Where the Eastern edge of Lake Erie empties into the Niagara River, water divides Buffalo, New York, for Fort Erie, Ontario. The Canadian shore, with protruding rocks and uneven depths, is a notoriously dangerous area for those who venture too close without caution.
It is against this winter backdrop that three friends decide to hike across the frozen lake on a sunny afternoon. Tony Davenport and Victoria Maxwell have begun dating secretly, while Amy Black — mourning the death of her father — believes that a relationship with Tony will end her depression. The couple’s admission of love and Amy’s complex feelings are cut short when ice collapses beneath them.
As the community searches for three promising young adults, those who know the friends consider their intertwining lives and wonder what really happened on the ice.
Rich in beauty with the sparse setting of an icy landscape, Undercurrent is equally gripping and tragic.
Saturday, February 19, 1994, 4:14 p.m.
In the heartbeat of time it took ice to collapse beneath Tony Davenport, his eyes jerked upward and witnessed clear sky. The blue was vibrant, and he was transported to days past, horizons he studied as an inquisitive child.
Then the world was fresh, each dawn offering an opportunity to unearth some new-found treasure. The thought was his final moment of tranquility. Just before he fell, Tony heard a crackling sound, processing its meaning too late. There was no time to look down. He was swallowed by water.
Arms and legs flailed, clothes absorbing wetness like a dry sponge, expanding across his limbs in a flash-flood of cold. His earlobes and nostrils submerged, smacking with sharpness. Skin on his face and neck burned with frigidity, a sensation so chilling he believed he was experiencing absolute zero.
While kicking ice chunks and fluttering toward the patch of light above, Tony thought, “I’m about to die.”
He heard the girls’ screaming before his head broke the surface. When it did, warm air offered little relief. Ice shards immediately froze around his nostrils. His throat was raw and dry. Shocked, disoriented, he forced himself to think clearly. His companions’ hysteria added to confusion.
Victoria Maxwell shrieked with abandon. A few feet from where Tony submerged, her left leg had punctured ice, leaving her trapped like an animal in a snare. Her eyes were wide, and she flopped on her backside, right leg stretched flat. She remained paralyzed, afraid to move, unsure whether retreat would loosen ice around her.
Amy Black leaned toward Tony, her first impulse to offer an arm and pull him out. An ululating moan scraped the depths of her throat. But when she caught sight of a spiderweb crack in a path where ice gave way to water, self-preservation took over. Widening her stance, she retreated, moving tentatively. She would have to solve this problem with logic, not thoughtless reaction.
“Tony, are you all right?” Amy called.
He didn’t look at her but turned his head, unsure from where the sound emanated. “Goddamn, it’s cold,” he muttered. “Okay, now don’t anybody panic.”
Amy watched his face bob. Slicked hair had darkened, and fear commandeered his brown eyes. She understood he did not know what he was saying.
“My God,” Victoria screamed. “The ice is cracking.” A sound like fracturing bones rumbled beneath her. She kicked her legs and began to scramble backwards in a crab walk.
“Victoria! Stay still!” Amy shouted, but Victoria was
past the point of reason. As her left leg withdrew from its cavity, her right arm backed onto a patch of cloudy ice. Simultaneously a sharp clap of perforation pierced the air and her arm stabbed through into frigid water. She screamed as her hand and elbow vanished. Victoria’s torso flopped horizontally on the thinned surface, surrendering control, moving involuntarily. She was in full panic mode, yanking her arm from the murky crater, flailing without rhythm or compunction. Jostling weight weakened the frozen field. As she struggled against invisible forces, thin ice shattered like tempered glass. She disappeared downward.
As Victoria fell, sound was swallowed with the body. There was a deafening moment of silence.
“No!” Amy raged with fear, heart contorting. “Victoria!”
Unlike Tony, Victoria did not bob to the surface.
Seconds stretched. Five. Ten. Fifteen.
Amy inched closer to the hollow, scanning open water for her friend. But veins of weakening ice kept her too distant to see into the depths.
“Victoria?” Tony murmured, swollen purple lips trembling. There was a lapping of water around his neck. He was confused, shivering. His voice sounded feeble. “Did she just go in?”
Amy turned toward Tony’s face, blood drained so his features resembled a corpse, and watched him paw at the serrated edge, unable to maintain a grip without splintering off an ice chunk and opening the hole wider.
“Tony,” she shouted, aware he was in shock. “Hold still. I’m going to find a firm patch and use my jacket to pull you out.”
“Victoria,” he called back, scanning from his low sight line. “Where is she? Did she go under?”
“I need you to stay calm. Let’s get you out first,” Amy replied, inching closer, removing her vest and extending it toward him.
“I’ve got to get her,” Tony whispered, inhaling a deep lungful of air. He ducked under the surface, vanishing from sight.
“No!” Amy cried, afraid to move. “No!” She looked toward the deserted Canadian shore, where dormant summer cottages loomed close enough that she could see the painted wooden slats of window shutters. Her eyes scanned the coast for some sign of movement, some hope of life.
“Help!” she screamed. “Help! Help!”
There was no one within earshot. Her shrill cries were carried away, swallowed by the dull horizon.