Published in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable in October 2020
The puffy clouds that dotted the midday sky had grown dark, ponderous, pregnant. In the fall, storms here in Upper Michigan were unpredictable: This one was gathering inland, behind Sally as she stood gazing off the front porch. The wind came in fierce staccato bursts, putting a ragged chop on the lake.
She had grown up spending summers at this spot, the youngest of siblings who grew up swimming and kayaking and playing endless games of Monopoly. At 14, had her first kiss on this porch – and was spared the ensuing groping of the 17-year-old who had taken her canoeing when her father cleared his throat on the other side of the door.
Six years and most of college later, Ted had seemed different, handsome and hunky but wooing her respectfully through her senior year, a passionate and satisfying lover when she was ready. Only after marriage did she learn that his appetite was insatiable, no matter how ardently she tried, that he was an incorrigible philanderer.
She peered into the gathering storm. The island where Ted had gone fishing was a distant smudge on a gray horizon. Methodically, carefully, she scanned the route back, hoping – indeed, expecting – to find nothing.
Something in the water caught her eye, though. She hurried inside for binoculars, coming out to steady herself against a porch pillar. The field of view was narrow, but she found it again: a black head barely above the water. Trudy, her Labrador retriever, her beloved companion for more than a decade.
She stepped back inside for her red slicker and a life preserver. Taking the phone from her pocket, she punched in the numbers she had never dared record in its memory lest Ted stumble across them.
“Rick? It’s Sally. Trudy’s out in the lake, maybe two miles out, trying to swim in.”
“Sweet Jesus! With this offshore wind she’ll never make it. We should go for her.”
Thank God for Rick: Smart, quick to see needs, ready to help; everything Ted wasn’t. “Exactly,” she said. “I’m starting right away in the rowboat. With the wind helping, I’m sure I can get out to her. Hauling her into the boat may be a problem. Rowing back will be tough.”
“That’s what power boats are for. It will take me fifteen minutes to get to the marina, maybe another ten to get under way. Shouldn’t I pick you up?”
“I want to start. She’s an old lady. I can get to her first.”
“Okay. Where’s Ted?”
She chose her words carefully; no point in getting Rick involved in this. “He went fishing on the island. Took the aluminum skiff. Maybe still out there.”
“I’ll be sure to have enough diesel to go for a look after we get the dog. Should I call the lake patrol?”
That was the last thing she wanted at this point. “We can phone from out there if we need them.”
“Okay. I’m on my way.”
She turned on the porch light to help steer by, and tried to calculate a straight line to where Trudy was still visible. The bright orange life preserver ring at the end of the pier would serve as a marker, so she would leave it there. She went back for a second life jacket that might help keep the dog afloat, then ran full tilt down to where the wooden rowboat slapped hollowly against the pilings, buffeted by a wind that smelled of hayfields.
Climbing in, she unshipped the oars. She’d been right: Once a dozen yards out, beyond the lee of the land, the wind did most of the work. Nonetheless she rowed hard, staying lined up on the orange life ring and the porch light.
There was time to think now. She was confident she’d covered her tracks when she bought the waterproof explosive charge and elaborate timer on the Internet: Paid with a postal order, had them shipped under another name to a post office box two towns away. She’d been pleased to find them as compact as advertised.
Ted had gone partying at the village bar last night – probably hoping for a hookup, the horny son of a bitch, probably laying some innocent on the back seat of his Caddy. His self-indulgence had given her time to haul the skiff out of the water, pry out the foam flotation pads from under the seats, turn it over to glue the timing device and explosive charge to the keel with waterproof epoxy, and get it back into the water.
Her careful planning hadn’t anticipated that he would want to take the dog with him this morning; she’d tried to talk him into leaving Trudy with her. Big argument. It was her dog, a high school graduation gift from her parents, her companion – she managed not to say aloud — well before the catastrophe of marrying him. She wanted company while he went fishing, she’d argued; Trudy ought to stay with her.
But he insisted, and she could hardly have explained why she didn’t want the dog in the skiff, could she?
The weight of the outboard – Ted had characteristically wasted money on a lot more motor than he needed, an engine as big and heavy as his damned Caddy –would certainly take the boat to the bottom. The lake was a half-mile deep most of the way, and that huge outboard would anchor the blasted evidence to the bottom.
Her plan depended on the fact that Ted could hardly swim a lick, and was too arrogantly proud to wear a life vest. If her timing had been wrong and the charge had gone off too close to the island, he might have tried to dogpaddle back, but then Trudy would have headed back too. That the dog was halfway home was a sign that the skiff had gone down where she’d calculated.
And having mentally exposed Trudy this morning to grim chance, the dog’s survival now was an unexpected joy. Sally used the oars to spin the boat halfway around, peering forward over the transom — “Trudy! Bark, girl!” — then swiveled, lining up again on the now-distant orange ring and the porch light, rowing on to the rescue.
No sight or sound of Rick’s cruiser yet. When this was over, he would be the perfect husband that Ted never was; he was already a wonderful lover.
The poor dog might have gone under by now. The thought devastated her. She pivoted the boat again. Suddenly, fifty yards away, there was that lovely black head, the snout barely out of the water, bobbing under and gasping, obviously near the end of endurance. “Good girl! I’m coming!”
And then she saw the head behind the dog.
Ted. The bastard, making the dog wear herself out trying to tow him ashore.
It took only a moment to decide. No way could Trudy make it against this wind, not even if she were alone; they would both go down soon.
Still, she hesitated.
No. Do it. Spinning the boat, she veered to the left, the direction from which Rick would come. No sound of him yet. With any luck, she’d be hundreds of yards farther before he appeared. She’d tell him to give up on the dog, and head to the island to look for Ted. Make a show of scanning the turbulent waters, then maybe call the lake patrol.
Abandoning Trudy again was a damned shame, but unavoidable. She put her full strength into the oars, rowing away as hard as she could, blinking back tears.