Lake Break by Christian Niedan

It’s a quiet Wednesday afternoon in late winter, and the dark water of a long lake is trapped beneath bright shimmering ice. Above it, thick gray clouds hang low, diffusing the sunlight across a frozen expanse that stretches out from shore a good three hundred feet, before giving way to dark open water that ripples when the sky sends down a chilly wind that rolls low and fast across the ice. It reaches shore and meets a lightly wooded hillscape, then gusts upward over sloping backyard lawns to reach the houses perched above. One of those houses belongs to a middle-aged man, who leaves it now, stepping out from a sliding glass door, and descending a few hundred feet down past two terraced levels of his own sloping lawn, until he reaches a dozen old concrete steps built into the base of the hill and, finally, his small lakeside shoreline–complete with a twenty foot-long concrete dock. He puts his bare hands in the pockets of his jeans, and strolls in sneakers out to the end of the dock. The cold lake wind blows against the thin warmth of his long sleeve shirt beneath a half-zipped windbreaker. He wears no hat. No need. This is a short trip to the shore for a bracing breath of air, before he returns inside to a few household projects he’s working at on his day off. He stands alone now at the end of the concrete dock, and feels the wind on his face, imagining each gust thickening the lake water’s wintertime prison, making the ice strong enough to hold the weight of his six foot tall, two hundred-plus pound body. He has walked the ice here many times, and feels he’s a good judge of what it will hold. So, impulsively, he decides to extend his outdoor breather, and steps down from the dock, twelve inches to the ice below. A few short steps, and he’s five feet out. He wants to go further, but holds a moment, listening to the distant whirring of landscaper chainsaws cutting through tree branches, the sound echoing out from nearby properties. Yet, there are no people to be seen on the shoreline behind him. On weekends, that shore is crowded with neighbors. But during the middle of the week, there’s only tranquil… peaceful… isolation. He takes a deep… happy… breath… and the ice gives way beneath him. Later, he remembers that new breath being knocked out of his lungs, and a sudden swirling darkness all around. He stays down a few moments, as his shoes, and socks, and jeans, and shirt absorb icy water. When he bobs up, he sees the dock beyond the edges of his small opening in the ice. It seems higher and farther away than it should. He reaches his arms out, so as to climb atop the ice, but finds no grip, and his slick windbreaker-body slides swiftly back into the water. This time he lets himself sink, expecting his feet to touch the lake bed seven feet down. When he feels the crunch of sand and stones, he pushes off with all his strength, so as to launch himself out of the water in one burst. Instead, his shoulder strikes the under edge of the ice hole, breaking through, but keeping his body waterlogged. He shouts in pain, but no one hears him. Now, his mind falls back on more primal instincts. With his good arm, he begins dropping vicious elbow strikes, breaking a path through the five feet of ice between him and the dock. Each strike hurts, and it takes two or three hits to break through. Hit, pain… Hit, pain… Hit, pain… Finally, he reaches the dock, puts both arms atop the cold concrete edge, and with one great soggy heave, pulls himself from the broken icy muck of the lake water. He’s on his stomach, then he’s on his back, then he rolls a few times to get distance from the lake. He can barely hear the sound of chainsaws now, his shocked eardrums making him half deaf. His eyes are wide open. The gray clouds above swirl faster and faster. The wind kicks up. It hits his body, and his whole skin shudders. He tries to shout, but can only gasp silent breaths. Its a strange, familiar feeling. Each day off, when he completes his mandatory two-mile jog, sometimes he will run full-out the last minute. His lungs heave then, like they do now… he hasn’t run like that in a while. Now, he rolls onto his stomach, plants his hands into the grit of the concrete dock, and pushes himself to his feet. He stands and shakes in the chilly breeze… only a moment… then instinct pushes him, and he staggers toward the old hillside stairs. He reaches the first step, and begins to climb as fast as he can… too fast. His toe catches the last top step, and he collapses to his knees on the hard ground. The winter snow is gone, but the dirt is hard, and his knees begin to sprout bruises. No matter. He’s back on his feet, moving forward again. He reaches the terraced lawns, and finds himself leaning against the wood retaining walls. He slides past them. His equilibrium is off, and as he leaves the support of the second wall, he nearly falls again, but catches himself against wood planters full of dark dead winter dirt. The stairs of his house’s back porch are a few feet to his right, and he eyes them longingly for a moment… then pushes away from the planters. His feet churn sideways, and he catches the stair banisters, keeps his feet moving, and chugs up the steps, then forward to the sliding glass door he emerged from only minutes ago. He grips the handle and flings the door open, the portal flying down the track, and striking the end wall with a shuddering thud. He steps into an empty storeroom, and hears the indoor echo of his sneakers squishing out cold dark lake water onto white wall-to-wall carpeting. No time to worry. He sloshes across the bare-walled room, turns through its only doorway, and moves down a carpeted hallway, passing stocked pantries and cozy guest rooms, and on and on down to the hall’s final open door–and its reveal of a tiled bathroom, with one great treasure: a corner bathtub with a shower. His body shakes with anticipation, and he boils up enough energy to begin tearing off his soggy windbreaker, and shirt, and sneakers, and jeans, and underwear, and socks. He flings and kicks them aside, climbs in the tub and pounces on its faucets–hammering down the hot water side, while force of habit reminds him to balance it with a very small dose of the cold side. He pulls the pin on the tub’s faucet head, and the shower head ignites, the water hitting his skin with an initial burst of cold that makes him silently scream. Soon, though, the temperature rises, his shivering subsides, and he leans sideways against the tiled wall, closing his eyes, as the steam fills his nose, mouth, throat, lungs… his body begins to shake again. Not shivering. Worse. His head begins to throb with dizziness. The strength in his legs leaves, and he slides down the shower wall to his knees–fresh bruises shooting dull pain up his legs. For a few moments, he kneels naked in a few inches of hot shower water… then passes out, and collapses forward, his head barely missing the tub’s faucet, his unseeing eyes looking at a plugged-up drain, the tub’s hot water rising toward his nose and mouth… He doesn’t remember how long he was out. But he does recall waking with a snort of bathtub water, stopping it from gushing down his throat, and into his lungs. He coughs, and throws his head back… too quickly, and strikes the under faucet, bruises the back of his scalp and sends his face back under the steaming hot tub water. Instinct takes over again, and he slowly lifts his head, then shoulders, then arms up and over the bathtub’s open side, his mouth gasping in the steamy air, feeling it cascade down into his greedy lungs. Slowly… painfully… he pulls his body over the tub edge, and falls onto the smooth, cool tile floor. He lies there, his head throbbing, the sound of the shower like a chainsaw. Above him, a bright… round… fluorescent light shines behind swirling clouds of warm steam. The middle-aged man thinks, “Thank fucking god nobody knows about this.”

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