For Octavia Anton Deeds it started with the dreams, the ones in which she was drowning. Every night they took her to the shore of a secluded reservoir that was once part of her town. The water had just thawed, not to refreeze until the next winter. The bracing cold did not stop her from wading in up over her head and swimming along the bottom. Through the murk she could barely see the seaweed strangled stumps of trees and algae covered foundations that were once her neighbors’ houses. She sensed the large lethargic forms of fish, the bass and bluegill, bullhead and trout that were her neighbors now. They knew well enough to leave her alone for she had as much of a right to be there as they did. Deeds swam out past the ruins of the mills and the old train station. They were grim reminders of a town that once bustled and was hub to all points leading north. They were remnants of a life above land that had not seen the sunlight in a quarter of a century.
She picked up speed parting the seaweed that threatened to strangle her. Gliding along the bottom at a depth of thirty feet, she had no idea how long she had been down there. Had it been five minutes, ten minutes, or an hour? The thought of breathing had not entered her mind. She had more important matters to concern herself with.
The church loomed in the gloom, fully erect from foundation to steeple. The spindly tip thrust upward like an accusatory finger that threatened to slice the surface of the water and the heavens above. She circled around gripping with her fingertips to find a way in on the unforgiving exterior. The stone thrummed with the contact of her skin. It was far colder than the water on the bottom of the lake. She found the slab of door and pried it open a crack. It scraped, dragged, and jarred sending tremors along the lake bed; mirroring the thunder that rumbled far overhead. Unaware of the gathering storm clouds that roiled with electricity, Octavia Deeds squeezed herself through the narrow gap in the door and bodily shoved it shut behind her before the water could claim the space. The air inside was deceptively dry. The sodden fabric of her nightgown clung to her skin and her stocking feet slogged on the flagstone floor leaving splattered footprints as she made her way to the front. Water ran in runnels trailing off her body. The splattering echoed through the silence that entombed the sanctuary. The sound rushed up the windowless walls to the lofty vaulted ceiling sounding like a waterfall. The interior was devoid of furniture save a singular baptismal font. The raised dais rose over ten feet high with a circumference just as wide. A chiseled staircase spiraled to the top. She reached a steadying hand out as she warily wound her way up. Her fingertips only skimmed the shockingly cold and sheer surface. She felt the padding of her flesh tingle up through the lines of her palm and jolt up her skin in a current. Though she had only made contact for seconds, it did not take long for the odd sensation to intensify. A cold burn seared up her arm and in a knee jerk reaction she wrenched it away. Her gasp reverberated sounding like a gale force wind. Despite the lingering pain that radiated something else caught her attention as she crested the top of the well and peered into the water below. All she saw was black, but somewhere beyond the shadows of the dark primordial waters she caught sight of a swirling chaotic myriad of an unfathomable depth. The underground sea held the seed of creation itself. It was there They called out to her; the timeless ones that cultivated this life and many others. They were vengeful Gods that had every intention to take it all away. Their summoning song started as a low dull rumble barely below the edge of hearing. She watched the surface swell and tremble with the vibrato. She could almost see the surface breathe. Within the shadows of the shadows, she caught a glimpse of her reflection. Wet and matted hair clung to the sides of her face. Her skin took on a blue gray hue and her lips were swollen as if she as if she never made it inside. Instead she floated face down in the water, dead and suspended between the surface and floor. The fish would eventually gather the nerve to swoop in for a closer look and inevitably a nibble. She shuddered at the thought but pushed it out her mind because she knew it was impossible to drown. She squinted and lowered her forehead closer to the pool. She could not see beyond her own reflection. The depths and secrets the water held were unknowable. The wellspring was a mouth of an underground sea. She could almost make out the meaning within the wordless wailing of the Timeless Ones.
Her reflection changed as her head drew closer. The shape of her face grew out of proportion and her hair had disappeared. Her eyes, which were already large, widened and spread further apart; growing lidless. Her nose receded into her skull and all that remained were two narrow slits that rested upon a gaping lip-less mouth. New teeth tore from her gums and grew to sharpened serrated points; row sprang up behind row after row. She attempted to curse as the pain filled her mouth but it only came out in a gurgle for she was incapable of forming the words. She attempted to reach up and feel her face to see if there really had been a change to her physiognomy and not just a trick of her eyes and the way the shadows played upon the surface water. Her fingertips, hands and arms no longer felt right, as if they were no longer her own. Her knees buckled and ankles gave out and her legs dangled unable to support her weight. The sharp edge of the stone retaining wall that contained the water bore into her midsection and forced her forehead mere millimeters from the water. All of her blood rushed to the top of her head. It ran cold as panic blossomed and filled her mind when she found out she couldn’t move. She had a brief vision of the shore of the reservoir where her journey started so many times before. It seemed so far away. She forced the image from her mind and the wave of panic receded. That wasn’t where she wanted to be anyway. It was then she realized she was falling.
Octavia Deeds had always woken up damp and shaken; she always fell into the well but she never found the bottom. It was as much of a second nature as falling asleep but this time it was different. Her mouth gaped open in a silent scream as the primordial waters filled her lungs. There was an instant in mid fall when she could have sworn that the ground above started to shake, as if the church finally crumbled under the weight of the lake. A torrent of water poured in above her head as she sank below the surface of the underground sea. The primordial water wound its way through her veins and stopped when it reached her heart.
She snapped awake, gasping, soaked, and shaken. Her eyes shot open as she jolted up in bed. Cold wracked her limbs. Her breath came in short stunted gasps. Breathing was a foreign concept. She tried to gain control over herself and wondered how long she stopped. The dream must have only lasted a minute, or she hoped. It was dream; she tried to convince herself as she pried at the sodden bed linens that intertwined her. Her hands throbbed with a cold burn. It was a dream. She tasted blood. Her gums ached and she ran the tip of her tongue across her teeth and was relieved to find they were her own. A chill racked her body and she pulled her covers closer. They drew little comfort.
“In through the nose and out through the mouth,” she muttered reminding herself how to breathe. Counting the seconds between every breath she slowly gained her composure. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and her lungs and nasal passages were parched as if she expunged all the water from her body through her pores. Sher let out a dry cough. With new resolve she extracted herself from the bed. Her center of gravity was off as she wobbled in search of something to drink. She stopped when she caught her reflection in the mirror and remembered how she looked when she fell into the well. Were her eyes always that far apart, her mouth that wide, and her teeth that large?
The day was awash in a steely gray and freezing rain pelted the windows when Deeds decided to dress for the weather and venture outside. She hadn’t quite recovered from her dream and doubted if she ever will. The lake was at the end of the road whether she wanted it to be there or not. She still felt the need to see it for herself. There were only a few roads that her small town claimed and only a few houses that lined her road. A growing number of them were abandoned. For a few of the inhabitants that remained it looked as if upkeep was no longer a concern. Her next door neighbor was outside hanging up wet clothes as if oblivious to the inclement weather. Deeds stopped dead in her tracks and stared. Had her face always looked like that? She wondered. They were after all related. Her cousin returned her gaze with a knowing look. “Are you going to the water?” she asked pinning up the other corner of a bed sheet.
“What no!… Umm- yes.” Deeds blurted out, stuttered, and paused. She was a terrible liar. “How did you know?” There was panic and paranoia in her voice.
“You were heading in that direction, I just assumed that is where you are going,” she replied with a shrug. “The water is real low.” It was not an uncommon occurrence for the water level to fluctuate; it was after all a reservoir. But not in the early springtime and the banks were supposed to swell with the last the snow melt.
“How do you know?”
“Go see for yourself that’s what I did. There was one hell of a storm last night too. I swear the thunder shook the ground. Odd, for this time of year isn’t it.”
As all the color drained from her face, Deeds broke her gaze and turned away from her cousin. She quickened her pace to where the road ended in dirt. There were no signs of life at the last house before the lake and it appeared as if it had been that way for a while. The view of the water was obstructed by a meadow. The grass that grew rampant and wild and just as tall as she was. She plodded through the field to find the shore following a trampled path that many had taken before her. As she passed the grasses rustled in the wind and sheets of pelting sleet; they whispered to her in a language she could not understand. The ground grew more saturated with every step. No matter the time of year, the spring-fed water was always cold. Parting the last of the grass she stopped at the water’s edge. Her neighbor was right. The water was low. The elongated shore was clotted with thick mud, and brown caked rocks, and tree stumps. It stretched out toward the middle of the lake. She could not see the water at all as she strained to peer over the drop off. Past the point by the old train bridge she strained to see the steeple stretching upward. It wasn’t there. She had a vague recollection that the church had collapsed on top her when she fell into the well. Was that why the water was so low? She wondered and looked upwards into the freezing rain for answers. Heavy wet pellets smacked her in the face. Octavia Deeds grumbled not bothering to wipe the water out her eyes. It was the third time she had gotten wet that day.
She trudged home with her hands shoved in her pockets staring at the ground. Her pace quickened like a march into battle. “No,” she mumbled to herself, lost in thought and shook her head. “It wasn’t there in the first place, that’s why I didn’t see it. It never existed. It wasn’t me, it was a dream!”
Her last outburst caught the attention of her neighbor as she was finishing up with her laundry, determined to see the task through to the end. “You’re right,” Deeds acknowledged her, her voice laden with regret. “I’ve never seen the water like that before.”
“It wasn’t like that yesterday.”
“I swear. I had nothing to do with it.” Deeds shook her head and turned her back on her cousin and quickened her pace home.
Her neighbor stared after her with a growing look of bewilderment on her face as she bent down to retrieve her empty laundry basket.
Deeds didn’t know where the rest of her neighbors went; she always assumed they left, and moved on to seek opportunity elsewhere. She empathized greatly and often wished she could do the same. With no new blood, the town was dying and she didn’t want to die with it. Where had all her neighbors gone? She wondered as she lay awake until the small hours of the morning. Deeds fought off sleep as long as she could terrified of what she would find on the other side. She knew They would be waiting. She tossed and turned and pulled her blanket up to her chin only to kick the bedding off again when the heat grew unbearable. Her skin felt dry and prickly her sheets were scratchy and starchy. She picked at the invisible insects as she watched the popcorn spackle ceiling ripple. Her fingers still burned with a cold dull throb and her gums still ached from the morning before. Deeds never really did get the taste of blood out of her mouth. She knew as soon as she drifted off to sleep she’d find her way back to the reservoir shore and make the nightly pilgrimage to the church. She was afraid of what she would find at the bottom of the well at the bottom of the lake. What she did know though was that she wanted to be as far away from the church as possible. She made up her mind that night amid the swirling chaos of her mind; it was time to leave home. Sleep came all at once.