by C. M. Barnes
Alec and Mira take a summer vacation every year in a very rustic cabin in the wilderness. This year, Alec is beset by omens: a roaming mountain lion, unfriendly neighbors, unwelcome visitors, and fraught memories of his father. All coincide to signal danger.
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
The turn-off wasn’t easy to find. Just the narrowest sluice of gravel splitting off into the trees. Jennifer and Claire missed it again, and Claire had to call Alec for the third time. This call, like the two preceding it, reached him in a rocking chair on the cabin porch. Alec lowered his beer glass and wiped a finger across the glowing screen of his phone. It smeared a shiny comet trail of condensation across Claire’s name.
“Miss the turn?” he said.
“Map app went fritzy again.”
“In about a mile, the road you’re now mistakenly on ends in a pile of logs. When you hit the logs, turn around and come back.”
“A pile of logs?”
“What do the logs look like?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Don’t be such a... Okay, seeing the logs now.”
Alec heard the phone go dead against his ear. He held it in place anyway and widened his eyes to catch Mira’s gaze from across the porch. She smiled at him from behind the droopy tendrils of a hanging plant he could never remember the name of. It had something to do with wandering in the wilderness. She lifted a watering can up to it in what he sometimes liked to think of as her “dainty white fist.” He nodded, smiled back, then frowned as if he were still listening to Claire’s confusion.
Alec and Mira had been out at the cabin for almost a week, a summer tradition that had founded itself immediately after Dad’s death and continued unabated for three years up to the present evening. Over those three years, they had become increasingly successful at luring friends up from the city to visit, so successful that tonight would have been their first unaccompanied night at the cabin this year had Claire not called. But Claire had called — a fairly large surprise — and she had suggested visiting along with Jennifer, a full-on ambush.
“Are they close?” Mira asked when Alec finally muttered goodbye and lowered the phone.
Alec swirled his glass. “Close? What’s close in the Claire scheme of things?”
Mira made a wince. “Be nice.”
“Look at me, rocking in my chair, swirling my beverage. I’m the very picture of rural hospitality.”
“That chair is broken.”
“As it has been since I was fourteen.”
Mira balanced the watering can on the porch rail. She was tall and slender, much taller and slenderer than Claire or Jennifer. Her hair was sleek and dusky red as an Irish Setter’s. She had a graceful way of manipulating objects that sometimes made Alec feel as if he was breaking the world just by looking at it. He had no idea how the plant she had just watered survived while they were gone.
“Just relax tonight,” she said. “Try not to dwell on why things have been tense, and they won’t be.”
“Again, the beverage, the rocking chair.”
Mira pinched a crystalline drop off the can’s long spout. “I guess that explains the beer depletion.”
“I’m not a hero.”
She stepped toward him, and he felt her hand settle gently over his bald spot. “Just take breaths,” she said. “Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe deeply.”
“I can smell the carcass.”
The hand patted his spot. “And try not to think about the carcass.”
Alec sipped and tried to follow this sage advice. It wasn’t easy. A powerful odor of decay was washing over the porch rail and into his face. It rolled in from the direction of the eastern property line, the one that bordered the Tillman yard. This was quite appropriate. The only neighbors to speak of, the Tillmans had long been a source of things unpleasant up on the mountain. They dated back to Dad’s time, perhaps even further.
Ancestral Tillmans had probably been causing consternation for the local Black Feet before Alec’s grandfathers had even thought of leaving Poland. They were that entrenched, as the archeological trove of rusted-out barrels and saws scattered along the fence line attested. Why they couldn’t toss their junk in the other direction, the one marking the beginning of a hundred miles of protected wilderness, Alec couldn’t say. He doubted his father could have either.
Now he could hear the Tillman boy, Drake, shoving around a gassy push mower back under the trees. He would only have to turn his head to spot the boy’s pimpled back trailing a blue oleaginous cloud through the late afternoon sun. Drake was perpetually shirtless, was a living, breathing, bare-nippled taunt to the terror of Lyme.
Often, Drake and Papa Tillman, Dave, chose to hurl a baseball up and down the fence line for the exact length of the time it took Alec and Mira to eat dinner out on the deck. The sound of the ball hitting the mitt was percussive, as was the profanity.
This year, Alec and Mira had returned to the cabin to find a baseball-shaped hole in the kitchen window but, lo and behold, no baseball in the kitchen. Alec knew for a fact that Dad had once given Dave Tillman a key to the cabin, a horribly mistaken neighborly gesture.
But the Tillmans could not be blamed for everything, at least not every smell. What had happened was this: three nights ago, sometime around two in the morning judging by the blood-curdling yowl that had woken Mira, a mountain lion caught hold of a deer somewhere near the tree line. After shredding Bambi’s throat, it had dragged the animal’s corpse across the Tillmans’ yard and deposited its remains among the scrubby brush and junk growing along the fence line. There, it had eaten its fill, made a half-hearted attempt to cover the remains, and loped off into the trees.
Since then the mountain lion had not returned — despite the local sheriff’s assurances that a mountain lion was likely to return to a carcass to feed one, two, three, or even four nights after making a kill. This meant the carcass should not be moved. “You wouldn’t want a mountain lion prowling around your house wondering what gives, would you?” He also said that Alec, Mira, the Tillmans, and any other creature that valued its life should remain indoors after sunset for the next four nights, minimum.
Now they were coming up on night four, Alec and Mira’s last night at the cabin, and every intervening day had been August-hot with the expected deleterious effect on the carcass. At this point, the smell was less like that of rotten meat than of some kind of metaphysical corruption that transcended worldly terms. Mira had likened it to the chemical swamp farts that sometimes seeped up from the manhole at the corner of their little yard in the city, except this fart just went on and on, blowing over the grass towards either the cabin porch or the Tillmans’ shack, depending on the wind.
At the moment, the smell was blowing towards the cabin and, at the very least, Alec would have liked to throw some dirt on its bloated, fly-bitten source, but the sheriff had been emphatic, and Mira was holding him to a prudent course of inaction. Last night, he had been forced to usher several of his co-workers down the drive with wet towels over their heads and, tonight, with only one night of cabin vacation remaining, he was doing his best to behave as if the smell did not exist.
Tomorrow, he and Mira would pack up and return to the vastly greater horrors of civilization. They would leave this otherwise idyllic place, and the Tillmans would have to deal with the carcass. On the phone, Dave had sounded inclined to let it rot. In the meantime, Claire and Jennifer were coming to visit. Their Subaru was finally grinding up the drive.
“Wow! Hideaway much?” Claire shouted as she emerged from the driver side. “I swear we passed Kaczynski’s place on the way up.” She stopped at the base of the porch steps and folded her arms. She was shorter than Mira but still seemed infinitely more solidified in the world. Not big, just very substantial in a hard-skulled, agency-filled kind of way. “We would have been going back and forth past that turn-off all night had it not been for satellite guidance.”
“I texted you directions,” Alec said. “Twice.”
“Yeah. Turn left at the tree. Turn right at the other tree.”
“Howdy, Claire!” Mira glided down the steps, swan’s arms spread wide. “Hello, Jennifer! So glad you could make it up.”
Alec hadn’t even seen Jennifer. She was standing right behind Claire; shorter, tightly wired, perfectly still. But that was Jennifer. Hiding in plain sight didn’t even begin to describe her elfin ability to fade from any picture she wanted to. A strand of her translucent bowl cut, blonde as a tiny beach boy’s, trembled in the foul breeze like an errant fuzz floating off the skin of a peach.
Alec craned his head out and waved. Jennifer sent him back a tense half-smile from around Mira’s shoulder. He knew that half-smile, knew it very well. It was the same one she’d given him when Claire had broken the news. The two of them had been sitting on Alec’s couch. Alec had been slumped in his soon-to-be bachelor’s pink recliner. He had owned a lot of strange furniture during law school. “Yes,” Alec echoed, “so very glad.”
Claire stepped away from the Mira-Jennifer hug still in progress and also smiled. There had never been any jealousy issues between the women. Why would there be? Everyone had gotten what they wanted, except for him. Claire wrinkled her nose, and he felt a powerful sense of satisfaction. “Jesus,” she said, “what is that smell?”
“It’s a carcass,” Alec said. He swirled his glass and grinned. “It’s a long story, but the short version is, we’ll be dining inside.”
* * *
When had he known? That was the question that still troubled him. If he hadn’t known until the moment all was revealed, then so be it. He could live with that, had lived with it in fact, and, all sitcom scenarios aside, there hadn’t been much drama after the fact.
Alec had moved out. Claire had moved in. Jennifer had stayed put. A year later, they all finished their degrees and moved on; in Alec’s case, to a divorce mill in the city; in Jennifer and Claire’s, to a legal aid organization that sent them questing across the state in search of battered women in need of aid and representation.
They had kept in touch professionally, and, by the time Mira came on stage, relations had settled into a stable, if not entirely comfortable, status quo. The only real friction left sparked during the rare instances all three found themselves combined socially for an extended period of time. Work situations they could handle, also the occasional drink, but prolonged encounters without any agenda beyond the job or what everyone had been up to lately were still a problem; they left too much room for rumination, for analysis.
This friction seemed natural to Alec, but every so often — always, it seemed, at Claire’s behest — they had to rediscover this fact all over again. As for why, none of them could ever seem to say, although Claire sometimes made an attempt just before everything went to hell.
Last year, this had occurred during a weekend trip to New Orleans. After a more or less tranquil day of restaurant hopping and disaster tourism, Claire had said something that flipped Alec out at piano bar on Bourbon Street. That, or Alec had flipped out at Claire without provocation. It all depended on your preferred version of events. In any case, the result was the same: Claire and Jennifer rented a car to drive home a day early while Alec and Mira spent the group’s last scheduled day in the Big Easy alone, ruminating and analyzing. They hadn’t tried to do anything since. If history was any guide, they should wrap things up in the next couple hours if they wanted to avoid toppling into the maw of the past.
But what if Alec had known earlier? What if he had known long before Claire had sat him down in his pink recliner, with Jennifer by her side, to explain the new directions their lives were going to take? What if he had known even halfway through the two years he and Jennifer had previously spent cohabitating?
What if he had known from the very beginning, from their very first boozy encounter during law school “orientation” weekend, when she had explained, in her softish, gentlest, Jenniferish way, that he was basically an experiment, one that might very well end in a stark renunciation?
What if he had known right then and then gone ahead and eaten up the next two years of their lives in a grim exercise in endurance and passive despair? This was the question that still troubled him, and the answer still refused to reveal itself. That, or he didn’t want it to be revealed. He went back and forth on his preference, usually about once a night.
* * *
Copyright © 2021 by C. M. Barnes