Kyle Champlain got lost on the way to his grandmother’s cottage. It was understandable, since he hadn’t been there in almost fifteen years, but he was still surprised. He hadn’t given any thought to getting directions or looking at a map; he supposed he’d been relying on some sort of homing instinct, as if he’d thought the cabin sent off a beacon that he could lock onto and follow. It had always seemed that way, when he was a boy.
But apparently things had changed, and after half an hour of driving around the slowly darkening roads of central Ontario, he gave up and headed back into town. He wished he had a boat. He was sure he could find the cottage from the water, no problem. It was just the roads that got in the way, with their refusal to run in the directions he wanted them to.
The town was closing up early, so at least that was one thing that hadn’t changed since Kyle had last been there. Wetlake had two restaurants that served dinner, and they were still open, and there was the corner store, which still seemed to double as a coffee shop and general meeting place, but everything else was closed tight. It was early in the season, of course. Once the summer people arrived, there’d be more bustle as all the locals fought to get as much money as possible from the rich visitors. There’d been no real industry in town since the mill had closed when Kyle was just a kid, so tourism was important, if not exactly appreciated.
The mixed emotions of the locals were clear to Kyle as he parked his SUV in front of the corner store. He was an outsider and a nuisance, but he would spend money, and therefore he was necessary. He nodded carefully to the older gentlemen sitting on the rocking chairs on the store’s porch, opened the rusted screen door, and stepped inside.
It was like stepping back in time. Finally, things that seemed familiar. There were the same beat-up coolers along the wall, filled with soft drinks, milk, and over-priced, over-packaged deli items. There were the homemade baked goods on the front counter, though they were individually packaged in plastic wrap now instead of sitting all together under the glass lid as they used to be. The rolling metal screens over the shelves that held cigarettes were new, as were the opaque plastic strips obscuring the covers of the magazines on the top shelf of the magazine rack. But there, right next to the rack, was the important part of the store, and it didn’t seem to have changed at all. The same glass jars with plastic lids, the same little brown bags waiting to be filled, and the same brightly colored candy, beckoning to Kyle just as strongly as it had when he was a child.
But now Kyle was an adult, and he avoided junk food, especially sugar. Poison, he reminded himself. Shameful to market to children that way. They weren’t allowed to sneak a look at the covers of the skin mags or, God forbid, even see the cardboard boxes that held the cigarettes, but the candy was there at kids’ eye level, luring them in. Luring him in. Jesus, maybe he should have tried homing in on the beacon sent out by the sugar and seen if it was any more effective than the one he’d thought he’d receive from his grandmother’s cottage.
He tore his attention away from the candy and smiled cautiously at the woman behind the counter. He was pretty sure he recognized her, though he couldn’t find a name. “Hi. I need directions.“
She nodded as if she’d already guessed that. “If you turn right coming out of the parking lot, you’ll be back on the highway in about three minutes. There’s signs pointing you to Toronto, or up to Huntsville.“
“Oh, no... I just came from the highway. I’m looking for Molly Champlain’s place. I left the address in the car, sorry.“
The woman’s expression changed, although Kyle wasn’t sure what the new one meant. “Are you a friend of Molly’s?“
“Oh... family, actually.“ He was pretty sure he understood the expression now. “I know that she’s passed away. I’m her grandson-her son’s son? Just coming to tidy up her estate.“
There was a pause as the woman scrutinized him. “Casey? Is that you?“
The name hit him hard. Nobody had called him that in a long time. He’d always been Kyle down in Chicago, or “Champ“ when he was playing sports. His grandmother had taken his initials and turned K.C. into Casey, and he had only gone by that name up here. “Uh, Kyle, now. But, yeah, it’s me. I’m sorry. It’s been a long time. I’ve forgotten a lot of people, I’m sure....“
But the woman was no longer listening to him. She brushed past him on her way to the door, and she barely had it open before she was calling, apparently to one of the men on the porch. “Miles! It’s Casey! He’s finally back!“
That helped, the first name triggering Kyle’s memory. Miles Oullette. And his wife... Deidre. They owned the corner store, and Kyle had seen their names mentioned in Molly’s will, though he couldn’t remember the exact bequest.
The door creaked open a little wider, and the woman stepped aside to let Miles come through. He was older, of course, and heavier, but once Kyle saw him in the light, it was easy to see the man he had been. “Mr. Oullette, it’s good to see you again.“ Kyle shook the offered hand but then didn’t quite know what to do. Did it really take two of them to give him directions? “I’m a bit embarrassed. I was sure I’d be able to find my way, but I guess my memory isn’t as good as I thought it was.“
Miles frowned, and it made him look older and not entirely sane. “What are you talking about? Find your way where? You’re already here.“
“No, dear, he can’t find Molly’s place.“
“Molly?“ He cast a furtive look toward his wife. “Does he know... is he looking for her old address, at the cabin, or, you know... her new address....“
Kyle had to jump in. “No, sir, I’m just looking for the cabin. I know she’s not there anymore.“ The old man didn’t look convinced, so Kyle tried to dig up some more evidence. “I couldn’t make the funeral, unfortunately. I heard from Peter Chambers that it was well-attended.“
“Peter told you that? Well, he’s right, but how much did he bill you for the information?“ Mr. Oullette cast a glance at his wife, waiting for her reaction. He wasn’t disappointed.
“Oh, Miles. You want to tell lawyer jokes so badly, don’t you? It must be very hard for you that we only have one lawyer in town and he insists on being a decent human being!“
That only slowed Miles down for a moment. “Yeah, I heard they’re trying to have him disbarred for it,“ he said, and this time he looked at Kyle, who managed a weak smile. Apparently that was enough. “It’s no wonder you’re having trouble, son. They changed everything around, made half the roads in town one-way and shut off access to Beach Road except for right at the end-hardly anybody can find their way around anymore.“ He sounded aggravated, and this time his wife nodded in support. “What you need to do is, you need to go right back into town and turn as if you were going down to the beach?“ Kyle nodded-that much, he remembered. “But then turn off on First Street, and from there you can get onto Beach Road.“
“Beach Road doesn’t go by the beach anymore?“
Deidre threw her hands up in exasperation. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? I mean, sure, there’s still beach along the road, but the main beach? It’s on Kensington Road, now.“
“Kensington?“ The road name didn’t sound at all familiar.
“The mayor. Well, he was until he got so full of himself he started changing street names. Now he’s back to just being a financial advisor, whatever that is.“ Deidre sounded satisfied, as if her faith in democracy had been restored. Kyle wondered if she’d like to sit down sometime and compare corrupt politicians with a resident of Chicago.
“Okay, then. I go into town, head toward the beach, and then turn onto First, and it’ll take me to Beach?“
Miles nodded, but Deidre was frowning. “Is that where you’re planning to stay, Casey? I know Arla and her church ladies were out to give it a cleaning, but I don’t think anyone else has been out there since....“
Since Molly’s death. “But she didn’t die there, right? I mean, she was in the hospital? It’s just... a house, now.“
“Well, I don’t know that’s it’s just a house. It’s Molly’s home. It still has all of her belongings.“
“That’s one of the things I need to take care of. I’ll have to get most of her stuff out of there so it won’t look cluttered for the real estate agents.“ Kyle was trying to keep this simple, for his own sake, but now Miles was frowning at him, too.
“Real estate agents? You’re planning on selling, then?“
“Well, yeah. I mean, it’s just me and my parents, and we all live in Chicago. It’s a day’s drive. And none of us are really cottage people.“
Kyle could tell that neither of them was too pleased with that, but he really wasn’t sure what they’d expected. They didn’t say much more, at least, just a few reserved pleasantries as he headed out the door. He really didn’t like disappointing people, but he also didn’t want to promise something that he couldn’t deliver. The cottage was going to be cleaned up, and then it was going to be sold. There was no point in pretending otherwise.
With the new directions, it wasn’t too hard to find the house, and Kyle gave a sigh of relief when he pulled into the driveway. Just as he’d found when he’d stepped inside the corner store, things suddenly became familiar. The forest on either side of the long roadway was thicker than he remembered, but the gravel drive was the same, the twists and turns around the limestone outcroppings were familiar, and when the cottage came into view, he felt like he’d traveled back in time. It was too dark to see details, but the full moon combined with the porch light to show him the same weathered wood siding and the rocking chair on the porch; a quick look confirmed that the hammock was still strung between the two big cedars in the side yard, and he remembered the way he’d had to duck underneath it when he was mowing the lawn. The wooden birdhouses were still hanging from the surrounding trees, too, and he thought maybe there were even more now. That made sense, he supposed, Molly continuing to collect, except that he’d been the one who’d built the first bunch of them-who had made the rest?
He’d been driving all day, though, and he didn’t really have energy to worry about the little mystery. The key to the cottage was in the envelope the lawyer had sent down to Chicago, sitting now on top of the box of papers on the passenger seat. He fished the key out and headed for the front door, glad that he’d stopped for dinner on the road so all he needed to do was brush his teeth, make up a bed, and climb into it. He hoped that the church ladies’ cleaning had included laundry.
He was out of the car and halfway to the house before he heard the mechanical, whining noise coming from the big shed at the side of the property. There was light, too, he now noticed, spilling out from the shed’s windows. Peter, the lawyer, had mentioned the shed was rented out, but Kyle had assumed it was just for storage, not for... for whatever was going on in there now.
A particularly loud whine from the shed made him wince, and he checked his watch. It was just past nine o’clock. There were no other houses close enough for their inhabitants to be bothered, and nine really wasn’t all that late, but Kyle was tired. He wanted to sleep, and he really didn’t think he’d be able to with all that racket coming from the yard. And he’d have to meet the tenant sometime, in order to give the guy his eviction notice. Not that Kyle would make it sound quite that harsh, of course, but there was no way the house would get the price it deserved if there was some crazy guy camped out in the shed, so he would have to go. Kyle hoped the tenant wouldn’t be too greedy about asking for compensation.
So off he headed, the dew from the lawn soaking his leather shoes within a few steps. There weren’t too many bugs, at least. Still too chilly for mosquitoes, but he bet the black flies were out in swarms during the day. If he could get the house on the market in time for the full heat of summer, that would be best; not too many daytime bugs, and surely prospective buyers wouldn’t visit after dark.
His plans preoccupied him, and he found himself standing outside the shed door, hand raised to the knob but not turning it, when the racket from inside suddenly stopped. The absence of noise was almost startling, and it took Kyle’s ears a few moments to adjust. Once they did, he could hear the chirping of nearby crickets and the clearer, louder chorus of the spring peepers down by the lake. That was going to be a racket all its own, and he would have to sleep with the windows shut in order to get any peace at all. At least it was too early in the season for the cabin to be stuffy; he somehow doubted that Molly had gotten air conditioning installed.
He was startled out of his thoughts when the shed door opened, and he stepped back in surprise, his movement mirrored by the man on the other side of the door.
The other man recovered first. “Shit, sorry. You startled me.“
“Yeah, sorry, no problem. I wasn’t....“ Wasn’t what? Wasn’t spying? He was the executor of the damn estate, he had every right to be there. He tried to regroup. “I was just coming out to introduce myself.“ The other man was silhouetted against the light coming from inside, but he seemed about Kyle’s age, and that helped. No need to be worried that he’d be picking on an old man or a young kid. Kyle stuck his hand out. “Kyle Champlain. I’m Molly’s grandson, trying to clear up her estate.“
There was a pause, long enough for Kyle to wonder what the problem was, and then the other man extended his arm and shook his hand. “Kyle, now, is it?“ There was something unusual in the voice, something familiar, a hint of friendly teasing that seemed odd coming from a stranger. “I’m Ryan Summers.“ And that explained the tone, and the smile that Kyle could see as the man shifted slightly, bringing his face toward the light. “It’s good to see you again, Casey.“
Kyle thought he’d been braced for the possibility of this meeting, but apparently he wasn’t. “Ryan. I didn’t-I didn’t recognize you. Well, I mean, I couldn’t really see you, in the dark.“ Smooth.
“Yeah, no worries, man. I don’t think I’d have recognized you if you hadn’t said your name.“ Ryan stepped back further inside, into the light, and a bare overhead bulb wasn’t the most flattering lighting, but even with that, he looked good. He was taller but still lean and rangy, and Kyle could still see the boy he had been-the same light brown hair and golden eyes, the smile lines around his mouth suggesting that the old grin had never been retired. Stubble, now, and skin a little more weathered, maybe, than the last time they’d seen each other, but still Ryan. Kyle had shuffled forward into the light, and Ryan was completing his own appraisal. “Yeah, you’ve definitely changed. I guess owning a gym gives you lots of time to work out?“
Kyle wasn’t sure what to say about that; he didn’t even understand how Ryan could know what he did for a living. “Well, I try to make time.“ Needed to make time, more like it. Ryan might remember a pudgy, weak boy, but that didn’t mean Kyle wanted to. He’d left all that behind, and he wasn’t sorry. He also wasn’t too enthusiastic about being reminded. “So, anyway, I just pulled in, and I was going to get some sleep. I wanted to know how much longer you were going to be working out here. Are you done for the night, now?“
Ryan looked a little startled by Kyle’s tone. “Well, yeah, I could be, if you need some quiet. But you just got back, man. Do you want to come in for a beer or something? Or we could take them down to the dock. Get caught up.“ He lifted the bottle in his own hand as if reminding Kyle of what beer looked like.
None of that seemed like a good idea, not the beer and not the catching up. “Uh, thanks, but I’m pretty tired.“ And just to keep things clear, to make it obvious that this was a business relationship, Kyle added, “But we’re going to have to talk at some point about your rental agreement on the shed. We’re trying to get the estate wrapped up, and obviously, we’ll be wanting to sell the property, here. Do you have somewhere else you could move your....“ Kyle realized he had no idea what Ryan was up to inside the shed. “Your stuff?“
Ryan frowned. “I’ve got a lease, Casey. I like it here.“
“It’s ‘Kyle’. And sure, it’s a nice spot. But in terms of the lease, the situation has changed now. You signed the lease with one person, and now the property is owned by someone else.“
Ryan lifted his bottle and took a long pull, his eyes never leaving Kyle’s face. When he lowered the bottle, his lips were twisted in a sad smile. It reminded Kyle so much of the boy he’d known that there was an almost physical ache, but Ryan seemed to have moved past the urge to reminisce, and the smile faded into a determined half-frown. “My lease is registered on the deed. Five years-four and a half left, now-with an option to renew. It doesn’t go away just because the property changes owners.“ He finished the last swallow of beer and set the bottle down on the table beside the door. “And actually, the lease says I’m free to work here at any time up to eleven o’clock. So, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll get back to it.“ He stepped back inside the building. “See you around, Kyle,“ he said before closing the door.
That could have gone better. Kyle thought about knocking on the door and trying again, but then the loud whine of whatever machinery Ryan had been using before resumed. Apparently the offer to finish early had been revoked when Kyle had tried to cancel the guy’s lease. Not surprising, but frustrating.
Kyle walked slowly back toward the house. He should go inside and get ready for bed and just hope that whatever was happening in the shed wrapped up soon enough for him to get some sleep. But now that it was time, he found himself strangely reluctant to unlock the cottage door, almost afraid to go inside the house and find his grandmother not there. She had been the most important person, the most loving presence in his life for his first fourteen years, and even though they hadn’t parted on good terms, he’d still loved her. Still missed her, even before she’d died. Going inside the cottage and finding it empty-that would make her death real. As long as he stayed outside, he could pretend that she was still around, and he could imagine the talk they would have, the way they’d apologize for old hurts and swear never to let things get so bad again.
He left the key in his pocket and sat down on the old wooden bench just beside the door. He leaned his head back against the rough wood of the cottage wall and looked out at the trees. So many memories, so many ghosts. Young Kyles peered at him from behind every tree, dark eyes dancing, and it was amazing how many of them were accompanied by young Ryans, playing along with whatever Kyle had been up to. Funny how Kyle had let himself forget all that. He wondered what Ryan had been doing for all the missing years, how he’d changed and how he’d stayed the same, and he wondered why it had seemed so important to start right off with trying to kick the guy out of the damn shed instead of letting them get caught up on their friendship.
He thumped his head gently against the wall of the house, and then did it again, a little harder. He was his own worst enemy, always taking simple things and making them complicated. His grandmother had been the first one to point that out to him, but she hadn’t been the last.
He sat on the porch and watched the night, and he let himself think about his grandmother, and he tried to make himself accept that she was really gone. After a while, the sounds from the shed changed and then changed again. They no longer irritated Kyle; instead, they made him feel just a little less alone.
He sat and listened to the noise from the shed until it died down, and then he just listened to the night, the racket of the crickets and the frogs, and that was when he realized that there was another sound, softer and more rhythmic, lying underneath all the others. He smiled in recognition. The gentle wash of the waves had been his lullaby every summer as a child, but now the sound didn’t make him sleepy.
He let himself drift up off the bench and down the steps and then over to the path that led to the beach. It was a bit rocky and steep in parts, but his feet seemed to remember the way. The shoes and socks were the only things that felt wrong-he should be barefoot. He thought about shedding a couple layers, but he remembered how it had taken the first week or two, every summer, for the soles of his feet to toughen up. There was no point in going through the pain now when he was only going to be around for a few days.
So he kept his shoes on, and he stepped out of the trees onto the narrow gravel beach, and then he followed the wooden walkway that took him out to the dock. The moon was still bright, and the stars were out, and he got lost for a second, staring up at them. He’d forgotten how many more there were up here, away from the city lights. The Milky Way was clearly visible, a wash of brightness across the sky, and when he looked up the lake, he could see a faint greenish tinge just above the horizon.
There had been times, he remembered, when the Northern Lights had lit up the sky, even this far south, a dancing, glowing curtain that had entertained and amazed him. And Ryan, he remembered. Ryan had always been fascinated by the Lights. Ryan’s father had once taken the two boys on a canoe trip up almost to James Bay, and the Northern Lights had come out almost every night, bigger and brighter than at the cottage, as if to greet the travelers. Kyle wondered if the faint green showing this evening would be enough to earn Ryan’s approval, if Kyle could apologize for his earlier brusqueness by offering up... offering up something that Ryan must have seen countless times, something that Kyle didn’t own, hadn’t earned. Bad idea. And why was he even worrying about that, trying to make friends with someone he hadn’t seen since they were kids and would never see again as soon as they got the stupid lease figured out?
A light scraping sound distracted him, and he looked toward the shore. Ryan was there, standing beside what Kyle had assumed was a large piece of driftwood, insofar as he’d noticed it at all. But now that Kyle took a closer look, he realized it was a kayak. Ryan nodded in his direction. “Eleven o’clock. I’m heading home.“
“By kayak?“ That maybe wasn’t quite what Kyle had wanted to say, but it wasn’t terrible.
Kyle didn’t seem impressed, though, just said, “Yeah,“ as if it was obvious. Which, of course, it was.
“Are you still living across the bay?“
“My address is on the lease; if you need to know where I am, you can check it.“
Kyle was caught by surprise. The Ryan he’d known hadn’t held a grudge and had always been understanding about Kyle’s antisocial blunders. Adult Ryan didn’t seem quite as forgiving. Kyle’s pride told him that it didn’t matter, but somehow, down on the dock, with the stars and the Lights, it really did. “I’m sorry. About before. If I came on a bit strong, about the lease. I just... it’s been a rough day. Sorry.“
Ryan just looked at him for a long moment and then nodded. “Don’t worry about it.“ He lifted the kayak easily and carried it out onto the boards. When he noticed Kyle still watching him, he shrugged. “It keeps my boots dry if I get in from the dock.“
Kyle didn’t really respond, and Ryan bent over and let the kayak fall gently onto the surface of the lake. He had the paddle ready, and it was one graceful movement to lower himself into the boat and another to push off from the dock. He let himself drift for a moment and then lifted a hand. “See you, Kyle.“ It felt final, and Kyle didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yeah, maybe tomorrow, if you’re here again.“
Ryan shrugged and dipped one end of his paddle in the water and then the other, and in a few powerful strokes he was gliding over the lake, away from Kyle.
Kyle stood on the dock for quite a while, watching Ryan fade into the distance. Then he turned back toward the shore and started walking. He was tired and getting cold. It was time to go into the cottage.