“Why, Dr. Weed as I live and breathe.”
He didn’t turn toward the voice, that of a woman, immediately. He watched Jasmine getting farther out on the ice, thought not too far...
“Not too far princess!” He cupped his hands to his mouth to make his words carry. Only then did he turn to face the voice, a portly woman he couldn’t place at first.
“Ain’t you the good Dr. Weed?”
“Yes...well, I’m Dr. Weed anyway.”
A tinge of recognition rose somewhere in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t bring it forward. He sighed.
“You ain’t remembering me, is you?”
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” He grinned at the woman, a polite upturn of the corners of his mouth.
“Helen Nelson. You cut on my back last year. Truth is, I was looking to make an appointment with you. Now guess I won’t need to do that.”
Still grinning, still unable to place her, he looked back over his shoulder and scanned the ice for Jasmine.
“This here back of mine, it just don’t seem to be getting no better.”
“What the fu—?” He began, then stopped himself. He searched the landscape. No Jasmine.
“How long you think it’s gonna take?”
He didn’t answer her, didn’t even acknowledge her. He visored his hand to his forehead and scanned the ice one skater at a time. No Jaz. His heart began to beat faster and his palms moistened.
“I lost my job on account I can’t stand longer than about...” The woman rattled on, as if seated on a chair in Weed’s office.
She wasn’t of course, and he was oblivious to her now, no longer heard her ramblings. He took a few steps forward and leaped over a small snow bank, all the while scanning the horizon. Only a dozen or so skaters cruised out there, but she definitely wasn’t one of them. A vague sense of panic began to conquer him, like the bite of an insect that gradually gnaws at you until you suddenly realize it’s there, too late. Only this was no insect, it was a dog—a rabid dog at that. And the damn thing wouldn’t let go.
He rushed forward onto the ice.
Weed’s Frye leather boots slid as they failed to find traction on the smooth ice, but he didn’t fall. His body surged forward on adrenaline as that rabid dog ripped into him, tearing his flesh and exposing the glistening white bone underneath.
“Jaz! Jasmine Weed! Jasmine!” The desperate nature of his cries caught the attention of those nearby. “Answer me girl! Jasmine!”
Now twenty or thirty yards out on the ice, he turned to one of the other skaters, a boy of about ten.
“I’m looking for a little girl, about this high,” he leveled his hand just above his waist, “she’s wearing a pink jacket and scarf. You seen her?”
“Sure, I seen her. She was just over there.” The boy pointed farther out on the ice.
Weed was quick to move in the direction indicated. Damn, I only took my eyes off her for a second...
He saw it then. Just past a small heap of snow, obscured until you were practically upon it: a hole in the ice.
The hole was only about three feet across, but it might as well have been the fucking Grand Canyon. It looked for all the world like a gaping mouth—a hungry mouth, he thought—and he knew instantly she had fallen in. The clarity of what had happened slammed him hard and urged the rabid dog to tear further into his gut. He wanted to vomit.
“My God.” A low moan escaped him, seemed to turn him inside out. He saw the boy had followed him. “Get help!”
Weed stopped three or four feet from the edge. His mind ran wild with possibilities—Is the ice stable? How thick is it? Will it hold me? How deep’s the water? Oh shit. He scanned the shoreline a hundred yards behind him. The opposite shore lay a hundred more yards in front of him.
He sucked in a breath of air so cold it chilled his lungs. This ain’t a pond, it’s Old Man Meyer’s own fucking Lake Erie.
He laid down on his stomach and crawled forward, the cold like a razor against his hands. The sun glinted off the steely blue-gray ice. He tried to focus his mind, listening for any tell-tale cracking sounds he imagined might announce he was about to become a floater himself. But there was too much noise, like every sound he had ever heard now came back at him. A car passing on the nearby road was deafening. The wind rustling through the trees scratched at him, as if to draw blood from his ears. The sound of the other skaters was a fantastic torture. He heard the water lapping at the sides of the hole, ice clinking against itself, the ticking of his watch. Then his own heartbeat: rapid, regular, and rhythmic—a tiny clock within.
Time—how long has it been? Thirty seconds? A minute? Two minutes? How long do I have? How long does she have?
“Hey mister!” A child’s voice, not hers.
“Stay back! The ice, it’ll break!”
But the kid was already there, already at his side. “My brother went to call 911.”
911. Good, that’s good. Then he recalled his cell phone sitting on the front seat of his car, out of harm’s way—of miserably little use to me now.
“Shit,” he said, then “good kid. Stay here.”
Isaac inched closer until his hand, all but numb, passed over the edge of the ice and into the freezing water. Despite the cold, he was sweating profusely. His hand swam through the cold water as best it could, clearing away the thin crust of ice on its surface. His movements were barely effective though, too far to reach. He squirmed forward, belly hugging the ice, inching his way along to the edge.
His senses strained for any evidence of Jasmine, any evidence the ice would not hold him, and in that order.
His head was over the edge now and he saw how black the water was. His heart flip-flopped in his chest with the knowledge. He reached further underwater with one arm, groping in the murkiness like a blind fisherman.
How long has it been?
He felt it before he heard it. A slight shift of the ice—a brief overture like the hazy cloud of rain that moves up the street before a storm. Weed stiffened, he didn’t have time for anything else, and the full fury of the storm hit. With an unpleasant crunching sound, the side of the hole gave way and Weed tumbled into the frigid water. The cold struck him full in the face like a sledge hammer, draining his strength by half or more on the instant.
Worse yet, much worse, he felt the boy flailing at his side and knew he’d been pulled in as well. It took all his concentration and strength to grab the kid. The boy embraced him, indeed wouldn’t let go. Weed flailed himself, tried desperately to establish a handhold, some type of stability. His foot kicked something below and he pushed off of it with enough force to propel him and the boy to the edge a long two feet away. But once there, try as he might, he didn’t have enough strength to push the boy out of the water. The pair floated there and Weed felt around as best he could for Jasmine, using his feet, unwilling to accept she might be gone.
Only then did he see the small patch of red on the edge of the ice opposite him. Blood. She must have cut herself as she fell.
Reality smacked him hard and he vomited in the water.
A bit later, it could have been five minutes or five hours for all he knew, he looked up to see a figure crawling toward them across the ice. It moved with deliberate slowness and Weed realized it was not just a man, but someone pushing a flat-bottomed boat.
He was all but frozen and his head pounded with a headache. Something thumped his foot. A tree or maybe a submerged log. Then a sudden realization warmed his frigid brain.
He shifted the boy to one arm. The child had stopped flailing now as the cold seeped into his small frame quicker than Isaac’s. He tried with all his might to reach down with his free arm. His arm might as well have been a frozen steak though. He made the effort all the same and, largely by chance, his hand caught something. He pulled his arm up slowly, the damp coldness playing tricks on his muscles all the while. His hand, blue and cadaver stiff, broke the surface and he saw Jasmine’s pink scarf in it.
She’s down there, right below me.
Isaac nearly dropped the boy in his desperation. He probably would have had not the flat-bottomed boat reached him at exactly that moment. The man in the boat took the boy, hauling him aboard the way you would a large fish. Weed struggled in the water, tugging at the scarf, which seemed tethered. Somewhere below him, Jasmine was holding on to it. The rescuer grabbed at Weed but he swore him off,
“My daughter’s down there!” His breath smoked in the cold air.
He tugged harder and felt the thing give way. Isaac looked into the muck, and ever so gradually, as the body rose the several feet up toward the surface, a face—her face—took form. A face bone white—is that the color of death?—and frozen in an almost ghost-like apparition under the glassy, frigid pond water. She had her hands up, as if reaching out for him. A deep gash ran across the right palm and a tuft of clotted blood trailed from it, suspended delicately in the icy water.
The black water outlined her as if she had posed for the moment.
Isaac saw it all at that instant. His daughter, only moments before, skating across the ice in marvelous oblivion, unaware of the danger awaiting her as she came around that snow bank. She must have seen the hole—the hungry mouth—too late. The lake was like a hungry beast and it gobbled her up before she had a chance to react. In his mind’s eye, he saw her hand lash against the jagged edge of the hole (perhaps she had even held desperately to that razor sharp edge for a few seconds, until the cold numbed her into letting go) then saw the pain on her face, her contorted muscles locked in their embrace with the chilly waters as if frozen themselves. He saw her flailing, even heard her cries. Cries directed at him, at daddy:
Daddy! Daddy! It’s so cowld! Help me! Help...
Like some cruel trick of atmospherics, Isaac’s numb mind heard the words now, too late to help her. Jaz’s terror as he failed to answer her pleas was palpable in his gut as she sank into the depths toward the black unknown. He felt her suck the cruddy, freezing water into her lungs, squeezing out the life-giving air and plunging her still closer to the other side. With horrific clarity, he saw that her eyes were wide open, saw her reach out—reach up—toward the daylight.
Isaac of a sudden reached out as well, grabbing at the face beneath the black water. She floated there, just past his reach, her life ebbing away. He willed his arm to push forward another inch. It responded slowly, as if rigor mortis had set in, and the wide-eyed face remained beyond his grasp. The little girl might as well have been a hundred feet down for all the good he could do her. Like an agonizing tease from the afterlife, he watched her long black hair run over his stiff fingers. They refused his commands to curl up and take hold. He needed her closer and gave another tug of the scarf.
He gazed on with abject horror as the scarf came away in his hand.
He had the eerie feeling she was watching his face recede into the daylight even as he watched hers disappear into the inky depths.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish