Nick had already created several computer games, and while they were all unknown to the world they had gained an audience around his school and made him a big social commodity. He didn’t like the attention, he was naturally aloof, not like all the other boys who pretended not to care about anything, and for some reason that only made him more popular. It also didn’t hurt that he had several striking features, including serious green eyes and light brown hair that brushed itself up and to the side.
While the rest of the students worried about finals, Nick was excited about summer. He had done well on all the practice exams he forced himself to take, so there was no need to be worried.
He saw his friend Tom unloading books into his locker, it was covered in stickers and graffiti. The most prominent sticker on Tom’s locker, the only one that he had put up himself, was a big green one with a dark lion in the middle. Above the lion yellow cursive letters spelled out Springfield Lions! Those green stickers made Nick feel like he was in a zombie movie, the monsters had surrounded the students and infected every locker with school spirit. Tom greeted Nick with a big smile.
“Hey man, how are you feeling about finals?” Nick asked.
“Doesn’t matter, I already told you I got a football scholarship to the University of Springfield,” Tom said.
“Yeah? I bet you your anger issues helped you with football this season.”
“Sure, sometimes I just blackout, and when I come to we’re winning and the crowd is chanting my name, sometimes I don’t even remember what happened.”
“Maybe you should start taking those medications the psychiatrist gave you.”
“Hey,” Tom said with a nervous side glance, “I told you not to bring that up at school, besides I don’t like taking them.”
Nick didn’t know what to say, he didn’t want to dig deeper into his friend’s anger issues, so they settled into a long silence. Tom broke it.
“Do you know what you’ll study in University yet?” he asked.
“Right, the last thing I want to do is pursue a useless bachelor’s degree. My parents aren’t gonna help me get a new one, so I’ll either be stuck with it or go into debt paying for a new one.”
“Which would suck either way,” Tom said.
“Exactly, you’re lucky that you already know what you wanna study.”
“Well, it’s probably one of those pointless bachelor degrees you just mentioned,” Tom said, “English isn’t exactly the safest choice.”
Nick decided to switch the topic before his friend could ask him how he felt about pursuing an English degree. Tom did have anger issues, after all.
“My parents are going to let us hang out at their cottage on clear-river this summer,” Nick said. This summer had to be good because Nick didn’t plan on staying in Springfield, and he might not see Tom again for a long time.
Springfield was a city in Eastern Canada. During the winter, whatever storm happened to hit the provinces to the west would usually carry over and hit it too. But during summer, Springfield was perfect. Hot but not sticky, with a gentle breeze.
After finals, the friends drove Nick’s white honda civic to the cottage. They were planning on throwing a graduation party the next day. The lake at clear-river park was man-made, one of the only places in the whole city where the water wasn’t green. The deepest point was somewhere in the middle, and even there, nobody could drown. That was good, Nick was a bad swimmer.
The boys walked down to the beach, thinking about the same thing. Leading up to finals Nick had sold a computer game for 100 dollars, which was a lot for him. He wanted to keep all of the money, but the idea behind the game came from Tom, so they had to split it. Tom would probably suggest fifty-fifty, but Nick deserved more. A cold breeze made him cross his arms.
“I say we split the money, fifty-fifty,” Tom said as soon as they sat down on the sand.
Nick ran a hand through his long hair, the wind blew it back down on his forehead, he hated that.
“Look…” Nick began, then hesitated.
“Your idea was great, but I’m the one who did all the work.”
They sat in silence for a long time. The stars shone brightly, too brightly in Nick’s opinion. He preferred the tame night-sky in big cities, a blank dark canvas.
“Let’s have a swim race, huh?” Tom suggested, and it could have been the strange silver lighting, but Nick thought his friend looked like a little kid again.
“Sure, just for fun.” Nick wasn’t about to gamble on his swimming abilities, especially not against an athlete like Tom.
They raced across the entire lake, from one shore to the other. Tom got the lead and Nick couldn’t see him anymore. The water wasn’t green, or blue. It was an ominous silver color, like a mirror for the stars. Nick went under the water, little ripples appeared around him, air bubbles surfaced.
Tom noticed and went back to help his friend, as good of a swimmer as he was, Tom couldn’t hold his breath under the water for a long time. The darkness didn’t help.
Tom’s lips were blue, goosebumps crawled on his skin, he felt like he could pass out. Just as Tom began to panic, Nick resurfaced, a mischievous grin on his face. Tom exhaled a sigh of relief and frowned. Nick was always playing pranks, he should have known, but somehow he never did. It made him angry, he even had to use a couple of the tricks his psychiatrist taught him. Deep breaths...count down from 100...name your feelings...
“You scared me, man,” Tom said to his friend after he had calmed down.
Nick took several long breaths, his face was red.
“I must have broken a new record or something,” he finally said.
“Shut up,” Tom said, “now that I know you’re alive, how about we split the money 40-60?”
Nick paused to think.
“Dude, I just tried to save your life,” Tom said.
Nick shook his head.
“One of these days…” Tom began, then sighed, this wasn’t worth ruining his temper, “fine, we can do 30-70.”
Nick smiled. The boys returned to the cottage, shivering from head to toe.
The next day the graduation party was fun, then it was bitter, then downright depressing. People waved goodbye, some hugged, others shook hands. Pictures were taken, then everyone left, except for Nick and Tom. Nick had already decided what to study, it was kind of obvious, he would go to the University of Toronto to study computer sciences. Tom would stay in Springfield and study English.
“Bye man,” Tom said in a sad voice.
“I’ll see you later, seriously, I’m not going to live here but I’ll visit,” Nick said.
Tom nodded, waved goodbye, and walked away to his parents’ car. A week later Nick boarded a flight to Toronto.
He followed the plan and completed a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences. He wanted to get a master’s, but he decided to apply for a job at a big tech company instead, to get some experience. Junior programmer, cubicle, and a nice starting salary. He dedicated his time to the company, learning new coding languages and making sure to suck up to his manager, Courtney. After two years he got his first big promotion.
“Congratulations Nick!” Courtney said, “we know you’ll serve the company well.”
Nick smiled and nodded. Senior programmer, same cubicle, nice raise.
As a senior programmer, Nick would often sleep in the office. It had a gym, a restaurant, a library, a games room, and a nap area, so there was no reason to leave. No reason to live in your own house, this was much better than his apartment. The only thing missing from his life was a best friend, like he had in Springfield, back in high school. The office heard Nick’s silent request for a friend, processed it, and found him one.
Anthony was a temp who worked on Nick’s floor. He was very focused, polite, and often took water breaks at the same time as Nick so they could talk. He became a junior programmer.
“This is great,” Anthony said as he carried a cardboard box filled with his things to his new cubicle.
“We’ll run this company together one day,” Nick said.
“I like the sound of that, Leila just adopted a new puppy and the thing’s costing me a fortune, it’s like a baby that runs around the house and sheds on our carpets.”
“Beats having a real baby.”
There was a tense moment before Anthony laughed. Maybe he did want a child. Nick certainly didn’t, he had too much work here at the moment. Courtney was going to be promoted soon and he was after her job.
The seasons passed and soon it was July, quite perfect in Toronto except for the occasional rainfall. Nick took over Courtney’s job and Anthony got Nick’s job. Most days he preferred to stay late and work, but that summer his old friend Tom flew into town, so he left early to have dinner with him.
“I’m the English teacher at Springfield high,” Tom said.
“Good for you,” Nick tried to sound genuine.
“You don’t mean that,” Tom said, “but it’s been nice. I get to go on summer break like the kids.”
Time had been kind to Tom, he looked young and well-built. He sat straight and his eyes were teeming with life, it surprised Nick. He was expecting his friend to be sad and worn down, public school wasn’t a calm environment and Tom still had anger issues.
Nick finished eating his bowl of spaghetti, no easy feat. His eyes began to droop, emphasizing the dark bags that clung to them.
“You don’t look so good,” Tom said.
“Wish I could say the same about you,” Nick laughed.
“Do you have any vacation days?”
“Plenty,” Nick said.
“Let’s take a trip together! How about you return to Springfield with me, I have a cottage at clear-river, you remember that place big-shot?”
Nick was going to refuse, but the chance to go back and see how far he had come was enticing.
“Can I invite a friend from work?” he asked.
“The more the merrier,” Tom replied.
Tom liked teaching high school students, he certainly had enough charisma to do it, but they did get on his nerves sometimes. He tried going to the gym, ever since his football career ended after college he needed to find another outlet for his anger. The gym was nice, but it didn’t compare to the excitement of the football field, so he stopped going.
Tom was anxious to see his old friend, a successful software programmer who made good money, and he had to take deep breathes on his way to their dinner.
Nick’s work friend Anthony and his wife agreed to visit Springfield too. Tom found it strange that an office buddy was willing to fly with Nick to Springfield, but it turned out that his wife lived there as a teenager. He was worried that his guests would say something about his cheap cottage, it didn’t take much to push him over the edge, and that would do it.
He boarded the flight with Nick, took a taxi to his house, then set off to clear-river in his grey Toyota. Tom enjoyed the endless fields of grass and wheat that stretched out across the prairies. They put him in a tired but happy mood. He switched the radio on, nothing better than listening to a good song as you drive through the prairies. But to his dismay the radio wasn’t broadcasting a song, he went to switch the channel but Nick stopped him, it was something about clear-river.
“There have been a string of killings in clear-river park,” the female anchor began, “avoid it if you can for now, but if you do go exercise caution and stay in large groups.”
Me, Nick, Anthony, and his wife, that’s big enough, Tom thought. He switched the channels and this time Nick didn’t stop him. He had probably come to the same conclusion. A cheerful country song about love was playing. Tom smiled and turned it up, Nick shook his head, disapproving of his friend’s taste in music.
They set out at noon and arrived at Tom’s cottage before sunset. Leila and Anthony were waiting for them. Introductions were made and the four of them went into the cottage to prepare everything for the night.
Tom’s cabin wasn’t impressive, just a kitchen with a round wooden dining table, and beyond that a hallway with a master bedroom, two guest bedrooms, and a bathroom. His porch didn’t have a view of the lake, maybe if you looked through binoculars, but even then there was a small chunk of the forest blocking your view. Four red wooden chairs were set up on the porch, facing away from the cabin.
They sat in those red chairs and talked until the brilliant yellow light of the sun was replaced with the ominous silver haze of the night. Anthony excused himself to go to the bathroom.
“Did you guys hear about the murders around here?” Nick asked with a note of irony, like a child trying to take the tension out of a situation.
“Sure, Anthony even brought a gun. I begged him not to, it makes me very uncomfortable when he takes that thing out of the safe, but he insisted,” Leila said.
“That’s good thinking, we’re pretty far away from any source of help over here,” Tom said.
It could have been the wind, but Tom thought he heard breathing behind him. He turned around and saw a large, dark figure. He yelled and launched himself off the chair and onto the ground.
“Got you,” Leila said through a fit of giggles, “I’m so sorry, I swear it was Nick’s idea.”
Nick nodded, Tom was angry, but he laughed along with everyone else. Just like he laughed along when one of his students made a small joke at his expense, or his old teachers teased him for staying in the school. He laughed through the pain.
“Why don’t we all go down the lake for a night swim?” Tom offered after a long period of silence.
“Sure,” Leila said.
The group went back inside and changed into bathing suits.
“Anthony and I brought a flashlight,” Leila said, “I don’t want anyone tripping over the rocks on the path.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Tom said, pointing to Nick, “we know this place well.”
“Just wait for us to find the flashlight.”
“We’ll be fine,” Nick insisted, “it’s more interesting to walk in the dark.”
Tom and Nick went ahead. The freezing water reflected the starlight so well you couldn't see through it at all, it was like a field of light. The friends swam out towards the middle of the lake.
“Hey, why don’t we do a race to the other side, like old times?” Nick asked.
“You’re on,” Tom said.
They began swimming, and Tom got the lead. He turned around, and just like last time, Nick was nowhere to be seen. Nobody ever drowned in clear-river. This joke infuriated Tom, but he pretended to be concerned. He looked around in the cold water for a long time, his body aching, his blood boiling with rage. Finally, Nick came out of the water, his face red.
“Got you!” he yelled. Then he laughed, a deep, rich laugh. The type of laugh that he must have used around the office. Tom hadn’t played any sports since high school, stopped going to the gym, which meant he had no outlet for all his anger. He didn’t want to drown Nick, with all the adrenaline he wasn’t even sure that he did, but he came out of the lake alone. He saw Leila, flashlight in hand, and Anthony walking behind her. Waves of adrenaline washed over his body.
“Where’s Nick?” Anthony asked.
“I don’t know, he’s not the best swimmer, I think he’s under the water.”
“Shit, what are we going to do?” Anthony asked.
“Let’s all go in and look for him,” Tom suggested.
Anthony nodded and looked over at Leila. She remained silent, mulling something over. Nobody can drown in clear-river, it’s not deep enough, she thought.
“No, Anthony and I will go get help, you stay here,” She said.
“No way I’m staying here alone, with the murderer on the loose,” Tom said, “one of you stay with me, or we all go.”
“I’ll stay with you and look for Nick,” Anthony offered.
“No, I’m a better swimmer, you go Anthony. And don’t come back alone, wait and bring the help with you,” she said. Leila knew that if they both stayed they might not survive, Tom was a big guy, and there was a certain crazy, furious glint in his eyes. Anthony still had a chance to save himself, if he left now.
Anthony frowned. He didn’t feel comfortable leaving his wife with a man he didn’t know, but she was insistent, practically pushing him into the car. He drove out until he got wifi and called an ambulance. When he arrived back, thirty minutes later, he saw Tom sitting in the back of one of the ambulances with a blanket around his shoulders.
“I’m so sorry,” Tom said with genuine, deep sadness, “she drowned too.”
As the adrenaline subsided, and there was no anger left, he really was sorry. Tom scratched his forehead and tried to remember exactly what happened that night. What happened all those other nights he blacked out. Had he become a murderer? Talk about peaking in high school.