029 – Beneath the Surface

This story came from someone who started as a rival, became a friend, and ended as an enemy.

Just after my college days, I lived in a three bedroom townhouse with a pair of friends, a couple, who were into New Age Wiccan crystal whodilywoo.  I was never convinced, but they were my friends, so I played along.  They introduced me to a young man named George, who, they claimed, knew much more about the “dark arts”.  George was the kind of guy who sets my hackles up.  It’s something in the way he spoke, or moved, or seemed to be far to familiar with my friends when I had known them far longer.  He immediately became a rival for the affections of these two, whom I sought approval from as a young man just setting out in the world.  They were the best friends I’d ever had at that point in my life, and George was an interloper.

I say all of this to imply that when George told his story, I was nothing but skeptical, and the version of the story that remains in my memory is likely less sensational than the one he told on a dark, stormy night when the power was out and only the flickering flames of candles illuminated our tiny apartment.  Eventually I would come to view the young man as a friend, for a time, before his betrayal of my companions put proof to my misgivings about him.  We never spoke of this story after the night of the storm, and I have no idea how much of it was truth, but it makes for a good campfire-like tale.

George’s tale was from his teenage years.  He grew up in western New York, not far from Rochester, along the banks of a small river.  His father was a doctor, his mother an accountant, and they lived in a house built in a rural area that today is likely overgrown with urban sprawl.  Even growing up, there were always houses being carved out of the woods near their home, and George never felt like he was a country boy. But he did love the river.  Only during the spring run off did it run fast enough to be dangerous, but it was very wide, nearly a half mile across and he had been told it was very deep.  George was very cautious around the river, in part because there were plenty of stories of kids who had drown in its seemingly placid waters.  Those stories were from the other kids at his school, most of whom also lived in the pseudo-suburbs that were growing more civilized and less rural every day.  George himself never heard of any real stories about anyone dying in the river.

He spent most of his summers playing on the banks of the river, building elaborate GI Joe sized tunnels in the sandy mud shores, or swimming out to the end of the wooden dock and back.  He never went farther than that, per his mother’s orders, and he was always a dutiful son.  Or so his mother believed.  In reality, he would often swim out nearly half way across the river before heading back.  He was a strong swimmer, and sometimes he even dove down to see what was under the placid ripples of the river.

The summer of his fifteenth year, George decided to see just how deep he could go under the river.  He swam out past the end of the dock, into the deep part of the river, and dove down to see what was in the dark water.  After a few feet he couldn’t see a thing.  It was just too murky of water for him to get a good look, but something caught his eye.  It looked like a bit of wood poking up, like a broken pier, but it was much to far out on the river to be part of an old dismantled dock.  He thought about getting a closer look, but realized he had been down for nearly a minute and needed to breathe badly.  He swam to the surface, maybe ten feet up, and took a deep hitching breath.  He was going to dive back down, but he heard his mother calling him to supper and decided to wait for another day to explore his discovery.  He swam back to shore, but as he got out, he thought he heard something behind him, a voice calling out “Hey!”  He turned, but no one was there.

Being a normal fifteen year old boy, his attention span could be measured in the time between commercial breaks of his favorite cartoon, and thus he quickly forgot about the strange wooden object in the river.  It would flit into his mind occasionally over the next few weeks, but a combination of bad weather and a new skateboard purchased at the mall that had sprung up down the road made the whole thing fade from his memory.  It wasn’t until a month later, in early August, when he had ridden his bike down to the mall and was wasting an afternoon studying each and every object in the toy store, much to the clerk’s dismay, that he remembered the mysterious object in the river.  The reason his brain finally locked back in on his discovery was because of one of the items in the store.  It was in the row of summer toys, mostly brightly colored plastic junk that would fall apart after a week or two of play, but kids didn’t care because they were just summer toys, and parents didn’t mind because they were very cheaply priced.  What he found was a swimming pool play set, with goggles, fins for his feet, a snorkel, and most importantly, a flashlight that was able to be used underwater.  All this for just $5!  He happened to have an Abe Lincoln burning a hole in his teenage jeans, so he bought the set and quickly rode home with it tucked securely under his arm.

He got home too late to go swimming.  It was nearly seven in the evening, and though it was another two hours until the sun would finally drift lazily down under the western horizon, his mother had dinner ready and she was a firm believer that if you swam after eating, you’d surely get cramps and die, even if it was only wading into water up to your waist.  Why she often sent him to the bath tub after dinner remained a mystery to him, but he assumed if he got a cramp in the tub, his parents would be there to quickly assist him.  Of course, considering his usual activities in the tub, which for a fifteen year old boy included a good deal of scrubbing of certain unmentionable parts, he wasn’t sure if he did have a stomach cramp that he would call for any sort of help.  He’d just drown in the tub (even a teaspoonful can kill you!) with his boner in hand, too mortified to yell for help.

So it wasn’t until the next day that he could finally go look at what was under the shimmering veil of the river.  He found the requisite batteries for the flashlight, four AA’s scavenged from various toys, screwed the cap down tight, feeling the rubber o-ring that kept the water out of the battery case seal nice and firm.  He clicked the flashlight on and was satisfied with the bright white beam it produced.  He turned it off, grabbed the goggles, snorkel and fins, and headed out in just his swim trunks to see what was down under the water.  There was no fear at all in him.  It hadn’t even occurred to him to be afraid of anything.  He was exploring, nothing more, and his inquisitive mind now had to know the answer.  He’d put it aside for so long it had become like an infected splinter that had to be removed.

His parents were at work, but the gardener, a guy his father called “Big Barney”, was trimming the hedges out front, so he didn’t feel completely alone.  He was fifteen and his parents had stopped having a babysitter for him during the day three years prior, but he did like knowing someone was around if he needed help.  He walked out to the end of the dock, past the rusty dingy his father proudly called his “yacht”, and sat down on the rough gray wooden planks.  He put on the fins, slipped the goggles on and clipped the snorkel to the goggles’ elastic band just like the instructions had said.  He lowered himself down, carefully holding the flashlight so it wouldn’t bang against the pier, and slipped into the river’s cool embrace.  Sunlight was flashing a million daggers from the rippling water, and again there was absolutely nothing frightening about what George intended to do.  He took a deep breath, popped the snorkel in his mouth, and dove down into the murky water.

It took him a few minutes to get used to the snorkel.  He wanted to breathe through it, but that wasn’t how it was meant to work when you were completely submerged.  He also found the fins odd, but soon came to like the extra power they gave him under the water.  The flashlight worked well, though it only illuminated about five or six feet in front of him.  It was still better than without the device, and so finally ready, he made his way toward the center of the river.

Almost an hour of searching went by before he found the strange wooden structure.  When he did, he came upon it very suddenly, without any indication it was right below him most of the time.  He went to the surface, grabbed a good lung full of air, and dove back down.  It became immediately apparent that the thing in the water was, in fact, a cross.  George and his family were Jewish, but he was fully aware of what a Christian cross looked like, and this was definitely one.  It was life sized, or rather, it was as big as he’d imagine a real cross used for crucifixions would be, and it was slightly canted to the side.  There were very old, very rusty spikes driven in to the cross bars, just like you would have on a real cross, and it was upon discovering this that fear began to creep into his spine.  He could imagine that someone had, for some reason, tossed a cross down here, maybe from an old Easter display or a Nativity scene.  He actually liked those, the light up kind that appeared in front of every church in town sometime in late October to early November, and remained until mid-January.  They reminded him it was Hanukkah.  But the weird iron spike were kind of frightening.

He regarded them for so long that his chest began to burn.  He pushed out his air through the snorkel as he swam up towards the surface, but just as he was about to break through to the open sky, he felt something brush his leg.  As he came up out of the water, he screamed like a little girl. What he had felt were fingers.  He was sure of that.  Grasping fingers that tried to catch his ankle.  He started swimming as fast as he could for shore.  As he did, he was certain there was something in the water following him.  It was under the water, like the shark in Jaws, coming for him.  He kicked his fins for all he could, losing one of them to whatever was grasping at him.  The snorkel snapped free and fell away as he got within ten feet of shore.  The flashlight, held on his wrist by a nylon strap, banged him hard in the face with every stroke.  He was almost safe when the cold, slimy hands clasped around his ankles.  He tried to scream, but only received a mouth full of muddy water for his efforts.

He was being dragged back to the cross.  In his mind he saw himself crucified, the rusty iron spikes driven into his wrists by some crazy underwater Jesus who hated the Jews for killing him two millennia earlier.  It was stupid, crazy, but as he was dragged through the water, his brain snapped hold of any thought it could, no matter how irrational.  He was almost all the way back when his thrashing kicks connected finally and the hands that were pulling him released.  He swam hard, not caring about the pain from the flashlight smashing him, not caring that his other fin was missing, or that somehow his goggles were around his neck instead of on his face.  He had to escape, had to get away from whatever was in the water.  He swam as hard as a fifteen year old boy has ever swum.

He reached the shore, pulling himself onto the familiar sandy stretch with aching muscles.  He coughed out river water and heaved as his body worked to replace the air it had lost in the mad struggle for survival.  He looked back at the water and a dark shape floated just underneath the surface about a dozen feet away from him.  Again he heard a voice say “Hey!”, but this time, he was sure it came from the thing under the water.  He got to his feet, despite his exhaustion, and ran into the house.  He spent the rest of the day watching the water from his bedroom window.  The black shape was clear as day, slowly drifting a few yards out from shore.  It was still there when his parents returned home.  He didn’t tell them what happened, didn’t say a word.  The flashlight was broken, cracked with water still in it.  He threw it out along with the goggles.  He was never going in the water again.

After that incident he never went swimming in the river again.  He never discovered the origin of the cross or why it would have been under the water like that, but he did discover that the river had been dammed up for many years, and it was possible that section had once been dry land.  There had been an active KKK chapter in that part of the state in the 1930s and 40s, and George believed that the cross might have been one they used to lynch blacks, Jews and anyone else they didn’t like, but he never found proof of that.

He did see the thing in the water again.  Just before he left for college, he looked out on the river.  His recollection of the terrifying incident had faded somewhat over the three intervening years, but he still felt a great deal of fear when he looked out at the water.  The thing was back, floating just under the surface, waiting for the day George would again go for a swim.

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