I haven’t been here in forever. Decades, maybe--damn, has it really been that long? Huh. Well, you know what they say, ‘time flies when you’re having’… No, actually, screw the ending to that; time just flies, that’s all it does. Doesn’t matter if you’re having fun, or just getting older, time just keeps on slipping and sliding by, gliding on that brief, icy patch of our existence. It ain’t stopping for me, for you, or for anybody; there’s no brakes on those skates, buddy.
Ugh. See, this is why I don’t like coming down here. I don’t even know why I brought you here. I hate getting like this, all… mopey about the meaning of life and all that. But that always happens to me here, at this lake.
If you’re wondering about the origins of the lake’s name, or if it means anything, or even what language it is… Yeah, you and me both, pal. It’s been a mystery to the locals for as long as I’ve been alive, and that’s starting to become a pretty long time. When I was still a kid, there was always some other kid who’d say to any group of us that’d listen, that his dad, or his uncle--or his grandma, whoever--knew every little detail about the lake’s origins, and that they alone were charged to guard the secrets to their graves. Bull! we’d all yell, rolling our eyes, and the kid would scoff and roll his eyes too, and go “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t believe me. But I know it’s true.” The kid telling the story would change, and whoever was listening would too, but the script more or less stayed the same each time. The kid would never actually tell us what the truth about the lake really was, and he probably never knew, and we never got an answer. I never got an answer.
I haven’t thought about any of that in a long time. I wonder if kids still try to impress each other with their knowledge of the lake. Probably not these days. A lake’s pretty boring compared to that new tech they got now. Technology--are you getting better with time? Or worse?
Lake Vidamuse was the place to be when I was a kid. In the summer, it was always perfectly cool, the utmost haven from the cruel, fiery sun. And in the winter, it always managed to freeze over thick enough to skate on, and we’d play hockey and just skate and skate for hours on end. Someone’s dad always set up a little fire at one of the campsites a few feet away from the shoreline, and he’d chug his beer with one hand, flipping burgers and dogs with his other. He was supposed to be there to chaperone whatever gaggle of kids he brought along, and he’d do so fairly well for a while… But after a few hours of continual beer-drinking and burger-flipping, he’d eventually get hammered and pass out in one of the camp chairs. One time, Lydia Creighton’s dad fell into the fire mid-conversation, and we all had to drag his burning ass outta there before he melted; he didn’t even notice, he’d already blacked out.
Yeah. Yeah, this was a good lake, a fun lake. A good place to be.
Well… it was a good place.
Hannah patiently sat as her grandfather rambled on and on. Occasionally, she’d nod along to show she was listening, but she wasn’t really listening; Grandpa B had already talked her ear off long before they’d driven to the lake.
It was silly to still call him that--most of her siblings and cousins addressed him as ‘Grandpa Brandon,’ or just ‘Grandpa,’ these days--but even now, in her mid-twenties, she still liked to cling to some of her childhood habits. Apparently, Grandpa B’s tendency to bombard her with loquacious tales bled over from her youth.
He was saying something about the lake, something about its name, and Hannah let her wandering gaze meander to the frozen waters of Lake Vidamuse. When she was little, she’d thought the lake looked quite large, that its far shores were unreachable from the other side, but that had clearly been her childish naivety--Lake Vidamuse didn’t seem so big now.
And yet… the stillness of the ice veiled atop the water unnerved Hannah. She supposed that was due from Grandpa B always warning her about going too far out when she swam; the fevered panic in his eyes would shoot out in minute bursts, despite his obvious attempt to sound caring, and would worm their way into her--she knew he always meant well with his cautions, but he was much too zealous in his approach. Hannah’s mom would add her usual addendum of “she’ll be fine Dad, it’s ok for her to get into the water,” glaring at her father disapprovingly before giving her daughter a reassuring wink, but Grandpa B’s warning had worked on Hannah, if perhaps a little too well.
Not only did she never swim in Lake Vidamuse, she never swam at all. She hadn’t set foot in any lake, and certainly not in the ocean--under no circumstances would that ever happen. Without meaning to--or perhaps it’d been his intentions all along--Grandpa B had instilled in Hannah a life-long fear of water.
She wondered if that had anything to do with why he’d brought her here today, if he was possibly going to apologize for inadvertently traumatizing her. Maybe he’d even tell her that it was ok to swim in, but if that was the case, his timing was a little odd; how was she supposed to swim in a frozen lake? And wasn’t it a bit late to tell her at her age?
If anything, it seemed to Hannah that her grandfather had brought her here just to talk--now he was saying something about someone’s dad.
Honestly, she didn’t really mind his rambling. It grew tiresome eventually, true, but she loved her grandfather--unintentionally inherited phobias aside--and though his stories wandered and were incoherent at times, he did have a way with words. Plus, she simply cherished the sound of his voice. Youth was still strong in her, and she’d not yet learned the true magnitude of life’s many trials, but she was aware enough to know that Grandpa B wouldn’t be around forever--his voice was something to hold onto for as long as she could.
So why wasn’t she really listening to him now?
But she knew the answer; she knew it was because of the lake.
Even frozen, or perhaps it was because of this very state of solidity, the lake’s waters still chilled Hannah to her very core, and try as she might, she simply couldn’t tear her focus away.
I scared you back then, didn’t I? When you were little?
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. It’s just…
Did anyone ever tell you I had a sister? No? She was younger than me, a lot younger, but we were still pretty close. She loved this lake. I mean, like I said, all the kids loved this place, but she… She belonged here, ya know? When she got into the water, she’d turn into, I dunno, almost like a dolphin or something, she was so graceful. And she could hold her breath for damn near five minutes, I swear. My mom, your great-grandmother, would always scold her afterwards, tell her that she nearly had a heart-attack she was so scared, but my sister would just laugh and say “ok” and then she’d just go and do it again anyway. She was bold like that, my sister.
Her name was Millie.
Hannah was stunned. Her attention had shot back to her grandfather the moment he’d mentioned frightening her as a child, and upon learning of the sister she never knew he’d had, her heart began beating faster.
Why hadn’t anyone told her? Hannah considered her family to be a rather tight-knit bunch, with few secrets between them, so how had she gone nearly twenty-five years without learning about this? It rocked the very foundation of what she’d always thought to be an immovable tenet she’d adhered to for as long as she could remember: you can trust your family.
Questions pounded throughout Hannah’s mind, and she wondered what other secrets lay hidden in the cracks now forming in the perfect image she held of her loved ones, but she still remained focused on her grandfather. She ached to learn more of his sister, of Millie, to hear whatever truth had been kept from her, and why.
But as Hannah listened to her grandfather, she let the lake creep into the corner of eye, because she knew.
She knew the lake had the answers.
She skated here, too. In the winter, when it froze over. The ice used to get so thick.
She didn’t play hockey, not like me and the rest of the boys did, but she’d skate along the edges of the lake, steering clear of all our roughhousing. Some of the boys would tease me for it. Not ‘cause she was skating while we were playing, nothing like that, but sometimes I’d… I’d forget I was in the middle of a game and I’d just watch her. She was… She was just beautiful, so elegant. The picture of grace, I swear. You shoulda seen her, pal.
I didn’t play hockey anymore when I was about your age, but she was in her teens then, and she still liked to skate in the winter. When she was little, she was an amazing skater, but by then? Phew, oh boy--she was perfect. I tell ya, even the Olympics wouldn’t have been good enough for her, she was that good.
I can still remember telling myself it was warmer that year. The air around the lake, you know, it feels… It’s heavier when it’s really cold outside. Probably from the water or something, I dunno. And the air that time, it didn’t feel that way. And she used to just skate around the edges. But I dunno, maybe ‘cause there weren’t other kids around this time, and she could, you know, skate around a little more freely this time, she wanted to… Maybe she just wanted to see what it felt like.
To skate over the middle.
Even before he’d finished the story, Hannah could already guess the ending to Grandpa B’s tale.
He told her that the lake being devoid of any other skaters should’ve been a dead giveaway, but he said there also should’ve been caution signs posted around the area. Something that could warn people that the ice was too thin that year for any recreational activities. He also said that maybe there had been signs, but if there were, he didn’t see them. Then he said he supposed it didn’t matter anymore.
When Millie skated through the middle of the ice, it cracked beneath her and she plunged into the cold, wintry depths of Lake Vidamuse. Grandpa B had dove in after her, and very nearly drowned himself, but he still managed to drag his sister out from the icy waters. Unfortunately, it was too late.
Hannah watched her grandfather as he stared at the frozen lake. After talking of Millie’s death, he’d finally stopped speaking, and now he silently studied the ice; Hannah was sure he was imagining himself diving in after his sister.
She too, now looked at the ice, and shivered. Cracks reached along the surface like bony fingers waiting to pull someone into the glacial lake below, and Hannah felt they were reaching for her on the shoreline. They yearned for her.
But was that true? Had the cracks formed of their own volition? Or were they merely the last warden of the ice’s eventual demise, stoically clutching onto what little remained of its former glory? Hannah wasn’t sure where that thought had come from, but as she gazed upon the frozen lake, she was suddenly overcome with the sheer beauty of what she was seeing. The lake and its surrounding area was truly gorgeous, and the calm that was slowly melting away still held traces of serenity, of a purity and harmony that only Nature seems to possess, and surely, it was still worthy of admiration.
For the first time, and in spite of what she’d just been told, Hannah felt some of her fears melt away, too.
I didn’t bring you here to make you sad, that wasn’t my intention. I guess I gave you a lot of feelings without intending to, though. Sorry.
But Hannah, I can… I’m not holding together as well as I used to anymore, and I… I wanted to tell you while there was… While there was still some time, you know?
I’m not scared of this lake. Maybe I was for a bit, for a while, but no, not anymore. It wasn’t the lake’s fault. Or the ice either, it wasn’t its fault--I don’t blame the ice for what happened. Hell, I don’t blame anyone. What happened, it happened. Things like that sometimes do.
No, what scares me is that I never did what Millie did; I never went out to the middle. I just stayed on the edges after that, never… Never did anything as bold as she did. Nothing stopped her. Nothing.
Skating, yeah, she was good at that, but she was great at a lot of stuff. She was a great person too, through and through. No one ever had a bad thing to say about her, ‘cause there just wasn’t anything bad about her. You remind me a lot of her, you know? And she was fearless, buddy, let me tell you. Ab-so-lutely fearless. Anything she wanted to do, she just did it--that was that.
But I dunno, maybe… Maybe that was a flaw, I dunno.
I’ve asked myself a lot, you know, that she… She had to have known the ice was cracking, right? She had to have heard it… right? But it didn’t stop her. She still went out to the middle anyway, ‘cause… ‘cause she wanted to. And that was that.
But I know… I know one-hundred percent, without a doubt, that even after what happened… it wouldn’t have stopped her. If I had got to her in time… If I’d saved her… She’d have just laughed it off, and said “ok.” And she would’ve just gone out to the middle again.
‘Cause she wanted to.
“Grandpa?” Hannah placed a hand tenderly on his shoulder.
“Yeah, pal?” he replied, hiding a sob with a cough. Hannah always loved how he called her ‘pal’ or ‘buddy.’
She smiled mischievously at her grandfather. “Let’s go to the middle,” she said, nodding at the lake as she grinned.
Grandpa B blinked. “What?” he sputtered. Hannah had to admit that even she was surprised by her own suggestion, but she nonetheless was confident about it.
“You said it scared you how you never went out to the middle,” she reminded him, still smiling coyly. “Well then, come on. Let’s go.” She took a few steps towards the lake, and held a hand out for him.
“I- I-,” he stammered, taking a few steps back. “I was- I was speaking… metaphorically, you know, and I- I-”
“Come on, Grandpa,” Hannah chuckled, walking towards him and grabbing his hand. “We’ll go slow, ok? And if there’s any cracking noises, we’ll come right back, ok? You don’t have to be scared.”
Grandpa B looked at her and gulped. “I’m not scared for me, Hannah,” he whispered, pulling his hand out from hers. “I’m terrified what’ll happen to you. You… you remind me so much of Millie, sometimes, I- I…”
“And you said she would’ve gone right back out again. And that’s what I want to do, Grandpa B.” Hannah lovingly grasped his hand again, and began to slowly guide him towards the lake. “So come on.”
“I don’t- I don’t know about this, Hannah,” he whined as they stepped onto the ice.
“I don’t either,” she admitted with a shrug, ignoring the momentary look of panic that shot across his face. “But how are you ever going to know if you just stay on the edges? That’s no way to look at something. Maybe it’s going to be scary out there, I don’t know--probably. But isn’t it worth it just to find out? I think so. It could be marvelous out there. So I’m gonna go out there, I’m gonna be scared… but I’m gonna know.”
Her grandfather studied her as they slowly crept along the ice. He didn’t really believe in the concept of reincarnation--he’d never really had grand notions of the afterlife--but he couldn’t help but feel that if ever a soul had been reborn, then surely Hannah now carried whatever glow Millie had once possessed. Hannah was her own person, Grandpa was certain of that, but her bravado, her courage… that was Millie all right.
And this time, he’d be with her on the ice.
“Are you scared, Grandpa?” Hannah asked. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze.
“Oh yeah, I’m terrified,” he confessed, though chuckling.
Hannah wrinkled her brow. “You are?” she asked dubiously.
“Yup. Your mother’s gonna kill me when she finds out about this.”
Hannah laughed, dulcet and angelic to his ears, and Grandpa B joined in her laughter. She hugged him as they walked, and he continued to hold her as they walked towards the middle of the frozen lake.
The ice never cracked.