Monday, July 15, 2013

Fall Lake - An excerpt

Chapter 1

July 1953
Fall Lake, Minnesota

The two-tone Olds 88 clung to the heat-softened blacktop as it hissed along a narrow rural Northern Minnesota road. Two children in back, two parents up front, the Holzinger family was into hour seven of the eight-hour drive from their home in Waterloo, Iowa to their destination, Fall Lake, Minnesota, and tempers were fraying like an old knit scarf.
“Dad, what’s human sacrifice mean?”
            “Mom, Dennis is reading that comic book again.”
            The sharp-featured and even sharper tongued Eve Holzinger rested her elbow on the top of her seat and turned around with a scowl. “Didn’t I tell you to throw away that piece of trash?”
            “It’s called “Weird Tales,” just like him,” said his sister Nancy.
“Mom, it’s Captain Marvel,” complained the nine-year old boy.
            “I don’t care if it’s Captain Jesus Christ, hand it to me right now.”
            The driver, 40-year old Peter Holzinger, glanced tiredly over at his wife as she retrieved the offending material from Dennis. “Eve, we’re on vacation.”
            “I don’t know why you keep telling me that,” shot back the irritated Eve. “Why don’t we just all take our clothes off and dance in the road. We’re on vacation.”
            Twelve-year old Nancy groaned from the back seat. “Mom, please.”
            A gaunt, bony man with a shiny pate and tired brown eyes, Peter shook his head in quiet resignation. Subservient to a fault, discouraged enough to keep a loaded handgun in the back of his sock drawer, Peter clung to the towrope of life simply hoping that he wouldn’t fall off before he got to the end. With each passing day, however, he felt his grip weakening.
            “Honestly, Peter. If I have to spend another half-an hour cooped up in this car I am going to scream.” Eve checked the small vanity mirror in her visor, a ritual she had performed every twenty minutes since they pulled out of their driveway in Waterloo, nervously poking fingers into her wavy brown hair to try and achieve a look that that was “guaranteed to turn heads” by Elizabeth Taylor. A furtive smile curled her lips momentarily as she thought about the only head she enjoyed turning; the perpetually tan VP of Marketing Dwight Hawkins.
            “We’re close, Eve. Very close.”
            “That’s what you said two hours ago.”
            “Dad,” shouted Dennis, kicking the driver’s seat.
            “What,” Peter barked.
            “When are you going to teach me to shave? You promised.”
            Peter closed his eyes for the split second it took to consider and reject steering the car into oncoming traffic, and he unclenched his grip on the steering wheel and refocused on the road ahead of him and the joy of spending the next week with his family in a trailer the size of a phone booth.
            An hour-and-a-half later, Peter pulled the car onto a gravel road blocked by a metal gate with a padlock. To one side of the gate was a large sign that read, “Glenn Creek subdivision. Lots for sale now.” “This is it,” Peter said with a sense of accomplishment. He put the car into park, got out and walked to the gate.
            “Thank God,” said Eve, fanning herself with her hand. “I was going to throw up if we had to drive another mile.”
Peter fished around in his pocket and pulled out the key for the padlock. Beyond the gate the road wound through a dense stand of maples and scrubby pines until it opened up to a large treeless space the size of several football fields. The ground had been leveled by a grader and small sticks poked up from the dirt to indicate lot boundaries.
“Here we are,” said Peter, smiling for the first time. He pulled to a stop near the western edge of the field and everyone got out of the car.
“This is where we’re camping?” asked Nancy incredulously. “I thought there were going to be mountains and waterfalls and stuff.”
“No one said anything about mountains or waterfalls,” said Peter. “But there is a lake.” He explored the wooded edge of the field until he found the beginning of a path cutting through the brush. “Here. This is exactly where Bill said it would be. Come on.”
“I’m shocked,” remarked Eve. “My brother the real estate mogul hasn’t been right about anything since the fifth grade. You go on. I need a cigarette.”
Nancy and Dennis followed Peter along the overgrown path, pushing away weeds and branches and swatting at mosquitoes with every step, until they finally emerged from the brush onto a thin, sandy beach leading to the dark blue-green water of Fall Lake.
“Whoa,” yelled Dennis. “This is unreal.”
“Coolsville,” added Nancy in a rare display of positive emotions.
“Coolsville,” repeated Peter to himself. Framed by dense green deciduous and evergreen woods, the lake stretched out to the north like a broad river, its glassy surface reflecting a blue sky and marshmallowy clouds floating overhead. Enveloped by the smells of lilacs and pine, the three Holzingers went to the edge of the water and breathed in the beauty of the moment silently. This was almost worth the agony, thought Peter, dipping a hand into the cool water and rubbing it on his face.
Later, the trailer tent now set up, a small fire burning a short distance away, Peter and Eve relaxed in their camp chairs while the kids played at the lake. Eve had mixed a thermos of martinis before they left, and they sipped from plastic cups and smoked cigarettes as the late afternoon sun slowly dipped behind the tree line. Just behind the congenial conversation, like scenes playing out just beyond the firelight, Eve imagined her next lunchtime tryst with Dwight, while Peter contemplated the possibility that this was the last family vacation they would ever have. The outer tranquility and inner turmoil were short lived, however, as Nancy and Dennis stomped back from the lake arguing loudly.
“Hey,” shouted Eve. “Knock it off.”
“What are you two arguing about?” asked Peter.
“We came back because Dennis got scared,” announced Nancy loudly.
“I heard voices. People talking,” responded her angry brother.
Peter turned toward his son. “Voices?”
“Yeah. It sounded like people whispering or something.”
Nancy pulled out a Coke from the cooler and opened it. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“Wind blowing through branches, water lapping up on the shore, the sounds are different here than they are at home.” Peter was trying to help his son out.
“Yeah, sure,” said Dennis, clearly unconvinced. “Nobody believes anything I say.”
“Tomorrow we take the boat down to the lake and catch some walleye or trout. How’s that sound?”
“You all have a grand time,” said Eve. “I’m going to sleep as long as I can and then get some sun. Oh,” she continued, pointing at Peter. “You clean everything you catch. Understand?”
“Yes, dear. I’ll gladly gut the fish.”
It was a struggle getting the heavy aluminum rowboat down to the lake the next morning, but with Peter on one end and Nancy and Dennis arguing at the other, they managed to get the craft into the water without a serious injury. Peter loaded up the boat with fishing poles, a tackle box, a net and lunches, and finally children, before pushing off into Fall Lake. He grabbed oars and enthusiastically rowed away from shore, noting to himself with a smile that he hadn’t felt this alive in years. As the boat glided across the dark water, the three talked idly, debating whether “Make Room For Daddy” or “I Love Lucy” was funnier and why no team will ever beat the Yankees in the World Series. Muscles now beginning to protest, Peter drew in the oars and rested as the boat quietly slid along the surface.
“This is heaven. Isn’t it?” asked Peter, not expecting a response. “A nice crispy green dollar bill to whoever catches the biggest fish today.”
“No contest,” Nancy assured everyone. “I always catch the biggest fish.”
 “Always?” protested Dennis. “One time you got lucky.”
Peter was reaching for the tackle box when they heard the first thud on the bottom of the boat.
“What was that?” asked Dennis.
“I’m not sure,” said Peter. “Uh, sometimes tree branches fall into the lake and the boat can—“
There was a second, louder thud, and everyone jumped. Peter leaned over the side of the boat and inspected the black water.  “I don’t see anything.”
“I’m scared,” announced Nancy. “I want to go back.”
“Yeah. Me too, Dad.”
Peter looked concerned but not alarmed. “It’s a lake full of small fish. I really don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”
Then a new sound; metal on metal. Something was slowly scraping along the bottom of the boat, from underneath. Nancy screamed and Peter quickly set the oars back into the water.
A cigarette dangling from her rose-red lips, Ellen smoothed suntan lotion along her legs until she was glistening like a basted turkey. She had brought out one of the sleeping mattresses and laid it on the short grass next to the tent for maximum sun exposure, and, capping the bottle, she lay back, removing her cigarette and adjusting her body. Her idea of vacationing was a far cry from her husband’s. There was no hiking or cleaning dead fish or cutting firewood for this girl. Sun, cigarettes and a siesta — that’s what vacations are all about.
The afternoon slid by quietly for Eve until the sun grew uncomfortably hot and she had to find other things to occupy her time. She read a magazine, made herself a sandwich, did her fingernails; but soon the silence grew tiresome, and she became bored and grouchy. After getting dressed, she decided to go down to the lake and see if she could locate her family. Maybe she’d even go out in the boat with them for a while.
 Even Eve was impressed as she emerged from the shadowy woods and saw Fall Lake for the first time. We should be camping down here, she thought to herself as her eyes roamed over the bucolic scene. At the waters edge, she lit another cigarette and became engrossed in the gentle, tension-relieving sound of water lapping up against the sand. She saw no signs of a boat, however, and decided to walk north along the shore until she found Peter and the kids. When she turned to her right to begin her journey, her eyes caught sight of something in the tall reeds near her that looked out of place. Pulling back the giant tendrils, her heart stopped. There sat the Holzinger’s rowboat. The rods and cooler were resting on the metal bottom, but no husband or children. It bobbed gently in the water as if it had been abandoned. Then she heard a voice calling, screaming.
“Mom. Help me. Help.”
There was no question in her mind it was Dennis yelling for her. She squinted and scanned the lake’s surface, finally locating a small dark figure bobbing up and down and splashing in the water about three hundred yards into the lake.
“Dennis?” she yelled back, her cigarette dropping from between her fingers. “Dennis?” It only took an instant for her to realize that there had been an accident and her children and Peter were in freezing lake water. Eve grabbed the nose of the boat and jerked it in closer, at the same time jumping in clumsily and grabbing the oars. Frantic, she wielded the oars like propeller blades, slapping wildly at the water until she was pointed in the direction of the voice. “I’m coming,” she yelled over and over again as she rowed furiously out into the lake. The voice called out one more time, fairly close to her location, but when she pulled the oars out of the water to listen, there was only the sound of blackbird jeering from the shore. No splashing. No calls.
Hysterical, Eve got on her knees, leaning against the metal sidewall of the boat, looking into the blackness and listening. “Please God,” she said to herself. “Please let them be okay.” She lowered herself even farther over the edge, the boat tipping on its side, trying to pierce through the gloomy depths for any signs of her family. Crying, panting, praying, Eve continued searching in the water, but the only face she saw was the pale wobbly reflection of a terrified woman who had lost everything of meaning in her life.
Eve’s sobs echoed from shore to shore, and the small craft bobbled aimlessly in the middle of Fall Lake a cork. 

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