Marit Gjelde-Bennett is a current second-year student studying Biology and Religion. When she isn’t studying she can be found exceeding word counts on essays and cursing God for making chemistry a thing. She plans to keep collecting blank journals while putting all her writing ideas on random pieces of trash. Most of her writing contains dark themes and dogs; she isn’t sure why.
Shit in Her Lungs
Lake Loveland lives down the hill from the aptly named High School, dividing the only major two roads that run North to South up the length of the growing city. Backdropped by Pike’s Peak and famous Colorado sunsets it almost passes for a pretty spot. The abandoned concession stand and public restrooms are a glimpse into a Loveland of the past left to the adolescents and transients that walk the shore. The Amphitheater is a pleasant spot for concerts in the summer, but from September to May, it is the unspoken property of druggies and Latina gangs and their ever-classy graffiti, the smell of cheap pot and spray paint hanging in the stale air for hours.
North Shore Park nestles close to the water even claiming a brief stretch of beach made of artificial sand leftover from the construction of the park and marked by a single strand of buoys from the Loveland High School Pool renovation, 2011. I imagine they found her towel and sandals on that sand next to where Sarah was sitting. A lifeguard chair was installed afterward, its shadow leans into the park as the sun moves toward the mountains. The peeling white paint of the chair is no indication to me of how long it has been there; most things shrivel in the hot Colorado sun. Was it put in before or after she was lost? Sitting here on the swings in North Shore, looking to the mountains past the water, I try to see what it looked like then. Barely before my time and morbidly, I think to myself, barely out of reach just as she was. Maybe if Sarah had gone with her, but I know twenty years is a bit too late for what-ifs.
Sidewalks mark the lake’s perimeter briefly interrupted by the property lines of overpriced homes with lake access claims. And while it is technically lakeside property, when the lake, of almost 475 acres, becomes nothing more than a mud pool six months of the year, I think it’s safe to call it false advertising. Other than weeds and sunsets, high price mortgages are a standard of my state. Could they see her from the windows? Is it a hard thing to miss. If a child drowns with no one to see, does she make a sound?
Every year the lake fills and empties at the call of California’s water demand. That is not to suggest that the water from the lake ever actually makes it past the great divide to the golden coast. The reality is that these toxic waters are not good enough for their avocados, simply good enough to satiate local rocky mountain farmers, allowing for our reservoirs to empty at California’s call. Unfortunately, there are times that water does fill this cesspool. It appears to be a lake, but I am certain it is not.
Sitting in the heart of the town it was named for, Lake Loveland is completely still. Despite the warm August breeze and late evening sun, it manages to be ominous. I’ll never really understood why people swim off the tiny spit of beach. But then again, I wasn’t ever really allowed, not after what happened. The idyllic image is cruelly juxtaposed by the lake’s odious smell. It soaks your clothes, a horrific version of Febreze. The thought of swimming in it now disgusts me. Swimming in the fecal matter of millions of geese and the residue of hundreds of dead dogs isn’t my idea of a relaxing dip. In fact, the amount of shit in this lake is so severe that every year swimming is closed early deemed unsafe for human contact. A literal shit hole. Now that is funny. The same water sent to nourish local crops tests positive for hazardous E.coli levels almost every year. The beach should have been closed that day too. The idea of her breathing in shit and water makes me ill.
This last summer, after graduation, I found a violence in the lake, the same I believe she found. I had caught a small catfish in a concrete lagoon deeper in town. The agreed-upon story is that someone had gotten it at a pet store being told it was something other than the infinite
grower that it is, and when it surpassed the confines of a cheap bowl, it was dumped at the concrete pool downtown. The water levels of the lake were at such a point in the hot summer that I couldn’t dump the scum sucker off the sidewalk but could only release him by walking into lake territory. The city had drained away about three meters from the shoreline, and the afternoon rainstorms coming off the mountains kept the exposed lake floor wet. The deception was set, to my eye; there was only a thin layer of mud and a small walk from the cheap sand to the water’s edge.
Clutching the orange bucket housing the catfish to my chest, I began my march through the muck. Attempting to beat the fresh summer heat, I wore old sneakers and a pair of shorts–which wouldn’t have been a mistake had the mud truly been just mud. Finally reaching the edge of the water, several yards from the dry beach, I emptied the bucket of its contents tilting it with one hand. With the other, I gingerly grasped the bottom feeder’s smooth, slick body sliding him across the interior surface of the angled container. With it now empty and my hand holding the fish in the shallow water I tossed the bucket to the side, vaguely back towards the beach. The fish refused to move. I know now how he was a part of the conspiracy, trapping me in the shallows. I waited there with him for a few seconds too long hoping he’d adjust and swim away. Certain I was being watched, I glanced up. Still bent over, I craned my neck as far as it would turn in all directions. It felt as if I would glance a man behind a tree plotting something dark. When I couldn’t see an imagined killer, I exhaled in relief. In that exact second the catfish began to splash and writhe in the water. Sprinkling me in the smelly gunk he pushed off and swam into the dark waters.
I began to utter a joke about lost gratitude and propositioning the fish for a new set of sneakers as payment. The quip was cut short as I tried to turn back towards shore. Tried is thekeyword here. I became acutely aware of the coolness surrounding my lower legs and how much taller the trees had become. I had sunk down into the deceptive mud almost to my knees. Lifting my foot the lake began a suction around my limb. With the force I used tugging at myself, it seemed to pull me in just as hard. The vacuum was at times painful around my ankles. The lake threatened to tear my feet from me. To break the suction I rocked back and forth in the black cement, nearly falling backward in the struggle, but I managed to widen the hole around myself. With timing just right, I managed to free one leg. I felt as though I had evaded death in some way and my ticket back to the land of the living had only cost me my left shoe. The victory was short-lived, as with all my weight on one leg, I began to sink farther, almost entirely over my knee. As natural panic began to press in, I just began to move. With the force of sprinting towards the shore, I moved maybe five paces no faster than a turtle. A third of the way back to shore, completely barefoot now, my shoes and socks devoured, I was up to my thighs in mud. At this point, I rescued my phone from my pocket before I could sink any farther. While it may have looked silly, I felt an undeniable survival instinct. I knew that panic was in her during those last moments too. I wish the spectacle of the fire department rescuing me from the carnivorous sludge were hyperbole. My legs were stained black all the way up days afterward as if covered in charcoal. The mud came out of the shorts, but the smell of shit and death never did. The lake consumed my shoes, anklet, and my bucket. It was like the lake tried to swallow me, leave no trace. If it had then even dredging the body of water would have never resurfaced me. The lake must have pulled her under, tried to consume her.
People aren’t the only things this lake has preyed upon. A few winters back in my sophomore year I was walking the perimeter of the lake; I can’t say for sure if I was ditching class or it really was a Saturday. A man, maybe mid-sixties, and his unleashed small cocker spaniel were walking on the ice formed along the shore. The center of the lake was still exposed, small flocks of geese determined to outlive the cold huddled together. If Colorado wasn’t so dry the cold clouds of my exhaled breath would have surely turned to snow in front of me. I admired the man’s trust in the ice and how he was able to walk easily on its slick surface. The world was encapsulated in shades of blue, the frosty pale blue of the ice, and the grey-blue of a sky heavy with snow. An implosion of black suddenly juxtaposed the peaceful blue. The cracking of ice snapped the snow’s silence.
The cocker spaniel had broken through the ice, plunged into the freezing water. The rupture led to chaos as all the birds took sudden flight blocking my view. The man, dog, and geese burst in a cacophonous symphony all shouting, condemning the faltering ice. I stood motionless for a time watching the calamity. Stupidly or bravely, depending on who you are, the man began racing towards the hole. He was yelling for help and as a member of a herd species, I frantically looked all around for anyone else. I searched for any excuse not to be the only person there. They say in emergencies you need to specifically call someone out to help, tell them what to do, or no one will do anything assuming someone much braver will do it for them. It was like a cruel God called me out, but he failed in telling me what to do.
Calling 9-1-1, I began to run towards the ice. Phone in hand, speaking to the very calm operator, I slid down the diagonal boat loading dock balanced on my heels and one hand scraping down the slick angle. Delivered by momentum onto the lake’s surface, my only choice was to shuffle forward or to slip back and fall. As I approached the hole, I could no longer see the man; I didn’t know when he had gone under. Sarah didn’t know her friend had gone under. Sarah must have suddenly felt as alone on the beach as I did on the lake’s surface. A few feet from the hole I slipped and fell onto my knees sliding near the gap in the ice. In the fall my phone had skittered agood foot away, too far for me to reach, and even if I had been able to grab it fear would have prevented me. The black hole stopped moving, the water stood motionless, and in its dark reflection, I too was stuck–holding my breath, heartbeat stalled. Mesmerized by the bottomlessness there. The calm woman from my phone was a gentle hum of lost noise over the freezing air.
When the man burst back up through the stillness we gasped for air together, freed from the lake’s grip on our throats. Unsure of what else to do I lay down on my stomach, putting my arms out to him. Reaching into the water, I pulled on his elbows attempting to hoist him out. The water flooding his clothes made him heavy. He pressed up on the edge of the ice next to me. I braced my upper arms on the broken ice. In pulling him up, I cut my arm, small drops of blood dripped into the lake. His face and hands bright red from the burning cold, his blue lips became more vibrant with every breath. We never found the spaniel. I believe the dog’s name was Charlie. I don’t recall the man’s name. No one remembers her parents, just her. No one remembers Sarah just as I can’t remember the man. The ones lost are the ones impossible to forget. The lake claims dogs every winter. Leads them out with the promise of a bird or adventure. I heard about it all my life but had never seen it until then.
I think about all these things; catfish, Charlie, my sneakers, and blue lips–sitting on the swings in North Shore. I look over the water, the falling sun sets it ablaze–red and orange, a different place from the blue winter. Lakes don’t eat people or steal dogs, but this one does. Lake Loveland has no more love in it than it does land. Perhaps it feeds on love, love for a dog, love for a little girl. How could Sarah let her swim out alone? How could a lake take a little girl? Who do we blame for the shit in her lungs and the mud between her toes? Sarah was the same age as her. She is as much to blame as I am for a cocker spaniel’s death.
In the last rays of sun, I scrape my feet on the ground bringing my swing to a halt. I want to leave North Shore before dark; I don’t want to imagine what the lake is capable of at night. That familiar feeling of being watched washes down my spine, I turn to see the culprit, its lapping hands reaching out to me gentle wave after gentle wave. I throw it an accusing look. I know you murdered a little girl. My disgust is met with silence. I walk away from Lake Loveland–I pray for the last time–wondering about all the love that leaves the world when a little girl, Erica, drowns. The love sinks to the bottom devoured by the muck.