It’s that time again! NaNoWriMo kicked off yesterday (that’s National Novel Writing Month to the uninitiated) and in an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory!
I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!
The warped and weathered logs of an old trapping cabin peeked out behind a thin stand of birch trees next to the Pointe Nord service road. The dull grey form hunkered between their skeletal bodies like a prisoner in a bone cage. Margaret’s tongue sat in her mouth like a stone. She had lived her entire life in the boreal shield, north of paved roads, surrounded by thick pine forests and slabs of lichened granite. She’d learned to walk in the mossy undergrowth, tumbling down rocky hills. She’d learned to fish with hands pink and aching from the ice-cold water that seemed to break through the stone and push the land apart. This was her home.
But she didn’t feel at home here.
Margaret swallowed the rock in her mouth and got out of the truck.
“You’re a brave lot.” The voice came before its owner. Margaret’s eyes swept through the trees, around the cabin, and over the sandy dirty lot they’d parked in, trying to find a face. A sharp crack snapped her gaze toward a woodpile next to the cabin. A man, as gray and twisted as the cabin itself, materialized between two. He left an axe buried in the chopping block. “Late in the year to be heading out in those.”
“This your place?” Frank slammed the driver’s side door of the other truck. The canoe tied on top of Frank’s truck shifted under the nylon ropes that secured it to the roof. Margaret wondered if there would be streaks of red paint on Frank’s roof, or if the canoe would have streaks of black. Oblivious to his poor tie-down, Frank strode toward the man with a meaty hand outstretched. “Frank Swain.”
“Mine, sure. For now, at least. Never know when the trees will decide to take her back,” the older man said. His long fingers, knotted with age and blackened with use, wrapped around Frank’s. Margaret thought of the birch stand. Cage-like trunks and finger-like branches. They man eyed the red canoe warily. “Good to meet you, Frank. Can I do something for you folks?”
“We’re looking for a ‘Moose Lips Lodge,’” Frank said. He seemed to take in the little clearing and the ramshackle cabin for the first time. “It’s supposed to be around here somewhere.”
The old man laughed. Cackled, really. It was like the sound of branches snapping in the first frost. Cold and dry, but with that peculiar humour of the north. This was a laugh Margaret understood. She didn’t feel at home here, but Frank didn’t belong. The old man caught her smile and winked. “You found it, Mr. Swain.”
“This is the Lodge?”
“My own little joke, I guess.” The man dug a finger into his grizzled beard and scratched his chin. “What are you looking for with old Moose Lips?”
“Well, mister—” Frank trailed off. He liked to be able to drop a person’s name into conversation as many times as possible. Some residual habit from his years in business school, Margaret assumed.
“Bill Williams,” the man said. He stood a little taller, stretching his bent frame upward like a tree toward the sun. “At your service.”
“Bill? As in William?” Frank let out an awkward belch of a laugh. “Did your mother have a sense of humour?”
“Just Bill, as far as I know,” the man said. “As for my mother, I couldn’t tell you. I was named by Jesuits.”
“Well, Bill,” Frank pulled his hand, belatedly, from the man’s grasp. “We heard we could leave our vehicles here. Possibly pick up some supplies.”
“How long you folks going out for?” Bill rubbed his right palm against his coveralls, like the rough, grimy canvas could cleanse him of Frank’s touch. “First frost was only a few nights ago. It’s going to get real cold, real fast.”
“That’s what I told them,” Margaret said. “But Mr. King-of-the-Wild over there thinks he knows what he’s doing.”
“This is my step-daughter, Maggie,” Frank said, as if to excuse her.
“Margaret,” Margaret said.
“Margaret.” The old man turned his pale brown eyes on her. He was like an owl, taking in every twitch and every gesture, waiting to swoop in for the kill. “You have good cause to be concerned.”
“It’s perfectly safe,” Frank said. “We have good maps, the right equipment. Brian is a medic. What could go wrong?”
“We’ll be fine,” Brian, Frank’s younger brother, piped up from behind Frank’s truck. Margaret turned to see him shake off and tuck himself into his Levi’s. The youngest Swain was closer in age to Margaret and Ellie than to Frank, the product of a first, failed marriage on Grandpa Gerry’s part. “I don’t know why you’re being so weird about it.”
“Maggie’s not being weird.” Robert wrapped an arm around Margaret’s waist. “She grew up around here. You guys didn’t.”
“Well, you’re still here.” Brian said. “So you can’t be too scared.”
“We’re here because mom’s here.” Ellie stepped up next to Margaret and Robert, the only sane ones in the group. “Fucked if we’re going to let you morons take her into the wilderness without at least one set of wits to share about the group.”
“One set?” Brian sidled up next to Frank. “Who gets to claim the brains?”
“Just stop it,” Mom slammed the back door of the black truck. “We haven’t even started yet and the bickering is going to kill me.”
“Well, you can leave the trucks here. Keys, too. Or not. Some folks do, some folks don’t.” Bill Williams took the bickering in stride. “I have a satellite radio here if you do need help out there; just send someone back to see me. But I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Of course we’ll be fine,” Brian scoffed.
“We haven’t had anyone die or go missing in years,” Bill said. The others laughed. Margaret fought back a chill creeping up the backs of her legs. It settled at the base of her spine.
“Yeah.” Margaret tugged at a blue nylon knot that secured her own canoe. The rope loosened, and she and Ellie each grabbed a gunwhale. “Great.”
“Where’s Gerald?” Mom asked.
“Would you like some coffee before you head out?” Bill Williams smiled his broken bark smile. His face cracked into pieces that Margaret thought had always been there. The seams in his flesh took on more and more blackness as he got older and the earth became him. She knew his type. Bushed.
“Yeah,” Margaret said. “That would be great.”
“Well that hit the spot,” Mom said. She rubbed Margaret’s back in rhythmic circles. It was a habit she’d had since her daughters were small. Only now that Margaret was grown did she realize it was a nervous habit. Just try to be civil. For mom. The reminder niggled at the back of her mind. She wondered if Ellie felt the same.
Gerald and his sons, Frank and Brian, huddled over a map in the corner of Bill Williams’ hut. Margaret couldn’t help feeling angry at them. Mom and she and Ellie belonged here. This was their world. Frank sat there like a colonial explorer, lording over the map like being able to read it was a sign of ownership.
“I figure three days in and three days back,” he said.
“What’s your destination?” Bill Williams asked. He sat himself nearer the women than to Frank and company. The only odd man out was Robert. Bobby slid in next to Margaret, like her body was the grounding rod in this crazy experiment. She stood, not because she didn’t want to sit with him, but because her mother’s hand was going to wear a hole through her skin in a minute.
“Drake Mine,” Frank said.
“Ahh,” the old man said. “Lot of history there. You’re not going in, though.”
It wasn’t a question. There was no reasonable excuse for enter the old mine shaft, as far as Bill Williams was concerned. Margaret agreed.
“I want to show them how far we’ve come in the last hundred years,” Frank laughed. He was a modern day miner. He wore a hard hat and coveralls to meet the safety requirements of his firm. Otherwise he had little to do with the men who’d died in the old black shafts dug into the granite rockface of the north. Copper, gold, diamond, uranium. The rock of the earth held all kind of riches, if you knew what you were looking for.
“You’re not going in,” Williams repeated.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Margaret interjected.
Of course Frank wanted to go in. He wanted to put on his brave miner hat and go into the abandoned shafts and prove to Mom how great his command of the north really was. Brian, military medic with two tours in Afghanistan under his belt, was to play medic here, too. Gerald, the decrepit old man, thought the sun shone out of his sons’ asses. Frank said, “We’ll see.”
“Mr. Williams,’ Mom said.
“Yes, Mrs. Swain?“
“Ms. Churchill. Grace,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” old Bill said. He waited for her to speak and ignored the chatter from the men who didn’t belong. “Grace.”
“You said you hadn’t had anyone die or go missing in years.” Mom took a long swallow from her coffee mug. “Can you tell us what happened? I mean, we hear rumors in La Crosse, but—”
“Oh, you don’t want to hear that.” Bill busied himself pushing old newspapers into the chinks between the logs of his cabin. The crowd filled his living space, three on the bed, three at the table. Margaret floated, with Bill, filling in the spaces that weren’t taken up by the others. “That’s old news.”
“Old news is the best news,” Ellie said.
“Not here.” Bill Williams tore up more paper and stuffed it into the cracks. “Not when you’re going out. Stop in on your way back and we can talk about it.”
“It’s not just the girls who are scared,” Brian scoffed. “What’s going on, Frank? Where are you taking us?”
“Superstitious nonsense,” Frank said. “I told Maggie before we left that all of this was superstitious nonsense.”
“She’s not superstitious.” Margaret was silently grateful for Ellie’s defense. Too many times had she been written off as superstitious, paranoid, mentally unstable…
Mom jumped in, too. “Frank, dear. Watch the language.”
“Well what am I supposed to say at this point? I’m trying to take us on a family trip. To bond. To make us closer to one another. All I’ve met is resistance. I’m starting to think you all just don’t want me here!”
“That’s not it, Frank.” Mom slips between her daughter and her husband with a practiced skill. “It’s just different when you grow up here. You see things differently. Margaret sees things differently.”
“Always an excuse.” Frank spreads his thighs against his father and brother next to him. The three make a wall of white-man logic that will not be broken, not today. “Never a reason.”
“It’s okay, mom.” Margaret sits herself between Ellie and her mother. Nothing but a symbol of their resistance, but at least they aren’t alone. Robert flanks them, the reluctant warrior.
“Well, it’s not going to hurt anything to tell you, I suppose.” Bill’s eyes glinted over the rim of his coffee mug. He watched Frank and Brian carefully. “Folks have been going missing on Reyer Lake ever since the mine collapsed in the twenties. Maybe before that, too, but nobody talks about before.”
“Everywhere people go, people go missing,” Frank said. All logic, no brains, Margaret thought. “What makes Reyer any different?”
“Drake Mine, for one,” Bill said. To Margaret, his eyes, said more.
“Yeah, yeah,” Brian chipped in. “The collapse. We know.”
“Do you know how many men died in that collapse?”
“We’re all a little too old for ghost stories, Mr. Williams.”
“This ain’t a ghost story.” Bill Williams smiled, then. His teeth were surprisingly clean and white, given the state of the rest of him. Little sun-bleached bones in his mouth. “Seven men were down in that hole when the pilings caved in. Six of them died.”
“If it’s not a ghost story, what on earth does this have to do with our canoe trip, Williams?” Frank’s left knee bounced rapidly under his elbow. He leaned forward with his face in his hands, trying to look interested. Margaret could see his patience thinning as it often did with her and her ‘imagination.’
“One man survived. Charles Thomas. The cross shift found him more than a month later—”
“Good thing you’ve got a union, eh Frank?” Gerald elbowed his son in the ribs.
“He’s the one you have to worry about.”
“If he were still alive he’d be a hundred years old.” Frank’s exasperated sigh seemed to propel him to his feet. “Thanks for the coffee, Bill. But we should get going.”
“How did he survive so long in that hole?” Brian stood up with Frank. Gerald came with him like they were attached at the hip. “Didn’t he get hungry?”
“He’s been hungry ever since.” Margaret said it to herself more than anything, but Bill heard. He nodded slowly.
“What’s that, Maggie?” Frank’s voice took on an edge.
“You seem like a resourceful man,” Bill said to Brian. “I’m sure you can imagine what he had to do to survive.”
“Yeah, gross,” Frank said. “But that was eighty years ago. I doubt there are even bones down the old shaft anymore.”
“No bones, no. They took the bodies out and burned them after they found Charles Thomas,” Bill said. “And they took Thomas into the city to see a doctor. He was right as rain. Got a settlement, never had to work again.”
“Terrifying,” Frank said. “They cleaned up the mine shaft and the cross shift got to work. The end.”
“That they did,” Bill said. “But that wasn’t the end of it. Thomas kept coming back.”
“Why on earth would he come back after they paid him off?” Brian laughed. “Now that is crazy.”
“It’s true,” Robert said. “My grandpa worked at Drake for a while. He said Thomas wouldn’t go near the mine shaft, but they couldn’t get him to leave the camp. Unnerved everybody, knowing what had happened. Eventually they had to close the site because they couldn’t find anyone to work there.”
“Yup. Everybody packed up and went home,” Bill said. “Except Charles Thomas.”
“And he haunts the woods to this day.” Brian raised his arms above his head and made a goofy face.
“You asked, Brian.” Margaret’s own patience was worn through. “Don’t be a dick about it.”
“Margaret—“ Mom sounded tired.
“This is seriously what you’re worried about, Maggie?” Frank reeled on her, as if it was somehow her fault that Bill Williams had talked about Reyer Lake. “An old man wandering around the woods?”
“No,” Margaret snapped. “I’m worried that you morons are going to get yourselves killed trying to prove how clever you are.”
“We’re just here so mom doesn’t have to paddle back by herself once you get stuck down there,” Ellie said.
Robert’s usually serious face twitched with a smile. “You said you have satellite, right?”
“That I do, son.” Bill Williams cackled again. “Moose Lips Lodge has all the modern trappings. I even have a composting toilet.”
Bill Williams chopped firewood. He swung his axe and piled his logs like a mechanical woodsman, perfectly rhythmic. He never misjudged a swing. Each log he split neatly into halves, then quarters, and fitted them together against the wall of the cabin like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Margaret admired the seamlessness of his movements. The man was bushed, but he knew how to live out here. It was going to be a long, cold winter. Bill didn’t waste any more time on them.
It took about an hour to unload the three canoes from the trucks and get them packed with all the gear. Frank circled around the boats, giving orders about what went where while Margaret, Ellie, and Robert ignored him. They took the majority of the gear in their larger white canoe. Frank and Brian fussed with their loads, made a big show of piecing everything together just so. They got the balance all wrong.
“You going to help your man, Mom?” Ellie stacked the tents behind the crosspiece, making a backrest for herself. “Or is this the only way you can get him to bathe?”
Gerald, hovered between the red canoes and looked impressed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t worry, Gerry,” Mom laughed. “The water is very refreshing this time of year.”
“Don’t encourage them, Grace.” Frank glared at Margaret with his infamous lack of humour.
“I didn’t say anything,” Margaret said. “I think you’ve done a fine job. Very neat.”
Frank’s lips tightened. He looked between Margaret and canoe as if trying to decide which one was lying to him. Then he grunted and started rearranging the gear. Warm satisfaction buzzed in Margaret’s head.
Margaret had never been able to pinpoint why she didn’t like Frank. He was a good man, he had a good job, and he was kind to her mother. He genuinely seemed to want them to be a family. But Margaret and Ellie had been too old when he entered their life for them to ever see him as a father. Or maybe this unyielding resentment was how people felt about their fathers. Margaret, admittedly, couldn’t remember her own beyond the emptiness of the place he used to be and the relief that came with it.
Still, something about Frank rankled her. She was never more aware of it than when he was with his brother and his father. Frank had been living in La Crosse for the last twenty years, but he was a city boy. He could blend in in town, well enough that even Margaret forgot he wasn’t a northerner sometimes. But when Gerald and Brian were around contempt bubbled to the surface and oozed out of Frank. Contempt of their town, their land, their people. To Margaret it stank like the city.
“Careful,” Robert said in her ear. “You’ll burn a hole in his head if you keep staring at him like that.”
“Might be an improvement,” Ellie said.
Margaret felt an overwhelming love for her sister and Robert, then, the only two people in her life who hadn’t let her down. Even Mom, whose incessant love for Frank had never stopped feeling like a betrayal to Margaret, couldn’t be counted on. “I don’t know what I would do without you two.”
“Twenty to life, probably,” Ellie said.
“Nah.” Robert wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. “She’d be out early on good behavior.”
“I don’t know how you’ve known Mags for this long and can still say that with a straight face.”
“He’s pretty good at poker, too,” Margaret said.
Robert hummed into Margaret’s neck and swayed against her hips. “Daddy was a gamblin’ man.”
“If he starts singing country music I swear I’ll put us all in the drink.”
Robert looked over Ellie’s shoulder at the youngest Swain and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “If you want to go swimming, we could put you in Brian’s canoe.”
“Shut it, lover boy.”
Brian and Robert had never gotten along. Even when they were kids and Brian came to spend summers ‘in the bush’ with his big brother, Frank, Brian and Bobby had butted heads. Robert quietly refused to be impressed by Brian’s machismo. Brian not-so-quietly refused to believe Robert’s strong silent type act wasn’t a cover for cowardice. Since Brian signed up for service he’d gotten even more obnoxious about it. But Margaret knew Robert pushed his buttons on purpose.
“If you three aren’t going to help with the canoes why don’t you go lock up the trucks and give the keys to Williams,” Frank interrupted before another argument could erupt. “Looks like we’re keeping him waiting.”
Margaret noticed then that the chopping noise had stopped. Bill Williams stood next to his wood pile and leaned his bent frame against the handle of the axe. He watched the group with a distant look on his face, like he was seeing something else, some other time.
“Creep,” Ellie said.
It was a little creepy. But these guys who lived in the bush by themselves for so long sometimes forgot how to act around other people. Most of them weren’t all that great with people to begin with. Margaret figured Bill Williams was a harmless creep. He belonged here, growing grey and spindly like the trees around his cabin. He was probably looking forward to winter when the only intrusions upon his peace and quiet would be the cracking of the ice on Reyer and the howling of wolves.
Margaret said, “I’ll go.”
That’s the end of Day 2, 3495 words down 46,505 to go! Stay tuned for more.