Our bones lie at the bottom of the lake; covered with mud, worn down with age.
Sometimes the current pushes the mud back, exposing our gleaming bones.
Our spirits ripple with the current.
We rise each morning with the breaking of the dawn,
And then we sleep with the glistening of moonshine across the surface.
But we do not rest.
For our ghostly lungs are still filled with water, and our ghostly hearts are still trembling and breaking
Each time another lady joins us
Here at the bottom of the lake.
“Are you sure this is it?” Jamieson asks, pushing the sunglasses onto his gelled hair. He squints his eyes at the sign beside the dirt track. The letters are faded – lightened by dust and wind.
Yang shrugs off his suit jacket, grimacing as the tornado-like gusts of hot wind make him sweat. He certainly hasn’t missed this place. “Yes, I’m sure.” He shuts the window, but the damage has already been done.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Jamieson says, putting his sunglasses back on; the sun is wicked this time of year.
“The town’s up ahead,” Yang replies, downing his third cup of coffee. He hadn’t wanted to take this case for the sole purpose that he never wanted to come back to the town he had left.
But he took it because there is a girl missing and his stomach is stirring with nothing but uneasiness.
The town has always been as eerily quiet as they come. Yang was surprised that someone had actually called a disappearance in – nobody called the police here; everyone just whispered among themselves.
They pull up in front of a house; the gate is made up of poorly-entangled wire and there are weeds growing all over the front yard. The sight is not uncommon.
Yang and Jamieson wade their way through the mess, and ring the doorbell. A portly woman answers the door; her eyebrows are arched and the neckline of her shirt hangs just a bit too low. “Who are you?” she asks. “I don’t want whatever you’re selling, so go away.”
Jamieson stops her from shutting the door in their face with his ever-charming smile. “Sorry to bother you, ma’am, we’re here to speak to Katherine Bridget, are you Ms Bridget?”
“No,” the woman says, proceeding to shut the door again.
Jamieson stops her once more, holding up his badge. “We’re police. I’m Detective Jamieson, this is my partner, Detective Yang. We are here regarding the disappearance of Taylor Valentino.”
“Don’t know anything about that. If you don’t leave right now—”
“Relax, mum, I called them,” a girl appears beside the woman, who now appears livid. “I’m Katherine Bridget.”
The mother doesn’t say anything else, only sneers and then disappears into the house.
Katherine folds her arms over her stomach, gnawing at her lip. The tears teeter at the brim of her eyes. “Everyone’s saying Taylor ran away, that it’s no big deal, she’ll come back.” She brushes the tears away. “But I know she isn’t.”
“Why is that?” Jamieson asks.
The uneasiness in Yang twists once more. “Because she’s dead.” Her teeth chatter and her lips wobble, howling like a wounded animal. Yang looks away – Jamieson always does the comforting when it comes to crying people.
“All right,” Jamieson says, handing her a tissue. “Just explain to us what you know.”
After several gulping breaths, Katherine finally calms down a little. “Two days ago, Taylor and I were going to walk home together because we had studied in the library until it was dark out. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, I saw Taylor leaving with a man.”
“Could you see his face?” Yang asks. Living in a small town means everybody knows each other.
But Katherine shakes her head. “I couldn’t see his face, but he didn’t seem like her boyfriend, so I called her name, but she didn’t reply. She just asked the man if she was in trouble. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I followed them. They got to this car, and Taylor starts to scream, but the man puts his hand over her mouth. I saw her squirming, but I just ran the other way.” She fiddles with the edge of her shirt. “I didn’t see anything after that.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Bridget, we would like to take you down to the station,” Jamieson says. “So, we can take your proper statement.”
“No, you think I killed her,” Katherine says, backing away. “I’m not going with you.”
“It’s too early for us to be thinking of suspects, Miss Bridget,” Jamieson says. “We just need your witness statement.”
Katherine shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t.” She runs back into the house, slamming the door.
“Why do I get the feeling it’s not just this family that hates police?” Jamieson says.
“They think that police coming just stirs up more trouble for them,” Yang says. “Trust me, I know.”
“She’s been missing for more than forty eight hours, we should probably get some units down here for a search party,” Jamieson says.
The uneasiness rises to his chest. “Before that happens, I need to check somewhere first,” Yang says. “Just a hunch.”
“Okay,” Jamieson says. “Where?” They have worked with each other for long enough to trust that every hunch can lead them further down the path.
“There’s a lake in the middle of this forested area, I went there a few times when I lived here. It’s pretty easy to miss – no one would go looking there, and it’s not far from the school.”
The forest is dead silent, not even the birds chirp as they fly by. There is only the whistling of the wind and the rustling of leaves.
Yang remembers the trail clearly. This was the place he came when he wanted to be alone – which was most of the time. He told his secrets to the trees. However, walking through here again feels like the trees are whispering those secrets back to him.
The sweat is soaking Yang’s shirt, and he knows that it is more than the heat that is bringing it on. They push past the barrage of drooping leaves to reveal the lake – crystal and blue, but in the water is the worst possible scenario confirmed.
The body of a young girl lies submerged in the shallow end of the lake.
Yang swallows – he has never been more horrified that he is right.
In a matter of thirty minutes, the crime scene unit arrives to secure the area and carry out regular procedures.
“The footprints in the mud match the shoes she was wearing, so she definitely entered the water from here,” Jamieson says. Yang hums in reply, staring intently at an empty space between the leaves. “Yang? Are you even listening to me?”
“Yeah, umm, footprints,” Yang says, exhaling.
“Are you okay?” Jamieson asks. “You’re not usually so out of it.”
“I’m fine,” Yang replies, looking sickeningly at the water.
“The coroner’s report came back,” Jamieson says. “The official cause of death is drowning. But he did find bruises on the back of her neck, as though—”
“Somebody was holding her head in the water,” Yang finishes. His leg is jerking up and down and his finger taps at the desk.
“How many cups of coffee have you drunk?” Jamieson asks, peering at the bin below his desk, filled with empty coffee cups.
“You want to know how I knew where she was,” Yang says, he knew every one of Jamieson’s looks.
“Look, Yang, I’m not accusing you of anything—”
He can’t hold it in anymore. “Five girls have gone missing in that town. Six plus Taylor.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Jamieson asks.
“Because I wanted it so desperately not to be connected,” Yang says. “But it is. All the girls were around the same age with brown hair and brown eyes. They never found the bodies, so everyone just said they ran away. But that’s not true.”
“Yang… you should probably go home, and not think about this.”
Yang shakes his head; this is exactly what happened last time. Nobody believed him. Thought he was crazy. He took a deep breath. “It was twenty years ago, but I still remember that day. It was late afternoon, and I was in the forest, getting ready to go home. Then I heard someone approaching. It was a man and he was carrying a girl. She was trying to get away, but it was too late. He pushed her into the water, and held her down until she was still. Her name was Jessica.”
He didn’t talk about how he hid behind a tree and prayed that the man didn’t see him. Or his heart had almost pounded out of his chest, and how he had been frightened to tears. He had known enough then that there were terrible people in the world, but that was the first time he witnessed it. And it was the one thing he could never forget.
“Did you tell anyone?” Jamieson asks, blue eyes filled with the pity that Yang despises.
“Yes, I was hysterical. I told my parents and anyone who would listen. No one believed me, and girls just kept disappearing. So, if you don’t believe me, that’s fine, but I know what I saw.”
“I believe you,” Jamieson says, his expression serious. “Based on the route we took to get to that lake, whoever killed Taylor and presumably those other girls knew how to get there, meaning it wasn’t a spot of convenience. It was planned. Katherine said that the man took Taylor to a car, presumably to drive her to the lake.”
“You can’t drive in the forest,” Yang says. “The path isn’t big enough for a car, and we would have seen tracks. He had to have carried her, probably suffocated her enough for her to pass out. But he had to have forced her to the car somehow. Katherine says that Taylor didn’t put up a fight until they reached the car, she only asked if she was in trouble. It had to have been someone that she knew.”
“Who are you scared that you would be in trouble with?” Jamieson says. “Parents, friends, teachers, it could be anybody.”
Yang gulps. “Teachers. All the girls who went missing were high schoolers.”
“It might not necessarily be the case,” Jamieson says. “A lot of predators use schools as their hunting ground.”
“It’s a small town, Jamieson,” Yang says. “Everybody’s nose is in everybody’s business, if there was a predator, someone would have known. We need to interview all the teachers and people who work at the school. It’s most likely someone from there. If it’s not, we can explore other possibilities, but just… trust me on this?”
“I think we’re at that point where we don’t even need to ask that question,” Jamieson replies.
The librarian, Mrs Robinson is crying when Yang enters. “I’m sorry.” She takes out a crumpled handkerchief and blows into it noisily. “It’s so terrible. She was with me in the library, I said goodbye to her and I didn’t even know it was the last time.”
“Did anybody come and pick her up?” Jamieson asks. “Someone she could have been in trouble with?”
“No,” the librarian shakes her head. “Taylor was a good girl, straight As.”
Yang walks up the counter, remembering that library scent – the musty scent of books and two-day-old coffee.
Mrs Robinson takes off her glasses, squinting her eyes at Yang. He quickly looks down, but it’s too late. “Jun, is that you?”
“Hi, Mrs Robinson,” he says. “Pleasure to see you again.” He attempts a smile, but it feels like the most artificial thing.
“My, you’ve grown, I still remember when you were little, you spent every lunchtime in the library—”
“Yes, yes, Mrs Robinson,” Yang says, hating every moment of this conversation. “Do you know where the principal was two days ago?”
“I’m not sure,” Mrs Robinson replies.
“Do you know what he does on weekends then?” Yang asks.
“He likes to go down to the lake,” Mrs Robinson says. “Why, what does that have to do with anything?”
Yang’s heart races, the blood rushing in his ears. Suddenly, the speakers sound. “Katherine Bridget, please go to the Principal Smith’s office.”
Yang looks to Jamieson. Without a word to each other, they race down the hallway. Yang barely feels his feet pounding the ground. The principal’s door is open, slamming against the frame. Jamieson pushes it open, but the office is empty. There is stationery littered across the floor, wind rushing in from the open window.
Outside, a car pulls out of the parking lot, speeding down the empty road.
“How did you know it was him?” Jamieson asks, as they clamber into the car, slamming on the accelerator faster than ever.
Yang holds onto the handle, bracing himself as Jamieson turns on the siren.
“I realised that there was one thing common other than the way they looked,” Yang says. “They were all called up to the principal’s office the day before they disappeared, and guess where the principal likes to spend his weekends.”
“The lake,” Jamieson says. “Yeah, I heard. Does he have an alibi?”
“No, he was at the school, in his office, supposedly,” Yang says.
They run out of the car the moment they arrive, pushing past all the bushes. Branches scratch at their skin, and the leaves crunch beneath their feet like a cacophony of mismatched bird calls. They pull back the leaves, revealing Principal Smith with his arms around Katherine’s neck – her eyes are wide with fear, and his were wide with glee.
Yang holds up his gun. “It’s over, Smith. Let Katherine go.”
Smith relinquishes his hold, letting Katherine fall to the ground with a muffled cry. “Fine, looks like you caught me.” He holds up his hands.
Jamieson pulls Katherine off the ground. Tears tremble down her cheeks, throwing her arms around his shoulder, she cries silently into his shoulder.
Yang pulls out the pair of handcuffs. “You’re surrendering?”
“Of course,” Smith says, giving a smile. “I am extremely regretful of what I have done.”
Yang knows the look of remorse, and the look on Smith’s face is not that. He approaches cautiously, still with his finger over the trigger – he is definitely not afraid to pull it. He grabs Smith’s wrist and pulls it behind his back.
Yet, with a twist of his arm and a knocking of the gun, Smith flips him to the ground. Yang tries to roll over, but Smith’s knee is pressing painfully into his back. The acid smell of the mud shoots up his nose. With a firm hand against his neck, Smith pushes his face into the water.
The shocking coldness of the water is like ice in his skin. Yang tries not the breathe in, but his desperate lungs take an inhale of the water – his mind becomes fuzzy.
He doesn’t even hear the shot sound until Smith is just dead weight on him. Jamieson pulls Yang out of the water. With a slap on the back, all the water he inhaled comes spewing out. Smith lies beside him, writhing in pain, blood spreading across his shirt.
A shiver wracks through Yang’s body – cold and painful. He had stood on the other end of a shooter’s gun, yet, there had never been a moment where he was more afraid. Because suddenly, he was ten years old again, except he wasn’t hiding behind a tree, he was the one with his head in the water.
Jamieson kneels beside Yang, a firm hand on his shoulder. “It’s over now.” And even though he knows that Yang despises hugs, he embraces him anyway – tighter than anyone had before. “You’re okay.”
Yang just looks up at the trees, grateful it was the last thing that he saw.
The trees were the last thing we saw.
From the bottom of the lake, we only see them like blurry shadows,
Something we can reach for, but never hold.
For twenty years, the only face we saw was of the one who damned us.
But today, we see new faces, we see a new sky, we see the trees once more.
We hold onto each other’s hands, fingers gripping tight so we may never lose each other,
And we rise from the bottom of the lake.