The House at the Lakeside by Prisha Mehta
August 7th, half-past two, morning:
I woke up just now to nothing but hollow shadows—they dance across the cramped wallpaper like so many elves, like so many demons. Shadows, choking, as they do in the dark, their quick forms shifting and slipping down the pale walls—and—and—a cracking noise from somewhere, though I think it must be the floorboards.
It’s an old house, after all—and, if not the floorboards, then a branch prodding at the roof-tiles. Or some mouse-burrow in the old wood—centuries old, for sure. Plenty of time, plenty of room, for mice to burrow. That dripping, too—I think it must be the pipes, or the faucets, or rain off the roof.
Oh, stop. Stop, I have to stop. It’s nothing—all nothing. There’s nothing here. There. Is. Nothing. Here.
But the dream—it was strange, so strange and so vivid. It came to me in fractures, in hot slivers of glass—in disembodied breaths, like the spills of silence in between the wide-strung notes of a song.
A boy lays on his bed. A quick-striking clock finds half-past two. A wooden door creaks open at the touch of one pale hand, and he starts awake, wide-eyed.
A man with a rusted jawline growls with the dark of fire behind his eyes. He holds a crumpled note in one clenched fist, and he hurls it into a fireplace—flames catch its tired edges and begin to eat it in.
A rock, a sack, no sound, no air, a bruise-blue world, and something pulling—down. Too far to stop, too far to cry.
I don’t quite know what to make of it, but I woke up in a state, with my sweat-soaked cotton blankets clutched up to my chest and my lips twisted open in a soundless cry.
It’s all nothing, I’m sure—but I wanted to write it all down, just in case I forget it later. I have a feeling there’s a story here.
August 7th, five o’clock, evening:
I’ve recovered from last night—walked around a bit, gotten a feel for this place. It’s not so bad, really, just old—and I’ve found a few interesting things, left behind by the family who breathed here eighty years ago.
The first is a photograph, black-and-white and grainy, of a little girl, not more than thirteen. In the wind, her dress glides like frothing foam and her hair whips about her face like stray grass. At the bottom is a name, a date: Irene, June 6th, 1923.
The second is a letter, addressed to her, I think. I found it in her room, tucked away into the back of the dresser. Dear Irene, it begins, and goes on for lines and lines: I think I love you. I know I shouldn’t, and I know this note will never find you, but I can’t seem to help it—I love you. It’s signed off with a first name only: Jacob—and it’s singed around the edges. It makes me wonder, that note—who was Jacob? Irene? And most of all—who burned it?
The third is a bedroom—not one of the ones that the owner showed me after I rented the place but an extra one—tucked away into the deepest corner in an offshoot of the main hall. I almost missed it, it’s so small. The ceiling is low, the walls are tight, and, as if an afterthought, the bed—no, more cot than bed, really—has been pushed up against the sidewall, where it takes up nearly half of the floor space. It’s just beneath a small, dirt-cloaked window, where, in place of drapes, a white bed sheet hangs down from the curtain-rod.
It must be a servant’s room, I think—one that’s been overlooked by the renovations. I don’t think it’s been touched in eighty years—I know because there are still remnants there, things that seem to belong to another era. A dusty wooden stool, for example, in the corner that lies opposite the door, and beside it on the ground, a dented saxophone. No, it’s more than dented—the metal is corroded, the keys smashed, the mouthpiece collapsed deep into the neck. There’s a story somewhere in the saxophone, too, if I can only find it. I know there is.
There is one thing, though. You’ll think I’m going mad, you really will—but when I neared it, when I stretched out one hand to touch it—it’s a coincidence, I’m sure, but for a moment, I swear that the sun fell out of the sky—a dark, hot shadow swelled up from the floor, and laughed and skittered across the walls, and a cold wind rattled through the window’s loose frame, tugging the bedsheet up into a knot. I stumbled backward, toward the door, and then—before I could breathe—a child’s scream, raw and soul-grazing, from somewhere out behind the house. It turned my heart clean to marble, my soul to stone. And then a splash, and then a swallow—a faint gulping—like water, like a lake closing up above a head.
Panic, hot and liquid, and I ran toward it—past the winding red-hemmed halls, the creaking stairs, the wildly swinging door—through the pelting rain outside and down to the teeming lakeshore.
But there was nothing there, only the sunlight, dampened by the rain, and the lake hissing up at me like a thousand shards of glass.
I just can’t shake the thought that something’s happened in this house.
August 8th, half-past two, morning:
I came over to the window, just to try and see if the fresh air here can calm my electric nerves. It’s been hopeless, though, because the weak wind scares me just as much as the dust. The air is so restless without the sun to keep it at bay—it tosses and turns even within my lungs.
I woke up again today, at the same time, at half-past two—I woke from another nightmare, filled with water again and more real than the last. More vivid. There was music with this one, a sort of warped, damaged music—the notes were dusty, somehow, and dented. I was—falling, I think, or sinking. Yes—
Sinking. The world is dark and thick and filled with salt water, and I am—sinking? Am I sinking? Or rising? No, sinking, I am sinking. I am drowning. Oh, God, where are my hands? My feet? My head? All I can feel is the falling, this burning in my lungs. Something over my eyes, something rough and wet and canvas over my head, clinging to my skin and tearing away my sight. Off, get it off! My hands claw, but they are useless—a metal snake is looped around my ankle, and I think I am thrashing against him—I do not know—lungs burn, sight blurs, my heart—is it going? Something tears—the canvas!—and sight floods me.
Oh, God. I am drowning. The moon smears weak and distant, lost through the waves. Oh, God. I stare down at myself through a shuddering film of blue—my hands are small, my skin dark.
There are so many shades of blue here. I have never before counted so many shades.
What? No, I—I don’t remember writing that. Oh, God. Oh, God, the handwriting—it’s not mine. What, or who, could—it’s as if—
Who are you?
August 8th, five o’clock, evening:
Today was uneventful. I did not get out of bed.
August 9th, three o’clock, morning:
Oh, God. Oh, God. I thought, when nothing happened yesterday, I thought that it really was all in my head—chalked it all up to paranoia, to living all alone for the first time in my life. Oh, God. I wish it were true, if only it were true.
You will think that I am mad, saying this. You will. But I’ve seen him. A demon, or a boy, or maybe something in between. Not in my dreams—no, I’ve seen him here, in this world.
I awoke at half-past two again, only—only it was different, this time. It wasn’t my sheets that I found around me, but a cold wooden floor—and the saxophone room. I looked up, and my jaw dropped low in a soundless scream.
Dark skin, blue-splotched. Canvas sack jerked over his head, string firm around his neck. Bare back, bruised and scrawny.
He was perched on the stool with his back to me, cradling the saxophone in thin arms. Salt water wandered down his skin, parted around his spine which stood up in stark white knobs against his back. Though the air was thick and black, the water caught light from somewhere. It shimmered beneath the dark like a weary blade. He turned toward me, cocked his head, the top of the sack falling limply across his brow.
I don’t remember what happened next—I ran, I think, or else I blacked out and dreamed that I did. But I’m outside now, by the lake. I’m sitting under an oak tree and looking up at the moon and trying to ignore how fast my heart is beating, and how the shadows twist and swallow the bushes, and how the lake grins up at me from the shore. I wish that I could tell you it’s calm here, but it isn’t—there’s something wrong about this place, too.
Oh, God. Oh, God! I can’t quite tell if I’m going mad.
August 9th, five o’clock, evening:
I’ve—oh, God, I’ve found things, stumbled across things I shouldn’t have. I went into town today—there’s comfort in numbers, I think, normally. But today, there, I felt so alone seeing all those people laughing—all those people going about their days and hours and minutes as if nothing at all were amiss.
I walked into the first busy shop I saw, a little coffee place called The Lakeside Cafe. I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass door as I stepped through it—hair disheveled, clothes crumpled, eyes wide and watery. I looked like an addict, I remember thinking—maybe even like a ghost.
I didn’t bother to look around—only sat down at a table and lowered my head into my hands. Oh, God.
“Are you the new renter at the house by the lake?”
I hesitated for a moment, then nodded, drumming at the table with one hand. He nodded, pensive, and studied me. I wondered, for a moment, if he was a friend of the owner’s, here to check up on my character—or his lawyer, here to collect the month’s rent in advance. And then, suddenly, he spoke.
“You’ve seen him, haven’t you?”
I remember my stomach reeling, my heart catching like a wildfire—the boy, the demon—the kid with the saxophone—the kid with the sack forced over his head—him?
He must have seen the look on my face—he sighed and sat down across from me. “Let me tell you a story.”
His name was Jacob, and he lived in the house, too, at the same time as the Alcotts—in the small servant’s room on the second story. No one seemed to know much about him back then, except that he toted around an old brass saxophone wherever he went, and that he loved it with everything in him. Rumor has it the neighbors heard him playing sometimes, uninhibited, when the Alcotts left for the weekend.
He was the same age as the Alcott girl, Irene—and he fell for her, in that way kids do. He wrote letters to her in his journal—it was dangerous back then, something like that. There’s no way he couldn’t have known that.
It was all right for him, though. During the light hours, he worked, he smiled, he played—and at night, he wrote under the cover of darkness. So he kept on writing, and it kept on being all right—until they came across his journal.
I knew, then—I knew what, and who, and when, and how, before the old man had to say another word.
At midnight, they—George and Joseph Alcott, that is—they burned his journal, every page of it, save for a few stray ones that fate snatched away from the coals. In the early hours of the morning, they paced and growled—and grabbed his saxophone and bashed it into the stone floor of the balcony and left it on the floor of his room for him to find the next day. And then, at half-past two—
At half-past two, they decided it wasn’t enough. And they woke him up and dragged him outside, cold—looped a canvas sack over his head and tied his left foot to a rock with metal cord—
And just like that, they cast him, thrashing and screaming, into the lake.
Prisha Mehta is a passionate writer and a high school student from Millburn, New Jersey. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and she has pieces published or forthcoming in a number of literary journals, including The Baltimore Review, Ginosko, Asymmetry, The Copperfield Review, Gravel, Five on the Fifth, and Déraciné. When she isn’t writing, she might be found scrolling through psychology articles, sketching in her notebook, or (of course) reading. You can find out more about her at her website.