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We could feel the reverberation of the ice-cutting machine through the frozen lake beneath our feet. Matt Boudoin was telling me this would be the best ice palace ever, and I was nodding, because of course every year the palace seems better than the one the year before. At the same moment, he stopped talking and I stopped nodding, because the machine had halted and the crew of men was staring down at the ice. Then, in unison, like marionettes with their strings being pulled, they turned their heads to look at Matt. Their faces were blank, but we knew something was wrong, very wrong.
We started moving forward. Because this is an Adirondack mountain town and Matt has an ingrained sense of chivalry, he held his arm out in that protective gesture you make toward a passenger in your car when you have to slam on the brakes. But it didn’t stop me.
Later, I would wish it had.
For the first few months of winter, this lake is an expanse of frozen nothingness. Then, seemingly overnight, an enormous palace of ice appears, blocks melded together with a mortar of frozen slush, infused by colored lights that turn it into a fairy-tale castle. You can wander through it, footsteps crunching, breath forming icy clouds, and feel a sense of wonder you haven’t felt since you were a child.
It’s part of the fabric of this town, and the flow of winter is based around it. Never mind the huge expenditure of time and energy. This is Saranac Lake; this is Winter Carnival. Up goes the ice palace, every year with a different design, a different form of magic. This year I was going to track its progress for the local paper, with a photo and vignette every day—I thought I’d write about the homemade ice-cutting contraption, interview one of the ice cutters, talk to the designer. There was a lot you could write about palaces built of ice cut from the lake.
As we reached the circle of men, they stepped back, and Matt and I looked down. What I saw looked at first like a shadow under the ice—a dark mass, debris somehow caught up in cast-off clothing and trapped underneath as the ice had formed. I was wondering why the crew didn’t simply move on to clean ice when I realized the mass had a shape, a human shape. You could see something that looked like eyes and a mouth that seemed open. Right about then Matt grabbed my arm and walked me away from the thing under the ice. We stopped about ten feet away and I sank to my heels, trying to process what I thought I’d seen. Matt whipped out a walkie-talkie and began barking orders as he gestured the men farther back.
For once my journalistic instincts had shut down, and I had no urge to record any of this. I could still envision that face under the ice, as if it were looking at me through a rain-distorted window.
And it was a face I knew.
I live in Lake Placid, ten miles away, in a house so big I rent out rooms, usually to athletes in town to train for bobsledding or kayaking or skiing. But sometimes a local turns up, and one day late last summer a girl named Jessamyn knocked at the door. She was thin with long black hair and green eyes that shifted as she looked at you. I wasn’t sure I trusted her. But she didn’t smoke—I’ve had people stare me in the eye and swear they didn’t smoke when they reeked of it—and something about her made me like her. She was happy to take the smallest upstairs room, the one with just a twin mattress on the floor, a child-sized dresser, and a rod to hang clothes on.
She moved from job to job, but that’s not rare here. Lake Placid is a touristy sports town with plenty of low-paying jobs, and people come and go, moving on to Boulder or Salt Lake City or giving up on their particular dream and heading back home to the unexciting job they never thought they’d have to take. Jessamyn had a quick wit and a sardonic manner, and men flocked to her. She’d date them for a few weeks, then discard them as if they were an article of clothing that didn’t quite fit—apparently with no hard feelings on either side. She partied hard in the local bars but didn’t bring it home with her. I never encountered a drunken paramour stumbling down the stairs; her employer never called because she missed a shift. And, like me, she never got involved with any of our roommates. You don’t fish in your own pond; you don’t hunt in your own backyard.
Then she met Tobin Winslow.
I would have pegged him for trouble from the start, with his frat-boy good looks, floppy hair, sleepy brown eyes, and diffident manner. It was written all over him that he was the sort of person who assumes life should go his way, no matter what. He didn’t have a job to speak of, nothing steady, and drove a rattletrap pickup that seemed as much a prop as his Carhartt pants and flannel shirts. I suspected he’d grown up in a world of crisp khakis and button-downs and gone to an elite prep school, then partied himself right out of Harvard or Princeton before drifting up here, where no one ever asked where or if you’d gone to university.
It surprised me that Jessamyn fell for him—actually it surprised me she fell for anyone, because I hadn’t seen her let anyone get too close. But Tobin seemed to appeal to something in her in a way the local guys hadn’t. Maybe she was looking for someone who might take her away from here. Maybe she was yearning for conversation about more than ice fishing or carburetors or whatever game had been on television the night before. She’d been steadily working her way through the shelves of the Lake Placid library, and most of the guys she dated probably hadn’t cracked a book since high school. And while Tobin may have been playing the role of good old boy, there was a lot going on behind that sleepy-lidded look.
But it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Tobin Winslow likely wouldn’t be leading Jessamyn down a path to anything new and improved. Falling for him meant giving up a big chunk of herself—although maybe that would have happened no matter who she fell for. Maybe she didn’t know how to love without giving up herself. I’d figured that Jessamyn’s flippant manner, hard drinking, and serial dating had been the veneer she’d adopted to cope with things life had thrown at her, things I could only guess at. But it had worked, in its way. Sure, she dated guys who were completely unaware of her intellect and she hadn’t been able to settle down, but that happens to a lot of us. She had a life she could handle and at least pretend to be happy.
But Tobin had changed all that. Around him she dropped her sardonic edge and became close to meek. It didn’t seem a change for the better. I didn’t expect it was going to end well—I couldn’t see Tobin settling down here, or whisking Jessamyn off to the bosom of his family, wherever they might be.
Tobin would periodically disappear for a week or two—no one knew where—and while he was gone Jessamyn would show glimmers of her old self. But once he came back she’d take right back up with him again as if he’d never left, an Adirondack version of a Stepford wife.
And the face beneath the ice was his.