Skip kicked a pebble down the road and watched it skitter into a dense thicket ahead of them on the path.
"You know, I understand that California is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but I didn't realize they were literally that many. Or that they were all placed sequentially."
"What do you mean?"
"I dunno, it just seems like it would be a misnomer or something. Not, like, literally 10,000 long, skinny lakes stacked north to south."
"Why do you think they'd name it that if it wasn't true?"
"I don't know. That stuff happens all the time. Like how the Hundred Years' War lasted 116 years, or how the Million Man March was really like 400,000 people."
"Huh. I think that number's in dispute, though."
"The Million Man March. I'm not sure they ever settled on an actual figure."
"Well, you get the point," muttered Skip.
Edgar checked his watch. "We've got to be close now," he said with a touch of edginess in his voice.
Skip, who had grown even more impatient than Edgar, sprinted ahead to a bend in the path and peered around the corner. She let out a low whistle.
"We're here, actually," she said.
Once Edgar caught up, the two of them stood and took in the strange scenery. As planned, they'd come to a large lake. It was thin enough in one direction that they could see the opposite shore from where they stood, but so long in the other direction that they couldn't possibly hope to go around it. This was the first lake of the 10,000, heading from the northern border of the state downward.
"Gravy Lake," announced Edgar, map in hand.
Skip approached the water's edge. "But it's water," she said. "I thought the names were supposed to indicate what was in them. Worm Lake is actually full of worms, right? That's what I heard. And Hot Soup Lake is always boiling, and stuff like that."
Edgar sighed. "Yeah, I've been told the same. But that doesn't look much like gravy, does it?" He marched to a nearby pile of fronds and brushed them off to expose a small canoe. "Gravy or no gravy, we're gonna need to cross it in this thing."
Skip flicked the surface of the water with her toe in disappointment. "Yeah. Okay. Let me wash off, at least, before we go. I don't want to sit in my own filth for the entire crossing."
Stripping to her underwear, she plunged in headfirst and felt the accumulated dirt and oil dissolve from her skin within seconds in the cool lake. She was glad to finally reach the lakes, even if they represented the largest and most dangerous obstacle between them and Los Angeles.
Skip came up for air and spotted Edgar finalizing the canoe on the shore.
"Do me a favor, Skip," he said. "Test how deep it is right off the shore there. I'd like to know before we push off."
Skip sucked in a lungful and went back under. She headed straight down as far as she could go, feeling her ears pop on the way. She kept her eyes closed, with her arms stretched out before her to help her find the bottom. When she finally got there, she felt something strange.
It was kind of solid - it had a definite shape, but it gave way to her fingers when she squeezed. It was like a two-foot long tube of some kind. A rotten log, maybe?
Skip opened her eyes. It was a human leg. And near it, a torso. The rest of the corpse came into view.
Skip recoiled in horror and began to panic. There were corpses caked across the bottom of the lake as far as she could see in every direction. Hundreds, maybe thousands, all of them different sizes, ages, and levels of preservation. It looked as though a mass of pea-green coral had grown over most of them, binding them together and holding them at the bottom.
Skip kicked away from the horrific web of bodies and swam to the surface as quickly as she could. When she broke into the open air, she allowed herself two quick breaths before making for the shore. Edgar observed with a look of mild alarm as she clambered out of the water and collapsed at his feet.
"Gravy Lake ... Gravy Lake ... it's full of ... bodies."
"What's that, Skip?"
Skip caught her breath for a moment and then fixed Edgar with hard stare. "Gravy Lake is full of bodies."
Edgar went silent, his face screwed up in a thoughtful kind of frown.
"Huh," he said finally, "I guess that kinda makes sense, doesn't it?"
Skip rolled on her back and stared at the sky. As she felt her heart rate slow and the beads of water begin to cool on her body, she smiled grimly.
Only 9,999 more to go.