In the early days of the drought, a pair of coyote skeletons had been discovered in Walker Lake’s drying banks. They embraced each other in death. A local newspaper article had called it tragic and romantic, and no one took notice.
My obsession with the lake meant that I saw the article right away. It joined what little information I had already accumulated in a folder under my bed, hidden behind my soccer equipment.
The drought continued. More animal bones appeared as the lake’s murky waters shrivelled back toward her centre. Cows and cats, also in pairs, were discovered embracing.
A local news station reported on the skeletons. I recorded the program. At the urging of concerned citizens, police dredged what remained of the lake and searched for clues to the mystery. My growing collection of news articles, internet research, and flash drives of television footage moved into a filing cabinet under my bed. The soccer equipment moved into the dumpster.
When events took a turn toward the supernatural, suddenly, it wasn’t just me interested in the lake.
After six months without rain, in every spot where the skeletons had appeared, earthen symbols materialized in the lake bed. They had a particular, winding beauty and ordered chaos to them, similar to the trails seen in ant farms or cross-sections of a brain. Made of earth and grass and rocks, their shape and the mystery of their origin were their most extraordinary features. They were recognizable in an instant.
Science couldn’t explain it. Reporters, tourists, and alien fanatics couldn’t get enough. Locals couldn’t understand how Briony hadn’t shown up yet.
Her body had to be there somewhere.
I should know. I was with her when she drowned.
My best friend’s death coincided with the start of the drought; a sign of life’s bitterness at her passing, I was sure. Eight months should have been plenty of time to start healing, but the idea of letting her go, of living without her, crippled me.
If only I could vanish with the lake.
At school, fellow seniors had started telling freshmen stories about the red-haired ghost of Walker Lake. They said she was lonely at the bottom. That’s why she drowned the animals.
I tried to beat up one of the story-tellers, and as I was being scolded in the principal’s office, I realized that Briony would have thought it was funny. She would have told the best version of her own ghost story.
We used to camp out in an old tent in the yard between our houses. Late in the summer nights, Briony would tell me some horror story with wild gestures and silly voices from atop her purple sleeping bag, frighten the shit out of me, and say between shrieking and laughing, “You’re so cute when you’re scared!”
She would settle down and rest her head on my lap. I’d stroke her long, red hair as I took my turn telling a story. With her eyes closed and a gentle smile on her face, she looked like a porcelain doll. My stories never scared her, but she always pretended that they had.
I should have confessed my love to her. Rejection would have hurt, but regret was killing me. Since her death, nothing could numb my pain.
So I slept to escape.
In my dream, a cool, blue light shone from beneath me. It gave me chills. I was suspended from my spinal column as I peered down into a depthless chasm. A hand reached out of the light and stretched to make contact with mine. The flesh of my arm fell away.
I woke, disoriented, on my back and plastered to the ground. Cocooned in Briony’s sleeping bag, I stared up at the tent’s orange ceiling. Tiny holes in the lining let in the early morning sun and the chill in the Autumn air. My mind replayed the same dream I’d been having for weeks.
Several yards away, a sliding glass door opened.
“Natalie?” my mother called.
Eyes shut. I told myself to move, but my leaden body refused. The ground seemed to collapse beneath my mass. It made a hole for me. It sucked me under in millimeters. My chest became too heavy to lift. Gravity increased to suffocate me.
“Natalie!” My mother unzipped the walls of the tent. She saw me gasping for breath and turned me on my side. Her hands were firm and methodical as they made circles on my back. It returned me to childhood, to being eight years old and thinking I would die without her there to help me breathe. Her palm scrunched up my t-shirt as it warmed my lungs through my skin.
“Do you need your inhaler?” she asked. “Where is it?”
I didn’t know or care.
Breathing became easier when I shut my eyes.
“Natalie, you’re freezing.” She covered me with the sleeping bag. The scent of Briony calmed me. I said, exhausted, “I’m okay.”
Mom’s tone softened. “Were you out here all night?”
I made myself answer. “Yes.”
“Honey, you can’t keep doing this to yourself. Spending all your time in the tent or at the lake, it isn’t good for you.”
The weight on my chest lessened, and I heaved myself up to a sitting position. My mother crouched beside me. Her brown eyes, like mine, shone with unshed tears. She kept talking.
My jaw tensed.
“…It’s not healthy.”
“It’s not fine!” she cried.
She added, “And you’re not okay.” Her hands on top of mine felt strange. My eyes looked at our fingers and wasn’t sure whose were whose.
“So cold,” she whispered to herself. “Natalie,” she said and met my gaze. “Briony was a sweet girl. She always had a kind word and a smile for everyone. Her laughter was infectious.”
The sound of her laugh—too big for her body—was beginning to fade from memory. Each night I clung to her citrus scent, recalled the shape of her lips.
Mom continued. “I know you were like sisters.”
My gut twisted. I closed my eyes and wished to disappear.
Mom’s fingers tightened. “It’s a tragedy what happened. We all miss her. But you’re still alive.” Anger flared within me. I freed myself from the sleeping bag and crawled past my mother.
The lawn crunched underfoot. In the house next door—Briony’s house—curtains pulled closed.
Each step was torture.
“Briony wouldn’t have wanted this,” Mom called as she set her bare feet on the brown grass. “You’re hurting the people who love you!”
I went inside, blind to everything except my bedroom door. Mom followed.
“Natalie, listen to me! It’s been almost a year. It’s time to—”
I spun and shouted, “Seven months and twenty-eight days!”
Mom’s hand covered her mouth. Tears slipped down her cheeks. My chest hurt again. I backed into my room.
I shut and locked my door. A few steps would have brought me to the bed, but the will to stand evaporated. My hands and knees hit the floor.
Whatever Mom said was muffled by the door and my pulse racing in my ears.
With desperate need, I reached for the cabinet beneath my bed. It scraped across the hardwood as I dragged it into the open. Scientific articles, newspaper clippings, old pictures of Briony and new pictures of the decaying lake spread across the floor.
My eyes soaked up every word and image already memorized from endless hours of staring and studying, and still, no sense could be made of the happenings. My brain hurt. My chest caved. Papers became crumpled in my shaking fists, and I cried out with no voice to my dead best friend.
“Where are you?”
She didn’t answer.
Grief pulled me to the floor. I fell into a dream.
Beneath me, Briony smiled. Her arms reached upward as mine stretched down. Blue light, crisp as the summer sky, was all around. It had a massive presence, like a group of people watching our reunion. My skin felt stretched—pulled. Briony’s pale, blue eyes were bright with happiness.
I woke on my bedroom floor. Around my shivering body, papers had shifted and crumpled. My palms pressed flat against the hardwood, and I heaved myself up to my knees.
An ache lingered in my chest, threatening to become an asthma attack.
Dreams with Briony were exquisite torture.
I stood, rubbed my eyes, and backed a step toward the door. Something caught my attention and stopped my heart.
The scattered papers on my bedroom floor had fallen into a unique, but instantly recognisable pattern.
I staggered backward with a gasp. The air felt thin. My back hit the wall behind me. “Natalie?” Mom called from somewhere in the house. “Are you okay?”
The pattern was a product of my subconscious mind. Surely, that was the only logical explanation.
But what if it was Briony?
I latched onto the idea with desperate, reckless abandon. Tears filled my eyes. I had asked her where she was, and she was telling me.
The Ghost of Walker Lake. The bones, the symbols—she was trying to reach me. She had to be.
Mom knocked on my door. “Natalie?”
I hurried from my bedroom past my mother. The hallway felt cramped as I rushed to the exit and she followed.
“What’s gotten into you?” she asked.
“Nothing.” My car keys hung on a hook by the door. I took them in my hand.
“Where are you going?”
“A drive,” I said. “To clear my head.” The smile I wore felt manic, but hopefully, it looked reassuring.
Mom appeared concerned, but no more than usual. I opened the door.
“Wait,” Mom called. “Take your coat.” She handed my brown corduroy jacket to me; the one she’d given me last Christmas.
I kissed her cheek. “Thanks, Mom.”
She hugged me before I could leave and held tight.
“You should eat more,” she said, quiet. “You’re skin and bones.”
I rested my chin on her shoulder. “I’m more than that,” I replied.
“When is the last time you ate a real meal?”
“Not sure.” The honest answer would make her unhappy. I pulled away.
“What do you want for dinner tonight?” she asked. “I’ll make something good.” “Everything you make is good.”
She snorted. “You’re too sweet.”
My stomach sank with guilt. “Hey, Mom?”
Her eyes focused.
“Thanks for taking care of me,” I said. “I know I’ve been a pain. I’m sorry.”
Mom swallowed hard and ducked her head. “You’re not a pain. You’re my daughter. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
She waved as I drove away.
Billboards littered the roadside as Walker Lake drew near. My knuckles turned white on the steering wheel of my old truck each time I passed a sign advertising the “World-Famous Alien Symbols,” and “Mysterious, Cuddling Skulls.” They spat in the face of Briony’s final resting place. Our place.
I cranked down the windows and let the biting air sting my face.
Cold made me feel alive. It forced me to breathe, to feel. Lately, my body craved it more than food; more than the parched land craved the rain.
A dirt road opened up on my left. I drove a path through the woods and parked. The clang of my car door slamming closed echoed in the frigid air.
Leaves crunched as I walked. What foliage remained attached to branches was various shades of orange and brown, but most of the trees were no more than bare bones.
The path I took was known only to myself and Briony. There was no litter—no empty cans or chip packets or used condoms—along the way as I descended the hill to the dried up lake bed. The line of trees surrendered to the wide open expanse of Walker Lake. Chilled air whipped my hair into my face. I felt Briony’s presence.
The lake had looked quite different the last time I’d seen her alive.
We’d been swimming the night Briony died, and drinking, but just enough to free our inhibitions. After several minutes of horseplay, I’d moved through the water and kissed her. She’d pulled back and laughed before asking, “What are you doing?”
I’d blushed and said, “Kissing you.”
Moonlight painted her skin pale yellow. Reflections on the lake illuminated her blue eyes. She laughed again and splashed water in my face, saying, “You’re drunk.”
“No,” I replied.
“You must be.” She slid backward in the water. Her eyes softened. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have had the courage to make a move.”
She turned and swam the opposite direction. Her bare shoulders glimmered with dappled water and moonlight. She turned her head and glanced back at me, a playful grin on her lips. I would chase her into hell, and she knew it.
When she disappeared beneath the water—all of a sudden, as if something had pulled her down—my airways shrank. My body went hot and cold and boneless. Panic made everything black and white. I nearly killed myself trying to save her.
When I awoke in the hospital, my mom was there.
Rumors surfaced that I’d killed her. It felt like I had. After all, she was dead because I’d been too weak and slow. A drunk, homeless man said to me one day that the drought was the whole town’s punishment for letting Briony’s killer go unpunished. Maybe he was right.
Several months later, my name was cleared, perhaps only in the eyes of the law, Briony’s parents pretended neither of us had ever existed, and her bones were still playing coy with me. My lungs took deep gulps of air as I plodded the path I’d taken hundreds of times. Soon, the sky opened up above me, and the earth shrunk away at my feet.
Walker Lake’s dried up basin stretched half a mile long and a quarter-mile wide. Scattered symbols decorated her crests and valleys. Plywood signs with photographs of animal bones, long since removed, stuck in the soft ground and marked their positions so tourists wouldn’t have to hunt.
I’d seen them and explored the banks so often; I could have walked the lakebed with my eyes closed and drawn each shape from memory. My journey ended at the ankle-deep, ten-foot diameter pool of water that was all that remained of our favorite swimming spot. In a week, if it didn’t vanish completely, it would freeze.
I sat on the wet earth with my knees at my chest and the toes of my sneakers on the edge of the water.
I’d searched, the police had searched, the hounds had searched, and Briony had eluded us all. The lake had swallowed her whole and vanished, leaving me alone.
Gravity increased again. The earth squelched beneath me. My feet slid into the pool of lake water, and the rest of me followed. My breath caught in my chest as the icy liquid sank into my clothes and saturated my skin.
The sky spread endless and clear above me as I laid on my back in the shallow pool. Shivers wracked my body. Teeth chattered in my skull, and clouds of white escaped my mouth.
It felt so good to hurt so much.
My fingers curled into fists.
“Briony,” I said, voice trembling. “I love you.”
No response, not even from the wild. The breeze died. No birds called. My lip quivered.
“I love you!” I shouted. It echoed. My heels sank into the mud. Sobbing, I rolled over. Wet clay and seagrass squelched between my fingers as I gripped the ground.
She was nowhere else, so she had to be there, right beneath me.
Water rushed past my ears and dampened my hair as I stuck my face beneath the surface.
Nothing was visible in the murky pool. I dug through slime with both hands like a woman possessed. It seemed that the harder I worked, the paler everything became. My breath, my thoughts, the water, they all took on an anemic quality.
A blue light flared behind my eyelids. It grew in strength as my lungs neared their limit. My grasping fingers latched onto something solid.
The remaining water of the lake sank into the earth as if flushed down a drain. It left behind a symbol like the others, no bigger than a bathtub.
Shivering on hands and knees, I dripped with wet and slime and lake grass. I fought to steady my ragged breath.
A jolt, crisp and white as lightning, shot through the back of my skull. I gasped, but no sound came. My fingers refused to release what they’d discovered. Briony lay stretched beneath me, beneath the earth, partitioned by the symbol that had become transparent as glass.
She looked up, blue eyes very much alive and laughing.
“Natalie,” she said, though her mouth didn’t move. “You found me.”
I sobbed. Her face rippled as my tears disturbed the see-through ground, but her arms remained firm in my hands.
“Don’t cry, Nat,” she said. Her face settled back into its natural, heart shape. “It’s okay.”
A strange feeling came from my spine, a pull that tugged me backward. My hands tightened on her arms.
“Where did you go?” I communicated without sound, without the use of my mouth. “Where have you been?”
Briony answered, “I’ve been here.”
Pressure stifled my lungs. “Did you take the animals?”
“Not me,” she said. “Them.”
Blue light overwhelmed my vision. I felt an enormous presence, like a mob of people beneath us both. It chilled my core. I tried to gasp, but the air felt thin.
“I’ve missed you,” Briony said. “I knew you’d come.”
Her hand stretched upward. The pulling sensation on my spine increased. It both hurt and excited. Briony’s form sank deeper into the earth. My fingers cramped around her arms. Blood rushed to the front of my body. Pressure swelled behind my eyes and made my extremities throb.
Gurgling noises came from my throat and startled my ears. In horror, I watched as pale white stripes appeared beneath my tightening flesh. My scream was soundless. “Shh, it’s okay,” Briony whispered from below. “Don’t be scared.”
My eyes widened and focused on her. She looked reassuring and calm.
“It’ll be over soon.” Her voice soothed. “It’s nice here. You won’t have to worry about your asthma anymore. You’ll be perfect.”
My skin grew taught and translucent. With a sickening sound that both squelched and ripped, pearly white bones jutted through the tender skin of my arms. A full set of skeletal digits popped out of my clutching fingers, followed by wrist and arm bones.
The shock was complete. The pain should have been intense, but I hardly felt any. There was no blood.
Dizzy, I fell to my elbows. My mouth gaped wide, but the air ran away with the breeze.
Briony gripped my forearms. She disappeared beneath the earth—her beauty hidden by the symbol that had become opaque again—but her touch remained. With surprising strength, she tugged me downward. Vomit rocketed up my throat.
There was the blood: thick and warm with a coppery taste.
My spine and all the bones attached remained in place as if held by hooks, but the rest of me was ripped down to the lake bed. Rib bones punctured my skin as they stretched toward the ground. I vomited crimson and bile. My airways closed with blood and bones that soon cut through my windpipe.
A skull peered up at me from the mud. Its eye holes, black and empty, stared while its mouth grinned without lips. Then I realized.
Briony’s skeleton had just come from my body. I’d been carrying her with me.
My airways failed.
Briony’s arm bones wrapped around my back. Her femur, tibia, and fibula hiked high around my waist, hugging me. We were a pair, like the coyotes and the cats and the cows. Her skull lifted from the ground.
I cried, frightened. My mind asked, “Briony?”
Her skull pressed its teeth against my blood drenched mouth.
A pop sounded loud in my ears, and I lost all feeling. With a wet noise, my soft tissue dripped from my bones. Skin, blood, entrails, the rest of whatever composed my fleshy form, fell to the lake bed. I watched through disembodied eyeballs as my skeleton clattered into Briony’s with a faint clank.
Wet ground absorbed my blood and boneless flesh. For what felt like years, the soft parts of me sank into the earth.
The tether of feeling that remained with my spine evaporated, and I became free from my mortal bonds.
Blue light surrounded. It applied pressure to my soul and made me feel contained. The massive presence I had felt earlier was full of questions, but those could wait.
Briony was there, formless, weightless, and overjoyed. She mingled with me, whatever we had become, and I felt everything she thought.
She loved me, too. Nothing else mattered.