Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chapter One

She kissed me back—a teasing kiss—a lethal kiss for both of us—and squeezed my hand. "I know where there's a deer-hunter's cabin in the woods."
"Not smart."
"Smart's not how I'm feeling, Michael."

Chapter One

Jodi and I first made love the summer we were seventeen. But the moment the magical spell that had swept over us faded, I felt guilty.
This is what happened:
Packing a lunch in a cooler, we canoed Big Sand Lake during the morning under a sunny Wisconsin sky. At noontime, we ate chicken sandwiches and drank root beer on a beach, a soft breeze cooling us.
"What are you looking at?" Jodi asked.
We sat cross-legged on a blanket in the hot sand and faced each other, our picnic basket between us, lunch finished.
Jodi's eyes shone green as emeralds.
"Your eyes," I said.
"Got two of them. Like you."
"Yours are crossed."
"They are not! You know how many ears Davy Crockett had?"
"Not another riddle!"
"Three ears: Right ear. Left ear. And the wild frontier."
She laughed and waggled a finger in my face. Her curly blonde hair—sun-bleached in front, darker in back, almost red—bounced with life. She loved riddles and sometimes popped them into the conversation without warning. They were all stupid, but I couldn't stop laughing anyway.
Now she traced a finger across my shoulder, and my skin tingled. "You've got a really nice tan, Michael. I love the little cleft in your chin... What are you thinking about?"
I slid the picnic basket aside. I wiggled closer to her and looped my arm around her neck. My blood raced. I drew her to me and kissed her softly parted mouth. I'd kissed her a lot during the past six weeks while on vacation here with my mom and dad. She was the campground owner's daughter.
She kissed me back—a teasing kiss—a lethal kiss for both of us—and squeezed my hand. "I know where there's a deer-hunter's cabin in the woods."
"Not smart."
"Smart's not how I'm feeling, Michael." She reached out and stroked my cheek. Her touch was fire. My heart leaped.
"You sure you want to do this?"
"Don't you?" Softly.
"Yes." A whisper.
We made love in the musty cabin on the lower half of a set of squeaky bunk beds. Twice. She wore a one-piece yellow swimsuit under cutoff jeans. I wore only a swimsuit. She smelled of sunshine and lilacs and tasted of clean sweat. Being with her was the greatest thing that had happened to me in a long time.
But later, when Jodi and I sat on the dock where we'd tied the canoe, dangling our feet in the water, that guilty feeling invaded me. I'd used her to make myself feel good. I'd had no right to do that. I didn't want to hurt her.
"Why so silent, Michael?"
She jumped up, grabbed my sides, and started tickling me. I struggled to stand and catch her wrists. I caught one but lost my balance. Laughing, we tumbled backward into six feet of cool, blue lake water.
That night, Dad took Mom and me to supper at Barefoot Charlie's, a log-cabin roadside bar where they served the best deep-fried fish in the northland. When I pulled open the heavy pine door for Mom and Dad, a stuffed black bear standing on its haunches, mouth wide open, teeth bared, greeted us. Inside, mounted fish hung everywhere on the walls—northern, bass, crappie, muskie.
We sat at a corner table. The place was packed with tourists, most of them wearing jeans and light flannel shirts. Like us. Anyone who looked closely at Dad could tell he'd die soon. He looked so old and gaunt, gray skin drawn tight against his cheekbones, it was hard to imagine he'd been young, handsome and athletic. That he'd taught me how to punt and place kick.
"You having a good time?" he asked me.
"Great time. Terrific."
"I knew you'd like northern Wisconsin."
"Home's were you should be, Peter." Mom touched Dad's hand, then looked at me across the table with her wide, dark eyes. "Tell your father we should go home, Michael."
The other fishermen and tourists in Barefoot Charlie's were eating and chattering and laughing about the stringer of walleye they'd caught or the thirty-pound muskie they'd battled to the boat before it spit their bucktail. Not my mom and dad and me. We were deciding when to leave our rented cabin here in upper Wisconsin, close to the Wisconsin-Michigan border, so Dad could go home to die. Home was Grandview, Iowa, four hundred miles away. I would be head of the household within a few months—maybe weeks—according to Dad. Me. Michael Panther.
My eyes lowered to the red-and-white checkered tablecloth. The lighted candle on the table flickered into little suns on the silverware by my napkin. Looking up at Dad, I said, "Mom's right. We should go home."
He blew out a sigh. "I'd really like to stay. But I don't have many good days anymore."
"You need to be home," Mom said. "Close to your doctor. And a hospital."
"She's right, Dad."
A young waitress appeared at our table, pad and pencil in hand. "How are you folks this evening?" she asked, and smiled. "Would you like to order from the bar first?"
I stared at the menu. Suddenly the smells of baked northern, broiled shrimp, fried catfish, jumbo French fries—all Charlie's specialties—made me sick.
This was the end of our last family vacation together.
Our last family outing. Ever.
After we ate, I drove us back to Ghost Bay Resort on Big Sand Lake. Dad's high school and Army buddy, Travis Jackson, owned the resort. Consisting of a lodge, five cabins, and maybe thirty trailer/tent slots, the place was hacked out of the wilderness.
His daughter, Jodi, was his chief helper. His go-to girl.
Dad and Travis had grown up as buddies in Grandview and had played high school football together. Then they joined the Army but got separated during their tour of duty. Travis's parents—Jodi's grandparents—still lived in Grandview, Iowa, same as Mom, Dad, and me.
On the drive back to camp, Dad sat in the front seat with me. I turned the air on and push-buttoned the windows up. Mom sat in back and cracked her window to blow out smoke from her cigarette. I wished she'd give up that stupid habit. I didn't want to lose another parent to cancer.
"I'm tired as hell," Dad said.
"You want some fresh air?" I asked. "I can leave the air on and open the windows."
"No, that's all right."
"We should start packing tonight," Mom said.
"I guess we should," Dad said. "What time is it?"
"Ten o'clock," I told him."
"We'll bring the gear up from the boat," he said.
"I'll do that. Maybe you should go straight to bed."
Mom said, "He's right, Pete. I'll do the packing."
My fingers flexed on the steering wheel.
Well, there it was: Tonight I'd have to tell Jodi I was going home tomorrow. Parting wouldn't be easy, not after what had happened between the two of us this afternoon. After I left Ghost Bay, I didn't think I'd ever see Jodi Jackson again.

Coming next—Chapter Two: A phone call from Jodi. 

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