Talk around the lake of a half-naked, hunchbacked monster led Barb right to the bastard. He didn’t see her as she drew near the floating mass of decaying rushes, moss and driftwood. He squatted in a man-made nest of rubbish, his attention focused on sorting bottles into piles of amber, emerald, and clear glass. Bony elbows jutted from pale, hairless arms that moved in spasms as if controlled by an amateur puppeteer.
She dipped her paddle once more into the murky water, propelling the canoe through a thicket of cattails. Dry reeds rasped against the fiberglass hull and slowed her to a gentle stop. Barb tossed an anchor onto the bog and towed herself up the bank.
“You’re afraid you’ll forgive him.”
Claire’s intentions were good, insisting as she had on accompanying Barb on the drive up. Claire’s intentions were always good. But with every new mile of old black top, Barb wished she’d come alone.
Forty years gone was a long time. The trees were taller than she remembered. And there was something else. A sinister lack of welcome. Pines, straight and needle-sharp, crowded the soft shoulders, resisting the passage of their rented Taurus with an almost physical presence. Scenery faded in from memory, and Barb knew they were close. After crossing a narrow bridge, they rounded a curve and Ray & Nora’s Roadhouse came into view.
Barb slowed down.
Along the trunk road that circled the lake, summer cottages were already boarded up for the season, driveways chained off with ‘No Trespassing’ signs. From old habit, she found herself watching for the weathered, hand-painted mailbox announcing “The Boyds.” Yet knowing K.C. and her family were long gone.
“What’re you thinking?”
The water was down some twenty feet from when she was a teenager. Marshland choked the shore as far as she could see. Quaking bogs, like the one she now stumbled across, used to be rare occurrences. Magical, almost. Places in between, neither quite land nor water. But now, dozens of floating islands scabbed over the oxygen-starved lake. It was dying.
Behind the half-man, half-monster, dozens of glass mayonnaise jars stood closemouthed, arranged in a way that suggested more method than madness. Metal lids, rusted on tight, trapped junk inside like a tinker’s bug zoo. Barb stepped carefully through the collection of odds and ends and stared down at its curator.
If not for the inky Corps eagle poised in mid-flight on the man’s left shoulder, Barb wouldn’t have recognized him. She stared down at the dirty, shrunken creature and wondered what forgiveness felt like.
He’d be eighty-three that winter. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been ten years younger than she was now. Tangles of blue veins showed through the crêpe paper skin of his cheeks. Patchy stubble sugared his chin. She looked into his eyes, checking if anyone was home.
The men Harley drank with smelled like road tar and cigarettes. Work on county highway crews had tanned their hands and faces into leather, reminding ten-year-old Barb of pictures she’d seen in social studies class. Dead men, perfectly preserved, because somewhere in England, a bog swallowed them up.
“Barbie Doll!” Harley’s buddies would call, smiling toothsome or toothless grins, luring her to them with ice-cold bottles of pop.
“Who’s that, Daddy?” Barb pointed across the tavern to a stranger, a rough-looking woman in an orange vest and steel-toed boots. Obviously part of the group, but not welcome at the bar.
“Eh?” Harley swiveled to see where she pointed. His narrow eyes became slits and he grabbed her outstretched finger. “No one, Barbie Doll.”
“Cunt sucker, is what,” muttered the crewman on the next stool, and the men broke out in laughter.
Harley choked on a swallow of beer. “Son of a bitch. I got my girl here. Watch your Goddamn language.”
“What’s a ‘cunts’ —”
“Ain’t nothing.” Harley dug a quarter from his jeans. “Why don’t you play some pinball?”
Her voice sounded intrusive and big and old, slapping against the still surface of the lake, skittering into far corners, slinking into hidey-holes like a dirty curse.
“You can’t have them,” Harley said. He hunched over the piles of bottles, his spine protruding in sharp ridges down his back, reminding Barb of an albino alligator she saw once in captivity. It, too, had seemed sickly and confused.
But it still had an impressive set of teeth.
Two days ago, Claire had rushed home with what looked like half the “coping” section of their local bookstore. Barb had listened as she rambled on about the progression of the disease, about “sun downing.” Now, Barb stole a glance at the western horizon, where harsh light split through a stand of evergreens, casting long shadows over the water. The left side of Harley’s face glowed a demon-red, the other, a dusky blue.
She squatted, ignoring the way her knees popped, and reached for an old Coke bottle. Decades of wear had left the glass pitted and opaque. “We used to collect these together, remember? We’d take them to the Piggly-Wiggly out on Old Turner Road and turn them in for the deposit money.”
Barb watched, delighted, as Harley stacked railroad ties on the far side of the driveway. This latest addition to the jumble of old tractor tires, wooden spools of wire, and salvaged cinder blocks, would serve as a perfect rampart to the fort she’d constructed amidst the heap. An enviable place to play, if there had been any children her age to envy it.
But her school friends all lived in town, miles from the lake. Not that she cared much. Her dad needed her, and that was enough.
“Barbie?” He fingered a steel spike, stuck half out of the treated wood. “Get me my sledge, would you?”
Not a simple task, considering inside the house the chaos was no better. But Barb had explored all the nooks and crannies. Under the basement stairs, below a shelf bowing from the weight of jars full of nuts and bolts, she knew she’d find what she was looking for.
“Hands off my stuff. Get your own damn…” He paused, searching for a word, the stubborn set of his shoulders so much like her own. “Damn old…valuable…collectibles.” Harley’s reptilian tongue flicked over his bottom lip. “Antics.”
“Antiques.” Trash, more like. Empty bottles tossed from the decks of pontoon boats and party barges. “You mean antiques.”
“That’s what I said.” He raised his head and looked at her with an animal-like intensity. “Thief! Thief!”
His sudden cry frightened roosting crows into the air. They scrambled above the treetops, a cloud of confusion before reforming as an orderly flock. As they flew overhead, their shadows grazed his bare skin.
“Damn it, Harley, it’s me, Barb.”
“I don’t know no Barb.”
This wasn’t necessarily the disease talking. He’d said as much before.
She still hated him. And she hated herself for hating him. But regardless, she’d come because he needed her — whether he knew it or not. Up at the house, Claire waited for them. The thought gave her strength, and she cleared her throat.
“Barb. Your daughter.” The word forced its way out, rusty from lack of use.
His thin arms curled over his chest and he scooted back on his haunches. “The dyke,” he said and spat. A web of ropy mucus hit her cheek.
All these years and nothing had changed. Apparently, you could go home again. Harley was still Harley. He had been the Jekyll and Hyde of the Northern Woods long before tourists in their summer cabins started whispering about a bog monster.
“I thought you walked on water, you pissy old man.”
“I could make some coffee,” Claire said, poking her head out the screen door. “If there is any.”
The house had been open when they arrived. Claire had exclaimed at the mess, muttering something about raccoons or bears, but Barb recognized the life’s work of a packrat. Feral, perhaps, but human. She lowered her binoculars. “He’s out there, all right. I should go.”
“Huh? No, thanks.” Boards squeaked as Barb crossed the porch to the railing. “See that little lily pond, just north of the boat launch? That used to connect to the lake. That’s where he taught me to fish for bluegill.”
Claire came to stand beside her. “Where was the diving platform?”
“Down there.” Barb nodded at the pebbly shoreline. “Those stumps sticking out of the water? That’s where our pier was. Go about ten yards out and that’s where he anchored the pontoon raft. He made it for me for my fourteenth birthday. Out of salvaged fifty-gallon drums and two-by-fours. I wonder what happened to it?”
“Barb, he made a horrible mistake. Just that once. You said yourself he’d only meant to give you the belt. He lost control and violence led to —”
“Why are you defending him?”
“I’m not, honey. I never would.”
“It’s time for you to let yourself heal.”
Twilight on the lake was just as she remembered. Each night, as light slipped away, she’d always felt a change in the woods. It took on a somber anticipation. A wait-and-see suspicion. Trees camped atop moss-covered banks, tightening their perimeter around the water. Songbirds wrapped up the coda of the day as night clapped the lake in silence.
“We’ve got to go, Harley.”
“Typical. No time anymore for dear old Dad. Time was I couldn’t get any time to myself. You were my little tag-along. Then, you and that girl, what’s her name, Boyd —”
“K.C.” Barb had felt the name lingering on her lips, needing to be said aloud.
“You girls did everything together —” He pointed into the indigo night. Rough skin stretched over swollen joints. “Bats.”
Barb watched with him as hundreds of tiny creatures stole into the sky. “I’m always amazed how quiet they are. Guarding secrets, I suppose.”
Carefully avoiding her braces, K.C. pulled a lock of hair from her mouth. She held it in front of her face, inspecting the tapered point. “I got you something.” Her free arm snatched a pair of fraying cutoffs from the floor by the bed.
“It’s not fair,” Barb said as she watched K.C.’s slender fingers grope blindly in the pockets of the shorts. “Why do you have to go back to Milwaukee?” She took the wet strand of hair and tucked it behind K.C.’s ear.
“Don’t you want to know what it is?” K.C.’s hand closed around the surprise. “Close your eyes.”
A cool, slippery thread draped her bare collarbones. She looked down. “Half a heart?”
“I have the other half. See? Best friends forever.” She waggled the gold pendant on its chain.
“Right. Best friends. I thought we were more than that.”
K.C. covered the broken heart with her palm. “I won’t forget you.”
Downstairs, the screen door slammed shut. “Barbara Ann? You home?”
“Shit. Gotta go.” K.C. untwisted herself from the sheet. She rushed to dress, not bothering to button her cutoffs.
Barb followed her across the room with her Keds. The pendant stuck to her chest. “Don’t –
“Barbara Ann!” Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs.
K.C. straddled the window ledge and took her shoes. Outside Barb’s bedroom, the roof of the covered porch sloped gently toward a climbing tree. A faint track worn into the tarpaper showed the way down. She kissed Barb’s cheek, and was gone.
“Let’s get you home, Harley. It’s getting late.”
“Sure you can. I brought the canoe.” Barb looked for another boat and found none. Without her, he was marooned.
“Got to stay. The minute I leave, those neighborhood brats will steal the antics.” Long fingers poked into open jars and dragged them closer.
Barb inspected the jumbled contents — tarnished forks, singleton cuff links, a chipped shot glass, the ashtray Barb had made in second grade, some melted hard candies. Junk. “Maybe we can take some of it with us.” A bit of gilding caught her eye and she reached for an aquarium’s miniature treasure chest. The irony appealed to her. “How about this?”
“Thief!” His voice pitched high in frenzy. “I’m being robbed!”
“Calm down! No one’s stealing anything.”
“Barbie Doll, is that you?” Harley blinked, his gaze taking on a sharper focus. “Holy crap, you got old. Where’ve you been all these years? Why…?” He stood, slowly unfolding his skeletal frame. His gaze met hers. “Oh.”
Barb watched the memory roll across his face. Grief such as she’d never allowed herself.
His gnarled fingers reached for her, but then he pulled back as if burned. “Oh God. So sorry.”
Barb looked away, into the setting sun. Their time, and light, was running out. “Harley, I’ve come to take you home — to a home. A care facility. Do you understand?”
“I have something for you.” Harley shuffled from his nest, his steps squelching in the muck. After a dozen paces, he crouched and clawed through the peat with his hands.
“There’s glass everywhere,” Barb said, rushing to stop him.
“Look at that.” Harley pulled a jar from the bog. The container was sealed tight and covered with slick ooze. His atrophied limbs found strength to loosen the lid. “Open your hand,” he said, and poured the contents into her palm.
Corrosion blurred the outline of the metal, but even so, Barb recognized it. “Dad.” The word trespassed her lips. She tried it again. “Dad.”
“Hussy!” His words rippled across the lake, the cry of a crazy loon. “Humping the neighbor girl. Flaunting that slut’s gold between tiny titties. You needed to know what a man felt like.”
He gasped, choking on air. “I never mean to touch you.”
Barb let the pendant drop back into the jar and twisted on the lid. After forty years, some things weren’t worth digging up. She pushed it back into the bog.
“I loved you once. I loved you and you broke my heart.”
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