The trails in El Diablo were dense; on recommendation of some scientists in her lab who loved outdoorsy stuff, Lizzie’s mother had picked a spot for their lunch on the other side of the lake from their campsite. Lizzie would have rather just driven somewhere for a picnic, but her mother insisted on “bonding,” which she saw as hiking and pointing out deer and mountain lion tracks.
“Bet dad would have liked to draw these,” she mused. He was an artist and Lizzie loved to look at all of his paintings; he made things look so realistic without her having to get too close. Seeing the tracks in real life just made her think that the mountain lion might be watching them: hungry.
After mentioning her dad’s paintings her mom got quiet, so Lizzie put her ear buds in the rest of the hike, trying not to look too closely at the trees.
“We’re here! Lizzie? Lizzie! Take those out!” Her mother said, and Lizzie sheepishly tugged the cords out of her ears. Her mother looked around and made a pointed effort to smile, resting her hands on her hips. “Isn’t it gorgeous?”
Lizzie glanced around the outcropping: a small bubble of clearing on the northwest side of the lake. The water was clear and the sunlight shone on its surface in tiny ribbons of light. The edge was studded with rocks and, near the shore, was a log where they ate lunch. Then, much to Lizzie’s embarrassment, her mother stripped down to the bathing suit she had worn under her hiking clothes and ran into the lake.
“Come on kiddo! The water isn’t cold,” her mother urged.
Lizzie shook her head. “I didn’t bring a bathing suit.”
“It’s ok, you can swim in your underwear-”
“Ew, no!” Lizzie said, making a face.
“I did it when I was your age with my cousins at the cabin…. Well I’m going swimming. Join me if you want to.” With that her mother dove into the water and took off with powerful strokes. Her dad often told Lizzie about her mom’s swimming records from college; Lizzie knew she couldn’t keep up.
Instead she went down to the shore and knelt amongst the sand and rocks to make a sand castle. She was too old to be doing this, but, when she was little, her dad would take her to the ocean and sculpt elaborate towers and bridges. Lizzie was the decorator and she always used to put the seaweed around the towers like a banner.
She didn’t find seaweed, but she found some aquatic plant life a few feet into a cool, murky patch of water, shaded by trees. It seemed out of place from the rest of the sunlit lake. Biting her lip, Lizzie rolled her pant legs up as best as she could and waded in gingerly. Mud squelched under her toes as she reached down to grip the plants. They were so slippery that it was hard to pull them up, almost as if they were coated in a thin layer of slime.
Beneath the plants Lizzie saw something. Long, angular, clawed footprints. She stumbled back, feeling the slimy touch of weeds on her legs. She remembered the story of El Ahogado and ran back to the shore, her heart racing. She scanned the waters for her mom uneasily, but didn’t see her.
“Mom! Mom! Where are you?” Her voice echoed across the lake.
A fish jumped a few meters away, scales glistening.
Then a head erupted a few feet off shore and her mom gilded back over to her.
“Lizzie? Everything ok?” Her mom asked.
“Yeah,” Lizzie mumbled, feeling stupid.
“This lake is beautiful! We should come back here for a night hike Lizzie!”
“No!” Lizzie said. She noticed she was still holding the aquatic plant in her hands and had gripped it so hard that she had crushed the stem in her palm. She dropped it to the ground. “I’m pretty sure that’s like against the rules or something. Isn’t it dangerous to hike at night?”
“I bet you’re right, kiddo,” She said. “Still, it would be fun. Maybe we could go to the beach near our campsite instead.”
Lizzie didn’t say anything as she bent down to wipe the green goo off of her fingers. They gathered up their hiking gear and Lizzie spared one glance back to see that the lake had eaten her sand castle, reducing it to a small heap of soil.