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REVENGE AT POISON LAKE

I had been warned that the wooden figurine of the angry bear with his mouth roaring wide could get me into trouble. My grandfather kept it in a jewelry box that was passed on to my mother when he died. He was a descendant of the Kanawha tribe, and he claimed it had been carved from one of the mountain’s rare elm trees by an Indian shaman whose family had been slaughtered when this area was settled 200 years ago. He said it had been used by that shaman in revenge rituals that caused many of the settlers to die in horrible, bloody accidents for several generations before its power waned.

My grandfather was a true believer in Indian magic, and although he felt great empathy for the shaman he cautioned me that revenge was a dangerous thing and that too often it “unleashed a whole cycle of pain and suffering.”

I always nodded when he said things like that, but nevertheless harbored a secret hope that I could somehow conjure the figurine’s dark power back. Because if anyone deserved revenge, it was me – and the people close to me, of course. Night after night that figurine was the last thing I looked at before drifting off to sleep, practically chanting “I wish . . . I wish . . . I wish” over and over, my mind fixated on getting even, for so many things.

* * *

Today I got my chance. My house is a little over three miles from my high school, halfway up the mountain that looms over the suburb below us. I’m still a year away from getting my driver’s license and have to ride my bike back and forth. I was on my way home and on the steepest stretch when I heard a truck roaring up behind me. I glanced back and saw John and Joe Cannon in the front seat.

I reacted like I always did around the Cannons – every muscle in my body tensing with a rush of fear. I was practically standing up on the pedals, pushing as hard as possible to keep going on the incline, when I realized they were speeding up. And then they were right next to me. The side of the truck brushed my shoulder just as Joe, who was driving, laid on the horn.

I might have been able to stay upright if John hadn’t stuck his arm out of the passenger side and shoved me. I went down fast, flying off my bike and colliding with a big tree.

The truck screeched to a stop and I heard them laughing as I stood up. There was a pain in my thigh but the helmet that I’ve always promised my mom I would wear kept my skull from cracking open. I had landed on my backpack and my best camera – a Sony DSLR – was inside. I could only hope it was okay.

I was still dazed as I looked at the twisted handlebars and tangled brake cords of my beautiful 22 gear Ibex mountain bike, which had cost me two months of tips from my busboy job. I watched them get out of the truck and walk toward me. They were twin giants of the defensive line on our school’s football team, and just two weeks earlier they had sacked the quarterback from an opposing team and sent him to the hospital with a spinal injury. I take photos for the sports page of the school paper and I remembered them laughing as the boy was strapped to a stretcher and carried off the field.

Joe, who had been driving, was swaying, and they both had a crazy, drunken look in their eyes. Their truck was a tricked-out Cadillac Escalade, which I suppose would qualify as a pick-up even though it probably set their father back about $60,000.

Joe had a sneaky smile as he ambled over to the bike at the side of the road, then nudged it with his foot, as if it was a dead animal he had just run over.

“Looks like it might have been too soon to take off those training wheels, Sean.”

“Yeah, Camera Boy,” his brother John snickered. “Where’d you learn to ride that thing?”

I bristled at the sound of that nickname – Camera Boy. My hands were balled into fists at my sides. I hated the way the Cannons made me feel, and wanted nothing more than to get back at them.

“You pushed me,” I said, my voice croaking.

John’s mouth dropped open with a look of surprise, as if by some miracle I had decided, finally, after years of their bullying, to stick up for myself.

Then he scrunched up his face, mimicking someone about to cry. “Awww . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

I was so upset I could barely breathe. “You jerks,” I muttered.

“Whoaaa . . . “ John threw his arms up in the air, pretending to be offended.

“It’s not funny!” Without thinking I shoved him, hard.

The blow took him completely by surprise, and almost knocked him off balance. His brother laughed, which made his face suddenly go bright red.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

The tone of his voice sent a chill up my back. His expression made it clear I had crossed some kind of line. I started to lean down to pick the bike up but John grabbed it first –

And hoisted it into the back of the truck.

“What are you doing?” I practically yelled.

“You pissed me off Camera Boy.” He was glaring at me now. “Big time.”

I grabbed the back wheel of the bike. “Give it back!”

John knocked me away with a blow to the chest. I fell backwards and landed on my butt, the road gravel cutting into my palms. The next thing I knew they were running back toward the front of the truck, their laughter echoing up through the trees.

Joe turned the ignition and revved the engine. I realized all at once they were stealing my bike!

Rage struck me like lightning, and without another thought I leapt up into the back cargo area of their truck, landing hard on my stomach the instant Joe Cannon hit the gas. He peeled away fast, both of them laughing and looking back at me as if my desperation was the funniest thing in the world.

Seconds later we were speeding up the mountain, weaving crazily across the road. I was still clutching my backpack and thought of my camera. I opened the zipper and found its interchangeable lens smashed. Tears of rage filled my eyes as I looked at the backs of their bullet shaped heads through the rear window.

I reached into the backpack again, and pulled out the bear figurine that I had been carrying with me every day. I turned my back to the Cannons and clasped it tightly with both hands, the tears blurring my vision as I stared at its bared teeth and clawed paws. I imagined raising it high over my head – imagined yelling out some ancient Indian curse.

And then I did say, in a whisper that sounded like a prayer: “I want revenge . . . I want it NOW.”

The next thing I remember is glancing at Catoctin Lake off to the left of the road and then hearing the rumble of another engine. I looked up and saw my Uncle Gene’s pick-up heading straight toward us.

Joe immediately accelerated and both of them made whooping sounds as the Escalade charged forward into the center of the road, the horn blaring, forcing my uncle’s truck into a game of chicken.

I saw his eyes widen with horror as he yanked the wheel to the right and lost control. The pick-up swung into a 180-degree turn, then shot right through the trees and into the lake.

The splash was like an explosion – the water shooting 10 feet into the air.

For several seconds the woods went absolutely still. John and Joe both jumped out of the Escalade but just stood there, looking stunned and stupid. I yelled something like “why did you — ?” and then I was running toward the lake. My uncle’s truck was sinking fast. I jumped into the muddy, freezing water without thinking – although I should have been thinking, because, frankly, I was never much of a swimmer. I splashed in a spastic dog paddle toward the truck and grabbed the top of the driver’s side door to keep myself from going under.

My uncle was lying on his side in the front seat. The windshield was cracked and there was a nasty wound on his forehead. He was completely still as I reached over and grabbed his arm.

And then suddenly we were sinking even faster, as if the car was being sucked into a drain. I screamed, and for one eerie moment I thought I felt him suddenly start to squirm in my grasp, but then the water rushed up over us and pulled me toward the bottom.

* * *

The next thing I remember, my Uncle Gene was slapping my face. Then I was coughing up the filthy water as he squeezed my chest. We were on the bank of the lake. The woods were a blur around me as I sat up.

I stared for several seconds at the spot where the truck had landed before the terror of what had happened hit me full force.

Have to get home, I thought. Have to call the police.

My Uncle Gene was looking out toward the water now too. His skin was ghastly pale and the wound on his forehead was bright red, and pulpy. He was in his work uniform – coveralls he wore as a groundskeeper for the school. He looked so frail I couldn’t imagine how he had managed to get us both out of the water.

“Uncle Gene . . . “ I managed to say. “I’m . . . sorry.”

He gave me a wounded look. “Was that your idea of fun, Sean?”

“N – no . . . ” I stammered, realizing that he thought I had been involved in running him off the road. And then I told him what the Cannons had done to my bike and camera and how I never would have gotten into their truck if they hadn’t tossed the bike in first.

“Joe Cannon was driving,” I said. “I jumped in the water to try and save you.”

His expression softened, but only a little. My Uncle had had a terribly hard life. He liked me well enough, but I doubted he’d ever give me full credit for plunging into that filthy lake to try and rescue him.

“They were gone when we came outta’ the water,” he said, referring to the Cannons. “They left us for dead.”

He looked toward the road that went back down the mountain. I think we were both imagining their rush to get away, both knowing that when they got home they would pretend that nothing had happened. If we really had drowned and they were questioned, they would claim they never saw either one of us on that road.

After all, John and Joe Cannon had gotten away with murder at least once before.

* * *

Later, when the plan for revenge was well under way, I would tell myself that I was mainly in it for the sake of my uncle and the terrible thing that the Cannons had done to his side of the family.

But in truth I was desperate to get even with the Cannons on my own. John and Joe Cannon had tormented me for years. They had stolen my lunch money, tripped me in the hallways and beaten me up more times than I could remember. Now my favorite camera was ruined and my bike was in the back of their truck probably gone for good. I was as determined as my uncle to make them pay the price for their deeds.

I knew something was coming as he reached into his chest pocket and pulled out a waterlogged photograph. My throat tightened as I looked down at the image of little Timmy Kleinman, my Uncle Gene’s grandson.

It was a normal school picture, but you could tell he was one of those kids we learned to refer to as “special.” His eyes were like blank glass marbles, and even though he was looking into the camera lens he seemed to be staring off into some distant horizon.

“They think they can get away with anything,” he said.

I thought about what the Cannon boys had done to Timmy, and what their father’s company, Cannon Chemicals, had done to him before he was even born. The cruelty of his short life. The terrible fear he must have felt right before he died.

“Let’s call the police.  I’ll be a witness,” I said. “I’ll tell ‘em they ran you off the road.” My voice was shaking. Ratting on the Cannons would put me in real danger. Their father’s lawyers would probably make the charges go away, leaving them free to come after me again.

“I got a better plan,” he said.

“What do you mean – what kind of plan?” I asked.

He was squinting into the late day sun, the bloody wound glistening on his forehead.

“I can do something I couldn’t do before we went into that lake,” he said. “If you help me, I can make ‘em pay.”

I felt powerless as I stood there watching him, as if I was caught in some kind of spell as the two of us started hatching our scheme.

* * *

I shivered and stumbled a lot on my walk home. My whole body was itching and I wondered if the water had seeped into my skin and filled it with poison. Green Mountain had been a beautiful place at one time – the library in town still has pictures of President Teddy Roosevelt fishing in Catoctin Lake when it supposedly had clean, clear water. But a few years ago Cannon Chemicals discovered a compound in rock underneath the ground that it needed to manufacture one of the world’s most powerful anesthetics.

It’s supposed to be a miracle product, used worldwide for keeping people unconscious while doctors cut into their bodies, but the process for making it has practically destroyed the ecosystem. One half of the mountain has been strip-mined and our well water – like the water in Catoctin Lake, which the locals now refer to as Poison Lake – smells like rotten eggs. All up and down the mountain there are swaths of rotted and diseased trees mixed among those that still cling to life. Most days the air feels like it’s full of decay, as if the Cannon Chemicals products are seeping out and poisoning everything. The mountain can still be beautiful, but the environmental destruction makes it seem like some kind of purgatory between life and death. And it isn’t just the wildlife that has been affected – a lot of people have gotten sick, including my own mom, whose cancer is now in remission.

But my cousin Timmy was the saddest case. Although the chemicals weren’t what ultimately killed him, they damaged his mind before he ever said his first word. My Uncle Gene had fought hard to prove that whatever the Cannon company had done to the water supply was somehow responsible for Timmy’s condition. But you can’t go up against a giant corporation’s lawyers on a groundskeeper’s salary, so my uncle had felt the need for vengeance for years before the day that Timmy had died. *

My mom was in her room with the door shut when I got there. I heard her weeping quietly – again. This sounds awful to say, but I had almost gotten used to this. My mom teaches special ed at the elementary school and Timmy was one of her students. Six months after his death, she still hadn’t gotten over it.

But still it hurt to hear her crying. Her sadness made me even more determined to follow through with my uncle’s plan.

My cell phone was ruined – it had been in my pocket when I plunged into the water. So I took the cordless for our landline out into the backyard and dialed the number that would get me directly to Detective Frank Caruso.

The number was easy to remember, because it was written on the detective’s card, which was held by a magnet to our refrigerator. He had left it there on his last visit to our house, when he was still investigating Timmy’s death.

I left an anonymous message, saying exactly what my uncle and I had agreed on.

A few minutes later I was back in my bedroom, in front of my computer. John and Joe Cannon were both on Facebook, and I had a feeling I’d reach them pretty quickly as I sent them both a message:

GUESS WHO’S NOT DEAD?

And waited for their response.

* * *

Of course it didn’t take long. I gave them my email address so they could Instant-Message me. I was gazing at the revenge-bear figurine and loving the way the fading sun sparkled in its blue gemstone eyes when the message from John Cannon popped up on my screen.

Wht happened??? He typed.

I waited a couple of minutes, then typed back:

U know wht happened. My uncle Gene drowned. I got out but U KILLED HIM.

 I knew he was panicking as I read his response:

It was my brothers fault not mine he was drivng HE should get arrested.

Whatever. I rolled my eyes. It was interesting to see how quickly one brother turned against the other.

I typed: U r going to hv biggr problems. Detective Caruso is here tlking to my mom

Detective????? WHY?

I took the bear figurine out of my pocket and rubbed its belly, almost believing that I really was benefiting from some kind of Indian shaman magic. Revenge was indeed going to be sweet, for both me and Uncle Gene.

He told her my uncle hired a prvte detective who has evidence Timmys death came about through FOUL PLAY.

I had been looking forward to using that expression – “foul play,” as if I was some kind of police official. But now I just felt sad as I thought of my six- year-old cousin being trapped and suffocating inside the discarded refrigerator at the dump that’s just a few hundred yards from Uncle Gene’s house. Supposedly he’d been playing there by himself, but our postmaster had told Detective Caruso about seeing the Cannon boys’ Escalade up there too. The Cannons were questioned, but of course they claimed they never saw little Timmy playing there.

He asked my mom if she ever heard u guys call him any names.

I remembered a few of the names – “retard,” “ingrate,” “idiot child” – they had used over the years. John and Joe Cannon thrived on ridiculing others, and Timmy’s condition had made him an easy target. I was pretty sure the Cannons had talked Timmy into getting inside the refrigerator and left him there because they thought it would be funny for him to be scared, just as they had thought it was funny to frighten my uncle into running his car off the road.

Which is why what I typed in next was so important.

He said the private eye gave my uncle a file of info that links u and ur brother with Timmy’s death

* * *

I had disguised my voice when I left that message for Detective Caruso, and I hoped he didn’t figure out it was me. I had gotten to know him pretty well because he used to be in love with my mom. But that was before Timmy died. She had heard that the Cannons had been spotted nearby and didn’t believe Detective Caruso did enough to connect them. He said “his hands were tied,” which she took to mean he didn’t want to go up against Cannon Chemicals. He told her he resented the accusation, and that was pretty much the end of their relationship.

But a few minutes after my call to the Cannons he really did pull up into our driveway. He looked terrible – his eyes were red, as if he had also been crying, and were lined with dark circles that made him look much older than his 40-something years. I stood at my end of the hall without saying anything as my mom went to the front door to let him in.

He hugged her, and the two of them sat down on the couch. I stood at the threshold between the hall and the living room, watching them. I tried to hear what they were saying but the sound of the TV was louder than their voices. I wanted to ask what was wrong but for some reason my own voice caught in my throat. I couldn’t say anything. I kept thinking they would look up and say something to me, but they seemed too involved in holding on to each other to even notice anyone else.

I returned to my room to get my back-up camera, a second-hand Nikon D 90. The bear figurine was still sitting next to the computer. I slipped it into my coat pocket.

For luck, I thought.

I went out through the back door because I didn’t want the Detective or my mom to ask where I was going. There was a dirt path at the edge of our backyard that led down the mountain and I used that to get to my uncle’s house.

It was dark by the time I got there, and I was glad they hadn’t already broken in. I had told John the file was in a desk, and guessed that it wouldn’t take them long to find that desk in one of the spare bedrooms. I set the ISO on my Nikon to 2400 to make sure I could take pictures in low light, then slipped into the bedroom closet to wait for them to get there.

* * *

The bad feeling started coming over me a few minutes later. I was holding the figurine in my hand, remembering more of what my grandfather had told me. The shaman got his revenge, but one day while tracking a deer he came to a bend in the trail and was surprised by a real bear that attacked him. “He also had a horrible death,” my granddad had said. “So let that be a warning Sean. Don’t ever wish for revenge because you don’t know what it will really bring.”

I tried to laugh off the feeling. My mom had always referred to my grandfather as a “superstitious nut.” I also reminded myself of how unfair it was that John and Joe Cannon had gotten away with what they did to Timmy and to me. They deserved to be arrested – at least for something, which was what my uncle and I believed would happen.

But my heart was still beating too fast, and I had the strange and sudden sense that I had unleashed something terrible as I held the figurine.

The feeling intensified when I heard the glass breaking in the pane of the front door. I opened the closet door about an inch and watched as John and Joe Cannon stepped into the room.

They went straight to the desk. They pulled out all the drawers, then emptied them onto the floor, and saw there was no file. They were cussing like crazy as they went through the other chest in the room. I snapped a succession of photos but they were so preoccupied with destroying the place they didn’t hear the clicks of my camera.

After a few minutes they left the bedroom to search the rest of the house.

They were back in the living room when I heard one of them shrieking with terror.

I rushed out of the closet and peered around the corner.

It was all so perfect I laughed out loud.

My Uncle Gene was in the room, sitting in a chair next to the mantel, his arms flat against the armrests, looking like a man strapped into an electric chair. As planned, he had made himself up to look like a corpse – or worse, a corpse that had decomposed 10 times faster than normal in the poisoned water of that lake. His skin was a pale blue. There was a long line of green slime dribbling from his mouth. His eyes were wide open and staring straight ahead.

He was still wearing the groundskeeper uniform. The entire room had the same putrid, rotten egg stink I had smelled on my clothes after I came out of the lake.

This is just too good, I thought, as I gazed at the Cannon boys, who were so horrified they were literally frozen in place.  

I raised my camera and took more shots.

My uncle’s mouth quivered. He sounded as if he was still underwater as he spoke:

“Murderers . . . “

That was all it took to get the Cannons moving. Joe reacted first and spun around to grab the knob to the front door. It was still locked. He then ran from the living room and back to the kitchen. I heard the back door rattling and then a hard thump and guessed that he had thrown his body against it to get it open.

There was a sudden flash of light in the living room, and then another. And then John Cannon was screaming again. I stood at the threshold as giant flames raced up the curtains, and rose up around Uncle Gene’s chair, then spread across the rug.

In seconds the whole room was ablaze. I raced for the open back door. I was only about five feet into the backyard when the explosion blew the house apart.

* * *

When I had left my house with my camera I had simply intended to get evidence of the Cannons breaking into my uncle’s home. My anonymous tip on Detective Caruso’s voice mail had said that there was a rumor that the place was going to be burglarized and I thought that even if the police weren’t there when it happened, my photos would prove what the Cannons had done.

The police did show up – the burning house had been seen all the way down in the valley. I learned later that they found John Cannon at the edge of the property, unconscious but not seriously hurt after being thrown by the explosion. There was a can of the flammable chemicals that are used in making the Cannon’s anesthetic in the Escalade, which Joe Cannon hadn’t been able to start when he tried to flee.

They found Joe wandering in the woods, disoriented and mumbling, halfway out of his mind. By then Detective Caruso was interrogating John Cannon in a locked room at the police station, telling him he was going to be charged with arson for setting the fire.

That was about all it took to turn one Cannon brother against the other. If you watch police shows you know when people are arrested for crimes, they might testify against someone else in a different crime in exchange for easier treatment. That’s exactly what led John Cannon to tell Detective Caruso about how his brother Joe had run my Uncle Gene off the road earlier that day.

* * *

Of course it took me a long time to find all this out, and to realize that I had misread some of the day’s events. I had run home through the woods as soon as the house exploded. My mother’s bedroom door was still closed. I could still hear the sound of the television and a newscaster reporting from the scene of the fire and describing the chemical can that had been found there. I started to knock, but was worried she would ask where I had been. I know this sounds cowardly, but I was sure my uncle had been killed in the explosion, and I didn’t want to tell her I had been there.

“Uncle Gene, I am so sorry,” I whispered as I went into my room, my eyes filling with tears. I felt more determined than ever to make sure the Cannons were caught as I uploaded the photos into my computer.

The first few photos of John and Joe Cannon tearing apart the bedroom came out fine. But those from the living room were blurry and indistinct. I realized I hadn’t changed the shutter speed in my rush to get there, and I hadn’t taken any shots at all once the fire started.

And then I started thinking about the fire itself. The Cannons had been empty-handed when I saw them in the living room. I hadn’t smelled any chemicals. In hindsight the fire seemed to have started impossibly fast.

So what was going on?

I turned on the TV in my room to the same newscast my mom had been watching in hers.

The reporter was finishing up the story about the fire, and then the man and woman at the anchor desk were talking about “the earlier tragedy on Green Mountain.”

I watched as they rolled videotape of my uncle’s pick-up being pulled out of the lake. The images were slightly grainy, and I would have known they hadn’t been shot by the TV station even if there hadn’t been a banner at the bottom that said OFFICIAL POLICE VIDEO.

The room started to spin around me when I saw the dull green of the groundskeeper uniform in the front seat.

“Oh . . . no,” I moaned. Of course the news stations never show dead bodies on screen, but I knew what I was seeing.

But he couldn’t be dead, I thought. He was with me tonight!

But then I remembered the way my uncle had appeared in his living room – stinking and rotting from the polluted water.

And that was when our earlier “conversation” rushed back through my mind.

“I can do something I couldn’t do before . . . we went into that lake.”

“If you help me, I can make ‘em pay.”

Suddenly it all made sense. The factory with its smokestacks. The putrid, polluted air. The filthy water in the lake.  The anesthetics made by Cannon Chemicals could bring a person close to a state of death. And now it looked like they could likewise bring the dead to life.

So I had gotten my wish to get even, but a terrible cost indeed.

The life of my Uncle Gene, who died in the poison lake, but came back half alive. Or in other words – a ghost.

I looked back at the television screen. And realized something else. The video of the car being pulled from the lake had been taken in full daylight. It couldn’t have been too much after my uncle had been run off the road.

Which meant that Detective Caruso knew before the fire that my Uncle Gene was dead.

And all because of you. I thought, as I held the bear figurine in my hand. Because you had to get revenge.

I heard my mother’s bedroom door open, which brought the sound of her television out into the hall.

Tears streamed down my face as I stepped out of my room. I was overcome with guilt, but I wanted to tell her that justice had been done.  Joe and John Cannon were going to go to prison. They couldn’t torment me anymore, and they were going to be charged with murder. Yes, my Uncle had been killed, and yes it was all my fault. But in the end, little Timmy’s death really had been avenged.

I called out to her – “Mom you’ll never believe — .”

And realized she was looking right through me.

“Mom?”

She walked past me, as if I wasn’t there.

She had left her bedroom door open, with the TV on. The footage of the truck being pulled from the water appeared on screen again.

It was followed by a still photograph of my Uncle Gene.

And then a yearbook photograph of me, along with a banner along the screen:

VICTIMS OF DEADLY CRASH

And then the reporter described how both of our bodies had been recovered in that lake.           

That was when I threw the figurine against the wall and started screaming – calling out to my mom over and over again. But of course she didn’t hear me, or see me. Just as she hadn’t heard me or seen me earlier when I stood watching Detective Caruso comforting her, believing it was Timmy they were crying for, and not even imagining it was my uncle and me, our drowned and poisoned bodies already on the way to the county morgue.

###

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