Francesca watched in horror as her husband ran from the lake, from her, and from Addie, disappearing into the advancing shadows. For a moment, she comforted herself with the belief that he was going for help, but the moment faded as quickly as it had come. Hope dissolved into panic and despair. In her heart, she understood the truth. He had answered her tearful pleas with nothing but a hurtful, intractable silence. A silence that flew over the lake toward her, landing like a purposeful blow, striking her to her core. A silence that inflicted a mortal wound from which she knew she would never recover. He hadn’t once looked back at her or the lake. He just ran. Away from her and Addie, leaving them both to die.
She was overcome with sorrow and a crushing fear. She wanted to find Addie, to help her and to save her, but she felt her physical self weakening. The more exhausted she grew and the more fearful, the more she thrashed about in the water.
“No, no,” Dominic cautions as he tries to stop her. “Don’t struggle so much. You need to just relax. Relax.”
“It’s too deep,” she frets as Dominic puts his arms around her and guides his six-year-old daughter to the middle of the pool. He has decided it is time Francesca learns to swim, so the first lesson takes place at the neighborhood recreation center. “Before you can really learn to swim,” he tells her, “you need to relax. I’m going to teach you to be comfortable in the water.”
He loosens his grip on her, and as she sinks, she flails.
“No, no, don’t fight it.” He props her up again. “See what I’m saying? You slipped down because you tensed up. Just relax.”
“But how?” Francesca whines and pouts. Her every instinct is for life; her every impulse is to resist annihilation.
“I’ll tell you how. You can’t be afraid. If you are, you’ll tense up. Your arms, your shoulders, your legs, all tighten up, and you fight it. But don’t. Don’t fight it. Don’t struggle. Melt into it. Surrender to it.” He loosens his grip on her again. “Once you relax, you’ll begin to float. And once you float, you’ll be safe.”
He puts his hand on her back and nudges her shoulder into the water, encouraging her to lie on top. She giggles as her hair floats out around her. “That’s it,” Dominic assures her as she gives in to the sensation.
“Don’t let go!”
“I won’t.” He smiles though neither hand touches her. She is floating under her own power. Then he holds up both hands. “You’re doing it all by yourself. See? You’re safe!”
Francesca wanted desperately to be safe now. She tried to heed her father’s advice. Perhaps if she could relax, she could float far away from death and betrayal and find the strength she needed to save her daughter. With tears of fear and sadness, she gazed up at the gray late afternoon sky. She wondered then in an instant what it all really meant—this life. Her life. Her work, which seemed so insignificant now. Her beloved music which had vanished without a trace. Her love for Ben which seemed suddenly misplaced and unrequited. Her over-whelming love for her daughter, whom she was incapable of rescuing. She wished she could believe in something. Anything. So long as it was beyond herself and this terrible, heartbreaking, solitary moment. She longed to pray. But to whom? To what? She plunged down deep within herself, seeking to dredge up words of faith and hope. But she found only unformed fragments that washed up like jagged stones on the shore of her soul.
Once you float, you’ll be safe. . . .
Her eyes fluttered like a bird’s wings before flight and slowly closed. “Addie, oh Addie,” she murmured as a long, quiet breath escaped from her, mingling with the cold, crepuscular air. Gradually, a calmness settled over her; her head drooped backwards, grazing the frigid water; her legs flowed slowly out from beneath her, rippling inertly before her. She lay there, still but buoyant, a sad and sleeping beauty, as if some insubstantial lover had reverently placed her upon this watery bed. But her heavy clothes—and heavy spirit—dragged her down, down to the murky depths.
And then it happened. It came to her softly, like a stray leaf floating upon the breeze. It was barely a whisper. “Mama!”
She sprang upright, though she was still far beneath the surface, her feet brushing the bottom. She looked desperately around. Addie! She heard a splash. She peered through the dimness toward the impact and saw a trail of white foam that stretched from the surface down toward the bottom and up again. To her utter surprise, she saw Cruz at the head of this white stream, rapidly paddling across the lake. In his mouth, like a large rag doll, was Addie, still dressed in her pink bibs and matching pink jacket, her gray Baffin boots, and her gray and pink helmet. He was heading away from her, toward the opposite shore. She needed to get to Addie; Cruz could drag her daughter from the water, but only she could imbue her with the breath of life. Francesca summoned all her strength and set off in the direction of the stream. Cruz was an angel, heaven sent, she was sure of that now. He had come to save Addie and lead them both out of this dismal prison.
She swam, keeping her eyes on the trail of foam and bubbles. Her journey through the lake seemed eternal; minutes passed like hours, like days and weeks and months. It took all her will to lift one arm, then the other, to kick her legs and propel herself forward. But when exhaustion nearly overcame her, and she believed she lacked the ability to go on, she saw a light shining down from the surface of the lake. It swirled toward the bottom, a ladder of hope. There, in this vortex, the white stream ended. Cruz and Addie disappeared from her view.
Francesca felt herself failing, but her desire to reach her daughter gave her the courage she needed. In one last surge, she stroked the water, forcing herself forward into the eddy. She looked up to see a break in the ice at the surface. With the last remaining ounce of energy, she pushed herself up, up toward the surface, up toward the blessed light. When she emerged from the depths, she coughed and gasped for air that had so long been denied her. She cried and laughed and cried again as she inhaled the cold early evening air. She took long draughts which made her dizzy with life. With renewed hope and stamina, she swam the last leg of her journey to shore, the fifteen feet that were miraculously free of ice. There she crawled from the water’s womb, falling face down at the lake’s edge.
Francesca sat up, her numb legs folded beneath her, her hands pressed into the ice, supporting her. She scanned the deepening twilight but could find no evidence of where Cruz had gone. There were no paw prints in the snow, no trail that had been left behind to show he dragged Addie to safety.
Francesca started; the child’s mournful plea, full of longing and tears, clearly came from within the nearby forest. She forced herself to stand but didn’t move until she felt her legs steady beneath her. Her black Baffin boots, outwardly wet, were now encased in ice. They had, however, performed as promised and kept her feet dry and warm. The outside of her jacket was soaked. She unzipped it, discarding it by the water’s edge. The outer surface of her black bibs was also wet, but beneath them, the other two layers remained remarkably dry—the Thermaskin long underwear, her jeans and the white turtleneck she donned earlier in the day. The only thing that was wet was the collar. She ran her gloved hand around her neck to dry it as best she could and turned the collar down, keeping the moist portion away from her skin, then pulled off her black, heated, waterproof gloves. They too were wet only on the outside; her hands remained warm and dry. Reaching up, she unpinned her sodden hair, which tumbled down around her like a dark waterfall. The frigid December air immediately turned her long tresses white with frost.
Francesca gazed long into the gloomy woods before her. She knew she had come up on the other shore, but suddenly nothing looked familiar, not the forest before her nor the lake behind her. It was true, she hadn’t spent much time on this side of the property and certainly never ventured into this part of the woods. But the sudden strangeness startled her.
Again, she heard the child’s plaintive cry. Francesca realized then what she had to do. Though the afternoon had given way to twilight, and the eerie, lonesome shadows of night were now upon her, she approached the dark thicket on unsteady legs. Her heart was aflutter; a sense of dread and doom enveloped her. She paused. Then, amid fear and trembling, she made her way into the dark and unfamiliar forest. For her love of her daughter was greater than her fear of death. In the distance, the church bells rang out five times.
Excerpted with permission from ICE OUT: A Novel by Susan Speranza. © 2022, Susan Speranza. She Writes Press is a division of SparkPoint Studio, LLC.
Francesca Bodin has a near-perfect life as an accomplished music teacher and professional flutist living in the Vermont countryside with her husband Ben, and their four-year old daughter, Addie. This ends suddenly when a snowmobiling accident traps the three of them in a frozen lake. Ben, after escaping onto the ice, leaves her and Addie to die.
Francesca believes she sees their dog pull Addie from the lake and drag her into the nearby woods. Desperate to help her daughter, she crawls from the icy waters and follows them. Once she enters the forest, however, she finds herself trapped in a sinister, dream-like world where night never ends, where Addie’s whereabouts remain hidden from her, and where she encounters a group of women who, like Francesca, have been left to die and now seek to unleash their revenge on those who have harmed them. When they have Ben in their sights, Francesca realizes that if she is ever to escape this nightmare and save her daughter, she must first save the husband who abandoned them.
While Francesca’s pilgrimage through this bleak landscape is on the surface a desperate attempt to find her daughter and reestablish her life as it was before the accident, it ultimately becomes an allegorical journey that takes her from despair to hope, from grief to acceptance, and from bitterness to forgiveness.
Thriller Psychological [She Writes Press, On Sale: May 24, 2022, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781647423247 / ]
Susan Speranza was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island, and for a time worked in Manhattan, enjoying the hectic pace and cultural amenities of the City. Eventually, however, she grew tired of it and exchanged the urban/suburban jungle for the peace and quiet of rural Vermont living. In between the demands of life, she authored two other books: The City of Light, a dystopian story about the end of western civilization, and The Tale of Lucia Grandi, The Early Years, a novel about a dysfunctional suburban family. She has also published numerous articles, poems, and short stories. Along the way, she managed to collect a couple of master’s degrees. When she is not writing, she keeps herself busy exhibiting and breeding her champion Pekingese.
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