To tell the truth, it wasn’t much of a lake; I could skip a flat rock from one side to the other even back then. But any body of water bigger than a puddle is something special when you’re ten years old.
I had met Charlie at my school that year. There was this big kid who was picking on me, for the life of me I can’t recall why, and I shot my mouth off at him and riled him up real good. It looked like he was about ready to lay into me, when Charlie Wade walked up, and smashed the kid’s nose in with that year’s math textbook; that was about the best use I ever saw anyone get out of that book. He didn’t even say anything, just waited for the big kid to run and tell the teacher. Naturally he got suspended for a few days, but when he came back I saw him sitting at a lunch table by himself with nothing but a peanut butter sandwich, so I went over and gave him the homemade cookies my mom had packed in my lunch. Then we sat there and argued for a while about whether Optimus Prime would win against Batman in a fight. That was all it took. From then on he was always coming over after school, and most days we’d end up down by the lake.
There were all kinds of trails down that way that we’d beat through the underbrush between my house and the place where the woods ended behind the strip mall on Highway 90.
Sometimes we had battles with stick swords, and sometimes we climbed trees, but mostly we did a lot of fishing in the lake trying to catch the world’s biggest catfish.
The first time I saw the monster catfish had been the year before. It was during the school year and I’d been down by the lake, because I knew if I went back to the house momma would ask me if I had finished my homework and I didn’t want to have to lie. There wasn’t anybody around besides me and the mosquitos, and I was sitting on a stump chucking sticks into the water and thinking about the Encyclopedia Brown book I had checked out of the library. Encyclopedia Brown was always solving mysteries around town. He only charged fifty cents. I figured that if I was good at solving mysteries like Encyclopedia Brown was I would charge at least five dollars, and twenty for really big cases like murderers and stuff.
But I was distracted from this important line of thought when I saw something out of the corner of my eye moving in the still water of the little lake. And when I turned and saw what it was I could only stare, eyes wide, trying to take it all in, as if I could carve what I was seeing into the meat of my brain.
I remember that moment clear as anything. I remember the neon yellow bobber hanging from the branches of a tree in a tangled web of fishing line. I remember the high pitched buzz of a mosquito landing on my earlobe. I remember the damp stink of the mud at the edge of the pond. But mostly I remember the thing that I saw swimming just below the surface of the water.
I said before that it was a catfish, but it is probably more accurate to say that it was something like a catfish. It was the right basic shape for a catfish, broad head, tapering back into a narrow body, but it was also different from any catfish I ever saw before or since.
Catfish generally have a spiked bone that sticks out of middle of their backs, which is full of a mild poison, and generally to be avoided if you catch one; but this thing had three of them all in a row, the middle one being slightly longer than the ones in front and back. The thing also had an extra set of eyes set close together on the top of his head, only they looked milky white, like the eyes of some fish you can find in caves where the sun never shines. And the color…I’ve already mentioned it, but I’ve never seen a catfish so pale, white like buttermilk, not a spot on him anywhere.
And I stood there and watched him drift lazily through the water, and that moment seemed like it might last forever.
And then my mother called my name. I looked away toward the house, only for a moment, but when I looked back there was nothing in the water but a gentle ripple that rolled out from the place where the fish had been until it slapped against the muddy bank by my feet.
I never told anyone about the monster catfish but Charlie Wade, and the first time I told him he didn’t believe me.
“No way,” he said, fighting to get an uncooperative worm to submit to impaling by fishhook. “No way that happened for real.”
“It did, I swear! On god and Jesus and a whole stack of bibles.” I was fishing with chicken livers and the biggest treble hook the tackle shop sold, which was how the subject of the monster catfish had come up in the first place.
“Uh huh,” Charlie said, casting his hook out toward the center of the lake. “Sure.”
I watched my bobber ride the gentle ripples on the surface of the pond and didn’t say anything. It hurt my feelings that Charlie didn’t believe me, but I knew he wasn’t trying to be mean. He never said anything about it, but sometimes when I went over to his house I could hear his mom and dad fighting. Charlie’s dad didn’t have a job and Charlie’s mom had to work as a waitress and didn’t make very much money. Our family didn’t have much money either, but we never missed a meal. Charlie never said anything, but I got the idea that at least part of the reason he hung out with me so much is because he liked my mom’s cooking. Mom never said anything to me about Charlie’s mom and dad, but looking back on it she must have known. Word about stuff like that has a way of getting around.
We sat there fishing for a good while. Naturally, I hadn’t seen the first nibble, but Charlie had hauled in several crappie that now struggled weakly on the end of his stringer. It was getting later in the day, and the sun was in full fury that afternoon, but somehow we didn’t mind. I got the sense Charlie was working his way up to saying something while we sat there until finally he asked, “Why you wanna catch it?”
“I thought you didn’t believe me,” I replied.
“I don’t,” he said. “It’s just a question. I mean if it was true, why would you want to catch it?”
“It is true,” I insisted. “And it’d be the biggest thing, like, ever. I’d be in the newspaper and everything. Maybe even on TV.”
“Would you eat it?”
“I reckon I would.”
Charlie didn’t say anything for a minute. Then he shook his head. “Ain’t right,” he said.
“What ain’t right?”
“If that thing’s as big as you say it’s been around for a while. Longer than you been around. Maybe longer than your daddy and momma too.”
“So it ain’t right. Thing like that dying on a hook like any other fish.” He looked over at my cane pole. “Not that I think you could catch something that big on that flimsy pole anyway,” he added.
“It’s just a fish,” I said. But by then I wasn’t sure.
That night I stayed awake a while in the dark thinking about what Charlie had said. And after a while when I couldn’t sleep I went and looked out the window. From my bedroom window on the second floor you could see all the way down the dirt path to the edge of the lake. And in the light of the moon that reflected off of the lake I thought I saw a boy-sized figure standing by the water’s edge.
The next day I asked Charlie if he’d been down by the lake at night.
“Sometimes I have trouble sleeping,” he said. “Sometimes I feel better if I take a walk. There’s no one around at night. It’s peaceful.”
”Did you see it?”
“What do you think it’s like?” he said, like he hadn’t heard me. “What do you think it’s like to be such a big fish in such a little pond?”
“Maybe the pond is really deep,” I said. “Maybe there’s some kind of cave way under the water. I bet if we got some SCUBA gear we could find it.”
“I’ll bet it’s really lonely,” said Charlie. “I’ll bet there isn’t another fish like it in the world. And it’s stuck in this little pond and it doesn’t even know how big the world is.”
I’d never given much thought to the feelings of a fish before, and said as much to Charlie. Charlie shook his head as if I didn’t understand, and I guess I didn’t.
“A thing like that,” Charlie said, “It ought to be in a lake big enough for it to stretch its fins. A like with other big fish for it to talk to.”
“Maybe it could crawl to one,” I suggested. “I read somewhere that there are fish that can crawl out of the water on the land for a while. Maybe it’s like that.”
“No,” Charlie said. “It’s stuck in there. It’s never going to get out.”
I wanted to ask Charlie how he knew that, but by now I was starting to figure out that we weren’t really having the same conversation.
That summer went on like summers do when you’re ten. We stayed out late, and played basketball in Johnny Linneti’s driveway, and made cars for the pinewood derby they ran every year down at Ugly John’s Hardware store . I was the best at basketball on account of being six inches taller than Charlie and Johnny, but Charlie’s car won the pinewood derby against what looked to be some fierce competition, and Ugly John himself (who was not really ugly aside from his lazy eye and huge unkempt beard) shook Charlie’s hand and handed him a trophy with a wood base and a shiny sleek looking metal car mounted on top.
I have to admit I was pretty jealous when Charlie won that trophy, but on the bike ride back to the house he said, “You should take this, keep it in your room. I don’t need it.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, incredulous, “You don’t want to take that home and show it to your dad?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted saying them. Charlie didn’t talk about his dad much to start with, but these days it seemed like the very mention of the man made him retreat into a shell like a turtle. Looking back on that now I guess I should have been more concerned by that, but when you’re a kid you don’t think about how cruel the world can be. Not unless it’s cruel to you.
“Dad won’t care,” Charlie said, “And mom won’t have time for it.”
So I agreed to take the trophy, being sure to point out that I was only holding it for him. I put it on my shelf to start with, but it didn’t feel right to show it like that when I hadn’t earned it, so I moved it to my sock drawer instead.
That night I saw Charlie down by the pond again, but this time he was crouched over, one hand in the water, a black silouette in the white moonlight.
As the summer wore on Charlie seemed to shrink inside of himself. Used to be I would sometimes meet him at his house, but as July ticked away into August he started meeting me on the road down the block from his house as if he’d been waiting for me there. He didn’t talk that much, and once I thought I even saw him crying when he thought I wasn’t looking. He wanted to stay out later and later. Mom would be hollering for me to come inside when the street lights came on around eight o’clock and Charlie would say, “You go ahead, I’m going to stay out a bit longer.”
And more nights than not when the light was good I could look down the path and see him standing by the pond. He started to get these dark rings under his eyes. I called him Racoon-face and both of us laughed, but it wasn’t really funny because Charlie was starting to look like an old man in a boy’s body. It was like something inside him was going away. We used to sometimes find the husks of locusts stuck to trees, empty shells in the exact shape of the bugs that had left them behind. That was what Charlie made me think of; an empty husk in the shape of the thing that Charlie Wade used to be.
I’d like to tell you that I felt it building up like a storm front, that I felt something bad about to happen, but that’s not how it was. Only looking back can I see the way that things were shaping up, little signs pointing to big things about to go wrong.
The last day I saw Charlie, was just about like any other day. We’d found a couple of old pallets laying in an abandoned lot, and we had hauled them into the woods by the pond in the hopes of hoisting them up into an old oak with huge forking branches and using them as platforms for a new tree fort. We got one of them up okay, but hoisting the other one I slipped off the branch and fell a good ways to the ground with the pallet thudding down just inches away from me only a moment later. I had the wind knocked out of my pretty good, so for a few seconds I couldn’t move. Charlie clambered down the tree so fast he almost fell and broke his own neck, but somehow both of us were okay, and we ended up laughing about it after I made him promise not to tell my mom.
For a minute there he was the old Charlie again, made whole by our narrow brush with death. That’s how I like to remember him.
I don’t know all the details of what happened next, only some gossip and what I read in the papers, but the upshot is this: Charlie’s dad up and killed his mom that night with a butcher knife and then put a shotgun in his own mouth and blew his brains out.
I can’t tell you why. I’m sure he thought he had his reasons.
After that Charlie went missing. The police asked me if I knew anything about where he was, and I said I didn’t. Maybe that was the truth and maybe it wasn’t.
Because that night, before I knew anything about what had happened, I looked out my window like I did most every night and saw that figure standing at the water’s edge. He seemed to be reaching out to something in front of him, maybe something in the water, maybe something only he could see. He stood there for a long time. And then he stepped forward into the water. First one foot, then the other, and he kept going, till the water was up to his knees and then up to his waist. And then…then he was gone. Swallowed up into the water without so much as a ripple.
I watched by the window a long time.
They never found Charlie.
I don’t think they ever will.
A couple weeks passed after that, and I mostly stayed in my room reading comic books and trying not to cry.
I spend a lot of time looking at that stupid trophy Charlie had given me to hold on to. I remember how jealous I’d been that he’d won it and I hated myself for feeling like that.
I kept turning it over and over in my hands, testing the weight of it. It was still as beautiful as ever. But it wasn’t mine to keep. And anyway, I didn’t want it anymore.
So I went down to the old pond for the last time that summer. Used to be I loved that walk, the crunch of leaves under my feet, the sound of insects and birds and squirrels thriving in the woods. But on that late summer sun-soaked afternoon, I hated it. I hated knowing that I would never run down those paths with Charlie again, that we would never again sit next to each other with our fishing rods in our hands waiting for the dip of a bobber.
With tears in my eyes I chucked that trophy as hard as I could out toward the middle of the pond. It hit the water with a “plunk” and vanished, the only evidence of its passage a ripple that spread out and disappeared even before it reached the shore.
And in the ghost of that ripple I saw the monster catfish, pale and white drifting through the water just under the surface as pale and indistinct as if it were a ghost. And for all I know maybe it was. All I know is that this time it wasn’t alone. Because next to it swam another fish. It was the same shape as the first, but its skin was as black as a new-moon midnight. It swam along the edge of the water like a liquid shadow, passing right in front of me moving in tandem with its pale counterpart.
I watched them for a long time.
Until they sank back into the pond’s murky depths.
And left me alone on the shore.