As Hazel pushed her shopping cart down the sidewalk along Main Street, she brushed a stray, silver hair back from her face and tucked it behind her ear. This uphill trip into town seemed to get harder every time she made it. Her bones ached. The sun seemed brighter and hotter than it should for be for September. Hotter than it had seemed last year. Eulalie, her pet hen, cooed with what could only be described as aggravation. Tilting her old, beat-up shopping cart off the familiar sidewalk and starting across the empty street, Hazel decided that, yes, this trip was certainly getting harder.
Despite the intensity of the sun, an occasional cool breeze held the promise of an impending rain, but Hazel didn’t think that anything would happen before dark. In addition to aching, somewhere along the way, her bones had developed a keen knack for predicting foul weather. Main Street was one of seven streets in town, not counting the handful of dead ends and winding driveways, and it was lined predominately with weathered brick buildings that had seen better days. Some had slipped behind dense blankets of ivy, and others, their painted advertisements long since faded, stood, looking gaunt as the yellow leaves spotting the sidewalk in front of them. Before long, Hazel had passed these and made her way to the Elsing gas station and convenience store, pulling her cart through the door and into the narrow aisles inside.
“Good morning, Hazel!” When Clarence, the proprietor of Elsing Mart, grinned, his cheeks lifted his gold-framed glasses higher on his face and his nose crinkled. He was perched behind the counter, leaning against the register and talking to Fred Macintyre, a short, bulbous man with thin hair and a very red face. “How are you doing today?”
Fred nodded too, his chin sinking into one of the folds in his neck before reappearing again. “Mornin’, Hazel.”
“Good morning, gentleman,” Hazel said. “How are you today?”
“Better than I could be, I figure.” Clarence shrugged, still grinning. “You know, if you keep bringing that darn chicken in my store, we’re gonna have to have a chicken special.”
Hazel put her palms against the sides of her hen’s head and scolded, “Clarence, you know Eulalie doesn’t eat chicken!”
Clarence rolled his eyes and tried to hide his signature grin. “So what brings you to town this morning?”
“Not a whole lot,” she said. “Remembered I ran out of milk this morning right as I was going to have my cereal. Can’t have cereal without milk. Eulalie doesn’t mind it, but I’ve got to have it, myself.”
“That would never do, would it? Well, you know where it is. If you need anything, just let me know.”
“Well, thank you,” Hazel shoved her cart around the sharp corner at the end of the potato chip aisle, the wheels scraping across the cracked linoleum. “I’ll be sure to holler if anything comes up.”
As she debated which quarter-gallon of milk to buy, the two men resumed whatever conversation they had been having before Hazel had entered.
“You know, Clarence, that Everett boy said he done saw something strange down there last night. They say by the time he got home, he were just pale as a ghost and shivering like he ain’t never shivered before. Don’t know what happened down there, but something must have. That sort of thing don’t just happen for no reason!”
“Aw, Fred. You know that kid just likes to tell stories.”
“And I suppose that’s true. But you remember last year, when Jacob Caulley and one of his lady friends were down there cavorting and carrying on? Well, Jacob won’t set foot anywhere near the place now, and that pretty young thing that was with him hasn’t been back here in Elsing since.”
“I don’t know, but—”
Fred wasn’t finished. “And Reagan Hays? You know she went down there a couple years back and then nobody never saw her again! People don’t just disappear, Clarence. Not in Elsing.”
“That’s true, I guess. But I just can’t believe it. There have been spooky tales about that old lake told since I was a kid. It’s just a scary little spot because of the trees and the fog that sometimes forms on the water there. I think they just made up the story to keep kids like Jacob Caulley and his ‘lady friends’ away from there.”
“I don’t know, Clarence.” Fred shook his head, “Just seems there’s a lot of coincidences to just be campfire stories. What do you think, Hazel?”
By this time, Hazel had, after much deliberation, selected a quarter-gallon of extra-skim milk and a bag of those elusive strawberry candies. She had been debating whether or not to grab a large bag of crème-filled caramels, but she ultimately conceded that Fred’s interruption made her decision. Sighing, she turned away from the candy and faced the two men. She had never given a whole lot of thought about whether or not a mysterious monster dwelled around the lake. The answer had always seemed pretty obvious as far as she was concerned.
“If monsters were real, Fred, I don’t think they’d live in lakes. Probably caves or something dank and musty.”
“What about the Loch Ness monster?” Clarence pointed out, more for conversation than anything else. “It lives in water.”
“That’s a dinosaur.” Hazel shrugged and petted Eulalie’s head. “Monsters have scary horns and bug eyes and some such.”
Clarence laughed and shook his head. “Okay, sure thing Hazel. Going to be two-eighty.”
Fred shrugged and leaned back against the lottery ticket case. “I still think there’s something in that lake.”
After leaving the convenience store, Hazel pushed her cart down the street toward the dollar store. Counting the coins in her pockets, she thought that she would have just enough to buy some fish food. Her fish would appreciate that. “Those little ruffians need to get something in their little fish-bellies,” she said to herself as she crossed the street again and pushed her cart into the Family Dollar.
“Hello Hazel!” said Emily, the high-school-aged cashier at the front of the store. “How are you doing today? Staying warm?”
“It’s only September, honey. We’re doing fine. How’s school going?”
“Not much different than last year. Drama’s starting already.”
Hazel shook her head, “Kids these days.”
“Are you looking for anything specific today or just browsing?”
“Just coming in to grab some fish food. Still in the same place, right?”
Emily laughed. “Your fish are well taken care of. Yeah, as far as I know it hasn’t moved. Just the same place as always.”
Hazel thanked her and pushed her cart down the aisles as Eulalie cooed and poked her neck around as if she were looking for people she knew. In the pet supply section, the fish food was easy to find. It hadn’t moved. As she was pulling the canister of flakes from the shelf, Michelle Everett turned the corner into the aisle with her friend, Helen Dyre.
“Miss Hazel!” Michelle exclaimed as she saw her. The woman had bleached hair and a shrill voice, which was probably the most concrete thing she maintained from high school. It was the sort of voice that seemed almost natural until you heard her when she was angry, when it sunk deep in her throat. The joke was made around town that when Mrs. Everett was angry, she let the devil out. Whether for her voice or some other reason, people tended to avoid upsetting Mrs. Everett.
She reached out across Hazel’s cart and touched a finger to her shoulder before pulling it back quickly and wiping her hands on her skinny jeans. “How are you doing today?”
“Running some errands, Mrs. Everett.” Hazel shrugged. “I ran into to Fred this morning, and I heard about your son. How is he doing?
“Oh is that story going around already? Oh dear.” She passed her manicured fingertips across her forehead and shared a look of desperation with Miss Dyre. “Well, my boy is still just traumatized by the whole thing. Just traumatized! He said he was out in the forest last night, not that I know what he was doing out there – that boy! – said he saw bright, yellow lights floating under the water! He’s just convinced they were aliens or monster fish or something crazy like that!”
Miss Dyre piped in from behind Michelle, “Didn’t there used to be a town under there? Like, hundreds of years ago? Elsing used to be in that valley, but the dam busted and they had to rebuild it up here, isn’t that right, Miss Hazel?”
“How old do you think I am, Mrs. Dyre!”
“Oh of course not!” Michelle exclaimed. “How could you suggest such a thing, Helen! I am so sorry, Miss Hazel. She certainly didn’t mean to be rude.”
Helen buried her face in the palm of her hand and Hazel patted Eulalie’s head. “I’m sure.”
“Don’t you live over toward the lake, Miss Hazel?” Helen asked as she pulled a couple cans of Fancy Feast off the shelf. “Do you ever see anything strange that way?”
Hazel shrugged, “Sometimes, I suppose. But you know, it’s probably those darned satellites and drones that everyone’s always complaining about. If not them, then those kids who paint filthy things on the trees and things. Kids these days – I’ll never understand it!”
“Absolutely!” Said Michelle, nodding her head as though it were attached by a spring. “I was just telling my boys that they’re all probably just watching too many scary movies with their father. I can’t stand those stupid movies! I’m sure they just got his head all confused and seeing things!”
“Do they make underwater satellites?” Hazel asked to no one in particular. “Maybe it’s an underwater satellite. I hear the government spies on people, so maybe there’s stuff underwater.”
The women didn’t respond as Hazel mumbled to herself and left the aisle. Once she made it to the checkout, Hazel put the fish food and a handful of change on the counter. Emily shook her head, “It’s fine, Miss Hazel. I’ve got it covered this time.”
“I’m taking care of it this time.”
“No, no honey, I don’t need your charity. I’ve got my money right here.”
“No, I insist!” Emily pushed the coins back across the counter toward Hazel. “You come in here everyday and say hi to me and I really appreciate that. Let me pay you back with some kindness, okay? I insist!”
Hazel begrudgingly put the money back in the pockets of her sagging sweater. “All right, fine. You win this time, but next time I won’t give up so easy!”
“Okay, Miss Hazel. I’ll have to be prepared!”
The sun was just beginning to fall by the time Hazel made it to her third and final stop. Parking her cart by the stoop, she lifted Eulalie from the basket and climbed the stairs onto Polly Duckworth’s front porch. Polly, a petite woman somewhere in her seventies, wore a long gingham dress covered with a thick, vintage sweater. From the corner of the deck, as she rocked in her rocking chair, she smiled as Hazel made it up the stairs.
“I was wondering when you were going to show up,” Polly said, setting her crocheting in her lap. “Later than usual.”
“Well, I got held up at the dollar store. Michelle Everett cornered me in the pet food section.”
Polly nodded and raised her eyebrows, “You know those Everetts.”
“Yep. This business with their son isn’t helping them out any.”
“What’s that? What happened?” Polly leaned forward and picked up her crocheting needles, continuing the baby cap or whatever it was she was making.
“Apparently, their boy – the youngest, I guess – saw something in the lake. He insists he saw lights in the lake. For all he knows, it could have been the moon – but, well, you know the Everetts.”
“I do know the Everetts.”
“They just have to make a big deal out of nothing.” Hazel shook her head. “I try not to react.”
“That’s all you can do.”
“There are just so many other things to worry about in this world. Worrying about something silly like aliens or monsters is just a waste of time. Getting old makes you look at things differently, I guess.”
“Getting old does change things.” Polly nodded. “We’re certainly not the same as we were forty years ago, that’s for sure.”
There was a pause before Hazel continued. “Do you suppose that there are underwater satellites?”
“I’m sure I don’t know about that kind of thing. But maybe.”
“I don’t know either. I was just thinking that, you know, the government has all this spy stuff in space, and I wondered if they had any in the water.”
“I don’t think I want to think about that. All this technology talk worries me.”
“All right. Then let’s not worry about that today.”
The two women sat and spoke for a while longer before Polly cut the visit short, “Oh Hazel, I just noticed you have milk in your buggy. You better get that back home before it spoils.”
“I suppose so. It’s pretty cool today so I haven’t been very worried about it, but I guess you’re right. Okay, Polly. I will see you tomorrow when I can stay a little longer.”
“Okay, longer is good!”
“Maybe I won’t get held captive by Mrs. Everett,” she laughed to herself. “If it happens again, maybe I won’t hold Eulalie back. You know how she can be!”
Polly leaned back her head and laughed, “You and your attack-hen! Only you, Hazel. Only you. Get yourself home you odd duck.”
“I’m getting, I’m getting! I’ll see you tomorrow, I’m sure.”
The two parted ways and Hazel began the trek back towards her home. By this time, the day was drawing to a close and the light was draining from the sky, slipping from purple to red as the sun drifted away. In the past week or so, one of the wheels on her cart had begun to squeal, and while Hazel was beginning to grow accustomed to the sound, there was something about tonight that made the walk back more uncomfortable. The clouds had begun to creep into the sky, and the wind was starting to grow colder in anticipation of winter.
She thought about the boy who saw the lights underwater, about the submerged town that sat at the bottom of the lake. If the lights of one of those houses were turned on, could they even be visible from the surface? It was a deep lake, after all, and during the summer it got to be very muddy. As night continued to fall, the evening seemed to grow quieter and the wheel of the cart seemed to grow louder. It seemed now to pierce the dark and inhabit the dense trees that grew over the hills like a shroud. Eulalie cooed to herself, her chest puffed out, making herself as spherical as possible.
As she neared the lake, Hazel slowed her pace. She had been making a habit of taking a moment to look over the lake before she went home. Since she had started this tradition, she had found it comforting to watch the differences that time made. After the stories she had heard that day, she considered not staying to examine the landscape, but by now it was so engrained in her daily routine that she could hardly stop herself. She left her cart by a stray maple that somehow grew apart from the rest of the forest, and approached the water’s edge. Something cracked in the dark behind her, but nothing was visible. After a moment, she decided that it was probably a fox or some other animal stalking a small rodent.
Hazel paused as she looked out over the dark, trembling surface of the lake. The leaves had begun peeling off the trees and gliding gently from the ends of branches before settling on the water, like little boats – boats that would surely wilt and capsize. Every evening, she scanned this landscape, admiring the trees as they changed, the flowers as they would flourish and fade again. As she looked, she couldn’t see these glowing lights in the deep that filled the town’s conversation. She couldn’t see the writhing tentacles of some mythical serpent waking in the night. No, there were no monsters here. There couldn’t possibly be. After all, surely she would have seen them. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary in this lake. No monsters, no government satellites, nothing but the bones of a mining town that hadn’t made it into the twenty-first century.
As the wind began to pick up and a few eager raindrops plummeted from the sky, Hazel knew that it was about time to return to the shelter of her home. She wasn’t a young girl anymore, and the weather seemed to affect her bones far more than it used to. She walked back to her cart and jostled it from a rut in the hard ground. Pushing it again, she continued on her way back to her home, her mind still occupied by the stories from town. She shook her head. “People can be so superstitious,” she thought as she walked, now waist deep in the water. Soon, both she, her cart, and her hen were fully submerged in the lake, walking their well-traveled path down to their house, where Hazel turned on the lights, and had the bowl of cereal she’d been craving all day.
Ian C. Williams is a poet and novelist often caught dabbling in other disciplines and gravitating toward coffee and tweed. His work has been published in The Gap-Toothed Madness, Yorick Magazine, and The Idiom, and he has received the Florence Kahn Memorial Award from the National Society of State Poetry Society. He currently resides in Fairmont, West Virginia with his wife, Bailey, and two cats, Tribble and Shenzi.