First Place Winner of the 2023 Writes of Summer Short Story Challenge
divide in the community as long and angry as the jagged shoreline. Still, the dock remained, a last resort for those who could not find peace on land.
A frigid wind whipped around Thalia’s mist-dampened brown hair. She shivered, only noticing Jalen’s arrival when he bumped her with his hip. Playful. No demons in his mind urging him toward the small boat that always returned, whether carrying a person renewed of spirit, or bobbing unmanned along the currents toward shore.
“Thought I’d find you here.” Jalen nuzzled closer, bringing with him the scent of sawdust. A handmade band of woven cedar held his knitted earmuffs cozy against his ears. “You know you don’t need fixing, right, Ta? You’re perfect just the way you are.”
Despite herself, Thalia smiled. “That’s so cliché.” She met his gaze, blue eyes shimmering the way kinder waters did.
He lifted an eyebrow. “More cliché than your teenage angst?”
A pause, before their laughter ignited. Jalen’s solid chuckle could lift her mood during the worst of times.
Why wasn’t that enough?
Her attention returned to the lake, until Jalen brushed his hand against hers, warm skin meeting trembling fingers.
“Don’t do it, Thalia.”
“I might come back.”
“You might. Less than half do.”
“If I’m strong enough, I will. And if I do…I’ll be better.” I’ll be worthy of you.
His grip tightened. He felt so solid. So real. While she felt insubstantial, like the mist.
“I have to try,” she whispered.
Jalen sighed, the long exhalation like the telling of a tale, carrying with it flashes of their history, two children skipping too fast along wet rocks, scraping knees, splashing, teasing. Until time sparked a new element into their friendship, a path Thalia feared she couldn’t travel because half her heart was in the lake. With her sister.
Jalen removed his earmuffs, slid them over her ears, and secured the string under her chin. “To keep you warm on your journey.” He cupped her ice-cold cheek. “Come back to me, Thalia.”
Warmed but still fractured, she turned away. Thalia walked the rough wooden planks, unmoored the boat, and pushed off into the water.
She maneuvered the oars, secured by an iron frame, until her shoulders ached. The water gently slapped the boat as the shoreline disappeared into the horizon.
The change was abrupt. The lake roiled until waves swelled in every direction. A thick column of water shot upward before it descended into the boat, but instead of splashing down, it thudded into a mass of flesh. Thalia’s adrenaline spiked as the mass began to writhe and reshape, limbs growing outward, a neck stretching until it held a face, a scalp, with mist-dampened brown hair.
Thalia couldn’t breathe.
Her own face stared back at her, identical earmuffs covering identical ears.
Thalia tilted her head. The thing before her did the same, mimicking her movements.
“What…are you?” she asked shakily
“What are you,” the reflection repeated.
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand.”
The creature that was herself smiled. “That’s all I needed, anyway.” She appraised Thalia. “Quite pretty, aren’t we? Tell me, do we have a handsome lover waiting for us somewhere?”
Jalen, her mind said as the creature reached forward, brushed Thalia’s skin, and spoke aloud, “Jalen.” Her Cheshire grin widened. “Very handsome. I must know more if I’m to fit in.” The creature grabbed her wrist, taking knowledge, and a whirlpool of understanding flooded Thalia’s mind.
No matter what happened next, she would not be returning.
Blood roared in her ears. She thought of Jalen kissing the wicked mouth of this imposter. And she knew what she needed to do. Twisting her wrist free, she flung herself into the lake, a knife-like chill slicing through her.
Thalia tried to swim, down, down, down, to where the mimic couldn’t touch her, couldn’t steal her essence, but she wasn’t quick enough. The creature followed, seized her ankle. They sparred underwater, kicking and thrashing in a blur of bubbles. Thalia’s lungs screamed for air as memories were clawed from her one by one until she went limp.
Thalia drifted downward, watching a more confident version of herself kick up toward the boat, knowing now the returners weren’t the strong ones. Those who never returned, like her sister, who refused to let themselves be replaced, were truly the strong. Or better yet, those who loved themselves enough not to venture into the water in the first place.
His image gave her the final strength to untie and rip free the headband, along with a chunk of her hair, before the world went black.
Jalen heard the boat re-mooring and rushed to the dock. She strode toward him. “Told you I’d come back.” She sounded different, self-assured. Changed. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him, fiercely. He kissed her back, wept, and moaned her name. “Thalia.” His friend, holding him close without hesitation, freed from the anguish that drove her into the water. Thalia. But better.
“You came back,” he murmured.
Removing the headband, she slid the earmuffs over his ears. “I had to return these, didn’t I?”
She grinned, knowingly.
Though she did not know an identical cedar headband was bobbing along the water’s surface, riding the currents, carrying the secrets of the lake closer to shore.