Thick snow swirled and fell through the night, laying a heavy white blanket over Mount Shasta and the surrounding forests, smothering her higher slopes and caldera in dense clouds.
Around the ancient volcano, the clouds began to glow over a wide area. In just a few moments the diffuse light spread and brightened sharply, a hard, white dot forming at the center of the glowing halo. The dot speared through the clouds next to the mountain and streaked towards the ground, now a small pinpoint of bright light leaving an incandescent trail of superheated air and evaporated water. In an instant the light disappeared into the forest some ten miles southwest of the mountain. The trail was gone moments later, consumed by the unrelenting wind and snow.
Six Months Later
“Give those back you jerk!” I yelled at my brother, the brat. He had my skin-diving goggles pressed against his ugly face and was looking at me cross-eyed, which always freaks me out. But worse, he was smearing his greasy fingers all over the glass. I would have a hard time getting that mess off.
“Don’t yell at your brother, Charlotte,” my mother said inevitably. “Use your words.” I had heard that wonderful advice so many times now that I suspected it was uttered as an automatic response to the sound of my voice.
“Those are my words,” I snapped back. Under my breath.
She was laid out on her towel, slathered in suntan lotion, with these gigantic sunglasses on her face that made her look like a startled owl. Her thick dark hair was tightly braided and coiled next to her head. It would reach all the way down to her waist when she was standing. God, I wish I had hair like hers. My tightly curled mop was a nightmare to manage. My dad was always saying that he loved my wild hair, that it had a personality all its own. Yeah, a stubborn one. I had it pulled into a tight ponytail, with my own little blue braid hanging down the right side of my face. It wasn’t all that blue anymore, I thought wryly. The summer sun had faded the dye to a light green.
“Use your words Charlotte, use your words Charlotte,” the brat chanted as he danced around the small beach. He looked like a tiny, white ghost, as he had been enthusiastically coated with sunscreen as well.
I was tempted to use a few choice words on him, but then my mother was sure to spout more of her brilliant stock phrases.
“It’s Charli!” I told him for the hundredth time. “With an i!” I added for good measure, not that he would ever actually write it down.
“Charli with an eye, Charli with an eye,” was now the song he danced to.
“I’ll take care of both your eyes, Joseph,” I threatened, using his full name which he hated while waving a fist in his direction.
How could a nine-year old be so fricking annoying? And my mother let him get away with everything. He had refused to cut his straight, black hair for two months now, and it hung unevenly down to his shoulders. I envied his hair too, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I did once Google the term “scalping.” It was pretty gross though.
As he danced past me I snaked out an arm and managed to snatch the mask off his head. I was hoping an ear might come with it, but no such luck. God! It was all slimy with sunscreen.
Pepe – which is what everyone called him - opened his mouth to complain loudly, but I shot him dirty look number three, the one that meant “Just one word, and I’ll get you later.” And he knew I would. He wisely scampered off to the end of the beach and started poking around in some bushes.
Using Pepe’s clean towel and a little bottled water, I managed to clean the goggles. I attached the snorkel and sat on the sand at the water’s edge to put my flippers on.
“Mom, I’m going out on the lake,” I informed her. “Dad said that the water was much clearer out there.”
“Don’t go too far,” she cautioned. “And be careful. Don’t do anything dangerous.”
Yeah, right. Danger was my middle name. Well, it actually wasn’t – I refuse to divulge my middle name - but her telling me that was like challenging me to a dare.
We had arrived yesterday on our family’s annual vacation. This year we managed to rent a small two-bedroom cabin, instead of camping in tents like we usually did. That was nice, but it meant, much to my dismay, that I had to share a room with the brat.
“But dad, I need my own room,” I had demanded. Or maybe whined. I had just turned twelve a month ago and a girl needs her privacy. Especially from little brothers.
“Sorry Charli, but you will just have to deal with it,” he had responded. At least he called me Charli.
The cabin was on the western side of Lake Siskiyou, about fifty feet from the shore and perched on a somewhat steep hill, sheltered amongst tall pines. There was a small inlet right below it with the tiny beach I was on that was perfect for the brat to splash around and swim in, but it was much too limiting for me. All I could ever see through my goggles was a bunch of dirty rocks and a few old sunken tree stumps, but mostly the water was too murky to see much of anything at all.
So, taking my dad’s advice, I opted to head out of the inlet and far from the shore.
With the goggles on my forehead and the flippers on my feet, I waddled into the water. Once it was deep enough, gentle kicks and a breast-stroke put me on a slow trek towards the middle of the lake, keeping most of my head above the water.
The lake felt much cooler the further I travelled. I was moving sedately along towards the far shore. The water felt smooth on my skin and tugged gently at my ponytail. The snorkel flopped around against my left cheek. I wasn’t worried about it being deep further out. I have been swimming since I was five and could swim better than anyone in my class.
I could see Mount Shasta almost directly in front of me, her top third covered in snow. There was supposed to be a hidden city somewhere near the mountain full of advanced beings called Lemurians. I wonder if there were any roaming around here.
Once out in the lake itself, I looked around and saw my dad in the distance. He was powering his way across the lake in his river kayak, a little flat Piranha that he barely fit into. He would shoot around the lake like a skittering water strider, his paddles whirling about as he propelled himself along. My mom would occasionally join him in her larger kayak and he would abandon his headlong rush to paddle serenely around the lake with her, closer to the shore. On those occasions I would have to babysit the brat, so I did not enjoy them as much as they did.
But with my mother keeping an owl eye on Pepe, who was probably gleefully torturing a specimen of the local wildlife for entertainment, I jumped at the opportunity to escape to the clearer waters far from the shore. And from my brother.
Something brushed against my leg. I started and peered into the water, seeing nothing. My heart was beating a little faster. That had felt really big. I wonder if Lemurians were amphibian.
I stopped swimming and looked around, holding myself vertical by slowly treading water with my flippers. The shore was approximately two hundred yards away, my mom and brother tiny figures decorating the little inlet, her large bright yellow kayak framing one side of the beach. I calculated that I was maybe a quarter of the way across the lake. Far enough, I decided. I didn’t want anything else brushing against me.
Holding my goggles away from my head, I hocked up a nice loogie and spat into them so they would not fog up. Dipping them in the lake, I swirled the water around to clean the glass, then dumped the water and fitted the goggles tightly against my face, pulling my braid aside so they would seal against my skin. I chomped down on the snorkel’s mouthpiece, wrapped my lips tight around it and blew out the residual water.
I resumed my slow swim, face down with my arms at my sides. I was eager to see anything that the unplumbed depths of the lake were willing to reveal, but just a tad uneasy about encountering anything that wanted to get a little too friendly.
I was disappointed. The water this far from shore was as clear as my dad had said. If I stopped swimming and went vertical, I could easily see my legs and flippers below me, and nothing else. Certainly no Lemurians. The clear water continued down past my feet, the penetrating sunlight slowly absorbed by the myriad floating particles that gave it an increasingly greenish tinge until it completely faded, leaving only darkness deep below. It was a little creepy. But, since danger was my middle name, I was not about to give up that easily, so I continued my slow swim, turning to head parallel to the shoreline.
What was that? I saw flashes of silver below and ahead. Pumping my legs faster I sped forward and rapidly approached the glimmers, which resolved into a school of small fish far below. They were flitting back and forth, hundreds, maybe thousands of them moving as one, the weakened sunlight glinting off of their silvery skin. Suddenly three large fish shot up out of the depths. I almost squealed into my snorkel, but they dove right into the school, saving me the indignity. The school immediately flicked to the side and quickly disappeared into the greenish haze, with the three large predators close behind. Those looked like rainbow trout. I didn’t know what the smaller ones were, but I had looked up pictures of the fish that inhabited the lake and some of them had been rainbow trout. I turned and quickly followed them further out into the lake.
I saw nothing as I continued my powerful kicks, moving fast, my breaths chuffing out of the snorkel. Dang it! They were gone. But looking around, something caught my eye. Deep down, far into the darkness, I thought I saw a light. No way! What could possibly be down there, and why?
I peered intensely into the depths. There was a light. A tiny dot, impossibly deep. I couldn’t quite determine what color it was. It seemed to cycle through different hues like some stars did in the sky.
My forward movement brought the light directly beneath me, and I circled around attempting to better define it. Was it stationary or moving? Is it really as deep as it seemed or was it tiny and much closer? My mind brought up an image of a sea devil, one of those deep sea fishes that lured their prey by waving a little glowing light around. But no, this light was too bright and sharp, not glowing. And besides, those fish lived only in the ocean.
Frustrated by the lack of information I decided a deep dive was in order. Drawing three deep breaths through the snorkel, I dove straight down into the water, feeling my flippers splash as they briefly broke the surface. Fully submerged, I kicked hard, quickly propelling myself down towards the light. My snorkel left a trail of bubbles as I slowly released the air in my lungs, squeezed out by the increased water pressure. My ears were starting to hurt and I held my rubber-covered nose and blew out hard, the pain disappearing with a pop.
My immediate environment was noticeably dimmer and colder, but the light did not appear any closer. I figured I had maybe ten seconds left before I would have to abandon the dive and return to the surface. I stopped where I was and hung upside down, observing the light. I felt myself moving upwards as my body’s natural buoyancy imposed itself. I really loved this feeling of weightlessness, of complete isolation.
I focused on the light. What the heck is it? My deep-dive maneuver had revealed nothing new.
A strong humming suddenly invaded my ears, quickly growing louder, drowning out the clicking and ticking sounds that were always present underwater. The humming filled my head and a wave of vertigo overcame me. I lost my sense of direction and panicked, rotating in place to visually locate the surface. The movement made me nauseous and I struggled to keep from vomiting into the snorkel, spitting it out of my mouth. I managed to find the sun, weakly beckoning high above and kicked hard, feeling my heart beating fast in my chest as my lungs demanded oxygen. I felt the water rush past, but in the wrong direction! I was being pulled deeper, fast. I could see the sunlight fading.
The humming was all I could hear, all I could focus on. I completely panicked and began to thrash desperately. My mask came off, and like a dream I watched blurrily as it slowly followed me down in a lazy spiral. Ohmygod I’m going to drown! I felt the water filling my nose and mouth as my world faded to black.