During the ninth month of the drought, the lake began to dry up. She watched from her window as the water receded, like the ocean before a tsunami. It seemed to happen in fast-motion, right before her eyes. The murky water crept back, revealing every smoothed stone, every decaying twig. Everything, except him.
The local kids ventured down to the banks once it got low enough for them to explore. They walked through the knee-deep mud, poking at it with sticks, and making melted, shapeless castles. Once the first mud ball was thrown, it was all-out war. When someone threw an aerodynamic glob at Tiffany Cardoza with impressive accuracy, she yelped in pain as the mud made contact with her face.
“Ow! No rocks!” she snapped at Peter Jacobs, rubbing her forehead.
“I didn’t throw a rock!”
“Then what was that?”
Tiffany searched on the ground until she found the mass. It was still intact in a ball and she cleared it away to find something hard within the muck.
“Oh, wow! Hey, look what I found, guys. It’s a glass bird.”
“That’s weird,” someone murmured.
“My mom used to have one just like that!” Chrissy Lewis exclaimed.
“What happened to it?”
“She lost it. It used to sit on our coffee table and then one day it was gone. She thought I broke it and hid it.”
“What the hell is it doing out here?”
“Hey, check this out!” Robert Morris shouted from a few yards away. “A gold watch.”
“That kind of looks like my dad’s,” Jamie Hirsch said, taking it and looking it over.
“Oh, look, a set of car keys,” Tiffany said, kneeling in the mud to pull them out.
“Sweet, free car,” someone joked.
“I don’t believe it,” Peter Jacobs said, taking the keys. “These go to my sister’s car. She lost them. That’s her monkey keychain.”
The kids searched the grime for a few hours, then returned to dryer land, sweaty from the heat and caked in drying mud. They laid their treasures out on the now useless dock. There was some talk from Andy Lewis about keeping the findings a secret, but everyone agreed in the end it was too weird not to tell; especially since quite a few of them had been blamed for some of the missing things. First it was just the kid’s parents who came to the dock to see the items, exclaiming in shock or joy over their recovery.
“I thought I’d never see this again. It’s been missing for years.”
“Man, I paid almost two hundred bucks for a new set of car keys.”
Finally word spread and nearly half the town was down by the dock. A few of the adults jumped into the muck as well and started digging around, trying to find their own lost things. Mr. Haley found his old smoking pipe, dirt caked into every crack. Ms. Holland found her old cellphone, lifting it up by its antenna and shaking the water out of it. Mrs. Kim found a butterfly clasp that used to belong to her grandmother. Mr. Andrews found his old wallet, the cards and bills still safely tucked inside.
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why was all of this out in the lake?”
“And who would steal a wallet but leave the money inside?”
“Who says it’s stolen?”
“Oh, come on, Mary. How do you think all this stuff got out here? Almost everyone here has found something they lost.”
There was some discussion about sewage drains or maybe local wild-life.
“Crows are known to steal shiny objects. Maybe they dropped them in the lake while flying over?”
“Raccoons steal things as well.”
“But they wouldn’t steal a wallet. Or Mrs. Group’s gardening trowel.”
“I think it was mermaids,” Chrissy Lewis whispered to Tiffany.
“No, silly. Mermaids only live in the ocean.”
Over the next few weeks, the theories continued to circulate just as more items were found in the drying lake. The main topic of conversation had moved from the stifling drought to the strange phenomenon. On weekends at least four or five people could be seen down in the muck, shoveling and searching on hands and knees. Mr. Haley even got out his old metal detector and started combing the land. Rings, necklaces, a garage door opener, a pair of glasses, a Swiss army knife. Mrs. Mark found her copy of a Salinger novel and Mr. Winslow found his Purple Heart. When the lake was scoured and the last remains of the lost items were collected, nearly every single person in the town found something they had lost. But not one person had found more than one thing. As if something was taken from each of them.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Andy Lewis mumbled, crinkling his nose under the sunglasses he had just reclaimed. They used to belong to his grandfather and Andy had found them just the day before along the mucky banks.
“Everyone lost one thing?” Robert Morris asked again.
“Yeah, dummy. Pay attention,” Peter Jacobs moaned.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Andy grumbled again.
“Sure it does,” Chrissy mused, not looking up from her coloring book. “Peter’s sister lost her car keys. Ms. Holland lost that cell phone she was on all the time. Mr. Winslow found that medal he always talks about. Jamie’s dad always wore that watch. And Mrs. Group is out in her garden everyday with her shovel.”
“What’s your point, Chris?”
“Everyone lost something they loved. Something they really really loved.”
“That’s stupid,” Peter Jacobs teased. “What did you lose Chrissy?”
“I haven’t found it yet.”
After another few weeks, the excitement seemed to have died down. Most everyone had found what they were missing and the lake bedding had been dug up until it resembled a battle field. But the drought continued and the barren land sat restlessly on the edge of town, as if watching them. They stopped going to it as much and soon the muck became hard and dried up, dusty and crackled like worn skin. It became a joke amongst the townsfolk. Whenever someone couldn’t find something, someone else would say “go check the lake.” They still said it even after they stopped going down to it. The only one who still went down was Chrissy.
She kicked at the earth, ambling along and leaving a trail of dust behind her. The heat lapped at her skin and her sweating hair clung to her. Everyone thought she was still looking for what she had lost, but she wasn’t. She was just looking.
On the day the lake finally dried up completely, the last of the water shrinking down from puddle to mud hole to barren ground, Chrissy noticed a house on the other side of the lake. It was tucked into the trees some, but she could see the white siding and red shutters clearly against the green forest behind it. She knew she wasn’t supposed to go to the other side of the lake. It was too far. But it really wasn’t that far when you walked across it as opposed to around it, so she set out.
When she got to the house and saw the name on the mailbox, she realized who it was. Everyone knew an old woman named Ms. Hallward lived on the other side of the lake. She came into town often but people usually forgot about her because she lived so far away. Chrissy had seen her a few times at the grocery store or on the main street with the shops. Everyone was kind to her, but she was quiet and only nodded back. No one in the town disliked her or even gossiped about her. They just never remembered her. Chrissy realized the people in the town probably didn’t ask her if she had found what she lost.
She made her way up the porch steps and rapped at the door. Some flakes of dried paint fluttered to the ground where she knocked and a few chips stuck to her knuckle. As she picked at them, the door opened.
“Hi, Ms. Hallward,” she smiled.
“Do I know you?”
Her voice was not unkind, but it was guarded. It crackled some, like butter in a frying pan. Like she had not used it in a while. She was taller than most of the women in town and she wore her hair differently. It hung loose to her shoulders and frizzled out, black blending seamlessly into grey. Her brown eyes were warm. Chrissy stared at the crow’s feet and laugh lines along her face, somewhat mesmerized.
“I’m Chrissy Lewis. My dad and mom are Mark and Lily.”
“Oh yes,” she remembered. “I know them. Your mother works at the nail salon.”
Chrissy beamed and nodded, but Mr. Hallward did not open the door any more or invite her in.
“Did you hear?” Chrissy asked after a moment of silence. “About all the stuff we found in the lake?”
“Everyone found what they lost. My brother Andy found his sunglasses. My mom found her blue comb with the jewels on it. My dad found his money clip. He knew it was his cause it has his initials on it. Did you lose something in the lake?”
“Did you find it?”
“Not yet. Did you find what you lost?”
Even though Ms. Hallward had hurriedly made an excuse to end the conversation and go back inside, Chrissy came back the next day. When Chrissy walked along the dried land, poking at it with sticks and kicking at the dust, she looked up to see Ms. Hallward on her porch.
“Hey, Ms. Hallward.”
“Did you find it?”
“Not yet. You?”
The next day it was the same. And the day after that. Chrissy thought it was strange that she never saw Ms. Hallward down by the lake looking for what she lost. But then again, Chrissy was not really looking either.
After a while the other kids started to notice Chrissy’s absence. They saw her at the dried lake one day, walking back from the other side. Her jeans were covered in soft, pale dust and hand prints where she had wiped her dirty hands clean.
“Where have you been, Chrissy?” Andy asked, wiping away the sweat on his forehead.
“At the other side of the lake.”
“You know Mom says you can’t go over there.”
“What’s over there?” Tiffany asked, looking to the other side.
“Just Ms. Hallward’s house.”
The sixth day Chrissy wandered by the house, Ms. Hallward invited her to the porch for lemonade and short bread cookies. She happily agreed, grateful for something cool to drink. She kicked her feet back and forth in the rocking chair as she sipped and savored each bite of cookie. They were soft and melted on her tongue.
“These are delicious cookies,” she complimented, mimicking her mother’s words from whenever she complimented a host.
“Thank you,” Ms. Hallward murmured, nibbling at her own. She sighed and leaned back in her chair, her eyes gazing over the inexistent lake. Heat waves danced along it, as if mimicking the water that was no longer there.
When they ran out of cookies, Ms. Hallward let her go inside to get another box. Chrissy walked through the glass door into the living room, turning left as Ms. Hallward had instructed her. The house was small, but comfortable. She did not have AC like all the other homes and kept the windows open, with only a dusty box fan to move the stagnant air. There were only a few pieces of furniture. A couch and chair by the fireplace with a rug. A dresser in the corner, bare on top except for a glass pitcher of water and a bottle of pills. The mantelpiece over the fireplace was bare as well except for a box of matches. She found the box of cookies on the kitchen counter. The kitchen was plain with only the dishes, boxes of food, and a vase of flowers. On the fridge was a list of phone numbers and a Polaroid, held up by the same magnet. The Polaroid was of a boy. Tanned, long-legged, messy black hair and a dimpled smile. He looked about fifteen.
“Do you have any kids?” Chrissy asked, when she came outside, handing Ms. Hallward a cookie before taking her own.
“No, I don’t.”
Ms. Hallward stopped rocking.
“I had a little brother.”
“Is that his picture on the kitchen?”
Ms. Hallward did not respond and stopped chewing.
“Do you have a husband?”
“I like to be alone.”
“Me, too,” Chrissy agreed, chomping on her cookie.
Ms. Hallward smiled and rocked back and forth, looking back to the lake.
“Do you miss the lake?” Chrissy asked.
“Did you find what you lost?”
“Not yet. You?”
The next day after school when Chrissy wandered to the other side of the lake again, she did not see Ms. Hallward on her porch. She considered going to knock on the door, but decided against it. She hoped she had not hurt her feelings about the Polaroid. On her way back, her eyes absent-mindedly scanned the ground as she walked. The heat had become oppressive and she could not look up without the domineering sun blinding her eyes. She stopped suddenly when her eyes strayed on something that stood out from the indistinct, tan canvas. It was a black box, only about six inches across and an inch tall. She stared at it confused for a moment. She saw it in front of her, but it didn’t make sense.
She knelt down and picked it up, turning it over to inspect it. There was no dirt on it, no wear, no muck. It sat there like it was waiting for her. She opened it to find her prized color pencils inside. The tips still sharp like the day she had lost them.
She didn’t mention the colored pencils at dinner. She quietly picked at her plate, her pencil box in her lap, under the table. She stroked the flawless metallic surface with her other hand.
“Andy, take those damn glasses off,” her mother snapped, pulling her from her thoughts. “You can wear them all day, but not at the dinner table. Please.”
“I can’t wear them at school,” Andy complained, pushing them up onto his forehead.
“I don’t know why you wear them,” their older sister, Anna teased. “They’re so scratched up and worn out. You can’t even see out of them.”
“Well, spending a few months at the bottom of a lake will do that,” their father joked.
Chrissy’s hand slid along the smooth surface of her pencil box again.
“Short showers tonight, kids,” their mother announced. “The town has put a restriction on water use.”
“Aww, Mom,” Anna moaned.
“I’m sorry, dear, but this drought has lasted longer than we thought.”
Anna grumbled and Andy slid his glasses back down to his nose.
“So, Chrissy,” her mother sighed, turning to her. “What did you do today?”
“She was down by the lake again,” Andy answered, his voice somewhat teasing.
“Andy, let your sister speak for herself,” Father chided.
“Oh, honey,” her mother cooed. “I’m sorry, but it’s been over a month. I don’t think you’ll find your pencil box.”
“I wasn’t looking for my pencil box.”
“No, she was creeping around that weirdo Ms. Hallward’s place again,” Anna smirked.
“Ms. Hallward?” their mother asked.
“Shut up, Anna,” Chrissy steamed.
“She’s not a weirdo,” their father stated. “She’s a perfectly sweet lady.”
“Yeah, right.” Anna rolled her eyes.
“I don’t like that she lives all the way out there by herself,” Mrs. Lewis said.
“Her kids probably go out to check on her,” their father replied.
“She likes to be alone,” Chrissy muttered.
“She doesn’t have any kids,” Mrs. Lewis stated. “Or a husband. She’s all alone.”
“Didn’t she used to live there with her family?” he asked, frowning.
“A long time ago,” she explained. “She lived out there with her parents and her brother. Ms. Group was telling me. You know she’s been around forever and knows everything about everyone.”
“Her parents are dead, I guess?”
“A long time ago. Her brother drowned in that lake when he was just a teenager.”
Chrissy stopped chewing.
“Ms. Group said it was terrible,” her mother went on. “The town was shocked. They searched for him for weeks before they found the body. The family all moved out, but ten years ago Ms. Hallward moved back in. Not sure why.”
“She missed her home town.”
“I can’t see why. All her friends were married or moved on. And to live by the lake her brother died in…”
“The old woman’s crazy,” Anna mumbled, stabbing at her meatloaf.
“Shut up,” Chrissy hissed again.
“I saw her last night down by the lake,” Anna said. “She had a shovel or a hoe or something and she was whacking at the dirt and shouting and screaming. It was terrifying.”
“What?” Chrissy exclaimed, her eyes going wide. She had a hard time picturing quiet Ms. Hallward acting that way.
“I’m telling you, it’s true.”
“And what were you doing down by the lake last night?” her mother asked Anna, suddenly turning an accusing eye on her.
The conversation immediately shifted to Anna’s nightly sneak-outs and Ms. Hallward was soon forgotten. Chrissy got up from the table, tucking the pencil box into her sweater.
That night the drought broke after nearly eleven months, sending a torrential downpour of rain and a clashing band of thunder and lightning. Chrissy couldn’t sleep and watched the tree branches slapping against her window. In the howl of the wind, she thought she heard a woman moaning.
When the storm had passed, a light rain pattered down. Chrissy slipped into her rain boots and crept downstairs. She slid on her rain coat and opened the front door soundlessly, her pencil box under her coat.
The sun was starting to come up, casting the land in a dreamy blue hue. The wind was cool and brushed softly at her cheeks. The air was moist and the wilting foliage around the lake drank greedily. It was as if the entire land had sighed and relaxed, settling back into place. The dried lake had turned to muck again, coming up to Chrissy’s knees in some places. She stomped through it, moving slowly but steadily toward Ms. Hallward’s house. It did not take her long to find her.
She was only a few feet out from the bank, on her knees, a garden hoe on the ground next to her and mud covering her entire body. Chrissy could not even see if she wore her clothes or a nightgown. The dark mud coated her hair, hiding the grey in it. It was smeared on her face where she must have whipped at her cheek, covering the wrinkles and laugh lines. She looked younger in the morning light.
Ms. Hallward did not react when Chrissy came up, or when she sat down in the sludge next to her. Chrissy could see where tears had steamed down her cheek, clearing away the mud. Like a river breaking its bank edges and covering the plains.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” Chrissy murmured.
“I’m sorry about your pencil set,” Ms. Hallward sighed. “And your brother’s glasses. And the comb and money clip.”
“And the Swiss army knife and the smoking pipe?”
“And the book and the Purple Heart.”
“How did you get all of it?”
“People don’t see me. I think I become invisible sometimes.”
“I see you.”
The soft rain started to let up and the clouds transformed to a calming light grey, the light of the rising sun covered by the muffling blanket.
“When Benjamin died,” Ms. Hallward murmured, “I took all my stuff and dumped it out in the lake. I didn’t want any of it anymore. Nothing made me happy, even after we left. But I couldn’t forget the lake. I saw it in my dreams, like it was haunting me. Or calling to me. When I came back it was like the whole town had moved on. They didn’t care about Benjamin anymore. They just cared about their gardening trowels and glass birds.”
“Why didn’t you throw my pencil set in?”
“Benjamin had one just like it.”
Ms. Hallward looked down at the muck where the rain water had pooled into the holes she had whacked into existence with the hoe.
“The lake will be back soon,” she murmured. “And I didn’t find what I was looking for. He’s not here.”
She sighed, her breathing jagged.
“It’s time for me to go again. For good this time. I can’t stay here.”
Ms. Hallward stood, wiping at the dirt on her face but only smearing more on. Chrissy stood too and pulled the pencil box out.
“Here,” she said, handing it to Ms. Hallward. “This is what you lost.”