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"Leaving the Lake Behind"

Andy Keiser


 

 

 

Adam picked another berry and put it in his mouth. He bit down and tasted the sweet nectar within. It was a taste sweeter than anything heíd ever known in his old life but anymore it was all he could do just to stomach it. If Adam had learned just one thing in the past forty-six years, it was that, given enough time, even the sweetest things in life can turn bitter. Adam closed his eyes and waited. Soon, that familiar feeling of warmth and euphoria took hold of Adamís thoughts and he lost himself in his memories. This time was the same as it had been for years before. It was Adamís last memory of his old life. The memory of how he came to this place.

Adam opened his eyes and had to blink several times before he could see. The sun was quite a bit brighter than heíd remembered. Adam could feel the old wooden oar in his hands and the sun on his face. He could hear the birds singing and the fish jumping. And, when he licked his lips, he could taste the salt from his sweat. This whole thing felt so real. Just like it always had hundreds of times before. Every time he ate those damn berries. Why did it have to be this memory? Why not his first kiss or his first beer? Why did it have to be the memory of the biggest mistake heís ever made? Adam knew from experience that he could not change the memory that the berries chose. He was doomed to repeat it just as it had happened all those years ago.

So Adam decided not to fight and, just like hundreds of times before, he heard himself say, "Hey dickhead, itís too fuckin hot fer fishin. Letís find some shade."

"No way, dude. I think I just got a bite," replied a voice from behind him.

Adam turned around, taking care not to rock the small homemade canoe, and saw his best friend Clancy looking back at him. "You didnít get any bite," he heard himself say. "We havenít caught a freakin fish all day long, man. Letís go find some shade and finish these beers."

"Now youíre speaking my language," Clancy replied. "Lead the way, my friend."

Just like all those time before, Adam and Clancy rowed the old canoe past a series of tree-lined coves until Clancy pointed out the perfect one. Soon the two young men were sitting in the shade of gigantic willow tree and chatting about nothing in particular. Adam had heard the conversation so many times that he knew it by heart. Adam and Clancy got a little drunk and then Adam heard himself say, "Dude, look over there. It looks like it goes somewhere. Like a stream or something."

Soon Adam and Clancy were rowing their canoe down a narrow stream. The banks were at least eight feet high and each side was covered in thick brush and small trees. Adam remembered how exciting this had been the first time. Now it was just routine.

The two friends came to the same series of menacing thorn bushes that Adam had seen hundreds of times and Clancy said, " Guess we gotta turn back. What a waste."

"Youíre crazy if you think Iím turnin back now," Adam said. "Weíve come too far. "

"No way, man. Iím not goin in there."

"What are ya, a chicken? There ainít nothin in there." Adam knew that his friend had made up his mind. "Fine, Iíll go in first and check for monsters and then I come get you alright, princess?"

 

"Say whatever you want," Clancy said. "Iím not goin in there."

Adam chuckled to himself and began to make his way carefully through the thorns. After what felt like an hour, Adam was still busily pushing onward. He stopped to look around and realized that he could no longer see daylight on any side. How deep was this thing? Adam decided that there was only one thing to do and that was to keep moving ahead. After another hour or so, Adam saw something up ahead. It was a clearing in the thorns and the stream seamed to end. On the far side of the clearing, was a large wall covered in ivy. Adam rowed over to it and saw that, in fact, the stream did not end but instead ran through a hole in the wall that was blocked off with an old iron gate.

There was a bell beside the gate and a sign that read, ĎRing bell for Toad King.í Just like all the other times, Adam rang the bell and waited. Suddenly, a cloud of smoke enveloped the area outside of the gate and Adam could no longer see anything. When the fog had lifted, Adam was face to face with the biggest toad he had ever seen. It was at least three feet tall and it wore a crown on its head and a velvet cape on its back.

"Greetings. I am the Toad King."

"Uh...Hi, Iím Adam. What is this place?"

"You mean you donít know? Why would you come to a place that you knew nothing about?" asked the Toad.

"I dunno. Curiosity, I guess," Adam replied. "Whatís this place called, anyway?"

"Lake Eternity," replied the Toad. "And you werenít invited."

"Sorry," Adam began, "I didnít know..."

"Well itís a little late for sorry. Do you wish to enter?"

"I donít know. Whatís inside?" Adam asked.

"An eternity of bliss but only for those that are truly worthy."

Adam heard himself answer Ďyesí. Countless hours had since been spent regretting that decision but it was too late now. The Toad King had told him that he would live for eternity without aging a day but the hitch was that he couldnít leave.

 

At first everything was great. The lake was beautiful and the fish would bite all day long. Adam could talk to the trees and they would whisper back to him. One of the trees, an old willow nick-named The Professor, was Adamís mentor and they would often spend entire days in philosophical conversation. True to the Toad Kingís word, Adam never aged a day. He never felt sick or weak and he never felt pain. Life was one big fishing trip. No responsibilities and no unhappiness. Surprisingly, after the first twenty years or so, immortality got to be a real drag. It wasnít that Adam had already experienced everything. It was just that with an eternity of life to live, there was no real motivation to do anything. Why not put it off till tomorrow? And what did it matter if it was never done? That was when Adam discovered the berries. They were magic berries that could take Adam somewhere else other than the lake. Time and space meant nothing when the berries took hold. And they tasted so sweet. Eating berries took up pretty much all of Adamís time now and they helped him ignore the pain of everything heíd left behind.

As soon as Adam snapped out of his berry induced trance, he noticed that it was nightfall. Hadnít he eaten the berries at mid-morning? How long had it been? An overpowering feeling of desperation filled Adam and all he could do was weep. He had to find a way out of this lake. It had only been forty-six years and already he could barely stand it. Adam knew that his mind could not handle another forty let alone eternity.

Adam walked the trail to the other side of the lake and found his mentor, The Professor, sleeping. It had been a long time.

"Professor, Professor, wake up."

"Adam, is that you, my boy? Why havenít you come to see me? How long has it been?"

"About a year, I suppose." As Adam said this, a sad expression came over the old willowís face and Adam was unsure why. Adam forced a smile, "So how you been, old timer?"

"There is no need for pleasantries, my son," replied The Professor. "I am old and one of the things that Iíve learned in my life is how to read the expression on a dear friendís face. Youíve come here to ask me something."

"Yeah, youíre right," Adam admitted. "I want to go home. I know itís only been about fifty years since I got here but Iím just not ready for eternity. I miss my family and my friends."

"The life you knew no longer exists," replied the old willow. "You must accept that and try to find some happiness here."

"I know that my mother and father must be gone but surely my younger sisters and Clancy must still be alive," protested Adam.

The same sad look came over the old treeís face. "My son, you have not been at the lake for forty-six years. Itís been more like forty-six hundred years. Youíve been eating the berries again, havenít you? "

Adam could not speak. How could he have been here for so long? "What do the berries have to do with it?" Adam asked.

"They distort your senses of space and time. They are used to pass the time for those who can not bear eternity. To ease the process of going mad."

"I donít care. I still want to leave. I want to die," Adam said in a firm voice.

"But if you die, you will be gone. No one will remember you and you will have given up eternity," said The Professor.

"Eternity is only beautiful to the right kind of eyes," Adam said. "And Iím afraid I just donít have them. Please help me leave the lake behind."

 

"There is one way," the old willow confessed. "But it is very dangerous and no one has ever successfully crossed over to the other side. Many have tried and they are all either dead or mad."

"Where does it lead?" asked Adam.

"No one knows. After enough time in this place, my son, just the fact that it leads somewhere else is enough for some people. If you really want to try, I wonít stop you. Just know that it wonít be easy and no one can go with you."

Adam didnít even think twice. He told Old Willow that he had to try no matter how difficult the path would be. He was granted permission by the wise Toad King and was soon packing some supplies into his boat and leaving the place that had been his home for so many years. As he walked towards his boat, the wind picked up and tossed the trees back and forth. They spoke to him and told him to have courage and that he would be missed. The Toad King nodded knowingly at Adam as he rowed past and called out to him, "Keep your eyes on your goal and resist temptation. Remember that we are with you always."

Adam rowed his canoe for a few minutes and felt an overwhelming sensation flow through his body. Leaving the lake was bittersweet and he felt the need to gaze upon it one last time. Adam twisted around and looked back to wave goodbye but was surprised to see that there was nothing but a dark, twisted mess of old trees cluttering the narrow stream. Adam was very afraid but he remembered the Toad Kingís words and quietly rowed onward. After some time, Adam began to feel very tired. The trees above him were so thick that it was impossible to tell if it was day or night or even if there was a sky up there at all. Adam was thankful for the progress that he had already made. He had expected the going to be much more difficult. Adam decided that a short nap would do no harm so he pulled his boat a shore, put his feet up, and drifted off to sleep. He dreamed about dying and wondered what heíd say when he met God.

He was awakened by the snapping of a twig on the shore. Adam sat up and looked around but saw nothing. A voice from the darkness called to him and mocked him saying, "Worthier men that the one before me have met their fate upon this stream. Go back now and you will be rewarded with wealth beyond your wildest dreams."

Adam again remembered the words of the wise Toad Kink and rejected the Voiceís offer. Slowly and quietly, Adam made his way into the darkness. The stream soon turned into a swamp with large spider webs connected to overhanging limbs. Adam could neither hear nor see anyone or anything else but he did not feel alone. Soon he called out, "Is anyone there?"

"I am here," a voice called out.

"Whoís that?" asked Adam in a frightened voice.

"It is I, Beelzelbub, the ruler of the Swamp of Misfortune. Who dares enter without my consent?"

 

"Iím sorry. I didnít know that it was your swamp. I am just passing through..." Adam was cut off by Beelzelbubís roaring laughter. As Adam watched, Beelzelbub approached. Much to Adamís surprise, Beelzelbub was a spider. Not an ordinary spider, though. He was huge, about seven feet tall, with bright red spots and a menacing grin.

"No one just passes through, you dolt. This is the Swamp of Misfortune and you must make a choice. You may turn back now and be rewarded with beautiful women and fame or you can take my test. If you pass the test, you will be set free but, if you fail, you will be my prisoner for eternity"roared the Spider

"The Toad King warned me about temptation so I will take your test and, with the help of my friends who are with me always, I shall pass."

Beelzelbub laughed again and said, "Very well. Then let the test begin."

The enormous spider led Adam through the swamp until they came upon a mass of colored stones with different designs etched into them. "You must arrange these stones in just the right manner so that if they were combined, the insignia of the Swamp of Misfortune would appear."

"But I donít even know what the insignia looks like," protested Adam.

"That is no concern of mine," chuckled the Spider. "You may turn back if you like."

Adam knew that it was too late to turn back so he accepted the Spiderís challenge. At first he tu rned each stone hoping that some sort of pattern would appear. He started to feel panicked because he had absolutely no idea what to do. Then he remembered the Toad Kingís words and simply closed his eyes and asked for the Toad Kingís help. Before he knew it, his hands reached out and started turning the stones. After his arms had stopped moving the stones, Adam opened his eyes and said, "Finished."

"How did you do that?" asked Beelzelbub angrily.

"With the help of my Lord, the Toad King," Adam replied.

"No matter. You shall not pass the next test. Tell me, young one, what is the meaning of life?"

Adam thought for a moment and said, "To die. For life cannot truly be appreciated without the uncertainty of death. Nothing tastes as sweet. Nothing is beautiful or exciting. No moment is as satisfying without the possibility that it could be your last."

"Very well," said Beelzelbub, "You have passed the second test but one more remains. Before you lies two paths. One leads to your freedom. The other leads to eternal sorrow. Choose wisely, young one, or you will belong to me."

 

After he said these words, Beelzelbub the Spider disappeared into the fog. Adam looked to the path on the left and it was beautiful. He saw the light of the sun peeking through the trees in the distance. The banks sloped gently and wild flowers grew along them. The stream to the right, on the other hand, looked like his own personal hell. There were cobwebs and twisted old trees lining the steep backs. It was so dark that you couldnít even see your hand in front of your face. Adam desperately wanted to travel down the left stream but he knew that he had to choose the one on the right. Always choosing the easy path is what got him into this mess in the first place so he pointed his canoe to the right and made his way towards the darkness.

As soon as he entered the stream, Adam felt like he was being watched. The trees began to twist and contort. Their limbs reached out to him and scratched him with their thorns. Adam looked down and saw that the stream had changed from dark water to a bright red. He stuck his hand inside and it felt like blood. Suddenly the canoe began to move very fast and Adam became frightened. The trees laughed at him and mocked him. Adam began to wonder if he had chosen the wrong path.

Suddenly, the Toad King appeared before him and said, "Adam, you must turn back. You have chosen the wrong path and you will die if you proceed. Come back to the lake and live forever."

Adam knew that this must be some evil trick for the Toad King would never urge him to give up. Adam ignored the image of his friend and lord and focused on the path ahead. Once again the canoe began to move very fast and Adam barely saw the tree branch that knocked him unconscious.

Adam woke up to a strangely familiar voice calling his name. Adam shook away the haze from being knocked out and looked around. The sun was shining and the canoe was lodged against some brush. There were tall weeds all around and the enormous thorn bush from long ago was behind him. Out of the corner of his eyes, Adam saw a figure moving towards him. It was Clancy and he looked pissed.

"What the hell are you doing? Taking a goddamned nap. I been waiting over there for two hours and it took be the better part of another hour to wade my ass through that bush."

Adam laughed out loud which angered Clancy even more. "Iím sorry, man. Itís just so damned good to see you." Adam walked towards Clancy and gave him a hug. Adamís laughs turned to tears of joy. He had no idea how three hours to Clancy could be seem like so long of a time at the lake and right now he didnít care. He was just happy to be back.

"Are you okay, dude?" asked Clancy. "You seem kinda weird."

Adam knew that his friend would never believe the truth. "Must be the sun. Or maybe the beer. Anyways, letís get the hell outta here." Adam and Clancy went back to the campsite and ate steaks. They remained friends forever but Adam never told Clancy, or anyone else, about the lake that was his home for so many years. He just made sure that he cherished every moment of his mortal life.

 


Acknowledgments:

I would like to thank all of my classmates for their helpful and insightful feedback during the writing process. Also, I would like to thank our professor, Terry Heller, for taking the time to read each story and providing me with constructive criticism. Also, thank you to Sarah for her recommendation on which story I ought to publish in Fantasticoe.


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