BENEATH THE ICE


By Gary Earl Ross


You hear them talking, not three feet away from you. Whether it is their hushed tones or the tendrils of affection in their words or the rapid heartbeats that somehow you hear with no difficulty, suddenly everything is as clear as a winter morning on a cold mountain lake – and as startling as looking into the rear view mirror scarcely seconds before a tractor-trailer crushes your car. Jim and Alana, your husband and your best friend, the love of your life and the closest thing you’ve ever had to a sister, the two who know more about you than anyone else. Together.

Something in your mind ruptures, a searing pain, a flash of light, a howl that wants nothing more than to escape your lips – but not here, in this roomful of people gathered for one of your famously elaborate holiday parties. Not here, amid myriad voices and countless conversations as your guests wait for you to cut the cake. Not here, where there should be joy and peace and holiday generosity. Despite the smiles and laughter, even here, among long-term acquaintances, gums are waiting to flap and fingers to point and cell phone cameras to capture every detail of anyone’s humiliation for posting to the internet. You cannot have that. You have always cherished decorum, dignity, and the appearance of normalcy, so there can be no scene, no confrontation, no tears or bitter recriminations, no embarrassing flight from the room. The thought of rousing pity in others is abhorrent. No one must know the pain you now feel, so you will continue to carry yourself with the patrician bearing for which you are well known. But you are not one of those long-suffering wives who keep their silence and drown their sorrow in liquor bottle after pill bottle. No, Jim and Alana will not get away with this. You must choose with great care the time to unmask their treachery if you are to have revenge.

How long? you wonder. This affair, this betrayal, this sordid slicing away of skin from your soul – how long has it been going on? Why have you not felt it, smelled it, sensed it in your intimacy with Jim, your heart-to-heart talks with Alana? Why have you not seen it before when it is so apparent this instant? Have you been blinded by your own selfless love and devotion?

You have known Alana your whole life – well, since second grade anyway, when she was a shy girl with copper skin, short black hair, and large eyes and you were an adventurous porcelain doll with blue eyes and blonde ringlets. She lived across the street then, a new girl in the suburban Buffalo neighborhood you would both call home until the end of high school. The first time they saw her, some of the girls in your class, echoing the prejudice learned around their kitchen tables, whispered about her skin and her coarse hair and the darkness of her brown eyes. But not you. By the end of her first day in Mrs. Wylie’s class in Sanderson Road Elementary you were showing other children the way, talking to the new girl, admiring her clothing, inviting her to your lunch table, sitting beside her on the school bus. That day you began carving out a friendship that would grow in small increments, as all true friendships must, and would last, you thought when older, forever.

It has been a long time since thoughts of your shared childhood stepped into your consciousness but today they march out of your limbic system and into your frontal lobe with a frightening sure-footedness. Despite your righteous anger you can’t help smiling at some of the images. Playing jacks in your driveway because your neighborhood had no sidewalks. Roller skating and skinning your knees in the summer. Sledding down the hill in Chestnut Ridge Park in the winter. Dressing up in old clothes your mothers collected just for the two of you. Doing math homework together. Doll parties. Tea parties. Birthday parties. Slumber parties. Cookies and cakes during the occasional visit to Alana’s grandmother’s home on the East Side, where there were sidewalks but too many overgrown lots and too many houses that looked ready to collapse. You recall the countless nights you lay awake in your room or Alana’s, peering into darkness as you whispered about boys and wondered about sex and discussed where you wanted to travel and what you wanted to become. You stood up in each other’s wedding, yours first and then Alana’s after she caught the bouquet you threw. Later, you stood beside her when Carl left and she took her first tentative steps on the path to divorce. You saved Alana, invited her into your home, your world, your life. You were there for her when she needed you most, and God knows she needed you more than you ever needed her. How dare she repay you by sleeping with your husband?

Likewise, you will never forget the day you met Jim. At Baxter High School for the spring interschool student council meeting, you had gone outside afterward to watch the tennis practice and instantly fallen for the team’s singles star. Sinewy arms and long legs, shocking black hair, dreamy gray eyes, and an intensity that made your thighs quiver. He had watched you watching him and asked for your number and called the next night. He wasn’t your first kiss – and not even your first lover, since, you suppose, it would be unfair to forget fumbling Phillip and not-quite-there Theo – but Jim was the best. Simultaneously patient and passionate, devoted and driven, as attentive as he was intense. You were in love almost from the beginning but said nothing of your feelings because you wanted him to speak of love first. It would be a weakness and such a cliché if you mentioned the next level of affection before it even occurred to him.

Your wait was brief – however interminable it felt in teen years – and he uttered words of love first, four months into your dating. Sitting up on the back seat of his father’s Lexus, his khakis down around his ankles, he said, still panting, “I’ve never known anybody like you.” Then he kissed you again with his soft, wonderful mouth. Moments after your second round of holding each other with delicious desperation, after his breathing had slowed and his voice had regained its satin radio timber, he said, “I think I love you.” He looked at you expectantly, but you let him hang in the wind for several seconds, until his nervousness made you laugh and he shifted off you and looked away. You said, “You think you love me? Don’t you know?” He did, and then came long late night phone calls, movies, pizzas, parties, miniature golf, double dates with Alana and Carl. You and Jim went to two senior proms together, yours at Sanderson Central and his at Baxter. When, finally, you got engaged halfway through your junior year of college, your friends and his all looked at the ring – a perfect white gold circle that held the diamond from his late mother’s engagement ring – and said it was about time. With his engineering degree from the University at Buffalo and your teaching credentials from Buff State, the two of you could get away from this dying Rust Belt city. Everyone predicted a long and happy marriage, in Florida or the Sun Belt or California.

Kids. What do they know?

You never left Buffalo except on vacations to Europe or Hawaii or the Caribbean. But it has been a long marriage – more than twenty-five years – and a happy one, or so you thought. You have a daughter in law school, twin sons now in college. The children were a welcome addition to your busy lives – an engineer who decided to make his name on major public works projects central to the renewal of Western New York and a master special education teacher with a winning classroom smile and shelves full of awards. With all the travel and shared history and shared successes, your life together has been wonderful. When did the cracks appear? And how? And why was it Alana who worked her way into them to corrode further the foundations of your existence? Had she always been attracted to Jim? Had she lain beneath Carl on one bed of the seedy Niagara Falls Boulevard motel room the boys rented after the Sanderson prom as you writhed beneath Jim on the other and wished she could take your place? Had she stood beside you at your wedding, dreaming of standing in the very shoes she had helped you choose? Had your life been so perfect – so unlike hers with its divorce and absence of children, with its loser lovers and job uncertainty – that she felt an irresistible impulse to pull yours apart? Had she been the thing barreling down on you all along, waiting for you to look up at the last instant before she destroyed all that you were and all that you had?

Damn you, Alana!

Damn you, Jim!

You should kill them.

Actually kill them? Yes. The thought takes hold as the only revenge that will feel complete, that will soothe the deep primal hurt now bubbling in your brain. It would not be enough to humiliate them publicly, to thank everyone in this room for coming to this party, to tell them all to eat a little more, drink a little more – and feel free to break some furniture too. After all, Jim is paying for everything. It would not be enough, during the subsequent laughter, to announce to those assembled – including your children and Jim’s partners and the latest faceless loser Alana brought – that your husband and your best friend are the scum at the bottom of a septic tank, that willfully and maliciously they chose a tawdry double homicide – the murder of a marriage and a friendship – to fulfill…what? Long-simmering lust? Sudden curiosity? Certainly it wasn’t loneliness when each one had you to rely upon for so much. Exposing them will bring sympathy and support for you and social ostracism for them. But such a punishment would be insufficient. Your only real satisfaction will be to see them dead, dead at your feet, dead by your hand, their death masks frozen with horror that they had not been as clever or discreet as they had believed. You would call that justice.

Even as your mind begins to turn over and then reject one plan after another, you sense his fingertips brushing the back of her left hand, hear his voice in a whisper near her left ear: “Divorce was always out of the question. You know that.” Afterward, her faint “I know” barely reaches your ears.

Your heart sinks even more.

So, their talk has touched on divorce. Then this flirtation has moved well beyond the casual and into the hopeful. They are actually dreaming of a life together – in a small place on the worst side of Buffalo, no doubt, because Jim must know that when you are through with him, poverty will be a rung above him on the social ladder. After all the years you’ve given him!  At almost the same instant you recall how devastated Alana was when Carl fled to parts unknown with that child from Bean Fever, the New Age coffee shop on Elmwood Avenue. Still vivid are Alana’s tears as you held her head above the toilet and she tried to vomit away the pain of a betrayal that came when, finally, she was pregnant. Eventually, she lost the only child her body would ever carry, and you alone were there beside her in the hospital as she buried her dreams of motherhood. You remember also how one night, out of the ether, Jim looked over the top of his newspaper and said, “I could never divorce you.”  He reassured you that he would die before causing you such pain over a young girl. But he said nothing about an old girl, an old girl like you. Blinding rage now floods you and you want to scream but can’t. Still, deep within you, there is a screeching – not your own – that fills your ears and makes your temples throb.

It is the screech of an owl, wise and funereal, a harbinger of imminent justice.

You know there are knives nearby – carving knives for the roast beef and the ham you always have out on cutting boards for your holiday parties, short sharp knives for the cheese trays, the long silver cake knife…With enough thrust even the blunt tip of the cake knife could disappear beneath a rib cage or into the cartilage of a throat. But choosing a knife now means you will be able to kill only one before you are seized by your uncomprehending guests. Which of the betrayers would you choose? Should Jim die in front of his children, in front of more than enough witnesses to send you to prison for life? Deprived of his pleasures, would dear Aunt Alana, godmother to all your children, take your place in their hearts as she had in Jim’s? In your absence, would she become the woman they confided in? If you chose Alana to receive the cake knife now in your trembling hand, would Jim deny his part in the matter as he tried to convince your children their locked-away mother had gone mad?

No, both must pay for this crime. Adultery may no longer be part of the criminal code but it is a crime just the same. Criminals must be punished. You consider and discard several more ideas for meting out that punishment. For your satisfaction to be complete, however, you must not only kill them but escape detection and arrest.

Then you have it. The perfect plan.

Some days later, before the New Year, you are en route to your cabin in rural Monroe County, a lovely rustic place nestled amid pine trees and near the edge of a small clear lake. The only neighbor is Mr. McGreevy, who lives across the lake but visits his children in Florida every year at this time. Jim built your cabin himself when the children were small, and for many years it was your family’s post-holiday refuge, your getaway from another year of rebuilding the city one project, one school day, at a time. Hikes in the snowy woods, cocoa and popcorn by a crackling fire, breakfasts and lunches from the locking coolers you brought and kept in the snow (few bears around there but plenty of smart raccoons).  Sometimes for dinner you used long-handled griddles or hearth grates to cook over the fire. Other times you drove down to the lodge at the base of the hill the locals called a mountain, saving the fire for a dessert of s’mores when you got back.

When the twins entered high school and your daughter began her senior year, the cabin was less attractive to them, so you and Jim drove up alone for the occasional weekend. Those trips were wonderful. After dinner at the lodge, you’d take a bottle of wine back to the cabin. You zipped your sleeping bags together and drank the wine and made nice sticky love by the fire, falling asleep in each other’s arms. By morning, your breaths crystallizing in the air, you both felt so much like popsicles that Jim exposed just enough arm to push another EZ Lite log into the fireplace and strike a long barbecue match. Waiting for things to warm up enough for you to crawl naked out of the sleeping bags, you’d make love again.

But on this trip you have Alana with you, buckled into the driver’s side back seat as Jim wheels the BMW along rising snow-covered roads. The upturned collar of her city coat makes her face look small and uneasy. Jim’s gloved fingers drum nervously on the leather-covered steering wheel. Both of them are strangely silent, avoiding each other’s eyes and yours, uncomfortable in the way that only those hiding intimacy can be. Meanwhile, seemingly oblivious, you chatter happily that you are looking forward to some girl time as Jim works on the generator and putties the windows and starts other projects he will never live to finish. Once the car is parked, you and Alana unload the weekend groceries as Jim begins his chores. After you have put away the food, you lead Alana off on a walk through the woods, boots crunching and breaths coming in wisps and her fingers growing numb in too thin gloves. You hike around the lake, knowing exactly how long it will take, how tired Alana will get. When it is time to go back you suggest crossing the frozen lake to save time. When you start, she hesitates to follow but you reassure her that the ice is strong enough, that the twins played hockey on it when they were young, that you’ve all skated on it, that you’ve even gone ice fishing with your neighbor. “Everything will be just fine,” you say. Then you point. “Follow me to that and we can light his kerosene heater to warm up before we go back.” You both strike out for Mr. McGreevy’s ice fishing shelter, a dome-shaped thermal tent two hundred yards or so from shore.

Good old Mr. McGreevy.

You unzip the door flap and hold it for Alana, then slip in behind her and let the flap fall shut before her eyes can adjust. It is dark inside, the thick insulated walls and flaps tied over small plastic windows keeping out most of the sunlight. Once inside you waste no time angling Alana toward the hole Mr. McGreevy always cuts into the ice – diagonally across from the opening, wherever the tent is placed on the lake. “Keep moving that way,” you say, “so I can get to the kerosene heater.” When she hesitates at the sound of sloshing water, you shoulder her forward just enough for her to drop through the hole. Then you toss back the door flap so you can see what you are doing.

 Alana is chest deep and shivering fiercely, gloved hands trying to grip the edge of the hole, her soaked scarf stiffening. Her cry for help is scarcely audible as the cold grips her lungs. You pick up the yellow gaff hook Mr. McGreevy keeps just inside the entrance and hold the handle toward her. As she reaches for it, you place the rubber grip into her chest. Then you push gently, twisting the tubular steel until Alana’s fingers slip away and her splashing becomes frantic, her face taut with terror. Even if she were a strong swimmer, she can do little against the paralyzing cold or the weight of the wet wool coat or the handle pushing her down, down. She knows that once her head slides beneath the surface she will find no other place to come up for air. Her wide eyes are the last thing you see as her face disappears into the black water but still she struggles. When at last her thrashing ceases, you nudge her away from the hole. Then, dropping the hook, you burst out of the tent and cross the ice as rapidly as you can, calling, “Jim! Jim!” and crying as you go.

When Jim steps out of the cabin you yell, “There’s been an accident! She’s under the ice!” and you gesture him onto the lake to head back. Breathing hard, he catches up to you and takes the lead. You can barely keep up. Does he want her so much, so desperately, that he is willing to risk breaking something in a fall? If you fell now, you wonder, would he stop to help you? Would he even notice? But neither of you falls. Once you’re inside the tent, Jim kneels by the hole, and all it takes is a determined shove to send him headfirst into the water. An excellent swimmer, he rights himself quickly, begins groping for the hole. This time the gaff hook won’t be enough because he is strong enough to pull you in after him, so you slide the cylindrical kerosene heater over to the hole, which is wider than the extra large circular base. You tip the heater into the hole so that it lodges at an angle, covering Jim’s only escape. All you need to do is hold it, hold on long enough for him to stop pushing against it and his body to absorb the cold, hold on long enough for you to squeeze tears out of your eyes and scream until your throat is raw, hold on long enough to create the wild mask of horror everyone will remember when you drive down to the lodge for help. Your scream is so loud your head pounds like a jackhammer. You imagine that outside the tent the winter silence is shattered like frozen glass. You picture the few remaining winter birds fleeing icy tree limbs to escape the piercing sound of justice. Even the nocturnal owl is startled awake and into flight. Still, you hold on.

“I never ever said anything about divorce,” Alana says, though you cannot hear because your scream is still so loud, like the endless shriek of tires on an 18-wheeler just inches from taking out your BMW. “I knew going in that divorce was out of the question because you love her, because we both love her and always will. That’s the only way we’ve gotten through this. But it’s been five years, Jim. Five long years on life support. She won’t be coming back. It’s time, baby, and you’re not doing this alone. Everyone who loves her is here to say goodbye and to help you. Your kids. Her friends from work and school and the old neighborhood. Me. But you’re not doing this for them – or me, even if our love for her has helped us find something special together. You’re doing it for her because it’s time. None of us can find a new life until we close the door on this one. All three of us have to let go. She wouldn’t want to live like this, and she would want us, trust us, to make sure she didn’t.”

Soon the struggle beneath the kerosene heater stops and your screaming stops and the throbbing in your head stops. Then you smile with a contentment you never knew was possible and simply…let…go…

 


Novelist and playwright Gary Earl Ross is a retired University at Buffalo professor. His work includes the books The Wheel of Desire, Shimmerville, and Blackbird Rising and the plays Sleepwalker, Picture Perfect, The Best Woman, Murder Squared, The Scavenger’s Daughter, Matter of Intent (winner of the Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America), The Mark of Cain, and The Guns of Christmas. He is at work on the Buffalo-based Gideon Rimes mystery series. Visit him at www.garyearlross.net.


Copyright © 2015 Gary Earl Ross. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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