Echo Lake

by Rachel Searcey

From CHM #38 August 2023

My dearest Linette,

Little sister, you are fast asleep in our bed, splayed out like a starfish. Have you ever noticed I wake early and leave your side? Most nights, I pace around our empty house, past the rows of locked doors. It’s always deathly quiet.

Linette, I’ve discovered what’s on the other side of the lake and it frightens me.

If I woke you now, you’d make every effort to stop me. Perhaps I can process what happened—if it was a dream or a nightmare.

Mother’s been pushing me lately. She favors you, and it’s obvious whenever she calls. I try not to let resentment creep in, but it’s always there around the edges. It’s too much. Jealousy twists in my stomach like a dirty rag.

Her face fills the monitor screen. A faded funhouse mirror version of us with wrinkles and white hair and gray eyes.

“Linette, my dear, twirl around so I can see your dress. Oh, how lovely.” Your sewing skills, of which I’ve always been jealous, were apparent in the detailed handiwork on the décolletage. You looked like a princess from a fairy tale. Mother’s voice cooed over the speaker system. Even if I left the room, I’d still be able to hear it.

“Thank you, Mother.” You curtsied, batted your eyelashes, soaked up Mother’s effusive attention. When Mother turned her gaze to me, there was no affection in her eyes. Only judgment.

“Wren, your scores are slipping in Advanced Calculus,” she said.

“I keep waking at night, Mother. The sedatives are no longer working. I’m exhausted during the day.”

“Hmph.” Mother turned away from the monitor and we heard the scratching of pen on paper. When she returned to the monitor screen, her cold eyes scanned my figure and then darted to you, Linette, perched like a dainty dancer on the edge of the couch. “You’ve gained weight recently, Wren. I’ll adjust your meal plan as well as your medication. We can’t have you waking up and disrupting your education.” She didn’t look up again, until she said, “Linette, no changes.”

“Yes, Mother. Thank you.” You smiled up at the monitor, stars in your eyes. “I’m looking forward to this afternoon. The new program with Mozart. Will he really be right in the room with us?”

Warmth returned to Mother’s features. “Yes,” she said. “I’m excited to observe the results. We will continue with hands on, practical instruction in the Music Room of course, but theory and observation are keys to success. If all goes well, he will regularly attend your classes.” Her face pulled into a tight, awful smile.

Pain ricocheted from my jaw to my ear to my temple and I realized I had been grinding my teeth. I turned away from the monitor and pressed my palm into the side of my head to massage away the spasm. Did either of you notice or care?

Music has been a point of contention between Mother and me, as you know. Joy and play are two things I lack, especially when it comes to my clumsy attempts at playing an instrument. When you get in one of your moods and you can’t stop teasing me, you sound just like her.

How long has it been since we saw Mother in person, Linette? We were very small and I remember her with dark hair, not white as it is these days. Her perfume smelled of lilies. She wore dresses, not a lab coat. She would tuck us in at bedtime and attach the observation nodes to our little foreheads. We had warm milk with our sedatives and she would lay with us, humming lullabies until we were fast asleep. I remember her warm fingers trailing through our hair, across our cheeks. Hearing her stomach gurgle where I lay my head; her heart beating like a steady drum.

She loved me then.

I’ve smudged my awful handwriting with weeping. Hopefully you can still read it when it dries.

We spent the afternoon in the Music Room, with me butchering the violin and you, playing beautifully on the cello. Mozart’s flickering holographic avatar scowled. I knew he couldn’t hurt us and yet, I flinched every time he lashed out with the conductor’s wand.

How I wish I could recline on the little sofa and listen to you play. But Mother is always watching. It is a relief when practice ends and we pause the program for supper and coffee.

As usual, we took our evening stroll around the house. You danced and sang as if you were still a little girl. I felt like your nursemaid, trudging behind you on the lawn.

A week ago, you jokingly suggested we go for a swim in the lake and see what was on the opposite shore. You hiked up your skirts as high as they’d go. However, I’d been more sensible and removed my dress. Silt and sand clung to our feet, sucking at our toes. I laughed at the sensation. I remember because it felt so foreign in my throat.

The lake was shallow, only coming up to our ankles and then it dropped off suddenly. You plunged downwards and out of sight, your heavy skirts dragging you under in a flash. I dove down after you. You were thrashing in the cold darkness, almost out of air. We floundered to the shallows to lay on the lawn.

You wouldn’t stop crying, little sister. It chilled me to the bone to come so close to death. Mother has never said anything about it. I wonder if she saw us on the monitors.

Since that day, I’ve been unable to sleep. Lessons have become impossible, my scores have dropped drastically, and I wander the house and lawn like a ghost, barefoot and sentimental for something I’ve never experienced. I see flutters out of the corner of my eyes; great, flapping black things cast shadows on the windows. Babies cry in the distance and loud knocks echo in empty rooms. I hear footsteps careening down the hallway but when I look there is no one—except for you, of course, because we are always together in the same room. Unless Mother sends you away so she can scold me in private.

You wouldn’t love her so blindly if you heard how she spoke to your dear elder sister.

Last night, I walked into the water. The moon was bright, as if someone had hung a lantern in the sky to watch over me.

I trod carefully, feeling with my bare feet for the drop off. My nightgown tugged me downwards, growing heavy as it soaked up water. I removed it and left it on the lawn to stand naked under the moon’s glow. Through the mist, I saw a light. Small and flickering.

Maybe I was asleep. Or deluding myself with daydreams of a life outside of this house. Wanting it so badly I had conjured it from a dream.

When I came to the drop off, I lifted my feet in time. The water felt good against my naked skin. Swimming in the warm lake was effortless and I wondered why I hadn’t done this before. My body was light and buoyant, free of the gravity which tugged at me with every step on land and turned me into your trudging shadow. I rolled onto my back and floated, my gaze landing on the full moon looming large overhead.

I must have fallen asleep because I woke with a start. The moon was lower in the sky and much smaller. Heavy mist pressed in close and I shivered as a chill swept over me.

I righted myself in the water and saw the house only a short distance away. My skin was clammy, the water grown cold. My stomach dropped in terror at the thought of Mother catching me like this—naked and wet outside the house—when I was supposed to be resting.

I swam toward the lawn and was grateful when I reached the shallow floor beneath my feet. But I couldn’t find my nightgown where I had lain it on the lawn before. I suspected you were playing a trick on me, perhaps had seen me from one of the windows. Seething with anger, I entered the house.

Immediately I knew something was wrong. The house smelled different. Fresh paint, new lumber. Like when Mother orders one of the classrooms renovated. I stood dripping in the doorway, my mouth gaping open like a fish.

There were children’s toys in the middle of the hallway: alphabet blocks, a toy train, a stuffed bunny rabbit, a tea set. I was convinced it was a prank, set up by you and Mother. But they stirred faint memories in my sluggish brain.

These were my toys. Baba the bunny. I stroked her face. She was as old as I was and should look worn and ragged. I snuggled with her every night, until Mother decided I was too old to have her anymore. But this Baba looked brand new! My heart thudded in my chest as my mind tried to wrap itself around what was happening.

“What are you doing here?” A familiar voice rang out behind me. It sounded exactly like you, sister. When I turned around to respond, expecting you to laugh at my nakedness, I found Mother—or rather, a younger version of her. Her black hair was cut into a blunt bob, as mine is now. But her face was so similar to yours, Linette. It was uncanny. She wore a flower-patterned frock and house shoes.

Mother held a squirming infant in her arms who twisted around to look at me.

“Mother?” I looked around desperately for something to cover myself with.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she said, a familiar frown creasing her brow, her bright blue eyes as hard as stones. “Wren, take Linette to your bedroom.”

She handed the infant to a toddler, who I hadn’t noticed before was clinging to her skirts and trying to hide.

“Mommy, who the lady?” The child took the baby in a clumsy gesture, almost dropping her. And I remembered the weight of you in my arms as we walked around the lonely house together, waiting for Mother to come back from work.

“Call me Mother. Do as I tell you.”

“Yes, Mother.” The toddler’s voice grew small and quiet. She looked back just once but Mother glared at her until both children were gone from the entryway and down the hall.

I shivered, standing in a puddle of lake water. Grass had stuck to my feet and made a trail through the entryway.

“Well, let’s get you cleaned up.”

Mother turned on her heel towards the bathroom and led me there, as if I didn’t know where I was going. It was exactly like our house, Linette. Down to the paintings on the wall and the white tiles throughout. She turned on the bath and handed me a towel and robe, then left without another word. I was confused and frightened. So many questions writhed inside of me. I didn’t know where you were, or if I’d even find you in that house.

I climbed into the tub and rinsed off quickly, not bothering to wash or style my hair like Mother expects. The grout between the tiles was stark white, unlike our bathroom which has grown yellow over the years no matter how much we scrub.

The dense robe enveloped me completely and felt like a dream. Ours are so threadbare we turned them into cleaning rags long ago.

Mother was nowhere to be seen when I opened the bathroom door. It was so quiet, which wasn’t unusual, but I expected her to be standing there. The water and grass had been cleaned up from the entryway, although it had only been a few minutes.

“Wren, come to the kitchen.” Her voice carried over the house’s sound system and I obeyed.

Mother was warming milk on the stove. I saw her slip something into her dress pocket but thought nothing of it. Two small empty glasses sat on a tray on the counter, next to a dish with the white pills we still take before bed every night. A wave of nostalgia and fear rolled over me and I had to sit down. Mother filled the glasses with milk; the smell was intoxicating.

Still, she said nothing to me. I was afraid to speak up. Was this really Mother sitting before me? She was so young and beautiful, almost glowing in the dim kitchen lights. I must have been dreaming, but it all seemed so real. The stool beneath me, the cold kitchen floor, the heat from the stove, and the sweet scent of warmed milk.

Mother picked up the tray and left the kitchen. I stayed where I was, unsure of what to do.

The speaker clicked. “Are you coming?” I jumped up from the stool and walked quickly to the hallway outside our bedroom, where the door stood open.

Inside, it was as I remembered. Baba was tucked between the two children, who stared at me wide-eyed. Mother was setting the tray on the bedside table and busying herself with attaching nodes to the children’s heads. The baby twisted and turned but the toddler helped to hold her still.

“Thank you, Wren.” Mother said.

“Yes, Mother.”

Did I respond, or did the voice come from the child? Mother handed them both the pills and then the milk. They drank greedily and I could almost taste the sweet concoction going down my own throat. I swallowed as my mouth salivated at the memory.

The children nestled into their pillows, their eyes already drooping. Mother sat on the bed next to them and the toddler laid her head against Mother’s side. My legs moved with a mind of their own and I found myself kneeling on the floor. I put my head in Mother’s lap and she stroked my hair, my cheek. It was as if I had been transported back in time. Her heart thumped and I felt my eyes drooping but I struggled to stay awake. I wanted to talk to her, on my terms for once.

“Please, Mother. I have so many questions.”

I raised my head from her lap and she nodded in the dark, extricating herself from the sleeping children. The toddler whimpered as her head lolled against the pillow; the infant’s tiny hands reached for the air and then dropped, empty.

We returned to the kitchen, passing through dark hallways and past locked doors. A comfortable silence settled over the house.

I remember what happened next as if it were slow motion. Mother approached me, with one hand in her pocket and smiled. Her perfume washed over me and I was lost in the scent of lilies for a moment. She put her other hand on my cheek, gently stroked it with her thumb. Tears welled and I blinked them away. Her hand was cold as ice, despite the warm kitchen still smelling faintly of sweetened milk. I realized I was looking down at her; she was petite.

I was lost in her eyes, so vividly blue unlike the faded gray orbs assessing us over the monitors every day.

“I’m sorry, my darling girl.”

Hot tears fell in great drops and splashed onto my fluffy robe where they disappeared into the folds. She wiped my cheeks with her fingers and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her bring her other hand up. There was a flash of silver and glass, then a sudden prick in my neck, followed by a swooning sensation which sent me reeling into the kitchen counter. My forearms banged against the hard edge and I cried out in pain.

Mother caught me as I slid to the floor and nestled my head in her lap. Before my eyes closed, she sung a soft lullaby and sealed me into darkness.

“Good night, go to sleep, have sweet dreams and close your eyes…”

When I awoke, I was disoriented in the dark. Your arm was thrown across my chest and your leg across my own. Fast asleep, as always. For a moment, relief enveloped me like a blanket and I snuggled against you.

But Linette, my hair is still wet. There are bruises on my forearms where I hit the counter. Salty tracks line my cheeks from dried tears. There’s a welt on the side of my neck and a single drop of blood.

Who were those children? Why did Mother look so young? No matter how I twist my mind into justifications, none of it makes any sense.

If you were awake, you’d tell me to stay here. I am delusional and it was all a dream—I was sleepwalking. I shouldn’t be lonely because I have you.

If I don’t return, you know where I’ve gone. I don’t expect you to follow me or understand. Perhaps I’ve lost my mind.

My dearest Linette—know I love you, cherish you. You are my whole life but there is something out there beyond the lake and I want answers.

With all my love,

Wren

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