• Rosalyn Briar

Slipper Lake


The sun burned wrong the day we buried Olivia. Icicles drip, drip, dripped, and the mountains melted into the valley, but there was no rejoicing in the thaw. My prosthetic leg squelched into the mud of false spring all the way to the High Spirit Cemetery as thin air dragged against my throat. The Spirit Mother, donning her silver mask and robes, led the procession. I followed the pallbearers, watching the weight of the casket press upon their shoulders.

As the Spirit Mother spoke before Olivia’s wooden box, I locked eyes with Kit from across the grave. His deep brown eyes pierced into mine, but neither of us wept. We both had assumed his sister’s fate when hunters found her tattered and muddy slippers. For nearly a year, shoes found at the edge of Silver Lake near the lower mine had been a harbinger of death. Children often called it Slipper Lake, and every month, it stole another girl.

Why? Why did my Olivia—the girl with an infectious laugh and kind eyes—have to be number eleven? Eleven pairs of soiled shoes. Eleven dead girls. Eleven families destroyed.

Fear fell upon our small mining village with curfews and shoe blessings at the Spirit House. The elders even hung warning signs around the borders of the forest. Venture not to Silver Lake. It was never enough.

“After we offer Olivia to the Spirits Below,” the Spirit Mother began, and the silver mask oddly muffled her voice. “I, guided by the Spirits Above, will hold a shoe blessing at the Gathering House in her honor. I invite you all to join. Now, Olivia’s family may say their goodbyes.”

As Kit and his parents placed their palms and foreheads against the casket, I took a seat on a nearby bench to rest my sore leg. I had used the bench far too many times that year for funerals. It was under an old, flaky birch and next to my grandmother’s headstone. While I rubbed my leg and watched the mourners, Penelope Withers grinned at me from under her silver veil.

I slid my gaze to the headstone, rounded and weathered. It had a primitive star carved at the top to represent the High Spirit and grandmother’s name in block letters: ISABEL SPINNER.

My parents named me in her honor, but strictly went by “Isa.” That didn’t stop the teasing from girls like Penelope Withers. My grandmother left her first fiancé on the altar of the Spirit House and fell in love with my grandfather instead. The teasing about becoming a “runaway bride” like my gran had grown even worse ever since the accident took my leg.

I twisted the end of my strawberry-blonde braid and met Kit’s eyes once more as he helped lower the box to the Spirits Below. The ropes slipped through his hands, and my heart broke for him. The Spirit Mother threw the first handful of dirt and placed Olivia’s blue slippers next to the gleaming-white headstone. Everyone took turns tossing handfuls of dirt, so I stood with the aid of my cane and did the same. I turned to follow my parents when Kit took my arm and helped me down the steep hillside.

“Thank you,” I said, studying his black button-up shirt and silver-threaded jacket. “Will you be attending the shoe blessing?”

He shook his dark mop of hair. “May I show you something?” he asked quickly, as if speaking was painful.

I agreed, and we walked in silence, for Kit was stoic and solemn even in good times. He escorted me to his stone square of a house, like most homes in the mining town of Mount Spirit. Next to the door was a shiny silver curfew bell. The Spirit Mother had installed one on every home after the first girl went missing for families to ring at sunset. That didn’t stop ten more pairs of shoes from being found on the lakeshore.

Inside the home, there was a heavy silence without Olivia dancing and singing about. Kit led me to her room, where he lifted a loose floorboard and plucked out a light blue journal.

“The last entry,” he said, handing it to me as we sat on the bed.

My thumb rustled the worn pages filled with scribbled handwriting until I found it.


***


Spirits Above, keep my heart from exploding! I am in love, and he’s asked me to marry him—the voice in the night. I cannot tell anyone about him, but he is the very best dance partner. I told him we could marry after the Cole wedding.

Speaking of the Cole wedding, I hope Isa will dance. She’s afraid to be teased, but I know boys who would carry her in their arms just for a chance to hold her close and count her freckles. She’s the most beautiful girl in town. If only Kit would have the courage to ask her. I know he wants to.

My wedding will be at Silver Lake where the shadow-faced man and I dance the nights away. I’ll be visiting him this very night to plan the details.


***


“Spirits Below,” I cursed.

Kit’s cheeks were rosy, but he cleared his throat and pointed to the journal. “The voice? The shadow-faced man?”

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“Do you remember much from your accident?” Kit’s wide brown eyes studied me so intently I had to turn away.

“Well, Honeycomb whinnied and galloped. I couldn’t stop her,” I said, and my hands shook. “She tumbled down a cliff near the lake and pinned me. I was in and out of consciousness until you and your Pa found me.”

“Do you remember what you told me, when my Pa went for help?”

“I was shivering from the cold and shock, so you gave me your cloak and held my hand. You told me stories about the Spirits All Around to keep me awake.”

Yes,” Kit said and took my hand, sliding closer on the bed. “But before that, you mentioned a voice calling your name. Do you think it’s the same voice Olivia heard?”

A hazy memory drifted through my mind but moved on before I could grab it. Instead, a chill creeped down my spine. “I don’t know.”

“I thought, since the deaths started soon after, maybe it was the same. If you think of anything, let me know,” he said.

“I will.”

Kit pushed the journal back when I tried to give it to him. “Keep it.”

“Thank you.” I hugged the small book to my chest as tears stung my eyes.

“It was her favorite color,” he said with a soft smile.

“I know. She always liked blue and I liked green. What’s your favorite? You would never tell us growing up.”

Kit’s eyes flitted to my hair. “This,” he said, reaching to twist a loose tendril around his finger.

My heart hammered in my chest at his nearness. “S-S-Strawberry-blonde is your favorite color?”

He dropped his hand to his lap and nodded. “Let me walk you home?”

Any other day, I would’ve said no, but Olivia’s journal not only gave us a hint about the deaths—it gave my heart a glimmer of hope in the darkness.

Out on the porch, I let Kit take my arm as my prosthetic leg and cane clunked against the steps. Kit didn’t let go until we were at my front door where he leaned down and kissed my cheek. He had never done that before, and I stood frozen in shock. In Mount Spirit, kisses on the cheek were reserved for two things: family and courtships. Did he think of me as family because Olivia was like a sister to me? Or did he…love me?

Kit walked away before I could ask, but the heat of his kiss burned upon my skin for hours.

Winter returned with full force, as if the thaw was only a trick to reveal Olivia’s death. Cooped up next to the hearth, I read her journal every night that week, knowing it was the last thing I had of her bubbly, bright soul. Leading up to the Cole wedding, when I wasn’t helping Ma spin silver thread or reading Olivia’s words, I practiced dancing in my room.

On the day of the wedding, Ma and I worked on my hair: an intricate braid that swept around my head and cascaded over my left shoulder to my waist. It’s how Olivia wore her hair to weddings and celebrations. She said the exposed side of her neck gave boys something to think about. Of course, I couldn’t tell Ma that was why I chose the style. I also made sure to tug out a few wavy tendrils, available for Kit to twirl…

When we finished, Ma smiled and squeezed my hand. “I know it has been a horrible week, well year, but try to enjoy yourself tonight? Olivia, of all people, would want that for you, my starlight.”

I nodded with tears in my eyes as Ma left my room. Yawning, I reached for my prosthetic and cane. Dreams about the voice in the night had kept me up all week, but I couldn’t grasp anything useful. Who was Olivia’s mysterious dance partner? Who was the shadow-faced man?

I traced the whorls and inlaid silver stars on the polished wood of my prosthetic as I prepared to slip it on. During the recovery from my accident, Kit and Olivia had come over to measure my leg and foot. I didn’t understand why until they presented me with the wooden leg and matching cane Kit made. He had always been a talented wood and silver worker, but these were masterpieces. Olivia bounced around my room while Kit showed me how to attach it with the belt system he added. Although I was still in pain and depressed, I never forgot how warm his hands had felt against my thigh.

To finish getting ready for the wedding, I slipped on my blue dress in honor of Olivia. She would have loved it: pretty bell sleeves, hand-embroidered silver stars, and a sash, which showed off my waist. I donned a wool cloak, then Ma, Pa, and I walked to the Spirit House together.

Snow fell from the clouds like sugar, and Ma said the Spirits Above wanted to bless the marriage. The Spirit Mother stood outside of the large stone building, ringing the Great Bell, unphased by the snow collecting on her mask.

The bride and groom grinned throughout the entire ceremony, while I wondered if I would ever get married. After the Spirit Mother pronounced them husband and wife, the reception began. Everyone pitched in to slide tables and chairs into position while I helped the groom’s mother light candles. The small band played for the bride and groom, and people my age mingled in a corner. While we watched the newlyweds and chatted, everyone avoided talking about Olivia in front of Kit, who stood next to me with his silent presence.

Penelope Withers slithered toward me, and I immediately tightened my grip around my cane in preparation for one of her jokes. Everyone knew the story of my grandmother and her first fiancé, Edgar Mooring. The man went missing after the failed wedding, and many believed he had died of a broken heart. It was quite the scandal. I was not in any mood to be bothered by Penelope.

“You look absolutely breathtaking tonight, Isabel,” she said, even though she was staring at Kit. “So lovely, in fact, the boys might forget you’re missing a leg.”

My gut wrenched, pushing all the air from my lungs. I had expected a “runaway bride” joke, not pure vitriol. My eyes darted around, looking for an escape as the tears stung.

“That is uncalled for, Penelope,” Kit growled through clenched teeth. “What is wrong with you?”

Everyone in our circle hushed to stare in surprise that Kit spoke.

“Oh,” Penelope said, smiling as she touched his arm. “I only meant it as a compliment. I’m—”

At that moment, the Spirit Mother invited everyone to join in on the dance, cutting off any apology Penelope might have offered. I was still too frozen to give a retort while handfuls of couples took to the floor, so I used the commotion as a way to distance myself. I didn’t want to ruin the reception or embarrass Ma and Pa by striking Penelope with my cane once and for all.

My leg had grown sore anyway, with blisters forming. I took a seat at a candlelit table when a new song began. People paired up and danced for three eight-counts before twirling and switching partners. A few boys waved for me to join, but I shook my head.

My heart dropped, though, when Penelope grabbed Kit by the arm. Tears brimmed against my eyelids as he wrapped his hand around her back, and she rested her head on his chest. They turned to the music, and Kit caught me staring. I sucked in a sharp gasp and bolted for the side door.

Outside on the Spirit House’s wide, wooden porch, I leaned against the snow-covered railing to catch my breath in frosty plumes of white. I dropped my cane as tears spilled down my cheeks. In that moment, I hated myself for ever having hope.

A whisper in the wind made me flinch. I stared into the dark and snowy woods and waited, but the voice didn’t call again.

“Spirits Below,” I cursed my useless dance practicing.

I plopped onto the frosted wood floorboards and unstrapped my prosthetic. Bright pink with blisters, my skin stung in the cold breeze. Behind me, the door creaked open, flooding the stillness with the noise of the revelry inside for a brief moment until it clicked shut again.

“Isa?” Kit said.

I couldn’t turn my head. His footsteps grew closer, and I wiped my cheeks with my bell sleeves.

“I’m sorry,” Kit squatted next to me, staring at the night through the railing. “I was looking for you when she grabbed me, and I couldn’t—”

“It’s not that. It’s my leg,” I said as a half-lie.

“Oh, Isa! You have blisters.”

Kit reached out, but I hurried to re-strap the belt system and fluff my dress. “I just need to be more careful…and not get my hopes up for such things.”

“Hope for what?” he asked, sliding closer.

“I had gotten my hopes up to dance tonight,” I paused to touch my cheek where he had kissed it, “so I practiced all week. But Penelope was right.”

“Don’t listen to her,” he said, bumping my shoulder with his. “She stepped on my toes…twice.”

A giggle escaped my lips as Kit slid his hand into mine, entwining our fingers. I stitched my brows together and gazed into his deep brown eyes.

“Maybe I’m not who you had gotten your hopes up for,” he said. “But will you dance with me, Isa?”

Silence stifled my words as I sat in fear for a few deep breaths. “You don’t need to feel sorry for me,” I finally whispered.

“I don’t,” he said and leaned his forehead against mine. “You must know. Surely, after Olivia’s journal, you must know. You are who I have always hoped for.”

I gasped. More tears puddled in my eyes as I nodded.

“I’ll hold you, so you won’t get any more blisters.” Kit helped me stand and placed my arms around his neck. “Hang on.”

He wrapped his hands around my waist and lifted me off the ground. He held my body tight against his as we swayed and spun.

We giggled, and his breaths were warm against my ear. I rested my head on his shoulder, my lips but a snowflake’s width from his neck, and everything felt right. The snow still fell outside, but Kit kept me warm.

“Isabel,” the wind whispered.

I turned my head to the voice. “Did you hear that?”

“What?” Kit lowered me and arched his brows. “What is it?”

I reached for my cane and stepped to the railing. The snow slowed to flurries while I listened to the night.

“Isabel,” it howled again.

Memories from the day of my accident bloomed to life in my mind, and I shuddered. That very voice was what spooked Honeycomb.

“The voice,” I said, turning to Kit. “It’s the voice from my accident.”

Kit rested his hand upon mine and didn’t tease me. The look in his eyes said he believed me. “What’s it saying?”

“My name,” I said. “I’m going to find out who it is. If Olivia heard it too, maybe I can figure out what happened to her and the others. It all started with my accident; maybe I can put an end to it.”

“I’m going with you.”

“You don’t have—”

Kit cut me off by touching my available tendril of hair. “Isa,” he said, staring into my eyes. “I love you and won’t lose you too.”

His words struck me in the chest, and I could barely breathe as the edges of my lips curled into a grin.

“May I kiss you on the lips?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Kit swept his thumb across my mouth, causing tingles to spread over my body. I closed my eyes as he kissed the freckles on my cheeks and on the bridge of my nose. Then Kit’s warm lips pressed against mine. My entire body melted against his as we kissed. My lips parted, and our tongues danced. It was tender, sweet, and warm. Oh, so warm.

When the kiss ended, we were both breathless and grinning. We snuck away from the reception and packed up Kit’s horse, Sunrise, with survival items for the weather: matches, a lantern, and blankets. No one would notice our absence at the Spirit House, for the excitement of a celebration would keep the villagers busy until late in the night. The Spirit Mother wouldn’t ring the curfew bells on the night of a wedding.

“Ready?” Kit asked.

“Ready.”

He hoisted me onto Sunrise and sat close behind me.

“Isabel,” the voice called out.

I pointed in the direction of the forbidden Silver Lake, where the voice came from and where the tattered slippers were always found. Kit and I rode down the silent path and into the woods. Snow fell in whispery patters and clung to the branches while carpeting the earth. Darkness bled through the trees all around, and Kit held me closer. The people of Mount Spirit had abandoned Silver Lake long ago, years before any girls ever went missing. When the lower mine ran dry, people stopped going, and the upper mine was opened closer to the village.

The voice called to me through the snowy night. We paused on the bank of the lake, hardened with ice and dusted with a layer of snow.

“Stay here.” Kit hopped down from Sunrise to look around.

Kit stepped to the edge of the lake with one foot on the ice. The voice shouted my name so loud that it echoed from every direction. With a whinny, Sunrise bucked and took off into a gallop. Just like with my old girl Honeycomb, I tugged at the reins to no avail. A shriek escaped my lungs as the horse sprinted around the edge of the lake, carrying me toward the old mine. Kit shouted from behind, but his voice faded the further away Sunrise galloped.

We were past the entrance to the old mine when Sunrise finally slowed enough for me to gain control.

“Isabel,” the voice said.

I caught my breath and looked across the lake, and there stood a man in silver suit with a face of shadows. Olivia’s dance partner. He walked toward me, weightless across the ice, without leaving footprints in the snow.

“Isabel,” the man repeated.

Sunrise bucked again, tossing me from her back. I crashed to the frozen earth, and she trotted off into the woods. I called out for Kit, but he was nowhere in sight. I sat up, and the shadow-faced man appeared next to me.

He extended his hand. “Isabel, you have finally arrived.”

“Who are you?” I asked, pressing my back against a tree trunk.

“Darling, it is I, Edgar,” he said. “All I want is our first dance.”

Edgar? My mind raced, but it was almost too cold to think. Edgar? As in, my grandmother’s fiancé?

“Why did you hurt Olivia?” I asked through my sobs. “And the others?”

“They weren’t you, Isabel,” he said, grabbing my foot and prosthetic to remove my shoes. I was motionless with fear as he rested the pair of blue dancing slippers on the bank. “You won’t need these.”

“Stop!” I shrieked, digging my nails into the snow while he dragged me onto the ice. “Why all the deaths?”

Kit shouted my name from somewhere along the lake, but I couldn’t see him after the man hoisted me into his arms. Even up close, his face was all shadows, shifting with every motion. His hands were as cold as ice and incredibly strong.

“When you left me at the altar, my heart was broken. I drank, drank, and drank into a stupor and wandered into the woods. It was snowing; the Spirits Above wanted to bless our marriage, they truly did. I wanted to visit the place where we first met, here near the mine. When I took a shortcut across the frozen lake, I fell through.”

The realization hit me: he thought I was my grandmother.

“I stayed out here for many seasons of changing waters, all alone.” He drew me closer, the cold spilling from his body into mine. “Then one day, I felt your presence in the woods.”

“If I dance with you, will you stop drowning other girls?”

“I only ever wanted you, my darling.”

I gulped back a painful lump in my throat as tears stung my eyes. It was all my fault. My accident saved me from the fate of Olivia and all the other young women.

“Fine,” I said, letting him escort me further onto the lake.

Edgar’s footsteps made no sound, but my wooden leg dragged along the hardened surface.

“Isa, no!” Kit shouted as he ran along the bank and tested the ice.

I pulsed my hand in the air, gesturing at him to stay. I couldn’t let Kit get hurt when the shadow-faced man only ever wanted me. Edgar hummed a tune and danced lightly as snow fell atop our heads. My bare foot went completely numb, so I leaned onto my prosthetic. The ice crackled and made crumbly echoes into the dark. My erratic breaths fogged the air between us while we danced our frigid dance.

Edgar spun me around and, when he set me down, the ice shattered beneath us. I stumbled back a step when Edgar crashed into the water. He grabbed my legs, and I fell to my back with a shriek. I clawed at the ice to keep Edgar from dragging me into the lake with him. Icy water soaked my dress and made my bare foot go numb as I kicked and screamed. Edgar wrapped both of his pale hands around my prosthetic and tugged. In a quick decision, I unstrapped it, releasing me from Edgar’s grip.

I watched him slip away with my wooden leg clutched in his hands. Edgar’s suit dissolved into threadbare patches, and his body turned into a skeleton as the dark lake swallowed him whole. From behind, Kit grabbed my arms and dragged me toward the shore.

The hem of my dress was hard with crystals and my foot was numb and blue, but I had survived the shadow-faced man. Without my prosthetic leg, I would have become his twelfth victim. My teeth chattered from the intense cold and shock.

“We need to get you warm,” he said, shivering himself. “Hang onto me.”

Kit cradled me in his arms and walked in the direction of the mine. I nuzzled into his neck for warmth as he whistled for Sunrise. I nearly shivered myself to sleep, but after a while, the horse, with nothing to spook her now, finally trotted in our direction from the woods. We rode her to the entrance of the mine.

“You’ll get hypothermia if we try to ride all the way back to town.”

Kit carried me inside the abandoned mine, pecked my cheek, and left. Confusion spread through the corners of my mind until he returned with old wood boards from the entrance, matches, and a blanket which he draped around my shoulders. Kit built a fire, set the canteen next to it, and wrapped his arms around me. Sensation returned to my foot, but my teeth still chattered.

“I need to remove my wet dress.” My weak fingers fumbled with the buttons. “Kit?”

He gulped and unbuttoned my dress for me. Once it was loose enough, he helped me wiggle out of it. He then helped remove my damp undergarments.

“Spirits Above, Spirits Below, and Spirits All Around,” he whispered as he tried to look away.

The fire quickly warmed my bare skin, and I stopped trembling. Kit spread my clothes on a rock near the fire to dry and grabbed another blanket from the pack. We took turns drinking warm water from the canteen. Kit kept an appropriate distance from me, but I didn’t want that anymore. I didn’t want to waste these moments with him any longer.

“Come here,” I said.

Although I felt better, I desperately wanted his body warmth. Kit cleared his throat and rested beside me, covering us with the wool blanket. I spooned my body against his as he once again wrapped his arms around me.

“I can’t believe I’m holding you,” he said, rubbing his hand over the goosebumps on my shoulder, hip, and leg. “How do you feel?”

“Much warmer,” I said, shifting my body to turn toward his. “This is nice. Us.”

“It certainly is. What happened out there?” He played with my hair.

I told him about Edgar and my grandmother. Guilt rose in my chest when I told him that Edgar was always looking to dance with me ever since the day of my accident. The other girls just got in the way.

“It’s not your fault, Isa,” he said.

“I just hope it’s over now.” I wiped the tears from my eyes. “We’ll tell the Spirit Mother, and she can properly bury the man so he can’t hurt anyone else.”

“I was worried I lost you,” Kit said, squeezing me tighter. “May I confess something?”

“Sure.” My heartrate increased while I watched his lips, waiting to hear his words.

“I’ve been in love with you for years. Every day, Olivia would dare me to kiss your cheek,” he said, making me grin. “I want to marry you, Isa. That is, if you want to.”

“I do,” I whispered.

We kissed on our blanket. The mine entrance was warm with our crackling fire, and I fell asleep in my fiancé’s warm arms.

* * *


One perfect day the following spring, Ma buttoned me into a dress made with our own silver-spun thread, which glistened in the sun. I wrapped my bouquet in a blue ribbon in honor of Olivia, who I knew was there in spirit. With my new prosthetic, I walked down the aisle with confidence, but it was Pa who shook with sobs as he held my arm. Kit’s eyes locked with mine, and I saw forever in his smile. The ceremony was a blur of excitement, nerves, and love.

Time slowed, though, when the reception began. Kit took me into his arms for our first dance as husband and wife. He lifted me off the ground and p

laced kisses upon my freckles.

The Spirit Mother buried Edgar’s bones in an unmarked grave in the High Spirit Cemetery, and no more girls heard voices or went missing. Shoe blessings were no longer necessary and only continued as a yearly reminder to be careful who you dance with.

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