“Jeez, Cheryl – I haven’t been seeing anyone – just you.”
And I had thought this was going to be a simple, sweet autumn picnic. Drive down to the lake. Sit on the shore and watch the submarine races. Well, there aren’t any submarines, but you know what I mean – make out. Let the nip in the air draw her in closer to me and take it from there.
This was not the way I had planned it.
“You’re doing it again, just like all those other times you said you would stop! You promised!” Cheryl shouted, hyperventilating herself as the tears started, “”Patricia saw you at the movies with, …with that Valerie!”
“Oh, come on! Why would I go out with her?”
“For the same reason everyone else does. God, Roger, you took her to Supervixens!”
Okay, I had been out with her; who hadn’t? Valerie was the kind of girl every guy went out with while they were working on getting with someone else more… acceptable. Which is what Cheryl was. Especially when you counted her family’s money.
“And you believe Patricia over me?”
“She’s my best friend!” Cheryl said, and then she started wobbling away. She was going to walk all the way back up the shore in those high heels to where we parked her Porsche.
Patricia was a damned meddling, spying friend who never did like me. I went two towns over to cover my tracks, and Patricia just happened to see us? What did she do – follow us? There wouldn’t be any other witnesses, so this would be easy enough to fix.
“Cheryl, wait up!” I shouted.
I fumbled in my pocket for the ring box while I trudged along behind her. I was going to wait a couple more months to pop the question once I had her good and hooked, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Cheryl was stumbling around so much, it didn’t take anything to get in front of her and block her path.
“You know how I feel about you,” I said. “Why would I go out with Valerie when I was getting ready to do this?”
I got down on one knee, held up the ring box and opened it toward her. The sun was setting off over her shoulder and hitting it just right – I could see the diamond sparkling in her eye.
She reached into the box, took the ring out, and looked at it closely.
“You bought this for me?”
I waited for her blotchy red face to soften, for those angry tears to turn in my favor. But it wasn’t happening.
“I bet Valerie wishes you bought it for her.”
“I don’t think…”
“She was really sweet on you when we talked.”
Women talking to each other is nothing but trouble.
“I don’t think either of us needs this,” Cheryl said, and she wound her shoulder back like the softball player she had been in college.
“No, Cheryl, don’t!” I shouted.
I got to my feet, but not fast enough to block her from launching the ring out over the lake. It was a calm day, so I could see the ripples when it plopped in fifty yards offshore. Three months’ salary at the bottom of the lake, and me still owing money on it.
“Why did you do that?” I shouted. “Are you nuts?”
“Not anymore,” she said, and smirked at me as she pulled her shoes off. “You can get your own ride home.”
With the heels off, she walked a lot more surely. I might have followed her and tried to get her to change her mind about that ride, maybe even more than that. It was a shame, really – I had invested a lot of time and money into landing that whiney little debutante, but I knew she was a lost cause, and there’s no point in throwing away good money after bad. Besides, I thought there was still a chance I could at least get a refund on that ring. I couldn’t afford not to.
I heard her Porsche’s roar fading off into the woods as I ran back up the beach, pulled off my clothes, and flung them on the picnic blanket. This was the Hamilton’s private property, and the only road in led through their grounds, but I figured that she would head straight out to see Patricia first, so I had time before anyone would boot me out. The ripples were gone by the time I had stripped to my briefs, but I was desperate enough to think I had a good feel for where it was. I waded into the chilly water up to my waist, then swam, and when I was pretty sure I had reached the spot, I dove.
The water was only about ten feet deep there, but cloudy enough and the sun down enough that I couldn’t see anything. I groped around in the silt and slime and old broken branches that were still there from when the corps built the lake until I had to come up for air, and then went back under.
The sun gave way to a quarter moon as I dove again, and again, digging blindly in the mud, coming up only long enough for my teeth to start chattering, until the cold and the dark and the stupidity of it all were getting to me. I was about to give up when my numbed fingers finally felt the ring, somehow stuck on a stick in the sediment at the bottom; I pulled, but it wouldn’t come off. I clenched my fist around both and yanked until the stick broke loose from the muck. I surfaced gasping for air and made my way back to the shore, where I dropped it on the blanket so I could get dressed. It wasn’t until I had shivered my way into my clothes and picked the ring back up that I had a good look and realized it wasn’t mine.
Cheryl wasn’t the only person who had thrown away their problems in the lake. Tons of couples have used the place as a rendezvous point, so that it had significance in their relationships. It shouldn’t be surprising that many romances have ended there, too, with a heated argument or a lonely betrayal, and a symbolic divorce by discard.
Some of them left more than jewelry.
The ring looked vintage, and the stone was huge compared to the one I had just lost. The whole thing was easily worth twenty times as much as the one Cheryl had pitched. I would have counted myself lucky if the stick it was on hadn’t turned out to be a finger. It startled me enough that I threw it down on the sand. It wasn’t gross or rotting, or anything like that – all the flesh was gone from it, it was just three bones still managing to hold together. Definitely a finger, though, and I knew that wasn’t all that had been left; somewhere out there, along with my ring, was the body of the woman who used to wear this one.
I wrapped the blanket around my shoulders, opened the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and took a swig to try to stop my shaking as I wondered how she had wound up there. A jilted lover’s suicide? Not likely. It’s awfully hard to drown yourself – the body fights it too much. It would take a supreme act of will by a desperate person to end it that way. If it was a boating accident, you would think she would have been with someone, and they wouldn’t have just left the body.
Unless it wasn’t an accident. I remembered An American Tragedy, that stupid, depressing book we were forced to read in school. That made sense: I could see a guy getting fed up with some whiney girl like Cheryl and deciding to put an end to the relationship by tossing her in. How could he afford to leave the ring? He must have been rich to let that go, probably from one of the estates that bordered the private part of the lake. Society page people, the kind of families Cheryl would know.
The most famous local missing person had been Cheryl’s mother, who had disappeared when Cheryl was less than a year old. There had been rumors that Mr. Hamilton had been inclined toward dalliances before they had married, with a partiality toward blondes, and that not even the staff had been off-limits to his attentions. But, from everything I had read when I had researched Cheryl, he had sincerely loved his bride and was devastated when she vanished on their first anniversary. He had led a massive, no stone left un-turned search for Mrs. Hamilton; no chance it could be her, not on the estate.
Well, it was no concern of mine. If I had reported the body it would have caused all sorts of attention I didn’t want, maybe damage my chances with some of the other eligible young women in the area. Better not to make too many waves. I picked up the finger and snapped one of the joints so I could remove the ring, then tossed the bones back where I’d found them, and pocketed my treasure. Finders, keepers.
I kept the bottle of wine, wrapped the blanket tighter around me to ward off the cold, and started my trudge up to the dirt tracks in the moonlight. I planned to follow them through the woods most of the way, then cut through to the public road before I reached the Hamilton’s manicured grounds. I didn’t want to run into any of Cheryl’ family.
I had barely gotten into the woods when I saw movement on the path ahead, I crept behind a tree and hoped to not be seen. Soon I could tell it was a woman, a maid, really, wearing one of those ridiculously outdated black-and-white uniforms. I didn’t recognize her, but I hadn’t spent very much time in the mansion. A pretty young thing, her long blonde hair glowing in the moonlight; definitely worthy of a dalliance on the merits of her appearance, but not from the right social strata for me to get serious about. Still, she was tempting, and I was having a difficult time deciding whether to reveal myself and give her a go.
She made my mind up when she stopped by the tree and stared right at me. There was no fear or surprise on her face, and once I had stepped out onto the path I was greeted with a smile that carried all sorts of promise, a glint in her eyes that said I could have anything I wanted. Ambiguous, like the Mona Lisa.
“I probably look a little foolish in this blanket,” I said. “I had to retrieve something from the lake.”
“I know,” she said, and resumed her walk toward the shore.
That made no sense. If Cheryl had already told the family, you would think someone besides this tease of a maid would have come down looking for me to throw me off the property.
“What do you mean, you know?” I called out, but she kept going, so I followed her out across the grass to the water’s edge. I expected her to stop, but she stepped into the water and kept walking until she was in up to her knees, then turned and beckoned me.
Now I knew that water was cold, and if it wasn’t for her standing there waiting, I wouldn’t have gone back in. But I wasn’t going to turn down the obvious invitation like some wimp who couldn’t handle a little cold water. I dropped the blanket, set down the bottle, pulled off my socks and shoes. All the while she watched and smiled, and I was ready for the fun to begin when I had waded out to where she stood. But when I was three feet away from her she held up her hand to stop me.
“It is not yours,” she said, and she reached toward me. “Give it to me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, but she kept staring in the direction of my pants pocket, so I pulled out the ring.
“I found this fair and square,” I said, holding it in front of her face, “and I know it’s worth too much to belong to a maid,” I finished and returned the ring to my pocket.
“She didn’t deserve it. It should have been mine. He promised,” she said, then her eyes sparkled with longing, and her smile widened. “You’ll give it to me?”
Before I could react her arms were wrapped around me, and her mouth was on mine, cold and hot and dry and wet all at the same time. I wasn’t expecting it, and I couldn’t fight her intensity; she had my body all confused, to where I wasn’t sure what was happening until I realized I was up to my chest in the water.
“Promise me,” she sighed, a ragged sigh that filled my mouth with cold lake water as she pulled me under.
“Promise me!” echoed as the frigid water made my heart pound in my chest.
She was there, all around me, but I couldn’t feel her anymore, just the water I was drowning in, and something hard in the mud that my lips were pressed against, something I didn’t want to think about. I struggled to push off, to surface but my pants pocket had caught on something, and it was holding me down. I tried to pry myself free and realized it was a bony hand with a death grip on my pocket and the ring inside. I pulled at the fabric, choking in the scream that held the last of my breath, and managed to tear my pants enough to thrash out of them, leaving them and the ring at the bottom with her.
I gasped as I broke the surface and swam-crawled out of the water, grabbed the blanket, and ran sopping wet, barefoot and pants-less through the woods, until I made it to the road outside the estate. I expected her to catch up with me any second, but she had what she wanted. She had drowned herself for the want of that ring, and drowned Mrs. Hamilton to finally get it. So long as I don’t have any part in it she’s left me alone.
I’ve thought about it, and if you were willing to take the time, you could dredge around the lake, along a line a good ring’s throw offshore, and find where a lot of rings were pitched to the bottom to end things. You might be able to make a decent amount of money on the proceeds of all that pain.
Me, I’m not so sure it’s worth it.
You can connect with William Mangieri, see the full list of his works, his writing blog, and links to his current promotions on his WordPress writing page at https://williammangieri.wordpress.com/Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in