“Don’t move,” I yelled.
She faced away from me and showed no sign of having heard me. She stood on the frozen pond, head bowed, shoulders slumped. Her left hand gripped a wooden walking stick.
We were the only two people in sight. Not surprising, considering it was the middle of winter. All the sane people were home with their feet up, their heaters on, and their hot chocolate bubbling in their mugs.
I’d moved here a few weeks ago and I walked through the park every day. I often sat, looking at the pond, on the bench dedicated to Xavier Ashley, whoever he was. A frozen pond is as quiet as a moment in time and I needed as many quiet moments in my life as I could get.
She raised her head, straightened her shoulders, and slid the walking stick forward a couple of inches. She put her weight on it, dragged her right foot forward, then slid her left foot and stopped again.
The ice got thinner the further you got from the bank. Considering where she was standing, it was only a matter of time before it cracked. Even though it was called Central Pond, it got deep quickly and could easily swallow her whole.
She took two more hesitant steps.
“Stop,” I yelled, stepping gingerly onto the pond. I tried to hold my body weight up rather than letting it settle in my feet. My weight combined with hers could be enough to kill us both. But I had to do something.
“Come back,” I implored, taking a few more sliding steps. I held my arms out, trying to keep my balance. It felt like standing on ball bearings ready to roll away at any moment.
She turned around and I was surprised at how young she was. The walking stick had made me assume she was older, but she was in her early 20s. A puffy black jacket hanging down to mid-thigh disguised her youth. Her legs were slim, clad in skinny black jeans, ending in chunky black Doc Martens hugging her ankles. Wisps of fine black hair escaped her black woollen beanie, framing a delicate face with almond-shaped eyes.
A trail of diamond tears glistened on red cheeks. She wiped a grey woollen glove over her face, smearing the frozen tracks.
“Go back,” she sniffed. “It’s not safe.”
“Exactly,” I replied.
Long black lashes lowered like curtains over her eyes as she said, “I have nothing to live for. Go back, please. We don’t both need to die.”
“Neither of us needs to die today,” I said, holding out my hand.
I shifted my weight ready for another step and my feet started slipping. I gasped and whirled my arms, trying to stay upright.
She hesitated, then took one shaking step towards me, then another. She slid her right foot across the ice instead of lifting it.
She took one more step and, with a loud CRACK, the ice started to fracture around her feet. She lost her balance and teetered before toppling forwards. I lunged, grabbed the end of the stick and pulled, falling backwards. Her feet started to disappear into the water but I didn’t let go. It was a miracle the ice under my back didn’t break.
I scrambled to my knees and dragged both of us from the icy pond. It felt like hours but within minutes we were both lying on the bank, wetter than the grass that hadn’t been mowed since autumn.
I helped her to her feet. Striking emerald eyes blinked at me but there was no smile on her red lips. She puffed and leant shakily on her stick. Her boots and jeans were soaked and water dripped steadily from the hem of her coat. I took her arm and helped her to Xavier’s bench.
She sat on the left and I sat on the right. She turned and rubbed Xavier’s commemorative plaque, polishing his name.
“Did you know him?” I asked.
“Xavier was my brother.”
We sat in silence, both shivering and breathing heavily. I held out my hand.
She shook her head rather than taking my hand, as if afraid to touch me.
We sat and watched the pond. It was already starting to freeze again. The beauty of the freezing bubbles paled in comparison to Mariana. I thought I’d take a chance.
“Nice to meet you, Mariana,” I said. “I don’t know about you, but I need to warm up after that almost-swim. There’s a fire at home if you want to join me for some coffee and conversation. I don’t mean to sound creepy, but you look like you need someone to talk to. I promise I’m not a serial killer.”
I didn’t think she was going to answer, but then she murmured, “Thank you. But you should know I’m a death magnet. In case you want to rescind your offer.”
I didn’t know what to say so I stood up and offered her my arm. We walked the ten minutes to my place in silence except for chattering teeth caused by the strengthening wind. Mariana relied heavily on her walking stick the whole way.
We sat in my kitchen, steam rising off our damp clothes, hands curled around hot mugs. Mariana refused to sit in the lounge room, insisting she wasn’t going to ruin my couch with her wet clothes.
“Ok,” I said. “I’m intrigued. Tell me the story of Mariana Ashley the Death Magnet.”
She stared at the table. Giving her space, I stood and retrieved some fruit cake from the pantry. I had my back to her when she started talking.
“My parents died in a tsunami when I was a baby, so I don’t really remember them. They were on a business trip and left Xavier and me with our Nana, my father’s mother. Xavier was three years older than me. My mother and father were just two of the hundreds of people washed away that day, like plastic in the ocean.”
I kept quiet, put thick slices of cake on the table, and sat down again. She picked at hers but didn’t eat it. She continued speaking.
“Aunt Susan, my father’s sister, adopted us. My mother was an only child and her parents were devastated when she died. They didn’t want anything to do with us. Maybe we reminded them too much of their loss? I don’t know.”
Mariana took several gulps of coffee and deep breaths. Her shoulders slumped as she continued.
“My aunt took me to a show when I was six. I was fascinated by the dancers and how they moved their bodies and became one with the music. From that moment on, I lived and breathed dancing. We didn’t have a lot of money. My uncle and aunt went without a lot to fund my dream. My dancing became the focus for the whole family. Xavier was pushed to the background, but he never seemed to mind.
“When I was thirteen, I won a dance competition and qualified for the state finals. My aunt and I stayed in the city. It was the first time I’d stayed in a hotel. Nana and Pop were going to meet us at the hotel and come with us to the show. We waited as long as we could but assumed they got held up in traffic, so we went without them. We thought we’d see them after the show. I won the competition not knowing they weren’t in the audience. We found out later that they were driving on the freeway when a truck suddenly changed lanes and smashed their car into the concrete barrier. Pop died instantly. Nana died on the operating table.”
I put my hand over Mariana’s hand. Her gaze never left the table and she didn’t move her hand. Another couple of deep breaths and she continued again.
“They died coming to see me. I blamed myself and stopped dancing. I barely left my room for months. Then Aunt Susan got angry and said I would be letting Nana down if I didn’t keep chasing my dream. So, I started dancing again.
“Xavier joined the army when he turned eighteen. He became a diesel mechanic and moved away. I was so wrapped up in myself that I’m ashamed to say I didn’t really notice his absence.
“When I turned eighteen, I moved to the city. I worked hard. I was going to do it for Nana. And I did. Just before my twenty-first birthday, I was accepted into a prestigious dance company. To celebrate my achievement and my twenty-first, we decided to have a party here. Xavier arranged leave so he could be here for me.”
Mariana moved her hand out from under mine, looked me in the eye, and frowned.
“Today’s my birthday. I’m twenty-four today, you know. Happy birthday to me, right?”
I stayed quiet, knowing her story was not done yet.
“The whole town must have turned out for my party. Uncle Rodney set up a huge marquee in the park, next to Central Pond. The weather was clear but icy, much like today. A local band was playing, big steel drums burned high with flames, and the alcohol was flowing, so no one felt the cold. It was a great night until some bright spark decided we should skate on the frozen pond. I don’t know if it was the alcohol…I can only think it was because I didn’t normally drink. But, hey, it was my twenty-first and I’d just been accepted by my dream company to do my dream job.
“A couple of boys I went to school with were mucking around on the ice and they convinced me to step out there too. We were swinging each other around, using our boots as skates, when I lost my grip and fell. I still remember the sickening sound of my leg snapping. I screamed and continued to slide towards the centre of the pond.”
Mariana was now sobbing hard, head down on her forearms.
“Xavier…Xavier ran out onto the ice and grabbed me. He swung me around and slid me back to the edge just as the ice began to break. I could hear him splashing, frantically trying to grab solid ice, but it kept snapping off and he’d end up under the water again. People were running around…there was so much noise. By the time they got him out, he’d gone into shock. By then I’d passed out from the pain. When I regained consciousness, after the surgery on my leg, they told me Xavier died on the way to hospital.
“Xavier and my dreams died in that pond three years ago today.”
I stood up, moved behind her, and put my hands on her shoulders, but she kept on talking through the racking sobs.
“I moved back in with Aunt Susan and Uncle Rodney for my rehab. I’d broken my femur, my kneecap, and my shinbone. I knew I’d never dance again.”
“I’m so sorry,” I murmured.
“Then Aunt Susan died last week. She had breast cancer but didn’t tell anyone until it was too late. Uncle Rodney was devastated. He ran his car into a tree last night. I don’t think it was an accident.”
Mariana lifted her head, turned in her seat, and looked at me. Her eyes were wide and sincere.
“So, you see. I’m a death magnet. Anyone close to me dies. I’m the only one left. I’m all alone.”
Mariana stood up and turned towards me. I held this beautiful woman as we both wept for all that she’d lost.
“You won’t always be alone,” I whispered. “It’s just a moment in time.”