When We Troubled The Water
It ends with a picture in a cold case file. A young woman, hollow eyed and limp, lying in a hospital bed. The ring finger of her right hand missing, gnawed off. Juliet Andrews was her name, also known as ‘Julie.’ She was hospitalized four days before her death, which occurred when she wandered out of the local hospital ward and into the river. Her bones were found the next morning, picked clean. The report says that during her attempted interview, the girl kept mumbling a line of nonsense about demons and sacrifices over and over, not answering the detective’s questions.
There’s a reporter in the corner of the photo, a sad-faced thirty-something that used to freelance write for magazines all over Philly and New York. Finding him was no easy task. It was about as easy as finding Julie’s file in the Cold Case boxes years after the event. He went under after writing an article about what happened in that town, about what he claims really happened to Julie.
“Spring cleaning,” the chief said when the boxes were unearthed to be sorted by rookies.
“Don’t bother with that one,” an officer said, nodding at the rat chewed, manila folder. “It’s some freaky, Hoo-Doo shit.”
It’s hard to ignore a warning like that, and even harder to resist peaking into the file. The file is read. Curiosity is awakened. The reporter, Charles Arden, is found in a bar that resembles the hole-in-the-wall places made popular by crappy cop movies. As far as you know, he’s been writing under a pseudonym for the past twenty years. Mostly small stories, a few critiques and a blog post here and there. When asked about the story, Charles looks confused.
“You wanna know about that shit?” he asks. “You really wanna know?” He’s in his sixties now and seems to have forgotten how to shave. There’s a patchy beard on his face that looks about four days old.
“I wanna know.”
Charles slams the glass on the counter and grips it so tightly it seems like it might break.
“Gimme… Give me a minute,” he says, voice low and tight with…remorse? Fear? It’s hard to decide which. Maybe it’s longing. “You’re the first to actually ask about it.”
You show him a picture, another one from the file. In this one, a CSI is carrying a body bag with the bones of Juliet Andrews. He stares at it for a moment, like he can’t breath in the face of the frozen memory. He tells you about that day. The way he could feel the wetness in the breeze as it tangled around the ancient oaks and reaching pines. The way the air smelled of rain, practically reeked of it. He remembers the photographer searching for the perfect angle to capture the lake in front of them. The still water barely rippled at the team of forensics wandering its bank, collecting evidence.
Devil lake, the locals called it, he tells you. Officially, it was known as Andrews’ Lake, a modest sized oxbow lake that had once been connected to Andrews’ river. Ever since the last hurricane flooding, the pond had resumed the long forgotten connection. If only it hadn’t.
He tells you about averting his gaze as two men walked past him, a long, zipped black bag held between them. The second bag required three men, and rattled as it went, the bones inside crooning a hollow melody. He says that, as he turned to leave, the bottom dropped out of the sky, pouring fat droplets of rain. The lake at his back seemed to laugh, as it lapped up the offered drops, dying them black as it went.
He raises the glass to his chapped lips and swallows. Maybe the burn of alcohol is the reason for the welling tears. The glass clicks as it meets the table.
“She told me to call her Julie…”
Thirty Years ago…
“The first set of bones was found after a hurricane ran through the historic, coastal town of Andrews’ Hollow, South Carolina. In the wake of the flooding, it was weeks before community members were allowed to return to their homes. A couple treasure hunting with their five-year-old were among the first to return to the waterside. When their daughter started digging at the muck, Dan and Sharon Patrick expected the pale object she pulled out to be a sea biscuit, evicted from the salt marshes a mile away, carried by the storm into Andrew’s Lake. When little Ally handed them what turned out to be a piece of a femur, they were understandably shocked…”
Charles Arden, Charlie to his friends, looked up from his slow-coming first draft as the aforementioned couple made their way into the diner for their interview. The bones had made headlines all throughout the Southern states. Not only had the couple found a piece of a femur, there had been a skull, a few ribs and multiple finger joints and various other bone chips. Further inspection, according to the forensic he’d spoken too a few days ago, revealed there were bone pieces from multiple people of varying ethnicities and ages. The death estimate ranged from between the 1850s and late 1960s. The oldest bones predated the Civil war, coinciding with the founding of the town. Dan and Sharon had been all too eager to tell him about it when he’d asked to interview them.
Dan was about what you’d, expect from someone named ‘Dan’. He was middle aged, paunchy in the middle, widow’s peak beginning to show, looked like he golfed on the weekends. His white Bermuda shorts and salmon shirt were very bright against the backdrop of license plates that decorated the diner wall. Sharon was dressed much the same as her husband, a pink blouse over white pants. She was attractive, in a soccer mom way. Her hair was pulled back into a scrunchie and a thin sheen of pink lip-gloss made a smacking sound every time she spoke.
“Mr. Arden,” she said with a soft drawl. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
“You as well Mr. and Mrs. Patrick.” He shook Dan’s hand, noting the soft grip that was returned, before shaking Sharon’s. The trio sat down and Charles opened the small tablet that went everywhere with him, connecting the keyboard and pulling up the questions he’d need to ask. Sharon’s hands fluttered around as he worked, adjusting the napkins, her hair, her husbands’ shirt. Her shiny lips stayed fixed in a smile the whole time, like they were frozen that way.
“Now,” he began. “Let’s begin with what you remember from that day. I’d like to hear your impressions before I ask any detail questions.” The Patrick’s nodded, and they got to work.
Two hours later, Charles was left blinking into his coffee cup, wondering how two people could possibly be that…Vanilla. Dan hadn’t had much to say on the matter, while Sharon was full of ideas. Ideas on how he should write the article, that is. Absent mindedly, he reached into the basket of peanuts on the table. Letting the shell fall to the floor among a hundred others as he ground the nut to paste between his molars. He’d always loved restaurants like this, the salty, paper-smelling shells on the floor felt more welcoming than dirty to him.
“Y’all were here for a long time,” a cheerful voice said beside him. “Need a top off, Hon’?”
“Yes, please. I beg of you!” A quick glance up showed the waitress that had brought him his flapjacks when he’d first sat down at the table. Her face was unfamiliar, but he remembered the ADDC tank top that showed of a slim figure with leanly muscled arms. Her deeply tanned face was dotted by hundreds of freckles, topped off with strawberry blonde hair tied up in a bun. The bright purple cat-eye glasses gave the look an eccentric touch. She must have been in her early twenties at least.
She tittered a bit at the joke. “I feel ya’, sugar. Dan and Shay just have that effect on people.” She expertly dumped a bit of the liquid ambrosia into his bright green mug and fished a few creamers out of her apron.
“You know Mr. and Mrs. Patrick?” he asked once she’d repositioned the pot on her tray.
She sent him a lopsided smirk over the rim of her glasses. “Honey, I know everyone. Ask me anything.”
“I might take you up on that.” He was flirting, bad Charlie. He’d gotten one too many calls from angry women, and a few men, who’d thought he was interested in them because of his friendly demeanor. Then again, the waitress didn’t seem to mind, if their friendly banter was anything to go by.
“You here about the bones they found?” The young woman asked.
He nodded. “I’m from Pop Crunch magazine in Philly, they thought the news would make a good story for their Real Time Mysteries section.” He poured half of one creamer packet into the cup and added three sugars. “Usually I just get the crazy cryptids and Big Foot enthusiasts. This gig has much better coffee.”
The waitress’s brows rose up to her hairline. “Never thought we’d get noticed by some big shot up North.” His empty plate clattered as it was deposited on her tray, exchanged for a receipt he could pay at the front. “Don’t be a stranger, anything you need to know just ask, I know everything there is to know about this town.”
“Thank you, miss…” Charlie finally realized he hadn’t gotten her name. She easily hefted the tray with one hand and shot him another megawatt smile.
“Juliet Andrews,” she said, sticking her free hand out to shake. “But please call me Julie.” A heavy looking iron ring with a black stone embedded in it glittered darkly on her ring finger.
“Julie Andrews, huh? Didn’t know I’d be meeting a celebrity,” He joked. “Charles Arden, nice to meet you. Please be merciful and call me Charlie.” He shook her hand briefly, before picking up his coffee mug, letting it warm his hands. “Is that ‘Andrews’ like the town?”
“The founder was an ancestor,” she tossed out breezily, sweeping away with the dishes to deal with another table across the store. “Come around sometime and I’ll show you the town.” Charlie watched her go through the steam of his coffee.
Juliet Andrews; related to the founder of the town and one of the only people he’d met so far that was genuinely enjoyable to talk to. He’d definitely be back in this diner. As luck would have it, Julie was working the register when he went to pay his tab.
“Any advice for where I should head to?” He asked. “I like to get a feel for the places I write about.”
She thought about it for a second. “Well, we’ve got a historic museum, about a mile from here. Tells you about the founder and all that. Then we’ve got a park and a local art gallery. ‘Nanny’s Sweets’ is great if you want local stuff.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “Half of those recipes are over a hundred years old, there’s nothing else like ‘em. The rest of it’s just shops and tourist stuff. A few miles away towards the marshes, there’s an artisan fair every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Lots of beautiful sweet grass pieces.” It was a practiced tourist speech. Charlie remembered working as a bartender in Philly and giving much the same spiel to visitors.
Charlie handed over his credit card and leaned on the counter. “What’s your favorite?”
“Nanny’s, definitely.” She swiped the card. “But try the fair too. You’ll love it!” He thanked her and left, the sound of crunching peanut shells accompanying his walk to the door.
“One thing though, Charlie,” Julie yelled.
“Stay out of Devil Lake,” she told him, not smiling anymore. “Where they found the bones?” She continued when he gave her a confused look. Oh, she meant Andrews’ Lake.
“Why?” He asked, his hand on the worn knob of the door.
“It’s not safe if you’re an— If you’re not from around here.” In moments, her cheerful smile is back. “Have a great day!”
He didn’t go to Devil Lake that first day, or the day after. One day three, something worse than aimless tourism brought him to the black shores still littered with bone.