I am slumped in a chair, staring at my newest painting. For over twenty-four hours I have been awake, painting in a near-trance for more than half that time. The painting portrays a scene not far from my studio, a shallow bay on Lake Madeline. A woman emerges naked from the water. An overturned canoe floats nearby.
The woman’s name is Lily.
Memories flood in.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. I glanced towards the sound and could see the sky darkening. The day had been a classic lead up to a storm, hot and muggy to the point of being unbearable. I had spent the day near the lake; swimming, paddling, and painting on the dock. Now it was time to retreat indoors.
“Help!” came a cry as I rose and started towards my cabin.
Turning, I immediately spotted a woman flailing in the water. I ran back down the dock and dove in, swimming quickly towards her.
“It’s okay, just relax,” I soothed, helping her towards the shallows.
The woman calmed and let me guide her in. Soon, we were on my dock. She was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts which were, of course, soaked.
“Thank you,” the woman said, shivering a little even in the heat, “My canoe tipped over in the next bay. I couldn’t get in to shore with the water being so rough. I am not much of a swimmer I’m afraid.”
Rain started to fall around us.
“Let’s get inside. I’ll give you some dry clothes and a towel,” I said.
The full fury of the storm hit just as we got to my cabin.
As my visitor dried and changed in my second bedroom, I got dinner ready. Fortunately, I had been planning to finish leftover stew from the previous night and had plenty. I was slicing some bread to go with it when the woman emerged, wrapped in one of my robes.
“That robe okay for you?” I asked, looking her over.
My visitor was a slight, pretty woman with short brown hair and a rather pale complexion. She actually looked rather attractive wearing my old bathrobe.
“It works,” she said, “I’m Lily Stoneman. I am staying down on McGregor Lake.”
“I’m Don West. Nice to meet you, Lily. That’s a bit of a ways.”
“I like to paddle and sometimes get carried away,” Lily responded, “Thank you for helping me. I was afraid that I was going to drown.”
“No problem. I was a lifeguard in college.”
We sat down and started eating.
“What about my canoe?” Lily asked after a couple mouthfuls.
“It’ll be too dark by the time this storm breaks. I can take you out in my boat in the morning to look for it.”
“Okay. So are you vacationing or do you live up here?”
“I’m an artist. I come here to paint and sketch in the summer. The other cabin behind this one is my studio.”
“That’s cool. I’m a writer and like to come up here to work. My editor has a place that she lets me use.”
“Written anything I might have heard of?” I asked.
“Maybe. I mostly write historical romances under the name Lillian Stone. The Lords and Ladies of Bendermere House series is probably my best-known work,” Lily explained, “But I’ve been moving into fantasy under the pseudonym Lila Washington. Still tend to the romance end of things, but with magic and dragons.”
The name “Lillian Stone” tweaked my memory.
“I think my ex reads your historicals,” I responded, “I am pretty sure I recall seeing the name on her bookshelf. It’s her kind of stuff.”
“So what kinds of things do you paint? Landscapes, I guess, given that you work up here?”
“Mostly, though I do some wildlife.”
“Not portraits but I’ve done things like outdoor scenes containing nudes. Basically, a landscape with a naked person in it. My ex modelled for some of them back when we were married.”
“That sounds kind of fun. Maybe you could paint me some time,” Lily suggested.
“Maybe. I haven’t done one in a while but probably be a good thing to get back into.”
I had been admiring Lily’s looks as we talked, especially the view of her breasts exposed by the loose top of the robe. She would probably look nice naked. There was a spot not far from where she said her canoe tipped where I had been hoping to do a new painting. Perhaps one of a nude Lily emerging from the lake?
“Ever done book covers?” she asked.
“A couple times, just for local authors that I know. I find those hard, though. More composition involved than when I’m just painting from a scene.”
“I guess. Still, I wonder if you could do one of mine. I probably have enough pull with the publisher now to get you hired.”
“We’ll see. My ex has never been fond of my painting, but I guess that would force her to look at it.”
We both laughed and went on to other subjects.
When dinner was finished, Lily helped me clean up and do the dishes. I made some chai tea, my favorite after dinner drink, then we settled in my little living room to chat some more.
Evening wore on. The first storm had ended, but another came and went as we chatted away about art, the lakes, and so on. Finally, I yawned and stretched.
“It’s getting late,” I commented.
“Yeah, I hear you,” Lily responded, getting up from her chair.
She started to walk toward the bedroom I had given her, then paused and looked back at me. There was a sly, sexy grin on her face.
“Do you want to join me?” she asked, holding out a hand, “I am enjoying your company and these storms kind of make me nervous.”
Excitement gripped me. An affirmative answer almost slipped out immediately, but I hesitated. Something felt strange about this whole scenario and I wasn’t sure what.
Lily walked back and stood over me. She let the robe slip open a little more. That exposed the swell of her breasts and a glimpse of nipple.
“Well?” she asked.
“Are you sure about this?” I stammered, “I mean, we just met.”
“I’m sure, Don,” Lily said in a soft, soothing tone, “Think of it as a reward for saving me, if you like.”
I swallowed hard and pushed my hesitation aside. Rising, I took Lily in my arms.
“Okay, sure. It’s just … it’s been a long time and the circumstances are bit odd,” I said quietly.
“That’s okay. It’s been a while for me, too.”
There was no more talk after that. I kissed Lily long and hard. She slipped from my grasp, took my hand, and guided me to the bedroom.
It was hours later that I awoke, still in Lily’s bed. My new lover was sitting upright and looking down the bed. She was barely visible in the dim light, but I could hear her breathing rapidly, then a faint sob.
“Lily? Are you okay?” I said, sitting up next to her.
She looked at me, her eyes wide and fearful.
“Oh God, what a nightmare,” she said softly, her voice shaky, “I was trapped in water and it was so cold and … I think I was drowning.”
“Your experience this afternoon haunting you?” I asked.
“I suppose. But it felt so real. Like a memory more than a dream.”
I put an arm around her.
“I’m here, Lily. It’s okay. You’re safe in my cabin, now, remember that,” I whispered.
We lay back down and cuddled, her body molding itself to mine. She buried her face in my neck and sobbed more, but gradually quieted.
It was then, as I held her, that I realized how cold Lily felt. She wasn’t shivering or anything, but her skin felt strangely cold and clammy despite the warm night and closeness with me. I suddenly recalled a similar feeling when we were making love, but I had been too focused on what we were doing for it to register on my consciousness.
Still holding Lily, who appeared to have finally dozed off, I managed to pull the covers up over us. It would be warm for me, but she seemed to need them. Then I drifted off to the sound of Lily’s now slow, steady breathing.
Lily was gone, apparently already risen, when I woke up in the morning. Sunlight was already streaming through the thin curtains. Memories of the night washed over me; both the passion of our lovemaking and the nightmare.
Finally, I got up and put on my clothes. Lily was sitting on the dock, enjoying the view. I walked down and sat next to her. She had changed back into her own clothing, which we had left drying on my towel rack overnight.
“Good morning,” I said, “And thank you for a wonderful night.”
“You’re welcome. It doesn’t have to end. I’m not that far away,” Lily responded after giving me a quick kiss on the cheek.
Her lips felt cold, just as her body had in the night. She made no mention of the nightmare, I thought, wondering if she even remembered.
“Maybe you’re right,” I answered.
“Can we go look for my canoe?”
“Weather looks fine, so I guess that’s the plan,” I confirmed, “First, though, some breakfast.”
After eating, we took my boat and slowly cruised along the shore in the direction from which she had come. Lily became quiet and tense as we looked around. Maybe she was just worried about the canoe being lost or damaged, but it felt like something more.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Lily whispered, “I just feel like there’s something terrible out here.”
I frowned but said nothing. Perhaps it was just the memory of her close call or the nightmare affecting her.
“There,” my guest suddenly called out, “In the mouth of that creek.”
There was an overturned canoe stuck among the trees and bushes. It was quite a distance from my place, much further than she had originally indicated. I began to wonder how Lily had made it to my dock if, as she said, she was not a strong swimmer. Perhaps the storm had blown it further away.
I turned the boat towards the shore, bringing it in as close as I dared to the creek mouth.
“Wait here,” I instructed as I dropped my anchor, “I’m going in to see if I can just pull it out and right it.”
Lily nodded but said in an anxious tone, “Be careful, Don.”
She looked scared now, not just nervous.
“It’s okay. The water’s not that deep here,” I said as I got out of the boat and waded towards the craft.
“It’s not the water, Don. Something feels very wrong here. I just can’t put words to it.”
Still, I went forward. The water only came up to my knees. I had waded deeper when fishing or working on the dock.
As I neared the canoe, my nose twitched. Something smelled bad here. Maybe there was a dead animal in the creek or something. Could that be what was bothering Lily? I glanced back at her. She was watching me intently, worry on her face.
Reaching the canoe, I began to move it. It was much heavier than I expected. The smell was even worse here. I started to lift it to see what was underneath.
“Fuck,” I gasped, almost dropping the canoe.
The partially skeletal corpse underneath had clearly been there a while. The dead person’s tattered clothing arrested my gaze. For a moment, I stared, not quite believing what I was seeing. It was the same outfit that Lily was wearing.
“Lily?” I cried, turning to look.
My boat was drifting silently at anchor, empty. Bewildered, I looked back at the corpse. It was definitely female, about the right size, and wearing the right clothes.
I put the canoe down over the body and slowly returned to my boat. My body was shaking. Once in, I somehow made it home without crashing or beaching the boat.
In the living room, the robe Lily had worn still lay in a heap by the towel rack, dropped there when she changed in the morning. In the bedroom, the sheets on the unmade bed were rumpled in a way that made it clear two bodies had lain there, two bodies that had done more than sleep. Everything pointed to Lily having been there, but how could she have been?
I knew that I should call the police about the body. However, I couldn’t do anything, just sat on my couch and stared into space for a long time.
Finally, I rose and wandered to my studio. There was a blank canvas already on the easel. Taking out my paint box and brushes, I began to paint.