Fiction: Hydrophobia



The lake was a dark spill among the trees. Forked branches broke the surface of the water, carving ripples in the shallows. Shingles curled in the edge weeds along the ribbed and sandy shore. Going to the lake became part of Jane’s routine while Scott was at clinic. She put on a sundress and made her way down the rocky path behind the rental house, listening to the ratcheting sound of birdsong and the churn of the distant refinery. It wasn’t until the boy appeared on the other side of the lake that Jane realized how restless she’d become. She watched him pick his way down the path. He wore a pair of old-fashioned pants, rolled to a place above his ankle, no shoes, and a cotton shirt. With him, he carried a sheaf of paper and a leather roll that Jane soon discovered contained paintbrushes and a set of watercolors. The boy propped his paper against a rock and took a tin cup to the edge of the lake. His black hair fell across his forehead as he bent to dip the cup into the water, and when he rose, he glanced at Jane. He raised his hand. She raised her hand in response. And then the boy began his work, concentrating.

Jane thought it was charming for a child so young—no more than ten or eleven—to be so intent on making art. The children of her friends in the city had been so disorderedly. This boy was a picture of silence. She returned to her reading and stopped only when she felt the boy watching her. She looked up. He didn’t smile, only watched.

“Are you always going to come here now?” he called. The lake had probably been his place for making art long before she’d come along and ruined his solitude.

“Am I trespassing?” she asked.

“I’m just wondering,” he said.

“I like it here,” Jane said.

He glanced at the plastic soda bottle that leaned against her hip. “Do you think that tomorrow you could bring me one of those drinks then?”

She laughed at the seriousness of his tone. “I can go back to the house and get one now if you’d like. It’s diet.”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow then,” Jane said.


That evening her husband barely spoke when he returned from the clinic. Instead, Scott turned on the television, and they watched the only station available, a religious network, washed in static. A blonde woman in a silk dress talked about a personal experience she’d had with Satan.

“Do you want to watch a DVD?” Jane asked.

“That’s okay,” her husband replied. And they continued to watch as the woman described a “visitation” in her bedroom several years before.


The next day Jane brought two diet cherry sodas to the lake along with a bag of pretzels. After placing them on her picnic blanket, she waited. An hour went by, and Jane kept the book open in her lap but didn’t read. Instead, she frequently glanced at the path across the lake. The boy didn’t appear. As the day wore on and the heat and insects intensified, Jane realized he likely wasn’t coming. Annoyed, she killed a fly on her calf.

When Jane returned to the rental house, she realized how long she’d stayed at the lake, waiting. Scott’s car was already in the drive. He sat at the kitchen table looking over some work, barely glancing at her when she came through the mudroom door. “Thirsty, huh?” he said, taking brief notice of the two soda bottles.

Jane almost told him about the boy, but decided against it. “It gets hot,” she said, returning the full soda to the refrigerator and tossing the other in the recycling bin.

“Did you take your mace?” Scott asked.

The question surprised her. He had never mentioned the canister of mace that she carried on her keychain before. “You should take it…and your phone,” he said. “If you got a look at some of the guys I see in clinic—” He shook his head.


The next day, the boy arrived at the lake before Jane did and was already painting when she came down the path. Copper colored clouds crowded the sky, threatening a storm. Jane raised the soda so he could see, and the boy went back to painting for a moment, applying strokes to the unseen work. Then he stood, dusted off his pants and started to make his way around the lake. The wind pushed his black hair over his eyes, and he didn’t bother to push it away. It was as if he didn’t need to see. When he was close, Jane got an overwhelming feeling that this was the type of son she wanted to have, a quiet one, full of interesting thoughts. He picked up the soda, and after a moment of studying the twist-off cap, turned it, releasing a hiss of air. He took a drink and seemed vaguely surprised at the carbonation.

“What’s that you’re reading,” the boy asked, pointing to the book on the blanket. He had a faint accent that Jane couldn’t place.

“Poetry,” she said. “Old poetry.”

After another long drink, he said, “Can I look?”

“I doubt it’s the sort of thing you’d like. It’s not really the sort of thing I like either.” Jane thought of a line from one of the poems: “Joy’s recollection is no longer joy.” It struck her that she’d been merely recollecting that emotion for so long, she’d almost forgotten what it was like to actually experience it.

The boy studied the cover that showed a haunted landscape, black craggy hills rising from a curling mist.

“Is that the kind of thing that you paint?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I paint water.”

“You mean you paint the lake?”

“Just water,” he said.

“Do you want to sit?” Jane asked.

“I should go back. Ma will come looking for me.”

“Does your family live close then?”

The boy glanced over his shoulder. “What color would you say the water is today?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Sort of gray? Gloomy. Like it’s going to storm.”

For a moment, the boy grew silent. “I think it looks red,” he said finally.

She cleared her throat. “Really?” There was clearly nothing red about the water.

“I should go,” he said. He extended the bottle that was still almost full of soda. “Should I give this back?”

“Oh no,” Jane said. “You can drink the rest.”

He started away then looked at her again. The sun came through the storm clouds and made his hair look oddly bright. “You live at the house near the end of the path?” he said, pointing in the direction of the rental house.

“That’s right,” Jane said.

He nodded. “You know that’s called the Miner’s House?”

“No one’s ever told us that,” she said.

“A miner and his wife used to live there. She got sick.”


“I have to go.”


That night, as Jane lay in bed, she thought about the miner’s sick wife. Had she lain in this very room? Scott told her once that people in the area were still dealing with all sorts of problems from the mines. “You should see what some of the old guys have lost,” he said. “Eyes, arms, one guy lost both his legs to a shaft elevator.”

“That’s terrible,” Jane had said, picturing the miners.

“It really is,” Scott said.


The next day, the boy brought two pieces of bread wrapped in a dirty towel and offered one to Jane. “Ma makes these,” he said.

She took the bread that was round and flat, something like a host at church. “Tell your mother I said thank you.”

“She doesn’t know about you,” he said. He drank his soda, and Jane wondered if he ever changed his clothes. The pants he wore were stained. They looked like they were made of wool, and they had buttons on them where suspenders were meant to fasten.

“What color is the lake today?” she asked.

“It’s black,” he said, “and really hard to paint.”

“Interesting,” Jane said.

“You’re just saying that,” he said, “because you don’t understand it.”


“If you understood it, you’d want to paint it yourself.”

“Maybe one day,” she said.

“I don’t remember the miner’s name,” the boy said, as if they’d already been talking about the miner and his wife again. “He was a good man though. Then his wife got sick. That turned him into a bad man. Desperate for a way to fix a situation. You know how that can happen?”

She said she did without thinking.

“One wrong thing,” the boy said, shaking his head.

“What kind of illness did she have, the wife?”

The boy nursed his diet soda. “She was afraid of light. Got bit by an animal in the yard. Couldn’t tell anyone what kind of animal it was either. The bite swelled up as big as an apple, and she couldn’t bear to go out in the sun. Pretty soon, even a low burning fire was too much light. She craved water. Couldn’t get enough. Her skin turned a horrible color.”

“Rabies?” Jane said, recognizing the symptoms.

The boy shrugged. “They built her a second house, where she could live away in the dark. Your house is the miner’s house. The wife’s house,” the boy pointed toward the woods on the other side of the lake, “is over there.”

“Did her husband visit her?” Jane said.

“He went once or twice a week,” the boy said, “to check if she was still alive. He hoped she wasn’t. But somehow, she always was, lying there underneath a blanket. He could see her shifting and breathing. So one day, the miner decided he was going to kill his wife. She was crazy by that time, miserable. And she wouldn’t die right. He got his shotgun—took it down to the wife’s house in the cave. He walked straight through the door, up to the pile of blankets that was rising and falling.”

“Yes—”Jane said, waiting.

“He got his gun ready. He knew he’d have to shoot her quick, or he wouldn’t be able to do it. Even he wasn’t that bad a man. If he saw her face too long, he might remember she’d worn flowers for him at their wedding. He took a big handful of blanket, and he yanked the pile back ready to pull the trigger, but what he saw was something else. His old wife was already dead, had been for months. What had been making the blanket rise up and down were animals. They’d made nests in her body—in her hollowed out chest and guts. Some of them even had young ones inside her.”

Jane felt sick. “Who told you a story like that?”

“No one told it,” he said. “I picked up the pieces of it. It’s the kind of thing that’s known around here.”

“Well, it’s probably not true,” Jane said, shuddering. “It’s—I don’t know—it sounds like something bored people would think up.”

The boy let his empty soda bottle fall. “I didn’t mean offense,” he said. “You wanted to hear.”

“It was just a scary story, that’s all,” Jane said. “It’s alright.”

“The house is still there,” he said. “In the cave.”

“Now you are making things up.”

“I can show you.” […]

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Adam McOmber is the author of The White Forest: A Novel (Simon and Schuster 2012) and This New & Poisonous Air: Stories (BOA Editions 2011). His work has appeared in Conjunctions, StoryQuarterly, The Fairy Tale Review, Third Coast, Quarterly West, The Greensboro Review, and Arts and Letters, among others. McOmber lives in Chicago and teaches literature and creative writing at Columbia College where he is also the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika.