Like everyone else in the town, he’d heard about the events with the rowing boat. He just couldn’t remember them, and one year later the details remained submerged in his tortured mind.
God knows he’d tried, but his memories of that day were as elusive as the whispers of a story he couldn’t quite hear. He’d given up trying to drag them to the surface - along with the recollections of his life before.
On this ordinary autumn day, he awoke with the usual birdsong at the usual time. He had his first coffee of the day on the deck, just like every other morning, and then distracted himself by watching the ducks preening themselves on the lake while summoning the energy to face another day.
This simple morning routine is what had kept him sane, possibly even alive, during this past year.
Rituals and habits he'd consciously formed when his therapist explained that “Routines can help to improve mental health and lessen anxiety.”
He loathed that he was now one of those people with their own shrink-on-call, but lessening anxiety was the focal point in his life now and he worked hard at keeping to these simple routines each day.
He cocked an eyebrow as the unexpected smile relaxed his usually tight jaw and he found himself appreciating the amber, gold, and crimsons of autumn splashed over the trees surrounding the still water. Despite his breath doing a ghostly dance in the early morning chill, he felt a long-forgotten warmth creeping slowly over him. Was he finally enjoying the splendour and tranquillity again?
His widening smile allowed a bubble of laughter to escape, but the imposing trees guarding the deep dark waters of the secretive lake did not smile back.
Sipping on his rapidly-cooling coffee, his smile faded as he caught a flash of that white dress in the woods. She was watching him again.
He shook himself.
No! There was nobody there. These woods and his lake kept him comfortably secluded from the sidelong glances and whispers of the townsfolk. It was all in his head.
His jaw clenched with familiar tightness and his shoulders slumped in resignation – he would have to call Dr. Elliot again.
Throwing the cold dregs over the railing, he turned quickly away from the tree’s eerie whispers.
He heard laughter out on the water as he was dressing for the day but, preoccupied with the thought of another session on the red couch, had not given it too much thought, and was now seated at his desk overlooking the lake. He missed the fleeting pleasure he’d felt on the deck earlier and was hoping his second coffee of the day would bring back some of that warmth.
Leaning back in the comfort of his office chair, he closed his eyes, relishing the solitude of his home office. Although he preferred his own company these days, the lonely rustling of the dying leaves was unsettling him. His whispers were getting louder, and he wondered if it was due to the crisp air and russet leaves so reminiscent of that blurred day a year ago. Or was it the silently reproachful trees that continued to stare at him over the cold lake?
What were they concealing from him!?
The laughter on the water started to distract him, and he moved closer to the window to get a better view.
The scene playing out shocked him to his core. There was a rickety rowing boat in the middle of the lake, and it was rocking violently. The laughter was not the happy laughter he’d thought it was – but a mocking taunting sound that turned his blood to ice.
A woman in a white dress was sitting dead straight on the boat rigidly gripping the sides. Grabbing the binoculars out of his drawer he was immediately struck by the fear on her familiar face. Her knuckles were white, and he could see tears coursing down her cheeks.
The man she was with was rocking the boat from side to side, laughing at her terror, and all he could do was watch helplessly. He raced downstairs and back out onto the deck shouting and waving his arms – maybe the man would see him and stop before it was too late.
Maybe he could save her. Maybe this time he could stop a shocking tragedy from happening.
What did he mean maybe this time he could save her? Why did this feel so hauntingly familiar? Why was his mind starting to spin and his breathing becoming shallow? Now was not the time for an attack! He had to save her. He could not fail this time.
“Save her. Save her.” whispered the trees, louder now.
The more he shouted, the more violently the boat rocked and the more desperate the situation became. The man in the boat suddenly hesitated, sensing the danger, but it was too late. With one final violent motion, the boat overturned, and they were both dragged down into the murky darkness.
His knees buckled in horror and a strangled sound escaped his wide-open mouth. The whispers were louder now, bubbling up from the deep and forming conscious words until his mind was screaming them.
The mists cleared.
And the truth was so much more horrifying than anything he’d heard.
Gasping for air, he lifted his head to again look out over the water – but there was no capsized rowing boat to be seen. Nothing at all, not even a ripple on the surface. The ducks were swimming calmly where they had been just a few short minutes ago, the serenity of the scene clashing excruciatingly with his own inner chaos.
As he blinked hard and shook his head, he saw the trees standing like sentinels at the water’s edge watching mournfully over his own rickety rowing boat. It was still lying upside down on the shore of the lake, where it had been dragged a year ago and forgotten, along with all his memories of that terrible day - and his life before.
He now realised with mounting panic, that he was the man in the boat laughing while his wife had desperately clung on. He’d only meant to scare her - she’d never learned to swim. The fear in her eyes had fuelled the anger in his heart, and though for a short while his revenge had been sweet, it had gone too far, and he’d been unable to save her in the end. He’d frantically tried to find her and spent hours looking in the lake that day.
And ever since.
He now understood that he’d never stopped looking. All those mornings spent on the deck with the endless coffees. The interminable hours gazing out across the water to find the birds that sang those melancholy morning songs. The subconscious longing to see a glimpse of that white dress at the edge of the woods.
All this time, he’d been searching - for her and the truth that had been buried with her in those muddy depths.
Until today. This not so ordinary autumn day.
The memories came flooding back like the waves that had pulled her so deeply into its dark abyss. He covered his ears against the smiling trees, no longer silent in their accusations.
He knew the lake would continue to keep his secret and that the truth would remain submerged with her in its shadowy depths forever.
Turning away from the serenity of the lake, he ignored the flash of white that again caught his eye. At least there would be no more sessions on the red couch.
Leaving the binoculars on the deck, he headed up to cancel his appointment. It was time for another coffee.