In the Retreat Club Diner, Bud Howard drank his second morning coffee while watching the morning news on a small television set secured in the corner. The other regulars had a passing interest in the local news segments unless the topic disrupted their weekend fishing—all the attention was turned to the television. The lake water had begun dropping in October after a long summer and a rainfall of three inches. The news anchor, in his stoic way reserved for tragedy, read cue cards about weather patterns until his voice cracked in a note of excitement. He directed their attention to a video of a low flying airtanker that dropped its bucket in the lake and, each time, lifted over a thousand gallons of water. The lake was falling by inches as a fire raged forty miles to the southeast. Bud, who had a mug to his lips, let out a shout. He pointed to the screen and the small parcel of land that had appeared on the horizon of the lake.
“It’s Goforth,” he said.
Bud was eighty-one years old. He slid out of the booth; his overalls stretched over his stomach. He pointed to the screen again knowing it wasn’t the driest year on record—that being the town of Wink in 1956 with a rainfall of 1.24 inches—but it was enough for the water to recede from the edges of Lake Buchanan and expose the piece of land where he had been born. “Do you see it?” he asked.
“Yes, we see it,” a younger man replied.
Bud could tell by the way the younger men turned away from him that they were afraid of his gesture, his eagerness, but he needed that exposed land. The government in its creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps had chosen five areas of the Colorado River to dam. Lake Buchanan was a man-made lake and submerged below it was the town of Goforth. Bud’s family had lived in Goforth and when the government put stakes in the ground, declaring the pecan groves dead, his family moved out of the reach of the impending lake. Their neighbors had done the same or left to find work elsewhere. The pecan groves had been the town’s source of income, but with the drought and the recession any work was welcome. Bud’s family secured jobs building the dam and watched the river flood their home.
“I got to get out there,” Bud said.
“You’re going to give yourself a heart attack,” the waitress said.
The men in the diner were not interested in Bud’s excitement. They had their own families to provide for and were worried how the drought would affect their weekend fishing. They had turned away from the television when the new correspondent, who was at the lake, pointed out a piece of discolored limestone, marked and engraved by the changes in the water levels over the years. The correspondent, her nails painted a deep red, directed Bud’s attention to the four different marks. She paused as she passed each one. The lines reminded Bud of the way his gums receded from his teeth—his hidden markers of age.
“It’s not like it’s gonna rain and fill it up,” the waitress said.
Bud sighed heavily and replaced his cap. He thought for sure one of them would offer to take him out there. Each had a motorized boat; it would be easy. But instead the men offered, Sorry, and Bud knew he wouldn’t get anywhere with them.
“Give it to the weekend,” the waitress said. “Then they’ll take you.”
“I’ll figure it out,” Bud said.
The bells on the glass door jingled as a young woman walked in. She took a seat at a table with vinyl booths that held the imprint of weight. Bud had never seen her before, but there was something familiar to her face. Bud looked around the diner at the round-cushioned stools, the tan counters, the aqua Formica, and the peach tile. The dinner was better suited for a beach town rather than a town in the middle of the state. The other regulars had noticed the young woman too when the waitress went over to take her order.
It was 8 a.m. and other regulars replaced their hats. Bud heard their chorus of voices; heard them clear their throats and the final slurps of coffee and settling of ceramic mugs. He had been drinking with the same men, their fathers before them for a long time, always with the slight scent of shower or the sweat of the night before. He watched the younger men slap each other on the back with a loud clapping sound. Their responses were unflinching, but as they moved towards Bud he felt their palms become softer as they slid across his shoulder. He saw their eyes turn suspicious and knew that she was not familiar to any of them. He heard their whispers.
“She looks homeless.”
“Where did she come from?”
And then his neighbor said, “I’ll take you to that island on Saturday. First thing.”
“Sure, sure,” Bud said.
The young woman stood up and walked against the flow of men to the counter. She was like a fish moving away from its school. She took a stool next to Bud and motioned to the television screen. “Cool how droughts expose old towns,” the young woman said.
Bud was surprised she was talking to him though he realized she had waited until the other men had left. Bud looked her over as he knew the other men had done too. She shifted her weight in a way Bud had learned women did when watched by men. She wore shorts that must have been jeans once: tight and patched. Her shirt had dried sweat stains and a ripped handkerchief hung out of her back pocket. It did appear she had slept outside.
“May I have some pancakes?” she asked.
“Where are you from?” Bud asked.
“East and south of here. Galveston.”
“And your family?”
“Sea serpent chasers,” she said and grinned as the waitress set down a stack of pancakes.
“You’re covered in dirt.”
“I’m taking a trip,” she said and pointed to a road bike locked up outside. She reached in her pockets after finishing her pancakes. Bud moved the bills closer to the waitress and felt a dampness like they had been under water. Since it hadn’t rained, he wondered if she had found a swimming pool. The waitress gave him a strained look when Bud suggested him and the woman take a look at the island.
“Go out there together?” the young woman asked.
“Yes,” he said and when he turned around after closing the glass door, he saw the waitress had picked up the phone and was twirling the cord in her fingers.
The woman’s name was Lucy and she said she was twenty-six years old. She told Bud she left the city, seventy-seven miles south, three days prior as the sun was rising over the farms. It was considered undeveloped, but grew the city’s supply of leafy vegetables and tomatoes, squash varieties and pumpkins. It was open fields with long dirt paths and rows and rows of garlic. Four miles to the west was downtown—built up with more cranes appearing each day to build floors upon floors towards that clear blue sky. Lacy had headed north along the two-lane roads. “I needed a break,” she said.
Bud’s truck was not new. It was from an era when cars were made with sharp corners and the gear affixed to the steering panel. He had covered the bench seat with an old horse blanket, cut holes in it so he could still buckle his seatbelt. He saw her looking in the side mirror. Bud wondered if she was checking on her bicycle, which they had strapped to the truck bed or if she was memorizing the roads and that led him to wonder what kind of person gets into a car with a stranger.
“Just a few more minutes and we’ll be at my house,” he said. Bud wanted to ask where she had slept or if she biked the whole night. He turned the steering wheel and the truck turned up a dirt driveway. His closest neighbor was three miles away and the fields in front of his house needed tending. The grass was too long and he only had a gas mower, something he used to ride around on with a beer poured into a glass with ice. He remembered it as cool, the clinking and melting; he had wiped the condensation with his cheeks. His wife had enjoyed her beers on the porch. He could not mow his grass now because the heat of the mower could ignite the straw-like grass. That’s what the morning news had said about the fire southeast of them: a hot muffler pipe of a cable truck had set fire to highway grass when the driver had pulled over to fix a flat. So far it had swept through a track of housing on its way to the Lost Pines.
“This is my house,” he said. It was a ranch-style house with a small concrete porch and an awning. Both additions. A traveling salesman had shown an ad to Bud’s father in the diner. Imagine this home, the salesman had said, and pointed to a catalog. Bud’s father brought it home, and standing in what would become the front lawn, but had always been a horse pasture, held the catalog up. The house arrived in separate pieces on two trucks a couple of months later.
Bud parked the truck in front of the barn: an A frame with a square opening in the hayloft. The roof was rusted tin and the siding was weathered wood with a thinly painted Texas flag. Bud thought Lucy must’ve seen so many barns like this one on her ride, some newer, most rotted. Was his like the ones she had explored along the road, ones that were abandoned, the roofs caving in? That rotted smell of hay decomposing?
“Cool barn,” she said.
That’s it. Cool barn, Bud thought.
“To the left,” Bud said and pointed to the empty horse stalls. One of them was turned into a woodworking shop where saws and clamps hung on the wall. An open toolbox, rusted and red, sat open on a workbench. This was where Bud had handcrafted his boats. There was a pile of flattened cedar boards on the workbench. The pieces with knots, Bud had thrown out back to use later, to build something like a playhouse for his granddaughter—if she ever visited. That hope of a visit was several years old and the arthritis in his hands had only gotten worse. Lucy stood in the opening of the stall looking around and touched a pair of goggles.
The finished boats were stacked on top of each other in the next stall. “We’ll take this one,” he said and leaned down to pull the boat. It didn’t move far and he tried to remember the last time it had been moved. He had only set up a lawn chair on the side of the lake during the last years or went on the motorized boats when he was invited. Bud stepped away from the boat and motioned for Lucy to give it a try. She dragged it onto the trailer and Bud used ratchet straps to secure it.
“It’s kind of heavy,” she said. Bud watched her and knew she was lying. It was the way she looked up at him when she said it, dragging the boat with two hands. If she had only been looking down, concentrating on it, she would have fooled him, but she was looking at him and her knuckles were not ghost white.
In the stall across for them, bicycles leaned up against each other. They were rusted with flat tires, and above them were the newspaper articles, yellowed from years, and legal paper with elaborate penciled notes. Lucy moved into the stall after setting the trailer down. The newspaper articles were about the lake and the fantastical stories about the size of the fish caught and the disturbing items uncovered. Or recovered, Bud had thought once. Like the old Buick that was exposed during the last drought. The water receded from it too.
“The newspaper isn’t very poetic,” she said. “It’s just the facts.”
“Oh, that was terrible,” Bud replied. “They found a woman’s body in the front seat.”
Lucy pointed out another article about creatures—long eel like bodies with human faces—under the water. She traced the other articles and said, “Seems like a lot of people go missing.”
“Yes,” he said. He pointed to his notes on the legal paper. He had outlined the names of the residents of Retreat who went missing over the years. Some, like his daughter, hadn’t disappeared, but left. Bud watched Lucy as she traced the map of the lake and the strings that attached the pushpins to the newspaper articles. For every disappearance, a clue was found: a set of keys, a shoe, though there had never been a note.
“I could fix these for you,” she said when she turned her attention to the bicycles.
“No one uses those anymore,” Bud replied.
The only animals kept were chickens though he leased acreage in the far back of the property to a woman who raised goats. The chickens were easy to take care of and were waiting outside the barn. They scattered away until Bud reached down into a bucket of seed and doused them with it. Their heads bobbed and their wattles shook. They ran alongside each other between the house and the barn and came back to peck the earth around him. “It’s like being loved,” he said.
“Do you ever eat them,” Lucy asked,
“Only the eggs,” he said. He pointed to the house. “It’s supposed to come apart so that I could take it with me if I ever moved.” He tapped his fists together and then pretended to break something apart. He pointed past the house. “One of my brothers and his buddy built a shed down there and slept in bunks. They kept the horses and went out to tend the vegetables and pecan groves. You can walk back there later, if you want, when we come to pick up your bike.”
Bud’s finger stayed in the air—his muscles growing tired—as he pointed to the shed where his brother had lived for decades. It lay collapsed under a pecan tree. Bud remembered the impact of the pecans falling against the tin roof—the ting and roll and the thud to the ground. His brother had found comfort in that sound, when he returned home after being drafted, and in the patter of the rain. “There’s also a family graveyard,” Bud said. “They used the oldest men to dig up the graves from Goforth Cemetery so they wouldn’t be flooded over.” Bud’s grandfather located and moved the graves to the new cemetery in Retreat. Most of the coffins had deteriorated and his grandfather shoveled bone dust into woven sacks. The family legend, which his mother had refused to believe, had always been another story: Bud’s grandfather had never moved his own family’s graves, only the headstones. “For years I’d been able to grow anything in this dirt,” Bud said, kicking it. “Now it’s all dried up again.”
It was only a couple of miles to the lake and Bud drove along the road that circled and crossed over the two-mile dam—the tires sounding flat as they passed over the connectors in the concrete. Lucy leaned forward in her seat with her knees pressed against the glove box. She looked out the windshield. Bud had gotten more comfortable with her. He still wasn’t sure what her story was, but she paid attention to him. She asked him questions.
“How would these eel-like creatures get into a man-made lake?” she asked.
“It hasn’t always been dammed,” Bud replied. “It felt like a real invitation to the modern world. It was built to prevent flooding downriver. And to give the state more hydroelectric power.”
“There’s rain clouds,” she said. The clouds were in the west hanging over the horizon and slow-moving. He loved this about his state. The long and wide views, the rolling hills, and that clear blue sky. The rain clouds could come their way or move out in another direction. It was hard to tell; they were miles away. “Think we should still go?” she asked.
“I was born out there,” he replied.
“Can you swim?”
“Of course I can swim.” He wanted to change the subject, wanted to tell her about the old town, but most of his memories were of mud. Mud on boots and pant legs. But he considered this because he was a small boy and eye level with those things. He looked over at Lucy. There were beads of sweat on her forehead and he wanted to apologize for the air conditioner not working. He adjusted the rearview mirror and found the grayish eyes of an old man. Those lines across his forehead were brand new again. When did they first appear, when did he first notice them? he wondered. Had it really been fifty years already? Lucy wiped the sweat away with the collar of her t-shirt.
“They were using a map,” Bud said. “To find the graves. A lot of them were unmarked.” His mother had helped write letters to the families who had moved away though the post office was eventually flooded. His mother had felt passionate about finding the families because the graves could not be moved without their consent. “They tried to move the town too.”
He backed up to the lake and Lucy jumped down to unhook the boat and lower it into the lake. It sat on the edge of the water, one end rocking slowly, but steady. Bud wanted to take off his shoes and socks, roll up his pant legs. He had become so accustomed to wearing his shoes for safety. If he slipped at his age something was sure to break, but here the sand was thick beneath the surface of the water and the slippery rocks were further out. He bent down and untied his shoes and threw each one of the separately into the rowboat. Lucy did not remove her shoes.
“Maybe once we’re out there,” she said.
The boat moved easily through the water. Lucy had a natural stroke. A thin line of sweat appeared above the brim of Bud’s hat. He had given Lucy sunscreen and applied a small amount to his own face. He wanted to tell her that you don’t think of yourself with these lines on your skin when you’re not looking in the mirror. You think of yourself some other way—at the age right before they appeared. And it’s a shock every time to see yourself again in the mirror. He rarely examined his own skin and enjoyed the heat on it. In the boat it was like the sun’s rays pulled apart his wrinkles and entered. He splashed cold lake water on his cheeks.
“There it is,” Bud said. It had taken them a half-hour to row out. “Circle around it.”
Lucy did one long stroke to move the boat forward as Bud looked over the side. Below him he could make out the blurry images of broken cornerstones. He was trying to recall how deep the lake was when Lucy took another long stroke and they moved forward again. The exposed area wasn’t all that big, maybe twenty feet by twenty feet, but he felt protective of the resurfaced land. It occurred to him that there would be treasure hunters eventually. They would take pieces of the buildings, glass bottles, anything that they could pick through. He knew the buildings—the hotel, the saloon, the post office, the factory—had been semi-broken down, but the foundation of the buildings were left intact. He saw the beginning of a granite wall, the small tip of it, exposed by the drought and Bud followed its line as it extended deep into the lake. Three hundred feet if he remembered it correctly.
“The Colorado River is six million years old,” he said.
“That sounds right,” she said.
Below them was the old pecan orchard. The trees were just stumps. Their long branches that once reached upwards had been smoothed away by the small currents, the small rocking back and forth of the water. Stump after stump after stump. The boat moved forward. Lucy was looking up at the sun.
“Feels good sometimes,” she said.
But there is always a first raindrop—always that one that isn’t quite followed by the rest. Bud tilted his chin. Two. Three raindrops hit his ear. It felt like the raindrops were as familiar as the sun, which disappeared behind a cloud as the cold air moved in.
“Should we go back?” Lucy asked.
“My family is down there,” he said.
On their right, a metal ball stuck out of the water. Lucy reached out and placed her palm on it. It was strong enough that Lucy could pull herself and the boat along. Bud was sure it should have broken off in her grasp. It belonged to the church spire and it reached down below them with its rotted wood to its hollowed out building.
“The water really dropped,” Bud said. The rain came in quick bursts. It was almost sideways and began to sting Bud’s eyes.
“We should really turn back,” Lacy said.
“Let me see the oars,” Bud said. He tried to say Lucy’s name, but her name fell hard off his tongue. His wrist was shaking. The boat had an inch of water at the bottom and was filling quickly.
“We need to go back.” Lucy’s hair was wet, stringy, new drops falling from the strands.
Bud looked back towards the mainland. Too far. He looked over to the exposed land. He could get there. He could make it to that land. Stand on solid ground again. Someone would come find him. They must have already been thinking about it. But instead he took the oars from Lucy and threw them overboard. It happened in such a quick and gentle motion that it took her a moment to respond.
“Are you crazy?” she asked. “I’m the one who can swim.”
Bud leaned over the side of the boat to look at the lost town. The boat tilted and he slipped in. The rainwater that had filled the boat sloshed as it combined with the lake water. Lucy was still talking to him, her voice a little higher in pitch. His shoes floated on the surface. The panic was slow in his chest. He wondered if maybe he was having a heart attack. The boat turned over and his body sank lower into the water.
When he looked up he saw Lucy’s feet—her shoes still on—dangling as she treaded water. Bud reached up, grabbed both her heels and held them together like a mermaid fin. He wanted to pull her down; he felt an urge for that kind of power. She kicked wildly. He saw her looking down at him, the water giving buoyancy to her hair and he understood what had been familiar about her face: it was her youth. He let go and sunk lower along the spire. He noticed the slime and the aquatic life that poised in the windows like houseplants. Above him the undersides of a motor boat appeared and he saw a hand reach into the water and grab for his hat. So they did come, he thought, and here they are to save me.