Life is a series of constantly unraveling phenomena. Its secrets are both universal and found within our own backyards. For some, these mysteries are known as Strange City Tales…
Written by: Adam Dodd
Frank Piedmont held the flat of his hand over his eyes and looked out to the sun dappled lake. Its surface was as calm as the radio had forecasted but his concerns lie deeper. He checked the pressure on the tanks, adjusted his straps, and then double-checked the pressure again. They were on a schedule, but he’d rather run late than not at all. That didn’t mean he was eager to plunge into the thirty seven degree waters.
The S.S. Lightfoot idled along Lake Erie’s Long Point; coordinates typically afforded a wide berth. The jagged, rocky coast flared in and out of the lake like a row of busted teeth. There was no more dangerous passage found across the entire body of water for sailors and sightseers alike. It was for this same reason that they dropped anchor.
Frank’s partner Waylon joined him on the side of the boat. “We should be over it just about now.”
It was Waylon’s lead that had guided them. He picked it up second hand but it boasted a decent haul if it bore out so Frank was game. This wasn’t their first plunder and he appreciated that Waylon always had a nose for these things.
He nodded and waved him off. “If the ship is down there: usual deal; sixty-forty.”
“What? Nuh-uh. Fifty-fifty. I found it. I got us out here.”
He knew better than to argue just before a dive. He ran a finger over his moustache and smiled. “Sure, Waylon, sure. We’ll talk about it later.”
“Need I remind you, this is a research expedition?” Dr. Benton demanded from across the deck.
The graduate professor was the one who chartered the boat but she knew better than to press either man. Amanda Benton PhD would become a household name for the maritime discoveries soon to set her apart from her peers. To do that, she would have to reach them first. That meant bending a few rules and breaking others she didn’t want to give thought to. She was still building rapport with the world of plundering. Until then, she feared she was all but along for the ride.
“There’s a reason they call them the Great Takes, Miss Benton.”
“It’s Doctor Benton,” she corrected. “We’re supposed to be here charting historical sites, not bobbing for trinkets.”
Frank gave her a wry salute while pulling the goggles over his head. “Do you have any idea just how many wrecks at the bottom of this lake, let alone Long Point? We’re just going for a quick dip. Promise not to take anything anyone will miss.”
“It doesn’t matter who notices, it’s still wrong.” She worked up the nerve to say what really gave her trouble. “There’s never been a tide the lake’s failed to take back.”
Frank winked in spite of her disapproval. She was far from the first to think that they cracked it, that they had a real angle to work on the lake. It was big business if you knew what you were doing. The day traders and drug runners that typically chartered Waylon and Frank had no more clue than this pushy academic, he surmised. That she was right all the same didn’t help.
“I’ll bring you back up china plate.”
Before she could continue their argument, he kicked his feet up and let the weight of his oxygen tanks pull him over the side of the boat. His flipper broke the surface of the water and then he was gone from the Lightfoot’s sight.
“It doesn’t matter who notices, it’s still wrong.” She worked up the nerve to say what really gave her trouble. “There’s never been a tide the lake’s failed to take back.”
No matter times he had done this, it was always the insulation that registered first; the silent inevitability every motion took on. He worked his way deeper, aiming away from the light. Frank knew if his partner had it right, the wreck wouldn’t be far. The wake shouldn’t have been an issue but after plunger several feet he couldn’t swim out of the clouded waters that began to surround him. Something had upset the lakebed, and recently. The deeper he went the worse it became. Frank clicked on his flashlight. Nothing but churning brown and green clouds surrounded him. Bits of wood and stone pelted him and clattered against the side of his oxygen tanks. He pushed further, knowing if he reached bottom at least he could orientate from there.
Broken masts ring out like dinner bells to plunderers. Even still, he nearly missed it through all the murk. That this one hadn’t snapped from whatever storm befell it only piqued Frank’s interest. It wasn’t the late-1800’s schooner they had gone in search of. This was one smaller. It was still too far to make out, but most of the ship appeared intact. He kicked his flippers towards the wreck but got turned around in a sudden current which blew him head over heel. It only took a moment, but by the time he regained his momentum the ship was gone.
He would have spent more time searching had he the chance but all sunlight had gone. His flashlight was no use to dark waters surrounding him. Only after things began raining down on him could he tell which way was up. He didn’t understand what it was but knew to swim against it all the same.
Somehow everything made even less sense when he reached the surface.
A storm had broken from out of nowhere and the Lightfoot was missing. In its place a much larger ship rocked uneasily atop the volatile lake. Frank struggled to reach the side of the ship as choppy waves shoved at him in all direction. It took all his energy just to stay afloat. As frank paddled closer, he could hear the peels of thunder and groaning ship lumber were peppered with the frantic screams of the men on deck. They weren’t expecting the summer swell either. A length of wet roped whipped against his face. He grabbed hold and pulled himself aboard before the lake would have him. The scene on deck fared no better than the chaos below.
Crewmen crashed into one another like toys in a child’s tantrum. Water had already begun filling the ship. A body, trampled no doubt, lie face down in a rising pool. Frank’s mouth formed the words, “What is this? What’s happened?” but nothing could be heard over the din breaking around them.
One of the shipmate collided into him. His pupils fluttered in broken panic, searching for anything to make sense, finally settling for Frank. “We’re sinking. God save us, I think we’re sinking!”
Before Frank could offer commentary, a sudden swell bucked the ship on its side before slamming it back. The turbulence took the other man off his feet and flung him overboard as Frank watched, helpless to the devastation. In his shock he was brought to the ground, falling against part of the ship that had broken free. The cables and straps to his scuba tanks were tangled in the debris, pinning him down. A plate of iron would have caved in the side of his skull had one of the crew not pulled him free from his gear at the last moment.
Frank clung to his wrist before he could run off, demanding, “Where are we?”
It was only now that the seaman took in the stranger’s odd costume and realized he was not one of them. “What do you mean where are we? We’re in the shit! Where else?”
Frank struggled to make sense of his situation. “No, I mean, this isn’t my boat. I’m not supposed to be here.”
The two men looked on in mute horror as another wave crested over the ship, washing away the bow with it. “Well, wherever you’re supposed to be, mind giving what’s left of the Mediera a lift?”
“The Mediera?” Frank knew the ship well enough. He would one day swim through its sunken hull, searching without success for anything viable enough to sell to private collectors.
The ship pitched forward and everyone braced for a wave’s momentum to throw them back, but this was different. This time they were going under. Frank reached for a splintered side of the ship but it came loose in his grip and he found himself overboard again. He choked down more and more lake water and realized he was drowning. He fought it at first, but without his scuba gear, lost in pandemonium of the Mediera, he was out of time.
It was in his last gasp for air that he realized he wasn’t alone. The ship that had first taken him off course was waiting at the bottom. He was closer this time. Without the typical pelt of algae, wherever the ship came from the loss was recent. He strained to read the name on the side of the boat as his world grew black but it was too late for Frank Piedmont.
“Just in time, yes?” A man in a drab blue uniform smirked as he kneeled over Frank. He shook his head in disbelief. “We thought we lost you there for a minute.”
It took Frank a moment to register he was breathing air. Lying on his back, he took in his surroundings. He was aboard a different ship again. This time it was an immense steamer, overcrowded with passengers. Whatever storm had devastated the world around him moments prior had cleared, only to be replaced with a thick fog which lingered over their passage.
“What? Where, where am I?”
“The Atlantic, barely. We saw you face down out there and roped you in. How the hell you got that far out on your own is beyond me. You got a boat out there, fella?”
He considered it. “I- I was on the Mediera, but I don’t know how. It sank. So long ago.”
The crewman thought it over, “Med-i-era? Never heard of it.”
Frank knew he was right to doubt him. “It was an old ship,” he muttered. “It sank a long time ago. Somehow, I don’t know how, but somehow I was onboard.”
The crewman shot him an uncomfortable glance. “Old? Mister, you must have been in the drink longer than I thought. You’re not making much sense.”
More of the steamer’s passengers were leaving their cabins, curious about the new attraction. Frank finally noticed the others. Their clothing, the shabby waistcoats and high-hiked knicker bottoms, it was all so old. So was the ship, for that matter. A steamer? They hadn’t used them since—
“Where did you say I am?”
“The Atlantic.” The man repeated.
Frank realized he wasn’t talking about the ocean. “Like, thee Atlantic ? As in the H.S. Atlantic? As in one of the worst steamship wrecks of all time, that Atlantic?”
“This is the H.S. Atlantic, but I don’t know what you’re on about. We’ve never sank. Clearly.”
“What year is it?” Frank demanded. “It’s 1852, isn’t it? When did it happen, when did it go down. August? August 30? It’s August 30th 1852, isn’t?”
The crewman did not know what dark math Frank was calculating but he didn’t care for the sum of its parts. He nodded wearily.
“Listen, you need to get the Captain. You need to warn him.”
“Just calm down, mister. You must be sick or something.”
“No!” He persisted. “You need to listen. You’re going to run into the Ogdensburg. It’s going to be a disaster. Hundreds will die.”
The crewmember laughed uneasily, aware a crowd was growing. “Hate to argue, but it’s been smooth sailing all day long. There’s really nothing to worry—”
“Enough of this,” Frank pushed himself up, using the other man to brace as he found his knees. The others stood like stacked corkboard, dully taking in the show as he pushed his way through. “I don’t have time to argue. I need to speak with the captain, now.”
In answer, the ship lurched forward as a calamitous boom erupted from the fog ahead. The passengers, crew, and Frank Piedmont fell to the deck. The tearing followed in a deafening punch of snapped timber and iron. A dark monolith cut through the shroud of fog encasing the H.S. Atlantic. The Ogdensburg had struck.
The man Frank had been arguing with shot a frightened look of suspicion back. It wouldn’t be immediate, but they both knew it was inevitable. Lake Erie began pouring in through the gash left behind from the larger ship’s collision. Passengers would spend the better part of the next hour baling water to little effect. Frank watched as the first lifeboat capsized as they attempted to launch. He knew after the captain would give himself a concussion, a disorganized crew would escape with the remaining two lifeboats, leaving over two hundred passengers to their fates. The rest was history.
The tearing followed in a deafening punch of snapped timber and iron. A dark monolith cut through the shroud of fog encasing the H.S. Atlantic. The Ogdensburg had struck.
Over a hundred years in the future, Frank Piedmont would pass off a gnarled piece of rotted ship hull to a woefully credulous buyer. To sweeten the swindle, he would retell the tale of the H.S. Atlantic’s sinking and the passengers’ futile attempts at survival. That point in time would still have its moment, but in this one, Frank Piedmont was dying.
The Niagara was next. He tried warning them of Long Point’s hunger but they would prove just as foolhardy as the Rebecca Foster, and the S.S. Idaho after that. All of the entrees long digested by history. Regardless of whichever doomed ship he would wash upon, the fears which Dr. Benton had first given voice to were never far behind.
“Lake’s never failed to take back a tide yet.”
He was falling again, slowly sinking from the latest disaster until he reached the bottom of the lake. It was calm this time, expectant. The ship had returned; the same one that had first led him astray. This time it was closer than ever before. Frank reached out and took hold of a railing along the bow. He pulled himself closer to see he was not alone. A water-logged crew bobbed listlessly within its cabin. He pushed them aside. Bloated corpses became perfunctory for a seasoned plunderer. Instead, it was the name along the side of the boat which froze him in undiscovered horror.
The lake poured into him, filling his lungs as he gasped, “The Lightfoot?”
“Orillia, Ontario’s native son,” Waylon answered back.
Frank’s eyes were forced shut from the brilliance of the mid-afternoon sun as it shone off the lake’s surface like polished tin. When he dared them open he saw the familiar deck of the Lightfoot underneath him.
His partner reached for the scuba tank now slung across his back. “Why don’t we try that again with your tanks hooked up this time, yeah?”
“What? What happened?” Frank finally choked the words up.
“Your tanks, the lines came loose,” Waylon answered. “I’m sorry, man. That was on me. That’s why we pulled you up before we even got started.”
Frank let the latest reality wash over him. “Get started? How long was I under for?”
Waylon shared an uncertain exchange with Dr. Benton as she looked on from the cabin’s doorway. “You okay, Frank? You were only in there for, what, thirty seconds?”
He blinked, incomprehensive at first, then in amusement. “Thirty seconds? You’re saying—and, and this whole time? I’m here? I’m really here?”
Frank laughed at the thought of trying to explain the series of tragedies he found himself a helpless passenger to. He rapped his knuckles against the wooden boards on the deck, amazed at just how real those other lives had seemed, how intimate those wrecks felt. He inhaled until his lungs burned full from the moist lake air, thinking the chance would never come again. The explosion that followed was so loud Frank thought he had been struck with something.
The force knocked his knees out from under him. He sat up in time to catch sight of Waylon engulfed in fire. His partner staggered mindless toward the edge of the deck as flames dripped from his limbs. A shrieking curtain of reds and oranges, he tried tipping his body over the side of the boat but the damage was done. The waters hissed and steamed as the blackened corpse tumbled in.
Frank had told Waylon that the electric winch had been shorting out, but they agreed to wait out replacing it until they really needed to. An errant electrical spark caught the compressed oxygen in the leaking scuba tank and it tore through the Lightfoot like a bomb had gone off. What part of the bow that hadn’t been shorn off was on fire. Gnarled scuba tank shrapnel spread across the ship. Dr. Benton pulled a piece of the jagged metal from her thigh and deep red began pouring free.
Still deafened from the blast, Frank took in the carnage besetting him and he understood. It was too much for the small boat. He could already feel that familiar pull, that inevitable gravity all doomed ships knew too well. He was here for the Lightfoot just as he was for the Mediera, the Atlantic and all other ships which met their ends in the waters of Lake Erie. There was never a tide that failed to return.
“And that’s why you never disturb the ships that come to rest at the bottom of Lake Erie.”
The children’s nervous chatter and questions were gone before the story had ended. They bunched together, eager for all the macabre details that adolescence cherished. The summer squall would pass just as swiftly as it had sprung, but the cruise attendant’s tale was a welcome distraction for them. This was far from the first time she had spun the local legend for children who were as welcome as extra luggage to parents unable to find sitters.
One of the kids worked up the nerve to ask. “So what happened to those people on the boat?”
“Some say they’re still out there,” the cruise attendant recited from memory, “forced to live through all the horrors they once capitalized on. But none of you have to worry about any of that because now you all know better because you’ve heard of the curse of the Lightf—”
She was cut off by a commotion coming from the deck. Someone was screaming just audible over the rising winds, “Mandy, quick! Get out here!”
She motioned for the children to stay in their cabin. “I’ll just be a second.”
The rain stung her face raw the moment she stepped onto the deck. Thunder erupted from the depths of green clouds which blistered throughout the sky. The storm had kicked up since her story began. They must be passing through the eye of the small cell, she thought. She tried gaining sight of the attraction but the others were crowded against the railing looking out the waters just beside the S.S. Good Times IX.
“Some say they’re still out there,” the cruise attendant recited from memory, “forced to live through all the horrors they once capitalized on.
“What do we got?” she shouted.
“It’s a rescue,” one of the clerks announced. He had forgotten of the storm and was just excited to find reprieve from the gift shop’s key chains and beer-coozies.
The cruise attendant looked out to the army of frothing white caps closing in on them. “Where? I don’t see any other ships.”
“That’s just it.” They were helping him over the side of the railing as the other man answered. “He was out there all on his own.”
She brought a towel over to the bedraggled man but he flinched back once he saw her.
“It’s okay,” she promised. “We got you. Not sure how, but you survived. It’s some kind of miracle.”
Frank Piedmont took sight of the latest crew and shook his head, knowing better as the thunder clapped louder, closer this time.
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Content Strategist, novelist and prolific roustabout who drinks entirely too much coffee. You can find him on Twitter @therealadamdodd