The Lady of Lake Therese
by Charles C. Cole
Every town has its haunted house, a rundown and vacant place along some isolated road, where teenagers visit late at night and dare each other to run up and touch the porch. “Don’t even think about going in!” This challenge is not for money but for respect, to have your name added to the memorized roster of past glory-seekers and risk-takers.
For us in north-central, “Washington-slept-here” New Jersey, we told tales about The Lady of the Lake, who haunted a rundown stone house on a pitifully small island. If there was a boat accident on that lake, she had a hand in it. If a child drowned, she was sure to have pulled them under. Despite the fact nobody had ever seen her, and she was supposedly two hundred years old.
Legend had it the road once crossed the narrow end of the lake there, and the “house island” had been a halfway point, as well as an 18th-century tavern. This was long before the state built a new road right on top of a new dam.
The old road, on the publicly accessible side of the island, collapsed from disrepair or was hauled away for fill, making the house teasingly unreachable. But, if you went through the state park on the opposite shore and climbed a chain-link fence with “Do Not Enter” on it, the other half of the original road still existed, though not safe for a car. Of course, the easiest method for reaching “the villa” was to man-up and swim there.
This was the night before graduation. While I was sentimental, I was thinking about the things I’d never accomplished and restless to move on, start afresh. Immediately after the ceremony, I was driving eight hours to my summer job, while my best friend, Jim “Deacon” DiColletti, was leaving for the Coast Guard. It was now or never.
There was an elite summer camp across the lake from the island. The camp was quiet this time of year. The cable across the entrance was down while the grounds crew checked for winter damage and cleared brush. We took a risk, trespassing for the sake of convenience, and pulled in, backing my VW beetle behind some dense bushes not far from the beach.
Wasting no time, we had driven over in our swimsuits, towels around our shoulders. We’d closed the car doors quietly — stupid domelight! — and kicked off our shoes when a vehicle pulled in, probably alerted by a busybody neighbor. Security must not have really wanted to find us, however, because they barely pulled through the entrance, paused, and drove right back out. Maybe they didn’t want to encounter The Lady of the Lake at night. Thankfully, they didn’t lock us in.
Guided by starlight, we eased our way into the water. The moon was nearly full but hidden by a mostly cloudy sky. Mud oozed between our toes until we dropped to our chests and “shallow-swam” to deeper water. It wasn’t long before my fingers and toes were numb from the pre-summer cold.
Of the two of us, Deacon was more fit, sharing a workout room with his half-brother in their finished basement. I was a mere mortal: a spring track sprinter. But that night, he had to keep up because, truth be told, I was a little afraid and didn’t want to appear the weak link. I was giving the swim a little extra kick with the intent of getting the adventure over before I chickened out.
I had never seen the Lady. I had never seen a ghost. The movie The Exorcist had been in limited re-release that year, which I had seen by myself, and I was still spooked.
Deacon hissed, “Cole, wait up! What’s the hurry?”
We were only about thirty yards from the island when the moon peeked out through a ragged hole in the clouds. That’s when we heard something big splashing through the water in front of us. I stopped dead. Deacon caught up quickly, nearly colliding.
“What was that?” he whispered.
Just then, this honest-to-God naked woman climbed out onto the island. She was young, fit and pale as the moon. Jim gulped. With her back to us, her long hair reaching down to about her elbows, she ran her fingers over her front, squeegeeing the water off, “right there in front of God and everyone,” per Deacon.
When she pulled her dress over her head, one of us sneezed. Deacon always said it was me, but I honestly don’t remember. She tugged the dress in place and spun around, squinting back across the water, her privacy disturbed.
As Deacon recalled later, “She transformed! You saw it. Maybe it was a trick of the light.”
She “became” an old woman, grandmotherly, with a thin tuft of gray hair, sunken eyes, and a round, loose face. She wasn’t, could not have been, the same young, vital person who’d just aroused our interest. But she had never left our sight!
The Lady of the Lake was quick to spot us. She yelled, “Have a good look? Like what you see? You’ll get yours eventually!” She rhymed! Then she cackled. She didn’t pursue us, though we expected her to. Maybe she was done with the water or tired or didn’t care for big kids.
Wordlessly, we turned around and swam back the way we had come, a little faster and quieter in our retreat. Out of some misplaced sense of heroism, I let Deacon lead, while I held back in case “something happened.” He had a future ahead of him. Back on land, we laughed and, full of ourselves, we took turns honking the horn as we drove away. .
We told nobody. Soon afterwards, I was fired from my job on Theresa Avenue — close name — over a misunderstanding and came crawling back home. While working through the paperwork to enlist in the Air Force, my backup plan, I heard through friends that Deacon had drowned in a training accident. What did she mean by “you’ll get yours”? If it was a curse, is mine yet to come? I’m still waiting.
Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole