If the lake doesn’t freeze tonight, sunrise will be ugly.
We went out on the lake despite all the warnings. We went out for one thing─ food.
It’s amazing at how fast the weather changed, like once the oven heated up it couldn’t wait to toast every glacier and iceberg. The dam that held back the water above Centerville gave way faster than a hooker takes off her dress. Not many survived. Most of the bodies rest beneath the water buried in thick layers of silt and mud that swept over the small town in minutes.
The apparitions appeared soon after, always at the same time. The dam burst at dawn catching the inhabitants while they yawned and made coffee. Daybreak. Now it’s a dangerous time to be caught out on the lake.
“I told you we shouldn’t have come out here.” My daughter surveys the expanse of water that surrounds our broken boat.
“We have to eat, Sarah.”
“You should have checked the oil.”
“I did, but you know what a piece of crap the engine is. It’s not like I’m a mechanic.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m just scared. You know the stories.”
“They’re just stories.” I fiddle with the engine trying not to think about Jim Harris who had come back to camp with a hand, frost-bitten and black. The ice keeps ‘them’ at bay, but there’s no security in the thought.
“It’s going to be dark soon. What are we going to do?” Terror trips along the edge of her voice.
“It’s cold. Maybe it will freeze.”
Her fear is my fear, because I believe in ghosts. How can the energy of so many people be wiped away in an instant with no remnant of their existence?
Sarah sat silent. It’s said that a crust of ice will keep the lake people beneath the water. It’s possible. The temperature swings are erratic, so there’s hope. It’s our best bet. To be caught out on the open water… well, Jim Harris tells his story.
He had been adrift on the lake, passed out more than likely, and woke up to a cold, fierce grip around his wrist. He claims Mr. Therman, who had been Centerville’s sole liquor store proprietor, had come to collect. Mr. Therman had tugged at him, but even in his belligerent state, Jim had escaped. He lost the hand to frostbite, small price to pay he claims.
I throw a wrench across the deck. “I can’t fix it. Hell, I don’t even know what’s wrong with it.”
Sarah tugs her coat closer. “The temperature’s dropping.”
I tuck a blanket around her, but keeping her warm through the night is not the problem. “Go below and try to get some sleep.”
A full moon hovers over us. Sarah’s snores are a slight comfort from the night, but it’s not the night I fear.
The scratching wakes me. It comes from the bottom of the boat, tiny scrapes like branches on a window. So the tales are true─ the dead do rise against the living.
I don’t want to wake Sarah, not until I’ve ruled out other possibilities. Maybe we’ve drifted over a tree, its branches reaching for fresh air, forever submerged beneath the dark water. But the noise is too rhythmic, too insistent. It emanates from the boat’s wooden hull and the frozen crystal blanket that formed on the lake in the early hours. Thank God for the ice.
I don’t dare look over the edge, afraid of whose familiar face I might see: Old Lady Mabel, an early riser who had probably been heading out to tend her roses before the heat of the day, Phillip Michaels, the newspaper delivery kid all tow-headed and pocked-marked, or maybe Shannon, my best friend. I couldn’t stand to see her auburn hair floating in the icy water.
I wipe away the tears that stream down my face. I hide my head in my arms and press my hands over my ears. Even though the ice is thin, it seems to be keeping the people of the lake at bay. Sarah’s whisper whips me to attention.
“Sarah, no! That’s not your father!”
“Daddy?” My daughter leans over the edge of the boat and stretches her hand toward the face under the ice, a lock of hair skims the thin crust of ice that protects her from the wraith.
It looks like Richard, sort of, except with dark, cavernous eyes. His thick mop of hair has been replaced with wispy, white strands that flow around a skull wrapped in stretched, translucent skin.
“Get back, Sarah.” My voice shakes. “Don’t touch the ice.” I have a conversation in my mind with the bastard who dares look at his daughter from the depths.
“You look good down there, Rich. You deserve every second of purgatory.”
As if it hears me, the apparition casts it gaze on me. “If you hadn’t run off like a little bitch we could have all been together. Forever.”
The voice is clear with his usual menacing intonation conjured especially for me. It rattles inside my head.
Sarah doesn’t notice, either oblivious to the voice or unable to hear it. Her finger is millimeters from the frozen surface, wavering in indecision. The Richard-thing has turned its attention back to me.
“I’m here, Sarah. Come to me.”
This time the voice doesn’t register, but the thin lips are readable. Sarah jerks back her hand and looks at me, a huge tear clinging to the end of her nose.
“It’s not him, baby. Come away from the side.”
Richard-thing fades back then lunges toward Sarah. Her scream rips across the lake’s surface. Dozens of rotting corpses join the Richard-thing clawing at the ice. Leaves adorn their hair and mud slips from mouths open in silent cries for help, faces familiar yet forgotten, malformed by their death.
The scratching and knocking grows to a crescendo. Richard’s voice echoes in my head. “Bitch, bitch, bitch.” Mournful wails and sobs fill my mind. And then it stops. I look to the horizon and thank the sun.
“Are you all right, Sarah?”
“Will he be back tomorrow, Mom? I don’t want to see him again.”
“I don’t know, baby. Hopefully we can get the motor started and get back to land.”
“What about the ice?”
“I don’t think it’s thick enough to stop us. Look.” I tap the frozen crust. “It breaks easy enough.”
Sarah shrieks. “Stop! You’ll let them out!”
“It’s daylight, Sarah. They won’t be back until tomorrow morning.”
“You don’t know that.” She tugs her blanket over her head, a shroud against her fear.
She’s right. How can I predict how ghosts will react, especially when we’re bobbing out here like a turd in a toilet? I survey the skyline.
“We drifted during the night before the ice formed.”
Sarah follows my gaze. “Yeah, the wrong way.” She twists to inspect the opposite skyline. “I think I see the other shore.”
“I can’t believe there are no oars in this thing. How stupid of me.” I spit the word, hating myself for the lack of forethought. I knew the risks coming out here.
“At least we have food.” She kicks a fish we caught the day before. “Never did like sushi much though.”
“We have to figure out paddles, or some way to push against the ice. If we keep going with the breeze we’ll hit land soon.”
Sarah straightens and looks around the boat. “Before nightfall, you think?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.” It’s doubtful, but I keep it to myself.
“We could make a sail.”
A chink in the depressive situation opens. “Great idea! You’re brilliant, Sarah. We could use the sheets off the bunks. Just need to figure out a mast.”
“There’s the railing.”
“Okay, you start pulling it off. There’s a screwdriver in the toolbox. I’ll go below and get the sheets and see what I can do about cooking up those fish.”
At one time Richard and I had had this boat stocked with everything we could possibly need for a romantic getaway. Then the booze had taken over and the abuse had started. It had been stored in dry dock for the better part of the last five years.
A winter chill takes over the cabin, and I know he’s with me. I feel his waterlogged finger trace the line of my neck.
“I’m coming for her tonight.” Richard’s voice reverberates through the tiny cabin.