No More to the Lake

Jensen sat hunched over on the end of the rickety dock wondering what to do. So far north, night came early this time of year, and the sunlight and all its hopes and warmth were being slowly choked out of the sky by 4pm. Lake Winnekontek would freeze over in a few month's time, as hinted by the icy November winds that pricked Jensen's face and drove unfortunate nearby souls indoors. For now, the lake retained a shimmer, reflecting the sinewy shadows of the surrounding forest and the few lone houses scattered around its shores. Beneath that surface, the ink-black water swallowed all light, concealing all secrets, all creatures in the deep. It was heart-stoppingly cold, a mere splash assaulted the body like a dagger.

Lake Winnekontek had seen too many Minnesota winters. Too many desperate people in flannel, too many starving wolves, too many slain Ojibwes. This winter would be no different. Another man would come and flee.

Across the lake, the harsh backyard light of a tiny cabin illuminated the figure of a man and his hound, the only signs of life for miles. He tugged on the leash, yearning for the comfort of the hearth inside, but the hound kept its nose to the ground, pacing back and forth. The dog barked a warning that echoed across the lake, breaking the wild silence for a moment. Finally the owner prevailed and dragged his companion back to shelter. The backyard light flickered off and now the lake was cloaked in darkness and Jensen was alone. Nobody to talk to but the wind and the trees.

His mother would be expecting the two of them to return home in less than eighteen hours. She had hoped the weekend bonding trip would repair their relations, which had unraveled so miserably over the years. Jensen had resisted the idea but the tears on his mother's increasingly wrinkled face as she begged him to please try, try for their family made him capitulate. He did not recall her crying so much when he was younger. Was life sadder for her now, or had her will to pretend simply broken down?

His face was screaming out at the spiny air now. "Nippy" was an understatement. Most of his body had gone numb though bundled in fleece and wool. If only his hands had been immobilized two hours ago. He could not stay out there forever, as much as he wanted to. Too long and his heart would slow until he shared the fate of Kubrick's Jack Torrance or the passengers of the Titanic.

He had come to the cabin as a boy on summer escapes. Mosquitoes, yellowing paperbacks, fishing on the dock and sailing around the lake. Jensen's mother had hoped to replicate those getaways past and Jensen scowled at the deplorable optimism of such an idea. Back then, the future stretched endlessly before him, which meant endless cabin lolling, but age had eaten away that capacity to be carefree. Moreover, they were no longer a happy family, and his mother, their loving glue, had been called to work last minute. It was not summer either. The people who came here at this time of year were mad, and the lake would not receive them with open arms but rather punish them with a brutal attack of winter.

He imagined his father in the cabin, drunk again, slurring toxic words at him, at his mother, at the world. He must have hidden a flask in that duffel. Maybe two flasks, or perhaps a bottle had been stashed in the cabin from summers long ago. Why his mother thought he would be different this time, Jensen did not know. He had avoided the man so steadfastly since leaving home and he had been fine. He regretted leaving his mother, but he regretted this venture up north much more. In his preteen years Jensen usually tried to leave the house during these episodes of rage but now he was a man who had stayed for the fight.

Jensen looked up at the Minnesota night. So far from civilization, stars unknown to most men were revealed, glaring at the fools on earth. He could take the rowboat out a few meters and dump the body in the lake now, with no one to witness. He could get in the truck afterward and be home in his Chicago apartment by morning. He could turn the thermostat up high until he was drenched in sweat. He wondered if his mother would be relieved, or if she would hate Jensen as much as he hated her--for her weakness, for sending him to this freezing inferno and for creating him. He reached down to the lakewater, just to feel the cold.