The dam was constant. That’s all it was. That’s all Ria’s life was at this point, but that was fine.
She found the name Diablo Lake Dam fitting. This would have been Hell for most people. A giant piece of cement slapped over what was once a beautiful river, blighting the pristine Northwest wilderness in the name of creating power for the city of Seattle and its surrounding burgs. Not Ria.
The “relaxation facility” she was stuck in gave her a job she thought wasn’t really a job across the highway from the facility at the dam. She sat in an observation tower at the top of the dam for eight hours a day instructed to hit a green button on a dusty motherboard when it lit up each hour, on the hour. There was no pay, but the facility said they applied a discount to the tuition her parents were sending in from LA each month to have her there.
What was a relaxation facility?
Have you ever felt strung out by work and the pressure of friends, family, texting people back, and everything that goes into being a functioning human in 2020? That was the opening sentence of the website for the relaxation facility Ria’s parents found after she had a nervous breakdown at age 23 at her job at a marketing firm in West Los Angeles that required her to be escorted on a stretcher out of the office park.
They sent her there the next day because she was too exhausted to even do the research and paperwork herself. She never appreciated anything more in her life.
The road that took Ria to the facility and the dam was literally a country highway that snaked away from I-5 about 70 miles north of Seattle until it disappeared into the foothills of the North Cascade Mountain Range. The figurative road was a troubled 25 years on Earth that started with her being born into a rich, but not wealthy, family who owned car dealerships in Ventura County who fell apart after her parents divorced when she was five.
What ensued after age five was a relentless course of trying to overachieve. The right test scores. The right grades. The right school. The right friends. The right job. It all was perfect until it wasn’t when Ria couldn’t breathe at her desk after receiving five email requests she couldn’t handle in the space of 45 seconds. She sat down on the floor after the fifth came in and couldn’t get back up.
Prompted by that episode. She decided to give up the six figure job and the condo in Century City for six months to reconnect with herself at the relaxation facility in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.
Now all she had was a twin bed in a draft dormitory, regular tasteless meals, her shifts at the dam, and sleep, lots and lots of sleep. She figured she was sleeping between 10 and 12 hours each night.
Ria thought she might be dreaming about a month into her stint at the facility as she watched the dark water beneath the dam, and her observation tower, swirl endlessly. This was commonplace to her, but something was different this day, the water that was usually just endless black flashed light for a brief moment, shaking her from the trance the rhythmatic swirl had her in.
It reminded her of when one of her cousins threw an artillery shell firework into a lake on a vacation when she was a child, a quick burst of color and light that emerged in the water, but then quickly disappeared. Had someone thrown a firework into the water by the dam? Was this a terrorist attack? Terrorists attacked dams, right? That was something she had heard of, right?
She thought about telling her supervisor at the dam. What was his name? She couldn’t even remember. She just got a quick introduction to the gray-haired man with the dated mustache before someone from the facility showed her where she worked. Where was his office even? She couldn’t remember.
Instead, Ria went down to the edge of the manmade lake below the dam and looked where she saw the flash. There didn’t seem to be anything remarkable there, just the same cold, dark water.
Maybe it was because it was the first time she had ever been that close to the dark water, but Ria felt herself being drawn into the frigid abyss swirling below her. She couldn’t stop thinking about jumping into the water as she stood there, bracing against the cold mountain wind just before 5 p.m.
There were no signs of life in the water 10 feet down a straight rock wall below the ledge where she stood. Just darkness. Just cold. It was time to go home.
Yet, something inside her didn’t want to. She wandered out toward the edge of the ledge. A loose rock, a stiff gust of wind – either could have knocked her down into the freezing water below.
But she didn’t seem to care. She stood there for a few moments, taking in the chill that rose up off the water almost as if she was hoping an impossible wave would rise up and sweep her down.
It wasn’t until she heard someone from the facility calling to her from the parking lot up the bluff that she finally walked away and headed back home to her dorm.
Ria dreamed that night, vividly, and she remembered them when she woke up and went to breakfast. The dream was of her and her brother Austin, playing in their backyard when they were young children. Had the moments that danced in her head in her sleep actually happened or had her brain fabricated them that night, she wasn’t sure.
They felt real. The memory was nothing remarkable, just them enjoying a Summer afternoon, running through a sprinkler until the sun went down.
Based on their ages, she figured it was a few years before Austin passed away, just before he got too cool for things like playing with his little sister in the backyard. It was one of the last times of true bliss in her life she could remember.
The memories made her soggy eggs taste just a little better.
They also made the watery coffee she sipped in the observation tower that morning when she started work a little less bitter. She actually got through the full mug this time.
She hit the button she was supposed to hit when she was supposed to hit it with extra fervor. Maybe this was what being a “go getter” felt like?
She was starting to plan her future when she got out of the facility when she saw fireworks in the water again. She stood up and looked down as she watched a radiating ball of light grow beneath the surface of the water again.
This time the light stayed, at least long enough so Ria could run out of the tower and get down to the bluff where she was the day before and watch the last lights of the show flicker before they died. That yearning to jump and swim for the show called to her again in her gut. Or maybe she was just hungry for lunch?
A voice sang out to her from somewhere off in the distance. From down in the water? A siren? No. Fuck.
Ria. Again, a voice.
She looked up the bluff and saw the freckled-face of a young man she recognized as another patient of the facility. She wasn’t sure what his name was – Josh, Jason, Jeremy – something with a J that suggested you might end up in some kind of facility at some point in your life.
Her heart started to race…she wasn’t supposed to interact with the other patients at all. Plus, had this guy seen her staring down at the water like a psycho? She was nervous. The guy couldn’t have been less attractive to her, but she was still embarrassed about coming off weird to the opposite sex.
The guy with the J name rushed down to her, looking just as nervous as she was. He stopped at the edge of the rocky outcropping she was on and kept his distance.
She anticipated him saying something like “are you okay?” or “can I help you?”
Instead, he threw her a major curveball, looking deep into her green eyes and muttering:
“Want to eat lunch together?”
His name ended up being Jamie and he knew of a place up a hiking path above the dam by a dramatic waterfall which cut through smooth rock and dropped at least 100 feet where they could eat lunch and not worry about being spotted by anyone from the facility.
Whatever the story, the end result was them eating the dry turkey sandwiches the facility gave to them before they left work in a beautiful setting. She could actually feel the cool of the waterfall misting off as it plummeted down, providing natural air conditioning on the balmy August afternoon.
Jamie explained the job given to him was to watch the water going into the dam as it roared down the mountains and got stifled by the concrete monstrosity. He half-heartedly explained that it depressed him, being a naturalist. She questioned his authenticity. The Fox Racing shirt, white sunglasses, and comfort flip flops he wore suggested he was more a rural extreme sports poseur than John fucking Muir.
Her life had become a massive compromise though at this point. Her romantic options had been reduced from urbane young men of which she had her pick from back in L.A. to a guy who might get overwhelmed by Target’s new stylish advances.
Because of this, she would at least listen to Jamie’s romantic pitch, if he chose to serve it up.
What Jamie did during their 30-minute lunch was mostly bitch about the program and facility and his job. She agreed with pretty much everything. It was good to finally have a sounding board and someone to commiserate with.
Ria actually started to like him. He had a genuine personality and naivety she found refreshing she wasn’t accustomed to, spending all her time with the aforementioned urbane, Southern California males with money and education.
The lunches became a regular thing, each day. As did Ria looking down into the water and seeing that ball of light, usually twice a day, late-morning and just before quitting time at five.
The light seemed to get larger each time and linger for longer. She no longer walked down to the edge of the water though, scared Jamie would see her and ask what she was doing and she would have to try and explain.
She was also scared about the feelings she was getting deep in her core whenever it happened as well.
Then she couldn’t control it one day. The lights started right at 4:59 p.m. and they didn’t stop for 15 minutes. She went down to the edge of the water.
Jamie found Ria there.. They had recently started walking back from work together and she hadn’t shown up in the parking lot where they met well after five. He was concerned and went looking for her, eventually finding her by the water, and the fading lights.
She tried to explain herself, thoroughly flustered, but he stopped her before she could get more than a few panicked breaths in.
“You’ve been looking at the lights,” Jamie said rather casually, allowing some oxygen to return to her brain.
Jamie sat her down by the waterfall. The sound of the pounding water provided the perfect backdrop for a rather heavy conversation she wasn’t anticipating.
“They’re like a local thing,” Jamie started in rather inarticulate for something so grand and metaphysical. “There’s stories about them, some of them are true.”
He gave pause as he thought. She wasn’t sure if she was prepared to believe anything he was going to say.
“There’s a world down there,” he said.
She tried not to laugh.
“I’m not fucking around. You saw those lights down there. You felt them. That’s not make believe, or something,” he went on.
He was right. Who was she to question what she was seeing and feeling herself?
“There’s a crack in the dimension down there. That’s what it is and if you ever want to truly live you’ll go down there,” Jamie said.
She thought about it for a second. The guy wasn’t capable of maintaining a straight face on a joke for this long. He was deadly serious.
“What happens if you do in there?” she asked.
“You trip hard?”
“I’m gonna need more than that.”
“So, this thing below the water, it’s been here for thousands of years supposedly, maybe millions. There’s legends of the Indian tribes around here that they would go in there for vision quests, maybe even some old God created it,” Jamie said with Ria thinking it was the least-articulate history lesson in the history of the world.
But she was starting to believe a little more. Maybe it was that bleeding heart liberal guilt that makes you think that anything centered around Native American mysticism must have some truth to it? She bought in.
“Like in my life, everyone around here always knew about it. It was part of living here. Teenage kids, they go get drunk, get high, jump in there, and go to a different world. Adults and grown ups go in there to get away from the boring world. Some supposedly don’t go out,” he went on.
“But what is it? What’s it like in there?” She pressed him.
He thought about it, staring out at the waterfall.
“It’s hard to explain. You kind of just have to experience it.”
“So you want me to just jump into a pool of freezing dark water with no explanation and just some second-hand Native American mythology?”
“You don’t have to do anything. I don’t even really like it that much.”
“What’s it like? Give me something!”
“You remember in the movie Avatar when those two like things like have sex in that blue jungle?”
“Ugh, kind of. I didn’t like that movie.”
“I remember it being like that. It’s like a neon fish tank. Think of that. You’re floating in a small space in this blue crazy light and you’re safe. Well, at least you feel safe. Like you can do anything and you can’t get hurt.”
“How do you get out?”
“You just gotta close your eyes and hold your breath for ten seconds. You’ll end up back where you jumped in, not even wet.”
The yearning to jump into the water she felt before had intensified even though the lights were no longer swirling in the water below. Every molecule in her body seemed to be pushing toward the side of her body that was closest to the water.
“I really feel like I want to jump in,” Ria said to Jamie.
“I know, it calls to you, but you can’t go in with the lights aren’t there,” he explained.
“So you can only go in at like eleven a.m. and just before five?”
“Nah, it opens up at like eleven at night and five in the morning too. That’s when most people go in. Cover of darkness.”
“Why’s it call out to me so bad though?”
“The legend was that the light in the water and space it creates puts out positive energy into the world. Even just being around it can bring out positivity into you. That’s actually why the hippies who started this whole rehab thing up here started it. I also think that’s why this dam is here. I don’t think it’s much of a dam I think it’s mostly like a research facility or something that monitors the light. Ever notice no one seems to work here in the dam, but there’s like a hundred cars in the parking lot? I think the real facility is underground, or something.”
“But how do you know if we’re safe? Has anyone ever gotten hurt?”
Jamie grabbed her hand, softly.
“Look, we’re either going to do this or not going to do this. Tonight.”
He gave her hand a quick, tight squeeze.
Ria lied in her bed staring up at white ceiling above for two hours. Lights out was at nine and she foolishly thought she might be able to sleep before she snuck out with Jamie at 10:45 to chase the light in the water.
The good news was it only seemed to be positive thoughts floating through her head for the first time in a long time, probably since before she was a teenager. Images of her swimming with her mother in the ocean, her dad taking her to the zoo, meeting her best friends on the elementary school playground, they all kept flooding in.
She even tried to think of dark thoughts. She couldn’t come up with any, just the good ones.
Jamie even kept coming into her head. His genuine kindness and friendly nature. His smile that was surprisingly straight for not having braces.
She was excited for the night. There was a knock on the tiny little window behind her bed. She looked up and saw Jamie’s face in the shallow light outside her room. Time to go.
Ria was free to get up and use the bathroom whenever she liked. There was a window that was always open in there that she could always slip out of.
Neither Jamie or Ria knew that they were technically allowed to leave the facility whenever they wanted. As long as someone was paying for them to be there they had freedom. All the rules handed down technically were just optional.
Jamie took Ria to the rocks above the lights of the dam water. It was only a minute before 11 p.m. and they watched as the lights began to swirl.
He grabbed her hand.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
She answered by holding his hand tight and jumping down into the water.
She felt everything go dark and very cold for a moment. Then she opened her eyes and saw herself floating in a sea of blue light and warmth.
She looked over and saw Jamie floating next to her. She thought she saw a few other people in there as well, spinning around in the abyss.
It had been true. She couldn’t believe it.
Then it all started to fade. Everything slowly got darker in the space until there was just darkness again.
The light came back and Ria found herself in her bed. She could remember the night. She was 16. It was the night her first serious boyfriend Taylor broke up with her. She lied in her bed with the blanket over her face.
She had cried so hard she woke up her mom at 3 a.m. Her mom pleaded with her for two hours before she gave up, now Ria was alone.
Ria would be embarrassed to say that moment was the darkest she ever felt in her life. Worse than her parents’ divorce. Worse than the death of her brother. It was that. Selfish and immature, she knew it, but internally she didn’t care.
Here was the strange thing though. Ria didn’t remember this particular point. She drowned her sorrows with a bunch of peppermint schnapps stolen from a friend’s dad and she thought she blacked out after about 1 a.m.
It’s possible she either didn’t black out or, she did, but the cosmic experience in the water, like the good vibes she had been feeling up at the facility, were broadcasting her what she forgot in the moment.
She heard a knock on her bedroom door. She whipped the blanket off of her head. Well, she didn’t do it consciously. She felt her body take the blanket off, revealing her 16-year-old bedroom to her in the dim lit. She was just along for her memory’s ride.
Another knock on the door.
She walked up to the door and threw it open, angry, but the sight of her dad, standing before her looking beaten and exhausted calmed her down.
Yet, it felt real. This happened. She knew it in her bones, in her soul, especially when her dad wrapped her in a hard hug and her hot tears soaked the collar of his dirty shirt.
Neither of them said anything, they just stood there holding each other until she felt a little better, which took about five minutes.
Then she made a mistake. She closed her eyes and held her breath for 10 seconds.
She opened her eyes and she was back on the rock above the water, shivering her skinny bones off all by herself, completely dry other than for the fresh tears streaming down her face.
She was alone. Jamie must have still been down in the water and light.
She looked down into the water. There was no light there, just darkness. A cold, stiff wind whipped across the land and she started to freeze.
A pair of vehicle headlights lit the dead grass on the bluff above her. She dove to the ground and scraped her palms. Shit. Was she about to get kicked out of the facility? Had they come to look for them?
She crawled on her belly in the dirt, trying to shield herself behind a dead bush as the headlights combed the ground above her.
Then the headlights shut off and only the moonlight remained. She caught her breath.
She decided to give Jamie a few minutes then she had to go. She saw a couple vehicles over by the dam. It was possible people from the facility were out looking for them. She couldn’t risk it much longer.
Why? She was legitimately getting better, but she wasn’t all the way there yet. She needed more time and didn’t want to get kicked out.
With that in mind, she got her ass back to the facility after waiting for Jamie for about a minute.
She ran across the town that was quiet as a ghost and got back to the facility without any incident. She jumped into her bed and quickly slipped into sleep.
Things changed in the morning. An official from the facility grabbed Ria as she ate breakfast in the cafeteria while wondering where the fuck Jamie was.
They threw her in what she would describe as an interrogation room that reminded her of something out of a cop show – white walls, no windows, one mirror, hard plastic chairs, and a fake wood table where they set a cup of coffee for her.
She was in there for at least 30 minutes before someone came in. It reminded her of going to the doctor, minus the stale brochure and outdated copies of People magazine.
She thought she recognized the woman who came into the room from the website for the facility she got about 10 seconds to look at before she left. She was tall with short gray hair and reminded her of what Charlize Theron might look like in about 20 years. Feminine, but strong and composed.
The woman intimidated her as she sat down across the table from her dressed in hospital scrubs. She extended a hand across the table and gave her a firmer shake than Ria expected.
“I’m Gabrielle, President, I hate to say that and sound like a douche, but it’s the title…I wanted to bring you in to check in on how you’re doing. So…how are you doing, Ria?”
Ria was hesitant to answer. This whole thing felt weird. She barely even talked to low-level counselors while she was there so far. Now this, the morning after she snuck out with another patient to dive into some sort of fountain of youth.
“Ria, do you have an answer?” Gabrielle interrupted her day dreaming.
Ria answered by starting to cry. She wasn’t sure exactly why. Gabrielle was thrown off, like a hawk who suddenly felt bad for the mouse it was about to eviscerate.
“Look, now I’m just going to have to try and do my best to explain this to you…and it’s not going to be easy,” Gabrielle lamented, sounding rather condescending.
It worked though. Ria was now willing to talk with her and get her emotions in check.
“What does that mean?” Ria asked back with a negative tone prompted by Gabrielle’s tone.
Gabrielle sucked in a deep breath then started speaking rapid fire.
“So-you-know-how-we-describe-this-facility-as-experimental-in-our-marketing?” Gabrielle asked a question, but didn’t leave space for Ria to answer, and she would have answered “no.”
Ria started to raise her hand like she was in a classroom. Gabrielle ignored her and went on, but more slowly now. She had full on run out of breath.
“Okay, I’m calm, other students have figured this out, gone in there before,” Gabrielle said and then paused for some more deep breathing.
Ria sat up in her chair. It now seemed like she had the upper hand in whatever kind of weird showdown was taking place.
“So you’re probably wondering what that all was, let me try to explain and whitewash some Native American history for you,” Gabrielle said as she pulled out a tattered leather book from inside her jacket.
Gabrielle dropped the book down on the table and started flipping through it’s pages, so worn it looked they might just float away if a breeze came through the room. Ria was transfixed. She felt like she was in a 90s horror movie getting the explanation of the haunting from some kind of paranormal investigator.
“The Upper Skagit Tribe that lived here had legends about what they called the Stulek, a flowing world where everything is positive. They would swim in the Stulek when the lights appeared and it would bathe them in happiness and positivity. I was shocked when it turned out the thing is somewhat true,” Gabrielle explained.
“In what way is it true?” Ria asked.
“I can’t give you the science, because I don’t know what it is, and the ones the government has underneath that dam studying that thing every day can’t give you one either, but positive and healing vibes radiate from that pond when it lights up. That’s all I really know. I don’t know what exactly happens when you go in there and neither do they, but I assume you know now. You’re just lucky you got out though,” Gabrielle said.
“What do you mean?”
“The locals have been going into that thing for years and supposedly they usually don’t come out once they go in. Why else do you think there used to be nine hundred people who lived up here full time and now there’s only fifty?”
Ria was suddenly getting really hot. She needed fresh air. She wanted to go outside.
“Supposedly they can get out sometimes and try to lure others in. They’ll even pretend to have something to do with our facility, employees, old patients, or current patients even. Don’t know why, but, you went in there, right?”
Ria was catatonic. She nodded as slightly as humanly possible to communicate a “yes.”
Gabrielle leaned across the table wild-eyed.
“What was it like in there?”
Ria fought back tears. Her initial instinct was to give Gabrielle the true answer, about how she saw the moment her brain had killed that would have possibly played a part in her recovery.
Instead, Ria thought about it for a minute and decided to lie.
“Did you ever see the movie Avatar?” Ria said.
Gabrielle leaned back in her seat and gave Ria a sly smile.
It was unclear who won the showdown and if it was really a showdown.
Ria rode out the rest of the treatment even though she felt 100 percent after her night in the “Stulek” and after her conversation with Gabrielle.
She never saw Jamie or Gabrielle again. She saw the Stulek lights in the water below the dam twice at each shift, but she was never tempted by them again. She never even went out to the rocky outcropping above the water again.
She was content. She took the first flight home she could get once she was finished with the program.
The only thing she regretted was not asking Gabrielle exactly what had happened. Had it all been part of a plan? Had it been staged? It all seemed to coincidental to not be the case. Her, set up above the Stulek to stare at it each day. That had to be their plan to get her in there and to heal her.
Did her parents know this would happen? Did they set it up?
To be honest, she didn’t fucking care anymore. All she wanted to do was get back home and take a shower. She hadn’t taken one since she went in that water.