My dad went and bought the log cabin when I was ten years old. He said he'd been looking for one for years, but we never heard a word about it until that summer. We'd rent a cottage once or twice a year and have a little fun, and though Dad always seemed to be having a better time than the rest of us, we never got the sense that he was having that much fun.
That was a tough night, the night he sat us all down and announced the news. We thought he might be kidding. He wasn't. Too bad it wasn't a joke, because it would have been funny as hell.
Once we got that out of the way, he asked if we had any other questions.
"If this cabin is so great," my sister Bethany said, "then why is anyone selling it?"
Dad should have made something up here. Anything but the truth. Because the truth was the guy who'd owned the place had tried shooting himself after his fiancée walked out on him, making him now a guy with half a head and a line of collectors waiting outside his recovery suite. Oh, and the cabin? The guy's father had built the thing by hand. First on the lake.
"You're kidding us?" Bethany said.
Apparently, he wasn't.
"Well, it's our place now," our mom said, then. "And that man wouldn't have sold it to us if he didn't think it was going to a family that would love it as much as he did."
"Thank you," Dad said.
Mom gave him her best smile. Then she clapped her hands together and reminded him of all the work he'd probably want to get started on. Packing the station wagon with tackle boxes and flashlights, things like that.
The second he was out of the room, she turned to us. "That bitch."
"The fiancée?" Bethany said.
Mom nodded, fumbling in her purse for a cigarette. "That's right, the fiancée." Mom only bought generics, which she mixed and matched according to whatever she had coupons for. So I have no idea what she finally popped into her mouth. But at least it got her lips to stop twitching. "Let's just say she'd better hope she never bumps into me."
We waited as she brought her little plastic lighter to her lips. "I won't let him keep it."
"No?" Bethany said.
"Absolutely not." The lighter touched the end of her cigarette, and the moment seemed to have a calming effect on all of us. Mom drew in deep. We waited for the smoke to cycle out. When it did, it filled the entire room. "I'll burn it down if I have to."
Those beautiful words would get us through the brutal first summer. But by the next summer, two things became clear: Dad wasn't selling the place and Mom wasn't clever enough to make arson look like an accident.
Dad couldn't have been happier. He was doing all the things he said he'd always wanted to be doing. Which meant, basically, that he had long dreamed of sitting in a boat half the day and then spending his nights perched in front of a fire while the world went dark. He was happy all right. Hell, he was thrilled.
We just didn't see why we had to be there with him. Dad had all kinds of suggestions for us. We could hike or swim or ride on out in the canoe. And don't forget about good old fashioned exploring. We never knew there could be so many things we had absolutely no interest in doing. And you could only stare at that stupid lake for so long.
"I'd be fine with a picture," Bethany said.
Ever resourceful, she suddenly found herself booked clean through the summer with babysitting jobs. My brother Todd went out and got a paper route. I volunteered to be his assistant, offering to work for nothing as long as it kept me back in the city on the weekends. Even Mom started finding reasons to stay at home. But Dad wasn't stupid.
"We're a family, damnit," he declared, as if simply being a family had anything to do with having fun. Good old Dad.
There was talk that the marriage was headed for trouble. Most of the talk coming from Mom. My sister was the first to suggest that we intervene. Her first and really only idea was to start up a fund for that guy we'd taken the cabin from. Help him pay off his bills and get the old place back. Maybe even find the poor guy a girlfriend. Mom had a better idea. She stopped taking her pill and got herself pregnant.
"This'll show him," she said.
Dad knew what it meant. Another kid. Well aware of the strain the cabin had put on their budget. This would be it, then. He went up one weekend to make his peace with the whole deal. To say goodbye. But he came back rejuvenated, his head filled with details like where to put the crib and babyproofing the firepit.
"Slow down there," Mom said. But Dad has stumbled onto something while up north. A vision of a child who would love the cabin.
"A kid like they used to make them," he said. We weren't sure what to make of that.
"What happened up there?" Bethany asked our mom.
She didn't know. She truly didn't know. Had someone gotten to him? Maybe one of those stupid neighbors had wandered over with a six pack and a little of that irritating wisdom that seemed to come with having lived half your life staring at a fishing line. Convinced him the last thing he'd ever want to do was sell the cabin. That this child was some kind of blessing, a sprinkle of fortune from the great woodsman in the sky.
"I can still burn it down," she said.
We knew, now, that she was all talk.
"We're going to make this work," Dad said. "In fact, it might be the best thing that's ever happened to us."
It was one of the few times we'd ever see our dad spot on right about something. Because little Mickey wasn't like any of us. He couldn't get enough of the cabin. He was fishing and swimming before he was two. By the time he was three and talking, he made it quite clear that the rest of us were all idiots.
Thank god for Mickey.
* * *
Things got a little more interesting at the lake when a naked guy washed up on our shore one morning. He wasn't dead. Though he smelled like he could have been.
"That's one of them Stempels," our neighbor said, as if he were examining some exotic species of roadkill.
"A Stempel?" Dad said, still crouching over the guy.
The neighbor nodded out across the lake. "Every now and then one of them'll show up here." The neighbor suggested shoving the guy back in the water, like you might do with a fish that had somehow gotten itself on land.
"How 'bout I just take him back home?" Dad said.
The neighbor shrugged. "It's your gas."
The guy was still passed out when Dad started out. We watched from the dock with a mixture of curiosity and concern as the boat stopped about halfway across the lake. We could hear an argument. Dad's voice rising. Then the splash of the naked guy going overboard.
"Good for you," our neighbor said to Dad later that afternoon. We expected retaliation, or at the very least, a night of lawlessness and debauchery blaring out from those hills out across the lake. All we got were fireworks. And bad ones at that.
Our neighbor told us all about the Stempels that weekend. Their cabin hidden away up on the hill. The tiny, neighboring lake behind them. The lake where most of their action took place.
"Well, thank god for that lake," Dad said.
We imagined a cesspool of floating drunkards. A lake that was more beer than water. Dad tried getting us out there once. Just to see what it looked like. We boated out to a sandy inlet, where the plan was to hike straight through -- a quarter mile, at most, to that second lake. Bethany, though, wouldn't get out of the boat. She'd changed her mind. Gotten spooked. She wasn't the only one.
"It's all swamp, anyway," Dad said.
Mickey, I think, had only been a toddler that summer, so he couldn't really help. Like Dad, he was never really afraid of the Stempels. Mostly curious. He'd sneak out there on his own just to see what they were up to, then report back to Dad. Did this for years. Stayed ahead of those people that way.
But the boathouse had been a surprise.
"What is that?" I asked Mickey the first time I saw the thing. This was the year after I got myself married. It looked like a barn had been shoved into the hillside.
"Frat house on a lake," Mickey said. He wasn't exaggerating. When the fireworks and the music only got louder at three o'clock in the morning, my wife dragged me into Mickey's room and asked him what we had to do to shut those people up.
"I'm working on it," Mickey said, before rolling over and falling back asleep.
Mickey told us the next morning how the Stempels had put it in quick that spring. The owner, the grandpa Stempel, had died over the winter and there'd been an awful family squabble over who would get the land. Guy who won out put in the boathouse to mark his territory. Then he basically handed it over to his rotten kids. Grown kids, adults only as a matter of technicality, now using our lake as their weekend playground.
"The girls are the worst," Mickey said.
"How do you know that?" I said.
"I just do," he said.
I took him for his word.
Near the end of August, Mickey called to tell me the Stempels were having races on the lake.
"What does that mean?" I said, thinking speedboats or canoes or something. Maybe skinny dippers.
"You've just gotta see it," he said.
The way things were going with the wife, a weekend with Mickey and the Stempels had a sudden appeal.
"Go," my wife said. "Have fun."
Those crazy Stempels, they didn't disappoint. When night came around, they rolled seven logs into the lake and then lit them on fire. Swimmers jumped in behind the logs. I assumed to push.
"They're usually too drunk to get very far," Mickey said.
The logs got about fifty yards off shore before they began spinning into one another, bumping and jostling before eventually drifting back toward the boathouse. The festivities continued on the rooftop, where a bonfire was going on grills perched over the peak.
"Well, there you go," I said to Mickey. "Give them another weekend or two and they'll burn it down."
"That's one scenario," Mickey said.
They had always been a danger to the lake. Mickey knew this better than anyone. He'd been collecting their stories for years. He knew all about the little girl who drowned fifty yards off the Stempel shore, and he had an awful convincing argument as to why he didn't think it was an accident. There was a cousin who'd gone missing for weeks. And then a rape a year later -- seemingly unrelated, but connected in a twisted tale that takes about a half hour and a couple of beers to get all the way through.
Mickey knew all the different versions. All the characters. Every story. Stolen cars turning up in the swamps. Break-ins. Hunting accidents.
"That boathouse is the worst thing to ever happen to this lake," Mickey said.
"You really think so?" I said. But it was a stupid question. Nothing the Stempels had ever done up until now had ever really affected us. Now they were in plain sight.
But Mickey was planning on changing that.
"Leave me out of this," I tried telling him.
"It's your cabin too," he said.
"You might have kids someday," Mickey said. "They might want to actually enjoy it."
I took a long drink from my beer. "Funny," I said.
He didn't think it was funny at all.
* * *
Once he settled on a date, Mickey started calling almost every night. This was late in the fall, when he should have been getting ready for the hunting season. I tried avoiding his calls. When he finally did get me on the line, I made a point of bringing Mom into the conversation. That was a mistake.
"Those bastards are lucky they're not dealing with her," Mickey said.
It was a hell of a stretch, I thought, to conveniently forget that in Mom's world, anything that would have threatened the cabin would have been the side she'd be rooting for. But whatever. I mentioned his plans to Bethany. To Todd. Same answer from both. "What are you going to do?" Yeah, they were pretty much right about that, weren't they? What the hell were we supposed to do?
The day came around, then. Saturday before Christmas. Longest night of the year. My wife thought that I should go, perhaps with the hope that I'd stumble into some kind of accident inside the boathouse. Fall onto a saw or something. She pretty much talked me into it.
Still, I was late. By about half an afternoon. I just didn't see what the hurry was. Mickey had said there was a meeting place -- a rendezvous, he called it -- out to the east, a lot carved out of the woods. The hell with his rendezvous, I thought, pulling in behind our cabin. I stepped into the cold northern air. Across the lake, I could see the boathouse had been covered in what looked like tarps. There were muffled noises coming up with the wind. Hammers and murmurs. I smelled a fire. Good lord, it was cold out here.
There wouldn't be any easy way of getting over there. The easiest thing seemed to be to walk the frozen shoreline, where at least if the ice gave way my feet wouldn't be plunging more than a foot or two. That only happened once. Mickey was waiting for me at the northern shore twenty minutes later.
"What the hell are you doing?" he said. "I had to talk one of these guys into not shooting you down."
"Who?" I said. "Dad?"
Mickey wasn't amused. "You need to get back there and move your car to the rendezvous."
I handed him my keys. Mickey went and found some poor kid who looked like he was barely out of high school; gave him the keys along with directions to our cabin.
"That's an hour of labor I'm losing," Mickey said as we watched the kid go back the way I'd just hiked.
"Maybe you can tell everyone to work a little faster."
"Or you can put yourself to work," Mickey said. He led me up to the boat house, where he peeled back one of the tarps that was flapping around in the wind. The giant garage doors that faced the lake were gone. I could see up the stairs, up to what looked like would have been bedrooms. There were people working away up there, plying and pulling in darkness poked with tiny lights. Already, most of the half roof was gone. We could see right through to the stars.
Mickey led me out through a tarp in the back. Here things were going over the side from the exposed upper level. Flooring, drywall, carpet, insulation, beams, planks, pipes, wire. Landing on tarps on the hill, where carriers like that kid were dragging them away, up past the cabin back in the woods. To the bonfire, I assumed.
"Dad's up there," Mickey said, nodding up the hill.
"You can't burn everything."
"We've got a landfill going down by the other lake."
A strip of carpet landed a few feet to our left. Mickey scooped it up and tossed it onto the next tarp in line. Someone pointed a gloved finger at me and asked if I was just going to stand around all night.
"Quality control," I said.
The guy just looked at Mickey, then, who made a spinning motion with his hands -- just keep going. A few of these people I recognized as friends of Mickey. Guys who'd do just about anything Mickey asked. The rest of them? That kid? I had no idea. Maybe Mickey was paying these guys. Telling them it was his boathouse.
Mickey tossed a few more pieces of refuse onto the tarp. "Maybe you can give Dad a hand at the fire," he said. "I need to get back inside."
"Mickey ... " I said. "What do you think the Stempels are going to do the next time they come up here?"
Lumber tumbled from the upper level. Mickey helped load the tarp, then motioned to the carrier, "Go."
"Really," I said. "You think they're just going to let this go?"
Mickey turned to me. "I'm not too worried about it."
"Maybe you should be."
He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Why'd you come up here?"
All I could do was shrug. Mickey stared at me with absolute confusion. He wasn't married. He didn't understand. "Dad's up the hill," he finally said. Then he disappeared inside the boathouse.
I sure as hell wasn't going to stand around a fire in the Stempels' backyard with Dad. And though I couldn't say why I decided to come up, I was still clear on one thing: that I wasn't going to be a part of this. Was I being lazy? Was the weather a factor? Certainly. Was I also a little scared? You bet I was. The wind slapped at my face. Only way to stay warm would be to get moving. So I asked someone where that rendezvous was. I figured that kid should have my car there, good and warm, by the time I made it over.
Part One of Three