The first time I saw Dale, he was pulling algae off the lake. A thick skin of green and brown, creasing and folding on top of the water. It came off in swathes, heavy and slick. He dragged it out by the armful and laid it on the grass of his father’s property, where it would turn pale and dry in the sun.
He did this every summer.
I watched him most in the evenings and the early mornings, when the light would only half find him against the shoreline. I would watch him walk between his house and his father’s truck, grey on grey, and I’d map the details of him later, behind my closed eyes.
A jawline and a collarbone picked out in shadow. Some thought made his mouth pull up at its corner. That old t-shirt, with holes at the shoulder seams, I decided it would smell like cut grass under my fingers.
We had been there for a year, my mother and I, when things started turning up in the lake. They seemed to surface overnight, or maybe just when no one was looking. Lawn furniture. Plastic dolls. A yellow lampshade.
Dale went out in his father’s boat with a net, and brought what he could back to shore. The lakeside families gathered to watch him come in, helped him handle the haul and lay it out on the grass. My mother and his mother stood next to each other, watching.
Clothes hangers, tupperware, and coasters. The pink plastic coral from a fish tank. A pair of ski goggles, the lenses thick with mud and the cloth band rotted to a delicate, elastic lace. We picked at the things for hours, until the smell and the blackish sediment got on our hands and our clothes, and the evening turned cold.
There wasn’t anything worth keeping.
He went out nearly every day. Before long, I was the only one waiting for him on the shore.
When we kissed he shut his eyes. He set them shut under a furrowed brow, under firm instruction. Like he was angry at himself for kissing me, or letting me kiss him.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Eyes open.’ He was in my room, on my bed. We sat on our heels across from each other. That was the week I was learning how to kiss him. I put my hands on his face. Sometimes girls did this in movies.
And then I leaned forward and put my mouth close to his, and I felt him closing his eyes, pulling his eyebrows together.
‘No,’ I said into his mouth, clipping his teeth with mine.
I was learning to look at men.
Dale’s father was someone I looked at a lot. His hands in particular, with their short fingers and nails bitten down to the barest slivers of moon. He would ask if I wanted a cup of tea and when I said yes, he’d hand me the kettle and I’d make tea for both of us. Together, we would wait for Dale to come back from the lake.
Dale’s mother worked at the chemist. She spent most of her pay on prescription painkillers, which she kept in small porcelain containers placed carefully around the house so that Dale’s father would not have to walk far to find them, if he needed them.
Each container looked like an animal. A bear with a pot of honey, which held five fat yellow pills. A turtle gave up the cavity underneath its shell to smaller white ones. There was mouse on a flowery knoll that unhinged at the base and housed the strongest stuff.
I studied his movements. This was part of what I mean when I say I was learning how to look at men. His hands didn’t appear to shake; his feet didn’t drag. His face showed me no pain, but perhaps I hadn’t learned how to recognise it.
Dale had left school when his father got sick. It hadn't occurred to me, before I met him, that school was a thing you could leave.
‘Do you miss it?’
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Who misses school? I miss my mates, I guess. That's it.’
James and Dylan and Luke; they were his school friends. I knew their names from his stories. I had memorised their fleeting descriptions. He saw them sometimes at house parties, or when he went out to fix fences on Dylan’s father’s property.
I went with him, just once. Dylan didn't say anything to me. I exchanged a smile for a cigarette, which he offered under raised eyebrows. An up-and-down appraisal with his eyes, a half shrug as he lifted the lighter to my lips. I perched on a fence post. They talked about the people in the year above me, kids and teachers with names I half recognised. I tucked one ankle behind the other and eyed the green horizon.
A cold half hour passed. The low conversation idled, then stopped. Dale shook Dylan's hand with an awkward formality and then took mine as we walked back to his father's truck.
My mother had given me the biggest bedroom when we moved to that tiny town, the one with the best view of the lake and a door onto the back porch. So Dale didn’t have to sneak in and out of windows, although sometimes, when I remember him, I like to think that he did.
It was the first time I shared a bed. His limbs were heavy. He moved with electric stops and starts. Sometimes I looked at us from a distance, and I wondered whose leg was that, whose arm, whose belly.
Dale told me that it was the townspeople who had made the lake. It was supposed to supply water for the satellite towns, but when they’d failed to build the infrastructure, it had been turned it into a tourist trap instead. People came to water ski, and to fish from the stock bought in on trucks at the start of the season.
The fish that weren’t caught would die after a few months, once the tourists had left. Whatever had escaped the fishing lines would slide, easy as anything, belly up to the muddy surface where he and his father would pull them out before they could start to rot.
The family homes by the lake – built for cheap in the town’s early days – were bought and demolished and turned into holiday homes, B&Bs, summer camp and convention facilities. His family was one of the few holdouts. They’d never sell; they’d never leave.
‘Has anyone died in the lake?’
He shrugged. ‘Not that I know. Maybe. Probably.’
I pulled my hand from his, sat up in bed and looked past him, out onto the black water. I wanted him to know everything, everything that was out there.
He told me there were houses at the bottom of the lake.
‘We could set up our own house,’ I said. ‘With all the stuff that’s coming up.’
There were theories, of course. His parents, my teachers, all the adults talked endlessly of what was happening to the lake, and later when it got worse, they started saying our lake.
What’s happening to our lake.
An unusually cold winter, an unusually hot spring. Tectonic shifts. Corrosive chemical run off. Bottom feeders overeating.
‘I think mermaids have moved in. And they’re clearing out the old crap.’
A trove of Christmas decorations had appeared the day before. Wooden animals on twine, swollen with water, and baubles with the colour eaten off them, as pale and translucent as fingernails.
‘Everyone knows mermaids hate humans.’
‘Yeah? What about Ariel?’
‘In the real story, she kills the prince. She stabs him and his blood runs over her feet and turns her back into a mermaid.’
He was sitting on the edge of my bed, facing away from me. I pulled my knees up to my chest and put my hands under my feet.
‘That’s weird,’ he said. ‘You know some weird stuff.’
I didn't say anything. I looked at the space around him, at the empty air scattered through with sunlight.
My head on his chest and my fingers on his ribs; he shivered in his sleep.
The night breathed in, and the night breathed out. My curtains moved with the breeze, the horizon beyond them rose and fell, and suddenly there were two lakes outside and I was poised to tip into one or the other. In a breath the room tilted towards a time-stopped happiness, a dark surface with stars picked out by the crests of a hundred licking waves. Another breath, another lake: boundless black water churning with refuse.
Three days after Dale disappeared, his father organised a search party; poorly attended by a town that had no mind or memory for a quiet boy who'd cleared their gutters. I sat cross-legged on the pier, flicking a flashlight on and off the surface of the water, obscuring whatever was beneath it.
The bush between this town and the next was sparse and small, and getting smaller each year. Searching wouldn't take long. I pictured a body eaten at by dingoes. I pictured a body swinging from the mistletoe-infested branch of a eucalypt. I pictured a body laid out on a rock, heavy and serene as a sunbathing lizard.
I pretended at grief, because I was too scared to approach it. I imagined the way that I would hang back at his funeral, and my silence during the speeches. I coaxed a single tear down my cheek and leaned forward, and it dropped into the lake.
The next day, Dale's father helped me push the boat off the muddy banks, walked ahead of me and pulled it out into deeper water. He braced it as I climbed in, eyes down, hiding my gratitude. He'd already shown me how to start the engine, and watched my hands calmly as I grappled with the clutch.
My feet were in the nets. My shoes were soaked. The clutch caught, and Dale's father nodded to me as I lowered the engine into the water.
I manoeuvred into the centre of the lake. The houses on the shore receded.
This is what he hadn't told me: the things that were coming up from the bottom of the lake came in a steady stream, appearing one object at a time, minutes apart. A tennis ball. A child's plastic sandal. The foam covering from a pair of headphones. I looked into the murky lake, green and grey and ugly. Shadows squatted in its depths. Houses, I thought, or the outlines of backyards.
Something moved near me. With difficulty, I brought the boat around, pushed the nets towards a spot of churning water.
A plastic bag, tightly tied. Inside there were pants, a t-shirt, socks and underwear. Unwashed, and streaked with dirt. They still smelled like Dale.
I waited. When the sun went I pulled his t-shirt on over mine. It was dry, and cold from being under the water. This is what I retrieved in the following hour:
His left sneaker.
His library card.
His empty wallet.
An empty beer bottle.
A fish, disintegrating.
‘Bring me a present,’ I had said to him, before he disappeared. ‘From the lake.’
They had been leaving the debris along the shore, a plastic tidewrack. The town council was refusing to collect it, saying that they wouldn’t know who to charge for the extra processing fee.
He laughed. ‘You don’t want any of that crap.’
He was right. What I wanted was for him to think of me, for him to see something he wanted me to have, and to pull it from the water with two hands.
My mother was making her usual motions towards leaving, the ritual that preceded the conversation, which preceded the fight. She picked up small pieces of furniture and put them down in a slightly different position, a slightly different view of the room. She pulled all the condiments off the top of the fridge, arranging them in height order on the bench. ‘What'll we do with these? We're never going to use them. Why did I even buy them? It's so wasteful. And now what. The neighbours, I guess. We'll give them to the neighbours.’
She pulled bowls from the cupboard, put them in a cardboard box, and then took them out again. Gathered all the pot-plants together and gave them one good shower in the kitchen sink. ‘This'll have to do,’ she murmured. ‘It'll just have to do this time.’
I said nothing. She caught me by the front door, pushed a finger into the hole at the shoulder seam of the shirt I was wearing, his shirt. ‘You're not going out in this, are you? It looks like trash. Is this yours?’
Then she thought for a minute, in the time it took me to not answer. ‘It’s not yours.’
I shrugged her off. She was looking carefully past me.
‘I can fix it for you, if you like.’
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘I don’t think Dale will like that.’
I pulled the boat onto the shore. It was hot and windy. I sucked on a bottle of water until I felt the plastic contract in my hand. This is something else he didn't tell me; that being near water makes water taste better.
I left my things in the boat, pulled out the haul. Cleaned off the black sediment the best I could and arranged the objects on the beach in a careful showcase.
It got dark, but not cold. I walked out to the edge of the pier and put my feet in the water. There were things, soft things that brushed past them and then there were fingers, running down the arches from toe to ankle; slow and symmetrical.
Dale's face moved out of the water. It was black, like the water, and then when I turned on my torch, it was green.
‘Hey,’ he said. Lake water spilled from his mouth.
I didn't say anything at all. The air was stuck in my lungs.
‘You were right,’ he said. ‘About the mermaids. I wanted to tell you that.’
‘Everyone's looking for you, Dale. Did you know everyone's looking for you?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘That makes sense, I guess.’
His hand was cold on my ankle. His thumb moved in small circles, stoking familiarity.
‘I can't leave now,’ he said. ‘I can't leave here.’
He answered with silence. I remembered the way he used to look at me, early on. Like he was amazed at my existence. ‘What?’ I would say to that look, and he would say nothing, but take my hand and squeeze it. There was something of that look in him again, but it wasn't directed at me.
‘My mum wants to move again.’ I said. ‘Apparently the real estate prices on the central coast are just too good. I was going to tell you before you... I thought maybe you would tell me not to go.’
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘But maybe you'll like it?’
‘I always thought there had to be something better than this,’ he said, speaking slowly. ‘I just didn't realise that it was here.’
It was the summer after the summer I first met him. I tried to think about our time together as dates or hours or days. I tried to hold all those quick minutes in my mind. And then I thought about what I would pack, and what I would leave. What stuff of his I would take with me.
The air coming off the water was cold. I bent my head towards his; the smell of algae and earth and nothing.