By Caroline Taylor.
By the fifteenth month of the drought, the lake no longer held her secrets. It wasn’t even a lake anymore, more a swath of cracked mud, studded with several objects, including some half-buried tires, a couple of bicycles from the three-speed era, and a bathtub, cracked in two, its claw feet pawing futilely at the air. The mud was dented in spots by brackish pools, reeking of dead fish.
The tires, the bikes, the bathtub, these were not Ilsa’s secrets; they belonged to somebody else. She could picture a tubby man with a beer gut and tattoos with a pathetic gray ponytail hugging the base of an otherwise bald head, a lowlife too cheap—or maybe too drunk—to haul his trash to the dump. Since none of those discards pointed an accusing finger at Mr. Lowlife, however, he could shrug off his secrets. She could not.
Well, she could. But she didn’t want to. Back then, she’d been so enraged, she’d longed to get her hands on a gun so she could give those people the rough justice they’d deserved. Not that she’d known how to shoot. Plus, going to prison would have made Ilsa, not them, the loser.
Yes, she’d wanted them to suffer. And they had, thanks to her. Maybe it was all just coincidental. Or maybe not. But vengeance has a way of fading over time. Now Ilsa felt a bit embarrassed and, yes, a tiny bit guilty, too. Perhaps it was the guilt driving her to recover those secrets before someone else did and started asking questions that would imply cause and effect.
Molly Campbell had drowned in her bathtub on a Sunday night. Her parents were next door, playing bridge, and had come home to find their daughter dead. There’d been a lot of speculation among her classmates at Wilbur Wright Public High—that Molly had killed herself (but would that even be possible?), that she’d fallen asleep (but wouldn’t you wake up when you started inhaling bubble bath?), that her heart had just given out (in a sixteen-year-old?). The newspapers said nothing, probably because the police had nothing to tell them. Ilsa’s parents chose to believe the “poor girl” had knocked her head on the back of the tub (but no blood? That lurid detail surely would have appeared somewhere).
Ilsa had suffered nightmares for months afterwards. “You two were so awfully close, it’s understandable,” her parents would say, clucking sympathetic tongues. Survivor’s guilt, they’d called it. Ilsa would swallow hard, trying to keep from vomiting in their faces, wondering, “Could it be possible I really killed her?” Best friends who steal your boyfriend should suffer at least as much as you did, blasted by betrayal on both fronts. But that was the tricky thing about black magic. Once unleashed, you couldn’t control the outcome. Anyway, nobody had drowned in the lake.
That creep Slim who’d run his filthy hand up her legs beneath her skirt had drowned in a cattle trough after a night of binge-drinking with his farmhand buddies. He’d gone outside to take a piss, tripped, and toppled over into the tank.
Ilsa could still feel the calloused fingers as they’d groped and pinched her eight-year-old legs. Daddy had driven up just as she was about to scream her guts out. Slim had pushed her backwards off the stool and then rushed around, all caring and sorrowful, saying, “What happened, sweetheart? Lose your balance?” Daddy was crossing the yard at a run, but Slim had still had time to whisper, “You say one word to your folks, kid, and they’re both dead.”
Ten years later, she’d lost it after running into the slimeball at the CVS where he’d been buying candy, probably for his next victims. He’d given her a lewd, knowing wink. Dropping her shampoo and lipstick right there, Ilsa had gone straight home to create the second secret now buried (or not) in what used to be the lake. Unlike with Molly, she’d never had any second thoughts about Slim’s untimely—no, make that timely—death. Still. Two drownings, following two of her forays into the dark mysteries? Surely, it had to be coincidental.
She must have had some subconscious wish for her targets to discover what she’d done, even though it didn’t make sense that they would. Nobody knew that she’d put their carefully painted wooden effigies inside half-gallon plastic bottles that had once held lemonade or ice tea. She’d covered the tops with plastic wrap, screwed the caps back on, and wrapped them tightly in duct tape. Maybe water had finally loosened the tape, and the bottles were now flooded, in effect, drowning the effigies.
Ilsa felt the hairs on her arms stand up.
The adult side of her mind kept telling her that none of this, if discovered, would land her in court. There’d be some snickers and quite a few prayers among the townsfolk, but practicing voodoo was not a crime. The child side of Ilsa cried out in horror: “You wished them harm, and they died! It’s all on you.”
Molly’s parents were gone. Slimeball Slim had only been a seasonal worker, hired for the annual wheat harvest at the Jones farm. Would the Joneses even remember him? Or, more to the point, if they did remember him, would they care?
Lots of people would care about Matthew Frobisher, who’d drowned in a sailing accident off the Florida coast seven years ago. They would not understand why Ilsa had added his effigy to her collection of secrets.
A banker, Frobisher was an upstanding, prosperous member of the community, a happily married man with three children, including a boy, Matt Junior, who was about Ilsa’s age. Frobisher had been a pillar of the Methodist church, a member of the town council, and so on and so on. But he shouldn’t have been so mean to Ilsa’s father, who’d only needed a small loan to see him past the rough shoals that the recession of ’09 had put in the path of his grocery store.
Daddy had begged and begged, but Frobisher had refused to budge. “I’ll only be throwing good money after bad,” he’d told the local newspaper. “These small independent grocers have to realize they can’t compete with the chains.”
Ilsa remembered the red mist that had clouded her vision soon after she’d read that interview. Frobisher’s bank was full of money. The banker himself was a millionaire and could have taken the funds from his own pocket—or so Ilsa’s father had said to her mother, right before he’d taken the elevator to the fifteenth floor of the Corn Exchange, opened a window in the conference room, and jumped to his death.
Ilsa had learned a thing or two since her early twenties, the last time she’d felt the need for vengeance. She eventually realized that Frobisher had been right—cruel, but right—and that Swensen’s Market had been running on monetary fumes for several years preceding the Great Recession. Even a private loan would have been just as Frobisher had told the newspaperman.
Knowing all this did not ease the pang of loss. Ilsa’s mother had never recovered from her grief and shame. And maybe shame was what Ilsa now wanted to avoid when the lake finally revealed her secrets. She could just hear the gossip: “Always a strange one, that girl. But what do you expect with her father being a suicide and her mother practically a hermit.”
Frobisher’s children were now grown with kids of their own. They might wonder why a doll looking very much like Matthew, the banker, had been found inside a plastic ice tea bottle in the mud where the lake used to be.
Not a religious person, Ilsa had found herself praying, over and over again, for rain. Of course, those prayers had never been answered. Since the drought seemed likely to persist for quite some time, she felt pressured to take action. She’d gone as far as drawing a map of the lake and dividing it in to searchable quarters, even purchasing a pair of galoshes, in case the ground was still too muddy. But she couldn’t do it. Someone would spy her. “What are you doing here?” they’d ask. Or worse, “What are you doing here?”
Stuck in bog of her own inaction, Ilsa fretted while the months slipped past, and the lake dried out. The newspaper reported someone finding a revolver of fairly recent vintage there. It had everyone in town wondering who had thrown it in the lake and why. There hadn’t been any murders or other mayhem involving guns in the area for at least six years. It must have been a stranger.
The more time passed, the less concerned Ilsa became. Her secrets must be safely buried in the mud, or a scavenger might have found one and tossed the bottle in the trash, not noticing the wooden doll inside.
She was browsing library shelves for an art book one day when she overheard two women in the row behind her.
“. . . strangest thing I ever saw,” one of them said in a loud whisper. She sounded like Marcia Dolman, the doctor’s wife.
“And he showed it to you?”
“He showed it to all of us,” said Marcia. “You know. We were there for one of those dinners Matt Junior is always having.
“Hmmmph,” replied the other woman, who’d apparently not been invited.
“He laughed about it,” Marcia went on. “His own father!”
“It was a doll, you say?”
“Inside this plastic jug that used to hold ice tea. It was tiny and was painted to look like him with the same handlebar mustache and curly gray hair, and his shirt was one of those dreadfully uncool red striped things with suspenders that he always wore.”
“Like a voodoo doll!” the woman exclaimed. “Who would do something like that? Was it some kind of sick joke?”
“Shhhh,” said Marcia. “Here’s the really weird part. We’re all standing there about to ask Matt Junior the same thing when he says, “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
CAROLINE TAYLOR’s stories have appeared previously in A Long Story Short and in other online and print magazines. Visit her at www.carolinestories.com