Knock. I’m at least fifteen feet from the frozen shore when I hear it. The ice feels as solid as concrete, so I take another step. The Winnibigoshish is like most of the Minnesota ice out lakes which will remain frozen until Spring. There’s no chance of breaking through. At least that’s what my girlfriend Amy keeps telling me.
“I hear it cracking. We shouldn’t go so far out —”
“I hear something cracking. Is it the voice of my terrified boyfriend?”
I glare at her, or at least at the waddling bundle of winter coats which has devoured her without a trace. Somewhere in my head is faintly echoing the song I will do anything for love, but I won’t do that. I can’t turn it off, but I do my best do turn down the volume so I can take another step. The thick blanket of snow which covers the ice keeps me from sliding, and if I really concentrate I can pretend I’m walking on a regular snowy field.
Knock. It’s just so hard with that sound like an ephemeral gunshot deep below the ice. Reverberating echos insidiously linger somewhere between hearing and imagination. There isn’t any reason to be afraid. If I’m trembling, it’s just because it’s 14 degrees outside.
“If you don’t hurry up, I’m going to start stomping and throwing rocks,” Amy shouts. “Then we’ll see how solid it really is.”
When did she get so far ahead of me? It’s amazing how quickly the world can pass you by when you’re staring at your feet. I scramble and slide another few shambling paces toward her. It’s easier to move if I just focus on her. Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down —
Knock. I look down. My body doesn’t ask for permission first. I couldn’t help it when the sound comes from directly below. I stare down into the blank patch of ice where the snow is thinner. I stare down into the blurred blue-tinged face on the other side of the ice, and the hand which pulls back to —
— but the knock doesn’t come. This time the hand simply presses against the underside of the glassy window. Fingers spread wide in an intimate gesture as though inviting my touch from the other side.
“Seriously dude? I’m going to freeze to death waiting for you.”
“Amy?” My voice is muffled from my scarf, but I can’t look up from the lake. The face is coming into focus as it presses itself against the ice. Amy’s skin had never been so pale, her eyes never so blue, as those staring up at me from below my feet.
“I swear to God, if you pussy out on me then I’m leaving your ass here. You said you’d go all the way out with me.”
Amy — the other Amy, underneath the ice — her mouth is moving too. It isn’t hard to read her lips when it’s only one word: Run.
“You’ve got five seconds before I leave you here,” my girlfriend shouted. “Four!”
My knees buckle and I tumble down to peer into the ice. The other Amy isn’t exactly identical. Her clothing is different, but familiar. She’s wearing the purple sweater my girlfriend had been wearing yesterday when we’d gone out skiing together.
“Amy wait —”
I put my hand against the ice to mirror the girl underneath. She recoils immediately, her face twisting into that of desperate fear. Amy and I had been separated about an hour yesterday when she moved onto the advanced slopes while I practiced on the “bunny hill”. Had something happened to her during that time?
Knock. Her fist slamming into the underside of the ice which vibrates underneath me. Then slamming again, her movements frenzied in their urgency. Her mouth straining as the silent scream rips from her body. The muscles in my legs coil beneath me, so tense they might as well be a brooding avalanche which needs only the weight of one more snowflake to begin.
This voice was different. It was still Amy, but it wasn’t her, like comparing a black-and-white photo to the original. All the color, all the life, all the flavor had drained from the sound, leaving only the barest skeleton of her voice to hang in the frozen air.
Run! screams the girl under the ice, but I can’t leave her there. I clasp my hands together to raise them above my head, smashing them into the window. It feels like the bones in my fingers are rattling together from the impact. Underneath, the girl is flinging her entire body against her side of the ice.
“I’m giving up on you,” shouted the colorless voice. It sounded like it was farther away, but I don’t look up. The girl below the ice is growing weaker with each strike. Her fingers are stiff and inflexible. Her mouth is still working over the same word again and again, but each iteration comes more slowly as her jaw resists the effort.
I can break through though. A deep hollow crack is resonating with each blow. Flurries of snow and ice shrapnel explode into the air as I strike the ice again and again. The girl below is sinking now, but I’m not giving up until —
Glacial waters spray from the crack. One more blow and I’m through, plunging my hand into the numbing chill to seize the stiff fingers slipping deeper into the water. The skin is so hard and cold it feels like metal, but life surges into her as she responds to my touch. She’s gripping me now, and if I can just get stable footing I’ll be able to haul her out —
But she pulls before I have the chance, and I’m already tumbling into winter’s gaping mouth. Water so cold that it burns my skin closes over my head. The other Amy braces her feet against the underside of the ice to pull me deeper still, launching off with her legs to send both of us spiraling downward.
I can feel my eyes freezing all the way to my skull, but I can’t shut them if I want any chance of finding the hole in the ice. She’s still clinging to me, but a few wild kicks buy me enough space to start clawing my way back toward the surface. I expect my impetus to rocket me straight out of the water, but my head only slams into the impenetrable ceiling of ice. Even down here, it sounds a lot like the knocking I’ve heard since I arrived.
My wild fingers probe the ice as far as I can reach in every direction. I went straight down and back up! The hole should be here. My skin revolts against the numbing darkness. The pressure in my lungs is mounting by the second. My body demands a scream, but I refuse to waste the last remnants of my precious air.
I’m pulling myself along the bottom of the ice in every direction, but the strength in my fingers is swiftly fleeting. The hole is gone. The light is dying, and soon I will follow. Soon, but not yet. Fingers grip around my ankle. I’m not strong enough to kick free anymore. Another hand latches on and begins to drag me, and I know in my heart that it’s the hand of death.
Then the pull. Water rushes over me, but I can barely feel it anymore. There’s a momentary pause as the hands refocus their grip, and then the pull again dragging me deeper still. My last uncertain thought is wondering why it’s growing brighter around me instead of darker. An idle curiosity of no consequence. She’s pulling again, and —
My legs are pierced by a sudden wind. My brain can no longer process how that’s possible. Then another pull and the water begins to pour off my body. My head is suddenly clear from the water and I collapse onto my back on solid ground. I’m coughing and spitting up water, but a warm blanket is being wrapped around me. My eyes flutter open from the life-giving pressure, and Amy is there. Amy in her purple sweatshirt, perfectly dry — she’s holding me to her and wailing incoherently.
I must have passed out after that, but when I woke up I was back inside her house. She said I must have been crazy to break the ice under me, but she ran back as soon as she saw me fall in. I was upside-down in the water, but she managed to pull me out by my ankles.
“What on earth were you thinking? You could have died!”
I didn’t tell her about the face under the ice though. I didn’t ask her how she could have changed back into her purple sweatshirt in the middle of that ordeal. And above all else, I didn’t ask her about the knocking I still hear resounding far above my head, almost as though it were coming from another world.
I don’t think I’m ready to find out.