It was approximately three months after my tenth birthday. The night before we went to the lake
, my father had brought up Certane at dinner, and how he missed fishing there. Michelle mentioned that she had never had the pleasure of visiting the lake. My father made the fatal mistake of going into a long speech
about how much fun me, my mother and he had whenever we spent time at the lake.
“God that place was gorgeous, wasn’t it Slade?” I nodded, but said nothing. I knew where this was going and I could feel Michelle’s icy stare piercing my profile, waiting to hear more.
“We would probably go about once a week. Maddy and I would pack a huge basket full of food. We’d always pack a gigantic jar of pickles for Slade, because she’d eat half of them while we were there. They had boats for rent, and we’d go out onto that just super clear water and drift for hours. I’d always catch a ton of fish, but throw them all back. Slade and Maddy refused to eat anything I caught, because both of them couldn’t stand to see the fish struggling. We’d snack on either chicken pitas or chicken sandwiches, and we’d watch the sunset dip down into the earth in the evening. There were always about a billion ducks around. Slade always loved to feed the ducks bread, and they would come quacking by so often you’d think all the ducks in the world found Lake Certane, and refused to swim anywhere else.”
“Sounds just great,” said Michelle, clearing her dishes along with her throat. I could tell by the sound of her voice that she was oozing with jealousy towards my mother.
“You know what would be great,” spoke my father, so innocent of what his words were inciting, wiping his face with a napkin. I knew what was coming. “We should all go down there tomorrow. That could be a lot of fun. Slade, you want to go up to the lake tomorrow?”
I swallowed. “Well, I….don’t know…”
Michelle turned to me, her small, hard blue eyes a jog to my 10-year-old insecurities. What should I say? Would she be happy whether I said yes, or no? I had a feeling it really didn’t matter.
“Slade,” she said sweetly. “Wouldn’t you want to go? It might be fun, just the three of us. We’ve never spent that much time together in the first place. This could be good for us.”
I nodded obediently. Though my fear of the woman stung my fingers and toes worse than frostbite. I didn’t get much sleep that night.
The following day we set off around ten a.m. Dad made tuna sandwiches, and brought a jar of dill pickles for me. We rented a bright red boat and glided out into the center of the lake, which did not appear all that busy for a beautiful Saturday morning. Maybe five or six men fishing in view of our boat.
It could have been a scene pulled from a peaceful painting, although I subtracted the image of a sour-faced Michelle from the scene. My mother would have been humming for most of the duration of the fishing adventure. She would bring scuppernongs for us to nibble on before lunch, the sweet juices especially tasty on a bright afternoon in the sun. She would say hello to nearby fishers and jokingly fix one of my pickles to the end of a line and dip it into the water to make me laugh.
“I know there’s got to be a pickle-lover down there somewhere, too, Slade,” she’d say as I broke into giggles. “We’re going to hook you up—no pun intended.”
I sat in silence as I thought back, feeling the gentle rock of the small boat, watching the dark waves undulating around us. The water had always been scary to me; a substance you could not see through, which meant there could be anything below. Perhaps something far worse then pickle-loving fish.
My father dipped the fishing rod into the water. He tried to get Michelle to hold onto it, but she absolutely refused, saying it was a stupid sport. I held the pole to amuse him for a little while, and we all sat silent, watching the shard-like ripples in the dark liquid surrounding us. I pushed my fonder memories away, becoming depressed with wishing for what was past and gone. The dead silence sprouted bored lethargy throughout my limbs, and I began to rest my head shortly before we were to eat. Though my father had wanted it to be ‘like the old times,’ this was nothing like how it used to be. With my head laid back against an old life-jacket, Michelle and my father must have assumed I was sleeping, for they began chatting in low voices. They talked for a brief while about house payments, and discussed whether or not they wanted to attend one of my father’s office parties in the upcoming week. Michelle sounded agitated with every word he spoke.
“You okay, hon?” asked my father at one point. Michelle hummed beneath her breath, indicating she was not all that okay.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Really. I….just…”
“I don’t know how long I want to be out here today. I’ve got a lot of stuff I need to do at home.”
“Okay, honey. No problem. We’ll leave after we eat.” The sound of a pat on Michelle’s knee.
“I don’t want to come back here, anymore.” She said after a few moments of silence.
“Okay.” My father’s voice was low, unsure.
“I’d really like it if you didn’t come out here anymore, either, Glen.”
My father laughed. “Do you think I look like a fool when I fish?”
“No, Glen. You look like more than a fool. This is a waste of time. We could be doing so much more, you know. I can’t believe you’d ever spend so much time out here. It’s just silly.”
“I don’t think it’s silly, Michelle. It’s just not for you.”
“Don’t give me that. You make me sound like I’m an idiot.”
“No, I’m not. Just…”
“Just what Glen? Just what?”
“Don’t worry about it. I hardly ever come out here anymore. I don’t want it to be an issue. Okay?”
“I don’t want it to be an issue, either.” Michelle’s voice had a lick of sarcasm, and I knew that my father uttered the line I don’t want it to be an issue many times.
Eventually my father tapped my shoulder to tell me it was time to eat. The sound of each of us taking bites of our food seemed especially loud, and especially sickening to me. Where was the talking? Should I say something? The fear of saying the wrong thing was at the forefront of my mind, since it seemed so easy to do.
“War is awful. I’m glad I’m a girl, so I don’t have to fight in a war if I don’t want to,” was an innocent comment I’d made several months before as I sat in the living room gazing at an old war movie, while Michelle balanced her check book at a desk nearby.
“Right. You’ll just get raped and killed when they invade,” she responded with biting sarcasm. This led to an assortment of nightmares later that evening.
After we ate, a small group of ducks swam over to our boat, eager for bits of food we might be so inclined to throw to them. Dad laughed. Told me to give them my leftover sandwich bits. I started to lean over and feed a couple of them, close enough to see the definition in their off-white, slightly dirtied feathers. Some of them seemed skittish and paddled their feet slightly backwards, but one remained fairly close, and I caught its small, beady eye as I tried to lean closer to him. But in doing so I found I was leaning out too far to get to the feathered beast. Within moments I lost my balance and tipped out of the boat. Ducks quacked with fury and hurriedly swam away. The cold water woke me up and tore the warm sun off of my body, but I was not a good swimmer at that time. At all. I yelled and splashed frantically.
Dad yelled back, “Hold on, Slade! We’ll help! Don’t flap around, let us get to you!”
I heard an awful laugh and realized it was Michelle. I stopped flapping and began madly dog-paddling instead. The water terrified me. The blackness of it. What lay underneath me? Snakes? Other evil creatures who dared not peak their heads out while people were around? Just waiting for some helpless little girl to make the idiotic mistake I did. Damn the ducks. They did this on purpose.
Dad yelled several more times to ‘calm down.’ The boat glided slowly back into my direction. I was tiring from my frenzy, and waited for help. I caught a glimpse of Michelle’s face. A smirk if I ever saw one. One so big I was sure a demon shook her hand later that day in congrats.
I lay in my bed that night, tears scalding my eyes and the painful sunburn upon my face. I said nothing to my father of Michelle’s horrific smile towards my painful panic, though while they were sleeping late that evening, I took a strand of pearls from Michelle’s jewelry box and stood over the bathroom toilet, crying.
This woman was the thing that replaced my mother. This was the thing my father loved. Here were her evil shimmering pearls in my hand, and I heard myself laughing with contempt as she was always so quick to do. Each pearl glowed in the harsh bathroom light, not all that distinct from the glow of the porcelain toilet.
I closed my eyes and pulled. Snap. So easy. I dropped them, one by one, like tiny H bombs, into the bottom of the commode. A muffled click of a noise resounded from the icy toilet water each time they hit.
Swim, I thought. Swim.
---Excerpt from a larger story.