Saturday, December 8, 1:30 p.m.
Submerged beneath the ice in a frozen New Hampshire lake, Tony clings to life. He presses his face against the ice to suck air in the thin space above the water. Hypothermia wages a battle against the weight of his sodden clothes to decide how he will die.
Through a hole in the ice, a woman probes for Tony from above with an ice-drilling auger.
When Tony spots her silhouette, he claws along the ice and grabs the jagged edge of the hole. His head surfaces and air fills his deprived lungs. Too numb and exhausted to speak, his eyes plead, Help me. The woman extends the auger, and Tony reaches for the lifeline.
Tony was teaching the woman how to ice fish on a secluded lake, offshore from his getaway log cabin. It’s the kind of tranquil lake where the crisp air, eerie silence, and crackling ice freeze time, and where a man like Tony can sort out his financial troubles.
Now, frozen under the crackling ice, Tony’s lakeside setting is not so tranquil, and his troubles are more than financial.
One week earlier: Saturday, December 1, 1 p.m.
With a corkscrew auger, Tony hand-drills a small hole in the crystal clear ice. He baits a hook with a shiner and spring-loads a red flag to signal when a fish hits. A pickerel swims by but knows better than to take the bait.
He bores—or manufactures—a second, larger hole in the ice. He drills and chisels the ice, over and over, until the opening is four feet wide. Giant pine trees, the lake’s sentinels, wonder at the man’s peculiar work. I’ll do it tomorrow, he thinks. A simple poke with the auger—like this—and Faith will be gone. So will my troubles. What a horrible accident it will be!
Tony needs two million bucks, fast, to stay afloat, or he’ll face the Securities Exchange Commission and jail time. A financial counselor, Tony resurrected a sinking career by embezzling client funds. Besides a suburban home, where his wife Faith lives, he paid cash for a Boston penthouse, where his office assistant stays. To hide more cash, and for weekend trysts, he added a New Hampshire lakeside cabin. But now, too many of his clients want their money back. That’s where the large hole comes in. Faith takes an icy swim, and I collect a big life insurance windfall—tax-free! But will I have the balls to do it when the time comes?
Tony carries the auger and chisel inside a tiny fishing hut nearby that, every winter, he skids out onto the ice. Its walls are adorned with fishing tackle and red flags. Two wooden stools flank a milk crate that serves as a makeshift table. Breaking up kindling, he lights a fire in a small woodstove.
He steps outside to check on the flag—still down. Alone on the ice, he circles the lethal hole that blemishes the lake’s rugged beauty and ponders, How did I get to this place? Is there some other way?
As though in response, an ice skater emerges out of the low winter sun and breaks his meditation. She glides, albeit wobbly, straight to the hut, where smoke is venting from the stovepipe.
“Hi there. What a nice day to be out!” She manages a shiver and adds, “But its fa-reaking cooold out here!”
“There’s a fire going inside. I was about to make hot cocoa, too.” From the hole, Tony scoops water into a pot. “My name’s Tony.”
“I’m Melody. Pleased to meet you.” She flares a toothy smile and, skirting the hole, follows Tony to the hut. “What’s the big hole for? Heck, the fish here can’t be that big.”
“Lay an ice chisel across the hole and hang three lines from it. You’ll catch a fish a minute!”
Inside the cramped hut, he puts the water on the woodstove and then sits down with Melody. Leering at his unexpected guest, Tony thinks, Wow, she’s hot. But who wears all that makeup to ice skate—alone? And is that perfume I smell?
He’s sizing me up, Melody thinks. She looks around the hut to let Tony get an eyeful, and then she breaks the cold silence. “So what do you do, Tony? That is, when you’re not catching huge fish.”
“I’m a financial advisor. And you?”
“I’m a yoga instructor. When I can get clients.” She stands at the woodstove to mix cocoa powder with steaming water.
No kidding, Tony thinks. He scans Melody’s tight sweater and the black yoga pants that hug her sculpted hips. “I could use a yoga lesson. I’m feeling a bit tense these days.”
“That’s from being a financial advisor. I see it all the time. My yoga class teaches full relaxation of body and mind. Want a free sample?” She kneads Tony’s shoulders.
Wow, the chick’s fast, too, Tony thinks. Does she see my bald spot? He leads her outside the hut. “That’s my place right over there.” He points to an expansive log cabin that, alone, dominates the cove. “I’ll cook dinner if you show me a few . . . yoga positions. Deal?”
“Aww, I’d love to, Tony. But I have a date tonight.” Melody had planned on going to the log cabin to learn about Tony, even if it meant spending the night. But what she’s seen today on the ice has changed her mind. “I’ll be back next Saturday, though. Can you teach me how to ice fish then?” She pulls a knit cap over her blonde, purple-streaked hair.
“Sure, but where are you going? What about the hot cocoa?”
“I’m plenty warm now. Drink it yourself.” He took the bait, Melody thinks. Skating away, she says, “Look, Tony. Your flag is sticking straight up.”
Melody skates back into the low sun and over to the far end of the lake. She trades the skates for her waiting boots and then trudges up through the tall pines. Reaching County Road, she hops into an idling Honda Civic. “Crank up the heat, sweetie. I’m freezing my fa-reakin’ ass off,” Melody says.
“Come closer, I’ll warm you.” Faith, the driver, puts her Kindle reader on the dashboard next to a pile of Hershey kisses wrappers. She wears men’s carpenter pants and a flannel shirt ‘because they fit better.’ In truth, the baggy clothes hide the twenty pounds Faith has added in the two years she’s juggled her relationships with Tony and Melody. Faith kisses Melody on the lips and strokes her arms and legs for warmth. “Now tell me what happened down there, hon.”
Melody wipes makeup from her face and peels off a pair of false eyelashes. “That prick husband of yours tried to lure me into his log cabin. All in twenty minutes.”
“Don’t feel special, hon. Happens most weekends.” Faith lights a cigarette. “Anyway, why are you back so soon? I sent you to find dirt. To build a solid divorce case, remember?”
“We don’t need dirt anymore. If we did, I’d be humpin’ your chubby hubby by now. I bolted early.”
“Oh honey, we need dirt—on that bimbo assistant and the other log cabin babes. If you and I traipse off without dirt, I won’t take a penny out of the houses.”
“I got none of that. We made hot cocoa.”
“That’s it? We drive to the boonies? You doll up? And all you got is hot freakin’ cocoa?” Faith pops two aspirin and rubs her temples.
“Remember your rhythmic breathing, sweetie.”
“I’ll confront Tony myself. I’m meeting him tomorrow to ‘fish and talk,’” Faith says with air quotes.
“Oh ya? Guess what? You’re the fish. He drilled a hole in the ice twice your size.”
“Come off it. He wants to murder me?”
“Fifty ways to leave your lover, sweetie. Your life insurance policy is worth two mil, right?”
“Yes, mine and his both.”
“That’s why we don’t need dirt! I found a better way to get rid of ‘im. Cancel your murder date tomorrow. Reschedule for next Sunday, though. I need that Faith-sized hole dug again.”
Faith’s eyes get big, and she lights another cigarette. “Whoa, slow down. That’s waaay outta my league, hon.” Faith’s biggest caper ever was bagging a leather-bound edition of Crime and Punishment from UNH, where she’s a librarian. Like Raskolnikov, her favorite literary character, she still harbors guilt for that misdeed, and for every other indiscretion since.
“It’ll be easy,” Melody says and strokes Faith’s butched hair. “We’ll score the houses and the two mil, but only if you agree. Next Saturday . . . “
Saturday, December 8, 1 p.m.
After another three-hour drive from Boston, Faith parks the Honda Civic at a familiar spot on County Road. “Are you sure about this, Melody?” She lights a cigarette with the butt end of another. “It doesn’t feel right, now that we’re here.”
“It’ll feel right in a month when we’re living on a beach in Florida.” In the visor mirror, Melody applies a fresh coat of makeup and red lipstick. Grabbing the cigarette from Faith’s mouth, Melody whispers, “Stop worrying, sweetie. I love you.” With skates in hand, Melody retraces the steps she took last Saturday. This time, though, she zigzags around drooping pine branches that conspire to block her path to the lake. Once at the hut, she finds Tony feeding the stove with kindling. “Hello again, Tony!” She flashes her teeth and gives the false eyelashes a workout.
“Hi, Melody. You’re just in time.” He unpacks a bottle of wine, bread, and cheese from a picnic basket. “Tuscan red pairs well with an ice fishing lesson, don’t you think?”
“Ya, but um, how ‘bout some cocoa first?” She fakes a shiver and blows into her hands. “To warm my bones.”
I’ll be warming those bones later, he thinks, ogling the possibilities. Then, as he did last week, Tony takes a pot outside to fetch water. Down on hands and knees, he leans over the large hole.
Melody straps the ice auger to her wrist and follows Tony. Oh God, can I do this? she thinks. Hell yes, after how you’ve treated Faith, ya scum! A simple push and it’s done. I’m not even here! She puts the auger tip against Tony’s backside and, with eyes closed, topples him into the water. Then, before Tony can gather himself to resurface, she shoves him again, away from the hole and under the ice. It should only take a minute.
Tony spots Melody’s silhouette up through the glassy ice. Clawing to the hole, he surfaces and gasps for air. His eyes plead, Help me. Melody extends the auger, and he reaches for the lifeline.
Thrusting the auger into Tony’s chest, Melody pushes him back under the ice yet again. When Tony glares accusingly, she thinks, Oh God, am I really doing this? I’m no murderer! She twists the auger strap to secure it tightly on her wrist. They’ll see I did it. I’ll give myself away, I know it! She probes again with the auger — this time to pull Tony to safety.
The freezing water invades Tony’s lungs and slows his body and brain. He struggles back to the hole to surface one last time.
“Hold on, Tony!” Melody shouts. On her knees, she stretches to him with the auger.
But Tony doesn’t reach for it. Instead, he straddles the auger, tangling his legs around its corkscrew shape.
“Stop, Tony! You’re pulling me in!” As Tony sinks, the dead weight drags Melody along as though she’s tethered to an anchor. She tries to unwind the auger strap, but it’s taut around her wrist. In time, the anchor wins the tug-of-war.
Sliding into the water, Melody grabs the edge of the ice to break her descent. “Help! Help meeee!” The pines echo the alarm around the lake. One frozen hand slips, and her head submerges. Fighting to resurface, she vomits water through her nostrils.
Up on County Road, Faith watches Melody trundle down to the lake. Oh God. Am I really doing this? Out of cigarettes, she gets out of the car to pace. Melody has pulled me by the nose for two years. This is no way to divorce, even though he is a godforsaken dirt bag.
Minutes behind Melody, she tromps down to the lake to abort the misguided plot. When Melody’s gurgling cries cut the lake’s silence, Faith scrambles across the ice.
Over the edge of the hole, Melody sees Faith in the distance. Hold on. One more minute. But, addled by the cold, Melody loses her grip. Now, only the circle of her face breaks the water. “Say it was me, sweetie,” she confesses to no one, and then bubbles breach the surface. A frigid wind picks up, and the sentinel pines surrounding the lake sway to protest the madness.
A moment later, Faith reaches the hole. Looking down through the clear ice, she sees Melody and Tony suspended in the water. They seem to glare quizzically at each other. Faith searches the hut and, as a desperate measure, grabs the ice chisel. She tries, in vain, to somehow fish out Melody—or Tony. Shivering and exhausted, Faith leans on the chisel to make sense of what she sees and to weigh what she’s done.
In the distance, from the direction of County Road, a police officer follows Faith’s steps across the ice. At the hut, he says, “Answering a 9-1-1 call, ma’am. Was that you screaming for help?” Following the path of Faith’s eyes, he makes out the two forms plummeting to the bottom of the lake.
Frantic, the officer says, “Is there a ladder? A rope? Anything!” No answer. He darts to the hut. “How ‘bout in here?” He dials a cellphone. “It’s Murphy on that 9-1-1. We’ve got a water rescue off County Road. Two in.”
“They’ll be here ASAP, ma’am.” She’s in shock, he thinks and drapes his coat around Faith’s shoulders. Anxious for the equipment to arrive, Murphy paces around the hole.
But then he jerks to a stop. “Awfully big hole for a pickerel, ma’am, isn’t it?” Looking at the ice chisel, he says, “How’d both of ‘em end up in the water?” He retrieves the picnic basket from the hut. “Break up an outing, ma’am?”
Faith’s hyperventilation mounts with each unanswered question. I made calls to check on Tony’s insurance policy and the property deeds, she remembers. Threatened his assistant yesterday, too. Above all, as is her wont, she remembers Raskolnikov’s self-incriminating fate in Crime and Punishment. She sinks to the ice, and bile fills her throat. She looks into the distance and into the future, and what she sees is not so tranquil anymore.
BIO: John Mara, a 2020 ‘Best of the Net’ nominee, began writing fiction beside a serene New Hampshire lake after years writing business articles inside a stale New York cubicle. He writes with the creative input of his wife Holly. They never fail to attract mortified glances when they discuss dastardly characters and plot structure in restaurants. Besides Liquid Imagination, you’ll find John’s short stories published in J.J. Outre Review, Youth Imagination, Bewildering Stories, and other venues.