Original Works · Short Stories

Winter on the Lake

Author’s Note: I’m not sure why, but I always gravitate towards stories that explore the relationships of women, specifically mother-daughter ones. I think 4/5 stories I’ve written for my creative writing classes have been about that dynamic (so it goes without saying that my classmates are utterly sick of them now. Sorry!). I think by writing these stories I’ve started to feel closer to my own mom, and also my grandma(s), great-grandmas, and etc.

This particular story was written & revised for my ENGL 661 class. It was also written after a winter of reading work by two of my favorite authors: Celeste Ng and Rene Denfeld. I think my writing style here really shows how influenced I was by their books.

 

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To everyone else in the town, Clearwater Lake meant sanctuary. It was where the smell of pine and barbecue mixed, and the Missouri sun rippled in the crystal blue waves. On those precious summer days, the lake and surrounding campgrounds were filled with new campers and boats. Children swam as far as their parents allowed, but dared one another to go a little farther. Mothers braved the water up to their ankles, their stomachs, until finally they disappeared for a moment or two. Their husbands, busy lighting the coals, didn’t notice.

To Angie, Clearwater Lake meant the winter nights of her childhood. Cheap cigarettes and the smell of her first boyfriend’s black hair dye. It meant risking pneumonia and avoiding gang disputes rather than going home. Instead of barbecue, it was the musty smell of her father’s old leather jacket. The only thing she saw rippling in the water was the moon and stars.

Angie hadn’t been to Clearwater Lake since some winter night in 1974. She couldn’t remember why she had stopped going. Probably because her third boyfriend got too handsy, or she couldn’t handle the pain of frost-bitten fingers any longer. Or maybe it was after Rachel White was strangled and left in the water by her boyfriend. Rumor said she stole his last bottle of Jack Daniels.

Now it was the summer of 1992. A rare, 79 degree July afternoon. It would be the first summer day no family would set foot at Clearwater Lake. In fact, they would run from it in fear. Because that was the day Angie returned to the shore, her arms stiff at her sides. It was cloudy, and sweat ran down her back. Neither the sun nor the moon and stars dared to touch the lake’s surface.

The only souls on the water were the police’s. Angie closed her eyes, and listened as they dragged the lake for her daughter.

#              #                #

The first time Calloway disappeared was on her 6th birthday. It was the same day she made a flower crown from the neighbor’s petunias and stole a piece of cake for breakfast. As sugar buzzed through her veins, she snuck out the back door. It took Angie 15 minutes to realize her daughter was gone and 3 more minutes to discover the flower crown at the base of a tree. Later, Calloway would wear her cuts and sores from the tree limbs with pride. After all, she did rescue that poor cat.

The second time was a month later. Angie had refused to buy a jar of sugary cherries at the store, and Calloway carried out her first revenge plan. This entailed sneaking into the storage rooms and promptly falling asleep on the piles of rice sacks. It took Angie thirty-five minutes to realize Calloway was gone, and another twenty to find her.

At the annual state fair, Calloway managed her way into the goat pen. The following year, she took her bike out for a midnight ride and became lost. In 2nd grade, she climbed out a window because “her teacher was horribly boring.” The disappearing acts started to blur together after that.

It was too easy for Angie to blame herself. She wasn’t meant to be a mother. She didn’t look like the mothers who visited the boutiques in the mall, with their straight edged backs and violet manicures. She had found out she was pregnant in the moldy bathroom of a yogurt shop where she once worked. Her cheeks had warmed with shame each time a female customer looked her in the eye. With each disappearance, Angie was reminded about that day in the yogurt shop, the unbearable heat on her face. So one night, after a few too many glasses of wine, she snuck into Calloway’s room and held her. She smelled like strawberry soap and toothpaste.

“What did I do, Calloway? Did I hurt you? Is that why you run away from me?”

Calloway pulled at the ears of her favorite stuffed rabbit. “No.”

“Then why do you do it?”

Calloway was silent for awhile. She looked up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling. Her eyes became lost in them.

“I just like it.”

Angie cried while her daughter slept that night, under the weight of the stars.

The next morning, when Calloway took her bike and headed down the block, Angie didn’t say a word. She was tired of fighting the inevitable. Calloway eventually came home with a melty ice cream cone in her hand.

During those years of acceptance, Angie realized her daughter had magic outside of her disappearing acts. Calloway made daisy chains and paper cranes for the younger girls on their street. She taught Angie how to perfectly hide candy under her sweater at the movie theater. Angie didn’t understand how she, the girl who once spent her nights at Clearwater Lake, could create a person who was nothing like those empty and cold nights.

Angie wanted to give Calloway everything. She built a garden in front of their house to hide the chipped paint and cracked windows. She stopped wearing her hair in ponytails, painted her nails, and made cookies for any schoolmates that decided to stop by. There weren’t many, but Calloway didn’t seem to mind. Angie believed she was finally doing something right.

That all changed after the cargo train incident.

Months before Calloway hitched a ride on the train, a knock came to their door. Angie peered through the peephole. A grayed woman stood on their doorstep with a duffel bag and a few grocery sacks.

Sixteen years had passed since Angie saw her mother, Bonnie. Angie had still been carrying Calloway in her swollen belly. She let her heart warm and burn when she saw Bonnie at the door. She wondered if Bonnie was also tired of the suffocating distance between them. She wondered what made her mother finally want to visit.

Angie quickly learned it was because of a heart attack that had killed Bonnie’s third husband, and the enormous amount of credit card debt now on her shoulders. Angie thought about slamming the door, turning her back, but felt something warm on her arm. Her mother’s hand.

The hand felt the same as it did back when Angie was six, floating on her back in a large, plastic pool. It had been too late for her to be swimming. She felt the water, gray and littered with leaves, surround her. The stars blinked down at her, and she blinked back at them.

Suddenly, Angie wasn’t floating anymore. The gray water had swallowed her up, and it was filling her lungs. She kicked and kicked, but a darkness came over her.

The hands lifted Angie from the water before she was lost forever. Bonnie’s strength was always surprising. Angie heard her mother’s cries when she came out of the darkness. Bonnie screamed and cursed, but she held on tight to Angie, like she was afraid to let go.

Angie couldn’t forget about the moment her mother saved her. Or the rare kisses on the head at bedtime. She couldn’t forget the bruises either, the ones she had known to hide from teachers. With Bonnie, every moment of love was followed by bursts of rage. But no matter how much time had passed, Angie always remembered how the hands felt as they lifted her from the water’s shadows.

Angie looked at that tiny hand, and opened the door to let her mother in.

“Why is she here?” Calloway asked after Bonnie went asleep that night. “Does she want something?”

“Don’t talk about your grandma like that,” Angie said. “She’s here because she wants to get to know you.”

“She smells kind of weird. Have you noticed?”

“She’s had a hard life. She needs our sympathy right now.”

“Yeah, that’s what a crazy, meth-addict needs. Sympathy.”

“Calloway!” The coldness in her daughter’s voice made Angie jump. “What’s wrong with you?”

Calloway shrugged and went upstairs.

As the first weeks went by, Bonnie showed little interest in her granddaughter and spent most of her time watching game shows in the basement. But she noticed Calloway leaving at random times during the day, both noon and night. She scoffed whenever Calloway said goodbye and headed to the door. Calloway looked to Angie when it happened. Angie smiled and offered an encouraging nod.

“That girl is up to something,” Bonnie said one morning after Calloway left. “I got up to pee at one in the morning and there she was, stumbling through the front door like a deadbeat husband.”

“Calloway hates anything to do with alcohol,” Angie said as she washed dishes.

“She smelled like smoke. And her fly was down.”

Angie looked over at her mother. Bonnie poked at a bowl of oatmeal, a scowl growing on her face. When Bonnie was distracted, Angie could sometimes see the woman she used to be. A mother who wore pantyhose, pink dresses, and curled up next to Angie in her crib. But Angie mostly remembered the other woman, the one with sores on her cheeks and patches of missing hair.

“What are you staring at?” Bonnie asked. Angie quickly looked away.

After Bonnie moved in, Calloway retreated more and more into her room. Movie dates and sunset gazing dwindled. Angie’s hands were full with her second job at the gas station to help pay off the debt. But during one afternoon, Angie and Calloway met in the garden. They pulled weeds, drank lemonade, and sat on the porch. Calloway rested her head on Angie’s shoulder. Angie held her daughter’s hand.

Calloway lifted her head and looked at Angie for a moment. She opened her mouth, but no words came out.

“What is it, honey?” Angie said.

Calloway looked away. “I don’t know. I think I’m just tired.” She put her head back on her mother’s shoulder.

“Me too.” Angie yawned and closed her eyes. She had worked two shifts the day before.

The following night, Angie went upstairs to find a paper crane resting on her dresser. On another day, she found a daisy chain hanging from her car’s rearview mirror. She smiled and kept the cranes and daisy chain where they were.

Bonnie and Angie were eating breakfast when the police called to notify them that Calloway had illegally hitched a ride on a cargo train. Bonnie watched silently as Angie lost control of her breathing, took two valium, and wiped her teary eyes. An hour road trip ensued.

“She always comes back. And she’s never left town before.” Angie rubbed her eyes and looked for the next exit.

“I don’t understand it at all.” The wrinkles on Bonnie’s face stiffened in disgust. “And you don’t even ask where she goes! She could be in a gang for all you know, hanging out in alleys or that goddamn lake. I would’ve never let you be that stupid under my roof.”

Angie opened her mouth to speak but stopped. She felt sixteen again, sneaking out of a window and running to her boyfriend’s car. She always ran even though there was no one to chase her, or yell at her to come back. One night, as she dipped her feet and ankles in the icy lake, she imagined her mother driving up and telling her to go back home. But her mother didn’t come, and her boyfriend pushed her into the water. She had pneumonia for a week.

“Calloway’s not up to anything bad. She’s a free spirit, that’s all,” Angie finally said.

“She’s a brat,” Bonnie said. Angie kept her focus on the road.

Angie sighed when she saw Calloway through the police station’s window. The palms of her hands and her jeans were covered in dark soot from the train. To Angie’s relief, the police officer had let her off with a warning. Angie thanked the officer and turned to hug her daughter, but Calloway was already out the door, her auburn hair dancing around her shoulders. Angie watched as Calloway climbed into the back seat of the car and frowned. It was a perfect mirror image of Bonnie’s perpetual scowl. A chill went through Angie as she left the station.

The three women in the car remained silent. Angie could tell Bonnie wanted her to say something. She focused on the road but felt her mother’s eyes boring into her. Angie saw Bonnie also staring at Calloway in the rearview mirror. Angie deeply regretted bringing her along.

“This is ridiculous,” Bonnie said at last. “There’s a pit stop up ahead. Pull over.” Angie hesitated but did what her mother asked.

Calloway got out of the car first. “Great, I need a bathroom.”

“Not so fast,” Bonnie called after her. “We’re not going anywhere until you apologize.”

Calloway raised her eyebrows. “Why?”

“You gave your mother a panic attack, that’s why. Also, I’d like to know where you go off to every day and night. Why don’t you tell us?”

Angie debated on stepping in, to stop this from happening, but part of her wanted to see what Calloway would say. Calloway just shook her head.

Angie saw Bonnie tilt her head slightly and examine Calloway. Sizing her up. “You’re a selfish little bitch, aren’t you?”

Angie’s chest constricted. Each of Bonnie’s words struck a familiar cord in her chest. Stop this, end this now, the voice inside her begged.

Calloway held Bonnie’s gaze. “At least I’m not a free-loading, old cow.”

The punch came too fast for Angie to react. The next thing she knew, Calloway was falling to the ground. Drops of blood splattered onto the sidewalk.

“Your mother might think you’re perfect, but I know better.” Bonnie cracked her knuckles and got back into the passenger’s seat.

Angie was on her knees, cradling her daughter’s head in her arms. Calloway’s eyes looked around, dazed. The blood from her nose dripped down her chin.

“Are you okay? Did you hit your head?” Angie’s voice came out in quick, panicked breaths.

“Get off.” Calloway sat up and placed a hand over her nose. The blood ran between her fingers. Her cheeks were wet with dirt and tears. “You didn’t say anything. How could you not say anything?”

Angie touched her daughter’s face and studied the growing bruise on her upper cheek. Her skin was pale, her eyes covered by an icy cold. Angie could not stop glancing at the blood on the sidewalk, and the black soot on Calloway’s hands. She wanted to scrub it all away, make everything clean again. She wanted to tell her daughter how much she understood that pain growing on her cheek, but her voice was stuck inside her throat.

She let Calloway grow tired of waiting. They broke apart, like water rushing away from land, and returned to the car. Bonnie was waiting for them, amusement pulling at the corners of her mouth.

That night, in the darkness of her bedroom, Angie listened to the floorboards creak. Light flooded the bedroom and disappeared again. The thin silhouette of her daughter sat at the end of the bed. She had her backpack and suitcase, the one with the stars on it. She said nothing, and stared at something across the room. Angie pulled her blanket up to her chin, suddenly feeling cold.

In that moment, Angie was angry. She was angry at herself for being a coward, for not holding her daughter closer when she sat on the sidewalk, dirty and bloody. She was angry at her mother and her calloused fists. She hated every little mistake and wrong turn that brought them to this moment. But she couldn’t ignore the part inside her that felt angry at Calloway, too. The part that cried every time she left, and forced a smile when she returned.

Angie turned on her side and closed her eyes. She pretended not to hear the door open and close.

She didn’t do anything when she saw Calloway’s empty bed the next day. It was best to give her daughter some space. It would be much easier to talk about what happened when she returned.

Three days came and went. Angie found herself looking out the window. Just a little while longer, she told herself.

A week passed. Rain had fallen the night before. She picked up the landline, but put it down when Bonnie walked in.

Two more days. Why would she even want to come back here?

Five more days. Bonnie made a comment at dinner about renting out Calloway’s room to pay off the debt. Angie, in a blind rage, threw all of Bonnie’s things in the front yard.

Another week was gone. Angie found her old leather jacket in the back of the closet. She put it on, and fell asleep on the couch.

A blur of time passed. She ran out of valium and wine.

And then, on the last day, Angie picked up the landline and called the police. They couldn’t understand her at first, because of the crying. But eventually they came, armed with questions and their critical gazes.

It took Angie a month to report her daughter as missing, an official runaway. It would be another four before the police would find their first lead. During a drug bust, they discovered a starry suitcase buried in the dirt at Clearwater Lake. It was only a few feet away from a pile of cigarettes and a daisy chain.

#      #       #

Angie closed her eyes tighter. The distant humming of the police boats fell away.

They had wanted to know how the suitcase got there. Why it was in the dirt, and who put it there. Angie grasped for answers, but she had none. She couldn’t name friends or boyfriends. She didn’t understand how it could have got there, of all places, filled with Calloway’s clothes and wallet.

They just stared at her. They frowned at her leather jacket and unbrushed hair. They asked again how many times Calloway ran away. To them, she was a mother who couldn’t pull her child out from the darkness.

A cool breeze passed by. Angie brushed wisps of hair away, and wrapped her arms around herself. She could hear the police boats coming closer.

The wind brought memories back to Angie. She remembered being pushed into the water after too many beers, or the unexpected punches from drunk boyfriends. They didn’t happen often, as long as she stayed quiet. The girlfriends who couldn’t were hit again and again, or dragged by their ankles into the lake. And of course, there was Rachel White. They said when she had been pulled from the lake her skin was a mosaic of black and blue.

Angie knew she had missed something, just like her own mother had. Calloway had tried to show her, but she missed it.

How long had Calloway been waiting for Angie to bring her home?

Someone walked by, brushing against Angie’s shoulder. A faraway voice said something, but she couldn’t make it out.

There were parts of Calloway that were cold and selfish, Angie realized that now. She was the daughter who could walk out and not look back. The daughter who didn’t hear her mother’s cries in the night. Maybe she was even the girl who ran away to the lake.

But to Angie, Calloway was still the six year old climbing a tree to rescue a mangy cat. The girl who mixed her M&Ms with popcorn. The young woman who wouldn’t back down, and refused to be ashamed.

That was why Calloway couldn’t be in the lake. She just couldn’t be.

They would start over. Calloway wouldn’t have to be the daughter who ran away anymore. And Angie wouldn’t be the mother who let her. They could start over, if they were just given the chance.

“Ma’am?” An officer was beside her. Someone, in the distance, was calling.

She opened her eyes.

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