|The Tainted Lake
By Angela Alsaleem
I remember everything. My consciousness came back by degrees. The sweet smell of dirt filled my senses as
the dust wafted into my mouth and nose. I can still taste it. We were at the cabin. That, I knew for certain,
because I was in the cellar. On my hands and knees, I patted around in the darkness. Slivers of moonlight
seeped in through the floorboards above, making skinny blue lines on the dirt floor, but not letting in enough
light for me to see anything else. The cabin had no electricity, so I focused on trying to find a spare flashlight.
My face throbbed. I reached up to feel it and flinched at the pain searing through my head. No wonder I couldn’
t see very well. My right eye was swollen shut. Dried blood crusted over my cheek.
It had happened again. This was a first though; he had never locked me in the cellar before. Then it all came
back to me. We were camping at the cabin, like we always did. I planned on escaping for once. Three months
before, he broke my arm. It was the first time he broke anything, and it would be the last. This time, his
apologies meant nothing to me. No matter what flowers he brought or poems he wrote, all the sappy, romantic
nonsense, I could not find it in me to forgive him. Always, before, I would give into him. He was so sorry and
he loved me, and I believed him. Never again.
I played nice though. Waiting until we went camping again, I planned to run away while he slept. I figured I
could hide in the forest and he wouldn’t be able to find me. Stupid thought. He owned this land…used to go
camping here with his father; stupid. Anyway, earlier that night, I sneaked out of bed and slunk outside. I
paused for one last look at the lake. Trees reflected like teeth upon the water. The slow rolling waves gave
the surface the look of a hungry maw ready to swallow my existence.
A noise from inside the cabin.
The darkness sucked me in, closed all around me. Every muscle in my body tensed and I couldn’t run fast
enough. My gut clenched and I almost vomited, so I slowed my pace. I figured I'd gained enough distance. All I
needed to do was reach the road. Our car waited there; my freedom. A snap from behind alerted my attention.
Heart swishing in my ears, I walked faster, looking behind me and the darkness seemed to breathe with a life of
its own. The crickets chirped their chorus while the owl cried out its mournful solo. Something waited in the
dark. I could hear it. I stopped. Looking around, eyes as wide as I could make them; I didn’t dare cry out. A
twig snapped not too far behind me and I ran again. Tears wavered my vision and sobs jerked their way from
my throat. I ran, then I flew. What an odd sensation to be flying, then falling, then hitting the ground…hard.
In the cellar, I shuddered, remembering. My back burned. I tip-toed my fingers over it and realized he must
have dragged back to the cabin. Scabbed scrapes etched their way across my flesh. Footsteps clomped
“Shut up down there,” he bellowed. “I try to be nice to you, but you always fuck it up. Now this! After all I’ve
done for you. You don’t deserve me.”
Walking away, I could hear him muttering to himself, calling me a stupid bitch and other such names. Shocked,
I stared up at the tiny slits of light. No, I don’t deserve you. Don’t deserve any of this, I thought. After years
of isolation, I began to realize that it was not my fault; that bud of thought blossomed in my mind, although
not fully mature yet. The action of him breaking my arm had triggered something in me. For a long time, I put
up with this abuse, but there was always an excuse to stay. I knew he loved me. And he could be so sweet.
But it was stupid of me to think I could have changed him; made him mine. I knew at that point, down in the
cellar, that he could never be nice all the time; we could never be perfect. Every part of his personality was
the real him, not just his niceness, as I once thought.
“Let me out of here,” I screamed. Breathing heavy, I sat in the darkness, waiting.
“Why?” I heard him yell from outside.
“I want to talk to you,” I yelled again, but weaker this time. Hands clenched at my sides, I refused to be held
prisoner. “Please, let me out of here.”
Careful not to hit my head on the ceiling, I ran, barefoot, to the cellar door. Splinters dug into the sides of my
hands as I pounded my fists against the rough wood. Sometimes, at night, I still feel their sting. Let me out
you bastard! Let me out, let me out let me out, I screamed inside my head.
“We need to talk. Talk to me, please.”
I realized I was whining. Hands falling at my sides, I slumped to the floor. I hated whining, hated giving in like
that. Still nothing. fter a time, sleep stole me.
Searing light woke me. Momentary amnesia took hold while I tried to figure out why I slept in the cellar. When I
saw his silhouette in the doorway, memory flooded, and I scurried over to him, hugging his feet.
“Please…let me out.” I cried again, hating myself for it, but unable stop. “Please, Nicholas.”
“I have something to show you,” he said, stooping to hold me. His warmth wrapped me in mock comfort, and I
shuddered. There was something about his touch that repulsed me now, as much as I felt I needed it. I dared
not move, no matter how bad I wanted to get away. “Sorry,” he said, voice coming from deep in his throat; he
may have been crying, or trying to cry. “Why do you make me hurt you like this? Why would you try to run
away like that? I give you everything you want…everything.”
“I just went for a walk, Nikki, that was all.” It was out before I could stop myself. He tensed. “Don’t
ever…ever…call me Nikki. You know I hate that. Nicholas.
That’s my name, okay?” He shook me once in his tight embrace.
“Sorry…it slipped…that’s all.”
I began to panic, thinking I might get hit again. That weak quaver filled my voice again. Oh, how I hated that
“I’ll let it go this time. Why would you want to go for a walk so late? Amber, I wish I could believe you.”
He always said my name when he acted sincere. I hated that he used my name. My foster dad used to lecture
me just like that. Still, I said nothing about it.
“I couldn’t sleep. Needed some air; just wanted to see the lake.” Nodding, he listened, waiting for me to mess
up my lie. He knew I lied; I could see it in his face, the way the vein in his temple throbbed, the tightness of
his full lips, the flash of his green eyes. “I started walking on the path and when I heard you behind me, I
panicked; thought you might be some dangerous animal.”
This softened him. Although, I think he still knew it was a lie.
“Okay whatever. I have to take you somewhere.” Letting me go, he stood, and turning, left the cellar. I stared
at the large rectangle of light, no longer as brilliant, blinking, not able to move. “Come out here, Amber.”
Although he sounded slightly pleasant, the higher note in his voice gave away all his irritation. I didn’t want to
go, couldn’t stop myself from getting up and going anyway.
“What is it…sweetie,” I said, trying to sound as agreeable as I could. I wanted to scream, to run, to get as far
away from him as possible. I went to his open arms and smiled.
“I’ve been working all night. Come see.”
Arm around my shoulder, his sweaty armpit pungent, he led me to a path winding behind the cabin.
“What’s back here?”
He didn’t answer, but hummed instead. My thoughts drifted in and out of where we went. I paid little attention
to the path, but only noted that there were a lot of ice-blue flowers, so deep and vibrant a contrast to the
green shrubs growing around them. At this moment, he reminded me of my father. His tall, muscular form was
opposite my father’s squat, fat form, but his manner was so similar to a particular memory. The memory was
vague, but clear enough to make me uneasy; something about my mother. There had been a fight. I remember
the wet smacking sounds his fist made on her face. My mother’s cold, blue-eyed stare while she lay
unconscious scarred my memory. I never saw either one of my parents after that night, but I knew my mother
was dead. I remember watching this from my room when I was five and being too frightened to say anything.
This is the only vivid memory I have of them.
Nicholas didn’t know this about my parents. He only asked me about them once. I can’t remember, don’t know
what they were like. I don’t know what about his manner that reminded me of my father. Maybe it was just
the fear I felt towards him. His humming drove me crazy, but I didn’t dare ask him to stop.
The orange glow over the horizon let me know it was about five o’clock. A bug whined near my ear and I
flinched. Mistaking my movement, Nicholas held me tighter to him and gave me a threatening look, his
eyebrows coming together, forehead creasing.
“Don’t think you’re going anywhere.”
He started humming again. It was a made-up tune, off key, no harmony. It sounded like the humming of a
three-year-old just realizing for the first time that their voice can make so many different notes. When he
started tracing his finger over my shoulder, I wanted to cringe. Instead, I stuffed my right hand into my pocket
and balled up my fist, digging my nails into the palm of my hand.
The trees pushed us closer together as they crowded the path twisting through their territory. Choked with
blackberry and holly berry bushes, ivy, and brambles, this territory seemed surreal in the setting sun. As the
light fell slowly from the day, the trees seemed to come alive and grasp at us, pushing us onward. Considering
I had never seen this path before, it was pretty well used. I noticed there was no overgrowth on the path. I
wondered who it was that came up here so often, then realized it must have been Nicholas. Who else would it
be? What the hell does he do out here? He must be out here all the time.
“Almost there,” he said.
He stopped humming, but the silence somehow unnerved me more. My face still hurt, and he kept squeezing it
into his side, burying my nose in his stench of clove and sweat. Twilight approached. Again, the crickets sang.
The orchestra of the night started up, and every creature was in good voice. Even the frogs joined in. In the
dark, I could see that the path widened ahead. When we got closer, I noticed it opened onto a clearing.
Because I stopped paying attention to where I walked, I tripped on his large boot and ended up sprawled on
As I lay there stunned, Nicholas came over to me and helped me up, feigning patience. When I looked at his
face, I saw a look of pity there, a look I had seen so many times, the kind of look one gives to a starving,
injured animal, the kind of look that says, oh, you poor thing; how could you ever get along without me to help
you. For the first time, I wanted to hit him. I could feel my hands ready to fly up and pummel his face. Heat
swelled in my face making my eye throb and my breath came quicker as I, once again, clenched my fists and
stuffed them into my pockets. In this moment, an odd feeling went through me. Exalted, I smiled in spite of my
pain, realizing, as the adrenaline surged through me, that I truly loathed him.
“Why you smiling?”
He looked surprised.
“Just happy to be out here with you,” I said in my sweetest tone, gritting my teeth.
Good. I took him off guard. Again, an odd sensation went through me upon realizing I could surprise him. I
never did that before. Loathing grew into rage as my smile grew even wider.
On a whim, I stretched up and kissed him hard on the mouth, slipping my tongue between his lips, tasting his
spit. As he kissed me back, he held me closer to him. I didn’t mind his stench anymore.
“Over there,” he pointed to the clearing after releasing me from our kiss.
I almost skipped over to where he pointed. He let me go alone; apparently no longer afraid I might run. I
stopped. A strange cold swept through me as I looked at his handiwork. All feelings of elation left as several
things overtook me at once. A shovel leaned against a tree. A rope lay coiled on the ground. There were two
mounds of dirt side by side with crosses at their heads and a large hole I might have guessed to be about six
feet deep, even though I couldn’t tell one inch from three.
“You like it?” He asked. “I made it special for you.” He walked over to me and pointed to the hole. “Worked all
In the dark, I could hardly make out his features, but his teeth showed clearly in the twilight.
Before I knew what was happening, his face contorted as he brought his arms up and shoved me to the
ground. I fell so hard that I couldn’t move or breathe. With the rope, he was on me quicker than I could get
away, tying me up regardless of my struggles.
“You know, Maria was a lot like you.” Maria was his ex-wife. He didn’t talk about her much, except to say, on
some occasions, that she was like me. But he never explained further than that. “Never could do anything
right. So ungrateful. Tried to run from me several times, she did.” As he paced back and forth, not looking at
me, lost in his monologue, I worked the rope behind my back. I knew I had to get loose.
“I was so patient…so patient. Don’t know what went wrong.” Then, looking at me, “You know, she liked it out
here too.” He started pacing again. I found the knot. I figured it shouldn’t be too difficult to untangle. I just
needed time. Better to let him talk.
“She tried to get away from me that bitch. Couldn’t have that; loved her so much…so much.” He turned
towards me quickly, and then said, “But not like I love you baby. You see, I thought you and I had something
special. Weren’t we special, Amber?”
“Yeah, baby…of course we were. We still are. Please, what are you doing?”
I was trying so hard not to cry that my voice sounded thick and quivery. Always, he had beaten me, but never
had he threatened to kill me. I didn’t know if he meant to, but it sure seemed that way. He didn’t answer my
“Yeah, I loved her. Did I ever tell you she wanted a divorce?” He laughed. “That hurt bad. I mean, what didn’t
I give her? Why would she want to leave? Sure, I lost my temper sometimes, but it was because she could
never do anything right…like you.” I was getting even more frightened. Fingers slipping on the knot, I finally
managed to loosen one side of it.
“I decided to take her camping one last time, you know, to talk things over. Maybe we could’ve worked things
out.” But then he lowered his voice and bent over me with his face right in my face. “But she didn’t want to
work things out.”
He walked over to the mound that was next to the hole, the mound furthest from me and kicked the dirt.
“Hello Maria. Enjoying hell?” He laughed, and then spit on the dirt. Pain surged through my face as my eyes
widened with the realization. He killed her, he killed her, oh my God, he killed her. My fingers slipped on the
knot again, but I couldn’t move to pick it back up.
“It all started with her trying to run away. Don’t you women realize that men have hearts? We get hurt too,
you know. You expect me to just let you walk out of my life and not have any feelings on it one way or the
other? No! I won’t let you. This is how it started with Maria. This is how it started, but I won’t let it happen to
me again.” He kicked her grave again and dirt went flying. “Oh, the humiliation. I can’t have you put me
through that humiliation. I thought we were special. Thought you would never try to run from me.”
When he sniffed, I realized he was crying. This was good. My hands moved faster, trying to find the weak
spots on the knot. Gotta keep him talking.
“So, if that’s Maria, then…who’s this?” I asked, nodding my head toward the grave closest to me. He laughed
as he turned toward it, Maria’s grave now behind him.
“Oh, him. Hello, father; haven’t talked to you in a long time.” He crouched down and, placing his hands on the
soil, kissed the grave. “He was an accident. Thought he was a deer. You see, we split up whenever we went
hunting together; might catch more game that way." He hitched in a sob then wailed, "I shot my daddy.” I
watched as he cried, saying "daddy" over and over again. While he cried, I worked the knot; almost had it
when he looked up at me. “You couldn’t understand my father. Good man; knew how to keep his kids in line.
Made me tough; my mother didn’t like that too much, but he knew what he was doing. And look at me now.
Wouldn’t be the way I am now if it wasn’t for my daddy. You couldn’t understand. Too much like my mother.
He stood up and walked towards me.
“No, I do understand Nicholas. You loved your father. Good. I never knew how he died. I’m so sorry for you.
Please…please. What are you going to do?”
I was whining, talking too fast. Tears burned my face as I began to sob, working the knot frantically. It came
undone. As if the knot controlled my tears, when it came undone, I stopped crying. He stood in front of me
and looked confused for a moment.
“No…you don’t understand. What do you think I’m going to do, Amber? Pat you on the head and tell you good
girl? Good job breaking my heart?”
He turned from me again and walked over to a tree near the large hole.
I kept hold of the rope behind my back so that he wouldn’t know I was loose. It was full dark now and I could
barely make out his form. As he turned, the moonlight glinted off steel in his right hand.
“Stand up, Amber.”
He crept toward me. I stood, no longer whining in my throat. Everything seemed sharper, clearer. The crickets
screamed, but their sound was almost drowned out by the swish-swish in my ears. I bounced on my feet
slightly, and my nerves felt like they were crawling over my flesh. When he was close enough, I let the rope
fall. Shock widened his eyes before realization took hold of him. Bringing my arms up, I shoved him hard, as
hard as I could, harder than I thought I knew how and he went sprawling. The knife flew from his grasp; I
scooped it up before he had a chance to recover.
Surprising myself with my own swiftness, I raised the knife over my shoulder and, as I dropped down beside
him, plunged it into his chest. Something took hold of me. Lost in a passion, my hand plunged again and again
and again. At one point, in the beginning, his hands flew up to my face in a feeble attempt to push me off, but
I kept going. There were no other sounds except for the sucking sound of his body as I stabbed him
After a time, I came back to myself. I was sitting against a tree, the knife still clenched in my hand, staring at
my husband’s mutilated corpse. What did I do? Horrified, I looked at my hands. Covered…smeared with it. In
the darkness, it looked as black as tar. It splattered everything. I screamed. Pulling my hair, beating the
ground, kicking my feet, I screamed until my throat fell like it tore apart. Again and again, my howls echoed
through the forest, causing all to go silent. As I sat panting, I finally took control of myself. I threw the knife in
the hole then rolled my husband's large, slippery body into the grave meant for me.
By the time I finished burying him, the sun shown over the horizon. I barely felt the pain in my feet as I walked
back to the cabin and the lake. Stripping off all my clothes, I walked naked into the lake, letting my pants and
tank top sink below, not wanting to pick them back up. I scrubbed my body with a bar of soap for about an
hour, only stopping because the soap ran out. White foam covered the lake around me. I got my things
together and left.
As I stand at the lake’s edge, looking over at the far shore where they rest, I realize life isn’t so threatening
anymore. So much time has gone by since that night, years, in fact. I don’t know what compelled me to come
back, but here I am, listening to the whispering in the trees. I whisper thank you and turn back to the road,
leaving behind the sunset-golden lake and the secrets sleeping on the other side.