The pine trees whistle and whisper as dusklight dapples along the lake's surface. Crows and ravens reel and roil overhead, and the air is crisp, clean -- lonely. Just the way I like it.
Don't go to Slivensmere Lake, they all tell me, but where the hell else am I going to go to get away? Away from the family drama, toxic boss, sexist workmates, endless scrolling through a maudlin mobile marketplace of personal history I never asked anyone to sell me away on?
Sometimes, I want to be free so much, all I can do is scream.
Rowing to the lilting heart of the lake, lyrical in stillness, has taken the better part of an hour. God, so worth it though.
Blankets in the boat, I can lay down, stare up at the rusty sky, spark up, smoke on. Drift. Forget.
The sun swings low now through a blissful silence, and I finally sit up and shuffle to the edge of the boat. The lake's mirror-still, motionless, and through scruffy black hair and tired eyes stares the girl from Hong Kong who tried and failed.
What can I do but escape? What's all the effort been for? You spend so long trying to make your way in the world, you never remember asking if it's worth the cost of entry.
Which is apparently fifty grand and a shit degree, last I checked.
Huh. Weird. As an icy breeze bites across my back, I realise I'm... smiling? No. Patting my cheeks, they're flaccid as Ryan was, and just as unappealing. I'm not smiling. But damn, my reflection in the lake looks like it is...
It's that shit-eating get-my-way grin I used to be so damn good at, before the world beat me half to death with my own optimism. Crows encircle my head in the water like a devil's halo, black and shifting. I smirk. That's baller.
Wait. Was it the smoke, or... did my reflection not smirk too?
There's something about this water. Beyond the reflections of twilight, birds and me, it's now inky-black. In the low light -- surely, only because of the low light -- it seems as though snakes and tendrils of sordid some such are snaking beneath the surface.
Christ. Need to stop smoking this shit.
Sensing my unease, my reflection winks at me. I practically slap my own face double-handed to check if my eyes did that.
I'm shaking -- almost convulsing. You get that feeling sometimes, don't you? That feeling you're taking part in something far larger, far smarter than yourself. A bulb of dread and lurid fascination is slipping down my spine.
Throat swelling with trepidation, I hunch over. Left elbow meets the boat's edge, right hand stretches out towards the water. To my utmost relief, my reflection is matching the motion perfectly.
Shit. What am I doing? It's my damn reflection, what am I expecting to happ--
Flesh. Skin, warm and dry, touching mine as I reach out. Tremulous ripples seethe across the still water as my hand brushes the fingertips of my reflection. It's looking at me. Smiling at me.
For a scrabble of seconds that lasts a lifetime, we sit, leaning off two boats, touching fingertips, staring at one another. I realise I should see the sky behind me -- behind her -- but I can't. It's all writhing black beneath the water.
Without a word, our fingers interlock, closing around the frame of one another's hands, fusing tight in a silent oath of acceptance.
I don't know what's going on. Ravens whirl above me. Bleak things stir below.
She needs to get out. Pinpricks of light in her dark eyes, glinting beneath the water, tell me it's all she can think about.
I pull. I wait for the triumphant trail of her arm to slide up from the lake -- the shoulder, the head, the relief as she clambers and slumps onto the boat with me. It doesn't come.
I tug back hard, so hard I roll onto my back in the boat. There's a sense of movement, yet nothing seems to come. A sense of... weightlessness? Tumbling? Turning about oneself with a gentle drift, so far back that I wait for the water to crash against my head and see the sky swoop by my shoes.
A glance at my hand. Empty. Shit -- I must have let go! She's still in there!
Sparked with panic, spiced with fear, I fly at the boat's edge, hands slamming down to sweep my face at the lake. It's...
Calm. Completely calm. A dusky sky above, with crows churning and turning. Fir trees, soft autumn winds, and me. Sitting in my boat, smiling.
Shit. I am not smiling right now.
"Who are you?" I demand. No response. My hands dart into the water, and come out dry, empty, freezing. The sky's above, the trees surround me, the lake is still. I felt like I rolled so far backwards to help the girl underwater that I fell in the lake... but I'm bone-dry. Everything looks fine.
Enough of this. I'm rowing to shore.
Should it be...taking this long? After what feels like a couple of hours, I flop back exhausted. Bones like lead and arms ablaze, I lean over the side of my boat.
My reflection is gone. In fact, she's rowing to shore without me. Heart thudding, I try to follow, hands like blisters, last of my strength burning at every stroke.
She drifts serenely away. Tears begin boiling in the back of my eyes as I realise something has gone very, very wrong. The vague shape of my reflection traces a tranquil trail across the water's surface.
Watching the bottom of a boat depart across the water without you is hauntingly bizarre.
I scowl. Screw it. Holding my breath, I dunk my head through the surface of the lake, waiting for the shrill grace of cold water and muffled ears.
It never comes. Instead, I'm somehow peering out of the lake as though I've put my face through a mirror and out the other side -- like the lake's surface is a sheet between two identical worlds.
And my reflection has rowed ashore, wandering cheerfully away in this one. Leaving me behind in this strange, twisted twinscape.
Too furious and confused to wonder why I've smashed my head through a lake and am still completely dry, I begin calling. Shouting. Screaming. Waving. Does no good.
Frayed beyond madness, I slide over the side of my boat like a seal and try to swim. I somehow curl and twirl through the eyeblink of an abyss until I'm sitting in the rowboat again.
Something begins to nibble at the back of my brain. A notion that tells me I'm not leaving this lake any time soon. An idea ferments that whatever this other me is, I've played right into its hands.
Time tells the truth, as it always does, and no amount of my scrambling and screaming gets me anywhere but on the boat, on the lake, in an eternal twilight. The crows wheel, the firs rustle, the lake shimmers. All is still, all is silent. I'm alone.
Just like I wanted. Fate has a way of twisting our tricks against us.
It's impossible to tell how long I've been here. I never starve. I cannot drown -- there isn't actually a body of water to sink into. I row or swim through an infinite murk, and if I try to travel without the boat long enough, I just somehow find it again. I climb back in. What else can I do?
Phone died long ago. Never any signal anyway. I lie on my back and watch the crows. I sit by the water and see it ripple. It only sometimes occurs to me I'm supposed to have a reflection and now don't. I'm numbed to absolution by the grasp of this place.
Funny. I thought that's how I felt about my real life. And here's the kicker -- one final trick whoever this lady of the lake is plays on me, whenever the mood takes her.
Sometimes the water moves, shifts, undulates. It shows me things. Stare into it long enough and it's like a mist of black vines parts, and I can see a reflection. Or more, out of a reflection. Any time this... other me, this escaped one of I, any time she's in front of a reflection, I see her. I can watch her in the world I'm no longer part of.
And she knows.
She taunts me with it. Eating in front of the microwave glass door nonchalantly, knowing I'll never taste food again for eternity. Mirrors angled just so in what was once my bedroom for whenever she's intimate, knowing I'll never so much as sense another person ever again. She looks into my toilet, smirking down at me as she flushes. There's nothing I can do about it, and never will be.
Sometimes, I want to be free so much, all I can do is scream.