Featured December 5, 2018 Fantasy Strange

The Stars Underfoot

By James Van Pelt
Dec 2, 2018 · 2,994 words · 11 minutes

Crack me up.

Photo by Tom Barrett via Unsplash.

From the editor:

Twelve-year-old Dustin plans to be the first to cross the lake’s thin ice this winter... but he doesn’t expect to find someone walking on the underside of it. A finalist for the Nebula, Sturgeon, and Campbell awards, author James Van Pelt taught English for 37 years before becoming a full-time writer.

From the author: This is a December story, not quite a Christmas tale, but one of the winter season. Did you ever walk on thin ice? Did you ever consider how close you were to breaking through to another world? Of course not. You all are sensible.

In the middle of the night, Dustin edged away from the frozen shore, careful to keep his weight evenly on both feet.  The quarter-mile wide lake had only started freezing a week ago, and no one had made it more than a yard before the ice cracked.  Yesterday Kenyon Parker had fallen in up to his knees, and while the gang laughed, he’d run for home, his lips blue with cold.  But the temperature had been bitter all day, and once the sun set, the thermometer plunged below zero.  I’ll be the first across this year, Dustin thought.  There’s an advantage to being small.  He shuffled forward, the ice so thin, he could almost feel it sag under his weight.

A deep breath froze the inside of his nostrils, and it tickled when he wrinkled his nose.  So he did it again.  I’ve already established the season’s record.  I’ve got to be twenty feet out, he thought.  It was hard to tell by starlight what the distance was, so he flicked his flashlight on to check.  Yep, twenty feet if it’s an inch.  Underneath him, trapped bubbles slid away like little jellyfish.  The ice was remarkably clear.  Dustin crouched, pressed the light against the ice, and played it across the bottom, across silt covered sticks and muddy boulders, much deeper than he was tall.  He turned the light off.  If anyone in the houses surrounding the park saw him, they would call the police for sure. 

Last year, days after Mike Liddle had made the first crossing, Dustin had been walking alone across the lake, and a lady stuck her head out her back door to yell,  “Get off the lake, young man.  It’s not frozen.”  Dustin looked down at his feet, at the milky smooth expanse as solid as a marble floor.  “Call the Pope, then,” he’d called back.  “It’s a miracle,” which he’d thought was a pretty clever thing for a twelve-year old to come up with.

Of course, Mike Liddle had been a hero all winter last year, and Kenyon Parker was one for falling in this year, but no one had ever attempted a night crossing to open the season.  No one had ever done it alone.  Dustin checked under his coat where the camera was protected from the cold.  When he reached the middle, he’d take a picture.  Ten bucks at the one-hour developing place, and his name would be carved into neighborhood history.

A splash at the lake’s far end.  Then, quacking, as if the ducks were right beside him.  House lights reflected off the unfrozen part of the lake where they swam, looking like little puppet figures, most with their heads down.  Overhead, stars glittered with icy twinkles so sharp that Dustin thought he could surely touch them.  He shuffled forward, wary of the slickness, farther from shore, closer to the lake’s middle.  Another quick check through the ice.  His flashlight penetrated deeply, but couldn’t reach the bottom now.  Green particles drifted through the beam.  He wiped the light with his sleeve, standing still, listening to the night sounds.  A half hour earlier he’d removed the screen in his bedroom window, lowered himself out, and hiked the mile to the park, crunching through ice-encrusted leaves strewn on pale sidewalks.  He’d never walked through the town at night, and now, in the midst of the lake’s smooth emptiness, the sounds were amplified: cars shifting gears on streets blocks away, a dog barking, distant laughter from a party.  And lights seemed more intense too.  Not just the stars, but windows in the homes whose backyards faced the lake.  Some glowed in a flickery blue that said a television was on.  Rich yellow light poured from others.  The air smelled of woodsmoke.  Dustin exhaled carefully because he didn’t want to disturb the symphony with his own sounds.  His glasses fogged from his breathing, so he turned a little into the breeze, and they cleared.  The night had never seemed so pure and clean.  If he’d known it would be like this, he would have snuck out every night, and he told himself that in the future he would.  I’m a superhero, he thought.  I’m outside of space and time.  I move where no one sees or hears me, while I see and hear all.  He chuckled, and it sounded loud in the brittle cold.

A series of snaps, like tiny firecrackers, radiated away from his feet on the next step.  He stopped, hands held from his sides as if he were balancing, and his heart raced.  I’m in danger!  No one knows I’m out here!  He shuffled a few feet further, away from the weak area, then stood as motionless as a statue, his hands still out.  The ice glittered.  It was the stars, perfectly reflected.  He stood on a starry table spread beneath him, and he thought about astronauts and space walks.  Even the quality of air tasted different, more animated, more primordial.  He felt like an explorer, in the center of his own town; he’d discovered a new wilderness.  “Trailblazer,” he said.  “Dustin Boone,” the crackling ice already forgotten. 

*                    *                    *

Being small bothered him.  He’d never been a hero in anything.  Even his friends picked him last when they chose sides, like he was the little brother they had to play with.  And the teachers only tolerated him at school, where he earned “C’s,” because his mom and dad would ground him if he had a “D.”   He read too much and paid attention too little.  He’d stare out the window, cheek resting on his hand, where the mountains rose cool and blue on the horizon, and he imagined undiscovered countries.  He watched late-night science fiction and horror movies on Friday and Saturday, when his parents let him.  Never the hero.  Always the dreamer, the reader, the observer.

*                    *                    *

A breeze scurried across the surface, kicking the dusting of snow into glowing spirals.  Dustin’s eyes watered, so he blinked them clear.  For a second, he thought a beam of light had flashed up through the ice just in front of him.  He blinked again.  Nothing other than the little crystal whirlwinds dancing across the lake.  He swayed.  The stars beneath and above, the wind that switched from front to back, the sense that he wasn’t standing on anything substantial dizzied him.  For a second, he was afraid he might fall.  Surely that would send him through the ice.  He remembered rocks they’d thrown into the lake yesterday, orange-sized stones lobbed high that vanished with ragged claps, leaving uneven holes where the water boiled for a second, then was still.  The light appeared again, twenty feet away, a distinct glow below the surface.

He moved toward it, careful to keep his feet always against the ice, his body awash with goosebumps.  How could there be a light under the water.  He looked up.  Maybe it was a reflection, a plane, a planet, but only the hard-edged stars filled his vision.  Maybe it was a ghost, and that nearly stopped him, but maybe it wasn’t.  He continued on, eyes so wide that he thought they might freeze that way.

The light changed in intensity, dimming, almost disappearing, then growing strong again.  It was a beam now, cutting through the water beneath Dustin, so that for a second he saw the floating algae he’d seen early, suspended green specs, then the light pointed away from him.  Dustin could see the source, a bright spot three or four feet deep.  He held his breath.  Could it be a new kind of fish, something that only came out in early winter, never observed before?

*                    *                    *

Dustin was an imaginative boy.  He played by himself in the yard for hours, building kingdoms, then tearing them down.  He wrote stories in the back of notebooks, not showing them to anyone.  His full life was mostly a secret from his acquaintances.  He’d read at family parties, not so much to escape the meaningless chit chat, although that was an advantage, but because he yearned to visit secret worlds.  In the books, he saved the day.  He solved the problem.  He turned the tide.  He was not an ordinary boy, because an ordinary boy would not be out on a barely frozen lake in the stars; an ordinary boy would not hope that a picture taken in the middle of the night would make him a hero to his friends.

So he was not ordinary, because an ordinary boy would have run away from the light instead of sliding ever closer, and an ordinary boy would have surely screamed when he saw the light was a flashlight, and holding the flashlight was a hand, and that the hand was attached to an arm wearing a coat somewhat like Dustin’s own, and the boy that was wearing the coat stood on the ice just as Dustin did, but upside down, like a bat, walking under the water, pointing his light ahead of him, moving his feet carefully, as if he too might slip and fall.

*                    *                    *

“Hey!” yelled Dustin.  His voice echoed from the nearby houses, and the ducks fluttered in response, swimming to their pool’s far side.  “How can you do that?”

The boy under the ice paused, then swung his light to and fro, as if he’d heard, but didn’t know where the question had come from.

Dustin crouched to see better.  The soles of the boy’s shoes were under Dustin’s mittens.  Dustin realized the boy didn’t look wet.  His coat wasn’t water sodden, and his hair, from what he could see by the boy’s light, was neatly combed.  He had a pleasant face, maybe only a year or so older than Dustin, and he wore glasses, but he looked puzzled as he turned slowly, shining his flashlight all around him.

“I’m here,” yelled Dustin.

The boy turned his flashlight down.  Suddenly Dustin couldn’t see.  The light blinded him.  He threw himself away, slipping on the ice, and there was a sudden cracking.  Dustin kept moving, trying to see what was happening.  His hands were wet!  The ice was broken.  He lay flat, spreading his weight, trying to see past the great, black circle that was the flashlight’s afterimage.

Something splashed, more ice cracking and a vague scream.  No, not vague, muted, like a scream with the volume turned down, a distant sounding “Help!  Help!” only ten feet away.

Dustin turned on his flashlight.  The boy’s legs stuck through the ice and kicked wildly into the air.  A movement above him caught Dustin’s eye, and he flicked his light toward it.  At first, he couldn’t tell what it was, then he recognized the boy’s flashlight rising from the lake, sinking into the stars.  When it turned, its beam glowed dully, then winked out.

Then the ice broke more, and the boy lurched farther into view, his elbows visible now, thrashing at the ice.  Dustin glimpsed his face, pulled from the water, and it was frightened, cheeks bulging in a held breath.  The boy kicked himself down and tried to pull himself under the surface, but the ice kept breaking.  The face appeared.  He choked, then lunged down again.

Dustin thought about moving farther away, to keep the cracked ice as far from him as possible.  He could retreat to the shore.  Whatever was happening here was beyond his ability to understand or explain.  Who would believe it?  But he didn’t move.  He watched, his hands bunched into fists so tight he could feel his fingernails digging in, even through the mittens.  “Get back!” he yelled.  “Get back!” and he didn’t mean “get away,” but “get back to where you are safe.”

The boy floated up, until only his hands remained in the water, flailing.  Dustin imagined in a moment, the boy’s struggles would weaken.  He’d go limp and slowly follow his flashlight into the sky.

Knowing that it was stupid, thinking that the boy drowning in air was probably a hallucination, Dustin left his light on the ice pointed toward the boy and pushed his way forward.

Wet ice.  Broken ice.  He broke through the ice five feet away.  Water.  Water like liquid fire, soaking through his pants, weighing down his coat, pulling him deep.  Dustin kicked himself forward, so shocked by the water’s temperature he couldn’t inhale.  He kicked himself forward, then grabbed the other boy’s wrist that was now a foot above the lake.  Dustin pulled hard.  The boy moved toward the water, while Dustin’s sinking stopped.  He pulled again.  The boy’s face was against his own.  They’d both lost their glasses, but by the flashlight’s pure light, he saw the boy’s eyes, an inch from his own, and they were pleading.  Now the boy’s head was underwater, while Dustin was clear of the lake to his armpits.  He climbed the boy like he would climb a float toy, pulling himself up while pushing the boy down, and the boy helped, thrusting himself deeper.  He grabbed Dustin’s leg, pinching the skin through his winter pants.

But they weren’t stable.  Dustin felt the roll begin, and his head was underwater, a thousand cold needles piercing his scalp and peeling back the skin.  A scramble to get back on top, desperate to be above the water.  Knees collided.  Hands grabbed coats, tugged, struggled, until there was an equilibrium again, Dustin’s head high.

For a moment, he didn’t think about saving the boy.  Anything to get out of the strangling cold.  He’d taken two choking gulps in a row.  Coughing ripped his throat, and already his arms felt leaden, his hands like wood.  His face burned.  He climbed the upside down boy.  A promised land of unbroken ice beckoned in front of the flashlight.  Dustin reached toward it, careful of their balance, gathered in water and pushed it behind them.  They moved a couple of inches.  The boy’s legs shook under Dustin’s hand, but he reached into the lake too, his hand appearing out of the water, mimicking Dustin’s movement, and they moved again.  Working together, they paddled toward the unbroken ice.

Even Dustin’s brain felt cold and sluggish, his thoughts disconnected.  Why can’t I keep climbing, he thought, until I’m standing on the bottom of his feet and he’s standing on the bottoms of mine?  We could walk out of danger if we always stepped where the other stepped, and the vision seemed so dreamy, for a minute he thought they were already doing it, which frightened him more than anything that had occurred so far because his hand had stopped paddling.  He was just holding on, shivering so hard that it was if his muscles had locked up.  He forced himself to paddle again.  Every inch in the core of him hurt, but he couldn’t feel his arms or feet now at all.  He had to watch to be sure they were still moving.

The unbroken edge moved closer.  The flashlight was only ten feet away.  He touched the solid surface, slid his hand across it.  Nothing to hold onto, and they almost tipped again.  He reached, a little farther this time.  For an instant, his wet mitten stuck to the ice, pulling the edge against their hips, but the mitten broke loose.  The boy’s boot shifted under Dustin’s armpit.  How could they get back onto the ice without shattering it?  Dustin shut his eyes tight, his head so cold that his thoughts flowed like thick jelly.  He could push away from the boy and fall flat.  If the ice held, he’d be safe, but the boy would be in the middle again.  Dustin looked down.  The boy held his legs in nearly the same manner.  It could work if they leaned at the same time.  They’d fall to their sides of the ice, their legs still in the water, but maybe they could scoot to safety.  Dustin put his hand flat on the surface.  The flashlight beam shone directly on it.  If the boy looked, he would see it, a mittened silhouette through the ice.  Would he understand?

Breathing hurt.  Razor-like crystals seemed to cut into his lungs, his throat.  The boy moved–the balance shifted–and through the ice, Dustin saw him reach.  Their hands faced palm to palm, only an inch apart.  Dustin let go of the boy’s leg and twisted as he fell, so that he landed on his stomach.  A loud snap.  Somewhere, the ice cracked, but it held beneath him.  He pulled a knee out of the water, slid forward a few inches.  Got the other knee out.  Slid.  He was clear of the hole, five feet from the flashlight.  The boy on the other side pushed forward too.

The light revealed him.  Blue eyes to Dustin’s brown.  Frightened.  Hurting, but alive, inhaling.  Dustin pushed himself to his hands and knees.  If I don’t move, I’ll freeze to death he thought.  He staggered to his feet.  Shuffled to the shore, two-hundred yards farther, his coat and pants weighing him down, then lumbered toward home as if Jupiter’s gravity was holding him down, water turning to ice in his hair.

What seemed like hours later, he stood in his shower, still in his clothes, his skin tingling in the heat, his un-numbing fingers and toes screaming.  Every muscle complaining, he peeled away the coat, dropped the ruined camera to the tile.            I was a hero tonight, he thought as he sat among his lake-soaked clothes, the shower water pounding down, the steam filling the bathroom. 

He thought, being a hero isn’t about what happened; it’s about what didn’t.  I was a hero tonight, and he was too tired even to cry. 

That happened much later that night, and many nights after, when he woke from a dream, where the boy on the other side was dead, his eyes creamy pale and wide, only an inch away beyond the ice, and the boy was him.

This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."

1 Comment
  • Beverly Suarez-Beard
    December 11, 1:59am

    Hi Jim, this is the first time I've seen this story and I'm so glad I had the chance to read it. It's beautiful, eerie, layered, atmospheric. Wonderful, basically, and so much accomplished in less than 3000 words. If you don't mind, I'm going to post a link to it on my Facebook page.