Nicole realized she was dying when she recognized the person approaching on the ice.
At first she thought help had finally arrived, that someone on the snowy hiking trail one hundred yards to the east heard her cries. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been immersed in the frigid water, but she reasoned that it had surely been long enough for a rescue team to find her.
She glanced at Sebastian. He sat patiently on the surface of the frozen lake, staring at her with wise canine eyes. “Gonna be alright, Bass,” she whispered. A whisper was all she could manage; her ability to shout froze almost immediately after she plunged through the ice. “Help’s coming. Gonna be okay.”
The dog looked over his shoulder at the approaching figure. His tail thumped softly.
“Careful,” Nicole tried to warn the person. “The ice…” It was too much effort; she laid her head on the outcropping between her senseless hands and watched.
It was a woman coming across the ice, a woman in a full-skirted sundress with a sweetheart neckline. The dress was white with a gay pattern of small red parasols scattered across it. The woman wore red sandals and as she drew near Nicole could see that her toenails were painted crimson.
Nicole’s shoulders hitched. “No,” she moaned, “no, no, no.”
The woman stopped. Her red sandals were just inches from Nicole’s head. “Hi, Nicky.”
“Not like this,” Nicole gasped. “Nana, not like this.”
Nana Beth sat on the ice between Nicole’s outstretched arms, gracefully sweeping her skirt under her. She patted Sebastian’s head and smiled at the dying woman. “There are worse ways, darlin’. And, well, you really were asking for this.” She added as an afterthought, “Or something like it.”
She reached into the pocket of her dress for a pack of cigarettes. She lit one and blew out a thin line of smoke. “You came out walking alone, at dusk, on a frozen lake, and you’re thirty pounds overweight. What did you think was going to happen?”
“It was a shortcut.” The cold wrapped Nicole tightly, squeezing until she groaned.
“Some shortcut,” Nana observed. She took another puff of her cigarette. “You’ve been taking a lot of shortcuts since you lost your little man. I’ve got news for you, girly-girl: There are damned few shortcuts in life and none at all in grief.” She listened to the younger woman’s weak, airless weeping for a moment. “Other women have lost children too.”
Nicole’s teeth began to chatter violently. She’d clamped down on her tongue sometime earlier and now she swallowed a mouthful of blood as memories exploded like starbursts: The sweet smell of Micah’s hair, the Michelin-Man rolls of his arms, the swimming pool, the unguarded moment. She remembered the sound of her own screams; she remembered screaming into his face, she remembered trying to scream him awake.
Nicole laid her head back down on the ice. Blood from her mouth painted the white surface with a gay pattern that matched Nana’s dress.
Nana Beth flicked the cigarette butt into a nearby snowdrift. She got up and began to dance slowly back and forth in front of Nicole. “It’s almost over,” she promised. She moved lightly on the ice, twirling slowly. Sebastian got up and moved with her, his eyes locked on Nana’s face. His tail wagged slowly.
“Don’t leave…” Nicole said, or thought she said, or tried to say.
“I’ll wait right here,” Nana Beth promised. She skipped back and forth on the ice in her red sandals.
Suddenly Nana was kneeling with her face just inches away. Nicole could feel the warmth of her whisper. “It’s easy, Nicky. It’s as easy as letting go.”
At first she thought the water was rising, then Nicole realized she was sinking. She stared at Nana’s bright smile as her grandmother’s face retreated and the water crept inexorably over her shoulders, neck, face.
Nana Beth smiled. “Good-bye, Nicky.”
Nicole turned and looked into the lake, her hair floating above and around her. In the inky darkness, she saw another figure. Skin bright like sunlight flashing on a fish, Micah paddled toward her. His dimpled hands – she loved those small hands more than life – touched his mother’s face, and he giggled happily in a burst of fragile bubbles.
Nicole reached for her son and held the vibrant heat of his child’s body against her. She put her face in his hair and breathed deeply, and smiled as the scent of him rushed into her on a stream of baptismal water.