He started screaming for help before he even touched the water.
I was sitting beside the icy lake, by myself, trying to get my head straight. When he popped out of the woods on the opposite side, I went still, hoping he wouldn’t notice me. I wanted to be alone. That’s why I came out here on a see-your-breath day. But he saw me anyway. When he did, he got frantic.
“Help,” he cried, his voice breaking as he ran into the lake. He screamed and splashed until he was knee deep, looking at me. Did he expect me to swim over there? To run around the lake for him? I didn’t move, and he retreated to shore.
He kept screaming though, running along the shoreline, closing the space between us. Occasionally, he would dive back into the water, making his way in until he was waist deep, before realizing I wasn’t going to come to his rescue. Then he’d drag his drenched body onto land once again.
I sat quietly on my little cliff a few feet above the lake, hoping he wouldn’t keep coming around. I needed space for my thoughts. I had things I needed to piece together, a life to reassess. A new emptiness in my home and my heart that could only be met with more emptiness.
What did he want anyway? To make me think he was drowning? To get me to try to save him? What would he do if I did? Try to pull me under?
As he got closer and his splashing became wilder, I was certain I noticed spears of malice coming out of his eyes. I had seen this look before from men with their thumbs up alongside the highway, and in the faces of those who walked away from me. How many people had he drowned this way? Well, I was not going to be next. I would not play this ridiculous game.
Neck deep, he waved his arms and bellowed, “Help! Please!” Two words. Just those two words over and over. He went under and then came up, spitting lake water and screaming some more. The act was convincing, almost hypnotic. I felt my weight shifting, as if to stand. He saw it too and almost broke character to smile. Almost. I stayed put, and he eventually made his way back to shore, never losing eye contact with me for more than a second.
He kept moving along the shore, getting closer to where I sat. It wasn’t a big lake. I wished it was. Why didn’t he just quit? Couldn’t he see I wasn’t falling for it?
I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing, but bit back the question. His answer could ensnare me. I refused to give him the opportunity to pull me in with his words. I would sit still and this would pass. Everything would pass.
Soon he reached a point where he couldn’t continue along shore. It was all trees and rock face. That’s why I had picked this spot. No chance of someone casually coming by walking a dog or strolling hand-in-hand with a lover. For a moment, it looked like he might give up. His screaming slowed.
Then he dove into the lake and swam, actually swam, straight for me. He had to skirt spots that had already iced over. I couldn’t imagine how cold the water was. Shivers broke his screams for help, even as he swam confidently toward me.
Ten feet away, he stopped swimming and flailed his arms, bobbing under occasionally, begging for help whenever he popped back up. I stayed still and he paddled closer. The chattering of his teeth punctuated his screams.
I couldn’t tell when his act faded in favor of real panic, but it must have at some point, perhaps when he realized how deep the lake was on this side, even this close to shore. But he wasn’t close to shore now, not really. The precipice I sat on wasn’t high, but high enough to be insurmountable from the water.
The man splashed and screamed. “Help! Please!”
He reached his arm out toward me.
I didn’t take it.
I sat still.
“Help! Please!” Two words. Two more words.
His skin started to go blue, his blood slowing under the influence of the icy water. Still, he kept his arm raised toward me, even when his legs were too frozen to kick, even when he sank under, even when he stopped coming back up.
I didn’t take it.
MP Johnson is the Wonderland Book Award-winning author of Dungeons & Drag Queens and several other books. Her short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Dark Discoveries and many other publications. She is the founder of Weirdpunk Books, the creator of Freak Tension zine and a B-movie extra. Learn more at www.freaktension.com.