TJ Moore Books

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"YOU CAME BECAUSE YOU WANT TO DREAM."

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acid lake

A Story by TJ Moore

Some bones don’t stay in the ground. Some bones don’t disintegrate or biodegrade like you’d expect. They store the possibility of life longer than they should, especially when there’s dark history in the marrow. Not all fossils are found in soil. Lakes, rivers, and streams hold thousands of years of animal and plant remains. And water has a long memory. The horrific things I saw in one particular lake made me want to forget about bones. But I can’t get them out of my head.

    There are all kinds of unexplained things that happen in Louisiana. It’s not all high-swinging jazz and blues that makes New Orleans special after the sun goes down. Séances and voodoo are commonplace here, beckoning spirits both dead and alive to shops with chalkboard signs and ruffled, purple curtains. The magic of the city extends far past the expectations of tourists and spring-breakers.

    Maybe visitors are more aware of the city’s magic since they pass through with questions, often leaving with more than they came with. I’m not a visitor anymore since I live here now. But the magic took hold of me and tried to pull me under at Lake Hoboken, the most sinister place I’ve found since coming to Louisiana. The weight of what I saw there still bears a heavy burden on my mental health, but I found a way to contain some of its power for myself.

    Now, I don’t believe we were meant to have more than five senses. I take pride in studying nature, specifically bugs. We don’t have as many eyes as flies or spiders, but the two eyes we have can let in plenty of wild events.

    Depth perception, for example, makes driving in six lanes of traffic on the freeway less frightening than if we only had one eye. Our stereoscopic vision gives us the illusion of seeing objects in three-dimensional space. And yet, when our visual reality blends with imagination, both wonderful and dangerous possibilities can emerge. Most people call to this blend…hallucination.

    My name is Josh Kendrick. I just turned seventeen in May.

    It’s another year to learn as much as I can. That’s how I want to think about it.

    When young people hear me ramble about things like perception, they generally call me a nerd and tell me to shut up. When old people hear me spout observations about my relationship with time, they generally say I have an old soul, before asking me what books I’m reading for leisure. Middle-aged people won’t make eye contact with me because they’re too goddamn busy having a mid-life crisis to realize the rest of the world is also freaking out.

    My birthday party wasn’t much to speak of since I mostly spent it grabbing everything out of my room and throwing clothes into boxes. I didn’t need a box for trophies because I don’t keep them. We move too often to have space for extra trinkets. My mother says it’s more efficient to live without baggage. But no matter how much stuff I throw away, there will always be baggage.

    Besides, trophies don’t mean much to me. I crave experience over credit. I guess it all has to do with what I can protect and what I can’t. Credit can be stolen with a word, but my experiences have more value. I keep them locked in my head where no one can take them. I used to think memory had a sacred quality to it. But now, I know that memory doesn’t work like credit or experience. It’s far more malleable, easily distorted by time among other things.

    One of my science teachers called memory “plastic.” And if that’s the case, turning seventeen marked the year my plastic began to melt. The scariest aspect of this phenomenon goes beyond melting. My mom has accused me of being crazy since birth; and I always seem to find more ways to prove she’s right.

    It’s not possible to be fully alive without trying new things that stretch my comfort zone and expand my mind. This summer, I made an artificial friend that made promises it couldn’t keep. The first time we met was at Camp Hoboken, 72 miles north of New Orleans. This friend was neither man nor woman, but a mechanism that offered excitement based on distorted fantasy.

    The empty promises of this “friend” quickly became threatening to my safety and mental stability. It came in the form of innocent little tabs. Some of them had cute designs. This was not candy, far from it. If it did have something in common with candy, they both start sweet and can become addicting. But candy didn’t fuck up my summer. Not Snickers or Twix or Starburst from the camp Hoboken Snack Shack. It was something more intense, more complex. There are many street names for it: microdots, boomers, blaze, purple haze.

    Or…LSD.

    I’ve since tried to fight temptation. Recently, I’ve found practices that build up my willpower, distracting myself with objects I know are real, my insect collection being one such method.

    I now have on my shelf a more reliable token than jars of spiders, centipedes, and praying mantises. I finally obtained something to anchor my sanity and confirm what I saw. You don’t have to believe what I describe. Some of it may raise more questions than answers, but just know that these troubling memories are more fact than fiction.

_______________________

    My mom and I moved down to Louisiana to put a large distance between my dad and us. We hopped more state lines than ever before, driving straight through two nights, stopping only for gas and food when it was absolutely necessary. This wasn’t the first time we forcefully moved to hide from him.

    There’s something you should know about my father because I’m not going to mention him again. He’s a crafty son of a bitch.

    It doesn’t matter where we move. He always seems to find us. And the divorce papers didn’t mean shit. Even when he doesn’t find us right away, he’s always in pursuit. Luckily, getting found doesn’t mean staying found. So when he finds that crucial phonebook page or advanced map search, targeting us in his scope, we bury ourselves further in the sand, desperately hoping he doesn’t rake us out again.

    I know my mom didn’t plan our emergency move any further than dad’s knuckles rapping on our front door, but it just so happened we had to pack up our lives right smack in the middle of my Junior and Senior year in high school.

    My mom has no sense of boundaries. Everything in her life bleeds into the rest of it, often making my life a bloody mess.

    And although she didn’t seem to care how the move affected me, plucking me from Seattle to New Orleans, we both had to find jobs in our new hometown. The job hunt didn’t take very long since her first job, drawing blood at a clinic, almost transferred directly over from Seattle since the same company owned the connected hospitals. Essentially, she was a vampire by day and a server at Creole Cuisine by night.

    I also got a job at the restaurant; except we never worked the same shifts since I took the food prep morning shift. I actually got the job there first, and she applied without telling me. Thank God I never saw her there. Even if we did work the same shift, servers generally aren’t allowed in the food prep area. There are too many knives around, too much liability.

    The manager did not, however, factor in how much of a liability it was to hire my klutz of a mother. In her first week, she dropped a platter of crawfish directly into a man’s lap, and she spent the next five minutes awkwardly cleaning up the smelly seafood while apologizing about forty times. Her nervous laugh seemed to annoy the man and his family far more than the mess.

    As far as summer jobs go, I had a sweet deal. It was sure better than mowing lawns. I still had time to think. Some of the tasks became redundant as with most jobs, but it was also rewarding to prepare food for hungry people; so I convinced myself I was making a difference.

    My dream job would have been at the swimming pool, except I didn’t want to be a lifeguard or sell pool passes. I just wanted them to block off the entire pool for a summer, just one summer, so I could swim uninterrupted. Swimming gives me a sense of peace. I especially like to grab my legs, go into the fetal position, and let my body naturally sink to the bottom of the pool. Once there, I hold my breath for as long as I can, letting the immense pressure of the water increase my heart rate, improve circulation, and provide calm.

    I enjoy this moment of relaxation until my muscles ache for oxygen. It’s a very dull pain that starts in my fingers and toes, gradually moving into my arms and legs before reaching my core. I try to fight this by digging my fingernails into my palms or biting my tongue. Keeping my eyes open isn’t always ideal since the chlorine starts to sting after the first minute or so. The longest I’ve stayed at the bottom of a pool was two and a half minutes. I accomplished this record time when I was thirteen only by losing consciousness for the last thirty seconds.

    My grandpa, Ralph Kendrick, was timing me and saw my arms float above my head. He alerted my mom who was nearby reading Cosmopolitan, and she dived into the water just as I began to choke on the water that had seeped into my nasal cavity. Even after she yanked me from the water, pumped out the water, and slapped me for scaring her like that, I knew I could stay under much longer with practice. David Blaine once held his breath underwater for seventeen minutes and four and half seconds, a truly death-defying, record-shattering act of stupidity that I will attempt to beat the next time I’m near a secluded body of water.

    At the end of June, I took a week off from Creole Cuisine to spend time with two hundred other high schoolers at camp Hoboken, which had a large lake with a bad reputation. I never attempted a record-breaking, underwater, breath-holding stunt in the Hoboken lake, partly because I was distracted by a number of things that week that put my priority for Zen on the back burner for a few days.

    I could have slacked off entirely this summer to sit at home and watch reruns of Scooby Doo! on Cartoon Network, but I needed to work to save up for a vehicle of some sort. My goal is to have enough money to buy a used motorcycle before school starts up again in September. I haven’t shopped around yet, but I’m not picky about makes or models. I don’t know much about bikes, anyways. When August arrives, I’m going to purchase more than an engine on two wheels. I’m going to buy a slice of freedom.

    My mother is notorious for being absent-minded, and therefore dropped me off several hours late, completely missing the camp check-in at the dining hall in the afternoon. She picked up a dinner shift for another server; and since it was a bit of a drive north, we didn’t pull under the Welcome to Hoboken wooden sign until ten o’clock at night.

    All the campers had plenty of time to find their cabins, claim their bunks, and hide their snacks. I was not afforded the same luxuries. Instead, I slammed the car door halfway through my mother’s lament about calling her every night and followed the row of lights toward the main hall.

    By then, all the doors were locked. I had to feel my way around in the dark, hoping I’d stumble upon the correct cabin.

    It rained earlier in the evening, so I slipped and lost my footing a few times in streaks of mud, heading toward the row of glowing cabins. Everything was so drenched that I could hear the oak and pine trees dripping. Since the storm clouds no longer blocked its blue light, the moon stretched beams over the damp ground, causing the grass and rocks to glisten. Their silent winks welcomed me more effectively than the cheesy wooden sign at the camp’s entrance. I tried to notice these small beauties to counterbalance my apprehension about the week ahead.

    The layout of the camp was a mystery to me, but I knew the faces and names of those I was about to meet would not stick if I did not make an effort to interact…socially. I had every intention of connecting with the surrounding nature, ideally losing myself in it for a while; but why did there have to be so many others invading this time with their own versions of fun? It wasn’t my decision to attend the camp; and generally, meeting new people made me cringe.

    There were still things to look forward to once the insects came out and the sun came up in the morning. Then I could sneak into the shaded spots under the trees, collect a few bugs, and study them before lunch without anyone realizing I wasn’t on either of the flag football teams.

    This particular week of camp didn’t have any sort of theme like Choir Camp, Drama Camp, or Soccer Camp. Those came later in the summer. This was a more general Check Your Brains at the Door camp that still had counselors to keep everyone safe; but they weren’t going to change your life with a sob story about finding the key to heaven. There was a chapel on the top of the hill, but this certainly wasn’t a Come to Jesus camp.

    Although there were structured activities, there were also freedoms ordinarily forbidden under the watchful eyes of conservative parents. And yet, no one was wandering around after the storm having a mud fight or jumping in puddles. The campers must have known somehow that it was going to rain again, much more than that night, leaving larger puddles and more of them.

    I saw some damage from blasts of wind during the storm. Small branches and chunks of tree bark lay scattered all over the ground. I purposefully stepped on some of the larger twigs, hoping the snapping sounds would alert someone inside the cabins to poke their head out and tell me which one had a bunk with my name on it.

    I walked up to the front porch of the third cabin and knocked on the door. A man with a clipboard and a nose generously slathered in sunscreen greeted me. He wore a nametag with Martin written in black marker.

    “Yeah?” He lowered his shoulders and laughed, talking out of the corner of his mouth to the cabin of boys. “We’ve got a lost sheep out here. And he’s soaked. Embarrassing much.”

    I ignored his comments. “I just got here. How do I know which cabin is mine?”

    “Depends. You got a name?”

    Seriously. Where do they hire these counselors? I began to wonder if I had to look at this douche bag’s unfunny face for the rest of the week. Please, not Martin’s cabin. I answered with the information he wanted instead of the insult I had ready under my tongue, “Josh Kendrick.” Then, I pointed to the place on my wet shirt where a nametag would have been if I were wearing one.

    He rolled his eyes and glanced at his clipboard, then back at me. “Not this cabin.”

    Thank God.

    He flipped to the next page and squinted, shifting his eyes down another list of names. “Kendrick…Kendrick…Aha! Josh Kendrick. Well, you’re not my problem, you lucky duck. Keep walking. Says you’re in cabin nine.”

_______________________

    I heard cabin nine before I got to the front porch. Laughter, cheers, and four letter words flew from the open windows like confetti from a bunch of exploding balloons. And so, no one heard me knock. They didn’t care I was standing just outside, my clothes sticking to my skin so much that peeling them off in a few minutes would feel like shedding more than my shirt and pants. It would feel like crawling out of some unnatural cocoon.

    I took a deep breath and opened the screen door. It squeaked loud enough to cut through the noise. All the boys stopped talking. They turned to watch as the wall of party energy moved over and past me like a tidal wave. Suitcases, loose wrappers, and swords made from spongy pool noodles were strewn about the room.

    The springs in the bunks rattled as some of the boys rolled over to see who exactly had interrupted their camaraderie. If the screen door had been oiled, allowing a smooth and silent entrance, I might have snuck in without so much as an automatic: “Where you been, fuckface?” from one of the boys.

    That would have been nice.

    Instead, the whole goddamn place went from frat house to library within seconds. No one wanted me there.

    Showing up late for the first night at camp was the teenage equivalent of signing up for the draft after the soldiers had deployed for war. My presence was a betrayal, instantly labeling me as a traitor. And as I looked at each scowling face, I realized leaving was no longer an option. My feet were stuck to the floor. The screen door had already awkwardly closed by itself with a slam. I could not turn my back on them.

    A boy with early onset beer belly dropped a Dorito just as he was about to shove it in his mouth. It fell in what felt like slow motion. The chip hit the cabin floor and cracked into three pieces. Another boy had bumped a can of Mountain Dew while rolling in his bed to see what goblin disturbed his pre-slumber routine. The soda gurgled from the can and dribbled across the floor, making it seem he’d lost control of his bladder simply because he saw me walk in.

    A flush came from the bathroom and the door opened. A tall, lanky man walked out, wiping his hands on baggy cargo shorts. That was Freddy. The only patches of hair on his head that were redder than the tuffs sticking out of his baseball cap were his eyebrows and sharpened goatee. Nasty sunburn splotches peeled at different stages across his face, leaving a white figure-eight pattern only where he wore sunglasses. Freddy extended one of his half-dried hands and flashed a crafty grin. He was missing a front tooth.

    None of these empty gestures were friendly. The Hoboken sign was false in every way. It should have read Welcome to Hell: One Week Only.

    He looked at me the way a butcher would look at a young calf just before driving him to the slaughterhouse. The only real difference in that scenario was that my mom paid the camp for my stay. They didn’t have to bid on my body pound for pound. She just handed me over.

    “Hey there, bud.” Freddy blew a puff of air into a lopsided piece of bubblegum and snapped it with his teeth. “Are you lost?”

    I didn’t shake his hand. “No, I just…”

     “Are you cold?” Freddy took a step closer.

    Even though I wasn’t going to admit it, my arms were shivering and my knees were trembling; but I partly blamed my heavy backpack and bad posture.

    “It’s wet out there,” was the only thing I could think of saying.

    He blew another bubble and snapped it, this time rotating the baseball cap backwards. Then he took one long stride towards me and put my head in a vice-tight headlock, spinning me so everyone could see my huge backpack.

    “What’s in here? Are you moving in for the rest of the year?” Freddy gave my neck a hard squeeze and reached around my shoulders with his free arm. He shoved me against the wall, grabbed my backpack, unzipped it, and dumped everything on the floor. “Let’s take a look.”

    As my stuff tumbled out, the enjoyment on Freddy’s face turned to boredom. Thankfully, I didn’t bring much: clean clothes, my toothbrush, bug spray, and my silver watch.

    Chad, a muscular jock, sat up from his bunk when he saw the watch. He held a football in the throwing position. Then he locked his gaze on the silver wristband and detailed glasswork of the watch. It looked expensive because it was. But that watch had far more value to me than simply a way to check the time. My Grandpa Kendrick gave it to me on his deathbed as a parting gift. He entrusted me with it and instructed me to guard it with my life. It was the last token of his gratitude, a way of granting me right of passage as his grandson.

    I quickly picked up the watch and polished it with the edge of my damp shirt, making sure the fall to the floor didn’t scuff up the silver. I didn’t much care if Freddy snapped my toothbrush in half. I was never going to let him touch my watch.

    Freddy rambled off some more stupid questions about what had been so important to make me late, but I started to think about places to hide the watch. Recent harassments ruled out my backpack as a hiding spot. And there were no lockers or private sections in the cabin. I decided the safest place I could put it was on my wrist, close to my body, where I could see it at all times. I slipped it on and clicked the wristband.

    As I gathered my things from the floor, the boys quickly saw I wasn’t going to be a source of entertainment for long. Although I had practice being the victim of bullying in the past, there weren’t enough spitballs in the world to make me feel like a victim. I was past all that, anyway. That week, I had to step outside myself enough to move past annoyance and instead focus on collecting a few new experiences.

    Most of the boys went back to their smartphones and potty jokes. Freddy messed with me just a bit more, taunting how I’d have to mooch off everyone else in the cabin for extra snacks and possibly bathroom privileges. I let his remarks bounce off.

    The only open bunk was below Chad. Some of the springs jutted out near the far end. I knew I’d have to curl my feet up to avoid scraping them on the sharp edges of the springs.

    As I tried to settle in, I became distracted. Chad didn’t have regular body odor, but instead reeked of AXE Cologne. It smelled like he’d taken a bath in nothing but toxic chemicals. And as he turned in his bunk, the entire bedframe moved, releasing a cloud of his essence from above. I tucked my nose into my shirt, trying to filter clean, breathable air.

    After lights out, Freddy pretended to be strict, telling everyone to shut up and get some shut-eye. I was surprised when the noise died down, as if the boys somehow respected Freddy’s stern attitude. But I knew it wouldn’t last.

    In less than five minutes, Chad began to snore like a clogged leaf blower. One of his arms drooped over the edge of the top bunk. I wanted to pull him to the ground.

    What’s the worst thing that could happen?

    Chad might break an arm, snap a few ribs?

    Shatter his jawbone?

    I didn’t know Chad yet, but I figured if someone had to go home because of an injury, he would make a mighty fine candidate. I could have made it look like an accident, but I let his arm dangle there. Maybe another night, I’d muster a bit more courage. For some reason, I felt Chad had it coming.

    The snoring came to a halt when Freddy jumped out of his bunk, shuffled to the middle of the room, and flicked on a flashlight, holding it under his chin. He spoke in a deeper, fuller voice that boomed throughout the cabin. It sounded rehearsed, full of animated theatrics.

    “In the tradition of Camp Hoboken, I summon all who wish to know the truth. Come. Listen. And I will tell you of horrors so horrid, you’ll find sleep impossible. You will sweat, and fret, and grind your teeth until your mouth is full of white dust. These stories are so awful, so terrifying that you’ll be homesick like never before. Once you know what I know, you won’t call your parents. No! Fear…fear in its purest form will enter your body and make you run. These are not tall tales. In fact, they are quite short. But be careful, boys. The best of them will keep you up tonight!”

    Some of the boys left their bunks and gathered around on the floor in a circle, accepting Freddy’s invitation to become involved in some kind of secret intelligence. I figured this was happening in the other cabins as well. Freddy seemed to take this part of his job too seriously. He had performed this show a thousand times, yet his enthusiasm was infectious. So, instead of pulling a pillow around my ears to muffle the sound, I listened.

    Freddy widened his eyes and lowered his jaw, speaking slowly as if he were chewing the stories, savoring each word he spoke.

    “There are rumors about this camp. You’ve probably heard some of them before you arrived. Many of these stories have changed over the years. The ones about pirates sailing from the south to cash in on Louisiana treasures…those aren’t true. Neither are the ones about Vikings passing through to learn ancient voodoo. Total bullshit. All of it. Nothing but empty legends.” Freddy removed his baseball cap. He scratched his head and let his red hair hang loose. “But we need those stories. We need them to separate the bullshit from the truth. Now, I’m not talking about hermits or cannibals or anything crazy. Just the facts. Hard evidence. This camp has a dark history. And it’s right below our feet, still active. It wants us to speak it out loud. To call its name, and give ourselves over to it.”

    With the exception of a few mouth-breathers, the cabin fell silent with anticipation.

    Freddy turned the flashlight toward the campers in a circular motion. When the beam came my way, I closed my eyes, letting it pass before I opened them again.

    A boy with a minor stutter spoke up. “Te-tell us about the lake!”

    “I’ll get to that,” Freddy said, stroking his goatee. “Let me set it up, first. There used to be a laboratory at the top of the hill, about a hundred yards from the lake. They shut it down in the 1950s. Not much left to it anymore. The MAN stopped it from gaining too much power. You see, government officials burned it to the ground after they learned what was going on inside. This was before camp Hoboken started up. The camp was named after the primary doctor who oversaw all the research. His name was Charles Hoboken, and…”

     “He’s dead, right?” Chad interrupted. “They finished him off.”

    “Dead?” Freddy chuckled. “No one really knows. He was a young doctor. If he is alive, he’s gotta be pretty old by now. When they shut down the lab, Dr. Hoboken was gone. Some say he stayed in the building when they lit it on fire, and that he burned with his own creation. Others say his spirit haunts this camp. Either way, the man was sinister. He messed with stuff that you just shouldn’t touch. The lab was apparently studying infectious diseases carried by mosquitos: malaria, dengue fever, and the emerging West Nile virus. There was a protocol for contamination control if any of the workers became infected. It didn’t happen often. They had ways to keep people safe…mostly. But then again, not everyone followed the rules. Just like you boys, there are always a few troublemakers in the group. A few rotten eggs that fuck up the whole thing.”

    Freddy glared at Chad before continuing.

    “They had all kinds of test subjects for the viruses. It started with what you’d expect: rats, small pigs, but then they started using human subjects. Now, they didn’t infect anyone on purpose. Not at first. The researchers started a blood bank, making weekly collections from volunteers. Then they extracted a specific virus from the mosquitoes and mixed it with blood samples, looking for reactions on the molecular level. The blood was stored in refrigerators. But after they learned what they could from the samples, they dumped the old blood into the lake. That’s why the water is frothy in the morning. Throughout the day, as the sun heats the water, the iron in the blood sinks back down. Some mornings, you can almost skim it off the top. You’ll see tomorrow during swimming time. They tried to drain the lake in the 1980s, to start fresh, make it safe again. A team of engineers got halfway through the job when bone fragments from the bottom layer clogged their giant sump pumps.”

    “Wait.” Chad leaned closer and asked, “Where did the bones come from?”

    “The lab. All the waste. The rats, the pigs…the other doctors, nurses, and staff. Research has gone through regulations over the years. That’s crucial. This lab, however, was privately funded. Charles Hoboken himself put up half the money to build the place. But cold blood in a bag wasn’t enough. Dr. Hoboken wanted to know how the mosquito viruses changed the physiology of the human organism. As you’d guess, no one volunteered for those tests. There was no survey or paperwork, either. Hoboken went to the facility’s kitchen and spiked all the food with viruses. The food trucks came once a week, but Hoboken knew the schedule and wanted to make it count. Besides, in less than a week, the damage was done. Almost all the doctors, nurses, and staff contracted one of the target diseases. And through this bioterrorism, this act of madness, he gained more test subjects than he dreamed. He just had to see if immunity was possible. The son of a bitch had to know. For a scientist of his caliber, this experiment was too good to pass up. And this was his golden opportunity, so he couldn’t take any chances. Hoboken cut the phone lines, isolating everyone, severing any communication to the outside world. As they fell ill, he quarantined them in the lab’s greenhouse. It made it easier to watch his subjects since the walls were made of glass. He locked them in there with the plants and chilled them. After realizing they’d fight him too much to collect blood samples, he made the greenhouse colder and colder until they froze to death. The doctor waited just one night, thawed them out, and collected final samples before dumping the bodies into the lake.”

    The number of mouth-breathers doubled because many more jaws had slowly unhinged.

    “The only known survivor is William James Winthrop, a chemist who worked for Hoboken. He’s about seventy-five years old and goes by Visor. And now, he works as the janitor here at the camp. Visor says he came back to this place ’cause it drew him back. Visor knows more about the strange happenings here than anyone. He says he’s retired from chemistry, but he still mixes a few potions of his own. And he doesn’t mind sharing.” Then Freddy winked at me. “Don’t worry about bothering him at all. He loves talking to campers. Go ahead and ask him anything you want. But don’t come crying to me if the answers give you nightmares.”

    Chad pressed both thumbs on the football still in his hands, digging his nails into the stitching. He had been squeezing it tighter while Freddy spoke. “How did this…Winthrop guy escape?”

    “Visor?” Freddy furrowed his brow. “It’s not for me to say. If you want to know, you’ll have to ask him. With what he’s been through, it’s amazing he still talks about it.” Freddy’s voice quivered. “Listen to me now. All you boys. Never go in the lake at night. When the sun goes down, the lake turns a deep red. The blood should have dissolved in all those years. Someone should tell that to the lake. I dare you. Tell the lake to clear up and get its act together. All that blood is bubbling up from somewhere. I’m not saying sharks because this is Louisiana, not the ocean. And I’m not saying it’s the ghost of Hoboken. Could be both. But there’s something that keeps that lake red at night. Some nights, it even glows. And just in case you decide to take a dip anyways, you can’t blame anyone but yourself. I didn’t have a career surrounded by test tubes and microscopes like Visor, but mark my words. That water…turns into acid at night. And it’s hot. Just hot enough to peel the skin right off your bones.”

    I heard crickets chirping through the open windows. A soft breeze cooled the cabin. Everyone had been sucked in by the story. Even me.

    Cracking his neck, Freddy let out a fake yawn. “I’m glad they burned that blasted lab to the ground. The whole goddamn thing was a shit-show.” His eyes sparkled as he held in laughter. Then he flicked off the flashlight, leaving everyone blindly shuffling back to their bunks. “Sweet dreams, boys.”

    Chad rolled over and started up his nasal leaf blower again. This time, the entire bunk shook a little. He still smelled like cleaning detergent. A whole week of this and I’ll smell just like Chad.

    Lying there in the dark, I tried to shake the strange story. Part of me knew Freddy made it all up. But part of me felt it might have happened. Not as it was told, with all the gestures and arrogance, though. The image of the lake split in two, clear water on top and a thick, bloody sludge on the bottom continually sloshed back into my mind.

_______________________

    Morning came like sledgehammer. Freddy pounded two frying pans together, prancing around the cabin singing, “Morning is boring. We’re finished with snoring!”

    The boys who slept through the banging pans eventually woke themselves with their own groans. That was the only morning I got up early enough for breakfast. All the campers met in the main hall for eggs, bacon, and buttermilk pancakes. Those cooks knew what they were doing.

    Just after breakfast, I managed to see Freddy behead a snake with the blade of a shovel. He and a few guys from my cabin watched the snake while they ate. Then they cornered it under a five-gallon bucket. Freddy had leather boots to guide the snake toward its death. I found it odd how quickly Chad grabbed a shovel, as if he knew they were going to hunt snakes. Maybe they planned it together, Freddy and the others. I wouldn’t put it past them. They were all professional idiots.

    When the snake’s head snapped off, Freddy pulled the tongue out like he was priming a yo-yo before holding it up to the sky with a victorious holler. This morning kill would no doubt expand into some ridiculous object lesson about concurring fear. In that moment, Freddy had gained just what he needed, what fueled him in all his redneck glory: his next big story.

    We were supposed to carve walking sticks for the morning craft upstairs in the lodge. I went along with it for a while, using the knife to carve my initials, JK, into the staff. The music in the lodge sucked. Even without frying pans in his hands, Freddy had a way of trailing a cloud of groans wherever he went. He kept changing the radio to a hard rock station that blared shit no one ever heard before. Song after song, they were all hideous covers by no-talent bands.

    I skipped team building at the obstacle course, a daily activity that began every morning at ten o’clock.

    That day, as the trees gently brushed against each other, I began to search for Visor. Surely, Freddy wasn’t lying about the soul survivor from Hoboken’s retro lab. The man had to exist. And whether or not he actually did, my mind had painted a mental picture of him, full of unstable wisdom, worn by time, desperately enslaved by his history with the camp. Those ideas made him real. And if Visor really did work as a janitor, it wouldn’t take long to find him.

    I first searched the main hall again and poked my head in the kitchen. Some of the staff were laughing and talking shit about the counselors while they cleaned up breakfast.

    Dirty dishes. Plump cooks. No Visor.

    Next, I checked the basement of the lodge; but other than some tattered furniture, it was empty. The fireplace hadn’t been lit yet since all the spare wood was outside near the bonfire pit.

    Then I found the chapel.

    It was perched upon the hill, the farthest building from the main hall. I thought back to Freddy’s description of the lab, and had the sick thought that the chapel had been built directly on top of Dr. Hoboken’s experimental research facility. I imagined smoke drifting above the lab as it burned and was troubled by how easily I could also imagine that same smoke billowing just above the chapel. Freddy didn’t reveal an exact location, but this felt like the same place.

    As I walked up to the front doors, the massive steeple loomed above me. I slipped inside and immediately smelled an intense odor of wood stain. Sharp and bright, the stench smacked me across the face.

    I heard someone whistling a musical scale. That’s when I saw him. A man was squatting down, brushing the preacher’s pulpit with a fresh coat of light oak lacquer.

    A narrow aisle separated the pews, perfectly symmetrical in relation to the front altar. I slowly moved between the pews, as if not to disturb a service in progress. Besides the man, the chapel was vacant.

    He wore an immaculate white lab coat. The man was focused on his work, carefully guiding the brush all the way down the side of the pulpit.

    He hadn’t seen me yet. So I kept quiet.

    Looking down, I took small steps, carefully avoiding the cracks in the floorboards. But before I could make a wrong step and reveal my presence, the man spoke—not in a mumble, but in a clear and commanding voice: “All boys must meet their maker.”

    He repeated the phrase, this time saying it in the same rhythm of dead men tell no tales. 

    “What?” The word escaped my mouth without my permission.

    Brushing the pulpit with one more stroke, the man turned to look at me. His face, especially around his eyes, was imprinted with so many crow’s feet that it looked as if an entire family of black birds had danced there, stippling his skin into a tangled nest of lines. The deepest lines on his face were stamped around his cracked lips. And a faded scar zigzagged around his pointed nose, continuing down his chin and neck.

    He saw me reel backward, if only by half an inch. The size and shape of the scar held my gaze longer than I expected. Now, seeing this man, I knew at least part of Freddy’s story had to be true.

    Pointing toward the chapel door with his thumb, the man extended it like a hitchhiker. Then he raised his caterpillar eyebrows, waiting for me to counter his brawny voice with my own.

    It was a volley I couldn’t return. One of us had to be the mumbler. “Are you…Visor?”

    He locked his eyes with mine and didn’t blink. “You found me.”

    We engaged in a short staring competition before I opened my mouth, letting out an empty laugh. “I did. I found you.” The echo of my laugh bounced off the walls.

    Then he spoke again. “You came to meet God.”

    “I’m sorry?”

    “You want to know how I cheated death, don’t you, my friend?”

    “I guess I was just walking around…”

    “And you came to meet your maker.”

    I felt the wood planks of the chapel shifting, becoming tighter. All the planks were angled toward the front, leading my eye past Visor’s shoulder to a cross of large nails posted to the wall above a row of candles.

    Without turning around, Visor knew exactly what had caught my attention. “You don’t understand. Not in the religious sense. You want to know how to see more. Find peace.” And when he brushed his shoulder, he held his arm up just long enough for me to gawk at it. He rotated the arm with an odd fascination as if he were also seeing it for the first time. The sleeve of his white coat was curled up, showing unsightly, burned skin like a wrinkled map. Layers of skin had been crudely grafted together into small countries fused at the edges. “You want to open all your senses. Maybe add a few while you’re at it. You want to see what God sees. Know what he knows.”

    I caught myself before blurting out another apology. Instead, I said, “What do you mean by…see?”

    He blinked twice and wiped the stained bristles of his brush on the lid of the tin can. Then he stood. His bones groaned like an old house, joints popping in and out of place, settling as he walked behind the pulpit. Visor bent down and removed a worn, black briefcase. He placed it on the top of the pulpit and rapped his fingers along the sides. The leather on the bottom of the case had boiled and cracked in a fire. A name was embossed into the top near the handle: Charles Hoboken.

    Visor must have been carrying the briefcase when he escaped.

    He licked his dry lips, chapping them further. “Every summer, kids like you wander in here looking for me. Looking for The Trip Adviser. It must be pretty bad for you to find me on the first day,” he said, drawing me in with the cadence of a sage. “But I know why you did. You came because…you want to dream.”

    Then he opened the briefcase.

    It contained white strips of multicolored dots that looked just like candy. The strips curled at the edges since they’d been rolled up together and snipped into rows of dozens. Visor ripped off an individual microdot and held it up to his face. “You came for this.”

    The offering seemed like a twisted communion service with only two participants, Visor the Priest and I the sinner, preparing myself to partake of the elements.

    When I didn’t reach for it, Visor appeared weary as if he took offense to my refusal. Then he said, “These little guys won’t help you sleep, but you’ll be dreaming while you’re wide awake.” He placed the dot under his tongue and let it dissolve, closed his eyes, then breathed in, relaxing into the high that would soon flow throughout his body. He ripped off another dot and forcefully placed it in the palm of my hand. This dot was blue with white speckles like a flattened robin’s egg.

    “You won’t feel it right away. But trust me, you’ll know when it hits.”

    I had been so mesmerized by the briefcase and what it held that I forgot how to speak for a moment. My mouth felt dry and so my voice came out in a raspy cough. “How much does it cost?”

    He pushed the briefcase forward. “Nothing. No money, that is.”

    “Really?”

    “But I like how you asked that. Cost? The answer to that depends on how you use it and react to it. I make a new batch of these every week, all summer. It doesn’t matter what type of camp it is or who shows up. Someone always wants to know what it tastes like, just to try it.”

    “What is it?”

    “So many questions. Your teachers must really love you. I’m not a wizard or a carnival flim-flam man. I can’t bring people back from the other side. I’m a survivor. I touched the other side, but it didn’t swallow me up. I dipped in my toes. Never jumped all the way. Never danced with the devil, neither. And no one pulled me out. No one saved me. I saved myself. If it was my fate to die, I denied it. I rebuked it. Told it to get thee behind me!” He licked his sun-dried lips again. “No doubt you’ve heard about what happened here all those years ago. Right where we’re standing. This very spot. Even in a sacred place such as this, the past bleeds into the now.”

    He gestured in a circular motion around the chapel and held his other hand up to his ear. “If you listen closely, you’ll hear them, still clawing at the walls to escape, still calling for a help that never came, still screaming. For me, the screams never stopped.” His eyes watered over, but he didn’t spill tears. “Those stories don’t do it justice. ’Cause that’s all they are…stories. But I lived it. I was there.” He held up his arm again. “And I have the scars to prove it. The past took a toll on me. Sucked some of the good out. But hey, I’m still here. And listen, I can’t erase those memories. No amount of therapy or rock ’n’ roll can wipe them clean.” Then he smirked and nodded. “That’s what drugs are for, my friend.”

    Even though this may have been the most interesting man I’d ever met, he scared the shit out me. And I couldn’t turn around and walk out of the chapel because he had me under his spell.

    “Now, this isn’t exactly LSD. It’s a bit different because every batch I make is special. I mix in a few herbs and spices to give it an extra kick. They’re more potent that way. More affecting. These aren’t a cure-all or anything like that. But you will feel much better, and the veil of the mundane will be removed from your eyes.”

    “Look, that’s cool that you make it and all, I guess…”

    “You guess?”

    “But hey, I’m not sure. I’ve never taken anything like this before.”

    “No worries. I knew that the second you crept in here. What, were you trying to scare me? Give an old man a heart attack? Take my stash and run down the hill? Just what I need, some punk ass kid robbing me blind.”

    “No, no. It’s nothing like that. I just wanted to meet you.”

    “And now that you have, you’re not leaving without a couple dots. Free of charge. Gifts among friends.” He tore off four microdots and closed the briefcase. “It’s my responsibility as your trip adviser to ensure it’s a safe ride. These should last you until tomorrow. And don’t take it all at once.”

    “It’s not going to make me sick, is it?”

    “Not my recipe. Not if you take it wisely.”

    “But shit does happen, right?”

    Visor spun his next bit with dark delight. “Some people go completely insane. They not only see with eyes wide open, but they almost go cross-eyed. That’s what I call it when their reality splits in half like a hairline fracture in their skull. I’ve been on this stuff since the ’50s, and I’m still razor sharp. If you want to know what it can do, what can go wrong, I’ll tell you. One girl told me she walked through a door to her death. At least, she thought she was dead. She just had a really bad trip. The bad ones can last up to twelve hours. But for her, it lasted much longer. She couldn’t drive past a cemetery for a full year because she was afraid of seeing her tombstone. That’s a rather extreme reaction. She probably had all kinds of other things going on that made her go cross-eyed. Everyone handles it differently.”

    “She thought she was dead?”

    “It happens. To some. But you’re stronger than that. Aren’t you? Even in this brief conversation, I can tell you have more brains than that space cadet. She wasn’t ready. You are. You’re ready to taste it.”

_______________________

    I staggered out of the chapel, closed the doors behind me, and looked down across the camp. I saw Freddy and his group of morons filling up water balloons from a spigot near the canteen. They were throwing and breaking just as many as they were filling. Freddy still had several buckets prepped, and when they had more balloons than they could fit, the group snuck up to a girl cabin playing beach volleyball. I’m not sure why they called the sharp rocks near the lake a beach. The only sand to speak of was in the volleyball pit. Freddy planted his guys in the bushes around the girl’s game. And when he gave the signal, the guys flung the water balloons at the girls with splats and shrieks I could hear even at the top of the hill.

    I opened my hand and inspected the four, colored tabs. Two were green and two were blue. All of them had white speckles. I feared those white spots were another drug, possibly powdered cocaine. Even though Visor had promised his recipe was more or less safe, I hesitated before placing the first tab of blaze under my tongue. It dissolved quickly, and tasted like a copper penny. I put the other three tabs in my pocket and jogged down the hill. The counselors were about to open the obstacle course, and I didn’t want to miss out on the zip line, especially now that I was about to have a fresh spring in my step.

    That was a very bad idea.

    I completed the rope balance and tire swing drop with no problems. My head was clear and I was having fun. I almost forgot about my strange meeting with Visor since I was enjoying myself too much to think about all that weirdness: his story, his scars. But my dependency on Visor’s potions began when the drugs started to take effect at the top of the zip line platform. That’s where I lost myself.

    I was harnessed in with spotters on the ground, counterbalancing my weight and making sure I didn’t fall to my death. One of the spotters had tightened the harness around my legs so snugly that it cut off the circulation, turning my legs into jelly. A dull soreness formed behind my eyes, then a sudden pain pricked them like someone pressing a pin into a couple of ripe grapes. The pain didn’t last. And I began to see purple circles grow and shrink in the sky, then on my hands, arms, and limp legs. They flickered on my body, giving the illusion that leprosy was creeping across my skin. That effect wore off, just in time for me to look over the edge of the platform. Although I was elevated off the ground, the grass looked twice as far away. An extremely dizzying wave of vertigo washed over me, pulling me further from the earth like one of the ultra-tight bungee cords in my harness.

    The guy ahead of me tapped his helmet and pushed off the platform, gliding down the zip line in a trail of ecstasy. And though I was only standing on the platform, not moving, I felt what he felt: a rush of chemicals that yanked me up and down by invisible strings. Ready for anything, I tapped my helmet and pushed off, letting gravity guide me over the other campers.

    I moved over the trees, gaining speed, feeling the wind brush over the hair on my arms. With my legs dangling below, the land ahead became too deep, too wide, like an extruded painting whooshing past. An expansive landscape painting that I was falling toward, over, and into all at the same time. My stomach was still waiting on the platform; unaware the rest of my body had zipped away. So I didn’t feel nauseous or even dizzy anymore. Just prickly. Alert. More alert than ever. I not only saw the colors racing past, but I smelled them. And they smelled like samplings from an ice cream shop: smooth, creamy, sweet, and salty.

    The zip line seemed to go on forever, a single piece of thread on a giant spool, endlessly unreeling itself. I zoomed above a few guys and became distracted by the striped shirt one of them was wearing. The stripes separated from his shirt, widening into the lines of a long runway near the end of the track, leading me down.

    I must have done the zip line three more times, and each time I felt more and saw more. The zip line may have been aimed in a downward slant, but my mood did not dip until just before dinner.

    I placed a green tab under my tongue and meandered to the main hall. It was taco night. My senses were heightened; but my legs, even free from the harness, still felt like they were molded from Jell-O. The food tasted way better than it should have. One of the guys across from me commented that the tacos were manna from heaven. And when he reached in his pocket to get his inhaler, a strip of green tabs fell onto the floor. I realized I wasn’t Visor’s only friend.

    Then I looked around and noticed bloodshot eyes all around me. I blinked hard, and some of their eyes cleared up. Either way, a good number of us had visited Visor. But somehow, I felt proud that I found him early. And since I hadn’t told anyone about his genius microdots, they must have known simply based on his reputation, which was undeniably larger than life.

    After dinner, it rained again. Some of the campers stayed in the dining hall to play poker and twister. I went outside and stood in the rain.

    The thunder boomed and cackled; and through the lens of the drug, the lightning appeared to form spinning fractals like the tails of seahorses jitterbugging. Growing with unparalleled intensity, the sounds of the storm rattled my bones. I began to not only hear sound, but I saw it expand and contract, rippling through the clouds. These invisible sound waves revealed themselves, oscillating with each clap of thunder. It was a symphony of sight and sound, merging into one magical moment. The rain felt like it was melting my skin.

    I suddenly found myself standing at the edge of the lake with no awareness of time passing. Yet, the storm had dissolved, clearing the clouds like thick cobwebs, leaving a blank canvas upon which light smeared a picturesque sunset. Calm and smooth as glass, the lake remained still, untouched by the storm’s winds. It reflected piercing beams of orange and purple light from the face of the sunset, and the mirror image seemed to reflect more reds and greens, unfolding the color spectrum like an accordion. The sun moved down, dipping into the horizon where the lake touched the sky.

    I looked down to see that I was standing in the lake, red water lapping around my ankles. It stung as if the water had entered my leg—a snakebite drawing blood, the worst of all venom. Nature’s venom: deadlier than any drop of poison from the fang of a reptile. Then, I believed the dark, crimson water was not an illusion, but the discarded sludge of flesh from Hoboken’s lab.

    The other colors upon the water suddenly shifted into a polarized inversion, folding into a snap change that brought me to my knees. And when my legs fell into the water, the numbness fell as well, replaced by a burning sensation that only went as far as the menacing water. I leapt from the lake, thankful I was only a few feet from the rocks of the shore. Scrambling away from it, gasping for air, I realized there had been nothing stopping me from wading all the way in, challenging myself to set the record for holding my breath in full submersion. Deadly waters certainly increased the risk. I continued to crawl across the slippery rocks, trying to put as much distance as I could between the lake and my mortal body. The lake thrashed in extreme contradiction. Deceptively calm, yet raging with a ghastly motion just under its glassy surface, the lake almost snatched me in its grasp. Almost. It had sucked me in and spat me out.

    That night, I gained an instant respect for the lake, its history, and its magnetic power. The pull continued as I ran from it, beckoning me with voices only I could hear: Josh…Josh…Come for a swim. Take the plunge. Hold your breath and count ’til death…

    But when I returned to the cabin, I discovered there were others with stories just as grim. A pandemic of hysteria was spreading, and it wanted to touch everyone it could reach.

_______________________

    The cabins were the main places where these outrageous hallucinations were told; and for a few nights, it seemed that the boys in my cabin were deliberately tripping more acid to one-up each other’s stories. Freddy only encouraged the mayhem, awarding beef jerky to whoever told the best whopper.

    Stephen claimed he saw giant crabs crawling out of the lake that chased him all the way up to the chapel where he tried to find Visor to help him stop the trip. He said they had giant pinchers like the Jaws of Life, those hydraulic claws they use to cut through metal doors after car accidents.

    Girls all over the camp shared their LSD-induced visions with so much giggling, you could barely understand them. They’d start talking and unwittingly pause their own story to laugh hysterically, often shaking their heads like fanatics at a spiritual revival. Whenever this happened, I couldn’t stop laughing either. There was something infectious about their silliness, and it wasn’t difficult to tap into conversations that had been destroyed by contagious giggles. I hijacked a few of these paused stories to make jokes that normally would have fallen flat, but instead had girls slapping their knees in delirious glee.

    The obnoxious jock, Chad, the one that stank like a guys’ cologne chemical factory, had the worst reactions to Visor’s microdots. Since his first hit, he’d lost any normal sense of time and space. He walked around, feeling walls, mumbling about voices in his head. Some of the boys thought he was putting on a show, trying to scare us. But as I watched the deadness behind his eyes and his strange behavior, I realized he’d fallen much further down the rabbit’s hole than even he anticipated. Chad would answer questions no one had asked, then swipe at thin air and scratch his back. Other times, he’d foam at the mouth and scream out in terror. I knew it wasn’t an act because I saw him suffer from these symptoms when no one else was around. Freddy and the rest of the boys from our cabin were out hunting for snakes again when I saw Chad hitting his head against the wall.

    Whack! Clunk! Slam! Whack! Clunk! Slam!

    He had his shirt off and I saw scratches all over his back, red streaks, puffed and scabbing over, as if he’d been whipping himself with his own belt. I’m still not sure whether he knew I was in the room or not. He seemed to be in a whole other world, outside himself.

    Chad had continued to take the microdots every day from the start of the week. He’d lost sleep, and the night he was coherent enough to tell his stories to the cabin, he kept referring to our time zone as “another dimension.” Then he’d laugh and poke fun for a few minutes, and return back to his blockhead self. But the sanity never lasted.

    Visor had warned me about certain people falling into psychosis: a swirling inner tsunami of thought and emotion that becomes so destructive, the victim loses touch with reality. This extreme reaction can even lead to a loss of self-awareness, where a person simply becomes a collection of senses, fractured from within, unable to merge body and spirit.

    While I watched Chad smash his head against the wall again and again, I feared that his essence, his soul, had either diminished or left him entirely. His voice changed, and he’d choke on his own saliva, wagging his tongue around, baring his teeth in a deranged mania of dark anger. If I didn’t know he was on acid, I might have assumed he was possessed, his body now a vessel for a demonic presence.

    Chad’s overdose, predicted by Visor and encouraged by Freddy, had transformed him into a zombie with mush for brains. Chad’s persona before the drugs had been based on confidence and intimidation; but now, he was ruled by fear and confusion all mixed together. Only a few days ago, Chad had seemed full of vigorous energy, climbing trees and pranking girls. In his current state, he could barely tie his shoelaces.

    Boys like Andy and Tanner talked about seeing UFOs race across the sky. Andy even said he had seen one of the aliens wave from the ship window at him. Tanner went into great detail about his out-of-body experiences where he saw himself from above, at lunch, and playing outside. Both boys had trouble sleeping more than a few hours. I heard them roll out of their beds, stand on either side of the bunk Chad and I shared, and whisper into Chad’s ears about ghosts, ghouls, spiders, and aliens. They fed his insanity with tales of earthquakes where huge insects emerged from cracks in the earth and slurped out his brains through a straw like the ridiculous monsters from creature features. Their combined, vivid imaginations made Chad claw at his blankets and murmur indecipherable sounds. They told him of man-eating trees with knives for leaves, dump trucks full of dead rats, and black bats with sharp fangs that had flown under his blankets, thirsty to lick droplets of sweat from his fingers and toes.

    These threatening visuals only increased his anxiety, which had already been cranked up by his uncontrollable symptoms. And as Chad’s eyes rolled back and forth, deep within the REM cycle, the two boys spoke directly into his subconscious. The raw imagery filtered through his mind on whispers and came out in tremors that shook the top springs of the bunk bed just above my head. As flashes of frightening sights pulsed behind his eyelids, Chad writhed in his bed, kicking his feet off the edges of the bunk. For a moment, I saw his ankles restlessly dodging the invisible bats until he whacked his heel on the bedpost hard enough to shatter his nightmares.

    Although cruel, the taunts from Andy and Tanner satiated some of my urges to yank his limp arm off the bunk and fling him to the cabin floor. But I figured he was suffering enough.

    I had just as much trouble getting to sleep. And although they weren’t meant for me, the demented whispers of our cabin mates amped up a primal terror inside my own psyche. Basic and juvenile as they were, the disturbing content of their taunts made me afraid to close my eyes. So, instead, I lay there listening and counted the weaved wires that held up Chad’s half of the bunk, first across horizontal, vertical, then diagonal. I counted and memorized them as if my life hinged on those numbers. Then, I trembled inside, recognizing these numbers might represent my past, present, and future lives—the sum of any time I had left to live. My breathing became shallow like it had so many times as I practiced holding my breath underwater. In that moment, it totally made sense to me that these crossed wires were somehow symbols for my fate, and I realized time wasn’t only relative, but limited; and that my grasp on it was slipping through my hands without warning, without cause, without hope for second chances or more crossed wires. This looming actualization pounded into my head like a pendulum knocking against my ears, increasing in rhythm and pace, splitting my skull in micro-fractures from Visor’s microdots.

    Thinking back, Visor must have been fully aware of how his special, colored tabs were affecting us. He must have known about all the things we’d seen, how the line between the real and unreal had been blurred beyond repair, how the voices and horrific sights disrupted our psychological stability the way Dr. Hoboken had slipped into madness before dumping his failed experiments into the lake.

    Of course Visor knew. That’s what he wanted. He deliberately lied to me and gave me access to a dangerous tool that split my world in half. For some sick reason, Visor wanted the entire camp, those who gave in, to retrace the lunacy that plagued the Dr.’s violent actions. Visor knowingly passed on this cyclical pattern for thousands of campers over the years.

    How, then, did I fall for such temptation, such childish recklessness? His concoctions had turned our young minds into playgrounds for horrific creatures and visions: possible insight into another dimension to which they held dominion over. Maybe Chad had been right about his revelations. Under the haze of whatever Visor had laced together, I began to fear Chad had opened a fantastic continuum that had since hid in darkness, away from the sliver of the now. I considered the perplexing possibility that his visions might be signs or warnings beyond our understanding, and that the only way to decipher these signs was to slip more microdots under our tongues.

    In hindsight, I trusted Visor far too much, almost to the point where I thought he was cool, showing us things no one else could see, giving us dreams no one else could conjure. Even though Visor had saved himself from Dr. Hoboken’s lab, he could not save himself from the wicked schemes of this place. The history of madness might have preceded the Dr.’s dark deeds. And even worse, the chemicals within Visor’s recipe for dreams might have been cooked with some old-fashioned Louisiana voodoo, loaded with ancient rituals. The camp seemed to be caught in a perpetual seizure of false visions, draped in a kind of invisible deception where time was irrelevant, even powerless.

    And yet, the days passed, promising a freedom beyond the camp’s mystic influence. By the end of the week, Chad became obsessed with my wristwatch, the prized possession I guarded, given to me by my late grandpa Kendrick. Amidst his constant tab-popping, Chad must have been sharing in my struggles to grasp time. When he wasn’t chomping at the air or scratching his back, Chad would steal glances at my watch as if it was the only thing he could think about. He’d stare at it and lean forward without realizing what he was doing. After listening to all his ramblings about a portal to another dimension, I realized Chad couldn’t help himself. He needed some object to anchor his perception of time.

    On the last day of camp, I bought Chad a cheap, digital watch from the canteen shop and put it on his pillow in the morning. I went to the cabin again after lunch and the plastic watch was gone. Then I went to the cabin bathroom; but when I was washing my hands, I saw the shower curtain ripple. The cabin door was closed, so there was no breeze; and yet, the curtain moved again. I looked closer just as Chad lunged at me, yelling and flailing his arms. He had torn apart the plastic watch and the pieces were scattered on the floor near the shower drain.

    Chad stepped on my ankles with his massive, athletic feet and slammed my arms against the sink, shoving his elbow into the back of my spine then up into the inner-wing of my shoulder blade. He used all his brute force to press my forearm on the sink and spread out my fingers so I couldn’t swipe my nails across his face. Then with grunts and weighted shoves, he clutched the wristband of my grandpa’s watch and unhooked it, slipping it off my arm. And before I could kick or punch back, Chad was halfway out the cabin door.

    I ran after him, dizzy from my current high, stumbling over steps, stonework, and fallen branches from the storm. I don’t remember what I screamed at him in the chase, but I used fighting words. He was running in a full-on raging sprint toward the lake.

    My own sense of time had been warped beyond belief since I ran after him for no more than a few minutes, yet the sky blackened as night fell almost instantly.

    I caught up with him at the edge of the water. He was backlit by the moon, etched out from a reflection, holding the watch above his head like a lost robot at a docking station. In his fanatical focus upon the watch, he had forgotten I was chasing him; so for a moment, I had an advantage: the element of surprise.

    As he held the watch to the sky, I rammed into him and we both plunged into the lake. I emerged first, scrambling to grab the watch from his sealed fist, but he wouldn’t let go of it. He clutched that watch as if it were part of him, an extension of his own hand. We splashed and fought for a bit before the water around us seemed to change. Even though Chad’s neurotic behavior had placed him in an obsessive trance, I could tell he noticed the change, too. The water below us rose and became thicker until the water we splashed into each other’s faces turned a ghastly crimson, swirling around us with tremendous pressure. It was thicker and darker than water. I became instantly convinced that we were swimming in blood. It felt smooth and silky, like melted candle wax. As I lunged further, deeper, I took hold of Chad’s arm and snapped his wrist, trying to bend it far enough so he’d let go of the watch. In the incredible push and pull of the lake, I felt heavier and also more buoyant. Chad splashed a smattering of red water into my mouth and I spat it out, desperately wiping the filth from my face. I tasted iron and soot. The lake was now inside me. And from this splash, Chad gained a few feet further from me, swimming deeper into the lake. But I didn’t follow him. Something primal, some instinctive fear told me not to swim any further.

    Now, I know what I saw. I know it like I know my name or age or anything that I know for sure. But there’s always doubt. And that’s what scares me the most, not knowing if I could trust my own eyes.

    Just as Chad was treading water, holding the watch to his forehead, syncing with its cosmic energy, I felt a sickening vibration rumble up from the sand layer of the lake’s rock bed. It wasn’t algae or seaweed or anything natural because there was nothing natural about what happened next. Chad’s muscular body bobbed in the water with a gentle motion, stopping just as the water touched his chin. Then the water became still. And I heard a faint thump deep below that caused a ripple that started behind Chad and moved toward me. The red ripple grew in size, passing me around my shoulders. Then I saw what caused the wave and knew the curse upon the water was dead real.

    With scraps of flesh still clinging to their sharp joints, two skeletal hands reached through the surface behind Chad, up and up to his locked fist around the watch. The boney arms cracked as the joints in the long fingers popped, clutching Chad’s arm, dripping blood onto his face and shoulders. The undead hands pried their way into his fist, pulling back each of his fingers one by one, spreading his hand open. And in a single violent snap, the arms from the lake broke Chad’s fully fleshed arm in half at the elbow and snatched the watch from midair before taking it under the crimson tide. In both shock and pain, Chad shrieked and bore his teeth, thrashing his head barely above the water. His screams were absorbed into the lake when the rotting arms emerged once again, this time tightly grasping Chad’s ears. The thumb bones pierced through his ears and yanked forward, stretching, stretching, until the arms pulled his face clean off, leaving nothing but a scalp of hair on a grinning skull. The faceless body floated there for a second, wide-eyed, blood cascading over the hanging jawbone packed with two rows of teeth. And with a chaotic splash out of the water, the undead arms took what remained of Chad by the shoulders and plunged him to the depths with a watery sploosh and a bone-crunching splash.

    In the terror of the moment, I had bit the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t tell if the blood I tasted came from myself, the lake, or Chad’s lifeless corpse. I suddenly felt two hands around my ankles, pulling me down; but I kicked and kicked, fighting the blood-filled lake with every ounce of strength I could muster. I thrashed and swam, scooping handfuls of water behind me as the lake tried to pull me under toward the bone yard sloshing just below. I inched closer to the shore, letting out guttural howls from deep in my gut.

    My feet stepped on rocks, so I kicked down, but the rocks fell away in small segments, and I realized I hadn’t stepped on rocks, but a ribcage of one of the scientists from Hoboken’s lab, an artifact from his desolate work. Then I kicked again and pushed off from what I guessed must have been the skeleton’s spine since I felt more cracking as my foot rolled from it, lifting me one step closer toward shore. The blood was much more difficult to swim through since it had a raw thickness, but I managed to doggie-paddle through enough sludge to step on the hands around my ankles, breaking their wrists.

    When I finally reached the shoreline, I dug my hands into the small beach rocks and pulled my midsection out of the water. Scrambling out of the muck, I looked down and saw the boney fingers still clutching my ankles. I slipped my swollen fingers between the ragged joints and forced the hands open and off. They closed on the beach like freshly killed spiders, coiling their fingers together in a final contraction.

    Seeing firsthand the horrific capabilities of the lake, I developed a firm belief that Visor had cursed it. He was the only living tie back to Hoboken’s lab, the link between the Dr.’s insanity and the deadly hex upon the camp. Visor wanted us to become addicts. He wanted total control. But the lake didn’t kill me, and I wasn’t going to give up until I got answers.

    With only blue moonlight to illuminate my path, I ran to the chapel and burst through the doors, calling out Visor’s name. The main room was satin black, much darker than my original encounter with the old man. I stumbled around until I found the aisle between pews, feeling their wooden backrests back and forth until I reached the steps to the altar. A small, flickering rim of candlelight outlined the edge of the pulpit. And when I walked behind it, I saw that the light was coming from below. Pushing up against it with my back, I slid the pulpit back a few feet; and it screeched across the floorboards of the stage until the candlelight shown through in a neat square.

    I could hear a low, rhythmic humming. I dropped my soaked feet into the hole, then dropped all the way inside. I followed the humming sound around a corner and saw Visor with his back turned, hovering over a table. Several graduated cylinders, beakers, and Bunsen burners were carefully placed in a circle with colored liquids letting off steam from boiling and popping bubbles. I stepped closer and saw the molds for the microdots filled with still-cooling solutions and powders, arranged in lines by color. The cracked briefcase that Visor saved from the lab fire was filled with even more multicolored tabs than when he first offered them for me to taste. Business had been booming.

    Visor must have felt me behind him since he said, “Are you enjoying the dream? Is it all you wanted?” Then he turned around. A medical facemask concealed his mouth, and surgical gloves covered his hands. He was holding a doll with Chad’s name on it, filled with pins. Then he asked, “Why did you try to save him?” and placed the doll on the table. He stepped away from it.

    Inside the ring of test tubes was a small-scale model of the camp that included cabins, the obstacle course, the main hall, and a blood-red lake.

    I was so furious that the words came out dry. “I wasn’t saving him.”

    Visor had placed two dolls inside the model of the lake, submerged underwater. The second doll didn’t have any needles punctured through its core. “Listen, Josh. You and I are rare breeds. We have that fighting spirit.”

    “No more bullshit! What’s going on? Why did you curse this place?”

    Visor laughed behind his medical mask. “I didn’t curse it at all. In fact, quite the opposite.” He reached for an eyedropper, slurped up a green liquid from a beaker, and squeezed two drops into the model of the lake. The surface of the water sizzled, then died down. “I’m the reason this camp hasn’t turned into a portal, letting out the other dimension.”

    “Wait, you’re…”

    “I protect this place from evil.”

    “Like hell you do.”

    “No, I protect it from hell. Otherwise it all breaks loose.”

    “Yeah right. With voodoo magic?”

    “It’s not what it looks like.”

    “Tell me.”

    “I need you to trust me, Josh. The curse…”

    “Who was it? Hoboken?”

    “No. But he knew about it.”

    “He knew. You knew. Who else?”

    “The camp owners know.”

    “They know about the drugs, and the lake, and the visions?”

    “Yes, or course.”

    “How can they know and do nothing?” My voice cracked. “Just tell me!”

    “I need you to calm down.”

    “You’re the only one left from the lab, the only survivor. Did you plan it with him?”

    “This goes back before you or me or even Dr. Hoboken.”

    Visor carefully removed the wet doll from the model of the lake and left the needle-ridden doll submerged. “This land was cursed by my mother.”

    “What? I don’t understand.”

    “My mother owned this land. Her name was on the deed, and it legally belonged to her; but the government came and snatched it right from under her feet. They started building the research lab at the top of the hill without her permission in the 1950s. Against her will, you see. And well, mother knows best. She was a real badass. Before all that, this chapel used to be my mother’s house. My house.”

    Some of my anger melted. “You grew up here?”

    “Yes, this used to be the kitchen. This is where she cooked for us. Pies, apple tarts, casseroles—everything a good mother makes.” He pointed across the room. “That dining room table is the same one I sat at with my two sisters for three meals a day. This icebox still works, believe it or not.”

    “But what caused the spell?”

    “My mother dabbled in the dark arts. They got darker the further she fell into it. She studied on her own for a while, learning ways to cure ailments with natural herbs, magic from the earth. But she wanted to learn more; so she became an apprentice for a witchdoctor in New Orleans back in the 1930s. She didn’t want to raise us in the city, so she bought up all this land out here and planted her feet. And for many years, we had it nice. I was pretty peaceful, actually. Serene. That was…until the trucks came to dig out the basement to the disease research lab. She was so bitter toward the government that she stirred up something radical out of the books over there with the locks on them. I don’t open those. I won’t.”

    “The curse?”

    “Yes, she placed a hundred-year hex on this land. I’ve lived through sixty-six years of it, guarding the land, making sure all hell doesn’t break loose.”

    “But I thought you worked at the lab?”

    “I had to. Once they started research with those goddamn mosquitos, I applied for a job and started working as a chemist. My mother taught me how to make dreamy drugs and several spells, but she never taught me how to reverse the curse.”

    I looked again at the doll stuck with dozens of needles in the model of the lake, trapped just below the red line of crimson water. “What the fuck happened to Chad? The lake swallowed him up like a fat fish. Was that you?”

    “Not me, Josh. It’s the lake. It needs.”

    “Needs…what?”

    “The lake needs two souls every year. At least.”

    “And I was almost—soul number two!”

    “But you got out. That’s only happened one other time…when I escaped. You’re a fighter, Josh. Like me.” Visor removed his medical mask and I noticed the scars he earned from his escape and the burns that covered his arms.

    “But why Chad?”

    “It’s part of the curse. It demands a yearly sacrifice. It’s the only thing that keeps all the doctors and the rest at the bottom of the lake.”

    “Or what…they come back?”

    “Precisely.”

    My voice was shaky again. “I saw Chad pulled under. They…” I could hardly say it, “tore off his face.”

    “Really? My, oh my. That happens sometimes. I’m sorry you had to see that. I really am. Usually it lures each person one at a time…in isolation.”

    “Then why did you have me in there floating with him, too? What the hell was that all about?”

    Visor gulped. He seemed embarrassed. “The lake was crystal clear about Chad. It really wanted him. But you…”

    “Is that why he kept talking about the other side?”

    “You mean the other dimension?” Visor walked along the wall of his makeshift potion pantry and took an empty glass Mason jar and lid from a shelf. “Yes, the other side. That’s what my work is all about. Weeding out the bad ones. The harder they trip, the harder they fall. Chad fell all the way. He’s still falling.”

    “So what about me?”

    “You had a bad trip. A lot of them. You can’t deny it.”

    “I won’t. It was my first time with this shit.”

    “I know.”

    “I saw things.” A shiver shot through me. “Things I shouldn’t have seen.”

    “We all do around here.”

    “What about the Dr.? Was he evil?”

    “Evil? No, I don’t think so. I think the curse was more powerful than even my mother knew. More adaptive. When Hoboken stopped using animals to test the mosquito diseases, I was concerned. And when he started testing people instead, other doctors even, I knew he’d lost his mind.”

    “So the jinx took him over? Is that what you’re saying?”

    “Maybe. I think the curse was trying to get a head start with those doctors. It’s like the land had a mind of its own, and it needed payment to curb the hunger from the other side. And I was wrong about you. You got out. The lake wanted you. Badly. It must have seen you as weak prey. But you didn’t give in.”

    “Of course not. I need my face.”

    Visor chuckled and tried to hold back a smile. Then he dipped the empty jar into the model of the lake and let the red water rush in. When it was almost full, he pulled it out of the water and screwed on the lid, sealing it tight. “Here, I want you to take this.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “Put it someplace you’ll see it at night. So you can see the change.”

    “What change?”

    Visor shook the jar until the water became clear. It looked clean enough to drink. “Every night, without fail, the water will turn to blood. At least for the next 34 years, when the curse has run its course.” He held out the jar. “Take it, Josh. Please.”

    Reluctantly, hands shaking, I took it from him. The jar radiated heat and I felt its power through my fingertips.

    “When the drugs wear off and drain from your system, you won’t believe what happened here. And neither will anyone else. This is your token. Your anchor. Now, you must leave this place as fast as you can before the lake lures you in again.” And as he said this, the water darkened, sinking into a deeper red than I’d ever seen, almost black. 

_______________________

    I called my mom at the restaurant to come pick me up. She was in the middle of a shift, but I told her it was an emergency, which at that point was a complete understatement. It’s not every day a spellbound lake tries to peel the skin off my bones.

    And I must have passed out from exhaustion on the way home since I don’t remember anything except pulling into the driveway. When I got to my bedroom, right before I collapsed in my bed, I placed the jar of lake water on the top shelf of my desk, next to my beetle collection. It fit right in with my other jars, too, like it belonged there. The praying mantis in the jar next to it performed a karate-chop of approval, a sort of primitive christening.

    In the morning, as the sunlight crept through my bedroom blinds, I opened one eye to peak at the jar. The last bit of blood was dissolving from it, leaving a thin, pink residue inside the glass. Then I looked closer, and saw something small floating in the water, right in the middle, turning ever-so slowly. I sat up, removed the jar from the shelf and held it up to my face. The object swirled around, making a ping-ping sound as it nudged the glass edges inside.

    It was my grandpa’s wristwatch.

    The secondhand remained frozen in time.

 

Copyright © 2017 by TJ Moore