On the muddy lakeshore they fished with leeches. The water was brackish and sudsy. The leeches sucked on their fingertips as they hooked their slimy bellies. They caught walleye and northern pike, which they breaded and deep-fried. Sometimes Ashley made a salad from watercress and weeds, which Aaron said tasted like the lake on a windless day, stagnant and fetid. They didn’t have a car. They drank Milwaukee’s Best, Gatorade, Coke, and ate Twinkies, Fritos, Ding Dongs and Fruit Loops. It was all they could buy at the gas station down the road. Ashley worried about her diet. Aaron didn’t seem to mind. He could pass a rusty nail. He’d inherited the trailer from his grandma. In the first few weeks they lived off canned chili and Spaghetti-Os she had stockpiled for the winter. Some of the cans were bloated. These they threw out. Though his grandma had lived alone, she always bought in bulk, either because she thought it was cheaper or because she was preparing for the apocalypse. She wasn’t religious but she lived with the constant fear that humanity was on the brink of disaster and that when push came to shove humans were no different than animals.
Ashley dreamed of fresh fruit, steamed broccoli, Caesar salads, and green beans fried with garlic. One morning she woke up with sharp pains in her stomach. She couldn’t get out of bed. Aaron asked her if it was her period. “I just had my period, you idiot,” she said. “Can I get you some Tums?” he said. They had lots of Tums. Aaron ate them like candy. “Just leave me alone,” she said. Aaron stepped out of the trailer. The tide by the lake was low. There was no wind. He swatted a mosquito against his neck and when he looked at his palm there was a bloody question mark on it. He walked down to the shore. You could really smell the lake on a morning like this. He was as surprised as anyone when Ashley came to live with him. She was a good woman when it came down to it. Not many would put up with his not having a job or a car or any prospects. He felt calmer by the lake. Even when things were rough at home he could come here and sit and watch the water and his grandma would make him Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese out of the box. She made it without milk or butter so it was extra thick and gooey. She didn’t have much but she loved the lake and her trailer and he was touched when she left it to him. It was his ticket out of the house. “You won’t last there more than two days by yourself,” his father had said. “Then you’ll come crying home.” That was two months ago.
He squatted by the lake and cupped some water up to his face. He could see his reflection in the murky water. His face looked pale, gaunt, worried, and sallow. He tossed the water back and spat in it. Ashley was still in the trailer. He didn’t want to make the call, the call that would prove his father right. He hoped Ashley would get better on her own. Maybe they could get jobs in Grand Forks and live in a small apartment. It wasn’t unfathomable. People started over all the time. He knew what people called him and his grandma. Lake trash. The first time he heard the expression it cut through his heart. When he told his mother he was moving into grandma’s old trailer, she said, “Why would you want to live by that disgusting lake?” “I like the lake, mom,” he’d said. Only his grandma understood him. She knew enough to leave him alone. That was the biggest thing. She let him be. She didn’t judge him or criticize him or push him. His father said he would never amount to more than lake trash and he was proving everyone right by moving into grandma’s trailer. But he didn’t view it as a defeat. He’d always wanted to live by the lake and this was his chance. If anything, he lasted longer than anyone expected.
He walked along the shore and gathered wild flowers for Ashley. After a while, around a bend in the shore, he crept up on a big lake house, a trophy mansion. Grain money, he thought. A rich farmer’s vacation home. He knocked on the front door. He didn’t know what he’d say if someone came to the door, maybe tell them about Ashley and ask for help, but no one answered. “Hello?” he said through the window. He walked around back and tried the balcony door. Jackpot. The house was nicer than his parents’. It was carpeted wall-to-wall. Hand-painted ceramic dishes were displayed on tiny easels. On a shelf in the living room stood an army of miniature figurines, trolls and animals. He took a penguin and put it in his pocket. On the kitchen fridge was a picture of an old couple by the Grand Canyon, waving at the camera. In the bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet. He didn’t bother reading the labels on the pill bottles. He simply stuffed as many as he could into his pockets. He inspected the other rooms, opening and closing drawers, looking into closets like a prospective homebuyer. Then he saw it, sitting on a nightstand in the master bedroom, a Tiffany bracelet, the kind had Ashley always wanted. So what if it was engraved with someone else’s name? Maybe he could sand it off or plug the letters with super glue. “Edna” certainly wasn’t going to miss it. She probably had one for each wrist. Why was life so unfair? Here was someone rich enough to have a lake house they never used while he and Ashley were living in a trailer. It didn’t seem right. Before he left, he made one last pass through the house. What this house needed, he thought, was some character. He unzipped and let a stream of piss arc over the white living room floor.
When he got back to the trailer, Ashley was still in bed. She was curled up into a ball and clutching her stomach.
“Here I brought you these,” he said and dropped the pill bottles on the bed.
“Where did you get these?”
“Viagra…Vicodin…Prozac…Is this some kind of joke?”
“And I got you this.”
He draped the bracelet over her wrist.
“Aaron, it’s beautiful.” But as she studied the engraving, her brow became furrowed. “Who’s Edna?”
She turned over onto her side. “Wherever you got it. Take it back. I don’t want it.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. She moved it away.
He went into the kitchen. He stared out the window at the lake. The lake was a shard of glass. The kitchen faucet was dripping into a milky bowl of Fruit Loops. He remembered something his grandma used to say, “Never be too proud to ask for help.” He ran a glass of water under the faucet and drank it down in one gulp as if to punish himself.