Fire Lake

June’s theme was They Come at Night.

Synopsis

When a group of college students disappear without a trace from a popular party spot, Harry becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. Believing the answer lies in an ancient Greek legend, Harry finds himself on a treacherous mission that even he, a respected psychiatrist, may not be prepared to handle.

Fire Lake

by Jessica Wren

The 150-acre reservoir was named Fire Lake when an observer noticed the orange glow of the water when the sun goes down. It has nothing to do with the multiple tragedies that occurred there, including the most recent in which several died and others were left with permanent endocrine and neurological damage. I was a freshman at Augusta University during the first known disappearance that occurred in 1969.

For most folks, the doomed Altamonte concert marked the end of the hippie era. At that time, my brother Henry was serving in Vietnam, and I was too preoccupied with other matters to give the disappearance much thought. I didn’t really know any of the seventeen young people who vanished into thin air after a weekend of partying. We all knew Buddy Caldwell, of course, but no one was too terribly shocked that he flew the coop. The quintessential hippie, Buddy was charismatic in the sense that he could make people believe almost anything. He had been talking nonstop about how he planned to take off to California and live in a communal compound, which would naturally include all his female friends and only two or three trusted (read: gullible) males.

The only thing I remember about the Fire Lake disappearance, other than the fact that the campus was unusually quiet without Buddy speaking in a thunderous voice about the dangers of ‘the man’ or strumming his un-tuned guitar, is a profound relief that my friend Margaret did not get caught up in whatever scheme Buddy had hatched. With very little evidence of foul play, police concluded that the gang had taken off with Buddy, and the people Margaret said met them on the shore were another group joining them. Margaret didn’t help matters by stating to the police that at around ten o’clock that Sunday evening, there was a general move for the group to go out to the shore. Margaret said she didn’t feel like going, but as usual Buddy got his way. She stated that the mystery group approached them, and as if of one mind, started pairing off. A young man had approached Margaret, and to this day she still sees the look of infinite pain in his eyes when Margaret instinctively shrank away from him.

“I wouldn’t say hurt from rejection was the right phrase,” Margaret said in her statement. “It was also a lot bigger than heartache. In this young man’s eye was desperation, as if were literally going to die if I didn’t go with him.” She went on to describe how the mystery man started rubbing her hand ‘as if he expected a genie to come out.’ She claims not to remember what happened after that. She passed out on the shore and came to the following morning. Everyone was gone and she was all alone. She staggered back to the rented cabin to discover that Buddy and her other friends had left behind all personal items, including wallets, money, ID cards, keys, and clothing. Police found two vials of cocaine among Buddy’s abandoned possessions. When Margaret admitted that she had used cocaine with Buddy, the first and only hit of her life, police immediately discounted her statement. I can’t honestly say I blame them.

“You believe me, don’t you, Harry?” she asked.

“Yes, I believe you,” I said. “Unfortunately, it sounds like Buddy set you up to tell a story to police so bizarre that no one would believe it.”

“You mean he used me?” Margaret looked hurt.

“I’m sorry, Margaret, but Buddy and his friends are laughing all the way to California as we speak.” The instant I said those words, I wished I hadn’t. I have never been very good at subtlety; my mother always taught me to speak directly and candidly. Sometimes I wonder if she taught me too well. “Look, you don’t need them, especially if they’re getting you to use drugs. In ten years, Buddy will be just another lunatic in Berkley. And you? Well, you’ll just be the best damn neurologist in Georgia.”

“That’s assuming he’s actually en route to California. I’m telling you, Harry, that none of these folks came in a motor vehicle. My group disappeared into the woods with the other group. If they’re headed to California, they’re hitchhiking.”

“Which is no longer your problem.”

“I guess not.” Margaret’s tone indicated there was something else. She looked hurt. In the back of my mind I wasn’t convinced either. Uneasiness came over me that never really went away. “Did you hear from Henry?”

I was grateful for a change of topic. “I did. He sent me a letter just the other day.” For the first time in a week, Margaret appeared relaxed. “I’m going to write him back tonight. Do you want me to tell him anything?”

“Just to take care and to get back home in one piece.”

“Will do. And I won’t tell him all this about Buddy just yet. In Vietnam, a moment’s inattentiveness can be fatal, and I don’t want him worrying needlessly about you.”

And life went on. The disappearances, which made the evening news and briefly overshadowed reports of the war, fell out of public interest in the absence of new leads. Buddy and the others did not turn up. It wasn’t long before Margaret and I were the only ones still thinking about the disappearances.

Henry came home in the fall of that same year, much to our relief. He entered Augusta University as a psychology major, and would eventually get a doctorate. Margaret and I went to medical school, where she earned her license to practice neurology and I, the fairly new field of psychiatry. Originally I had planned to become a veterinarian for the sole purpose of helping my parents maintain their farm, but I became profoundly interested in psychiatry after a visit to the insane asylum in Milledgeville.

In the back of my mind, since I never admitted it to myself, my family, or Margaret, I thought there was a neurological basis for the incident. I couldn’t explained how or why, but I had no idea I was about to find out in the most stunning way. The scene as Margaret described it was too unreal. She described the other group as being sleepy and drunk, and her group as being zombie-like. Buddy Caldwell was not a follower, and he wouldn’t have wandered off so readily with another person. More to the point, he wouldn’t have ceded control of his followers to anyone unless chemically compelled.

We all married, started families, began our careers, and lived more or less normal lives. Henry and I opened a joint office with his psychology clinic working in cooperation with my practice. In the summer of 1973, Henry and I travelled to Greece, where I met my wife, Katia. She was the daughter of the guide who escorted us to Lemnos. Katia told us the legend of the Lemnisepta.

“The name roughly translates as ‘Seven in a Lake,’” Katia explained. “According to Lemnos lore, the god Hephaestus sent the Lemnisepta once every seven years to find mortals to serve him. They would lure them out to the lake and separate their souls from their corporal bodies. They would be enslaved, but also trained in the most skilled arts of metalworking. At the end of the seven-year period, those who pleased Hephaestus were granted immortality. Those who didn’t had the unpleasant task of taking human form to lure the new batch of recruits. They then were indentured for another seven years until they were either given their reward or discarded into Hades.”

Henry’s response was to burst into hysterical laughter, but my interest was piqued. “What happens to their physical bodies?”

“They instantly turned to vapor,” Katia said. I couldn’t tell if she was joking or serious, but I was starting to really like her. We’ve been divorced for twenty years now. She returned to Greece after our son was grown. But we are still good friends, and when I talk to her, I ask her if the Lemnisepta has come back to her island.

“Could the Lemnisepta live anywhere else but Lemnos?” This question took her by surprise.

“I suppose so,” Katia said. “But the Lemnispeta are fire and water beings. They have to live in a volcanic lake.

“Or in a lake that has a fault line running through the bottom?” Many people are surprised to hear that Augusta has a fault line that is quite active.

“I don’t think Lemnos ever had a visitor that was as curious as you, Harrison Keene,” she said, flashing me a smile that won my heart.

“I’m curious as to whether you’ll go with me to dinner tonight,” I said.

Secretly, I waited until the spring of 1976 to see if the Lemnisepta would pay another visit to Fire Lake. But nothing happened. Buddy and the sixteen others were nothing more than names in the cold case files. I realized I was wasting time on this obsession and slowly let it go. I was as shocked as everyone else when another, nearly identical disappearance occurred in 1981, the same weekend as the 1969 incident. Only this time there were no eyewitnesses to make a comparison.

***********

The 1981 disappearances happened a few days shy of the anniversary of the 1969 incident. Three students, two female and one male, stated that they went home early due to what appeared to be food poisoning or the stomach virus. A middle-aged woman who identified herself as an employee of the Department of Natural Resources offered to give them rides back to their dorms.

“Yeah, I puked in the car,” said Valerie Hodge, one of the three who had been a patient of mine. “The woman acted like she didn’t care or even notice. But once I was back in my dorm, I recovered within an hour. How weird is that?”

“The norovirus is known to go away as suddenly as it starts,” I told her, but I had been wondering what would happen if there were extras among the chosen party. According to Katia, the Lemnisepta took the form of the mortals they escorted if ordered to steal a mortal’s soul. Therefore, the party of sleepy, drunk mystery folk would consist of the same group of people who disappeared the last time, minus the ones who were granted their immortal status or who had failed in their task.

“What happens to those who fail?” I asked.

“They are immediately condemned to Hades,” Katia answered without hesitation.

In 1981, sixteen people vanished from the shores of Fire Lake. According to Katia’s account, whoever had been designated to steal Margaret’s soul was now in the underworld playing cards with Achilles and Paris. After Valerie left that day, I closed my office door, thankful I had no appointments directly behind her, and just laughed until tears were running down my face and I could hardly breathe. I know it’s wrong to make light of the situation, but the thoughts that Buddy Caldwell in all his arrogance had been unable to please Hephaestus just absolutely kills me. I still break into the giggles thinking about it.

The members of the 1981 party included Ronnie Adams, a real smartass who happened to be the sheriff’s son. He was a member of the Lamda Delta Mu fraternity and took his status as a frat boy just a little too seriously. It was discovered afterwards that Ronnie had been operating a Risky Business-style brothel out of the frat house.

“Certainly Mr. Sandy’s nieces weren’t whoring themselves out,” Margaret said. Karen Sandy and Susan Douglas, the two obnoxious nieces of Jack Sandy, the president of Augusta University, vanished along with Ronnie and thirteen others.

“That would explain why Mr. Sandy is so hell-bent about keeping the story out of the newspaper,” I said. “It’s a losing battle for him. Freedom of the press and whatnot.” I did a quick calculation in my head. Twelve years passed since the 1969 disappearances. “The Lemnidodeka?” I thought out loud.

“What?” Margaret turned. “Harry, you aren’t still on that kick, are you? Knock it off. There’s no such thing as a fire creature who steals mortal souls.”

“Don’t say that in front of Katia,” I said. “You asked me to give you the benefit of the doubt. Why can’t you do the same?”

“Because I wasn’t trying to re-enact an ancient myth,” she said.

“No, you were just trying to convince police that some joker fell so hard for you that he imploded when you turned him down.”

“Ok, so maybe there are some things that can’t be explained so easily,” Margaret said. “But I still think there is a rational explanation that doesn’t include mythological creatures.”

“Such as?”

“A re-enactment of the 1969 events.”

“What? No way! No young person has ever heard of Buddy Caldwell.”

“Ronnie’s the son of the sheriff. He’s probably heard the story a million times. My guess is Old Man Adams got wind of his son’s budding enterprise, and the two devised a scheme to avoid Ronnie’s prosecution and embarrassment to the sheriff department. Not to mention jeopardize the sheriff’s  re-election campaign.”

“Suppose you’re right,” I said, “Where would they find a group of people willing to go along with their scheme? How would they vanish without being seen? The DNR patrols the area constantly and they reported no unusual activity aside from a sharp increase in the number of black bears in the surrounding woods.”

“The same way Buddy laughed his way to California,” she fired back. That actually hurt my feelings.

“Speaking of Buddy, do you know if there were any drugs found on the scene?”

“Well, at a college party, alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes are pretty much a given. If you’re asking if anyone had cocaine like Buddy did, I don’t think so.”

“What about amphetamines? Or that new stuff they call Xanax that young people are coming to my office in droves wanting prescriptions for?” I’ve always despises the pharmaceutical industry’s advertising techniques. Talk to your doctor about how midterms make you anxious, just like they’ve been making students anxious since formal schooling began, and you just can’t get by without the latest addictive drug. I’ve been trying for years to get my colleagues to curb their prescriptions of these questionable pills, but to no avail. Business is too good and the stock prices too high. “Prescribed medication that police wouldn’t deem suspicious or illegal.”

“I have no idea, but I’ll ask if you want me to,” Margaret said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because on that night, you took a strong hit of cocaine for the first time. Cocaine released a rush of dopamine to the brain.”

“So what?” Margaret asked, but I continued my monologue completely unaware of how foolish I was sounding to her. I’m surprised she didn’t report me to the board that day.

“Buddy took cocaine, too, but he was a habitual user,” I said to myself while using Margaret as a sounding board. “Did anyone else use cocaine that night?”

“Honestly, I don’t know, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Buddy’s brain would have already had the receptors in place to catch the excess dopamine. That’s how tolerance works, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, irritated at my condescending tone.

“I’m thinking the disappearance had a basis in the neurotransmitter levels of the cerebral cortex,” I said.

“So in other words, the other group drugged the students? Harry, you really are a pain in the ass at times.”

“You described an orderly pairing scene. Each person took off with someone in the opposite group very calmly, as if the pairings had been predetermined,” I explained. The more I spoke the more my theory made sense. “For the longest time, I thought it was a love-at-first-sight scenario. Infatuation causes a flood of dopamine in the brain similar to cocaine. The fact that the opposite group member who tried to get you to come with him reinforced that theory. Your brain was already saturated with dopamine.”

“Harry, what I witnessed was more mind control than love,” Margaret said.

“Exactly, which is why I have since ruled out the dopamine theory,” I said. “The infatuation response causes a person to be ill at ease. You know how a person is always suspicious of a new romantic partner, or at least is always worried about impressing them? That response makes you even more guarded, not relaxed and zombie-like. There would be no orderliness to it. They would have been hopping around like a bunch of penguins on speed.”

“The other group wasn’t passing out drinks, so I can’t see how our group was drugged,” Margaret said. She clearly didn’t listen to a damn word I said.

“The key may be serotonin. As in Ecstasy,” I said. “It’s a mild dopamine antagonist, and it produces feelings of trust and empathy. The way you describe the scene, it’s like Buddy and the rest of the gang willingly submitted to the other group. To answer your concerns, I’m not sure how the other group would have raised the collective serotonin levels, but to get seventeen drunk and high college kids to leave without protest would require some type of chemical encouragement.”

“Then why didn’t it work on me?” Margaret asked.

“You were high on cocaine. The dose of serotonin meant for you was likely insufficient to produce a sense of trust with your counterpart.”

“My counterpart, Harry? What kind of bullshit is that?”

“Are you still sticking to the story that this young man was rubbing your hand as if he was trying to get a genie to pop out?” Margaret nodded. “My guess is the serotonin delivery system was in your hand.”

“You do know that sounds completely insane, right?”

“Fine. If you think of a more plausible explanation, I’d love to hear it.”

“There is. The one you told me in 1969. That Buddy had schemed to make me appear crazy so no one would go chasing after him. And that Ronnie set up a copycat disappearance to avoid the public discovery of his whorehouse.”

“The problem with that,” I said, “is that if Buddy set off for California, there would be some type of sign he was living, like a utility bill or a credit card. It is true he could be living under an assumed identity and ordered his followers to do the same. But Margaret, don’t you think twelve years is a long time to keep up that type of charade?”

“That did cross my mind,” Margaret admitted.

“And the fact that Sheriff Adams isn’t denying or minimizing his son’s possible involvement in the frat house brothel scandal doesn’t support the theory of a copycat scheme. You’d think the sheriff was as shocked as anyone else.”

“He’s still a politician. His job is to put on a front.”

“How about this? If my theory is correct, there will be another disappearance in 1993. If that doesn’t happen I’ll let the whole thing go. Is that fair?”

Sure enough in 1993, I got the chance to serve Margaret a big slice of humble pie. And there was a witness in that disappearance as well.

**************

When Katia left, I knew it wasn’t personal. She never liked living in Georgia, and to set up my practice in Greece would have been impractical. I confess by that time I could try the patience of even the most committed, loving woman. When I wasn’t having a one-sided conversation about work, I was pressing Katia for as much as she knew about the Lemnisepta. My sweet Lemnos tour guide took it for as long as she could until she’d finally had enough. I take all the responsibility for our failed marriage. But even Katia leaving did not cure my obsession with solving the mystery of the Fire Lake disappearances, and now that I have figured it out as much as my knowledge of brain chemistry will allow, I have to live with myself for not speaking up. I waited anxiously for the same March weekend of 1993 to roll around and I was not disappointed. Thirteen students vanished without a trace in exactly the same manner as Buddy, Ronnie, Karen, Susan, and the other unfortunate souls who walked so trustingly into Hephaestus’ trap. By then, I had convinced myself that the Lemnisepta was the only possible explanation for the mystery. Katia told me she’d never heard of a Lemnidodeka and had no idea why these disappearances seemed to be happening in twelve-year cycles instead of seven. But as full of myself as I was, I was convinced I knew all the answers.

A few days before the disappearances, Jack Sandy called me to his office. I’d taken a part-time teaching job at Augusta University, partly so I could listen out for gossip about Fire Lake, and partly so I could stay busy and keep my mind off  Katia.

“I was hoping you could interpret a dream for me,” Mr. Sandy said. “I’ll pay you your normal rate, and I expect full confidentiality.”

“That’s more Henry’s territory than mine, but I’ll give it a shot. Tell me about the dream.”

“My niece Susan stood before me and said, ‘Don’t worry about me, Uncle Jack. I’ve been chosen.’ I know I shouldn’t read too much into dreams, but this has been bothering me and I just can’t shake it.”

“Is this the same niece who vanished at Fire lake in 1981?” I feigned ignorance to hide the fact that I had memorized the name of everyone who disappeared and could call to mind their faces.

“Yes, the same,” Mr. Sandy said. “Why does it feel like she was actually standing there talking to me?” He looked worried for a moment. “Do you think I need some type of medication?”

“No, certainly not, Mr. Sandy,” I said, keeping a straight face to hide my joy at being handed this new clue. “Dreams of a deceased loved one are normal, and if I have my days straight, the twelve-year anniversary of Susan’s disappearance is coming up very soon.”

“Deceased?” Mr. Sandy asked, and for a moment I was concerned I might have offended him. “See, the thing is, I can’t help but feel like she and Karen are both still alive. Did you know I raised them both?”

“Perhaps you have heard the expression ‘We are with you in spirit.’ Your subconscious may be trying to tell you it’s time to go on with life and find peace.”

“But I can’t go on. Not until I know what happened to them.”

“If you will give me permission to do so, I’ll run the dream by my brother and see what he says. Meanwhile, if there’s anything at all you can think of that will help police, make sure to run it by them.” At that moment, got the oddest feeling that I should confide my findings to him. “Mr. Sandy, do you believe in the supernatural?”

“To an extent, yes.”

“So if I told you something incredible, you wouldn’t think I needed medical leave?”

“Do you need medical leave, Dr. Keene?”

“No, but I’ve been doing my own research into the Fire Lake disappearances, and I’ve come up with a theory that will blow your mind. Once you hear it, you may understand why people think I’m a mad scientist.”

“Oh. I thought that was because you never comb your hair. But yes, I am interested in what you have to say. It certainly can’t hurt and doing something for Susan and Karen is better than doing nothing.”

To Mr. Sandy’s credit, he heard me out until the end. It was a huge relief that someone was finally taking me seriously.

“So you think Susan was granted immortality for her service to Hephaestus? What about Karen?”

“That’s possible,” I said. “We have to wait until the next incident, which should take place in a few days, and see if she is among the people attempting to lure the new crowd away.”

“How would we know?”

“We just have to hope for another survivor like Margaret.”

“Dr. Keene, if you have advance knowledge of another disappearance, through any means, you need to warn the authorities.”

“I agree,” I said. There was someone in the police department who was familiar with the disappearances and was willing to humor me. Mr. Sandy went with me to speak with Valerie Hodge. “You may want to issue a warning for AU students to avoid Fire Lake this weekend.”

“In my experience,” Mr. Sandy said, “college kids will do the opposite of what you tell them to do. Maybe I should not mention anything.” In my heart of hearts, this was exactly what I was counting on. I hate myself for it, but each new incident brought me closer to uncovering the truth about the Lemnidodeka. I didn’t want anyone else to die, but these disappearances had become an obsession. If I didn’t learn what happened to the thirty-five people who’d already vanished, it would haunt me until I did.

“That’s up to you, sir. If you think you can live with yourself knowing you did nothing. Ask yourself: would Susan and Karen have gone if someone told them they would be lured away and never seen again?”

“I guess not. If I can save one life, it will be worth making the announcement.”

“I’ll see what I can do about discouraging any weekend outings to the lake.” I went into the station where I saw Valerie sitting at the front desk. I reminded her that the anniversary of Ronnie’s disappearance was coming up, and asked if travel to the lake could be suspended.

“Fire Lake is under the jurisdiction of the DNR. I can’t issue a ban on travel,” she said.

“Valerie, do you happen to remember the name of the woman who gave you a ride back to your dorm?”

“No, I’m afraid not,” Valerie said. “Mr. Sandy, why don’t you issue a warning about the black bears around the lake? That’s a sure way to discourage some people. And ask the presidents of all other nearby colleges to do the same?”

Mr. Sandy issued the warning, but it didn’t stop Mike Finn and his gang of (for lack of a better term) dumbasses. They wore the plaid flannel and combat boots that were so fashionable during that time, and spent their weekends at the raves where they undoubtedly did as much ecstasy as a human being could consume without dropping dead. They talked often about the new fad called the ‘mosh pit.’ I’m not exactly certain why some of these kids thought cramming in a tight space with a bunch of other sweaty bodies and attempting to dance was fun, but to each their own, I guess. I was more concerned when Heather Patterson, a bright, studious girl in my biopsychology class mentioned in passing she was going to Fire Lake with Mike and a group of others.

“Be careful of bears,” I told her. She was too excited to be included in a group outing with Mike, and I knew there was nothing I could say to dissuade her. I am eternally grateful for the amphetamines she’d bought from a classmate. Her reckless use of the stimulant drugs I’m sure is the reason she returned from Fire Lake. After Mike disappeared along with fourteen others, I started to wonder if the Lemnidodeka searched for a group with an alpha male. Maybe Hephaestus was looking for a second-in-command. Buddy would go to Hades before becoming anyone’s right-hand man, and Ronnie was just an idiot. Mike really wasn’t stupid, he just completely lacked common sense. Possibly he was exactly what Hephaestus was looking for.

I refused to believe there was any other explanation, supernatural or otherwise, for the three disappearances.

Nine people, four men and five women, seemingly escaped the fate of their peers. They’d hit it off very well with Valerie and the two others that they formed their own group that they called the “Fire Lake Rejects.”  The investigation into the disappearances revealed no scandalous secrets, no plans to relocate. This made it more difficult for police to brush the incident aside. Heather Patterson, the only eyewitness, described a scene that was virtually identical to the one Margaret described.

“I’m going to show you a photo lineup,” Valerie told her. “Tell me if you recognize any of these people. Heather studied the photos for a moment.

“That’s them!” she said, jumping out of her seat so fast that she banged her thighs on the table. “Those are the people I saw at the lake.”

“And which is the young man you say approached you?”

Heather scanned the photos before indicating John Harvey, Ronnie’s best friend who had helped run the frat house brothel.

“You told detectives that John approached you, and when you tried to run away, he screamed like he was in severe pain?” Valerie asked. Heather nodded.

“And right after that, there was this extremely bright light that blinded me,” Heather said. “Once I recovered my vision, I saw that everyone left. It was a little scary to find myself all alone.”

“I bet it was,” Valerie said. “Did the cops already ask you about the lineup?”

“No,” Heather said. “Are those really the same people who disappeared last time?”

“We believe so. One last question. Did you see this young lady?”

“I didn’t, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t there. It was dark and hard to see everyone,” Heather said, scanning the photos. “I remember seeing her, though. I remember being irritated that Mike left with her. And they looked at each other like they were deeply in love.” Heather pointed at the picture of Karen Sandy.

“Is there anything else you would like to tell us?” Valerie asked.

“Not really. I got bit by something that I think became infected.” She showed Valerie a large boil on her ankle. “Do you think I should get it looked at?”

Later, when I relayed this conversation to Margaret, she said sadly, “I almost wish there was a survivor last time. Then I might know what happened to Buddy.”

I put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Was he your friend?” I asked.

“He was my lover,” Margaret said. “And I think he really loved me.” How in the world I missed that, I can’t figure out. Margaret was never very good at hiding things. It occurred to me that I had been wrapped up chasing the Lemnidodeka that I’d neglected my friends and family. Katia leaving me should have told me that, but I’m stubborn and I have to learn things the hard way. Then it hit me.

“Margaret, does this mean you believe me?” I asked, stunned.

“I guess so,” she said. “Nothing else fits. I never thought Buddy would have willingly left me.”

“Margaret, I’m really sorry. I had no idea.” Actually, I still think Margaret was nothing more than a plaything to Buddy, but I’ll never know for sure.

“Of course not. I didn’t tell you because I knew you wouldn’t approve. But now it’s so far past the point that it doesn’t matter. Anything at all you can do to find out what happened to Buddy I’ll appreciate.”

“You know better than anyone how invested I am in Fire Lake. Will you be willing to help me if I need you?”

“Of course. Anything at all.”

“Right now, I need to know if you came back from Fire lake with anything resembling an infected insect bite?”

“Yeah, there was a large boil on my thigh. Something in the lake bit me. I went to the campus clinic about it, and they prescribed cortisone cream. I didn’t feel it when I was bit., but it healed up pretty quickly. Why do you ask?”

I understood how Margaret felt. How painful it must be to not know what happened to someone you loved. Knowing that Katia was at least alive and well and happy on her beloved island gave me a small reprieve from the intense heartache I’d felt since her departure. I always knew she wouldn’t stay, and I guess my obsession with the Lemnidodeka was a way to avoid facing the truth. In a twisted way, learning everything I could about the three incidents was a way for me to feel connected to her. Indeed, the incidents took a back seat when Katia told me she was coming back to see our son Blake graduate from college. I’d missed the boat this cycle anyways, but I vowed that in 2005, I would be more proactive.

***********************

I saw a long hall ahead of me, similar to the ones I saw in Greece when we toured the ancient temples. Timidly I walked forward, unsure of what to expect. I got about 50 yards down the ornate hallway when I two cherubs guided me into a large room. A man who can only be accurately described as beautifully homely was sitting on a throne in the center. Standing around him like a royal court were around fifty or so people. Next to him was a woman who was so similar to Katia that I choked on my own bile, enraged with jealousy. I spotted Buddy Caldwell in the crowd. The others I recognized from years of looking at the photos.

Buddy stepped forward as if pre-designated for the role of greeter. “Welcome to the Temple of Hephaestus,” he said.

“Step forward, Mortal,” Hephaestus said, his voice a rich timbre that commanded attention. I obeyed. “Is your curiosity satisfied?” That’s when I realized I had no idea what was the appropriate way to address a god. I looked to Buddy for help.

“You have been summoned to advise you not to pursue the matter further,” Buddy said. “I requested this meeting when I learned you were planning to endanger Margaret.”

“I’m not planning to endanger anyone,” I said in a small voice I barely recognized as my own.

“Heed the warning, Mortal, and abandon your search for answers,” Hephaestus said. “For the consequences of such a search is far greater than you are prepared to accept.”

“Harry,” Buddy said. “Do you know why you’re the only one looking for us?”

“I’m not the only one,” I replied. “Margaret. Mr. Sandy–” Buddy silenced me with his hand.

“Our families and friends don’t think about us anymore. Their memories of us are so hazy that they question if we ever existed at all,” Buddy said. “You can tell Margaret and Mr. Sandy that we are happy and safe.” I nodded, aware of the wisdom of refraining from further protest.

A bright flash of light blinded me, I imagine similar to the one Heather experienced, and I was alone in my office.

What had happened was so realistic that I nearly heeded the warning. Two years had gone by since the disappearances of Mike Finn and company. For another two years I avoided anything to do with the disappearances and the possibility of the Lemnidodeka. But gradually I returned to it. Hephaestus has never unleashed his wrath on me, so I have come to believe that the whole thing had been a product of my imagination, or, in his own way, Hephaestus may have been genuinely trying to warn me about the severe consequences I ended up experiencing. In any event, when the fervor returned, it was greater than before.

In 1999, Katia came for a visit to see Blake and our first granddaughter. I have a permanent indentation on my tongue from avoiding the irresistible urge to burden her about my encounter with Hephaestus. Besides, she seemed so sad and preoccupied, and I didn’t want to trouble her further.

************************************

The enthusiasm of the Fire Lake Rejects surprised me. Valerie and  I had managed to speak with some surviving family members of those who vanished, and contrary to Buddy’s account, the memories were just as fresh in their minds as they had been.

“If he was found dead, I could at least get closure,” Patricia Harvey said. She was suspicious but also hopeful that her son, missing since 1981, would be found alive. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that John had probably been sent to Hades for failing to deliver Heather. With Valerie in tow to grant legitimacy to my interviews, I got the families to tell me about the lives of their missing loved ones. I relayed the stories to Margaret, Jack, and the Fire Lake Rejects, hoping that by humanizing the missing persons, we would  have more of a motivation to band together in 2005. As it turns out, my prodding was completely unnecessary, although the stories of the youths touched me and fueled my indignation.

“We have a plan,” Jack told me. I was a bit outraged that I wasn’t included in said plan, but excited that finally my endless search was getting somewhere. “We are going to rent a campsite on Fire Lake for a week, and set up surveillance at the site of the disappearances.” It was such a simple plan that I slapped my forehead for not thinking of it sooner. There was just one small kink.

“Fair enough, but the Lemnidodeka will need bait to come out,” I pointed out.

“That’s why a reunion is in order,” Jack said, smiling. “The Fire Lake Rejects are going to camp together at the site. The Lemnidodeka may want to finish what they started.” I was doubtful.

“Who’s going to stop them from disappearing into the woods with the Lemnidodeka?” I asked. “Or is everyone going to do a hit of cocaine?”

“That’s almost what I’m driving at. We’ll need you to prescribe Adderall for everyone.”

“Say what?”

“Based on the description of events and more importantly on your theory, we believe that the Lemnidodeka may have taken blood from the victims when they swam in the lake. In this way, they could measure the exact amount of serotonin each victim would need to be put in such a suggestible state. Two of them failed because of the increase in serotonin in two participants who had taken a sudden hit of, respectively, cocaine and amphetamine.” I had been toying with this exact theory for years. Apparently one does not need a degree in medicine to understand the mechanisms of neurotransmitters.

“So everyone takes a dip in the lake, and at nightfall, takes some speed,” I said.

“Exactly. And we have some additional assistance.” I went with Jack to his office, the headquarters for the meetings, and almost fainted with shock to see Katia.

“You were right all along, Harry,” she said. “The Lemnisepta took my dad.” She burst into tears and I didn’t know if I should hug her. When I tried to at the birth of our granddaughter she gently pushed me away. “I don’t know why he was swimming in the lakes.”

“Hephaestus wants you for his queen,” I said, suddenly understanding the meaning behind my shadowy encounter with the fire god. “He heard a prophecy that you would relocate to this part of the world, so he and his minions followed you.” I had no idea why I thought this, but as soon as I said it, it seemed so true that I couldn’t dismiss it.

“But I don’t want to be a fire queen. Is there anything I can do to stop this fate?”

“I wonder if he would accept me in Katia’s place,” Margaret said after a long moment of silence. “I’m not that bad-looking.” Every eye in the room turned and stared at her.

“What do you have planned?” Katia asked timidly.

“I will offer myself to Hephaestus in exchange for Buddy’s soul.”

********************************

I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what Hephaestus wanted with Katia, unless he felt the same way about her that I still do. Maybe Aphrodite wasn’t putting out this millennium. Maybe the prophecy included a bit about them having a son who would overthrow Zeus or Poseidon or whoever. Who the Hades knows? With undeniable clarity, I realized that the Lemnidodeka had been pursuing Katia and had taken all these other people to get to her. I also understood I had been a pawn, and I had fallen right into his hands.But if this were the case, why did the disappearances occur in Katia’s absence? It didn’t matter. It was my responsibility to undo this. I couldn’t let Margaret or Katia be crowned queen of the bottomless, fiery pit, although on a bad day either woman could more than qualify for the honor.

On the designated weekend in 2005 we set the plan in motion. The Fire Lake Rejects set up surveillance around what was expected to be the spot. The plan was that everyone would go swimming, and when the sun goes down, take Adderall to prevent a serotogenic  hyponotic state. When the Lemnidodeka arrived, all they would have was Margaret. With any luck, the whole thing would be captured on video.

“It will never work,” Katia said that morning when everyone was leaving, at exactly the best possible time to express doubts. “Suppose everything goes according to plan. Then what? We get an hour on some paranormal hunter program?” She was right. No one, including myself, had thought much about what we were going to do with the evidence once obtained.

“We can give closure to the families,” I said, but the argument seemed weak.

“Are you sure it’s me that Hephaestus wants?” I started to speak but she continued. “This is insane, Harry. I can’t let Margaret trade her soul for that creep Buddy Caldwell. I’ll do what needs to be done.” I started to point out that Katia never even met Buddy, nor knew enough about him to make that kind of judgment, but at that point it just didn’t seem to matter.

“We can always get married again and you can tell Hephaestus you already have a husband.” I wasn’t joking, but Katia gave me that dismissive half-laugh that people give when something is mildly amusing to them. “Plus, it’s not just Buddy we’re trading souls for. We are going to try to get Jack’s nieces back.”

“What everyone is failing to understand is that none of us will be in any position to bargain with Hephaestus.”

“We have nothing to lose by trying.”

“Yes, we do,” Katia said, frustrated. “We will lose Margaret for eternity. Is that what you want, Harry? The man I love is not that callous.” Did she say ‘love?’ In the present tense?

“It’s not what I want, but it’s the only way to avoid losing you for eternity. Blake needs you. Emmy needs you. I need you. Margaret’s husband died a few years ago, and she never had children. Maybe she’ll be reunited with him.”

“Harrison!” She was furious. “You’re not saying anyone’s life is any less valuable just because they don’t have the type of family we idealize, are you?” I turned redder than a summer watermelon. That was precisely what I was saying. Ashamed, I rushed out to the lake to alert Jack.”

“Call the whole thing off,” I said. “It’s not worth it.”

“Yes, it is. I want to free Susan and Karen.”

“Sacrificing Margaret won’t accomplish that,” I said. “We just may have to accept that some things are beyond our control.”

“But…”

“But nothing. We are going to leave the campsite…but keep our reservation.” My wheels were turning. “If no one is here, there will be no one for the Lemnidodeka to lure away. Maybe we can still get footage of them.”

The plan made sense. We left the campsite and went about our usual routines. A few days later I went to retrieve the videotape. We gathered in Jack’s office to watch them, our eyes peeled to see the mystery of the Fire Lake disappearances reveal itself. We watched to the end. The only footage we got to see was the gentle lake ripples lapping the shore.

*********************

As disappointing as the expected 2005 event had been, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we may at the least prevented another group disappearance. It was the general consensus that the Lemnidodeka, who had been tricked, self-destructed in the absence of victims.

But our sense of bittersweet self-congratulations didn’t last long. A few days later came an unexpected twist. When I went back to the campsite to gather my things—our reservation expired that day–and I saw two DNR employees searching the shore.

“What on God’s green earth is this?” one DNR employee held up something for his companion to see. The other employee examined it for a few moments and gave his opinion.

“I don’t know. It looks like some kind of seahorse,” he said. “I thought seahorses only lived in the China Sea.”

“And I always thought seahorses had spiral tails. Look at this. The barb at the end of this guy’s tail looks almost deadly.”

“Should we notify the DNR?”

“Absolutely.” And the two men left.

An ominous, unidentified water creature with a barbed tail. Of course! Those creatures were the form the Lemnidodeka took when tagging their pairs. It had to be. Why one was found dead on the shore I can’t begin to imagine, but it did give me the breakthrough I been waiting decades for. Possibly it wasn’t dead and was simply lying in wait in case one partygoer decided not to swim. Lying in wait…

The Lemnidodeka would wait for a new batch of recruits. And this time they wouldn’t be fooled.

I listened all week for any reports that there would be a party at Fire Lake the coming weekend. I sat in the student center eavesdropping and probably looking like a creeper until I heard Austin Manning talk about his planned party. Austin’s a pretty decent guy, just a bit idealistic. He was studying forensic pathology in hopes of becoming a medical examiner. He interned at the Augusta police department and had a great professional relationship with Valerie.

I had to do it. There was a chance I would only make myself look like a joker, but it was a chance I was willing to take. I know you can’t tell by looking, but I’m a little past my youthful prime. I was worried this may be my last chance to unravel the Fire Lake mystery.

On Friday night, while having dinner with several psychiatric professionals, I almost set my plan aside. Katia agreed to be my date for the evening, and she was due to fly back to Greece in two days. Most of me wanted to spend as much time with her as I could. But Fire Lake continued to call to me like a siren song. If tonight’s the night, I thought, possibly there is a Lemnidodeka with my name on its barb.

As I drove to the lake shore, I tried to think of a believable excuse to crash Austin’s party. Watching and waiting from a distance would likely get me a ticket from a DNR officer. In the end, I decided to go to my dinner with Katia and to arrive at Fire Lake before sunset.

A festive scene was in place: loud music blasting, cigarette smoke that could be smelled from yards away, people talking and laughing boisterously. This looked on the outside like and ordinary college party, but there was a certain chemistry to the group that excluded everyone else in the world. I could have walked right in the room, stripped butt naked, and set myself on fire, and no one would notice I was there.

The partygoers never left the shore. They waited there calmly, enraptured and somewhat apprehensive, as if awaiting a yellow submarine to Hades. A few people were chatting nervously but mostly people were standing around just waiting. I scanned the crowd for Austin Manning and saw him standing there with a solemn expression on his face.

“It’s almost time,” he said softly to someone next to him. He looked at an imaginary watch on his wrist, indicating that whatever or whoever they were expecting were running late. I have no explanation for how they knew the Lemnidodeka were coming for them.

At half past eleven they came. They appeared from another part of the lake, or the woods, but when they arrived, they were just as zonked out as Margaret had described in 1969. Mike Finn led the pack. The two groups stopped and looked at each other, as if sizing each other up, and more importantly, identifying their partners. Slowly Mike Finn walked to a girl I didn’t know. The two took each other’s hands as the others from both group watched.

The beams of several flashlights didn’t break this strange group dynamic.

“Hey!” a male voice I quickly identified as belonging to my brother Henry called out. I turned and saw Henry with a group. It was dark and at first I didn’t know who he’d brought with him. They walked at a faster pace as the Lemnidodeka parings began.

*****************

“What the hell did you think you were doing?” a distraught Katia asked as soon as I regained consciousness in the hospital.

“What do you mean?” I asked. I was so groggy on painkillers that I didn’t register the events of that fateful night right away.

“You could have been killed,” Katia said as tears filled her eyes.

My memory, in fragments, started coming back to me. By the time Henry arrived with Katia, Margaret, Jack, and the Fire Lake Rejects in tow, it had been too late for the young lady who had been Mike Finn’s designated partner. The two embraced lovingly, as if they had just exchanged wedding vows, as the ground opened  in a pit of fire under their feet. Until the day I die this image will be engraved at the forefront of my mind.

I remember racing forward with some vain thought of rescuing the girl. I think I was screaming. The partygoers and some of the Lemnidodeka shot me annoyed glances as I approached the fire pit. Flames consumed Mike and the girl, and the two disappeared into a pillar of fire. I was too stunned to notice that the flames of Hell had caught on my clothes, completely engulfing me in less than a few seconds. The last thing I remember was hearing Katia or Margaret or Valerie scream.

Katia stepped towards the hospital door. “He’s awake,” she said. Henry came in.

“What happened?” I asked, my voice weak from the lack of oxygen I must have sustained during my injury.

“You tried to be a superhero,” Henry said. “But I guess now we know.” Henry began his story with the preface that they had turned over all evidence to the FBI for investigation.

After I caught fire, several of the Fire Lake Rejects pushed me in the water to put out the flames, with two getting seriously burned themselves. The other Fire Lake Rejects, with the aid of Jack and Henry, started to pull the partygoers away from the Lemnidodeka. Margaret had a makeshift medical station where she tended to the injured while they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

“They were out of their minds, Harry,” Henry said. “They fought us to get back to their partners. Some of them fought us off and went back.”

That night, four people, in addition to Mike Finn’s partner, descended into the fire pit. Some others ran back, but not before their Lemnidodeka partners seemingly self-combusted.

“You were right about the serotonin theory,” Henry said. “Everyone we managed to save were admitted to the emergency room with symptoms of serotonin syndrome.”

“Were you able to save anyone?” I asked.

“Yes,” Katia said. “Thanks to you, five people are still alive. They have serious injuries, and it’s too soon to know if their injuries are permanent. One person died in the hospital. Four others were burned to death on the shore.”

“They’ll have to be on antidepressants for the rest of their lives,” I said sadly. “The damaging effects of excessive serotonin…” I trailed off. I thought I would need antidepressants as well to cope with the image of the girl going down to Hades with Mike Finn. “Their neurons will be completely fried.”

“Thanks to you, Harry, Fire Lake is closed until further notice. Anyone caught in the area will be arrested on a trespassing charge,” Katia said. That at least was a tremendous relief.

I spent five months in the hospital recovering from the burns. I then spent the next year in physical therapy. I have permanent burn scars, which no one close to me seems to mind.

In the aftermath of the 2004 incident, I lived in terror that I had certainly pissed off Hephaestus and that he would wreak his vengeance on me, but it’s been twelve years and he has never made an appearance. He seems to have lost interest in Katia as well, because to my knowledge he has never bothered her, either. Maybe he’s realized we were more trouble than we were worth. Slowly, my fear started to fade. Satisfied that I had a hand in putting an end to the periodic disappearances at Fire Lake, I gradually started living my life in peace. Katia has noticed the change in me, and the best part of this whole thing is that we are talking regularly again. There have even been discussions of a possible reconciliation. “There’s the insufferable jackass I fell in love with,” she said to me before going back to Greece for a while.

I still practice medicine, but I have closed my private practice and went to work for a psychiatric group. Now semi-retired and with my obsession with the Lemnidodeka cured, I devote my time to my grandchildren.

Margaret passed away in 2014 from a stroke. She practiced medicine until the day she died, literally. She was eating dinner after work in her home with a boyfriend when she died suddenly at the dinner table. Buddy’s name had never been mentioned again.

Henry has retired. He and his wife took over the family farm, where they grow watermelons and peaches.

Valerie still works for the police department. She is now married with two children. She still makes regular appointments with me at my request. I was concerned that her depressive tendencies would make her more prone to post-traumatic stress disorder. She seems fine, and to be honest, I think she makes the appointments to make sure I’m not up to something crazy.

Heather graduated, but decided not to pursue medicine. She is working as an administrative assistant at an area hospital. She is engaged to a young man who bears a striking resemblance to Mike Finn. I guess some old feelings never die.

Jack was deeply disappointed that the events didn’t get him answers about his nieces. He himself has disappeared mysteriously. Some say he committed suicide in Fire Lake, even though his body was never found and there was no sign of him there. His disappearance, which I don’t believe is because of the Lemnidodeka, remains unsolved to this day.

The Fire Lake Rejects lead an annual memorial service for the people who were lost during the four disappearances. The ceremonies were held at Augusta University, as the shore of Fire Lake has never reopened. Whereas before there was no shortage of victims to choose from for the Lemnidodeka, now there is no one for them to prey on.

The FBI declined to release the report of their investigation of Fire Lake, but a spokesman has stated that the FBI’s position is that the fires were due to a propane explosion from Austin Manning’s grill. The public is still demanding answers about those who were lost. Unfortunately, they won’t get them. We made a pact to never reveal what happened. My official statement to the authorities was that a mysterious fire broke out, I got seriously injured, and the survivors appeared to be suffering from serotonin syndrome, probably as a result of ecstasy or some other serotogenic agent. The others gave their side of the story as vaguely truthfully as they could.

It is now September of 2017 and of course there were no disappearances this past spring, when they would have been due, on Fire Lake or in any of the other lakes in the Augusta area. Whether that’s because of our efforts or because the Lemnidodeka moved on in search of a new crop of victims, I’ll never know. The mystery creature the DNR employees found was never seen again and its species was never identified.

Whatever the case, one thing is for sure: it is no longer my problem. I’ve done my part. And watching someone descend into Hades is something one can only do once in an eternity.