In an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the NaNoWriMo 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! This is Part 2 of my progress. You can find Part 1 here.
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!
Margaret settled her knees into the bow of the canoe, dug her paddle into the rocky ground beneath them, and pushed off. The scrape of the hull against the shore reverberated through the boat and into Margaret’s belly. It was a warm, comfortable feeling despite the chill in the air. With the waters of Reyer Lake lapping against the canoes, Margaret finally started to relax.
The boat rocked gently when Robert hopped into the stern. Then all of their movements seemed to soften, to melt into the cold gray waters of Reyer. The weightlessness of the canoe lifted Margaret’s spirits. She dipped her paddle into the lake, and felt the familiar tug of the north drawing her onto the water.
Those first moments of calm silence on the lake were like a drug slipping into Margaret’s veins. It would be wrong to break it. A disruption. Already, Margaret had that otherworldly feeling that crept over her at the beginning of a journey. Passing onto the lake was like crossing a threshold into otherness. She was a stranger here. A trespasser.
“Did you get a copy of the map?” Ellie sat behind Margaret, in the middle of the laden canoe. “Or are we following the Swine brothers?”
Margaret kept her voice low. “I have one.”
The chatter from the other boats grated on Margaret’s nerves. She dug into the water. The satisfying burn of warming muscles spread down her back and across her shoulders. The sound of water dripping from her paddle was rhythmic and soothing. She wanted to put some distance between their canoe and the others. She wanted, as much as possible, to be alone.
Margaret looked back over her shoulder to make sure the red canoes were still upright. She felt a little guilty leaving Mom behind with the Swains like that, but right now she didn’t want to listen to Frank lecturing about how old the rocky outcroppings were, or what minerals made up the multi-coloured striations in the granite, or what temperature water trout preferred to breed in. She wanted the silence of the lake, uninterrupted.
Instead of the canoes, though, Margaret’s gaze found the cabin on the shore. The stand of birch trees closed in around it as they glided farther away. The sandy parking area was nothing but a dirty yellow smear against the edge of the lake. The figure of Bill Williams was just visible against it, a dark thing standing perfectly still. One arm stretched up above his head. Waving, maybe. The gesture elongated his body. The man stretched and distended until he was one with the tall, thin trunks of the trees behind him and Margaret couldn’t see him anymore.
Everything this far north became long and thin. Down around La Crosse, the forest was thick and green year round. The undergrowth was rich with berry bushes and lush mosses. The trees were the same as on Reyer Lake, black spruce and jack pines. But here, the trees were fewer and farther between. The branches were fewer and farther between. The needles. The trees were sparse in every sense of the word. It was colder. Roots were deeper. Food was scarcer. Between the trees was a blanket of rock and dried needles, a few low bushes and lichens were the only things that wanted to grow. The forest was hungry up here.
“You know where you’re going?” Frank called out across the water. Margaret flinched. “Ten clicks up, east shore. We should be able to reach it before dark.”
“Not the way you paddle,” Ellie muttered. “Are there any closer spots?”
It had been an early morning, and an eight hour drive to get to Moose Lips. The sun was already sinking against the blackened tips of the pines ahead. Margaret braced her paddle against the gunnel and pulled the collar of her jacket tighter. While the days were crisp and sunny in the early autumn, the evening air was sharper. A cold wind sighed down the length of the lake toward them, licking at the top of the water, and making little ridges on the glassy surface. “We’ll find something.”
Any flattish spot would do, really. Margaret wasn’t worried about finding a place to camp. Now that they were out on the water she was surprised that she wasn’t really worried about much at all. The fears that had crept up on her when Frank first suggested the trip out to Drake Mine diminished with each stroke of her paddle.
Trips into the bush often had this effect on Margaret. There was something relaxing about being outside, away from the buzz of civilization. The rules were simpler out here. Even the tiny village of La Crosse could be overwhelming sometimes. Margaret didn’t even like to think about the city. The city was for the Swains of the world. Not Margaret.
So much of her life seemed to suffocate but here, out on the water, Margaret could breath. She’d fought black waves of depression and electric shocks of anxiety her entire life, as far back as she could remember. The fluctuations of her moods were like echoes of memories of her father. Dullness punctuated with bursts of dark anger and flashes of white hot panic. The obsessiveness that came with a desperate need to seek control in a world that seemed to swim around her, ever-faster, until she was swept up in a tidal pool of emotions, and sensations, and thoughts that were hers-but-not-quite-hers.
It’s no wonder Frank got frustrated with her. He was a straight edge, perfectly linear in thought and action. Ever since Frank had moved in with Mom, Margaret had been a storm battering at his walls. The perfectly straight walls of logic, and progress, and common-sense. Frank was sensible. Margaret was sensitive. That was the line he used to divide them.
Why couldn’t she like Frank? He was doing the best he could, even if he was an arrogant prick sometimes. But the feeling would never go away. Frank was a stranger, even though she’d known him for years. Maybe this trip would help.
In spite of her resentment towards Frank, Margaret really did want them to feel like a family. She wanted her mother to be happy. She was determined to make this trip work.
Margaret took a deep, cool breath and let herself sink into the feeling of paddling. She hadn’t been out since spring, and she’d missed it. The rhythmic tug of each slice through the water, the warmth in her muscles in contrast to the cold air, the sound of water dripping, water lapping, water slipping away from the hull of the boat. It was her lullaby. Ellie and Robert kept their thoughts to themselves, each enjoying a private moment with the lake. Good paddling partners made all the difference.
The big white canoe easily outstripped the little red ones, even loaded as heavily as they were. They had three experienced paddlers and momentum on their side. Margaret made a mental note not to let themselves get too far ahead. But they picked up speed effortlessly, gliding through the water like a great white fish. It was almost impossible to slow down once they got into that rhythm. Margaret lost herself in the paddling. The water seemed to pull them along at its own pace, they were merely passengers.
“Wind’s picking up,” Robert said.
How long had it been? Margaret’s shoulders burned. The little surface ridges had become small white caps. The exposed skin on her cheeks felt icy and damp. The joints in her hands were stiff and achey, the skin raw with cold. “Let’s pull in toward the shore. Can you see the others?”
Reyer Lake curved slightly east, then west again. On the map it looked a bit like a weasel, twisting its way across the terrain. They followed the eastern shore, since that was where the campsites were marked. As they got off the open water and closer to the trees, the line of sight back towards Moose Lips Lodge was broken. Bill Williams, if he was still standing on the shore, wouldn’t be able to see them anymore.
Margaret couldn’t see the little red canoes, either. She stuck her paddle into the water, the flat blade breaking against the waves to slow them down. Reyer Lake was restless against the early evening light. The sun went down and seemed to take all the colour with it. The blue sky had become pale and gray, the evergreens blackened, the water teamed against their canoe. Margaret scanned the lake for the other boats.
A loon called out, signalling the end of the day. Its throaty laugh trembled, rising and falling with the waves. Another loon joined in. Margaret couldn’t see the loons or the canoes. But the sound of laughter built up to a crescendo around them, echoing off the shoreline and escalating to a fever pitch as it swept across the lake. The hairs on Margaret’s neck stood up and pressed against her jacket almost painfully.
“There they are,” Robert said. Just then, the monotonous gray water was broken by two slashes of red. The setting sun cast one last of beam of golden yellow light toward the canoes. Water glinted off their paddles, flashing and sparkling in the falling dusk. When the sun disappeared into the pines for good, the boats became nothing more than shadows.
“Okay, let’s slow down. We need to find a spot to camp.”
Margaret and Ellie paddled gently while Robert guided them in toward the rocky shoreline. Margaret watched the darkening waters carefully. Rock shelves could pop up anywhere in these northern lakes, but they were especially hazardous closer to shore.
It wasn’t long before a pale finger of rock reached out of the darkness and beckoned them in to shore. The smooth gray stone stretched out of the forest, low and flat. It would be easy to haul the boats onto. As they approached the little peninsula, Margaret could see the shape of a campfire ring nestled closer to the trees. She swept her paddle out of the water. “Over there.”
Their canoe slid closer to shore and the lengthening shadows stretched out to meet them. The trees were thicker here than they had been at Williams’ place. Or maybe it just looked that way in the waning light, shadows thickening the underbrush, fleshing out the trees. Bare birch branches creaked in the wind and pine needles sighed. Margaret’s face ached. But they were almost there.
The hairs on her neck prickled again. Margaret didn’t like approaching a campsite in the darkness. But the stirrings of panic swirled in her chest like the little whirlpools that twisted off the blade of her paddle. She felt exposed, suddenly, out on the water like this. She felt like they were being watched.
Trees don’t have eyes, Maggie, she chastised herself in Frank’s voice. Don’t let your imagination run away…
The scrape of rock against their hull startled Margaret out of her reverie. “Shit! Sorry guys. Didn’t see that one.”
Robert steered them in against the shore, swinging the back of the canoe towards the finger-like outcropping. “Heads up!”
Margaret reached out to the rock with her paddle, tucked the blade into a crevice, leveraged her weight against the shaft, and pulled them in closer. Ellie braced the canoe with her own paddle and Margaret hopped out onto the rock. “Got it.”
With her feet planted on solid ground, Margaret felt suddenly heavy. Tired. The hours of the day caught up to her in a rush. They unloaded the canoe quickly, without speaking. Robert scouted out a flat spot for the tent and set it up. Ellie gathered kindling and got a fire started. Margaret unpacked the cooler and put a pot of water on to boil. She kept half an eye on the red boats as they fought their way toward the shore against the growing waves.
“This isn’t the spot,” Frank called out once they were within shouting distance.
“You want to keep going in this?” Robert called back. “It’s going to be pitch black soon, and the waves are getting worse.”
“We’ll have to make up the distance tomorrow,” Frank said as they got closer. He didn’t want to give in, but he didn’t want to keep paddling, either. Margaret knew. “I hope you’re ready to wake up early.”
There was a flurry of activity when the other two boats landed. Margaret rehydrated some moose meat stew and boiled more water for tea. Two more tents went up with relatively little fuss. Brian might be a pain in the ass, but he knew how to set up camp quickly. Frank dragged the boats up onto the shore and tied them down. Margaret didn’t say anything, but she watched Robert wander over and inspect the knots on his way to bush to pee. She loved that man.
“We should be able to get to Drake tomorrow if we’re up early and paddle hard,” Frank said when they were finally all settled in around the campfire. Margaret sighed but she didn’t have the energy to argue. A belly full of stew and hot, sweet tea to wash it down, the flicker of light from the campfire dancing around them in the dark. This was just about perfect, in Margaret’s books. She’d be happy if they just stayed here and did a couple of day trips to explore the area. Forget about Drake Mine and Frank’s expedition.
Margaret shifted closer to the fire and leaned back against Robert’s legs. He rested his mug of tea on her shoulder and rubbed her neck with one hand. The warmth from the cup kissed her cheek and reminded her that this was a vacation. She let herself relax.
Margaret looked up at the night sky, the little pinpricks of light against the pitch black blanket of space. She tried to discern the outline of the trees against the darkness, but they seem to stretch into the void infinitely. Rocks and trees and sky became one as night fell in earnest around them. No one had energy to speak, it seemed. The group fell into a comfortable, exhausted silence. The only sounds were the crackling of the logs on the fire, the sighing of wind through the trees, and the soft lapping of waves against the shore.
In that moment, Margaret did feel at home on Reyer Lake.
That night the wind howled through their camp like a thing, enraged. Branches battered their tents. The surrounding trees fought the restraint of their skeletal forms, thrashing like madmen. They stretched farther than they ought to be able to just, it seemed to Margaret, so they could whip at the campers. Snapping and cracking, limbs crashed to the forest floor around them and scraped across the granite shore.
“This is wild.” Ellie sat up, wide-eyed and cross-legged, leaning toward the centre of the tent. Margaret and Robert huddled in close. No one wanted to be near the shaking walls in case a branch landed on them. “This is fucking wild.”
Robert nodded silently. There was nothing to say. They just huddled next to one another and listened to the raging of the storm. Margaret strained her ears, trying to determine the source of the noises. Hollow thumping from the boats, the clash and clatter of metal cookware rolling across the rocks, shrieks of wind that sounded like human voices. Margaret listened, but there was nothing to say.
Panic boiled and twisted inside her brain. Margaret sensed the ramping up of anxiety, the wave-like rush of pure fear that could sweep her over the edge at any minute. She thought she’d left this ride at home. She thought she’d left it behind. But Margaret was strapped in as tight as she ever was, and she braced herself for the inevitable chaos of emotion and hyper-sensitivity that came with a high. The high and the mad dash into hopelessness that would follow.
Robert grabbed her hand. Light from the little battery operated camping lantern illuminated his face in a blue glow. His eyes flashed, little glinting shards of glass in blackened sockets. But his mouth was his, wide soft lips and always that hint of a smile. He squeezed her fingers between his. The heat of his hand pulled her back down, back out of her head and into her body. “Stay with me,” he said.
“We shouldn’t have come here,” Margaret said.
“This is wild,” Ellie said again. She rocked in and out of the light from the lantern, just slightly. The motion cast dizzying shadows against the walls of the tent. Margaret put a hand on her arm to stay her; Ellie was shaking. Margaret closed her eyes.
The wind roared in and out of the camp, ceaselessly. It seemed to go on forever, increasing steadily. Impossibly loud. Then a gasp, a pause between gusts.
Another noise pierced the darkness.
“Is that Mom?” Ellie’s arm tensed beneath Margaret’s hand. “Mom’s crying.”
Margaret’s eyes shot open and she reached for the zipper. “We should check.”
Robert yanked hard on her arm and Margaret fell backwards. “Stay in the fucking tent.”
His voice shocked Margaret more than pain in her arm. Robert had never raised his voice for as long as she’d known him. She pulled her arm out of his grasp and stared at him. The wind howled again, obscuring the crying sound. Sweat beaded on Roberts forehead and his eyes flashed again. “Please. You could get hurt. I’m sorry.”
“She’s fine. Scared probably. But she’s fine. Frank is with her.”
Ellie stared at the tent door. The wind sucked it in and out violently. The whole tent moved like someone was shaking it from the outside. Horror drained the colour from Ellie’s face. This was more than wild. “Don’t go out there, Mags.”
The three of them huddled in the centre of the tent, keeping as far from the sides as possible. They wrapped the sleeping bags around their bodies, cocooning themselves against the storm. The pounding of Margaret’s heart was loud enough to drown out the sound of the storm. Eventually, she fell into a fitful sleep.
When they crawled out of the tent the next morning, Margaret couldn’t believe their gear had survived. But for all the violence of the storm, most of their belongings were where they’d left them. The cooler had tipped over, and a couple of tin mugs had to be retrieved from the bushes. But the camp was more or less the way they’d left it.
Margaret gathered up some of the deadfall that broke off in the winds, but there wasn’t much. A few old, dry branches had come down, and the rest was barely big enough for kindling. She shook her head in wonder as she walked around the tents. A snore shook the side of Brian and Gerald’s tent and Margaret burst out laughing, nearly mad with relief.
Despite his threats for an early start, Frank and the others didn’t drag themselves into the morning air until Ellie was making the second pot of coffee. Mom emerged, braiding her long black hair in a thick rope over her shoulder. She stretched like a cat and grinned at Margaret.
“Good morning, sweetie.”
Ellie brought her a cup of coffee. “Are you okay, Mom?”
“I slept like a baby.” Mom held the coffee up to her face and took a deep breath. “How about you?”
Ellie’s eyes swept over to Margaret. She frowned. “How the hell did you manage to sleep through that storm?”
“What storm?” Frank stumbled out of the tent and began rummaging through the cooler. “That bit of wind, you mean?”
“Bit of wind?” Robert looked up in disbelief. “I’m pretty sure old man winter tried to blow us into the lake.”
“Maybe you should have brought your teddy bear,” Brian scoffed. “Keep the bogey men away.”
“Maybe you should keep your mouth shut.” Margaret poured herself the last cup of coffee before Brian could reach the pot.
Ellie tossed him the beans. “Make your own, slacker.”
“You know how it is,” Frank said. “Things always sound worse from inside the tent. Noises get amplified. One time I was doing exploration up by the Cigar site, I was sure there was a bear outside my tent. Woke up in the morning, nothing but rabbit tracks.”
“Might have been something else,” Ellie said.
Margaret shot her a look. “Don’t.”
“Well, I want to know who’s holding out,” Robert said. “C’mon. Who brought the booze? I could use a little Irish in my coffee after a night like that.”
“Guilty as charged.” Gerald pulled a silver flask from inside his Gore-Tex jacket. Typical city slicker, the cost of his gear was inversely proportionate to the number of times he ever used it.
“You’re a good man, Gerry.” Robert held out his cup. “Top her up. I’m going to go let a little out of the tank.”
Not a minute later, Robert was back. He walked stiffly up to the campfire, his face ashen. The pounding started in Margaret’s ears again. “What is it, Bobby?”
Robert didn’t look at her. He didn’t take the coffee cup that Gerald held out to him. He said, “The canoes are gone.”
“I don’t understand,” Frank said. He held a piece of nylon rope in his hand. It was still secured to the tree he’d tied it to. The ends kinked from where he’d knotted them, but the knot had not held. “I tied them up last night.”
“I know,” Robert said. “I checked your knots.”
“What, you don’t trust me to tie a damned boat?”
“We spent eight hours yesterday taking bets on which bump was going to send a canoe through our windshield,” Ellie snapped. “I don’t blame him.”
“What the hell is—”
“The fucking boats are gone, Frank!” Margaret cut him off, her voice rising as another wave of anxiety pitched her forward. “Do you need more evidence than that?”
“They were fine, though,” Robert interrupted. “The knots were sound. The ropes are still holding the shape for fuckssake. They were tight.”
“It’s almost like someone untied them,” Brian inspected the yellow fibers. “There’s no damage. Even in strong winds this shouldn’t have happened. Knots get tighter when you pull on them.”
“That’s not helpful, Ellie.” Mom’s voice was dangerously calm.
“Maybe old Bill Williams is fucking with us,” Brian said.
“Could be,” Frank said. “I don’t trust him. Ghost stories. Fake name.”
“Wait,” Margaret said. “Fake names?”
“C’mon, Bill Williams?” Brian said. “I didn’t buy it either.”
“Now who’s being paranoid?” Ellie laughed without humour. “You gave Maggie such a hard time for not wanting to come up here at the end of October to go spelunking in a fucking mineshaft because that’s ‘dramatic.’ But you’re willing to believe than an old man canoed across the lake in the middle of a storm just to add credibility to his fake ghost story? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I think everybody needs to take a deep breath and a swig of the sauce,” Gerald said, suddenly the voice of reason.
“Gerry’s right.” Robert took the proferred flask. Foregoing the coffee, he took a long pull. He stared dully across the waters of Reyer. “It doesn’t matter if it was the wind or a man. We need to find those boats.”
“Why are you even entertaining the idea that Williams had—”
“Can it, Ellie.” Mom took the flask from Robert and shoved it at her younger daughter. “It doesn’t matter. We need a plan.”
Ellie’s eyes flashed over the rim of the flask, but she drank. Margaret could see the line connecting their eyes, Mom’s silent fight for control and Ellie’s willful defiance. Finally, Ellie broke. She took a sip and spat. “I’m going for a walk.”
Margaret broke from the group and followed her sister into the trees. She appreciated that Ellie stood up for her back there. And Margaret didn’t think it likely that Williams had anything to do with the missing canoes. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong here. Yes, she often felt that way for ‘no reason.’ But her imagination hadn’t untied the canoes last night. And someone had been crying last night. She was sure of that. “Ellie, wait!”
Ellie spun and faced her. Her cheeks were splotchy with cold and fighting back uncharacteristic tears. “You were right, Mags. We shouldn’t have come here.”
“Don’t let them get to you, Ellie.”
“It’s not that, it’s—” She ran her hands through her hair and pulled her hood up to cover her face. Ellie hated getting emotional. Margaret was the basket case in the family. “Ugh. Okay. They are getting to me.”
“You hear the wind last night,” Margaret said. “I know Robert checked Frank’s knots but—”
“Yeah. I know.” Ellie turned away and stared into the trees. “But this place is weirding me out.”
“Let’s go back,” Margaret urged. The trees were starting to make her feel claustrophobic. They seemed to multiply, filling in the spaces between them the longer she looked at them. Margaret and Ellie had a rule when they were out in the bush. Don’t talk about strange things. Don’t talk about strange feelings. Don’t draw attention to your fears. “Let’s just go back.”
“Alright.” Ellie wiped her eyes and turned around. Then she froze. “Shit. That little fucking shit.”
“What are you—?” Margaret spun. She saw it too.
Their canoe. The white one, stuck out of the bushes a few meters from where they stood. A few loose branches lay on top of it, but it was otherwise fine. A dark line in the undergrowth led away from the canoe back toward the camp, like it had been dragged. Realization dawned on Margaret.
“Brian.” Ellie said, echoing Margaret’s thoughts. “He was pretty fucking quick to point the finger at Bill Williams.”
“You think he’s trying to scare us?”
“Oh come on,” Ellie sneered. “He’d love that. Teasing us for listening to Williams’ story, being nervous about the mine. This is exactly the kind of thing he would do.”
“Kind of a dick move, even for Brian.”
“Think about it. The storm? Everyone else sleeps through a ‘bit of wind.’ Our tent was shaking like someone grabbed it from the outside—”
“—and the crying noises,” Margaret said. A wave of embarrassment rushed over her. They had been terrified last night. Brian had probably been laughing to himself until morning. No wonder he’d slept in. “Asshole. I bet he loved that.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Let’s have a look for the other canoes, first. They must be somewhere around here.”
“No. What are we going to do to him,” Ellie’s eyes flashed dangerously. “We can’t let him get away with this.”
“We can let him think he’s getting away with it,” Margaret said. “We can play along.”
Ellie grinned and slapped her sister on the back. “Yes!”
“We’ll beat him at his own game,” Margaret said.
Ellie said, “And then I’m going to beat him with a paddle.”
But they didn’t find the other boats amongst the trees.
Margaret and Ellie walked back to the camp with the white canoe on their shoulders. The paddles were still lashed inside. When they swung it down onto the rocks beside the tents the rest of the group erupted in applause.
“Where the hell was that?” Robert asked.
“Where are the other two?” Margaret asked. She looked at Brian as she said it, but didn’t linger. She didn’t want to think so, but he seemed genuinely relieved to see them.
Robert pointed out across the water. Two little dots of red were barely visible against the far shore of Reyer Lake.
“Well that’s a bit extreme,” Ellie muttered behind Margaret.
“What the actual fuck,” Margaret said.
“Well don’t look like that,” Brian said. “At least we have one canoe. I thought Robert was going to have to go swimming.”
“Yeah.” Margaret said. “Right.”
“Fuel up, Mags.” Robert passed her a tin bowl full of steaming hot oatmeal. “We’re going to get our exercise this morning.”
“Are you done eating?” Margaret asked. “I’m not hungry.”
“Let’s go then,” Robert said. Margaret saw that is own bowl was untouched as well. “Ellie?”
“I’m going to stay here.” Ellie caught Margaret’s gaze meaningfully. “Keep an eye on the riff raff.”
“We’re the riff raff,” Robert said. “Tally ho, Maggie!”
When they were a safe distance onto the lake Margaret told Robert about her and Ellie’s suspicions. Robert didn’t say much. When Margaret looked back over her shoulder at him she saw his face was frozen in a look of deep concentration. His eyes focussed unwaveringly on the red canoes, as if he didn’t want to let them out of his sight again.
“I’ve never liked Brian,” he said, finally. “You know that.”
“He was piss scared when you two were gone.” Robert dug deep into the water and propelled them forward with a powerful stroke. “I thought he was, anyway. You think they teach acting in the army?”
“He probably thought we’d make him go swimming when we found out,” Margaret laughed. “Put those macho military skills to work.”
“Ellie wants to beat him with a paddle.”
“Maybe he’ll do us all a favour and fall down the mineshaft.”
Margaret was quiet for a bit. “Just don’t push him, okay?”
They paddled in silence for a while. The sun was up, reflecting in bright slashes across the water. The morning chill was burning off in a thin fog around the edges of the lake. The wind from last night had died completely, but an occasional stirring sent swirls of steam up like puffs of breath from the trees.
The canoes had landed about a kilometre down the lake, towards Bill Williams’ cabin. Brian might have been messing with them last night, but Margaret could see they’d gotten more than ‘a bit of wind.’ The red hulls of the boats could be seen from their campsite because they had been tossed up on the bank, meters from the shoreline. “Must have been some storm.”
Robert kept paddling. “Yeah.”
Even in the calm morning waters it seemed to take forever to get to the boats. Then again, Margaret didn’t feel the usual muscle burn from paddling. Robert’s sense of urgency had died about halfway across the lake, too. Like they were just killing time. Subconsciously, Margaret wondered if she was stalling. The longer it took them to get the boats, the less likely it was that they’d get back in time to pack up and up the lake to their next spot. Last night hadn’t been fun, and if Brian was going to keep playing stupid pranks she didn’t really want to be three days from the nearest road and satellite radio when Ellie or Robert decided to take things into their own hands. Beating him at his own game was a great idea, in theory, but Margaret would rather not have to play at all.
“I don’t even want to get the canoes,” Robert said, echoing her thoughts.
After forty-five minutes of leisurely padding, the hull of their own canoe bumped up against the steep, rocky shoreline. This wasn’t a camper-friendly landing. The granite poking through the trees and scrubby bushes fell toward the waters of Reyer at a sixty degree angle. The red boats were wedged up between some lichened rocks out of Margaret’s reach.
“I’m going to have to get out and push them in from up there,” she said.
Robert steadied the boat for her and Margaret hopped out onto the rocks. The bank was steep enough that she needed to put both hands down to pull herself up toward the red canoes. When she reached them, Margaret was surprised to see all four paddles set neatly next to the boats. “Look at this.”
“Convenient,” Robert said. “Or someone is fucking with us.”
“Shut up and grab this thing, would you?” Margaret pushed the first canoe up over the rock it was nestled against the rocks and pushed it toward the water.
Something across the water caught her eye. A dark spot in the scraggly gray trees, just up the hill from where they had set up camp. From her vantage point on the far shore, Margaret could see the way the ground sloped upward and the forest became thicker. Evergreen covered hills rolled in the distance.
“Okay, okay, I take it back!” Robert shouted. The red canoe knocked theirs sideways and he scrambled to steady himself against the rocks with an outstretched arm. “You don’t have to try to drown me.”
“What the fuck is that?” Margaret pointed.
“What are you—?” Robert looked up across the lake. “—oh. What?”
“It’s like a door in the Cliffside,” Margaret said. “Is that the mine?”
“I thought it was at the north end of the lake?” Robert said. “We’re at least twenty kilometers from Frank’s x on this map.”
“Maybe the map’s wrong?” Margaret said. “It wouldn’t be the first thing Frank screwed up this trip.”
“Come one, toss me that other boat,” Robert said. “Not on my head this time. Let’s get back and check it out.”
Margaret grabbed the second canoe by the gunwales and pushed it down the embankment, careful to ease it in next to Robert this time. He flipped it expertly into the water beside him and secured both smaller boats to the larger white one. “Okay, ready set. Where do you want me to pull up?”
But when Robert looked up at Margaret, his eyes seemed to slide right off as if tugged toward the trees behind her. All of the hairs on Margaret’s body stood on end. She felt it, too. It was as if the trees had been creeping up toward her while she struggled with the boats. Now the stirring of the leaves in the gentle morning breeze sounded too loud in her ears. Like the birch branches were shaking right behind her head, as if they were reaching out to touch her. If she just stayed there, she would feel the cold scratching fingers of—
“Hey, earth to Maggie.” Robert clapped his hand and waved. “Where do you want me?”
He was looking at her again, actually at her. But his expression was odd. Looked at the door in the cliff across the lake one last time. “You’re fine there.”
She tried to climb down the rocks as carefully as she could, but her legs felt like jelly. It was that awful dream sensation where you try so hard to run and feel like you’re swimming through molasses. A patch of electric orange lichen sloughed off beneath her foot and Margaret slid into a crack between stones, twisting her ankle. “Shit.”
“You okay?” Robert swung the blade of his paddle toward her and wedged it into the rocks. “Here, brace yourself.”
Margret grasped the shaft and pulled herself out from between the rocks. Whatever had been weighing on her disappeared as she stepped lightly into the boat, kneeled, and grabbed her own paddle. “Got it. Thanks.”
When they were out on the lake, the two smaller canoes trailing behind them, Robert spoke. “I need to sleep tonight.”
“Yeah,” Margaret said. “I’m tired, too.”
“You’re tired,” he said. “I’m hallucinating.”
“What do you mean?”
“I keep feeling like the trees are moving,” Robert said. “Here and at camp. Like they’re stepping closer.”
Margaret felt that tingle o the surface of her skin as the hairs rose up again. But she followed her and Ellie’s pact. “You do need sleep,” she said.
“What’s up with the mine, though,” he asked. “You’ve been around here before. Are there other entrances to Drake that you know of?”
She’d been up here before. Yes. She didn’t want to talk about it. “I don’t know. I didn’t really pay attention. I think that’s pretty normal, though.”
“That far away?”
“I don’t know.” Margaret really didn’t want to talk about it. “Like you said, maybe the map is wrong. We didn’t go to Drake Mine when I was here last. We weren’t stupid.”
“Well, I think Frank has the stupid covered,” Robert said. “That man is so white he doesn’t have a shadow.”
“Maybe he’s a vampire.”
“Even vampires have shadows.” Robert said. “They just don’t have reflections.”
“You’re the expert.”
“What are you implying, my dear?” Robert flung a cascade of freezing water droplets against Margaret’s jacket. They rolled down her neck and made her shiver. “That I vant to suck your blood?”
“You know the rules, Vlad.” Margaret splashed back at him. “No ‘superstitious nonsense’ until we’re back in civilization.”
“Civilization. Where ‘superstitious nonsense’ gets you a psych appointment and stern talking-to by Frank the Swine?” Robert’s tone was unexpectedly bitter.
Margaret said nothing. Robert had always supported Margaret, and backed her up with Frank thought she was ‘crazy.’ But he’d never been openly hostile toward the man. She could admit, to herself, that she often hated Frank. Brian, too. And the thing with Brian and the storm and the canoes was pushing her towards a line she didn’t really want to cross. Not yet. But in the back of her mind, Margaret thought something had to be done.
“Sorry,” Robert said.
“Don’t be sorry.”
“The guy’s a dick, though.” Robert said. He drove them back toward the camp with strong, steady strokes. “He should have listened to you.”
“Yeah,” Margaret said. “He should have.”