by Bob Hazlett
Ten years since Jeff had been to this little lakeside town of Center Harbor. Ten years since his life had changed from bright and sunny to dismal black. Yet, here he sat, at the bar in the Pine Tree Pub, the neighborhood watering hole for this mountain summer resort town.
“What’ll it be?” asked Archie the bartender, approaching Jeff, with his brain obviously trying to name the face he knew he knew.
“Double Stoli on the rocks with three olives,” replied Jeff.
That did it. “You’re Jeff Winthrop. You haven’t been here since the time Elizabeth died.”
“Ten years,” acknowledged Jeff.
“What brings you back?”
“Torment. I’ve been in hell for ten years, and I hoped a revisit might give me some closure.”
The day in question was a bright late summer day. Jeff and Elizabeth were enjoying a vacation just after college graduation before starting promising careers and beginning a family. They were deeply in love, and the wedding was just three weeks hence. All was right with their world. Elizabeth was water skiing behind the restored Chris Craft that came with their cabin as part of the rental. Jeff was driving in wide sweeping S turns, letting Elizabeth jump over the wake. Elizabeth was yelling for more. Suddenly she was airborne, her skis falling loose as she hurtled high into the air. It took Jeff a few seconds to realize what had happened, turn around, and get back to where Elizabeth had let go of the ski rope. There was no sign of Elizabeth. She had vanished.
Local police spent the next week dragging the lake for Elizabeth’s body with no success. They surmised she had hit a partially submerged log. In the beginning, Jeff accompanied them, but then resigned himself to waiting at the boat ramp for the daily report. Always negative.
Eventually, he returned to the city to cancel wedding plans, help Elizabeth’s family arrange and conduct a funeral without a body, then turn his attention to making a living. In spite of heart-rending grief, rent must be paid, and groceries must be provided.
“Fill me in.” said Archie.
“I kept in touch with the police for a few years.”, said Jeff, “calling weekly, then monthly. I stopped calling when the last detective working the case retired.”
“I’ve been here the whole time.”, replied Archie. “I remember when Buckley retired. All kinds of rumors and wild tales have grown up over the years since then. But the young people who come here now know nothing of Elizabeth and couldn’t care less.”
“What kind of tales?”
“Some say she is a ghost that haunts the lake. One story has it that she became a mermaid. The cynics dismiss it all by saying she became fish food. Every once in a while, a fisherman who had too much to drink will come in swearing he saw her.”
“So what about you?”, inquired Archie.
“I still hurt. I miss her every day. I’ve had a reasonably successful career in advertising, but I never married. I came back in desperation – hoping to somehow close this down and begin some kind of a normal life.”
“No luck. I’ve been here a week. Going home tomorrow. Still as miserable as ever.”
“I wish you the best, man.” said Archie, as Jeff paid for his drink and got up to leave.
Jeff’s bags were packed and standing on the porch waiting for Mr. Wilson who would soon arrive to take him to the train station. Jeff stood waiting, looking out across the water. Tomorrow Wilson would return to clean the cabin and close it down for the winter.
Another summer was over. The end of summer was always a melancholy time – this one much worse for Jeff than others – the tenth anniversary of that terrible day when his life fell apart.
The wind suddenly picked up as Jeff looked out from the porch. A wall of dark clouds was pushing across the horizon, and a light chop had developed, gently rocking the tiny boat tied at the dock – a grumbling reminder for the summer folks to leave and get back in the big city where they belong.
Just as Wilson arrived, movement out in the deepest water caught Jeff’s attention. Rushing down the stairs, he kicked off his shoes and raced to untie the boat. The engine started without hesitation, and Jeff sped out to the center of the lake. Wilson watched in amazement, holding Jeff’s two suitcases, as Jeff dove over the side and disappeared.