Part 27 - Lake

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Not far from the glade, Ray discovered a wide, pebbly shore descending to a lake. Across the still water, he spied cliffs and, to his surprise, villas nestled among forested hills. No lights shined within the tile-roofed buildings, nor did any shapes move between them. He felt that the villas had known darkness and solitude for a great many years. He couldn't decide whether that feeling, or that place, was ominous or peaceful; he suspected it was a matter of perspective, and that suspicion made him regret his inability to draw landscapes. In any event, it was a good place to have a think.

So, he thought, my girlfriend is a tree. His eyebrows furrowed. Something about the proposition troubled him, but he couldn't pinpoint what. Of course! With everything else going on, he hadn't asked whether Trivia was looking for a relationship. He'd projected his own romantic interest on to her, which was hardly fair. They had an undeniable emotional connection, but Trivia seemed like a free spirit. Why risk an awkward conversation when things were going so well? Best to take it slow and see where that led him.

Also, she's a tree, he thought. That's pretty weird.

Ray stood at the water's edge and hurled a rough white stone into the lake. The stone made a visible, but soundless, splash. He repeated the experiment twice with the same result. Cautiously, he immersed his index finger, then his entire hand. The water felt pleasantly crisp but colder than he had expected. A chill swept up his arm, permeating his body.

He removed his hand from the lake, but the chill did not leave him. His fingers obeyed his command to wiggle, but he felt nothing from the wrist down. Ray retreated from the water line, tucked his hand beneath his armpit, and listened to his teeth chatter for several minutes before sensation returned.

All along the shore, white stones shuffled and slid towards the lake. Ray's first, absurd thought was to find a doorframe to hide beneath, but there was no earthquake, only a sea of eyestalks, scuttling legs, and waving claws - crabs, pale as ghosts, seeking sanctuary in the lake.

Ray thought, what are they afraid of?

His answer stood at the tree-line.

Ray said, "You can still follow me? Even here?"

The deer dipped its antlers and walked onto the shore. In the moonlight, it looked more ghostly than the fleeing crustaceans.

"You really scared the crab out of them," Ray said.

The deer snorted.

"Fine, be a critic," Ray said. "Why don't you contribute something to the conversation? It's like I'm talking to myself."

The deer walked to the water's edge and lowered its head.

Ray said, "I wouldn't. You'll get brain freeze, like eating ice cream too fast."

The deer looked across the still lake to the lightless, lifeless villas.

"At least you listen," Ray said. "Even if you have nothing to say."

The deer looked Ray in the eye, then waded into the lake.

"Don't go in there!" Ray said.

The deer forged towards the distant cliffs. The lake lapped at its legs, leaving a languid wake. The quiet undulations disquieted Ray for reasons that he could not discern.

"Come back! Shit!" Ray wrung his hands, which still ached from being immersed.

The water rose to meet the deer. Or, the deer sank to meet the water.

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