It's cold out. A weak breeze stirs and dies in a few moments. What gusts it does emit shivers the wispy branches of a half-dead ash tree, shaking the small amount of collected snow drifting to earth.
There is a brief silence, broken here and there by the creak of ancient wood planks and by the whispers of wind once it builds up enough temporary courage. The lake makes no sound; it isn't frozen, not quite, but it's been considering it over the past few days. The skies are certainly gray enough, the temperature past freezing point. And yet for whatever reason it holds out, a flat pane of blue against the white of the landscape and the brown of the dock.
A man – a boy? The scarf obscures his face – sits on the edge of the dock. The laced boots over his feet dangle over the side, swaying slightly like the branches above him in the breeze and knocking into one another at irregular intervals. Occasionally the fabric of his thick down jacket shift, making tiny noises amplified by the stillness. His eyes, the only part of his body unprotected from the nipping cold, are downcast. It appears as if he's contemplating something.
Loud noises, very loud, tear through the silence. The wood of the dock creaks behind him. He doesn't turn. His eyes don't even flicker. It's rhythmic, and appears to be growing closer. Two sets. Footsteps. He doesn't turn.
They stop a few feet behind him.
“Morty, what the hell are you doing out here?”
“Leave him alone.”
One set of footsteps approaches. “C'mon, man. You're being stupid.” The dormant silence returns.
A pair of hands grab Morty roughly by the shoulders. His spine snaps upright.
“I bet a nice swim would take your mind off things!”
He shoves the hands off his shoulders.
“I told you to leave him alone.”
“You would take his side.”
“Just stop bothering him. What's your problem, anyway?”
“My 'problem' is that your boyfriend is acting like a five-year-old who just dropped his goddamn ice cream. What's the big deal anyway? It was just a –“
“If you don't go back to the house right now, you're going to end up in the fucking water, you hear me? Go! Get out of here, you asshole!”
Footsteps creak away, paired with quiet curse words and grumbles. Again the silence returns, but only for long as it takes Kayla to make sure her companion has disappeared without a trace.
“I'm sorry about Karl. He really tries not to be an ass all the time, but I don't know if he can control it. Mom took him by the head doctor when we were little – they said he was totally fine, perfectly healthy of mind. I still think they should bring him back. Even if there isn't anything wrong with him. At least he'd be gone a few days.” Her giggle raises gooseflesh on the small of Morty's back – or maybe it's just the cold. Her steps approach him, crescendoing finally in one last loud crick as she sits down on the snowy plank beside him. One gloved hand slips into his and gives it a reassuring squeeze. Morty tilts his head slightly to look at her. Pink fleece jacket. Fur trapper's hat. Cargo pants. She doesn't have a scarf covering her mouth and nose like he does, and her nose and cheeks are flushed from the cold.
She tries to angle her face further into his frame of vision, and he looks away. “You really are upset, aren't you.”
Silence. A slight tilt of his head forward, then back again. The edge of the lake glitters as a small patch opens in the clouds above.
She follows his gaze. “Look, I know it was important to you. But even though it's gone, you'll still always remember him. An object doesn't mean anything, not when you look at it like-”
“Kayla.” The voice is like old bark – rough, dry. “I don't want to talk to you.”
“Sorry,” he lies.
“N-no, it's fine.” She scuffles up. “I, uh, need to go anyway.”
Morty doesn't look up, or say anything more. Her footsteps are hurried and gone in an instant. The silence almost regains, save for the quiet sound of her footsteps crunching on the snow back to her house and the strangled sobs as she tries and fails to silence them.
The sounds ebb away, eventually. Morty's head shifts slightly as he turns to stare at a point on the horizon. Dark clouds have begun the long trek toward the lake. Their journey will take somewhere between an hour and two. He keeps his eyes them, watching their lazy, aching pace.
A sound, like a sack falling a few feet. Thin limbs overburdened by snow, the ash has deposited what excess it could to the ground. There is not another tree for miles. Homes dot the landscape here and there, visible from where Morty can sit. Most are buried partially in the growing snow.
The lake has begun to stir. Flecks of snow float onto the surface and vanish in a few moments. Above the invading clouds have quickened their pace. The sky darkens.
A snowflake lands underneath Morty's right eye, just above the scarf. He makes no move to brush it away, and it disappears as surely as if it had landed in the lake.
Gray smoke begins to drift from one of the houses far ahead, drifting upward until it meshes with the darkened sky. Morty's eyes don't shift to trail it. Even as the snow grows around him, burying his hands splayed on the wood of the dock, he doesn't shiver. His clothes are thick, but not thick enough to protect him from the plummeting temperature.
Another sound cracks the silence, only for an instant. Morty strains his ears. It calls again, louder this time. Morty? A voice. He lets out a lengthy sigh. It's his stepfather.
The footsteps crunch in the snow behind the dock before long. “Morty?” the voice calls again. “That you, boy?”
No words. Unfazed, the crunching turns to creaking. “You didn't pick the best hiding place.” Closer still. “Jesus. You're damn near buried in snow. What the hell you been doin' out here?”
“Morty?” They're right behind him. A hand nudges him, and he tenses. “Good. Thought you were a popsicle for a second there.”
“Now I'll ask again: what the hell are you doing sitting out here in twenty degree weather? Might not be frozen quite yet, but give it an hour or so and it's gonna get even colder.”
The wind blows.
“Not talking. I get it.” He sits down to Morty's right, where Kayla sat earlier. He's a large man, with a a curly brown beard. His head is covered by a brown knit cap, and he wears a red plaid jacket that bears his hairy forearms. Two suspender straps encircle his shoulders.
Morty speaks. “Leave me alone.”
It's far darker than it should be at this hour.
Morty's stepfather says not a word for two minutes. Then:
“It's damn cold out.” He doesn't shiver.
“Did you not hear me? I told you. Leave me alone.”
Morty's stepfather shrugs.
Morty shivers. It isn't the cold. He turns his head to the right, slowly. A joint pops.
His stepfather meets his gaze. There's the ghost of a smile on his face. Morty quakes.
“LEAVE ME ALONE, YOU... YOU FUCK!”
The ghost of a smile is gone.
Morty shivers still. He glares at his stepfather, who stares impassably back, before his eyes shift back out toward the lake. But they don't seem to focus on anything, moving erratically like a fly trapped in a glass.
A bead of liquid has formed in the corner of Morty's eye. It isn't snow. He brushes it away. “Jim's watch. It's gone.”
“I dunno what happened – the strap broke at some point, maybe when Karl and I were wrestling. I was wearing it on the outer side of my jacket like an idiot. I only realized it was gone a couple...” He checks his wrist. The muscles around his eyes crinkle, and his eyebrows twitch upward.
“So it's Karl's fault. Did you kick his ass?”
Morty turns back toward his stepfather. “What would that have helped?”
“I...” He grunts. “I guess that's a pretty good point. Might have made you feel better, though.”
A sigh disperses in a misty cloud. “I don't think so. Doesn't really change the facts.”
As they've spoken the sky has visibly darkened, this time from the hour, not just the encroaching clouds. The hour is waning.
“Did you try looking for it?”
Without speaking, Morty holds up his gloved hands. There are traces of dirt and gravel here and there on the palm and fingers, and the fabric has been torn and worn away here and there. “Had already been snowing a couple hours by the time I realized it anyway. Didn't even have a chance.” Morty shivers, and wraps his arms around his sides. His stepdad raises a muscular arm, almost placing it around the boy's left shoulder. He hesitates, and returns it to where it sat on the cold wood of the dock. Morty doesn't appear to have noticed. “You probably think I'm being stupid.”
Some snow scatters from his stepfather's beard as he shakes his head. “Of course not. I mean, it's not the objects that matter. It's the people.” He pauses for a few moments and chuckles, shaking his head. “Dammit. I think I sprung that line too early.” He exhales, a deep hollow noise. “I'm sorry, kid. I've never been much good with words of comfort.”
Morty nods. “It's fine. I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have called you... what I called you. Just still upset about the watch.” He stands up. His legs shake after being left unused for so long. Morty waves his hands out across the lake. “He and I – we used to go out here all the time to fish. There was this old, rickety wood skiff that used to be tethered about...” One booted foot stamps on the corner of the dock. “About here. It up and snapped in a storm one day, sunk the boat, that was that. That all happened a while after they sent Jim off. Nobody here was getting much use out of it anyway.”
“Didn't know you used to go out on the lake.” He hesitates. “Guess there's a lot I don't know,” he mutters, his brow furrowing. His gaze watches the snowfall. The falling flakes drift to earth at the same unhurried pace, but more and more seems to fill the air with each passing minute.
“Jim gave me that watch the last time I saw him, out on this lake. Said he wanted to give me something to remember him by in case he didn't...” Morty trails off. His stepfather pats him on the back, but his eyes are still clouded, as if elsewhere. “I guess he knew he wasn't cut out to be a soldier. I guess I did too. When I was ten – he was thirteen – the two of us went out to hunt with our... er... Brock.” Another shiver passes through his body as he glances down at his stepfather, still sitting on the edge of the dock.
The bearded man chuckles. “You mean your real dad.”
Morty rolls his shoulders and shifts from foot to foot. “It doesn't matter that he was there. He 'got lost' about an hour in. Found the bastard sitting at home drinking a beer when we came back about six hours later.”
“You shouldn't call him th-”
“Joseph.” The boy stares at his stepfather. “Calling him a 'bastard' is an understatement, and a big one. I think you know that.” There is a brief silence.
“Anyway, that wasn't the point of what I was saying. He and I walked to the forest over...” Morty squints one eye and traces an invisible line against the horizon with his finger. There's too much snow to make anything out. “Well, it's over there.” One arm waves dismissively in a wide arc. “In the summer small animals show up. He and I went out to hunt rabbits with a couple of Brock's rifles – dusty, near-rusted things, but at least they shot. You wanna know how many of the little bastards each of us nailed?”
A flat chuckle escapes the boy. “Close. I got three. Jim didn't hit any.” His brow furrows. “Thing is, he was never a bad shot – we'd gone out hunting rabbits before. Hell, he was better than me.” As if bit by the memory, his expression hardens, and his next words are so quiet that his stepfather barely catches them over the wind. “Better than Brock, too. Even when the man was sober.” His voice regains its tone. “But that day... I noticed it about two hours in. His shots were wide, damn wide, of where the rabbits were. We'd tromp around in the grass, flush them out, I'd aim, he'd aim, I'd hit the rabbit or near the rabbit, he'd plug the tree a couple feet away. Said it was his rifle. Took a look at it later. There wasn't anything wrong with it, aside from the disrepair. Nothing that would have made a shot go that wide.”
“That was just after the thing with Brock and Mom. He learned more about it than I did – he was older, and nosier. Though you didn't exactly have to put a cup to your ear to hear everything that happened. Guess he just paid more attention to everything. Not a lot got by him.”
The landscape around them has darkened. A patch of clouds high above them is lighter than the others. Thin rays of moonlight pierce the shroud from time to time, but they are few and far between. Behind the dock the ash creaks as it sways in the wind.
“That was before you were in the picture, long before. You didn't start dating Mom until after they sent him off, and he never...” Again, he trails off. His glance slides down at his stepfather, who stares at the horizon. “You never met him, did you.” It isn't a question. The bearded man doesn't respond.
“I think he would have liked you, Joe.”
“We should head back in.” Joseph's voice is hesitant, the words slow. The shadows cast on his face by the darkening sky hide his expression.
Morty's mouth works behind his scarf, but no words come out. “I... don't want to go home. Not right now.”
“Kid, it's below thirty. I know you're still upset, but staying out here and freezing your ass off won't fix anything.”
Morty clenches his fists. “I'm not going in.”
The wind swells. Below them, the water of the lake agitates. Above, the snow has begun to fall in droves, harder. It's no later than four, but the sky is dark gray. There's barely enough light to see by.
Joseph swings one leg up onto the dock, putting his weight onto it until he stands at his full height, towering over Morty. The boy swallows and steps back without thinking. His foot meets open air instead of the old, creaking wood of the dock, and in an instant his entire body is enveloped in a crushing fist of frigid matter. He thrashes his limbs, but the icy liquid renders his movements sluggish. The darkness closes in around him – every direction looks the same. His stinging vision clouds. Before the shadows become absolute, there's a sensation of being pulled somewhere at the front of his chest. Then nothing.
Joseph's hands are buried in his pockets. Angeline's head rests on the side of his thigh, the scar next to her ear left unguarded by her hair. He still remembers the bloody bandage that covered it on the day he met her. He squeezes her shoulder. A sad smile plays across her features, and she rubs her head on his leg in her sleep.
She had earlier responded to his explanation for everything that had happened earlier with no more than a nod. Then she gave him a tight hug and told him everything was ok and called him “Brock.” It took her a few moments to realize her gaff, and when she did, she began to sob. He told her it was fine, that he didn't mind. No big deal.
It wasn't the first time, and probably wouldn't be the last. When she was sober she usually got his name right, but that had become such a rare occurrence that he'd gotten used to the mistakes from time to time.
With care he slips his leg out from under her black hair and sets her head on the couch. He stands. The light from the fireplace is weak, bathing the majority of the room in shadow. Some of the picture frames on the far wall glint. Four faces. Not one is his.
Without turning on any of the lights he ascends the stairs, his movements slow. A toe catches on the corner of a step, and he smothers a curse in his shoulder. On the couch Angeline doesn't stir. Joseph sighs and ascends the final few steps to the second floor.
The floorboards creak, much like the boards on the dock had earlier. His expression turns solemn. At the end of the hall the door to Morty's room is still ajar from when he checked it an hour ago. He approaches. An outstretched hand hesitates in the air before the doorknob for a moment. Joseph shakes his head and opens the door. Light spills into the room in a jagged swath, illuminating a few discarded articles of clothing, a closed laptop, and a metal trophy on which the words “2nd Place: Morty Williams, 18.5 In. Rainbow Trout” can barely be made out.
In the darkness before him there's the sound of rustling sheets. Joseph's shoulders relax, and his stern expression softens. He tries to walk back into the hall, nudging the door shut as he does so.
He lingers there a moment, brow furrowed, before turning toward the room he shares with Angeline. It's sparse – there's a closet set into the wall on the far side, a dresser on the left side of the room containing all of her clothes, a hamper containing his on the right side. Beside the closet a bed sits against the wall, nighstands on both sides. His is bare except for the still-damp knit cap he was wearing earlier, which lies draped over the side as if deflated. On hers there is an empty bottle. With a sigh Joseph picks it up and drops it in the wastebasket in the corner of the room before walking to the closet. It's filled with ancient junk, a few of Angeline's dresses, grown musty and moth-nibbled after so long left unused. Some are torn in places.
Joseph pushes past them with a hand, rooting around until it grasps a plastic handle. He lifts it out.
It's a tackle box. It's dusty. A few moth balls sit atop it; Joseph brushes them off and opens the latches. Colorful lures and hooks wink at him. He closes it again and leaves the room, trying not to let his eyes drift toward the photograph of a man with a beard much like his sticking out from beneath Angeline's pillow. He never asked her about it. Never wanted to know who it was, why it was there. For the former he had little doubt. For the latter he knew that to speculate would be far less painful than to learn the truth.
He returns to the hallway, tackle box bumping against his leg as he walks. The door to Morty's room is ajar. Again. Joseph pushes it open even less than he did before, only enough so that he can stick his torso and the tackle box in. His movements are precise and slow.
Joseph freezes. No words escape his mouth, even as his lips twitch. Time and time again, he almost speaks. “N-no,” he stammers, eventually. “It's just me.”
Morty rubs his eyes.
“Well, I...” Joseph chuckles, trying to hide his constricting throat. Only after a few seconds have passed can he speak. “I'm sorry I knocked you into the lake.”
“You didn't knock me into the lake. I stepped back. It was my fault.”
The man shakes his head, his maned shadow on the floor contorting with his movements. “But it wouldn't have happened if I wasn't there –“
“Do you know what happened on the night my father left?”
“I...” Joseph's mouth has gone dry. “What does that have to do with-”
“It was three years ago, in December. Jim and I were fishing out on the dock. It was late, and colder outside than it is right now.” In the darkness he rubs his forehead with one of his hands. “Jim stood up and started goofing off on the edge of the pier. The plank he was on snapped, and he went right in, right through the ice. Never was a great swimmer. Neither was – am – I.” He lets out an almost-chuckle. “So I ran back to the house. Brock was sitting in the kitchen. Drinking a beer.”
“When I told him where Jim was and what happened, he laughed. Hard. And he didn't stop. Drunk as hell. I had to go upstairs and get Mom. By the time the two of us managed to get him out of the water he had hypothermia. We had to take him to the emergency room. I heard the argument later that night. I wish I hadn't. Yelling. Things breaking. In the morning they were both gone. She to the hospital. Him to god knows where. Haven't seen him since.”
His stepfather's shoulders are slumped. “Hell, kid. Shouldn't have to go through all that at your age.”
Morty opens his mouth, but pauses as his eyes alight on the tackle box. “What's that in your hand?”
“Oh, this?” Joseph holds it up. “It's... well, it's a bait box. Was gonna leave here for you to find in the morning. I brought it when I moved in, but I never ended up using it. I never thought you had any interest, but I thought... well, maybe you and I could go down to the lake and fish for a bit. Maybe. Someday.” He looks at Morty, who doesn't speak. Quickly, he adds, “I understand if you don't want to – because of your brother, and all. It was probably a stupid idea. Just thought if I couldn't get you your watch I could... well, hell, I dunno what I was thinking..” Behind his back he digs the nails on his other hand into his palm and grits his teeth.
“Let's go tomorrow.”
Joseph's mouth again tries and fails to form words. He sets the tackle box down in the boy's room as he releases the tension in his other hand. “Sounds great,” he musters, finally. He shakes his head as if to clear it. “You've had quite a day. Should probably get some rest, bud.” There's a grin, half-hidden by the darkness, on his face.
“Might be a good idea.” There's one on Morty's, too.
“Alright. Night, Morty.”
Joseph shakes, but stills himself long enough to shut the door to Morty's room – firmly, this time. He then stands up straight, exhales, and reaches up and brushes a spot of water from the corner of his eye. It's followed by another. He rubs his face on the sleeve of his shirt.
“Turning into a damned softie,” he chuckles to himself. The smile doesn't leave him as he descends the stairs and retakes his place on the couch with Angeline. As he sits there, he glances down at her scar again, tracing his finger gently along it. It's less jagged than he remembers it. In fact, it almost looks like it's finally beginning to heal.