Shifting shadows can play mean tricks on a person. When I was little, I’d never go outside before the sun was high. A person can get used to the falling dark, as the sun sets your mind and body become accustomed to the descent into blackness. Waking in the dark of early morning is something else entirely. There’s a different sort of feel to it. Anyone or anything I might trust has long been sleeping. Creatures on the prowl, scavengers and thieves are nefarious. Nothing, not man nor beast was to be feared more than the Rougarou.

He was shaped as the strongest of men, covered in hair with the head of a snarling wolf. His purpose was to no longer be what he was. Through your blood he might find redemption, and then it will be your turn to live out the curse. 

My eyes occasionally closed as Ross paddled. Somewhere in a distant and better place, where it was bright and warm I could feel myself tipping. My body feared falling when my mind didn’t seem to care. Sharp, stabbing pains woke me, reminding me who and where I was. My eyes surged open, reintroducing me to fear over and over again.

She was every rock and boulder along the shoreline. Creeping as the Rougarou in the dark, waiting. Jumping fish attacked my anxiety, feeding on my fear. Common Loons sang macabre ditties, recording my demise in the folklore of their songs. A cold and unexpected splash across my back took part of my life as it passed.

“Sorry, getting pretty tired I guess,” Ross said.

He caught a little water on his forward stroke, sending it cascading in all of its coldness across my back and shoulders. It wasn’t coffee, but close. If only he could have seen my face, he might have jumped.

“We should probably find a place to hole-up once it gets light, just in case,” Ross said.

“Do you really think she’ll come after us? I mean, do you have any idea of where we are?” I asked.

“I have a general idea, sort of,” he said.

“That’s reassuring.”

“We could get back up in the woods a little, no way she’d see us. On the other hand, it would be good if we could find some other campers, maybe get a look at a map, some matches, something. What do you all have in that bag?” Ross asked.

“Yeah and warn them that there’s a maniac, crazy killer woman out there with a gun and a possibly dead husband,” I said.

“Yeah, there’s that too. Anything useful in that bag?” he asked.

“Gage’s knife, we could try and start a fire again. Some jerky left, other than that, squat. You know I wouldn’t mind if we could find a regular campsite,” I said.

“Not sure that’s the best idea. It would be one of the easiest ways to find us,” Ross said.

“I know but they have certain amenities, you know?” I said.

“Amenities?” 

“Um yeah. Do I really have to spell it out for you?” I asked him.

I could tell by his silence that he didn’t know what I was talking about. It must have been ten minutes later before he said anything at all.

“The John.”

I clapped twice. My insides were trying to tell me something important, and It was becoming more and more imperative that I listen.

“Pretty soon would be good,” I said.

A deadhead, in canoeist lingo, is a log or rock that lives just below the surface of the water. Wind driven waves breaking over their shallow existence is oftentimes the only indication of their presence. They are incredibly difficult to see on any given day, and completely invisible at night. A canoe, especially an aluminum canoe can easily become wedged on a dead head, and if it’s windy very well might cause it to flip. At this hour, just as light breaks over the eastern horizon, the urgency of my situation was greatly accelerated when the very first thing that crossed my mind was we just ran into floating Bob. Wump!

“Just a log, good thing,” Ross said.

There was nothing good about it, nothing.

“Now, we need to get to shore now,” I said.

“Really?” he asked with a chuckle.

“I swear Ross, get us to the frickin shore right frickin now,” I demanded.

“Okay, okay, I got ya, headed in,” he said. 

By the time I returned from the woods Ross had the canoe pulled well up away from the water out of sight. 

“You don’t look so good. You okay?” he asked.

As much as I wanted to say that I was, the feeling of an encroaching fever, coupled with twisting intestinal pain made it impossible to hide my condition.

“You think?” I said sarcastically.

“Try and get some sleep, maybe you’ll feel better. I’ll watch for a while,” he said.

I laid down inside the canoe and hoped for remission. Sleep was fleeting. I slept hours but it felt like minutes. Once I woke the minutes felt like hours. 

“Holy crap, you’re white as a ghost,” Ross said.

I’ve heard the phrase before, but no human being has ever spoken those words directly to me. It made me admittedly unhappy. For some reason, between the sickness and Ross’ choice of phrase, I felt as if I was being put on stage to receive an award for being a negligent sub-human. As the day wore on, I felt worse and worse. I was dizzy, and to further complicate the situation, my body was denying water. 

“You think you can travel?” Ross asked.

So much of me wanted to say yes. Through dry, cracked lips I cleared my throat to speak. I wondered for a moment where Ross was running off to, but he hadn’t moved. The earth took him, along with the rocks, trees, and the water. Everything spun to the left as my body fought to counter. I could hear Ross as if he were in another room, muffled and hard to decipher. He mentioned something about beavers as I looked towards the sky and fell into a nightmare.

I remember running across the treetops, towering pines became mere stepping stones. I jumped across rivers and small lakes. Darlene was hot on my heels. Whenever I looked back I would see her, the woman, unlike me, her feet barely touching the treetops, almost as if she was flying. But whenever I turned to run, when my attention was focused forwards, she was the Rougarou, snapping her jaws, calling my name through gravel and fangs, letting me know she was coming, that she was always going to be coming.

“Philippine? Philippine? Are you hearing me Philippine?”

I didn’t recognize the voice. I didn’t even realize that for the first time in what seemed like forever I rested comfortably. The blinding light in my eyes was apparently to help them work.

“Yes, yes,” I said, barely.

“You’ve had quite the adventure young lady. You’re in Ely Memorial Hospital. My name is Dr. Christiansen. I’ve been your attending physician for the last few days,” he said.

“What? Last few days? How? I, I…,”

“Ross Parent brought you in a few days ago. Extremely ill and severely dehydrated. You got to meet one of our local bugs. It’s called Giardia, otherwise known as,” 

“Yeah I know, beaver fever,” I said.

“You got it,” He chuckled.

“Even though I laugh, it can be quite serious, even life threatening, as in your case. Sounds as if you drank some infested water, quite a bit of it from what I gathered,” he said.

“Where’s Ross?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s around here somewhere. I’ll see if I can find him. He’s been in and out but generally he’s been here with you the whole time,” he said.

After a few minutes Ross peaked sheepishly through the hospital door.

“How you feeling?” he asked.

“Not too bad considering. Flowers? Really?” I said.

“A rare smile, nice. Of course flowers. Wild ones too, kind of like you,” he said.

“And why wouldn’t I smile at the man who saved me? Look Ross, I’m not really sure how to say this.”

“Then don’t. I wouldn’t have had the chance without you doing what you did out there. And just for the record, we’ll never be even,” Ross laughed.

“What about her? We need the police,” I said.

“I told them everything. The Forest Service, the State Patrol, I called everybody. There was even talk about getting the feds involved seeing as how it happened in a federal area. The thing is, they checked the permits, there’s no record. Nothing. They’ve even been paging back through the years but so far, nothing. Part of me thinks they’re not even believing me,” Ross said.

“What? I want to see them, now,” I said.

“I called the sheriff the second I heard you were awake. He should be here in a few. I also called Marnie,” Ross said.

“What did you tell her?” I asked.

“Well, I told her we were okay, or going to be anyways, and I told her we found Gage’s knife,” he said.

“That’s it? No Darlene, no pitching lifeless Fred over your back?” I asked.

“Nope, I figure she hired you for all that stuff,” he said.

“She didn’t ask for details?” I asked.

“Oh she did, but like I said, I’ll leave that up to you,” he said.

“Knock, knock,” said a voice in the hallway.

“Come on in sheriff. Let me introduce you to Ms. Philippine Maximine. Phil, this is sheriff Sam Schmidt.”

“Hello there little lady, I heard you got quite the little yarn to spin,” he said.

“Little lady? Yarn? Look…sheriff…”

If you knew me, you would know that anytime I start my sentence with ‘Look’ I’m bound to be far less than cordial. It has been said that you can catch more bees with honey, but sweetness wasn’t going to be an option this day.

I was released from the hospital in the afternoon. It took another two days after that before I could get a key made for my car and shipped up from the nearest city large enough to have a functional dealership. I spent those two days with Ross, eating, drinking, sleeping, and of course, playing. 

I told Marnie that Ross and I, through diligent research and a bit of luck were able to locate some people who happened to be camping on the same lake as Gage when he disappeared. I told her a kindly old woman and her husband had flipped their boat in a late season thunderstorm. Gage dropped everything and paddled out from his campsite in the face of huge swells and hurricane force winds to save them. He towed them to safety and the last time they saw him he was headed back to his site. All indications are that he never made it and likely died a hero.

The US Forest Service and sheriff’s department turned out to be completely useless. There was no record of, or permit issued for Darlene or Bob for legal entry into the Boundary Waters. Nor was there a record of them paddling down from Canada, through The Quetico. There were no reports of abandoned cars, no couples matching their description, and nobody had ever heard of them. They were ghosts, or as law enforcement suggested, a figment of my imagination, or a fever-based hallucination. They even made sure to get in on the record that the Dr. deemed it to be a distinct possibility. 

As far as Ross was concerned, he was incensed. The consensus was he went along with my hallucination to cover his tracks. As a good old boy on a romantic tryst with an older woman of color, well, let’s just say nobody would have known about us if I hadn’t gotten sick. This was a way for him to save face. He promised me he would get to the bottom of it, one way or another. He even signed up for police science courses at the local college with the feeling that law enforcement needs to do a better job of helping people, and he could be part of the solution.

Me, I took the long, winding road home, back to the city. My office smelled damp the next morning, the result of having been closed up for so long. Imagine the smell if I’d have locked up a cat in there. The coffee was brilliant, and still ranks among the best I ever had. 

Deja Vu is always welcome, as much as the woman walking down the hall, slamming her heels into the floor, knocking lightly on the door.

“Come in,” I said.

“Philipine Maximine?”

“At your service,” I said.

“Hello, my name is Mary, Mary Owens. My jerk of a husband is cheating on me and I need proof so I can…Oh my, those are gorgeous flowers,” she said.

“Oh thank you, they’re wildflowers. Black-eyed Susans, my favorite.”

Sound travels exceptionally well at night. All the little noises of the daytime combine to make a sort of white noise that blocks other, more prodigious sounds. Picture it like dropping a stone in a calm pond. The ripples seem to carry on forever. Now drop the same stone in the same pond while it is raining. All of a sudden the big ripples get washed out by all the little ones. Everybody who can hear whether they were taught basic principles or not, knows something about sound. For instance, have you ever heard of the Doppler effect? Without getting overly scientific, when a train goes by blowing its whistle, the sound changes for you if you’re standing still. That’s the nutshell version. But what if you’re falling? What if somehow, running through the woods at night you fall over another human being, and then another human being falls over you? That’s the domino effect. Far less interesting unless the sound of the gun being fired at you is changing also. Then it becomes some sort of weird, twisted, pseudo-scientific combination.

When I felt his blood, when I heard him fall, I fell too. Sure, it may have seemed like I tripped over him, but in reality my heart instantly weighed a thousand pounds more than the rest of my body. Unable to carry the sheer and instant weight it dragged me down. When I hit the ground my heart broke in two. Half remained heavy and buried itself under feelings it didn’t have time to identify. The other half flew away, looking for answers in order to explain to the other half why it broke. Everything happened so fast.

“God Dammit Darlene! You shot me!” he screamed.

I couldn’t see old Bob but seeing as how I just tripped over him I was pretty sure it was him. That would make the lummox that tripped over me, yup you guessed it, Ross.

“My God are you Ok?” Ross asked me.

“Yeah, I’m good. She shot Bob,” I said.

“Yeah, I heard, let’s go,” he exclaimed.

“Dammit to hell Darlene!” Bob continued to yell and moan.

I was on my feet and in the process of getting the hell out of Dodge in a heartbeat, my once again one-pieced heartbeat, when I stopped in my tracks.

“No, no not this time,” I said to Ross.

“Wait! What? C’mon Phil, let’s go. What are you doing?” Ross asked.

I’ll assume for lack of asking him that Ross must have thought I lost my mind. Another victim of Stockholm Syndrome, going back to the arms and embrace of her captor. Bob was still moaning loud enough that I could have found him blind folded. Navigating the dark forest at night isn’t really that much different.

“You shut the fuck up,” I forcibly whispered.

I had one hand over his mouth and with the other I searched his body for my gun. It felt empowering to have it in my hand again. I popped the clip out, but it was impossible to see if it was loaded. I snapped it back in and put the gun under his chin.

“The clip, where’s the other clip?” I asked Bob.

Once again my rage was muted in whisper, but no less understandable. I could barely see his eyes in the thin slivers of moonlight that managed to break through the treetops. I could read his pain and fear like directions. He motioned towards his back pocket.

“Bob? You Ok out there?” Darlene yelled.

“Hell no he ain’t Ok,” I yelled back.

I fired a shot in the direction of her voice. I never really expected to hit her, but a person should always have hope.

“I got Bob now bitch, and I got my gun,” I yelled.

“Jesus, Jesus,” I heard Ross whispering.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here,” he said.

“Uh uh, no way, we’re taking this fucker with us,” I told him.

“That’s right Bob, you’re coming along, let’s see how you like it. Let’s see if you can swim with a rock around your legs Bob. Huh? Let’s see. On your feet Bob,” I demanded.

I grabbed him by the shoulder, which consequently is where the bullet must have hit him based on his new and improved pain scream. My whole heart was suddenly black. Compassion was thinned out and washed away with the same river water that cleansed the blood from my wounds.

“Now, now Missy, you just hold on to your chair for a minute,” Darlene said.

“Ima comin’ over there.”

I fired again in her general direction. The bullet struck something hard enough to ping away into the distance.

“Don’t even think about it. He’s mine now, take another step and I’ll put one right through the side of his ugly ass head. I swear to God. Sound familiar bitch?” I screamed.

“I ain’t gonna let you skate honey, you know that right?” Darlene said.

“Get me a gag, anything, your sock if you have to,” I whispered to Ross.

“Where’s the boat Bob?” I asked in the same whisper.

He motioned down stream with his head.

“Ok, you first.”

We walked down the rocky, dark shoreline using Bob as a shield. The moon was bright enough that a person with Darlene’s careful consideration for human life just might decide she had enough light to take a shot at us. Just a few rods ahead I could see moonlight on the water reflect off the canoes.

“That’ll be far enough,” Darlene said as she cocked her rifle.

“You Ok there Bob? You bleedin’ out?” she asked.

Bob was only able to mumble through his sock gag. I was perfectly content doing his talking for him.

“As a matter of fact he’s not. You shot him, remember?” I said.

“Like I said, we gonna do this a different way,” she said.

Darlene fired her rifle. I could feel the impact of the bullet striking Bob. His muscles and skin reverberated in waves from the impact point somewhere in the center of his body. Temporarily blinded by the muzzle flash from her rifle, I fired wildly at my mind’s recollection of where she stood while holding Bob by the back of his collar.

My human shield carved from the flesh and bone of his ancestors all at once became too heavy to hold. His weight pulled loose from my grip and fell unceremoniously at our feet. I could hear the hollowness of his skull clunk against the many stones. After the melee, Darlene was gone.

“Did you get her?” Ross asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so, no, I don’t know,” I said, panicky.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” Ross said.

Ross pushed our canoe into the water and held it still for me.

“Get in. Let’s go,” he said.

“No, wait,” I said.

I picked Bob up by his armpits and started dragging him to the boat.

“What are you doing? Leave him,” Ross pleaded.

“No, no, we’re not. Help me,” I said.

“Screw him, forget him. He tried to kill us! To hell with him,” Ross said.

“No, we’re bringing him,” I demanded.

“Oh for, fine, whatever, hurry up,” Ross said.

He helped me pick Bob up and load him in the middle of the canoe. I stepped into the bow and took my seat. Whenever we pushed off from shore, Ross, with both hands on the stern would push forward and hop in after his momentum took us out of the shallow water. This time, he was mid hop when I told him to wait.

“What? For what? There’s no paddle!” Ross said.

Darlene’s canoe was pulled up on shore nearly completely out of the water besides the tip. As we passed I leaned out and grabbed a hold of it, pulling the empty boat out into the water. It ghost sailed straight out from shore as we hurried downstream.

“Under him, under, roll him look,” I told Ross.

I turned in my bow seat and rolled Bob on his side while Ross slid the only paddle in the boat from under him and put it to work. I might have felt better had I seen a Bigfoot, or at least a giant bear behind us. Instead, I watched Darlene charging through the water, rifle in-hand, attempting to catch the canoe. As the water became too deep to effectively stride, she dove forward and in short order had a hold of her boat. She was swimming it back to shallow water as the darkness and the shoreline combined to remove her from my sight.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“What? What now?” Ross asked.

“It’s her, it’s her, she swam out and got the damn boat,” I told him.

“Is she behind us? Is she following us?” he asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I can’t see her anymore,” I said.

I slid the clip out of my gun and found it unsatisfactorily empty.

“Damn,” I said.

“Out?” Ross asked.

“Yeah, wait,” I said.

I checked the clip I slid in my back pocket earlier when I first found Bob. The three rounds it carried were better than nothing, but far from ideal.

“Three, three left,” I said.

Ross paddled hard, doing his best to create max distance between us and Darlene but the forward combined weight of me and Bob coupled with the increasing velocity of the water was making it difficult.

“Shit, I think I see her,” I said.

I hadn’t seen her just yet, what I saw was the moonlight reflecting off her paddle with every stroke. Although she wasn’t close, as the minutes passed it was apparent that she was clearly gaining on us. Soon, her silhouette became divisible from the darkness, and catching us was only going to be a matter of time.

“She’s getting closer,” I said.

“How close?” Ross asked.

We were nearly yelling at each other over the sound of the boat cutting through standing waves.

“Close enough that she can probably hear us,” I said.

Ross tried to turn and see for himself but as he shifted his weight the canoe tipped dangerously towards swamping.

“Stop, never mind that, we gotta dump him,” I yelled

“What? Dump her?” Ross asked.

“No, dump him, dump him, we gotta dump him overboard,” I said pointing at Bob.

“It’s the only way!” I screamed.

Without any argument Ross set his paddle at his side and helped me with Bob. As we tried to wrestle him out, it became obvious that we were not going to be able to push him out without dumping.

“Gimme his legs,” Ross said. “Gimme his legs, push them up towards me, like he’s having a, yeah, like that.”

Ross grabbed each one of Bob’s ankles until he could get a hold of his crotch. Ross pulled him into a backward somersault with his left hand until he could get a decent grasp on Bob’s shirt tightly around his chest. In one fluid and dare I say heroic motion, he picked Bob up off the floor of the canoe and held him up over his head.

It was one of those moments that will be shadow boxed in my mind forever, a video memory that plays over and over and always pauses in the same place.

“Don’t! No! Don’t do it!” Darlene screamed.

While this whole Bob dumping process was taking place, Darlene threw her paddle down into the bottom of the boat in front of her and at the same time picked up her rifle and quickly fired. She was as close as two boats in a city yard. At nearly the same moment her bullet claimed a dime-sized piece of our aluminum gunwale and ricocheted off into oblivion, Ross, with one mighty grunt pitched Bob into the water behind us. Darlene’s boat hit him hard, riding up on Bob on a slight angle like a ramp set up for crashing cars in a television show. I saw her headed overboard as the whole of the canoe pitched towards the sky.

The sudden shift in the balance of our own boat sent us weaving on a tangent against the will of the river. By the time Ross straightened the canoe, by the time I regained my bearings and got eyes on their boat, the shiny bottom was all I could see. No sign of either Bob or Darlene.

The feeling of relief was palpable. It permeated our senses. It was wet and cold but not uncomfortable. It smelled like nighttime, a combination of cool dust and water and the taste was oh so sweet at the same time as fulfilling as a holiday meal. The water slowed before we spoke again.

“Do you think he was still alive?” Ross asked.

I thought about it for a few moments, running through the timeline of Bob’s demise in my head, scene by scene in order to give an accurate answer.

“Maybe, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. He was dead before we ever met him.”

How long does it take for a person to realize they are in a nightmare? I used to have a recurring dream where a huge crawfish, huge as in destroying a Japanese city, would slowly rise from the depths of a lake and for some reason it was focused solely on me. As hard as I tried, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t run away. Frustration would mount exponentially as my feet felt mired in deep mud on dry ground. I could see my mouth move yet my voice was muted as if glued closed. Screams for help went unheard. We never really accept the fate of the monster actually catching us. Some say when we do, when we are killed in a nightmare, we die in real life. For the moment, I was alive.

I wasn’t sure if it was a fading reflection or a bend in the river that made Darlene and her canoe disappear. I didn’t know how close they were if they made it to shore or if Ross was still with them. I only knew I had to get away. I wasn’t thinking straight. I hurried into the woods, panicked, and stricken with fear. I tripped after only a few steps and fell hard striking the right side of my face against a tree. I was dazed and dizzy. I tried to get back up and run but fell back to the ground. I felt myself spinning like a dog chasing its tail while turning inside out, retching foul yellow bile.

“Gotta, gotta go, gotta go.” My through-drool inspirational chant.

I was foolish to try and run through the woods in the dark. I realized as much after a self-inflicted tree punch to the face set my mind on level ground. I crawled back to the river. I could not see anyone, nor could I hear anything besides the water. The river sang songs, her water told intrepid tales of shaping rock, toppling trees, and scouring the very earth. No matter who, no matter when, all who have passed this way before have bowed to her will.

I worked my way upstream along the bank. Occasionally I could get to my feet and cover more ground, other times I would stumble and crawl until I could muster the power to gain my footing again. Eventually the river widened and slowed. Its song grew distant as the last of all I had was gone. I dragged myself into a stand of dense cedars along the shoreline to hide from a sliver of light in the sky. I wondered if I chose to die, if I gave up right then and there if I would be found. Would I be just another story, another missing person like Gage or the vaguely counted others who had come before us? The river knew. She was still singing her song, although more distantly, mocking me with the refrain. I wanted her to just shut up, to go away and take my memory with her. But she couldn’t be quieted as long as she had her water. If I took her water, I’d take her life. As I drifted off to sleep, I knew what needed to be done. I thanked her for the answer. Somehow, some way, I was going to have to take Darlene’s water.

For the first few seconds after I woke, I focused only on the bright green branches hovering over my face. I had forgotten everything. There was no Darlene, no Bob, not even Ross, just me and the branch. A large black bee hovered close, checking me out, apparently wondering what the hell I was doing under his tree.

“Just hangin’ out buddy, just hangin’ out,” I told him.

I braced my rib cage and sat upright. Everything came rushing back to me at double speed, powered by a revenge engine running on high octane anger. I did my best to recall every last moment of pain and misery she inflicted on me. I wanted all of it at my disposal when the time came to settle the debt.

Mentally, if I wavered, if I doubted, I would be letting the specter of failure inside. Everything needed to become an achievable goal. Standing, walking, even planning to stand and walk became goals for which I would demand self-congratulation.

My direction of travel was never in doubt. I would go where she went, downstream. A straight, bark less branch as tall as me and as big around as my wrist became my staff. Whenever I rested I ground the end on hard rock, shaping it to a sharp point. Not only did it help me negotiate the rocky shoreline, I would eventually be able to push it through Darlene’s heart.

Progress was steady. I had no idea what time I woke up. It felt like afternoon. My thirst was easily quenched by the river with a pair of cupped hands. A knot tied in my undershirt helped to wrap my injured rib. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises were just absorbed as fuel. My heart skipped as if I had just fallen in love when I spotted it, Bob’s green bag. Just a short distance offshore, washed onto a sun-bleached boulder twice its size it lay precariously, tempting me with contents unknown. I backed up into the brushy wooded cover near shore and sat perfectly still.

If it was cheese, I was going to have to be a careful mouse. If it was cheese, had they seen me yet? If it was cheese, how did they know I didn’t drown? But if it wasn’t cheese, there was food in the bag, maybe more. If it wasn’t cheese, Bob’s canoe went over as well. If it wasn’t cheese, Ross could have gotten away. As much as I didn’t want to sacrifice the daylight, I waited for the cover of darkness to take the bait. I never thought I would be so happy to find brown, dried meat. What could be better? Gage’s knife to cut it with.

Slowly I worked my way back into the dark woods out of sight of the shoreline. I chopped dry pine needles until they were no more than dashes in a small print romance novel. Throughout the day I practiced throwing rocks, hoping that maybe if I got close enough, I could kill something to eat. The blackest rocks were the hardest. I struck the back of the blade against the stone with the hopes of generating a spark. After a thousand tries, I had generated nothing but fatigue and frustration.

“Damn!” I tossed the knife down, angry.

“You might find it easier with one of these,” a lighter out of the darkness lit up Ross’ face.

“Holy shit! You made it!” I cried.

I sprung to my feet and embraced him.

“Was there ever a doubt?” he said sarcastically.

“Ow, oh, not too hard, bitch broke my rib,” I said pulling out of the hug.

“How did you find me? What happened?” I asked.

“I just followed the sound. I wasn’t too far away. I didn’t know if it was going to be you, but I hoped it was anyways. Hell of a job dumping the boat, I thought you were done for,” he said.

“What happened to you? To them? Last I saw I thought maybe you were spinning or something and then I was under,” I said.

“Yeah, well, Darlene was screaming, and Bob reached out his paddle to try and pull her in. Once we got sideways it was just a matter of time till we dumped. They tied me to a rock, but it didn’t hold in the rapids. They were both on the backs of the canoes headed down stream last I saw. After I got my wits about me, I started back up to hopefully find you,” he said.

“You hurt?” I asked.

“The jackass hit me when he had me tied, bashed me with the gun, knocked me out a few times, lost some blood, swelled-up eye but other than that…he never did search me all that well. I always have extra lighters on me, never know when you’re going to need one. I think when he found my knife he must have figured that was it,” Ross said.

“Well he lost his bag, I thought they were baiting me, so I waited to grab it,” I told him.

“I’ve got a small fire going, a decent place to sleep, c’mon,” Ross said.

The fire felt like life itself. Hot jerky on a stick was as close to five stars as I may have ever been.

“I don’t suppose there any kind of container in that bag was there?” Ross asked.

“For what? No, nothing,” I said.

“I wanted to boil some water, I’m thirsty as hell,” he said.

“I’ve just been scooping water up out of the river. Tastes fine,” I said.

“Hmm, taking a hell of a chance. It’s not the taste that concerns me. See that stick you’re carrying?” he asked.

“My walking spear?” I said in jest.

“Yeah, what do you think took the bark off it?” he asked.

“Beavers I would guess,” I said.

“Exactly, beavers. Where there’s beavers. There’s beaver fever,” he said.

“Beaver fever, whatever,” I said, half laughing.

“No, I’m serious, beaver fever is a nickname. It’s real name is Giardiasis, it’s a parasite and it’s no joke, stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever, it’s definitely a rough ride,” he said.

“Great. Way to tell me about it before,” I said.

“Well, hopefully we can get out of here before it sets in, if you have it anyways. I might have to chance it myself,” he said.

“Depends on how long it takes to kill that bitch,” I said.

“What? No, no, we have to get out, get back to town,” Ross pleaded.

“My ass. Look, I hate to tell you this, but I wasn’t headed downstream looking for you. I mean if I found you, great, but I didn’t really think you got away. Actually I was thinking I was going to have to rescue you. No way, uh uh, bitch has got to pay,” I said.

“And just what are you going to do? She’s got a rifle, remember? Not to mention your gun,” Ross said.

“Ain’t shit if she don’t hear me comin’. I’ll jamb this stick in her ass if I have to. One way or another, she’s gonna pay. And, I’m doing it with or without you,” I said convincingly.

Maybe it was the reflection of the fire in my eyes, or maybe it was the inflection in my voice, but either way he bought what I was selling.

“What the hell are you doing now?” I asked.

“We’ll stay warmer if we huddle together,” he said.

“Right, you better save your energy, we’re going to need it,” I said.

For a moment, warm in his embrace, I was as content as I had been since any time in recent memory.

“Awww, ain’t you two cute,” she said.

Of course it was her. The voice was unmistakable. I made a move for the spear.

“Ah, ah, ahh. No, no, no honey, I don’t think so,” she said as she moved closer to the dwindling flame making it apparent that she had a rifle pointed at my head.

“You two done caused me and ole Bob a lot a grief. Specially you girl. Took some doin’ to find ya too. Now we gonna do it a different way,” she said as she cocked the rifle.

Darlene raised the gun to her shoulder.

“No, maybe I’ll peg your boyfriend here first, make you watch,” Darlene said.

My clenched fists concealed a rage unknown to many and seen by few. As fate would have it, my right fist was cliched just a little bit tighter than the left. Partly because I was so damn mad that she came back and caught us flat footed, but mostly because it was wrapped around the black stone.

As she aimed at Ross I let it fly with everything my ribs and shoulder could muster. The crack of the stone hitting her face sounded like somebody hit a raw meat with a hammer. I kicked the fire at her, showering her in sparks and burning debris as Ross and I got up and ran.

“Goddam little whore!” Darlene screamed!

Ross and I were merely yards away when she fired her rifle. I couldn’t see him in the dark of the woods. Whether he was next to me, behind me, or even in front of me, I wasn’t sure. Between the second and third shot I heard the deep gasp of air that leaves a man. The kind of noise you hear when an athlete hits hard and loses their wind. I felt a warm mist of blood graze my face followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground. He took out my legs as I too fell forward, close enough to the river where I could see moonlight reflecting off the water.

The first few heavy drops pinging into a steel pan are the most satisfying. Once it has enough water to dull the ring it only sounds like dripping water again. You forget about it unless it’s one of many containers that must be attended to, and even then, it just gets tossed out with the other rain. Reunited after a short detour with a leaky roof.

I must have blacked-out, or somebody hit me. I was wet and cold laying in the woods bound at the wrists to my ankles behind my back. The position alone made breathing difficult. The gag didn’t help. I lunged forward only to discover my neck was tied with thin cord to the base of tree. The water that dripped off the limbs above was part of chorus that echoed deep into the forest. It just kept going and going and I so desperately wanted to follow it to its source. I wanted to meet the conductor, with black tails, flailing his little wand over an endless stage of obsessive compulsively seated rocks and trees. Next to me drops struck the broad leaves of forest plants that sounded plastic and fake. I wished they were. I wished I were playing a part all too convincingly in a shitty Off-Broadway play. Then I wished I could act, so that my previous wish could be possible. Critics would universally applaud my realistic tears and bottomless distress.

It was starting to get dark, mosquitoes bit my face and hummed in my ears. I was so angry I forgot to be scared. I screamed under my gag which I’m sure sounded like nothing more than a throaty moan. When the cord around my neck pulled tight, I remembered fear.

“Lemme get ya loose here honey,” Darlene said as she untied the rope around my neck.

“You know what? I was thinkin’. You got to be the rudest girl out here in these woods do you know that?”

Darlene rolled me onto my stomach, grabbed a hold of the rope between my ankles and dragged me. My shirt rode up to my armpits as rocks and forest debris scratched and cut my face and body. I twisted and wormed forcing her to use two hands to control me.

“You see? You see right there is what I was just talkin’ about ya little,” Darlene said as she dropped me.

The crack of a baseball bat follows the hit you see depending on the cheapness of the seats. Darlene cocked her leg back, I guess as far as it could go before she fired the kick. I heard the rib crack before I felt it.

“You didn’t even shake my hand honey. I mean, at least be cordial. Didn’t your mama teach you any damn thing?” Darlene asked.

Darlene leaned against a tree to catch her breath. Apparently masochistic abuse is tiring. I was getting dizzy, and for all of a three count I was glad I wasn’t standing. Counting up to an ironic catch 22 I began to wretch. I discovered there’s only so much room in the brain for pain which begets more pain. Everything went black.

I saw a little girl, dirty dress, no shoes, belligerent as to the wishes of her mother. She sure did teach me things though. For instance, she taught me to make myself scarce when she had a friend coming to the house. I was afraid to leave at first, especially in the dark. Everything under the sun became something to fear in the absence of light. As much as I thought she hated me I would come to realize the real darkness to fear was in the hearts of men. Some would just stare, some would touch me, others did much more. Intense rain and thunder chased me home early one night. The filthy man on my mother became enraged as I struck him with both fists, screaming, demanding he get off her. He jumped up and stood in front of me, balls out naked. He reared back and suffered unto me through his fist all the power of a man who didn’t mind cracking the rib of a little girl. Officially, I fell off a bike I never had.

Mercifully, a splash of cold water on my face brought me back to my current agony.

“I had to take the gag off honey, I didn’t want you chokin’. Now you ain’t gonna give me no trouble huh? If you start screamin’ and such I’ll put it back on sure as I’m standin’ here,” Darlene said.

I scraped a handful of tattered words from the floor of my throat.

“Water. Please, can I have some water?” I asked.

“Now see? That there’s manners honey. That right there. Too bad really it took all that,” Darlene said.

She gently lifted my head to pour water into my mouth but stopped.

“You know what? This getting’ hard on my old bones. Be a hell of a lot easier if you’d walk. You walk and I’ll give you water, deal?” she said.

I nodded my approval. As much as my mind raced for ways to break the deal, I worried I may not have been physically capable, and any further discretion would only result in further punishment.

“Alright then,” Darlene said as she cut the rope binding my ankles.

“Here, lemme give ya a hand,” she said.

Darlene grabbed me by the back of my arm and helped me to my feet. I lost my breath from the sudden surge of pain and nearly collapsed back to the forest floor.

“That’ll learn ya,” she said. “Now suck it up and walk.”

Every step became a personal goal. If I could make one, then I could make another, at least until the narrator of my life introduced a hero. I was back in the play again, desperately needing that hero.

“Hold it honey,” Darlene said grabbing my arm.

Arriving at the edge of an unknown body of water, Bob waited in the other canoe, floating in the calm water just offshore. There was no sign of Ross.

“Stand still, feet together,” Darlene said.

“But I walked,” I humbly answered.

“Don’t matter, we’re headed out on the water now. Still I said.”

“No, no,” I cried quietly.

I made an ill-advised and half-hearted attempt at escape. Darlene swung her paddle to the back of my knees. I went down hard, like a bag of sand. My wind left me long enough for her to tie my ankles together again. She helped me to my feet and pushed me down into the bow of the boat. I was doing my best not to cry as she disappeared momentarily from view. She returned in short order carrying a large, long stone. She placed it in the canoe and lashed it to my ankles.

“This here’s in case y’all thinkin’ about taking me down with ya. We go over, you drown sure,” Darlene said.

“Alright, let’s go,” Bob said.

“Yeah, yeah, just keep your pants on. Keep your old damn ears open too. I don’t expect nobody’s gonna be travlin’ this time of year but ya never know. Two ears are better than one, or four ears. You know what I mean,” Darlene said.

“How’s him?” Darlene asked Bob.

“He ain’t been too much trouble. Bleeds a lot though,” Bob said.

They spoke to each other in muted whispers, paddling close together. Ross was alive. With all the potential of the world’s worst and most untimely pun, it occurred to me that he was probably in the same boat as I was. I questioned my sanity for thinking anything about this event was even remotely funny.

From my position in the bow I could see so many beautiful stars emerging. It was the first time since this adventure began that I was able to notice and appreciate the night sky. I wondered how such a horrid event could spawn any sort of humor or awe-inspiring beauty.

My only gauge of time was the level of darkness. At some point, dark is dark and every minute past that moment is only a guess. Two solo paddlers seemed to cover a lot of water but progress in a loaded boat is slow. I could hear what I thought was wind blowing through tall pines and surmised we were getting closer to shore.

“Tighten up,” Darlene said.

“Me?” I asked.

“You shut your damn mouth or Ima gag ya again, soon as I can. I swear to God above if you call out or start screamin’ so help me I’ll make ya hurt,” Darlene said.

“Shoulda’ tied her mouth before we pushed off,” Bob said.

Her threat struck me as odd. This is a woman who has not hesitated to inflict pain. She took no chances. What did she mean, ‘tighten up’? The sound of the wind became more intense. Maybe it was the pain, but it didn’t add up to what I was feeling. The boat began to pitch with every one of her paddle strokes and now I could feel our speed was clearly increasing.

“We’re a couple of damn fools,” Bob said.

“We can’t risk no trails with these two, even at night,” Darlene said, forgoing any more whispering.

“That’s why you don’t take two,” Bob said.

“Shut up! Just shut up! We been through here plenty enough times, whoa,” Darlene said as the speed and roar of the water increased.

“Hey! Hey!” I yelled at Darlene.

“Little girl if y’all know what’s good for ya,” Darlene said before I cut her off mid-threat.

“You’ll what? Break my ribs? Stop the boat? You can’t even look at me right now,” I yelled.

Darlene needed every last drop of focus to keep us from running aground on the rocks. I sat up, scraping the rock tied to me along the bottom of the boat.

“Ross! Ross! Get up! They can’t do shit!” I yelled at the other canoe.

“Damnit Darlene, we got trouble,” Bob said.

“Ross! Ross! Ross get up!” I screamed.

I saw the top of Ross’ head as he too pulled himself upright in the boat. In the dim starlight it was difficult to determine where the blood on his face stopped, and his gag began. I was momentarily struck by the whiteness of his eyes.

“I’m doin’ it!” I yelled to Ross.

“You gonna die! Stay down!” Darlene yelled.

Ross looked at me shaking his head as if to say ‘no’. Maybe it had something to do with the intensity in my eyes, but something made him take stock. He looked back at Bob, then at Darlene and finally again at me before begrudgingly nodding his approval. My focus turned back to Darlene.

“Don’t even think about it honey,” Darlene threatened again.

It had been many years since I spoke to God. We were no longer on speaking terms. Back before we met, I didn’t know He was available to help me. When I was much older, I thought He should have anyways. I was told as I cried to look to Him next time, that He was the way and the light. I heard those words as a little girl and figured He was the one who could take away my fear of the dark, my fear of the darkness in men. Turns out He was never light. He was life. The way, the truth, and the life. I guess I heard it wrong. Maybe that’s why when I really needed Him again He never came. When He didn’t take the man away I begged Him to take me to heaven instead, but again, He was life. He left me lying in a pool of piss, blood and He knew what else. You owe me.

“You owe me! God Damnit! You fuckin’ owe me!” I screamed at heaven with all my might.

“You shut the hell up!” Darlene yelled as she desperately tried to control the canoe.

“Hell?” I yelled at Darlene and then I looked away towards Ross.

“See you there,” I said softly.

Rolling to my knees I threw all my weight against the side of the canoe. We tipped hard to the side but didn’t go over. I was able to catch a glimpse of Ross as I countered to the other side. He was guiding me with his eyes, helpless but emotionally involved. It was Ross who taught me the first one throws you off balance, but it’s the second one that tips the boat.

The cold water felt like redemption. Instantly the stone I was bound to hit the bottom. My body caught the lion’s share of the current and like a sail, pulled both the stone and I downstream. It toppled and turned. I felt the cord tighten around my ankles as it twisted. In a matter of moments the weight of the stone was gone. I sprung to the surface. The water wasn’t nearly as deep as I feared. I could see Darlene downstream struggling for purchase on the bottom of her upturned canoe. I saw the other boat sideways in the current before I was spun around by the river.

Flailing backwards, kicking like a wounded mermaid my bound arms hooked around a jam of slimy logs jutting out from the shoreline. Repeated kicking had freed my ankles. Methodically I used the logs as a brace to keep me from being swept downstream and made my way to the rocky shore.

“I suppose you want me to thank you now.” He was life.

When I was little, boys skipping stones were never to be trusted. Once a boy starts throwing stones, he never stops. For the rest of his life, he’ll break windows, hearts, even the occasional bone. A thrown stone that breaks a bone is rarely your own. Stones aren’t always made of rock. Sometimes they are bullets or worse yet, words. This day, as I tickled the handle of my gun, stones were made of solid ice.

The sobering impact of the first hail stone smacking the bottom of the overturned canoe startled me into irrational thought. I glanced up at the bottom, cursing irony ex post facto, uplifting the inborn idiocy that had me wondering in that split-second how he made it all happen. By the time my diverted eyes focused on him once again, the roar of a million falling stones somehow removed the toxins from my thoughts. Not that I suddenly trusted him, but I no longer mistrusted him, influenced by the awe of what I was experiencing.

Many became few until only hard rain remained and even that tapered off. As the storm moved on, we could hear the thunder again. The lightning just didn’t seem right without it.

I cannot say with any certainty, but I believed he kept his stare focused on me through the entire event. I thought it best to get out in front, to make sure whatever he felt he had to do, meant dealing with me as much more than an afterthought.

“Hey man, I’m not afraid to say you’re kind of creeping me out,” I said to the man.

Ross looked at me as if I insulted his mother. The man may have chosen to believe I was bluffing about reaching for a gun, but he would not make the mistake of thinking I was doing anything else.

“Do you mind?” the man answered while tapping the green bag.

“Depends,” I said.

“On what?” he asked.

“On what you have in the bag,” I said.

We advanced token to go, staring at each other again, passing short moments in terms of forever as the tension built. 

“Maybe I don’t want to tell ya. Maybe I feel like it’s none your damn business what’s in my bag,” he said defiantly.

“Well then I most definitely do mind,” I said through a fake laugh.

“C’mon now, let’s all just calm down and not get riled,” the woman said as she slid out from under the canoe.

“You know these big storms can get a body all up in arms, my daddy always said they’ll cause a man to get down right tuckered out with worry. Name’s Darlene, Darlene Hatchka. This here’s ole Bob. As much as I gotta claim him cause we’re married and all, I also gotta apologize for the way he is sometimes.”

She moved towards us with an outstretched hand. Ross slid out from under the boat first.

“Hello, Ross, nice to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand.

Bob crawled out and away from us, avoiding any sort of greeting. I rushed to get to my feet before him, moving aggressively. I wanted that edge, the same edge that wouldn’t allow me to waste the use of one hand shaking hers. I circled to his flank and stood near him.

“Hey sweetie, you still seem kinda keyed-up, why don’t y’all just,”

“I’m nobody’s sweetie Darlene,” I said quickly, cutting her off.

“I think I might know why dear,” Darlene said.

“Is that right? Maybe it has something to do with the way you and your creepy husband act. Staring me down, ole Bob here being all weird about whatever he has in that bag. Do you ever watch old movies Darlene? For all I know he could have a damn human head in there,” I said.

Part of me was angry at whatever assumption this foul woman was trying to make, and I began to answer her with equal rudeness. By the time the first sentence left my mouth I really didn’t see her as a legitimate threat and decided to lighten the tone with the next. Even without my gun, I was pretty sure I could take her. It’s a general assessment I make when I meet a person for the first time. ‘Can I beat the hell out of them if I need to?’ 

Darlene Hatchka seemed to me to be someone’s Episcopal mother who would feed the hell out of you, offer you her home, make sure you took your shoes off at the door, and passive aggressively pick away at everything about you she was generally intolerant of but was too much of a fake Christian to say anything to your face. Maybe she was all of that and then some, but the ‘then some’ is what had me concerned.

Darlene was dirty. I don’t mean like a dirty cop, but that may also have been true. I mean she was physically dirty. Her skin harbored the sort of filth usually reserved for auto mechanics and coal miners. It was deep in her pores and I’m quite sure it would take considerable abrasives for her to ever have a clean face again.

The thing is, I’ve seen dirty people before. Where I grew up, dirt poor was normal. I was taught to see beyond it, to not judge others like so many judged us. The most beautiful flowers after all are born from the blackest soil. But dirt that deep doesn’t happen on a weekend camping trip. Darlene’s black was not soil. There would be no flowers born from her. I knew this to be true because Darlene very unceremoniously, quite casually and most likely unintentionally, flinched.

Find any group of adults in any room and mention a joke featuring a human head in a bag. You can expect three to four different types of responses. The first group or individual will be those who understand and appreciate the movie reference. The result will vary, could be anything from a high-five to a silent nod of approval. Next are the appalled types who think it was the world’s most offensive thing to say and because you said it, are the worst person to walk the face of the earth. These people are generally the loudest, the most theatrical and dramatic. These people probably couldn’t go to sleep without knowing everyone else in the room noticed how appalled they were, and therefore everyone must consider them to be two feathers short of angelic. These are almost always fake representations of real people. A well – represented group would be the normal people who understood you were telling a joke and offer the appropriate response of acknowledgement whether any of them found it funny or not. Then there’s always the ‘I don’t get it’ person. There’s nothing you can do to help these people. For the purposes of our discussion we have to mention them because there is always at least one, but they will not be granted a category in the survey. Darlene was a multiple choice ‘D’ for none of the above. Like I said, Darlene flinched.

Darlene did not speak nor would she look me in the eyes. Bob stood up and sat back against their still-overturned canoe. His folded arms were a body language trigger that told me he was trying to protect himself. I threatened him and I was relishing the advantage. Ross immediately and cluelessly went to work getting us ready to get back out on the water. In no time at all he had our boat on his shoulders and was headed back to the lake. I leaned back on their canoe next to Bob.

“So Bob, I’m dying to know. What’s in the bag?” 

Darlene froze and gave Bob a grave look of concern.

“You really want to know huh?” Bob said in the grittiest of voices. 

“I do Bob, I really do,” I said.

Bob pulled his poncho back finally giving me an up-close look at the bag. 

“Hungry?” Bob asked while removing something I can only describe as brown.

“It’s kinda big for jerky, but it smokes up better that way,” he said.

“Hey Darlene, cut her off a piece.”

Darlene stepped over to us and reached around up under the canoe about the time Ross was coming back up the trail.

“Him too,” Bob said.

“Him too what?” Ross asked.

“Jerky,” Bob said.

“Hold on there a second young’uns, my gol darn knife is up in the thwart bag,” Darlene said.

After retrieving it she cut a few strips off and handed one to both Ross and I, as well as a strip each for her and Bob.

“That’s different. Good though, what is it?” Ross asked.

“We make it ourselves, sometimes it’s deer, sometimes goose or bear. Bear is the best, don’t rightly remember what this batch was though. How ‘bout you Bob? You recall?” she asked.

“Nope, don’t rightly do,” Bob said.

Darlene threw the knife blade first into a nearby log sticking it in place. Ross’s face fell as quickly as he stopped chewing, appearing to choke on the dried meat.

“You get a chunk of bone or something?” Darlene asked.

Bob and I both looked to Ross for an answer as to his odd behavior. Ross stared at me with his eyes opened uncharacteristically wide. He looked down at the knife, and then back at me. I was so busy being the supposed woman in charge that I didn’t take a moment to notice the obvious. 

“Here, I got something here that’ll straighten you right up,” Darlene said as she reached back under the canoe.

I stood up abruptly while Ross was desperately using his head and neck to presumably gesture for me to either inquire about, or physically pull the knife from the log. I chose the latter as from the corner of my eye I watched Bob’s poncho move away. Before I could even stand up straight again, much like the now familiar and distinct call of a loon, I recognized the unmistakable clank of a cartridge being fed into the chamber of a lever-action rifle.

“I keep her snagged up inside so’s in case we tip I ain’t gonna lose her,” Darlene said referring to her rifle.

“And real slow like, I’m gonna have Bob take that there gun out from behind your britches. Yeah missy, I seen ya before. I’ve been seeing girls like you come and go for years. Now hands up high, and back up against that there tree. You too young man, you too. And don’t you move, or I swear to God above I’ll cut you down and nobody ever gonna find where’s I put ya,” Darlene said.

Bob slid the pistol from my belt. People will consistently lament past events of failure by stating they never had a chance. I was never that person. I grabbed Bob’s arm that held the gun and spun him around, trying to point it at Darlene. My hope was even if I failed to gain immediate control, maybe I could still fire a shot at Darlene. 

“Hey! Hey!” Darlene yelled as she raised the rifle to her shoulder and fired.

The shock of the close-range percussion from the rifle and the real time possibility of not even knowing if I had been shot immediately tempered my attack. Bob back-handed me, opening up my lip and causing me to stagger backwards. Ross made a half-hearted attempt to defend my honor, a required display of faux chivalry that both Bob and Darlene seemed to appreciate and dismiss.

“Jesus Darly, you damn near shot me! Look here,” Bob said holding up the left wing of his poncho which was sporting a shiny, new hole.

“Quit your yappin’. I woulda too. You damn near let that little girl take the best of ya,” Darlene scolded him.

“Look, we don’t have any money, but take whatever you need. Nobody has to say nothin’ to no one,” Ross said.

For a split second I felt a closer kinship to Darlene and Bob than I did Ross and his pathetic begging.

“I swear if you start crying, I’m going to ask her to shoot you,” I said.

Darlene laughed a sickening laugh, a noise that can only come through a mouth nearly devoid of teeth and a body nearly devoid of soul.

“Lemme tell ya how this is gonna work miss thing. Bob is gonna tie your boyfriend’s arms and legs around that there tree. Then he’s gonna take my boat down to the other side. Ya’ll gonna come down there with me and we gonna take a nice ride. You be layin’ tied in the bow for the duration. You ain’t gonna talk and you ain’t gonna run cause you know we got him and will kill him cold if we got to. Ya see it’s really easier that way anyhow. Almost rather leave him than take him anyways. If y’all cooperate ya might even get to see him again.”

The salty blood in my mouth tasted like gravy on the jerky still stuck in my teeth and after her little speech, it was just what I was in the mood for.

“Let me see that for a second,” I told Ross.

“You? You want to fish? I didn’t take you for the type,” he said.

Grimy boys doubted me the same way when I was little. Boys without shoes and cane poles taught me about boys without shoes and cane poles, and not much more except that doubt hangs around until envy comes. After a while, they wished they could catch fish the way I did. The secret was to think like the bait. Nothing wants to be eaten.

“Types aren’t real, yeah, that one there,” I said pointing to the fishing pole leaning on the overturned canoe next to Ross.

“Sure, have at it,” he said. 

“Your doubt stinks,” I told him.

I really did feel like I could smell it. I had no idea what I was fishing for, but after flipping a few rocks next to the shore I found what I was looking for.

“I have worms,” Ross said.

I didn’t bother to acknowledge him. I never asked for a worm. I pulled the crawdad in half, some of the guts stayed attached to the tail. If it was cooked, I’d have sucked the rest of the juice from its head. The tail is really all I wanted. It’s where the good meat lives. 

“Do we eat these?” I asked moments later, holding a fish.

“Um, yeah. As a matter of fact, we do,” Ross said.

He spoke slowly. At least I think it was him, it may have been envy. 

“Well, here, take it then,” I said.

I tossed the fish onto a small grassy area amidst the rocks and boulders we now called home.

“Seems like a pretty nice day so far. I’d like to take a look at where the canoe was found, maybe the rest of his stuff too,” I said.

“That’s going to be a lot of paddling. Two totally different directions. Honestly, I think we should split that into two trips,” Ross said.

“Tell you what, why don’t you take me through a typical day around here. Do what you do, everything, run the gamut,” I said.

“Well we need some firewood, if you want to get some,” he said.

I couldn’t say no but I sure as hell didn’t want to say yes. I guess I figured if I just turned and walked away, he would think I was going to get wood so of course that’s exactly what I did. I laughed to myself watching him trying to get a grip on that fish. Maybe it was pity that forced me to notice and consequently pick up a few handfuls of branches.

“When you think you have enough wood for the night, get three times more,” Ross said.

“What?”

“Yeah, see the thing is firewood goes fast and people never get enough so there’s a rule of thumb that says,” 

“I get it,” I said, cutting him off mid-sentence.

“When do you think we can get going?” I asked.

“I guess we can take the fish we have, maybe get a few more and have a shore lunch on a different site,” Ross said.

“Sounds good to me,” I said, even though it didn’t.

He had to have everything arranged before we paddled out, leaving nothing controllable to chance. He was the kind of guy that buys and wraps a November birthday present two days after you gave him the first hint in August. Gage must have been the same way, or one may have killed the other after so much familiarity. 

We took more than enough time to fill a grandfather clock by the time we were anywhere near where Gage’s canoe was found. 

“There’s only one more campsite on this part of the lake, we’ll stop there,” Ross said. 

I didn’t argue, hunger was making me angry and because of that, everything was making me angry. I cursed the extended families of flies and silently mouthed terrible things to the Loons that I can only assume were laughing at my expense. We had half a dozen fish of various shapes and sizes dragging in the water next to the boat, slowing us down, adding paddle strokes and therefore difficulty to my already pinging personal misery index. 

Food out here is underrated. It changes everything. You can feel the energy return to your muscles and brain. I was thinking again. First, I was thinking about how unbelievably good the lunch was and then I was thinking if I should tell Ross. 

“Did you and Gage ever stop here?” I asked.

“Um, I’m not sure, yeah? Maybe? I mean, we’ve stopped at dozens of campsites. Sometimes we’re just scouting it out for another trip, sometimes to make food. We never camped here, but I remember being here for one reason or another.”

“How much further till we get to where the boat was found?” I asked.

“There’s a bay around that point over there,” he said pointing.

“It’s a couple miles up there and some change, his canoe was up at the end, probably pushed up in there by the wind,” Ross said.

“Then you don’t think that’s where he would have dumped?” I asked.

Ross became slightly irritated at the question, flinging some pieces of fish bone with bits of white flesh still attached into the fire pit with his fork.

“I don’t think he dumped at all. I told you,” he said.

“Right, I get that. But if the wind, or whatever, or whomever pushed it up there, that would mean whatever happened to him, didn’t happen there right?” I asked.

“I suppose,” he said.

Ross cupped his hand under his chin as food disgustingly fell from his mouth and stuck to his lip while he tried to say something. I got up and walked away. I didn’t want to see him say it as much as I wanted to hear it. 

“Spit it out,” I said.

“I’m trying.”

“No, the food. Spit it out or swallow it before you start talking. I shouldn’t have to see that,” I said.

I found what I said suddenly funny and turned away so that he couldn’t see my face until I composed myself.

“So it’s just a big dead end up there?” I asked.

“No, there’s a portage trail up there, a long one,” Ross said.

“No better time than the present, if you’re done,” I said.

“Yeah, just let me clean up and we can head up there.”

We pushed off under sunny skies and a nearly non-existent, warm breeze. We had been lightly paddling for about ten minutes or so, taking it easy with full bellies and worn limbs.

“Listen! Stop paddling!” I said in a loud whisper.

Ross pulled his paddle up and held it horizontally to the water, waiting, listening. The only thing we could hear was the leftover water dripping off his paddle. The dull, distant rumble that followed proved I wasn’t losing my mind yet.

“What is that?” I asked as we heard it again.

Ross turned his head quickly side to side like some sort of bird trying to turn its head towards the sound. 

“Canoes on the portage maybe? Sometimes you can hear when people slam them down on the rocks, especially if they are aluminum,” Ross said.

The third time we heard it, I doubted very much that we were hearing a canoe.

“Shit,” Ross said.

“What? What’s shit?” I said.

“Thunderstorm.”

“What? Look at it out here, it’s a perfectly sunny day,” I said.

As if to mock my words, a much closer and obvious rumble of thunder shook the air.

“Not for long,” he said while putting a hard stroke down on the water.

“What are we doing?” I asked, somewhat unsettled by the prospect of the impending storm.

“We’re going for the portage trail, there’s a place to pull the canoe up. We’ll get under it until the storm passes,” Ross said.

My first thought was to ask if he was out of his mind, but I actually had to think back in time order to finish that question as I was interrupted with the thought that it might not be that bad of an idea after all. Soon, I could see the obvious place on the distant shore where there was enough of a break in trees to land the canoe. We were moving like a Roman warship getting ready to ram. Not seeing the need for panic I placed my paddle across my lap. The sudden and nearby bolt of lightning had less of a mocking tone this time and lent itself to something more along the lines of strongly worded advice. I did what I could to keep up with Ross until we reached the shore.

I felt pretty good at my new-found efficiency in regard to quickly landing a canoe. We slid-in sideways, perfect speed, perfect stop inches from a couple of perfect stepping stones.

“Should we unload?” I asked as I hopped out of the bow, paddle in hand.

“No just grab an end. We don’t have that much in there. Let’s get back in there by the rocks,” Ross said.

The wind met us at the shoreline, cementing the timeliness of our hurried retreat. The sky was split in three. One side was blue, but the sun was obscured, a harsh edged band of grey looked like it was being bullied from behind by a mass of dark grayish purple.

“Let’s go,” Ross said leading the way down the trail.

Drops of rain big enough to notice falling out of the corner of your eye started to drop randomly, occasionally thumping down on the bottom of the canoe. I kept my head down to avoid taking one to the face. I dropped my end of the boat and stumbled forward when Ross suddenly stopped.

“Whoa, scared me. Didn’t think I’d see anyone back here,” Ross said.

Just ahead was an overturned aluminum canoe. The scars and deep scratches that probably nearly killed it were strangely appropriate for its poor faded camouflage paint job. It had appeared that we heard both.

A middle-aged woman with a straw hat brim large enough to see from underneath the boat looked us over with a smile on her face, but said nothing. Her head gently shook like maybe she had a touch of something neurological happening. Her pants were canvas, lots of pockets and worn to the edge of what’s still practical to wear.

“Mind if we join ya?” Ross asked as we set our boat against the same rock formation next to hers.

Not that we were asking permission, but we were at least being friendly. At least Ross was. Her shirt was a thick flannel that the sun stole the color from years ago. It looked like it had been of high quality or it most likely wouldn’t have lasted this long. Maybe wearing a shirt two sizes too big for her helped them to last. She continued to watch us, all the while with what I could now determine was a fake smile on her face. I wondered for a moment if she was able to speak English when she finally spoke.

“Hey there,” she said.

She almost wasn’t able to say the words over the frog gurgling in her throat. Clearly, at least to me, she hadn’t spoken for a while, not even to say ouch or swear out loud. Everybody swears out loud, some are just quieter than others, especially this spook case.

Ross and I took our places under our boat. The temperature started to drop with the onset of the gusting winds. Rain came in sideways, blowing sheets, making communication even with Ross difficult.

“Holy crap!” I said, yelling over the rain and thunder.

“What?” Ross asked.

I swished his words away from my face with one hand and held the canoe off my head with the other instead of bothering to yell again. She just sat there, staring at us. My mind raced, building a wall of excuses to block out the idea that I had just met a crazy person deep in the wilderness. I stared back at her, trying to reciprocate for the vibe I was getting that said she was just another white woman who didn’t approve of me being there with Ross. I noticed her gaze slipped past me, down the portage trail. Instinctively I reached for the pistol in the small of my back, thinking I would need it to defend against what I thought was a bear I saw out of the corner of my eye. It was a man.

An older man reasonably assumed to be of similar age to the woman walked by us without any sort of acknowledgement of our presence. He hunkered down quickly next to the woman under the canoe. His leather boots looked nearly black in the rain. Unlike her, he had an extra-long poncho, like the kind that might have been used by soldiers once upon a time, and a big, green fisherman’s rain hat. With his head down I couldn’t make out his face. Pea-size hail began to pelt us as she put her mouth so close to his ear that there’s little doubt he could feel her breath when she spoke. I wouldn’t have been able to hear her scream if I wanted to.

He pulled his poncho up slowly, first over his ankles, followed by bare, heavily scarred shins and eventually up over his knees.  His theatrically slow motion dripped with intent. I could now see he carried a green canvas bag about half the size of a backpack. He had it strung with the same color strap over his shoulder under his poncho that he pulled up just high enough to expose it.  As he turned his attention to the button flap on the bag, I let my hand get a little closer to my gun. He noticed. He froze to the extent of acting the fool in a party game, even keeping his fingers on the button. 

I could see his face now, gritty, drawn, and lower than most, melted away by years. There was no discernible emotion. I felt like happiness may have never existed for him, but he didn’t hate because of it. His eyes told the short story of a man who had things to do which meant he had no intention of dying.

Salvation is available to the human mind in many forms. Most people find it during their search for a higher power, finally finding a reason for their existence. Some discover it after an oft tumultuous personal battle in the form of victory over substances or physical abuse. There are even those who find salvation with the sort of simple realization that only a bent and twisted mind would use to justify evil. Mine was a wind-swept rock the size of a flattened bus.

The landing was everything but smooth. We came in hot and I gave zero care to what a direct impact might do to our only means of transportation. 

“Backpaddle! Backpaddle!” Ross screamed.

I could hear the rush of water from his paddle as the canoe turned, but never having heard the term, it took the gears of my brain far too long to engage meaningful action. In fact, for some unknown reason, my unplanned reaction was to turn around to see what he was doing. Center of gravity is important. It wasn’t the first wave that got us, that one was just enough to throw us both off-balance. The second one felt like it had horns on its head. We were the matador that turned his back, unexplainably deciding to use our red cape as a turban, mid-fight. 

My elbow went in the water first, and even though there was no saving us, I clung to the hope that we could recover much longer than the actual time it took to send me fully into the cold lake. Panic skews time even more efficiently than hope. 

The canoe was clearly done with us. Probably sick and tired of the way we treated it and all of the hell we had put it through that day. It tipped over and spit Ross and I out along with one pack and our paddles, pausing just long enough to take on a significant drink of water. The remaining gear sloshed and shifted in the compromised boat like plastic toys in an over filled washing machine.

My body made decisions that my mind was incapable of during the ordeal. The life jacket kept me up, I dog-paddled with desperation towards the large flat stone. My knuckles scraped hard against the granite, still wrapped around the paddle that for some reason my body thought I needed.

“Oh thank God, thank God, thank God.” My praise marred by the cold spittle of lake water pouring over my face.

I had survived. The huge flat rock marked the end of the most painful physical journey I had ever undertaken in my entire life. Capsizing was a fitting end to the torture. The cold, the panic, and the pain were all badges of honor I could wear the rest of my life if I was ever going to be allowed to live it. I wept as I pulled myself triumphantly onto salvation.

I would have to help him, even if it meant putting my life back into peril, even if it meant re-entering the water, selflessly tossing myself headlong into harm’s way. I turned and stood to face the water, to look my enemy in the eye and issue the ultimate life or death challenge. I flung my wet hair aside and tossed the paddle behind me, sans any care in the world as to where it might land. I finally let my mind take over. I knew I had to manage my panicked breathing, wipe the fear from my face, and grip my inner power if I was going to save him. 

It only took a fraction of a second to achieve all of the above. If memory serves, I even stopped breathing for a few seconds, my freshly started brain needing to halt all normal bodily functions in order to use the energy to grasp the real-time horror before me.

“Well? You about done drama queen?” Ross asked.

He was standing in about three feet of water holding onto the canoe, making sure it didn’t crash against the rock of salvation. He was not happy.

“Because if you’re done with your church moment, I could use a hand unloading some of this gear. Grab that one first of all,” Ross said pointing to the red backpack that joined us in being jettisoned prematurely.

I felt too stupid to care that he was treating me like an idiot. I’d never admit it in a million years, but there’s an outside chance I might have earned it.

“If you gotta dump, at least dump in front of the campsite. What the hell was that anyway?” Ross asked.

“What?”

“What do you mean ‘what?’ Backpaddle? Means to paddle backwards, so we don’t hit anything. I don’t know, something like, like, the shoreline?” Ross also dripped with sarcasm.

I wanted to let him have it, but if the next word to leave my mouth was ‘look’, then it was most likely going to get ugly. Also, he had every right to be angry. He was just as wet and cold as I was. Instead I put my hand out to halt and arrest a symbolic, forward fall. It was the universal sign for a person to stop, although I wasn’t sure which person to whom I was referring. 

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

“Oh, you’re sorry?” Ross asked.

“You’re sorry,” he said again, only this time as a matter of fact.

He stared at me for what seemed like forever. I decided to throw myself on his mercy and wait for his unpleasant response.

“Lets get this boat turned over and get a fire going. Most of these packs are supposedly waterproof so I’m hoping we should be okay. Right now we gotta stay ahead of hypothermia. Stay moving, stay busy. A lighter.”

Ross paused, taking a cold personal moment to think.

“A lighter and some dry clothes and let’s hope you didn’t crack that paddle,” he said, pointing.  

The paddle I tossed in the heat of the moment was wedged in the rocks. The blade appeared to have cut through solid stone, standing tall against the tyranny of mother nature. In reality, it was merely a one in an unknown quantity shot that lodged it firmly into a pre-existing crack, a ‘touch and feel’ type metaphor, begging us to realize that what we see isn’t always what is, and what is, is almost always more than what we can see.

I chose not to say much besides basic survival communication. I looked for no clues pertaining to Gage, but my mind couldn’t help but move in that direction. Eventually, the snapping fire logs dominated the air, the hanging smoke replacing the smell of wind. The lake that tried to kill us was now glass, occasionally cracked by something alive. I worried for the slightest of all moments about what the night would bring. My body probably thought I was stupid and punished me accordingly with every move. I was apologetic to not think of such foolish things again, not at least until I woke and realized I had rested harder than anytime in recent memory. 

My body was obviously still angry but would have to take a backseat to business at hand. My guide was busy preparing a sad breakfast and I was too cold to hate the small, wet box in the woods where nature took her calls. 

“Mornin’,” Ross said enthusiastically.

“Morning,” I said mid-yawn. 

“How do you like your oatmeal?” Ross asked.

“Is that coffee? Do I smell coffee? You brought a percolator?” I asked.

“For sure, nothing like a hot cup of coffee in the morning,” he said.

“I hate you a little less right now,” I said. 

“You know, I think that’s twice you said you didn’t hate me as much. Who knows, maybe by the time this trip is over you might actually like me,” Ross said.

Answering him with something snide was going to be too labor intensive before I had a chance to drink that coffee and might even be construed as endearing unless I were to lay down a new level of hate and vitriol. It just wasn’t going to be worth it.

“Pull up a log, here,” Ross said while handing me a canteen cup brimming with black coffee and a blue tin plate of runny oatmeal.

“So, where do we start?” he asked.

“Well, we’re going to have a good look around you and I. I want to know where he slept, what he ate, where he fished, what he did to pass the time, everything. That’s where you come in. You’re his friend, you boys spent plenty of time out here, so in a way, it’s up to you where we start.”

“A look around for what?” Ross asked.

“How many people do you think camped here since Gage?” I asked.

“Probably very few, if any. There wasn’t much season left when he went missing, and we’re in here pretty early so, yeah, probably no one.”

“Well then we’ll look around for something like that,” I said, pointing to an empty knife sheath hanging by its belt loop on the nub of a tree branch.

“What?” Ross said.

Ross sprung to the tree and grabbed the sheath.

“Shit, this was his.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Look, look here. It’s embossed with a Boy Scouts emblem. The handle had one too. We’d laugh because even though he had it, he was never a boy scout.”

“Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that this area might be visited by boy scouts now does it?” I said.

“Bullshit, I’ve seen this a thousand times. It’s his for sure. Here, this tree. He always kept his gear all in one place by either a tree or a rock or something. He’d hang things on the branches. This is Gage’s for sure.” 

“So where’s the knife? Do you remember it coming back with his gear by any chance?” I asked.

“No, no, I didn’t see it,” Ross said.

“Tell me Ross, did Gage ever bring a gun along?”

“No, never. He was big against camping with guns. Always said the weight alone made them useless.”

I was no stranger to the dead, in my line of work, it happens. On the rare occasion, in the bayou, a person might run across an old dead gator. You know they haven’t been dead long if you find them, if for no other reason because nothing else found them first. One thing about every gator, alive or dead is their teeth. They always have sharp, new teeth. Whenever they lose one, a new one takes its place. They have something like 80 teeth in their mouth at any given time and by the time I find them, dead, they may have already lost a thousand. A thousand new knives, sharp and at the ready. 

“I wonder if he had it with him, in the boat,” I said.

“Seems like he’d bring the sheath, otherwise it’d just be laying around,” Ross said.

“Right, and it wasn’t in his fishing gear was it?” I asked.

“No, sure wasn’t”

“And maybe you’d know better, but he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have a dull knife,” I said.

“No, for sure. A knife could mean life or death up here,” Ross said.

I spent a few minutes looking out over the water. At one point, Ross stood behind me to check my line of sight, presumably to see whatever it was he thought I was looking at.

“Tell me Ross, have you ever seen a gator with no teeth?” I asked.

“Um, I don’t think I’ve seen a gator at all, I mean, besides a zoo or on TV or something, but no.” 

“A gator without teeth is gonna die, its all he has. It’s his knife, his gun, his everything. A strong bite and sharp teeth, that’s what they are, that’s all they are. There ain’t much out there that can take down a full-grown gator with all his teeth,” I said.

“What’s your point?” Ross asked.

“When you find a dead gator, they still have their teeth. The ones you never find, well nobody knows because nobody has ever found them.”

“So you think they lost their teeth?” Ross asked.

“I can’t say, like I said, nobody’s ever found one, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” I said.

“You lost me,” Ross said.

It wasn’t the first time I confused some poor unwitting soul while I spoke. What they never seem to understand is I was never really talking to them in the first place. Usually they get angry and storm out, thinking somehow, I was insulting them or questioning the veracity of their manhood. Although that did occasionally happen, mostly I was just enjoying the scenic route on my way to answering my own question. Even if it has nothing to do with the destination, a person hitching in the wrong direction is worth mentioning.

“I think what we’re looking for is a gator with a new tooth. He’s patient, watching you but you never know it. He’s slow when it’s cold, careful, and it’s cold now. He waits but never too long, he don’t need you, not yet. He’ll save you for later, on the bottom, in the mud. He ain’t evil, it’s just his way.”

What in God’s name was I hoping to find? My arms and shoulders ran the gamut of exhaustion. I didn’t think I could take another stroke, and then all of a sudden, I forgot I was tired. Tomorrow I’d be in hell, as if I died a terrible person. The conglomerate of my sins over-represented by exercise.

“How soon before we reach the campsite?”

“Hmmm, maybe four or five hours. We should be there in plenty of time to get set up before it gets dark,” Ross said.

“Dark? You’d better be kidding,” I said.

“Depends on the wind really,” Ross said, looking up at the sky.

“What happens in the wind?” I asked, genuinely ignorant.

“Well, canoes are designed for rough water, sort of,” Ross said.

“What do you mean, sort of?”

“They do great in the waves as long as you are going with the wind, or directly against it. It’s when you get sideways in big waves is when you get into trouble. Especially loaded, we’re tippier when we’re loaded.”

“That’s just great,” I said quietly to myself.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I said, are we in any danger?” Ross knew damn well those were not the words I mumbled.

“You’re always in danger up here. You always have to treat it that way. The minute you take your eyes off the prize, that’s when an accident can happen. One minute your walking down a portage trail and the next, you’re neck deep in the river.”

“Oh. You’re just what I needed,” I said sarcastically.

Ross laughed out loud, “Seriously though, let’s say you hit your head or something, could have been a lot worse than just getting wet and cold. Even then though, hypothermia is a real concern.”

“What about drowning?” I asked.

“Of course drowning, you’re surrounded by water. Wearing your life jacket though will pretty much eliminate that worry.”

“What about Gage? What are the odds of Gage drowning?” I asked.

His demeanor took a showbiz turn of epic proportions, only he wasn’t acting. The air got thicker, humid with the sort of discomfort you get when you’re the third eye, and the other two are fighting. Not getting any sort of response I set my paddle down and spun around in my seat to face him. Eye contact might help get me an answer, and besides that, I desperately needed a break.

“How does a man like Gage drown?”

Ross couldn’t look at me. I could see a glaze in his eyes as he stared at the past in the distance.

“No way he drowned,” Ross said so quietly I could barely hear him.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” I asked. Me cupping my ear was like printing his words in thick, block letters and showing them back to him on a protest sign.

“I said, no way Gage drowned. Not an f’ing chance.” This time he stared directly into my eyes and spoke loud and clear. Anger is a squeegee that wipes away tears.

“He was the best out here. Tough? You wouldn’t believe some of the things he’s done. Hell, he solo tripped the whole damn area. Weeks at a time out here. It’d be like you drowning in your living room.”

His living room reference made me think about a huge glass of red wine, the kind of glass you could take a bath in.

“Then what Ross? What happened to him? Or should I say, what do you think happened to him?”

“I don’t know,” he said, quietly again.

I could have let him off the hook right there because even though I knew he had ideas; he was clearly hurting about it. But, if it took your tears to reveal what was hidden on a page, I would make you cry a novel.

“Sorry bud, but I’m calling bullshit,” I told him in no uncertain terms.

Neither one of us were paddling now, a light breeze made small ripples on the water. The canoe spun slowly as we rode along on the sudden breath of cool air. Ross choked back his tears.

“It’s like, like he’s pushing us right now. Telling us to go somewhere, taking us there,” Ross said emotionally.

“Taking us where?” I asked.

“I wish I knew. I wish I knew what to tell you. I wish I knew what happened. I just know what didn’t happen. He didn’t drown. He didn’t just drop off the face of the earth either. So what? They gave me you. You, the girl that’s never been camping in her life. The girl that’s about as outdoorsy as my great Aunt Ethel in the nursing home. You’re apparently going to solve everything,” Ross ranted sarcastically.

I looked out across the water, letting the wind take my hair back, absorbing the sun on my face. I was angry at first, but it quickly faded into confidence and resolve.

“Look, I get it. You’re pissed. And you’re right, I’m most definitely not the outdoorsy type. But, that’s not why Marnie hired me either. Seems all the big, strong outdoorsy men weren’t good for crap when it came to finding out what happened to your friend. Marnie didn’t need a camping expert, she already had you. What she needed was an expert on missing persons, and frankly speaking, on murder.”

It was the first time during the whole epic that anyone had mentioned the “M” word. Call me jaded, but I considered the possibility before Marnie even left my office.

Ross’ forearms tightened as he gripped the paddle.  I was glad he was listening. His nerve was exposed, and I wanted to prick the tip of it with a pin. 

“And yeah, you heard me, I said murder. And I know damn well that you know more than you’re letting on. And, until you do, you, your great Aunt Ethel, and every other swinging dick that ever pitched a tent up here are on my short list. So right now, I just need you to get me there. Get me there and for the sake of your friend, tell me.”

I spun forward in my seat and picked up my paddle. Ross was already pushing water, putting us back on course with purpose. I was almost dry by the time we spoke again.

“We’ve got a few small portages coming up, nothing too extreme but watch your footing, one of them has a lot of exposed roots. Try to avoid them, they’re super slippery,” he said.

“Good tip, thanks.”

Land, unload, carry, carry, load, paddle, repeat. It was some form of hell I had not yet read about in any voodoo manual or cheap hotel bible. Maybe the world was waiting for me to write it. Hours toiling in the name of recreation wore my body to the nub.

“Ok, that was our last one for a while,” Ross said while loading the canoe.

“Thank frickin’ God,” I said, exhausted. 

“We have one more large section of water to cover and the breeze has definitely picked up, so…”

“So what?” I asked.

“So, we make sure all the packs are low in the boat, you know, nothing piled-up to keep our center of gravity as low as possible, and make sure all the weight is balanced. Oh yeah, and make sure your life jacket is buckled up tight,” he said.

Looking out over the water it didn’t look too bad. I could hear the wind more than I could feel it.

“At least it doesn’t look too wavy,” I said.

Steadying the boat while I stepped-in, Ross didn’t even look at me or respond. Somehow, I guess he expected I wouldn’t notice the nefarious joy behind his sudden and genuine smile.

Life was suddenly easy, every stroke seemed to move the boat twice as far as normal with the wind at our back. The picturesque bay we were in was giving way to the main body of the lake.

“Gage isn’t the only one to go missing up here in the last couple of years,” Ross said, out of nowhere.

“Yeah?” I suspected it was just a matter of time before he broke.

“People around here don’t really like to talk about it,” Ross said.

“Talk about what?”

“Missing people. It’s like, some guys sort of feed off it. You go into the bar and such and such or so and so comes up missing and people jump all over it with their, ‘See I told you he couldn’t handle it’ BS or something along those lines. They like to make it seem like because they live around here, only they can make it in the bush, like it’s a really big deal,” he explained.

“It is kind of a big deal. I mean, you’re out here in the middle of nowhere,” I said.

“You are, but with some experience It’s not really as much of an outward-bound type situation as some people think it is. They act like it’s theirs, like the whole area belongs to them and somehow if they make it sound tougher, people will stay away.”

“So you think locals are responsible for Gage’s disappearance?” I asked.

“No? I don’t know, it just pisses me off. Gage was more adept to this than any of those idiots hanging around in town. They couldn’t keep up with him if they wanted to, that’s the thing. I don’t even know what any of those morons could even do to him even if they wanted.”

I laughed a little at his assessment. I was only in town one day and I could tell he was on the mark.

“But wait, I thought you said people don’t like to talk about it,” I said.

“Smart people don’t. I didn’t really put too much stock into it until Gage didn’t come back,” he said.

“Stock into what?” I asked.

“Ross, stock into what?” I asked again after waiting too long for a reply.

“It’s just theories, conjecture at best,” Ross said.

“Well, I’ve got nothin’ but time at the moment. Indulge me.”

“There are some who think that there’s something, or maybe somebody out here, you know, taking people,” he said.

“Taking people? You mean killing people?”

“Nobody’s ever come back, so…yeah. I mean, I don’t want to think about him that way, like he was killed by some maniac, but it just doesn’t add up. Plus like I said, Gage was as tough as anyone you ever met. I can’t imagine someone forcing him to do anything against his will.”

“Even if they had a gun?” I asked.

“I guess, sure, I guess it could happen. I just don’t like to think about it.”

“You’d have to wonder why. Obviously, if no one has been found then they, or it, or whoever are going through the trouble of hiding the bodies. You have to wonder to what end,” I pondered.

That question has been rattling around in my head with the same marbles that kept me from sleeping the night before I drove up here. People kill for hate, anger, fear, even love. The old man who offs his dying wife will say he did it because he loved her, because he didn’t want her to suffer, but really, it’s fear. He’s afraid of her pain, what she is going through, I guess that could be love. Animals kill to eat, for territory, and in some cases for thrill.

We were here as a means to a reason. If that meant looking for a killer, then so be it, that would be reason enough. Whether or not the killer wore pants didn’t matter, either way, it was an animal. The cities are full of them.

My paddle caught a wave during a stroke sending a splash of water forward of the boat.

“Oops. Is it just me or is it getting kind of rough out here?” I asked.

“What was that?” Ross asked.

“I said, I think it’s getting kind of rough out here,” I said, louder.

“No shit. And that’s not the worst of it. We have to go that way,” Ross said, pointing with his paddle out over seemingly endless water.

“Once we get around this point, we’re going to be taking a pretty nasty headwind,” Ross said.

“What does that mean? I asked as we turned.

“What?” Ross yelled.

“What does that mean?” I yelled back.

He couldn’t hear me. The wind filled the entirety of my senses, I could even smell the breaking water as if fish and seaweed flew from wave mouths during a mid-meal, family argument. Between strokes the canoe seemed to stop, almost tracking backwards. The good news is, now I knew what he meant. The bad news was the wind was making it too hard to cry.

I’m not a big fan of cars, any cars. Car and motorcycle fandom can become a lifestyle, a kind of addiction. I’m already addicted to coffee, and maybe alcohol. That prognosis, however, would depend on the eggheads who penned the latest guidelines echoing how the people that paid them feel I should live my life. Nine hours in a car is nine hours I could have been doing anything else except sleeping. I don’t sleep. Honest clarification would include me admitting that I can’t sleep, unless I drink. Red wine, therefore, is medicinal.

Logic tells us that if you are afraid to cross the world’s tallest and most rickety bridge, you would want to get it done quickly. White-knuckle panic on the other hand, dictates that safely advancing with extremely limited tunnel vision at a break-neck eighteen miles per hour is in fact the proper crossing procedure. A chorus of car horns played harmonic surrogate to the radio that I couldn’t twist any more ‘off’ without breaking the knob. The concrete rainbow peering over the edge of this vast, great lake was my gateway to the north, a landmark that screamed from the heavens that I was finally getting somewhere, but the toll would cost me a piece of my sanity.

Buildings of any kind were becoming fewer and farther between as I trickled north. The road thinned-out and wound without mercy through a rocky forest. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without dropping it into a lake. That would have been my office cat. After nine hours on the road I needed two things, a bathroom and a drink. Luckily both were available at a bar called The Cabin, the place where I was scheduled to meet up with my wilderness guide extraordinaire, Ross Parent. I was told I couldn’t miss it, and if I did, just ask anybody because everybody knows where it is. Apparently, I wasn’t anybody, but soon, I’d be everybody.

I was late, and that was okay. I needed time to acclimate. I left the city the first of June and stepped out of the car sometime in mid-February. Walking through the front door I suddenly felt like I was on the menu. This crowd wasn’t used to me, a creole girl who hadn’t bothered to change into her new flannel shirt for the occasion. I walked hard, coaxing the heels of my tall leather boots to tell a different story than the harsh grip of pink timberlands.

“Beer please,” I said to the bartender.

Leaning towards me on the backside of the bar he looked towards the taps and then back at me.

“Any particular kind?” he asked.

I wasn’t much of a beer drinker but at that point in time it felt like the right thing to do.

“How about a Schmidt?” I said. When in Rome.

He cracked open a can and set it on the bar in front of me. He just sort of stood there, repeatedly wiping his hands with a rag. I could tell he wanted to ask me something and based solely on the silence, I’m guessing every other retired lumberjack in the place did as well. I’m nothing if not intuitively helpful.

“Hey, let me ask you something,” I said. He perked-up.

“You guys look like you’ve been around, you know, like you have your fingers on the collective pulses of the comings and goings around here. You ever hear anything strange about people coming up missing? I mean, I know people get lost and accidents happen, right? Maybe they weren’t prepared, or didn’t know what they were doing? I get that. I’m more interested in people maybe like yourselves, guys that are, you know, seasoned and know what they’re doing. People you would never expect to have a problem.”

I looked down the bar trying to keep everyone in view. The look on most of their faces was stoic. One guy smiled and shook his head and there was a lot of hemming and hawing among them.

“People die in the bush around here all the time. Every year,” one of the men said.

“Yeah, but do they always find the body?” I asked.

“What, are you some kind of cop?” one of the others asked. He was a human mountain with frying pan hands big enough to cook two pancakes and a side of scrambled eggs. He had obviously been over-served.

“No, I’m no kind of cop, just making conversation, that’s all,” I said.

Just about then my guide came barreling in the front door. “Gentlemen,” he paused when he saw me, “and lady. You must be Ms. Maximine. Ross Parent at your service.” He reached out to shake my hand while keeping his eyes focused on my high heeled boots.

“Philippine Maximine, pleased to meet you,” I responded cordially.

“You know this, this, lady?” frying pan hands asked Ross, except he tried his drunken best to make ‘lady’ sound as disparaging as possible.

“She some kind of cop or something?” Pan Hands asked.

Ross’ response and ensuing explanation was buried under my annoyed retort stating quite clearly that I had just told him that I was not a cop. Asking him if the extra chromosome that made him freak sized also caused him to be deaf, very ironically made the room go silent. Even the TV in the corner seemed to hush in anticipation.

“You don’t know what a chromosome is, do you?” I asked. Far be it from me to let a room be silent for too long.

With a mighty roar, Pan Hands jumped up off his bar stool. He placed his right mitt on Ross’ chest and swept him out of the way like yesterday’s news. With his left, he telegraphed a massive backhand that I’m quite sure would have finished me along with the scalloped potatoes and fried sausage.

“Just f’n try it big man!” I said confidently, holding the barrel of my pistol against his left temple.

Who knew if it was alcohol or loneliness? Usually, the two go hand in hand. Whatever fueled his rage distracted him long enough for me to draw my weapon. His eyes were sober enough to understand. They looked all around, individually making suggestive arguments to every other part of his body that moving in the opposite direction of that barrel was imperative. Pan hands huffed out the door and peeled out of the parking lot in a rusty, hollow sounding truck. Ross, along with everyone else in the bar was stunned. Once the shock wore off a couple of the older guys started to laugh.

“Did you see his face? He about shit!” one of them said as they laughed together.

“Lil’ lady, you’re alright in our book,” said another. “You’re gonna have your hands full with this one, boy.”

“Nine mil?” Ross asked, referring to my gun.

“Damn straight. It’s not the first time it got me out of a jam either,” I said.

“Seems to me you got yourself into the jam,” Ross said.

“Yeah, well, it’s what I do,” I said.

“What are you going to do if that guy comes back with a rifle or something?” Ross asked.

I spun slowly on the bar stool and looked him calmly in both eyes, “I’m going to shoot him in his God damned forehead. Now how about we get down to business?”

I wanted to make sure this kid knew I was no pushover. He had to know I was no sort of lady in distress, and he was under no obligation to return my missing slipper. He needed to know if I didn’t have it, it’s because I left it in someone’s ass. My mind wandered through the lanes of dozens of forgotten miles thinking about how I was going to get that point across. Thanks Pan Hands, the look on Ross’ face, was, satisfactory.

In my world, when an alarm goes off in the dark, you either grab a bucket of water or a gun. A gun was a bad thing for me to have this early in the morning, especially when there’s a gung-ho type, youth mountain man banging on my bunkhouse door. The large cup of gas station coffee he surprised me with may have saved his life.

“Mornin’! How’d you sleep?” He asked with oh so much cheeriness.

“First of all, I didn’t. Second, I hate you more than what’s healthy right now,” I told him as I went into the bathroom to get ready.

“Will there be a third?” he asked sarcastically.

I heard him. I thought about throwing something at him, something heavy, but I needed everything I had in front of me. I smiled to myself picturing the look that would be on his face if I came out pointing my gun at his head. Even answering him however was more effort than I was willing to put forth.

The drive to the landing point was shrouded in ominous darkness with the occasional patch of spooky fog. Wet cedars smelled like urban gardens after a flood.

“Your pack,” Ross said placing the large, blue backpack on the ground behind his truck.

“Okay, now what?” I asked.

“You carry it, that way,” Ross said pointing at a trail that disappeared into the forest.

“Carry it? I thought that’s why you were here,” I told him.

“Lady, I’m here to keep you alive. Stop when you hit water.”

The prospect of spending the rest of my life in jail was keeping him alive, barely. The pack, which had almost nothing I owned inside of it weighed more than a Volkswagen. Almost everything I brought along was hastily discarded in a pile of ‘don’t needs’ the day before by Mr. Outdoors himself.

“Oh. And grab a paddle. No sense in having empty hands,” he said, nearly singing it like it was a catchy little commercial jingle.

My disdain for him was growing.

“When are we going to get something to eat?” I asked.

“Eat? You should have eaten when you got up,” he said.

I was the proud recipient of that sort of stomach drop you get when you just find out a person died. As lost as I was in anger and personal life mismanagement at that moment, it could have been me, my death. Maybe Pan Hands really did hit me, and I was still laying on the floor in the bar.

“Here, I usually bring these for later, but here’s a granola bar to tide you over,” he said.

There was so much more to say, but none of it was kind. I stopped at the water as instructed. My foot slipped off of a shoreline rock. I remember it probably more slowly than it actually happened. From the minute I put the dark brown leather hiking boots on my feet, I concerned myself with stepping into water that was deep enough to go over the top. Expecting to immediately touch down, is much like expecting there to be one more stair at the bottom. The balance that you deem necessary to staying vertical in the next few crucial seconds suddenly becomes a failed war with no exit strategy. I would have never guessed that little creek, no wider than a two-car garage to be instantly two hundred feet deep. Now, I was awake.

Ross was a few feet behind me just standing there with a stupid grin on his face and an upside-down canoe on his shoulders.

“How’s the water?” he asked.

I pulled half my body up onto the rocks and blew the wet hair up away from my face. I wanted to say something witty, maybe mean, something that accentuated the cold that I felt and the defeat that was welling-up in my heart.

I had to decide if I was done, if I was going to quit. I had to decide if I was a fake, if I was just another chick in a unicorn show who’s favorite dolly just got smudged with the blood of her slave ancestors. I had to decide if I was going to give this strapping, young annoyance the satisfaction of substantiating the doubt hidden in his eyes the second he first saw my high heeled leather boots in the bar.

Only seconds had passed, but that was plenty of time for me to make the decision. I was never about satisfaction for anyone else and I wasn’t about to start now.

“Just a bit colder than I would have liked,” I said.

“You gotta watch your step,” Ross said.

“No shit.”

From my seat in the bow I felt exposed to the world behind me, without control. My job was to make sure we didn’t hit anything. It seems canoes aren’t all that tough, not like PI’s with wooden paddles. This whole trip was going to be a job. I knew that going in, but I didn’t really expect it. I needed more out of it than clues or money now.

My unintentional baptism was ordained by my new pseudo office cat. He was one of those sad people that did this sort of thing for fun. They enjoy the suffering, convincing themselves that they are part of something bigger, wrapped in their mother nature, suckling off her tit. Really, they are just pets. Goldfish, that are fed twice a day just swimming in circles until they get more flakes. Now that I’ve considered it, maybe I was the flake.

If I gave you a thousand guesses, you’d waste a million of em’ trying to figure out what happened. Where I went, how it all went down. You know what? It doesn’t even matter. The bottom line is I’m gone, kaput. I went out with the trash and I’m as forgotten as church keys and clean air.

Her? She’s a remnant of a bloodline planted as a result of way too much bourbon on Bourbon St. The dirt was a Cajun hooker who stole my heart and then my wallet. A daughter I never knew took to her mother’s side of the family business before she hooked-up with a low-end domino thumper. He ended up doing life plus 20 for trying to make her the 89th key. Over and over again.

This one ain’t going down like that. No way, not this dame. In fact, she ain’t going down at all. She’s tougher than a concrete nail and twice as hard to bend. Whatever she does, she does all the way, all out, all the time, to the max. She’s named after me, my granddaughter Philippine. Philippine Maximine. The last name rhymes with mean, that’s on her, that’s her baby. Probably the only one she’ll ever have.

P. Marlowe

***

Sometimes I wonder if I should clean the window. The outside may never be clean again. Probably hasn’t been since some guy slipped it into its frame a hundred years ago. I guess it would have to break into a million pieces before it would ever let light in again. Maybe next time it won’t be so distorted. There’s no real point in cleaning the inside anyways, unless I wanted to get a better look at the filth. The rusty downspout crawling down the brick building across the alley never seems to dry up. Drip, drip, drip every single minute of every single day, unless it’s frozen. This office wasn’t even new when they built it. It was born old, like me. An antique view of the backside of a modern world is exactly what I needed to see. No matter how fancy things get out on the street there’s always going to be trash.

I could tell it was a woman knocking based on her gentle attempt to live in a world without an electronic bell. That, and I heard her clomping down the hall. Women have a tendency to walk heels-hard on the ground. Even the lightest girl can make stacked plates rattle in the next room. It’s just something I always recognized so I try not to walk that way. My apartment has wood floors. Every so often I notice my walk sounding like approaching war drums and I change it up. I would hate for some other bitch to characterize me.

“Come in.”

The look of concern on her face had my mind racing. I couldn’t wait to find out why this woman wanted to hire a P.I. I gave up guessing years ago. Even when I was right, my mind wanted to walk an ever-narrowing hallway. Instinctively fitting pieces together to fit the puzzle I had already pictured. It’s better to be surprised, to have an open mind. You see more that way. Not that I wanted a baby, but if I ever had one, I wouldn’t want to know what it was. No gender reveals for me, just good old-fashioned stir-ups and a gorgeous father’s look of shock and awe.

“Ms. Maximine?” she asked.

“Philippine. Philippine Maximine. Phil, Philly if you’re an old man but never Max,” I said with a smile doing my best to be folksy.

I turned away from my office window and shook her hand. “Please, have a seat Ms., Mrs.?”

“Marnie, Marnie Fankowski. Pleased to meet you.”

I guessed her to be about thirty give or take. It’s harder to tell when a person has led a stressful life. She sat down in the metal chair in front of my desk. She tensely embraced the arms, crossed her legs and shimmied her back side into the flat cushion as if she was trying to fit it into a hole. It was an old precinct chair, a leftover from the days when they used to cuff the perp right to the chair. You can still run, but you’ll be a hell of a lot easier to catch when you’re dragging a heavy chair.

“Well Marnie Fankowski, what can I do for you today?” I asked as I settled into my much newer and more comfortable office chair 200 miles away from her on my side of the desk.

“Well, I’m here because of my brother,” she paused, seemingly struggling for words.

“Your brother who’s missing? In jail maybe? Could you be a little more specific?” I asked.

“My brother who’s dead,” she said.

“Okay,” now I was short for words.

“Let me be more specific. He has to be dead even though they never found his body. If he wasn’t dead, he would have made it back,” she said.

“Back? Back from where?” I asked.

“A camping trip,” she said.

“Where and when? Is this a local campground? Somewhere maybe he’s been to before? When did you last see him?” I opened the top left drawer of my desk and pulled out a notepad and a pencil. I liked to use pencil instead of pen. You ever try to sharpen a broken pen?

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” she said. “My brother, Gage, was a wilderness camper. He was up in a place they call the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. You literally paddle out into the wilderness with everything you need for the next couple of weeks and you know, live out there, in a tent.”

I was doing my best to hide my squint of disapproval. I’m a city girl. The closest I came to camping was sitting at the festival bar under the beer tent.

“He went out there, just like he’s done a hundred times. Even I’ve gone up there with him. When we were younger, when we were kids. Our parents started taking us up there when we were 10 or 12. It just sort of became an obsession with him. He lived for it. He went up there in the winter for God’s sake. There’s just no way that what they said happened really happened to him. He was safe, smart. Either they lied or they just don’t have any idea. I don’t know, it’s just so frustrating, I, I mean…”

“Okay, okay, let’s just slow down for a second and catch our breath. Can I get you a cup of coffee, maybe a bottle of water or something?” I asked her.

Mr. Coffee lived on the credenza in the corner next to a little college dorm room sized mini fridge. I poured her a cup and handed it to her whether she wanted it or not. She wanted it.

“Cream? Sugar?” I asked.

“No thanks, and thanks.” She held the full cup I just gave her up slightly in the air. The instinctive move a person makes when they use their drink to either politely or mockingly approve of a crappy speech.

“I just, you know I get worked-up when I think about it,” she said.

“Think about what exactly, Marnie? Honestly, you haven’t told me much more than your brother went camping and never came home. There’re quite a few different directions I could go from there. I don’t even know if there’s a case. Who’s they? What did they tell you? Just exactly what do you think happened?”

“Oh, there’s a case,” she snapped back.

“And ‘they’ are the Sheriff’s Department and the Forest Service. The so-called experts. They told us that he most likely drowned, and because of the size of the lake, the cold water, the animals, and the remote access that his body would most likely never be found. I mean, just like that, they look around for a while, don’t find him and wash their hands with the whole thing!”

“Marnie, how long ago did this happen? And really, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, but who’s to say they are wrong?” I asked.

“I am, and my mother! She’s dead now too and I know for a fact that this whole thing helped kill her. They found where he was camping. I can show you on a map exactly where he was. They brought back all his stuff. His tent, clothes, packs, even his fishing equipment. Did you hear what I said? His fishing equipment! Rods and reels, tackle box, everything!”

My zest for urban life and Marnie’s testimonial to fishing equipment had me admittedly flummoxed. After her rant it got so quiet in the room that we both turned our attention to something scratching inside the wall behind the plaster. I hear it all the time. I wonder if it’s a mouse, or worse yet a rat. That’s when I think about getting an office cat, but as I run through the scenario, I always scrap the idea. I’d have to bring cat food into the office which would look weird enough but not as bad as cat litter. Then I’d have the box, and I’d have to scoop out the poop. There’s the smell. I could bring a home cat back and forth, but I keep odd hours. Sometimes I might not get back here for days. I’ll just continue to be slightly sickened by thought of sharing space with rodents.

“Oh, oh, and I forgot to tell you. They found his canoe. It was a couple miles down the lake, just bouncing against the rocks, nothing in it. No paddles, nothing. And you see, that’s the thing. Gage was a fishing nut. That’s half the reason he went up there, to fish. There’s no way he went out and didn’t bring his fishing stuff with him. And the best, or maybe not the best, but you know what I mean. Maybe the best evidence was his life jacket. People that do this sort of thing regularly are like a community. Another camper found his life jacket floating all by itself in a different part of the lake and brought it to the forest service. So, not only would he never have gone out without his fishing stuff, there’s no way he wouldn’t have had his life jacket on either.”

“Okay, I get it, I do, but are we talking about something that happened last week, last month, last year?” I asked.

At this point I was feeling like she was just another familiar sole survivor. She missed her brother, she missed her mom, had nobody else and hadn’t quite accepted that reality yet. Her case was weak at best.

“When Marnie?” I asked forcefully.

“Last fall. Look, I know what you’re going to say but somebody had to have done something to him. I’m telling you; he was an expert in wilderness survival, he even wrote stories about it for outdoors magazines,” she said.

“Last year? Even if you’re right, by now, what can you hope to learn? Did Gage have any enemies that you were aware of? Personally, I don’t feel like the highly competitive world of outdoor writing is much like being James Bond but,” she interrupted me with a hard edge.

“You’re mocking me now, Max. See how you like it. I came here because you’re supposed to be different, not like everyone else. All the others asked the same questions, used the same mocking tones. I knew my brother, I knew him better than anyone else on the planet and I know in my heart of hearts that something horrible happened to him, and I want the people responsible caught, and punished.”

Her words left her mouth and went directly to the lump in my throat. I was embarrassed, I even felt a little guilty. She was good at this, probably catholic. I had to let the Max thing slide, I deserved it.

“I’m sorry, Marnie. Look, I’m glad you came to me and I can especially appreciate the reasons why. I’m just not too sure you have very much to go on. To be painfully honest with you, it sounds like nothing more than an accident. And let’s say for a second that maybe, and this is a big maybe, that you’re on to something. I’d have to go up there. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m not exactly the outdoorsy type. Not to mention the expense of you paying what may amount to an exorbitant amount of money for me to go on a camping trip.”

“Believe me Ms. Maximine, money is not an issue. As the sole proprietor of the policies of both my mother and brother I have unfortunately become extremely comfortable. And then there’s this, she reached into her purse, removed a torn-out page of a magazine and handed it to me.

“What’s this?” I Asked.

“This is a picture of Ross Parent. He was featured in one of the articles Gage wrote. It says a lot about his qualifications. I know he’s a little young, but he’s a fishing, slash wilderness guide up there. He works for a local resort and Gage knew him pretty well. He knows the area and has agreed to take whoever I hire into the bush to see if they, or more accurately, you, can find out what happened to Gage.”

Staring at the front page of the article I could barely believe that only a few minutes ago I was contemplating cleaning my office window. Now, here was this suddenly affluent woman offering to finance a camping trip with an overly cute kind of guy that makes you want to go out and buy a flannel shirt. From my bottom drawer I handed her a manila folder, with a contract.

“Read it through. It explains what I’ll do, what and when you’ll pay me. I make no guarantees besides this, I’ll go harder than the rest, always.”