The Other End of the Lake

The Other End of the Lake
by Dara Marquardt

I don’t remember much about my death. I don’t even think of it very often. At first, it was all I could think of, but that only lasted a little while. Now, I know that I’m dead. There’s no sense rehashing it.

What I really recall is the white. Sometimes I think about it as I watch him sleep. I think of the blinding white light and wonder if that’s where heaven comes from. There were slices of light that night, and they remain sharp, like cut stone. The white of headlights dancing off the rim of the steering wheel. The scattered diamonds of rain on the windshield. The wipers as they scrape against glass. The chrome door handle shining as I put the key in the lock. The glow of the stereo as I turned the knob.

I remember looking at Jane. She was burning as she sat by the hospital bed. She was burning as she’d burned in a field of golden green the first time I saw her. Her mouth a clever smile, her eyes like two secrets, her skin like white honey. She was beautiful then, with her blonde hair down and tree shadows hiding the edges of her cheeks. And she was beautiful in that T-shirt she slept in, sweatpants on, our daughter on her lap.

She was beautiful when I died. I don’t think I’ll forget that.

It was hard at first, to look at things. Everything was very bright. Jane, maybe because I loved her, love her still, was the brightest. But our daughter was bright, too. I remember wanting, needing, to reach out and touch her cheek. To feel the fine strands of her brown hair. To be near her. To feel the warmth of the light burning through her.

I remember raising my hand to brush away the strings of pearl-sized tears shimmering down Jane’s face, when Angie started crying. I withdrew my hand, amazed at the sound, the sound coming from her toothy mouth. I remember the pain of each of those teeth. I remember the sticky feel of teething gel as I rubbed it on her gums. I remember the weight of her warm, snuggly body in the crook of my arm as I fried eggs at four in the morning. I remember how she looked when she took her first breath.

I did not reach for her again.

When my wife and daughter left the hospital room, the light went with them. And when the light came again, I could no longer find them.

Now I am too weak to look. And if I found them, I think Angie would cry.

This boy, I found him by accident. Really, I found him when he carried the flowers. Tiger lilies. A full, bursting orange bouquet of tiger lilies. They were so big they spilled over his arms like tangerine jewels, tiny grains of pollen fluttering to his heels.

He was following his mother and I followed him. They went to a room down a very long hall and I waited in the doorway, unsure of the gray man lying in bed. Did he look gray to them? Could they see the gray looming, not outside him like a caul, but from within him like a pulse? I could. I could.

I stood in the doorway, the scent of tiger lilies strong and high, watching as the boy put the flowers in a plastic cup, and his mother sat in a chair and held the gray man’s hand.

The mother was bright, but not as bright as Angie and nowhere near as bright as Jane. But she had a little light. It flickered off her rings when she combed her fingers through her hair. It shined off her teeth when she talked. It spilled from her lips like Angie’s startled cry when I reached to touch her. Her voice was the sound of a quiet ribbon drawn through silver hoops.

The boy had light, too.

When they left the room, I followed. I followed through the hall. We passed other gray people, some in wheelchairs, some leaning on IV poles as they took cautious steps in apple red non-skid slippers. Some wore doctor badges and others wore the crisp attire of nurses. The fluorescent tubes suspended above us like a glass intestinal tract seemed to dim things instead of illuminating them. They buzzed inside my head.

I think it was then that I realized I was fading. I was soaking into the linoleum floors like dirt into porous grout. I was folding into the cinder-block walls like dew slipping into the tiny mouths of flat leaves. Soon I would be nothing. I would be the carbon in the paint. I would be the water running down the cold, aluminum drains. I would cease.

Outside was overwhelming. It was a chaotic twist of colors and gray, of streaks of shadow and trembles of movement. I tried to look all around all at once, my eyes bulging and thoughts disjointed. I barely made it to their car. I felt not a sense of relief when the boy hopped in the backseat and closed the door, but a sense of stalled obliteration. He played a handheld game and laughed.

The mother drove and the boy wore his seatbelt. They talked a little, but I can’t say what it was about. I closed my eyes because the city scared me. It was like no city I had ever seen. All the happenings happened too fast. Pedestrians seemed to jet from corner to corner, streetlights flickered like idiot strobes, the cars growled and grinned.

And the boy radiated with light.

I wanted to put my hand on his. To be near that light. To feel its warmth and in it know the ache of breath in pink lungs. To know the firing crash of synapses snapping in the brain. To feel the roll of a tongue across the jagged pickets of teeth as the mouth made words.

But I did not. I was still too afraid. Afraid, maybe, that he would cry like Angie had cried. That I would see not the mother jerking in her seat, twisting her neck to see what was wrong with her son, but Jane clutching Angie, clutching our daughter as if her mother’s arms held her back from the edge of a frothing abyss.

The abyss is me.

It’s when I sit next to him on the swing set out back that I think of all the things I did. Sometimes it feels I did so many things that I did nothing at all. I answered phone calls and sent emails. I took home paychecks and I bought groceries. I worked on the car when it needed it and I drank beer when I didn’t want it. There were too many nights I fell asleep without kissing my wife goodnight. There were too many mornings when I was cranky without reason. There were good things, too, and I’d like to say I long for them now.

I long for the edges of Jane’s T-shirt dancing against her thighs as she made breakfast on Saturdays. I long for the feel of her hair brushing against my face as we sat on a bench at the park and watched Angie toddle around the seesaw. I miss the smooth feel of Angie’s baby feet against my cheeks as I pretended to eat her toes.

And I do miss these things. But I miss the light more. I miss the light more.

Sometimes when I lie on the boy’s floor as he dreams in his bed, tucked under the quilt of Spiderman, his nightlight glowing—but duller than he glows—I wonder if this is hurting him. I wish I could say this thought worries me, but it does not.

His eyes seem darker. His skin seems lighter. He plays at his friends’ houses less often. He regularly picks at his dinner, shifting it around his plate like front-loaders shift dirt mounds at elaborate construction sites.

I wonder if the boy is dying.

His mother is edgy. Twice in the past week, she yelled at him in the morning, once with only one side of her face made up. For a moment, she was a monster with half a face, one half painted with a perfect mask, the other naked and ugly. I think the boy was afraid.

I wonder if he can feel me sitting on the swing next to him. He comes outside most days, as if the fall sunlight will magically invigorate him, like he’s a misfiring solar cell, just on the verge of collecting the charge he so desperately needs.

I’ve begun to share my sleep with him. That’s how I think of it. I’m not entirely sure what we’re doing, but he and I are together in the depths of his dreams.

In all of them, we are standing on opposite sides of a mirror-calm lake. The water is the gray steel of northern rain in cold winter. It is the gunmetal color of my car before it went off the road. It is the calm on Jane’s face as the doctor’s sliced her uterus open and pulled from her body our Angela June.

There is a wind in this dream and the dust is heavy and thick. From my side of the lake, I can see his hair blow. I can see the brown of his eyes shine. I can feel the warmth coming from his skin and I want to walk across the water.

I was unsure if he recalled these dreams. Today, I got my answer. I follow him to school now. I close my eyes on the school bus because the city still scares me. I’ll never get used to it. Not like this. Ginny Porter shoots him worried glances and tucks her elbows into her ribs when he walks by. She doesn’t seem to like him, but when I first met the boy, he shared a package of chocolate covered pretzels with her at recess. Twice.

The teacher calls on him, but her mouth is pinched when she says his name. Sometimes he looks out the window for a long time. Sometimes he stays in his seat after the lunch bell rings. Once, he made a mess in his pants and wept in the bathroom until someone came to look for him. I’m not sure, but I think the school called his mother.

Today he drew me. I’m guessing it was me. I recognized the lake. He’s a very talented artist.

For our second wedding anniversary, Jane bought me a hat. It was more of a joke than anything, and it pleased her to the moon when I actually wore it. I don’t think I took it off that entire summer. It was tan with a black band around it, an old-timey fedora she found at one of the thrift stores where she was always spending our “fun cash.” A red feather tucked into the end of it, just like an old-fashioned gangster. I wore it cocked over my left eye. I remember her wearing it a few times. That and nothing else.

The boy drew the lake. He used three shades of blue and three shades of gray to get the water just right. The edges of it were crisp in our dream and crisp in his drawing. In his artwork, I cannot see him. I can see only me. I stand at the end of the lake. I am tall, as I always was. My shoulders are like two slabs of black clay. In his art, I am a shadow. I wear a tilted hat with a red feather tucked into the brim.

I feel as if I’m shrinking. Growing not thinner, but smaller. I feel sometimes, usually in the crisp silence of late, late night, that I am small enough to be ingested, that the boy, if he breathes deep enough, might lift me from my spot on the floor and take me into his lungs, take me into the light. My mind tingles with this and I lay silently, willing it to happen. Waiting on the cold, unforgiving wood of his bedroom floor while he sleeps beneath his blanket, for him to inhale me. To breathe me. To induct me into the light that I cannot stop craving.

Sometimes at night, I run my fingers against the mop of his hair. Sometimes thoughts of Angie try to invade then. I think of her as an infant, waking for no reason from the warm nest of her crib, her mouth a red inferno, screams echoing off the yellow walls. I think of her then, my tiny infant daughter, glowing with light. And if these thoughts will not retreat, I lie down again because I am too ill with a mix of unease and sheer starvation to do anything else.

When I sleep, it is deep and cumbersome. It’s like a heavy coat on a warm summer night. It cloys but it protects, and I feel myself standing on my end of the lake. This is a lake I can reach only in these deep dreams. It is a lake the boy has come to, but I don’t know how he found it. In this place, we are alone and the world is a black fist. We are two creatures trapped in a stint.

The dust is less and less each time I dream. The night is poked with needles and the veins of the universe hemorrhage gold. I can see him standing on his end. I can see him with the orange bouquet of tiger lilies in his arms. I think when the dust clears, I might be able to walk across the water. I might be able to walk across it.

The boy’s mother took him to the doctor. When they pricked his arm, he bled. They checked his iron levels. They listened to the beautiful drum of his heart. I worry for him. I held his hand. I think he held mine back.

There was no school today, so the boy went on a walk. His street is quiet. An old couple lives on the corner and he waved to them, but no one else said hello. We went to a culvert that runs below a street two blocks from his house. It was grassy and stiff with chill. The trees are all nearly bare; only the evergreens are still vibrant. The boy saw a rabbit. It was gray and thin, its eyes like two black rocks.

The sparkle in its eyes was like tiny candles burning in a cave. I think that’s why he killed it. I watched him bury the corpse in the dirt. He covered it with a fast food wrapper. I wish I felt bad about this, but I don’t.

The walk exhausted me. Tomorrow, there will be school again. We will ride the bus together. I will sit by him—none of the other kids sit near him anymore. His shoelaces will click when the bus goes over bumps. His bag is bare, but on him, it looks heavy. I will close my eyes when we drive through the city because I’m still afraid of all of its monstrous colors and painful speeds. But the boy is not.

I lie on the rug near him, willing myself to shrink, to be small enough to go inside. Thoughts of Jane rocking Angie push at me. I push them back. They remind me of the times we left Angie’s room, sleepy and tired, haggard and exhausted, as she settled and we closed the door. These thoughts shove at me and in my ears, there is still an echo of her startled cry. I shove them back.

When I dream, I dream of the lake. I dream of the boy. Somehow only a thread of him is left. The thread. The white rod burning inside him. The boy on the other end of the lake is beautiful and pure and full and new. He is solid and unblemished. All of the vestiges and worry and pettiness have been wiped away, much like winter’s first harsh snowfall will strip the land of its superficial marks. He stands with tiger lilies in his hand. Tiny grains of pollen flutter from their orange tips. The needle holes mar the ink of night, golden spires slipping into the sky like a shy universe.

The wind has settled. The night is clear. I adjust my hat and take the first step. I discover the water and it’s solid—solid enough to walk across.

Copyright © 2015 Dara Marquardt