen tile. He swept away his dishes and headed outside.
Her grave stood alone in the center of their back lawn, nestled in the warm summer grass. As he neared, Jack’s eyes skimmed over the fading engraved words.
“Hey Mom,” Jack said as he sat down cross-legged next to her gravestone. He breathed deep. “So…I may have skipped school today, but please don’t be mad,” he rushed. “I promise! It was so worth it. I found it—the lake everyone always talks about. Lake Erie! And it was…breathtaking…God, I wish you were here to see it…I know you would’ve loved it.” Jack quieted for a moment.
Even after four years, he still missed her. He would always miss her. She was the one who taught him his first chord on the guitar and bought him his very first vinyl. She was the one who eagerly listened to each of his awkwardly written lyrics and sang duets with him, filling their home with warming melodies. But now, their home felt empty. Silent. Cold.
Jack hadn’t played his guitar since his mom had passed—hadn’t even picked it up once in the four years that she was gone. He had tried once, but it was a betrayal to her memory. No song he ever wrote, or sang, or played would ever be good enough without her sweet soprano.
When her light dimmed, so did Jack. As he passed familiar faces in the narrow school hallways, he pulled his cap low over his eyes and stuffed his earbuds in, entreating the floor to swallow him whole. He started taking the long way home too, just to escape their suffocating stares and vapid conversations. Who cared that Jenna was now dating Evelyn or that golden boy Lucas was caught cheating on a history test? All Jack cared about was that his mom was gone.
They didn’t understand what it felt like to go home to an empty house—vacant of his mother’s love. They didn’t understand what it felt like to want to share everything with someone and being unable to. They didn’t understand what it felt like to live in a town filled with constant reminders of someone you loved. And he couldn’t explain—wouldn’t explain. It hurt too much to put into words. So he didn’t. It was easier that way.
Jack stood up to leave, running a soft finger along the curve of her grave.
“I might go back to see Erie tomorrow again…Don’t worry, I promise I’ll be safe. It seems harmless anyways.” Jack smiled with a sigh. “See you later Mom, love you.”
That night as he lay in bed, the lake invaded his thoughts. Jack couldn’t possibly imagine the savage waves described in the Lake Erie legend. As a kid, he was led to believe that Lake Erie was a violent seductress who held no mercy for those who approached it. But now, he was resolved that mankind must’ve injected lies after lies into the legend.
He also wondered whether ripples from a skipping stone made her ticklish or if she too was watching the same night sky freckled with silver stars. As thoughts of her lulled him to sleep, love quietly seeped into his body, becoming part of the oxygen he needed to breathe, so much so that in the absence of her, he began to choke.
During the next two weeks, Jack spent every waking moment he had with her, Erie, skipping school to sneak out. While sometimes they sat side by side, other times, he would talk to her, read her passages he’d written, or play her music he thought she’d enjoy.
Jack was happy to keep the lake company. After four years of isolation, Jack felt truly alone. But when he was with the lake—with her—he felt like he was regaining a part of himself that he’d buried with his mother.
Each day he reluctantly parted from her. But distance did not dampen his desire, she consumed his mind, body, and soul.
One afternoon, as he sprawled next to the lake on a large boulder with a book in hand, a feminine voice echoed through the clearing.
The voice enveloped him, feeling both close by and afar. Jack scoured the woods until the sun hung low in the sky and it was almost time for him to return home for dinner.
As he went to pick up his belongings that sat by the water’s edge, Jack leaned over the boulder, stretching his fingertips down towards the lake to say goodbye. The water looked clearer than usual, the mirror image of his hand looked almost tangible.
But as he drew back his hand, the mirror image kept reaching toward him until all at once, it broke out of the water. Suddenly, there was a girl flailing before him, gurgling for help. Without thinking, Jack grabbed the strange girl and hoisted her up next to himself.
“Thank you,” the girl before him managed to say between coughs for air. A girl. A whole ass girl. What. The…. Jack lifted his baseball cap, running a wet hand through his hair in disbelief.
“N-no problem,” replied Jack, shaking the apparent shock off his face.
“Are you okay? Here, take my jacket. You must be freezing.” After a moment of silence, she glanced up and he became locked in her gaze. Her eyes glinted with familiarity. With a soft chuckle, she replied,
“You’re exactly as I imagined you.”
“Wha- Wh… But we don’t know each other— who are you?”
“I thought you’d be more excited to meet me,” she teased. “I’m Aerienne. Erie for short.” Erie. he thought. The lake. The legend. Confusion tangled his thoughts, but something deeper inside of him promised that this was real. She was real.
“Aerienne. Erie,” he sighed. Jack cradled her name in his mouth.
“I’m real.” The air slowed around them and the background blurred. For the first time, Jack looked at her, really looked at her. Her jet black hair was matted to her ivory skin and her soaked white dress clung loosely to her body. She had whisky-colored eyes with the sweetest threads of caramel woven throughout. The sun bounced off her pale skin as if reflecting the scenery around them. He took in every single detail of her, afraid that in an instant he would wake from this dream and she would disappear.
“I- I’m Jack.” He stuck an awkward hand out, leaning deeper into her gaze.
“It’s nice to meet you Jack.” Her words had a soft lilt. He loved how his name danced off her tongue. Her dulcet voice was thick and indulgent. She slipped her hand into his. She really isn’t a mirage. She looked back at the sun and wondered aloud. “What time is it? I’m sure your father will be expecting you soon for dinner and you know he hates unpunctuality.”
“But how, I’ve been alone… The water… How were you in the lake?” Erie cocked a brow.
“You don’t know do you?” Just as she was about to say more, Jack’s alarm for dinner rang. “Lucky me, saved by the bell. I guess that’ll just have to be a story for another time,” Erie said, resting her hands in her lap.
Jack looked at the forest and then back at her.
“I want to stay. If that’s okay with you. I just…want to know more about you.” Jack knew the consequences of staying. But he couldn’t bring himself to leave. So he didn’t.
“You really know how to make a girl blush,” she smiled. Jack and Erie spent the rest of the evening sitting across from each other chatting about their favorite smells and sounds, their family, their childhoods in Sandusky, their obsessions, their fears, their deepest desires.
She told him of how she would spend the day barefoot, picking mushrooms in the forest, how she waded through streams and dug at the roots of towering oaks because that’s where the best mushrooms are born. She told him about the bustling markets, filled with people bartering goods and gossip alike. She told him about how her older brother would sneak her pastries from the day’s market and how she would gobble them down, giggling at her parents’ oblivion.
He told her how the town had changed—how brick buildings and shiny window fronts replaced the rustic stalls of her time—but how the townies had stayed the same—still nosy. He told her of his favorite store in all of town—the record store his mom used to take him to. He told her about the time he fell in love with the stars when he was ten and for a straight month, he refused to sleep inside, even though it was the dead of winter. He told her how he used to ride around on his bike with his friends playing ding dong ditch. But now, he spent most of his time isolated in his room listening to his mom’s records. They both had that in common—being lonely.
“So, what do you like to do for fun besides being a troublemaker?” Erie asked, smirking. Jack blushed.
“Oh well… I used to play guitar, but I don’t really do that anymore,” Jack looked at his hands. The nails on his left hand dug into his right to steady himself. He inhaled sharply, his head shooting back up. “Since my mom died.”
“Oh Jack,” she whispered, inching ever closer to him. She rested a soft hand on his shoulder in sympathy. “I’m so sorry.” They hesitantly leaned into each other, nervous that any sudden movements would disrupt the moment. They settled into each other, resting forehead against forehead, eyes closed just enjoying each other’s company and for the first time in forever, neither of them felt lonely.
“She would love you… My mom, I mean…she would’ve,” Jack murmured, eyes still closed. Erie peeked open one eye to study Jack’s face. She memorized every curve, freckle, and wrinkle, etching every detail on the walls of her mind. She noted how his long lashes fluttered against her skin and how his brown hair ruffled in the mild summer wind. She noted the small dent that scarred the bridge of his nose and the small freckle hidden among the hairs of his left brow. She noted how his lips formed a soft, sad smile. She knew he hadn’t laughed in a long time—a laughter that left your entire body aching—and she hoped that he would soon. He deserved that much.
“Open your eyes,” she breathed. Erie wanted to remember his eyes too. She found a pair of honest green eyes staring back at her, a hue that spoke of a newborn spring—of fresh buds and young clovers. The evergreen of his eyes sang a chorus of strength, of resilience, of an ability to endure harsh winters. Staring past her reflection in his eyes, into his soul, she knew he was different—understanding, compassionate, truly kind.
They fell back and stretched out on the rock, lying side by side. The moon was now high in the sky, watching over them like a mother who comes to sing a soft lullaby, to ease her children into a star-filled night. As they curled into each other, their bodies meshed into one—just as their souls had. It felt like they had known each other for a lifetime.
“I could just lay here forever,” Jack exhaled.
“Forever…” Erie lingered on the infinitude of the word, turning her head away from Jack and loosening her grip on his hand. Jack turned to his side, propping himself up with one arm.
“Are you alright?” he asked, brushing a stray strand of her ebony hair out of her eyes. Erie swiftly sat up, plastering a smile on her face. But Jack could feel her energy had shifted. Something was off.
“You should go home. It’s late and your dad is probably worried. We can always see each other again tomorrow.” Her eyes widened and her lips tightened into a firm smile.
“What’s up?” Jack asked. Erie stayed quiet for a moment before leaning into him. She nestled into a small crater in his chest. He began stroking the midnight colored hair that trickled down her back. He noticed how the moon’s soft glow lay draped across her alabaster shoulders like a silk veil, making her appear almost incandescent.
“My time on the surface is almost up. I have to go back tonight,” Erie whispered into his chest, her voice muffled.
“Someone needs to be tied to the lake, Jack. There’s no other way.”
“Maybe there’s a loophole we can try. Don’t worry we’ll find a way.”
“Trust me, in the three hundred years that I’ve been stuck here, I’ve tried everything possible.” Each word felt heavier than the last, punctuated by her defeat.
“Then we’ll try the impossible.”
“Jack, no please. I’m tired of fighting when I know there’s no way out. The only way for me to find true peace is if someone takes my spot as guardian so that I may finally die. But that’s just not possible. So I need to go back. But you…” She looked up at him and reached for his face. He relaxed his cheek deeper into her hand.
“You have so much life to live and you can’t let me hold you back. My fate is set in stone, but yours isn’t.”
Jack opened his mouth to object, but she continued with tears flooding her eyes.
“Promise me you’ll live a full life.”
Erie closed her eyes, melting even deeper into his chest. Jack could feel their heartbeats thump in sync. They spent a while breathing each other in.
“Thank you,” she whispered into him, “for treating me as human.”
Erie tore herself away and began walking into the lake. She was careful not to look back because if she did, she knew she wouldn’t be able to part from him. But just as she was ankle deep in the cold, unforgiving lake, she felt Jack’s arms wrap around her waist.
“Erie,” Jack spun her around to meet his eyes. “Meeting you, loving you. You. It’s enough. You have fulfilled me and there is nothing else in this life that I could ever want. You deserve an existence not spent wasting away by this damned lake. Say hi to my mom for me.”
With the moon almost at its peak, Jack pushed Erie back onto the shore and fell back, feeling watery chains pull him deeper and deeper into the lake. And as his body grew weak and his mind began to lose consciousness, he smiled, knowing that he was drowning for the one he loved.