Preview: Restoration

The cabin wasn’t what Cliff had envisioned. He had expected it to be rustic, but this was taking it to a whole new level. Just how old the place was hadn’t been so obvious from the few pictures provided on the website. He pulled the outer door open and stepped onto the stone floor of the screened-in porch. Not that it wasn’t sound; the chestnut logs making up the structure looked as if they could easily stand another eighty years. By the CCC plaque resting above the door, that was when the cabin had been erected—eighty-four years ago to be exact.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was a relief program implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During the Great Depression, young American men had been put to work conserving the nation’s natural resources with projects like maintaining forest roads and trails, fighting fires, and planting trees. Cliff had briefly read over the little bit of history provided when he made the reservation with a large portion of what was left in the checking account. But somehow he hadn’t caught on to the fact that his lodging would be an actual CCC-era cabin erected during the development of the park in 1937.

Still, it had been a bargain, much less than anywhere else would have cost him. Because it was the beginning of the off-season, he had been able to get the place for a month for the same price it would have cost him for a week anywhere else. Which gave him plenty of time to get his head straight for whatever came next.

The website had promised, "The perfect place to relax and restore your spirit in a rustic cabin deep in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains."

He glanced over at the two rocking chairs on either side of a low wooden table on the far end. Rustic or not, it looked like the perfect place to enjoy the view while not being attacked by mosquitoes. How many people had sat gazing out over the lake in those old rockers?

Eighty-four years. He shook his head and slid the key in he’d been given by the lady working the desk at the former trading post that now served as the office and gift shop, and shoved the door open.

He reached in and flipped both the switches on the wall inside, but they only illuminated the porch and walkway. He turned them back off and went on into the cabin. There was another set of switches across the room by the kitchen counter. He flipped them up, and a dim light came on above the sink and a bench-style table on the other side of a gleaming stove and refrigerator.

The place was immaculate. And pleasantly warm. He glanced behind him into the short hallway that ran between the two bedrooms. The thermostat hanging by the bathroom door had been set to 70 degrees. He walked over to the refrigerator and pulled the freezer door open. A small pile of cubes lay in the bottom of the ice bin.

Someone had gotten the place ready for him.

Closing the freezer, he turned and crossed the hardwood floor, moving into the living room area that encompassed the other side of the cabin. Something brushed against his face and he jerked back, flinching, and craned his neck up. It was one of two long strings leading down from a ceiling fan hanging from the rafters above him. He tugged on one of them, and a light came on, illuminating the space.

Two wing chairs, a couch, and a loveseat were grouped around a working fireplace. But the rack beside it was empty. He made a mental note to inquire about getting some wood. Though the days were still warm, it was already the end of September and it was bound to get cold as his time there wore on. And a fire would be nice. It was precisely the kind of soothing atmosphere he needed.

He looked around some more before unloading the truck. Little soaps and shampoos had been placed by the bathroom sink, along with a stack of fresh towels and washcloths. The bathroom had obviously been refitted at some point, but the original door, which looked like something from a medieval castle, had been left and could only be locked by sliding a plank into a slot in the doorjamb.

The place was clean, but sparse, and he could see daylight from the outside in places where the chinking between the logs had eroded over time, which probably explained the extra blankets he found in one of the bedrooms. But it was inviting, nonetheless. In particular the two bedrooms were charming with hooks made from branches for hanging clothes, simple bureaus under wood-framed mirrors mounted on the wall, and colorful quilts covering the beds.

The kitchen was equipped with nearly everything he could possibly need, as well. Which was a good thing because Tricia had pretty much emptied out the house along with the checking account when she left. He found utensils, a full set of dishes, drinking glasses, pots and pans, and a set of mugs hanging above a coffeemaker. One of those coffee packets you get at hotels had been placed on top of it, and a tiny bottle of dishwashing liquid sat beside it. Whoever managed the park must have been attempting to make up for the rusticity with plenty of amenities.

He gazed around him. All the curtains were closed, but were the windows locked? He walked over to one that looked out onto the porch and slid the thin, faded curtain to the side.

There were two sets of windows, an outer one that could be raised from the bottom like normal, and another single pane on the inside that was held closed by a piece of metal positioned across the faintly wavy glass. He pushed the metal bar off, grasped the frame around the pane, lifted, and it swung up like a pet door. If someone left an exterior window open and forgot to move the metal piece back across the interior pane, one good push and something, or someone, could crawl right in. Still holding the inside window up, he examined the other one and saw it latched at the bottom. Satisfied it was secure enough, he moved away and began systematically checking all the other windows. He found two with broken inner bars and concluded the exterior sets had probably been added later as a security precaution.

He grabbed the keys off the table where he’d tossed them and stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door shut behind him. He had immediately added the cabin key to his others after the lady at the office—a fortyish woman named Kay—advised him to always keep it on him. Apparently some of the cabin doors had a habit of accidentally locking behind you. He reached out and twisted the knob, and it turned easily in his hand. Still unlocked.

The park was emptying out. He could see a few people here and there hiking the trail that ran alongside the lake but only one person out on the water. A man in a green vest was fishing from an aluminum boat in the swampy part just past the last cabin on this side. Cliff’s was the next to last. He had picked it on purpose. Although it wasn’t quite as private, it had a shallow spot that was going to be great for putting a canoe in and out. Along with jon boats and pedal boats, the park also rented canoes, and he planned on trekking down to the office the next day to get one. By road it was a long, winding ride to get down to the shop for any supplies or to use the office’s Wi-Fi, and by trail, it wasn’t much quicker. Therefore he planned on traveling by canoe. He could land it at the long sandy area by the boathouse and be able to carry supplies easier that way.

It was going to be a little strange at first, not having the Internet or cable TV. Or a phone. There was no cell reception there, either. He’d already checked. Knowing he’d go crazy if he didn’t have something, he had brought the television and Blu-ray player along with a stack of disks that had been in his and Tricia’s bedroom (other than her clothes and personal things, she had left every single item in their bedroom, as some kind of message he supposed). Plus, he had picked up some reading material, and drawing supplies in case he wanted to sketch a bit.

He had plenty to do. There’d be chores around the cabin, he could hike the trails, take the canoe out and fish.

And best of all, he could enjoy one solid month of not worrying about Tricia.

 

 The sun was dropping behind the trees by the time he unloaded his stuff and arranged it to his liking. He went to get one of the sodas he’d grabbed at a little country store on his way up, then decided something stronger was warranted. He considered his options. He could mix some of the rum he’d brought with one of the Cokes, but he didn’t really care for rum and Coke. Or he could drink it straight and chase it with Coke, which was even less appealing. He had retrieved the half-full bottle from the back of the bar cabinet before he’d left the house for the last time. Probably the only reason Tricia hadn’t taken it was because she didn’t care for hard liquor.

He made sure he had his keys and went out the door, pausing to switch on the outside lights before shutting it. He crossed the porch, pushed open the screen door on this side, and stepped out onto the first of the concrete squares that led up to the parking spot where his Ram pickup sat. He started up the hill, still thinking about drinks as he passed by the old-fashioned lantern mounted on a post by the wide, steep steps.

His father’s cocktail of choice had always been a White Russian. Cliff didn't really drink much himself; he usually only had a few beers or some wine with Tricia (he wouldn’t be doing that anymore) on the weekends or on special occasions.

But right then, a drink seemed like just the thing.

He paused by the side of the truck. He had known that Kay and the two rangers he’d encountered when he entered the office to check in would eventually go home for the day, but he had expected there to be somebody—people staying in the other cabins, at least. But these weren’t your everyday cabins positioned smack up against each other and rented for extravagant sums of money by people who wanted the illusion of roughing it; these were real, and not for the fainthearted. And evidently not much in demand.

He looked over at the one tucked into the woods across from him. Both of the parking spots behind it were empty and he didn’t see any lights through the windows despite the deepening gloom. It was obviously unoccupied. He moved on past the truck and continued down the little paved road toward a spot with a bench by the shore.

Stopping where the asphalt ended, he gazed out across the water at the dim cabins crouched in the shadows on the other side. All sat in darkness, none of them lit from within, and there were no vehicles in the driveways that he could see.

It appeared he was completely alone.

He turned around and walked back up to the truck, unlocked it, and climbed inside. He hit the button to lock it again and then cranked the engine. Holding back a shiver, he shifted into gear, and pulled out of his spot.

At several points the narrow, curvy road separated off to other cabins, buildings, and sections of the park, and he hadn’t gone far before he realized he must have chosen the wrong direction at the fork he’d passed. He could have sworn he was supposed to go left. Obviously not, because the segment he was on dead-ended not far ahead.

He drove as far as he could and brought the truck to a stop. He could see the black gleam of water through the gaps in the thin line of forest between him and the lake.

He put the truck in Reverse and backed up, then pulled forward, had to back up once more, and finally got going in the right direction.

By the time he had exited the park and driven the nine or so miles to the Family Dollar, the nearest store he thought would have juice if nothing else, he had decided against the rum. If he was going to go to all the trouble, then he wanted something different. He would try his old man’s drink.

He checked his phone as he started into the store (still no signal) and saw it was already going on six thirty. He grabbed a basket and quickly filled it with milk, lunch meat, bread, coffee, sugar, and a few other things—he could stock up better tomorrow—and carried it up to the register.

The young lady working didn’t know where the nearest ABC store was, but the woman in line behind him did.

She was a flame-haired country beauty. Barefoot, wearing cut-off jeans and a snug flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up her tanned arms, the woman immediately brought back memories of visiting his grandmother in the country as a kid. When was the last time he had seen someone walk into a store with bare feet?

“You’ll have to go into Walhalla,” she said, pronouncing it Wallholler. “But it closes at seven, I think.” She pulled a phone out of her back pocket as he inserted his card to pay. “And it’s almost a quarter till, now. You’ll have to hurry.”

“Okay, thanks. I appreciate it.”

Giving her legs, which were fantastic, a quick glance, something he never would have done when he was with Tricia, he grabbed his bags and hurried out of the store. Tricia hadn’t known how good she had it, he thought. Let’s see how her younger boyfriend likes her in ten years or so. Let’s see if he continues to refrain from checking out attractive females. She might be in for some trouble then.

He barely made it in time. He pulled into Charlie’s Liquor City, air conditioner blasting to preserve the cold things he’d bought, with only minutes to spare.

He moved up and down the aisles, scanning the shelves, and then finding nothing but larger bottles, walked up to the man waiting behind the register where the smaller ones were kept.

Peering around the fiftyish, bespectacled gentleman, he requested a half pint of Kahlúa, and the same of Absolut.

It should be enough. He only needed so much. That wasn't what he was there for.

He handed over his card to pay, waited for the man to slide the two bottles into a bag, thanked him, and left the store to head back to his retreat.

  

He backed the truck up slowly until he felt the rear wheels hit the railroad tie that served as a curb, shifted into Park, and shut off the engine. He gathered up the bags holding the liquor and groceries and climbed out, trying not to think about how creepy it felt to be out there alone in the middle of the forest beside the dark expanse of the lake. He made his way down the walkway, passing beneath the illumination of the wrought-iron lantern.

Temporarily parking the bags on the landing, he pulled the screen open and walked across the rock floor through the yellow glow of the porch light. A granddaddy longlegs crawled onto his right shoe, and he shook his foot to get it off as he inserted the key. He watched its steady progress, making sure it was moving away, then stepped inside.

He stuck the liquor in the freezer, and went back for the other bags, automatically pulling the door shut behind him. Pausing, he grabbed the knob and tried it. It didn’t budge; it had somehow locked behind him. Shit. He groped his right pocket for the keys and felt the reassuring shape of them.

Breathing a sigh of relief, he crossed the porch to retrieve the other bags.

Once inside again, he put everything away and went to take a shower before mixing his first drink.

 

 He ended up having to pour the first one out and start over when he got the mixture wrong, but the second one came out better after he reduced the amount of vodka and increased the amount of Kahlúa. He gave it another stir, added a few ice cubes, and took a slurp. The creamy bite of vodka followed by the dark, sweet taste of coffee liquor filled his taste buds.

Not bad. He took another, larger swallow, made sure he still had the key, braced himself, and opened the door. He stepped out, absurdly grateful for the outside lights. Thanks to the one above him, and the lantern up by the walkway, he could see all the way across the front, down past the little concrete platform where a picnic table and a grill sat, to the water’s edge.

He leaned forward and looked out to his left at the last cabin. If anyone was there with a light on, he couldn’t see it.

He moved over and sat down in the rocking chair by the door, too uneasy to sit in the outer one by the edge of the porch.

It took the rest of that drink and part of another one before he stopped looking around warily and was finally able to relax. He felt even better after he noticed each of the screen doors had latches on the inside that he was able to lock.

Not that a flimsy screen was going to stop anyone—or anything—if it was big enough. But it made him feel better regardless. It would act as a deterrent, at least, possibly giving him some warning if an intruder tried to come in on him.

He picked up his drink and took another sip. Now that he’d had a couple, he could see the appeal. It was sort of like having chocolate milk with a kick, relaxing as well as invigorating. Placing the glass back on the table, he leaned back and set the chair to rocking.

He had been pretty successful in keeping thoughts of everything that had happened, and the long-term ramifications of it, at bay for most of the day, but now, sitting there with nothing but memories and the gentle night sounds to occupy his mind, his thoughts inevitably turned to Tricia. Tricia. He remembered how she’d looked the summer they first met—hazel eyes popping against golden skin and white-blond hair made wispy by the wind and the sea. He’d thought her a goddess. And then later when the incredible happened and she had deigned to sleep with him, he’d thought her an amazingly sexy goddess.

He had been sure he was the luckiest man on Earth.

They had been separated now, truly separated living apart, for over three weeks. And nearly every minute of every day had been filled with pain and disbelief at what it had come to, at what she had done … until he'd gotten to this place. He thought he could now feel a slight lessening of the dull ache in the center of his chest that had pretty much been his constant companion since she walked out the door that last terrible night. To go to him. The oh-so-comforting guy she was now screwing. A flash of white-hot fury and jealousy suddenly surged through him and he barely restrained himself from slapping his drink across the porch. That right there was how he could make it through each day without collapsing into a sobbing, pathetic heap. By picturing the unforgivable, irrevocable step she had taken.

She had met Derek at a wine shop she occasionally frequented. She had gone there to get something for their upcoming anniversary (ironically), and Derek had been hunting a bottle for a colleague’s dinner. He’d enlisted her help in making his choice—no doubt unnecessarily, the cad; he probably knew just as much or more about wine than she did.

And the rest, as they say, was history.

But, really, she had done him a favor. Otherwise he might have stayed with her out of some misguided sense of fidelity. He would never admit it to her, but there was a tiny part of him that was relieved to be free of her constant demands and unfulfilled expectations. The last couple of years of their marriage had been anything but happy. It had seemed like nothing he did was ever good enough. Somewhere along the line, the seeds of dissatisfaction had begun to grow within Tricia and she had started to blame him for the way her life turned out, as if she bore no responsibility for any of it.

It was true the salaries he’d earned at his last two positions before going to work for her father hadn’t been particularly great, but they hadn’t been terrible, either. He had spent almost seven years at the former, tending to the warehouse and equipment needs of their clients. He’d taken the job there—a step up from the primarily administrative position he’d previously held—not long before they married. And if not exactly fulfilled, he had been more or less content. Too content Tricia would say. And when circumstances changed and they'd closed their doors, he had quickly found new employment. At one point he had even held two jobs, one at the new company that paid less but had good benefits, and one on the weekends with a lawncare crew. Sometimes he suspected his performing such menial labor was partly what had done them in. Because her distaste, along with her continued dissatisfaction at their lot in life, had led to him going to work for her father, something that in hindsight had not been a good idea.

Tricia was always accusing him of settling—of taking the easy way out and merely getting by when he could do better. Maybe she was right in a way. He had immediately felt like a fish out of water in her father’s world of corporate real estate. And the old bastard sure hadn’t made it any easier. To make matters worse, instead of allaying Tricia’s discontent, his going to work there, despite the increase in funds, had only seemed to heighten her disappointment in him. He should have gone his own way. If he had stuck it out at the other company, he might have eventually gotten a promotion there. And possibly a grudging smidgeon of Tricia’s respect.

But he couldn’t completely agree with her way of thinking. Always wanting more. At some point in your life you had to make the choice to be happy with what you had, right?

Wasn’t that the goal?

Or was it? Maybe the rest of the world has it right when they say Americans are too obsessed with being happy.

Good grief, the alcohol was making him philosophical.

But what had he been thinking, coming out here like this, spending nearly every dime he had left? He’d had to stay somewhere, though, and he hadn’t been able to stand the thought of another day in that empty house. He did need to put some effort into figuring out where his next paycheck was going to come from. But he could do that right before he left. He needed this time.

Basically taking a vacation from his life could result in him having to move back in with his parents temporarily. And he really hoped that didn’t happen; he would love to establish gainful employment before it came to that, if for no other reason than to show Tricia. But he just didn’t have it in him to dive into the dismal job market yet.

Noticing his glass was empty, he got up and went inside to fix another drink. Some food seemed advisable, too, so while he was at it, he made himself a sandwich. He started to take it out to the porch and then changed his mind and set the saucer on the coffee table in front of the fireplace. He was beginning to feel his exhaustion. The nervous tension he’d been experiencing at the prospect of moving into the cabin had subsided and now the two drinks were hitting his system, and he suddenly wanted nothing more than to eat and go to sleep.

He blearily set about hooking the Blu-ray player to the television he had positioned on an end table in the corner.

Once he had everything ready and on, he inserted a Survivorman DVD from a set he’d never watched that Tricia had given him one Christmas, and dropped down onto the couch. A survival show seemed fitting somehow.

He finished the fresh drink while he ate the sandwich, thoroughly enjoying the soft white bread he’d bought. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had something besides the spongy cardboard Tricia always insisted on.

Then he lay down with a throw pillow under his head, and fell asleep to the soothing murmur of Les Stroud’s voice amid the crunching of brush.


Cliff stared at the metal trash receptacle located halfway between his parking spot and the bench by the shore.

It was designed to be bear proof.

He examined the diagram printed on the top, then pulled the lever to raise the lid, and dropped the bag of trash in.

He must have walked right by it the night before. It was a good thing he hadn’t tried to take the trash out then. When he’d gotten up, he had noticed a binder of information lying on the table between the wing chairs, and glancing over it while he had his first cup of coffee, he’d found explicit instructions to not take any trash out after dark.

It was nearly five o’clock now. He had spent the morning driving to Walhalla (Wallholler) and stocking up as much as possible with what little funds he had left. The gift shop beside the park office would do fine in a pinch—he had glanced around inside, and it did carry basic items like bathroom tissue and other staples—but it was too expensive and he had needed more than the meager supplies it carried.

After returning from the slightly rundown Winn-Dixie he’d found and putting everything away, he had taken a nap and then cooked himself a nice steak. Food didn’t cost nearly as much if you were only buying for one, he now knew, so he had splurged on a thick T-bone. He’d cooked it on the grill mounted by the concrete platform and then sat down at the picnic table and had it with a potato he’d baked in the cabin’s oven.

Other than Kay behind the office counter by the gift shop, and the two rangers doing something down by the line of canoes on the beach by the boathouse, he had seen no one. No picnickers, no hikers, no fisherman, and no fellow lodgers.

He decided to wait until the morning to go get the canoe. By the time he got down there, Kay and the others would likely be gone for the day, anyhow.

It looked like it would be just him again that night. He found himself both relieved and intimidated at the prospect. Being alone in the woods by the lake was creepier than he had anticipated. But this was what he had wanted—to get away from it all so he could clear his head and gain some perspective. He would eventually get used to the wild solitude, probably even learn to embrace it.

It was certainly beautiful here. He turned and made his way down the steep walkway to the cabin. He went inside, mixed up a last White Russian, finishing off the Kahlúa and vodka, gathered his drawing things, and took them out to the picnic table atop the concrete slab. And there he stayed, sipping his drink and quietly sketching, until the last hues of pink and orange disappeared from the slowly darkening sky.

He gazed at the depiction he’d created. Using colored pencils, he had managed to capture something of the shadowy untamed wildness surrounding the setting sun’s reflection across the dark, glistening lake. He added a quick signature and the date to the bottom, gathered everything up, and went back inside.

 

 The next morning, he was greeted by an extraordinary sight. At least twenty black-necked geese of various sizes were roosting or standing between his cabin and the water’s edge. Some had hunkered down by the stand of trees and undergrowth that grew to the left of the shallow area by the shore, while others had spread out and taken up solitary positions by the foot of the steps leading to the picnic table.

He slowly pushed the screen door open. A few of the geese nearest to him shifted around and spread their wings as he moved out onto the top step leading down to the concrete pad but otherwise seemed to take his presence in stride.

He thought about getting his sketch pad then rejected the idea. He could draw them anytime. His first priority this morning was to secure a canoe.

He gazed at the geese a little longer, and then went back inside to get ready for his hike to the office.

Spying the pecan rolls he had bought the day before, he paused by the kitchen table and impulsively grabbed two of them. Reversing direction, he went back out and descended the steps to the ground.

He pinched a piece off of one of the rolls and tossed it out. It landed about halfway between him and the water and was immediately swarmed by all the other geese. Pinching off pieces and flinging them at different areas, he attempted to curtail the frenetic feeding frenzy he had evoked. It looked like two of the bigger ones, probably males, were about to fight, but then Cliff ran out of pecan roll and they settled down when they realized no more were forthcoming.

“You’re not supposed to feed them,” said a male voice behind him.

Cliff turned. A stocky man with a nearly bald buzz cut he hadn’t known was even in the vicinity had just come around the side of the neighboring cabin. Set between Cliff’s and the bench by the shore, it was closer to the water—causing everyone who was following the path alongside the lake to have to make their way around it within feet of its front stoop—and as a result, had completely blocked Cliff’s view of his approach.

Cliff didn’t think he was a ranger; he wasn’t wearing the standard uniform. He waited for the man to reach him before speaking. “You work here?”

“Nah. I’m renting a cabin.” He was panting a little, and a thin film of sweat had broken out on his forehead. “That one right there.” He jerked his head toward the smaller cabin. “I got here early this morning.”

Cliff waited for him to say something more about his bird-feeding faux pas, but he seemed finished with the subject.

“Name’s Andy,” he said, sticking his hand out. "Andy Stephenson."

Cliff gave it a shake. “Cliff Phillips. Nice to meet you.”

“How long are you staying?”

“A month, give or take.”

“You here with your family?”

“No.” Hopefully the man would take the hint at his brief answer and not try to quiz him further.

“Me neither. I don’t have a family. I mean, I have a family, but I don’t have a wife—I’m not married.” He came to a stop, his face reddening .

“Well, I won’t be either for too much longer,” Cliff said after a small pause.

The man—Andy—shot him a shrewd look. “Is your divorce almost final, or just beginning?”

Cliff grimaced. “Just beginning.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

They shuffled around some, and then Cliff said, “Well, it was nice meeting you,” at the same time Andy said, “You should walk over for a beer tonight.”

Cliff thought about it. He didn’t want to encourage him—he was there for the peace and quiet, not to socialize—but he didn’t want to be a jerk, either.

“Well, the offer stands,” Andy said, throwing his hand up and turning away.

“I might try to do that.” Cliff watched as Andy started toward the front of his cabin, his Nikes slipping on the soft dirt and rocks.

Maybe he would walk over. I mean, why shouldn’t he talk about it, if it came up? It might even help to get it all out. He hadn’t really confided much to anyone about the breakup of his marriage. Dane at the office, Tricia’s cousin, whom he’d always been friendly with, who had also cast his lot with her father, Mr. Charles A. Sloane III, had seemed sympathetic when he and Tricia started having real problems, but Cliff had never felt comfortable discussing the specific details with him. Sympathetic or not, when push came to shove, Dane’s allegiance would ultimately reside with Tricia—and with her father, for the sake of his job, if nothing else.

I should have called Jim before I came up here, he thought, pivoting to go back inside. Jim was about as close a thing to a best friend he had. Most of his buddies had fallen away after he had wed Tricia and settled down to married life—all except for Jim. He and Jim had never been all that close back in the day, but over the years as the other guys in their crowd drifted away—or died, as one of them had when he’d gotten drunk and drowned in the backyard swimming pool—they had continued to stay in touch, and through the shared memories and years had eventually developed a steady friendship.

 After he arranged for the canoe, he’d use the Wi-Fi to call him. And his mother.

Might as well get it over with.

 

 He took his time making his way down to the office, enjoying the tranquility and natural beauty along the path. Some of the leaves had begun to turn, offering splashes of color amid the evergreens. It was silent except for the sounds of nature. Sunlight flickered in and out as the birds trilled and gave the occasional raucous call over the swishing of the treetops in the breeze.

Rounding a rocky outcrop, he spotted a large pavilion nearly hidden in the trees ahead. Once he was close enough, he stepped off the trail to make his way over.

He paused at a water fountain made of rough-cut stones for a drink, and then wandered inside. The shelter, open on the front and sides, was filled with worn picnic tables lined up in front of a massive fireplace that formed a wall at the rear.

He pulled his phone out to check for the Wi-Fi signal, realized it wouldn’t do him any good without the password, and slid it back into his pocket.

Though the shelter had no walls other than the one along the back with the fireplace, the trees and brush had grown up so close on each side that only the front by the drinking fountain was open to the sun, leaving the interior dim and chilly.

He gazed around at the weathered gray tables and crumbling fireplace, trying to visualize the different people that must have been there over the years.

People exactly like him. Some of them moving about, some of them sitting, some of them possibly standing right where he was. All of them gone now, leaving behind only the merest whisper of their passing.

The sagging roof and the encroaching trees and all the people before him abruptly felt like they were pressing in on him, and he lurched forward and hurried out from under the shelter into the daylight. He was starting to understand why some people chose to tear down old buildings and rebuild fresh. Surrounding yourself with the remnants of the past was both disturbingly melancholic and deeply unsettling.

 

 In the gravel parking area in front of the old trading post that now held the office and park store, he stopped to examine another monument to the past stationed by the flagpole. It was a statue of a young bare-chested corpsman with his hand resting on the handle of an ax. Cliff read the inscription underneath it. It had been erected to commemorate the three million members who served in the CCC from 1933 to 1942.

He walked on past the statue and paused at a plaque he hadn’t paid much attention to before by the steps leading up to the long porch that ran the length of the building. It was a duplicate of the information concerning the development of the park during the Depression that he’d already read on the website. He skimmed it and then mounted the steps.

The heels of his boots thudded across the boards as he made his way along the porch. Maneuvering around a checkerboard table and two chairs, he went to reach for the door handle then hesitated, his attention snagged by a blowup of an old photograph displayed in a weatherproof frame to his right.

The photo, taken back in the heyday of the park, showed a crowd of patrons wearing old-fashioned clothing lounging around the very same porch he was standing on. All were seated playing cards or checkers or eating—except for one woman standing over by the railing, gazing out at the lake. Her hair was held back with a headband and she was wearing a plaid halter top and a pair of light-colored shorts that were so baggy they almost looked like a skirt. She reminded him of a young Bette Davis. In her left hand she gripped a glass bottle. Although it was fatter around the middle than the style he was used to, it was clearly a Coca Cola. It wasn’t an artist’s rendering, it was an actual photo, and Cliff thought he could detect a wistfulness in her expression. She looked around nineteen or twenty—both girlish and sexy, as only the young can be.

 If she was twenty then, how old would that make her now? He did some quick calculations in his head. She would be over a hundred.

Long dead.

Cliff tore his attention away, sadness squeezing his heart, and pulled the door open.

Inside, he paused to let his eyes adjust to the lower light. After a second he could see the space to his left that had been made into a sort of sitting room—probably for the guests to relax and use the Wi-Fi—and to his right, Kay facing away from him, rummaging through a drawer on the other side of the office counter.

He walked on in, past Kay, through the doorway ahead of him into the park store.

There was also a counter over here, making it possible for Kay to serve both the needs of any lodgers that came in as well as the customers inside the store.

Kay, now sitting in front of her computer, glanced up at him through the opening. Cliff started to speak, then thought better of it when she quickly lowered her eyes and began clicking at the keyboard. Although not rude exactly, he had noticed she never had much to say. Which didn’t necessarily mean anything. Could be she was wary of strangers, or shy, or naturally reserved. He didn’t suppose it was easy trying to work with people watching and bothering you all day, either.

He continued on through the store and made use of the facilities down a hallway at the back that ended at a closed, and probably locked door, and then wandered around the shop looking at everything.

Between the racks and shelves of camping essentials, T-shirts, and grocery items, he found several more historical photos. One was an aerial shot of the lake (there were actually two lakes, the one by his cabin, and a smaller, lower one he hadn’t seen yet); two were shots of the CCC camp during the construction of the park; and one was of a man probably sixty or so, sitting in a rocking chair pulled up to the edge of a porch at one of the cabins. Cliff stepped closer. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was the one he was staying in. The porch wasn’t screened in like it was now, but the structure itself and its position by the lake looked right. The photograph, dated 1939, was black and white, like all the others, and from a distance, but Cliff could still make out the thin, angular shape of the man’s face. Unsmiling and dressed in simple cotton clothes, his expression seemed to mirror the hard environment he inhabited.

As Cliff moved away he noticed Kay watching him. “This place has quite a history,” he said, raising his voice so she could hear him.

She murmured something in return he couldn’t make out and turned her attention back to whatever she was working on. He crossed over to the other side of the store, grabbed a long butane lighter for the grill and fireplace, and on impulse a shot glass with a picture of a bear on it, and carried them up to the counter.

“And I’d like to rent one of your canoes,” he told her as she moved over to add up his things.

“For how long?”

“I’m not sure. How much do you charge?”

“Well,” she said, assessing him. “I can give you a good deal since it’s the off-season.” She quoted an extremely reasonable amount, and Cliff instantly agreed to it and got out his wallet.

She was practically giving it to him for the entire month. Of course, judging from the long line of canoes along the beach, and the full boathouse, there wasn’t exactly much of a demand right then.

“Oh, hang on,” he said, remembering. “I need to get some wood. Do you have anything besides those little stacks over there?” He pointed over to the corner of the store where a few bundles of bound firewood were arranged.

She blinked at him for a moment, no doubt inferring from his previous uncertainty concerning the rate for the canoe, that he was worried about more than how long the firewood would last. “Can you afford twenty bucks?”

Just barely. “Yeah, I can manage that.”

“I’ll get Kurt to bring a stack out to you.” She handed him a well-worn key fob. “You don’t really need this, obviously.” She gave a low laugh. “We hand them out so it’s easier to keep track of everything. I gave you the yellow canoe.”

“And I should tell you,” she added, handing him back his card and a receipt. “We’re going to be lowering the lake in a couple of weeks so we can do some maintenance.”

What? Damn. “So I should return it by then?”

She shook her head. “No, you can keep it. The water level’s going to go down as it drains—but only so far. You should still be able to get in and out over there where you’re at.”

“Okay, good.” He crammed the fob down into his pocket and took the bag with his things, thanked her, and started for the door.


As soon as he stepped out, he remembered he still needed the password for the Wi-Fi. He went back in, and Kay gave him a slip of paper with the password from a stack she had ready.

On his way out again, he glanced over at the sandy strip by the water. There was only one yellow canoe. That had to be it. It had been a long time since he’d been in one—the last time had been with his dad when he was around eighteen or so—but hopefully it would come back to him. He placed the plastic bag with the things he’d bought on one of the tables and pulled out his phone.

He called his mother first and got lucky; she was getting ready to head out the door for a hair appointment, which meant she wouldn’t want to talk long. His mother, Linda, or “Lindy” as his father called her, was a stylish fifty-five who prided herself on her trendy, somewhat funky hairstyles.

He let her know where he was at, then of course had to admit that the reason he didn’t have to be at work was because he had immediately quit his job after Tricia left him.

“Where is she staying?”

“She moved in with that guy.”

Her voice, still slightly raspy though she’d quit smoking years before, sharpened. “She ran off to be with this other man?”

“According to her, it’s all my fault.”

“But everything’s been fine!”

“I should have never gone to work for her father.”

“So, what, it still wasn’t enough money for her?”

Up until this point, his mother had never said much to him about Tricia, which actually revealed more than she knew about her feelings for his wife—his soon-to-be ex-wife—but now it was clear all bets were off.

“What did she think you were going to do to make a living after she left since you clearly couldn’t keep working there? Didn’t she even care the predicament she was putting you in?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter now.” Cliff looked around to make sure he was still alone. Other than one car parked over on the far end of the gravel lot, which probably belonged to someone hiking a trail, the park was as empty as it had been the day before.

“No marriage is perfect,” she continued. “We all have our issues.” What did she mean by that? “But you don’t deserve this. Why don’t you come home when you leave there? You can always go to work somewhere around here, maybe even—”

Cliff interrupted her. “I might do that. I’ll have to see. There are a couple of things I want to check on first.” There wasn’t anything in particular, but he didn’t want her getting it in her head that she needed to fix his life for him. She’d have him living right next door if he didn’t watch it. Going home for a few weeks to get back on his feet was one thing, but he didn’t want to stay there permanently in that tiny town, where it would feel like he was taking a step back.

He talked with her a little more, reassured her that he would check his messages every so often in case she tried to reach him, and then reminded her of her appointment. It worked and she let him go after a promise from him to get in touch and tell her his plans before he left.

By the time he hung up, he no longer wanted to call Jim. It suddenly seemed like too much. He would have to talk to him at some point, or else risk offending him by not letting him know what was going on. But not today.

There was no sign of the two rangers as he pushed the canoe into the lake, stuck one foot in, and shoved off with the other. Holding the sides, he brought the rest of his body in, keeping low and staying centered. Stepping over the bow seat, he moved forward to the center one, grateful it had a middle seat, turned around slowly so as not to capsize, and carefully sat down.

Congratulating himself on not falling in, he grabbed the paddle and used it to push the canoe into deeper water. He managed to orient himself so he was facing the correct way, started paddling, and before long had found his rhythm. The trick was to switch sides every few strokes.

He glanced into the bottom where he had placed the bag from the park store. Along with another paddle, there was also a dark blue life jacket. He gazed over the side into the unfathomable depths and then out across the water. He was a strong swimmer; he should be able to make it to shore. But it was good to have the vest handy, on the off chance.

He spent the next hour moving around the lake. He stayed away from the shoreline as much as possible to avoid the trees that had fallen out over the water, only veering closer to the bank once to avoid the geese.

He glided along, navigating around the right side, over to the boathouse, and then to the historic bath house. There was an inlet leading in to a covered landing on the far end of the long structure. Cliff looked inside as he moved by. Under the roof over here, flagstone decks ran alongside, allowing boaters to pull in and hop out without ever getting a toe wet.

It didn’t look like it had been used in a very long time.

He watched for whoever had been driving the car he’d seen in the parking lot, but he saw no one on the trail alongside the lake. But coming around the other side, he turned briefly into a side arm and spotted what looked like a path winding through the trees. It probably connected the trail on this side to the one by the lower lake.

It was so peaceful out on the water. He felt like he could sit there all afternoon, drifting and taking in the beauty and sounds of his surroundings.

Sometime later, he shifted to look out to his right at the other cabins he was floating past and felt the canoe tip slightly. He shifted back and felt it tilt again. He gave a few strong strokes of the paddle and realized the canoe was no longer handling as well. A bank of clouds had slid in front of the sun while he drifted around lost in thought and a breeze was now blowing across the water, creating peaks and ripples in the shadowy surface.

The canoe seemed to grow more and more unsteady as he paddled back down the length of the lake. The bow kept coming around like a weathervane, making him have to work hard to swing it back. He felt the canoe give another wobble as he brought the paddle up to switch sides and he froze, unsure if he should sit up straighter or maybe kneel down. The water hadn’t been anywhere near this rough when he’d started out. And the wind didn’t even seem to be blowing that hard.

He was now coasting around the end in the boggy part in front of the last cabin before his. Was he near some kind of spillway creating a current? He looked over his shoulder at the edge where the boarded walkway crossed the marshy area but didn’t see anything like that, manmade or otherwise.

Something made a bubbling sound in front of him.

He whipped his head around. A ripple was spreading out across the water in an ever-widening circle. It appeared to be originating from the deeper part directly across from his cabin. As he watched, a series of bubbles rose up and popped as they reached the air. There was nothing else for a moment, and then several much larger bubbles burst onto the surface with a splash, sending a small wave traveling outward.

It was only a slight swell, but it hit the canoe broadside and nearly flipped him. He threw himself back the other way and barely kept from capsizing. Had Kay been mistaken about when they were going to lower the lake?

He began paddling hard. He tried to skirt the shore, but hit a sandbar and nearly ran aground and had to move back out to get around it.

He squeezed past the area of the disturbance, angling toward the shore, and glanced back. Whatever had agitated the water had stopped and the surface was smoothing out.

By the time he ran up onto the shallow spot in front of his cabin, it was nearly calm again.

What the hell?

He jumped out and grabbed the plastic bag holding the lighter and shot glass with the bear on the front (now he was thinking about bears), dragged the canoe out just far enough, and left it.

All the way across, he darted looks over his shoulder at the murky water.

At the top of the steps leading to the picnic table, he caught movement to his left. It was Andy, looking around the side of his cabin.

Andy started to lift his hand, but Cliff was already turning away.

He pulled the screen open, digging for the key, and hurried across the porch. Quickly unlocking the door, he caught a last glimpse of Andy peering over before he slammed it shut and locked it.






End of sample