1. Night School
On the battered paper map that’s carried the two of them across they’re not sure how many of the American states now, this is Proofrock, Idaho, and the dark body of water before them is Indian Lake, and it kind of goes forever out into the night.
“Does that mean there’s Indians in the lake, or does it mean that Indians made it?” Lotte asks, a gleam of excitement to her eyes.
“Everything here’s named after Indians,” Sven says back, whispering because there’s something solemn about being awake when everyone’s asleep.
Their rental car is ticking down behind them from the six-hour push from Casper, the doors open because they just wanted to look, to see, to soak all this in before going back to the Netherlands at the end of the week.
Lotte shines her phone’s light down onto the fluttering map and looks up from it and across the water, like trying to connect what she’s seeing in lines and grids to what she’s actually standing in.
“Wat?” Sven says.
“In American,” Lotte tells him for the two-hundredth time. If they want partial course credit for immersion, they have to actually immerse.
“What?” Sven repeats, the word belligerent in English, like trying to make elbow room for itself.
“That should be the national forest on the other side,” Lotte says, chinning across the water because her hands are struggling to get the map shut.
“Everything’s a national forest,” Sven grumbles, angling his head as if to peer deeper into the darkness at all these black trees.
“But you can’t do that in the king’s forest, can you?” Lotte asks, finally getting the map folded in one of the six different ways it’s possible to fold it.
Sven follows her eyes across Indian Lake. There’s little floating pinpoints of light over there that only really come into focus when you look into the darkness right beside them.
“Hunh,” he says, Lotte coming up behind him to rest her chin on his shoulder, hold his waist in her hands.
Sven breathes in deep with wonder when the lights rearrange themselves, suggesting great yellow necks in the inky blackness: strange and massive animals, piecing the world together one lakeshore at a time. Then, a ways down the shore, a ball of flickering light arcs up into the velvety sky and hangs, hangs.
“Mooi,” Lotte says right next to his ear, and Sven repeats it in American: “Beautiful.”
“We shouldn’t,” Lotte says, which of course means the exact opposite.
Sven looks back to the car, shrugs sure, what the hell. It’s not like they’re going to be here again, right? It’s not like they’re going to get another chance to be twenty years old in America, a whole lake at their feet like it bubbled up just for them to dip their toes into—and maybe more.
They leave their clothes on the hood, the antenna, draped over the open doors.
The mountain air is crisp and thin, their skin pale and bare.
“The water will be—” Sven starts to say, but Lotte finishes for him, “Perfect,” and with that they’re running the way naked barefoot people do across gravel, which is delicately, hugging themselves against the chill but laughing too, just to be doing this.
Behind them Proofrock, Idaho, is dark. Before them a long wooden pier is reaching out over the water, pointing them across the lake.
To get their nerve up for how cold this is going to be, once their feet find those wooden planks, Lotte and Sven stretch out and really run, not worried about the chance of nails or splinters or falling. Sven howls up into the vast open space all around them and Lotte snaps a blurry picture of him with her phone.
“You brought that?” he says, turning around to jog backwards.
“Document, document,” she says, her arms drawn in like a boxer’s now that Sven’s looking back.
He raises an imaginary camera, takes his own picture of her.
Lotte is looking past him now, though, her eyes not as sure as they just were, her strides shortening, slowing, her hands and elbows going into strategic-coverage mode.
There’s a much closer light flickering at what’s got to be the end of the pier, and it looks for all the world like a fisherman in dark rain gear, holding an old-style lantern up at face level. No, not a fisherman: a lighthouse keeper who hasn’t seen another soul for three years. A lighthouse keeper who thinks that holding his lantern close to his own eyes will improve his vision.
And then the light’s gone.
Sven’s hand finds Lotte’s and they slow to a shuffle, the sky yawning empty and deep above them. All around them.
“Wat?” Lotte says.
“In American,” Sven chides, forcing his smile.
“I don’t anymore think we should—” Lotte starts, but doesn’t finish because Sven, walking now instead of running, is jumping on his left foot, his right splintered or nailed or stubbed, something sudden and unpleasant.
The light at the end of the pier comes on, curious.
“Look,” Lotte says to Sven.
When he stops hopping and grabbing at the sole of his foot, the light goes back off.
He nods, getting it, then stomps his hurt right foot down with authority.
The light glows on.
“Try it,” he says to Lotte.
Hesitant, she does, stomping, getting no response. But then she jumps with both feet, comes down hard enough to jangle whatever bad connection is happening down there.
“Gloeilamp isn’t screwed enough,” Sven diagnoses, pulling her ahead.
“Screwed in enough,” Lotte fixes, traipsing behind.
When they get there, step into that puddle of wavering light, Sven licks the pads of his fingers and reaches up under the rusty cowl to tighten the bulb, the light losing its thready flicker immediately, shining an unwavering cone of warmth down onto their pale thighs now, their shadows stark behind them, bleeding off into the darkness.
“We’re gonna fix this place up right,” Sven says, meaning all of America.
Lotte darts in to kiss him on the cheek, then, her eyes locked on Sven’s the whole while, and still holding his fingertips until she can’t, she steps over the end of the pier as easy as anything.
Sven turns his head against the splash, smiling and cringing both, but the splash doesn’t come.
“Lotte?” he says, stepping forward, shielding his face from the water he knows has to be coming.
She’s in a dark green canoe that’s rocking back and forth—she must have spotted it while he was fiddling with the lightbulb. Sven raises his hands, snaps another make-believe picture of her, says, “Cover up, this one’s for the grandchildrens. I want them to see how amazing their grootmoeder was when I first was knowing her.”
Lotte purses her lips, unable to hide her smile, and Sven steps down with her, arms wide so as not to roll them.
“This isn’t stealing,” he says, reaching up to unhook the canoe’s rope. “It was just floating here—out there, I mean. We had to swim out even to get it, to save it.”
“We’re gonna fix this place up!” Lotte says as loud as she can around Sven, leaning on the shaky little left-behind cooler to push them away from the pier. She trails her hands in the water and, drifting out from the pier now, can just see their rental car. It looks like a laundry bomb exploded over it. No: it looks like two kids from the Netherlands fizzed away from pure joy, disappeared into nothing, leaving only their clothes behind.
“What?” Sven asks in perfect American.
“We don’t have a paddle,” Lotte says. It’s the funniest thing in the world to her. It’s making this little expedition even more perfect.
“Or pants, or shirts…” Sven adds, taking both sides of the canoe and rocking it back and forth.
“Koude,” Lotte agrees, hugging herself. Then, like a dare, “Warmer in the water.”
“Out where it’s diepere,” Sven says, correcting himself before she can: “Deeper.”
They reach over to paddle with their hands, the water bitter cold, and after about twenty yards of this Sven liberates the white lid off the little cooler. It’s a much better paddle than their hands, and—importantly—it doesn’t care about freezing.
“My hero,” Lotte says in precise English, pressing herself into his back.
“It can be warmer up here too,” Sven says, but doesn’t stop drawing them farther out onto the lake.
Lotte presses the side of her face into his back, her new vantage point giving her an angle into the now-open tiny cooler.
“Hey!” she says, and extracts a clear baggie with a sandwich inside, its peanut butter smearing.
“Ew, pindakaas,” Sven says, and pulls deep with the cooler lid, surging them ahead.
Lotte unceremoniously shakes the sandwich out into the water without touching it, crosses her finger over her lips so Sven will know not to tell on her about this, then drops her phone into the baggie and neatly seals the top, blowing into it at the very end so the phone is in a make-do balloon.
“Your ziplock tas can also be a flotatie device,” she says in her best KLM flight attendant voice.
Sven chuckles, says, “Flotation.”
The phone in the bag is still recording. Lotte angles it away from her, holds it up so it can see ahead of them.
“What do you think they are?” Sven asks, nodding to the lights they don’t seem to be any closer to yet.
“Giant fireflies,” Lotte says with a secret thrill. “American fireflies.”
“Mastodons met—with bioluminescente tusks,” Sven says.
“Air jellyfish,” Lotte says, quieter, like a prayer.
“Isn’t there a tree fungus that’s fosforescerend?” Sven asks. “Being serious, nu.”
“Now,” Lotte corrects, still using her wispy-dreamy voice. “It’s the Indians. They’re painting their faces and their bodies for revolt.”
“Until John Wayne Gacy hears about it,” Sven says with enough confidence that Lotte has to giggle.
“It’s just John Wa—” she starts, doesn’t finish because Sven is jerking back from leaning over the side of the canoe, jerking back and pulling his hands up fast, something long stringing from them. He stands shaking it off, trying to, and the canoe overbalances, starts to roll. Instead of letting it, he dives off the other side, his Netherbits mostly hidden from the phone’s hungry eye.
He slips in almost without a sound, just one gulp and gone.
Alone on the canoe now, Lotte stands unsteadily, the back of her hand coming instantly up to her nose, her mouth—the smell from whatever stringy grossness Sven dragged in over the side.
She dry heaves, falls to her knees from it.
They’ve drifted into… what? A mat of algae? Lake scum? At this altitude, snow still in the ditches?
“Sven!” she calls to the blackness encroaching from all sides now.
She covers herself with her arms, sits on her heels as best she can.
And now she knows what that smell has to be: fish guts. Some men from the town gutted a big haul of them over the side of their boat, the intestines and non-meaty parts adhering together with the congealing blood to make a gooey floating scab.
She coughs again, has to close her eyes to keep from throwing up.
Or maybe it wasn’t a whole net of fish—they can’t do that here in inland America, can they?—but one or two of the really big fish, pulled up from the very bottom of the lake. Sturgeon, pike, catfish?
Sven will know. His uncle is a fisherman.
“Sven!” she calls again, not liking this game.
Not necessarily in response to her call, probably more to do with his lung capacity, Sven surfaces maybe twenty feet to Lotte’s left.
“Gevonden—got it!” he’s yelling.
What he’s waving over his head is the bright white lid of the little cooler.
“Come back!” Lotte calls to him. “I don’t want to see the giant fireflies anymore!”
“Mastodons!” Sven yells back, clapping the lid on the water, the sound almost unbearably loud to Lotte, like drawing attention they don’t want. She looks to the lights on the far shore to see if they’re all turning this way.
She gathers her phone-balloon, shakes the camera so it’s facing her, and says into it in perfect English, “I hate you, Sven. I’m cold and scared and when you’re asking yourself what you did wrong, why you didn’t get any in the big state of Idaho, you can play this and you can know.”
Then she wedges the phone backwards half under the canoe’s bow deck, up against the stem—the pointy hidden corner at the front where you can stuff a ziplock baggie you’ve blown up and hidden a phone inside.
“Come to me!” Sven says. “I don’t want to touch that… that hair again!”
“It’s not hair!” Lotte calls back. “It’s fish gut—”
What stops her from finishing is the distinct sense that someone was just standing behind her. Which would be impossible, of course, since behind her there’s only the lake. Still, she whips around to the other end of the boat, certain there was a shadow there, just in her peripheral vision, already gone.
“It is kelp?” Sven’s asking now. “Is that how you say it in Engels?”
“English,” Lotte corrects, losing patience with this.
“Fuck English!” Sven says back. “Het is haar!”
It’s not hair, though.
If it were hair, that would mean that… Lotte doesn’t know: would it mean that a moose or a bear or a cowboy horse had died out here, or floated out here while dead and bloated, then burst in the heat of the day, geysering blood and gore up in a chunky fountain?
The canoe thunking into something where there should be nothing tells her that’s just what it has to be.
She shrieks, can feel sudden tears on her face, her breath the kind of deep she’s about to lose control of.
“Sven!” she screams, holding hard to the side of the canoe, and now, instead of another thunk, what she hears, fast like little footsteps, is a series of… not quite splashes, but some disturbance on the surface of the water. Fish in a line, jumping? A formation of bats snatching insects from the top of the lake? A rock someone skipped in the daytime, still making it across to the other shore?
She pushes away from whatever it is.
“Sven, Sven, Sven!” she’s saying, less loud each time, because it feels like her voice is putting a bullseye on her back.
They never should have come to America. This isn’t some big adventure.
Lotte looks back to the pier, to the light she knows is real, and right when she looks is when it blinks off then on again—no, no, it didn’t go off, something passed between her and it.
Seconds later, a profanely intimate sound squelches across the water to the canoe, like a wet ripping. From where Sven was? Is she even still in the same place in relation to him?
Lotte stands, feels more exposed than she ever has, even though she can’t see her own arms.
She falls back, almost over the side, when Sven starts screaming. In Dutch, in English, in human, except more primal—the way you only ever scream once, Lotte knows.
All Lotte can make out is “Wat is er mis met haar mond?” before his voice gargles down, stops abruptly.
Lotte reaches in to paddle back, away, she’s sorry, Sven, she’s sorry, she’s sorry to America too, they shouldn’t have violated her at night, they should have driven all the way around Idaho, she’ll tell everybody, she’ll warn them all away if she can just—
Her arm is up to the elbow in the mat of hair and rot and guts, it’s stringing off her, draping into the canoe, wrapping around her but she doesn’t care, she’s lying on her stomach now to pull harder for the shore, her fingertips pushing down to where the water’s even colder.
Once, twice, twenty times, and then—her hand connects with something solid? Her head is instantly filled with the slow-motion image of a dead horse floating underwater, the pads of her fingers brushing the white diamond between its eyes, her lightest touch pushing the huge dead body drifting down even deeper.
She pulls back, sits up holding her hand to herself like it’s injured, and then what she touched with that hand bobs past.
The white cooler lid, streaked red.
Lotte shakes her head no, no, no, and then, because what else can she do, she rolls over the other side of the canoe, fights through the tendrils of decay, some even going in her mouth, trying to reach down her throat, and then she’s to open water, swimming hard for the dim lights of Proofrock like only an elementary school swim-meet veteran can.
The phone she left behind in its foggy balloon is just recording the empty aluminum canoe now, and one blurry corner of the little cooler. But it’s listening in its muted way.
What it hears is the front part of Lotte’s scream.
She doesn’t get to finish it.