The Ozarks haven’t seen rain in nearly five years. All the well-to-do folks from Springfield to Fayetteville moved away after the first year. Now, the tourists are gone, and the lake’s dried up to nothing more than a craterous puddle. In the town of Sunrise Beach, Missouri, the children ride sleds down the parched shore. They dig in the sand for bones and beer tabs and lost jewelry.
It’s June. Before the dry season, the town would’ve been packed to the gills with drunk tourists. They’d spill onto the streets from every restaurant and dive bar and pool hall, reeking of beer and Banana Boat tanning oil. But, this year, there are no tourists.
At Redhead’s Pizzeria, Janie Rivas, who isn’t a redhead but a brunette, stands behind the cash register, vigorously chewing a stick of Big Red. Janie’s lived in Sunrise Beach all her life. She doesn’t particularly mind the lack of tourists, though she could use the tips. Two weeks ago, Janie got her acceptance letter from the University of Washington, and the cost of living in Seattle isn’t anything to sneeze at. But her only customers today are the remaining three city counselors and they’ve never left more than 10%. So, instead of refilling their water glasses, Janie just listens to their conversation.
“What if it never rains again?” Myrna Fairway asks. Myrna owns Gator’s Waterfront Grill. Her last customer was a young man passing through on his way to Denver, and he didn’t even order anything, just asked to use her bathroom.
“It has to rain sometime,” Lou Conaway says. He’s 83, and he’s spent his whole life in Sunrise Beach. To Lou, the last five years are nothing, a pothole on an otherwise smooth road.
“Well, when is sometime, Lou?” asks Mayor Cobb. “The town is dying. Hell, we don’t even have a beach anymore! We have to do something now.” Cobb works in the post office. His annual mayoral salary is $1, but there’s something about that title—mayor. He’s afraid he’ll soon be mayor of nothing.
“What’re we supposed to do?” Lou asks. “This is the weather we’re talking about.”
“You know very well what we’re supposed to do,” Myrna says quietly.
“She’s right,” Mayor Cobb says. “We have to make an offering.”
They take a vote, but it’s just a formality. Myrna and Mayor Cobb have been on the city council together for three decades, and the only time they’ve broken ranks is when Myrna voted to rename Main Street “Sunrise Street,” and Mayor Cobb voted to rename it after himself. But this isn’t about vanity. This is about survival. And so, Janie listens to them decide, 2-1, that the town of Sunrise Beach will make an offering, whatever that is.
The next day, Mayor Cobb issues a proclamation and the townspeople gather at the docks. Janie isn’t among them. She’s tethered to one of the beams, watching dawn sunlight gleam off the ancient remains of broken beer bottles, still half-buried in the lakebed. Sun-bleached driftwood juts from the sand, like the bones of a monstrous sea creature or the pillars of a long-lost temple. Janie is still wearing her work-shirt from the pizzeria.
The townspeople watch and wait. Soon, the dry season will be over, and the air will hum with the sounds of motorboats and churning water. At one point, a man shouts, “I think I felt a drop!” But it’s only sweat that dripped from his forehead. An hour later, there’s still no rain. The sky is the clear, bright blue of a gas fire. Eventually, the crowd begins to thin. The citizens of Sunrise Beach have lives to get back to. They have morning shifts starting soon. They have children that need to be dropped off at daycare. And they expected something exciting to happen, something spectacular—a torrential downpour of Old Testament proportions, perhaps. But offerings are not miracles. Offerings take time, and the people of Sunrise Beach have grown bored. One by one, they file away, until only Janie is left.
She stares out across the lake bed. The dirt is dry and brittle and laced with shallow fissures, like a crust of brown bread split in the oven. Morning turns to midday and, still, the rain doesn’t come. This is all bullshit, Janie thinks. Just superstition. Any minute now, the city council will realize they’ve made a huge mistake. “Sorry for the trouble,” they’ll say, and give Janie a nice chunk of change so she doesn’t go running her mouth. She’ll move to Washington like she planned. There are no droughts in Washington. Then, she feels it, cold and sharp as a bullet. Rain.
It comes slow at first, then fast. Water pools at the bottom of the lake, settling into the cracks and creases in the dirt. Janie starts to cry, but she doesn’t call for help. The townspeople will be here soon enough, and it won’t be to help her. No, they’ll flock to the shore to chant and cheer and dance in the rain. Some of the children have never even seen rain before. Their parents will bring them outside to stomp in the puddles.
Janie writhes and shimmies, trying to slip from her bindings. When that doesn’t work, she jerks and screams and kicks the ancient wooden beams of the dock. But this dock has stood over a hundred years, and it’ll likely stand for a hundred more. Janie, by her best estimates, won’t last more than a few hours. She wonders if she’ll end up drowning to death or if whatever it is she’s an offering to will eat her. She guesses it depends how quickly the water reaches neck level, and for how long it stays there. Either way, it won’t be pretty.
Defeated, she slumps backward and closes her eyes. In her mind, she tries to go somewhere else. Washington. She conjures the scent of pine and sea salt, the sound of waves slapping rocky shores, the hum of public buses. And just when she has it, something…slurps.
Janie keeps her eyes squeezed shut, imagining some Cthulhu-like creature rising from the muddy lake bed, tentacles writhing, rows of teeth gnashing, ready to gobble her up and fulfill the unholy contract. There’s another slurp, closer now. Janie’s stomach twists. Her fingers tremble.
“Hey,” a voice says.
Janie’s eyes snap open, lashes dripping rainwater. A man is standing there, slurping a Sonic Route 44 like he’s at a backyard barbeque and not the bottom of a flooding lake. He’s wearing cargo shorts and a Pabst Blue Ribbon t-shirt. The man takes another loud, lingering drink.
“Who’re you?” she sputters through the rain. A small part of her hopes this stranger is here to save her, but a bigger part knows better than to hope.
The man studies her, gnawing absently at the red straw in his drink. His eyes are the color of a brewing storm.
“I’m the Lake God,” he says finally. If Janie weren’t tethered to a piece of wood at the bottom of the lake, she wouldn’t believe for a second that this guy is god of anything; he looks like he works at a bait shop. But she is tethered to a piece of wood at the bottom of the lake, so she figures he’s probably telling the truth.
“I’m the offering,” Janie replies.
Rain is still pouring violently from the sky. Every drop that hits Janie’s skin feels like a shot from a pellet gun. The Lake God takes another long drink and shoves his free hand in his pocket.
“Yeah,” he sighs. “Sure looks like it.”
Janie says nothing. Her wrists feel like the skin’s been rubbed off them and her eyes sting from the rain. The only thing keeping her from collapsing into a puddle is the rope tethering her to the beam. She doesn’t want to die for this shithole town, and she definitely doesn’t want to play human sacrifice to a god that can’t even muster some goddamn enthusiasm about it.
The Lake God steps closer, still chewing on his straw. He smells like soil and pond scum, like algae washed ashore and left to rot in the sun.
“So, what’s a young thing like you doing here?” he asks. “Thought it’d be one of the older ones. You know, for efficiency’s sake.” The Lake God shakes his head like he can’t believe it.
“I was going to leave,” Janie says. “I was moving to Seattle for school next month. I was going to be a hydrologist.” She doesn’t know why she keeps rambling. Maybe she’s having one of those moments that people sometimes have right before they die, when they’re compelled to confess their darkest secrets and dearest wishes.
“That’s a damn shame. Seattle’s a real nice place. Best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”
“Well, too bad I won’t have a chance to try it,” Janie says dryly.
The Lake God asks for her name. She tells him. Janie Rivas. Nice to meet you. She imagines she’s at freshman orientation, introducing herself to her class, instead of at the bottom of a lake, introducing herself to a reluctant God.
“Well, listen, Janie. This is mighty awkward, but this whole—” the Lake God gestures at her bindings “—human sacrifice business isn’t much to my taste anymore.”
The sky is a dark, miasmic gray. The rain is falling so hard and fast that Janie can barely keep her eyes open. Her clothes are heavy and cold on her slick skin.
“Then why’s this the first time it’s rained in five years?” Janie asks, panting.
A shadow, like a storm cloud, passes over the Lake God’s face. A great burst of lightning forks across the sky and a surge of rainfall pours down, heavy as the slap of an ocean wave. The Lake God stands immovable at the bottom of the lake, now the eye of a hurricane. Janie cries out. The water is rising, reaching up like the hands of the dead beckoning for her to come down and join them. And then, as quickly as it started, the rain stops. The wind holds its breath. The water lapping at Janie’s knees goes still. The Lake God looks at her with eyes the color of a starless sky. He chews on his straw some more, thoughtfully. His Pabst Blue Ribbon shirt is curiously dry.
“Janie,” he says finally, “How ‘bout you and I talk this over some place where you aren’t in imminent peril of drowning?”
“Sounds swell,” says Janie.
The Lake God, inexplicably, drives an old Ford Bronco, and with it, he drives them to a gas station halfway between Sunrise Beach and the next ghost town. The rain has stopped and the air smells strangely of damp hot dogs. All but one gas pump are covered with faded yellow bags that say, “Out of Order.” The Lake God buys them each a clownishly large soda and they sit outside on the curb, talking for a long time.
“So, you’ve been on vacation for five years?” Janie asks.
“Well,” he says, “I was Lake God for a lot longer than that.” Even gods, it seems, tire eventually. But the Lake God assures Janie that he took precautions. Or, at least, he thought he did. His cousin from Lake Tahoe was supposed to check in on the place every so often. “Guess this is why they say not to mix family and business,” he grumbles.
“What now?” Janie asks. Part of her hopes he’ll smite the town of Sunrise Beach with a terrible flood, a freak superstorm the likes of which the world has never seen. A larger part just wants to forget this nasty business, order a large pizza, and take a long, hot shower.
“Well,” says the Lake God. “I s’pose I could stick around to take care of the lake, but then what if someone gets it in their head to offer up another poor soul next time there’s a drought?”
“If you were around to take care of the lake, there wouldn’t be another drought,” Janie points out.
The Lake God stabs his straw further into his drink, muddling the crushed ice at the bottom. Above them, the clouds swirl, tinged the same stormy gray as his eyes.
“I never liked being tied down.” He says the words with a strange sort of resignation, like he’s been tasked with the cosmic equivalent of cleaning the toilet.
They sit in silence, watching the clouds brew dark storms in their underbellies. A gust of wind swirls through the parking lot, kicking up puffs of dirt.
Janie sighs. She doesn’t miss the tourists, but she sure does hate to see the place she grew up gone to shit. That’s why she decided to go to Seattle to become a hydrologist in the first place. She’d find untapped groundwater, or engineer some genius irrigation system to restore the lake. But now… if she’d known it was as easy as being a Lake God, she might’ve checked what the course load for that particular field of study looked like.
“What if someone else took care of the lake? Someone other than your cousin, I mean,” Janie says.
The Lake God rubs his chin. Overhead, the clouds still. “Well now, Janie,” he says. “Isn’t that an idea?”
When Janie shows back up in town later that day, the people of Sunrise Beach give her a wide berth. If it weren’t raining, they’d probably drag her back down to the bottom of the lake, but it is raining, so they let her stay. Still, no one knows quite what to say to her. Some of the townspeople feel guilty, but for most of them, it’s just awkward. Yeah, it’s great that the Lake God spared her, but does she have to rub it in their faces? A few people work up the courage to ask questions.
“What happened down there, Janie?”
“Did you see him?”
“What did he say?”
Whenever these questions come, Janie just shrugs. She keeps to herself. She watches a lot of Netflix and, occasionally, goes for a swim in the lake. When it’s not raining, that is.
There are whispers that maybe the Lake God didn’t spare Janie. Maybe she just made a deal with him. The good people of Sunrise Beach are afraid. On the day Janie leaves for Seattle, Myrna Fairway and Lou Conaway of the Sunrise Beach City Council resign, and Mayor Cobb skips town entirely. The people burn down the City Hall as their own kind of offering and hope that’s the end of it. No one is harmed, and the citizens of Sunrise Beach are steadfast in their silence about what exactly happened and who is responsible.
Janie, of course, won’t hear about this until months later, when she returns to Sunrise Beach over fall break, accompanied by a man that smells of wet soil and algae. In Washington, Janie’s learned of drainage-basin management and agricultural water balance and flood forecasting. She’s pleased to find that, after all that, summoning rains comes quite naturally.
After graduation, the man that was once the Lake God claps her on the back as they say their farewells. When Janie asks where he plans to go, he says, “Somewhere without any damn lakes, that’s for sure!”
When Janie returns to Sunrise Beach for good, the tourists return as well, filling every restaurant and dive bar and pool hall. The townspeople still don’t know what to say to Janie, or whether they should say anything at all. At first, they’re too afraid to let their children splash in puddles, let alone swim in the lake. But, after five years of steady rain, their fears grow dull and they grow bored, so they pull the tarps off their fishing boats. They pack their coolers with beer and hard seltzers. The cautious ones buy their children life jackets. They convince themselves that if one of them had been chosen as the offering, Janie would’ve stood in the crowd, watching and waiting and saying nothing, just like they did.
Janie lets the townsfolk think what they will. Her blood has long since turned to water, and with it, any rage she felt ebbed away like a wave receding from the shore.