Author: Lauryn Ramme – First Place Senior Division 2022

Lake Superior never gives up her dead.

It’s a saying I’ve heard my whole life, and one I know to be true. One only needs to take a single look at her violent, thrashing waters before they believe it themselves. She’s as large as an ocean, stretching for miles and miles. Her waters are the dark blue of the depths where sunlight doesn’t reach and are prone to swallowing up sailors whenever she gets restless.

This isn’t to say I am afraid of the old lake. Not in the slightest. I have simply grown to respect it. Once you understand that you will never understand, it gets a little easier.

The rocks along the shore are cold under my bare feet. The water is chilled against my toes, but not frigid; not yet is it that time of year.

It takes longer than it should for me to realize that I’m not alone.

My head snaps up, and I observe the stranger who has broken my peaceful moment. The intruder waves.

“Hey there,” he calls. “Got a minute?”

The boy—and he is a boy, not a man—trots over to where I am, seeming both eager and nervous at the same time. He’s got floppy blond hair, eyes the color of muddy ice. He walks with a false sense of confidence, as though he’s trying to seem more sure of himself than he is. I see right through it, as I do with most things.

“So, I’m—“The boy frowns. “Aren’t you cold?”

I look down at the thick flannel jacket covering my white dress. “Not particularly,” I say.

“I think I would be,” he jokes. He’s trying to make the conversation seem easy, using this tactic to move into another topic. I wonder what he wants from me.

The boy clears his throat. “Listen, have you seen a guy around here? About six-foot, hair a little darker than mine?”

There it is.

I haven’t, and I tell him so. His demeanor changes immediately, a crease of worry making itself known between his eyes. He runs a hand through his sandy hair, swallowing.

“Really? You’re sure?”

“I’ve been out here all day,” I tell him. “You’re the first person that’s come through.”

He squints. “You live out here?” I nod. It’s not a lie.

There’s silence for a few seconds, making it clear he’s not exactly sure how to proceed. After a bit, he sighs.

“Well, alright. I hate to ask, but, if you see anybody like that, will you give me a call?” He pulls a semi-crumpled sticky note out of his pocket. “Just the number right here.”

I nod again, and he pauses, waiting for a verbal confirmation that I don’t give.

Finally, he turns, starting to walk away.

“Who’re you looking for?” I ask when his back is turned. The boy doesn’t stop. “My brother.”

* * *

The house is small. It’s a ways off the shoreline, perched high enough that the lake can’t do much but mist the windows. I hop up the stairs, the wood beneath my feet worn soft with use. There are divots where my toes have made a familiar pattern.

The record player has been turned on, Bob Dylan’s soothing voice echoing throughout the walls. Honey-colored light emanates from the kitchen.

Turning, I walk carefully to my room, shivering a bit. I wasn’t lying when I told the boy I wasn’t particularly cold; it’s simply a never-ending state.

The pale pink wallpaper is forever peeling, its small red roses curled over and hidden. I stare at them from my bed, trying to place new shapes and patterns in the shadows.

I lie there, and I don’t think about the boy.

* * *

It stormed last night. The wind howled and screamed, and the lake was angered, its rough waves rising higher and higher in their fury. I thought for a moment that it would be a bad one, one that ripped apart the coast and stole lives. But it stopped almost as soon as it began, as though Mother Nature instantly regretted her temper tantrum.

I don’t mind a little tempest, not when they bring me great treasures. Scouring the shoreline, I search for pretty rocks and discarded objects, anything that catches my eye. A couple weeks ago, I found a shiny ring. I tried to wear it, but it wouldn’t stick.

Shaking off a bit of sand, I observe my bounty. Some soft pieces of green sea glass, and a rock, colored bright pink. Probably not a rock at all, but a man-made item someone tossed away. That’s okay. It is still beautiful.

I hear dull footsteps against the sand and know who it is without looking. “Hey again,” the boy says.

I shove my treasures into my pocket, feeling the way leftover sand coats the inside.


He sits down next to me, making use of a dry spot along the shore. “See anyone today?”

I blink at him. “It’s still early.”

“Well, maybe you saw someone last night?” he tries. “I know there was a storm, so, someone could have got swept in, or…”

He trails off.

“I haven’t seen anyone,” I say truthfully. “I’m sorry.”

The boy nods. I expect that to be the end of it, for him to move on and continue searching the coast. But he stays where he is.

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” he asks, after a moment of silence.

I tilt my head. Sometimes, I forget that I look school-age. “Shouldn’t you be?”

“I’m searching for a missing family member,” he points out. “As far as I know, you don’t have that same excuse.”

“Homeschooled,” I say. It’s an explanation I’ve had prepared, but one I haven’t had to use in a long time.


We watch the lake, the waves gently rolling over, a contrast to their violent night. A seagull cries out in the distance, likely hoping for a morning snack. I wonder when the boy is planning on leaving.

“Cole,” he says, quietly.

I furrow my brow. “What?”

“That’s my name,” he mumbles. “You never asked, so I just…yeah.” I rest my cheek on my knees.

“I’m Birdie,” I tell him, finally.

Cole smiles. “That’s a pretty name. Very classic.” I suppose he would think so.

“Cole is a nice name too,” I say, after a beat.

He laughs a little, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Just nice? Not pretty?” I duck my head, so he doesn’t see me smile.

* * *

I hold my mug of tea, feeling the heat seep from the ceramic to my hands. I can’t drink it, but I savor its fleeting warmth.

Cole stayed for a while longer. Talking to me.

He won’t come back, My mind repeats. Now that he knows his brother isn’t here, he’s going to stay far, far away.

The thought comforts me through the night.

* * *

Cole comes back.

Every morning, he comes to my small slice of coast and asks if I’ve seen his brother. I say no, he sits and chats, and then is on his merry way to do more searching.

I don’t like it. Names are one thing. I have collected plenty of them. Taylor, Harry, Dorothea, Inez. Rebekah, James, Betty, August. Names, I have in no short supply.

Time, however, is more dangerous. Time leads to pain.

The more time I spend with Cole, the more it’s going to hurt when he’s gone.

“Heya, Birdie,” he greets, all too chipper for a morning like this.

The sky is a pale gray, the kind that makes me doubt the sun has risen at all. The autumn chill has set in, and the lake’s waters are starting to become littered with the browns and reds of dead leaves. I don’t hate the fall itself, but what comes after: the months of loneliness when Lake Superior is barren but for scattered ice fishermen. I shouldn’t mourn the autumn before it’s passed, but I can’t quite help myself.


Cole makes a brrrr noise, rubbing his hands together and blowing on them. “Cold today, huh?”

I nod. He grins. “But that doesn’t stop you from coming out here, huh?” Shrugging, I say, “It’s routine. And I like the fresh air.”

“Can’t blame you,” Cole agrees. “Winter’s coming fast. Pretty soon, we’ll all be stuck inside.”

Oh, don’t I know it.

His cheeks are pink, and his nose is getting there too. His lips are chapped, and small tremors keep going through his body. I look at his thin jacket and lack of gloves.

“Why don’t we go inside now?” I ask.

Mine might not beat anymore, but I am not heartless.

Relief fills his features, and he gets up without question.

I’m not embarrassed of the house, but I feel a sense of…something, leading Cole up the rickety stairs. I bite my lip at the chipped gray paint, the crack in the front window that’s never been fixed.

He breathes out when we get inside. I tighten my flannel against my shoulders.

Whatever reprieve he gets from the chill isn’t for me.

“Do you want tea?” I ask, already heading to the kitchen.

“Oh, no, you don’t have to do all that,” he protests, following me. I shake my head. “I’m making you tea.”

I put the kettle on. Cole looks around. I see his eyes linger on the walls, and for a moment, I am confused; until I realize what he’s noticed.

“You don’t have any family pictures,” he points out. I lean against the counter. “No.”

Cole bites his lip. “Where are your parents?” He asks. “I’ve never seen anyone else here. Are they always at work?”

Closing my eyes, I say, “My parents aren’t with us anymore.”

“Oh, I’m—I’m so sorry,” Cole breathes, looking immediately regretful. “I didn’t mean to—I just— “

“It’s okay,” I tell him. “You were just curious.”

He looks like he wants to apologize again, but the kettle whistles, silencing him.

Pouring the tea into mugs, I bring them to the table. Cole slides into a chair, the old wood creaking under his weight.

The dining table sits directly across from the front window, giving a picturesque view of the lake. Cole watches it now. He doesn’t drink.

“Drew went fishing,” he says, quietly. “It was a clear day. Perfect. We were nervous about him going alone, but he was so put-together, and he’d done it so many times before.”

He clears his throat. “It wasn’t—there was no reason to stop him.”

He sounds anguished. I let him sit with his grief for a moment, feeling as though he needs it.

“I lost my parents out there,” I say, finally. There were more. But he knows too much already. “That lake…it can turn on a dime. Even the most experienced can falter.” I’m not sure why I feel the need to comfort him, but when I see the tension in his shoulders lessen, I can breathe easier. “It’s not your fault, Cole.” His fingers trace a pattern on the table.

“Birdie,” he murmurs. “Do you think he’ll come back?”

I should tell him no. I should tell him that Drew is long gone, and that he should run, get as far away from this lake as his legs will take him. He should leave, and never come back. I should do one thing right.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I do.”

* * *

Cole never breaks his routine. For two weeks, he continues to come to the coast. He questions me. I pretend to look for Drew. He helps me scour for treasures along the shore and brings me gifts of his own. Yesterday, he brought me a bright yellow flower he’d seen on the side of the road. I held it in my hands the whole time he was here. It died when I tried to bring it to the house, its petals wilted and gray.

We look for shapes in the clouds and in the shadows of my room. He fiddles with my record player, marveling at its condition, and tells me I should play records of artists I’ve never heard of. He lists off new, better sound technology that I don’t understand, and wonders aloud why I still have a radio. Without realizing it, he’s become a part of my daily life.

Until the morning he doesn’t show.

I sit patiently out by the rocks, my hands shoved deep into my pockets, waiting for him to appear so we can go inside. The house is always warmer when he’s there.

But he never does. The sun rises higher and higher, its brightness stabbing my eyes like a dagger, and still Cole is gone.

Curling my arms around myself, I sit and think. The thoughts I’ve fought for weeks slowly start to creep in, like ivy on an old brick home.

Every day, I watch his spirit grow weaker. For all I’ve tried to deny it, I have not gotten this far without being observant. The light behind his eyes dims more every time I tell him I’ve seen no other person. His heart loses one more piece.

This missed morning will soon be one of many.

The lake’s water nips at my feet, and I’m reminded that Cole isn’t the only one who’s patience is wearing thin.

She grows more restless with every passing hour, her waters hungry and agitated. Dead fish continue to wash up on her shores, and flies hover just out of her grasp. She is waiting. I have sealed my fate, and it’s not one I can shed as easily as my jacket.

“Tomorrow,” I tell her. I shove a lock of hair out of my face, grown tangled from the misty air. “Tomorrow.”

* * *

The dull thud thud of his footfalls alerts me the next morning. Cole is out of breath, looking repentant.

“Hi,” he gasps. “Sorry I missed you yesterday. I overslept, and I had to rush to school, and then—“

“It’s okay,” I cut him off, placing a saccharine smile on my face. “You have a life. I understand.”

His shoulders sag with relief. “Okay, good. I’m sorry again.” He flops down next to me. “Any sightings?”

I shake my head no. His jaw tightens minusculey, but he says nothing.

I lift my hand, shielding my eyes from the morning sun. Today is warm for autumn, and I’ve removed my flannel. Cole has arrived in only jeans and a t-shirt. I touch the water with my toes. They’ve remained painted all this time.

Smiling, I take a step in. Cole eyes me warily.

I raise an innocent eyebrow. “What?”

He frowns, looking at the lake. “It’s Lake Superior. In October.”

I shrug. “It’s hot out, and I’ve been out here all day. I’m just cooling off.”

He doesn’t look satisfied with that answer, picking up a small rock and rolling it between his fingers. It’s silent for a moment too long.

“Birdie,” he says, finally. “What’s going on?”

A chill runs through me. “What do you mean?”

He drops the pebble, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t get it. You—you stay out here, every day, by yourself, I’m pretty sure. I tried to let it go, but…it’s weird. It’s really weird.”

Cold dread tightens its hold across my chest, its slimy fingers feeling their way through my skull.

He gestures to my white dress. “I’ve never seen you wear anything else. Your house…it’s always freezing. That day you made tea? You didn’t drink it. I’ve never seen any other food in your house, either.” His eyes fix on me, pleading.

The waves pulse around me. I can feel them, pulling the rocks out from under my feet. The bottom of my dress is soaked as I’m pulled farther in by the currents.

I swallow. “You didn’t oversleep yesterday, did you?” Cole shakes his head. He looks down.

“I didn’t want to,” he says, quietly. “But…I went to the police. I had to.” I feel like my world is tipping upside down. “What?”

He takes a shuddery breath.

“Birdie….did someone hurt you? Is that why you came out here?” This gives my brain a moment of pause. Hurt me?

“Did you have to run away to this place?” he repeats. The nerves are gone from his face, replaced with sympathy. He pities me. “I don’t know your story. I don’t know if you had no choice, or, if it’s rebellion, or…whatever, but you can’t stay here. The house is old. It has no heat, and you’ve gotta be running out of food. Your clothes won’t keep you warm out here.” He jerks his head at the flannel I’ve discarded on the beach.

“I think you should come with me,” Cole finishes. “You need to be somewhere safe. You need to be in school.

I pause, and he must see it as worry, rather than the confusion it is, because he says earnestly, “We’ll help you, don’t worry. My family and I. Whatever you’re running from, it won’t get you.”

Oh. He hasn’t figured it out, then. Cole thinks I’m hiding from something. How naive he must be.

It makes it a little easier to go through with what I’m about to do, knowing that something else simply would have gotten him anyway.

I sink into the water, bowing my head like I’ve been caught. Cole steps in, kneeling down next to me. He pulls me into a hug. He is so warm.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs, the words I’ve told him so many times. “Everything is gonna be okay.”

I lean into him, my shoulders shaking. He brushes my hair off of my face. And I grab his wrist.

Cole jerks back, momentarily stunned. “Wha—“

I whip around, grabbing him by his shoulders. The water is starting to rise around us.

“Birdie, what are you doing?” He is panicked, his voice rising in pitch. He struggles, no longer being gentle, trying his hardest to throw me off. Like his brother, he is a fighter.

The water goes up my nose and into my eyelids, making the world a disoriented, blurry mess. I can’t hear anything but splashing, can’t feel anything but the heat of Cole’s skin through his t-shirt.

His nails scratch at my skin. “Why?”

The word is interrupted by choking as he’s pushed further under, still fighting to grab me, to save himself.

The current pulls, stronger than anything man could ever make. The sign that my work is done. Cole is dragged down, down, down, to a place cold enough that dead bodies never rot. The last thing I see is his skinny hand, trying to reach me.

I stay in the lake for a long time. Now, she is calm. A bird chirps in the distance. Far off, I see a fisherman hoping to get a morning catch. He is in no danger; she has gotten what she wanted.

I pull myself out of her waters, once again sitting on the shore. I should feel satisfied, drunk off the feeling of a job well done. But I’ve long since grown immune to her charms, and all I feel is a tiredness, deep and in my bones.

I’m not sure how many years it’s been since I made the deal. Time is hard to follow when you have no mortal markers, even short increments. My best guess is about a century.

I’ve always said I would do anything for the ones I love. I’m sure you would, too.

So you can’t fault me for the choices I’ve made.

My parents fell victim to her violent temperament. They knew better, truly, they did, but they still took us out that day. Me, my sister, and my brother. We piled on the boat, watching it glide across her waters, cutting through them as if they were butter.

I don’t remember the specifics of what happened. My mind has only been able to keep the memory of darkness, and cold, of trying to breathe, and feeling myself choke on water. The storm had flipped our boat, waves rising feet above us. I watched my younger sister flail, saw my brother try to pull her to safety and fall victim to the water in the process. My mother reached for my father, grabbing nothing but lake water.

I felt the current begin to drag me down.

“Not them!” I’d choked out. I wasn’t sure if the words were audible over the raging wind, but I called out anyway, the cries of a desperate, dying girl. “Not them. Please.

Take me. But not them.”

I kicked out, seeing my family disappear beneath the waves. “Please,” I whimpered. “I will do anything.”

The darkness swallowed me. A voice, ancient and true, rang out in my mind. I could not describe that voice if I tried. It was like the crash of the waves against the earth, the sound of stones splashing across the sea. It was a voice no mortal should hear.

You would trade your soul for the lives of your family? The lake asked. I sobbed. “Yes.”

Then you will do me the task of bringing me more.

I awoke on the beach, dry, and in the same clothes I had worn on the boat. I wasn’t sure how long ago that was, now.

I never saw my family again.

But I knew they lived, for the lake never breaks a promise. Now, neither could I.

For years, I’ve fulfilled my end of the bargain. I don’t know what she does with the bodies, or the souls they contain. I don’t care to ask. All I’m sure of is this: Lake Superior never gives up her dead.

Comments are closed.