The Lake Michigan Monster

by Jen Myers

Vanessa saw it first, on a morning of freezing rain in early November when I wasn’t looking for anything but the way home. She gripped my arm and pulled me off-balance, my boots skidding on the concrete shelf at the lake’s edge. She pointed into the water. “Over there! Look!”

I did what she told me. I saw gray clouds piled heavy on the horizon and waves chopped by wind. A single gull flew overhead. Raindrops gathered on my glasses and fuzzed my vision, but there was nothing in the lake that shouldn’t be there. I tried to figure out how to convince her of that, but Vanessa had already let go of me and walked on.

A couple of months ago she sent me a photo of a flier posted downtown. In handwritten capitals it asked: “Have you seen the lake monster?” Below the headline was a generic illustration of a creature that looked like a dinosaur swimming placidly through time, plus an email address. Vanessa’s accompanying text read: “Let’s find it.”

It might have been a joke, but she went after it like she did everything, too much and with enough style to make it worth watching. She binged cryptozoology podcasts and started a blog. She walked the lakeshore at all times in all weather, searching for signs. I had always followed her quietly: through childhood, through high school, through college and through our first jobs in the city. I followed her now, in the cold rain at the edge of the big lake, walking as quickly as I could on the slick ledge to catch up with her.

She had pulled out her phone and was training its camera at the lake surface. Rain streamed down the phone’s glass face and her fingers were shaded blue. “Ness, let’s try this later. It’s too cold and wet to be out here.”

She shook the rain off of her phone. “Don’t be boring.”

She bounded further down the ledge. I could never tell if she felt discomfort or pain, if she simply ignored the sensations or if none of it actually touched her. She was like a little kid most of the time, bold, free and selfish. I stood, shivering, full of desire to be home and warm and, more than anything, alone.

Ahead of me the ledge curved to the right and faded into a small beach. To the left of the curve, a long, thin breakwater made of corrugated metal sliced out into the lake. And Vanessa was stepping onto it.

I rushed forward. “What the hell are you doing?

She laughed, balancing impossibly on the metal edges of the breakwater as waves slopped over her boots. “I can get a better view out there,” she shouted, pointing to the end of the breaker. She tossed me her phone, which I fumbled and dropped. “God, Leslie, be careful. Take a picture of me out here for Instagram, okay?”

She stepped further along the breaker like a tightrope walker, as if the whipping wind and freezing rain didn’t exist. I stood on the ledge with chattering teeth. I thought about turning around and going home, about finding a new home, a new job, new friends. I thought about not following her anymore.

Vanessa waved at me from the halfway down the breaker. “Take the picture, bitch!” she yelled.

I didn’t take the picture. Instead, I put a foot on the metal breaker.

I could hear Vanessa’s whoop over the wind. She didn’t expect me to follow her out there and I hadn’t either. But I inched my way to her, pigeon-toed, arms outspread. As I neared her, she reached out and caught my hand, her face gleeful, rewarding. I had a flash of the wild freedom she must feel all the time, without anxiety or expectation or obligation, and I laughed too. Then I pushed her off the breaker.

Her feet went out from under her and on her way down her head slammed on the breaker’s sharp metal edge. She slipped under the waves without further motion or sound. So unlike Vanessa.

I turned around and carefully made my way back to the solid ledge. I scanned up and down the curve of lakeshore and saw no one else. I wiped off my glasses once more, stuffed my hands into my pockets, and walked away.

Before I stepped over the rise of land and out of view of the lake, I glanced back. The sky was still heavy, the water still roiling. I saw the single gull again, sweeping with the wind. Out by the end of the breaker I saw a small dark shape, like a body bobbing or a serpentine back curving. It was hard to say for sure. As I turned back to the city, it seemed more likely that I hadn’t seen anything out there at all.

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