He returned home from a night out; fish and chips with a decadent dipping sauce of mayonnaise, malt vinegar, and some other spice that only the chef knew. A mid-week treat accompanied by stout beer and a side of whiskey, and the bustle of strangers with somewhere else to be. His dog was waiting, wagging his tail slowly, knowing that a long walk wasn't far away. The clock read 10:30.
He traded his jeans for snow pants to shield him from the recent deep-freeze temperatures and allow a lengthy romp with his dog in the freshly fallen snow. He zipped his coat and tied his boots, put on the mittens good for nothing other than warmth, and tipped unsteadily down toward his dog's nose. “You ready? You wanna go check out the lake?” His dog snorted in the affirmative, then reared back and lowered down in a long stretch and farted.
All the geese were long gone, the paddle boats and floating docks were lodged roughly along the beach house, the sign on the lifeguard's perch reads “CLOS D”. Pausing for a moment to take the air, he admired the moon with a slight smile, and teetered slightly heel to toe before dropping down for an impromptu wrestling match.
“Alright, alright now, hold still a minute.” His mittened hand fumbled with the collar's clasp. When finally freed, his dog ran out ahead on the snow covered ice as if fired from a canon, darting left then right every few yards to sample the snow on either side. During the long nights and short days of winter the dog spent most of the time folded up on his mat, this was his only chance to really stretch.
Mother Nature's schizophrenic mood swings the last few days had created an interesting slurry on the lake; 8 inches of ice, a few inches of thick slush, topped by an ultra-thin layer of ice, crisp like wax paper. A frozen crème brûlée that, if you didn't know any better, would make you think you were about to go through the ice...until you hit the solid stuff underneath.
He could just barely make out the shape of his dog, cutting this way then that, maybe 50 or 60 yards away. Frozen minnows and fish parts were a special treat, and he ate ice shavings around fishing holes like it was candy. “Let him go...” he thought. “He needs to run. He should run.”
He started to feel better out there on the wintry mixture, disconcerting as each step was. Then right in the middle of the lake, exactly center on all sides, he was confused and startled to find his left leg suddenly plunged into the lake. There was no time to scream, only “Oh no...” with a quiet gasp. Dozens of pictures flashed through his mind; ice cracking open, floundering for a solid edge, slowly sinking into the black, wondering who would take care of his boy.
It took a few seconds to realize that he wasn't going all the way through. He had somehow found an ice fishing hole from earlier in the day, one that hadn't quite frozen over enough to support his weight, camouflaged by slush ice and covered over by blowing snow. All of his weight was now pressing down on his collapsed right leg, and no leverage to stand up as the water quickly wicked up the lining of his snow pants. The cold bit into his calf and thigh and pierced all the way through before turning to a burn; immersed in ice water, on fire.
He leaned forward, arms outstretched, to brace himself and hoist the saturated leg when his face slammed into the slush. There was no support, and all too late he remembered that ice fishers up here don't drill just a single hole and sit by it on a bucket. No, they set up shelters. Light heaters. Drink spiked coffee. All after drilling hole after hole after hole with gas powered motors on a 12 inch auger. Another gasp drew water a degree away from freezing into his lungs, his sinuses flooded, three limbs through three different fishing holes. “I can't believe I'm about to drown in two inches of water...” he thought. There was no one around, no traffic on the nearby road, nobody knew he was there. One thing he did know, he knew he didn't want to die.
“Don't panic...” kept echoing in his head, but his body didn't listen. Splashing, clambering, fighting all the wrong angles with numbness quickly consuming each arm, seconds passing slower than February. Only by arching up on his forehead was he able to pull free and roll onto his back, the left leg still trapped. He let out a low moan, lower than the north wind, through a quickly freezing face mask. Suddenly, he felt pressure on his face, then warmth. A patting. Lapping. It was his dog, licking his face. Finally opening his eyes, he sputtered out a gurgling laugh.
“I owe you one.” he whispered.