We were all together at my sister's for Christmas and the boathouse didn't come up. Mickey handed out presents for everyone. He seemed happier than he'd been in a long time. Things were quiet for a time. Then came February. Word got out that the sheriff was asking around, asking if anyone had seen something happening with that boathouse. No one had. The story made some news. Went around online for a while.
"Did you see this?" Mickey said to me one night, marveling at all attention the story was getting.
"You're not worried?" I said.
"About what?" Mickey said.
Mickey and Dad put in the dock in April. The sheriff didn't visit again. Around that time, they started talking about everyone getting together at the cabin for the Fourth of July. Obviously, Dad and Mickey wanted to use the family as a show of confidence. A shameless display of barbeques and swimming and children running around with sparklers. Proof that good old family fun was making a comeback.
Dad was the first to press the issue. "You haven't been up for the Fourth in years," he said.
In fact, I wasn't planning on visiting at all this summer. Not with those maniacs plotting their revenge out in those hills. Good thing he had Mickey to put the screws to us.
"Dad really wants us all together on the Fourth."
I offered to host a barbeque behind my apartment. Mickey just laughed at me.
"What are you afraid of?" he said.
It was my turn to laugh.
Todd and Bethany and I met for coffee one morning to talk about our options. Bethany and I were in agreement that we wouldn't be getting anywhere near the cabin this summer. Todd was planning on a day or two in August, mid-week. "Just to keep the guilts away." he said. But there was no way Mickey and Dad would get his family up on the Fourth, when we all expected the Stempels to be at their absolute worst.
"Did you hear the outhouse was stolen?" Bethany said. She was talking about the old latrine up by the road that Mickey had refurbished a few years back. "Completely gone," she said. "It's just a hole in the ground now."
So the Stempels were already on the move. I wasn't surprised that they'd identified Mickey and Dad as their prime suspects.
"Then it's settled," I said. Of course, I knew better. For one, we should have just confronted Mickey, the three of us united. We never did. He had a couple of months to pick us off, one at a time. He used just about everything he had. Dad wasn't doing well. Dad had been depressed. You know, missing Mom. He even had the nerve to say the Fourth is especially hard on Dad. I had to call him out on that one.
"How so?" I said. "How is the Fourth any worse than any other day?"
"I can't believe you're even asking me that," Mickey said.
I thought of one of the last things Mom had said to us, a whisper saved for a moment when Mickey and Dad had run off to harass the nurses about upping her morphine drip.
"There better not be any cabins up there," she'd said.
"If there are," Bethany had said, "then you know you're in the wrong place."
It was Bethany who informed me, finally, the last weekend of June that they were going up. The whole family. With Todd and his family. And now they were coming after me. My wife and I had just separated, and my sister wasn't above using that to their advantage.
"You don't want to be alone," she said.
She was right about that, but it didn't mean I wanted to be at the cabin.
"Gotta work," I said.
"You're not getting out of this."
She kept calling. Things got bad. Some arguments. I said some things I'd have to take back. Bringing her husband into it had been bad enough. Commenting on how her kids were turning out was worse. So she had me. I had to go up.
But hey, at least I wouldn't be alone.
* * *
The Fourth was on a Friday. Mickey and Dad were expecting us by Thursday night. I took my time driving up. Stopped for lunch. Stopped for dinner. Pretended to be surprised when Dad informed me I was the last one to arrive. The bonfire was already going. Kids were everywhere, zipping in and out of the dark. I was about to lug my duffel bag and blanket inside when Mickey trotted over. He pointed out one of the two tents he'd set up on the south lawn.
"I don't think so," I said.
Mickey shrugged. "You'll have to work it out, then."
Couldn't some of the kids share one of the tents?
"Are you insane?" my sister whispered.
Seemed I didn't have many other options. Dad, for all his bravado and love for the great up-north, didn't do tents. He liked to say that he didn't buy a cabin just to crawl into a tent at the end of a day like an old raccoon. Mickey, born and bred a natural outdoorsman, had no such qualms. He'd be in the tent next to mine.
"I've got you an air mattress," he said.
I kept glancing across the lake, where a fire was going on the hillside where the boathouse used to stand. None of us talked about it until most of the kids were inside, watching a movie with Dad.
"They blew out the foundation," Mickey said, as if he'd been waiting all this time to brief us on the situation. "Now they put their fires in the middle and sit around the edges. We can take the boat out, if anyone wants. Get a closer look."
"That's alright," Bethany said.
As if on cue, a round of bottle rockets shot from their camp into the sky.
Mickey smiled. "You guys have nothing to worry about. They almost never leave that hill."
"Except to steal outhouses," I said.
Mickey chuckled at that. He passed around some beers and we stayed at the fire until a little past midnight.
Sleep tight," Bethany said before ducking inside for the evening. The cabin had never looked so appealing.
"You got a rifle in there?" I asked Mickey before he slipped inside his tent.
"Don't worry about me," Mickey said.
It wasn't Mickey I was worried about. No one ever really worried about Mickey. Sleep didn't come too easily. I kept hearing noises, but it was only Mickey, pacing a route from his tent to the dock, then back to the tent, then around to the back. Seemed like he was keeping some kind of schedule. Every two hours. Or was it every hour? Eventually I just stopped caring about what I was hearing.
I'd brought up a knife, which I'd set next to my pillow where I could see it. Sure, it probably wouldn't do me a hell of a lot of good, but at least I wouldn't be taken without a fight. Intruders didn't come until daylight, when three of my nephews unzipped the tent and forced their way inside. Good morning, guys. Stay away from the knife. Happy Fourth. Happy Fourth, all right? Now how about waking up your Uncle Mickey?
A few minutes later, one of them ducked his head back inside my tent. "Where's Uncle Mickey?"
* * *
We packed the cars and sent the children back home with my sister and Todd's wife. Todd drove out ahead of them using my car and my brother-in-law followed behind him in Mickey's. Dad waited until they were out of sight to grab his favorite Winchester rifle.
"What are you doing?" I said.
"What the hell do you think?"
"I'll call the sheriff if you go out there," I said.
Dad had made it quite clear that we weren't supposed to call the sheriff. Had he done something like this before? It was the kind of stupid thing the kidnappers always insisted on in the movies. But up here, the closest thing to serious law enforcement was the guy at the tackle and bait shop selling fishing licenses twenty miles away.
"Go ahead," he said.
"Fine," I said, knowing when I'd lost a round. Then I nodded at the Winchester. "But you leave that here."
He looked at me as if I'd just suggested we dig a couple of holes in the backyard and stick our heads in them.
"I'm going through the woods," he said.
"You can't wait for Todd and Jay?"
"You think they're even coming back?" he said.
"They said they would."
"Then you can wait for them."
"Look," I said. "There's twenty miles of woods in back of us. Mickey's probably somewhere out there with a broken ankle. Maybe he thought he saw someone snooping around and went chasing after them."
Though even I didn't really believe that. Broken ankle? Mickey would have crawled on back by now. I couldn't think of many scenarios he couldn't scramble, cut, chew, or burrow his way out of. Neither could Dad, who was through with the conversation. Precious time already wasted. I watched him trot north up the road to where it ended at the woods, then pick his way into the underbrush.
"You just let him go?" Todd said to me after they got back.
"He thought you two might just keep going."
"Maybe we should have," Todd said.
I suggested the two of them go and catch up with Dad.
"So you can sneak on out yourself?" Todd said.
"Next time you sleep in a tent," I said, "you can stay on back." I had them there. I pointed out where Dad had disappeared into the woods and saw them off.
There was no sense in sitting alone in the backyard and staring at the woods. So I grabbed a quick nap on one of the guest beds. Was I worried about Dad finding me asleep while Mickey was out missing? Not as much as I probably should have been. It had really been a long night, and I figured I'd be a lot more help once I was properly refreshed. I might have heard the phone ringing once, but then that might have been a dream. I thought I was hearing noises from above me, up on the roof. But my naps could be funny that way. Not quite all the way asleep.
After a time I could tell that I really was awake. Might have been the dust sprinkling down on me from the ceiling, where a chainsaw was slicing on through. I crawled over to the other bed and watched the chainsaw carve an almost perfect triangle in the slanted ceiling. Every horror movie I'd ever seen taught me that to run from something like this would only lead to more trouble. A blue patch of clear sky appeared through the triangle. Then a head popped in.
"Hi Dad," I said.
* * *
I stood behind the cabin alongside Todd and Jay while Dad cut away at the roof. He got a quarter of the back slope opened up before finally telling us what in the hell was going on. Although we pretty much had the idea.
"Cabin has to be gone by sunset," Dad said.
"Oh yeah?" I said. "And who told you this?"
There'd been three of them, he said. Out in the woods, just waiting for him. Scarves over their faces like guys out of a western. They had Mickey's Winchester, the one he'd probably been carrying around while checking the yard last night.
"You sure it was Mickey's?" I said, feeling stupid even asking. Mickey's Winchester had his name inscribed underneath the barrel. He'd gotten it for his tenth birthday.
Dad gave a quick nod, acknowledging that it wasn't a stupid question. "I checked."
"Then maybe it's time to call the sheriff," I suggested. "Or someone."
"Waste of time," he said, standing up. "There should be axes in the shed. I can't do this all by myself."
The three of us just stood there. The idea of dismantling the cabin on the orders of a bunch of clowns in the woods seemed preposterous.
"Dad ..." I said, thinking now of all the times I'd fantasized about the cabin meeting a violent demise, "This is a prank."
"If it was a prank," Dad said, yanking the starter cord on the chainsaw, "Mickey would be back by now."
I was almost going to ask him what he thought Mickey would have done if they'd gotten one of us. But that was a stupid question. Because Mickey would have had us back by now. He would have already barbequed us a nice lunch. Gotten us all some beers and had some laughs about how stupid we'd been to have gotten caught by the Stempels. Yep, I could assure you, Mickey would have ended this thing hours ago.
But Dad wasn't Mickey. And neither were the rest of us.
* * *
A few of the neighbors came by throughout the afternoon to see what was going on. It wasn't every weekend that someone was tearing apart their entire cabin. "Remodeling," I said to one or two of them. Another time, "Rot. Mold." I could sense the lake was clearing out; people deciding they weren't going to be up here tonight, holiday or not. They had the right idea.
A few hours into the job, Dad remembered that his contacts in the woods had made an additional request. Not so much a request, I supposed, as another demand. We were supposed to haul as much of the debris as we could to some random place in the woods a couple miles behind us.
Dad pointed the chainsaw my way, obviously unimpressed with my contributions for the afternoon. "That'll be your job."
Dad said to use his truck, which was good because Mickey's keys were apparently wherever the hell Mickey was. He gave me directions after the first load went in -- sinks, plumbing, the fridge and plenty of other junk piled high behind the cab. I wasn't exactly thrilled about driving out into the woods where the Stempels might be waiting. Wasn't there a possibility they'd grab me as well? Dad didn't seem too concerned.
"Just dump it and go," he said.
I'd simply have to take my chances. And besides, unless the Stempels had set up an elaborate forced-labor camp, wherever they were holding Mickey was probably more comfortable than chopping away at the cabin in eighty-five degree heat.
Our access road goes out a half mile to the artery that takes us east to the highway. Farmland dipping in and out of the woods. I took the road west, finding the offshoot Dad had drawn up for me on a piece of old newspaper. North on this road, an old logging road, then the path he'd described -- a pair of tire rivets leading into the woods. There was a small clearing about a third of a mile in. Just some scrub and low standing witch grass. Near the middle were the remains of a small campfire. I climbed over the sideboard and began tossing our haul into the clearing. Being surrounded by woods, I was almost certain someone was watching me. There wasn't a whole lot I could do about it other than get the hell out of there.
I made another run about an hour and a half later. Most of the garbage I'd dropped there was now gone. I mentioned this to Todd after I got back.
"That's good ... right?" he said, tossing a piece of the roof into the truck bed.
"Right ..." I supposed, although I didn't really know. If nothing else, it seemed proof that the Stempels were still sober enough to carry through with whatever they'd started this morning.
I kept driving the truck-loads of cabin scrap out to that clearing until I noticed they were no longer keeping up with me. By then, the cabin had been whittled down to a few walls and nightfall was just about an hour away.
They had to give us credit for the effort. Four guys with really only half the day. We kept going into the dark. No one knew exactly how the rest of this night was supposed to happen now. Would Mickey just walk on out of the woods? He might, I thought. He just might. But if he didn't?
The last piece of the cabin still standing was a ten foot section of the north wall. Dad was leaning against it now, breathing heavy. Out to the north, nothing was happening. There was no fire. No one we could see on the hill. Dad was about to take a sledgehammer to the last piece of the wall, when a bottle rocket squealed out over the lake. Dad dropped the sledgehammer and watched the woods to the north. Half a minute later, two more orange-white smears went across the north sky.
"That's them," Dad said.
There was still no one we could see on their hill. A light poked through the woods from where that cabin would be. But clearly, the fireworks weren't coming from up there. Another bottle rocket just barely got above the tree-line. "They're down at the other lake," Dad said.
I hadn't even thought of that.
"What lake?" my brother-in-law said.
Part Two of Three