Beauty Below

By Lynn Forba

From CHM #46 April 2024

Cosmic Horror Monthly, a collection of cosmic horror lovecraftian and weird fiction short stories april 2024

Ashley hated the summer worst of all. Not because of the oppressive heat, or the plague of bugs, but because of the sun. In the summer, the sun rose at the ungodly hour of 6 in the morning. Since the sun rose so early, Coach insisted they could begin training at the lake at 5:15 in the morning.

The lake was a full hour outside of town proper, so Ashley had to wake up at four in order to get there on time. Every single day.

She pulled to a haphazard stop in a parking space, just barely ending up inside the lines. She quickly finished off her granola bar and tossed the empty mylar wrapper at the trashcan. Of course she missed, the wrapper fluttering to the ground at the base of the bin.

Then, adding insult to injury, she got hit by someone’s coffee cup as she was picking up her litter. “Really?” she turned around and asked.

It was Hailey, who somehow managed to smile and wave at 5 AM. At the same time, she was a madman who drank a tall cup of black coffee before working out—a feat which Ashley thought would give anyone an upset stomach.

“Sorry, bad aim,” Hailey laughed, “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Ashley said, rubbing the back of her head. “Did not expect that though,”

“Right, sorry.” Hailey shrugged it off, “I didn’t expect to miss my throw.”

“Hey you two!” A third teammate, Ryan, called as he jogged past holding an energy drink–another feat which Ashey thought should kill someone. “Workout starts in two minutes!”

Ashley and Hailey made eye contact. Then Hailey shouted, “Race ya!” and started running.

Ashley ran too, not because she was racing, but because Coach would make her do pull ups if she was late.

At least in the summer they got to do their dry land exercises inside the lake house, instead of on the rocky shore. During the day the room was rented out for art classes and birthday parties, but this early in the morning it was empty save for a stack of folding chairs in the corner. One wall was made entirely of windows, showing the pier and the gibbous moon reflecting off the still water.

Coach raised his eyebrow as they jogged the last few steps into the room, glancing at his watch as they spread their mats on the floor, “Cutting it close, ladies.”

“Sorry, Coach!” Hailey bubbled, placing her water bottle beside her mat. Ashley just grunted, pulling her hair back into a ponytail.

They started off with stretches, getting their muscles ready. Coach clapped, drawing them all back to attention. “How are your arms feeling today?”

The room of fifteen swimmers groaned, a few of them crossing their arms across their chests. Ryan called out, “I think you killed us yesterday, Coach.” They had spent the entire forty-five minutes yesterday doing upper body exercises, and Ashley could certainly still feel it.

“Nonsense.” Coach said, “I think we can do another day of upper bodies, what do you think?”

The room turned into aggrieved moans. “Do we have to?” Hailey stretched her arms above her head. “I’d really rather not.”

Coach cackled, “Alright, alright. You win. Let’s run three miles, the full circle.”

The full circle referred to a hiking trail that ringed the lake, with the entrance at the other end of the parking lot. Some parts of it were paved, others were gravel, and all of it was surrounded by tall trees and full underbrush. Frogs chirped in the early morning, the sky just barely turning gray.

Coach started off leading the pack, setting a moderate pace. He made it clear that he didn’t want anyone to slow down, and he especially didn’t want anyone to stop.

Hailey sidled up alongside Ashley, “It’s a bit creepy today, don’t you think?”

“What?” Ashley said, “No? Why?”

“It’s—” Hailey paused a moment to think. She was wearing a bright pink exercise jacket, with matching leggings. Ashley wore space cat pajamas and old tennis shoes that had been dipped in the lake a few times. “It’s quieter than normal. I don’t know, I can’t really describe it.”

Ashley took a quiet moment to listen. The lake path was wooded, and all that she could hear was panting breaths, and footsteps on gravel. Once in a while, a branch snapped or Coach shouted out some sort of encouragement.

The frogs had fallen silent.

Probably, they were startled by the runners.

“Sounds pretty loud to me.” She declared at last.

Hailey looked her up and down and pursed her lips. “Hm.” She jogged ahead of Ashley and stopped next to Ryan to talk more. She glanced back at Ashley over her shoulder, but quickly turned away when she was caught looking.

Ashley rolled her eyes.

Then, the jogging party rounded a curve in the path, and the trees parted enough for her to see the lake. The sun was starting to rise, turning the sky a pale gray with a hint of pink at the horizon, but the lake seemed to glow in its own blue light.

Mist reached off the top of the lake, in tendrils, like fingers. The longer Ashley looked, they reached out to her, and she could feel them grabbing her, engulfing her, pulling her—

“Montgomery,” Coach was next to her suddenly, when did Coach get next to her?

“Sorry?” Ashley shook her head. Then her eyes went back to the lake. It had lost its bioluminescent glow. She mourned for it.

“Montgomery!”

“Ah, yes Coach?”

“Are you okay? You stopped.”

“I,” Ashley looked at the lake. She blinked slowly, lethargically. “Sorry, got caught up in my head. It’s early, y’know.”

Coach frowned. After a moment, he patted her shoulder. “Alright. Now, we gotta catch up with everyone, come on!” he took off running.

With one last glance at the lake, she followed.

* * *

“Alright!” Coach clapped at the end of their run. It was brighter out now, the sun making its appearance over the horizon. “You have ten minutes to suit up, then meet me on the docks. Heard?”

“Heard.” Everyone responded in unison, then dispersed.

Ashley, for her part, went back to her car to pull out her suit, cap, and goggles. Then she swore as she noticed she only had two out of the three.

“Great,” she muttered to herself as she shifted through the backseat clutter, as if searching through the detritus once more would reveal her goggles. “Just great.”

“What’s wrong?” Hailey, as always, appeared right over Ashley’s shoulder at the worst moment.

“Forgot my goggles.” Ashley admitted it and stopped searching. She dropped her head on the backseat, deeply inhaling the fast-food smell.

“Oh, I have an extra pair you can use,” Hailey started going through her bag.

“No,” Ashley shook her head, but took the offered pair of blue goggles. She turned them over in her hands. They would be better than nothing. “My goggles are prescription. I’ll basically be blind out there.”

“Oh, that sucks.” Hailey summed it up pretty well.

“Yep.” Ashley agreed. “Thanks anyways.” She held up the goggles.

“Yeah, no problem. Keep them, lake water is icky, and you definitely don’t want to get that in your eyes. You’d probably grow a third one.” Hailey said, pointing right at the center of her forehead. “And I guess I’ll just have to keep an extra eye on you during practice.” She winked and pranced into the bathroom to change.

Ashley watched her go. “I don’t need a damn babysitter.”

“Today we will be doing a timed swim.” Coach said to the mass of colorful blobs in front of him. Logically, Ashley knew these were her fellow swimmers in high-vis, open-water swim wear, but in reality, they just looked like jellybeans.

The jellybeans groaned.

“Hey, none of that, it’s good for you.” Coach chastised. “We’ll be using the one-kilometer buoy. I encourage you all to be working on your corkscrew turns at this time. Start at your leisure.”

That, of course, was coach speak for ‘get in the water as fast as possible.’

“You’ll be good?” Hailey asked, bumping her shoulder against Ashley’s. She wore all yellow, like a lemon-flavored jellybean.

“I can manage a time swim.” Ashley rolled her eyes, then dove into the water.

The cold water momentarily shocked the breath out of her, but once she started kicking, it faded. By the time she broke the surface and started to stroke, it felt pleasant.

A time swim. Truly, one of the worst things in the world. No objectives, no intervals to make, just a time limit. Nothing to think about. Nothing to distract from the exhaustion and injustice of having to wake up at four in the morning. Ashley devoted herself to count how many strokes it took for her to reach the buoy.

And really, as Ashley soon learned, it wasn’t all that different to be swimming without her prescription. The water beneath her was still murky brown, her fellow jellybeans still surrounded her, and she still aimed for a giant, floating jellybean.

She kept a reasonable pace — after all, it wasn’t a race, and she’d be in the water swimming for at least two hours. This was purely to build endurance.

And then something moved beneath her.

She came up for air, coughing and choking and sputtering. She treaded water as she did her best to breathe normally again. The sun shone brighter than it had before, forcing Ashley to squeeze her eyes shut.

“Hey,” Hailey popped up next to her, because of course she did, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ashley waved her off. She coughed into her fist on last time. “Just got startled by a fish.” Because it was definitely a fish, there was nothing else down there.

“Really?” Hailey looked down, “I haven’t seen any.”

“Yeah, well, I did.” Ashley snapped, “It just startled me, I’m fine.” Without giving Hailey time to respond, she put her head back in the water and started swimming again.

This time, as she kept swimming, she kept an eye out, though for what she wasn’t sure. She couldn’t see anything beyond the swirling dirt and grit of the lake. Even if there was anything, she wouldn’t be able to identify it without her glasses.

So, when she saw movement next, she didn’t react. It was a fish, or maybe a particularly dark patch of dirt caught in an eddy. Nothing worth freaking out over, so she kept her head down and she kept swimming.

Until she saw a hand reaching for her.

She spun onto her back and kept swimming. She closed her eyes against the sun as she felt the warmth on her cheeks. No need to get Hailey’s attention again, it had to be nothing. She only needed a moment to catch her breath and relax. It was a normal day, and she was freaking out over nothing.

When she flipped back onto her stomach, there was nothing there, nothing to panic over. She was just paranoid because she didn’t have her glasses. She made it to the other buoy, but didn’t bother going for the corkscrew turn.

When she saw the hand again, she didn’t react. She clenched her teeth, closed her eyes and kept swimming. She knew she had a while before she needed to sight the other buoy; all she had to do in the meantime was swim in a straight line without panicking. Her paranoia was playing tricks on her.

A blue light penetrated her eyelids, so bright it hurt.

She opened them.

The entire lake had turned electric blue, the brown silt had turned into swirling masses of greens and violets and yellows. And it was bright, so bright it hurt and her eyes watered and yet she couldn’t look away.

It was beautiful.

The hand returned, except now it was many hands, reaching up to her, inviting her in. They waved at her, beckoned her to come join them in the beauty. They shimmered in the light, they created the light. It was as if all the silt and dirt at the bottom of the lake had been given life, had been turned into fairy dust.

One of them held its palm up to her, an open invitation. Without her noticing, her feet slowed and she reached back, taking the hand in hers.

It didn’t feel like a human hand; it wasn’t warm, and she couldn’t feel any bone or muscle beneath the glowing skin. At the same time, it wasn’t wet or slimy like the one time she had accidentally gotten a handful of seaweed.

It was smooth and hard, like stone. The whole thing vibrated, popping like carbonation bubbles beneath her fingers.

Ashley giggled, and bubbles flowed out of her mouth. Instead of rising, like she expected, they swirled around her, ticking her cheeks and finding their way under her cap to run through her hair.

The hand in hers shook, and she knew it was laughing too.

Other hands came up around her, making fists and grabby-hands, beckoning her to the bottom of the lake, to come join them.

The water was beautiful, shimmering in all shades of blue and green and purple. The hands wanted to share that beauty with her.

Ashley wanted that beauty, she wanted it with all her heart.

Her chest ached for air, so she breached the surface. She took one last breath and dove down. She kicked someone, she didn’t care. Someone tried to grab her foot, to pull her away from the beauty, and she struggled until they were forced to let go.

She needed to get to the bottom, her heart hurt from how much she needed it. More than anything in the world, she needed to reach the bottom, she needed to touch the beautiful deep blue below.

But no matter how hard she swam, no matter how hard she kicked, or how deep she went, the bottom stayed tauntingly far from her. The hand in hers tugged, dragging her along, but the other hands retreated faster than she could descend. Soon they were nothing more than specs of light.

The hand in hers squeezed one last time before it, too, slipped from her grasp. With a final wave, it disappeared, becoming just another star at the bottom of the lake. She kicked and clawed and struggled, but the beautiful lights stayed just out of reach.

The lights around her, the blues, the greens, the violets all started to fade, disappearing further into the depths, leaving her behind. They abandoned her.

Heavier, heavier, she needed to be heavier, to sink faster. She blew out all the air in her lungs, pushing out bubbles until her lungs hurt and shadows danced before her eyes. The lights stopped for a moment, and swirled in circles, teasing her. Then they faded faster.

Heavier, heavier, she still wasn’t heavy enough.

She took in a deep lungful of water and,

finally,

she was heavy enough.

The lights welcomed her with open arms.

And it was beautiful.

* * *

Rocks dug into her thighs, and someone was pounding on her back, forcing her to spit and cough and vomit water all over herself. She hurt, all of her hurt, her throat burned, and her chest felt heavy. Something brackish sloshed inside her lungs.

People were talking, frantic voices, Coach, Hailey, Ryan, paramedics. They wrapped a towel around her shoulders, a blanket over her lap, and placed her on a stretcher in an ambulance. They said words like ‘dry drowning’ and ‘pneumonia.’

And Ashley cried.

And Ashley hated them.

Because they had stolen the beauty away from her.

End.

Looking for more cosmic horror and weird fiction stories? Try our free monthly magazine! Tap here to learn more.

Lynn Forba is a full-time graduate student from Austin, Texas. She can usually be found under a large pile of yarn, working on a project that she swears she’ll finish this time. She can also be found as @LynnForbaWrites on Twitter.

Scroll to Top