Hardly anyone was on the lake this early. A couple fishermen in aluminum boats, a solitary kayaker near the far shore. And Cal, in the canoe he’d bought at the local outdoor supply’s ding ’n’ dent sale a few years back. It was blue, which he’d heard was bad luck, but it’d been 50 bucks cheaper than the green ones.
They’d come to the lake for their second date, back in January. (Their first had been of the let’s-meet-for-coffee- so-we-can-each-make-sure- the-other-isn’t-a-psychopath variety). It had been Cal’s idea. He figured he’d be able to show off a little – he took his nephews skating a few times every year – but it turned out Melanie had played hockey as a child. She could’ve skated circles around him but didn’t. They stayed on the ice until it was almost dark, and afterward had walked along the frozen shore, crusted snow crackling beneath their boots. I saw a moose swim this lake once, he’d told her. A big old bull moose.
I didn’t know moose could swim.
I thought maybe he couldn’t, Cal said. I thought maybe the weight of his antlers would drag his head under. But he made it, all the way from the south shore to that beach there. Walked up out of the lake and all the water came streaming off him. I never seen another thing like it.
I wish I’d been there, Melanie said.
We could come back, Cal ventured. He glanced sideways. She was looking out over the lake, the soft moonlit white of the ice shielding the black water beneath. That moose I saw couldn’t have been the first one to swim the lake. We could look for another. Or maybe we’d see that same one again.
She didn’t say anything.
We’d have to be real patient, he said. And then, cautiously, We’d have to wait till summer.
She smiled, not at him but at the ground, like she knew exactly what was in his mind, like she knew his saying that had been a request. An offer. OK, she told him.
• • •
Everyone thought he needed to move on. No one had said it out loud yet, but his buddy George, who only had eyes for his wife, had started remarking on the physical assets of every attractive woman they saw at the bar, and Cal’s own mother had begun to say things like a shame you knew her for such a short time whenever he mentioned Melanie’s name.
Seven weeks. Seven weeks together, and five months since. He’d gotten over longer relationships in a lot less time. But those relationships had ended because someone wasn’t happy, had ended with harsh words or pointed silence or, once, a handbag thrown at his head.
But people got married after less than seven weeks, and occasionally it wasn’t even a terrible idea. Cal hadn’t proposed to Melanie, but it’d crossed his mind. Maybe he would have, maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe it would have ended like every other relationship had, maybe he even would have been glad to see it end. Maybe they never would have come back to the lake at all.
Or maybe instead of this unobstructed view of placid water and forested mountains and faultless sky, he’d instead have seen the curve of her back and the cascade of her hair as she sat on the canoe’s forward bench. Maybe she’d have gestured toward the shoreline, or to a gentle ripple on the lake’s surface, and maybe she’d have pointed and laughed and turned to be sure he saw it, too, at last: the moose he had promised her.
• • •
It was ice. Not the thick white ice she’d glided across so easily at the lake, but invisible black ice, the barest crystalline layer of it. It was late, but he’d still been awake when his phone chimed. He read the message twice before its words settled into meaning.
Cal this is Melanies sister Jessica Melanie died in a car accdnt tonight Im sry to tell you like this I know I should call but if I do Ill start crying agn
He’d looked at it and looked at it and looked at it. Thought about deleting it, didn’t. He called, but the phone just rang and rang and then went to voicemail, and he listened to her voice, and how could it sound just the same if she were dead – that’s denial, he thought, denial comes first – and then he heard the tone, and there was nothing to say.
He’d ended up at the lake. The late-season ice had begun to fracture and vanish, what was left gone dangerously thin. Cal stayed on the shore, no coat, cold and shivering. He felt guilty for being cold – if he’d loved her enough, if he’d been grief-stricken enough, he wouldn’t have noticed the cold, would he? – and he wished he could scream or cry or do something other than stand on the shore of a dark lake on a dark night with his hands jammed into his pockets.
Hard to say when he understood he was looking for something. It was difficult to see the shoreline, to determine where the black of the pine edged into the black of the gravel beach and then the black of the freezing water, but he sought the subtle glint of moonlight in an eye, the shifting shadow of movement. Cal didn’t believe in signs, but even he knew those who did would look for something more mysterious, more heavenly – a halo around the moon, a falling star – not a lumbering, shaggy, winter-thin moose. It was stupid. Childish. Melanie might even have been insulted (though he guessed she wouldn’t be).
He searched till dawn.
• • •
The funeral was at a church. Cal wondered if it had been important to her, if she’d come here every Sunday as a child, studied the stained glass, sung the hymns, or if it was just the place her parents had attended on Christmas and Easter. He sat in the back, in a suit he’d borrowed from George. An older woman sat beside him and asked how he knew Melanie.
Friends, Cal said. He wanted to take the word back almost immediately.
Melanie’s sister – the one who’d texted him the night of the accident – stood at the front of the church and called her “Mel.” Her mother sobbed her way through a story about a 6-year-old Melanie and a stray kitten. Her father talked about teaching her to fly a plane. Her friends spoke about prom nights and college pranks, camping trips and lazy backyard barbecues. Cal listened carefully, waiting for a fragment of an anecdote he recognized, a phrase or gesture the Melanie he knew might have used. He wanted to stand up and say that she was thinking of becoming a vegan but hadn’t taken the plunge yet. To point out that the program said the Tim McGraw song playing now was Melanie’s favorite, but just last week Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” had come on the radio in the car, and she’d said it was her favorite. To tell them all that she’d sworn him to secrecy, but she’d actually voted for the other guy.
But the bits of Melanie Cal knew – however special, however secret – couldn’t compete with the details her friends and family had accumulated over the years. What he knew had been enough to make him fall in love with her, but that just made it worse, didn’t it? In the end, Cal stopped trying to counter each story with one of his own, and he simply sat and listened to all he hadn’t had the time to learn.
• • •
He’d come to the lake every Saturday since the accident. Strapped the unlucky canoe to the top of his car, drove the 90 minutes north, settled onto the water while the sky still held the dove-gray cast of early morning. In five months of Saturdays, he’d seen 14 deer, six raccoons, two eagles, and – once, a brief, barred glimpse past tree trunks – a cougar. No moose.
Last week was the first time Cal hadn’t wanted to come. His reluctance had surprised him – even frightened him a bit – and he’d forced himself out of bed and onto the road. This week he’d steeled himself for his own hesitancy, and though it had visited him again – just a dumb moose, probably never see another, don’t mean anything even if you do – he’d dismissed it with only a little effort. He wanted to want to come, and that was almost the same thing. Almost.
This morning the water was silvery and still, like mercury. Cal dipped his paddle into its surface, propelled the canoe toward the center of the lake. The water rippled around him, and he watched it as it gentled and then quieted entirely. Only then did he cast his eyes toward the shoreline, toward the woods dark with possibility. He began his search, and tried not to think about whether he wanted to find what he was looking for.
S. M. Hulse is the author of the novel “Black River,” which was an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next List Pick, and has been long listed for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. She is currently working on her second novel. Hulse has read far too many myths about malevolent water spirits to ever relax near a lake again.
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