When Trace had invited Cora to escape Heavenburg for a week and tag along on his family’s annual February vacation to the lake home, he had emphasized how peaceful and restful it would be, how restorative, how rejuvenative. He had also casually mentioned that it might be kind of romantic to spend Valentine’s Day together in a place that had been such an important part of his formative years. Cora didn’t care that much about Valentine’s Day or about generally accepted specifications for romance, but she and Trace had been dating for almost two years, so it was nice to at least hear him acknowledge his affection for her, even if he did so indirectly and in passing.
What Trace didn’t mention about the vacation was the fact that no one would speak much, lights would be used as sparingly as possible, everyone would spend a lot of time in their respective bedrooms with the doors closed, and no one would leave the house all week except for one solemn trip to visit his mother’s grave on the fifth day. He had not mentioned how he and his family would encourage Cora to keep her voice down even when she spoke at very reasonable volumes. He had not mentioned that the lake home had neither cable nor satellite television. He had not mentioned the lake home’s dull, suffocating warmth, the basement furnace’s unceasing exhalation. He had not mentioned the lake home’s abundance of over-burdened bookshelves, the thick green carpet that swallowed the sound of footsteps whole, or the fact that everyone except for Cora would be wearing pajamas pretty much all the time.
Cora didn’t just feel out of place at the lake home, and she wasn’t just bored. It was far worse than that. She couldn’t articulate how the vacation was making her feel with any real precision, but she hated it desperately. It was as if the vacation was actually making her boring, as if it was draining her of everything that made her interesting or lively. At the lake home, nothing felt substantial enough to be entirely real and Cora spent a lot of time wondering if something had happened to her that she couldn’t understand, if the whole vacation was the consequence of an event she couldn’t recall. Or maybe the vacation was some kind of transition for her, although she had no idea to what this vacation could be transitioning her. Or maybe there was nothing wrong with the vacation at all and Cora herself had somehow gotten her wires crossed and now she couldn’t see the vacation for what it really was. Whatever the case, Cora felt neither peaceful nor rested nor restored nor rejuvenated.
And as much as she wanted to get out of the lake home, Cora certainly had not wanted to pile into the black conversion van with Trace’s family to visit his dead mother’s grave. The last thing she wanted at the moment was evidence that the feeling of the vacation could travel with her beyond the property of the lake home, and if Cora had gone to visit Trace’s dead mother’s grave, she was almost certain that’s what she would have gotten. Instead, Cora sat on the couch and looked at the lake, focusing all of her attention on wondering what the inside of the ice-fishing shack might be like so that she wouldn’t think about the long-term or permanent effects this vacation might have on her. She wore a sweatshirt, jeans with a belt, and socks. She’d tried to wear shoes around the house on the first day of the vacation, but Trace had taken her aside and calmly insisted that she not. He’d also suggested that she wear something more comfortable than jeans around the house, such as pajamas, but Cora refused. The thought of wearing pajamas all day long in the lake home made Cora panicky. In fact, after the second night, Cora had started wearing her jeans to bed so that she’d never have to wear her pajamas.
When Cora’s cell phone rang, it took her a while to realize what was happening. No one had called her since she’d arrived at the lake home and she’d actually forgotten she had her phone in her pocket. The call was from Trace.
“Hi, Cora.” Trace’s voice was staticky. “Just calling to say we’ll be home in an hour.”
“OK,” said Cora. “I’ll be here.”
“I know you will,” said Trace. “Where else would you be?” He made a sound similar to a chuckle.
“I don’t know,” said Cora.
“Right,” said Trace. “Anyway, just stay cozy. I can’t wait to change back into my pajamas.”
“See you,” said Cora.
Trace hung up.
Cora put her phone back into her pocket and stood up. She walked into the dim kitchen and looked out at the lake home’s empty gravel driveway. In an amount of time that Cora knew would feel like none at all, Trace and his family would pull the van into the driveway and come inside and file quietly into their rooms and change into their pajamas. Some of the bedroom doors wouldn’t open again until tomorrow. Cora didn’t even know how many of Trace’s family members were currently on vacation with her. Counting Trace, there were either six or seven. It was a big van. The lake home was bad when Cora was all alone in it, but when it was filled with Trace’s family, its power to smother increased exponentially.
Cora thought about going through the house and turning on all of the lights. She thought about turning the volume on the TV all the way up or belting out her alma mater’s fight song or going into the master bedroom and jumping up and down on the bed while shouting silly vulgarities. But she couldn’t actually do any of these things. They were out of the question. Cora knew that if she tried any of them, the lake home would just turn them back on her and she’d end up feeling even worse than she did now.
Cora had lost all sense of where she stood with Trace or anyone or anything, really. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know who she was anymore. She still knew who she was. It was more like, what difference did knowing who she was make if she no longer had any understanding of how valuable it was relative to who everyone else was to be who she was? Cora couldn’t just sit back down on the couch and look out at the ice-fishing shack and wait for Trace to come home and sit down on the couch next to her and murmur expressions of passive contentment every ten minutes. She could not just sit and wait for the axe to fall.
Cora slipped her feet into her shoes, put on her coat, stocking hat, and gloves, and went outside into the cold and the wind and the forecast threat of a wintry mix.
The ice-fishing shack was five feet wide, five feet long, and just over six feet tall. Inside, there was a low stool positioned next to a black hole in the ice and an unlit kerosene lantern on an old TV tray. Cora stepped inside, leaving the door cracked open behind her to allow a little light inside with her. The walls of the shack blocked the wind, but otherwise it was just as cold inside the shack as it was outside. Cora stood still and listened to her own shuddering breath, the wind, and the water lapping at the sides of the hole in the ice. She stepped up next to the hole and looked straight down. The ice was eight inches thick and the water looked as black as oil. Cora felt a different kind of cold coming up out of the hole, a more sinister, more penetrating cold than the cold of the air, the wind, the snow.
Cora scooted the stool as far back from the hole as it could go and then sat down on it with her back against the wall. She reached out and fiddled with the lantern, but it wouldn’t ignite. Maybe it was broken or out of kerosene. Cora didn’t know enough about kerosene lanterns to diagnose whatever was preventing it from lighting. She kicked the door closed and the shack was dark but for a scrap of light coming in through the crack under the door, just enough to illuminate the white rim of the hole in the ice. With her hands deep in the pockets of her coat, Cora looked at the hole, which was the most interesting thing to look at by default. It was odd to think that there were fish down there, living and swimming in the blackness, looking for bait, although they didn’t think of it as bait, of course. To them it was just food. Only from the informed position of the ice-fisherman was what the fish were looking for considered bait. This struck Cora as a very profound thought, perhaps the first thought of any substance she’d had since arriving at the lake home, and this realization led her to the conclusion that leaving the house to hide in the ice-fishing shack had been the correct choice for the sake of her spiritual well-being. She shivered and smiled and flexed her fists in her pockets and her toes in her shoes, trying to keep the blood flowing through her digits.
Cora knew that she couldn’t stay in the shack forever, obviously, or even for more than a few hours, but it was nice to know that for now, she was where she was supposed to be.
Sometime later, Cora’s phone rang in her pocket, startling her again. She had to shift around on the stool to get her stiff, numb fingers into the front pocket of her jeans and then, when she finally got the phone out, she dropped it on the ice and had to use both hands to pick it up. The call was from Trace.
“Cora? Where are you?” Cora could tell from the volume and timbre of Trace’s voice that he was back in the lake home. It made her skin crawl. She resented the fact that this phone call allowed the lake home to reach out and touch her even in the ice-fishing shack.
“I’m somewhere you’ll never look,” said Cora. “I’m somewhere you’d never go.”
“Did you get a ride back to your house in Heavenburg?”
“No, Trace. Is that somewhere you’d never look? That’s probably the first place you’d look. Actually, we know it is ‘cause that was your first guess. And I said I’m somewhere you’d never go. You go to my house all the time.”
“Well, where are you, then?”
“I’m not telling you on purpose, Trace. I don’t want you to find me.”
“Oh,” said Trace. “It’s just, you’re sort of spoiling the last couple days of my vacation. There’s not supposed to be any stress. That’s kind of the whole thing of it.”
“Then don’t stress,” said Cora.
“You sound cold,” said Trace.
“You sound warm,” said Cora. “And comfy.”
“You just need to relax,” said Trace. “Tell me where you are and I’ll come get you. I’ll bring you a ham sandwich.”
Cora hung up. A minute later her phone rang again. She could tell it was Trace without looking at the screen. She knew the call was coming from the lake home because even the sound of her own ringtone carried its taint. Cora underhand-tossed the ringing phone into the hole and it disappeared with a wet gulp.
More time passed. Outside the shack, the sun set. Inside the shack, Cora sat on the stool in total darkness. For a while, she had wondered if Trace was looking for her or if he had decided to take her advice and not stress about her. But the shack was not the setting for that kind of idle, potentially self-pitying speculation and Cora soon moved on to better things.
Her thoughts were clear and crisp and each successive thought fit snugly with the thought that preceded it and the thought that followed it, but these thoughts fit together in surprising ways, in ways that seemed impossible right up until the moment when they clicked into place. At first she thought that her mind only seemed so sharp because of how recently she’d escaped from the lake home’s influence, but as hours passed, she realized that she had never in her whole life so clearly perceived her whole life with such clarity of perception. She gave all the credit to the ice-fishing shack: its darkness, its coldness, its crampedness, and the hole in the ice always there as a reminder of things like mortality, eternity, emptiness, discomfort, etc.
After this experience, how could Cora ever be comfortable being comfortable again? She’d seen what comfort had to offer her and it was truly horrifying. She’d dived right into the mouth of relaxation only to discover that relaxation was a myth, an insidious scam meant to keep people cooped up and wearing pajamas so they couldn’t figure anything out like where who they were stood in relation to where who other people were stood and even also in relation to where what other things were stood, which Cora wouldn’t even have thought was possible - if she’d thought about it all - before coming to the ice-fishing shack. So much was making so much sense now.
Also, Cora couldn’t really move her face.
It had been dark for a long time when Cora heard her phone’s ringtone again, distant and distorted, but unmistakably her ringtone and unmistakably indicating an incoming call from a phone inside the lake home. Cora was certain she’d thrown her phone into the hole. She’d heard the splash. Where was the sound coming from? Cora stood up from the stool, her knees creaking, her tailbone sore and tender. She looked around the entire floor of the shack, including under the stool, for her phone. The search took three seconds and even that was excessively thorough. If it had been there, the light from the screen would have made it immediately evident. The ringtone kept playing.
Cora stepped over to where she knew the hole was, to where she could feel the cold rising up to the shack’s low ceiling in a bitter column, and she looked down into a deeper blackness that she understood to be the water of Downwash Lake. She saw in that blackness a faint light. The ringtone seemed slightly louder. The light seemed to be getting closer, rising up to Cora from within the lake. It was definitely getting closer.
“No,” said Cora, speaking down into the hole in the ice. “I don’t want it back.”
Her cell phone broke the surface and, bobbing on top of the water at the bottom of the hole in the ice, its ringtone filled the shack.
Cora knelt next to the hole and fished her phone out of the water. The water that touched the skin of her fingers stung like open flames. The phone’s screen displayed a phone number Cora didn’t recognize. Trace had probably borrowed someone else’s phone in the assumption that Cora would answer if she didn’t know Trace was the caller. Cora rejected the call with her thumb, which felt like a cork attached to her hand. Then, with some difficulty, she stood, removed her belt, used it to lash her phone to the kerosene lantern, and then lowered the lantern down into the hole and let go. As the lantern sank, Cora’s phone began to ring again, but this time the light receded and the sound diminished and within a few seconds both were gone.
Cora woke to a round man in a fur-lined coat and an orange ski mask shaking her shoulder and tapping her cheek with the back of his mittened hand. “Miss? Miss? Miss?”
Cora’s whole body ached except for those portions which were numb. She looked at the man but said nothing, instead trying to focus on perhaps getting her fingers to move, even just a little.
“You’re alive!” said the man. He had a fishing pole in one hand. A tackle box rested on the ice next to him, just inside the shack’s doorway, through which morning light spilled. The man grabbed Cora under one arm and tried to hoist her off of the stool. “Come on, miss, let’s get you inside where it’s warm.”
“No,” said Cora, jerking her arm away from the man. “No, I’m not leaving here yet.” She sat back on the stool, the back of her head pressed against the back wall of the shack, her expression defiant.
“Miss,” said the man. “Or ma’am. You’re frozen solid. You need to get out of the cold. It’s just a short walk across the ice to my house. I’ll help you. We’ll have you comfortable in no time.”
“No!” said Cora.
“How long have you been out here?” asked the man.
Cora answered with an intensifying of her already hostile demeanor.
“Because this is my shack,” said the man. “So even if you want to stay here and freeze to death, you can’t. ‘Cause this is my shack.”
“Get out,” said Cora.
“I could just drag you out,” said the man. “But I’m not going to do that ‘cause I think the cold’s made you nuts. So I’m going to call the police and let them deal with you. Hear me?”
“I don’t want to be comfortable,” said Cora. “Not ever.”
The man didn’t close the door behind him when he left. With an immense effort, Cora managed to extend her foot and nudge the door shut. Then she picked up her train of thought right where she’d left off when she fell asleep and it was like she’d never stopped.
A while later, Cora heard voices approaching. It sounded as if there were at least four of them. One of them was definitely the fisherman and she couldn’t be certain, but one of them sounded like Trace. She reasoned that the other voices must be cops. She pulled her hands out of the pockets of her coat and finger by finger unclenched her fists. Then she wrapped her hands around the bottom edge of the stool, clinging to it in anticipation of the coming struggle. Cora reasoned that she might have a better chance of resisting the men if she got off of the stool and wedged herself in the far corner of the shack on the floor where she could kick up at them, but she couldn’t bring herself to abandon the stool. It wasn’t for comfort reasons that she couldn’t abandon the stool. She was so over comfort. She just…didn’t want to.
“Miss?” It was one of the voices Cora didn’t recognize.
“Stay back,” said Cora, her voice coming out in a hoarse croak. “Leave me alone.”
“Cora?” Trace was out there. “Cora, you’ve made your point. When we get back to Heavenburg, we’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day with just the two of us, OK? I didn’t know it meant this much to you.”
Cora laughed through her nose. There was no way anyone outside of the ice-fishing shack could have heard it.
“All right,” said a different voice that Cora didn’t recognize. “We’re going to have to come in and forcibly remove you, miss. It’s for your own safety. Please don’t fight us. We’re only trying to help you.”
Cora heard shuffling, sliding footsteps closing in on the shack. She listened intently, trying to gauge the distance between the men and her, trying to determine how much longer she had, trying to cram as much valuable thought into the next few seconds as she possibly could.
Then, beneath the footsteps, Cora heard another sound. It came from all sides, rumbling up through her feet, groaning low and mournful.
“Stop,” she heard the fisherman say, his voice shrill. “I said stop!”
The first crack sounded like a gunshot.
“Get back! Get-” The man’s voice was blotted out by an eruption of sharp cracks and pops, a cacophony of splintering, buckling ice, grinding and collapsing, splashes and panicked shouts. Then the noise subsided. Cora heard voices calling out to each other and the sound of large objects creaking and scraping together. Water washed under the door of the shack and up around Cora’s numb feet, soaking her shoes and socks, then retreated. The hole in the ice in front of Cora made sloshing sounds. Cora felt the ice rocking gently from side to side beneath her.
Outside, the temperature was dropping, the wind was rising, sleet was beginning to fall, and Cora couldn’t have been less comfortable.