She waits on the wrong side of the barrier next to the water, leaning against the worn wood. The clouds churn dark grey above her, bleeding into black at the edges where the night is falling. It might rain, it might not. Either way it’ll be dark and cold. The water smacks at the docks over and over again, like a petulant child. The lake has a constant smell of old fish, oil and garbage, wrinkling her nose every time the wind pushes her hair back. It’s late and damp and unpleasant and she’s the only one around: the one living shadow under the crackling boardwalk lights.
It’s a good night to drown.
In the distance, she hears the long, cold blast of a ferry, and she shivers, pulling the folded blanket tighter against her chest. It could happen hours from now, she knows; it could be minutes. Nights like this, she’s always here at the same time anyway.
Tonight, there’s still a sheen of daylight over the water when she sees—when she thinks she sees—the telltale ripple of movement towards the shore. She loses it several times before it’s finally close enough that it’s unmistakable, but she doesn’t start walking until his head breaks the surface and he shakes the wet bangs out of his eyes.
He puts his hands on the dock and heaves himself out of the water, climbing to his squelching, sneakered feet on the worn, slick wood. It’s too dark to see the blue of his lips, but she knows exactly how cold that water is. She unfolds the blanket and wraps it around his shoulders.
“How long?” he asks, just like always. His voice trembles from cold, despite the blanket clutched around him. Water cascades from his hair and skin and clothing, pooling on the wood until it leaks between the slats or runs over the side. She brings the blanket every time, but stopped trying to dry or warm him years ago. He will never be dry or warm.
“A week,” she says, just like she always does. He nods distantly.
“Are my parents okay?” He asks, trembling. He always asks that too.
“They’re fine. They miss you.” He nods again and she’s glad, as she usually is, that he can’t see her face in the dark. Once he would have caught the lie; now his eyes shine like wet stones and he believes everything.
“Can we sit? I’m cold,” he says, and she leads him up the dock to a black iron park bench on the other side of the barrier. They sit, facing the lake. His side is covered in rust.
She puts her arms around him, leans her head on his shoulder the way she used to. Once he would have put his arms around her too, held her close and kissed her hair. Now he stares out at the black water, clutching the blanket and shivering.
“I’m so cold,” he says. “Can we go home, please? I just want to go home.”
She swallows, throat aching like she’s sick. “Of course we can. It’ll just take some time.”
“Okay.” He says nothing for a long while after that, eyes fixed on the dark. She rubs his back. The blanket is soaking but he’s not any nearer to being dry.
The ferry’s horn sounds again. She startles, gasping. He doesn’t notice.
“I saw something in the water,” he says. “It was bright, like a lantern among the weeds. I tried to find it.”
He shakes his head. “It disappeared. It always disappears.”
“One day you’ll find it,” she says. “I promise, one day you will.”
“If I find it I can go home, right?” He turns his head finally. The hope in his watery, glittering eyes is terrifying.
She smiles for him anyway. “We both can.”
“It’ll be warm there, won’t it?”
“Yes.” Her voice cracks, her smile brittle and tight. “And dry too. Dry and so, so warm.”
“It would be nice, to be warm again.”
She nods because her throat hurts, then holds him as the water drips down and he shivers and stares out at the darkness. Until she hears the ferry one more time.
“It’s time to go,” she says.
He looks stricken, but he nods and stands, relinquishes the blanket when she tugs. She walks with him to the end of the dock, waits as he stands there, looking down at the black, lapping water.
“Will you come back?”
“Yes. I promise.” She puts her hand on the nape of his neck. It’s pale and icy cold. “You go on now.” She nods at the water. “It’s all right.”
He looks at her one last time, his face suffused with resignation and fear, and then he steps off the end of the dock and disappears from sight. There’s no splash when he breaks the lake’s surface.
She steps back, crumpling the wet blanket in her arms. It’s soaking now and chills her papery, wrinkled skin.
His parents have been dead more than twice as long as he was ever alive. She won’t stop coming back here, though. Not until he can find the bright thing in the water, and they can both go home.
In the meantime, she stands on the dark, wet wood and shivers, waiting for the ferry to come.