“Are you going to take this turn?” Asks Sarah, like it’s a question and not a reminder.
“Yes,” I say with a small smile to let her know that I know what she’s doing. The funny thing is that she’s never been to the cabin. Me and the GPS on her phone are the only two who know the way. She likes to remind me of each turn so that I never miss one. Out of the eight years that we’ve been married, Sarah’s only picked up this habit in the last three. My theory is that it has something to do with her being a mom again. I missed the exit for the hospital when she was in labor and now she’s determined to make sure I never miss another one as long as I live.
Our daughter Claire sits in the back with her little brother Toby, trying to wrestle him back into the confines of his car seat. Sarah likes to joke that he’ll grow up to be a master magician because no matter how tight we make the straps, Toby always seems to find a way out.
Claire is an eight-year-old scholar. Most of the kids her age can barely read. Claire cuts through books faster than we can afford to buy them. I think the day she got a library card was one of the happiest in both our lives. She has most of her mother’s looks with long blond hair that refuses to stay tucked behind tiny ears.
Toby also has more of his mother in him. His features are dark like mine but thankfully, that’s where the similarities end. He’s just about to turn three but I can already tell I’m going to have to roll him in stink to keep the ladies off. He only talks a little and most of what he says in his own sort of baby gibberish. Claire understands some of it but I can’t make out a word.
“Kerpuck,” he says, blowing a Daffy Duck raspberry on the letter p.
“Use you words sweetie,” Sarah tells him without looking back. She says this every time he ‘speaks Toby’ but it never makes much of an impact.
“He is using his words mom. He isn’t using yours.”
Sarah doesn’t respond to Claire but gives me a look instead. “Care to weigh in Malcolm?”
I know she wants me to back her up but I’m not sure how so I change the subject instead.
“Look, we’re almost there.” I point at the green mailbox that once belonged to the Mallory family. It’s been repainted a mild crème color, probably a new owner.
I turn onto a trail thirty yards past and leave the road behind. The blackberries that once grew behind the tree line push in on the road, forcing me to slow my mother-in-law’s Highlander to a crawl. I don’t think the thorns could scratch the paint, but I’d never live it down if they did.
The trees throw a canopy of shadows that dance across the hood with the crystalline beams of light. It takes fifteen minutes to drive to the cabin at this pace. It would have been faster to walk but then I would be the one carrying my wife’s luggage. Enough said.
The canopy breaks as the road opens and the cabin comes into view. It was constructed simply with dark, unvarnished wood. The deck and railings are cracked and worn from exposure but it looks sturdy, built to endure. It’s beautiful in it’s own simple way.
I move to begin unloading the luggage while Sarah unbuckles Toby. By the time I’ve opened the trunk Claire’s already gone. Whenever we travel, she slips off without a word at the first opportunity. Sarah and I have each spent our fair share of time hunting through playgrounds and supermarkets for her. Once, Sarah even put her on one of those leashes, hoping to embarrass the habit out of her. That worked for all of a week before the leash mysteriously went missing. To this day, Claire insists that she has no idea what happened to it. Thankfully she never goes far.
“Claire!” I shout into the trees. “Be back by dark!”
“Don’t encourage her.” Sarah says, keeping a tight grip on Toby’s hand. He’s pulling toward the forest like he wants to follow his sister. “Come on, lets take a look at the damage.”
I climb the stairs but at the threshold of the house I freeze. I try to reach for the doorknob but can’t. My hands start to shake at my sides. I tell myself that it’s just a door, just a simple push and it’ll be over. A cold fist clamps my lungs and within seconds I feel a clammy sweat coating my skin.
Sarah puts her free hand on my arm.
“Hey,” she says, drawing me out of my trance. “It’s ok. We’ll do it together.”
With gentle hands, she guides my palm to the doorknob. She squeezes it slowly until I have a firm grip and then twists it open. The door swings forward silent and easy, like it’s just been greased.
Inside, the stubborn beams of light that managed to make it through both the foliage and the windows ignite the heavy dust that spirals through the open air, disturbed by the swinging door. Cobwebs adorn the walls and ceiling, which are made from the same dark birch as the outside though in here, it has been sanded smooth and coated in lacquer. The carpets, once a vibrant blue have faded, soaking a lion’s share of the dust. When his mother died two months ago she left this place to me but for all that, I still think of it as Tyler’s cabin.
I mulled over her reasons for giving it to me for weeks. Was this her way of saying that she forgave me, or was it intended as a punishment? Was she trying to make sure I never forgot what happened to her son? I should have visited her when I had the chance. I knew her cancer had reached stage four but I was too much the coward to come and speak to her. Now I’ll never get the chance.
It was my sponsor Andrew’s idea for me to come. He and Sarah agreed that it was best for me to come with the support of my family and confront this place so I could move on. I wanted to come alone and burn this place to the ground. Of course I didn’t tell them that, but I think Sarah knew.
The panic attacks have been getting worse and my medicine barely helps. I’ve been trying to switch prescriptions but it’s hard when you can’t have anything even mildly addictive. There’s no such thing as mildly addictive to me anymore. I try to hide everything else, the pain that races through my chest, the terror, but I can’t hide my hands. Sometimes I try shoving them in my pockets but then my pants shake and that makes it even more noticeable. No matter how hard I try and hide it from her, Sarah knows I’ve been getting worse.
“We should probably clean before we bring in the luggage. I told you we’d need the vacuum.” Even in my sad state, I can’t help but smile. She more excited about being right than daunted by the task of cleaning the entire cabin. She passes the baby to me. “Hold Toby while I get his playmobile, then go stretch your legs and look for Claire. I’ll put the groceries away so we can start cleaning.”
Just stepping out into the open air makes me feel better. I start walking and feel cramps ease out of my legs that have nothing to do with the six hour drive. Luckily for me, the dust and dirt of the road were undisturbed until we arrived. I’m no hunter, but even I can see a clear set of eight-year-old footprints leading down a trail. I take a few slow, deep breaths, filling my lungs with the thin mountain air and tasting the memories. They say that smell is the strongest sense tied to memory and I believe it. I was fifteen last time I was here. Six summers I spent in that cabin and a little air brings it all back clearer than that dust filled tomb. This is where I learned to swim, learned to kiss and learned to fight. This is where me and Tyler were pirates, borrowing docked fishing boats with stolen six packs to go watch the girls where they liked to tan. The last summer comes back stronger than them all, inking the good memories and tainting them all.
I stop in my tracks. I’ve just rounded into a clearing to find a man standing alone with my daughter. He’s young, probably not much older than I was the last time I was here. He looks up and smiles innocently enough but something sets the dog in my head to growling. Something about the way he sways when he stands perfectly still, something about the way his eyes are a little too shiny.
“Come her Claire,” I bark. I mean to sound calm but it doesn’t come out that way.
“It’s cool dude,” the man says, holding his hands up like I was yelling at him. The gesture does not put me at ease. “Name’s Mike. Me and some buddies rented the big house that-a-way.” He points to the high left of the clearing. “I was just going for a walk when I heard something. Thought I’d check it out. Easy to get lost out here.”
“Yes it is.” I respond, cocking an eyebrow at him. I don’t know why I’m acting like this. He’s just a kid. “My name’s Malcolm. I know that house. I’ll see you around.”
We turn back toward the cabin, leaving Mike in the clearing. Claire is quiet for a while.
“What did he say to you?” I ask her
“Nothing,” she says quietly. “Just asked my name and if I lived up here. I told him I didn’t and he asked if I needed help finding my way home. Then you showed up. I didn’t talk to him for long. Honest.”
She thinks I’m mad at her. “Sweetheart, you didn’t do anything wrong. Neither did he. I just get protective about you. That’s all.”
“Ok” she says but she doesn’t speak again till we get back.
When the cabin comes into sight, Claire leaves my side at a sprint, heading for Sarah who’s standing in the driveway, still fussing with Toby in the playmobile. Claire grabs hold of Sarah’s leg, squeezing it between her arms and knees.
“Oh no,” says Sarah, prizing off her daughter and holding her by the shoulders. “If daddy yelled at you then I’m on his side, not yours. You can’t keep running off like this. One of these days you’re going to get hurt and we won’t know where to find you.”
“Ok, stay out here and keep an eye on Toby. Me and your dad are gonna go inside and start knocking down those cobwebs.”
“Ewww,” Claire responds with a shudder.
“That’s why I’m not asking you to do it.” Sarah says, unable to repress a smile.
With the lights on, the cabin looks even dirtier than it did before. Sarah hands me the duster and sets me to cleaning while she puts the food away. The only thing not coated in a thick layer of dust is the brand new modem we had installed the day before. I got some vacation time stacked up from my job at the loading dock but Sarah is management. All long-term vacations require WiFi.
The whole process of dusting, vacuuming and wiping down all the hard surfaces takes about two hours. Sarah opens up all the windows and turns on both of the ceiling fans. By the time it’s all done I’m starving. Since no one feels much like cooking, I throw together a quick dinner of sliced cheddar cheese, turkey lunchmeat and Ritz crackers. After we eat, we load our luggage into the cabin and start to settle in. I don’t remember falling asleep. I don’t even remember sitting down in the old recliner but the next thing I know, Sarah is tapping me on the shoulder. The kids are snoring side by side on the pull out sofa.
“Let’s go to bed,” she says.“ Her smile glows even in the half-light.
I wake up to the rat-tat-tat of typing. Sarah is still in her nightgown but already hard at work beside me. She’s frowning with the deep crease in her brow that she only gets when she’s concentrating. She’s wearing the glasses she hates in spite of dropping four hundred dollars for ‘a nice pair.’
When she sees I’m awake she whips the glasses off and leans in for a kiss. Her lips are soft and minty
“Go brush your teeth,” she says slapping me on the knee.
“I just woke up,” I say, stretching my back till it pops. “Give me a minute.”
“I gave you thirty,” she says pointing at the clock. “It’s half past nine. If you still want to do that hike today, you’d better start packing those lunches.”
She’s right but I don’t have to let her know it. I kiss her again, holding her laptop hostage until she kisses me back.
For lunch I pack four ham and cheese sandwiches, four pears, four snack sized bags of potato chips, four bottles of water and a box of cookies into a backpack. Sarah likes to slip a bottle of sun block in too. I start cooking a quick breakfast as well. Getting the food ready is easy, getting the kids ready is a whole other animal.
Claire’s disappeared again but comes running back at the smell of bacon. Toby manages to slip his pants off and make a small lake of his own on the kitchen floor. After mopping that up and getting them both dressed, Sarah comes into the kitchen already wearing her brand new hiking gear.
“I got up early and finished all my work,” she says pouring herself what I’m sure is at least her second cup of coffee. “So we can stay at the lake as long as we like.”
She opens the backpack and peaks inside.
“You only packed food,” she says, that line reappearing in her brow.
“That’s all we need.”
“What about towels, toys, sun block, a first aid kit? What about Toby’s floaties?”
“That’s what I have you for.”
She smiles, half annoyed, half sincere and sets to cramming the bag with everything she listed and a few things she didn’t. By the time she’s done the backpack weighs more than Claire.
We’re on the trail by noon, later than I intended but not too late. The soft dirt crunches with familiar repetition as we head away from the cabin grounds. Birds are singing in the low branches. Sarah has Toby strapped to her back in a carrier. He cried and pouted for the first few minutes but quickly accepted his fate. I can hear him laughing at the faces his sister is making at him, only a few steps behind.
After a while, the trail opens up on the left to a clearing that houses another cabin. It’s much larger and grander than ours. The smells of churned earth, compost and flowers mingle in the warming air. An elderly man stands leaning against a post on his deck watching an elderly woman work in the garden. He has the look of a man who was once covered in muscle but hasn’t had use of it in years. The woman is beautiful in the way some older women are when they embrace their age. She has a smear of dirt running down the right side of her face. I recognize them vaguely. Beside the trail is a sign, staked into the ground. It says,
Stay on the Trail
Do Not Trespass
“Hello,” she calls to us. “Headed to the lake?”
“Yes we are,” Sarah responds politely.
“You know the way there?”
“Yes we do,” I answer. “I used to come here a lot when I was younger.”
“Oh, when was that? We’ve been here twenty-six years. You must have passed us a time or two.”
Suddenly the memories come flooding back, a man with a greasy comb over and a woman with an awful shriek chasing children from their yard with pitchforks and air rifles. They had a particular distaste for Tyler and me. Seeing the witch of the eastern grove smiling so kindly is like seeing a fish climb a ladder. The Samson’s were never kind.
“It was a long time ago but I’m sure I did.”
The old man gives me a measuring look before speaking. “Well be careful on your way,” he says, gingerly descending his porch steps. He has a slight limp now. A medical bracelet glimmers like platinum on his wrist. “Stay to the right. A boy died in these woods a few years back. He was an idiot but it pays to be careful all the same. Why they haven’t blocked that place off I’ll never know. The young people up the road still like to go there. I suppose they’d like to go anywhere they’re not supposed to.”
He looks at us expectantly. Obviously he thought we’d pick up the bait and ask how the boy died. I don’t need to hear him say it, I remember.
“What happened?” Asks Claire in a reverent whisper from behind her mother. Her eyes are lit up with curiosity.
I feel an icy stone in my stomach. My hands twitch with anticipation. I want to run away but I can’t just leave my family here. How would I explain that to my daughter? She isn’t a baby like Toby anymore. She’ll remember the time daddy ran away from the old people in the forest.
Thankfully my wife steps in to my rescue.
“I’m not sure this is appropriate for you to be hearing. She gives a reprimanding look at Mr. Samson. “Thank you for the warning, we’ll be careful.”
As we leave the Samson’s, Sarah grabs my shaking hand and squeezes. She takes long deep breaths with me until mine slow down. She kisses me and lets my hand fall back to my side, allowing my fear to pass unremarked.
Staying to the right, the walk is less than a mile and we find the water’s glassy edge in no time at all. Even so, Sarah can’t get Toby off her back fast enough. Every day he seems to get a little heavier. His dark, curly hair is already matted to his head.
“Would you get the sun block out for me?” she asks.
“Sure.” I slip the heavy pack off my shoulders. After rooting through a half dozen towels, I find the little brown tube sitting on some now very crushed sandwiches. I hand it to her and turn to take in the lake. Some things never change. The cold mountain water doesn’t move but for the millions of tiny ripples under the wind. The water is so clear that you can see the stone at the bottom of the little lake’s deepest depths. The wind is bracing but under the warm sun, the water will feel good.
“Claire, it’s your turn,” calls Sarah, having sufficiently coated Toby in the smelly lotion. “Where’s Claire?”
I look up and down the rocky beach but she isn’t anywhere in sight. Could she have simply slipped away like she always does?
“Shnale,” says Toby, pointing back at the trail.
“Stay here,” I tell Sarah. I leave the pack and start running.
I’m trying to pace myself. It’s a big forest and I don’t want to burn out before I find her but even at a sprint it feels like crawling. ‘This was a mistake’ I think. ‘We should never have come back here.’
I find the first place the trail splits of and shout my daughter’s name. I’m trying to remain calm but panic seeps into my voice making it crack with anxiety. I can hear myself echoing through the trees. A score of nearby birds take flight at the sound and then there is no response. Unable to stand still any longer, I run further in. At the next crossroad I see Mr. Samson hobbling up the path.
“I decided to go for a walk after you left to stretch out my leg. Was that you I heard hollering just now?”
“Yes, my daughter’s gone missing. I’m trying to find her.”
Samson raises his eyebrows in alarm. “Well then, I’ll take this trail. You’re a sight faster than me so you run on to the next one.
I nod and sprint ahead. When I reach the turn I freeze again. This time it isn’t as simple as a door in my way. This is the path that I hoped I’d never see again. I’d memorized the shade of the barely tread soil, the curve of every twisting branch. I’d seen it every night in my dreams. It feels like it should be night. How could a place like this exist in the light of day?
“Claire!” I shout into the void. “Claire, are you down there?”
Something responds, just on the edge of hearing. I’m not sure if it’s her. It definitely wasn’t a bird. It sends the fear coursing deep into me.
“I have to move,” I tell myself but I can’t. I’m still afraid of what I’ll find at the end of that path but that’s just the surface. What’s keeping me here is fear of what might happen to my daughter and worse yet, fear that there’s nothing I can do about it. I want to move, I need to move right now.
The world falls away and I’m back in that moment, all those years ago when I saw Tyler die. It wasn’t gentle or painless. He died screaming and I just stood there, like I am now. The tremors move from my hands to the rest of my body and I drop to my knees, feet unable to support my convulsions. I need my medicine but it’s back at the cabin. I lean forward and vomit on the path. Acid burns my mouth and nose while a sob escapes my tightly clenched throat. I’m useless. I’m worthless. The worst father. The worst husband.
I hear the sound again and this time I’m sure it’s her. I try to suck in a deep breath but all that comes are fits and stutters. I can’t breath. I can’t breath. All I hear are Tyler’s screams, my daughter’s cries and a dog, barking somewhere far away.
Something wakes up inside me. It isn’t bravery, courage or anything romantic like that. It isn’t even the drive to run for help. There are no words for the strength that I suddenly feel returning to my blood. The hound in me is barking.
I put my hands on the ground and move them one at a time up the hill, dragging my body where my mind refuses to go. As I move forward the tremors become milder. Soon my legs are sturdy enough to support my weight and before I’m sure that I can, I’m sprinting again, desperate to close the space between me and my daughter.
When the cave comes into view, I see her. She’s already waist deep in the muck, surrounded by a graveyard of bottles. She’s holding perfectly still, just like she should. Probably read about quicksand in one of her books. Years ago, miners settled here and blasted these tunnels into the mountainside. The ground inside is unstable. Pitfalls and sinkholes are common.
Tyler and me used to come here, like so many others, to drink away from the watchful eyes of our parents and watch the bottles and cans sink into the ground. Tyler would walk along the hard ridge at the edge and taunt me for being to scared to follow. One day he lost his balance. He was too far out for me to reach him. In the end I just watched as he was swallowed by the Earth.
“Daddy,” Claire sobs from the cave. Her face is a mess of tears and mud. “I’m stuck.”
“I can see that sweetheart. Don’t move, I’m coming to get you.”
She nods her head and then tightens her muscles until her little body is completely ridged. I move to the edge of the cave, following the path I had seen Tyler walk so many times, jumping where he jumped from slippery foothold to sturdy plateau. My legs are shaking but I’m more sober than I’ve ever been and my balance holds out. Finally I reach the foothold closest to Claire but she’s still too far.
I try to edge closer and a pain shoots through my leg. My pants are torn. A shallow cut has appeared on my calf where it scraped against an iron steak that protrudes from the rock.
It must be an anchor, set by the miners. I take of my belt and slip the loop over the spike, careful to test the strength of the iron. I wrap the other end around my hand and, without giving myself time to think, step out into the sinkhole.
My shoes are instantly submerged into the unforgiving mud. Getting to Claire is slow work and in a few short steps I’ve sunken to my chest. The belt won’t go any farther.
“Come here,” I tell her, holding out my hand. She’s still just a few feet out of my reach.
“If I move again, I’ll sink more.”
“I know, but all you have to do is make it to my hand and I’ll pull you out.”
She shakes her head again. In the few seconds we’ve been talking we’ve both sank another inch. I don’t have time to calm her down. I take a deep breath and let go of the belt. The first step takes the mud to my chin, the second puts me under. I grab my daughter’s legs and push her toward the belt, sinking myself even deeper. I hope she made it. Please God let her have made it.
Being encased in the cold mud is like being locked in a stone mold. You are forced into perfect stillness. You can’t move a muscle but that’s ok. It’s ok to freeze up, it’s ok to be scared now. Claire is safe, I don’t need to move anymore. I’m coming to get you Tyler. Just like I should have done when you fell.
A hand grabs my wrist, not my daughters small weak hands but a thick calloused one. It pulls me so hard I’m sure it’ll rip my arm off. My finger catches on a thin chain.
In a few painful seconds, my head breaks through the surface and the damp air fills my lungs.
“Goddamn idiot.” Says a gruff voice between labored breaths. “Why didn’t you come and get me? Growing up hasn’t made you any brighter has it?”
“Thanks Samson,” I spit through a mouth coated in mud, grabbing the belt and pulling myself back to solid ground. Claire is standing at the mouth of the cave. She’s still crying and covered in mud but otherwise looks ok. The chain I felt was Samson’s medical bracelet. When I’m completely free of the muck I look down at a pair of bare, mud covered feet and laugh. My shoes are gone.
“Call me Joe. Not many’d be laughing after going under like that.”
“Not many have my luck.”
Samson grunts. “Well we ain’t exactly safe just yet,” he says eyeing the pit. “What say we make it to dry land before counting our chickens?”
Very slowly, Samson leads me back to shore. Together we walk her back to his house and send her with Mrs. Samson, whose name I learn is also Claire, to get cleaned up. Joe offers to walk to the lake for Sarah and Toby but his limp looks a little worse for wear so I do it.
The look on her face when I walk out onto that beach sodden as I am by mud and filth is indescribable. Fear, anger, relief, curiosity and confusion mingled into an expression that is all at once severe and comical.
“Claire is safe,” I tell her. No matter what happens next, she’ll pull her punches knowing that.
She looks relieved even though she’s still scowling. It’s a gift. “What happened?” she asked. “Did you fall?”
“Something like that,” I answer.
“She’s back at the Samson’s”
“Those crazy people we passed on the way here?”
“They’re not so bad.”
She gives me a searching look that eventually breaks into a smile. I must look ridiculous. ”Come on then. Lets get you cleaned up.”
She puts Toby down on a towel in a shady part of the beach and leads me to the water. A brown cloud forms around me as the dirt and particulate diffuse into the water. It’s so dense that I can’t see the bottom anymore. I feel an absurd surge of guilt as it taints the water and surrounds Sarah. I try to move away but her hand tightens on mine, her eyes never leaving Toby on the shore. By the time our feet stop touching the ground, the cloud is gone.
“Go under,” she says, splashing water in my face. “You need to get that crap out of your hair.”
I do what I’m told. My head goes under for the second time today. I don’t feel I’m being pulled down like I did in the mud. I’m weightless, clean for the first time in years.
When I’m done we head back to shore. My clothes are still wet and heavy but at least now they aren’t caked in mud.
At the Samson’s, a freshly washed Joe comes limping out.
“I expect these back as soon as you get some of your own,” he says, thrusting a pair of kakis, a t-shirt and sandals into my hands.
After dawning the fresh clothes, I come out to find Sarah and the others, all listening to Joe as he tells them what happened. The last time I was this scared of my wife was when she threatened to take Claire away from me if I didn’t get clean. I suppose that was the first time she saved me.
She takes it surprisingly well, even laughing when Joe tells her about my shoes. I’m going to spend the rest of my life with that woman and I don’t think she’ll ever stop surprising me. When then story is told, lunch is served and the smashed sandwiches are thrown away. We eat until we can barely move and then we sit and talk. It isn’t until nearly dusk that I catch a look from Joe. It’s just a flicker of his eyes from me to the shed on the side of his house. I excuse myself from the table and, taking a detour through the house, walk over to the shed. A moment later, Joe comes limping up.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“I wasn’t lying when I said the county wouldn’t listen to me about blocking that mine. I have to scare kids away from it twice a week.”
“Why won’t they listen to you?”
He snorts. “They don’t like coming out here unless they have to. Useless idgets.”
“Well, we’ll just have to make them then.“
Joe shakes his head. “No, no, no. I’ve got a better idea.” He flashes a ring of keys from his pocket and uses one of them to unlock the shed. Inside are a variety of gardening tools and a duffel bag that’s been rolled up in housing insulation. “The wife doesn’t like me having these but I thought they might come in handy.”
“What is it?”
“Dynamite. Got it from an old friend that ate more fish than the rangers liked. I want to blow the damn thing closed.”
“Is that safe?”
“Safer than jumping into a sinkhole with no one to pull you out, safer than leaving the damn thing open if you ask me. The ladies might not agree though so we got to do it quick before they find out what we’re up to.”
I clap him on the shoulder and, quietly as we can, Joe and I head back to the cave. In the duffel along with two dozen burgundy sticks is a length of fuse on a reel with plenty to spare. Together, we walk up to the mouth that swallowed me whole and put the dynamite right in its teeth. Once we’ve reached a safe distance with a good view, Joe hands me a book of matches. With hands as steady as stones, I light the fuse.