From the beginning, everything about the night was wrong.
It was cold. That was the first thing. It was cold and there was a wet fog hanging over the water. The kind of fog that creeps into your bones, no matter how many layers you’re wearing. The cold gets into your lungs and chills you from the inside out.
I was in Brimley, too—the last place I’d expect to be. It’s normally just a stop on the road, halfway around the bay if you’re driving from Paradise to Sault Ste. Marie. There are two restaurants in town, with two different strategies for serving liquor, one of life’s essentials on a night like this. Willoughby’s has a separate bar in back, and the Cozy switches over at nine o’clock every night, when everyone under twenty-one is kicked out. There’s one gas station with a little store on the side, and that’s about it, the whole town right there, just down the road from the Bay Mills Indian Community. The rez. On a clear night I could have stood there on the shore and seen the casino lights across the water. But this was anything but a clear night.
I figured Vinnie was probably over there, working at the blackjack tables, keeping order in his own quiet way. He had been a dealer for a few years. Now he was a pit boss. Vinnie’s a Bay Mills Ojibwa, even though he lives off the rez. He’s my neighbor, in fact, and one of my three last friends in the world. But I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him that night, even if he was just around the bay. I leave the man alone when he’s working. Hell, I leave him alone most of the time. That’s just the way things are with him.
Normally, I’d be back in Paradise on a night like this, spending my last waking hours at the Glasgow Inn. I’d sit in one of the big overstuffed chairs by the fire. Maybe there’d be a game on the television over the bar. Jackie Connery, the owner of the place and the Supreme Commander, was another friend. Although, unlike Vinnie, I seldom left Jackie alone. He’d never admit it, but Jackie would be lost without me, without my daily commentary on the way he makes breakfast, runs his bar, builds a fire, you name it. He tries to return the favor, but I ignore most of his advice. And his insults. Despite everything, he always has a cold Molson Canadian waiting for me, every single night without fail. He drives across the bridge to Canada once a week to buy a case for me, supposedly on his way to do something else. I think it’s just a ritual to him now. An excuse to get out from behind the bar. Either that or he really wants me to have my Molson.
Yeah, a cold beer and my feet up by the fire. That would have been another plan for this night. Instead of standing here on the edge of Waishkey Bay, in a stranger’s backyard, looking out at the cold fog. Waishkey Bay opens up into Whitefish Bay, and beyond that lies the vast unbroken surface of the biggest, coldest, deepest lake in the world. Lake Superior. I could hear it out there. I could feel it. I just couldn’t see it.
I wrapped my coat tighter around my body and tried to convince myself I didn’t need to shiver. I knew once that started, it wouldn’t stop until I went inside. I wasn’t ready to do that yet. There was too much noise in there. Too much smoke. I wanted to stay out here a little longer, by myself, looking out at the fog and what little I could make out in the night sky. Later, there would be fireworks, maybe invisible but fireworks just the same, right here over Waishkey Bay.
Yes, that was the other strange thing about this night. I was standing here cursing myself for not wearing a warmer coat on the Fourth of July.
It wasn’t right. I swear, this was not fair at all. We live for the summers up here. It’s the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for God’s sake, as far away from civilization as you can get without leaving the country. The winters last forever up here. Or at least they feel that way. It’s brutally, inhumanly cold. The snowstorms gather their strength from the lake and then they unleash themselves on us like they have orders from God to bury us forever. In 1995 we got six feet of snow in one day.
Six. Feet. Of Snow.
Most years, it doesn’t even melt until May. Then we might get a quick flash of spring. The temperature might break forty and we’re practically lying on the beach in our bathing suits. That’s how desperate we are for a little sunshine. The snow will sneak back a few times and dump a few more inches in the middle of the night. Just teasing us. Then finally the earth will tilt into position and the summer will seem to come all at once. The old joke, how summer was on a Thursday last year. That’s how brief it seems. How fleeting.
But God, what a summer it is. For one blink of an eye, this becomes the most beautiful place in the world. There’s a light up here. You have to see it to know it. The way it hits the water in the evenings. The way the wind comes off the lake and you can look all the way down a long straight road and see the trees moving one by one.
The desolate, heartbreaking beauty of this goddamned place. This home of mine.
But not this year. For whatever reason, we’re skipping summer altogether. We’re rushing right back into those fall months when the lake turns into a monster. Almost overnight, six-foot waves ready to batter the great ships again. To miss out on the promise of summer, it is the cruelest thing imaginable, and everyone, every last person living up here, has been feeling it.
For me, there’s even more to regret. But not just now. No use becoming completely suicidal. It’ll be there when I finally make it home to my bed. When I close my eyes and remember what her face looks like. When I wonder what she’s doing at that very moment, five hundred miles away.
I heard footsteps behind me. I was expecting it to be Leon, my third and last friend in the whole world, and the reason why I was here in Brimley that night. But instead it was the man named Tyler. I had just met him a couple of hours ago, so I didn’t know the man. What I did know was that Tyler must have cut quite a figure back in the sixties. He still had long dark hair tied in a braid down his back. Up here in Ojibwa land, that doesn’t set you apart too much, but everything else about him did. He was wearing a bright red and green tie-dyed jacket, and it looked like he got his little round eyeglasses from John Lennon’s estate sale. From what I gathered, he’d been a musician most of his life, and he’d come up here to be the entertainment director when they opened up the bigger casino in Sault Ste. Marie. He’d bought this old house in Brimley because it had a huge garage, bigger than the house even, with plenty of room for him to work on his old cars. Within a year, he’d quit the job at the casino and had turned half the garage into a state-of-the-art recording studio. He had the whole setup in there, with the sound damping walls and the separate little room for him to sit in with all of his equipment. I couldn’t even imagine how much it all cost, or where an old hippie had gotten all that money. But apparently the studio had become a local success story, with musicians from all over the state coming up to record just a few yards away from the lake.
The best part? Aside from this guy building his own recording studio and fixing anything with four wheels, he was also a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Hair and all. Although I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Any man who can survive up here year-round has to be great at a dozen different things and pretty damned good at a dozen more.
“Can you believe this?” he said. “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a monkey. No, wait, that’s not right.”
“Brass monkey,” I said. “My father used to say that.”
“Brass monkey. Whatever that is. I’ll try to remember it.”
“Are Leon and the boys ready yet?”
“Almost,” he said, looking back at the garage. He shook his head. “As ready as they’re ever gonna be, I guess. Whaddya think of this, Alex?”
Two hours in his acquaintance, and he was already treating me like a long lost friend. Or a kindred spirit, perhaps. Somebody who seemed to think we had a lot in common, despite our outward appearances. Hell, maybe we did. God knows I could have used another friend. Jackie, Vinnie, and finally Leon. That was the whole deal right there.
Leon—I had met him at the Glasgow one night. Leon with the wild orange hair and the flannel shirt, the big local goofball that nobody had ever taken seriously, not for one second. He had come up to Paradise to fight me in the parking lot, all because he had lost his dream job as a private investigator. The lawyer who was paying him had somehow convinced me to take his place, but the job turned out to be anything but a dream. Not long after that, I found out that Leon actually knew what he was doing. And that I most definitely did not.
We were partners for a while. I still have some of the business cards he had made up. Prudell-McKnight Investigations, his name first because it sounded better that way. Or so he said. With the two guns on either side of the card, pointing at each other.
Of course, I had no desire to be a PI. With Leon as my partner or not. But that didn’t stop the trouble from finding me. I can’t even count the number of times Leon helped me. With the computer stuff, or hell, just the fact that he had a gun for me after I threw mine in the lake. I owed him my life.
I started feeling bad about it, the way I’d only go see him if I needed his help with something. I promised myself I’d make a point of taking him out to lunch every so often. Or stopping by his house, even though the sight of me still made his wife nervous.
Or watching him play. That’s right. Leon and his band. Just when I thought he was done surprising me, he called me up and told me he was getting his old band together to record a demo.
“What band?” I had said. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s a rock-and-roll band. We used to play together in college.”
“At Lake State? You were in a band?”
“Yeah, we played in all the bars. Didn’t I ever tell you about that?”
“What was your band’s name, pray tell?”
“We were Leon and the Leopards back then.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“But if we really get back together, I’m sure we’ll get a new name.”
“Leon,” I had said. “You are something else.”
“Hey, if I can’t do the one thing I love the most . . .”
He didn’t have to finish the thought. I knew exactly where he was going. He even tried to do it on his own once. Rented the office, put his name on the door. The whole thing. It didn’t work out. He’d been working down at the custom motor shop ever since, selling snowmobiles.
“Well, music might be a distant second,” he had said. “Put it that way.”
He was the drummer, which made sense, I guess. If Leon Prudell was going to be in a rock band, it would have to be behind the drums. Just like I had to be a catcher back in my ballplaying days. It just seemed to fit my personality.
“Tell me the truth,” I said to Tyler. “Are these guys any good?”
“They’re a little rough. But they’ve got . . . something.”
“They do. It’s something.”
“You’re a master of diplomacy.”
“You gonna come back inside?”
“I was just getting some air,” I said. Truth was, I had already sat in the studio listening to them for an hour, until my head started to hurt. Between the bright lights, the noise, and for God’s sake the cigarette smoke. Either Tyler had people smoking in there in shifts, twenty-four hours a day, or else he was using the place to cure tobacco leaves. I’ve heard that they’ve all but banned indoor smoking in some states now, but the idea sure as hell hasn’t gotten to Michigan yet.
“It’s getting worse,” he said, stepping closer to his dock. “You can’t even see the Point now.”
“The Point? Where’s that?”
“It’s about a mile out. There was a lumber mill out there, long time ago. You can still see where the bridge was.”
“Look down this line. You can see the old pilings.” He gave the air a slow karate chop, and as I followed the line I started to see the dark shapes in the water. There seemed to be two separate lines of them, about five feet apart, running parallel out to where the island must have been.
“What was it, a railroad bridge?”
“Exactly. It was quicker just to go right through the bay, instead of going around. The line ran right through my backyard.”
“When did they close the mill?”
“It burned down one day, around the turn of the century. I’ve got an old newspaper picture hanging in the house.”
“And they just left those things in the water, all the way out there?”
“They go about halfway. If it wasn’t so foggy, you could see where they end. You have to watch out for them when you’re out in the boat.”
I kept looking at the old wooden pilings in the water. It looked like the backs of two long sea monsters, swimming side by side into the fog. Then I heard another voice behind me.
“Did the fireworks start yet?” It was Leon. He had a baseball cap on now, with the script D of the Detroit Tigers.
“Doesn’t matter much,” Tyler said. “We won’t be able to see them. Did you guys decide on a track yet?”
He looked back at the studio. There was a big picture window overlooking the lake, and the light was casting a faint glow on the backyard, all the way down to the water’s edge.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to record anything tonight,” he said. “I’m sorry to waste your time like this.”
“You’re not,” Tyler said. “What else would I be doing on a night like this?”
“It feels like November,” Leon said, rubbing his arms. “Whatever happened to global warming?”
We heard a faint boom just then, from somewhere around the other side of Waishkey Bay.
“They’re trying to do the fireworks,” Tyler said. “I can’t believe it.”
There was another boom. We could see a few red streamers in the air. Just barely. Michigan is already pretty loose with its fireworks laws, and on the reservation it gets even looser. You can fire off just about anything short of an intercontinental missile, but on this night it was a total waste of gunpowder. Whoever it was over there, he fired off five or six more before finally giving up.
“Well, that’s it for this year,” Tyler said. “I think summer is officially canceled.”
“Wait, what’s that sound now?” Leon said.
From inside the studio behind us, somebody ran through a few guitar chords.
“That’s your man Eugene,” Tyler said. “Pretending he’s Jimi Hendrix. Does he know how to tune that thing?”
“No, I mean out there,” Leon said.
The guitar stopped. The three of us stood there in the near silence, listening. There was a low droning noise, somewhere out on the bay. It was getting louder.
“It’s a boat,” Tyler said.
“Is it safe to be out there?”
“As long as you know where you’re going.”
“You can’t even see where you’re going.”
“You have to have the right equipment.”
The noise was getting louder.
“Whoever it is,” Leon said, “he’s going fast.”
“If he’s been here before, he can follow one of his old GPS courses . . . But yeah, you’re right. Even if you’re on a safe line, I don’t think you want to be going that fast. You don’t know what might get in your way.”
It got louder. It was coming closer to us.
“Wait a minute,” Tyler said. “It sounds like—”
“He’s coming this way,” Leon said.
“He can’t. Not this close. He’ll run right into the pilings.”
Louder and louder. The unmistakable roar of a powerful boat, and now that it was getting closer, the slapping of the hull against the water.
We saw it. A dark shape, moving fast. Like it was coming right at us. Like it would leap onto the shore and run us over.
“Stop!” Tyler yelled. He ran down onto his dock. “Cut your motor!”
It was useless. There was no way the driver could hear him. The boat kept coming, and then finally it turned to its port side. It wouldn’t hit the dock now. But the pilings.
Copyright © 2006 by Steve Hamilton. All rights reserved.