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Clear ice on the lake

The Seventh Winter
Alyx Barter

          She didn’t have to stay.

          That’s what they told her, when the news first broke. Go to the city, where the sounds of cars will drown out the whispering. Go to the city, where you can visit a therapist. Go to the city, where we can forget you.

          It made them uncomfortable, the townsfolk, to see the pastor’s daughter drifting down the streets like a ghost. She knew they wanted to turn their faces and pretend that the man they’d followed had never existed. She knew they wished she’d died after all, all evidence of his crimes vanished beneath the flat surface of the lake, that their beloved pastor was at the pew instead of behind bars. Of course, they never said this. They never said anything, only patted her on the hand and told her they’d understand if she left.

          They wouldn’t. The only people that did understand her were beneath the surface of the lake, and it was a cruel trick that that fate had been taken away from her in an act of heroism that splashed across the front pages of the news for weeks after the fact.

          Six sisters dead. Their bodies had been pulled from the lake and given a proper burial in the churchyard, but the investigators had left their souls behind. Had left her heart behind.

          Sometimes she stood on the edge of the lake, toes sinking into the soft muck, and thought about sliding into the water and joining them. It couldn’t be the same. Her journey would be a lonely one, while he’d guided them to their deaths with a steady hand and faith-driven words. One daughter for each sin. She would be the last, and then he’d be unburdened.

          The first winter by herself was brutal. It wasn’t the cold so much as the loneliness. Before, she and her sisters had lit fires and danced around them, teeth flashing in the darkness until their father found them. Now she haunted their unheated cabin, their absence creeping across the frozen air in crackling, heady breaths.

          Then the night came, and with it, the whispering. At first, she thought it was just wishful thinking as their soft voices stole through the dark, but they persisted. Night after night. Calling out for something. She could hear the cadence of the conversation, but couldn’t make out the words, as though somebody was speaking in the next room over, just out of reach.

          The days grew shorter, the nights longer. She spent the days by the lake, watching ice lace the surface, watching as it hardened, as it grew thicker, plunging towards the depths where her sisters would be. She spent the nights listening to the voices, straining to catch a word, anything coherent. There was nothing, only a dialogue she was not privy to.

          She had a visitor. An uncle, dropping by with supplies for the winter, eyes averted, holding a bag towards her over the threshold. Dusk smeared purple and orange across the sky, and a single bird cried out, long and ululating. She took the bag as the whispering bled through the air, and said, “do you hear that?”

          He looked at her then, and though he was younger than her father, guilt aged his expression, and she knew he heard only his own heartbeat and the hiss of his car cooling down and the creak of wooden floorboards beneath their feet, cold as the ice on the lake.

          They were calling for her.

          Spring came and went, taking the voices away, and left her with a summer spent in the lake. She dove down, cutting from a surface dancing with golden motes of sunlight towards the black bottom. Towards her sisters. If it grew dark enough, she thought she could hear their voices, streaming to her in gentle, coaxing waves, but always, before she could reach them, her lungs gave out and dragged her back to the surface.

          It wasn’t their first time betraying her.

          Trevor Brent came to her that second winter, the night before the first cold snap, bright as summer with a disarming smile. He stood on the porch, and she stood on the other side of the door, heart frozen as the whispers curled around her like a hug, like a vice.

          “Ma sent me to check on you,” he said, hands in his pocket, eyes charmingly sheepish beneath a flop of straw-colored hair. “Said it didn’t seem right, you out here by your lonesome.”

          He’d saved her. He’d been the one to hear her gasping for breath in the center of the lake, to see the way her father had left her, hands bound, diving in without a second thought to pull her to safety. The town’s hero, hoisted onto shoulders and offered scholarships while she watched the bruises fade around her throat.

          “Can I come in?” he asked, and she glanced over her shoulder, at the empty cabin, at the whispering that rose, muffled, as though behind a wall. She looked back at Trevor, but his eyes were on hers, unaware that there was anything else to be heard. She shook her head.

          For a moment, she thought he’d say something else. She thought she wanted him to say something else, to drown out the sounds of the voices. He stepped closer, both of them bracing against a wind that cut through the woods. Branches scraped the walls behind her like fingernails. Then he said, “well, I’m leaving in the spring. For school. Maybe I’ll see you around.”

          “See you around,” she echoed. Cold crept through her hands.

          She shut the door and went to the wall she thought the whispering came from. It separated her sisters’ room from the rest of the cabin, abandoned since she’d been dragged, shivering, from the lake. She’d slept in the living room after, on the wool-stuffed couch, and now she wondered if it was a mistake. If her sisters had stayed in the room after all.

          She lifted her father’s axe and swung.

          The third winter, they put her father to death. Found guilty on all charges. She lay on the floor, cold and hard against her back, and listened to the murmuring around her as it grew in intensity. They were no longer whispers, they were screams, rising until she drowned in them.

          Then: silence.

          The cabin shuddered. Wind sighed through the window. The cold sank into her bones.

          Tearing down the bedroom wall had not stopped the voices. Only springtime had brought about their silence. Like the year before, she still could not understand their words, though she thought with every passing day she grew closer to knowing. Like relearning a language she hadn’t spoken since childhood.

          Frost spread cautious fingers across the window, slowly obscuring the lake. A family of foxes had taken up residence beneath the porch, and sometimes she pretended that the sounds she heard were them, muttering amongst themselves. Now she couldn’t hear anything, just the steady drip from the faucet, that she’d left on to keep the pipes from bursting. A trick her father had taught her when she was very young.

          “He’s gone,” she said. Out loud. Her voice was a strange thing, an intruder in this winter air.

          The whispering resumed.

          The fourth winter was a mild one until it wasn’t.

          All silence and a numb nose pressed to glass window panes that had once rattled with laughter spilling from a full house. Around her, whispers turned into voices, muffled but unmistakable. Her sisters. They hadn’t screamed since their father died, but they were growing louder with each passing year. Discontented.

          They’d been happy. They’d known what the future had in store, and they’d enjoyed their lives while they could. Now she’d moved into the future without them. She didn’t know what to do with it.

          The fifth winter, she ventured into town, towards the church, towards the yard her sisters had been buried in. Her father had been denied that right, so she strode past the plot that should have been his. In the very back, near a wall covered in wilted ivy, were six tombs in a neat little line. To the right of them was a seventh space, an empty space.

          She was alone. Her breath froze the air in front of her like a ghost, fading and then gone, and for the first time in five years she read the names written across the stones. Felt far away from them, as though the bones beneath her feet belonged to somebody else. Was this where people went to weep? There was nothing of her sisters here.

          Though dusk chased the sun beneath the horizon, silence settled across the churchyard like a mist. Her sisters’ voices could not reach her here.

          Her gaze lingered on that seventh space. A promise. A home.

          The sixth winter passed. The townspeople no longer looked at her with pity, but with fear.

          Trevor Brent came home from school the summer before her seventh winter, triumphant with a degree and knowledge of a world bigger than hers. He fished on the edge of the lake, and talked about his dreams. She swam in lazy circles in the water and reached a hand towards a darkness that never seemed to reach back.

          That winter, he came to her cabin. She let him in, because it was cold outside, and together they made dinner, because it was cold inside. The wood-fire stove warmed up the space in the kitchen as she doled soup into bowls and he cut a loaf of bread and put the pieces carefully onto plates.

          Then they sat down, two at a table meant for eight, and she put the bread in her mouth and listened to the voices rise around her. They had grown in urgency that winter, as though time was running out. For the first time, she thought she could make out their words.

          So cold. So dark.

          “I think we should talk about it.”

          She stopped chewing. Looked at Trevor. He looked back, gaze earnest, hands flipped so that his palms rested face-up on the table. “Talk about what?”

          “The day I found you.” He didn’t look away. “Folks in town still talk about it. About you. They think you’re strange, y’know. For staying.”

          She stared down at her soup. Pressed her spoon lightly to the surface until it broke and liquid flooded over it. “This is home.”

          Home, the voices muttered. But the image that rose in her was one of a deep, still lake, buried beneath a layer of ice.

          He stayed silent, long enough that the voices crept back over her. Please. She tilted her head to catch the words better, then remembered her company. She looked up, and he pursed his lips. “You never shouted for help.”

          She’d never wanted help. Her lungs had betrayed her, had fought for one last breath while the rest of her longed for the dark spaces below. “I didn’t think anybody would hear.”

          And this much was true. If she had, maybe she would’ve been able to keep quiet. Maybe Trevor would have seen her father in the little boat, bent over the surface of the lake, and thought he was fishing, and would have waved and carried on with his day. Maybe she wouldn’t be here, listening to her sisters’ pleading.

          Come, they said.

          “What your father did to you was wrong. You and your sisters…” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you do it.”

          “Do what?”

          “The lake. If I were you, I’d want to get out of here, as soon as possible.” Trevor glanced away, and at first she thought he was searching for the voices, but then she realized- he was looking at something deep inside himself. “I did. I got out of here. I couldn’t stand the memories of that day, of seeing them pulled from the lake.”

          She shut her eyes. They were calling her home. “Running away isn’t the answer.”

          “Neither is staying.”

          And then he leaned across the table to kiss her. Was it possible to drown and still be able to breathe?

          She left Trevor asleep in the cabin and went out into a winterized midnight. The sky was clear, the stars bright, silver pinpricks in a world far above her head until her breath misted over them. The crescent moon came out from behind the trees like a close-lipped smile, guiding her to the path to the lake.

          Dead grass crunched beneath her feet. The voices fell away at last, though she knew she was near their source. Every step brought her closer to the lake. To her sisters. They weren’t gone; they were holding their breath.

          Moonlight skated off the bare tree branches, like skeletons reaching towards a silver and black sky. Beneath them was the lake, shining, frost webbed across it. Waiting for her. She’d forgotten how lovely and lonely the winter night could be. Every breath she drew in made her lungs ache. The silence was complete and implacable.

          She stepped onto the ice, testing her weight, found it solid. Then another step. She made her way towards the deep, slow but sure. The temperature plummeted and she stopped, suddenly sure that her sisters were right below her.

          Had it not been for Trevor, she would have been with them, adding her voice to a disjointed chorus. Had it not been for Trevor, her father would still be practicing, and she’d be a memory, a ghost. Had it not been for Trevor, she would have been a cloud of white in the air, a last exhalation, a final goodbye.

          She didn’t have to stay.

          The ice shattered.

Bio

Alyx Barter is a writer and equestrian from Jacksonville, FL. She has various works published, including in the Bright Flash Literary Review and the Fabulist Magazine, and is a recipient of the Amy Wainwright Memorial Award. In her free time she likes to try and keep her plants alive and can often be found haunting the local bookshop.

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