The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 2

The cabin was originally built in 1908 by my paternal great-grandfather. It had been improved and expanded several times over the years, and at one point it had been the only cabin on Baker Lake. My great-grandfather had owned all of the land surrounding the lake, but he sold some of the land to fund other business ventures including the bank at which my grandfather and father had worked. My grandfather finished selling all of the remaining acreage save for the vast plot around the cabin on the west end of the enormous lake. The size of the family plot ensured that we’d never see another inhabitant around us, but most of the forest land that bordered our land had been donated to the National Forest Service decades ago by the estate of a wealthy landowner who had passed before he had had the chance to do much development. Some smaller landowners built a couple of cabins on the other side of the lake next to the winding, tar-and-gravel road that circumscribed the lake, but that was it. Our cabin was the perfect place to escape the world. Anything and nothing could happen and no one would ever know.

Electrical lines had been extended to the cabin in the early 1970s before I was born and before our father started bringing us here for our annual summer trips. Dad had probably done more to expand and improve the cabin than his father or grandfather had ever done. He added the second floor loft and another bedroom on the main floor. He had expanded the kitchen and made the living room much bigger with a grand fire place to match. He had also torn down the old porch and made it into a wrap-around structure that extended all the way out and over the lake for several feet. He had kept the rustic feel of the cabin while giving it a touch of the modern luxuries of the time.

As a kid, I loved the sound of the gravel popping beneath our tires when we turned off the road and snaked our way up the driveway toward the cabin. To this day, that sound reminds me of long summer days jumping off the dock into the cool lake water, as cliche a childhood memory as one could have. The cabin smelled old like a musty coat stored in an attic for years. The smell assaulted my nose on the first day at the cabin every year, but then, it faded as if the lake water we tracked from the dock to the kitchen and living room washed it away.

The sturdy cabin had survived decades in the withering environs of the Pacific Northwest. Snow piled up in the winter beating down its cedar shake roof. A constant light rain seeped into every crack and crevice of its walls during most of the year except for the glorious few months of the year when the sun warmed and dried its wooden walls. Even an occasional earthquake had rattled its foundation, but it withstood all of this, and every summer, when Dad yanked the wheel of the old Ford Bronco into that last bend of the driveway, I gleefully looked up at the expressive face of the cabin with the anticipation usually reserved for Christmas morning. The large windows above the porch gleamed at me, and the uneven porch roof line almost seemed like a smile. I used to think the cabin looked like a walrus smiling down at me from the last crook in the driveway. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the summer. I think Hank felt the same way because we’d both dart out of the car and rush to the cabin despite our parents’ pleas to help unload the car.

When we stayed here, we truly felt like a family even if that wasn’t the reality of our lives outside of Baker Lake. Mom and Dad acted like the ideal couple they portrayed back home in Portland, a mirage that belied the tension and mistrust that I never realized was there until much later. Hank, being older, had a much better sense of it, and given his impetuous nature, he often played them against one another.

Once, when I was eight or nine years old before Hank went totally off the rails, I remember being in the bedroom I shared with Hank, unable to sleep. I could hear Hank snoring, but all else was quiet. The windows were open because the unusually hot summer had overstayed its welcome, but a cool breeze rolled in off the lake buffeting the curtain sheers like some sort of Halloween ghost. The breeze felt good, especially since my bed stood right in its path, but my attention focused on the end of the dock where my parents sat next to each other in two of the Adirondack chairs. I could see their dark forms and hear the slight murmurs of their idle chat. I couldn’t clearly hear what they were saying, only one or two words traversed the space between us, but their voices were calm and steady. I watched as my dad leaned in and kissed my mom as the curtain shear batted the window. They held that kiss for the longest time. When he pulled away, my mom scooted closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. As much as I remember, they didn’t say another word in the swoon of the ambient light reflecting off the lake. I fell asleep with that comforting image of them in my head.

After Dad died, Mom did her best to keep the cabin up. She had mostly just updated the furnishings and appliances and decorated in a way that was clearly her style as far as I could tell. I hadn’t been to the cabin since Dad was alive, but Robbie had continued coming up here with Mom for many years afterward even while he was going to college on the East Coast. I couldn’t bear to come here without Dad, so I stayed away.

Eventually, Robbie stopped coming to the cabin too, and Mom made the trek on her own. She spent a lot of time up here before her health turned on her and she could no longer handle the drive. As far as I know, it had been four or five years since anyone had stepped foot in the cabin. The dust that covered everything told the same story.

Neither Hank nor Robbie had wanted the upstairs bedroom, so Hank took the one we had stayed in as kids and Robbie took his old bedroom. I was stuck in the bedroom that Mom and Dad had always taken when we stayed here. It felt weird being in that bedroom. I’d been in it plenty of times as a kid, but now as an adult, it felt like I was trespassing somehow.

Downstairs had grown quiet once Hank shut the door to his bedroom. He’d been loud and obnoxious after several beers, slurring his words and stumbling about as we had walked inside from the dock. I had said goodnight, but Hank just mumbled something incomprehensible and slammed the door. Robbie cut his eyes at me before he waved a wordless goodnight and clicked the door shut behind him after he flipped off the living room light. The tiny lamp in the loft failed to shine much light into the velvety darkness below. I stood there for a moment leaning on the loft railing looking at the blackened space my brothers had occupied. The ghosts of Hank and me trampled through the living room with muddy feet much to our mom’s protest. Robbie was so much younger than us that I hardly remembered him being here when we were kids.

After listening to Hank prattle on for much of the evening, I welcomed the silence. The long day and the tension had worn on me, and I felt tired, but when I turned out the lamp and lay back on the bed, my mind raced circles around me. The full moon brightened the room and gave the shadows a soft edge. I turned away from the windows, the sheers no match for the moon. I considered closing the curtains, but I wanted to wake up to the sunrise like I had on so many summer mornings as a kid. I turned over a few times before I sat up and stared into yawning space of the loft. I could hear the refrigerator humming below, but no other sound greeted my ears.

Finally, I got out of bed and walked over toward one of the big windows. I parted the sheer and glared out onto the dock below. The three Adirondack chairs sat near the water’s edge, dark shadows in the bright moonlight. They were empty of course, but for a moment, I thought I saw Mom and Dad sitting down there, fingers intertwined leaning into each other as they watched the ripples of the lake bat the moonlight. I blinked a few times and they were gone, but something heavy weighed on my chest.

I wondered what they would make of the three of us here at the cabin again. The last time we were all here at the same time, Robbie was still a little boy. Hank had only begun to cause trouble, and I still idolized my older brother in spite of the cracks that had formed in our relationship.

The memories rushed back to me again. Mom and Dad were young again. Robbie was an ambling toddler whom we had to keep away from the edge of the dock. Hank stood tall and lanky with the awkwardness of a teenager, and I was the fawning younger brother who wanted to do everything his older brother did. That time seemed simpler and happier despite the complications that were brewing, but maybe I just felt that way because that’s the way everyone views their youth. Things always seem simpler and easier when you’re young because adulthood is ugly and messy and burdened with the weight of experience.

A young Hank chased me to the edge of the dock below. I jumped in the air and hugged my legs to my chest before I cannonballed into the water. He slid to a stop at the edge of the dock laughing along with me as he teased me from up high. I swam further away from the dock taunting him between my huge gulps of air. Mom sensed we were getting out of hand and gave us a warning. Hank ignored her. He always did. He jumped into the water after me, and I swam frantically to the other side of the dock. I heaved myself up onto the dock and ran away just as Hank tried to grab my ankle from the water below. My laughter almost toppled me, but I made it to Dad’s side under the porch awning before Hank could pounce. Hank stopped a few feet from us and glared at me.

“Henry, will you tell them to stop horsing around before one of them gets hurt?” my Mom pleaded from the chair next to Dad’s.

Dad lifted his head up and looked at us from behind his mirrored sunglasses. I couldn’t tell, but he had been napping in the shade of the porch. “Ellen, boys will be boys. Let ‘em have fun.” His voice was groggy but firm. My mom sighed her displeasure and shot Hank and me a stern look. I made a beeline for the edge of the dock again and dove into the water. This time Hank came in right after me, but the game of pursuit abruptly ended when we saw a duck on the edge of the lake and decided to pursue it. Those summers were like that, joyous and meandering and seemingly never-ending.

Pine Mountain: Mimi Slater

Mimi Slater is one of the primary characters in a prospective novel called Pine Mountain. Here’s her character backstory.

Maria Robinson was the first of ten children born in 1950 to a poor family in the foothills of the Appalachians in a town called Pine Mountain. Her father was known for being a deacon in the local Baptist church, but to Maria he was a drunkard and an abuser, and that mattered more than any religious facade he built around his family. As her siblings proliferated, she found herself duty-bound to help her overwhelmed mother care for the new babies that arrived every other year without fail.

It was from the mouth of one of those babies that survived, her brother Bernard, the fourth and final brother, that she obtained the nickname Mimi. He had great difficulty saying her given name and settled on Mimi, which the whole family adopted until it eventually became the only name she knew. Everything in her life revolved around caring for her siblings because her mother needed the help and her father demanded it. Nothing was hers, not even her room, which she shared with four of her sisters.

Hers was a life of drudgery early on. Although she went to school once she was old enough, even that was not an escape from the family life that weighed on her. She often missed school to work at home, so much so that she fell behind and began to dread going to school and feeling so lost. At least at home, she knew what she had to do. She struggled to read and even basic math was a challenge for her. Her frustration was such that she didn’t resist when her father kept her at home for good after the eighth grade, which she was destined to repeat again anyway.

After she turned 15, she found her escape when she met John Slater, a man ten years her senior, who worked with her father at the local textile mill. Like Mimi, he had dropped out of school, but unlike her, he was not bound to a life at home. He courted her secretly and promised her a much better life than what she had. A few months into their courtship, she found herself pregnant. Her father, fearful of losing his most reliable worker among his brood, beat her senseless and forced her to marry John. He didn’t like John, but her pregnancy forced him to concede to their marriage to maintain the standing of the family name in the community.

Not long after they were married and moved into a house near her parents, Mimi lost the baby when complications emerged during the pregnancy. John blamed her for the loss of what he was sure was his first son. Further efforts to have children proved futile and Mimi realized that the passion she had briefly experienced in their courtship had faded and been replaced by a simmering contempt, but they stayed married because Mimi didn’t know what else she could do. Instead, she continued to help her mother with her siblings and take care of John when he returned home from work.

Eight years after that first pregnancy had ended, Mimi was pregnant again, and she had her first child, a son, whom John named Eric after his uncle whom had been like a father to him. In quick succession, she had a girl that John named Randi (he had wanted another son) and a boy named Mark whom John named after another favorite uncle of his.

Like her father, John was abusive. He didn’t strike her often, but a day didn’t go by without her feeling inadequate in his eyes in some way. She turned a blind eye to his alcoholism. She never had the courage to confront him or leave him. Instead, she sat stoically by his side until his death before his fifty-third birthday.

Her children should have been her salvation, an outlet to a better perspective on life, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. They outgrew her in ways she never imagined or completely understood. Her sons distanced themselves from her, and her daughter rebelled. Just as they were coming of age, John died, and all hell broke loose. Eric left for college and never returned. Randi became pregnant, but she didn’t know who the father was and instead moved in with another man who had lived down the street from them. Mark drifted away disappearing for long periods of time after he graduated high school before he finally moved out for good in his early twenties.

By her fiftieth birthday, Mimi found herself alone in the dilapidated old house she had lived in since she married John. Her parents were long-deceased and her numerous siblings had left town moving further into the Appalachians or, in some cases, into the cities and towns at the foothills of the venerable mountains. Her job at the local grocery store kept her afloat, but just barely.

Randi lived in Pine Mountain and would visit her often with her young daughter in tow. Although Mimi loved her granddaughter, the little girl was petulant and prone to manic temper tantrums that left Mimi shaking with anxiety. Mark would go weeks without calling or visiting her, but he lived in the city and had a busy life of his own. Eric had moved away for college and moved to New York City where he had a big job and a gorgeous wife and a young son, neither of whom had Mimi met. She hadn’t spoken to Eric in years, but to be truthful, she hadn’t made an effort to do so. He hadn’t left home under the best of circumstances. She had resigned herself to losing her oldest child forever until he knocked on her door one day.

The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 3

I watched the big windows in the bedroom light up with the sunrise. The moon had kept the room bright all through the night, but as it receded the dim shimmers of dawn clawed across the Cascade Mountains in the east and then brightened into a swirl of pinks and oranges before the sun crowned the jagged mountains. I tossed and turned in the early morning hoping to find some semblance of sleep before the daylight pulled me from the bed, but I threw in the towel as my mind raced around all of the scenarios that had led us to this point.

I sat up on the edge of the bed sliding the balls of my feet on the cool hardwood floor. All was quiet in the cabin save for the usual creaks of an old house. I stood up and stretched and walked over to the windows still aglow in the soft sunrise. Outside, a glorious September day began to unfold. The sky, clear as far as I could see, seemed to sparkle in the yawning daylight. A cool breeze ducked into the crack of the window and chilled my legs. It felt good, relaxing. For the first time in a long time, I felt good or maybe I just felt different so far removed from my life in San Francisco.

The lake simmered beneath my window, a mist coiled across its surface as if it were a giant cauldron. The Adirondack chairs still sat at the edge of the dock, empty but watching over the peaceful lake. The serenity of it all brought back many good memories from decades ago.

Dad liked to fish off the dock in the early morning. There were many mornings when I spent time here as a kid that I’d wake up and find him sitting on the edge of the dock in one of the chairs with the fishing rod wedged between his knees. He’d have a cup of coffee resting on the arm of the chair that was so hot I could see the steam rising from its mouth. He’d lightly tug the rod and then take a sip of coffee and repeat the movements over and over until a fish grabbed his line. On some mornings he’d catch a fish or two, and on others, his bait would go unnoticed. On those mornings when the fish ignored him, he’d curse his luck as he reeled in his line for the last time. He’d down the last of his coffee or toss the remnants into the lake. Then, he’d lean his rod against the back wall of the porch and slink inside the cabin to take a nap.

Dad never said much while he sat there fishing. Sometimes, I’d tiptoe outside, he hated it when we made too much noise on the dock when he was fishing, and sit on the gray planks next to him. He’d say “good morning,” but not much else. I’d glance at him from time to time, but mostly, I’d stare out over the glassy lake watching his line cut through it like a surgical knife making a precision cut.

He looked so serious when he was fishing as if he were studying the countenance of the lake for clues about where the fish were. In all my childhood memories on the dock at Baker Lake, he was younger than I am now, but I always noticed something about him that suggested time was slipping away from him like the crinkles at the corner of his eyes, the graying hair that flared back from his temples, or the loss of firmness in his chin. I noticed these things. I don’t know why, but they jumped out to me even when I was too young to appreciate their meaning. Of course, as I got older, I learned what troubled him most. Time makes you irrelevant. One day you wake up and you no longer matter.

I heard the door squeak and clank shut beneath me. I looked down from the window and saw Hank shuffling toward the lake. He still wore his t-shirt and pajama bottoms and his feet were bare. His disheveled hair looked like a crashing wave atop his head. He had a beer in his hand and took a sip as he walked toward the chairs. I watched as he plopped down into one of the chairs on the edge and leaned back. He took a long swig of the beer and sat it down on the arm of the chair. He sat motionless looking out over the lake.

I watched him there for a few seconds, stunned by how much he resembled Dad. Replace the beer with a coffee cup and put a fishing rod in his lap, and Hank could be Dad from all those years ago. Nostalgia gnawed at my gut, but I pushed it down with all of the other things that I didn’t want to feel and grabbed my phone to check the time. It was just after seven in the morning. I put on my old Stanford hoodie and hurried down the stairs.

Hank hadn’t bothered to start any coffee. Maybe he didn’t drink it anymore, but more likely, he didn’t think of anyone but himself. I started the coffee maker before I walked out onto the dock to join Hank. He didn’t turn around when the door clanked shut behind me, and I didn’t make any effort to be quiet. My footsteps thumped across the old planks, the wood rough beneath my bare feet.

I sidled into the chair next to him. “Good morning,” I said as I sat down.

He kept his eyes on the lake for a moment longer. Then, he glanced at me and replied, “Good morning.” He took a sip of his beer and returned his focus to the lake.

“A little early for a beer don’t you think?”

He looked at the can as if he were reading the label for the first time. He rolled it around in the palm of his hand. “Aren’t you a little old to be wearing a college sweatshirt?”

I laughed, and Hank did too, but only half-heartedly as if it weren’t really a joke.

“Are you supposed to be drinking alcohol?”

“No one told me I can’t.” Hank seemed aggravated by my suggestion. “Why did you buy it if you thought I couldn’t drink it?”

“I didn’t. That’s Robbie’s beer. He brought it.”

Hank considered this and took another sip from the can. He looked at me defiantly for a moment and then resumed his soliloquy with the lake. The steam continued to evaporate on its surface in the increasing warmth of the sunrise. I watched a bird fly across the lake shuddering its wings above the water.

“Do you want some coffee?” I asked sensing that the coffee maker must be done by now.

Hank considered it. “Actually, would you grab me another beer?”

I shot him a look but he kept his eyes on the lake. I relented. “Sure.”

Hank remained in the same catatonic trance when I returned to the edge of the dock with a cold beer in one hand and a hot coffee in the other. I shoved the beer in front of him and that broke his trance. He thanked me before he popped it open and took a long swig. I sipped my coffee and kept the cup in my lap as I sat back in the chair. A bird whooped on the edge of the lake. I heard a flutter of wings but I couldn’t see anything take flight. A slight breeze rustled my hair. Hank remained silent.

The sky ripened into a deep blue above us. The mist went about its merry way across the surface of the lake receding to the tall grass at the edge. The sun cast a warm, golden glow onto the dock and the back of the cabin. Save for the flap of wings or the erratic call of a bird, the world around us was muted. Normally, I’d relish the silence, a break from my usual hectic days, but here, sitting next to my older brother, an enigma in his own right, I could only anticipate what would or needed to be said next. I formed one-sided conversations in my head, but none seemed a good entry into my brother’s world. Finally, Hank relieved me of my internal anguish.

“I wish things were different,” he said.

I turned to look at him, but he remained focused on the lake. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but my hesitation didn’t discourage him from continuing.

“I wish Dad were here so I could take back my last words to him. I really do. I was angry then. I felt like a disappointment, not just to him, but to myself as well. It put me in a bad place. After all that happened, my biggest regret is what I said to him when they dragged me from the courtroom.”

His words floated across the lake and stared back at us, stark and unflinching. I’d been careful not to mention Dad during the drive up, and I had advised Robbie to do the same. He had reluctantly agreed despite his contention that Hank was a grown man and had to take his lumps. I’d argued that he’d taken his lumps for the past 20 years and that what he needed now was his family, or what was left of it.

“We all make mistakes,” I replied. I tried to think of Hank as one of my patients to keep myself steady and calm, but I could feel the old emotions rising up in my chest like the remnant of a greasy meal. I swallowed the words I wanted to say.

Hank nodded as if he had come to the slow realization that what I said was true. “Some more than others,” he said. He took another sip from his beer and then crushed the can between his thick fingers. He balanced the crumpled can on the arm of the chair.

The door behind us squeaked open and clanked shut. The sound reverberated past us and across the lake. It startled me in the moment, but I shook it off as Robbie’s heavy footsteps approached.

“You guys are up early,” Robbie said as he stepped in front of us and took the chair on the other side of Hank.

“What time is it?” Hank asked.

“8:30-ish,” Robbie replied as he glanced at the screen of his phone. He sat his phone on the arm of the chair and looked at us expectantly. Unlike us, he had combed his hair and changed out of his pajamas.

“That’s not early,” Hank said.

“It is for me,” Robbie said.

Hank laughed. “I can’t believe you’re a grown-up.”

“Why not?” Robbie asked. He made no attempt to hide his irritation. I could see the redness rising in his face like some sort of warning light.

Hank looked at him in mocking disbelief. “Because you’ll always be my baby brother. It’s hard to imagine you as anything but that.”

Robbie took umbrage at his comment. He’d never learned how to keep his emotions in check or how to keep a straight face. He was like our mom in that regard.

“I’m almost 40 years old. I’m hardly a baby. At least I’m – “

“He’s here to celebrate your freedom, Hank,” I interrupted. I knew where Robbie was going, and I had to cut him off before he inflamed old wounds. Our long weekend was just starting and to have him and Hank already fighting would make for a miserable experience. There had been moments on the drive up when I thought the trip would unravel before it even began, but I had managed to keep Robbie at bay while giving Hank room to venture out into the world he’d but shut off from for so long even if his part of that world had been taken away.

The Legend of Loowit

I love Indian legends and the Pacific Northwest, so it’s only natural that the two would come together in my writing. Here’s the new opening chapter for Into the Caldera.

Jenn Wallace stood frozen in her tracks, her feet firmly planted on the rocky path beneath her. Her shoulders slumped forward and her hands hung loosely by her side as she glared ahead. She felt sullen, agitated. Her mother, and her mother’s boyfriend, Carl, walked up ahead, fingers intertwined. He had leaned in and kissed her mother on her forehead in a way that Jenn had not recognized before, and her mother had fawned, eyes blinking and upturned, at him as he smiled back at her. They had paused for a moment to make this exchange and then moved slowly further up the trail that winded beside Mt. St. Helens. They did not notice that Jenn had stopped. She exhaled a low whine.

Jenn looked down at her scraped shin, speckled with dry blood and bluish skin. She winced and bent down to touch it. The press of her finger tips sent a current of pain to her brain and she whimpered. Anger replaced the pain. She wanted to yell out to her mother for forcing her to go on this trip. She didn’t want to go camping. She didn’t want to climb over the endless sea of rocks. She had wanted to stay home.

The adults kept moving forward, ignoring her. She looked away in anger and scanned the space around her. Tears welled in her eyes blurring the landscape, but the sheer vastness of it all made her feel isolated and alone, even more than she did at home with her mother and Carl. Before Carl came along, her mother had mostly focused on her in spite of a long line of boyfriends who dipped in and out of her life. None of them ever stuck around, like her faceless father, and Jenn was secure in the knowledge that she remained the center of her mother’s world. She savored the attention like a warm blanket on a cool fall morning when she cuddled up next to her mother on their back porch. Then Carl entered their lives.

The adults stopped moving, and Jenn swiveled her head toward them in time to see her mother glance back at her. “Sweetie, are you okay? Does your leg still hurt?” She broke away from Carl and walked back toward her daughter, a somber sheen covered her overt happiness. When she reached Jenn, she squatted down in front of her and looked at her rash-covered shin. She touched it gently. Despite the pain, her mother’s warm touch made her feel instantly better, but Jenn didn’t betray her predominant emotion.

“It’s obviously bruised but there’s no more bleeding and I don’t think it’s swelling,” her mother said, her voice lapsing into the caretaker mode that always made Jenn feel warm inside her chest.

“It hurts,” Jenn pouted.

“Sweetie, it’s going to hurt for a while, but you’re fine otherwise. It’s just a bad scrape. Those rocks are nasty,” she said nodding back the way they had come.

“I want to go home.”

“Sweetie, we have to go back that way over those same rocks if we go home now.”

“I don’t care. I want to go home.”

Her mother sighed. Jenn recognized the sigh as one that she used to tamp down the emotional hailstorm that would come if her daughter kept pushing. She had pushed her mother past that point many times. She both feared and savored the reaction. Making her mother lose control satisfied her in a way that she had yet to understand. She liked the power she had in those moments like the bitter taste of blood after biting her lip.

“Come on, Jenny, you’ll feel better once we set up the campsite and you can lay in your sleeping bag,” Carl interjected still standing in the spot where her mother had left him. Jenn glowered at him beneath the wisps of blonde hair that had escaped her ponytail. She hated that he called her Jenny. She hated that he was here at all. She wanted him gone so that she had the totality of her mother’s attention.

Carl’s expression turned serious and he tugged his head to the side indicating that he wanted to keep moving forward. Her mother nodded and turned back to Jenn. “Sweetie, we have to keep going. We’re almost at the spot where we can set up camp.” She unfolded carefully to balance the backpack strapped to her shoulders and stood up taller than her 12-year-old daughter. Her mother’s dark hair, so unlike hers, swung freely as she righted herself on the rocky trail.

“I’m tired. I don’t want to walk anymore.”

“We’re almost there. Once you get a good night’s sleep, you’ll feel so much better,” her mother pleaded. “I promise.”

Her mother took a step forward but held out her hand to her only child. Jenn refused to take it. Her mother held her gaze for a moment longer before she sighed again and walked ahead without her daughter. Jenn twisted her face into an angry scowl as she watched her mom hold her hand out for Carl up ahead. Carl stared hard at Jenn, but her mother said something she couldn’t quite hear and they resumed walking ahead.

Her mom and her boyfriend grew smaller on the trail before Jenn finally caved and trotted forward in their wake. She didn’t run, but she shortened the gap enough to keep them close without appearing too cooperative.

She watched Carl from behind. His backpack jostled side-to-side with each step he took. He stood a good foot taller than her mother, but he was lumpy and balding. His hair, dark like her mother’s, receded in the front and from a spot on the crown of his head. He vainly tried to disguise his hair loss with long strands of hair that he combed over both gaps on his head. He looked goofy, unkempt. It didn’t help that he had a bushy, walrus-looking mustache that curved around his upper lip like a prickly caterpillar. He also wore round-frame glasses that darkened in the sunlight and looked like cheap sunglasses.

He strutted forward hand-in-hand with her mother. They hardly noticed her. Her mood simmered around Carl. She hated the way he dressed, too. Normally, he wore ill-fitting jeans and a ratty t-shirt that hung off his growing gut. He often sported a white pair of tennis shoes that, despite being scuffed and worn, shined brightly whenever he wore them, often outshining the fading white socks he wore. Jenn wrinkled her nose as she thought of all the times Carl had taken off his shoes in their living room to watch a movie with them and she could smell the taint of sweaty feet that filled the air.

She didn’t understand why her mother liked Carl. She could get better. Way better. This was the man that stuck out of all of the men her mom had dated. What did her mother see in Carl that she didn’t see in some of the others. She raffled through the ones she remembered, and almost all of them were better looking than Carl. She imagined her dad looked much better than Carl, too, but she could only imagine it since she had never seen him.

These thoughts beat a path through her mind as she reluctantly trod through the deepening sand that encircled the sweeping blast sight on the north side of Mt. St. Helens. She hated Carl. That much she knew. A bird call distracted her and pulled her attention toward the mountain. The trail clung to the hillside that had bore the brunt of the eruption many years ago, and as she came to a stop, the sand swallowed the tips of her shoes.

A lone black bird flew overhead and she watched it do a couple of loops under the steel-gray clouds that hung overhead. Most of the summer had been sunny and pleasant, but the day they had planned this camping trip had been unusually cloudy and threatening, an umbrage to the anger she felt, but something in the lonely call of the singular bird flipped her mood momentarily.

Carl had been good to her mother and to her too. He tried really hard to help her on her homework, and he picked her up from softball practice more often than not. He said goodnight to her every night and kissed her on the forehead in a way that she imagined her dad would do were he around. He made her mother laugh and smile, and he made her brim with a happiness that Jenn had not seen in her earliest memories of her mother. In many ways, he had done things that her dad would have done.

“How about there?” Carl said, puncturing the quiet that had fueled Jenn’s thoughts. She followed his chubby hand to the top of the sandy hill. Long grass waved above them in the light breeze that ran up the hill and danced circles around them.

“Looks good to me,” her mother replied, but Carl was already halfway up the short incline as if he’d made the decision and had only asked as a means to further their conversation.

Jenn watched her mother climb up the sandy hill, her feet slipping. She remained upright in spite of the loose footing and the pack that threatened to pull her backwards. Once she stepped on the plateau above Jenn, she turned toward her daughter. “See, I told you it wasn’t too far.” Her voice sounded apologetic, conciliatory.

Jenn trudged up the hill and dropped her backpack near the edge. She watched as Carl and her mother began to unravel their big packs on the grassy area beside her. “This is going to be a gorgeous view in the morning,” her mom cooed. She used that overly-pleasant voice that irritated a certain pre-teen.

Jenn spun back around toward the mountain. It looked glum under the stark grayness that swallowed the sky. The pale earth that clung to its sides looked like the skin of a dead person, or at least how Jenn imagined a dead person’s skin would look. She squinted into the distance through the gaping hole left by the eruption.

“Where’s the cone?” she asked aloud.

At first, no answer came behind her, but before she could ask again, Carl replied, “It’s there. We just have to get closer.”

“Can we get closer?”

“Of course.”

“Can I go there now?”

“Hold on a moment and we’ll all go,” her mother replied before Carl could answer.

Jenn thought that she’d challenge her mother and beg to go by herself, but the gaping hole in the mountain looked lonely and scary in a way that unsettled her. The whole area around the mountain was beautiful, but the mountain itself was something else. She had seen the video of the eruption and its aftermath, and she had read stories of that day in May 1980, but it felt like ancient history to her since she was born 17 years later. Nonetheless, the destruction that happened then left her in awe, scared her. She suddenly felt an irrational fear that the volcano would erupt at that very moment and that she and her mother would be eviscerated like that old man who had lived on the lake that had sat at the base of the mountain before it erupted.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. “You ready to climb closer?” her mother asked.

She nodded, and Carl appeared in front of her and began the trek down to the mountain. He leaned back against the downward-sloping incline to keep his balance making his gut stick out even more. Her mother fell in behind him and she nipped her mother’s heels as she joined the winding path downhill. After they reached the bottom of the hill, it began a long arc upward. Jenn bounced up the hill despite the irritation on her shin, but Carl and her mother labored as each step up revealed another and then another. The climb wasn’t particularly steep, but it was enough to wear down an adult.

Finally, they reached the top of the gap in the north side. Jenn arrived first and stood up straight looking into the mouth of the volcano. Carl joined her moments later and bent over to catch his breath. He wheezed so loud and dramatically that Jenn thought he would throw up, but he gathered himself enough to help her mother onto the ledge that teetered on the edge of the caldera.

“Wow, it’s so beautiful!” her mother exclaimed. Jenn ignored her; she just stared into the giant bowl formed by the eruption. The landscape looked foreign, like Mars, if its soil were gray. The cone stood off-center in a sea of pallid rocks. The breeze that had swirled around them earlier had fallen still as if the cavernous caldera had swallowed it. Jenn felt insignificant in that spot, like a grain of sand in an endless beach. Despite standing next to her mother and Carl, a loneliness overwhelmed her, a familiar feeling that made her wonder about her place in the world and whether she really belonged in it.

“What do you think, Sweetie?” her mother asked breaking away from a conversation with Carl that Jenn had largely tuned out.

“It’s lonely,” Jenn replied. Her mother’s smile faded as she turned from her daughter and looked into the mountain again.

“It is, but we’re here with you.”

“I know, but it’s still lonely.” She took a deep breath. “And scary.”

“Don’t be such a downer. It’s beautiful and amazing at the same time,” Carl interjected.

Jenn frowned at him, but he seemed undeterred in his enjoyment. She remembered that she hated him, and as he stood there on the ledge overlooking the vast gap in the mountain, she wondered what would happen if she pushed him over the edge. She eyed the sea of rocks beneath them rippling with sharp edges. If Carl were gone, her mother would have no choice but to return her attention to her only daughter. His deep voice shook her free of her sordid fantasy.

“Do you know the Indian legend behind Mt. St. Helens?” Carl asked. She shuddered to the present and looked at him, but he kept his focus on her mother.

“No, tell me,” her mother replied. Her smile grew as she looked at Carl.

Carl looked at Jenn. “What about you?”

Jenn pursed her lips. She wasn’t in a mood for one of Carl’s stories, but she relented. “Yeah, sure.” Carl seemed very pleased with her response.

“The Puyallup Indians tell a story of two braves who fell in love with a beautiful maiden named Loowit. They were powerful and courageous and they both wanted the love of the maiden,” Carl began. He paused for a moment before he continued. “They were gravely jealous of each other because they thought the other had the attention of the fair maiden. Well, both of them couldn’t have her, so they fought over her destroying villages and killing people in the wake of their battles. Finally, a great Chief, angered by their behavior, decided to punish the braves and the maiden, too. He cast a spell that turned all three into stone. The two braves became Mt. Adams to the north and Mt. Hood to the south. Loowit became Mt. St. Helens. Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood both look toward St. Helens in perpetual desire for something they can never have.”

“Oh, that’s such a sad story,” her mother said.

Jenn had followed Carl’s gestures to the north and south looking for the mountains he had named, but the clouds obscured her view on the horizon. “It’s a stupid fable,” Jenn said.

Her mother looked at her like she was offended. “Jenn, don’t be so cynical! I love Indian legends. They’re always so in tune with the natural surroundings.”

Jenn bit her tongue and returned her gaze into the gap below. Her mother and Carl chatted beside her but she ignored them. Instead, she thought of the story Carl had just told. What must it have been like to have been Loowit? Why was she punished because of the behavior of two stupid boys? It made no sense. None of it did. It was silly to think that someone could be turned to stone, much less a mountain, but it wasn’t silly that a girl would suffer because of the actions of a boy. That really happened. All of the time. She kicked the earth with her right boot, and tiny rocks skittered over the edge and bounced down the mountain. She vowed to never let it happen to her. Ever.

Concept: Pine Mountain

The worn gravel popped under his tires as he turned off the main artery that winded through Pine Mountain and snaked its way toward the mountain from which the town borrowed its name. Eric Slater peered off into the distance before his car completed the turn onto his mother’s driveway, beyond the sway of the southern pines that crowded against the road, and eyed the mountain’s gentle slopes. Nothing, it seemed, had changed in his hometown, most certainly not the mountain. He had spent his entire childhood in its shadow hoping to one day escape the gravity of its orbit only to find himself at its feet over four decades later.

A smirk tightened his lips. The grit of a long road trip with the top down speckled his teeth, so he wiped them clean with the tip of his tongue. The dry taste unleashed the thirst that had built up over the last few miles after he had exited Interstate 75 and made a beeline toward the small town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. The driveway dipped and he heard a scraping noise that, at first, made him wince for his car, but then, he realized he didn’t care anymore. He throttled the accelerator and pulled through the washed out section of the driveway until he climbed the hill and nosed the car into a shade near the edge of the old porch.

He killed the engine and leaned back into his seat exhaling his relief at having finally arrived. His stomach churned, a knot of angst broiled within him. His breakfast hadn’t settled with him too well. Maybe it was true that he could no longer eat greasy diner food without any remorse. He stepped out of the car and hesitated just a moment before he took the four steps onto the porch. If his mom was at home, she hadn’t noticed a visitor, or she was avoiding him. He hoped she wasn’t home.

He took in the old house, inhaled the scent of rotten wood and southern pine that surrounded him. The house, his childhood home, had been built by his great grandfather back when the town was first settled. His grandfather had tacked on a few rooms including a bathroom that had clearly been an afterthought. His father had simply maintained it, replacing old clapboard when it needed it and adding a fresh coat of white paint every so often.

Eric loved and hated the old house. He loved the grand, wide porch that hugged two sides of the house. He and his brother, Robert, had spent many days on the porch playing or waiting out the inevitable southern gully washers that struck during the long, hot summers. He could still see the steam rising off the earth and smell the pristine air cleansed after a hard rain. He took a deep breath trying to capture the wonder of so many years ago. He needed something to remember fondly.

Surprised that his mom still had not acknowledged she had a visitor, he shook himself free of his recollection and stepped toward the rickety screen door and pulled the handle. The warped, wooden door rattled in place but refused to budge. He looked inside the screen and could see that it was latched. The screen door had never been latched in all of his memories of his childhood. That thing had swung freely and wildly in every single thought he had about the old house. He distinctly remembered how it had clattered loudly when he stomped out for the last time so many years ago. It had played prominently in the soundtrack of his early life, but it had never been bolted shut.

He looked at the door on the other side with its rippled glass panes. Yellowed curtains covered the windows, and flakes of white paint shimmied across its surface. He held his breath for a moment and listened. Nothing. He looked back at his car, and, for a brief moment, felt tempted to drive off without a word, but he had nowhere else to go. All of his options had been exhausted. That was the only reason he stood on his mother’s porch at that very moment.

Instead, he turned back toward the bowed screen door and knocked on it. The door clacked and rattled in its frame making more noise than his pathetic knock. After the noise dissipated, he listened for footsteps on the other side. He knew the creaky plank floor announced every single step loudly, so he’d hear his mom approach. Again, he heard nothing. He knocked again but much harder. The sound could have raised the dead.

After a few seconds of unnerving silence, he heard someone stir on the other side. Slow, heavy steps made their way to the door. The curtain parted and he could see his mom’s face, or at least a much older version of his mom’s face, through the mottled glass. She didn’t smile or seem surprised. She wore the peeved look of a woman dealing with an unwanted door-to-door salesman, but she opened the door and stood there behind the latched screen door.

“Eric? What are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice creaked like the old house. She too had been worn down by time. She had white hair now and had put on a lot of weight. Her skin, always brown and weathered from so many summers spent in the fields, looked pale and dry like the red Georgia clay cracked by an endless drought. She stood slightly stooped as if the weight of her life had begun to win the battle of attrition.

“I wanted to come see you.”

“Why didn’t you call first?”

“I-I didn’t think I needed to.”

“I wish you would have called. I’m not ready for visitors.”

Eric didn’t know what to say at first. He just stared at her through the screen. She wore one of those house coats she always wore when she had on a nightgown, but it was just after Noon, well past the time for being dressed for the day.

“Can I come in?” he asked finally.

She looked at him as if he had asked a silly question. “Come on in,” she replied. She opened the door wider as if he needed more room to squeeze by her, but she didn’t touch the screen door.

Eric stood there for a moment and then said, “The screen door is locked.” He nodded to it.

“Oh, sorry, I forget that I keep that locked now.” She fumbled with the latch. Her fingers were swollen and arthritic, so it took her a bit to remove the tiny metal arm of the latch from the eye hole. Eric looked on patiently. He had all the time in the world. There were no calls for him to take. He had no meetings to attend. His email had been disconnected after he had been fired rendering his phone useless for doing anything other than wasting time.

His mother pushed the screen door outward, and he stepped aside and through the door. She turned without a word and ambled toward the kitchen. He followed her, taking in the house that had at one time been as familiar to him as the back of his hand. It felt strange to be home again after so long. Everything looked the same, but it was different.

“Where’s that wife of yours? What’s her name, Carla?”

“Carmen.”

“Is she not with you?”

“No, she’s back in New York.”

Eric didn’t offer an explanation and his mother didn’t ask for one.

“You want some sweet tea?”

“Sure.” He salivated at the thought of her tea even after all of these years. He could still remember how it tasted on his lips.

He stepped into the kitchen behind her and she padded toward the refrigerator slowly. He took a seat at the shaky, metal table that had served as the dining room for the three of them for his entire childhood. The rubbery seat still felt as uncomfortable as it had when he was a petulant teenager. He still hated how the table had a perpetual glaze of stickiness to it that pinched at his skin, but something about that cramped kitchen with its steel sink and drippy faucet and the dank old refrigerator that rumbled in the corner made him feel like he belonged, like he had found what he was looking for. He allowed a smile to form on his lips, but he quickly suppressed it when his mother turned around with the jug of tea in her hand. He’d save it for another day when, or if, things ever got better again.

Scene: The Encounter

The main characters in my current novel, Into the Caldera, have a chance meeting at a party that alters the course of their lives. Jenn, the protagonist or antagonist depending on how the story is viewed, meets Scott and Marc although she’s too high to really remember much. The scene is written from her altered point of view.

The sky grew brighter despite the deepening night. The music not so much confronted her as penetrated her like Ron had done earlier. Every guy at the party leered at her, made suggestive comments, and lapped at her breasts like the thirsty dogs they were. She felt like she walked on the air beneath her feet. Her body thrummed, titillated with each step she took. Her arm brushed against another girl’s bare arm, and she felt a rush of desire. The girl, equally drunk or high, smiled lazily at her and apologized, but Jenn wanted to kiss her and taste the beer on her lips. Only her stumble into the crowd stopped her from pushing herself upon the girl.

Nicole came up to her and steadied her in the ebb and flow of the crush of bodies.

“Jenn, you’ve had too much.”

“What?”

“You’ve had too much Molly and beer.”

“There’s no such thing.” Her words felt coherent and sharp, but she didn’t recognize the sound of her voice.

“You need some water.”

“I want another beer. And a Molly.”

“No.”

Jenn focused her eyes on her friend. Anger flushed her face. “Why not?”

“You’ve had enough. Besides, I’m out.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I gave the last one to Hannah.”

The name reverberated in her head, but Jenn couldn’t process it. “Holly?”

“What?”

“What the fuck is Holly doing here?”

“Not Holly. Hannah. Who’s Holly?”

“Oh.” Jenn looked at the blur of faces past Nicole and shook her head. She felt her heart speed up like a rocket in her chest.

“Who’s Holly?”

Jenn came back down to the moment. “She’s that tramp Ron’s dating now.”

Nicole shook her head. “Oh, her.”

“She’s a tramp.”

“We should go.”

“This party is still hot…”

“It’s 2 AM.”

“Seriously?” Jenn pulled her phone from her pants pocket, but it fell to the floor. Nicole bent down with her to retrieve it. Jenn nodded her head as Nicole handed her the phone. She widened her eyes to see the time displayed on the lock screen. “Damn. Where’d the time go?”

“I’ll take you home.”

“No.”

“Jenn, I’m going over to Aaron’s place. I don’t want to leave you here alone. Let me take you back to our apartment and then I’ll go to Aaron’s.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“You’re rolling, Jenn. You shouldn’t be left here alone.”

“I’m not alone. I have the girls.” She thrust her hand out toward the door leading to the patio and hit a passing guy on the shoulder. “Oh, sorry.” The guy looked at her and smiled, but he kept walking.

“The girls are already gone. They’ve hooked up.”

“All of them.”

“Pretty much. This party is winding down.”

Jenn scanned the room around them. Bodies still crammed into most available space. Only a narrow path winded through the room to let people pass. “It still looks strong to me.”

“You’re high.”

“I’m fine. Go on and fuck Aaron. Fuck your brains out. I’ll be fine.”

Nicole exhaled a laugh. “Are you sure?” She sounded genuinely concerned, but Jenn didn’t want to interfere with her friend’s hookup.

“Have an orgasm for me.”

Nicole laughed out loud. “Those are only for me!”

She leaned in and hugged Jenn. Her hair still smelled good despite the sweaty volleyball game they had played earlier. When they parted Nicole said, “Call an Uber and text me when you get back to the apartment.”

Jenn wobbled a little in place. “Yes, mother!”

“Jenn,” Nicole sighed sounding exhausted.

“Okay, I’ll keep you informed of my whereabouts.”

“Thank you.”

Nicole gave her one last hug before she pivoted and allowed the crowd to swallow her. Jenn watched her best friend disappear from sight before she scanned the sea of heads that bobbed around her. In that brief moment when she was alone, she felt like the only one at the party. A chill ran up her spine and goose bumps perforated her arms.

“Hi, I’m Scott, and this is Marc,” said a voice she could not see. She turned and two tall, lanky guys stood before her. Both had longish, scraggly hair and boyish faces so young looking that she thought that some high schoolers had crashed the party.

She tried to steady herself and make sense of where she was, but she drew a blank, so she said the only thing she could think of, “I’m Jenn. I’m leaving.”

Excerpt: Into the Caldera

Here’s another excerpt from my current novel, Into the Caldera. It’s a work-in-progress that I’m currently revising.

Jenn startled awake in ink-black darkness. She raised her hand to rub her aching head, but she couldn’t see it until she held it a few inches from her face, and even then, it didn’t feel like her hand. Her head throbbed in the worst way, a hammer came down with each heart beat smashing any coherent thoughts she had.

She didn’t know where she was. Her shoulder sat against something hard on her right side – a door? The space smelled like sour laundry that had been festooned with sweat and left to mold in a confined space. The distinct scent of worn shoes surrounded her. She fanned out her left arm and felt multiple pairs of shoes next to her – a closet? She reached up but felt nothing. Then, she sat up levered against her outstretched arms and felt the bottoms of shirts and pants hanging above her. The darkness bewildered her.

She struggled to clear the cobwebs from her mind as she sat there in some closet in some room somewhere. She remembered Nicole leaving. Two faces, men, no boys, hung in her memory. Their names lingered on her tongue, but she couldn’t recall them. The rest of the memory blurred into the dim lights and loud music like when she had spun around in her mother’s yard as a kid. She sat shrouded in silence.

She reached for her phone in her pocket, and that’s when she realized she wasn’t wearing her pants. A blanket covered her legs and she pushed it down feeling around for her pants, but all she found were more shoes scattered around her. She panicked and sat up all the way bumping into the door next to her as she leaned forward to grasp for her pants. Nothing.

Feeling her hands along the door, she found the edge and slid it open to more darkness. A very faint light from outside a window in the room provided the only ambient light, but she still could not determine where she was. She tensed as she scanned the darkness to determine if anyone else was present. She couldn’t tell.

She pushed herself up scraping the bottom of the clothes with her back as she stepped out of the closet. Putting one hand on the wall, she glided along the grainy surface until she found a light switch. The tentative overhead light had only one bulb, and it pulsed before it brightened the room entirely. Nevertheless, any amount of light hurt her eyes and she squeezed them shut. She finally forced them open onto the empty room.

The messy, sparsely-furnished room smelled musky, an odor that drowned out the sweat-stained clothes and sour, earthy shoes in the closet. The small bed sat unmade with a twist of sheets and blankets that exposed the top of the mattress. A dinky desk sat next to the bed piled high with books and papers in no particular order. The stained, worn carpet scratched her bare feet. It took a moment to focus her eyes on the floor beneath her.

Her bra lay tangled on the floor next to the bed and her pants, likewise turned inside out, were strewn beside it. She felt her chest beneath her shirt and her bare nipples poked through. A flash of embarrassment consumed her. She couldn’t remember anything except those two boyish faces that had greeted her after Nicole had left. Did she have sex with them? She feared the answer but couldn’t conceive one.

After she put on her bra and slid into her pants, she pulled out her phone and checked the time, her hands trembling as if she were wracked by fear. It was just after 6 AM, and from what she could tell, she was still in the SAE house; although the room did not look familiar. She found her shoes on the other side of the bed and slipped them on before she tentatively opened the door and gaped at the empty hallway.

She didn’t see anyone until she reached the front room. A couple slept intertwined on one of the sofas. The guy snored loudly, but the woman next to him slept so deeply that the guttural sound didn’t seem to bother her. Jenn paused at the edge of the room and rubbed her throbbing forehead. She could hardly think, but she needed to get back to her apartment.

When she pulled out her phone again, she winced at the brightness of the screen as she scrolled to find her Uber app. A few taps of the screen told her she had six minutes before her car would arrive, so she shuffled toward the kitchen to get some water to soothe her scratchy throat. Every cabinet she opened revealed more or less random things – an opened bag of chips, disposable plastic containers, an apron – but no cups.

Dirty plastic cups littered the countertops, but she wanted a clean one. Finally, she gave up and took one of the cheap cups from the counter and cleaned it hurriedly under lukewarm water from the faucet. Satisfied that she had cleaned it thoroughly, she filled it with cold water and took big gulps until she had drained it. The water felt good to her throat. She drank another cup full before she put it back in its spot on the counter.

Her app told her that her driver was three minutes away. As she walked by the couple of the sofa, the woman let out a moan or a sigh and it startled her. She stopped in her tracks, but the woman remained asleep. Jenn didn’t know why she cared if she woke the woman or not, but she quietly opened and shut the door as she slid out into the cool morning air. Her phone buzzed indicating that the Uber was approaching.

She walked to the curb. Cars littered either side of the wide street parked in silence waiting for their owners to wake up, likely hungover, and claim them for the ride home. As her Uber pulled over in front of the SAE house, she greeted the driver and took a seat in the back. She found that talking made her head hurt worse, so she kept her conversation to a minimum. She had never been so thankful to have a quiet driver. She sat back and closed her eyes. Her whole body ached, but sitting down made her aware that her thighs hurt. She felt an intense pain between her legs as if she had been rubbed raw. She put her hand there and quickly pulled it away.

She couldn’t remember what had happened. Once again the images of the two boys popped in her head. What were their names? Scott and…Marc? A chill rappelled down her spine and a tightness squeezed her chest making her head throb even more. Something had gone terribly wrong. She felt like she had just walked into a dark alley with shadowy figures lurking around her. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead as a panic consumed her.