“It’s going to be fine James,” Jessica said.
James wasn’t listening to his mum. He was in that ethereal space between sleep and waking, crossing firmly into the latter every time the car hit a bump in the road.
“I know it’s a big move, new school and all that, but you were always good at making friends. And you’ll be with your uncle. You remember him?”
Her voice was heightened by a twang of desperation. That, and her inability to let the silence last more than five seconds before she just had to say something told James that the guilt was eating her away. He turned his head away from the verdant wall of trees that had been their constant companion during the trip.
“It’s alright mum really. A year isn’t that long and like you said, I’m good at making friends,” James said. He flashed his mum a weary smile.
“I know it’s just… I’ll be halfway around the world.”
“Yeah, by plane. You’re still just one email or phone call away.”
She smiled back at him. “How did I ever raise such well-adjusted son?” she said.
“Don’t take all the credit. T.V. helped too.” She slapped James, affectionately, on the back of the head and both of them shared a laugh before the front cab descended into silence.
“I’ll miss you,” she said before five seconds had passed.
“I know, I’ll miss you too.” James reclaimed his post, curled up beside the window, and began to drift off. The scenery drifted with him, becoming an emerald blur that bled into nothingness.
The road branched off into dozens of capillaries carrying them deep into the tissue of New England. In these parts civilisation wasn’t a constant; it was sprinkled across the state and erupted in bursts. Snake-like waterways and impenetrable woodlands kept these cultivations from interbreeding. It was a big change from the techno-pocalypse of New York and despite everything that he had just told his mum, James’s sleep was short and unfulfilling.
It could have been ten minutes or it could have been an hour when his sleep was broken.
“We’re here honey.”
His mum pointed at a sign outside the car window. The hand-carved red wood was proudly emblazoned with the words, “Welcome to Eagle Pier. We know you’ll love it as much as we do!”
“Are you excited?” she continued as the car drove past.
“Not as much as whoever wrote that sign,” James said, “but, yeah I kinda am.” To his surprise, it wasn’t all true. His old life was dead and as much sadness that thought brought him, there was an undercurrent of exhilaration to it. Nobody knew him here. That meant he could be anyone. No stigma, no presumptions, just what he wanted everyone to see.
And then, there it was. Their little blue sedan lurched out of the woods onto a stretch of road, flanked by open fields. In the distance, the town of Eagle Pier rose up like an outstretched hand. It was small enough that James immediately worried about the Wi-Fi, but it was hard to deny the charm of the place. The old, white colonial farm houses that were scattered across the meadows outside the town had that classic feeling of Americana that only existed in postcards and reruns. The effect was almost ruined by the fenced off construction yard surrounding a faded structure on the outskirts. A defaced sign proclaimed the blister as “The Miracle Mile Mall,” for all to see.
The town itself slowly spiralled out from the south side of the lake, where the marina held the monopoly on activity. Undoubtedly, one of three long piers that jutted into the lake was the one that gave the town its name. Wealth flowed outwards from the lake as well. The closer they got to the shorefront, the more stories were stacked onto the houses and the old colonial brickwork was better maintained.
However, that wasn’t their final stop. On the Eastern side of town, immediately outside the central cluster of buildings, the land sharply sloped upwards, forming a looming mountain of red pine forest. Overlooking the town and the lake was a lonely structure was their destination and James’s home for the next year.
“Now, you would have been four the last time you saw your uncle Robbie,” his mum said. “Remember?”
“Not really. The place left a bigger impact. Big, creepy, kinda got an Overlook Hotel vibe to it.”
“You know The Shining. All work and no play makes you want to murder you family.”
“Yes, well Robbie’s a very sweet man.”
“I’m waiting for a but.”
“It’s nothing. It’s just… he doesn’t get into town and lot, and living apart from people you can sometimes pick up some strange hobbies.”
“I’m getting the feeling this is one of those things you should have told me before I agreed to move in with him.”
“No, no it’s fine. Trust me, it’s nothing you will have to worry about. And your uncle will do a better job explaining it than me,” she said. Jessica cracked a warm smile to reassure him. It didn’t.
The sedan cut a path straight through the heart of the town. James kept his face plastered to the window, eyes locked on the ever-approaching mountain. Once the sun began to set, it was hard to imagine a part of Eagle Pier that its shadow didn’t touch. Soon, they rolled onto a patch of road that was more dirt than road. They had reached the base. The path ahead of them wound slowly up the hill, disappearing into a thick bank of conifers. A small sign was the only indication that there was anything up there beside nature at its rawest:
“Mt Cobb Historic Lodge: One Mile,” it said.
“Mt Cobb Historical Lodge?” James said, slowly sounding out each word. “So what’s so historic about it?” The gravel crunched under the wheels of the sedan as it lurched up the hill.
“Nothing at all. Your great-granddad built the place with his own bare hands, a fortune, and two dozen-odd labourers when he was a young man. Then your grandad took it over for a short stint before he passed. Now your uncle lives there and he’s gone and turned it into what it is now,” his mum said.
“And that is?”
“A money-pit. People stay there, pay your uncle’s exorbitant fees and then they leave. Don’t tell your uncle I said that.”
The thick canopy swallowed the sky as they continued up. Occasionally, sunlight managed to break through in thin golden streams. There was a stillness to the trail that James was unused to. He found it comforting like here he was the only person left on the planet after some great calamity and nature was slowly claiming everything back.
“Fuck!” Jessica screamed, slamming on the breaks. The sedan skidded along the trail, kicking up a storm of dirt and pebbles behind it. The seatbelt kept his body in place, but his head lurched forward and his neck wrung itself out trying to keep up. The car ground to a stop in front of a girl on a bike. The bumper nudged the side of the bike causing both bike and girl to topple over.
“Shit,” Jessica said. She unclipped her belt and readied to open the door, but the stranger shot up and rushed over to the car, bike in tow.
“Ha-ha, sorry about that,” she said, nervously fidgeting with her bike. “I didn’t see you there.”
Her green eyes widened and darted back from bike to car. They looked like they were about to roll right out of her head. Her boyish face was cocked with an impish grin. It could have been a nervous tick, but it suited her like a permanent feature. Her hair was cut into a small brown bowl with a cramped window left for her face to stick through. Her hands and legs were covered in a dozen pastel coloured Band-Aids, the result of riding through the conifers with only bike pants and a green tank top.
Jessica stuck her head out the window. “You better be more careful. If I hadn’t stopped, you can bet that you would have come off worse,” she said.
The girl stiffened and gulped down a fist full of spit. “I’m real sorry about this. Oh god, I’ve already said that. Are you alright?
“Because I can call for somebody.”
“A doctor or a mechanic.”
“We are fine!” Jessica had to yell just to get a word in. “We just want to get to the lodge, preferably before the week ends.” The girl nodded and leapt back onto her bike.
“Sorr… How ’bout I just get out of here, and you forget you ever saw me?”
“I can certainly manage that, but I can’t say the same for my son.”
The biker looked past his mum to James, who offered a little wave. The girl’s face blossomed red and for a moment she looked like she was going to fall over again. Whatever affliction she’d had seemed to pass and she took off down the hill without a word, and hopefully into less traffic.
“James,” Jessica said, slapping him on the arm.
“What did I do?”
“I don’t know, but whatever it was, you better apologise for it.”
“Sure, I’ll also apologise on your behalf for hitting her with your car.” James’s mum slapped him again. She waited for a few moments before turning on the ignition again.
“I’m going to miss you,” she said.
“I know mum. We should probably get going though. Like you said, we don’t want to be here all week.”
His mum slowly nodded and shifted the car into gear. After throwing up another cloud of dirt, the sedan took off up the hill.
The fog of trees began to thin out as they neared the summit, replaced by the twin peaks of the Historical Lodge. While the building may have been less than a century old, the general shabbiness of the place made it look like it had earned far more years than it had ever experienced. Cleaved from the pine forest and overlooking the lake and Eagle Pier, the land around it was losing a war of attrition against Mother Nature. Vines had wormed their way onto nearly every surface and the abundance of moss on the roof gave the otherwise murky-brown building a green tinge. But, even that could do little to mask the underlying brilliance of the place. Two large timber sections, each as large as an average home by themselves, were joined side to side. Both buildings had two stories that tapered to narrow peaks. A well-used porch ran the length of the front, connecting both entrances. It would have looked inviting on a brighter day, but a combination of the wear and the lack of any decoration made the place look abandoned. The soft light from a second story window was the only thing that indicated otherwise.
The sedan ground to a stop in the gravel car park, a short distance from the timber stairs that lead up to one of the entrances. The front door creaked and a wisp of a man exited. He was dreadfully thin and pale for one who lived so close to nature, with long curls of black hair fixed in place by an overabundance of grease. There was little to indicate a family resemblance: both James and Jessica had the short, straight, blond hair that typified the Cobb family. However, they all shared the same delicate features that would allow them to headline a boy band and the same piercing blue eyes. A marker of the family’s Nordic descent.
“Robbie, you look terrible,” Jessica said walking up the stairs and embraced her brother. The act startled him, but sibling affection soon took over and he tentatively brought his arms up to reciprocate.
“Long hours and hard work. Though I should be back to normal with another hand to help around. You look great by the way.”
“Flattery won’t get you out of indenturing my son. He’s to focus on his last year of school. Speaking of, James, get over here and say hello.”
James unfurled himself from the car and ambled behind his mum. “Hi, uncle Robbie. It’s been a while.”
“That it has been kiddo. How have you been, little man?” He roughed up James hair even though he was now a foot smaller than his six-foot-tall nephew. It became suddenly clear that his uncle had little practice talking to teenagers.
“I’ve been good. How about you?”
“I’ve also been good…” Robbie trailed off.
Five seconds in and there was already an uncomfortable silence.
“How about a tour?” Jessica said.
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Robbie, snapping back to reality. “Well, this is… outside,” he said, gesturing wildly around. “And this is… inside.” He opened the doors and beckoned the two of them in.
While the outside may have looked shabby, the inside was a shrine dedicated to a god of chaos. Uncle Robbie had been using the living-room floor as storage for books, tools and pretty much everything normal people lock away in cupboards.
“Jesus, Robbie,” Jessica said, stepping over an open box of kitchen supplies. “I thought you said this place was going to be clean.”
“This is clean,” Robbie said.
“What about when you have guests?”
“Ah.” He went to the main door and flipped over a sign hanging on the door. It read ‘Staff Only.’ “You see— I stay in the right wing while the guests stay in the left.”
Jessica shook her head. “Glad to see you’ve got it all sorted out,” she said. James picked up a book that was teetering on the edge of a pile of other books. The title read ‘Strange Maine: Fantastic and True Stories from the Great Northern Woods’. “Probably best not to read that stuff,” she whispered. “It’ll rot your brain.” She gestured at Robbie who was busy reorganising the clutter on the ground in a system he only half understood. James put down the book.
“So, the kitchen is over there,” he pointed to next room over. The walls and tiling looked as old as the day they were first put together, but the appliances at least looked like they wouldn’t start an electrical fire. James realised that that was a blessing. “The smoking room is over there,” Robbie said, pointing at the opposite end of the living room. “And your room is upstairs.” James and Jessica followed Robbie as he led them up the wide wooden staircase in the living room.
The devastation of the first floor hadn’t followed them up there. A long, carpeted hallway stretched the length of the thankfully bare floor. Three doors lead off the right wall and a fourth off the left. A fifth door, thicker and more ornate, was placed at the end of the corridor. Jessica crested the stairs behind the rest of them and looked around approvingly.
The two men turned around, eyes wide in alarm, then Robbie’s face cracked into a smile.
“God damn it,” Jessica said. “I thought you were getting rid of that thing.” Her eyes were fixed on a portrait of an old man who was more crag then face. It was hanging off-angle just above the staircase.
“It wouldn’t be right. I don’t think he would like it if we forgot who built this place.”
James looked up at his great-grandfather. He stared down at him through a pair of spectacles placed on his hook nose. The face was old and weathered, but the artist had captured an intensity to his blue eyes. The name Thurston Cobb was engraved on a small plaque at the base of the painting. A rough addition beneath it listed the dates: 1875-1950.
“I’m sure he would find plenty other things to dislike,” Jessica.
James broke his gaze from the picture and followed the two bickering adults. Robbie stopped at the second door down the hallway.
“Now here’s your room, James. It’s nothing too fancy, but it’s got power and I cleaned up yesterday.” The last comment was more directed at his mum than him.
He fumbled for a big iron key and slid it into the lock. After a few aggressive turns, Robbie slammed his fist against the frame and the door creaked open. Space. There was a lot of space. It was around three times the size of James’ old room, which had wished that it would one day grow up to be a linen closet. His uncle was right; it wasn’t fancy. There wasn’t anything more than a desk, a bed, and a lamp that looked like it was missing its bulb. The drag marks through the dust on the floor made it clear where all the books downstairs had come from.
Robbie and Jessica both turned to him to gauge his reaction. Robbie let out a sigh of relief while Jessica’s lips curled into a slight smile when they saw the look of wonder on James’s face.
“It’s cool,” James said.
The next hour was spent moving the sum total of James’s existence from the car into his room. Robbie opted out of helping after ten minutes, insisting that his doctor said that such work would jeopardise the treatment of his chronic back pain. The two healthy Cobbs continued to labour until their shadows grew long. Serving drinks was, apparently, within the range of Robbie’s abilities, so when the last bag was heaved onto the bed, James and Jessica found chilled glasses of water waiting for them on the porch. They were even clean. By now, the light was stretching thin, losing its usual neon lustre in favour of a warm amber glow. It poured over the family and sank a pleasant warmness into their bones. James enjoyed the peace of the moment.
Then his mum left. She had to catch a plane and there was little time for a goodbye.