/ Montanna Harling (Writer), Zhilin Li (Illustrator)
Fiction — 16 min reading time
The lake was most beautiful during the in-between times. At the cool hush of just before dawn, when the ducks glided silently across the still water, trailing soft ripples, the entire world seemed to drift along with them. Now, at dusk, it was nearly as beautiful as dawn, the water lit silver from a fading sun and the pine trees a fragrant green smudge on the opposite bank.
The dock creaked softly as Cait stepped out onto it, letting the metal gate slide shut behind her as she made her way down the ramp. She wasn’t supposed to be on this dock—it was privately owned by a collection of waterfront cabins, and protected by a code that changed every month—but it didn’t matter. She had an uncanny ability of getting the code from unsuspecting renters, and besides, she knew who to avoid to keep her skill a secret. She’d been doing this too long.
Cait could tell by the lingering warmth in the hard surface of the dock as she knelt on the last boat slip ramp that the day had been hot. Though, she suspected, the day here hadn’t been as hot as the day she had spent walking the streets in the wearying heat of Oakhurst, the aged, dusty town half an hour beyond the lake. Cait could already feel the sunburn beginning to throb beneath her skin, as hot as the sun overhead had been; she had been too upset to put on sunscreen.
She stared out over the lake, wishing, behind a wall of numbness, that she could love this spot like she used to.
The rattling of the gate wrenched her back. Cait turned, irrationally hopeful, only to feel disappointment dig in its pinched claws as she recognized her sister hurrying down the dock.
“We shouldn’t be here.” Lydia said abruptly, with an uneasy glance at the waterfront cabins behind them. “She wouldn’t have made it this far anyway. We should go back to Oakhurst.” Lydia leveled her hazel eyes at her younger sister. Level—that’s what Lydia was. Even her facial expressions were moderate, a climate tempered by the sea. “She’ll probably be waiting on the porch when we pull into the driveway.”
“I just—thought she’d be here. She loved it here,” Cait explained, dropping her gaze. Said aloud, the words sounded flat, weak against Lydia’s rationality. She could see Nettle here so clearly; couldn’t Lydia? She could see Nettle’s sleek black fur, gleaming as if studded with diamonds after plunging into the water. She could see Nettle’s oversized brown paws leaving wet prints on the white dock. She could see the summers their family had come to the lake before they weren’t a family anymore, and Nettle jumping off the back of the boat with Cait and Lydia and Casey before he’d been taken by the crash that had claimed their parents. She could see the days after those years when Cait had skipped school just to come up here and feel the sun on her skin and the breeze in her hair and the warmth of Nettle’s excitement for life in her healing heart. She could see eight years of love, the unconditional love that grows between a puppy and a young girl, that grows as they do. It was all here, and yet it was gone. Just as that family was gone, just as those days were gone.
“Cait.” Lydia’s voice was edged with impatience, the closest thing she’d ever get to irritation.
“I’m coming.” Cait pushed herself to her feet. “You’re right; she wouldn’t have made it this far.” Because Lydia had never been wrong before. Cait was the one who had believed as a child that there were water spirits murmuring to one another beneath the surface of the lake; Cait was the one who had given up on her education after high school; Cait was the one who was hopeful—hope_less_—enough to think that an aging dog would wander ten miles from home across two-lane roads and through dusty pines just because this lake was special to her owner.
Cait followed her sister up the dock. The water lapped softly beneath the floats on either side of the boat slips, and she wondered what it was trying to say.
The chill glass of the car window pressed against the side of Cait’s forehead as Lydia navigated the winding road into Oakhurst. The car shivered periodically, as familiar to Cait as the sound of her sister’s voice droning on beside her about flyers, and where they should look next, and how do you think Nettle even got lost in the first place?
The car had been their mother’s before the crash; afterwards, Lydia had asked Cait how they should share it, given that their only other car—their father’s—had been reduced to a bloodied pulp in the scrapyard. Cait hadn’t hesitated in letting Lydia have the car; every time she shut herself into the small confines of a car, she imagined the way her parents and brother must have died, and her world shriveled to a cage of panic. She had been sixteen when the crash happened, a new driver; she hadn’t touched a steering wheel since. Not that it had been her fault—her father had been driving, and Cait hadn’t even been in the car.
“…think I’ll try the inns along the creek next,” Lydia’s voice came to Cait’s attention slowly as if dragged from the ink-dark depths of the lake. Cait gathered her thoughts, spooling them in and tucking them away before focusing on her sister. Lydia went on. “I’ll go by tonight, give them some of our flyers. Why don’t you check in with Starbucks again? Maybe someone there has seen her?”
Why in hell would Nettle go to Starbucks? Cait couldn’t remember taking Nettle to the town center even once. They’d always explored the forested backroads, the forgotten creeksides, the halfway places. “I’ll check,” Cait said anyway. “Thanks, Lydia.”
Guilt poked at her for resenting her sister’s calm. Lydia was trying; despite the gap that had grown between them in recent years, a gap born of the bitter things they’d said to each other after the crash, each irrationally blaming the other, each afraid of the sudden loneliness that had descended on them, both lashing out like drowning swimmers—despite that, Lydia had picked up the phone when Cait had called yesterday and said please help me, I don’t know what else to do. Despite that, Lydia had skipped her college classes and driven up from Fresno to find Cait disconsolate on the porch, feet blistered from searching through the woods, voice hoarse from calling. Despite that, Lydia was still willing to dole out Nettle’s Lost Dog flyers when she should be preparing her papers due the next morning. Wasn’t that enough? After all, without Nettle, who else did Cait have now besides Lydia?
The car rolled to a stop. Cait looked out the window. The streetlamps just beyond the Starbucks glowed harshly against the falling dusk; across the street, the Chevron sign was a staticky wash of color. Cait slithered out of the seatbelt and into the cooling dusk beyond the car. Lydia glanced up at her from the driver’s seat, hazel eyes large and reflecting the orange glow of the streetlights. “We’ll find her,” she said. “I promise we will.”
Cait cast through her thoughts for a response. We won’t; she’s been gone a day already, and that’s like ten days for a dog. Or, She’s never been away from me for more than the hours it takes me to shop, or to work a shift at the cafe. But the loudest words she heard in her head were, She’s not coming back.
“I hope so,” Cait said at last. “I just—” don’t know what I’ll do without her. I’ve shared my soul with that dog for longer than I remember; can you imagine the agony it will be to cut that bond forever? She turned away, letting the car door shut behind her.
The low murmur of voices inside Starbucks felt incongruous to Cait, out-of-place against the nightmarish backdrop of her thoughts. She wondered if the people inside could see the darkness in her eyes, the haunted trail of her mind.
The manager gave Cait a blank look when she asked if anyone had seen a stray dog. No dog had been seen, no customer had mentioned seeing a stray, but you ought to check with the Humane Society down the road (Cait had; three times today), or with the veterinarian (yes, Cait had been there four times). Helplessly, she gave the manager another flyer (Lydia had already posted one on the wall beside the restrooms) and scuttled out into the twilight.
It was now almost fully dark. Cait cast around for a bench to sit on while she waited for Lydia to return, but didn’t have the energy to look too far. She made it to the curb on the side of the street before sinking down. Across the street, a spindly streetlamp glowed with the steady orange burning of dulled flames. A few moths flitted listlessly around the lamp, forming a halo above the bulb. Cait stared at the lamp’s brightness until it began to pulse with her own broken heartbeat…
Cait finds herself in the water of the lake, paddling to keep herself afloat, the back of her parents’ boat bobbing a few feet ahead of her. Casey perches on the edge, small for a seven-year-old but energetic, brightness in his eyes. He clutches an inflatable raft; it dwarfs him. He teeters on the edge of the platform; the waves draw the boat up, up, feet above Cait, before bringing it slapping down against the water again.
“Come on!” Cait calls. “What’re you waiting for?”
“It’s far,” Casey yelps, clutching to the rail of the boat and looking down as another wave takes him farther above Cait. Brightly patterned swimsuit, smears of sunscreen on his little face. That is how Cait remembers him, though it wasn’t until three years later that he would die.
“Just close your eyes,” says Cait. “Close your eyes and jump! I’m waiting for you!” She sees him tense. Then his eyes close. His fingers pull the surface of the raft taut as his feet leave the ramp. He launches his body off the boat and vanishes beneath the waves with Cait, the two of them enclosed in a teal-colored world of sun-shattered waves and chill open waters beneath.
The inns along the creek had not seen Nettle.
The stores in the center of town had not seen Nettle.
The Humane Society had not seen Nettle.
Hikers on nearby trails where Cait used to run with Nettle had not seen Nettle.
Cait’s dead mother and father and brother in the cemetery on the hill above Starbucks had not seen Nettle.
Perhaps, thought Cait as she cried herself to nonexistent sleep that night in her cold bed scattered with dog fur, nobody had ever seen Nettle at all, and she had imagined everything—the crash, Lydia leaving for college, Nettle being engulfed by this broken world as easily as a wave crashing over your head and swallowing you whole.
Lydia was awake when Cait padded out into the kitchen, sleepless and exhausted, before sunrise the next morning. Lydia was stirring coffee, looking, if not entirely rested, better than Cait at least. She wore a soft blouse and jeans that looked expensive though Cait suspected they probably weren’t. She looked like she didn’t belong here, in this old house, in this old town. Maybe she never really had; maybe that’s why she’d been gone for so long, why she was now in a master’s program at some shiny school, so that she’d never have to come back to the dust and the cobwebs and the wisps of ghosts behind every wall.
Cait sat down at the kitchen table, and Lydia came over to sit beside her. For a few moments, neither spoke; steam curled up above the coffee, and Cait watched it unravel.
“How do you do it?” Lydia asked at last.
“Do—what?” Cait glanced up at her sister in surprise.
“Surround yourself with their memories.” Lydia’s eyes strayed to the fridge. Fading drawings curled on its surface, yellowed from the sun that came in through the kitchen windows during winter. Some of the drawings were Lydia’s, some Cait’s, but most were Casey’s. One day I’ll be an artist, Cait remembered him saying very seriously. “You haven’t gotten rid of anything. Even Mom’s favorite mugs are still in the cupboard above the coffeemaker. Why haven’t you gotten rid of anything? It’s been six years, Cait.”
Cait looked away so she didn’t have to see the cracks in Lydia’s expression, so out of character for her. Maybe Nettle’s disappearance had reminded Lydia, too, of how precarious this game of life was. “I’ve gotten used to it,” Cait said. “Changing things would be like…like pretending that part of our lives never existed.” She stood up abruptly before she let the emotions drag her under.
“Nobody’s called, then? About Nettle?”
Lydia drew in a long, weary breath. “No,” she said. “Cait…”
“You have to leave,” Cait guessed.
Lydia’s expression shifted slightly, a flicker of surprise. “I’m sorry, Cait. I have papers due…”
“I know.” Cait opened the fridge and stared blankly inside. The shelves were desolate. A can of Nettle’s meat sat in the side door, covered with a plastic Petco lid. Cait grimly shut the fridge. “It’s fine, Lydia, I know you’re busy. Thanks for helping me yesterday.” Did the words sound strained to Lydia? Cait couldn’t tell.
“I’ll call later,” Lydia promised. “And call me at any time if you get an update about Nettle.” She stood up, rinsed her empty mug in the sink, set it on the rack to dry. She turned to Cait, hesitating slightly, then stepped forward and gave her sister a brief hug. “You’ll find her, Cait.” Cait smiled.
She followed Lydia outside and stood on the porch as Lydia pulled out of the driveway in their mother’s old car. Cait lifted a hand in farewell beneath the pale morning sky.
Lydia had taken the family’s last car, but they still had a dirtbike. Cait uncovered it now, coughing from the dust in the unused garage, eyeing its rust-speckled spokes uneasily. She hadn’t driven a car in six years; she hadn’t even touched a dirtbike in even longer. Her father had taught her to ride once, but that was long ago.
It still worked; she knew that much, because when Lydia had come over for one day last Thanksgiving with her boyfriend, he had taken it out and started it up out of sheer boredom, because what else was there to do during Thanksgiving without family out here?
This is a bad idea.
Cait thrust the key into the ignition.
You’re going to get yourself killed.
She turned the key, and the bike shuddered to life beneath her.
Maybe I don’t care.
She knew the road to the lake by heart, even though she hadn’t personally driven it in a while. Someone had always been willing to take her and Nettle to the lake; friends, or acquaintances who lived in Oakhurst but worked at the lake and who would let Cait travel with them for a few dollars. But today she wanted to be alone. Today she needed to be alone.
Cait parked the dirtbike at the market. It was twenty-minute parking only, but she didn’t care if she got a ticket. There were some things more important than being cautious.
This time, she went to the spur of land beside the police tower, instead of the cove. The walk was quiet; it was still early morning, and people here were slow to rise, especially in the summer when the days burned long and hot and joyous.
The wind beside the tower was strong; this stretch of beach wasn’t protected as in the cove, but was exposed to the slap of the wave and the whisk of the breeze. The stringy grasses turned abruptly into pebbles and rocks and sand, and Cait took her shoes off to feel the rasp of stone beneath her feet and the scritch of the coarse-grain sand.
There were a few boats on the lake already, but they moved slowly, sullen engines held in check by the speed rules in effect until 8 a.m., when they would be free to skim across the surface of the waves. Cait drew in a breath of the wind coming off the lake; it carried the scent of the pines on the distant bank. It carried the scent of her memories. It carried the scent of freedom.
The trees stood strong, bright green and healthy, thrusting their fragrant branches into the sky. Cait could almost see Nettle standing beneath them, fluffy tail raised in greeting, as everlasting as the trees.
Here, in this moment, the waves slap against the pebbles beneath Cait’s feet, liquid voices of comfort. Close your eyes, Cait hears the water say, but it is with Casey’s voice; it is with Nettle’s voice. Close your eyes; I’m here with you.
A smile touches Cait’s face. A peace she has not felt in days washes over her, and the lake beyond the shore seems more alive to her than it ever has, its ripples and sand and pines holding the imprints of the ones she loves, and she feels alive with the knowledge.
She closes her eyes. The world is made whole once more.