This is an unpublished story I wrote in 2013 for a writing challenge with a photograph as the prompt – a woman, standing alone, gazing out on a frozen lake. I call the story Shadow Man, and I hope you like it.
It happened so fast. There was the telltale cracking sound, but only for a second, and then the ice beneath Jim broke and he, and the baby he held, dropped out of view. From the shore, Shelly witnessed this horror and the sight chilled her to her core.
There were two other skaters on the lake – a man and a woman, and both moved quickly to the hole to help, farther out on the thin ice than they dared skate normally. Carefully approaching the hole, the man took off his scarf and threw it to Jim splashing helplessly in the freezing water, dragging him out and onto the ice.
The cold was like nothing Jim had ever known. As the blood instinctively withdrew from his extremities to retain the heat in his torso, it was like being eaten alive. Like some vicious monster was chewing his fingers off, moving up his wrists and then his forearms. It was excruciating. He tried to breath, sputtering and cold. Through it all, he could only think of Molly – lovely, seven-month-old Molly, who loved to be held as he skated, had laughed and squealed with glee as only a child can do. Jim found his daughter’s glee intoxicating, and he would do anything to make his little girl laugh.
The two skaters were attending to the hole after Jim was pulled to safety, but there was nothing else. Shelly watched, unable to move from the place on the ice near the shore, hands covering her mouth. When the minutes multiplied and there was no sign of Molly being pulled from the hole, she dropped her hands and stood, motionless and vacant.
Jim survived, and one week later, he and Shelly attended the memorial of their daughter, Morgan Annabelle Lancaster, and known lovingly as Molly. Divers had found Molly under the ice, not far from the hole where she had vanished.
Friends and family comforted them and brought food. Winter in Michigan is brutal, and when the snow got too heavy and the roads weren’t passable until they were plowed, which sometimes took a week or two. People stopped coming by to see how they were doing.
During this time, when friends and family were not present to ease the grief, Jim and Shelly did not talk. Shelly never seemed to focus and would sit and stare into space, expressionless. She had yet to cry for her lost child.
Jim, awash in guilt and regret, relived the moment over and over in his head. Why had he taken Molly out on the ice like that? What if he had fallen? She could have been hurt. And why, oh why, did he skate so far out, where the ice is thinnest? It was so stupid. It was so avoidable.
Weeks became months, and Jim had not returned to work. Phone calls from concerned friends were regular, but Jim was despondent and Shelly never talked. Neither of them went out, and routine things like washing and eating had been forgotten. Slowly, they were dying – eroding.
Shelly noticed something strange, but didn’t care. A shadow seemed to hang on Jim, cast around him like a cloud. While he was sitting in a chair, the chair appeared in normal light, but Jim was in shadow. It was faint, but grew darker with each passing day. After four more days, Jim’s emaciated form was all but obscured by shadow, a darkness that enveloped him and only him, but not anything around him. It heaved and rocked gelatinously when Jim moved, which was very little.
The misery, regret and guilt had become all that was Jim, and when every other part of him was gone and that was all that was left, he exhaled and died, sitting in the chair by the window.
With oily cadence, the shadow lurched, pulling free from Jim and stood in the room, a shape like a man, but not a man. Shelly watched this with disinterested eyes; her gaze was set a thousand miles past the shadow, Jim’s dead body or the room. The shadow, faceless and ephemeral, turned and walked through the door without opening it.
For the first time since standing on the shore of the frozen lake months ago, Shelly thought of something other than her dead child. Jim’s body, withered and destitute, sat across from her. Quietly and dismissively, she rose from the couch and took wobbly steps upstairs, where she brushed her hair and tied it back behind her head. She put on clean, warm clothes that hung loosely on her frame, now. Checking herself in the mirror, she walked to the door, opened it and left the house.
It was overcast but the light still hurt her eyes. The air was still and cold, and snows had blanketed everything in pristine white. She had to lift her legs high to stride through it, and in her weakened state it was exhausting. She took the path to the road, recently plowed so walking was easier, and proceeded the quarter mile to the lake.
In March, the ice on the lake had begun to thaw, but this didn’t stop Shelly from marching into it with a splash. The cold made her gasp, but after a pause she took four more steps out, until she was up to her thighs in the freezing water. She stood exactly where she had been on that day her daughter died.
In this spot, almost three months later, she gasped and screamed, “Jim, you are too far out. Come in closer, please. Molly. No!”
And finally, a tear rolled down her cheek. Then another and another and she wept. Shivering from the cold, she cried and looked around, but no one was there. Panic overwhelmed her and she had to go out and save Molly. This was her baby. She must do something. She rushed forward, deeper into the cold water, but something held her back. Though she jerked and kicked, she was being pulled back by someone, who dragged her out of the water and onto the shore, where she fell backwards, gasping.
Through her tears and alarm, she looked up at the faceless shadow man standing over her, still holding her arm. She felt the utter despair of the creature. It was so empty of joy, but the most overwhelming feeling was that of guilt. She felt how remorseful he was for this terrible accident. She knew, really knew, that he would do anything if he could bring Molly back.
Sitting up, shivering, she reached out to touch the shadow man’s featureless face. Her hand felt the dark coolness of his cheek and caressed it gently.
“I forgive you,” Shelly said.
The words felt good to her. They were liberating, not because it made her powerful, but because it lifted a weight from her. She had blamed Jim for the accident. She was so angry at him that she would not even speak to him. It felt good to forgive because that, above all else, is what people who truly love each other do – they forgive, and in forgiving, release themselves of the burden.
The shadow man released her arm and stood, still looking down at her. Shelly thought there might be the hint of a smile, but wasn’t sure. Then, he turned and went into the lake, disappeared below the surface, and was gone.
© 2015, Mitch Lavender