by Laura Keating
They never caught anything.
For years, Verna’s grandfather had been bundling her up and trucking her out onto the frozen lake. He always took her to the same spot – although he’d make like he was scouting out a new location, capping a crusty thermal mitten to his wrinkly brow and raising his lumpy, red nose to the freezing wind.
“This is it,” grandpa would pronounce, then he’d drill a hole with an old hand-crank into the thick ice. His auger would drop suddenly as he cut through, water gulping over the ice as he swept the mouth of it clear with his boot. The familiar black pines on the distant shore, frozen to the flat white sky, seemed to grow ever more distant as dusk fell.
It wasn’t exactly legal to fish at night, not in these parts, and it was cold on the ice. Stupefyingly cold. Verna shivered the whole time, nervous and frozen, listening for the sound of the conservation officer’s truck. If they did hear a distant engine growl, which was almost every time, it was Verna’s job to leave the relative warmth of their pop-up fishing hut and look for the headlights on the shore. She wasn’t allowed back in, no matter how she begged, until she confirmed they were gone. Sometimes it took a while for grandpa to believe her.
“You think I like sitting in here all alone in front of this icy hole in the dark?” he said one night as she cried. He fished with a green light on a line, dropping it down into the black water to attract the crappies. When an engine sounded, all lights went out. “Scary in here. What if an arm comes up and grabs me? Skin black and slipping off the bones, patting around the ice for my boot. Just like that. Pat. Pat. Pat. Leaving little patches of flesh on the ice. Pat. Pat. Pat …”
It was a mean trick, one concocted so she wouldn’t want to stay alone inside the hut while he stood out looking for the lights, instead. Like he was doing her a favour. It was a kiddy prank, but it also worked. A reminder not to try and leave, to walk back over the ice to the road and to the gas station just three kilometers off.
Grandpa used to take her dad fishing. Dad fell through the ice heading home early one night. Now grandpa took her.
They never caught a thing. But she wouldn’t have eaten a bite, even if they did. The lake’s inhabitants were too well-fed.
To keep her mind off the cold and what lay unfound and unknown beneath the ice, Verna watched the stars. She could find many of the winter constellations without any trouble anymore. Some nights, if she was lucky, she saw the northern lights.
“Please, let me back in,” she whimpered. Her lips were numb. “They’re gone.”
“They’re wily. Just killed the headlights to wait us out.”
She heard the thermos squeal open. She didn’t expect him to save any of the nice, warm coffee for her.
Verna tucked her chin into her scarf. A satellite blinked across the sky. A shooting star lived and died before her eyes.
Then something other appeared over the trees.
She thought it was a flare at first, maybe grandpa had been right. But the ball of light fell gently only to rise again. Fall and rise, fall and rise dreamily over the treetops like a yo-yo.
Or a fishing bobber.
The light split into three. Which split into six …
Grandpa’s green light wasn’t prohibited everywhere, but it was in this region of Ontario. It wasn’t that it attracted the fish, but it attracted the food that the hunting fish wanted. So, the hunters went after the light. Conservationists warned that it could throw ecosystems out of balance. Grandpa thought that conversationists were full of shit, all pushing the Radical Green Agenda.
“Yeah, imagine,” Verna had said one night when she was tired of hearing it all again, “investing all that money and all you get is a cleaner planet.”
She’d spent the whole night outside the hut for that one.
A set of headlights blazed to life on the shore, then tore ass along the icy shore road, faster than was wise at this time of year. The sky lights shifted, drifting towards the truck for a hundred meters – and then stopped. Not worth the effort, apparently. The truck escaped over the hill, the sound of squealing tires carrying clear as a loon’s wail over the lake.
“What was that?” said grandpa.
“You were right. They were waiting.”
He hooted. “See! I told you!”
The door flap of the hut snapped open as grandpa came out to gloat. His grinning stopped as he saw the big lights in the sky.
“What the hell is that?”
He stepped out from the hut to get a better look.
All their lights were hooked up to a small jenny on the back of the snowmobile: the green lights, but a couple of flood lights, too, in case the ice should crack and they needed to see which way was safe out. Verna got behind the snowmobile and kicked them all on with her boot.
Grandpa stood like a vaudeville actor in his big spotlight. The lights over the trees shifted, somehow both languorous and terribly fast, and were at once over head. Their lines came down like darts. Grandpa didn’t have to bite; the hook got him through the cheek and tongue, and out the chin between the mandibles. The line tugged twice, dancing him up onto his toes, testing the catch. Then he was reeled up, too fast to scream.
Verna killed the lights, went back into the hut, and unscrewed the thermos top. She’d wait until morning, rather than risk the ice in the dark … or the lights in the sky. But she doubted they’d be back again tonight.
Tonight, they caught themselves a big one.
Laura Keating is a writer of thrillers, horror, and speculative fiction. Her work has been published in several anthologies, including Worst Laid Plans from Grindhouse Press. Originally from Saint Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, she now lives in Montréal, Quebec. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoreKeating, and find more of her work on her website, www.lorekeating.com