They finally found him, but not until he had broken surface with his arm, sticking up at a weird angle, frozen in place like a landmark, or a single goal post, something very lonely. It looked ghastly and sad at the same time.
The reclusive Inn was a well-kept secret amongst the regulars and they held their clandestine fortress close to their chest. It was a members' only kind of environment, although there were no memberships held by anybody who came there. Just kindred, kindred's friends and extended family would be there at any given time. It was a breathtaking year-round retreat tucked away furtively in the mountains known only by word-of-mouth.
The way the sun reflected off the lake like little diamonds flashing everywhere, shining off the tiny ripples in the water, it was beautiful, rendering a calm serene moment in time. He felt the warmth of the glowing fireball on his face and it felt wonderful; oh the tranquillity was magnificent. His fishing rod was dipped down into the lake taunting its inhabitants with bait and he was patiently waiting for the wiggle of the line to let him know the temptation was accepted.
Every year Jim was a regular attendee at their annual fishing derby. He simply would not miss the opportunity under any circumstances; he lived and breathed for these precious days of each year. The camaraderie and competition for the garish fish trophy, the companionship, followed by drinks and laughter at the end of each day around a hot bonfire, topped only by the absolutely delicious fresh fish they consumed every day was what the trip was all about. The cool fall days that marked the end of the season were shared by the same group of guys every year for 30 of them now.
A fish playfully jumped out of the water beside his boat taunting him, and Jim watched the water rings spreading out across the surface of the lake around the spot it had splashed back into with a graceful dive. "Must be more in there", he thought to himself stretching his legs out and leaning back a bit more soaking in the warmth of the sun on his face. He would be here for a while waiting for his trophy fish if that's what it took to win. The sun was beginning to heat up his infamous hip-waders, and he felt a trickle of sweat running down his back. At that moment in time, with his eyes closed, it was hard to believe it was late fall and not summer.
They were all slumbered around on the couches and the big Lay-Z-Boys that were spread out around the vast sitting room, drinking their preferred choices of alcoholic beverages, all of them gabbing in a few different conversations, and soaking in the heat of the roaring fire emanating from the floor to the ceiling stone fireplace. Some of their pictures of previous fishing trips were splayed untidily across the big oak coffee table. There was a picture of Mark and Gary holding up the winning fish from two years ago. It was a whopper, easily the biggest one of all their derbies. They had made a larger copy of that one and it was framed and hanging up on the wall. Another picture of Jerry was lying in the corner of the table, as usual, sticking his ugly mug into the picture at the last minute. They were laughing and reminiscing about their past derbies.
"Do we have any pictures of Jim where he isn't wearing his hip-waders?" Darcy chuckled and a few more of them laughed too. "Does the guy actually own pants?" one of them came back with. A round of hearty laughter filled the room.
He could feel himself sinking, downwards, something was pulling him down. The music wasn't like anything he had heard on the radio because it actually really wasn't music, it was more like something in the background but it was harmonious, calming, really quite warming. The warmth that spread through him was coming from somewhere he couldn't identify either and the euphoria and peace were blissful but he was confused. Yet he didn't want to struggle, he just wanted to surrender to it and keep going down. It was very strange and loving.
Jim jerked his head back up, looking around quickly to get his bearings. He'd dozed off in the sun and his body had halfway slumped over the side of the boat; shit, he might have even missed a fish. He reeled his line back in quickly to check that his bait was still there and was relieved to see it was still on his line. Maybe he wasn't snoozing for that long after all. He rubbed his face and scratched his head, "better not do that again," he thought to himself. "Can't win the derby if I'm sleeping. You snooze, you lose". Something wasn't right.
In all the years he had been coming to this fishing derby, there were never this many boats on the lake at one time; it was almost crowded with derby contestants this year. He wasn't sure he knew all the contestants either; there were boats out there he had never seen before. Where were all these people from, he wondered? Jim looked around the water and started counting fishing boats. Just in his line of vision alone, he could see five other boats out there competing for the trophy. "No matter, let them compete, but there's only one champion. That's me", he didn't mind goading a bit, that's what he was all about. His boat drifted a little closer to his neighbour. Squinting into the sun, he shielded his eyes with his hand over his brows to take a look at his competitor.
"Hey there Jim," she said softly, in a voice that Jim recognized. Goosebumps formed on his arms underneath his heavy sleeves. He squinted harder and stared at her. It couldn't be her she hadn't been here for over ten years now. He was confused. Even if it was her, why would she be in her own boat and not in this boat with him? Was that a huge fish on her line - a trophy fish? She dangled the fish back and forth and chuckled at him. He recognized the laugh and exhilaration rushed over him. "I'm here to take the trophy home, Jim. I'm going to take you on a championship run", she teased him in that voice he was so familiar with. His eyes were tearing up and he couldn't see her clearly.
"Beth?" his voice was barely audible. His wife had been dead for ten years. He was quivering in disbelief; the hair on the back of his neck was standing up. What the hell was going on, he rubbed his eyes but he still couldn't see her clearly. He could see she was still waving her winning trophy fish at him and smiling her radiant smile.
There was a lull in the room; the guys were all quiet now running their own memories silently through their minds. Grey hair and crows-feet etched around their eyes proved years of reminiscences of their times spent together.
The wind howled outside, moreover, the winter blizzard was ruthless. Visibility was severely reduced as the wind whipped the snow around in vicious swirls, and nobody would be going outside anymore tonight. The bitter cold temperatures had kept them from skiing for any length of time during the day, so they all hunkered down inside just before the sun began setting. Hopefully, tomorrow would bring better skiing conditions for them. The room smelled wonderful from the juicy roast beef that had slow-cooked all day in the big wood-fired oven. Sitting around the big dining room table picking at the last tidbits of meat and potatoes, their conversations faded; there was one empty chair at the table. Nobody talked about it and nobody ever sat in it. It was common courtesy; it was his chair.
Fish and Wildlife, Environmental authorities, police and marine authorities, and individual search parties had searched for him relentlessly over the past couple of months, unable to find him. It just didn't make sense at all. His empty fishing boat was found bobbing in the reeds the same night he was discovered missing last fall, but he was nowhere to be found. Time kept moving on and they kept coming back to the Inn to continue their feeble searches for Jim and continued talking about that day. They were moving on and learning to deal with it, but they sure missed the guy.
In due course the undercurrent had gently persuaded his bloated water-logged body to move along the lakebed, shuffling along at the bottom of the lake until finally, it came close enough to shore for it to lodge in the silt bottom and gently bob around there for some time before the water finally froze him in one spot and he was discovered, his frozen arm protruding out of the ice, eerily waving his final good-bye. His beloved hip-waders were still clasped at his shoulders and they had filled with water; they were now frozen weights. The waders had become anchors and pulled him under when he fell out of his boat that day last fall; his favourite hip-waders that he lived and died for had carried him back to Beth.
Darcy raised his glass and broke their silence. "Cheers to Jim."
They all raised their glasses in a toast, "Cheers buddy."