The Old Man of the Lake
I glanced over at
the girl on the computer next to me. Yep, she was on Deviant Art.
Every day during study hall she was on Deviant Art. The only two
things I knew about her were that her name was Jasmine and she was an
artist. She was very quiet and never interacted with anybody else,
and although I had sat next to her every day of the past year in
study hall, we had never spoken.
She caught me looking at her computer. I saw a pretty cool picture on the screen of a girl sitting in the shade of a giant mushroom, like Alice in Wonderland, except instead of a caterpillar there was a giant penis on top of the mushroom. Jasmine scowled and angled her screen away from me.
“Sorry,” I said awkwardly. “Wasn’t really looking.”
“I hate people,” she said. I nodded and turned back to my work. I was looking over my notes for a presentation I was supposed to give that afternoon on Robin Hood. We were supposed to have chosen partners for the presentation, but there were an odd number of kids in the class and Ms. Terius didn’t bother having me join another group. But whatever. It spared me from interacting with other students, and I was able to choose my own topic.
I couldn’t shake the Alice in Wonderland penis picture from mind, though, and I was determined to try and do that most herculean of tasks: make a friend.
“Did you draw that picture?” I asked Jasmine. I felt my face redden.
She glared at me. “Yes. Leave me alone.”
“Sorry. It’s really good.”
She ignored my compliment. I went back to looking over my notes. The presentation was supposed to be five minutes long. Five minutes too long. Being in front of people, especially the stuck-up overachievers in AP, was a huge fear of mine. But I told myself that once the presentation was over, spring break was all mine and I’d be free. The bell rang, and I headed to AP English.
My presentation sucked. I tripped on my way up to the front of the classroom and I dripped sweat all over the podium the whole time. I noticed Ms. Terius looking down and taking the notes the whole time, which was not a good thing. But it eventually ended and I finally had that load off my back, and once the bell rang I felt a temporal shudder of relief. I wouldn’t have to come back to this purgatory for a week and a half.
That night, I was bored and had nothing to do. I had already packed a week ago. We were heading up to Oregon the next morning to camp with my aunt at Crater Lake National Park. I wasn’t a huge fan of camping, especially because I always had to share a tent with my brother. He sang in his sleep and wasn’t exactly the quietest farter. Plus he was pretty overbearing.
I could have watched a movie or something. Or gotten my guitar out. But no one was on the computer, and it was a rare occasion when no one was on the computer. So I sat down and made a Deviant Art account. I made my username RobinHood12 because that was the username I used for everything and I was obsessed with Robin Hood.
I poked around the site a bit and saw some pretty cool drawings. I found the chat part of the site and scanned the list of chat rooms, but they were all about role-playing games and photography and Pokémon, so I decided to just go to the main Deviant Art room. I got in there and was fairly amused at the scrolling feed before me. People were talking about The Hunger Games and One Direction and Miley Cyrus/Josh Hutcherson slash, stuff I really didn’t care about, but I went ahead and tentatively typed, Hello. Instantly I receive a bunch of replies.
welcome mr robin hood :)
Welcome to the chat!
All of those greetings in less than ten seconds. More greetings than I had received in real life in the last two years.
It’s good to be here! I typed. I’m new to Deviant Art.
Aww glad you decided to join us!
u need to get some art man
we’re all little deviants here.
Hello. Would you like to chat?
This last message came from someone named HimOfNottingham. I was intrigued. Nottingham? That was a buzzword to me.
Sure, HimOfNottingham, I replied.
My inbox began flashing a second later. I went to it and opened his message.
Hello. Do you have another form of instant messaging on which we can chat privately? I prefer Skype.
I gave him my Skype username and logged in. The contact request from HimOfNottingham was already there with a message.
Hello, Luke. I hope you are well.
Wait. How did he know my name? My Skype username was the same as my Deviant Art one, RobinHood12, and my name was nowhere on my profile. Was he someone from school messing with me? Everyone always made fun of me about Robin Hood. But maybe he was someone else. My parents were extremely adamant about being safe on the Internet, but I needed to know who this guy was.
I confirmed the request.
The message popped up instantly. I realized that in basically one minute I went from logging into the Deviant Art chat room to now messaging on Skype with this total stranger. I wasn’t stupid, though. I knew I had to be careful.
Hi, I replied. What’s up?
He responded in a second. I am just enjoying this beautiful day. What are you doing?
It was night here. I wonder where HimOfNottingham lived. Pretty much just talking to you. Pretty bored.
I am going to be straightforward with you and reveal my identity to you. My name is John and I am seventy-six years old. I am no predator.
Woah. I paused. Seventy-six? That’s old…that’s really old. And he can type that fast? The way he talked, something told me he wasn’t someone from school playing a joke on me. But who was this guy? I didn’t care how old he was. A friend is a friend. Old people are pretty cool. And usually harmless. He said he wasn’t a predator, which was kind of weird for him to just say right off the bat, but I suppose he was just being truthful, and old people don’t really know how to converse that well on the Internet.
My name is Luke.
And then after a moment of thought I added, And I’m sixteen.
It is a pleasure meeting you, sixteen-year-old Luke. This literally appeared just as my finger was lifting up from the enter key.
Maybe he was spambot or something. There was only one way to find out who he really was.
Do you want to video chat quickly? I asked. Just so I can see your face.
He didn’t reply. It didn’t even say he was typing a reply. An entire minute went by. I sighed. I might as well just go back to Deviant Art and find some other people to talk to. People around my age. I’d just gotten excited seeing Nottingham in his username and thought that maybe we could talk Robin Hood. I went back to Deviant Art, but the moment I started logging into the chat room the little Skype notification noise went off. I went back to Skype. John had replied.
We can do that.
I stared at the screen, a little nervous. I was about to Skype with a total stranger. An old man. I hoped my parents or my brother wouldn’t come downstairs. I hovered the cursor over the video call button, unsure if I wanted to proceed with this. But then I thought about Jasmine at school, and giving that presentation, and the snickering from the class, and traversing that same lonely path through school every day.
Boo boo…boo boo…boo boo…Skype droned on and on.My heart sank. He wasn’t going to answer. He was just trolling me. It beeped and beeped. I sighed and moved the mouse to exit out and stop the call.
But just then the Skype beeping stopped and my call was answered. The screen just showed the Skype silhouette, though. His camera wasn’t turned on.
“Hello?” I ventured.
“Hello Luke,” a light voice replied. “How are you?” It really did sound like an old man, slow and calm. Kind of like Mr. Rogers.
“I’m good. I don’t think your cam is turned on, though.” He could see me and I couldn’t see him. It was a little creepy. I considered turning off my cam.
“Forgive me,” he said. “Here we go.” His screen swirled for a bit, and then I saw his cam.
The screen showed a blue sky and a wide expanse of water. The camera seemed to be bobbing slightly, like it was on a boat. I was confused.
“Um…hello?” I said.
He said nothing else. I didn’t know what to say.
“Yeah, uh, your cam isn’t…I can’t see you.”
“I can see you and I can see myself,” John said. “Are you sure the problem is not on your end?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not,” I said. “I see me, but then on your cam I see like the ocean or a lake or something.”
“Very interesting,” he said. “Is it odd that you see this?”
I didn’t know what to make of that. “Um…yeah, kind of. Are you on a boat somewhere or something?”
“No,” he said. “I am not on a boat.”
“Well…I don’t know, I just can’t see you.” I squinted and made out a faint line in the distance on his cam. It was pretty high up, like there was a cliff or something against the water.
“I am sorry that you are having problems,” said John.
I ended the video call. It was a little too weird for me, for him to be able to see me and me not being able to see him…and what was that on his cam? Where was he? A message from John quickly appeared.
Do you no longer wish to talk to me, Luke?
I thought for a minute. We didn’t really know anything about each other. Maybe we could talk for a little bit longer, and I could see what the Nottingham in his username meant.
Yes, I said, but I just feel uncomfortable because I don’t know who you are.
You can discover who I am. Ask me anything.
Ask him anything? There was one burning question on my mind.
How do you know my name?
It was amazing how fast he responded. All of his responses, actually. They just came instantly.
I am a moderator of the chat room. I see the email address of everyone in there.
Ah. Yeah, if you Googled my email address you’d find my name. This made a little more sense.
Oh, I see, I said.
Do you trust me now?
I think so, I said.
That emoticon looked weird, like out of place amongst his stilted and formal language. Did I really trust this guy? Well obviously, not completely. But if he was a moderator of the Deviant Art chat room, he had to be at least kind of legit. His username, though, HimOfNottingham…why that name? Did he like Robin Hood?
So…what does your username mean? I asked him.
I am him of Nottingham.
What does that mean? I asked.
I am him of Nottingham.
You know what, ugh. Whatever.
Do you like Robin Hood? I asked.
I felt disappointed, I did. Great. So much for sharing a mutual love.
I like Robin Hood a lot, I said. He didn’t reply. I suddenly noticed that he had gone offline.
Are you there?
No reply. He was gone. The door to the basement opened and my brother came downstairs.
“Hey, time for me to use the computer,” he said. “If that’s okay.”
He always said that, “If that’s okay.” Usually it wasn’t okay, but there was nothing I could ever do about it.
“Yeah, fine,” I said. I logged out of Skype and Deviant Art.
“Ha, Deviant Art,” Mark sneered.
“Yeah,” I said. “Is that a problem?”
“Nah, I figured you’d be the type,” he said. “And I mean, you don’t really have anything else to do. You gotta make friends somewhere.” I hated it when he pulled that card on me. He wasn’t exactly popular, but had a good group of friends. I decided not to say anything.
“Who were you Skyping?”
“No one,” I said.
“I heard you talking. Who were you Skyping?”
“No one. I don’t have any friends. You know that.”
“You’re such a liar. You were Skyping someone. Was it someone you met on Deviant Art? I bet it was. You’re gonna get murdered.”
“No,” I said. “Leave me alone.” He smirked as I went to my room. I lay on my bed thinking about what had just happened with John. It was pretty strange. I was sad he had disappeared, but he probably wasn’t even real. Whatever, I had tried to make a friend and it failed, yet again.
I played Temple Run on my phone until I fell asleep.
I woke up at like quarter to one to a sharp beep from my phone. I had a new text, which was basically a pop the cork occasion. But it was from an unknown number.
Hello, Luke. I hope you are well.
How did he find my number? Creepy. It was him, I assumed. But to make sure, I texted back and asked. I got a reply a second after I sent my message and my suspicions were confirmed.
I am John, Luke. I acquired your phone number from your Skype profile.
I forgot that I had put my number on Skype. It’s a sad world. When we’re alone and provide the world with every available mode of communication to us, no ever contacts us. And yet popular people don’t even need a Facebook to be popular.
But John had contacted me. I texted him back.
Oh cool. I didn’t know what else to say.
I apologize for leaving you so abruptly on Skype. Matters arose.
At least he wasn’t mad. I didn’t know why he would be mad, so I was glad to hear it was other circumstances that forced him to leave.
It’s okay. I just thought maybe you weren’t real.
I am real. :-)
The smiley emoticon again. Something about it was off. I turned on the light next to my bed.
So where do you live? I asked him.
In my home.
And where is that?
Why was this guy so cryptic?
Okay…so what do you want to talk about?
What are your interests, Luke?
This is how friends are made, right? Sharing interests.
I like movies, and I listen to music and play guitar, and I read, and I love Robin Hood. Like, it’s an obsession.
He didn’t reply instantaneously this time. After a couple of minutes, I plugged my phone into the charger. I waited. Finally, right as I was just about to fall asleep, I got a text.
I love Robin Hood as well.
Really? I thought he said on Skype that he didn’t like Robin Hood.
That’s cool. I thought maybe you didn’t because of what you said on Skype.
I misinterpreted your question. I love Robin Hood.
What’s your favorite Robin Hood movie? I asked.
Robin Hood, John replied.
Which one I said? Russell Crowe? Disney? Men in Tights?
All of them.
I, however, wasn’t a fan of all of them.
I love the 1938 version with Errol Flynn, I said.
I love Errol Flynn and I love Robin Hood.
And the conversation went on and on, both of us asking each other random questions. John continued to give pretty general answers to my questions. We texted for literally five more hours until Mom came to wake me up.
“Why are you awake?” she said.
“Oh, I was just watching a movie on my phone. I couldn’t sleep. I can sleep in the car.”
“We’re leaving at 6:30. Be ready.” She left.
It was eight hours from Modesto up to Crater Lake. I was trapped in the backseat with Mark, who fell asleep as soon as we pulled out of the driveway. I put on the Prince of Thieves soundtrack and continued to text John. In my world, I was telling a seventy-six year old man about my life and my family and my hobbies and my spring break plans. In my parents’ world, I was just playing a game on my phone.
I think what intrigued me most about John was his identity. Who was he really? Every time I asked him a question about himself, he would give a generic answer or say something really bizarre. When I asked him what his favorite kind of breakfast food was, he said, I eat what is edible. When I asked him if he was married, he said, I am married to the law. When I asked him what he used to do for a living, he said, I am still employed. He just seemed like a crazy old guy. Although it was so weird how fast he replied. I’d send a text and receive a reply in less than a second. At least I didn’t get bored waiting for a response.
A couple of hours later, Mark woke up and had to use the bathroom. “If that’s okay,” he said. We got off at the next exit and stopped at a gas station. Mark and my mom went inside while my dad pumped gas, and I got out and stretched for a little bit. When I got back into the car, I checked my phone.
Why did you stop?
John’s text jolted me.
What do you mean? I asked.
Why did you stop texting me? You have not replied for two minutes.
For a second I thought that he was like maybe stalking me and asking why we stopped the car.
We’re getting gas, I said. I had to stretch.
I am glad you are still here.
We resumed our conversation. Mark and my mom came back.
“Who are you texting?” Mark asked.
“Um, no one,” I said.
“Oh really? You’ve been texting since I woke up.”
“Texting?” my mom said. “He’s been on his phone all morning playing a game…Luke, were you playing a game or texting someone?”
I didn’t get why they were jumping all over me.
“I wasn’t texting anyone,” I said. Mark grabbed the phone out of my hand. I tried to get it back, but he turned his back to me and held it down in his lap.
“Luke, who is this guy? Little John? WTF?”
I had put John in my phone as Little John. Yeah, the whole Robin Hood obsession.
“No one,” I said. “Give me my phone back!”
“Is he the guy you were you talking to on Skype last night? Is he from Deviant Art?”
“No!” I said. “He’s no one. Just a friend.”
“You’re talking to strange people online and giving them your phone number?” Mom sounded incredulous.
“Geez…Mom, they’ve exchanged hundreds of texts…and they go back to like midnight! They’ve only been texting since today.”
“Mom, no!” I protested. Damn this family.
“Luke, I think I should take your phone,” Mom said. Mark handed it to her.
“Why?” I said.
“Because you lied to me. I thought you were just playing on your phone or watching a movie. You pulled a very dangerous stunt. People get killed meeting people on the Internet. I saw a movie about it once.”
“I was playing a game, for a lot of the time.”
Dad got in the car.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Mom began scrolling through the texts. “Luke, who is this person?” She read a text I had sent him. “‘We’re going to camp at Crater Lake with my aunt for a couple of days.’ Why did you tell him that?”
“He’s just a friend—”
“I don’t even recognize this area code,” Mom said. She turned to Dad. “Matthew, Luke’s been texting this stranger he met online…Little John? Is that code, Luke?”
“Like from Robin Hood,” I muttered.
“Luke, do you know how dangerous that is?” my dad said.
“No, he’s not a stranger, he’s—”
“Then how do you know him?” Mom asked. “And have you only been texting him since midnight this morning?”
“He’s…my friend Jasmine’s cousin. He came with her to school yesterday and I met him.”
“Your friend Jasmine,” Mark snorted. “You don’t have any friends.”
“John’s my friend,” I said. “And is that why this is a big deal? Because you don’t think I have any friends and so any time I text is suspicious? I’m allowed to text.”
“Explain this, please,” Mom said, reading from my phone. “‘I am John, Luke. I acquired your phone number from your Skype profile.’ Please don’t lie to us.”
I was defeated.
“Okay…yes, I met John online. And I know how dangerous that is. But he’s not dangerous or anything—we Skyped and—”
“You Skyped?” Dad said. “When did you meet him?”
Dad exhaled loudly. “Son.”
“And you told him all about us, where we’re going…you may as well just have given him our address and garage door code,” Mom said.
“Fine. Take my phone. I’ll stop.” I was so embarrassed. I just wanted this ordeal to be over.
“I’m taking your phone and will think this over,” Mom said. “Please don’t lie to me again. And don’t talk to strangers online, or Skype them, or give them your cell phone number. Let’s just hope to God that he doesn’t show up at our campsite.”
“Alright. I’m sorry,” I said.
Mom put my phone in her purse and Dad pulled out of the gas station. We got back on the highway and continued on our way. Miserable and lonely, I fell asleep.
We probably stopped for a couple more gas or bathroom breaks, but I was asleep the whole time. I didn’t wake up until we arrived at the campground. No one had bothered to wake me up while we were driving, and now I really had to pee. And I was starving. I saw Subway cups in the cup holders and could sniff bread in the air.
“Thanks for saving me some,” I said. Mom handed a sandwich back to me.
“There you go, Mr. Smart Aleck.”
I hungrily tore into my sandwich while Dad got out to confirm our reservation and get a map of the campground.
“Where’s Aunt Libby?” Mark asked.
“She called and said she won’t be here until around 3:30,” Mom said.
Dad got back in the car and we drove off down a gravel road until we got to our campsite. We all got out and started unpacking everything. While Dad and Mark started setting up one of the tents, I walked a little ways into the trees, breathing in the fresh piney air. I was still kind of uncomfortable with the fact that my family had found out about John, but I tried to push it out of my mind. I unzipped and peed behind a tree. It was beautiful here. The sky was blue, the air was cool and clean, little red birds chirped and hopped around in the pine boughs. I’m glad I was wearing a hoodie, because the temperature was barely scraping fifty. Mom had said it was going to be fairly cold. I finished peeing, zipped up, and continued walking into the trees.
The trees started to thin out, and soon I came out onto the top of a cliff. I was pretty high up, and below me was the lake. I had never been to Crater Lake, and the view astonished me. The lake was like quartz, brushed with the tiniest bit of swelling, and I made out the pencil line of a wake behind a boat. There was a cone-shaped island off to my left, and in the distance I could faintly see a few snowcapped peaks. I also noticed a little white speck bobbing in the water near our side of the lake.
“I love this place.”
Mom stood next to me. She breathed in deeply. “Your Dad and I camped here while we were pregnant with Mark. So beautiful.”
We stood there silently. The wind became a bit chilly, and I put on my hood.
“Luke.” I turned to Mom. She held my phone in her hand. “What you did was stupid. But we all make mistakes. Just please don’t text this guy again.”
“Thanks Mom,” I said, taking the phone and pocketing it. “I’m sorry.”
“We should go back to the campsite. They’re probably done already setting up the tents.”
We headed back to the campsite. There was now another car parked there, and I saw Dad, Mark, and Aunt Libby sitting and talking in a circle of folding lawn chairs. Aunt Libby got up when we approached.
“Hi Luke!” she said, giving me a hug.
“Hey,” I said.
“Got your Maid Marian yet?” she asked with a grin on her face.
“Not yet,” I said.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find her soon enough. You’re a handsome young man.”
She was an aunt, alright.
“I was thinking we could go on a boat tour,” Dad said.
“They’re doing those in April?”Aunt Libby asked.
“Apparently it’s been so warm, and there’s no ice on the lake.”
“Huh,” Aunt Libby said.
“There’s one at 4:15, and we could make it if we start heading over there now,” Dad said.
“Hold on,” I said. “I need to get something out of the car.” I opened the door and ducked down to check my phone. I had two new texts, both short, both from John.
I hope you still want to be my friend.
Enjoy your visit.
I started to text him back, but then I noticed there wasn’t any service out here. I sighed and slammed the door shut, putting my phone in my pocket. I joined the others and we began walking.
“This is Wizard Island,” our guide, Shanna, said, turning off the motor and letting the boat rock gently in the water. “It was created approximately 8,000 years ago, when Mount Mazama erupted violently in this very same location and left behind a volcanic cinder cone.”
Wizard Island. I looked up at the steep conic incline and thought about Hagrid coming to that island out at sea to tell Harry he’s a wizard. It was getting colder, and I shivered through the thin cotton of my hoodie. Everybody else was in their winter coats, but I had forgotten mine back at the campsite.
Shanna restarted the boat and we began gliding through the water again.
“There are no indigenous fish in the lake,” Shanna said loudly over the motor, “but sockeye salmon and rainbow trout were introduced in the first part of the twentieth century. Unlicensed fishing is allowed, but only May through—oh!” She abruptly killed the motor. Next to us in the water was what looked like a white tree trunk bobbed vertically.
“Sorry, folks. I always forget about this guy. This is the Old Man of the Lake. He’s an old tree who’s been here at least since the 1880s.”
Aunt Libby and a couple of other tourists took pictures. Shanna continued.
“If you stack the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and Washington Monument beneath the Old Man, you still wouldn’t reach the lake’s deepest point. It’s the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest in the world.”
I looked down into the clear waters of the lake. The trunk went down and down. I couldn’t see where it ended. It felt strange to be in this tiny boat with so much water beneath us.
“The part of the Old Man above water is bleached white from being exposed to the elements. Despite his age, he can support the weight of a man.”
“What makes it stay upright?” Aunt Libby asked.
“No one knows for certain,” Shanna said. “The popular theory is that when it fell into the lake, rocks were caught in its roots, and when the rocks eventually dislodged, the bottom of the trunk was so waterlogged that the tree remained vertical. But no one really knows. He travels around, though, and boats have to be careful.”
“What kind of tree is it?” Dad asked.
“There’s no official way to determine because it’s so old and weathered, but most scientists think it’s a hemlock.”
My phone went off. Someone was calling me.
“Oops…sorry,” I said, trying to get it out of my pocket. Mark took out his phone and looked at it.
“Man, how do you get reception out here? I don’t have any,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. I finally got my phone out and saw who was calling me.
It was John.
Everyone in the boat was staring at me.
“Oh, oops, it’s just an alarm I set,” I said, silencing my phone and putting it back in my pocket. How could I have been getting a call? I took my phone out again and looked at it. It said I had a new voicemail, but there were no bars and it said it was searching for a signal. And yet somehow I had gotten a call. Weird. Maybe it had just been a weird bubble of connectivity or something.
After the tour, we went back to the campsite. Dad grilled hotdogs and Mom and Aunt Libby mixed hot chocolate in a big thermos. I wandered around the campsite with my phone, holding it up and trying to get reception. It was getting dark. I drifted into the woods and walked towards the lake. As soon as I broke out of the tree line, I got a bar of reception. I quickly called voicemail and entered my password. I had a weird feeling in my stomach as I waited to hear John’s message.
The message started. I heard a faint garbled voice that sounded almost female, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. There was a sound like an engine starting, and it slowly faded away. Then there was mostly silence, pervaded by a soft swishing sound, like waves. This went on for a full minute, and I was about to hang up. Then I heard John’s voice.
“Do not leave me, Luke. Why did you leave me? Why did you ignore me? Are we not friends? I hope we are still friends, Luke. I will contact you again at 12:47 AM tomorrow morning. Your time.”
The message ended. I looked down at my phone, and it said it had no service. I had no way to text John. I gazed out over the lake at the sunset, thinking. I searched for the Old Man of the Lake and saw him below, a faint white speck in the now dark water. John was going to contact me again? Call me? How? And 12:47 was such an odd time, but it sounded so familiar to me. I felt like I had just seen those numbers.
I made my way back to the campsite. Dad was bringing the hotdogs over to the picnic table, which was already set for dinner.
“Where were you?” he asked.
“Just looking at the sunset,” I said. Mark looked at the phone still clutched in my hand.
“Can I say something? If that’s okay,” he added. Without waiting for a response, he said, “I think he was texting that Little John guy.”
“No, I wasn’t,” I said. “There’s no reception out here.”
“Well, someone called you earlier.”
“It was an alarm,” I said.
“Okay guys,” Mom said. “I trust Luke now. He knows not to talk to John anymore. You weren’t talking to him, right, Luke?”
“No,” I said. “I was just looking at the beautiful sunset over the lake.”
“Okay, good,” she said. “Let’s eat.”
“I know the difference between your ringtone and your alarm tone,” Mark said quietly to me.
“I changed sounds,” I said, glaring at him.
“Well, it’s your own fault when this guy comes and rapes you,” he sneered at me.
I rolled my eyes and grabbed a hotdog.
After dinner, we played rummy for a bit. Aunt Libby won every game, like she always did.
“I’m the rummy queen,” she said afterwards, throwing her cards down on the picnic table. No one denied her that status. We were all pretty tired and decided to turn in for the night.
Mark and I shared one tent, while Mom, Dad, and Aunt Libby were in the other. It was really cold, so we were all wearing three layers of clothing, but even that was almost not enough. I lay in my sleeping bag, thinking. Mark had fallen asleep instantly, and once in a while he would quietly sing some weird little ditty in his sleep. I was really tired, but the combination of Mark’s singing and the anticipation of John’s contact kept me awake. My phone battery was almost dead, so I changed the brightness settings to the dimmest possible and put it on silent.
I fell asleep without knowing it. At exactly 12:47 my phone went off, but I didn’t hear it. I did hear, however, a loud fart a little bit later. It startled me awake, and I forgot where I was for a second. Then I saw Mark shift in his sleep and I became fully awake and remembered John. I quickly grabbed my phone and saw that he had called a half hour ago. He had left me a text message.
Please call me, Luke.
I tried calling him, but I had no service. I got up and quietly opened the tent and slipped outside. I walked through the woods toward the clifftop, where I had had reception earlier that day. The woods were quiet, and I was feeling a little nervous and hoped that there weren’t any bears or wolverines around. When I emerged from the trees, I got a bar of service. I looked out over the silent dark lake before me, which was illuminated only faintly by a faint sliver of moon. I dialed John and put the phone to my ear.
I heard the distant ringing of a phone. My heart jumped. It was another camper’s phone. It had to be. But the ringing seemed to be coming from…the lake. I looked down at the black waters. The phone stopped ringing and I heard static in my ear, and then someone took a breath. I heard the calm, measured voice of John.
“Hi,” I said.
“How are you, Luke?”
“Good,” I said. “But my phone’s low on battery, so what do you want?”
“Come to the water, Luke.”
“The water? Are you here at the lake?” I was a little scared.
“Come to the water, Luke.”
He hung up. I didn’t know what to do. It was dark. The path down to the lake was at least half a mile long.
But as much as I was scared, I was also intrigued. If John was here, why was he here? What did he want? Did he live here? Maybe he was a ranger or something.
I made up my mind. I went back to the campsite and grabbed a large metal heavy-duty flashlight, which I could use as a weapon if the need arose. I made sure to be a ways down the road before I turned on the flashlight, so as to not attract the attention of my family. I made sure my phone was on vibrate. Everything was still. There were no birds, no rustling in the trees.
I arrived at the bottom of the crater at the lake access point. I stepped onto the long dock and walked out to the edge. Everything was dark. I pointed my flashlight. The water reflected the flashlight beam back towards me. There was nothing out there.
Except something was moving. Something small and white was slowly moving towards the shore. I squinted. What was it? It kept getting closer and closer, and then I got an idea of what it could be. Weird. How and why was it moving?
My phone vibrated. I looked at the screen.
It was John.
I put the phone to my ear.
“Hey.” I made sure my voice sounded strong and fearless.
“Can you swim, Luke?”
“Yes. I can swim.”
“Swim, Luke. Get in the water and swim.”
“Yeah, no. Sorry.” So whatever that white thing was out in the water…was it John? Or was it the Old Man of the Lake? Where was John?
“Luke, please do not force me to beg.”
“Where are you? Who are you?” I backed a little bit away from the edge of the dock. I had a vision of tentacles flying out of the water and dragging me in. It was stupid, but I was unnerved.
“Luke, come.” This time, he sounded angry. His light demeanor was gone.
“Sorry, John. I’m going. Bye.” I hung up. The white object was still there. It was bobbing.
Bobbing. Bobbing. Bobbing like John’s camera on Skype. I remembered seeing a body of water and a high cliff or something in the distance on his cam.
But it had been night when I talked to John on Skype, and his cam had shown a blue sky and bright day, wherever he was.
My phone vibrated. I didn’t know what to do. I shouldn’t have gone on Deviant Art.
I didn’t answer my phone. It stopped vibrating.
“Luke.” The voice floated across the water. It was light and purposeful.
It was John.
I was silent.
This time it was his angry voice.
“What?” I asked. “What do you want?”
I couldn’t believe I had only met John the night before. The Robin Hood presentation felt like ages ago.
The year Robin Hood had died, according to Thomas Gale, the Dean of York in the seventeenth century. One of the most trusted Robin Hood sources, and I had used him for my presentation. Did this matchup of numbers mean anything?
“Why do you want me?” I asked.
“Do you not want a friend?”
A friend. I wanted friends, but I wanted them my own age, I realized. I wanted them at school, where I could be less lonely. I didn’t want John to be my friend
“I will be your friend, Luke. Come.”
The Old Man of the Lake. The bobbing thing. The camera’s perspective. That’s what it was. Was John the Old Man of the Lake? Somehow?
“What happens if I come to you?” I asked.
“You will be the merriest of men if you come to me. We will be friends.”
The merriest of men. This was all incredibly strange. I wanted to turn and go back to the campsite. But the mystery of John’s identity would always be there. Who knows when or if I would ever return to Crater Lake?
“You come to the shore,” I said.
There was a moment of silence. And then he spoke.
“I will meet you at the end of the dock.”
The white thing in the water began moving closer. I tentatively began making my way towards the end of the dock, clutching the flashlight tight with two hands.
It was the Old Man of the Lake. It bobbed there, alone and quiet. There was no voice of John.
“Hello?” I said.
There was no reply. Everything was silent except the sound of the waves brushing against the dock and the Old Man. I was slightly bewildered. I turned to leave. Maybe this was all a joke. Someone with a megaphone somewhere.
Something knocked against the end of the dock. I turned and saw the Old Man there, gently nudging the dock.
“John?” I said, going to the end of the dock and looking down at the tree trunk. It was only a foot away from me.
No response. The Old Man continued to bob against the dock.
“I’m going,” I said. “I’ve had enough of your trolling me.”
I turned once again to leave.
Thud. The Old Man of the Lake rammed into the dock. The dock shuddered and I lost my balance and fell backwards, the flashlight slipping out of my hands as I fell towards the water…
…and landed on something hard.
I remember our guide had said that the Old Man of the Lake could support the weight of a man, and it was true. I cautiously tried to stand up and pull myself up onto the dock, but the tree began moving away from the shore. I almost lost my balance again and got back into a crouching position, holding on as the Old Man swished through the water towards the middle of the lake. I was absolutely terrified. It was freezing out here, and I tried not to think about how deep the lake actually was, and what could be living in it, natural or supernatural.
And then the tree stopped. It bobbed there, far out in the lake. The moon had disappeared behind some clouds, and I couldn’t see anything. All I heard was the gentle whisper of the waves.
“Let me go,” I said loudly. My voice seemed to intrude in the sterile stillness.
The tree buckled and I lost my balance. I fell into the water, limbs thrashing. I grabbed desperately with my hands.
I found a small nub on the tree to hold on to, and I wrapped my arms and legs around the trunk.
“Oh God oh God oh God,” I murmured frantically to myself. “John? John? Please. Let me go.”
I slowly found myself sliding down the trunk. I tried to scrabble back up it, but it was like some invisible hand was forcing me down, into the water. I tried to break away from the tree, but my arms and legs wouldn’t relinquish their grip on it. I couldn’t stop myself. I slid down into the cold, dark water, my arms and legs wrapped around the trunk, sliding over knots and stunted branches. I felt myself getting dizzy, and I knew I’d have to open my mouth soon. It was freezing, and I could feel the water pressure pushing on me, compressing me. I was just about out of oxygen. I closed my eyes and readied my mouth for inhalation. This was it. John, whoever he or it was, was some spirit or creature of malevolence. I remember being scared by an X-Files episode when I was a kid, about a monster in a lake. That memory must have been a premonition.
I was going to end it. I opened my mouth.
Oxygen rushed in. I opened my eyes and gasped.
I wasn’t in water anymore. I was strapped to a tree in a forest. The trees around me were in strict symmetrical rows, each one tall and thin and topped with the same perfect pyramid of black foliage. The sky was a pure, glowing white.
John’s voice was coming from directly behind the tree I was strapped to, slithering into my ears. His voice sounded different, low and dark and feminine.
“What is this?” I said, still gulping in air.
“How are you?”
“Let me see you,” I said angrily. “Explain this all to me.”
“There is nothing to explain.”
“No, there is everything to explain,” I said, struggling and trying to break free from the tree. There were no visible bonds, but I couldn’t move. “Who are you?”
“Look around you, see the price of your sin.”
I looked at the trees around me. Each one had a figure bound to it. I squinted at a nearby tree. Was that…Errol Flynn? No way. But I’d know him anywhere. This person looked exactly like him...
Whoever it was, he was wrong. Everything about him was off. His skin was white and his eyes were black, and he was motionless. All of the people—figures, creatures, whatever they were—were the same. Women and men, young and old, different sizes and races—all white skin and black eyes.
“What is this?” I managed to breathe.
“The price of your sin.”
“Who are you?” My eyes were filling up with tears.
John came out from behind my tree and stood in front of me. I couldn’t blink or look away.
“You may call me Sheriff now,” John said, dragging a claw down my face and leaving a line of blood. “Welcome to Nottingham.”
The sky pulsated with a blinding whiteness.