Chapter the First: The Lake
This the first installment of a new mysterious story that will be released in multiple parts over the remainder of the semester. “Nowhere” follows the story of Hannah in her search for her friend Cade and takes place right on the UW-Madison campus. The story begins on Lake Mendota in the middle of winter. Our next installment will be released April 3.
Cade is unflinchingly honest. I’m not listening, and the night is quiet and clear.
“This is a bad idea,” Cade says, sinking his hands deep into the pockets of his Carhartt. “Hannah.” He means for me to come back.
“We’ll just stay away from the thin ice,” I laugh. “It’s still solid.”
Levi lets out a huff and watches his breath plum in a slow curling cloud above him; he hikes up the collar of his black peacoat. Even in the dark, I can see the warning glance in his grey eyes as I climb over the rocks behind Memorial Union and out onto the ice of Lake Mendota.
“Goddamn it, Hannah,” Cade says and reluctantly he, then Levi, follow me.
The sound of a night train rumbles from the other side of campus. The hazy glow of the Capitol, the castle-like Red Gym, the lights of the Union Theater, all behind us now. I turn around to see the boys.
“Woah.” My breath also climbs up above, away from me. “Look at it reflecting on the ice,” I say. I pull out my phone and point the camera at Cade and Levi with the lights behind them. The auto focus jumps from Levi to the Union Theater, underexposed then blown out—dark, blurry images.
“You’ll never get a good one,” Cade says. “You just have to look at it, and hope you remember it right.” I roll my eyes. Levi stands motionless staring at his Converse against the ice; he lets out a deep sigh and watches his breath rise and disappear into the clear night sky.
I slip and fall. Levi’s gaze snaps down to me, “You’re drunk. Go home,” he says with a small smile.
“You’re drunk. You go home,” I say. “It’s not even midnight.”
“OK, Hannah,” Cade helps me up then mutters under his breath, “That statement would have been true an hour ago.” His hands are winter-dry and cracked; he never wears gloves. He holds his hands out to make sure I’m OK. I laugh. As we move further onto the ice, Cade develops the concern of a worried chirp when I almost slip—that kind of genuine tenderness on the brink of a laugh, and a caution in the way he watches me to make sure I don’t slip in that half-second of complete confidence after I get my balance back.
Levi stops suddenly, “Hannah, did you hear that?” I listen, a sound like a metal cable snapping and then a low resonant groan.
“It sounds like the Titanic going down.”
“It must be the ice heaving apart, you know,” Levi says.
“Like the bigger pieces breaking and settling,” I add.
Cade kneels and brushes the loose snow from the ice. He plants his hands squarely, heavy on the smooth surface. “I wonder if I could feel that, the ice breaking.” The sound comes booming again, reaching us distantly from the far part of the lake. I watch a smile grow slowly across Cade’s face.
“As long as it’s not breaking under us,” Levi says. Cade laughs, balling his hands into fists, and pounds on the thick ice underneath us.
Something pounds back.
“Cade?” I say. He pounds on the ice again. The response from the underside is frantic, quickening, terrified.
“There’s something under the ice. I can’t see,” says Cade. I pull up the flashlight on my phone and shine it on the ice, but it’s too thick and too white to make out anything beyond it. Levi, looking a little confused, does the same.
The underside goes into a frenzy; there’s a blinding flash that lights the ice beneath us.
We run for shore. Levi sprints ahead; I follow him, and Cade a short distance behind. Then I hear a cracking sound—thin ice.
Cade yells, then goes silent. I turn around and make out the dark glare of open water. I inch beside the edge of the break. I see him; his face upturned, eyes wide and terrified, fists clenched against the cold and his body slowly marbling a waterlogged blue as he sinks gently. I grab his hood and then the back of his jacket and pull at him. He reaches, grasping for the edge of the thicker ice. He pulls himself onto the ice and lies coughing.
“Cade, get up,” I plead. “We have to get off the ice.” He stands and stumbles with the cold working its way up against his wet skin. When we get back to shore he slumps against the rocks, lit with the soft glow of the lights of the union. Levi stands, shaking on the concrete above us. He pulls at the collar of his coat and yells down at us.
“What was that?!”
I try to take off my wet coat but the soaking sleeves cling and bunch at my wrists. My heart is racing. I’m shaking. I cough because I can’t catch my breath. Cade is even worse.
“Hannah!” Levi says.
“I don’t know, Levi! Alright! I don’t know.” I look up at him standing above me; he looks small with his arms drawn into his chest. He’s shaking too. “I just want to go home,” I say.
He’s quiet for a long moment, “Do you want me to walk you home?”
I shake my head. Levi hesitates, like he’s going to say something, then just nods. “OK,” he says. He turns back toward State Street, synching his arms tighter to his chest, he wavers as he walks away.
I look at Cade, lying against the cold rocks, coughing. I pull at his arm. “Can you stand?” He does. “Come on, I’ll walk you home.” He stumbles and grabs onto my arms. He looks at me with wild eyes.
“I don’t want to be here,” he says. “I don’t want to stay in the lake.”
“I’ll get you home, Cade. I promise.”
The night goes dark and loses all detail on the walk home. The empty streets echo the rumble of empty busses. The streetlights flare and flicker as we pass under them. We stop as the train crossing flashes across Union South. A night train looms in the dark coming toward us.
“I’ve been here before,” Cade says suddenly while shaking badly.
“Yeah, Cade, you live down the street.” I say.
“No, Hannah. I’ve been here so many times, and you’ll be here again too,” he says. His head whips wildly back-and-forth and his breathing quickens. He brushes his damp hair from his forehead and starts hyperventilating.
“Cade,” I say. I don’t really know what to say. “In the water, di-did you, like hit your head?” Really I was pleading that this is not what I think it is. That this won’t be one of the nights Cade locks himself in and sits in the middle of a dark room too terrified to move and calls me at 2 a.m., to say it’s bad again. “Cade?” It’s me pleading that this isn’t that. Not here, not out in the street in the dark while he is drenched and half-frozen and shaking so hard I can feel it in my bones. He looks to his left and right and over his shoulder. The train blows its whistle and his shoulders jerk up suddenly as his shaking becomes more violent.
“Hannah.” He means he’s scared. Unflinchingly honest—at least he is with me.
“Hold on,” I say. The muscles around his mouth pull tight; he’s really trying not to lose it. He balls the fabric of my jacket in his hands and a thin layer of ice flakes off.
“I don’t want to be here,” he says again. “Not the nowhere. The white wall, not here,” he stutters.
I get him in his apartment.
I bundle towels from the bathroom in my arms and give them to him, like they are mine to give. I’m bad at taking care of people. He’s gone white and stares off vacantly. I leave his keys and phone on the counter. I help him take off his coat and drape a towel over his shoulders. After that I just kind of watch him for a while. I lean against the front door frame.
He turns to me and his brow furrows together.
“Hannah,” he says. He means it’s OK if I go. He nods lightly. We’ve always been like that, strangely attuned to meanings, understanding the odd familiarities of each other’s voice in the recital of our own names. All the conversations I remember best are only our soft-spoken names repeated back-and-forth between us.
The next morning, walking to College Library, the sun is unseasonally bright. When I turn from University Street onto Park Street, I see the yellow police tape coloring the far end along the lake.
Then I see Levi’s stiff, narrow shoulders under the weight of his peacoat; the collar still hiked around his neck. I come up beside him, shuffling between the others that stand in the sun that feels too bright and stare out at the lake. The water just beyond the union is open and police boats and campus rescue troll the confined free water. Men in thick navy coats, emboldened with the large, white letters of POLICE, hang over the sides of the boats with poles and pickaxes breaking the still-standing ice into chunks that fall and rise beside them in the water.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
One of the policemen nearby answers, “There was a call that someone went through the ice last night.” He pauses. “We’re looking for them.” The pounding on the ice—what if there was someone underneath us? What if they needed help and we just ran away to leave them there, trapped under the ice, alone? I grab Levi’s sleeve and pull him back.
“Do you think that had something to do with last night?” I say in sharp, hushed tones. He looks at me, confused.
“Whatever that sound was.” He looks at me like he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. I try again, “When Cade was beating on the ice…”
His face draws itself tight in a succession of indecipherable micro-expressions. He stares at me a long, ugly moment; then his lips break into words as he speaks through a tight frown.
“Cade wasn’t there.”
What do you think happened to Cade? Who or what was the pounding that was under the ice? Have any cool theories about the story so far? Send any questions, comments or theories to firstname.lastname@example.org.