1. Motel Hell
It’s not really cool to play Lake Witch anymore, but that doesn’t mean Toby doesn’t remember how to play.
It started the year after the killings, when he was a sophomore, and it wasn’t a lifer who came up with it, he’s pretty sure, but one of the transplants—in the halls of Henderson High, those are the two main divisions, the question you always start with: “So… you from here, or you’d just get here?” Did you grow up here, or did you move here just to graduate from Henderson High and cash in on that sweet sweet free college?
If it turns out you’re from Proofrock, then either you were almost killed in the water watching Jaws, or you knew somebody who was. Your dad, say, in Toby’s case. And if you’re the one asking that question? Then you’re a transplant, obviously.
The reason Toby’s pretty sure it was a transplant who came up with the game is that, if you’d lived through that night, then the whole Lake Witch thing isn’t just a fun costume.
But it is, too, which is what the transplants, who had no parents dead in those waters, figured out.
The game’s simple. Little Galatea Pangborne—the freshman who writes like she’s in college—even won an award for her paper on the Lake Witch game, which the new history teacher submitted to some national competition. Good for her. Except part of the celebration was her reading it at assembly. Not just some of it, but all of it.
Her thesis was that this Lake Witch game that had sprung up “more or less on its own” was inevitable, really: teenagers are going to engage in courting rituals, that’s hardwired in, is “biology expressing itself through social interaction”—this is how she talks. What makes Proofrock unique, though, is that those same teenagers are also dealing with the grief and trauma of the Independence Day Massacre. So, Galatea said into the mic in her flat academic voice, it’s completely natural that these teens’ courting rituals and their trauma recovery process became “intertwined.” Probably because if life’s the Wheel of Fortune, then she can afford all the letters she wants.
What she said did make sense, though, Toby has to admit.
The game is all about getting some, if you’re willing to put in the legwork. And, as Galatea said to assembly, the elegance is the game’s simplicity: if you’re into someone, then you do a two-handed knock on their front door or the side window of their car or wherever you’ve decided this starts. You have to really machine-gun knock, so you can be sure they get the message, and will definitely be the one to open that door. Also, knocking like that means you’re standing there longer than you really want, so you might be about to get caught already.
But, no, you’re already running.
Under your black robe, you’re either naked or down to next to nothing, as the big important part of the game is you leave your clothes piled in front of the door. Galatea called this the “lure and the promise.” Toby just calls it “pretty damn interesting.”
Which is to say, just moments ago he got up from the ratty, sweated-up queen bed at the Trail’s End Motel at the top end of Main Street, his index finger across his lips to Gwen, and pulled the dull red door in to find a pair of neatly folded yoga pants and, beside them, one of those pricey-thin t-shirts that probably go for ninety bucks down the mountain.
He looked out into the parking lot but it was all just swirling snow and the dull shapes of his Camry and Gwen’s mom’s truck. Idaho in December, surprise. One in the afternoon and it’s already a blizzard.
“Who is it?” Gwen creaked from the bed, holding the sheets up to her throat just like women on television shows do. Toby’s always wondered about that.
Another part of the game is that, if you don’t give immediate chase, then this particular Lake Witch never knocks on your door again. “Message received,” as Galatea put it, because “menacing the object of your affection while disguising your identity is… kind of creepy?”
It was the first laugh she got at assembly that day.
“Message received…” Toby mutters to this Lake Witch, kneeling in his boxer briefs to touch these yoga pants, this expensive shirt, as if his fingertips can feel the body heat from whoever was just wearing them. Who was just standing right here where he is, slithering out of her clothes under cover of a robe—and in minus whatever the temperature is.
The question, of course, is does he leave Gwen in the room to chase another girl through the snow?
It’s not really a question, though. This is the game, isn’t it? It’s not about convenience. It’s about opportunity.
“Gonna get a coke,” he mumbles back into the room, and steps out, just managing to reach back in for his letterman jacket. It’s against the rules—you have to give chase exactly as you are, no tying your laces, no brushing your teeth, no pulling your good pants on—but he’s already freezing.
Gwen calls something to him but the door’s already shutting, catching, latched.
Now he’s alone under the second-floor balcony or walkway or whatever it’s called. Galatea would know. “Parapet?” Toby chuckles, zero idea what that word’s doing swimming around in his head. English class, maybe? Some movie?
What does are the footsteps in the snow, already rounding off in the icy wind.
“This better be worth it!” he calls out into the parking lot.
It feels like he’s the only person in the world, here. Like he’s standing on top of the world.
Everybody smart, which is everybody but him and this Lake Witch, they’re inside where it’s warm. Anybody outside, they probably have their winter gear on, and, for this kind of storm, goggles, and maybe a defibrillator.
Toby thrusts his hands up into his armpits, hunches his head as deep into the no-collar of his jacket as he can, and steps out into the cold.
When he doesn’t come back with a coke fresh from the machine, Gwen’ll know something’s up, sure. But Toby’s already got his lie ready: he thought he had change in the jacket. Just… Gwen’s not exactly stupid. Granted, she just moved here this year, for the scholarship, and the Lake Witch game had pretty much run its course by then, meaning she didn’t recognize its signature knock, but still.
If he’s got a line of shiny-wet hickeys coming down from his neck? If his mouth is smeared with some other girl’s lipstick?
Gwen’s big city, but she’s not that big city.
If you’re a shark, though, you keep moving, don’t you? Keep moving or die. That’s been Toby’s mental bumpersticker ever since the massacre—a strict policy of constant movement means that bad night in the water gets farther away with every day, with every swish of the tail. Or—this is the motel—with every piece of tail. Galatea should write something about that, really. The principal’s basketball-star son landing on “shark” as his spirit animal? “Really? Is this, pray-tell, maybe the same shark that was on-screen when your principal-dad was dying in the water?”
Probably, Toby knows.
You do what you have to do.
And you keep moving, from Penny last week to Gwen this week. And now… now whoever this Lake Witch is going to be.
Wynona F, emphasis on that last initial?
Oh yeah. Yeah yeah yeah.
He’s glad this game is back. Who cares if it’s already old. It’s also forever new. And no, Henderson High, having a Terra Nova princess read it to assembly didn’t quite kill it, thanks. It did pull it into the spotlight, but it didn’t wither.
Neither is Toby—though he does reach down, check to be sure.
Good to go.
The cold doesn’t matter to a lifer, does it? To someone born to this elevation, to these winters?
He does have to turn his back to the wind, though, to keep it out of his jacket, and whoever the Lake Witch is tonight wasn’t expecting that, evidently—a ragged black form slips out of his peripheral vision, into the white.
Too fast to tell for sure if it’s Wynona.
“Here I come!” Toby calls out all the same, and like that the chase is on.
Galatea’s explanation to assembly was that all the running after each other is foreplay, is hunter-prey seduction: the blood’s flowing, the breathing’s already deep, and, if this Lake Witch knocked at the right time, then the one who finally catches them is probably in some state of undress. Just like they are under that slinky robe.
“Convenient, yes?” Galatea said to assembly—her second laugh.
As always, there were bowls of no-questions-asked condoms at the two doors out of the auditorium that day.
As always, someone had already dropped an open safety pin into each bowl.
And, speaking of: Toby pats his pockets, comes out with… Visine, of course. A blue pen, okay. His wallet, damnit. Unless he stashes it out here, Gwen’ll know he had money for the machine.
In the other pocket, though—yes. Three rubbers.
He counts in his head, and… yeah. That’s how many he should have left.
He puts everything back into his pockets, just catches a hooded face watching him from the vending machine hall.
He’s there in a flash, his feet ten degrees past numb, but this Lake Witch, who did keep her boots on, it looks like from her tracks, has run all the way through to the other side of the motel.
Instead of falling for that like a noob, Toby backs up, jogs to the front, because that’s the only way you can come back, if, say, you think your pursuer is coming up the vending machine hall.
“This better be worth it, it better be worth it!” Toby calls out into the storm, but he’s grinning wide, too.
Until Gwen opens the door of their room.
“My money blew away!” Toby says back to her, bending like trying to catch a dollar scraping across the snow.
“I’ll give you another!” Gwen calls back, hugging herself against the cold.
But yes: she’s seeing the yoga pants and shirt she’s nearly stand-ing on.
“What?” Toby thinks she says. It’s what her body language is saying anyway. What her eyes are beaming across.
You don’t understand, he wants to explain to her. I have to see who this is. She won’t come knocking again.
All of which translates down to I’ll never be this eighteen again, he knows.
He takes a step toward her, which is when he becomes aware of… of some massive shape in the parking lot. Like a great black wall fell out of the sky, planted itself across the lines.
“What the hell?” he says to himself, and looks over his right shoulder for the chance of this Lake Witch slashing up beside him, touching his side before slipping away again.
And there’s Gwen, holding those clothes up now, inspecting them.
Recognizing them? Girls can do that, can’t they?
And—and… and now this whatever-this-is in the parking lot?
It’s too much.
Toby doesn’t want to get too far from the motel, but this is a mystery he can solve in four or five steps, he’s pretty sure.
He shuffles out, his teeth starting to chatter, and it’s… a trash truck?
A big gust swirls hard little crystals of snow up into his face, his eyes, his lungs, and he spins away from it all, shakes his head no, that he’s just going to go back to the room, back to Gwen. That if Wynona’s into him, great, fine, wonderful. But another time, girl, please. Can’t she see he’s otherwise occupied?
Doesn’t she know how freaking cold it is?
He balls himself as small as he can to take less punishment from the wind, which is when… something hot happens. Hot and fast.
At first it doesn’t even make sense to his primitive shark brain.
Part of the game, the “advanced version” as Galatea had called it, making it all super boring and academic, was the Lake Witch dashing past, “counting coup” on her or his intended’s shoulder—“part of the dance,” Galatea called it, getting zero laughs, this time.
“Coup” is a Native American thing, she then slowed down to tell them all, being kind of judgy about it, like she was insulted that this even needed to be said out loud.
In the parking lot two months after that day at assembly, Toby looks up to the blinking neon sign, the giant dying Indian on his giant tired horse, and then, to be sure he felt what he thought he felt, he looks down to his hands, opening at his waist.
They’re not just red with the light leaking down from the Indian, they’re red with his blood, and they’re holding his, his—
He shakes his head, falls back.
He’s holding his intestines, his insides, his liver and pancreas and gall bladder and whatever else there is, and his hands are so numb they don’t even know what it is they’ve caught.
He pushes them away as if getting them out of his vision will mean they’re not really happening, but that just pulls more out, and they’re glisteny and lumpy and slick and getting away fast, and he feels a warm hollowness inside that he’s never felt before—it’s the wind, blowing into him for the first time, because his gut is now an empty cavity.
He falls to his knees, trying to gather himself to himself, and when he looks up again, the giant neon Indian is looking right down at him.
It flickers once, comes back stronger, redder, and then it dies all the way out.
Toby Manx goes with it.