My eyes follow the stream of grayscale microbursts flickering on the surface of the lake, a lunar ballet performance upon a chilled oil pool. A cloud of moths and flies hums around the lantern on the dock floor in a choreographed orbit. This place is certainly not what it used to be; Dad and I used to frequent this lake for our weekend getaways, and we’d sit with our feet in the water talking about different things – like how the patch of honeysuckles on the water’s edge made the air so sweet and how well Mom was doing in physical therapy since the accident. But Dad died of lung cancer three years ago, and four days after that Mom was found in her room hanging from the wooden frame of that beautiful canopy bed I bought her for her fiftieth birthday. She said it made her feel like an angel resting in a cloud.
Suddenly, a little voice sounded from below, followed by a gentle tug on my arm. “Jenny? Where are they?
Shit. Little Joey never forgets anything, like his father I suppose. The only way to get the young boy out of my ex’s house was to prod his fascination with birds – how else was I to break an eight-year-old away from his home? The deal was that I would take him to see a real swan for the first time, and in exchange he would keep me company on our walk down there. He was reluctant until I mentioned how much more beautiful the birds were in person than the silhouette of a flock painted on his baby blue ceiling.
Noticing only a black owl perched atop the rotting skeleton of a tree, I improvise. “They’re here, Joey. You just can’t see them.” I usher him forward. “Come on! I bet we can get a better view of them when we’re closer.”
Our footsteps crunched and cracked the blanket of dead leaves that covers the ground as we make our way to the bank. The sounds of night grew louder and more melancholic as we walked away from the forest and closer to the dark lake; the song washed away the bliss and serenity of the scene, reviving an eerie ambiance of pestilence and desolation. The owl jumped from her rotten throne and flapped heavily above, her bulky frame casting a large shadow over the land until finally vanishing into the dark.
Joey sticks his finger in the water and shivers. “Wow! That’s really cold,” he exclaims. “See, Jenny?” He drowns my hand, sending a tremble down my spine. But it’s not the freezing water that gives me chills – it was his touch.
Since he was born, I have always hated Joey even though I’ve never shown it. And it wasn’t Joey that I really hated; he was just the poor soul that was thrown into this world as a result of his dad’s adultery. In between sorry and it’s not you it’s me, James thought I’d be relieved to know how he would never be good for me, and that Dotte was a better match for him – the same Dotte who had been my dad’s physician when the cancer was beating him. The nerve!
My body is shaking now, and sweat starts to bead on my face. Memories of when I was watching James and Dotte play with Joey in the park danced in my mind – oh, how that little tot giggled as his father took him in his arms and tossed him in the air. The boy was innocent; how could I know James and Dotte were going to be out and Joey was to be left at home with a sitter as I appeared in their driveway prepared to kill them all? I admit I considered that what I was doing was insane as I strangled the sitter outside, but what would that achieve? All that would do is bring them closer together. No, I have to hurt James just as he had hurt me with his cold words the night he shattered my life.
Joey opens his mouth as if he was going to giggle and tell me how funny I look, but I don’t give him the chance. I grip a handful of his curly brown hair and shove his face in the lake. His writhing body jerks side to side, struggling for air, but I only push him deeper. His little hands scratch at my forearm and search for something to grasp for support. It’s funny, the survival instinct; it would push little Joey to fight at whatever cost until all hope of living was drained from him as his lungs fill with water.
It takes me a while to realize Joey has given up, that I was now holding a lifeless child in the uncomfortably tranquil water, as I was too focused on the shocking sight before me: in the center of the lake were three white swans shooting a judgmental, distressed glare at me behind empty eyes of charcoal. The largest of the flock sheds a tear and bows his head, before I let Joey go and turn to walk back to the car.
When I get into the car, I look back at the lake and see no trace of the swans or of Joey – there isn’t even a ripple in the water. The black owl, sure enough, is back at her perch, however, and her sneering scowl reassures me that my work is far from finished.