In a snapshot my friend Jordan sends me four hours before three Narcan injections cannot save his life, he is thirty-five years old, shirtless, clutching a can of Coors. All December, when the day is gone and it’s time to sleep, I lie awake under a feather comforter beside my snoring husband. In the dark, my cellphone spotlights my corner of the bed. I find the last living photograph of Jordan and search the black pools of his eyes for the kind of gleam that predicts kismet. I zoom until each eye is an indecipherable blur, like a pixelated still from one of his stop-motion films. In the end, I can never decide––did he want me to save him?
In July, I road trip to Lake Raponda with my husband and our two boys: thirteen and eight. We are on vacation with Melissa, my best friend––Jordan’s ex-wife––and their eight-year-old son, Milo. My boys know to stick by Milo. Know not to ask what happened to his dad. Three other families join us at the rustic cabin on the hill. They are Melissa’s friends from the life she built after the divorce. Some of them have never met Jordan.
We fish, take the canoe out on the lake, catch salamanders in a red bucket. Milo wants to keep them as pets but Melissa says they need a proper home. After a few hours, we let them go.
When the moon rises above the pines and the kids are asleep, we build a fire at the foot of the hill. We sit in Adirondack chairs, sipping sweet wine from Solo cups, singing nineties songs while my husband plays guitar.
At midnight, Melissa says, “Let’s catch a bullfrog!”
Melissa and I pull on head-lit helmets and take the canoe across the lake. The steady streams of our headlamps knit their way across the water. The reek of algae is thick as wool. Half a mile down, we bank in reeds among an army of croaking bullfrogs. I balance on a fallen elm, tracing the illumination of my helmet with pale, bare feet. Melissa skates past in rubber boots and disappears.
A minute later she yells, “Get the bucket!”
We paddle off in the canoe, the noisy bullfrog in the bucket between us. After a few strokes, I adjust my position, but shift my weight too hastily. The moon and stars float by quickly as the boat tips and spills us all out into the black water. At first, I panic, but the water is warm and gauzy and reaches our chests when we find our footing. The bucket is overturned, floating and without frog, but together, we manage to turn the canoe upright and maneuver it onto the grassy shoreline. When the hull scrapes sand, we know the canoe is grounded.
We collapse on the beach, laughing and rocking onto our backs. The grass and sand are cool and full of rocks that dig into my hip. “Shit!” I say when my hand finds the hard edge of my cellphone tucked into the back pocket of my soaking wet cutoffs.
The next morning, the lake glistens. We make breakfast and coffee. The kids fish. After three hours, Melissa declares naptime and everyone scatters. Since Jordan died, I’ve averaged four hours of sleep a night and last night is no exception.
The cabin is quiet. My cellphone is buried in a bag of dry jasmine rice on the counter––a trick Melissa says will save it. I find my sleeping bag and push my way outside, wind whistling in my ears, sea of hair in my eyes. I plod down the hill until I reach the pier, unravel my polyester nest and crawl inside; a cocoon; a sensory deprivation tank.
Inside, I dream of Jordan: blue eyes, shaved head, double nape piercings, tattoos of black Victorian wallpaper and Ralph Steadman bats midflight a needlepoint constellation. Beside me on the pier, he hunches, young and rugged, says he meant to die even if he didn’t plan it––unclothed, sending pictures from his Brooklyn apartment until the methadone turned his lips blue and stopped his heart. He says it happened softly, slowly, like sinking into bed after a long run.
“Can you see me? I’m here,” he says, “I’m other places, too.”
I open my mouth to tell him that I can see him––that I miss him, that I’m sorry I couldn’t save him. But my mouth won’t move. I am frozen on the pier.
Jordan tells me that energy glows; that the universe unfolds like a loose ball of yarn until everything is bright and flat. He goes on, talking, his voice growing quieter and quieter until it fades into the chirp of Lake Raponda birds.
Then, just as quickly as he came to me, he is gone, and I am left with a million tiny orbs, twinkling like sky lanterns.
My eyes open slowly, battling sunlight. I don’t know it yet, but the bag of rice in the kitchen will not save my cellphone. I cancel appointments with my counselor, sleep too little, then too much, search for a technician to tell me what I want to hear––that they can recover my pictures. I search every dream for signs. Weeks go by before I am willing to admit that every text, every photograph has been permanently erased.
The wine from last night has left me hollow. The sun has turned my sleeping bag thermal. I unzip it, turn so I am prone on the pier. Birds flit through branches high above. My gaze settles on a cluster of water bugs and lily pads on the lake’s surface. I stay there until naptime is over, listening to the birds, watching minnows glint between planks of wood, blinking.
Emily Pavick earned her MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. She lives in New Hampshire, where she is a fiction editor for Outlook Springs. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Black Coffee Journal, and others.