A Night at the Lake
Cynthia J. McGroarty
The trail down to Preservation Lake is treacherous in the dark, and with just a flashlight to guide her, Carly has to pick her way almost by instinct, inch by inch. The cooler in her left hand throws her off balance so every now and then she braces herself with a low-hanging tree limb then starts out again. The frigid night air—the kind of air that stings the skin—smells of winter, of snow. Out here this dark world you could drown in, she feels small, defenseless, a mouse among the big pines.
At the bottom of the trail, she slips through a gauntlet of branches that opens onto the flat ground around the lake. She hesitates, leans over and presses a gloved knuckle to the earth. Still frozen, impervious, like yesterday when she dropped Tommy off with his gear. Up the black shoreline, a dim light flickers like a distant star. Tommy’s fire. And his boom box—she hears it now, the faint music rising, falling away. “Okay, okay,” she whispers.
Carly makes her way toward the fire by the yellow beam of the flashlight, doing her best to ignore the creak of the ice-bound lake—the haunted sound, a ghost ship drifting at sea. She thinks back to the last time she was here, last winter, February, no, March. It was still freezing cold and she didn’t want to come but Tommy growled and threatened, said Sherry was coming with Stutz like a good wife should, and what was the matter with her that she couldn’t do the same. She had brought her own car, had insisted on that, and left the lake early, before everyone else, not caring what kind of hell there would be to pay because she wanted to be home where it was warm and there was light. And when Tommy got back he only yelled for a while then stormed out to meet Stutz at McGraw’s before he even had a bite of his dinner. She’d gotten off easy that time.
When she reaches the campsite, Carly sets down the cooler and holds her gloved fingers toward the fire, taking care not to step too close to where the ground has thawed from the heat. She grabs a log from a nearby pile and tosses it into the low flame. The log pops and hisses over the music of the boom box, the hiss a kind of whir that winds down quickly and stops. She turns toward the looming shadow of Tommy’s tent, plays her beam over it. In front of the tent a cardboard box tilts unevenly on a tree root snaking under the dirt, the top torn back, four empty brown bottles scattered around it. The music—Nirvana, she realizes now that she hears it clearly—is coming from inside the tent.
“Tommy,” she calls softly, stepping to the tent and pulling back a flap. An empty sleeping bag lies bunched on the tent floor, along with a backpack, a blanket, a pair of socks, a half empty bottle of bourbon and, at the mouth of the tent, the boom box thumping a bass beat. She leans down and turns off the music, goes and tosses another log on the fire, tries again to warm her fingers. They aren’t quite numb but she needs to keep them moving. She curls them around the grip of the cooler and makes for the water’s edge. An owl calls overhead, a saw-whet—she knows that because she looked it up after the first time she heard its odd siren, like the back-up signal on a truck. Saw-whets were small, with furry legs, docile enough to be picked up and put in your pocket. They had to be clever to live out here where larger owls might snatch them up in their talons and eat them almost whole. They had to know how to survive.
Carly toes the icy crust that grabs at the shore then waves her light over the glazed surface of the lake, which kindles to life under the beam, like diamonds, like the Milky Way. But the idea of that seems at odds with this place, how closed in, how confined it makes her feel, how trapped. Probing further out with the light, she sees it, a dark rectangle rising off the ice. The shack.
“Tommy!” she hollers, almost timidly. She wonders whether the echo of her voice could shatter the ice.
There is no sign of life at the shack, not that she can see, but Tommy must be out there. She steps gingerly onto the ice and inches her way with tentative slides—she knows how to do this, she’s done it before—stops now and then to steel her nerves and switch the cooler from one hand to the other. When she finally draws up next to the shack, she scans it with her light and sees Tommy’s boots jutting from its open side. Cut into the ice between them is a hole the size of a stop sign. A rod hangs over the hole like a yardarm, dangling a thin line into the dark lake.
Carly trails the light over the boots and over Tommy’s jeaned legs and finally up to the full body of him sitting motionless on the bench inside the shack, parka zipped to his chin, woolen cap pulled down on his head, gloved hands barely gripping the end of the rod. He leans canted against the shack wall, eyes closed, mouth open fogging the air. Beside him, two brown bottles lie tipped over on the bench.
She studies him, wonders whether it would be easier to leave him here sleeping. Instead she calls hoarsely, “Tommy!” The second time she calls, Tommy startles awake, draws in a ragged breath, squints into the flashlight’s glare and mutters, “Sheesus, wha’ the fug.”
“Tommy, it’s me. Carly.” She turns the light on her face so he sees it’s her.
Dazed, Tommy wipes a glisten of drool from his chin. “Carly, what the hell are you doing back here?”
“Provisions.” Carly lights up the cooler as she lowers it to the ice. It’s important he see what’s in it, what she has brought him.
“Provisions?” Tommy pulls himself straight, loses his grip on the rod but quickly recovers it. With a clumsy yank, he lifts the rod and line out of the water and drops them to the ice. “You came all the way up here to bring me that? I thought you and your mother had stupid girl shit to do together this weekend.”
“We do,” Carly says, with the kind of forced smile that feels natural to her now, like an instinct. “But I was in the mood for a drive.”
Tommy picks up one of the bottles on the bench, jitters it in his hand then tosses it onto the ice. “So whadda you got?”
“Lots of good things.” Carly crouches over the cooler, opens it and spotlights the contents as she starts rifling through. She taps the stack of sandwiches she’d wrapped in foil that afternoon. “Smoked turkey clubs,” she says, already moving on to the next item, crooning “Double Stuffs” as she hoists a baggie filled with dark circles and lets it fall again. “And this.” She grabs the neck of an almost empty bottle, one of two bottles she’d packed, and holds it aloft for Tommy’s perusal. “Your schnapps,” she says. “Your favorite.”
With the light focused on the bottle, Carly can’t see Tommy’s face but she imagines the hunger in his sleepy eyes, the sharpening, predatory cast of his features as he takes in the shimmering schnapps.
“Is this all you brought?” he says, grabbing the bottle like it’s a prize he just won at the fair. “My bourbon’s getting low.”
Carly points to a second bottle in the cooler. “No, silly. There’s another. But how about we go back to the campsite to drink it? It’s chilly out here.”
Tommy snatches the flashlight, waves it over Carly as she straightens up, and snorts, “No fucking wonder you’re cold. Look what you’re wearing.”
Carly had dressed in clothes that would keep her warm, warm enough, clothes for skiing or mountain climbing, that she purchased three years ago when Tommy insisted she start accompanying him to the lake for ice-fishing. She pulls at the fabric of her insulated jacket.
“Oh, I’m not freezing, yet, thanks to these. Remember? I bought them at Boone Mountain Sport, for the cold? I just think we’d be more comfortable by the fire.”
“Well, I could stand some time off the ice,” Tommy sniffs, handing the flashlight back to Carly, and the bottle, which she stows in the cooler. He grabs the rod and line, and a jar of bait tucked inside of shack, and they slip and slide back to shore, Tommy following unsteadily in Carly’s wake.
At the campsite, Carly throws more wood on the fire and gets the wool blanket from the tent while Tommy stows his fishing gear. When he settles in beside her near the fire, she unearths a cup and the nearly empty bottle from the cooler, pours the remains of the schnapps, hesitates for just a second before handing it to him. She is shivering, maybe from the cold, but maybe not. She could still change her mind. She could drop the cup as if by accident. But it’s too late for that; she knows what would happen if she did.
“Where’s yours?” Tommy smirks, a fog of beery breath misting the air as he takes the cup.
“I have to drive back so I better not.”
“C’mon. Don’t you wanna get wasted with me?” He glances at the empty bottle Carly has tossed on the blanket. “Get out the other one. Have some.”
He wants her to join him like she’s one his buddies, like Stutz or Bernie, someone he can kick back with. But it’s dangerous when she and Tommy are all alone and he’s working his way to fully gone and there’s no one else to distract him, to soften the brunt.
“But the baby, remember,” Carly says as she presses a hand to her still-flat stomach.
“Oh, yeah. We don’t wanna get him wasted. Her, I mean.” He grins, takes a long gulp of the schnapps. His throat hikes up, falls again. “But remember, Car.” He points a gloved thumb back toward himself. “You don’t want to neglect good old number one.” He drinks again then stares off toward the lake.
In the long moment that follows, Carly waits, bites her lip, wondering whether he has noticed anything odd about the schnapps. Even when it’s clear he hasn’t, she hurries to distract him anyway. “So how’s the fishing…number one?”
“So far, it sucks.” He downs the rest of the schnapps, draws up a knee and wraps his arm around it. The parka sleeve sings against the denim of his jeans. “When Stutz gets here tomorrow we’ll have better luck.”
“Well, the season isn’t officially open yet, so—”
A hard squint narrows Tommy’s eyes. A warning. “Yeah, like you haven’t reminded me of that already.”
“Sorry,” Carly coos. “How was the schnapps?”
A slow nod, a glance toward the empty cup in his hand. “Good as always,” he says. Then as if remembering, “What happened to the music?”
“Oh, I was calling for you when I got to camp and I wanted you to hear me.”
“What did I tell you about my music? I don’t like it turned off.” Tommy swivels to face her, jaw set hard in the firelight. “Whyn’t y’ever listen?” The words have come out loose and muddled but he doesn’t seem to notice. “Ged out that uh-ther boddle.”
“Sure, but…” Carly turns her next words over in her head like a pitcher calculating what kind of ball to throw at home plate. “Do you think you should, I mean, wouldn’t it be better to have a beer?” She waits for the swing of the bat, can almost feel it.
“Since when duh you tell me whadda drink?” An attempt to shove her in the shoulder misses its mark and Tommy’s hand hurtles through empty air, throwing him off balance. “Fug,” he mutters.
Carly digs into the cooler for the second bottle, this one half full. “Okay, okay, take it easy,” she says. With a twist of the top, she raises the bottle over the cup listing in Tommy’s hand and fills it half way.
He settles back and turns unfocused eyes toward the fire. Words mumble out of his mouth—not cold anymore, Carly guesses, although she herself is freezing, the temperature feeling like it’s fallen ten degrees since she arrived at the lake—then he tips the cup, drinks some more and drops his hand as if it’s too heavy to hold up. The cup cants sideways when his hand hits the blanket. When Carly grabs for it, to keep it from spilling, Tommy manages to pull it up and away.
“Leave ih lone, Bidge,” he growls and a second later a heavy glove tightens around Carly’s wrist.
“Tommy! Quit it!” Carly gives her arm a yank and he loses his grip. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have the strength to break free but tonight is different. Tommy is the one who doesn’t have the strength.
Tommy sways, his face almost questioning, the hot spark of his fuse all but snuffed out. Carly knows she no longer needs to appease him. “How long has it been since you ate?” she says, a note of maternal caring in her voice. She wants him to eat, to have food around him, and something in his stomach, for later, because that would be normal, a man eating his dinner by a campfire.
“Smorning,” he mutters. “M’ungry. Ahh-ee...”
“Well, how about a sandwich?” Carly pulls a tin-foiled square from the cooler and peels away the wrapping. “You really need to eat when it’s this cold.”
“Hmm, yeah,” he says, forgetting his blunted rage. He gobbles half the sandwich in two bites and washes it down with a sip of schnapps that dribbles from the side of his mouth and down his chin.
Carly crumples up the foil and tosses it into the cooler, finds the bag of cookies and unzips it. “How’s your back feeling, by the way? You’ve got the pain meds, right? Just in case?”
“Uhhn muh pack,” he says with a sloppy nod toward the tent. He stuffs the rest of the sandwich into his mouth.
Carly hands him a cookie, watches him clutch it in his glove, his dark hair poking out from under his cap, the boyish face eager for the treat, like a kid finishing lunch on the playground, and she is momentarily overcome by sorrow. He was a kid on a playground once, someone’s little boy—his parents were dead now, yes, but he was once theirs, their hope and joy—and she finds that fact unspeakably sad.
But she has her own child growing inside her now. Her own hope and joy.
“I’ll leave this here for you,” she says, closing the cooler then deciding, no, it should be open. When she turns back to Tommy, he is slumped away from her, on his side, the cup overturned on the blanket. His eyes are half open, flickering in the firelight. “Tommy,” she whispers, turning on her flashlight.
“Unh,” he grunts.
The fire is dying away and Carly finds herself shivering again. She stands up, crosses her arms around her body and looks down at Tommy’s blank face. “You know you’re not supposed to mix the Oxy with alcohol,” she says. “Remember what happened last time. You ended up in the ER.”
She leaves the half-full bottle of schnapps toppled over on the blanket and plucks up the empty one—she’ll wash it out at home, throw it in the recycling bin for tomorrow morning’s pickup. Then she goes to the tent and rummages through the backpack. The pills are there, just as Tommy said they were. His emergency stash, he called it, the bottle he kept hidden in the pantry. The other bottle, the one that spilled five white tablets into the schnapps that afternoon, was home in the medicine cabinet.
Carly tosses the pill bottle onto the blanket by the backpack then reaches over and turns on the music. Kurt Cobain begins whining about a heart-shaped box. She never liked Nirvana.
Before she leaves, she washes her light over Tommy one last time. Eyes closed, hand still clutching the cup, he lies impossibly still. “You said you’d never let me go,” she whispers. “Why didn’t you just let me go?”
On her way back up the trail, Carly thinks about the night ahead with her mother, they’ll make dinner, pasta primavera with a romaine salad, and talk about the baby. Tomorrow, when the call comes, after Stutz has arrived at camp and found Tommy and driven into Keesport to call the cops, she’ll break down and cry real tears. Tears that finally she is free.