Every summer during my childhood, the entire extended family would converge on Priest Lake, just south of the Canadian border in Northern Idaho. For three months pop-ups and RVs surrounded the tiny cabin my great-grandpa had built after receiving two acres, including three hundred yards of beachfront, as a Christmas bonus from Diamond Logging (he was the accountant) in 1908. As a kid, this was paradise. No school, no rules, access to boats and motorbikes and about a thousand cousins always ready for fun and trouble.
The place was mystical, full of family lore (the night a black bear charged the campfire and my dad shot him between the eyes with a pistol; the crooked tree ten yards up the beach my grandpa had rammed with the ski boat after getting shitfaced at a Knights of Columbus barbeque across the lake), and rites of passage. Swimming out to the northern Twin Island. Climbing the post at the end of the dock and diving off. Spending a night in the abandoned prospector’s shack on top of the mountain. And the final impossible feat… swimming down into the Dropoff.
At the edge of our property the lake’s floor fell away so sharply that, from one step to the next, waist-deep water became… immeasurable. Literally. Fish and Game had come out with sounding equipment and given up. There was so much debris moving around down there, and the algae was so thick, they couldn’t get an accurate reading. One of the rangers said he could make out a narrow shaft plunging down at least a thousand feet, maybe more.
So that was the million-dollar dare. To put on a scuba mask and swim down into the black depths of the Dropoff as far as your breath would take you. On a particularly bright sunny day, with a particularly boisterous crew of relatives on the beach drinking beer and playing horseshoes, babies crawling in the sand and aunts sunbathing on air mattresses, on a day when it was absolutely inconceivable that anything bad would ever happen to anybody, it would seem possible. But it was impossible. No matter how brave you’d felt on the beach, the second you’d passed from the watery blue into the swampy green and seen the black, the real and utter black water dropping into forever and nothing, your body would rebel, twisting head over heels, damn near ripping muscles and dislocating joints in a blind jolt of primal panic to get the fuck back out from where you didn’t belong, and your lungs would collapse in terror so that once again you’d break the surface thrashing and gagging while everybody laughed…
Occasionally, watching the dare for the first time some drunken friend of the family would ask “What do you dipshits think is down there?” Logically, we knew that there was nothing. But we also knew that logic had its place, and that maybe the Dropoff at Priest Lake wasn’t that place. And we knew that if there was something, it had teeth like butcher’s knives, dead eyes without pupils, long knobby fingers and claws. Hair like matted seaweed. It would be millions of years old, living there at the bottom of the inky icy lake, waiting, waiting to straighten up out of the water, walking on spindly legs onto the beach to feed… So every few days one of us would dare another to swim down into the blackness, and we’d force ourselves right to the edge, right to blue sky giving way to outer space, to the edge of the known world… and come flailing up out of the water with the devil shrieking at our heels.
Standing on the fractured remnant of our dock under a gray October sky spitting rain, looking at Priest Lake for the first time in nearly thirty years, I’m thinking about those summers, long gone. Those people, dead or dispersed. I’m thinking about what I might have said if someone had asked me back then what my life would be like now, July 4th 2021. I don’t know exactly what I would have said… but I’m pretty sure it would have been the opposite of this. What’s the saying?… Life is what happens while you’re making other plans? I guess I made plans, and then just waited for those plans to come true.
And then one day I guess I just stopped waiting. And then ten more years passed. And suddenly last night, for no reason at all, on the way home from work I found myself pulling onto the freeway, heading north, ten hours to Priest Lake.
The place looks terrible. I’ve been out of touch with the family, so I have no idea who inherited it when my grandparents died. What is clear is that nobody’s been here in years. The beach is overgrown with weeds, the dock is beached and broken, and the cabin’s half caved in.
For two hours I’ve been walking the property, letting the memories wash over me… and just now, it dawned on me why I’ve come.
I’m going to be a legend after all. Better late than never.
I came here to swim down into the Dropoff.
I can’t say why I’m doing this, exactly, or what I think it’s going to change… but it seems important. Stripping naked, I walk into the water and dive, gliding over the mossy stones towards the black water.
Plunging deeper, down into the freezing blackness, I steel myself for the familiar horrible thrill of fear I remember from childhood… but it doesn’t come. And without the fear, without the vision of the horrifying creature lurking down in the watery guts of the earth, I’m nothing but a middle-aged man swimming down into the deepest part of the lake. That’s it. My lungs begin to burn and I flip around, intending to kick back to the surface, back to the small life I’d abruptly fled and the job I dislike. I’ve just admitted that this whole weird spontaneous mid-life crisis roadtrip has come to nothing when I see the pale spot far beneath me, rising, growing larger.
And as I continue watching, the fear does hit. The fear hits hard, a paralyzing sickening fear, far deeper than anything experienced in childhood, as the shape becomes a figure, a pale man rising up from the darkness…
I twist towards the surface and a hand latches onto my ankle, wrenching me back down, turning me around, and I recognize the figure’s face…
My own. But altered. The jawline sharper, less booze settled in the nose and cheeks, fewer defeats and sleepless nights, the eyes clearer and sharp. But the eyes aren’t mine. There’s something wrong with the eyes.
Holding me by the shoulders, face to face, the thing shakes its head and says “Too late.” I can hear the voice, a crisper version of my own, clearly underwater. I realize that I no longer need to breathe. I try to speak, to shout, but my facial muscles are frozen.
“It’s too late now. You felt it. Whatever you used to have, you don’t have anymore. You let yourself lose it. Your turn is over. We’re starting over.“ I’m paralyzed. The creature, this copy of me, shakes his head again sadly, and gripping both my shoulders pushes me straight down, down into the blackness. Plummeting deeper I see him above me twisting like a fish, breaking for the surface. And suddenly I can see the future, his future. My future. He’ll put on my clothes and drive my car back home. At work, people will notice a sudden change in me. Over the next several months, a year, I’ll be promoted. Maybe I’ll move to a bigger city. I’ll meet a woman, develop hobbies. I’ll read. I’ll run before work and watch the sun come up.
I’ll look up my cousins, and reinstitute the annual pilgrimage to Priest Lake.
And this is what runs through my mind, over and over, an endless loop, as I float here in the black water. It’s nearly as good as actually living it. And I’m certainly not alone, here. Though I can’t see, I’m aware of others floating all around me.
And in a way I’m happy for us. Proud of what we’re doing with this second chance.
BIO: Adam Phillips currently makes his living teaching and coaching in Idaho. He is the author of the recently published novel Manifest, signed copies of which can be obtained by emailing him at email@example.com.