I peered over the edge of the cliffs, squinting to glimpse the water below. The full moon cast just enough light that the lake shimmered, the surface smooth as glass and black as tar. Leaping off the rocky cliff and plummeting fifty feet into icy water held no appeal to me. I’d done it before, dozens of times, but the lake suddenly felt unfamiliar, foreign. While I couldn’t see the branches and roots protruding from the rock face, I knew they were there. Not to mention the ghost stories and urban legends associated with the lake, the ones about dead bodies trapped below the murky surface. In the light of day, it was easy to ignore the tales, but in the darkness images of pale corpses haunted my thoughts.
“Stop stalling, Eel!” Devon Holloway, my best friend, prompted. She took a swig from her beer and winked one blue eye over the top of the can.
Devon’s boyfriend, Rick Hanes, chimed in next. “What’s wrong, Eel? You scared? I thought nothing fazed the great Endora Lee Andrews.”
Rick was one of my least favorite people, so his teasing irked me more than it should have.
“I’m not scared,” I retorted, turning away from the edge to glare at Rick.
Devon’s boyfriend downed the rest of his beer, crushed the can, and belched loudly. “Then what are you waiting for?”
I silently cursed Devon and my two other closest friends—Elizabeth Bowers and Mandy Cowen—for planning this surprise birthday celebration. The trio had burst into my bedroom, dragged me to the back seat of Devon’s ancient Chevy, and then brought me to Caswell Lake. More of our friends had been waiting in the woods with a roaring bonfire, plenty of cheap beer, and fruity wine coolers.
Thankfully, Devon had at least grabbed my bathing suit while Elizabeth and Mandy hauled me from beneath my comforter; otherwise I would’ve been standing in front of thirty people wearing only my unmentionables. That would have been humiliating.
Elizabeth stumbled to where I stood shivering in the green two-piece. “You only live once, Eel,” she slurred, wrapping a thin arm around my waist. Her long, blonde ponytail smacked me in the face when she whipped her head around to look at me. “If it makes you feel better, we can jump together.”
As nice as the offer was, there was no way I was letting Elizabeth join me in the swan dive. Her inebriated state wasn’t going to help her jump out far enough to clear the obstacles on the way down.
“You should probably stay here, Liz,” I told my friend kindly.
“We didn’t climb all the way up here to watch you stand on that ledge,” Cooper Byrd called. The good-looking junior joined Liz and me, slinging his arm around my friend’s shoulders to support her. She was unsteady and close to sending us both tumbling over the edge. “You’re an adult now, Eel. Man up!”
Unlike Rick, Cooper’s teasing was good-natured; the soccer player didn’t have a mean bone in his lean body. And he was right. My friends had gone to the trouble of planning this celebration. Of course, diving off the cliff hadn’t been on the original itinerary. The plan had been booze, music, watching the guys spit high-proof liquor into the bonfire, and maybe a little swimming. Then some guy I didn’t even know got it in his head that making the leap was somehow equivalent to declaring my independence. His brilliant idea spread like wildfire, and now here I was about to take the icy plunge with a full audience.
“Jump, jump, jump,” Cooper began chanting. Someone else started a slow clap that made me feel like it was time for the game-winning foul shot in a feel-good sports movie.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, Eel,” Mandy spoke up tentatively. Her words were barely audible over the others.
I gave my friend a small smile, silently thanking her for her support. For Mandy, defying our peers was a big step. She usually tried to go with the flow, never disturbing the status quo.
“Jump! Jump! Jump!” The refrain picked up speed, growing more insistent until the words blended together in an indecipherable jumble.
Resigned to my fate, I sighed. Now or never, I thought.
“Okay, guys, back up so I can get a running start!” I called to the expectant crowd.
My proclamation was met with whoops and cheers from my friends, and I laughed despite my growing trepidation. As I walked ten feet back from the ledge, my stomach was queasy and my head spun.
Calm down. This is no big deal, I lectured myself. The worst things down there are probably lost bikini tops and stray sneakers.
The crowd chanted my nickname repeatedly. “Eel! Eel! Eel!”
With one last deep breath, I went for it. Pebbles and dirt clung to my bare feet. My heart hammered against my rib cage as I ran towards the edge. When only six inches separated solid ground from empty air, I leapt, pushing off with all the strength I could muster. The free fall was exhilarating, like the Tower of Doom at the Westwood County Carnival. Wind whipped my auburn hair across my face. An involuntary scream of thrill and fear tore from my throat. I bicycle-kicked my legs, anticipating the moment they would break the water’s surface. My friends’ cheers were silenced by the air whooshing in my ears as my body dropped like a rock.
Much too soon, the ride was over. My feet hit the cold water, followed by my legs and stomach. Finally, my head dipped below the surface, abruptly cutting off the scream still coming from my lips. Water washed over my taste buds, a disgusting flavor of copper and fish. I gagged reflexively. A slimy vine slid over my right foot as I kicked for the surface.
Not a dead body, not a dead body, I chanted inside my head.
Kicking harder, I was suddenly desperate to get out of the water. The vine traveled up to my ankle and wrapped around my lower leg. It felt like fingers were digging into my flesh as it squeezed my calf muscle.
I started to panic. Air, I need air, I thought. Surface, must get to the surface.
Fear made me irrational. I struggled against the vine. It not only prevented me from swimming upward but felt like it was actively pulling me down.
Think, Endora, I ordered myself. Don’t lose it now.
Diving down, I clawed at the impediment encircling my leg. The vine was silky, smooth, and impossible to tear. The pressure on my calf increased at the same time a second vine coiled around my other leg. In the next instant, something that felt like long, bony fingers intertwined with mine in a perverse imitation of lovers holding hands. I twisted my wrists, trying to wrench my hands free. Blood roared in my ears, and my heartbeat kicked into overdrive.
It’s your imagination, I told myself.
I opened my eyes, praying I’d find myself tangled in a fisherman’s net or something equally benign. The cold water stung, and I immediately regretting the decision. The water was dark and murky with limited visibility. Lack of oxygen must have made me hallucinate, because I swore that eyes stared directly into mine. Shiny and black like polished pebbles, they were set deep in a face so white that it emitted an ethereal glow. The radiance illuminated a mass of blue-black braids sprouting from the creature’s head. Those braids flowed all around me with a life of their own, slithering through the water to coil around my legs and arms.
My scream was silenced by the water. Air bubbles floated in the space between my face and the hideously beautiful creature. More of the awful-tasting water filled my mouth.
No, no, no! This can’t be happening, I thought with increasing terror. This is not real. Closing my eyes, I started counting to ten and prayed the imaginary attacker would be gone when I opened them.
Three. I was on three when those slimy fingers released mine, moved to my throat, and squeezed.
My chest burned, and my head was fuzzy. The bit of air that remained in my lungs was quickly running out. With the creature actively squeezing the life out of me, it hardly mattered. I dug my nails into the fingers around my throat. The creature’s skin was rubbery, and I couldn’t find purchase. My nails couldn’t puncture it, and the attempts were pathetically ineffective.
Terrified by the hallucination and frustrated by my inability to save my own life, I began to thrash about wildly. A sharp pain in the sole of my left foot cleared the mental cobwebs temporarily, and I doubled my efforts to break free. My chest ached with the need for air. My limbs were heavy, as if the blood had turned to lead in my veins.
Throwing my head back, I craned my neck in a last-ditch attempt to sever my attacker’s hold. Something sharp pierced the base of my skull. Stars exploded behind my closed lids.
A melodic male voice whispered in my ear. “Welcome home.”
Then, blackness consumed me, and I felt nothing.
Devon once told me that drowning was an excruciating way to die—she was a wealth of useless and often macabre knowledge. It wasn’t, though. Drowning felt like floating and weightlessness.
Tingles started across my back and behind my knees. At first, the sensation was pleasant. As feeling and awareness returned, it felt like barbed wire was wrapped around my abdomen and legs, each barb pricking my skin repeatedly. A strange buzzing noise filled my ears, like the hum of an old radiator. Suddenly, I broke the surface of the water. The air I sucked in burned my lungs.
When I struggled weakly, the wires tightened.
“You’re safe,” a voice assured me.
All concepts of space and time ceased to exist. One minute, the pins and needles feeling was all-consuming. The next, it was gone. The sensation was replaced by a coldness that seemed to seep through my pores and settle in my bones. I trembled uncontrollably. The shaking was so violent that my teeth clanged together. When I tried to speak, my lips were too numb to form words.
“This should help,” the voice said.
Soft fabric draped over me, forming a protective barrier between the chilly air and my exposed skin. The scent of Old Spice filled my nostrils, triggering memories of my father. He’d worn the same brand of aftershave. Tears prickled behind my eyes at the thought. I hadn’t talked to him today. I always talked to my father on my birthday.
“Shh. You are going to be okay, Endora,” the voice soothed.
Strong arms lifted me, one under my shoulders and one under my knees. My cheek pressed against something hard and wet, and the piney smell intensified. I inhaled deeply again. Breathing in the scent, I thought about how my father used to carry me to bed after I’d fallen asleep on the living room couch.
The second influx of air was too much for my oxygen-deprived organs. I coughed, and my mouth began to water in that way it does right before you throw up.
“I’m gonna be sick,” I croaked through chattering teeth.
The person holding me set me down on the grassy shore of the lake. Cold fingers brushed my skin and held the clumps of wet hair while lake water spewed from my mouth. A part of me felt like I should be embarrassed. That part was overshadowed by the jolt of pain that shot through my right cheek. In the next instant, the fingers released my hair. Their owner emitted an audible gasp.
“Sorry,” the voice mumbled. The person pulled the hair back from my face again without touching my skin.
Even after all the water was out, my stomach continued to cramp uncomfortably. I dry heaved repeatedly, silently begging my body to stop. Cold sweat beaded along my hairline and under my arms. The grass was cool and wet, and I pressed my cheek against the blades. Pounding started at the base of my skull; it felt like someone was hammering my head from the inside. I moaned, immediately wishing I hadn’t when the pounding grew more intense.
“You’re safe now, we just need to get you some dry clothes,” my savior said.
The situation was becoming clear. This person—the one holding my hair and promising that I was safe—had pulled me from the water. He’d saved my life. For no reason I could discern, since I had no idea who he was.
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and rolled onto my back to glimpse the person I was forever indebted to. Opening my eyelids felt like ripping off a scab. The ordinary act was extraordinarily painful. Through small slits, I peered up into the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. Two green irises returned my gaze. I blinked several more times to bring them into focus. The eyes were brilliant emerald lights in the darkness, and I was captivated.
“Do you know your name?”
I nodded, too embarrassed to speak. My rescuer, who’d just witnessed me emptying the contents of my stomach on the grass, was a boy about my own age. Not even my mother had seen me this vulnerable. At least, not since I was old enough to use the bathroom by myself.
“What is it?” he prompted, refusing to let me off that easy.
“Eel,” I whispered. My throat was raw, and the single word was painful on my vocal chords. The creature in the water that tried to strangle me came flooding back in one sharp burst of memory. I shuddered. The experience felt so real. In my mind’s eye, I saw the dark eyes staring into mine and felt the bony fingers around my throat.
“Eel?” The boy said my name like he hadn’t heard me correctly. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I snapped, edgy from the memory of the lake monster. With effort, I softened my tone. “Eel’s a nickname, though.”
As a baby, my father had christened me Eel—like electric eel—after the mobile that hung above my crib mysteriously stopped working every night. Each morning, without fail, he replaced the battery. He joked that I singlehandedly kept the battery companies in business. The nickname stuck around, even though my father had not.
When I tried to sit up, the effort was painful. Defeated, I slumped back to the grass. The boy wrapped the blanket tighter around my body. He placed one hand on the small of my back and the other on my arm, helping me to sit up.
“Short for Endora Lee,” he muttered, more to himself than me.
Narrowing my eyes, I stared at him. How did he know that? Then, I realized it wasn’t the first time he had said my name; the guy had called me Endora when he first covered me with the blanket.
“How do you know my name? Have we met?” I asked. An worrying sensation crept up my spine. Without warning, I felt an intense urge to get away from him. Far away from him.
“You aren’t bleeding, that’s a good sign,” he replied. His efforts to dodge my question were noticeable as he carefully examined the base of my skull.
Parting wet clumps of my hair, his fingers brushed the swollen goose egg protruding from my head. A crackle of electricity sparked in the air, and a jolt of pain ricocheted through my body.
“Ow!” I exclaimed, pulling away from him.
“Sorry,” he muttered, averting his eyes from my face to stare at his hand. “Did that hurt?”
Touching the welt hurt, but that wasn’t why I’d pulled away. It felt like a current of electricity had flowed from his fingertips to my head. Judging by the way he was inspecting his hands, he hadn’t expected it either.
We sat in silence for a long moment, both of us looking at anything but each other. Water lapped the grassy bank, tree branches cracked in the distance, and crickets chirped all around us. The longer we were alone, the more uncomfortable I felt. The boy gave me the creeps.
When I finally did look at him, I couldn’t tear my gaze away. I admired the perfect slope of his straight nose. His golden-brown hair dripped water. With the addition of full lips and those intense green eyes, he was stunning. Like a magnet, he drew me toward him.
“Endora Lee?” His face was so close to mine, the breath fanned my cheeks and warmed the skin.
“What happened in the water?”
“What?” I stuttered, surprised by his question. Without thinking, I rubbed the spot on my neck where the creature had wrapped its slimy hands. The skin radiated heat, a sharp contrast to the clammy skin lower on my throat.
“What happened in the water?” he repeated evenly.
Uneasy laughter bubbled up in my throat. There was no way I was discussing my hallucinations in the lake. He would think I was nuts.
At least three people were calling my name. The sound of breaking branches and crunching pebbles grew steadily closer. Devon was among the searchers—I recognized her voice. The other voices were harder to place, but I was pretty sure I heard Elizabeth and Mandy in the background.
“Over here,” I called back.
My voice was weak, and I doubted Devon and the others heard me. The boy and I stared at each other, like we were weighing the other. Conflicted, I couldn’t decide what the verdict was. On the one hand, I was unusually drawn to him. Not romantically attracted, but more like I was physically drawn to him. Even though we were practically touching, I wanted to be closer. No, I needed to be closer to him.
As soon as I leaned toward him, fear made me draw back. Something about him put me on edge. Given that I’d nearly drowned and he’d been the one to save me, it made no sense.
“How do you feel?” he asked, breaking the awkward silence.
“I’ve been better, but I’ll live,” I mumbled.
“Yes, you will.”
The words were innocuous. It was the exact response that I’d have expected if I’d given it much thought. Nevertheless, they gave me chills. It was like there was a hidden meaning behind the response, one that he thought I should infer.
In the distance, Devon and my other friends still called my name, their urgency escalating.
“Endora Lee Andrews!” Devon’s voice was louder and more insistent than the others.
I thought again about how this boy knew my name. Had we met? I studied his face, searching my memory for a previous encounter. There was nothing. Not even the slightest spark of recognition.
“I’m over here,” I repeated, louder this time. Since I’d given only vague instructions, I searched my surroundings for a landmark. Water and trees were the only things I saw, nothing more distinctive than that.
“By the water, Dev,” I shouted unhelpfully.
Returning my attention to the guy, I found him staring at me with such intensity that I recoiled. Fighting the urge, I returned his gaze and lost myself in the depths of his dilated pupils. My fight or flight instinct was a nagging voice in the back of my mind, demanding that I choose flight. A different, stronger instinct won out: the desire to be close to him.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Our faces were so close, if either one of us moved, we’d bump noses. My breathing was shallow while his was ragged. The guy’s chest rose and fell in rapid succession.
The footsteps drew closer until the crackling of branches was just behind us. “I’ve got her!” Devon shouted.
The crunching leaves and low voices were right behind us, but I didn’t acknowledge my friends.
“I should go.” Even as he said it, the guy made no move to leave.
“Wait,” I reached for his fingers. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
The guy drew his hand back, like the thought of my touch repulsed him. Though his mouth formed no response, he continued to stare into my eyes as if trying to see my soul. We stayed like that, gazes locked and ignoring my friends. It felt like an eternity passed. Despite the growing unease in the pit of my stomach, I didn’t want him to leave. Intrigued and mesmerized, I didn’t want the moment to end.
“Eel?” Devon asked tentatively.
The sound of my name broke the trance. He quickly stood and backed away from me. Devon rushed forward, followed by Mandy and Elizabeth.
“Are you okay?” Devon demanded. “I was so fucking scared. You didn’t come up from the water quickly. It was way too long! We couldn’t see well, so Rick thought maybe you’d surfaced and we just missed it.”
Devon wrapped her arms around my shoulders and drew me into a fierce hug. Soaking wet, I protested. Still, the comfort of a familiar person was too nice to struggle against for long. Returning her hug, I clung to my best friend.
Over her shoulder, I watched my rescuer disappear into the woods. With the sight of his retreat, I wondered if I’d ever see him again.
“Guess I overreacted, huh?” Devon muttered.
“What?” I asked, only half-listening to Devon.
“We thought you’d drowned,” Mandy said. Even in the darkness, I could make out the relief in her hazel eyes.
“No, I didn’t. That kid…did you see the one who was sitting here with me when you showed up? He saved me.”
Devon pulled back and stared at me with confused blue eyes.
“Really?” she asked skeptically. “Who is he?” Turning, my best friend peered into the dark woods.
I followed her gaze, but he was gone. “I’m not sure,” I mumbled.
“Have you ever seen him before?” Devon asked.
Even as I shook my head no, I wondered if I had. He’d known who I was, did I know him too?
“Was he alone?” Mandy interjected. “What’s he doing out here?”
Shrugging, I realized I hadn’t even considered those questions before. An articulate answer was beyond me.
Rick frowned at us, like we were being overly dramatic. “Probably the same thing we were doing before Eel—” Cooper silenced him with an elbow to the ribs.
“It doesn’t matter right now,” Devon said. Returning her attention to me, my best friend inspecting my face for signs of damage. “Are you hurt?”
“I hit my head, but I’m okay.”
Devon looked unconvinced.
“Really, Dev,” I insisted. “Let’s just get out of here. Where are my clothes?”
“I’ve got them,” Elizabeth supplied. When she stretched her arm towards me, a pair of jeans, tee shirt, and sneakers were thrust in my direction. The thought of me drowning must’ve been sobering; Elizabeth was steadier on her feet than when I’d last seen her.
Devon helped me stand. Rick and Cooper rushed over and grabbed my arms when I stumbled. Mandy hung off to the side, nervously twisting a lock of short brown hair around one finger.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, embarrassed by the way everyone was fawning over me.
Taking my clothes from Elizabeth, I handed her the blanket in return. Between my headache from hell and the audience, I simply pulled the clothes on over the wet bathing suit.
“What do you guys say we take this party back to my house?” Cooper suggested.
After nearly drowning and being rescued by a mysterious stranger, I had no desire to continue the birthday celebration. Thankfully, Elizabeth spoke up before I could make a lame excuse for going home.
“Actually, we need to get back to my house,” she said. “Eel, your mom called my phone.” Elizabeth produced my cell from her jeans pocket and waved it in the air. “I think yours is on the fritz again.”
Great, I thought, taking the phone back. My overprotective mother to the rescue.
Normally I begrudged her incessant phone calls and text messages. Tonight, I was thankful for them. My mother was the Westwood County State’s Attorney. Since she generally frowned upon trespassing, underage drinking, and cheap thrills, I’d told her we were heading to Elizabeth’s for a quiet girls’ night of movies and junk food. She’d still been at the office when my friends picked me up, preparing for a big trial that started the following Monday, and my mother hadn’t questioned the lie.
“She said if you don’t call her from my house phone within the next hour, she will call the cops,” Elizabeth continued helpfully as I jammed the power button on my phone. As expected, it didn’t turn on; I had a real problem with electronics.
To my dismay, Liz turned to the others and added, “Anyone interested in late night hot-tubbing is welcome to come over.”
I hadn’t even noticed that the rest of the partiers were behind us until a whoop echoed in the trees. Most of our group had heard Elizabeth’s invitation.
“Party at the Bowers’!” Cynthia Zeleski exclaimed. Her high-pitched voice was an assault to the ears on a normal day but particularly grating with my headache.
Cynthia started into the woods, the others following behind. Finally, it was just me, Devon, Rick, Elizabeth, Cooper, and Mandy again.
Shoving my hand into the back pocket of my jeans, I felt for the jewelry I’d put there for safekeeping. The new watch that Devon’s parents have given me for my birthday was still there. But my necklace—the one my father gave me five years earlier—was missing.
“Liz? Where’s my necklace?” I asked, trying to keep my tone even.
“Huh?” With the knowledge I hadn’t met a watery death, Elizabeth was back to her bubbly self and laughing loudly at something Cooper said.
“My necklace,” I insisted. “Where is my necklace?”
“Is it not there? I didn’t feel it drop, but….” Elizabeth trailed off and all the laughter faded from her expression. “Eel, I’m so sorry.”
Without answering, I checked all four of my pockets again. Nothing. I took a deep, calming breath. The necklace was probably on the cliff or somewhere along the trail to it. With my phone’s flashlight, I’d be able to find it.
“I’m gonna check up there.” I pointed across the lake at the dark mound rising from the water on the far bank.
“Eel, you’re soaked and shivering,” Devon protested. “You really need to get some dry clothes.”
She cut off my objection with a wave of her hand.
“Rick and I will go look for your necklace. You go to Elizabeth’s and call your mom.”
The necklace was important to me. It was all I had from my father, and Devon knew that. She was right though; I was freezing and needed to call my mother before she sent a search party.
“Go,” Devon insisted. Turning to Mandy, my bestie tossed her a set of keys. “Take my car. Don’t wreck it.”