“Shut up, you’re not real.”
“Oh, I’m real, Lizzie. You just can’t see me… yet.”
His bedroom name for me, our secret. The sheets drop from my trembling fingers. “Stay away from Sarah.”
“You know I can’t do that, and I don’t want to. She belongs with me. You’ve had her long enough.”
I try to ignore his deathly purring, his fetid breath, the cold tickle of water he had somehow left on my neck. I rummage beneath the bunk and yank out a cook stove buried beneath a musty tarp. Score on two counts.
“We both know you can’t come out as long as there’s ice on the lake.”
“You shouldn’t have brought our boat, Lizzie.”
I lurch up the steps to the deck terrified of the implications. A few minutes ago, the boat had been a safe haven, now it reeked with his presence.
“Who were you talking to?”
Thankfully, my daughter hadn’t felt her father’s glimmer. “Just myself. Look what I found. This will make a great sail, and hopefully there’s enough gas to cook up some fish.”
Sarah’s bright smile almost erases the horror Richard promised. “I have part of the railing almost off.”
“I’ll start the fish, and then we can figure out how to put up the sail.”
My daddy taught me how to use a knife and fillet a fish. You would think with my upbringing I wouldn’t be caught out on the lake without a paddle. I stifle a nervous giggle as I return my thoughts to Richard. Certainly he would lead the rest of them at sunrise, or would he come sooner?
The makeshift sail fills with air, and the boat follows the wind like a willing puppy. Maybe there’s hope if we can get to shore before nightfall. I have no clue what Richard has planned, but I’m sure darkness will bring answers.
Sarah shoves bites of fried fillet in her mouth, spitting bones into the slushy water. The frigid air stings my eyes.
“Let’s go below and see what else we can find.”
“What are we looking for?”
Something for protection. I don’t say the words aloud, mainly because I don’t know what that ‘something’ could be. What protects a person from deadbeat dads and worthless husbands in the light of day, let alone after they are dead?
“I don’t know. Anything. Something….”
“You mean for the morning.” Sarah’s a smart girl.
We rummage through the drawers and tiny compartments putting together an arsenal of weapons: knives, rope, a hammer─ seems like a crucifix and holy water would be more appropriate, but maybe that only works on vampires. I find an inflatable raft, and an idea formulates. No matter what, I have to protect Sarah. I can’t let Richard get to her.
“Let’s blow this thing up, see if it holds air.”
Sarah looks skeptical. “What do you have in mind?”
“Maybe we can make a distraction, while we make a run for it.” I don’t mention I will be the distraction.
“The ice would have to be thick enough to walk on, if it freezes at all.”
“This is what will happen, if we have to go. The ice will never be thick enough to support me, but it will hold you, you’re small, it will be okay. I will follow on the raft. My weight will be distributed that way.”
Skepticism floods her face. “We’re going to leave the boat?”
“Only if we get a good freeze. The temperature’s dropping.”
It is. Fast. I debate whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. In my mind, I know Richard won’t let the sunrise dictate his presence. He will come with the darkness. I am sure of it.
The afternoon progresses, the sun strives to shine through the thickening clouds, and the ice congeals and solidifies slowing down our progression. Sarah and I take turns breaking the ice from the bow of the boat, and the distant shore becomes distinct and valid.
“We’re going to make it.” Sarah’s voice drips with relief.
“We have a ways to go yet. Why don’t you get some sleep? It’s been a long day.”
Sarah’s face splits into a yawn. “Maybe for a little while.” She snuggles into a pile of blankets.
I continue to break the ice, hoping the wind will carry us far enough. A heavy mist forms across the lake’s surface, erasing the shore from sight. Every sound, every touch of the breeze takes me to Richard’s voice, his presence, his threat to return before the dawn. I know he is connected to this boat, our lifeline, our sole hope for survival.
I study the darkness, analyze the slap of ice against the hull, wondering how he will make himself known.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but you never do. I feel him before I see him.
“I told you I would come for her, Lizzie. It’s my turn. She always loved you more than me.”
The boat has come to a standstill. Damn it. How long did I sleep? “Richie, you know that’s not true. I love you, baby.”
Richard’s hollow eyes stare at me with resentment. Sarah had always been a burden, an inconvenience to him. I look around hoping to see land within reach, but the darkness is barely touched by the rising sun.
The raft is in place on the ice beside the boat, my secret weapon hidden in its folds. I nudge Sarah to wake her while maintaining Richard’s gaze.
“Richie, come to me.” I expose my neck, his favorite part of my body, his fetish. He could never resist the curve, the sweet sweat of our lovemaking that lingered along the collarbone.
“Lizzie…” He drags his eyes away from Sarah. A maggot wiggles out his ear and mud dribbles from his mouth.
“I’ll always love you, Richie, nothing can change that.” My revulsion rises in my throat, thick acid that burns like his icy touch.
“Don’t run away, Lizzie. You’re always running away.”
His fetid breath wafts over me. He takes a step closer, and I counter by scooting back, edging over the rim of the boat toward the raft. The ice is thick enough, I hope. It just needs to hold for a little while. Over Richard’s moldy shoulder, Sarah sits, her hand over her mouth holding in a scream.
“Sarah, go now.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“Yes, you are! Go now! I’ll be right after you.” Richard has a cold hand on my neck, floating a finger along the shoulder blade leaving a trickle of slime. His frigid breath leaves a shimmer of ice in my hair, and I suppress a shiver. He throws a look at Sarah like a passing thought, his attention transfixed on my exposed skin.
“You would give your life for hers?”
It’s not a question mothers ask. “Of course. I give myself to you now if you will just let her go.”
“It’s not up to just me.” His sunken eyes survey the horizon as the first rays of light pour across the lake and the scratching commences.
Horror floods my mind. “Sarah! Run!” I heave myself over the edge of the boat and into the tiny raft. The ice creaks in protest. It’s thin, but holds. Richard reaches for me. Long claws have replaced his hands. They gouge at the ice, scraping, digging frantically to free his friends below.
In the morning light the shore is close, so close. Sarah scrambles across the slick surface and falls to one knee. The ice emits a violent crack around her.
“Crawl, baby, crawl! Spread your weight!”
Beneath the ice, Shannon reaches for me, her auburn hair snarled with branches and mud. She smiles a vicious smile full of hate and venom. “Come to me, Lizabeth.” Her words reverberate and fill my skull.
Dozens of bodies collect beneath the ice, beating an unearthly rhythm, willing the ice to collapse. More of them head toward Sarah, who crawls toward to the shore, so close, less than a hundred feet.
Another enormous crack fills the air and Sarah screams. “Momma!”
“I’ll save you, baby! Don’t look back!” I reach for my secret weapon, the hammer, and slam the ice next to the raft. Instantly the wraiths turn their attention to me. The cold water envelopes me, but Sarah is safe.