Preview: Restoration

The cabin wasn’t what Cliff Phillips 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 had not been apparent from the few pictures provided on the website. He climbed the two steps, pulled the screen door open, and stepped onto the rough uneven rocks that made up the floor of the screened-in porch. Not that it wasn’t sound; the large logs making up the structure looked like they could easily stand another eighty years. By the CCC plaque resting above the door, that was apparently when the cabin was erected—eighty-one years ago to be exact.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was a relief program implemented by Roosevelt during the Great Depression aimed at putting Americans back to work by conserving the nation’s natural resources. Cliff had briefly read over the little bit of history provided when he’d 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. But 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 cabin for a month for the same price it would have cost him for a week anywhere else. Plenty enough time to get his mind straight and restore his spirit for whatever came next.

Two rocking chairs sat on either side of a low wooden table on the far end. Rustic or not, that little corner looked like the perfect place to enjoy the view while not being attacked by mosquitoes. How many people had sat in those old rockers looking out over the lake?

Eighty-one years. He shook his head and moved over to the door, fit 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 pushed it open.

He flipped both the switches up on the wall beside him, but they only illuminated the porch and walkway, so he turned them back off and walked on into the cabin. He found 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 white stove and refrigerator. The place was immaculate. And pleasantly warm. He glanced behind him into the short hallway that ran between the bedrooms at the rear of the cabin and saw the thermostat hanging by the bathroom door had been set to 70 degrees. He stepped over to the refrigerator and pulled the freezer door open. A pile of ice cubes had accumulated in the bottom of the bin.

Someone had gotten the place ready for him.

Closing the freezer, he turned and crossed the hardwood floor, moving into the living room that encompassed the other side of the cabin. Something brushed against his face and he flinched and jerked back. He looked up and saw it was one of two long strings leading down from a ceiling fan hanging from the rafters high above him. He pulled one of the strings and a light came on, illuminating the area.

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

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 you could see daylight from the outside in places here and there between the logs where the chinking had eroded over time, which probably explained the extra blankets he found in one of the bedrooms. But it was inviting, nonetheless. Furnished with a full-size bed, a nightstand, and a simple bureau under a mirror mounted on the wall, the two bedrooms in particular were charming with hooks made from sticks for hanging clothes, and colorful quilts covering the beds.

The kitchen stocked with nearly everything he could possibly need, as well. Which was good because Trisha had pretty much emptied out the house along with the checking account when she left. He found utensils, a full set of white stoneware dishes, drinking glasses, and pots and pans, along with a set of mugs hanging on the wall 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 between it and the sink. Whoever managed the park must have been attempting to make up for the rusticity with plenty of amenities.

He gazed around the cabin. All the curtains were closed, but were the windows locked? He walked over to one that looked out onto the screened-in porch and slid the thin white curtain covering it to the side.

Okay, he’d never seen that before. 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 you could position across the faintly wavy glass. He pushed the metal bar off, grasped the frame around the pane, and 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 several with broken or missing inner bars and concluded the exterior sets had probably been added later as a security measure.

He grabbed the key off the table where he’d tossed it and stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door shut behind him. The lady at the office—Kay, according to the nametag she’d been wearing—had advised him to always have it on him. Apparently some of the cabin doors had a habit of accidentally locking behind you. He reached out and twisted the doorknob, 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 was out on the water. An older gentleman was fishing from of an aluminum boat in the marshy part right past the last cabin on this side. Cliff’s was the next to the last. He had chosen it on purpose because although it wasn’t quite as private, it had a shallow spot by the water 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. With his extremely limited funds and self-imposed solitude here in the mountains, the only contact he was going to have most days was with the hikers or fishermen he encountered, or the rangers or Kay at the old trading post. 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 he would 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 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 DVDs that had been in his and Trisha’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, and take the canoe out and fish.

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

* * *

The sun had gone down by the time he unloaded his things and arranged them to his liking. He opened the refrigerator 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 Trisha hadn’t taken it was because she didn’t really care for hard liquor.

He grabbed the cabin key and went out the door, pausing to switch on the outside lights before shutting it. He crossed the uneven stones of the porch, pushed open the other screen door on the side by the walkway, and stepped out onto the first of the concrete-and-rock squares that led up the hill to the parking spot where his truck sat. He was 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 been a White Russian, which had always struck him as a strange sort of drink for a man. Cliff really wasn’t much of a drinker; he usually only had a few beers or some wine with Trisha (he wouldn’t be doing that anymore) on the weekends or on special occasions. But right then it seemed like just the thing. He paused by the side of the truck while he dug out his keys.
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’d expected there to be someone—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, where everything was bright and spanking new; these were real, and not for the fainthearted. And evidently not much in demand.

He looked over at the cabin nestled in 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 his truck and continued down the little paved road that led to an area with a bench by the shore.

Stopping where the asphalt ended, he gazed out across the water to the other side. He saw nothing but starlight above the dark shapes of the cabins crouched between the trees. It appeared he was alone.

He turned around and walked back up to his truck, opened the door, and climbed inside. He hit the lock button first and then cranked the engine. Holding back a shiver, he shifted into gear, pulled out of his spot, and started back down the long winding road that led to the park’s entrance.

The narrow curving road had many branches leading off to other cabins, buildings, and areas 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. Apparently not, because the section he was on dead-ended not far ahead.

He drove as far as he could and came to a stop. In his headlights 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, angling toward the trees alongside him, then pulled forward, wheels going into the dirt, backed up once more, and finally got going in the right directions.

By the time he had exited the park and driven the seven 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. I’ll try my old man’s drink, he thought.

He checked his phone as he started into the store (still no signal) and saw it was already 6:30. He grabbed a basket and quickly filled it with milk, lunch meat, bread, coffee, and a few other things—he could stock up better tomorrow—and took them up to the register.

The young girl working didn’t know where the nearest liquor store was, but the lady 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 brought back memories. When was the last time he had seen someone walk into a store with bare feet?

“You’ll have to go on into Walhalla,” she said, pronouncing it Wallholler. “But it closes at seven, I think.” She pulled her phone out of her back pocket as he swiped 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 while he was with Trisha, he grabbed his bags and hurried out of the store. The bitch hadn’t known how good she had it. Cliff was finding himself referring to his wife as “the bitch” in his mind more and more now. Let’s see how her younger boyfriend likes her in ten years or so; 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 five minutes to spare.

Scanning the shelves as he moved up and down the aisles, he grabbed a pint of Kahlúa, then a pint of Absolut, and took them up to the counter.

He paid the older man at the register, 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 all alone in the middle of the forest beside the silent, 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 from the Family Dollar down on the rocky landing, he pulled open the screen door and walked across the stone floor through the yellow glow of the porch light to unlock the cabin. 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 pushed the door open.

He stuck the liquor into the freezer and went back for the other bags, automatically pulling the door shut behind him. Pausing, he grabbed the doorknob and tried it. The knob didn’t budge; it had somehow locked behind him. Shit! Did he even have the key? He groped his right pocket and felt the reassuring shape of it.

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 cocktail.

* * *

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 stirred it some more, 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, took a deep breath, and opened the door. He stepped out, absurdly grateful for the outside lights. Thanks to the one above the door, 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 tried to look out to his left toward the last cabin. If anyone was there with a light on, he couldn’t see it.

He 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 jumping at every little sound and was finally able to relax. He felt even better after he realized each of the screen doors had latches on the inside and he was able to lock them.

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 animal or a person tried to come in on him.

He picked up his drink and took a 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 and invigorating at the same time. Placing the glass back on the table, he leaned back in the chair and set it to rocking.

He’d 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 his memories and the gentle night sounds to occupy his mind, his thoughts inevitably turned to Trisha. Trisha. His mind flashed to how she’d looked the summer they first met, her hazel eyes popping against her bronze 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 incredibly sexy goddess.

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

They had been separated now, truly separated living in different places, for over three weeks. And nearly every moment of every day had been filled with pain and disbelief of what it had come to, of what she had done … until he got here 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 had walked out the door that last terrible night. To go to him. The oh-so-comforting guy she was now fucking. A flash of white-hot fury and jealousy suddenly surged through Cliff and he barely restrained himself from slapping his drink across the porch. That. That 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. 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 a little bit relieved to be free of her and 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 Trisha and she had started to blame him for the way her life turned out, as if she bore no responsibility for any of it. Sure, his chosen career had been less than successful, but that was life. Life was hard, and all anyone could do was their best. Sometimes things didn’t work out the way they intended. And he had tried, Lord knows, to continue to work hard and strive for more so she could have the lifestyle she wanted. At one point after he’d been laid off (he had been expecting a promotion and a raise but instead the company had gone under and he had lost his job), he’d even held two positions, one at a rival company that paid less but was at least full time with benefits, and one on the weekends with a landscaping crew. He was now convinced that his occupying such a menial position 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. Trisha was always accusing him of settling—of taking the easy way out and merely getting by when he could do better. And maybe she was right in a way. He should never have gone to work in her family’s business. (Anything would have been better than spending all day at the mercy of her bullying, condescending father.) Just look how things had turned out. Instead of allaying Trisha’s discontent, his going to work for her father, 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 rival company, he might have eventually gotten a promotion and a raise there. And possibly a grudging smidgeon of Trisha’s respect.

But he couldn’t cotton to her way of thinking completely. Always wanting more. How was it better to constantly feel envious as if you’re being deprived of something? To never be content and grateful for the things you have achieved or been blessed with? At some point in your life you had to make the choice to be happy, right?

Wasn’t that the point?

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 exactly had he been thinking, coming out here like this, spending nearly every last dime he had left? I had to stay somewhere, he thought, arguing with himself. Why not here? I sure as hell didn’t want to stay another minute in that empty house. But shouldn’t he be putting his time toward securing another job? A real job? There’s time enough for that. I can do that right before I leave. I need this break. I deserve it.

He knew he was only postponing the inevitable, that he would eventually have to buckle down and find a position, any position that would keep him afloat until he could do something better. Staying here and basically taking a vacation from his life could result in him having to go back home to his parents temporarily like some damn loser—and he hoped that didn’t happen; he would love to establish gainful employment before it came to that, just to show Trisha—but he didn’t have it in him to dive into the dismal job market yet.

After a while he went inside to fix himself another drink. Deciding some food would be a good idea, he made a sandwich to go with it. He started to take it out to the porch and then changed his mind and parked 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 Trisha had given him one Christmas, and flopped down on 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—how long had it been since he’d had something besides that spongy cardboard Trisha always insisted on?—and then 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, and then stuck his hand in, 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. He had noticed a book of rules and information lying on the table between the wing chairs this morning when he got up, and glancing over it while he had his first cup of coffee, he had found explicit instructions to not take any trash out after five.

It was nearly four o’clock now. He had spent the morning driving down 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 already glanced around inside, and it did carry basic items like toilet paper and other staples—but it was too expensive, and he had needed more than the meager supplies it carried. After he had returned from the slightly rundown Winn Dixie he’d found and put everything away, he had spent the rest of the afternoon taking a nap and then cooking 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 same 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. It was really too late now. By the time he got down there, Kay and the others would probably be gone for the day.

It looked like it would be just him again tonight. He found himself both relieved and intimidated at the prospect. Being alone in the woods by the darkness of the lake was quite a bit 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 perspective and figure out which direction to go. 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, got his drawing things, and came back out and sat down at the picnic table atop the concrete slab. And there he stayed, quietly sketching, until the last hues of pink and orange had disappeared from the slowly darkening sky.

He looked down at the depiction he’d made. 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 before going back inside to get ready for his hike down 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 the door and descended the steps down to the ground.

He pinched a piece off of one of the rolls, and flung 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, and 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,” a man’s slightly out of breath voice said 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 cabin beside his. Set between Cliff’s cabin 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 the man’s approach.

He wasn’t wearing a uniform. So he probably wasn’t a ranger. Cliff waited for the man to reach him before speaking. “You work here?”

“Nah, I’m renting a cabin.” The man 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, sending droplets of sweat flying. “I got here early this morning.”

Cliff waited on him to say something more about his bird-feeding faux pas, deliberately not acknowledging it, but the man seemed finished with the subject.

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

Cliff gave it a shake. “Cliff. 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 stumbled to a stop and colored a little.

“Well, I won’t be either for too much longer,” Cliff finally said, deciding to throw him a bone.

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 a few seconds, 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, but he didn’t want to be an asshole, either.

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

“I might try to do that,” Cliff said as Andy started back toward the front of his cabin, his white-and-gray Nikes slipping a little 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. Other than the brief as he could possibly make it version he’d given his mother the last time he talked to her, he hadn’t really confided with anyone about the breakup of his marriage. Dane at the office, Trisha’s cousin, whom he’d always been friendly with, who had also cast his lot with her father, Mr. Charles Sloane, aka Mr. Douchebag, had seemed sympathetic when he and Trisha 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 Trish—and 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 as he had. Most of his buddies had fallen away after he had wed Trisha 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 at the lake, they had continued to stay in touch, and through the shared memories and years had eventually developed a steady friendship.
Before 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 worn 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 birds trilled and gave the occasional raucous call over the swishing of the treetops in the breeze.

About halfway there he spotted a large pavilion nearly hidden in the trees and undergrowth. He stepped off the trail to make his way over.

He paused and bent down to the rock fountain standing in front of it 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 a Wi-Fi signal, realized it wouldn’t do him any good without the password, and shoved 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 water fountain was open to the sun, leaving the interior dim and chilly.

He gazed around at the worn gray tables and crumbling fireplace, trying to imagine the different people who 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 in the exact same spot 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 now gone abruptly felt like they were pressing in on him, and suddenly the quiet peacefulness of the place was transformed into disquieting desolation. He lurched forward and hurried out from under the shelter into the daylight.
He quickly got back on the trail. He was starting to understand man’s need to tear down old buildings and rebuild fresh. Surrounding yourself with the ghosts of the past was way too haunting and sad.

* * *

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 standing 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 standing by the steps leading up to the long porch that ran the length of the building. It was the same information about the development of the park during the depression that he’d already read on the website, so he merely skimmed it and then mounted the steps.

The heels of his boots thudded across the wooden boards as he made his way along the porch. Maneuvering around a checkerboard table and two chairs, he reached for the door handle then paused, 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 pair of light-colored shorts that were so baggy they almost looked like a skirt, and a plaid halter top. Even though the snapshot was in black and white, he could see she was lightly tanned. 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, he could tell it was a Coca Cola. This wasn’t an artist’s rendering, this was an actual photo, and Cliff thought he could detect a wistfulness in her expression. She looked around nineteen or twenty—girlish and sexy at the same time, as only the young can be.

If she was twenty then, how old would that make her? Ninety-five? A hundred?

Long dead by now.

Cliff tore his attention away, sadness squeezing his heart, and stepped into the building. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light. To his left he could see an area that had been made into a sort of sitting room—probably for the guest to relax and use the Wi-Fi—and to his right, Kay with her back to him, rummaging through a drawer on the other side of the office counter.

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

There was a counter for the office on this side as well, making it possible for Kay to serve both the needs of any lodgers that walked in and the customers in the store at the same time.

Kay, now sitting in the chair in front of her computer, glanced up at him through the opening above the counter. Cliff started to speak, but she quickly lowered her eyes and began clicking at her keyboard and he thought better of it. While not rude exactly, he had noticed that 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 imagine it was easy trying to work with people watching you and bothering you all day, either.

He made use of the facilities down a hallway at the back of the store area 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 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 same 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 picture, 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 from the picture, he noticed Kay watching him. “This place has quite a history,” he said, raising his voice a little so she could hear him.

She murmured something in return that he couldn’t make out and turned her attention back to whatever she was working on. Cliff 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 black bear on it, and took them up to the counter.

“And I’d like to rent one of your canoes,” he told Kay 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 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 now.

“Oh, hang on,” he said, remembering. “I need to get some firewood. 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 lasted. “Can you afford twenty bucks?”

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

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

“Oh yeah, and I should tell you,” she said, 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 bring it back 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 shoved the key fob down in his pocket and took the bag with his things, thanked her, and went out the door.

* * *

As soon as he stepped out onto the porch, he realized he still didn’t have the password for the Wi-Fi. He went back in, and Kay gave him a strip of paper with the password from a stack she had ready.
Coming back out, he glanced over at the sandy beach area 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 nineteen—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 staying, 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—with a certain amount of relish—after Trisha left him.

“Well, where is she staying?”

“She moved in with that guy.”

Her voice, still slightly raspy, though she’d quit smoking years before, sharpened. “So 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 went 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 Trisha, which actually revealed more than she realized 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 obviously couldn’t keep working in the family business? 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 truck 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,” his mother continued. “We all have our issues.” What did she mean by that? “But you don’t deserve this. Why don’t you come home for a while 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 and working with his father, David, if he didn’t watch it. Going back for a few weeks while he got 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 wasn’t that much of a loser, no matter what Trisha thought.

He talked with his mother 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, and she let him go after a promise from him to call and tell her his plans before he left.

By the time he hung up with his mother, 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 water, 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, he stepped over the bow seat and moved forward to the center one, grateful it had a middle seat, turned around carefully so as not to capsize, and sat down.

Congratulating himself on not falling in, he grabbed the paddle lying in the bottom and used it to push the canoe into deeper water. After a few strokes, he managed to orient himself and get turned around so he was facing the center of the lake. He started paddling and before long he had found his rhythm—the trick was to switch sides every few strokes—and soon he was cutting cleanly through the clear water.

He glanced into the bottom of the canoe where he had placed the bag from the park store. Along with another paddle, there was also a dark blue life jacket stashed behind the front seat that he should probably be wearing. 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 from even the middle. The real danger was falling in and getting caught on something under the water, and for that a life jacket wasn’t going to help.

He spent the next hour paddling around the lake. He stayed halfway between the shoreline and the center 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 and then veering back into the deeper part again.

He glided along, navigating around the right side, over to the boathouse, and then to the historic bathhouse. There was an inlet leading straight in to a covered boat landing on the far side of the long structure. Cliff looked inside as he moved by. Under the roof of the bathhouse on this end, flagstone decks ran alongside the water, 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 truck, but he saw no one on the trail alongside the lake. But coming around to the other side, he turned briefly into a side arm and spotted what looked like a path leading up through the trees. It probably connected the trail on this side to the other one around the lower lake.

I’ll have to check that out.

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.

A little while later, he shifted around to look out to his right at the other cabins he was floating past and felt the canoe give a wobble. Whoa. He shifted back around, and felt it rock 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 down the length of the lake. Instead of gliding smoothly across the water, it was now swaying back and forth, making him have to constantly work to keep his balance. Thankfully he only had one more corner to round and then he’d be pulling up in front of the cabin. 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 slink down more. 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 strong.

He wrinkled his brow in confusion. He was now drifting around the end of the lake in the marshy 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 boggy part over here but didn’t see anything like that, manmade or otherwise.

Something made a bubbling sound in front of him.

He jerked 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 second, and then several much larger bubbles burst onto the surface with a big splash, sending a swell traveling outward. It was only a slight swell but he wasn’t prepared for it, and it hit the canoe broadside and nearly flipped him. He threw himself back the other way and barely kept from capsizing. Was he about to be sucked into a whirlpool? Had Kay been mistaken about when they were going to lower the lake?

He began to paddle wildly, aiming for his cabin. 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 and angled toward the shore.

He looked back and saw that 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, the lake was nearly calm again.
What the hell?

He jumped out and grabbed the plastic bag holding the lighter and the shot glass with the bear on the front (shit, now he was thinking about bears), dragged the canoe as far as he could out of the water so it wouldn’t float away, and left it.

All the way across the ground in front of the cabin, he jerked looks over his shoulder at the dark water.

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

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

He pulled the screen door 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