[Short Fiction] The Lake

content warning: suicide

The fog hung thick in the air, ghostly curtains drawn over the early morning darkness. Charon looked on, struggling to make out the man she was meeting. No sign of him yet. She took a drag on her dying cigarette, casting an eerie light against the walls of fog that surrounded her. To her increasing discomfort, it seemed that the mist was closing in, reaching its wispy tendrils out for a caress.

“Hello there.”

Charon turned sharply and drew her gun in one smooth motion, crushing her cigarette between her gritted teeth. The man gazing down the barrel smiled sheepishly, raising his hands in surrender.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said lightly but earnestly. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you,” Charon said, keeping her gun between his eyes.

“I am truly sorry, it won’t happen again.”

She sighed, holstering her weapon. “All right. Where’s this boat?”

The man’s eyes lit up. “Follow me.”

He ambled down to the bank of the lakeshore, hopping down with an ease that belied his elderly body. Charon followed cautiously, her hand resting instinctively on the cold leatherbound grip of her gun. The man had his arms locked around a small boulder that leaned stubbornly against the wall of the embankment, his face twisted with exertion. Finally he gave up, gasping for air. He smiled the same sheepish smile through the apparent pain.

“When I was a young man this rock was nothing to me, I didn’t give it a second thought… age takes away a lot of things, but it does give perspective. A worthy trade, in my opinion.”

“If you say so,” Charon said, half-listening.

The man hesitated. “I’m sorry, I know this wasn’t part of our agreement, but… could you help me with this?”

The back of Charon’s neck burned with irritation. She dismissed the man with a curt wave of her hand and braced herself against the rock. It was heavier than she expected, but she was able to move it with moderate effort. It rolled away reluctantly, lodging itself in a small sand dune.

Before them lay the boat, a small wooden fishing vessel nestled in the dark, its once deep watery blue hue chipped and faded by time.

“There she is,” the man said, choking up. “Can you take the oars? I can handle her myself.”

Charon lifted the oars gingerly, as if this would reduce the chances of getting splinters. They were not especially heavy but quite awkward to hold, which did not help her mood. She looked up to see that the old man was already nearing the edge of the lake, water lapping at his ankles as he pushed the boat.

“Take your time! I need to rest a bit anyway,” he called out.

Charon walked over briskly, trying to hide the difficulty of hefting the oars behind barely contained rage. When she arrived at the boat, the man took the oars and placed them in the rowlocks.

“Thank you so much. I can row us out,” he said.

They climbed into the boat, Charon facing the water and the man facing the shore. The old craft groaned and rocked under their sudden weight, sending ripples through the shallow waters, but soon steadied itself. The man dipped the blades of the oars into the lake and gently swept them toward the stern, thrusting the boat further out. The fog grew thicker as they went, clinging to their clothes for fleeting moments before wistfully releasing them, only to latch on again. There was not a sound besides the hypnotic lullaby of the oars smoothly carving the water, sighing sweet splashing melodies that could push the mind far adrift.

“I’m sorry about the fog,” the man said, breaking her from her reverie. “It is beautiful in its own way, but it does not compare to the sunrise. From here, on the lake, you can see the sun blaze in its full glory. To see the sun rise here is to see the ascension of a god.”

“In my experience, claims like that only lead to disappointment.”

“Perhaps, if this fog does not clear up. But if it does…you will never forget that sight.”

An icy breeze rolled over them, prompting Charon to pull her regrettably light jacket tighter to her body. The old man closed his eyes as it passed, inhaling deeply and breaking into a smile.

“Do you smell that?” he asked.

Charon shook her head.

“The scent of pine, carried from the forest that surrounds this lake. I always stop to take it in,” he said, his voice faltering. “My love and I spent so much time here, I could smell the pines in her hair…now all I have are memories on the wind.”

They glided on in silence for a while. The man’s brow furrowed and he stopped rowing, letting the oars rest at his sides. The fog was no thinner than before, settling around them in a heavy blanket of grey.

“We’re here,” the man said, checking his watch. “The sun will rise in a few minutes. Perhaps we are out of luck.”

“That’s a shame,” Charon said, a note of sincerity in her voice.

“Oh well…life does not always give. More often it takes. It’s a lesson I can’t seem to learn,” he said with a laugh like crinkling paper.

“It’s not an easy lesson.”

“Ah, so you know…I was not so wise at your age. It took many years for me to see, and by then it was too late,” the man said, gazing down into the depths. “My love and I came out to this lake every day in the summers. Carefree days of fishing, swimming in the warm sun. Her laugh was my music. How graceful she was when she cut through the water, her body was born for it. And when night fell upon us, we would lie in this boat and talk for hours under the stars…what a mind she had, the most beautiful mind.

“But summer had to come to an end. She fell ill…very ill. We were not wealthy, and her sickness was expensive. Every doctor told us the same thing, that we had no options but to wait for the inevitable. It was a cruel disease. A slow killer. Soon she was in constant agony. She couldn’t sleep, barely ate a thing. She was almost always in tears, until one day she ran out. Her eyes…I couldn’t bear to see them. Once so joyful, so bright… now empty. That was the day she asked me…

“She asked me to let her die. Please, let it end. Living is torment. Let me die. That’s what she said to me. I was…I wouldn’t hear it. I told her that she had to hold on to hope, that there was always a chance the doctors were wrong, that if anyone could beat this it was her. I pleaded for her life. But her spirit was broken. I couldn’t, no, I refused to see it then, but she had nothing left. She told me that she wanted to use what little money we had to travel to Oregon. There was a doctor there who had a solution… she assured me it would be painless, that it was entirely ethical, and most importantly, that this is what she wanted.

“But I didn’t want to lose her. And I certainly didn’t want to lead her to her death. So selfish…I became angry with her. I told her she was delirious from the pain, that she needed to be stronger. I scorned her for wanting to take the coward’s way out. Yet I could not see the cowardice in myself, the fear that drove me to rip away her agency. She did not speak to me for days. And then one morning…a morning like this, actually…I awoke to see that she was gone. The front door was ajar, swinging to and fro in the wind. I scrambled out to the edge of the lake, where the boat had been, but it was gone too. I called my friend and asked to borrow his boat, and with it we sailed out to all corners of the lake. We searched the shore for any signs, but there were none. We scoured the waters, but all we found was this boat. Sitting placidly here in the center of the lake. My love was nowhere in sight.

“We never recovered the body. She must have tied weights to herself so she wouldn’t rise back up to the surface. I’ve come back to this lake every year since, resolving to reunite with her. But every time I have lost my courage. I…I can’t do it myself.”

“So you’re asking me,” Charon said.

“Please. I know you must think so little of me. That I don’t deserve such mercy. But I beg you. My life without her…it is hollow, incomplete, meaningless. She was everything, and she was taken from me.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think. You already paid me,” Charon said. “How do you want me to do it?”

He locked eyes with her. “Hold me under. I’ve tried this before but every time I feel the water start to come in, I panic and come up for air. Don’t let me.”

Charon’s eyes hardened. “I won’t.”

The man closed his eyes. “Thank you.”

He swung one leg, then the other over the side of the boat, lowering himself into the water slowly. Now only his head was visible, the rest of his body submerged in the black murk of the lake. He looked up at Charon, meeting her eyes for the final time.

“I’m ready,” he said.

Charon knelt down in the boat and placed her hand on the back of the man’s head. She pushed the man’s face down into the water. Bubbles rose to and popped softly on the surface. Time slowed to an unbearable pace, each second teetering at the brink before finally falling away, gone forever. She felt the head stir, then thrash, but her hold was strong. Hundreds of bubbles surged up like a swarm of bees, dying as quickly as they were born. Within moments the stream began to thin, until only a few were left, feebly breaking the surface. And then there were no more. Charon felt his body go limp and start to sink. She was struck by the impulse to hold on, but she stifled it angrily. She let go.

Charon withdrew her hand from the water, staring at it without recognition. The fog was impenetrable, a shroud that engulfed all.