Alice had been stood at the water’s edge, throwing stones in to the cool dark folds of the lake. That was the last time Chris saw her.
He wasn’t sure what had gone wrong. She’d simply vanished while his back was turned, without a word. He’d called her name, looking up and down the vast, empty shoreline of the lake, but there wasn’t another person to be seen for miles. She wasn’t in the car, parked a few meters away. He’d even waded in to the water, thinking maybe she fell, hit her head, drowned. His search was futile, and he’d shivered as he walked back to the car, his clothes soaked and his face wet.
Chris called the police, but they weren’t interested until a week had passed. Even then, all they could do was take a missing person’s report. It was hopeless. She had no family to speak of, or none that she’d told Chris about anyway. Her friends were his friends, and all of them were as puzzled as he was at her sudden disappearance.
She’d seemed strange in the last few days, upset about something. Quieter. He’d tried asking, but she’d shrug it off and smile and kiss his face, telling him to not be silly. But that smile, the one that greeted him every morning had gone.
The soft humming of tuneless songs was gone from her studio, and the days before her disappearance she had painted in silence. It had unnerved him. The painting she had begun the morning they went to the lake stood, unfinished, the room untouched. A field of grey, like the lake water, formless and shifting, dark, and empty. Like the room was now without her in it.
It had been four weeks. Every day started to feel the same. Chris woke with the same expectation that she’d be there next to him, her tousled black hair like crow feathers on the white pillow. Or when he went downstairs, she’d be there in the kitchen, pouring coffee in to her favourite cat shaped cup, burning toast under the grill because she hated using toasters, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. She always said she’d quit one day, but never got round to it.
Chris worked from home. Every day, sat in his office, his heart would stop at any sound outside the front door. The postman, the guy who came to read the meter, his neighbour Sharon stopping by to drop off a parcel. Every time someone rang the bell, a flutter of hope rose in his chest. Upon opening the door he’d visibly slump, his shoulders curving against the weight of disappointment.
His sister, Lou, was worried about him. She came over often, making some excuse about just being in the area, or bringing him the extra cottage pie she’d made. Chris hated that she was checking up on him, but never turned her away. Sometimes, she she’d stay late in to the night, listening to him reason over and over again about Alice disappearing.
‘Maybe she has got family somewhere, maybe someone was ill.’ He’d pondered different scenarios over and over and over and Lou had heard them all.
‘Maybe, Chris. Maybe she just left.’ The words hurt her to say them. ‘Sorry. I wish I knew.’
Lou sipped at the tea that had long gone cold. The clock showed it was past midnight, and she’d been there since the afternoon. Chris seemed particularly bad this evening, and was talking about the disappearance more than usual. She’d thought he’d been getting better.
‘Why? Why would she do that? What did I do wrong?’ Chris clutched at his head in his hands, and Lou shook her head. Chris and Alice had been together around a year. They’d met on a dating website, and had seemed pretty normal to Lou.
‘Nothing. You could have done nothing, people are like that.’ She stood, picking up the empty plates from the table. ‘Sometimes, you don’t need to do anything. Sometimes people just leave.’
After Lou had left, Chris had stared at the wall until the paper blurred. Alice had picked the pattern, silver, with purple swirls, after they’d moved in together a few months earlier. A feature wall, she’d said. His eyes felt like sandpaper. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring.
Exhausted, he climbed the stairs and rinsed off his face in the bathroom. He probably wouldn’t sleep, but he had to try. He had a deadline to meet tomorrow, and his boss was breathing down his neck. His work was slipping, too many mistakes, too many delays.
He turned off the tap, patting his face dry. He hummed, much like she used to, straightening the towel on the rail, his song tuneless and random. Turning out the light, he stepped in to the hall, and was stopped in his tracks by a sound from Alice’s studio.
Humming. Her humming. His voice caught in his throat and he froze for a moment or two before striding towards the door, his hand hesitating on the handle before pushing it open, slowly.
The humming stopped as his line of sight came round the door and he switched on the light. Nothing. No one. The room was empty, the easel still stood, it’s back to the door. A movement, a drop from the easel to the floor, a soft spatter of paint drew his eye downwards.
Crossing the room he turned to look at the plain, grey, unfinished painting he had looked at every day for the last four weeks. Only now it was finished, the paint, still wet, shining in the light. Chris swayed on his heels, trying to understand what it was he saw on the canvas.
Sky, grey and heavy with rain. The lake, dark and sinister, and a figure. The more he looked, the more he realised he was looking at himself, facing the lake, one arm raised, pointing into the middle of the dark waters.
He looked to where his figure pointed. The middle of the lake, ripples moving outwards from the figure who seemed to walk on water, the figure that was clearly Alice, her long black hair slick across her naked body. Was this a message? A sign? Then the humming started again, downstairs, that distinct, tuneless sound he’d longed to hear for months. The front door slammed. He knew where he had to go.
Pulling the car up on the grass, Chris didn’t bother to shut off the ignition. Fortunate, as the headlights lit up the glassy black water of the lake as he ran towards the shore. When he last checked the clock, it was 3 in the morning. The roads had been empty all the way. Downstairs, there was no one to be found, but wet footprints led across the hallway carpet to the front door.
Panting, stopping short of the water, Chris put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. It steamed in the cool air, dancing in the headlights.
‘Alice!’ he shouted, coughing, his throat dry as bone. ‘Alice!’ he called again, his voice echoing back to him off the water. Nothing. He turned around in a circle, looking up and down the dark shoreline, unable to see further than a few meters. And then a sound, something breaking the water beside him.
Out towards the middle of the lake, her figure rose, silent but for the sound of droplets running off her body. She hovered, watching him, no emotion on her face. Chris waded into the water, icy cold striking his legs. His coat got heavy, so he shrugged it off, his teeth chattering the deeper he went until he could no longer feel the bottom. He swam towards her.
He reached where she was, treading water. The light from the car was dim, barely lighting the water, and when he looked up, she was gone. He called her again, turning in the cold depths. She was just here! Where could she have gone? The cold was biting on his skin, and he struggled to stay afloat. Then the light from the car cut out, but he could still hear the engine trembling from a distance.
It was dark. So dark, he could barely see the shore. The cold was like a clamp around his chest, and it was getting harder to breathe. He started to panic, his limbs failing as he tried to swim back to dry land, weeds catching his feet. He should have took his boots off, he thought, kicking desperately at the tangles that seemed to grab at his ankles and pull him downwards, under the surface of the water.
He was pulled under in one surprising movement, unseen hands yanking him down. Water filled his mouth, flooded his lungs, and deafened his ears. He was almost blind beneath the surface, the world a murky grey, like the paint, like the canvas. Choking, suffocating, grabbing for anything to pull himself up and out and in to the air, the grey became black, and he could no longer see the shadows of the water around him.
Before he lost consciousness, with water thrumming in his ears, a sound penetrated the darkness. Humming. Soft, tuneless humming. Alice painting in her studio.