The lake, which in a few months would be frozen over, was surrounded by mangroves. The last of the sunshine glittered against a strip of the water like pearls.
Starling stood at the water’s edge and tried to embrace the final glimpses of sun before it retired for the day and night-time fell. For as long as the sun remained shining in the sky, everything might be okay.
Starling tightened her cardigan around her waist and plucked a strand of Merlin’s fur from it. If anything should happen to her, she hoped Billy would look after him. He’d always hated that cat.
A thick looking stick had fallen on the ground close to her and she looked at it for a moment or two, contemplating if she ought to whack herself with it a few times in the kidneys, to try and cause some bruising or internal bleeding. Wasn’t that what she deserved? To feel the same pain she had inflicted?
Starling could scarcely remember the last few hours and whenever she tried, large chunks of time had vanished, like holes in a block of cheese. Her brain was trying to forget what she’d done. She wouldn’t let it though. She wanted it engraved in her mind, replaying every minute of every day so she never experienced a single second of peace.
Starling pushed out her belly and rested her hand there, pretending for a moment she was pregnant again. Starling had loved being pregnant. The smiles and nods she received from strangers. People had noticed her when she was pregnant.
Billy was different too. It was like he’d been reborn when she told him she was pregnant. He was so proud of her for simply existing, because her existence meant the existence of his child too.
“You’ve never been more beautiful,” he’d reassure her through the long bouts of morning sickness and when her ankles swelled from edema. She knew it was oftentimes untrue but he said it so earnestly that she almost believed it. He even got excited by her strange pregnancy cravings and would offer to drive to the store at midnight to buy her bread and butter pickles.
Starling felt a throbbing pain in her groin and sunk to her knees. She dug her fingers into the pebbled sand, doubled over until the cramps subsided.
The nurse said it wasn’t her fault. Stillbirth was just a horrible, tragic accident. But Starling knew better. When the baby had stopped moving, Starling waited twenty minutes too long to go to the hospital. She’d finished her ironing, refusing to entertain the thought that anything could possibly have gone wrong inside of her. The nurse said it was unlikely the extra twenty minutes would have made a difference but when Starling demanded to know if it were possible the baby could have been saved if she’d only arrived earlier, the nurse couldn’t … wouldn’t respond. Starling knew, each time her lower belly throbbed, it was throbbing in time with the ticking clock, reminding her of the minutes she waited.
Why hadn’t she moved faster? She had failed at her one and only job.
Starling slowly lay onto her side so she was facing the lake, and placed her fingertips into the water. It was bone chillingly cold. Good, she thought. She sat up and removed her cardigan then wrapped it into the shape of a baby and cradled it in her arms. It comforted her. Perhaps she could sleep like this, forever.
It grew darker out and with it, came a breeze with a bite. The lake looked different in the dark, like a wide, gaping hole. Starling looked to the sky, hoping the moon would appear to shed some light but the sky was as black as coal. The streetlights from the main road didn’t reach beyond the rocks.
The mangroves looked like people now that dusk had come, deformed and crooked bodies watching her. Accusing her. Their gnarled roots pointing at her, ‘it was you. You did it’.
The lake’s surface would be frozen over soon. Her body, ten feet below. She wondered for one fleeting, hopeful moment if she might be reunited with her baby.
Still cradling the bundle in her arms, she removed her shoes and rested them neatly on the pebbled sand. She didn’t know what difference having no shoes would make, but she couldn’t bear the thought of walking into the lake with them on.
She hitched up her pants and dipped her toes into the water. She gasped as the chill sent pins and needles up her leg. She closed her eyes and took a step forward.
There was a rustling sound behind her and she turned to see a shadow watching her from the rocks. It ran towards her and as it grew closer, she saw it was a dog, an Australian shepherd with black and white fur markings and pale blue eyes. It barked, a shrill loud noise.
“Shhh,” she said, holding a finger to her mouth.
The dog didn’t have a collar, but she assumed the owner was close behind. The dog barked again, throwing its head back as if gesturing towards her.
Starling glanced down at her ankles in the water and in that moment, her entire body was flooded with realisation. She hopped out of the water, her feet burning from the cold. The dog jumped onto its hind legs, resting muddied paws on her waist.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it. I’m just scared.”
Starling pulled the cardigan back on and put on her shoes. The dog began to whimper.
“What is it now?” Starling said, kneeling to pet the dog. The dog whimpered again. Starling glanced around at the outskirts of the lake and huddled closer to the dog’s soft fur. They were all alone. She almost laughed at the irony of wanting to end her life at the same time as being fearful for it.
Suddenly, the dog lurched forward and ran back over the rocks towards the main road.
“Wait!” She called out, but the dog had already vanished. She didn’t want to be left alone but she didn’t have anywhere else to go.
She crouched down, inches from the edge of the lake, and picked up a black pebble, the edge was jagged like a knife. She pressed it against her finger, but it wasn’t sharp enough to break through the skin. She was defenceless. There was movement on the rocks and Starling looked up, hoping the dog had returned, but this time it was a person.
“There you are,” the voice said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
She recognised the voice immediately. He walked down from the rocks and made his way towards her. Starling knew she should run, but her feet were embedded into the ground like the roots of a tree.
“You’ve been bad,” he whispered, close to her face. His breath was hot and stank of wine. “You did it on purpose.”
Starling tried to explain but all that came out of her mouth was a whimper, like the sound the dog made. Billy grabbed her by the throat and dragged her head to the water’s edge. He pushed her head underneath the water before she had the chance to gasp for air. Ice cold liquid filled her mouth, nostrils, ears and lungs. He pushed her down further until she no longer had the strength to kick or thrash. She gazed up at his reflection through the water, his brow furrowed, his jaw locked and his eyes filled with venom. The man staring back at her was the man she knew before pregnancy. The man she knew would return the instant the baby was pronounced dead. For this was who he was.
Suddenly his grip lessened and his head turned to look behind him. Starling closed her eyes as she floated back up to the top of the water, gasping for air. She could hear the sounds of a dog barking in the distance. When she opened her eyes, Billy was gone.
Someone was holding her, gently this time, cradling her head. An unfamiliar voice called out for help. Starling looked up to see a young man and woman with their dog standing above her. The dog barked as their eyes met. He had come back for her.